Living in Israel, the Israeli Experience


Ovda in the Negev


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Lost in the Translation

By Adam Goloda

When my Israeli in-laws rolled up to the western entrance road to the air force base from Route 12, they saw, as everyone who passes this intersection sees, two signs pointing to the base, one on either side of the road. One sign reads "Ovda" in English; the other "Uvda". The in-laws correctly chose the way to Ovda, though the way to Uvda would have taken them to the same place, our gated community in the sand.

After calling from the phone in their car a couple of times within the base looking for our house (perhaps they got lost in the translation?), the weary travelers from the north, Oded and Hava, finally showed up. Apparently they weren't too exhausted from their day of traveling, as they and their daughter Orly, my wife, went for a walk together soon after they arrived, with me opting to stay home and cook dinner for everyone.

I prepared the family my specialty, fettucine with an eggplant sauce. After sitting down to eat, my mother-in-law mildly insulted the chef by saying the entree needed salt. I let the untactful remark slide, as she brought her specialty, uga tapuach (apple cobbler in my native tongue), and I didn't want to jeopardize my chances of getting my mouth around some of the delicious post-dinner offering.

After our meal, we sat in the living room talking and sharing photographs from our respective locales, while our crazy cat entertained us with some of her goofy antics. My mother-in-law made up for the salt comment by saying that my wildflower photographs from the nearby dry riverbed were "sensitive and artistic". We ended the evening by making travel plans for the following day.

Waking up to an unusual weather phenomenon down here, rain, we thought twice about going to our planned first destination, the Red Canyon, because if it rains enough in the Negev, there can be flash flooding; and we could quickly be transported, like so much flotsam, from the Red Canyon to the Red Sea. Understanding that flotsam floats and people don't, we opted to change the itinerary to include destinations at a higher altitude.

The first stop was Shaharut, just a short drive of several kilometers uphill from the base. The reason that we chose to go to Shaharut, aside from the beautiful drive, is the view once you get there. Beaten by cold wind and rain upon getting out of the car, we weren't dissuaded from making our way to the viewpoint, which turned out to be the top of a precipitous cliff, and seeing a rather dramatic view of the Arava Valley. Having had enough of the precipitousness and precipitation, we moved on.

The rain had stopped by the time we got to Mt. Hizkiyahu. Situated along the Israeli-Egyptian border, Hizkiyahu offers a view into the Arava Valley in Israel and the Moon Valley in Egypt. You can also see a little of the Red Sea from this place, where an Israeli guard sits in the border post on one side of the fence, and an Egyptian guard sits in the border post on the other. The scene is reminiscent of the Loony Tunes short about the wolf and the sheepdog:

"Good morning, Yitzhak."

"Good morning, Ibrahim."

They watch each other all day long.

"Good night, Yitzhak."

"Good night, Ibrahim."

We soon left Yitzhak and Ibrahim to their duties for what would be the highlight of the high-altitude tour, Mt. Yoash. To birdwatchers in-the-know, Mt. Yoash is the best place in the Middle East (and one of the best places in the world) to see the spring migration of birds of prey, but in addition to the hawk-watching opportunities, this site probably has the most magnificent view in all of Israel.

After huffing and puffing up the relatively short, yet steep hike, we were met by a spectacular sight, the entire Gulf of Aqaba with the mountains of Egypt, Israel, Jordan, and even a little of Saudi Arabia descending to this finger of the northern Red Sea. The dark purple, copper-tinged Mt. Shlomo was just to our east backed by the imposing, high, reddish peaks in Jordan, and to our west were more mountaintops including the amusingly named Mt. Kippa (it looks like a mesa wearing a yarmulka).

We took a different route down, made it finally to the car, and drove to Eilat for a nosh.

Eilat is hideous. Las Vegas meets the Middle East. Ugly hotels blocking the view down to the sea, and ugly apartment towers blocking the view up to the mountains. Cheesy stores and sleazy locals, Russian immigrants, and Scandinavian tourists who've taken a shine to the place (I assume because it's a little warmer than Stockholm most of the year).

