Monday, May 31, 2010

Israel (all by myself)!

A couple of weeks ago, Gerhard, a new friend of mine from church, mentioned that he was planning on traveling to Israel and was looking for a travel buddy. Knowing that Shannon had already visited when she was younger, I summoned up my mettle and agreed to accompany him on a long weekend sans Shannon. While it was simply not the same without my trusty sidekick, I had an amazing trip. Below are some general impressions from my time there.

We visited Jericho, Bethlehem, Masada, and Tel Aviv; but, of course, the most memorable city we visited was Jerusalem, and specifically the Old City. A walled citadel of labyrinthine corridors filled with bustling souks (markets) where Jews, Muslims, and Christians live and work side by side, it doesn't take much imagination to envision how life would have been here centuries ago.

Down one passage way, you could find yourself struggling to survive the din of the crowds while down the next you might find yourself completely alone with only the sound of your footsteps for company. Filled with layers of history spanning the millennia from when Jerusalem became the city of David in the 7th century BC to the present day, it's impossible to comprehend all that has transpired within those walls...but it's sure fun to try.

Whenever we left the Old City, we were instantly reminded that even with its incredible history, Jerusalem is also a very modern city. A few blocks from the Jaffa Gate, we found an area of Jerusalem (close to Mahane Yehuda market) reminiscent of Boulder, Colorado, with its university/arts town feel. Pedestrian-friendly streets were populated with students, boutique shops, street performers, and some great locally owned restaurants (I recommend Burger Bar).

As we were walking, it was easy to see that my friend and I were among the older gentlemen there, but we enjoyed ourselves nonetheless. Above is a shot I took documenting one of the most pervasive and influential American exports: hip hop. Timberlake's got nothin' on Isreali breakdancing!

This also brings me to another observation. Almost everywhere we went in Jerusalem, we heard what seemed like an unusually large number of English speakers, especially among the younger crowds. And what's more, they weren't speaking with British, New Zealand, Australian, or Canadian accents, but with American accents. Being in Israel was the closest I came to feeling as though I was back in the States since moving overseas. I'm not sure how exactly to explain this, but my guess is that there's a fair amount of movement between American Jews living in the states and their relatives in Israel (and of course, America has the largest Jewish population of any country in the world, including Israel itself).

As a Christian, this trip was a sort of pilgrimmage for me. We visited a Greek-Orthodox monastary outside of Jericho, marking the spot where it is believed Christ was tempted by Satan over a period of 40 days, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem commemorating Christ's birthplace, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem which was built over the site where Christ was crucified and buried.

In one way, this was a deeply spiritual experience which I will always treasure, but in another way, I found that I was not as profoundly moved as I had previously imagined I would be. This was a little disconcerting to me, but here's what I think was going on. First, these places can be chaotic, filled with tourists trying to get their money's worth, and making them feel more akin to amusement parks than holy sites. This makes it difficult to create an environment conducive to devotional reflection.

Second, I think I'm more of a product of my Protestant upbringing than I had realized. We are not socialized and educated to develop much (actually, not any) of an attachment to a multi-sensory sensory approach to worship such as is the case with the Catholic use of icons or the Greek Orthodox use of incense. As a result, I had some difficulty enjoying these liturgical traditions which tend to emphasize the fact that our faith is an embodied faith, that is, we are to worship the Triune God with our hearts, minds, AND bodies. I was interested to find out that Shannon had had similar sentiments when she visited these sites during her time in Israel.

It's nearly impossible to go to Israel and not experience in some way how the Israeli-Palestinian issue is affecting the country. Once we crossed the border into Israel from Jordan, Gerhard and I hired a Palestinian driver who took us to Jericho and Bethlehem in the West Bank before dropping us off in Jerusalem. On our way to Bethlehem from Jericho, we passed one of the Israeli settlements in the Palestinian "controlled" West Bank (the picture above). It was absolutely fascinating to see one of these settlements which have played such a large role in the recent diplomatic tiff between the US and Israel. Moreover, our driver told us a bit about what life is like there at the moment. Among other things, he told us about how Palestinians living in the West Bank cannot enter into Jerusalem unless they have special work permits, even to worship at the Dome of the Rock, the third holiest site in Islam. I realize this is a complicated issue (talk about labyrinthine!) with many perspectives, but regardless, it was very informative hearing about it from our driver's point of view.

Having previously traveled in the Middle East, I was used to being in the company of men with automatic rifles, but Israel took it to another level. Perhaps the most striking thing for me was the guards' young ages at the numerous checkpoints we traveled through. One guard I saw carrying (and dwarfed by) an M-16 could have been no older than 18, but he looked more like 16. I remember seeing another Israeli teenager, evidently either on his way to or from active duty, walking to the Wailing Wall in a t-shirt, tattered jeans, and white flip flops along with an automatic rifle slung across his back. Just being there for a few days, I could tell that Israeli society as a whole was in a constant state of vigilance, as if the Six Day War could happen again at any moment.

