Jordan and Israel

Nov 21, 2015

Garam and I arrived at San Francisco airport early. While we were waiting in the security line, I heard somebody call my name and turned to find a friend from graduate school, flying to Israel on business with his company.

We spent some time catching up with him in the gate area. Before boarding the plane, he took a selfie photo with the three of us. Later on, I was checking Facebook and his photo popped up in my news feed, with the caption “Ran into a famous couple in SFO, on my way to Israel. (smiley face)” Famous for what, I wanted to ask. I sat in economy (seat 69D) on the Lufthansa A380, an impressive behemoth of an airplane. Garam sat in business class, enjoying one of the perks of working for a mega corporation. Was I bitter? Actually, no I wasn’t. I could do without the pesky flight attendants asking, “Would you like a hot towel?” or “How about a refill of champagne?” Any international flight is a treat, regardless of the class. I watched the Minions movie while feasting on airplane tortellini. After the meal, I took a melatonin pill due to my history of not sleeping well on flights, and I promptly crashed for a few hours. The A380’s landing in Frankfurt, Germany was quite possibly the smoothest landing ever. It felt like the plane landed on a pillow top mattress. In Frankfurt, we met our connecting flight to Amman, Jordan.

I decided that the theme of my pilgrimage to the Holy Land should be “direction”. I chose to visit the Holy Land and hike the Jesus Trail for reasons beyond my wife’s free hotel room. I’m 32, and sometimes my heart is heavy. Without my boss telling me what to do, I often feel lost. I want to find a path to greater happiness in my work and personal life. The jet lag is starting to hit me now, so I should wait for more mental clarity on this topic.

Nov 22, 2015

We arrived in Amman at 7pm, but we didn’t leave the airport with our bags until 9pm. The baggage claim process was an ordeal. First, we waited in line to pay the visa entry fee (40 Jordanian Dinars, or JD). The customs officers were taking their time (as they are wont to do). And it didn’t help that two off-duty officer friends kept coming over to chat with our officer. In the lane next to ours, the customs officer sitting behind the counter got up and bent over the counter to greet a male friend and kiss him on the cheek affectionately, as if to say “Welcome home, my friend”. Part of me wished that we were also part of the Jordanian club. The off-duty officers passed around a copy of Charles Darwin’s “Origin of Species”. I don’t know if a passenger lost it, or if one of the officers brought it from home. In any case, if Darwin’s theory was true, I wondered how some of the officers had survived natural selection.

The real problem began when Garam’s bag didn’t arrive with my backpack from Frankfurt. We waited by the carousel for about an hour. Finally, other people with missing luggage began to gather around an unmarked gray door. Baggage handlers and other people, some without official airport badges, came and went through the door with an air of authority. A totally-inefficient system emerged, whereby the main baggage handler—a red-faced, lanky guy with a few English words at his disposal—called passengers individually through the door for additional screening with their bags.

Unfortunately, Garam’s bag was one of the last to be identified. Airport personnel invited her beyond the gray door for the additional screening process. I was livid. It took extra time because they had to call a female employee from another part of the airport to perform the pat-down search on Garam. Garam waited in a room while 6 or 7 security guys inspected a small pair of binoculars that we had brought from the States. I barged in repeatedly to find out what was taking so long, and I was checked by one of the officers, who stood at attention behind a metal detector. “One minute!” he said for the fifth time. Then he asked, “Are you American?” I replied yes. “American!” he said, grinning. Then he said, “French!” and pursed his lips in an expression of disdain. He continued, beginning a face-making comedy routine that included British, Russian, and Albanian faces. I smiled the biggest American smile I could muster, but inside I was fuming, wishing they would just get on with it and let Garam go free.

At last, she emerged from the gray door. We met our rental car agent outside the arrivals hall and I told him about Garam’s detainment, apologizing for taking so long at baggage claim. He just laughed a knowing laugh while smoking a cigarette. He took us in his car to his office, located in a small building alongside the highway. It seemed like every other building was surrounded by rubble. I signed the rental car agreement and we departed immediately for the Dead Sea. The roads and traffic were strange. There were no lane markers, and sometimes arrows on the pavement pointed opposite to the direction of travel. One guy was driving in reverse beside the freeway onramp, and I passed him nervously. We passed through two checkpoints, where soldiers smiled kindly and waved us through, saying “Welcome to Jordan”. The Swiss-owned Movenpick hotel was a welcome place to conclude our hectic travel day. We arrived at the hotel well after dinner time, so Garam and I ate ramen from home, which she brought in case she found herself in a Korean-food desert in need of an emergency MSG injection. 

Ramen

Nov 23, 2015

The main goals for today were to stay awake (check) and to float in the Dead Sea (check). We woke up at dawn and walked down to the water’s edge. Some Chinese tourists had already started floating. We decided to have breakfast first and visit the Mujib Natural Preserve before going in the sea. The Movenpick breakfast buffet was good and varied, with some croissants and pastries I was not familiar with. They also had an omelette station, various types of yogurt (including a beetroot flavor), a special Swiss muesli, some hot flatbread, fresh fruits, and strong coffee. We drove 30 minutes to Mujib, only to find it closed for the winter. However, they still allowed us to walk on a new cement footbridge stretching along the left side of the wadi. Below us, a fork crane moved sand and earth while perched precariously next to a rushing stream. A dozen men stood at the railing above, watching the crane operator intently. Due to recent rains in the region, the river was flowing more than usual. We took a few photos, then hopped back in the car and drove in the direction of something called the Dead Sea “Panoramic Complex”. After a few switchbacks, we reached what appeared to be our destination—an unmarked, sad-looking outpost overlooking the beautiful blue sea.

