I awoke on Wednesday, April 25th knowing something was amiss-the maid still arrived at her usual 8:30 am, the construction workers continued their incessant rapping on the floor below me, my roommates stuttered to life with their wet hair in towels and tacit grunts, but then I realized what was so significant. Jordan! and the Liberation of the Sinai! No class and the commencement of another rousing adventure. Wallahi! My travel partner, Colin, same one from Thailand and before, was scheduled to arrive back in Cairo around 11 from America, and our flight to Amman left at 5, so there was little room for the usual EgyptAir delays. In the morning, I swam and floated around the Nile Hilton pool with Frannie and then headed home, hearing from Colin on the way back assuring me he arrived on time. Alhamdul'lah! Then I packed, in a smaller suitcase this time, met Colin, and headed to the airport in a trusty yellow cab.
Oh, EgyptAir! How do I begin to describe the utter calamity of our check-in process? We had purchases e-tickets a month before, and had received confirmation of the reservation, and I had, luckily, printed out a copy of the e-mail. Heading for the metal detectors to allow us into the area to check-in, we encountered the guards who were there usual obdurate selves and refused to allow us in without a ticket. But we have an e-ticket! Nope, you need to have a paper ticket, so eventually we pulled our luggage back out and walked over to the EgyptAir office, where we waited a bit, asked for paper copies of our tickets, waited longer while the employees dithered around without finding evidence of us (of course, they weren't searching in the computer system, but leafing through stacks of hand-written binders where they apparently record all of the info), directed us to another office, but no one was there. We attempted to enter the gates a second time, but were again barred, or at least Colin was, so again we went back to the EgyptAir office, became slightly more adamant as the flight time approached, and finally received paper tickets when the workers descried our names in one of their books. Thankfully, we had arrived with plenty of time to the airport and even managed to hit the Starbucks (I know, a real genuine Starbucks, I was so enamored!) before boarding the short 1 hour flight to Amman.
Disembarking in Amman, we were abruptly presented with a similarly disorganized, or at least thronging, scene for visas, so we waded in, stood in line for a hour, and eventually received more stamps for our passports. We took a cab to our hotel, after obtaining cash from an ATM, and experienced my first of many shocks at the currency value in Jordan. The Jordanian Dinar is valued at 1 J.D.=.72 $, about equivalent to the Euro. Recently, investment has flowed into the city, evinced by the profusion of new buildings and gleaming palaces lining the hills of Amman. As we arrived at night, we could not fully take in the city in one glance, but our first impressions were roseate. Sprawled across arching hills, Amman was a classier version of Cairo-cleaner, with actual space between buildings, trendier fashions, more imported goods, gleaming cars, and fresh air. The cabs were modern and clean, with running meters, although the Jordanian dialect, Shami, differs so drastically from Egyptian, that much of what people said to me was incomprehensible. For instance, instead of saying, Iayza, 'I want', you say, bidi. Shoo instead of eh for 'what'...I could go on and on, but you understand the concept. The sounds were the same, but the meaning remained just beyond my congnizance. I knew I should have understood their speech, but I just could not quite, and it was so frustrating at times! Sometimes, I was able to hold conversations, which were highly amusing as I was constantly being corrected and overspoken in mellifluous Jordanian. Egyptian colloquial is fairly gutteral, or at least, not quite as auditorially pleasing as most other dialects.
Anyway, we were impressed with the little we saw of Amman, and checked into our hotel, which was simple but clean and functional, took a nap (Colin hadn't rested since leaving America over a day ago) and eventually roused ourselves to find some grub. Armed with my Lonely Planet, tucked discreetly into my burgeoning backpack, we took a cab from our area between the sixth and seventh circles (the city is divided into a series of concentric circles that determine your orientation; honestly, I never quite grasped the concept, but the theory was interesting) to Amoon Square, disengaged from the vehicle and began to circumnavigate the square, finding an unmanned Porsche, several restaurants, and a cell phone store where I purchased a SIM card (and managed to retain the phone as well this trip). Settling on a restaurant called NoodAsia, we relished our excellent sushi and Pad Thai and then, realizing it was almost midnight, went back to bed for an early morning.
