Stefan (34) from Austria decided to go for different holidays this year and chose a quite uncommon place for recreation, namely the desert of Jordan. In February he left his intense job as a headhunter for two weeks and went for silence, nature and meditation. In this intriguing interview he shares with us, why the desert might be a destination for you too!
HTD: Spending one’s precious yearly holidays in the desert is for most of us not really the most obvious option. So how comes that you spent your vacation in the “abandon”?
That’s exactly what one of my colleagues asked me. She didn’t understand it at all and asked why on earth I would choose such a vacation! For her it was totally random and it seemed to her to be the least attractive place in the world. Originally I wanted to do just a short retreat over the weekend in a monastery – but seeing a flyer about the desert retreat made me change my mind. So why did I want to do that? I was coming out of a very intense relationship at that time and wanted to “withdraw myself”, try to understand in which direction I wanted to go – to “reset my compass”. Since it had been such a disruptive event, I felt like I needed to slow down, be on my own a bit and have time to think. So I heard about this trip to the desert of Jordan, signed up and became part of a group of 60 people from Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic. We were divided into two groups according to our age. The youngest of us was 18 years old and the oldest around 42, in the other group a lady was even 72! Our two groups walked on different paths and trails in the desert. We also received different spiritual input from our group leaders, since our group was focusing on the topic of decision-making – as most of us were of younger age where still many decisions are to be made.
HTD: How did the journey and “everyday life” look like?
We always got up really early – before the sun came out – and we were woken up by our guide, singing and playing on his guitar. Each morning we had about 45 minutes to get dressed (we wore no watches since we had left without them to Jordan!) and get ourselves a breakfast that the Bedouins had prepared. We had our coffee and simple plates while sitting around the fire on mattresses. The Bedouins who accompanied us were sleeping in tents, whereas we were taking our nightly rest under the sky...
Every evening we were guided to a new place where we would sleep. Since there was always still a bit sunlight, we looked for the most comfortable places for the night and then unrolled our sleeping bag. After a couple of days, we could distinguish the most comfortable and relatively protected spots, so that our head was covered and we wouldn’t be woken up by the wind at night. Some people for example slept close to a rock wall, because it was kind of protective. The first few days it took me a while to fall asleep, because the star-spangled sky was way too impressive to fall asleep. There was also one local police officer who was in charge of us and joined us every now and then to see if everything was OK. When walking through the desert we never got any maps from our guides, so we had no idea about where and how long we would be walking – also the distance changed every day. In the longest days it must have been 6 hours of walking, thus probably 15 km a day, sometimes only 10. We didn’t know the distances that we made, they never told us – not before, not afterwards!
We were very lucky with the weather. Our local guide told us that before our arrival, there had been thunderstorms just 3 days in a row, so when we arrived parts of the desert were blooming: there was a carpet of flowers and green bushes, you walked in little alleys full of green plants! During the day the average temperature was around 24°C and the sun was really hot, but mostly tolerable thanks to the wind. In the nights however temperatures went down to 5°C.….
HTD: We imagine that you encountered also some difficulties. What was the hardest part of your journey?
Actually there were two difficult situations: one was when I woke up in the middle of the night, as rain was falling into my face. I didn’t have a proper overlay for my sleeping bag, because back home I hadn’t wanted to invest in that, since I hadn’t expected any rain. What was however a bit of a help, was to move closer to a stone wall. Luckily the rain stopped very quickly. The second thing was when we encountered the military. When turning around a big rock we suddenly saw about 12 army vehicles, similar to jeeps with heavily armed soldiers. This was a moment of shock, as we didn’t know where they came from nor whom they represented. So we continued to walk. Then two of them approached and stopped us and when I talked to one of them in Arabic he even replied in fluent German. He explained that they were just making sure that there were no smugglers nor terrorists in this area close to the border. So we luckily didn’t have any problems with them and they let us pass.
HTD: Did you actually ever come close to giving up?
I guess I didn’t really have such a moment; it would not have been an option anyways, as you where in the middle of the desert without an idea of your exact location. I just remember that on the third day I realized in awe that there were still 9 more days to go… It took me about three days to let go of everything, to stop thinking about home and to live in the moment. A week would be way too short for such an experience, because at the beginning you still think about work and try to adapt to nature. But then you start focusing on what you see, because you have no clue what you are going to do next – you dive into where you are right now and let go.
HTD: So what was the most special moment and the most inspiring aspect about this journey?
