My Visit to the Holy Land
It’s Many Kinds of Toilets
And Complete Lack of Service I Encountered There
As my sister Pat continues in the foreign service, I continue going places I never considered going to. Having hit Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, and Hong Kong from Pat’s last tour, people are beginning to think I’m one of those Caucasians who want to be Asian and annoy real Asian people by practicing Buddhism, taking up the Dalai Lama and buying woks. Now, Pat has gone off to Tel-Aviv, Israel, and upon hearing that I was planning a trip to a war-zone for Christmas, people assume that I’m either really religious, or nuts. I assured everyone that I wasn’t going to midnight mass in Bethlehem (especially since it’s off limits to my sister as a govt. employee) and promised to stay off public buses (also easy since Pat as a govt. employee isn’t allowed to take public transportation).
WHAT YOU WON’T FIND IN ISRAEL
Good Shopping Malls
Public Trash Cans
Wednesday and Thursday, December 18th-19th, 2002
I took a late night flight on Continental to Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv on December 18th, and arrived around 4PM on December 19th. My in-flight movie choice was truly terrible. Including a selection of Dana Carvey’s MASTER OF DISGUISE, Vin Diesel’s XXX, some other horrible movie I’ve blocked from my mind, and the third Austin Powers which I’d already seen, I concentrated on my book, FAST FOOD NATION and fell asleep. The food was awful, but the seat next to me was empty and it was our pilot’s last flight before mandatory retirement at age 60. His family was on the plane and some friends, and the crew was giving testimonials over the address system, and then the pilot came on and made a little speech. Then, as we were disembarking, the pilot was shaking all the passenger’s hands. It was very friendly – that would soon end.
There is a joke (which is printed in the LONELY PLANET guide to Israel), which goes something like this. A Russian, an American and an Israeli see a sign at the grocery store saying, “We’re sorry, we have no groceries due to the shortage.” The Russian says, “What are groceries?” The American says, “What’s a shortage?” And the Israeli says, “What’s sorry?”
Customs was relatively easy (though I switched lines since there were still 6 people in my line, and no waiting at every other line) and my luggage was waiting for me as I came out. My sister was also waiting and took me to her illegally parked car (there are no real parking regulations in Israel as they forgot to build any parking lots, anywhere) and went back to the Opera Tower on the beach of Tel Aviv, 2 blocks from the American Embassy.
My sister’s rent is paid by the American Tax Payers, and you’ll be glad to know the American People’s money is being well spent. Her apartment is about three times the size of my New York two-bedroom. She has three bedrooms, three bathrooms (one she uses for storage), a balcony and a laundry room. Her bedroom is her panic room – you should see the locks. The toilets in my sister’s apartment have circular pushdown buttons that are easy to comprehend.
The first day I was pretty dead (I had flown with a slight cold). We went to the mall in Pat’s building for dinner. The mall features a sculpture of a naked woman lying on her side, and a man balancing himself on her breast with his lips, his arms and feet in the air. The same artist did two statues of naked accordion players on their heads outside the mall. Pat tells me that all of Israel is covered in odd sculpture and horrible shopping (unless you want to dress like Brittany Spears).
Then we went back to her apartment to watch TV.
Israeli TV is where terrible, failed American shows go to die. I bet you didn’t know that Billy Ray Cyrus of Achey-Breaky Heart fame stared in a show called DOC, where he played a folksy Montana doctor working in cynical New York. Well, not only does this show exist, but also I’ve seen it. I also saw Bob Saggett’s failed follow up to FULL HOUSE, and the cancelled TWO GUYS AND A GIRL. All the news is in Hebrew, but luckily we had the BBC to find out what’s going on in Israel. Also available was The Star World (which is also British) which has bought 3 concert specials, Marc Antony, Celine Dion, The Divas Las Vegas Concert and shows them in constant rotation. There seemed to be one Arabic channel showing one Egyptian soap opera - the plot consists of one guy is dying and a bunch of guys wearing fezzes stand around his bed. My sister gets 60 channels. If you have any old DVDs you don’t want, send them to her.
Friday, December 20th, 2002
I sleep the sleep of the dead and awake refreshed and ready to hit Tel Aviv. The sky is gray, the Mediterranean is stormy, and there’s a statue of a penguin standing on its head visible from the apartment. Pat has to buy some baked goods for the Embassy Stairwell party so we stop off in a bakery and I am stunned to discover that people in Israel really do speak Hebrew, and a lot of them do not speak English. You’ve got to remember that 60 years ago, Hebrew was a dead language. It was the province of scholars and about as relevant to everyday life as Latin or Ancient Sumerian. In roughly 60 years 6,000,000 people have come to use Hebrew as their first language. Arabic and English are the other two official languages of Israel, and Russian is the unofficial fourth.
Of course, everybody looks like they would speak English. And to the typical Israeli, I look like I would speak Hebrew, possibly Russian, and maybe having a smattering in Arabic. This is an advantage with beggars – I don’t have to ignore them because I honestly don’t understand them. It’s not an advantage when the driver in the car next to you is asking you for directions. I learn to say, “Shalom, English only” pretty quick.
We take a walk up Allenby Street. It’s cool, and drizzly and Pat asks me if I would like her to point out bombing sights, or would I prefer not to see them. I shrug and says she can point them out, and so she does. A coffee shop, recently re-opened. Didn’t I want a coffee? I opt for Starbucks.
Then it’s off to the Embassy for the Christmas Stairwell party. The embassy is about four or five stories, with two basement levels, and the stairwell is very wide, and the tables with the food have been set up on the landings. One embassy official has dressed up as Santa, and Pat has dressed as an angel with a sash that says, “Noel.” I happily chat with a gentleman about being the angel’s attendant (those wings can be deadly) and later realize I was getting chummy with the ambassador. Since this is a big embassy a lot of people ask me what department I’m in or if I’m Pat’s daughter (we are 19 years apart). The ambassador announces the winners of the holiday door-decorating contest, the locusts devour the food, and the party is over.
Since we didn’t get any food at the party Pat and I were still hungry. I cannot remember what we did for food. But we broke out the jigsaw puzzles, turned on the bad TV, and spent what for the Quinns is considered an exciting night.
Saturday, December 21, 2002
Next morning we’re off to Herzliyya for brunch. Most of the embassy folks with families, or many pets, live in individual houses in Herzliyya. As you drive into Herzliyya, a big one dimensional cut-out of Herzl (the guy who got everybody speaking Hebrew) sits atop something (I think it’s a water tower) gazing down upon the traffic. A few yards later sits one of the original small boats that was used to bring Jewish refugees to Israel in the 1940’s. Pat’s joke is, “That’s Herzl and the boat he came in on.”
As we pass the house in search of parking Pat waves to two guys who I assume are embassy folks here for the brunch. Nope! They’re Israeli security provided by the embassy at all embassy-related social events. For example, a few weeks before a bunch of Pat’s co-workers went bowling. They had a security guard.
We find some parking and head off to the brunch.
Brunch is at the home of ____________. Once again, your American tax dollars are being well spent. The house is lovely. Brand new, three stories and much bigger on the inside than it appeared on the outside. Honestly, Pat has to get some dependents or big dogs in order to qualify for something like this. The Christmas tree features ornaments from every posting the ____’s have held. I was particularly fond of the ornaments depicting a Saudi Arabian man and woman. She in her burka, he in with his worry beads.
Next, it’s off to Caesarea. Built by Herod the Great and named for his patron (that would be Caesar), this ancient port is pretty impressive as far as ruined classical ports go. The parking lot would take a couple hundred cars (and there are probably a lot of ruins under it), but due to the weather (cloudy with intermittent rain) and the drop in tourism there are only a few cars. The great attraction of Caesarea is not the theatre, the combination of classical and crusader architecture, or the plaque that mentions Pontius Pilot (the only physical evidence found that he was in Israel). No, it’s the pot handles. We’re talking billions and billions of shattered pots. Every time the archeologists take away a five foot high section of earth, thousands more of pottery shards are exposed. But it’s intact pot handles everyone’s after.
Yep, they let you take them. They also let you take any coins you find. I found two pot handles and a young woman who was there found two coins. Little bronze coins – the kind you can pick up for two or three dollars in any souvenir shop.