Our plan from the start had been to rent a car and drive to our numerous destinations in Jordan, so we asked the front desk while we were checking out about car rental places, and they directed us to a little office connected to the hotel. I feel as if the office probably only had three or four vehicles for rent, but we discussed the terms, decided they seemed reasonable, forked over 245 JD. for the 7 days, and met our little Chevy Aveo. Before we hit the road, we hit a grocery store for water and munchies, and, as I was absentmindedly perusing the cereal section (lots of gluteny foods usually) I saw EnviroKidz! I'll admit, I squealed shrilly and clasped a box to my breast; I had not set eyes upon Amazon Flakes for over 8 months, not had I eaten cereal for that long as well. For the uninformed, EnviroKidz is one of the few brands that makes good-tasting gluten-free cereals, but they are only sold in organic stores in the states, and obviously not found in the paucity that is selection in Egypt. Thus, discern my elation when I found it in a average supermarket in Jordan! I bought a box and munched happily away while Colin attempted to navigate the maze of Jordanian one-way streets and roundabouts. We got a little turned around, I stopped once and asked for directions, but we were soon flying down the Desert Highway (well, for a moment we were confused, because the gas gauge was empty, and we thought it might be broken, but then we pulled into the nearest gas station and realized that it, truly, had been bereft of oil and sputtering on fumes) toward Wadi Rum, about a four hour drive.
I had not experienced such freedom since home: riding shotgun in a car, whizzing past Bedouins and their herds (well, actually, I didn't experience that at home either), climbing hills and coasting down the other side, feeling the wind tangle my air, inhaling cleanliness, and jamming to the local Arabic pop station (again, not something I normally do). The highway system in Jordan was quite decent, with well-maintained roads, signs in Arabic and usually English and at usually frequent intervals, but there were the idiosyncrasies that one encounters in the Middle East. For one, military pick-up trucks would drive by occasionally with .50 caliber machine guns mounted in the back, pictures of the royal family were prominently displayed throughout the land, traffic would infrequently halt for the Bedouin herders to harry their goats and sheep across the road, and cell phone reception that trumped anything back in the States, even in the lonely wilds of Wadi Rum.
I had pre-booked a private desert tour through a recommendation from my roommate with a man named Aodeh, although we were running a bit behind schedule, so I used my handy cell phone to communicate. Soon, we pulled off the main road towards Wadi Rum, watching as giant monoliths of red and tan stone rose menacingly on both sides of the road shrouded with a strange white mist that blurred straight lines and obscured distance. I felt as if I were heading into a dream, with my past swallowed up behind me and the future opening reluctantly in front of me. Arriving at the visitors' centre, I was unduly impressed with the recently built natural stone compound boasting nice restrooms, a theatre, internet cafe, courtyards, musuem, craft shops, and other offices. Perhaps the royal family is investing in tourism, because many of the other sites we visited were similarly equipped with modern facilities. Aodeh was waiting for us, greeted us cordially (I was warned about him, Akshaya said he was a very good tour guide and provided an excellent trip, but that he had a bit of an attitude...quirk, a bit surly at times, occasionally sarcastic), showed us a film about Wadi Rum, fed us dinner at his home and showed off his two-week old son, Abdullah, and then piled us into his old Land Cruiser for the desert.
When we first met, he mentioned the places we were to visit, commenting on how, in my e-mail, I had explicitly stated I ONLY wanted to see certain ones, so those were the only ones we would see. Thus, we made a brief stop at Lawrence's Spring, an unplanned stop at a red sand dune (cute pictures), and drove through the dunes for awhile while Colin dozed next to me and jerked awake over each particularly bad rut and I marveled at the scenery. Driving through Burdah canyon, we eventually stopped at Khazali canyon, more like a narrow rock fissure than a canyon with ancient Nabatean inscriptions etched into the wall. Wadi Rum is famed for its red sand, and I could not drink in enough of the sight of the red sand gradually mingling with the white and the stunning contrast between the two shades, but then, I do have a tendency to wax poetic and muse about life over 2000 years ago, and what sort of people once inhabited the area. As their images suggested, were the dunes once rolling grasslands teeming with elephant and giraffe and antelope? Did they make their abodes in the high cliffs, live in traveling tents like the Bedouin, or have the vestiges of their structures long been lost to the ravages of time and wind? Perhaps someone knows, but I could only ponder as I stared at their representations of people and life and wonder.
