Madaba, October 5, 2009., Monday

Trip Start Oct 01, 2009
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Trip End Oct 10, 2009


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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The "Pilgrim House" restaurant was nearly empty at breakfast. When it is like that, then whoever happens to be there with you, it's nearly inevitable that you guys start chatting. Particularly if you are fellow travellers. Which you usually are, as we do tend to stay at same places.

This time it was Ronald, a civil engineer from the Hague. He was in Madaba, fresh from Wadi Musa, heading up north, i.e. in the opposite direction of me. As usual, we were trading stories and experiences and getting acquainted along the way. He told me he’d been travelling across Middle East for roughly two months now. That bit made me a bit confused.

„How come you can get yourself so much time off?“

„In fact, I quit,“ he grinned. And then he continued:

„Now I just work project-wise.“

„I see. And is it difficult to find enough work like that?“

„Actually, I still work for the same company. Only, not on the full-time basis.“

„Well, if it enables you a decent living standard and if you can travel, that’s good,“ I said neutrally.

„Yes, it does. I do earn a bit less, that’s true. But still enough. And on the other hand, I have so much more free time. So on balance, I’m much better off like this.“

„That’s right,“ I said. „People often lose sight of where to draw the line and sacrifice too much of what they love for things they think they can’t do without.“

„Yes, I noticed that myself. I realised I was earlier attached to things. You do get like that. But now when I travel I stay in places like this,“ here he spun his finger in the air meaning „Pilgrim’s House“ in general „and I have all I need.“

Ronald gave me some tips around Petra, having told me how he’d met a Finnish lady who was working as an archaeologist in the area. She was located in the village of Um Sayhoun near Little Petra and he claimed that if I said he’d given me her address, she’d welcome me and show me certain things around that regular tourist usually has no chance to see.

While we chatted, Father Innocent popped into the restaurant, flinging open the kitchen door. He seemed to be in quite a hurry, and yet found time first for a little courtesy chat with us, and then he wished us a nice day. Ronald was obviously familiar with his presence, as well.

And then, a guy I’d never seen before entered the restaurant and asked:

“Has anyone ordered a taxi for the Dead Sea and Mt. Nebo?”

That would be me. And he was the taxi driver.

“When you’re ready, we can go.”

So it was time to bid Ronald farewell, wish him all the best and get myself started on the new day.

My taxi tour today was going to include three stations. First one on the list – not surprisingly so since it’s only some ten kilometres away from Madaba - was Mount Nebo. It’s difficult to put into words how I felt about it when I got there. On one hand you are aware that it’s one of the most important and revered Christian pilgrimage sites. They say it was here that God gave Moses his only chance to lay his eyes on the Promised Land before he died. If that’s true, then it’s certainly worth going up. For example, both of the last two Popes, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, visited the spot. So you couldn’t say I was exactly in the company of nobodies. Moreover, Jewish and Christian traditions claim that Moses was even buried here, “by God Himself”, even if at least some scholars hold that claim in dispute, if nothing else, then for the fact that no living soul knows the exact location of Moses’ grave.


On the other hand, however, Mt. Nebo is also nearly a piece of nothing. Granted, the views over the surrounding landscape are spectacular. You can see as far as Amman in one direction and the Dead Sea - and Jerusalem when the weather is clear - in another. That said, though, if the Promised Land the Moses saw back then was in any way like the Promised Land I saw today, then God was not that big on promises at all. Then He was much more generous to, say, us Croats, even if we never wrote any Bibles about our piece of history and the way we’d settled the parts where we are now. And not just Croats. Very few countries I’ve seen so far have nothing on this piece of desert they’ve been fighting wars over for centuries now.And aside from the obviously enormous religious significance, the summit of the mound that proudly calls itself a mount today at best goes down as modest. Up there you first come across two unassuming memorials, one of them marking the visit of the Pope John Paul II, and the other one dedicated to Moses himself, where one can read that the place is owned and run by Franciscans. Then there’s also the structure of the modern church building, known as the Memorial Church of Moses with so-called Old Baptistery just inside the entrance and the New Baptistery a bit further off.

Probably the most attractive feature of the site is the viewing platform from where you can best cast a look over the Dead Sea and the land of Israel beyond. The number of tourists on this particular spot attested to it.

And that was it. Was I impressed? Or was I disappointed? I was not sure yet. I was simply going to have to let the time do its own and after a while, when the impressions settled, I would know more.

For now, I just went back to the taxi to continue my tour.

The taxi driver, of course, hadn’t joined me. He had parked his car on a car park just outside the entrance to the Mount Nebo site, in the company of a few more taxis and several tour buses, and waited for me. As soon as I returned, we moved on.

