30 in the Holy Land

The 30th birthday is special. One is officially a mature and responsible adult who has the necessary wisdom to make important decisions in life. And how did I decide to herald my new ‘adult’ status? With measured indulgence, of course: a plane ticket from Singapore to Europe.

Let me back up for a moment . My birthday unofficially kicked off back in April when I was home (see my New York post), and continued with a celebration in Singapore with 30 close friends in early May. But the true cherry on top was a surprise trip that José planned on the way to his brother Pedro and now-wife Rita’s wedding, in Lisbon. I knew our layover location but didn’t know our ultimate destination until one hour before we boarded our flight so, after weeks of speculation, hypothesizing and questioning, I finally learned, during our layover in Athens, that we’d be heading to Israel for five days and four nights of sun, beach, history, culture, and (most importantly) dining. Let’s please take a moment to acknowledge the Boyfriend of the Year award that he deserves, if something of the sort existed. Clap, clap, clap!

We had over six hours in Athens, which meant we had enough time to leave our bags at the airport, get to the city center, visit Syntagma square (where the Greek Parliament is located), walk through the streets of Plaka (one of the most iconic neighborhoods in the city), visit one of Athens’s oldest Greek Orthodox church from the Byzantine period, walk up to the Acropolis and find a delightful terrace cafe for lunch and some delicious wine from the north of Greece

Before we move on, please enjoy some photos from our quick layover in Athens, Greece:

So now we get to the heart of the trip: Israel. Our favorite type of trip is a good, old-fashioned road trip, and that’s exactly what Mr. Zé had planned for us!

We landed in Tel Aviv around 6PM, picked up our rental car at the airport, and drove into town. There’s not much to report about our first night in Tel Aviv, except that we were surprised to find out that we had rolled in on the same night as the finale of the Eurovision Song Contest (including this link for my American readers, because I also had zero idea what this was until that night). The traffic was atrocious and competition for parking spots was fierce (we pulled into a parking lot and there was a woman standing in a spot holding it for the entire 20 minutes we drove around in there looking for a spot. Brutal times). Once we found somewhere to leave the car, we checked into the hotel, the Lighthouse, a very cute and trendy boutique hotel about 10 minutes from the sea. After the long day we had had, flying from Singapore to Athens and then to traffic-jammed Tel Aviv, we were beyond ready to PTFO (also known as sleep hard, for my elder readers). But when we were arrived in our room, we were met with a pungent smell of cigarettes. Please dear God no, we thought. We called down to reception, and the staff was absolutely wonderful in making things right: not only did they move our room, but they upgraded us to a junior suite. ¡Magnífico! The junior suite provided us the perfect environment to fall into a deep, much-needed sleep (to be fair, by that point in the night, a cot on the side of the street would’ve worked, too).

When traveling West, jetlag can be a beautiful thing. We were up and at ’em by 6AM, showered and ready to seize the day. We were at the hotel kitchen at 7AM when the breakfast opened up, and let me just take a moment here to share the splendor of that breakfast, and Israeli/Middle Eastern food more broadly. There is no signature dish in Israeli cuisine, but it is known for including a mix of hummus, falafel, halloumi, egg dishes like shakshouka (my favorite), baba ghanoush, a variety of fresh salads. Coffee, tea, juices, fresh fruits and vegetables, bread, and pastries usually complete the menu. It is my favorite cuisine in the world; so fresh and light, yet filling. When sitting down for an Israeli meal, beautiful colors fill your plate, and wonderful flavors fill your palate. Needless to say, I nearly shed a tear at that breakfast buffet, and am even taking a moment of silence now, on my own, in its honor.

Following a joyful and completely overwhelming breakfast, we hopped in our car for the first day of road tripping, to the north of Israel, following recommendations we received from two of our closest friends: Stephanie and Shai. We had five stops on the agenda that day: Haifa, Acre, Rosh Hanikra, Tiberias and the Sea of Galilee, and Nazareth.

Haifa was first. It is one of Israel’s main cities; a port city built in tiers extending from the Mediterranean up the north slope of Mount Carmela, with a mix of Arab and Israeli residents. One of its most iconic sites is Bahá’í Gardens, where we headed first. Also known as the Hanging Gardens of Haifa, they comprise a staircase of nineteen terraces extending all the way up the northern slope of Mount Carmel. The gardens have elements of the Persian garden design, and are one of the most visited tourist attractions in Israel. For us, they served as a beautiful afternoon promenade walk and lookout to the port city.

