See you later, alligator.

 

Jean LaFitte National Park, in Barataria Bay, Louisiana.

 

Paul and the kids have been several times before (visits were a favorite outing of Paul’s while I worked on my dissertation), but yesterday’s walk was a compliment Kate’s unparalleled music class, which had been studying the bayou and marsh.

 

This little guy is along the likes of what you might normally see on a walk through the bayou.  He was one of several of his size we saw.

 

 

But THIS guy, this 13-footer, HE was the main attraction.  Not just because of his size…

 

But because he was eating another alligator.  And doing is RIGHT off the path.

 

He had killed the little gator the day before.  It’s normal for them to hide the carcasses between meals.  He was pretty irritated with us (hissing, growling, rising out of the water like so) because he wanted to hide his meal… and he couldn’t do it with us watching!

 

Further down the trail is a floating dock.  Alligators like to sun themselves here… but there weren’t any when we found it.

 

Canoe and kayaking is not possible in the bayou right now, because of the invasive species of lilly that is in the water (see the green?)  They cut it completely out last summer — and it’s already filled it to choke out boats.

 

Our friend moved to a more secluded spot.  He was still pretty pissed when we walked by on our way out.

 

I tried to explain to Will that this was a Mommy alligator eating her 8-year son for not listening, but he wasn’t paying any attention.

Also, the ranger explained that this was a male alligator.  They are pretty territorial.  Females, however, are highly maternal — they protect baby gators for the first three years of life, keeping the bigger males away from the area where they have young.

Jean LaFitte offers several hiking paths through different south Louisiana ecosystems, as well as dedicated and friendly park staff.  A beautiful visitors center, entertaining and informative movie, and detailed educational programs are extra lagniappes for the visitor.  A great place for families!

Family
Family Life in NOLA
Life in New Orleans

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Baptism Site

According to historical documentation and Biblical reference, John the Baptist preached in Judea, in an area east of the Jordan River.  Being in trans-jordan was a good choice for John for several reasons (note: Aramaic “Yar-deen,” the basis for the modern word “Jordan,” means “fast moving water.”)   For one, the Jordan River was wide and fast moving, treacherous to cross — so folks in Jerusalem that were less than happy with John’s preaching would have a harder time reaching him to express their displeasure.  For another, it was a wilderness: grown over and thick.  And finally, there was some previous religious context: it was believed that Elijah had crossed the Jordan 1000 or so years before in that area and allegedly ascended to heaven in a flaming chariot.  Isolated, hard to reach, history of drama: John chose well.

Scholars have some disagreement over exactly where Jesus visited John, who had started giving folks a wash in the Jordan River to cleanse them of sin.  Israel has two sites for the baptism (one near the Allenby bridge, which in John’s day would have been a popular river crossing area for Jewish travelers, making it a good spot for enterprising Christian proselytizing; another directly across from the Jordanian Baptism site.)  Until recently, the Israeli spots held sway over the Baptism claim.  Then, after the 1994 peace agreement between Israel and Jordan, UNESCO was granted permission to support extensive archaeologic work in the militarized zone.  There, they found substantial evidence of the area as a pilgrimage site, including structural proof of multiple churches consistent in timing to historical record and biblical reference.  You can read about the evidence here, including information about the continued excavations in the area.

Note: Following much of this evidence, seemingly every denomination of Christian followers has rushed to the Jordanian government offering support to the Jordanian claim of Bethany-Beyond-the-Jordan as the true site of the Baptism… and thanking them for letting them build churches there.  The bottom line is, short of a time machine, there will always be a degree of question and a measure of politic on this issue.  When Pope John Paul II visited the area in 2000, he diplomatically went both to Bethany-Beyond-the-Jordan (Jordanian side) and Qasr al Yahud (Israeli side).  Pope Benedict didn’t feel so inclined: he went just to Bethany-Beyond-the-Jordan.

