An overnight experience in a Bedouin Camp was far more sophisticated than anything we could have imagined!
Our first day in Jordan, exploring the cities of Amman and Jerash with Abraham Tours.
Heading to Jordan? Here's some insight into the process of entering Jordan from Israel.
Finishing our visit to the West Bank with stops in Jericho + Ramallah, and sharing thoughts on the region.
Part I of a two-part West Bank series: our incredible experience exploring Bethlehem and the Jordan River.
I’m Shannon, a twenty-something island dweller with a passport at the ready and a never-ending bucket list. I didn’t start as an island dweller. I started as a California resident – a newly minted grad – and in 2009, I embarked on a journey. I left my home in California to begin graduate school in the UK and at that moment, life changed. Since that time, I have had an amazing opportunity to see parts of the world I never imagined, meet incredible and inspiring people, and enjoy…
With an early morning wake-up call, we boarded our bus with Abraham Tours to make our way east to Jordan. When Scott and I decided that we would, in fact, make this trip to Israel, it took us just a few moments to decide that a trip to Jordan would need to be on our list, too. It’s not every day that we travel to the Middle East (this is a first time for both of us to the region), and while we didn’t want to spread ourselves too thin, we did want to make sure that we took advantage of every moment to experience all that we could. There would be no way that we could really explore Jordan during this trip, but we had our sights set on one particular point of interest: Petra.
In my discussion with Abraham Tours about options for exploring, they described the two-day tour to Jordan, which encompassed not only Petra – the site that draws many travelers to the country – but also to Jordan’s capital city of Amman, and ancient city of Jerash. The accounts I had read from other travelers suggested doing more than a single day trip to Petra, a trip that would likely leave us crunched for time and not allow us to really take in the experience. Single day trips aren’t even an option from Jerusalem due to time constraints, options only exist from Eilat in the south of the country. The two-day itinerary seemed more realistic, and it would provide us the opportunity to see not only the Lost City of Petra, but also take a peek at two other prominent cities in the Jordanian landscape, something we would not have likely done otherwise.
Following lunch in Jerash, we headed to the city’s crown jewel: the Roman ruins. I had to do a bit of research on Jerash before embarking on our trip. I knew of Amman as Jordan’s bustling capital and had gleaned a bit of insight from friends who had stayed there for a few days while traveling. While I had heard of Jerash, I knew virtually nothing about the city. Its history, its current role in Jordan’s landscape, its industry — it was all one big question mark. As it turns out, Jerash actually has a pretty spectacular history and is one of the largest and most well-preserved sites of Roman architecture (the greatest example within the Middle East). Jerash, which was once known as Gerasa, was part of the Decapolis, a group of ten cities on the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire.
The structures date back to the 1st and 2nd centuries and remain an impeccable illustration of Greco-Roman architecture. For anyone interested in historical sites and ruins, these are a must. The site is incredibly expansive and is in astonishingly good condition (not the rubble and ‘use-your-imagination’ mentality you get at some ruins). During the time of our visit we were some of the only visitors on site. In light of the current climate and instability in countries surrounding Jordan, the country itself has seen its tourism – the second largest industry in the country – decline. As you can see, many of my photos aren’t obstructed with visitors. Yes, I was waiting for an opportune moment, but the opportunities presented themselves frequently due to the general lack of tourists.
We were surprised to walk into the freestanding theatre – impeccably preserved – serenaded by the sounds of bagpipes. Two Jordanian men stood in the center of the threatre, one expertly playing the bagpipe and one rapping on a large drum. Scott jokingly quipped, ‘I didn’t realize the Scottish made it this far’ (we weren’t exactly sure why Jordanians would be playing bagpipes in a Greco-Roman theatre – all of this seemed a bit disjointed). Rania enlightened us by explaining that Jordan fell under the British Mandate for a period of time and that this display was an homage to that period of the country’s history. We only spent an hour or so exploring the ruins, but we were able to glimpse the main views and take in the site from the highest points. I didn’t feel shortchanged at all, but for those deeply interested in sites like this, plan on spending a longer amount of time in the area to explore all of the temples and spaces on foot. If you want a richer experience, I highly recommend hiring a guide to gain a deeper understanding of the space. I’m a pretty independent explorer and like researching in advance but even being equipped with that knowledge isn’t the same as having a local guide. Our experience wouldn’t have been nearly as impactful without our guide, Rania, leading us through the ruins and explaining the highlights.
The city of Amman is home to a population of roughly 2.5 million (one-third of the Jordanian population) and is built upon seven hills. The Citadel, which was on our agenda during our quick visit, sits atop the highest hill, providing stunning views of the city below. While the ruins are great to see, they were a bit anticlimactic after walking through Jerash earlier in the day. The views – being able to scope out Amman from the highest point – were the highlight for me. It was early evening in Amman when we arrived and the cool breeze was surrounding us with a light layer of fog setting in (you can see the haze in these photos; that’s not smog). As a side note: when I began my packing for this trip, I took into consideration heat, dry weather, conservative settings, etc. What I didn’t take into consideration was rain and a cold climate. It’s the Middle East in October, right? How cold can it be? Well, if you’re going in the fall (or winter, obviously) bring layers. My scarf ended up helping with providing some warmth and acting as a head covering to protect from rain, but a few people had jackets on to fight the weather which was a much better option.
