How I Wish I Spent My Summer Vacation

It’s inevitable.  Your children grow up and go off to do cool things without you.  As of today, I have one daughter working on a project in Haiti, another in India working with a start-up company and the Youngest One milking cows and making cheese in Switzerland.  The first two situations keep me awake at night, imagining every hideous scenario that might befall them.  The Switzerland project..well, I’m a little more comfortable with that, although I read that 481 people were injured by cows this year in the UK. Yes, I googled it.  I’m a worrier.

Afternoon hike near Bretaye

Afternoon hike near Bretaye

The Youngest One pitched her Switzerland WWOOFing idea right around Christmas break.  WWOOF-ing, an awkward acronym for World-Wide Opportunities On Organic Farms, pairs interested workers with willing farmers in a (hopefully) beneficial partnership. The wwoofer stays on local farm to learn the ins and outs of organic farming and the farmer gets an extra pair of hands to help with farm work.  Summer jobs are hard, if not impossible to find as a university kid on a Tier 2 visa and WWOOFing fit nicely with her Sustainable Development major at uni and her love of all things food.  One planned farm stay turned into 5 farm stays across the UK and Switzerland.

Farm #1  Shopshire, England, 1 Week

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“Woofers” work 6 – 8 hours a day, 5 or 6 days a week.  In exchange, the host farm provides housing, meals and an opportunity to learn the basics of running a farm.  At this particular farm, responsibilities included building a 30 foot polytunnel and extending a fruit cage and feeding/caring for the chickens.

Walks along the country lane

Walks along the country lane

A world-class balloonist lands on the farm.

A world-class balloonist lands on the farm.

It isn’t all work, however.  Evenings/the occasional day off are spent socializing with other woofers and the family, exploring the surrounding areas and soaking up a new experience.

Farm #2  nr Bretaye, Switzerland, 2 Weeks

Goat face!

Goat face!

The second farm was spectacularly located in the Swiss Alps.  Paul and his wife, farm owners for over 30 years, started taking in wwoofers 7 years ago to help with the with goats, dairy cows and drives to morning market.  This “alpage” farm provided the full experience…milking goats, mending fences, making/flipping/selling cheese, rounding up and milking cows, chopping wood and washing farm equipment.  While wwoofers think about the travel/work/experience balance, host farmers worry about wwoofers that cancel at the last minute, don’t show up at all or prove unwilling to share the workload.  In the end, it’s about balance and a shared experience.  When it all works, it’s a beautiful thing…wwoofers contribute and learn about organic farming, farmers benefit from motivated and energetic learners and both parties have a mutually beneficial cross-cultural experience.

Making the cheese...

Making the cheese…

Moooving the cows up the mountain

Moooving the cows up the mountain

** Photo credits/Madeline Belt

Things To Know:

WWOOFing is an international phenomenon.  Each country or region has its own WWOOFing database and registration fee, which makes it a bit cumbersome when choosing a farm. It’s best to choose the region you’re interested in and send off for information and listings.

Farms and projects vary widely, so do your homework before choosing one.  Talk to other WWOOFers, email the farmers, ask questions.  This is NOT a vacation and you will work hard, but it is also a great way to travel inexpensively, meet the locals, try a foreign language and help others along the way.

There are bad woofing stories out there…farmers taking advantage of free labor, accommodations not suitable for human habitation and unsafe working conditions.  To avoid a bad woofing experience:  1. Set clear expectations about work hours, accommodations, meals, language requirements and time off.  Ask about the kind of work you’ll be doing. 2.  Have a Plan B and a stash of cash.  In our house, we call it “getaway” money.  In case you have to, you know, get away.  There are also good wwoofing stories. Do your homework. 

Wwoof Independents has a great FAQ about being/hosting guests through WWOOF.

Black Tea and Desert Sand

I have to be honest. I am not a desert person. I’m more of a mountain, beach or someplace-where-things-grow person. My bad attitude stems from a US cross country road trip and a stop to admire the desert in Arizona. Everyone talked about the beauty of the sand, the colors in the rocks and the starkness of the landscape. I was extremely underwhelmed (sorry Arizona..I wanted to love it, I really did) and I mentally ticked off all deserts as being not-for-me.