There were two Jordanian soldiers inside, but no tourists, so we decided to continue driving for a few more switchbacks. We finally pulled over to take in the panoramic view, because it seemed that the road would continue winding all the way to Madaba. Below us, a man herded some goats on a small parcel of land edged by palm trees. Aside from him, the road was barren. We returned to the hotel, changed into swimsuits, and found a spot to lounge by the pool. The poolside kitchen was not open, but a server took our order (a burger and some crispy chicken rolls) and promised to put in the order whenever the chef arrived.

Also poolside were two older ladies, a mother/daughter duo, and a younger couple—all white. One of the older ladies had a red skin disease on her legs, and I suspected she was visiting the Dead Sea for treatment. Pesky flies buzzed around my head, and hotel cats approached frequently looking for food, making for a strange vibe. We walked down to the sea, where a deeply-tanned Jordanian lifeguard in red shorts waited to assist us. I stepped in gingerly and totally enjoyed the otherworldly floating experience. I flipped from my frontside to my backside and stood straight up in the salty water without breaking a sweat. When we exited the water, the lifeguard helped us apply Dead Sea mud to our bodies.

MudThe moment Garam finished covering herself, someone from the lounge staff yelled that our food was ready. We rinsed off, then ate our lunch at the covered pool bar, because the flies and the cats were too aggressive poolside. After we finished our lunch, two cats hopped up on the bar to devour our leftovers.

We went for a dip in the hotel’s “winter pool”, which was a balmy 29 degrees Celsius. Then we returned to the room and watched most of “Lethal Weapon” on TV to stay awake. It turns out Mel Gibson is popular on Jordanian TV, and they were showing a Lethal Weapon marathon. One of my Korean friends used to call me “Young Gibson” , and the synchronicity was too great to ignore. I felt confident I would thrive in Jordanian culture. I took Garam to watch the sunset, but by the time we arrived at the edge of the hotel grounds next to the sea, the sun had already disappeared over Israel in a red glow. People were still floating and laughing in the sea below us. A physically-fit Chinese man did yoga in the grassy area to my left, his muscles accentuated by the pink glow from the setting sun.

Nov 24, 2015

We went to breakfast at 7:30. Then we decided to visit the Dead Sea once more. The visibility was great, and the water was a deep blue, but the wind blew so hard that it was difficult to float in one place. Still, the water was warm and pleasant. I discovered that only one swimming style worked for me in the Dead Sea: the doggie paddle.

Dead sea floatingOtherwise, it was too difficult to keep my limbs submerged. Some Russians and another American-looking couple joined us in the water. Then we all took turns smearing mud from a big urn all over our partners’ bodies. Garam and I cooked in the sun for a few long minutes until the mud crusted dry, and then we went back into the sea to rinse off.

We checked out from the hotel and drove to Petra. It was a long haul. We left around noon, first passing along the east coast of the sea via the Dead Sea Highway. Then, after clearing the southern tip of the sea, we started passing through villages. We passed through one village that looked war-torn, with half-destroyed cement buildings and trash strewn about by the roadside. The main drag of the village was gray and ugly, with seedy convenience marts on either side. Garam was hungry, but we decided not to stop.

Some villages were greener. As we drove through one village, we passed a large group of bicyclists that looked American. We started up a windy road into the hills. Garam’s patience was growing thin, so I parked at a roadside convenience mart. The shop owner had an unsightly white eye patch over one eye. He saw Garam eyeing a case of prepackaged cookies, so he kindly offered to open the case so Garam could take a pack. We bought a bunch of snacks for 3 JD (about 5 bucks). Still, Garam wanted some unprocessed food, so we stopped a few blocks down the road at a fruit stand on a busy street corner. Bunches of bananas hung from the store’s awning. I struggled to get some down, and a younger man standing outside kindly pulled down a bunch from a hanging rack. Garam grabbed some clementines from one of the display boxes.

We went inside to pay, and the proprietors sat behind a low desk in the dimly-lit interior of the shop. They looked unfriendly and intimidating, with hollow circles around their eyes. Some soldiers and older men in keffiyeh (the Arabic headdress) were browsing. I felt uneasy in the line to approach the counter, until a soldier behind us introduced himself and began translating on our behalf. We paid a pittance (1.4 JD) for our fruit. In the car, it dawned on me how much the fancy hotel had been ripping us off.

The second half of the drive was mostly through empty plains of sand and grass. I spotted a few isolated wind power turbines, which seemed lonely and out of place in their surroundings. We descended a long hill into the town of Petra and navigated to the Movenpick hotel, just steps from the Petra visitor center. At check in, the concierge told us that some workers from the hotel were on strike due to a financial dispute with the government. He said the government was “stealing the citizens’ money”, and as a result there might be some delays in the hotel service. “There is service, but it might be slow,” he reassured us. The facade of the hotel made it appear small, but it wasn’t. I explored a little and discovered a gym, a steam room, an outdoor pool area, a gelato bar, and a wonderfully ornate lobby.

I didn’t want to veg out at the hotel right away, so we drove back up the hill to the edge of town and parked next to a small restaurant to watch the sunset. It was too cold and windy to stay there long, so we began to descend again. Muslim calls to prayer blasted over the public address system, disturbing the silence of the sunset and causing an eerie chill to come over me as we drove back towards the hotel. Garam spotted a bustling restaurant on a street corner, so we decided to stop. I parked at an angle in a highly-questionable, unmarked parking spot. I justified the it to Garam as my attempt to “fit in” with Jordanian culture. Satisfied with my Jordanian parking job, we went inside for some Arabic Shawerma and vermicelli noodle soup. To my surprise, the Arabic Shawerma came topped with french fries, which would become a recurring staple of the trip.

