Walden World

The wacky and wonderful tales of Beth's and Catherine's global adventures. And all things Walden too.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Donkey of Nazareth

I could write exciting tales of the ever present Israeli Defense Forces, but instead will recount a few impressions of the very interesting and beautiful town of Nazareth.

We are staying in a 300 or so year old renovated Turkish mansion which has original ceiling frescoes from the 1700s as well as doors, floors, stairs closets and kitchen, except with really good internet. It is like staying in a living castle or a Moorish dream. Just go to Fauzi Azar Inn dot com and you can see the online pictures and they don't lie.

The town itself is situated amidst gorgeous rolling hills covered in Mediterranean buildings surrounded by cypress trees and rocky slopes.

As Nazareth is home to three faiths, last night we watched a new crescent moon (an Islamic sympbol) rise above the city while the calls to prayer echoed across the stone streets accompanied by the tolling of bells from the countless Christian churches of all persuasion which are littered throughout the city.

The main Basillica of the Annunciation which is supposed to be set on the site where Mary was told by the Angel Gabriel that she was pregnant with Jesus is stunning; all sorts of artists from countries over the world have given a huge art piece related to Mary which are hung from the walls. C and I were blown away by a number of pieces including the US contribution (which is quite weird. The Australian, Japanese and Mozambique art however, was some of the most beautiful stuff I have seen on three continents.

The city itself is majority Arab of whom 2/3rds are Muslim, the other 3rd being Christian. The Jewish folks mainly inhabit a new suburb outside of town: Nazareth Illiat.

It is a strange city in which the Christian Arabs are completely psyched about Christmas but have have little in the way of traditions of Santa and snow. Thus giggling waiters have taken to wearing Santa hats, which I think are as probably as much of a novelty to them as if I worked in a bar in downtown Toronto and for two weeks got to wear a Fez or turban. Even more odd is the blaring of Christmas carols all sung in Arabic including many repetitious renditions of "Jingle Bells" played at screeching volume. This song is clearly a town favourite.

The Arab culture in town is alive and well with a thriving traditional Arab "souq" or market, one of those things you see in "Casablanca" or the many Western romantic images of "the East". The old town where we are staying is absolutely fantastic: a mixture of Dubrovnik with Morocco; all ancient stone buildings in perfect condition complete with narrow winding alleyways and doors that open into fresh spice, flour and coffee mills. The souq is really alive and all manner of Nazarites walk through each day to buy everything from kitchen utensils to gorgeous scarves to half a sheep hanging outside the butchers' from chain hooks, which are incidentally, hanging next to the scarves.

We were lucky enough to be invited for dinner tonight to an Arab Christian home as I have clients in Canada whose family are from here. Our hosts had made a feast fit for kings from scratch, the preparation of which, must have taken at least two days. Homemade olives and pickles; fresh chicken breasts in sauce; beef in sauce; a fantastic curried vegetable dish, about twenty different Arabic salads and a mind blowing rice dish which is traditionally served to guests as a special welcome. Our host refused to let us refuse anymore and kept forcing us to eat more until we were almost sick. Apparently in Arab households one is not allowed to say "no" to more food. The dinner was capped off with homemade honey and walnut sweets, fruits fresh from their garden trees and later tea and more homemade biscuits which we were, again, not allowed to refuse.

Then came the gifts...it was actually quite embarassing and I finally asked the Mistress of the house not to go upstairs anymore (where all the gifts were) as I feared she might insist of giving me her night table.

Perhaps my strangest experience of the day was going to "Nazareth Village". A number of Arab Christians had wanted people to understand the teachings of Jesus in more of a context. They therefore got together and bought land in the middle of the city and recreated ancient Nazareth circa 10 AD. It is actually done quite well, particularly the explanations of the mechanics found in Christian parables (ie: how one sows wheat, one makes bread, one tends sheep) and how such stories would relate to the lives of the people at that time. Local Christian Arabs in costume volunteer to be shepherds, wine makers, weavers etc...

At one site, the olive oil press, we learned how Nazarites made olive oil while we admired the fine donkey who was walking in circles powering the press. The donkey wore a harness which was attached to a large stone which groun the olives to mash. Behind the donkey was his handler whacking him with a small switch to urge him on. After a pause in the mashing (the donkey stopped and simply refused to power the press anymore) the guide began explaining the arduous process of oil extraction.

I, an animal lover wandered over to the donkey and started gently petting his head and rubbing his velvetine ears. The small donkey neighed softly and began nuzzling up against me; it a scene straight out of "The Little Drummer Boy" until I realized he was slowly ingesting my shirt (think about it like as if you had your shirt caught in an escalator). After about five minutes of embarassed silent pulling and shoving the donkey man finally saw my predicament and together we wrested the swallowed quarter of my shirt from the donkey's vice grip jaws.

I thought afterward that maybe I should get shirts made up: "My friend got her clothes eaten by a donkey in Nazareth and all I got was this lousy T-shirt".

Tisbah 'ala khayr

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Cairo and the Impressive Tourist Police

Unfortunately I have not been able to blog before this gentle reader, as the internet is apparently generally unknown in Israel or Egypt. However we are now in Nazareth, home of Jesus Christ and internet is ubiquitous. Not sure if this related to the holiness of the town, or merely an accident of nature.

