A week in Israel

So, this was the Secrets of Jerusalem tour from Imaginative Traveller booked a couple of weeks in advance with a £200 reduction (so the tour cost £800 in round terms) and with BA flights booked by myself  (£ 282).

Saturday 14 November

My first experience of Heathrow Terminal 5, and it’s very frightening–I manage to check-in at an enigmatic machine and then drop off my bag.  There’s no human contact unless you want to buy things, and the toilets are very well hidden (litter bins are so well hidden as to be non-existent).  And there’s no information–the displays say when your flight is scheduled and give you some instructions, but there’s no data on how flights are running against schedule.

Because of a strong following wing the flight takes an hour less than the scheduled 5 hours, and I get 2 hours’ sleep instead of 3.

Sunday 15 November

The girl at passport control gives me a mild interrogation.  I find the ATM won’t give me any money, so I change $120 at the exchange place.  Most things seem to be open and active at 0530 in the morning.  I go up to look at the alleged bus-leaving-area and it’s all very hard to understand.  I go back downstairs and the girl in the information kiosk says get the train from right round the corner.  I do, and perhaps do not get off at the right stop.  (13.50 NIS, and many conscripts with fat kitbags and submachine guns.)

I trudge into town for a long way and almost manage to get lost/knocked down a few times.  Eventually I find the De La Mer Feng Shui Hotel where I will be able to check in once several hours have passed.

I trudge up Allenby Street and that is interesting:  first of all, there is the adult entertainment district, then something like a town in Southern Russia with old people begging in the streets and even some Russian bookshops.

Allenby--adult entertainment

I wander along Rothschild Boulevard and end up going into a McDonalds, where I have breakfast for 29.90 NIS.  There is a device to summon me when it’s ready, after which I wait some time for an espresso and some very sweet ‘orange juice’.

I go to the hotel about 1215 and a tattooed guy says the room is being cleaned and he doesn’t know how long it will take.  He asks after my room-mate Patrick Barclay.  I say that we are as yet unacquainted.

I go up to Menachem Begin Square, past a closed part of the Tel Aviv Art Museum, and brave the security check at a shopping centre to use the toilet.

I return to the hotel and a younger guy at reception once again has to disentangle the idea of two people in one room.  I seems quite cramped.  I have a phone call from Dalia the local agent to ask whether everything is all right (once she has established she is speaking to me and not Patrick Barclay).

I go out to find a place to eat and after walking some distance in different direction I end up at a place called Miguel on HaYarkon.  It’s all right, and I have mushroom soup and a burger.  When I get back, the clerk says he’s given the key to the other guy, but he finds one for me anyway.  While I find the door locked–nobody at home–some bags and clothes on the floor.

I am in the bathroom preparing for a crap when I hear sounds of a person entering the room.  Patrick seems to be nice enough, though he does lay out smoking equipment on the third bed.  I nervously explain something about the controls of the air-conditioning.  He sets them to ‘cold’ and I change them to ‘hot’.  He says he will set his alarm to 7 and we can go to bed at 11.

Monday 16 November

We go down to breakfast and are joined by Rowena, who turns out to be the third (out of six) member of our group–Patrick met her at reception yesterday evening.  The reception guy tells us to await orders, so we wait in reception.  And Patrick has met the fourth member of the party–Shulamit, a slightly-built black-haired young Australian girl.

We walk along the front to Jaffa, and Shulamit and I test out each other’s knowledge of Hebrew and Judaism.  We take lots of pictures, and Shulamit attempts to leave her camera behind, but we do gain Klaus, a German software developer and a friend of the same age for Shulamit.

Egyptian relic in Jaffa--S. tried to leave her camera on the ledge in the foreground

The Franciscan monastery thing is closed, we have coffee and cakes in a kosher restaurant place (no milk ‘cos it’s kosher, see).  We set off to walk back to Jaffa to do things and look for somewhere for the evening.  I enthusiastically lead the party up Allenby Street to Rothschild Boulevard when we were supposed to be making for Dizengoff Street.  We retreat and eat at a fast food shwarma place.  Shulamit munches on buns reserved from breakfast.

