Day 7 was spent visiting the King of Kings Ministry, around the corner from my apartment, and meeting the wonderful people there, and all the work they do for the Lord! It was a nice afternoon, and they showed me around their facilities, and then I had the pleasure of having lunch with Marj, a friend by proxy from the States.
Day 8, I packed up early and headed out on an exploration of the regions of Jericho, Jordan, and the Dead Sea. I met up with a tour group -- because I knew access to Jericho would be nonexistent, since it is in Sector A of the West Bank, and that is just completely out of my depth. It's a hostile region held by Palestine, and I knew that attempting such a thing alone would not only foolhardy -- it bordered on insane.
So I engaged with a small group with a guide, Yoav, an Israeli who held a special permit to enter Palestinian areas. Normally, Israelis are forbidden in these zones. There is a big red sign at the checkpoint that states in Hebrew, Arabic, and English -- that Israeli citizens are forbidden beyond this point and can be lawfully killed for trespass. Pretty brutal. Talk about harsh penalties for illegal "immigration".
Our first stop was to take a peek into the desert, where the Bedouin still live. We got off the highway and went a few miles into the desert, winding up and through the bleak landscape. Camels free-roamed, grazing the hills, as did goats. Bedouin shanties dotted the landscape here and there. Finally, we came to a beautiful scenic point where a monastery clung to a cliff -- in a manner reminiscent of the photos I've seen of Petra. A big cross marked the area as one that had once been occupied by Catholic monks. It was beautiful, but I felt a sort of sadness mingled with the empty beauty of the area. And a slight chill of danger -- I could understand this would be an extremely harsh existence these monks had signed up for.
Our group departed and continued onward into the different Sectors or zones of the East and notorious West Bank. Zone A is Palestinian controlled, Zone B is joint, and Zone C is Israeli. There were signs of hostilities all over the place. "The burn marks on the pavement are from recent Palestinian uprisings -- burning tires and attacking whatever vehicles were driving by," Yoav said with a chuckle as he shook his head in bewilderment. That was not a comforting thought. I glanced around, but the landscape was quiet and empty. We entered into Sector A and went to our designated point -- Jericho. We toured about the "modern" city a little (in the van) and then we stopped at a restaurant in a casino area and formulated/confirmed our gameplan for the day. As we sat in our little enclave, vendors came to sell us things, but Yoav sent them away. "They'll hassle us all day long otherwise."
Our first point of interest was to ascend the Mountain of Temptation, where Jesus stayed for 40 days fasting and was tempted by the Devil, who showed him the kingdoms of the world. We would need to take a cable car up to the nearly 4k mountain top. I hate heights, but I knew that in order to see this site, there was no alternative, so putting my discomfort aside, we climbed the steps to the cable car station and boarded. We began our descent across the land, climbing higher and higher. In the car, we all looked nervously at each other, giggling, nervously chatting, and anxiously trying to maintain our composure. At the halfway point, perhaps, the car just suddenly came to a halt, both sides of the cables. We sat there gaping at each other, and at the other people in the other cars. The cars just swung in the wind as the minutes ticked by. I began to get extremely scared, bordering on creeping terror. The interior temperature in the car was about 100 degrees, with only a small 6" x 6" ventilation window to let air in. "Oh God," I prayed. "Please let this thing move soon." The older Norwegian woman looked at me with naked fear in her eyes. "What do you think has happened?" I looked helplessly back at her. My mind raced. If this thing broke down -- how would they get us out?! I suddenly felt really angry at myself for even getting on the damn thing. I shrugged. "I don't know. I don't know." We all sat in terrified silence. Just when my mind had reached its most dire conclusion, the car lurched. The girl from the Congo let out a small scream, as we all grabbed onto each other, and then the car began slowly moving upward on its track. "Oh thank you Jesus!" the Korean man laughed. We all began laughing in relief and talking, so happy to be moving upward again.
We finally reached the level of the second cable station, and we literally jumped off. I said to the Norwegian woman --"Yes, I think I might take the long road down rather than get on that thing again" and she began to laugh in agreement.
The second cable station level still did not bring us to the top of the mountain, or to the level of the monastery we were seeking. We still needed to climb an additional 3,300 steps. Crap. Flashbacks of Santorini danced through my head and I sighed. This time, there were no donkeys to haul us up there. We began climbing. I would climb each long row, and then stop to take a "picture" breather. This system worked for me without causing me to have a heart attack! Others climbed a little more slowly, trying to manage the steep steps as well. I reached the monastery and felt a surge of happiness. I was extremely curious to see it, as photos of it had looked amazing.
