Israel: Random Observations

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Everywhere throughout Israel are roadside stands, and little restaurants, with a huge fruit press. Huge piles of fresh oranges, pomegranates, and many other kinds are simply sliced in half and hand squeezed in the press. Delicious! I want one of these presses but they don’t fit in my backpack…

People in Israel, by and large, are very welcoming and kind. Arriving at the Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv, we were told to go outside, cross a road and find a local bus stop for the bus ride to the hotel. We couldn’t find it for the life of us. Kees asked a taxi driver but he just tried to talk us into taking the taxi. A passing man stopped and asked “How can I help you?” He then proceeded to ask around, take us across the road and walked us to the bus stop. He shook our hands and was off.
As soon as we got on the bus, I asked the driver where we had to get off. He didn’t know. Instantly four or five people on the bus called out “Don’t worry! We will help you!” They whipped out cell phones, punched in the address we needed and each kept an eye on us to tell us where to get off the bus. I just hoped they agreed on where we had to get off… Many of them asked “Where are you from? Ah! Canada. So far away! So beautiful! I have a cousin in Montreal!”
We have to grin when we listen to people talking together. Using hands and arms, they can have very intense discussions and it sounds to us, as if they are always in a heated argument.
If you plan to travel to Israel it might be useful to know that you can get an entry visa upon arrival at the airport, at no cost. However, if you leave the country via a land border, i.e. driving into Jordan, it will cost you 110 NIS (New Israeli Shekels) per person (about US$ 35.-). When you leave Israel by air, there is no exit fee. Entering Jordan at Aqaba did not cost us anything but the exit fee was about 5 JD (Jordanian dinar or US $7.50). 

Israel is very expensive. Eating out, even groceries are much more expensive than in most other places. Perhaps the cost resembles that of Australia, where we also found daily living to be very expensive. Public transportation is the exception in Israel: we found it very reasonable.

Internet is readily available everywhere. And, unlike Australia, is free in hotels, restaurants, even on the long distance bus!

Israel in the north is much more lush and green than the arid, rocky south. The south is warmer but, to us, much less attractive.

We were surprised to learn that orthodox Jews do not serve in the Israeli Army, even though this is their own country. Arabs do not serve, which might be understandable in terms of politics and religion. This leaves a relatively small section of the population that has mandatory military duty.

In Jordan we were told that many people have canceled plans to travel there, since the troubles in Syria and Egypt. In daily life, we notice little or nothing of the conflicts in and around Israel. However, while we were here a partial mobilization had been called and there was military personnel on almost all buses going to and from their stations. We see the odd military helicopter patrolling the shore, but not much else is noticeable. I  sure hope peace prevails for all countries in this region.

Along major highways, signs are bilingual or trilingual – in Hebrew, Arabic and English. But in most other places, they are only in Hebrew. My first reaction when we arrived, was that we could have rented a car to drive around. Traffic is fairly civilized, although some drivers are crazy and lines on the roads seem to be mere suggestions. But the further we traveled around the country, the more we realized that streets often don’t have names, and that many signs are not decipherable at all. It would have been very difficult to find our way around, unless you have a very good GPS.

Our Arab taxi driver in Jerusalem heard that we were born in Holland. “Alles goed!” he yelled while gripping the wheel and swerving through traffic. (‘all is well’) Each question or concern we had, he waved away with a hearty “Alles goed!” So now that’s what we say when we’re not sure how something is going to work… alles goed!

Language: we’ve picked up very little here in the way of language. Some in Hebrew, some in Arabic.
‘Shalom’ and ‘Salaam’; ‘To da and Shukrah” for thank you.

We are staying south of Tel Aviv, in Bat Yam, right now, and not many speak English. Even the restaurant menu’s are in Hebrew only. We have no idea what we order but ‘beer’ seems to work in all languages. Tonight I asked for white wine. It came in a large glass, more than luke warm, it was very warm. I asked for ice. No ice. Did I want cold wine? Well, then they had red wine for me. It was ice cold. Tradition! 

My favorite airport moment: an Orthodox Jewish family walked by us. All dressed in black and white. The father had long corkscrew curls and wore a black hat, the mother long black skirt and white shawl. The little boy spotted the punk ahead of me in the check-in line. He stopped and his mouth dropped open. He stared at the blue mohawk and earrings, the black lace gloves and studded jacket. A wonderful cross-cultural moment.

We have had a fantastic adventure traveling around Israel and into a small corner of Jordan. We have met such nice people and seen many amazing places. Tomorrow we leave for Turkey.

