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: http://tishreen.rest-e.co.il
Check out: http://fauziazarinn.com

Nazareth

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: https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Society_&_Culture/druze.html

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: http://jesustrail.com
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!

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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.

Check out: http://www.caesarea.com/en/home/tourism-and-leisure/harbor/general-info/caesarea-harbor-national-park-map

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.

Journey to Middle Earth.. uh, no – Middle East!

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The first impression of Dubai is wealth. Glittering glass, chrome, marble. Often also glittering gold, diamonds. Everything spotless and perfect. This is a man made world of artificial trees, super malls, expensive cars and jewels.
But I am not a shopper. And I am not interested in hobnobbing with the jetset.
So I look beyond the glitter, at the history of this United Arab Emirate and fall in love with its hues and textures: of robes, headscarves, spices, sand.

From a world of black and white robes in Saudi Arabia, I arrive in full technicolor Dubai. Head scarves change from black to many vibrant colors. Even the skyline is outlined in setting sun with an orange haze from two days of sand storms. From the plane I saw nothing but orange sand of the desert, blown and shaped into soft rolling dunes. Whereas customs in Saudi had been swift and efficient, this customs line-up took forever but Sue, the librarian at one of the school where I was to speak, and my new friend, was waiting and whisked me home. Women can drive here. There’s quite a difference among arab countries with Dubai being the most liberal of all. They’ve even moved up their weekend, to Friday and Saturday, to coincide with western days off.

It’s a perfect 24 – 26 degrees and no humidity. Is the weather here man made, too?
Around noon, the next day, I take a taxi across the city to Jumeirah Beach. The white sand beach fringes the Arabian Sea, next to the famous building Burj Al Arab, the sail shaped tower. The hotel in Burj Al Arab is the only hotel in the world with a gold bar dispenser… An ATM with gold bars, just in case you want to buy your gold after the bank closes…
To use the beach right by the hotel costs some US $50 but next to it is a free public beach which is identical. Everything is very expensive here.
I swim in the strong waves, then read my book on the beach while women in scant bikinis and women in black abayas walk by. Men are jogging, even in long white robes.


Later on, I have coffee in a posh hotel and watch people from all nationalities: haughty Russians, Italians wobbling on too high heels, Americans in cut-off blue jeans, pristine Arabs and everything in between.

My favorite spot is “The Creek.” This is the name of the wide river that divides downtown Dubai. Not really a creek at all but an inlet from the Arabian Sea. Once it was a creek but the then reigning sjeik borrowed money and dredged the creek until it was a wide flowing river. Now you can take a small wooden boat called an abra to cross to the other side. On one side I had lunch at a small arabian cafe: fallafels with hummus and chicken and naan bread and the best fruit shakes ever.
Then I crossed the water in a swift taxi, an abra, and walked across the fabric market to the Dubai museum. Nice displays of the history: archeology, water, desserts, trading posts, pearl divers.

I strolled all over the oldest part of Dubai where ancient windtower houses have been converted to modern art galleries. This whole part of the city has been preserved because a western woman, who had lived there for a long time, refused to leave when it was to be demolished. Because she brought such attention to it, the ancient Dubai was preserved. I was told this would not have happened if she had not been western. Good for her.
I felt very safe, strolling here – a woman alone. As the call to prayer echoed through the terracotta colored streets, and doves fluttered onto the roof tops, I walked back to the abras.

One night I booked a ‘desert safari’. With about 5 other people we drove an hour out of the city, in a suburban, then embarked on a wild cross-desert drive through the sand. We had to hang on for dear life and hope the jeep wouldn’t flip over as we raced over high sand dunes, up one side and down the other edge. Not my idea of a fun night in the desert.
We then arrived at an area where you could ride a camel (pretty touristy) and sit at long, low tables to eat a middle eastern meal while watching Bedouin dancing, including bellydancing. Fairly tacky but fun to experience once.

One day after working at a school, I strolled to the fabric market, the old sook (or suq). These old market streets are narrow and sheltered by a high ceiling made of teakwood beams and corrugated metal. Each stall has wooden shutters, many of which were closed between 2 and 4 PM but things really come to live at night.
I strolled the narrowed streets, bought some gorgeous clothing and scarves and just took in the sights. Old men in sandals, young Arabs in crisp white thobe and red/white checkered head scarves. On one intersection I watched two islamic women in black abayas and burkas, only their eyes visible. They were passed by two woman of about the same age wearing tight tanktops and teetering on enormous heels. Across the street walked two black women with colorful African headdresses and large kaftans. What a cosmopolitan world.
At a small street cafe I ate shredded chicken and hummus wrapped into pita bread. Hordes of Arab men sauntered by, some of them followed by several women, likely their wives, and small children. I have been told repeatedly that Saudi women especially are very smart and that keeping a man happy with several wives is much smarter than getting divorced and not having the income and support of a husband anymore…

After taking a abra across the water for 1 dirham (about 30 cents) I  walk through the Gold souk and more narrow streets. Not far away, is a huge IKEA (where I actually ate meatballs for dinner one night!) and a huge mall where the large, local grocery store is fun and I buy chocolate covered dates, date jam and date syrup to take home.

