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I’m Alive in the Dead Sea

October 4, 2012 by · Comments Off on I’m Alive in the Dead Sea 

No splashing. That’s the first rule when you immerse yourself in Dead Sea.  Even a tiny drop in your eyes or mouth burns fiercely.

A Dip in the salty Dead Sea

A Dip in the salty Dead Sea

I wasn’t worried; it was January and I’m a Floridian. Call me wimpy, but I don’t swim outside when the temperature hovers around 40 degrees.  Nonetheless, some do.

Empty beachfront at the Dead Sea

Empty beachfront at the Dead Sea

Israel’s Dead Sea isn’t really a sea; it’s a lake in the Negev desert, about 1,300 feet below sea level. That makes it the lowest point on Earth that’s not under water.

My first glimpse of the glass-like expanse came from Highway 90 (the world’s lowest road) as we drove beyond the Judean Mountains toward Masada. The water looked oddly colored through my camera viewfinder. In some places it appeared neon green and in others, electric blue. Undoubtedly, the water’s mineral content contributes to this psychedelic effect.

Masada, a UNESCO World Heritage Site

Masada, a UNESCO World Heritage Site

The bus drove on to the UNESCO World Heritage site, Masada, the ancient mountain top palace-fortress of Herod the Great. Back in 70 A.D. Jews fleeing persecution in Jerusalem joined fellow refugees there. The Romans made violent organized charges and attempted to takeover, but the Jews held out for two years. In the end, they chose suicide rather than be conquered. The site is considered a Jewish cultural icon.

Visitors at Masada

Visitors at Masada

Tourists enter the rather posh Masada Visitor Center and either hike or ride a cable car to the dramatic summit. (Watch the short introductory film first as it helps understanding.) Rising nearly 1,500 feet above the Dead Sea, the hazy views from the plateau seem endless and the 2,000-year-old ruins are impressive and well preserved. Stroll among some original enclosures and other areas and lookouts that have been restored.

Scenic view from Masada.

Scenic view from Masada.

 

On the ride back to Tel Aviv, my group stopped at a seaside resort. Only a few hardy folk felt like a dip, but everyone wanted to see the salty sea up close.

Salt Crystals in the Dead Sea

Salt Crystals in the Dead Sea

As I walked along the near empty beachfront, I passed crusty edges at the shoreline rimmed in white. These salt deposits were created when the water hit the shore and dried in the sun. The Negev gets about 330 sunny days a year, but this day was not one of them.

Nothing grows in the Dead Sea (hence the name) because the salinity is 8.6 times saltier than the ocean. The mineral content ranges around 30 percent compared to 3.5 percent in the Mediterranean.  That’s known as heavy water with high viscosity (love that wonderful word I learned in Anatomy and Physiology 101). The surface air is also heavy from mineral compounds in the evaporating water.

Applying therapeutic mud

Applying therapeutic mud

The area’s dark mud or clay is believed to have therapeutic qualities, along with a soak in the briny liquid. The usual procedure is to apply thick mud all over your skin and let it dry for 10 minutes. Then, slowly walk into the water and float on your back. Swimming is not a good idea because it creates a splash. No more than 20 minutes is recommended or you’ll become dehydrated.

 

 

 

Mud Treatment

Mud Treatment

I didn’t partake the treatment on my January trip to Israel, but as luck goes, I made a visit to Jordan five months later. (Jordan is clearly visible from Israel, on the opposite side of the bank.) In May, I whole-heartedly caked my arms, legs and face with mud, chuckled at myself and then sat and baked in the sun.

Laughing at yourself is part of the therapy.

Laughing at yourself is part of the therapy.

 

Feeling rather prune-like, I slithered off the edge of a low platform into the water. I could barely keep my feet down. They wanted to pop up, honestly demanded it, and so, I let them. Floating on my back took no effort because of the buoyant properties of the salt water. As a swimmer, the sensation was strangely different, laughably fun and totally liberating.

