Day 8: Four Stops in Israel

Day 8 was my second full day in Israel, and how full it was! The place I was staying at, Hostel Abraham was also a tour operator, and there was one particular tour they had that intrigued me. My first three stops was through them, and since we finished early enough, I decided to squeeze in one more. Boy was I glad that i took that fourth stop. Here’s how it went down.

Stop #1: Sunrise at Masada Masada-20131120-PhotographybyLeoCastillo-LEO_3891 My day starts super duper early, with an amazing 3AM call time! Why so early and what the heck is Masada?

Masada is an ancient fortress, which has been around since before Christ. This was the last stand of the Jews who led a revolution against Rome, and here is where they finally fell. The fortress itself is quite unusual since it stands on top of a natural plateau on top of a mountain! Here’s how it looks like from the air (image courtesy of Andrew Shiva/Wikipedia).

This was an amazing opportunity to catch the sunrise in such a historical site. In addition, instead of using the cable car, I wanted to climb it old school hiking style. Leaving so early in the morning ensures that the weather was cool without the heat of the sun. Oh and boy how cold it was! The hike itself took about 45 minutes. Our hike started in the dark using flashlight, and I was wearing a jacket, a beanie, and some gloves. As we ascended I started shedding clothes as the effort became more strenuous. It’s not a difficult climb, but it’s not an easy one too.

Masada-20131120-PhotographybyLeoCastillo-LEO_3866 Finally we reached the summit. The place looked great and like a living museum. Masada-20131120-PhotographybyLeoCastillo-LEO_3980Masada-20131120-PhotographybyLeoCastillo-LEO_3957 Masada-20131120-PhotographybyLeoCastillo-DSC_2535 The view was fantastic and it was a great place to catch the sunrise. It was very peaceful and fulfilling to be up there (mountaineers will know what i mean). What was good about it was that lack of any commercialism and except for a small visitor center and some washrooms most of it seemed untouched for thousands of years. Masada-20131120-PhotographybyLeoCastillo-DSC_2544Masada-20131120-PhotographybyLeoCastillo-DSC_2596Masada-20131120-PhotographybyLeoCastillo-DSC_2610Masada-20131120-PhotographybyLeoCastillo-DSC_2565Masada-20131120-PhotographybyLeoCastillo-DSC_2549Masada-20131120-PhotographybyLeoCastillo-DSC_2600 We stayed for about an hour and we took the hike down. Much easier and took us about 20 minutes. Masada-20131120-PhotographybyLeoCastillo-DSC_2625


One of my tour mates, Simone! She took my photo so I had to take hers too 😉

Stop #2: Ein Gedi 

Our next stop was a place called Ein Gedi.

Ein Gedi is an oasis in the middle of the desert between Jordan and Israel. In it is a nature reserve and a national park, with waterfalls, a botanical gardens, and some local animals running free.

We didn’t have time to explore the whole place (it’s actually quite big) but what we saw was already quite fascinating. I’ll let the images and the video speak for itself.

Masada-20131120-PhotographybyLeoCastillo-LEO_4083 Masada-20131120-PhotographybyLeoCastillo-LEO_4096 Masada-20131120-PhotographybyLeoCastillo-LEO_4129


Tour mate Tomasso from Italy


Edigio, also from Italy

We stayed in Ein Gedi for about an hour and headed to our last stop for our tour. Masada-20131120-PhotographybyLeoCastillo-DSC_2690 Stop #3: The Dead Sea

Yes this is it! The world famous Dead Sea, the lowest place on Earth with the highest salt content of any body of water anywhere in the world.  Masada-20131120-PhotographybyLeoCastillo-DSC_2685 So first of all, let’s get this out of the way. YES you can EASILY float on the water of the Dead Sea. Lie back and the water will carry you! The mud under the water is said to have some healing properties (which is why there’s a lot of cosmetic and pharma companies in this area, to take advantage of that) and your visit is not complete without getting some mud on you. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Having said that, you should only FLOAT in the Dead Sea. You should not SWIM in the Dead Sea. With the salt content level being what it is, getting some water in your eyes will DEFINITELY sting (that’s why I’m squinting in this photo. Ouch). They have some fresh water showers nearby to get that sting away quickly which was good.

