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Israel and Jordan as a winter break, Pt. 3

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At this point it's been a few months since my November 2013 Israel/Jordan trip, and I went into so much detail on my trip reports that I only managed to post two before getting side-tracked by other life events. So I'm going to finish this up, and try to be a little more brief.

After the three-day group tour of northern Israel, I spent the rest of the week in Jerusalem. I stayed with a friend of my family, who lived in the nearby village of Abu Ghosh, which was a neat experience. She was very busy working that week, which turned out fine, because I'd travel down to Jerusalem with her early in the morning, spend the day exploring, and then we'd meet up in the evening to go back home. I didn't see a lot of Abu Ghosh but we had dinner there once at a Lebanese restaurant, and bought pizza one day. It is an Arab village that is very friendly; my friend, who was Jewish, was renting a place there because it was much more affordable than a Jerusalem apartment. Communications seemed to be mostly in Hebrew, at least with the restaurant workers. It was the kind of place where everyone knows everyone, and rather than giving a street name to describe where you lived, you'd tell people who your landlord was, and they would nod in recognition… "oh, Hamid's place…"

So, Jerusalem is a great city to travel around solo. It took me a little while to figure out how to buy tickets for the tram that I used to get around, and in the process had to make a line of impatient commuters wait while I confused a shekel with an agorah, and finally gave up and helplessly handed the coins to the person behind me, who bought my ticket for me. All in all, people were amazing nice and helpful. After that, I understood the system, and paid it forward by assisting other hapless tourists as needed.

I first visited Mt. Herzl, which was fantastic, found the bus station so I could reserve the ride to Eilat which I'd need later that week, got a SIM chip for my unlocked iPhone (Orange; not cheap but it let me use Google maps, text and make phone calls throughout the week), and of course, spend days wandering the Old City. The extent to which I did not have to even try to use any of my Hebrew was embarrassing, but at the same time made things easier for me. People were generally nice, or left me alone, and I did as much people-watching as sight-seeing. I took a short Green Olive tour, which to be honest, I did not like at all. I felt the tour guide was incredibly biased; he was a young Israeli who referred to his own people as "the Zionists", and gave myself and the others in our group a history of Israel which I felt was really one-sided. There were other aspects to it, but I won't go into too much detail lest I start ranting. It was all I could do not walk away, but I stuck it out through the tour. I really have to find better tour guides next time I visit, but for the rest of the week I pretty much stayed on my own.

I walked around the Muslim Quarter, and realized that the 'quarters' of the Old City were not as delineated as one might think. Over the week I went everywhere, seeing the Western Wall (of course), and the tunnels underneath (ok, that was my exception to not doing any more tours, and it was fantastic), the Stations of the Cross, the Armenian quarter, the Sephardic Synagogues… It was all great.

I stumbled on a little shop one day when I was hungry and asked for falafel. "We just serve hummus," I was told. Hearing this, I decided it must be some fantastic hummus, and it certainly was. Creamy, topped perfectly with the oil and spices, with pickled and bread on the side. That was one place where everyone in the shop seemed to be local, and it was patronized by Jews and Arabs. By anyone who loves good food, I guess.

Mid-week, I visited some cousins, who I hadn't seen for a very long time, who lived in a more conservative suburb of Jerusalem. Figuring out the bus was a bit of an adventure in itself, but I had a great visit and got to meet their adorable kids. I wasn't sure what to wear, but had pre-planned by bringing a long skirt and drapey top, which seemed to go over ok.

Talking to people later I realized how much I DIDN'T see. The Mt. of Olives, Bethlehem, the City of King David. Oh, well. I really liked my haphazard mode of exploring, and taking my time at each place. If I wanted to spend hours in a certain museum, or sit in quiet reflection at a site, it was good to have that freedom. The disadvantage was that it was hard to figure out how to get to certain places. Quite a few synagogues in the Jewish Quarter were confusing as to entrance hours for visitors, and in one I literally could not find out where the 'women's entrance' was. However, they had a beautiful archaeological museum with an audio tour, and I took my time there. I also wanted to see at least one mosque, but that was another thing I couldn't figure out how to do respectfully. Maybe on some future visit I can make it a point to go to all the places I missed this time around.

I also got a kick out of watching the different groups. There was one group who sat down in every church and sang beautifully. Another group (who I believe were Chinese), would blow a shofar, and then dance in ecstasy, as one member held the boom box and another waved a giant flag that had some combination of the Israeli flag and a lion on it. There were Brazilians, Germans, Nigerians, Americans, Japanese; really, people from all over the world. I found a nice cafe in the middle of it all which had outdoor seating and served fresh squeezed juices, and would sometimes sit in the sun, watching the parade of humanity stream by. One day as I was sitting there, in the distance I could often hear the call to prayer. It made you realize in a very immediate way how much Jerusalem has always been at the center of a confluence of cultures.

On Friday I was in the Jewish Quarter and I could see people begin to run around as afternoon approached, getting ready for the Sabbath. I was taking my time, wandering, and finally meandered over to catch the tram and meet my host back at the hotel where she was working. By then it was dark, and Orthodox men in their fantastic hats were walking with their kids alongside them, and it was really fun to see. I sat on the bench, waiting, and thinking that the tram was taking a long time to arrive. Then I noticed people walking on the street, in the tracks, which was a weird thing. Only then did my slow brain began to arrive at the certainty that there would be no tram that night. A fact which I should have known but didn't fully appreciate. I began to walk back to the hotel instead, and it was a second blow to my psyche to realize that the cute little gelato shop I had been planning to stop at on the way would not be open. :(

Saturday was my last full day in Jerusalem. Figuring out what to do, now that most places were closed, my friend told me that I could visit the Israel Museum. So I did this, (walking again; there were taxis but it was awfully nice weather to be outside), and found it was a lovely place to spend the day. They had a special exhibit on Herod, some amazing art, the fantastic Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit, and a very large-scale model of Jerusalem from the time of the Second Temple. Afterwards my friend had recommended a place to eat, as there are not many restaurants open that day. I walked for what seemed like hours, but it took me through 'modern Jerusalem', which I hadn't really seen until then.

On Sunday I got up super-early to catch the 7am bus to Eilat. It turned out to be so full they actually had four buses leaving at that time. Hence the recommendation for reservations. I even had an assigned seat. My seat mate turned out to be not at all interested in conversation, which was ok. The scenery was mesmerizing, and I sat by the window and took lots of photos while listening to music and watching the desert go by. There was one rest stop. As always at these places, the lines for the ladies room are long, and having your own toilet paper and soap makes a big difference! When I talked about the bus ride later that week with others who had taken it, some people complained that it was chaotic and crowded, but I found it clean and pleasant. Maybe the experience depends on your particular bus driver and how the A/C is working that day?

At the Eilat bus station it was easy to find the cabs and there seemed to be a set fare for going to the border.

Here ends my Israeli adventure, and I'll finish the Jordanian travelogue more promptly than I did this one!

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