Nov 25, 2015

We ate a decent buffet breakfast at the Movenpick, and then we walked across the street to the Petra visitor center. After paying the 50 JD entrance fee, there was a long walk on a gravel trail to the beginning of the Siq—a tall, narrow passageway for ancient caravans. Some Bedouins tried to sell us horse rides, but we declined. We walked through the Siq admiring the red rocks. Occasionally a horse and buggy passed by, the hoof sounds echoing loudly off the walls. We arrived at the Treasury, which stood imposingly in an open courtyard filled with camels and Bedouin. In the courtyard we met Salam, a small, wiry Bedouin in a dark leather jacket and army pants. He began an elaborate sales pitch to give us a donkey ride to the Monastery, the park’s biggest and best attraction. It was also the farthest from the visitor center. Eventually I relented, and Garam and I mounted two small donkeys for a fun ride up a long series of steps. We arrived at the Monastery in the light of the early morning sun.

The MonasteryIt was stunning, and we were the only tourists around as we enjoyed a lemon-mint drink from a small cafe directly across from the Monastery’s facade. We were joined at the cafe by a handful of curious cats. We visited a couple of panoramic overlook points in peace, then retraced our steps back to a footbridge where Salam was waiting to hawk more donkey rides. I told him we were hungry, and we went for a good buffet lunch at the only place open on the park (only 10 JD). After lunch, I explained to Salam that we would pass on his offer to see the Treasury’s facade from above. He was disappointed (“I take you to the top of the Treasury… nice view. I take nice picture… you have great time… trust me, I live here in a cave… I give you a good price!”), but I paid him for the morning ride and he eventually let us be. We toured the rest of the park on foot and caught the sunset from the roof deck of our hotel.

Nov 26, 2015

Today we arrived in Wadi Rum, made famous by Mr. T. E. Lawrence. A park ranger met us at the gate to collect our 5 JD entrance fee, and then our tour guide Faiz led us to the house of Attawlah (pronounced uh-tull-uh), the guy with whom I had made a reservation. Rum Village looked very disorganized and shoddy. There were pickup trucks everywhere, as well as ambling Bedouins and the occasional camel in the streets. Attawlah’s house was dark and smoky, We sat waiting for him in two large, throne-like chairs in the living room. Faiz and another guy (who didn’t introduce himself) sat together on a couch next to us watching a cartoon comedy sketch on the other guy’s phone about an arabic guitarist. The loud sounds of the pear-shaped instrument elicited laughs from the two young men.

Attawlah, a taller, more mature and handsome Bedouin, arrived and told a couple of jokes to try to lighten the mood. He explained that business was not good, because people were afraid of traveling to the Middle East. He had four cancellations in the previous few weeks. We discussed the possibility of adding a camel ride to our tour package and went out in his backyard to see the camels. But I decided to stick with my original plan, to do a 4WD tour and then camp overnight at the Bedouin Lifestyle camp. Attawlah sent us off with our guide Faiz, indicating that he might visit the camp later that evening to check on us.

Faiz drove a 1981 Nissan pickup truck with benches and a canopy in the back. The scenery from the back of the pickup truck was grand.

Wadi rum pickupWe  stopped first at some ancient Nabatean inscriptions carved into the red rock, and then we stopped at a large red sand dune for some sand boarding. On my second run down the dune, I went a little too fast and my board scraped across some rocks at the bottom of the hill. Faiz examined the bottom of the board as I apologized for my mistake. He said it looked fine and threw it into the back of the truck.

With Faiz

We stopped at two rock bridges, as well as two more historically-significant sites: Lawrence’s Spring (now used to water camels) and Lawrence’s “House”, which was more of a small cave with a stone wall in front. I’m not a soldier, but it seemed like the perfect strategic location from a military standpoint, commanding a great view of a wide expanse of desert. We arrived at the Bedouin Lifestyle campground an hour or so before sunset, and it was just as described: beautiful, but Spartan. If we wanted hot water to shower with, they could heat some up for us in a pot. Garam and I opted to let our bodies ripen for one night. We watched the sun set from the top of a dune, and  then we sat outside around the fire for a Bedouin-style dinner that featured chicken and potatoes cooked in a zarb. A zarb was a cylindrical hole in the ground where the Bedouins placed hot coals underneath a layered barbecue rack. They then covered the opening with a lid and covered the lid with sand to keep the heat inside the hole and cook the food.

Joining us in the camp was a Romanian couple, a 77-year old Swiss man traveling solo, and four local Bedouins. Later, a musician came (provided by Attawlah) to serenade us on the oud (Arabic guitar). He played a few sorrowful ballads, and then it got chilly and all the tourists went off to bed. We learned the next morning that Attawlah did come from Rum Village to stop by and show us a new baby lamb of his, but we were already asleep by the time he arrived. I awoke once before the sunrise and left our tent to watch the incredible moonscape over the red rocks. I could also hear the morning call to prayer coming from a loudspeaker somewhere in the distance.

Nov 27, 2015

In the morning, we ate a hurried breakfast provided by the Bedouins. The old Swiss gentleman in the camp had a bus to catch. He complained to the rest of us tourists, not quite out of earshot of the Bedouins. “These people are not reliable,” he said. “That’s why they’ll never get anywhere. There’s always some cousin or friend that needs one thing or another.” As we drove back to Rum Village to help him catch his bus, we stopped once to pick up an older Bedouin man hiking alone in the sand. I could feel the Swiss man’s disgust. But in the end he did catch his bus in the center of the village, as one of the Bedouins had called ahead to make sure the bus driver didn’t leave without him.

