chris willett

Thursday, August 03, 2006

More Grand Day Out

After about another 2 hours of steady cruising to the wailing tunes we climbed a mountain and pulled in at the top. We had done some hairy manouvers but the roads were exceptionally good without too much traffic so I was pretty cool. We stopped in a layby over looking the mountains and the fresh breeze made it a most excellent place. There were a few souvenir stands and I was wary of hawker tactics but they were happy to chat and very pleasant with it. Neve entertained us all by taking the non biodegradable foam coffee cups and attempting to throw them into the void. As they left his hands the wind caught them and propelled them back into him, the thick coffee grains staining his shirt and trousers quite nicely.

Back on the road again and Neve obviously knew a few short cuts and we whizzed through small villages scattering a mix of old folk, school kids or goats at every turn- I slid down into my seat so as not to be associated with him. Soon we arrived at the large car park outside Petra and hatched a vague plan which involved me returning after about 4 hours while he slept- well I think that was the plan. I knew I was tired but with 3 girlfriends to keep happy (not to mention the 9 kids) I guess he needed sleep more than me. At the entrance to Petra it was soon apparent that it was a quiet day- very quiet, like there were only 3 punters there- including me. Going through the usual Arab burocracy I paid the entrance fee and signed up for a guided tour partly because I hadn't done my homework on the place and frankly knew very little about it and also because I knew I would not be part of a huge group. The guide was friendly in a professional sort of way. English was his third language after Arabic and Italian but his delivery was fast and hence required a good deal of concentration- God knows how many times he'd delivered the same lines before. I waved away the kids and old men trying to sell me a horse ride to the entrance of the city which the guide commended me on because it was only a few hundred metres. The plan was that we would walk for 2 hours into the valley then he would leave me to walk out so I focused on what he was telling me, asked sensible questions and looked for good photo points which I would take on the way out. This seriously impressed him because it seems most people ignore him and see the whole thing through a camera screen without bothering to absorb some of the finer points he was trying to make. I won't go into the history of it now but suffice to say that the valley, an ancient motorway services had been influenced by every great civilisation in history Egyptian, Roman, Byzantine well loads! He asked questions of me which was novel (luckily I got most of them) and I picked up all sorts of interesting stuff like Romans built amphitheaters while everyone else dug them- amazing.

click on this one-the dog is good
So after the alloted 4 hours I duly made my way back to the car park and met Neve. "Get any sleep Neve?" He shook his head, held up his phone and said "hi larve you, hi larve you" which I took to mean he had been on the phone for 4 hours keeping his hareem happy- don't expect sympathy from me.

We jumped into the taxi, pushed our favourite (only) cassette into the stereo and headed off as usual at breakneck speed. I was somewhat tired, a little dehydrated and very much in need of a doze but concentrated for the first half hour because the back roads he took through the hills were so scenic. Eventually we hit the main road and Neve floored it, I could see the speedo rising and he was looking at me for some sort of reaction. Unfortunately the only one he got was my eyes closing and head nodding- I have been driven by some crazy people in my time and Neve had an open road. The more I slipped in and out of consciousness the more his pride in being a psycho driver was challenged and we got faster and faster the clock eventually hitting 200kph. I figured there were three ways this could end- we could crash and at this speed and surely die, I could tell him to slow down- couldn't be bothered or he could get bored and slow down- unlikely. But maybe there was fourth way...................

After a minutes talking to the officer he came back tothe car to get his docs and looked very worried- I was actually quite impressed. He had spotted the speck check from quite a way off and managed to scrub a fair amount of speed without it being too obvious- of course he was never going to get from 200 kph to 60kph. He chatted with the Police for another 20 minutes and came back smiling, he had phoned his Mum, his Mum had phoned one of the officer's Mums, the officer's Mum had phoned the officer and Neve walked free- I think I would rather have paid the fine!
We took off again stopping sometime later for the junction to Wadi Rum, a huge depression in the desert once roamed by Lawrence of Arabia and home to impressive rock formations.

