Monday, April 21, 2008

Remembrances of the Holy Land (Epilogue)

PHOTO: Doron Bookshtein

If you've spent time reading any of the trip blogs, Thank You!
If you've read through all 14 parts, I applaud you mightily!!


There are pluses and minuses to going on an organized pilgrimage. We had 28 people in our group, including guide, a nice intimate size. Everybody pretty much got along with everyone else and the size was small enough that we were able to use a single bus. ReGeneration's previous group had around 40 people and required two buses.

I had chosen the single room upgrade option. At first glance it's wonderful to be able to go back to your hotel room and simply vegetate in silence. Also, you can pretty much unpack your baggage and spray it across the whole room without much worry. Clearly an upside for anyone who isn't a Neat Freak.

However, there was a downside. Sometimes it's too easy to go back to the room and bask in solitude. With the exception of the first night in Amman, and that Tuesday in Jerusalem, I never really did do anything in the evening with anyone else. Had I been in a double occupancy room, no doubt I would have went out purely due to peer pressure.

Having the single room option sort of puts one out of the loop on many simple things, and it's not in my character to overtly search out what others are doing. Nor did anyone really go out of their way to share what they were doing in the "off-time." (In no way am I suggesting it was their responsibility to).

If you're one that feels you must have a single room. I can understand that. Just make sure you make that extra effort to constantly be involved!

Additionally, in a nutshell, I went halfway around the World to watch television, and it wasn't even Israeli television! The whole idea of catching the Sharks' playoff games in the evenings may have sounded good on the surface. However, it relied on Internet that was either spotty at best, or ridiculously expensive. I should have just got over the idea I'd be missing the first round of the playoffs and explored where I was. Meaning, throw yourself 100% into your trip!

Before the trip I'd purchased The Christian's Guide to the Holy Land on recommendation by trip leaders, going through and highlighting everywhere we were supposed to go. Then I barely touched the book. While it had nice blurbs on everything over there, including Bible passages for each location, I didn't use it nearly as much as I could have.

I cannot stress enough that one should read their Holy Bible!! It goes without saying that a Christian should read their Bible. However, there were points where Doron and TS talked about things happening which I was vaguely familiar with. Had I been more versed in Bible reading it would have been more enjoyable.

One should also spend time trying to understand the current political situation that exists today. I had picked up The Palestine – Israeli Conflict, A Beginner's Guide which some regarded as the most balanced book on the conflict. The first part was written by an Israeli, while the second part was by a Palestinian. I'd only finished the Israeli section before the trip, so didn't have an idea of what to look for.

Keep a journal!!! I wish I had. In writing these trip blogs, I relied on photographs to jog my memory. I'm sure I've forgotten things I would have recorded at the time, and I might have been more choosy in what I did record.

I asked several trip members whether they'd kept a journal. Sadly, those that did respond said "no."

My trip was in 2008. Small portable computer devices have expanded like crazy since then, especially with a myriad of tablets out there. If a person owns a laptop or tablet, they MUST take it with them. If not to check email, then simply to keep a journal and to backup photos to from the day's shooting.

That brings me to another item; a good camera. I went the extreme, dripping with a high end dSLR and several pro-quality lenses, along with all sorts of things need to support that. It produced great quality photos. Far superior than any point and click might. But, it didn't produce squat once it stopped working. I foolishly left a backup body to save a little weight. Never again!! I also brought a tripod and a monopod. With the exception of the night shots at Kibbutz HaOn, the tripod was just taking up space.

Do yourself a favor and get the best quality camera you can afford. dSLR are coming down in price significantly, as are the removable lenses, which provide a far better quality than most consumer cameras. Whatever you're considering, a camera on a phone is NOT an option. (Someone recently photographed their wedding with an iPhone. Mark my words that they're going to regret that some years from now.)

No matter what camera equipment you end up with, don't be afraid to click that shutter button. We're no longer in the age of film where you have to be selective. Shoot freely, download them to your computer at night, and then delete garbage that will never be used! Otherwise you may end up with 10,000 photos, three-quarters which are out of focus, blown out, too dark or just plain bad.

If you're on one of the major cell phone carriers there's a good chance they will operate in another country. Do your research ahead of time. I have Verizon, which operates in Israel and Jordan. Before going, I found out that they had a Blackberry loaner program, which allowed me to spend some extra money for the month and have data connectivity, as well as make phone calls, for one (relatively) low price.

Another person had her 1st Gen. iPhone, which was only on AT&T at the time, and she was able to make phone calls only some of the time. The lesson is you don't need to get a burner phone locally just to be able to calls inexpensively. You just need to make sure you have the right plan.

Don't be afraid to actually buy souvenirs along the way. I ended up with very little souvenirs, and what I did buy, is nothing I'm overly excited about. Though it would have probably simply ended up on my wall I sure wish I'd bought a shofar, like CM did. They're totally cool and sure are a conversation piece!

Would I go again? Absolutely!! After coming back I found there were lots of things we didn't see even at the sites we went to simply because of time.

Would I try to go it solo? Yes again. However, you have to really consider what you're going to do, and what you're going to miss without a traveling partner.

Even if you were to stuff your mind with all sorts of data, it's just not the same as having someone to share the traveling experience with, or a guide who is well versed on the subject. Having a traveling partner also gives you an extra sense of security in some of the lesser safe-feeling areas.

If you do decide to go it on your own, plan your trip strategically. Unless you're going to spend months over there, you're probably going to have to trim some places out so you can concentrate on others, and not leave lacking. Petra, Jerash and Aqaba were amazing places to experience. But, I have to wonder if we hadn't spent the time in Jordan, could we have seen lots more in Israel (regardless of the cost factor)?

Remember to bring your ATM card with you. Banks are plentiful in that the cities and your card should work in most ATMs, depending on your financial institution, without a big exchange fee. This way you won't have to carry cash with you into the country you're visiting, and you're less likely to end up at home with a ton of unspent foreign currency.

If you're in Jordan, US Dollars were accepted fairly frequently. Less to some degree in Israel.

Don't just eat in fancy restaurants, and you must seek out shawarma and kanafeh!! There's something special about eating shawarma from a street side vendor in Nazareth! (For you vegetarians, you can get falafel if you must).

Lastly….HAVE FUN!! It might just end up being the trip of your lifetime!!


Saturday, April 19, 2008

Remembrances of the Holy Land (Homeward)

PHOTO: Google Images

Morning came way too soon. I wanted to make time stop so we could spend see more of Amman. Getting on the plane meant returning home and the daily routine of driving to Benicia, talking to customers on the phone all day, before driving home and doing it all over again the next day.

We lost another trip member as TS was going to stay for a couple more weeks before checking out Egypt for a possible pilgrimage. We were all sad to be leaving him here, and I think he looked a little sad as we pulled off as well. I imagine being solo in Jordan is not nearly as fun an experience as being with a close group of people for over two weeks.

Check out was fairly early because we had a morning flight from Queen Alia International Airport. The short drive to the airport was  the quickest 20 miles I'd ever ridden!

Just as we were nearing the airport I saw a really highway sign that I wish I could have grabbed a photo of. It was one of those green signs that lists destinations and how far they are. In this case it listed Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia!! Unfortunately, by the time I noticed it, we were passing it too fast to get a decent shot.

We arrived at the airport in what seemed like plenty of time to catch our flight. That was until we got in the door and saw the departure lines. Absolutely insane!!

It took forever just to move a few feet. Then we sat in line for a while. Finally we reached an inspection table. They went through my camera gear and didn't question anything except for all my loose AA batteries, which they confiscated. I tried to explain I needed them for my camera, and even showed them how to load the camera. But, that didn't seem to matter. At least they didn't take the batteries that were already inside the camera.

I thought we were done, only to find out this was a preliminary check. Like the TSA agent that takes your liquids and toothpaste here in the USA. (Though no pat down or machine that showed your underwear).

The line was even slower than the first because they needed to check through everything. Our plane was supposed to be taking off at that moment, and I had visions of us having to hang around the airport for another flight.

Apparently someone somewhere decided that since our group accounted for  28 of their passengers they'd hold the airplane until we completed customs and boarded. (Try getting that done in the USA!).

To expedite our clearing customs, they had one of their woman inspectors going through men's luggage. I felt really bad for her as mine was packed with all sorts of dirty smelly laundry which were going to wait for the wash at home, not to mention that it was packed tighter than a drum. On top of that, women normally only deal with women's luggage, and men with men's.

She went through the first layer of stuff, and then gave up, and left me pack it all up.

Once on board, we were ushered to our seats with some haste, and the plane quickly took off, sending us homeward bound.

After departing, Royal Jordanian goes around with a Duty Free listing of beer, wine, alcohol, and other things you can buy and get away with not paying taxes. I debated over and over before deciding to buy a sleek blue bottle of Jordanian Arak, an anise liquor.

