Although it took us three hours from when we left Abraham’s Hostel in Jerusalem, until we finally crossed the Allenby Bridge (less than 50 km. total) and went through immigration to enter Jordan, it was relatively straight forward. Our car rental was waiting for us at the border, and we took off to the Dead Sea. This stop ended up being everything we needed it to. We were staying at the Holiday Inn Resort (much more luxurious than the Holiday Inn’s of the States), and the kids were gleeful over the spacious lobby with intricate floral arrangements, our comfy room, and three separate infinity pools. We didn’t leave the hotel for 24 hours, dining at the buffet restaurants, and trading off between beach and pool. It was incredibly hot and humid, but both the Dead Sea and the pool water were refreshing. It was a long walk to the seas’ receding, rocky shoreline. We tentatively entered and immediately felt how much thicker, almost oily, the high saline water was. We were warned that any cuts would sting and to avoid getting even a drop of water in your eyes. We took advantage of the pots of mineral-rich mud collected by the hotel, and covered our skin, in the hopes of bodily rejuvenation. It was a special place indeed to float buoyantly, as the sun dipped behind the mountains of Israel in the distance.
It’s always hard to leave a taste of luxury, but we were excited for our next stop in Dana Village, where we had planned two nights. On the way we visited the Dead Sea Museum complex to get a deeper understanding of the region’s geology, and took a quick, and longing peek down the Wadi Mujib, where one can go on an adventure hike through a water-filled canyon – assuming you are not a child! We consoled ourselves with the knowledge that we would be hiking the next day, and hopefully satiating our desire to be in nature and physically challenging our bodies. From our funky bedouin guesthouse, built amidst the ruins of an old farming village, we woke early to begin a steep descent into the dry canyon on the Dana Wadi trail. Although the first hour was hard on our knees and toes, as we continually braced ourselves from slipping down a rocky dirt path, we eventually entered easier terrain, still with its’ ups and downs and higher temperature, but doable for all. We hiked a full five and a half hours through the majestic landscape of the Dana Biosphere Reserve, with grand mountains of limestone, sandstone and granite, through woodlands, to a scrubby sandy desert (almost 9 miles!). Just when we felt it couldn’t possibly last any longer, we were called to a bedouin tent by some locals, offering us a dusty rug to rest on and a cup of hot tea. We were not the only trekkers who had been lured into the tent, and we all sat staring at each other, trying in short words to communicate with our hosts. This was a hard life of poverty that we were witnessing. These goat herders with their handful of donkeys and chickens lived in an environment devoid of running water and electricity. I kept trying to overlook the dirty faces, dental rot, and snotty babies, and see the friendly hospitality that we were being bestowed. We had already encountered so many gracious Arabs, whose first words to us were always, “Welcome!”, that we were deeply impressed by the culture’s warmth and friendliness.
It was a two hour drive out of the canyon to return by truck to our guesthouse. We certainly weren’t going to attempt a return journey by foot! We had a final evening to enjoy a Jordanian buffet dinner of over a dozen plates of salads, bean and eggplant spreads, meat, rice, and pita before exiting for slumber. As we left Dana on our way to the Red Sea, sans GPS, and frustrated because of it, we made a stop in one of the many castle ruins that literally litter the King’s Highway from North to South. White-stoned Shobak castle is perched on a remote desert hill, built by crusaders in Ad 1115. We were advised to carry flashlights for our exploration of the ruins that are still in restoration. Per our guide book, we were specifically in search of a secret water tunnel that winds 365 steps down a dark passageway to a subterranean spring. This ended up being one of the scariest experiences of my life… First, it started with solid stairs carved into the bedrock that became more and more worn and slanted. We were all slipping down a very steep decline into a black and never-ending hole. I went from trying to keep my hands clean to grasping the walls for support and sliding on my bum. Halfway down, we encountered a sleeping bat, a foot from our face. Stella and I persevered ahead, while Dan rescued Gabriel from any wicked tumble. We eventually reached the wet bottom (full of trash), only to discover that we now had to climb a rebar ladder out of a narrow well. Straight up, and with big gaps between the steps, my fear of heights was starting to kick in. Stella rushed ahead to conquer our next obstacle, and had nearly reached the top, when she grabbed a rung that started to come out of the wall!!! We freaked out as she thankfully descended safely back into the hole. What the f@%k were we going to do?! I was panicking – not a good move on a Mother’s part. Gabriel was in tears, and Stella was hyper with shock. Dan had to come to the rescue and first helped Stella, then Gabriel, by climbing behind them, bracing himself against the wall and helping to push them over the loose rung. I went third, and had a sewing machine leg by the time I reached the top lip. If Dan wasn’t supporting me from behind, and the kids weren’t egging me on, or Gabriel wasn’t hysterical with fear, I don’t know if I would have been able to muster the strength to pull myself up and over. We made it out, jittery with adrenalin!
On to Aqaba and the Red Sea for one night’s stay, right across the street from the beach, and one of the best recommended reef areas for snorkeling. It was a little windy, and thus choppy in the water, but we decided to introduce Stella and Gabriel to their first time snorkeling, nonetheless. This was our second mistake of the day, as little waves rolled over their snorkel tubes, leaving them in choking, sputtering fear. I was useless again, as Stella clambered all over me, pulling my mask off, and leading to my own mini-freakout. “How about the pool instead?” We decided to try our luck the following morning and give the kid’s more practice and confidence-building in the resort’s calm pool. It turned out that we were staying in Aqaba on the Islamic New Years, when multiple families were also vacationing on the coast. The hot pool area was full of young children and fully-covered Muslim women, either sitting on the patio, or swimming in full clothes and scarves, or burkinis. The heat and humidity were high, and I couldn’t help but feel sorry for all the women I saw in full black on the beach or at our accommodation. Meanwhile, the husbands were in swim trunks and possibly a tank top. All of this was juxtaposed with the occasional western woman in a bathing suit, including my uncomfortable self.
The next day was a success! Although still a little windy, we were all able to follow a rope of buoys to the amazing reef area called “Japanese Gardens”. In contrast, the actual beach we saw in Aqaba, was not the most beautiful. Jordanians gather on the coast for picnics and to cook food, leaving behind the detritus of chicken bones, cigarette butts, and plastic bags and wrappers. The sand is also more akin to fine dirt and pebbly rocks. With such an unappealing trek to the water, my expectations for a healthy and beautiful reef underwater were low. However, the Red Sea has a reputation as a phenomenal diving destination, and it does live up to the hype. We were treated to a rich and colorful garden of coral and multiple fish, including scorpion, angel, box, parrot, barracuda, and eels and sea urchins. Although Stella and Gabriel didn’t last as long as we did, they got to see a completely new world, which I hope will be remembered.