I had already planned on going, but saved the trip until my mom and brother got here, especially because Mom had reiterated, more times than I can count, her view that this visit was her #1 priority on her short trip.
In some aspects of my life I am an insufferable micromanager and a perfectionist, while in others the utter lack of planning I do for large events is quite staggering. The latter was the case in coming to the Dead Sea, where I had taken some offhand knowledge from a friend somewhere along the lines of "You can go through Jericho" and went from there. It was easy enough finding a service bus to Jericho, but once there I was just as clueless as your average foreigner at Disney World. Outfitted in sandals, khakis and sunglasses and speaking horrid Arabic, I found myself no different than the stereotypical tourist, in the pathetic scenario of getting out Mom's travel guidebook (with ISRAEL emblazoned across the top, I made the effort to make this title disappear as quickly as possible when I pulled it out of the bag) and pointing to the Dead Sea on the map. A crowd of young Arab men had gathered around us at this point, all chattering, until who must have been the Don of the taxi mafia broke into the circle to speak with us in English.
The arrangement was that we would give him the round trip fare up front and that we would call him at one of the two phones holstered to his belt once we wanted to be picked up. In any other place that kind of scheme would have had my inner voices shouting "RIP OFF!" and "SCAM!" at a deafening tone, but Palestinians in general had earned my trust up to this point so we (OK, who am I kidding, my Mom) forked over 120 shekels and hopped in the taxi, which was driven by a younger Palestinian man, who must have been one of the Don's underlings.
Since I had made no plans whatsoever as to where exactly on the Dead Sea we would go, I had to try and communicate to this taxi driver that we wanted a place with showers and food and chairs. Unfortunately, the words "shower, hotel, restaurant" didn't do much, so before long he handed me a cell phone and on the other end was a woman's voice, speaking an American-educated English to me. Through this middlewoman the driver had enough information to drop us off at an aptly named "TOURIST RESORT," to which I was admittedly happy to see after being so shamefully unable to communicate.Despite the fact that the resort was in Palestinian territory (per 1967 borders), we were greeted by proudly flapping flags of every nation except for Palestine. Most prominently displayed was the flag of Israel: we were in what was essentially an Israeli outpost in Palestinian territory. How can the Palestinians develop their economy, as Mr. Netanyahu purportedly wants, without having control of their own tourist attractions? Yet just as the Palestinian vendor has no qualms about selling Israeli produce, so did the taxi driver have no problem taking us to this Israeli outpost. When you are trying to make enough money to feed your family, there's not much room for politics.
I'm including irrelevant details for the sake of chronology, so I'll fast forward to the beach itself. Actually I should call it the shore–“beach” is too generous of a word, since it evokes feelings of comfort and softness. The shore of the Dead Sea is composed of hardened dark sand that scorches the unsandaled foot mercilessly. Not to mention the sharp, cruel little rocks cemented into this sand that make the ensuing dash to the water a mild form of torture.
But once in the water, your feet sink into a marvelous slippery mud that has the texture of thick taffy, though much slicker. My brother and I had no qualms in declaring it "the best mud on earth" after only a couple minutes of kneading it between our fingers in a hypnotic trance.We recalled Mom reciting from her guidebook that the mud was good for the skin, and sure enough, some of the first tourists we encountered on the shore were slathered in the stuff. Once we felt the magnificent mud between our fingers, we followed suit. My brother and I rubbed each other's face and back so that we didn't deprive any patch of skin from this once-in-a-lifetime pampering (In case you were wondering, we're both straight.) Like a good brother, I dropped some mud down the back of his shorts, and he—in a totally disproportionate retaliation—stuffed some in my ear after innocently pretending that he wanted to get a spot that I had missed on my face. Putting my own finger in my ear only pushed the wad of mud perilously closer to my eardrum and before long I was in a panic, on my hands and knees trying to knock the mud loose from my skull and barking orders at my Mom and brother to find a sharp object for me to pry this Godforsaken thing out of my ear.
After it was all over we had a good laugh about it.As expected, once in the water—which was very warm—we were afloat. I made the mistake of wetting my hair in it, which allowed the salt-laden water to trickle into my eye. This made me half-blind for about thirty minutes. Getting the water on your lips isn't too terrible; it numbs them a bit and puts a strange (I won't go as far as the guidebook’s assessment of "foul") taste on the lips. Luckily I was spared the experience of getting it in the nose, which my brother said was the worst.
The last hour or so was spent wallowing in the above quicksand/mud pit, making mud crafts, slathering ourselves in layers of the stuff, and trying to squint our eyes enough to convince ourselves that the half-submerged sibling was really some wretched-looking amputee. At this point the hoarding instinct had kicked in, and my brother and I started scooping globs of the metallic miracle mud into empty water bottles we had found strewn about the shore.
What else? I recall hearing my mom trying to salvage a conversation with some Palestinian men by asking them about Michael Jackson. I remember the eerily colorless gift shop lined with every sort of cream and makeup known to man, all with some trace amount of the Dead Sea in it. I remember that the signs were in four languages: Hebrew, Arabic, English, and Russian. And finally, I remember that the return taxi worked out just as planned.I should also say that my inner ear is permanently stained grey. Thanks, bro.