Friday, July 28, 2006

Last days in Israel

Here's a better photo of Jesus' tomb. I had a few moments to myself early in the morning, missing daily mass with the Mexicans. Five different religions share the Church of the Holy Sepulachre and there is a different ceremony every half hour...Church of the East, Eastern Orthodox Church, Eastern Rite Catholic Churches, Oriental Orthodoxy, Syriac Christianity Confusing, don't you think?

The entrance to this triangular-shaped Holocaust Museum, as you can see, is contemporary and such a contrast to the ancient sites we've seen so far. It's very well done and powerful, moving me to tears many times. Unfortunately I didn't get through it all. Finally everything is in English but the Mexicans had no Spanish to read. Our guide, whose grandparents and parents escaped from a concentration camp, would not go in as he finds it too upsetting. I think it is important everyone try and see one of these museums at some point in their life.

After Europe and here I thought I was 'churched out'. Seriously, how 'wowed' can one get over and over again. But St. Peter's in Jurusalem is beautiful. Relatively new, mosaics
and stained glass cover all the walls. In the basement is the cave where Jesus was imprisoned overnight as he awaited trial and where Peter denied him three times.

Tel Aviv has beautiful beaches and if it weren't for the situation here, I would be spending some time in this westernized city. This is a view from Jaffa (old city) which is now part of Tel Aviv. There is an amazing history here, as a main port for centuries, but has been ruined by war many times. They are attempting to revive it and have done a good job with the square, art galleries, etc.

My Mexican friends left this morning for Medjugorje. I miss them already - they are always fun and lively and have truy deep faith. I love their songs and their spirit. Hasta luego Amigas!

I met a family from Edmonton going to Jordan and planned to go with them but visa requirements made it difficult so some of you (Colin and Mom) will be happy to know I leave tonight for Istanbul. But the middle east is so intriguing - I haven't even told you half of what I've seen and it hasn't yet sunk in. I will be back one day. To hear the Muslim prayer call five times each day and and see all the other cultures trying to get along - its mystical. Ilsa recommends.

Bethlehem, Judea Desert - Jericho and the Dead Sea

Oh Little Town of Bethlehem - 1000 pop at Jesus' birth, now 35,000 but is like a ghost town due to war keeping tourists away. To our advantage we had the place to ourselves - the Casa Nova is run by Franciscans and is next door to Nativity grotto where Jesus was born. This is view from outside my window - sunrise and sunset. 'Tranquil' describes it best.

Coco, my new best friend, on her first donkey ride (despite it being her 5th Holy Land tour). For some reason Coco has taken to me and is usually at my side. She's a great shopper, like all the Mexicans here. I found a great strategy for bargaining - I wait until they my amigas are done and go in with my purchase once vendors have been beaten down. I actually got a free shampoo without buying anything (thanks Coco). Of course, this strategy was formed after being ripped off a few times.

The Dead Sea is fabulous. It's a whole new way to swim - buoyant so you have to ensure your head doesn't go under and your legs up. We could only stay in about 15 min between showering - we had spa-like mud treatments and came out baby soft (except I had breakouts). It was an amazing experience. Surroundings so peaceful.

This middle-aged camel needs a toothbrush, don't you think?

We saw many of these Palestine Camps (Jericho) on our drive through the Judea Desert. The camel guide told me there are almost 1000 people in his camp. He didn't see his baby girl for years during the last upset - imprisoned in his own city. There still isn't a resolve for who owns what but he also said they have a very strong community and knows 2000 people who would do anything for his family. Our bus driver, also Palestinian, said they don't care who owns what land - they just want peace.

I loved driving through the desert - I felt a sense of calm as soon as I saw it. Its easy to understand why Jesus went there.

Over 2000 years ago people were living in this settlement, writing scripts and taking ritual baths and living their lives. The 7 Dead Sea scrolls were the oldest evidence for text of the Hebrew bible - dated back to 3rd Century BCE - 1st Century. We saw copies of the scripts and other artifacts in Israel Museum in Jerusalem but these are from the archeological site. The caves mark where most were found.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Jerusalem photos

Most of our tour group, waiting for the bus.
Western (Wailing) wall - a remnant of the western retaining wall of Herod's Temple Mount and symbol of Jewish faith. The first time we've seen a lineup (only on the women's side as the men's side is much bigger). People pray and insert little notes into holes in the wall.

