Tuesday, November 20, 2012

A Poem on the Occasion of our Farewell Dinner

November 7-19, 2012

How swiftly thirteen days have flown,
While seeing sites we’ve always known
From Bible stories often read,
And pictured vaguely in our head.

We’ve sailed the Sea of Galilee,
And seen a real acacia tree,
We’ve tasted many a hot falafel,
Which, by the seventh time, was awful.

The rainy weather seemed quite serious
As we drove out to see Tiberius,
But as the days at length progressed,
By sunshine we were also blessed.

Our learned leader, Gila Yudnik,
Taught us words like “tel” and “nudnik”.
To 38 she daily counted
When on the bus we all were mounted.

Who can forget “eh, OK folks”
Or her delightful tales and jokes?
And, while great facts she was conveying,
She often quipped “do you know what I’m saying?”

And how we valued our Rafik,
Who drove us through some tight traffique,
Around sharp corners took the bus,
And never once let out a cuss!

Our visits to the holy places
Put us through our Bible paces,
From Gilead to Jericho
There’s so much more that we now know!

Our thanks to Heather, Peter too,
Who kept track of our motley crew,
No detail was to them too small
We really loved our wake-up call.

So Gila, Rafik, Peter, Heather,
Who soldiered on in any weather,
Thanks for all the work and fun
And may God bless you every one.

Monday, November 19, 2012

On Canadian soil!

Monday, November 19, 2012
Ottawa -- We are home! Our watches are telling us that, from the Jerusalem hotel this morning to our easy chairs in our family room at home, we’ve been on the go for 23 hours. Sleep is unlikely for a while, so I thought I’d post today's adventures, for adventures we have had.

A regimented assembly of suitcases sat outside the hotel in Jerusalem this morning as we gathered one last time to board our bus for Ben Gurion Airport. Except for two couples who had other travel plans, the Craig Tour group boarded the bus, once Gila untangled a jam of tour buses clogging the hotel entryway and got ours to the front. Then, with our capable driver Rafik at the wheel, we worked our way through morning traffic in Jerusalem and out toward Tel Aviv.

It was about an hour's drive, and we had plenty of time before our flight, but as usual, our guide Gila made sure things would go as smoothly as possible. She told us what to expect at the airport security -- someone would be selected from the group to answer questions about our travels in the country and what items we might be taking away with us. Wouldn't you know, Val was the chosen one! He had a friendly interview with the security guard and then rejoined the group. Then, once again, he was chosen, as were some others, to have their bags more closely inspected before checking in at the airline counter.

Having said our farewells to Rafik and Gila, we headed through to the gate and watched the clock tick well past the appointed hour for boarding – even the new time for boarding, as the flight departure time was delayed from 12:45 to 1:30. Finally, we all filed on to the plane, got settled into our seats (Val and I were next to each other this time!) and waited for takeoff. And waited. And waited. Then the captain came on the PA system to tell us that Ben Gurion Airport had been closed! It would be at least an hour before we could take off.

We were unsettled by this news, to say the least, but a few minutes later we were told that the delay had nothing to do with the unrest in the country. We didn’t believe that for a minute, but it calmed some of the more anxious passengers! The staff came around and gave us pretzels and water and we sat on the tarmac.

It was almost a quarter past three before we got the go-ahead, and I must say it was quite a relief when I heard the wheels fold up into the plane’s belly and saw the troubled city of Tel Aviv drop away below us. I was also really glad we’d picked up a sandwich to munch on before we boarded.

Our flight took us over Greece, Italy, northeastern Europe, the British Isles, the North Atlantic, passing Iceland and northern Labrador and finally to Toronto. It really seemed to go on forever! In the course of our 12-hour flight, we were served dinner, then a sandwich and then, just when we were thinking about breakfast, we got dinner again.

With grateful hearts, we heard the captain welcome us to Canada as we descended to Pearson Airport in Toronto. The five-hour wait we expected between our arrival there and our departure for Ottawa had shrunk to less than two with our delays at the start of the day, so it didn’t seem long before we boarded for the last leg of the journey.

What a pleasure it was to land in Ottawa, find our bags, file out to the taxi stand and, finally put the key in the lock of our lovely home in beautiful, peaceful Canada! It was an unforgettable trip, and we are so grateful for the experience. It is also really, really good to be home.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Prayers for peace

Sunday, November 18, 2012
Jerusalem – For the first time since our arrival, we had no wake-up call and no rendez-vous with the bus this morning. We were on our own! And wouldn’t you know, I woke up wide-eyed at 6:05 am anyway.

We had a leisurely breakfast in the dining room and then met up with the Anglicans of the group to walk over to St. George’s Cathedral, just across the way from the hotel. An Arabic service was wrapping up as we arrived in the courtyard, so we waited a few minutes before going in to take a seat.

As we looked about and settled ourselves, the rector came down the aisle looking for a woman to read one of the lessons, so I volunteered. It was an honour to participate in this way, but I wished they had provided a step-stool when I got up to the lectern; I doubt anyone could see my face! However, there was a mike that seemed to pick up my voice all right, which was a good thing because it was the reading from Hebrews that went on at some length. Fortunately, I had been given the sheet of paper ahead of time so I could hold it at my eye level instead of straining to read it from a book that would have been placed too high.

Having seen, in so many places around Jerusalem and beyond, ruins of historic sites, not to mention the ominous news reports of new hostilities, the Gospel reading resonated greatly, when Jesus said not one stone would remain on another, and that there would be wars and rumours of wars in the time of tribulation. Then again, almost everything in the service resonated, as we worshiped in the Holy City of Jerusalem and sang of places we’d only just visited in previous days.

After the service, we went back to change and caught the free hotel shuttle bus to the Jaffa Gate. Sunday is a regular business day in Jerusalem, so everything was bustling as normal in the Old City. At the Jaffa Gate is the Tower of King David Museum, which we decided to tour with another couple from our group. It also had a small café, so we had a bite of lunch before having a look around.

In imaginative and entertaining ways, the museum designers brought us through the continuum of time from the city’s earliest days to the present. It was amazing to see how many iterations the city and its sacred places had had over the centuries. The Babylonians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantine Christians, the Muslims, the Crusaders, the Muslims again, the Europeans and the British and now the citizens of Israel – all had claimed the city as their own and established themselves for periods of time – and how many of those periods saw one stone thrown down from another and then rebuilt?

One of the comments about the current hostilities that we heard was that it took a lot of nerve, last week, to send a rocket in the direction of Jerusalem (it landed harmlessly outside the city). As a holy shrine for the world’s three major faiths, no one would believe that any group in this part of the world would dare to attack it, lest they desecrate their own sacred places.

We can hope this remains the case, but history tells us otherwise. Hence the ongoing refrain, “pray for the peace of Jerusalem”. Amen.

Tonight is our closing banquet, and then we will be packing our bags and heading home. It’s been a fabulous visit, and undoubtedly we have some adventures ahead of us as we head for the airport in the morning. We know we will never forget all the places we’ve seen and friends we’ve made. Stay tuned for the final chapter!

Saturday, November 17, 2012

The lowest point on earth

Saturday, November 17, 2012
Jerusalem – Today we went from one of the highest vantage points in the region, Masada, to the Dead Sea, at the lowest elevation in the world. Our bus left Jerusalem and descended through huge barren tracts of dry, rocky wilderness to a point, at the end of our day, that was 1,373 feet below sea level.

Our first destination was the furthest – Masada, at the south end of the Dead Sea, where Herod had built himself a palace on a high plateau. The mountain he picked stood alone, so that on all sides it would be a very difficult climb for an invading army. The invading tourists have an easier time of it, at least since 1998, when a cable car was built to carry visitors to the top. Brave souls could hike up the zigzag Snake Path, but we preferred the three-minute rise, even if it meant squeezing into the cable car like sardines.

A brisk wind whipped at us at the top, but it wasn’t chilly at all. There was enough flat land on top – 18 acres – for a small village, and we saw the storehouses, baths and other parts of the ruins that Herod built a century before Christ. The better-known Masada story took place in 72 AD when the last Jewish rebels took refuge from the Roman armies there and endured a long siege, sustained by water in great cisterns and food stores they brought in or cultivated.

When the Romans built a ramp up one side, Elazar Ben-Yair, the leader of the Jews, exhorted everyone to commit suicide rather than be enslaved. The men killed their wives and children, and then drew lots to choose 10 who would kill the other men. The final lottery selected one to kill the 10 and then fall on his own sword. Small clay shards with the names of the 10 were found in the ruins. We know the story because during the mass suicide two women and five children hid in one of the cisterns.

The view from the top was fantastic. We could see the hills of Moab (now Jordan) on the far side of the Dead Sea as well as a few oases providing spots of green in a vast and barren landscape. Israeli irrigation projects have allowed large groves of date palms and table grapes to flourish in the area, which have become a good source of revenue.

