Monday, December 20, 2010

Another Peek at Petra, and Down to the Dead Sea

We woke early to return to Petra, this time with special arrangements to enter via the “back door” in order to view the areas further from the entrance and closer to the Bedouin town where our company from the previous night all lives.  A short walk into the valley past the collanaded streets, then we were met by our guides and a pack of donkeys.  Riding on a donkey up the steep stairs to the Monestary was so much fun –  the steps were difficult yet the donkeys were very sure-footed and it must have been 1000 stairs to the top!  Our young guides, boys ranging from 10 to 15 years old, ran behind (smoking!) slightly winded but with huge smiles and grateful for the drinks we bought them at the top.  Many gentle offers of mint tea,  hand-beaded necklaces  and sliver bracelets,  and a few other tourists but not crowded.  Again, we are lucky to travel during off-season, as there is generally more space and patience all around.  The morning was cool today, but once the sun shines down jackets are not needed, though the local people are very cold. They are more accustomed to the 45 degree heat of summer, which for us would be unbearable.  I would love to see these desert cliffs in February, when the wild daffodils would be in bloom.  The beauty would be even more spectacular – this is a very special place on Earth, and worthy of its treasures.
Off the donkeys, into the van, and a three hour drive down, down, down to the salt plains of the Dead Sea, at 400m below sea level.  There is a lot of industry in the southern area, extraction of salts and minerals, as well as agriculture irrigated from the mountain springs above.  Tomatoes galore, also cabbage, banana trees, sugar cane, lots of vegetables for export.   The soils look rich and the farmers happy, also picnicking with their families this Saturday, lots of children playing and meals being shared on a blanket in the shade near the sea.  The Dead Sea is very blue, and the mountains of Palestein are clearly visible in the distance on the opposite shore.  It is strange to be in such a place, as we have heard about in biblical reference or in news stories of war.
The Amman public beach in the northern shore is where the tourists are taken for a dip, with full facilities and a certain level of comfort for us ladies – I have been acutely aware of the level of modesty and different role of women in the Middle East, though easier here than in Egypt.  Still, most local ladies do not bare themselves in a bathing suit (or even take off their head scarves)  to join their families, but rather sit back and wait on the shore…  We changed and braved the cool waters, as we arrived around 3 and the sun was already cooling down.  We all laughed at the sensation of great buoyancy, it was ridiculously easy to float, and in fact when the three older kids went deeper, they found they could not sink deeper than their shoulders even if they tried.  The water is very salty (duuhhh) and actually hurts – Katie was almost in tears with the burn so only stayed a little bit in the sea before washing off very well.  Trav and Derek had to taste – and it burnt their tongues ,  no one wanted to dunk their head, even for a chance to “break the rule”.  The mud bath could be applied for an additional 3 JD each, but with the cost of over 80JD to get into the “public beach” (like 110 USD), we felt we could make do with the grey mud on the bottom rather than the black mud they would sell you.  It did leave our skin soft, especially feet and legs, but my hands were dried up like a prune and sore…. could use some olive oil instead of more salt.
Our arrangements were a night at the Dead Sea, but there is a snow storm on its way (really? In Jordan? Yes, I guess it snows in the mountain areas here in the winter, and the roads become impassible).  Rather than chance a missed flight to Thailand, we returned to Amman for dinner and hotel.  Our Amman guide took us to his favourite haunt, on a pedestrian high-end shopping street , more proof of the extent of globalization – Gap, Mavi Jeans, Sposabella wedding gowns, all western styles sold to customers in the land of the Birha… I don’t really get how it goes together, unless the cultural shift is just on the cusp….  The King and Queen of Jordan have strong ties to America, and the culture we know is invading the Middle East.  I cannot help but wonder if this is good, bad, or just the way of the new millennium.

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