From Neot Hakikar to the Arava border crossing, via a land bereft of food, a plant for neutering flies and the home of a two-headed snake.
Zoe, Mairav and I are looking for something to eat. We head down to Neot Hakikar, a small moshav on the southernmost tip of the Dead Sea. Google claims that it is home to a restaurant named “Fata Morgana” (a mirage).
“I hope it doesn’t vanish when we reach it,” Mairav says.
The restaurant is real enough, but only feeds large groups and only with advanced reservation. The other culinary establishment in town, a tiny diner named “Pnina’s,” fails to work our appetite. A sign posted to the window promises corn schnitzels, the Israeli vegetarian’s frozen delight.
Neot Hakikar is no Paris when it comes to food, but, as in the case of Ein Gedi, it is literally a flowering garden in the heart of the desert.
To the south the garden is flanked by stout rocky hills, while to the north and east plantations of date palms stretch to the Jordanian border.
All of this is stunning, but we need food. We head back to the main road and turn to the south. I recall a small roadside rest area near moshav Hatzeva, where busses stop over on their way from Eilat to Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv. Halfway there we pass a peculiar structure standing atop a small mesa overlooking the road. Hungry or not, this calls for a stop.
What is this place? In a land in love with signs and plaques, here is a rare exception. It reminds me of old Indian observatories. Mairav and Zoe mention Gaudi.
Gaudi = Barcelona = La boqueria, Cheese and sausages, tapas from the sea, manchego and jamon, xuixos stuffed with creme Catalan, wine and sangria. On, on to the rest stop!
Disappointingly, it only offers two fast-food franchises, both of them equally dull and uninspiring. One is a “Burger Ranch”, the other – an “Aroma” cafe and sandwich shop. For travelers, even starving travelers, food is a means to a cause. We would like to penetrate the surface of this region and sense its spirit. The north of the vast Arava valley cannot possibly be defined by a Burger Ranch. So we head into the Moshav iteslf, to see what it may offer.
The approach road goes by a small village of vacant tepees made of dried palms. We have reached the land of the head shrinkers. Will we end up succumbing to cannibalism?
That, alas, seems likely, because the small supermarket at Hatzeva is closed. We can’t even buy groceries and picnic on the grass in the company of Thai migrant workers, who rest here at the moment. A sign posted on the door reads: “On Tuesday, 24.4, in the plaza in front of the kindergarten, we will be selling hot Falafel. One full portion: NIS 5, a half a protion: NIS 2. Please come prepared with small bills.
Today is Sunday and the oil won’t be boiling for two days. We drive back out of Hatzeva, among the moshav’s greenhouses. The 200 kilometers separating the Dead Sea and the Red Sea are uninhabited but for a handful of moshavim and kibbutzim. These use the thin brine pumped out of local underground reserves for growing a variety of crops that can live on such water, such as peppers, flowers, and cantaloupe.
That’s enough. We give up and head for the rest stop. Hazeva is impenetrable for the moment. Perhaps on some other visit we shall find out what it really tastes like.
Following the wonderful, exquisite meal, the girls bid me farewell and head north to Ein Gedi. I keep heading south with a worry in my heart. If this introverted stretch of desert does not open up and share something of its reality with me, I will end up traveling a distance double the length of the entire Lebanese border and remain clueless as to its secrets. It’s fine for one flight of fancy stone maze to remain a mystery and a vacant palm village to remain mysterious, but this trip is about understanding.
My fear is somewhat dispersed when I get a lift from a man named Tzur. By the neat, businesslike appearance of his car’s interior I can tell him to be an urbanite, but Tzur is strongly involved in what is happening inside the Arava’s greenhouses. He is, you see, a castrator of flies.
“Organic Magnesium is no longer fashionable as pesticide,” he explains. “We have gone past that. In my company we offer farmers packages of combined pest controls, using insects and less harmful chemicals.”
The insects in question include mutated vermin such as neutered flies, which reduce fly population by mating with fertile ones. Over the following, fascinating hour, Tzur tells me exactly how harmful med flies are fixed, without the use of tiny knives and magnifying glasses.
“The idea actually dates back to the 1950s. It was a byproduct of nuclear weapons development. The flies are exposed to gamma rays, that’s all there really is to it. We have a large factory near Beit Shean, where we produce them. First we warm them up, which kills all the females, then we paint the ones that survive: we put them in a tumbler with fluorescent paint, and it sticks to cracks in their backs.”
I hide my slight shudder. “Does that make them more attractive to the fertile females?” I ask.
“No, but it makes them more visible to us. This way we can monitor which flies are ours and how well they do their job. They must do it very well, because no exported produce may contain any med flies. We are committed to world markets.
Agriculture in the Arava is big business and a source of natural pride. It is also, like everything in this country, a tool of national security. After bidding farewell to Tzur, I travel past the colossal greenhouse city of Paran. This moshav was founded at the entrance to a valley which stretches west into the Sinai, and was frequently used by nomadic Bedouins. Israel plugged the valley with a civilian community, in the interest of maintaining control of its borders.
From Paran I get a lift with two lovers, Raul and Ori. Raul is Spanish from the region of Extramadura and I am thrilled to tell him of how I had visited it over the September journey. Israeli Ori had met him in Brazil years ago, and now takes him around the country along with her dog, Ness (miracle), who cozies against my arm.
We make a bathroom stop at a very strange place, but at least it is one whose story I know. The “101st kilometer inn” is located directly across form Petra, in Jordan. Shimon “Cooshi” Rimon, successfully snuck into Jordanian territory in 1960, by driving a stolen UN vehicle. Other Israeli adventure-seekers who attempted reaching the fabled lost city of the Nabateans, often did not fare as well. Many were shot by border patrols on the way over or back.