No matter where you stand on the issue, here’s the rub: Bethany-Beyond-the-Jordan is pretty darn special.  There are many sites of historical and religious importance in the area, for one.  In addition, the area still holds a sense of mystery.  It feels remote, the foliage is thick, and the air carries a physical weight (you are in one of the lowest areas of the earth, at roughly 400 meters below sea level).  John and Jesus could have turned the corner, clad in sandals and robes, walking arm and arm dripping wet from their baptism pool and it wouldn’t have seemed out of place.  In a world where so much of our historical places now exist in the midst of modernity — the Coliseum with cars zipping around, Machu Picchu with its tourist entry zone Aguas Calientes, the Taj Mahal in the center of an industrial city — Bethany-Beyond-the-Jordan carries an authenticity of energy and space that needs no imagination.  You’re simply there.

 

 

Seeing the area is done only through tour buses from the Bethany-Beyond-the-Jordan visitor’s center.  Because the area is a tightly controlled border zone, you are required to show identification which is marked with stickers.  You’re cued up for buses and given 35-point listening devices with which to dial in and hear information at various points in the tour, marked with numbered signs throughout.  (35 sound like a lot of listening?  No worries, only about 16 of the numbers are used.)  Dozens of languages are represented in the devices.

 

 

The buses are small and mildly smoky (read: they are very Jordanian), complete with an incredibly kind and patient man who acts as your tour guide.  Keeping in custom with most Jordanians, this guide is unflappable even when confronted with a member of the group who needs everyone to know that he knows A LOT OF STUFF about the bible.  From what we could gather, there are one of these self-made biblical scholars in every group: it’s a lagniappe of the tour experience.

 

 

The first stop on the three-stop tour is to Elijah’s hill.  This is where Elijah ascended to heaven in a flaming chariot 3000 or so years ago.  If there are scorch marks still visible in the earth, you won’t be able to look for them: no one gets off the bus here.  Yeah, it’s a bummer to be in an area of tight security, but take it with a grain of salt: just think about what could happen if Jordan didn’t try to protect the area.  The limited view through the window is worth the sacrifice.

 

At the second stop, you see the a branch of water leading to the Jordan River.  There are views of the Church of John Paul II (formerly the Church of John the Baptism, renamed to honor the Pope’s visit in 2000).  The mountains of Israel are in the background.

 

 

 

 

From there, you go to the actual Baptism site.

 

 

Along with your guide and signs posted for your listening device, the site also has detailed mosaics that explain what you are seeing.  Other mosaics are religiously inspired by the site.

 

 

The Jordan river is no longer the wide, fast, dangerous body of water it was in John’s time.  His Baptism pool, originally a tributary off of the main river, is now dry, with the river a good 300 meters from this spot.  The work of archeologists has uncovered the foundations of churches to this spot, part of what has created the evidence of it being the place of the Jesus’ Baptism.

 

 

 

 

The mosaics add to the open-air museum quality of this part of the experience.  See the giant mosaic of the Pope?

 

 

If you were going to spend hundreds of hours creating a piece of priceless art that would be viewed by millions in one of the most important religious sites in the world, showcasing the visit of the now deceased leader of the Christian faith, would you put him in a golf cart?  Maybe someone can explain this to me.

 

 

A plaque explains the chapels found in the area.

 

 

Here is the chapel site.  To the right, you can see the foundations of the chapels discussed above.

 

 

After the Baptism site, you’re ushered back into the wilderness toward your final stop.

 

 

At the Jordan river is the Church of Pope John Paul II (the one viewed from afar, earlier).

 

 

Here, the Pope gave mass in 2000.

 

 

Just beyond the church is the Jordan River.

 

 

That’s the Israeli side, right there.  (See the flag?)  This site was quite recently opened (it had to be cleared of land mines and the complex built to support pilgrims to the site.)

 

 

Even with the Jordan River in view, Kate remains a major tourist attraction.

