Friday, June 17, 2011

Our European trip part 4 - Israel

Arriving in Tel Aviv to a very empty airport (it was the Sabbath and also Passover week), we made our way to the Hertz counter to pick up our car. Yes, it’s a little unnerving to rent a car in Israel, but, we got a nice 6 passenger something-that-they-don’t-make-in-the-U.S. vehicle, with an obnoxiously large HERTZ sticker on the side (I guess they like to be able to identify tourist drivers easily). After a quick stop at a (kosher) McDonald’s for fries and ice cream cones (which I learned are NOT dairy, kind of weird), we made our way to the Moshav, near Jerusalem. The Moshav was where Drew had lived since the end of January for IBEX. It’s kind of like a summer camp type of place, rustic and hilly with dormitory areas as well as motel-type rooms for rent. They had a small store/gift shop, as well as a dining room where we had our breakfast each day. Our room at the Moshav was, in Emma’s words, “like a convalescent home room.” She was pretty much spot on, but it was fine and we didn’t spend much time there. In contrast to the mediocre room, was the breakfast spread they put out every morning - totally extravagant. It was a HUGE (kosher) buffet of probably a dozen different salads, hot dishes, fruit, yogurt, all kinds of cheeses, breads and a giant bowl of nutella (did they know I was coming?). Anyways, it really was beautiful. The only problem with it was that Americans aren’t generally conditioned to eating cucumber, tomato and feta salads and the like for breakfast. If you checked with me about noon, I’d be all over it, but not at 7:00 a.m. So, some bread, nutella, and Israeli coffee and I was good to go.


The Moshav. I wasn't expecting it to be so pretty.


Drew was so excited that Stephanie came to see his digs.

It was great to see where Drew lived and went to school, and he was eager to tour us around. Throughout our entire time in Israel, we never felt threatened, but that first night, we had a rather scary experience at an Arabic restaurant in nearby Abu Ghosh. Doesn’t Abu Ghosh just SOUND scary? Anyways, we went to get dinner at a place that was in our tour book and noted as “inexpensive,” but when we arrived we were given the “no prices listed” menu. Hmm. Well, being that the place was rated in our tour guide, coupled with the fact that it wasn’t a nice place by any stretch, we figured it must be reasonable and Drew said he wasn’t concerned. What we didn’t factor in was the fact that the staff was quite savvy in recognizing tourists and trying to gauge them. When we got our bill, it said 120 x 5 = 600 sheckels. Now, that is about 200 U.S. dollars or about $40/person! Outrageous! We only had about 200 sheckels on us and weren’t sure what to do. Drew was accustomed to how much things cost, and he was shocked. He went over to another party of diners to inquire with them if they thought we were being taken advantage of. They said yes, as they had asked about the price of the full dinner and the server told them 60 sheckels, half as much as they charged us. So, Drew went to speak with our server. The server went and got someone else, and more men appeared and were all discussing the situation in Arabic. It seems that they were realizing that we knew we were being ripped off, and it seemed to make them all very nervous and uncomfortable. To make a long story short, I don’t know what my son did, but he whittled our bill down to about $20 a person. We threw in all the sheckels we had and a U.S. $50 bill and fled as fast as we could. I won’t say it ruined our dinner, because it was REALLY good food (best falafel ever), but it sure made all of our stomachs turn with nervousness at the way our evening ended.

Sunday morning, Easter, we headed over to the Old City (Jerusalem). This was a fascinating experience. We parked the car, and first walked through an area with upscale modern shops (mostly American brands – I bought a shirt at GAP there), then right into the Old City entrance where people are selling bread on carts and probably nothing has changed since bible times.


The Gap - no different from the U.S., except that you have to go through metal detectors to go in.


And this, the old city, just yards away from the Gap. Crazy.

The Old City is divided into four quarters: Armenian, “Christian,” Jewish, and Muslim. We took a 2+ mile walk along the City Wall (it’s an attraction- you pay to do it), and were able to observe all the quarters from on high, as well as splendid views of the area including the Mount of Olives and Golgatha. While standing above the Muslim quarter, we were shocked to witness a funeral procession come right through the marketplace. We were immediately struck with the thought that we were not “in Kansas anymore.” We heard a commotion, thought there was a scuttle or a fight going on nearby, but then saw many men rushing through a gate carrying an open casket with a person inside wrapped in a fuzzy blanket. We were all stunned; but then came another, and another- three in all. The men were all shouting and rushing toward a cemetery nearby. We continued to watch and actually saw them slide one of the bodies into an open tomb! That was pretty much it – then they left. We were standing near some American Jews who lived in Israel and they explained that Muslims are required to bury their dead by sundown on the day that they die. So different from America. We don’t really deal with our dead personally – we have mortuaries. In Israel, and if you are Muslim, you don’t mess with mortuaries. You do it yourself. Really, really shocking to see this funeral – just right there amongst people selling goods in the marketplace. In America, you can't even bring a purse-dog into Starbucks, and here a dead body just mosies on by in the middle of the market. We were all speechless and stunned.


Funeral procession through the marketplace.

Walking through the Old City provided more “culture shock.” We seemed to be the only Americans around, and the girls and I were keenly aware that our jeans and t-shirts stood out as the ladies around us were pretty much covered head to toe. They were generally either Muslim or Orthodox, depending on what quarter we were in, and we felt very odd. Drew toured us all around, and we browsed at all the goods. He took us for wonderful schwerma at a place he visited on most Saturdays (yum).


Incense for sale.


When the vendors get bored, apparently they play backgammon.


These cute little boys offered to give us directions (and wanted money for it). Rich gave them a few coins and they escorted us to where we wanted to go!


The Mount of Olives - with the Garden of Gethsemane on the lower right. This view is from the City Wall.


Also on the city wall.


