Saturday, July 5, 2008

Dead Sea: Down, Low

The thing about Jordanian drivers is that once you have become acquainted with one, they want more than anything to drive you everywhere. Such is the case with Jamal, a driver whose name and number we got from Al. We called him and asked him if he could drive us to the Dead Sea. He said yes, for 35 dinar. Betsy said, "How about 30?" He said yes, and, true to his word, was there at our Amman hotel at precisely 11 o'clock. The drive down (and I do mean "down"), less than an hour long, was pretty amazing. This is not a landscape you would call "hospitable," ironic since that is the word that one must use when describing the people. Jamal wanted to stop so we could shop (we said no), take photos at viewpoints (we agreed once), and then asked us the rest of our itinerary so he could drive us wherever we were destined. I think he would drive us to Egypt if we asked. Jordanians are so eager to please that it feels like we're in a country of golden retrievers.

Anyway, back to the travel stuff. We did stop halfway down so Jamal could take our picture at the official "sea level" spot. We also stopped briefly at a couple of security checkpoints, reminding us that we are practically a stone's throw from Israel, and these folks have issues. Big issues. An example of how deeply-ingrained their hatred of each other is was neatly summed up in a story covered by the Jordan Times all week. There is a month-long festival planned to begin July 9, with numerous performers, Jordanian and international (Diana Krall and Placido Domingo were the two names I recognized). A group was calling for a boycott by the performers because it was rumored that the French company hired to do the festival planning had also helped organize Israel's 60th anniversary celebration. Even a slight whiff of connection to Israel almost blew up the entire festival. Eventually King Abdullah II issued a statement assuring the Jordanian people that the French group had not worked on the Israel celebration, and the boycott (already agreed to by several prominent Arab performers) was called off.

It is hard to adequately describe driving to the Dead Sea. I shouldn't have been surprised, of course, since it is the lowest point of land on Earth, but still. We just went down, down, down, kind of like driving from Boone to Greensboro only ten times the steepness. The temperature rose conversely, and by the time we reached our destination, the Kempinski Resort, it was well over 100 degrees and dry as a Watauga County Baptist church picnic.

At the gate to the Resort, our car was searched, another reminder of the way people this close to the border live (we can actually see Jerusalem from our window). We finally made it inside, and were greeted with an ice cold washcloth and a glass of fresh, cold pineapple juice.

The Kempinski is a world-class hotel chain, run by no-nonsense Germans and staffed by consistently competent and beautiful staff, all impeccably dressed in gorgeous uniforms. No detail is spared. Staying at a resort like this would likely cost $1000 a day in the states, but it's less than a quarter of that here. Of course, the environmental conscience in me makes it somewhat difficult to not see the incredible amounts of water being used here, re-directed at a significant ecosystem cost to the Jordan Valley. But like in many places, tourism and the environment exist here in less-than-peaceful accord.

We checked in, found our room, and immediately headed for the beachfront so Betsy could fulfill her long and weird dream of swimming in the Dead Sea. We were immediately greeted by the Arab version of a cabana boy, Akram (note to my sisters: he was very nice but he's no Laurent). He instantly became focused entirely on our pleasure, walking each of us by the hand over the rocks into the water, taking pictures of us, and then, without really explaining what he was doing (since his English was quite limited), slathering each of us in mud. I can't imagine the ablutions and prayers necessary for a Muslim man who spends that much time with his hands all over women.

Suffice to say that I have never done anything in my life that's good enough to deserve even a short stay at a place like this. But I promise to aspire to such goodness so I may one day feel worthy of the Kempinski Ishtar Hotel.

We leave tomorrow for Egypt. No telling what our technology will be like, so if you don't see a post for a while, it doesn't mean we decided to stay here at the Kempinski until our credit cards are cancelled. Just that few hotels have this standard of tech stuff. And spa stuff. And dining stuff. We're staying at smaller places in Luxor and Cairo, but we'll both do our best to keep in touch.

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