It is 52 degrees outside. That means the dead of winter is upon us once again. It is a dreadful period, and I find myself slipping into a dull state of monotony, looking for an escape from this grisly reality. Normally, I wouldn’t be in such dire straits, but normally we wouldn’t be experiencing springtime in February, either. Instead, we’d be basking in the wonder of winter and the sub-freezing temps that go along with it.
I happen to thrive in winter—a proper winter. I much prefer going out into -5 degrees to the sweltering heat of 95 degrees. I’ve always said “You can always add more layers to stay warm, but you can only take off so much before you’re arrested.” (Sadly, I am always the only one listening to this endless wisdom and, frankly, find myself quite boring.) You can imagine my dismay when faced with the timid, meek attitude displayed by this current winter–the seasonal equivalent of a Corolla driver. So I find myself plotting an escape from this existence.
I tend to prefer fantasizing the old fashioned way. None of this new electronic animated and easy scrolling stuff for me, thank you. I like the old fashioned ink on paper media to escape my reality. I go to the old standard: road atlas*. So, several times during every January and February I will dedicate a portion of the kitchen table, fix a beverage of my choice, grab a pencil, and open up my North American Atlas** to slip into a slow stupor of potential road trips. Read more
Well, you’ve made it to the final segment of the Israel/Palestine series. If you haven’t yet spent enough time reading nonsense, you can get the rest of the installments here: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6. However, if you feel that you have wasted far too much time on this already, please click on the small “X” at the top-right corner of your screen.
We spent one final night in Nazareth and headed to Mark and Andrea’s flat in Zababida, located in the northern part of the West Bank. In the morning, we met up with our quiet, but friendly taxi driver and drove up the hill one final time to collect Andrea at her flat.
We headed south from Nazareth and into the hill country. It is a far more deserted drive than what a map would lead you to believe. I can understand why people may not want to call this area home anymore, as this is also the first moment I saw signs warning of land mines along the road. As the road wound its way up over the mountain, the driver slowed his pace down a bit as he navigated the ridge. We started our descent, and about halfway down the hill, he jabbed the brakes and got a panicked look in his eyes. Then I heard it: the pop-pop-pop of automatic rifle fire. I looked out the window to my right and could see several Israeli military vehicles parked in the valley below. The driver muttered something to Andrea and, with a look of sheepish relief, started driving again. Read more
It was late afternoon by the time we found the car again in the streets of Tiberias (it was right where we’d left it) and decided to head to the coast for dinner. Our destination would be Akka (Acre). It had several draws, the biggest being the fact that it was right on the Mediterranean and the second was that it had a high probability of containing at least one restaurant.
We climbed up the switchbacks over the mountains that separated the Sea of Galilee and the coast. It is only about a 25 mile drive, but it took some time as the progress is slow due mainly to traffic of vacationers clogging up the two-lane roads. (How dare they ruin my holiday!)
We parked along a boulevard and walked to the coastal wall. The wall that protects Akka from the Mediterranean is, like nearly every structure there, built out of tan stone blocks. The wall extends around much of the city, with the top of the wall forming a street lined with fish markets and cafes. (It should be noted that these cafes were not necessarily of the same caliber that one would find scattered about around Les Halles, in Paris. Instead, they are more in line with the type of cafe you would expect to see next to a fish market.) The wall extended down a couple of stories toward the water level, then extended out for another 30 yards to reach the sea. This floor seemed a bit of an odd extravagance, until I noticed how well it kept the waves from damaging the wall, at least for the 20 minutes I stood there watching them rolling in. Read more
After nearly half a night of much-needed sleep, I was awakened around 4:30 am by the Fajr call to prayer. The PA systems employed by every mosque I’ve been to around the world all seem to have one thing in common: all-out volume is far more important than what a full, even frequency response is. As a result, the calls to prayer always seem to greet the listener with a piercing sound of a nasally AM transistor radio set at a volume best described as WAY TOO LOUD. While not exactly soothing, it does practically guarantee that everyone will be awake for the prayer within the first five seconds of the broadcast, and—since there is no Snooze button—everyone will stay awake. After only a short eternity, the PA system lining the streets clicked off, and I was allowed to fall back to sleep within milliseconds. Thankfully, just over an hour later the PA clicked loudly again, and I knew what was coming: the Sunrise Prayer.
Mark, Jefe, and I congregated in the kitchen of the flat and had bit of breakfast: coffee, bread, and the most wonderful breakfast drink I have ever experienced: lime juice. We had to get some food into our bodies because we had yet another “big day ahead.” We would be heading to Bethlehem.
We walked down to the bus terminal just outside Damascus Gate of the Old City and caught a ride to the border checkpoint south of Jerusalem. Walking into the concrete block building, we got in line with our paperwork in hand. Judging by the number of M-16 rifles shouldered to the guards, we decided against pushing our way to the front and instead waited patiently in line to increase our chances of crossing the border successfully and with the least mortality. Read more
We headed out through the gate of the Augusta Victoria hospital and onto Martin Buber Street; I was awestruck by what was upon me. I could look down across the valley and see—just a few thousand yards away—the Dome of the Rock. I checked my handy pocket map and, to my amazement, it showed that we were standing on the summit of the Mount of Olives. The Old City was standing firm, as it had for the last couple years or so, its ancient fortress wall protecting it from any intruders. Any intruders but us, I hoped.
