Group Fun in the Sun

This blog entry about the events of Friday, June 26, 2009 was originally posted on July 11, 2009.

DAY 13:  “I guess we should get a group photo?” suggested the curious Howard, who was probably testing the waters of the dynamics of our newly-formed tour group; we had only been riding together in a mini-van for less than an hour with not much conversation.  But our smiling willingness for a group photo at our quick early morning pitstop — the Sea Level roadside marker — was the telling that we had lucked out with a fun crew.

“Can you take a picture with my camera too?!” asked another to our driver who was taking the photo

“Mine too!” 

Soon, there were multiple photos of our six smiles — it was the first of several group photos that day.

The six smiles came from: yours truly (dimples included); Howard, a young, traveling Presbyterian minister who was more fun-loving and wisecracking than preachy; Ed, an Irish building manager who had never heard of an Irish Car Bomb (the drink) until he met me; Jenny (I’d met her on the Holy City tour),  who was born in Peru and of part Japanese descent, but lived and worked in Montreal, Canada (and therefore knew four languages); Marta, a Spanish lass from San Sebastian who had the same free spirited, work-to-travel-everywhere ethic as me; and an older but spunky gentleman who was on his just-retired, trip-around-the-world, named Relan.  “‘Ireland’ without the end letters,” he told us.

Driving us (and taking our photos) was Hisham, a shy Palestinian man who wasn’t much for conversation.  He would only speak sporadically when there was a point of interest coming up.  “To the left is the Dead Sea,” he’d say succinctly.  Fortunately we were given little self-guiding booklets about the history of the sites we would see.  And what our driver lacked in charm he made up in his services, since all public transportation in Israel shuts down for the Jewish Saturday Sabbath — the tour he was running was our only easy way to get around.

“To the right, Qumran Caves,” he said.  “[We meet back here in half hour.]”

Half an hour was just enough to get the gist of the Qumran, our first real stop on our tour of the daytrip sights around Jerusalem.  Qumran may have been empty at our arrival just minutes before the gates were open, but it was once the site of an active, ancient village near the cave where the famed Dead Sea Scrolls had been found by a Bedouin shepherd boy by accident in 1947.  It has since been excavated and has been hailed as “the most important discovery in the history of the Jewish people.”  Until Barbara Streisand, that is.

“You wanna date?” Howard asked me back in the minivan, after our short stay.

What?  But we just met… and I don’t…  I neglected to see that he was offering me a box of naturally sweet treats that he’d bought in the gift store.  Oh right, dates… you eat ‘em!

“It’s good that we all stay regular,” he joked, offering the box to everyone else.

IT WASN’T THAT FAR AWAY to our second stop on our day tour:  the famed Masada, a mountain fortress overlooking the Dead Sea, created in the 1st century B.C. by order of King Herod as his desert retreat — complete with stunning views, cooling winds, and swimming pools — all collectively grand enough to warrant more than a half hour stay; we got two and a half.

“[Are you going to be parked here?]  What if we’re done before then?” Howard asked our guide. 

“How can we be done before then?” Reland interjected.  “Masada is an amazing place!”

Ed pointed out a better time killer if we just so happened to be done early:  “They have beer in the gift shop!”

“That’s amazing,” I said.

There were two ways up to the top of the mound where the ruins were:  up the Snake Path by foot, or by cable car; we all opted to try both ways, by taking the cable car up and walking the long way down. 

We started our tour by watching this short history film about Masada, about its significant history amongst the Jewish people, most of which can be seen in the 1981 TV mini-series Masada starring Peter O’Toole (which the short film borrowed clips from).  Once the desert fortress of Herod, it soon became a haven for the Jewish people after they had seized control of it, being ousted out of Jerusalem in 66 A.D. and all.  But, eight years later, the Romans seized back Masada in a bloody battle with the Jews, when the remaining Jews killed themselves rather than be taken prisoner.  The cheesy, English-dubbed narrator of the film posed the question, “If you had to choose between death or freedom, what would you choose?” and then looked into the camera with a cheesy deadpan look as if to wait for the audience to answer the obvious.  We all laughed.