After a gander around the gardens, we headed into the city of Haifa. We had heard there were some up-and-coming hipster neighborhoods, with shops, galleries and restaurants set in 19th-century buildings. But we found that most stores were closed, and the stores themselves were not all that interesting. My take? Haifa is still on the ‘up’ side of ‘up-and-coming.’ We did manage to find a cute cafe and have ourselves a small snack of dips and bread, however. (Side note: I rediscovered the complexity and sumptuousness of a good, quality bread on this trip: soft and tender inside, with a good, golden crumb. I spared no loaf, slice or pastry on this trip. My pants are fitting a little tighter these days but hey, life’s short, right?)

After our snack, we jumped back in the car and headed to Acre, about 30 minutes away from Haifa. Acre is known for its well-preserved old city walls, and its tunnel wall museum, depicting daily life from the Byzantine times to the 20th century (which we explored first). It’s an interesting city in that its history has been shaped by the Romans, Ottomans, Crusaders, Mamelukes, Byzantines, and the British. Today, it’s primarily an Arab city, but is also a brilliantly coexistent mixed population of Jews, Christians and Muslims. We toured the walls, explored the Old City, and had a nice walk along the beautiful blue Mediterranean sea.

We continued our drive to Rosh Hanikra, on the border between Israel and Lebanon. We chose a seaside restaurant called HaTsuk, literally meters away from border control—our first taste of geopolitical tensions on the trip. But despite the army members carrying military rifles just outside the door, we enjoyed ourselves a nice, filling lunch of the classics: bread and rich olive oil, hummus, labneh, and a tasty salmon risotto (a left-field pick, but delicious nonetheless).

Our lunch was long, it was relaxing, it was delicious, and it would have been much longer if we didn’t have an afternoon of sight seeing to do. So we piled ourselves back into the car and drove inland towards Galilee. Our first stop was Tiberias, on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. We wanted to check out the ancient village of Capernaum, sometimes called “the town of Jesus,” on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee. For those who aren’t thumping the Bible on a regular basis, Capernaum is where the place where Jesus healed the servant of a Roman centurion who had asked for his help, according to the Good Book. It is also where Jesus healed the paralytic lowered by friends through the roof to reach Him. Unfortunately the last visitor is allowed at 4PM, and we pulled up about 4:30PM. We were a bit bummed out by this, but it gave us more time to explore the Sea of Galilee nearby. This is also when I video chatted Mom and Dad and gave them a view of the sparkling sea where Jesus walked on water. Truly breathtaking—for them, and for me.

We pulled our car to a visitor point on the Sea of Galilee to enjoy its shining blue color, its soft wind on our faces, and the magic and symbolism of the scene in its entirety. When we arrived, we were met with something far more fantastic. Floating towards us, about 10 minutes after we arrived, was a boat of elderly Americans singing and gesturing along to a recording and animated emcee to “YMCA.” Probably drunk. How this kind of group tour exists in a holy place like this is just beyond me, but it provided truly unprecedented entertainment for us nonetheless.

Our final stop on the Day One roadshow? Nazareth. A city with rich biblical history, Nazareth is a city I was excited about visiting. I knew it would bring to life all the readings and teachings I had undergone in my religious education growing up. It was like bringing the Bible to life (little did I know that Jerusalem would absolutely blow my mind). After driving by Cana, the site where Jesus turned water into wine (a skill I truly, truly wish I also possessed), we stopped at the domed Basilica of the Annunciation, which is believed to be the site here the angel Gabriel told Mary she would bear a child. We also visited St. Joseph’s Church, which is allegedly the site of Joseph’s carpentry workshop. On our drive, we also spotted Mount Precipice, believed to be the site of the Rejection of Jesus described in the Gospel of Luke (if you’re impressed that I know the Gospel reference, please know I had to Google that).

We had a beautiful sunset drive back into Tel Aviv, in awe of what we had seen. As haughty as it sounds, it’s not often that I am shocked by travel these days, but this first full day in Israel shook me to the core in the best of ways. Each stop breathtaking, each site rich with history so deep we could never understand it all. Nazareth is the biggest Arab city in Israel, yet it’s unlike any other Middle Eastern city: quiet, calm, devoid of haggling, chaos, and bustle. It is a lovely city that left us feeling serene from the inside out.

