Saturday, September 04, 2010

Journey to Israel, our arrival and first impressions of Jerusalem, meeting people and visiting the old town, Eladio is a very lucky man and plastic weapons will not help peace.

Me by the Wailing Wall, a magical moment on the first day in Jerusalem.
Hi everyone,
Here I am writing to you from our spartan but comfortable room at the St. Andrew’s Scottish Guesthouse in the holy city of Jerusalem, what is known here as Christian accommodation.  It has been a long day and let me tell you about it.
We were up early at 06.30 today to catch the Iberia handled El Al 10.15 flight to Tel Aviv.  We went  early because I was worried about lengthy security procedures which turned out very smoothly in the end and left us with more time on our hands than necessary.  The plane was half full and the 4.5h flight was uneventful.  We spent the time reading the papers (The Daily Mail and El País), reading our guide books and nodding off occasionally.  Of mention, the food was quite disgusting (macaroni with watery cheese and tomato sauce) and we blamed the crisis.  They called it lunch and it was served at 11.15 which as you can imagine was far too early for us.  Hopefully we will eat better food in Israel.  I’m looking forward to the humus, falafel, baklava, etc, the typical middle eastern cuisine plus getting to try Kosher and Israeli cuisine.

Boarding in Madrid
Tel Aviv airport is enormous and I expected USA type security for entering into Israel, but it was much easier and the officials more polite.  Recommended by Olivia we decided to try our luck with the Sherut shared taxi service to our hotel and it worked out fine.  The taxi is actually a minibus and seats about 10.  We sat next to a talkative Italian Franciscan monk.  So for 55 shekels (NIS = New Israel Shekel), the equivalent of just over 11 euros each, we arrived about one hour later at our destination, the St. Andrew’s Scottish Guesthouse

St. Andrew's Scottish Guesthouse where we are staying in Jerusalem.
You are probably wondering why we are staying here and the reason is that in Israel we decided to go for more authentic vs modern top hotels, so’s to get a flavour of the country.  Originally I had tried to get rooms in similar accommodation within the city walls but everything was booked at the time.  It’s a 15 minute walk from Jaffa Gate (the heart of the old city) and has magnificent views.  We have a balcony and a sparse but comfortable room.  I suppose this is because the place is Scottish.  I was therefore not surprised to hear that breakfast is from 07 to 09h hours only.  Tomorrow is Sunday and there will be a service at the Presbyterian church here which I have threatened to take Eladio to.  The place is something of an icon in Jerusalem, built in 1930 to commemorate the Scots who died liberating the land from Turkish rule during the First World War. The place has an air of days gone past, the only problem being it has turned rather shabby and even grimey in parts.  On the plus side it is real haven of peace after the mad and bustling old city.

The view of the walled city of Jerusalem as seen from our balcony at the Scottish Guesthouse
Now let me tell you a bit about my impressions so far.  It was 30ºc when we landed at just before 16h (one hour ahead of Spain); nice and not humid. The landscape in the one hour journey from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem reminded me very much of the arid landscapes you get in most Mediterranean countries.  The vegetation is similar and I saw lots of eucalyptus and pine trees but also a lot of semi desert.  I read in the guidebook that nearly half of Israel is a desert.  However the Israelis have made miracles out of such dry terrain and are big exporters of fruit and vegetables.  I did see some crops, notably vineyards but funnily enough no villages for miles until we reached the outskirts of Jerusalem.  The houses, as you might expect, have flat roofs and are mostly white.  I began to see housing as we approached the city and most of it was white made of limestone and perched on the hills.  Later when I saw the houses close up, many of them had water deposits on their roofs like in India which I thought very odd.
Our arrival coincided with the Jewish Sabbath (Saturday, but like our Sunday) so there was little traffic.  Our rather delapidated Sherut took an hour to drop us off as it had to drop the other passengers off before.  We spoke to various of them including an American girl from Florida who had come here to study “Disaster Management in Humanitarian Aid”.  I suppose this is the right part of the world to study something like that.
Keen to explore the town, we asked Ibrahim from the guesthouse reception for a map and instructions how to get to the old town which you can actually see from our room but is tricky to reach if you don’t know the way.  So we stepped outside, camera in hand and eager to see what we could of Jerusalem in the little time we had left  before sunset.

Eladio walking up the hill outside the city walls towards Jaffa Gate
Not only had our arrival coincided with the Jewish Sabbath, it also coincided with the Muslim Ramadan so the old city was not as vibrant and alive as I imagine it usually is.  We walked through the amazing white stone walled city of David (of David and Goliath), gazed at the Citadel and then followed signs to the Holy Sepulchre which was actually through the semi empty Arab Bazar.  We reached the area where the city divides and could not cross to the Mosque as it was closed for non Muslims by Border Police.  During our entire stay we were never able to visit the Muslim part.
We wandered through the endless streets of the Bazar until, unknowingly, we came across the Western Gate.  Here we had to go through security (it is everywhere here), walk under a tunnel full of Ultra Orthodox Jews dressed in their traditional Sabbath gear and singing and eating, until we came out into the square by the world famous Wailing Wall.  It was night time now and the stone walls were floodlit and just being there and watching the Jews semi  hitting their heads against the wall and chanting as they have done for centuries was amazing.  The tradition of the wailing is for the destroyed temple of the Jews by the Roman Emperor Titus in 70ad. 
On the topic of Ultra Orthodox Jews, you see them in groups all over the old city, with funny headgear, dark long clothing and of course the men wear their hair long in sort of plaits which I am sure are not called plaits.  The women wear long frumpy unfashionable dresses, although their heads go uncovered.  I heard later that many of them wear big wigs when they go outside.  The reason?  Fanaticisim I would say: they have shaved their heads so as not to be attractive even to their husbands!

Typical Ultra Ortodox Jews in Israel. You see them everywhere here.
From the Wailing Wall we went in search of food and that is when Ramadan and the Jewish Sabbath got in the way; nearly everywhere was closed.  In the end we found a small Arab café called “Everest Kafeteria” (!) where we had a very nice pitta bread sandwich with chicken.

Eladio showing his pitta bread chicken sandwich at the Arab Bazar tonight.
Afterwards we wandered towards Jaffa Gate half thinking of returning to our hotel at 20.30 when we heard music coming from the Tower of David (also called the Citadel) and by chance were just on time to see the Night Spectacular there which was amazing; a spectacle of music, light and photography against the ancient white walls of the Citadel.  I sat next to a Jewish family from Washington DC.  The man was old enough to have survived the 2nd World War and I wondered if he had.  Maybe he is here to visit the Holocaust Museum.  We certainly will.
Before I finish this post I must tell you something very funny that happened today.  Just as we were debating whether to go into the Tower of David, a man in the street who I think was an Arab, said to Eladio: “Is that your lovely wife?  She’s in a very good condition.  You are a very lucky man!” 
And that’s it for one day, from this amazing holy city in the Middle East which is not desperately clean, full of police and security, where kids play with toy rifles and which is considered by the 3 biggest monotheistic religions in their world as their capital, the city that cannot live in peace: Jerusalem.
You see many children with toy weapons here; peace is all about education too I think.
That’s it for today folks.  It’s been a long day.  Tomorrow we will see Jerusalem by day and if I'm not too tired tomorrow night I might write another post.
Cheers Masha
PS You can see more photos here.

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