Saturday, May 06, 2006

Israel: A Date in the Desert

Every few weeks, I would meet up with the guys for poker and pizza. Calling it a strategy might be a bit much, so let's just say that my modus operandi was to bet on nearly every hand. My thinking was that if I had any sort of halfway decent hand, I might as well try my luck. Everyone else bet much more conservatively, so my style became something of a running joke. I was dubbed “The Philanthropist” because I gave away so much money. This moniker didn't bother me, though. It had the ring of a Batman villain, and was way better than the other nicknames around the table. Besides, my career poker winnings were pretty respectable.

One night at a house party, I was talking with one of my poker friends, Jackson, and his then-girlfriend (now wife) Galit.

We were having a fine discussion and plenty of laughs when Galit declared to Jackson, “You're right; I think he's perfect!”

This unexpected exclamation was followed by a sales pitch for a young lady named Adi (Galit's cousin) who was apparently made for me. I am generally opposed to set-ups because they always seem to lead to the situation where outside parties take too much of an interest in a fledgling relationship, but I allowed myself to get caught up in the excitement, and I took Adi's number.

A few days later, we met for the first time at a café where we had a nice, long conversation. It was first date talk, so while everything was pleasant and sometimes humorous, the conversation was also somewhat artificial.

Adi was a Jewish woman of Persian descent, and she was quick to throw out a general invitation for me to try her mother's Persian cooking. Then we started talking about things I had done in Israel so far in my tour. Building on the places that I had seen, Adi mentioned other places that she thought were worth visiting – some that were already on my list; some not – and any time I'd show interest in an idea of hers, she'd tell me, “We'll see that together!” Even then, I was wondering if she wasn't getting the cart before the horse.

While the conversation was generally harmless, there was one thing that did irritate me before long. Like me, Adi was keen on traveling, and she had recently spent time in South America – in Colombia, I think. While she was telling me about her trip, she repeatedly talked about her Colombian boyfriend. I know that finding love on the road is something some people seek, and that some people have a knack for, but the fact that she found a boyfriend on a three-week vacation was not a plus in my book. Besides, I think it is bad form in general to talk about an ex while on a date, and especially a first date.

Adi had grown up in Israel so Hebrew was her first language. Her English was very good as well, but it did have its limits. In what was partly a lack of confidence and partly a desire to improve her English skills, Adi was constantly using her pocket translator while we spoke. This was wholly unnecessary.

While I'm no linguist by any stretch, in the course of my travels and my overseas assignments, I have picked up bits of several languages. I can speak Spanish maybe at the level of a two-year-old; Hebrew at the level of a six-month-old; and Urdu and Arabic at the level of a third trimester fetus. English is not my only language of fluency, however. No, friends, I am also a master of English-as-a-Second-Language or ESL. I've spent years decoding heavily accented, and frequently broken, English. I've learned to speak slowly and simplify vocabulary as necessary. My ESL is quite proficient, and when I find myself in the presence of other gringos on, say, an English tour conducted by a local woman in Hanoi, I frequently end up as the interpreter for the group.

When Adi initially started struggling with our conversation, I adapted my speech for her.

A typical conversation would go something like this:

I might say something like, “Mortimer is selfish.”

“What's that mean?” she'd respond.

“That means he only thinks about himself,” I'd explain.

“Oh, I see.”

Then she would pull out her translator and type in selfish in English to see its direct translation in Hebrew.

As I said earlier, this last step was unnecessary, not to mention supremely annoying. When I would reword and simplify things that Adi didn't initially understand, she would then understand them, at least well enough to allow us to continue talking. In my opinion, if you want to have a conversation, even if you want to improve your language skills, it is more important to get the gist of the conversation and to maintain a conversational flow than it is to understand every word. Her heavy reliance on the translator would be appropriate if she were trying to translate a newspaper article or something. In a conversation, though, it was entirely too disruptive. That pocket translator was in use every ten seconds.

Adi was somewhat insecure about her English, and several times she asked me, “Is my English too bad?”

I spent a lot of time trying to convince her it was fine, but she still continued apologizing for it throughout the evening. I just wanted her to feel comfortable enough to ditch the pocket translator.