On the way home, I made a reservation at Port Sa’id in Tel Aviv (a tip from Steph), and we headed there shortly after arriving home. The restaurant is located just across from the largest synagogue in Tel Aviv, but its vibe is quite the opposite. It’s the quintessential ‘hip’ restaurant that gives Tel Aviv its cool factor: a massive vinyl collection, the hippest waitresses, and a food menu created under the supervision of an iconic Israeli chef, Eyal Shani. I would definitely recommend it (as long as you’re willing to wait it out, as they don’t take reservations on weekends).

Some photos from our trip to the North of Israel:

The next day, Monday, we decided to explore Tel Aviv itself. The only item on my agenda for the day was copious eating of hummus, but luckily Zé did his diligence and found some fruitful activities for our discovery day. First thing was first for these beach kids: Jerusalem Beach, a spacious, sandy beach with shallow turquoise water in the center of Tel Aviv. We lounged in the sun until about 11:30AM, taking one quick plunge in the surprisingly chilly water. Before noon, we headed back to the hotel, showered, and checked out. Then we headed to Neve Tzedek, an artsy neighborhood in Tel Aviv that I am dying to bring my parents to (think New Hope, M&D!). The ‘hood has avant-garde design stores, fashion boutiques and handicraft shops, plenty of trendy European restaurants that sit alongside stylish bistros and al fresco cafes (which allegedly turn into live jazz bars and cocktail lounges at night). It was a fun place to get lost in, and Zé and I spent about two hours walking through the shops, admiring the goods, and stopping for tasty ice cream cones.

Before we headed to Old Jaffa, the southern and oldest part of Tel Aviv, and Israel’s ancient port city, we perused Carmel Market, an old flea market in the center of Tel Aviv. It was interesting, but very much mimicked the markets you find in Southeast Asia, with vendors selling products of all varieties imaginable lining the sidewalks. But instead of statues of Buddha and Balinese wood jewelry making up the array of treasure, junk, and daily basics you find at markets in Asia, this one was filled to the brim with Judaica, Persian tiles, jewelry, and other Middle Eastern handicrafts

Jaffa is famous for its association with the biblical stories of Jonah, Solomon and Saint Peter as well as the mythological story of Andromeda and Perseus. History galore! The Old City is home to winding alleys filled with craft shops and art galleries, with Ottoman-era landmarks like the Clock Tower and St. Peter’s Church. It’s an interesting and cool combination of old and new, and we loved it very much. Our last stop in the Old City was a restaurant called the Old Man and the Sea (the best recommendation we got from Shai, in our opinion). A longstanding Jaffa establishment borrowing inspiration from Hemingway’s 1952 novel, this place is quite an experience: you sit down for an afternoon snack and drink, and you’re met with a huge smorgasbord of salad thrust upon us prior to ordering anything (you can see the approximately 40 little assorted salads that arrive as routine here in my photo below) . Aggressive serving of excessive food—my kind of place! We stuffed our faces and enjoyed fresh lemonade with our faces to the sea. A lovely way to end our time in Tel Aviv. We stopped quickly for an espresso (jetlag is real), and hopped in the car for the voyage down south to Jerusalem.

Some photos from our trip to Tel Aviv:

We arrived in Jerusalem just in time for sunset. As sufferers of FOMS (fear of missing sunset), we quickly parked the car and headed up to a bar I found on Google after typing in “Epic bars for sunset in Jerusalem,” called Notre Dame Rooftop Wine and Cheese. And epic it was, indeed. If not for the breeze and spectacular sunset from the expansive garden terrace overlooking the old city, then for the tasty food and wine that we drank as the sun went down behind us. This was another place where I called Mom and Dad for a video chat. I needed them to see the place they had taught me so much about as a child! I really hope to take them there someday.

We stayed at the wine and cheese bar for quite a while, getting caught up in conversation as can happen after a bottle of wine goes down, and we quickly realized it was well into the evening. We were exhausted from the long day, and quite full from our happy hour ‘snack,’ so we headed to our hotel, the Orient Jerusalem, got our things ready for the next day, and felt asleep quickly.

