Breakfast at the Dan Pearl Hotel was as fabulous as I expected. And by 8:30 that sunny morning, Tommy and I were on our way to Masada. To Tommy, the drive to Masada was long. To someone who lives in North America, the drive was equivalent to going to Ottawa from Montreal. But to Israelis, who don’t seem to travel all that much, this was a real schlepp.
On the way to Masada, we passed between countless hills made of sand and rock, which Tommy sort of alluded were mountains. In fact, they were very large dune like structures which rose and fell on either side of the road. On these dunes, once outside of Jerusalem, we came across Bedouin camps which were more permanent than I had imagined.
Try to imagine the worst Canadian Native Village we’ve seen on television. Like Davis Inlet, where people live in shacks beyond description. Now, add to that image and you can start to picture how the Bedouins live.
The camps are built on the side of the slopes, slanting at a substantial angle. The houses and animal shelters are “constructed” out of sticks and rags. And there is no electricity or water nearby. At least none that I was able to see. The Bedouins spend a great deal of their time herding flocks of sheep and goats, from one patch of vegetation to another, and from one stream to another. Their donkeys simply roam freely, on or near their compound.
When I asked Tommy how people could possibly live this way, his response was one of envy.
“I could live like this. The Bedouins don’t live by the clock. They don’t worry themselves about anything political. They live for free. They don’t pay rent. They don’t pay taxes. They receive all the social benefits all Israelis are entitled to. And when they feel the time is right; they just pack-up and move on. And besides, most of these people have a great deal of money from raising and selling their animals”.
Tommy’s view of the Bedouins was quite romantic. In reality, living as they do, appeared far more to me as a curse rather than a blessing. The area where they were roaming, was on the West Bank, which inevitably will be turned over to the Palestinians once a peace deal is done. And when that happens, the Bedouins will be able to kiss their Israeli social benefits goodbye.
As we continued South towards Masada, driving along the West Bank, we passed in front of Qumran, famous for the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. “Do you want to go and have a look around”? Tommy asked.
“What will we see”?
“I’ve seen caves. Let’s get to Masada”.
Continuing our drive towards Masada, I saw this average size, to big lake on our left hand side, and asked Tommy what it was called. “The Dead Sea”. He told me. I stared at it in disbelief.
“This isn’t a sea”. I was fixated on the size. I told Tommy that we have lakes throughout all of Canada which are considerably larger, which we don’t think are all that big. “As a matter of fact”, I told Tommy. “Just one of our Great Lakes is bigger than all of Israel”. “That’s not a lake”. He replied. “It’s an ocean”. I guess that it’s all in the perspective.
When we arrived at Masada, what I saw was a very modern tourist facility in the middle of nowhere, beside a very large hill. Not quite a mountain, but more like a giant sized Butte you would see in Arizona, with its four sides rising perpendicular to the ground.
The tourist building had all the trappings of what you’d expect from any modern well lit tourist center in North America, including underground parking, a gift shop, cafeteria, bathrooms and an information center. Once again, I was blown away by the lack of people.
Before I continue with my description of Masada, and what it took to get up there, I was slated to do a live morning prime time radio show in Rochester New York on radio station WHAM; which is one of the most listened to News Talk stations in America. And I had about two hours from the time we arrived at Masada, to the time I was to begin the broadcast.
I thought it would be sensational if I could do the broadcast from of all places, the summit of Masada. So, when I asked the ticket vendor if there was a phone at the top of Masada, she and the people around her weren’t certain. They thought there might be a payphone, but didn’t know if it actually worked. Well, worse case scenario I thought, I would just come down and do the live show from the tourist center.
To get to the top, we had two options: take the cable car up, or walk (read climb) the Snake Trail. Since the weather wasn’t that hot, we opted for the walk. Well I opted for the walk. Tommy didn’t try to talk me out of it, but he was more supportive of taking the cable car. But; after-all, how many opportunities would I have to scale the cliffs of Masada? So walk we did.
The walk is supposed to take a person in good shape about 45 minutes. This I figured gave me ample time to get to the top, look around and do the radio show. Even if it meant taking the cable car down to do it in the event there wasn’t a phone available at the top.
By the time we reached one quarter of the way to the top, I knew that walking was not a good idea. We started at 450 feet below sea level, where the air is thick and heavy, and we were walking literally straight up to more than 1200 feet above sea level, where the air and atmosphere changes significantly. Not only was this not one of my better ideas, it ranks amongst my not to be repeated ideas.