We walked the steep hill into the Kidron Valley and stopped at the Garden of Gethsemane for a little break. (Walking downhill is hard.) I looked around the property and was impressed at the relatively small footprint that the garden had, yet it was certainly a peaceful place. with birds chirping and the breeze whistling through the cedars. Orange and purple flowers littered the landscape and conifers shaded and cooled the rocky soil. (Anyone with any sense of beauty would have immediately known the floral varieties on display. I know them simply as “flowers.”) There were several olive trees in a grove in one section of the garden. They were twisted and knurled, almost square in their dimensions. The trunks were fat and thick; their limbs were tightly woven into themselves, like a tugboat’s hopelessly knotted mooring line. The leaves were delicate, a light drab green that was the definition of “olive.” Mark called the attendant over and asked (in his broken Arabic) how old they were. The man thought for a bit and replied, “Maybe three thousand?” Suddenly, I felt a bit less significant to the world. These very trees were older than Jesus. Read more
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.
It was all becoming a bit overwhelming. I was on my way to spend two weeks exploring Israel and Palestine, with the help of another high-school friend, Mark. Mark and his wife Andrea were teaching English in a Palestinian high school for a couple of years and were apparently suffering from some sort of food-borne illness that made them lose all reasoning processes of the brain. Why else would they invite me to come over and stay with them?
The logistics were on the sketchy side, as well. Our mutual high-school buddy Jeff would be flying up from Honduras (where he had been living for a year or so)through Dallas-Ft. Worth to Newark, NJ. I would be taking the train from Pennsylvania to Newark International Airport and meet up with him with an easy 3 hours to spare before our flight left for Tel Aviv. We would catch a taxi in Tel Aviv to take us up to Jerusalem. No problems that I could foresee. Read more
There is magic in the air these days, and I am rather certain that it is not pollen. We have reached that wonderful point of seasonal change in the Northeast as autumn approaches at a steady pace. It is not entirely summer and not entirely fall; a seasonal apex, if you will. Like a good mutt, this time of year inherits the strengths of both seasons. It truly is a most pleasant time of year.
The landscape changes dramatically over these days as well. The once proud stands of field corn of the deepest green mellow with age to an olive-tan drabness. Forage choppers gorge themselves on the stalks and ears. The intense heat of summer has subsided, and lawns have returned to a spring-like vibrancy. Leaves are browning and dropping off the walnut trees. Pumpkins and squash ripen on the vine, dotting the soil with spots of color. Within a week’s time, it seems the hillsides have turned all shades of greens and oranges and browns, like the shag carpet covering the family room floor of a split-level house from the 1970s. (No, not that Family Room—the one on the lower floor. No, the other lower floor, just past the garage. Nope, you’ve gone too far!) Read more
Several years ago, I made a frightening discovery while on a run near my parents’ home. Fortunately, no one had been robbed, nor was there any need to call the coroner. This was far worse. Two of the roads that I took to get to their home from the highway were in terrible shape, broken and crumbling from years of neglect. This was not the discovery, but a harsh reminder of the real tragedy: these two roads had never been repaved since I was born. Without getting into too much gruesome detail, I will just say that meant a very long time indeed: decades (several).
It was always harsh to drive over these roads. The winter cycling above and below the freezing point that makes our soil so easy to turn in the spring also wreaks havoc with pavement. Potholes and frost heaves are the result and, in fact, the norm for most of the Northeastern U.S. In Lancaster County, we also have the moving chicane known as the horse & buggy. Outsiders view them as simple and majestic, but they don’t take into account the havoc the carbide embedded in the steel shoes does to the road surface. The middle of each lane is often marred by deep troughs running the length of the road. It is only when riding motorcycle, bicycling, or in this case, running, that it becomes shockingly evident just how bad these roads were getting; you tend to notice these things when you’re more vulnerable to the elements. The potholes were deep enough to extend through the pavement and past the sub-base of coarse stones into the dirt beneath. While not wide enough to swallow a car tire, they could do some serious damage to a bicycle wheel. Or engulf a whole running shoe, and perhaps a whole runner. As I continued to run my course, fearing for my ankles, I pondered just how bad the Highway Department would allow these roads to deteriorate before slothing to action in an effort to repair them. Read more
We were welcomed into Brian’s home at Lancaster Gate and were shown around the flat. There was a lovely sitting room, furnished with rather lavish furniture that was a bit past its prime. A formal dining room was located off the sitting room, dark and unused—yet well-stocked with tall bottles of unopened liquor. A small kitchen offered a bright contrast to the rest of the living quarters; its tiny appliances proved to be equal parts utility and novelty. Brian’s room was in the corner. Gordon and I would be staying in the spare bedroom at the end of the hall, conveniently located next to a large bathroom.
There were still two rooms left unexplored. “Oh, that’s Dieter’s bathroom and his bedroom. Please don’t go in there.” I was perplexed and a bit miffed. Here I was, being the best friend I knew how by intruding on his Canadian hospitality, and he had the audacity to refuse me entry into the rest of his home! He went on to explain. “This is actually Dieter’s flat and I act as a sort of roommate/caretaker. Dieter has schizophrenia. Don’t worry; he’s not a danger to anyone. I’m just here to keep tabs on him.” As we took our bags back to our room, we passed the semi-closed door to the forbidden bathroom. My curiosity got the best of me and I looked in through the crack. I saw shower curtain withdrawn to expose the bathtub, but instead of seeing towels drying on the rung I saw a large, foldable drying rack full of black dress socks. There must have been two dozen pairs hanging there, the air drying them to the crisp stiffness of cold English toast. Intriguing… Read more