We said goodbye to the citadel after about 45 minutes of hearing its history and exploring. Our next stop was Petra (more on that in a forthcoming post), and Rania gave us a mini tour of Amman as we exited the city. We passed through a bustling strip, lined with shop after shop doling out everything under the sun (Jordanian garb, food, hookahs, jewelry, shoes, etc.). We passed the oldest mosque in Jordan, glowing in the distance. We passed an affluent area of town lined with perfect mansions and palm trees, and glimpsed an area of Amman that had a palpable American influence: Papa John’s, Subway and Burger King shared a block. A nearby, ultramodern mall is home to Burberry and Louis Vuitton. As with any city, the housing ran the gamut, but we saw a number of sprawling estates as we made our way out of the capital. Interestingly, we learned that after the war in Iraq, many Iraqis fled to Jordan as a safe haven, some bringing with them a great deal of wealth. Due to their more heavily padded pocketbooks, they were able to dole out inflated prices for homes in the region, driving up property values broadly. In addition, the influx of Syrian refugees has put downward pressure on wages, especially within the informal economy, which has created a complex environment for Jordanians.*
Our main thought as we quietly exited Amman and entered the freeway for our long journey south to Petra (three hours), was that we wished we’d spent more time in the Jordanian capital. The main street itself was an incredible sight and I could have easily spent a day navigating the souqs and gobbling up local jewelry and kanafeh. Many, like us, only have time to rope in a brief two-day tour and get a brief glimpse of Jordan, and this is certainly a great way to see a couple of main cities (though there is a great deal of driving time involved). After this brief glimpse, seeing the distances between sites and having a better understanding of Jordanian geography, I would easily come back to the country but would allocate a longer period of time to be able to immerse myself more (at least 5 – 7 days). For those visiting Jordan, I honestly wouldn’t even consider trying to do a one day trip from Israel. The expense and the time involved are way too great. Add on a bit more time so you don’t feel too shortchanged!
Stay tuned to hear about our dinner and overnight experience at a Bedouin Camp outside of Petra!
Have you been to Jordan? Did you explore Amman and Jerash? What were your thoughts?
xo from the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan,
A big thank you to Abraham Tours, Abraham Hostel and Tourist Israel for making this trip possible. As always, all thoughts and photos are my own and are genuine.
* Click here to read a paper by Dr. Ibrahaim Saif on the Iraq War’s Impact on Growth and Inflation in Jordan. For a preliminary analysis of the Impact of the Syrian Refugee Crisis on the Labour Market in Jordan published by the ILO, click here.
I was going to start by sharing our experiences exploring the ancient ruins in Jerash and the sprawling city of Amman, but instead thought I’d talk about the process of entering Jordan from Israel. For others looking to do this, it’s worthy of a post in and of itself to explain what’s involved, and perhaps give you a better understanding of this process in practice. The crossing from Israel to Jordan was a particularly long endeavour. Our driver departed Abraham Hostel at 7AM to begin our tour, marking our earliest wake-up call since our arrival. The drive to the border would take two hours, having us cross through the West Bank before hitting Israeli and Jordanian immigrations. We’d heard a bit about the process and wondered about how what could be expected before having gone through the experience ourselves. It sounds complicated (honestly, I realise that it sounds complicated even when I’m writing this) but this is more or less what you can expect of the experience:
A couple of notes about this entire process:
I hope that helps explain the process a bit to clarify. As I mentioned, it is a rather time-consuming process but if you’re with a guide or a small tour group, the process will be greatly facilitated. We travel a fair bit and have gone through these processes in many countries, but it would have been much more difficult going about this properly if we’d been traveling independently here. As I mentioned (and as you likely already know), the region is very complex and security is a major issue. Naturally, crossing borders is a more involved experience.
Our guide, Rania, did a great job of welcoming us onto the bus on the Jordanian side and providing the reasons for heightened security as we prepared to explore Jordan. We were all clearly tired after the 4+ hours we’d spent dealing with logistical issues. She explained it like this: Jordan cares a great deal about their security. Checking, double-checking, and verifying all visitors’ intentions is a critical part of why Jordan remains an incredibly stable and safe country amidst a sea of ‘naughty neighbors’, as she phrased it. After the long morning, an explanation as simple and important as that made us look upon the rigmarole with a much kinder heart. It’s true – Jordan is a safe, stable and in some ways, a somewhat progressive country surrounded by Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Israel. They take their borders seriously - that’s a good thing! – so don’t be surprised if the process takes a while, be grateful that they care enough about keeping you (and the Jordanian population) safe.
