April 10th, 2013

The night spent in the goatskin tent felt like an eternity, even though we actually slept for about 3 hours total due to our late night jam session. The ground was hard, the air cold and thin, but even through this, it was still a great feeling to wake up and feel surrounded by new-found friends. It really was after that night that I think we all stopped being people on a trip and became friends.

6am. Wake up call. Everyone slowly and regrettably rolling out of their sleeping bags and wandering with blurry eyes toward the bathrooms to try to reassemble our appearances for the coming day. A sea of girls packed the small bathrooms brushing teeth, doing makeup, brushing hair, trying to find all the articles of our clothing; it really made the entire morning process of preparation seem a fool’s errand so early in the morning and with no space to get ready.

Eventually I gave up trying to prep myself to look slightly human again and realized it was a failed effort. The darkness we had woken up to slowly altered itself as the great fiery ball that is the sun slowly lifted itself up from its hiding place to peek over the sandy mountain tops. The sand under my feet, the sounds of the camels and donkeys, and the slow progression of people toward the breakfast area was interrupted when the sun revealed itself. Everyone around me stopped to watch its steady ascent. It was magnificent, bathing the desert land in light, cascading over sand dunes to fill the valley with light.

It was a wonderful morning to be alive.

Breakfast was in a big tent and was very welcomed. Great food, real fresh goat cheese, all assortments of bread and fresh eggs along with their amazing tea. The tea was much needed again because the long night in the cold and the lack of sleep had ruined my health and I felt terrible. It felt like someone set my throat on fire and I could barely speak at all. As we all sat at the table making fun of my hoarse voice and enjoying the awesome Bedouin breakfast I felt something hit me. Looking up I saw a  couple of birds perched in the ceiling rafters and realized to my horror that I had just been pooped on by a bird. Horrified and everyone else laughing, I tried to figure out how to save my only outfit I had for the entire day ahead. Luckily I was able to get a new shirt but it was just such a comically horrifying moment.

After breakfast we all headed back to the buses which were bathed in the sunrise’s glow as well to continue our journey onward.

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At 7am we left camp and drove deeper into the desert valley winding our way past sand dunes on empty desert roads. We were headed to Masada, an isolated rock plateau atop a great desert mountain that overlooks the Dead Sea and the vast Judean Desert. This place was once the site of one of Herod’s great palaces which he greatly fortified, but fell under Roman siege ending with the tragic suicide of nearly a thousand jewish people to avoid enslavement at Roman hands. This tragic tale took place on top of this pillar of earth high above the desert earthen floor and we hiked up the Roman Ramp that had been built to over take the fortification

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We hiked up in the shadow of the mountain, only seeing the sun bathed desert light peaking around the sides of the great mesa. Coming out between stone pillars, which were thousands of years old to the flatten plain where once a great palace stood, bathed in early morning sunshine, was an amazing sight to see.

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Directly under the sun, even this early in the morning, had us all seeking out shade to learn more about this place.

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We talked for a while about the history of this place and then set out to wander along the ruins of this ancient place.

The world felt silent from up there, so high above the valley of the Judean Desert, it was one of my favorite experiences on the entire trip. The hot breeze lifting the dusty sand of ancient worlds to twirl around us as we plodded along. It felt like God was in the breeze, suspended in the air all around us, caught between the bricks of each ruined building.

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One amazing thing we went and saw was down some ancient worn steps into what used to be the water storage area; a great pit of a room with extremely high ceilings that we all walked down slanted steps to reach the bottom. Light poured in from the outside sunshine and illuminated the room in such a magical way, it was impossible not to feel awestruck.

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I stayed behind and lingered there in the bottom of that pit, placed my hand on the square of light let in through the hole high above me. It was an amazing feeling to touch the smoothed out stone that everywhere else felt so cold and hard, but right there where the light touched the ancient wall, was warmed by the sun.

