Saturday, September 15, 2018

The same day that I'd looked ahead in our itinerary, Remy, the Israeli tour guide, warned us to pack our Dead Sea gear in a carry-on the morning we returned from Jordan because the site would be our first stop after immigration. He didn't want to go into the luggage under the bus hunting for swimsuits and flip flops.

The amenities at the Dead Sea have improved greatly since I was first there in 1999. Much is made of the elevation, as the bar there calls itself "the lowest bar in the world." Tim needed some convincing to wade in because, after all, "dead sea" doesn't sound very appealing. He enjoyed floating. It was shallow but not muddy or slippery as when I took Tim's older brother in February, 2014. I nearly lost my water shoes on that occasion.

Remy gave us an hour, an adequate amount of time. There are numerous wooden stairs down to the water and also a significant section of hardened earth to walk across before reaching the water. All things to keep in mind on the return trip to the changing rooms when you are dripping wet.

I managed to scrape my knee on the hard, scratchy sea bed as I was shifting myself around. A thing I totally expected and had Neosporin and large bandaids for. It didn't heal well, despite my copious care, totally unexpected! The scrape gave me discomfort for the rest of the trip, especially when kneeling or banging it up against the bus seat.

After our swim, I showered up and sat down in the bar with everyone else waiting for Tim. I gave him some shekels to buy a soda and some Pringles chips.

We boarded the bus again and went to Tel Jericho. It was a quick stop to see the excavations and the monastery high on the mountains. I tend to be interested with how the sites are presented. It seemed to me that the walkway didn't have railings when I visited with Kenny in 2014. I pointed out to Tim that Jericho is an oasis, the bible calls it "the city of palm trees" (Deut 34:3). He could see that, a very distinctive cluster of green palms. Our tour guide told us houses there are incredibly expensive.

We had mass in the Church of the Good Shepherd in Jericho. It is a Franciscan church built by Antonio Barluzzi in 1924. All the Latin Catholic churches in the Holy Land are crisply clean. We were feeling mellow from the Dead Sea salts we'd absorbed. Our tour guide was busy during the brief service adjusting the air conditioning in the little church. He climbed up to reach an air vent above the entrance. I was startled to look back and see him up there. I jotted down keywords from the Scripture readings in an attempt to identify them but my scribbles aren't clear. "Isaiah out of Egypt I called my Son," "Psalm O Shepherd of Israel," and "Matthew cure the sick, raise the dead, Sodom and Gomorrah" (Matthew 10:5-15ff)

We visited next the Church of Lazarus in Bethany. Our guide referred to them, Mary, Martha and Lazarus, as "the dear ones" and "the dear friends of Jesus." I was at the same time touched by our guide's sentiment towards these biblical figures and also jealous of his statement of their intimacy with Jesus. Our guide exhibited no such jealousy. There was a mass in progress and we didn't stay long.

Then we went for lunch in Bethlehem. The goal of Franciscan pilgrimages in the Holy Land is to patronize Catholic places of business. Seating was outside and, given the elevation of Bethlehem1, it was pleasant enough to sit at tables under awnings. I was sandwiched between the two Franciscan priests with Tim seated across from me. This probably worked out well because they ate up all the meat that was served and I ate the vegetables. Fr. Jim was talking up the bananas we'd have for dessert.

"Bethlehem bananas," he recalled from a previous experience, "are small and sweet." With a recommendation like that, I had to have one. The skins are thicker than we're used to and I have an ideal "banana shape" that I find appealing. But these Bethlehem bananas were worth the extra work of opening them up and overcoming my esthetic tastes. Some chose not to have any, so I took an extra one.

While we were eating, sadly, a few from our group were going through luggage under the bus looking for a lost wallet. For all his warnings to the contrary, Remy still found himself going through suitcases. I pointed out to Tim as they opened the door to the cargo hold and began hauling out suitcases in the direct sun, "See, that's what that looks like. Not good." They didn't find the wallet and missed lunch for the most part. When Neva sat down at the end of our table, she demanded that all left over hummus and pita be sent her way. And we dutifully turned this over. She was that kind of gal. Hummus and pita seemed to be her staple the entire trip.

