A long day of travel: Jordan to Chicago – October 18, 2008
The super early morning drive to the airport was beautiful–about 45 minutes. The road signs offered us a variety of places to see if we took a wrong turn.
We arrived with plenty of time…and thank goodness…the rest of the airport/flight experience was a series of challenges.
Returning the car wasn’t simple. There was no place marked to drop it. We parked at the terminal and Bryan went in to deal with the return guys. That took about 30 minutes.
Next was the checking-in challenge. Before you do anything, there’s a security line. Women to one side, men to the other. Infuriating.
Then, we discovered the flight was delayed. So, we were moved aside while all the others checked-in for a flight that left 30 minutes ahead of our delayed one. After an hour in line, we had boarding passes.
Next was a booth to exit the country via passport controls. Line jumpers and such made this challenge an entertaining one at least.
We entered the shopping zone and looked for final gifts, reading materials, and food. Hmmm. Gifts easy enough. Reading materials–limited. Food–also limited. We bought a bag of M&Ms, pistachios, gum, and bottled water. And then found a bad coffee shop and a Popeye’s.
Next came another round of security. Again men and women separated. Why I found this so maddening, I’m not sure. The women’s line moved faster–though it was a thorough pat down. I just didn’t like being separated and not being able to help watch the stuff.
Finally it was time to board. And uh oh…surrounded by babies for this 13 1/2 hour flight. No kidding…8 babies under 2 in the row in front, behind and beside us. The baby in front of us would cry for 7 hours straight in a little while.
We ate our meals, tried to listen to the iPods, tried to read, watched snippets of stupid movies, anxiously awaited the maps of our journey on the screens, walked to stretch our legs, and I struggled for 2 hours on 2 sudoku puzzles (my first ever).
I made notes:
1:30 p.m.: Wheels up, rising over Israel…there’s the Dead Sea…is that Jerusalem?
2:30 p.m.: Babies, babies, babies…they hear each other, and now it’s going in rounds.
3:00 p.m.: A man opens an overhead bin and a cane falls on the man with the comb-over below. I’m sure it hurt, but the guy makes a much bigger deal out of it than necessary. Whiney.
3:30 p.m.: The really old guy next to me in a cool-looking wool overcoat throws-up in his barf bag. He goes to the bathroom for the first of perhaps 20 times. It is not a pleasant smell, but I feel sorry for him. He doesn’t say a word to anyone.
4:00 p.m.: Bryan takes a sleeping pill. I’m jealous. I’ve got Italy out the window, and a stupid Eddie Murphy movie on the screen inside. The baby in front of us begins her crying jag.
4:30 – 6:15 p.m.: We switch places–Bryan to the window. I am drinking wine and trying desperately to concentrate on the sodokus. We pass the NW tip of France at 6:15.
6:15 – 8:00 p.m.: The baby in front of us is screeching and earns the “machine gun baby” nick-name for her percussion-like cadence of crying/whining. Still working the sodokus, and a word jumble, and a scramble…and trying to read the captions in an Arabic newspaper…anything to NOT hear the blasting baby!
8:30 p.m.: Bathroom break. I get up to walk and stretch. Got a muffin, a drink of water, and put on some lotion. Pulled out a book to read.
11:00 p.m.: The baby ahead is asleep. Thank God. I doze.
11:30 p.m.: An announcement “Is there a doctor on board?” !!!!
11:45 p.m.: The baby behind us wakes up and begins crying.
12:00 midnight in Amman and still 3 hours from landing…the babies beside us begin crying, but thankfully are quieted quickly.
12:30 a.m. in Amman: The baby ahead of us wakes and begins the machine-gun cries. The guy behind me has just sneezed about 10 times in a row. I smell baby doo.
FINALLY, we begin the descent into Chicago. I can’t tell you how happy I was to see the giant grid of lights below us as we came in at twilight. I couldn’t wait to get off the plane.
Immigration easy. We were waiting for the bags for almost an hour–but had fun watching the beagle sniff out all the fruits/foods brought over. Watched a nasty little man berate his wife for moving a foot away from their carry-on bag to point out their bag coming around on the carousel. The fool, ignorant little man, missed it anyway. This was repeated for each of their 4 large bags–he failed to see all 4. Unbelievable. And his tone was so super ugly–even if I couldn’t understand his words.
But by 8:30 p.m., we were home! Home to jumping dogs, a huge pile of mail and lots of pictures to download!
Driving North in Jordan: From Aqaba, along the Dead Sea, to Mt Nebo – October 16-17, 2008
Our last 2 days were intended to be all about relaxation (as it turns out after 5 OTHER days of relaxation!) The Moevenpick Dead Sea Resort has the world’s first spa, supposedly the Queen of Sheba and Solomon visited awhile back…(probably before it was the Moevenpick).
We left Aqaba in the morning and headed north along the Dead Sea Highway. It’s close to the border with Israel, so we were stopped often. “Where are you from?”, “Passports?”, “Where are you going?”, “Where are you coming from?”. Many of the Jordanian soldiers looked like bored teenagers with rifles. I think we were stopped to give them something to do on that long, empty road.
The colors of this area make me think of the phrase “land of milk and honey”…there are some incredible caramels, honeys and milky colors in the soil. Combined with the red sand, the green scrub grasses, and the blues of the Dead Sea and sky, it is quite a striking view along this road.
Eventually, we arrived in the Dead Sea hotel area and checked in to Room N17 (Nebo 17). A gorgeously posh room with a small balcony overlooking the Dead Sea. We changed and headed down to the Dead Sea.