Like the Alamo in Texas, Masada stands as a monument of the courage and struggle of its people, despite their loss.  Some of the ruins had not survived the centuries, but with the influx if tourism, many of the walls had been reconstructed to better show how the fortress may have been in its former glory.  I recalled how Mienri (Day 2) and Camillo (Bogota, Colombia) both raved about how great it was — it was one of their highlights in Israel — and I was starting to agree. 

“Looks like King Herod knew what he was doing!” raved Howard and Ed.

Our group of six wandered the ruins, catching the cooling high winds with the birds, from its overlooks, its walkways, and its Northen Palace.  We walked around amongst the other big tour groups of twenty-five or more, eavesdropping on what their guides would say — Marta, Jenny and I could follow along with the Mexican Spanish tour as well.

“Pretend you’re not listening,” Howard said.  “[Show them your poker face.]”

Soon our time was up, and we hiked down the Snake Path to be rewarded by what made the hike in the beating sun worthwhile: ice cold beers.

COOLING OFF CONTINUED at the Dead Sea, which is sort of a oxymoronic thing to say as the Dead Sea is one of the hottest spots on earth, even at the lowest spot on earth at 400m below Sea Level.  However, the Dead Sea is home to several public beaches, including the less-crowded New Kalia Beach where our driver dropped us (and our bottles of sunblock) off for a dip in the salty water and mud. 

“I’m half lobster,” Ed warned us of his impending sunburn. 

As for me and my melanin, I was less concerned about my skin and more self-conscious of my gut.  “I’ve been holding my breath the entire time we’ve been here,” I joked, shirtless.  However I was no match for the big Russian dude in the men’s changing room, who had the biggest man-tits I’ve ever seen on a guy — seriously, like double D’s.

We spent two and a half hours at the beach site, with its cocktail bar, beer bar, lounge chairs and beach shop, which sold ice cream, souvenirs, and what the Dead Sea is known for: mineral bath salts and natural mineral-fortified mud for your skin.  Of course you don’t need to pay for these things when you’re there; you simply float in the salty water (three times saltier than the ocean, so much that the salt makes you eeriely more buoyant than normal), and cover yourself in mud from the sea floor and let it dry for half an hour.  This half hour drying period after playing in the mud (picture above) is best spent drinking beer with chicks in bikinis.

“Are you Israeli?” asked a flirtacious Israeli(?) guy to the bikini-clad Marta. 

“Uh, yes,” she said in her Spanish accent.  It wasn’t the first time she’d been mistaken for Israeli with her olive-toned skin.  (Usually she got Italian.) 

“Is that your… girlfriend?” he asked me.

“Uh, yes,” I said.  (I recalled what Sebastian, Aviv and the boys in Vancouver had taught me, about saying that any girl you spend any time with is automatically your “girlfriend.”) 

I couldn’t keep up the charade much longer because he kept on asking for details — not that Marta and I hadn’t hit it off regardless, chatting while floating in the sea.  She admired the distinction between most of her friends who barely traveled and “people like us.”  “[So you know how to do it too, work and then travel,]” she said to me.  But our conversation was cut short once a droplet of Dead Sea water ran down my forehead and down to my eye.  Squinting, I ran out to the emergency freshwater shower on the pier before I started screaming like a girl.

WITH OUR SILKY SMOOTH SKIN, our crew hopped in the van and head to Jericho, in the Palestinian West Bank.  It was a much easier journey there than the day before when I’d treked there on foot through the desert, and far less perilous. 

“There’s the casino,” I pointed out to Ed — he was amazed and took a photo.  The Oasis was adjacent to the other big Western property in the West Bank, a five-star InterContinental Hotel Resort, built to serve the high-end traveller wanting to tour world’s oldest existing city (around 10,000 years).  While some Jews fear going to Jericho, it still stands as a place to behold, with its Biblical significance and its prominence in heavy metal song lyrics.