Adi told me that she hoped to improve her English by spending time with me, and in turn she was keen to help me with my Hebrew. Language learning was not a goal that was high on my list for this relationship, however, and in hindsight, I wish I'd done a better job of conveying this to her.

Despite the pocket translator and the talk of the Colombian boyfriend, I enjoyed that first date, and after six hours of talking we parted ways.

At work the following week, my colleagues Eve and Sandra grilled me about my weekend as they were wont to do. When I told them about Adi, they couldn't have been happier.

“That's great!” they told me. “She sounds perfect for you!”

That's what friends are for, I suppose.

Adi and I spoke a few times during the week, and then on Wednesday we met again. This time we went bowling – my choice.

I would go bowling nearly every week with some of my friends, so the employees at the bowling alley were well acquainted with me. When Adi and I arrived, the waitress (yes, the bowling alley had servers) came up.

“A half liter?” she asked me in reference to the size of beer I usually ordered.

“Yes,” I told her, “and...”

“Don't worry; I won't forget the pickles,” she interrupted with a smile.

At the bowling alley, beer was served with a complimentary dish of pickled vegetables, but half the time you had to ask for it. I always looked forward to the pickles, and I would ask for them every time. During my time in Israel, the bowling alley actually canceled the free pickle program entirely, but due to my history, the manager grandfathered me for the rest of my stay in the country, and I got free pickles until I left.

Adi went for a Diet Coke, and we also split a basket of fries.

While I was the Philanthropist at the poker table, at the bowling alley I was “Twinkle Toes”. My normal bowling group had bestowed this name on me because my bowling style closely resembled that of Fred Flintstone. It was all in fun, though.

Adi had never been bowling before, so she needed a lot of close instruction. As much as I tried to help, though, I was no miracle worker. Almost every ball that she threw unassisted ended up in the gutter. Thankfully, she was a good sport, and we had a fine time talking, eating, and bowling.

We were there for a few hours, and one thing made me especially happy: the pocket translator never made an appearance. Between the bowling and the greasy fries, there was never a good moment to pull out a small electronic device. And much as I suspected, we got along just fine without it.

At one point during the evening, the conversation shifted to our plans for the upcoming weekend. On Saturday, I was planning to go to the Dead Sea with some friends during the day, and that night I had a dinner to attend. Adi had plans of her own, so we agreed to meet the following week to catch a movie.

My trip to the Dead Sea was actually not to see the sea itself, which I had done on previous trips. Rather, I was going to see the Sdom-Tsefa Potash Conveyor in the nearby desert. The STP Conveyor is the longest conveyor belt in the world, transporting minerals from Sdom on the Dead Sea at a rate of 800 tons an hour a distance of 18,150 meters (11.28 miles) to the railroad terminal at Tsefa. The belt gains 850 meters in elevation over the course of its journey.

No doubt this was a geeky road trip, but having caught glimpses on previous trips of the conveyor belt encased in its yellow plastic sleeve, I wanted to go for a closer look.

If Adi had thought my proposed trip was lame, she didn't let on. She did, however, mention that she was afraid of the Dead Sea.

While this might sound strange at first, I've actually heard this from several ladies. In each of these stories, the root of the fear is the same. The woman had gone to the Dead Sea as a young girl with her family. Everyone was having a grand time rubbing on the therapeutic mud and floating in the super salty water – that is until the burning started. The Dead Sea is not just a really salty lake; it's a huge chemical soup. Guidebooks warn against swimming in the Dead Sea if you have a newish cut or even if you've recently shaved. Even if you don't have a cut, though, the water can still irritate sensitive skin, sometimes quite severely. And so, time after time, a loving papa has tossed his little girl into the Dead Sea, and soon thereafter she feels an intense burning below the waist. Then she's left traumatized forevermore.

I told Adi that this wouldn't be an issue on my trip since I wasn't planning on going in the sea. She wasn't able to join me anyway, so it definitely wasn't an issue.

We parted company that night, and over the next two days, my trip got turned on its head. The two people who were supposed to accompany me canceled, but I was quite happy to go alone. Then on Friday night, Adi called. Her plans for Saturday had fallen through, and she wanted to join me.

We had been having a good time together, so I was happy for her to come along.