Now, I’d read alot about the Dead Sea: the lowest place on earth, it’s shrinking by evaporating, the high salt content that makes you float, the benefits to your skin and your health, and the warnings about how painful small cuts and scratches can be in the sea. Let me just say that salt burns in places you never imagined!
The beach and bottom of the sea is rocky–painful to walk…but super easy to float, when the waves take hold. Even I am buoyant in the Dead Sea! Lifeguards are on hand just in case they get a leaden one–but mainly they are there to pour fresh water into burning eyes for those who don’t know NOT to put their faces in the Dead Sea. Bryan tried the special mud packs–an extravagant natural mixture to make skin soft as velvet. There are showers to wash the Dead Sea film off–it is quite a coating of salty minerals.
The next day, we went early to Mt Nebo to see the Promised Land. Moses is said to be buried up there somewhere–having been denied entry to the Promised Land after all he’d done. Hazy views of Israel and the Dead Sea. Really enjoyed the morning drive through small towns and wide open spaces.
And on our final afternoon, we splurged. We treated ourselves to the day package at Zara Spa. JD 25 per person lets you into the special pools and whirlpools on a day-long pass. There are 3 heated in-door whirlpools with varying degrees of salt. And a lovely outdoor pool with seats along the edges–and all of these were no deeper than 5 feet–so I could walk around and enjoy all this pool-time too. And then there was an infinity pool overlooking the Dead Sea and near a cafe/bar. In the middle of the afternoon, an attendant brought us ice cold washcloths smelling of rose oil. We had a meal out there and fresh juices. As the sun was about to sink–we enjoyed a local rose wine (from “Latroun, Holy Land”) and peanuts. We swatted flies, toasted the Holy Land and enjoyed a glorious sunset while listening to a mix of old songs piped into the pool area.
The plan was to spend a night in Aqaba–in a fancy hotel to clean up after 2 nights in the desert, and then go to Egypt for 2 nights to climb Mt. Sinai, returning to this fancy hotel for one other night after Egypt. Our plans were not to be.
We arrived a day early in Aqaba. We went into the beautiful hotel (Movenpick Resort & Residences Aqaba) early after having driven an hour into town from Wadi Rum. We were dirty, smelly and desperately in need of coffee. The 3 Brits and we sat down in the outside dining area and ordered coffee. I went in to see if we could get a room today.
It was on this first day that we made friends with Kenan, a kohl-eyed Mr. Bean kind of guy who was exceedingly helpful. I had to speak to “Mr Ramsey” the manager–and even had to go into the back room offices of the hotel to “make a reservation”. In the end, we would stay 5 nights here when the Egypt trip fell through–not just the original 2. Kenan was instrumental in helping us with the arrangements and kept us in the same room (post room #445) all 5 nights at a nice price.
So, Egypt was not to be on this journey. The group (Wings Tours) that was supposed to meet us at the Nuweiba ferry terminal e:mailed looking for final payment. We’d sent a copy of a credit card 2 weeks before and received confirmation that all was fine–so we weren’t sure what the problem was. Now, they said they didn’t have the card information and insisted on us paying cash in U.S. dollars upon arrival in Egypt. It was too suspicious, so we said no thanks and made a call to the credit card company for sanity’s sake.
That meant we’d be here in Aqaba for 5 days–a beach and pool vacation. Biggest decisions of the day were “which pool?”, “where to eat lunch/dinner?”, and “do you want to go down to the beach?” We read books (I bought Queen Noor’s biography and read it there). We got copper colored tans. We napped in the sun and in the shade–listening to the muezzins calling Aqaba to prayer. We swatted flies. We ate great meals at dinner on the Moevinpick campus. We ventured out to find oud music for Mark and to explore the area around us. We got lazy too. We watched movies in the room and left the window open to the night breezes in Aqaba.
There were pretty paintings in the lobby, and fresh flowers floating in the fountains. Four resident ducks would swim in the pool at twilight. Kenan sent us a bowl of fruit our last night. Very elegant place.
One of our favorite times of day was the breakfast buffet. There were resident cats who we fed. They played with the edges of the oriental rugs spread all over the courtyard. And there were resident crows–who waited until a table with food was unattended and would swoop in, grab a sausage, and fly off. I enjoyed the hummus, capers, boiled egg, steamed tomatoes, chocolate croissants, and orange slices. And we liked to watch the “coffee-boys”. There’s not really a more simple job–fill the coffee cups, bring milk/sugar and keep the coffee/tea brewed. There were always 6-8 coffee boys on the floor (this was an outdoor tented courtyard of maybe 50 tables–half occupied with 2-3 people) but there was always chaos and confusion. No complaints, it was just part of the charm.
I walked the beach looking for sea-glass and finding washed up pieces of bleached out coral. We could look out on the gulf and see Israel, and the distant lights of Egypt. Oil tankers came and went from the gulf. Muezzins called as the Jordanian flag fluttered in the ocean breeze. It was a lovely week. Every now and then we ached a little for Egypt, to DO something like walking in Jerusalem, hiking in Petra or climbing a red sand dune. But not too often
It was a grand week of doing nothing–relaxing. It was also our 11th wedding anniversary and 23 years together…more than half our lives.
A day and night in Wadi Rum, Jordan – October 10-11, 2008
On October 10, we headed to Wadi Rum–leaving Petra early in the morning. We were to spend 2 days/nights in the desert, riding camels, 4-wheeling and hiking to enjoy the landscape with Bedouin Roads. We parked the car and began the two-day trip with 3 funny British tourists and 2 Bedouin guides.
I learned some things in Wadi Rum. Here they are in no particular order.
