Three jeeps, filled with mostly young and idealistic Westerners and driven by former Special Forces members, are going along the mine fields between Syria and Israel. They arrive to an abandoned Syrian hospital, with some soldiers in front of it. They go up to the rooftop, through the crumbling hospital, carefully going up staircases that have been bombed. Once they get up, their tour guide says "See that building 300 meters away? There's an Al-Qaeda sniper looking at you from there! Don't worry, if he wanted you dead, he'd have shot you a long time ago.".
That was just a short part of my trip to Israel. I had wanted to go for quite some time, to see "The Holy Land" and all the places where much of the Bible happened. In July, I found out that some friends from New York were going, so I pretended to be a New Yorker and I joined them. It was a really fun trip, both because of everything I saw and did, but also because of the opportunity to have lots of fellowship with my dear brothers and sisters from New York, Portland, Seattle and Jerusalem.
The adventures started at the airport. I made the mistake of flying El Al, the safest airline in the world. They achieve this by having their own custom security checks. When you go to the baggage drop off, somebody starts asking you questions about your luggage (both standard ones like "Who packed your bags?" and ones like "Are you taking anything to the Google office in Tel Aviv?"). Then you get a mark on your boarding pass. I got a red sign, which I'm guessing made me one of "The Marked" ones. I passed through normal security, with plenty of time to spare. I started reading a book. After about one hour, I decided to go to their special security check. It involved talking to another guy, who decided to rummage through my backpack and check all the pockets for traces of explosives. He asked me in Romanian "Ce faci?". And then he proceeded to lock my backpack in a "safe place". I was allowed to keep my book and my headphones and that's it. Yay. And then another hour of waiting. I could pick up my bag right before boarding, when they checked me again. There were only two bags that were treated like this :( But at least I had hummus on the plane!
But I arrived well to Tel Aviv. My bags were delayed by quite a bit, but it was fine, because in the meantime some of my friends arrived and we went together to Jerusalem in a sherut, a sort of taxi/van service.
When our bus arrived on Saturday, we met Amitai, our guide, and George, our driver, and then we went up North. We quickly visited Caesarea, built by Herod in 20 BCE. It has the only archeological evidence for Pontius Pilatus, in the form of a stone with his name enscribed on it.
Then we had lunch at Uriburi, a world famous sea food restaurant. I normally don't like fish very much, but I have to say, this was really good.
In the afternoon we went up Mount Carmel, where Elijah obtained a great victory over the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18). From there you can see very far in the distance and you can see part of Via Maris, the main road between Damascus and Egypt. Because of this, lots of armies had gone through the Valley of Jezreel, looking to conquer other kingdoms and in the future even more will gather there, at Megido, for Armaghedon.
We spent three nights on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. It was a nice hostel (except for the really loud kids who went to sleep way too late), 100 meters away from the beach, so I usually went swimming every night. Lokka tried to walk on water, with various amounts of success.
After going down the Mount of Beatitudes, we did one of the chillest things on our trip: going with an electric boat on the Sea of Galilee. As we were going out, the captain started some Hillsong songs in the background. The sun was shining, it was nice warm, the water was perfectly calm. I couldn't help but think that 2000 years ago, my Master, Jesus, sailed here, walked on water here, and the disciples were with Him, listening to Him speaking, not just to songs about Him. And then we jumped into water and swam around. And then the captain put on the theme fork Jaws. Epic trolling. xD
We did a quick run down to Capernaum, to visit the old Synagogue and then we crossed the street to get to the supposed house of Peter's mother in law.
We went to see the Jordan river. That was a big... disappointment. In some places it was soooo narrow you could jump over it. And we walked through it, in a place of pain, because of sharp rocks, that looked like the Amazonian jungle. But at least we picked some oranges straight from a tree, so we had that going for us.
The next day, after the jeep ride, we had coffee at Coffee Anan (a pun on both the UN leader and the Hebrew for "Coffee of the Clouds"), the highest restaurant in Israel, on top of Mount Bental. There is a small bunker there, which was last used in the Yom Kippur war. Now it has a small UN sentinel there.
Then we went to Cesarea Philippi, aka Banias. This was where Jesus said "And upon this rock I shall build my Church". He said this standing in front of a pagan temple dedicated to Pan, indicating that He will overcome even that. It was the first place where I learn something completely new and eye opening.