After that, we drove to our campsite, a quaint and very comfortable set-up of a long tent creating an enclosed arena sheltered from the wind by a high cliff wall, dropped off our stuff, and took a hike to a nearby cliff to find some oryx. I proceeded barefoot through the dunes, up the craggy slope, and to the summit (in retrospect, not a wise decision), couldn't find the oryx, but did discover a high retreat and expanive vista over the valley. As the wind picked up, we hurriedly, and with many owws, descended back to the plains and made it back to camp, where we met the other tour guide who uses the camp, Salaam, who served us tea and corrected our improper Egyptian Arabic. The other couple who shared the camp with us, two Italians, soon wandered in from their own ramblings, and we all sat around the fire, chatted, and watched the flames dance in the fading light. The strange mist I had remarked upon earlier was actually the remanants of a dust storm that had torn through the area the previous day, and it obliterated the sunset from our vision, the light simply slowly leaking out of the sky to the void of darkness.
Soon, dinner was ready, delicious chicken, potatoes, and veggies cooked in an underground oven, and, without much else to do (not alot of clubbing to be had in those parts), we began to ponder bed, made a brief detour for a walk, and then slipped into the tent for some sleep.
I loved Wadi Rum at night, the faint glow of the moonlight whitewashing the cliff walls, the pinpricks of one or two other campfires far off in the distance, the unaccountable vastness of the land around you, the rustle of the gentle wind through the dry grasses, and the warm air that caressed your skin instead of froze it.
Dawn lightened the tent walls all too soon, or so it seemed, and I eventually rolled out of my cocoon of matress and blanket to brush my teeth, change my shirt, and freshen up as much as possible in a Bedouin camp. Walking beyond the confines of the camp, I blinked rapidly in the morning sunlight...sunlight! During the night, the diaphanous dust had dissolved into bright sunshine and lone-reaching vistas of crystal blue skies and impossibly reaching cliffs. I exclaimed my excitement to Aodeh, and he laughed, but with a more amiable tone. There is just something about waking up in the middle of the desert with bright skies and a day full of fathomless possibility that brings a smile to your face; well, except perhaps Colin, who sometimes has a bit of trouble getting up, especially when faced with my resolute perkiness ;-) The lowing camels outside the camp soon attracted me, and I laughed as they hobbled along furiously, munching grasses and obstinately ignoring their handler. After a brief breakfast, Aodeh put us on the two camels (which were led by a boy on foot) and drove the car ahead to meet us in about 1.5 hours. I'm a camel-riding pro, but this was Colin's first time, and I enjoyed watching him adjust to the camel's unusual gait and abrupt stops to forage. We eventually dismounted, climbed a small rock bridge, and then drove to a point in an open plain and stared in the direction of Aodeh's finger. That is the big rock bridge. How much climbing experience do you two have?
Umm, we looked at each other and had to confess, not a whole lot. Actually, none at all. We've scrambled up some rock faces, conquered the White Desert twice and Thailand once, but, fil haqiqa, haven't ever actually climbed something.
Well, it's kind of dangerous and difficult, Aodeh remarked, and I feel he would rather we had passed on the climb, but Colin and I aren't ones to be daunted by obstacles. We'll give it a try.
And so began our climb. I wasn't sure how we were going to scale the sheer cliff face, but Aodeh drove the car to the side of the mountain, parked it, waited while we changed into shoes (very wise choice), used the bathroom (little secluded valley out of sight from the jeep) and began the hike. How do I describe it? We had no ropes or safety harnesses, nothing to prevent us from plummeting to our death against the jagged rocks hundreds of feet below. Quite frequently, we were required to scramble up almost 90 degree inclines with only a few natural footholds and a stubborn sense of perserverence to aid in our clambering up to the next level. We climbed, and we climbed, occasionally slid, but usually just climbed until I was weary and gasping, partly due to the high altitude. Colin and I made short work of the water bottle he carried, although Aodeh leapt like a mountain goat from rock to rock, indefatiguable, resting only when we did, and, while we gulped water, he puffed on a cigarette.
