Saturday, November 5: I arrive in Amman at 9 a.m. after only a 3 1/2 hour flight from Muscat. Standing in line to buy the 20 Jordanian dinar tourist visa, I meet a man about my age who looks Middle Eastern but is carrying an American passport. He has longish black hair and is dressed in all black: black suit with a black shirt. He introduces himself as Alqam and says he grew up in Jordan but is originally from Chechnya, and some of his five children and one granddaughter now live in the country. He’s going to visit them for the Eid. He tells me a lot as we wait in line, how his wife died of cancer in 2004, how he’s working in Muscat now trying to get a business off the ground exporting air-conditioners to Oman, how he’s lived in Houston, Texas for many years. He gives me his number in Jordan and tells me to please call him if I need anything at all. I give him my Oman number and tell him if he wants to have coffee or something when he returns to Muscat, he can feel free to call. I don’t ever call him in Jordan, but I text him my Jordanian number and he bids me welcome: “you welcome to Jordan. hope you like it, alqam.”
Nihad from the Jordan Tower Hotel picks me up from Queen Alia Airport, cigarette in hand. He’s got a face with grayish stubble and a mustache. I find out throughout my trip that Jordanians love to smoke, and he’s no exception. We drive through the quiet outer streets, through the sharp cliffs and hills topped with old and decaying granite houses, into the city center, where utter chaos reigns. Everyone is shopping for the Eid. I realize after having been in Muscat all day Friday and now being in Jordan on Saturday, that Eid is like America’s Christmas. It seems that most of the shoppers are men, and they are shopping and shopping for new clothes, food, electronics, you name it… I’m not even sure what they could be buying with such enthusiasm. These streets have a similar holiday vibe to our Christmas season: crowds and utter frenzy reign. Male mannequins display western clothing in shop entryways, which are not behind windows but open to the street. Weathered men sell used and broken furniture on the asphalt streets. A huge traffic jam knots the center of the city and no police are present to sort it out. Some enterprising young men get out of their cars and direct the traffic to clear up the tangled jam, while drivers honk and holler in frustration.
At the hotel, my room isn’t ready yet. However, I’m anxious to get started on exploring Jordan so I ask the advice of the hotel staff. They tell me a Japanese girl is going to the Dead Sea so if I’d like to share a ride with her, the cost will be 25 JD. She will be staying the night in the Movenpick, but I can go to another resort where they charge 15 dinar to use their facilities and swim in the Dead Sea. It sounds like as good a way as any to begin my time in Jordan.
Minako is a 30-year-old Japanese girl who now lives in Tokyo but is originally from Okinawa. She finished her university studies and has worked at Accenture for 8 years. Now she’s decided to study medicine and is trying to find the right university. She had a boyfriend, but they broke up 3 months ago. I’m sure that in Japanese culture, she’s probably a bit of an anomaly, being 30 years old and not married. Minako is happy and upbeat and her mood is infectious. Right away she grabs me and pulls me to the lobby couch for photos. After all, we’re heading to the Dead Sea together; we’ll be great friends. I love this kind of person who is not at all shy and just befriends everyone. I so wish I was like this myself, but I’m always more reticent and wait for other people to reach out in friendship.
She asks me all about my situation and finds it quite amusing and “coo….” Though her English is excellent, she has the typical Asian problem with pronunciation of “l” and “r,” so every time she says “cool,” which is A LOT, she says “coo…” It’s very endearing. She finds my marital situation especially interesting and says “I think your husband still loves you if he accepts what you’re doing.” I say I don’t know about that. We both take an immediate liking to each other.
The Dead Sea is at the lowest point on earth, about 1300 feet below sea level, and has such high salt content (over 33%) that nothing but the most microscopic life forms can survive in it. It’s 42 miles long and 11 miles wide and lies in the Jordan Rift Valley. It’s main tributary is the Jordan River; it borders Jordan to the east and Israel and the West Bank to the west. From the Hebrew Bible, it’s likely that Jericho was just north of the Dead Sea. Somewhere, perhaps on the southeast shore, would be the cities mentioned in the Book of Genesis which were said to have been destroyed in the time of Abraham: Sodom and Gomorra (Genesis 18). The rich Biblical heritage of this area in Jordan literally takes my breath away, even though I’m not a particularly religious person.
We share the ride with Nihad to the Dead Sea, and make him stop at a number of spots along the way to take pictures of the views. We drop Minako at the top-notch Mövenpick Resort & Spa Dead Sea.
