Monday, August 29, 2011

A visit to Bethlehem

The UK wedding guests were to be around for a couple more days after the wedding and Gil Zohar (www.GilZohar.co) offered to take us in a minibus to Bethlehem on the following day. He told us that Israeli citizens cannot cross the border to Bethlehem, as the authorities do not want to risk them getting kidnapped, but as he had a Canadian passport, he would be able to take us. I am not normally an intrepid traveller, but I felt very confident that all would be fine, and we and the rest of our little group agreed.

Across the border, the first stop in our travels was to an Arab shop, where we were offered juice and coffee. I stuck to juice; I’m not a great lover of coffee and I guessed this would be strong and bitter. While there, I bought key rings made of olive wood for the grandchildren, and at a second little shop, bracelets for them. Michael was very tempted by a beautiful carved olivewood chess set, but we knew we had nowhere to put such a thing. One of the shopkeepers called Gil, his brother, and told us, ‘Politics is shit.’

From there to Bethlehem and the Church of the Nativity. There are probably better photos than these to be found. Unfortunately, on mine, you cannot see the impressive main altar at the east end, which is the property of the Greek Orthodox Church, and which according to wikipedia includes an Orthodox iconostasis, crowned with gilded angels, icons, gilded chandeliers and lamps. Nor can you see clearly, the colours of the exposed Constantinian mosaic floor, revealed beneath the wooden floorboards of the nave, because despite the flash, there was insufficient light for my camera.

Most of our party did not descend to the Grotto of the Nativity, as there was a queue of an hour. Just one of us particularly wanted to go down there, and she was quietly shown down a different staircase; possibly a tip was called for, but none of us asked how it was arranged.

Next, we went to the adjacent Church of St Catherine’s (above) which is built in a more modern Gothic revival style, and apparently has since been further modernized.

I had to look long and hard to find the name of the Church of the Milk Grotto, and the article shown at this website (http://www.catholicnews.com/data/stories/cns/0707062.htm) describes exactly what the Franciscan Brother told us, when we were there. I found it very moving to hear him speak about the women who had come there hoping to become pregnant, some of whom were subsequently successful, and people who had contacted him and told him they had been cured of cancer following their visit. Who can explain the mysteries of faith? It was a very peaceful place and we stood and looked below at the chapel, where there is always at least one nun praying, and moved quietly along corridors ornamented with religious icons.

Out into the Bethlehem street past the Peace Centre to the car park, where, with assistance from the locals, we managed to get the minivan out of a tight corner. From there we went on to Herodian, a fortress described as one of Herod the Great’s most ambitious building projects. (See http://www.jewishmag.com/93mag/herodian/herodian.htm). I decided I did not want to climb, and sat under shade, until the others returned. Gil, our guide, pointed out which of three water butts was drinking water, and it was reassuring to know that we could take from this butt, and not have to rely on bottled water. The photo is the view from the car park.

From there to Shepherds Field, (also known as Ruth’s field) where we viewed a small but lovely Catholic chapel, where a feature was the roof specially designed to let in light.

We were very hungry by now, and in Beit Jala, Gil took us to an Arab restaurant, where we partook of chicken, charcoal grilled outside in the street. I had eaten a lot of dairy meals, during the past few days, and thoroughly enjoyed the chicken, served with an array of dishes, as you can see.

Our final visit was to Hebron, to The Tomb of the Patriarchs (called al Haram al Ibrahimi in Arabic and Ha Ma'rat Ha Machpelah in Hebrew) which is the main religious site in the city. Abraham's burial place and the main holy site in the city, is on the border between the Palestinian and Jewish sectors. We went to the synagogue and saw the shrines to the patriarchs. There are better photos on the internet. However, you can see the many memorial candles left by people who have visited. You can read about it below:

Quoted from this site: http://iguide.travel/Hebron#/Sights. The Muslim side of the Cave contains the only known entrance to the Cave below (it is locked by a marble door). And as well, the tomb-markers of Isaac, and Rebekah, with the tomb-markers of Abraham and Sarah lying on the border of both the Muslim and Jewish section of the cave so both have access to Abraham and Sarah's tombs from each side. The Jewish section contains the tomb-markers of Jacob and Leah. Most of the time, half of the building is used for Muslim and half for Jewish prayer. On a few predetermined days each year, each religion gets to use the entire building.

