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I’m obsessed with Spanish wine, specifically red, more specifically Rioja. I suppose I was before we left. To me it’s the perfect balance of fruit and body. Our trip to Spain firmly planted those grapes in my head as the best stuff on earth.
And as if great tasting vino wasn’t enough; it’s also cheap!
Our first stop in Spain was Madrid. We had a Carrefour a block from our apartment that had a large selection of Riojas for five euros a bottle. They even had a Carrefour brand Rioja for three euros! I used this as an excuse to buy two bottles for dinner. Why not!?
In many bars and restaurants throughout southern Spain, you can get a superb glass of wine for three or four euros. In Granada, for every glass of wine you order, they give you a tapas (a small appetizer).
One drink, one tapas. One drink, one tapas. I could do that all night and we did. We made a dinner date of bar hopping and tapas tasting.
Unfortunately, Spanish wine tourism as an industry seems to be underdeveloped. We couldn’t find lists or maps of wineries that offered tastings. Locals told us there were a few bodegas, or places where you could taste wine, but we didn’t find any along our route. There are plenty “luxury wine tour” offerings online, but we certainly didn’t need (and couldn’t afford) to be chauffeured around in a Mercedes and put up at five-star hotels.
So I don’t know much about this wine I love, but it gives me a good reason to go back.
If a float in the Dead Sea is not on your bucket list, I suggest you add it. Immersing yourself in this particular body of water allows you to experience the joy of the unexpected in a way you haven’t since you were five years old.
You go down to the Dead Sea knowing that you can float. You’ve seen the pictures of people showing off how well they can float, posing buoyantly and effortlessly reading a newspaper or a book.
But it still catches you by surprise.
We visited the Dead Sea in Ein Bokek, Israel. The city is spotted with resorts boasting exclusive access to the Sea, but we found a spot on its decent public beach.
It was 23 degrees Celsius (73 degrees Fahrenheit) and I waited until the mercury hit 25 degrees Celsius before wading in. I went in first, while Nellu took pictures. Immediately, you could tell the Dead Sea was a different kind of pond.
Right away, you notice the salt crystals resting on the water’s surface. It’s largely the salt that gives you the float. Wikipedia calls it a hypersaline lake—allegedly the deepest of the salty lakes—due to its 34 percent salinity.
But the water also has a greasy consistency, as if you mixed oil with sea water.
TheSea was cool but not cold as I got up the nerve to take the plunge. Then I did it. I sat fully in the water, and much to my delight, I popped right back up. I tried to stick my feet back down but they resisted. It was hilarious.
It took me moments to get comfortable with this new reality. First, I just bobbed along. Then I started trying out some fancier moves. You’d think I was training for the U.S. synchronized swimming team (minus the intense waterproof makeup) by the time we left.
We spent much of the day playing in the Dead Sea and it’s interesting to see this discovery scenario repeat itself over and over. A new tour bus pulls up, the cover-ups come off, and the more eager of the group wade in the water. Then, the Sea erupts with laughter as each new group—the Russians, the teenagers, the retirees, and even an out-of-place corporate trio—gets its float on for the first time.
A visit to the Dead Sea also gives you an excuse to play in the mud. Dead Sea mud, rich in minerals, is supposed to be good for your skin. Proponents of the mud claim it helps with everything from acne to wrinkles. We were there, so we tried it.
You’d think that you could just scoop the mud off the Sea floor and slather it on your skin. But this is difficult because can’t get your hand close to the ground, deep enough, to get the good stuff. Never fear, there are many stores nearby just waiting to sell you mud in a bag for a few dollars a pop. You cover yourself in the mud and go rinse off in the Sea, getting a double dose of goodness.
The one thing you must never do is put your face in the water. You may be tempted. You may have your eyes and mouth tightly closed. Don’t do it. I know this from experience.
Nellu and I took turns coating ourselves with mud and taking pictures. After letting the mud get dry and crusty on my skin, I floated back into the water. I was my stomach and I had mud on my face so I did what felt natural and stuck my face in the water. As I lowered my head into the oily substance, I could sense Nellu’s reaction from the shore. I couldn’t see him. He didn’t say it out loud. But I could feel him screaming in his head, “What are you doing!?!”
But it was too late. Immediately after my face hit the water, it began to burn. I ran, unable to fully open my eyes due to the searing pain, still partially covered with mud, to the fresh water showers nearby to wash out my eyes and mouth. It took just a couple of minutes to wash away the pain but please don’t try it. Learn from my mistake.
They say the Dead Sea and its minerals have therapeutic if not healing properties. I suspect for visitors, the psychological benefit of a childlike frolic in the Sea, is part of that therapy.
Ah, Tel Aviv
We arrived in Tel Aviv after a 45 minute puddle jumping flight from Amman, Jordan on February 24th. We were mentally prepared for no less than a strip search at the airport. We had heard horror stories from other travelers about getting through Israeli immigration. Our extensive travel and our cache of electronic equipment had to make us prime suspects.
And of course we had Nellu’s looks to contend with. His best friend once described him as ambiguously white, Arab, Hispanic. Sometimes it helps us blend in.
