A brief(ish. maybe not really) tale of my first 48 hours “living in Jerusalem.” (After writing it and recounting it to a few friends, I realize that it is perhaps a rather scandalous tale. By my usual standards, at least. My apologies if you find yourself shocked by any of the content – it seems too ridiculous not to share, though 🙂 )
On Friday the fourth, I took the 9:00am bus from Nazareth to Jerusalem, belongings in tow. A few hours later, after arriving and unpacking my things – including the many superfluous sweaters lent me by my host of adopted Arab grandmothers in Nazareth because “It’s cold in Jerusalem, habibti” – and doing a bit of grocery shopping in the nearby shuk right before it would close for Shabbat, one of my new housemates called. Since moving in, I hadn’t actually spotted any of my four housemates – they were all out, apparently. This one, however, was on his way home from Tel Aviv and wanted to know if I would mind putting some lentils to soak for him in the meantime. Of course. No problem. Happy to help. Except that I had moved into a house of vegetarians/vegans; and upon examining the contents of the unfamiliar kitchen, I realized that deciding which lentils were his lentils was a surprisingly daunting task.
About half an hour later, after I had somewhat arbitrarily decided on a bag of lentils that may or may not have been his, he called again. Change in plans. In hitchhiking back to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, his ride had told him that she was continuing on from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea. He had decided that he would join her, make his way down to some hot springs next to the Sea, and then either hitch back or sleep there. It was about 7:30 at night. They’d be in Jerusalem in 25 minutes. Did I want to come?
I did not. The day before, I’d been on a grueling and lengthy hike, and that afternoon I’d toted everything I currently own through Nazareth to the bus stop and then through Jerusalem to the house. And I was exhausted. BUT, I was also overeager to win roommate points at this early stage. So I mentally shook off my exhaustion and threw a very few things in a bag; and, just as I was putting on my sneakers, he showed up, ready to go. “Oh, also, I don’t know if I mentioned it,” he said casually as he grabbed his backpack and walked out the door, “but the place is semi-nudist.”
HA. He had not mentioned it. Well, it’s too late to turn back now, I thought, roomie points at the front of my mind. (I did, however, nonchalantly check to confirm that nudism was not mandatory. And that it was a dark night with almost no moon). So we rode down through the desert south of Jerusalem, chatting with the reggae flutist who was giving us a ride. At the checkpoint back into Israel from the West Bank, she dropped us off; she was turning there to a different part of the Sea. Not having reached our destination, we waited for another ride, hanging out with the young soldiers manning the checkpoint in the meantime. A few cars drove past with no room for us before one tiny beater slowed to pick us up. Three raucous Arab guys scooted over to make space for us, and we hopped in. As soon as we had passed through the checkpoint, the car whizzed off into the night, taking the sharp curves of the winding desert road between the sea and the mountains way faster than my quick physics calculations considered reasonable (by the way, mom and dad, you may not want to read this part?). I then saw the driver take a gulp from a plastic cup he was holding and realized that he was drinking beer while he drove. And at a rapid rate, judging by the number of empty bottles I began to notice littered throughout the car. Every part of my brain started playing back to me the words of every crazy health teacher I’d ever had about not getting in the car with someone who’s been drinking. And then our new friends started to pass something around, asking us if we smoked. Not cigarettes, but “something else.” I declined; and, at this point, I think I began to accept the fact that I might actually die on this road down which we were currently, recklessly flying. With this acceptance came an acknowledgement of the ridiculousness of the situation in which I found myself, and I started to giggle hopelessly. My housemate looked over at me every few minutes as I chuckled into the backpack sitting on my lap, his obvious confusion making it evident that he found nothing that extraordinary about our current circumstances.
Fortunately, our drop-off point was just a few minutes away, and we got out of the vehicle – in one whole, unmangled piece each – as our temporary traveling companions riotously wished us a good evening. Through the desert darkness, we climbed down a stony mountainside to the Dead Sea waterfront and the sulfurous hot springs, where little campfires dotted the coast and people sat around in the warm, pungent pools, chatting and smoking hookah (all of them, to my puritanical relief, clothed to some degree). We spent the next few hours floating on the surface of the warm, salty pools, wandering from place to place by the light of the thousands of desert stars, our feet periodically breaking through the crust of dried salt that coated most of the sand, seeking out the perfectly-warm-but-not-boiling spring, occasionally opting to float in the Sea itself when we found the places where the hot and cold water eddied together in this lowest place on earth. After sitting in the water until about 3 in the morning and, in all likelihood, severely dehydrating ourselves from the extreme salt concentration, we encountered a trio of young people from Nataf, a small town in the hills northwest of Jerusalem. Struck by inspiration, my housemate decided that we should grab a ride with them to Nataf and go for a hike in the forested wadi there. My body could feel that it was running on way too much exercise and way too little sleep, but I’d already accepted that I was going to follow this burst of spontaneity through to completion. I agreed.
We crammed into the little car and rode to Nataf, arriving right as the sun began to rise. We spent the better part of the morning exhaustedly searching for a trail that would lead us down into the deep wadi in front of us, walking back and forth along its rim as we did so. Upon locating the green-marked trail that raced steeply to the bottom, we descended and began to wander around in the valley, hunting out a spring that was supposed to be somewhere in the area. After a few hours of somewhat aimless rambling, we found the spring hidden between a cliff face and an enormous fig tree. We perched on the pool’s rocky edge for quite a while, chatting with a group of friendly old men who were picnicking there, laughing nervously as they bet us we wouldn’t gather up the courage to plunge into the frigid water. Frigid it was, my toes told me – but I was more worried about the suspiciously leech-like creatures I’d seen lurking around the water’s edges. After a prolonged period of trepidation, however, the force of my own smell drove me in; I cannonballed myself down under the surface of the water, getting to work as quickly as possible and washing away the Dead Sea salt and mud and sulfur and the sweat from a day and a half’s hiking. Upon emerging from the spring, all of my skin stinging from the shock of the cold, we bid the old picnicking men a shabbat shalom and continued on. It was only after turning away from their sunshiny lunchtime that I realized that I hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast the previous morning.
We set off for the other end of the wadi, scrambling over the rocky, dry stream bed and occasionally stopping to eat a handful of almonds from the trees we found scattered around us. At some point, we decided the time had come to climb up out of the wadi – a task roughly equivalent to climbing up a nearly vertical cliff face covered in underbrush – and to start making our way home. On reaching the top, we briefly encountered a hermit artist who lived between the trees on the very edge of the deep chasm and spent her time sitting on her porch and sculpting, far from society. She gave us bottles of cold water and chatted with us for a few minutes, kind and shy, always gazing out over the wadi and forest that stretched from the edge of her house to the horizon. After a few minutes’ rest, we thanked her for the water and continued to a small road in the nearby village. From there, we caught a series of rides back to Jerusalem.
And so we came “home” to the house in which I’d spent about 3 hours over the course of my first two days as a resident of Jerusalem.