We finally made it to Israel on Wednesday morning. It was a bit of a journey. We woke in the Bedouin camp, had breakfast, and a Bedouin drove us back to our car at 7am (earlier than anyone else). We then drove to Aqaba and the Wadi Araba border crossing. On the way, Renee called the rental car company to arrange them to be at the border crossing to take the car from us. But they informed us that they would not meet us before 9am. We were asking for 8:30am. We had a driver waiting for us in Israel at 9am. So Renee had to email them to tell them we were going to be late. Finally, the guy showed up and we were off!
I did not know about exit fees. I have never had to pay to leave a country before and I had given the last of my Jordanian dinars to Ahmed at the camp. And Renee did not have 20, which we needed for both of us to exit. So I had to find the currency exchange and change $10 to dinars. Then I got my exit pass, went to passport control, and was allowed to leave! We showed our passports to one more person and then began the (short) walk across the border. Once we arrived in Israel, we fielded some questions about our bags and whether anyone gave us anything, gifts, etc. Whether the bags had been with us the whole time. That stuff. We put our bags through an x-ray scanner and unfortunately Beverly was in front of us in line. See, Beverly had two large bags (that she could not lift…she was older) and they were inspecting them after the bags exited the x-ray. One bag just contained more bags/suitcases. But the other? Oh, that was a treasure trove of odd items. She had framed pencil drawings, ziploc bags of manila envelopes, bags of markers, pens and pencils, and many more oddities. Our bags were collecting on the x-ray table, but we didn’t know if we had to wait or what to do. Finally the guy searching Beverly’s bags told us to take our stuff.
The next stop was passport control. There appeared to be one line open with a guy in it. But no one working. We had to stand there for some time before the employee came. When it was my turn, I could see that I think the employee conducting the questioning was in training. She was incredibly thorough. I had to answer many, many, many questions about my previous travels, job, destinations in Israel, etc. She even asked to see my emails about hiring a driver to bring us to Jerusalem. But I made it! Unfortunately they do not stamp passports. We had thought it was an option for them to stamp a piece of paper instead, but she said no, they don’t even have stamps. Wah wah. Finally was customs, which we bypassed, and then one more passport checkpoint and we were in!
We met David, our driver, who had been waiting for us for an hour, and we were off. He was awesome. Very friendly, funny, and spoke decent English. Our first stop was Timna Park, in the Negev Desert. David initally thought he had never been there, then later remembered he was there as a child. So he drove us through (the park was huge and you needed to drive it) and acted the tourist as well! He snapped many pictures with his phone and went to see things at stops along with us. It was a lot of fun. Except for the altercation with Mr. Douchebag at the Timna Oasis. See my photo on Facebook for that story!
After we left Timna Park we were setting out for Masada. We stopped halfway for lunch at a coffeeshop called Aroma. I had a roast beef sandwich and a chocolate chip cookie. Both were amazing. The roast beef sandwich was probably the best I had ever had! Then we were back on the road. We noticed that David was drinking DC and eating Snickers bars (he is diabetic, so he had the Snickers on hand for emergencies), which have been my go-to on this trip because we have often missed meals. In fact, this day was the first that we had three meals in a long time! We arrived at Masada at 3:12. The last cable car up left at 3:00pm. They let us drive up to where you get tickets to see if there was anything we could do, but there wasn’t. I am very disappointed that I didn’t get to see Masada.
We jetted over to Ein Gedi then, but guess what? It closed at 3:00pm as well. We quickly learned that “winter hours” were not our friend. I think David felt bad about everything being closed (which, really, it was Budget Rental Car’s fault for not meeting us at 8:30!), so he went to a beach on the Dead Sea. You were supposed to pay to get in, but he talked them into letting us in for 10 mins to “feel the water.” We didn’t have the heart to tell him that we had already been in the Sea because he was being so nice! After that it was on to Jerusalem!
We arrived at our Airbnb around 6:00-6:30pm and set off in search of dinner and a walk through the Mahane Yehuda Market, which were almost staying right inside of! The market was amazing, but we decided not to eat there. Renee wasn’t feeling well, so she was going to skip dinner. In that case, I decided on a place called Burger Market on the ground floor of the building our apartment was in. She saw that they had a veggie burger, so she decided to eat after all. It was very good. She said her burger was one of the best veggie burgers she’s ever had. Mine was delicious as well!