From there we trundled on down the highway which cut right through the desert towards the Bethany Baptism site. That’s one of the places which, at least as I understood it, one can’t visit independently. The Jordan Tourism Authority has opened the site to tourists, but their numbers are controlled in an effort to preserve its sanctity. So you first get to a point where they sell tickets. Which is a sort of Visitor’s Centre, probably still in expansion, but already with a spacious car park, restaurant and a number of souvenir shops where you can buy all sorts of things you’ll probably never need. And then, when there are enough tourists to fill the bed of a pick-up truck, they drive you a few kilometres away to the so-called Baptism Archaeological Park where the Christ was once upon a time baptised and today’s pilgrims and visitors can explore the ancient remains of churches, baptism pools and mosaics. I don’t know how it is otherwise, but we were an all-western group, with just one local guy as a guide to the site. I suspect it’s a typical line-up.

Of course, as Christ was baptized on the Jordan River, that’s where they were taking us. To the river which they say was once majestic, but today is reduced to a mere creek.

And on the same note, on the whole, this peace of land that they now claim with certainty is where John the Baptist baptised Jesus, visually comes across as only slightly better than the Mount Nebo. Jordan River has shrunk so much due to dams built upstream in Syria and Israel that it doesn’t even flow any more through that particular spot where John and Jesus stood, and archaeological excavations, or rebuilding, go on in dry dust. The Jordan is a mere, muddy trickle, hardly wider than the little brook next to my home before they paved the town bypass over it.

But Jesus was baptised here, which effectively launched his mission and kind of put the official name on Christianity on that day. So whoever is a Christian, however unpretentious this place may appear, they consider it one of the three holiest Christian sites in the world, together with Bethlehem were Jesus was born and Jerusalem where Jesus’ earthly mission ended. Particularly now as they claim that they have established beyond any doubt that Jesus was not baptised on the other – Israeli – side of the river. Whatever led them to believe that, it seems people are convinced. Both latest Popes, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, were here for a visit. On the Jordanian side.

Our guide led us down a shady path through the „jungle of Jordan“, as called by the prophet Jeremiah, but in reality just a pleasant growth of low tamarisk trees, to the so-called Spring of John the Baptist where the baptising had taken place. They had somehow filled it with water for the Pope’s visit, but by the time we the common mortals arrived, it had already completely evaporated. We stopped for a while on a small look-out above the Baptism pool until the guide delivered a number of facts which he was supposed to do by the definition of his role. Of course, on more than one occasion he mentioned St. John the Baptist. We all listened with as much interest as an average tourist summons on such occasions.

Until at one point a German guy asked:

“What was his name? St. George the Baptist?”

Now, if I had been half asleep, not least due to the soaringly high air temperature, this remark completely woke me up. Of course, the guy could have been an atheist. No one should have any problems with that. But coming from a Christian country, where religion is taught regularly in primary and secondary schools, I couldn’t believe that he’d never heard of someone who easily belonged to probably top five – or at least top ten - most famous Bible characters.

“No,” the guide corrected him. “St. John the Baptist.”

On from the Spring, we walked to the Church of John the Baptist, covered by a wooden, airy structure on pillars, just enough to shelter recently excavated 7th-century church which still had the original altar and mosaic floor on display. Everybody rushed into the shadow of the roof. Which, come to think of it, was no wonder. That particular spot lies some four hundred metres below sea level. So out in the sunshine the air temperature must have easily soared way up to forty degrees centigrade. Probably even a notch or two above. Even a camel would’ve felt thirsty and exhausted there.

But there was one more station to cover, some hundred an fifty metres farther off, and this time it was the Jordan River itself, which at this very spot was the border that divided Jordan and Israel. However, visually the most attractive feature of the third station, or possibly of the whole site, was quite a spectacular new Orthodox Church of John the Baptist, built as recently as 2003 by Russian money, complete with golden domes and Byzantine-style interior murals. Were it not for the sheer knowledge that just across the stream that once was a river there is the land of Israel -.or now state of Israel, more to the point – the church could have stolen the show.

But this way, probably sheerly psychologically, maybe the most dramatic thing of all was when next to the church we descended all the way down to the river and just a few metres across there was Israeli tourist platform, same as Jordanian one, only with a different flag. It was all empty. But not like the alternating visits North Korea – South Korea style in Panmunjeom. According to our guide, now that they have with certainty established that Jesus was baptised on the Jordanian side, no one is coming to the Israeli side any more. You just don’t come for the dirty little river only.

