It's release day! Even if you're a dyed-in-the-wool fiction fan, I really think you'll like this book. Step off the well-worn tourist path with me, hear a few stories, and meet some of the people and places that make Israel so special.
Warning - this is not your average travel book! Here's a sample chapter to give you an idea. And if you like what you read, please pass it on! It's a HUGE help. Word of mouth goes a long way.
Also, I have a few live interviews coming up over the next few days on radio waves across America. Click HERE for dates, times, and regions.
Peace on the journey!
Kerouac, Starlight, and a Curly Haired Dog
After a long day the sun sinks into the Negev on tired wings. Nothing comes easy in the desert. . . .
The beach city of Eilat hangs on the very southern tip of Israel like a drop of dew about to fall into the Red Sea. Egypt stretches to the west and Jordan to the east. South, across the water, the mountains of Saudi Arabia loom. The town itself is a modern place, but like everything in this part of the world, its foundations rest on hard-packed layers of history. Moses wandered here, for instance. In the Timna Valley just a few miles to the north, King Solomon mined for copper. The Queen of Sheba traveled through this area on her biblical journey to Jerusalem.
With access to both the Red Sea and the major trade routes of old, Egyptians, Nebateans, Romans, and others all have deep history here. Eilat is also Israel’s jumping-off point for visiting the mind-boggling ruins of Petra across the border in Jordan. The small group I was with booked themselves a tour to do just that, and I drove them down, planning a couple of stops along the way to see some other ruins.
It’s only a one-hour flight to Eilat from Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, but by car it’s a long, hot grind through the desert. We left Jerusalem early and headed south. The day shone clear and beautiful. Have you ever seen the desert? Well, my friend, that is desert. A hard, lifeless place. We drove hours of empty highway. Once we saw a young Bedouin boy herding goats on a hillside. Miles later, a couple of Israeli tanks out on some military exercise kicked up a tall pillar of dust. An hour after that we passed two men on camels. One waved; the other never even looked our way.
The highway rolled on.
City lights shone along the Red Sea waterfront, and the sun died completely as we—hot, hungry, and roadweary—finally pulled into Eilat. I’d booked our overnight at the Sunset Motel, a place that sounded more like Route 66 than Israel. I’d never been there, but after circling several blocks—GPS can be dicey—we finally found it. A concrete and plaster wall with a heavy wooden door hid the building from the street. I went in to make sure everything was cool while the others grabbed bags and belongings from the van.
Now, if you’re ever in Eilat and have some money in your pocket and want a nice hotel experience, there are plenty of great places, believe me. Try something down by the water—it’s beautiful there. But, if you’re on a serious budget and don’t mind rough-around-the-edges and a good dose of adventure off the tourist path, then the Sunset’s your place. The only word I can think to describe it is trippy. Think David Lynch meets Jack Kerouac, and then toss in a little Indiana Jones for flavor. Stepping into the courtyard, I found myself in another world, far removed from the dusty, desert-town street. Tree branches stretched overhead. Orange, purple, green, and blue lights splashed everywhere. The sculpted, cavelike walls had shapes molded over them—tree roots, branches, and tribal stone carvings. Low, built-in couches and tables bordered the wide patio with hookahs lining a shelf behind them. A big, curly haired dog cracked one eye open at me from its place on a wicker chair. Water dripped. I half expected to hear the theme song from Twin Peaks waft out from somewhere.
To my left, thick, varnished beams held up a shade structure. Beneath it, a young African girl manned a bar. She just stood there with arms crossed, leaning against a post, watching me. Her dress hung loosely from the straps over her thin shoulders. I smiled at her and said hello. She offered a bored blink and said nothing. I tried again, telling her I’d emailed ahead for a reservation. She said something in Hebrew. I asked her if she spoke English. She sighed and gave a shout toward the back. A male growl replied.
Enter Avi—owner, designer, and builder of the Sunset. He emerged a bit disheveled, hair askew, sandals, baggy pants, and an old tank top. He barked at the girl and, with a wave, shooed her scurrying away. Then he turned to me.
“What?” he snapped.
“Hi, I booked a reservation online—”
“I don’t know anything about it,” he interrupted, turning as if to head back into the shadows.
All I could think about at that moment were my tired travelers outside. “No, I’m telling you I booked online. I paid for four rooms on the website. My group is outside with our bags.”
Looking doubtful, he weighed the situation. He shouted, and the African girl came back. He said something in Hebrew. The girl sighed, gave me a look as if I’d insulted her family, then disappeared again. He sighed and shook his head. You’d have thought I’d asked him to cure the common cold or help me move.
“She’ll get some rooms ready.” He held out his hand. “Cash or credit card?”
“Like I told you, I paid online. The rooms are already paid for.”
He turned the volume up from three to eight. “And I told you! Cash or credit card!”
We squared off. “Look, man. I paid for four rooms. I don’t know what to tell you.”
Verbal sparring went on for quite a while, but we eventually worked it out.
Now, Avi—whom you just met—is what you’d call . . . let’s just say colorful. The poor guy gets a pretty bad rap in the hotel reviews. True, he yells a lot, especially if you want him to get out of bed in the morning to unlock the gate and let you out. (This request is apparently unacceptable.) But spend a little time with the guy, ask him about his motel, and he’ll warm up. He loves the place. You get the feeling it’s the guests he’s not crazy about. I don’t blame him. People can be a trial sometimes. Truth be told, I’d probably feel the same. Keep an open mind. He’s an alright guy.
