Sunday, December 26, 2010

How to Ride a Camel - A Photo Tutorial in Five Easy Steps

A beautiful morning in Wadi Rum is best enjoyed from atop one of the local Diseh camels. No previous experience riding camels? Not to worry! This simple tutorial, courtesy of Ms. Becky Neil, San Francisco, CA and Mr. Hussein Abdullah, Diseh, Jordan, should allay the fears of even the most reluctant of camel passengers, while inspiring the excitement of every camel enthusiast!

Step 1: Meet Hussein Abdullah and your camel steeds. Hussein will assist you as you mount.

Step 2: Grip the knob at the front of the camel saddle (see Becky's left hand) and swing your leg over the saddle as though you were mounting a horse.

Step 3: Hold on tight as the camel stands up - raising her back legs first.  You are halfway there!

Step 4:  Whoops!  There go the front legs - don't let go of that knob just yet!

Step 5:  Smile for the camera as your stomach settles back into place...

... and you head off on your desert adventure!  

Extra special camel riders will receive a special camel kiss upon completion of their journeys!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Welcoming Yoshiko Chuma and the School of Hard Knocks!

I've started to look forward to visits from Yoshiko Chuma, New York City-based performance artist and her School of Hard Knocks, who were in the midst of GATHERING SPACE in Jordan and Palestine.  At the end of November, they visited me in Wadi Rum and spent a night under the stars and a day exploring the desert.  Our time together is always too short, but we look forward to their return to southern Jordan in 2011!

L to R:  Ryuji Yamaguchi - performance artist, Hugh Burckhardt - photographer, Samer - local guide, Yoshiko Chuma - director, Alena Bartoli & Bob Smith - hosts, Koutarou Inoue - actor, Yuko Mitsuishi - performance artist, Obeid Zawaedeh - host.

Photo by Hugh Burckhardt, 2010.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Alena, this is just the most amazing thing I have ever seen!

Last April, I had the pleasure of accompanying Bob and Stephanie Sherman during their brief visit to Jordan.  Above find Stephanie's reaction to Petra's Monastery - hidden high in the hills at the back of the site.  The Monastery, not actually a monastery but more likely to have been a temple to the Nabatean king Obodas I, is my favorite place in Petra and a wonderful view to contemplate with a cup of tea in hand.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Wild Wadi Rum!

This past weekend, I completed a project with Matt Epler, a local photographer, shooting a variety of images in the Wadi Rum/Diseh area.  Together with Awwad Radi, we scouted a variety of locations inside the protected area in order to recreate several stills from famous American Western films, with a Bedouin cast replacing the likes of John Wayne and Robert Mitchum.

For more information, or to see the photos on display, please contact me at:

Thursday, October 28, 2010

On Top of the World

One of the special things about Jordan is the abundance of places where one feels on top of the world. This month, I had the opportunity to (finally!) climb Jebel Haroun, one of these places, with guests visiting from the US.

According to legend, the summit of Jebel Haroun (Mount Aaron in English) is the final resting place of the Prophet Aaron, brother of Moses. The spot is commemorated by a small white mosque and the area is considered to be sacred to all three Peoples of the Book (Jews, Christians and Muslims).

In contemplation atop Jebel Haroun.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Birth... from the Backseat

This past week, I was visited by Elizabeth and her husband, Jason. Newlyweds from NYC, they are on a year-long motorcycle voyage from London to Cape Town. Elizabeth, who is a doula and manages the New York based Birth Focus is researching birthing traditions as they travel through Europe, southwestern Asia and Africa. While in Diseh, we had the chance to sit with a local Bedouin woman and hear her recount some of the experiences of her 13 childbirths - 2 in the hospital and 11 at home. Each one of us came away with the sense that childbirth then and now was a challenging experience and that modern medicine was able to provide some of the lifestyle needs of modern women.

For more on Elizabeth's project - click here.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Wadi Rum Desert Marathon!

Each year, a series of endurance horse races are held in the desert surrounding the Wadi Rum Protected Area. Sponsored by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum of the UAE, the marathon attracts competitors from throughout the Kingdom and the region.

As the race is governed by a stringent set of international regulations, controls are made at regular intervals to ensure that the horses maintain a healthy temparature and heartbeat given the challenging desert conditions. Any horse not found to be in perfect health is disqualified immediately and so riders must carefully monitor the temperature and heart rate of their animals in order to ensure a safe and healthy race.

Last April, I had the pleasure of being part of Hamza Hasanat's racing team for one of the endurance races. He and his horse Andie competed and with a group of friends, we assisted him along the course in providing water and breaks for him and Andie. It was a great experience for all and a wonderful way to experience a day in the desert.

Hamza and Andie air-borne!

Team Hasanat at the start of the race.

Louis grabs an empty water bottle from Hamza en route to the finish!

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Fun in Northern Jordan!

One of my favorite sites (I have definitely been accused of favoring them all!) in northern Jordan is the ruins of the Greco-Roman decapolis city of Gerasa - known today as Jerash. One of the highlights of a visit to Jerash is the daily re-enactment of a Roman-era gladiator fight. The photo above is courtesy of John Montgomery, photographer. John and his wife Diane LeBow, travel writer, visited me in Jordan last May. They will return in February to run a series of travel writing and photography workshops. More information here:

Saturday, September 18, 2010

A New Season Begins!

