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Published: February 26th 2013
Changing faces of Israel
We leave Henry asleep (mostly) in Aleeza’s bed (she was kind enough to give us her bed while she slept on her pullout couch). Early morning on Shabbat, even in the party-city Tel Aviv, is very quiet. A few streetcleaners and one or two cars, even in this central location. We walk to our pick-up location, a nearby hotel, and easily spot the loosely bunched group of foreigners on the lookout for a leader. A compact fifteen-seater van/bus pulls up and we’re off. This is an English-speaking tour but we have Germans and one Greek man in addition to the handful of Americans.
This is my first jaunt out of Tel Aviv and I avidly watch the landscapes outside. Tel Aviv metro area quickly drops off to be replaced by wooded shrubby hills pockmarked with villages. We pass through Jerusalem quickly, not enough to get a good feel of it but tomorrow will come soon enough. Today belongs to the desert. Passing by Jerusalem, I see the West Bank Barrier for the first time, a simple enough structure, just a tan-colored divider snaking in and around landforms and buildings. The buildings on either side are
often so close together, as if the wall just popped up in the middle of the street one day. I wish I had the time to go see the graffiti/street art on it such as the anti-wall stencil that the infamous and shadowy Banksy made news eight years ago. And I’m sure there are many, many more thought-provoking scrawls, paintings, and outpourings of emotion on that wall.
Our tour guide talks constantly as he drives (aggressively) along the highway, narrating what we are seeing and a little about what we are going to see today. He points out the fact that you can often tell if you are in an Arab town or Jewish town (or section of town) based on the hot-water system on top of the buildings. Solar panels on the Jewish homes and black-plastic barrels on the Arab buildings. Also that the Arab buildings often tend to stay flat on top because as families grow, more levels pile up on top.
The landscape changes vividly after we pass Jerusalem fully. The greenery blinks out and there are colored, bare hills, with shades reminiscent of the Painted Desert in the US Southwest. And we can see
the Dead Sea, the northern part of it, now a separate water body due to agricultural siphoning. As we draw nearer this shimmering, grey-blue mass, serenely flat in the distance, our guide tells us distressing news. The water level of the Dead Sea is dropping by a meter or more every year. I suddenly get the deep-seated knot, 425 meters my sea-level soul, at the thought that I might be viewing the Dead Sea in its last years. This iconic destination, beloved by nature enthusiasts, spa tourists, and history lovers all over the globe, might be sucked away, leaving behind only memories of buoyancy. Throughout the day, this thought tugs at my consciousness, shading all that I see with a thin dark scrim. The stuff that legends are made of
We make a stop at the Ahava factory, a famous brand of Dead Sea skin care, age-defying, wrinkle-loosening, libido-increasing (I made that up) products. I did not know we would be stopping at Ahava until this morning and I’m not terribly pleased. I have zero desire to buy things. I want to see and experience and not be told of the wonders of Ahava products. I am not
the target audience though I am the right demographic. But this tour is a general one and I bet that most folks on the tour are just fine with the stop, an excuse to go to the bathroom if nothing else.
After Ahava, we drive through several washed-out sections of the road. There are no threatening clouds today (yay!) but the days past have left their mark on the desert. Our tour guide informs us that it was a close call this morning whether or not we’d be able to go at all. Soon we reach one of our main destinations of the day: Masada.
This mountain-top fortress was the site of one of the most iconic and awful events in ancient Jewish history. In 72 CE, the last bastion of Jewish resistance against Roman rule made its final bloody stand at Masada. The Romans, never a people for small measures, built a massive earthen siege tower that would reach the fortress walls that they could batter away at but the night before they were ready to batter, the Jewish inhabitants, 960 in all, committed mass suicide/murder. No survivors but two women and five children. This Masada story
became an Israeli legend. The overwhelming perseverance and defiance of the rebels against all odds caught easily at the young Israeli cultural (and political) mind. It is now where many young Jews celebrate their bar/bat mitvah, where soldiers take sunrise hikes, and where big summertime concerts shake the ancient walls (the concerts are not on the mesa but not far off!).
We can see the mesatop mountain and the cable-cars running up to it from the (very) large Visitor’s Center. We rush through the shiny VC and hop on the cable-car. Both Aleeza and I would have far preferred to hike up the Snake Path, the one footpath/hike up the mountain but we only have an hour in Masada proper. On top, the place is expectedly a jumble of rocks. But rocks with stories, some recreated, some still left intact. There were Roman-style baths, complete with multiple chambers of preparation and sauna staging areas, built by the insistence of Herod the Great who left his mark with massive building projects. There is a the beautiful round northern palace, for the king and his intimates, tucked away, slightly out of sight down the mountain’s side and well away from the
Aleeza and me
Where did I learn to pose like that? Uffda
one Masada entryway, the Snake Path. I could have easily spent more time wandering around here and I again wish we hadn’t made the silly stop at Ahava. I’ll put that into the tour review later.
