Bidding adeu to Jordan, we walk across ‘no man’s land’ in between the Jordanian/Israeli border. It was 100 yards of sand, which we were sure was filled with a countless number of landmines – we were not going to stray from the marked path. We breeze through customs, which is stunning after hearing horror stories from fellow travelers in Jordan, and locate our hostel in Eilat. Immediately upon entering Israel, the differences in culture are evident. People are dressed in western fashions, are a bit more abrasive, and the pace of life is generally just faster. We have gone from Jordan with its singular flag pole that sits above Aqaba at 175ft. tall to Israel with small flags on every bus, light pole, and building. There is also a rediculous amount of soldiers, complete with automatic rifles slung over their shoulders, who would be our age. We realize how different and similar the two cultures are – militarized, religious, and proud.
For the rest of that first day we explore the party town of Eilat, which is billed as Israel’s ‘Las Vegas.’ Unfortunately for us, we neither have the funding nor the tolerance for a Vegas experience, so we find a place on the beach and settle into our books. A little later that night, after another one of our many schwarma meals, we find ourselves walking the busy promenade amongst street musicians, brightly lit t-shirt stalls, restuarants, and bars. After a bit of meandering we find the perfect spot to enjoy our first beer in more than a few weeks. As we sit on the promenade, along the Red Sea, we contemplate how much we will like Israel. We had the best time in Jordan and we are expecting as much, if not more, from Israel. Hopefully it lives up to our expectations.
The next morning brings a terrible bus ride to our next desination: Ein Gedi Kibbutz on the Dead Sea. Gone is the desert oasis of Eilat, we are now just in the middle of a very, very old desert. We finally come upon the Dead Sea and it is a bit less than what we expected. The winds are blowing off of the low mountains, creating a rediculous amount of dust, and the beach that was advertised was more
of a 25ft. strech of rocks than a sandy beach. We decide that even though we are a bit bummed out, we should swim/float regardless. As we approach the water, we see a sign that states “Do NOT put your head underwater. If you swallow sea water, see a life-saving professional immediately.” We begin to wonder what we are actually getting into as we climb across the salt buildup at the water’s edge. I am first to slip into the water and instinctively make my first strokes in the water. I begin to flounder around, much to Ryan’s enjoyment, and realize that I am floating in the water higher than I could have ever dreamed. Every time I attempt to make a stroke, I float too high and my feet and arms come out of the water. Ryan then gets in and realizes that this uncoordination is not my problem alone and we decide to just float on our backs down the shoreline.
30 minutes later and we both have skin so smooth it feels alien and we have floated down the salty shoreline on our backs as if we were sitting in inner-tubes. I get out in time to watch Ryan get crushed on the sharp salt formations by the crashing waves and cant help but laugh as he curses while his entire body, including his head, is submerged under the salty water. I then inquire how it feels to get that water in your eyes and the look that he gives me tells me enough to know that he has had better days. Upon gathering ourselves, we find the mudpools and cover ourselves from head to toe in Dead Sea ‘healing mud.’ We have no idea if it actually works, but I do know that we love playing in mud.
After a dusty night in our cramped dorm room, we get on another bus for Jerusalem. It is hard to imagine a better city to accomplish of our goal of seeing as many religions as possible – we are expecting big things. We arrive to a beautiful city upon rolling hills, similar to Amman, and make our way to the Old City, where our hostel is perfectly located on the inside of Jaffa Gate. We do a bit of preliminary exploring, grabe a bite of schwarma, and figure out our plan of attack for the following days.
The following three days consist of us wandering the Old City for hours, exploring as much as we could. We would go from the Christian quarter to the Jewish quarter and end in the Muslim quarter without breaking a sweat. It was incredible
in the fact that there was nowhere you could go without running into a religious site for one of the big 3 that have conquered and reconquered the city for thousands of years. We climbed the Tower of David, the main guard tower for the entrance of the city, and spent hours in the museum. We walked the ramparts, the 8ft. wide wall that encloses the city, acting like soldiers of the countless armies that have occupied Jerusalem. We looked upon Temple Mount, the highest point of the Old City where there currently resides the 3rdmost important site in the Muslim faith, the Dome of Rock, but also is the location of Jewish and Christian holy sites. We prayed at the
Western Wall, the most holy spot in the Jewish religion, and watched as hundreds of people came together to honor the western wall of Temple Mount that was destroyed thousands of years ago. We then went on to walk the Via Dolorosa, the path that Jesus walked on his way to crusifiction, as well as see his tomb and kiss the stone that was moved. We descended into Mary’s tomb and lit candles for her in the deep, dark caverns. We walked through the City of David and went to the room in which the ‘Last Supper’ took place with Jesus and his disciples. Essentially, we experienced everything that the Old City of Jerusalem could offer and learned quite a few things in the process.