I was told at the brunch that a while back they were bulldozing in the parking lot and turned up a gold coin. Then they (the archeologists, not the tourists) found 70 or 80 more. Those, the country kept.
Also, Caesarea is where the Crusaders found the Holy Grail. Apparently it was a green glass bowl and it now resides in some church in Italy.
On our drive to and from Herzliyya we encounter the most popular shopping mall in all of Israel. Yep, it’s the Office Depot/Ace Hardware plus a non-kosher MacDonalds and a few smaller stores. They have a parking lot for probably 400 cars. Unfortunately there are 2000 cars parked there. The ingenuity of parking – on shoulders, on sidewalks, in the fields of the Kibbutz that leased the land to the center – speaks volumes on the determination of Israelis. Though the parking lot is always overflowing the big shopping day is Saturday. Yep, even though stores have to pay a fine if they’re open on the Sabbath, a lot of them just write the check and open their doors.
This place drives Pat up the wall. Now yes, it is the only mall in Israel (that we know of) open on Saturday, still she cannot imagine that anyone would want to go to Office Depot that badly. And, it’s not like there are only a few cars there on Tuesday. I mean, on Thursday you might actually get to park your car in the lot (as opposed to the drainage ditch) – but do you really need carpet tacks that badly? On the other hand, Pat did search for weeks, in vain, for clear tape in a little plastic dispenser that she could use to wrap Christmas presents. And, you probably can’t find printer paper in the local market place.
As Pat says, going to one shop for the meat, and another shop for the cheese, and another shop for bread, and another shop for vegetables is charming once, maybe twice. Then, it’s just annoying.
And now back to the travelog:
After an afternoon of ripping off the history of a culture, we head back to Herzliyya for dinner at Al and Barb Santos’s. Pat had asked me if, it was no trouble, to bring a copy of the 100 Anniversary Harley book, published by the Bullfinch imprint of my company for Al. Securing a copy from the Bullfinch Publicity director, then having it thoroughly checked out for gunpowder and other explosives at Newark Airport, the book arrived safely in Israel. Al was so happy he invited Pat and I to dinner. Never one to pass up a free meal, we agreed. Al assured us that we were in for a treat. Honestly, we would have shown up if he was buying pizza.
Now, most guys are pretty proud that they can make an omlette or cook a chicken in the microwave. Al and Barb have a bit more to be proud of.
Al and Barb are into Italian cuisine. Really, really into it. They cooked and fed us all night. We were joined at dinner by the Santos’ lovely daughter Amanda and her friend Tom, who has grown up in Israel, and answered all of Pat’s “How do you pronounce that in Hebrew?” questions.
And, I discovered a new kind of toilet. Knowing it was great dinner conversation, I had to ask, “Why are there two little squares that you can push to flush your toilet?” Answer, if you need to flush a lot, you push one button, if you only need to flush a little, you push the other button. I was very impressed.
Al is second-in charge of RSO (Regional Security Office) so he’s in charge of the security for the embassy, and the foreign nationals that are hired to guard the embassy (Marines are inside, the folks at the gate are always citizens of the country).
Then, I was told the would-be-suicide-bomber-right-near-the-embassy story. It goes like this. Two streets run along the Mediterranean in Tel-Aviv. One runs north, the other runs south, and between them are all the fancy hotels, apartment buildings (including Pat’s) and The American Embassy. Of course, all the hotels and apartment buildings have bars and restaurants on their ground floors overlooking the beach. These places are always crowded with locals and tourists. So, at a restaurant called Tayelet literally two doors down from the back entrance to the American Embassy there was a failed bombing. The bomber was hesitating about going into the restaurant, and the security guard (a Russian émigré) got suspicious and pulled the guys hands out of his pockets (because the detonator would be in the bomber’s hands). The bomber panicked and started running toward the embassy. The security guard ran after him screaming in Russian. The embassy security guards (foreign nationals) tackled the guy, pulling his arms behind him so hard that they broke the bomber’s arms (once again the idea is to get the detonator out of the bomber’s hands). Sure enough, the bomber was loaded down with explosives.
The Russian security guard went back to the restaurant where a patron gave him a $5000 check and thanked him for saving his life. All three of the men were invited to a reception at the embassy, and the two embassy employees received medals from the US Govt. Then, they were all invited to meet Ariel Sharon, who shook their hands and give them – get this – pen and pencil sets.
Yep, stop a suicide bomber and you too can receive a pen and pencil set from the grateful people of Israel.
The most fascinating bit of information I picked up was that the bomber was “on something.” “You mean he was on drugs?” I squeaked? Yep, it seems that’s pretty common. If you think about it, it makes sense. Helps you deal with your nerves and your impending death.
Finally, around midnight, we stumbled out and drove home.
A few comments on single- family houses:
You see the houses peaking up over the high walls, and the way the roofs go you think they’re piled on top on one another and very small. Well, they’re actually pretty big – at least in the fancy-schmancy suburb of Herzliyya. Parking is provided for the household, but if you throw a party expect your guests to park on the sidewalks. The yards tend to be small, and not being a big lover of mowing, raking or any of that other stuff, that’s fine with me. The houses are built with big windows to let in the soft winter light, and big metal shades to shut the unrelenting sun of summer out. What struck me is the sense of height and light you get inside the houses, even though the neighbors are less than 15 feet away.
Of course, this was embassy housing (again, your tax dollars are going to good use), so these are higher end. What’s funny is when you go to embassy people’s homes – whether an apartment or a house – all the furniture is the same. Maybe the couches and chairs have different upholstery, but it’s the same couch and chair that you’ll find at Marine House.
Saturday, December 22, 2002
Today we’re heading to Jesus’ home town, Nazareth. First, we decide to swing by Herzliyya once again because we just can’t get enough of it. No, actually we’re heading off to Tal’s Bagels. After finding some parking right where the pavement starts to turn to mud, and across from the impoundment yard for ticketed cars – we hike back to Tal’s and head on in.
But first I have to go around the idiot guy who’s decided to sit in the doorway. Whoops! He’s not just some idiot guy, he’s the security guard. This is the first time I’ve gone into a public store and encountered the purse search and the wave of the metal detector. It’s a bit unnerving.
More unnerving is the all Hebrew menu. Oh well, I’m from New York, I can order in a bagel store. I ask for a sesame seed bagel with cream cheese and lox, with lettuce onion and tomato, and a latte. Pat says make it two (except for the coffee). We turn around and run into Barb Santos buying bagels and trying to decide if she wants to go to Jerusalem today. Pat and I invite her to go with us tomorrow. Barb is undecided, but promises to give us a call and Pat and I sit down to our bagels. Then, I decide to use the bathroom.
Well, this toilet has me completely confused, as it has no handle or push button(s). I stand regarding it for a moment or two before figuring that maybe the push button is hidden behind the large silver panel in the wall. Nope, the large silver panel can be depressed, and viola! A flush!
So, we’re off on our first real day trip. I’m reading directions and holding the map. Pat’s driving. Pat’s car is a piece of crap. Not as big a piece of crap as she led me to believe, but pretty bad. For example, I have to hold the handle of my door on when trying to exit the car, as the handle tends to fall off. Pat has to pull her seat belt on as she’s driving, because if the car isn’t moving, the seat belt won’t move either. When I lean forward to open the glove compartment, I have to move very slowly or my seatbelt kicks in and holds me fast as if the car were hurtling trunk over hood over a cliff.
On the way to Nazareth, we stop off at Daliat El Karmel to check out the Druze shopping. The Druze are a religious minority in Israel – heck they’re a religious minority everywhere. The Druze are an offshoot of Islam, but they don’t believe that Mohammed was the last prophet. They believe in reincarnation so they do not put names on their headstones. What exactly they believe aside from that is a big secret. Certain people in the community (both men and women) have reached a certain level and get to go to secret Thursday night meetings (so they have to tape Friends). The Druze don’t have a religious homeland, so they tend to give their political allegiance to the government of whatever country they happen to be living in. They also make some really nice glassware.