In any event, C and I are exhausted from awaking at 5:30 am to catch a flight from Cairo to Tel Aviv and begin the arduous journey by train, another train and bus to Nazareth. It also doesn't help that neither of us can walk having descending hundreds of metres on a weird sheer ladder-step thing while doubled over in order to reach some Pharoh's burial chamber. One had to climb way up to the top of the pyramid first only to begin the long climb down to the very bottom by way of a claustrophobic Pharonic airshaft. At first I elected not to descend into what appeared to be a dark, bottomless shaft to hell, however as I was balking a busload of elderly Japanese tourists arrived and gleefully entered the tomb. Despite the fact that most of them probably survived WWII and were thus inured to fear, I could not suffer the shame of cowardice in front of them and thus took the plunge.

Accompanying us on our tour was our extremely nice, but "very" Muslim guide Mohammed. After too many nosey questions on our part regarding his fiancee, his living arrangements, his virginity, the virginity of his fiancee, her head and chest covering ("my wife will be like a precious jewel, which should not be thrown before the mud" [the glances of other men]), the upcoming meeting with the proposed father-in-law and desperate attempts to get a dowry, C and I began to feel awash in mortal sin. It was then C announced, much to my surprise, that she was married but that her husband was working and couldn't come with her on this trip. I am not sure where this left me, except Mohammed seemed suspicious as I had already told him that I was without children, rather preferring the company of cats and now apparently living all alone.

So married C, (also soon planning to have children) and weird old cat lady toured with Mohammed for the remainder of the day.

Most alarming in terms of Egyptian historical sites is the presence of small armies of "tourist police". They are each equipped with Kalashnykov semi-automatics, helmets and strange standing shield barriers, which it would seem, are bullet proof, yet have a small window so that they can peer out and fire back should the Islamic Brotherhood decide to storm an ancient temple and knock out a bunch of Westerners. I would have had more confidence in their ability to protect me had they not spent the entire time pestering me for 'baaksheesh'(a bribe or tip one must regularly dole out to every Egyptian who does anything for you at all, including pointing out the way to say, the door which is right in front of you) instead of looking out for terrorists.

The 'baaksheesh'issue is, of course, simply emblematic of the gross poverty in the country where most of the population of 60 some million lives on about 2 US dollars per day. While outside Cairo in a some 10 km away village, we watched a hundred or so people crammed in a mob, waiting for cheap bread handouts from the government while women got water from a town well which they carried home on their heads.

Perhaps most alarming in Cairo itself was the legendary traffic. All manner of vehicles race along at full speed literally ignoring traffic lights while pedestrians simply wander in and out of their midst. It took C and I a few stiff ones (bottles of wine I mean) to actually get the courage to cross a roundabout. However one does learn to use the Cairenes, who seem oblivious to the danger, as a form of buffer or human shield. I was not buoyed by the young Egyptian man, who seeing our terror at crossing said: "Do what the Egyptians do - close your eyes and pray to Allah".

This morning at 6:00 am while racing (not our choice) to the airport in a beat up old taxi sans seat belts, going 130 km, C had to keep ordering the uncomprehending driver to "Not fast!!! Not fast!!! SLOW!!!!" While he simply stared back at her perhaps thinking she was referring to Ramadam. You see not only are Cairenes speed homicidal maniacs when driving, they consider those white and yellow lane lines as a kind of rough guideline as to where to position your vehicle. Or it could be entirely possible that they think you should follow it right down the middle as most drivers simply straddle the thing while weaving in and about the other cars. I could only compare sitting in a moving car the chariot race scene in "Ben Hur" and was surprised no other driver whipped me through the window.

Thus returning to Israel this morning was a daunting task even after arriving at the airport. First we had to negotiate the scads of pilgrims clad in white off to make the Hajj to Mecca. Then line up at security gates and pass our luggage through x-ray machines manned by bored chain-smoking soldiers who barely glanced at the items on their screen, instead choosing to stare sleepily at the ceiling, chat with their friends or grab another cigarette. I actually have ash burns on my passport from the detritus of cigarette fall-out. C started to panic realizing that no one had even screened the carry on bags, and here we were in the hub of the Middle East, surrounded by thousands of sworn enemies of Zionism and bound for the only plane in four countries, which was going to Israel.

One must compare this with our experience at Tel Aviv airport, boarding the plane to Egypt, where after our luggage was x-rayed by hawk-eyed security personnel, we were all usered over to a counter wherein security people drilled us endlessly about who we were etc...and then wiped a weird wand on every item inside our luggage including the tip toes of dirty socks and underwear, then wiping the wand on an ion scanning machine and then await the results. Somehow security in Cairo felt sorely lacking.

Our fear was not allayed when, getting off the bus to board the plane we were told to match up with our luggage, though the poor staff would often assume some weird bag that didn't belong to you was part of your luggage and impatiently just throw it on the belt for loading directly into the plane while one yelled "No! NO! Not mine!" forcing the irritated baggage guy to return it to the tarmac.

Soon after three men were called to the front of the plane and advised their luggage was missing. A phalanx of security guards and soldiers surrounded the plane.

C didn't help my anxiety much by saying in a loud voice (again, this is not made up): "Oh God, we're going to die...Well at least it will be over real quick! That's it, 'game over'. Oh well, I've had a good life. Could have been worse. I am glad I met you..." as she started reciting the things she was thankiful for until I asked her to stop lest she cause my now full blown panic attack to blow more.

But Allah and every other God and Goddess was merciful and as we touched down in Tel Aviv the passengers began clapping.

Then Israel: modern, clean, no pollution; but then again all the soldiers going home for Shabbat with their M-16s strapped across their back can kind of freak you out.