We had to pass through a passport control, to go to the mosque, but we were not allowed in, because it was Friday and people were at prayer.

Although we understood it was a good thing that mosque and synagogue were side by side and both used for prayer, nevertheless, this border area of Hebron was almost deserted - except for some small boys selling trinkets - and a grim, tense atmosphere pervaded the area, which seemed poor and down at heel. I was not surprised to read in Wikipedia of violent incidents that have taken place there, and I was happy to get back on board the minibus and leave the area.

Arriving back at the border, we were held up for about 15 minutes while they examined our passports. We began to wonder if they were ever going to let us back in, but all was well.

It was the end of a very full and memorable day. The next day was the Sabbath, when we would certainly be resting.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Walking tour of Jerusalem

We had no definite plans for the 16th June. The wedding was to take place that evening and we needed something to occupy the early part of the day. Walking out into Shatz Street, (which leads into King George V Street,) where our hotel was situated we saw the bride’s brother and girlfriend in the nearby street café. We joined them and found they were intending to go on a walking tour, at which Gil Zohar (www.GilZohar.co) would be the guide. Most of the wedding guests from the UK, who had shared the minibus journey to the Dead Sea, were on the walk, along with strangers, but we already felt as if we were friends.

The couple marched off at great speed to the rendezvous at the Jaffa Gate, with us puffing away behind. The Jaffa Gate, says Wickipaedia, is a 16th C Ottoman gate which is located on the western side of the old city (facing the direction of Jaffa). It is the main entrance from the western section to the eastern (old city section). It is worth looking up just to see the photos of the gate. Here several guides were to take people on tours. The walking tours, were free, although it was expected that one would produce a tip for the guide. They were regarded as a ‘taster’ and one would pay for a more detailed and extensive tour of the city, where one would go inside some of the historic buildings. However, on a walking tour lasting about three hours, in the blazing hot June sunshine (30 deg C?), we felt we had covered a great deal of ground – much of it, in and out, up on rooftops and down narrow steps. Unfortunately, because I was trying to keep up with the party, I took photos on the hoof, as it were, and some of them were no use at all. A few, however, give a flavour of our trip.

Since The Jaffa Gate is where the old city begins, this is where our tour of the old city began, taking us through the Christian, Jewish, Arab and Armenian quarters of the city, each leading into the other, and presumably cohabiting side by side. For inside the walls of the city, they do seem to live together, despite the continuing wars on the borders of Israel.

Someone asked me if I was worried about going to Israel, and yes, I was quite apprehensive. The unrest in Egypt and other middle eastern countries could have had an effect on Israel, and the present problems on the border with Egypt illustrate that. But I am a natural worrier; I even worried about the injections which were suggested on my e-ticket – though in the end, our local surgery recommended only Hepatitis, and discounted polio and rabies. Once we had set out, my worries dissipated. The lengthy interview by Israeli security, at Heathrow, was reassuring, and after that, I was quite relaxed.

To return to our walk, that day, as shown in our photos, we went on a roof top to see a much better view of the Dome of the Rock than on our taxi tour; we visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and we saw the Western (Wailing Wall). This we had also visited with our friendly taxi driver, two days before. Men and women are separated and go to different parts of the wall. I had the camera, but I didn’t take photos of the people praying there. As a matter of fact, it seemed to me a bit of an intrusion to do so, even though many people do. Neither did I post a message there. We also walked the Stations of the Cross, albeit, in the wrong direction. It was fascinating seeing the different cultures in each of the four quarters of the old city, and we rounded it off by having coffee or juice in the Arab quarter, before the OH and I took a taxi back to the hotel.

The wedding took place in the evening at Ein Yael - another magical place. The bride and groom looked wonderfully happy, and we shared the experience with about 300 other guests. Once again, I was chilly. Be warned, visitors to Jerusalem. You really do need your cardy in the evening.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Ubik

Ubik - my latest book circle read.

