Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Vacation of a Lifetime

There are times when it is good to have a husband who travels frequently for his work. This was one of those times, as I was able to join him on a long-held dream of visiting the Middle East.

On my first day there, I toured Jerusalem while Lester finished his meetings in Tel Aviv. Jerusalem is about 45 or 50 miles up in the hills from Tel Aviv. It’s one thing to hear or see pictures of famous sites, but to actually see them in person is the experience of a lifetime. Seeing the golden Dome of the Rock, where Abraham supposedly took Isaac to be sacrificed, was such a place.

We also visited the Garden of Gethsemane. Like many a site, there was a church on or near it. The garden, however, was open and well-cared for with a small grove of amazingly old olive trees. Their trunks were huge! What was amazing was watching young branches growing out of the old twiny trunks. There was one there that Lester said dated back to the time of Christ.

Then we went to the Via Dolorosa in the Old City, where Jesus supposedly walked on his way to the crucifixion. We saw the Wailing Wall/Western Wall, a massive brick wall made of pale gold Jerusalem stone. Written prayers were stuck in cracks in the wall. I made sure to touch the wall.

The Mount of Olives was nothing like I thought it would be; it’s one huge graveyard. The entire side of the hill is crammed with graves, until it looks like the hill is covered with cement slabs.

Later that day we visited Bethlehem. At the Church of the Nativity situated in Manger Square, you get to stick your hand through a hole and touch the rock that marks the birthplace of Jesus.

The next day Lester was done with work, so we rented a car and headed south to Eilat, an Israeli resort on the Red Sea that borders Egypt and Jordan, and from which you can also see Saudi Arabia. On the way there we stopped at Masada, an ancient ruin on top of a mesa-like cliff overlooking the Dead Sea. It was the site of the last Jewish stronghold against the Romans, although the Romans ultimately prevailed.

We also visited the Dead Sea. We saw huge crystal chunks of salt on the sea bottom. Instead of a strip of sand on the bottom, we walked on a bed of salt crystals. And no matter how hard we tried, we couldn’t sink. It was like floating on an inflatable mattress without the mattress. It was very relaxing, but eventually the sulfurous smell drove us to shore.

We finished our drive down to Eilat. It has a beautiful Mediterranean climate, with palm trees and balmy air. The next morning we crossed into Jordan to visit Petra, the ancient ruins made famous by Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. When we got to Petra, we saw, of course, an Indiana Jones souvenir shop.

Ali, our guide, took us on an amazing hike down a slotted canyon, where the stones changed from yellowish brown to the most amazing pinks and reds and dark browns, just like the colors of Zion’s National Park. Petra was built by the Nabataeans as their capital city about 100 B.C. What was amazing was the rock-cut architecture, with little stands for idols etched into the rock. Also amazing was their water system of old sluiceways and pipes running along the base of the cliff walls parallel to the path.

The Treasury at Petra, as seen in Indiana Jones, staggered my mind. It was huge! It looked as if it had been stamped into rock from a mold. It was cut back into the rock in a place the Nabataeans knew was safe from wind erosion. The ruins included far more than the Treasury, which was actually a tomb. The ruins were massive, marble-like sandstone that had been carved into a theater, including “skyboxes” (Lester’s term); tombs, living quarters, and more.

The next day we took a tour bus from Eilat across the Sinai Peninsula to Cairo. It took about six hours. On our tour was a Canadian couple who had been on our Petra tour.

Cairo is a huge, smoggy city of 18 million people. Traffic was a nightmare, and traffic laws were mere suggestions. We met up with our guide, Mohammed.

We went to a mosque, which was the oldest in Africa. The women had to put on these kelly-green rayon/polyester robes with hoods to cover our heads. We looked like overgrown elves. Built around a courtyard, the mosque is open to the air. The carpet is patterned in these squares so that the worshippers would face in straight lines toward, I think, Mecca or Medina. Fascinating!

We also visited a Christian (Catholic?) church that was traditionally the spot where Joseph, Mary, and Jesus stayed when fleeing King Herod’s edict to kill babies under the age of 2.

We went to a synagogue. I thought it was interesting that we had to go to a Muslim country to visit a synagogue. There are only 12,000 Jews in all of Egypt.

We also visited the Cairo Egyptian Museum and saw amazing mummies and treasures, such as King Tut’s funerary mask and coffins that fit inside each other like nesting tables. The inner coffin is solid gold and weight 100 kg.

That night we took a dinner cruise on the Nile River, complete with a belly dancer and a whirling dervish. After dinner we sat outside on the deck with Michael and Alisha. We saw a mosque, a TGI Friday’s, and a gym.

The next morning we visited the pyramids of Giza. The stone blocks were tall, about shoulder height to Lester. And they were huge, perfectly flat and joined together without cement or other kind of compound. The four of us took a camel ride around the back side of the pyramids. The camels are so high up; it’s intimidating to climb on their backs and trust that you won’t be propelled off. We took a back-jolting ride through the sand dunes, with a beautiful perspective with the city in the smog-shrouded distance and just us and the sand and the blue sky. After a twenty-minute ride in the desert, we got to see all nine pyramids lined up.

Lester kept petting the head of my camel and let one “kiss” him. Yuck.

Afterward, we went to see the Sphinx, which was smaller than we expected, but still amazing.

And, then of course, we went shopping in the old part of Cairo at a bazaar. We then started our six-hour journey back to Eilat.

The next morning we waded in the Red Sea. Some day I’d like to return and go snorkeling. It’s supposed to be pretty incredible, and it was warm enough to do that in December. I really love the warm climate there!

After returning to Jerusalem, we visited the Garden Tomb. It was peaceful and amazing to think that was where Christ was resurrected.

We drove back to Tel Aviv, turned in our car, and settled in for a 28-hour trip home. It was a long flight back (three flights, actually), but we had a wonderful time!

To see more photos of the trip, go to http://www.flickr.com/photos/dimitfamily/.

We especially want to thank all of our friends who watched our kids and our house while we were gone. We couldn’t have done it without you!