Adventures in following Lonely Planet through Israel
By Sydney Palmer, special to mongabay.com
January 18, 2006
Travel writer Sydney Palmer recounts her adventures in following the Lonely Planet guide through Israel
“So why are you here?” First words we hear in the airport.
“Ummmm,” was our brilliant reply; “we heard it was nice . . . ?”
“Do you know anyone living in Israel?” Not at all.
“Do you have anywhere to stay?”
“Well, no, but we checked Lonely Planet and you country is well-equipped with hostels . . .”
“Are you aware of the situation in this country?”
Our fool-proof, back-up, multi-purpose answer didn’t seem appropriate at the time, cowering before this five-foot Israeli woman who looked hungry to fill her daily doses of deportation, but we tried it anyway. . .
“We love Moses?” So we got searched. The guards converged upon our luggage and disemboweled our backpacks with a gusto that sent my underthings soaring about the airport lobby, only to land in a sad heap on top of our dilapidated Lonely Planet guidebook, which was supposed to help us avoid setbacks like this in the first place. Possibly placated by our stupefied expressions, and bedraggled appearance, the customs agents shortly decided that we were, in fact, traveling about Israel, and not planting evil things like bombs and meat & cheese sandwiches throughout the land, and left us to reassemble our things and enter the country at will. Welcome to Israel.
A taxi ride later and Alyse and I were in the midst of Tel Aviv, the coastal city saturated with a thick grey fog that held in the humidity. The sticky heat seemed to throb on the concrete streets and sizzle off the steel molding of the Radisson and the Sheraton, creeping in around the exposed flesh of our ankles and singeing our fragile alien, which had been coddled by the benign Spanish autumn for the past several weeks. Immediately we crossed the promenade, abandoned amidst the persistent evening swelter, and hunkered into the white powder beach facing the Mediterranean. Despite the darkening sky and the descending darkness, the ocean was still breathtaking. If one could zoom-in straight ahead, out into the horizon, sort of the antithesis of panoramic vision, and in effect cut out the stone and cement jetties that protruded from the gossamer sand every 600 meters or so, and suck away the high-rise hotels that sat on the seam of the sand and the street, the view would appear as if in a dream. On this Thursday evening, while the golden sun shattered through the charcoal haze, and the clear ocean climbed like glass over our toes, before the dusty velvet sand, sucked it into its pores, and the air settled thick over our shoulders it seemed as though we had traveled to the ends of the earth, exactly where we wanted to be. Minutes and minutes of silent absorption passed, until we unanimously and wordlessly decided it was time to mosey. All of this blissful tranquility was broken when I realized I had lost my sock. We had literally traveled an expanse of 10 meters on the beach, and somewhere between the beginning and the end of that route my sock had evaporated, into thin air I tell you! I slowly retraced the entire route, a sock, and a shoe and a half into things, crouched nose to the sand while Alyse occupied herself very intensely with the goings-on of the street above; there was no sock to be found. Somewhere in Israel sits a black sock with red toes sitting, waiting.
Following Lonely Planet like Moses through the desert, we set off in pursuit of the restaurant that The Book recommended as having excellent hummus and hand-presses lemonade for cheap. Because the sign for this particular establishment advertised only in Hebrew, the task proved to be a night’s worth. After fifteen blocks and four turn-arounds, we spied a fruit stand that had some lovely looking dried mangos peeking out of the bins on the back wall, so we went in and told the cashier in fluent hand signals that we would like some. “Sure, twelve kilos will be fine!” we must have said, because soon a gallon bag brimming over with dried fruit was plucked into Alyse´s arms, and the man was pointing triumphantly at the scale. This fruit must have been damn near gold because it cost us a day’s rations. At this point though, our blood sugar was much below the point where we could have asked him to put some back, and so we trudged out of the fruit-stand, dragging our feet, hanging our heads, carrying enough fruit for a small kibbutz, and headed toward where we hoped lay the hostel to dine dejectedly on mango slices.
