In February and March this year, my husband and I went on a 2 week trip with my parents to the Holy Lands. It was an absolutely incredible experience, but I wish I would have been better prepared. Here are my 10 tips for better prep for travel to the Holy Land:
1. Realize that even if you have been a practicing, religious person all your life, you will learn that you know relatively nothing. You will discover that most, if not all of your pre-conceptions are wrong or mis-guided. I say this because that was the main take-away from our trip -- for all four of us. We all went to the same private university at which we each took at 4-6 semesters of religious instruction. We worship weekly on the sabbath. We are all well-traveled. We have all lived abroad from 2-6 years at a time. In addition, I participated in a very memorable and intense study of the Middle East peace process in high school. All of us read extensively before we left, in addition to reading the scriptures, we watched films, read history books and historical novels, scoured the internet, talked to other travelers and paid very close attention to the news. I thought I had this. Boy, was I wrong. My face was in a permanent state of agape-ness for 2 weeks. Everything and I mean EVERYTHING was different from what I thought it would be -- the physical geography, the distances between places, the flora and fauna, how I understood certain scriptures, the people, customs, food, and attitudes -- pretty much everything was a re-education. And it was thrilling. Thrilling and humbling. P.S. Take Notes!!
2. Function over Form!!! For some strange and dumb reason, I was way more concerned with style than comfort. So, I brought clothes and shoes that were uncomfortable and inappropriate for what we did on a daily basis. I looked stylish, but felt lousy. In hindsight, I should have worn my trusty Keens or tennis shoes instead of the more trendy, thick-soled slip-ons I brought. When will I learn this lesson!!?? We walked and walked and walked. We walked through the battlefield of David and Goliath, we walked through Gethsemane and over the Mount of Olives, we walked up Mount Tabor and around Masada. We swam in the Dead Sea and explored Petra. I rode a camel for heaven's sakes.
Next time I go on a long trip like this, I'm going to do a better job at packing for heavy-duty travel. Although those boots on that camel are super-cute!
3. Take a Formal Tour. My parents, my husband and I are definitely NOT tour people. We like self-guided travel à la Rick Steves style. We're pretty adventurous, but man, I was glad for the perks of an organized tour -- especially when we were in Jordan and when we crossed borders (for which we needed a specific bill -- see the 20 dinars below). We just saved so much time. Our guides were AMAZING and so full of information! They were so patient with us, question after question.
We went with Israel Revealed. Steven Rona was our main guide. He did a fabulous job.
4. You can sleep when you're dead. I'm not gonna lie, this was a tough trip physically.
We were at breakfast every day at 6am and off to see the world by 7. More often than not, we weren't back to the hotel until 6pm. It was exhausting. The jet-lag was brutal. It was 12 days of non-stop education, stimulation, processing and exercise. The only thing I regret is not being able to go out at night as well. I was just too tired. So, I used the time post-dinner to read, write and talk or play Monopoly Deal to relax. If I were to do it all over again (and I hope I do) I would have done a lot more walking in the weeks and months leading up to the trip to get into better shape.
5. Eat EVERYTHING (the hummus, oh, the hummus)! The food was so amazing. I had piles and piles of hummus every night for dinner. It was so incredibly delicious. On one afternoon, we had some free-time -- it was the jewish sabbath, so we headed for the Muslim Quarter and had an amazing shawarma meal (make sure you settle on a price BEFORE they start making you dinner). Then, we walked up and down the narrow streets of Jerusalem looking for fruit and pastries. It was a trip highlight.
6. Enjoy the scenery but have a book on deck. We spent a lot of time on the tour bus. We basically drove the length and width of the country. I was glued to my window. We saw Kibbutzim, palm groves, mine fields, caves in hillsides, soldiers with machine guns, abandoned military barracks, green hills and brown deserts, cool road signs in 3 different languages & alphabets, Druze villages, beaches, Jews in big, round, black, fluffy hats counting their steps on Shabbat and nomadic shepherds with their sheep near temporary houses. It was fascinating. BUT, I was also so glad to have a book to listen to. I chose James Michener's The Source -- a 54-hour beast of a story about a fictional "tel" in Northern Israel, loosely based on Tel Megiddo. It made the driving so much more enjoyable. And it was a great way to learn about everything passing before my eyes.
Abandoned military barracks in the Golan Heights
On our way from Qumran to Jerusalem
7. Watch out for thieves, pick-pockets and swindlers. I hate to say that this is even a thing, but it is. And I hate more to admit that we were taken advantage of, but we were. On our way out of Petra, we stopped to get some beautiful scarves. My husband wanted a head scarf that was typically Jordanian. We ended up with a "special" scarf that was "not normally offered to tourists." And I bought a "silk" scarf that was made by artisans who are part of the "Queen Noor Foundation." All I know is that we payed waaaay more than we should have for my scarf (I saw hundreds just like it in Jerusalem for as little as $5 apiece) and probably too much for my husband's. We also overpaid for our aforementioned sabbath lunch. Having said that, it is important to realize that the rules of commerce and the workings of government procedures, etc. are not nearly as regulated as they are in the US and other western countries. We benefitted from this several times during our trip, like when a "cousin" of our guide ushered us past the extremely long line at customs in Amman. So, I suppose in this case, what comes around goes around.
8. Snacks. We had regular meals 3 times per day, but when you eat breakfast at 6, lunch at 1 and dinner at 6, you need snacks. Quality snacks. I was so incredibly grateful for my Kind Bars, my almonds, my beef sticks and my Stevia-sweetened chocolate. The snacks took up a lot of room in my suitcase, but by the end of the trip, they were all gone and I had extra room for my souvenirs!!
9. Souvenirs (and how to properly buy scarves). I bought a lot of olive wood. My favorites were 2x2 inch hearts that sold for about $4 apiece from the Garden Tomb gift shop, but I found them elsewhere as well. They were perfect for gifts for all of the people who helped me manage my children & their crazy schedule while I was away. I also bought a couple of salad bowls, a small nativity, a cutting board and a couple of spoons. You could also buy jewelry featuring your name in Hebrew. This was all so pretty and I was very tempted, but I ended up buying earrings made out of two "widow's mites" -- a pair of 2000-year old coins made famous by Mark 12: 41-44. I love these, but you can get widows mites online for much less than what I paid for them on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. That seems to be the recurring theme when buying souvenirs. Usually -- they are overpriced, but in the end, I just decided that it was all part of the experience. About the scarves... You can get them EVERYWHERE. There is no way to tell if they are really made out of silk. The tag always says so, but they all feel the same. Some shops sell them for $200, some for $35. A guy on the beach in Capernaum was selling them for $5. The are all beautiful, but IMHO, I think they're all made in China. In the end, I think the best souvenirs are your photographs, so take pictures of everything.
10. Know that different people are really just the same. Israel, and more specifically, Jerusalem, is a place like none other. It is a city divided into four quarters: the Jewish, the Muslim, the Armenian and the Christian. All four are amazing places to visit and in all four, there are good people, trying to make a living, raise their families and worship in a way they choose. In the West, we hear a lot about the violence and upheaval in Palestine. We have been arguing about it for a long, long time. No matter what you believe or what side you are on, a vast, VAST majority of people live in Jerusalem in peace with their jewish or muslim or christian neighbors. Please be slow and skeptical in reacting to what you hear in the press. On one lovely afternoon, we were sitting near where the "upper room" is thought to have been. Over the loudspeakers we heard the muslim call to prayer, not five minutes later, we heard the signal that shabbat had begun and almost immediately after that, the bells of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre rang.