Eventually, we reached the final cliff face before the rock bridge, of course the most treacherous part of the 'trail' looming high above the plains below, and waited while a group of Italians completed their climb in front of us. Aodeh was an excellent guide, climbing ahead of us and telling us where exactly to put our feet, having me go before Colin, so, I guess if I fell, he could catch me? Or we'd both plunge to our deaths...but I have rarely, if ever, felt the rush of adrenaline that I had during those 10 minutes, hands scrabbling over the vertical rock face as I pulled my body (here, at this point, there was a single rope anchored, insha'allah securely, at a very crucial step) up onto a narrow ledge, teetered on the edge of vertigo, and continued upwards, waited for Colin to also make the perilous climb, and then we both crawled out tentatively onto the rock bridge and gasped at the sheer recklessness of the act. Are you guys scared of heights? Aodeh shouted up at us while he waited below with my camera. I'm not really, but I do have a healthy respect for them while perched on narrow rock spits extending over deep valleys of rock and sure death. We paused while he snapped our picture, and then unabashedly crawled back onto the security of solid ground. Coming down was actually worse then going up, and I froze for a bit while sliding slowly into nothingness until I grasped for purchase and Aodeh's hand and descended more safely. Eventually we made it off the mountain, sweaty and dusty but triumphant, drank some Bedouin tea and stared at our accomplishment, wondering how we ever made it up that.
At that point, Colin and I weren't really energized for much else, so we ate a leisurely lunch in the shade, admired the view and decided to head back for Wadi Rum Village and the road to Petra. Aodeh drove us back, and I cast my final longing glances at the beautiful sand and cliffs, and then we switched into our Aveo and left Wadi Rum.
Jordanian landscape is not the the endless desert flats that plague most of Egypt, but instead characterized by hills, rocks, greenery, and herds of livestock spread throughout with the occasional town springing up among swatches of forest and stream. At this point, Colin learned the value of downshifting, epecially when the brakes began to squeal and hint at the possibility of disfunctionality. As we crested each hill, I think we both muttered an unconscious prayer as the car coasted downwards and our speed accelerated alarmingly. Happily, or perhaps not so as the navigator (me, but, seriously, Colin should have long since learned that myself and maps don't get along well) directed us down a few wrong turns, we pulled into Petra with plenty of daylight to guide us to the Movenpick, where we untangled ourselves and our luggage from the car, headed into the lobby, I released an unconscious sigh of pleasure at the oppulence, checked in hastily, and headed up to our room on the top floor. It was a lovely room, very clean, with a big comfy bed, strangely large corner balcony with views of Petra, marble bathroom, and exciting movie selection. After checking out the pool (unheated) we then both showered (ahhh, glorious!), crashed, and explored the town of Wadi Musa a bit as dusk fell, found some nosh in a little local restaurant, briefly perused the shops (I saved my spending for the next day), took our car to the one ATM in town, and then spent a few hours on the very pleasant rooftop garden terrace smoking sheesha and devouring the renowned Movenpick ice cream creations.
Early to bed, well, somewhat early anyways, because trashy American movies are so much more appealing abroad than in the States; we rolled out of bed the next morning, had a good buffet breakfast, and then walked the 100 m from our hotel to the gates of Petra. Aside from being luxurious and well-run, the Movenpick has the distinction of being the closest hotel to Petra, and this was invaluable when we trudged home wearily about 10 hours later. Anyways, entrance into Petra is fairly expensive, about 30 JD pp, but worth every single piaster. I also decided to be totally touristy and ride horses from the entrance gates to the beginning of the Siq, about 900 m, just because I could, and the ride resulted in some pretty cute pictures.
We didn't hire a guide, and were armed only with a Petra map in German (not terribly useful) and the trusty Lonely Planet, so our knowledge of Petran history is probably somewhat lacking, but here goes. It was originally carved by the Nabatean peoples several thousand years ago, pre-Roman and pre-Christ. I know some of the more recent buildings dated back to B.C. 100, and others were in existence long before that. To enter into Petra, one first enters a narrow corridor shaded on both sides by looming cliffs that filter in sunlight from a small fissure high above. Called the Siq, it evokes the first sensations of a lost civilization, with faint carvings marking the walls, an aqueduct carved into the stone and wending its way along the path, and a faint chill in the air eerily numbing your skin in direct opposition to the heat of the sun. Then, suddenly, we saw our first glimpse of the Treasury.