Pita bread varies from place to place, as pizza dough does in this country. Some of it was soft and chewy and some was like cardboard. The hummus was always good, everywhere. We heard the call to prayer loud and clear since we were eating outdoors and this was Bethlehem. Fr. George said he became very familiar with the sound while in Africa. I instructed Tim to listen closely as he's not likely to hear it so clearly again. It was a recording, most definitely. I don't know the language but they say it's the entire prayer, not simply a call to prayer, to facilitate its recitation.

Drinking water had been hard to come by in Jordan. The travel company gave us only one bottle a day and we couldn't buy any extra. The hotel offered two bottles per room at check in and the tap water was not potable. Tim and I were popping a daily Imodium tablet as a precaution, but that's no reason to ignore the concierge's advice. If Fr. Jim hadn't kindly given his hotel bottles to me, I might have been worse off. A couple of vitamin C pills relieved the sinus congestion I had, though my body needed to recover the lost fluids.

The other resource we pilgrims seemed low on was cash. Remy took us to the only ATM in Bethlehem that dispenses US dollars. A few people made use of it. Strangely, we stopped two other times at this ATM during our brief stay in Bethlehem for different pilgrims (or perhaps some of the same ones) to get money. Tim and I happened to be seated on the bus behind the woman who lost her wallet. She was blaming her traveling companion, her friend, for the loss. "No, I'm not blaming you but if you hadn't of distracted me when I was packing ..." This was the same person who had asked me not to sit near her because of my cold. I actually did pray that she'd find her wallet because it's a pretty awful thing to lose something so important, especially when traveling.

I liked our Bethlehem hotel room very much. There were three twin beds and a balcony. After the Dead Sea swim, my hair needed conditioner but this hotel was the only one without any samples. They compensated with tubes of Dead Sea skin products. I rinsed out our swim suits and water shoes so these would have a chance to dry before we checked out. The room key was needed for the lights and A/C to work and we received only one room key. Tim declined dinner again, so I left the key with him while I went down. He just had to agree to stay awake to let me in when I returned. It was Thursday night and things were quieting down on the Bethlehem streets for the weekly Muslim holy day. I stood on the balcony and listened to the call to prayer, then went down to dinner.

1 In a matter of hours, we'd traveled from Amman, at an elevation of 3,300 ft above sea level, to the Dead Sea, at 1,300 feet below sea level, to Bethlehem, at 2,500 ft above sea level. Our ears were feeling it!
We spent the entire morning at Petra, a wonder of the world, an UNESCO World Heritage Site and a well-maintained national park. Looking at the map, our guide explained the approximate round-trip distances to the different points of interest.

At least, I wanted to see the facade featured in the last scene of Indiana Jones. Neva sought - and found - a walking partner to the "Monastery" in the young teacher and runner, Anastasia, from Florida. I felt confident that I could walk seven miles1 but not the twelve miles needed for the "Monastery." I had turned my ankle very badly two weeks earlier on the first day of our family trip to New York and Toronto. I underestimated how serious the sprain was but, at the time, I couldn't keep off it or care for the injury. And we walked a great deal, especially in Toronto: one day we walked seven miles!

To protect my ankles in Petra, I wrapped them in these wonderful bandages that Kenny's athletic trainer had given him when he turned his ankle at sport's practice in December. I had also bought last minute some fantastic walking shoes with ankle support. Advice to travelers includes shoes that are broken-in but, being laid up with my ankle injury for several days at home, I couldn't. These shoes needed no breaking-in.

The itinerary's exposition of this day offered "riding on horseback (no riding experience required) ..." As it turned out, our guide strongly discouraged us from the horseback option, although some insisted on it because of the itinerary.2 I suspected our guide's concern was based on the reputation of the handlers for animal cruelty. Signs were prominent listing ways to report observed or suspected violations.