It took me several chapters to get into Ubik, (written in 1969) so my first complaint is that the initial characters who meet up in order to carry out some sort of project, in a 1992 of the future, are barely defined at all. The main character Joe, is absolutely fine. I liked him and got to know him. He is hard up, and constantly scrounging money, so a very human anti-hero. The others in the team, however, make hardly any impact. To me, therefore, they were just a list of names. I couldn’t work out who was who, and wasn’t terribly interested in doing so. Nor did I really understand the project and the competing team, with yet another set of names. I did, however, enjoy the humour of the doors that had to be paid before they would open, and similar futuristic jokes.

After several chapters, the story began to interest me. What was going to happen to Joe’s team, a group of people who were being struck down by an invisible force? Joe and the team are pulled back into another era – 1939 – there is a villainous woman who is working on destroying them, or so it seems, and their old boss, Runciter, apparently dead, is sending messages, trying to help them.

Things get very pear-shaped, however, for by the end of the book, we don’t know who was alive and who was dead, who was awake and who was dreaming. I got lost a little around here, but on the whole, I’d enjoyed the middle and latter end of the book.

I realised that Philip K Dick was being philosophical here. He was expressing his feelings about death – do we just go into another state and imagine we are alive? Do we dream, and do our dreams feel just like life? When Runciter tries to help Joe with the all-powerful Ubik, it seems he is talking about God, manifestations of God and perhaps faith or religion. Is Runciter God? is Joe God? Or is Ubik God? What is the difference between life and death? What is reality – and is everyone’s reality the same reality? These I think were the questions, though I don’t think Philip K Dick gave us all the answers.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

A trip to the Dead Sea


Before we set out for Israel, the bride asked if we would like to join about half a dozen other guests from the UK on a trip to the Dead Sea, accompanied by her tour guide friend, Gil Zohar (www.GilZohar.ca). The OH and I were delighted with the offer and accepted immediately, and the trip was planned for the day before the wedding, 15th June. Gil collected the guests from three hotels, two in the centre of Jerusalem, the Montefiori and Jerusalem Tower and another in East Jerusalem, where at this point, I realised I might need some cash to supplement what I’d brought in. Three of us set off to an ATM, but typically, I got somewhat confused and had to repeat the operation. Later, in the holiday, when I did it on my own, I found it was actually quite easy – although I must say that one ATM refused to deal with me. I may have been unlucky and it was just going through a bad day.

We set off eventually, the scenery changing dramatically en route. Having said that, the views over Jerusalem are pretty impressive anyway. The OH was interested in the tectonic plates and discussed the possibility of earthquakes with Gil. I read that seismologists have shown that the fault line running through Israel and under the Mount of Olives is connected to many other major fault lines. Along our journey, Gil pointed out to us the area of the caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls had been discovered, and beyond this, we arrived at more or less sea level, as shown by the marker. I subject you to these unflattering portraits of the OH and myself, purely so that you can see this.

The heat was intense outside the bus, but I went to visit the camel, based there, and at first thought he was just a model. However, with a passenger on board, he suddenly rose up. One of our party tried him out. We went on then to one of the commercial outlets that functions near to the Dead Sea – the Ahava factory and showroom, which manufactures creams and lotions. These creams are created from minerals that exist in this part of the world, for the Dead Sea does not flow away into rivers and oceans but loses its liquidity purely through evaporation, leaving behind in the waters a high concentration of salt and minerals.

Shortly after, we arrived at our destination, the Mineral Beach, and our party collected towels and went down to the water’s edge. There you could bathe in sea (never on your front, because it is almost impossible to turn over) get coated in the therapeutic mud, have a rinse under the shower and bathe in the pure water pool. I paddled my feet and dabbed my hands in the water, but as a non-swimmer, I avoid going in anywhere where I am likely not to have control of the situation; this was one of those occasions. The OH nearly lost his shoes in the water – they floated off. He couldn’t right himself from his position, floating on his back and had to paddle backwards, and beach himself on a rock, to get out of the water. The minerals can damage jewellery and I had left a ring, watch and pendant behind at the hotel, and put sticking plaster over my wedding ring, but I wasn’t in enough to do any damage. Then I headed for one of the shades and chatted to the bride’s mother, before going to the café for refreshments under cover. It was too hot for me to be out in the sun.

