The Lost World, The Romance of Travel
Israel, Egypt, Jordan 2009
I remember my first yearning of seeing the world, in World History class in high school. Epochs and kingdoms and exotic names and distant peoples and places came alive in my imagination, and a deep longing took hold within me to walk the earth and breathe the air of these magical lands. The Pharaohs, Antony and Cleopatra, Mesopotamia, Babylon, Baghdad, Damascus, Constantinople, Nebuchadnezzar, KIng David, Solomon, the Ottoman Empire, Richard the Lion Hearted, Saladin; their stories conjured images in my head more thrilling than what Hollywood ever created. So it is with great anticipation that I planned this trip to Israel, Egypt and Jordan.
Last year I signed up as a volunteer in a weeklong English immersion program for Spaniards, Pueblo Ingles, in La Alberca, and met Talila, from Israel who assured me that visiting Israel is not as scary as what the US media portrays it to be. I’ve wanted to go for the last 15 years, but was daunted by the perennial State Department travel advisory to this region. But I feared that these lands as I’ve imagined them might be lost forever considering the wars and terrorism that are going on in the region. Baghdad, Damascus, Persia (Iran), Lebanon, have been defiled by violence, and the Arab lands of Saudi Arabia, Dubai and Abu Dhabi, Qatar, have been altered beyond recognition by glitzy development of skyscrapers, megacities, megamalls and golf courses. So I’ve decided it’s now or never, I will go!
I must admit, I had some trepidation, and the fearful concern of friends didn’t help, so I purchased an expensive travel insurance that included terrorism coverage. Therefore, consider me lucky, because my trip was uneventful except for the medical challenge of subduing a virulent staphylococcus colony that grew from a yellow jacket sting on my right calf, acquired while playing golf before I left.
I flew into Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport from JFK in New York, a 12-hour flight, arriving the next day since Israel is ahead 6 hours of EST. A friend prepared me that I will be questioned in JFK about my purpose for traveling to Israel and other details of my itinerary, but none happened on both departure and arrival. Ben Gurion immigration check was a breeze, the airport is sleek and modern, everything was easy to negotiate, and there were no uniformed soldiers in sight.
I arrived on the eve of Passover, so the flight was full of Jewish families going home for the holidays. I had this strange “otherness” feeling. Firstly, I’m the only one looking different, then the passengers behaved differently. The men wore their skullcaps or yarmulkas and their tallits, prayer shawls. Men and women were reading from the Torah throughout the trip and every so often the men would stand on the aisle and pray from the Torah. I sat next to a young man, Ariel, who imports mid-priced fashion from China and the US into Israel. He’s orthodox Jew. He pitched the wonders of the homeland and the self-affirmation of living in Israel, and expressed regret that his lifestyle as an entrepreneur prevents him from dedicating his life to the study of the Torah full time. As I was invited to a Seder in my friend’s kibbutz he educated me about the holiday and gave me pointers about etiquette and customs. I purchased a Kosher gift basket from the duty free shops on arrival.
The “otherness” experience marked this trip throughout. Kosher is observed in all places, including major hotels, pork, mollusk, and shellfish are not served. As it was the Passover there was no bread during our meals, and beer can’t be served, though wine is permitted, and on the Shabbat, there was no hot meal, and the elevator was on automatic pilot, stopping on every floor. Business closed at 2 PM on Friday and didn’t reopen until sundown on Saturday, buses did not run. I wanted to fly out to Cairo from Tel Aviv on Friday. I had to take a 12:40 AM departure as there was no flight scheduled until Sunday. I inadvertently paid attention to treating my leg past 2 PM on Friday, and I couldn’t get my antibiotic prescription filled except in the Christian Arab section of Old Jerusalem. In Old Jerusalem, Orthodox, Hasidic, Ashkenazian, and Sephardic Jewish men wear their traditional clothing, it felt like you’re in a time warp. I contemplated in silence in front of the Western (Wailing) Wall, the Jewish holiest site, being cognizant of the separate men and women’s section, and according to tradition, inserted a small slip of paper in the stone crack where I wrote down my fervent wishes. The devout are very emotional in the wall, kissing and stroking the stone, crying, murmuring or transfixed in reverence. In August 2003 a Palestinian suicide bomber detonated in a bus carrying worshippers from the wall killing 20 and injuring many including children. There is a checkpoint and metal detector to go through before entering the Wall plaza.