One of the oases, Ein Gedi, was our next stop. We were treated to a small parade of native ibex just after we got off the bus – nine of them, including a male with magnificent curved horns, trotted past against the tan background that matched their hides exactly. On their legs they sported white and black markings that looked like socks. Just a bit further along the path, we spotted the small native rodent-like animal, the hyrax, sunning itself on a rock. Both these animals are named in the Bible, and Gila read the passages out to us.

Down the way we could hear the wonderful splashing sound of fresh water– so unexpected in the dry rocky surroundings! And there, in the midst of a great desert area, was a rushing waterfall coming out of the rock, and in the pool below there were tall reeds and green shrubs. Butterflies danced above the reeds, birds dipped their beaks in the water and a lone ibex worked its way down the bank to have a drink. It was a magical sight.

Another short bus ride, always working our way closer to Jerusalem, brought us to Qumran, the site where the treasured Dead Sea scrolls were discovered just over 60 years ago. We could see Cave 4, the one where the greatest number of scrolls was found. In all, there were 26 caves that archeologists explored, and they found scrolls or fragments of scrolls in 11 of them.

Qumran is also the site of an ancient community of Essenes, a Jewish monastic sect. We could see the ruins of their refectory, baths and cisterns, dating from the second century BC. Some scholars believe it was the Essenes who copied and hid the scrolls in the surrounding caves.

We beat the crowds at the restaurant and gift shop at Qumran so we had time not only to eat, but also to check out the post cards, books and wide range of beauty products made with minerals from the Dead Sea.

About a dozen of us wanted to float on the Dead Sea, so our next stop was at Kalia Beach where we filed into the changing rooms to get on our swim gear. The beach was sandy, but not long after wading into the water we discovered thick, slippery bands of clay underfoot, which many bathers were scooping up and smearing on their skin. Some then left the water to let the clay dry and perform its beautifying magic.

We continued deeper, and when we were able to sit, we just sat. On the water! It held us up without any effort, and we could just lie back and float! When I ran my hand down my arm, it felt like I was covered in oil. We lazed in the water for some time, and then worked our way back to shore.

It was actually quite hard to get out, because my feet kept sinking into the clay and I had to use my hands to pull them out again! When we finally got out, we made for the shower station to wash off the salt and oily residue.

By the time we got back to Jerusalem, the sun had set on our last day of organized touring. We’re on our own tomorrow, except for a wrap-up dinner en groupe, and then it will be time to pack our bags for home.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Tombs, tears and tensions

Friday, November 16, 2012
Jerusalem – Moments ago, when we were leaving our last stop on the day’s itinerary and lining up for the bus, howling sirens echoed over our heads. Back at our hotel room, we saw on the BBC TV report that a rocket had landed near Jerusalem. The target, the TV says, was the Israeli Knesset, the seat of the country’s government – which happens to be close to the neighbourhood of our guide, Gila. It is not close to our hotel, but we are rattled.

This morning as we were setting out, Rafik, our driver, had to change his route because the street he was headed for had a police roadblock. Fortunately, despite all these unusual events, we are still able to follow the Craig Tour activities in safety and comfort.

We went into the Old City to start the day, visiting the Upper Room where the Last Supper took place. History suggests this was also the place where tongues of fire appeared over the heads of the assembled group on the day of Pentecost, after Christ’s resurrection. It became a Crusader church and a Muslim place of worship in different eras, so there are Corinthean columns and ceramic plaques and windows with words from the Koran – a true jumble of cultures.

Our next stop was the tomb of David. The tomb, a large stone box with a peaked cover, draped in purple cloth embroidered with a harp and Hebrew inscriptions, is housed in a very small synagogue. It has not been authenticated, and I would have thought it might have a grander home. As it was, the women were on one side of a black curtain, seeing half the tomb, and the men were on the other seeing the other half. The room was no bigger than a spacious living room. Cardboard yamulkas were in a basket at the door so the men could cover their heads.

Still in the Old City, we stopped at a place called the Burnt House, where an excellent multi-media presentation told the story of the family that lived in the house when Jerusalem was sacked and burned by the Romans in 70 AD. We sat in front of the excavated ruins of the house, where clay water jars and other pottery was found, as well as evidence of charred wood and a Roman spear.

Three overlapping movie screens presented the drama with actors portraying the Jewish priest, his wife and children and their housemaid and how they reacted to the Roman occupation. It really helped us imagine how it might have been.

There was a holiday feeling as we walked through the Old City streets in the Jewish Quarter, since the Sabbath begins at sundown on Fridays and many Jewish families take the day off. We saw a number of Orthodox Jewish families walking by, the men dressed in black and the little ones scampering about under their mothers’ watchful eyes.

We boarded the bus outside the Jaffa Gate and headed for Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial museum in the western suburbs of modern Jerusalem. It’s an amazing site where one could spend several hours, but we didn’t stay that long. The long building has a zigzag path through it, bringing visitors to different rooms.

The displays are an excellent blend of factual historical artifacts and texts, and chilling human stories of Holocaust victims, depicted in videos of people telling their personal experiences, as well as poignant displays of personal items like a child’s doll, a pile of ragged shoes, or yellow six-point stars from people’s coats. We gathered at our rendez-vous point in the courtyard afterward, but no one was inclined to chat. We had many things to ponder in our own hearts.

After lunch at a kibbutz hotel, we made our last stop at the Garden Tomb. This place was established in the 1880s by a British general, Charles Gordon, whose Jerusalem home overlooked a stone hillside with skull-like features in the rock. It was outside the Damascus Gate, near a garden that had clearly belonged to a rich man, and it had a large burial room cut into the rock with a trough where a round stone could roll in front to seal it. He bought the land and established it as a place for visitors who wanted to remember the place of Christ’s crucifixion and burial as it might have been.

Heather, our tour leader, conducted a short communion service for us in the garden, serving the grape juice in tiny olive wood cups that we were allowed to keep afterward as a gift.

The sirens that wailed at us on our departure broke the spell somewhat, although most of us weren’t exactly sure what they signified. Some of us wondered if it was a normal thing at sundown on Friday to tell the faithful that the Sabbath had officially begun. The TV news back at the hotel told us otherwise.

Our itinerary for tomorrow is a trip to the Dead Sea, Masada and Qumran, all away from the city, so that will be a good thing.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Through the Old City

Thursday, November 15, 2012
Jerusalem – A clear, sunny sky greeted us this morning as we headed across the Kidron Valley to the Mount of Olives. We squinted into the morning sun for our group photograph, with the Old City as our backdrop, before heading down on foot along the Palm Sunday road, traditionally the one Christ followed on a donkey’s back into the city a week before his crucifixion.

The road was steep and narrow, but it didn’t stop cars or trucks from driving up or down it while the many tour groups pressed against the stone walls on either side to let them pass. We made a short stop at the church called Dominus Plevit, or “the Lord wept”, marking the moment when Jesus wept at the prospect of the destruction of Jerusalem, as he looked across the Kidron Valley. We couldn’t enter because a service was in progress, so we continued on down the steep hill to the Garden of Gethsemane.

Gnarled, twisted trunks of eight ancient olive trees caught our attention immediately as we entered the garden. Botanists say these trees would certainly have been there at the time of Christ, and possibly long before that – and only a few days ago, the latest olives were harvested from them.

The beautiful Church of all Nations (or Basilica of the Agony) stands next to the garden, with the altar placed over the rock where Christ prayed there alone on the night of his betrayal and arrest.

Rafik, our bus driver, picked us up and drove us to the Damascus Gate of the Old City of Jerusalem, so we could walk along the traditional way of the Cross, the Via Dolorosa.

As soon as we got through the gate, we were plunged into a busy, crowded market place with trinkets, leather bags, spices, golden baklava in heaped trays, embroidered gowns and shawls, kitchen gadgets, T-shirts with saucy slogans, cellphone cases, liturgical garments, sandals, mountains of pomegranates and oranges, dates and chestnuts, jewelry and icons and tons of other items, being sold from narrow stalls while strains of Arabic music flowed out from ghetto blasters and pilgrims jostled with merchants and passers by. It was a challenge to a) keep together as a group and b) keep Gila in our sights as we worked our way toward the first Station of the Cross.

Our pilgrimage continued along the ancient stones and through the busy market stalls as we went from one station to another. Finally, we reached the courtyard of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, built over the traditional place where the crucifixion took place.

Quite near the large entrance is a flat slab of stone where Christ’s body was laid after being taken down from the cross. It has been polished smooth by the hands and foreheads of thousands of pilgrims who kneel down to touch the holy place. In another corner of the church, up a steep staircase, is a small chapel, with an altar built over the hole in the ground where the cross was planted. Near the altar is an exposed section of stone with a large crack through it, split by the earthquake that occurred after Christ breathed his last. A tightly packed column of pilgrims shuffled slowly past this spot where, one by one, each had a special moment before moving on.

We were close to the Jaffa Gate of the Old City by this time, and headed for a modern shopping mall just outside for lunch. It was the first time on the whole trip we actually sat at restaurant tables and ordered a meal from a menu! We split into three groups so we didn’t overwhelm a single shop by arriving en masse, so we managed to get fed and pay our bills within the allotted hour.