The next morning we took off at the crack of dawn for Akko, “a city”, and I quote, “more timeless than Jerusalem.” What had really drawn us to Akko was the ancient under ground settlement that Lonely Planet had promised was worth the excursion, for which we searched for the better part of a half an hour, to no avail. Noting the fact that the city was underground, The Book assured us it was still open for exploration, though it provided neither directions nor a working translation of “subterranean crusader city”. Needless to say, it was never found . . . with the sock? What we found instead was the ancient fortress, where we toured the Knights´ Quarters, though the audio guide was unsure of whether any evidence exists to indicate the barren stone-walled rooms indeed housed knights- ever. From there we entered the Dungeon, where historians are actually quite sure that not a single prisoner was held, and then the Dining Commons, where meals may or may not have been held. The culminating event in our tour of Akko was the “Bathhouse Experience,” which is not quite the titillating adventure in hygiene that one might hope for, but rather fun for the whole family. As we squatted on our backpacks on the recently retiled bathhouse floor, anticipating an experience, a hologram named Achmed emerged from the wall. Achmed introduced us to the ghost of his grandfather and his other dead friends, whose likenesses were projected on the video screen before us as they regaled the audience (us, and an exuberant German couple- the woman of which, I am positive, took a picture with the hologram) and proceeded to tantalize us with a brief history of the bathhouse, as well as tips on how to scrub those hard to reach places on one’s back- nothing if not timeless.
Immediately upon exiting the bathhouse, we took off in a relative sprint toward the bus station and the Golan Desert, our next destination. The ticket master greeted us warmly and enquired where we would like to go.
“The desert! Take us to the desert!” we replied with haste.
Her smile was gradually replaced by a look of confusion and concern; she wanted to know where exactly. Right. Thus far, Alyse and I had failed to successfully arrive any of our planned destinations; we were really hoping for a transportation system where one could ride along until we spotted an area that looked enticing and then just holler or throw something to let the bus driver know you wanted off. Such is not the case. Here in the Akko bus station, Alyse and I met the first incredibly friendly and helpful person of a society not known for its warmth, but whose citizens blew us away with their openness and welcoming. Fortunately this woman knew of a town on the outskirts of the national park and a field study center where we could stay, and we were off!
The bus dropped us off right outside the Upper Golan Biological Research Station and we traipsed in, sleeping bags in tow, ready for a night under the stars, and secretly hoping we’d be forced to do something adventurous, like subsist solely off bugs for the next day and a half. And when I say we . . . . Once we entered though, we saw before us a far cry from the rugged outdoor experience for which we had hoped, but rather a hostel in the desert that housed an excess of maps and pictures of wildlife, filled to the brim no less, with thirty other American students on excursion with their study center. We inquired with the center manager, who spoke very limited English, and who didn’t know of any campground in the area, but politely recommended the outdoor basketball courts. Instead of risking a rude awakening by students dribbling balls on our heads, or other covert sleep-deprivation shenanigans, we opted for a room, and at 630 that night, we face-planted into our cots, not to awake until 800 the next morning.
After a scrumptious breakfast of mango slices, eager to begin our outdoor adventure, we once again asked the manager for assistance. After our initial attempts at communication failed, he waited patiently as we marched vigorously on his freshly mopped floors, and swung invisible machetes through pretend jungles, while peering out from a spread hand to search for invisible jungle cats. He must have eventually understood because he nodded vigorously and pointed out the back end of the study center grounds. So we shoved our Calistoga bottles and towels into the backpack, with all our other high-tech navigational devices and outback provisions, and headed out enthusiastically in that direction. Not 300 meters into our trek we came across a wide jungle of barbed wire blocking our path. Doing the only possible thing we could do as two adventurous pioneers, we climbed through it. I grabbed a large stick and we began to progressively beat our way through the expanse of wire, garbage, and eventually the remnants of someone’s backyard, taking care to make our presence know to the crafty little slithery beasts underfoot before stepping down, hence the stick. Before we had fully escaped this first batch of obstacles we came upon another- an impassable horizon of barrel wire and metal ramparts enclosed by hurricane fencing. So once again did what we must, and turned around to wade back through the mess. I clomped along loudly and happily, smashing the life out of the ground in time to a jolly tune before I wedged the better part of my leg between the coils of the spiked wires, while Alyse skittered dutifully behind, careful to follow the path of the snake stick.
