As my plans to visit my best friend and her family in Asia fell through three weeks before I was supposed to travel, I panicked.
I had already quit my job and booked my one-way ticket to Istanbul, Turkey in preparation for a 90-day backpacking adventure. I was scrambling to find alternative arrangements for the six weeks I had budgeted to travel with my friend.
And then I stumbled on an Intrepid Travel group trip to Jordan and Egypt.
I had never heard of Intrepid before, so I did my research. I read reviews, looked at their various itineraries and dug through their “About Us” pages to learn about the organization’s values. I was impressed, and within 72 hours of my original plans falling through, I had signed up for the 22-day Jordan & Egypt Uncovered trip.
Going into the trip, I thought the main advantage of traveling with a well-established group program was the feeling of safety it provided. I hadn’t really considered all the other ways a group experience would change my impression of Jordan and Egypt for the better. While you do get access to the comfort and safety of a group, you also gain unique cultural opportunities, personal connections and diverse itineraries that you might not have access to as a solo traveler.
Feeling safe to explore
One challenge that I anticipated in terms of visiting the Middle East as a woman was feeling safe. I am an experienced traveler, and as such I tend to feel confident traveling in many parts of the world. The Middle East however felt daunting to me, especially on my first visit. I don’t know Arabic, I was alone and I knew I’d stand out as a foreigner. I, like so many Americans, felt the visceral pull of negative stereotypes — scary, unsafe and dangerous — and given that we are relentlessly bombarded by unsavory news coverage about the region, I was a little intimidated.
By going with a group, I knew my transportation would be insured, my activities vetted and my accommodations safe. I felt more confident and safe exploring all the amazing things that Jordan and Egypt have to offer (of which there are a lot!). This extra layer of security is especially comforting in a region that you are unfamiliar or uncertain about.
I also came to understand the reality of the safety situation, which demonstrated that much of the fear that I felt was unfounded and overblown. When you walk around communities with the comfort of a local guide, you challenge your assumptions and misconceptions about this region of the world.
Creating personal connections
Another amazing way that my group trip led to my deeper understanding of the Middle East was by providing opportunities to make personal connections.
It can be hard to make meaningful interactions with locals if you’re on your own. Group trips, however, ran open that door.
One example is the homestays that Intrepid offers. I was welcomed into both a Jordanian and Egyptian home, where I enjoyed delicious dinners with local families. In Jordan, we were greeted by a multi-generational family of 12. The delicious smells of maklouba emanated from the kitchen as we sat down in the living room to start getting to know one another.
While we were enjoying our chicken, rice and veggies together, we got to hear about this family’s life and work (through the help of our tour leader Usama translating) and we even had a lively discussion about the Islamic religion and its intersection with the media.
I genuinely believe that these types of one-on-one personal experiences break down barriers between people because it reminds us that at the end of the day, we’re all people. We care about the same things — our families, our friends, our homes, our jobs, our happiness — and this empathy helps us slowly achieve incremental change in our communities.
Diverse itineraries and cultural experiences
With a group itinerary like Intrepid’s, every day is full of unique experiences. When you float down the Nile River in a felucca sail boat watching the sunset over the sand dunes of the desert or spend the night under a blanket of stars at a Bedouin nomadic camp in the middle of Wadi Rum national park, you are creating once-in-a-lifetime memories.
And the best part: all you have to do is show up on time each day. Everything is organized for you, allowing you to fully immerse yourself without the worry of how you’ll get from one place to another or if there will be a language barrier. While these unique opportunities could certainly be possible when traveling on your own, they might be harder to organize and more challenging to enjoy fully.
One of my favorite things about my group experience was the local perspective that Intrepid’s guides provide. Increasingly, travelers are searching for authentic experiences abroad and what better way to get to know a place than through the eyes of a local!
Both of my guides, Walid and Usama, were absolutely fantastic. Usama, in Jordan, was so knowledgeable about history and geopolitics. Every day, he would teach us about the royal family or the challenges of the refugee crisis or the origins of the Beoudin people, all of which helped me develop a more nuanced impression of what modern life in Jordan is really like.
Walid, my Egyptian guide, was an energetic young father with a deep passion for showing visitors a good time. His fun-loving nature and warm demeanor would put anyone at ease, while guaranteeing that each day would be full of laughter and joy.
By the end of our trip, Walid had opened his life to us, introducing us to to his family and friends. In fact, I still keep in contact with him today!
Overall, I feel deeply grateful for my travel experience in Jordan and Egypt.
I am glad that I didn’t let the overblown media fear stop me from experiencing the food, culture and history that these incredible countries have to offer. I can now confidently encourage fellow travelers to explore this region of the world with the comfort of a well-organized group experience.
My impression of Jordan and Egypt would never have been the same without the access, knowledge and education that Intrepid’s local-led experiences provide.
Ready to experience this stunning part of the world for yourself? Check out our range of small group adventures in the Middle East.
Hero image c/o Sally Ann Meredith. All other images c/o Megan Arzbaecher at traverse-blog.com.