In India, a friend told Nellu that he looked, “Kashmiri.”(When I eagerly inquired about the possibility of also possessing an exotic look, this same person shot me down. “Nah, you just look American.”)
And sometimes it makes us stick out. In Jordan, everyone thought Nellu was Israeli. In Israel, there was a good chance that everyone would think he was Arab. He was also still sporting what he called his “Africa beard.” I had started to wonder whether he was hiding anything in its thick brillo-like bushiness, I can’t imagine what immigration officials thought.
I actually thought a lot about what immigration officials might think. We got two passports before we left to help us navigate the touchy political ramifications of getting an Israeli stamp. Apparently, there are certain countries that will not allow you to enter, and others who will just give you trouble, if you have an Israeli stamp on your passport.
Similarly, we had also heard stories of dual citizens getting grilled because they had chosen to enter on one passport over another as if there was something sinister about their preference.
Should I just hand them my blank second passport? Certainly, that would make me look suspicious. Where was I coming from? If I really had traveled so much why didn’t I have any stamps on my passport? Should I just hand them my primary passport and then ask them to stamp my second passport? What if they were offended by my request and just stamped my primary passport anyway?
When we arrived, I nervously lined up at passport control. When it was our turn, Nellu and I went up to the counter together. We’ve learned that if we go through separately, we look more suspicious. (In Australia, I was all the way to baggage claim before I realized that Nellu wasn’t right behind me. They had pulled him aside for extra questioning and it didn’t help that his so obviously boring, American-looking wife was nowhere in sight.)
I handed the woman in Israel both my passports explaining that the thicker one was the one with all my travel records because we had been traveling for almost a year and we were coming from Jordan after recently spending a month in Africa but I wanted her to stamp the second one if it wouldn’t be too much to ask.
She couldn’t care less. She showed as much interest in me as a teenage sales clerk working the register at a supermarket. “So which one do you want me to stamp,” she asked, clearly inconvenienced by the details of my life.
“This one,” I said pushing my second passport her.
“And who is this?” she asked gesturing towards Nellu.
“It’s my husband,” I replied simply.
“What would you like me to stamp?” she asked him almost mockingly.
He handed her his primary passport.
Stamp, stamp, stamp, stamp and we were out of there.
In the end, it took us less time to get through immigration in Israel than just about ever other country we had visited. I wonder if things would have been different if we had taken a bus.
But it didn’t matter. We had arrived.
It was Friday night and even though many places were closed to observe the Shabbat, we were still able to find food at a trendy pizza place. We walked around our neighborhood. Tel Aviv reminded us of home, of New York (New York with Mediterranean coast real estate!), and that felt good.
The next day we took a long walk around the city and down to the beach. I stuck my toe in the Mediterranean for the first time. It was just a little to cold to go swimming. We walked down the long promenade down to Old Jaffa.
Along the way, we stopped to at a bar on the boardwalk for beer. To our delight they had several local, microbrews and the bartender let us try a few before we settled on a pint. We had been drinking so much of the same boring lagers, the variety they had at the bar was beyond refreshing.
“This is the best beer I’ve tasted in a while,” I said satisfactorily.
“Which one?” the bartender asked.
“All of them,” Nellu and I replied in unison.
Apparently more the more religiously conservative set call Tel Aviv the Sodom and Gomorrah of Israel. But we found it pleasant, tolerant and comfortable. I guess one person’s Sodom and Gomorrah is another’s heaven.
Strangely because Tel Aviv felt so much like home, we were anxious to move on to somewhere less familiar. Before we left, our Tel Aviv hosts warned us about Jerusalem. I don’t remember the exact words they used, but they implied they didn’t like the taste of it. But we had found a cheap, centrally-located place in Jerusalem with good internet. In addition to using the city as a jumping-off point for the rest of the region, we were hoping to get some work done. And besides, Jerusalem is a major city for three large world religions. We needed to see what all the hubbub was about. Unfortunately, we got off on the wrong foot with the holy city thanks to the bus.
There is bus that leaves Tel Aviv every twenty minutes bound for Jerusalem that takes just under an hour. Easy-peasy, right? I wish. As usual, I made Nellu get to the bus station super early so that we had plenty of time to get our tickets and find our gate to make sure we could meet our host in Jerusalem around noon on Sunday. I really don’t like to keep people waiting.
Because the Israeli weekend is Friday/Saturday rather than our Saturday/Sunday, Sunday in Israel is actually Monday. And it was just another manic Sunday by the bus gate to Jerusalem.
Nellu and I were one of the first to arrive for the next bus. There was no formal line so we moved outside to wait for the bus by the curb as several others had done. A small crowd of people began to gather. There were a few other travelers , foreigners and locals, a few grandmothers, and a handful of young men and women dressed in military garb who appeared to be putting in their mandatory service time for the Israeli army. I say young men and women but I really mean teenagers. Imagine the kids from “Glee,” add military fatigues and semi-automatic assault rifles, and you’ll get a better idea of the characters in this line.
I sensed a little tension in the air but I assumed it was all coming from me. I tend to get a little stressed when there is no order in a crowd. In my mind a crazed mob is always just one push away.
