Stranded at 1300 below

We spent the day at the Dead Sea yesterday. Once we got there, we had a wonderful time playing in the water. The "getting there," however, proved to be quite difficult.

It all started out innocuously enough with us catching a bus at Amman's Muhajireen bus station. There was a Happy Journey-style bus going to Rama, so we hopped on, intending to change at Rama for a bus to Suweimeh by the Dead Sea. Also on that bus were 6 Korean backpackers headed for the Dead Sea who didn't speak Arabic. They had taken up a seat with their luggage and so Jeremy had to intermediate between them and the driver to clear up that situation. (FYI: if you take up a seat with your luggage, you have to pay the fare for it.)

We got to Rama without any problems, and even found a bus leaving for Suweimeh that very moment. Jeremy asked the driver if he was going to the Dead Sea, and he said yes. Then, he told him that we were trying to get to the Dead Sea Spa Hotel, one of the hotels that take up a few-kilometer strip of beach along the northeastern shore of the sea. The driver said something like "great." At the time, we took that to mean, "OK, great, that's where I'm going." In retrospect, I realize that it must have meant something more along the lines of, "That's great for you. Good luck getting there."

So we climbed on board, followed by the six Korean travelers, and paid our 20 qirsh fare.

The second bus putted along the highway very slowly. I kept thinking that if the driver would just step on the gas a little, we could be to the beach within 10 minutes. Instead, he turned off the highway and wound very slowly through the village of Suweimeh. I was very patient and tried to enjoy the scenes of tiny desert village life unfolding outside the bus windows, thinking how within a matter of minutes we'd be walking down to the Dead Sea itself.

At the end of the village, near where the road intersected again with the main highway to the Dead Sea, the driver stopped the bus and pointed into the distance. "There's the Dead Sea," he said. "This is your stop."

Of course, Jeremy reminded the driver of the time - not 30 minutes before - when we'd been told that this bus would take us to the Dead Sea. Instead, taking into account all the village-winding we'd done, we were hardly 5 kilometers farther down the road from where we'd got on in Rama. But no amount of reasoning could convince the driver that the honest thing to do would be to drive us to our actual destination, instead of dropping us off in the middle of nowhere. Other passengers on the bus even got involved, trying to figure out how we'd been wronged.

By the time we all finished arguing, we could have been driven to the beach and back. The driver refused to budge unless we all (including the 6 Koreans) paid him a half dinar each to take us to the actual sea. There was no way we were giving in to such an outrageous demand.

After a few exchanges of "maa biseer" and "eib aleik," the entire busload of disgruntled passengers disembarked at the remote intersection. The Koreans didn't even pay their 20 qirsh. We wished we could have gotten ours back.

Slowly, we made our way through the blistering 1300-feet-below-sea-level heat to the shade of an army checkpoint a few hundred meters ahead. The Koreans followed close behind. Unfortunately, while sympathetic to our plight, the officers posted there were unable to help us. So we pushed on.

After about fifteen minutes of walking toward the still-distant beach, the Koreans behind us got picked up by a passing van. As it drove on past us, still walking, we waved at them and I noticed that one of them was crammed into the trunk space of the vehicle.

Now it was our turn. Jeremy flagged down a small Suzuki-style truck soon after, and the driver agreed to take us where we needed to go. Jeremy, Miriam, and I climbed into the cab, and my mom and my brother hopped into the bed of the truck. Then we took off down the highway for the Dead Sea Spa Hotel.

I've often seen people riding in the back of trucks around town and on desert highways, and I've always wondered the story behind how they got there. Now I know at least one story - some foreigners got ripped off by a Jordanian Happy Journey bus driver.

We made it to the beach and the driver wouldn't accept any payment. By this generous action, he had single-handedly restored the balance in favor of Jordanian hospitality (though we hit a minor snag when Jeremy, trying to be thankful, said to him, "You are a true Jordanian!" to which the driver answered, somewhat flustered, "actually, I'm a Palestinian." Then Jeremy said, almost without flinching, "You are a true Palestinian!" And then, just to be safe, "Well, you are a true Arab!").

After all that, we had a wonderful time enjoying ourselves at the Dead Sea. But half the adventure was just in getting there.

Al-Jazeera & Peppermint Gomez

(En)Trail of evidence