To celebrate the Jewish new year, I went camping at the Dead Sea.
After spending last weekend in Jerusalem, and feeling like I could not connect to Israel, I was hoping that camping out at the beautiful sea with new friends would help me feel more comfortable in this foreign country.
Ten of us made the drive from Tel Aviv to the Dead Sea. The group was made up of me and my three American girl friends, three Israeli guys, three Israeli girls, and one Palestinian guy. The drive from Tel Aviv to the Dead Sea reminded me of the drive from LA to Vegas: leaving a big city, traveling through the desert for a long time, and then finally stumbling into a new and weird destination. But instead of running into strip malls, flashing lights, and crazy looking tourists outside of the brightly lit Bellagio fountain, we instead drove along the wall of West Bank to our west, and Jordan was just minutes towards our east, and our new destination was a bright blue sea in the middle of the desert.
Instead of taking the direct route, somewhere in between Jerusalem and the West Bank, we had to pick up my friend’s friend who is a Palestinian. He lives in Jericho, and if you are an Israeli, you are technically not allowed into that territory because of the barriers, so we had to pick him up at a gas station ten minutes away from the Dead Sea…
…Can you imagine living in Boston but not being able to visit your friends and/or family who live just a drive away in Cambridge? It really hit home for me when we picked him up- This guy can barely travel outside of his home. And this is Israel’s way of defending itself- it makes sense in so many ways but it also makes no sense in so many ways.
Luckily, we met him at the rest stop with no problems, and ten minutes later we were at the beautiful Dead Sea! It was late afternoon when we pulled in, and the water was a soft light blue, fog was rising on top of the water, blending into the grey blue sky like a watercolor painting. There was also loud trance music (which, apparently, is very Israeli) blasting through the speakers located at the camping ground’s central kiosk. It was not very crowded there either, and we pitched our tents under huts made of dried palm tree leaves.
Being the true camping pro I have always considered myself, as soon as we got there I began to take photos of the beautiful landscapes and get some water while everyone else set up tents. Once everything was set up, we all headed down to the sea.
The Dead Sea is the lowest point on earth (about 1300 feet below sea level!), and it is also the saltiest body of water on earth, so there were white crystals of salt washed up on shore. The mud is said to have many beneficial minerals that are very good for your skin. So we covered ourselves in mud, and plopped down in the warm salty water. It is such a weird sensation to be there, because you instantly float to the top of the sea from all of the salt. If you lean back, your feet float right up so you are actually sitting up in the water like you’re sitting in a chair. If you stand up where it’s deep, your feet will bounce right back up so you are standing and floating effortlessly at the same time. (Sidenote: it is not a good idea to shave before you go in the water.)
After the sea, we were told there was also a pool on the camp site where we could go cool off.
The pool would have been amazing if we were all three years old and still in diapers, but we somehow made the kiddie pool fun by sitting in the shallow water, drinking and telling jokes. By the way, the music in the background was still pounding very deep trance music, at one point there was definitely Boyz II Men “I’ll Make Love to You” remixed in… I don’t know. It was very, very strange place.
When the sun began to set, we decided it was time to eat dinner. We all dried off and sat around a big table together. Most of just had just met that day, and it was so fun to drink, talk, and play games all through the night. We did not prepare very well food wise, so the canned goods we picked up along the way went pretty fast, and hunger kicked in around midnight.
Being drunk in the desert with no water or food is not such a good idea. Luckily, our Palestinian friend had a friend that worked on the camp grounds. We asked him if he could take a quick break, drive the ten minutes to Jericho which was the closest city to us, and pick up some water, pita’s, and hummus for us.
He said no problem, so we gave him some money, and he left. However, because of checkpoints, it took over 2 hours for him to get back to us. It was 2:00 in the morning when he appeared holding two homemade containers of hummus and a huge plastic bag filled with warm fresh pita! The hummus was amazing- it had lemon juice in it, along with pieces of hard boiled egg and whole chickpeas. We all attacked it with our warm pitas and shoved the comfort food into our mouths so fast that in minutes we were scraping the bottom of the hummus containers.
After eating, I began to speak with my new Palestinan friend. How did he feel about everything going on? Was he sad that he couldn’t come back to Tel Aviv with us because of the restrictions? Without getting into too much detail or history, he basically made it clear that he was unhappy. When I heard his personal accounts of what is going on, I began to struggle more with my opinion of Israel, and it comes back to what I was struggling with in Jerusalem: How can I feel a connection to a land like this? The politics here are so overly complicated that I have found everyone has five different opinions on everything at once in terms of Palestinians and Israelis. It was fascinating to be talking with him just minutes away from where conflict arrises, and I couldn’t help but have an intense appreciation for where I come from in The States and how I was raised, where he is barely allowed to travel out of his city.
It became time to sleep shortly after that conversation, and I had a lot running through my head. As people dispersed into their tents, I ended up sitting up for a little while, finally falling asleep on a long white plastic lawn chair overlooking the sea. It took a while to fall asleep, but once I did I slept soundly under the bright stars that night, and the next morning I woke up at sunrise.
What a site that morning- The horizon was filled with orange mist, that became brighter and more yellow each second. Once the blazing tip of the sun appeared over the sea, I closed my heavy eyes to shield the brightness and fell back to sleep. Only to wake up an hour later to a loud Russian family making a New Years toast with vodka shots before they ate breakfast. There were also over 20 flies in my face and in my ears, I was sweating profusely, my mouth and eyes have never been more dry in my entire life, and again, just two feet away from me there was a loud Russian family (and I mean family as in mother, father, aunts, uncles, teenagers, children, babies) all drinking.
I got up feeling a bit out of it, and a bit out of sorts. My conversation last night bothered me, I realized how out of place I felt in this setting, and so did the other girls I was with. We also ran out of food and water, and staying another night did not make much sense.
Everyone was tired and groggy, and once we began to feel the familiar and intense vibrations coming from the loud sound speakers in the center of the camp grounds, we decided it was a good idea to leave later that afternoon.
Although it might not have been the most comfortable experience, and I am pretty sure the deep techno beat is still pulsing through my head, I was still taken out of my element. I was able to speak about the conflicts in Israel with people who it directly affects, while being only minutes away from these so called war zones. My feeling of Israel and my comfort level here are being challenged nonstop and I think the only and best thing to do is to keep reaching out and doing different things with new people.
At the same time, being at the Dead Sea was one of the most natural and beautiful experiences (minus the flies). I felt the healing salt and mud on my skin, I ate delicious homemade Palestinian hummus and pita, I made new friends who come from completely different backgrounds than I do, and how often can you say you woke up to the sunrise over Jordan?