Thinks:  it’s 3.7 NIS to the $ and (according to Rowena) $ 1.68 to the £, hence 6.2 NIS to the £.

We scout out some places for the evening.  Shulamit and Klaus decide to go home and rest, Rowena Patrick and I sit in a cafe, watch the world go by, talk about holidays we have been on.

We return to the hotel and rest with our eyes closed, then assemble in reception.  No Shulamit.  Rowena rings her and she says that she and Klaus might join us later.  Mike the hotel guy advises Rowena she ought to eat in a place called Basta near Carmel Market.  As we walk, Rowena says she wants the kind of place where you can have small amounts of lots of things.

We get lost and end up in a place that seems to have no name.  It is Basta!  A waitress comes over and very patiently explains the menu to us.  It is in cursive–no use to me!  We ask her what she recommends, and end up with calamari and bacon, octopus salad, artichoke ravioli, tabbouleh, ?something else.  Rowena and Patrick have a bottle of  Yatir wine.  (427 NIS overall, including 149 NIS for the wine.)  At some stage, Shulamit and Klaus come in, say they will come back in an hour–and don’t.

At the end, the 3 of us wander out in search of further diversion–Patrick and Rowena go in an animated-looking bar and I go to bed.

Tuesday 17 November

I wake at hourly intervals during the night, wonder if Patrick has returned, find that he hasn’t and go back to sleep.

I go to breakfast, and when I get back some of Patrick’s clothes are on his bed.  Eventually we coincide and lie parallel on our beds kind-of sleeping.  We assemble downstairs and after more waiting a guy appears who says he is our guide called Sakher (or Peter) and the other guy is George, our driver.

We drive.  Sakher tells us how Arab villages were destroyed by the Jews in 1948, and now there are Israeli Arabs, Palestinians and 1948 Arabs.  We arrive at St George’s Cathedral in Jerusalem, an Anglican establishment with a Pilgrim Guest House attached.  We wait for the two remaining members of the tour to arrive from Jordan;  Patrick says it will be a 60-year-old bloke with a 25-year-old Thai bride.  But it turns out to be Sam and Clare, a Canadian couple who have been held up a long time crossing the border from Jordan.

We get in the minibus and drive to Jerusalem.  We go in the Church of the Nativity and people queue to kneel down and kiss a stone where tradition has it that Jesus was born.  Then we have lunch (shwarma) in a place where Peter and George are royally entertained as bringers of custom.

Kissing a stone

We proceed to the fields where the shepherds were traditionally tending their flocks when the angels traditionally appeared to them (but not in December, however traditional that may be).  There is a modern Papist building to look at.

We spend a long time waiting at the Israeli checkpoint to get out of the West Bank.  Sakher says that the Palestinian Holocaust is happening right here.  Sam takes him through the varieties of ‘Palestinian’ status and the particular disabilities attached to each one.

Then we go to some place where tour guides quarrel and the traditional location of the Last Supper is above the traditional tomb of King David.

In the evening Dalia the local agent appears to give us our instructions.  The Canadians make representations about things that had gone wrong in Jordan.  Rowena comments that there was no group bonding opportunity at the beginning.  Dalia says that in order to get to the airport on Saturday I can either book a shuttle bus at reception on Friday morning for $15 or get a taxi for $ 90.

Me, Patrick and Rowena set off to find somewhere to eat and spend a long time walking around a souk-like place that offers only a couple of low grade snack bar type places.  Then a helpful Jewish lad points the way to freedom, and I manage to find out where we are (Tower of David) on the guidebook map.  I lead the way to a restaurant marked there, and we end up at another–the Armenian Tavern, which is more than adequate for our needs.  My headache recedes under the influence of espresso and baklava.  Then with the aid of the guidebook map I manage to find the way through the souk-y thing to the Damascus Gate, where Patrick takes over and I try to kick a bollard out of the way.

