Heading South

I'm heading South this weekend. It's that time again: the annual triathlon championship in Eilat. This will be my tenth time witnessing thousands of wannabe athletes (and a few genuine ones) working themselves up into a frenzy for a few hours of physical activity—something most of them do every weekend. If nothing else, it's an opportunity to remind oneself just how crazy extreme sports have become, even here in the Middle East. This can be seen at the expo, where athletes crowd in to look at that one new gadget they don't yet own (only one, because usually they're equipped up the gazoo); inside the competition station pre-race, where athletes buzz around like bees, nervously checking the angle at which they've arranged their gear-- shifting their shoes to the right and their energy gel to the left--worried that if everything's not exactly in the right place their whole race will be a wash; and of course in the local cafes and restaurants, where the triathletes can be seen debating the benefits and/ or deficits of absolutely every morsel they consume.
Although that description might make a normal person turn tail and run in the opposite direction, to a bona fide lover of the sport, like myself, it's an instant drawing card. The opportunity to do something I love in a place that's a world away from, say, Tel Aviv, is just too great to pass up and I have to admit that when I'm all finished with this hysteria, when my body will no longer tolerate this form of abuse and I'll stop making this annual trip, I'm definitely going to miss it. Of course, this year feels a little different. In order to get to Eilat, I need to head South and pass through a part of the country I otherwise never frequent (simply because I live and work in the North); an area of which I am thoroughly ignorant for the simple reasons that I don’t like to drive any real distance, I have a serious aversion to dust and I’m simply too tired, by the time the weekend comes around, to think of leaving the house.
But last summer everything changed. Last summer was spent getting a crash course on the size, nature and location of many of the communities I'd never even heard of, primarily through headlines and news stories, while simultaneously thanking my lucky stars for living absolutely nowhere in the neighborhood. Last summer, a place that meant very little to me took on monumental significance over night. I basically spent 24 hours a day thinking about the South; praying that my son wouldn't be sent there but would, instead, remain somewhere (absolutely anywhere) up in the more desirable North; tortured with anguish once I understood that he was, indeed, "inside"—a term unnervingly close to that of "in country" used in Vietnam. The fallout is that, unfortunately, in my mind, these Southern towns will forever be associated with feelings of worry, deep fear and nightmares.
But last summer, thankfully, is now behind us. And here I am, once again, heading south. Yes, this particular trip to Eilat is definitely different. In many ways travelling South, through an area that caused me a great deal of pain just a short time back, is very much about "reclaiming" territory: personal territory. I’m returning for another "go-round," both emotionally and quite physically, during the competition itself; a chance to reset those memories through physical activity—one form of chaos supplanting the memory of another. The car is packed. I’m ready to roll.