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Nearly 400 metres below sea level… and counting

It seems as if much of what I’ve taken to be true is being challenged this week. And equally, what I’m expected to know as fact is requiring every ounce of belief that I have. On the road from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea, we passed an unusual marker…. and had I not being standing on the side of the road looking off into a deeper valley in the distance, I might have been able to get my head around the fact that I was standing a sea level. But if I was on flat ground and the valley in front me was deeper still, how could it be possible to be on land and yet be below sea level?

IMG_7864 (800x597)I’ve come to the conclusion (sad that it might be) that my brain has a limited capacity for facts. And to repeat the well-worn adage, the more I learn the more I realise I don’t know, and all I can say is that it’s frustrating.

I’m tripping over phrases that should mean something to me other than pure words: green line, Golan Heights, Gaza Strip, West Bank… but those I can write off to a geopolitical ignorance that although embarrassing, might be understandable. But this sea level stuff – that’s something my nephews would know.

IMG_8032 (800x558)While I mightn’t have known that  down the middle of the Dead Sea  runs the border between Israel and Jordan, I did know that you can’t swim in it – you can only float. I mightn’t have known that it’s called the Dead Sea because it’s 8.6 times saltier than the ocean and thus nothing lives in it, but I did know that it’s famous for its mud. I mightn’t have known that it’s the source of balms for Egyptian mummies to potash for fertilizers, I did know that it’s bath salts are famous.

IMG_8021 (489x800)There’s a ritual. First you go the water and slather yourself head to toe in mud. Then you wait for 15 to 30 minutes (or as long as you can stand it). It’s surprisingly hard to sit still when you’re caked in black gooh. Then you get in the water and float … on your back. Floating on your stomach is strictly prohibited. It’s a must for anyone with psoriasis, dry skin, acne, muscle aches, dandruff, or those suffering from stress. Not for those with pacemakers or high blood pressure. Which leaves me wondering though… aren’t high blood pressure and stress sort of related?

IMG_8020People watching is great – wondering what they’d be like with their mud off… and then realising that it was off… and they were African. Obviously I wasn’t wearing my glasses.

And, while I wasn’t actually driving myself, so technically it might not count… I did get to drive on the world’s lowest road – Hwy 90 – that runs along the shores of the Dead Sea at 393 m below sea level. Not quite Route 66 but… Szilvester checked the altimeter on his watch at one stage and it read 345 meters below sea level so I know the signs weren’t lying.

The Dead Sea is said to be over 3 million years old – that’s old. And while water flows into it, none flows out of it; what disappears evaporates.  It was Cleopatra who started the Dead Sea cosmetic rage, a woman before her time, that one! And I couldn’t stop running my hands up and down my arms afterwards… soft doesn’t begin to describe the feel. I was wishing I’d brought a few ziplock bags – I could have carted the mud home.

Perhaps most interesting though is that each year, the River Jordan contributes less water to the Dead Sea – so the shoreline is dropping at a rate of about a metre annually. A massive problem. I’ve heard it said numerous times this week that long after the political situation is resolved, the region will still be fighting over water. There’s a plan afoot to build a pipeline to draw water from the Gulf of Aqaba in the Red Sea to the Dead Sea, thus refilling the Dead Sea and desalinating the water for human consumption. I tell you, it’s given me a whole new respect for the scarcity of water …. and the talent required to translate.

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Geographically challenged

Yesterday, I thought I was heading to Israel. This morning I woke up in Palestine. Perhaps I should have read the itinerary more carefully. Or perhaps not. When asked at immigration what my plans were, I said that I was going to Tel Aviv and then to Jerusalem. That I was meeting up with a scout group from Serbia and Macedonia (turns out there are six countries on this trip). And that no, I didn’t have any friends or family in Israel. Two out of three ain’t bad I suppose.

Waiting to be identified at the airport, I didn’t feel any anxiety despite my lack of preparedness. As each passenger on my flight made their way towards the exit, I stood centre concourse with by bag wondering what I’d do if nobody showed. I still thought I was staying in Tel Aviv. Not for the first time I marvelled at how easily I abdicate responsibility when someone else takes charge. If I don’t have to make decisions, I switch off completely.

http://jewfondue.blogspot.com/

http://jewfondue.blogspot.com/

On the drive to the wall (the military structure that separates Israel from Palestine on the outskirts of Bethlehem) we passed many Hasidic Jews (not at all strange really, considering we were in Israel). They wear their hats set back on their heads, showing lots of forehead. Black suits and dark shirts made it feel as if we were on the set of a black and white movie and the a fleeting notion black-and-white approaches snagged somewhere in my brain. There seemed to be mainly men, many of whom were pushing prams. Young boys, teens, older men … pushing prams. I’m not sure why that struck me as odd…but it did.

The first twinges of embarrassment at my complete ignorance of the geopolitical situation in the region started to make themselves felt when Serge began to explain to me about the Green Line: the demarcation lines set out in the 1949 Armistice Agreements between Israel and its neighbours after the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and also used to mark the line between Israel and the territories captured in the Six-Day War, including the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Golan Heights and Sinai Peninsula (the last has since been returned to Egypt as part of the 1979 peace treaty). The name derives from the green ink used to draw the line on the map while the talks were going on.

The plan was that we would take a shuttle (one of the many mini-buses that ferry passengers to Jerusalem from the airport at Tel Aviv) to the line and then use one of the enterprising local drivers to ferry us through the checkpoint into Bethlehem. Each trip nets the company $200 although the drivers themselves, working 16-hour days might net $1300 in a month. Despite this, our chap was well happy and constantly laughing and smiling. When the ten well-travelled bodies in his van began to hum, he passed around a sprig of basil. A natural air freshener that I have made note to try.

When we arrived at the wall, I was glad I had company. We were five in all so the Macedonians (having waited for me at the airport for two hours) went in the first car. The driver was supposed to come back for us … but didn’t. As we waited on the side of the litter-strewn road in the shadow of the wall I was itching to take some photos but was advised not to. They’re serious about their military installations.

Eventually we walked through. We met old-fashioned steel turnstiles and a maze of cage-like passageways lined with high railings. Stumbling over uneven pathways I was grateful yet again that I wasn’t on my own. Even if it was Serge’s first time in 15 years make the crossing on foot, at least he could speak the language. The passageway opened into a cul-de-sac where half a dozen yellow cabs stood waiting. The drivers greeted us like old friends asking where we’d come from. Judging by their enthusiasm, Ireland is popular in Palestine. A couple who had seen us waiting on the other side approached and asked if they could be of help; they thought we were trying to go to Israel and had turned back. They offered to drive us to our hotel. I couldn’t help but be impressed at the genuine warmth of the welcome and the constant smiles of the people. It was like old home week. One of the drivers told me that John Carey was also expected to pass through later …

IMG_7633 (800x600)IMG_7634 (800x600)At the hotel, having checked in, had a beer with some of the others, and Skyped home, I ventured out to my balcony to check the view. Not quite what I’d expected. It seems that inside is more important than outside when it comes to aesthetics in this part of the world – the view mightn’t be much but the hotel itself is lovely.

As Day 1 of the journey dawns, breakfast beckons and suitably attired for what they’re calling a ‘church day’, I’m ready to see more of Bethlehem and what it might offer.

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