Thursday, April 12, 2007

25 (not out)

Yup, in just a few minutes I hit the 25 barrier. What to think of it? Initially I thought nothing of it. Then, I thought "the end of my youth"!!! Now I am back to oh what the hell, its been a great innings so far... enjoy the memories and look forward to the future.

Just don't let the seeping by of years, the attrition of work, and the creeping wall erode the best things of youth - excitement, enthusiasm and the joy of opening ones eyes to the inherent beauty of this world.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Jerusalem to Petra and Back!

.... and thus it was that I went from the spectacle of paramount sites of Islam and Judaism to that of Christianity - The Church of the Holy Sepulchre. An interesting place indeed.

I view the experience from two totally separate angles, which I have to explain individually.

On the one hand..... I see it as a building, a source of history, intrigue and political mirror. At a fundamental level, the site of a number of churches/shrines built over what is believed to be at one end Golgotha, the site of the crucifixion, and at the other the place of the Resurrection - the holiest shrine to over a quarter of the world's populace. The current structure has evolved from the magnificent crusader cathedral dating back to the 11th century and I understand to be arguably the first ever Gothic building. Quite magnificent. This is though overrun and overtaken by the partitioning politics of the last millennia.

In some ways unbelievably, in others very tellingly, the place is literally split stone by stone, wall by wall between on the one hand Roman Catholics, on the other Greek Orthodox (who hold Golgotha and the tomb), Syrian Coptic, Egyptian Coptic, Russian Orthodox.... in fact my understanding is that of the main denominations only protestantism has not grabbed a flagstone (intriguing as the British were overseers of Jerusalem for quite a few years). So you have the absurdity of the most important world site for billions marred by centuries old battles for space. The rule seems to be - if you clean it, you own it. So beside magnificent shrines you have crumbling rocks. A shocking example is that of the 'temporary' walls installed due to earthquake damage. Important structurally, but what began as a short-term solution has now permanently removed the beauty of the spacious heart of the cathedral as the Greek Orthodox cleaned it, mosaiced it and hence claim it. A bit of a hostile take-over if you like. There is little place for dispute resolution in a place with less information or guidance than a village church. Overall fascinating but a shame on Christianity.
On the other hand....a distinctly spiritual experience. It is fashionable to go to a far away temple and "find yourself", but not to have such experience in a church of all places. What absurd hypocrisy on the face of society. To enter the tiny golden laid tomb of Jesus put a tear in my eye. What ever you believe in, if having the privilege to enter a place of such significance to so many does not send a shiver down the back of your spine then you are certainly not me. Something I will never forget.

So on I wondered around those little winding streets with their smells, colours and culture. With its history, sanctity, conflict, beauty, life and death, Jerusalem is a place unlike any other I have experienced. On the one hand a place that can teach the world so much and on the other one that so clearly needs to learn.

I packed a day-pack and headed to Masada.
Taking the bus down, round and through some very poor Arab areas, into the increasing desert, past the Dead Sea and to a place I have wanted to visit since I can remember. A huge rock that juts out from the edge of the Dead Sea heralding the start of the Judean desert. Cliffs for all sides and flat on top, a natural fortress, developed as such by Herod in circa 50BC (apologise for any inaccuracies as this is all off my head). Magnificent as it is, one event cemented its place in history. In the second Jewish revolt against the Romans (circa AD 72) this was the last stronghold against the Roman backlash. The defenders seemingly untouchable, the Romans simply built a huge ramp up a 4oom cliff-face. SIMPLY???? - only in the sense of simply amazing. Such a show of human ingenuity and bloody-mindedness led to the remaining holdouts taking their lives - man, woman and child. A tragic, startling place.

Jumping off the bus and climbing the rock was fantastic. The views breathtaking. Such a break from the sterile office to suddenly be standing on top an ancient fortress staring into the barren wilderness.

As it happened I had the good fortune to bump into a cool French dude - Nicolas - on the way down. At present, the average tourist in Israel is American, 19, on 'Birthright' (Zionist American organisation that ships over young American Jews to see the country that is their 'birthright' so they can go home and pay cheques in the future - not a quote from my head, but the view of most people I met who came off it), certainly Jewish and NOT independent.

So here we were, a ros-bif and a frog wandering down (via a bus) to the Dead Sea for the standard jovial float on the famous waters and a couple of bevvies. A really cool experience. I didn't quite manage the Obelix scim, but you float like a tennis ball and, as mad as it sounds, the sea tastes more salty then salt - you have to stick your tongue in to understand.
A word of advise. Trekking can cause chaffing. A minor affliction which does not go happily with the Dead Sea. Agony. Be warned.

Ah.... that is interesting, he would love to pop over to Jordon to see the famed Petra, I really want to take a dive in the Red Sea, the easiest way to get across to Jordon is via Eilat on the Red Sea, oh I would love to go to Petra too - deal - I'll meet you tomorrow evening in some random hostel in Eilat - only a few 100kms south, the other side of a bloody big desert - we'll have a few beers and take a morning stroll to Jordon - sweet.