Well, those are just a few general impressions I had while there, and here are more pictures (in no particular order):

Monastery of Temptation, outside of Jericho, West Bank

Passageway inside Monastery of Temptation

Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem, West Bank
Byzantine mosaic, Church of the Nativity

Place marking where Christ was placed in a manger,
Church of the Nativity

Bethlehem Square where Popes Benedict and John Paul
have publically celebrated Christmas Mass
Shot taken on our approach to our lodging, the
Lutheran Church of the Redeemer guesthouse (the door
is on the right), Old City, Jerusalem
Old City wall by Jaffa Gate, Jerusalem

Jaffa Gate, Old City, Jerusalem

No, you're not in Boulder, CO; you're in Jerusalem!

View from a balcony where we were staying (the two
domes on the left are the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and
the steeple on the right is the Church of the Redeemer, the only
Protestant church in the Old City)

Pic of the garden in the guesthouse

View of the Church of the Redeemer from
the guesthouse garden

Entry into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Site where Christ's dead body was laid
and prepared for burial

What's remaining of the site on Calvary
where Christ was crucified

Dome of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre
The Holy Sepulchre where Christ's dead body was laid
and which Mary and the disciples found empty

God shining down on us in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Orthodox Jews at the Wailing Wall

Standing at the foot of the Wailing Wall

Garden of Gethsemene, just outside the Old City

Street sign pointing to the oldest part of Jerusalem

Shot taken when walking along the Old City ramparts

Tel Aviv, Israel's most modern and European city

View of a minaret of the Fishermen's mosque in Old Jaffa
just beside Tel Aviv

Me in front of the Dome of the Rock, Islam's
third holiest site

Closer view of the elaborate calligraphy and
geometric designs adorning the Dome of the Rock

View of Masada, site of a final confrontation between Jewish
rebels and the Roman Empire in 73 AD (the entire Jewish group
committed suicide rather than be caught alive), from the cable car


Storehouse ruins in Masada

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

A foodie in the UAE: desert decadence

For Sam’s birthday I took him on a surprise overnight getaway. We drove into the desert about 100 miles southwest of Abu Dhabi and turned onto a nearly unmarked road which wound for five miles through nothing but golden sand dunes.

The road to nowhere...or to a fabulous resort?

Coming over the last hill we found what appeared to be an elaborate sand castle but was actually a five-star hotel --called the Qasr Al Sarab--literally in the middle of nowhere. The harshness of the desert surrounding the resort was a stark in contrast to the cool marble corridors and heavy Arabian antiques, lush gardens and fountains, and doting hotel staff dressed in crisp uniforms and welcoming smiles.

We were greeted by no less than five people, who in turn whisked our car and bags out of site and brought us into the cavernous lobby to sit on plush chairs and take in the view through an enormous picture window while they checked us in. In seconds we were given hibiscus tea and damp towels to cool ourselves, and shortly thereafter a woman arrived to escort us to our room and explain all the amenities. We dressed up for dinner and decided to check out the grounds while we waited for our reservation. But after a 5 minute stroll, we decided to take in the setting sun from the safety of the air-conditioned bar (man, it’s hot in the desert!).

What was most surprising about this little escapade to the desert was the fine dining, which if you've read my previous posts has been hard to come by out here (and yes, I am a food snob). We indulged in a chef’s tasting which featured foie gras prepared two ways, tuna tartare with wasabi cream, fresh sole with clam reduction, kobe beef and truffles, mojito sorbet, and the freshest, sweetest strawberries and basil you ever tasted, all in one meal. I don’t want to think about the carbon footprint this decadent experience left on our planet, so don’t even say it!

[imagine pictures here - I was too busy eating to take any]

Returning to the room Sam discovered a chocolate mousse the hotel staff had left for his birthday (with candles and everything) that was so delicious it was a shame we could each manage just one bite.

When I requested the cake I gave this message: "Happy Birthday Sam! Love, Your Wife" (okay, not very inspired, but I was on the spot). However, what we got was "Happy Birthday. Some love your wife." Gotta love the language barrier.

The next morning we lazed about, ate at a sprawling breakfast buffet, made a half-hearted trek into the dunes (again, so hot!), and then headed back to Abu Dhabi, and to reality.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Ode to Sam

My best friend wakes up beside me each morning. He makes model airplanes and plays basketball and has an endless supply of movie trivia – and kindness. He is easy going and makes friends everywhere he goes. He listens to Emo and Mo’town. He’ll sing unabashedly to the soundtrack of Moulin Rouge. He makes me laugh. He makes my stomach flutter when he looks at me with those clear, blue, doe eyes. Eyes that view the world differently from anyone else. He loves to explore – the physical world and the internal psyche. He holds convictions about things that matter, yet he’s open to change when a good case is made. His bedtime reading includes books on modern architecture and Calvin’s theology and the history of Palestine. He always wants to know more...about...everything. About poetry, theoretical physics, fly-fishing, pop culture, the details of my day. He loves to talk and to teach. But when I need him to, he listens - intently, patiently. And he seems to know when it’s right to tell me to get over it (or myself) or when the only answer is simply silence...and a foot rub. He loves his family. He loves my family! I’ve known him for 12 years and there is no one on earth for whom I have greater respect. And he can dance – seriously, he has skills – and isn’t ashamed to show them off in our living room. Have I mentioned that I love him? Happy 33rd Birthday, my darling Sam. Thanks for doing this thing with me.