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Earth’s Biggest Natural Spa

A trip to Israel wouldn’t be complete without seeing the Dead Sea. The lowest place on Earth, sitting about 1300 feet below sea level and one of Earth’s saltiest bodies of water, ten times saltier than oceans. And my trip wouldn’t have been complete without floating on the Dead Sea. Not floating in, floating on.

The Dead Sea lies at the edge of the Judean desert where rainfall averages 2½ inches per year and is fed by the Jordan River.   Freezing temperatures never occur here. January’s temperatures average 60º and summertime temperatures hover between 90º-100º.

As I walked one block from my hotel on the sidewalk toward the Dead Sea, the October blue sky was filled with soft fluffy clouds. The beach looked like resort beaches. A snack bar. White plastic lounge chairs. Palm trees.

“Just walk in and lie back,” the tour guide had said. “Don’t try to turn over and swim. Don’t get the water in your mouth or eyes. And if you have cuts or scraps on your skin, you’ll feel the burn of salt.”

I saw friends from my tour group in the water so I put my towel on a chair nearby and kicked off my flip-flops at the water’s edge. A friend, wearing street clothes, said, “Are you sure you want to get in that water? I felt it with my hand. It’s really slimy and oily.” I nodded and smiled.

I avoided stepping on the scattered salt rocks that dotted the shallow water, took a few steps and stopped. I should have realized the salt rocks would be denser in deeper water and have sharp edges, like coral.   The bottoms of my feet hurt, but my flip-flops were far out of reach. Thankfully, a friend saw my dilemma and handed my shoes to me so I could walk until the water was above my knees. I lowered myself into the water.

What a strange sensation to lie completely still and feel as if I were on an invisible float. Only the heels of my feet and the back of my body were underwater. I raised my head and put both arms to my sides and continued to float. As I waved my hand high toward a camera, drops of water splashed onto my lips. It tasted like sticking my tongue in a bowl of salt.

I wasn’t concerned about being bitten by fish or bothered by other animals. Nothing, not animals nor plants, can live in the extreme salinity. This body of water, also called the Salt Sea, is a place for healing. The extremely high salt and mineral content is said to help people with arthritis, respiratory problems, and chronic skin conditions.

Floating on the Dead Sea was calming. I liked the smooth, slightly oily feeling, and the ability be still and completely relax in warm water. No wonder this body of water is known as earth’s biggest natural spa.

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Trained and Ready to Ride

Beside my driver’s license in my wallet, I have a new license that states, “The carrier of this card has personally been trained to ride camels professionally.”

To get this training, I travelled with a tour group to Tel Aviv, Israel, and then we rode a bus to the Judean Desert, near Mavo, Jericho and the Dead Sea. A metal sign outside a small building welcomed us to Genesis Land, advertised as where the patriarchs of the Old Testament lived. We saw the Jordan Valley, one of the deepest land trenches on earth, stretching to the horizon.

Six camels lay ten steps from the building’s entrance. Chewing their cuds, they ignored us tourists as we admired them, and I marveled how their legs folded and they lay with their bellies flat on the sand. Inside the building, we were given riding directions. Climb on and off a camel only under a guide’s instruction. Hold on tight to the metal bar with both hands at all times. And choose a tunic to wear while riding.

Marilyn, my traveling friend, and I chose green tunics and raised our hands when asked, “Who’s ready to ride?” The camels, dromedaries, were outfitted with double saddles. Over each camel’s one hump, was a metal and leather saddle with two seats and raised metal bars for riders to hold. “Just throw your leg over and hold the bar,” the guide said. “When the camel stands, she’ll raise her front legs half way up, then her back legs, so hold on.”

As our camel stood, Marilyn and I were thrown backward and then forward, and I spontaneously named her when I shouted, “Whoa, Nellie!” We settled into the flat saddles, and Nellie was the third camel of six tied together with ropes.

A guide led only the first camel so Nellie had some leeway. She wandered from the center of the twelve-foot wide path to the edge that dropped off at least 500 feet and sitting astride Nellie, it looked like 5000 feet. Nellie’s hooves were inches from the edge while she nibbled leaves of a palm tree and when the tied rope became taut, she moved quickly to the side and forward at the same time. Marilyn and I clutched the metals bars tightly, knuckle-white tightly. “Does she think she’s a Kentucky race horse?” Marilyn said.

Camels aren’t graceful. Because they walk using the legs on the same side of their body at the same time, it creates a swaying motion for riders. Marilyn and I were just getting our movements in sync with Nellie’s when our ride ended.