And thus the plan was born - Jordon - PETRA.

A quick mention to the cool American couple I met originally in Jerusalem, then again right here - I promised I would blog their picture and finally I have.
I flagged down a bus heading south and drifted to sleep with beer in hand, watching the levant turn from gold, to red to dusk. A couple of pretty damn good dives in the teamingly rich waters of the red-sea, including my first ever wreck dive, wonder back to the random hostel and there is Nicolas plus a new American recruit. A few bottles of wine and beer and we have a German/Ukranian recruit - Dimam - and we have a plan for first light.

I can't quell my enthusiasm for a little bit of random adventure and thus it was as we crossed into Jordon and slowly bargained a guy to a half reasonable price to drive us 100's of kms north to the renowned ancient site and all the way back again in a day. Up and over the snow-touched desert hills. Such harsh beauty. A couple of interesting stops, some Arab tea and eventually we made it to Petra. I shall keep this short as you can read about it in a million places.... but it comes goddamn recommended.
Walking the first mile or so through steep canyons before suddenly out of nowhere - and in bare rock - the mighty Treasury. This does not just look like Indiana Jones but was the film-set for Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. As you walk into the walled valley everywhere you look are 2,000 year old tomb, caverns, temples - bloomin' magnificent. Our cool guide lead us on some adventurous trails up and over a number of hills to crystal clear memory views, but the best we trekked to ourselves. Another 45mins up and up at the end of the valley and eventually you arrive at what feels like a godly crafted terrace overlooking the world. The four of us had one of those moments - those inexplicable moments that will stay with you 'til the day you lose your marbles (or they are taken from you). Go there, see Jordanian hills spread out beneath you to the Jordon itself and feel so beautifully humbled. Just one of those moments...

After most of the day at Petra we had to leg it back (stopping of course for a quick snow fight - efffing freezing) to just squeeze into Israel before the border closed.

What a day! Before I knew it, after a couple of celebratories and a discussion with an ex-South African soldier now domiciled in Israel who has some major issues (really the fucked up side of things - not the nice side of Israel), I had embarked at sparrow's fart on one heck of a silly journey. Just about resisting Dimam and Nicolas's offer to come to Egypt I jumped on the bus to Jerusalem (half of Israel in between) picked up my bag (I was starting to smell after four days with a day-pack) ran across town, out and through the Arab quarter, into the first taxi and up to the Mount of Olives to breath it all in one last time. Mad dash to the bus station, on to Tel Aviv, payphone call to Orit (awesome gal me and the boys shared a flat with in Barreloche, Argentina last year), got picked up and driven all the way to Haifa at the top of the country. To be specific to Sarit's house (the other equally cool flatmate from Patagonia) where I was welcomed by her and her family with touching hospitality.
So, having covered just about the entire length of Israel in a day, it must be time for bed....NO...and a good thing to. A quick look at the home of the Bahai faith and off into the middle of nowhere for an all night Kibbutz party. So much fun. Israel is one of those places where people seem to grab hold of life when they have it, at least when it comes to the youth. Convening goodness knows where to dance the night through in quite some style with a thousand others. As I collapsed into bed rather tipsy I thought...."I must return"....
Quite a journey. Topped off with a spin round the resolant rainy crusader walls of Haifa, a trip to Orit's Moshav, a farewell to my friends who had been so good to me and then back to Eliana and Talia's Moshav for a final night's sleep on that sofa (OK I left out the part about the sushi and chocolate but that is for another time) - thanks for everything Tali and Eliana!!!!

Wondering those special hills on my final morning I tried to make some sense of what I had seen over the past 11 days. One thing for sure - this land had grabbed me like so many others and I did not want to let go. A sense of waste, utter waste that man should fight so bitterly over such a gift. A feeling of sorrow for those on all sides who showed their pain, loss and at times anger. And just a drip of hope from those who had expressed such to me.

Even the 'very' thorough search at the airport (never ask a pretty Israeli customs officer what she is looking for with her little tester when you have a Jordanian stamp in your passport - she will not smile prettily back) could in no way mar but only add yet another shade of colour to the incomparable experience that Israel offers to those who are allowed and take the opportunity to experience it.

Like no other place I have seen. So touching...beautiful...torn.

From the Moshav to Jerusalem

What a fantastic and fascinating 11 days!

Running straight out of work to Heathrow and jumping on a the BA red-eye to Tel Aviv, drifting in and out of sleep, I was a little disoriented when landing in Israel. A country I have wanted to go to for a very long time. What other country holds an aura like it? So many images jump into your head of Kibbutz’s, the Bible, conflict, Judaism, sacrifice, suffering, the joy of life celebrated by so many inhabitants that I have met around the world and for good or bad, a sense of concentrated passion.