In Egypt and Jordan, Muslim countries, the hijab, modest dressing for men and women, is most striking among the women, who wear long loose-fitting clothing and scarves that cover everything except the face and hands. It’s extreme practice is exemplified by women from Iran and Saudi Arabia, which observe Sharia law, they wear the burqa, black costume with complete body and face cover, leaving only small slits for the eyes. The men wear turbans and distinctive head gears and the loose fitting galabiyya. I was at an Arab restaurant and I can’t help staring at one of these burqa-clad women, to see how they will eat. To me, with great difficulty, as they pass the food under the veil. How will they ever eat a finger- licking- good Col. Sander’s fried chicken and enjoy it? Well, McDonald’s (with humus spread on the bread), Kentucky Fried Chicken, Burger King, Pizza Hut, and Starbuck’s are all over the place. The Muslims are not allowed to drink, so I was not able to enjoy my meals with wine.
I was enthralled by the idea of following the biblical events in these 3 countries, beginning with the exodus, where Moses led the Israelites from slavery in Egypt to the promised land, through the desert and mountains and the Red Sea. The Passover Seder with my friend in her kibbutz was particularly moving with its ceremony and symbolism. In Jordan you can actually step on the same ground Moses travelled in Mt. Nebo, where he received the 10 commandments, and from this perch, viewed the promised land and the Garden of Eden. I filled a plastic bottle of water from the Jordan River, where St. John the baptist baptized Jesus Christ. In Jerusalem on Good Friday, I meditated in the Garden of Gethsemane, in the Mount of Olives, where the Church of All Nations (Basilica of the Agony), Mary Magdalene’s Church, and the Dominus Flevit Church stand. In the afternoon I followed Jesus’ journey of the cross in the Via Dolorosa , the first 9 stations winding through the narrow and bustling alleys of the Arab bazaars in Old Jerusalem, and the last 5 in Golgotha. On the hill of calvary sits the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre, a complex of several churches joined together and controlled by various religious communities, the 3 major ones being the Franciscan order of the Roman Catholics, the Greek Orthodox and the Armenian Apostolic Churches. The 11th station site, where Jesus was nailed to the cross, is guarded by Roman Catholics, whereas on the spot where Jesus’ cross and the crosses of the 2 criminals were raised on Mt. Calvary is now a Greek Orthodox altar. The tomb is in the main rotunda, below the magnificent central dome of the basilica, within a small chapel, the tomb was carved out of the rock and now encased in marble. There is always a long line to enter the chapel to view the tomb. The various religious communities owning parts of the basilica are far from models of tolerance and peace. For centuries, they have squabbled over property rights to the point of violence and have never found a resolution beyond the status quo agreement forged centuries ago. A wooden ladder had stood on the front window ledge since the 19th century and remains to this day and since the area is common ground, nobody dares to touch the ladder for fear of retribution from the others.