After leaving the water storage area we went back out onto the plateau where we all sat in a huge circle and just meditated for a short while. We sat in silence, just listening and feeling the Israeli sun on our faces. I touched the ground and felt the sand run through my fingers, dusting them with archaic remnants of the past. Listening to the wind brush past us, you could almost hear God whispering in your ear. The wind felt like the breath of God, escaping like a sigh across this place so high above the ground.

When we opened our eyes from the meditation each person had a little envelope from their loved ones before them. We had some free time to go be alone, contemplate, and read our letters wherever we pleased. I sat curled up in a nook of the archaic ruins facing over the cliff side into the canyons far below.

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After I read my letter, I stood at the canyon’s edge and with a couple of other people, yelled over the sides of the plateau into the valleys below. Our voices were carried far away, filling the crevices of the canyons all around us. Lifted high by the wind, our voices rang out across the Judean Desert. It was crazy to see the power of our voices as they echoed around us.

Afterwards, before we descended via the Snake Path, which is a huge winding trial leading down the other side of the plateau, we all took a group picture, the first that included our lovely Israeli soldiers.

 

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The descent, which most people take a cable car to avoid, was one of the longest hikes I have ever experienced  It took an eternity to reach the bottom, but it was still an amazing trail to hike down. Once at the bottom we ate lunch in a cafeteria area. I am willing to admit I actually ate McDonald’s, just see what it was like and to my great surprise it was actually good. It was nothing like McDonald’s in America, it felt like real food, real burgers, not gross tiny hamburgers. It was huge and really tasty. While we waited for our bus we all played a giant game of ninja and a new game we learned the previous night called Sheep-a-Sheep. It was hilarious and a great way to wrap up our time at Masada

The Dead Sea was our next stop and one many of has been highly anticipating the entire trip; a chance to float in the Dead Sea’s salty waters. This place is the lowest elevation in the entire world at 423 meters below sea level. So we all excitedly went to change into our bathing suits and ran down to the beach for a float. This experience was not at all what I expected it to be.

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The color of the water was a beautiful green and blue, which contrasted wonderfully with the red and orange rocks on the shore. The first difficulty we encountered was actually getting into the water itself. It seems benign enough in the pictures, but what you don’t see in this picture are the salt deposits covering every rock, making sharp crystalline structures that just love to shred feet if you aren’t careful.

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This is a more accurate display of what it looked like and felt like walking barefoot on these rocks and trying to make it into the water as waves were splashing against our wobbly legs. Once in the water and off our feet, which were now on fire from the salty water getting into the numerous cuts on our feet, we felt the bizarreness that is the Salt Sea.

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Everything you hear about the Dead Sea is true; it is bizarrely salty. It feels like gravity has been reversed or you are floating on air. You have to float on your back and once you do it is such a weird experience. It feels like nothing you ever have felt before.

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It was really very fun to paddle around and float with everyone out in the water.

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However, the salt that makes the Dead Sea such a cool experience is also your worst enemy. The very first thing they told us getting off the bus was, whatever you do, don’t put your head under water or get water in your eyes or mouth. I don’t think I understood how very serious they were. Within moments of being out in the water my lips were covered in crusted salt and everyone could tell something was weird about the water. The water was slightly wavy and would splash little bits of the water on our faces and it burned, literally burned. You couldn’t rub the hurt from your eyes because your hand were covered in the water. There was nothing to do if you got even the tiniest splash on your face. People had to get back on shore and wash out their eyes in a serious way. Most people didn’t even stay in the water very long because the waves kept getting the salt in people’s’ eyes. After a short while everyone was out of the water with bloodied feet and burning eyes. The medic really had her hands full bandaging people’s feet.

It really is an amazing example of the beauty and danger of nature. It was extraordinarily beautiful and I am so glad I did it but everyone was pretty ready to get very far away from the water after only a short while.

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We all ran to the showers to get the burning salt off and headed back to the bus with new battle wounds but satisfied in having this very cool, if not slightly disastrous experience. Once back on the bus one of our peers actually passed out because he got so dehydrated from the salt. It is funny looking back on how much of a disaster it actually was, but I don’t regret it for even a single moment.