He said "hou wan go Wadi Rum?" I said "how much?" He began writing figures in the dust on the dashboard- JD25 for him, JD10 to get into the area which is like a national park and JD30 for a one hour tour in his mate's 4X4. Stilted negotiations began and figures were crossed off and rewritten in the dust. I spoke to his boss and his mate and we settled on JD10 for the taxi, nothing to get in as we would sneak through a back road and JD20 for a two hour tour in the 4X4.
We drove to a nearby village and the back yard of Aslam, a dignified man with decent English and a brilliant white 'dish dash'. Aboard his aged Nissan we headed across the desert. By now I was flaking with hunger and had taken sufficient supplies for us all to share bread, tomatoes and fruit- this went down very well with my new best mates. We stopped at a rock bridge which Aslam suggested I climb so he could take a photo from below- while I was up there Neve shouted "Chris- bye" and made for the car laughing, my how we chortled.
We cruised around looking at one intersting feature after another- rocks shaped like pompous people, caves where Lawrence hid, water holes hundreds of feet deep and ancient scratches on stones which give details of how to get to Damascus or Mecca, how many camels you'll need, where to stop for lunch etc. A bit later Neve nipped off behind some rocks for a leak, when he was about 100 metres away I shouted "Neve- bye" and made for the car, he came running back giggling like a girl. After the tour was over we went back to Aslam's back yard- we waited outside while he got his wife out of sight and sat down for tea-I have develpoed a liking for black tea which has served me well in Borneo where milk is heavily sweetened- my Dad has always had it that way and I never understood why until now. We were joined by Aslam's kids and I got the distinct impression that this was not part of the normal tour, he was a gracious man and a good ambassador for the Arab World (Neve was just a character!)

We spent an agreeable few hours there before making tracks back to the border. At the border the over friendly police and customs guys asked about my day and suggested I return to see more of the country. They asked how much I paid for the taxi to Petra and when I hold them they said "good price". At the Israeli side the stupid girl in a uniform stamped my passport, this undid all the effort I had gone to to avoid getting it satmped in Tel Aviv and all the problems such a stamp can cause when travelling to a Muslim country.

After the short drive back to the hostel I was done in. A quick shower and out to my favourite noodle bar in Eilat, I knocked back 3 litres of lager, one of water and an ice coffee without it touching the sides. And off to my bed alone.

Monday, July 31, 2006


If you hadn't worked out by now I am running seriously behind keeping this Blog monster fed and have been working in Borneo for the past 7 weeks while trying and mostly failing to write up my notes from Israel. Meanwhile a war has been raging on the very ground which I described in the North of the country. Obvioulsy I am safe (about as safe as being 18,000 miles away will get you) but it does make my travels extra poignant for me.

I am amazed at how quickly things can turn bad and saddened by the fact that while I was there I got the feeling that things were on the mend, that Palestinians would recognise Israel and be rewarded with the independent state of Palestine but things have now regressed to pre Oslo agreement times reminiscant of the 70's- perhaps I am naive.

A Grand Day Out

This was the plan as devised by Dan (the plan man) and fine tuned by me. Get up early, drive out of Eilat to the border crossing with Jordan and get there before anyone else. Go across the border and find transport to Petra.
At the border my first objective- to get there first was partially compromised by a large group of Dutch tourists amongst whom I found myself. Had my Dutch been better I may have coinsidered infiltration- they had a guide, a bus and everything but I went instead to great pains not to be dragged along with them by the Israeli border staff. The border procedure was a series of windows which, a bit like McDonalds drive in had several which are never used and follow no logical sequence. At the window where I was to exchange shekels for Jordanian Dinar I was advised I would need JD5 for a taxi to Aquabar where for JD40 I could get a taxi to Petra- this would be doubled for a return trip ie JD100 plus JD21 to get into Petra. The down side to this is that the JD is not like the usual Mickey Mouse money but not far off the value of the Pound. After about an hour I had cleared the Israeli side, walked the 100 metres of no man's land watched by bored border guards who looked like they had spent their whole lives waiting to see an 'international incident'. On the Jordanian side they were over friendly with the undertone- 'why are you on holiday in Israel visiting Jordan and not the other way round?' Finally in Jordan with another stamp in my Passport I met Osama and his colleagues at the taxi rank. Negotiations for a return to Petra began at JD80, I offered JD50 and after a few minutes of haggling straight out of Life Of Brian we settled on JD60 return to the border- so that was JD50 saved straight away. I climbed into Osama's luxury vehicle and headed off- only to stop 2 miles down the road and be transferred to another car. This was slightly less luxurious and I was suspicious of a blag but it turned out that my new driver Neve was late for work and Osama (Neve's boss) was filling the hole.

