Friday, April 11, 2008

Remembrances of the Holy Land (Galilee)

PHOTO: Dave Kim

Long before the nation of Israel was founded 1948, they already had built a large amount of collectives where people would live and work together, mostly based on agriculture. These were known as the Kibbutz and I guess one might compare them to an American commune though not nearly as hippy-casual.

Starting in the 1970s many of the kibbutzim were converted from farms into neo-bed and breakfast facilities because there was more money in tourism. Though not as posh as a typical western hotel, they offered a unique lodging experience when visiting Israel.

Our home in the Galilee was Kibbutz HaOn. It had one large central building with office, spa and dining hall. Guests stayed in a whole slew of mustard yellow bungalows within easy walking distance. It had a private water front where you could swim as long as you stayed within the two adjacent jetties. (Of course, American tourists being American tourists, several of our party swam far out into the Sea of Galilee – including several hundred meter swim to a marker buoy).

Food was buffet-style, set up in a common dining room. It included typical Middle Eastern fare I'd come to expect (hummus, olives, pita, falafel, etc.) along with chafing trays full of hot options. I especially enjoyed the multiple pickled herring options available…even at breakfast time!! I LOVE HERRING and made sure to have plenty of it every day. Cold drinks were dispensed by machines similar to those found in a 7-11, and there were multiple pots of coffee.

Not wanting to repeat the previous morning's rushing, I set the alarm on my Blackberry 8830 for something like 6:30a. As I lay there in bed, there was a rap on the door by one of the kibbutz managers. I can still hear his thick Israeli accent, "Good morning….GOOD MORNING!! It's (whatever time it was)."

Sometime after 8am our permanent Israeli bus driver Adi showed up. Our bus was a lot more comfortable than either one we had the prior day. It was painted sea blue and decorated with all sorts of tropical fish, which made it easy to pick out at sites where it was common to see dozens of tourist buses.

We headed up the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee into the Golan Heights. This was a major area of fighting between Syria and Israel during 1967's Six Day War. Reminders of the war could still be seen along both sides of the road. Bullet-ridden buildings and tank carcasses, along with multi-lingual signs warning of mine fields just behind the road's edge.

Our first stop of the day was Katzrin, a reconstructed 1st Century AD village set up as a museum. It was pretty cool to walk amongst buildings, and not ruins, and it really gave us a good feeling of how things looked.

At the museum's synagogue they had a looking glass setup. When you looked though it, they had filled in the missing walls to give you a better idea of what the complete building might have looked like. Neat idea really, and it made me wonder why other places don't do that.

A short drive away was Banias (Caesar Philippi in Roman days). The Greeks believed that the god Pan lived deep inside a grotto there. There's also a nice water area which is marked as the headwaters of the Jordan River. Unfortunately, our tight schedule didn't allow us to explore the falls area, just above the grotto.

Right next door is Tel Dan Nature Reserve. As pure scenery goes this little area was one of my most favorite parts of the entire trip. Lush green foliage with rushing streams which I would have seen right at home in the Sierra foothills.

Historically, the city of Dan was where one of the judge's resided. In fact, the Judgement Seat is still there. Several trip members were photographed sitting there, as is apparently quite popular among tourists.

As we sat down to listen to one of TS's sermons we were told we might have to move quickly at a moment's notice, especially if we hear gun fire. Doron pointed in a northerly direction pointing out Lebanon. A few of us stood on the embankment and took a look.  You could see into some of the Lebanese valleys, which were thick with Hezbollah fighting back in the 1980s and 1990s.

We made a quick stop at an ATM machine in Kiryat Shmona. I only mention this because of this city's story. This city was pummeled by Katyusha rockets during the 1980s. As a result, most of the city is relatively new construction, built with concrete roofs to withstand rocket attacks. Fortunately, none have happened lately. After having mostly visited sites with older construction, this was a stark contrast.

It was also odd to use the ATM machine because, as I remember it, it was all in Hebrew!! I knew the approximate exchange rate (3.26NIS=1USD) so just chose something reasonable.

Israeli currency is interesting. When we talk about plastic money here in the USA, we're talking about credit cards or funny money, meaning it's fake or counterfeit. In Israel they'd started to manufacture money made from plastic because it lasts longer. (It was vertical instead of horizontal, which was also strange to look at).

I think by now most of us were looking forward to lunch. At least I was. We stopped at what I'd describe as a hole in the wall place just north of Ginosar, along the Galilean shore. There were lots of benches under hanging awnings, but we appeared to be the only visitors there. That is, unless you counted the myriad of cats that hung around waiting to mooch scraps of St. Peter's Fish.

