Tuesday, August 31, 2010

25 Days in August - Diary of a family's journey in the Holyland


DAY 8 - Wednesday
We finally managed to get the early start we desired, out the door by 7:04 local time. Amazing how motivating your own set of wheels can be. Our destination for the day: The Dead Sea. The roads heading out of Jerusalem were relatively quiet and we managed to navigate across town onto the route bound for the lowest point on earth without too much problem. We passed the turn-offs for Ramallah and Jericho, now under Palestinian Authority and off-limits to Jewish vehicles, and then took the swervy, curvy road down to 400 metres below sea level on a highway so smooth it would embarrass our provincial politicians. We were fortunate on many accounts. For one thing we arrived at the Ein Gedi Nature Reserve ten minutes after opening which meant that the parking lot was virtually empty and the hiking paths were uncrowded. For another thing the five year old waited until we had arrived and was out of the brand spanking new rental car before heaving her breakfast flakes and milk onto the pavement. The empty stomach didn't stop our intrepid five year old from participating in two easy hikes, one in the morning up Wadi David and the second in the afternoon up Wadi Arugot. Ein Gedi is a wonder. The surrounding lands are desert dry hills rising hundreds of meters above while green wadis with waterfalls are found along the trail below at refreshing intervals. We dunked ourselves every chance we got. We encountered wildlife; frogs, freshwater crabs, Ibex and a peculiar rodent called a Rock Hyrax (the Dead Sea equivalent of a squirrel that looks like a North American groundhog) but avoided the highly poisonous En Gedi viper native to the region. We ate a picnic lunch, visited a 3rd century era synagogue on the park grounds that was recently uncovered with an exquisitely preserved central mosaic that includes the names of patrons and sponsors; in two thousand years not much has changed in synagogues. We ended the day in the early afternoon - it was 43 degrees seaside - by floating in the Dead Sea, re-discovering anew every rash and small cut on our bodies.

DAY 9 - Thursday
Hit and miss. We decided on a morning visit to the Sorreq stalactite cave 20 kms outside Jerusalem followed by a picnic lunch at a nearby park. The drive through the Judean hills feels similar to traveling through Quebec's Laurentian mountains only the roads are narrower, steeper and twistier, and not as well indicated. If you want to get to a centre; Jerusalem, direction to Tel-Aviv, even to a larger town on the edge of the hills like Bet Shemesh, it's no problem. But the guidebook and road signage are not nearly as clear when it comes to lesser known stops like Sorreq. I drove more or less on instinct and a sense of the general direction where we were supposed to be headed. There was one false stop when I read the word Sorreq in Hebrew on a tiny roadside sign which turned out to be in the wrong place - that's something else you see here; two and three locations with the same name, which often turn out to be entrances and exits to the same nature reserve at various locations. The road map provided by the car rental company didn't indicate the route number we were on and, after driving up and down through the hills for a while we determined that we better call the Sorreq office. The man there didn't seem to have a clue where we were, however, from his description I could tell that we weren't far. The stalactite cave is on the western edge of the hills where you get a clear view of the land sloping down and flattening out all the way to the Mediterranean Sea 40 kms away. We took the tour of this delicately preserved site which included an introductory film. The cave was discovered by mistake in 1968 at a quarry blasting limestone rock for the construction of the city of Ashdod. Our tour guide gave explicit and extensive descriptions of how the stalactites and stalagmites were formed. But the one piece of information he omitted was how old the cave was. I had an inkling why this might be, so I asked. He said, well, there is geological and theological consistency on when the cave appeared; about 20 million years ago. I hadn't asked for theology, but I guess every question about the land here requires a theological answer. Where the 'consistency' might be I couldn't understand given that according to Judaism the world was created about 6,000 years ago. And how long did it take for these incredibly beautiful and varied formations to be created? I asked. About 5 million years he admitted. From Sorreq we drove to Sattaf, a favourite hiking park for Jerusalemites which the guidebook decribed as having a restaurant, welcome centre and a fresh water spring where hikers have been known to swim. After another series of miscues and false turns we finally found the park entrance based on directions provided by a bystander. We ate lunch at a picnic ground on site and drove down to the supposedly popular natural spring - it was just too hot at midday to hike the kilometre down and then up again - and good thing we didn't walk because the pool was dirty and unswimmable. Which brings me to the most disappointing aspect about the Holyland so far. How shamefully unclean it is. Litter was scattered all over the Sattaf picnic area and along the hiking trails. It's a situation that one finds everywhere, in the cities and in these JNF funded nature reserves. What happened to the old adage about cleanliness being next to Godliness?