 

 

You can get in the river if you want.  While you may come out of it spiritually cleansed, I don’t think you’d emerge without getting a little sumpthin’ extra from the experience.

 

 

This is perhaps the part of the experience that brings you back to modernity… the military presence, the small, shrunken river, the pollution of the water.  Still, it’s very cool to be there.

 

 

If you were hoping to have some Jordan River water, they’ve got you covered: treated water from the river is available in an urn.

 

 

You can do your own little father-son-holy-spirit action right there.  With water significantly less likely to make you ill.

 

 

Should you want a more official baptism experience, the churches in the area offer specialized services to visitors (you just have to pre-arrange them).

 

 

All in all, the site is incredibly interesting with powerful significance throughout ancient to modern history.

 

 

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Kate, on Petra.

Not to be outdone by her brother, who has more skills in the writing department, Kate offers up some Petra insight.

 

If the embedding fails, see it here.

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THE COOLEST THINGS I DID IN PETRA JORDAN (by will age 8)

Thank you to the people who made comments.  I like when people respond to the things that I write on a computer.

 

This is about the cool things I did in Petra.  Like, I got to hike up a mountain in Petra.

 

I hiked very long distances because I could see a lot of things.  Like I saw carvings in mountain walls.  They were small and big and were reddish.  They were carved more than 1000 years ago and they did it for their religion.

 

 

They stacked rocks for god.  I stacked rocks, too, because I believe in god.

 

 

I rode a donkey and mule & in a horse carriage.

When I rode the donkey up a steep mountain I felt so scared.  Because it was like it was going straight up.

I got to go into a tomb where 14 people were buried.  In the tomb it was creepy.  I felt like a zombie was going to grab my leg and pull me under the ground.

 

 

It was scary to walk in the Siq because I felt like the walls will fall.  The Siq is where two mountains used to be attached together and something happened where they split apart.  Just some of the parts are really close together.  There are also water tunnels that would carry water into the city.

 

 

Petra is very rocky and sandy.  But it is also very beautiful.

 

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Will's Blog

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Dead Sea Swim — The Video!

FINALLY.  A video.

 

(For the record, when I ask Paul what it’s like, he responds, “I feel like I’m being pickled.”)

If it’s not showing up embedded, view it here.

 

 

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Christmas Weekend

For Christmas weekend, our first full weekend in Jordan, we stayed at the Kempinski at the Dead Sea.  (Tip: we booked on Hotels.com through fatwallet, getting not only a huge holiday weekend special, but additional cash back through fatwallet!)

Here are some pictures of the resort, which is BEAUTIFUL.

 

 

Full breakfast seems to be a common inclusion in mid- to high- end hotels in Jordan.  The Kempinski’s sets the bar for fancy breakfast.  Above is Chef Yousef.  Chef Yousef trained for two years at the Royal Jordanian culinary institute and then trained for another year in Brazil (where his mother is from).  He worked for several years in Brazil before coming back to Jordan.  Chef Yousef made Kate special eggs and pancakes each morning.  At the end of our breakfast, he carved beautiful fruit animals for the kids to eat.  He also spent a good 20 minutes explaining all the dishes to me, advising me to try different local offerings, and explaining how they were prepared.  (I’m still pretty sure I can’t make a good hummus.)

Fresh honey, including the honeycomb, was one of the things he recommended.  This comes from a local farmer.  Trying this was like having honey for the first time.

 

 

The extensive bread table…

 

 

The kids, who brought along books to occupy themselves so that we could eat for hours (the rest of the meals at the hotel were very expensive… we filled up in the morning, and then took our luck to find things in our outings around the Dead Sea for the rest of the day.)

 

 

View from the breakfast dining room.

 

 

Another view.  This pool was heated, but was reserved for adults (ages 14 and up).

 

 

Looking north.  That’s the lazy river.  It was not heated, so we did not get in!  (Much to Will’s disappointment.  He would have braved frostbite for it, we think.)

