This has been a day of ups and downs, both literally (being well below sea level near Jericho and ascending to the top of Mt. Tabor) and figuratively (seeing beautiful Roman and Byzantine ruins between getting searched by Israeli police and spending time in an auto repair shop).
Today’s the day we set off on our own – we rented a car and headed north. Our target was Galilee, and the normal way to drive there is to head to the coast and scoot up past Tel Aviv and Haifa. Instead, we decided to drive up the Jordan Valley. This means that we drove back down nearly to the Dead Sea and hugged the Jordan River up to Beit She’an (though strangely, we never actually saw the Jordan River). The Jordan Valley has very few cities, and it’s really empty. For the most part, the only signs of civilization we saw after Jericho more advanced than Bedouins herding camels were massive farms irrigated from the Jordan River (to the point that the Dead Sea is shrinking quickly). There was also interesting geology to see in the valley – the mountains rising out of the valley are bare desert rock in the south but turn to Montana-style brush hills in the north.
This also means that we drove through areas captured by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War, the West Bank. Interestingly, the entire route is in Area C – the area completely controlled by Israel since the Oslo Accords. We didn’t have any issues with the drive until it was time to re-enter Israel proper – to the land that was undisputably Israel’s since 1948. Up to this point on the trip, at every checkpoint (whether Israeli or Palestinian), Fred and Gloria’s car had been waved through with nary a glace after the American passports were waved. This time was different – we were told to pull aside, they had us walk through airport-style scanners, gave me a wand scan, and they might have searched the car while our bodies were being scanned. Of course, the entire process was over in about ten minutes, so it wasn’t really an inconvenience, but it was a surprise – why so much security between Israeli-controlled Area C and Israel? Why did we get pulled over? Don’t they know that we’re Americans? Don’t they know that we’re entitled to having every travel experience go smoothly?
Anyway, after that brief brush with reality, we continued to the Jewish city of Beit She’an. The modern city seemingly doesn’t provide anything other than practice at navigating roundabouts, but it hides a set of ancient cities that is really impressive. At the Beit She’an National Park, there’s the most impressive collection of Roman ruins I’ve seen outside of Rome itself. There are two bathhouses, a large theater, a market place, two colonnaded streets, and a lot more. Even more impressively, on the hill overlooking the site, there are ruins from the Roman era, the time of David and Solomon, the Egyptian era before that, and even ruins of a town from about 5000 years BCE (take that, 6000-yr-earth creationists!). It really is an impressive site.
What seemed to impress Jenny more than the ruins was something we saw on our way out – twenty-something-year-old women in pink t-shirts holding automatic weapons while directing the crowd. We got used to seeing men and women in fatigues in the Old City of Jerusalem carrying big guns, but there’s something jarring to these American eyes about seeing young women in feminine colors handling that much firepower. We thought it unwise to take a picture for documentary evidence – sorry.
After Beit She’an, we went to another national park, Bet Alfa. This is the site of a perfectly-preserved mosaic floor of a Byzantine-era Synagogue that was discovered when a kibbutz tried to dig an irrigation trench. It’s a really small site, but it was impressive to see a site that well preserved.
At this point, we ran into a problem. Avis rental’s GPS was really an iPad, and we had been using it throughout the day. But then the battery ran out, even though the charger was plugged into the cigarette lighter. Though we had some maps, they weren’t really good at the level of city streets, so we didn’t know how we were going to get to our hotel in Nazareth or beyond. We didn’t know what was broken – the iPad? the charger? the car?
So, we decided to change our plans a bit and find an Avis location to figure out the problem. Fortunately, there was an agency in Afula, a Galilean town not too far away. Unfortunately, Afula isn’t really a tourist town, so none of our maps or guidebooks could tell us where to go within the town to find the agency. At this point, we felt like we had our own mini version of The Amazing Race, trying to figure out how to get to an address without a map in a town we didn’t know where all the signs are in languages we didn’t read. We ended up stealing an Amazing Race tactic – we found a cab driver and asked his advice – it turned out we were only one block away.
Getting the situation fixed was a bit interesting – that location didn’t rent the iPads, so an agent had to call around to figure out what to do. Eventually, they examined the car and determined that the fuse for the cigarette lighter was blown. They couldn’t fix that in the lot, so they drove us to their mechanic shop nearby, and we got to wait in an Israeli car dealership for a few minutes while they fixed our car.
All in all, it again wasn’t a huge inconvenience, but we lost some time from our day. On the plus side – how many American tourists get to see the mechanic shop for the Ford/Mazda dealership in Afula, Israel? Not bad, huh?
After that minor crisis was solved, we decided to see one last tourist site before heading to the hotel – Mt. Tabor. This is the spot where the New Testament says that Jesus had his transfiguration. At the top of the mountain, there’s a very nice church and monastery, and we enjoyed looking at the church, walking the grounds, looking over the surround valleys, and seeing the garden of plants from around the world. There was also a large group of Nigerians there – we had heard previously that the Nigerian government pays for any Nigerian Muslim to go to Mecca for the Hajj, so be fair they also pay for any Nigerian Christian to go to Israel. I don’t know if it’s true, but there are a lot of Nigerian tour groups with their green-white-green hats at pilgrimage sites.
As the sun set, we stopped at a local winery to sample some wine, and then we headed to Nazareth. The traffic here is really bad, and it’s a fairly confusing city, so we’re glad our GPS is working again. More than that, we’re also enjoying our hotel, the Fauzi Azar Inn. Fauzi Azar is like the best hostels I stayed in when I was a bachelor backpacking across Europe – friendly, full of local information, social, and a place for a free local tour. We’re glad we’re staying here for two nights, using it as a base for our further explorations of Galilee tomorrow.