By Zachary Moses
This is the second in a three-part series. Click here to read Part 1.
Day 6: The Hula Valley and Jerusalem
This morning we got to ride bicycles through the Hula Valley, the finger of northeastern Israel that is below the Golan Heights, between Lebanon and Syria. The area is dominated by restored wetlands that reminded me of the wetlands that surround the Great Salt Lake in Utah.
In the 1950s the Israelis drained the swamps of the area to create more farmland, and possibly to annoy the Syrians. It turns out that draining your wetlands goes a long way toward ruining your water quality, decreasing bird populations, and increasing air pollution. Now there are major efforts to restore as many wetlands as possible.
As the wetlands are restored, the birds are coming back, and eating the farmers’ crops. To solve this, the birds are fed from massive feeding stations. Lucky lazy birds.
We saw massive flocks of migratory birds. I, of course, used my squawk-like-an-idiot and run-around-like-a-crazy-person “bird call” to scare flocks of hundreds of birds into flight. All those terrified birds flying overhead was amazing! It only occurred to me after the fact what a risky poop target I had become with hundreds of birds flying over me.
I looked out onto the lake and saw a log covered in birds. I got out my binoculars and noticed on closer inspection that it was actually a water buffalo with a bunch of birds hanging out on his horns. I’m sure he just loves being ridden. HA!
We proceeded to nearby Capernaum (home town of St. Peter), where we walked among the majestic ruins of a synagogue. Near the ruins there is a modern synagogue built on stilts and suspended above the ruins of a village.
Our national guide Mitch drew our attention to the building by referring to it as “this space-ship-looking building, coming down to abduct the villagers.” This comment was overheard by an overzealous American pilgrim, who launched into a tirade about how it’s supposed to be a boat, and what kind of tour guides are we using that don’t know this? My response was that “we use funny and or good-looking guides, and the building does look like a space ship.” Have you ever actually seen someone’s face go into a red fury and steam pour out of their ears? Because that’s what happened right in front of me. I might even call it miraculous.
From here we proceeded to Tabgha, the site of the multiplication of loaves of bread and fishes and the feeding of the multitudes by Jesus. Honestly, I find this site underwhelming, as this site was home to yet another church. You’d think they would have at least built a fish sandwich place on such a bountiful site.
We drove along the shores of the Sea of Galilee to Tiberias, the capital of the Galilee. Mitch and I were the only people who would get into the Sea for a swim. Our group was tired of being wet. It’s too bad, because after swimming in the water I felt exhilarated. Like if I tried, I could actually walk on the water. If I wanted to run a good business, I would open a beach stand on the shore of the Sea of Galilee that sold big Styrofoam shoes for walking on the water just like Jesus. Or maybe a big floating hamster ball.
From the Galilee we made a beeline for Jerusalem. Our hotel tonight was in a hip and modern neighborhood about a five-minute walk from the old city. Tonight several of us went to a gay bar where they do drag shows, and drank overpriced Israeli alcohol. Everything on the menu was overpriced except the gay sex, which apparently was free… and on the actual menu.
Day 7: Touring the Old City
We started the day at the Western Wall. There was a god-awful line to get through Security and into the city so Mitch led us another way through a locals-only security gate (benefits of a small-group tour!). Since we were a group of all men, he was able to give us the run-down on the history of the wall right at the wall itself. Apparently women have to go to a separate extra-small section by themselves. Everyone was required to cover their heads (since this was a holy place). I wish I had thought to get rainbow yarmulkes for the guys to wear on their heads. We need to do that for next year.
I took the group to the Austrian Hospice for a view of the city. This is a little-known gem in the heart of the old city, where I took my group for the WOW factor. You get an amazing, unbroken panorama from the roof of the building. The cafe wasn’t open yet, but four of us waited around so we could have a coffee and a strudel, while the rest went to another church. I think everyone was jealous later when they realized that we sat in the tranquil gardens while they all went and saw another overcrowded church full of Christian pilgrims carrying around huge novelty crosses.
Our next stop was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. We had to wait in horrible lines, so I told the group to just muscle their way in and pretend they didn’t understand about queues due to their foreign culture. John actually stepped over a rope and muscled his way right up to the kissing stone. I warned him not to join the pilgrims in kissing the stone. No one wants to visit the holiest site in all Christendom just to come home with face herpes.
Now for the fun part: hiking through Hezekiah’s 8th-century water tunnel, originally dug to bring fresh water to the fortified city. Everyone was getting a bit claustrophobic by the end, but we were all having so much fun. At the end of the tunnel, I couldn’t help myself. I hid and jumped out at Jeff, and Jeff nearly died of fright. It was hilarious… and I’d do it again.
Tonight dinner was on our own, so we asked the concierge if he could get us a reservation at someplace nice. He suggested a place that was popular among the locals. The food was fantastic, but even better was the impromptu party that started when a favorite song came on the stereo. The cooks started playing their spatulas like drums, the owner banged on pots, and eventually they started smashing plates on the floor. This is going to be the new destination for dinner for all of our groups.
Day 8: Camping with the Bedouins
We started the morning with a visit to Yad Vashem, the holocaust memorial. I have never been through a holocaust memorial before. It was so disturbing for me, especially the children’s section. It consisted of a million tiny lights reflecting off mirrors in a pitch black room. There was a recording with the seemingly endless names of children who had lost their lives to the Nazi regime. I myself am a father with a five year old son, and I broke down crying from the emotional trauma. It took me longer than anyone else to emerge, because I didn’t want to be caught with all my bravado melted away and gallons of tears dripping down my face.
