01 March 2015

Israel 2011

Continuing from Jerusalem 2011, my second day in Israel had such a growing air of absurdity that my irreverent funny-bones were irresistibly tickled. I can but relate the tale with as much dignity objectivity propriety as possible.

Overnight our ship moved north to the port of Haifa but it was still a two-hour drive to Nazareth and the Galilee area. Heading north, that is, to within shooting distance of the Golan Heights. It was a cool day, becoming colder as it went on. Our earnest guide began by giving us his real name but insisted we call him Bud. It's a bonding technique employed by experienced guides, often successfully, with foreign-language tourists. But possibly Bud was a trainee. 

Bud was severely pronunciation-challenged in the English language. He mentioned Moslems praying at their masks which should have been a clue but wasn't, not at first. We understood Ga-lilly quite quickly. I don’t know how many times he spoke of the disableds before we caught on he meant disciples. Since he was so eager and bursting with information to give us, no-one wanted to hurt his feelings by drawing attention to it and we translated as best we could. He referred constantly to the BY-bical (Bible) which ~sorry~ cracked me up each time. Discreetly.

What's more, Bud or his employer had decided that every stop would have a reading from the New Testament, presumably to enrich our understanding of Jesus’ time spent in this part of the country. I suspect he had been practising with devout Christian pilgrim tours. Whereas our group might be called an eclectic or ecumenical mix.

Away to Nazareth, hometown of Jesus' parents. First, Basilica of the Annunciation commemorating the angel telling Mary she is pregnant. All newish-looking, because it has been reconstructed; bits of the previous Byzantine structure have been incorporated. The contemporary art featured in this church was outstanding, and we had time to appreciate it! We went below to an excavation believed to be Mary’s family house and then next door to see Joseph’s workshop under the Church of St. Joseph. First-century ruins and tools were found here. Exhilarating stuff for history-archaeology-culture junkies.

Things soon went rapidly downhill. Our bus deposited us next at the obligatory souvenir shop, more of the exorbitant prices, we feeling like a captive market. Bud stipulated a twenty-minute stay and waited outside to herd us back to the bus which was re-locating itself but he didn't tell us that.

We browsed around and finally I was at the cash register a bit late and flustered because of it, when Bud said to me, don’t rush, don’t worry. Exiting the shop I saw no Bud, no group sign waving, no bus in sight, no people I recognized. The roundabout where we'd been dropped off was insane with traffic. Oh well, they left without me, right? Head count fail? I decided to stick with last known whereabouts, wishing uselessly for an ice cream fix. 

While ruefully inspecting my extravagant purchases, another group from the ship came to shop so their guide called my guide. Panicky Bud came running to fetch me. Seems I was holding up the schedule; apologies to all. Really, it was only fifteen minutes and others had arrived just before me, slightly dazed at temporarily being lost. It's apparent the ship's rep had already berated hapless Bud for his oversight. Everyone settled down with a few disgruntled glances at Bud.
Onward to the Church of the Beatitudes, location of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. The Franciscan Sisters built this octagonal church in the 1930s, a lovely building with a breathtaking view from the exterior colonnades over the town of Capernaum and the Sea of Galilee. The eight sides represent the eight beatitudes, also depicted in the upper windows. Bud was so absorbed in his recital he didn't notice we tended to spread out in all directions. Here like many holy places, a forbidding iron fence encloses the site.

As we left, head count in order, our bus exited the narrow gate and there was an almight horrendous metallic

                            CRACK ...

... making us all jump. Three windows on the right side of the bus shattered and fell. Passengers beside the windows were stunned. TERRORIST attack?! We were all stunned, mute, edging toward the floor to cower. 

Oh, wait.

Turns out the bus driver incautiously scraped the iron gate with the side of the bus, making it bend, causing the windows above to break. Said driver's speed at the time and his spatial sense became noisily debated. Limping to our next destination at minimum speed, we heard a replacement bus had been ordered. The addition of an alfresco breeze made it even cooler and we were going to be really late everywhere.

With a few of us still half-traumatized, we reached the Capernaum area, location of much of Jesus' ministry.

