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Friday, October 31, 2014

10/25: Desert Waterfalls & Floating in the Dead Sea

On Saturday, 10/25, Steven and I were up early for our 7am departure from the hostel for a day trip to Masada, the En Gedi Nature Reserve and the Dead Sea. Alon, our driver/guide, told us he had grown up in the Ultra Orthodox religion as the son of South African parents, married and had children but ‘had given all that up five years ago when he left the religion and had become a writer, photographer and driver.’ The other 7 passengers likewise were as curious as I wondering what had caused him to break away from his former life but none of us felt comfortable asking. I didn’t take any pictures of him but think of an unhappy looking, short Art Garfinkel and you get a sense of what Alon looked like to me.

He did explain that Jerusalem is 800m above sea level and the Dead Sea, which we’d see first but stop at last, is 400 m below sea level and the lowest place on earth. Leaving the hustle and bustle of the packed city and the areas around Mt. of Olives and Mt. Scopus behind us, we entered just minutes later what Alon referred to as the Time Tunnel. On the other side of the tunnel through a mountain, all we could see was a rocky, barren, desert  landscape – now we all understood what Alon meant when he talked about the Time Tunnel.

Bedouin settlements by the highway.

Alon gave us an abbreviated history, geography and political lesson about Israel as we drove south explaining that the geo-political term ‘West Bank’ means the west side of the Jordan River and that the border between the 2 nations is in the middle of the Dead Sea. Twenty years ago, the Israeli government divided the West Bank into Zone, A, B and C to ‘keep things quiet,’ Alon explained. Zone A includes the cities of Bethlehem, Jericho, Ramallah and Hebron, all communities controlled by the Palestinians and which Israelis are unable to enter. Zone C is the area controlled by Israel whereas Zone B’s areas are more shared communities, he stated. There are hundreds of thousands of Arab Israelis in Israel and they can freely go from Jerusalem to anyplace in the West Bank because they have Israel citizenship. However, the Palestinians living in the West Bank need a much coveted and difficult to acquire permit to enter Jerusalem, Alon told us.

The desert we went through for almost the entire day wass the Judean Desert. On the side of the highway we saw tents and huts belonging to the Bedouins, a tribe of Arabs, who continue living the traditional way of life. Saw out the window the Quemeran Mtns, (sp?) where the Dead Sea Scrolls which we’d seen just the day before had been discovered by a Bedouin boy back in 1947.

Our first view of the Dead Sea.

(As I’m writing this, it's Tuesday, 10/28 and we’re on the bus from Jerusalem driving to Eilat in southern Israel to cross over to Jordan and passing the exact same sights we were on 3 days ago that I’m telling you about -  just a bit uncanny. We’re at the checkpoint crossing into the West Bank and 2 Israeli guards toting Uzis, looking no more than 19, came on and walked down the aisle giving each of us ‘the look’ but asked no questions.)

Ninety minutes after leaving Jerusalem we reached Masada, a large fortress built by King Herod atop a mountain overlooking the Dead Sea and one of the most popular tourist sights in the entire country. We hiked for about 45 minutes up the mountain on the windy, rocky Snake Path with Ava, a woman from Boston while the other tour passengers took the 3 minute cable car to the summit. She and Steven hiked down while I spent the limited time we had been allotted by Alon touring the fortress for as long as possible before taking the cable car down. In addition, my knees were still in pretty rough shape from my fall weeks ago in Istanbul and the thought of walking down did not sound like the smartest of decisions.

View of the valley climbing up Masada.

At the summit of Masada.
Israeli military presence atop Masada.
In Masada, summertime temperatures reach a sweltering 45-47 degrees Celsius compared to ‘only’ 20-25 degrees in the winter. The problem for tourists during the summer at Masada is that nighttime temperatures don’t cool down at all, Alon stated. The authorities often have to close the hiking trail up the mountain because of the possibility of heat stroke, even for the wildly popular sunrise hike which means leaving Jerusalem at the ungodly hour of 3am.