Given this less than flattering description, I have to admit, there are things to like about Eilat. The city is small, easy to get around, and the mood here is completely different than in the rest of the country. No tension, no Intifada, no bus bombings. Sure, Eilat was (is?) a hiding place for criminal types from the north, and sure, the population is 40% single mothers, but hey, I say kudos to a place where you can sit in a coffee shop and not have anxieties about the place blowing up.

And that's just what we did, sat in a coffee shop, a coffee shop curiously named "Shop Coffee" (because it's part of a shop for housewares, or so we theorized), and ate lunch, without a chance of blowing up, except from eating too much moussaka.

On we went, our bellies full, to a department store called "365" (you'd assume because it's open every day, but it isn't) where my wife wanted to get us hooked up to a satellite television service called "Yes" (the only way to get TV on the base), and her mother wanted to find a cheap bathing suit. Each couple went its separate way, with us eventually finding the Yes man.

In front of two monitors showing MTV (with this kind of fare being offered, how could I wait?), our salesman, Shlomi, walked Orly through the options, including two free months of erotica (suddenly I found myself becoming more interested). I say sales "man", but I use the term loosely, as it became apparent to both Orly and myself that the Yes man was sporting a full cover of foundation makeup. Being offered two months of erotica by a man named Shlomi whose razor stubble was sticking through his cover-up, I was fully prepared to just say "no" to Yes, but Orly signed the contract anyway.

We eventually found Orly's parents, but not before seeing another very curious character. This guy (we determined his sex after closer scrutiny), who was working in the cosmetics department in the front of the store, made Shlomi look like a he-man. He was on the pudgy side in black stretch pants, had long dyed-blonde hair pulled back in a pony tail, and was wearing makeup, but his most prominent female feature was his long press-on nails painted with a kind of greyish-peach polish.

(Okay, so we live sixty kilometers north of the transvestite capital of Israel, but at least there aren't any bus bombings.)

It was time for us to head back north, but this time we took Route 90 up the Arava Valley, with me doing the driving now in and out of intermittent rain showers. The weather provided us with another impressive visual, that of the valley being divided lengthwise by sun and dark clouds, the sun being on the Israel side of the valley and the clouds being on the Jordanian side. The valley floor appeared to glow against the almost-black cloud cover, and a broad half-rainbow formed momentarily.

We continued on , turning left at the large Egyptianesque figures, to Timna.

Timna is an incredible place, reminiscent of areas in the American desert southwest. There weren't any Egyptians in the desert southwest, though, and there were loads of them at Timna starting some 6000 years ago, exploiting the area for copper extracted from primitive mines to make trinkets for the likes of Seti I through Ramses V. Cutaway illustrations showed the mines to be like human ant farms, and with regard to employment, these slave miners seem to have really gotten the shaft.

The area is full of natural wonders, the most prominent and obvious of which are the rock formations like Solomon's Pillars, the Mushroom (everyone takes a picture in front of it, and we were no exception), the Arches, and Spiral Hill. These beautiful places are coupled with ancient rock carvings and the ruins of structures made by the areas human inhabitants.

The most interesting and well preserved ruin is that of the Temple of the Goddess Hathor (the Goddess of mines). Visitors to the temple brought cultic offerings to Hathor, and standing in the spot today, one can almost hear the goddess saying something to the offerer like, "this gazelle skull could really use some salt."

The natural wonders and archeological sites being what they are at Timna, it's sad that the modern keepers of the place have seen fit to offer up a dose of Middle Eastern tourist kitsch in the form of a faux Bedouin bazaar where you can order a pita and a Diet Coke while watching your child ride a donkey or a camel around an artificial lake.

The animals are not very well cared for, and anyone who puts his or her tyke on one of them is, in my humble opinion, contributing to animal abuse. No one seemed to notice for example, that one of the donkeys' saddles had fallen onto the side of the creature causing one of the straps to cut into its back leg; I approached the animal, righted the saddle, and gave the donkey a gentle pat on the head).

Disappointed with our stop at Timna, but at least relieved at the absence of transvestites, we left, passing a sign that read "Bone Voyage," for Uvda, I mean, Ovda.



from the November 2001 Edition of the Jewish Magazine




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