Bags unloaded, rooms settled and arranged, we climbed back into the van and headed for the waterfront lights and food. The city vibrated with life; it was a calliope of color. We were all a little falafel and shawarma-ed out, so the aroma of grilling meat coming from the Burger Ranch had us circling like sharks drawn to blood. Burger Ranch—the only place I’ve ever been where you can order a ham-burger the size of a pizza. Brilliant. Let me tell you, when you’re starving, the Sliceburger ranks right up there with the PillCam, USB drives, and Waze GPS. Never underestimate the genius of the Israelis.
Dance clubs, restaurants, and a waterfront midway—nighttime
Eilat throbs with noise and energy, a playground for the young and young at heart. Out past the promenade the noise quieted to a dull, rhythmic thump as I stood in the dark, knee-deep in the Red Sea. Ships lay at anchor on the calm water. Across the way, the lights of Lawrence of Arabia’s Aqaba winked from just over the Jordanian border. I dialed home on my cell. It felt like heaven to hear my wife’s voice.
Later, back at the Sunset, no one felt ready to turn in. So we gathered some chairs and camped awhile beneath the patio lanterns, talking and letting the day slip away at its own pace. In a far corner, Avi sat on a worn couch chain-smoking and petting the curly haired dog. His cigarette glowed in the dark, faded, then glowed again. On a whim, I asked him to join us. I figured he’d either decline or ignore me altogether. Glow . . . fade . . . glow. At length he shrugged, lit a fresh one with the tip of his last, eased his lanky frame up, and dragged a chair over. The dog followed lazily and then sank to the concrete beside him.
Conversation, slow out of the station, gradually picked up steam, and Avi mellowed. We asked him about his motel, then about his life and history. He humored us, smoking and walking his mind back through the desert and the decades, his words laced with the struggles and joys of carving out a life in that hard land. I knew he still held his cards close to his vest—there were things he wouldn’t give up to outsiders—but we took what he offered. After all, this was history unwritten, stuff you couldn’t Google or watch on a PBS documentary. He talked through at least half a pack, and we lost track of time. At last, after the moon dropped beneath the patio wall, Avi stubbed out his last butt, saluted a goodnight, and headed for his room. The curly haired dog followed close on his heels.
The group left early the next morning for their Petra excursion. I found myself with a free day. I gassed up the van, grabbed some truck-stop coffee and chocolate croissants—the best in the world (the best croissants, not coffee)—and headed south along the western edge of the Red Sea. After a few miles I pulled a U-turn close to the Egyptian border and cruised the beaches looking for a likely spot to pass the day. Resorts, bars, and dive shops lined nearly every foot of the water’s edge.
The Red Sea’s crystal-clear water and abundant sea life is a diver’s paradise and draws scuba enthusiasts from around the world, but I wasn’t in a diving frame of mind. After days and days of travel, I just wanted my own little piece of beach and some rest. I found a parking lot with some vacant spaces and a sign promising beach access through the thatched-roof pub. The girl at the bar looked me up and down as though I had three eyes and had just parked my spaceship outside. But when I bought a couple bottles of water and gave her a good tip, I guess she decided I was okay. She only spoke Hebrew but somehow understood my question and pointed the way to the beach. Once out on the sand, I understood her surprised reaction to my presence. This was no American hangout. Pure Israeli all the way. My baggy board shorts were all by their lonesome in a sea of speedos. I found an empty beach chair, downed half my water, and leaned back for a nap. A group of elderly guys—you guessed it: speedos and shirtless—played dominos around a table. Families frolicked, children laughed, and I slept. After a while I swam a little, then slept again.
I woke up to see a rail-thin, very feminine-looking man standing in front of me slathering himself head to toe with some kind of silver, sparkling sunscreen. He made a serious production of it. By the end of the application, he looked like a glittery Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz. He sauntered ankle-deep into the water and somehow managed to get himself onto a beach raft without getting his impressive pompadour wet. Propped on one elbow, he used his free hand to paddle back and forth, up and down the beach. Poor guy was dying to be noticed, but everyone just went on with their vacationing. In the end he gave up and flopped onto a beach towel. I wondered about his story, but I was too tired to ask.
By late afternoon I was pretty crispy—but not as crispy as some of the speedo guys. I headed back to the street in front of the Sunset, our rendezvous spot. The group hadn’t come back yet. It was past checkout time, and I wasn’t supposed to be there, but I really didn’t feel like waiting in the hot van. I took my life in my hands and pushed through the wooden door. All quiet in Twin Peaks. True to form, Avi lounged and scratched the curly haired dog behind the ears. The young African girl rested her elbows on the bar and watched a woman sing a Middle Eastern melody on the TV. I asked Avi if I could hang for a while. He squinted and paused, then shook his finger-scissored cigarette at me, speaking in Hebrew. By the tone and the look on his face, I had no doubts I was about to get tossed out on my ear. I held my ground. In the end, he sighed and waved me to a chair. I sat. He went back to scratching the dog, his thoughts far away. He never said another word.
Yeah, Avi’s an alright guy.
My friends finally made it back. We drove through the night to make a flight in Tel Aviv. Somewhere in the middle of the Negev, we stopped to look at the riot of stars. They vibrated in the sky and overflowed to the horizon, so bright I felt I could hear them if I listened hard enough. A billion Tin Men paddling through their inky sea above a world distracted by the glow of a phone screen. The van engine ticked as it cooled, loud in the desert stillness. I thought about a God who could imagine a sky like that. Could fill it to overflowing with moons and suns and planets—celestial bodies dancing side by side with an African girl’s dreams. It hit me then. I knew in that moment that this place wasn’t lifeless at all. It was, in fact, filled to the brim. Pressed full with God and His radical star-drenched love.
He imagines universes. He paints the sky with His fingertips.
And He smiles down on a crusty motel owner, an African girl, and a curly haired dog.
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