This month I will take you on a journey to the Middle East, specifically Jordan. My daughter was on an internship in Amman, working for an English language Arabic magazine called Living Well. My husband and I took the opportunity to visit this area that is intriguing on so many fronts, holding access to some of the worlds greatest treasures: the Dead Sea, Petra, Wadi Rum – the desert where Lawrence of Arabia was filmed, and all points in between.
Our journey started out at the Amman airport. We arrived to find our daughter, draped in way more clothing one would expect with temps nearing the 100 mark. But local customs warrant all women cover their shoulders and no short skirts or shorts are allowed. After renting a car we headed out to our first stop – the Dead Sea, about an hour away.
We had hoped to arrive during the daylight hours to get our bearings and a lay of the land we were about to drive through, since we no idea what to expect. But flight delays altered those notions and we were left to fend for ourselves with maps in our hands and our iPhone google map ap telling us we were on the right roads.
After a few minor missed turns through heavy construction and unlit highways, we found the only road into the Dead Sea resort town and to our hotel – the Moevenpick Dead Sea Resort. The staff was pleasant and helpful, speaking perfect English. It was mid-summer, and even the nighttime temps hovered in the 90’s. At the Dead Sea, the temperature averages 10 degrees warmer because you are 1,400+ feet below sea level. Between the heat and the lack of air movement at negative elevation the area felt dead.
When we awoke, we opened the curtains to an amazing sight. Laid out before us, in all its salty glory was the Dead Sea – looking very calm and serene – looking dead – with Israel off in the distance. The sky was bright blue, but the Dead Sea was a deep slate blue. There was a swirling haze that rose from the water because of the intense heat mixed with the air rising off of water with a 34% salinity. Hence the reason the Dead Sea got its name – the salt content is so high that neither plant nor animal can survive these conditions. Pretty amazing for a 50,000 year old body of water.
Before heading to the Dead Sea for a swim, we headed to the hotel restaurant to try our first taste of middle eastern food. Since our daughter had already been in Jordan for several weeks she was able to help us navigate through the spread of breakfast foods. Even though several foods looked familiar, there was definitely a different slant on many of the foods – a smooth middle eastern white smooth cheese called halloumi; a dried salty thyme based herb spread called Za’atar; dried apricots and figs. And fresh olive oil used on everything. I quickly realized going hungry while in the middle east was not going to be a concern.
On the way back to our room to change into swimsuits we passed by several specimen Olive Trees on the property, one was 1,500 years old and one was 1,000 years old. We had been in Jordan all of 12 hours, but the history of the area was quickly revealing itself to us. But as the ensuing days would play out for us, the history of the culture would create lasting memories to rival any of the amazing landmarks. And our trip down to the Dead Sea was our first taste of that culture.
We made our way down to the water’s edge and came across several people bathed in ash or mud from head to toe. We weren’t sure if it was a religious thing or a spa treatment. The resort was very quiet because it was off-season – too hot for even the locals to venture out for long. So not wanting to be obnoxious nosy Americans we watched and waited.
We had not thought to ask at the hotel what to expect when entering the water, and were blown away by its affects. It was bathwater warm, very soothing. I could smell the saltiness of the water, like having a mild version of smelling salts waved under my nose, which quickly thwarted my natural instinct to dunk my head under water. That would have burned my eyes out! But it was the buoyancy of the water that really set me giggling.
It is almost impossible to float on your tummy. Every time I tried, working my arms in a dog paddle motion to help prop my head above water, I’d lose my balance a bit one way or the other and my body would flip me onto my back. If I kept my legs downward and put my arms upward and out I’d float like a bobber in the water – no treading necessary. Back floating quickly became the preferred position. The feeling of being able to float like you are on a floaty was so effortless, I wanted to just put my head back and lay there for hours. But because of the high salt content it is recommended you do not spend more than 20 minutes in the water at a time, and there is a lifeguard on duty to help watch your minutes in the water.
The shoreline is rimmed with salt covered rocks – slippery in the water, crusty when exposed. So it is very tricky getting into and out of the water. On our second departure from the Sea we noticed an ancient looking large vase on the shoreline. We asked the lifeguard what was in it and he said clay that had been dredged up from the bottom of the dead sea. We soon learned this was the mud that all the locals were slathered in. The lifeguard told us to put in on every inch of exposed skin and to put it on thick. When at the Dead Sea, do as the locals do!
The mud is to be allowed to dry completely on your skin and then rinsed off in the healing waters of the Dead Sea. A fresh water shower head installed on the shore was available to wash the mud off our faces. My skin has never felt so silky soft. So after our excursion to the Dead Sea itself, it was off to the Dead Sea resort gift shop to stock up on Dead Sea salts and mud.
Not a bad start to our first visit to the Middle East. After a morning of eating, swimming and shopping it was time to pack up our little gutless wonder, a rented BMW 300 series, and make our way to our next Jordanian destination: Petra! (Next week’s blog posting.)