Few metres to the side of us, also on the platform, there was an armed Jordanian soldier. After all, this was the border. Even if you had an impression that probably short of brandishing firearms or wading across the river to the Israeli side nothing was forbidden here. There was no sense of restriction in any way. And no warnings like on the South Korean side in Panmunjom not to do this or that, not look here or there, not to speak or not to breathe. So at one point I asked our guide if the soldier would mind if we took a picture of his.

“He wouldn’t like it,” the guide said.

“Even if I asked him nicely?”

A couple of elderly Americans laughed, but the guide didn’t find it amusing in the slightest. So I let it go.

And with a few minutes more on the platform, with several people dipping their hands into the Jordan – I didn’t do it, it looked too muddy… OK, too dirty – our tour of the Bethany Baptism Site ended and we returned to our pick-up truck.

On our way back to the Visitor’s Centre, we stopped for a minute or two, without leaving the vehicle, and the guide pointed at a wooden structure, a catwalk, in fact, smack in the middle of the desert, a few hundred metres off, and said this was Tell Mar Elias, or Elijah’s Hill, the spot where the Prophet Elijah ascended to heaven in a whirlwind on a chariot of fire. The likes of Erich von Däniken used to claim that this particular chariot of fire was a spaceship, but that line of thought was beside the point on this occasion.

On the whole, the place obviously played only the second fiddle to the Bethany Baptism Site, so we soon moved on and returned to the Visitor’s Centre.

My taxi driver was there, of course, and it was now time to continue to the Dead Sea.

What can one say about the Dead Sea that has not been said yet? Nothing I guess. Everybody knows it’s well below the sea level and world’s lowest dry points are on its shores. At 423 metres below, it’s even lower than the Bethany Baptism Site. Due to exceptionally high evaporation rate, it has a ridiculously high salinity and no creature apart from certain bacteria can survive in it. Therefore every self-respecting animal or plant keeps a bit away from it.

There’s been an ongoing hype about beneficial effects on human body of the Dead Sea mud and it’s now sold to the believers from almost every hotel in Amman to alternative medicine shops in China. How much on or off the mark those claims are, I am in no position of confirming, but the thing is, the Dead Sea was one of the world’s first health resorts. Even the likes of King David and Herod the Great seemed to agree with that.

But sadly, as a consequence of the addled upstream management of the Jordan River, which is its main tributary, the Dead Sea has been conspicuously shrinking of lately, probably continuously adding to the “lowest dry point” record mark.

However, it didn’t seem to have much effect on the influx of tourists. And to that end, hotels and beaches have sprung up on its shores, on its both sides – Israeli and Jordanian.

My taxi driver brought me to the Amman Beach, probably the closest one from the direction we’d been coming. The closest one of those open to public, that is, because the way I understood it, stretches of the Dead Sea shore belong to hotels where you can visit only as a hotel guest.

Those who want to soak their bones in the Dead Sea at the Amman Beach need to dish out 12 JD on arrival. Not exactly a budget option, but on the Dead Sea there are no budget options at all. If you need a towel, like I did, it costs you another JD to boot. Of course, you could sip your drink at a table of one of the beach terrace cafés and even not go to the Dead Sea at all, but rather have a dip in a swimming pool instead. All those privileges would cost you even more.

But it would have been a sacrilege to come to the Dead Sea and then swim in a pool. So I took a towel and headed down towards the seashore. My cabbie asked me how long I figured I’d be there. I didn’t know, but we had to make some kind of appointment. After all, the guy too had to make his plans.

“Two hours? Is it OK?” I asked.

“Whatever you say,” he wouldn’t suggest anything.

“Then let’s make it two hours,” I said.

Coming to the Amman Beach here at the Dead Sea didn’t improve things on Bethany Baptism Site much, either in terms of altitude or temperature. But preposterously viscous and sticky Dead Sea water was absolutely pleasant. I found myself an empty chair right by the water, left all my stuff there so I could keep an eye on it, and rushed across the literally burning sand straight in.

They do have those boards strategically placed here and there that warn you of all sorts of things, mostly to protect yourself from the high salinity of the water. So you’re admonished no to dive, not to swim crawl or breaststroke, not to go too far away from the shore, all that in order to avoid getting the water into your eyes and mouth. But honestly, majority of people – just like me - didn’t appear to crave for any of those things, either. And why would you, when you could just literally lie on your back and feel as if on a very watery water bed? Whoever sees pictures of the Dead Sea, sooner or later they come across those depicting people reading books or newspapers in the water. And it’s not a fake. They do that. I was there. I know.