Wadi Rum  photo by Guillaume Baviere

Wadi Rum photo by Guillaume Baviere

Wadi Rum was an entirely different desert experience and my time there qualifies as one of my most memorable travel experiences. The scenery was spectacular, our experiences were exceptional and the Bedouin hospitality unmatched. My only  disappointment was that I only spent a day and a half in a place that deserved much more of my time.  I guess I’ll just have to go back.

Wadi Rum (Valley of the Moon) is a World Heritage Site located in southern Jordan. Made famous by the epic film, Lawrence of Arabia, the desert is now a protected area encompassing 720 sq kilometers of dramatic granite cliffs, sweeping desert sand and hidden canyons. All expeditions into the desert are guided and travelers interested in jeep tours, camel or horse trekking, climbing, hiking, walking or camping must make a reservation (more information below).  As much as I wanted to camel trek through the desert, our time was limited and a jeep tour was the most efficient way to see the highlights of Wadi Rum.

View across Wadi Rum by Guillaume Baviere

View across Wadi Rum by Guillaume Baviere

We started our day in the desert with Mohammed, one of the local Bedouin Huwaitat tribal members and jeep tour guide extraordinaire.  We met Mohammed at the visitor center and piled into our covered (thankfully!) 4 x 4 and drove off in the direction of the desert. He explained what we were going to see that day and peppered  our conversations with anecdotes about the Bedouin, his family and life in Wadi Rum.  Just before we drove through the visitor center gates, Mohammed said “Hold on!”, pulled a hard left and tore into the desert.  He took great joy in testing the capacity of his vehicle and my sense of adventure by driving up and over the top of the dunes as fast as possible.  It was exhilarating and the views were spectacular at every turn.

Carving and inscription commemorating Lawrence of Arabia's time in Wadi Rum

Carving and inscription commemorating Lawrence of Arabia’s time in Wadi Rum

Petroglyphs dating back to Thamudic times found throughout Wadi Rum

Petroglyphs dating back to Thamudic times found throughout Wadi Rum

Mohammed promised to show us all of the locations featured in the Lawrence of Arabia films as well as locations significant to Bedouin lifestyle and history.

Intro to camels, 101 with Mohammed

Intro to camels with Mohammed

He knew we were obsessed with camels, and stopped periodically to visit with the locals and let us chase the camels around with our cameras.

Running down the dunes with Mohammed

Running down the dunes with Mohammed

Showing Rachel how to wrap the head scarf properly.

Showing Rachel how to wrap the head scarf properly.

Our view from the top of the red dunes.

Our view from the top of the red dunes.

Some of our most magical moments in Wadi Rum were the quiet ones…sitting in absolute serenity on the high dunes, watching the camels or the occasional jeep go by.

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Lest you think we were just sitting about and letting Mohammed do all the work, we did a little scrambling up the rock cliffs.  In the photo above Rachel and I are discussing which one of us will  climb up to rocks to the bridge overhead for the photo.

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I lost (or won, depending on how you look at it).  Mohammed thought this was hilarious.  I’m not pathetic.  I am barefoot, in a skirt and it’s a looonnnggg way down to the desert floor.  So there.

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We ended our day with Mohammed making tea in the shade of the red sandstone cliffs as we lay about, sipping the delicious tea  and soaking in the beautiful sand dunes, mountains and vistas of Wadi Rum.

Things to Know

Desert excursions can be booked at the Wadi Rum Visitor Center.  If you find bargaining and negotiating stressful, you should consider booking ahead online through any number of reputable and local agencies. I personally recommend booking ahead using Jordan Jubilee ‘s suggestions or UTA booking service. . The local Bedouin have embraced the concept of TripAdvisor for ratings and direct contact information.  Do your research before booking.

The tour vehicles used in Wadi Rum are purpose built vehicles.  They are old, but reliable and easily repaired with whatever is on hand. Some are fully enclosed, some are pickup trucks with benches in the back.  Make sure you know what you are getting.

Bring your own water, snacks and other necessities with you into Wadi Rum.  There are one or two small shops on the outskirts of the desert and none within the boundaries. Be prepared.

Dress appropriately.  Temperature is dependent on time of day and season.  The summer is oppressively hot (over 34C) and winter is cold.  Daytime and nighttime temperatures vary as well.  Best to check here before you go.

Stay longer.  We had just enough time for our jeep safari and an amazing night under the stars during our one night stay.