“Hold on and lean back. Her front legs go down first,” the guide told us. Marilyn and I leaned as far back as we could and we both stayed centered and astride Nellie as she lowered herself and us.

There was only one thing I didn’t like about riding a camel. The ride was too short. But now that I have a license to ride camels professionally, I can ride again. Maybe across a desert, a very small one.

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Glimpses of Israel

After a ten-day trip to Israel, I struggle to string words together. Maybe it’s the twenty-six hours of being awake and travel, with only catnaps. A bus ride from hotel to the Tele Aviv airport. A long wait to check-in, followed by a 11½ hour flight to Newark, New Jersey. Lines for U. S. customs and to board another plane. A two-hour flight to Nashville. A car ride, arriving home at 12:30 a.m.

Jet lag is a real disorder and is surely partially responsible for my lack of concentration. But as I begin this column for the umpteenth time, I realize the main reason I’m struggling is that I’d like to share everything I saw and experienced. That’s impossible. I travelled with a church tour group and many experiences were religious, but I’ll only share a few glimpses of Israel’s geography and its culture.

Tele Aviv is a huge city with billboards, traffic lights, and tall buildings, just like U. S. cities, except the gray or white buildings are rectangular shaped, void of decoration. As our group of 40 tourists travelled north toward Tiberias and the Sea of Galilee, I sat glued to the bus window. Dry grasses and short evergreen trees (the same as here, except cedar trees don’t grow in Israel) grew on the rolling hillsides that were dotted with limestone boulders, the size of beach balls and much larger. Tall trees were dusty, as if sprinkled with dull gray and brown glitter.

Along a two-lane road, compact cars zipped around our bus, and a man, dressed in muted brown clothing including a head wrap, rode an older model bicycle on the road’s shoulder. When we passed a small picnic area, I wondered if he would stop there.

Crops are grown with irrigation along the Jordan River valley between the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea. Under white cloth coverings, date palm trees appeared decorated with blue plastic bags, but those bags are to protect and catch the clusters of fruit. Olive tree groves fill hillsides.

I expected deserts, like those I’ve seen in our western states, but my mouth dropped when I saw the massive brown rocks and sand mounds, like mountains. “How big?” my nine-year-old Grand asked yesterday. “You know how tall the Smokey Mountains are? Well, take off the trees and imagine caramel colored rocks and sand dunes,” I said.

We visited Masada National Park, an ancient fortress built atop a 1500-foot high plateau. We rode a cable car instead of hiking the winding switchbacks, the Snake Trail, to see the ruins of King Herod’s Palace that was built beginning about 30 B.C. We sat on stone synagogue benches and saw cisterns, bathhouses, living quarters, even holes formed in stone slabs for cooking.   Looking east, a thirty-minute drive away, was the Dead Sea, and in all other directions were stone mountains and desert to the horizon. Pictures can’t capture the vastness.

No wonder people travelled on camels through this desert, and I looked forward to riding one. That’s next week’s column.

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Anchovies, anyone?

Screen Shot 2018-06-21 at 7.23.45 AMWho eats anchovies? Those salty, slimy, oily little fish sold in metal tins – no thank you. Many times before ordering pizza for friends or family, I’ve asked what they like on pizza. And often the reply has been, “Anything and everything, except anchovies.” I’d never consider anchovies on pizza.

The only way I’ve ever eaten these little fish is in salad. A few minced anchovies, combined with mayonnaise, lemon juice, Parmesan cheese, garlic, and Dijon mustard to make the dressing, adds zing to a Caesar salad’s unique flavor. It’s one of my favorite salads, but I can’t see the dark, reddish-brown, unappetizing minced fish.

And then I learned about fresh anchovies. While travelling in Italy recently, Lucca, our tour guide in Cinque Terre, suggested a traditional Italian meal at his friend’s restaurant, Teverna del Capitano. The waiter offered our group of seven a three-course meal: salad, fried fish, and pasta.

Sliced tomatoes with basil leaves and mozzarella balls drizzled with olive oil. Delicately battered fried seafood, fresh from the Mediterranean Sea only a hundred yards from our table. Calamari, shrimp, white fish, and anchovies. And clam and mussels pasta, topped with pesto and olive oil. All sounded delicious, especially shrimp, except I couldn’t imagine yummy delicately battered fried shrimp on a plate with yucky, stinky anchovies.

“Fried slimy anchovies?” I said to Lucca, who was seated beside me.

“Probably not like anything you’ve eaten. These are fresh. Probably caught this morning,” he said.

When the fish platter was passed, I chose several large shrimp, a couple of calamari strips, and fish. The whole anchovies, without heads, were silver and light gray, but didn’t tempt me.