In the afternoon we went to Odem Mountain Winery, a Kosher winery that has won several awards for the wines that they make. We went for a wine tasting session. The cherry wine was reaaaally good, the Chardonay was ok, but I really hated the Cabernet Sauvignon. And I learned that Rose wine is made out of red grapes, without the peels.
On Tuesday we went to the Dead Sea. That was sooo much fun, even if in the beginning it was counterintuitive. But after you got the hang of it, it was relaxing. You could sleep better than in a hammock. The waves are gently rocking you. Just don't get water in your eyes. Then the wailing and gnashing of teeth begins, because it's the only thing you can do. If you try to put your fingers to your eyes, you just make it worse, so you have to wait until you cry out all the salt. Also, the mud there is said to be good for... something, so we all covered ourselves in mud.
We spent that night glemping in a beduin camp. What is glemping you ask? Glamour camping. Aka: you go camping, but you have full amenities, like at home, except you kinda sleep in some sort of a fancy tent. In our case, we were even upgraded to two person rooms, with AC units and TVs. But hey, there were peacocks walking in front of our windows. We've got that going on for us. The beduin tea was really good, but the coffee was crazy strong and horrible, even for the coffee lovers of the group, but everyone drank it, because we were afraid not to offend our hosts.
Of course, no beduin trip would be complete without a camel ride. Because we were an odd number, I got to ride alone on a camel. It was fun. It had a nice, slow sway. If you could relax, you could enjoy the rythm, and imagine some nice hip hop music as a backdrop. Getting on and off the camel was a bit more interesting. First the camel straigthens up comletely the front legs and only then does it lift the hind legs, so for a short while, you are sitting on a very tilted surface.
Next up: Masada, the old Roman fortress built by Herod. Man, this homie built cribs for himself everywhere. This was a 45 minute climb, while it was 30 degrees outside. And it's basically a barren desert mountain, with some ruins. If you yell on one side of the mountain, you hear a nice echo back.
Then we refreshed at water springs of Ein-Ghedi, where David wrote some of his Psalms and where he hid from Saul. It's an incredibly relaxing place. It's an oasis in the desert. In a big mountain, you suddenly see a valley with some bushes around it. As you go closer, you find a lot of vegetation, animals and many springs. We stayed there until closing time, reading, relaxing, talking and just enjoying the atmosphere.
And then we went to the Holy City, Jerusalem. First impression: it's noisy and full of people, especially in the souk and in the old city. Second impression: it's hilly. Like really hilly. I can't imagine how people got around before they had cars. You go up and down, up and down all the time. We visited a lot of stuff there, but I just want to point out a couple of highlights.
In the souk we bought all kinds of sweets and exotic fruits. Really, really sweet ones. Yummy. It's really cool that you can try stuff before you buy. It's also a really good way for them to get you to buy their stuff.
The place which got me to understand the topology of the city was when we went to the place where Peter betrayed the Lord Jesus and then we saw the supposed Upper Room, nearby, then Gethsemane, across the valley from there, and then Pontius Pilatus' hall on the other side of the city. So during that night, Jesus walked a loooooot. Also while being beaten and so on.
The other place was at the Western (Wailing) Wall. It's the only place that still remains from Herod's temple. Two kinds of people stood out in that area: those for whom this was just a fun thing, like kids having their bar-mitzvahs and dancing their butts off, for whom this is nothing more than a tradition, something you do to integrate with your family and friends. The other people were people who actually respect the Torah and they do their best to follow what it says, but they completely miss the person to whom it points: Jesus. So sad. :(
Underneath the Western Wall there are several layers of history. The first layer is what the Ottomans built there. They actually raised the whole city, so that access to the Temple Mount would be easier. Under that is what Herod did, who expanded the top of mountain, so that he could build a bigger temple. Under that are remnants from David's city. And you just look at all those 500 tonne stones and the 533 m long tunnel, built by Hezekiah, carved out of stone, and wonder how on Earth did they ever do that, without all the modern equipment that we have today.
We also went to Betlehem, which is in the West Bank, under Arab control. It has several "scary" warnings on entry, but it doesn't have too much to see unfortunately.
On our last day we went to Joppa and Tel Aviv, where we spent the day on the beach and then we said sad goodbyes to each other :(
I really miss the NYC crew (and the people from Portland and Seattle)! It was a really blessed, fun time together and I hope I can see them again soon!