Wednesday, June 10, 2009

On the road to Eilat

For you Israelis -- who know this area even better than I do -- you have permission to skip this post if you want to. I think the US readers might find it interesting, though.

I went to Eilat yesterday -- Eilat is a seriously remote seaside paradise on the Red Sea -- not the Mediterranean. If you look at a map, it is at the very tip of southernmost Israel, just across the Red Sea from Jordan -- and only 12 miles from Saudi Arabia.

The road from Beersheba to Eilat is famous for its austere beauty and its danger. Built in 1958, for much of the 150 miles the highway is just two lanes, which irritates antsy drivers who try to pass and then don't quite make it. Then, too, sometimes camels wander unto the highway which is always fatal for the camel and usually fatal for the car passengers. Because camels have very long legs and a high center of gravity, when a car hits a camel, the very heavy body of the camel tends to fall on top of the car and crush it from above. Not good.

It's also dangerous because of the totally ridiculous "S" curves that mark a good portion of the way, especially about a third of the way in. The two lane road snakes back and forth, with sheer drops on the outside, with what look to be totally inadequate barriers -- they may not be inadequate, but they don't look very formidable. Last December the driver for a tour group of Russians made a bad mistake and 24 people were killed when their bus plunged over the side. Also not good.

So as the bus leaves Beersheba, it's usually full of people going on vacation to the seaside paradise -- a very popular spot for young people, especially. As the bus starts the journey, there's a lot of laughter, talking and like yesterday, even a few singing. It's a happy crowd. From what I could see, I think I was older than anyone else on the bus by about 30 years.

But about 20 miles out, the bus passes through Dimona and enters the stretch of road that's especially dangerous, with the "S" curves and the sharp drop offs. As many times as I've made this bus run, I have to say that the Egged drivers are excellent -- they drive very slowly through this part, maybe doing their best to prevent death by heart failure, as much as by road mishap.

Or maybe it's that it's just like pilots. There are old bus drivers, and bold bus drivers, but on the Eilat run, there are no old bold drivers...

So for the half hour that it takes to negotiate these curves, the bus is so silent you could hear a pin drop. Okay -- so maybe everyone is just talked out at that point, but I have a feeling that I'm not the only one holding my breath. (I've also found that slamming my left foot down hard on the foot rest doesn't help a bit, either.) There aren't many atheists on this stretch of road.

Here's the sort of thing we pass through:

There's just no way to describe the total, absolute, desolation of the Arava, which is what this area is called.

It's rocky, completely without water, and although from time to time on the long drive you'll find kibbutzim, they are few and far between. Mostly it looks just like this:

People do go hiking among these "wadis" -- drainage channels -- but not at this time of year. The heat -- yesterday was something over 105 -- the lack of water, the absence of shade make it among the most rugged country on earth.

There's some law, though, or regulation maybe, that bus drivers can't drive more than three hours without taking a break. So going and coming, there are tourist bus places to stop. An oasis, if you will.

Yesterday I just had to laugh -- here's the oasis we took a buy-water and use-the- bathroom break:

Maybe that doesn't strike you as funny as it does me, but this reminds me of a New Yorker cartoon -- there's this scraggly guy crawling on his hands and knees through the desert, and he finally finds a water hole.

And lo! it even has the Golden Arches!


  1. Yocheved Mariam as conservative as you are known to be,one would never thought you believed in "bussing" especially while traveling to the south.

    Please share with us more on your experiences when you safely reached your destination.

  2. Hi Pawmboryid -- good to hear from you again!

    I did the insane thing -- down there and back, in one 22-hour day. For an assignment.

    You will hear more about my assignment -- because it blew my mind! Couldn't believe what I was seeing. BUT... the paper that sent me deserves the scoop.

    And do I "bus"? But of course - I have no car, so Egged is my baby -- not all bad, actually.

    Not owning a car in Israel is pretty smart, for several different reasons, among them the plague of Arab thieves that make their home in these parts....

    More about that some other day...

  3. Yocheved - you mention Arab thieves they must be the only few Arabs in your neck of the sands because the Palistinean Arabs that administer US Taxpayer money in Gaza and the West Bank given by that personality you refer to as the community organizer certainly seem to be honest and would never think of diverting even a cent away from the poor that count on them. Probably that is why the electorate are so prosperous in those areas.

  4. Ah, actually not, although your point is interesting.

    The thieves in question, who help themselves to cars, bicycles and anything else they can carry off, are actually part of the Arab Beduin crowd, not "Palestinians".

    One tribe in particular are the Terebin, who've been active in relieving others of their goods for so long they're actually mentioned in the Talmud.

    The Terebin -- one large group lives just on the outskirts of Omer, a few miles from Beersheba -- earned their livlihood, so to speak, in the very early days by robbing merchant travelers. But there aren't too many merchant travelers anymore, now they tend to prey on local residents.

    There will probably be someone out there who will castigate me for mentioning this inconvenient fact, because to a large extent, the Beduin are friendly to Israel, certainly more so than the 'Palestinian' Arabs. Beyond that, many are very fine people. Most of us have a Beduin friend or two, or someone we admire a great deal. I certainly do.

    Nevertheless, for thousands of years, some tribes of Beduin have operated as professional robbers, and to this day, that's still a factor in Israel's south.

    It's not PC to mention it, but nonetheless, it exists. And because it exists, the need for elaborate anti-theft devices on cars and sky-high insurance rates make owning a car prohibitively expensive for some of us.