March 10th 2010 Rayna and I went on our first date. It was a magical night and the beginning of our relationship (although both of us were excited about it from the moment we met). Well that was one year ago, so Rayna and I decided to celebrate our anniversary together in style.
We planned out trip with the help of one of the wonderful administrators at HUC. Nancy knows this country very well, and recommended places for us to stay and things to see. She is very sweet and extremely helpful. It is thanks to her we had such a wonderful anniversary place to stay.
Rayna put a lot of though into this weekend, and we came to the conclusion to head South where it is warmer and sunnier at this late winter date. There are a plethora of incredible places to go and things to see in this tiny country, and fear not dear reader, I will take you there as well, but this time we went South to Mahktesh Ramon, the "Grand Canyon" of Israel. (Note the consistent occurrence of comparisons to The States in Israeli life, no coincidence here, we are closely tied)
The plan developed that we should rent a car, and depart as early Thursday as we wanted, with a nice no rush attitude we commenced to sleep in a bit, but the excitement was too much so we were up and renting the car by 9. Thrifty Car Rental is between our apartment and HUC, about 5 minutes walking. So we got ready to walk there and realized it was POURING outside. And cold. Oh no! it looked like our weekend might get rained upon and I have to say it put us off a bit.
But being the intrepid North Westerners that we are we suited up and sallied forth.
I rented the car because non-tourists (read Israelis) have to pay at 17% tax on this sort of thing. Crazy! It took a while to get it all going, then I had to get a ride to the lot to pick up the car, which turns out to be a 5 minute walk away... yeesh. The nice man at the rental lot hooked us up though. I got a brand new Ford Fiesta with 9 km on it. Take care of her was all he said. New car smell and everything... well not when we were done with her.
I picked Rayna and all our gear up, and lo we went forth on the streets of Jerusalem and beyond. Driving here is just like driving in Boston. The drivers are crazy, the streets are poorly marked, and you have to be aggressive.
Roughly two hours later, we had cleared the rain, but the clouds and wind were still at it. We stopped alongside the road after spotting some sweet looking ruins and a sign for a amphitheater. Pulling in we discovered a site with amazing ruins from the Hellenistic period when Greek lifestyle was influencing the region, and the locals were living in comparable peace. Next to this amphitheater complex was the ruin of a Crusader church. A striking difference in style, need, purpose, and peacefulness, but naturally following some of the same architectural trends.
We stopped at the tomb of Ben and Paula Gurion which is located at Ben Gurion University of the Negev. It is a beautiful site, with a winding walk through a stone sided wadi (riverbed, but this is merely the image here, no water flows through this area) with places to stop and sit, talk, think, learn, and meditate. The end of the walk is a vista with the two tombs looking out into a wide and deep canyon. It was peaceful there, and gave us both a moment to pause and appreciate where we were.
We proceeded down to Mitzpe Ramon, the town of Ramon, positioned on the lip of the great canyon/crater... Mahktesh as they call it here. Which means a drainage canyon that drains from one source - itself. It is a dry arid place, filled with the beauty you find all over the South West of the US. This place has unusual formation because of the volcanic activity that strained and bent the strata while it formed. We walked along the rim, the wind whipping us and the few other people braving the weather. The clouds cast long shadows on the floor of the canyon below, and the sun lowering in the sky tinging everything orange, red, and pink.
Before we became too chilled, or it got dark, we headed back North out of town 1/2 hour to Carme Avdat, the vineyard we were to stay at that night. In the bliss of being together, and traveling together, we'd planned much of our weekend as far as activities and destinations went, but somehow managed to skip right over dinner on the night of our anniversary!
Once we arrived at Carme Avdat it became quite obvious that there would be no dining there, but that was not what was on our mind. The rugged simplistic beauty of the landscape is accentuated by the casual and simple sweetness which which Carme Avdat embraces the land. The drive in passes through the vines, and winds up the valley into the compound of staff quarters, sales tent, production facilities, farming equipment, offices, and above on the hillside the guest cabins. Each cabin sits alone, and is tucked into the hillside and protected by careful landscaping.
Our cabin was the farthest out, peacefully sitting alone in this approaching windy nightfall.
Inside the floor is the first largest shock... it is loose washed riverstone/gravel, at lest 3" deep, and sitting on who knows what! I have never seen an interior finish floor of loose stone like this before, and it is really fun and funky. Charming too, but it raised some immediate maintainence questions for me, like how is it cleaned? What happens to all the crumbs that fall on the floor? I'll have to find out some day.
It was a beautiful cabin in all, very peaceful and fun. Luckily there was a town a 5 min. north where we were able to purchase ingredients for dinner, and we came home and cooked up a feast to share, with a really nice bottle of Tishbi wine. Hopefully we'll get up to the TIshbi vineyard later this year to try more of their appellations.
Breakfast was probably the highlight of the stay though. A cooler full of food was delivered to our porch at 8 AM and the spread was magnificent. Fresh cheese, juices, bread, spreads, salads, cereals, milk, and like I said, espresso made in the cabin.