I sleep soundly–in fact, I seem to be more tired than Patrick…

Wednesday 18 November

We assemble and get on the bus.  I find that I’ve left my camera behind.  We go to some places–the Mount of Olives, the Garden of Gethsemane, the Church of All Nations.  Sakher repeats his thing about Christian =נצר   = נוצרי = sprout = sprig of Jesse.

So then we go through more security to the Wailing Wall and observe men praying enthusiastically,  with tefillin attached to their foreheads and arms.  I explain to Patrick and Sam that King Solomon was about 950 BC, and the various types of commandments there are in Judaism.

Wailing Wall

Then we follow the Via Dolorosa and Sakhera feels the place where Herod judged Jesus is certainly known, and we can look upon paving stones that he also looked upon.  I trip several times and fall once, failing to look upon the paving stones with sufficient attention.

Eventually we go to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where lots of people queue to touch the stone where the cross traditionally stood and file through half of the traditional tomb that St Helena found and then the crusaders excavated half of it.

After that we have showarma in a showarma place that is all right.

Then we go through Yad Vashem and I am not as depressed as I might have been.  I see that Primo Levi is only allowed to express himself in Hebrew and English, while Evgeny Evtushenko is allowed Russian.  Don’t look at this, even though it tells you all you need to know.

Shulamit and I spend some time in the bookshop before Sakher comes and rounds us up–they have ‘The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas’ on sale, *sigh*.  On the way back, I explain to Shulamit that Yiddish was written using the Hebrew alphabet.

When I get back, I find that my camera has been in the bottom of my bag all the time.  Sakher says that his people are not Arabs but descendants of the Byzantine population and the Roman soldiers had an equivalent of Russian roulette called Saturna or ‘King for a day’.  Saturna = satire surely?

In the evening all 6 of us go outside and search for where we think Dalia said there was a restaurant.  We seem to be getting deep into residential East Jerusalem.  Shulamit asks a coach driver, who thinks there is nothing nearby.  We end up in the Christmas Hotel behind our own ‘hotel’ and dine in an empty restaurant next to another empty restaurant.  Rowena tells us about her trans-Siberian experiences and I end up as king of the bill for the day.  Shulamit announces she only has a $20 note.  Sam Clare and I head back to base, leaving the others at the bar.

Thursday 19 November

We are meant to leave at 7 (after getting up at 6), but in fact we’re a bit late as George was delayed getting out of the West Bank.  Clare threatens changing round our positions in the bus tomorrow, but we drive in undisturbed to Nazareth and that turns out to be a cheerful place.  I spot an ATM and the guard helpfully directs me to another one belonging to Bank Hapoalim a few minutes away when that one doesn’t work.

Receiving orders in Nazareth

We look round the Church of the Annunciation and a cave that might have been the workshop of Jesus and Joseph under some other church.  Then we go to the Sea of Galilee and view the Church of the Multiplication and the Church of St Peter’s Primacy–standing by the S of G is very peaceful.  Sakher explains about the Evangelical Triangle (Chorazin, Bethsaida, Capernaum), which is new to me.

Sakher explains that one place in Capernaum is where Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law while in the synagogue next door he interrupted the year’s Torah(?) reading at Isaiah(?).

We drive along by the S of G and arrive at the ‘da Maria’ restaurant at Magdala and have a ‘St Peter fish’ for $20 (including salad, bread, Turkish coffee).  And the StP fish (apparently tilapia) has a relatively small number of satisfyingly robust bones–double-plus good!

We arrive at Yordanit, which is not where John the Baptist (or Jesus) baptised anyone, but there is a large souvenir establishment onshore and some respectably-sized catfish in the river.  Shulamit says she has had a coffee and got talking to the girl serving who invited her to come and stay on a hippy kibbutz nearby.

We return home.  I worry about getting to the airport on the Sabbath.  In the evening, Patrick Rowena and I go to the green place nearby–or the Kan Zaman restaurant at the Jerusalem Hotel to be more helpful.  And very good it is too:  locals, noise, life, cigarette smoke and copious amounts of nice food.  Patrick and Rowena drink wine and discuss common professional interests while I excuse myself and go back to base, where I enquire about the shuttle bus of the guy at reception.  He says he will be able to book it for me tomorrow morning.