Greetings from Aqaba! After several eventful months on the road with Dragons students, California travel writers and a host of other interesting folk, I have returned to southern Jordan's spectacular desert and teeming Red Sea! It's great to be back and you may anticipate some new and some old stories over the next few months.

Below please find obligatory camel shot!

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Another New Camp!

Last week, a group of Japanese artists visited me and Husam Mohammed in Wadi Rum. We stayed in Husam's new desert camp - a rustic place tucked in between a sand dune and two sandstone mountains. We learned a number of Bedouin traditions surrounding meal times and greetings. In traditional Bedouin society, families sit together around a plate on the ground and and eat with their hands. At the commencement of a meal, one says 'Bismillah' - in the name of God - as a blessing on the meal. The statement, 'Al hamdullilah' which means 'praise be to God' is an indication that one has had enough to eat and can eat no more. Our Japanese guests noted that maglubeh or 'upside down', chicken and vegetables cooked at the bottom of a pot of rice, was their favorite meal so far in Jordan - as they really feel comfortable and at home eating rice. We slept under a nearly full moon and then rose for sunrise. Before the guests toured the desert by jeep, we were able to take a photograph of the first group to visit Husam's camp!

Kuririn, a techie, an actor, Husam, a singer, Mejdi, Lina

Monday, April 26, 2010

J'man (Meteb Zawideh)

As promised, Meteb's music video is the story of a man who has lost his love. What will come of him? Watch as he relays the story to his best friend. The song is sung in a traditional Bedouin dialect and was filmed on location in Syria and Jordan.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

April - a Busy Month!

April is the height of Jordan's high season and I have spent the past month having quite a few wonderful adventures. Over the next few days, I will share stories about mother-daughter adventures, spectacular Petra, a visit to our neighbors and an exciting horse race in Wadi Rum! Meteb's music will also be shared - stay tuned!

On a camel in Petra!

Monday, April 5, 2010

Jumping Dragons!

Last week, I was visited by my friend Cara Lane, who is a fellow Course Director for Where There Be Dragons. Cara has led a fabulous Morocco program for Dragons for the past four summers and I consulted with her on the new Jordan/Syria program for which I am Course Director this summer. Cara is currently studying in Cairo and she and her classmate Jayne spent a couple of nights in the desert with me and the Bedouins. We visited the local women's society, ate maglubeh and hung around in the sand. It rained - to our great surprise! - and the following morning Cara and Jayne took off for Petra. What could sum up our adventure better than the following:

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Yalies Roam the World

Every year Reach Out - the Yale College Partnership for International Service sends Yale students all over the globe to spend time doing service work in various countries. For the past two years, a group has come to Jordan to work at Talbieh refugee camp which is located south of Amman. In addition to their service work, students do a bit of touring and I was fortunate enough to be visited by this year's crew in Wadi Rum. we spent a quiet desert evening around the fire and up on the sand dune. In the morning, Hussein fit 11 people in his jeep. The rest of us walked out of the desert on foot enjoying the desert scenery and filling our shoes with sand.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Dancers in the Desert

A few weeks ago I received an email from Paul Emerson Gordon, Artistic Director and Co-Founder of CityDance Ensemble. Last April, CityDance came as guests to Wadi Rum. We saw the most amazing Wadi Rum sunset on my personal record - the sky glowed bright pink. The group enjoyed a dance around the fire and toured the desert by jeep the following morning. While visiting al-Hashemi Hassany sand dune, the group was inspired to dance and as they happened to have costumes and AV equipment with them in the jeep (good planning, Paul!), they were able to record the event. You may find a shot from the video below:

2010 National Endowment for the Arts Guide

Welcoming the Sunrise

Last week, we had a very special visit from Ms. Victoria Hamilton and her friends who have been called to the Jordanian desert. On the evening of their arrival, we shared a meal of zarb and enjoyed the melodies of Mehteb's oud. We rose early to greet an incredible sunrise - despite the cold weather, we were thrilled to see clouds, a rare occurrence in the desert and a possible prelude to rain!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

First Guests in the Private Camp

Last night Jody and Nigel Smith joined me as the first guests in Harb and Motloq's new private desert camp. We were the only guests in the camp and enjoyed a private dinner and plenty of tea around the campfire. After sunset, Harb joined us and we heard the tale of the courtship of Khalaf Al Ithin, a Bedouin warrior famed for his courage and bravery. In the morning, we trekked around Hassany Mountain, investigating the local plant and wildlife. Spring has arrived in the desert - the tamarisk is in bloom and we saw a multitude of lizards, beetles and the tracks of pigeons and the ever present, ever reliable camels. Sayed, Abu Ahad and Ali Audeh (who are much sweeter than they look!), pictured below, made our stay in the desert particularly enjoyable.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Zarb at Cousin Ali's

Yesterday, a group from the British Embassy visit Wadi Rum. As their driver was a Disi local, we were all invited to his cousin's house for zarb. Zarb is a traditional Bedouin meal that is served to honor guests to one's home. In the past, zarb was made in a hole in the ground or in small caves in the mountains packed tightly with mud and sand. Today, zarb is usually made in an iron barrel set into a hole in the ground. First, wood is burned to create charcoal. Then, spiced meat, chicken and vegetables are placed on an iron tray. The tray is placed in the barrel and the barrel is sealed and buried in the sand for three hours. The barrel's contents bake in their juices and once the meal is uncovered, guests enjoy a truly delicious meal!

