In a 20 passenger minibus, our driver is equal parts stand up comic and New York cabbie. You’d think with a large vehicle he would have trouble whip snapping through traffic, ducking, weaving, zooming and careening. You’d think he might not want to get into games of chicken with other buses, both municipal and rival tour companies (and even tour buses of his own company). You’d think when he did honk and dart around an idling bus, he wouldn’t feel the need to turn and glare at the other driver with a stink eye worthy of Amorphophallus titanum, aka the Corpse Flower. You’d be wrong on all counts. And if you were anything smaller than him, a car, a bike, a pedestrian, he seemingly was playing for points in a Death Race video game. If I ever were to pitch a wild mouse roller coaster themed to driving in Israeli rush hour, this morning would be the inspiration and template.
Here was the schedule for the day:
I know they put the boilerplate caveat that times are “approximate” and therefore subject to change, but when you hear WHY time went off the rails on this tour, I think you’ll understand why I’m thinking of submitting a complaint to the Israeli Tourism Ministry.
This was the description of the tour:
Our Jerusalem, Dead Sea, Bethlehem, and More Tour from Tel Aviv or Jerusalem is truly unique in the way it combines these highlights into one day of touring. Descending through the Judean Desert to the lowest region on Earth, we will enjoy an overview of the city of Jericho, the oldest city on Earth with immense Biblical history, followed by a stop at the River Jordan, at the site of Qasr-el-Yehud. After touring here, continue to the Dead Sea for time to relax in the muds and float in these special waters which have perplexed mankind for thousands of years. As we ascend, we’ll arrive in Jerusalem, the eternal city, the holiest of all, for a tour of Jerusalem’s Old City, holy to Jews, to Christians, and to Muslims. Finally, we’ll visit Bethlehem, the city of Jesus’s birth, where we’ll visit the Church of the Nativity. Our Jerusalem, Dead Sea, Bethlehem, and More Tour from Tel Aviv or Jerusalem is available every day with guaranteed departures.
The tour finally started from Jerusalem at 8:30 am… three and a half hours after I left my AirBNB, two hours after we departed Tel Aviv.
The overview of Jericho was the driver mumbling some stats and history as we drove along the highway. We briefly detoured to the roadside view of the Sea Level placard. I paid 5 shekels to sit on a camel for the photo… but I didn’t know when the guy was taking the pic so I look awkwardly awaiting my cue.
The Qesar al Yehud was a ten minute stop at the River Jordan where famed Biblical baptisms were apparently held.
It’s also right on the border of Israel and Jordan, now really on the border after the Six Day War of 1967 saw Israel take quite a bit of land. Indeed when taking Jerusalem, they put in a trolly lane “on the seam” of the old border line between Eastern and Western Jerusalem. As the battles raged over the years, the surrounding area is a political and literal minefield. Our driver said not to be scared of these yellow signs… they’re serious but we shouldn’t worry. Um… ok.
Ladies and Gentlemen, and our Dear Children (the latter is how Turkish Airlines handled the “boys and girls” PA announcements… and I kinda dug it… except, ya know, for the “dear” part), I give you my hand in the River Jordan:
Next it was off to the Dead Sea, and here’s where things go a little haywire… and then A LOT haywire. I assume there are any number of Dead Sea hotspots, of entrepreneuring souls who put up an oasis of trinkets, foodstuffs, and changing rooms to lure travelers to that particular area. Why we went to this particular spot, I can’t say.
But the mud was free (unlike in Jordan when you had to pay for it to be slathered on you), so I muddied up in the hopes of looking and feeling 10 years younger.
Did it work?
Lowest point below sea level on earth, maximum salt content so you float rather than swim, mystical properties of the mud and water, yadda yadda yadda.
We were running late so we had to be back at the bus by 11:25. I hurried through my Dead Sea experience and made sure to grab lunch as the tour paperwork said this was really the only time we had to do so. I inhaled some falafel and hummus and made it back by 11:23.
