Variety

Afloat the healing waters

RASHEEDA BHAGAT | Updated on March 12, 2018

Rejuvenation: An Indian couple relaxes in the Dead Sea. - Photo: Sonia Nazareth

Jordan metal work. - Photo: Rasheeda Bhagat   -  Business Line

An Arab family at the Red Sea. - Photo: Rasheeda Bhagat   -  Business Line

Soaking in Jordan at the therapeutic Dead Sea.

Any visitor to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, a land of mesmerising beauty and contrasts — fertile valleys and stark, dusty mountains — will return with two indelible impressions: the ancient city of Petra and the relaxing, rejuvenating Dead Sea.

Nayef H. Al-Fayez, MD of the Jordan Tourism Board (JTB), reeled off the benefits of the Dead Sea to us — six Indian journalists hosted by the JTB. “This is the largest natural spa in the world. Its therapeutic benefits have been recognised for over 2,000 years. Being 410 metres below sea level, the air around the Dead Sea is about 8 per cent richer in oxygen compared to that at sea level.”

A unique combination of climatic conditions and elements — sun, water, mud and air — a session in the Dead Sea promises relief from several ailments, particularly skin diseases such as psoriasis, atopic dermatitis, vitiligo and psoriatic arthritis, respiratory conditions, circulatory problems and even eye ailments.

But the magic of Jordan, a land of varying altitudes, is such that in a mere 14 minutes you can feel the difference in altitude. “Yesterday it took me 45 minutes to get from the Dead Sea to my house, and that was from 410 metres below sea level to 960 metres above sea level,” says Fayez.

From scepticism to fascination

Also, because of the high salt content, no animal life can survive here — so there is no danger of being bitten by sharks — and you cannot drown. Even those who don't know swimming can stretch out on the water and read a book! As images of gorgeous women reading books as they ‘sleep' on the Dead Sea flood our mind, we are all charged up for the experience.

The concentrated oxygen in this water relaxes the body and hastens the healing process. That is why products of the Dead Sea such as mud, salt and a host of beauty products such as lotions, shampoos, moisturisers are so popular, and flood stores across Jordan. “I know spa is big in India but our spa is different because we use the Dead Sea mud and salt and the location itself helps your body relax and heal, and your skin glow.”

The same evening we land at the plush Dead Sea Movenpick Resort and Spa, change into swimsuits and head for the inviting waters of the Dead Sea amidst the mellow rays of the evening sun. To remind us that this is really 410 metres below sea level we have to climb down maybe about 100 steps to reach the water. Very thoughtfully, the famous mud is kept in a bucket on a huge rock. We smear it on the face and arms and walk gingerly into the cool water. The terrain is both rocky and slippery, but once you get the hang of it, and the density of the water pushes your feet up, there is no limit to the frolicking… and, of course, the giggles that are triggered only in an all-female gang. But laugh with caution here; a few drops of the saline water on your tongue is bad enough, but if you get it in your eyes, be prepared for a stinging session!

An adventure!

Aruna is the most scared in our group. She is petrified of water and has to be persuaded to venture in. But within 15 minutes, once she finds she is floating effortlessly, she gets bolder and soon leaves the shore. As she gets into deeper waters, literally and otherwise, a couple of us warn her, but to no avail. Suddenly something happens, she panics and shouts: “Help me”. As those who don't know swimming quickly move away, I try to give her a hand, only to get my arm almost twisted, my palm scratched badly, my foot banged against the rock and the extremely saline water stinging my eyes.

By now the hapless woman is screaming and flapping violently in the water. Fortunately Ibrahim, the resort's lifeguard, is in the vicinity. He jumps in, gives her a hand and empties the bottle of fresh water he's carrying on her face. After taking her to the shore, he brings back some fresh water, pours it on my eyes and, as though by magic, the sting is gone!

After this adventure we all head to the shore and slosh the Dead Sea mud from the bucket all over our body. Ten minutes of the mud-treatment, strong jets of fresh water to wash it off and voila, there certainly is a spring in our step as we head back to our rooms. But of course, poor Aruna has cuts and scratches over her limbs.

The experience has been so exhilarating — at least for the five of us — that before sunrise the next morning we head back for another session in the Dead Sea.

After two sessions in these therapeutic waters, I can understand the rationale behind what Fayez told us about some German insurance companies sending some of their clients for skin treatment here, and they spend around 5 to 6 weeks. “They pay for the treatment here because the ingredients have no chemicals to cause side effects, and the insurers feel they are saving money on future treatment of aggravated ailments.”

