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Wednesday, November 9, 2011

A bus ride, a camel ride, a serenade from a Berklee student

Tuesday morning, onboard the bus to Nazareth:

Actually, the bus is headed to Tel Aviv, where I have to change for another bus to Nazareth. A rather circuitous route, if you look at the map. At first I thought it had something to do with going around the territories. But, in fact, there are direct busses to Nazareth, since I didn’t want to wait until late afternoon.

As I was writing the other night, from the lounge a couple of nights ago, a woman came up to sing. One of the guys had been trying to entice people to sing, with no success. He was very funny, offering things like free room and board, and drinks, but no takers. All of a sudden, a woman with long blonde hair was there, and said she’d like to sing. She did one song, and just wowed everyone, and especially the guys in the band, who were a couple of guitarists, a saxophonist, a drummer, and someone playing an instrument that looked like a combination of a harmonica, a keyboard, and a hookah, or narjileh, as they call them here.

They were all pretty good, but the woman, whose name was Emily, just put them to shame. Which didn’t keep them from playing with her, the bartender doing double duty to harmonize over her shoulder between pouring drinks. Emily kept trying to sit down, not wanting to monopolize the “open “ mike, which hadn’t really been too open before she arrived. Once, between songs, I asked her if she also wrote her own songs, and she does. Turns out, she is a Berklee student, and was pleased to find out I was from the area. I told her I want to come see her perform when she has a gig in the Boston area. We actually talked for quite awhile. And I googled her while she was singing! She’s recorded two albums, has a website, is on Wikipedia. (although it is dawning me that people probably write their own bios on wiki). She has the sweetest manner, yet belts out these songs in a husky voice that belies her demeanor.

Emily, according to her website, had just been performing in Tel Aviv, and was on her way to Ramallah and then Istanbul. But, she told me, she didn’t want to go back yet, and was hoping to change her ticket.

What a fortuitous event, for her and for all of us, her to arrive in Jerusalem, and walk straight into an opportunity to sing. When I left, after last call, and the last song, most of the musicians were kind of fawning over her, at the bar. Emily Elbert, check her out.

Yesterday, I went on a daylong excursion, from 7am to 7 pm, that took me and three Danish travellers, to several interesting sites. We had a driver, a wiry guy who reminded me of a young Joel Grey. He wasn’t actually as young as I thought at first, was actually in his late 30’s. He made it quite clear that he was a driver, not a licensed guide.. Not because he didn’t want us to ask him things, but because he didn’t want to be pretending he had more qualifications than he does.

In fact, though, Alon was a great “guide” although the trip was described as a “self-guided” tour. He joined us swimming in the Dead Sea, and hiked in with us to the waterfalls at Ein Khoki. He waited at the bottom while we went up the cable car and spent almost two hours wandering around the ruins. And again while we went on the camel ride. But that was all fine. I didn’t mind, at all, wandering around Masada on my own, except for the 15 or so minutes that felt like forever when I was lost in the ruins and couldn’t find my way out, and kept encountering different tour groups speaking French, Italian, Japanese, German, English of course, maybe even a Hebrew group or two.

I even ran into a group of three, touring on their own, who headed me off in what they thought was the right direction (it wasn’t) but not before asking me if I was really was from the Bronx (I was wearing my Bronx t shirt, which I usually take on trips but had hardly worn on this one.) Because, of course, they were too! I might have stopped to talk longer, although I guess it was less of a coincidence in Israel than it might be in other places. But I was worried about finding my way out of the maze and down the cable car by the appointed meeting time. Which I did, but just in the nick of time, partly because the line to take the cable car back down was long, and filled mostly with large groups wearing matching baseball caps or matching yellow scarves or something of the like. I guess if I’d had one of those I wouldn’t have gotten lost.

Masada itself: it is in a spectacular setting, situated on the flat topped mesa overlooking the desert and the Dead Sea. It would be renowned, I imagine, just for its location. But the story that stirs the Israeli psyche is the perhaps true, perhaps somewhat apocryphal, story of the Jews who defended it against a much larger Roman army. Until, when it was clear that they couldn’t sustain it, they killed their own families, and then themselves, rather than submit to being slaves. There are some pottery shards discovered at the site that have names on them. The belief is that they were lots for the men to draw, to determine the order in which they would kill one another, until the last one left killed himself.

The tour usually goes to Masada first, but when we arrived there, the guard informed Alon that because of the strike, they were opening two hours late, at 10am, that day. We’d already heard about the strike, which involved temporary workers, who do not get benefits, when one of the Danish guys had asked about transport to the airport that night. They were leaving on a 4am flight after we got back to the hostel at 8pm. What strike? They asked, and I, overhearing the conversation, wondered the same. Alon, as it turned out, knew about the strike, as I imagine most Israelis did, but had assumed it didn’t involve national landmarks, or whatever Masada is considered. Wrong.