On Easter Sunday, we braved crossing the security checkpoints to visit Bethlehem in the Palestinian territory. We learned that there are 3 levels of political authority in these areas, Israeli, Palestinian, and combinations. It is relatively safe for tourists to go to Bethlehem, they need the tourist currency, but it is dangerous for Israelis because of kidnapping potential. Attacks from terrorists have declined since the building of the border wall and instituting checkpoints, nevertheless our tour guide took precautions with some cloak and dagger maneuvers. At the Israeli checkpoint, she sat in the back of the bus and instructed us that she is a fellow tourist if questioned, and at the Palestinian checkpoint she got picked up by Palestinian Arab conspirators while we went through passport checks. We were taken in another vehicle after the border check and our tour guide joined us later. This was an exciting adventure in as much as the outcome was uneventful, except for some hard questioning by the Israeli police because I was transporting a big box, which contained the finely carved olive wood nativity set by Zacharia Bros. that I purchased to add to my collection. The Basilica of the Nativity is one of the oldest continuously used churches in the world. It is 2 churches joined together, the bigger one is Greek Orthodox and the other, St. Catherine’s is Catholic. It is built over the grotto, where Jesus was believed to have been born. I queued to view the underground cave, where tourists jostled for entrance, and the guards did not impose order but took requests from some tour guides to let their clients in with priority and I later learned that money changed hands to get this privilege, Again, as in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the various religious communities guarding this holy site, has a status quo arrangement that had been defined centuries ago. On the way to Ein Gev, a kibbutz resort on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, we passed Tiberias and Meggido, the latter the site where Armageddon was prophesied to take place. I strolled on the banks of the Sea of Galilee, in reality a lake fed by the Jordan river and underwater springs,the lowest freshwater lake in the world, 2nd only to the salinated Dead Sea. It was the Passover holiday, and families were gathered for swimming , a picnic, fishing, and boating. A couple of fishermen were casting their nets in the distance away from the holiday crowd. This is where Jesus recruited his disciples among the fishermen, performed the miracle of walking on water and of feeding the multitude from 5 loaves of bread and 2 fishes. I watched the sun set and the moon rise from the shore. We stopped at Capernaum, the old town of Jesus where he preached in the synagogue and performed miracles, viewed the excavation of St. Peter’s mother in law’s dwelling and paid respects in the modern church built over St. Peter’s house. In Nazareth we visited the Basilica of the Annunciation, a contemporary church built over a Byzantine and Crusader church and the grotto where the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she’ll give birth to Jesus. The interior of the church is decorated with mosaics of the annunciation donated by various countries. I located the US, Mexico and Japan inside the church and outside the church, in the patio, I located the Philippines. This and other holy sites are in earnest preparation for the Pope’s visit in May. In Caesarea, the Roman city built by Herod the Great, Pontius Pilate governed from this site in Jesus’ time.
I realize after this trip that I know little of these countries, and that my feeling of “otherness” stem from my ignorance of their history, culture, language, religion, and people. The Arabs, Muslims, Jews, Egyptians and various Christian sects who people these lands are strange to me and I do not understand their wars and religious beliefs and traditions. They have a completely different alphabet, language, and calendar. These are truly foreign lands and foreign people, but the conversations I had with hotel porters, taxi drivers, tour guides, and a couple of friends have a familiar theme that boils down to cultivating close family bonds, a good job, security from harm, a bright future for the children, and belief in a divine power that will ensure a state of blissfulness after one confronts his mortality.The stranger becomes oneself in the end.
Notes:Email sent to friends during my Trip to Israel,Egypt,Jordan, 2009
I’m winding my NYC stop over, just waiting for my shuttle pick up to JFK for my 12-hour flight to Tel Aviv. My friend said it’s best for me to rent a car, since public transportation in the kibbutz is uncertain because of Passover. So getting there in a taxi is out, looks like it will be OK to drive, my friend says there’s no way I can get lost into the Gaza strip, which is 1 Km away from the kibbutz Kissufim, I will surely know it, heh heh!
Had dinner at Mercer’s Kitchen in Soho with Ban and Lorets, I was upgraded to first class on the way over and this guy next to me who is a New Yorker recommended it, it was good, but very touristy, but he gave me a lot of pointers about Seder and Passover etiquette, so now you know he’s Jewish. Finally got to see a Wagner Ring performance, Die Walkure last night, at the MET, it was tooo long, 5 hours! Started at 6:30 PM I had midnight dinner at a pub next to Lincoln Center.
I’f you want to email me, use my yahoo address, email@example.com so I can get in in my cell.
I’ll keep y’all posted.
My flight to Tel Aviv was uneventful, however the plane was full with the holiday visits home. The young man seated next to me is Israeli and filled me up with all the wonderful things about living in Israel, he was very devout, as many of the passengers were, the men donned their prayer shawls and skullcaps and stood in the aisle at intervals to read from the torah. I have the young man’s phone number and we’ll have a drink with my friend in Tel Aviv. The customs was a breeze, Ben Gurion airport is very sleek, with the terminal in the middle and gates around like spokes in a wheel, everything is easy to find and everybody spoke English, renting the car was not a problem at all and I’ve got a GPS which I’ve named Golda, I still miss Petra.
