[Editor's Note: This page is the second half of Cris' recounting the highlights of his recent (January 2007) trip to Israel. The first part can be found in Online Issue 10.]
It’s hard to know where to start when writing about Jerusalem as it definitely held more surprises than I expected. For some reason, I always believed that Jerusalem was located in the desert flats. So, I was surprised when I found us driving through historic mountain passes to reach Jerusalem, which is located at an altitude of 2500 feet. I also recommend using a tour guide if you go. After my initial trip, I went back 4 days later with an official tour guide after some of our clients told us how much better the experience is with guides. My first guide was a taxi driver, who, while a nice guy, didn't go through the rigorous process that registered travel guides must endure.
The difference between an official travel guide and a taxi driver is almost like night and day. I remember the first time visiting "a church" (one of many) inside the old city where we saw some interesting items. The guide said that since he wasn't an official guide (which he didn't tell us before we hired him), that he couldn't legally tell us any details about what we were viewing. I realized the second time visiting the same Church (called the Holy Sepulchre) using a guide in that we were looking at the the holiest Christian place in the world - the slate where Christ was prepared before he was buried, and then the tomb where Christ is said to have been buried and resurrected. Several churches were built over quarry where the original burial took place.
I first viewed the walled “Old City” portion of Jerusalem from Mount of Olives, which is an entire hillside filled with graves that overlook a large portion of Jerusalem. When I was on top the hill, I heard a haunting Muslim prayer chant that was broadcast from the Arab side of town, perhaps a portion of the occupied territory of the West Bank.
The Old City of Jerusalem is divided into four quarters: The Armenian Quarter; the Muslim Quarter which contains the famous gold dome you see in pictures; the Jewish quarter, which contains the wailing wall; and the Christian Quarter with the Villa De La Rosa (where Christ marched to his crucifixion), and the Holy Sepulcher (Christ’s final resting place). Just outside the Old City on Mount Zion was the building where the Last Supper is believed to have happened. There were also several churches that, within a single building, held a Jewish floor (typically on the bottom), a Christian floor, and a Muslim floor (generally on top).
The Old City is still a very active marketplace with families living there and owning market shops for hundreds of years. Inside most of the Old City we seemed to spend most of our time walking down fairly narrow walkways with markets on each side. The place is a maze of narrow walkways, and not the open plaza I expected. If someone stopped in front of us to see the merchandise in a shop, it would often stop all of the people moving in one direction. It seems almost claustrophobic at times. It must get extremely hot and muggy in there during the summer. Good thing I had cool weather and only a little rain.
The Muslim quarter was the most dirty, but also the most lively with merchants almost jumping in front of you and saying “Brother, come into my shop and see my watches….”. At one point in the Muslim quarter we were looking for a way out of our walkway to find the golden domed mosque. It was very difficult to determine which of the narrow walkways would get us there as nothing was marked particularly well. At one point, we made our turn down a relatively wide walkway, certain we were headed in the right direction. Upon making the turn, two guards with machine guns said "this area is closed". My colleague and I decided to forego creating an international incident in the Middle East, so we left peacably.
We had some pretty good cheese cake in the Muslim section - a little delicacy created on a large, round pizza plate with cheese that was melted, and topped with crushed corn and then drenched in a sweet corn syrup. I say the stuff was pretty good, but, what's not to like about a desert that has a lot of fat and sugar.
While leaving the shops in the Arab quarter to go back into the Jewish quarter I overheard a tourist talking to a group of people saying, “Now remember, these people fund terrorists so if you go into there and buy anything, you will be funding terrorism. So be careful not to buy anything in there”. My British colleague overheard the same comment and we both looked at each other and we both knew the guy was an American - his English was too clear to be British :)
Our tour guide gave us a lot of interesting tidbits and historical information about Jerusalem. A few times he would say something to the effect “….that person escaped and went to Bethlehem…” and he would point toward some buildings on a hill not far away showing us Bethlehem. We wanted to go to there since it seemed so close, but it’s now in the hands of Hamas in the Occupied West Bank. Everyone agreed that this wouldn't be a prudent place for Israelis or Americans to visit.
In the Jewish quarter I walked up to the Wailing Wall. There is a tradition that if you put a piece of paper with a wish into the wall and the paper remains stuck, then the wish will come true. So, I got a small piece of paper, wrote onto it a wish, and put the paper into the wall. I tucked it in a little crevice between the rocks already stuffed with hundreds of pieces of paper. My paper held initially, but it later fell to the ground. My note had one word – Shalom – the Hebrew word for Peace. Maybe next time.