These vendors are always outside our hotel entrance in Bethlehem waiting to sell us something. This guy was demonstrating how to wear the head dress and his friend reluctantly modeled. Our bus was leaving and they were left standing there like that. Maybe you had to be there but was hilarious.

Beggars are at every tourist spot saying thank you or gracias repeatedly, along with the aggressive vendors. Little kids sell olive branches. One little guy, about 10 or 11, said 'no money, no money' and then gave me a hug so I let him but then he felt me up. His little brother followed me to the bus, trying to get a piece of the action I guess.

Carrying cross - Via Dolorosa

Luly, her sister, Dora, and her cousins outside of Jesus' Tomb in the Holy Sepulchre

Mosaic tile from 3rd Century AD where St. Jerome lived. He was famous for his literature and first translation of bible from Hebrew to Latin. He lived for 34 years next to Nativity grotto in Bethlehem, now the Church of Nativity.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

The Holy Land

Israel is definitely the most interesting place I have ever seen. I am still trying to get my head around everything. Before I share my thoughts on this crazy place, let me paint a picture of the last few days. The first big hurdle for me was patience.

Day one of tour started with a prayer in the bus to Old Jerusalem, prior to a stop at the Ascension Mosque, built by Christians in 1 AD but currently owned by Muslims (we must pay to go inside but they give you olive branches). We viewed a footprint encased in glass apparently left by Jesus prior to the his ascension in heaven. I can't see it - can you? Everyone kissed it and took photos of themselves in front of it. Then we prayed. A short walk later and we were at Dominus Flevit, the sanctuary where Jesus wept over the city of Jerusalem. More praying and then we had a mass. I forgot it was Sunday - of course its a Catholic tour so that made sense. Besides, going to church has always been okay and the Lord knows its been a while since I had communion. Its all in Spanish so I don't understand everything (I mean anything) but in some ways its nice because I can step back and tune out. No one seems to mind.

Day one continuing... NOON - we went for lunch, prayed, and then to the Pool of Bethesda, one of only three archeological sites here that existed during Jesus' life then to a tomb?? My memory is going. Later we were at the place where Judas betrayed Jesus and Jesus was convicted. Then we carried a cross doing the exact walk (Way of the Cross) and prayed at the marked stations of the cross. Some men hissed at us and the shopkeepers tried to get us to buy their stuff and tourists took photos of us. There was one part where we had to be silent (Halleluhia) due to respect of other 4 religions who share the church where we found the tomb of Christ. It was pretty cool to know we were in these places I know from many years of catechism and church (thanks Mom) but also hard to grasp since it is so different than what I had established in my imagination.

The surreal part of this tour so far is actually being surrounded by these very different cultures/religions that are so active and obvious. Old Jerusalem has definitive quarters for Jews, Christians, Muslims, etc but they are all intertwined and its hard to believe they have gotten along as well as they do and no wonder there are always wars.

Aaron our tour guide who is Jewish is from Haifa - he and his family are spread out all over Israel, staying with friends and relative now due to the current situation. He can't get the sound of the sirens out of his head. It's been 20 years since he heard them when he was a small boy. He supports his leader 100% but doesn't really think the situation will ever get better.

In contrast, the guide we had today in Bethlehem is Catholic (Aaron isn't allowed here). He said nothing will ever get better and he's indifferent about his Prime Minister's actions. Bethlehem has 35% Christian, the rest Muslim, down from 90% Christian 20 years ago. Everyone is leaving because of the religious tensions.

Day 2 in Jerusalem, we went to the Dormition Abbey in the Zion Monastery and saw the crypt where Mary died (or just slept, depending on Orthadox or not) and ascended to heaven. We had mass there (not just Sundays afterall). It was truly was a peaceful place with a lovely garden and befitted the Virgin Mary. The coolest part of yesterday was the location of the Last Supper. Seriously, the actual place still exists. Again the place is shared by many religions so we weren't allowed to have mass there (although that didn't stop a few prayers). It was well-perserved with less decorations than the other places. Later we went to a church build by Emporer Constantine that had in mosaics on the walls 'Our Father' in every language.

