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Monday, April 5, 2010

The Negev: Sand, Sun and Ben-Gurion

(Title disclaimer: totally rhymes with a bit of poetic license and an emphasis on the -on part of Ben Gurion. Go with it.)

Hey all! Rachel and I just spent a fantastic weekend galavanting around the Negev. For those of you who may be unaware, the Negev is Israel's big desert, and when I say big I mean it makes up 60% of the entire country. It's really beautiful but pretty darn desolate in some places. There are a few main roads, all of which sort of encircle this vast, empty middle space where as far as I can guess, there could be some sort of alien colony or fully stocked, abandoned fireworks factory.

So we stuck to the "civilized areas," but retained a bit of incivility by camping out at night! Before we left, I attempted to make sure the tent worked. Thankfully, a kind woman with a headlamp at our first destination helped us out a bit.
We first hit up Tel Arad, the ruins of a fortress from 3,000 years ago outside the modern city of Arad. It was hot. It was dry. There are ongoing excavations at the site, and when we played the quiet game there was not a single sound.

Then we high-tailed it over to the "East Coast," aka the Dead Sea. It was hot. It was dry. The water felt amazing on our skin, and in case you are wondering, was extremely salty. Salty enough even for my salt-loving self. And certainly enough for this geologist:
Conveniently, right across the street from the Dead Sea were two interesting places. The Flour Cave, a big, cold cave with salt deposits on the rock (and rock like glass), and above it, Mt. Sodom. Yes, that's right. Sodom as in that wicked little city we've all been warned about. The mountain had wickedly steep steps to the top, but a fantastic view of the light blue Dead Sea waters and a peaceful moonscape.

From there it was on to Mamshit campground, which happens to be right next door to the famed Mamshit Camel Ranch. We set up camp, battened down the hatches and settled down for the night with our delicious edibles. I was comforted by the horde of young families camping around us, though slightly discomforted by the rock under the tent right where my pillow was.
Good morning! We decided to really splurge and ride some camels next door! Rachel and I happen to be camel riding experts, having been to that same ranch twice each before. At 10AM, we hopped onto the old gals and headed out for a stroll through Mamshit on our desert limousines. We learned that Mamshit's lot in life was as a stopover for spice traders on their way from Yemen to Jerusalem. Avi, our guide, told us that it would take more than two months for them to make the journey, traveling 30km a day. Mamshit was also where Nabateans, notoriously adept at finding water in the desert, lived, serving as a border between the Roman Empire and the Arab world. Fascinating, no? By the end, all we could think about was the stifling heat and the chaffing. Did I mention that Rachel's camel licked my leg? It was soft, and slimy, and a little too intimate for my taste.
From there it was onward south to Sde Boker, land of David Ben-Gurion, first prime minister of Israel and former Sde Boker kibbutz member. We took a tour of his house, which included separate bedrooms and bathrooms for David and his wife, Paula, and a library filled with probably every book written about Israel until 1973. There was a great exhibit featuring quotes, pictures and artifacts. It was Graceland for Ben Gurion junkies such as ourselves.
It was also crazy hot. We dragged it over to Ben Gurion's burial site with an unbelievable (re: I can't even describe) view of desert canyons and some ibex! We chilled in the shade for a bit before taking a hike through Wadi Haverim. We were going to hike Wadi Karakash, but couldn't find it. The trail sign sort of just pointed off a cliff, so we chose the second one. On our way out, we sort of under-estimated the distance to the parking lot and Rachel climbed hands and knees up a steep, sandy slope only to...climb down the other side. But she looked pretty cool doing it.

Then it was on to our favorite gas station, aka the only place in town to buy food/supplies/fire starting devices. Thanks to a Dutch man and some handy quick lighting coals, we set up our tent in some intense sandy wind and got a fire roaring in time for dinner! Aluminum foil-wrapped potatoes never tasted so good. Neither did strawberry marshmallows. Neither did smoked meat, aged over a period of two days of desert travel.
We made friends with some soldiers ("warriors," as they called themselves) eating a lot of meat a few tents away. In sharing our plans to go to Be'er Sheva the next day, one of them pointed out that Israel's 4th-largest city is, in fact, "ehhh, a shit-hole." Nevermind. We were on a mission to see it all - the air force museum, the museum of art, Abraham's Well, and the Joe Alon Bedouin Museum.
Stop number one was great. At the air force museum (which was free that day thanks to Bank HaPoalim), there were lots of families checking out dozens of old and new fighter plans. We joined a family of olim from Beit Shemesh for an English tour with Lee, an air force soldier lucky enough to be a guide at the air force museum as her army service. What a life Lee has. It was hard to pay attention to her while walking between all the planes (Mirages, Mysteres, F-16s, Spitfires, Cobras, shall I continue?) but basically we learned the following: not too long ago, no one wanted to give Israel any military equipment that actually worked. And if it did work, it cost a lot of money. These days, we're told this little country doesn't really produce it's own stuff. The old US of A supplies Israel with their aviation needs, like this working F-16I (the I means it's Israeli-modified) on display for the Chag:
Farewell planes! Hello food. Be'er Sheva isn't exactly a culinary hot-spot (the guide book uses the word dismal) so finding the Aroma in the Negev Mall was like discovering water in the desert.
Then came the chance for Be'er Sheva to live up to the soldier's epithet. No, I didn't time it, but I am fairly sure Rachel and I spent nearly three hours (in a town with very little) looking for Abraham's Well. We knew it wasn't going to be anything life changing, but it's Abraham, and it's a well, and goshdarnit, we were on a mission. As it turned out, the well is in fact inside a building, which happens to be the city's welcome center. And, as it turns out, they were closed early for the Chag. Let's just say the tourism bureau of Be'er Sheva will be hearing from us about their wells, their restaurants, and their poorly-marked signs.
I say poorly-marked because our adventure to the Joe Alon Bedouin Museum was somewhat impeded by a lack of a sign pointing to it. It was closed when we got there, but I think this picture gives us the gist of Bedouin life, right?
On the positive side, getting lost in Be'er Sheva allowed us to see the university campus (Ben Gurion University) and the old city shuk.

From there it was a short hop up to Tel Aviv, to a shower, and a bed that didn't have rocks under it. I thought it was fitting that we ended our Negev adventure at a restaurant on Ben-Gurion Blvd. He would be happy to see a Kosher for Passover restaurant serving cheeseburgers on matzah rolls. His true dream finally realized.

1 comment:

  1. 1. Kind of a freaky picture of you zipped inside the tent.

    2. Aren't you two kind of wimpy? This isn't even close to the hot season.

    3. I'm curious about the little marshmallow-topped pie you're eating.