Into the Desert

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June 2010

Twenty minutes outside of Jerusalem, silence takes over. The intensity of the ancient city is left behind. Signs of human habitation dwindle and then disappear altogether. We are now in the West Bank region of Palestine. On the horizon, a shimmer as thin and radiant as a sliver of glass. The Dead Sea.

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A strong wave of nostalgia washes over me. Many years ago I lived in California’s Coachella Valley. I spent my days off taking solitary road trips far out into the desert. I felt exhilarated and disconcerted. In the desert you cannot hide from yourself. ¬†Everything is illuminated.

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Not long after I moved away from the desert, my counselor told me that most people, including herself, are drawn to oceans, because it reminds them of being in the womb. I responded that I’ve never felt comfortable near the ocean. I’m at my best, both physically and emotionally, in the mountains. But I’m also drawn to the desert. I can’t say that I feel an affinity for the desert. It’s more like reverence. It sometimes feels good to be humbled. When I told her this, she smiled, but offered no explanation as to what it might mean.

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We pass over into Israel again. My husband, his friend, and I spend a few hours at Ein Gedi spa. We cover ourselves with mud and let it harden into a shell on our skin. Then we float in the Dead Sea. It leaves an oily sheen on the skin. This must be what makes it shimmer. Instead of sand, the floor is covered with solid salt crystals. I dig out a big chunk to take home with me. I collect some water and salt crystals in a small jelly jar for my ten year old niece. She likes learning about the world. The Dead Sea will probably disappear in her lifetime. At least she will have a tiny part of it.

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As the sun sinks behind the Judean Hills, I stand on a sandy cliff and stare at the white mountains of Jordan. My husband and his friend goof around, making a mock documentary with the video camera. The hot breeze sweeps their voices away. Even in their midst I feel alone. Such is the way of the desert.

The Grotto And The Wall

Palestine3Bethlehem, Palestine – June 2010

As we approach the checkpoint, the taxi driver hands us some brochures. “It’s a Jewish tourist place,” he explains. “I can take you there, if you want.”

My husband and I glance at the brochures. “No, thanks.” I say. “We don’t have time. We’re driving up to Nazareth later.”

The taxi driver nods. “Okay. But keep those. If they ask, say that’s where we’re going or they might not let us through.”

Ours is the only vehicle at the checkpoint. A young female guard leans back in her chair, an assault rifle balanced across her legs. She has long curly blonde hair and a large gap between her front teeth. The other guard is a tall, thin man. He asks the taxi driver a couple of questions. The woman barks a couple of sentences at the young man. She smiles as she does this and leans further back in her chair. He looks from her to the taxi driver and back at her.¬†The taxi driver’s grip tightens on the wheel. His smile is nervous.

Finally, they wave us through. The taxi driver glances in the rearview mirror a couple of times as we drive away. “They were making jokes,” he says. “I think the girl is from Poland. Many students from Eastern Europe come here in the summer.”

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When we get to Manger Square, the taxi driver leaves us with a tour guide. He introduces himself as Joseph. He takes us to the Milk Grotto, and then into the cave chapels underneath the Church of the Nativity. He is soft-spoken and melancholy. From time to time he excuses himself to take quick phone calls. With each phone call he becomes more preoccupied.

“Are you okay?” I ask.

“Yes.” He pauses and looks at me intently. “No, actually. I’m not. My wife is in the hospital in Jordan. She’s about to go into surgery. After our tour, I will go home.”

“I’m sorry. You can’t go to Jordan?”

He shakes his head. “Come, we will go to see Jesus’ birthplace now.”

The line for the grotto stretches across Manger Square. Joseph looks at the line and shakes his head. He motions for us to follow him to the front. I avert my eyes from the people in line. I despise people who cut in line. But maybe since he’s an official guide, we have this privilege. I don’t ask, because I don’t want to know. No one protests as we edge ourselves in among those who are about to descend into the grotto. Most of them are retirees. A big-boned woman with the face of a bulldog and a camera hanging around her neck pushes her way in front of us as we enter the grotto.

The big woman swats at the rest of us. “Wait! Get back! Czekaj!” she shrieks. It’s not enough that we stay out of the photo, she doesn’t want any of us in the manger area. She takes her time snapping some photos and then moves to the spot where Jesus is supposed to have been born. It is marked by a silver Star of Bethlehem. “Czekaj! Czekaj! GET BACK!”

I look at the others. They bow their heads and close their eyes. I glare at the woman, and clamp my mouth shut, because the words that want to come out do not belong in this place. I will not further contaminate the atmosphere for these people who have probably waited all of their lives to see this. I will not disrespect this sacred site.

Joseph frowns. “Are you okay?”

I force a smile. My husband gives my shoulders a quick squeeze. He is well aware of the restraint that I’m showing.

Finally, the woman lowers her camera and stalks out. I hand my husband the camera. I don’t feel like taking photos anymore. I touch my hand to the silver star and then step back.

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(This is the only clear photo that I have of the grotto and, of course, it’s photobombed by Madam Poopy Pants. It’s quite obvious which one she is.)

The taxi driver is waiting for us in Manger Square. He asks if we liked the tour.

“Joseph was super.” I take a deep breath. “Can we see the wall?”

“Oh yes. I can take you there.”

A few minutes later we stand in front of the massive barrier. The only tourists. The street is silent, inviting solemn contemplation.

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