The Three (un)Wise Men, Episode 2
The three of us were crammed into the van with five other passengers as we left Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv and headed out into the flat lands of Israel. The scene was strangely like traveling through California’s Central Valley with the 4-lane concrete motorway straight and smooth. On either side of the highway were vast fields of produce; cucumbers, melons, and tomatoes extending all the way to the foothills in the distance. The soil was naturally arid, irrigation bringing abundant life; without it, the floor of the plain would revert to the brown barrenness that it had been for centuries prior. In another 45 minutes we would reach Jerusalem, but first we would have to climb some 700 meters in elevation.
As we ascended into the hillsides, the cooler climate of the higher elevation allowed conifers to grow with surprising success, considering the lack of rainfall; a few at first, followed by stands, then small forests. Weaving through the trees, we turned off at an interchange and headed around a traffic circle. Suddenly, we were transported into tan-colored, endless suburbs.
Our driver seemed to know where he was going: a right, followed by two lefts. Two more rights and another half-dozen or so lefts and we reached the first stop: a nondescript concrete block of flats. The driver confirmed with Passenger #1 that this was The Place without ever needing to extinguish his cigarette. He finally ended his phone conversation in time to help pull Passenger #1’s luggage out of the back doors. Back in the driver’s seat, he slotted the Sprinter into first gear, checked his mirrors, took a drag on his smoke, and dialed his fourth call as we pulled into the street.
We finally reached our destination after just 7 more stops and 13 phone calls later. The Jerusalem Hotel sits along a relatively modern street just outside the Old City. I say “relatively modern” because in Jerusalem (and much of the Middle East) a building may have been built in the 1940s, but the one standing next to it probably dates back to Adam’s father. We gathered our bags out of the van, exchanged pleasantries with our kind driver (a grunt with no eye-contact), and followed Mark through the narrow gate at the back of the hotel. Both Jefe and I were thrilled to be there. We could not wait to find our beds to get some much-needed sleep. I was operating on 32 hours with no sleep and was ready to collapse.
I muttered something to Mark about finding our rooms, and he took on a devilish look. He wrung his hands together and said “Oh, fellas! I got a big day in store for us. Lotsa walkin’! We’ll grab some grub here at the hotel, take a taxi or maybe walk to my flat…..we’ll probably grab a cab because that walk is a bit of a doozy. Then we’ll drop your bags and then hit the Old City. A big day! A big day!” He smiled, knowing that we would see and experience so much in the coming hours. He also takes great delight in watching others suffer.
We found a table in the courtyard and he ordered us a round of hummus and something else that I couldn’t identify. His excitement was growing a bit contagious, as I was now anticipating the day ahead (or at least the food I’d sample). Jefe was full of questions for Mark, and the conversation I heard took me right back to high school: mainly ridiculous banter, with the occasional deeply insightful commentary on culture. It is what I love about these two. I am always wearing a perma-smirk as I follow the seriously humorous observations they make on the people around us; yet I know that I cannot dismiss it as nonsense, since either one will pause for just a split second and spew forth a rooted truth about a wrong or a right they see in a society (or, more often than not, a squirrel’s erratic behavior).
Two platters were brought out of the kitchen doorway and placed in front of us. There was a large plate of hummus, adorned with carrots, cucumbers, and pita wedges. I dove into it and was greeted with a freshness of hummus that I hadn’t experienced before. It was bright and had a slight texture to it that made it so much more appealing than the baby food I had been served back home. A drizzle of local olive oil brightened and balanced the garbanzo and garlic mixture. It was a delightful taste of what I would experience over the next two weeks.
Our second platter consisted of several skewers of cubed lamb and chicken. To simply call it a shish-kebab would not do it justice. The cubes were grilled to perfection without the dried-out char that so often ruins meats on a stick. Even in my state of semi-consciousness, it was blissful.
After we finished our meal we grabbed our bags and found a taxi: a pristine Mercedes-Benz E300D in black—just like my father’s back home. The cavernous trunk swallowed our luggage, and we climbed into the back seat. The driver slid the manual transmission (oh, glory!) into gear, and we headed off up the hill toward Mark’s flat. He was right—that hill was a doozy. I was so glad that we weren’t pulling our suitcases up the steep streets with broken and mostly missing sidewalk. Our taxi stopped at the guard gate of the Augusta Victoria Hospital, and the driver gave a slightly puzzled look. It did seem a bit strange that three foreigners would decide to stay at a hospital for their vacation, but that wasn’t any of his business, was it? Maybe we enjoy dabbling in unlicensed medicine on our time off?
The flat Mark was “borrowing” was just inside the walls of the guarded compound. We each found a room and tried to settle in. The building had the warmth and hominess typical of Middle Eastern dwellings, i.e. there is none. The walls were masonry, the floor was poured concrete, and the windows had bars over them. I would have immediately felt at home, if home was a prison. I opened my bags and heard Mark and El Jefe snickering about something in the other room. (I assumed there was a squirrel nearby.)
A few minutes later Mark cupped his bear paws together and gave his signature thunderous golf clap and a shout. “Let’s go boys. Lotsa stuff to see! Lotsa walkin’! Are you ready?!”