The bus was like a furnace when we returned - 45°C, I think, but fortunately the AC brought it back to a reasonable level after a few miles. We stopped then to look at St George Monastery at Wadi Kelt (or Wadi Qilt – various spellings), but when Gil said that if we were prepared to climb up, we would see a wonderful view of it and the surrounding area, I eyed the climb and opted out. The OH took photos of the monastery.

In the evening, we joined the family for dinner at Beit Ticho (The Ticho House), in Jerusalem. The temperature drops dramatically by night, and even though I had a long sleeved dress on, I was cold. What a contrast to the day.

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And in complete contrast to that, we eventually took ourselves out this afternoon to Wisley Gardens, where we spent some time admiring the Bowes Lyon rose garden. I didn’t take my camera, which was a shame, but one of the first things we encountered near the entrance to the gardens was a treat for all the senses. The tea place was planted all around with edible plants and herbs, little green patches of parsley and mint and tall tomato plants, interspersed with marigolds. There were also round courgettes and tiny chilli peppers. And before we noticed what they were, we could smell the herbs and tomatoes. At the same time, a little band of men, wearing dinner jackets and bow ties, which having looked at the Wisley website, was probably the Panama Café Orchestra, playing music from the twenties and thirties. Apparently there’s live music at Wisley every Sunday afternoon throughout August. We would have sat and had our tea there, except that we hadn’t walked long enough to deserve it. We did have tea and cake later, when we'd walked long enough, but regrettably at one of the other cafes.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Holiday in Israel

With the aid of photos, I hope to recreate my holiday in Israel, as it’s now more than a month since we went and returned.

We were going to the wedding of the daughter of a friend, which is the reason we have taken many of our holidays in recent years. And more power to them. We hope that a) people will continue to get married, b) continue to invite us, and c) hold the wedding somewhere we haven’t yet been (but not too far away.) Up to now, the weddings have taken us to Yorkshire, Scotland, Ireland, Sweden and New York.

The bride – a tour guide - had first given us quite a lot of information, which was extremely helpful, and had also arranged a trip with another tour guide, the day before the wedding, which was to take place on 16th June. We left home on 13th and had a good flight there, in the middle of the day. The bride herself picked us up from the airport, late in the evening. We stayed in a hotel just off King George V Street (a relic of England’s history in Israel) in a pedestrianised road, which also had a little café at the end of it, and this proved useful for sandwiches, pizzas and the like. Many of the Israeli restaurants are dairy only, as meat and milk are not cooked or served together in kosher establishments. Because of the predominance of these dairy places, we had a lot of light meals – unlike at home.

On our first day, we took a taxi to Yad Vashem, the memorial to the Holocaust (Entrance shown above.) As I have recently said, the two books I had been reading had been on my mind, anyway, but the exhibits are a grim reminder of the way that Hitler and his armies swept through Europe, destroying the many millions of people he regarded as ‘second class citizens’ as a matter of policy. The exhibits show the outrages committed by the Nazis, from many, many countries – where previously people had had reasonable lives and saw no reason to leave. However, the countries that fell under his control are so numerous – one sometimes needs to remind oneself of that – so when people left one country and fled to another, he soon overpowered that country too. Those who succeeded in getting to the UK and America were lucky (in general). However, there is nothing to say that we could not have been overwhelmed too, had things turned out differently. Thank goodness for that little stretch of water between us and Europe. Without it, things might have been different. We spent about three to four hours there, and then, very tired, both emotionally and physically, we left.

A taxi driver pulled up and we gratefully jumped into the cab and asked to go to our hotel, but our driver wasn’t having it. ‘Why,’ he asked us, ‘do you want to go to your hotel in the middle of the day?’ We replied that we were tired and we hadn’t eaten. ‘I will take you somewhere to eat,’ he said, ‘and then I will take you on a tour of Jerusalem.’ And that’s what we did. The Dome of the Rock - from a distance.The cemetery at the Mount of Olives

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