Escapism

Jill Worrall leaves Timaru to take on the world - bringing adventure travel to your desktop

Jordan: Pilgrims and progress in a biblical landscape

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Russian pilgrims have been bathing in the River Jordan. Under the fascinated gaze of a young Jordanian soldier the tourists descended wooded steps into the milk chocolate-coloured water just a few metres from an Israeli flag that was flapping in the winter wind on the far bank.

I should have been concentrating on the spiritual significance of the site. After all sundry archaeologists and historians seem to agree that nearby was the actual site where Jesus was baptised by John the Baptist. But, instead, I was pondering why all the Russians were wearing swim suits at least two sizes too small.

Such are the vagaries of travelling. What might have been a 'Road to Damascus'; moment was hijacked by a man with an enormous paunch wearing a pair of tiny speedoes.

Away from the river bank and the distractions of the flesh, I walked through the small trees that clung to life beside the Jordan, accompanied by a Muslim guide with a formidable memory for large chunks of the Bible - Old and New Testaments.

"This is the wilderness where Jesus spent his 40 days and 40 nights," he said.

And as we reached higher ground: "You see that rock platform there... from there Elijah ascended to heaven in a flaming chariot."

He tells me that Jordanians say that most of the action from the four gospels took place on "their" side of the Jordan River.

Lines of dimly remembered scripture began to flicker through my mind like a badly operated autocue.

The bathing place in the river is at Bethany Beyond the Jordan which until recently, because of its shared border with Israel, was out of bounds to tourists. It's only accessible now by means of an authorised guide and driver.

Now, Russians and Polish nuns, Iranians and US military personnel on R&R breaks from Iraq can all be found wending their way through the wilderness.

On the hills above Bethany Beyond the Jordan is the place where, believers say, God showed Moses the Promised Land.

From here the sadly depleted Jordan River snakes south towards the Dead Sea and beyond, through Jericho, and in the hazy mountains beyond is Bethlehem and the gleam of the roofs of Jerusalem.

Later in the day I waded into the strangely dense waters of the Dead Sea. I bobbed like a cork on its pale blueness that stretched shimmering towards the Israeli coast. It was anything but tranquil however.

New hotels are sprouting along the shoreline. The sounds of jackhammers, compressors and excavators echoed among the arid, rubbly hills.

It was equally incongruous yesterday to be snorkelling in the Red Sea among the soft corals and angel fish but also in view of a bustling container port.

If Moses was here today and trying to part the water he'd have had to dodge the ships bound for the Persian Gulf and the Suez Channel, ferries on Saudi and Egyptian routes and floating, luxury apartment blocks cruising the Gulf of Aqaba.

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