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Two People, Fourteen Months, One huge world!

Israel

ISRAEL | Saturday, 30 April 2016 | Views [775] | Comments [1]

I'll be honest. I didn't really want to go to Israel as I have already been twice before, once with Tamara, and felt like I had already seen pretty much everything that I wanted to see there. Don't get me wrong, it is a fascinating country and I have enjoyed my previous visits but there are so many places to see in the world I wanted to avoid repetition. Nonetheless Tamara is a pretty persistent person, our issues with the car insurance had provided a two week opportunity and we were already just next door in Cyprus so it was pretty hard to avoid!

Our resolve for this visit was to break from the norm which is to sign up to a tour group and visit a host of religious sites walking in the footsteps of Jesus and the diciples etc. while never really meeting with local Israelis. On previous visits we had already visited the "genuine and original" upper room, birthplace of Jesus, garden tomb etc. This time the visit was about exploring the land itself and meeting people.

Guess which one was ours!

Rental Car

We got off to a bad start as it took us almost two and a half hours to pick up our rental car from the airport but finally we were on the road to Haifa. It didn't take long for us to realise that, although they are "the chosen people" the Jews were not chosen for their driving ability or patience! Undertaking, overtaking in crazy situations and tailgating abound. It is nothing we haven't seen elsewhere but somehow when transposed to a modern road system and high speeds the effect seems magnified. We finally arrived just shy of midnight and were delighted to be welcomed - not by the landlord but by the occupant of the neighbouring apartment who did his best to make sure that we were entirely at home even down to providing us with some water, milk and other consumables from his own supplies.

Haifa is the adopted home of the Bahai faith. Although I struggle to see how anyone would follow that path through life it is certainly true that they have created a wonderful garden which flows down a steep hillside in near perfect symmetry, even allowing for the fact that there is a road passing right through the middle by bridging over that road and continuing the gardens and water features directly over the top. A team of 100 gardeners / volunteers work on these gardens all year around and the results are a credit to their efforts.

I said Mt. Carmel!

I Said Mt Carmel!

The Bahai gardens are located on Mt. Carmel, the mountain where the prophet Elijah called down fire from heaven to consume his sacrifice after the prophets of Baal were unable to do so. There followed a rout of those prophets and a restoration of Israel to God. We popped up to the summit where this action is duly noted and, after enjoying the spectacular view over the plains of Armageddon our attention was drawn to a large group of mostly black French Christians who were singing together with the greatest enthusiasm. We joined them for a while before eventually walking away. At the gate one of their number who had chased after us got chatting and we went back and hung out with them for a little longer listening and chatting in French.

Mt. Carmel is also the location of an assembly of Messianic Jews (Jews that have accepted Jesus as their Messiah). The Saturday church service was very lively and interesting. Although it was primarily in Hebrew everything was translated into English and through the use of headsets other languages such as Russian were available. I must say that in the whole of our time in Israel we viewed an incredible tolerance of different religions and denominations and freedom for them to meet and worship together or to dress as appropriate to their customs. This was quite different to our experience in Morocco which, although it is one of the more moderate muslim countries is not at all tolerant towards the Christians in its midst.

A Peaceful Bush Walk

Peaceful Bush Walk

Later we moved further down Mt. Carmel into the middle of the national park, an area I had identified as good for a wee bush walk. Not far into the walk we were passed by a car full of youths bumping down the track with their music turned up yelling "party"!  20 metres further along an arm stuck through the window and dumped an empty crate of beers into the already completely littered national park.  As we walked on further the sounds of a large sound system grew until we found ourselves at a rave in the middle of nowhere. We hung around there for a bit and it was fascinating how dancing has changed over the years. It seems dancing together (or even round the dreaded handbags) does not happen anymore, instead it resembled more a glorified exercise class with all participants dancing on their own facing towards the energetic DJs. This was the kind of "inside" Israel we were hoping to encounter!