Our guide suggested that, despite the "you can't get lost, it's one-way in and one-way out" nature of the place, we stick with him for his explanations. Timmy, feeling independent, walked ahead and very soon disappeared from sight. The guy from Arizona said it reminded him of the American Southwest.3 The sun was not high enough to reach into the narrow Siq and gusts of wind blew outwards. The warning sound of a single horse trotting echoed periodically from behind or coming ahead before passing.

Young boys plague you to buy their postcards, jewelry. Old men sweep up droppings of horse, donkey. Bedouins offer camel rides. Generally, it's a carnival in front of the "Treasury."

This was as far as the guide was going. Tim met up with me again at this point, wanting to show me things ahead. Our morning was only half spent, so I went ahead with him. He showed me the tombs he had explored. He ably bounded up stone stairs like a mountain goat. I climbed the stairs as well but slower. Out of the bedouin shops along the way would come the soft-spoken, encouraging voice of an unseen proprietor, "Almost there, Mum." Again, how they knew I spoke English ... "Necklaces, scarfs ..." uttered in the next breath.

Notice the wooden paneled restrooms (right)

Bedouin shop

We turned around here though there was more to see. Being in the open sun had a stimulating effect but I resisted the impulse to continue forward for caution's sake. The few miles walk back was slightly uphill and Bedouins followed me the entire way on their horses offering a ride. I stubbornly refused because I had been training for this day's walk and I wanted to do it on my own.

While waiting for the others to return, Tim and I bought headscarves. Tim selected the traditional red color and the salesman put it on him as you see in this video. I bought a handmade green one.

Leaving the park, our guide took a head count by having us pass in front of him as he counted. He stopped Tim, who by now was no longer wearing his tour group name tag, and asked, "Are you with me?" It was a bit funny and somewhat typical of Tim's general life experience. Before beginning our three hour drive to Amman, we ate lunch in a restaurant. I had hummus and soup, and Tim took the buffet for the spaghetti.

I never thought to get Jordanian dinars so it was good that they accepted US dollars. Jordan felt expensive4 compared with Israel and it felt wealthy. I had budgeted 80-100 NIS a day for our lunches but here I was in Jordan not using shekels to buy lunch. So I ended up with extra shekels that I had to spend at the olive wood shop later in Jerusalem. Live and learn.

Poor Neva who walked to the "Monastery" and back was unable to get off the bus for lunch. We could see her from our seats in the restaurant sitting on the bus. Maybe someone brought her back something but I noticed early on that she was a picky eater. Overall this trip did not seem to be agreeing with her despite her enthusiasm.

Amman is very much a Western city. Gabriel, our guide, told us it's the Prince's goal to commercialize the capital and make it attractive to international companies. There was a billboard for the World Cup. The hotel had the most convenient electric outlets for charging devices we'd seen.

Our guide took us to the chapel in his parish for mass. Two laywomen had switched off doing the mass readings, one of whom was Neva. Apparently she wasn't up to it after walking too much, so Father George asked for a volunteer. My hand shot up before I even knew it, a surprise to me. He looked surprised as well. He laid his phone with a Breviary app open to the readings on the ambo. I didn't look it over beforehand. When I went up, I saw that both readings were in fact quite familiar to me, Jacob wrestling with the angel (Genesis 32:23-33) and Psalm 17. I felt I read them well and people did comment afterwards that I did. All those years of reading aloud bedtime stories to my children turned me into a personable, measured public reader.

Catholic chapel in Amman
Martyrs of Jordan church

After mass, Gabriel offered us small cups of hot tea. Then he took us into the main church and we met the pastor, etc. At the lovely, opulent hotel, Tim had me dust the red dirt of Petra from his only pair of shoes. My ankle bandages were too dusty to wear again without washing.

