Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Day -3: Floating in the Dead Sea

Karolina continues with another guest blog post of our pre-Jordan Trail adventures....


February 25: Today started with a delicious breakfast in Queen Ayola Hotel – pita bread, hummus, olives, tomatoes, cucumbers, boiled eggs, white cheese and of course sweet tea with mint. Being a novelty we enjoyed the meal composed by these ingredients, not knowing that we will be eating the very same stuff practically every single morning until the end of the trip.

A common Jordanian breakfast
At breakfast we met a fellow hotel guest, Peter from Eastern Germany, who - as it turned out - had just finished hiking the Jordan Trail from south to north. Having still had a few days left in Jordan he was looking for options to do some sightseeing in the north of the country. He seemed to be particularly interested in visiting places mentioned in the Bible, checking out mosaics, frescos and seccos in various churches and going to the Dead Sea.

He introduced himself as a conservator-restorer of wall paintings and mosaics, which explained these interests. I remember learning from him the difference between frescos and seccos – to make a fresco pigment is applied on fresh or wet plaster while a secco are made by applying pigment onto a dry plaster. Make sense – fresco means ‘fresh’ in Italian and secco means ‘dry’. Peter said that most people – myself included – have never heard of seccos and they think all the ancient wall paintings they see in places are frescos. It had apparently happened to him several times that he went to visit an old church expecting to see some awesome frescos – based on what he had read about the place in a guidebook or a tourist bulletin – only to find – to his great disappointment – seccos. He was understanding of your average person you meet in the street not knowing the difference but he strongly disapproved of guidebook and writers and monument keepers to make such mistakes.

Anyways, Peter was looking for company for a trip to some interesting places and asked us about our plans for the day. We told him that after breakfast we were meeting the son of out hotel’s owner who was going to drive us to Mount Nebo and the Dead Sea. Both places were on Peter’s list, so he asked whether he could join us and share the costs of the ride, which wasn’t a problem. For a moment he tried to talk us into extending the trip and going to Bethany Beyond Jordan – the place where Jesus was allegedly baptized – but we weren’t interested and also our driver (whose name was Tareq) said that we wouldn’t have time to do that.

Mount Nebo, where Moses allegedly died and was buried somewhere nearby.

Mount Nebo was very windy. There was an old church with very pretty mosaic floor, some ancient ruins, a giant boulder which used to be used to cover the entrance to the church, an olive garden, a monument commemorating the visit of pope John Paul II to the site and views. My favorites were the mosaics and the views. The mosaics depicted fruit and animals of the region and people’s relations with them – agriculture, animal herding and hunting. There were figs and pomegranates, lions, wild boars, ostriches, camels and sheep. Regarding the views – they were somewhat hazy due to all the dust carried by the wind from the surrounding desert, but we still got pretty good views of the Dead Sea, Jordan Valley and the Palestine beyond. This was the Promised Land which God allowed Moses to see before letting him die somewhere at Mount Nebo…

From Mount Nebo we drove on a road which winded steeply down, down, down through a very dry landscape, all the way to the Dead Sea – the lowest point on Earth! Mount Nebo is located at 710 m (2,300 ft) above the sea level while the surface and shores of the Dead Sea are currently at about 430.5 m (1,412 ft) below the sea level, so we had quite a way down.

We drove to Amman Beach Resort and agreed with Tareq we will meet him after another 3 or so hours. I wasn’t sure what was the dress code for women at the beach, so I asked Tareq. He said Amman Beach was a tourist place, so it was perfectly fine for (tourist) women to wear bikinis. The local women seemed to prefer remaining covered – not only did we see ladies wearing long dresses and headscarves while sitting at the shore, we also passed a shop selling beach gear where you
could buy bikinis!

Floating in the Dead Sea was a lot of fun! A strange feeling at first – it is really quite buoyant and you can literally lie down on water and read books if you like. Some people seem to have troubles standing up again as the buoyancy keeps pushing their legs and bottoms up.

To ensure safe floating there are life guards present at the shore and they let you read the basic rules, such as:
  • Don’t go too far or too deep
  • Lie down in the water slowly, don’t rush
  • Lie down on your back rather than belly
  • Avoid contact of water with your eyes – it will sting!
  • Avoid shaving for at least three days prior to entering the Dead Sea water – otherwise it will sting!
  • Do not go into the water if you have wounds or deep scratches – they will sting!
Ryan was wondering why they discourage you from lying on your belly, so he decided to check that experimentally. He soon learned that the buoyancy force pushes your bottom upwards much stronger than your head and if you aren’t limber enough to keep your back arched your head goes under the water. Then, if you aren’t agile enough, it may be difficult to flip yourself back onto your back.

Floating is a cinch on the Dead Sea. Which, if you had a dead body to dispose of, would make the Dead Sea a particularly bad place to dispose of it! (Fortunately, we didn't have to dispose of a dead body so we didn't worry about it.)