The bad news is they only had one bottle on board, and it was already spoken for. The good news is that GC bought it! (She'd later share it at our trip reunion party. Was pretty good stuff).

The flight attendants must've hated our group. Not only did we delay them nearly an hour, but we kept playing seat roulette. I don't anyone actually sat in their assigned seat once the seat belt signs went off.

And I'd bet some of the other passengers were irked with us too. Within a short amount of time all the complimentary red wine had been consumed. Not to let that stop the fun, CB broke out a bottles she'd bought in Jerusalem, and an impromptu party started on the other side of the plane.

I was comfortable not moving around, since there was nobody sitting next to me for a change. A little while later CH came over and we chatted about the trip for nearly an hour. No particular reason, but this was the first time we'd really talked to each other for any amount of time. Just didn't happen, and I was glad she made the approach.

As it happened our flight path took us over southern Austria, which is where one of my grandmother was from. I swear that there thick cloud cover opened up just at the right time to see a city. Was it Klagenfurt? I tell myself it was, but I have absolutely no proof. The cloud layer came back just as fast as it had dissipated.

The rest of the flight mercifully passed, for the most part, while I was sleeping away.

International Customs, at JFK, went surprisingly fast for me. Perhaps five minutes at most. Not so much for my friend StL, who apparently shares a name with some guy on some Watch List. He said he gets hassled regularly when flying.

We said good-bye to RV and RC. RV lived in New York City so what pretty much home. She went around and gave each of us a great big hug before disappearing into the long terminal. RC was staying so she could visit with someone on the East Coast.

We had about five hours to kill before our domestic flight, and a few of us seriously considered catching the subway for a trip into Manhattan just so we could say we were there. However, a concierge quickly dissuaded us because Pope Benedict XVI was in town, giving a mass at Yankee Stadium later that day.

Normally, it's an hour each way to Manhattan. Then add time to look around, and we'd have been hard pressed to make our flight on a good day.

Not sure why, but on our return leg we flew American Airlines into Oakland International Airport, rather than SFO. DB had been feeling pretty bad and just after the plane left the ground you hear that unmistakable sound. Amazingly, the flight attendants let some others in our group get out of their seats and give her a hand with cleanup. Mind you this was done at something like a 400  angle during ascent.

On the flight back, SeL first sat next to me, then someone else switched with him, and then someone else, before they moved elsewhere, leaving the aisle seat empty. Someone might've developed a complex. I was just happy for the extra room.

Having learned a unique sitting position on the way to Jordan, I sat leaning my head into the seat back in front of me. It may not have looked comfortable, but it worked! The six hours weren't noticed.

Just after 11:30p we touch down in Oakland. Everyone was quiet, and said our good-byes. My sister was waiting for me when we arrived. I hung around a bit to make everyone got rides since BART turned into a pumpkin at Midnight.

A short 16 minute ride home, a brief hello to the dogs, and it was off to bed. Morning, and work, were going to come way too soon. Surprisingly, I really didn't have any jet lag when I got up.


Friday, April 18, 2008

Remembrances of the Holy Land (Petra)

PHOTO: Dave Kim

Today was going to be a really long day. Not only were we going to go all the from the Red Sea to Amman, we were also going to spend a good portion of the day exploring Petra, something I'd always wanted to visit ever since seeing Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

It was somewhat odd waking up in Jordan, after having spent so much time in Israel these past few days. Also odd was not hearing Doron's voice saying, "Hello" or his phone's crazy "Ding-a-ling-a-ling" ringtone from some comedian.

Our new guide was a much younger person, named Robert. He was friendly, and certainly sounded like he knew his stuff. He just didn't seem to have the forceful presence of Doron.

As we walked out of the hotel it was eerily quiet. More like a sleepy seaside village than the bustling vacation spot we witnessed last night.

A few miles out of town our driver pulled over  and we were told this would be a quick photo stop for those that wanted to get one last look at Aqaba.

From our observation point, the town was made of low level buildings all the way to the sea side, except for the hotels and small business district. The port easier to pick out now, compared to last night.

You could also see the much bigger Israeli town of Eilat, just across the water and If you squinted a bit you might've even made out Taba, Egypt. It's really a shame these three cities are so close together, yet have pretty much nothing to do with each other due to religious and political differences. 

We caught the Desert Highway just outside of town. This would be the road that took us all the way to Amman, except for the detour to reach Petra.

The roadway was amazing. Its quality could have been mistaken for a US Interstate highway, and cut through a rugged wadi. I have no idea what it's called, and I did have to wonder if this was the same path that Lawrence of Arabia took his Bedouin army through when they surprised the Turks during Arab Revolt of 1917.

After wandering through the meandering wadi, we come out into the desert. Miles and miles of sandy regions, with rock escarpments here and there.

Several of the group decided to have an impromptu musical jam session/sing-along towards the back of the bus. Not sure what the front of the bus was doing.

The farther north we got, the more undulating hills we started climbing. I'll never forget this big turn we took that allowed a broad view to the south. We also passed a small jeep/vehicle with what looked like a 50 caliber machine gun on the front hood, though I don't think it was military.

A couple of hours in, we branch off on the King's Highway, one of the other main north-south highways in Jordan, though comparing it with the Desert Highway would be like comparing the Pacific Coast Highway (CA-1) with Interstate 5. They both get you there, but it's nearly twice as long, time wise, and a lot more windy!!

At El-G we get even more windy going through Wadi Musa (Valley of Moses). The driver pulled over so Robert could point out Moses' Well, where he supposedly struck a rock to get water for the Israelites. We didn't get out.

Finally, Petra came into sight from a Vista Point parking spot. Close, but still far.

Petra was the capital of the ancient Nabataean kingdom, and probably one of the largest collections of ruins left from the empire. However, I'd bet most Americans are more familiar from seeing the Treasury Building in the Lucasfilm movie. Sad, but true.

What's the first thing we saw after getting off the bus? The Indiana Jones Snack Shop and Indiana Jones Gifts Shop. Mind you this was 19 years AFTER the film was released. At least there was a connection. I would have loved to have heard an explanation for the Titanic Snack Shop!!

Robert handed us two tickets, one for the entry into Petra and one for the horse ride. Yes, I said horse ride! Perhaps this might be a surprise to anyone reading this, but I'd have never ridden a horse up until this point in my life, and wasn't exactly sure what to think of the idea.

The Jordanian wranglers had set up a loading zone where you simply walked up and then climbed over the horse's back. No need to stepping up into stirrups. One by one we mounted our steeds. I was getting a little more psyched up, especially after I saw this gorgeous black horse with red tassel saddle.

Just as I'm about to head towards that queue, I hear a voice say, "Sir, over here. Jenny will take care of you." Jenny was an older grey horse, who looked like she'd seen better days. I could almost hear the grown from the poor horse when she saw me starting to slide my left leg over her back.

The experience turned out to not be so much of riding a horse, but more like sitting and holding on to the saddle handle while being led at an ultra slow pace. I was extremely happy when the ride turned out to be a few hundred yards. Jenny most certainly was.

As I dismounted onto the nearby rock fence, the wrangler immediately started hitting me up for a tip. Robert had told us that tips were included with the entry fee, and so we shouldn't give in. I was going to abide by that suggestion, despite his hounding me. Finally, I gave in after he told me poor Jenny needed money for her hay. I flipped him a US$1 and walked away.

We now headed through Al-Siq,the twisting narrow canyon that stretches between the horses and the main valley of ruins.

A strange factoid is that the walkway through the canyon is actually artificial. Over the years debris had washed into the canyon. Several years ago an effort was made to muck out the debris, and they paved the floor with concrete. This made walking a lot easier, though the ground was certainly  funny looking.

A word of warning to people walking. Keep a watchful eye for horse carriages, which are allowed through the Siq to the Treasury. The drivers seem to relish at racing each other through the area. At a few points there's very little extra room and you have to hug the walls to get out of harm's way.

I witnessed one carriage have to come to a screeching stop and I thought the horse was going to break his two front legs when he put the brakes on. RW and PW road a carriage and said it was an interesting experience at moments.

While winding through the Siq, Robert pointing out several wall carvings. Frankly, most of them were impossible to make out at first, and even after he pointed them out some were still not easily seen.

Al-Siq became really narrow and I started wondering when we'd get to the main show, when all of a sudden the top of the Treasury came into view through a slot! I was dumb founded. I had to ask myself, "Are you REALLY here???"

The Treasury was just the first real taste of the buildings carved out of solid rock. However, it's somewhat protected from the elements so I guess that's why it looks as crisp as it does. There were no FX used in Raiders III.