Perhaps the most impressive building in Petra, the Treasury is the first sign that the Nabateans were an advanced civilization with incredible skill and aesthetic beauty, for the Treasury towers high into the cliffs, and I say into because it is carved out of the rock of the cliff. All of Petra is carved directly from the rock and melds beautifully with the surrounding landscape, almost as if Earth herself thrust and molded herself into these fantastic creations. It almost takes your breath away, seeing the Treasury for the first time after a long walk through the Siq that seemed to lead back in time. There were a few random camels sitting in front of the Treasury, and Colin dared me to go hug its furry, and maybe flea-ridden head, and I obliged him willingly, perhaps to his astonishment, and tried to bond with more four-legged creatures throughout the day.
After dallying a bit, we continued down the main road in Petra, no longer ensconced in the coolness of the Siq but boiling in the hot sun (although I did throw off all gestures toward propriety and wear a tank top, gasp!), admired the endless tombs and structures along the road, and eventually came to a staircase. We attempted to consult our maps, but neither of them proved terribly elucidating, so we shrugged our shoulders and started up it, walking for a while before finally coming to a juncture and taking the straight path instead of the one curving to the left. Walking for awhile, we noticed the path slowly disintigrate into rabble and rock, but there were still signs of human passage, so we pushed on, emerging onto a high plateau, surveying the land, and noting the correct path winding away in the opposite direction from the other fork. Ooops. So, we scrambled down, got chastised by some random woman, found the correct path (which was, by the way, unmarked and quite confusing) climbed more stairs, and eventually discovered a beautiful view of the whole of Petra, from the end of the Siq to the city centre to the monestary and the desultory trails leading off into the hills. We rested for a while, and then climbed back down and aimed for the city centre, ignoring the many offers for taxis along the way. Now, not real taxis of course, vehicles aren't allowed in Petra, but there are lots of men and boys selling rides on donkeys and camels, particularly donkeys to take you up some of the high mountain trails. We refused all of the offers good-naturedly, and they usually were fairly polite and moved on to the next tourist, and entered the city centre with food, or at least I did, in mind.
Despite Petra being a national monument/park of sorts, Bedouins still live in the area and herd goats and sheep among the ruins and also do a roaring trade of useless trinkets set up on tables that line the roads and the inside of tombs...basically, they're everywhere, and, while not particularly annoying, at least disconcerting to see them selling items in the shadows of an ancient temple. But, it is their home and their way of life, so I can hardly fault them. Besides, the Crowne Plaza had a strangely nice restaurant constructed in the middle of the city centre, with real bathrooms (although I sweat so much I only used them once), so we took a bit of time and dined there. At this point, it was around 1 in the afternoon, and time to tackle the next big hill, the way to the monestary. My phone suddenly rang, and I guessed the caller before I answered, and was correct. My friend Nicola was also celebrating the Liberation of the Sinai in Jordan with a friend and was heading towards us at that moment. We agreed to meet at the top of the mountain and trudged upwards for about 40 minutes; at some point, my legs began to move of their accord, with a movement seemingly entirely disparate from the rest of my body, and I no longer needed the frequent rests but just strove onwards numbingly.
The Monestary was magnificent, another pinnacle of Nabatean achievement, about as large as the Treasury and just as intricate but with far less traffic. Of course, it wasn't built as a monestary, but the unhappy inevitability of conquest eventually converted it into one. Large signs advertising a look-out point dragged our feet onwards, so we hiked further, finally coming to the edge of a cliff overlooking a verily spectacular vista that penetrated international borders into Israel and Palestine over the mountain range heaving out from under our feet. Plopping down, we rested for a while, shouted (well, I did) when Nicola arrived, talked for awhile, bought some tea at a cafe near the Monestary and watched as some daredevil scaled it with audacious diffidence, and headed back down.
By then, the sun had taken its toll on Colin, and was beginning to drain me as well. The four of us split off again at the city centre, Colin and I heading towards the exit but detouring at an impressive temple atop several layers of arches. From there, I espied a rickety bridge, sprinted across, and explored the beautiful tombs lining the cliff walls and the mesmerizing swirls of red and white rock spinning chimerical scenes for the dead. Eventually, Colin joined me, and we scrambled down the hillside and directed our efforts towards the exit, passing the theatre and first set of stairs, innumerable tombs, Treasury, marching through the Siq and up the final hill, and finally, out the gates and to the mercifully close Movenpick. After another round of much-needed showers, we collapsed for a bit and then roused ourselves for the promise of a Movenpick buffet, which was, we learned included in the room price. After that, I set off on a shopping expedition while Colin trailed behind, loitering in the internet cafe, spent perhaps a little too much (the exchange rate got me, 80 JD is not 80 LE, unfortunately), but met up with habibi to bargain for some Jordanian head scarves and wander the town a bit. After sheesha and drinks on the roof again, we went to bed for more adventures the next day.
