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Published: February 13th 2012
I left northern Israel looking for warmth and I found it in Ein Gedi: the Lowest Place on Earth and, for that week, the Warmest Place in Israel. I hadn’t found a couch to surf in the area, but there was a beach, and a warm breeze. I didn’t need anything more. I cleared a little area of rocks, unrolled my sleeping bag and watched the full moon rise over the Jordanian Mountains, feeling happy and instantly at peace. It was a feeling that would become more intense the longer I stayed. The Ein Gedi air was making me high.
Sitting at 400 meters below sea level, Ein Gedi is subject to extremely high barometric pressure. As a consequence, the partial pressure of oxygen in the air is higher, which means that you take in more oxygen with each breath. Breathing oxygen-enriched air has many beneficial effects, one of which is the release of endorphins, or happy molecules. The air in the Dead Sea region is also high in bromine, which has a recognized tranquilizing effect. I had only planned to stay one night in Ein Gedi, but I knew that I’d stay more. It felt too good to be
In the morning, I watched the sun rise – in almost the exact spot the moon had risen the night before – as I readied myself for a day of hiking in the Ein Gedi Nature Reserve. I was told to pay no heed to the recommended hiking times listed on the site map; that the longest any trail would take me was four hours. That was good, because I wanted to stock up in the one shop around before it closed early for Shabbat. And I didn’t want to rush.
I walked at a moderate pace for three hours, reaching the base of the last ascent at one o’clock. I’d been told that the descent took at least half an hour, and the shop closed at two, so I’d have to hurry. I grabbed my iPod from my bag, put on some thumping electronic music and started running up and along the cliff’s edge, fuelled by a vision of avocados and tangerines. My feet quickened as I saw the town getting closer. Then, the trail switched back and I stopped dead. In front of me was an ascent that was going to need all four limbs
and at least an hour to climb safely. The question was no longer whether or not I’d make it down before the shop closed, but whether or not I’d make it before dark.
At the top, I did my usual dance routine on the ledge overlooking the valley before hurrying on my way down. The trails to and from the lookout points in the Ein Gedi Reserve weren’t made for people prone to vertigo, or to klutziness. Thankfully, I’m not part of the first group, but, unfortunately, I’m the flag-bearing member of the second. The path has sheer drop-offs, sometimes on either side, and it’s made entirely of loose rocks – small ones for your feet slip on and big ones for your toes to catch under. I can’t tell you how many times I saw the ground rapidly approaching my face. It didn’t help any that my shoes lack tread to the point of being smooth as a baby’s bottom and, as of last week, also lack shoelaces. But, miraculously, I made it to the trail’s end with only a few scratches and still some light to spare – just not before the park closed. My last obstacle
of the day was climbing a tall, barbwire-lined fence. Notice I didn’t say chain-linked. There was no place for toeholds and scaling it proved to be a worthy challenge for the end of the day.
The next day I devoted entirely to the recovery of my fatigued muscles. I soaked in the curative hot springs and floated in the salty Dead Sea. Afterwards, I laid my pasty, winter-white body out on the rocky beach, without sunscreen, and proceeded to fall asleep. Ordinarily, an oversight such as this would burn me to a shade somewhere between lobster red and eggplant purple. But, when I woke up an hour later, I was tan. What’s more, the pores on my face, normally so large that an ant would need a bridge to cross from one side to the other, had disappeared. It was a miracle! Maybe not so miraculous as curing the blind, or multiplying fish, but a miracle nonetheless. Do I have to leave?
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