We later found out that the supposed all day strike, which included all kinds of workers including many at the airport, had been negotiated down to four hours, until 10am.

So he changed the plan, and we went to the Dead Sea, at a different spot than the tours usually go, so we didn’t have to backtrack as far. I don’t understand the physics of it, but like in the Salt Lake in Utah, one is incredibly buoyant. The water is supposed to cure all kinds of ailments. It is also very strong, burns if it gets in your eyes, and burns also if you taste it, and can burn your skin as well, especially if you have sores. Yet it's supposed to be very healing for your skin. We all floated around for a while, then headed back to Masada, still before the major onslaught of bus tours.

There are companies that take the mud from the sea and package it, and at other points, on the north side of the lake, you can cover yourself with mud right from the beach. There are hotels and spas at various points, and the waters are supposed to have all kinds of curative benefits. Besides the packaged mud, there are a host of other Dead Sea products, using the minerals from the water. There’s a company, I think the name is Ahava, whose manufacturing plant is right on the sea. Or it it like Perrier or Poland Springs water, whose water doesn’t come from those places at all anymore?

The Dead Sea is drying up, and has receded severely over just the last couple of decades. What was one continuous body of water is now divided in two, caused at least partly by the government having diverted the water to the large hotels, which jut out of the land startlingly, so that they would still be on or near the shore. The Dead Sea works, which I believe is a government owned business, has factories along the sea, mining salt and magnesium and who knows what else.

Well, onto the next adventure. We went to a spring fed stream in the middle of the desert, along which we hiked for maybe half a mile, in the water, coming out eventually at a series of waterfalls and shallow pools. It was fun, a pretty easy hike, And you know if I say easy, it’s easy! Along much of the way, the stream/trail was overhung with plants I wasn’t familiar with, and called to myself bullrushes, which they probably weren’t at all. You know, the Biblical setting. In any case, it was very aesthetic. And, when we arrived at the waterfalls, Alon opened his pack, took out a little propane burner, a coffee pot, and brewed us all little cups of coffee. An Abraham Tours tradition, he said.

Last stop of the day, the camel farm owned by a Jewish guy who lived with his family out in the middle of the desert. His name was Ariel, he’d lived there and had the business for about 20 years. The area was still inhabited by Bedouins, who were once nomadic, but aren’t any longer. I think he had about 20 camels. They live about 40 years, he said, with the good treatment they get there. I don’t know how long they live in other circumstances. Ariels’s wife makes camel milk soap, and of course I bought some.

We had about an hour long camel ride, with all the camels tied to the one in front, and Ariel leading the four of us. The only somewhat hairy part was getting on and off. Not because of the height, but because the camels stand and sit in two stages, and when they are halfway up or down, you are on quite an angle and have to hold tight.. I was trying to figure out how to get a pictures of myself on the camel.. They were too far apart for me to hand the camera to anyone. And Ariel kept reminding us, anyway, to keep both hands on the handle of the saddle .And then, noticing the shadows of all of us on the desert ground, it came to me. So I’ve got what I think are some pretty neat pictures of a shadow camel caravan.

Along the way, Ariel made a lot of jokes. His English was heavily accented, and I’m not sure the Danes got all or any of the jokes. At least, I was laughing a lot more than they were. At the end of the ride I told him it was a great comedy routine and camel ride. I don’t know if you can call it stand up if someone is sitting on a camel, but he was at any rate a very funny Jewish camel ranch owner.

Along the way, he described the caravans that used to travel on these ancient paths, and pointed out caves, now abandoned, in which the Bedouins used to store supplies to use along the route.

Last event, also at the ranch, was a delicious Bedouin dinner, with many courses, as in most Arab meals. There was a vegetable stew, lentils, rice, olives, a delicious bread similar to, but not, pita. And more. And of course more than we could eat.

We’d made quite a circuit of the middle to southern part of the country. The entire day was quite enjoyable, due not in small part to our driver cum guide Alon. He was not obliged to accompany us on any of these adventures, but did, and also shared a lot of information with us along the way. He has his own van and driving company, and it seems as though Abraham Tours has been giving him a lot of business. I can see why.

I am not usually one for group tours, but this one was a delight. I hadn’t planned to do the long event including the camel ride, which sounded a bit hokey. But this was the only one that went to Masada and the Dead Sea that day. And the ride, even if a bit hokey, was, especially combined with the dinner, was a lot of fun. A good value, too, with the Abraham Hostel 10% discount, was quite reasonable, I think, just over $100.

Oh, just for the record, this was not the first time I rode a camel. I am an experienced camel rider. The last, and only other time was at the Bronx Zoo, more than 50 years ago. I distinctly remember a saddle with room for four small people, two facing out on each side. And a platform from which to mount. Or was that an elephant?

Don’t forget two J. museums

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