So, we headed off down the airport road. At the end we had he choice of heading to Petra (about 2 1/2 hours away) or to Aquaba-5 minutes. Neve said "I show you Aquaba-10 JD" and we headed off-this was definitely a blag and there was no getting out of in. I salvaged something by saying "OK but you buy the teas!" With this we screeched to a halt and sat there for about 5 minutes as the traffic whistled by- then as if by magic a man appeared from no-where at my window with 2 cups of sweet black tea, which Neve dutifully paid for and we were off again. It was a whistelstop tour of the city as he pointed out the interesting , and not so interesting stuff. Clearly a local scrote he waved to all the Policemen he saw and they nodded back as if you say, 'I know you are taking the piss so I'll get you when you don't have a westerner in your taxi'. as we passed the bay he said "sweem?" and did a breastroke motion, I assumed he was asking if I swam and I said yes to keep it simple. One place he hadn't been swimming lately was his bath tub! We left the town and hit the open road to Petra.

It was quickly apparent that Neve had the afliction of a heavy right foot and no comprehension of advanced driving techniques like looking to see if anythingis coming before overtaking. Luckily I am a calm passenger and was totally knackered after my poor nights sleep and let him carry on.

Then it happened, I am usually security aware and the hairs on the back of my neck are well tuned to pick up danger signals. Here I was in Jordan with a criminal taxi driver and a a pocket full of money- then it happened and my worst fears were realised. He slowly reached down into a storage pocket in the centre console, and I couldn't see inside. His hand fished for something and as it came out the lid popped open and he was clutching it. Not a club- worse, not a knife, worse still, not a gun- I could deal with was an Arab music cassette and to top it all I could see it was his only one!!! He chucked it into the stereo and turned it up so it could be heard across the valley in Israel and began to whistle along with the wailing snake charmer style pipes.

After half an hour he said "you coffee"- his English was very poor but better than my Arabic. We pulled into a roadside cafe and pulled up a couple of chairs. While the coffee was brewing we were given some dodgy out of date cakes- see photo! You can also see the cuts on my leg from the Dead sea incident.

We headed off again, Neve and I were 'bonding' which is definitely a good knack to have when relying on taxi drivers in a strange country. I made him laugh and he wanted to chat- if only we spoke a common language.

"You harve wif?" "No I'm not married", "you harve gilfrend?" I reply "no." "Hi harve three, and nine keeds"- he then whips out snazziest mobile phone I have ever seen and dials a number, cradling the phone in his hand out in front of me so I can hear. A sleepy woman comes onto the speaker, Neve (still driving at about 150kph) cooes "hi larve you, hi larve you", the response in dozey Arabic sounds like 'what the hell are you calling me at his time of day for, you twat', he gives it one more "hi larve you" and hangs up. Next comes another voice, more awake but equally suprised "hi larve you, hi larve you", she giggles says something more amiable than the last one and hangs up. Still to prove the point he dials a third time and seems by the background noise to have got through to the local primary school. A fraught woman comes on "hi larve you, hi larve you" she tuts and next we are speaking to a 3 year old girl "hi larve you, hi larve you" (overtaking on blind bend), she giggles too and says "I love you, I love you" in good English before hanging up- "OK Neve, I believe you have 3 girlfriends- now can we go back to the right side of the road?"

To be continued...........

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

The Dash South

With En Gedi behind me there was nowhere to go but South, the objective being Eilat on the Red Sea and border with Jordan. It promised to be a full day driving but I had planned to break it up following a recommendation to go walking in the desert on the Southern tip of the Dead Sea. This area is strange because huge (and I mean really HUGE) areas are flooded then dyked off and the sea water allowed to evaporate leaving the mineral deposits.On the edge of all this is the Kibbutz Neot Hakkika where my friend Lor once worked and was recommended as a fascinating landscape to walk. More like a moonscape it is a range of desert with steep little gorges and canyons cut by flood water. Rising straight from what would have been the water's edge had it not been for the evaporation my plans for a walk across the top of it were thwarted by the fact that the sand was still damp and collapsed as soon as it tried to get up it. Eventually I realised that if I continued I was going to get buried and withdrew- which was a shame because it was supposed to be really good!

Back into the car and the prospect of another 4 hours down to Eilat through a baron desert wasteland inhabited by a few Kibbutzers, (who in hell would think "wow, this is a nice place let's move here" is beyond me but some were eaking out a meagre existence from the limited resources available) and some very delapidated and closed tourist attractions which with the battering sandy wind looked more like the sets from a Mad Max film. It was interesting to look across to my left for the whole journey and see Jordan again rising from sea level into pink mountains.

Most tourists visting Eilat would arrive at the grandly titled Eilat International Airport. The runway is a few feet from and parallel with the road in and the aircraft skim the tops of the highest buildings in the town before plonking onto the tarmc at the last second. This is pretty intimidating when driving into the town and you see a jet bearing down on you. The other downside is that the town smells constantly although in varying degrees of aviation fumes.