Dubai has been one oxymoron of warm air and air conditioning, glittering buildings and gritty sand, snow white thoubs and dark skinned construction workers.  An interesting mix of ultramodern solar panels but no glue on the postage stamps; black abayas but strong, outspoken women, steel buildings built on slowly sinking sand; camels and iphones.

Arabian Nights – and Days!

Jeddah, Saudi Arabia (2011)

As a children’s book writer I am so fortunate to be invited to do presentations and workshops at international schools. I love to combine my work with travels to exciting places around the globe. This time I was headed for King Abdullah’s University of Science and Technology near Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. In addition to a visa, I also obtained a black abaya in case I needed to wear this in public.On the day I left home, I got up early – 6 AM – because I wanted to start working on the time change. First a short flight to Seattle, then with Air France to Paris on a 9 hour flight. The plane was pretty cramped, like most of them, and those seat cushions are often too worn out, so that you get a square butt after sitting for hours on end. But at least this flight was only half full and I had two seats to myself.

Landed in Paris at 8:30 AM local time. My next flight wasn’t until 6 PM. I had checked my luggage so just had my small day pack. Left the airport and took the Metro to Gare du Nord. In a half hour I was there.
More and more I feel like airplanes are time machines. You step in in one place and time and when you step out you have been transported to a whole different time and place. Suddenly, from west coast North America I was in old Europe.
Spent the day walking all over Montmartre: coffee and croissants in a small cafe, walked some more, bought a postcard. Nothing but little cheese shops, bakeries, wine shops. Lovely. Climbed all the way to the top of Montmartre to visit the Sacre Coeur. A nuns’ choir sang, adding to the lovely ambiance of frescos and ceiling paintings, plain pews and candles. Very peaceful inside. Outside large black men were have a shouting match and a fist fight…

At 2 PM I was back at the airport.
Another 4 hours to wait. The Arabian Airlines flight was lovely: had a whole row of leather seats to myself, lots of leg room and the seat was at least 10 cm wider than on other planes. The food was great: warm French rolls, white chicken breast, fresh salad.
From the plane I saw a sprawling area of lights along water. I think it was Alexandria or Cairo, probably the first.
After dinner I could no longer stay awake and probably slept for 2 hours but then forced myself to stay awake because I wanted to sleep when I got to the hotel.

Just before landing I donned the abaya. I noticed other western women had done the same but others had not. It didn’t seem to make any difference.
Customs in Saudi Arabia was no problem. One look at my passport and he said “Welcome Margriet.”

A luxurious black car drove me for one hour to King Abdullah’s settlement where land has been reclaimed from the sea to build a futuristic “village” with the university of Science and Technology as focal point. It is the first coed grad school in Saudi and an example of research and planning for the future. But not all arabs are in favour of a coed study and research center so the place is heavily guarded. You don’t really notice that when walking along palm tree lined boulevards, looking at sparkling waters and sipping ice coffee under an umbrella… I found out later that the place has nothing but palmtrees, which are not native here. Rows and rows and lanes and lanes, and each palm tree imported at a cost of $600.-!
My hotel room is a huge suite with very large livingroom, dining table and kitchen and a kingsize bedroom. Outside I have another table on a shaded patio and a large white mosque in my backyard.

Thursday and Friday are weekend in the Arab world. The temps are absolutely perfect: around 24 degrees C. There’s a bank, supermarket, restaurants etc. around a square that functions like an old village square. Families are out strolling, people eat at tables around the square, kids play. I loved seeing Arab men in long white robes pushing a stroller.
The teachers I meet over dinner reiterate how unusual it is for men and women to work and study together in this setting. It is because of the king, who wants to end segregation. I was floored to find out that the king is 85 years old. A futuristic man, the king wants more research into oceans because of the Red Sea. There’s also a lot to do about recycling, posters everywhere to promote it and cans for recycling on every corner. The movie showing on campus: An Inconvenient Truth.

The elementary school where I am speaking is a beautiful, spacious building – not much different from new North American schools. But the population of 250 students is made up of children from all over the world. In one class are children from Egypt, France, Australia, Ireland, some Saudi’s, some American or Canadian kids, perhaps a Chinese one and someone from Jordan or Palestine. A wonderful world mix. Most of the kids speak with heavy accents and are learning English. A small perky first grader turns to her mom and rattles in French, then turns to me to translate rapidly in English. A Saudi boy in Grade Two who doesn’t speak English yet turns to his friend to find out what I said. These kids translate and switch easily between languages and cultures.

After school I join a group on a sunset cruise on the Red Sea. We gently tug along the inner harbour on a luxurious yacht, past ultra modern buildings of gleaming glass and steel – the university library, the Innovation Cluster, Discovery Square and the arabian looking housing quarters. On the sea we stay fairly close to the coast under the watchful eye of the Saudi coast guard. I see one dolphin jump, several fishes glide by, a heron, smaller birds. While the sun slowly set we feast on salads, baked fish, roasted chicken and more.