“You know what kind of nasty critters live in the Northern Desert, Alyse?”
“Shut up, Syd.”
“Right, anyway, the vipers here . . .” We continued in this manner till we emerged at the road to begin our journey into the unforgiving desert like normal people, by which time Alyse had acquired a snake stick of her own. It was now 930, and we had just left the hostel. Once on the road we were at no loss for people willing to guide us to the nature reserve. “Head South” they said unanimously, so persist southward we did until we reached the second or third government sign warning passers-by that they were traveling on the border of a High-Fire military zone, and to proceed at their own risk. At this point we turned around and entered the Golan Heights National park through the North entrance. At the mouth of the hiking trails stood a fluorescent sign warning the hiker of the difficulty of the paths, and the proper precautions to take: Sufficient water? Recommended 3 liters per person: sure! Four mini-bottles between us- no prob. Signaling device in case of emergency? Alyse´s cell phone of dubious reliability. Check.
Just in case our provisions didn’t cut it Alyse and I posted a brief note describing “a tall brunette and a taller blonde entering the park at 1015, due back by sunset,” should someone, perhaps our hostel friend, note our absence with concern and decide to call the national guard, or should our bodies need to be identified.
For 2 hours we followed a small sludgy stream filled with palm fronds and tall shooting stocks whose sharp brittle sides left swollen red trails along our extremities as we pushed through the mire. On the brink of the third hour, when the trail had lifted us up on the edge of the sandstone cliffs, seeming to follow the ascension of the sun, and our seemingly inexhaustible supply of water somehow exhausted itself, the murky waters suddenly opened up into a bright blue river that cascaded below us into pools of sapphire so deep blue it sucked down into blackness in the centers. We slid haphazardly down the cliff-side, feet first into shallow sandstone banks, and smiled. We tossed our clothes to the side, purposefully hung our shoes on the tree branches, and squatted midstream to let the cool current wash over us. After much speculating on what snap-jawed, slimy, snaggle-toothed creatons could be lurking in the depths, we catapulted ourselves head first into the blackness. We plummeted down 3 meters in a swirling tangle of bubbles and limbs and opened our eyes to the waning splash of light at the surface. A beautiful, dark vacancy swept around us, interrupted only by the bubbles that rose in an interminable cluster of moments. We broke the surface in a rush of momentum and scurried quickly out to do it again. Once we had our fill of frolicking, and refilled our water bottles with moss-flavored water collected in the deepest rivulets of the creek bed, we moved on toward our final destination- the massive waterfall that sliced the sandstone canyon in half and almost perfectly divided the Negev reserve into two equal eighty acre chunks of sage brush and hidden oases.
It was another hard hot hour till the falls, stalking through the dusty path that strayed further up the slope, into the sun and away from the water. A few times along the way I heard a clomping sound, and turned to see Alyse hanging precariously from the cliff, one leg wedged at an angle above her hip, and her clenched fingers desperately locked into the slope. This only happened two or three times, and before long we had gone several meters in the right direction. Upon arrival, we rewarded our achievement with a long cool sip of vegetable water, Mmmmmmm! Refreshing! A quick butt-slide down the steep trail landed us halfway submerged at the foot of another large pool, the apparent run off of another pool than ran down between the boulders immediately to our right. We deposited our stuff on the banks on the other side of the oasis, in the crevice of empty wedge of space between the rock ceiling above and the smooth sandstone floor below, and took off over the boulders to see what was on the other side. The pool above was slightly larger and swelled from the slick blade of water smashing from the rock shelf three stories above. The water cascaded twelve meters down, catching itself on the occasional rock outcropping but mostly falling in a perfect dive to pool, leaving the surrounding water pounding and vibrating in its wake. We absorbed the wonder from our vantage point amidst the backsplash for as long as we could stand the pummeling downpour, and finally emerged to head back to the hostel. Five hours, misdirections, a sickening amount of vegetable water, and a long stretch of highway later, we emerged mostly-comatose at the hostel doorstep, where Alyse tried to ask the manager about a bus to Jerusalem, while I erupted in random, hysterical fits of laughter in a ball in the corner. No buses. Shabbat.