Baptism site

The Dead Sea is shared by Jordan, Israel and Palestine, just as that part of the Jordan River where Jesus Christ was baptised by John the Baptist. One of the three holiest Christian sites in the world, together with Bethlehem (the Church of the Nativity) and Jerusalem (the Church of the Holy Sepulcher), small wonder that three Popes began their religious pilgrimage at this spot, before proceeding to Israel and Palestine.

The muddy green water at the spot doesn't look impressive… till you step in. The rush of peace and calm that hits you instantly has to be experienced to be believed.

Another wonder of Jordan, which unfortunately enough pales against marvels such as Petra and the Dead Sea, is the ancient Roman city of Jerash. Dating back to over 6,500 years, it came under Roman rule after it was conquered by General Pompey in 63 BC. Jerash was hidden under the sand for centuries before it was excavated 70 years ago and has all the telltale sings of a Roman urban structure — imposing stone columns, paved streets, public squares and plazas, baths, fountains, gates and hilltop temples. One of the imposing theatres can seat 3,000 and is even today regularly used for performances and cultural events.

Bollywood rules!

Bollywood, which was a big hit here in the 1970s and 1980s, before Hollywood took over, is back in the race, “after the success of Slumdog Millionaire”. Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan and Shashi Kapoor are well known here. I ask Fayez to name some Bollywood heroines and he smiles: “The problem is that they are all so beautiful that you love them all! And also they don't last so long, like Amitabh Bachchan!”

Bollywood films are regularly aired on Jordanian channels with Arabic sub-titles “and we are trying to get some famous Indian directors to come and shoot here.”

Hollywood epics such as Lawrence of Arabia, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and, more recently, the Oscar winning The Hurt Locker were shot here; and next year, as Lawrence of Arabia celebrates its 50th anniversary, some tour operators are creating a movie trail package related to this.

Next year marks the 200th anniversary of the rediscovery of Petra. The hidden city of Petra was a major trading centre during the Nabataean rule from 3rd century BC to early 2nd century AD, when it was occupied by the Roman Emperor Trajan.

It was kept hidden by the Nabataeans because they believed there was a huge treasure buried there and it would be looted if discovered by outsiders.

An important junction for silk, spices and other trade routes that linked India, China and Southern Arabia with Egypt, Syria, Greece and Rome, this magnificent and vast city was carved out of sheer rock by the Nabataeans.

As hardly any elaborate building tools or implements were discovered here, it remains a mystery how the Nabataeans built these stunningly carved edifices, particularly the imposing Treasury.

After the 14th century, Petra was lost to the western world and was rediscovered in 1812 by a Swiss traveller, Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, who tricked his way into the fiercely guarded city by pretending to be a trader wishing to make a sacrifice at the tomb of Prophet Aaron. Be prepared for a long walk, but the marvels of Petra are such that you won't feel fatigue; other options are horses and horse-drawn carriages. There is enough in Petra to keep a tourist fascinated for at least a few days — walks and climbs will unfold wonders in the form of rock-carved tombs, temple facades and rock reliefs.

But Jordan has much more to offer than historic and fabulous spots such as the Dead Sea, Petra or Jerash. We found Jordanians warm, friendly and hospitable.

At Aqaba, at a provision store run by a Pakistani, one learnt that there are more than 1,000 Indians living there and most of them are construction workers who earn $300-400 a month. Thanks to Jordan's royal family having its finger on the pulse of the people, the turmoil and unrest in Islamic nations such as Syria, Yemen and Libya have barely caused a ripple here. But there is expectation and talk of political reforms, and protest marches for better income and employment opportunities.

Gender

On the gender front too, Jordan is far more liberal. In the markets and on the roads you will find veiled women, but as Fayez explains, “this is more traditional and cultural rather than religious. Women have the freedom to choose and we respect their right to either wear or not wear hijab. Women have been in Parliament and in government since the 1980s. There are equal opportunities for women in all spheres, and in higher education, women are doing better than men.”

Tourism has taken a hit, of course, thanks to the uprising in surrounding countries. Indians get top marks from the JTB MD for being more aware, discerning and knowledgeable about Jordan being different from a Syria or a Libya.

Unlike the Europeans and other westerners who tend to “club Middle East as one block” and avoid visiting Jordan, Indian arrivals are going up. Also, he adds, Jordan tourism is relatively new and has only recently started to market its priceless heritage — religious, historic and cultural.

Published on October 20, 2011

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