Israel was fun, intense, fast paced, refreshing, busy, breathtaking, beautiful. I am so happy to have traveled to the Middle East, It opened up a new part of the world that made me a little nervous before and made me realize that really the people there are just as friendly and inviting as they are anywhere. Upon our arrival in Israel we immediately took a sherut, shared taxi van, directly from the Tel Aviv airport to Jerusalem where we were dropped off at our first "Couchsurfing" hosts apartment right outside the old city walls. Our hosts, a young couple, she=Norwegian, he=Israeli, met a year ago when she surfed his couch and never seemed to leave. They took us out that first night to a Bohemia meets Cave of Wonders underground cavern restaurant that was totally brill. Kiffen ate "curry pot" and I had an artichoke pie. It was snowing that night. I know, I naively thought the Middle East was like perma hot. Wrong. Completely freezing in Jerusalem (and luckily only Jerusalem). We spent the entire next day exploring the innards of the old city as well as the incredible sites right outside of it. We started at the top of the Mt. of Olives, and marveled at the view of old Jerusalem. I took approximately 200 cityscape photos and don't regret a single one! From there we descended down a narrow path that goes along several points of interest; the Tomb of the Virgin Mary (who knew?), the Orson Hyde memorial park (also a pleasant surprise), the Russian church of the Virgin Mary (a golden delight), the Church of Dominus Flevit (ideal viewpoint), the Church of All Nations (beautiful mosaics and other artwork. And as a bonus we sat in on a service) and the Garden of Gethsemane (what can I say? A complete highlight, quaint and perfect.)
After finding the Orson Hyde park we knew that BYU-Jerusalem couldn't be far. Turns out it wasn't but the hills are steep in that town and it's a total maze for a newcomer. We must've searched an hour and a half to find it- and that's with constant directions (Kiffen never hesitated to ask, thankfully). We eventually found the campus complete with a posted sign out front that read, "No Visitors Today." Brokenhearted and tired we rested a bit then continued on satisfied enough that we actually found the place. We finally entered the old city walls and first visited the Western Wall. But not without embarrassment. Without realizing that men and women are separated I casually jaunted into the women's side. Jews everywhere hate me now. We touched the wall, left a little prayer in it then entered the Jewish Quarter. It was clean and pleasant. We stayed for a falafel and refreshing Coca Cola.
Other big stops of the day included the Upper Room, site of the Last Supper which was fairly nondescript, but it was the Upper Room! Also The Church of the Holy Sepulcher, built by the Catholic Church, a huge cathedral where most of Christianity believes is the site of Golgotha where Christ was crucified, laid to rest and resurrected. We stayed for a bit, prayed to the stone slab, and Kiffen kissed it, everyone was doing it. Let's face it, Christians probably hate us too now. Across the street was the Jerusalem Holocaust Museum, a must visit. After having visited the Holy Sepulcher we were determined to find the Garden Tomb, the other supposed Golgotha. The Garden Tomb was a breath of fresh air, clean, quiet, peaceful. Like the scriptures say it's on a hill outside the city walls. What's more, the place has been called Golgotha for hundreds of years, even before the tomb was discovered, and the image of a skull is evident on the cliff side, like a natural carving. Along with the Garden of Gethsemane, the Tomb was a highlight an incredibly uplifting visit.
We were pretty much done for the day when I suddenly got the urge to go to Bethlehem. We walked by an Arab bus hub (Beth. is in Palestinian territory aka Arab land hated by and separated from Israel), jumped on and rode to the border. Got through the intense border control situation, took a taxi to the "spot" which is of course another Catholic church, it was closed, rode back to the border, crossed back into Irael and went home! Totally pointless, but now we've been to Palestine.
We stopped by a number of other sites but you're over this, I know it... on to the Dead Sea:
We bussed from Jerusalem to the En Gedi oasis on the edge of the Dead Sea. Once there entered the nature reserve and hiked in the mountains overlooking the sea, not far from the place where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. It was beautiful and since it's so far below sea level it was pleasantly warm and relieving. We felt comfortable again, my old bones couldn't take the cold of the old city. The hike went along waterfalls and pools where we swam, ancient ruins from something like 3000 b.c. and a picturesque cave that I want to live in. There were animals too; dozens of fluffy giant hamster creatures. After a few hours we hiked down and headed to the Dead Sea beach. Swimming in the sea is up there with the weirdest things I've done. You can't not float and/or roll on top of the water. I loved just sitting there reading my book while bobbing up and down. The sea is for some reason evaporating pretty quickly and mega misty all the time. Along with that there's something like 20 times more bromine in the water which is a major element in most sedatives, so swimming and breathing in all that misty goodness is quite a pleasurable time.
Stay tuned for tales of cave parties and Petra.