Our afternoon visit was to the hospital – not because anyone was sick, but to see the Chagall windows that decorate the synagogue attached to the Hadassah Hospital. The facility is the largest in the Middle East, and a fair distance to the south and west of the Old City. It’s a huge complex and a major medical center which has developed a medical tourism program that brings patients from many Arab countries for special care. The hotel, shopping centre and synagogue attached to the hospital make life more comfortable for relatives who accompany those patients, not to mention locals and staff.

When it was being built in 1959, hospital planners invited the artist Marc Chagall to design the stained glass windows of the synagogue, and he did so for free. With the men of our group suitably covered with yamulkas if they lacked hats, we entered the synagogue and listened to a recorded description of each of the twelve large, brightly-coloured panels that symbolize the sons of Israel, as characterized by their father on his deathbed in Genesis 49.

The windows were really beautiful, but we weren’t allowed to photograph them, and we didn’t see any post card stands with pictures to take away, so you will have to take our word for it.

As we headed back toward the hotel, we saw several flatbed trucks heading in the other direction, loaded with large army tanks. The TV news back in our room with stories of escalating hostilities near Gaza confirmed for us the reason for this military manoeuver. So far, we are only seeing media reports. We remain hopeful that that is all we will see between now and our trip home.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The gate of humility

Wednesday, November 14, 2012
Jerusalem – An early start was required today to avoid a long lineup at the restricted entry near the Jewish holy site of the Western Wall. Gila reminded us to bring our passports, to leave any pocket knives we might have behind, and if we were bringing Bibles with us, to leave them on the bus. All these precautions were to make the security check go as smoothly as possible.

The Western, or Wailing, Wall is the portion of the wall of the ancient Temple that was accessible to the Jews after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD and the subsequent pagan city that was built there. It was built by Herod and has become one of the holiest shrines of Judaism.

The checkpoint we went through brought us to an enclosed ramp that leads up to the huge plaza around the Dome of the Rock. As we ascended the ramp, we could look down on the many pilgrims praying at the wall.

After a visit in the plaza and a close-up look at the magnificent mosque, tiled in blue designs and ringed at the top on its eight sides with the elaborate script of the Koran and topped with its pure gold dome, we came down by another route back to the Western Wall.

Men were directed to the left and women to the right – and we had no sense of exclusion as we joined the women, some Jewish and others from other faiths and countries, in our approach to the wall. Every little chink in the ancient stones was stuffed with tiny bits of paper, on which people had written special prayer requests. We could hear weeping and see people pressing their foreheads against the stones.

On the other side of the screen, the men were dressed in black with long prayer shawls, some wearing tall black hats and long curled forelocks. They recited from small prayer books in their hands, and some rocked back and forth as they put hearts, minds and bodies into the fervor of their devotions. It was an amazing sight.

Our next visit was to the Shrine of the Book, a modern museum dedicated to the Dead Sea Scrolls that were discovered in a cave by two Bedouin shepherds in 1947. In the courtyard of the building is a fascinating 1:50 scale model of the ancient city of Jerusalem from the time of Christ. It was easier to see the relationship between the court of Pontius Pilate, the Via Dolorosa and the crucifixion hill with everything laid out in an area the size of a couple of parking spaces.

Inside we learned about the discovery and examination of the scrolls, and we saw the clay jars in which they were found, plus some actual sections of the scrolls themselves. The roof of the shrine resembles the shape of the clay lids on the scroll jars.

Our bus set out for Bethlehem, dropping our guide Gila off near her apartment before we left the city. She does not have access to Bethlehem as an Israeli citizen, so they had arranged for a Palestinian guide to show us this part of our itinerary.

As we drove toward Bethlehem, Heather, our Craig Tour leader, led us all in renditions of “O Little Town of Bethlehem”, “Once in Royal David’s City” and other carols, which all took on new meaning! We even caught sight of a shepherd leading a flock of sheep and goats on the hillside as we approached the town.

We were glad when Aschraf, our new guide, brought us first to a restaurant for lunch before we headed for the Church of the Nativity. Sightseeing is hungry work, and we tucked into our falafel and shawarma sandwiches with a good appetite.

Great rounds of applause rang out as Rafik, our driver, navigated our large bus through Bethlehem’s narrow streets, made more challenging by parked cars, other buses, and pedestrians.

The Church of the Nativity has a very plain façade of cut stones, with no ornamentation or even a sign out front. At the bottom of its high outer wall, tucked in a corner, is a low stone door no higher than a person’s shoulder, and no wider than one person. So, no matter how important you might be, or how numerous your group is, you must go in one by one, and you must stoop down to get inside. It wasn’t always like this, but when Muslim invaders barged in on camel or horseback, desecrating the holy place, a deterrent was required, so this low door has been the only entrance ever since the 16th century.

The spacious sanctuary inside is devoid of pews, and the altar is adorned with magnificent chandeliers and censers, suspended from the high ceiling, and behind it are icons faced with gold and silver. Greek Orthodox, Armenian and Roman Catholic churches share the building.

We bunched closely together near the doorway to the grotto beneath the main church floor, waiting our turn to file in. It was a lengthy wait, because of the crush of pilgrims and also because our progress was halted while a group of Catholics and then Armenians commandeered the holy space to conduct short services. We jostled one another as we descended the steps and filed one by one through another narrow door to the space below.

On the floor under an altar on the right was a large 14-pointed silver star with an opening, about six inches across, revealing the traditional spot of Christ’s birth. On the other side, under a second altar, is the stone manger in which the Christ child was laid. It was strange for me to be back at this same place, 45 years after seeing it for the first time. I wondered how many thousands of people had filed past it in the intervening years!

We had a brief look at the Church of St Catharine, which stands by the courtyard outside the Nativity Church, and had the pleasure at the back of the sanctuary to listen in on a Eucharistic service being given in English. Then it was time to board the bus again and head out for some shopping.

We were taken to a large store full of local handiwork – beautiful olive wood figures, pottery, and malachite jewelry, all produced by Palestinian families in the area. The owner of the store spoke to all of us before we began to browse, showing us the types of products he had on sale and explaining how much our patronage meant to them. He told us how difficult it had been when unrest in the area kept the tourists away for years at a stretch and asked us very earnestly to pray for peace in this troubled land.

We had no idea how relevant his request was until, just a few minutes later, we learned from one of his sales staff, that another clash had taken place this very afternoon between Israel and the Palestinians in Gaza. When we checked the map back at the hotel, we saw that Gaza is a mere 30 to 40 miles from Bethlehem and Jerusalem.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Domes and minarets

Tuesday, November 13, 2012
Jerusalem – We are in the Holy City at last. Our introduction was perfect – a panoramic view from the Mount of Olives with the stunning Dome of the Rock and the crenelated walls of the Old City shining in the afternoon sun. More on that later!

With one last farewell to the Sea of Galilee this morning, we headed southward toward Jerusalem, following the Jordan River on our left. The scenery alternated between lush plantations of bananas, olives and fruit trees, as well as fields of peppers and eggplants, and vast, desolate hills of sandy soil and rocks with stunted scrub bushes here and there, as vacant of life as the moon.

The Jordan River was not visible, but we could tell where it was by the vegetation that grew near it. Behind it to the east were the Golan Heights, and, as we continued southward, the hills of Gilead in Jordan.

Our first stop was Beit She’an, where a wonderfully preserved Roman-Byzantine city is laid out to explore. By the time we reached this spot, we had entered into an area under Palestinian authority, and had passed checkpoints and lots of compounds surrounded by high fences and barbed wire. This was the West Bank, a territory of great contention in recent years. All the highway signs were in Arabic and English, with no sign of Hebrew anywhere. However, we were not impeded in any way on our journey.

We sat on the cool stones of a magnificent theatre that could seat thousands while Gila explained about the site, which was only starting to be uncovered in her earlier days as a guide. A wide avenue lined on either side with columns was flanked by the ruins of small shops, and we explored the Roman baths and imagined what the temple might have looked like. At the north end of the site was a tel, or mound, and we could see that there were more ruins up top, but only two of us, me and Kristy, decided to use the free time we were allowed to climb up. The ruins up there were nothing to get excited about, but we got a magnificent view of the ancient city below us – and burned a few calories while doing so, especially on the way up!

On to Jericho next, where Joshua fit the famous battle when the walls came a-tumblin’ down, as the old spiritual goes. Gila had us sing it when we got there to refresh our memories, and then to make sure we had it right, she pulled out the Bible and read the story. She told us about Rahab the harlot, who hid two of Joshua’s spies in her home when they came to scope out the city. For her bravery, she and her family were spared when the city was eventually taken by Joshua’s armies.

Jericho is the world’s oldest continuously-inhabited city, and we saw a tower among the ruins that dated back to 7800 BC! We stopped for lunch at a truck stop outside of Jericho, where one attraction was a pair of camels that were available for rides. They joked that you had to pay two dollars to get on, and five dollars to get off if you wanted to give it a try!