After dinner I went through and researched opening hours for all of the places/sights that we wanted to see. I did not want to get caught in a “winter hours” snafu again! We decided that Temple Mount would be the first stop on our list for Thursday and it is only open limited hours. So we got up early and made our way to the Old City. We entered through the Damascus Gate, which was the light rail stop. We were making our way toward Temple Mount, but were slowed by a gaggle of children all walking to school. There were a few men walking with them, one of whom I was sure was carrying. But another one saw us and said good morning. We were behind the kids almost the entire way, before they turned off and we were met with a security checkpoint and x-ray machine. I was very confused because I didn’t think I had missed a sign for Temple Mount but didn’t know what was going on. The guy, Ilan, who had said good morning to us called out that the Western Wall was through the security. That wasn’t going to be first on our list, but we were there, so in we went.
It was pretty quiet that early in the morning and it was very peaceful. We did not approach the wall, but went into the women’s section and observed. I said a prayer. It was nothing like it would be later that afternoon! But we needed to get to Temple Mount, so we exited the Western Wall where we came in, because I thought I must have missed a sign and we had been supposed to turn. We ended up accidentally trying to access Temple Mount through a Muslim-only gate, so the security guard instructed us how to access it for non-Muslims. Back to the Western Wall we went! I had not missed a sign!
As we entered the area, we saw Ilan, the guy who had helped us earlier and was escorting the kids to school. He stopped us and we chatted briefly. He suggested meeting up with us later, when he was off of work, so we connected on Facebook. Then we were able to figure out how to get up to the Temple Mount and there was virtually no line. Winter hours may suck, but there are other serious pros to traveling in the off-season! It was somewhat surreal to be up there, in the holiest place on earth. At least to Christians, Jews, and Muslims. But it is also one of the most controversial, especially between Jews and Muslims.
This was the site where King Herod built the first temple and where the second temple stood before the Roman invasion in 70AD. Jews also believe that this will be site where the third and final temple is built. Because they believe that this is where the Holy of Holies stood, so they do not go to the Temple Mount for fear of walking on it. Temple Mount also has another name, Mount Moriah, which is said to be the site where Abraham was going to sacrifice Isaac and where Jews believe the foundation rock of the world exists. To Muslims this is the third holiest site as they believe it is where Muhammad ascended to Heaven. While Christians do not need a specific place to worship God or pray, due to the shared history and beliefs of the Old Testament with the Jews, it is still considered a holy place.
When Muslims took over the Temple Mount, they constructed the Dome of the Rock. It is stunning. It is one of the most beautiful buildings I have ever seen (the outside of). I think I took almost 20 pictures of it in some form. Maybe more! And because we were there so early, there weren’t many tourists. At first. We were up there for about an hour and at the end there were a lot more people there. We exited back into the Old City from the Muslim gate we initally tried entering through, and made our way to the Via Dolorosa.
The Via Dolorosa is Latin for “Way of Sorrow.” It follows the route that Jesus took after being convicted and sentenced to cruifixion by Pontius Pilate. It also contains the Stations of the Cross, which we walked. Starting with the Church of the Flagellation, where Christ was beaten and the other chapel where Christ received the cross (this one was closed because services were in session). We made our way along all 14 stations, at least until number 9. At number 8 a shopkeeper informed us where number 9 was, but I couldn’t find it. Even after backtracking. Numbers 10-14 are inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which we went into and walked through, but never saw the signs for the stations. Inside the Church we saw an Armenian Orthodox service begin, saw the anointing stone upon which Christ’s body was laid as they prepared him for burial, and we saw the rock of Calvary. I didn’t know that the Church was in the location of Calvary, as I thought Calvary was further outisde of the Old City. There was a place where you could touch the rock, which reminded me of the Scala Sancta in Rome. (The marble steps that were inside of Pontius Pilate’s house and that Jesus walked up to his trial. They are currently covered in wood and you ascend them on your knees, but at the top is a cut out where you can touch the marble.)
