Jordan Part Two: Dead Sea & Wadi Rum Birthday

Hello Hello again.  This was a short trip, so this e-mail is coming to you from back home.  However, I began writing this on my layover in the Dubai airport, sitting at a Starbucks, that darling global commodity.  It’s a good question:  What do you do with 5 hours free time in an airport? I buy Duty Free liquor and take a walk.  I’ve never had a flight take off at 2:30 am.  It was the longest Monday morning ever.  I’ll work backwards.

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On Saturday, my last full day in Jordan, my Mom and I drove north from Aqaba up the Dead Sea Highway.  We drove about 3 hours up a two-lane road which is much like the PCH in California, winding and scenic.  The colors of the rock begin to change from the dull orange beige to the rusted red of the desert.  Jordan by the Red Sea is a big fucking geological mystery.  One city looks like it’s out of the Flintstones: wind-carved sculptures.  The next looks like a semi-structured mass of popcorn.  After that, a mini-version of the Grand Canyon.  (The “not-so-grand canyon,” we joked.)  Back when the continents shifted and the world was formed, the Great Rift Valley set the Sinai Peninsula through a shredder, so much so that the rock appears from the horizon both vertically and horizontally. A bizarre landscape, that I imagine a toddler could recreate with playdoh.Along the Dead Sea, there are several inspirational views overlooking the water towards Palestine.  On the rockier portions of the coast, there is a thin white line.  Is that surf?  Nope.  It’s about a foot of mineral salt crystals. There is currently no connecting water source to the Dead Sea. The nearby Jordan river is dried up, and consequently, the shores of this famed Sea have retracted or “died” by about 5 ft every year since 1980.  There is some hope, however.  This is perhaps the only area where Palestine and Jordan want to cooperate and coordinate efforts.  Time will tell.

At the Movenpick Hotel, the lobby was decked out with beautiful flowers and easter eggs.  I took a closer look and there was condensation on the inside of the jars of eggs. They were hard boiled!  I guess that’s easier, but it’s a huge waste of eggs!  Checking in, it must have been our clerk’s first day, because he had no clue which buttons to press, or how to carry on a conversation as he was having these difficulties.  I guess I’m spoiled. It’s just that it takes a village to do even the simplest of tasks.  What was clear was that some things definitely do not translate from the organizational mind of a Westerner to that of a Middle Easterner.  It was also 100 degrees, and I was probably hungry, and we were racing to get to the hotel before the sun set.

So we rushed to our rooms, and sauntered down the path of the mini-village that is the Movenpick Dead Sea Resort, to the rocky shore of the Dead Sea.  Time for a float!  Getting closer and closer we could already see the buoyant, opaque bodies on the water.  There was a particularly jovial Chinese family, whose every member was trying to take that picture of someone floating in the Dead Sea while reading a newspaper.  It really was that fun!  Moving through the water, I could already feel my skin become slick, and as I moved forward on the rocks, a milky cloud shuddered away through the water.  I swear to God, I must have weighed 50 pounds!  It was so easy.  You could be on your belly, on your back, and no matter what your fitness or ‘core strength,’ you could stick all of your limbs out the water at once and smile for the camera.  That day was also rather dusty, so the sky was murky.  As the sun set over the hills of Palestine, two things happened. One: we heard singing from two tiny figures swimming halfway in the water.  Apparently that is one things the Lifeguards have to look out for, swimming border crossers.  Two: the scene turned picturesque, into a painting I had never seen but always known.  The lights from the distant shore blurred into the darkening water, and the fading light reflected through the dusty air, all creating a blurry, dreamy Monet effect. Top it off with a cold beer and a bowl of pistachios, this will go in my book as the sunset to beat.

Thursday afternoon, we drove an hour to the desert to spend the night in Wadi Rum.  I had spent the day reading & relaxing in the sun and watching B-movies, while my Mom was at a particularly harrowing Faculty Meeting.  It was still 100 degrees when we left Aqaba at 5pm.  Along the way, as the rock was changing from beige to red, we were nearly crushed by a huge tour bus.  I swear, they probably didn’t even look.  We met a few other faculty members, including a 3-yr old girl in tow, and parked at the remote parking lot, waiting for a young man named Ali to bring us via truck to the campsite. So I put on my sunglasses, wrapped my head in a pashmina, and hoisted myself onto the raised cargo seats, ready for our 15-minute sand safari.  After about 5 minutes of rolling back in forth in the dusk light, chatting about restaurants we liked in Pasadena, I had the distinct feeling of being in the middle of nowhere.  For miles around me, it was sand and rock, and it felt at once familiar and utterly strange.  Imagine the moonscape, or the floor of the ocean, and that is Wadi Rum.

We arrived, and the camp was loud with teenagers, which is something we did not expect. According to the camp manager, they just showed up that afternoon.  There were two groups, probably from Amman, one of which was playing something that looked like Rugby by the bathrooms, the other drumming and dancing around one of the fires.  We weren’t the only disappointed adults, among a group of French ladies, and a few couples.  It didn’t become a problem for me until dinner was about to be served.  A swarm of fifteen year-olds overflowing with their hormones came to the cooksite.  Normally I’m not so down on teenagers, because it wasn’t that long ago I was one myself.  But I remember what that felt like, and I’m glad I’m on the other side.