DAY 10 - Friday
Got off to an early start today. The wife ran down to the makolet (the corner store) to pick up a few provisions before we headed out to the coast. First stop would be a 10 am reservation made at the Ayalon Institute and Museum in Rehovot a few miles south of Tel-Aviv. When she came back from the store, she told me she had bought me a present and slipped a Jerusalem Post out of her bag. Handing it over she looked at the front page and cried out, "Oh My God!" I panicked, "What happened, what happened?" thinking the worst; danger, tragedy, a terrorist attack in Jerusalem. "It's friday today!!" And this is how we discovered the reason why last night when we visited the Bible Lands Museum that supposedly opens late on Wednesday evening it was closed. Because it was Thursday! This gives you some idea about how completely out of it we are. Somewhere along the line we lost track of time and hours and days became centuries and all of it started meaning the present. We arrived at the Ayalon Institute exactly on time. Ayalon is a stone's throw from the famed Weitzmann Institute of Technology. But Ayalon is unique and little known. It's not even found in guidebooks. The wife was tipped off by a friend who said it was a highlight of her trip to Israel. It did not disappoint. Actually, the Ayalon Institute is the site of a pre-State era 'kibbutz' where the Hagana made bullets in a clandestine factory, literally underground. The story is incredible. In 1945 a small group of Scouts in their early twenties from Tel-Aviv were planning to set up a kibbutz just south of the city. They were approached by a leader of the Hagana for a secret operation. After a long night of debate and without any explanation about what the operation might entail they agreed to participate. The result was the construction of a 'fake' kibbutz built under the noses of the British where the members worked for 10 hours a day in ungodly conditions to manufacture bullets. This became the sole supply of ammunition of the Hagana during the Mandate period and the primary source during the War of Independence. On the tour of the site we went underground through hidden passageways (there were two entrances to the factory - one in the kibbutz laundry room and the other behind the oven in the kibbutz bakery.) Our guide was a most fascinating and articulate young man named Yonatan who talked about the moral and philosophical dimensions of the project. "What drove these people to sacrifice and risk so much to achieve the goals they believed in? Had they been discovered they would have immediately been hanged by the British." It's a mystery, he said with a hint that this kind of sacrifice would be unimaginable from young people today. He believes from speaking to some of the survivors, that a lot of it had to do with the collectivist mentality of the kibbutz movement, the importance of seeing the connection between an individual life and larger goals of the collectivity that positively effect future generations. Yonatan then told us that he was a member of a kibbutz movement called "Dror LeYisrael" and lives in the area. It's a movement of educators who work in a variety of fields and with various groups committed to closing the gaps between divergent strata of Israel society, the old and the young, the religious and the secular, the politically Left and Right, the Arabs and the Jews etc. Meeting Yonatan was heartening and Ayalon was impressive and meaningful. After Ayalon we drove 30 kms south to a beach between Ashdod and Ashkelon called Nitsanim. Paydirt: Here was the pristine, uncrowded, clean, Israeli beach we had been dreaming about.