The next morning, I picked her up around 8:30. She lived north of Tel Aviv in a town with which I wasn't familiar, and I got slightly lost on my first pass. I found her on my second try, though, and we were soon on the highway.

Adi was surprised to see that it was just the two of us because I hadn't told her that the others had canceled. She was relieved, though. I wasn't aware that they'd met, but it turned out that Adi couldn't stand one of the people who was supposed to join us.

Not long after we got started, Adi took an interest in our route. She consulted my road atlas and asked me what my plan was. I told her that I was going to make a big circle, approaching the Dead Sea by the south and returning by the north. She said that she understood, but several times during the drive, she asked me if we were still going the right direction. I had driven the route several times before, and I knew what I was doing. In addition, the highways in Israel are quite well marked, so even if I hadn't driven the route before, I could have easily figured it out. I think Adi felt compelled to second-guess me, though, because it was her country and she felt that this made her the expert by default. The problem with this was that she didn't own a car, and she had never driven to the Dead Sea or anywhere else for that matter. I had been driving the highways of Israel almost every weekend for nearly a year, and I felt completely confident in my ability to get from Point A to B.

When we weren't busy discussing the route, we listened to music and talked about a variety of other things. Of course, the pocket translator was in constant use.

One topic of discussion that I found amusing was Adi's creative use of her sick leave. In Israel there is a saying, “It doesn't pay to be OK,” meaning that if you are healthy and don't use your sick leave, you are wasting a workplace entitlement. Embracing this philosophy, many Israelis burn through their sick leave for frivolous reasons. Adi subscribed to this line of thinking as well, and she proudly told me how she never carried a sick leave balance because she would use it as quickly as it accrued. That's good and well, I suppose, until the day comes when you need the sick leave for a real illness or injury.

The southern approach took a few hours, and about halfway, I hit a very minor snag. As I mentioned earlier, the highways in Israel are pretty easy to navigate. The only problem, and a small one at that, is that many of the highways take you through the heart of the cities and towns that they intersect. So, you'll be driving along at a good clip on the open road, and then five minutes later you'll find yourself slowly negotiating residential neighborhoods, traffic lights, and shops. Once a highway enters a city, it rarely cuts straight through. Rather, it snakes through, forcing you to follow a series of signs to keep on track. In Israel, the system is pretty much the same as the state highway system in the U.S.

As I was driving through one of these cities along our route, I missed one of the signs that showed where the highway was going, and I didn't turn when I should have. Adi had been doubting my ability to navigate since our trip began, so when I mentioned missing the turn, she made it out to be a much bigger problem than it was.

So minor was the mistake, though, that by the time we hit the next red light, I was able to fix it.

“If we turn left at the next intersection that should get us back on track,” I told Adi.

“OK,” she halfheartedly responded.

The next thing I know, she has her head out the window, looking for a second opinion. After some back and forth in Hebrew with the young man driving next to us, she pulled herself back into the car.

“He said to just turn left up here,” she told me.

I didn't even respond. The issue here was not that I didn't want to ask for directions. It wasn't even that I needed her to admit that I had been right. Nope, it was the fact that she told me exactly what I had just told her, while acting like she was telling me something new.

At least once we had the random stranger's input, Adi didn't second-guess me the rest of the way out of town.

After another hour, we were in the vicinity of the Dead Sea.

We passed the chemical factories along the southern coast, and then I veered off into the desert and away from the sea. As I had discussed with Adi before the trip, my intention was to see the STP Conveyor on this outing and not the Dead Sea itself. She had supposedly supported my plan, but when I turned into the desert it seemed that she had reconsidered.

“Why are we turning?” she asked me. “Aren't we going to the Dead Sea? I have my swim suit with me.”

I was beginning to wonder if she listened to and understood anything I said to her or if she just nodded along like a bobble-head doll. Besides her change of heart with regard to the day's plan, I wondered what had happened to her fear of the Dead Sea. Perhaps she thought it would be romantic if we overcame her fear together. Whatever her thinking was, I unfortunately hadn't brought a swim suit with me, and I wasn't interested in buying one.