Day 3 Today we're in Bethlehem and it's my favourite place so far. To our advantage, the war has kept tourists away and we were the only group going through the Nativity grotto when they usually have over 100 groups. We are also the only guests staying at the hotel right next door to the grotto. It was really cool to imagine Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus in the area where they might have been over 2000 years ago; however, I am finding it really difficult to be spiritual when everyone is taking photos and kissing the area, etc. It's testing my patience. I will try harder tomorrow to find quiet times.

We also checked out the Milk Grotto where Mary was supposed to have stayed breastfeeding baby Jesus. There are many theories on why they stayed there but apparently she caused milk from the heavens to pour out there, leaving white powder substance in the cave. People with fertility problems go there to there to buy white powder to drink with milk or water then pray a traditional prayer to Mary to give them a child. There are testomonies framed all over the walls and photos of their miracle babies. I tried to get the guide to tell me what the white powder in the cave actually is but I only got the response of pure faith and no answer. I think it's limestone but maybe I'll get my brother the geophysist guy to investigate for me. I bought some anyway - just in case. Anyone want some?

Shepherds Fields was the last location of the day - there's a cave where the Shepherds kept their flocks at night and they placed stones in front every night so that they couldn't get out and one Shepherd stayed inside with only a little hole to let others in and out. This place is also dedicated to the shepherds who saw the angel 'Gloria in excelsis deo'. A Catholic church funded by a Canadian keeps the place going.

The atmosphere is much nicer here than in Jerusalem so we will stay another night and enjoy our time. The hotels clerks are much friendlier and helpful, as a matter of fact I went to one of their homes to get some laundry detergent. I did get some very strange looks in the town though when I was following him into stores. I think I wasn't covered up enough.

Its hard to believe there is a war going on in this country - if it weren't for CNN and asking locals I wouldn't know it. The vendors are desperate and constantly surrounding us. The whole city relies on tourism so hopefully the war will end soon for their sake and everyone else directly and indirectly affected by it. Pray for that, will ya?

The Mexicans are warm and wonderful to be around. They don't mind that I don't speak Spanish and converse with me anyway. Luly and her three cousins speak English so I get them to translate if necessary. It's also great the the official language of Israel is English so where there is writing, I usually find it. Ironic that I'm finally in an English-speaking country yet with people who I don't understand. I love a challenge!

Sorry no photos as problems posting right now but will put them up when I can.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Crazy Days

Logistics of traveling are not always so pleasant... linesups, unbearable heat, slow trains, ferries, buses, airports.... for three days. Sometimes you just have to do it. I did it because I already had my eurail pass and thought this was the most economical route. Would I do it again? Probably not. But I think everyone should learn to appreciate the tough part of traveling (however, talk to me prior to undertaking a 19-hour ferry ride). As well, I now know that a flight would have been cheaper and allowed me more time in Rome but that's life.

What did I learn? Well you can pretty much sleep anywhere if you are really exhausted. And misery loves company so you will always meet someone.

I landed in Tel Aviv early yesterday morning and waited for the Mexican group that I joined because of my friend, Luly, who stayed with me last summer.

The hotel in Jerusalem is also something of an adventure. At dinner, the Jewish people were singing and I was trying to speak Spanish with my new friends and then an Arabic wedding came through. What a celebration. They were throwing the groom into the air and carrying the bride (completely wrapped in white). Luly's cousins were wearing scarfs they had from Egypt and they also have Mid Eastern look. We were asked to join the party. The men carried the bride and groom into the ballroom and all the women (only women) followed. There must have been about 500 people in there. The dresses were elaborate as were the decorations. Two little girls became enamoured with me as I was in awe of everything else around me. They kept asking me to pick them up and kissing me. So cute.

I can't post the photos as this computer is old but will try to find an internet cafe tomorrow.

Stay with me now, will ya?

