After a night of getting maybe three or four hours sleep my roommate Adam and I departed for the University to catch a bus for our trip to Al-Kerak and the Dead Sea. After another quick stop for some breakfast foods (today I ate some sort of hot dog baked inside bread and potato baked inside bread) we set off on the two hour bus trip to Kerak. During the trip I was (un)fortunate enough to sit by a guy who spent the entire trip talking about everything you can possibly imagine to two guys sitting behind us. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone string together so many random topics without a break in my life. He talked about everything from tacos to Harry Potter. Fortunately about an hour and a half into the trip we stopped for a bathroom break and I was given a brief reprieve. It’s kind of strange but rest stops on Jordanian highways remind me of the trips I took to the deserts in the Western United States. There’s a road and basically nothing else around it except for some random building way away from the road with no doors or windows. I jokingly dubbed it a Jordanian urban warfare training building. After a short break we were back on the road to Kerak.
After a little while we approached Kerak. I don’t think I could possibly describe the scenery here in Jordan and do it any justice. It’s simply spectacular. Huge rock formations and giant valleys are only broken by the occasional narrow twisty road (It would be so much fun to blast through some of these roads in the Type-S) and a few Bedouin (and some gypsy) tents. The bus stopped and let us off for some quick pictures (Jordanians call them Kodak moments) of the approaches to the castle and I was able to take an amazing picture which now is the background for my laptop. After a couple minutes it was back on the bus. At this point I have to give a shout out to the Jordanian bus drivers the program hires to take us on these day trips. I am amazed at their ability to navigate the narrow streets of these ancient towns without much difficulty. The approach to the castle was up a single lane (due to parked cars) ridiculous road that the bus took like a champ.
Once we arrived we disembarked and began our tour of the castle. Kerak Castle was built by the Crusader King Baldwin the First in 1142. It was then added to by the Mamluks in the mid 13th century. It’s most famous occupant was Renauld de Chatillon. Renauld was a Crusader from France who had a sadistic nature and was known to cast people over the walls while covering their heads to keep them from passing out from fear. He also had the dubious honor of earning himself the right to be the only Crusader leader to be beheaded by Saladin himself. He was an interesting character in history but I’ll spare you the details here.
Right by where we were dropped off there was an old Ottoman howitzer from maybe the late 19th century which prompted my friend Dylan and me to take some crazy cannon photos. Next, we were taken into the castle itself. We walked down long and dark corridors with vaulted ceilings. All of the rooms off of the main hallway had a skylight and a window for light. The hallway seemed endless until we emerged into the main courtyard of the castle. Kerak is truly a sight to behold. It sits on top of a hill with sheer drops from each side except the entrance. The residence areas were not available to be toured but I was able to see tour all the buildings including the Crusader church, the mosque, and the Mamluk Keep. Sadly the towers have largely collapsed due to earthquakes over the passage of time but it is still clear where they stand and they are still quite impressive. I was able to take some amazing pictures from various vantage points in the castle. Unfortunately our time here was relatively short though so after an hour we had to head back to the bus. Dylan, another student and I made everyone wait while we explored the museum in the castle. I can’t help but be mildly disappointed by the museums in these historical sites. They do contain some interesting items but it seems that most of the best antiquities have long since disappeared. Dylan provided another comedic moment as one of the display cases was empty yet unlocked. He placed a pack of cigarettes inside to provide with more hilarious material for photos. Fortunately the museum curator was not around. After the museum we headed back to the bus and departed for the Dead Sea.
The bus trip to the Dead Sea took us through some of the most amazing natural terrain and rock formations I’ve ever seen. It also took us from about three thousand feet in altitude at Kerak to about thirteen hundred feet below sea level to the lowest point on earth. As we drove up the Dead Sea Highway we came up the Southern reaches of the Dead Sea. The water had a bluish-green hue outlined by a white shoreline which at distance looked like sudsy waves but as we grew nearer to the Sea quickly it became apparent that the white was crystallized salt onshore.
Eventually we reached Wadi Mujib otherwise known as the “Grand Canyon of Jordan.” We stopped briefly on the bridge which crossed the end of the canyon to examine the scale of this unbelievable natural wonder. The walls of the canyon stretched almost straight up on either side with a hiking trail disappearing into the canyon along the Northern face. I tried to take a quick picture of the canyon but we did not get off the bus and I ended up with a picture of a student’s head. I hope that I have time during this program to try and return to the canyon and perhaps the nature reserve within. Time will tell, but for now it was time to move onto the Dead Sea.
