I was looking forward to many new and exciting experiences when we embarked on our long-delayed tour of Israel and Jordan. One of them was a float in the Dead Sea. At 1,380 feet below sea level, this body of water is the lowest elevation on earth, and is one of the planet’s saltiest bodies of water, nearly ten times more saline than ordinary sea waters. The high salt content of this inland lake makes is unsustainable to any living creatures other than algae and some micro-organisms. However, the high salt content allows a human body to float pleasantly without effort.
Hal and I actually visited the Dead Sea twice during our guided tour. The first time was early in the trip. We were taken to what I surmise is the equivalent of a public beach on the Israeli side of the Sea. We think it was named Kalia Beach. Although I don’t know for certain, this section of shoreline was very likely on the West Bank, an area carved out of the country of Israel that is currently controlled by the Palestinians.
The small beach was filled with energetic vacationers who, like us, were eager for a day away from the hustle and bustle of school, work, everyday lives. These people created a hustle and bustle of their own. Umbrellas constructed of dried palm fronds provided some protection from the sun, and every scrap of shade was inhabited by however many individuals could fit. Gentle misters provided some welcome relief from the heat. People were sipping soft drinks and licking snow cones and ice creams. What surprised me was the large number of teen-aged girls, obviously Muslim, who went to this beach completely covered in floor-length, long-sleeved dresses and hajib head dresses, even in the sweltering heat. Then again, the dark-colored fabrics may have served to keep them cooler, and certainly offered the wearer protection from sunburn. These young women provided an interesting visual juxtaposition from those who walked about in skin-revealing bikinis.
The changing rooms were crowded and chaotic, offering an atmosphere much like that of a high school locker room or a public swimming pool. The facility was not exactly unclean, but a large number of bathers had left piles of clothing laying around on the benches, presumably because they didn’t want to pay the ten shekels it cost for a locker rental.
The distance between the changing rooms and the waterline could be traversed on a small electric cart, the fee for which was included with the admission ticket, but once a sunbather disembarked from the cart, the distance to the short stretch of shoreline was exceedingly hot and discouragingly rocky, making it difficult to navigate on bare feet. And the water was oily—positively slick, and not in a positive way. And it exuded a strong, nasty smell of minerals and petroleum substances.
Neither one of us actually made it into the water.
This was a unique experience, all right, but not the pleasurable float of our expectations.
At the end of our guided tour, we visited the Dead Sea a second time. This time, we were staying at a high-end, luxury resort on the Jordanian side. The resort was located directly on the shoreline. We casually strolled from our hotel room down the sandy banks to the water’s edge. I noticed that a section of the lake was cordoned off where hotel guests could bathe, and beyond that area, I observed a hotel employee standing knee-deep in the saline water, collecting handfuls of dark mud from the sea bottom and placing it into a large bucket.
We selected a couple of comfortable lounge chairs shaded by a large, canvas umbrella. Then we skillfully navigated down a gentle incline, over a few rocks, and entered the warm, salty lake. Our bodies were delightfully buoyant in the water. We experimented with floating on our backs, then our stomachs, and then hooked to each other head to foot and head to foot. As instructed, we spent about 15 minutes there, languidly enjoying the buoyancy. The water was certainly salt-laden in the extreme, but was nothing like the oily, petroleum-smelling bilge we experienced on the West Bank side.
After our 15-minute float, Hal and I left the water and made our way up the sandy incline to a small spa hut, where two hotel employees, whose names were Hussein and Amad, bade us sit on a teak bench. Amad then proceeded to slather every exposed inch of us—head to toe, both front and back—with cooling, moisturizing Dead Sea mud. And then Hussein used our cell. phone cameras to take our pictures! After a brief period to allow the mud to dry, we made our way back to the water, where we spent some time washing the stuff off our bodies. Then we returned to the spa hut, where Amad vigorously rubbed each of us down with a salt scrub. He even washed Hal’s hair and massaged his shoulders, arms, and legs. Finally, the man hosed us off, leaving us both with skin as soft as a baby’s bottom.
Later, at the hotel pool, we happened to meet fellow-travelers Patrick and Loren, a couple from the tour group who had been with us during our first visit to the Dead Sea. Only six of the original 29 tour members who had travelled with us through Israel had opted for the Dead Sea extension. Only three of us were willing to sample the body of water on the Jordanian side.
“Did you go down to the shore and get the mud pack?” I asked the pair, describing our experience with enthusiasm.
“Nope!” declared Loren. She said her dip at the West Bank was, to use her word, “icky.” Her bathing suit still smelled like petroleum—in fact, everything in her suitcase was contaminated with the nasty smell—and she refused to get into the water again. No amount of assurance could persuade the two to change their minds, and in any case they were flying home in a few hours and the opportunity had pretty much passed.
The conversation left me feeling very fortunate that Hal and I were open to giving the Dead Sea a second try. I felt sorry for those whose only experience of the Dead Sea was the beach on the West Bank side. They will likely return home never knowing how wonderful it could have been.
“The Dead Sea!” I imagine them telling their family and friends. “That place was horrible!”
I learned an important life lesson from our two visits to the Dead Sea. And this is it: Sometimes you simply must be willing to give things a second chance.
Terry Lee Marzell is Lisa Niver’s (founder of We Said Go Travel) aunt and has written several books! She is an educator with more than 35 years experience in the classroom. Learn more at www.chalkboardchampions.org. AND she wrote about me!