Day 7 was a great day. I got to wear shorts! Woo!
No, but seriously, it was a great day, for real.
It was Monday, and we were a week into our trip. After packing our bags in preparation for changing hotels again, we had breakfast that morning with the very first people we met while at the airport in D.C. the week prior, before hopping on the bus to head to Masada and the Dead Sea. That sounds like a light itinerary – but let me assure you – it was not. Masada is NO JOKE. And we spent a lot of time on the bus as we drove from Jerusalem to our final destination in Eilat, on the far southern end of Israel.
Masada is approximately two hours by bus from Jerusalem, so there was plenty of time to look out the windows and look at the desert scenery. It was also a great time to catch a nap. AJ looked at the scenery, I napped. Win-win.
Once at Masada, the early morning hours were just coming to an end, and we witnessed several dozen Israeli soldiers trekking down the side of the mountain on the Snake Trail. Most of us opted to use the cable cars to reach the top, but a couple intrepid travelers did hike up the mountain (and made good time, all things considered).
Masada was originally built by Herod the Great in the 30s BC but changed hands a couple times before the Sicarii, a Jewish splinter group, took it over during the First Jewish-Roman War. The fought off invasions there for over three years before finally being overcome by the Roman army. Rather than be taken hostage, they committed mass suicide and burned much of their infrastructure. Over the years it eventually became a major tourist attraction (and a TV miniseries was made about Masada in the early 1980s). But in recent years, the Israeli army has begin having their newest soldiers climb the Snake Trail up the side of Masada and gather in the place where the suicide took place, and after a swearing-in ceremony, all shout, “Masada shall not fall again.” Wikipedia claims this ceremony no longer takes place at Masada, but I can’t think of any OTHER reason why an entire battalion of young Israeli soldiers would be coming down the mountain in the early morning hours.
Once our entire group made it to the top, it became apparent that 1) it was a REALLY hot day, 2) there were no opportunities for shade OR for sitting down and 3) AJ did not have the energy for this kind of sightseeing. She gamely hung in there, trekking from area to area, in the blazing sun, listening to our tour guides speak about what we were seeing. We tried latching onto a different part of group, thinking they were almost done, but it turns out they were behind us, so we quickly caught up with our group again. Finally, finally, we reached an area that had stones set up for seating, where I set AJ in the shade and began plying her with plenty of water. I had also packed a couple small cookies in my bag to give her, and brought out one for her. We were listening to Ezer speak about the Sicarii choice to commit suicide when suddenly AJ began coughing uncontrollably – horribly sounds as though she was choking to death.
“Are you okay?” I asked. “Drink some water.”
She waved me off, continuing to cough.
“AJ, are you okay? Can you breathe?”
She waved me off, continuing to cough.
Oh no, I thought. AJ is going to die at the top of Masada. “AJ, drink some water. Can you drink some water?”
She waved me off, continuing to cough.
At this point, Ezer quickly brought his story to an end and began escorting everyone out of the area, and I asked AJ one more time if she was okay, and if she could breathe.
She held up a finger in my direction, and very politely, in so many words, told me to shut up. That’s when I knew she was fine.
We sat there and I let her cough it out, until finally she whispered roughly, “A cookie crumb tickled my throat.”
A COOKIE CRUMB? I thought. OH NO, I ALMOST KILLED AJ ON THE TOP OF MASADA.
She finally drank some water and a very nice man from our group that had stayed behind helped me get AJ down off the mountaintop and back with our group as they began loading back onto the cable car. I told her later that it would have been very ironic for her to have died up there, almost as though she committed cookie suicide in solidarity with the Sicarii people.
So back on the bus we went, this time headed for the Dead Sea. We pulled up outside a resort right on the water, where we were told we had about 90 minutes to go in the water, have lunch, and do some shopping at the spa shop on site. AJ and I promptly headed for the waterline, and upon touching the water, I opted NOT to put on my swimsuit to “swim” in what essentially was a watered down version of petroleum jelly. It was truly the weirdest texture of water I will ever feel in my life.
The Dead Sea has two distinctions to its name. First, it is the lowest population on the planet, at more than 1400 feet below sea level. Secondly, it has one of the highest concentrations of salinity in the water, being 34.2% salt. For frame of reference, it is almost 10% saltier than the oceans. Nothing can live or grow in the water, and it is so full of minerals in addition to salt that you can’t swim in it, but it basically forces you to float. Many, many folks from our tour group changed into swimsuits and headed into the water, and nearly all of them, once they managed to climb out (it took a while because they couldn’t stand up because the water didn’t allow them to get out of their back-floating position enough to put their feet down on the ground), said they’d never do it again. *lol* Meanwhile, AJ and I hung out in the small cafe, eating a leisurely lunch, chatting with others in our group that wisely opted not to swim.
In this picture, the white you see behind AJ’s head is a solid line of salt that had built up on the surface of the water. The white stuff at the bottom of the picture – what appears to be sand – is also salt. Mounds and mounds of salt. I picked up a chunk and it was hard as a rock, and took great pressure for me to break it up. Those who went in the water said that walking was very painful because of the salt crystals layering the entire ground near the shoreline. While there I picked up a container of garlic salt made with salt from the Dead Sea, as well as a mud mask made from Dead Sea minerals.
It was here that we said goodbye to Dan, the man who lead our particular bus group. We were sad to see him go because the man knows his stuff – he has been running tours in Israel for 10 years and knew so much about his native country it would put many historians to shame. However, our next location was just too far for him to go, considering he had a family. It’s one thing to do day trips, it’s another to be a solid 3-4 hours from home. So with great sadness, we bid him adieu.
Back on the buses, we began the trek down to Eilat, where we would finish out our trip. Eilat is a resort town on the Red Sea, and is a big hotspot for Eastern Europeans and Russians on holiday. Who knew? When we arrived at the hotel, we walked into our room and were hit with two things. First, the amazing view off our balcony:
And second was the horrible stench in the room. Apparently, Eilat just the prior week had suffered from torrential rain, and even the airport in the center of the small town was completely flooded out. By the time we got there, there was no evidence of rain at all, with the exception of the stale, moldy smell in our room. Too tired to deal with it just then, AJ laid down for a nap and I sat on our balcony enjoying the cool breeze and the tremendous view of the water. After a while I woke up AJ and we headed down to dinner, where we discovered that more than a few people on our side of the hotel had experienced that same moldy smell. Our thought is that the rain and wind caused the water to come in the rooms via the glass doors. After dinner (another delicious buffet offered by the hotel), I went to ask for another room. We were kept on the same floor, but moved around the corner. We lost our great view, but we gained a normal-smelling room. Win!
Exhausted, we went to bed early because the next day was the big day – the whole reason for our trip. PETRA.