note: lots of photographs in this post. Please be patient – it may take a bit of time to load. Click on each of the landscape pictures to enlarge – it’s worth it!
The last few days of my trip in Israel, clearer skies and warmer temperatures prevailed, so I decided to go by public bus to the Dead Sea for a day of relaxation.
I enjoyed the desert views (click on each of the pictures to enlarge for a more detailed view) as the driver made his way from Be’er Sheva to the southern end of the Dead Sea, where most of the resort hotels and spas are located.
Committed to doing this on the cheap, I went to a public beach that is completely free, and is for women only.
When the driver dropped me off in front of the Leonardo Plaza Hotel, I was excited. The grounds were beautifully landscaped, there were both indoor and outdoor pools, jacuzzis, magnificent walkways, and a large, wide expanse of sandy beach, complete with lifeguards (which in retrospect is a little strange: it’s impossible to drown. Due to the high salt content in the water, you float and cannot possibly sink). I found out that only the northern shores of the Dead Sea have the famous therapeutic black mud, and I was on the southern shore. So I stopped into the hotel gift shop to buy some magic mud for the inexpensive price of $3 for a large, sealed bagful. This mud really packs a punch: 40 highly concentrated minerals including magnesium, calcium, potassium, chlorides, zinc, lithium, chromium, iron, iodine, and barium. You spread it on your skin and let it dry to a hard clay, and then wash it off after 20 minutes with the Dead Sea water. Not only does it have proven healing qualities for various skin conditions (ie psoriasis), it is known to help relieve arthritis and soothe aching joints.
I figured that since the free, women-only beach was adjacent to the Leonardo Plaza Hotel’s beach, separated only by a blue plastic tarp hung as a visual barrier, I was in for a treat.
As they say, you get what you pay for.
Alas, the beach did not have the same silky sand as the hotel – it was a mix of sand and dirt.
The beach itself was only about 25′ wide, and there were only ten cheap plastic chairs and one very tired looking lounge chair. There were no toilets. The outdoor shower was cold and the water pressure was poor. The changing room consisted of a blue tarp strung up on bent and warped poles. There were dirty paper napkins and plastic cups and bags strewn across the sand. The next bus was in 2 hours, so there was no practical way to determine if the separate-sex beach on the north shore was any better.
On the beach was a group of chassidic women from Bnei Brak. They weren’t wearing bathing suits, but due to extremely strict modesty codes were wearing snap-front housecoats over what looked like union suits made of stretchy swimsuit material, thick seamed flesh-colored stockings on their legs, and terry-cloth turbans that covered their heads completely, ending at the top of their eyebrows.
They went into the water fully clothed – including the stockings. I have no idea how they were able to remove all the Dead Sea’s oily salt water from their clothes and skin under that poor excuse of an outdoor shower when they were ready to leave. Since they were unwilling to change into dry clothes as a group in the tarp-walled “changing room,” there was a long line and it took quite awhile for the entire group to ready themselves, one at a time, for the ride back to Bnei Brak.
The queen matron of the group was friendly, and began asking me all sorts of questions – – where was I from, how did I get to the beach, was this my first time there, etc. She asked my name and when I told her, she stopped, and looked me hard in the eye.
“That’s a modern Israeli name, isn’t it?”
Well, it’s not Hindy, Baila, Freyda, Shprintza or Shaindel.
The lady sniffed and turned away, not wishing to continue the conversation.
Soon afterward the group left, leaving me alone to enjoy the peace and quiet. I was baking my mud-covered skin, reclining peacefully on the lounge chair, when a busload of French seminary girls ages 17 – 20 came by. These girls were not religiously observant, but their female guide, who was clearly Orthodox, was running the show. Hence they were at the “separate” beach.
Unlike the chassidic women, however, modest dressing was not high on their list of priorities, and they peeled off their clothes with great abandon and cavorted around in string bikinis, speaking excitedly in their native French.
Alas, we were soon joined by a most unwelcome visitor. An Arab man, about 20 years old, entered the women-only beach, and started shouting angrily.
The girls, not understanding, looked at him wide-eyed but unmoved. The Arab, assuming he was being ignored, got even angrier, and turned up the volume. In Arabic-accented Hebrew he said, “It is forbidden to use the chairs! You must give back the chairs! Get out of the chairs right now!”
Why he was so concerned about the rickety, dirty plastic chairs was a mystery. The girls were afraid of the Arab’s temper tantrum, still not understanding his words, so they began screaming.
Their screams brought another man into the women-only beach, but he was not on a rescue mission. It was the Arab’s boss, a Sephardi Jew who was incredibly ill-tempered.
“Get off my $^%# chairs!’ he demanded. Horrified, I spoke up.
“First of all, the chairs were here when we arrived. No one took your chairs. Secondly, you are not allowed on the women-only beach!” I said.
“I am the owner of those chairs!” the Israeli boss cried. “If you want to use them, there is a 20-shekel rental fee per chair! So pay up or get up!”
At the owner’s command, the Arab took a chair by the armrests, and lifted it into the air – with a French girl still sitting in it – and tipped it so she fell into the sand. He and the boss ran from chair to chair, upending the screaming girls.
But by now, the girls weren’t afraid; they were just really angry. As soon as an upended girl recovered, she’d dash to the pile of collected chairs and take a seat again. For every chair the two men recovered, another one was repossessed by the girls. This went on for a couple of minutes, with both sides getting angrier and angrier and moving faster and faster.
Finally, one sassy girl had enough. She grabbed a chair and ran with it into the Dead Sea, looking back at the men, who were shaking their fists (it reminded me of the monkeys and the peddler in the classic children’s book, “Caps for Sale”). The French girl laughed; she waded still further into the water. The boss told the Arab to follow the girl into the water and get the chair.
He rolled up his jeans and started to go in, but the girl taunted him, and she went out still further into the water, holding the chair above her head.
The Arab looked at the girl. He looked at the water. He looked at his feet. He looked at the boss.
The boss told him, “Get the *$%^ chair!”
Flustered, the Arab looked at the girl and once again at his feet. She was out too far and the water was too deep; his pants would get wet. So. . . he quickly took off his pants! He ran into the water in his underwear, and grabbed the chair and brought it to his boss. The girls laughed and laughed at the caper, the boss and the Arab stalked off with their precious chairs, and two minutes later all was forgotten (except by Yours Truly, who was by now somewhat traumatized).
I was glad the chassidic ladies from Bnei Brak had been spared the ordeal.
Even though the incident was over, I decided I had had enough excitement for one day. I took another dip in the Dead Sea to remove the mud, showered off the oily residue, and got dressed. The irony of this sign that I passed as I fled to the bus stop to await the ride back to Be’er Sheva was not lost on me: