Friday, 6 July 2018

Dead Sea

I can’t tell you what a pleasure it is to come down to a buffet breakfast in a hotel and discover that everything is vegetarian. Well, alright, there was a bit of fish in one corner, but apart from that, everything was edible.

The plan today was to visit the Dead Sea, and we decided to go there by public transport, which turned out to be a rather silly idea. We ended up in a cab heading to the bus station with a somewhat unscrupulous driver, who did everything in his devious little power to make sure we missed our bus so that he could charge us 600 shekels to take us there direct. He used supreme stalling tactics: took us the longest route to the bus station, dropped us by a cash point which didn’t exist, and then, finally, when he’d got his way, he did everything he could to get more money out of us. It was really rather unpleasant, but at least I got to swim in the Dead Sea. I was last there in 1998, so it was a 20-year ambition to return.

The journey took us out of Jerusalem via the West Bank, which is always a somewhat uncomfortable experience. Our driver pointed out several of the Jewish settlements to us, and offered to take us to Jericho or Bethlehem (for extra money.) Of course, what people forget, in their rush to condemn Jewish people for wanting to live in the desert, is that it’s within the contested West Bank where many of the ancient and hugely important Biblical sites are... both Christian and Jewish.

The signposts along the motorway are a veritable lexicon of Biblical sites, including the spot where Lazarus was raised from the dead and the place where something happened with a Good Samaritan. I should imagine that fella Jesus has something to do with whatever that particular story is all about.

The Judean Desert is a bleak place. Pinkish, yellow and cream-coloured rocks have been sculpted into waves by the wind over thousands of years. The sky which hovers over the top of the rocks is a powder blue. Electricity pylons stretch far into the distance. The occasional settlement clings to a hilltop, mostly stark concrete buildings with small windows to stave off the deadly sun.

This is the land of the Bedouin, which our taxi driver took great delight in telling us were also being threatened by the Israeli government. The Bedouin don’t live in tents, which the romantic in me somehow expected. They live in semi-permanent corrugated tin shacks, surrounded by emaciated donkeys and horses. A woman with a flowing headscarf was using a hose to clean something.

The nearer the sea you get, the more below sea level you end up. The taxi driver told us that it’s the lowest point on earth. For some reason I thought that was Death Valley, but that might be the hottest place! What’s certainly the case is that you go from Jerusalem, which is high in the mountains, and drop many many feet down to the Dead Sea, which is 400 meters below sea level. Rather jolly plaques made from porcelain tiles tell you when you get to 100 below. 200 below. 300 below...

There are also a number of date farms close to the sea which are a striking sight in the middle of the desert. Date palms are rather tall, impressive trees. This time of the year they also have little bags hanging from their branches, I assume to catch the dates when they become ripe and fall.

Curious stalls line the sides of the road. Many sell pots and garden equipment. There’s a fashion in those parts for ceramic toadstools. Who’d have thought? There were also many camels by the side of the road. They don’t move very much and I thought the first ones I saw were made of fibre glass. I jokingly said this to Michael, but our keen-eared taxi driver was straight on it: “you want ride on camel? I organise ride on camel. Not expensive...” I hate it when I’m viewed as a breathing pot of money. Frankly, I’d feel very lucky if I could command 600 shekels a day. That’s about £120!

As we neared our beach on the Dead Sea, we passed through a ruined Jordanian army camp. The light concrete buildings are now just shells, but have become the most amazing canvasses for graffiti.

The beach we ended up at was the one our driver assured us was the best. Actually, it turned out simply to be the closest to Jerusalem. I didn’t mind. It was nice enough and probably a lot nicer than the one I went to in 1998, which I seem to recall being very muddy.

There’s a complex of buildings at the top of the cliff, all designed to get as much money out of tourists as possible. Shops selling minerals and mud harvested from the sea. Little stalls selling slushies at £5 a pop. Wildly expensive lockers for your valuables. Netta, this year’s Eurovision winner, was playing on a loop.

The beach itself was charming, and relatively empty (it being mid day in the height of summer.) I’m told you can fry eggs on the rocks there. I certainly burned the soles of my feet whilst walking across the sand. 

