yduJ visited Israel, the Sinai, and Greece

I went with my housemate Ken to the middle east in the summer of 1992. We chose these particular countries because his grandmother lives in Jerusalem, and his father lives in Athens. (Both these folks are U.S. citizens who have chosen to live abroad; his grandmother has been living in Israel for 30 years, and his father recently retired and is now living with his girlfriend, a longtime resident of Greece.)

We arrived in Jerusalem after a very long trip on airplanes; eleven hours in the air, a two hour layover in France, and seven hours timechange! Needless to say, we were pretty trashed.

Ken's grandmother, Bert, is 97; she's pretty frail physically, and beginning to lose it mentally, which is kind of sad. It was pretty bizarre staying at her house. She has several servants who work for her in various capacities, doing household chores that Bert can't do anymore due either to her physical or mental frailty. None of these folks were fluent in English, and some of them only spoke Hebrew. Needless to say, this made it difficult for us to function in the household; when the only person who can translate your request for a chicken sandwich is fairly confused (well, Bert could handle translations on that scale), it gets a little frustrating. But, it was good to visit her, since she can't really travel to the US anymore. And she's not completely gone; she just has confused periods, and she can't really cope with some things anymore. She's very interesting to talk to when she's not confused.

So, we had most of our days free. We spent one day going to museums, including the "Second Temple Model", which is a 1:50 scale model of the city of Jerusalem as it was about the year zero. They did a very detailed job, including sculpting the hills to match the originals. It was neat going on another day to the Old City of Jerusalem and seeing where walls had been moved (those stone walls are thick!), things had been destroyed, etc. Jerusalem has been destroyed and rebuilt so many times in its history that it is an archaeologist's dream---or nightmare. A lot of times, the ancients would steal stones from one damaged building in order to rebuild another. You really could see the building technologies getting better with time though, by going through the ruins and seeing that this wall is dated as 600BC, and it's pretty ragged and slanted, and that wall is dated as 50AD, and it's actually quite straight and the stones fit together more neatly. Stonecutting has improved through the ages! They did an excellent job of annotating the various ruins; you'd pay 3 sheckels to get in to an archaeological garden, and 6 sheckels for a book describing the area, and it was truly accessible to the layperson to see what foundations and walls had been made when, by reading the guidebook and looking at signs on various walls. The Ophel, which is a recently opened archaeological garden, has a lot of steel walkways and stairways bolted to the ancient walls, enabling you to really go through a lot of stuff and see what was where when.

The Old City itself is surrounded by stone walls (mostly put there by King Suleiman of the Ottoman Empire only a few hundred years ago). It is a mixture of old and new construction. Most of the "streets" are very narrow and made from stones, though there are a few asphalt streets where cars are allowed. In places where it slopes a lot (which is quite frequent; Jerusalem is a very hilly place) the surface is flat, and there are steps. On each step there are two cuts made with a slanty stone. This confused me until I realized those slanty stones are so you could have your horse draw a cart through the city! Even today, they have some narrow tractors whose wheels are just a cart-width apart... The modern-day equivalent. These narrow streets are lined with tiny shops mostly run by arab merchants who try to cheat you. I have no idea if they succeeded in cheating me; I did make some purchases, and I tried to bargain hard for them. It was very bizarre; if you even looked into a shop window, the proprietor was right there, trying to get you to buy his wares (always his; this is a very sexist society). They were quite insistent; they'd holler at you for quite a while as you walked away if you weren't interested. I found the strangest to be when I was eating some food I'd just bought from one such merchant, and passing a store selling similar foodstuffs, the merchant would think you were a sure customer. Huh? But I only want one falafel sandwich!

It was interesting, especially in the Jewish Quarter, to see that every building had a plaque saying what it was, or what had once stood here before this building was built. The most recent near-total destruction of Jerusalem was in 1967, so there's quite a lot of new construction. I found it interesting that they didn't often try to make the new construction in an old style to match the rest of the city. So you'd see a 500 year old building right next to brand new construction sometimes. Quite a constrast. Lots of historical sites; pay three sheckels to see it... (A sheckel is about 45 cents.) We figured, we were tourists, we should pay...

