Breaking the ice
Our agenda was Intrepid’s traditional itinerary to Jordan, hitting the highlights of Amman, Petra, a tented desert camp in Wadi Rum and the Dead Sea, with additional activities added to bring travelers together with local women.
One of our first nights in Amman we took cooking classes at Beit Sitti, a restaurant started by three sisters in their late mother’s home that employs only women, including a number of refugees.
Another night, we dined in a home with the women from a Muslim family, exchanging stories about our lives and the custom here for many extended families to all live under one roof, that of their husband’s parents.
In addition to the mother and wives of two brothers, we met one of the brothers’ sisters, who has never married and also lives in the home. Her main job is to prepare meals and help take care of her nieces and nephews.
Although everyone was a bit quiet and awkward at first, the ice was broken when conversation turned to fashion.
“Did you get that dress in Morocco?” a traveler from Austin, Texas, asked when they told us the unmarried sister was the only one in group who had traveled abroad, to Morocco. She nodded, smiling.
“I bought one just like it there,” the Texan said. “Only mine’s purple. I love it. I wear it all the time.”
From there, conversations loosened, and we all set about talking, playing with the kids and having our hands painted with henna and our eyes lined with kohl.
Another afternoon, before heading from Petra to the Dead Sea, we had lunch with one of the founders of the Jordan River Foundation women’s weaving co-op and visited its headquarters, from where women sell their traditional handicrafts to points around the globe, including to retail giant Ikea.
Missing from the itinerary, however, were a promised dinner with Bedouin women during our overnight in a tented desert camp in Wadi Rum, an afternoon at a women-only pool at a resort on the Dead Sea and interaction with a female shepherd.
The pool, according to our guide, closed last year. And our breakfast with the shepherd turned out to be with a male, whose wife served us tea. Still, we got to milk goats and learn about the shepherd’s life, although not so much his wife’s.
The missing itinerary pieces, which prompted at least two of the women to write Intrepid seeking partial refunds, underscored the challenge of operating such specialized itineraries in far-flung locales and with women who are not used to putting their lives on public display.
“At Intrepid, we pride ourselves on offering our customers immersive, real-life experiences in all countries we operate in,” Jen Hartin, destination manager for the Middle East and Turkey, said in statement upon our return.
“While this provides the most authentic insight into a destination, it can also require an open mindset and flexibility while traveling, as changes on the ground can pop up unexpectedly,” she said. “With the delayed closure of the women-only pool and inconsistent offerings in Wadi Rum, our local operations team is busy sourcing more reliable experiences for our Jordan Women’s Expedition and will be updating the trip notes accordingly as well as advising customers in advance of their departure.”
Indeed, women-only trips, while growing, remain a mostly specialized niche offered by companies like Adventure Woman, which has been operating for some 35 years, and startups like Wild Terrain, which launched last year.
G Adventures’ founder, Bruce Poon Tip, said recently that his company had in years past tried to launch some women-only trips but discovered they “weren’t very good at it.”
He didn’t rule out future additions but said it would likely come only if they purchased an operator already focused on women-only adventures.
While most of my fellow travelers said they were disappointed at the missing pieces of the itinerary, most also said they still very much enjoyed the trip, the bonding experiences and, most of all, our guide, Nuwar Jodeh.
Jodeh, one of a small number of female guides in the country, was the highlight of the trip despite the itinerary snafus. She made every day a learning experience about life as a woman in Jordan, candidly answering any question we threw her way.
As fellow traveler Sue Eley of England put it, “Her wealth of knowledge and delivery brought to life the history and ways of life of the Jordanian people.”
The women-only experience also offered a different, relaxing dynamic and many candid conversations that could have only taken place in an all-female setting.
Sarah Hale, a 29-year-old florist from England, said she would absolutely do another women’s expedition.
“Being in a women-only group enables you to have experiences that you wouldn’t necessarily get to have in a mixed group…”
“There’s definitely a completely different atmosphere in the group when traveling with women only, and what was nice about our trip was that 90% of the group were traveling solo,” she said. “I’ve found that being a solo traveler you’re generally in the minority in groups, and couples generally don’t like to separate, so quite often you end up feeling like a third wheel. … Being in a women-only group also enables you to have experiences that you wouldn’t necessarily get to have in a mixed group, especially in a country where there’s still quite a bit of gender segregation.”
Hale said she was pleased to see more companies offering such trips.
“Women-only trips were originally a chance for women to go drinking, shopping and chill at the beach but not much else,” she said. “Nowadays, women are challenging this stereotype and looking for holidays where they can learn about different cultures and have new experiences. It’s also becoming more accepted that women do this.”
She recalled that when she first began traveling by herself in 2012 “a lot of responses were ‘aws’ from men, and ‘You’re so brave!’ from women, even though I was only traveling to Ireland! In just these last seven years, there’s now been a big change in people’s attitudes toward solo female travelers, and it’s being embraced a lot more now, not only by tour operators and the travel industry but also by the general public.
It’s also a chance for women to take a step back from being in the role of wife and/or mother and do something purely for themselves, which up until recently hasn’t really been accepted.”
Swenson said the benefits of traveling only with women were especially apparent to her as we spent two days hiking around the often-challenging trails and archaeological sites of Petra in triple-digit heat.
“One of the advantages of traveling with a group of women is that they were caring and compassionate and didn’t demonstrate negative judgement,” Swenson said. “When we climbed up to the Monastery, a group of women waited for me when they did not have to do so. I had clearly stated my physical abilities and described situations in which they needed to worry about me and that they should not wait for me. When I thanked them for waiting for me during occasional stops to catch my breath, one replied that others needed to catch their breath as well. They were very supportive and diplomatic.”
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