Now, when I say village, please do not think I’m talking about some picturesque little turn of century, Lawrence-of-Arabia-esque enclave with quaint locals. It’s more like the local suburb circa 1973. I get some money at the ATM and we go glass shopping.
Druze glass is colorful, pretty, and unbreakable. Seriously, the guy I end up buying from, whacks a wine glass against the wall a couple of times to prove it. The Druze also make very nice tablecloths (washable - but don’t put them in the dryer), bedspreads, and woven table linens.
We’re there less than an hour since every shop has all the same stuff and honestly, I’m not into shopping. Here’s why. On my first trips to Asia I bought so much stuff, and most of it was in the charity bag within the year. Also, I have a two bedroom apartment stuffed with crap back in New York, and my roommate, under threat from me, is removing some of her crap from our living room, so I’m just not shopping all that much.
Off to Nazareth. Nazareth is very well marked and it is here that I start to figure out the color coding of signage in Israel. Brown means tourist attraction. Blue means local road information. Red means local government. So, we follow the little brown signs around Nazareth. And around Nazareth. And around again. Finally, we figure out that we are circling all the tourist sights. So, we park near some tour buses and get out. We start up the hill that looks familiar to Pat before finally pulling out the map to find the Church of the Annunciation. Then, we look around to figure out where we are and there, right in front of us, is the Church of the Annunciation. It’s not open.
We hang out for five minutes waiting for the Franciscan to come and open the gate then head in.
For those of you not up on the Great Moments in Christianity, the Church of the Annunciation is purportedly built on the spot where the Angel Gabriel came down to tell Mary that she would be the mother of Jesus. The church was originally built by the crusaders, and they had a habit of “finding” things (such as the Holy Grail, which, as you remember, was found in Caesarea and taken back to a church in Italy) so you have to take the “this is the very spot where Mary lived” with a grain of salt – or as a matter of faith (which works if you think about it). After, we cross the courtyard where they’re loading in lights (they must be planning on broadcasting Christmas Eve Mass) and head up to the Church of St. Joseph, which marks where Joseph (husband of Mary) lived (or maybe where his carpenter shop was). Well, Mary and Joseph really must have been the BC equivalent of high-school sweethearts because they didn’t live 100 yards away from each other. St. Joseph’s Church is very, very small. Indeed, many of the churches we will see are very, very small. These great Biblical cities are more like tiny villages. Seas strike me more as lakes. At the same time, what takes us two hours by car must have been a hellish journey of two days by donkey.
Pat pays a priest (who is drinking coffee and smoking a cigarette) to use the bathroom and we head back down to the car.
There are no tourists (so why the busses I wonder?) and the Arab market is shut down. I don’t want a stuffed camel or a postcard, so we are done with Nazareth in about an hour.
It’s not very late, and Pat suggests we head off to the Sea of Galilee. Driving through Galilee is lovely. It’s green and lush with verdant valleys and blue hills (which they call mountains). The Sea of Galilee is now a resort, so there are piers with restaurants and touristy shops. We head to the town of Tiberius, which was built after the crucifixion, so there are no crusader churches here. There are some tombs of a couple of very important rabbis, but Pat and I decide to give them a skip.
Again, the weather is on the chilly side and the sky is gray, so the tour boats are moored and the bars are empty or closed. Pat points out that Israelis don’t go out to eat until 9pm, but still, the place is not happening. There is a lot of trash on the shore, but the Sea of Galilee itself is very pretty. Of course, to me, it looks like a lake.
So, we try to walk around the town a bit, but there’s not a lot to see except a drug deal going on down by some ruins. We were going to eat in Tiberius and have St. Peter’s Fish (only found in the Sea of Galilee), but we’re not hungry. So, back in the car for a two hour drive back to Tel Aviv.
On the way we pas Armageddon! The Israelis call it Meddigo and it’s a huge archeology sight. Once we hit Tel Aviv, we hit a traffic jam and I’m in Hell because I have to go to the bathroom. I am contemplating going behind the bushes when we finally start to move. Pat and I park in her building then buzz through the security door, jump into the elevator, run down the hall, get through her security heavy door with major locks, and I run for toilet.
Ten minutes latter we go back down to unload the car. We order non-kosher pizza from the only place in Tel Aviv that will put pepperoni on your slice, do a jig saw puzzle, watch bad TV and go to bed.
A few comments on Tel-Aviv architecture and pollution
Tel Aviv has some really decrepit buildings. When Jewish refugees first started coming in great waves to Israel in the 30’s and 40’s, they settled in the Arab town of Jaffa (or Yaffo), which was an ancient port full of ancient building and winding streets and charm. The Jews, not feeling particularly welcome, moved north and founded Tel Aviv. It was originally supposed to be a “garden city by the sea” but when the course of the main drag, Allenby St. was moved to accommodate somebody’s coffee shop, things started to go awry. At first, building was concentrated on the shore. Then, the richer people started moving inland and the coast started to get run down. The older buildings down by the sea began to deteriorate. Now they’re crumbling – you can see through them. Then a lot of big apartment buildings were done very cheaply because housing was needed right away. There’s something about poured concrete – it’s ugly. And there’s trash. The beaches are raked every morning, but the streets are just full of litter.
Big hotels have been built on the shore, and my sister’s luxury apartment building sits right on the beach. From her window you can see buildings that can only be described as tenements, hotels and buildings that were probably grand in the 1960s, and the fancy-schmancy hotels.. As we walk the two blocks from her apartment to the embassy, we pass crummy little stores and buildings that would be rat traps, except all the stray cats in Tel Aviv ensure that there are no rats to be found.
It boggles my mind a bit. I mean, I’m a New Yorker and this is prime real estate. Why, these little three and four store buildings could be fixed up and be charming. My God, these buildings are on the water!!!
Of course, when you’re spending 60% of the country’s budget on defense, you really can’t afford to hire street sweepers. And in a country where bombs go off, you aren’t going to find a lot of public trash cans. And of course, tourism is way, way, way down so the money is not coming in like it once was.
Monday, December 23, 2002
Today we are off to Jerusalem! Barb has decided not to go, so Pat is relying on me to read the map. We make it into Jerusalem, find the parking near the Old City, and nearly get trapped in the parking garage. Afraid of bombs, every exit has been closed. We finally have to walk down the exit ramp (that clearly says not to walk here) in order to get out.
The Old City: where the Jews and Muslims fight each other and the Christians fight amongst themselves. The contention for the various Christian sects concerns the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (the site of Christ’s crucifixion, entombment, and resurrection). It seems that some Armenian Christian priest and a Greek Orthodox priest came to blows over shade in the courtyard last November. For eight hundred years, the same Arabian family has kept the keys to the Holy Sepulcher. Why? Because all the various Christian groups were always trying to lock each other out. There is one room in the Holy Sepelchure, which is overseen by two priests who are literally, the last of their religion, and everybody is looking forward to the fight that’s going to ensue over that room once they’re both dead.
Of course, whether the Armenians, Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and the other Christians currently fighting over the Holy Sepelchure get the irony (Jesus did say to love thy neighbor as thyself) is a matter of debate. But their periodic fights always make for an amusing diversion in the local papers.
Sure enough, when we do get to the Holy Sepelchure, Pat points out the current key holder, and the tree that casts the hotly contested shade.
Built by the crusaders, the Church of the Holy Sepelchure is very dark, but very moving. Of course, it would be more moving if would be tour guides weren’t constantly interrupting your contemplation offering to give you a tour. And they will not take no for an answer. You have to be extremely rude (ie: not Christian) to get rid of them.
Before we went to the Church of the Holy Sepelchure we had lunch at an Armenian Restaurant (where the women get a door on the bathroom, but the men only get a beaded curtain so you can get a good look at their asses). So now we are well fortified for shopping. We came through the Arab streets on the way to the Church full of stores that cater to the tourists, and now we head back through them again. We go in two or three stores but once again, I’m not feeling the urge to shop. Pat is impressed by my utter lack of avarice, and we head off for the Wailing Wall and The Dome On The Rock.