A fairly common sign in Israel even, it seems, in a centuries old military fortress

View of the Snake Path we'd climbed up from the cable car I took down.
After we left Masada, we drove back north toward En Gedi Nature Preserve which translates into Ibex Spring. On the way we passed a kibbutz (above) that Alon explained is home to 500 people and where there’s a small hotel. It’s in the middle of nowhere with nothing but rocks and barren landscape for as far as the eye can see and quite frankly would be one of the last places I’d ever want to stay. Each to their own, I guess, right. 
Arriving at the beautiful En Gedi where we had just 90 minutes to explore was like entering an altogether different world: an oasis of green with lush palm trees providing much needed shade, a number of waterfalls to walk to and explore and dip our feet in. But having such a limited time to explore this paradise was a bummer. We felt pretty rushed as we hiked along the trails and gazed longingly at the pools that were PACKED with young teens who were having a blast on a gorgeous hot and sunny day. We had hoped to catch a glimpse of the ibex, a type of goat I’ve only seen in zoos, while hiking but I guess the crowds scared them all off!  

Half an hour after leaving paradise, we arrived at our day’s final stop, the Dead Sea, where we had another 90 minutes to cover ourselves with the famous Dead Sea black mud before floating in the water that in Hebrew is aptly called the Sea of Salt. People come from all over the world to enjoy the healing properties of the Sea which is comprised of 33% salt and lots of minerals and oils. Alon warned us to avoid getting the water in our mouth, eyes and nose and that any open cuts would burn and sting for a bit. Steven and I both experienced the latter but the strange thing was that a brand new abrasion I had on my arm had formed like a scab within minutes in the water – just incredible. We had so much fun slathering mud on ourselves that we picked up from the water’s bottom along with a number of almost translucent salt crystals that I stuffed in my swimsuit so I wouldn’t lose track of them between the water and the changing area. Alon explained later that salt is the cheapest thing to buy in an Israeli supermarket costing just 1.5 shekels for a kilo, about .28!
A view of the beautiful Dead Sea from the van.

The Dead Sea had been one continuous sea but the southern side has largely dried up resulting in a huge swath of dried ground and the Sea looking like 2 separate seas. The Dead Sea is drying up so quickly that as the sea recedes, huge sink holes have developed making it very dangerous to enter and to swim in certain areas, Alon told us. He indicated that the water level has dropped a staggering 75 feet and that experts fear that the Sea could cease to exist altogether unless drastic measures are taken. The problem in short is that the area only receives about 2-4 inches of rain in the winter but there has been very less rain the last few years. Combine that with increased manufacturing and other factors and you can see why the long term prognosis of the Sea is in peril especially when also factoring in widely divergent political interests.

Some of the many sink holes that have become more common as the Dead Sea recedes.
100 year old buildings, including bomb shelters, built by the British when they controlled the area.

We've seen Dead Sea products available all over Israel as the black mud especially is a very popular souvenir. 
Bathing beuties above and below!

On the way back to the hostel, Alon told usthat the signs of vegetation in the Dead Sea area, including the number of small shrubs etc were a sign of the many underground springs. The soil is also very salty which makes it tough to grow much. We did pass huge numbers of greenhouses where Alon said tomatoes, peppers and watermelons are grown. 

We had a fantastic time but we and others on the bus we spoke to sorely wished we’d had more time in each of the places to adequately do them justice.
The 1st Kosher McDonald's we've seen.
Our hostel roommate, the lovely Jerre Ann who lives in Colorado Springs, just about an hour’s drive from our home. She came to Israel for 3 weeks with an organization called Volunteers for Israel to work on a military base doing whatever she and her fellow volunteers from around the world are told needs doing. How incredibly selfless for her, a non Jew, to come all this way to help the Israelis; this is her 2nd trip and she’s planning to volunteer again, she said. Steven and I were so thrilled that Jerre Ann was our roommate for 3 of the nights we had a 4 bed dorm room at the Abraham Hostel. We have blotted out the two older male American bunkmates we had the first 2 nights who had great fun imbibing massive amounts of alcohol and then coming back to our room disturbing us around 4am each night. Little wonder we asked to change rooms!