Greetings from the lowest place on earth. The Dead Sea is 1,320 feet below sea level, and our group was here about five minutes before we'd already used up every pun you could think of. "This place is so dead." "That joke is so low, but after all this is the lowest place on earth." I'll spare you the rest.
The only "low point" about today is that this internet connection keeps dropping out whenever I try to upload photos, so I'll have to wait til I get home in a few days to send you some. Meanwhile, check out Dean's blog; he's a lot techier than I am, and has already uploaded some great shots of where we've been (he doesn't have any of PawPaw, however, so check back with me next week).
Other than that "low point," everything is going great. I'm looking out my hotel window to the lights in Israel just across the Dead Sea. Here's what's been going on since my last quick post.
Tuesday we left Amman and headed south, stopping at Mount Nebo, where God showed Moses the promised land, but wouldn't let him cross over the Jordan River to reach it. The view is gorgeous.
I imagine Moses was a little put out after coming so far (the Exodus), but then again he died then and there and went on to Heaven, so I guess he got the better deal.
After Mount Nebo, we continued south through amazing landscapes that defy words, and Tuesday night we stayed in Petra. Wednesday morn we were up bright and early, and walked to Petra's front entrance (just around the corner from our hotel, the Crown Plaza).
Petra is a UNESCO World Heritage site--and what words can possible describe it? I'll quote my brother-in-law, John Stanko, who blogged from Petra a few months ago: "I could continue to use words like beautiful, stunning, breathtaking, spectacular, but it won't do. Let me just say them once, but please realize they are implied in all that I report."
Petra is the 2,000-year-old rose-red city carved entirely from beautiful red sandstone mountains. It was capital of the ancient Nabatean kingdom and a major trading post for travelers on the trade routes that stretched from India to Europe. It was lost for nearly 1,000 years (I'm not sure how you can "lose" a city, but that's what they say; actually, local Bedouins and Arabs knew about it, but kept its location a secret). It was rediscovered in 1812.
You've probably seen the famous shot of Petra's pink sandstone Treasury--it's in one of the Indiana Jones movies.
Guess what? That's just the tip of the iceberg. In fact, you have to walk 2 kilometers just to get to the beginning of the city and then another kilometer or so through the Siq (a spectacular route through towering rocks) before you even get to the Treasury.
Along the way are vistas that are absolutely stunning (remember, no words can describe this place). Any buildings you see were carved in one solid piece right out of the rock. The colors are amazing, and as the light changes, so do the colors--from tan to pink to coral and every shade in between.
After lunch, I joined some of our group who hiked up to the monastery--one mile straight up a whopping 830 narrow steps, and every one of them covered with slippery sand. When I say "steps," think narrow rocks and ledges of varying sizes, not the neat stair steps in your house.
On either side of you are cliffs, and in both directions you have to deal with donkeys carrying passengers who made the death-defying decision to put their lives in the hands of beasts who have no understanding of the term "right of way." They give new meaning to the phrase "petrified in Petra."
No matter how high I climbed, whenever I asked someone on their way down how much further I had to go, the answer was always the same: "You're 80% there." It must have been the altitude--or the fact that I just had a birthday and wanted to prove to myself that I could do it--that made me believe them and keep on going.
I know this is really making you want to hop on the next plane to Jordan, but trust me--it is worth the flight. I finally made it to the very top, and the promised view did not disappoint.
Now you know why all I could write on Wednesday night was, "I don't think I've ever been so exhausted in my entire life."
When our very tired little group got back to the hotel and scraped the sand off ourselves, we went to Petra Kitchen for dinner--a wonderful restaurant where you learn to cook popular Arabic dishes and then eat the fruit of your labor. We were all pretty wiped out, but it was a lot of fun and great food. I was on the tabbouleh-chopping committee; I had no idea you could get carpal tunnel from slicing and dicing parsley.
What could top Petra, or at least come close? Wadi Rum, where we headed the next day. Mile after mile of massive rock mountains poking out of red desert sand amazed Lawrence of Arabia nearly 100 years ago--and we had the same reaction. We drove through sand and stunning views, at lightning speed, in open-air jeeps. There are no roadways through the desert, of course, so you make your own, and it was really fun.
Thousands of visitors travel to Petra every week, but sadly only a handful actually go an hour south to visit Wadi Rum. I'm not sure why the others don't, because it's spectacular (and very accessible).
After Wadi Rum, we continued to the southern tip of Jordan--the city of Aqaba on the Red Sea. It was dusk as we arrived, and some of us sat on the beach watching the sun set over Israel and Egypt, just a few kilometers to the west. (Saudi Arabia was just to our left.) Aqaba was a major port for the ancient trading routes, and today claims the oldest dated Christian church in the world.
This morn we hopped on the bus bright and early, and our first stop was Mkawer, one of Herod's two mountaintop homes overlooking the Dead Sea (the other is Masada). The guy may have been crazy, but he had an eye for real estate. Location, location, location. This is where he imprisoned John the Baptist and eventually beheaded him.
Late in the afternoon, we arrived at Bethany beyond the Jordan. Jordan and Israel each claim a site along the Jordan River where Jesus was baptized. Whomever is right, this is a beautiful site (and so is the Israeli site, which I visited last year). Everyone is always amazed to find that the Jordan River is more like a stream. It's about 20 feet across at this point at this time of year, and you could easily reach out and touch Israel--were it not for the Jordanian military watching closely from this side (and the barbed wire and probably half the IDF on the other). There's lots of excavation going on, and we saw archaeological digs uncovering ancient churches on the site.
Tonight we arrived at the Dead Sea, and we leave for dinner in a few minutes. We're all looking forward to tomorrow--a free day with no early-morning bus tours. We'll enjoy Dead Sea mud and minerals before we fly home on Sunday. It's been a great trip, and maybe all this relaxing Dead Sea air will make the 13-hour flight from Amman to JFK a little easier (ugh).