Questions? Comments? Was your experience different from this in going from Israel to Jordan? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.
xo from the Middle East,
Yesterday I detailed the beginning of our visit to the West Bank, an extremely jam-packed day that showed us the highlights of the area. We started with time in the Bethlehem at the Separation Wall and at the Church of the Nativity, and then visited the baptismal site at the Jordan River.
From the Jordan River, we made our way to Jericho, the oldest city in the world. I can recall reading about Jericho in the Bible but I could have told you very little about the town before we visited. Jericho is an astonishly lush city; an oasis. I marveled at all of the palms, bright flowers and vibrant landscape on the way in. This landscape was very different to what we’d seen elsewhere (lots of dust and desert). Upon arriving in Jericho, we took the cable car up to the Mount of Temptation. Christians will know this place as the site where Jesus was tempted by Satan three times, and a Greek Orthodox Monastery now sits atop this mountain, housing stunning views of Jericho far below. We looked over the vast landscape of Jericho as our pod worked its way higher and higher to the top of the moutain. Below us was a water source, surrounded by seas of trees: dates and banana trees were noticeable, even from the sky. Banana trees? In the desert? Does the West Bank really seem like the right climate for banana trees? I’d always thought of bananas as being a tropical plant so I was stunned to see them flourishing below us. When we exited the cable car, we sat with our guide, admiring the view. I noticed that my rings were tighter; it was more humid here. Our guide explained that Jericho actually has a somewhat tropical climate unlike its surrounding areas, which is why plants like bananas and dates can grow and flourish. My assumption is that this is why Jericho is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world – living in an environment with easy access to water and food is a much more liveable situation than desert cities that surround it.
We had thirty minutes to explore the area before we were going to move on, and nearly everyone made the journey to the Greek Orthodox Monastery, a climb up a number of steps to reach the entrance (it’s a hot proposition but a must if you’re up there). The monstery is small inside, but beautiful and dimly lit, with candles lighting up the corners. A small staircase takes you to an overlook with a thin piece of wood as a barrier between you and the valley below. Also, if you’ve noticed, between this reference, Mar Saba Monastery and St. George’s Monastery (from our Judean Desert Tour), it seems as though the Greek Orthodox Church has chosen very remote locations for some of their monasteries. I keep marveling at the fact that any of these were built in the first place.
By the time we departed Jericho, it was around 2:30PM and we still hadn’t eaten lunch. Most of us were getting hungry, having been fueled solely on water and excitement from the day thus far. Our final stop was Ramallah, and we were starting our time in the area with a traditional Palestinian lunch at Ce Tu Cafe. We eschewed the hummus and falafel lunch that’s a requisite meal in the region and instead did something much more traditional, a family-style arrangement where huge pots housed a mix of chicken, rice, spices and vegetables and then were turned upside down on a plate for presentation. Spoonfuls were shared amongst a group of 6 or so people, splashed with a thick, tangy yogurt. The team was kind enough to honor my vegetarian diet and brought out a traditional veg-friendly offering instead. For 40 ILS each (about $12), we had a pretty incredible feast. Many people washed down the rice and chicken with a Taybeh beer, brewed right in the West Bank.
Following lunch, we had time to explore Ramallah, the West Bank’s political capital. Our first stop was a quick moment at Yasser Arafat’s tomb, guarded by two soldiers. The walk from the gate to his tomb is 75 feet which is meant to represent his 75 years of age when he died. The room in which the tomb is housed is 11’ x 11’, representing the day that he died, November 11th.
From there, we entered the heart of Ramallah. What I had envisioned was something entirely different than reality. I incorrectly imagined a somewhat dismal city; dirt roads mixed with dilapidated infrastructure, and smog. What we stumbled into was a much more vibrant and cosmopolitan city than I could have imagined. We passed store after store selling shoes (loafers, platform heels, sparkling sandals) and mini dresses alongside of jewelry and scarves. Vendors dotted the roads selling fruit and corn (lots of corn), and the ones that we spoke with were kind and incredibly welcoming, excited to have us and to find out where we were from. Scott and I spoke with our guide, Tamer, individually in Ramallah and he asked our thoughts on the city. I explained, almost abashedly, that it was much more developed than I had envisioned. In some ways, I felt badly thinking and saying that – naïve, almost – that my conceptions of these cities were of a string of undeveloped villages. We had driven by sprawling mansions in Ramallah, dodged BMWs, and driven down perfectly paved roads through the desert. Yes, there was a fair amount of garbage and rubble on the roadsides, but the infrastructure broadly was much more developed that I had previously envisioned. He explained that Ramallah is actually a fairly progressive city and we were told by another source that a large number of secular Arabs reside in the region. There’s a nightlife in Ramallah, and women are free to go out on their own in the evening, smoking hookah at bars with their friends without being questioned. By many standards across the Arab world, the West Bank is progressive in that thinking.
