Monday, July 21, 2014

A Novice's Guide to Israel: Part Two

It's the intensity of the light you notice most. Everything -- buildings, trees, rocks, people -- stands out in stark sculptural relief. And Goethe's observation that "where there is much light, the shadows are deepest" applies to the political landscape as much as it does the terrain. There is no gray in Israel.
(All photos by LBG, 2014.)

We stopped at a Bedouin outpost where a convoy of camels awaited us. FYI, the hardest part of riding a camel is the getting up part.  First, they lurch upwards with their forelegs so you need to clutch the saddle to keep from sliding backwards, and then when they extend their back legs you nearly get catapulted head over heels. Once you're up, though, it's relatively smooth sailing.

Contrary to reputation, our camel was a jovial fellow.

We spent two days at the Beresheet Hotel which sits perched on the edge of the three million year old Ramon Crater. It's an entirely new genre of resort: "luxury science fiction."

Colonies of minimalist architectural villas rise up out of the earth like natural rock formations. Underneath the stinging gaze of the sun, you're hard pressed to distinguish them from the landscape.

It's a strange feeling to sit in a modern hotel room and gaze at the ancient world. Do you recall in the Bible the part where the Jews wandered in the desert for forty years to get to Israel? Well, that's where they wandered. Right down there.

One morning, we hopped aboard this sturdy Lego-like contraption and traveled down into the heart of the crater.

But in the Judean wilderness even all-terrain vehicles have their limits... we left our spaceship and trekked to this ancient motel frequented by weary ancient Spice Route travelers. Squint and you can almost see the caravans of camels bearing fabled spices, perfumes, silks, gems and precious salt on their way to the port of Gaza. 

After dinner one evening we were invited into a Bedouin tent for some music and mint tea. Outside, a fierce wind whipped the tent fabric causing it to undulate in time to the drumbeats. I sipped my sticky sweet concoction and was completely caught up in the romance of taking refuge from a desert scirocco in a goat skin beyt sha'r ("house of hair"). 

In Israel, every square inch of land is an open-air museum. You realize this of course after a day or two, but it never loses its ability to shock. I was gazing out the window when our tour guide suddenly remarked, "By the way, that's the valley where David fought Goliath."

We spent an afternoon at Yad Vashem, the national memorial to the Holocaust. After touring the underground museum with all of its profoundly affecting artifacts and video testimonies, you emerge into light and air and a view of the city of Jerusalem. The message is clear: Despite the horror, what endures is hope. 

When we visited Masada, a few in our group chose to hike up to the fortress at sunrise. I wish I could tell you I was one of them. The rest of us took the five minute cable car up to the top.

From the lookout points, you can still see the remains of the Roman ramp that breached the fortress walls when it was under siege in 73 A.D. It's horrible to think of the 945 Jewish rebels watching helplessly as that ramp slowly grew higher day after day, knowing there was no escape.

If heights don't bother you, by all means take the hairpin series of wooden steps which lead down to the Northern Palace, King Herod's royal villa. Very few people seem to go down there, so photo opportunities are spectacular.

On the way out, I couldn't resist taking a photo of this adventurous-looking nun in a baseball cap.

From Masada, the Dead Sea is just a short drive away. At 1400 feet below sea level, it's the lowest spot on Earth. I knew the water was going to be salty (at 34% salinity, it's ten times saltier than the ocean), but what I didn't realize is that it would be the temperature of a hot tub in July. However, the floating part is no exaggeration. You are so supported by the buoyancy of the water that you can pretty much fall asleep. In fact, I think my son did.

At the end of the trip, we flew to Eilat and took a day trip to Petra, Jordan. 

Again and again during this trip, I found myself invigorated by the emptiness of the landscape. There's still a lot of nothingness in the world. 

You can see the city of Petra on two feet or four: camel, donkey, horse. 

We opted for two feet because it seemed much more sociable.

From the main entrance, you walk steeply down a two kilometer sky-high gorge of sandstone that in one place is only ten feet wide.

Along the way, you pass ancient tombs and statues that date from as early as the 5th century B.C.

I was familiar with the famous Treasury building from movies like "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom," but even though I knew it was coming, when I turned the corner and caught my first glimpse of that ancient facade through a sliver in the rock walls, it was breathtaking.

And there it was, rose red and half as old as time, complete with camels and costumed centurions to make the illusion complete.

While the children hid from the sun underneath the lantern-bedecked awning of a souvenir shop, my friend and I did some Bedouin-style bargaining to hire donkeys to take us up a nearby mountain. 

I'm happy to say we were successful. 


WendyMcLeodMacKnight said...

Spectacular. We forget how spectacular this part of the world is for visiting, as it is so often ravaged by unrest. Thanks for sharing your trip with us, Lisa!

Hels said...

The bedouin tent looks fantastic, with the spacious coolness, colourful rugs and mint tea. Some Bedouin music and sweet pastry ....and a person need never go outside :)

Where were the camels, while you were lounging back on divans?

Beautiful Things said...

Absolutely fascinating posts. I really, REALLY need to do more travelling.

NotesFromAbroad said...

Such a mind-blowingly fabulous place :)
Stepping way back in time .. I loved the photos, thank you.
Thanks to the way things were in Russia many many years ago, I have in-laws in Isreal.
I really should take advantage of that :)

Anonymous said...

Hurrah! So glad your blog is back. I missed it while you were away, but am loving the trip reports. What a fascinating glimpse of an amazing place.

Karena Albert said...

Lisa this memorable journey will stay with your family a lifetime (or longer) I get shivers just thinking about the history of such holy land.

The Arts by Karena

Tree said...

Wow-o-Wow! Thanks for sharing your adventure.

Lisa Thomson said...

Wow, spectacular photos, Lisa. Thanks for sharing as this is a country I know so little about. Great tips on riding a camel. I hope one day I get the chance. :)

Lisa Hjalt said...

What an adventure you must have had! Thanks for sharing with us.

JudyMac said...

The picture of your son and the "jovial" camel is worth a million bucks! ... and quite a few laughs. (That is your son, isn't it?) I'm sure he won't forget this trip anytime soon--lucky boy. Your photography skills are amazing, but then again, just look at what you were shooting. :-) Great trip!

marmee said...

wonderful luminous pics! I am a south african and i do wonder if you would have visited here in the dark days of apartheid and not at least mentioned the politics that pervaded every part of life....even when it was "hidden" behind so called security walls and when life is so so different behind that wall....

laura Madalene said...

I love all of the features this week - so much inspiration! Thank you for graciously hosting this party,

Portobello Design said...

Breathtaking! Love the sweet picture of your son floating on the Dead Sea. "Bedouin-style bargaining to hire donkeys", you must teach me for my local farmers market, whose prices seem to change. :) Wonderful post, so happy to come along. All the best, Rié

Cait McCann Vincent said...

What a stunningly beautiful holiday! Looking at the pictures makes me feel as if I have stepped into a Somerset Maugham novel. Thank you for sharing these, Lisa!


p.s. I'm a long time blog reader and have loved keeping up with your adventures over the years. I also grew up in Michigan so I feel like we share a tiny connection!

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its elizabeth said...

great place so rich with history.I wish to visit it someday

pve design said...

I need to send you my a souvenir.

Hels said...

I love the text and photos in this post!! But I am receiving dozens of nasty, commercially oriented comments to this post that have nothing to do with Israel.

Please please please delete horrid anonymous comments BEFORE they are emailed to all your readers.

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