About 15% of the Old City is contained in the Temple Mount, where the old temple (of the model described above) was before it was destroyed. The Western Wall of the temple is sacred to the Jews, as it is the only original part of the temple still standing. The temple was huge. Must have been amazing before the Moslems destroyed it. West of the Western Wall is a large courtyard (paved with modern brick, so it's all new). All entrances to this courtyard are controlled by the Israeli army, and they search your bags. The idea of blowing up the Western Wall is attractive to many Moslem terrorist types, you see. The wall is used as a place of prayer; people go stand and face the wall to pray. Frequently they'll write down their prayer on tiny scraps of paper, roll up the scraps, and stuff the scrap into the chinks between the stones. The holiness of the wall will bless the prayer or something, I guess. Beyond the wall, which you can go through in one place, there is another checkpoint, where they search your bags again, before letting you go see the Dome of the Rock mosque and the Al-Aqsa mosque, both of which are built on the grounds of the original temple. The idea of blowing up the mosques is attractive to Jewish terrorist types, you see. Non-moslems have to buy a ticket in order to go through the mosque. This seems reasonable to me; after all I'm just there as a tourist. A lot of Jews think it's terribly wrong, however, as they want "free access" to the Temple Mount (despite not having a temple there anymore). You can't take anything with you into the mosques, despite having had your bags searched at the entrance to the Temple Mount. Twenty years ago a terrorist did succeed in getting a bomb into Al-Aqsa, and blew up rather a lot of it. They let you carry your wallet and passport, but nothing else. Fortunately nobody stole our stuff while it sat unattended outside. The mosques are beautiful. Gilt domes, stained glass windows, the whole trip. The Dome of the Rock has this enormous rock in the center; allegedly the one on which both Abraham didn't sacrifice his son Isaac (no this is not a vacuous statement; he sacrificed a goat instead), and from which Mohammad ascended bodily to heaven. Um, whatever. (Not being religious, I find a lot of this quite silly. But they do good art and architecture...)

We took a road trip one day to the Dead Sea, about 30 miles from Jerusalem. This entails driving through the Occupied Territories, which idea made me nervous. However, in actuality I felt no particular danger from terrorism; mostly it was just people living in little towns going about their businesses. The Dead Sea itself is fairly big; about 50 miles long. We drove the entire length, stopping at Ein Gedi and Masada. Ein Gedi is supposed to have a waterfall, but when we discovered we'd have to hike for two hours just to get to it, we decided to punt. I've since been chastised by various people to whom I've described our trip for not going to the waterfall, it's supposed to be wonderful. (I admit we also had our doubts that there would be any water in it; it was amazingly dry there.) We went for a "swim" at a beach near Ein Gedi. You don't swim in the Dead Sea, you float. There is such a high concentration of salt that it increases the density of the water quite amazingly. It is said that you can float in the Dead Sea and read a newspaper without getting it wet. Well, I wouldn't recommend trying it when there's wind, but you do float really high. You float as high as you would wearing a full wetsuit (if that means anything to you). The water is incredibly salty, if you get a drop in your mouth you can really tell, and you don't want the stuff anywhere near your eyes. Yow! A bizarre experience, for sure.

Masada is an amazing place. It is a high mesa overlooking the Dead Sea (putting the top of it just below sea level---the Dead Sea is over 1200 feet below sea level!), easily defended due to the sheer cliff faces. They've built a tram, so it's not necessary to scale cliffs (well, there's actually a walking path up, but even that looks formidable). Atop the mesa you find ruins of an ancient fortress built by King Herod about 40BC. People had been living there since about the 10th century BC, but they really got serious about building with King Herod. It wasn't just a fortress though; quite a sizable community lived up there. I found the most interesting part of the ruins to be the two enormous cisterns, where they stored water for the community. These are enormous caverns cut out of solid rock, with their walls finished smooth to be watertight. I'd guess the smaller of the two to be 100 feet long by 30 feet wide by 60 feet high. They haven't done any "reconstruction" of the original buildings (I approve of this practice; I want to see the old things and know that they are old things without being confused by new things being added to make them look old), but lots and lots of whole walls are still standing. Ruins stay in better condition when they don't get rained on!

The next phase of our trip was to go scuba diving in the Red Sea. We had arranged the trip with a dive shop in Elat, which is at the very southern tip of Israel, its only port on the Red Sea. There was a screwup at the beginning, rather annoying, they changed the dates of the trip at the last minute. The result of this was that we had to change our plane tickets to Greece, and ended up driving to Elat rather than flying as we had originally planned. Unfortunately, this disorganized tendency continued through the rest of the dive trip. I would have been made a lot happier by the trip organizers if they'd just spent a little more time telling us what we were going to do next. We'd never be sure if we were going to be spending an hour in a place we stopped, or if there wasn't even going to be time for a pit stop...