 A tour highlight was to be a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee. Groups of tourists were coming and going from the boats that had rows of seats. As we filed into the boat, the rain began to pour. Nevertheless, we forged ahead onto the water to experience Jesus and the Disableds going fishing. Undeterred, Bud was diligently droning quoting the BYbical again; maybe he had waterproof pages, we couldn't even see him up front in the blind downpour. The awning over the seats was useless, leaking buckets onto us; besides, the rain was coming laterally with a ferocious wind. We were drenched. Visibility absolute zero. Some wag might have mentioned Noah's Ark.

Wisely, someone not steadfast Bud decided to abandon course and return us to the dock, soaked and miserable. You understand why no photographs are available. We had to wait some time, dripping and idle, in the tourist building for our new bus to arrive. Late for lunch at a typical “we cater to tourist busloads” restaurant, for a hasty meal followed by a tablespoon of coffee.

 Nearby at Tabgha, mercifully the rain had stopped. The small Church of the Primacy of St. Peter marks where Jesus appeared for the third time post-resurrection. Rebuilt over a fourth-century church, the original vibrant mosaics have been preserved within. Seeing the Disableds out fishing in the early morning, Jesus cooked a fish barbecue for them, according to the book of Bud. Even though his verbal delivery lacked magnetism, his pronunciation of "barbecue" was spot on (or possibly it was his interpretation of "breakfast"). The sculpture represents Jesus declaring Peter the favoured Disabled (apparently Bud was not attempting Apostle).
Close by is the Church of the Multiplications (which sounded like Bud-speak, but it's short for Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes). A replica of a fourth-century structure in a beautiful seaside setting, the mosaic floor here is one of the most renowned art works in the country, memorializing the feeding of the five thousand. Bud found a perch on a rock and wired himself up for a lengthy BYbical reading at which sign many of the group were circumspectly drifting aside to the beckoning seashore.

Further on, Capernaum was a village where Jesus is believed to have lived at Peter's home for a time. A modern octagonal church now houses the excavation of Peter's house, only discovered in 1968. It's amazing to think such discoveries are still occurring. The ruins of a fourth-century synagogue over its first-century foundation inspired passing dreams of ancient times. Built and rebuilt so many times, the site yielded artifacts from every age. Jesus likely worshipped and taught here.

Late in the day the question was whether we had time to reach Yardenit, the baptismal site of Jesus on the Jordan River. So yes, because Bud was full of steam even as we were wilting. Sadly, the day had turned to night so photography was not the best.

This long-established site "competes" with the more recently uncovered baptismal site downriver in Jordan which I saw eight years ago yet another example of tradition(s) as our Jerusalem guide would have said. What a difference. Here, much catering to tourists with souvenir hawking and amenities; and even in the cold, dark dampness, a small but steady stream of pilgrims was descending the stairs to immerse themselves. In Jordan, we almost had to hack our way through long grasses and shrubs to reach a modest platform on the stream without another soul in sight (although it's coming, I'm sure; the nearby excavation had been done and one church had been built).

All in all, I'd say a fairly solid introduction to modern Israel. By now Bud should be well-versed in both the New Testament and the inexplicable ways of foreigners.

I'm not done with you yet, Israel. I still pine to see Masada and Qumram and the Negev Desert.

© 2015 Brenda Dougall Merriman. All rights reserved.

19 February 2015

Jerusalem 2011

The cruise allotted two days for the storied Holy Land; as a one-time student of the New Testament, I was thrilled at this opportunity, however fleeting. It was enough, barely, for an interesting taste of very awesome history. Instead of stamping our passports, the Israelis issued us with short-term visas. That saved us from being barred future entrance to inimical Arab states, a customary and appreciated gesture. 

From the port of Ashdod it's a one-hour drive to Jerusalem, everyone in high anticipation.

The name of our guide, who was very good when we could hear her, escapes me now. She was well-trained to deal with any challenging or religious-type questions. If we asked why Jesus' body was commemorated in different places, or queried dubious tales about the Stations of the Cross, the answer was always the same: “It’s tradition.” Thereby causing an earworm in moi for the remainder of the day of Zero Mostel belting it out in Fiddler on the Roof.

Our splendid morning overview saw the city from the heights of Mount Scopus and the Mount of Olives. Note the view of Jerusalem seemingly surrounded by one big cemetery; here, Jews and Moslems peacefully share. The golden Dome of the Rock can be seen ahead on the eastern flank; it was not open for tourists that day, very disappointing. I, of course, was distracted by camel men patiently waiting for customers. After that it seemed abruptly soon for the obligatory stop at an obligatory souvenir shop. The prices were outrageous: reality tempering some of our expectations.