The next morning we got to enjoy the hotel a bit when we headed down for breakfast in the courtyard. The Orient is set in an elegant, newly-constructed building and nestled in the heart of the German Colony, one of the city’s most vibrant, upscale neighborhoods (we really loved this hotel and would recommend it to anyone). Our breakfast was similar to the others: fantastic, and filled with more food than I am willing to admit I ate. We needed the fuel, because the day that lie ahead of us was packed with sites to see. Ready for a juggernaut of historical site visits? Good. Here we go.

First up was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in the Christian Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. The church contains the two holiest sites in Christianity: the site where Jesus of Nazareth was crucified, at a place known as Calvary, and Jesus’s empty tomb, where he is said to have been buried and resurrected. The tomb is contained in a 19th century rotunda called the Aedicule, but the line to see it was so long that we ended up just taking some photos outside of it. This church packs a real punch: you can also find, within the church proper, the last four stations of the Via Dolorosa, representing the final episodes of the Passion of Jesus. As someone raised Catholic, this experience was incredibly overwhelming. I was walking around in the land of the Bible itself, and it brought me to tears at one point (which quickly subsided when elbowed by the masses of tourists in the place). But seriously, it’s an experience that can only be described as disorienting and magical at the same time.

Next up? The Western Wall. Zé has been doing quite a bit of research on the Israel-Palestine conflict since our trip (more on that later), and found out some interesting information about the Wall. Its most basic description is an ancient limestone wall in the Old City of Jerusalem; a relatively small segment of a far longer ancient retaining wall, known also in its entirety as the Western Wall. But beyond that, it is considered holy due to its connection to the Temple Mount, a hill located in the Old City of Jerusalem that for thousands of years has been venerated as a holy site, in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam alike. Because of the Temple Mount entry restrictions  for Jews and Christians, the Wall is the holiest place where Jews are permitted to pray, though the holiest site in the Jewish faith lies behind it. It was a powerful experience, seeing male and female pilgrims of such devout faith there, praying intensely in a place so sacred to them. Zé went to the men’s side and I went to the women’s, and we spent a few quiet moments there before reconvening in the common area, and taking some time to observe the activity. But let me tell you, that Israeli sun is hot, and we needed shade badly. So we continued on our way to the Mount of Olives, another historically rich site.

The Mount of Olives is a mountain ridge east of and adjacent to Jerusalem’s Old City. It named for the olive groves that once covered its slopes, and today offers an unrivaled vista of the Old City and its environs. It is also the location of many biblical events:

  • In the Old Testament:
    • King David fled over the Mount of Olives to escape when his son Absalom rebelled (2 Samuel 15:30)
    • After King Solomon turned away from God, he built pagan temples there for the gods of his foreign wives (1 Kings 11:7-8)
    • Ezekiel had a vision of “the glory of the Lord” ascending from the city and stopping on the Mount of Olives (Ezekiel 11:23)
    • Zechariah prophesied that in the final victory of the forces of good over the forces of evil, the Lord of hosts would “stand on the Mount of Olives” and the mount would be “split in two from east to west” (Zechariah 14:3-4)
  • In the New Testament:
    • Jesus often traveled over the Mount of Olives on the 40-minute walk from the Temple to Bethany. He also went there to pray or to rest.
    • He went down the mount on his triumphal entry to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, on the way weeping over the city’s future destruction (Luke 19:29-44)
    • In a major address to his disciples on the mount, he foretold his Second Coming (Matthew 24:27-31)
    • He prayed there with his disciples the night before he was arrested (Matthew 26:30-56). And he ascended into heaven from there (Acts 1:1-12).

At the top of the Mount of Olives, we visited the Church of All Nations (Basilica of the Agony), an extremely somber church built over the rock on which Jesus is believed to have prayed in agony the night before he was crucified. Inside the church, we saw the Tomb of Mary, a dimly-lit, below-ground church where a Christian tradition says the Mother of Jesus was buried. And outside, we saw the garden and grotto of Gethsemane, the ancient olive grove identified as the place where Jesus went to pray the night before he was crucified, and the cave where his disciples are believed to have slept that night. It was a series of sites that left me feeling incredibly humbled, and grateful beyond belief. Zé and I were quiet for much of the day—sometimes there are things you see that simply leave you speechless.