The Seder was very beautiful, in its symbolism and ceremony, and the songs in between are very peppy, I felt like dancing, it’s like hava nagera.
My friend will take me around the kibbutz, she’s making Israeli breakfast with salad, eggs cheese bread, then we’ll drive to Jerusalem this afternoon. The kibbutz is building bomb shelters for every residence, and there are digging and construction all around. Gaza is a kilometer away, and missiles can reach here. Life goes on.
I didn’t realize I’ll be here in Jerusalem for Easter, but it just worked out nicely, how apropos indeed, and I was only looking forward to having Seder with my friend when I made my plans. We are a small group of 11, a couple from Australia, another couple from Ireland, 3 young misses from Ireland, 2 Filipina sisters from Los angeles and a young woman from New Jersey. Very amiable bunch, I’m getting along well with the NJ girl, and tolerating the older Pinoy sister who is a not cute drama queen, but the other sis is OK, anyway I’m practicing tolerance as my offering for Easter. You can’t help but try to be good here, just imagine walking on the same pavement as Jesus and all the holy men. The Jews are very devout and you really feel you are different here. Today is the sabbath, everything stops at 2 PM and all the Jews do their prayers at sundown when the first 3 stars are visible, a siren sounds to alert the faithful. I’ve had no bread since I arrived, it’s Passover, and all the hotels and many restaurants are kosher, you’ve got to go to the Arab quarter to get bread.
We viewed the Holocaust Museum and the Museum ofI Israel today. Maybe I’ll have better insight into their wars after this. I wandered into the alley bazars of the Old city this afternoon, a maze of narrow alleys with endless stalls of trinkets and blings and every stuff that can be sold, then into the fresh produce and wet market, then cavelike niches of restaurants, then alleys of candies and sweets and spices and oils and liniments. The Arab merchants are very pushy and into your face in soliciting your business, many even know Tagalog and can tell that I’m Pinay, very wily, I understand there’s a lot of overseas Filipino workers here, my friends mother’s caretaker were 2 Pinays.
I followed the Via dolorosa, the 14 stations of the cross, WOW! that was the same path that Jesus took on the way to Calvary, just awesome. It’s a little tricky to go to Bethlehem, because it’s in Palestinian territory, but there are ingenious ways to do it, and we’ll cross over on Sunday, to mark Easter, I’ll even go to mass there.
This is truly a different country with different ways. I had developed cellulitis of my right leg in the calf area, from an insect bite that I already was treating with topical triple antibiotic before I left Atlanta. It was just a tiny bump with redness around it then, it just progressed until my lower right leg was edematous and the bite area was indurated and red and looked very angry, I needed oral antibiotic, so I called for the hotel doctor, $160 room call, then about $45 for Cephaloxin, which I had to get in the old city, within the walls specifically through the Joppa gate, because it is sabbath, and most everything is closed, so I hope this will take care of it, heaven forbid should I require IV meds, I think I’ll be serious with my Holy week prayers.
We’ll be in Nazareth and Galilee tomorrow.
We’ve stopped by at this resort on the banks of the Sea of Galilee for 2 nights, operated by a kibbutz in Ein Gev. They have a mini market and has some good Israeli wines, and wines are kosher so we can have them. The sea which is really a lake is not much to swim in, but the shore is littered with Israeli holiday visitors. We visited Nazareth, which has a pharmacy so I was able to get an antihistamine to deal with the itching and random rashes which can be side effect to the antibiotic. Unless I start to get anaphylactic shock I’ll deal with this this way because the cellulitis is finally responding . So maybe I won’t have to worry about needing IV meds.