1) Riding a camel is no easy affair. They kneel down, and you climb up. And then they stand up–back end first, which sends you nearly over the front. And then up comes the front. Camels are tall–the ground is way down there. My camel, Lulu was a chatty five year old (Seriously, she grunted, hummed, and snorted into the other camels’ ears just about every minute of our time together).
2) A camel saddle is not comfortable. First of all–it begins with a piece of wood shaped like this: ^ to fit over the camel’s hump. There are 2 horns to hold on to…and likely to keep you in the saddle and on the camel during the standing up/laying down process. Next a few pillows and blankets are strapped over the wooden ^. There are no stirrups. After about 20 minutes of legs dangling, you can no longer feel your legs. We learned by watching the Bedouin to put one leg up and over the camel’s neck–almost side-saddle. This let the blood flow again. Alternating legs was a necessity.
3) Taking pictures from a moving camel is hit or miss. They plod along and it’s a bumpy ride. Makes for interesting angles I suppose.
4) Walking in the sand is slow-going and tiring. Camels are smart to take their time–loping along in relative silence (well, not Lulu). It’s actually quite peaceful. You can hear the desert silence, the breathing of the camel beneath you.
5) Climbing a sand dune is a serious work-out.
6) Wadi Rum has red sand. It’s a beautiful copper color…and sparkles like snow in the sun.
7) Sand gets into everything. Inside your shoes, inside your socks, in your mouth, ears, nose, eyes, hair, food, tea, water, backpacks…and let’s hope not too bad in the cameras. (Two months later, and I’m still finding the red sand of Wadi Rum.)
8) There are a million more stars in the desert. Holy cow at the stars!
9) I’m not a camping girl. Sleeping in a bedouin tent was an experience I’m glad to say I’ve done…once. The goat hair tents were beautiful and kept us warm in the desert’s cold night air. Old mattresses that were like lawn furniture pads were laid out on rugs in the tents and we had an old duvet. Everything smelled old, unwashed. Bryan said it smelled like camels. Lulu didn’t smell THAT bad. The old style (hole in the ground) toilets were in a small room built against the huge rock shielding camp. Four stalls and 3 sinks were lit by candles–and 2 small stained glass windows. Despite the sleeping and toilet experiences–we ate a wonderful meal (Hunger makes a good sauce as they say in Ireland), and I slept like a log. And I did enjoy sitting in the cold morning air watching the sun rise–and then brushing my teeth out in the wide open desert.
10) Sitting around a camp fire just before the sun comes up and enjoying a cup of tea and a laugh is a great way to start the day. The British folks slept near a Polish couple. Apparently, the Polish guy made a variety of noises in the night that kept a lot of people awake. Their wit and sarcasm had us all rolling– “He sounded like a camel…like a dozen camels…like a pregnant camel plus birds”. “Maybe it’s the wife?” “I don’t think she’s the size to produce such a sound” When the Polish guy came over to the camp fire, the British guy asked “How’d you sleep?” The Polish guy, “Lovely”. “Incredible!” said the British guy. We sat there laughing in the warmth of the sun and the heat of the fire–eating boiled eggs and drinking tea.
11) When it’s time to go, it’s time to go. We decided to forego another day/night in the desert and hopped on the truck when it left for the village. The Bedouin Roads guys were great about our sudden change in plans. We got in our car, joined now by the 3 Brits who needed a lift to Aqaba, and headed out.
We left Jerusalem early in a shared taxi. 68 NIS total and we were on the bus waiting for the final passengers. I had gotten a bit spooked at breakfast on the roof this morning–we were feeding the cats, enjoying the sunshine, the olives and the view. And I noticed a playing card laying face down on the ground between our chairs. I reached for it and turned it over as I picked it up…uh oh…Ace of Spades. Travel days already are nerve-racking enough without the death card showing up at breakfast. But then, the last 2 passengers joining our bus were nuns from Mother Teresa’s order! They were accompanied to the station by several other nuns–and they blessed each other by gently holding and touching each other’s bowed heads. As the last one boarded the bus, she shouted “goodbye sisters” with a beautiful accent and smile. She squeezed into the seat next to me. I noted their soft white cotton robes with the distinctive blue stripes. They both wore finger rosaries.
And then I noticed Bryan smiling at me. Yep, he’d read my mind…I was delighted to be accompanied on this journey by nuns! The mini-van ride was quick…we were practically flying around the curvy roads. I noticed the nuns’ finger rosaries going round and round, just as I caught the last glimpse of the golden Dome of the Rock in the morning sun. Goodbye Jerusalem. But today, I was going to Petra! A place I’ve wanted to see for so long. The plan was to get to Wadi Musa / Petra today and enter the Rose Red City for the first time on my birthday. With the sun, the breeze, the nuns, the memory of Jerusalem and the promise of Petra…well, I was a happy, thankful girl.
The exit from Israel cost 150.50 NIS each. And the entry into Jordan was a chaotic mess. You get separated from your luggage and your passport and there are no lines for anything. It took well over an hour to go through. We found a cash station for Jordanian dinars and stumbled across 2 German girls negotiating for a taxi ride to Petra. We approached them as they turned to us to ask if we were going to Petra. And we offered them a ride in our rental car that we still had to pick up. Bryan said it’s a good gesture and will surely come back to us. Travelers’ karma. Manuela and Kerstin agreed to pay for the gas to Petra. We picked up the car at Europcar…an 11-year-old black economy car reserved about 24 hours ago. A bit of miming about this and that with the attendant, and some pointing to the Petra road, and we were off.