We wanted to visit the Dome of the Rock, an Islamic shrine located on the Temple Mount in the Old City, but we were turned away by a military group because it was a prayer day during Ramadan, and only Muslims were allowed inside. So we skipped to our next stop: the Via Dolorosa: the processional route in the Old City, believed to be the path that Jesus walked on the way to his crucifixion. This was a very unreal site to me, because I had always gone to mass on Good Friday before Easter and undergone the Stations of the Cross growing up. And here I was, seeing this processional route not in a church, but in real life. What a moving experience. The winding route starts from the Antonia Fortress and ends at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre – a distance of about 600 metres (2,000 feet). Today, it is marked by nine Stations of the Cross, though there have been fourteen stations since the late 15th century, with the remaining four (or five, according to some) stations being inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. We were able to see the courtyard where Jesus was tried by Pilate, or stations one and two. On the site are three early 19th-century Roman Catholic churches, taking their names from these events; the Church of the Condemnation and Imposition of the Cross, the Church of the Flagellation, and the Church of Ecce Homo (a large area of Roman paving is contained here, regarded as the pavement described in the Bible as the location of Pilate’s judgment of Jesus). We walked a bit more of the path and saw a few of the other stations, including Jesus’ first fall, as well as the station where Veronica wiped Jesus’ face. Even though I was with Zé, I felt a certain solemnity that I’ve never experienced while walking this path.

As if our day could not get more religiously and historically profound, we headed next to the room of The Last Supper. The site itself is a second-story room that commemorates the “upper room” (the floor below it is King David’s tomb, no big deal) in which it is said Jesus shared the Last Supper with the disciples. This site’s hall was built by the crusaders 800 years ago. It was part of a big church, which was built by them upon the remnants of an ancient Byzantine Church. The building was renovated into its current form in 1335 by the Franciscan monks (the custodians of the Holy Land). When we entered, there was a group of Christian pilgrims there, singing a hymnal, which lightened the experience and made it all the more ethereal.

That was it for our time in Jerusalem (notice we didn’t stop for lunch; too much to do and honestly no appetite, given the weight of the place and the size of our breakfast). We went back to the hotel in the afternoon for a quick, refreshing drink on the rooftop before our 3PM pickup. Where were we heading? You guessed it: Bethlehem.

By the Bible’s definition, Bethlehem is the birthplace of Jesus, the city David was from, and where he was crowned king of Israel. In modern life, it’s a city that sits at the heart of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. We hired a Catholic Israeli driver with a special license plate allowing tour guides to travel between the two nations. After crossing border control, a Palestinian Catholic tour guide (who does not have permission to enter Israel) picked us up, and showed us around this Palestinian city, located in the central West Bank. For reference, it’s about 10 km (6.2 miles) south of Jerusalem. What was most shocking? We essentially drove from an upscale, beautifully-maintained city into a third-world nation. The conflict is complex, yes, but it was a bit heartbreaking to see.

During the one-hour tour, we saw the Church of the Nativity, or the basilica believed to mark the birthplace of Jesus Christ. The fortress-like basilica is one of the oldest continuously operating churches in the world, having survived—some would say miraculously—various invasions, regime changes, fires, earthquakes and, most recently, the 2002 siege of Bethlehem, when armed Palestinians hid in the church from Israeli forces for weeks. The church’s famous entrance, the four-foot-high “Door of Humility,” was built not to make pilgrims bow but rather to repel looters on horse and camel back after the Crusades, and was not particularly friendly to me, with my 5 foot, 9 inch (175 cm) frame. Also contained in the church is the manger where Jesus was supposedly born, but the line was incredibly long and would take about one hour, according to our guide. We decided to skip it, though I would have loved to have seen the famous site! In all honestly, I could write an entire blog post on the history of this magnificent church, but I have a dinner reservation at 8PM and I don’t want to punish my non-interested readers with death by boredom, so if you’re interested in learning more, I found this site particularly insightful. This one, too.