DAY 11 - Shabbat
Two observations: First, the streets are empty in Jerusalem on Shabbat, sanity returns to the capital. What a pleasure it is to drive. Second, this country has an obsession for the underground. There are tunnels and caves everywhere. One has the impression that the real comings and goings of life in the Holyland, the truly important activity, the genuine history, takes place underground. (One also thinks of the daily reports of terrorists smuggling arms and goods into Gaza through a network of tunnels.) Yesterday we visited a clandestine factory making bullets in 1945, today it was cave-dwellings and an underground olive oil factory from 245 BCE. The caves of Beit Guvrin are located about 45 kilometres south of Jerusalem, in the lowlands between the Judean Hills and the Negev. It's a national park that covers more than 1200 acres and has kilometers of rugged hiking trails over tels (unexcavated archaeological hills). Beit Guvrin is renowned for its more than 800 caves, most of which have not yet been explored. It was the site of a pre-millenial Hellenistic city, as well as Jewish (first Temple Period), Arab and Byzantine settlements, so it is particularly rich in archaeological finds. There are magnificent so-called "Bell Caves" that are three storeys high and formed from ancient quarries. In other excavated portions there are underground burial sites, a vast network of cave dwellings and cisterns, also, an ancient olive oil making factory (with stone presses, crushers and oil-capturing pits) and our favourite, an underground aviary for breeding pigeons cut into the limestone in the shape of a cross two storeys deep with two thousand holes in the walls (pigeon guano was collected for fertilizer and the birds were bred for cult sacrifice.) When it's 37 degrees you either need shade or water. The payoff hiking in Ein Gedi were the waterfall springs. At Beit Guvrin the payoff is the cool of the caves. The five year old wasn't quite up for the full challenge, so after lunch, when the temps had reached their maximum, I took the eleven and fourteen year olds deeper into the park. The girls were amazing, and it was not easy. We had brought along a lot of water and the park provides various water sources and shady spots along the way. But it didn't help that I guided us in the wrong direction for about ten minutes when I misread the map trying to find a shortcut back to the parking lot. We finally returned two hours later. The wife said she was fifteen minutes away from sending out a search party. The days being as hot as they are, we are happy to return home a late afternoon siesta, and go back out in the cool of the evening.

DAY 12 - Sunday
It's 7:15 pm and for the first time since we arrived a cool evening breeze is blowing down through the Valley of the Cross and up into our apartment window. Today was our last full day with the rental car, or rather this rental car. It has served us valiantly over the last 6 days in which we have put almost 800 kilometres on the odometer. It has ferried us to the Mediterranean coast, up and and down the Judean hills, to the Dead Sea, and as of today, to the upper Jordan Valley, all with air-conditioning. We are seriously considering extending the rental right to the end of the month. The plan for today was to take advantage of the car with a triple-header of touring: a drive approximately 120 kilometers north to the region of Beit She'an, where we would enjoy a dip in the water springs at Gan HaShelosha, then head over to see the ruins of the ancient city of Beit She'an, and finally stop off at Beit Alpha on the way back to gander at the mosaic floor of a 5th century synagogue. I had been to Beit Shean and Beit Alpha eighteen years ago, and remember the ruins of the city at Beit Shean, in particular, as my favourite site in all of Israel. It is truly incredible; an entire Roman-era city partially restored, with Israel's largest amphitheatre, bathhouses, streets with colonnades, market places, and temples etc. Beit Shean has been the site of important cities and major centres of trade going back to the pre-Canaanite period, through Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, Crusader periods and on, right up until today. You can not walk the site without bumping into a fallen Roman column, or a piece of sculpted marble that formed part of a building, or stepping on shards of pottery. When we arrived it was even more impressive than I remembered. In the almost two decades since I was there last, archaeological excavations have advanced a great deal and uncovered even more of the city. Beit She'an was our after-lunch stop. Our first stop of the morning was to be extra special for the kids. With the heat, part of the day had to be devoted to swimming. The wife found mention in an article in the Jerusalem Post of a park close to Beit She'an that was called by Time magazine "One of the world's twenty best 'off the beaten track' attractions," with some of the best spring water swimming in all of Israel. Well, either it was a Time magazine from 1980, or it was the West Bank edition of Time, because when we got there the place was mobbed with mostly Arab families barbecuing. In truth, the watering holes were quite spectacular but I felt too uncomfortable to enjoy myself. The wife and two younger kids swam while the fourteen year old and I sat under a rare available shady spot. It was the first day when I felt overwhelmed by Israel's Arab presence. My discomfort began on the drive up. Along highway 90, bypassing Jericho and zooming through arab towns in the Jordan Valley, Arab men are seen waiting along the side of the road, presumably day labourers hoping to get picked up for a job in the fields. Then you pass a checkpoint which defines the boundary between the green line and the Israeli part of the upper Jordan Valley, where the land turns from barren (Arab) to lush (Israeli). Finally, when we arrived at Gan HaShelosha it was all too much for me. By the time we got to the swimming hole my nerves were shot. On the way back to Jerusalem, as we reached the Dead Sea, sand squalls kicked up, like Canadian-style snow squalls only sandier. At one point I had trouble seeing the car in front. We drove to the apartment through the centre of Jerusalem, coasting past the border of Mea Shearim. Best line of the day from the fourteen year old as we passed the ultra-Orthodox neighbourhood: "Next time I'm coming back in a bikini armed with a bunch of water balloons."