As we continued toward Jerusalem, we could see the hills of Moab and a misty Mount Nemo, where Moses finally saw the Promised Land before he died. When we turned westward toward the city, we could still see a lot of desert by the roadsides.

Gila told us to look out for Bedouins, who inhabit some of these areas. I had remembered seeing them back in my teens, camped in wilderness areas under low black tents, with their goat herds and kids scampering about. A much sorrier sight met my eyes this time, because they have become tied down to the government-funded water supply, so their once portable tents have given way to more permanent shacks made of scrap wood or corrugated metal, and they no longer roam freely.

The elevation from Jericho to Jerusalem rises 800 meters, so the bus was carrying us uphill most of the way. On the horizon we could see some of the buildings and towers of the Holy City, and then the apartment buildings of the suburbs came into view. We then drove through a long tunnel under the Mount of Olives, and when we emerged we could see the whole city spread out below us, with the magnificent Dome of the Rock shining in the afternoon sun!

We stopped at a lookout point on the Mount for a brief orientation as we gazed over the city. Just below us we could see a huge Jewish cemetery where each grave is covered with a stone box, with inscriptions and a niche where candles are burned on the anniversary of the person’s death. Small stones are left on top by loved ones to mark their visit.

Across the way we could see the great walls of the city, the golden Dome of the Rock and beyond it, the darker domes of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Dozens of minarets towered above the Muslim quarter, and we could hear the wailing call to prayer wafting across the valley.

We stopped at the peaceful walled Pater Noster convent, where large ceramic plaques are displayed on its many walls showing the Lord’s Prayer in more than 100 languages. Gila asked us what languages we knew in our group, and we found the French, German, Italian and English plaques. Val did a great job reading out the Italian prayer! It was such a lovely way for all of us to appreciate both the varied heritage of our group, and the amazing number of languages (some of which I’ve never heard of) whose speakers recite these special words around the world.

Before we left the Mount, we visited the traditional site of Christ’s ascension, marked by a footprint in the rock. This rock is under a domed building with a hexagonal courtyard around it that has been both a mosque and a church in different eras. It was not easy to make out a footprint, but we all snapped pictures of the spot anyway!

In another feat of expert driving in tight traffic, our intrepid driver Rafik brought us safely to the Grand Court Jerusalem Hotel on St. George Street in Jerusalem. Once again we felt spoiled as our Craig Tour leaders figured out registration, room assignments and baggage delivery while we simply put up our tired feet and pondered the adventures of another special day.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Up to high places

Monday, November 12, 2012
Jordan Valley, Israel – Bible stories came alive again today as we visited Nazareth, Cana and Mount Tabor, all on the western side of the Sea of Galilee. Gila, our wonderful Israeli guide, gave us even more insights into the physical and social context of places we visited, adding new layers to the stories we know so well.

The modern environment through which we traveled today did not relate in any way to the Holy Land pictures in the Sunday school books. Square buildings of concrete blocks lined busy streets with shop fronts displaying glittered evening gowns, car parts, oranges and pomegranates or shoes.

We first headed for Nazareth, arriving via Cana at rush hour, which allowed us to observe daily life at some length as we inched through the traffic. It was interesting to see quite a few more signs in Arabic in this region, and to glimpse mosques and women in hijabs. Gila told us that this type of garb is a more recent development; very few women dressed this way in the earlier years of her career as a guide.

The Church of the Annunciation was our first stop. It is a two-layered building, constructed over the traditional site of Mary’s home. A grotto-like area in the church’s lowest point marks the place where Mary was told by the angel Gabriel that she would conceive and bear a son. After climbing a spiral staircase of 51 steps, we found ourselves in a much larger, newer church above the old one, dedicated to Mary. Gila said it’s the three-M church – Mary, modern and multinational.

Contributions from countries around the world went toward its construction in the 1920s, and on the walls were large and varied depictions of Mary with the name of each donor country. Canada’s was brown and abstract. The one by Japan showed a black-haired Madonna whose gown glinted with real pearls. The US contribution was a Mary made of small plates of steel. France gave a portrait that appeared to be made of porcelain.

To get to our next site, we strolled through a narrow shopping street, or souk, with small shops selling plastic toys, scarves, glittering jewelry or hunks of meat hanging out on great hooks! All the merchants were Arabs, and it was very much like the souks of Syria and Lebanon that I had seen when I lived in the Middle East as a teenager.

The Synagogue Church was a small, plain building with an oil painting of Jesus reading from the scriptures to the townspeople, who drummed him out of town when he told them the prophesies were fulfilled in their hearing. Gila told us that the location was not authentic, but the church had been built in the form of early synagogues from Jesus’ time.

Back we went through the souk again, and on to the Wedding Church, dedicated to the first sign of Christ, when he converted water into wine at a wedding feast. Our tour leader, Peter, read the passage from the Bible, and we were able to file through the sanctuary where a group of couples, dressed in white, were renewing their wedding vows as they stood around the altar. At the gift shop near the church, we were invited to taste tiny cups of Cana Wedding Wine, the same type of wine used at weddings here since Jesus’ time. It was very sweet! Some of our group purchased small bottles of the wine to take home.

For lunch today, we had shawarma, a Middle Eastern pita with shavings of, in our case, turkey and lamb sliced from a vertical spit that rotates in front of a hot cooking element. Bowls of condiments allowed eaters to dress up their sandwiches at will. The proprietor grinned when I ordered our shawarmas in Arabic.

After lunch, our bus brought us part way up Mount Tabor. Tradition holds that this is the high place, set apart, referred to in the Bible, where Jesus took Peter, James and John to pray. A dazzling light transformed the face of Jesus and his clothing, and the disciples saw Moses and Elijah standing with him. Then they heard a voice saying “this is my son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him”.

The Church of the Transfiguration is at the very top of the mountain, and can be seen from far off from all sides. The road up the mountain is so steep and full of switch-backs that buses can’t navigate it, so we had to go up in mini-van taxis in groups of eight. Arab drivers from Shibli, the town at the base of the mountain, have a monopoly on this service, and they seem to enjoy tearing up the road at great speed, making blind turns with great abandon. As we stood in the upper parking lot waiting for the others to arrive, one of the drivers skidded into place with the door swinging open before he had even come to a stop!

The view from the mountain was vast on all sides, and lucky for us, it was clear and sunny so we could see all around. There were little villages, fields in the Jezreel valley planted with date palms or other crops, the rolling hills of Golan to the east and the city of Nazareth just north of the mountain. Big puffy clouds completed the scene.

Inside the church were beautiful mosaic panels on the ceilings with angels dressed in blue against a golden background, and behind the altar, a stained glass window with two huge peacocks facing each other and a chalice at the centre. On either side of the church entrance were two tiny chapels, one dedicated to Moses and the other to Elijah, just as Peter had suggested he should build for them after seeing them in the cloud with Jesus on the mountain top.

We enjoyed the peaceful garden outside the church before heading back down the mountain with the wild taxi drivers. Tonight is our last night by the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Tomorrow, Jerusalem!

And a post script: there were news reports at the end of the day yesterday of an exchange of rockets between Syria and Israel on the Golan Heights. We asked our guide Gila about it this morning and she said we were nowhere near the place where it happened, so I thought you might be pleased to know that.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Castle in the clouds

Sunday, November 11, 2012
Jordan Valley, Israel – Our observance of Remembrance Day took place at 6:45 this morning, before breakfast. Judy, one of the group members, brought poppies for each one of us, plus Canada flag pins, which were passed around after our moment of silence. Judy lost her son in Afghanistan and this was her first Remembrance Day since then, so it was particularly moving for those of us who knew her story.

We only drove for five minutes out of the kibbutz before turning off the road to visit the “Baptismal Site on the River Jordan”, just near the point where the river flows out of the Sea of Galilee. Gila, our guide, explained that scripture tells us Jesus was baptised in the Jordan River when he was in Judea, and this spot is in Galilee, so it isn’t the actual place where it happened.

Nevertheless, a large visitor centre, gift shop and access points to the river are all located here and it has become a major drawing point for all faiths. Pilgrims in white shifts crowded at the steps leading down, waiting their turn to be immersed in the water. I bought a small plastic bottle and scooped up some of the water to bring home.

The on-again, off-again rain continued today as we headed north along the west side of the Sea of Galilee toward Israel’s common borders with Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. We turned off to visit the ruin of the pagan temple to Pan, next to the river Dan, one of the sources of the Jordan River. A large cave provided a natural backdrop for the temple, and we could see decorated niches carved into the stone cliff where statues would have stood.

The town of Caesarea-Philippi is located here, and this is the spot where Jesus asked his disciples “who do you say that I am?”. When Peter replied that he was the Messiah, Jesus declared that “on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it”. Nor would the powers of pagan gods, whose temples were so close by.