So here’s some pics and video (haha and I am not in my best physical shape here).


We stay for about an hour and get some drinks while people shower and change. Even though it’s only 1PM, we leave for Jerusalem, completely satisfied having accomplished so much.

We find ourselves back in our hostel at about 2:45PM. Given that it was still a bit early, I figured I can do one more stop.

Stop #4: Yad Vashem. 

Throughout my last two days, people I’ve spoken to told me not to miss this place called Yad Vashem. Checking TripAdvisor showed it to be one of the top places in Jerusalem. I’ve been meaning to catch it and glad that I found time to do it. And the best thing was, it was just about 15 minutes away via tram.

And so I arrive at Yad Vashem.

Aerial view of Yad Vashem c/o Wikipedia

Oh my.

Looking back, Yad Vashem was one of the greatest experiences in my whole trip around the world. It has moved me and affected me in ways I cannot even begin to explain. Just thinking about it now… oh my.

What is Yad Vashem?

Image by David Shinbone (Wikipedia)

Yad Vashem is the memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. In World War II, the Nazis executed what they called “The Final Solution”. For some reason that is still impossible to understand, the Nazis decided to gather most of Europe’s Jewish population, segregate them, transport them… and systematically exterminate them.

Image c/o MrBrefast (Wikipedia)

About 6 million Jews were murdered, with at least 1 million of them children. It was the largest genocide in modern history, perhaps in all of world’s history. 

Some of you may remember seeing some of this from the 1992 film “Schindler’s List”. Seeing it here, made you see the reality of it all.

With images, videos of the survivors, mementoes of the concentration camps and the ones who passed away, it brings you to see probably one of the saddest moments in the history of the world.

Image c/o Layeled (Wikimedia Commons)

Due to the essence of the place, I was not allowed to take photos so I can just tell you what my experience was like.

The images above are care of Wikipedia and Wikimedia commons, you are also not allowed to take photos of what’s inside the museum itself. The museum itself was relatively small, and you can breeze through it quickly. I encourage that when you visit it, you take your time. I decided to use an audio guide to help me along the way.

Read the letters of those who were lost, watch the interviews of people who actually went through this ordeal. Parse through the objects recovered from the rubble, trace the path. Get to know how it started, how it unfolds, how it ends.

Come in the right space. If you allow yourself to listen, see, and feel, it is an experience that although sad and sorrowful, it is one that you will cherish.  It is one of the most important stories in the history of the world, and it will make you think and reflect on humanity itself.

And that’s my second full day in Israel. It was a wonderful day that started with excitement and ended with reverence, with my body and soul nourished and complete. It was a good day.


Day 7, Part 2: The Holy City of Jerusalem

The journey around the world continues #oneyearlater. Welcome to the city of Jerusalem!


The first thing that our tour guide told us to keep in mind as we discover Jerusalem is a very important word: TRADITION. 

Here’s the thing: believe it or not, many of the most holiest and most famous places in Jerusalem do not have a lot of strong evidence that it is the actual site. Scriptures and stories told through generations try to describe a certain place, and what they do is they find the place that best describes it. There is not much solid and concrete proof that this was the exact place that this happened in; it may be possible that the real place is somewhere else. This approach on tradition has become the accepted norm for people of Jerusalem and those that visit it. Keep that in mind as we explore Jerusalem!

Having said that, one of our first stops is the actual room where the Last Supper was done!
(or at least what tradition says so).


This room is actually called the Cenacle (bet you didn’t know that, and that’s where the Filipino term “Senakulo” comes from). According to tradition, it is in this room where Jesus Christ broke bread, washed the feet of His apostles, and where the Holy Spirit descended to His disciples.

And if you thought that was amazing, what was even fascinating is seeing a lot of Jerusalem’s embattled history in this room! Although revered across the Christian culture, you can see some elements of Muslim and Indian architecture. Some say it was renovated during the time when Saladin conquered Jerusalem, and it was renovated again when Jerusalem was recaptured in the Crusades. You’ll notice even some pedestals look different from each other.