Garam and I got back in our car and drove south to Aqaba, to cross the border into Israel. The Jordanian side of the border crossing was low-tech and staffed exclusively by men, while the Israeli side had x-ray baggage scanners and an all-female staff. They also had pictures of Bill Clinton with various Israeli heads of state. The 90s seemed to be the golden age of US-Israeli relations. We cabbed it to the nearest bus station and then rode north for 4.5 hours to Jerusalem. I decided to take the bus despite repeated U.S. State Department warnings about public transportation in Israel, because I didn’t believe that it was any riskier than taking public transport in the U.S.

The Egged company’s bus to Jerusalem was a pleasant and comfortable ride. As we passed north along the Israeli side of the Dead Sea, it looked overdeveloped and a little sad compared to the pristine Jordanian beach where floated a few days before. In my guidebook, I read a section titled “The Dead Sea is Dying” which lamented the sea’s overuse by beach hotels and related industries. We alighted at the Jerusalem central bus station and walked to the Notre Dame Centre at the edge of the Old City.

Notre Dame CenterTwo days later, I learned that a Palestinian was stabbed at the same bus station where we alighted. I obstinately stuck to my plans. Dinner at the Notre Dame Centre’s rooftop restaurant was nice. Garam had shrimp risotto, and I had a chicken remoulade with a glass of Malbec. The wine made me loopy because I hadn’t had a drink in a while. We crashed early after the long day of travel.

Nov 28, 2015

There were too many options for touring the Old City of Jerusalem. Since we were already paying an arm and a leg to stay at the same hotel where the Pope sleeps during his Israeli sojourns, I decided to tour on the cheap. I downloaded a free app on Garam’s phone, produced by the municipality of Jerusalem, that offered self-guided walking tours through various parts of the Old City. We started with the Northern Ramparts walk, which was fine until we reached a locked gate at the beginning of the Muslim quarter.

We descended from the ramparts and began to walk further east along the cobblestone street. An older gentleman suddenly stopped us and said the quarter was closed, gesticulating in the opposite direction. I got the message: go back where you came from. Not wanting to create an
international incident, we turned around and found our way south to the Lions’ Gate.

We followed the stations of the cross along the Via Dolorosa. The stained glass in the Chapel of the Flagellation at Station #2 was darkly beautiful. A big tour group from Africa walked with us, and they enlivened each station along the route with an accompaniment of chants and prayers. We stopped at Abu Shukri restaurant for some excellent hummus and falafel at Station #5. I got us lost between Stations 7 and 8, and we stumbled into some large bazaars with lots of foot traffic. We found our way back to the route, then passed through an Ethiopian church on our way to the impressive courtyard of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Inside the church, we climbed a set of stairs to Stations 11 and 12, which were managed by the Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches, respectively. Garam knelt at 12 to touch the stone where Jesus was allegedly crucified, while I stood back and watched, perhaps jaded from tourist overload.

We then waited in line 45 minutes to enter Jesus’ tomb. A tour group in front of us chanted intermittent prayers in a language I didn’t recognize (Ukranian perhaps?). Just when we reached the front of the line, the tall, gray-bearded Greek Orthodox cleric who had been directing tourist traffic closed the metal barricade to prepare for a religious procession. Two guards in suits and fezzes tapped long, silver-tipped canes on the ground to herald the arrival of the high priest. The high priest donned a red robe directly in front of where we were standing, and then he entered the central chamber of the church. He read Scripture from the pulpit to an audience of fellow priests, while confused tourists listened from a distance. The guards told some seated tourists to uncross their legs, because crossing them was disrespectful. After the Scripture readings, the tall cleric reopened the metal barrier to allow us inside the tomb.

A small, circular entry room could hold about ten to twenty people, and the low-ceilinged tomb itself could only fit three kneeling pilgrims. A short woman in a habit, perhaps a Greek Orthodox nun, had entered the tomb before Garam and me, and she was stoking some incense in the corner. She then knelt and pressed her head gently to the marble coffin, alternating kisses with loving embraces of the marble slab. I closed my eyes and tried to pray, but I was overwhelmed by the atmosphere and I felt pressure from the line of tourists waiting outside. I stood and turned to leave by the small door, when the short woman grabbed my shoulders and spun me around, gesticulating towards me as if to say “Don’t turn your back on Jesus!” I obediently bent over and back-pedaled through the low door. We left the tomb, and then we ventured into the Jewish quarter to see the Western Wall and some other sights. Families celebrated the Shabbat outside in the various plazas. We rested briefly at a beautiful park just west of the Old City, then headed back to our hotel.

We were saturated on hummus, so we went for dinner at a sushi place in the brand new Mamilla Mall, which reminded me of the high-end outdoor malls in southern California (hooray globalization!). After dinner, we explored the bustling streets of New Jerusalem and walked into some of the open storefronts. On our way back to the hotel, we passed a van blasting Hebrew music to a nightclub beat through a large loudspeaker. It parked in the middle of a square, and young men on the sidewalk started flocking to the music, dancing in a big happy circle. I wanted to go see what the hubbub was about, but pesky U.S. State Department warnings kept flashing through my head (“US citizens are advised to avoid gatherings and demonstrations in public spaces…”).

