The Dead Sea

Sunday, November 2, 2008

I was driving down the hill from Jerusalem along 4-lane Highway 1 when a camel appeared, plodding along the dusty side of the road, yanked on a rope by two little boys. Their home appeared to be a village of shacks, made of tin plates and rags, assembled into roughly rectangular blocks. There’s no sign of water or vegetation, so I don’t see how they survive. There are turn-offs to Palestinian towns like Ramalah. Barbed wire or concrete fences seem to appear at random. A group of Arab women dressed hair to toe in black sit on the side of the freeway. More shanty towns appear, some with mules tethered to posts with nothing to eat or do.

Down the hill I picked up some hitchhikers, two Jewish girls about 18, going home to their West Bank settlement near Jericho, a little village of 40 families called “Vered Yeriho”. I offered to drive them up to the village instead of dropping them along Highway 1, and they were happy. It was only a few kilometres, but it was 38 degrees outside! There’s a roundabout a ways in… the right goes to Jericho, no Jews allowed… the left goes to Vered Yeriho, no Arabs allowed… I can go to both, with my passport. The usual young soldier with a machine gun guards the village gate, opens the barrier for me to drive in. The girls shake my hand and say good-bye, the guard eyes me carefully as he opens the gate again.

My car says it’s 39 degrees outside now, as I sink below sea level and approach the Dead Sea. It doesn’t touch 40 today, but there’s a haze in the air. Pockets of irrigated date palms are about the only vegetation; the rocky cliffs on either side of the sea are almost lifeless, dusty, hinting at thousands of years of layered archaeology. Everyone talks about Masada and the battle in 73 AD. I’ll tour that tomorrow.


Along the Dead Sea I picked up another pair of hitchhikers, a young couple. She just finished her Army tour and he has another year; they’re hitching the 300km down to Eilat on the Red Sea for a vacation. She asked lots of questions about Canada; she’s going to Toronto for some kind of work term for 3 months. We talked about the Palestinian question; they think nobody in Israel expects a resolution in the next 20 years, that there’s too much hatred… that the military service is essential for their survival.

Ein Bokek where I stay, an hour down the Sea shore, is not really a town; it’s a collection of resort hotels focused on the Dead Sea attraction, near the Masada heritage site. As I write, I’m looking out my open 7th floor window at the full moon rising over Jordan. The moonlight shimmers on the salty water, making a golden path to my hotel. In daylight, I thought the Jordanian side of the Sea was empty, but now I can see, under the moon, twinkling lights all the way along. They have their homes and resorts there too, a few kilometres away, a million miles apart.

This afternoon I went for a swim. The water was as hot as a hot tub, and the air felt like a sauna. The beach is literally salt not sand. At first I didn’t notice the difference from normal water, other than the temperature… then I lay down on it. Not in it… on it. With no effort at all, my body lay on the water and I relaxed; it felt like I was lying on a warm air mattress over a huge hot pool. I had to push my legs down to get them under water, and when I finally got upright, my armpits hovered at the water level, without any movement to keep myself afloat. Weird and wonderful. I had to taste it, just a touch of my tongue to my wet hand… it was like an intense oriental spicy sauce, hot with salt. I didn’t last long before heading for the showers.