On his plate, Lucca used a fork to split, beginning at the tail, a four-inch long anchovy. Then he lifted the tail and the skelton to leave two narrow strips of white and flaky meat. “You’ve right,” I said, “I’ve never seen or eaten an anchovy like that.” Lucca ate half and gave me half.

Oh my. In an instant, every preconceived notion I had about anchovies vanished. Mild, light, tender. Not salty. No strong fish odor.

“That’s delicious,” I said. “Show me how to get the bones out.” Deboning an anchovy was as easy as Lucca made it look. The flavor was better than shrimp and a squeeze of fresh lemon brought out the taste. I pushed the other fish aside and ate anchovies as fast as I could debone them.

I now know the processing of anchovies gives this fish its bad reputation. Because they are small and have a high oil content (a healthy oil), they don’t transport well. So anchovies are cured and packed in barrels of salt for several months and the white flesh turns a brownish red color.

Will I give fillets of anchovies packed in tins another chance? I don’t think so. I can’t get past the look: slimy and an unappetizing color. But when offered fresh anchovies, I’ll be the first in line.

You Will Arrive

Screen Shot 2018-05-31 at 8.00.02 AMTwo friends, Husband, and I recently traveled to Italy, and it’s the people I most remember. Especially those who shared their calm Italian demeanor.

We booked train tickets from Vincenza to Florence with an 11-minute transfer in Padova. Four people, four rolling suitcases, four shoulder bags to get off and on trains. European trains run on time and doors stay open very few minutes for passengers to deboard and board. The worse that could happen was we’d miss our train and catch one later, but we were determined to make this connection.

When I boarded in Vincenza I spotted a train attendant, who could’ve been Captain Kangaroo, fifty pounds lighter. Wearing a blue uniform, like a college band uniform, he walked toward me. Although I knew the seats closest to the door weren’t ours, I sat down. When Mr. Attendant came near, I said, “Please stay here. We need help.”

Mr. Attendant smiled and watched husband and our friend lift heavy suitcases onto overhead storage shelves. As we four travelers settled into seats facing each other (like a restaurant booth), Mr. Attendant stood silent.

“We’re going to Florence and change trains in Padova and we only have 11 minutes and we need help,” I said. Mr. Attendant ducked his chin and raised his hands, a calming gesture.

He saw my train ticket and said, “You’ll be fine. Now, stay here, but on the next train it will be crowded so locate your ticketed seats.” We nodded.

“Can you tell us which platform we’ll arrive on in Padova? Which platform we’ll leave on? How to get from one to the other?” Our questions flowed, and Mr. Attendant simply smiled.

After we leaned back in our seats, he said, “At Padova, you arrive on platform 1. It is quite simple to get to platform 5 to board for Florence.” Simple if you know where you’re going, I thought, but like Husband and our friends I sat quietly.

Mr. Attendant continued, “Get off this train and go this way.” He extended his arm and pointed. “Walk to the lift and it’ll get you where you need to be in two minutes. Go down to first floor. Only one floor.” He stopped and looked at each of us.

“Off the lift, walk briskly one minute, this direction.” He pointed. Looking at us two women seated side-by-side, he said, “Seated as you are, walk left.” Looking at the men, “Your right, as you sit.”

“Now, on the lift. Up one floor to platform 5. You have time.” I exhaled. “Next train, you are in car 6. Take your assigned seats. Relax. First stop is Bologna. Second is Florence. You will arrive.”

We did a quick review. Arrive platform 1. One floor down. Walk this way (we all pointed.) One floor up, Platform 5. Car 6. Mr. Attendant nodded, smiled, and said, “You will arrive.”

And we did. We arrived on platform 5 and waited three minutes for our train. I still tell myself stay calm and relax like Mr. Attendant.

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Sturgeons, Butterflies, Skittles, and Potties

“Here’s Cookeville and here’s Chattanooga where the aquarium is,” I said, pointing to a map to show Elaine as she, Husband, and I travelled in our van. “Remember what we’ll see there?”

Elaine, age 6, cocked her head. “Lemur. Fish.” Together, we had looked at the Tennessee Aquarium website. “Jellyfish. Otters! And Pop will buy me candy!” My Grand opened her eyes and mouth wide. “When can I have Skittles?” Elaine asked.

“After you eat a good lunch,” Husband said.

“Ah. When’s lunch? Where’ll we eat?”

“The aquarium has two buildings. We’ll walk through one, then eat lunch at a restaurant,” I explained.

“So after lunch, Pop will buy me Skittles?” Husband nodded.