The highway zigged and zagged upward as we approached the fortress of Nimrod. We could see the massive structure above us, with a commanding view of the entire valley below it. Wind and rain whipped our hair and jackets as we headed in to explore this Muslim fortress, built on the pattern of the many Crusader castles in this part of the world. Huge blocks of carved stone formed its walls and archways, and steep staircases led down to spooky dark places below. At the top we could look across in two different directions to see high points where other castles had once stood, within sight of each other, to keep a constant eye on any approaching enemies.

Nimrod was a hunter and he is mentioned in the Old Testament. Gila told us that he became puffed up with pride until a fly went up his nose and began to eat away at his brain. He asked that his head be cut off and thrown into the valley, and legend says this is why that valley became infested with flies.

The bus was a warm haven from the buffeting winds as we headed further along the road (which leads eventually to Damascus, we were told) for our lunch break. A Druze family ran the restaurant where we stopped. Val and I had labneh (goat yogurt) spread on a large round Druze flatbread, with a dish of fresh olives. I was glad the bread was warm.

By this time we were at the northernmost part of Israel, within sight of Lebanon and Syria. If the clouds had not been so low, we might have seen the snow-capped peak of Mount Hermon that straddles the border of Israel and Lebanon. We did make a stop a bit later when the ceiling had lifted a bit, and Gila pointed out, way off on the horizon, the outskirts of Damascus, temporarily made visible by the sun breaking through.

We could also see abandoned bunkers and barracks that had sheltered the Syrians during the Six Day War of 1967. Nearby was a UN observation settlement, and we passed an Israeli military base on our trek today as well. Gila had called ahead before we left Netanya to make sure it would be safe enough for us to venture this close to the northern borders, and fortunately it was. But it was clearly a place where tensions have long existed. Red triangle warning signs still dot the hillsides where Syrian land mines remain scattered.

The bus brought us southward again, this time along the Golan Heights on the east side of the Sea of Galilee. Our last stop of the day was at Kursi, the site of an ancient monastery and chapel. Delicate mosaic floors in beautiful patterns decorate the chapel area. While tour guides are not allowed to splash water on them to bring up the bright colours of the tiles, they were washed for us by the rain instead, and we could see delicate flowers and leaves. Invading Muslim fanatics had obliterated the animals and birds in the designs, as such depictions were against their laws, but they missed one or two lovely birds that we were able to enjoy.

The chapel was near Gerasene, which is the place where Jesus commanded the demons to come out of Legion, a tortured man, and enter into a herd of swine. The herd raced down a steep embankment and were drowned in the sea. They have located an area near the Sea of Galilee where there are steep banks, so they are confident that this is the right place. Jim, a member of our group, read that story to us as we stood among the chapel ruins.

We completed the circle around the Sea of Galilee, passing acres of banana plantations on the way. We had also seen avocado and mango trees, date palms, grapefruit and olive trees, grape vines, and peach and apple groves by the road today. And, having also seen cows and beehives, we knew we were in the land of milk and honey.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Blessed are the flexible

Saturday, November 10, 2012
Jordan Valley, Israel – Before breakfast today, Val and I walked down to the shore of the Sea of Galilee, just a few yards from our front door. We were standing at the south end, looking northward, with the town of Tiberius on the slopes to the left in the distance, and the Golan Heights on the east side. The water looked fairly calm, but dark rain clouds spat on us as we headed for the dining hall.

Our first stop this morning was supposed to be in Tiberius, for a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee. However, after filing off the bus and arriving at the dock, we discovered that all the boats were gone! Apparently the water had turned rough, so the boats had left without passengers to try their luck at the other side later, when the owners hoped it might be calmer.

So Gila, our guide, opted for Plan B, which was to visit the church of the multiplication of loaves and fishes, where there was an ancient mosaic floor from the fourth century. Gila explained that, prior to the fourth century, Christianity was forbidden, but once it had been declared legitimate, churches burgeoned all over the holy places where Christ was known to have been.

A large iron gate barred us from entering the church parking lot. A small sign, written in Hebrew and English, explained that today was the feast of the multiplication of loaves and fishes, and special services were being held until one o’clock, when the church would be opened to the public. Foiled again! But, being the seasoned guide that she clearly was, Gila reverted quickly to Plan C, making hasty phone calls to rearrange the schedule.

I reminded her of the extra beatitude, “blessed are the flexible, for they shall not be bent out of shape”! Not that she was, no more than anyone else on the bus. Shortly afterward, we arrived at Capernaum.

It was here that Jesus visited the home of Peter’s mother-in-law and healed her of her fever, whereupon she got up and served her guests. Ancient foundation stones of that house have been excavated, and a Roman Catholic church stands like a shallow bowl on pillars, suspended above the ruins. Just a few yards beyond this spot is the ruin of an ancient synagogue, where it is believed that Jesus read the scripture that prophesied his coming, to an astonished congregation.

Dozens of massive tour buses were parked everywhere, spewing out great crowds of pilgrims, dressed in ponchos or carrying umbrellas, who sloshed through the puddles to see the excavated section of the synagogue where the original stones were found. As rain pelted down on us, we listened to one group under the trees, singing a hymn in French to guitar music, while another listened to their guide speaking in an East Indian language, and still another chatted in Chinese as they passed by. It was wonderful to be part of such a throng, from the corners of the earth, gathered in one place to ponder its significant history.

Off we went for our rescheduled boat ride, on board a wooden replica of the types of fishing boats used by Peter and the sons of Zebedee. When we arrived near the middle of the lake, with the site of the Sermon on the Mount just ahead of us, Heather, our Craig Tour leader, read from her Bible the story of the great storm on the Sea of Galilee that Jesus rebuked, restoring calm to the waters and to the hearts of his terrified companions.

Before she began, the captain turned off the engine and we drifted, listening to Heather’s voice and then to the great silence that followed, as the sea rocked us gently and the wind blew softly and we all thought our own thoughts about the special place where we were.

Our next stop was the Church of the Primacy of Peter, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee at the spot where a resurrected Jesus offered breakfast to his disciples and asked Peter three times if he loved him, and to tend his sheep. Inside the church, the altar stands in front of a huge rock bulging up from the floor, and the air is scented and warmed by dancing flames from wax votive candles.

By this time, the gates of the church of loaves and fishes were soon to open, so we got there in time to be the first bus in line, and got in just a few minutes later. The small Benedictine church had a lovely courtyard with a gnarled olive tree at its centre, and inside we made our short visit to see the mosaic floor which, besides loaves and fishes, depicted whimsical birds and other patterns. Hordes of pilgrims and buses had come in behind us, so we made a quick getaway, heading for lunch.

Re-energized with lunch, we stepped out into better weather as shafts of sunlight broke through the clouds. Our bus took us to the Church of the Beatitudes, situated on the side of a hill where tradition says the Sermon on the Mount took place. When we were on the boat, our guide pointed out the hollow on the hillside that formed a natural amphitheatre for such an event, as well as the domed roof of the church we were now visiting.

The church is surrounded by beautiful gardens, but a fence prevents visitors from roaming on the actual hillside, which is uncultivated and covered with long yellow grass. A contingent of Polish worshipers, each dressed in a floor-length silky red cape emblazoned with a white cross and an iconic image of Christ, roamed the grounds, handing out small medals and cards printed with the same image and a lengthy Polish text on the back.

Crowds of other visitors filed slowly into the small octagonal building, where an altar stood in the centre and each of the eight beatitudes was displayed in Latin on the high arched walls above. It was moving to see hands folded in prayer, eyes closed in contemplation, and a reverent hush among so many people shuffling through.

The chaos in the parking lot broke the spell somewhat, as we marveled at our driver Rafik’s ability to swing past other huge buses with inches to spare, giving a horn blast when needed to warn wandering pilgrims or other buses nearby.

Soon we were on our way for the last leg of the day’s journey, a drive all the way around the Sea of Galilee and back to our kibbutz. Even those who had begun to doze off after our charged schedule jumped in surprise – as did both Gila and Rafik – at the sight of three adult camels and a baby camel, grazing by the side of the road! Gila joked that they had arranged the rendez-vous, but then admitted that it was a most unusual sight in these parts. An unusual ending to an unusual day.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Stones of Solomon

Friday, November 9, 2012
Jordan Valley, Israel – Flashes of lightning and the deep rumble of thunder might have stirred us from our sleep in the wee hours of this morning if our jumbled internal clocks had not already done so. Val was fully awake at about three, while I lasted till quarter past four before giving up and rising, wide-eyed, to check the view of the storm from our window.

Not long afterward, we could hear raindrops splashing on the street nine floors below, as the thunder and lightning rolled in from the sea. By eight we were all on the bus with our luggage stowed underneath, and it pulled away from the hotel as the light morning sprinkle turned into a downpour.

Gila, our Israeli guide, told us that the deluge was a blessing – the first rain they had had in a long time – and with all of us prepared with rain gear, not one person was heard to complain! Not out loud anyway!

Our first stop was at Caeserea, the site where the apostle Paul was called before King Agrippa to explain his conversion to Christianity, appealing eventually to Caesar for a hearing. A large Roman theatre, carved in a semi-circle into the hillside, still gets used today for plays and concerts. A few years ago, while digging some adjacent land for a larger parking area, they discovered a hippodrome nearby where citizens watched horse races centuries ago.

