Madaba : The Dead Sea and down south.
Madaba Travel Blog› entry 63 of 268 › view all entries
[ photos to follow at a later through the kindness of Johanna and Thu ]
And then there were two. Stevie and Thu to be precise. Breakfast at the Madaba Hotel without our pal Kylie who's left earlier than us to crack on to the Dead Sea. She's concerned about not making it there and then on through the Israeli border window later this afternoon. Thu and I are keen to go a liiiittle bit slower and see more sites around the region. Another stroke of luck and we get to know Johanna over our meal. A very pleasant and again intelligent student of languages including Arabic who has spent sometime living and studying int he Middle East. Cairo and more recently Damascus in Syria. I cannot tell you how blessed this mono-linguistic dumb-cluck of a Brit backpacker was in his brief time in Jordan. Fabulous people every step of the way and two great friends in command of such a tricky language as well!
We negotiate the day hire of the jovial, middle-aged Abu-Sameer to be our driver and guide around the sights we wish to see today. An ambitious itinerary of culture and fun to be clocked by sundown so that we can try and blaze a trail all the way back down to the Wadi Rum desert area end of day.
First off we visit Mount Nebo. At 817 metres above sea level this is the mountain famed as the site ascended by the Moses of biblical fame and from where he is said to have first sighted 'The Promissed Land'. Later in his life - the story goes - he would return here also to die. Many believe his final resting place to be here but the provenance of this fact and the exact location of the theoretical grave are (as with most things in life, but particularlt religion) hotly contested and open presumably for debate til the crack of doom. There are some fine mosaics to see up here and other monuments and things but the chief interest (aside from connotations of holy pilgrimage) is just the incredible views across this amazing area of Jordanian desert landscape. The winding grey-silvery smudge of the River Jordan wreathes along towards the horizon line in the distance, ending in the great salty terminus of the Dead Sea whose northern shoreline can be seen off to the left.
Next we drive off along to the area referred to as Bethany Beyond Jordan. This is a large area of deep historical and significant spiritual import to members of the Christian faith as it encompasses within the dried old concourse of the now vastly withered River Jordan, the accepted site of Jesus' baptism at the hands of John the Baptist. A 'fact' acknowledged by Pope John Paul II himself in his latter years and so even more venerated now than ever before. Guided tours around the area here are 7 JD (and this is the only way on to the site) and you aree shown some (but not many) points of interest including old church foundations, the new church (2003) built near the banks of the River Jordan and - distantly - other points of biblical narrative significance that are beyond my memory or biblical knowledge to recount to you at this time.
The most amusing part of this trip is the little skip down to the accessible bank of the River Jordan here. Once 200 metres from bank to bank the river now at this point of its concourse has withered and narrowed to a mere muddy 7-8 metres or so. Yep I'm just one successful pole-vault away from Israel. A soldier in a mini HUM V with a rather viscious looking mounted chain-ammo gun ensures no such cross-border acrobatics occur. Instead we are... ummm? ... treated (?) to the rather ghastly spectacle of large numbers of over-monied, over weight Russian Orthodox Christians here today en masse to partake in full body immersion baptisms (call them cleansings, whatever you wish), heads down beneath the muddy Jordans waters. Spritual though this may sound, the aesthetic realities of the moment are far from holy and sanctified as far as Thu & I are concerned. Both highly amused and somewhat slightly shocked by the unavoidable flashes of saggy bottom flesh and breasts as the pilgrims struggle into and back out of the long white baptismal robes. Lolloping about in the dank waters like holier than thou hippos again there is much unfortunate 'boob action' as the ladies try to extricate themselves from the waters in what looks to me like little more than the worlds largest and most unsightly wet t-shirt competition. An event soon dubbed by me 'Getting Down and Dirty with Jesus' ... apologies for those with religious sensitivities, ya know I'm only messin' ! ;D Brushing my fingers through the Jordans waters I decide not to delve in and be reborn today, happier to continue to carry my presumably innumerable sins (including the Beduoin lady's curse from Petra) with me along with all the other crap that weighs down my backpack a little further for now.
Next the fuuuuun part of the day! The Dead Sea. "Yey!" One of the reasons we stuck with our man Abu-Sameer is in our discussions this morning, wincing at the costs of getting on to the Dead Sea beaches (7 - 12 JD! that's $14- $24) he winked and advised us he could get us down to a relatively quiet area of the shore that's less known and completely free because of it. He's also tempted us with a mention of some fab sounding naturally occuring hot-spring waterfall that is to be found down there too! So a little drive and a stumble down a litter and rock strewn embankment and here we are. The shores of the lowest point on planet Earth. The Dead Sea! A few fumbles later and Johanna, Thu and I are donned in our respective swim wear and stumbling into the warm, inviting waters. Looking down into the water the thermal nature of this heavily salinated stretch of drink is eveident in the swirls and wreathes of salt crystals that writhe and dance within the water before your very eyes. Timid and uncontrolled at first, it's best just to get horizontal as quick as possible until your buoyancy control improves. Johanna, far longer limbed than diddy little Thu and I is a natural. A duck taking to salty water. I am far less graceful and Thu on occasion struggles a little too open mouthedly and gets a few good dooshes of the Dead Sea in her maw and in her eyes. You don't really want this to happen. The latter means a mouthful of frankly the vilest, most uber-salty and acrid tasting liquid you will ever taste your life entire entering into your body and the former I gather stings like f**k but only Thu's unfortunate enough to experience this... two or three times!