Friday 20 November

Patrick announces he is going to use the Internet ‘over there’ before breakfast.  I feel under the weather and decide I have a cold.  I go to reception and book a minibus for 1240 tomorrow–it will cost 50 NIS, the man says.  Patrick says he has booked a room on his own for the last night, since he will be leaving at 0230 and says he doesn’t want to disturb me.  I say that is very kind of him and he doesn’t have to.

We get in the bus and I wrap myself meaningfully in coat and scarf.  We arrive at Masada and I am very interested–this is real ancient history, without the religiously-inspired tradition to choke me.  I tell Sakher and Sam more than they want to know about the inaccuracies of ancient historians in general and Josephus in particular.

Traces of Roman encampment as seen from Masada

We proceed to Qumran, where we have lunch in a slightly chaotic and not overclean cafeteria.  Shulamit tells me I should convert to Judaism and  I say I don’t believe in God.  She says she believes in some higher power.  We have lots of flies to nourish with our exudate.  Sakher says that Qumran means we have the real Bible, it doesn’t matter who the Essenes were.

We drive to a beach by the Dead Sea.  My cold, skin condition and I decline to bathe, and we drink expensive coffee in a fly-infested cafe.  Clare comes and asks will I guard their belongings on the beach.

We drive to Jericho and look at a fruit stall.  I’m so tired!

The five of us (without Shulamit) assemble to go to the Kan Zaman restaurant from yesterday.  And when we get there it is booked solid all evening.  We wander round for a long time finding nothing.

Finally we end up at a place on the first floor a couple of doors away from KZ.  Sam and Clare go back to tell Shulamit where we are, and a guy plays an electric oud with  electronic backing.  Sam and Clare reappear. We have food, beer and coca-cola.  Sam becomes animated while Clare sits pressed back into her seat, desperate to escape from us all.  They go home and the room becomes more animated as people (foreigners, 20s) stand up and begin dancing.  Rowena starts yawning and I manage to secure the bill.  390 NIS–the cheek of it!  Patrick gives me $ 100 and I sort it all out somehow.

We walk back and the gate is locked.  We ring the bell and rattle the gate for a long time.  Eventually the guy arrives carrying a cup of tea and lets us in…

Saturday 21 November

I go to breakfast and Sam and Clare are waiting for their ride.  Shulamit and I have a chat.  She says she does not remember Rowena leaving in the night.  I give her my Hebrew dictionary since she does not have one.  She says she is going to do an Ulpan and learn Modern Hebrew and after that Arabic; do a Masters and be an eternal student; feed ibex on a kibbutz and as a conscript ride in the back of a truck with her Uzi over her shoulder; become a journalist and report something other than violence from Israel; live for ever and always be happy.

At 1240 I stand outside and wait for the minibus.  At 1250 a taxi appears.  He says it will be 250 NIS.  I ask can I pay in dollars.  At the end, I get $32 back from Patrick’s $100, and we get a couple of minor inspections on the way to the airport.

While I am standing in one of a number of lines a friendly enough young woman inspects my passport and asks me

  • to confirm my name
  • the purpose of my stay in Israel
  • how long I have stayed
  • was I a group or a person
  • was I with the group now
  • to explain how the group worked in that case
  • was it people who knew each other before
  • where I have stayed in Israel
  • where I have stayed in Jerusalem
  • what places I have visited in Israel.

Then I put my bags through a machine.  Then I go to have them inspected,  which means someone passing an explosives sniffer thing over them.  So then I get to check in.  And go through to the landside shops, where I manage to get a heartshaped box of Israeli chocolates.  Most of the businesses are closed in honour of the Sabbath.  And airside, the coffee outlets are nearly all closed, IHOTS while the shops selling overpriced crap are open (in honour of the Golden Calf).

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