We departed Ramallah around 6PM and made our way west, back to Jerusalem. The day – jam-packed from start to finish – was an eye-opening experience, and definitely changed my perceptions.
The West Bank struck me as being a paradoxical area. For example, we took a mental snapshot as we walked by a gas station adjacent to the Separation Wall. A sparkling silver Mercedes was being filled in front of a backdrop illustrating the struggle. There were a number of Mercedes, BMWs, and Audis making their way through Palestinian roads, something that we found striking. We’ve since learned that cars purchased in the West Bank are double-taxed, once by Israel and once by the Palestinian Authority, making the presence of luxury vehicles even more incredible. There were areas brimming with rubble and trash but the main roads were rather remarkable. I’d envisioned a bumpy, rough ride to get from one point to the next but in reality, the primary arteries were perfectly paved, cutting through the desert. Bethlehem, brings highs and lows. We traveled from the Separation Wall and somewhat rundown area nearby to a stunning little section of the Holy Land near the Church of the Nativity. When Tamer jokingly introduced the tour welcoming us to ‘terrorist country’, he was gently mocking the mentality of many who consider the West Bank an unsafe zone and who lump all Palestinians together as extremists. The people we met were utterly welcoming, warm, spirited. I wasn’t concerned about safety and I began to wonder why I was ever concerned (even slightly) in the first place. What exactly was I expecting?
On a separate note, I found the experience of easily and freely crossing through Israel and all parts of the West Bank actually rather disconcerting in some ways – a guilt, almost – that I, as an American, can easily go from Point A to Point B (to Points C, D, E, etc.) without issue while residents of this land – on both sides – are restricted. While I understand the issues politically, on a human level it’s still tough to grapple with. I try to imagine myself in this situation; living in a confined space and having my movement so heavily restricted. In that vein, I had always wondered about Palestinians in the West Bank wishing to visit Gaza. Both are Palestinian Territories, yet they’re separated by Israel. Tamer explained that residents of the West Bank must drive to Amman, catch a flight to Egypt and then drive into Gaza. Quite the feat, and no doubt an expensive endeavour. While I find that my time here has helped me better understand both sides of the issue (these tours have truly been invaluable in providing insight), there are still fundamental human rights issues that are difficult to contend with.
All in all, we headed back to Jerusalem feeling fulfilled. The experience was something that many shy away from; perhaps there’s no desire or perhaps there’s a fear of instability. For those who want to learn more and gain a bit more insight into the Palestinian perspective, it really is an experience I would highly encourage. The group setting put us in a bus with 23 people, most of which we discovered wouldn’t classify themselves as ‘tour people’ (Scott and I aren’t tour people either). Still, considering all logistics and safety concerns many first timers worry about, this is a great first brush with the West Bank; a wonderful opportunity to see the highlights and to become familiar with where to go and what to do within the area. If you’re one that is uncomfortable in mid-sized group settings, I would highly recommend reaching out to Abraham Tours and discussing private tour options in the West Bank. If it’s your first time, having someone to help you navigate, to provide perspective, and to add an extra layer of comfort and local knowledge is invaluable. In truth, I would go back to the West Bank on our next trip but would spend at least a night in Ramallah or Jericho for a deeper experience.
Best wishes from Jerusalem,
A big thank you to Abraham Tours, Abraham Hostel and Tourist Israel for making this trip possible. As always, all thoughts and photos are my own and are genuine.
All my life was in Jerusalem! I was there daily: I worked there at a school as a volunteer and all my friends live there. I used to belong to the Anglican Church in Jerusalem and was a volunteer there. I arranged the flowers and was active with the other women. I rented a flat but I was not allowed to stay because I do not have a Jerusalem ID card.Now I cannot go to Jerusalem; the Wall separates me from my church, from my life. We are imprisoned here in Bethlehem. All my relationships with Jerusalem are dead. I am a dying woman. - Antoinette from Bethlehem
This quote, along with a myriad of other personal stories, are secured to the Separation Wall in Bethlehem. Amidst the street art showing the Palestinian flag, notable figures, illustrations depicting the struggle, and text (thoughts and messages), the wall acts as a museum, attempting to relay the Palestinian narrative and showcasing a lesser-known perspective. The stories are heartbreaking, to be sure, but I was pleasantly surprised to see that much of the writing – many of illustrations that we saw – weren’t expressing violence, rather a fair amount of optimism and hope for a solution. At some points, we saw a glimpse of the sadness and desperation felt by those longing to be reunited with their homes.
The Separation Wall was our first stop during our tour of the West Bank. We departed Jerusalem at 8AM and made our way across the Green Line to the Occupied Territories. An Israeli tour guide met us at Abraham Hostel in Jerusalem and escorted us part way, at which point she exited (forbidden from going any further), and our Palestinian guide, Tamer, boarded the bus. His approach was light-hearted as a way of helping us broach areas and ideas surrounding incredibly complex political and social dynamics.
