What do burning nipples and a visit to the baptism site of Jesus have in common? For me, the two experiences were separated by only a few miles.

From our hotel in Madaba, Jordan, we drove our rental car west to explore and have a swim in the Dead Sea, completing our journey from the highest point of our trip (5,540 meters at Kala Patthar near Everest Base Camp) to the lowest point of our trip (423 meters below sea level at the surface of the Dead Sea). However, much like the Great Ocean Road in Australia, the Middle East is full of interesting places to stop the car and have a look around. Instead of stunning landscape views (although they certainly do exist in Jordan!) we were presented with amazing historical sites.

La Storia was not one of those amazing historical sites. We stopped at the Madaba museum at the recommendation of our hotelier, who provided us with free tickets. The “museum” took us about 15 minutes to get through on our free guided tour. It consisted of about 20 life-sized dioramas recounting biblical scenes and a brief history of Jordan and the Bedouin lifestyle. The papier-mâché figurines were like something from a bizarro version of Disney World’s “It’s a Small World” showcase with motorized arms and legs spastically performing day-to-day Middle Eastern activities like spinning goat wool yarn or parting the Red Sea. Our guide, a young woman, was so nice that I feel terrible poking fun at the place, but it was extremely difficult to not laugh.

The La Storia tour ended at the real crux of the operation: a gift store. The shop consisted mainly of mosaics, for which Madaba is famous, and other tourist trinkets, but the prices were quite expensive — the shops in town were substantially cheaper for nearly identical products. The parking lot, with a dozen spots for tourist buses and only several car parking spaces, told the true story: we had arrived as the rare independent tourists at the Tourist Trap.

Our next stop was a happy accident. Continuing our drive west toward the Dead Sea, we crested a hill and were greeted with a traffic jam of cars and tourist buses. We parked in the first available spot and wandered in to find Mt. Nebo (1 Jordanian dinar entry fee to facility) — the site where Moses was said to have seen the Promised Land. The 4th century church at the crest of the hill was under repair, but a small museum had several interesting items on display like an ancient Roman milestone and entries from a medieval traveller’s journal. The mosaic displays were extremely impressive, as were the baby sparrows that made a home in the burlap tent covering the mosaic floor. We were also greeted with our first view of the Dead Sea, just a few kilometers to the west.

We continued our drive toward the sea and the tourist beach we planned to visit, but a wrong turn had us heading away from the water and our goal of reaching the lowest point on the planet. After several kilometers of driving in the wrong direction on a divided highway with no possibility for a U-turn, we managed to turn around and almost immediately spotted a blue tourist sign for “Baptism Site.” I wasn’t completely sure what it meant, but I had a pretty good idea, so I swerved into the right lane to make the turn. My instincts proved accurate, and we pulled into a parking lot for a tour of Jesus’ baptism site, Bethany-on-the Jordan.

For 12 dinar each (about $16.50 each), we were handed an audio guide and bused 7 km from the parking lot to a small forest path. Our human tour guide pointed out different areas along the path including the spring of John the Baptist, supposedly where he lived while fulfilling his mission of baptizing people in the River Jordan.

The climactic point of the tour came when we arrived at a small, swampy pond with a cross-shaped stone church built deep in the water.

According to our audio guide (and, likely, The Bible), Jesus stayed at this site for three days. He asked John the Baptist baptize him, but John was reluctant, insisting Jesus should baptize him. Eventually, they worked it out, and Jesus was baptized, signifying the birth of Christianity.

Pilgrims traveled to this site for centuries, with written accounts of the location dating back to 570 AD by Theodosius. At least three churches have been constructed on the spot. The river, 60 meters wide during Jesus’ time, has migrated west over the centuries with the Syrians and Israelis allegedly taking turns at damming up the flow. As a result, the small pond is now just a stagnant pool with the remains of one of the churches inside it.

One particular highlight for me was an extremely intricate mosaic of Pope John Paul II, King Abdullah II and a somewhat annoyed-looking Queen Rania riding in a golf cart, artwork likely meant to commemorate the pontiff’s 2000 visit to the Holy Land.

Our tour culminated with our arrival at the River Jordan where we were separated from Israel (and a tour group on the Israeli side) by about 10 feet of river. We took our obligatory photos, explored a small Greek Orthodox church recently built at the site, and visited a small gift shop full of reasonably priced religious gifts before being bused back to the parking lot and our rental car.

With no more distractions between us and the Dead Sea, we made the final leg of our trip to the Amman Tourist Beach parking lot and each paid the 16 dinar ($23) entrance fee. Famished from our recent adventures, we stepped into the on-site restaurant for an extremely filling all-you-can-eat buffet (14 dinar, $20) next to the extensive swimming pool. Stuffed beyond comfort, we shed our clothes in the locker room, rented a locker and towels (4.5 dinar, about $6), and headed past the showers to the overcast beach.

The water in the Dead Sea evaporates faster than it can be replenished by the flow of fresh water from the River Jordan. As a result, the salinity of the water is so high that very little life can be supported (hence the name). A rather fun side effect of this hyper salinity is that swimming in the sea is more akin to floating. Looking forward to this, I quickly bounded into the (cold – 24 degrees Celsius) water. What I wasn’t prepared for was the effect that salt content 10x that of the ocean has on sensitive areas. My nipples suddenly burst into a symphony of pain along with the small cut on my leg that I didn’t know I had. Shocked by the sudden pain combined with the cold water, I opened my mouth and some of the water found its way in. It tasted like pouring the contents of a saltshaker directly into my mouth.

I let Her snap some photos of me floating on the water with all my limbs sticking out, but I couldn’t get to the fresh water showers fast enough to relieve my poor nipples of the pain to which they were being subjected. After rinsing off, I took some photos of Her floating while reading a newspaper she borrowed from a German family (a handy but cheesy trick: “Look at me! I’m floating so high in the water that I could read this newspaper  — if I only knew Arabic — without getting it wet!)  and some more photos of her trying to make Paper Sis float in such a way that it looked like we were trying to drown her (Her claims it was a baptism attempt). We cleaned up, toweled off, and made our way back to the rental car to start the drive back to Madaba and a well-deserved nap.

The Amman Tourist Beach is an expensive option for Dead Sea swimming (especially if the weather’s poor and all you require is a quick dip to test the floating fun), but it also provides access to a freshwater swimming pool and amenities like lockers and towel rental. You can even buy a Burqini (a swimsuit that covers a woman’s entire body) if you require one, but there is no prohibition against women wearing reasonable bathing suits at the tourist beach. As an alternative, there is an unmarked, free beach located several kilometers further south, but as we were unfamiliar with the area and had heard stories of people breaking into cars, we opted for the designated tourist beach. For an even more expensive and luxurious option, you can buy day passes for the fancy resorts that line the waterfront.

In a matter of just a few days, we had traveled from the highest part of the world to the lowest. Our next adventure would be (amazingly) our first land border crossing.