We loaded back up the rental and decided to taste the rest of the wines from Carme Avdat. A small bottle of their 2008 Merlot comes with the room, however we wanted to try more. We ended up with a bottle of קמד, an appellation specific to Carme Avdat as far as I know.
From Carme Avdat we head south into the crater proper for a couple of hikes. First to the "Carpentry" where volcanic action has created prismatic shaped stones uplifting into the basin and exposed from the erosion. These volcanic rocks are much harder than the surrounding soil and limestone so they are now visible in a large hill. It is very cool how the sides and ends of the rocks form geometric patterns.
Next we hiked in a "wadi" or dry river bed. Much like the drainage basins in the South West of the states these can flood very quickly so we made sure there was zero chance of rain. The wadi has exposed incredibly colored sedimentary layers where the water has carved out a wall in the desert. Pinks, reds, blues, greens, the whole rainbow. It was a very memorable hike and we took time to climb on the rocks and remember that we were there celebrating a year together. It felt momentous and wonderful.
From there we continued south out of the canyon through the negev. It is a dry, sparse, beautiful terrain. Rolling hills, sharp cliffs, deep and box canyons everywhere all exciting an idea of exploration. Mystery behind every curving terrain, begging the question, what lies beyond. Perhaps a cache of unknown documents, preserved in this dry desert climate explaining the prevalent mystery being surrounded by this much history elicits.
We drove South then East, heading towards the border with Jordan. When we arrived at Kibbutz Lotan the sun was nearing the horizon. We checked in, dropped our bags off in our room and went out to walk around. Rayna had been to Lotan a few weeks before with her school and wanted to take me there ever since. I know why now.
Lotan is an Eco Kibbutz located in a part of the desert that no one wants. It is an oven in the summer and an oven on low in the winter. It never rains. It is starkly beautiful, with cliffs to the West, Jordan to the East, the Dead Sea to the North, and surrounded by desert.
I was told this site was chosen for political sustainability. Since no one ever wanted this land it has never been contested. Since then their sustainability scope has expanded to include the built environment, water resources, energy, waste, and agriculture.
The desert conditions make building there very tricky. Keeping cool without burring through crazy amounts of energy is very difficult. The mean radiant temperature inside there is 31º C in the summer. That means that in complete shade, with a breeze, it's HOT. I met and spoke at length with Alex, the most knowledgable person I have met in Israel regarding sustainable architecture. He seems to be in charge of their building program and is responsible for some amazing housing "igloos" made of geodesic framework and straw bale. They have small windows with exterior blinds, and interior reflectors and insulators for the heat of the day.
Despite all the passive systems they have enacted these spaces still require some air conditioning. It is a valiant attempt and wonderful example of sustainable solutions. Here's to the future and hoping that the innovations of Lotan can help teach other people all over. I forgot to mention to Alex the wonderful work of Nader Kalili at the Cal Earth Institute in the scorching desert of southern California. I am guessing he's already heard of him.
After a wonderful shabbat evening and a great night's sleep at Lotan we woke up and explored the campus once more, examining all the architecture and amazing landscaping. Lotan is a birders paradise too. So many amazing chirps, whistles and calls, and beautiful flitting shapes.
After a great breakfast and last look around we went back up the desert to Maktash Ramon for our last hike. This time we drove off the main road to a Bedouin encampment for some of their famous tea. From there it was a short drive to a hike into the Eastern end of the canyon. We hiked up to a large hill that gives a 360º panoramic view of the walls and depths of this natural wonder. The view was epic. Clouds rolling above, thinly veiling the strong desert sun. This wispy light gave extra texture and dimension to a already staggering and dimension defying landscape.
The drive home to Jerusalem offered one more adventure. At one point on the main highway we made a wrong turn at a roundabout. There were few signs and nothing to indicate a wrong or right turn. Before we knew it we had crossed from the Western third of the country to the far Eastern edge. That is how small this country is, and how desert driving can be. No points of reference, no landmarks, nothing even to indicate how fast or how far you are going. By the time we could figure out where we were the sun was beginning to set. Se we decided to accept our fate and take the new route being offered to us, instead of getting back on our planned route. This would take us down to the Dead Sea, and then North along her Western shore up into the West Bank, then back West to Jerusalem.
And what a beautiful mistake it was. The sun lit the mountains of Jordan with an amber intensity, highlighting the pale blue of the salty waters below. We descended rapidly from the desert lower into the basin of the sea. As we drove lower the limb of the setting sun disappeared and we dropped into the shadow of the canyon. Driving north we were treated to the darkening reds of the mountains to our right, and the silhouetted of the mountains and Massada to our left.
Night fell and we saw the lights of Jericho to the North. Driving back West into Jerusalem we passed through the security checkpoints with no more than a glance. We dropped back into know territory easily, following the signs to the Center.
In all it was a beautiful weekend, one I will never forget.
Thanks for reading and see you again soon!