We easily persuade our guide to let us hike down and Aleeza and I merrily descend the Snake Path. This was the one entrypoint onto the mesa. A one-person wide, zig-zagging path that could be defended (so they say) by one doughty warrior, against a whole army. And I suppose it must be true since the Romans felt compelled to construct an entire imitation mountain to reach the rebels. The path is not that long nor that steep but I can see how it would be quite a killer in the summertime when the Dead Sea temperatures rise to near triple-digits. There is zero shade though there are sparse bushes that remind me of plants back home (in the US desert). The air reminds me of home too, not exactly but close. Something about deserts always makes me feel at ease and like I know the place. It’s my preferred habitat and I wish I could spend more time in this one. Keep your head up!
After a quick and expensive lunch at the VC eatery at Masada, we’re off to the Dead Sea proper for the time-honored tradition of a dip in the hyper-saline inland sea. We go to the Mineral Beach, run by Kibbutz Mitzpe Shalem. The guide repeatedly tells us all sorts of warnings about not drinking the water, not touching our eyes with our brined hands, etc. He’s starting to sound like a worried mother hen and I wonder if he’s had some bad accidents on his trip before from tourists who thought that gulping down the Dead Sea would be as healthful as slathering on the creamy Ahava products. We change into our bathing suits and proceed in a group to the receding shoreline. (Again, I wonder how much farther the beach will extend next year, and the year after, and the year after…) Our tour guide is adamant that we not put our hands in the water, out of fear that we will foolishly wipe our eyes and stick our fingers up our noses, I suppose. So there’s the group, bobbing resolutely and trying to stay balanced with their hands in the air. I admit
I find this funny and Aleeza and I do our best not to giggle too much. We make our own way in, hoping that at least being in the water will cut down the slight chill of the occasional breeze (it may be the Dead Sea but it’s still just February!).
The water is much choppier than I expected and I find it hard to keep floating without turning on my side. Though I ignore our clucking tour guide’s admonition about hands in the water, I still find balancing a chore. Floating is not though and it’s a pleasant sensation though it hinders my ability to just take in the sights. I’m too focusing on bobbing. So I get out and wander over to the mud area. There is a small shade tent with buckets of black goo in them. And even a full-length mirror to make sure you’re fuily caked. I am not intending to get gooed but then the tour guide helpfully slaps mud on my back. So I’m in. I mud myself up, take the requisite photo, and wait for the stuff to dry. We squeal and shiver under the high-force outside showers and move quickly
to the sulfur hot spring room. And it’s deliciously warm and not nearly as smelly as I had been fearing. There’s only the faintest smell of spoiled eggs. A dinner of tiny salads
Almost as soon as we’ve loaded back onto the bus, we make an illegal stop to see a camel herd, shepherded by a small boy on a donkey, and take touristy photos. Our tour guide shoos us back in and we don’t stop until the first hotel dropoff in Tel Aviv. I try to stay awake, wanting to see the sights again but I nod off like most of the passengers. The tour guide, I believe, keeps talking but few are awake to appreciate.
After being dropped off, Aleeza and I gratefully shower. Now the sulfour smells is discernible and we’re ready to be rid of it. I check out hostels in Jerusalem and learn that Henry will be coming back that evening. The changed-plans had been for him to stay with his family friends in Netanya after their tour of Caesarea, a Roman ruins site I would have loved to visit, but I’m happy to hear he’s headed back.
I convince Aleeza
to go all the way out to Jaffa for dinner tonight. She’s tired and had wanted to stick closer to home (she has to work in the morning after all) but she gives in to my persuasion graciously. I want to see Jaffa one more time, even though, again, it will be too late to see it glowing and vibrant. We wait forever for the bus outside her apartment and after we finally hop on, I recognize the streets well enough to know when we should stop (pat on the back, Marit). We’re headed to the waterfront which has restaurants that both my friend Uri and my friend Guy (back in Cali) recommended. At the Old Man and the Sea, an expansive glass-walled place, we’re treated to dozens of tiny salads as soon as we sit down. Turns out that this is their schtick. I’m delighted because the salads are quite good but quickly Aleeza and I realize there will be no way we can finish all of it, even though the portions are quite reasonable. I think a group of four could have polished it off but alas, we leave too much leftover. And because Henry and I are
In Old Jaffa
setting off again tomorrow, I don’t want to take any home with me and not have them refrigerated. Aleeza says that she’s observed that wasted food is common in Israel, a fact which tears at me as much as it does in the States.
On our way back to a main street, we take some detours through the artisan part of Jaffa. This is the old part, full of identical stone buildings, glowing warmly in the yellow street lights. The buildings are close enough that second-story inhabitants might be able to reach out and touch. There are little bits of tiled beauty, carved stone-filigrees, and pretty hand-carved, painted, fashioned art pieces in every window. And a couple of stores that promise a treasure trove of ancient books. Aleeza resolves out loud to come here again soon and I wish I had the opportunity too. As we pull away in our taxi, I promise Jaffa I’ll be back. Sometime in the nearish future at least.
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