And in this case, it was.
When the bus finally pulled up about three minutes before its scheduled departure time, all hell broke loose. Every person on the curb and those who were still inside the station started pushing for the bus door. All the teens with guns started elbowing out the grandmothers to get to the front of the line.
I was shocked. This wasn’t China. This was Israel.
I would have just stood by and let the crazy people fight for a place on the bus but I didn’t want to risk being late and keeping our host waiting. Divide and conquer was our strategy. Nellu put our bags under the bus while I squeezed up to the front. After some waiting, I got on, and indicated with the help of an English-speaking woman nearby that I had tickets for two.
The scene on the bus was amazingly serene compared to what was still going on outside. I got two seats for us and waited for Nellu to join me. There was some shouting going up at the front and then a few women shrieked and ran to get their bags out from underneath the bus. It looked like the driver was closing the door but I couldn’t tell. The bus wasn’t full and there was still a horde of people outside. I was fully prepared to go into a dramatic rendition of “but that’s my husband!!” and then I saw Nellu coming down the bus aisle.
“He was going to shut the door and leave but I stuck my arm in the door,” he informed me. Nellu’s years of training in catching New York subway cars before they pulled out of the station and the requisite willingness to sacrifice a limb, paid off.
Taking into account the short distance, the frequent schedule, and our ability to communicate for a large part in English, this should have been one of the easiest bus rides of our trip. But it wasn’t and it got worse.
On the final approach from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, there is a formidable hill. Our bus stalled three-quarters of the way up the hill. Our driver pulled over to a spot on the shoulder and got out to check the bus internals. We sat there for ten minutes. The driver got back on the bus and tried to restart the engine. It wouldn’t start. He got back off the bus to try again. In the meantime, another bus pulled up and a few people ran to catch it. We sat there for another ten minutes. The driver got back on the bus and on the second attempt, the engine started.
We made it to our apartment for the week safe and sound and got Holy Bagels for lunch.
Our first few days on the ground in Jerusalem, we tried to see as much as we could because when we checked the weather, we could see the rain was coming.
We wiggled our way through the Old City and went to the Western Wall (aka Wailing Wall), where I planted a few prayers for my mom.
I was surprised by how many people actually were crying (at least on the women’s side). And even though I don’t share the same beliefs, it was incredibly moving.
We wanted to visit the Dome of the Rock but by the time we figured out where the entrance was located, it was closed for the day. (We meant to go back but never did.)
So we climbed Mount Olive instead. We did the Via Dolorosa, which means “sad way” in Latin. It’s essentially the real life Stations of the Cross.
We spent the good part of a day visiting the Israel Museum, and we still didn’t see everything. The Israel Museum is a fine museum complete with exhibits on Jewish history, the Dead Sea Scrolls, an amazing modern art wing and more. We only left because they closed.
I would say that we had a good enough time doing all this sightseeing. But everywhere we went in Jerusalem, there was a subtle contentiousness in the air. It wasn’t overt but it was omnipresent. I guess that’s what happens when the self-righteousness of three religions collide. The f-you-and-your-god-I’m-going-to-build-my-rock-on-top-of-your-wall-hyper-turbulent-years of these religions seem to have left the city of Jerusalem in a psychological stalemate. So even when they aren’t throwing things at each other, there’s a thick passive aggression.
Even in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the building on top of the spot they believe Christ was crucified and buried, several of the Christian denominations had to have their own separate section with its own distinct design scheme. I would have thought the Christian thing to do would have been to get together and decide on one unifying theme for the decor. Wikitravel actually describes it as a “warehouse of churches,” which is fitting. It’s like the Costco of Christian churches and every day is the Saturday before Christmas.
While we were there, in line to visit Jesus’s tomb, someone tried to push their way past the patiently waiting pilgrims to the front of the line. Nellu called the woman out on it. Seriously, who does that? Who cuts the line to go see Jesus?
But maybe it wasn’t Jerusalem, maybe it was me. Maybe I was projecting my conflicts about my own religion on the city. Or maybe I was letting the weather get to me. The first two days we were there, the sun was shining. It rained for the next five.
One day mid-week, it looked like the sun was out so we hurried to get up and out of our apartment to take advantage of the nice weather. We weren’t outside for more than 20 minutes before it started raining again. It was like God—who knows if it was the Christian God, the Jewish God, or the Muslim God—was definitely punishing us.
It even snowed.
I don’t remember the Bible saying anything about snow.
We talked about seeing Nazareth or Jericho but the weather literally dampened our spirits. Even though we’d heard that as a tourist, it’s not a big deal to go in and out of the West Bank, our emotional wherewithal for potential bumps was depleted. I could just see us getting into a fight on both sides of the border.
So while we were in the holy city, I did our taxes. And our taxes were so complicated because we liquidated almost everything we could to fund our travel. I also had additional trouble with changes in health plans (HDHP, HSA madness), state residency questions, and the sale of my old employer, which closed a month before we left. I spent hours of time on the phone trying to track down W-2s from all corners of the globe. But I still had time to go through our taxes three times. And I guess I should thank Jerusalem for that.