Sunday, July 12, 2009

Visiting/Surviving Hammamat Ma'in Hot Springs

Death is not usually the first thing that comes to mind when you visit the beautiful Hammamat Ma'in hot springs in Jordan. Survival however, was the only thing in my mind in this situation. You would think that with all of my past history with taxi drivers, that I would stay away from them. One of my best friends in Jordan however, is the 29 year old 'Akhmed the crazy taxi driver.' Love it or hate it, Akhmed has somehow become family. To give you a lesson in pronouncing words in Arabic, you don't say his name like 'Ack-Med.' Pretend you have some salt water taffy or peanut butter stuck in the back of the roof of your throat and your trying to hock a loogie to unlodge it. AKHH. Try it again. AKHH. Okay, now add the rest... AKHH-MED. There you go!

Of course, trying to be a good friend to Akhmed, we tried to use him whenever we needed a guide through the outer regions of the country. For a while, our relationship had been quite formal and friendly but he was through the moon when we finally we invited him over for a few drinks just the day before our trip to Hammamat Ma'in. When he found out that he could be himself and just hang out, have some laughs and drink some beers and stop with all that professional 'sir' and 'madam' formality, he finally felt at home.

Have you ever hung out with a professional alcoholic before? Jordan was probably the last place I figured I would run into my first one. We served in true formidable French fashion, the apéritif, which is a light alcoholic beverage before eating dinner. To pronounce apéritif like a true French native, just read it out loud just as you would read it in English but put your nose up really high in the air so that the tip of it is at a higher elevation than your ears. If you don't look snobby enough, then I suggest you take up smoking and stare past people when you speak to them and look uninterested in what they say...there you go!

We poured brother Akhmed a campari on ice and introduced him to all the joys of slow culture and appreciating the fine things in life. Akhmed introduced us to the concept of grabbing a glass of booze and showing how one can gulp it in a single go by pinching his nose and opening his throat like a bucket mouthed black bass. A look of dissapointment wiped his smile away when all the energy and enthusiasm he put into downing his drink was answered by a girly evening drink with low alcohol content. "Alcohol, not very strong. Absolute is better!" Being gracious hosts we served him one Absolute and orange juice after another with which he subsequently pinched his nose and gulped in rapid fire concessions.

The next morning he returned with his taxi and we set off to go. With us was Caroline, a french canadian friend of Elodies who quit her crappy job in Paris and flew out to join us in Jordan for a week's adventure. We thought it would be a good idea to show her a good time and introduce her to all the rare sites of Jordan.

The road to Hammamat Ma'in is the same road that you would take to go to the dead sea, which is about an hours trip from Amman. You take a slight detour up the hills to Madaba, the site where Moses was buried and where they make a good local cheese that our neighbor buys for us from time to time. You then reach the top of the hills in the back country where a steep rollercoaster backdrop of roads leads you to the fabled hotsprings.

It was at this point where Akhmed could not hold back his desire to drink at 10 in the morning and he reached into the grocery bag and cracked open a beer. We all screamed as the car descended down the valley at a vertical twist while our driver was steering with one hand and chugging a beer with the other. "What???? Akhmed VERY STRONG!" was his response when we objected to him drinking.

We made him put the beer away and in a short time we arrived at our destination, relieved to have made it through. Elodie and Caroline went their separate way to the newly built 5 star spa underneath the hotspring waterfall and Akhmed and I went to the public section of the hot springs. Not bad actually. For a public hot spring we had access to two gorgeous waterfalls dropping into rocky pools with a hidden cave and colorful rocks behind the falling cascade of water. The smaller waterfall feeds into a roasting 140 degree hot pool where anyone who dared to enter risked roasting their nuts off and eliminating all chance of offspring (that is, if you have nuts to roast off in the first place).

Akhmed just stripped down to his swim trunks and proceeded to SWAN DIVE right into the volcanic water of the hot pool and slosh water at the rest of us wimps hanging out on the sidelines. "Akhmed is VERY STRONG!" he would proudly proclaim. Shoot. Now I have to go into the water. About two hours later, I finally got the water past my belly button with no feeling in my feet and dashed hopes about the cute french korean progeny I was expected to deliver to my parents.

I emerged from the pool afterward with a pink fleshy tone to my skin, much akin to the color of a boiled frankfurter that has hit that stage where it starts rolling on top of the bubbles. In a burst of inspiration, I suggested we check out the indoor sauna and bath next door in order to escape the blistering heat of the waterfall.

The public bathhouse looks like a plain crumbling government building with a huge hot spring pool and sauna built inside. This is as local as local gets my friends. We walked inside to the swimming pool where it was filled with dozens of big, heavy, bearded and brauny men. Scores of young and rowdy energetic teens and a few old women clung around the edges of the pool but mostly this was a man's domain. At least the day I chose to visit it was. At least the time that Akhmed decided to forward flip into the pool and splash everyone it was. Oh boy. Yes, Akhmed ran, jumped, and flipped into the dead center of the pool, creating a wave and splashing hot water in the eyes of just about everyone in the pool. Emerging from the water, he declared quite proudly to myself and the entire room "I AM THE KING!!" Everyone just about wanted to murder him and probably myself as well for being his accomplice.

At the end of the day, we picked up the girls from the resort where they sat peacefully under the mineral water cascades while sipping tea after their thai massages. Ahh, the good life. Yes, they had the 5 star experience but did they get the opportunity to brave a full day of survival with Akhmed the Crazy Taxi Driver???