Having slept five hours, I’m back at the Grand Beach Hotel in Tel Aviv to be picked up for my second day tour by Tourist Israel. After yesterday’s C-/D+ experience I don’t hold out much hope. But perhaps lowered expectations will yield a better time.
Here’s today’s itinerary.
From my paper voucher however there are a few signs of bumps in the road… some fees are listed in Israeli New Shekels whilebothers are in US Dollars. And the multitude of question marks by the hotel pickup can only be described as, well, WTF?????
Allow me to introduce my driver/guide. Elijah (or Eli for short) tells us he grew up in a kibbutz, the Russian popularized socialist commune wherein everybody worked for the good of the community and served to help each other. At least that’s what it says in theory. Eli had never used money as a child, using a coupon book for all he needed at the local stores. I wanted to ask if a coupon wasn’t a form of currency and therefore money but I couldn’t get a word in edge wise. Anyway, Eli didn’t use money either when he went to serve his mandatory tour with the Israeli military. After they, his bother who had emigrated to Los Angeles, California, invited him to visit. The day his brother showed Eli what $20,000 in cash looked like, that was the day he was done with communism. Again, I have many questions (like, ‘wait – WHY did your brother have 20k in cash?!’) but didn’t get a chance to ask.
So here’s the bottom line review: up until the drive back, this tour turned out to be a solid B. The guide/driver actually talked during the long stretches in the bus AND provides commentary when we were at sights. How novel. There were a few hiccups to be sure. I was in the back of the bus and couldn’t see if he did point when he said things to see which were “over here” or “over there” whilst driving. And with only a marginally late start of a 15 minute delay, we are still going to be 90 minutes late back to Tel Aviv. Sigh. And then there’s the fact that I overpaid for a falafel sandwich to eat on the 2.5 hour plus drive back to Jerusalem (never mind the hour plus to then get back to Tel Aviv and the hour walk back to my AirBNB). I wasn’t sure when I’d eat otherwise; it was a pricey audible call.
In an effort to maximize time and minimize traffic (an effort that proved fruitless), Elijah our driver opted to rearrange the stops listed on the itinerary above.
We started with the overlook at the St George Monastery. Bedouins were out in force to offer donkey transport down to and back up from the monastery proper. Our group however just hiked a ridge line to an overlook.
FYI: I’m having a fat day (my belt is struggling to even be on the largest hole and I’m feeling the weight). My hair is in one of its “toupee of the morning to you too!” moods. As a result I’m hating most of the selfie shots of the day but documentaries require at least an approximation of verisimilitude so I’ll post them anyway. But know that I’m embarrassed and unhappy with the way I look.
From the monastery we drove through the River Jordan Valley, destined for the Baptism Site at Yardenit. Taking Road 19, we were so close to the Israeli/Jordanian border (Post 1967 Six Days War) that we could practically touch the low wire fence. But Eli didn’t recommend it. It doesn’t look too intimidating and they don’t have a lot of problems he says but that’s because it’s one of the most technologically advanced borders. This isn’t surprising as Israel has built a reputation for constant vigilance and readiness to retaliate if it feels its sovereignty is threatened. Eli says the response isn’t within minutes; that’s too long. Israel can scramble jets and fighters and counterattacks within seconds. And in the first instance of Trumpian phraseology, Eli told us, “believe me. This is true.” More on that in a moment,
Crossing the River Jordan takes seconds as apparently as its widest it’s no more than 5 meters across. Eli tells us to remember that in biblical times knowledge of the greater, wider world made for a different perspective. So every stream of water seemed a river (eg the Jordan River), every lake seemed a sea (eg Sea of Galilee).
We stopped for half an hour at Yardenit the major baptism site (Jesus was baptized here! So was George Lopez! And Jean Claude Van Damme’s been here too! And many others!).
These ducks – totally saved.
But here are a few of the more standard shots:
The gift shop had some choice souvenirs I felt needed to be documented. River Jordan Water Bottles, both filled and empty, were for sale.
And then there was the Israeli wine. Overcoming the farming challenges in a desert, rocky land, Israel has, according to Eli, developed Agro-technology that is the envy of the world. And so they grow everything from avocados and bananas to eggplants and zucchini. And they grow grapes which has lead to a number of Israeli vineyards. These vineyards have tried to capitalize on the loaves and fishes miracle that Jesus supposedly performed in nearby Kafr Kanna.
We drove on to the Sea of Galilee, which as Eli said earlier, is actually better described as a lake. It was here that miracles of the New Testament occurred – Jesus walks on water, the loaves and fishes to feed the 5000, etc. There are lots of grade A biblical locations here, making it the most beautiful sea in the world … “if you have the faith,” Eli says. It’s nothing compared to other lakes in the world maybe but its storied history and religious significance makes it beautiful beyond words to those that believe.
