I woke up absurdly early from some awful jetlag. Luckily the evenings festivities hadn’t left me too hung over so I went out searching for Ari. As a staff member he mentioned going for a jog in the morning and I said yes, provided I wake up on time. When I realized I was up too early to find Ari, or well, anyone I ignored Einav’s rule #1 “Don’t leave the group” and went for a jog on my own. I’ll just stay on the road that the hotel is on. How bad could it be?
Saturday morning turned out to be a gorgeous day; the yellow bricks of Jerusalem were accented by the brilliant blue sky above. I stared long and hard at the Hebrew sign for our hotel and street name. The road was eerily empty as the entire city was sleeping in after a late Shabbat. As I jogged further I started to see a few traditionally dressed Orthodox Jews walking with their families and pushing strollers. They must be on their way to Saturday morning Shabbat services.
I followed the light rail tracks down another half mile, passing an intersection with a police station. Remember the landmarks I thought to myself as the road eased into a slight downward incline. Checking my watch I gauged my pace and decided that 15 minutes was about a mile and a half and I should turn around soon. A block ahead I saw a big intersection as more couples started to filter into the mostly vacant streets. Although I could still follow the train tracks as they veered to the left I decided this was a good spot to turn around.
Following the tracks on my way back I scanned every building and sign on my right. At each block I checked the street signs and looked for my hotel. After another 10 minutes I started to get the feeling I went too far. When I came to a bridge I knew I had passed the hotel and turned around and started again.
The streets slowly grew more crowded as I jogged back along the tracks. I started to think it was a bad idea to go on this jog; I confirmed my fears when I got back to the intersection that was my first U-turn. As I turned around again I was stopped by an American couple asking for directions. All I could do was stare at their map and apologize that I too was a tourist and mentioned that I was also lost as the sun crept further into the azure expanse above.
It took me another trip to the bridge before I decided to stop jogging and walk slowly. I finally found my hotel and quickly realized no one had noticed my absence. A quick shower and I joined everyone at breakfast after my 30 minute jog became a 90 minute run.
Today’s festivities included a tour of the nearby parts of the New City before meeting our Israeli friends and heading to our first hike. We got a crash course in Israeli geography as Einav planted landmarks on my new friend Nathan to give us an idea of what we would be doing in the days to come.
We finally met our Israelis too! Barak, Or, Dor, Omri, Alissa, Lihi and Shiran joined our tour guide Einav and “guy with a gun” Dvir to complete our party with 9 Israelis. No we weren’t going on an epic adventure like Bilbo Baggins. Wait, well, we weren’t looking for dragons or phat purple lootz but we did have a life changing experience and a grand ole time!
Along our hike we stopped for a moment to introduce our new friends. Splitting into groups we were told to pretend we were “wrestling announcers” and given a few short minutes to listen to their abbreviated bio.
“And in the far right corner comes AAaaaaaalliisssa from Risheon Letzion. A kibbutz on the south side of the Kineret. Weighing in at just under 18 kilos this a sporty girl is looking forward to being the lightweight champ this evening. She hopes to use her prize money to open her own nutrition clinic.”
I got to announce Alissa and hilarity ensued as the rest of our peers took the stage. We became fast friends while learning about their military positions as UAV pilots, spec forces and other assignments so secret they’d have to kill us if we found out.
The hike was our first real experience with the desert heat as we tried fresh figs and went on a small cave hike. At the end we crawled inside the minuscule cavern. It was deceptively long with a slight stream trickling at the bottom. Einav told us it was in fact a man made water source for the farms along this desert hillside. Using the darkness I did some trick photography as a Nathan, Ryland and Lucas held onto the ceiling for dear life!
We jumped back on the buses and headed to the Old City of Jerusalem. Staring at the gates Einav informed us that those holes along the walls were in fact the remnants of all of the sieges these walls had withstood. We stopped a few times learning the history behind the power struggles over the years before grabbing a quick lunch.
After a quick bite of Schwarma we continued through these ancient streets before stopping and being asked to don blindfolds. I handed my camera to Omri and got ready for what would be a truly stunning experience. We were told to hold hands, unaware where we were going as we felt our way up stairs, around corners while giggling with nervousness.
Thick Israeli accents guided us for what seemed like forever when suddenly we stopped moving. Whispering to one another we tried to determine where we were. Still in the old city, we couldn’t have gone far. Was that just an exercise to build comraderie like a trust fall?
Einav began spouting a little more history of our Jewish ancestors when, in a soothing voice, he asked us to calmly take off our blindfolds. Suddenly before us was the Western Wall! Also know as the Wailing Wall, it is often thought of as the holiest place on Earth and a symbol for all of the struggles that Jews have faced over the years.
I don’t know how to explain what I felt. I’ve never considered myself a believer but in that moment something washed over me. There was a reason I was standing there. Einav had explained that we call it the “wailing wall” because it simply elicits tears from so many who set eyes upon this ancient structure. The millions of Jews who have died under horrid conditions brought about by slavery, wars and the holocaust were all linked to those still living at this ancient place.
If there was ever a point when I felt there was a higher power guiding me this was it. We took in the scene for a few moments before winding down to the security checkpoint and experiencing this holy site up close. Paper was handed out to write prayers on; an age old tradition where visitors stuff the prayers in the cracks of the wall to bring their wishes for themselves, their family and the world as close to G-d as possible.
We toured the wall and said our prayers as many were overcome with emotion. After an hour or so Einav called us all together for another history lesson as we grouped up and went back to our bus.
We headed to a massive market full of fresh smells, savory spices and other delicacies. There were street performers, painters, pasta artists and more! I sampled many of the foods and ended up buying a bunch of dried fruit to snack on over the coming days.
We ended the evening with a night out in Jerusalem. Our gaggle of foreigners were led by the Israelis to the bar area where we grabbed a bite, a few brews and found a bar where we danced the night away.
Today day was jam packed and we were promised that the remaining 9 days would be just as busy!