Ruins of a palace, which Herod had occupied, overlooked the Mediterranean Sea. He had a breakwater and artificial harbour built there to protect the area from the strong undertow, and archeologists say this is the earliest use of hydraulic concrete – a substance that hardens under water. We watched the waves crash up against the remnants of the Roman palace, and dodged puddles to have a look at Herod’s fresh water swimming pool next to its mosaic patio.

We got back on the bus to stop by the Roman aqueduct not far from the port area, and Val had a chance to finally walk to the water’s edge and put his hand in the Mediterranean on the sandy shore. Moments later the rain pelted down in earnest, so we didn’t linger there for long. The aqueduct was built to carry drinking water from a spring in Mount Carmel to Caeserea, making it possible for the city to become a major centre in its day.

Mount Carmel was our next destination, where Gila told us the story of the prophet Elijah, who held a contest with 400 prophets of pagan gods to prove whose god was real. The prophets prayed all day for their gods to bring fire down on an altar, without success, but Elijah upped the ante by dousing his altar with water three times before praying to the God of Isaac, Abraham and Israel to bring down fire. The flames consumed everything, after which Elijah put all the prophets to death. A large statue of Elijah wielding a sword over one of the 400 stands in the church yard there.

Our esteem for Rafik, our bus driver, grew considerably as he threaded his big rig between other tour buses to get off Mount Carmel and on to the restaurant where we stopped for lunch. We were ahead of the other groups, so we got served our falafel or chicken pita sandwiches in good time.

The highlight of today was our visit to Megiddo, an ancient fort built on a tel, which is the name for mounds in Israel that are good strategic spots for forts or castles. This spot was chosen by one civilization after another, so ruins were discovered upon ruins dating back to the Bronze Age. The great blocks of stone in the Bronze Age walls were rounded, but Gila showed us the walls built in the time of Solomon, when tools were more sophisticated, which have clean right angles and straight lines even today.

We climbed down a long flight of stairs that led to the water source for the fortification, and through a tunnel hewn into the rock that was meant to protect that source from invading armies. The view from the top was breathtaking, overlooking the wide sweep of the valley of Jezreel, with Mount Tabor in the distance, and fields of date palms and other crops like patchwork below.

Megiddo is the place, according to the Revelations of John, where the great battle between Good and Evil will take place. That’s where the term Armageddon comes from.

Our final destination today was a kibbutz called Maagan, where we will be spending the next four nights. Rafik stopped the bus at a lay-by on the road next to a sign that said “Sea Level” so we could look down at the town before we actually got there. In addition to great tracts of farmland, we could see the Sea of Galilee dotted with little sailboats, and beyond it, the tall brown slopes of the Golan Heights, and, to the south, the hills of Jordan.

Huge thunderclouds puffed up overhead, catching the last rays of the sun. It was a spectacular sight! We glimpsed the Jordan River as it flowed southward out of the Sea of Galilee on our way to the kibbutz. Lucky for us, the rain that began the day only came down a few times, with plenty of sunny bits in between, so it was a very full and relatively dry day of touring.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

An aisle for an aisle

Thursday, November 8, 2012
Netanya, Israel – We made it! After what seemed like an interminable flight, we are on the ground halfway across the world, sitting in the comfort of a luxurious suite on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea in a city an hour’s drive north of Tel Aviv, where we landed earlier today.

“Today” is a rather uncertain term for us at the moment. There is a seven hour difference between here and Canada, so while the local clocks are telling us it’s close to supper time, our internal clocks are saying mid-morning! And in a rather plaintive tone of voice too.

To backtrack a bit, we left Ottawa yesterday at lunchtime, headed for Toronto. Upon our arrival, we hiked almost the entire length of Pearson International Airport to get from our arrival gate to the one where we would depart for Israel. Fortunately, there were moving sidewalks and all we had was our carry-on luggage. Then the waiting game began: more than three hours before we would take off again.

The sun was sinking to the horizon in a blaze of red and orange as we, and 298 other passengers, boarded the plane and took off at last. When we had gone online back home to print our boarding passes, we discovered that Val had a window seat on one side in row 21, and I had a window seat on the other side in row 20! Not the friendliest arrangement for our 12-hour flight. However, we hoped someone would be willing to switch.

As we found our seats and the other passengers theirs, we saw that both of us were next to people whose spouses were across the aisle from them in the middle section. So if anyone switched with our seat partners, we would be separating spouses! Oh well, as one of our tour companions put it, we would be sleeping most of the time anyway. Not entirely true. In all, we must have totaled an hour and a half, tops, of sleep. But we managed, in any case!

The TV screen on the seatback in front of us showed a tiny image of a plane making its way across the North Atlantic, over France, Switzerland, Greece and Turkey, headed for Tel Aviv. It also indicated how many hours and miles to go, what speed we were traveling, and even how cold it was outside (minus 77 F in the middle of the night!).

I pushed up the window blind after some hours of flight and marveled at an ink-black sky studded with huge stars! They seemed so close! Then, a few hours later, I peeked again and the sky was paler, with a copper-coloured horizon ahead, hinting at the sunrise to come. Having bid the sun goodbye in Toronto not that long beforehand, I really felt like we were in a race toward the new day.

Snow-capped mountains in Greece gave way to a thick blanket of cloud below as we continued eastward. Finally the clouds cleared and we got an excellent view of the sprawling city of Tel Aviv below before landing at Ben Gurion airport. It was great to feel the rush of fresh warm air entering the cabin when they opened the door of the plane!

We were bleary-eyed but otherwise fine as we approached the baggage carrousel. Once all our tour people were assembled, we boarded a bus that took us through Tel Aviv and northward along the coastline to Netanya, where we settled in our hotel rooms for some catch-up sleep. But not before we looked from our ninth-floor windows at the blue Mediterranean lapping at a wide strip of sandy beach where bathers paddled among the waves.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Coming soon! Our trip to the Holy Land

Hello! On November 7, 2012 Val and I will be headed for a 13-day tour of the Holy Land. We hope you will join us as we visit the Sea of Galilee, Nazareth, the Dead Sea, Jerusalem, Bethlehem and many other historic spots. Stay tuned! Here's a shot of the two of us in Florida last winter. We hope to post pictures for this trip as well!

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Be it ever so humble…

Friday and Saturday, Mar. 16 and 17, 2012 OTTAWA, ON – Yes, we are home! Just pulled in less than an hour ago, and it’s great to be here. The house looks in excellent order and the snow is gone from the front yard. There is snow out back, as well as at the shadowed edges of farmers’ fields and road banks that we passed on the way into town, but everyone is reveling in the mild weather. We spotted two people driving with the roof down, and several wearing shorts and bicycling or roller-blading. Thankfully, our trip from Harrisonburg in the Shenandoah Valley to Binghamton yesterday and from there home today, was perfect in terms of weather. Even the fog that greeted us this morning burned off fairly quickly and didn’t impede visibility on the highway. Actually, we had excellent traveling weather this trip, from start to finish. It has been fun following the spring from south to north. Seeing daffodils, hyacinths and forsythia in full bloom in South and North Carolina was such a treat, as well as listening to red-winged blackbirds and robins, that will be coming north soon but haven’t yet arrived. And we passed so many fruit trees in blossom as well – and heard that the famous cherry blossoms in Washington, DC, are a couple of weeks ahead of the usual time because of the unseasonably warm weather. When we crossed the high bridge at Alexandria Bay back into Canada, we looked at the beautiful view, and the water surrounding the Thousand Islands was completely open and free-flowing. It was lovely to see all the cottages and docks ready to be opened up and set out for summer fun in the months ahead. In the sky over Ottawa as we came north from the border, there were great flocks of Canada geese in muddled strings, rather than disciplined vees, and many of the geese were also in the fields resting and drinking from puddles of water between the farmed rows. Even they seem to be back earlier than usual; I associate them more with May than March. We now feel that our new motorhome is thoroughly broken in and ready to provide years of traveling comfort. We’ve added little touches that have made the coach a home, and after two and a half months in very close proximity, Val and I are still on warm speaking terms (and then some!), so it has passed that test as well. So many features, like the easily opened and closed awning, comfortable seating, generous counter space and well-thought-through storage compartments have confirmed that this rig will take us far. But for now, we are happy to be in our big roomy house with all its comforts, safe and sound. And, to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in proper style, we’re going to order in Chinese food for supper. Only in Canada, you say! Our parting photo, sunset over the Gulf of Mexico, provides the closing image of our Winter 2012 trip. When we travel next, this blog will resume. Meanwhile, happy trails to you!

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Spring is in the air!

