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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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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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