This post originally was featured in the Voluntourist newsletter for

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.”  Marcel Proust

Jordan has some of the most spectacular sites I have ever seen.  In a country smaller than the state of Indiana, Jordan boasts 4 UNESCO World Heritage Sites (and another 15 on the tentative list).  Tourists come in droves to be awed by these amazing places.  Sadly though, they often come in large groups, piled in buses moving from hotel to site to hotel again.  They miss the most transformative aspect of travel; interaction with people.

Travel should be life changing.

Don’t get me wrong, visiting Petra is absolutely incredible.  But when you are able to deeply interact with local Jordanians, those encounters are the most memorable.  You start to see life through new eyes.

Volunteering while traveling in Jordan has proven an invaluable way to interact closely with locals, and give back while doing it.  This summer Engaging Cultures Travel customized a trip for a group of young American men and women who wanted to get to know Arabs; not just see them through the glass of a bus window.  One of the items on their itinerary was to volunteer at Holy Land Designs, an olive wood working shop in Amman that employs many physically-challenged men and women.

Holy Land Designs stood out to us as unique because of their socially focused business.  Through our interaction with them, it became evident that they are not just looking for a “Fair Trade” label to put on their goods.  They genuinely care about the people they employ; many of whom are deaf and have very limited work opportunities.

Holy Land Designs workshop is divided into two sections.  The men work on the ground level, taking cut olive wood, from what looks like a piece of firewood, and crafting it into an intricate camel, nativity scene, or other figurine or ornament.  The figurines are then brought up to the second floor where the women finish the detailing.  Each piece is sanded down, cleaned and stained.  The results are, in my opinion, some of the finest olive wood ornaments and figurines produced in the Holy Land.

We approached Holy Land Designs about facilitating a volunteering experience for our travelers.  Holy Land Designs came up with a list of needs in and around their shop and we chose a few that enabled the foreign travelers and the locals to work shoulder to shoulder.  The intention was not to appear heroic, but for two cultures to cooperate in a joint effort.

One of the needs we selected for the men to complete was to create a second entrance to the workshop parking lot.  This would require swinging pick axes and shoveling gravel.

The American women were to pair up with the Arab women working upstairs.  They would teach the Americans how to sand and detail camel figurines, ornaments and other olive wood products.  The women would spend their time sitting side-by-side, working together.

Two days were allotted to work with Holy Land Designs’ employees.  On the morning of the first day, our guests rolled out of the hotel in their working attire.  One of the shop managers welcomed the group in front of the hotel and led the way to the industrial district of Amman.  Once the group arrived at the shop, the American women quickly split off and went upstairs to join the Arab women in their daily activities.  The men were introduced to the olive wood workers and given a tour of the downstairs workshop.

The men were then briefed on their job for the next two days.  Looking at the parking lot, they were overwhelmed.  They were to work together, Americans and Arabs, to remove six meters of sidewalk with a pick and shovel.  Then, after hand mixing cement on the ground, they were to install concrete curb blocks.  After that, they were to spread out a dump truck load of gravel to slope the existing parking area up to street level, amounting to a vertical difference of about fifteen inches.

One of our guests later told me, “Staring at that parking lot, I thought to myself, ‘there is no way  we can finish that!’”

Just as the volunteers were gearing up for the task ahead, morning tea break arrived.  The job would have to be put on hold a few minutes.  Drinking tea with locals in Jordan is always a fun experience.  That morning, it was shared around a plastic table, sawdust on the ground, in an olive wood shop far off the tourist map.

After morning tea, the men picked up their pick axes and shovels and began slugging away together, sweating in the hot summer sun.  Shared fatigue, it turns out, is a fantastic way to bond.

Meanwhile, the women, though participating in a completely different task, were also enjoying the privilege to work alongside someone different than themselves.  They each paired up with one of the female employees and assisted her in her daily job.

Like the men, the two days volunteering with the women consisted not just of working together, but tea breaks and moments of sitting around a table learning, sharing, and enjoying their similarities and differences.

Sarah, one of our American guests, said “It was cool to be with them all day at their place of work.  It reminded me of some of the jobs I have had.  Seeing them work and talk and giggle to each other, it’s the same as how we act at our jobs, they just spoke in another language.”

