By Ken Hegan for The National Post
I’m fixing my flawed life by following self-help gurus, spas, and treatments in the world’s most gorgeous, inspiring locations. This week: The Dead Sea!
People say we’ll never have peace in the Middle East.
But now that I’ve been to Israel, I know only one thing in life is impossible — and that’s trying to sleep off a hangover in a Scottish hotel by the Sea of Galilee. It just can’t be done.
Yes, there is a Scottish hotel in Israel, but more on that later.
First, you should know that Israel saved me from a nightmare. I’d foolishly moved into a basement with a woman I’d briefly dated.
She had cold, assassin eyes. On our first date, she said she wanted to be pregnant within three months. Then she borrowed 50 bucks. After a few awkward dates, we quickly agreed to be “friends.”
I needed accommodations. She had a spare room and offered me discounted rent. I’d get my $50 back, so I moved in. Seconds later, we attacked each other’s zippers. Terrible idea. She was stormier than the North Atlantic. One day I think I made her mad by breathing. I felt like Israel before they walled off the West Bank. I didn’t dare enter parts of that basement for fear of gunshots or suicide bombing.
Then she bluntly said we were platonic again.
“No problem,” I said. Then she sent me a scathing email from the next room that ordered me to GET OUT.
As I packed my things, I received an invite from Israel’s tourism office. Would I like to visit on a Bloggers-Only Press Trip? I didn’t have a blog at the time, so naturally I replied, “Oh God, yes.”
Now, if you take a Bloggers-Only trip to the desert during a harsh Canadian winter, know this:
1. If anyone asks to read your blog that doesn’t exist, just give them any made-up URL. If they say, “Um, your site won’t open,” say, “Grrr, I’m so going to fire my webmaster when I’m back. Hey, what’s that?” then point at whatever.
2. Bloggers don’t make money. But people will give you gallons of free alcohol. Downside: Israel’s national alcohol is Arak, an aniseed-flavoured liquor that tastes like rotting licorice. It’s nicknamed the “milk of lions,” probably because you feel mauled when you drink it. Horrible, beautiful stuff.
3. When you travel to Israel for the first time, you finally get to see what all the fuss is about. All the love, fear, loyalty and venom of the world’s only Jewish-majority state.
I met my five new travel buddies at JFK airport. These blogger-journalists — and this is the crazy part — all have actual blogs. They were young, fun, liked to drink, and we got along like a peace treaty on fire.
Quick Israel facts:
Formed in 1948, it’s approximately the size of New Jersey. Population: 7.59 million. Capital: Jerusalem. Jews: 76.2%; Arabs 19.5%.
When seen from outer space (or, say, if you look at a map), Israel looks like the down arrow in an elevator. And like the starving actor glaring at the live chicken in the film Withnail and I, Israel is surrounded by countries that are thinking, “How can we make it die?”
That reality struck me at Tel Aviv’s airport. The customs officer said I could decide if she stamped my passport or not. I didn’t understand. But my friend explained that some Arab/Muslim countries like Syria and Oman might bar you if you recently visited Israel.
This annoyed me, so I got the stamp. Suck it, Syria.
Our driver, Uri, and guide Gideon, were ex-Israeli military officers. Their taut arms looked like they’d snapped necks in foreign jungles. They spoke a zillion dialects, I figured they were Mossad, and when they strolled off during lunches, I assumed they were strangling another enemy of Israel.
They escorted us for the whole six days. Highlights included:
z Haifa city, where we toured the world centre and gardens of the Baha’i Faith. This religion accepts people of all faiths and backgrounds, so it’s too nice to be a major religious player.
z Wine and chocolate pairings at Tishbi winery. Did you even know Israel made wine? Neither did I. But owner Jonathan Tishbi is justifiably proud. His organic syrah is so delicious, it’s served in bars in Gramercy Park, New York City.
z Tel Aviv beaches are surfing heaven. We also toured Tel Aviv’s Dan Hotel where the manager showed us a toilet used by Madonna.
z A raucous Jerusalem bar crawl, a.k.a. the Slurring Blogger Gong Show. Forget the rocking and wailing at the Western Wall, because Jerusalem’s nightlife is OUT OF CONTROL … and that was on a Sunday. Recommended: Mia Bar had more than 100 whiskies and 60 beers, HaKatze on Shoshan Street had live bluegrass, and at Bell Wood Bar, three young Palestinian women danced on the bar. They were probably plants to entertain us Important Bloggers, but we cheered them on anyway.
The next morning, we were all horribly hungover. As Uri drove us to the Sea of Galilee, the van bouncing along the highway, it felt like Jesus had turned all the wine in my brain into five puffy loaves and two angry, shouting fish. I badly needed a nap.
To my surprise, in the town of Tiberias, we checked into a Scottish themed hotel called The Scots Hotel. The Church of Scotland owns it and their Ceilidh Bar has 80 types of whisky. You only know you’re in Israel by the palm trees out front, plus the bellhops all have guns strapped to their kilts. It’s true.
Now, if you’re the spawn of penny-pinching Scottish kin like me, you’re probably thinking, “Och away wi’ yi! A Scottish hotel in Israel must be tha’ stingiest hotel on th’ planet. I bet tha’ mints on tha’ pillows are made o’ Dead Sea mud tha’ they bake into tasty wee rectangles.”
You may be right. I was too tired to tell. I dragged myself to my suite. Fell like timber onto the bed. But just as I was dropping into a coma, I was jolted awake by a wretched caterwauling. Out the window, some wannabe clansman (I dubbed him “MacLoud”) was strangling a bag of cats by the gazebo, a.k.a. playing bagpipes.
Ach, the pipes are just the worst. I tried drowning them out with earplugs, pillows, running water. Nothing worked. I didn’t sleep that afternoon and not much that night.
The next day was our last. So Uri drove us to the lowest place on Earth. The Dead Sea is hidden 419 metres below sea level in the world’s deepest valley. It’s not even a sea … it’s a dying, evaporating lake. Its high saline content (33% salt) cures so many ailments, it’d probably bring your iPod battery (or Steve Jobs) back to life.
My joints were thrashed from surgeries and banging around in the van. My brain cells were shrieking a sleep-deprived playback of bagpipe squawks. So I covered myself in the black mud and walked into the lake up to my knees. Then I followed Gideon’s advice … I turned to face Mineral Beach, then slowly fell backwards onto the water. The lake suspended me! It was so viscous, I literally floated on the surface.
Suddenly, all pain faded away. Joints, back, rolling two-day hangover. All cured!
I grinned, perfectly at peace, my body and mind healed. I was having the vacation of a lifetime. As the sun warmed my alabaster flesh, I thought back to My Year of Going Hobo. I thought about the angry woman I’d lived with in that grungy, cat-furry basement. Her place was just the latest in a long line of chesterfields, basements and car seats I’d slept on since my marriage ended 12 months before.
At that moment, as I floated in paradise, I looked over to the shore of Jordan. A country where political parties compete to see who can hate Israel more than the other. The lessons I learned: Having a safe home to call your own is pretty damn essential, and you can go far in life these days — and nearly walk on water — if you just pretend you’re a blogger.
— Ken Hegan
• Follow Ken on Twitter @KenHegan.
• Ken was a guest of the Israel Ministry of Tourism. He drank red wine on El Al Airlines, which he paired with a preposterous action film about a hitman who gets chased by hitmen.