Dinner was a ceremony.  It was cooked in a pit dug in the sand, surrounded by hot coals, the food placed on 2 by 5 foot, 3-tiered metal crate.  For flavor’s sake, the lamb and chicken is on top, so that the juices drip down onto the potatoes and veggies in the middle, and finally onto the pots of rice on the bottom tier.  Fortunately the camp manager arranged us a small fire up a rock path behind the main site, so we could sit in some peace and quiet while they served the large group.  A handful of RSICA students had joined us at the camp, and we sat around sipping on a little gin, waiting for the moon to rise over the rockface.  It was magnificent and full, lighting the camp for the rest of the night.  The only other time I’ve experienced a full moon in the desert was when I was 14, just entering high school.  (For our Freshman retreat we went to Barstow to hunt for fossils. Yes, a dorky high school with a paleontology museum. Go Webb! The rising moon behind the rockface looked like a sports stadium, and it woke me up at 3am. )

Our dinner was served in a tent, along with a spread of mezzeh and salads.  Delicious, fresh.  There was even a plate of hot sauce.  For some reason, there were candelabras made of hollowed out vegetables, of green peppers and eggplants.  Innovative or just strange?   It reminded me of what you do as a last resort when you can’t find your “peace pipe.” My mom had made a tray of walnut brownies the night before in honor of my birthday.  We sang a happy birthday, and we cheered afterwards with some scotch. We were lured outside to the campfire by the sound of music.  Two men dressed in white played Arab music for the next two hours.  I joined the students huddled by the fire, smoking shisha from an argileh or hookah.  As the men played, pieces of stories clicked:  The desert life.  The nomad.  The rhythm of the Oud, with the overlay of the voice often in solo.  These were sounds that carry over sand dunes.  At one point, one of the students got very excited and told me that the musicians began to play a famous song from the 50’s, that is supposed to take 90 minutes in its entirety.  They didn’t play the whole thing, but to me it was like they started “Stairway to Heaven” and didn’t finish.  As the party winded down, it was left to me among a group of smoking men, and one student and Professor Flores.  As the ladies got up to leave, I stood up to tag along.  I had a feeling that if I stayed any longer, that the spell the musicians had been casting all night would take effect.  Maybe, just maybe, I would wake up married and in a tent full of Bedouin.  So, Professor Flores and I climbed a large sand dune at the front of the camp to get a better view.

Climbing sand dunes is the ultimate cross training.  And this one was steep. Yikes.  Take 10 or 15 steps, and then fall to your knees or flat on your face for a breather. I’ve done falling exercises in acting workshops, and those are much scarier because it’s often onto a hardwood floor.  I think sand dunes and hillsides would make excellent cushions for the exercise instead.  We climbed the dune in the vain attempt to see stars.  Since it was a full moon, and there had been a continuous dust storm for the past two days, we were out of luck.  Instead it was a chance to chat, and listen to the desert.  It was calm and silent.  Was it real silence?  I feel like I’ve been mining for silence all these years, and here it is.  A place in the world to go to hear your own thoughts without the clamor of car horns or the beeping of electronics.  Then we heard a cell phone beep down the hill.  It was the camp manager.  I guess this man never sleeps.  He squatted down and talked about preparing for tomorrow’s Easter egg hunt.  There were 200 ticket holders coming at 11am for a hunt in the desert. He was a very kind man, originally from Petra, and in response to the question about his family, mentioned that he was ‘single.’  It was a fun fantasy to entertain for about a minute, becoming wife to a real nomad, living in the desert just to prepare food, make jewelry and knit rugs.  But it passed.  I would go crazy.  I think you would have to put a spell on me.  After he left us, we took a trip back down to grab blankets and wait for the damn moon to set.  I fell asleep after sometime.  A sand dune is like a tempurpedic mattress, catering to my every whim.  Before sunrise we returned to our tents, and I climbed into my cot.

In the morning, we did not stay for the Easter Egg hunt.  We said our goodbyes to the hospitable men, and ferried back to the remote parking lot.  On the way back to Aqaba, my Mom and I took a small detour, and drove down another road into Wadi Village.  It is the main entrance to Wadi Rum, where you can procure camels for an all-day or 2-day excursion, seeing the famous rock formations and sites of the Arab Revolt.  There were tons of camels parked out front of the visitors center. There they were, munching on what I assume was their own dung, crouched on their impossible bent knees, with their lower lips hanging out.  You can’t help but love them.  We grabbed a couple of Cokes and were on our merry way, ready for a shower and sleep.

The Middle East is a land of mystery.  The landscape is bizarre, like the moon, like the ocean, like a piece of what I imagine hell to be.  It seems impossible that for thousands of years people have survived in the climates of Jordan and Israel.  This is the cradle of civilization?  You can drive to the Baptism site or to the Red Sea where Moses did his thing, to Israel to see the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Wailing Wall.  It’s all in their back yard.  There is a certain weight to the air, and a quiet dignity to every person you meet.  Aqaba is on the northern tip of the Red Sea, just north of Saudi Arabia, and across the water from Eilat, Israel.  As far as a Jordanian is concerned, he/she sees an Israeli as a thief.  Up through World War I and until the UN declared the State of Israel in 1948, the land surrounding the shores of the Red Sea belonged to Jordan.  All surrounding Arab countries were against the declaration, and so happened the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.  So it is no surprise that the tension lingers.  Jordan remains comparitively calm and neutral.  It receives millions of dollars every year from USAID, and has the largest percentage of Arab Palestinian refugees.   The whole area is still recovering from the tourism drought that followed the September 11th attacks.  The king is focused on bringing tourism back to the beaches of Aqaba and the Dead Sea, so that people like me can have a drink and float in a great salt lake.

Driving back towards the city, I was looking on the magnificence of Wadi Rum with a tinge of sadness.  With what I like to call “traveling eyes,” it’s bittersweet to know that you are looking at something for perhaps the last time, trying to absorb every possible detail, burning it into memory.  It’s my favorite part about travel.  We have the ability, if we so choose, to absorb ourselves into new landscapes, new foods and activities, and new modes of life.  What is necessary?  What makes us happy?  While my time here was very short, I still feel a deepened understanding of the answers to those questions.

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