Monday, June 07, 2004

Swimming with the fish

Sunday, June 6, 2004

Yes, we still exist! We've had a rather hectic few months, between work and moving to a new apartment, but thank God, things are working out. We may be exhausted but for the most part it's a positive kind of exhaustion.

Good thing my darling husband's company has renewed their annual weekend in Eilat for employees and their families. A whole weekend, all-inclusive, zero responsibilities, all we had to do was enjoy. We didn't even get in one of our usual hikes or drives off the beaten path. For once we just did the seaside holiday thing. Even my birdwatching was done from a beachchair. I can't remember the last time I had three days of total relaxation like this in a row.

The drive down to Eilat is part of the vacation. The highways this time of year are lined with meadows of cheery ripe sunflowers. Every so often we passed labourers harvesting fields of watermelons, or peach and nectarine orchards bursting with fruit.

As we proceeded south the landscape changed, the roads now bordered by grain fields, some still waving golden ears of wheat, others reduced to stubble after reaping.

Only an hour and ten minutes into the drive we were already passing Be'er Sheva, the "capital of the south", a city perched between scattered fields, sparse woods and barren desert.

Once you've hit the desert, you know that you've finally really reached the south.

That desert just stretches on and on and on through grim looking badlands and acacia dotted wadis, red craters and breezy highlands. Eilat is still nearly three desert hours south of Be'er Sheva. The more you plough on through the ever changing desert the more you start to think of Be'er Sheva as "north". For Eilatis, it certainly is.

Arriving in Eilat after driving half the length of the country - a gruelling four hours - we treated ourselves to an elegant dinner out at a beautiful Thai restaurant we've been meaning to try for years. It's down on Eilat's south beach (yes, south again!), away from the gaudy glitz of the north beach where we were staying. The restaurant belongs to a Thai-themed hotel built entirely of exquisitely carved wooden lodges imported from Thailand. We sat on the veranda of an imposing pagoda, overlooking the bay.

The food was delicious, but the full moon stole the show as it rose above the Edom Mountains in neighbouring Jordan, its silvery light reflected in the glittering waters of the Red Sea. Below us the wind ruffled the palm trees and the air was filled with the soothing lapping of the waves on the nearby beach. Who said kosher restaurants can't have it all?

The weather was as cooperative as the moon, warm and windy during the day with cool breezes at night. Pretty good going for June.

It was so cooperative in fact that for the first time in years I actually felt like hanging out at the beach on a summer's day. I can't remember the last time I actually waded in deep enough to practice my butterfly stroke. The water was cool and so crystal clear I could watch schools of small fish swim alongside me. I'm pretty sure I've never swum with the fishes before.

Unlike previous years in Eilat, this time I noticed how quiet everything seemed. Our late Friday night walk along the canal and seafront was almost serene, with barely a trace of the raucous party scene which three or four years ago made Eilat's north beach a rather uncomfortable weekend destination for religious folks like us. Most of the other people out for a stroll were families with kids or young couples. Was it the collapse of foreign tourism, or stricter enforcement of municipal noise regulations? Maybe the more adventurous types were out on party boats on the bay?

Our own little cruise that morning was pretty sedate, just down the coast to view the coral reefs from a glass bottomed boat. We saw some spectacular fire corals, but much of the reef looked as though it had seen better days. Whether it's due to the tourist boats or the fish farming up the coast I don't know, but there it is.

The fish however did not disappoint. I think all the exotic stars of Eilat tourist brochures were there: schools of zebra fish, lion fish needlefish, sea cucumbers, purple fish, green fish, one fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish (apologies to Dr. Suess). It's kind of like birdwatching, but under water.

All too soon we had to return home, back to the usual routine. Still, my hair smells of salt, and my sandals are full of, well, sand, and there are seawater-soggy clothes drying on my balcony. I'm not usually a seaside person, but somehow I think we'll be planning a few Friday mornings at the beach this summer for a change.

Have a good week.

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