In addition to huffing and puffing my way up the cliff, I made the mistake of drinking diet Coke instead of water, even though we had brought plenty of water with us. Contrary to the slogan and jingle; all things do not necessarily go better with Coca Cola. My pants belt was also too tight. And between the Coke and the belt, I felt like barfing from the cliff side of Masada, that is, just before throwing myself over the edge to end my misery. And we still had three quarters of the height before us.
By half way up, I was no longer nauseous, but my legs were becoming rubbery, and breathing was a definite problem. More than that, I wasn’t certain if I would even be able to make it up to the top in time to do the radio show. But dutifully, we pressed onward and upward.
The Snake Path is just that. A narrow path that winds ever upwards on a loose gravel footing. And from time to time you come to steep stairs with a bannister. The stairs were actually much harder to climb than the path. And no matter where you were on the Path, you were always hanging precariously over the edge; literally just feet from the side, and certain death if you slipped or lost your balance.
We finally made it in over one hour. And by the time we got to the top, there was not much left within me. However; my first concern was a telephone. Would I be able to do the show from the top of Masada, or would I have to take the cable car down and do it from the tourist centre? And since the Cable car went down just minutes after we arrived at the top, and it wasn’t scheduled to return for 45 minutes, I had no option but to do it from the top, or not do it all.
Not doing the show would have been a personal physiological disaster for me. Broadcasting back to North America was one of the primary reasons for my trip to Israel. And not to do it on one of America’s most important News/Talk radio stations would have been a humongous let-down which I would have considered to be a failure.
We found the payphone and prayed that it worked. And when I uncradled the handset, lo and behold, there was a dial tone. Here is where the pre-paid long distance phone card came in handy. I called the show’s producer in Rochester at around 6:00 AM New York time, to make certain that everything worked, and it did. He wanted to keep me on hold for fifteen minutes, just to make certain that we wouldn’t lose the connection.
But I wasn’t certain if I had enough telephone “units” available to hang on for fifteen minutes, and then do a fifteen minute show. So, as an alternative and safety measure, I gave him the number to the payphone in the hopes that he could get through. And he did.
So, from the top of Masada, overlooking the Jordan Valley, the Jordan Hills and the end of the dead sea, I broadcast to the United States of America, telling WHAM’s huge audience what I have so far seen and heard about life in Israel. And how the Israelis are doing their best to cope with the murderous acts of terrorism. And just how much a price the Israelis are paying in their quest for peace from people who seem to want anything else but.
Masada is the scene where the Jewish Zealots chose death over subservience to the Roman conquerors. Therefore; for me, it was fitting that I broadcast from the summit of Israel’s most prominent symbol of duty and commitment. Especially during these times of great threat to the existence to Israel and rampant anti-Semitism.
After the show, Tommy and I explored the top of the Masada fortress, where much of the original living quarters, baths, store houses and ramparts still stood intact, just as they did 2000 years ago. It was very much worth the painful climb up.
From Masada, we headed back North towards Jerusalem, stopping at the Dead Sea for lunch at a deserted restaurant, where once again we were the only patrons. And as soon as we finished eating, the restaurant owners shut the lights, and locked the door.
We walked along the perimeter of the beach where several Arabs were swimming, and a few families were enjoying a late lunch Bar B Q. But; like everywhere else in Israel, there were literally no other people. I decided not to swim in the Dead Sea, as most visitors do. Somehow; getting wet and soaked in super saturated saltwater just didn’t do it for me.
On the way back to Jerusalem, we once again passed Qumran, where this time we got off the road to have a closer look from the car. It was a very large hill pocked with caves. I was right the first time. Seeing it from a distance was more than enough.
By the time we got back to Jerusalem, it was getting on the supper hour, and I had enough of exploring, sitting in a car and climbing for one day. I bid Tommy a good night, made arrangements with him to pick me up early the next day, and I headed towards Ben Yehuda for supper.
The phone card? Since purchasing my first long distance phone card, I had gone through two, and was working on my third. And this was only day 3. I called Anne, my family and friends as often as I would have, had I been at home. Being able to phone home, and communicate in English in a Western style democracy, so effortlessly, made me feel as if I was only around the corner, and not a quarter of the way around the world.
This is part three of a multi part series on my trip to Israel. To read whatever else I have written about this trip, please refer to the editorial archives section found on the menu on the left hand side of the page.