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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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 http://www.abrahamtours.com. 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). 

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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 🙂

Leo