 

 

Mud attendant.

 

 

Steps down to the rocky shoreline.  You are at the lowest point on earth!  Says a sign nearby.

 

 

Another pool.  Also unheated.  The kids pool is directly beside this one, just a little smaller, with a similar view.  It was heated and we swam in it!

 

 

Christmas decor everywhere!  (Santa roamed the grounds and gave chocolate to the kids over and over again.  The hotel left presents in a stocking for us — dead sea salts — in our room on Christmas Eve.)

 

 

View of Israel at night, over the Dead Sea.

 

 

Restaurant at night.

 

 

Lazy river at night.

 

 

Ancient olive tree.

 

 

Lap pool up by the main building.

 

 

The grounds were a travertine dream — beautiful handiwork, incredible stone masonry, lovely landscaping.  It is a beautiful property in a fantastic place!  A wonderful place to have our Christmas holiday!

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The Dead Sea Highway to Karak

 

The scenery along the Dead Sea Highway is spectacular, and as you climb into the mountains from the lowest place on earth, the valleys, gorges, and climbing hillsides add to the drama and mystery of the region.  Here are photos and video from our drive from The Dead Sea to Karak, passing Wadi Mujib and driving down to the farmland at Mazra’a, and then turning up to go through the mountains at Wadi Bin Hammad.  We did this drive on Christmas Eve.

 

 

The valley here is a major potash industry site.

 

 

(That’s the kids with our rental car!)

 

 

 

You can see the farms and fertile grounds, as well as parts of the Dead Sea, below.

 

 

Balanced the camera on a rock to get a family photo…

 

 

Wadi Bin Hammad.  The bottom of the valley is WAAAAY below what the camera can see here!

 

 

This is back on the Dead Sea highway, going north.  This is the bridge that crosses Wadi Mujib.

 

 

Here is video of us traveling along the Dead Sea Highway, approaching and then crossing the bridge in the photo above.  This is the valley (Wadi Mujib) where the canyon walls come strikingly close and one can hike through the torrent of water through the valley (a few more pictures of the valley entry point after the video).  In the video, please forgive my idiot pronunciation of “crevice.”

 

If, for whatever reason, you can’t see the video embedded, see it here.

 

 

Wadi Mujib.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Kerak Castle

 

Kerak Castle dominates the hillside of the village of Al-Karak.

I didn’t manage any good photos looking up at the Castle, so I am using this one from Wikipedia, by a German photographer named Berthold Werner.

 

 

The road you see to the bottom left of the picture is the very road we drove in approach to the city.  We drove the spectacular highway from Mazra’a (which means “farm” in Arabic) just south of the Dead Sea along Wadi Bin Hammad (a big Valley called Bin Hammad) to Al-Karak.  Like just about every drive we’ve had in Jordan, the scenery was spectacular.

 

 

Kerak castle was built around the 12th century AD by a Crusader king named Pagan the Butler.  I can’t remember much else about who lived in it, what they did, or when they left, but I remember that Pagan the Butler built it because who can forget a Castle built by a guy with a name like Pagan the Butler?!

It’s obvious, though, WHY it was built there.

 

 

You can see ALL THE WAY to the Dead Sea.  You’d be able to see anyone coming at you from days away.  And, they’d have a tough time reaching you in your big castle up on the hill — straight drops on 3 sides around the valley!

 

 

Impressive views — impressive enough to brave the bitter cold wind and misty rain that was falling while we were there.

 

 

 

 

 

 

To the western side of the castle is a little museum.  The museum is well-done, showing detailed maps of the area, history of the Crusaders in the region, and a variety of ancient treasures found at the site from long before the Crusaders moved in.  In other words, folks have set up camp in this spot for thousands of years.  Wonderful classical age Greek pottery, among other well-preserved pieces of ancient history, rest inside the museum, some dating back to 6000 BC.  Part of the museum is an actual tomb that holds skulls and human bones dating back to around 4000 BC!

