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

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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.

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Tour mate Tomasso from Italy

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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).

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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 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.

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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….

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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.

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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”.

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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”.

YIKES!!!

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.

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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. 😉

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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.

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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:

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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 🙂

Leo

The Plan: Israel

So after India, I’m heading to the holiest of all Holy Places: JERUSALEM.

Did you know all of the three major religions (Christianity, Judaism, Islam) are actually spin-offs of one another? They all come from the same root, Abraham! In essence, here’s the differences:

– Christians believe a saviour has come and his name is Jesus.
– Jews believe a saviour will come one of these days, and it’s not Jesus (he’s just a prophet, as far as they’re concerned)
– Islam believes that Muhhamed is the last prophet, and restored the original Abraham religion

In any case, all of them believe that Jerusalem is a truly valuable place. Given it’s cultural importance, and seeing that this was a non-visa country, I could NOT resist visiting for my round the world trip!

I have a more open schedule here compared to India, given that I’ll just be staying in Jerusalem.

The Dome of the Rock, located at  Al-Aqsa Mosque, photo courtesy of Wikipedia

One place I don’t want to miss is the most significant place for all three Abrahamic Religions: the Dome of the Rock, considered as “the most contested real estate on earth”. How so?
– Islamic scholars believe this is where the prophet Muhammed rose to heaven. For a time Islams faced here when they prayed, later changed to Mecca.
– Jewish tradition says this is where Abraham went to sacrifice Isaac before the angel stopped him. The Foundation Stone is here, which Judaism believes connects Heaven & Earth.
– Christians believe Constantine set up his first church here, leading to the rise of Roman Catholicism. And yes, it was in Jerusalem that Jesus himself walked and preached and eventually crucified

There’s also a rumour that the REAL Ark of the Covenant was buried. Either way, how can you not miss this place?

Other important places worth visiting are the Wailing Wall, The Mount of Olives, The Holocaust Museum, The Garden of Gethsamane, and so on and so forth. I think I won’t run out of things to check out in Jerusalem. I was actually panning to visit Tel Aviv too but Jerusalem was just too rich a place not to stay longer. Maybe I can go to Tel Aviv next time.

Floating at the Dead Sea, care of Wikipedia

In addition to Jerusalem, I plan to take a trip to the infamous Dead Sea! The Dead Sea is the densest sea in the world, where you can actually float unassisted. It’s also hear where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. But did you know there’s way way more to discover about it? Here’s a list: http://twistedsifter.com/2012/06/10-things-you-didnt-know-about-the-dead-sea/. The Dead Sea is apparently only about an hour away from Jerusalem, so it looks like it’s worth the trip.

To make things simple I’ll be staying in one place, it’s called Abraham Hostel. Going a bit budget so I have more to spend to tour. It’s only 500 meters away from Old Jerusalem (just about a 5 minute walk) , and it’s also a tour operator. One of the things I’m looking forward to is their Market Cooking Tour where we go to a local market to buy Jerusalem food stuff which we’ll then cook and have a feast in the evening! Good out-of-the-way not-the-usual-touristy thing event.

Fist you shop…

…then you eat!! Images courtesy of Abraham Hostel.

Anyway, I’ll be in Israel for 4 days, and looks like I’ll have a ball here…. at last that’s the plan. We’ll see how the actual experience goes. After Israel I’m off to one of the biggest stops in my trip: KENYA! I’ll tell you more about it later.

Leo