I have to pause here, because it would be ignorant to write about visiting Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Israel more broadly without mentioning the geopolitical conflict. It’s a complete mess and, while I feel lucky to have become more educated on the situation while there, it left me feeling hopelessly sad. For those who aren’t up on the current timeline, here’s a high-level look:

  • After World War I, Palestine was administered by the United Kingdom under a Mandate received in 1922 from the League of Nations. The modern history of Palestine begins with the termination of the British Mandate, the Partition of Palestine and the creation of Israel, and the ensuing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
  • In 1947, the United Nations (U.N.) proposed a Partition Plan for Palestine titled “United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181 Future Government of Palestine.” The resolution recommended the partition of Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab, with the Jerusalem-Bethlehem area protected and administered by the United Nations.
  • Jewish leadership accepted the Partition Plan but Arab leaders rejected it. Long story short, this led to the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948, and the 1949 Armistice Agreements that established the separation lines between the combatants: Israel controlled some areas designated for the Arab state under the Partition Plan, ‘TransJordan’ controlled the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and Egypt controlled the Gaza Strip.
  • Several wars ensued afterwards, like the Six-Day War and the 1973 War, which ultimately (I am skipping a lot here) led to the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, which were the first direct, face-to-face agreement between Israel and Palestine (though implementation of the Oslo Accords suffered a serious setback with the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, Israeli Prime Minister and signer of the Oslo Accords, in November 1995).
  • Since then, there has been an incredible amount of fighting between the two sides, and numerous issues remain to be settled (thanks in part to our low-IQ president), but on September 16, 2011, Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian National Authority, declared his intention to proceed with the request for recognition of statehood from both the United Nations General Assembly and Security Council. Negotiations remain ongoing.

My perspective? This is obviously an incredibly complex situation, with little chance of a resolution any time soon. Being there gave me deep perspective on the motivations, challenges and opportunities of each side, which, in my view, are both equally valid. As an American that is exposed to media outlets with an obvious partiality, I encourage my American readers to stay informed on the conflict, and to get to know both sides of the argument. Again, it’s complicated, it’s disturbing, and it’s absolutely tragic, but above all, it’s critical to get—and stay—informed. Okay, peace pitch over.

Some photos from our trip to Jerusalem and Bethlehem:

The first few minutes of our drive down south to Arad were a bit nerve wracking: drivers need to be acutely aware of the winding highways and where they lead, as the intersection of Palestinian-owned territory and Israeli-owned territory can be confusing—and consequential. Let’s just say, we were not exactly crackin’ the tunes during that part of the drive.

Once we left Jerusalem and were safely headed South towards the Dead Sea, it was like we had exited a city and entered Mars. The landscape there, like many parts of the Middle East, is astoundingly unique: sand-covered desert dunes and craters to your left and right. This was my favorite part about traveling through Israel: it’s a small country with an abundance of different landscapes. From snow-capped mountains, to the Dead Sea at the lowest point on earth, to the awesome craters and deserts, and the Mediterranean beaches, the country’s diverse scenery offers so much to the traveler’s eye.

We reached Arad about 8PM, after a stop next to the Dead Sea to take in the sunset. Arad is a city in the Southern District of Israel, located on the border of the Negev and Judean Deserts. Zé chose the city because it is also located very close to Masada, where we’d be watching the sunrise the following morning. But first, we checked in to our lovely hotel, Yehelim Boutique Hotel. I would go back to Israel for this hotel alone: the food was delicious, the room was clean and spacious, and the staff was wonderful. I can’t say we were wow-ed by the people we met up North. Steph’s father had described Tel-Avivians to me as “prickly pears,” or people that are warm on the inside, but tough on the outside. We found this to be very true throughout our time, particularly in Tel Aviv. While there was no hospitality to be found up north, the opposite was true in Arad. We were met with nothing but warmth and kindness from everyone we met there, along with a more relaxed and serene vibe throughout. Needless to say, it was my favorite part of the country.

That evening, we took the recommendation of our friendly hotel host and headed to Kaparuchka, a charming pizza place in town (someone, cough Zé cough, was getting tired of eating hummus three times a day, though I’m not sure how). Again, the staff was wonderful and welcoming, and our meal of pizza and flatbreads was delicious and filling. We got to bed early that night, and set our alarms for the ungodly hour of 4AM.