Wed. and Thurs. March 14 and 15, 2012 HARRISONBURG, VA – There’s a distinct scent of “eau de farm” wafting in the window of our RV, mixed with woodsmoke from a big fire that the KOA camp staff have set as they clear broken branches and dry leaves from the sites before the busy season is upon them again. Tonight will be our last night sleeping in the motorhome, since we can’t be sure our pipes won’t freeze from here on, and campgrounds in states north of Virginia aren’t open this time of year. This year, it looks as though they could be, though, because it has been unseasonably warm – the warmest winter on record in some areas. As we traveled north yesterday from near Savannah to just before the North Carolina state line, we were delighted to see fruit trees in blossom by the highway. Other trees already have that early spring blush of pale green as buds begin to swell, and today we saw hosts of daffodils when we crossed into Virginia! Not long after we turned from Interstate 77 onto I-81, we passed a section of highway several miles long where there was lots of machinery and workmen, and they were blasting and moving earth to widen the highway. Fortunately for us, it was the southbound side that was closed. When we got to the closing-off point, we saw a huge lineup of cars and tractor-trailers being slowly diverted to another highway. We were very glad to be north-bound! The land was fairly flat yesterday, but today we came in to rolling hills, and then the blue peaks of the Appalachians came into view. It was lovely to see peaceful farms and little towns with a church’s tall white steeple contrasting with the dark mountains beyond. And everywhere, there were clusters of snowy white fruit trees, at the peak of their blossoms! Beautiful! Our KOA site in Charlotte last night was on Scary Way, in a campground reflecting a Hallowe’en theme, probably because of its proximity to the witch capital of the US, Winston-Salem. Other streets were Scream Street, Monster Road, Spirit Lane, Haunted Hill Road, Spookywoods Boulevard and Hallowe’en Street! When October rolls around, they really get into the spirit of things! Although we were supposed to have free wi-fi with the site, it wasn’t working. This is often the case, unfortunately. Here at the Shenandoah Valley/Harrisonburg KOA, we are connected, but tenuously. One never knows. It’s a pretty spot, though, with farmland to the east and more blossoming trees and even some hyacinths poking up through the leaves. I could hear robins too; another sound that gladdens my heart when winter is on the wane. In the morning, we will winterize the plumbing system and pack bags for the hotel portion of the trip. We’ve tried to use up the perishables in the fridge with as little waste as possible, and with mini-bars and microwaves in most hotel rooms these days, we should be able to finish off the last bits. Today Val started out in shorts and sandals, but by lunch time he switched to jeans and put on socks for the first time in weeks. It’s farewell to summer temperatures now, but at least we’re hoping all signs of the white stuff will be gone by the time we hit Ottawa!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Swan-y lake

Tuesday, March 13, 2012 RICHMOND HILL, GA – That’s right, we’re out of Florida! So this is what happened: Val looked at me, and I looked at Val, and we said “let’s go home.” We’ve been on the road, seeing all kinds of amazing things and places, since January 9th and it just feels like time to go home. So, from this point, we’ll be making steady headway for Ottawa, one day at a time. We decided to save St Augustine for another time. It’s tagged as “the nation’s oldest city” and has lots of interesting attractions, such as an alligator farm with more than 20 varieties of crocodilians represented, and the country’s first schoolhouse. They will be something we can look forward to the next time we head in this direction. So, we packed up, hitched the car to the back of the RV and hit Interstate 95, just west of our campground in Rockledge, and headed north. As we passed Daytona, we saw next to the highway the spot where every motorcycle rider in the lower 48, plus their passengers, was gathered for Bike Week. There must have been more than a thousand bikes, a large majority of which were Harley Davidsons, parked on the grounds, and more thundering by on the highway either on the way there or leaving. One that passed us had a big stuffed Tweety Bird on the back! A lot of bikers had opted to forego helmets, chaps, heavy boots, protective jackets and gloves and were just belting past with no protection. We hope they had a safe journey. We took the ring road around Jacksonville and before long we were passing the sign welcoming us into Georgia – “We’re glad Georgia’s on your mind” said the sign, quoting the wonderful tune made famous by Ray Charles, and now the state’s official song. We’re at a KOA campground just outside Savannah, where a large pond next to the site is a way point for Canada geese, as well as home to several beautiful swans. The KOA employee who registered us warned us to look out for one of the swans that’s less than fond of campers. He said the swan is pretty aggressive, so just to back off if it approached. When I took a stroll over to see, none of the serene-looking birds made any unwelcome advances. They just glided peacefully along – at least until a pair of them got too close to the small island where some Canada geese were resting. One goose let out a squawk and dive-bombed the pair. Their peaceful gliding immediately changed to hyperspeed! I wanted to share a picture of the swans in today’s blog entry, but for some reason, the download function from the camera wants to save all 1,800 plus pictures in the camera instead of just today’s shots. So you’ll just have to imagine how lovely they are till I figure out how to fix the problem. Meanwhile, here's a shot of Savannah I took the last time we were here.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Days of rest

Sunday and Monday, March 11 and 12, 2012 ROCKLEDGE, FL -- Not a whole lot to report, as we've been taking it nice and easy. Yesterday, it poured rain all day, so we weren't inspired to go very far, and today it's gorgeous, so we were inspired to just enjoy the fine weather. So, for your viewing pleasure, I've selected some recent photos of things we've seen and done. The first is our campsite here. The second was taken at the Kennedy Space Center with the international space station in the background and the flags of participating countries in front. The third is our sunset view in Marathon, in the Keys.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Reaching for the stars

Saturday, March 10, 2012 ROCKLEDGE, FL – The three stars that represent the belt in the constellation Orion looked a little different to me in the night sky tonight, as I humped a load of laundry over to the RV park laundry room. Today, we had a closer look at them from the Hubble telescope. They may look like they’re lined up next to each other, but out there in space, they are actually quite spread out. Bedecked in red-framed 3D glasses, Val and I watched two amazing IMAX movies at the Kennedy Space Centre Visitor Complex, one about the international space station and one about the Hubble telescope. It was a fantastic way of actually seeing what life is like in the space station, as we vicariously floated through hatches, took space walks and opened our mouths to catch blobs of juice floating in space. And floating off to delve into the nebulae of distant planets to see stars come into being was magical. Our visit to the centre began with a bus tour that brought us to the launch pad of the space shuttles that we had seen countless times on television when they took off. We saw them first from the bleachers where thousands of spectators gathered, miles away, to see the launches in safety. Then we drove close to the foot of the tower, with the Atlantic Ocean surf rolling to shore in great waves behind us, and a huge sky above us, full of gigantic cauliflower clouds. Our guide explained how a nearby water tower sent torrents of water around the base of the tower at lift-off to attenuate the surge of energy and sound that the rockets would spew out as the shuttle thundered skyward. We saw the fifth largest building in the world, where the shuttles are assembled, and the huge doors along one wall that open when it is time to bring the space ships to the launch location. Massive rolling platforms glide over a huge gravel road, inch by inch, till they are in the correct position. In the distance we could see the countdown clock, and the special observation buildings where the news media stand ready to broadcast their reports. History unfolded before our eyes with a film about the space race of the 1950s and a simulated count-down for a manned mission in a theatre that had the original tiers of desks and control panels used in the early days of the space program. Outside the theatre, suspended over our heads and covering more than a football field’s length, was the three-stage moon launch and the lunar module. We even got to touch a piece of moon rock on display in a small glass case! Space suits, scoops for moon rocks, and plaster molds of astronauts’ hands that were used to design custom-made gloves were on display in the space treasures room. Some guests who were willing to pay the fee were even able to have lunch with an astronaut. In another building, visitors could feel what it was like to be launched into outer space.

Friday, March 9, 2012

City mouse, country mouse

Thurs. and Fri. March 8 and 9, 2012 ROCKLEDGE, FL – Our location is considerably more northerly than our last entry, as we sit at the threshold of the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral in the Space Coast RV Park. It’s a lovely spot with mostly permanent residents, now emptying as snowbirds start heading for home. We didn’t even have to make a reservation to stay here, despite the fact that it’s March Break. Yesterday we said farewell to the Keys, where life is easy and laid back, and everyone is a beach bum, content to sip from a coconut under a palm tree and watch the pelicans dive bomb for fish. The contrast was notable when we turned toward the east coast and followed Highway 1 through the long chain of towns and cities south and north of Miami proper. Several times as we traveled along, cars zipped into the lane in front of us with no warning, and more than once we heard a sharp car horn snapping at some driver who failed to instantly respond to the green light the moment it came on. Instead of tiki huts and lazy beaches, we passed endless malls and then the high-rises of Miami. It wasn’t until we neared our stopping point for the night, the Johnathan Dickinson State Park, that the landscape became a little more spread out and rural in appearance. The park was the first we’ve stayed at in Florida, and it’s named after a Quaker whose boat was shipwrecked near Hobe Sound, where the park is located. We passed a large expanse of park land that had clearly suffered a fire at some point in the past. Palm trees had blackened trunks and their green fronds were singed and dead at the tips. A lot of ground vegetation was also burned, but was showing signs of re-greening. The park ranger said this was the result of a controlled burn that they carry out every few years. Apparently it’s an eco-system that depends on periodic fires, so the rangers oblige under carefully monitored conditions. To us, it just looked like we were camping in a scorched earth zone. But we did enjoy the natural surroundings, and the facilities were fine. There was no danger of fire during our stay. Showers doused us as we set up and throughout the night. I felt sorry for the young couple in the next site, who set up a tent, fresh out of its cardboard box, and endured a night of drenching rain! We were on our way again this morning, continuing to follow Highway 1 in spite of the GPS voice that tried to guide us to the Interstate 95 at every possibility. We wanted to see the coast on our way north! But actually, almost the whole way, we were set back from the Atlantic shore proper, because a long string of islands lies parallel to the coast line like a buffer between the mainland and the ocean. It provides a lot of wonderful spots for fishers and sailors, protected from the brunt of weather that may come from that direction. Several times on today’s journey the skies opened and poured down on us. Any vestige of salt that our pounding in the Keys may have left on the RV was certainly washed away today! While we don’t have internet connections at our site, there is a special room here that’s open around the clock, so we’ll be able to post this and review our e-mail.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Beach combing