For the low, low price of five shekels we gain entry to Capernaum, better known as Jesus Town. This is where Jesus lived after being kicked out as a heretic from Nazareth.
How do we know the specific spots where claims are made for events happening? Some of it is topographical clues in the Bible itself. Some of it is archeological excavations. Some of it is oral tradition/history. That last bit is obviously dubious – what has been claimed doesn’t always make it 100% accurate (I’m looking at you earth is flat. And you, Plymouth Rock. And so many other things). But a lot of it is based on faith. Take a grain of salt for some of the claims. For example, in Nazareth there’s a Christian claim for Mary being visited by the angels at the Church of the Annunciation. But then there’s a Greek Orthodoxy Church 300 meters away that claims no, no – Mary was told at THIS spot. Eli reminded us that what’s the story? Depends on who you ask. But he was pretty clear on where he thought things went down.
And he clearly thought one of the best fish places in Israel was St Peter’s Restaurant on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. He and every other guide I guess think this as the parking lot was filled with tour buses. For the overpriced 80 shekels it was ok and admittedly filling but I wouldn’t call it the greatest of all time. Nice view though of the Sea of Galilee (this is where the above pic of the Sea of G was taken).
The final stop of the day was in Nazareth and Jesus’s hometown. We stopped at the Church of the Annunciation which purports to have been built on Mother Mary’s house (see caveats above).
Waiting in line to see Mary’s Place…
Also near Mary’s Place is a second level church showing depictions of the Blessed Virgin receiving news of her pregnancy… and they are sent in from all over the world. As Eli pointed out, each nation sees the characters in their own image, as Eli said they should be because God makes up us all. He though chuckled when he pointed to the Japanese mosaic.
Me? I had a special place in my heart for the Terminator styled Mary from where else? The Good Ol’ US of A:
We then popped over to the apparent home of Joseph, not too far from Mary’s. Was it psychologist Theodore Newcomb who posited that the first principle in establishing interpersonal relationships and “love” is proximity?
This hole we’re staring into is apparently Joseph’s house. I took a photo… and then took a photo of all the tourists after me doing the same thing.
Anyhoo, by this late stage in the tour I was pretty religioned out. I know hanging out in a focal point for various world religions lends itself to detailed discussions of history and religion and traipsing through various holy spots but, man, so much church. So much synagogue. So much mosque.
I did appreciate the spin Eli put on life in Israel. He says 99% of the time it’s all good and people live and work together. He cited mosques in close proximity to churches and synagogues, the free flow of 300,000
Palestinians commuting into Israel work daily, to cars marked by their origin (yellow plates are Israeli, blue or white with green text are Palestinans) able to drive the same roads at times. And yet ten people and a camera can alter the world view. I see what he’s saying but I also see the bias and Trumpian “fake news” rhetoric in different words.
The biggest double take moment for me came with Eli’s further elaboration on faith outside the Church of the Annunciation. Thanks edifice there now was built in 1967 but it was put on top of the original churches that had been there for centuries. His argument was that it was true for a variety of reasons. The Bible provides topographical clues. Nazareth of today has archaeological evidence to prove it was a Jewish Town at that time. There were no pig bones amongst the food excavations, which means the people didn’t eat pork, which means it was a Jewish town 2000 years ago. Greek orthodoxy then claims 300 meters away is where Mary had her baby news but that group was founded about 700 years after people had been saying its here at this church. What it came down to for Eli was, lIf you have faith then believe me it’s true.”
I bit my tongue.
Eli went on to say we all need faith, something to believe in, whether it is god, allah, Buddha, whatever. We need something to believe in or else we are lost, he said.
I’m tapping this all out quickly on my iPhone as the sunsets and we drive the long road back to Jerusalem. What is fact? It’s different than truth, as Professor Indiana Jones tells his class in The Last Crusade. For me, I’ve about had my fill of this.
I choose a different pilgrimage. I choose the Star Wars Tour of Tunisia. Is that blasphemous that I look far more forward to that than to another church or rock outcropping or cave that make up for many the Greatest Story Ever Told? I’m not saying Star Wars is the greatest, but it’s darn good for me.
Ramblingly and sacrilegiously submitted a few hours before my Tel Aviv Marathon,
I tapped out too soon. This tour just fell to a C-minus. Because Eli didn’t have enough gas we have to go a longer way with more petrol stations. This at best I won’t get back to Tel Aviv until 10pm. Three hours later than scheduled. So I’ll be at my AirBNB at 11 with a 4 am wake up for the race.
I can hear the religious peanut gallery now. “That’s what you get for blasphemy!”
As I walked back to my AirBNB, I saw this sign of the times… a sign for what will be tomorrow…