Before exploring the Ocean Journey exhibits, I suggested a bathroom stop. “Do they have flush potties?” Elaine asked. She meant automatic flush toilets, which frighten her and many young children. Upon seeing an automatic flush potty, Elaine decided to only wash her hands.

Elaine bounced through the aquarium. Lemurs crouched high on tree branches. Sea rays glided through water inside a petting tank. Elaine watched as I put my fingers under water. “Hold your fingers straight. The sea ray feels smooth and cool,” I said.

Elaine shook her head, “No thanks. Is it time for lunch?”

In the butterfly room, hundreds of butterflies live in a perfect ecosystem. Elaine slowly turned her head, seeming to study her surroundings. Seeing a butterfly land on a boy’s hand, she moved beside a bush where butterflies fluttered. She stretched her arm, holding her hand under leaves.

Still and silent, she waited until a tiger butterfly lit. “Elaine, look toward me. I’ll take your picture,” I whispered. She lifted her eyes, didn’t move or smile. The butterfly stayed on her hand several minutes while she stood statue still. It flew and she said, “What’s next?”

Elaine led us past huge tanks of ocean life. She briefly watched scuba divers feeding sharks and was mesmerized by penguins diving into water and swimming.

As we walked to the restaurant, Elaine asked two questions. “Do they have flush potties? After lunch, I get Skittles, right?”

Before eating the Skittles Husband poured into her hand, Elaine grouped them by color. Again, she refused a bathroom stop.

In the River Journey exhibits, huge sturgeons circled a petting pool. Elaine held two fingers underwater. For fifteen minutes, she stroked every sturgeon that came close.

Husband doled out Skittles all afternoon and I convinced Elaine I could hold my hand over the motion sensor on a potty. Unfortunately, the toilet flushed before she got out of the bathroom stall.

At Elaine’s home, I handed Daughter a list of twenty-one animals Elaine had dictated that she saw and she said otters were her favorite. “And Gran, where’s the rest of my Skittles?” Elaine asked. I gave them to Daughter. “And guess what, Mom? I’m not afraid of flush potties anymore.”

High fives all around for a fun aquarium trip. For otters. Sturgeons. Butterflies. Skittles. And overcoming the fear of automatic flush potties.

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Go and Learn

Most Americans know about Paul Revere’s midnight ride to warn residents that the British were coming, but few remember William Dawes. Both Revere and Dawes, members of the patriotic Sons of Liberty, were sent on horseback from Boston to Lexington and Concord on April 18, 1775. While visiting Boston recently, my college girlfriends and I heard the story three times. By a tour guide and a waiter. And after a man sitting close by in a restaurant talked about several Boston landmarks, he asked, “Do you know about William Dawes?” I smiled and nodded. “And you know Samuel Prescott, right?” I frowned. He wanted to set the story straight.

Revere and Dawes rode different directions from Boston and met at a house in Lexington where Samuel Adams and John Hancock were staying. After telling Adams and Hancock to leave Lexington, Revere and Dawes rode on and hooked up with Dr. Samuel Prescott, who they recognized as a High Son of Liberty.

Just a few miles from Lexington, the three were stopped by British patrol. Dawes escaped quickly. The British herded Revere and Prescott into a meadow and Prescott also got away. Revere was held, questioned, and eventually released, but his horse was confiscated. So while Revere walked back to Lexington, Dawes continued the ride, but it was Prescott who first reached Concord to warn citizens of a British invasion.

Dawes was sent from Boston as a midnight rider, too. But they didn’t really leave at midnight and Prescott got to Concord first, I learned. And all these years, my knowledge of April 1775, was based on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, Paul Revere’s Ride, written in 1860.

Bostonians are proud of their town, its history and are helpful to tourists. While visiting Boston, my friends and I were offered assistance three times during a short walk. After seeing us study a map, a woman walked a half a block to guide us to our destination. As we stood waiting to cross a street, I pointed toward a building. A man said, “Can I answer any questions for you?” I asked about the tall tower in the distance, and he briefly explained the history of old Custom House, Boston’s first skyscraper.

A bike rider stopped beside us at the next intersection and greeted us, “Welcome to Boston. Hope your day’s going well. Can I help with directions?” We said that we’d just arrived that day and he was the third person to offer help in ten minutes. Unlike other places we’ve visited.

“We’re proud of our town,” he said. “We aren’t like other big cities. There’s a lot of history here. I think of visitors as guests in our house and we want everyone to feel welcomed and comfortable. We want people to like Boston and learn what’s here. Hope you have a good week.”

We girlfriends had a great visit with each other and saw many Boston sights, but the strongest impression was the people. People eager to share to share their town, their home.

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