Nov 29, 2015

We woke up, breakfasted, and made our way back to Lions’ Gate to start a walking tour of the Mount of Olives. A taxi driver named Nasser introduced himself near the gate, and he convinced us to take a ride instead of walking the long hill. First, he took us to the Chapel of the Ascension. It was sunny and bright in the courtyard, but inside, the small chapel dome was dark. We saw the stone which was said to hold the last footprint of Jesus on Earth.

Next, Nasser took us to see a panoramic view of Jerusalem.

Panoramic view of JerusalemWe then visited  Mary’s subterranean tomb, where we stepped inside a small chamber much like the chamber of Jesus’ tomb, but with a shorter line. Across the street, I admired the mosaics at the Church of All Nations. The olive trees in the church’s garden were also very pretty, with some fresh black olives studding the pale green branches. I could see the golden spires of the Russian Orthodox church not far from us, but its visiting hours there were limited to two hours each on Tuesdays and Thursdays. What’s up with that?

The next stop was our hotel, to pick up our left luggage. We drove to Mahane Yehuda market, and Nasser waited while we sampled some foods. We ended up buying some delicious dates and fresh pita bread. Nasser was afraid to drop us right in front of the market, he claimed, because Israeli police don’t like Palestinian cabbies and they’ll write a ticket without a moment’s hesitation. Nasser also told us that his 15-year-old son had been in jail for more than 70 days for allegedly throwing rocks at Israeli soldiers. His son’s court date was set for the following week. To avoid conflict, Nasser had decided to stick to picking up tourists at Lions’ Gate, even though he could make more money by picking up fares around the city.

We left the market and went to pick up a rental cell phone at Talk n’ Save. Then Nasser took us the rest of the way to Garam’s work-provided hotel, the Ritz-Carlton Herzliya, which stood gleaming next to the Mediterranean. Nasser asked for some additional cash, since we had originally agreed on a fare to neighboring Tel Aviv. I obliged with an additional 30 shekels, plus 3 dates and 2 pitas since he hadn’t eaten anything since we started the tour. Garam and I went to the rooftop pool at the Ritz to watch the sun set. The hotel room was spacious and new, with a balcony overlooking the sea. I recalled one of the T-shirts for sale in the Jerusalem markets that read, “Med sea, Red sea, Dead sea”. We saw them all during the past week.

Nov 30, 2015

Today I started my solo pilgrimage, and it was a long first day. First, I took the train from Herzliya to Haifa. I asked a nice 20-something girl on the Herzliya platform for help, and she told me to transfer at Binyamina to the Haifa train. When I got off at Binyamina, I asked a young soldier with a scruffy beard for help finding the Haifa train. He said I was on the correct platform. I rode the train to Haifa HaShamona station and then walked to a small bus depot. The 331 bus to Nazareth looked like a repurposed tour bus. A bald, heavyset driver sat with a pistol strapped to his waist. I asked him “How much?”, and he responded by handing me a printed receipt—19 shekels. He dropped me off about 100 meters in front of the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth.

I went inside the basilica and followed a circular walking tour route past large stone rafters and gilded paintings of Mary and Jesus. Outside, a path led to St. Joseph’s church. I started towards St. Joseph’s, then decided against it. Clouds were rolling in, and a cool breeze seemed to signal rain. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to stick to my hiking schedule if I dallied too long in Nazareth, so I found the gold-blazed symbol for the start of the Jesus Trail and climbed the 406 steps leading out of the city.

At the top of the stairs, it started to rain. I stopped at a bench to pull my rain jacket out of my hiking pack, and while I did so a boy about 15 years old snuck up and sat with his butt on the back and feet on the bench next to me. He was smoking a cigarette. He spoke good English, and he asked me where I was from and why I was traveling alone. I asked him if he was in school, and he said he had already finished school. I told him he looked too young to be finished school, and that I had to be going.

I walked along a ridge following the gold paint markings of the trail, and then I came to a major road construction project. I became convinced that my map was obsolete, so I took a side street, but the side street showed no signs of linking back up with the trail. The rain was pouring down, and I momentarily doubted my plan, wondering what would happen if I went back to stay in Nazareth for the night. I backtracked to the construction site, and this time I saw what looked like the golden blaze of the Jesus Trail painted straight ahead of me inside the construction zone. I forged ahead through the mud. I encountered a construction worker taking materials out of a big plastic barrel, and I asked him if I was heading in the right direction. His English was nonexistent, but he reached out his arm and flapped his hand in the direction I was heading as if to say “Yea, just keep going straight.” I stopped to rest at a gas station, then crossed a major highway before entering into olive farmland. The scenery on the dirt trail snaking its way through olive farms was much nicer than the roads leading out of Nazareth. Also, the rain let up, so I took off my jacket.

I came to an unlabeled junction, and I received some help from a man on his cellphone who pointed me in the direction of Zippori. When I reached the entrance to Zippori national park, the ranger (who spoke little English) explained that I would need to walk back to the village—a 2 kilometer hike—because the park was closing in an hour. I thought I could reach my first night’s accommodations faster by going through the park, so I talked to another ranger and he granted me passage.

Zippori national parkAs I approached the edge of the park, a third ranger gave me a lift in his truck through two  employees-only barricades, and he deposited me just north of the church of St. Anne. I told the ranger that I wanted to go to St. Anne, because it looked like the closest landmark to the place where I had arranged lodging for the night. Still, I got lost for about an hour on dirt roads and trails behind the church while trying to find my lodging. I tried calling my host but it went straight to voicemail. Then Garam called me on my rental cell phone and said that she had gotten through to the host on another number. When I finally got through to Rachelle Noymeir, she explained that I had to go around the big green gate that separates the park from the village. I had seen a big green gate while walking around lost and thought to myself, “That should be the right direction, but I’m clearly locked out.”