I had not contacted my Israeli friends with sufficient prior diligence and decided to head into Tel Aviv before ringing anyone. Plus it was absurdly early in the morning. Jump on a bus and what is the first thing I noticed – a number of young soldiers, men and women and their accompanying M16’s. It reminded me of something an Israeli friend said on entering Colombia in reaction to the ever present guns "feels like home". For everyone here it is just normal.
Enter the central bus station and as will become a pattern, everything is searched, top to bottom. A frustration with a pack, but understandable. Decide to give Eliana a ring. Lovely girl who I last saw in New York last Feb, but who I really know from travelling through Ecuador and into Colombia at the tail of 2005. A 20 minute wait, a hug and before I know it I am heading off on my own on another bus with directions along the lines of "jump out near there... left across a field... down... up... left... down again... and though an open door". This I did, accompanied by some beautiful views through the shroud of tiredness, stepped through the unlocked door and said hello to Tali. Before I knew it I had drifted off to sleep in the comforting Levantine sunshine….

…. THE MOSHAV….and that is where I spent the next 3 or so days (bar a fun night out in Tel Aviv). After 4 months of work I was delighted to slow it all down in such a special place. I met Tali and Eliana at the same time and barring New York had the same travels. This was Tali’s house which she shares with her older sister, younger brother when he is on leave from national service and half the kids of the local community - the Moshav. I have to admit that before I went to Israel I never had heard of a moshav, but to explain it very badly, it is a community with many similarities to a kibbutz but different – less centralisation. People living together on the basis of similar values. Here, a beautifully peaceful place that immediately carved a niche in my heart.
It was a privilege to spend time in the community and its surroudings. This time gave my mind time to sigh, either lying in the winter sunshine staring at the clouds, orange trees, birds and stunning view of boulder strewn green hills, or walking through the scented pine forest where the light was playing tricks with my mind in shades of purple and effervescent green. I was generously invited to share in Sabbath, from the more than a touch hippy guitar playing celebrations of bringing in and out the day of rest, to the drinking of the youth as they meet together in the house that Tali’s dad built. Some conversations that blow away the blinding cob-webs of home life as you discuss loss, pride and passion with those who are home for a night from a front-line, those who have lost and those who appreciate the very special community in which they live. A few days that hit me more than those around would have noticed, but when Jerusalem is 20 miles away there is just one way that you can head.

This is one point that struck me so strongly – just how small and fundamentally fragile Israel is. From the hills round Modi’in you can see with unaided sight to one side Tel Aviv on the Mediterranean coast, and to the other the hills of the West Bank. This thin, fertile, beautiful piece of land hangs on a thread. When you live on a thread, you view life differently.

From the Israeli heartland, I walked into the old city of Jerusalem (part of Jordon until 1967) and dumped my pack in an Arab hostel just beyond the Jaffa Gate. How ever much modernism removes spirituality and verve from life, the sheer history and meaning of Jerusalem sent a shiver down my spine as I entered through the mighty walls.
JERUSALEM…. the word says it all. A city split into 4 quarters. The Armenian quarter, small and quiet, people keeping themselves to themselves, many families having fled to Jerusalem some time ago from Turkish atrocities (out of interest I understand Armenia was the first Christian country in the world). The Jewish quarter, heavily renovated after the area was gutted during heavy fighting at the end of the 60’s, for me, outside of the Wailing Wall, the least enticing of the quarters. The Christian quarter with its monasteries, churches, merging into the largest and most interesting Islamic quarter with its ancient winding streets and bustle.

I spent the days wondering on my own through the narrow alleys, especially in the Islamic quarter. It is like being sent back in time. I found people generally welcoming, though I have to admit that once or twice especially outside the old city into the fringes of East Jerusalem I did get a feeling of 'what are you doing here?' As I say though, that was the exception. In fact I found a number of people stressing to me satisfaction that people simply come. Very few want violence or struggle, but an environment where their families are safe and they can do business.

The undoubted three key sites of Jerusalem, are the Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock (in terms of pilgrimage only second to Mecca for Muslims), the Wailing or Western Wall (the focal point of Judaism) and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (the unparalleled site of prominence for Christians).

The first two have to be explained together, for they are for all the irony that can be asserted literally together.

The Dome on the Rock in all its shining golden glory is planted on top Herod’s temple mount. The 2000 plus year old western wall of the mount is the Wailing Wall.

One is on top of the other, separated atop by an extension of the wall constructed to stop Muslims spitting on those below, and symbolically at the adjoining ramp by a sign that reminds Jews that it is forbidden by the Torah to set foot atop the temple mount.

To see the contrasting spectacle that mirrors so many of the problems of our world is a humbling experience. So many people pour out there passion and devotion so close together but in directions that can clash and lead to blood. What absurdity that here at the very focal point of western religion people can not see that what they seek is different images of the same thing. I am sure many will criticise me for simplifying it so but would Abraham wish his children to fight, and would a a just god promote such division and damn those who seek him by different paths.

..........and next to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, more division and devotion that put a shiver down my spine and a tear in my eye (to be continued...)