Speaking of religion, we also noticed a group of Pentecostal Americans who were in the room. They took the opportunity to pray and ask for the Holy Spirit to come to them, and they started to speak in tongues. This again reminds us that even though we are in the Christian tradition, different Christian groups practice they faith differently! I can’t imagine Pinoy Catholics will do the same thing.

Near the Cenacle was a place commemorating another important religious figure: the tomb of King David. King David is actually a bigger personality than Jesus in the Jewish religion, who believe Jesus was just another prophet, not the Messiah nor the Son of God as most Christians believe (they are still waiting for the Messiah to arrive). I also imagine a traditional Christian tour may skip this location for this reason, which is why I invite you to take a secular tour when you visit Jerusalem.


In respect for his tomb, we were not allowed to take photos. What you see when you come in is a small room with a stone tomb, with some Jewish elders silently praying.


Near the tomb, we pass by some pillars. These pillars were rumored to be part of King Solomon’s temple, which tradition says was part of the “bottom” layer of Jerusalem, as the city continued to be built on top of another. King Solomon’s temple also was once the location of the legendary Ark of the Covenant (tan tanan tan!) which held the original tablets of the Ten Commandments (I bet a lot of Indy fans didn’t know that’s what the Ark was). In case you didn’t know, the Ark of the Covenant is sacred in all three of the major religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) since Moses is a revered figure in all three. A lot of people don’t know these three actually have the same roots, from Abraham, which is why they are called the Abrahamic religions (more on this later).

Oh and on top of the Abrahamic religions, King’s Solomon’s temple is a holy place for the Freemasons, pointed out by two Masons who joined us in the tour group,

Next up is something that will give Christians both excited and filled with reverence: the site where Jesus Christ was crucified. 


Called Golgotha, this is where tradition says Jesus was put on the cross of his last days. Located at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, this is probably one of the most holiest places in all of Christianity. The actual place commemorated is filled with gold and brass, and you see people line up as they pay respects, and try to make contact to where tradition says is the actual spot of the where the cross stood.


Christians pay respect to the spot where Christ was crucified


What was interesting to me is seeing another spot, where a lot of people were converged. To me, it looked like a marble slab that people were revering. I found out from my guide that this was the Stone of Anointing, the spot where Jesus’s body was prepared for burial by Joseph of Arimathea. This was an important spot for Greek Orthodox Christians something I would think most Filipino Catholics have little awareness of.


A few steps down in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is the Aedicule, a large structure that houses Jesus’ tomb, found empty after three days before he reappeared again to His disciples. There were too many people surrouding it with a long line that I was not able to go inside.


The Aedicule – Inside is Jesus Tomb

Although a Christian tomb, most of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre seemed to follow the Armenian and Greek Christian tradition. The placed looked more Gothic than a typical Roman Catholic Church.


We are going to explore the Christian quarter further, but our tour guide advised us that there was a place (an important place, a major major location) he wanted to bring us to that was about to close so we changed tracks. We will come back to this area again later.

Which brings us now to one of the most important places in Judaism: The Wailing Wall. 


I’m sure a lot of Pinoys have seen it or heard of it (perhaps they’ve seen US presidents come here and pay their respects) but have no idea what it is. What is the Wailing Wall?


Prayers inserted to the wall.

The Wailing Wall is part of the Temple Mount, the most important site in all of Judaism. The Temple Mount is the Jewish version of Mecca, where Jews turn to face as they pray and many Jews visit the wall as part of their pilgrimage. So why a wall than the actual Temple?

The Temple Mount is currently under Islamic control. In fact, according to Jewish tradition, no Jews are allowed to set foot in the current Temple Mount. The Wailing Wall is where Jews come to mourn the destruction of their temple, and to pray that the Temple Mount will go back to Jewish hands!!! (wow, i did not know that till then!)