I found eventually, the TIC and got some details of hostels. Next door was a travel agent who got me a good deal on a b & b but it was near the bus station which put me off so I booked into the youth hostel which was very well located, well set up and very very cheap. The reason for this was that not only was I sharing a room with a complete stranger I was actually sharing a double bed with him- that's what they do in these places so I moved in and waited to see who my roomie would turn out to be. As it happened Guy was very nice and friendly, Israeli he had recently come back to his homeland after splitting up with his Irish wife one Kathleen O'Malley. He described her as crazy, I asked did she have "red hair and green eyes?" He said "yes, how did you know"- he obvioulsy hadn't met many crazy Irish women before. The downside, apart from sharing a bed with a bloke who hasn't even bought you a drink was that he worked on a seafront stall selling tribal jewellery until about 1am, then after a few beers which is only natural he rolled in about 3 am and slept until about midday. I on the other hand wanted to sleep at about 11pm and be up and about at about 7am- which meant we would interupt each other sufficiently to ensure very little sleep. I decided to lash out the extra 7 quid a night making it about 11) and have a room to myself, which was very nice, maybe I'm getting old!

Friday, July 14, 2006

Raid On En Gedi

That's a clever play on words by the way.
So, the morning after I arranged to meet Martina at 8.30 in the hostel's reception, she was there but somewhat troubled by my offer of a lift to EnGedi the previous evening. Since I was actually going there and she was worried about getting a bus offering a lift was the obvious thing to do. However, she was now having second thoughts- no problem, I went to get a coffee while she thought about it. On my return she was in a bigger tiz, I wasn't going to talk her into it either she wanted a lift or she didn't. She said she needed longer to think but I wanted to visit Bethlehem before leaving Jerusalem so I wasn't happy about hanging around. In the end she asked the manager of the hostel for her views. We had this strange scenario of Martina expressing her concerns in German as if I wasn't there while I stood behind her understanding every word. Sensibly the manager lady said it was entirely a matter for her and only Martina could decide but that accepting a lift seemed a reasonable thing to do. Martina decided to write my details in her note book which she then put back in her bag- God knows why, had I killed her in a layby that's the first thing I would have destroyed. Anyway, we finally set off for Bethlehem- it was shut. Well to be accurate, it was Saturday morning, the border guard was not interested, we couldn't take the car in so needed a taxi on the other side and he just didn't want the hassle. We stopped to juice up and stocked up with water and good coffee before hitting the road. I was fairly confident of my navigating having driven there but strangley missed my exit. Next thing I know there are burning cars on the roadside surrounded by youths throwing stones over a high metal fence- this looks just like Ramalah, occupied territory and hottest of the central Palestinian hotspots- excellent. Martina by now is having kittens so I give in to her pleas and turn around heading through the smoke and back the way we came. Stopped at a army checkpoint by an Israeli soldier more interested in eating pistachios, a flash of the passport and we are back on the road to En Gedi. I consider the whole thing a bit of a result, Martina on the other hand is on the verge of a breakdown. My suggestion that we stop off in Jericho on the way is not kindly looked upon.
We arrived in EnGedi youth hostel to find it deserted so go to the only other thing there, the small stoney beach on the Dead Sea.This created more problems as she wanted to go into the sea but she was worried about her bag. She suggested taking it to the water's edge but I stupidly pointed out that if somebody grabbed it while she was 50 metres out there wasn't much she could do about it. We managed to clip her bag with a karribiner to a lamp post and she was almost happy. The Dead Sea is an unusual experience the water is slighlty oily and not unpleasant unless you happen to get some in your mouth so conventional swimming is out of the question. You bob around relaxing and before long realise it is actually a bit boring- it'll be a long 3 weeks for Martina. It soon became apparent from the black kids running round that soemone had found some of the healing Dead sea mud and we decided to have a go. Martina insisted on watching the bags so I had the honour of scrabbling down the rocky beach. Like so many things in life you can learn a lot if you watch what everyone else is doing and copy them so it wasn't long before I was pulling out huge handfulls of black slime from a hole in the sea bed about 2 feet below the surface. Then one spreads it anywhere one can reach, without a mirror I only missed little bit. I knew it would be a major effort for Martina to dig the stuff out so I galliantly gathered up a huge double handful and took it back to her. This backfired when I stumbled and cut my leg open on the rocks, the salty water would had stung pretty badly if it were not for the protective coating of mud.

