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Thursday, May 22, 2014

Going south: thoughts on a bus from Eilat

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Christians have an easy mnemonic to remember Israel’s four seas:  “the Red, the Med, the Dead and the Bread.”  To some Jews, that last one’s a little obscure… it refers to the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee), near where they believe JC performed the miracle of the Loaves and Fishes.  Thus, “the Bread.”

Three of them are easy enough to get to, but the first one, the Red, involves a trek to what seems like the ends of the earth… Eilat.

Here’s an interesting point of Jew-trivia a friend passed along a couple of months ago:  Eilat is technically not in Israel.  Though that depends how you define Israel.  If you’re talking Biblical boundaries, it’s out.  (Nonetheless, you’ll be happy to know that people who live there still keep one day of yom tov.)

Certainly, it still feels like Israel – or at least, like some weird, remote outpost of Israel.  The presence of an airport smack-dab in the middle of the city (getting in the way whenever you want to walk anywhere) is an irritating reminder that Haifa is basically just an hour away, for anyone who has the means to fly instead of taking the 6-hour bus trip.

We went by bus.  Thus, four hours of THIS out the windows:

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The goal of the trip was Togetherness, with a capital-T, and spending time relaxing with the Big Boy, who is on his way to Thailand to be swallowed up by the rebellion that has apparently just erupted there and have big-boy Adventures.

As you can tell, Togetherness was achieved, in the sense that he posed for Naomi Rivka’s many pictures, like this one.

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We spent just a little over 24 hours in Eilat, which isn’t really enough.  Not because it’s such a great city, but because of the tremendous effort it takes to get there if you don’t have the wherewithal (ie money) to fly down.  I’ve heard the same thing about Australia, only more so:  unless you have a month to spend there, at least, it’s just not worth the crushingly long travel time and adjustment to not just a time but a seasonal difference.

Things to do in Eilat if you have only 24 hours:

Coral reef observatory!  Way cool.  Way overpriced.  Admission is good for 3 days, which is awesome, but it’s so far out of town that you have to either pay 40nis for a cab or memorize the bus schedule (after one cab ride, we did the latter), because they only come once an hour.

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Dip in the red sea!  We did!  I did!  See picture, above.  This is a huge accomplishment… my first time getting completely all-over wet in one of Israel’s seas.  Yeah, I know: we’ve lived ten minutes away from the Med… and I still haven’t gone in, after nearly 10 months.

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Dry off in a lounge chair!  This being Eilat, with 40 degree temperatures and dry, dry air, this only took about 20 minutes.

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Eat a nice meal!  Yum… steak house.  Not the most mindblowing steak ever, and it cost a fortune.  Not a great reason to go to Eilat; there are better kosher steakhouses all over the country.  But Naomi Rivka was very, very impressed.

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Sleep!

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Pose!

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Leave!  Here’s the bus station, where everybody is hanging around doing just that – waiting to catch buses to almost impossibly far-off cities.  It’s funny to imagine how far apart these places feel, like Eilat and Tel Aviv, when a 5-hour car ride was our standard way of visiting my in-laws up until last summer.  Somehow, here, the distances feel greater.

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And now, as I “type” this message on my little tablet, we’re in a bus on our way home… in the middle of nowhere.  Here’s where the tablet’s built-in GPS says we are:

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At last, after nearly 10 months in Israel, the landscape feels truly foreign, in a way that northern Israel never has.  Down here, at the ends of the earth, or so it looks through the bus window, it’s desperately dry and hot hot hot.

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Definitely the dry heat everybody promises won't kill you like the muggy slap of the steamy Krayot heat last summer.  Even at 40 degrees in Eilat, with a gentle breeze and a dip in the ocean, it didn't feel a bit over 30, and we were very comfortable walking uphill to the bus terminal.

Everybody compares Eilat to beach towns and resorts:  Venice, Coney Island, Miami Beach. To me, it has a real element of Niagara Falls to it. Not quite as tacky, but a few more haunted houses and 3d ride simulators will take care of that.

There’s the same strip of attractions leading away from the beach and away from the desirable hotels - many of which, like the Hilton and Herod's, are truly fabulous (or at least look that way from the outside).  Incidentally, just as in Niagara Falls, that uphill trek leads to the only kind of hotel / hostel we can afford to stay in – the weird kind. 

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Don’t worry:  it was weird but GOOD, a creepy little collection of teeny-tiny cabins…

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Interspersed with papier-mache figures, so every time you go outside, you feel like dozens of people are watching you.

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There are lots of the same  vendors of cheap trinkets and fast food... a key difference being that much of the fast food is kosher (while in Niagara Falls, you're lucky if there's one fly-by-night pizza place).

Between the tackiness and the off-the-beaten-path motel, it felt very familiar indeed.

But now, as I write this, I'm somewhere in the desert, a Biblically big desert, on the way from the Red Sea to Beersheva, where Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov had their main stomping grounds. 

So strange to think that this awful, bleak desert, too, is part of my heritage.  Even safely and sure-footedly within the Biblical Land, this terrain is  unconquerably alien and unfamiliar.

And yet!  And yet!  Here in Beersheva, the “capital of the Negev,” I found this outpost of sanity in an otherwise gusty, bleak, hot, dry world:  Mr. Corn!

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I was heading somewhere else for dinner, so I didn’t stop to see if it was kosher (I thought I saw a Pesach teudah – indicating that they had sold their chametz – as I walked past).  But what a wonder!  This is a concept that the world is MORE than ready for:  corn, in all its wonderful forms.  Boiled corn, popcorn, together at last!

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Corn! 

(For anyone who isn’t part of my immediate family… corn is easily my favourite food, and quite possibly, my favourite substance in the entire universe.)

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I had to actually go back – to the irritation of my kids – to get a picture of this sign, which says, “Corn or potatoes?  Now you don’t have to choose anymore.”  I think it’s saying you can get both, maybe even mushed into the soup shown in the picture.  Not exactly sure… they were both in a hurry to get going and wouldn’t let me gaze at the sign.

Here’s the mediocre Asian-inspired supper I was rushing to get during our one-hour stopover in Beersheva.

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And here’s the train that took us, in comfort and style, all the way home to Kiryat Motzkin, from where we had a comfy 7-minute walk home (it’s usually 5, but we were tired and loaded down).

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Forget buses… train is definitely the way to get around this country in comfort and style – not to mention the ability to stretch your legs a little and use the washroom whenever you like.

I don’t think I’ll be heading back south anytime soon.  But dreams of (Mr.) Corn are flitting through my mind, teasing, tantalizing me still, even as the twinkly lights of Haifa’s green mountain welcomed me back to an area that is feeling  more and more normal, more and more like home, with every passing month.

I may be a stranger in a strange land (a very strange land), but with wonders like Mr. Corn lurking out there, who knows what other awesome experiences there are, still waiting to be discovered in this (huge) and holy place.

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