On our way back down from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv on the second trip, we spent a 30 minutes at the Holocaust Museum. It’s worth at least a full day and is not to be missed. We weren't going to stop there at all, but there was a large traffic jam in other places of the city because it was "Jerusalem Day" (celebrating the "liberation" of Jerusalem that occurred at 11:30 on May 16, 1967).
On our way to Tel Aviv we passed a few McDonald’s and ate some local cuisine off the beaten path in a little town.
The four of us (business colleagues) in the group felt very safe in Tel Aviv during our trip to Israel. In fact, we felt safe the whole time, even traveling to Jerusalem. The combination of the lack of obvious security, but knowing that Israel has the best military and intelligence in the region was comforting. Also, Tel Aviv is as far as you can get in the tiny country of Israel from any of the obvious hot spots. The West Bank is about 30 miles to the east (ironically enough), and Gaza is on the coast, probably 20 miles south of Tel Aviv. The Israelis are fun-loving and go about their recreation and business like any of us do, so it’s easy to forget you are in a troubled region. In fact, it’s easy to love Israel and Israelis!
However, late in the trip, some infighting began in Gaza between Hamas (the current government) and the remnant of a Palestine Authority faction (Fatah) over, of all things, security leadership. I am sure by now, you are aware of the situation from the daily news reports. The Palestinian people live in squalor in the refugee camps such as the one in Gaza, so it becomes fairly easy for terrorists, political parties, and criminal gangs (calling themselves "Brothers of Islam" and other such names) to seize control and generally cause trouble. During the fight, one of the groups inside of the Gaza strip (Hamas) shot a few small missiles into southern Israel, presumably to draw Israel into the fight and draw worldwide attention from the infighting and inside of Israel. Several people were injured in southern Israel. During this incident, we were having dinner one evening in an outdoor restaurant on the beach, when our group looked up to see and heard a few of the Israeli military helicopters flying south from Tel Aviv south - toward Gaza. On Wednesday and Thursday morning, we heard about the Israeli counter-attacks. Perhaps the helicopters we saw……
While I still felt safe in Tel Aviv, I was somewhat relieved to be leaving when I did. I could read about the Gaza incident from the safety of Paris (my layover while leaving) or the U.S. The threat of a direct attack from thugs and political groups inside of Gaza to Israel is really pretty low, but it’s a lot lower threat to my health when I am back in the U.S.
Local Customs and Behavior
Perhaps the quirkiest activity I saw in Israel was the work week – it’s from Sunday through Thursday. As a result of this schedule, probably combined with jet-lag, my internal clock was usually off by a day. It was easy to get offset by a day or two, especially with Pacific Coast time being 10 hours behind the time in Israel.
Another interesting custom, practiced in varying degrees based upon religious convictions, was the Shabbat. From sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday you are not supposed to perform activities that cause change (I am sure that I didn’t get that correct – but it was characterized to me that way). As a result you can’t cook any meat as it will change the composition – but you can eat it; There is at least one elevator in a hotel will stop on every floor (can’t change the path of the elevator); and people light candles and place them throughout buildings.
Most Israelis speak English quite well. I used to tease the British guys in our group that the Israelis spoke English better than they did. This was emphasized during one conversation I had with our British colleagues about the BMW he owns at home in England. He said he had an Empry, which I thought initially to be a special European version not offered in the U.S. After a minute or two, I realized it was an M-3, the high performance BMW. The British colleague with the Australian heritage had to "decipher" for me :)
The most common written language in Israel is Hebrew, which is written and read from right to left. Because writing from right to left leaves a characteristic curvature on characters, and because in this format the numbers on our receipts (prices) appear on the left and not the right, all of us in the group inevitably rotated our receipt several times trying to figure out the prices. It was quite funny - it happened EVERY time. And once we finally figured out the correct price, we realized that there is no place for a tip, which at this point (if your credit card has been used to create the receipt), you have to give the tip in currency – you can’t add it later to the credit card receipt. Then there is the issue of how much to tip…..which I tend to go 10 – 15%.
And for my bozo move of the trip? I was working through lunch one day and asked the guys to bring me a sandwich down as I wanted to continue to endlessly tweak my Powerpoint material. They asked me what kind of sandwich I wanted and I said “ham and cheese”. Of course, that probably wouldn't be kosher in the company cafeteria. Oye! Fortunately, my bozosity was taken in a humorous vein by my Israeli client.
My only regret is that I didn't go SCUBA diving in the southern tip of Israel in the Red Sea - apparently quite an exotic place.
That’s it for the Israel Reports. If you are at all thinking of going to Israel my advice is to not worry, just go. You will love it. But don't wait too long, the dollar is very weak and the exchange rate is dropping almost daily.
Until my next exotic trip, Shalom!
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