Israel-oneyearlater-20131119-PhotographybyLeoCastillo-LEO_3836-2 Israel-oneyearlater-20131119-PhotographybyLeoCastillo-LEO_3838 Israel-oneyearlater-20131119-PhotographybyLeoCastillo-LEO_3840Israel-oneyearlater-20131119-PhotographybyLeoCastillo-DSC_2380

The Temple Mount is one of the most contested religious sites in the world. Believe it or not, this place may be the whole point of why there is conflict in the Middle East! 

The tour guide then proceeds to bring us to the entrance of the Temple Mount, where we had to go through a MAJOR security checkpoint (obviously, I could not take pictures here).

As we were going through security,I asked my tour guide: “wait, aren’t you Jewish? I thought you were not allowed to set foot on the temple?”.

He said, “That’s ok. I’m a non practicing Jew”.

Haha. Oh well. It seems it’s a Jewish restriction, not a Muslim restriction. The same way I guess some Catholics eat meat on Fridays during Lent I guess.

Speaking of restrictions, there was a interesting rule when you enter the Temple Mount. You are not allowed to bring any sacred relic from another religion to the Temple. This includes a Bible, a sepulchre, a rosary or some pages of scripture. I wonder if this extends to crosses that most Pinoy Catholics where. Then I think about it and realize that this is yet another place most Christian pilgrimages skip (again, take the secular tour),

And lo and behold. Finally, we were at the Temple Mount.


So what was so special about it?

On the Temple Mount is The Dome of the Rock, which houses the rock where God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. Abraham went up, was about to slay his son, until an angel appeared and stopped him, with God satisfied that Abraham’s faith in the Lord has been proven.

ALL THREE Abrahamic Religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam started at this moment. At this location, all three sprung to life and the virtue of faith began.

The first was Judaism, who believed in one God named Yahweh who will one day send them a Messiah. The second was Christianity, which spun off from Judaism, who believed the Messiah has come and his name was Jesus Christ (the Jews said he was just an prophet; an important one though). The third was Islam, which spun off Judaism after Christ, and believed that Mohammed was the last and most important prophet. But it was in this rock, known as the Foundation Stone, where all three started. 


Due to the focus on Jesus rather than Abraham, this place became less important for Christians, but was still important to Jews and Muslims. Catholicism focused more on The Vatican in Rome rather than Jerusalem, so this place may not be on the radar for most Filipinos.


Due to the sensitive nature of this place, we were not allowed to enter the Temple. Here’s an image from Wikipedia for the Foundation Stone.

Oh and to go back, the center of King Solomon’s Temple was also said to be under the Dome of the Rock. This was where the Ark of the Covenant used to be.

Our deadline was approaching soon (there was a strict time when non Muslims were allowed near the Dome of the Rock) so we took a few photos and left.

We went back to the Christian area of Jerusalem and followed Via Dolorosa. Via Dolorosa (latin for the “Way of Grief) was the path Jesus walked as he carried his cross. Here is where you will find what tradition says were the actual Stations of the Cross. Via Dolorosa goes through two streets in Jerusalem, where you will find chapels for nine of the 14 stations (the other 5 were all inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre).


Here’s some video of people doing the stations at Via Dolorosa:

And so as we followed the pilgrimage our tour of Jerusalem was done! There is actually much more to see but it was a long day and we saw a lot of fascinating things.

Overall, Jerusalem is such a rich rich place which so much to discover. You can feel the history and majesty of what this place means, used to mean, and what it will mean in the future. It’s such a great window in understanding how the world is what it is today. There is so much texture to this place that I’d love to visit it again.

Anyway, that’s the city of Jerusalem. I had one more full day in Israel to follow and it’s a big one. Stay tuned for the next article!


P.S. One last thing. Right outside of the Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem is a mall. I guess we still have some commercial things near one of the holiest cities in the world. 😉

Day 7, Part 1: Things to keep in mind before visiting Jerusalem


The Israel flag waving at the Wailing Wall. You’ll learn why this is important later.

Jerusalem was one of the biggest highlights of my trip! As I was writing this article, I realized it was getting big and unwieldy due to the abundance of content, so I decided to break it into two parts. Before we talk about the tour proper, here’s some tips if you decide one of the oldest, most famous, most culturally richest cities in the world.