Exciting Discoveries

Exciting Discoveries

Litter is a real problem throughout the third world. Israel likes to think of itself as akin to a European country but it has a long way to go I'm afraid. The rubbish dumped in the national park was just one pixel in a very messy picture showing a lack of care for their country and the natural environment. The next day we were in Caesarea alongside a centuries old Roman aquaduct which runs alongside the Mediterranean beach. Unfortunately there also was heaps of rubbish strewn around, conveniently ignoring the plentiful bins that are provided. It was not all rubbish in Caesarea though - We walked a little used back path along the coast from the aquaduct to the old city of Caesarea. Along that path there were a number of ruins and then Tamara noticed that she had kicked away some dust exposing an area of old mosaic. We quickly set to with a makeshift brush to expose more which was fun but a little further along the path that experience was put into the shade by a further discovery, this time a much larger mosaic which had already been partially exposed but there was much more buried under ground. Tamara and I were able to break away the rock hard ground to expose more of the mosaic which had been unseen for centuries. It was hard work but even for me it was really exciting. Imagine how Tamara felt having always been fascinated by the stuff of antiquity to the point where she seriously considered becoming an archaeologist earlier in her life!

Dangerous Curves!

Dangerous Curves

Later it was cool for me to be sitting on the dockside where Paul would have sat before commencing on his missionary journeys. The reason we went to Haifa first was in accordance with our intention to travel around the north of the country clockwise ending in Jerusalem for the passover then shooting down to the Red sea for some snorkelling and relaxation at the end of the Israeli leg of our journey. Passover is not just a really important feast for the Jews though, it is also an incredible problem for any visitor to the country. Not only are a large portion of foodstuffs unavailable for sale throughout the country, that is the least of the problems. The big issue is that the whole population goes on holiday at the same time leading to drastically inflated prices (20 times normal prices in popular areas) and incredible conjestion on the roads. Our advice having lived through it is to avoid passover week like the plague if you are planning to visit Israel!

Due to the unavailability of accommodation in Eilat at the end of our trip we changed our plan drastically and headed back south first, travelling the length of the country to the southern shores in one day, just stopping to enjoy the expansive desert views from a walk along the crater rim at Mitzpa Ramon. On the way through the desert we passed numerous military training facilities including a large tank training site complete with many active armoured units carrying out live fire exercises.

Gunboat Protectors

Gunboat Protection

Eilat is a very ordinary town in an extraodinary location. We were fortunate enough to have found a room in a luxury villa with a gorgeous pool and we were well advised by the owners (a dive school) as to the best locations to snorkel. One of these locations was reached from a beach immediately adjacent to the border with Egypt. Sitting on that beach we looked across to Jordan and further to Saudi Arabia with Egypt 100m to our right. This might seem like a hotspot for more than one reason but it is indeed Israel's most stable of borders. Nonetheless with specific threats against tourists in Eilat and the terrible events that have taken places on the beaches of Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere we were very grateful for the reassuring presence of a gunboat moored at the ready a few hundred metres offshore.

Beach Friends

Beach Friends

Our first experience stepping onto the beach which was unexpectedly crammed with tents housing Israeli holidaymakers was to tentatively ask the nearest lady where the best snorkelling spot was. It turned out that from all those hoards we had picked out a lover of New Zealand who had spent a year living and working with a family there and for whom it will always have a very special place in her heart! We chatted for ages and shared that family's matting, seats etc. pausing now and again to slip on the snorkel gear (provided by our dive school hosts for free) and have a swim. Eilat is such a wonderful place to snorkel with huge amounts of tropical fish and a decent amount of coral. The shoreline is roped off so that access to the water is only through defined routes so as to protect the coral from damage. 40 degree temperatures together with warm water provide no barrier to the notion of swimming either! As the sun started to set we were invited to join the family for dinner and we spent a lovely evening chatting together, solving the world's problems and listening to the naval live fire exercises going on far out to sea; a reminder of the real life issues which the locals must be alert to at all times. As our host's husband said (a former battalion comander now with the Prime Minister's office) "it's all quiet until it's not quiet".

After lazing around the pool reading and swimming we returned the next day to another snorkelling site, this time within a marine reserve. We had to pay for this pleasure but only saw the value in this when seeking out the "Rock of Moses" which is some way offshore. Our persistence in searching for it was rewarded though as the marine life and colourful coral are as good there as on any scuba dive I have been on anywhere else in the world. Elsewhere in the reserve it is not possible to get close to the coral - great for conservation but very boring snorkelling!

Snorkelling!