Wednesday, March 7, 2012 MARATHON, FL – Today is our last full day in the Keys, so we wanted to see one of the state parks and the beach areas before leaving. The skies looked a bit threatening and it was still quite windy, but that just meant we had the beaches mostly to ourselves. At the Dolphin Research Center yesterday, the young lady who gave the educational presentations said she had seen manatees at Sombrero Beach, so that’s where we headed first. The road to the beach took us through some residential areas, where many of the homes are built of concrete and set up on columns, with the car parked underneath and the living quarters on the second level. They look good and sturdy, and ready for any hurricanes that might blow through. It was lovely on Sombrero Beach, with a wide expanse of sand and gentle waves washing foam up around our feet. The sky was quite dark out to sea, but the water at the horizon was a bright turquoise, and there were stripes of aqua and brown as the water’s surface hinted at the shoals and depths it was hiding. No one was swimming, and only a few people were strolling on the shore, so it almost felt like a private beach! Unfortunately, the manatees did not show up today, so we’ll have to keep looking. (Yesterday, Val spotted a dolphin in the snorkeling area of the RV park, which was kind of exciting. Apparently, manatees and sharks have also been sighted off the dock here, but not when we were around.) After stopping for gas and a few groceries, we headed back toward the RV park, turning off when we reached Curry Hammock State Park, also on the ocean side of the Keys. “Curry” is a person’s name, and “hammock” refers to a rise of land where larger trees can grow. These often appear in the Everglades, where wet land predominates, but patches of dry land, or hammocks, provide environments for other types of plants and wildlife. A bright array of wind surfer’s sails was laid out on the shore where they’d just been pulled in. The wind had proven too much for the surfers, so we just missed seeing them perform. Yesterday from the window of the restaurant where we had dinner, we could see wind surfers in the distance, pulled way up above the water by the stiff wind that filled their curved sails. It looked pretty scary to me! Plus they must have had their arms pulled out of the sockets trying to hold on to their equipment. Back at the RV park, we started some of the wrapping up chores for our departure in the morning. We really wanted to wash off all the salt that the wind storm had plastered onto the RV walls, even though the park rules say we can’t. Mother Nature obliged, just after supper, by sending a quick dousing of rain to spare us from possible eviction! After supper, we headed over to the pavilion where a wine tasting party was taking place for the guests. People were invited to bring a bottle of wine and something to nibble, so we had a chance to meet some of the other campers. It’s always fun to compare notes with other travelers at events like these; we’ve never left such an event without learning something new about the area or about interesting things to see in other places. NOTE: We may not have internet connections at our next stop, so stay tuned for our next entry.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Dolphin day

Tuesday, March 6, 2012 MARATHON, FL – Having a pair of dolphins swim over to you and tilt sideways to have a close look at you is a pretty neat experience. Val and I were standing next to their tank when no one else was around, so we know it was us they came to check out! This was one of the highlights of our day at the Dolphin Research Center, near our RV park. A huge mother and baby dolphin sculpture entices passers-by to come in, as well as a sign that says “Swim with a Dolphin Today!” I was unsure what kind of a facility this would be when we first arrived. Would it be like a circus, or was this a serious establishment, as its name suggested? Happily, the latter is true. The DRC, as staffers refer to it, is devoted to caring for dolphins and learning as much as they can about their physiognomy, behaviour and intelligence. The animals are clearly healthy and happy, as they cavort in their capacious holding lagoons and click and squeal at their handlers. And, we were told, the DRC has published a variety of research papers in scientific journals. We learned the story of Jax, the baby dolphin that came to the centre with wounds to its fluke, dorsal fin and flipper caused by a bull shark attack. Humans rescued him off the panhandle of Florida, and when he was stabilized, he was brought to the DRC and nursed back to health. Because he wasn’t with his mother long enough to learn how to hunt for food in the wild, the DRC will be his forever home. Other dolphins at the centre are descendants of Flipper, of movie fame. The oldest one is 50, although their life expectancy is usually less than that in the wild. The lagoons, which are fenced-off areas of the ocean, segregate the animals into juvenile, maternity and adult male sections. Programs at the centre allow visitors to touch the dolphins while on shore, standing on a platform waist-deep in water, or actually swimming with them. At around $30 per person for the experience, it generates revenue for the centre, which is not supported by any kind of government funding. It was great to watch the dolphins and handlers interact, and to see the enthusiasm on both sides as the handlers used commands and hand signals and the dolphins responded with speed and obvious delight. Some of the tasks teach them proper positions and behaviour when researchers need to take blood samples from their flukes, or swabs from their blowholes to determine respiratory health. Since there was not a huge crowd there today (there was a stiff wind whipping at us the whole time), we were able to get up close and admire their sleek, grey bodies as they glided by, and appreciate the attention they gave to us at the same time. In addition to dolphins, the DRC has three sea lions that also interact with visitors. Kilo, the largest sea lion, hoisted his enormous bulk out of the water and bounced over to the handler to show off his learning skills. Karen, a retired sea lion performer and now blind, came out after Kilo and allowed herself to be hugged by paying visitors in front of a photographer. It was fun to see the peoples’ reactions as her whiskers tickled them and her flippers closed behind them in a moist embrace. Our aquatic day came to an appropriate end at the Whale Harbour buffet restaurant, where we sampled crabs’ legs, chowder, jambalaya and other seafood delights.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Six-toed cats and feral roosters

Monday, March 5, 2012 MARATHON, FL – We got as far south as you can go and still be in the continental USA today – and here is the picture to prove it! It’s only 90 miles away from Cuba, and a favourite photo opportunity in Key West, where we went today. We didn’t get on our way quite as early as we had planned. After a restless night with the wind howling and shaking the motorhome without a moment’s respite, we weren’t sure we could venture out even today. It was still blowing hard at first light, and the waves were still rough when we looked out. However, when we actually stepped outside (with our hands firmly gripping the handle as we opened the door) it was bearable, though still very windy. Our poor little Honda was completely caked with dried salt, having borne the brunt of the lashing waves in its parking spot facing the water. It sparkled almost like frost on the windshield when we ran the wipers through it. So our first order of business was to find a car wash to get the corrosive stuff off. It was well past 10 before we got on our way to Key West, a 50-mile drive from our RV park. We crossed the Seven-Mile Bridge toward the Lower Keys, and passed through the Key Deer preservation area, where big signs warned of deer crossings along a section of highway that had fences on either side higher than any deer I know could leap. We never did catch a glimpse of a single one. Rather than getting snarled in city traffic once we made it to Key West, we decided to park the car and take a tour on one of the hop-on, hop-off trolleys. We didn’t stay on for long before we came to a likely-looking lunch spot, next to Ernest Hemingway’s home, called the Six Toed Cat. Apparently, such creatures still inhabit the grounds of the Hemingway establishment, descendants of Papa’s six-toed pet. Our light lunch lightened our wallet alarmingly, but we had been forewarned, and we were hungry. It was a short walk to the cairn that marks the Southernmost Point of the USA, and the day was lovely and fresh after all the heat and humidity we have had. We passed quaint wood-frame houses with picket fences, shady porches and gingerbread trim, decorated with tumbling splashes of bright bougainvillea. Several times, we spotted feral roosters strutting about and crowing. After our photo opportunity, we walked back to re-connect with the trolley tour, which took us on a wide loop through the old town and out to the more modern edges of the city. We learned that the name “Key West” was actually an anglicised version of Cayo Huesa, the Spanish name that means island of bones, since pirates in early times found such evidence from shipwrecks. When our route took us past the shopping, eating and beach areas, we appreciated the full impact of Spring Break, which has just begun. The beach especially was jammed with huge crowds of young people, looking for a good time with their friends. On the main street, hundreds of shoppers jostled each other on the sidewalks, and shopkeepers smiled as their cash registers chimed regularly. If we had more time, we would have had a closer look at the Hemingway house and a nearby butterfly museum, but we wanted to get back to the RV before nightfall, so we left that for another time.