After Nazareth we stopped by Caparnaum, Cana, Tzaba, a center for Jewish mysticism and kabbalah, and on the Jordan border got off the bus to take a sample from the Jordan river. We had lunch of Peter’s fish (looks like tilapia, or a carp variety), grilled to perfection and accompanied by lemon garlic, olive oil sauce. This is an Arab christian restaurant so we had rice and beer. We viewed Golan heights along the way and can still see the bunkers used to protect from bombs. Everywhere you go are sites described in the Bible, and many have excavated ruins verifying the biblical events and protagonists, there’s none documenting god of course, but there are 3 religions with the same god who fight each other for being the true one. It seems the Arabs who can be muslims or christians but also Israeli citizens are tolerated but there’s not much mingling with the Jewish majority. We’ve been taking the hum of our daily lives for granted living in a majority christian country, and we say we have a secular governance but not really, our week and holidays are shaped by christian traditions, business close on Sundays, Christmas school closings and holiday celebration, etc. I’m on the other side here, and have to adjust to the Jewishness of everything.
This is the first country I visited where I really felt the being the other experience very sharply.
We’re checking out of the Galilee resort tomorrow and visit Caesaria, Acre and Tiiberias on the way to Tel Aviv.
It occurs to me, I’ve never had a Jewish friend, I wonder why? I’ve met many in my profession, and it remained a professional relationship.
I slept in late after that 1 AM flight from Israel to Cairo, arrived here 1 1/2 hours later, but didn’t get into the hotel until around 3:30 am. Getting a taxi from the airport is a hassle, there is no ground transportation counter and rates are not posted, you have to rely on your instinct to avoid being fleeced. I shared a taxi with a young couple winging it on their own, and found out later we made a good bargain.There were only 20 passengers from Israel but when we arrived in Cairo, there was the multitude emptying from another flight, in gallabiyas and veils and turbans and reeking of body odor jostling their way into the exit after passport control, without order, whoever comes first to the opening exits, such a contrast from the disciplined order at Ben Gurion airport. I don’t know where these people came from but they were pushing loads of cargo, up to six big piles, thick comforters, 2-3 at a time, big soft plastic bags of clothes pulled together with ropes, luggage, plastic riding toys. It seems there’s no baggage limit in this airline they got off from, beats the balikbayans and their boxes at Ninoy Aquino airport.
This Marriott Omar Khayyam is fabulous, a former palace, all gilt and lavish carvings and appointments, there’s a small casino too, I’ll just take it easy today, my allergic reaction to the antibiotic has gotten worse with huge welts and distal edema so I discontinued the antibiotic,I couldn’t get benadryl, not avialable here, and taking a new generation antihistamine which is not very effective. the cellulitis seems all cleared up, I’ve had 6 days dose of meds, hopefully it will be enough and the infection is eradicated. I hope to be better when our tour starts tomorrow, maybe I’ll get lucky in blackjack tonight
Left Cairo last night on the overnight train to Aswan. That was an experience after the Eurorail adventure last summer. We were on the sleeper cabin though so we didn’t have to jostle with the hoi polloi, but it was good trip to view the Egyptian countryside. The Egyptians are very friendly but pretty soon you realize it is for the tourist dollars, so I don’t know how friendly they really are. They have a modus operandi, asks where you’re from then say they know somebody from where you’re from, then pretty soon if you give them time they tell you their sad stories and expect a hefty tip afterwards. Well, the economy is bad, and with a city of 20 million people they have to survive in whatever way. But the offers of whatever is so insistent and close in your face, it loses its playfulness very quickly. Cairo is covered in soot and dust and the buldings are decaying. The Egyptians also have a peculiar custom of leaving the top floor of their houses unfinished with the steel rods exposed, for future finishing when the sons get married, plus they don’t have to pay taxes until the building is completed so the mass housing all around the city looks like unfinished houses, and peopla are living among the rubble. The Cairo cemetery is old and huge, and there are people living among the graves, a city among the dead.Aside from the government buildings and old palaces and high end hotels along the \nile Cairo is a city of rubble and and mass housing in perpetual construction.We’re in Aswan tonight and thenwill board our cruise ship on the \nile for \luxor and Edfu.
It is very hot in Aswan, the antiquities are so plentiful here, in Cairo the Egyptian museum has a whole wing of Tutankhamens treasures, it will take weeks to view them all. It’s not very comfortable to venture out on your own here, so I can only know the torurist places.
Cruising the Nile offers a vast landscape of golden wheat fields and goats grazing and graceful date palms, a narrow swath of green then arid desert beyond.
