Monday, February 02, 2009

The Holy Land

Some of my readers have been aware that I visited Israel and other places a couple of weeks back. It was truly one of the great experiences of my life, and one I'll never forget. I need to record this trip.
My wife and I traveled from London Heathrow (or Thiefrow as the locals call it due to the high number of thefts allegedly committed by baggage handlers - allegedly, that is - all Union-Affiliated Magpies as far as I am concerned). The flight is long - about 5.5 hours, almost as much as traveling to New York. Unusually, food was free - and excellent in quality (turkey with rice and veggie bits, and no onion or garlic), and drinks were free! An added bonus, where most airlines charge at least $6 for a small can of beer. Another major bonus was that there were no infants and screaming brats on board. There was no doubt that an armed member of the Israeli securiy service was on board. Experienced this situation in China many moons back. I suspect the situation in Israel does not enamour families to travel there, but they are missing a great treat.
Ben Gurion Airport is THE finest airport I have ever been to. London's airports could learn a thing or three. It is vast, but well secured. Questions were asked by officials, but they were polite. We were on our way in a taxi just 10 minutes after landing, having collected two large suitcases (my wife was disappointed not to be able to bring the kitchen sink, but the weight equated to one).
We arrived at our hotel in Tel Aviv. 'Sea views' exclaimed the brochure. Yeah, right. Only if one leaned out of the window at a precarious angle. The room (and the hotel) was grim. They did not have non-smoking rooms - I kid you not. There was a mini-bar, but nothing in it, and a lone kettle. No coffee. My wife was all for leaving, but after a walk around the hotel's advertized 'excellent restaurant, and comfortable bar', it was all I could do to persuade her to stay until morning at least. It was truly grim. She was not happy. I had managed a discount on the price when booking - down 30% to $120 a night. I checked other hotels in the area, they are all overpriced. We decided to walk to a local 7/11 equivalent without the gas station. Instead of venturing out into the main city - something the UK's Foreign Office strongly advised against at night - I decided to prepare a chicken fricassee in the room. My wife loved it. It was actually some wonderful fresh bread, with cheese and chips (US variety). Israeli bread is one of the best I've ever tasted, and their cheese is also first class. All washed down with a local beer which at over $2 a bottle was a bit steep in my view (the beer is called Maccabee - sounded Scottish!). There was no TV guide in the room (there was no guide to anything except the phone in the room), but I found Eurosport and Communist Nonsense News (aka CNN). Neither appealed, but there was some ice-dancing on Eurosport. I remember taking my daughter Susan to skating classes in Streatham all those years back, and she was so proud of her 'cerstificate'. We took Rik on the ice once. He successfully up-ended me twice. But I digress.
The morning came, and it was a beautiful day. We went to the old harbor in Tel Aviv. Lots of 'classy' clothes shops and women on bicycles. We then went to the proper beach. This was fantastic. Several artificial reefs have been built about 100 yards out in the Med. The sand is perfect for making sandcastles, and several watering holes along the beach completed the picture. Why families don't come is beyond me. Keep your Majorca. We enjoyed the low 70s sunshine (about low 20s for those who don't understand F).
We took a bus tour of the city, and went to Jaffa. It is very old, and is reputed to be the place where Jonah was swallowed by the whale as he tried to escape from God. There is a metal memorial to this event in the city. The architecture is an eclectic mix of Middle East, North African and some dubious 60s wonders. Our guide stated this was 'international architecture'. Personally, I was impressed with Jaffa. So many Welsh chapels in my homeland seem to have been built in a similar style, and many named after Jewish towns - Moriah, Engedi, Nazareth, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Calfaria, etc. My father would have been proud.
We went through many parts of Tel Aviv, where Jews, Muslims and Christians live in what appears to be perfect harmony. I wondered about this, but could only dwell on it. We saw where several suicide bombers had attached civilians and children. Although out of reach of Gaza and the murdeous Hamas (until now that is), we saw what effect these rockets fired by Hamas can do.
We traveled by a mini-bus to Jerusalem and Bethlehem. This was extermely memorable. We saw Mount Zion, and walked the way Jesus walked carrying the cross to Calvary. There is one place where apparently, Jesus leaned against a wall, and people have been placing their hand in that spot for 2,000 years, and it is indented. We saw where Jesus' body was prepared after he died; it is a stone slab in the Church of the Sepulchre. We saw the Garden of Gethsemane. A very important place is the Wailing Wall. This where many Jewish and Christian people come to pray. You can write a note asking God for help for anyone. I made my note, praying for my family and in particular, for friends who need those prayers, and put it in a crack in the wall. I had to wear the 'kippah' to enter. Pam had to go to a separate place as women and men are not allowed to mix. I was again surprised how the different communities lived happily together. Maybe there's hope there yet. It's been nearly 42 years since the Yom Kippur War.