You could walk right up to the Treasury building. However, only the front room was open to tourists, with a rope blocking the way beyond. The rock patterns were absolutely fascinating. It almost looked like the grain of stained redwood or pine. So colorful.

A fair amount of people were congregating in the area taking pictures. Pictures of the building. Pictures of the camels. Pictures of other people. There were a couple of Jordanian park police on horseback looking bored.

Our group stayed around for about 15 minutes before it was time to continue down the main valley, known as the Street of Facades. I hadn't realized how many buildings Petra actually included. Not just the central valley, but in adjacent canyons, and higher on the hillsides. Some were quite run down due to weathering.

At one point, I stopped to look inside one of the tombs. It was pitch black, and I had no flashlight, so decided not to venture beyond the light of the doorway. DE came over and checked it out too.

What happened next was funny, and still puzzles me. A 30-something Jordanian guy came over to us. He was dressed like a tourist, with polo shirt and jeans. Not dusty like the local residents. He asked to take my photo. Not for me, but for him. He looked at DE and said, "you too." Not sure if he thought we represented typical American tourists, or what.

He snapped his shot, and was on his way, never asking us our names or where we were from. I looked at DE perplexed and wondered aloud about it,. She brushed it off with not much thought.

Further down the valley on the left was an amphitheater. I wish I hadn't chosen to just walk on by. It was carved from rock and has a capacity of nearly 10,000 seats.

Halfway to the end, the valley widened out in several directions. I was surprised to see a rustic-looking shop at this crossroads selling stuff.

About this point the hard-packed rocky soil made way to the Colonnade Street, a paved road which used to have columns on both sides. Unfortunately most of the columns are now gone. Walking on the flagstone pavement was hard on the knees due to the uneven stones (more so than the Roman Cardo in Sepphoris).

To avoid the jarring I switched to the sand that had built up on the sides. While it wasn't jarring, it was pretty tiring. Basically like walking down a dry beach. On top of that, I'd really planned on having my hiking boots for this, not my relatively flat sneakers.

At the end of the Colonnade Street is what's left of a tall arch. Robert said it was time for lunch, and I'm wondering what kind of food are they going to be serving here. Beyond the arch was, of all things, a Three Star quality restaurant!! It's called the Basin Restaurant, and is actually run by the Crowne Plaza Hotel chain.

Huge awnings were set up over tables if people wanted to sit outside. They had large grills set up on their veranda where all sorts of meat was cooking. The aroma wafted into the air the closer you got.

You paid for your food at the entrance. Inside chaffing trays were set up, buffet style, containing all sorts of meats, salads, and vegetarian options. Drinks were extra, but that's not unusual for most buffets. I think all of us sat inside. The idea of stuffing myself while in the Jordanian heat was just not appealing.

After filling up on way too much good food, the group was to congregate at The Girls' Temple, just through the arch, and to the right, off the Colonnade Street.

Here we had our final sermon of the trip. TS explained how there are beliefs that after society eventually falls, people will flock to Petra as a refuge.

A local kid came in hawking postcards, which seemed to be the racket most young kids did in the Middle East. He was very mindful and let our guide and pastor finish talking, including our concluding prayer. Because of that, Robert encouraged him and suggested we should all buy something since he was so good at waiting. I think the price was something like 5 Jordanian Dinars.

After eating such a large meal, and realizing that was our last sermon, it was hard to get moving back towards the Siq.

I took off first. Not because I was in a hurry to get back to the bus. But, because I figured most people would end up being faster than me. Sure enough, most had passed me by before I got to the end of the Colonnade Street.

We paused for a few minutes to soak in one last glimpse of the Treasury before entering Al-Siq.

Once through Al-Siq, we were back to the horse wranglers, who were negotiating with people on how much to pay. The going rate seemed to be 2 JD. One of them point blank told LL for her it was 3 JD because she was a big American. (Lord knows what he'd have tried to soak me for if I'd been there first!!). With that idiotic comment, he'd pretty much lost any business.

LL said she was going to walk. I wasn't looking forward to riding a horse again, so welcomed the walk. As we were walking, others in our group road by with much confidence. Apparently the horse wranglers (all young men) were only too happy to ride along with the American girls. LOL!

We can proudly say we almost made it back all the way without stopping; only stopping once!

I hit the Indiana Jones Gift Shop before the bus, but ended up only buying a book on the exploration of Petra, which I think is still in plastic wrap!

Later, on the bus I noticed one of the girls bought one of those clothing pieces with all the little metal disks that make a noise when a person danced. I asked GC if they knew how much the "shaky shaky thing cost" since I couldn't come up with the right name. Her only answer was "Uh Oh!!!" (whatever that meant), and I dropped it after that.

We finished loading up the bus after everyone was finished with their souvenir shopping and headed back through Wadi Musa, then to the north along  some winding roads before hitting the Desert Highway once again.

Once we were back on the main drag, it was open mic time for people who wanted to share thoughts about their experiences on the trip. Many people ended up crying a bit as they spoke.

I chose not to share. Not so much as I didn't have anything to say, but because a funk was setting in as I it was really sinking in that this was the end of our trip. By that time tomorrow we'd be 38,000 feet above Europe somewhere.

Halfway between Petra and Amman we stopped at a nice rest stop to grab snacks and drinks, and to use the facilities if necessary. It reminded me of the stops on the East Coast toll roads with gasoline pumps and shops selling things so you wouldn't have to exit the rollway. I also noted that they were actually cleaner than many of the rest stops I'd seen in the western US.

By the time we got to the hotel (the Golden Tulip Grand Palace again), everyone seemed to be pretty tired and checked into our rooms so that was it for me that night.

I found out afterwards that many had stayed up really late, drinking and chatting in Trader Vic's bar, located in the Regency Palace Hotel, next door.


Thursday, April 17, 2008

Remembrances of the Holy Land (Dead Sea)


Today we were to leave our second home away from home on this trip. While I still think I enjoyed living in the Galilee more, the hustle and bustle of Jerusalem had grown on me. There were just so many sites left unseen.

Morning came. Breakfast was a bit on the spartan side. Gone was the sumptuous international buffet with all sorts of offerings. With Passover starting this evening, the hotel had been cleaned from top to bottom to get rid of any non-kosher or leavened items.

Also gone today was Adi, and the big blue fish bus. Instead, we had a golden-colored bus which was a bit older, and not nearly as posh-looking. It took a little while to get used to it. Don't remember the driver's name.

We cut through an Hasidic neighborhood to the north before catching Highway 1. I tried catching some photos from the bus, but it was a wasted effort with the replacement camera smearing most anything that was just across the street.

As we climbed up over that last ridge, and the Old City passed from view, I started thinking about how most of our trip was behind us. One of the things that I was looking forward to was the next day's visit to Petra. However, it was still bittersweet to be leaving. Most Christians, and a fair amount of Jews, never set foot in the Holy Land, let alone Jerusalem. We'd been blessed with that experience.

Jerusalem is actually in the hills, as compared to most of Israel. In the Bible, it was traditional to say, "…going UP to Jerusalem" and we now found out why. We started losing altitude noticeably, passing through mostly rocky terrain, interrupted on occasion by the West Bank Barrier and new-looking settlements atop the hills.

Though we had entered the Jordan River Valley, it looked nothing like what we'd seen during our first few days. The area was very arid reminding me a lot of the western Mojave.

We came to a crossroads and headed South into the Dead Sea region. It's funny to think that we were now driving through the lowest point on Earth.

Being this close to the West Bank territories, the Israeli Army had set up checkpoints with huge stone blocks, alternating between lanes. This forced traffic to slow to a crawl before slowly snaking through the chicane, or possibly waved to a stop for inspection.

We finally got our first view of the Dead Sea. The aqua blue of the water absolutely glowed when compared to the pale yellow dirt and salt formations.

This area was pretty empty, lest for the occasional building. Then we came upon a concentration of nice-looking buildings on our right. This is the Qumran National Park Visitor's Center.

Qumran is where a boy, during a search for his wayward goat, discovered a bunch of clay jars inside caves. The clay jars turned out to hold part of what we now know as the Dead Sea Scrolls and this cave complex, as a whole, has turned out to be one of the most important findings for biblical era schools ever found.

We walked into the Visitor's Center, which looked extremely new. We wound through the museum looking at examples of the Scrolls, and Essenian life, before being ushered into a small theater where you leaned against the wall or railings for a relatively short video presentation.

Suddenly, a set of doors opened to our left, exposing us to harsh daylight with no warning. It is sooooo bright out. Bright blue sky with zero clouds. A dry wind whipping off the Dead Sea. Even with my glasses having two layers of tinting were not helping to fight the migraine that was coming on.

Besides the building there was a cactus with Hebrew graffiti carved into. It. Thinking it was cool-looking, I grabbed a few shots. PD shook his head, chastising the graffiti artist, or perhaps it was more of my wanting to take the pictures? Not exactly sure which it was.