DAY 13 - Monday, YAD VASHEM
No photos. No words.

DAY 14 - Tuesday
We extended the rental car to the end of the trip, and as a consequence of a lack of urgency, the pace has slowed considerably. It is evening and slightly cooler. The wife took the fourteen and five year old into the centre of Jerusalem. The eleven year old and I bailed on them after going together to Machane Yehuda Jerusalem's main open market. It's a place Annetta seems to love but the kids and I aren't terribly fond of: A combination of the hustle bustle, the redolence of garbage and fish with a hint of cat piss in the air, the open displays of glazed danish buzzed by a hive of egg-laying insects, all baking gently in the sun. The market has its 'homey' charms (as in Homer Simpson). It's vast and lively. I just don't trust the food. In the meantime, I'm sticking to the pre-packaged grocery store variety. This morning we visited the Israel Museum for the second time. The sixteen year old joined us for the first time in a week. Being a veteran of Israel with friends and contacts, she has had more exciting plans than to hang around with her parents and younger sisters. When we told the five year old that we were going to the museum to see the Dead Sea scrolls, she objected, "I don't want to go to the museum to see dead squirrels!" Three hours was still not enough to cover the balance of what we missed from the first visit to the museum. We decided to work backwards, starting with the Billy Rose Sculpture Garden, the incredible 50:1 scale detailed model of 1st century Jerusalem, and the Shrine of the Book (the Dead Sea Scrolls). We barely touched the Contemporary and European Art rooms, and hardly skimmed the Jewish Art and Life section which amazingly features two fully reconstructed synagogue interiors from India and 17th century Italy. We never managed to reach the ancient archaeology (my favourite) rooms before the kids threw up their hands and screamed uncle. I should also mention that last night - although it seems like we've been torturing the kids with museum overload - we took the five year old to a puppet show at the open amphitheatre in Liberty Bell Park (Gan HaPa'amon). It may seem incongruous for Jerusalem to have a park featuring a replica of the cracked Philadelphia Liberty Bell, but actually it is a reminder of the inscription from the Torah "Proclaim liberty throughout the land..." The park also has a "Terry Fox Park" section donated by some rich Canadians in his memory. We saw a group of Arab families having a barbecue on the stone benches and tables there. Jerusalem is replete with such incongruities. An international puppet festival is in town this week. We saw a traditional Italian family traveling circus; parents and their kids playing songs, singing, pantomiming, performing with marionettes, and clowning around. The five year old loved it. Tomorrow, the plan is to hit the road again. Caesaria.

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