Shalom, Israel.

Nazareth & the Jesus Trail

Coffee and donkeys in Nazareth

After a week at a wonderful international school near Hertzliyya, we are now in Nazareth.
We are happy to be staying in the old parts of cities, which have a very authentic, and much different, feel from the ‘modern’ parts of cities. Here, no busses and motorbikes race by. It is quiet because there  is no traffic. The roads are alleys, just a few meters wide, if that. They are steep, often with steps. Here the alleys also have gutters for run-off, making it awkward to walk. When the market stalls are open, and goods spill out into the street, there is not enough room for all of the people making their way up and down the hilly town. Here, among the vegetable and fruit vendors, it is easy to imagine how Jesus walked these same narrow roads.

We followed our noses to the coffee and spice vendor, bought Turkish coffee in a small stall and walked to the Church of the Annunciation where, according to Christian belief, the angel Gabriel told Mary of her immaculate conception.
The skyline of Nazareth is filled with churches, mosques and minarets. We were surprised to learn that no Jews live in this Arab city, but make their home in nearby Nazareth Ilid.
We had fantastic fried pancakes filled with cottage cheese and pecans, and drenched in honey.
We bought bread and fruit for our upcoming long distance hike and did our laundry. The hotel in which we are staying is a fun, ancient inn. Our room has stone arches and feels like an old wine cellar… The courtyard is full of birds and plants, even a lemon tree.

This afternoon we visited Nazareth Village, an open air museum where the time of Jesus is reenacted in the village and farm style, clothing and way of living. Only 500 meters from old Nazareth, they have unearthed an ancient wine press area in the rocks, as well as terraced farm land. Old, gnarled olive trees shelter the sheep and donkey that roam around while children play in period clothing and adults demonstrate herding, a guard station, weaving and more. There is even a carpenter named Joseph…  Everything is very enjoyable and interesting. Except the gift shop which sells plastic baby Jesus dolls.

We found a great restaurant where we’ve gone back twice for dinner: Tishreen Restaurant:
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What Would Jesus Do? Well, He Didn’t Take The Bus!

What would Jesus do if he still lived here?

Well, as the brochure of the Jesus Trail states “Jesus didn’t take the bus.” So we do the same – we walk the Galilee while we are here.
We booked this hike through the JesusTrail Tours, which means we still hike just with the two of us, but they arranged our overnight accommodations along the trail, the meals AND they transport our luggage. A perfect arrangement.
Leaving Nazareth this morning, we followed the orange trail markers, through the alleys of the old city, up 350 steps and out of the city. The trail took us through old olive groves and yellow fields of mustard seed.
Whenever we pass through a town, children and adults alike called out ‘hello’ and ‘Shalom’! These are Arab children and ‘shalom’ is a foreign word so they yell it at foreign visitors. Everyone is very welcoming and kind.
We had a snack of nuts and fruit outside the gates of Zippori, a historic national park including Roman ruins dating back to 700 BC.
Then we headed down into the city of Cana where Jesus reportedly performed his very first miracle: turning water into wine at a Cana wedding feast. Now, Cana proudly displays jars of clay (as in the famous music group Jars of Clay) and sells mineral water as Cana wine… or perhaps they bottle real wine.
There are two churches, a Catholic one and an Oxthodox church right next to each other, each claiming to be the original site. Our guest house in Cana is immediately next to the churches. The very welcoming Arab Israeli hosts served us fresh lemonade, made from the lemons in the backyard, before showing us a room.
It is interesting to note that Arabs and Jews still live in very separate areas of town, if they even share a town. Cana has a Christian side and a Muslim side. Some towns only have one or the other but not both. Apparently they get on well enough on the surface, but many nuances play a role in the deeper understanding of how both cultures mix or don’t mix.
Our host just came and served us Turkish coffee. Tonight they will serve us a traditional dinner.
Stay tuned for tomorrow’s adventure as we spend the night at an orthodox kibbutz. Not sure if there will be wifi.

Best date I ever had!