 From one site to another, the vehicular traffic that day was horrendous; one can only assume it's 365 days a year. It's a small miracle we saw so much. Most memorable was the morning visit to the small Garden of Gethsmane beside the Church of All Nations. Ancient olive trees date back "to Byzantine times." It was the only spot of peace and quiet the entire day. A Franciscan monk was gathering olives; he must be quite accustomed to a constant file of gaping tourists.

Jerusalem is quartered into Christian, Moslem, Jewish, and Armenian sections. Among them the holy sites are managed by different religious organizations or nationalities, not without some difficulties. We passed the Place of the Skull, site of the crucifixion, having variable traditions for its eery name. Nearby we saw what is believed to be Joseph of Arimathea's tomb where Jesus was laid. It's within the British-sponsored Garden of the Tomb, and is a relatively recent archaeological discovery. It was a lovely place, not too crowded. Unfortunately, our special guide there spoke in such a low voice she was inaudible to most of us.

 In the afternoon we entered the Old City through the Jaffa gate. We were then well into the crush. A seething mass of international humanity swarmed outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the traditionally accepted site of both the crucifixion and where Jesus' body lay for three days. Dozens of guides with competing voices waved their distinctive markers aloft as group signals. It's easy to imagine being trampled should some disaster strike. In the noisy melee, our guide beckoned us to inch our way into the almost pitch-black interior.
The mosaic portrays the anointing and burial preparation of the body. Armenian Apostolic, Greek Orthodox, and Roman Catholic faiths care for shrines within the site. Everyone wants to touch the Rock of Calvary around which the church was built. Here, as at most places, emotional Christians were in various stages of prayer, often blocking the view. No dallying; you move with your group or you're lost. 

Little did we realize that being a Friday, the foot traffic was extra busy. Moslem holy day meant streams of people heading for the mosques. By late afternoon, Jewish Shabat was drawing throngs to the Western Wall, our ultimate destination. We stumbled single file along part of the Via Dolorosa, unbalanced on one side by overbearing Hasidim racing to the Wall and jostled on the other side by eager stall owners. Very disappointing not to have the Stations of the Cross pointed out, or if they were, not being able to hear our guide - way in front - leading our column. Glancing at the map in my hand was risky; one unguarded moment and this surging sea could easily swallow the troupe.

The Via, of course, like most of the Old City, is built up in layers and the first century AD was really meters below us, explaining why many sanctuaries and chapels are underground. References to bits of excavation we saw were lost in the general hubbub. I managed to spot the 5th Station of the Cross where Simon the Cyrenian assisted Jesus in carrying the cross. Here at the Franciscans' earliest chapel is an ancient stone said to bear the hand print of Jesus. Tradition, I suppose. I have a Kilroy-was-here moment.

The Western Wall
Outside the gates
The traffic delays, the crowds, the pressure to include as many places as possible inevitably create frustration at being unable to view without much pause or reflection. And yet, many marvelling flashes at the amazing panorama of human history! One is always aware of the passage of often-tumultuous centuries that altered, destroyed, excavated, or reconstructed the historic memorials. Most definitely I would return if I could. Having a personal guide would be worth it.
Originally I planned to include my second day in Israel in this post. Things tumbled out of hand as my journal sparked memories good, bad, and funny. I enjoyed relating the next one so much in retrospect, all I can say is come back to read (soon) Israel 2011.

Photographs, BDM November 2011.

© 2015 Brenda Dougall Merriman. All rights reserved.

10 February 2015

Sinai, Egypt 2011

Early in the morning we load into the expected four-wheel drive jeeps. Much as I dislike them, they are necessary for traversing the mountainous southern tip of the peninsula, very difficult terrain to travel. My first visit to the southern Sinai. We first pass through a bit of Sharm el-Sheik—the hotel area where many high-level Middle East meetings take place. I think of my friend who was here just after the Six Days War, as a guest on an Israeli training exercise. No hotels for them; they slept on the beach where nomads passed in the night with their camels. The immense climb takes us thousands of feet above sea level to reach the desert.

