Dead Sea Scroll
We set off to visit the Dead Sea in the company of Mohammed, a driver engaged for us by a friend of Elisabeth. We were slightly confused from the start when he insisted that one of us ride in the front seat, but we were to discover that this is standard practice in Jordan, as passengers in the back but no-one in front is the clear sign of an unlicensed taxi, Uber included, which immediately attracts the police’s attention.
The journey began well enough. I took the back seat, intending to sleep, and Val was offered a choice of music from the on-board music and video system. She opted for the mellow tones of Jack Johnson; honeymoon music, so far as we were concerned.
The Jordanian side of the Dead Sea is pretty much exclusively occupied by luxury hotels, who hold a monopoly on access (and charge handsomely for the privilege). We booked a day ticket with the Crowne Plaza, which had the usual trappings of such a place: a huge foyer, impressive but Disneyfied architecture, and the normal lack of information about where to go. Faux luxury, faux sophistication; it reminded me of Tenerife, and plunged me into a pit of seething irritation, from which I struggled to emerge.
We stumbled through and out the other end of the hotel lobby, only to discover a confusing array of accommodation blocks, pools, pathways, and very little in the way of information, all under a blazing sun. My mood deepened.
Eventually, after several mis-turns, and a surreal, somewhat pointless but blessedly air-conditioned lift, we descended to the beach. A sign congratulated us on arriving at “the lowest place on earth. #CPDEADSEA” True enough – my lowest point of the trip so far.
It was always unlikely that I would enjoy the Dead Sea experience, and true enough, I didn’t. It was blazingly hot, but we weren’t allowed to put up any parasols, because it was too windy. The way in to the water was strewn with large rocks, making it perilous and painful, and even after negotiating that the wind blew me against the rope ringing CP’s section. The floating sensation – it is so salty that it is impossible to sink – was curious, but to my mind not pleasant. One can’t swim, I was blown onto some more rocks, and the salt stung any slight abrasions as well as irritating when splashed in the eyes; I suppose I managed five minutes before struggling painfully out.
Val managed it better, and enjoyed it more. She went in two or three times more, and also went through the process of covering herself entirely in thick black mud provided for the purpose. I do not know what the intended effect is, but pretty much everyone there was doing it, so she followed suit. I, of course, declined.
We took some pictures, then adjourned to the nearest poolside bar to recuperate with an overpriced drink, but it was not a pleasant place, with the low throb of some techno music, and too many people smoking. After a quick swim, we set off in search of the buffet for lunch.
Unsurprisingly, we got lost again, and were wandering in a confused state when we were rescued by one of the hotel’s electric golf carts; the driver beckoned us aboard. When we explained where we were heading he appeared puzzled, but drove us up to the dining room. Closed. A quick phone call confirmed that there was no buffet today, and that lunch would be provided at… El Grito, the bar from which we thought we had escaped. He drove us back, us feeling like characters in a Kafka nightmare.
After some disappointing mock-Mexican fare, and a dispiriting time enduring more music, louder now, and an even more crowded, smokier atmosphere, we discovered with considerable relief that it was nearly four o’clock. Time to meet our driver.
Except Mohammed did not arrive until five-thirty, with a muttered excuse about traffic, and a worrying complaint about the police; he told us he had run away from them. This meant we could not return the way he had come, and had to take the back route. We immediately turned away from Amman, and headed up a winding road into the mountains.
As the journey went on, M’s mood and behaviour grew increasingly erratic. The windows came down as he exclaimed he had never been here before and wasn’t the view marvellous. He started taking pictures, then selfies, out the window, as he navigated hair-pin bends. The music was now pounding Arabic pop, then Jack Johnson, then pop again, accompanied by gyrating women on the video screen. He opened both skylights, and hot air flooded in, he was on his phone, he hit many speed bumps at speed, he got lost…
Eventually, we were on the road to Amman, but we were massively late, and were clearly going to miss the dinner arranged for that evening. Elisabeth phoned, concerned as to our whereabouts, and we explained where we were. By chance, we had just driven past the town where we were to have dinner, so Mohammed was instructed to turn around, and by the miracle of modern technology he was directed to our destination. We stumbled from the car, paid him off.
The dinner was in honour of the Wind-Up Penguins, a theatre group of eight young British actors and musicians, who were touring a clowning show around refugee camps in Jordan. They had just performed a series of shows at Elisabeth’s invitation, and the director of one youth centre at which they had performed (and which we had attended) had invited them, and us, to a meal at his (fabulous) house.
And so a day which had gone from bad to worse to much worse ended most pleasantly. The food was typically a banquet of excess, and the entertainment afterwards, provided by the talented Penguins, was excellent. All’s well that ends well, as the man said. But Jack Johnson remains ruined forever as a honeymoon memory.
After the previous day’s ordeal, an alternative driver was arranged. Two, in fact, as Zayed turned up with his “brother” Montahr. This solved the front seat problem, and allowed Val and I to sit together in the back.
The improvement on yesterday was apparent immediately. The English was stumbling but perfectly adequate, and more importantly both were gentlemen: polite and respectful but also very good-humoured. And Zayed turned out to be an excellent, careful driver. They chatted and joked with us at times, but also left us to chat, read, listen to music when we chose.
First we drove the four hours to Wadi Rum. Not on our initial list of must-see places, but that merely betrays our ignorance, for it turned out to be magnificent. Wadi means valley, and Wadi Rum is a site not to be missed, with spectacular mountains of grey, pink and sandy yellow surrounding a desert plain. The recent movie The Martian was filmed here, and I can see why, for it looks like an alien landscape, but beautiful. We booked the shortest tour, a two hour trip into the desert on the back of a 4 by 4 pick-up, visiting three sites, climbing down to explore each one. Zayed and Montag joined us, much to our delight, for they were excellent company. There was a great deal of good-natured laughter.
Petra was an hour’s drive back towards Amman. All four of us checked in to the Petra Palace, a modern, clean and very reasonably priced hotel, just two hundred metres from the gates of the site. We had been recommended to visit Petra By Night, a candlelit walk to the first major attraction, but some research (well, Trip Advisor) had warned of crowds, noise, complaints, etc. Val and I decided to go our different ways, and after sharing some pretty potent margaritas in the hotel bar, I spent the evening in a local restaurant before returning to the bar to phone home, while Val braved the crowds. This is her account:
As Chris says, forewarned is fore-armed and I got to the front of the queue and set off at speed to leave the stumbling, whingeing, torch wielding masses far behind.The sensation of walking in the dark, along the winding path, only able to see the next few tea-light lanterns snaking through the narrow gorge, was enthralling. Arriving at the magnificent ‘Treasury’ at the end of the canyon, I lay on my back gazing at the stars above the high cliffs all around. And there I stayed through the musical entertainment (some kind of flute, then an oude with vocal accompaniment) only interrupted by someone serving a small cup of mint tea. Able to blot out the mild chaos around me and (probably assisted by the aforementioned margarita) I had a splendid time.
The next morning, we were both at the gates when they opened at six. There was a small crowd of about thirty or so ahead of us, but they were clearly determined to get to the attractions first and rushed off. This left us virtually on our own in the cool of the morning. Bliss.
Petra is beautiful, spectacular, awe-inspiring… but I will leave you to research it for yourself if you choose. We walked almost to the end, about four kilometres, missing only the monastery on the cliffs at the far end, in order to ensure we were back in time for breakfast. The return journey was harder than we expected, being in the heat of the morning, and uphill, but it was eminently satisfying, as we approached the gates once again, to walk past the crowds coming in.
Petra is wonderful, not petrifying at all, but I find it hard to resist a pun.