The next day, once finally on a bus, we took the opportunity to consult The Book and plan the next 7 days of our trip, haphazardly skimming back through the section on the northern desert, the previous leg of our journey. It read, more or less verbatim: “The desert of the Upper Golan region is still scattered with Syrian landmines, left over from the Intifada uprising of the late 1960s. Not to worry though, while most have been eradicated, those areas which still present a danger are well-enclosed with barbed wire. Regardless, the occasional wayward tourist who ignores the warning loses life or limb to an explosion.” Interesting . . . After securing our mattresses atop the roof of the Tabasco Hostel, was to swaddled our exposed ankles and collarbones in socks and scarves before venturing into the depths of the Damascus Market so as to avoid a second bout of the very negative attention our hiking gear procured us upon arrival.
Within seconds the wave of patrons shuffling through the walled labyrinth of the Walled City had swarmed Alyse and I into its current. The verve of Jerusalem immediately engulfed our periphery, elbowing out the quiet comfort of our hostel in favor of the pungent smell of mint, must, roasting lamb, sweat, and an endless horizon of shuffling bodies. An ancient culture almost came alive as the sun peered through the overcast grey sky and lit the dusty brown buildings with a cool ethereal glow. We saw the Western Wall, aka the Wailing Wall, where people actual do wail. Though the male visitors to the wall were hidden from our view, the women prayed with enough fervor to understand the power of this seemingly inert structure. In fact, the Western Wall is the only remains of an ancient biblical edifice, and thus worshippers cling to it as if it were the very embodiment of their savior. Heads knock quietly against the flaking stone, while some worshippers smash their faces against it, as if absorbing its sanctity through their cheek. Not being religious myself, I stood back and watched with interest how passionately people believed in the powers of the wall, touching it tenderly with their fingertips, and raking down its back with a desperate faith, intense reverence wiped across the creases of their foreheads and the trembling of their lips mid-prayer. Had either Alyse of I had a Judeo-Christian god to pray to, the city definitely would have probably taken on a larger complexity of meaning, however the revelation of a world I naïvely believed had long since disappeared seemed like a spiritual experience in itself. Because Jerusalem is such a distinctly spiritual place, it thus draws people from all faiths to its gates, all faiths and all degrees of mental stability. According to Lonely Planet, there is an affliction that hospitalizes over two-hundred visitors a year and affects no doubt hundreds more; it is called the Jerusalem Illness. People of said dubious mental stability are not uncommonly unhinged by their trip to the Holy City, and, sometime between arrival and departure, awaken to the notion that they are in fact the messiah and have come to spread the word of Allah or God, or whatever, often attracting a devoted group of followers in their wake. It’s all very common, a Welsh man named Aeron informed us. We had indeed just missed the last group of messiahs to pass through the hostel, who had since moved on to Canada. Aeron then proudly displayed the obscene tattoo scrawled on the inside of his lip he had woken up to one hung-over morning in San Diego, which kind of shot his credibility.
