With a week to spare before our flight to South America and an itch to explore somewhere new, we decided to head from Greece to Israel. The flights were cheap and relatively painless and our minds were filled with visions of beautiful beaches in Tel Aviv, streets full of history in Jerusalem and floating endlessly in the Dead Sea. Ours were more selfish motivations, less for the political and cultural interests that Israel is so known for, and more for a week of indulgence and exploring the very edge of the Middle East.
Tel Aviv was strikingly similar to our own environment back home in Sydney; broad, sweeping beaches filled with people enjoying the seemingly endless summer and big bustling streets lined with trendy cafes and equally cool people. In a way, it was almost disappointing to travel so far and find somewhere so similar to home, but on the other hand it was great to feel at home so instantly in a place – and get our much longed-for fix of Asian food and English speakers. Best of all, Tel Aviv meant more beach time, although this time on the most beautiful beaches we’ve ever seen, with sparkling white sand and deliciously warm, clear waters.
In Jerusalem, we learned more about the complicated history of Israel and the delicate balance between its past and present. We had heard and read so much about the tension that exists in the area (although definitely not enough to speak with any authority on the subject). Instead, what we found was a beautiful combination of the three big religions and cultures – Jewish, Muslim and Christian areas, sites and people all coexisting within the Old Town’s one square kilometre space, which made for enthralling exploration where you could walk down one street in the modern Jewish quarter and pass through time into the bustling Muslim markets filled with men hawking their wares in Arabic.
Not particularly religious ourselves, it was hard not to feel the pull of history within the streets, along Via Delarosa, the path Jesus is said to have followed on his way to cruxifixction or at the Western Wall, the most important Jewish site, where Jewish residents come daily to pray. Within such a small area, its almost impossible not to be amazed by so many important religious historical sites and the many followers who pass through the city each day on their respective religious pilgrimages.
Our final, and most highly anticipated stop was our trip to the Dead Sea, the lowest point on Earth. We really weren’t sure what to expect when we hired a car and headed off towards the Dead Sea. Bordering Israel, Palestine and Jordan, we naively imagined heavily patrolled checkpoints or at least something to visually suggest we were entering a contested area, but the reality was far more mundane. Instead, a single freeway took us straight from the centre of Jerusalem to our destination on the edge of the West Bank.
First stop was at Ein Gedi, a lush national park within the desert, with stunning natural springs flowing down through the hills. We hiked slowly, wishing we’d had more forethought to arrive earlier in the day (hiking in the desert wasn’t our smartest idea), and practically threw ourselves gratefully at each spring along the path. Finally reaching the highest point of our journey, we were rewarded with a stunning waterfall and amazing views overlooking the area and towards the Dead Sea.
Jumping back into our car, we set off in search of somewhere to swim in the Dead Sea. Despite being such a huge area, there were only a few spots open for swimming, so we found our way to Kalia Beach, a popular spot for tourists and locals alike. And boy was it popular! Again, our expectations of an almost deserted shoreline (ideally with beautiful white sand like in Tel Aviv), we were greeted with hoards of visitors, mostly Palestinian and Israeli but with a decent scattering of tourists thrown in. We made our way through the crowds to the water, only to be greeted with thick, greasy mud and even more people. On first impressions, the Dead Sea looked like it may have been one of our more disappointing adventures, but once we slowly waded through the mud and into the salty, almost greasy water, we could finally see what all the fuss was about.
Within a few steps, we dropped gratefully into the warm water and found that we couldn’t even sink to the bottom. Instead, we floated (somewhat) gracefully where we found we could stay for hours. Its hard to describe the feeling of absolute weightlessness that we experienced in the Dead Sea – even past standing depth you could bob slowly without moving a muscle. After the requisite selfies (look Mum, no hands!) we were content to float around for ages, slowly passing others as they also gave themselves to the ebb and flow of the briefest of currents.
Finally, it was time to emerge from the Sea and back to the city to begin our next adventure. While I don’t think we could say we left Israel with any greater understanding of this complicated country, it was certainly an amazing experience.