We immediately get lost in the real Arab market streets. This is where the locals shop. You can’t get a stuffed camel or a bottle of water from the Jordan River here. You can get masking tape, pots and pans, shoes, and gummy like candy in the shape of fried eggs. It is insane. We dead end and head in another direction. We’re terrified to pull out a map or a guide book as that usually attracts the locusts of shop keepers and would be tour guides. However, we finally give in, and a teenage boy asks us where we want to go. He gives us directions and sends us off down the street without trying to sell us anything (he works in a clothing store). Now we know we’re not in the tourist area.
A note on the shops. They are literally caves. Or nooks in walls so old that the rocks and mortar have compressed into a solid mass. There were probably shops in them back in the days of You Know Who! Now, of course, they have electricity and dry wall, but when you see one being remodeled, you can see the rock walls.
Somehow, we end up at the Church of the Flagellation. This is one of the 14 churches that mark the 14 Stations of the Cross leading from Jesus’ being condemned to death and ending with his being taken down from the cross. As you may have guessed from the name, the Church of the Flagellation is where Christ was whipped and crowned with the crown of thorns. I’m actually contemplating this little church and pondering the Stations of the Cross, the affect of Christ’s life and teachings on the development of the world’s culture, and the nature of faith. But not for long!
Nope, some STUPID-WOULD-BE-TOUR-GUIDE comes after us. This guy is a leach and will not let go, following us out of the church and into the “street”. There is a van coming up the street, which makes it impossible to walk (unless you can flatten yourself to three inches wide against the wall. Well, I would rather die than deal with this guy one minute longer, and the driver of the van must see the look of desperation on our faces, because he actually lets Pat and me squeeze by.
By the way, this is the “street” where the multitude sentenced Christ to die. Pat points out the balcony where it is believed Pontius Pilot washed his hands of Christ’s death. Now, the Bible, and every Hollywood Movie or TV miniseries gives you the impression that Pilot stood on an imposing balcony overlooking a vast courtyard full of thousands of extras. Trust me, if this is the actual balcony, and street, you couldn’t fit a hundred people between the walls. It’s that whole perspective issue again.
Meanwhile, back to our desperate attempt to avoid the tour guide. I see a side street, which according to our map, should lead us to the Wailing Wall and The Dome On The Rock. Pat and I trot down the ancient paving stones toward two Israeli cops waiting where the street dead ends. Well, this must be the place! I trot forward with my purse open and ready for inspection. I am then asked two questions which I have never been asked before.
“Are you carrying any weapons or ammunition?”
“Not today!” I joke back with a big smile.
The soldier smiles back, but he was not joking. Pat later explains to me that people carry weapons in Israel.
The next question was, “Are you Christian?”
“Ah, yeah, Catholic.”
“Sorry, you can’t come in here.”
Just then, a guy walks by and says, “Muslim,” barely stopping to wave at the soldiers. It seems that the tiny alley to our left is the entrance to the Dome On The Rock and only Muslims go there.
So, we cross the Dome off our list of must-sees, get some directions from the soldiers, and head back to the main “street.” Guess who’s waiting for us? Yep, the leach-like would be tour guide. He comes running up to us, and Pat gives him a look that could rival Angela Bassett in Learning to Exhale. The guy actually stops, and turns around heading back up the hill. We head down the hill and take the next left.
This street is a little wider and there are a mix of Arab and Jewish shops. They are a bit nicer with fewer stuffed camels and higher quality merchandise. There are also public bathrooms, but I don’t stop to check them out. We finally make it to the next check point, where we show our purses, swear we don’t have weapons or ammunition, admit to being Christian, and walk through the metal detectors, and head off to the Wailing Wall.
Here we contemplate the center of Jewish faith in Israel, and have to ask the aggressive Jewish vendor to please get out of our picture. He thinks it’s really funny that he’s bugging us, we think he’s an ass.
Now we start walking through the Jewish quarter. The Muslims destroyed a lot of the Jewish quarter during one of the wars (I think it was the War of Independence in 1948). At the time, it was seen as a horrible desecration of an ancient city. In retrospect, it worked out really well for the Jews, as they were able to build new housing with modern plumbing and electricity. (Think of how the Great Chicago Fire turned Chicago into a clean slate upon which its distinctive architecture was built.) Pat’s very excited to be here on a Monday. She’s only ever come to Jerusalem on a Saturday and guess whose stores are closed on Saturday? Well, it turns out a lot of them are closed anyway. Did I mention tourism is down?
Well, we’re done. We pick up our car, and using the YMCA tower as our guide, park near the King David Hotel, where we go for a drink. This is my idea as I just read a very depressing article in the New Yorker about Jerusalem and it mentioned how over 2/3rds of the staff have been let go. And, we’ve been walking around for a couple of hours, so let’s sit and have a drink before we get back in the car and return to Tel Aviv.
The King David is very impressive and it has a lovely view of Jerusalem. Pat and I sit in the bar (with no view) on a really comfy couch and have a glass of wine and eat some peanuts. Being Quinns, we have a lot to talk about. Because of the exchange rate, about $10.00 takes care of the bill and provides a 30% tip. I could have asked for change, but geeze-Louise, what’s the point?
Laura’s tips for visiting the Old City in Jerusalem:
*Learn the following phrases in Arabic and Hebrew:
“I have leprosy.”
“I live here.”
“A pox on you and your family.”
*Find an Arabic friend to pose as your guide – this will keep the other guides away as they won’t poach on another’s territory. The next day, have your Jewish friend take you to the Western Wall. This will require you to get along with everyone – this would probably make you Bono.
*Realize that nothing will dissuade these guys. Nothing. Don’t let them draw you into conversation. Don’t say hi back, don’t tell them where you’re from, and don’t tell them what your religious affiliation is (unless the person is an Israeli soldier or policeman – who you will recognize by their rifle). Either pretend that you only speak Navaho (which will entail that you whisper to your traveling companion or hiding your mouth behind your Lonely Planet guide written in Navaho), or resign yourself to being as rude as possible.
Let’s talk about Israeli soldiers:
Imagine what you were like at 17. Imagine your fashion sense at the time. Now imagine yourself at 17 with a rifle. In the Israeli army a 21 year-old can be a commander. A private is usually dealing with acne, hanging out at the mall, and still living at home with Mom and Dad – carrying a rifle. These kids/soldiers are required to carry their rifles with them at all times. It’s really disconcerting. I keep wanting to say, “Does your mother know you’re carrying that?” or “Put that down, you might hurt yourself, and for God’s sake get some pants that fit, I don’t need to see your underwear. Trust me, nobody believes you hang in the hood.”
All good-looking. I swear. There’s not an average guy in the lot. Or, if there is, they stick them on desk duty.
Tuesday, December 24th 2002
Christmas Eve and we have errands to run. Got to pick up the mail at the embassy, wrap the Marines’ gift certificates from Amazon.com, hit the Russian Market for food to make Christmas Dinner, and attend a bonfire on the beach.
At the embassy we hear the good news that yesterday, the U.S. Government has lifted its travel warning on Jordan. That means Pat can go to Petra with me! Yippee! (for more on this, see the Petra trip, Saturday, December 28th, 2002). Everyone at the embassy who has visiting family is discussing options on how to get to Petra – fly up for the day tour, drive to Eilat and take the bus tour, or drive yourself into Jordan. Pat reserves a spot on my trip, and we’re headed back to the apartment to wrap the marine’s gifts.
The Russian Market sounds very quaint. It’s not. It’s Costco with no parking. True to form, everybody there speaks Russian and all the signs are in Russian. Individual products are kosher, but you can buy cheese and beef in the same store. And, you can get pork. Trying to buy ricotta at the cheese counter is pretty difficult, but a nice bi-lingual lady helped us out. Then, we find those crispy fried onions you need for green bean casserole in a big barrel next to the pickles and olives. We also secure the last two boxes of lasagna noodles in all of Israel.
Since it’s rainy and cold the bonfire is called off. Pat and I head off to Jaffa for Christmas Eve at St. Peter’s (a couple hundred Philippine families and us), and dinner at Aladdin (pronounced Al-a-din).
Jaffa is an ancient port and below the pedestrian mall you can check out some archeological digs, and from the window of the restaurant we can see more ruins. Also from our window we can see Andromeda’s rock. Andromeda’s mother bragged about her beauty, which ticked off Poseidon. He sent a sea monster to wreak havoc on Jaffa until they finally decided to chain Andromeda to a rock and let the sea monster eat her. Well, just as she was about to become snack food, Perseus flew by on Pegasus and used the head of Medusa to turn the sea monster to stone. Those Greeks.