After Jerusalem we began the journey down to Sharm Al-Sheik, on the Egyptian side of the Sinai Peninsula. We didn’t end up crossing the border until late on the evening of the worst sunburn of my life, and did not procure a service taxi until even later after an hour of haggling with the drivers. Before we could get too comfortably stretched out in the empty benches of the van to vegetate for the long midnight ride, the taxi driver summoned us both to sit up front with him in order to balance the weight of the van away from the back axles, which apparently couldn’t take the weight of two girls and their backpacks. Dutifully we vaulted the front bench, trying to avoid as chaffing of the sunburn, which had now turned a rosy shade of Dante’s Inferno. And so for forty-five minutes we clomped along in the van, 120 kmph down the wrong side of the road, smashed three to the front, in a van meant for twelve, while the driver deftly maneuvered around oncoming traffic while switching the tape in the pink portable My First Sony that lay across his lap and chatted about his friend named Steve from California- and did we know him, and could we maybe bring him some cigarettes? Suddenly the van slowed down to the relative crawl of 60kmph and we veered off the highway into what seemed like open desert, but eventually emerged into a driveway under the dim lights of a mudstone hut at its end. Here, though our driver invited us in for tea, we huddled in the van contemplating what parts of our body would be removed and sold on the black market. Not to worry though, soon our driver emerged from the house with a big Ziploc bag in his hand looking very pleased. Back on the road we were in no time, though at the distinctly slower pace of 30 kmph. Though we were very unclear, and slightly worried at the change of pace, I took the opportunity to stare out the windshield at the low velvet blanket of stars that stretched in full sparkle to each end of the horizon, while Alyse took the opportunity to sleep against the dashboard. Gradually the van began to drift passed the side of the road, and more off the road, enough so to jolt both of us from our respective stupors. We peered over at the cab driver who was casually rolling a joint on a piece of cardboard he had pulled down from the dash, presumably to provide a better surface. I, being in the middle, slowly reached out and grabbed the wheel, to gently steer the van back toward the right side of the road, while the driver took the opportunity to re-roll his joint. For the next fifteen minutes, I drove, while our cabbie smoked the whole thing in slow, tranquil drags. Alyse did not go back to sleep. The driver casually inquired if I would like to drive. It was a stick though, and I suck at stick.
We woke up early the next day to go diving in Shark Bay, where I swear I saw a shark but no one believes me. The next dive was much less successfully, mostly because I misjudged the amount of weight I would need and thus kept floating to the surface whenever anything cool swam by. To my instructors dismay, I also knocked the regulator out of his mouth in one particularly violent fit of “Oh my gosh, what was that?!”, and almost choked myself laughing at the instructor’s interpretation of death by asphyxiation.
That night we boarded the bus towards the foot of Mt. Sinai, which we would theoretically summit by dawn. It was not the isolated mystical experience that I had expected by rather the mad mass scrambling of tourists the world over, scrambling to the top in time to find an available well-situated boulder to sit on for the sunrise. Those not disposed to scrambling rode up on camels, and there were many camels, oh so many camels, appearing out of the darkness, drooling on your shoulder before they mowed you over on their way up the single track mountain path. We did make it to the top in time to find a splendid rock with a lovely view of the sun peeking out through the clouds and spilling light onto the dusty bronze horizon below. Though it was not the best sunrise I’ve ever seen, it was certainly the best place I’ve seen it from. We essentially tumbled down the mountain and landed on the steps of the 2000 year old St. Catherine’s, where we fell asleep, prostrate on the ground, until someone woke us up and we were forced to pretend to enjoy the rest of the tour. Because we were not heading back to Sharm, but rather up to Israel, the bus dropped us off midway, somewhere in the middle of the desert, next to a big billboard of a smiling Egyptian that read “Welcome to Dahab”. Where? We did cross the border eventually, with the help of some policemen with very big guns, and one very nice man in a van. We arrived exhausted in Tel Aviv, back at our first hostel, greeted by a young Israeli girl almost swallowed by the huge felt blanket she had wrapped around herself. So we stood, with our backpacks sliding of our shoulder, slick with the same sweat that had turned the dirt on our face to a brown paste thick enough to mask our flushed red cheeks, and tried to communicate, with our hands tucked under the ear of our cocked heads, that we’d like a place to sleep. Aaaahhh yes, something must have clicked because her face lit up and she led us into the next room where she plopped down on the couch, pulled the blanket up under her ears, and turned up the volume of Hebrew Sesame Street. We stood there dumbfounded for a good ten minutes before we hunkered down next to her and fell asleep. It would be a long flight back home the next day.
Sydney Palmer can be reached at