After countless filafel meals, which was our staple meal in the region, we are told that through connections of Jack’s, we are invited to Shabbat dinner on Friday night. Both of us being Christian, we have never experienced Shabbat, so we are really excited to get a glimpse of Jewish life. So as the sun sets, we walk to the Cooper’s house, with flowers in hand, and knock on the door. Now – we have never met this family, have no idea what Shabbat entails, and are far from Jewish – we are really excited. The knocks on the door are answered by Anita and we are greeted with smiles, hugs, questions, and the smell of a wonderful meal being prepared. We meet the rest of the family, as well as the other guests for the night, and learn a bit about Jerusalem, their lives, and Jewish culture. We then go to sit down and the food is presented. It is glorious and after being on the “traveler diet” [aka – the “we have no money left diet”], we are salivating at the feast before us. Right as we are about to dive in, we are told that we are more than welcome to join in on the prayers. Not knowing what these prayers entailed, Ryan and I said “yes” and the singing promptly began. All 10 people around the table began to sing and chant a wonderful pre-supper prayer while we just sat in awe. It was definitely one of those moments where you know you have a window into a totally different culture and all you can do is be a sponge and soak it all in.
Over the next 3 hours, we enjoy a wonderful meal of salads, breads, hummus, chicken, stir fry, rice, pasta, matza soup, cookies, pastries, tea, wine and fruit juices. By the end we are so full that it is almost difficult to walk. It was easily a top 5 meal of the entire trip, but what made it even more incredible was the conversation and opportunity to get to know the culture. We sat and listened to stories about college admission, boyfriends, and opinions of their West Bank neighbors. We even got to ask a few questions ourselves, among them how it was
to go into the army for 2-4 years before college as well as what it was like to grow up in a city that is relatively divided culturally. It was interesting to find out that because they know that they will be going into military service automatically, it is no big deal when it happens. We heard about different programs and paths in the military that can either make or break your professional aspirations as well as where you go to college afterwards. It was absolutely wonderful – the questions and answers going back and forth between two cultures in a comfortable setting. As we were walking out, we made sure to thank our wonderful hosts and tell them how impressed we were of the entire experience. It was one of those evenings that will stand out, defining our experience in Israel and setting a standard of what we can expect from Jewish culture moving forward in our lives.
Following our time in Jerusalem, we decided that we were going to enjoy a final few days on the beach, so we headed over to Tel Aviv, only 50km from Jerusalem.
After more than 100 days of traveling, it was time for Ryan to head back to the US in order to get ‘real life’ started, so we made sure to have a good time in Tel Aviv. We arrived and began to ration food for beer and spend our time exploring the old city and spend time on the beach. Although the city, both old a new, was beautiful, we were absolutely stunned by the beaches. We were expecting nice things, but what we found was the sandiest beach of the trip, packed with young beautiful people. We were no longer on the rocky ‘beach’ on the Dead Sea – we were living the dream.
Our final day consisted of beach time, wandering through busy markets, filafel, and preparing for our final night out together. We used all the money we had saved and bought a few beers for ourselves. We got back to the hostel, which had
a very cool roof-top terrace where everyone began their nights, and began to enjoy our beers. 3 hours later we had consumed 1/3 of the amount of beer that would have done us in while in college and were complete finished. We wisely decided that it was best to not embarrass ourselves in the famous club nightlife of Tel Aviv and just get one final filafel instead. That short walk to get food was one of the best moments of the trip for Ryan and I. We had been travel partners for over 100 days – we got to know each other far too well, experienced the best and worst of times together, and matured together – we now had a bond that could not be broken. Even though we never got to experience the wild clubs of Tel Aviv, we had a fitting final night – one that will never be fully remembered or forgotten.
At this point I would like to quickly reflect on our time in Jerusalem. Ever since I was young, singing “pray for the peace of Jerusalem” in choir, I had wished to see Jerusalem – to experience the culture and pay tribute to the different religions there. Rightfully or unrightfully so, I had set big expectations for the most important city in all of Christianity, Judiasm, and to some extent, Islam. I went in expecting to feel a wonderful spiritual presence in the city and really make a connection with the events that took place there over 2000 years ago. Although difficult to admit, I felt anything but those feelings and spiritual experience – Jerusalem was a pretty big let down. I don’t know exactly what it was that set me off, but as we walked the Via Dolorosa and went to Christ’s tomb, it was difficult to feel anything other than the overwhelming number of other tourists and shop vendors around you. In the cramped quarters of the Old City, there were so many people that you constantly were stuck in shoulder to shoulder ‘people traffic.’ The madness was far worse at the religious sites and that only made the people crazier. As you went to kiss the stone that was moved, you had people falling into a religious fervor and begin to freak out. Beyond breaking your concentration, your attempt to understand the importance of the site in front of you, it was completely un-nerving.
As disappointing as this was, it really helped Ryan and I understand our own faiths. It became exceedingly clear to me that my religion is not based on a certain symbol or location – I can respect them, but that is not where my faith lies. I am not overwhelmingly religious, but I now know for a certainty that I feel closer to my God when I am singing with complete strangers in a Zambian choir or sitting along a lake listening to the loons make their evening calls. It became clear that religion can be found in the most unconventional of places and lost in the most traditional.
As Ryan gets on a plane back home to America and I get on a plane to Zambia, I wonder what experiences are waiting for me in the unconventional country that I call my ‘second home.’ Mama Africa is calling and I am ready to answer.
Ryan – Deano – Raiu Beame – Jimmy the Jet:
You will be missed big guy. I could not have asked for a better travel companion. We had some laughs and had some rediculous experiences. The Grand Adventure would have been a lot less “Grand” if you weren’t here… Thanks
Current Location: Tel Aviv, Israel