Random Fish Picture

We didn't have much time to hang around and soon were on our way northwards via the Judean desert to the Dead Sea. The Dead Sea has certainly retreated a lot since I first visited thirty years ago due to the use of the water from the River Jordan upstream for irrigation and drinking water. We were very fortunate to find a newly landscaped public beach area with recliners, umbrellas, changing rooms and showers and all at no charge. It is incorrect to say that you go for a swim in the Dead Sea. It can't be called swimming when it is impossible to sink! Watching people enter for the first time is really funny. First of all they wander in thinking it is no different to any other sea and then, when they get in deeper their legs bob to the surface and it is the wierdest feeling. Thereafter it is a case of sitting back and relaxing. Literally, you could easily take a newspaper in with you and then recline and read it. Just don't do what my brother did on his first visit - run in at full speed, fall headlong and then have to be guided to the showers to rinse off the incredibly salty water - painful if you have a shaving cut let alone a couple of eyes full!

Sodom and Gomorrah are adjacent to the Dead Sea and we were intrigued by a sign for "Lot's Wife" which is a local landform - a pillar of salt. The cliffs are all very crystalline and we followed our noses into a mineshaft which went horizontally deep into the cliff face. This is the kind of thing you can't do on a tour and we were again appreciative of the freedom a hire car and flexible schedule offers. That evening we arrived in Jerusalem and checked in to the Abraham Hostel which is located close to the Jaffa Gate on the western side of the city.

Passover Meal

 

Passover Meal

While in Jerusalem we were invited to attend a passover meal with the local messianic jews. This was very interesting to observe and to be a part of and we felt very welcome. We were able to give a lift to a couple of other people and one of these Greg became our companion for the next few days. Greg was in Israel to find some direction in his life and it was interesting to talk with him about where he felt that was taking him. It seems that no-one is in Jerusalem without some form of mission, back-story or alternative world view, it really is a melting pot of humanity. The communal tables of the Abraham Hostel dining area are the scene of many an animated, deep and meaningful conversation between people who have often only just met!

We went into town on the day after the passover meal and it was a Jerusalem unlike any I had seen before. The normally packed streets were virtually deserted. We met up with a guide for a free tour of the city (tip based) and, while waiting for this to kick off were watching a colourful group of Africans singing and dancing in their traditional costumes near to the Jaffa Gate. Imagine our delight when we recognised them as our friends from Mt. Carmel. We just had the chance to go over and say "hello" before the tour started and we were treated to a couple of hours of very interesting inside stories on the development of Jerusalem together with recent history. Our guide carried a gun on his hip which was very rare to see. When questioned he revealed that he is an officer in the defence force reserve and he has to go through very thorough medical, psycological, marksmanship and physical tests each year to be able to continue carrying it. There have been a large number of "lone wolf" attacks on Israeli's this year and he carried it so as to be able to intervene if anything were to happen in front of him. Perhaps certain countries of the world (who shall remain nameless!) could have a look at the responsibilities demanded of their gun carrying citizens before handing out guns like candy at an impromptu "gun show". Just saying!

Dead Sea

 

Dead Sea

 

A large part of our time in Jerusalem was spent underground. First in a tour of the tunnels beside the temple area. A large part of the ancient city is buried way below today's ground level and they are systematically tunneling away and exposing the Roman roads, the original temple wall (actually a retaining wall which formed the ground base of the Herodian temple) and various old dwellings. Above ground the Jews pray alongside each other, writing their prayers on slips of paper and pressing them into the cracks between the huge stones. The area for the men is a fair bit larger than that for the women and so to compensate the women are permitted into the tunnels at any time to pray against the wall closest to the location of the Holy of Holies.

Another tunnel that we passed through was far more rough and ready and required us to slip off our shoes and wade through at times thigh deep water. This was the tunnel built by Hezekiah (King of Judah 800 years before Christ) to protect the city water supply during times of siege and was the saving of the city more than once. All in all the tunnel stretched for around 600m and ending in the Pool of Siloam from whence we returned by an alternative tunnel which took us back to the same area as the first departed from in an area known as the City of David. I'm all for equal opportunities but I would counsel any severely obese people not to attempt this tunnel as it could lead to an embarrasing blockage as it gets very narrow at times and those walls aren't going anywhere soon!

