Two days ago I boarded a flight from Erbil to Amman, Jordan, to begin my two weeks off for Nawroz. Nawroz is the celebration of Kurdish and Iranian New Year, and for us means two weeks off for work. Our time off from school is one of the biggest perks of the job; two weeks back in December, and two weeks in March, effectively our spring break.
Amman is a beautiful city located on a string of steep hills with little pattern. I should have figured as much before I came; when I looked at the city on google maps it was obvious there was little pattern in its development and spread, and streets were sometimes very close, sometimes distant. I was used to seeing that pattern in google maps with Islamic cities, where ancient Medina’s dominate city centers and have little pattern, but Amman has the look of one giant medina if given only a cursory look at a map. Truth be told, it is all the more beautiful for it. The city rises and drops sharply on steep hills that have little vegetation. Instead, houses and apartment buildings stand on top of each other forming rolling waves of white and brown.
I like to think that there are two different types of cities to experience when you travel; cities to sight see, and cities to jut be in. Amman is the latter. It doesn’t have a laundry list of remarkable locations like many famous tourist hot spots, its strength lies in the personality of the city and everyone within it. Jordanians are friendly and not the least bit overly forward. If you need their help they are glad to assist, and if you don’t they’ll let you be on your way.
Amman has the friendliness of Kurdistan paired with the relaxed demeanor of Barcelona. There are the ‘musts’ to the city; in particular the 2,000 year old Roman Amphitheater that is still sometimes in use, and the nearly 4,000 year old citadel, but the real charm in Amman is the city and itself, its more than friendly and helpful inhabitants and the relaxing charm that might come from the wavy hills themselves.
Today I took a day trip to the Dead Sea, and can now say I’ve been to the lowest land points in North America and the world. The drive to the Dead Sea was a long descent from the plateau of Amman (about 3,000 ft above sea level) to the Jordan River valley about 1,000 ft below sea level. The surface elevation of the Dead Sea is about 1,336 ft below sea level, the lowest place on earth.
Because of it’s extreme depression, water that flows into the Dead Sea from the Jordan River has nowhere to flow out. As a result, water is only lost through evaporation, making the Dead Sea the saltiest major body of water anywhere in the world. I tested it out and swirled some water in my mouth, it was as if I was gargling warm vodka. The intense salinity stung any open skin or orifice, and stung a small cut on the topside of my foot. At one point I made the mistake of putting my head under water, and rushed out to wash my eyes.
The true allure of the Dead Sea, however, is its otherworldly buoyancy. Because of its extreme salt content the Dead Sea’s water is more dense than a normal body of salt water, and the result is the most effortless float you’ll ever experience. I loved watching a big-bellied German man waddle his way into the Dead Sea and sit in the water with only his butt and back underwater.
I’ll never forget what it felt like. I’m a swimmer born and raised, and know that if I exhale completely in a pool and lie motionless, I’ll sink to the bottom like a lead weight. In the Dead Sea I could barely put my head underwater and when i sat low in the water it felt as if the sea was spitting me out and rejecting my presence.
The day was for the most part improvised. I knew I wanted to get to the Dead Sea and had asked my hostel clerk how to best go about doing it, but transportation to-and-from was anything but straight forward, though it was enjoyable. Getting to the Dead Sea was a three leg journey including a stop in the small village of Rama across the Jordan River from the ancient city of Jericho now in the West Bank.
Getting back was entirely different. As I was leaving Amman Beach, one of the popular spots on the sea, I asked a security guard where some taxis might be (I really hadn’t planned at all how to get back). He tried calling a taxi driver, I think, but looked pretty disinterested in my question or concern.
I asked a few other people, and then decided to just walk back about a mile down the road to a string of hotels where I knew I’d seen a lot of buses, and was sure I could find a taxi. Turned out those hotels were a little further along the rocky road than I had remembered, and walking all the way back to them would have taken a considerable amount of time.
I chose a different option. Although I hadn’t read up on hitch hiking culture in Jordan, I noticed on my ride to the Dead Sea that it did exist, with people often standing on the side of the road looking for a ride. I took the cue that I’d seen that morning and put my thumb out. I waited for less than fifteen minutes before I was picked up by a clean shaven young man named Tasin. In the back of his car he had a camouflage uniform and cap hanging up, and I learned he was a captain in the Jordanian Special Forces.
Like many other Jordanians I had met over the past two days, he was surprised to say the least that an American was working in Iraq, and we traded stories about Da’ish (ISIS). At one point he just chuckled and paused, and then responded “F**king Da’ish”. I almost died laughing, and we both indulged each others disgust for the topic.
He refused my offer to pay for his gas when we stopped at a station and he dropped me off in downtown Amman no more than a fifteen minute walk away from my hostel.
It’s been an awesome two days so far, I’m looking forward to the next twelve.