Despite the language barrier and the fact several of the workers are deaf, these two groups of people from very different backgrounds began to smile, laugh, and learn to communicate with each other.  The travelers learned some Arabic, some sign language, and how to prepare an Arab meal.  They were even able to participate in the daily exercise time, which one day turned into a dance party.

Janelle said that this experience “really connected you to these people’s daily lives – working hard with them.  I loved the dance party break after lunch.  They were so accepting of us; I did not expect that.”

Sarah noted, “After lunch we had extra time and so they would just move the tables out of the way, grab a drum, create an amazing beat and start dancing.  They just looked so free, like they were having a great time.  The coolest thing was the ladies who were deaf would start dancing and even after the beat stopped they just kept going.  They found their rhythm and nothing was going to stop them.  They would pull us up to dance with them.  Looking back, I don’t know why I was embarrassed.  They didn’t care how I well I danced, they just cared that I danced.”

One of the female employees said, “It was so fun to have them here.  They had “light blood” (meaning they loved to laugh).

“Having groups like them here encourages us and gives us a boost.  When guests come from outside of Jordan, it is so fun to talk with them and learn about their lives and cultures.  We’d love to have more visitors like them!” said another employee.

Sharing ice cream at the end of the second day, the men looked out over their completed parking lot entrance.  Everyone involved was proud of completing the task that had been laid before them.  They were even more excited at the opportunity to meet new friends and get to know real people from another culture.

“We were so happy to host them.  We really like having the chance to share our culture with foreigners so that they can go back and share it with their friends,” said one of the male employees.

Another observed, “The group members were respectful and unassuming.  They were willing to pitch in and work hard, but they also took time to stop and relate to us. That made it especially enjoyable.”

At the end of their trip, after 8 full days of seeing Jordan and interacting with Jordanians, one of our guests said volunteering at Holy Land Designs “was my favorite part of the trip.”

“That was definitely a highlight of our trip for me,” said another traveler.  “I enjoyed spending time with the men at the shop because it gave a look into the day and life of the ordinary Jordanian man.  The conversations we had were heart felt and they laughed and joked like we had known them forever.  I was able to speak to Ahmed for a long while.  He had a great laugh and offered wise insight into the past, present, and future he sees for the Jordanian people.”

Actually, when we asked this group to give us feedback on what their two favorite items on the itinerary were, this is what four of them said:

  • “Petra/Bedouin Camp and Olive Wood Shop”
  • “Petra and Olive Wood Shop”
  • “Hanging out with students and Olive Wood Shop”
  • “Olive Wood Shop and Abraham’s Path”

When volunteering side by side with local Jordanians is one of the favorite items of the trip and ties or even trumps Petra, one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, we sit up and listen.

“We really enjoyed having the group here,” said a manager at Holy Land Designs.  “Two months later, we still comment almost daily about how helpful it is to have the driveway finished!  In addition to getting projects done, however, the personal interaction with the group was the most significant part.  By their words and actions, the group communicated to our staff, ‘You are important to us, your work is significant and we want to get to know you.’  In spite of the language barrier, the personal interaction was a real morale boost to our staff.”

The landscapes and sites in Jordan truly are breathtaking.  However, simply working side by side with Arabs; sweating together, resting together, laughing together, even dancing together, has given these Americans new eyes.  New eyes to see Arab people, and new eyes to see the world.

“Since I’ve been home my experience has changed my perspective of entitlement,” said Emily.  “There is no reason I don’t have to sand camels for 6 hours a day for years, but I don’t.  I think it really makes me feel privileged in ways I hadn’t noticed before.  I think it also helps me see Arabs now as basically similar in personality as us – fun loving, affectionate, passionate people who love their country.  They just love their tourists a lot more than we love ours!”

“They care about their country and their culture and they are so inviting.  It made me evaluate my priorities and how I think,” said Sarah.

Janelle said, “This trip has changed the way I want to travel for the rest of my life.  The world is full of people who are the same, but different circumstances… we all have something to connect one another.”

This is what travelers take home with them.  Not just an experience of awe-inspiring sites, but a human experience that is life-transforming.


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