Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Middle East Recap: Day 3

(Days 1 and 2 recap here)

March 9, 2011: The Highs and the Lows

Our hotel phone rang at 4:15am today.  Our trip leaders arranged wake-up calls for the group, knowing this morning's early departure time would be rough, but that the costs of being late were high.  On the morning agenda: a hike up Masada to tour the site and watch the sun rise over the Dead Sea.

Yael approaching the trail.

 At the top of the mountain, in the moments before sunrise.

Before sunrise, from L-R: Me, Mike, sister Becky, Patrick (a.k.a. Patrice).

The hike up Masada was not difficult, and the sunrise was beautiful, tinged with the sadness of the place.  Our tour guide, Yael, told us the story of Masada---in which one of the last Jewish strongholds in the land of Israel in AD 73 when it was surrounded by the Romans.

Sunrise.  The body of water in the distance below Masada is the Dead Sea.

On the verge of capture, the nearly 1,000 Jews on top of the mountain killed themselves rather than succumb to slavery.  We walked around the grounds and stood next to the huge catapult stones launched by the Romans while a member of our group read an excerpt of the speech delivered by a Jewish leader on Masada before they all took their lives.

Catapult stones.

The speech focused on freedom, choice, and service to G-d above all.  As a light rain fell---a rare occurrence in the Judaen desert---the speech discussed the honor of dying free and in the company of your friends.  It was eerie to hear the speech and then learn the supposed details of the pact:  the men all entered their names in a lottery to select ten who would do all the killing; among those ten, names were drawn again to determine which one would, once the deed was done, dispatch the other nine before killing himself.  Archaeologists have found slips of paper with names on them, suggesting this method.

It's a horribly morbid and ethically fraught story.  Judaism teaches that we cannot harm ourselves because we are made in the image of G-d, and suicide is considered to be an unforgivable sin.  But what of this situation, where the pact was made in order to honor the Jews' religion?  It still strikes me as wrong by the letter of the law (there's my J.D. coming out), but at the same time I could almost feel the thick cloud of dread as it descended upon the Masada Jews---women knowing they would be raped, their children violated or taken away, men having to watch the destruction, and all to endure a life of slavery.  I don't know.  I suppose this is what it means to fall within a shade of gray.

After hearing the story of Masada, we walked around the site amidst howling wind and gray clouds threatening a storm.  The wind blew us sideways as we trekked to an overlook---a long platform over the side of the mountain with a view of the surrounding steep sandy cliffs.  The wind blew so fiercely that I was almost too afraid to take a picture at the tip of the lookout for fear of being blown over the edge.  But I sucked it up and held onto my hat.  I'm glad I did; once I advanced far enough down the platform, I could hear the eerie, ominous, and vaguely supernatural sound of the mountains themselves.  According to fellow traveller Eli, something about the wind interacted with the resonant frequency of the rocks and they made a loud, high screaming sound in the wake of the looming storm.

Literally holding onto my hat.

Amazingly, the wind and rain dissipated and our long walk down the mountain was less treacherous than we'd expected.

The path down the mountain.

After breakfast at the base of Masada, we proceeded to the Dead Sea.  Within hours, we went from the top of a small mountain to the lowest point on Earth.  Ahh, Israel, with your varying terrains!

The Dead Sea was amazingly bouyant!  It was practically impossible even to submerge your shoulders because of the high salt content of the water.  To give you an idea, the Atlantic Ocean has less than a 4% salt concentration.  The Dead Sea has more than 30%.  As a result, you float nearly to the surface of the water.

Patrick floating.  Image courtesy of Liz.

In addition to its saltiness, the Dead Sea is also known for its high mineral content.  Before going into the water, several of us smeared Dead Sea mud onto our bodies (unfortunately, we had to buy it from the gift shop because our portion of the beach had no area in which to obtain fresh mud).  We let it dry in the sun while taking copious fun pictures and finally went into the sea to wash it off.

My sister and me.

Mud monsters!  L-R:  Scott, Dave H., Beth, Erin, Dave G., me, Alexis, Robbie.  Image courtesy of Beth.

The outrageously salty water left my skin feeling silky smooth.  Unfortunately, it also caused some OUTRAGEOUS stinging when I got some water on my forehead, which had, unbeknownst to me, been rubbed slightly red by my baseball cap brim during the first part of the morning.  Still, it was a very small price to pay for a very cool experience.  Apparently, some female travelers (not on our trip) famously forget not to shave their legs the day they visit the Dead Sea, and they are met with horrible, painful burning.  Even getting a small amount of the water in my mouth was terribly uncomfortable; I felt as though all the moisture that ever existed in there throughout the course of my life was sapped away with one droplet.

Our group in the Dead Sea.  Can you find me?  (Note: if I could do it over again, I wouldn't put mud on my face.  It made me less recognizable to my family in my pictures!)  Image courtesy of Liz.

While in the Dead Sea, I recreated a picture we have of my grandmother.  In the shot, from what I remember, she is wearing a one-piece and floating on her back in the Dead Sea.  I thought I also remembered her reading a newspaper.  One of our trip leaders leant me a newspaper and a fellow participant helped me to take the photo!

Can you tell that it's a Hebrew newspaper?

From the sea, we made our way to a Bedouin village in the Negev desert for a camel ride and a night of camping in a large Bedouin tent.  The camel ride was somewhat anti-climactic---a lot of us had been looking forward to checking this experience off the list, but the "ride through the desert" really consisted of a Bedouin leading a line of roped-together camels in a small loop around a field.

A line of camels (and an incredible endorsement for the Canon PowerShot SD1300IS's anti-shake technology.  Camel rides =/= smooth.  I can't believe this picture (which uses zoom---I think even digital zoom) looks so clear.).

Preparing to board the camel.  I look happy because I don't yet know what A-holes they are.  Image courtesy of Becky.

Me and Danielle on a decidedly displeased camel that could care less if we lived or died.

Regardless, it was still fun to ride a camel; we all squealed a bit when the camels stood up with us on their backs---unevenly, first their back two legs, then their front two.  They were mean, too.  Despite my honorable attempt to pet one behind the ears, it snapped at me sharply in a clear attempt to bite off several of my fingers.  Come on, camel, I was just trying to make you feel good!  (please don't quote me out of context on that one).

Right before this camel tried to bite my camera in half.

We spent the evening in a very dusty but thankfully warm Bedouin tent.  The tent was big enough to hold our entire group of about forty-five people, and consisted of several large rugs laid down over the bare sand.  We slept on thin mattress pads and sleeping bags.  Before dinner, we listened to a heavily scripted and questionably authentic presentation about Bedouin culture (complete with jokes about the speaker's multiple wives) and ate a delicious Bedouin feast (chicken, rice, veggies, hummus, flatbread, various snacks, and a dessert of baklava with sweet chai tea or coffee+cardamom).

Inside the tent.  Had I used flash, the picture would have been clouded by the startling amount of dust particles floating in the room.

Dinner.  The flatbread in the back basket was AMAZING---it was like a thick crepe.  Image courtesy of Liz.

The night ended in a bonfire with lots of mellow conversations by the fire and giggling inside the tent (the giggling paused only briefly for sleep and immediately resumed at 4:30am).

I suppose we can all relate a bit to the Bedouin culture right now---for the next week, at least, we too are nomadic, and we too relish the company of our small community.

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