The amazing schwerma from Drew's favorite little food stand.

We also visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is the site believed that Jesus was crucified and placed in his tomb. Drew said his professors all concur that this was very likely the locale. Nowadays, it is a gaudy, gold-filled church full of ornate shrines and lit by candlelight, bustling with people wishing to identify with Jesus in a very misguided way. They place their faces and objects on the ground, hoping to come away holier. It was an interesting, but sad experience. Another sad experience was our visit to the Wailing Wall. You even have to go through a security checkpoint to get in. Note to self: don’t buy knives for your nephews in the old city and then go visit the wailing wall. The security guards were not pleased.


The church of the Holy Sepulchre.


This is the creepy shrine inside. The person bending over underneath the altar is touching the ground that Jesus was supposedly crucifed on. When they built the church, they left a little dirt patch there, and people stand in line to touch it.


This is thought to be Jesus' tomb.


The Western (Wailing) Wall. The futility of this made me incredibly sad.


An orthodox man at the Wall.

On Monday, Drew needed to return to classes, and we had arranged for a 3- day tour with Chris McKinny. Chris was recommended to us by a friend of a friend, and what a recommendation! He had been a professor at IBEX for some of the two years he was working on his Master’s degree in History and Geography of Israel at Hebrew University. Who better to take you around? He basically knew Israel like the back of his hand (he used no notes and had no markers in his bible) and beyond that, had an amazing grasp on ancient history and archaeology. He planned an itinerary for us that began Monday morning, included an overnight in Galilee Monday night, and concluded Wednesday evening. So on Monday, the five of us embarked in our aforementioned HERTZ branded rental vehicle, and off we went to see the beautiful country where our Lord walked. Monday we saw many sights and locations, ending up at a hotel in Tiberius (not the nicest place I've ever stayed). However, we went out to eat at a Chinese restaurant that Chris knew of on the Sea of Galilee, which was amazing! And so funny! The place was run by Chinese, the menu was in Hebrew, and the music they played was American (Am I really hearing "Dancing Queen" in Israel at a Chinese restaurant?). Love it!

I could go into great detail about all we saw and learned about as Chris filled our minds to the brim with interesting historical facts, but suffice it to say, we were blown away! I cannot describe to you what it felt like to stand on the place where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount, and read His very words from Scripture. How about visiting Caesarea and standing where Paul made his defense to Herod, or going to En Gedi and reading from 2 Samuel of how David hid in a cave there when Saul was pursuing him. Or seeing the cave that the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in? That is just a small sampling. It was just all so surreal and truly life changing, and as Chris said, “you see the bible in color.” We absolutely loved our time with Chris – he was a huge blessing and far exceeded any expectations we had for a personal tour guide. In addition, we got to spend an evening tagging along with Drew's IBEX class to the Israel museum which was amazing!

Here are a few pictures from our incredible time in Israel. First up are some shots from Caesarea, the city Herod the Great founded and where he created a harbor where there was none (a great feat). Pontius Pilate resided there, and the apostle Paul passed through many times in his missionary work. After his arrest in Jerusalem he was imprisoned here for 2 years. I didn't envision Paul having his prison cell right on the Mediterranean, he must have had a pretty rockin' view out his cell window.


Ruins from Herod the Great's palace. See the cool tile? In the back you can see the remains of his freshwater swimming pool. Caesarea was a fascinating place.


This is all that remains of the once great harbor from long ago. Kind of reminds me of Gilligan's Island now.


The Mediterranean Sea was pristine and deep blue.


This is one of the most interesting ancient sites we visited, Bet She'an.
Several excavations starting in the 1920s and forward revealed this ancient town. This is one of the most impressive Roman and Byzantine sites in all of Israel. What a thrill it must have been to unearth this city, once completely below the surface.


We also visited the small town of Capernaum. In Matthew 4 this is reported to be where Jesus lived.


He preached on this site at Capernaum, but what is there now is the ruins of a later synagogue.


Beautiful Emma on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.


And lovely Stephanie, too.


We took a fascinating trip up to Masada. You can hike or take an aerial tram. We opted for the tram! It was such a hot day. Masada was a city built on a 1300 ft. high cliff, by Herod the Great. It was extensively excavated in the 1960's.


The view from the top. Masada housed another of Herod's palaces. Much later, after Herod died some Jewish rebels took refuge here and later committed mass suicide on top of the cliff, when being sought by the Romans. The Romans built an embankment ramp over the period of about a year, and when they finally entered the fortress they found the 960 inhabitants dead. This is the story relayed by this historian Josephus.


Floating in the dead sea! You can only stay in for a few minutes as your skin starts to sting! I had a rash on my skin for about a month after going in.


The mud that is found in the Dead Sea is supposed to be very good for your skin (the company Ahava uses the minerals in their products). We rubbed some on and then rinsed off in the showers. See the person with a mud mask on the right?! People literally covered themselves from head to toe in the stuff - they looked like walking zombies.


One of my favorite Israel meals. Chris took us to this place, that served falafel, and once you received your sandwich, you were directed to a nearby room full of about 40 platters full of beautiful salads. You could take as much as you wanted! It was so pretty to look at, and delicious too.


The Israeli coffee chain, Aroma, puts Starbucks to shame. Just look at these beautiful beverages that we got on our morning in Galilee. I felt like I was in Italy with the croissants they served. And, each drink comes with a piece of dark chocolate...hello! How perfect is that? We also hit Aroma for lunch the next day - we had the best sandwiches on their homemade bread.

Well, that was really just a small snapshot of Israel, as we visited so many places. And after our 5 wonderful days in Israel, it was time to bid Drew farewell, but only for a short while as he was returning home one week after us. The four of us, Rich, myself, Emma & Stephanie boarded yet another plane and headed back to England, where we began our trip.

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