The trip was very international: people from Belgium, Holland, the US, Canada, and Israel. People would talk to each other in the most convenient tongue, but everyone knew English. (Good thing; I'm completely illiterate and only speak English. This multilingual crew kind of put me in my place, somehow... The folks from Belgium speak four languages: Flemish, French, German, and English.)

The first day of the trip was mostly spent traveling; first we spent hours crossing the border into Egypt. We'd loaded all our gear onto a truck at the dive shop; this stuff was all unloaded and reloaded onto some jeeps that met us at the border. There's some restriction about taking private cars into Egypt that I really don't understand. So the jeeps we used were Egyptian owned and never crossed the border. The drivers were also Egyptian. Two jeeps for people, one for cargo. Our driver was an amazing guy; we spent quite a bit of time driving on dirt roads and tracks through desert near the beaches. He'd put the jeep into four wheel drive and go up over obstacles that I was sure were gonna roll us... Much to the delight of a couple of teenage boys that were on the trip. There is very little traffic on the roads in the Sinai; he'd drive on the wrong side of the road just because it seemed convenient at the time. You know, just not bother to move over after passing, and take all turns really wide if he felt like it.

The Sinai desert was not at all what I expected. I guess I have this "desert = sand dunes" model in my head somehow... The Sinai is mountainous, with stark red rocks everywhere. You can really see that these rocks were once on the bottom of the sea and were pushed up by plate action; there are pronounced sedimentary striations at all angles including near vertical. It was so barren and alien looking it seemed as though we were on the moon or mars.

At night we camped on the beach. The stars were beautiful. You forget, living in a city, even a small town, just how many stars there are, since there's so much light pollution. It was hard to see the constellations for the stars! We spent hours lying on the beach looking at the stars instead of sleeping.

The contrast of that nearly complete lack of life on land with the incredible growth undersea was pretty amazing. The coral reefs come nearly to the top of the sea; you walk out over the reef for fifty feet in a foot or two of water, and then jump off into a canyon full of fish, coral, crustaceans, and other life. We had a book of Red Sea fishes with us, it was fun to look at the book after a dive and say "I saw that one and that one..." One of our dives was at night (we had some problems with our flashlights, including losing one, whoops), and we were treated to the undersea equivalent of fireflies. These things were somewhat photophobic, but once we got the hang of it, we'd figure out where they were, turn off our lights, and watch the show begin. Bright flashes of green light, looking like two eyes staring at you from the darkness. We never were able to get close enough with a light to see the rest of the fish because they ran away too fast. But there were dozens of them. Awesome. I also liked a very tiny orange crab-like thing that had bright orange diamond eyes that reflected the light back. We were able to take a boat out to the middle of the Straits of Tiran one day, and dove off some reefs out in the middle. Boat diving is way better than shore diving; none of this traipsing around in 2 feet of water on slippery surfaces carrying 40 pounds of gear on your back. Just strap on the gear and jump in the water. The reef walls were near-vertical, which I like a lot: look straight down into infinity. There were very tall columns of small orange fish reaching from nearly the surface down as far as we could see. Mostly the fish didn't seem to school "properly"; they acted more independently than I think of schools. I like to engage in the activity I call "herding fish"; swim straight at a school of fish and watch as they amazingly turn all in the same direction simultaneously to go away from you. Sadly, these orange fish didn't "herd" like I wanted them to... We did find some really good herdable fish on our last day there, which made me happy. We also got taken through a cave. I wasn't sure it was real safe, if something bad had happened, well, there I'd be, in the cave... But it was really kind of neat. It wasn't exactly a cave; there was space at the top where the reef opened up, but it was partially roofed over. There was very little life in the cave, I guess because it was darker in there. I enjoyed the cave, but I liked the open water where there's lots more to see (and it's safer) way better. We got to see a puffer fish puff up! The dive leader was good at finding interesting things, and she was happy to poke at a puffer fish to make it puff up, and then turn it around and show it to all us followers. Later, Ken got attacked by a parrot fish. It was attacking his fins, which are bright red. We're not sure if it thought they were another parrot fish, or what. Those parrot fish have nasty looking teeth! Fortunately it wasn't trying to bite Ken himself!

After the last dive of the last day, we had a pretty frustrating afternoon, wanting to get back to Israel and our rental car so we could get started on the long drive to Tel Aviv. It wasn't a very nice end to the trip. Sigh. We did manage to get to Tel Aviv and into a hotel before midnight, which wasn't too bad (we needed to be at the airport at 7:30, which meant for a short night). So, we arrived in Greece just about as trashed as we'd been when we arrived in Israel...

