Outside my window, not too far away, I can see the Dead Sea. It is a beautiful sight! I've floated in it twice, although after the first time most of us said one experience was enough. But yesterday Zvi offered a mud bath before bathing in this gorgeous lowest point on earth, so it was impossible to refuse, even though I have never - even as a child - enjoyed playing in mud. This would be a unique experience! Six of us appeared at the appointed time and walked down to the sea. Our outfits would have been remarkable in any other place: two were dressed as many other tourists chose to do, in bathrobes supplied by the spa; three wore their regular clothes, and I wore a towel over my swimsuit. I had received a bathrobe too but left it in my room, thinking that all the bathrobed and slippered people walking around inside and outside looked like inmates in or escapees from an insane asylum.
Zvi passed around packs of squishy mud which we rubbed onto our skin, wherever we liked. Zvi and David covered themselves almost completely, and we females mostly chose to just cover our arms and legs, but two put a bit on their faces too. We all looked so strange and funny that I couldn't stop laughing. What a sight we were! Then we waited a bit until the mud dried, tightening up over the skin, and when it turns grey, that's the time to go in the water. Some mud washes off right away, but mostly you need to rub and scrub it off; I despaired of my fingernails, which had mud deep inside and all around each nail, wondering if I'd ever get them clean again.
The sky had been dark grey for most of the day, but now the wind picked up, overturning our plastic beach chairs and whatever clothing we had left there onto the sand; a few drops of rain splattered upon us as we floated effortlessly in the salty water. I love swimming in the rain, but you can't swim in the Dead Sea and it really wasn't raining, but the temperature had dropped, the wind was howling, so we all trooped out, half of us heading for the hot pool. After floating there awhile we transferred to the whirlpool, an astonishing sight as it was filled with boiling soap bubbles, but this did the job on my fingernails. Clean at last! Leisurely soaking, very pleasantly talking with each other, then for me a trip to the hammas (or steam room), ending with a hot shower back in my own room. This was a joyful afternoon even though the sadness of our very soon leaving new good friends sat heavy in my mind.
Yesterday was a good day as well, although mostly all of these days here in Israel have been much more enjoyable and exciting than I had anticipated. Two archeological sites were scheduled: visits to the Qumran Caves in the Dead Sea Rift Valley, and to Masada, the mountaintop fortress that Herod the Great had built as a personal palace and refuge in the Judean Desert. We rode cablecars to the top of Masada, but it is possible to climb up the steep trails, as many pilgrims choose to do. At the top one can see in all directions; this is another of Herod's fortresses, built to protect him from his many enemies. The Jewish Zealots could have lived in Masada for years; they had everything they needed, thanks to Herod's preparations. There were enormous storerooms full of food, creative water cisterns, an armory, bathhouses, palaces, all built here on this isolated mountain-top mesa. Here is a short version of what I recall from its history, learned while sitting in the shade under a ramada on Masada; it is probably not a totally accurate retelling. Years after Herod died, Jewish freedom fighters, the Zealots, overcame the Romans, took over Masada, and lived there for three years, much of the time fighting off the Romans' attempted invasions. Around 72 or 74 CE the Romans successfully breached Masada's steep walls, but waited until the next morning to climb up and capture the Jews. That night the Zealots, almost one thousand men, women, and children, agreed to kill themselves rather than become Roman slaves, writing their names on pottery shards and drawing lots to see who the last person was to be. When the Romans arrived the next morning all they found were dead bodies and everything else burned. But two women and five children, who had hidden themselves very well, lived to tell the story, which was written out by Josephus Flavius, a Roman citizen and historian. Today Masada is one of the most often visited tourist places in Israel, a UNESCO World Heritage Site honoring the continuing Jewish fight for their freedom.
To end on a somewhat happier note, this morning we took an off-road jeep ride into the Judean Desert, riding through (dry) riverbeds, beautiful canyons, and stunning eroded craters. Keeping a very close eye on weather reports as rain was predicted for later on in the day, our guide told us that we would not be able to have our desert picnic in the wadi, the valley where groups usually stop for lunch, since flash floods were possible with the coming rain. Understanding how potentially dangerous this was, we camped in a different place and enjoyed a very delicious lunch presented by all the jeep drivers, with chairs arranged in a square all around a rug placed on the sandy, rocky ground. Such an unexpected and luxurious treat! The forecast the drivers had heard didn't manifest itself until later on that night, slightly farther up the desert canyon; by the time we tried to leave our hotel to travel back to Tel Aviv the following morning the main road had been washed away; no vehicle could pass through. And so we turned around and went a longer, round-about way to get back to Tel Aviv where we started this Israel adventure, to spend our last day together enjoying the beach, or packing, and asking each other when flights left the next morning. Our tour was nearly over; I'd miss the joy of just being together as a group. We'd be heading back to our normal lives, enriched by our travelling, by these experiences, by our meeting new friends, by our touching, if only for a little while, other like-minded souls. How I hate these endings, but oh, how I love meeting others we are drawn to, recognizing a connection that feels familiar, almost as if we had met before.
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