After Jerusalem, we went to Bethlehem. We had to change vehicles and guides, as we went to the Palestinian Authority's bailiwick. This new guide was not a nice man. Rude, arrogant, opinionated, and the 'Israelis are not nice people'. Apart from the Church of the Nativity, including the spots where Jesus was born, and placed in the manger, Bethlehem has nothing going for it. It is a city that Israel have placed walls all around - just like Berlin in the bad old days. But this is to stop the suicide bombers going into Israel. Both parties hate each other. Tourists were hassled all the time in Bethlehem to buy their stuff. All very sad, in my view. The Palestinians never mentioned that all their water, plumbing and other essential services are supplied by Israel. I must stop getting political!
One of the funniest things I saw in Jerusalem (in the Muslim Quarter) was T-Shirt which said, 'Don't Worry America, Israel is Behind You' complete with a picture of a military jet.
The following day, we went to Masada. This is an ancient site on top of a 1,400 foot mountain build by King Herod. Today, it has a cable car to carry us up the 1,400 feet. This is by the Dead Sea, which lies over 1,400 feet below sea level, so we were at sea-level. Makes Death Valley look positively tall! The site is well worth a visit, and much of the relics of the past have remained. I think there was a Mini-TV series about it many years back with Peter O'Toole.
After that, a thrilling time was had in the Dead Sea. Now, conventional wisdom says that humans cannot drown due to the salt content. I can assure everyone that this is false. If it hadn't been for the quick reactions of a fellow Brit, I would have been no more. To be fair, I walked out to about 3 feet of water, but being unable to swim, I found the experience 'worrying'. Suddenly, my legs came up, and I was floating on my back - a totally alien position to a human being in my view. I tried to turn over to save myself, and swallowed much of the salty water. Not nice. Stings the eyes too. My fellow Brit rescued me (reluctantly, I might add), and with a few words like 'bugger', I was out of there. Much to the mirth of about 200 Nigerian folks. These people seemed to follow us everywhere. It seems the Nigerian Government (when not running their scams) donate $1,500 to each Christian to visit the Holy Land. We saw them at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem where their women's chanting was the epitome of 'wailing'. They followed us throughout Old Jerusalem, and bought half the goodies that were on offer. They piled these morsels into plastic bags. Apparently, they will sell these tidbits at a premium when back in Nigeria. The Nigerian women were all inappropriately disrobed in my view - 'bits' were loudly displayed, slightly, but unsuccessfully covered by some green nylon, but they kept encouraging me to try to float again. It sounded like, 'Papa drown', but I was assured it was 'Papa swim'. Papa? Pah! Pam thought it was funny, and took snaps. Thankfully, it was the low 70s (translate that Kim), so it wasn't too bad when I walked out of the water. When I was in the men's changing room, sharing with 130 male Nigerians, one explained that my display had heartened all of them. I was so pleased. Not sure I understood what they meant. However, we parted as best of friends with much handshaking.
We crossed the Judean desert. Nothing but sand and hills of sand. And a few Bedoiuns, who seem to scratch a living from the desert. They have their camels, donkeys, goats (their cheese is excellent, and guaranteed to remove all plaque from your teeth) and some of them had satellite TVs. I couldn't quite work out where they got their electric power from. I didn't venture to consider their plumbing arrangements despite Pam's incessant questioning on this subject.
We returned to the relative calm of Tel Aviv, and had another chicken fricassee. Cheapskate, I hear? No; reality! We were both too tired to venture out. And it was nothing to do with the Foreign Office's advice to stay indoors at night. That is all poppycock! And Pam wanted to watch the final of the ice-dancing. I think I can honestly say that an upright spin, and a toe loop jump does nothing for me.
On our last night, we ventured out against all the Foreign Office's advice. Peace. Perhaps there is some political issue involved. Personally, I think that Israel is the best place for a vacation. I really do. The beaches are great, prices may be high, but with the security around, there is not a problem.
Oh, security. I forgot to mention, that at any store one enters, there is security - armed - ditto any hotel entered. It is comforting to see off-duty military folk carrying their Uzis with them at all time. Some people may not like that, but to me, it signified a sure environment.
I can provide any snaps at will.
After this trip, I had to go to Germany two days later to record my experiences. The result is that I am totally 'knackered'. But, after a few days' rest, I am now OK again.
Here endeth today's lesson.
PS. Please remember to ask for snaps...