 

 

Will took this picture, to show ancient rocks shaped into tools — something he has been studying in school.

 

 

From the museum, you can go back up to the castle proper.

 

 

 

 

The castle has very well perserved passage ways that go several stories through the mountain.  We were clever to have brought along a flashlight (thanks, Rough Guide!) and let the kids explore the dark tunnels.

 

 

I went a little higher for another photo of the valley — see the point of rock in the foreground in the bottom left?  That point was the end of the ground, for a long-long drop down!  The wind kicked me off balance while trying to take some pictures, so I didn’t stay here long (and requested that Paul and the kids not follow in my foolish lead!)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Inside the tunnels are the kitchens, barracks for soldiers, and huge court rooms.

 

 

 

 

Every once in awhile, you’ll shoot out of a tunnel into the light — finding small surprises.

 

 

Arched doorways remain where parts of the castle no longer stand.

 

 

This is the view East — including the Kings Highway (below).

 

 

 

 

 

You can see where part of the upper floors have collapsed, which gives a sense of what it is like to be in the other parts of the castle that are intact.

 

 

 

 

The kids spent a good hour running around with their flashlight, making up stories about what the rooms were used for, who had been in them, and what they could be for today.

 

 

Here is a sense of what one can find in a dark room — this is lit only by the flashlight!

 

 

 

Doorway into the sunshine…

 

 

 

 

Windows?  Doors?

 

 

Long entry — this was along the Crusader-era entrance (now not used).

 

 

A little more light to show how the rocks are used to form the cave.

 

 

 

 

For a cold and rainy afternoon, Kerak Castle made for a wonderful side-trip from the Dead Sea and a great adventure!

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Dead Sea Swim

The Dead Sea… what you need to know.

– What to do at the edge of the Dead Sea: float in the sea for a few minutes, get out, get muddy, go back and wash off, swim in the hotel pool or lay in the sun.  Repeat as necessary.

You access the Dead Sea through public beaches or resorts — in other words, places where there are fresh water showers to wash off when you come out of the water.  A resort plus: there are mud pots full of Dead Sea mud to give yourself a spa treatment.  The mirrors are for making sure you’ve covered all your exposed skin.

 

Another resort plus: shoes.  Because the shoreline is rocky and you want to protect your feet as you climb up for mud and down to wash and float.

 

 

The shoreline is not just rocky with rocks.  There are actual rocks of salt.

The Dead Sea is roughly 8-10 times the salinity of the Oceans.  This is because of high levels of evaporation, which leaves behind a very salty dead-end waterway.

 

 

The salt clings to rocks in very cool formations all along the shoreline.

 

 

The air is also 8% more oxygenated than at sea level.  The water itself is oily: full of not only salt, but other minerals.  Your skin really DOES feel amazingly smooth and rich after a dip and a mud bath.  The air has a haze that blocks harmful UV rays, so you’re much more protected from sunburn than in other places.  One of our guide books said that German health insurance covers periodic trips to the Dead Sea to treat types of skin disorders, because the water and mud is that good for skin!

 

 

The swim itself is truly bizarre — a unique experience to be sure.  The water is warm, even in December when the air has a hint of 65-degree chill.  It was windy on the day we went down for our dip in the water, with actual waves coming ashore.  We used a protected inlet along the shoreline by the resort to get into the water.

 

 

Without question, you FLOAT on this sea.  It can actually be a little scary, as people drown in high numbers on the Dead Sea each year.  Since we normally swim face down in fresh and sea water, it’s natural to turn your body that way in the water… only doing in the Dead Sea so pushes your heavier end (legs and bottom of your torso) out of the water and forces your head down.  A few drops of that salty water in your eyes is excruciating – and a few swallows will poison your system.  Without the ability to get your head out of the water and all the trauma going on while your head is down there… best to play it safe and stay on your back.