We checked out of the Movenpick, drove out of Wadi Rum, and headed toward one of the Crusader castles in the area, Shobek castle. Taking the King's Highway up north, we followed the infrequent road signs, made a wrong turn, found our way again after asking for directions from a man riding a donkey (love the Middle East!) and eventually saw the castle atop a rearing plateau in the distant. It was fairly impressive, with mostly intact walls and corner towers and crumbling walls, halls, chambers, and tunnels inside. We 'decided' to hike up the hill to the castle, entered the gate and chatted with the gatekeeper and began our periapetetic touring, ducking under archways supported by tenuous stones, climbing the walls to survey the landscape rutted with more ruins and caves, peering into doorways leading to nowhere, and eventually turning into a doorway with a staircase leading into darkness. Flashlight? Happily, I'd brought mine, one of those accroutements that I've found convenient to carry with me everywhere. What the Middle East is doing to me....So, we continued down the stairs, soon flashing the light over the white, crumbling stone stairs that seemed to lead all the way to Hades. All daylight had long since faded from the tunnel and the echoes from the excavators on ground level resounded faintly through the seemingly palpable night. When I momentarily flicked off the light, I teetered slightly, as the stairs were narrow and uneven and seemed to plunge to infinite depths. The light, laazim owwii! Colin was actually the voice of reason, because I wanted to continue descending without any clear direction or goal, but, when we had walked for 10-15 minutes down, the stairs seemed to be more deteriorated and we began to slip. Ooookaaay, time to go back up, he stated more forcefully, and I had to acquiesce and begin the challenging climb back up.
When we returned to the car, I pulled out the Lonely Planet and read the brief synposis of Shobek, including the part about a fantastic tunnel leading down 375 steps to an underground spring and secret door. But they had forgotten to mention the utter isolation of the tunnel and the decrepit stairs...I feel like we had had enough of an adventure for one day, and there was still one more castle to go!
Although the road on the map was straight, it failed to illuminate the wending way through numerous canyons and gullies, but we eventually did pull into Karak and drove up the hill to the commanding castle, more intact than Shobek but surrounded, and, indeed sheltering inside some of its walls, a modern city. We found parking down a side street and wandered into the gates, passing some tour buses along the way, resisting the temptation to hop aboard as a hokey Midwestern couple, Ethel and Frank. Paying the 1 JD entrance fee, we headed first into a dark, cool passageway whose purpose I could only imagine-perhaps the storehouse? fiddled with the light settings on our cameras for awhile, and then clambered around the rest of the castle, not finding any dark dungeons to explore, but admiring the structure nonetheless.
Castled out, we headed back down the road through Karak and the relaxing portion of the vacation. Seriously, though, it had been amazing to experience all that we had done, but I was ready for some down time, preferably at a beach, but, since every single one of the Dead Sea resorts was booked (trust me, I called internationally to each one), we had to settle for the Janna Resort and Hot Springs near the Dead Sea. Inching down the final incline into the Janna Valley, we prayed this was the last hill we would encounter, as the ominous squeaks and creaks from the car's mechanisms increased in volume throughout the trip. Stopped at the entrance gate by the guard, we waited while a hotel employee came and met us to inform us that the hotel was full; we know that, but we have a reservation, I responded, perhaps a bit icily. Maybe we did not look like the typical resort guest, in our little Chevy Aveo garbed in rumpled traveling clothes and too young, but eventually the man contacted his office and realized I did, indeed, have a reservation, and let us pass. Entering the valley, I gasped as the first waterfall came into view and nudged Colin, who grumbled that he was trying to drive. But it was gorgeous, lacy streams of water cascading over the rocky ledge into verdant greenery and tropical blooms far below. And it was hot, which I discovered to my personal satisfaction later. I checked us in, had the bellboy retrieve the luggage from the car, and went up to our beautiful suite, yes, it was the only room available, on the fifth floor, flung open the shutter, and gazed upon yet another waterfall and stream, austere cliffs, and, in the V between mountains, a glimmer of the Dead Sea. Ahhh, beauty! The room wasn't terribly oppressive either, with 1.5 bathrooms, a sitting room, and bedroom with a giant plasma TV. We had an excellent buffet dinner in the hotel restaurant, shuttered away from the rest of the world, wandered through the fairly deserted grounds and wondered where the other guests were, deciding that they were too exclusive to mingle in the commona areas (not entirely true, but the clientele was an older crowd, and bedded down a bit earlier than we younger folk); we walked to the foot of the waterfall and felt the waves of steam and heat roil from the frothing water, affirming the website's claim that, indeed, the falls are thermal.