We continued on to the conveyor belt, and at the most accessible segment there was a sign explaining its greatness. We took some photos and walked around in the sand and sun for a few minutes.

Then we loaded back in the jeep and headed deeper into the desert for a better look at the conveyor. We started on a graded dirt road, but it quickly deteriorated until we were basically off-roading on a marked path. As we were driving up and down some very steep canyons, the scenes of parched earth, marbled rock, shifting sands, and the odd gnarled tree were amazing. For the first time that day, I turned the radio off, and Adi and I enjoyed the desert and its stark silence.

As tranquil as everything was, though, I wasn't fully at ease. Some portions of our drive had been unnervingly steep. Others had been a bit too close to long drops. In short, the trail was a bit daunting in places, and the notion of turning around and leaving by the same way we had entered wasn't something that appealed to me. Adi was a real trouper, though. She expressed no concern whatsoever for our safety and seemed to be genuinely enjoying herself.

After about half an hour of driving through the wilds, we stopped for lunch. Overlooking a minor canyon, Adi and I left the jeep and had some sandwiches in a boulder field. There wasn't another person for miles; everything was still, and the sun was beating down relentlessly. I felt like a part of the desert, and that moment was easily my favorite of the day.

Forty-five minutes later, we continued on our way. As long as we kept to the path, I assumed that we'd reach a major road, and soon enough we did. I was thankful that I hadn't been forced to backtrack.

As we headed north on the highway, we made one more stop – this time to the lookout point atop Mt. Sedom. This vantage point afforded us great views of the Dead Sea and its southern evaporation pools, not to mention Jordan across the water.

We took a few more photos, and then began the journey homeward.

The desert had had a calming effect on me, and I was able to cast aside my annoyances from the morning. As we started driving, though, it didn't take Adi long to resurrect them.

We hadn't gone five minutes before she questioned the route again.

“I don't remember going this way before,” she told me. “Are you sure this is the right way?”

So, I explained again that we were making a big circle, and as such the scenery wouldn't be the same as it had been in the morning.

She accepted my explanation (or so I thought), but then we had the same discussion twenty minutes later.

Sprinkle in some more pocket translator action, and I was fit to be tied.

By the time I dropped Adi off at her apartment, I was well and truly ready for our date to be over.

Just before she got out of the car, I kissed her good-bye.

“It's too bad you don't have time to come inside,” she flirted, while at the same time aware that I had to get to my dinner appointment.

“Yeah – you, me, and the translator...” I thought to myself, “sounds like a blast.”

Then with all the sincerity I could muster, I did my best to bow out gracefully.

Our relationship had turned a corner. The annoyances now outweighed the joys for me, and after mulling things over the rest of the weekend, I decided it was time to move on.

On Monday morning, I called Adi to tell her the news.

“Did you already buy the movie tickets?” I asked her.

“No,” she told me. “I'll get them later today.”

“I won't need one,” I replied. “I don't think it's working out between us.”

“Really?” she answered. “I thought things were going great, but if that's how you feel...”

“Yes, that's how I feel.”

And like that it was over.

We said our good-byes and wished each other well, and I was feeling like a bit of a cad. Adi remedied me of this, however, as she piped in with the last word.

“I almost forgot,” she told me, “thanks for your help with my English!”

And then she hung up.

I had to tip my hat to her for managing to annoy me even as we were breaking up. She left me with no doubt that I had done the right thing.

Later, when Eve and Sandra heard the news, they couldn't have been happier. “That's great!” they told me. “She was all wrong for you. We never liked her.”

You've gotta love the peanut gallery.


Ollie and Floyd said...

Great story! Let me grab my pocket translator so I can tell you in Hebrew that I really liked that post. :)

Anonymous said...

Did you guys go the same way that you took Jaime and me? If so, I definitely remember some of those drop offs and steep inclines.


Suzann said...

I just spent 3 months in Jerusalem and have to adventures weren't anywhere near as "off road" as yours. Loved the story.

Steve Bennett said...

Great stuff Chris, that trip through the desert sounds pretty cool. I saw a mine conveyor belt recently here in North Qld, no idea how long it was though... I'm inspired now to find out! said...

“Yeah – you, me, and the translator...” “sounds like a blast.”
that was funny- Radhika