Thursday, April 17, 2008

Remembrances of the Holy Land (Dead Sea)


Today we were to leave our second home away from home on this trip. While I still think I enjoyed living in the Galilee more, the hustle and bustle of Jerusalem had grown on me. There were just so many sites left unseen.

Morning came. Breakfast was a bit on the spartan side. Gone was the sumptuous international buffet with all sorts of offerings. With Passover starting this evening, the hotel had been cleaned from top to bottom to get rid of any non-kosher or leavened items.

Also gone today was Adi, and the big blue fish bus. Instead, we had a golden-colored bus which was a bit older, and not nearly as posh-looking. It took a little while to get used to it. Don't remember the driver's name.

We cut through an Hasidic neighborhood to the north before catching Highway 1. I tried catching some photos from the bus, but it was a wasted effort with the replacement camera smearing most anything that was just across the street.

As we climbed up over that last ridge, and the Old City passed from view, I started thinking about how most of our trip was behind us. One of the things that I was looking forward to was the next day's visit to Petra. However, it was still bittersweet to be leaving. Most Christians, and a fair amount of Jews, never set foot in the Holy Land, let alone Jerusalem. We'd been blessed with that experience.

Jerusalem is actually in the hills, as compared to most of Israel. In the Bible, it was traditional to say, "…going UP to Jerusalem" and we now found out why. We started losing altitude noticeably, passing through mostly rocky terrain, interrupted on occasion by the West Bank Barrier and new-looking settlements atop the hills.

Though we had entered the Jordan River Valley, it looked nothing like what we'd seen during our first few days. The area was very arid reminding me a lot of the western Mojave.

We came to a crossroads and headed South into the Dead Sea region. It's funny to think that we were now driving through the lowest point on Earth.

Being this close to the West Bank territories, the Israeli Army had set up checkpoints with huge stone blocks, alternating between lanes. This forced traffic to slow to a crawl before slowly snaking through the chicane, or possibly waved to a stop for inspection.

We finally got our first view of the Dead Sea. The aqua blue of the water absolutely glowed when compared to the pale yellow dirt and salt formations.

This area was pretty empty, lest for the occasional building. Then we came upon a concentration of nice-looking buildings on our right. This is the Qumran National Park Visitor's Center.

Qumran is where a boy, during a search for his wayward goat, discovered a bunch of clay jars inside caves. The clay jars turned out to hold part of what we now know as the Dead Sea Scrolls and this cave complex, as a whole, has turned out to be one of the most important findings for biblical era schools ever found.

We walked into the Visitor's Center, which looked extremely new. We wound through the museum looking at examples of the Scrolls, and Essenian life, before being ushered into a small theater where you leaned against the wall or railings for a relatively short video presentation.

Suddenly, a set of doors opened to our left, exposing us to harsh daylight with no warning. It is sooooo bright out. Bright blue sky with zero clouds. A dry wind whipping off the Dead Sea. Even with my glasses having two layers of tinting were not helping to fight the migraine that was coming on.

Besides the building there was a cactus with Hebrew graffiti carved into. It. Thinking it was cool-looking, I grabbed a few shots. PD shook his head, chastising the graffiti artist, or perhaps it was more of my wanting to take the pictures? Not exactly sure which it was.

A local interpretive guide took us on a reasonably long walk through the Qumran ruins. We weren't able to actually get close to any of the caves, as they were in the hills, and eroding badly.

I think the neatest things were the huge mikva'ot. Even in such an arid environment the priests went all out to build huge ritual baths, when in other circumstances they were no bigger than a microwave oven.

We spent some time in front of the Scriptorium where the guide explained about the hard life of the Essenes, as well as some alternative theories that Qumran really wasn't a community of scholars and priests. At this point, none of them really stick in my mind.

Doron told us this would be our last chance to buy any souvenirs in Israel, and highly recommended the Ahava cosmetic products that were World renowned. I really hadn't bought anything on the trip and figured I'd make a conscious effort to do so.

