It took only passing the very border to Israel to be in a totally different world; a world of Americanised multi-faceted, multi-religious culture. I felt like a dry sponge soaking up new impressions, sights and experiences after having been starved of only Dahab for too long. Several times I found my jaw dropped and mouth wide open with stunned amazement. On the buss to Tel Aviv we pass road signs of places I’ve only read about in news-papers; Gaza, West bank, Hebron…
Even the nature turned totally different from it’s Sinai neighbour. For every kilometre we got closer to the Mediterranean Sea the desert got more and more green, eventually turning into forests of pine and palmtrees – a very strange mixture.
Imagine being surrounded by a 4000-year old city setting, walking on polished cobbled streets, in narrow alleyways full of merchandise and people with old women sitting by the road selling their vegetables. Over the sound of people chattering you hear a mosque calling out for prayer. A few moments later you hear the sound of church bells. Jews fully dressed in black garment, high boots and black hats mix with Arabs in their galabeia-dresses and head cloths. A group of nuns turn around the corner and walk into a convent on a side street. As you are trotting down “Golgata” a man is walking by carrying a huge wooden cross on one shoulder. As he passes I see that he made a convenient adaptation to the modern world by adding a mountain bike wheel at the end of the cross, making it roll easily on the cobbled street. He is on his way to where Jesus was crucified and buried.
Unfortunately we didn’t study much before our trip. Emil and me walked into the largest church in the Christian quarter, following a steady stream of pilgrims and tourists. In the first room was a large stone placed in the middle. “I wonder who’s buried there”, Emil whispered. People threw themselves over the stone and kissed it. Some placed belongings on the stone, closed their eyes and crossed themselves. Eventually we got enough courage to ask two sceptical looking guys standing nearby. They explained that Jesus was probably prepared for the grave on this stone, and the red paint spilled on it looks like blood. We walk into the largest room of the church with a high dome ceiling. A line of people is waiting in front of a wooden building in the middle. We stare at them and try to figure out what it is. No signs here. I pretend I’m a guide and say in an explanatory voice “and this is where Jesus is buried”.. followed by a stupid look. Back in Dahab I googled and read everything I could find on Jerusalem, and find out that people actually think that’s the grave of Jesus.
I learnt more during and after the trip to Israel then in any history or religion-class in school. There’s no learning experience that can match travelling.
What also made a impression on me were the amounts of weapon and security all around. There were lots of military service youngsters with American made semi-automatic rifles casually dangling from their backs or thrown over their lap, police with full on war-outfit and x-ray machines in every public place. I got my bag x-rayed about 8 times in one day. We happened to be in Israel at the time of their two-independence/memorial days so they were prepared for terrorists. Often it was enough to say we were from Sweden and we were waved through. An Egyptian would have to wait for months just to get a visa for Israel.
The western wall is all that is left of the old Jewish temple. It’s now called the “wailing wall”. I went towards the left part where men with all round hats on the top of their heads were facing the wall, some wagging slowly back and forth, some with their forehead touching. Then I was abruptly told by a guard to go to the women’s part, a much smaller part separated by a wooden fence. As I got closer to the wall the very air in the atmosphere changed. It was thick with what I guess is belief. Women splayed themselves against the wall, some sunken down on the ground with their arms stretching out, as if hugging the wall. As I got closer I saw the million of small papers with prayers stuck in every crevice of the wall. I took some pictures and stood wordless for a long time just watching.
I slept like a stone in the mouldy hostel dorm located within the old city walls. My legs were tired from walking all day in the hot air and my brain felt numb from information-overload.
The last day we took a detour from Jerusalem via the Dead Sea. It was with great excitement I stepped into the lukewarm water. The bottom was made up of big salt crystals. The texture of the water was oily and ruff to the touch. I could feel the tiny salt crystals in my cupped hand. I licked the water of my finger and quickly spat it out. It tasted like the salt of way to salty liquorice. I tried to swim out but the high density (30% salt) of the water made my legs float up over the surface and I kicked air instead. I turned around and stopped kicking and just floated on my back! It was so much fun. It felt a little as having a wetsuit on and bobbing around uncontrollably.
The Dead Sea is the lowest place on earth, -417m below sea level and the third of three seas in three days; I swam in the Red Sea the same morning we left. Just after midnight I stepped into the Mediterranean, and the day after I was floating in the Dead Sea. I doubt there’s any other country where you can do that.