I’m painting all of this to be like some kind of Dantesque vision of hell, but genuinely, the moment you enter that water, something magical happens. You literally cannot do anything but float. It’s not one of those situations where you have to skull a bit to keep afloat. The water tips you onto your back, and takes your feet out from under you. It is impossible to swim. It’s very hard to roll onto your front. You literally lie on your back and float into oblivion. It would be an amazing way to meditate. Lie flat and your ears go under water to the extent that all you can hear is the odd glug of water and the sound of your heartbeat. It is one of those things which everyone needs to experience.

Word of advice, however; don’t get it in your eyes because it’ll sting like hell! And, if you have any little cuts and abrasions on your feet or legs, the highly salty water will sure as anything make you aware of them! Periodically you’d see someone being led by a friend over to the shower, eyes clamped shut in pain, “ooh, another casualty” someone would say.

The water feels like oil. Like brine. I guess it is a form of brine. The fun thing to do is to cover yourself from head to toe in mud. It’s meant to be very good for you. And my forehead has felt like a baby’s bottom all day as a result!

But we couldn’t stay long at the beach. It was too hot. We also had a taxi driver who told us it didn’t matter how long we stayed, but secretly we knew however long we stayed would be too long, and therefore potentially cost us more. We were right. We stayed on the beach for an hour and a quarter. He accused us of staying for two hours and wanted more money. He didn’t get it. By the time he dropped us back in Jerusalem we’d developed a deep hatred of the man.

We were stopped at a check-point on the way back into Israel, and that felt a little weird. We also saw the infamous wall, which, in the flesh, is possibly even more foreboding. The problem, of course, is that, though terribly divisive, it’s also kept Israeli’s a lot safer from terrorist attacks.

After lunch, I sat and watched hammy actors rehearsing in the park behind King David’s hotel. I wasn’t sure why they were rehearsing there. It smacked of some sort of American summer school. They were performing Shakespeare with physical theatre techniques. One man was pretending to be a lizard. Every time I moved benches, they followed. Every time I looked at them, I blushed.

We went back into the Old City in the afternoon. Fridays in Jerusalem are very quiet. Despite it not officially being sabbath until dusk, most places shut at lunch time - if indeed they’ve opened at all. The place is so frum that we may even struggle to get back to the airport tomorrow for our flight.

The Old City, as usual, was hugely chaotic. Lads collecting plastic bottles for recycling wander through the streets. Many of the stores have little singing birds in cages hanging from the ceilings. I’m told the birds in these cages sing because they’re so distressed.

We went to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where Jesus was hanged and buried and all that stuff. It’s not a story I find personally affecting, but Abbie asked me to say hello to Jesus for her, and also there’s something fairly intoxicating about the religious fervour you get in that place. Regardless of whether you believe the old women are rubbing perfumes into the stone which covered Jesus’ tomb, what IS true is that they’ve been doing it for hundreds of years on the same piece of marble. And that, in itself, is remarkable.

We exited the old town at Damascus Gate, which is very firmly in Palestinian East Jerusalem. The call to prayer was happening and different pitched voices were echoing across the city. It was all rather eerie.

We found ourselves back in the Old City at dusk because we wanted to see the Shabbat service at the Western Wall. As we walked towards the Jewish quarter we found ourselves in a huge crocodile of people dressed in their finest, all heading to the same place. The atmosphere was utterly electric. There were many thousands there, most of whom were singing excitedly and jumping up and down in huge circles like only Jewish people seem to do.

We didn’t stay for long. There’s something about large numbers of people congregating in small places which makes me deeply uncomfortable. It only takes one person to get into a panic before everyone starts rushing about like headless chickens and there’s some sort of catastrophe.

On our way back to the hotel, we stopped in a park and watched an amazing fountain. It was one of those fountains which keeps changing its settings so that children can run in and out of jets of water of different heights. It’s the best one of its sort I’ve ever seen and the kids were having an amazing time - despite it being dark. Children don’t go to bed when it’s dark here. You get them up at all times, playing in floodlit parks. It’s rather charming.

This evening we went to Jerusalem’s only gay bar, Videopub, where we met a charming archaeologist who told us all about the Dead Sea Scrolls, although, actually, he was obsessed with Boudicca which I rather liked.

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