Sunday, October 08, 2006

Why are there lifeguards at the Dead Sea?

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Just got back from the lowest point on Earth, the Dead Sea. I think it is also one of the most beautiful places on Earth. From Jerusalem it is a constant drop in altitude as you cruise west into the heart of the West Bank. You see the large and fast-growing Jewish town/settlement of Maale Adumim, on your right, with its reddish-orange tiled roof tops characteristic of the more permanent Jewish settlements. Then the road into the Palestinian controlled city of Jericho appears on your left. This city is of great importance in the Old Testament and was the scene of much Jew and Arab violence this year. My ears popped constantly during the drive through the barren Judean Desert. The only visible sights in this extraterrestrial landscape are the Bedouin cattle herders and their tin shacks. Rain doesn’t fall here. They use natural desert springs for all their hydration needs. Wadis, Arabic for dry riverbeds, are the only places where vegetation is visible. The desert is barren.

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At first sight of the Salt Sea you feel duped. You first think how nice and refreshing it would be to jump in headfirst, especially when your car’s air conditioning doesn’t work in the desert. But having no AC in the blue bullet (pictured below) is often the least of my problems. The great thing about owning a piece of shit car is that you are always pleasantly surprised whenever you arrive anywhere. I went in the water and I decided to go for a long distance swim. I spotted a strip of land jutting out into the Sea, and I reached it about a half hour later. Freestyle is really fun in the Dead Sea because your body is on a higher plane in the water and your feet can’t even be submerged into the water, so there’s no point kicking. I reached the land and tried to climb a salty hill for a great view of Jordan. I ended up scraping my leg really badly and started bleeding. I jumped back in the water and it burned for a few minutes but then felt like it was healing really quickly.

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I got back to shore and I noticed there were lifeguards positioned there. I wondered what kind of moron would drown in the Dead Sea, where it is impossible not to float. Apparently, there are 1 to 2 rescues a month for people who either panic and somehow end up face down in the water and an equal number of rescues a month of people who stay in the water for a while and get dehydrated and pass out. The lifeguard seemed thrilled to be talking to me, or anyone for that matter, to spare him from what must be one of the most boring jobs in the world. He said that one-hour swims are not recommended in the Dead Sea, and that I should do my long distance swims in the Mediterranean next time.

I then went hiking through a wadi and up a few desert hills. The views were spectacular.

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For Yom Kippur I went to the Kotel, or Western Wall. It was an intense religious and cultural experience. I interacted with lots of Jews and a surprising number of Christians who were there in solidarity. One Colombian Catholic did a 15-minute interpretive love dance for the Jewish people. Others were fasting to show their “love” for the Jews. There was a worshipper wearing only fake leopard skins, with a giant shofar, or ram's horn, strapped to his back. A group of Korean tourists marveled at a 5 year-old blond haired-blue eyed Hasidic girl in a stroller. Some of them instinctively reached for their cameras, only to remember the prohibition on photography at the Kotel on holy days. The Muslim call to prayer at the Al-Aqsa Mosque was heard by all through loudspeakers, drowning out the wailing noises coming from the wall just below.

I took a beautiful nap on a staircase in the old city. When I woke I witnessed a group of young Jewish boys, about 8 or 9 years old, on the rooftop of their synagogue, throwing apple cores and empty plastic bottles on three separate groups of innocent Arab pedestrians that happened to walk on the cobblestone path beneath the house of worship. I wondered if their fathers were pleading with the Lord for forgiveness in that very temple at the very moment their kids were harassing the Arabs. I wondered furthermore if these Jews would consider their kids’ actions a “sin” or whether they would be commended for it. Back at the wall, as the pious cried out in prayer their sins of the past year, two black cats fought relentlessly. I learned a lesson watching them fighting and the aftermath of the fight. Seconds after the fight they seemed to have forgotten about it completely. They didn’t carry with them the negative emotions of anger or humiliation. If only humans had such short memories. Night suddenly crept into the old city walls. The Shofar shrieked. The Day of Atonement was over. I exited the Western Wall plaza, walked past the metal detectors, grateful that I made it through one heck of a year, and excited for the next one.