Standing on the shore and drying in the sun I noticed that salt started crystallizing all over my body. It looked weird. It didn’t hurt or feel uncomfortable – to the contrary, my skin had this nice, leathery touch. Bathing in sea salts is said to be good for your skin and even to help with skin conditions such as psoriasis. Dead Sea surely contains a lot of salt – with a concentration of 35% it is 10 times saltier than the ocean! Near the shore we could see large chunks of crystallized salts – in the form of rocks as well as salt crust on sand. The salt composition in the Dead Sea is however different from that in the ocean – Dead Sea contains mainly chlorides of magnesium, calcium and potassium while the salt in most oceans and seas is primarily sodium chloride, which is our common table salt.

Dead Sea owes its extreme salinity to the fact that it is located at the lowest point in the area and in a very dry climate. There is one major river flowing into the Dead Sea – the Jordan River - and there aren’t any rivers flowing out of it – water flows downwards but not upwards. Due to the hot and dry climate, evaporation from the Dead Sea is high. The Jordan River carry dissolved minerals (salts) into the Dead Sea but only pure water evaporates – the salts are left behind and accumulate.

After a swim, when the salt on your body will crystallize unless you wash it off with fresh water. Very cool!
For thousands of years the evaporation and inflow of the Jordan River were balanced in a way which allowed the Dead Sea to exist. Then people came and started diverting large amounts of water from the Jordan River for irrigation of crops. Nowadays there isn’t enough water flowing into the Dead Sea to balance the evaporation – as a result the Dead Sea is disappearing. The water level is dropping about 1 m (3 ft) a year! You can clearly see that when you visit the resorts – hotels and other facilities which were originally built close to the water are right now located quite a way away from the shore! Sadly enough, if things continue the way they are the Dead Sea may disappear completely within the next 50 years. For the past few years Jordan and Israel have been working on projects aimed at saving this wonder of nature, one idea being to start pumping pre-conditioned water from the Red Sea into the Dead Sea.

In case the Jordanians and the Israeli won’t manage to save the Dead Sea, Ryan and I were happy to have been able to float in it while it was still around. And while we can brag about having been to the current lowest point on Earth, we are aware of the fact that as long as the water level in the Dead Sea continues to drop, the lowest point on Earth is shifting and soon we will only be able to say that we have been to the almost lowest point on Earth.

There is one more fun thing to do at the Dead Sea apart from floating – smearing your entire body with mud! Well, it feels more like clay rather than mud, is quite black and is said to be good for your skin. I couldn’t skip it! Ryan took a pass but he took some photos while I was applying the mud mask to my body. Your supposed to leave the mud on your skin for 15 – 20 min., so I spent quite a while standing on the shore, basking in the sun and letting all the good stuff work on my skin. After that I went into the Dead Sea again to rinse off.

Applying mud is a popular activity at the Dead Sea, allegedly having health benefits for your skin.
Once we were done with floating and applying mud masks time came to have lunch. Before heading to the local restaurant, however, we had to wash the salty layer off our bodies. This can be done under one of the showers with regular tap water placed a short walk from the shore (I bet once upon a time, before the Dead Sea retracted, those showers were located close to the shore!). Too bad the water in the showers wasn’t heated – it seemed colder than in the Dead Sea and standing under the shower wasn’t fun at all. After the shower Ryan decided to take a short swim in one of the pools with fresh water. He was curious to check how he felt going into fresh water after floating in a salt solution of the Dead Sea. And let me tell you, he felt heavy! He definitely couldn’t float anymore! Yep, 35% salt content makes a big difference. *nodding*

Tareq drove us back to Madaba along a different route than the one we took in the morning. We first drove along the Dead Sea shore and then up, up, up – back to the sea level and beyond, trough very desert-looking hills with an occasional palm tree growing here and there. As we were driving along the shore we could see camels parked near traffic signs – probably to catch tourists and encourage them to visit resorts. At one point we were also stopped by the police for control – Tareq explained that this is a frequent procedure in the area because of close proximity of the border with the West Bank – a Palestinian territory governed by Israel.

The full-day trip tired us, so after returning to Queen Ayola Hotel, both Ryan and I decided to retire to our beds for a nap. We were woken up before 6 p.m. by prayers sung at a nearby mosque and broadcasted via megaphones. Our hotel was located very close to the mosque – we could see it through the windows in our room and we could clearly hear all of the five daily prayers. The first one was sung at 4:30ish in the morning, so every day we stayed in Madaba we got a very early wake up call!

Stained-glass windows in the church at Mount Nebo.
Mosaic tiles in the ancient church on Mount Nebo
The views from Mount Nebo were extensive, although a little hazy. It's from here where Biblical accounts say Moses saw the Promised Land. On an unrelated note, although we didn't realize it at the time, the Jordan Trail goes right by Mount Nebo so we would be hiking here from the Red Sea over the next few weeks. (We managed to beat Moses 40-years of wandering by covering the distance in about a single month.)

The lunch buffet

1 comment:

Mary said...

This is so exciting! I love the photos. I don’t need the Dead Sea to float! If you have enough fat, you can easily float! That would be me! Call to prayer at 0430 doesn’t sound appealing. The lunch looks devoid of meat! Ryan is going to miss his hamburgers he seems to get for lunch a lot.