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...
...so 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").
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.
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.