This is unfortunate for her on a number of levels as it necessitates her repeated return to shore to wash her eyes with clean, hot spring water where - drawn by our little tourist threesome and the prospect of 3 gorgeous half-naked westerners padd... okay, okay, TWO gorgeous half-naked westerners and I ... paddling about in the Sea - a group of young Arabic men have congregated on the shore and in the water to unreservedly, unremittingly stare and oggle at her and Johanna. Fair play to the girls, they've both lived for a time in the Middle East (with particular regard to Egyptian experiences) and are well innured to such an unchivalrous, uncaring and relentlessly licentious lack of civility towards women. Particularly 'white' or women of other perceived exotically 'foreign' extraction such as Thu with her Vietnamese lineage. They talk on several occasions of their experiences (the worst reserved for hushed chatter and consolation between themselves) and state this really is nothing at all within the spectrum of indignities they've had to endure. I can only believe and calm the insensed feelings of anger bubbling up within me whilst trying to tip-toe around the unavoidable double-standard I risk falling into as a hot-blooded male swimming around in such... um?... fortunate circumstances shall we say. "It's ok. I'm an English gentleman don't you know. What-what!"
Abu-Sameer half heartedly talks them away from time to time but with little sterness and to no avail. He kindly takes photos of us including the obligatory 'Reading the Paper' shot that I wanted very much recalling such snaps taken of my mother and father many decades ago... I think probably on the Israeli shoreline. With Abu's excellent local knowledge he also collects large quantities of the thick dark, mineral rich Dead Sea mud for us. Probably $100 a pop for a smear and scrub with this stuff up the road, Johanna, Thu and I are lathered head to toe in the stuff for free and slowly bake and exfoliate in the sun. Abu is only too keen to assist Thu in the bodily application of this therapeutic gunk, another minor infringement she bears with as equal a grace as anything else I see her undergo on our travels. We then wash the mud off with another dip and a bob about in / on the Sea.
After this we clamber up to where a fantastic gushing waterfall of natural hot spring water clatters down on to and over a smooth rocky shelf before continuing on down to augment the salty waters of the sea. The three of us inch our way across and are literally able to lie back on the warm, slightly algae-softened rock wall and be consumed beneath and within the hot, clean waters of the fall. This is an unbelievably relaxing and beautiful experience. Just lying there for ages and aaaages. This is spiritual cleansing. Abu Sameer patient with our paridisial inertia. How to describe it? I do not know. Warmth. Liquid warmth cascading over the entire length of ones body. Caressing your skin. Massaging you. Merging with you. An amniotic return. Seeming to enter your very veins. Siren like it seduces you. Holds you, pleasantly numbed. Pinned to the ground. Deep breaths and you could just quite honsetly fall asleep underneath this watery heaven-sent blanket of bliss. I close my eyes. Hold my breath and dream. The clatter of the water all around. We shift places a couple of times. Of all the few moments of 'pinch me am I dreaming!' wonder in my life to date this has to be pretty much near the top. An intense moment of natural beauty with the warm waters rushing over the bodies of I and the two beautiful girls either side of me... calm... calm...calm... think of football and quadratic equations Steve!.. breathe... breeeathe... four times four is sixteen... six plus nine is...oh god...oh god...paint drying...paint drying... paaaaain t dryyy ing! Male chauvenistic double-standard traps everywhere I think and feel... "Yelp!" Joking aside. Really I am! A perfect moment.
We then dry and change, me trying not to trip and tumble down the broken bottle embankment with me knickers round me ankles! Abu then drives us way way up from Dead Sea level to the desert plateaus and hills above from where incredible panoramic views of the evening sun-spangled shimmer of the water stretches for mile after mile towards the sun.
Back in Madaba it's time for Crazy Itinerary action plan. Thu and Johanna (what would I ever have done without these guys?!!!) manage to linguistically cut through the morass of conflicting information and catcalls and shouting of the various touts and drivers at the central bus station to get us on a bus to Amman for the long connection by coach all the way back down in the direction of Aqaba. These are Aqaba direct coaches only but we've convince the driver that he will drop us late into the night at the desert highway junction that marks the turn off to the Wadi Rum Desert Protectorate. All the way south this lead to 'advice' and implorations and many rolled eyeballs and slapped foreheads of despair from our fellow passengers as to the late-night folly of this plan... but it's what we want. I have to chat sh*t with the broken English of a keen but painfully immature Jordanian soldier Ahmad aaaaaaall the way down (3 hours +) whilst Johanna tries to pretend sleep to avoid both his amorous advances and the kicks and screams of the 4 mothers and 7 tiny children that the driver has managed to cram into the back 5 seats and floor space of the coach. Thu once again displays an enviably inhuman capacity to sleep through chaos and noise at will.
So dumped by the roadside we are. As requested. it's approaching midnight. Most of the traffic as we walk up the highway attempting for a hitch is freight lorries heading to or from Aqaba port and unable anyways to spot my pathetic torch light in the desert roadside black. We cross the highway in high-humoured spirits and alight upon a gas station where to cut an already long story short we end up bedding down for free on the dirty rug-strewn floor of the station's spare staff bedroom for the night after some hours of chatter over mixed nuts and a half bottle of Holy Land wine.
...Steve dreams of waterfalls and warmth and swimming and bathing costumes and *** censored *** ( just messin' again ladeez, I never remember my dreams "goddammit!". Are double standards permissible in dreams? )