Cooshi survived, and he founded a groovy little “Baghdad Cafe” by the side of the long, hot Arava road. Artist friends contributed sculptures,
and over the years a menagerie of strange creatures was accumulated here, complete with a real two-headed snake, a two headed turtle and a tiger. The tiger died of ripe old age a few years ago, an event which signaled the end of the inn’s luck. Soon a fire came, demolishing a number of the wooden structures and killing many of the two and one-headed creatures.
Cooshi purchased a new two-headed snake since, but could not get his hands on another such turtle. All in all, the 101st Kilometer Inn is a sad place these days, and I’m glad to be back on the road.
Actually, I am thrilled. My lovely new friends are continuing to Eilat and will drop me off at one of the two border crossings through which Israelis may enter the Kingdom of Jordan.
When I was a child, the only way I could enter Jordan was by stealing a UN Jeep. This changed in the 1990s, following the Oslo Accords. King Hussein of Jordan promised Israel that when an agreement was reached between its government and the PLO, he would offer a peace agreement that enables travel and trade. He remained true to his word.
During those days of hope, my father, Oded Ben-Ami, served as media adviser to Yitzhak Rabin, and often traveled in secret to different places where history was made by peacemakers. One late night he left home, unable to tell my mother where he was headed. He called her on the phone just before dawn.
“Where are you?” she asked.
“I still can’t tell you,” he said, “but I am looking at Eilat from the east.”
Just east of Eilat, sharing the coast of the same bay, is the Jordanian city of Aqaba. My mother understood that peace with Jordan was nigh and that the Middle East was due to change in earnest. She cried with joy.
That was in 1994. The Middle East stopped changing the following year, when Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish right-wing fanatic in Tel-Aviv. Netanyahu soon took over and the peace process died. Today the Arava border crossing is the quietest spot which I have visited in Israel so far. Quieter even than sandwich-less Hatzeva.
Crossing into Jordan is still possible, but for the most part, only avid hikers and foreign tourists take advantage of that, so no lines await me at the various counters. I pay a transport tax and change some money at the bank counter, then move on to Israeli immigration and on to the Jordanian customs counter where my belongings spark no interest.
Ten minutes into the process, I arrive at Jordanian immigration, which is where things get complicated. My passport is not signed and I am sent to room #3, which turns out to be a police station of the “Tourist Police.”
The officer at the tourist police speaks not a word of English. My Arabic has greatly improved over the past two weeks, but the term he uses over and over isn’t familiar. I finally learn that it means “travel agent.” It appears that a month-old regulation requires all Israelis who enter Jordan to coordinate their visit with a local travel agent, follow that agent to the hotel of his choice, and of course pay a commission.
The officer puts me on the phone with an agent named Ibrahim. While Ibrahim names his price, a man in civilian clothes walks into the station. He grabs the receiver from my one hand and my passport from the other. Spells my name to Ibrahim over the line, and then hangs up and tells me that Ibrahim will be here in five minutes.
I wait for far more than five minutes, watching twilight descend over this very quiet place and taking pictures of King Abdullah’s portrait, out of boredom.
The man in civilian clothes steps out of the station and tells me again that Ibrahim will be here in five minutes, only now he adds “by Arab time,” which I take to mean I may wait here the entire night.
“What is your job?” I ask him.
“I’m Ibrahim’s brother,” he replies.
Finally even he loses his patience and decides to take me to town on his own. He hands me my passport and walks me through immigration, then we’re in Jordan, driving into town to the hotel of Ibrahim’s choice.
Problem number two soon arises. I exchanged only a handful of NIS at the bank, for fear of being stuck with very soft currency upon return into Israel. Ibrahim’s hotel does not accept credit cards, and none of the ATMs in Aqaba accept my card.
“Why don’t I pay you ten dinars now and you’ll free me to go find a hotel that takes credit?” I ask Ibrahim’s brother. Ten dinars are worth about 13 US$, they are what I expected to pay for a cab ride into town. He insists on being paid 20 dinars, but I have no intention of paying that to anyone simply because he has friends at the Tourist Police, so we keep traveling among Aqaba’s ATM’s. This is dragging on and on. My time for enjoying the city is running out “I’m sorry.” I finally say. “I can’t be your prisoner, and I can’t pay you more or I’ll have nothing left to eat. Please take the ten dinars and let me go.”
“I’ll hand you over to the Tourist Police,” he threatens, and it’s no idle threat. Crossing the border of hope, the border of peace, has turned into an Israeli-Jordanian conflict, thanks to pointless regulations which now weigh on both of us. Ibrahim’s now exhausted brother makes phone calls, to try and sort the situation out. So be it. We try to get a hotel to overcharge my card and then pay him. Impossible.
“Let me go!” I beg, “Please!”
“I’m sorry,” he says, you are now under my supervision.”
It takes another full hour before finally he gives up and accepts my offer. Israel had won this little war and now I am fully prepared to make peace now with this world and with this night. The lights of Eilat shine to the west. I am in another country. I have made it to the tip of the Arava, and learned something on the way; it may be a disgusting little something about reducing fly populations, but how can I help but be satisfied? The night smells like hooka smoke, roasted meat and warm sea breeze, the ships out in the water travel from here into the Indian ocean, and for the first time since this journey began I feel that feeling beloved by all travelers: that I am truly far from home.
The Round Trip thus far! (zoom out for full map)
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