We headed out towards Road 65…the Dead Sea Highway. The deep blue Dead Sea was rimmed in white. No boats out there–just an incredible blue expanse with Israel on the other side. When the sea ended, we turned left onto highway 50…that went up up up. And then turned right onto the Kings Highway 15. This was like Nolensville Road in Nashville–a major thoroughfare that passes through little towns periodically. Along the way, we stopped to get directions–roll down the window, smile and ask “Petra?” They’d smile back and begin pointing. There was a road closure and a detour that took us into the back roads of a small town. Kids ran alongside the car smiling. We joked about what they must think of Bryan and his 3 rebellious wives–all without head scarves! We stopped for a bathroom break and Bryan bought those middle eastern sweets with the pistachios and flaky pastry from a small shop. All in all, the journey took 5 hours. Much longer than we’d expected. We pulled into town as the sun was sinking, dropping Manuela and Kerstin at their hotel and driving on to find ours.
The Petra Moon Hotel Wadi Musa is very close to the entrance to Petra. They were offering a Petra by Moonlight tour that night for JD12. We signed up, showered, ate a nice pizza at Mystic Pizza, and joined about 400 other people for a 3 1/2 hour walk. That sounds like a lot of people, but it is nothing compared to the crowds during a normal day. And the guides request walking 2-by-2 in silence to appreciate the moment. Most people abided by that…and it was a stunning experience.
The Siq–the mile long entry down into Petra–was lit by candles in bags spaced about 10 feet apart. I was giddy–about to see Petra!–and by candlelight no less. It was a clear night with a crescent moon and thousands of stars. I loved the sound of gravel and sand underfoot, the feeling of the walls rising up around us as we went deeper into the canyon, and the view of the stars narrowed to a sliver above. The anticipation was building. On and on we walked. It was so quiet as the Siq narrowed and we continued down, the walls rising above us. Careful over the larger stone path. 45 minutes passed. Finally, we heard murmuring ahead of us, heard gasps, and then we too turned a curve and saw the flickers of thousands of candles right ahead…lighting up and revealing a glimpse of the massive Treasury. Finally, you step out right in front of this huge 6 columned facade ornately carved into the side of a cliff. What a way to see it for the first time! The size of it, the rosy color of the columns accented by the dancing flames of a thousand candles. The silence. The stars above. Stunning.
Rows of carpets had been laid out for us to sit. We were brought mint tea on large copper serving trays. The Bedouin guide told us the story of Petra as we sat quietly in front of one of the great wonders of the world. He told us the story of the Nabataeans who carved all of this grand place over 2,000 years ago, of the Bedouins who lived in tents around here, of how the city was “lost” to outsiders and then found again in the 1800s. I couldn’t help but think about Indiana Jones–and wonder about the Holy Grail. We got to hear Bedouin music that night–an oud and a flute, echoing in the Treasury. Incredible.
We slept well that night after the long walk, the long ride from the border to Petra, and after 7 long, sleepless nights in Jerusalem. On my birthday, we took time over breakfast–better coffee, more hard-boiled eggs and hummus, but no olives We got the 3 day Petra pass and began the walk through the Siq at 8 a.m.
The Siq is a stunning walk–so many colors and shapes in the walls. We stopped a hundred times to climb this, photograph that. We finally reached the Treasury–and were even more stunned to see this magnificent thing in the sunlight. There is only a small room actually carved into the Treasury…but the detail in the columns, in the statues on the side…amazing. We stopped for tea and a Fanta and contemplated the day ahead of us. We’d packed a lunch of some cheese/crackers, almonds and oranges.
Petra during the day is crowded…and hot. During the day, it’s louder and you have to avoid the horse carriages coming and going through the Siq, then the camels and donkeys in Petra…not to mention the vendors trying to sell necklaces. There can be an intense smell of urine around the Treasury. And I couldn’t stand seeing the donkeys whipped or tied to stakes in the sun all day. We walked miles and miles every day–aching by the time we returned to the Treasury–only to face the 1 mile walk up the Siq to the village. All this to say–it is a physically and mentally challenging place to spend a few days. I wished I was in better shape, that I’d come when it was cooler (or when I was younger!), that I hadn’t worn shoes with sand collecting mesh, that I’d brought more sunscreen and water. I wished the people would be nicer to the animals, I wished I’d seen even one person giving their horse/donkey/camel a drink of water.
The place is stunning. It is a testament to human ingenuity. There are thousands of patterns and sparkling colors in the sandstone and so many stages of erosion. We walked for 3 days there and feel like we didn’t see half of it. And they say only 5% of it is excavated!
Day 1, we took our time. I took about 500 pictures along the way through the Street of Facades, the theater, the Royal Tombs. We ate lunch at the Urn Tomb–overlooking the collonaded street of Petra below.
On day 2, we went in around 6:30 a.m. There were only a few people (maybe 5) at the Treasury. We all took turns taking and getting our photos in front of an empty Treasury. And then we began the walk to the Monastery with a guy named Tony. About 10 miles round trip. Past all the stuff we’d seen yesterday and then a turn onto the trail that has 800 steps and winds up, up, up. The trail isn’t hard to find, but not exactly well marked either. We walked up ancient warped steps, around narrow cliff paths looking down into canyons, up, up, up. We thought we’d never get there. Along the way, a Bedouin family passed us…we exchanged “Merhahbah” with the dad who was walking, then another “merhahbah” with the ~10 year old son, and then the little ~6 year old girl passed and said “good morning” to us before we could speak. Big smiles. They waved us in the right direction as they took a different path into the canyon. We stopped in a cool crack between the cliffs to catch a great breeze in the little wind tunnel…and the Monastery was just to our right.
