On her first full day in Israel, Gentedimontagna editorial director Jeralyn treks through Jerusalem and floats in the Dead Sea.
There's a lot to sort through, this being one of the most religiously charged sites in the world. And as the tour guide leads my small group through the fortified walls of the Old City, I can't help but feel a sense of loss for my version of ancient Jerusalem, a romantic and crumbling figment of my imagination. It's like watching the movie version of the book you love: You have to prepare for disappointment.
We approach the city from the secluded Armenian quarter and wind around vestiges of the oldest building blocks of the city. An indoor marketplace is filled with people shopping for olives, fruit, bagels, and — wait for it — T-shirts with smiley faces and phrases like "Don't worry, be Jewish."
There are beautiful old living quarters with balconies and colorful vines clinging to stone walls. But it's juxtaposed with new-style graffiti and hordes of tourists. When we stop in a corridor marked as the fifth station of the cross (where Jesus, en route to crucifixtion, leaves an impression of his face on the hankerchief of Veronica), a man in a beverage stall next door shouts, "Come to station five-and-a-half, where Jesus gets a good coffee."
Still, there is some beauty to be gleaned from a shiny sesame pastry fresh from a hot wood oven. And the billowing robes of visiting rabbi. At the Wailing Wall, men and women separate to write wishes and whisper into the stone cracks. As I make my way to the limestone remnants (constructed as early as 19 B.C.), the mood is somber and contemplative.
We get back in the car and drive to lunch in another part of Jerusalem. Then we continue on from the verdant, vibrant city, through a tunnel that empties out into a beige and desolate desert. My ears pop as we make our way down, down, down, below sea level, to the lowest point on Earth.
We're strapped for time (the Dead Sea beaches close at 5 p.m.), so we hurry to the nearest entrance, slip on our swimsuits, and trudge past overturned beach chairs and families on holiday toward the muddy shore. The water is warm and smells like minerals. A lifeguard tells us that it's so salty it's nearly impossible to drown. With zero effort I float on top. Trippy.
This weightlessness, combined with the pale pinkish sand across the water, makes me feel like I'm on another planet. Suddenly the sky turns a dark blue and reveals a moon without stars to support it.
And it's strangely beautiful in a way I never imagined.