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Under the Tuscan Sun

Tuscany is everything I thought it would be and more. A landscape of vineyards, olive groves, sunflowers, and wheat fields kept me alive during a gruelling uphill bike ride (although at one point a nice man stopped and gave me short ride as he must have noticed the near-death expression on my face prior to the steepest hill I have ever seen. That or because I was at a complete stop resting against the bike and nearly got hit by a car (man the roads are narrow here). A few more km and a little downhill, I stopped at a campground for a glass of wine only to be entertained by the owner and some of his guests. They ensured I was fed and watered before heading out again. Because I got a little lost it ended up being 30 km all together and 4 days later I am still suffering. The hot sun make it a bit hazy during the day but sunsets are breath-taking.

I am staying at a hostel in Certaldo, Tuscany that was once a monastary and has been in this Italian family since the 17th Century. There is a refreshing pool and fantastic grounds for exploring. Customized day tours, cooking classes, and great people coming and going make it a wonderful spot stay put for a while. There's a midieval town on top of the hill in Certaldo (like almost every town in Tuscany). There happened to be a festival going on last weekend, showcasing artisans, musicians, skits, acrobatics, fire eaters, etc. Crazy costumes, glass blowing, mimess - very exciting but forgot my camera so try to use your imagination, or better yet, check it out for yourself one day.

While some of you folks were surviving the Calgary Stampede or mud wrestling in Craven, Saskatchewan (do they still do that there?), I took in the Ben Harper concert at the Pistoia Blues Festival. The venue was fabulous - a Piazza (square) with an an old church and lots of hippies for the pleasure of people watching. Despite the tight security and police dogs, pretty much everyone managed to 'Burn one Down'.

On a past day tour, we stopped in Vinci and saw the Leonardo's family home and a museum with some of his drawings and models of the drawings. Definitely a genius before his time.

Also had to check out the world's best ice cream (photo below is only a few of their rich flavours).

Another day tour to Sienna afforded me the great pizza and a coke for 4 Euro. These Italians really know about food.

Had the place to myself today to do laundry, swim, and read a book - you are forunate not to see the flip side of my feet on this hammock.

Birthday greetings to Aunt Margie, Bobbi, and Don this week, also thinking of dear Dallas!

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Get Lost!

Well I finally left the Netherlands and started heading south. I decided to spend a day and a half in Germany to check out some ancestral places before taking an overnight train to Florence. I thought an act of bravery would rid myself of complacency. Driving a car in foreign territory, fending for myself with maps, and nothing planned would do the trick. I'm happy to report... maybe relieved is a better word... that I survived.

My sister enjoys genealogy as a hobby and gave me some names of areas to discover. However, at the train station in Frankfurt, that exciting process was still a world away. First, I had to get out of Frankfurt and try to find those places on the pre-marked map my friend, Diana, got from CAA, which happens to be completely different than the one I got from the rental car company.

The main highway has no speed limit as you likely know, but others have 120 or 130km limits, however, slow down to 80km for construction and come to a dead stop for accidents. Don't they know speed kills? The towns are so close together that if you blink you will miss them.

Picture this... You are driving a Fiat (small but expensive) in an attempt to keep up with traffic and cause as few horn honks as possible and then you blink. Damn you just missed an exit... or did you? *note, Asfaht is not the name of a town, it means 'exit'. I thought the backroads might be easier (by the way, there are no backroads).

Now, picture this... you're driving along, faster than the norm but it seems okay; you're enjoying the scenery and you spotted the next town toward your destination; then you come to a T-intersection with the name of one town to the right and one to the left; your hesitation has caused a traffic jam so you randomly choose (only to later find out that neither of those towns are even on the map); 20 minutes and 5 circular miles later, you are back on course. Now picture doing that 10 times in one day. I'm not even being dramatic. It took me 4 hours to get to my 2-hour destination.

The Landau area, former home of the Frölichs, my Mom's ancestors, is lovely. There are vineyards and picturesque villages everywhere. It reminded me a little of the Okanogan area and smells wonderful. No one speaks English and with 40,000 people it is a bustling place.

There are only 3 hotels, two 5 star (with no vacancy) and one a little dumpy. Guess where I stayed. It was huge but there were only nine other guests who were in Landau on a study program. One of them apologized to me on behalf of Germans for the inadequate service.