The paved road soon comes to an end. Then it takes another 1½ hours (I suppose it would take half a day on a camel :-) along twisting, up-and-down, bumpy tracks to a Bedouin village. The striking landscape is merely part of the Sinai; the stereotypical desert, the ocean of sand, is way north of here. As it is, we have all the sand anyone could want in the passes among the rocky peaks.
Nearing our destination, a few excited boys appear on camels to race around us. The village is a small random collection of seemingly half-finished homes with the more familiar outlying tents. A gaggle of kids, possibly all the children, has turned out to assist the tourists with the prescribed “Bedouin experience.” The little girls wear the hijab but otherwise it’s a motley group of T-shirts and sweaters.

Like the Jordanian government, Egypt has made an effort to provide Bedouins with permanent locations—assured supplies of water, staples, and a few basic installations. No doubt they prefer their comfortable tents. Government largesse doesn’t stop many of them from the customary seasonable migration back and forth with livestock ... they have permission to pass into/through countries like Jordan and Saudi Arabia without passports. One supposes this village site was chosen at an original oasis but I see no sign of it. 

The school
Along with such intervention come schools. And tribal ambivalence. Most parents believe “learning” will entice their children away from the traditional life. If they get too much education they will likely leave the tribe to pursue greener pastures. Pun intended. Maintaining family, tradition, and the tribe are everything. Therefore children are seldom in school long enough to learn more than fundamentals. 
Our reception is a communal effort ... to a degree. The village men do the negotiating with our harried tour leader. The kids are the camel handlers. Women are never seen. Mounting the camels is a scene of confusion. Scarcely time for photography unless you have three or four hands. English is non-existent except for our leader/translator. It’s odd to be riding with a group. Impossible to communicate to my child camel handler (a) could your camera shot get both me and the whole camel in, and (b) my saddle was cinched off-centre (a test of the abs to keep upright). 
An hour or so later at a genteel pace, we find refreshment waiting at a purpose-built, rudimentary compound. Not before more confusion and milling around at the dismount. With sign language and graphic facial expressions, the kids haggle fiercely for more than the expected tip. Mission accomplished .. for the most part .. and they vanish. It’s disappointing to me that our “experience” does not include a Bedouin tent. Or at least a facsimile.
We are grateful to be directed to the shade of one open hut; our guide huddles with the local men and the jeep drivers in another. The sun is so overbearing I can’t get a decent photo in the starkly contrasting interiors. Boiled mint tea may sound strange on a blazing hot day but the effect is refreshingly welcome. The men bring us a snack of fresh goat cheese and lebe, cooked on a fire as we watch and make admiring noises. Handmade crafts are displayed for purchase. Sadly, you can hardly say we are interacting with them. I wish to, but can’t, dissociate myself from some of my companions who are dressed for a California beach romp in shorts and sleeveless shirts. Hasn’t anyone heard of cultural respect? 
Passing back through the village later, the young boys reappear all scrubbed up for Friday prayers. Where is the mosque, I wonder. Are they saying goodbye to us or wanting money for photo opps?

Reflection: In case it wasn’t apparent, my unease during the day had increased. I felt disengaged, disconnected, tourist-trappy. Not that I think a North American female will ever have the slightest meaningful dialogue with these people, but the ambivalence, the paradox, was too ironic. We seemed to be amidst a trial start-up business for this particular village or tribe. I think they haven’t resolved the means to their end, which is presumably to strengthen their micro-economy. We seem mere objects of mild curiosity to the children, or perhaps we are viewed only as cash machines. Limited exposure to us apparently inspires no thoughts of leaving home so tradition is safe on that front.  

The awkwardness is entirely forgivable. I know of successful ventures amongst the Bedu in other places where tourists are accepted not only as economic contributors but treated with friendship and good humour. One has to spend more than a few hours with them. And I much prefer negotiating a solo ride.   

Photographs BDM, November 2011

© 2015 Brenda Dougall Merriman. All rights reserved.

31 January 2015

Eastern Med Islands 2011

Mediterranean islands are chock full of ancient history. A romantic can easily imagine Jason and the Argonauts or Odysseus sailing amongst them in ships of yore. Our somewhat larger 600-passenger craft glided into Rhodes harbour early in the morning. Day trips are hardly more than a superficial cultural experience, but luckily we were off-season with few other tourists.
Rhodes is one of the bigger Greek islands, situated off the south coast of Turkey. Must-see is the UNESCO heritage-designated Old Town and in it, the Grand Masters' Palace, a centuries-old seat of the Knights of St. John (also known as Knights of Malta and other appellations). What did I know about the Knights? Close to zip: recalling dim thoughts of the Crusades. Richard the Lion Heart. And shades of ambitious mystery novelists who attribute all manner of mysterious skulduggery to the order.

