The sea below the sea

I’m back in the office, and my back muscles are sore.  It’s from all the floating over the weekend.

That’s right: for the first time since my train pulled into Haifa, I stepped foot outside the Haifa-Akka area.  When I signed up for the Dead Sea trip, allured by the promise of adventure, I knew one thing: it was salty.  And also dead, as anything that tries to live in the sea would probably become quickly pickled.  I had a feeling it had some biblical significance, like, wasn’t that where Jesus walked on water?  Or where Moses parted the sea?  (I assume your Bible knowledge is better than mine and you know that would be the Sea of Galilee and the Red Sea, respectively.)

It was a rather long ride in the sherut, as we must avoid the West Bank.  I plugged in my earbuds and listened to Devendra Banhart.  I wish I had chosen someone more pronounceable and less indie to listen to, because when questioned about my music choice, my response provoked raised eyebrows.  “Dev-end-ra-ban-heart, have you heard of him?”

If I didn’t pay too much attention, it would have felt much like the trip from Verona to Chicago–wide highways, green signs (except in Hebrew, Arabic, and English), gas stations en route.  But after a while we entered the desert.  I knew I had entered a strange land when I saw the camel crossing signs, and then the camels, a few clustered by the side of the road, probably waiting for a sherut with open seats to come pick them up.

“Alright, we’re about to go underwater,” Abboud, the sherut driver famed among the Bahá’ís, said.  “You all ready to hold your breath?”

We were going below sea level, deeper and deeper “underwater.”  The Dead Sea, Wikipedia tells me, is the lowest point on dry land in the world.  It’s a sea below sea level.  Interestingly, because of the great atmospheric pressure, you’re safer from the sun’s harmful UV rays there, despite the constant clear skies.

Hiking trail up to Masada.  No thanks, I'll take the cable car.

Hiking trail up to Masada. No thanks, I’ll take the cable car.

Our first stop was Masada, the ruins of a fortress and palace built on a plateau by Herod the Great.  When the Jews rebelled against their Roman overlords, they made their last stand there, kind of like the Alamo except less Texan.  In short, the Jewish men decided to commit mass suicide and die free rather than allowing themselves and their families to be captured and enslaved by their foes.  When the Romans entered the fortress, they were greeted by hundreds of lifeless bodies.

Ancient columns.

Ancient columns.  A key part of ruiny décor.

Mainly what I learn from visiting places like Masada is that I don’t have the mind of an archaeologist.  I have a hard time looking at stone walls and envisioning Herod or the Jewish rebels.  But the panoramas of the alien landscape were something to behold.


At long last, we reached the shores of the sea.  The beach, which was more of a rocky hill, was full of tourists, some of them painted with mud, some of them floating.  I could see that some of the rocks on the shore were actually covered with large salt crystals.


I tentatively stepped into the water.  My flip-flops escaped my feet and shot to the surface.  Ok, new plan: unshod, I waded into the water, wincing over the bumpy rock bottom.  I crouched down, then let myself float up to the surface.  Now, I’m not much of a beach goer.   As you know, the double threats of sunshine and drowning prevent me from getting seduced by that scene.  But I have found my perfect body of water in the Dead Sea.  You can’t swim, but only float–perfect!  I don’t need to fear going past my depth because I physically cannot sink!  You can’t put your head underwater unless you want to damage your eyes–wonderful!  I dislike the sensation of submersion.  I let myself float a little deeper, watching the pink, dry mountains on the Jordanian shore and the quiet desert sky above.  The water was warm and oily–I could see the shadows of the oil projected on my hands underwater.  Once I actually wanted to move, this proved complicated.  I tried a few strokes, to little avail, and started to wonder what would happen if I just never got back to shore, floating immobilized, a victim of buoyancy?  Finally I found a very slow breaststroke worked.

And I must have gotten back to shore eventually if I’m writing this now.

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