I shimmied around the side of the gate with my large backpack, and I ended up in a paved circle next to some small cottages. A few minutes later, the 69-year-old, England-born Rachelle picked me in her compact car and I apologized profusely as I jammed by backpack in between my legs in the passenger seat. She took me to her house and made pumpkin soup, bread, and Israeli salad for dinner. We talked about anything and everything at a fast clip. She was a vibrant personality and quick-witted conversationalist. She made tea, and as we sat drinking and talking, she multitasked, sewing a doll by hand for her granddaughter. She was stuffing loose cotton inside the outer fabric and adjusting the lengths of the doll’s arms and legs. I later joked with Garam that she was like the Israeli version of my Aunt Mary Jane.

The house was a comfortable mess of half-finished projects, animals, and shelves upon shelves of books, including one titled “How to be Victorian”. Rachelle took me outside in the dark to another building on the property to show me the olive press and visitor center, which she attributed to the handiwork of her six children.

Rachelle and granddaughterShe explained how good olive oil should have a smokey burn as it goes down the throat; that’s how you know the antioxidants are working. She also talked at length about alternative education and the Waldorf school. One of her daughters ran a kindergarten with 12 students. Her other daughter was in charge of marketing the olive oil that the family produced. I met two of her sons: Saf, who lived in a handmade house at the back of the property with his wife, and Haggai, who was traveling back and forth to India to supervise the building of a 10 meter tall Buddhist temple for his Buddhist master there. I originally planned to camp on the property with the tent I brought from the U.S., but since it had rained all day and the ground was wet, I decided to stay in a small bedroom in the house which had been occupied by family over the weekend but was now vacant. The room had not been cleaned, but I was too tired to care and I passed out on the bottom bunk of a kids’ bunk bed.

Dec 1, 2015

I woke up at 6:15am so I could get a ride with Rachelle from Zippori village back to the Jesus Trail before she had to be at her daughter’s house for babysitting at 7. Rachelle gave me some more tea and a tasty slice of olive oil cake for breakfast, which helped me to get rolling. We had not agreed to a price beforehand, so I offered her 200 shekels for her hospitality, which seemed like the least I could do. She said 100 was enough, but she accepted the 200 and promised to put it to good use. She also invited Garam and me to be her guests the next time we were in the area. By the time we left the house we were running late, so she dropped me off a little before the trailhead and spun around run along to her babysitting duties. I started down the fresh trail, which followed an ancient Roman road. An early morning rainbow greeted me as I walked through some beautiful forests. As I was leaving the forested area, I passed some huge piles of trash dumped haphazardly beside the trail.

I arrived at the Greek Orthodox wedding church in Cana, which was tucked away on the cute Churches Street along with a few souvenir shops and guesthouses. Four or five tour buses were parked along the road, and the courtyard of the church was full of tourists. The first wave was British and Asian, and a second wave of African tourists arrived as I was leaving. I walked underneath the church, where the remains of Crusader-era church stones were still visible. I crossed the street to a little food stand and bought a total of six savory blintz-like things—three to scarf down on the spot, and then three more for the the road. The path leading out of Cana was beautiful, winding through a valley of olive groves. I remembered something Rachelle told me, that my wife Garam’s name was similar to the Hebrew word for “orchard” (Karem).

From the valley, I could see small planes circling overhead, in an area designated as military land on my map. The trail markings disappeared, so I carefully followed an unmarked dirt path, giving the military area a wide berth. I was making good time towards my final destination of Day 2: a small town called Ilaniya. I had reserved a campsite there at an ecolodge and goat farm called Yarok Az. I found a handwritten sign for Yarok Az on the outskirts of town, but I misinterpreted the direction of the arrow, adding perhaps 45 minutes of hiking time before I reoriented myself on the path into town.

As I entered the town of Ilaniya, set a alongside a major highway, a nice older gentleman on the street approached and gave me directions to Yarok Az. Yarok Az was a camper’s paradise. It was designed for about 30 people, but I had the place all to myself (except for the goats and the turkeys). I set up my tent under a big green sun shade and took a long overdue shower. I had reserved a dinner meal, and the woman named Roni who ran the place took very good care of me. She made a vegetarian dinner with eggplant, chickpeas, salad, rice, and home fries, plus a homemade chocolate cake for dessert. I heard a French accent in her voice, but she said that she was Israeli and she had recently taken the place over from the previous owners. She lived in a trailer on the property next to the organic gardens and the geodesic dome dormitories.

Yarok AzI ate my meal in the communal kitchen designed for travelers, and then I debriefed Garam on my adventures.

Dec 2, 2015

I planned to cover a lot of ground today so I wanted to leave at sunrise, but my tent was too comfortable so I slept in a little bit. As I was packing up my tent, Roni stopped by and offered to make me a breakfast sandwich “on the house”. I accepted gratefully. I finished packing and left the camp, saying goodbye to Roni as she sat next to the goats, observing them quietly. Hers seemed like a lonely existence, if there weren’t any tourists around. I sauntered through the Lavi forest, and my left shoulder started to hurt. Yesterday it was the blister on my toe, but today the number one complaint was shoulder pain. I readjusted my heavy pack, which helped a lot to relieve the burden on my shoulders and transfer some of the weight to my hips. I pressed on to a Holocaust memorial site, where the Jesus Trail linked up with the Gospel Trail. There, I met a gregarious Christian Arab named Salame next to the water refill station. Salame and a friend were out for a morning walk since they lived nearby. He claimed that he saw me make a wrong turn a few kilometers back. I explained to him that I was following the Jesus Trail, not the Gospel Trail or any of the other trails that vied for hikers’ attention.