Nihad takes me down the road a bit to the O Beach Hotel, which is nice in its own right. I pay my 15 dinar to go in and I change into my bathing suit. I walk around admiring the views, the infinity pool stretching into the Dead Sea, the bar sunk into the infinity pool, the cushioned lounge chairs and umbrellas and cabanas.
Down on the beach below a small group of young people are swimming in the Dead Sea. It’s a little chilly, so I’m not too anxious to jump right in. Feeling rather hungry, I order a glass of red wine and a turkey sandwich and lie on a lounge chair waiting for them to bring it to me. The only annoying detraction are the flies. Flies are swarming all over the bar, all over me as I try to relax on my lounge chair, all over my glass of wine and my turkey and pickle sandwich. Luckily the flies don’t seem to bite, but they’re hugely annoying.
I love watching the families and tourists at the hotel while swatting at the flies to keep from swallowing one. I check out a good-looking Richard Gere-look-alike and his wife and children and grandchildren. I walk down to the edge of the sea and watch some Europeans floating.
Finally, with some trepidation, I climb in over the rocks and hardened calcified salt and dip into the sea. It’s very strange, the sensation of floating in this salt-dense sea. There is no need to tread water or to make any motion at all to stay afloat. My body immediately moves into a “sitting in a chair” position, and it’s next-to-impossible to move out of this position. It’s like the sea is an armchair and all you do is sink into it. No movement is required at all.
I make an attempt to swim a modified crawl, with my head above the water, but it’s very difficult to swim because my legs pop out of the water behind me. It’s rather difficult to kick underwater if your legs are jutting out of the water! In addition, the water is a little choppy and I swallow a mouthful of salt water, which is so thick with salt it’s like a salt-water gargle. I also have a cut on my lip which burns from the salt-on-a-wound effect.
I don’t stay in long because it just feels too bizarre. When I get out, I have this slimy film all over my skin and I dip into the downright cold infinity pool to wash off the salt water. It doesn’t come off and actually the beads of water don’t dry up in the sun. An exotic woman approaches me and tells me she does massages. She’s Iraqi and her name is Tonya. Always a sucker for a massage, I succumb to the temptation for a half-body mud massage for 33 dinar. We go into an open air room with mats hanging over the opening for semi-privacy. When I lie face-down on the massage table, there is a mirror below that lets me see the Dead Sea as I get my massage. Lovely really.
After the massage I take a cold shower (there is no hot water in this massage room), and go outside to meet Nihad for my ride back to Amman. It takes about an hour to get back.
I love the Jordan Tower Hotel in Amman’s city center, with its super-friendly and helpful staff and its cozy lobby area. But I have some issues when I finally return to the hotel to check in. First, I had reserved a single room with a private bathroom. When I finally check in, the hotel manager apologizes profusely, saying my intended room has a problematic bathroom. So he must give me a room with 3 single beds and no bathroom. He tells me that the bathroom in the hall will be all mine, because the other three rooms all have their own bathrooms. When he takes me to my room, he struggles mightily with the door handle, and seems to be unable for some time to get it open. Finally, he lets me in and I settle in with my stuff. I’m not happy about not having a private bathroom when I specifically booked such, but the guy feels so bad about it, I let him off the hook and don’t complain.
Outside in Amman, the weather is cold and rainy, a total switch from the Dead Sea. I opt to eat a light snack of mushroom soup, bread and mint tea in the hotel tonight and to sit in the common room writing notes about my day. I feel chilled and so get cozy early in my room, where I crank up the heat to toasty, toastier, toastiest. Outside my window, on the busy streets below, is a cacophony of noise that grates on my senses. Again, it is people enthusiastically shopping for Eid. People are shouting, cars are honking, loud Arabic music is blaring. But worst of all there is a loudspeaker right below my window that repeats a sales pitch in Arabic that sounds like this: Blah blah blah, blablablablabla. Blah blah blah, blablablablabla. Blah blah blah, blablablablabla. Blah blah blah, blablablablabla. Blah blah blah, blablablablabla. Blah blah blah, blablablablabla. Blah blah blah, blablablablabla. Blah blah blah, blablablablabla.
All freaking night long.
Before Minako and I took off this morning, she warned me, laughing her infectious laugh: “You’ll probably get my room. It was so noisy! I’ve never heard anything like it.” Without a doubt.