Floating in the Dead Sea

Floating in the Dead Sea

While in the water, I rubbed the mud off my skin, which then felt rather slimy, but in a good way.  My hands slid over my skin as if gliding over waxed paper. When I came out of the Sea, I could have recorded a commercial for baby soft skin. The experience brought to mind a costly spa treatment, but a free one you give yourself. Some medical experts say a dip helps those suffering with psoriasis and arthritis. Whether curative or not, who cares? I came alive in the Dead Sea.

 

Alive in the Dead Sea

Alive in the Dead Sea

If you go:

Israel: www.goisrael.com

Jordan: www.jordantours-travel.com

Riding Camels Here and There

July 15, 2012 by · 1 Comment 

 

Camel riding isn’t a popular means of transportation in the United States, but a method I’ve always wanted to try. As luck goes, I was blessed with two diverse opportunities within one month.

 

The first came when I traveled to Jordan and spent two nights in a Bedouin tent camp. The  desert at Wadi Rum reigns as an ideal location for a camel trek. Lawrence of Arabia described the landscape as, “red sands that stretch like seas between mountains of crimson sandstone. The rock monoliths sculpted by nature resemble the drippings of candle wax on a monumental scale.”

 

On the morning of my ride, owners in long flowing robes crossed the dunes and walked alongside their herd. The scene looked like it a sepia-tinted photograph from a history book, except the two Bedouin were talking on cell phones.  Okay, I thought — digital age dromedaries.

 

They cushed the camels (lowered to a kneeling position) and covered their basic saddles with blankets. Stirrups are not part of a camel’s gear, so one grips the tufts of hair atop the hump. To get on, I flung one leg over the beast, feeling my yoga class stretches coming into use. I casually shimmied my butt into place and hunkered down.

 

Suddenly, my camel erupted upward nearly tossing me off its back as it leaped to its fore-knees. Then, in a two-stage process, its back legs extended, and I was nearly catapulted forward over its head. I then found myself riding at the height that would guarantee a slam dunk into a basketball net.  Woo-hoo!

Desert camel riders in Jordan

The first few minutes gave me a bumpy, disconcerting ride, as my body jostled to and fro. But soon I began to adapt and enjoy the feel of the gentle compression of my camel’s hooves into the sandy sea. The view on camelback is spectacular, you’re about twice as high as when riding a horse and the desert scenery gorgeous.

 

Later in the month, I found myself at the Safari Wilderness Ranch in Central Florida. Believe it or not, I mounted a camel here for another ride. They use an easier method to get of on and off, but honestly it’s not as much fun nor as hair-raising as my original.  Polk County camel riders step up onto a platform at the dromedary’s height. Then, riders simply toss a foot over. The camel does not rise or descend. In Florida, the saddles had metal frames which guarantee a secure ride.

 

Once beyond the loading zone, the sensation of riding is identical, except the safari traverses grass instead of sand. While riding through Wilderness Park I saw zebras, lemurs, wart hogs, cattle, deer, antelope and Water Buffalo. Safari Wilderness Ranch is not a zoo or theme park. There are no crowds and no lines; it’s a natural adventure with guides who explain the herds of exotic game. Safari vehicles fitted with shade canopies offer an alternative tour.

 

I highly recommend a trip to Jordan; the country is safe, the people are friendly and the archeological ruins outstanding. A camel ride across the desert is a cherished memory, but I have to admit, a three-hour car ride gave me a similar, close encounter with the humped beasts.

 

Wilderness Ranch Zebras

 

 

If you go:

Safari Wilderness Ranch:

www.SafariWilderness.com

Tours in Jordan:  www.jordantours-travel.com/cms/

 

Montserrat for St. Patrick’s Day: Sunshine, Shamrocks and a Smoldering Volcano

March 1, 2011 by · Comments Off on Montserrat for St. Patrick’s Day: Sunshine, Shamrocks and a Smoldering Volcano 

Below is a story I wrote after visiting Montserrat on St. Patrick’s Day, March, 2010.