A local interpretive guide took us on a reasonably long walk through the Qumran ruins. We weren't able to actually get close to any of the caves, as they were in the hills, and eroding badly.

I think the neatest things were the huge mikva'ot. Even in such an arid environment the priests went all out to build huge ritual baths, when in other circumstances they were no bigger than a microwave oven.

We spent some time in front of the Scriptorium where the guide explained about the hard life of the Essenes, as well as some alternative theories that Qumran really wasn't a community of scholars and priests. At this point, none of them really stick in my mind.

Doron told us this would be our last chance to buy any souvenirs in Israel, and highly recommended the Ahava cosmetic products that were World renowned. I really hadn't bought anything on the trip and figured I'd make a conscious effort to do so.

For my sister and a high school friend, I bought each some mud products and bath soaps. For myself, I chose a small bottle of Date Wine (A specialty of the region) and a replica Dead Sea Scroll jar.

Someone commented that this was the first time they actually saw me buy anything on the trip, and, for the most part, they were probably right.

Probably, the best purchase made by anyone in our group was CM's Shofar. Being a musician, it was a fitting purchase. It must've been somewhere around three feet long, and glistened in the light. The gift shop was set up to ship items, such as that, so the purchaser wouldn't have to drag it around on their trip.

Back on the road, we headed south. Sometimes the road was relatively close to the Dead Sea shoreline. Other times higher up on the ridge, allowing a commanding view for anyone sitting on the left side of the bus. What I found fascinating were the huge multi-colored circles along the shoreline.

These were mineral pools which will eventually lead to sinkholes, accentuated by the continued over dependence on Jordan River water for irrigation and the growing population. No wonder there were plenty of warning signs.

Sadly, the oasis at Ein Gedi was not on our itinerary. TS had talked it up in pre-trip meetings, but we were crunched for time due to our being on the cusp of Passover.

One of the things I'd noticed was that there was pretty much no industry along the Dead Sea. There's a land bridge which slices the basin into two water sections. Located around this shallow area are the unmistakable reddish brown evaporation ponds, along with machinery and buildings made decrepit looking before their time by the harsh saline environment.

Despite my disappointment of not seeing Ein Gedi, I was eagerly anticipating our next stop as we now pulled onto a side road to Masada, where nearly 1000 Jewish rebels killed themselves, rather than become enslaved by the 10th Roman Legion.

My first introduction with Masada was not from any history book or documentary. Rather, it was the 1981 ABC miniseries, staring Peter O'Toole.

Spending zero time at the newly built Masada Museum, we saw a short video on the siege before heading up the three minute cable car ride to the top. As the cable car climbed, you could look below and see those poor souls that decided to save US$11 so they could spend 90 minutes slogging up the Snake Path, used for nearly 2000 years.

We were deposited just below the summit. Off to the left was a metal walkway, suspended from the side of the cliff. The feet echoed as we walked across the open grid decking. Once through a building, the visitor is treated to the summit, which is essentially flat, with a slight slope to the east.

From the western rim you could look down and see the outlines of where some of the Roman Legion encamped while building their siege ramp. One could also easily make out the dirt ramp, which  people can use as an alternative access to the summit.

We saw one of the huge cisterns that collected water for the inhabitants. Without those, Masada wouldn't have been habitable. There was an overlook which allowed a view of Herod's 3-tiered fortress which sits on the north side like a like a captain's command console on a ship.

Some of us wanted to take the Palace Trail to get a better look. However, Doron said it would take too long (and it was a moot point as the area was going through renovation).

We started looping back through some of the buildings which have been stabilized for interpretive displays. The spa was pretty cool as you could see the under flooring where the heating elements were.

As we cut through a ruin we noticed a small flock of black birds perched on the rock work. The apparently sit around waiting for tourists to give them food. SeL and CH had some type of bread or chips and when they offered it up, the birds hopped on their outstretched hand with no hesitation at all.

Most people spend several hours to see Masada. It seemed like we were there for about an hour, at most.

While visiting the summit there was barely a breeze. But, as we neared the exit to catch the cable car a breeze kicked up, causing the Israeli flag to flap proudly in the wind. I was able to grab a great shot with the Dead Sea in the background.

When we got to the ramp RP asked me if I'd like him to take my picture. I hadn't really had my picture taken anywhere so told him yes. I wish I could say it was a good photo. However, my hair was all over the place, and my sunglasses were pitch black. Still, it was better than nothing, and I appreciated his asking.

WC and DK tried to talk Doron and TS into letting them run down the Snake Trail. But, that wasn't going to happen, so everyone took the cable car. At the bottom the driver pointed out a group of Ibex on top of a stone wall. I really missed my good camera and zoom as the 10x digital zoom on the Fuji camera turned out pretty anemic.

It was now time for a cliché - floating in the Dead Sea!

Because the water is so concentrated with salt, about the only thing you can do is float. The more you try to go under water, the faster your body bobs up to the surface, like a wine cork. And whatever you do DON'T open your eyes.

We stopped at the seaside resort of Ein Bokek. The resort is nothing more than a handful of hotels and shops which cater to the people who flock to the area to soak in the salty water, lounge under umbrellas on the shore, rinse and repeat.

Tour bus riders were allowed to use the changing rooms in one of the swim suit stores.

A lifeguard sat high up on a pole with a bunch of that white anti-burn paste on his nose, a sailors hat (like what Gilligan wore) and swim trunks. He skin was well tanned from being exposed, and I wondered how many days he could actually do that without earning himself an acute case of skin cancer.

All you had to do was walked into the water and when it was deep enough just lean back. No need to tread water, or even try to swim. It was as if you were laying on one of those soft foam mattresses where your body sinks in a bit and the foam conforms to your body.

The only swimming, if there was any, was all in slow motion. Signs on shore warned people against splashing. I guess DK got a little too active for the life guard's taste, and he started yelling at him loudly.

This was probably the hottest day of the entire trip. The air was thick with oxygen and the sun beat down on you.  Because of the No Splash rule, it was absolutely quiet, which magnified the desolation even more.

While standing, I reached down and grabbed a handful of the sea bottom assuming it was very white sand. It was salt…nothing but salt! No wonder the water was so clear.

Adjacent to where we were floating was an area marked off with big warning signs and floating buoys. As RP and I got closer we noticed a rotten egg smell and a slight bubbling. It must have been some type of underwater sulphur spring.

We could only stand it for 10-15 minutes before the salt started drying our skin out. Coming out of the water, there was an outside shower with three nozzles where people could rinse themselves off.

Once finished, we headed back to the changing room. Unbeknownst to us, the clerk had moved our belongings to a different changing room, and we were greeted with a shriek from a couple of 50-something Israeli women. We apologized and beat a hasty retreat. Only then did the clerk tell us where our belongings were.

After changing we had some time to walk around the little mini-mall. I guessed this place had a lot of Soviet Jews because there were quite a bit of signs in Cyrillic. I feebly tried talking with someone in Russian, but all I accomplished was a bit of embarrassment.

Arriving back at the bus, we found out that DK has managed to cut the sole of his foot somehow. My suggestion that he go stick it in the anti-septic salt water of the Dead Sea didn't go over well. But then judging by the way my clean shaven neck felt when submersed, I could understand.

Sadly, it was time for one of our little family to leave us. ED was staying longer in Israel to visit with a friend she knew from back in the USA. We waited as long as we could. However, she was going to have to wait a couple more hours for a bus going back the other direction.

For the next 2.5+ hours everyone was pretty quiet. The roadway had long left any indication of a waterway, spent the first part of that time following dry wadis, never really gaining much altitude.

The farther south we drove, it started to straighten out as the terrain flattened into a large plain, with the mountains of Jordan coming closer. More and more blocky parcels of palm tree groves popped up, the manicured looking ones with netting to keep birds out.

At some point you could start to make out truck traffic on Jordan's Dead Sea Highway. It seemed funny to have two highways paralleling each other so closely. Sort of like Highway 99 and Interstate 5 through California's Central Valley.

As we neared the end of our time in Israel, Doron got on the intercom. He gave a little speech about how much he'd really enjoyed guiding our group. Once he finished with the group announcement he went person by person to give us all a personal good-bye.

Sitting in the last row of the bus, I was the last person he came to. With a firm shake of his hand, he told me how much I "inspired" him. I'm not exactly sure what I did that caused the inspiration, but I was really honored hearing him say that.

We now reached the Wadi Araba Border Crossing; the southernmost between Israel and Jordan. The driver pulled into a parking lot at the end of the road, and quickly unloaded our baggage. Doron told everyone they were going to immediately leave so the bus driver could get back to his family by sundown. Not only was this Sabbath, it was Passover.