WOW. Another MASSIVE facade carved into the side of a mountain. Eight columns wide–not as ornate, but huge and every bit as impressive as the treasury. Only 4 of us there…not counting the Bedouins who must live out there to run a little cafe. We saw a man dressed in a suit/bedouin head scarf, talking on a cell phone and walking a donkey. We saw donkeys bringing in crates of plastic bottles of water, and firewood. We stayed a bit. Resting in the shade, taking pictures, wondering if we could get up top on the urn like the National Geographic photograph but, a tourist had fallen to his death a few years ago, so the path is closed–“no climbing”. This was a good day. It was early, cooler. I enjoyed the smell of the Bedouin’s fires, they were waking up and making tea in several of the little booths along the way. We encouraged those we met on the path as we went back–“not far now!”, “about 15 more minutes!” or to those close to the start “it’s worth it!”
On the way back, I noticed a little boy very carefully arranging colorful pieces of sandstone on a small table near the collonaded street. He couldn’t have been older than 7. But he was so cute, a proud little business man, meticulously setting up a beautiful display of rocks to sell. He even looked at the sun’s direction, and moved a stone just slightly to catch the sun in the right spot. I went back. His dad came up slowly behind him on a donkey. I asked the little boy if he was selling the rocks–he replied “3 for 1 dinar, your choice lady”. I chose carefully, and asked him what he thought. He again said “your choice, any”. I gave him my dinar, said “showkrawn”, he said “thank you” and turned beaming to his dad. I heard his dad say “Bravo” as we walked away…and the little boy laughing and talking excitedly.
We spent this night at Petra Kitchen with 7 other guests cooking an authentic Jordanian meal…lentil soup, baba ganuj, tabbouleh, galaya bandura, araias lahmah (I worked on this crispy meat quesadilla thing) and Magloubet (“upside down”). We were all having a little wine and chopping, stirring–while 3 chefs oversaw and did the heavy work. Excellent meal…and lots of it.
We spent the third day walking around the Royal Tombs and sitting quietly for our final moments in front of the Treasury. And of course, a slow passage through the beautiful Siq. Bryan joked with the boys selling postcards, trying to sell his back. Good fun, they were laughing when they understood him.
On the final night, we ate at Oriental Restaurant. I had mansafe with rice with almonds/pine nuts. Yum. And then we borrowed Indiana Jones from the hotel staff and watched Harrison Ford ride a horse in the Siq A nice ending to our Petra experience.
So many places we didn’t see in Petra. Such nice people in Wadi Musa. I’d like to go back someday.
All week long, we’ve looked over at the Mount of Olives from Jerusalem. We’ve seen the hillside of graves from the ramparts, from the rooftops, from the Lutheran Tower. On Saturday, it was time to go–getting there early enough to watch the sunrise on Jerusalem and to visit the onion-domed Russian Church which is only open for visitors a few hours on Tuesdays and Saturdays.
We got out before sunrise and headed through a quiet Muslims Quarter and out Stephen’s Gate. There must have been an early morning Muslim prayer service at the Dome of the Rock, because there were lots of people pouring out and getting in cars parked along the streets just outside the gate. We walked down the hill, crossed the road, and began the walk up the narrow street to the Mount of Olives in the dark light of early morning.
As the light slowly came, we could notice tall cyprus trees behind the stone walls enclosing a narrow road up. The gates to the Valley of Jehosophat were open–thousands and thousands of white stoned, above-ground graves reflecting the pink-blue light of dawn. I’d read this was where Jewish people liked to be buried since it is believed the Messiah will enter Jerusalem through the Golden Gate…and this is a prime location by the gate.
We took some hospitality from the Seven Arches Hotel at the top of the hill and came back out to enjoy the sun as it peeked over the top and began warming Jerusalem. The Dome turned a brilliant gold and we could see the details in the honey colored walls of Jerusalem. We stayed up there for a long while…looking at the graves, the city, our hotel, and the Golden Gate which is sealed shut.
On the way back down, we stopped at the garden around Dominus Flevit (which means “the Lord wept”) was a quiet place overlooking the Jewish graveyard, the onion domes of the Russian Church and smelling of cedar. We sat there for a while enjoying the peacefulness.
I was very much looking forward to going into the Russian Church–the beautiful Mary Magdalene with 7 golden onion domes. It’s a convent and is only open 2 hours on a couple days each week–and today from 10-12 would be our last opportunity to see it. The tall green metal gates were closed tight. So we went looking for coffee while we waited.
The Garden of Gethsemane was open now–next to the Church of All Nations. The actual garden was much smaller than I’d imagined. I guess the churches have taken some of the old garden. Less than an acre is all that’s left. But the olive trees…my goodness. The trunks are massive–as befits any 2,000+ year old tree–gnarly old things. BUT the newer branches are STILL BEARING OLIVES! Hard to imagine who may have walked among these trees–and only the trees know. Only 16 trees in there, and a few patches of flowers. Vines of jasmine, fuschia around the walls.
Finally around 10 a.m., we went into the Russian Church grounds behind a group of Eastern Europeans. I covered my hair with a scarf like all the other ladies did and entered. A nun closed the big green gates behind us. She spoke with the tour group and we walked slowly on, up the path dappled in shade, through tall cyprus and olive trees, finally rounding a bend and there before us with the church–the domes shining in the sun.
The inside of the church was crowded–obviously other tour groups had been there for a while. Smoke from incense hung in the air. I stood at the door for a few minutes looking at the golden art/icons hanging all around. And I noticed a counter clockwise motion–there was a circuit to pay respects to the icons. People entering the church began to the right, stopping at an icon, bowing, making the sign of the cross, kissing the icon, touching their forehead to it, standing up, another signing of the cross and then moving to the left to the next icon. I watched the circuit and a priest swinging an incense burner praying over candles and an icon with two other people.
