Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Farewell today, travel on now, be on your way...

Don't know what it says or means, but apparently its quite important.

The Dead Sea highway, running north from Aqaba, was an unsettling journey once we left the comfortable familiarity of the city. To the left of us was Israel, and if we'd needed a reminder, the watchtowers and numerous checkpoints along the desolate road made it abundantly clear.

At each checkpoint, out in the middle of nowhere, nothing but sand and rocks and soldiers with machine guns, we felt exposed and vulnerable. At some of the checkpoints we were waved through after a question or two, in others they checked our passports, the trunk of the car, asked a few more probing questions.

Mike, with his vacation beard and dark glasses, was looking a bit swarthy, and we had a tense moment at one checkpoint when he greeted a soldier with "Salaam Aleekum."

The soldier replied amicably "Alekum Sala'am" and then proceeded with a barrage of Arabic.

Mike said he didn't understand Arabic and the soldier bristled "You just said Salaam Aleekum to me!"

Mike protested: "That's all I know!"

Oh dear. After a moment the soldier leaned against the car and asked, casually, "How are you?" and Mike didn't answer.

I only wish I'd had a blood pressure cuff on me at that moment. I'll bet the numbers would have been exciting. "We're fine, thank you!!!" I blurted after an awful second, leaning forward so he could see my blue eyes, western clothing and pale skin, "say hi to the soldiers, kids!"

Fortunately, after carefully examining our passports, they came to the conclusion that we were merely silly American tourists and let us go.

I'd like to say I didn't yell at Mike, but I did.

Miles and miles of sand as we drove up the Rift Valley, nothing to see along the two lane highway. (I didn't take any photos, knowing that the watchtowers had nothing better to do than turn their high-powered scopes on us. Taking photos, uninvited, in a military area is a big no-no.) The occasional checkpoint did for excitement, then more driving.

After hours, the land and military presence softened a bit, we spotted a few goatherders with their charges, and tents, then small stone homes in villages along the road.

A man in a moment of solitude in the desert

As we drew near to the Dead Sea there were areas where the desert gave way to tall reeds and green farms, vinyards, and the crop of the day, tomatoes, judging by the number of tomato stands. It seemed that the job of selling tomatoes could become boring, as there were squished red globes scattered around each stand. You could tell who had a good arm.

We wanted to visit Lot's cave. Yes, that Lot, from arguably the raciest bit of the Bible where, after the wife turned to a pillar of salt and the fall of Sodom and Gomorrah, he and his daughters hid out and, well , er, they kind of got him drunk and seduced him and got pregnant. Yes, the Bible can make for some very interesting reading...am I the only one who doesn't remember this from Sunday School?

Anyway, make of that what you will, we found a sign pointing us in the right direction after wending our way through a less-than-affluent town, dark-skinned little boys with very white teeth playing soccer, women walking in groups of two or three, abayas blowing in the wind, kids rolling tires along the road, brightly colored clothing hung out to dry, much rubbish, and packs of goats like dogs.

Up, up on the hillside we found a monk, who, it was apparent, slept on a table under a thin blanket in a tiny open shelter but had a wonderful view of the valley below. He took us up many, many stone stairs to the cave, smiled much, pointed some, and we got along well.

The cave itself was part of a small open place of worship. I don't think I'd like to hide out there for any length of time, but obviously the Lot clan was made of tougher stuff. Or something. It was a large cave, deep enough to make us clutch Thomas and speak sternly to Bethy.

Outside, beneath the sand and pebbles and a protective cover, our monk-guide revealed the edge of an elaborate mosaic we'd been tromping heedlessly upon. Mike, looking over the valley to the southernmost edge of the Dead Sea noted that there was smoke rising...the long lost site of Sodom and Gomorrah, perhaps? He got a (quickly stifled) snort out of me for it, regardless.

The Dead Sea is not, as I had imagined, an icky murky brownish puddle. It is large and beautiful, vibrantly blue among red mountains, the salt encrusted upon rocks along the shore.

The moon rising over the mountains enthralled the kids (all children love the moon) but it was the sunset that was truly breathtaking. Mike pulled over and I took photo after photo as the sun slipped away over Israel. Bethy indulged me and posed for this one:

At the gateway to the Dead Sea Marriott we waited in the car as the guards scrutinized the trunk, checked the car's undercarriage with a mirror, and then did a bomb scan of our vehicle, finally waving us in, moving the the huge, evil-spiked rollers that blocked our way. We drove down to some 400 meters below sea level and checked ourselves into our next home.

1 comment:

Sariya Rashid said...

The sign says, "slow down, merging ahead" LOL! Not as important as I had thought. Can't believe you all got stopped at those checkpoints so often. If we get stopped, there is usually some quick exchange of Arabic and hand gestures and then we're on our way! Remind me to exchange some stories of Lot from the Quran next time I see, you ... hopefully this week! Pic of Bethy in the sunset is GORGEOUS!