‘Welcome to terrorist country’, he began jokingly, referencing the sentiments and assumptions of many around the globe who don’t have a real grasp of the area’s complexities. Standing beside the Separation Wall, he explained to us in brief the issues and the five primary reasons behind Palestinian struggle: Jerusalem, refugees (and the right of return), water sources, the Separation Wall, and checkpoints. I would go further into depth on all of those points but it would take a hundred posts to begin to address each of these with any real accuracy and fairness. In dealing with a larger group of visitors (there were roughly 20 of us), this was essentially Palestine 101, a primer on the region, providing a bit of insight and perspective without getting too deeply political. Still, the content was rich and helped us gain a better understanding of a different point of view, one that many around the world don’t get to hear first-hand.
Bethlehem, the city that all of Christendom sees as the holy site of Jesus’ birth, is such a dichotomous place. Our walk down the street near the Separation Wall brought us to what locals refer to as ‘Shit Street’, where a chemical smelling like sewage is literally sprayed from a gun on top of the wall into the area. On the day of our tour the scent was barely noticeable, but we were warned that some days the stench is thick. From there, after a solemn start to the day, we made our way to a different side of Bethlehem, home to the Church of the Nativity.
Exiting the bus, it was is if we’d entered a different city entirely. The architecture and design work were stunning, reminiscent of a clean Mediterranean village. Rugged beige stones made up the buildings, rustic faded green doors lined the streets, and tiny balconies were covered with blooming flowers. A Palestinian woman walked by us on the street, ‘Where are you from?’ she asked, to which people responded with their home countries. ‘Welcome, welcome! Please enjoy!’, she said, blowing us kisses as we walked by. In all honesty, it reminded me of my time in Malta with this incredible warmth exuding from people, welcoming us to their land, excited to share their story and their perspective with us. We made our way down corridors lined with vendors serving up freshly fried falafel and schwarma, until we hit Manger Square, home of the Church of the Nativity.
According to Christian tradition, this is the site of Jesus’ birth, one of the holiest of holy sites, surpassed only by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. We entered through a teensy tiny door, just a few feet high, and walked into the main sanctuary of the church. The inside was incredibly ornate, a stunning eclectic collection of chandeliers and multicolored lighting hanging from above. The church that stands today was built in the 500s, and has gone through a few incarnations. It houses three different denominations: Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Armenian Orthodox, all of which are allowed to perform services in the cave where Jesus was born. At the time we arrived, the Armenian Orthodox service was coming to a close and we were able to catch a glimpse of the service through a small doorway.
We didn’t make it inside of the cave (the lines were long and we had limited time), but we did have an opportunity to peer inside from a few different angles; first, during the Armenian Orthodox service, and second, by peeping through holes in a door from within the Catholic church. A big surprise to us was the cave itself, this underground structure that hasn’t changed all that much since Jesus’ time (except for adding some modern elements like lights). After entering the Catholic church, the Church of St. Catherine, we descended down into an underground space. When I had envisioned the site of Jesus’ birth, I had always imagined something that resembles the nativity sets that we put up at Christmas: a simple structure with a pitched roof, resembling a poorly constructed barn. In actuality, the backdrop was a cave where sheep and goats had been held. On the ground, in this sacred cave, there is a star that marks the place that Jesus was born, and a marked area nearby that shows where the manger would have existed, the warmest spot in the cave to keep the baby from freezing during cold nights in December.
The space is incredible, cruicifixes on the wall, writing on columns, beautiful stained glass. We exited back through the Catholic church where people stopped to pray and light candles before exiting.
After our time in Bethlehem, we boarded the buses once again for an hour-long journey to the Jordan River, the border of Jordan and the West Bank. The Jordan River is the famed holy site where Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist and continues to be a mecca for those looking to be baptized themselves. The river is much smaller than I imagined; more like a murky stream lined with reeds and brush. Visitors are meant to stay within the designated spaces as there are concerns of landmines in surrounded areas that haven’t been fully combed. Whether we happened upon the river on a special day or whether this is a somewhat normal occurrence I can’t be sure, but we descended into a space with loads of people being baptized, specifically a huge collection of Eritreans that had made the pilgrimage, both adults and children being baptized. Looking across the river – this tiny water source – we could see the other side just a few hundred feet away. The other side marked the border of Jordan and the presence of IDF forces on the Israeli/Palestinian side was notable. The West Bank, the land we were standing on, was once part of Jordan and it was easy to see how close this connection was. The West Bank is named as such because it lies on the west bank of the Jordan River in relation to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Since the Six Day War in 1967, the land has been occupied by Israel.
Following our time in Bethlehem and the Jordan River, we made our way to Jericho and to Ramallah, two areas that I’ll touch on in Part II of this post (there’s just too much to put into a single post). I’ll also go into more detail on my thoughts and takeaways in my next instalment, but suffice it to say the West Bank is an extremely interesting region, with astonishingly paradoxical elements. Our experience was nothing short of wonderful and it’s one that I would recommend to anyone wanting a more in-depth view of the region.
