After a very brief night’s sleep,1 we were back on the bus. We drove through the desert just before dawn, intent on making it up Masada before sunrise. Since we left the hotel several minutes late, this became a greater challenge than we expected. We tumbled off the bus, amid Dima’s cries of “We have eight minutes to do a fifteen-minute hike!” followed shortly by “DON’T RUN!” I’m pretty sure we all looked like those suburban housewives who speedwalk around their neighborhoods wearing terry cloth headbands, except without the headbands.2
We arrived at the top, breathless and triumphant, with fifteen chilly minutes to spare before sunrise. I perched on a rock and took a few hundred photos more than I really needed, capturing every moment of the sunrise. Every moment was different. As the sun emerged over the Dead Sea, water and sky were transformed with each shade of blue, purple, and pink. Horizon blanketed in clouds, the sun occasionally glimmered through, casting a blinding reflection on the sea below. Behind us, ridges and canyons were stained orange against the blue sky. The birds woke up and chased each other around the rocky cliff top, flashes of orange and black.3
Our group dispersed, taking photos (of the view and each other), exploring ridges, and talking to the birds.4 There was even some early morning yoga. Dima eventually rounded everyone up and led us through the ancient ruins, describing the history of Masada while we mostly listened and snapped more photographs. The temperature went from brisk to baking in a matter of minutes.
Despite the presence of a very exciting looking cable car, we descended via the Snake Path, a winding, rocky path hacked into the side of the cliff.5 At the bottom, we waited for everyone to catch up and had a much-needed water break.6 We ate breakfast at the visitor center, then back to the bus.
Dima prefaced our next adventure by saying that it was one of his favorite places in the whole of Israel. This is what kept us going as we walked along the sweltering canyon path. After what seemed like two hours but was probably only twenty minutes, we rounded a corner and were rewarded with… waterfalls! I tossed away my shirt and bag so quickly that I don’t actually remember doing it. All I remember is leaping into a beautiful, clear pool and swimming straight into the waterfall. By the time everyone else had stripped down and waded gingerly into the icy water, I was leaning against the rock face, eyes closed, enjoying the best shower I had all trip.7
We hiked back to the parking lot, dripping and delirious.8 Then on to the Dead Sea, where I sat with Jake and watched everyone either complain about how oily it was or express delight over the incredible floating effect.9 I know that swimming in the Dead Sea is one of those things that you’re just supposed to do in Israel, but I stand by my decision to skip it. It would have been impossible to top the waterfall. Besides, I enjoyed it vicariously through our group, who suffered all the water-in-ears, stinging cuts, and oily residue for me. We parted ways with the Israelis shortly thereafter, and our group felt incomplete for the rest of the trip.
I guess Birthright figures if we’re all sweaty and disgusting going into the Bedouin tents, nobody will mind the smell of the tents themselves. Not true. I’m not sure if it was honest-to-god camel scent,10 the smell of thousands of successive Birthright groups, or just smoke-infused old blankets, but we eventually got used to it.11 After marking our territory (tentitory?) with cushions and backpacks, we headed to the dinner tent. I was relegated to the vegetarian table, which meant that we had a small feast between the three of us. Well, a feast of fried corn patties, hummus, and assorted vegetables.
I have no metric by which to judge Bedouin authenticity, but the Bedouin camp felt a little like Disney World to me, albeit a dingier, smellier version. It was pretty clear that they were in the “make uninformed tourists feel like they’re having an authentic experience while processing them as efficiently and cheaply as possible” business. As an uninformed tourist, I still wasn’t impressed. Several other Birthright groups were there with us, each assigned their own tent and campfire, with activities staggered throughout our evening and morning.12
Perhaps it was because we were still mourning the departure of our Israelis, or perhaps it was the camel smell, but our group split into smaller factions after dinner, some playing music around the campfire, some chatting quietly elsewhere, and a handful heading back to the tent for an early bedtime. I was disappointed. I had envisioned our whole group around the fire, singing songs, toasting marshmallows,13 and telling ghost stories. I lingered outside, hoping for more excitement, but eventually headed to bed.14 I pulled the sleeping bag over my head and drifted off, listening to the crackle of the campfire and the snores of other sleepers.
- The previous evening, we drove south to the desert, stopping on the way to watch the sunset from a gas station. Boris, our bus driver, fed a stray cat. Later, at the hotel in Arad–Mollie’s favorite city–the Israelis threw a little party for us, complete with various challenges. We built marshmallow towers, popped balloons without using our hands, memorized famous speeches, and learned to dance. Well, some of us learned to dance. I was as hopeless as ever. That’s right, I struggled with a dance that primarily consists of walking in a circle. [↩]
- Another exciting challenge for my ankle: racing up a rocky mountain path in the dark. [↩]
- I wrote “starlings?” in my notes, so perhaps one of you bird enthusiasts out there can positively identify. [↩]
- Okay, that was me. [↩]
- Continuing my policy of defensive hiking, I stayed up front with Dima, where I could see the path ahead of me and ensure that nobody tripped over my aching ankle. I’m sure half the group thought I was just showing off by hiking at the front, but I promise it was ankle-motivated. That, and I got to ask Dima more unnecessarily specific questions whenever I felt like it. [↩]
- Related: I brought a 0.4 liter water bottle to Israel, which was more than enough for me each day, but everyone who saw it thought I was insane. I made the camels look like amateurs. Mollie and Jake didn’t see it, or they probably would have forced me to carry more water. It’s just one of my superpowers that makes me ideally suited for life in outer space. [↩]
- It took me a while to register the fact that others might want to stand under the waterfall, too. As a result, I make an appearance in nearly all the photos from this location. I was kind of a waterfall hog. I did move, however, when Dima was unceremoniously tossed in, clothes and all. My ankle, submerged in what was essentially a pool full of ice water, felt incredible. [↩]
- This is where we formally said goodbye to the Israelis, even though they weren’t leaving until later in the day. [↩]
- Dima had prefaced this activity with the following caution: “Don’t go in with cuts or scratches. Wear water shoes. Don’t open your mouth. Don’t get water in your nose, eyes, or ears. In fact, just keep your head above water. Make sure you take a good shower afterward.” [↩]
- Now available in air freshener form for your car! No, just kidding, that would be horrible. [↩]
- Dima, meanwhile, got to stay in some kind of swanky cabin situation that I didn’t see myself, so it might also have smelled like camels. In my imagination, though, he had shag carpeting, a kitchenette, and a front porch with rocking chairs. [↩]
- To be clear, I’m all for a smelly, dirty, authentic experience. I would camp out in the desert for days if it meant an opportunity for real cultural exchange. [↩]
- This actually happened, thanks to Mollie! [↩]
- I did have some good bonding time with Jeff, Jake, Mollie, Dima, Hannah, and a few others, which Dima relentlessly tried to escape. You guys know what I’m talking about. [↩]