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Saturday, November 29, 2014

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Feeling alive in the Dead Sea

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Tourists enjoy a layer of thick mud before taking a dip in the Dead Sea.

I am floating, arms and legs suspended, in a lake of salt. A layer of thick black mud is caked on my skin, melting away in what feels like warm bath water. I am surrounded by buoyant tourists, most of whom are also wearing masks and sleeves of clay. We are relaxing in nature’s spa, under the heat lamp of the Israeli sun.

The Dead Sea, rich in chloride salts of magnesium, sodium, potassium and bromine, is the lowest point on earth in any land mass – 423 metres below sea level. Since the quantity of water that evaporates from the lake (it’s not really a sea) is greater than that which flows in, it has the highest concentration of salt in the world – almost nine times more salt than the ocean. Its high density prevents me from sinking, no matter how hard I try.

This vast stretch of water on the edge of the Judean Desert boasts several beaches and large tourism centres that offer pampering services to guests, at a cost. Although sparsely populated and serenely quiet in the modern day, the area is believed to have been home to the biblical cities of Sodom, Gomorrah, Adman, Zebouin and Zoar.

The sea is considered “dead” because its extreme salinity prevents fish and aquatic plants from living in it. That same salt, on the other hand, offers relief to visitors suffering from a variety of ailments such as psoriasis, eczema, sinusitis and osteoarthritis. Famous for its healing powers, the Dead Sea has been dubbed “the lowest health spa in the world.” The composition of the water’s salts and minerals, along with the skin-soothing mud that rests on its floor, make this lake especially therapeutic.

To maximize our experience, my friends and I slather each other with the viscous mud that has been conveniently set aside for our organized group of young professionals. We learn that the tar-like substance relieves tensions of mind and muscle, accelerates natural exfoliation and cleanses toxins from pores. The female participants are even more excited to hear that massaging the mud on areas with cellulite stimulates blood circulation and, in turn, flattens out the cottage-cheese bumps. We let the mud harden for about 30 minutes in order to reap its full benefits.

Hundreds of bikini- and Speedo-clad tourists populate the beach on this August afternoon, lounging on the sand and resting their limbs in the water. With no effort required to stay afloat, some even read a newspaper or magazine. Our group is now scattered, but my friends and I decide to wade into the lake and assume our reclining positions. While we are cautious enough to avoid salt-to-face contact, other Dead Sea virgins are not. We witness several victims rushing to shore to soothe their burning eyeballs and rinse out their mouths.

Before visiting the Dead Sea, our tour guide had warned the women on my trip not to shave – stubble is preferable to salt stinging freshly nicked legs, he explained. We took his advice, and after being in the water, are thankful we sacrificed beauty for pleasure. We were not warned, unfortunately, that wearing an old bathing suit is a smart idea; the water discolours most fabrics.

Much like when you’re in a bathtub for too long, your body tells you it’s time to get out of the lake. I notice it doesn’t take long to dry off in the sun, but I soon realize my floating adventure has left its mark on my skin. While the water has evaporated, the salt has not, and I am suddenly my own sea salt factory. Luckily, outdoor showers are available beach-side, and I take full advantage of the opportunity. For those who prefer to cleanse in chlorine, swimming pools are also available.

My Dead Sea visit would not be complete without a stop at one of the gift shops. I’m on a mission to buy some of the lotion created by a company called AHAVA, which means love in Hebrew. Dead Sea Laboratories, the only cosmetics enterprise situated on the shores of the Dead Sea, derives its raw minerals directly from this natural source for AHAVA’s line of beauty, skin care and treatment products.

All AHAVA products contain a mineral skin osmoter – a unique active complex made of a high concentration of Dead Sea minerals, shea butter, rose hip oil, fruit acids and natural amino acids. This combination of organic ingredients helps nourish and retain the skin’s moisture, resulting in a fresher, healthier and more youthful appearance. I can’t wait to apply the cream to my previously mud-masked body, which is already revitalized.

Next stop is Masada, the site of the ancient mountain fortress of Herod the Great. With an option to climb the tedious trails leading to the top or to sit back and absorb the phenomenal views from inside a cable car, our group chooses the latter. We are, after all, freshly pampered.

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