I only asked for two things this Christmas: explorations of faith and buns of steel. Israel is delivering on both counts.
After sitting at the Jordan/Israeli border for 3.5 hours (without snacks — we were vastly underprepared for this kind of delay), we finally arrived in the Holy City. Despite a brutal cold that has knocked all three of us out of the travel-game for at least half a day, we’ve taken in much of Jerusalem and now parts of northern Israel as well.
And there is much to see.
We’re halfway through our 18 day trip, and I have hardly begun processing everything that’s come my way. I’m currently sitting in a cafe, where the menu is only in Hebrew but the music is a mix between current pop music, ’80s hits, and Hebrew ballads, trying to understand what Israel has offered thus far.
This I know:
1. Northern Israel is gorgeous. Like, I would move here just for the views. The hills, the trees, the Mediterranean Sea, the Roman and Crusader ruins every which way you turn. Except I’d definitely need to invest in a GPS.
2. Talking to strangers has never been this much fun. Harry the Armenian artist sells a guarantee with his pomegranate sculptures, the symbol for fertility. Rabbi Shlomo, the impeccably dressed and fabulously social man we met on the aerial lift of death, ended up officiating a wedding we stumbled upon on amongst the ruins of Masada. Our fourth hosts of the trip, Rina and Buky, love to hike all over the world, make bread for their guests each morning, and share life stories.
3. I am walking the same streets and orchards and promenades of some of history’s major players. The most obvious, of course, is Jesus, whose steps I’ve traced from Gethsemane to Gologotha, Nazareth to Mount Tabor. I’ve sat in the same amphitheater as King Herod the Great (and in what was most likely his bathtub), stood in the same hall where Paul-formerly-known-as-Saul asked the Roman legion to spare his life, stepped in the same tunnels as Richard the Lion-Hearted and other crusader relatives, and scampered up the hill at the Horns of Hattin where Salah al-Din conquered crusader knights.
It’s been a jam-packed few days. Here are the fruits of our travels:
We spent Christmas Eve in Bethlehem. It’s our only planned excursion into Palestine, and it was crazy and perfect. Once we navigated the extremely simple bus from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, we walked through the city center to reach Manger Square. It was like being back home in Cairo, except without the disgusting comments hurled from drivers and bystanders. It was loud and cheerful, and we could finally speak with shop owners in a language we know.
Bethlehem does Christmas right. Lights criss-crossed the main streets, and decorations of trees, ornaments, and creches peaked through all of the shop windows. Many people wore Santa hats in the street, and Manger Square had a giant tree and nativity scene. We meandered through the crowd while a singer crooned an Arabic version of “O Holy Night” on the stage behind us.
The worst part of the evening happened while in line to see the traditional birthplace of Jesus. We stood in a line and moved at a decent pace, until we neared the entrance. It soon turned into my worst nightmare. For a good 10 minutes, I literally could not move an inch. The pressing bodies and soul-crushing sense of claustrophobia almost convinced us it wasn’t worth it, but we decided to stick it out. When we finally entered the site of the manger, we were directed by tour guides to “Quickly, touch the star, then move on. Let other people in! Move on! Fast! Let’s go.” Needless to say, I did not get a solid picture of the birthplace of Jesus, nor did I have an opportunity to really look at anything. I only wanted fresh air and space at that point anyway.
More pictures showing our trek through northern Israel soon. It’s time to return to the goat farm, where we are staying for the night. I’m hoping for another thunder storm to serenade me to sleep, or at the very least for the heat to have kicked on.