Outside, in a small alcove off the front, a nun had opened a small shop–selling rosaries, religious medals, sacred oils and small carved boxes. It was a crowded affair in that little room. She pieced together answers to questions for many people–not sure what languages everyone spoke. She had only a few words in English–as I asked about the medals. I looked at one that had onion domes and some soil enclosed in plastic on the back. I asked “is it this church?” I pointed to a postcard of the church and then the medals. She smiled and said “aahh, no!” and handed me a square medal featuring Mary Magdalene. She then pointed to some small vials of oils and offered me a sniff–she was telling me what Mary Magdalene held in her hands. There were rose and myrrh oils. I bought the Mary Magdalene medal for $14 U.S. She was looking for $1 change and I made the gesture for “no, it’s ok” and she smiled, stuffing a postcard and a bookmark into my little bag.
I walked up behind the church in the quiet graveyard with eastern crosses and cyrillic writing. Very peaceful up there. A nun was working in the gardens…pulling weeds from the graves, watering, putting down fresh dirt. I envied her. Maybe she’d taken a vow of silence and simply spent the days working in the sunny garden in quiet contemplation overlooking the domes of Jerusalem.
After a while, we walked back down to the road passing in front of the Golden Gate, and around to come in to Jerusalem through Dung Gate.
The little town of Bethlehem is on the West Bank in Palestine
We wanted to see Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, where Jesus is believed to have been born in a manger.
Going to Bethlehem means going to Palestine. The little town of Bethlehem is in the West Bank–only a few miles outside of Jerusalem–but on the other side of a high wall. Israel is building a wall–separating Palestinian areas for safety, or to secure land. Depending on which side of the debate you are on.
After a quick breakfast, we took a bus outside Damascus Gate for 4 NIS each towards Bethlehem. After about 15 minutes, we were at the checkpoint–thick, high walls of concrete topped by razor wire. We entered a building and went through a passport check. An Israeli soldier advised us not to take pictures in “the terminal”. We passed through and out to the other side. There was a line of about 100 people waiting to get into Jerusalem in the terminal and spilling outside in a fenced-in walkway.
Bryan brilliantly negotiated a 20 NIS taxi ride to/from the terminal to Bethlehem (another 2-3 miles away). We got a great driver–who shared his hometown knowledge, and his opinion of the wall. He was disturbed that he could no longer travel the old roads, passing freely and quickly to see family on the other side of Jerusalem.
I didn’t recognize the church from the outside. The entry is in a big courtyard, with a short door–the Door of Humility. We were some of the first tourists of the day and had the place to ourselves for a few golden moments. After stooping to enter, you come into a wide open space–no pews–but columns of red leading your eye to the altar up front. Hundreds of golden oil lamps, old glass chandeliers, sparkled in the sun streaming from the windows behind the altar. Smoke from candles and incense filled the air. It’s a simple place really.
Below the altar, is a small room with the magic spot where Jesus was believed to be born. Curving steps on either side of the altar lead down into a close room–we could see several priests down there, swinging incense burners and and could hear their chanting. We lit candles and looked at the iconic pictures covering nearly every inch of the walls around the altar and the steps to the grotto. When the priests left, we entered slowly and saw the 14 point star in the floor that marks the spot. A huge group of German tourists entered behind us–and we watched as many of them kneeled, kissed the star, and got their photos made. They sang a hymn.
I tried to take in the significance of the place. It’s hard to imagine. It’s hot down there, and a tight spot with over 50 people squeezed in. The walls are covered by leather like draperies and pictures hang on the drapes. It’s overwhelming to see, to comprehend the importance of this place to millions of people around the world. As the Germans left and another group began to come in, I stepped forward and stooped to touch the star. I put my hand into the center of the star, near the 7 o’clock position, cupping the lip of the hole with my palm briefly and brought the cold of the stone/metal to my heart in a fist. I backed away and exited the grotto. Up into a stream of sunlight from the high windows.
We spent some time watching a dozen priests in various uniforms pray at the altar above the grotto. The streams of sunlight looked solid–like you could hold them in your hands. We sat quietly, trying to absorb it all. I imagined the pictures in National Geographic from a few years ago–when the church was held hostage in a month long siege. To protect the church, the Christian priests would not leave. The Palestinian soldiers honored the significance of the church, and the place was spared by the Israelis. It’s amazing what a place can signify. We began to talk about all the icons, the tangible pieces of religions…the books, beads, stars, stones, walls. And wondered why religions have to have something holy to touch, a ritual, to be part of worship.
Next door was a more modern church, where midnight mass is broadcast across the world on Christmas Eve. We walked around the grounds a bit and stopped for a coffee at the Casa Nova Palace hotel. We spent some time in a gift shop–picking up some olive wood Christmas ornaments in a 14-point star shape.
On the way back, our driver–who had waited for us–stopped to show us some of the graffiti along the wall and the nicer hotels in Bethlehem. He wished us well as he dropped us back at the checkpoint.
This time, the line on the outside was gone. But there were about 40 folks waiting on the inside. We got in line and waited for almost an hour to pass through the airport-like security. The turnstile into the screening area let in only about 4 people before it locked. This, and the significant waiting time caused a great deal of restlessness and comments from those of us waiting. I imagined they were saying things like “what’s the hold up?” or “Hurry!” Once you passed the turnstile, you put everything through a conveyor x-ray, passed through a metal detector, and then entered another line to have passports/papers checked. We passed through with a simple check. Palestinians had to put their hands on an electronic reader before passing through. Only one checkpoint was open and this took time.
