The other day while showing my mother pictures from my recent trip to Egypt and Jordan, she said to me, "You know, you never took all these crazy kind of trips before you had RA."
She has a point. Although I did plenty of traveling before my rheumatoid arthritis diagnosis in 2007, most of it was to cities where the only thing I had to tame were public transportation systems and a few museums. Since my diagnosis, the trips I have planned for myself have taken a much more adventurous turn and found me standing on top of mountains, going deep inside jungles and traversing deserts. This change in course is partly due to the fact that I travel with a somewhat intrepid group of friends who want to see as much of the world as I do, but it is also very much a response to finding out at the age of 29 that I had a disease I would likely live with for the rest of my life. At first, the introduction of RA into my life felt like a death sentence to my wanderlust nature, but now, I see it as a challenge.
My most recent challenge involved two weeks with three good friends gallivanting around Egypt and Jordan. While there, we took just about every form of transportation possible, including planes, trains, automobiles, sailboats, ferries, horses, donkeys and a camel.
Oh, and don't forget good old walking and hiking on our own feet. We trekked around Cairo, climbing minarets, exploring pyramids and stumbling our way through crowded markets that make Times Square look deserted. In Aswan, we sailed along the Nile, watching an orange sun set the sky ablaze in shades of pink, purple and blue. In Luxor, we wandered, mouths and eyes agape, through massive temples and descended into the tombs of pharaohs. On the Sinai Peninsula, we basked in the sun, snorkeled in the Red Sea and climbed Mt. Sinai in the dark to see the first glimpses of the sun declare a new day. Then, it was on to Jordan, where we slept in tents, scrambled to the top of rocks and walked through the desert in Wadi Rum. In Petra, we were held spellbound under the stars in front of the Treasury at night then clamored high and low around the ancient city during the day.
As poetic and heavenly as the above adventures were, they were also physically demanding. On our calmer days, I grabbed as much time in the sun lounging by the pool or the beach as I could, but there was no escaping the ambitious itinerary we had made for ourselves. Some activities, like climbing Mt. Sinai, turned out to be much more difficult than the tour books had suggested. The three-hour climb up the mountain in the dark culminated in 750 punishing steps that led to the very top, and there were many times along the way that I just didn't think I could make it.
Eventually though, I decided thinking was probably my enemy, so I kept putting one foot in front of the other and took breaks when I needed them until somehow it was over. In Petra, I knew from the pain in my feet that I had reached my limit after five hours of strenuous walking and a hike to the top of a mountain, so I necessarily opted to take a donkey up to see The Monastery instead of climbing 350 steps.
By the time we reached our last destination on the Dead Sea, we had been to 13 cities within 15 days. It had been as many days since I had last taken a shot of Enbrel.
Though I was the only one of my friends with RA, all of us were feeling tired and a little battered. I felt positively broken down and exhausted, so I welcomed this last little bit of luxurious repose more than I can describe.
Loving the water as I do, I would have wanted to go to the Dead Sea anyway, but knowing that the mud and minerals there tout health benefits for rheumatism and arthritis made me even more eager. After all, I'm up for trying just about anything that might help my faulty immune system out, and that includes slathering myself in green mud and floating in salty water that smells slightly acrid.
Shortly after arriving, the four of us found our way down to the famously buoyant sea. A bucket of mud sat by the water with people gathered around it heaping dripping handfuls of mud over themselves. Others were navigating their way into the slippery water with shouts of surprise and triumph when they landed on top of the water. One man had covered the entire surface of his body save the whites of his eyes with the greenish mud, and he sat on a nearby rock letting it dry, looking like an alien sea creature.
I reached into the bucket and smeared the mud onto my legs and arms. With the help of one another, we were all quickly covered from head to toe. Not everyone enjoyed the tingly sensation, but to me, it felt delightful and possibly healing. I joined the others aloft in the salty water and felt my body sigh as it no longer supported its own weight.
Never one to miss an opportunity to indulge myself, I signed up for a deluxe spa treatment our first afternoon there as a treat for making it through the whole trip. After washing off the mud and lying by the pool for a bit, I went to the immaculately decorated spa at the hotel to be scrubbed down with Arabian coffee, wrapped up in Dead Sea mud again, then massaged with olive oil. The package ended with an aromatic facial, and by the end of it, I felt put back together and in heaven. My tired, achy little joints and sore muscles felt rapturous, restored and giddy from all the pampering.
I rose the next morning and went back down to the sea for one last dose of silky smooth mud and some splashing around. Afterwards, I laid on one of the lounge chairs overlooking the Dead Sea by myself, enjoying the tranquility. The water was much bluer than I imagined it would be and the sky was beautifully clear. I could see Israel on the other side of the water, and the remarkableness of the trip felt especially close.
At the end of all my excursions, I always wonder if I'll ever come back to that place again. In my desire to the see as much of the world as possible, it's always hard to resist going someplace I've never been before and biting off a brand new challenge for myself.
As I left the Dead Sea, I hoped that it would not be my last visit there. Who knows if the mud or the waters really have any healing effects, but there is no doubt in my mind that being in such a beautiful, serene place is good for the soul at the very least. And just in case it does work, I brought home a tub of mud and some sea salts to tide me over till I can get back.
Sara is the author of the blog, The Single Gal's Guide to Rheumatoid Arthritis and a partner in the Buckle Me Up International Young Arthritis Awareness Movement.