Montserrat

Mention a visit to Montserrat and you can expect quizzical expressions. Spanish mountain? Massachusetts college? West Indies island?

The name applies to all three, but only the Emerald Isle of the Caribbean beckons with shamrocks, sunshine and the still-smoldering Soufriere volcano. Travelers savvy enough to venture beyond neighboring Antigua, Guadeloupe or St. Kitts find a tropical throwback to another time. The British-governed territory endears itself to divers, nature lovers and villa vacationers with unspoiled reefs and a unique Irish-Caribbean culture. Montserrat’s people maintain phoenix- like hope, despite the fact that the volcano has rendered two-thirds of their island off-limits.

Outside Ireland, Montserrat is the only place to declare St. Patrick’s Day a national holiday — even passport entries come stamped in the shape of a shamrock. Celebrations honor the 17th-century Irish indentured servants who settled here after fleeing anti-Catholic violence. The festival also recalls a failed slave uprising of March 17, 1789. Resilient islanders merge all traditions and ethnicities for a week-long party.

Fly MontserratMy visit to the 39 square mile island began with a flight to Antiqua followed by a 15-minute adventure on Fly Montserrat’s 8-seat twin engine Islander plane. Upon arrival, I was given an invitation to attend a party at the Governor’s house that evening. Apparently March 16th is when the festivities begin as the honorable Peter Andrew Waterworth met me wearing an orange tee shirt emblazoned with green lettering and a plaid kilt. He carried a pewter tankard of Guinness stout, flown in from Ireland for the occasion. Dublin’s own Martin Healy band entertained with flute and fiddle until local crooner, Shaka Black commandeered the microphone.

Debi and the Governor

Back in the eighties and early nineties, music ignited this tiny (39 square miles) mountainous isle. Sir George Martin, the former Beatles producer, built AIR Studios for recording stars like Paul McCartney, Sting and Elton John. Mick Jagger flew down too, along with Dire Straits and Jimmy Buffett, who recorded his album Volcano here. Arrow, a Montserrat native, sang hot, hot, hot as reggae beats pulsed in discos and nightclubs while calypso simmered through posh villas and restaurants of brightly colored stucco.


Soufriere erupts

Then, on July 18, 1995, a loud rumble, like a jet roar, swept over the tropical landscape. Longtime resident and expat Carol Osborne recalls seeing smoke rise from a green mountain–not wispy puffs but powerful columns shooting skyward. The plumes kept churning and the noise kept pounding, day and night. Plymouth, the capital, and the surrounding southern hills were emptied–no small problem given that the north end of the island had little in the way of housing or other facilities for 10,000 residents.

Finally, the Soufriere Hills volcano went back to sleep, but the temperamental toddler wasn’t through with her tantrums. She acted up again and again, spewing ash, which necessitated masks for breathing and numerous evacuations. Then she blew her top, exploding like a wild child flinging off her clothes, the verdant peak transformed into gray shale.

Today, she continues, a turbulent teen. One day she’s gentle and kind, approaching sweet sixteen; the next day, she rages. Life with teenage Souffi, as I nicknamed her, teeters on the edge, and Montserrat is still without a new capital. Its remaining 4,500 residents will never be the same.

Still, a retreat to her simple lifestyle blesses one with a laid-back escape. Rent an inflatable kayak at Scuba Montserrat and paddle around the corner to Rendezvous Bay, the only golden-hued beach. All the others glimmer with sparkly black sand and typically lie empty, except in the fall when the green and hawksbills turtles nest ashore. Woodlands Beach, which has restrooms and showers, offers views of migratory humpback whales in the spring.

Inflatable kayak

Divers plunge into the slightly warmer aquamarine Caribbean Sea (79 to 85 degrees) due to the volcano, which formed boulders, pinnacles and walls that now anchor new coral reefs. Troy Depperman at Green Monkey Dive Shop guides visitors into caves and rock formations where spotted morays, porcupine fish and octopuses hang. Deep-sea fishing benefits from the lack of cruise-ship traffic. Wahoo, bonito, shark, marlin and tasty yellowfin tuna cavort just two to three miles offshore.