Truly like another country. I think we deserved another stamp in the passport for this border crossing.
I should start by saying that the Muslim Quarter was perhaps the most fascinating quarter of all. It is alive–loud, busy, seething with people until the wee hours of the morning. Intense. It’s dark in the day, lit by the lights of the shopping stalls and the sliver of daylight sneaking into the narrow streets between the awnings.
Shops spill into the tiny ancient streets, a sampling of everything out in view. There are the shops selling clothes–jeans on racks in the center, undergarments, and socks on tables around the fringes and shirts, blouses, blazers hanging like wallpaper up the walls. There are shops selling food–small grocery stores, fruit/veggie stalls, butchers, candy shops with tubs of shiny wrapped bites, sweets shops where giant trays of pistachio and honey drizzled baklava sit uncovered in the street. Women wrapped in scarves browse the shops with kids and packages in tow, their modern clothes peeping out at their ankles.
There are the tourist shops selling scarves, crosses, menorahs, prayer beads and rosaries, belly-dancing outfits, luggage, leather bags and postcards. There was the shoe repair man–“the hardest working man in Jerusalem,” we called him…he was always there at the lip of his 5 foot wide by 10 foot deep stall, at his machine, repairing shoes while 1-5 people sat at his side, in the street, waiting.
On the day we entered Jerusalem, we walked past the bird shop–hundreds of parakeets, chipping and singing in a breezy high street. Those birds went on to live in cages hung in shops through-out Jerusalem. Singing so much that it almost didn’t sound real.
Another day, near Stephen’s Gate, we saw a family of 5 stop, the man putting the veil on his little girl before going any further into the old city.
There are thousands of feet walking these old stone streets. Every day. All day. For 2,000 years. Muslims, Christians, Jews–shoulder-to-shoulder. Packages knock into knees. Kids run between legs. Men come through with trays of tea. Carts rattle through bringing in supplies. Men carry in packages on their heads. Women shepherd tiny children past the candies and toys. Traffic jams of people when anyone stops to talk, to shop, to take a photo, to pray at a station.
Damascus Gate was a circus–a hoard of stuff, of people–cotton candy machines, popcorn stands, bread carts, money changers, kids running amongst it all shooting plastic pellets from toy machine guns, soldiers with real machine guns watching, priests, monks, rabbis, holy folks in all manner of costume, people coming, people going, people waiting.
The Via Dolorosa (Way of Sorrows, Stations of the Cross) runs right through the Muslim Quarter. Our hotel was near the 7th station (where it is believed Jesus fell for the 2nd time, and at what used to be a gate exiting the Old City). We were surprised that many of the stations of the cross were amongst the market stalls. I guess that’s what happens in a crowded little town where history never stops. It surprised me too that there always seemed to be a crowd around the stations–from early in the morning until night when the tourists buses pulled away from the Old City. I saw tour groups praying, singing, crying, on their knees, talking, reading aloud from their bibles.
The streets at night were another proof of life. Trash along the streets. Cats picking through the garbage, marking it. Street cleaners were out at nights. Bryan decided that Jerusalem could stand a good power-washing to shed some of the hundreds of years of grime.
There were security cameras everywhere–in all of the quarters, at all the corners, every nook and cranny of the old city, back-to-back in places. Who watches all the goings-on? Where is the command center? Israeli soldiers with machine guns stood in groups at strategic points throughout the Old City…watching.
We stayed in the Muslim Quarter at the Hashimi Hotel. It was not expensive, small rooms and adequate breakfast. Fine for us. The best thing about it was the rooftop. The people running the place are Muslims and have strict rules about no alcohol and males/females must be married to stay together in one room. Because we have separate surnames…I took the marriage certificate, just in case. They never asked. Breakfast was served starting around 7 a.m.–even during Ramadan for those non-Muslims eating after daylight. I delighted in the breakfast hummus, hard-boiled eggs, pita bread, olives (green, pitted and the sweetest, most delicious olives I’ve ever eaten), cheese, tomatoes, cucumbers and Sanka coffee….all while overlooking the Dome of the Rock, the Mount of Olives and the rooftops of Jerusalem.
At night, the sounds of life in the Muslim Quarter went on until the wee hours of the morning. Our room (#305) faced the street and we had trouble sleeping. In the afternoons, it sounded like a quiet murmur below. But somehow, at night, it was much louder–cat fights, kids playing and yelling, their moms quietly pleading with them to come in–or men/dads yelling, cell phones ringing, loud voices talking about god knows what, arguing. Was that a rooster?! Clangs of rolling carts and closing metal gates. Fireworks, music, heels running on the stones. The noise made us restless. We’d turn on the tv in the middle of the night–watching Al Jazeera, CNN or BBC–getting disturbing snippets of the sinking Dow, the Somalia pirates, the U.S. presidential campaign, a bomb in Bogota. We’d hear other guests–their babies crying, their TVs turned loud in their rooms to movies in foreign languages (dramas, war movies). We had strange dreams in Jerusalem. It seemed that the hours just before dawn were when the city finally slept…before the first tourists arrived to make their way by the stations of the cross in the pre-dawn mornings.
We liked to get up and walk the city in the early morning–great light peeping into the narrow city streets. I enjoyed seeing the city wake up. Moms opening the doors to see the kids out to school, men stretching and sipping tea as they pull open their shop gates. Early one morning, as I listened to the muezzins calling…I noticed this time it was two muezzins working together in a duet that was simply beautiful echoing through the streets.