My cellulitis is resolved but \i have still the allegic response, thought the welts and edema have subsided, this trip has me challenged.
See y’all soon.
We arrived in Cairo this evening from Luxor, flew this time, an hour flight compared to the 14 hours trainto Aswan. The varied transport gave different views of the terrain. In flight you can see the expanse of the desert to the horizon, and the narrow strip of the Nile cutting a swath of greenery across the arid landscape. Well, the antiquities here is mind-boggling, you’ll never see them all in a visit. The Valley of the kings was immense, they have identified 80 plus tombsthere and excavations by various groups are ongoing and new tombs are being discovered everyday.Kernak, Philae,Abu Simbel, the Pyramids, Sphinx, Tutankhamun’s treasures,Ramses, etc,all spectacular. these antiquities rulers, just like the first Chinese emperor of the Terra cotta soldiers fame, unsurpassed in megalomania, well, they are gods or next to god after all.No one in modern times can match them in the scale of their ego, not Napoleon, not Hitler, not Bush (he heh) anyways, I’m all templed and tombed out, come to think of it I’ve been visiting sepulchres tombs and cities of the dead on this trip, how ghoulish and macabre. I’m ready to go back to the world of the living. It was so hot in Luxor, how’s the weather there?
I fly to Jordan tomorrow for a couple of days to see Petra and check Amman.
Seeing Cairo again after being away for a few days and looking at the city from the air, when you can not see the soot and rubble of the slums, and the press of the hoi polloi, and one cannot smell the body odor and the fumes, one can visualize that the city was once beautiful, with the Nile cutting a shimmering swatch in the middle spanned by bridges and lined by palaces and magnificent mosques and garden, looks like Paris. In colonial times with the Brits, they must have lived a grand life indeed, with the Egyptians serving tea and moving the breeze with hand held fans.
I had dinner of grilled pigeon, this is a delicacy here, households keep a pigeon house for this purpose. It was delicious but hard work to eat it, there’s barely any meat attached to the bones.
I’ll be home the 29th, en shala
I’m waiting for my flight back home should be in atlanta on Wednesday at 11:05 AM en shala!
Well, Jordan is a country about to join the tourist trade, there is construction aimed for the tourists all over, but they have a long way to go. Aside from Petra and Moses mountain and the baptism site of Jesus by the Jordan river and the Dead sea which it shares with Israel, there’s not much antiquities here after you’ve been to Egypt and Jerusalem. The bulk of Amman however is a new city with many shopping malls and a residential district for the rich and powerful with million dollar houses. There is a huge development in the middle of the city between the old district and the new that is a cicty within a city that is just like Atlantic station. The middle east is not merely building skyscrapers they are building cities with projected population up to 2 million. Consider that Jordan has merely 5 M population with 1.5 M concentrated in Amman, UAE Abu Dhabi and Dubai and Saudi Arabia, even Qatar are building megacities from the ground. We don’t hear of this much activity in the region in the US media, but it’s mind boggling here. Maybe I’ll finally have some ideas and remember where all these countries are in the map.
I met this Filipina from Sampaloc in the service desk here at the Amman Marriott, she’s married to a Jordanian who went to school in the Phil and lived there for 14 years and speaks fluent Tagalog! The wage here like hers is 300 JD Jordanian dinar ( $1.30 to JD1) per month, so life here is tough for the middle class. Cars are expensive, the affordable car for the populace is made in Korea, There are Palestinian settlements in the old city and it creates friction, however 1/5 of Jordanians are from Palestine and many are related, individuals weigh in on the Palestine/Israel conflict based on their personal relations. The newspapers have news about a journalist arrested for criticizing the parliament, filipino female domestic workers are blacklisted here because some entrepreneur brought them in and have them work as prostitutes, why they did not arrest the entrepreneur is another story. My imbibing friends will not survive here, alcohol is served only in major tourist places. I had dinner in an Arabian restaurant and many arabs dine there with their covered wives. I can’t help staring at how the women eat with their entire face except the eyes covered with black cloth, they slip the food under the veil, what a process.
I’m very glad to be going home, it was educational to see how people live here, which assures me that I will never live here.