The next morning we actually slept in a bit, but not too late, as breakfast ended at 10:30. I also ventured into the 2nd floor spa and booked myself a mud and salt treatment for the afternoon before returning to the room to change into my suit and head up the road toward the waterfall with Colin. The Ma'an Hot Springs are available to the public, although it was mainly hotel guests present, so I felt quite comfortable wading into the man-made pool below the falls in my bikini and groaning in pleasure as the heat soothed my aches and burned the stress away. Eventually, I moved to sit right underneath the waterfall and let the water grind and pummel and abrase my skin most luxuriously, lost for many moments in the hypnotic roar of the water screening any other sound from my hearing. One can only handle so much intense treatment, and the two of us explored the small cave behind the falls, finding a natural sauna created by extremely hot water tricking out of one of the walls and flowing across the floor and over the ledge. It was the perfect way to wind down after an physically challenging vacation, and we lazed the day around the complex, returning to the hotel for my 4 pm spa appointment, where I lay in a room while mud was coated all over my body, and then wrapped in a plastic sheet and heated blanket to roast for about 20 minutes. Quite dizzy and disoriented from the heat, I swayed upward when the attendant came for me and stumbled rather drunkenly to be hosed off with a pressure spray. Then, I was led to another room where salt was scrubbed rather grittily over my skin (good for exfoliation) and then again rinsed off. I had been quite so...violated...in a while, although the violation was a guilty sort of pleasure, not painful and almost pleasant, but with an element of unknown amalgated into the procedure. I didn't even bother to put my clothes back on, but just rolled myself in a comfy robe and tottered to my room and collapsed on the bed for a bit.
That evening, after my body ceased tingling and became soft and pliant, we went for a walk, ate dinner, and pondered our return to the real world, looming all to imminent on the horizon. The next morning, we checked out, drove to the Panorama Complex overlooking the Dead Sea and brunched there, slowly as the staff couldn't serve us any food for an hour, and then visited a beach on the Dead Sea, paying 10 J.D. for use of its facilities. I was personally quite giddy to finally experience the buoyancy of the famed sea, and waded in rather eagerly after Colin, who had the requisite newspaper in hand. You see, no visit to the Dead Sea is complete without a photo op of yourself floating, or rather sitting, in the water with a newspaper open before you, reclining comfortably on the saltiness, although we discovered the newspaper also acted as a sail and pulled in the direction of the wind, but yani...We floated around after the camera was tucked safely away, giggling at the alien sensation of the water pulling our bodies buoyantly upwards and pushing us onto our backs or stomachs without concern for our own preference. I made the unfortunate mistake of diving underwater and coming up sputtering at the excess of salt clogging my every orifice, spending the next five minutes paying the price of my folly with streaming eyes, a running nose, and a salty mouth; Colin sagely refused my implorations to dive underwater as well, can't imagine why. The water was so salty it almost felt slimy, and if you brushed your hand against your skin it rubbed a slick of mineral and salt deposits, not flesh. Those showers afterwards sure felt nice! Loitering around the complex for a few hours, we eventually left the Dead Sea behind us and made the hour-long drive to Amman, returning the car without any mishap, strolling around the city for about an hour, and catching a cab to the aeroport for the flight home. Interestingly enough, the Amman airport was quite efficent with check-in and security, with a separate security line for women, where we enter an enclosed cubicle and are patted down, by women of course, in privacy away from leering eyes. I preferred this method, actually. We returned to Zamalek, perhaps for the last time from an international flight, and slid right back into ALI. But it was a wonderful trip, and I am very glad we chose to rent a car and travel on our own schedule and experience another Middle Eastern nation.