A High at the Lowest Point on Earth

Trip Start Dec 31, 2004
Trip End Apr 22, 2005

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Flag of Jordan  ,
Wednesday, March 16, 2005

One of the things I've learned along this journey is that nothing is as you think it'll be. You can rest assured it will either be better or worse but what you imagined no matter how much planning and research can prepare you for the reality. When putting together a list of places I wanted to see and things I wanted to do on this trip floating in the Dead Sea was one of them. Today I did just that.

I had a large breakfast in my swanky little guesthouse lobby while refreshing my memory of the Dead Sea facts I'd culled from my guidebook. During my second cup of thick sweet Arabic coffee tinged with a pinch of ground cardamom I watched the weatherman on television in full sheik attire on Al Jazeera News. If a great many men in this part of the world wear the outfit it shouldn't have surprised me to see an anchorman wearing it but it did. I was ready for more surprises and got ready to start my day. I went to reception and asked the manager for directions to the Dead Sea and he kindly wrote a list of instructions both in English and Arabic for me.

I headed out for my half-day excursion wandering down the street in search of the nearest bus stop. No sooner had I pulled out the card than I was approached by a smiling store clerk asking if I needed help. He read my note and pointed me in the right direction then punctuated our exchange with the now familiar, "Welcome to Jordan".

Wide-eyed with brows arched I stepped up into an old yellow bus and showing the driver the card I greeted him in Arabic and asked, "Dead Sea?" His breadbox-sized head shook/nodded something that answered neither yes nor no in my book and I knitted my brow with a nervous smile and repeated "Dead Sea, yes?" He bobble-headed back to me and I thanked him though I didn't understand. I hesitatingly searched for a seat in the event I'd misunderstood but when the bus lurched forward and I hadn't been ejected I assumed the wobble head signal somehow meant yes. No sooner had I sat down than the driver cranked up the radio to a deafening level blaring what I assumed was a soap opera from the inflections and melodramatic underscore. The passengers sat enraptured and I thought that this must be the Days of Our Lives of the Middle East and no wonder the driver didn't answer me I was interrupting his "stories" as my grandmother called them. Ten minutes later when we pulled up to a bus station the show was over and now he could talk. He motioned across the street and told me to sit with the women on the curb and that they were going to the Dead Sea area and then he of course smiled and welcomed me to Jordan.

The women couldn't have been more pleasant and we did our best to communicate. Prior to coming here I thought that women in hijab would think me a harlot with my free-flowing mane and want to choke the Gentile life out of me. For the most part I get curious glances but they end with a smile and a couple women have been extremely helpful and excited to speak a few words of English with me. There's certainly a sisterhood felt here and they maternally look after me for which I am of course very grateful.

We boarded the old bus and for next hour descended further and further heading down to what is the lowest point on Earth. We drove past olive and slender cypress trees clinging to beige and black-green hills scattered with sheep herded by crooked-staffed shepards. It was a scene that had scarcely changed since the days of Abraham and remains every bit as relevant today. Other things had changed however. There are two machine-gun-armed checkpoints en route to the Dead Sea that separates Jordan from Israel and the Palestinian Territories. An accomplished swimmer could easily breaststroke across were it not for the intense military security.

The end of the bus line as the hotel manager had already warned me was at the second checkpoint. From there the Dead Sea proper is several more miles away. "And what do I do then?" I'd asked him. He told me I could hitchhike, hope to find a taxi or walk. My other option would have been to hire a taxi in Amman but that option was cost-prohibitive. Two Japanese tourists were on my bus so we joined forces and decided to share a taxi or hitchhike together but still we were so confused as to which direction we were supposed to be heading. The military police after checking our passports were very helpful and pointed us down a hill by the highway. Hanging your right thumb out is apparently universal as the first gigantic truck that headed in our direction stopped right away and picked us up. He didn't speak a word of English but offered us cigarettes, smiled and pointed to each exit inquisitively to see which one we needed. Spotting the sign in English for Amman Beach we gestured towards the exit as he roared to a stop, we thanked him in Arabic profusely and climbed out and went our separate ways.

It was a much nicer setup than I thought it'd be. It was a complex with changing rooms, a restaurant, snack shops and shaded sitting areas and the admission charge was over four dollars. It was also far more beautiful than I expected. Women in Capri pants and long sleeve shirts with headscarves waded no further than their knees and a few others were completely covered. It seemed odd to say the least to see women fully dressed going to a beach and yet not one of them actually went into the water all the way missing the entire point of going to the Dead Sea. From their squeals and laughter however it seemed they were enjoying themselves so I reckoned it's all a matter of perspective. I spotted a tour group of English pensioners and headed in their direction and asked if I could leave my bag with them while I took a dip. The pasty whites were in their full old-fashioned swim suits and I felt more comfortable slipping down to my bikini in front of them. I'd already been told that the locals are used to seeing excess tourist flesh but I still wondered if they didn't think me a complete whore albeit one with a lovely figure. I kept on my Burmese lungi seconds before getting in out of respect. I asked one of the youngest in the tour group, an octogenarian if he could get a shot of me with my camera once I was in the water and after a ten minute tutorial I felt pretty confident he's still screw it up but I took my chances.

The water was tepid and felt like any other body of salty water. I expected it to feel a bit viscous but the 33% of solids (bromine, iodine, magnesium) that make it the most mineral laden and unusual body of water in the world felt undetectable to the touch. My personal paparazzo held the camera to his face and prodded me to "Do it!" I did it. I leaned back in the water and as if my legs and torso were suddenly inflated with air I floated. It was amazing. It was effortless and as much as I'd read about the buoyancy of the water it was still quite something to experience it firsthand. Flipping over onto my stomach felt like rolling over on a waterbed with the absolute assurance that it would be impossible to sink. In between entertaining myself I slathered on the famous nourishing mud and rubbed it into my skin then floated again. Normally I don't linger in oceans or lakes but I was so caught up in the novelty and excitement of it all I slowly floated about and rolled around and tried to push my legs down halfway to a sitting position, which worked if only for a moment. Then I floated flat again.

Immediately after getting out it's important to shower off the minerals with fresh water and I thought I'd gotten it all until hours later I felt a salty sludge patch on the back of my neck. When I got back to the hotel the manager asked if I enjoyed my day trip and I told him it was far better than I thought it'd be. "And your skin now, it's very soft, yes?" Indeed it was, my skin was as soft as wet Egyptian cotton. Once again the wonderful reality far outweighed my expectations and as usual there was an unexpected bonus.

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