Kate floated with me in the shallows.  Because I was holding her with my arms, and not paddling them under the water to stay in place, the wind pushed us a little to one side of the inlet.  It was only a few feet.  But when I went to stand up to get back to shore, I found that my feet didn’t touch the bottom.  Thankfully, I kept myself from completely freaking out… held her upright, and paddled my legs under us until we were back the few feet to where I could put her down and climb back to where we could stand.  In an instant, I knew exactly how easy it could be to drown… if I had tried to swim her in (which I would have done in a pool) my body would have flipped in an instant!  Also, a note: the shoreline drops quickly and without warning!  Be careful of the depth.

 

 

After the deep(er) water experience with Kate, we made sure we stayed in water where our arms could still touch the bottom while floating.  You float so high on the water that there isn’t any need to go more than a foot or so deep.

Also, the water tastes TERRIBLE.  I described it as like licking a barnacle-covered salt block that has been at the bottom of the ocean for a hundred years.

 

 

It’s a really cool experience, and the sea itself is strangely beautiful and calming.  Seeing the mountains of Israel from the Jordanian side just adds to the mystery and beauty of the area.

 

 

After your dip, you shower off to rinse the salt off your skin (you’ll want it off soon after you get out).  The wind was chilly, so we kept Kate wrapped up.

 

 

Then you go get mud!  The mud is very warm (dark color retains heat from the sun!) and it feels great.  The mud itself is thick and lumpy, full of ocean debris — the kind of mud you dream of using as a kid to make mud pies.  It was VERY fun to put it on!  Kids aren’t recommended to be fully covered, so we invited them to cover us.  We did use mud on the back of one of Kate’s legs, where she has lingering rashes and some scaring from molluscum contagiosum (our pediatrician calls this “the new chickenpox”).  We noticed the next morning that it looked much better — the mud and water DID make a difference, just from our short morning in the Sea!

 

 

Evidence of our playing in the mud…

 

 

After you’re muddy, you go back to the Sea to wash off.  Fresh water would take FOREVER to wash off… you need the mineral content of the Dead Sea to get the Mud removed.

Mud removal on my face was how I experienced having water-in-eyes and water-in-mouth (actually, I just tasted some that was on my lips, that was enough).  The eyes and mouth and water combination was not pleasant, though I loved the way my face felt after!

 

 

Once we were washed off, we took another dip in the fresh water and were done!

 

 

With a stop for more washing off of sand before leaving the beach area and hitting the pool deck!

 

 

If we are able, we’d love to go back again before we leave Jordan — just to enjoy the sun, mud, and healing waters!

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cars 2 museum whoops! just a joke (will age 8 )

Today we went to a car museum.  First we called a taxi who we met the day before & his name is Maher. Maher knew right were my mom works, so, we dropped mom of at work. Then we drove to the car museum. When we got there it was closed so we ran on a stage outside to the Southeast.  Then we looked at a air plane that was also outside. In front of the entrance there was a toyota truck with no outside cover.  It had just wheels, engine, steering wheel, foot pedals and no bottom thing to protect the tanks.  Also, there was a car split down the middle. We paid 5 jd wich is $6.50 for 1 adult & 2 kids.

We saw cars & motorcycles. They are owned by the king of jordan. My favorite thing was the armored tank from WWII because it was cool.

 

This is the sign of the Royal Car Museum and under it is a car with no surroundings.

 

 

These are motorcycles from World War II.

 

 

That car is a car that the King of Jordan drove in for festivals.

 

 

 

This is the tank that was my favorite car.

 

 

This is another medical motorcycle for WWII.

 

 

These are very fancy sports cars.

 

 

 

This car is one of the fastest cars on the earth, I think.

 

 

This is a car where you open the door up.

 

 

This car can go on land and water.  It has propellers on the bottom.

 

 

 

 

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