After an hour of letting it dry we washed off and called the hostel on my mobile. The receptionist said they had no room for me and did not have Martina's reservation. Considering she intended to stay 3 weeks this was a knockback to say the least. We went up there, I did the talking, within minutes I had a nice double room to myself and Martina had her dorm bed for the duration. This lost it's edge when she found she was sharing with a bunch of school children and warned she wouldn't get much sleep. After a chill out hour we met again and headed 20 minutes down the road to find somewhere to eat at the large hotel resort. Sadly the only option was McDonalds and though I vowed never to partake I really not no choice.

The next morning Martina hooked up with an Australian who had a very bad skin complaint and had been told to go and 'take the waters' to improve her condition. This was useful for Martina because the chances of finding a companion there were as remote as the location itself. We parted and I have no idea what God said to her and what she did about it...but I'd be interested- who wouldn't?

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Jerusalem day 2

I woke to the sound of the Mullah's call to prayer carrying across the roof tops and the sun blazing through the window, I had put in my trusty earplugs but I had a day in the Holiest city in the World and there was no time to sleep. After a most excellent DIY breakfast of fresh fruit and muesli bars and a sermon on the garden tomb from John (with the occasional mention of how everyone else staying there had experienced the joy of God) which I promised to visit I hit the streets. A little too early for all but the hardest hawkers (my brush off still working like a charm) I went to see the Wailing Wall- it was Muslim Friday and as a white European I was not allowed in, they wouldn't even accept a few 'Allah akbas' and I watched from without.
This had limited appeal and after some more brilliant advice from Dan hatched a plan to visit the new Holocaust Museum at Yad Vashem. Only trouble was my crappy guide book had only limited info, although it did have details on who had occupied the square foot of soil upon which I was standing 4 thousand years ago, which isn't terribly useful. No problem there though because I know where to find an Israeli TIC ha ha. After ten minutes of hawker dodging I was outside the little shop of horrors SHIIIIIIIIIIIIIT. It's Friday, the first day of the weekend (equivalent to our Saturday) not a holy day but a day when families get into their cars and drive to see interesting and historic places- what in God's name would they be requiring the services of a TIC for, so it was shut. Standing outside was a fellow selling walking tours and he eloquently gave me directions to the central bus station from where I could get to Yad Vashem. I thanked him for his politeness (he hadn't tried to sell me anything or drag me to look at his shop) to which he replied "I'm polite because I'm English", "and I appreciate it because I'm English".
A brisk walk through town and a quick cappucino was interesting and I was very relieved to be out of the pressure cooker that is the old city. The sun was turning the day hot and the hustle and bustle gave me the biggest feeling that I was somewhere different, amongst locals and not just tourists and those who prey upon them- Jerusalem was growing on me. I eventually found a bus stop with the required numbers atop and the helpful driver saved me 20 minutes of further walking to the central station. Busses are ubiquitous in J and armed security types hop randomely from one to another carrying out security checks and chatting to women. The thought of bombs never crossed my mind until mentioned by John and his wife later that day. I guess for them to even be out of the US is something and I'm sure it's only because God is 'on their side' that they travel at all. The bus dropped me about a mile from Yad Vashem and by now the sun was blazing. Having finally got through the predictably tough security I was impressed by the architecture of the complex and glad of it's air conditioning. The place is so new that they have not done the recorded tours yet- luckily they were unecessary. I group of Germans were beginning a tour which I found remarkable since the whole place was extravagantly dedicated to telling how they persecution the Jewish race for half a century and unilaterally attempted to eradicate what is now the Israeli populace. Anyway, slightly uncomfortable at being tall a fair and in a german speaking group I went with the flow which meanders through the history of the holocaust from inception to execution (literally). I actually found it so entralling that I was soon left behind by the group and sat to watch every video clip of survivors telling their stories. Deep in contemplation at about the halfway point I was nudged by a security guard and told that I had 20 minutes before they closed for the Sabbat'- it was 1.40 on Friday afternoon. Bummer, the best bit was ahead of me so I raced through scanning as much of the display info as possible and grabbed the last roll and an ice coffee from the expensive cafe on the way out. Another benevolent bus driver got me back into the city and as luck would have it I recognised the area as being near to a market Dan told me about- it's where hustle and bustle were invented to describe. I bought some pitas but the guy was too busy to take my money, another one short changed me on some grapes but I couldn't get his attention to sort it. Fresh fruit and veg were virtually free- like 1kg of strawberries for 40p and then what Dan had told me about happened- the religious guys came around and said it was time to close for the Sabbat' and close they did, everything was thrown or sold and the place was closed, just like that. It was an authentic Israeli moment.

