The Art of Mindful Travel in Jordan
By KEEN Fan Rosalie Haizlett
To most Americans, the Middle East is an arid war zone. It’s a big, hot desert ruled by bearded men and anarchy. You typically go there on deployment, not vacation. And truthfully, it wasn’t on my list of wanderlust destinations either. But when my sister Clara moved to Jordan last year, I began to take interest in the region—both personally and professionally.
Professionally, I am always looking for new landscapes to inspire my illustrations. I grew up in the forested rolling hills of rural West Virginia and had never before been to a desert. Jordan’s desert landscape would expose me to color schemes, rock formations, and flora and fauna that would inform my artwork in new ways.
Personally, traveling to the Middle East kind of freaked me out, and that’s how I knew that I should go. I spent most of my life shying away from uncomfortable experiences, but in the past few years I began seeking them out because I knew that the perfectly protective bubble that I had formed around myself was hindering my ability to be fully alive. And it’s led to the most transformative and wonderful years of my life.
After Clara’s first visit to Petra, she called me and said, “Dude I had the craziest weekend! I met these Bedouins and took a midnight donkey ride and danced around a campfire in some desert somewhere!” A few months later, I too was riding a mule through the Jordanian desert, my sister bouncing beside me on her donkey, Lazy.
Experiencing the Heart of Petra
As a nature and travel illustrator, I’ve visited and sketched numerous historical sites around the world. The ancient Nabataean city is known for being one of the Seven Wonders of the World, celebrated for its pink sandstone architecture. And when I witnessed the pink glow when the morning and afternoon light hits it, I couldn’t wait to pull out my sketchbook and watercolor paints to try to capture it. Yet as soon as I arrived in Petra, I felt that it was different somehow. Petra is not just relics and ancient history. It is home to a vibrant community of Bedouins that are just as warm and hospitable as their sweet mint tea.
We arranged to stay with Clara’s friend Firas and a few of his family members in their cliffside cave on the outskirts of Petra. They were tall and muscular, donning long thick cloaks and a certain ruggedness you get from riding camels and herding goats. Turbans wrapped their long curly hair, and black eyeliner, or kohl, lined their dark eyes. Here I was, trekking through the night with my little sister, some donkeys, and the love children of Jack Sparrow and a nativity-set wise man.
Truthfully, I was a bit hesitant to accept the cave invitation. As females, we are told so often to “watch out,” and “don’t trust men,” especially unknown men, never at night, and certainly not in scenarios where a cave is involved. And while precautions are necessary and rational, living in fear can strip women of our agency, and often, our sense of adventure. I say, be smart, trust your gut, don’t let fear get in the way, and throw caution to the desert winds sometimes.
To my pleasant surprise, the cave was warm and cozy, illuminated by the soft glow of candles. Eclectic wall hangings decorated the stone walls—Bob Marley and Che Guevera tapestries, a woven Christmas tree blanket, and carefully arranged letters and photos of family and friends. Between the tapestries and the candles, it felt strangely reminiscent of my college dorm room, just a bit more cave-y.
We prepared dinner by candlelight—veggies, chicken, a splash of olive oil, and a pinch of unknown spices. We tossed the ingredients with our hands, bare and swollen from the desert heat. As our dinner stewed over the fire, we sprawled on the cushion-covered floor, exchanging riddles between long puffs of blueberry-flavored shisha. One of the guys showed us a video of a camel race that his camel had won in the nearby Wadi Rum desert. The cave, unfamiliar tones of the Arabic language, the shisha-infused air—the whole atmosphere was so foreign to my life back in West Virginia, yet I felt at home. Arab hospitality is indeed a real thing.
Summoned by the silence and soft breeze, Clara and I opted to sleep on mattresses just outside the cave. Shooting stars darted and dove through the darkness. The crackles of the fire echoed against the cave walls. And under thick blankets and the starry night sky, we drifted into sleep.
Sketching To Remember the Moment
Being in Petra truly feels like you’ve journeyed back hundreds of years and you’re living long ago. Minus the smartphones and boom boxes, that is. We woke to one of Firas’ friends riding by the cave on his donkey blaring pop music. We affectionately nicknamed him the “DJ on a Donkey.” And Petra is full of DJs on donkeys. Crowd favorites include “Don’t Worry Be Happy,” “Despacito,” and traditional Bedouin turn-up jams. I would have a hard time explaining the latter, but I can say that it makes you want to boogie.
We spent the next few days in Petra climbing up rocks, sketching the landscape, and getting to know Firas and his community better. Petra is their home, work, and playground—all at once. It’s a pretty sweet life, and Firas and his family were generous enough to share this with us.
Sketching allows you to simply be in a place.
I tried my best to fully capture the weekend—in my journal, camera, and sketchbook. For me, sketching is a form of meditation. As I sketch, I try to awaken all of my senses. Sometimes I journal these sensations and sometimes I just tuck them away in my brain. Here’s what I jotted down during one of my sketching sessions in Petra as I sat in a little shady overhang that looked out over the Monastery.
Sketching allows you to simply be in a place. And I think it’s something that everyone (artists and non-artists alike) should try because it adds a new dimension to our traveling experiences. If you’re a beginner, it can be intimidating to sketch in public. Here are a few suggestions for getting started:
• Get a small sketchbook (mine is a little square one that is 5 inches by 5 inches). The bigger the page, the more intimidating it can be.
• Use a regular sketching pencil to start. Once I get my sketch down, I’ll go over the lines with a fine-tipped felt pen or add a splash of color using my mini watercolor set.
• Find a comfortable place to sit. While I was drawing the Monastery at Petra, I looked around a while until I found the perfect drawing place- a shady overhang away from the crowds.
• Keep it simple! It’s so easy to get carried away when you’re sitting in an inspiring place. But instead of trying to capture every little detail, choose just a few parts of the scene that you really love.
• Pay attention to your five senses. Jot down the things you are hearing, seeing, feeling, etc., on the back of your sketch. When you look at this sketch and read these notes in the future, you’ll be taken right back to this moment.
Balancing Taking with Giving
So much of the way we travel involves taking. We draft bucket lists and check off places and experiences. We boast about having “done” a country or city. We snap selfies with places and people we designate to be “exotic” or “cultural.” And I am totally guilty of these tendencies.
While traveling, interactions with people and places are often transactional, lacking in sincerity. But spending time with the Bedouin people who work as guides and shop vendors in Petra, meeting their families and hearing stories about their lives reminded me that they are real people with beautiful stories who are often stereotyped unfairly and taken for granted.
Even the smallest of gestures can go a long way toward becoming a more mindful traveler.
So what does it look like to be a traveler that balances taking with giving? For me, the answer to this has been mostly art-related. While in Amman I painted a mural for a street beautification project. For Firas, I painted a watercolor portrait for Clara to give to him when she goes back to Petra in a few weeks. It doesn’t have to be much. It could be engaging with locals, listening to stories, or writing a thank-you letter to decorate a cave wall. Even the smallest of gestures can go a long way toward becoming a more mindful traveler. Our wanderlust destinations are someone else’s home, locals are someone’s family, and our experiences are someone else’s lives.
Rosalie Haizlett is a freelance illustrator specializing in travel and nature-related themes. She enjoys using her illustrations to honor the people, places, and creatures that aren't often given the spotlight. When she's not traveling to faraway destinations, you can find her hanging out in the West Virginia forests that she calls home with a backpack stuffed full of snacks and painting supplies. Follow along on her artistic adventures on Instagram @rosaliehaizlett, and learn about her workshops and other projects at rosaliehaizlett.com.