Israel is roughly the size and shape of New Jersey, according to the Lonely Planet. This is just about the most relevant comparison that I, a Jersey girl, could have hoped for. However, considering how many times I’ve gotten lost in my own home state, it didn’t assuage my fears of taking on the challenge of an Israeli road trip sans GPS.
My “twin”, Roxanne, and I rented a compact black Suzuki from the friendly local rental car company. Armed with a large folding map and a bag of assorted bourekas, we took off for the first leg of our journey, from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea.
Our first challenge was finding our way out of Jerusalem. The roads were quiet for the national holiday (Holocaust Memorial Day), which made me feel less embarrassed about making three u-turns within the first fifteen minutes of our trip. We eventually found our way out of the city and into the desert. Within half an hour, we’d passed three camels. Stinky, but cute. Roxanne explained the Israeli highway system to me, where we’d find checkpoints and which roads were limited to yellow Israeli plates. I wondered what it would be like to bear green and white plates, to be confined to certain roads at certain times.
On one side of the highway was the Jordanian border (literally only meters away at some points), and on the other, dusty red mountains. We passed oases and greenhouses, bursts of green in the middle of arid desert. After about an hour, we reached our first checkpoint with the Dead Sea in sight, after passing a dozen signs reading “SLOW!” in three languages.
“Just drive through slowly. If there’s an issue they’ll tell us to stop,” said twin.
A young woman in army fatigues held up her hand and approached my window. Gulp. I took off my sunglasses and smiled.
“Hi!” she chirped. ”Going to the Dead Sea?”
“Ok. I like your hair! Enjoy!”
We drove on, incredulous, but happy to have been allowed through without further questioning (and grateful for Roxanne’s gorgeous reddish-brown locks). After another twenty minutes of driving along the Jordanian border, we took a left turn toward the Sea and parked at a small private beach.
For 30 shekels, we got access to the beach for the day and rented towels. I could see the border fence separating us from Jordan to our left as we walked down toward the water. Across the sea, in muted pastel colors, were Jordanian mountains. And to the right, down the coast, were the remaining orange clouds from a dust storm that blew through Jerusalem the day before. Aside from the occasional F-16 flyovers, it felt like a typical day at the beach with my best friend. We chatted and laughed and snacked beneath an umbrella, watching Russians and Israelis totter into the water.
So, what is it exactly that makes the Dead Sea dead? Well, the sea is actually a large salt lake located in the lowest place in the world (about 400 metres (1,300 ft) below sea level), meaning the air there feels nourishing and easy to breathe. The sea is fed by the Jordan River, and although there is no outlet, it is actually shrinking over time due to evaporation. What the sea is best known for is the fact that you can float effortlessly in the water. I’m sure you’ve seen the images of swimmers reading newspapers. The saline levels of the Dead Sea are between 28 and 35% (compared to 3 to 6% in the saltiest oceans). Aside from regular ole’ salt, the water contains potassium, bromine, calcium, magnesium and iodine, among many other mineral salts. It’s the high concentration of bromine in particular (20 times higher than in the ocean) that causes a relaxing effect on the nervous system. The morbid name of the sea comes from the fact that no aquatic life can survive these waters, aside from the heartiest of microbes.
After taking a swim (more like flopping into the water and bobbing around like a human buoy), we headed over to the sulphur baths, which are essentially large hot tubs filled with with mineral-dense water. I think we were the only people there under 55. There is a fifteen-minute limit on bathing, due to the heavy relaxant effects of the minerals. The water in the baths makes you buoyant just like in the sea, but there you can actually see pulpy particles floating in the water. I felt dreamily calm, and probably could have taken a nap. Retirement in Israel, here I come!
After stepping out of the hypersaline water, I noticed that my skin had an oily film on it. As we dried off in the sun eating ice cream, a salty crust formed on my shoulders. I decided to taste a little bit of the water, just to see what all this salty business was about. It burned my tongue and tasted like a toxic salt-lick. I then understood why my twin recommended not shaving my legs that morning. Being slightly unkempt was worth avoiding the sensation of “salt in a wound”, literally.
The last step to our day at the Dead Sea was to slather ourselves in mud and have strangers take pictures of us. The black mud, collected from the bottom of the sea, contains the same minerals mentioned above. According to the many Israeli cosmetics companies founded on the miraculous benefits of this mud, it hydrates and nourishes with essential minerals, and draws toxins out of your skin. I just thought it was cool to look like I was wearing a wet-suit made of mud. It also felt fantastic on my skin, velvety and soft, and I thought about how much my eight year-old self would have loved having permission to play in the dirt like that.
We rinsed off the mud and salt and got changed as the sun started to dip down in the sky. We needed to leave with enough time to get past the checkpoint before it closed and left us stranded somewhere in the West Bank. I’m still in awe of the fact that we didn’t end up in Ramallah or Jordan that day.
Having checked off Israeli tourist attraction number 1 from our list, we would set off northward the next day to another biblical sea, among many other places. Stay tuned for Part שנים of our journey soon!
A piece of advice to Dead Sea visitors: bring water shoes or flip flops to wear into the water. The stones on the beach and below the water and very sharp and slippery. I know from (barefoot) experience. Ouch.