Upon arriving in Jordan, the first thing you’ll hear is, “Where are you from?” And the second, almost every time, is: “Ahhh…Welcome! Welcome to Jordan!”
In Jordan, expect to be welcomed multiple times from tour guides, bus drivers, shop venders, kids, taxi drivers, and people randomly on the street. The locals kill you with kindness. I found myself travelling more local and closer to the ground than I had ever done in another country because Jordan is the type of country where finding local experiences are easy.
If you open yourself up to the people of Jordan and trust them, you’ll be rewarded tenfold. The hard part is changing your initial preconceptions about the Middle East. After I got my legs under me and started getting comfortable with Jordan, I found that by simply saying yes to things I would normally say no to, I was dropped right in the middle of local life.
So remember: there’s more to travel than ticking off the sites. Sometimes going local will leave you with the most memorable experience from your whole trip.
Take the bus to some lesser-known spots
There’s no better way to experience a culture than through it’s local transportation. The local bus system around Amman is not designed for tourists, or any people who can’t really read Arabic for that matter. There is some sort of prescribed route to the bus, but there are no specific bus stops. You simply stand by the side of the road and flag it down as if you were hailing a cab. This sounds quite easy – right? Wrong.
If you don’t read Arabic, you have no idea which bus to try to flag down. But once you start talking to the locals and asking for help, all kinds of wonderful things can happen! While on my way to see the sites in Amman via bus, I had people frequently pay for my bus fares, wait with me until I found the right bus, ensure that I got off in the right place, and I even had a person ride with me all the way from another city to just make sure I made the transfer correctly and got home safely. Amazing!
Stay at locally-owned hotels
“Yella! You are in charge!” yelled Mo as he headed towards the door. “If anyone stops in, tell them that we have two rooms available and have them wait here until I get back.” I looked up from my laptop, my eyes met his, and realized he was talking to ME – I was in charge. Mo was the owner of the Cleopatra Hotel in Wadi Musa (the town closest to Petra) and he was actually what made my time visiting Petra so much fun. His business card read:
Peacemaker, Helpful and honest advice as you need it.
Cleopatra provided much more than a room; they provided a fun community atmosphere. They cooked up group meals each night and they served about 16 people in their small little dining room each evening. Impromptu dance parties in the lobby, backgammon lessons, great recommendations on local eats, and Mo even drove me around Wadi Musa showing me the sites. They even facilitated early breakfast so you could be the first to enter Petra in the morning. You don’t get that type of local service in the big chain hotels!
Bread seems to be the main staple in the Arabic diet. It comes in all shapes and sizes; puffy, thin, really thin, really really thin, crunchy, soft, round, with sesame, with wheat… But there is one thing that is always the same about the bread: it’s baked by men. And those men love to show off their bread.
Whenever I got close to a bakery with my camera I was immediately invited inside. Not just inside, but to the deep, dark back rooms where the bread is baked. The behind-the-scenes tours varied, but I would always get them without fail. I was welcomed enthusiastically in the store, asked where I was from, and then welcomed again.
When you are asked to drink tea with someone in Jordan, know that it’s not really about the taste of the tea, it’s about the social aspect. Just as other cultures frequently ask “how are you?” Jordanians ask “would you like some tea?”
I drank tea with some Bedouin craft women early in the morning in Petra. I drank tea with young men in a chicken restaurant where they also insisted I share their roasted chicken, falafel and a coke. I drank tea and chatted for 40 minutes with a man in his tobacco shop and even learned how to roll cigarettes. I drank tea with a woman who simply walked by me, asked me where I was from, and then proceeded to invite me into her home. For tea. Tea is the ultimate social lubricant in Jordan, so drink up!
Wander the lesser-known towns
There are tons of things to see and do in Amman, but if you want to dig a little deeper, then take the bus to some of the communities on the outskirts to get a better feel for local life. All you have to do is walk around, and of course you’ll start meeting people and being invited inside.
The community of Salt is the perfect village to get a feel for local life. Nestled in the hills outside of Amman, Salt was once the most important settlement in the area between the Jordan Valley and the eastern desert. Because of its history as an important trading link between the eastern desert and the west, it was a significant place for the region’s many rulers.
Today, it’s set up for tourism, but few people break away from the sites of Amman to visit. It has a great market and shopping street and the if you keep heading up the winding streets you’ll end up with spectacular views of the village, and you’ll meet plenty of inquisitive locals along the way.
Visit a Bedouin Community
The backbone of Jordan is found in the Bedouin communities. These people (and their traditions) still exist in Jordan and they will treat you to a whole new type of local experience. I stayed among a Bedouin community at the Feynan Ecolodge located near the Dana Biosphere Reserve. The lodge employs about 27 local Bedouin as staff who handle tasks ranging from cooking, to reception duties and even candle making (because the lodge is has no electricity!)
During the day you can explore the biosphere reserve or hike around the area and meet the local community. And as with anywhere else Jordan, there’s a good chance you’ll be invited into someone’s tent for tea!
By night, enjoy the candlelight and the starry skies from the roof of the Ecolodge.
Just say Yes!
The absolute best way to ‘get local’ in Jordan is to just say “YES!”. If you say “YES!” when you are invited into someone’s home, shop, restaurant, tent or anywhere else, you’ll likely be welcomed with kindness and forge some of your favourite memories from the trip.