I wandered back to the hostel and had a chill, challenged by John about the Garden Tomb, time was getting on so I fulfilled my obligations and went, he parted with a prayer to the Lord Jesus that I would see the light while there- which was nice. The garden is owned and run by a British charity and is based on the precept that Jesus was never crusified on a hill (it doesn't say that in the Bible, if you've read it) but at a cross roads just outside the garden The garden's owner whose name as usual escapes me took the corpse and put it in a tomb built into cliffs at the edge of the garden from where it disapppeared and all that. I infiltrated a group of Americans who threw in the odd 'alleluyah' and 'praise the lord' but were otherwise OK for the friendly presentation. The case (if you actually believe in resurrection) was strong and the whole experience interesting. I don't hold with any form of reincarnation- and I didn't last time I was alive either.

I went back to the hostel sure that John would be disappointed that I hadn't been converted. Back in the hostel's garden I got talking to my fellow traveller the German frauline Martina. The conversation, partly in German but mostly English eventually got round to the fact that she had given up her job as a civil engineer to go to the youth hostel En Gedi (there is nothing else there but desert) on the Dead Sea (and my next destination) because God had told her to. The talk was shortly interuppted by John's wife who decided to challenge my claim to be English because I didn't sound English to her- what can you say to that? Once there Martina would receive further instructions within 3 weeks- as you do! While a pleasant and genuine person there was, as you may expect something very odd about her- but I couldn't put my finger on it. Absolutely asexual she was feminine in a way, as tall as me but narrower in the shoulders and wider in the hips with remarkably big feet, she was soft and gentle and confident but not. I had planned to go to the Wailing wall again on Friday evening when it was the start of the Jewish Sabbat' proper and she joined me. As we sat in the public area in seemed and endless stream of men dressed in black coats entered and filled the huge square below the wall. Dana chuckled as she said that these holy men had originated in Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe where it was cold and for some reason they wore heavy black coats and black suits as their uniform- this backfired when they all moved to Israel but there was no religious mechanism for deciding on more suitable dress, so they suffered the heat.

We both marvelled at the lack of saftey consideration given to cramming about 4ooo people into a confined area in a city renowned for being a terrorist's playground. No emergency exits or anything but I guess they were being protected by a force higher than health and safety legislation. By the time things started winding down I was chilly and hungry and proposed we go for some food. Martina was thrilled- it transpired that she hadn't eaten for two days because she was 'uncomfortable' about going into a restaurant on her own. She had already become victim to the hawkers having been sold a set of plates she didn't want and since she was backpacking to a hostel wouldn't have for very long. I headed straight out of the city and to a local place by the Damascus gate. The only westerners in there I muddled through the Arabic menu and ordered for us both. The spread was impressive, the waiter jovial and the price agreeable- Martina said she would eat here always when in Jerusalem from now on, adventurer that she is. A walk back through the deserted and oddly lit streets was kind of spooky. Martina headed for bed but from the garden of the hostel I spotted a series or walkways and open areas on the rooftops. A brief investigation revealed a city above a city and a chance to try out the nightime mode on my camera.

Friday, June 30, 2006

Some Holy Land Jokes

Q. Who makes the ice cream is Israel?

A.Walls of Jericho

Customer; "Do you have a sheep's head?"

Butcher;"No, it's the way I part my hair!"

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

I don't like Jerusalem

The next morning and I was ready for the most excellent breakfast served in the Kibbutz cafe (included in the price of my log cabin and the swimming pool, and the lagoon complex, and the Australian wildlife park and a whole load of other stuff for about 29 quid). Being on my own made me the perfect candidate for chatter with one of the serving wenches who said I would be crazy to leave without taking a dip in the lagoons. The conversation ended abruptly when I failed to appreciate that the chilli sauce I had daubed on my omelette was made out of radioactive chillis and nearly choked as I broke out in a violent sweat. Curse those chillis and curse that woman too- two hours after I had left for Jerusalem I was still lounging in the lagoon complex- ah well I'm on holiday. I also got to play underwater with my new camera for the first time and discovered that although there aren't so many ankle biting dogs around here there are ankle biting fish.