Worth knowing: The areas in the West Bank essentially fall into one of three categories, designated as A, B, and C. Areas with an A designation are fully under Palestinian control, both administratively and with respect to security. Israelis are strictly banned and IDF Forces can only enter with a notable reason (e.g. whereabouts of a fugitive are known within the area). Area B is a mix: the area is administered by Palestine, but overseen militarily by Israel. Area C is under total Israeli control, and accounts for upwards 60% of the West Bank, perhaps more. Figures that I’ve seen and facts that I’ve heard first-hand vary, though they’re all relatively high.
Stay tuned for Part II of our tour of the West Bank, with photos from Jericho and Ramallah.
Warm wishes from Jerusalem,
A big thank you to Abraham Tours, Abraham Hostel and Tourist Israel for making this trip possible. As always, all thoughts and photos are my own and are genuine.
We’ve arrived in the Middle East and today marked our first real day of exploring in the region. We decided to hit the ground running and embarked on a Judean Desert Tour with Nir Friedman of Hidden Valley Tours, a company that works with Abraham Tours to provide visitors a deeper look at the region. This hadn’t been on my radar initially but I was intrigued by seeing a different part of the country and the opportunity to visit some sights that are off-the-beaten-path. The tour took us from our home base in Jerusalem east into the Judean Desert (sometimes referred to as the Judean Wilderness), the land that stretches from Israel to the Dead Sea bordering the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.
Our first stop on our Judean Desert Tour journey was Mount Azazel, a location referenced by all Abrahamic religions. According to tradition, a goat was selected annually, taken up to this mountain and thrown over the edge on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). It’s through this act, that Mt. Azazel gained its fame. This was our first brush with the desert and the vistas were stunning; rolling sandy hills with a scent that reminded me in many ways of dry California days. Today marked a holiday in Israel and the area was a bit busier than it would be on any other week (though not congested by any means). Cyclists braved the rough terrain and families walked around the mountain top, catching views of Jerusalem and Herodian in the distance.
When it comes to best kept secrets in the Judean Desert, Mar Saba may top the list. The road to the monastery brings rather rough and difficult terrain that can be tough to negotiate which is a deterrent for visitors (how Nir’s SUV made it, I’m still amazed). Though the ride may be rough, it’s worth the work. Mar Saba is over 1500 years old and is the oldest inhabited monastery in the world, currently the home for a small collection of Greek Orthodox monks. Surrounding the monastery is a cliffside with what appeared to be caves or dwellings carved into the face. Nir explained that there are essentially three categories of monks that reside here: the most conservative who choose to live in the caves at all times, jettisoning any little luxuries and comforts; those who reside in the caves during the week and spend weekends in ‘town’ (the monastery); and the least conservative who reside fully within the monastery space.
The site is unbelievable to see first hand. Nir explained the history of the space, of the people and of the dynamic environment while we sipped on freshly brewed herbal tea, taking it all in. The monastery, and all of the sites we visited, are in the West Bank. While Israelis are allowed to visit, many haven’t for a variety of reasons, making us some of the few lucky enough to see the site first hand.
As of Monday afternoon, we were prepared, far more prepared than we typically are going into a trip. Our clothes were washed, steamed and packed, and by all accounts, we were ready for a Wednesday departure to Tel Aviv. I’d spent Sunday laying out on our balcony, soaking in as much sun as possible in the lead up to our departure, knowing that rain was on the horizon. Forecasts had warned of a tropical depression making its way through the area, and we were prepped for a gloomy, rainy, and maybe windy, night.
We ended up departing work early on Monday afternoon after all other staff members had gone home earlier in the day. Schools were closed due to weather (though it hadn’t set in yet), and parents were going home to be with their children. We departed the resort, running through standard post-work protocol, making a mental list of what we wanted to cook for dinner. Despite leaving a bit early, it was a normal afternoon. The stores were packed; lines were 6+ people deep, something we never see in our local store. It was if people were preparing for something that we weren’t aware of, stocking up on canned foods and bottles of water in the lead up to some drizzly weather. By all accounts, that’s what we were all expecting: some drizzly weather.
We decided to make the most of what was going to be a long evening. We knew a storm was underway, and what once was classified as a tropical depression had been upgraded to tropical storm status, and it was heading our direction. Still, we weren’t overly concerned. In some ways, we were excited to welcome much-needed rain to fill out cisterns and water the gardens. The rain started, slowly at first, while we shut the doors, tightened the shutters, and dug up candles and headlamps in preparation for an almost-certain power outage. In some ways, it just felt like the turning of a season; the air was crisp – crisper than normal – and the breeze was blowing. We drank hot chocolate and coffee while we perused the internet and chatted about the week ahead.