“All my life I said I’d make it to the oldest city,” Jenny said in awe.  “And here I am.”

We had lunch at a buffet in a tourist center, which served an assortment of Arab/Israeli salads, halal meats, spaghetti, pizza, and proudly-made Palestinian West Bank wine from the vineyards just outside Bethlehem.  With the talk of booze, it was there that I taught Ed about the existence of the “Irish Car Bomb,” the Jameson/Baileys into Guinness bar concoction.  We laughed at the irony that he was Irish and didn’t know of it, and that he was learning about it in the volatile Middle East of all places.

“Can you imagine asking a waitress if she knows how to make a car bomb?” 

“[She would be like, the drink or the real thing?]”

We saw the Old Jericho from above, en route to the top of the Mount of Temptation.  “Temptation” refers to the fact that this was the site that, according to the New Testament, Jesus was tempted by the devil before Scorsese ever made a movie about it. 

“How did Jesus get up here?” Howard wondered; there were no cable cars back then like the one we were riding in.  Arriving at the top we were greeted by the temptations of impulse buys at souvenir shops. 

“I was hoping for a strip bar,” Ed wisecracked.

Howard had caved with the temptation of impulse buys and bought a kafiya to join Ed (who had bought one earlier at two dollars more) in the obligatory photo one does in the West Bank.  “West Side become West Bank!”  They posed with their gang signs.

Jenny led the way to the Monastery of the Qurantul, atop the Mount of Temptation, which was closed off to visitors despite our attempts to knock on the door and hang out with the monks.  Instead, we just hung out, on the steps outside the door, and relaxed in the shade and breeze with fun, and thought-provoking conversations about religion, politics, and travel.

“I’m really glad I did this,” Howard said.  He realized that people can make or break a tour and he’d lucked out.  “This was a good tour and a fun group.”

OUR TIME TOGETHER ENDED after three more short stops:  Hisham’s Palace, the 8th century hunting retreat of Caliph Hisham Ibn Abd al-Malik; the Tree of Zacchaeus, who greeted Jesus once in the New Testament; and the Mount of Olives back in Jerusalem, with its views of the Jewish Cemetery the the iconic Dome of the Rock.  Howard was dropped off on the mount and left us to go to some Lutheran party event, bringing our crew of six down to five.

But five was added by many more that night when we all decided to go out for dinner and drinks in the New Jeru.  Everyone invited everyone else that they’d met in Jerusalem and soon enough we had a big crew back in the bustling Zion Square area, where projector screens played Michael Jackson tribute shows live from America.  We ate, smoked hookah, and drank — Ed finally had a taste of the Irish Car Bomb, which didn’t have authentic ingredients in it, making it more of an Israeli Car Bomb.  No matter, it was good time, we got pretty drunk, and no one exploded.

It was great that everyone I’d met in Jerusalem at the time was there.  I contributed a few unwritten findings to Teresa, the Let’s Go researcher/writer.  (If you read about the Sandeman Travel Center at Zabotinski’s, that’s me.)  I compared silky smoothness of our skins with Marta.  I also said a final farewell to Sarit, who would leave Jerusalem before I saw her again.

“I guess this is it,” Sarit said, hugging me.  “Bye!”

“I’ll see you in New York.”

“Yeah, I’ll have to make it out there.” 

I didn’t doubt it; many of her friends had relocated to the Big City.  But, “If not, we’ll always have… the West Bank.”

She smiled and went off to her hostel before curfew.

While my departure with Sarit was sad — as well as the disbanding of my fun-in-the-sun crew of that day — there was hope for more group fun; while reminiscing about Shabbat dinner at the bar, I made plans to go on an excursion with Miriam, Willa, and Maurice, three travelers that I’d met en route to the rabbi’s house.  And so, more group fun, albeit with a different group, was to be had when the sun rose the next morning…


Amongst all the things one could lose in a mini-van, Relan misplaced his dental floss.  He spent a good time trying to find it, but eventually found it.