No, not a date with my husband but fresh dates bought on the market in Nazareth. I have never seen or tasted such incredible dates. Oy Vey! Soft, sweet, huge.
We left the Cana Wedding Guest House, after breakfast of tomatoes, cucumbers, pita bread, hummus, yogurt and omelet.
IMG_1022Hiking out of Cana we grinned at the shoe store. Would have never known this was a shoe store… But yesterday my boots were killing me and the son of the guesthouse owner took us to this store. It was closed and no shoes in sight. A lady across the road came with a key and sold me a pair of running shoes. This is why I am now hiking the hills of the Galilee in fluorescent green shoes…. Oy vey again!We are on day two of the four day Jesus Trail. Yesterday we hiked for 15 KM, same today. The weather was overcast but no rain. And it’s perfect to do this hike without sun beating down on us. You can only do the hike in spring and fall, because the summer’s heat is too much. On the outskirts of Cana we were appalled by all the garbage strewn left and right. People seem to dump everything they don’t need anymore on the outskirts of town, in the hills. There are empty bottles and plastic bags but also broken office chairs, TV’s, a whole playground set, and more. Kees said “there are not many places in Israel where you cannot see any garbage.” And this is right, the beach being a big exception where every little bit of garbage was picked up. But if the government wants to promote tourism through hiking trails, people will have to learn how to clean up! The scents of Israel to me, right now, are heavy sweet blossoms mixed with rotting garbage. There must a millions of cats in the country, living around all of the open garbage cans we see.The trail today led through rocky, green hills and along wheat fields. At one point it turned into a narrow cattle trail, leading over hills. Our view was mostly of the Golan Heights to the east.
We also walked through a lovely forest of olive, laurel and pine trees. We had a picnic lunch at the base of a sign, in Hebrew, that had two words in English: Frican Forest. There was no place to sit but we shared a chunk of wood at the base of the sign to eat our pita bread with cheese, freshly roasted pecans and amazing dates! As soon as we walked into the Frican Forest, we saw picnic tables! And not just one or two but many! The Hebrew sign had probably said that there were picnic tables coming up!

When we got close to our destination, the Kibbutz Lavi, we could see the buildings on the top of a hill but no road or path leading to it. We got lost trying to follow the trail and looking for the right path. We probably walked some 2 KMs wrong but eventually took a road straight up the hill, arriving huffing and puffing at the hotel (at least I did, Kees is in much better shape after hiking in Spain for 10 days).

The hotel is beautiful and has a huge indoor pool. Which we used! Dinner was kibbutz style in a huge dining room: fish, chicken, roast vegetables and much more. It is interesting to note that this is a traditional, orthodox kibbutz and all food is prepared according to strict rules under supervision of a rabbi. It was very tasty!

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

A Day of Firsts!

This is Day 3 on the Jesus Trail and we hike from Kibbutz Lavi to Moshav Arbel.
The sun breaks through the clouds and the sky gets blue. The weather, this week, is perfect for hiking.
But it is the first time we hike among cows and even the odd steer. They are huge, but just curious and we don’t get charged.
We do follow their little, narrow trails through fields, among boulders and up and down hills.
It was the first day we had to climb up and up and up, rounding some high, rocky outcrops called The Horns of Hattim. Hard to imagine, as we walk the green fields with wildflowers, that the is the very spot where, in 1187, the army of Saladin defeated the Crusaders!
It was the first time ever I have visited a Druze site.
The Druze are an Arabic group of people, living in Israel, who are recognized as a separate religious culture. Check out this link if you want to learn more about them:

The Druze have ties to the Prophet Jethro and to Moses.
We visited their temple Nebi Shu’eib.
The men wear white turbans or a fez, while the women wear white headscarves. The temple dates back to the year 300, parts were constructed in 1187. Pretty darn old.
My one blister is getting bigger so I limped into the area and was happy to sit down for a little picnic lunch of fruit, pita and eggs.

We decide to take a short cut to the village Moshave Arbel, rather than hike the extra 10 KM through the hills. All day we had a view of our ultimate goal: the Sea of Galilee. As we enter the village in which we are staying tonight, I notice it is clean, with wide streets, sidewalks and lots of greenery. Turns out this is a Jewish village, as opposed to the many Arab towns in which we have stayed. I didn’t know this but Arab Israelis don’t pay local taxes and thus their villages don’t have the services of villages like this one.

