From the moment we stepped into Israel, we knew it was a very different place from anywhere we'd been in the last four months. We left the sweltering Jordanian customs facility and walked across the 100m of no-man's land separating the two countries before we entered the intensely air-conditioned Israeli customs check. I had been nervous about this crossing for a while but it actually went very smoothly. The officials grilled Whitney, who went before me, and then I walked up and basically said, "I'm with her." The funniest part of the whole interaction was the fact that the Israeli border checkpoint felt like it could be a new MTV show called Real World: Israeli Defense Force edition. Everyone working there was between the age of 18-24, all were tan and attractive and wore distressed denim. It's as if Hollister teamed up with the makers of M16s for new concept store. This stood in stark contrast to most other border crossings in the world that are manned by surly middle-aged bureaucrats who grunt at you before stamping your passport.
We entered Eilat and quickly realized it was not for us. Not only was it conservatively 110 degrees, but it was humid and full of obnoxious 16 year olds. It felt like the Jersey Shore season when they went to Miami. Not our cup of tea. We bought iced coffees and quickly realized the next thing that was different about Israel: it's expensive. Two iced coffees and $16 later, we decided to head for Jerusalem. We arrived at 1030p and flopped into bed, having covered sunrise and a half-day of hiking in Petra, a border crossing, then a 4.5 hour bus ride all in one day.
The next few days we spent in Jerusalem seeing the major sights and soaking up the history. One of the most memorable sights was Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum and memorial. It was easily one of the most informative museums I've ever visited and provided me with perspective on the Israeli collective psyche that I otherwise would have lacked.
Overall in Jerusalem, I didn't take a lot of photos because it felt insensitive in a way. But here are a few.
It was a cool place to visit and a bit surreal to see actual places where Biblical stories took place. An entire industry has sprung up around anything remotely Biblical. It was tough to savor the spirituality of a moment as a tour bus called Bob's Biblical Bonanza (not actually a company) pulled up and offloaded another 60 camera-toting people.
The most egregious example of this was when we visited Bethlehem and the Church of the Nativity. Whitney had been raving about the last time she visited in high school so it was a must-do for us. She described how she and her group sat in peace for an hour as a choir sung hymns that echoed through the ancient rafters. It was the most spiritual moment of her life, she said. Moreover, it was so important to see the contrast between the Palestinian Territory and Israel.
Cut to today. We board a bus to Bethlehem and take the surprisingly short ride from Jerusalem (everything in this part of the world is shockingly close together by American standards). We arrive in Bethlehem and I am expecting terrible poverty, spotty electricity, etc. Instead, it's a fairly modern place, with many Western brands and high-end cars. Obviously, this is not to diminish the struggles and plight of the Palestinians. Far from it. But it served to highlight how different Bethlehem is from other areas, and how it could skew the view of visitors who think that it is representative of the conditions in all of Palestine.
So we get off the bus and walk through the town to the Church of the Nativity. There's a karaoke contest for school children going on in the square outside the church. Not quite the peaceful choir Whitney had described, but we pushed onward. We entered the church. There's scaffolding everywhere. The beautiful arched ceilings are, of course, under construction. I decide that I must see the grotto where Jesus was supposedly born. As I make this decision, a fourth tour bus unloads another 35 people. The guard informs me that it is a three hour line to get into the grotto. Whitney and I are dismayed. It seems crazy to come this far and not see the grotto, but three hours without great ventilation isn't sounding appealing.
"There is another option," the guard casually informs me. Alert to when someone is sniffing for bribes, I respond, "Oh, what is that option?" I ask, feigning cluelessness. "Well, for a small fee, you can go in the back exit since it is just the two of you." Intrigued, I inquire, "How much?" The guard smiles, as if he is doing us a great favor, and says, "Normally, 100 shekels (30 USD), but I'll do it for 75 (22 USD) shekels since you look like good people." I laugh and, with uncharacteristic non-chalance for an awkward bargainer, say, "I'll give you 20 shekels (7 USD)." A small part of me feels bad for haggling over the price of admission to see one of the holiest sights in Christendom, but I quickly get over it. The guard chuckles, accepts my cash, and leads us down the back stairs to the grotto.
Once in the grotto, the ruining of the spiritual moment is complete. Facing a rugby scrum of Korean tourists, I force my way to the front and kneel down. Everyone else is kissing the exact rock where Jesus was supposedly born. Sanitary concerns prevail and I merely touch it. I quickly vacate the space to make room for someone who proceeds to take a selfie on their phone. I cringe. As I reach Whitney in the crowd, a large German man is using her head as a tripod. We make a fast escape, admitting defeat.
The rest of our time in Israel was more pleasant, though we did face near starvation during the Sabbath. I was shocked at how the entire city of Jerusalem shut down from sundown Friday to sundown on Saturday. And this isn't just things shut down like they do on Sunday in some American cities, or even how closed up things are on major holidays. The place is deserted. No buses, no stores, no restaurants. We walked down the middle of the road on the Jerusalem equivalent of Fifth Avenue. On Saturday night, we were on the prowl for food and decided that if any restaurants were going to open, it would be at the bus station. We had been subsisting on our limited reserves of pretzels and chocolate, but they were nearly depleted. We sat in the deserted bus station, our hopes fueled by a single light behind the grate at the McDonalds. Eventually, after two hours of waiting, the vendors opened up and we managed to eat.
We rented a car in Jerusalem and decided to drive to the Dead Sea before going off wandering elsewhere in the country. The Dead Sea was an awesome stop. As someone who has never been able to float in water, it was a particularly great.
It also was cool to think that in the course of two weeks we'd gone from 14000+ feet to more than 1000 feet below sea level.
We also indulged in the therapeutic black mud.
After the Dead Sea, we drove to Upper Galilee, known as the Tuscany of Israel. We passed the Sea of Galilee, which is actually a lake, not a sea. We spent two days there at a pleasant B&B, relaxing and eating delicious food.
Finally, we headed to Tel Aviv for one night before flying to Turkey. We stopped along the way for a swim in the Mediterranean, completing the trifecta of Israeli seas: Red, Dead, and Med.
Whitney's memory of Tel Aviv was colored by her hippie high school perspective. She recalled it as a trashy Miami wannabe. Nothing compared to the rich cultural and historical gem of Jerusalem. In reality, Tel Aviv was an awesome town and we were sad to not have more time to spend there. We stayed near the Yaffa clock tower, ate delicious seafood, and walked along the Mediterranean. It is definitely on our list of "places to come back to visit."