I don’t even want to talk about our wake-up the next morning, because it was brutal. Brutal, but worth it. We hiked up a cliff at Masada National Park, an ancient fortress in southern Israel’s Judean Desert. It’s on a massive plateau overlooking the Dead Sea. A cable car and a long, winding path climb up to the fortifications, built around 30 B.C. Among the ruins are King Herod’s Palace, which sprawls over three rock terraces, and a Roman-style bathhouse with mosaic floors. Pretty cool, but not in our appreciation set at that early hour.

When we got to the top, we were amazed by what we saw, in both good and bad ways. There was a Birthright group there (an educational organization that sponsors free ten-day heritage trips to Israel for young adults of Jewish heritage, from ages 18–32), blasting music and taking selfies. Who knew selfie-taking could be such a loud and disruptive activity? (Now that I am 30 I can make comments about ‘the youth’ and their annoying habits). But on the good side, the sunrise was unlike most I’ve seen, because it appeared at the back of a sprawling desert, arose from behind a mountain rage, and made the Dead Sea sparkle. Truly breathtaking. There’s not much that can make me smile at 5AM, but this sunset did the trick.

We spent about an hour at Masada, before heading back to our hotel to chill (read: nap). Once breakfast started, we grabbed some food and enjoyed the morning sun a bit before heading to the next big site to see in the South of Israel: the Dead Sea. Some deep facts about the Dead Sea (deep facts…get it?):

  • The Dead Sea came to be because the crust was stretched thanks to a rift being formed. Known as a rift valley, the surface sunk down where the crust was particularly thin. Scientists estimate the Dead Sea may be sinking more each year, so book your tickets ASAP!
  • The surface of the Dead Sea is over 1300 feet (400 meters) below sea level, making it the lowest point on Earth’s surface. In the deepest part, it’s more than 2,300 feet below sea level.
  • With up to 32 percent salt and extremely high mineral content, the water is said to help people with respiratory issues, joint problems like arthritis, and many chronic skin conditions such as psoriasis, acne, and cellulite
  • Our bodies are more buoyant in the Dead Sea because of the high concentration of mineral salts that have dissolved. The Dead Sea is eight times saltier than the oceans and has the highest concentration of salt of any body of water in the world, so rather than swim, visitors literally float around. No need for floaties here!
  • The massive levels of salt prevent the existence of all life forms, except some bacteria discovered in recent years
  • The Dead Sea Scrolls were found hidden in a cave in Qumran and contain some of the oldest copies ever discovered of the Hebrew Bible (some call them the greatest archaeological find of the 20th century)

First, we headed to Ein Bokek, a hotel and resort district on the Israeli shore of the Dead Sea. We hopped right in and WOW. Adverse reaction. All the open cuts on our bodies immediately started to sting, as did Zé’s whole body. You literally cannot swim in this sea; your feet immediately rise to the top, and it’s difficult to get them back on the sand. Also, after staying in the water for about 15 minutes, I felt completely dehydrated. It was strange, but very cool. The hotel had showers with fresh water for us to clean ourselves off afterwards. I jumped in a second time, we enjoyed the sun for a bit, and then we moved on. It is a very cool spot that’s completely worth a visit, but you can’t really spend too much time there, because you’ll be dehydrated and shrivel up like a snail.

Next up for us was Ein Gedi, literally “spring of the kid,” an oasis and a nature reserve located west of the Dead Sea, near Masada. We did a beautiful hike there that day, stopping by a few small waterfalls, and ending our hike at the largest one in the park. It took us about 30-40 minutes each way, and was a great, healthy ending to our trip. Afterwards, we went back to the hotel, showered up, and drove back up to Tel Aviv to head to the airport (stopping for one last hummus-based lunch about halfway, obviously).

My conclusion: if you’re looking for a unique experience, consider Israel. It’s a trip filled with contrasts; religious, historic, geographic. Perfect for religious pilgrims and party seekers alike, we absolutely loved it here. It made me feel grateful, introspective, saddened, hopeful, and inspired, all at the same time. I can’t express enough thanks to the boyfriend that planned the (surprise) trip of a lifetime.

(Note: This was supposed to be a three-part blog (with a blurb on our trip to Portugal, too), but we have a dinner reservation looming, my hands are sore from typing, and I’m sure you, dear reader, need a water and bathroom break. I’ll leave you here to enjoy the photos below, filled with anticipation and excitement for the next blog on the first Viana-Baptista wedding of our generation, to come soon!)

Some photos from our trip to Arad and the Dead Sea:

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