The Cathedral Monsignor was the spiritual leader, Priest, and kind caring pastor for the group. A couple who run Holyland Pilgrimages annually were the organisers and general “whips”. And 37 mostly wide-eyed and slightly apprehensive travellers trotted along behind.
For a few it was not the first visit but for most of us it was brand new into the Middle East. Hundreds of others joined us on the very large jumbo – each having their own reasons why they would go near what some in kiwiland would call a danger zone – and who didn’t mind going via Aussie – with the most bureaucratic airport staff we encountered in the 19 days.
So 30 hours later after descending on Dubai and hopping to Amman we ended up in Petra via a three hour bus trip. And accompanied – as we were for all of the three days we spent in Jordan – by a pistol-packing Tourist Police Officer – a “routine security precaution”.
Petra – who could forget you – way down south through the desert, second most popular of the 7 wonders of the world (behind China’s wall). Houses, temples, ”treasury”, places of worship all carved out of the steep stone mountains. Bedouin children selling rides on camels, donkeys and horses. Indiana Jones; Moses walked there, so did the Wise Men.
Jordan – mostly desert, occasional oasis, death place of Moses and Aaron, home of lovely kind caring and gentle people.
Then across the only river (more of a creek really) anywhere within a camels roar – the Jordan – baptismal scene for Jesus and John. Oh and there was time and suitability for most of us to renew our baptismal vows. (We won’t talk about the large river rat!). The border – bags on bus, bags off, bags dragged through, bags on new bus. It took an hour or two, and a bit more for trolley mirrors under the bus – perhaps we looked like potential terrorists!
Israel – a big contrast to Jordan – very fertile and watered land. Growing bananas, olives, grapes, dates (300 varieties and good for making honey!), figs, tomatoes, more olives, mangos and olives!
Water – what a critical issue for the whole area. The Sea of Galilee is vital for both Jordan and Israel. Rationing is routine in Jordan. Very hot (40 degrees most days). The lake looked as big as Taupo, but actually only 25% and shrinking through inadequate rain.
Hour-long Masses were held each day and a memorable one took place on a Jesus-type boat on the Lake where I was privileged to sing “The Stranger Of Galilee”. Two hundred metres below sea level there.
And hotter still at the Dead Sea – 400 metres. Can’t sink there and a strange sensation in the “water” – not a good idea to get it in your eyes. But the mud from it is said to be good for your skin – so they say as they sell it to you in pottles.
Lots of Biblical places. Magdala – scene of a very exciting and current “dig”. Capernaum in the Gollan Heights where Jesus spent a lot of time. Jericho – it really is “down” from Jerusalem. Nazareth; Bethlehem (inside the West Bank taken from Jordan in the 1967 war) where we talked to the kiwi Vice-Chancellor of the University and experienced the saddest sight on the trip – the walling-in of this city by the Israelis with 25 foot-high concrete. They say for “security”, the Palestinians say “apartheid”. I incline to the latter view.
And then Cana – the wedding and the wine (or lack of it). Opportunity for the 9 couples in our group to renew their marriage vows – memorable, and the rings!
Jerusalem – so rich with sites depicting many of the big events of the life and death of Jesus. And of course the unforgettable “wailing” wall. The prayer requests of the earnest stuffed in the cracks, looking for some good to come from the annual visit and collect by the High Priest. Sadly some will not make it – blown away in the wind and trampled.
Masada – magnificent mountain with the Herod-built fortress (seen the film?), where a fanatical Jewish sect held out the Romans for ages, and then took their own lives rather than be captured.
Gollan Heights – only 120 sq kms (Israel is a very small country) from where you can see nearly everything – good for a rocket base etc.
Generally a peaceful country – laid back drivers on grid-locked roads; no obvious fear or aggression; no road crashes, violence or demonstrations seen – the bigger issues were pick-pockets in the pressing crowds and merchants who might rip you off on price or through theft of credit card details.
Sense of history – big digs everywhere, some current, some past. Layer upon layer of past civilisations. Some sites and details authenticated, some uncertain, and some plain dubious. Crowds of tourists, flash buses everywhere. Big queues for main sites.
Did I say queues? Particularly for tourists from Europe, what are queues? Didn’t God give you elbows, shoulders and muscle and isn’t it good to know the value of the pincer movement?
Piety – the problematic Hasidic Jews, immigrants mainly from Europe with their stifling black suits and hats, and ringlets. The partial shut-down of the country on the Sabbath – no hot food in the hotels on Saturday. Who’s for cold toast? Peculiarities of not doing work on the Sabbath still there (didn’t Jesus have a crack at that 2000 years ago?) For example dedicated hotel lifts with no required button-pushing on the Sabbath (work!).
Just a thought – if you were looking for a job and were not keen on work you could take up exterior house painting. But you would need to cover the whole of Jordan and Israel and you would have no competition. Houses are built of sandstone and when you look at a whole hillside of apartments they are all one colour!
Heather and I loved the history; the beauty (mosaics and wall/ceiling art in churches and sacred places); the buildings – ancient and nearly ancient demonstrating brilliant architecture and breath-taking engineering; the poignancy (there is still at least one olive in the Garden Of Gethsemane proven to be 2500 years old); the vibrancy of the people; sadness from seeing the treatment of the Palestinians in the West Bank; connection with the historic roots of our faith. And the “family-ness” of our fellow travellers.
For those who haven’t been – a must for your “bucket list”. Go with a group (who will hire a good bus driver and an essential local guide). Prepare for the heat. Get fit for a fair bit of walking. And soak in the whole feelings of history and meet some lovely people – Palestinians (especially), and Christians, Muslims and Jews. And have fun!