We spent most of our time exploring the magnificent 14th century palace that houses the Byzantine Museum. In 1856 the palace was largely destroyed by an accidental explosion in its armoury; almost one hundred years later it was painstakingly rebuilt and restored from the original plans. To use their full title, the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta dates back to the monastic Order of St. John of Jerusalem, dedicated to caring for sick and poor pilgrims in the Holy Land.

It became a military as well as religious order under a Papal charter; its mission then expanded to defence of the Holy Land at the time of the First Crusade. The order attracted members from everywhere in Europe to make it a fierce defensive Christian force. After Jerusalem fell to the Ottomans in 1291, the Knights moved their administration and hospitals to Rhodes, Cyprus, and Malta over a period of time.
  In the museum, I was thrilled to see one of my favourites, the reproduction of Laoco├Ân, “one of the greatest of all artworks.” The original masterpiece is attributed to Rhodes sculptors and when discovered in Rome it was grabbed for permanent display in the Vatican’s Belvedere Garden.
The Knights began fortifying the town of Rhodes when they arrived in the early 1300s. The outer grounds of the palace now provide a park for exercise and families.

After an enjoyable little trek downhill through narrow streets we had adequate time to gaze around a central square and look at the shops. On the way a picturesquely pathetic small child was playing a faintly familiar song on a bouzouki type instrument. Seeking handouts of course. It would have made a striking photo if the camera had been uppermost in mind. Some of our group, all supposedly well-travelled, had to be told NOT to give her money when she should be in school. An ice cream shop has amusing creations in its display window.

Greece was in bad financial shape in 2011 and the tourist industry was suffering. Our local guide Ireni was not optimistic about the upcoming election, urging us to return soon, bring our friends.


Cyprus is a divided island, as we know. Limasol was our port, in Greek jurisdiction. Rumour has it the town is filled in season with the nightclubbing offspring of Russian oil-money and possibly serves as an offshore tax haven. Or money laundering; take your pick. My tour went into the hills to see mountain villages, thus I missed discovering any direct evidence of the jetsetting Russian oligarchy. 
 Beautiful scenery and sometimes terrifying hairpins on the mountain road led us to a variety of craft and home industries. It only took the first visit to see how business had stalled in the discouraging economic climate. Production had basically stopped. Owners, managers, or employees whoever was tasked with showing us around these places were subdued. Our local guide Antoinetta was the most animated soul of the day.
Photo of their poster

At the village of Agros we visit House of Roses, a small factory based on cultivation of (immense fields of) the ancient Mesopotamian Rosa Damascena. They produce perfume, cosmetics, wine, candles, ceramic ware, and what-have-you. The site was virtually vacant: no humming of machinery or chatter of workers. A brief introductory talk was uninspired; much more time was given to browsing the shop for souvenirs. 

Photo of their poster

After that was a cottage-industry of jams, jellies, preserves, and candy. We toured the pristine kitchen where I believe a woman was at work stirring something. Preserved tender young walnuts and a candy made from fresh grapes are specialities. Samples, of course. Our bags were getting heavier with fragrant and tasty purchases.  

Then came the winery. Just the right time for a tasting. Here we found more enthusiasm in the unabashed sales talk, maybe because the harvest was over as a natural course of events rather than due to financial woes. All wines were unfamiliar but I bought a red, knowing enough to steer away from the retsina.

A pensive moment on their terrace with the cats was worth its weight in gold.

Barely disguised commercial promotion on a "tour" is easily forgiven because these people are desperately dependent on the tourist trade and we were the only tourists around. Of course we felt silently obliged to spend some money as we met one pair of melancholy eyes after another. Did we help prop up the economy? Not so much, I think. Even more so than Ireni yesterday, Antoinetta implored us to come back to her island again.

Occasional tiny churches dot the area, one dating from the 11th century! Stop the bus! But no, we have an agenda and today it apparently does not include history. To my great disappointment. Trying to capture them through a moving window is impossible. The sun starts to set on the Mediterranean about 5 p.m. this time of year; it gets dark earlier if you’re in a mountainous area. So that puts a natural end to a day’s excursion. 

© 2015 Brenda Dougall Merriman. All rights reserved.