Once back on our bus we headed out of town to our Bedouin camp. Along the way, we stopped for lunch. I ordered a roast beef sandwich and asked for no mayo. They put mayo on it anyway, so I sent my sandwich back, then it came back with no mayo, only now it had mustard, so I sent it back again. It came back with mayo again. This process continued for a good 40 minutes. The girl taking orders got really upset and acted like I was crazy to want a dry sandwich. I eventually got my sandwich dry, but I’m sure there was some spit in there somewhere.
The Bedouin camp was great. We received a lecture from a Bedouin man with 3 wives and 17 children. That sounded great to me (like the plural marriages of my Mormon heritage), so I asked all kinds of “research” questions about the multiple partners. Like how do you prevent jealousy! He just buys them gifts and tells them not to tell each other, because their gift was sooo much better than the gift that he got the others, and he doesn’t want the other wives to know that he likes this one best. He says this to all of them. Brilliant!
In the evening, we rode camels into the sunset. My camel kept trying to run Sam and Lou off the cliff. Don was almost thrown on his ass when he tried to mount his. Which (sorry Don) was ABSOLUTELY HILARIOUS! The desert was so beautiful in the light of the sunset.
Tonight we had a happy hour with my secret stash of four bottles of wine that I had purchased at the Golan Heights winery. The group was pleased, since our Muslim hosts were not going to provide any alcohol for our fun-loving gay group.
Dinner was a huge feast, and we did not even come close to eating half of it. We came back and played cards and had more wine that Jeff and Paul had hidden away. Before long John provided a hidden bottle as well. I kept screwing up the dealing of the cards and never really understood the game, so the group finally expelled me. Don, Ron and I then sat around the camp fire having a fun conversation until it was time for bed.
Day 9: Masada and the Dead Sea
This morning we rose ridiculously early, so that we could see the sun rise on top of the ancient fortress of Masada. When we got there, a school group had already arrived and was making the trek up the Roman Ramparts to the top of the mesa. They looked like ants moving up an ant hill.
We trekked our way to the top, watched a brilliant sunrise, then took the tour. Afterward, our group opted to skip the cable car ride down, and to take the famous “Snake Trail” that was originally the only way to get to the top of Masada.
Our next stop was Ein Gedi, an oasis that provides fresh water in the otherwise inhospitable valley of the Dead Sea. There was lots of wildlife around using the fresh water source, and a few animals hanging out outside the restroom drinking god only knows what…
From here we moved to our hotel at the Dead Sea. The hotel was nice, with its spa facilities, bars and restaurants. The best part though was the beach. Lou and I made hilarious promotional videos. My favorite one was when Ron and John assisted our videography by dumping sand into my bathing suit to see if they could make me sink in the Dead Sea. Oh my god, I’m laughing even now. HA HA!!
The water in the Dead Sea has a slimy consistency – actually a lot like the texture of baby oil… although I would not suggest you use it in any way similar to baby oil, or you are in for some serious burning.
Since I spent the whole day in and out of the water, one would expect me to be covered in sunburns. I was fine, however, with zero total sunscreen! No wonder so many Germans come to this below-sea-level spot to treat their weird ailments. There are loads of retirees who spend their vacations here. One of them was a creepy French lady who kept following me around, despite being aware that I was leading a group of gay men. I slept really well, after successfully avoiding any relations with her, because my room was awesome and I didn’t have to share it.
Day 10: Fox’s Chimney and the Farewell Dinner.
This was the day I was waiting for. I would finally be able to see Fox’s Chimney. When I came on my research trip with the Israeli Tourist Board last year, our bus drove past Mount Sodom at 60 miles an hour and I saw a cave. I asked our guide what that cave led to and he told me it led into some dangerous salt caverns and that we had no time or equipment to see them. I knew then that, whatever these caves were, I needed them to be on my new adventure tour. After loads of phone calls and research we found the guides who could take us into the caves.
Our trek into the cave started with a hike to the top of Mount Sodom. We had to follow treacherous trails until at the end of a slot canyon, we reached a giant hole in the ground. Our climbing guide rigged us all up with rappelling gear, and we descended one-by-one 230 feet into the belly of the earth. The Dead Sea is 1388 feet below sea level and our group would emerge at the edge of the Dead Sea, deep within the earth’s grasp.
Descending down this chimney was amazing. The salt cliffs were incredible! It was like descending the length of a skyscraper. On the way down, my rope allowed me a slow rotation and I had an amazing 360-degree gently spinning view.
Once everyone was together again at the bottom of the pit, we put on our head lamps and proceeded into our abyss. The salt formations are rectangular: every slit, crack, and break is in a perfect line. And stalactites form anywhere that moisture makes its way into the caves. The cave was beautiful and tasted great, too.
After we emerged from the cave back into bright daylight we made our way back to Tel Aviv for our farewell dinner. Three guys were going to be leaving us to go back home in the morning, while everyone else was staying on for the extension to Eilat and Petra. Dinner was at a local restaurant that was stuffed with gay guys, and absolutely fabulous! They made a custom menu complete with HE Travel and Alyson Adventures logos. Our meals were excellent, and everyone loved the hand-painted Dreidels (painted tops) that I got them. (On every tour, I try to give a unique gift from the region).
To round out the evening the majority of us went to a gay bar called Evita to party up our last main tour evening together. We were the life of the party! Apparently the Israeli gay bar custom is to stand around being boring. So when our gay group from the US and Canada showed up, partying and dancing, we got the whole house moving. Before long the bartenders were giving us free pours on our drinks, and I was getting many of the bar patrons to take their shirts off. It turns out I’m a pretty good wingman too!