Jaffa is still mostly Arabic, though they are moving/being forced out. Artists are either moving in to save Jaffa, or are being used by the government as a tourist-friendly way of destroying the real Jaffa. Take your pick. The port area still drips with the authenticity and elegance of history, however the sheen of gentrification taints it.
I get my St. Peter’s fish, and it tastes like trout. Between the miserable weather and the drop in tourism, there are not a lot of people in the place. However, when I banged my plate on the table (trying to push it aside) everyone it that restaurant jumped.
When I ask to use the bathroom I have to go outside, down a flight of steps toward the ruins/beach where a pretty clean toity sits. It makes sense since in the good weather the restaurant probably serves food on the terrace. But, it’s not fun walking down wet stone steps on a rainy dark night.
Pat and I head home, take in some bad TV, and go to bed with visions of sugar plums dancing in our heads.
Wednesday, December 25, 2002
Fa-la-la-la-la. It’s Christmas morning and the sky is blue with big fluffy clouds! We actually open the windows and let the fresh air in. Now, sitting under Pat’s artificial tree, we begin opening our presents!
I had no idea what to get Pat and she had no idea what to get me. I mean, we’re both older women who can buy what we need and want, and it’s hard to come up with things I want that I trust other people to buy for me – and Pat’s the same way.
So, I decided to get Pat – “The History of the Middle East as told through Popular Culture.” First, she opens her DVD of Otto Preminger’s 1960’s epic, EXODUS starring Paul Newman and Eva Marie Saint. Much to my surprise, Pat is thrilled. It seems there’s a scene where Eva Marie Saint has to shoot adrenalin into Paul Newman’s naked chest in order to save him – and this made a big impression on my then teen-age sister. Also, Pat and her friend Bonnie learned the Theme From Exodus duet for piano and played it at their high school talent show.
Next, she gets LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, which I was afraid she already had as she had been quoting it a few days before. Nope, she doesn’t have it, and she fondly remembers that scene where Omar Shariff comes into the tent and he gets his first close-up.
Upon reflection, I realize I was giving my sister back her high school years. It would be like someone giving me a DVD of FOOT LOOSE.
Next, the books, THE HOPE and THE GLORY by Herman Wouk. Once again, my sister is quite pleased. The Mad Libs desk calendar is not Middle East themed, but she is gracious about it, and I figure it will give her a year of amusement as she asks other embassy personnel for adjectives and adverbs on a daily basis.
Oh, and she gets other stuff from other people.
My gifts from Pat are also Middle East-themed but that’s because shopping is so bad I get the pottery, tiles, and glassware from the charming local markets. That’s fine, I like it all.
We prep for our dinner guests and head off to the Arab market in Jaffa. The first place tries to sell me some junky trinkets for 400 sheckels. That would be about $80 American. I wont’ budge from, “no way in hell” and he won’t budge. Finally, he offers me the little oil lamp for 100 sheckels. Pat informs him that three weeks ago he quoted the same item at 25 sheckels. Boy, is his pride hurt. I literally have to squeeze by him to escape the stall, as he won’t in his depression over my evil refusal to pay his fair price, move from the one narrow exit. A few stalls down another guy starts the bargaining on the same oil lamp at 100. You know, I just don’t want it that much.
Pat flirts with some furniture buying, and we think we’re getting a deal, until a bi-lingual Israeli offers to translate and her eyebrows nearly shoot off her head when she hears what Pat’s considering paying.
Finally, I do buy a plate I don’t need, a tile I don’t need, and this odd thing on feet, with several compartments and a peacock on it. We’re told that it’s a Bedouin eye shadow case. Other people at the embassy were told it’s a Bedouin inkpot. Maybe someday Pat will go to the Bedouin museum and discover what it really is.
Back to the apartment, Pat and I put together a casual Christmas dinner for ten (lasagna is the main dish) and the guests arrive. We all have a nice time (at least I think we do – I know I did) and Christmas is over pretty quick.
Pat and I clean up a bit, and then we sit down to watch EXODUS. First, Pat has to open the DVD, which is something she has never done before. Yes, she has about a thousand DVDs bought in Asia – pirated copies that come in little envelopes. She has never had to wrestle with the packaging. Nor has she ever had to deal with a menu (the pirated DVDs just start playing when you stick them in). Still, we manage to get EXODUS going.
It’s a big, silly, badly acted 1960’s epic. Sal Minneo as a Holocaust survivor – you get the idea. However, I did learn little history. Also, we got to watch the following scene set in the King David hotel. Eva Marie Saint has just told Israeli freedom fighter, Paul Newman, that her husband died last year.
Paul: Is there a man in your life.
Paul Why not?
Me: God! What horrible dialogue.
Pat: Hah, you can tell he’s an Israeli.
I demand an explanation. It seems my almost 56 year-old sister cannot go on the beach in Tel Aviv without a parade of men hitting on her. It’s not a compliment. These guys work their way down the beach meeting rejection after rejection in the hopes that any woman not in a wheel chair (and some don’t mind a wheel chair) will be willing to spend some time with them. Bring a book, put a walk-man on your head, scuba dive – it won’t work. They will pursue you.
We get halfway through Exodus before we finally give in and go to bed.
Thursday, December 26th, 2002
Today is our Exodus day! Pat and I are going on a three-day road trip to the Dead Sea and the Red Sea. We are renting a car for the trip since her car is not the greatest piece of machinery and we will be traveling through the Negev dessert.
Much to Pat’s surprise, the car rental place insists that she provide her passport, despite the fact that she has an MFA card. An MFA card can only be issued to embassy employees, and has all her passport information on it. It’s also pretty near impossible to forge (if you could forge an MFA card, you could forge a diplomatic passport). She is also royally ticked that the travel agent neglected to inform her that she should have brought her passport. AND she is furious because the policy of the embassy is that State Department employees should not carry their passports at all time – they should use their MFA cards. AND she is even angrier because everyone at the rental car place knows she’s an embassy employee, and they know what an MFA card is.
As we walk back to the apartment Pat tells me how the grocery store has sometimes, for no reason she can discern, demanded to see her passport (which, of course, she didn’t have). What possible national security issue could be threatened by buying some Slimfast and a loaf of bread?
Anyway, we go back to the apartment, get the passport, walk back to the car rental place and get the car. It smells of that horrible pink hand soap you get in public bathrooms. I really hate that scent. Blech.
So we load up the card with suitcases (crammed with coats if it’s cold, spring clothes if it’s mild, and shorts and bathing suits in the wild hope that the sun will come blazing down and make this a beach trip), water (we’re going through the desert!), tapes, Lonely Planet and some maps.
So we drive and drive and drive. We listen to a mixed tape, the best of the Eagles, and the best of Fleetwood Mac. The dessert is very rocky with lots of plants – not very Lawrence of Arabia. We stop at a rest stop and I encounter the most God-awful bathrooms in all of Israel. I don’t even remember how the toilets flush because the filth of the place has crowded any amusing plumbing details out of my mind. We grab a #1 meal at the local burger chain (menu in Hebrew – thank goodness for the pictures), split it, and continue on.
We’re in small town, kibbutz, and a few Bedouin camps area.
By the way, traveling through this dessert is not that hard. No, you’re not in danger of hitting a traffic jam, but you’re also not in danger of not seeing a car for hours. If you were stupid/adventurous enough to get off the highway in your four-wheel drive, there’s a good chance some Bedouins would come by with their camels and haul you out. That said, I’m sure there are some really determined people who get themselves killed in the desert every year, just like there are people who decide to hike down into the Grand Canyon with no food/water/experience, or hike up a snow-capped mountain in flip-flops.
Speaking of camels – yep! There’s one! And there’s one! And look, there’s another! I’m guessing the kids in windbreakers riding them or leading them around are Bedouins.