Finally I drove to Jerusalem, a journey punctuated by mobile Army check points (set up without notice at choke points overlooked by armoured vehicles). Navigating into the city wasn't so bad and I went straight to the old city having found not only a useful parking space just outside but one with time still on the meter. Where would I go first...yep, the TIC which was typically difficult. The guide book and maps said there was one in the Civic centre- but there wasn't, imagine how happy I was after a good half hour of forlorn searching to find one just inside the old city where the maps predicted. I entered to find a very small office staffed by three octogenerians- one of whom was the security guard who made a weak attempt at searching bags as people hassled his colleagues with outrageous requests like mine. I was tempted to point out the futility of searching for bombs once inside but that would have been uncharitable so I focused on getting served. "can you recommend a clean backpackers hostel, please", old lady looks at map of city, babbles in Hebrew to accomplice and after sufficient time to make me wonder if I have disappeared says "no". I take a couple of breaths and determined to control the sarcasm aching to burst out of me say "OK, do you have details of any backpackers or cheap hotels?"Reply "no", this time I let the silence work and just stand there saying nothing, confident she'll find this uncomfortable before I do- she does and suggests I talk to another lady who is walking around the small shop with a trail of tourists behind her vieing for attention. Hmm, I pick up a South African twang in her voice and mimic it with 'excuse me" in my best SA accent, this had the desired effect and she instantly satisfies me with a list of places and a recommendation to try the Lutheran Hostel. "Excellent, can you suggest a good place to park if I stay there?", "this lady will help you" and refers me back to the half wit I initially spoke to, okayyy- "me again, can you suggest a good place to park over night?" Reply, "overnight you say, not really", fu****ng hell! Go back to South African lady tell her of predicament, she says "what! I heard her giving someone directions to car parks just before you walked in" directions duly given I stagger out into the afternoon heat and think 'I don't like Jerusalem'.

Knowing that after this pantomine I have about 20 minutes on the parking meter I return to the car and grab some lunch, sitting on a bench near the car so I can jump up and move it if necessary while eating. I then move the car to the car park in the Old City knowing that it will cost a bit but accutely aware that if I park in a commercial one until the next morning it's going to get locked in because tomorrow is Friday- the Sabbat' starts at 4 pm. So, I drove through the medieval gated tower into the old city and slowly progress past the TIC. Next thing I have a total stranger siting in the passenger street, he's Arab, about 45, well turned out in smart pants and a tidy polo but he desperately needs a shave and a trip to the dentist. Anyway, he says "you go car park?", naturally I answer in the affirmative because I am and he festoons me with directions. "now listen matey, I didn't suffer at the hands of the TIC for nothing, I'm going to the car park and I know exactly where it is", he was too busy chopsing off about me buying carpets and jewellry for my girlfriend to assimilate so to the car park he came. At the car park he jumped out as if to do a deal with the attendant on my behalf, he was very good because he got me the same price it said on a huge board at the entrance (as a note I was paying more to put the car in a bay overnight than I was to put myself in a bed overnight). Having locked up I grabbed my bag and walked off as my new buddy flitted around me. As luck would have it we passed his shop which was locked up, he opened specially for me and then suggested every dust covered item was perfect for me. Gradually his ardour was broken down as it dawned on him that I would not be buying his entire stock for my many wives today, when finally I even declined a sun bleached postcard he began to cry. He sat sobbing into his hands wailing "not even a tip, and I walked all that way". Well not to be totally heartless I did give hime a tip, two in fact "if your shop was open and you were in it you may sell more than running around jumping into people's cars- oh and don't plant your begonias too soon or the frost will have them".
I went and found the hostel which was sufficient and cheap at a fiver a night with a lovely roof top garden. The journey to and from was plagued by hawkers like my friend who believed a sideways glance at their wares as you walked by was a binding contract to trade. I found that cheerfully and confidently saying "I'm not shopping, thanks" was more effective than ignoring them which suggested they should do more to get your attention before you passed onto the next one in the never ending line. I don't like Jerusalem.
By now it was dark and the town looked even more ancient under the light of the full moon. I went for some food, picking an Armenian restaurant in the Armenian quarter. It was crap, and expensive crap at that, despite the chill of the night I sat outside, when passing tourists stopped to peruse the menu proffered by the fat surly waiter I could pull detering faces behind his back and they would move on. Life I have decided, is about scoring little points when you can.
I went back to the hostel to write up my journal. In the common area my fellow guests were in deep religious conversation led by John from California. He came over to me to say hello and within about 10 seconds asked me if I had found God- obvioulsy I said "no" but held back with- if you can't find him I strongly suggest you check out the TIC in Nazareth. Spotting his opportunity for a little soul saving before bedtime he continued "Jesus was this guy who lived over 2000 years ago......" No shit, I wondered what all the fuss was about here. He continued to tell me with a string of contradictions that Jesus was God and Christ was the son of God and the holy ghost was something else and I would continue to live in darkness until I gave myself to God when I would see the light and Jesus would take away my sins and much much more. If I were not the polite gentleman I am (deep down, honest) I would have ripped into him but it was late and I had a tough afternoon so I made the mistake of nodding and hmmming. He then introduced me to all the other guests "this is Chris, he hasn't read the Bible yet", cheers. Time for bed still not liking Jerusalem.

