Dead in the Water (or, How I Caught a Cold in the Name of Work)

I had to do it, even though it is the middle of winter. I had to swim in the Dead Sea, then cover myself in a thick black mud and then sit on one of Jordan’s cold, unsunny, stony beach to wait for the mud to dry till it cracked on my skin and fell off like eczema flakes. In all, not a pretty sight. I did it for you…

Dead Sea mud is supposed to be the oldest elixir of youth. Certainly the water in it is as old as time. The creation story goes that once there was a large ocean covering this part of the Middle East and as the land changed, it split into the Mediterranean Ocean, the Black, Red and Dead Seas and a series of lakes and rivers linking the ancient waterway.

The Dead Sea is fed by a stream from the River Jordan, mixing new water with the ancient brine that is so salty that you do indeed bob like a cork. Logic has it that the Dead Sea would taste disgusting. So why do we insist on tasting it? I tasted it. Absolutely gut-wrenchingly gross, a weird mix of sea salt and a deep, medicinal taste of stale water.

I walked into the water fearing for the old paper cuts running across four fingers, but they must have closed over because they didn’t sting like I expected they would. Then, while musing this unexpected wonder, I tripped on a stone and grazed my toes. People, I can report that yes it hurts like buggery when the salt gets in.

But it’s weird: you know when you swim in a really salty sea, you can see the salt crystals clinging to your skin while you dry? When you waddle out of the Dead Sea, the water clings like an oily film to your skin, which is not unpleasant.

I slathered on the black mud, kept company only by the lifeguard – smart tourists were staying off the chilly beach this morning, and that was fine with me. Until, to my mortification, a super-conservative Indian/US Muslim family came down to the water’s edge. It is a mark to the wife’s gregarious nature that we struck up a lovely conversation: she in her 18th-century bonnet and long skirts, me in nothing but a grubby bikini and slick of black mud.

I am still bewildered as to where the mud actually comes from. I didn’t see any pits but the local boys bring it up each morning to the public beaches and a few dollars will see you smearing yourself with thick, black primordial ooze. Yes, ok. I paid for it. And then I cruised the gift shops so I could pay for it again, but in nicer packaging than a large dirty bucket.

The most fashionable lable for Dead Sea cosmetics (face moisturisers, hair masks, eye gel, foot scrubs and yes, just straight bags of mud) is Rivage, a Jordanian-French enterprise with chic packaging and good marketing. There are plenty of B-grade labels, but really, how will packaging make me look 14 again, I ask?

About the author

Fear is found on a creaking glacier in the Caucasus mountains and joy is encapsulated in the perfect Shanghai dumpling. And while I love a $500-a-night hotel room (who doesn’t?), sometimes the best stories are found in a $20 guesthouse. With an eye always out for good markets and great street eats, I write the travel news and features for the Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne’s The Age newspapers, and features for whoever else asks. I have a particular soft spot for the wilds of the Middle East, scarves and carpets. My articles and photographs have been published in a range of consumer magazines and newspapers in Australia and abroad, and occasionally I chat on radio, too, from Essentials Magazine to 3AW or the Irish Times.

3 thoughts on “Dead in the Water (or, How I Caught a Cold in the Name of Work)

  1. see now… this would be perfect for that curiosity piece at the end of most news bulletins…its the only one many people remember!
    …and whats even better is your sign off line could become world famous…you lying there with black sh.t covering the major part of your body with a back drop of the ancient religiously steeped Dead Sea…only topped off if you had that family standing in shot …in the background…you signing off…and their neatly dressed presence…confirming in viewers minds ..who is this crazy person!!
    …but what a hoot!!

  2. Okay Belle, thanks, you did it for us but please don't do it again. Really, many thanks for you; you made me live the experiment with you so that I felt that black mud on my skin and the salty water in my mouth. You know it was finny, once I saw your muddy leg picture, I thought that you wear a starch trouser you had cut its fingers…!

  3. Aladin, it is one of the world's great ironies, that to become beautiful (think: hairdressers, spa treatments) you become very ugly in the process. But absolutely, I don't need to do it again. Kefiyya 🙂

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