The Jewish Quarter is a very small area of the Old City, and is much more modern. Over the years, this area has been occupied, emptied, re-established, evacuated, destroyed,–and over the past 40 years reconstructed.
On our first night in Jerusalem, we made our way down to the Western Wall. The Western Wall is “open” 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, every week. Signs lead you through the narrow, twisting streets and eventually into a tunnel where you go through a metal detector and bags are searched.
Then you step out into the open Western Wall plaza–and there it is–just like you always see it in pictures! Smaller then I imagined–but clearly “The Wall” with the plants growing in the cracks and hanging down over the massive stones. Floodlights lit the area and the Wall. It was Rosh Hashanah and no photos were allowed (all of these photos were made later in the week). Perhaps because of the time or the day, the Wall had relatively few visitors compared to the next few days/nights we saw it.
I walked slowly down the way into the ladies section of the Wall, noting that a female security guard wore combat boots and a regular military button-down shirt with badges–along with a long skirt and a head scarf. There were shelves of books along the way…I supposed to borrow for prayers. Women sat in plastic chairs–knees against the Wall, reading to themselves. I walked up to an empty spot at the Wall and looked up at the old old stones. In between the stones and in every knick, crack, or pock-mark, there were thousands of pieces of paper stuffed in…prayers, wishes, hopes and dreams. I stood there looking closely at the stones–in awe at their size and age, wondering what all they’ve seen (from Solomon’s Holiest of Holies…where IS the Ark of the Covenant?!?), and marveling that people could get paper to stick in such small knicks. Did the wishes and prayers come true? Were the walls now sustained by paper mortar? After a few respectful moments of observing and listening to the women around me softly reciting prayers (in a cadence much like a song or a poem) in a language I could not understand, I reached out and put the full of my hand against the cold old stone Wall. I stood like that for a minute–made my wishes and then said good-bye.
When I came back out into the Plaza, Bryan pointed out that I had not backed away, but had turned and walked away. I looked back at the area and saw for the first time how the ladies walked backwards away from the Wall for the first 30 feet or so. It was the first time we’d noticed this phenomenon of not turning one’s back on Holy places. We’d see this later at the Holy Sepulchre and in Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity. I felt really bad because I’d meant nothing but respect for this site. We ended the evening having the first of our religious beliefs conversations–about the respect for others’ religious icons and the historical/political/religious significance of relics, icons, sites and “turning one’s back” (as I understand it, early on, Muhammad told Muslims to turn and pray toward Mecca’s Kaaba, not Jerusalem–essentially turning their backs on the establishment of Jerusalem).
We ended up walking over to the Western Wall Plaza a number of times during the trip–but we did not go down to the Wall again. We were finally able to take pictures there once the holiday was over. Some men worshipping in the holiest corner of the Wall area by dancing and singing. Others sat quietly on the white plastic lawn chairs with a book on their knees. We heard the Ram’s Horn (shofar) blown several times too.
One day I sat in Hurva Square for some time–just watching the world go by. School kids in uniforms–moving here and there in packs, some trying to pick up the internet on laptops, others just trying to get a seat in the shade. I began to wonder if maybe everybody knew each other in the quarters–did they have any “West Side Story” romances that crossed religious boundaries?
I noticed Jewish men dressed in white/blue shawls with scarves over their heads, other men wore black suits, white shirts, and 4 white strings hanging from their waists along with a black hat over their caps. Some men wore really big round hats. Many boys had crew cuts, but with long curls hanging by their ears. Women also wore a lot of black and white…long skirts and crisp white blouses, hair wrapped in white or black scarves. The black and white combo seemed to be the “Sunday’s Best” outfit for prayer. I noted that the women wore long skirts…down to their ankles, with capris or another skirt peaking out. Very cool.
Another day, we took a taxi from Jaffa Gate to the museum (outside old Jerusalem) to see the Dead Sea Scrolls and the huge model of ancient Jerusalem. The scroll exhibit was beautifully done. Disappointed to know that only one display case held an actual scroll, the others were stand-ins. Amazing to see–whether real or facsimiles. What a find those clay jars were! The model was much bigger than we’d imagined. It replicates ancient Jerusalem–when Solomon’s Temple stood where the Dome of the Rock is today. It helped us to see the small portion of the Western Wall that remains, and to see the grandeur of Solomon’s Holy Temple.
It was odd to see posters being sold in Jerusalem that were pictures of today’s city…but with Solomon’s Temple rebuilt and in place of the Dome of the Rock. I can’t imagine how the Jewish community must have felt to see the Dome of the Rock being constructed on the ruins of Solomon’s and Herod’s Temple back in the the 600s. And yet, to knock down the Dome of the Rock and rebuild the Temple…well that would cause another round of angst and fighting. History is a series of layers. All layers are real and have meaning–even the newer, top layers.
The Jewish Quarter was a great place to get pizza, a nice cappuccino, ice cream, spaghetti, wine/beer–we ended up eating a few meals here…and in the Armenian Tavern. Surprisingly, the Jewish Quarter didn’t feel as foreign as the other old, quarters of the city. One day, we tried the Quarter Cafe, up on the hill overlooking the Western Wall. Lots of options–like an old-timey cafe where you walk through the line with your tray and point out what you want to the lunch lady–who spoons it out onto your plate, you pick up a drink from the cooler and pay. Another day, we had an after-dinner dessert (a delicious warm chocolate croissant) at the Menorah Cafe (the sign described it as a “dairy” restaurant). As we sat there sharing dessert–a kid was singing from a window above, his voice echoing in the narrow streets.