08 July 2006

to symmetry.

To the second hand and its accuracy
To the actual size of everything
The desert is the sand
You can't hold it in your hand
There's no difference you can make
And if it seems like an accident
A collage of senselessness
You weren't looking hard enough
I wasn't looking hard enough

For those unaware, after last summer's Saharan adventure I fell completely in love with all things related to deserts. Something about growing up in the lightening capital of the world makes me appreciate dry desolation. The Dead Sea and Negev are nothing like the Sahara, but equally beautiful in their own way. We left from Nazareth on Friday morning, picked up the boys in Jerusalem and Ramallah, and drove down through the Judean Desert to the Ein Gedi spa on the Dead Sea. As dictated by tradition, we slathered ourselves from head to toe in the thick black mud (a satisfying experience in and of itself!), and waddled down to the sea while it dried to a crusty shell. Between the mud and the salt water, no sunscreen will ever stay on your skin, but ortunately, the mud acts as a natural sunblock and the low elevation and the minerals evaporating from the water block most UVA and UVB rays. Even my pasty body walked away burn free. Once the mud is dry, you wade into the bathtub-warm sea to scrub it off and float around. It really is impossible to sink - we tried! Once you're in above your waist, if you lean off balance or slip on the underwater mud, your feet float up against your will and you end up on your stomach or back. In chest deep water, you're not really standing so much as bobbing straight up and down. The salty water is foul-tasting, and stings beyond belief in even the tiniest cut, but apparently the health benefits are amazing. My skin definitely felt fresh after the mud bath, but the salty feeling doesn't leave your skin until a freshwater shower or two later. We contemplated racing to Jordan (you can see it across the water), but decided that might not go over well with either government. Maybe next time. All in all, check one off the "list of things to do before I die." I want to go back when I'm in Jordan next year - I've heard the weather is beautiful there in the winter (as opposed to oven-like in the summer).

Exfoliated and mud-free, we next boarded two Land Rovers for a two day off-road Negev Desert tour. I can't walk today after bouncing around the back of the jeep and slamming into the walls and ceiling, but the views were mindblowing and worth every painful second (the pictures can't begin to do it justice, but look anyway). We left the spa and continued driving along the shores of the Dead Sea, passing the countless resorts and mineral mining plants. Sadly, the Dead Sea is rapidly being destroyed - Ilana, a woman at Isha, has seen it change dramatically just in the last ten or fifteen years. Potassium and magnesium mining (for fertilizer) are drying up the sea, and the resorts pumping water into their spas have left strips of dry land criss-crossing the sea. It's gotten to the point where the sea has actually split into two parts, and will be gone in an alarmingly short number of years. So hurry up and see it before it's just a salt flat! We stopped by an enormous cave made almost (98%) entirely of salt, near a salt rock bearing a slight resemblance to a woman that's been dubbed Lot's Wife for the tourists.

After a gas stop, we headed off the beaten path and into the Negev with Barack, our driver. Barack has a thing for American female rockers, so we blasted Macy Gray and Alanis Morrisette all afternoon. Asked about a stuffed Eeyore hanging from his rearview mirror, he professed his love for animals, particularly donkeys. Apparently, those tough desert cowboys have a softer side! The Negev looks nothing like the Sahara I fell in love with last year, but is equally stunning. Where the Sahara is entirely reddish-orange sand dunes with no vegetation (save the oases) and minimal visible animal life aside from the occasional salamander, scorpion, or stray camel, the Negev is teeming with life. Bushes and trees dot the landscape, and a whole host of mammals live there, from ibex to rodents to foxes to leopards. The Israeli government has poured a lot of money into desert agriculture, so you'll also see the occasional splash of vivid green date, banana, or grape farms in the middle of a rocky plain. In place of dunes, the Negev has rocky mountains, cliffs, and valleys, and earthquakes have split cliffs to reveal the layers of earth underneath. There are a few small villages off of the main paved roads, but once you're on the dirt paths, there's no civilization for miles. After seeing what development is doing to the Dead Sea, the Negev reminds me that there are still places left untouched by human hands, and it's not too late for sustainable development.

We ended the day at a Beduoin campsite for dinner and camping under the stars. Reminiscent of the Moroccan oasis last year, we ate on cushions around a low table, and drank tea around the campfire before falling asleep. The site was less authentic than the Saharan one, with electricity, running water, and a parking lot for campers. While showers and flushing toilets are lovely, there's something lost when you're no longer "roughing it" in the desert. Modern conveniences aren't necessarily a panacea - it makes me sad to see the Beduoin culture made more convenient and familiar for Westerners. But the desert at night is still breathtaking, so I can't complain too much. If they start building air-conditioned cabins out there, then I'll have to start a revolution.

We woke up to an enormous breakfast the next day before loading back onto the Land Rovers for another trek through the Negev. We stopped for a swim at a freshwater spring, which seemed out of place in the middle of a rocky desert. We drove through Ben Gurion national park, where we saw a few ibex and played with a 3/4 mile deep steel well that made sounds like explosions when you dropped rocks or sand into it. We were like babies with Scotch tape - Barack had to drag us away. We stopped at a goat farm to taste fresh goat cheese and Israeli wine as our last hurrah in the Negev before heading back to civilization and our van driver at Ein Gedi. Dusty, salty, and tired, we all slept on the drive back to Jerusalem, and then proceeded to circle the city for over an hour as our driver attempted to figure out how to get into Jerusalem to drop off the boys. It's sort of like an Orlando taxi driver staring blankly at you if you asked him to take you to Disney World. Biggest tourist destination in the country, and the man didn't know where it was. Ahh, the irony. We headed back toward Nazareth, and two others and I got off in Afula to catch a cab to our respective homes and pass out in our beds. An exhausting, but beautiful weekend. I'd move to the desert and open a winery if I didn't have moral qualms with pumping water into the desert for agriculture and disrupting the natural order of things. I suppose I'll have to suffice with just visiting occasionally.

Germany won the third place match, so here's to hoping French wine and cheese will outplay Italian wine and cheese for the championship tonight. I'm completely hooked on world football. South Africa hosts in 2010 - anyone care to join me?

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