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Girl Time in the Desert

This weekend I was visited by Diane Burson and her daughter Melissa Valdez, natives of the fair state of Virginia. We spent a wonderful day trekking through desert canyons, examining ancient Nabatean inscriptions and climbing natural rock bridges.

The highlight of the day, however, was dinner with a local Bedouin girl, whose family owns the camp where we stayed. As per local tradition, we were sequestered in a private area for ladies at the back of the camp, where we shared a traditional Bedouin meal while discussing family, work and friendship around the fire.

In the morning, Diane and Melissa enjoyed a camel ride back to the car before heading onward to a beach day in Aqaba.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

English All the Time!

I am working on a project with Mr. Ahmad Jaradat, School Supervisor - English, at the Directorate of Education in Aqaba to promote use of the English language in local schools. This week is English language week and every morning a different school holds their morning activities in the English language.

This morning at Queen Zein As Sharaf School for Girls, students praised the King and recited excerpts from the Qura’an and the Hadith (sayings of the Prophet Mohammed) in Arabic. Short speeches were given in English on a variety of topics including: Jordan’s constitution, the life of His Majesty Abdullah II, the history of the school, the local marine and terrestrial environments, traffic, public health and the Aqaba House, which many students have had the opportunity to visit over the past week. It was wonderful to see such active use of the English language. The speeches were followed by a short quiz – audience members who answered questions correctly were rewarded for their listening skills with a small prize.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Aqaba Going Green!

Today I visited Theo Van De Laar at the Aqaba House in Aqaba's 9th Area. The Aqaba House is an eco-lodge bed and breakfast which employs some of the latest in green technologies and architecture in providing a simple yet elegant experience for its guests. The house's cooling system is solar-powered and it also uses solar cells for water heating. A grey water system waters the house's garden, which is host to a variety of local desert species. Significant portions of the building's decor come from recycled materials. Theo and I enjoyed grapefruit juice on the terrace, with a stunning view of Aqaba before us.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Another Day, Another Sunset...

Today I accompanied Mark Goldberg and Julia Zhou, visiting from Beijing, China, on their visit to Wadi Rum. We climbed a rock bridge, drank numerous cups of tea, watched a beautiful sunset and shared a lovely after dinner shisha. Another day passes in the desert...

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Vincent Carter Goes to Petra!

In early Febrary, Mrs. Kathy Belknap and I spent a day together in Petra. A beautiful sunny day at the height of the low season, we were able to explore the wonders of Petra with virtually no other tourists!

Upon special request from Kathy's granddaughter, Rim Metina-Belknap, a friend accompanied us to Petra. Vincent Carter is not only a member of Mrs. McCarter's second grade class in Raleigh, North Carolina, he is also a world traveler! Vincent and Kathy are pictured here in front of Petra's Treasury - the tomb of King Aretas IV who ruled the Nabatean city around the time of Christ.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Entertainment under the Stars

Last night while I was visiting Diseh, Mehteb Zawideh dropped by with his oud. He was on his way to a gig but graced us with a few songs before leaving. The oud is an Arabic instrument similar to the lute. It is characterized by a pear-shaped body, eleven strings and a lack of frets - allowing more expressiveness on the part of the musician. Mehteb is a regular performer at many camps in Wadi Rum and recently produced two music videos. They'll be linked to shortly.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Law in the Desert

Last week, I enjoyed the company of Allan and Rachel Steyer, who were visiting Jordan for the first time from California. Allan practices law in San Francisco and his daughter, Rachel, is spending a semester studying Arabic in Amman. The three of us spent two days in Amman and Jerash and then, after dropping Rachel off at school, Allan and I took off on an adventure to the south!

The highlight of our southern trip was a visit with Harb Salem in Diseh, the village on the northern edge of the Wadi Rum Protected Reserve. We spent our day with Harb touring the desert by jeep and over lunch had a fascinating discussion regarding the Bedouin justice system. Harb described a system of three courts - one for blood crimes, such as murder and assault, a second for crimes committed against women, such as harassment or more serious offences, and a third for civil crimes like theft or defamation. Through a simple, tribally accepted system of defendant and plaintiff testimonies, most problems within the Bedouin community are solved by one judge whose knowledge and experience are trusted by the entire community. Both Allan and I were intrigued by the similarities and differences to the American justice system and found that a gorgeous day in the desert was particularly enjoyable due to lessons learned and stories shared!

Thursday, January 28, 2010


On the recommendation of many and, finally, given the inspiration by my godmother, this marks the first post of South Jordan Sojourn, a blog dedicated to travel and exploration in southern Jordan and beyond.