We stayed at the Milky Way Ecolodge, situated within the Wadi Rum protected area.  Owned and managed locally, the camp offers visitors a comfortable and ecologically sensitive way to enjoy all the desert has to offer.  The raised tents sleep  1 to 6 people in comfortable (real!) beds, complete with bedding, duvets, pillows and linens.  The camp also provides full (and solar-powered) bathroom facilities…showers, toilets, sinks and running water. Meals are served communally in the gathering tent where guests can sit, drink tea and socialize with other “campers”  after dinner.  You can read my review here and/or here

Planes, Trains and Automobiles…and Maybe a Boat.

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It’s been a busy travel month and it’s about to get busier. If you’ve been following along (and thank you if you have), you know Rachel and I were in Jordan for a week…

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before I was off to the Gulf Coast of Florida to visit family, soak up some much-needed sun and eat  pretty much everything I could get my hands on.

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Now I’m back in rainy London, finishing up my Jordan posts and planning trips to Ireland, Scotland, Singapore, Malaysia,Hong Kong and Greece.  Just to keep things interesting, I decided this was also a good time to redesign and move my blog.  It’s a little crazy, but I’ll keep you posted on the blog move and my upcoming travels.  Thank you for reading and, hopefully, sticking with me through the bumpy parts of the transition.

Have you traveled to any of these places?  I’m always looking for great travel tips and advice!  Please share!

Best,

Megan

“Why Do You Sleep in the Road?” A Night in the Wadi Rum

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Mohammed dropped us off at Milky Way Camp and drove off in a cloud of desert sand. Our camp host showed us to our tent and invited us for a cup of tea, which we gladly accepted.   It had been a long day and we were exhausted. I don’t know why we were so tired…jeep trekking, tea-drinking and dune-running in the Wadi Rum desert all day?  Perhaps.

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As much as we wanted to sit in the tent and drink tea for hours, it was getting late and we had to scramble if we wanted to watch the sun set across Wadi Rum. Rachel and I set down our tea cups, grabbed our cameras and set out across the valley. We saw a hill in the distance and decided the top of that hill would be the best place to catch the last rays of sun.  We walked for 20 minutes and decided to sit down for a minute to rest.

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We sat silently for a long time, enveloped by the incredible beauty of  Wadi Rum. We watched a herd of goats heading home, a pair of camels wandering across the sand and the last rays of sun dropping behind the mountains.  It was absolutely silent and so….peaceful.

I heard the engine before I saw the jeep.  I screamed for Rachel to wake up.

It seemed our “sitting for a minute to rest” had turned into “tipping over and falling dead asleep in the sand” 500 feet from camp. I turned to see the jeep idling 20 feet from us.  The driver was a young-ish man, traditionally dressed in a shemagh and white robe. He looked at me through the windscreen.  I looked at him.  We stared at each other for a minute or so before he stuck his head out the window…

Man:  “You from the camp?”

Me: “Yes!”

Long awkward pause.   He grinned.

Man:  “Why do you sleep in the road?!”

What road?  How was I to know the weed-less part of the sand is considered the road?  I told him we were walking to take pictures of the sunset and got tired.  He laughed hysterically.

Man: “You like the Bedouin…you tired, you sleep… you awake, you go.  Come.  I will give you a ride to see the sunset.”

Rachel and I piled into the front seat of  the truck and barreled across the desert with our new friend, Abdullah (also manager of the tourist camps in Wadi Rum) just in time to see the sun sink behind the mountains.   Another instance of  Arabic hospitality.  Shokran Jazeelan, Abdallah. It was a beautiful sunset.

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Things To Know:

Milky Way Ecolodge is situated within the Wadi Rum protected area of Southern Jordan.  Owned and managed locally, the camp offers visitors a comfortable and ecologically sensitive way to enjoy all the desert has to offer.  The raised tents sleep  1 to 6 people in comfortable (real!) beds, complete with bedding, duvets, pillows and linens.  The camp also provides full (and solar-powered) bathroom facilities…showers, toilets, sinks and running water. Meals are served communally in the gathering tent where guests can sit, drink tea and socialize with other “campers”  after dinner,

Candles provide lighting at night in the tents and at dinner, but it’s a good idea to bring a flashlight/torch/headlamp.

