Nearly every place I’ve visited in Israel has left me wanting more. No visit seems quite long enough, and I hate to leave any interesting sites unvisited. As I leave these places, I promise myself that I will return someday. But doubt nags: life is short, there are so many great places to see around the world, and who knows whether I will in fact ever return?
What a relief it was, then, to find someplace that I will be happy to never visit again: Eilat.
Eilat sounds great on paper. If you picture the Negev desert as an inverted triangle, like an arrow pointing down at the Red Sea, Eilat is at the very tip of the arrow. It is Israel’s sole access point to the Red Sea and a transition point to the Sinai. The waters nearby offer some of the best snorkeling on the planet. You can stand on the beach in Eilat and look across the Gulf of Aqaba to see three other countries: Jordan to your immediate East, Egypt to your West, and off in the distance, but just a few miles away, Saudi Arabia.
In reality, Eilat is a seaside development nightmare. I got some hints of this before I came. More than one travel agent compared Eilat to Las Vegas, my least favorite American city. But it’s hard to imagine just how corrupted the edge of the Red Sea – perhaps the single body of water that has the greatest mythical prominence in the minds of most Westerners (with the possible exception of Loch Ness)–actually is until you get there. Huge modern hotels are piled on top of each other, some of them indeed appallingly Vegaslike in their dimensions. Eilat’s status as a tax-free zone has seeded shopping centers just a few steps from the water. They closely resemble the outlet malls that are right off of the exit ramps of American highways. And to top it off, Eilat is the hottest city in Israel. Temperatures were over 100 degrees the entire time we were there, adding significantly to my perception that I had just arrived in Hell (inspiring me to rename the city "Hellat"). Moses, were he alive today, would refuse to part the Red Sea knowing what awaited the Jews at the gateway to the promised land: better to lie in graves in Egypt than to spend your vacation time shopping tax free for Nike sneakers in a strip mall that stands where a beach should be.
I might not have visited Eilat if it weren’t one of the few border crossings that provide access from Israel to Jordan. But while there, I wanted to swim in the Red Sea, so I could make good on my promise to myself that I would swim in each of Israel’s major seas – the Red, the Dead, and the Med – while I’m here. (Yes, I'll swim in the Galilee too, even though it does not rhyme.). So there I stood on the banks of the Red Sea, trying to ignore the Burger King and Sbarro behind me, looking out on the deep blue hue of the sea. Intent on submerging myself in the water, I waded through three feet of floating cigarette butts at the shore to reach the appropriate depth. The water was refreshingly cool (in contrast to the warm bath that the Mediterranean becomes this time of year), but the trash on the shore disgusted me, so I did not stay more than a moment once I’d gotten wet.
I returned to my hotel to enjoy the relative clean of the hotel pool. It was crowded with twentysomething Israelis, smoking and ready to party. Eilat seems to be the place to go if you are young, Israeli, and looking to get lucky (though to judge from the number of men sleeping in the chairs in the hotel lobby the next morning, success is not guaranteed). My kids and I dove into the water, then emerged to inhale a low, transparent cloud of secondhand smoke. At the side of the pool, a young woman was licking the thighs of a man wearing a red bathing suit. I sat there for a moment wondering whether my Hebrew was good enough to thank her for introducing my young children to the concept of fellatio. It was not, so instead I left the pool.
Eilat’s great strength is its coral reefs, tropical fish, and scuba diving. My kids are too young to scuba, but we all wanted to see the reefs. So we bought tickets for a glass bottomed boat to get a glimpse of it. After waiting around for hours in the 105 degree heat for our designated ticket time, we got on the boat and stared out its glass windows into the turquoise water. But instead of offering a breathtaking guide to the wonders of the reef, the tour was a funeral dirge for corals. The guide provided an honest description of the damage to the corals caused by boats, divers, and pollution. The lifeless corals underneath our boat spoke silently to the harm that has been done. There were more than a few colorful fish, and some of the corals were beautiful, but many of them were beige and lifeless. What a depressing sight. The guide encouraged tour participants to take measures like removing plastic bags found in the Red Sea from the water to keep dolphins from mistaking them for jellyfish and eating them. But he left the question of how on earth to save marine life when humans are building shopping malls on the beach unaddressed.
I did manage to find two things to appreciate about Eilat. First, the restaurants are good by Israeli standards, and I could, at least temporarily, ignore my guilt at eating the beautiful creatures we saw on the boat tour for dinner. But curiously, my favorite part of Eilat was the border crossing with Jordan. The Israeli side of the crossing is named after Yitzhak Rabin, the late prime minister who worked hard for peace only to be assassinated by an Israeli who considered him a traitor (like many men of peace, the hatred he aroused among some of his own people matched the admiration bestowed by the outside world). Inside the building there were great photographs of Rabin. You saw him as a young man in his Army uniform, an older man walking through the streets of Israel, and, finally, at ceremonies sealing peace deals with the late King Hussein of Jordan as a young Bill Clinton stood by, looking like the kid who has been unexpectedly invited to eat at the grown-up table. Nothing about the border crossing was at all remarkable, but I loved the pictures. Despite Rabin’s tragic end, they reminded me that progress toward peace is possible when the timing is right and a few committed leaders are willing to work hard and invest some political capital. The relative ease of crossing the border was itself a testament to the relationship between Jordan and Israel that Rabin helped forge. It was easy to cross into Israel from Jordan, in contrast to my experience a few weeks earlier when I returned from a two hour visit to Bethlehem to cross “the barrier” that separates the rest of the West Bank from Jerusalem.
During my last evening in Eilat, on a walk back to the hotel, I passed a construction site. Signs on the walls of the site proudly announced that a new “Ice Palace” was being built there. One set of pictures on the wall showed people inside a huge structure riding a ski lift over a mountain of fake snow. In another set of pictures, penguins were playing. I stood there sweating in the heat of the night and contemplated the irony of importing penguins to one of the hottest places on earth while tropical fish are dying a few feet away as a result of environmental degradation. It was a fitting moment on which to end my visit.