Lot's Wife and Caves

Lot's Wife

Of course there were many more artifacts to view in Jerusalem; the pool of Bethsesda, the mount of Olives and the reconstructed treasures housed in the Temple Institute where all the candelabra and items described for Solomon's temple have been faithfully recreated in gold etc. ready for the re-establishment of the temple. Bear in mind that the temple mount is currently occupied by the Dome of the Rock one of the Muslim religion's mostsacred sites (said to be the spot where Abraham was to have offered Isaac as a sacrifice before God intervened - an event common to Islam, Christianity and Judaism) and you can see the makings of an almighty stouch if and when it is deemed the time to re-build the Jewish Temple. This is championed not so much by the average Israeli but by the Ultra-Orthodox Jews as we were informed by our next Jewish host in the very North of Israel - Kiryat Shmona. He has formed a dim view of the Ultra-Orthadox as they are the most against the establishment of Israel as a nation. This suprised me as they are also the ones most likely to be pushing the frontiers with their settler villages in the West Bank but it turns out that they will not participate in the otherwise compulsory national service because they do not recognise the authority of the state of Israel on the grounds that it cannot be established until the Messiah returns!

It was fascinating chatting to the ordinary Israeli's whenever we got the chance. Very often there was a feeling that they just wanted to live at peace and that they were happy for the West Bank to return to Jordan and for the Gaza Strip to return to Egypt if that is what it takes (neither recipient country wants this solution or the occupants by the way). There is no simple solution so it seems but what is a little confusing to the outsider is the difference between "Palestinians" which largely live in the two areas noted above and "Israeli Arabs" which live side by side with Jews, Christians, Muslims etc. in the remainder of Israel. From what I can see there is no chance at all of the Golan Heights being returned to Syria from where the shelling of Israel can resume as it did through the 60s and 70s. The feeling is that it was once again territory gained during a defensive war and is too valuable strategically to return under any circumstances and particularly so with the instability of Syria. This is not intended to offer my solutions nor to spark debate on who is oppressing who. Just to reflect the conversations that we held with people actually living life in the melting pot that is Israel. If you want to continue the discussion in great depth I recommend visiting the land, talking with the people and debating with them.

Spring Flowers

Spring Flowers

Kiryat Shmona is right up on the Lebanese border. So close that I confess that I sought a number of opinions from locals as to whether it was sensible for us to locate there for a few days. While there we visited the lovely waterfalls in the Banias national park and continued up to explore the Nimrod fortress set high on the hills overlooking the Upper Gallilee region. Everywhere wild flowers abounded and we often found ourselves driving along tree lined roadways. The former was nature released - the latter nature harnessed, not for beauty but as protection against shelling from the Golan Heights where Syrians used to like to indulge in target practice against any vehicles travelling the highways of the region.  Wherever we drove in Israel we found hitchikers and particularly during the Passover week when all universities are closed.  All the hot spots are clogged with young people with one finger pointing down (the equivalent of our one thumb up).  We stopped to share our limited car space with a few of these and they were very grateful.

We couldn't visit such a region without going up to the borders with each troubled country. Overlooking Syria in particular it was crazy to be looking across a land in such conflict. Although it was quiet when we visited, some months before it was possible to stand on these hills and listen to the sounds of battle beyond, a little like the WAGs of the middle ages. Very surreal! Talking of surreal, visiting the village of Metula which is pressed hard against the border with Lebanon was another level. Contrary to all other villages we had visited this one was a model village created by the Baron Rothschild and it has a slightly "Swiss" feel. It is amazing though that this is not abandoned given how many times it has been the subject of rocket attacks from Hamas terrorists within Lebanon. The town sits across the face of a hill facing north and must give the appearance of a dart board for any chap with a rocket and a sick mind. The British and French drew the boundary between the nations at this point and having decided that this farming village will for ever Israel be they drew the line just past the houses but excluded the fields belonging to those same farmers. Those were strange times! It is said that the soil in those fields is so good that if a farmer were attacked by a snake then he could find no stone with which to defend himself. They certainly seem lush and well cared for to this day but it was strange to be peering at them through a heavily defended border fence with armoured patrols visible on either side.

So there you are, it turned out I enjoyed Israel far more than I thought and we certainly got the alternative view that we were looking for. Unfortunately Israel is a very expensive place to travel around and with the coincidence with Passover week we ended up going $1000 over budget during the 13 nights that we were there so I guess we will have to be a bit more careful from hereon in.

Until next time.....

Tags: archaeology, coral, debate, locals, snorkelling

 

Comments

1

Looks like Tamara was right this time and everyone goes over budget every now and then but the memories you will have for the rest of your life.

  Frances Jun 20, 2016 9:01 AM

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