Unlike the first border crossing which was a short walk, this one must've been nearly 200 yards. At least that's what it felt like since the wheels on my big suitcase were all trashed, and the cloth handle kept slipping off its fasteners.

At the Jordanian side we were once again greeted by the a big smiling photo of King Abdullah II which seemed to grace most governmental buildings. There were two guard stations. I decided to try saying "Salam O Alaikum" to the first inspector. Maybe it was my pronunciation or the fact it was twilight, but he looked at me funny and just said, "Hi."

Moving on to the second guard I just said, "Salam" which seemed to be accepted. It was here that our luggage would be searched yet again, and it seemed like it took forever.

While we were waiting for our bags to be prodded through, there  were a couple of garish gift shops to occupy our time. Some of the girls were enamored with some Arabic pop song playing loudly from one of the open front shops. I noticed a little all-white kitten that was extremely friendly. He kept trying to jump on my luggage as is to say, "Don't you want to take me home with you?" (Not sure what Jake and Sally would have thought about another house guest).

Inspections finally finished, we threw our luggage on a bus and headed into Aqaba. Even though Eilat, Israel was a much bigger city, we were staying on the  Jordan side of the border.

TS said the biggest reason being that accommodations would have cost five times as much in Israel. Certainly an added benefit was that it put the border crossing delays behind us as the next day was going to be a long one, with visiting Petra before driving all the way to Amman.

Our motel for the night was the Aqaba Gulf Hotel. I wish I could say that it was very memorable. However, I really can't. That is, unless you count the information sheet in the bathroom which was printed in something like five or six different languages. I'd never seen German on them before. They did have a Rum Bar. However, it had limited hours, and wasn't open when we checked in.

We had no formal plans for the evening in Aqaba. StL and I decided to take a walk a over by the beach area. I expected to walk up and dip my toes in the Gulf waters on an quiet beach. It couldn't have been further from the truth!

Despite it being far into the evening, the beach was absolutely packed with families. Women and girls were modestly attired in Hijab and Abaya. Had they been wearing normal swimwear, you might have confused it for Mexico.

A long paved walkway paralleled the beach and was loaded with stands selling food and souvenirs. We walked for awhile until there was a break in the vendors, with allowed access to another walkway.

StL decided to head back. I kept walking to see just how far it went. A slightly uneasy feeling came over me a couple minutes later when I realized I was without anyone else in the group. But, it quickly diminished. The place was like a busy Saturday night back home and everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves, too busy to worry about the American walking alone.

I finally came to the end of the walk. There was a guy with one of those portable backpacks that serve hot coffee. I wanted to take a photo, but couldn't work up the nerve to. (Photographing people is not my favorite subject).

Three others from the trip happened to end up here too and we walked back through the closest streets of the city where there were shops open even at this time of night.

Next to our hotel was a large souvenir shop. It might have been affiliated. Not sure. They had traditional Arabic clothing, instruments and those curved Janbiya daggers you see in movies.

RV was in negotiation with the clerk over one of those traditional Bedouin sashes which have the metal disks that make noise when they dance. (don't know the name). I left her to try and work him down from whatever high price he tried to get for it. (She ended going without).

I ran into a couple others. However, it seemed like nobody was going to go out for a walk again, so I decided to call it a night. Walking past the hotel's Rum Bar, I momentarily thought about grabbing a drink. But, changed my mind.

As it turned out, a big group went over to the water front. Had I known, I would have tagged along.

I, honestly, wouldn't mind visiting Aqaba again. With the exception of the brief concern I felt when first alone, it had a wonderful festive atmosphere. Just families enjoying themselves.


Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Remembrances of the Holy Land (Tel Aviv)

statuePHOTO: Dave Kim

We took a right as we exited the Old City through the Dung Gate. To our right were the high ramparts of the Old City, while on the left were houses and apartments in the surrounding Arabic neighborhood, interspersed with views across the Kidron Valley.

I stop at calling it a slum, as it was nowhere near as bad as anything I'd seen pictures of from Cape Town or Rio. However, the neighborhood might've already seen its better days. Draped on the iron railing of one two-story house was a sign, in English, which exclaimed, "Another excavation means another neighborhood gone" referring to the recent excavations going on there within the previous few years.

Despite it being 2008, excavations were still in their infancy at the City of David location. A few months prior to our visit, archeologists uncovered many promising ruins in the area believed to be from King David's time. There were several walkways and stairwells which afforded us a close look as crews were still working the location.

Doron asked that nobody take photos at this time because the lead archeologist had not yet published their findings.

Adjacent to the City of David, is the Beit Hatzofeh lookout, which allowed us a great view of the Kidron Valley.

Group members needed to choose one of two tunnel options to tour. The adventurous people chose to explore Hezekiah's Tunnel, a 1750 foot long water route built in 701BC by King Hezekiah to provide a water supply in the face of impending attack. This tunnel was hewn from solid rock, and is quite narrow in points, short in others, and you're guaranteed of getting your feet wet because there's always water running through it, sometimes quite high.

The less adventurous could choose the Canaanite Tunnel, which is much shorter, and more importantly for some, completely dry.

As I'd heard about Hezekiah's Tunnel a year before the trip, there was little question which one I'd choose. About 10 of us went for Hezekiah's Tunnel, with the rest choosing to stay dry. Doing neither was not an option, to the dismay of anyone who may have been claustrophobic.

We all walked as one group down a set of steel stairwells before splitting into the two parties. When we got to where it was time to get our feet wet I was towards the back of the pack. I could hear the people up front screeching as they set food in the water, exclaiming how cold it was.

I was about ready to step in when TG came out of the tunnel. He was a couple inches taller than my  6'3". Apparently, he got 10 feet into the tunnel before whacking his head pretty good. Not wanting to tempt fate he decided to switch and take the dry route, with its more ample headroom.

The water came up to just above my ankles. I was wearing Teva sandals, so my skin was fully exposed to the water. It was actually very exhilarating.

There's no lighting in the tunnel so they gave you a little disposable light when buying your ticket. They claimed they were enough light to experience the tunnel. However, they gave off only a small amount of light. Some people brought flashlights.

You basically had to keep going as there no places to stop, nor wide enough to allow anyone to pass by. Because of this we completed the walk in about two-thirds of the normal time estimate. It didn't help there was a group of young Israeli teenagers immediately behind our group, pushing the pace.

Height and width of the tunnel varied. Upon first entering, the ceiling height is short, though the width is reasonable. Towards the last part the height is quite high, but there were a few points where my girth caused me to turn sideways to continue moving forward. At no point did I feel I'd get stuck, but it certainly became interesting at times.

All along, there was a constant din of water being sloshed around by thrashing feet. This, coupled with heightened voices, made it quite loud at points.

We finally exited the tunnel to the lower Pool of Siloam, where Jesus cured the blind man.

At the top of the adjacent stone stairs was a well-placed souvenir stand. They had was a bright t-shirt that said, "I survived Hezekiah's Tunnel." Despite not having a size that fit well, I had to get one!

So was it wet? Yes. However, I was disappointed because it never got more than halfway up my calf and I'd seen pictures where it got waist deep on occasion.

We next came to an awning covering what looked like one side of a stone pool. For quite some time many people considered this the actual Pol of Siloam.

TS gave a sermon about Jesus and the Blind Man, while Doron covered the historical and archeological aspects. Additionally, there was someone who was selling antique coins which looked more like little flecks of pitted carbon steel than actual money.

Doron took us into an adjacent area where they had excavated a set of sewers. He told us about how Jews had escaped the Romans by crawling through the sewers. He added that they found animal bones which helped to confirm the dating.

Naively, I asked whether they'd found any human remains during their digs to which he quickly said, "That is a question we don't ask." Per Orthodox Jewish customs, it's against the rules to disturb human remains and so if any were discovered the excavation would be immediately stopped while a rabbinical staff came in to investigate.

From the low point of the Kidron Valley and the Pool of Siloam, we returned to our bus to head over to the Mount of Olives Overlook which provides the quintessential view of the Temple Mount and Old City.

We were greeted by a camel sitting at the lookout, which really looked out of place. Apparently the handler hangs out all the time in case people want to be photographed sitting on the camel in front of Jerusalem. MG and CG were photographed together, and then DK took his turn.

The last time ReGeneration Church went on pilgrimage to Israel, the group had nearly 40 people. We had 28 this time, and filled up the lookout quite well. The larger group must've been overwhelming.

We stopped in the German Colony for lunch, a Jerusalem neighborhood which had lots of shops and touristy looking things. After walking around several blocks several of us sought out the nearest shawarma shop to where the bus was parked.

The place was not nearly as fancy as some shops we'd seen, but was very busy and we were able to get tables together in the back.

