The Dead Sea

The Dead Sea is the lowest point on earth sitting 1400′ below sea level. It’s a 40 minute drive from Amman so we head out for an afternoon swim and picnic. As you descend into the valley the landscape changes drastically, for these are the fertile lands of biblical fame. Fed by the Jordan River this lush valley is Jordan’s agriculture center. Trucks decorated with fringe and painted in bright colorful designs haul banana, dates, eggplant, tomato up into the cities. We cross the river Jordan passed the site of Christ’s baptism, a popular site for Christians on pilgrimage . We drive on and the sea emerges. Camels dot the roadside dressed in fancy saddles and bells, their masters beckon passersby for a ride. Once this was a barren shoreline broken up by ramshackle picnic grounds and one government run public beach. With the wars in Libya, Syria and unrest in Egypt the famous antiquities are cut off from visitors. But people still want to travel and explore and so tourism has shifted to and blooms in Jordan. Fancy western resorts have popped up all along the Dead Sea as a result. The Marriott and Crown Plaza have staked their claim. Their buzz cut, green lawns and Palm trees surround waterfall fed swimming pools. Their opulence seems out place surrounded by dilapidated Cafes, sheep flocks and stray dogs. Life blossoms even here on a dying sea.
We drive past, my girls oohing and awing and asking why we aren’t staying there. But we are with the locals, here to experience a cultural immersion, so the public beach is our next stop. It is a large park with covered picnic areas and clean bathrooms and showers. There is playground and a tiny fair with rides. Aside from all the garbage, it is lovely place. We meander to the waters edge and don our swim clothes. I wear running shorts and a t shirt so as not to draw attention to myself or make the locals feel awkward. I stand out as it is, my blonde hair and light eyes attract the attention of a young woman. She walks past staring several times before she musters the courage to approach. She greets me in English, hello, where are you from? “Enti Amerkia” I say, I’m American. How do you like Jordan? I tell her I like it very much, it’s jameela, beautiful. You are welcome here she says with a smile. I thank her, shukran.
The women swim in very modest attire, some covered from head to toe in special hijab swimwear. We wade in, the twins have to watch from shore because the salt is too heavy for them. The water is warm, oily and crystal clear because nothing can thrive in this brine. We walk on the salt shelves, they are rippled and patterned like white marble. I break off chunks to bring home. The buoyancy is like walking in space. The water suspends and cocoons you. My husband and I have a good laugh at the signs warning of drowning, it seems an impossible phenomenon. We find a mud hole and smear our faces and bodies in the mineral rich healing salve. When it dries we head to the showers and rinse the mud away, with it stereotypes and western fears wash away and disappear down the drain. I feel as safe and happy here as anywhere.
The sun has set and the beach gets crowded. The heat of the day dissipates and the local families come out in droves. The women carry their kitchen in boxes on their heads, the children squeal and run to the beach. The men start the fires and prepare the hookah. Soon the air is filled with the smell of kebab and the familiar sounds of families and friends settling into relaxation. Across the sea on the opposite shore the lights of the West Bank twinkle. It’s hard to imagine the desperate life of occupation that lies beneath the seemingly tranquil dusk. But the reminders of a harsher reality are here if you pay attention. The soldiers on the hill tops and the checkpoints ensure that no sympathizers are smuggling weapons into Palestine; Jordan is trying hard not incite anger or incident and keep the peace as the world around them crumbles.

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