Then the power went out. No more perusing the internet; no more real connection to the outside world beyond my somewhat useless iPhone 4 that has been cracked countless times. The wind was picking up and the rain began coming down harder. The wind howled louder than anything I’d heard before in any storm I’ve experienced. We sat at the kitchen table, headlamp on, all candles lit, with card games around us to occupy our time. To add to our already flustered state, I received a phone call, notification of a fraud alert on my credit card, the same credit card that we’d cleared in preparation for our upcoming trip to Israel. I kindly explained that no, we hadn’t charged $5150 for computer supplies in Germany, and yes, those were fraudlent charges. We agreed that sending the new cards to our hotel in Jerusalem made the most sense (I’m trusting that we’ll receive these when we arrive) and I had to use my one connection to the outside world – my cracked, dilapidated phone – to dig up the mailing address, part of which was written in Hebrew. I yelled the address into the phone while Scott systematically went from fallen screen to fallen screen, reattaching and securing our space. I got off the call and quickly realized that what we were experiencing wasn’t a tropical storm. What we were about to face had surely escalated from a storm to a full-blown hurricane. To say that we were unprepared would be putting it nicely. We had no shutters up to protect us from the rain that would pour through our windows, shielded only by a thin screen that seemed to help filter the large drops. The doors to our balcony rattled and we listened as furniture, pots and umbrellas clanked against the ground, piece by piece.
We were in a corner, rather protected, watching as droplets made their way across the house. When we went to tighten the screens, we walked into puddles pooling on the floor. Our top floor slowly began to flood, sprinkling our electronics and saturating our couches that sat tens of feet away. Beds in each bedroom sat in such a way that they were slowly becoming damp. My bedside table was covered in water; books, magazines and photos were saturated. Parts of our bed and pillows were wet, as if someone had taken a wet washcloth and squeezed it over the dry linens. We discovered that the guest bedroom met the same fate as we quickly ran from window to window attempting to tighten as much as possible. The sound of the wind and the clanking metal in the yard was unnerving. We had no idea what was happening in the world beyond us. We were trapped inside until we saw this thing through.
With Atlas in tow, we sat in the kitchen, the only place that felt really protected in the entire house. We’d moved electronics and books to the kitchen countertops where we felt confident they would be safe and out of the rain’s way. We laid on clean towels for comfort while we watched the lightning dance around our backyard. Then, all of a sudden, it became still and unsettlingly quiet. It was as if everything had just come to a miraculous end while an eerie stillness hung over us. We stepped outside onto our balcony to quickly assess the damage; our patio furniture had huddled up in a single corner and our table was nowhere to be seen. One of our lounge chairs had met its demise somewhere unbeknownst to us, and our potted plant – a solid 50+ pounds – had toppled over after the roots had become dislodged. Even at this, the damage was far worse than what we had anticipated as the day started. The storm wasn’t over, though. We were in the eye of it, marinating in this brief and disconcerting moment of utter silence. Minutes earlier, the trees around us were being stripped of their leaves and our gutters were flying off of our roof into the street. Now, in this moment, nothing stirred. We didn’t know what the end of the storm would bring, so we packed up essentials – our headlamp, candles, a lighter, computer, iPad, some snacks, water, and our pup – and made our way downstairs to spend the night. We huddled up in our protected space, watching a movie to pass the time while the wind swirled around us. We both fell asleep listening to the storm pass.
It wasn’t until the next morning that we could assess the damage. Luckily, we had seen the bulk of the damage on the front end so we weren’t surprised with what we encountered when we made our way upstairs. The top level was a bit flooded – 1 to 2” of water puddled up – and our patio furniture had seen better days. Some glasses were broken and some furniture was demolished. Beyond that, we were fine. It was shortly after 6AM and we knew we needed to head to Meads Bay to assess the damage at the resort.
We drove in, dodging fallen trees and power cords, and stopping to help folks chop trees that had blocked our way. We arrived at the resort to a sight we weren’t expecting. Neither of us had ever been through a hurricane previously so we didn’t really know what hurricane damage looked like. I’ll tell you this: it doesn’t look good. In fact, assessing the actual damage after we’d gained our composure, I can say that the damage looks far worse than it is. We’re fortunate that this was the case, but the initial shock was an absolutely horrifying moment. Seeing our property covered in sand (including pools filled with sand), trees fallen, Hobie Cats blown into the reception area, offices flooded with water, papers saturated and strewn about, office equipment covered with a sand/water blast, and sand blown hundreds of feet up from the beach to our office space… it was astounding to say the least. It was a moment of being utterly frightened about next steps and simultaneously grateful. This could have been a lot worse. What we experienced was a Category 1 hurricane. The results were far worse than what we had expected, but perhaps that was a part of the reason: no one expected it to be so bad; we simply didn’t prepare for such a hit. 75 – 90 MPH winds were horrible to listen to, but what if it were a Category 3? Or a Category 5 like Hurricane Luis? We could have seen something far more devastating than what occurred.