Interestingly, he used a clean utility knife to cut open the edge of the pita before stuffing it with the sandwich content. Not the tool of choice here in the USA. But it worked!

Before leaving Jerusalem, we'd have the opportunity to see the Coast.

Where Jerusalem is the spiritual center of Israel, Tel Aviv is the cultural and economic center. Many international corporations have offices in Tel Aviv.

Adi parked the bus down along the waterfront. We were told we'd have a couple of hours to go swimming or sight see. Most people immediately headed down to the beach.

I had been resolved to not being able to take anymore photographs on the trip since my camera started malfunctioning in Jerusalem. It was actually a relief not having to carry around all that bulky gear. However, I'd also started getting disappointed that I wouldn't be able to capture anything over at Petra.

With that thought in mind I asked Doron if he knew of any good camera shops in Tel Aviv. He called his daughter, who happened to be a photographer. She recommended one several blocks away. I headed down the street in the direction he said to go.

About half way there I found a different shop. I spotted a used Canon 10D available. The advantage of this would be that I could use all my lenses I'd brought with me. (Ironically, I had a Canon 10D at home. However, at the last second I decided to save some weight and unpacked the body, which would have been a spare.)

Though it was way more than I wanted to spend, I seriously considered it. However, the owner hadn't provided the power supply to charge the batteries. The shop owner called the seller up to see if they were available. However, had to leave a voice mail. Since there was no guarantee the owner would call back, or even had the missing stuff, I reluctantly passed.

I finally reached the original destination. I suppose this place is a wonderful place for someone who either works in Tel Aviv, or is visiting for several days. Unfortunately for me they pretty much have to order everything. I'd be in Jordan by the time anything arrived so it was a worthless venture. So it was now back to the original place.

The used seller hadn't called back yet. On a spur of the moment I decided to go ahead and buy a Point-and-Click consumer camera, figuring any camera is better than none. After looking at several models I ended up buying a Fujifilm Finepix A805.

Feeling a bit of pity, the owner gave me a deal on the Fuji, and even threw in a camera case, batteries and a small SD card. It was funny to see that it had an option for Hebrew in the display settings. Not something you normally see in the USA.

Despite all the running around, I still had time to take a dip in Mediterranean Sea. I was lucky enough to see DK's mother, who was not swimming, and she agreed to watch my new camera.

The Israeli's have built a long line of break walls about 100 yards out from the beach. This allowed for some pretty calm places to wade. The water was actually quite warm compared to what we're used to here in Northern California.

I wandered around the shallow until I ran into some people coming in from the break walls. Not sure if they were supposed to go out there, but a whole bunch had, and apparently you could walk nearly all the way out without leaving your feet.

About three-quarters of the way there I changed my mind because I didn't know if anyone was still out there, and I was getting worried about getting back to the bus in time.

As it turned out, I got back in plenty of time. I actually got on the bus before anyone so took the liberty of drawing the back curtains and changing from my wet suit back into my street clothes.

Little by little, the remainder of the group straggled in. This allowed CB and I to grab a cup of coffee in a shop adjacent to where the bus was parked. This backfired as the line was a lot slower than we though, and now everyone was waiting on us.

Next we drove to the southern Tel Aviv suburb of Jaffa, where Jonah set sail as he tried to escape God's commands.

Jaffa was badly damaged in 1973's Yom Kippur War and so many of its buildings have been rebuilt in the last 30 years. (If you have Netflix you can rent Kazablan, an Israeli musical based on Romeo and Juliet. It was filmed in Jaffa only a year after the war so much of the devastation was still visible).

Doron and TS chose Old Jaffa's Abrasha Park for the site of our next sermon. At the top of the hill one had a commanding view of the Tel Aviv skyline. We congregated at a paved area next to the Statue of Faith, a monument carved with three Old Testament stories (the sacrifice of Isaac, Jacob's dream and conquest of Jericho.)

This was another one of those special moments when TS was giving his sermon. Some people almost looked as if they were embraced with a spiritual glow.

On the way back to the bus we noticed a young Israeli couple having their wedding photos taken. Doron explained that this area of Old Jaffa is a popular place to do that.

We ended our evening on the Mediterranean by eating at a sea food restaurant, who's name I've now forgotten.

They sat us along a long table by the window, an equal number of people on each side. Unfortunately, those of us along the window weren't able to move around much, so couldn't converse with everyone in the group. Doron's wife joined us for dinner tonight.

I can't remember all the courses, but there were several, and the food was really good and I think everyone went away happy.

Once dinner was finished we headed straight back to Jerusalem. I'm sure others probably went out on the town. I decided to try and catch the latest Sharks' game. While I did connect fine, I once again missed most of the game. The exercise of trying to keep up with the Sharks was pretty much a waste, and I'd have been better off seeing if anyone was going out.


Remembrances of the Holy Land (The Kotel)

PHOTO: Dave Kim

Today would mark our last full day in Jerusalem. On the elevator ride down an older couple made eye contact with me. Rather than saying "Good Morning" it was "Guten Tag" which reminded me how much this was an International hotel. I nodded acknowledgement as they kept softly speaking in German.

When we reached the lobby I wished I'd tried my very limited German by asking them from where they came and telling them my grandmother was from Klagenfurt, in southern Austria.

We started out by going to the Western Wall (The Kotel in Hebrew), the most holiest site in all of Judaism. Gone were the long lines to get through the two inspection points we experienced two days earlier.

The main courtyard area is divided into four parts. There are two main prayer areas immediately in front of the Wall, separated by men and women. A common area runs the full length behind the prayer areas, separated by a three foot high way. Finally, there's the museum area below several arches to the far left, also cordoned off by a small wall.

We would be visiting the underground tunnels first because groups needed to schedule by reservation. While waiting for our time we had to opportunity to use the restrooms and freshen up.

As we gathered by the entry doors the museum person checked his reservation list. However, he said there was another group booked for our time. Needless to say Doron wasn't very pleased as it had been booked months before.

After they sorted things out they allowed us in. Upon entering there was a long passage way heading off to the right below the arches which were visible from the outside. Nearing the end of the corridor Doron stopped to make sure everyone was with our group. Where was SH?

Apparently not everyone heard the call for our group, but nobody noticed until we' entered the tunnels. Doron told us to wait here while he went to check, saying they'd had people get lost wandering the tunnels.

All accounted for, we continued further into the tunnels to a model of the Temple. An elevated gallery provided seating while Doron gave us a tour of what the old temple may have looked like. It was really cool because he could change the look of the model with a flick of some switches so that specific parts were highlighted.

We next stopped at a huge stone. Doron had me go to the far right side and indicate with my hand where the seam was. He then had RV do so on the far left side, so the group could see just how big it really was (44 feet long, weighing 570 tons).

After walking along the Wall we made a small zigzag, only to be surprised by the sight of several older women praying against the Wall. Doron said that the women had permission to come and go to this point, and some consider it the best place to pray as it was the closest you could get to the inner sanctum of the sanctuary.

Part of me would have loved to have taken photos of the women in prayer because it was such a unique sight. However, it's one of those things I would have thought about because I wouldn't want to intrude on the moment.

Continuing on, we stopped by Warren's Shaft, which had a glass plate, a person could look down. It basically revealed older stones from the collapsed parts of the Wall, knocked down by the Romans.

Doron told the men we had to wait here, taking the women down and around a corner.

After they came back I asked CG what was going on down there? Apparently, it was a women's gallery, close to the Western Wall. What was strange is it was blocked off from the men's section with glass, though she said you could see the men in prayer.

We now wandered through the narrow tunnels that were dug next to the Wall. Wooden scaffolding was above and to our left, holding back dirt to allow for this walkway. I felt sorry for anyone even a small bit claustrophobic.

Part of old Herodian Road was uncovered during the excavations, including a couple tall columns. Doron pointed out this would definitely have been one of the roads at the time of Jesus.

The last part of our underground experience came as we wandered through an old aqueduct, before finishing up at the Struthion Pool once again.

Rather than retrace our steps underground, we now wandered through the Old City, taking the Via Dolorosa and other alleyways. At one corner there was an older Arabic women with boxes and boxes of fresh vegetables. Sure wish my camera had been working at that point.

One of the funnier sites were a group of Arabic women, in their full black Abaya, having an animated conversation while looking at a vendor selling women's lingerie. They didn't sound like they were upset about it. It was more along the lines of how impressed they were. Really funny.

After several alleyways, vacant except for Palestinian graffiti, we came to the security station we'd seen when coming off the Temple Mount. Passing through deposited us back in the Western Wall courtyard.

TS said we would have ten minutes if any of us wanted to say a prayer at the Wall. We went to our respective side of the prayer courtyard. Despite having over two-thirds of the space, the men's side was fairly spartan of prayer goers when we were there.