I continued into the hills and started spotting wildlife. Two gazelles, two bulls (which explained all of the turds along the track), a brown bird with a pointed hat on its head (a crested lark perhaps?), a beautiful yellow-and-black butterfly, and two rabbits. It was hot, but fortunately I still had some water left in my Nalgene bottle. The trail led me up and over the Horns of Hattin, which was a little frightening due to my fear of heights. The spectacular view was worth it, however. On the descent from the horns, I somehow missed the shortcut I had planned to take, and I couldn’t find the water source indicated on my map. Sensing that I wouldn’t have the water (or the stamina) to follow the normal trail, I cut through a town to save myself a bunch of kilometers.

I trekked across a stretch of farmland alongside a fence which turned out to be electrified. I was relieved I didn’t touch it before seeing the signs. I left the farm and followed a trail towards the valley between the cliffs of Arbel national park. I arrived at a gate with a red sign in Hebrew and some barbed wire crossing my path. The trail looked good beyond the wire, so I climbed over it, imagining how I would apologize to the authorities later for not understanding the red warning sign. Large turds dotted the trail, which led me to believe that I was again in the presence of free-ranging bulls.

It started to rain, and a military helicopter flew overhead twice, making me nervous. I did a short scramble over some rocks, and then the sun came out again. As did the wildlife. First, I saw a lady gazelle at close range. She turned tail and hopped away. A little while later, I spotted five gazelles up on a ridge.

Arbel ridgeSoon after that, I saw a strong buck with big  horns at close range. He didn’t run off right away, but stood for a moment to evaluate me before running off. I also spotted four gopher-like creatures called hyrax. Curious little guys. For a moment it felt as though all the wild animals in the park were watching me, and I thought “This will be a cool story. As long as I don’t get eaten.” But it wasn’t until I left the park that things got treacherous.

I was hiking on the trail about fifty meters from a man feeding his cows some hay, when a dog suddenly jumped through the cow fence and made a bee line straight for my right leg. The dog bit and tore through my pants, breaking the skin. Then, an even bigger dog came at a sprint. Fortunately, he just barked and hopped on his hind legs a few times before obeying his master’s command to stand down. I swatted and kicked, but my big backpack rendered me slow and powerless. It seemed like a shame to die of rabies when I was so close to my destination, but I monitored the leg for the rest of the day and it seemed fine.

I continued into a grapefruit orchard and found a big fat grapefruit lying on the ground. I hadn’t eaten in about 6 hours, and the ripe grapefruit tasted about as good as a grapefruit can taste. I grabbed another one for the road. I stopped for a delicious shawerma sandwich at a roadside cafe, then set up camp in a dirty, unloved campground next to Nun Spring. I set up my tent as far as possible from a group of young kids who were listening to techno and heavy metal music in another area of the park.

Dec 3, 2015

Last night it rained all night, but I stayed warm and dry in my brand new Marmot tent. Dogs howled to each other late into the night, but at least the kids shut down their music party around 9pm. This morning, I finally had some energy to think about direction—the theme of my pilgrimage. I believe we are called to love and serve each other. That’s why I felt so happy with the hospitality I received from my hosts during this trip. Whom do I serve in my academic work? My advisor? My collaborators? The younger students in my group? The taxpayers? I lost my grip on the answers. I don’t know where the work is leading me. I got into the postdoc because I wanted to make money, and I wasn’t excited about any of the industry jobs I found through friends or online listings. I also needed to get out of the house more. I don’t feel challenged by the academic work like I’ve felt during this trip. I like to push myself physically, not just sit around taxing my brain. Anyways, enough complaining, time for breakfast: french fries and grapefruit.

I packed up camp and set out into some palm tree farms, following the golden dots of the Jesus Trail. I spoke to Garam on the phone to reassure her I was still alive. Then I came to a junction that seemed to indicate a right turn, so I followed it for a while, realizing that I was heading straight for the Sea of Galilee on trail with black markings, instead of the golden Jesus trail. The black trail dumped me in a quiet cove that seemed recently abandoned, because there were plastic chairs, a table, and a cooking stove strewn about in the rocks.

Sea of Galilee

I continued along a path beside the lake that opened into a deserted  campground area, complete with toilets, showers, and a beach. I was thrilled to find a bathroom at that point in the day, and I availed myself of the facilities. The sign at the beach read “Swimmung Prohibited”. Continuing straight, I stumbled upon an even nicer campground called Kare Deshe, which was also deserted except for a lone tent that may or may not have been occupied. I half regretted not pushing myself to reach Kare Deshe the previous day. It even had a green contraption sticking out of the ground at each campsite for electrical power.

I stared at the crystal blue water longingly, remembering a conversation I had on the phone with Garam about how I forgot to bring my swimsuit. I looked around for a place to stash my bag, then decided to just go for it in my underwear. I emerged from behind some palm trees in my pasty white glory and tiptoed gingerly over the rocks and into the water. The water temperature was perfect—just brisk enough to refresh my overheated and tired body. I felt great freedom, swimming around like a kid in the empty Sea of Galilee (which is technically a lake). It was a bit challenging to exit the water and remove the sand from my feet, but I managed with the help of a plastic chair left by the water’s edge.