Next entry: Jesus Christ and Jimmy Carter

Previous entry: Shabbat Shalom!

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    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  07/11  at  07:00 PM

  • It’s cuz the Irish Car Bomb was invented in Connecticut in 1979….

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  07/11  at  07:22 PM

  • liked the line about Jericho’s biblical significance and its prominence in heavy metal songs.  Your humor is in the martini category!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  07/11  at  11:10 PM

  • Recognized your name in the Sunday Times (Fancy Fast Food mention), and it led me back to your travel blog.  Congrats on the FFF and your current trip - great read and beautiful pics as usual!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  07/21  at  02:49 PM

  • Ali:  I’ve been so swamped, I haven’t even had time to finish off this trip blog yet.  BUT I WILL.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  07/21  at  03:10 PM

  • Erik, I have been an SBR for a little over 2 years now and am currently waiting out a 5 hour layover in Houston on my way from Los Angeles to Monterrey, MX.  This is the first stop on my RTW tour that has been influenced by the events you have written here.  Just wanted to let you know how much I appreciated reading your blog, twice.  It helped pass a lot of time at work and gave me the confidence to do it too.

    Congrats on the success of both FFF and TGT. I am sure countless other SBRs have taken a lot away from reading about your travels.

    I look forward to the conclusion of your Israel trip and reading about your future travels.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  07/23  at  02:58 PM

  • GREG: Thank you, thank you.  I’m really happy people are still reading this blog.  I think it’s ironic that I have 700+ entries on TGT, and publishers and the media have become fascinated with FFF instead (after only five entries).  I am trying to parlay my new “fame” into something travel writing-related down the line; I am striving not to be typecast as the “Fancy Fast Food Guy” (like Mark Hamill will always be Luke Skywalker), since I can do so much more than that.

    Anyway, have a great RTW, and stay tuned on this blog!  I aim to wrap up the Israel blog within the next week.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  07/23  at  03:06 PM

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This blog post is one of sixteen travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip: Holla! In The Holy Land," which chronicled a two-week journey through Israel, with jaunts into Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinian West Bank.

Next entry:
Jesus Christ and Jimmy Carter

Previous entry:
Shabbat Shalom!


Confused at some of the jargon that's developed with this blog and its readers over the years? Here's what they mean:

BFFN: acronym for "Best Friend For Now"; a friend made on the road, who will share travel experiences for the time being, only to part ways and lose touch with

The Big Trip: the original sixteen month around-the-world trip that started it all, spanning 37 countries in 5 continents over 503 days (October 2003–March 2005)

NIZ: acronym for "No Internet Zone"; a place where there is little to no Internet access, thus preventing dispatches from being posted.

SBR: acronym for "Silent Blog Reader"; a person who has regularly followed The Global Trip blog for years without ever commenting or making his/her presence known to the rest of the reading community. (Breaking this silence by commenting is encouraged.)

Stupid o'clock: any time of the early morning that you have to wake up to catch a train, bus, plane, or tour. Usually any time before 6 a.m. is automatically “stupid o’clock.”

The Trinidad Show: a nickname of The Global Trip blog, used particularly by travelers that have been written about, who are self-aware that they have become "characters" in a long-running story — like characters in the Jim Carrey movie, The Truman Show.

WHMMR: acronym for "Western Hemisphere Monday Morning Rush"; an unofficial deadline to get new content up by a Monday morning, in time for readers in the western hemisphere (i.e. the majority North American audience) heading back to their computers.

1981ers: people born after 1981. Originally, this was to designate groups of young backpackers fresh out of school, many of which were loud, boorish and/or annoying. However, time has passed and 1981ers have matured and have been quite pleasant to travel with. The term still refers to young annoying backpackers, regardless of year — I guess you could call them "1991ers" in 2013 — young, entitled millennials on the road these days, essentially.

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