For my sister and a high school friend, I bought each some mud products and bath soaps. For myself, I chose a small bottle of Date Wine (A specialty of the region) and a replica Dead Sea Scroll jar.

Someone commented that this was the first time they actually saw me buy anything on the trip, and, for the most part, they were probably right.

Probably, the best purchase made by anyone in our group was CM's Shofar. Being a musician, it was a fitting purchase. It must've been somewhere around three feet long, and glistened in the light. The gift shop was set up to ship items, such as that, so the purchaser wouldn't have to drag it around on their trip.

Back on the road, we headed south. Sometimes the road was relatively close to the Dead Sea shoreline. Other times higher up on the ridge, allowing a commanding view for anyone sitting on the left side of the bus. What I found fascinating were the huge multi-colored circles along the shoreline.

These were mineral pools which will eventually lead to sinkholes, accentuated by the continued over dependence on Jordan River water for irrigation and the growing population. No wonder there were plenty of warning signs.

Sadly, the oasis at Ein Gedi was not on our itinerary. TS had talked it up in pre-trip meetings, but we were crunched for time due to our being on the cusp of Passover.

One of the things I'd noticed was that there was pretty much no industry along the Dead Sea. There's a land bridge which slices the basin into two water sections. Located around this shallow area are the unmistakable reddish brown evaporation ponds, along with machinery and buildings made decrepit looking before their time by the harsh saline environment.

Despite my disappointment of not seeing Ein Gedi, I was eagerly anticipating our next stop as we now pulled onto a side road to Masada, where nearly 1000 Jewish rebels killed themselves, rather than become enslaved by the 10th Roman Legion.

My first introduction with Masada was not from any history book or documentary. Rather, it was the 1981 ABC miniseries, staring Peter O'Toole.

Spending zero time at the newly built Masada Museum, we saw a short video on the siege before heading up the three minute cable car ride to the top. As the cable car climbed, you could look below and see those poor souls that decided to save US$11 so they could spend 90 minutes slogging up the Snake Path, used for nearly 2000 years.

We were deposited just below the summit. Off to the left was a metal walkway, suspended from the side of the cliff. The feet echoed as we walked across the open grid decking. Once through a building, the visitor is treated to the summit, which is essentially flat, with a slight slope to the east.

From the western rim you could look down and see the outlines of where some of the Roman Legion encamped while building their siege ramp. One could also easily make out the dirt ramp, which  people can use as an alternative access to the summit.

We saw one of the huge cisterns that collected water for the inhabitants. Without those, Masada wouldn't have been habitable. There was an overlook which allowed a view of Herod's 3-tiered fortress which sits on the north side like a like a captain's command console on a ship.

Some of us wanted to take the Palace Trail to get a better look. However, Doron said it would take too long (and it was a moot point as the area was going through renovation).

We started looping back through some of the buildings which have been stabilized for interpretive displays. The spa was pretty cool as you could see the under flooring where the heating elements were.

As we cut through a ruin we noticed a small flock of black birds perched on the rock work. The apparently sit around waiting for tourists to give them food. SeL and CH had some type of bread or chips and when they offered it up, the birds hopped on their outstretched hand with no hesitation at all.

Most people spend several hours to see Masada. It seemed like we were there for about an hour, at most.

While visiting the summit there was barely a breeze. But, as we neared the exit to catch the cable car a breeze kicked up, causing the Israeli flag to flap proudly in the wind. I was able to grab a great shot with the Dead Sea in the background.

When we got to the ramp RP asked me if I'd like him to take my picture. I hadn't really had my picture taken anywhere so told him yes. I wish I could say it was a good photo. However, my hair was all over the place, and my sunglasses were pitch black. Still, it was better than nothing, and I appreciated his asking.