Kaust is a liberal island in a conservative sea. Headscarves and abayas are optional but many women wear them. Tonight I saw a group of young women in the coffee shop – could have been any western Starbucks place – and I noticed their shy, modest manners. It made me realize that they probably prefer the cover of an abaya over exposure and western fashion. Sometimes it seems that it would be much easier to seek shelter in a plain black robe than have to worry about how you look to others.
The men wear either western clothing, on campus, or long white shirts. Some wear head scarves, others a prayer cap, other no head dress at all. Many Moslems here are from other countries and they all vary in dress.

After school I rode my bike to the supermarket and spent half an hour wandering around. It’s a brand new large store and has the large S from Safeway on the door… a Safeway in Arabia! They have many North American items but also a bakery with traditional honey pastries like baklava. And an area with fresh nuts, raisins, dates and spices. They sell adapters for electrical outlets, abayas and toothpaste. And everything in between. A service personal on the ‘base’ are Philippino. The cleaning staffs in the hotel, in the pool, etc. There must be thousands. They come and go in busses and live in Jeddah. I wonder how much money they make to leave home and family to come and work in Saudi. The buildings all gleam and you could literally eat off the floors – the marble, glass and steel are all spotless.
I bought a tray of pastries, with honey, almonds and chocolate dipped dates. And a large bag of fresh cinnamon sticks to take home.
Rented two sit-on-top kayaks with a teacher and paddled on a windy, wavy Red Sea. The water is luke warm and looks very clean and blue. Afterwards we swam and snorkeled above some low corral reefs and found shells on the beach. It’s wonderful to sit in the warm sun in January!

I wake up every morning at 5:45 AM when the call to prayer sounds over the muezzin. Am at school by 7:45 and conducting writing workshops with all grades, all classes all day. After school I had tea at the home of a Muslim family, with beautiful pastries: round circle cookies filled with dates, sesame snaps, fresh nuts and  small cakes. Tea with sage and lots of brown sugar. When I arrived at the house, I heard loud clattering in the kitchen. I thought my hostess might have a maid. But she smiled and said “My husband is busy in the kitchen, he will join us later. He is doing the dishes and making tea.”
When I laughed, she said “You probably did not expect Muslim men to be like that? The media always depict them all wrong but for a Muslim man, family comes first.”
I’m learning about different Middle Eastern countries, cultures and religion. You can tell by the shape of the abaya or by the head scarves if someone is from Lebanon or Egypt, from Saudi or from Palestine. But those who say ‘we are Palestinian’ may never have been there. They may be Palestinians born and raised in Lebanon or so. They speak arabic but with the same dialects as someone from Scotland sounds different from an Aussie or a New Yorker. People here explain to me similarities in the Qu’ran and the Bible and how the origins of many beliefs and customs are the same.

That evening we had to wear our abayas since we went off compound to a famous fish restaurant in a small village. Just dirt roads and low buildings on either side. The restaurant was a large outdoor area with low walls and raised concrete squares. In each square were Persian rugs and pillows. Men sat in these squares on the floor to eat and smoke pipes. Before being shown to a private room (so women can take their scarves off) we selected the fish we would eat. They were the strangest fishes I have ever seen.
The room was carpeted in reds and golds, matching the wallpaper and table coverings. We sat on small pillows on the floor by a low table. First we were served arabian coffee with cardamon and dates. Then they brought in enormous plates of fried fish, three kinds of rice, hummus, babakhoush, fried pita bread and prawns. It was truly delicious.
For dessert came a huge ‘pancake’ each, thick and filled with cream. It was made from vermicelli and almond paste and drenched in honey. Delicious!

On my last day here, a sedan picked me up to drive me the hour to the airport. This time I could see something because it wasn’t night time. But all I saw was desert… Not nice sand desert but dirt and sage brush. We were on a regular 6 lane highway. To the left in the distance I spotted an enormous white dome. I figured it was a huge mosque but when I asked the driver he said no, it was the prince’s palace. He said it is shaped like a ship and is on a small island just of the coast.
Once in a while we drove past a village, all buildings are the flat roofs that are typical for the area. Here and there were white tents in the desert, reminding me of the Gobi. I noticed a flock of goats on the outskirts of one village and suddenly spotted a huge herd of camels milling around, too.
Jeddah’s outline hinted at a big city, a mix of old buildings and tall skyscrapers. The airport is not very big. Nothing but men in long crisp white thobs and white or red/white checkered head scarves. Over top of the head scarf they have a black belt, and underneath they were a white prayer cap. Most men in the airport were followed by several wives and a small herd of children. In the ladies restroom, women would take off their scarves, do their makeup and then wrap up again. Every single person smiled at me and nodded or tried to make conversation. One tall man in impeccable white asked how long I had visited and what I had seen. He said “you must come back and visit Jeddah. You come and visit any time!” Everyone is very friendly and hospitable. I do hope to return some time to this magical land.