The Bedouins are really screwed these days. They used to wander all over Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel, Syria, and Lebanon, herding their goats, stopping in at the local oasis and riding their camels. Well, now there are fences along the boarders (and in some cases land mines), tourists are staying at the oasis, and fences surround every kibbutz and farm. This really cramps the wandering around herding goats life-style. Some years back an American Jew started collecting Bedouin stuff, and today Israel boasts a first-rate Bedouin Museum (which we skipped). A good thing, since the culture is really dying. If you see an impoverished looking encampment with camels, you know you’re seeing Bedouins.
Suddenly, large rocky hills (mountains they call ‘em) are rising up and we are going down, down, down. Our ears are popping. Occasionally you see a spray painted sign on the rocks – 100 ft below sea level – 200 ft below sea level – 300 ft below sea level. Then suddenly, there’s the Dead Sea!
Ok, I’m going to be a party poop here. The Dead Sea is now a resort town, and like most resort towns, it’s made up of hotels, cheesy shops, and restaurants. There is not one private home. Nobody, nobody lives there. The beaches are man made.
We’re staying at the Hyatt. It must have 600 rooms, but it only has 200 parking spaces. After Pat and I park on a dirt mound (and we were lucky to get the spot) we hike down to the hotel. In addition to the folks staying at the hotel, there’s a Bats Mitsvah in the ball room and a Gastroentologists convention in the lower-level hall. As we are waiting for our elevator we can see the booth for some company that proudly advertises it’s products – laxatives and suppositories.
Pat and I go out for a stroll on the beach. But, you can’t do that at the Dead Sea. Each hotel has a bit of beach they have cobbled together, and gosh darn it, if you’re not staying at their hotel you’re not using their beach. If you want to walk along the water, you better be prepared to scale walls, leap over piles of soon to be repainted patio furniture, or shimmy up and down rock walls.
Pat and I find the little shop section where there’s nothing in the stores you might want. I do get some Ahava products (they are on sale!), and we head back to the hotel because, quite frankly, there’s not much else to do.
Now sure, granted, it’s too chilly to swim, so we don’t get the great experience of going into the slimy, so salty it will cause you pain and suffering if so much a drop of it goes in your mouth or eyes, so flat that the only reason they have life guards is to administer first-aide if you happen to get the water in your mouth or eyes Dead Sea. And, because it’s too chilly, we won’t go in the Dead Sea and sit up on the water and read a newspaper (the standard tourist photo op) or smear ourselves in the black mud. Maybe if we did this stuff we would have been more impressed.
We certainly weren’t impressed by the Hyatt’s Dinner Buffet. They don’t do buffets well in Israel, but the Hyatt reached new heights. The food was bad (though there was a lot of it), the service stank, I had the worst wine I’ve ever had, and there was a couple walking around in character. What their characters were supposed to be, we don’t know. We think they were supposed to be a couple from the Old South (a la Gone With the Wind) except that the man’s suit was made from a brocade more suited to the Sun King and carried an English Umbrella. Still, we could have laughed it all off and filled up on bread, but when we checked out the next day we discovered the buffet had cost nearly $60.00 US. Our hotel room cost $90.
The Hyatt’s beds were very nice. There was only one channel in English on the TV, so Pat and I watched LOVE STORY, because that’s what was on. Unlike EXODUS or LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, Pat does not have any fond memories of Ryan O’Neal’s bare chest or first close-up. But she is fascinated. She remembers that LOVE STORY was a big hit – and it’s so bad.
The bathroom is mirrored on three sides, so if you don’t like to look at yourself on the toilet, you are out of luck.
The water is so icky at the Dead Sea that there are signs warning you not to drink it. You can get good water on every floor at the ice machine.
Friday, December 27th, 2002
Up at 4:30 AM! We’re off to climb Masada and see the sun rise! We pick up our breakfast boxes from the concierge, climb the dirt mound to our car, and take off. Masada is only about 15 minutes down the road and we are assured we can’t miss it.
Now, before I go into my highly amusing account of our adventures on Masada, let me say this. MASADA ROCKS! It’s really cool. It’s a must-see! Herod the Great may have been a tyrant justifiably hated by his own people, but boy could he build a fortress.
Everybody says you have to climb Masada at dawn and see the sunrise.
(1) Bring a flashlight (nobody ever tells you to bring a flashlight – water yes – but not a flashlight).
(2) Sunrise may be at 6 AM, but there are these things called the Jordanian Mountains in the way. The sun rose about 6:30 when we were there.
(3) The guide books say it takes 45 minutes to go up the Snake Path, and 30 minutes to come down. IF YOU’RE A MARATHON RUNNER! It took Pat and I over an hour to get up (with many rest breaks), and 45 minutes to get down (step on the wrong rock and you might find a new way down the mountain).
(4) Go to Masada the day before when there’s light. This will help find the two signs pointing to the Snake Path (one cleverly hidden behind a bush), or find the way to the Roman Road, which is MUCH EASIER TO CLIMB THAN THE SNAKE PATH!
(5) There are people who say you have to take the Snake Path, they are wrong.
In the pitch dark, it takes Pat and I a while to find the second sign (cleverly hiding in a bush) that points to the Snake Path, which, in the dark, is not easily recognizable as a path. Dear God, this path is steep. But we are the only ones on it. However, since we are only crawling, people (young, Marathon runners) actually start to pass us at the top. Still, we imagine Masada will be pretty empty.
Nope! Masada is alive with tour groups! They all came up the Roman Road. Damn, if only we had come the day before and scouted the place out in the light!
At first, Masada ain’t that impressive as we come up in a big, empty, plain. But, we decide to head over to those ruins where a bunch of guys are singing in Hebrew, and the many, many ruins of Masada open up. We get so into wandering around the storerooms that we have to force ourselves to find a perch, sit down, and watch that damn sun rise.
We’re hot and sweaty from our climb, but the rocks are cold. So, we’re sitting there freezing our butts off, listening to the British rabbi lecture his tour group, when it suddenly occurs to me that it’s my 37th birthday, and Pat’s 56th. We wish each other a happy birthday, and the sun comes up. It’s not a great sunrise (it’s a bit cloudy). But we climbed that big rock, and we saw that sun rise, and damn it, it was great!
Masada has excellent toilets with seats that are surprisingly warm considering that everything else on top of this mountain is cold. They are also very clean. Outside the toilets is a little garden, which I’m guessing is fertilized by the septic tank. Herod built two palaces on Masada, but we take a pass on the opportunity of climbing down 200 steps and then climbing back up them to check out the beautiful tile floors of either the North or the South Palace (I can’t remember which). Instead, we check out the baths, the pigeon coop, the mitzvah built by the Zealots, the offices, the walls, the room converted into a synagogue by the Zealots (there were some people in there praying, so Pat and I just looked in), the tile floors here and there, the remains of the murals, the little ovens built by the Zealots, the Roman Road, the Roman camps at the base of the hill, and the wall the Romans built to keep anyone from escaping. Masada is worth killing yourself to see. If you don’t want to kill yourself, the tram starts running around 8:30 AM.
Pat and I are ready to go by 8:00 AM so we figure we can wait until the tram starts a half our later, or we can traipse down the Snake Path in a half hour. As you know from the beginning of this entry, it takes us 45 to carefully pick our way down. Teenagers frolic past us, tossing Frisbees and doing triple axels (ok the Frisbees are an exaggeration, but you get the idea). Going down hurts my calves. We pass a woman carrying all the heavy coats for her family (I wonder if she wisely decided to abandon them) and a teenage girl who is hyperventilating (her friends are splashing bottled water on her).
We’re back at the hotel by 9:00 and secure a real parking space (a paved space actually created for the purpose of parking a car – which is still far from the hotel) and we go back to bed. Check out time is 11:00.
Refreshed by an insufficient nap, we drag ourselves out of the hotel at 11:00, put everything in the car, and walk down to the beach. I’m a little chilly in my Capri pants but sure enough there are people laying on the beach, soaking up the weak, weak sun. I wade in the Dead Sea, and Pat takes a picture. Then, we’re off and I’m driving.
A note on Israeli Drivers
Road rage doesn’t exist in Israel. You want to pass, sure go ahead, I’ll pull over as far as I can so that you can pass. If I’m a big heavy truck, I’ll stay in the right lane. You need to get into this lane, sure come on in! You need to drive over the meridian and go in the other direction, more power to you. You need to stop in the middle of the one lane road, so that you can parallel park on the sidewalk? No problem. We understand.