WC and DK tried to talk Doron and TS into letting them run down the Snake Trail. But, that wasn't going to happen, so everyone took the cable car. At the bottom the driver pointed out a group of Ibex on top of a stone wall. I really missed my good camera and zoom as the 10x digital zoom on the Fuji camera turned out pretty anemic.

It was now time for a cliché - floating in the Dead Sea!

Because the water is so concentrated with salt, about the only thing you can do is float. The more you try to go under water, the faster your body bobs up to the surface, like a wine cork. And whatever you do DON'T open your eyes.

We stopped at the seaside resort of Ein Bokek. The resort is nothing more than a handful of hotels and shops which cater to the people who flock to the area to soak in the salty water, lounge under umbrellas on the shore, rinse and repeat.

Tour bus riders were allowed to use the changing rooms in one of the swim suit stores.

A lifeguard sat high up on a pole with a bunch of that white anti-burn paste on his nose, a sailors hat (like what Gilligan wore) and swim trunks. He skin was well tanned from being exposed, and I wondered how many days he could actually do that without earning himself an acute case of skin cancer.

All you had to do was walked into the water and when it was deep enough just lean back. No need to tread water, or even try to swim. It was as if you were laying on one of those soft foam mattresses where your body sinks in a bit and the foam conforms to your body.

The only swimming, if there was any, was all in slow motion. Signs on shore warned people against splashing. I guess DK got a little too active for the life guard's taste, and he started yelling at him loudly.

This was probably the hottest day of the entire trip. The air was thick with oxygen and the sun beat down on you.  Because of the No Splash rule, it was absolutely quiet, which magnified the desolation even more.

While standing, I reached down and grabbed a handful of the sea bottom assuming it was very white sand. It was salt…nothing but salt! No wonder the water was so clear.

Adjacent to where we were floating was an area marked off with big warning signs and floating buoys. As RP and I got closer we noticed a rotten egg smell and a slight bubbling. It must have been some type of underwater sulphur spring.

We could only stand it for 10-15 minutes before the salt started drying our skin out. Coming out of the water, there was an outside shower with three nozzles where people could rinse themselves off.

Once finished, we headed back to the changing room. Unbeknownst to us, the clerk had moved our belongings to a different changing room, and we were greeted with a shriek from a couple of 50-something Israeli women. We apologized and beat a hasty retreat. Only then did the clerk tell us where our belongings were.

After changing we had some time to walk around the little mini-mall. I guessed this place had a lot of Soviet Jews because there were quite a bit of signs in Cyrillic. I feebly tried talking with someone in Russian, but all I accomplished was a bit of embarrassment.

Arriving back at the bus, we found out that DK has managed to cut the sole of his foot somehow. My suggestion that he go stick it in the anti-septic salt water of the Dead Sea didn't go over well. But then judging by the way my clean shaven neck felt when submersed, I could understand.

Sadly, it was time for one of our little family to leave us. ED was staying longer in Israel to visit with a friend she knew from back in the USA. We waited as long as we could. However, she was going to have to wait a couple more hours for a bus going back the other direction.

For the next 2.5+ hours everyone was pretty quiet. The roadway had long left any indication of a waterway, spent the first part of that time following dry wadis, never really gaining much altitude.

The farther south we drove, it started to straighten out as the terrain flattened into a large plain, with the mountains of Jordan coming closer. More and more blocky parcels of palm tree groves popped up, the manicured looking ones with netting to keep birds out.

At some point you could start to make out truck traffic on Jordan's Dead Sea Highway. It seemed funny to have two highways paralleling each other so closely. Sort of like Highway 99 and Interstate 5 through California's Central Valley.

As we neared the end of our time in Israel, Doron got on the intercom. He gave a little speech about how much he'd really enjoyed guiding our group. Once he finished with the group announcement he went person by person to give us all a personal good-bye.

Sitting in the last row of the bus, I was the last person he came to. With a firm shake of his hand, he told me how much I "inspired" him. I'm not exactly sure what I did that caused the inspiration, but I was really honored hearing him say that.

