Middle East

My Middle East Adventure – Part 4

Jerusalem & The Dead Sea.

First of all I have to make a point clear… governments, religions, citizenships, it’s all irrespective regarding the secret true leaders of the area. Operating from the background and still present at all times. Cats! They’re literally EVERYWHERE. They overlook every one of your steps, they may look like sunbathing, but actually protecting this actually very important sight, they invade your garden and the beach and the markets. Whenever you turn, you realized you’re being watched. So far they didn’t seem to intervene, but who knows….

Back to the story. After having crossed the border, my phone well-behaved switched from Palestinian to Israeli network. There I stood, still wearing my Bedouin dress, with my backpack outing me as a traveler, at a train station just outside of Jerusalem, trying to figure out the ticket system. Three girls around 13 immediately came up to me, although they barely spoke English, and helped me buying a ticket.

I just took a shot in the dark where to exit the train in Jerusalem. So much to see on the way already! I exited at a big market that was completely crowded and flooded by many exotic smells. There were few tourists but many locals doing their last groceries before the next holiday. Because guess what, it was another public holiday about to come – Sukkot – and all shops were closing soon, the streets going to be compeletely empty within an hour. So, summarizing… the first time I saw Tel Aviv was on Yom Kippur – completely abandoned – and Jerusalem on Sukkot, abandoned as well. True Israel experience.

Mahane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem

So I entered that market and went to the next bar, ordering a homemade lemonade and using the bathroom to finally get out of that way too warm Bedouin dress. When I returned, yet another coincidence, I bumped into Elena & Kiki, the couchsurfers who stayed with Hezi & Avi in Tel Aviv the same time as I did. It was a funny get together. When they were gone, the bartender asked me about where we’re from and how I liked Jerusalem.

“For the two minutes I’ve been here, it seems really great.”

He looked at me surprised and poured three shots for him, the guy sitting next to me whom he knew as well and me, cheering to my surely-awesome-time-to-come in Jerusalem. It was Arak, an anise liquor, kind of tasty but strong. Also, he invited me and the girls to the party the next day, celebrating the end of Sukkot, with many people and a live band. I agreed – not knowing yet that everything would turn out differently – and then went to meet Elena and Kiki for a quick lunch. We told each other’s stories about what happened but parted again shortly after, since I had another date to attend. When I went to pay my small dessert thingy, the very old and friendly looking man looked at me mysteriously, put his finger on his lips..

“No no dear, it’s on the house, it’s our secret”

… and winked at me. He seemed so genuinely and in a way decently kind, that I gratefully accepted and happily left the shop. I already experienced so much kindness I was looking forward to passing on 🙂

I met up with Avihai, another couchsurfer who agreed to help me with my cycling plans and also showed me all of Jerusalem, accompanied by an incredible amount of history knowledge and funny details that made my time in this city far more interesting. But for now, we walked to Lifta, an abandoned arabic village just outside Jerusalem, with fantastic views and nice climbing opportunities up the houses (climbing? my foot? ooops). We sat on a roof for a while, talked about the cycling plans – by now he even planned to join my ride -, told each other our Nordic viking knowledge and experiences with Swedish Santa. Apparently, he had met him on Christmas Eve in Jerusalem and got in touch with Christmas for the first time, after all. Long story.

The abandoned town of Lifta

Afterwards, we went through an ancient water system, walked about 100m into the earth, where it was completely dark, completely quiet, just our steps in the knee-deep water and the flash of a phone in front of us… and kept exploring some outer parts of town after we found the right way out again.

To finish the day, we went to one of the last open places to have a beer, namely the bar of a big hostel full of travelers. When my actual host for the night, Matan, joined us later, we went up the roof and enjoyed a beer with a lot of laughs and smiles and stories. After Avihai left, Matan and I met another couchsurfer and strolled a bit more through the streets of Jerusalem, had some food in one of the few open places and finished in a bar that reminded me very much of Berlin. Good beer, electronic music, grafittis on the walls, dimmed light, few tables, crowded with people. Nice day but freaking happy when falling into my bed eventually…

The next day, it was Monday 28th Sep. After a morning full of laundry and breakfast (containing rice cakes with eggplant spread…), I met Avihai again and we walked through the old town of Jerusalem. Regarding what is going on there now, I don’t know who to thank that I was able to experience all that safely, enjoyed it even.

