We woke up early, excited to visit Masada and take a dip in the dead sea! We had watched a Masada miniseries that starred Peter O’Toole. The dead sea needs no introduction! Who does not want to float on water?

The Taxi Mishap

A few days ago, we had booked a taxi driver from one of the shops in the Jewish quarter – a shopkeeper named Joulani. He assured us $100 for 2 people to visit Masada and the Dead Sea. He seemed a very nice guy and also owned the shop. We saw him running the place alone, so trusted him.

The taxi arrived at 8:30 AM and our driver was Ibrahim. As we drove out of the hotel, I confirmed with Ibrahim: $100 total. He said: $100, yes. Per person.That is the deal Joulani had given him!

I told him to stop the car immediately and asked him to call Joulani. At that point, Joulani also said “Yes yes, I make mistake, $100 per person”. Aha! So he admitted his mistake and now jacked up the price!?! There was no way I was going to pay double of what was agreed, but there was also no way out of this mess if we wanted to go to the fort and the sea today, since it was our last day in Jerusalem. I was pretty annoyed at myself having fallen for such a simple trick. As I sat there contemplating what my best next course of action could be, Ibrahim called his “boss”, an Israeli fellow, because Ibrahim spoke Hebrew and not Arabic. The “boss” struck a deal with me for $150 and I had him confirm it with Ibrahim who repeated to me – $150 for both, to Masada and dead sea. That settled, we were on our way. It was almost 9:30 by then.

From that point on, Ibrahim was actually a nice guy. Not at all aggressive, curious where we were from and quite polite. Whether he was in, on the con, with Joulani, I do not know. To this day, I like to believe that Joulani actually told him $100 per person and I’ll leave it at that.

Masada

On the way to Masada, starting to go below sea level.

The dead sea is over 1300 ft below sea level, and we started to descend. Just knowing that we were driving below sea level made me feel tad weird. There are markers ever 200 ft, reminding you that you are below sea level! How cool is that!

We drove through the West Bank and past Qumran, one of the places where the dead sea scrolls were found. I almost told Ibrahim to turn and go there. Felt so bad that we were missing something so historical! Yet, this was not the first time I felt like that in Israel/West Bank. The place is so full of history that one could spend a lifetime exploring this little piece of land.

Approaching Masada

Before we reached Masada, on our request Ibrahim stopped the car at the Ahava labs factory store and we got some hand and body creams at a discount. Ibrahim got a kickback in terms of free items, but we got a deal so I just did not care. I was amazed how he went back and forth between speaking Arabic and Hebrew and mingled with Arabs and Israeli’s alike.

Around 11:30 AM, after 90+ minutes of driving we arrived at Masada. I still remember the excitement I felt as the taxi approached the fortress.

View from the cable car: A view of the Roman camp remains and the dead sea beyond

We bought tickets to enter the fortress and chose to take the cable car up, since we did not have the 3 hours required to hike up. There was a large model of Masada and its surroundings near the ticket counter which allowed us to understand just how complicated the terrain was and how hard it was to scale the fortress without modern equipment. On the way up, we saw two hikers. Envious! The tickets came with a self-guided audio tour and map. The map and the audio tour were synchronized.

The fortress is well-preserved. We saw quarters of the workers who built the fort and a quarry where the mined for limestone. The commandants quarters were rebuilt with a thick black line marking how the archeologists had found the remains to clearly demarcate the ruin and preservation effort. The storerooms of King Herod are also visible and the Jews who resisted the siege found corn, mullet and wine in abundance which allowed them to resit the Romans.

The mosaic in Herod’s palace is well preserved, giving a glimpse of its past grandeur. There are three terraces, each at different levels. The top and middle terraces are easily accessible once you are at the top, however to go to the lowest terrace, we had to take a new steel staircase that was built on the side of the fortress, the original was unusable. The lowest terrace was the largest since that is where Herod received most guests.

Back at the top, and on the tour,we stood by the Roman-built ramp. Apparently, archeologists had found arrows and other weapons buried by this ramp!

We visited the fortress’ synagogue. This is where the defenders congregated to discuss community matters and pray and thus, this is the world’s synagogue. We explored the tanneries on the fortress and then Heena decided she had had enough. Beyond, was a vast open area, where huts and houses (of wood) had been, but is now leveled. I decided to walk to each corner and also see the cistern which held fresh water for the defenders to stay up for so long. As I walked around, I thought about all that I had read about Masada and what it stood for: Independence, self-identity, freedom and pride. When the Romans finally completed the ramp, all the ~1000 defenders committed mass-suicide, rather than be sold as slaves.

