Craters and Kittens
We cross the border into Israel, to the seaside resort city of Eilat. It looks clean and modern but we don’t stay long, as we are off to Mitzpe Ramon. The bus drives through the desert, stopping at one base camp after another, and soon the bus is literally filled with young soldiers carrying assault rifles. It is a little unnerving being around guns but the locals take no notice of it, for after high school everyone attends military service (3 years for guys and 2 years for girls).
Mitzpe Ramon is a small town, population 9000, in the Negev desert situated on the edge of a crater. The crater, 40 km in length and __m deep, is the reason for our visit to this sleepy little town. We spent a day hiking around in the barren crater seeing no one but some mountain ibex. After hours of wandering we reached our destination, the “Lion King tree” as dubbed by our host Noam (the only tree we saw growing in the crater).
Speaking of which, Noam was yet another amazing host. He was so welcoming, I felt very comfortable there, plus it didn’t hurt that he had a cat and 4 adorable kittens. He grew up in a kibbutz and is now kind of a new age hippie.
Fun fact: Israel like Jordan seems to have its fair share of stray cats.
Car-free in Jerusalem
We arrive to Jerusalem midday and hit the grocery store to stock up for the next 24 hours because it’s Yom Kippur, a Jewish holiday of repentance where basically everything shuts down: no stores, no transit, no cars on the street. At around 6 pm people start to fast. For the next 24 hours people dress in white and go to the synagogue or the Western Wall to pray. If I ever live to see a zombie apocalypse coming I would imagine grocery stores to look like this: people buying carts full of water, loaves of bread, and toilet paper (minus the orderly lines). So feeling slightly under-prepared with our one bottle of water, couscous and canned tuna and tomatoes we wonder back to our host’s flat. That night we went to the old city to see tons of people gathering, praying, and singing while sitting in the intersections. Our hosts, 2 young university students: Gal and Chen (and their dog Rufus) were not observing Yom Kippur, so it was no problem eating there. They had some friends from out of town visiting so we hung out that night playing card games with Ouzo (yuck!). (jungle speed with a shot waiting for you after a mistake, I was apparently not very good :/)
I do not recommend sightseeing hung over…the sun was far too bright in Jerusalem. The old city is divided into 4 quarters: the Jewish, Christian, Armenian and Arab. The old city is very neat, tight cobbled streets that wind about in a maze-like structure. We rushed out in the morning to catch the free city walking tour; despite the website saying it was running, it was not. Left to our own devices, we wander around for hours visiting the church of Christ’s tomb location (there was a line to see some relic, I wonder if it’s Christ’s bones until Nicole says “wasn’t he resurrected and wouldn’t have any remains?” …oops my bad. It turns out it was just the tomb where he was for 3 days…we didn’t wait in line). We also find that there are plenty of restaurants open in the Arab and Christian quarters so even with Mark’s need to eat every 3 hours we don’t starve :P.
We made it up to the top of a lookout overviewing the old city, up above the garden of gesemeny. Walking all day in Jerusalem is exhausting both for my feet and my mind.
Float like a Boat
We awake early to catch the bus to Ein Gedi an oasis town in the Judean Desert and most notably beach town to the dead sea. We spend the morning hiking at the national park, reaching view points, splashing about in the springs and waterfalls, visiting synagogue ruins and enjoying ice-cream walking along palm trees. If you’re lost in the dessert looking for water it’s very easy to spot look for the chunk of greenery.
We walk to the beach after our hike. The dead sea, the lowest point on earth, so named because no living thing survives in there (though I’m told it’s been discovered that some microorganisms do). The salt content is so high that you float. I’m not a beach person and the dead sea has not changed that. It’s worth going there because it’s so unique but a few hours was enough for me. I couldn’t believe how salty it was, beware of getting it in your eye or if you have any cuts it hurts! It’s almost too hot to swim and it’s oily. If you’ve ever wondered what it feels like to be in a pot of water salted and oiled put on boil for your spaghetti wonder no more at the dead sea. To be fair Nicole and Mark loved it, apart from the messy washrooms you need to pay for. The water is supposed to be good for your skin and apparently you don’t burn (but with that oily water you feel like you’re a gladiator baking in the sun).
Our last night in Jerusalem we spend hanging out with our hosts and watch the movie Big Luboski say what you will but that’s just your opinion…man.
We leave Jerusalem for Tel Aviv but not without a quick stop to the market, so much food so little time.
Fun fact: Dates are nature’s perfect dessert. Did you know they don’t need to dry them or add sugar? They are so good here!
Feeling at home in Israel –Tel Aviv to Haifa
The next few days we stay in kera safa, a city on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, with Hila, Nicole’s friend from university, and her family. Mark and I stayed with her parents who live 3 houses down from her and her husband Roi and their 3 year old daughter Sari where Nicole stayed. They were the most welcoming people, we really felt at home; definitely a highlight of Israel.
One day we checked out Tel Aviv. Walked about Jaffa (old historical port area) had some lovely Arabic food at a place right by the clock tower. Mark and I rented bikes (which you can do from stalls around the city and drop them off at any one of them). There are tons of bike paths around the city but you share most of them with pedestrians whether or not they are marked as bike lanes so beware and use your bell, or in my case just brake as it squeeled louder than any bell.
IT’s holiday time again in Israel this time it’s called sukkot which consists of people building huts outside their homes and the more religious people will eat out in the huts for the following 7 days. However for us the holiday consisted of a big family bbq to celebrate the birthdays of 2 of Hila’s sisters at the parent’s home with all 6 siblings and their families in attendance. Delicious food and fantastic people made for a good night!
Since it was a holiday making public transit difficult, we decided to rent a car to go to Haifa. Our goal was to visit the bahia gardens. I didn’t know much about the bahia religion before going but it sounded pretty cool, developed in the 1800s in Iran it is now based out of Haifa, with 3 million followers around the world. Its ideology includes equality to all, respect of nature and no clergy just a democratically elected parliament. The gardens were very impressive. The tour started at the top, we naturally parked at the bottom and hiked up to about half when thankfully we’re offered a ride by a local going that way since we were going to miss the tour if we walked. Wandered around a bit in the city before hitting the beach. Best beach of the trip! Sand a nice soft variety, water warm enough, clean facilities, and showers to rinse off at. I’d give it a 9/10 on my arbitrary beach ranking scale.