The word I have perhaps heard most of, here in Israel, is “welcome”! Everyone is incredibly welcoming. The hosts at Arbel Guesthouse welcomed us with a jug of lemonade. We have the top floor of the house, with a jacuzzi, bed and small kitchen. First time ever I have seen a simple hole in the wall serve as bathroom vent.
And, first time ever, we were given the key to the house but also the key to the gate that blocks access to the entire village! When we walked past, I wondered why there was a huge gate that could close off entrance to the town. Things like war or invasion of tanks crossed my mind. Never did the real reason occur to me. Our host explained that nearby farmers will come and steal sheep. That’s why we now have a key to the village! We and the sheep will be safe tonight!
Addendum: tonight we enjoyed the best possible dinner. In such a small village nears the shores of Galilee we ‘discovered’ that the owner of our guesthouse, Arbel Guesthouse, is an amazing chef. Yishmael served us fresh mousse of mango, followed by delicious soup. Then the best roast chicken we’ve ever had (hope Karla doesn’t read this!!), with salad with cranberries and nut and FIVE different vegetables, mashed potatoes topped with sweet potatoes – all beautifully served. Then we had homemade strawberry and lemon sherbet, followed by homemade limoncello. OMG – fabulous meal worthy of any 5 star restaurant. Moshev Arbel should be on the map just for this!

Wednesday, March 19, 2014: We Made It!

Ancient synagogue excavations

Gorgeous blue sky greeted us on the last day of our hike. Arbel Guesthouse outdid itself with breakfast: fresh grapefruits and avocados from their own garden, olives, cucumber, tomatoes. Fresh yogurt. Homemade tea. Bread, granola and baked eggs. This was by far the best gourmet place we stayed at in Israel.
We hoisted our day packs onto our backs and set off – immediately down a green valley of wildflowers and past ancient ruins of a synagogue. We descended along narrow cow trails into a steep valley, rock cliffs rising on both sides. We met several herds of cows with new calves.
At the bottom of the valley we skirted the Bedouin village of Wadi Haman, walking through orchard after orchard of grapefruits, olives, oranges and bananas.

And then we saw it up close: the Sea of Galilee! I touched the water and marveled at the idea that we were now at 200 meters below sea level! The Sea of Galilee is Israel’s largest lake. Directly across from the sleepy villages is the Golan Heights, and then Syria. We don’t hear or see much of any violence. The only military presence we have seen, so far, is the odd soldier, a helicopter now and then, and two huge tanks in the middle of a forest. When we got closer we realized that we completely inflatable! Decoy tanks?

It is interesting to note that all Israeli Jewish men and women (except the ultra orthodox) serve in the army swell as the Druze. The Arab Israelis are exempt from military service.

As we walked along the sea of Galilee to our final destination, we saw the Church where fishes and bread were multiplied, according to the gospel. We saw the place where Mary came from, Mount Beatitudes where the sermon on the mount was delivered, and finally ended by in Capernaum (interestingly pronounced Kafh Na Ghoom), the village where Jesus reportedly lived, picked the disciples and more. Ancient ruins are being preserved and busloads of Christians from around the world visit the site.

65 KM!
My toes are sore but we did it.
If you are interested in hiking AND in visiting Israel, we highly recommend this experience.
You can hike the entire trail on your own by following the orange symbols. It is a good idea to buy the book and map of the Jesus Trail. We booked through the organization that has developed the trail:
When you book with them, they advertise this as a 6 day hike. In reality it is only 4 days in which you walk 65 KM. Day 1 is the day you arrive, on your own, in Nazareth and stay at the Fauzi Azar Inn. Day 2 is meant for exploring Nazareth. The Inn offers a free tour. That was the only part we did not like. True, we are not good tour people, but 45 minutes into the ‘tour’ we were still standing in the same spot and had only heard about the guide herself and about the Inn’s owner. It felt a bit like one of those time share promo talks. We actually left the group and explored on our own, having a wonderful time.
The organized hike is not cheap but when I prized out different hotels along the route to look at making all of our own bookings, it seemed to be about the same price. The organized hike includes all breakfasts and all dinners while on the trail. And, best of all, it includes having your luggage moved for you. This worked like a charm. Our luggage was always waiting for us. On the last day, the taxi driver who had our luggage, picked us up at the end and brought us to a hotel we had booked in the city of Tiberias.
On our very first day, a volunteer (in our case a lovely American girl) accompanied us. This made us feel comfortable and helped them make sure that we could find the trail on our own. 
So, now we are resting our feet (Kees is having a cold beer!) and tomorrow we take public busses through the entire length of Israel, via Jericho, the Dead Sea and the Negev Desert, to Eilat – the southern most town in Israel.

End of the trail!

Age Old Adventures: Israel

Thursday, March 6, 2014

In the last 3,000 years, we were about the last ones to discover Caesarea.
Having flown into Tel Aviv, we took a train into the city where we had booked an Air BnB apartment for one night. We found train, bus and taxi to take us there. No key as promised so we woke up the manager by calling on a borrowed cell phone. Turned out the key was hiding in a couch, not in the mailbox where we were told we would find it.
It was a bit of a shabby place but served its purpose.