Tim was too tired for dinner so I went down alone. I sat with three other women and ate quickly because one of the women was concerned for her health around me. When I excused myself from their company after eating, her parting words were, "You're sick, you know, you have a bad cold. And my health is poor, I have a heart condition, so it would be best if you kept away. Please don't be offended." I'd agree she has a heart condition and I did my best to avoid her the rest of the trip.

1 It ended up being around 5 miles, according to my watch.
2 "But we've paid for it!" "It's included!" That sort of thing.
3 I've since seen friends' pictures on Facebook of Zion National Park and, except for the complete lack of water, it looks very similar.
4 e.g., Admission to Petra was $70USD pp

Tuesday, August 07, 2018

I learned the names of only a few on the Holy Land trip. Tuesday morning, I ate breakfast with James from Phoenix. Prior to becoming a Catholic in the week before Pope Benedict resigned, James was a rosary-prayin' Episcopalian. He, as well as a few others, could be spotted from time to time with rosary in hand.

Tuesday's itinerary was light on account of our crossing into Jordan. Our Israeli tour guide, Remy, reiterated over and over again the crossings we'd be taking, to leave Israel, the Sheikh Hussein Bridge, and to return on Thursday, Allenby Bridge. Leaving Israel was easy enough. We left the bus, went inside, received the exit "stamp" - a separate slip of paper - at passport control, passed through the duty-free shop and got back on our bus after showing a guard our passports and exit permit.

Our bus driver was allowed to bring us across where we unloaded everything, left it and entered the customs building. All the visas and taxes had been taken care of by the travel agency. Only the Kenyan passport among us caused a significant wrangling with officials for our Jordanian tour guide, Omar, a.k.a, Gabriel. He had us line up, ten at a time, to hand over our passport, stand for two iris images that required us to stare without blinking for longer than most could do, then wait. I realized how long it was taking and walked out to the parking lot to bring in my backpack with my camera and iPad because of the heat. Shortly, we all left to wait in the parking lot. Omar brought out our passports and distributed them. He warned us against removing the bar code fixed to our picture page that included all our information about this entry.

Then we walked across the parking lot to feed our luggage and ourselves through the X-ray machines. We boarded our new bus and met our new driver, Abdul. Fr. Jim talked Omar into taking us to the baptismal site at the Jordan River right away which we did although it was nearing lunch time.

Looking across to Israel

We renewed our baptismal vows, a common thing to do on such occasions. A stone font had water in it, refreshed daily. I might have dipped my hand, I can't remember. Many people took water. Friends back home wanted water from both the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan River. You realize it's the same water.

A number of churches in the vicinity because the site commemorates Joshua's crossing the Jordan, Elijah's ascension to heaven and Jesus' baptism.

Back to our regular itinerary, we needed lunch, stat. Gabriel got a friend to deliver forty turkey and cheese sandwiches with chips, banana, soda for us - $10 each - at the top of Mount Nebo. Turkey & cheese - I was so done with kosher.

I noticed, kind of all at once, that Hebrew was gone from everywhere. Signs were only in Arabic and English.

So, with not really enough time to digest, if you know what I mean, we walked up to the Moses Memorial, a Franciscan basilica that sits on Mount Nebo for mass. Unequivocally, I liked this church the best. The incorporation of the preserved archeological artifacts made it a living museum. I liked the desert colors, tans and yellows. The wood paneling above the stone foundation was like a barn, but in a warm, cozy way. To call a church "a barn" usually means it's too big but I am talking specifically about wood framing on stone, although barns are usually based on cinderblock.

Such treasures

As a small group, we all fit within the sanctuary. I had figured out by now that the selected readings were not based on the church calendar but on the biblical significance of the site. If I remember correctly, the readings were Numbers 21, and John 3, so probably what is read on September 14, the Exaltation of the Cross.

I found the winding road to the right more interesting than the view towards the Dead Sea. But the Dead Sea is visible near the center of the picture below.

We began the three hour drive to Petra. As we set out, we picked up an armed tourist policeman near his home. He was on our bus for our two days in Jordan. He was so discreet that some were unaware of his presence. He stood in the stairwell and smoked during our stops.

