Everyday life in an extraordinary place.

Friday, April 24, 2009

How Low Can You Go?

This Postcard from Israel was originally written on 27 July 2005.

Earlier this week, we went about as low as you can go. At nearly 400 meters (almost 1,300 feet) below sea level, the Dead Sea is the lowest spot on the planet. It is also, among other things, the site of the biblical cities Sodom and Gomorrah. We stayed, as many visitors do, in the resort area called Ein Bokek, at the southern end of the Sea. To reach it, we followed a steeply winding road embellished by markers informing us of our relationship to sea level, and monuments to people who have died in traffic accidents on their way to (or from) the sea where nothing can live.

Ein Bokek is a rather strange place. There are over a dozen hotels, each with its own private beach area, a health spa or two, and a couple of shopping areas where you can pick up plenty of Dead Sea skin care products and a felafel to eat while you're waiting for the mud pack to do its magic. There's even - unfortunately, but you knew it had to be there - a McDonalds. But that's it. There's not even a single restaurant. I imagine that's because most (if not all) people who come to Ein Bokek are on the inclusive meal plan at their hotel. Which means, basically, that when it comes to food, you're stuck.

But for most people, that really doesn't matter. Because, of course, it's all about the Sea. I imagine all of the hotels have a small spa on the premises, including enclosed pools made up of water taken directly from the Dead Sea (which, by the way, is called Yam Ha'Melach in Hebrew - literally, the Salt Sea). Our hotel had two such pools, one indoors and one outside. They, and the treatments offered in the spa, were for adults only. Special times were set aside in the mornings (women only) and evenings (men only) for those who prefer to bathe separately.

We preferred to venture down to the shore for our Dead Sea experience. The salt encrusts everything it touches. Stand up in the Dead Sea, and you're standing on salt, not sand or rocks. The water was quite warm, over 30 degrees Celcius (over 88 Fahrenheit). I was surprised to learn that not only is it salty, it is quite oily as well. You may know that in the Dead Sea, it is impossible to sink - the composition of the water has you bobbing like a cork. As my older daughter said when she emerged after a brief soak (or should I say, float?), "Now I know how a potato chip feels."

While it is extremely hot and arid near the Dead Sea by day, when we strolled down to the shore in the evening we enjoyed milder temperatures and a refreshing breeze. With the beach nearly empty as night descended, it was the perfect place for quiet contemplation. In this ancient spot, so meaningful geologically, biblically, and historically, there is plenty to think about. It was disconcerting, in that peaceful twilight, to ponder the centuries of strife, wickedness, and danger this place has seen. I wondered how a typical citizen of ancient Sodom would view our world today.

(c)Amy Samin

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