On the way, we passed bikes that produced electricity or light or music, stonelike pillows that looked so inviting, we passed the outer wall that was destroyed and rebuild countless times – but still contained stones from 2000 years ago. Standing right there, looking at it, it is impossible to imagine this amount of time… and we feel oh so big with our everyday problems?

We entered the old town through Jaffa Gate. Fun Fact: next to it, there is a giant “hole” in the wall, today a big road leading in. But how would that defend potential enemies? Well, it’s the fault of the Germans, of course. So when emperor Wilhelm II. announced his visit to Jerusalem, people looked at the tiny entrance of Jaffa Gate and were like “no we can’t let this big guy come through here”. So instead, they filled the ditch surrounding the church on the opposite side, so that the emperor and all his people and fancy cars could enter in a dramatic way suiting his rank.

Arabic Market in Jerusalem's Old City

The old town is pretty, a lot of winding narrow streets lined with souvenir stands, sometimes dominated by arabic things, sometimes Christian, sometimes Jewish, depending on the quarter. We visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Jesus is said to have been buried and resurrected. Definitely a must-see, but actually quite overrun by tourists. Hundreds stood in a line to get inside and kiss a stone, and take photos with different objects I did not know the meaning of, still I respect that as part of their culture. The church itself was almost exaggerated full of glittering sparkling stuff, and still it had a particular charme. Apparently, many years ago, people of different origin argued who was allowed to decide about the composition – so they ended up leaving it just like it was, and ever since there is this ladder that has to be placed at the outside wall, right underneath that right window, and whenever weather conditions or similar is damaging it, it has to be replaced…

Mosaics in the church of the holy sepulchre

We continued our exploration by actually going up, up, up – there is a whole different, kind of second floor town above the old town! One can actually walk over all the roofs and thus cut short the way through the crowded streets “downstairs”… it was very calm, nobody else was up there, and providing an amazing view.

Later, we had lunch (Hummus, Falafel, bread, onions, the usual) at Damascus Gate, ate Knafeh at an Arabic place in town, we visited the Austrian hospice and the wailing wall. It was so … impressive. Hard to put into words. We sat down with a beer at the wall overlooking the Temple Mount and the Mount of Olives, wondering about when all those zombies will eventually rise…..

Discover the Holy City with me!

For the end of our tour, we walked through an orthodox Jewish quarter, out of respect I was wearing my bedouin dress again. I learned so much during this day!

After I had slept a bit to recover from all the walking, Hezi picked me up and we drove on top of a mountain somewhere between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Yet another incredible view, it gotta sound ridiculous by now and yeah, my senses were flooded, but still. We put blankets on the ground, right next to that statue, and slept under the same stars…

The next morning, I got up early, my back not appreciating the missing bed. I was positively suprised by the clean ecological full disposible toilet and then went to the car to pack things up. When opening the trunk, I discovered that green juice Hezi bought the day before and that was literally half pure sugar. Having not really spoken to each other yet, I just grumbled “Oh this disgusting juice”. Hezi looked at me, obviously shocked, started doubting my person, how is that possible, I had seemed to be an open minded, but well obviously not a morning person… he understood “Disgusting Jews”. We laughed our heads off for the rest of our trip, really 😀

We continued our roadtrip towards the Dead Sea with a couple of stops inbetween. When we were just about to enter this swimming area, paying for entrance, someone was calling Hezi’s name again and again… so it came that he ran into an old highschool friend and his wife, and within a split second all plans were abandoned. Instead, we accompanied them to a nearby nature reserve, where we met another couple, an strolled through the park, through bushes and forests of reed. We walked through an ankle-deep pool and enjoyed time for a while before we headed back to the entrance to participate a walking tour around the park. Hezi and I were actually not quite in the mood for that, but eventually gave in, when suddenly he started saying he felt “weird”. His friend was like, “of course you do, come on, you can’t dodge now”. Still, he insisted, and suddenly his skin was all swollen, not going into more details here, it wasn’t pretty. We took the car towards what we thought the next doctor, while we organized an ambulance and stopped again at the next gas station. It got quite scary here, actually. And still, this guy took selfies of himself in the freaking ambulance. Yeah.