Highway traffic control in Jordan is different than in Israel. Israel uses roundabouts to slow traffic. Jordan uses what appeared to be metal cuffs embedded in the roadway. I noticed our driver slowing and resuming speed.

The hotel in Petra, a Marriott, was amazing. I was so comfortable there. The service was incredible. Our bags went through screening. Dinner that evening was a traditionally Bedouin tent dinner. Tim loved it. There was live music with singing, and they cooked in the ground. A pleasant night to eat outside. Plenty of hookah pipes on-hand; everyone in Jordan smokes.

Sunday, August 05, 2018

Hotel wake-up calls were hit or miss. I set an alarm on my phone and on my watch each night.

We went straight away Monday morning to Cana in Galilee for couples to renew their wedding vows.

Cana church, exterior

Neither Tim nor I had any stake in that and, overwhelmed by the number of people - two other groups also visiting the small church - Tim wanted to hang out just within the walled courtyard. He told me that when he had seen enough, he was capable of walking to the tour bus on his own. I didn't allow that. He learned two things about group travel: (1) the leader takes a head count before leaving an area and (2) the bus never remains where you left it.

Cana church, interior

We went to the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth next and had mass in St. Joseph's Church nearby.

Church of the Annunciation

It was refreshing to keep the church doors open and groups visited while our mass was in progress. But ropes kept them to the back and our tour guide also hushed them. He couldn't hush the call to prayer, however, that began during Father Jim's homily. Fr. Jim couldn't compete with it so he tried to wait it out. But he eventually gave up. It was lunch time anyway.

St. Joseph's Church

We drove to Tanureen for their famous St. Peter's fish, a whole tilapia. Tim had chicken. The woman next to me refused any entrée, making them take it away, eating only hummus and pita bread. Remy treated us to baklava as we scrambled into our whirlwind afternoon tour of four northern places: (1) the Mount of Beatitudes, (2) Tabgha, (3) Primacy of Peter, and (4) Capernaum. It was do-or-die because the following morning we would depart the north altogether for Jordan.

At the Mount of Beatitudes, we were told that we were only the tenth bus of the day. Usually by the mid-afternoon, sixty buses have been through. It's peaceful and quiet, the grounds are well-maintained. When everyone went inside the church, I took Tim up towards the retreat house and an outdoor seating area.

8-sided Church of the Beatitudes

Then we walked towards the water and, by the time we were ready to view the church interior, everyone was out.

"From here one can see virtually all the places in which Jesus lived and worked"
Jerome Murphy-O'Connor

Tour guides make their presentations about a site outside so as to maintain respectful silence inside but at Tabgha, there is no shade. Relying on our wireless audio headsets, we entered and sat down on the plain benches.

Church of the Multiplication (of Loaves and Fishes)

Remy whispered his information to us, keeping a nervous eye to the back of the sanctuary where a Benedictine sister was shushing him repeatedly. He told us about the fire that was set three years ago, a story I remember. I went out of the sanctuary to the courtyard near the koi pond and viewed the reconstructed roof.

At the Primacy of Peter, Remy played the twenty-first chapter of St. John's Gospel from an audio Bible. The level of reflection at a site never exceeded this, a bit of Scripture recitation. Some made for the church, others shed their shoes and rolled up their pants to wade into the Sea. I tried for a clearer picture of my favorite sculpture:

In it, St. Peter is so shattered. If only he could get his mind off himself! He grasps the bottom portion of the Lord's crook. Christ raises his hand in blessing and commission. Tim and I were the first ones back to the bus.