Lunch was at the Masada cafeteria. We got vegetarian burgers and felafel with a piece of cake. The cafeteria itself did not have nice views and was quite dark and dingy as I remember it. That was sad because they could have made it much nicer with expansive views. We met an Indian Jewish lady who had immigrated to Israel from Calcutta and spoke to her for a while about her life in Israel. She had come here with her son, who worked at Amdocs and herself was a retired teacher. She spent her time visiting various historical sites around Israel. Good life, we thought! It was almost 2 pm. We went down to the cafeteria and got vegetarian burgers for each of us and then went down the cable car to the taxi, where Ibrahim was waiting for us.

The Dead Sea

There are two beaches on the Israeli side that give access to the dead sea, Ein Bokek and the Ein Gedi resort. The former is free and full of backpackers, while the latter is privately owned. The Lonely Planet guide, which generally is quite frugal cautioned us against Ein Bokek, as did Ibrahim, because of petty theft that is common there. We drove to the Ein Gedi resort, paid ~45NIS per person for access to the dead sea and the sulfur pools on the resort. Almost no one spoke English and once we were inside we were separated from Ibrahim. We changed into our bathing suits and then waited around trying to figure out how to get to the sea. Eventually, a tractor came along with carriages and we hopped on.

At the sea, we chose a spot next to the showers just in case we had to run out due to the salt. We entered the water and floated around for a while. We did not take the camera because we both wanted to enjoy the water instead of worrying about pictures. Next time, we decided we should have a simple point-and-shoot for such occasions. My first impressions were, I have cuts and bruises in parts of my body I did not know existed! As I bobbed around, each time I felt I was going to drown and it was going to be horrid with all that salt! The “seabed” was salt. White salt. And it hurt when I tried to go inwards. The resort had some floating taps inside the sea, to help wash off the saltwater on the face and hands and thus stay in the water longer, which definitely helped us a lot.

After about 45 minutes of playing around in the water, we took a shower and hopped onto the tractor to a corner of the resort where there was a large tub full of sulfur mud. Everyone was applying the mud on their body, head to toe, letting it dry and then washing it off. We did the same and was quite fun.

Finally we went back to the resort building and took a soak in the sulfur pool for 15 minutes. The sulfur is supposed to help with joint aches and relax the muscles. After 2+ hours of walking around Masada in the desert heat, the soak felt relaxing. It was almost 5 pm by the time we showered up and were ready to leave. The dead-sea dip, sulfur mud and pool relaxed us a lot. Heena fell asleep in the car.

I chatted with Ibrahim. We touched upon family, politics and religion. I was fascinated with how much ease he was able to shift from Arabic to Hebrew and back. He was an Israeli-Arab and prayed at Al-Aqsa mosque each Friday. His four kids spoke both languages as well and he believed it was necessary to survive and thrive. In his own words, he was happy to be in Israel because of the economic opportunities, but did not support the army presence in the West Bank, especially the atrocities because of the settlements. His take, as with the many Arabs we spoke to, was to have a unified country with equal opportunity for all. This would ease the trouble for the Palestinian Arabs in the West Bank and make the rest of the Muslim countries less hostile towards Israel. Since the Gaza was was on, we touched upon it, and agreed it did no one any good; neither the rocket pelting, nor the F-16 bombing – a) Gazans sufferd, b) Israeli’s suffered c) Israel suffered due to loss of business.

Somehow our conversation shifted to religion. Actually, he asked me what religion I followed because clearly, I was not Muslim. I said I was Hindu in a spiritual and cultural sense. This was a bad idea because explaining this to someone who does not understand Hindu philosophy of non-dualism. He immediately started with: So you are fire-worshipers. No! But you do worship idols. Not really! We are not supposed to! You have 1000′s of gods. No!! Its one God! After 45 minutes of trying to explain Advaita, I gave up.

Luckily, we reached the outskirts of Jerusalem and there was a lot of traffic. One of the IDF soldiers stopped us. Ibrahim said something in Hebrew and the young kid motioned us to a side-road which gave us a fast-pass! He said he told the soldier we were tourists in Israel and the soldier let us through! He dropped us back to the hotel at 7:30 pm. I paid him and gave him a tip (like I said, I believed in his innocence).

Back at the hotel, we took a shower and head towards Foccacia for dinner again. We knew it was open that night and the food was so good! So, why not? This restaurant is one of our favorite restaurants in the world – the evening, ambiance, location and weather just made it perfect!