The story begins with the picture of the car above, the Fiat Punto that we rented. We had a unique opportunity to see Israel driving around (lost most of the time) since most people who go to Israel join a tour group and see it from the bus. It gave us a real "up close and personal" experience. Besides, we got to set our own agenda and go to the places that we wanted to see. The rental car also allowed us to visit several places that most tour companies don't go to, such as Hebron, Jericho, Shekhem, Ramallah, and many other places that we didn't intend on going to but ended up there because we were lost.
We stayed at the Mount of Olives Hotel the whole time we were there. They have a web page which I visited about 6 months before our trip and I made the reservations over the Internet. (See Sandalphon Links Page for more info.) I had corresponded via e-mail with the manager Ibrahim in the months preceding our trip, and when we arrived he seemed pleased to finally meet us. So pleased in fact that he gave us the best room in the hotel. I had read on their web page that they were "on top of the Mount of Olives" and had this great view, and I sort of expected there was some degree of exaggeration, but they really are and they really do! At night I would sit up in my bed and look at the entire Old City and the illuminated Dome of the Rock.
We arrived at our hotel room on that first day (Friday 9/26) just as the sun was setting. Here is our unobstructed view of the Old City, with the golden dome of the Dome of the Rock left of center in the picture. (You'll need to click on the picture to see the large version to see the detail. It also helps if your screen brightness is turned up because the picture is a little dark.)
On our first full day (Saturday) we went to the Wailing Wall and then next door to the Temple Mount and the Dome of the Rock. When we passed the entrance to the Temple Plaza, we were approached by this 40-ish Arab man who called himself Ahmed. He said that he would like to be our guide. We asked him how much and he said, "A meeeeellion dollars, don't worrrrry about it." Well, big mistake, but we let him take us around based on just that. He didn't show us much that wasn't in my tour book, but I felt comfortable when he made small talk with the guards at the Mosque and Dome so that they would watch our stuff. (You're not allowed to take any bags or cameras, etc., into the Mosque or Dome, and you have to take your shoes off too. My original plan was that Rafael and I would go in one at a time and the other would watch the stuff, but Ahmed made me feel comfortable leaving everything outside. That way we both got to go in together, and that was nice.)
Here is the picture that Ahmed took of us in front of the Dome of the Rock. He also took a picture of us in front of Solomon's Portico, also on the Temple Mount. Before he took the picture he spent a minute looking around for spies or hidden cameras or who knows, and made it sound like he was breaking some law by taking a picture of us in front of it. He claimed it was Solomon's Temple and that it was some big secret, hence all the precaution! In reality, we think he was setting us up to feel appreciative when he hit us with this big price tag for his services as a "guide."
All the time while Ahmed was showing us around, he would say things like, "You two will be with me all day. I will show you Via Dolorosa, give you great explanations." Rafael and I would look at each other with a look saying, "Who is this guy?" Finally we told Ahmed that we were ready to guide ourselves, and how much does he want for the 45 minutes he spent with us. "1,000 Sheqels, each." That's about $300, each. We laughed nervously and told Ahmed even if he was worth that much for 45 minutes, we didn't have that kind of money. "It's a very fair price, my brother. You will not get better tour from anyone. I am a religious man. I have 4 children. O.K., 500 Sheqels, each." Rafael and I consulted and figured this guy was worth about 100 Sheqels ($30) total. Ahmed said, "No, no, I give you great tour, better than anyone. I am a religious man, my brother. 250 Sheqels, each." After some tense moments we finally agreed to pay Ahmed 100 Sheqels each.
We joked so much about that experience with Ahmed after that, the value of the experience for entertainment's sake was worth at least the 200 Sheqels that we paid. Everything we did and everywhere we went, we would pretend that Ahmed was in charge. We would ask what things would cost and we'd say, "A meeeeellion dollars, don't worrrrry about it." And after laughing we'd say something like, "Your dinner will cost 5,000 Sheqels...each!"
Later that day we drove to Jericho. We walked around the archeological site. (I didn't get to go to Jericho in 1995 because my tour company thought it was too dangerous at the time. If I had only had a rental car then...) There was a great cafeteria nearby with Bedouins in front giving camel rides for $5 or $10, some really inexpensive price. Part of the ride included a pass in front of this flowering bush for a photo-op.
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