Finally, Capernaum. Our two Franciscans priests wore their brown robes, with short pants underneath, for our day in the Galilee. Many sites displayed this banner:

a major anniversary

A thing I did not know. There were also signs about appropriate attire at these sites:

Despite it being July, modesty knows no season. Most women kept a scarf handy, wrapped around shoulders or draped over knees, as needed. Our group had three women who bucked at covering their shoulders and knees. One, dourly, even veiled her head instead, a misplaced propriety I found bewildering. Capernaum is stricter than the rest. I managed to snap a picture of the very neat church there above the excavations of an ancient dwelling:

Inside the railing at the center is a view through a glass floor into the ancient house. It was nearly "closing time," and the Franciscans on-site were ready to shut it down. Neva took our picture inside the remains of an early synagogue:

I love the basalt stone used everywhere. It's so distinctive.
"One more tel?"

Friday, August 03, 2018

"One more tel?" he'd ask.
"Hotel!" came our emphatic reply.
Not everyone understood Remy's clever joke, a tour guide full of good deals. Bottled water for a buck. Lunch buffets, ten US dollars. Who to trust with our credit cards, "What's said on the bus, stays on the bus! Good deal?"

Connecting flight at Heathrow in the wee hours. Tim enjoyed a window seat, both take-offs in local time daylight. Starting to recognize the same faces of co-travelers, some already wearing their branded name tags. Tim and I met Robert, the man whose Kenyan passport would snag our immigration into Jordan, while checking in at JFK. He found his way into the background of many of my pictures. We ate dinner together while in Amman, but my conversation was no match for his friends' texts.

Upon arriving in Netanya, our room was not ready due to the sabbath, so I took Tim out a short distance to the Mediterranean.

Many shop signs in French.

The ruckus in Netanya that evening over the World Cup was all for Russia (but they lost). The shabbat hotel elevator took us to the top floor, then down a floor at a time. We were on 3. Tim liked that the TV welcomed us. We stayed in six hotels over nine nights and several greeted us this way:

Tim slept on a made-up sofa bed.

I set the air conditioner too cold and by Monday developed sneezing, congestion and eventually a cough.

That first morning I had no appetite. I didn't find the dining room sufficiently cold for the cheeses and other dairy products that constitute kosher breakfast.

We drove up the coast to Haifa and visited two sites associated with Elijah: Stella Maris Monastery (his hideout cave) and El-Muhraqa (his confrontation with the prophets of Baal). It was difficult to visit churches because, being Sunday, they were in use. We were a week ahead of the optional Marian feast, OLMC, that falls on July 16th.

Tim took an interest in the Latin Vulgate inscriptions on the monuments. We became aware that one man in our group was a professional photographer. We paid attention to things he found interesting. Lunch was chicken shawarma for Tim and falafel for me. Surprisingly, it was the only time we ate this typical food.

A man named Kerke approached me after lunch, dragging on a cigarette, to inquire whether my son was safe. He said, as a former teacher, he was always on the lookout for special needs students. I told him he had nothing to worry about and thanked him for his concern.

On the flight over, Kerke and his bride had seats immediately ahead of us. They put atrocious programs on their TV screens, reclined and fell asleep. Then woke up to cuddle. She knew nothing about receiving holy communion at mass. The first time, back in the pew, she asked him, "Have you eaten yours already?" as she held hers. On all subsequent occasions, she picked it from the priest's hand. I thought Kerke could have coached her better so she could pass, but he seemed fairly lapsed himself. Besides, she wasn't the only non-Catholic receiving communion every day. One of the Franciscans tried to persuade her to get her husband to give up smoking. The last evening, with an open bar, he touched my knee a couple of times to make a point, and she saw another side of him.

Mass that day, Sunday, was inside the Church of the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor. Another group asked our tour guide to take their picture. At first, they spoke together in English but switched easily over to French. I am so impressed by the ability of those in the tourist industry to identify others and address them in their own language.

The taxi ride up and down the mountain can be unnerving due to switchbacks. It felt as if we were up there on that mountain a very long time. Then we made our way to Tiberias for a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee. The hotel that evening had a small beach access to the Sea. I waded in after dinner, chilly and fish nibbled. But the sunset against the hills along the Sea was still, calm, peaceful and despite the summertime heat, I slept well.