Children are warmly welcomed!

The accommodations were lovely, the food was good, the company exceptional.  Sitting in the silent desert watching the Milky Way spread out across a pitch-black night sky while listening to Abdullah tell stories about growing up in Wadi Rum was magical, at least for these city girls.  Go.  

Feel free to contact me if you have any questions about our stay in Milky Way Camp!

Jerash: Rome Away From Rome

We were groggy, disheveled and slightly jet-lagged after our late arrival from London. Our driver took one look at us slumped in the back seat on our way to our hotel in Amman, laughed, and  blessedly suggested a late morning start for our trip to Jerash. It turned out to be good advice. We visited the ruins of Jerash on a warm, spring day when the hills surrounding the city provided a backdrop of bright sunshine, grazing sheep and a carpet of wildflowers.  

Arch of Hadrian

Arch of Hadrian

Jerash, dubbed “Rome away from Rome” by the Jordanian Tourist Board, fascinated me. Americans consider something “old” when it exists for 100 or so years.  The Europeans hold the standard for  “old” at a respectable 300 or 400 years.  Middle Eastern countries start to consider something “old” when it dates back 1000 or more years.  Jerash certainly qualifies as ancient, even by Middle Eastern standards. The “city”, considered one of the largest and best preserved Roman ruins outside Italy, sits 45 minutes north of Amman on a site that contains evidence of human occupation dating back 6500 years.

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Cardo Maximus, the colonnaded street

Cardo Maximus, the colonnaded street

Ruts in the road made by Roman carts

Ruts in the road made by Roman carts

Archeologists  uncovered ruins exhibiting Greco-Roman, Mediterranean and Arab influences which suggested a long and complex  history of Jerash.

One of two theaters in Jerash

One of two theaters in Jerash

Seat numbers in the amphitheater.  These are the "expensive" seats.

Seat numbers in the amphitheater. These are the “expensive” seats.

Although Jerash (Gerasa) was an established and  relatively prosperous city in the 3rd century BC, it  came under Roman rule in 63 BC when conquered by the Roman General Pompey.  After the decline of the Roman Empire, Jerash was subjected to various invading forces and destructive earthquakes, which left the city abandoned and in ruins.

Tea for sale at the Temple of Artemis

Tea for sale at the Temple of Artemis

Temple of Artemis

Temple of Artemis

Mosaic floor of a Byzantine church

Mosaic floor of a Byzantine church

Oval Plaza, Jerash

Oval Plaza, Jerash

These magnificent ruins lay buried under endless meters of sand for 800 years before rediscovery by Ulrich Jasper Seetzen in 1806.  Excavation didn’t begin in earnest until 1925 and continues to this day as archeologists and historians are uncertain about how much of the original city remains buried.

We had a spectacular day at Jerash, culminating with our standing at top of the amphitheater as the call to prayer rang out over the ruins.  I don’t know if our guide actually planned this moment for us, but it was an unexpected ending to a spectacular day.

Things to Know:

We stayed at the Alqasr Metropole Hotel in Amman.  The rooms were basic, but clean.  I’m not sure if non-smoking rooms exist in the hotel, but you should check if that is a requirement.  The breakfast and serving staff were excellent and the hotel has a number of popular and well-regarded restaurants. 

Jerash is an easy trip by car and is located on a main road 30 miles north of Amman.

Wear good walking shoes and take a bottle of water for your visit.  Our tour was approximately 3 1/2 hours long and involved extended periods of walking and standing in the direct sun.

Consider using one of the local guides.  They are incredibly knowledgeable and charge a reasonable fee (negotiate before leaving the visitor’s center).   To hire a local guide, purchase your tickets, walk through “souk”, up the hill and through Hadrian’s Gate to the small building across from the restaurant.  Our Jerash guide was arranged through UTA travel prior to our arrival.  

Any implication of good planning is a result of Clair’s work at Audley Travel and their on-the-ground partners in Amman, UTA travel.

Information about opening times, etc. can be found here.

If you can’t make it all the way to Jerash, one of the “Whispering Columns of Jerash” stands in Flushing Meadows, New York.  King Hussein presented it as a gift from the Kingdom of Jordan for the World’s Fair in 1964.

Ir you have any questions about our stay in Amman or our day in Jerash, feel free to contact me!