We then decided to walk around to find lunch and I am in the market for a new Nativity set, so we did some shopping as well. Earlier, Renee had bought a water from a Falafel shop and they gave her two free falafel balls. She said that they were the best she had ever had, so we decided to go there for lunch, as I had never had falafel before! It was delicious! Finally some new food I tried on this trip and actually liked! (Well, tabouleh was fine, but it was nothing to write home about.) In fact, I liked it so much I want to go there one more time before we leave!
We decided to make our way to the Room of the Last Supper and King David’s tomb, which meant that we exited out from the Western Wall area again. This time, the area was hopping! Inside, we saw a group with blue and white balloons, so I surmised that it was a bar mitzvah. After we exited, we saw below us a line up of bar mitzvahs waiting to get inside. They were performing ceremonies and it was awesome to witness. We stood there and watched and took photos and videos. One of the kids definitely looked embarrassed! Typical teenager!
The Tomb of King David wasn’t really what I was expecting, but I really like the Room of the Last Supper. I mean, it’s just a room with some stained glass, but I sat there and contemplated what occurred in the room. This whole part of the trip is just surreal. To walk where Jesus walked and to sit where He sat. To see and experience these things has been incredible. Across from the tomb building was a Holocaust memorial. We didn’t know anything about it beforehand, but went in to check it out. It was very moving. It was the first holocaust memorial in Israel (before Yad Vashem) and it was created by the Jews who fled Europe. There are marble headstones that represent towns in Europe from which the Jews fled. They were innumerable. They just went on and on in room after room. They also brought back ashes from the crematoria and there is a memorial of that with all of the concentration camps listed.
After we finished there, I was really over walking. Plus, our next stop was the Mount of Olives and it was too far to walk anyway. But getting a cab, that would take credit cards (because the ATMs had been hit or miss as to whether they worked or gave us enough cash), and drive us where we wanted to go was a hassle. Eventually I tried Uber, which I think just connected to cabs. One guy didn’t want to come to where we were and kept asking me to cancel the ride. So I did. Once we hailed a cab on the street. Which I thought was going to take a credit card. He didn’t. But he did take dollars. So we paid too much for that ride, according to Ilan, but we got to sit down for a while, so it was worth it! Plus, he didn’t understand where we wanted to go, but he understood Mount of Olives. So when he realized where we wanted to go was down, but we were already up, he suggested we get out to see the view and take a picture. We did.
Then he brought us down and we toured the Tomb of the Virgin Mary and the Garden of Gethsemane. Again, I can’t put into words what it was like to be in that garden. Where Jesus went to pray, knowing he was about to be handed over to the Romans. Just incredible. There was a church there, the Church of All Nations. We went inside and saw that a service was taking place. We observed it for a bit before heading back out. And trying to get another cab to bring us back to our apartment…or near there. Again, no luck on Uber. I had a driver cancel immediately when the ride was assigned; then I had a driver again ask me to cancel and I said no, so he said “fuck you” and gave me middle finger emojis…I told him I would be reporting him; and then we ended up with the same driver who had earlier asked me to cancel. He asked again and I said no, we would wait for him to get through traffic and pick us up. After about 15 mins, at least, I saw that he wasn’t moving and was faced in the opposite direction. It was clear he wasn’t coming. Thankfully a guy trying to sell us something either called a friend of his or saw a friend of his and asked him to take us, unbeknownst to us. The driver also said he would bring us to an ATM that would work with our cards. Along the way, he picked up another rider who was going in the same direction as we were.
Meanwhile, I was messaging with Ilan, who was going to meet us for a drink in the market. He told us we were getting ripped off and gave us the range that we should pay for the trip and what not to pay more than. So that helped! And when we were dropped off, Renee told the girl not to pay him when she arrived at her destination because we had paid him more than enough! I wonder what went down with her.
We then met Ilan at a bar in the market, where we chatted for a few hours before the three of us headed out to get dinner. I had to change first, especially my footwear because my feet were killing me! We found a restaurant that wasn’t crazy busy and I had pitas stuffed with lamb. It was ground lamb, though, which I wasn’t expecting. After dinner we had shots of an anise liqueur, which I figured I would hate because I hate black licorice, but it tasted more like black jelly beans, which I love!
We called it a night after dinner because we were exhausted. I actually fell asleep on the couch editing photos before 10pm I was so tired. We covered a lot of ground and saw a lot more in one day than I thought we would. Plus, we met a new, local friend! It was a great day!