And here’s where it all starts to go wrong. I’ll let my first email to the tour company sent at 11:55 AM explain:
Dear Tourist Israel,I’m in the middle of the Dead Sea, Jerusalem, Bethlehem day tour and just some feedback for you at the moment. I’m pretty disappointed. We arrived at the Dead Sea around time 10 am and our driver, who I don’t believe has ever introduced himself, told us to be back in the shop to leave at 11:25. We all were there, got on the bus, then sat on the bus for 25 minutes without any explanation. The driver was smoking a cigarette and talking on his cel phone so I don’t know if there was a problem or why we sat on the bus for 25 minutes. There was no explanation.We will see how the rest of the day and my tour tomorrow goes but right now I am, as I said, disappointed in this tour.Regards,Kevin Hanna
With nary an apology for nor an explanation regarding the delay, we were driven to Jerusalem and the “Old City,” a designation that only came into being about 120 years or so ago.
Upon our arrival, we unloaded and waited. And waited. And… well, here’s my SECOND email to the tour company of the day:
Hi, again, Tourist Israel.I figured I might as well send this along since I’m stuck again.We’ve arrived in Jerusalem where two tour guides introduced themselves and we got off the bus. We’re now standing around. They just said we’re waiting for another bus that is running very late but we hope to leave in ten minutes.I understand things happen but I rushed eating at the Dead Sea to be ready at 11:25 (unnecessarily) and now we are just standing here waiting again. I feel like my time has been undervalued and on top of that I feel as if there’s been a breakdown in communication. It actually started this morning at the hotel pickup in Tel Aviv that felt like the plan changed by the minute of which bus we should go on before somebody decided it didn’t matter and we would all just go to Jerusalem and sort it out there.Again, things happen andvaxhedules are subject to change but the waiting around for little to no reason and with minimal communication as to what is happening or what we’re doing is unhelpful and counterproductive to a positive experience.I remain disappointed in this tour.Regards,Kevin Hanna
We finally began our Jerusalem tour and our guide was flustered, telling us there was no way to do this in two hours and hustling us hither and thon, breathlessly trying to tell as much as she could in as short a time as possible. Hidden in there was a pretty good summation of why there’s holy significance to locations in this walled square kilometer of city (and frankly beyond those walls) to Christian, Muslim, and Jewish faiths. I tried paying attention but I was in a bit of a snit, so here’s just a bunch of photos…. including me at the Wailing Wall scrunching in a note in the cracks praying for peace and happiness for all.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is supposedly where Jesus was crucified, entombed, and then resurrected.
The Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem features the majority of the walled city’s population and has the richest architectural history. Some of the archways date to the 800s or earlier. The bazaars, which have been there for ages, feature more modern products than in Jesus’s times.
Upon completion of the whirlwind sprint through the four quarters of the old city (Note: the fourth quarter is Armenian because Armenia was the first nation to convert to Christianity en masse [circa 300s AD] and were the first to send guardians of the relics/history of the land), we met up with our buses… but not MY bus.
The third email of the day:
Dear Tourist Israel,After being told to leave our stuff on our bus, that bus is now missing and this many guests items are missing.I am very upset about this tour. I feel like I’ve been told bad information and treated very poorly. I sincerely hope my stuff is there when I get back.This has been an unnecessarily stressful and unpleasant experience.Profoundly disappointed,Kevin Hanna
I’ve only just gotten back to my AirBNB (it’s 9:15 PM) so this is going to be a short summary of our tour of Bethlehem. We saw where Jesus was apparently born and lain in a manger (the former marked by a black star and the latter… well, it was down a few stairs). And of course it was under renovation. I don’t think I’ve been to any tourist sight in my travels that WASN’T under repair.
Before getting to go home, the tour group made sure we had PLENTY of time to shop at a souvenir store they co-sponsored. So delays and problems and cutting short the program applies to everything EXCEPT shopping. I’m too tired to write another email to the company but I have another all day tour with them tomorrow, the day before the marathon, and I’m seriously considering just eating the $80 ticket… but I’m probably too cheap to do that. Meantime, here’s some photos of Bethlehem.