We arrived at a resort on the Dead Sea Spa Hotel and disembarked for lunch. Lunch was a buffet style and I think I ate the most food I had in weeks. This may seem kind of silly but for I strangely enjoyed standing in a line for the first time in weeks. People in Jordan do not wait in lines. They simply go around people and congregate at whatever counter they are trying to get to all the while trying to interrupt whatever is happening at said counter to their benefit. It’s actually somewhat comical to watch their frustration build as clerks ignore them and continue to help the person that was there first. I will say though that a similar silly situation occurred as I stood in line as some Europeans became exasperated that some of my colleagues were toasting their bread while we waited in line. In fact some of the people behind me ended up cutting in line in order to get ahead of my classmates only to realize that in actuality they were not the reason for the delays. It’s the little things which keep my sense of humor busy here in Jordan.
After lunch all the students changed into their swimsuits and headed to the beach. Unfortunately I did not remember to bring my suit from back home (if I even own one at all which demonstrates the sad state of my life the past few years in terms of taking vacations, a tragedy which I hope to correct regularly if finances allow after I return). I took my shoes and socks off, rolled my pants headed onto the beach. The entire trip Dylan, my roommate Adam, Nick and a few others kept arguing to me that I was at the Dead Sea and I should simply suck it up and just swim in my boxers. I’ll get back to that later though. The beach was picturesque against the matching Sea and Blue Sky. Pocked with intermittent umbrellas made from what looks like palm leaves, the beach looked more like somewhere in the Caribbean than in the Middle East. Only the imposing cliffs and hills of the West Bank on the other side provided the greatest reminder of where I was. The beach was filled with what I assume to be tourist spreading mud onto themselves and others in order to experience the skin healing qualities of the mud from the Dead Sea. Such mudslinging (Sorry, I couldn’t resist) of which the healing qualities are questionable, at the very least must provide the Jordanians with endless examples of silly foreigners looking absolutely ridiculous while covering themselves in mud. If such a thing is true, what an ingeniously cruel joke indeed.
As I worked my way out on an outcropping of salt, sand, and mud out into the water I stepped into the Sea itself. The water was warm clear and truly inviting. The friends I previously mentioned were maybe 50 yards off shore of this outcropping and they began to yell for me to just strip down and get in the water all the while reminding me that there is no way of knowing when I may ever get another chance. Finally they won me over and I proceeded to strip to my boxers and made my way out into the water over the extremely sharp salt crystals. I have to say that swimming in the Dead Sea is not much like swimming at all. In fact, any effort at a normal freestyle swim results in much splashing of water and very little forward momentum. I resigned myself to flipping onto my back and swam out to my colleagues with a steady backstroke. The water was truly invigorating and I can honestly say that while I was in the water I felt the best that I had felt in weeks. I attribute this more as a mental result rather than any actual healing qualities of the water. On the whole I would say we were maybe 50 or 60 meters from the shore which considering my lack of confidence in my swimming abilities I count quite a personal accomplishment. While out in the water Dylan touched off a friendly wager with Nick in which we all promised a certain monetary sum in order to get Nick to try and touch the Seafloor. Where we were, there is no telling how deep the water was, although the tallest guys there were trying to convince him that they could touch the bottom with their toes, a claim which I doubt. After being promised a substantial amount, Nick made his attempt to dive which turned into a hilarious display of his legs in the air kicking and never descending into the water. In fact, all he ended up getting out of the whole deal was a burning nose and eyes. The salt in the water was very unkind to the eyes and nose.
After a little while I decided to head back to my clothes and camera which were sitting on the salt a decent distance away. At this point I also have to give a shout out to Citizen as I forgot to take off my watch before getting in the water. The watch is water resistant to one hundred meters but I figured the salt in the water would be its doom. Fortunately I was wrong as my watch made it through unscathed. The same cannot be said for my feet and wrist though. As I was swimming back to shore I scratched my wrist on the salt crystals on the seafloor. Also as I slowly picked my way back to my clothes I shredded my feet on the crystals on shore. Perhaps this was due to the softening of my skin due to the salt water. Standing by my clothes I looked down and saw a decent amount of blood at my feet and I remember thinking: “Oh wow, someone really bled a lot by my clothes” only to realize that this was my blood. I sat down by my clothes and most of my colleagues eventually worked their way to the shore by me only to experience the same bloody lesson. At this point I have to say that my experience in the Dead Sea was definitely a memorable one but I must advise you to bring your swimsuit. Since I was in my boxers I decided not to partake in a shower onshore. This was a really big mistake as the salt leaves a pretty disgusting residue on your skin and especially in your hair.
After about an hour I had sufficiently dried out and I put my clothes back on and headed back to the bus. We eventually departed and I was able to return home to a well deserved and much desired shower. Thus we draw to a conclusion for my Kerak/Dead Sea daytrip. Unfortunately I have two substantial papers due in about 13 days so I’m not sure how substantial my blog entries will be over that period. Academics always come first. I will try my best though.