Got something to hide????????

I don't mean you've got more skelingtons in your closet than a politician, I mean you've nicked the Mona Lisa and you need somewhere to keep it safe till you find a buyer or it's getting near Christmas and the kids are tearing the house apart looking for their presents when you are out.
Well....I have a cunning plan..........
Nazaret' (remember we talk Gangsta now and don't pronounce the last letter in words wit a TH at the end).
It wasn't mentioned in the Bible- unlike most of the buildings in Nazaret' but it was mentioned by Simon and Garfunkel in their song 'Mrs Robinson', "hide it in a hiding place where no-one ever goes".......Just to add that certain something, unlike most good hiding places this actually has huge roadsigns indicating that not only does such a place exist but gives a hint as to in which direction it lies....can you tell what it is yet???

It's the tourist information centre.....oh yes...on the outskirts of town you are given a little confidence that you'll be guided to it's very door and there's a fair chance that it may even be open and not staffed by batty old women (see Jerusalem). It's only when Nazaret's ring road fires you into a labyrinthine sytem of one way cobbled streets and you begin to wonder if you'll ever get out again never mind find the TIC. Anyway, I found an excellent free backstreet parking place and went walking for that elusive TIC. On my way I came across the Orthodox Christian church- very nice if slightly cluttered (just like the ones I went into in Romania last Easter). I came across a cave which judging by the monumantal arches built to protect it was the site of something significant- shame it smelt like the stairwell of a 60's multi storey car park. I came across a street of car repair shops- each specialising in something different and nothing overlapped. There were exhaust places, brake places, suspension and welding shops- most of them full of grubby guys waiting for some business. waiting for business seems to be the major way of spending time here. Given that, the shop specialising in vehicle upholstery was the winner, those guys had very nice car seats upon which to lounge while they waited for business which I suspected would be a long time in coming.
I came across another market but unlike the one in Akko the tourists appeared to have found it, shops selling mobile phones and fake trainers vied for frontage. I decided to buy myself a vest (which in common slang is known as a 'wife beater') and found a stall with some displayed for NIS10- a couple of quid. The stallholder man spoke a little English, well enough to ask what a vest was called in English- well obviously a 'wife beater'. My joke went a little too far when he asked me to write it large on a piece of card to enhance his display, I should have taken a photo "wife beater NIS10" will get him some interest.

I tagged onto a group of middle aged English women (all 'churchy' types so I didn't look a bit out of place) and their excellent guide to get into the church of the Enunciation (or similar). The guide pointed out the most fantastic mosaic diplays provided by 100 different countries- when I say fantastic I gawped in awe at the beauty and marvelled at the skill used to make some of them. When the group stopped every 5 minutes for a reading I decided we should part company just in case it came round to my turn and I did the rest alone. The church, like so many was architecturally impressive and at three storeys high had a shaft from top to bottom lighting the cave at the base where the enunciation took place. As I so often do in such places I sat in deep contemplation interupted by a bit of people watching. It never ceases to sadden me (especially at the Vatican) how such oppulent religious buildings were built in a time and place where the money could have been used for something so much better. The poorest of people give what they can't afford because they are told it will save their souls or whatever.

The church exited on the top floor and hence higher up the hill and I went for a random wander around the backstreets and found a proper Souk market where nobody hassled me and I could poke around as I wished. Click on photo to see the Ibex.
By now I had seen everything Nazaret' had to offer and still not found the TIC. Time to leave.
South to Bet Shean and one of my best overnights, the town is obviously up and coming, surrounded by lakes and fertile fields. I picked a Kibbutz to stay at and followed a track through it's farm and factory parts (every Kibbutz has a farm and a factory) to turn up in a village of log cabins and blue lagoons fed by a spring within the grounds. It really was a great place to stay- never mind live. After driving out into the country to see the ruins of the original Belvoir Castle (it was shut) I raced back into Bet Shean to pick up some beer and pizza which I scoffed on my terrace before catching up with an episode of Extras on my Sky TV, a whole series I missed through the winter.