Travel: Dead Sea: A day at the beach

Published in The Traveler, July 2006:

The Dead Sea: A day at the beach
By Lori Hein

The Dead Sea is dying. Dams and agriculture are shrinking the liquid treasure, site of so much history and heritage, and the fresh water aquifers that line its perimeter are receding into subterranean salt deposits, causing the land above to collapse into great sinkholes. Groups like Friends of the Earth Middle East (FOEME) work to promote cooperative efforts that Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority can take to save the sea.

A winding road from Karak, a dramatic walled city that rises from the floor of the Jordanian desert like a great stone ship, brought me to the Dead Sea and its stark, bleached shoreline. The steep road carried me down past a string of potash factories. The mineral emitted a cloying stink, forgotten when the storied, cobalt water came into view. Ringed by sandstone and white-hot salt cliffs, the Dead Sea is a harsh, beautiful vision.

I followed the coast, its bluffs sculpted in salt. Was it post-year 2000, or was it two thousand years ago? Mud villages built under the shade of spreading trees that seemed old enough to have provided oasis in biblical times; Jordanian children running barefoot through date palm groves and stony farm plots; eggplant and tomato sellers squatting by the road in hooded caftans; men riding donkeys, slapping the asses’ rumps with sticks; encampments of black goat-hair Bedouin tents, here two, there 20; women stoking wood fires; men herding bleating goats and sheep. And next to it all, rippling beneath an unforgiving desert sun, the ancient, salt-encrusted sea.

I wanted to float in the saline water, Earth's most buoyant. Years ago, I’d seen a photograph of a man reading a newspaper while drifting in its brine. I planned to ask someone to take a picture of me reading my guidebook while floating and began looking for a beach where I could stop and strip down to the bathing suit I wore under my ankle-length skirt and long-sleeve tunic. I passed the private beaches of resorts too rich for my budget and kept driving until I came to a small sign at the end of a mud parking lot: "Dead Sea Rest House."

I parked and walked onto a swath of caramel-colored mud dotted with patches of grainy sand. Along the spongy strand, groups of Jordanians were enjoying a day at the beach. Vendors sold Coke and coffee, and one entrepreneur offered camel rides. Families sat in straight lines of white plastic chairs and looked across the water toward Israel. Women in long pants, long sleeves and head scarves sat at the water’s edge, laughing and talking.

I didn’t float in the Dead Sea. But I did take off my shoes and sink my feet in the salty foam that tickled the shore. I took a picture of my froth-covered toes. Three boys, the only bathers, bobbed in the buoyant blue-green swells. I envied them their swim as I collected bronze-gold rocks, oily to the touch, which I licked, then put in my pocket. Salty souvenirs.

A young boy who’d been sitting with his family approached me and offered me a white plastic chair. I knew the chairs were rentals and that his family had paid for each one they occupied. And I knew to graciously accept. I sat for a few minutes, then returned the chair to the boy who’d given it up to me. I thanked his family. "Shukran." Three generations smiled warmly and nodded.

I turned and walked through the muddy sand to my car. As I drove toward Amman, 40 minutes away, good feelings filled me. A boy, a plastic chair, and a gesture that will last my lifetime.

The Dead Sea is dying. The hospitality of the Jordanians who live near its shores is alive and well.

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