A fleeting glimpse of a Pinoy tour group!

Tip #1 – Do NOT take a pilgrimage tour!

A common way most Filipinos visit Israel is via pilgrimage, so you can learn more about the Christian faith. That’s fine and all, but you miss a major portion of what makes Jerusalem so special!

Jerusalem is an important city for all three of the major religions: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. There is a TON of things you will discover, and you’ll miss it if you focus on only one faith. Jerusalem is very layered and very complex, due to its significant role in culture and history. It’s full of great facts and opportunities for discovery, and it’s a true shame if you see (at a maximum) only a third of that story.


What’s this? One of the holiest places for Orthodox Christians, yet something unknown to most Roman Catholics. Things you’ll miss if you do a pilgrimage. Learn more in the next post.

Tip #2 – Keep an open mind!

Jerusalem has exchanged ownership across the three religions throughout its history, and you will see evidence of it along the way. Some of your own beliefs can be challenged or it may reveal some beautiful things about your own faith and others that may be new to you. The worst thing to do is to close off all of that. Keep an open mind, learn, and you’ll truly enjoy it in ways you may not have anticipated. 

Tip #3 – Don’t take too many things with you!

People ask is it safe there, and my answer is YES! Having said that, due to the nature of Jerusalem, there is some current of differences going on (I will explain later) but to help keep it safe ,there is a number of security checks in certain areas. If you bring too much you’ll take longer to get through the security checks.

Tip #4 – You can get a free tour to go around Jerusalem!

Jerusalem is actually relatively small, about the size of Intramuros. It’s very dense and I bet even if you go around the whole day you won’t see everything (well, you’ll see it, but you won’t know what it is). There are many local tour operators that can bring you around Jerusalem, but there is one that does a FREE trip that’s about 2 hours long: check out Abraham Tours also owns Hostel Abraham where I am staying. Having said that, due to my limited time in Israel, I took the paid whole day tour, which is relatively cheap at only 90 NIS (PHP 10000 or USD 20). 


Fantastic cultural architecture abounds around the walled city.

Some of the people who joined the whole day tour said that it was worth still getting the free tour, but do the free one first. The free tour focused quick highlights and the paid tour focused on details. As an example, in the free one they point “that’s the Wailing Wall” so you can go there later on your own. In the paid one, you go in and they spend more time explaining the place. You also only go to the Dome of the Rock on the paid tour.

So in summary: Don’t take a pilgrimage tour, keep an open mind, don’t take too many things with you, and you can do it for free (though the paid one is not to be missed). With that in mind, I’ll talk about my own tour of Jerusalem in the next post. Don’t worry, it’s all written up and won’t take too long after this post 🙂


Day 6: The Journey to Israel #OneYearLater

Editor’s note: New content is here! I wanted to post it earlier this year, but the news cycle then was a little tricky. 🙂

Before I share to you all the wonders of Jerusalem, there’s a story to be told on the way there.


The first is at Delhi Airport. What’s the story here? Well, remember in India, cows are considered sacred animals. For this reason, beef isn’t very popular… so what does McDonald’s India have?

Well they have this….


Yes, that’s Paneer Passion. What is Paneer? Paneer is a cottage chess patty, with a similar but stiffer consistency as tofu, kinda like kesong putt. Crunchy on the outside and tender on the outside, it’s an unusual replacement for a beef patty.

I got it with Shake Shake fries with Piri Piri (Peri Peri?) Spice Max. The fries came out super salty, which is funny since the Paneer Passion was super bland!

From Delhi, I fly to Israel via Tashkent, using Uzbekistan Airways.


I was kind dreading this leg because of all the horror stories about Tashkent airport, and I’ve never flown a plane by a former Soviet State. Stories of zero english and tourists being taken advantage of were prevalent all over the net when they describe “one of the busiest airports in Central Asia”.


Here’s the description of Tashkent from TripAdvisor: “I have never been so disgusted and repulsed as a traveler in an international airport as I was in my short stay at Tashkent international airport”.