Some men were standing by the Wall with those small leather boxes tied to their heads and/or long leather straps wound around their forearms. These are called Phylacteries and the boxes contain little papers inscribed with Torah verses. For some, finely ordained yarmulke coverings on the crown of their head were not enough. They also employed prayer shawls. Some had their face's visible. Some completely draped over.

With a leather bound Torah in front of them, they'd sway side to side quickly, or bow back and forth, while facing the Wall. Supposedly this blurs everything else around them so as to be more one with God.

Other men had set up chairs with huge copies of the Torah on lecterns, obviously planning on staying for quite awhile.

My search for a San Jose Sharks' yarmulke defeated, I had to dawn one of the one-size fits all paper ones the Western Heritage Foundation made available for people needing head covering. It didn't fit very wall, but served its purpose, though it blew off once, sending me scurrying to cover my naked head.

Several of us placed our hands on the Wall while saying prayers. Additionally, I had written a small note to tuck in the Wall. It was amazing to see how much paper was folded or wadded up and stuck in the cracks despite young rabbis being in the process of cleaning it out every year for the next week's Passover. (The notes are buried rather than simply incinerated).

Later on CB would say the women's side are fairly packed, and what was funny was that some of the women praying took a moment to grab chairs to put up against the dividing wall so they could peek over at the men's section. There were no men doing the same from our side. (Case of Forbidden Fruit again?)

Here, in the USA, we joke about the Fashion Police. There, in Israel, they are very real.

When visiting the Western Wall, women are to wear long pants or dresses which don't expose the knees, Shoulders and biceps should be covered, be it by shirt or scarf, and the head is kept covered at all times. ED and GC found out just how real the Fashion Police were as a short squat women, in military-like uniform, came over insisting they cover their shoulders.

They both adjusted their scarves. However, GC apparently didn't do a good enough job for this woman's taste, who felt it was her job to actually start grabbing GC's scarf and adjust it for her, all the while being very verbally tenacious.

Understandably, GC got annoyed by all this pawing. The crazy thing is we were all standing in the common area far away from the actual courtyard prayer sections. We left before the woman could return and chastise anyone else.

(Ironically, in 2009  a woman was arrested when she went to pray at the Wall wearing a traditional prayer shawl, and reading from the Torah, actions forbidden to women by ultra ultraorthodox Jews, especially in Israel.)

On a way back to the bus I had another whimsical observation. I'm sure most people are aware that military service is compulsory for all Jewish Israelis once they turn 18, no matter whether they're men or women. (Muslims and Christian Arabs are exempt). There was a squad of girls, probably not more than 18-years-old, standing by.

They were dressed in full military combat uniforms, carrying pistols and on their hips, or with Galil assault rifles slung over backs. If you took the military hardware away, and dressed them normally, you couldn't tell them from any normal high school cheerleaders, purely based on all the makeup they were wearing.


Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Remembrances of the Holy Land (J-Town II)

PHOTO: Dave Kim

We arrived in the hotel foyer this morning, only to be greeted by signs indicating the main ballroom was still closed, and pointing us to a different alternate location for breakfast.

Before heading over I peeked in the main room wondering why it would still be closed hours later. It was an absolute disaster area. Tables all over the place. Garbage bins brimming with full green plastic trash bags. Some busted stuff on the floor. (So this was the aftermath of a traditional Jewish wedding? Wow!!).

The layout of the new alternate place leaved a lot to be desired. Lines snaked amongst round tables, and moved at a snail's pace. As it was a buffet you were allowed to go back for as much as you wanted. But, with the lines as bad as they were, it would just burn a lot of time to do so.

Additionally, they labeled the soda machines with a sign saying, "Do not fill your water bottles." Strange considering I hadn't seen many people doing that previously, nor were they running out any time soon.

Breakfast complete we headed to our first stop (Mount Zion) to visit the site commemorating where Jesus held the Last Supper with his Disciples. Doron pointed out that we really don't know where it actually took place as all of these buildings were built long after the time of Christ.

Located nearby, was the Abbey of the Dormition. It was paid for by Kaiser Wilhelm II, and reminds me of pictures of the big abbeys that are in the Rhine River country.

Doron lead us to a spot on the roof with a gorgeous view of the church and parts of Jerusalem. Doron surprised us with little wooden Communion cups carved from olive wood, which we could all keep as souvenirs from our very own private celebration of Communion.

TS's sermon lasted quite some time, delving into Communion, and it's meaning. Throughout it all we basically had the roof top to ourselves. a small family came up, but when they noticed us taking Communion they were nice enough to leave the roof to us.

From Mount Zion we walked down along the Old City Wall passing ruins from the time of the Second Temple  destruction. You could actually still see black burn marks on the stones from all the fires.

Doron pointed out some vinous plants growing from the cracks between the blocks making up the city walls. He suggested these might have been the same material used for Jesus' crown of thorns.

We continued to drop into the Kidron Valley until we stopped in front of the Tomb of Absalom, one of three recognizable large tombs below the huge Mount of Olives Jewish. From here we could look further down into the lower part of the Kidron Valley. TS spoke about Jesus and walking through the Kidron Valley.

As TS was giving his talk, the tide was turned on our group, as a handful of Palestinian youngsters were watching us from a short distance. Once they noticed we'd noticed, they beat a hasty retreat back to the safety of their neighborhood.

I found it interesting how where we stood was pretty much rural-looking, with the major tombs and nearby olive groves, yet a bit to the south was a huge Arabic neighborhood in the Kidron Valley.

When I asked about actually walking through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, Doron said that wasn't in the plan.

(It's funny, but now every time I hear this son in church, I have visions of standing in front of Absalom's Tomb.)

Next we headed for the Garden of Gethsemane, an area of ancient olive trees surrounded by a huge rock wall and locked iron gate. We needed to wait a few minutes while someone found the key to unlock the gate.

Finding a quiet corner of the Garden, TS gave us a sermon about Jesus' last night. Mediterranean Olive Trees are some of the oldest living things on Earth, and some Arborists have suggested that many of these trees were likely around at the time of Jesus. I pondered which one he might have sat under his final night as Roman soldiers came to arrest him.

I also took an opportunity to look around at my fellow travelers. Some of them had almost a mesmerizing look to them. Perhaps they were also taking in the location, and what it meant?

We went next door to the Church of All Nations. In the courtyard there were remnants of an exceptionally ancient olive tree. The doors in front of the church are especially cool, being rot iron shapes of olive trees. There was some type of Roman Catholic service going on so we sat and listened.

On the way back to the bus we passed a stand selling leather goods. Though I was only morbidly curious I asked them about a camel skin belt. The vendor quoted a relatively cheap amount, but couldn't find the right length.

Next to him was a stand selling bottled water. I paid the guy for a 1 liter bottle because I needed something cold at this point. He dug in and found one deep in the ice saying, "Here's one for you." I didn't try to drink out of it till getting back on the bus, only then noticing the seal was broken.

I should have been concerned. But, the coolness of that bottle was fogging my judgment. Taking a big swig, it was readily apparent t This was a bottle that had been refilled with normal everyday tap water. Certainly OK to drink, but not filtered to clean up the taste.

Some people suggested going back to complain, but I told them it was too late since I'd already drank a third of it. Fortunately, I didn't get sick from it. I was one of several people drinking tap water since since the Galilee.

Just as the bus was about to pull off, the camel belt vendor came running up to the bus. He found the right length belt. I hadn't been that interested to begin with, and had lost any interest by this point, so politely told him, "Thank You, no." He wanted to continue to haggling, but gave him a firmer "No."

We finally pulled off with him still standing there, camel belt in hand.

From here we drove around the city and back to the heights of Mount Zion, and the Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu, reportedly the location of Chief Priest Caiaphas' House, and the prison where they kept Jesus.

In the strict sense of the word, this prison was nothing more than a pit carved into the bedrock. It could hold about 30-40 people at most. We had to wait our turn as there was a group of Italian pilgrims already down there. They were singing something, though I can't remember what now.

From above, there is a keyhole cut that allows you to view into the bottom.

Once the Italians cleared it was our turn. We climbed the stairs that have been put in to allow access for pilgrims. These were not present at the time of Jesus, and prisoners were lowered into the pit. Even the slightest bit of talking produced somewhat of an echo.

Another group showed up above us and so we made our way out of the pit. Unfortunately, the newer chapel part of the Ethiopian Church was not open for visitation. It was supposed to be absolutely stunning.

Going outside, we branched around the church and down some severally uneven and weathered steps. LL nearly fell, but I was at the right place at the right time to catch her. I'd nearly fallen as well, catching the toe of my shoe. Just in case, I offered a hand to those behind me. Fortunately, everyone traversed the steps without incident.