I spent the next morning wandering through a cementary looking for familiar names. It was actually a beautiful place. There were couples there (I suspect volunteers) taking care of it. I'm talking real flowers and cleaning the tops of the graves. The Germans really know how to take care of their dead. It seemed to be only 20th Century so I only found a couple of family names fairly recent but lots of names from my home town area in Saskatchewan.

I had wanted to check out some more places but after all the driving in circles and stopping to get my bearings, I gave up. It took me five hours to get back to Frankfurt but I still had a few hours to explore the city. Its quite nice, with the Main river running through it (reminded me of the Bow). I like the way they mix the new architecture with the old bulidings.

If you ever decide to go on an adventure such as this, take along your patience and be prepared to get lost!

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Pretty Little Towns in the Netherlands

With a car and driver (thanks Rob), we had the great fortune of visiting off-the-main track places. It was cool to see the different lifestyles in these little towns. A lovely day was had by all! Ilsa recommends back road places.

Joc, Rob, Carrie, and Jon on a pretty little bridge, over a pretty little canal, in a pretty little town named Weesp (pronounced vaspe... I think).
There are still many heritage windmills in the Netherlands. This one has banners protesting a proposed highway in the area (a highway would totally ruin the adventure of driving on their pretty little narrow roads). I saw a guy working on a windmill wearing wooden shoes.

Can you see the pretty little lambs in this scenic landscape shot?

We stopped for lunch on a pretty little patio, overlooking a pretty little canal with pretty little boats (some big boats too) passing through a pretty little bridge, while listening to an orchestra. Appropriately, they played "I'm so pretty"!
Weesp has some unusual decoys in their canals.

Say Kaas!! (in case you can't guess, kaas means cheese)

A castle in Muiderslot, just outside of Amsterdam.
On a warm day in Amsterdam, outside is necessary. Many had pulled their kitchen tables to the sidewalk outside their front door and had neighbors over for a picnic. Some chose to BBQ on a boat.

Amsterdam - Art, Drugs, & Fallen Women

I was most fortunate to get a customized tour of Amsterdam by Helena, Jocelyne's mom. It was such a treat to not have to carry a map, etc. I gawked at everything and she kept me safe so I could enjoy the day. Plus she's like a talking encyclopedia - having explored the city for the past four years she knew lots of neat little tidbits about everything.

We checked out the Rijksmuseum, full of Rembrandts and other wonderful things, like 15th Century doll houses. I needed to restrain myself from breaking the glass to play with it. Most of the museum was closed for remodeling but the wing we viewed had more than enough to keep us busy and a multi-media exhibit on Rembrandt.

After a Capuccino, we headed to the Van Gogh museum. I just love his work - his pieces were in order so we could see how he evolved in the short span of time he produced. I took a few photos before I was told not to. You should recognize a couple below.

We went for lunch at the Historisch Museum. Behind Helena, you can see the colorful lockers for the children of the former orphanage in which the museum is housed.

A tour of Amsterdam is not complete without a visit to the red light district. Standing in one spot, among many on crack, I saw a drug deal on my left, with streets of prostitutes in the background, and policemen walking the beat on my right. Tourists and locals were just going about their business as usual.

I didn't realize how close you could be to the prostitutes. They were showcased behind individual windows much like shoes. Because it was so warm, a lot were were standing outside, wearing neglige and having a smoke. It's quite sad.

Before finding a patio to refresh, we wandered into the Old Church where they were having a photo exhibition. The subjects were from Cap Mae La, a refugee camp on the Thai/Burmese border, south of Laos. Their injuries were from either land mines or torture. Tragic stories and beautiful photos.

In the evening I met up with Jarome, a man I had met in Galapagos. Having been raised in Amsterdam, he knew all the hot spots of the area. We went for a boat ride in the canal, checking out the different gables (tops of houses), before going for Spanish food.

The atmosphere totally changes at night, with neon signs highlighting the coffee shops (where you can buy drugs) and red lights (where you can buy women). There are different areas, depending on what you like and how much you want to spend. For sure the best people-watching city I've seen so far.

These guys are walking away from one of the streets with the famous windows (I won't judge)