It didn't disappoint. The monastery was incredibly beautiful and ethereal, like catching a glimpse of what I pictured the Halls of Heaven would look like. Carved into the rock of the mountain, the entire areas were ancient and ablaze with cream colored light, giving it an almost supernatural atmosphere. We explored this incredible structure, with the monks "cells" actually hanging thousands of feet in the air off the cliffs, each with its own little gleaming, burnished door. I was so tempted to pull the handles and see what was inside. Maybe nothing. Maybe a facade and you fall thousands of feet off the mountain, hahaha.
Inside the actual chapel resided the rock that Jesus had sat on, which was now protected from visitors behind glass. In the past, people tried to chip pieces of it off, etc., so the protection was necessary. The girl from the Congo, and her husband, immediately fell prostrate before the rock and singing songs in African to worship the spot. It was both fascinating and enchanting.
After we left there, we made our way back to the cable cars. We were all nervous, but Yoav chatted with the operator who assured him all was well. We descended without incident.
When we reached the ground, we decided to go to the archaeological site of ancient Jericho and have a late lunch after. We explored the site for an hour or so, discussing the science versus biblical references and implications, and then went a viewed a small media production about Kathleen Kenyon, the archeologist who is credited with much of the excavation of Jericho.
We ate a huge lunch in an "oasis" restaurant -- all Arabic cuisine. The restaurant owners just kept bringing more food -- we started with local dates and fruits, and then there were all sorts of pickled vegetables, grains, pitas, and hummus. Then roasted chicken, kebobs of lamb and mutton, followed by homemade "pita pizzas" with tomato and goat cheese. "Eat eat!" the old man serving said. "It's very good!" We washed it all down with big glasses of lemon water with sage leaves. I was very grateful for their kind hospitality to us.
We left the restaurant and went to the tree that Zaccheus climbed while Jesus was passing by -- now controlled by a compound of Russian orthodox. "Nothing will ever happen to this tree with the Orthodox protecting it" laughed Yoav.
We continued on to the Jordan River, to the spot where John the Baptist baptized Jesus. It was in Sector B, in an Israeli militarized zone. "Please mind the signs!" Yoav warned us sternly. "There are still many active landmines in the area. We don't want you to go ka-boom!" We all laughed.
The Jordan was very low, and muddy. Some of the people in the group were a little disappointed, hoping to be baptized there. Other acolytes stood around the banks looking dismayed to go into the brown, still water. "Looks like there might be crocodiles in there," I said snidely, and Yoav thought this was very entertaining. I decided to be brave and waded in. I said a prayer of thanksgiving to the Lord for such a beautiful river, and for all the blessings he has given me and my family, and then sat quietly on the steps for the duration, just meditating and enjoying the sun.
We left there and headed to the Dead Sea, for the last part of our day. We had 3 hours to float around and enjoy the waters, and we all headed in eagerly to the Kalia Beach resort. After securing my gear in a locker, I headed down to the water. I was given different warnings about entering the water because it is so salty, it feels like "goop" or "oil," and if you get the water in your eyes, you are going to be very unhappy. Just as bad if you get it in your mouth or swallow it. Ugh.
I walked down to the water's edge, where there were about 20 or so "floaters." They seemed peaceful enough. At the shoreline, young people slathered the black mud all over each other, and then took photos of each other. It strangely reminded me of something I would see in Coachella. I gingerly took a step in and sank about up to my calves in goop. I immediately recoiled and went to my knees, and began floating with everyone else. They were right -- it did feel "oily". My somewhat clumsy entrance had splashed water onto my face. I made the mistake of rubbing it off. It contaminated my lips with the salty sludge, making me literally gag. I continued floating and spitting it out until I couldn't take it any longer, and was forced to crawl out of the water and rinse my mouth in the shower. Yuck. I had enough!
I showered off and headed up to the terrace, where there were several open-air lounges. I got an iced coffee, and just people watched. There were people of all ages and nationalities leisurely strolling by. Flags from every nation fluttered in the wind. The USA had the biggest flags there. I smiled. I continued to sip my drink, and chat with some of the other beachgoers. A couple from Texas. Another solo female traveler from Miami - who was actually leaving the beach, hitting her hotel really quick for another shower, and then flying out of Tel Aviv at 9 that night. We chatted about our travels, our families, some of the sites and experiences we had there in Israel, decent restaurants, etc.
Finally, it was time to go, and I was ready. Despite all my precautions, I had gotten a little crispy and was ready for a real shower. The day was very successful and we covered all of our trek plans, and I got back to my apartment in time for a nice dinner with Schterny and Sensei -- and to call home and chat with Dad and Dale. It was an excellent day!