It Burns, but in a Good Way

Trip Start May 19, 2012
Trip End Ongoing

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Where I stayed
Jerusalem University College

Flag of Israel  , Dead Sea Region,
Wednesday, May 30, 2012

This was true more than once today, alas.

Woke up this morning in our hostel in Arad to get in a little 15 minute workout before the day got underway, which happened in splendid fashion with yet another hostel meal that exceeded my expectations-it had pudding.  From there it was a hop skip and a jump over the Negev basin and most of the Judean Wilderness to Masada.  I don't think I can really do justice to the story of Masada in this venue, so I would encourage anyone who wants to know why the history major in me has been geeking out looking forward to this for the past several days to look it up on wikipedia.  The emotive summary is to say that it's the Jewish equivalent of the Alamo and Hunger Games rolled into one, with probably a bit of Sparticus rolled in there.  Since seeing the advertisement video for the Holy Lands trip I've been looking forward to seeing Masada, but with one complication:  in the video a couple people run up the footpath next to the Roman siege ramp, which pictures will suggest is a significant climb.  I, however, felt like the gauntlet was thrown down and successfully ran to the top, camel back and sweaty shirt and all.  Burn of the day #1=worth it. History aside, the views from the top were stunning, and, if you'll forgive the poetic license, I think I understand a bit of why the Jews on top would exercise the option they would.  You feel like your on an island of isolation in a landscape that brooks absolutely no compromise; you can only stay so long in such an atmosphere without imbibing some of those traits.  Anywho, we eventually had to wind our way down the significantly more arduous snake path on the Eastern side of the mountain and bus it over to Ein Gedi.

For those of you up on your Bible trivia, Ein Gedi is where David flees from Saul after killing Goliath and potentially igniting a civil war, then cuts off a corner of Saul's robe in a cave and spares his life.  Pretty cool spot.  For our purposes though it was a place to see what oasis life is like.  I'll put it this way:  I don't understand why you would choose to herd sheep all over the Judean hills scratching out a living when there's a place as lush as Ein Gedi just a few miles away.  Just doesn't compute.  We hiked up to David's waterfall, towards the top of the canyon, passing a group of Arab school girls and their M16 packing guards en route.  That done, it was time to drive across the road and post up on the shore of the Dead Sea for lunch and a swim.

Fun fact:  when you're swimming in the Dead Sea, you don't need to wait an hour after eating to get in the water because swimming is a bit of a misnomer for what you do in the Dead Sea.  Bobbing you do.  Floating you do.  Trying and failing really hard to sink you do.  Swimming, not really so much.  Fun fact #2:  the Dead Sea is the most chemical body of water on the earth's surface, at 30-35% salinity, compared to the Mediterranean, which measures 3.3-3.5%.  This means that if, hypothetically, you got a significant gash on your leg while falling through a ledge in a 1st century theatre in Ashkelon, that gash burns like at least the first three layers of Hades but is probably completely sanitized.  Burn #2=worth it.  An experience you literally can't have anywhere else on earth.

Here's a fun side story.  I'm bobbing along like Robert Fulton "trust me, that previous phrase was funny", looking for a place to find the Dead Sea mud which is famous for being supposedly great for your skin and definitely great for making you look like a swamp monster, but can't find any.  A fellow floater calls out in a pretty understandable Israeli accent that it's actually really hard to find (true story, all the rocks on the shore were fused into a shell by the salt), and that the people I see on shore who are plastered over bought theirs in stores.  From that point on our conversation went something like this:
Nicholas:  "Thanks much."
Her:  "Sure.  Where are you from?"
Nicholas:  "America.  Chicago."
Her:  "Yah, I know Chicago.  Why are you in Israel?"
Nicholas:  "I'm with a group here studying, mostly history and geology."
Her:  "How do you like Israel?"
Nicholas:  "Oh I love it."
Her:  "Maybe you should just stay here."
Nicholas:  "I'd love to."
Her:  "Are you Jewish?"
Nicholas (the glowing white one):  "Nope..."
Her:  "Well then you just need to marry an Israeli girl, then you can stay."
Nicholas (the slightly perplexed one):  "Really?"
Her:  "Oh yeah.  I have a lot of friends who have done that.  I had a boyfriend from Florida who came over to Israel, and he stayed even after we broke up.  It's really pretty common..."
Nicholas (the not-wanting-to-commit-to-marrying-a-complete-stranger one):  "Huh.  I'm gonna go float over this way..."

True story, seriously kinda strange.  I've got witnesses.

Anyway, thinly veiled marriage proposals aside, the Dead Sea was awesome but after about 1 1/2 hours of floating in it while it was about 105 outside and my leg was gently reminding me that nothing soft and organic should be in this water i was ready to get out and move on to Qumran.  We arrived too late to do the hike up to the higher caves and the lower caves were closed off, but it was still neat to see the place where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered.  In the context of the region it's easy to see how they would possibly go undiscovered all that time; turns out there are caves in all the places.  This full field day ended with a bus ride back up from 1300 feet below sea level and into Jerusalem, which is about 2600 feet above it; the ears popped a few times.  Few showers have felt as good as the one I took back on campus at the JUC, even though I was in stall #2 with the dribbly head.  Then it was time for dinner, catching up on journals, and going out into the New City for waffles.  They were finally open; I finally had waffles (half butter-cream with berries, half coffee-cream with pecans); they were delicious.  Top that off with a walk back through a pretty happening district and the writing of this blog, and yours truly is pretty tuckered out.

Tomorrow's agenda is to travel up to Samaria and definitely do some laundry, then on Friday I have my first full free day.  There are several options on the table at this point, but I think the one towards which I'm leaning most at the moment is returning with a group to Bethlehem in the West Bank to meet up with a prospective Wheaton student who cannot travel into Israel proper and get a local feel for the city and issues.  I'll keep my faithful public posted.  Until then, push to your limits until you find them.
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