Saturday, February 23, 2008

The Dead Sea, Israel

Friends: Neither the setting sun nor the rapidly declining temperatures deterred a bus load of
Austrians and I from a baptismal bob in the Dead Sea at Ein Gedi, one of the few free public beaches along its 40-mile western Israeli shore with accompanying showers. With a salt content ten times greater than the ocean, washing off that chalky residue after a dunk is highly advised. As inviting as the blue-green water of the Dead Sea was as I biked along its shore after my climb up to Masada, one of Israel's premier shrines, twelve miles back, caked in a thin layer of my own salt, I resisted taking a plunge until I came to a place where I could rinse the thick Dead Sea salt from my skin.

Masada, Hebrew for fortress, resides on its own private plateau, rising most imposingly some one thousand feet above the valley floor. Back in the year 70 A.D. its Israeli inhabitants committed mass suicide rather than be slaughtered by the besieging Romans, who had surrounded it. The plateau had originally been a Roman stronghold, but the Israelis claimed it in the year 66 A.D. during their revolt against the Romans. It took the Romans four years to put down the rebellion and reclaim Masada. There were close to 1,000 Israelis residing atop Masada with enough food and water to hold out for months when more than 8,000 Romans began their assault. When the Israelis realized their cause was lost they committed mass suicide. Masada has now become a rallying cry to the Israelis, that never again would they allow such a thing to happen to them. Many Israeli Defense Force units conduct their swearing in ceremony atop Masada.

Most visitors pay to be whisked up to the plateau in a cable car rather than submitting to the strenuous, steep, two kilometer climb up the Snake Path carved into the cliff face. In the summer months the path is closed by ten a.m., as the heat is too intense to allow people to go up it. I didn't arrive until after noon, but there were no such restrictions this time of the year. An orange juice stand at the foot of the trail was still doing a brisk business. There were more people descending than climbing when I arrived, snaking their way slowly up and down its many switchbacks.

If these had been the summer months there would have been throngs at the Ein Gedi beach cooling off and cavorting in the Dead Sea when I arrived there at 4:45. But not this time of the year with the temperature barely 60 in the shade. At first, I thought I was going to have a private swim. The official bath house showers with hot water had closed at four, though there were still cold showers out on the beach. It was a steep descent down to the water and just a sliver of a rocky beach at its shoreline. There were two or three souls finishing up their swim as I prepared for mine when a troop of Austrians came frolicking and dancing to the water from the distant parking lot having changed into swimming attire in their tour bus. They were in such a rush, so obsessed with getting to the water, they could have been a colony of nymphs engaging in a nightly ritual of returning to the sea for the night. They surprised me as I was slipping into my swim suit behind the semi-privacy of my bicycle.

The water was comparatively warm, so no one faltered in their rush to the water, other than
stepping gingerly on the rocks. The water didn't deepen very fast but its buoyancy factor was so great with a 30% salt content, one barely had to lift their feet to be afloat. One of the Austrians brought along a newspaper so he could lay back, poke his feet up and deliver the classic Dead Sea pose. I was happy to discover no cuts or abrasions on my legs or feet, as the strong salt content would have immediately pin-pointed them. The water was choppy, so no one ventured far, nor swam with face down. Everyone seemed to have been alerted to keep their face out of the water, as it would sharply sting one's eyes.

I was several days early to the Dead Sea, as I was turned away at the Jordan border, preventing me from a couple day detour to see the ruins of Petra. I'd already paid the 64.5 Shekel departure fee and changed 200 Shekels into 35 Jordanian dinars at the border, when a young woman Israeli customs official asked me, "Hasn't anyone told you, they won't allow you into Jordan on a bicycle here. They'll send you back to us if you try to cross over."

That was news to me, though it made perfect sense that an oil-producing country wouldn't want someone transporting himself via a non-oil consuming vehicle, especially one as simple as the bicycle. The powers-that-be certainly wouldn't want some cyclist demonstrating how easily and pleasurably and cheaply one could travel under one's own power, almost as if by magic. Such a
revelation could undermine the foundation of their society and economy. It could provoke a revolution of people abandoning their car- and bus- and taxi-dependencies, as well as their
slave-labor jobs, and start pedaling to all those places they wanted to go. They'd be overwhelmed by how free they could be. They'd soon learn there is no limit to what can be achieved via the bicycle.

Those who travel by bicycle are a further menace to a closed society such as Jordan's, as the bicyclist is easily accessible, not entombed in bus or auto, and the bicyclist likewise has easy access to all and sundry along the way. A bicyclist can, and will, stop anywhere for a rest or a chat. He is liable to preach a doctrine unapproved by the established order. The touring cyclist is aglow with an aura of freedom and sense of accomplishment, and exhilarated by seeing and
experiencing so much. The touring cyclist exudes an aura of rapture and is a threat to influence others to follow. There is no telling what else he might reveal that would be contrary to the regime's doctrine. Better to keep all outsiders confined to sealed boxes so that the locals can't have any contact with them.

It is further understandable that Jordan wouldn't welcome cyclists, as they don't spend much money and prefer to camp free in the desert rather than pay to sleep in some hotel. These Arabic countries for years have been bent on suppressing the nomadic nature of their forebearers and rounding up the desert-dwelling Bedouins to live in cities forcing them to get with the program of job/permanent residency/becoming a consumer. The touring cyclist is a reminder of their roots and their natural inclinations, just what the powers-that-be want them to forget.

If I'd gone to Jordan I might have continued north along the Jordanian side of the Dead Sea and crossed into Israel at Amman. If I had done that I would have missed Masada, but at least would have been spared seeing the much more developed state of the Israeli side of the Dead Sea. There is a huge potash factory at its southern tip employing 35,000, and also a cluster of high rise hotels and spas. Still, most of the shoreline is undeveloped and rapidly receding. The water evaporates at a high rate in the torrid summers. It is 1,350 feet below sea level, by far the lowest place on the planet. The oxygen content of the air is 10% greater than at sea level, which will make the huge climb up to Jerusalem from the Dead Sea--nearly 4,000 feet in less than 25 miles--a little less difficult than if it were in the Rockies.

Later, George

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