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Israel/Jordan/Palestine: Win One For The Kippa

Part 3: Dead Sea / Palestine
Segments of the Dead Sea / Palestine section include:

Day 8: The Dead Sea

Dead Sea Mud Monsters
Dead Sea Mud Monsters

Up early and feeling better, which is good as today we have booked a tour to the Masada and the Dead Sea. The Dead Sea is not only the lowest place on Earth (430m below sea level), it's also pretty close to the the hottest. I am not sure whether a human being can spontaneously burst into flames, but there's a 50-50 chance that today is the day I'll find out.

Masada is home of the last stronghold of the Jews fighting the Roman army (around 2000 years ago) and Israel's most popular national park. We cable car up the mountain and it is smokin' hot. Mid 40s is a definite possibility. Everyone in the group is sweating profusely. Interestingly, despite all the sunshine, we have used minimal sunscreen on the trip but have also picked up little colour and no sunburns; supposedly the Dead Sea climate makes it very hard to burn, but we have found that to be true of everywhere in Israel so far. If I'm not tanned, how am I supposed to make everyone at home jealous, dangit?!

Wandering through the ruins, I hang near the back of the group, taking photos. I am carrying too much stuff and, when re-adjusting my camera, accidentally drop my water bottle straight into one of the cordoned-off rooms of the ruins below. My water bottle now sits agonizingly out of reach, in the middle of a two millennia-old site of massive importance to people of Jewish faith. The one American guy behind me says, "I didn't see anything!" and walks on. With Stephanie's help, I use my childhood expertise on the monkey bars to bend over backwards, reach down and grab it. The cap, however, remains to this day a 2000 year-old artifact.

Later, our guide talks about the birds that loiter around the area, mentioning how tame and intelligent they are, and how they will eat out of people's hands. I find a bit of cracker sitting on the rock and hold it in my hand, to check it out. One bird hops over towards me, coming to within about two feet. "Too-wiiit," it says sweetly, and hops a few inches nearer. Our guide continues talking about the birds, with everyone's focus on him. "Too-wiiit," it chirps happily again. And then, it hisses at me. Loud. It sounds like a demonic rattlesnake that is having a particularly bad morning. Everyone turns and faces us now. The bird looks at me holding the cracker and hisses at me again, much to the delight of the group. "That bird really hates you!" says a smiling Belgian guy.

The temperature is pretty overwhelming at this point. We cable car down from the mountain then bus over to the Dead Sea. It's fantastic. We walk in, fall down, and float in the hot, hot water. It elicits giggles from a number of people. Though I've heard the floating described numerous times, I'm still happily amazed. You can turn over, flip, and float around with incredible ease. It's hard to even sit in a squatting position, as the buoyancy automatically tips you upwards. When we get to a deep part, we stand up straight and use our arms to try and propel ourselves downwards but the buoyant water shoots us back up. It's like being inside a hot water trampoline. After 20 minutes and getting the intensely foul taste of the water on our lips, we get out.

We then grab some mud and cake ourselves in it. The mud is said to have properties that are great for the skin and so people from around the world use it for dermatological treatment. Like most people there, we do it because it's fun. I cover myself from head to toe and play in it, like a child. Curative propertives, shmurative properties; how often do I get to smear myself in mud?! (According to Stephanie: Every Sunday during the rainy Victoria soccer season)

For dinner, we end up at a restaurant, the fantastically-named "Kitchen and Beer". I order a burger with sweet potato fries, which ends up being regular potato fries covered in table syrup. So long as it's no longer 45C, I am more than happy.

Masada / Dead Sea Photos
View from Masada, Israel Getting Below Sea Level, Israel The Sea Level Camel, Israel 417m Below Sea Level, Dead Sea, Israel Floating in the Dead Sea Relaxing at the Dead Sea Applying Dead Sea Mud Dead Sea Mud Treatment Dead Sea Mud Treatment Dead Sea Mud Monsters

Day 9: Palestine (The West Bank)

Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem
Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem

Today we are on our way to Bethlehem in the West Bank, a day about which I have had particular excitement since booking the trip. Laden with a number of bags, we opt for a cab ride to the checkpoint, where we wonder exactly how long it will take us to get through. We haven't found much information about this online besides the fact that security is heavy and we should prepare to be treated like cattle. Security has already been significant on this trip so far, so we're prepared for a few hours of wait time.

