Come sleep in my cave: CouchSurfing in the Middle East

Couch-surfing the Middle East from Jerusalem to Jordan.

"I am a bedouin who was born in the caves inside Petra. Bedouins are very kind people and if you are not sure about it, come and try by yourself!!!" reads Ghassab Al-Bedoul's CouchSurfing profile.

"Bingo!" I thought as I sat in a murky hostel in Amman, Jordan, last January.

I was at my third tequila shot followed by a chaser of plain yogurt with Ali, the hostel manager, who insisted on showing me the proper Jordanian way to drink tequila. Yogurt, he claims, is the perfect chaser as it protects the stomach.

"No hangover in the morning," he proudly said.

But a tequila hangover was the least of my worries.

I was heading to Petra, Jordan, the historic rock-carved town that was chosen as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in 2007, and, with less than nine hours before the 7 a.m. bus, I was still scrambling to find a place to stay.

More precisely, I was still looking for the quintessential bedouin experience. (However, I should have kept this thought to myself. After the fifth tequila shot, Ali, who is a bedouin, followed me to the room and offered to give me a special bedouin massage.)

Between a shot and a cigarette, I had spent part of the evening surfing the Web for bedouin camps in the Petra area. But they all looked way too touristy and way too pricey.

Then it hit me.

CouchSurfing!

CouchSurfing (CS) is a worldwide free hospitality exchange network. Members crash on fellow couchsurfers' couches while traveling around the globe. Its motto is "Participating in Creating a Better World, One Couch at a Time."

I had couchsurfed over the summer when I first arrived in Jerusalem, Israel, thinking of it as a way to save a buck or two while looking for an apartment to rent.

Later, however, I realized that CS, which has over 1 million members, was much more than just a free place to stay; CS had given me the opportunity to participate in the daily lives of the local people and absorb their culture. People like Yonatan Pinchev, the first person I'd stayed with in Jerusalem, who calls me "the couchsurfer who never leaves." I still often hang out at his apartment because his roommate, Lena Berkovich Gon, became my Israeli best friend.

Every time Lena and I cheer to our friendship, we say: "L'Chaim! Cheers to CouchSurfing!"

Excited to try couch-surfing in Amman, a city that breaks all the Middle Eastern stereotypes, I logged on and searched through the profiles of people living in Petra and surroundings.

And that's how I found Ghassab's cave.

It wasn't long before he replied.

"I will be waiting for you at 10 a.m. at the entrance of Petra."

Ghassab is not your average bedouin. Never married and almost 40, he sports dreadlocks and a yellow bandana, instead of the keffiyeh, the traditional Middle Eastern male headdress. He spent almost two decades working as a nurse in Germany. Now he is a tourist guide in Petra.

I spent four nights in his cave, which he says he inherited from his grandfather.

The cave is situated in a canyon adjacent to Petra. We would spend the days riding in his pickup truck through the canyon, walking around Petra and sipping mint tea with his family, who live in a village populated by sleepy camels and trasheater donkeys. Then we would drive to the cave and prepare for the night.

The month of January can be harsh in Jordan, and the cold always found ways to sneak through my four layers of clothing, which I never changed while there, let alone taking a shower.

But the nights in the canyon were always warm.

Warm from the fire, warm from the Arak — a Middle Eastern anise-flavored liquor — warm from the singing and bedouin jokes under the desert starry sky.

Ghassab, his brother Ghassan and their cousins and close friends showed me the bedouin way. They taught me how to build a fire, how to cook vegetables in the aluminum foil, how to make khubz, the traditional Arabic flat bread, and bake it in the hot ashes, how to cook mansaf, the Jordinian national dish of lamb or chicken boiled in water, salt and yogurt, and served over rice and khubz.

They showed me the desert wild plants and told me about their properties and medical uses.

I learned some of the bedouin code. If somebody handed me a cup of coffee and I placed it next to me instead of bringing it to my lips, it meant I had a problem with the person. Take a sip of coffee right away if you don't want to start troubles.

If I saw a young bedouin wearing the agal — the black rope circlet holding the keffiyeh in place — coming down oblique on his head, I knew he was on the prowl for women.

From a 73-year-old bedouin who had four wives to a New Zealand woman married to one, I met different people and I was able to live my bedouin adventure, all thanks to CS. Had I stayed at one of the touristy bedouin camps or at a hostel, I would have missed out on one of the greatest experiences of my life.

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