Ken's father, Paul, lives with his girlfriend, Margarita, in a two or three acre compound on which are several buildings, mostly owned by Margarita's children (now adults). It's a pretty strange place; they've got servants of various kinds, who of course only speak Greek. It was the old problem we'd had at his grandmother's house... His father still has all his marbles, but his Greek is only barely good enough to get along. So we'd say, "Paul, please ask if we can use the washing machine and how to use it", and he'd struggle for a while to translate this request... Everything is broken at their house. The washing machine was broken. This was a problem, since I hadn't actually brought enough clothes for the entire trip. I ended up doing some of my clothes by hand in the sink, and wearing my souvenier tshirts (usually I like to save them until I get back home). They had a swimming pool, but its filter was broken. Everywhere you turned, things were broken. It's apparently very difficult to get anyone in Greece to actually show up to fix something. It's always "I'll come tomorrow", but then tomorrow they don't show. Sigh. The first day we mostly took naps and groused about the laundry.

The second day we went to the Acropolis, the mainstay of tourism in Athens. This houses the Parthenon, the large temple to Athena, and various other fortifications to protect the temple. This stuff is older than most of the stuff we saw in Israel by half a millenium. I was disappointed in it though, because they didn't do nearly as good a job of making it clear which buildings were from what period. We dutifully bought our guidebook for 1400 drachmas (a drachma is about half a cent), but things weren't labelled and it was hard to figure our way around, so we hired a guide. The guide really knew his stuff though, and showed us around pretty thoroughly. It was interesting. "And here is where Socrates drank the hemlock... And here is where the great philosophers had their tea..." Actually all that is in the Agora, down below the Acropolis, which is up on a high mesa. People like to build temples on tall hills. I guess it gets them closer to their god or something. There's a lot of work going on right now to reconstruct the Parthenon. I don't approve; I like it how it is, I can imagine how it was... Unfortunately this means that they've roped off large areas and don't let you go in. Whine, I wanted to look at it up close. Oh well.

The next day we went to Delphi to see the Oracle! Delphi is at the junction of two sheer rock cliffs which come together at a right angle, with a gorgeous valley spreading out below the cliffs. Quite a stunning place, and the Parnassos mountains, which you drive along to get to Delphi, are also quite beautiful. A spring comes out at the junction. The Oracle's mouthpiece would sit at this spring, mumbling bizarreness which would then be translated by a poet into an ambiguous answer. The water from the spring is quite tasty, very fresh and cold. Below the Oracle's spring was a temple to Athena, and on one of the hillsides was a temple to Apollo. Here we had a better guidebook than at the Parthenon, which enabled us to figure out better where the buildings were. They also let you wander around mostly everywhere in the ruins rather than roping off half of them.

I had one more day in Greece, but this was taken up with social events planned for us by Paul and Margarita. We had lunch with some friends of theirs. Greeks take their time at everything... and "lunch" took about four hours... It was good though. The food was good everywhere we traveled. Being an omnivore and liking all sorts of cuisines helps a lot when traveling. "Oh boy! We're in Israel! Let's have falafel and hummus! Oh boy! We're in Greece! Let's have spanikopita!" We also went to a ballet at the Odeion, which is a theatre built a couple thousand years ago in the Akropolis. The seats are all new, though done in the style of the ancients (semicircular stone benches). The backdrop of the theatre is all original stone wall though, and there is no roof (it having collapsed sometime in the past thousand years). The ballet was good, and the setting was stunning.

Driving in these places is somewhat of a trip. The signs are all not only in a foreign language, but the character set is unfamiliar! Fortunately the important signs have an English translation. I had been told that the natives would be just insane drivers, and it would really knock my socks off to drive there. Ho hum, how dull, they were hardly worse than Boston drivers. Guess I've gotten jaded or something. And in Greece in the rural areas the drivers are awesomely polite about being passed on two lane roads. They really move over onto the shoulder to let you pass.

Ken stayed in Greece one more week, and went to the isle of Sifnos for rest and relaxation---and windsurfing. But, his last day there, he broke his foot windsurfing by taking a really bad spill in shallow water. Youch! There are no hospitals on Sifnos... So he had to get his foot xrayed in Athens. (There are telephones on the island, it's not that primitive; he called to say he was probably coming home a few days late due to getting a cast on his foot and such.) Well, not a happy ending to the story, I'm afraid! But other than Ken's mishap, and the frustrations with the dive company (Aqua Sport in Elat, in case you want to avoid them), it really was an excellent trip, and I'm really glad I went.