Despite the day of utter shock and disbelief, the day following Hurricane Gonzalo was rather remarkable in some ways. We watched neighborhoods come together and people mobilize. We all pulled our weight – no one had to ask – because we wanted to fix what had happened, for ourselves and for each other. We took brooms to push water out of offices and rooms, staff came in to evaluate and assist with shoveling, non-employees came by to help us clean furniture and sweep sandblast off of our walls. Even the insurance reps were out within just a few hours to help us move the process along. Seeing that outcome was inspiring and seeing what we were able to do in a single day gave us an incredible amount of hope and optimism. I started the morning absolutely devastated, looking around, crying into the sand, and went home feeling inspired and confident. What a change 10 hours can make, and what a change wonderful people can make. We knew there was a great amount of work to be done, and at first glance, we had accepted the fact that our trip to the Middle East would have to happen at another time. We weren’t going to be able to leave with the resort in this state. It wasn’t until later in the day, after we’d made such significant progress and mobilized forces that we felt more prepared to depart. Fellow employees encouraged us to go – they’d been through far worse and assured us that we’d taken the action that we needed and put the right steps in place to get the job done before opening day.
This wasn’t exactly how we expected to be sent off onto our trip to the Middle East, but after the progress we were able to make yesterday, we’re in a much better place emotionally and psychologically. Thank you to all who have cared and who have inquired about how we’re doing. We, like many others on the island, were hit unexpectedly hard, but seeing the resilient spirit of friends and of the hotel makes us all realize: we’ll be just fine.
xo from the Caribbean,
We’re now a week out from our trip to the Middle East and I’m finally in packing mode. I’ve begun to mentally note all of my last minute to-dos before we leave, which clothes get to make the journey with me, and which products get stuffed into my hanging toiletries bag (more on that in another post; it’s maybe my best purchase ever). With packing and planning on the brain, I thought I’d share some of my carry-on essentials; a variety of items that have become staples in my travel tote and that have made traveling a much more comfortable experience.
Unlike my packing list for the Middle East that I shared last week, this visual list isn’t numbered so you’ll have to bear with me as I give you the run down:
Beyond those items, I always try to carry a change of clothes with me in the case of missing luggage (ugh). While I’ve been very fortunate every time we’ve traveled, I’ve seen many people have to deal with lost luggage and contend with the fact that they have absolutely nothing to wear as backup. Travel with just enough to keep you successfully functioning for a couple of days. When I do remember, I also like to throw a pair of socks in my carry-on. I nearly always wear wedges or flip flops when we board the plane and my feet freeze. A simple pair of socks make it a much more comfortable experience!
Those are my must-haves that are prepped and ready to go before we depart on a trip. What are your carry-on essentials? Any items that make your travel experience more comfortable?
Lest I talk solely about the destinations that left me a little underwhelmed (here), I also wanted to highlight a few unassuming destinations that left me wanting more; destinations that were simply a pleasant surprise. In no particular order, here are five spots that generally left me inspired for a variety of reasons. Add them to your list!
1From start to finish, Ireland surprised me. While I had heard great things from friends who had visited, Ireland was never at the top of my list. I was traveling with my cousin during a summer-long jaunt around Europe and Ireland was her must-see locale to add to our list. All things considered, I went in with the bar set fairly low (I’m still not sure why I had low expectations for Ireland). From the moment we set foot in Dublin, I was in love. The culture is unique, the towns are historic and the architecture makes you feel like you’ve been transported into a medieval movie. Our time on the West Coast – in Galway and then to the Cliffs of Moher – left us equally enthralled. The weather wasn’t great; most days were drizzly and overcast, yet it added something ethereal to the landscape. I was astounded by how green Ireland was as well. It’s called the Emerald Isle, yes, but the green is so vibrant, a shade that I haven’t really seen beyond the bounds of this country. I would definitely go back, but this time, I’d make it a road trip.
Today marks the official two week countdown before we’re on our way to Tel Aviv. In honor of our upcoming trip, I thought I’d share my preliminary packing list for the region with others that have the same wardrobe questions that I’ve had. Before I put together my own list, I scoured other websites, blogs and books to see what expats and frequent travelers to the area suggested. The results were mixed and generally very practical (e.g. many websites said wear tennis shoes or Tevas). Now, there’s nothing wrong with tennis shoes or Tevas, but I’m not really a tennis shoe or Teva kinda girl. I found myself having a hard time relating to some of the lists. Where are the twenty and thirty-something travelers wanting to find a blend of practical and – dare I say – fashionable? So, after scouring a variety of websites and trying to find a wardrobe that blends function with a bit of fashion, I’ve come up with the following list. Keep in mind, we’re going in late October when the weather will be in the mid-70s to low-80s depending on our location. It’s not humid (it’s the desert, after all) so what we’ll be able to wear during this time of year is entirely different than what I may be able to wear in July when the heat is at its peak.
I haven’t included the obvious – things like toiletries, socks, bras, etc. as I hope you’ll remember to pack those! Is there anything that I’m missing that others should include in their Middle East packing list?
Two weeks until liftoff!