The road trip down to southern Jordan is full of rocky mountains and desert plains and is a challenge, but it was my last trip in Jordan before I got relocated to start a career in aviation with Etihad Airways in Abu Dhabi. I wanted to visit Petra and experience the hospitality of the people Wadi Musa one last time before I leave my beloved Jordan.
We arrived in Petra on a Wednesday afternoon after a three-hour drive from Amman. Shorltly after we arrived, we headed for a late lunch at one of the restaurants close to the hotel we stayed at, just a walking distance of the visitor’s center and the entrance to the ancient city. Petra at night, held on selected days of the week, is a breathtaking experience. It was our first time to walk through the candle-lit Siq and enjoy a warm cup of tea at the Treasury, the tunes of the Rababah and bedouin poetry. The next day we hiked an unusual trek to reach the opposite mountain overlooking the Treasury. An exhausting yet a mesmerizing hike packed with exciting people, places and memories.
In August 2005, two years before Petra was named one of the new Seven Wonders of the World, Steph Al Twassi, a British citizen from Birmingham, was on a nine-day family vacation to Jordan. Eleven years later, she is a mother of two, living in Wadi Musa, and the wife of Anas Al Twassi, the horse rider who took the family on a tour during their day trip to Petra. “It felt outrageously beautiful, but it felt right,” says Stephanie. “We knew little about Jordan, especially as it is a Muslim country in the Middle East, but we decided to go through the adventure of exploring the country and the culture.”
During their trip, a fifteen-minute horse ride was enough for Anas and Stephanie to have a chat and exchange contact details so they could keep in touch when she returned home to Birmingham. “There was mutual admiration. I left Petra, but my heart did not.” Stephanie recalls the MSN messenger chats and the expensive international phone calls to build up their relationship and get them closer to each other. A year later, she moved to Jordan. “I moved to Jordan two months before our wedding to spend time with Anas and to learn about the culture and traditions of Jordan,” Stephanie adds. “My parents were terrified of the idea but had strong trust in myself and Anas, and their understanding and support was incredible.” Stephanie and Anas’s traditional Jordanian wedding took place in September 2006 filled with Arabic and Jordanian music, dabka, fireworks and the popular car parade roaming the streets of Wadi Musa. “Almost everything was planned to the last minute, nevertheless it was perfect!” remembers Stephanie.
The start was challenging: the language, the culture, social habits and religion. “I was determined to learn and adapt to these changes,” say Stephanie. As difficult as it sounds, she was able to work out all the challenges and integrate within her new family and community. A five-month opportunity at a travel agency allowed her to nourish her knowledge about Jordan and assisted her in developing her Arabic. As she became more comfortable with her new environment, she felt the need to contribute to the community, give back to the women of Wadi Musa and to empower women among a male dominated workforce. She had an idea in mind, but moving back temporarily to the UK stopped Stephanie from fulfilling her dream.
In 2013, A Piece of Jordan was born. The initiative by Al Twassi is committed to the local community, women and children of Wadi Musa. “We want to shape the identity of the area and encourage sustainable tourism practices,” Stephanie adds. With the support of Anas and his family, the vision of A Piece of Jordan was slowly being formed and brought to life. “As a tourist, you notice a lack of locally made souvenirs. All the shelves are filled with mass produced items that you can easily replicate or find anywhere around the world. It is not special to Jordan, it lacks the spirit and the feel,” she adds. With research and careful study, Stephanie was able to design handicrafts from original and recycled materials that are produced by different community segments in the area. “Now, tourists are able to take home a true piece of Jordan, a reminder of beautiful memories handcrafted with passion and love.”
The short Petra tours and lack of bed and breakfast venues in Wadi Musa was another eye opener for Stephanie. “Often visiting Petra means spending between 1-3 days hiking and exploring the city while staying in hotels close to the site with minimum interaction with the people of the area. Sometimes it is just a day tour to take some pictures and cross Petra off the bucket list,” Stephanie adds. There was room to grow communal and eco experiences, another mission for A Piece of Jordan.
Planning the tours and the eco activities was challenging. There was a certain level of reluctance due to the local community’s conservative culture. “We wanted to work with the families of the region and get them involved in the project. As hosts, they were to provide an authentic dinning experience for the individuals or group of tourists,” she adds. Stephanie believes that the benefits of the initiative highlights the importance of the role of the women in Jordan and allows tourists to experience a true Jordanian hospitality while supporting the host families financially. “It creates a sense of belonging and helps to build relationships between people from different parts of the world. Not only do we want to promote Petra as an ancient city, but we want people to experience Wadi Musa as a vibrant culture, a stopover, and a destination by itself.” A piece of Jordan offers various options: from bread baking, tasting local cuisine and outdoor cooking to olive harvesting and a ‘being a shepherd’ experience. Some of the experiences are seasonally dependent, like the olive harvest and the cooking outdoor experiences. “We can tailor-make the experiences and even provide a detailed itinerary for tours around Jordan,” Stephanie adds.
Stephanie’s dreams go bigger than this. Through a Petra Community Project, she wishes to drive and support positive change in her new home. “There is so much to do. A Piece of Jordan is working on several projects to develop and create change within the community, such as a Petra Community Center and Cafe, Petra Children Project and Animal Welfare in Petra,” she explains.
Although it is still young, A Piece of Jordan is attracting more visitors as tourists, food and travel bloggers and popular travel websites such as Trip Advisor are spreading the word of mouth on social media. The attention and interest in Stephanie’s effort was rewarded through other media channels including the Jordan Times and national UK newspapers, Atlas (Etihad Airways onboard magazine) and Ro’ya TV, a popular Jordanian TV channel.
*Pictures courtesy of A Piece of Jordan