Friday, August 17, 2012

Sea, Sun, and Sand

I’d like to be
Under the sea
In an octopus’s garden
In the shade
Ringo Starr

Summer in Israel starts about two days after Purim and ends about two days before Chanuka. It would start before Purim, but there is a law in this country that says it has to rain – even in a drought year – two days before Purim (when the kids dress up and party at school), and on Purim itself. So as not to bore the citizens, another law was passed that on the day between, Taanit Esther (a fast day), there be a heat wave.

The heat wave returns around Pesach time and lasts five months.
Then it’s just hot.

Whatever, summer vacation is coming to an end. The kids go back to school in just over a week, and once again, as I have for dozens of years past, I wonder what the heck happened to the vacation? We still haven’t cleaned out the kid’s school bag from last spring (and I use the term spring in the nostalgic sense – in the old country, school used to end in the spring and start again in the fall. Here, spring is from Tuesday to Thursday sometime in April, and I’m still waiting for last fall to start). Every summer, I get disappointed that we didn’t manage, yet again, to play mini golf. Never mind that there is no mini-golf course in Israel – that I know of. If anyone knows of a mini-golf course here, please let me know. Summer is for mini-golf.

We do usually go away for a week or so during August. Often we go north to the Kinneret and do day trips in the area. There’s a lot to see in northern Israel, and we always find something new. This year, however, we braved the weather, and went south to the port town of Eilat.


View from the hotel


 Situated on the Red Sea, Eilat is the southernmost town in Israel, and from its beaches you can see the Jordanian town of Aquaba to the east (flying what it claims is the largest flag in the world), the Sinai in Egypt to the south, and, on a very very clear day, Saudi Arabia off in the distance.
Eilat has a large port, with ships going in and out all day. There’s also a naval base, a branch of Ben-Gurion University, experimental fish ponds, birdwatching facilities (Israel is on a bird migratory path, and ornithologists come from all parts of the globe to observe migratory patterns and traits in the thousands of species of birds that arrive twice each year – they seem to know when spring and fall are), marine biology research facilities and lots of shopping. Primarily, however, Eilat is known as a tourist town. Its beaches are beautiful, the hotels luxurious, and it’s famous for its choral reefs and exotic, colorful fish. The city is also blessed with red mountains, an azure sea, beach-friendly temperatures all year round, and the bluest skies in the Land (an average of 360 sunny days a year).

The best part of Eilat –at least for me this summer – is that, as a tourist, there’s nothing to do but relax.

Normally, when I’m on vacation, I like to go and do and see things I can’t go and do and see at home. I’m up early, I nag the others to get up early too, and I’m ready to go explore. But in Eilat, it’s too hot to go exploring. So for a week, I sat by the beach and at the hotel pool, I watched movies in the room, I drank buckets of cold water, I ate way too much, and I got a tan.

It was heaven.

On Shabbat, there is even less to do. We went for a long walk (understand, the temperature, in the shade, was about 42° C). Outside of the tourist areas, there’s really not much to see, but I did discover something I’d never seen before; the memorial to the battle for Um Rash Rash – the Arab village that was situated near where Eilat now stands. In 1949, Israeli forces captured the Ottoman/British police station there and raised an improvised Israeli flag, made of a shirt inked with a Magen David, establishing control over the area. This battle, fought by the Negev and Golani Brigades, was the last of the 1948-49 War of Independence. For a description and pictures of the battle, see here.  The mud brick police station, by the way, is still there, as part of the memorial.

One day, we did venture off the beach, and took a city bus to visit Eilat’s Underwater Observatory Marine Park. Built in 1975 about 8 km south of the town, the observatory was the first of its kind; visitors descend about six meters below sea level on stairs enclosed in a tower-shaped structure built about 100 meters offshore, and can observe the amazing underwater life that exists. It’s like watching an ever changing aquarium.

Over the years, the site expanded and today includes 35 aquariums showcasing giant turtles, sharks, and stingrays – which can be observed from above and from below water level



 – Amazon life, and rare Red Sea fish including, but not limited to, sea horses,




squid,




stonefish (which look like stones),



and clown fish (aka Nemo).


We spent several lovely, relaxed hours strolling through the above-water exhibits, acquainting ourselves with the different fish before descending below the waves.



In two window-lined circular rooms (the second room was added in 1995), dozens of people, tourists, Israelis, Jews, Christians, and Muslims[1] stood staring, some openmouthed, out the windows watching the spectacular live entertainment. Fish of all sizes, shapes, and colors, swam in and out of the live choral just outside the window. Blue, green, purple, bright yellow, red, pink, striped, dotted, huge, and tiny fish darted about, seemingly in play. The amount and variety of life was simply breathtaking.

Here, I thought, is where G-d let His imagination go wild.

My imagination too, it seemed, went a bit wild. It kinda looked like a mini-golf course.


[1] There seems to be something about colorful fish that unites people