The next morning, our first in Israel, we walked along the beach of the Mediterranean Sea to Old Jaffa – a beautiful sea port, with thick walls and crooked little streets.
After a shake of fresh oranges, melon and banana, we collected our luggage and took a small bus (almost too small for our large backpacks) to the bus station where we headed north to the kibbutz. We had kindly been invited by someone we’ve never met, to stay here in a small cottage. Kibbutz Sdot Yam turned out to be a lovely park setting dotted with houses and schools. Lots of little children and dogs run rampant. Our little cottage is run down but cute – with a comfy bed and a tiny kitchen. We picked up soup, bread, tea and other essentials and love having our own little place here.

The beach is gorgeous. I even had a little swim. On Wednesday, we set out to explore the area and discovered that we are right in an area that has been highly contested by many civilizations.
Some 2,000 years ago, ruling Roman emperor Herod decided it was an ideal location for a port. He had walls and a fortress built here, and a complete city with baths, towers, an amphitheater and more.
Subsequently, Jews fought to control the city, and were conquered by Byzantine armies, who were overthrown by Muslims, and then by Crusaders. Others came and went. Walls fell down. Towers caved in and were restored. Synagogues made way for cathedrals that were razed in favor of mosques.

Now, the crumbling walls and remnants of this age old city called Caeasarea, is in the backyard of Kibbutz Sdot Yam. We walked along the old seats of the amphitheater and the arena where chariots used to race. Marble columns lay strewn among building blocks of coral.

Roman columns

A great movie and a fantastic hologram display explained the history to us and introduced us to rabbis and emperors throughout the ages. Caesarea is a National Park we much enjoyed.

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Bethlehem: no manger, no inn – no room at Starbucks!

The best advise we can now give anyone wanting to visit Bethlehem: don’t book a tour!
For months we had studied websites and travel guides. We had read all about the many different companies and the types of tours you can book. You can choose from one day tours or half days. Each advertises with the fact that “all admissions are included but not lunch.” The average tour costs between US $75 and US $100.- per person.

Since we couldn’t decide, we figured we’d wait till the last minute and book something once we got to Jerusalem. Once here, we discovered that we could simply take the “Arab bus”, just outside the Damascus Gate and a five minute walk from our hotel, from Jerusalem to Bethlehem for 8 shekels (less than $3). There ARE no admissions anywhere. We did not have to move in a large group of tourists all day. Apparently the line-ups for individuals are shorter than for tour groups AND a shop owner told us “You are on your own? No tour bus? No guide? Ah! I gave you 30% discount!” So this day cost us a lot less than if we had opted for a tour.

We had fun going on the bus with many locals but also a fair number of westerners. On the way out of Jerusalem we noticed lots of Orthodox Jews wearing traditional large black hats, long curls, prayer shawls. It is Shabbat so many were walking along the streets. When it rains lightly, out came large plastic covers for the huge fur hats.

Bethlehem is more like a suburb, and very similar to Jerusalem in that it is a big, crowded city with lots of traffic. No cute little manger or inn in sight!
Not even signs to Manger Square. But we only walked the wrong way once.
It rained for a few minutes and the age-old streets are slippery as ice – smooth worn stones.
Lots of little shops selling nuts, sponges, leather ware, spices. One man with an enormous jug was selling Turkish coffee in the street.

Manger Square, Bethlehem

We made it to Manger square where there are many shops, restaurants, a bank, even a Starbucks! There are some old remnants of walls but much is newly build.
The grotto where Jesus is said to have been born, is covered by a church that has seen different religions and has been restored numerous times. Like many historic places, this slightly diminishes its authenticity for us. But the people are so interesting to watch. I noticed today how similar Catholic nuns in their long black robes and white headgear, look to Palestinian women who often wear the same long black skirts and tight, white head dress.

We watch wood carvers make handmade items like smoothly sanded crosses and mangers from olive wood. And we admired beautiful Palestinian hand embroidered clothing. Even though there is nothing Christmassy in sight, in Bethlehem, it felt very special to walk along these thousands year old streets, among people whose work, food and clothing does not seem to have changed a whole lot since then. Except for cell phones and wifi everywhere. And halogen bulbs in the old candelabra of the Church of the Nativity – signs of the times.