And now we’re in Eilat!
So, we’re off to the Red Sea, which unlike the Dead Sea, has a name for the town on its shores. Eilat. Of course, Eilat really is a town, people actually live there. Still there are a lot of hotels, an aquarium, some glass bottom boats, and the Red Sea. Which isn’t Red. It’s blue, blue, blue. A really, really pretty blue. Off that-a-way is Taba, Egypt where you go to scuba and snorkel, and off over there is Aqaba, Jordan.
We go in Herod’s (a resort hotel) for a light snack and something to drink. We sit on the terrace overlooking the pool and Red Sea. It’s lovely. There are a bunch of guys playing cards, kids frolicking in the pool (got to do another handstand under water, and another, and another), and a little boy with a toy shark who explains to us in Hebrew (we think) that he has hurt his thumb. Apparently, high pitched sounds of sympathy, in any language, satisfies him and he goes off with his mom.
Warning: If you are one of those people who hate children, don’t go to any resort in Israel. These are family resorts, and there are kids everywhere.
A week after I got back to the US they found Legionnaire’s Disease at Herod’s. I would still recommend it.
Then we head out to walk along the beach, which you can actually do here. We are slowly, but surely, starting to poop out. I start to get a sinus headache, we crawl into the Dan (the Dan hotels are very high-end and all over Israel). We get a light dinner and toast each other once we remember it’s our birthday.
We’re home by 7PM. We watch the BBC, play Rumi-cube®, and we’re asleep by 9.
Saturday, December 28th, 2002
You may remember that back in November an American State Department official was shot in his driveway. This was a big shock to the State Department since Jordan is very safe for Americans, but the decision was made to evacuate all non-essential personal. Right before I left for Israel it was announced that the two assassins had been arrested. I was hoping this meant that the State Department would allow non-essential personal back in Jordan. Why? Because I’m going to Petra – where Indiana Jones found the Holy Grail in the third movie – (I guess he hadn’t heard that the Crusaders found it in Caesaria and took it back to Italy) and it would be nice if Pat could come with me.
Well, as you know, on December 23rd the email went out that State Department employees could travel to Jordan. Pat was thrilled, because Petra is something you want to do more than once, and now she won’t have to sit around Eilat entertaining herself while I cross the boarder. Now, my normal approach to this trip was, if the US Government won’t let my sister do it, I’m not going to do it. But Petra was the exception. I wasn’t going to travel to a war zone and not do the amazing wonderful Petra.
Here’s how the bus trip to Petra works.
1. The bus picks you up at the hotel.
2. The Israeli tour guide (a South African) introduces himself.
3. The bus takes you to the boarder, where we all get off the bus.
4. We all go through Israeli customs.
5. We all receive pieces of orange paper.
6. We all walk to a gate in the border and hand our orange paper to an Israeli border guard.
7. We all walk through no-man’s land (with fenced off land mine areas) to the Jordanian border.
8. We go through customs again (all the women get searched by the one female Jordanian border guard).
9. We sit on the curb in Jordan waiting for our passports to be given back to us.
10. Pat and I play geography.
11. Pat and I are given some American money that fell out of one of the passports (we are the only Americans on the trip). The money is actually French. We give it to some Dutch people.
12. We get our passports back and get on the Jordanian bus.
13. Our “tourist police” escort gets on with us.
14. We meet our Jordanian tour guide.
And we’re off. First we drive through Aqaba (“We took Aqaba! We did! They did! The Wogs did!” – Peter O’Toole as T.E. Lawrence in Lawrence of Arabia). The thing that strikes me about Jordan is how clean it is. Aqaba is a clean city, and it’s a real city with houses, shops, ports, and immigrant Egyptian day laborers waiting on corners hoping for a job. Despite the fact that it’s a cool day, Jordanians will not stand out in the sun. They will only stand or sit under trees. The trees are casting no shade whatsoever, but damn it, the Jordanians are clinging to the trees. I guess you can’t overcome all those years in the desert with a few parks and a good water filtration system.
Everybody on the bus gets a two-liter bottle of ice-cold water. Again, it’s not 65 degrees, but damn it, we’re going into the desert and we’re going to be prepared.
The rocky hills outside Aqaba and into the desert are spectacular. They are red, black, green, brown, swirled together like a marble cake. Really, really cool. The little villages (and these are villages, not strip malls) seem dusty and dry, but behind the walls are tiny forests of trees and plants. We see some Bedouin camps (poverty, pollution and camels) and big stretches of rocky desert that Abraham and every other patriarch of the Old Testament traipsed through.
Our Jordanian tour guide is really hitting it off with the Dutch tourists. He’s telling them Dutch jokes and the Dutch are wiping their eyes they’re laughing so hard. From these jokes I gather the Dutch have a reputation for being cheap. The big punch line is “cookie-lookie” which I think is the Arabian pigeon English imitation of the Dutch saying, “No we’re not buying, just taking a quick look.”
Pat and I are the only Americans on the bus. There are some English, a few South Africans (I know this because at one point the tour guides tried to return the South African passport to me under the assumption that it was an American passport). Lots of Dutch, of course, and some Spanish speakers (I’m not sure if they’re from Spain).
This tour company used to run two busses a day from Eilat to Petra. Now they run two a week. This is a combination of the renewed troubles in Israel, the impending war against Iraq (which nobody wants, I mean beggars will say to me, “Oh you American? We don’t want war.”), and a horrible terrorist act that happened a couple of years ago in Petra. Basically, a crazy Jordanian soldier opened fire on an Israeli school field trip killing several little girls.
The Late King Hussein gets a lot of credit for how he handled that situation – publicly crossing the boarder into Israel and publicly going to the parents of the dead girls and begging their forgiveness. It is generally agreed that Hussein saved the day. And while he was never a friend of Israel, Hussein was too practical to squander his country’s time and energy on war. Instead, he built his country’s economy, and worked to improve the Jordanians’ quality of life. This is a Middle Eastern country with no oil. And it’s rich. And it’s because of him.
Then Hussein died and everyone sort of held their breath. Hussein’s brother had been his heir for years, but at the last minute, Hussein named his son Abdullah as his heir. Abdullah seems to be doing well and folks are breathing a bit easier. Everywhere you go there are pictures of Hussein. He was king forever, and he was greatly loved. Usually, Abdullah appears in the same picture with his father, or in a separate picture with his wife. The queen is a Palestinian raised and educated in London. Very modern.
After an hour we halt at a rest stop. The gift shop has Christmas Ornaments that say, Jordan 2001. Did I mention that tourism is down? The rest stop is freezing, but it’s nothing compared to the bathrooms. Coldest bathrooms I have ever been in. Absolutely freezing. And the toilet doesn’t flush. I run outside to get warm.
While it’s only 65 degrees, the sun on my back is 80 degrees. If I want my face to be warm, I have to turn around. So, I stand in the parking lot (Jordanians have lots of parking) and turn rotate slowly. Then it’s back on the bus for the last leg of our journey to Petra (it takes about 2 ½ to 3 hours from Aqaba to Petra).
Finally, we’re in Petra. There’s the Indian Jones Gift Shop! There’s the Indian Jones Café! The bathroom in the visitors’ center is filled with squeeling, giggling Jordanian teenage girls in blue jeans and headscarves. It’s not very clean, and the line is long (and loud). Pat assures me and a German tourist that if we can wait 45 minutes, the bathroom in the actual city of Petra is much nicer.
We are told by our tour guides to avoid the horses going down. It’s fine to take the horses, buggies, camels back up – but you should really make the journey down on foot. So this dashes my INDIANA JONES fantasy (Indy rode a white horse into Petra), but oh well.
Petra was build by the nomads, the Nebadeans who made a living off the spice trail. The Nebadeans decided there was more money in providing services to the traders rather than trading, so they sought for the perfect place to build a city along the trade route.
The spot they found was covered by a river. So, sometime around 60 AD, they diverted the river and carved their city into the walls of the canyon that was left behind. So, as we descend into Petra, we are literally walking through what used to be a riverbed. Then, slowly, through a crack that gradually grows larger and larger you begin to glimpse a city.