The cab driver convinces us that he can take us all the way to Bethlehem, so we go for it. At one point our cabbie flies past an army guard and waves a quick hello. We drive on in silence, but something seems a little different.

"I think... we're in Palestine," I say hesitantly. Not only was it just one guard at the border crossing, we didn't even stop. The Israeli shopping malls had higher security than this border!

We arrive at our hotel, the Bethlehem Star, for which I had made an internet reservation a couple of days previously. We walk in and announce we're here to check in. The desk clerk stares at us in stunned silence. He eventually grabs a book and starts writing something that we will be expected to fill out. When I explain that I already have a reservation he seems unsure what to do, or look for.

It soon becomes very clear we're just about the only people in the hotel and that having a guest at all - much less ones who made a reservation - is a rather shocking and unexpected turn of events for him. This feeling that we are alone in the hotel is confirmed later on when we come back to the hotel that night and there is a different clerk, one we haven't seen before, and he already has our room key ready before we even tell him what room we're staying in. The bonus of being alone in an 80-room hotel is that we get a killer view from one of the best rooms; the downside is that it kind of feels like "The Shining".

We walk through a bustling market before heading to Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity, where 7lb 8oz baby Jesus was born. We grab a fantastic Middle Eastern lunch of humus, falafel, mashabacha (warm whole and pureed chickpeas) and an insanely good drink of lemon juice with mint. The restaurant has no menus and no bills so we're not entirely sure what we're ordering or what anything will cost but it's so good I don't care. We end the night relaxing by Manger Square with the most horrid glass of wine in this history of mankind and a pretty decent Palestinian beer. Life is good, even if the wine isn't.

Bethelehem Photos
Bethlehem, West Bank, Palestine Manger Square, Bethlehem, West Bank Church of the Nativity (Jesus' birthplace?), Bethlehem, West Bank Door of Humility at Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem, West Bank Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem, West Bank Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem, West Bank Sunlight Through Stained Glass at the Milk Grotto, Bethlehem, West Bank Completely Legal (I'm sure) Friends Restaurant, Bethlehem, West Bank Manger Square at Night, Bethlehem, West Bank Bethlehem at Night, West Bank, Palestine Apartheid Wall, Israel/Palestine

Day 10-11: Bethlehem->Tel Aviv

Sunlight Through Stained Glass at the Milk Grotto, Bethlehem, West Bank
Sunlight Through Stained Glass at the Milk Grotto
Bethlehem, West Bank

We wake up and head to breakfast in the hotel. The dining room is totally desolated. In a room set up for around 150 people, three are place settings - two for Steph and I and one (at different table) for somebody else, who isn't there. The staff have clearly been waiting for our arrival for over an hour when we show up. While being waited on hand and foot at an empty hotel, I can't tell whether to feel extremely popular or completely the opposite.

We decide to try catching the bus to Jerusalem, unsure of how it will be with security at the border. This time, we stop for a full three minutes at the checkpoint, where two border guards give our passports a cursory "how soon can I get back to my game of Angry Birds?" check before letting us pass right through. Not that I want there to be more sever security measures, but again this strikes us as a bit odd, particularly when at other points we have been frisked before using a McDonald's bathroom.

We bus back to Tel Aviv and end up at the same hotel and same sour-smelling room as before, then head immediately back down to the beach, where we carouse in the sea and on the sand for a couple of hours. We venture out to a delicious local brewpub where - running theme, now - we are the only patrons. I wonder if we should be taking this personally but I'm too blissed out from a day on the Mediterranean to care too much.

The Maccabi Games have just been on in Israel and ended and so our 13-hour flight to Toronto is filled with around 75% teenagers who have been participating, which isn't a particularly relaxing way to end a vacation. Get me back to the 48C weather, please!!