Now it was back into the Old City through the Zion Gate. We wandered past a couple of Yeshiva. On the way, I noticed a popsicle stand. When we got down to the main street level Doron and TS stopped our group for a second. ED and I asked if we could take a moment to some popsicles. Like giddy school children we hurried back upstairs.They were soooo good in the hot Jerusalem sun. Our lips were briefly stained orange, but we didn't care. They were cold.

We were given an hour to wonder around the Jewish Quarter. Doron suggested we keep together in small groups, and to be careful if we wander into the bazaar of shops because it was easy to get turned around and not find your way out. Adding he didn't want to waste time looking for us.

Some people chose to eat lunch at a falafel stand located near by. Some chose ice cream! Despite Doron's suggestion I ended up by myself, wandering through the bazaar of shops. I could see how someone could get lost.

The area had two or three parallel alleyways, with a perpendicular one allowing access to any of them. It was dark and smelled from the myriad of spice shops. I admired the shops from afar because I'd heard that once they sucker you in with an offer of free tea, you're there forever.

As I wandered farther, there were some shops baking pita on fiery ovens, using long handled paddles to pull them out. There's nothing like the aroma of fresh pita baking.

I kept to a plan of staying on the same path so that when it came time to go back I could easily trace my steps. At least that was the plan.

I walked for what seemed like forever, until the walkway came to an end and I had to either go left or right. I chose right and noticed the decidedly different flavor of the area. Then I saw a whole bunch of Arabic graffiti!! My walk had taken me all the way into the Muslim Quarter.

After my heart came back down out of my throat, I started retracing my steps. However, I cut to my left too soon, only to end up on an unfamiliar street.

Adlibbing, I took a right because I knew that's the way I'd have to end up eventually. This turned out to the the Cardo, one of the Roman roads which was uncovered during excavation.

This area was different. Gone were the rustic-looking shops of the bazaar, replaced with art displays and more expensive touristy kiosks. Abruptly I came to the end of the cleared part of the Cardo. Now what?!?!?!

I took another left to end up on a large walkway that had paralleled the Cardo. This was the right choice. A little further down I passed by DB, DE and RV, who were heading back towards the Cardo. I told them what I'd seen, but warned them how far I'd went without paying much attention.

With much happiness, I finally reached the group, who had been congregating at the falafel and ice cream stands.

After our leisure time, we wandered through the Old City, including along the Via Dolorosa. It was interesting to get the flavor of the city, even though this was pretty much from Crusader days, and more recent times.

We exited the Old City by way of the Damascus Gate. Damascus Gate is much more than an entry/exit point for the Old City. There were tons of shops set up within the walkway, and you have to take a round about circuit to get out.

While we were walking through the area, deep within the Muslim Quarter, I happened to notice that RP was wearing his yamaka today. Honestly, don't know whether he'd been wearing it all day, or not, but I mentioned to him we were in the Muslim Quarter now and how there weren't too many other people wearing a yamaka in that neck of the woods.

He thought about it, thanked me for mentioning it, and tucked it away for safe keeping.

At the Damascus Gate, Doron took us over to the entry to Zedekiah's Cave, an underground limestone quarry area that lays between the Damascus and Herod Gates. For whatever reason the gate was locked today with nobody in sight.

City traffic in Jerusalem is crazy when even compared to most major American cities. Doron's best advice was to follow mob mentality and cross together in one batch. It was slightly scary but it worked.

Safely across we continued down the Nablus Road eventually taking a right turn down a somewhat narrow street.

Here lain the Garden Tomb, a site some people believe to be the final resting spot of Jesus Christ after the crucifixion.

As opposed to a dusty old church, this area is planted with all sorts of gorgeous greenery. One of the caretakers greeted us and took us over to an area overlooking the local bus terminal parking. Overlooking the busy traffic was a rock they suggested was Golgotha, the rock that looks like a skull, and the biggest piece of evidence they're using to support this as being the tomb.

While the current rock formation certainly resembled a skull, it's unlikely it would have survived the elements intact for 2000 years.

The caretaker explains about the history of the Garden, and the association that oversees it. We had been used to Middle Eastern and Italian sounding people giving tours and lecturing. This guy is an older British gentleman with bright white hair and a very noticeable British accent.

Interestingly, he made the point that the Garden association does NOT say unequivocally that this IS the place where Jesus was laid to rest.

At this time I'm having my last, and worst, headache of the trip. If I could've plucked my eyeballs out and soaked them to get rid of the pain I would have done so gladly.

One the caretaker finished we went over to the actual tomb. It's a typical bench tomb of the era hewn out of stone. There was the famous "He Has Risen" sign we've all seen in pictures.

It was now time to catch up with Adi, and the beautiful blue Fish bus, to ride back to the hotel. With plenty of light still TS suggested that if anyone wanted to be let out along the way back the would do so, and we could make our way back on our own. PD and WC were let off by Ben Yehuda Street in search of a coffee house to hang out in. I thought about joining them, but decided to stay with the bus.

This evening would be the final full night in Jerusalem so people decide it might be nice to go out and eat as a group, in stead of eating the same international fare at the hotel. Someone came up with three suggestions.

Most of the younger crowd ended up back down on Ben Yehuda to take SH out for pizza being that is was his birthday.

Some of us head over to another place. However, it turned out it was either out of business, or we had the wrong address.

Unfortunately BP and I had let our taxi go already as we walked around trying to find the missing restaurant. ED and someone else pulled pulled up in a different taxi. We caught them before they could face the same fate of being taxi-less. I called TS on the phone and he mentioned his group was headed over to another place.

BP and I pile into the other cab and we took a long ride over to 10 Agrippa Street. After being dropped off, I'd started to question just where this other place was when we see some TS, and he mentions it was down a side alley.

Frommers rated Arcadia Restaurant as the best restaurant all of Jerusalem. Honestly, I'd wanted to eat Middle Eastern cuisine, not French. However, I was tired with all the chasing around, and didn't feel like creating an option four from thin air.

We were greeted with a locked iron gate as they didn't actually open until 7p. After awhile someone showed up to let us in. Since we had 8-10 people in our group they pulled several tables together right inside the front door.

Groups were offered a Prix Fixe menu. Something like US$87. Though that was more than I cared to spend on one meal it was the last night we would eat out as a group in Jerusalem, and it's not like I'd been spending a lot of money on stuff anyways.

Can't honestly remember everything of what we had. It was a multi-course meal over several hours. I do remember we killed their entire supply of 2005 Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon, an absolutely astounding wine. We moved onto something else after that, which paled in comparison. (When we got back to the USA, I was able to score a case of that very same wine for someone in our group, and it was less than what we paid in Israel!!)

The taxi ride back to the hotel went pretty quick compared to the roundabout way we got there earlier, and three of us go away with paying a total of 20NIS.

Once back at the hotel, I decided to check out the mall again. Down an escalator from the lobby, Just as with previous nights, it was extremely busy.

I noticed an exit door I hadn't seen the night before. Turns out this was only a small part of the mall, with most of it in an adjacent building. Walking over to it, I experienced something new compared to American Malls, security guards with metal detectors, X-ray machines and assault rifles at arm's length.

This section reminded me of any of the typical malls built in the Bay Area during the 1970s or 1980s. It even had a cineplex showing titles which had been out in the USA for a few months already.

I was looking for a camera store. About two-thirds of the way to the end, there was one. Unfortunately, it was a typical mall camera store selling point-click cameras and supplies for the consumer.

Disappointed, I headed back, pondering what it might be like to catching one of the late shows at the cineplex (in Hebrew no doubt). As I wandered back, I passed by a couple of yarmulke stands. They were like those kiosk/carts you see in the middle of the mall walkways. Not full-blown stores, with one particular themed item for sale.

A quick once-over revealed a New York Rangers yarmulke!! It was cool. It was hockey-related. It was out of the ordinary. But the Rangers?!? I asked the guy if he had any San Jose Sharks ones, but he didn't.

I left the stand and headed back towards the hotel. Here I was greeted with another security guard going back into the hotel basement mall. It was a pain having to have him go through everything, but I understood.

Near the interior escalator I decided to go back and look at the yarmulke stands again in the bigger mall. I found a different one with all sorts of sports-related yarmulke; mostly European soccer franchises. Then I spotted a Dallas Cowboys one, followed by one from the Oakland Raiders!!!

I sat there contemplating it for several minutes. It wasn't a Sharks' one, but it was the Raiders. How cool would that be in Oakland? But, then I thought about it for too long.

It'd be great for visiting the Western Wall, but would I wear it ever again? Doubtful. as it's not like I've ever been to an Oakland synagogue, nor invited to any events at one. I gave up and called it a night.

At the other security station I started putting things down for inspection, but he just waived me as if so say, "You're fine. Go ahead." I guess he remembered me from only a few minutes earlier.