We now reached the Wadi Araba Border Crossing; the southernmost between Israel and Jordan. The driver pulled into a parking lot at the end of the road, and quickly unloaded our baggage. Doron told everyone they were going to immediately leave so the bus driver could get back to his family by sundown. Not only was this Sabbath, it was Passover.

Unlike the first border crossing which was a short walk, this one must've been nearly 200 yards. At least that's what it felt like since the wheels on my big suitcase were all trashed, and the cloth handle kept slipping off its fasteners.

At the Jordanian side we were once again greeted by the a big smiling photo of King Abdullah II which seemed to grace most governmental buildings. There were two guard stations. I decided to try saying "Salam O Alaikum" to the first inspector. Maybe it was my pronunciation or the fact it was twilight, but he looked at me funny and just said, "Hi."

Moving on to the second guard I just said, "Salam" which seemed to be accepted. It was here that our luggage would be searched yet again, and it seemed like it took forever.

While we were waiting for our bags to be prodded through, there  were a couple of garish gift shops to occupy our time. Some of the girls were enamored with some Arabic pop song playing loudly from one of the open front shops. I noticed a little all-white kitten that was extremely friendly. He kept trying to jump on my luggage as is to say, "Don't you want to take me home with you?" (Not sure what Jake and Sally would have thought about another house guest).

Inspections finally finished, we threw our luggage on a bus and headed into Aqaba. Even though Eilat, Israel was a much bigger city, we were staying on the  Jordan side of the border.

TS said the biggest reason being that accommodations would have cost five times as much in Israel. Certainly an added benefit was that it put the border crossing delays behind us as the next day was going to be a long one, with visiting Petra before driving all the way to Amman.

Our motel for the night was the Aqaba Gulf Hotel. I wish I could say that it was very memorable. However, I really can't. That is, unless you count the information sheet in the bathroom which was printed in something like five or six different languages. I'd never seen German on them before. They did have a Rum Bar. However, it had limited hours, and wasn't open when we checked in.

We had no formal plans for the evening in Aqaba. StL and I decided to take a walk a over by the beach area. I expected to walk up and dip my toes in the Gulf waters on an quiet beach. It couldn't have been further from the truth!

Despite it being far into the evening, the beach was absolutely packed with families. Women and girls were modestly attired in Hijab and Abaya. Had they been wearing normal swimwear, you might have confused it for Mexico.

A long paved walkway paralleled the beach and was loaded with stands selling food and souvenirs. We walked for awhile until there was a break in the vendors, with allowed access to another walkway.

StL decided to head back. I kept walking to see just how far it went. A slightly uneasy feeling came over me a couple minutes later when I realized I was without anyone else in the group. But, it quickly diminished. The place was like a busy Saturday night back home and everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves, too busy to worry about the American walking alone.

I finally came to the end of the walk. There was a guy with one of those portable backpacks that serve hot coffee. I wanted to take a photo, but couldn't work up the nerve to. (Photographing people is not my favorite subject).

Three others from the trip happened to end up here too and we walked back through the closest streets of the city where there were shops open even at this time of night.

Next to our hotel was a large souvenir shop. It might have been affiliated. Not sure. They had traditional Arabic clothing, instruments and those curved Janbiya daggers you see in movies.

RV was in negotiation with the clerk over one of those traditional Bedouin sashes which have the metal disks that make noise when they dance. (don't know the name). I left her to try and work him down from whatever high price he tried to get for it. (She ended going without).

I ran into a couple others. However, it seemed like nobody was going to go out for a walk again, so I decided to call it a night. Walking past the hotel's Rum Bar, I momentarily thought about grabbing a drink. But, changed my mind.

As it turned out, a big group went over to the water front. Had I known, I would have tagged along.

I, honestly, wouldn't mind visiting Aqaba again. With the exception of the brief concern I felt when first alone, it had a wonderful festive atmosphere. Just families enjoying themselves.


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