The community was something very special. We had all to run through an interview, where one of the guides checked, if we were ready for such a trip. They wanted to make sure that nobody was emotionally unstable and would break apart the group or cause trouble. In fact, most of us hardly knew each other before, so everyone needed to rely on the others. In the desert, we soon got to know each other. People open up to one other on a much deeper level when they need each other. Everybody was “simple” – girls were not wearing make up, everybody was authentic and we depended on each other. We were kind of stripped off “worldly things” and more equal. Even if there was a person we would not really like in “real life”, we learned to respect them and find a good connection. It was interesting to witness that people who never had met before would open up so much to the others. Everyone was really opened-minded and so also the encounters were very inspiring.
Another interesting part was what I knew from the bible – from the Old and New Testament: It is the desert where man meets God, where you can experience him in a more profound way, as there are not many distractions. It is just you, the desert and the creator of the universe. The desert reveals how small a human being is in reality; you wouldn’t survive without water, in the desert you are lost without the group. It puts things into perspective. It shows that we depend on each other and that nature and the universe is massive and a miracle.
You also see the desert that has been there for thousands of years, without all the stuff that we have in our lives, that men are building. It reminds you that you don’t need much to be happy. We had no great comfort, but we were happy. The desert helps us to let go of unimportant stuff and shows us what it means to be human in this world. I think that was actually the most inspiring aspect about this experience: to be deprived of all the luxury, all the comfort and to be reduced to the basics. As you cannot plan your day you simply have to be.…
HTD: What did you learn about yourself, which insights would you like to keep and how was it then to be “back to reality”?
The most important lesson for me was that it is really hard to give up control. We tend to have many goals and try to reach them. In the desert we didn’t have control, we didn’t know where we were going – only our guides knew. We had to trust.
On our way home on the plane we discussed, how we could transfer our desert learnings into daily life. I thought it would be easy and not really an issue. I was wrong. Everyday life was so different and fast paced. I also missed the silence and peace from the desert. Quite quickly the desert felt like a surrealistic experience and a blurry dream, detached from real life. As it had been so fantastic and different from daily routines. In the desert we had to decide each day what we put into our rucksack for the day. This is a habit I want to keep also in everyday life: what is my “field pack” for the day, what do I really need to do or want to do? Is all this stuff really important to me that I plan to do today? Is there maybe something more important for which I have no time left since my day is already crammed with action? In the desert we were reduced to a minimum – but it showed me with how little you can be happy. It puts things into perspective and shows what is important in life.
HTD: So who should definitely consider such an experience, how should s/he get ready and what has s/he to take into account?
I think it’s an experience for everyone who is brave enough to encounter himself, who is ready and curious to learn and to find out more about himself – about their cravings and deepest wishes. It’s for everybody who wants to get in touch with his/her soul. The desert is a quiet place and you can’t escape from yourself; heart and soul will be working together and this is super intense.
I wouldn’t suggest to do such a trip on your own. Ideally you would be with a group of like-minded people as they are also a stimulus. It’s an extra plus, if you can have an exchange on a spiritual level and some kind of input, if you have the possibility to meditate and if you have somebody around that helps you to get in touch with yourself and maybe to pray – even if you don’t believe in God. You would cut short if you saw it only as an outdoor adventure. We humans also have a soul. How many times do we care for it and try to get in touch with it or be in balance? In everyday life we often ignore this part of ours since it is so “mysterious” … The Wadi Rum in Jordan was selected for our trip as it was the only save desert in the Middle East. There were Bedouins and the military guarding the desert. The country is also pretty stable.
I think that a great experience can also be to e.g. spend time in the Alps – anywhere were you have impressive nature and calm. No distraction and no people. It can be a great idea to do it on your own. If you go there with people there should be rules everyone obeys – otherwise it would be just another “normal” vacation. In the desert we for example spend an entire day in silence. You cannot connect with yourself or God (if you believe that there is more than just us) if you are never silent and try to listen to your heart.
Going on a retreat is a beautiful way to have a downtime. The faster paced our everyday life becomes the more important it is for us to touch base – if we don’t want to lose ourselves and our focus on life – and to distinguish from what is important and what can be left behind. It is also a way of processing rough and sad experiences and try to get focused again on what you want in life and what you need to change in order to get there. Probably it would make sense to go on a retreat once every year, even if it was just for 3-4 days. When in normal life do we have so much time just for ourselves?
HTD: Stefan, we thank you cordially for sharing this great experience of yours on such thoughtful and deep level and to push us to leave our comfort zone for a deeper journey into what life actually is about. (ger)
Photo credits: Stefan