The only thing you need to pay attention to is not to roll over as for some reason the water has a knack for throwing you off your balance. So if you’re not careful, you may soon find yourself lying on the water but on your stomach, turned over like a steak. Luckily, though, the Dead Sea is shallow – I mean, this sufficiently wide strip along the shore - so whenever keeping your balance becomes too delicate a task, you just plant your feet in the sand and find yourself standing in the water, waist-deep at most.

And then off you go again.

A huge majority of the people on the beach were western tourists like me. Only a handful were Arabs. And they very much stood out. Almost always whole families, only guys stripped down to swimsuits. Or to drawers. The women never did. Even if they ventured into the water, it was always in full outfit, in their black hijabs, perhaps knee-deep at most.

Westerners, on the other hand, looked and behaved like they do on just about every beach in the western world. Except that on those other beaches there were no mud buckets with the black Dead Sea medicinal mud to paste all over your skin. I never bothered to try it on. I wouldn’t have even if I had planned to spend more time here. But quite a few people did, strutting around and sporting their new Massai look until – I suppose – it caked dry on their skin.

I would have stayed in the water and soaked my bones a lot longer if I’d had no fixed appointment with the taxi driver to go back to Madaba. As I didn’t want to be the one he’d be waiting for, I made sure to be ready to go just as I said, in two hours.

While I was taking a shower up there on the beach and washing away the sticky feel of the Dead Sea from my skin, two swarthy and less-than-hungry looking guys took theirs under the next pipe. For some reason they found me immensely interesting and stared openly in my direction. So much so that only a blind man would have plausibly convinced anyone he hadn’t noticed. I couldn’t imagine what it was on me that made them gawping like that. My skin wasn’t green, I didn’t have two noses and last time I checked, the number of my ears and arms were just about the same as with the vast majority of humanity. I’d like to believe that I’m not even particularly ugly, so perhaps that shouldn’t have called for such an intense staring, either. Maybe my long hair? But that’s already been seen, too.

Well, in any event, when I started feeling embarrassed pretending I didn’t notice, since they didn’t feel embarrassed gawking at me, I looked squarely back, smiled and said:

“Hi!”

Only then, as if they had waken up from a parallel reality, they kind of cottoned on to the fact that their staring had been, well, a bit unconventiona. They smiled back.

“Where are you from?” I asked.

The bigger one, with a generous two-metre size waist, said:

“Saudi Arabia.”

“Pleased to meet you, “ I said.

He smiled and nodded. And that was it. After that, there was no more staring.

My cabbie was on time. He came even a bit earlier, climbing down all the way to the beach, while the last drops of water were still evaporating from my skin. He came to inform me that, if I wouldn’t mind, he would have to leave on an urgent family business, but he’d already notified his cousin who’d take me back to Madaba. It’d all extend all my stay for just about fifteen minutes. Was it OK?

Of course, I didn’t mind.

And all along, while we were talking, his eyes darted away towards all those western girls and women in their bikinis which, just as every proper bikini should, revealed more than they were hiding. At one point I started laughing and when he realised I caught his glances, he grinned broadly, raised his eyebrows several times in a quick succession and put out his tongue lolling in the most lascivious manner.

“Not bad, huh?” I said as a man to man.

“Uh, I love to come here,” he added with a lustful sigh. But his family business – maybe even a hijab-clad wife – called him and he had to go.

Fifteen minutes later, his cousin arrived. He knew immediately who to look for and almost on schedule we headed back through Jordanian desert to Madaba.

An hour or so later I was in my room. My initial plan was to take some rest after what had turned out to be an exhausting day, mostly due to the sun and heat I wasn’t exactly used to, and then go out in the evening like the previous night. I figured I’d write down my first impressions and sort the pictures for an hour or two and then the twilight would be a good time to take another walk.

All included, the whole tour cost me sixty one JDs. For someone like me, who was on the budget, as most of independent travellers usually are, it wasn’t exactly a bargain. But the way I saw it, coming to Jordan and not visiting all those places would have been a true waste of money. They belonged to spots you came here for. Skip them, or some of them, and you should’ve stayed home in the first place and really saved your dosh. Otherwise, once here, regardless of what they appear to be on the face of it, it really would have been a sin to miss any of them. Now, that would have been a genuine disrespect towards my hard-earned money.

But my plans changed even when I wasn’t aware that they would. As it was, the baking hot sun and ridiculously high air temperature out there had drained a lot of water and strength from me. So I didn’t know how or when, but I just fell asleep so tight that even whining and moaning of the muezzin outside could wake me.

And so I called it a day a lot earlier than I was even aware of it.
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