Israel for a Beginner, or Trip to the Holy (Crap this is Amazing) Land – PART 2

Jerusalem

If you’ve just landed here but have not read Part 1 of my Israel trip, you can read it here.

Before leaving for our trip to Israel, I was stunned reviewing the places we’d be able to visit in Jerusalem. I don’t even know if I knew 10 years ago that Jerusalem was still an existing city (as in, that it was not just a place from the Bible.) I was surprised and in awe that a lot of places I had learned about growing up Catholic are actually real, i.e. Galilee, Jericho, Bethlehem, Nazareth, Mt. Sinai, the Garden of Gethsemane, etc. You can stop laughing. I really didn’t realize!

Anyway, for our Jerusalem tour, we used Bein Harim Tour Company. See my Trip Adviser review on my average experience with this tour company. It was convenient for us to use a tour company, considering the time or cost it would have been to get to Jerusalem ($120 cab each way, or quite a few bus/train transfers).

After an annoying amount of pick-ups and false starts, we arrived at the panoramic view of Jerusalem next to the University of Jerusalem. It was here I finally understood what the old city walls looked like within the landscape of the rest of Jerusalem. Everything about the old city was surreal. Unlike Tel Aviv, it looked exactly as I expected, but it was also like I was in some sort of dream state. I explored Jerusalem with my Jewish boyfriend, and was touched by the historic significance for all religions, despite my current agnosticism. Of course I was particularly moved by Christian sites, especially for the familiarity about things I had grown up learning. The Via Dolorosa (the Stations of the Cross walk) was particularly moving. That said, it was also quite disconcerting to be in such a place and then be yanked back to reality about tourism culture. For example, I was standing at the site where “as tradition says” (as the tour guides noted repeatedly), Jesus placed his hand on the wall to brace himself from the weight of the cross. As we were taking a moment to note this, there were souks shouting and hawking their religious good (“Get your rosaries! Need a kippah?”) immediately behind us. I felt this way again when we saw a large tour group dragging a life sized cross down the walk and laughing, as if they were giving a bumper car ride a try at a theme park. I’m not an overtly religious person, but it made me pretty queasy and agitated to see this.

Back to the sites. Again, as a non-practicing Catholic with a non(ish)-practicing Jewish boyfriend, I was also moved to experience seeing things like the Western (or Wailing) wall. Separated from Uri (and the rest of the men) for this Jewish prayer ritual, I approached the wall quite hesitantly, seeing how important this site and experience was to others around me. I didn’t want to offend, or appear to be part of the tourist culture of snapping photos of a solemn event for some, so I hung back. That is until the ladies starting sliding backwards in a bit of a moon walk towards me. With that and with confusion, I quietly left, to learn later that they don’t want to take their eyes off of the wall. I was a bit torn about how I felt about this since the men didn’t seem to be practicing the moonwalk like the women.

My favorite site was all at Mount of Olives, in the afternoon of our tour. The Basilica of the Agony, where we happened upon an Asian boys’ Christian choir group celebrating mass and singing. It was well timed and quite moving. The Garden of Gethsemane was my favorite place to see. “As tradition goes,” this is the place where Jesus was said to have prayed the evening before his crucifixion. I think it might have been my favorite place because it seemed the most authentic. The other places we were reminded, were simply churches and other worship or contemplation sites built upon the site where the history would have occurred. This is likely the same for the Garden, but something about seeing a Garden where a garden is made it seem more real. Plus, the garden was a beautiful lay out of Mediterranean plants and trees with just the right amount of sunlight pouring in to make even the most disbelieving pause for a moment to wonder if there was something (Someone?) orchestrating that stream of light into just the right spots.

Jerusalem is a place that I first did not realize was real, then could not believe I was seeing, and now cannot believe that I got to experience.

Masada & the Dead Sea

Our second tour while in Israel was a full day tour out to the desert and close to the West Bank to the site of Masada and the Dead Sea. We used the same tour company (Bein Harim Tours). The first point of interest in our drive was passing the bedouin nomads that take up camp in the deserts. After a forced stop at the Dead Sea toiletry factory (sigh, organized tours), we arrived at Masada. I did not know anything about Masada before I arrived. At face value, it is a desert fortification, but I learned that day about King Herod’s initial building and use of the site (hello, desert hang-out and protection pad), and then the initial moving story of the 1000 Jews that lived and later committed suicide there, rather than being captured by the Romans.

 

Finally, after passing the site of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, we finally arrived at our tourist dumping point for our waddle into the Dead Sea. A float in the Dead Sea was on my unofficial bucket list, and again an experience I couldn’t believe. Quite different than my Icelandic Blue Lagoon dip, it was so hot and salty, I felt quite like our tour guide said I would–like chicken soup. I expected to float, but I didn’t expect the buoyancy of the salt content. I was amazed about the fact that the Dead Sea contains 29% salt while a regular ocean contains 4%. I was also amazed (but it makes sense) to learn that the Dead Sea is shrinking (evaporation) and is dropping at a rate of 1m (3ft) per year. I asked the tour guide if there were plans to replenish the sea, but I don’t think she knew the answer as it appeared to me she thought I was strange for asking.

In summary, my trip to Israel is one of my top lifetime experiences.  I consider it as perspective-widening as climbing the Great Wall of China, or seeing Machu Picchu after 3 days hiking the Inca Trail.  I’ve been keeping up with the news regarding the recently re-incensed tensions between Palestine and Israel. While I will never attempt to be an expert in current events, I am so grateful that I didn’t have to make the decision to go to Israel in these current circumstances. It was one of the most amazing travel experiences of my life.

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