Eventually I get to Tashkent and what do we have here! A new wing! Much nicer than what I was expecting! There was free wifi too, so my 4 hour layover wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be.


I stayed a few hours, did some email, and and boarded my flight from Tashkent to Tel Aviv. It wasn’t as bad as I thought it was, and I discover that the airline I was flying was actually pretty decent. 😉


Finally I arrive at Israel, Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. Ben Gurion is one of the highest security airports in the world, but since I arrived quite early (5:35AM!) and there wasn’t a lot of people, I breezed thru relatively quickly.


A common thing people ask is how Israel handles passports. Israel happens to be one of those places that is not popular to a certain segment of the world, and you may be denied entry in those countries if they find out you are a friend of Israel.

So to avoid this trouble, Israel DOES NOT stamp your passport. What they do instead is give a separate immigration card. I was told to make sure not to lose the card or I might have problems leaving. Here’s how it looks:


On the way out of the airport, I decided to do something first: get some online internet. Unlike India, this wasn’t a fully guided tour, so I needed to find my way around. I found a place selling prepaid  data SIMs. I got a 4 day unlimited data plan, on a Nano SIM even! I don’t remember the exact price but remember it was relatively cheap, about P600 ($15).

Since i didn’t have airport pickup this time, I had to find my own way to Jerusalem. Taxi was one option, train was another, but the most cost effective option is to take a shuttle bus. Here’s a video (care of Abraham Hostel):

I watched this video prior to Israel so I knew what I had to do. Perfect since i was actually staying at Abraham Hostel. I found the bus, paid the shekels, got on board, and then that’s where the story started taking a bizarre turn. 

For some strange reason, it took a LOOONG time for a shuttle to leave. I guess because I took my time in the airport exploring and getting my data SIM I missed the window when a lot of people were taking the shuttle. There wasn’t a lot of people in the airport. 10 mins passed by. 15 minutes. 20 minutes! 30 mins passed by and we were still waiting! Why weren’t we moving? That’s when I found out because our shuttle wasn’t full!

The driver, an old man in his 60s and 70s started asking people to ride with him. He was unsuccessful since a lot of people were going another way. Finally, he seemed to lock on to this one guy. He took some time trying to convince him.  Our shuttle was going one way, this guy was going another way. At the end, the driver agreed to bring the guy the other way after he dropped all of us.

The trip from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem was just a little over an hour, but it took a bit longer since the shuttle dropped people off on the suburb. Suddenly, at some point, we heard shouting. I’m not sure, but I think the drive was reneging on his promise to bring the guy the other way. They kept shouting and yelling at each other in a mix of English and Yiddish, and you can tell the rest of the people in the shuttle were getting uncomfortable. 

When there was about 5 of us left, the young guy went down, and the driver ran after him!! They started yelling at each other in the streets, and started causing a commotion, everyone on the street stopped to watch, and a crowd formed!

This went on for 15 minutes and the rest of my bus mates started looking at each other. One of them called a friend to pick him up from where we were. An old woman next to me said she’s never seen anything like this her whole life, and she’s lived here for 15 years. I was actually considering ditching the shuttle where it was and grab a taxi.

Just when I decided to pick up my bags, go down, and do exactly that, it looks like cooler heads prevailed. The driver and the young guy went back in, looking like they’ve made some kind of agreement. After almost 3 hours, I arrived at my hostel for what should’ve been a 45 minute trip. WOW. My India trip was perfect, and looks like my Israel trip didn’t start the same way. Imagine all that time lost!

This wasn’t my first mishap for the day. The second mishap was when I arrived at Abraham Hostel. The check0in went well, but it turns out the Market Tour which I wanted to join and was really looking forward to wasn’t happening that day (see my previous post describing it here). They decided to do a Hostel Party that day since they had special guests (some festival was in town) so they went with that as their event of the day. Argh.

Oh well…. I guess I have some time to explore the nearby area… and guess what I discovered?

Wow…. Jerusalem was a much more beautiful city than I thought. 

I’ll leave it there first, and tell you the story in the next post 🙂