Tourists, especially the eco-kind, enjoy hiking on the 14 well-marked trails established by the National Trust. At 2,437 feet, Katy Hill requires a guide, as the often-overgrown route easily leads visitors astray. The trail demands a high level of fitness and about five strenuous hours. Oriole Trail, the most frequented, provides 1,287-foot scenic outlooks and, if you’re lucky, a sighting of the endangered Montserrat Oriole. James Scriber, a former forest ranger, leads hikes and recounts local lore. With his thumb, mouth and voice, he mimics their song, luring the melodic creatures out of the bush and almost into his hand.

A boat ride to see the ruins of Plymouth, frequently called the modern-day Pompeii, is a must. Worldwide, no other destination compares with the ghostly apparition of the lost capital. I cannot forget my first sight of the now-forbidden city that stands as if Medusa turned it to stone.

Buried Capital City

 

Soufriere doesn’t spew lava; she heaves red-hot rocks and boulders over the dome like popcorn, along with blasting steam currents called pyroclastic flow. They travel up to 100 miles per hour, mushrooming like clouds of an atomic bomb. During Montserrat’s rainy season (usually July) gushers gather trees, rocks, ash and mud in a mixture resembling wet concrete, then flow in torrents down the ghuats (ruts) created over time. Gradually Plymouth has sunk deeper and deeper, buried in a cement stew. Sightseers cruise her shores but aren’t allowed to stop. Nonetheless, the outing engulfs the senses with dusty smells, eerie quiet and a stark vision of a once-vibrant village.

Buried House

Plymouth took a direct hit, but her suburbs on the neighboring emerald mountainside suffered, too. The lavish villas and Creole cottages paint a memorable still life in the government-quarantined exclusion zone.

Don’t miss the Montserrat Volcano Observatory, where scientists monitor the situation 24 hours a day. Watch the 3-D documentary of past eruptions to understand the volcano’s dynamic force. An eruption in February 2010, sent ash billowing 40,000 feet and carpeted the last remnants of the control tower at the former W.H. Bramble Airport. Pyroclastic flows create new land, leaving the seawater at shoreline a gorgeous luminescent turquoise and increasing the mass from 39 square miles to more like 41. But no one can use the additional property–temperatures below the ground simmer around 300 degrees.

New Land Formation

Folks have high hopes for the geo-thermal wattage in the volcano’s core. David Lea, a longtime resident and documentary videographer, said Montserrat could become “the breadbasket of power in the Caribbean.” If only the Montserratians could finance and pull off such a grand, eco-friendly project.

Passport entries come stamped in the shape of a shamrock, recalling a distinctive Irish heritage. Outside Ireland, Montserrat is the only place to declare St. Patrick’s Day a national holiday. Celebrations honor the 17th-century Irish indentured servants who settled here after fleeing anti-Catholic violence and recall a failed slave uprising of March 17, 1789. Resilient islanders merge all traditions and ethnicities for a week-long party.

St. Patrick's Day Parade

A parade starts near Little Bay, the proposed new capital, and marches to the Village Heritage Festival, where replicas of plantation slave huts and traditional African food take center stage. Try Duckna, a paste of shredded sweet potato, coconut and spices, wrapped in elephant-ear leaves (taro) and tied with strands of banana palm. The national dish, Goat Water, reigns most popular despite its less-than-enticing name. It looks, tastes and smells like spicy gumbo with pieces of tender goat meat.

Expats and visitors from other Caribbean islands unite at the Green Monkey Bar. The Martin Healy Band from Dublin plays, while patrons quaff pints of Guinness along with mango rum punch.  But…no green beer. At Soca Cabana, reggae artist and Montserrat native Shaka Black belts a soulful tune. Music once brought prosperity to this island and now it simply unites. Mother Nature bubbles up clean mountain water, breezy trade winds and planetarium-worthy stargazing. But some days she also blows ash in the air. Come see the haunting beauty and listen to her song.

Flute Player

 

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