Dear God, it’s incredible. After you get to Petra, and you gawk at the incorrectly named “Treasury” take a left and take in the rest of the city. I’d really love to try and describe this amazing place, but words will not do it justice. A city – a huge city – carved into the rock. Amazing. Incredible. Disney will be knocking it off soon.
I will say this, even if you don’t have to go to the bathroom, go. The women’s bathroom’s ceiling is the amazing, swirly, rock from which Petra is carved. Pat tried to take a picture from her stall. We hope it turns out. I honestly don’t know if the men’s room is half as good.
There are cafes actually in the archeological site. If you came to stay at one of the luxury hotels (or cheaper ones) in Petra, and decided to spend the whole day here, you could have a nice, leisurely lunch. There are vendors selling everything, including rocks. Sure, they are very pretty, multi-colored, swirly rocks from which Petra is carved but they are rocks.
Where the city of Petra ends is desert. Now, the reason the Nebadeans diverted the river is they wanted a secure place to build their city. We are told over and over that Petra could not be defeated. So what about this big open back door? Well, hundreds of years ago it was a thick forest. The Roman’s cut down most of it, then the English took what was left to build the Orient Express. I’m not sure how that answers the question – but our tour guide seemed to think it did.
Now it’s desert, and it seems that every once in awhile some idiot decides they’re not going to pay the entry fee to Petra. They’ll just come around to the back door. If they’re lucky, a Bedouin on a camel, or an Arab with four-wheel drive saves them. If they’re not lucky, they die.
But you know, I can see why people think they could do it. There are all these little bushes. There are trees. It appears to be rocky. You can see the Marriot Hotel right there. You should be fine, right? Well, my sister went driving in the Wadi Desert with someone who had four-wheel-we-don’t-need-any-stinking-Bedouins-drive. Suffice to say, she was ready to try spelling the word “HELP” out in rocks before they finally found the road again.
We walk back up the canyon road to the visitor’s center. As the path gets wider it’s divided into two sections: walkers and riders. That keeps the walkers from being trampled by the camels, horses, donkeys and buggies. Honestly, we should have taken a buggy back (I’m getting a little winded), but oh well. Since there aren’t a lot of tourists, the horse guys are racing their horses up and down the path. It’s really cool. Granted, they are wearing windbreakers, not robes, but I can’t help but think of Anthony Quinn in LAWRENCE OF ARABIA.
We have a late, late lunch (about 4:00) at the Marriot overlooking Petra. It’s a buffet, and it’s not very good, but it will do. The hotel is beautiful, and empty. We use the bathrooms and take off.
Our Jordanian tour guide, along with the Dutch tourists, sings a Dutch lullaby. Our Israeli tour guide, who is from South Africa, sings us a Masai lullaby. They turn off the lights and we all fall asleep.
When I wake up I am amazed by the brightness of the stars in the sky. They seem so close and there are so many of them and ….. HOLY COW! That’s Perseus, flying in on Pegasus (the winged horse) to save Andromeda from the Sea Monster. I can see them all. Heck, if you’re lucky in the US you can make out Andromeda and maybe a star or two of Perseus. But here, they are so clear and bright. And Pegasus – it really does look like a flying horse. It’s so cool.
There’s very little traffic, but there is a steady flow of trucks. Jordan has a port, and the trucks seem to travel mostly at night. It would make sense.
Going back through Jordanian customs, no man’s land, Israeli customs and back onto our original bus is much quicker. As we are passing through the Israeli gate the guard is explaining to three guys that the Jordanian’s close the boarder in five minutes, and it will take them at least a half hour to go through customs. No, the Jordanian’s won’t hold the gate for them. It’s best if they try tomorrow morning, and leave yourself at least two hours to get through customs.
The Israeli Customs’ House is dedicated to the memory of Rabin. There are a lot of pictures – Rabin smoking a cigarette in the pool, Rabin lighting another world leader’s cigarette, Rabin holding a child and dropping ash on its head. You’d never see that in America.
Gosh, it’s nice to be back at our hotel. Where’s the bedspread? Oh, there it is, wadded up into a ball on top of the wardrobe. Strange how our bedspread no longer fits the bed, it seems to be way to small. I think the maid had a bad day.
Sunday, December 29th, 2002
Pat and I sleep in. The hotel we are staying at is a basic motel. It has a kitchenette, but no continental breakfast, so Pat and I pack up the car, drive over to resort area, and go in search of a breakfast place. All we can find is the Eilat equivalent of Starbucks, and I would really like some bacon and eggs (though I doubt I’m going to find bacon). So, we decide to hit one of the hotels for breakfast. Well, we snacked at Herods, and had dinner at The Dan, so we head to the Hilton for breakfast.
It takes the stunned hostesses a few minutes to figure out what to do with walk-ins. At first, I’m a bit surprised that the staff is surprised, but I quickly figure it out. When you come to Eilat, or the Dead Sea, you stay at your hotel. You take your meals there, you swim in that pool, you use their beach, you go to their spa. Families staying at The Dan don’t head over to Herod’s for lunch.
Finally, they come up with a price and they seat us. The service is mind-boggling bad. It makes the service at the Hyatt buffet at the Dead Sea look good. Pat asks for tea – not the head of John the Baptists – just tea. Our dirty silverware is cleared away, but clean silverware is never brought. Taking are cue from the other diners, we quickly learn to steal from other tables, or just get up, walk over to the wait-stations, and take what we need (napkins, sugar, milk, tea, silverware, etc.). The toaster doesn’t work. There is one guy making omelets, and he’s not quick. All the staff are young teenagers and they are having a great time ignoring the diners and setting up dates with each other.
We hop back in the rental car for the trip through the Negev desert back to Tel Aviv. I check the LONELY PLANET to see if there is anything to break up the five-hour drive. Nope. There is a town that due to Russian Jewish immigration has grown three-fold, and once a week it has a Bedouin market – and the market ain’t that great. There are a lot of wadis to hike in – but Pat and I don’t hike. Wadis look like dry riverbeds. That’s because once or twice a year they are raging riverbeds. When it rains, and it doesn’t have to rain hard, the water all goes one place and you had better get out of the way.
Suddenly we see camels. Now, I’ve seen camels, but this camel is crossing the highway to join his three or four camel friends. There are no Bedouins in sight, and the camels have no harnesses. Are there wild camels? Pat doesn’t know. LONELY PLANET doesn’t help. Pat and I decide that the camels probably do belong to someone, and they know to wander back to the tent at feeding time.
Not really much to say about this trip except the dessert is big, full of wadis, and sprinkled with war memorials. As we get out of the dessert and closer to the coast, the war memorials are replaced with bad Israeli public art. Traffic becomes very, very dense as we get closer to Tel Aviv, but still, everybody let’s you in and the trucks pull over. We get lost in Jaffa (Yaffo), but eventually make it back to Pat’s apartment in Tel Aviv.
Monday, December 30, 2002.
Today is my last day in Israel. We return the rental car, then stop by the Embassy to pick up Pat’s mail and drop off a box of my souvenirs to mail home. We’re going to walk into the artsy-fartsy section of Tel Aviv, ______. Here, you can see how beautiful Tel Aviv could be. The artists have moved into the area and restored the houses. The streets are clean. There are parks, a big center to preserve Israeli dance, and art/industrial workshops for everything from glass blowing to welding (all the better to make hideous Israeli public sculpture). There are chi-chi shops, coffee houses, cute restaurants, and for some reason a strangely large number of boutique children’s stores. There is also a store selling all the Moroccan stuff I bought on Christmas day in the Arab market. The prices are as good or better and the merchandise is clean. Go there for you pottery first.
Pat had clipped an article on a restaurant, and we head there for an excellent, leisurely lunch. The service is excellent (the only time I’ll say that in Israel) and the food is superb. It strikes me as Italian. Certainly the bathrooms, which are tiled on the ceiling (and very clean), strike me as Italian. We have some very good kosher wine (I’m not kidding). Then we’re off to buy expensive handbags at an arty handbag store. I spend too much for my leather and hemp bag, but I figure no one else in NY will have one like it.