The food wasn't anything I'd call spectacular, but it was a nice time because it allowed all of us to sit down together for a meal. We had a few minutes to kill so I went down to the shore to take some photos. There were some people running their horses through the shallows, which I found quite funny.

After lunch we stopped by the Yigal Allon Museum, where the Jesus Boat is on display.

Upon immediately entering the museum there was a huge gift shop with all sorts of things. Not just Christian-themed, but Judaica was well. We were allowed to spend quite amount of time winding up and down the aisles looking for things to take home.

I was drawn to a 4x6 cardboard box which held a cross carved out of olive wood, plus four small vials (incense, Olive Oil, Jordan River water and dirt from Bethlehem). Being the biggest practicing Catholic I knew, I planned to send it to a college friend's mother, who was as close as anything to being a mother when I was over 1000 miles from home. (Alas, but I never got around to sending it to her before she passed away, and keep it to remind me of that).

While in line, I also grabbed a green Celtic cross for my sister, which I thought she'd find beautiful.

I have to admit it, I was fighting back tears when I stood in front of that boat. It had been one of the things I'd really looked forward to seeing, and now it was right there in front of me.

For those not familiar with the story behind the Jesus Boat, it was discovered in the mud of the Sea of Galilee back in 1986. Archeologists put forth a major effort to save what was still there since it had been soaked with water for 2000 years, along with being exposed to damaging insect living in the mud.

While it can never be said that this is the boat which Jesus sailed on, what's a fascinating coincidence is that it's made up of 12 different types of wood, the same number as the Disciples.

Now came the highlight of the day, an actual cruise on the Sea of Galilee. The company running it has a funny habit of raising the national flag of any tour group that sails, and play their national anthem as well. So we were all treated to the Star Spangled Banner blaring out of a speaker as the Stars and Stripes were flying proudly above the Sea of Galilee.

Once our salute was completed you could hear God Save the Queen wafting across the Sea, as a nearby boat raised the Union Jack.

It was great to just kick back and take in the scenery. A few trip members recreated the DiCaprio/Winslet scene from Titanic on the bow, while others sat and talked. I decided to surprise my sister and call her. It was after 11pm back in the San Francisco Bay Area, so she was very surprised I was calling. She got a big jolt when I told her I was calling from a boat on the Sea of Galilee!

We'd had a pretty full day by the time we docked in Tiberias, so we piled on the bus to head back to the kibbutz. Doron said we should stop for coffee.

It's said that in the USA you can swing a cat and you'll hit a Starbucks. Pretty much the same can be said for Cafe Hillel and Aroma in Israel. Just before getting back to the kibbutz we stopped at the Aroma in Zemach Junction. This place was as busy as any Starbucks I've been in. They had some pretty good coffee so I ended buying a pack as a souvenir, which I rationed out for an occasional cup when I got home - finishing it only a few weeks ago.

I wanted to give my hand a try at some night time photography sometime on the trip. The previous night I'd noticed a clear view across the Sea of Galilee to Tiberias. This night I grabbed my camera gear and headed down to the left jetty. It was well maintained, and had a nice place to sit at the end.

While it was really easy to get to, the bright lights of the gable were causing problems. I climbed over the railing and tried setting up in the rocks down below. However, there was still too much light pollution to capture anything worthwhile.

I decided to try the other jetty, which was on the right side. It obviously wasn't being maintained on a regular basis. More importantly, there were no lights. I packed up everything and moved over. I thought I was walking into a jungle with all the unkempt foliage and overgrown palm trees, not to mention the mosquitos I was kicking up by making my way through.

After capturing a dozen shots, or so, I turned around to grab some of the kibbutz, and beat a retreat back to the safety of the well groomed shoreline.

There was a patio set up underneath the dining hall where people could sit. All the time I was out on in the jungle I could hear laughing and carrying on. Turns out it was a half dozen people from our group playing a game called Bananagrams, which GC had brought with her.

At one of the pre-trip meetings TS had told us all about the stereotype of the loud American Tourist. Basically, people from our country have a habit of speaking a lot louder than is normally needed.

When I got back to the patio I jokingly told them all I could hear them way out on the end of the jetty. It had been intended all in jest. However, it went over like a lead balloon.

CG told me I was certainly welcome to sit down and play. I guess I wasn't feeling like being social that night so I passed. I wish I had because all I ended up doing was going back to my bungalow for the night.


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