I returned to the gold trail and hiked over a hill to the Church of the Primacy of St. Peter. I decided to skip the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes because there was an entry fee, and it looked saturated with tourists. St. Peter’s church was small and Spartan, but the grounds were immaculate. The exterior was made from gray volcanic rock, and inside was a large and welcoming slab of stone. There was also a nice gravel beach with a fabulous view of the sea. As I turned to leave the beach, I saw a small plaque on the exterior of the building that read, “Blest are they who take risks on His word…”. The whole Jesus Trail experience felt risky to me, so I prided myself on my decision to do the hike. But in my life back home in California, I felt I had become too risk-averse. The plaque seemed placed there for my benefit, as I was the only person on the beach. I hiked back to the pilgrims’ sidewalk and then up to the Mount of Beatitudes gift shop,  where the shop owner recommended a bag of fresh dates. I was hungry, and I decided to try them for the first time.

Trail to Beatitudes

I arrived at my final destination, the Mount of Beatitudes, at 1:20pm, and I had some more time to write because the gate was locked and wouldn’t reopen until 2pm.

Beatitudes ChapelI tried the fresh dates. They were like the dried variety we get in the States, but a little less sweet and with a nice chewy texture and a slimy exterior. I sat on a bench in the courtyard, powering through half of the bag while watching a large group of tourists from a cruise ship excursion follow their guides into the Beatitudes Chapel. There were lots of selfie sticks. As I watched the tourists moving excitedly through the church grounds snapping photos, I had a faint sense of anticlimax. I wonder if Jesus felt the same way when He arrived in Capernaum to preach. “Vacation’s over, time to get down to the business of saving these poor souls.”

One of the marketing phrases on the Jesus Trail website was “Jesus didn’t take the bus!” But since I was at my final destination, I needed to find transportation back to the Mediterranean sea. I attempted to end the story in epic fashion by hitching a ride with one of the tour buses, but the bus drivers weren’t very helpful. So I took a taxi from Capernaum to Tiberias to catch a westbound bus from there.

I got in the front passenger seat, and there was already another female passenger in the backseat of the taxi who stayed silent while I chatted with the driver. He asked if he could smoke out the window, and I said fine (it’s your lungs). When I told him I came from California, he asked if I had heard about the terrorist incident there. I told him I had been completely news-free for the past three days. It wasn’t until I returned to the hotel in Herzliya that I learned about the San Bernardino shooting. On the news, Fareed Zakaria was talking about how other countries now have to add information to their state department travel materials, warning their citizens about the dangers of gun violence the U.S.

Dec 4, 2015

Today we rented a car and drove to Tel Aviv to do city stuff. First we walked around a local arts and crafts fair. Tucked into one corner of the street was a trio of cello, violin, and viola musicians who were playing beautiful arrangements of all the classical music hits. Their arrangements were so nice that Garam and I sat on a bench for a while just to listen to them (and to rest my aching feet). We then walked through the Carmel market, which pulsated with an overwhelming amount of energy. The momentum of the people there seemed to carry us to the end of the market too fast. I looked back, wanting to linger longer with some of the sights and smells. We walked briefly along the beach before heading back downtown for an early dinner at Dalida, a trendy Israeli-Egyptian restaurant (and one of the few restaurants open during Shabbat).

Dec 5, 2015

We decided to take the rental car and see more of the Mediterranean coast. We drove first to Rosh HaNikra right on the border with Lebanon. There we took a short cable car ride down to the beautiful grottoes, which echoed with the thunderous pounding of the waves. We watched a short 15 minute video presentation on the history of the place, and the story was that the British built tunnels right into the rock face during the mandate period after World War I as part of their efforts to connect the whole Middle East region with railways. The views of the Mediterranean from the top of the cable car were great.

Rosh HaNikra

Next, we drove south about 20  kilometers to the port town of Akko to find some lunch. It was a popular destination, and I found myself driving on some of the narrowest cobblestone streets I’d ever seen. The road to the waterfront became completely congested, so the line of cars had to back out the way they came in. I sweated as the pristine rear-view mirror of our rental car passed millimeters from the scratched up mirror of a neighboring car. Scratches seemed inevitable if you spent more than a day driving in the town.

We ate dinner—or really, more of a late lunch—at a restaurant with a nice view overlooking the harbor and the sunset.

Akko sculptureThen we left Akko and stopped in Haifa, a big city and tech hub that my guidebook had dubbed “the San Francisco of Israel”. It had the hills and the prices to match. We found a sushi restaurant there, because Garam can’t go too many days without rice. Finally, we returned to the hotel to pack for the long journey home. I threw my hiking boots in the trash, because the heels on both feet—and part of the front sole on one side—had fallen off. I got nine good years of use out of them.

Dec 6, 2015

We flew Air Canada from Tel Aviv to SFO with a layover in Toronto. At  Tel Aviv airport, as we were unloading luggage from our taxi, some Korean dignitaries exited the arrivals hall, perhaps returning home after an important event in Israel. Garam had ordered VIP check-in service through Apple, which whisked us through the check-in and security process in about 20 minutes. The VIP staff even returned my rental cell phone to the airport post office for me. It’s a racket, but I was glad we didn’t have to wait in any long lines.

Conclusions

I love traveling because I love to see the beauty of the world. I also love the challenge of it. I learned that I have to take risks. I learned the importance of worrying less. One day I was watching an episode of the Late Show with Stephen Colbert, and his guest Oprah asked him if he had a favorite passage from the Bible. Stephen replied, “Do not worry. Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” He then added, “I like how it’s phrased like a commandment. Do not worry. Just don’t do it.” I was anxious for specific direction during the pilgrimage, like what to do next after my postdoc appointment expires, but I think God was trying to give me a simpler message: Don’t worry, and take more risks on faith.

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