Tired from the already really long day (remember we had been up since 6am after a 3am bed time) and having hiked in the heat, swam in the salt, we were all pretty exhausted. However we had no time to rest, Jerusalem, the Holy City was out next destination.

We arrived in Jerusalem on a hill that rose above Jerusalem and from it we could survey the whole city. At the overlook we were greeted with a huge welcoming party along with many other Birthright buses. There were drummers who gathered our attention by blowing on horns made out of actual horn. They began to sing and drum as everyone stood and watched; their shadows cast on the ground around their feet.

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It didn’t take long for everyone to join in singing and dancing in a giant circle around the drummers a top a mountain that felt like the seat of the world in the holy city of Jerusalem.

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After the short festivities were over, the dancing and singing stopped and we were officially welcomed to Israel and Jerusalem by the breaking of Challah and sharing it between every single one of us as we watched the sun set over Jerusalem.

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To stand above the city of Jerusalem at last, after coming so far, and having seen so many things already, I could feel my heart expanding knowing: I had made it to Jerusalem. We could see the Dome of the Rock in the distance and the Western Wall (Kotel) along with all the winding labyrinthine streets that created the thatch work masterpiece that is this holy city.

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The very first thing we did in Jerusalem was go and visit one of the expansive open air markets. It was a truly amazing experience. It is one of my all time favorite things to visit market places in destinations that I have never visited before because it provides such an intriguing glimpse into the actual essence of this newfound place.

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We all split up with about an hours time to explore wherever we pleased throughout the giant market place, which was a series of intersecting streets about four streets wide. I split off with Plia and my friend Tia to explore. Since Plia, being from Israel and having visited this very same market several times,  knew exactly where to go, what to see, and what food to eat.

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She was a fantastic guide and made the experience so much more special than it already was, being able to watch these Israeli natives communicate in Hebrew together. One of the very first things Plia showed us was Halva; an odd sesame snack that is kind of like a flaky fudge that has a large variety of flavors. This picture below which looks reminiscent of cheese is actually a large variety of flavors of Halva ranging from coffee, chocolate, cinnamon, poppy seed, orange, vanilla, and all kinds of flavors.

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She even showed us this wonderful character, the Halva King who runs this stand. He is there almost every day wearing his little crown handing out samples of his Halva. It was so interesting and something I had never experienced. I loved Halva (I even brought back some with me to the United States) but it really is something you either love or hate. It is very difficult to relate it to anything I have ever had before, it is just Halva.

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We wandered the streets of the market listening to the vendors yelling out about their wares, Plia occasionally translating so we could understand. Each stand was full of so many amazing things from pastries, to spices, to tea, or trail mixes. There were numerous candy stands selling all sorts of chocolates or suckers.

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Plia took us a little off the beaten track and showed us her favorite place at the market; a tiny little coffee shop down one of the side alleyways which she said had some of the best hot chocolate around. It really was some amazing hot chocolate, all three of us got some and it was one of the richest things I have ever tasted. It had at least three little chocolate bars melting at the bottom fo the cup. It was nice having this brief little glimpse into her world.

As we were leaving the alleyway a tiny restaurant was handing out free samples and they basically chased us down trying to give us free food because they could tell we were americans. We finally agreed and the food was not only amazing but the people were hilarious. They asked us where we were from, both Tia and I said California and suddenly the owner just disappeared. We were a little confused and worried we had offended him when suddenly he comes running back and the speakers of the restaurant start blasting out Californication by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. It was hilarious and I really wished we could have stayed and eaten there but we were running out of time. So we walked away from the market with Californication filling the market streets behind us.

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It was a truly incredible experience and it felt like we really got a taste of life in Jerusalem. We all reluctantly came back together and late at night drove to our hotel which would be our home for the rest of the trip. The hotel was gigantic, called Rimonim (means pomegranate  but we were all too tired to really care. We got our new roommate assignments and went upstairs to sleep after one of the longest days of my life but also one of the best.

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