While it got clear that he had a serious allergic shock, but was going to be fine without doubt, the ambulance was going full speed towards the hospital back in Jerusalem. When a car didn’t get out of the way quickly enough, we took it side mirror while “passing” it. Arriving at the emergency room, Hezi got a couple of pills and had to wait for the doctor.

But the next problem turned up… we had to leave the car at the carpark of the nature reserve, which was about to close in one hour. Hezi felt fine again, so his highschool friend and him were making plans in Hebrew and exited the hospital, telling the staff we would quickly get some food, Hezi still wearing the pretty bright yellow patient bracelet… What we actually did? We bailed the hospital, drove the 45 minutes back to the nature reserve, Hezi took the car, and drove back to the hospital himself. My nerves were blank, really. The staff at the nature reserve was very relieved he was alright and gave us our money back – second park for free, yay! On the way we stopped for some (delicious!) falafel, since we didn’t eat properly all day. The vendors were laughing so badly when seeing his bracelet and wondering, whether they should get him someone to take him back to his mental facility… Back at the hospital, he got released soon and we went to town for medicine, gas, food.

Having filled our tummies and stocks in a small but beautiful and quiet arab quarter, we decided to drive back to the dead sea again because we both didn’t feel like staying in the city. Hezi said he felt well enough doing so, thus we drove to Ein Gedi, at night, through the warm desert, seeing blinking lights that seemed in a way close and yet endlessly far away… Stunning. All in all, just by driving from Jerusalem to the dead sea and back and forth, we made about 8000 m altitude difference that day.

We stopped right at the beach, put our blankets down again, watched a spectacular full moon that was light enough that everything was bathed in a magical silver light, with distinct shadows… it was still warm enough for just wearing Tshirts, and so it came that we slept at the freaking lowest point on earth – check!

In the middle of night, I woke. Well, not really woke, I was in that half awake half asleep state, and noticed there where many cars coming and stopping, and people walking around and talking, which I of course did not understand. And my mind thought this gotta be soldiers having seen us laying there and wanted to arrest us. I was too upset to move and take my glasses, just waited and tried to appreciate the nice time we had so far. If I had checked – I would have seen it were simply more campers, putting down their tents to enjoy this wonderful spot.

I eventually woke up by a spectacular sunrise over the dead sea. We took our time for breakfast, got ready, and visited the famous nature reserve in Ein Gedi. And, finally, that was totally worth the money which we didn’t even want to get back 😉 It was about a 45 minutes roundtrip hike, and truly  beautiful. We passed many waterfalls with so clear water, it seemed more drinkable and fresh and just great than the warm stuff we carried in our bottles.

Then we continued our trip to Massada. Since I could have never done that hike in the afternoon heat with my foot, we took the cablecar. Expensive, but providing spectacular views, that were just excelled by those on top. It was a high-lying plateau overlooking the whole dead sea, Jordan on the other side. About 2000 years ago, it was a Jewish fortress that managed to defend the advancing Romans for a long time and was known for being impregnable. When it turned out that they eventually had to give in, the people refused to be captured as slaves, and thus 960 humans committed suicide to escape that fate. The Romans arrived and found nothing but a seemingly battlefield, and two women and five children who were hiding and could report from what had happened. It was goosebumps atmosphere up there, really.

When going back down, we met three other Germans and an Israeli, long story short, accompanied them to a beach of the dead sea, the last stop that we wanted to make today. It was not too crowded and for free, although no public opportunity to cover ourselves in the mud except from buying it… well. We enjoyed floating very much for a while, it was interesting and I recommend to go there, but nothing I would have to do again. Eventually, we were on our way back, had falafel at the same place like the day before, and Hezi dropped me off in Jerusalem, heading himself back to Tel Aviv.

swimming in the dead sea

Again, many small and big adventures, a lot of stories and knowledge, secret spots, funny details, coincidences, good laughs and quiet enjoyment of beautiful nature. I love this country 🙂

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