Last November, Ned and I spent three weeks in Israel, followed by four nights in Paris. It was an incredible trip, and I had taken 1,500 fantastic photos. Then, on our final day in Paris, just outside the cathedral of Notre Dame, I did the unthinkable…I set the camera down to put on a jacket, got distracted by some street performers…and walked away from it. It was mere minutes before I remembered, but the camera was long-gone. I felt awful for weeks; the loss of the photos weighed heavily, and I could not picture how a blog would be possible. Now, with the pain of the loss fading and our trip to New Zealand coming up…tomorrow…I feel compelled to share just a bit of our rich experiences and the very few cell phone pictures we managed to scrounge together (thanks to Ned and our Israeli friend, Ilan). So, lets consider this a mini-blog (by Ned and Kat standards), just a little taste, and we will carry on as usual with lots more stories and better photos from New Zealand!
August 1982; Haifa, Israel
The ship pulled away from the dock, and I watched, tears streaming down my face, as the beautiful Mediterranean city of Haifa grew smaller and smaller. This time, my impatient, itchy feet had led, not to adventure, but heartbreak. I was on a two-month, solo backpacking trip through Europe which had landed me, eventually, in Israel, where my sister had been living for the last year. The plan was for her to leave Israel when I arrived, so we could travel through Greece together. The hitch was – she did not want to leave yet, and after just a few days in Northern Israel, I grew restless. I booked myself on a ship out of Haifa for the following week. During that week, however, something changed – I fell in love with Israel, the people, the history – and have been trying to get back ever since…
Flying in to the beautiful, “White City,” Tel Aviv
November 2017; Tel Aviv, Israel
For those of you who followed our blog through South America…do you remember the Israeli couple, Ilan and Dalia, fellow VW Syncro travelers, who we met in Southern Colombia? Having stayed in touch with them these past years (they even stopped by our home on their way to Alaska), we made the decision to do a fly-in trip to visit them in their home country. Due to geo-political reasons, it would be impossible to drive to Israel on our future Europe-in-Charlotte tour, but I really wanted to return, and Ned had never been; a destination trip made the most sense.
Ilan and Dalia met us at the Tel Aviv airport with a hand-drawn picture of Charlotte instead of a placard with our names! From that time on, they spoiled us beyond belief, taking us in and being the most amazing tour guides we had ever had.
Two nights spent at Ilan and Dalia’s beautiful home in downtown Tel Aviv gave us lots of time to explore the city by foot, enjoying the modern bustle, the lovely beach…and fantastic restaurants!
Before we left, my brother, David, had recommended the Netflix film, In Search of Israeli Cuisine. We really enjoyed the film and eventually ate at three of the restaurants highlighted in the movie. Israel now enjoys a rich blending of Jewish Ashkenazi from Europe, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern foods which has really come together only in the last fifteen years. With a history of reclaiming farm lands from swamps and desert, Israelis are sticklers for fresh, locally grown foods…and it shows. Every meal placed in front of us included plates and plates of gorgeous, colorful and flavorful “salads.” As a cook, myself, I found the experience mind-expanding and ordered two Israeli cookbooks!
Ned turned the big 60 while we were in Israel, and our plan was to actually be in Jerusalem. I had asked Ilan to pick a special restaurant for the occasion, and he did not disappoint. This place, Machneyuda, turned out (by coincidence) to be one of the main highlights in the film, and we loved every moment and every bite. That is us, way in the back! I would have loved to have shown you better photos, but alas…
We spent two nights in Jerusalem, visiting, not only the Wailing Wall (the remains of the Jewish temple destroyed by Romans in 70 CE) (pictured), but also the epic Christian sites – Jesus’ last supper, his arrest, his final walk and crucifixion. It all gave me chills – in every place I could just feel the weight of the past – both the bitter struggles and the major turning points in human history. We also visited the Dead Sea Scroll Museum, which was mind-boggling…here is a side note:
Hebrew was revived in the late 19th century by a man named Ben-Yehuda and is the official language of modern Israel. Ilan told us that it is so pure, that any college student can read the Dead Sea scrolls, written over a thousand years ago. English is definitely a second language in Israel, and not everyone speaks it. Having a national language has been one of many crucial reasons the nation, at only around seventy years old, has been so successful.
Ilan and Dalia were a wealth of knowledge and history, touring us through the Jewish, Christian and Muslim quarters of the old, walled city and explaining both the history and the modern politics; it was all incredible. Outside the walls, however, the Uber modern city of Jerusalem is just gorgeous, sporting not only Israel’s beautiful Capitol buildings, but also many fantastic restaurants and museums.
From Jerusalem, we drove eastward where Ilan caught us smooching on the shores of the Dead Sea! The Dead Sea is aptly named. At 400 feet below sea level at the surface and 800 below at its depth, sitting on a layer of salt 10 kilometers deep, the sea is 34% salt. To put that into perspective, normal ocean water is less than 10% salt! The Dead Sea Scrolls were found hidden in caves just to the west of where this picture was taken.
Heading south, we visited the ancient, tragically historic site of Masada where nearly one-thousand Jerusalem Jews had fled after the temple was razed by the Romans in 70 CE. The Romans found them and laid siege to the thousand-foot mesa for several years, building a circumference wall and eventually raising a ramp (using Jewish prisoners of war) to the top of the mesa. The Jews eventually made the horrific decision to commit suicide, and the heart-rending story has been re-told in literature and films. Once again, I found myself, not only in awe of the weight of history, but also incredibly fortunate to have, as Jewish ancestors, some of the few who actually survived these and other brutal times.
From the Dead Sea, Ilan drove us south to the city of Eilat, where we stayed the night in a kibbutz. In the morning, Ilan and Dalia dropped us off at the border crossing to Jordan at Aqaba, and Ned and I took off on our own to visit the World Heritage site of Petra.
Petra, built by the Nabateans (nomadic Arabs) somewhere around the 4th century, BCE was a major trading hub along the incense and spice routes heading to the Mediterranean. For more pictures (sorry, again) you can do an internet search of Petra…well worth it! Petra was literally carved out of the living sandstone, leaving nearly fantastical caves and temples and is currently populated by Bedouins who do a thriving tourist business selling nicknacks and offering donkey-cart, horse and camel rides.
We found amusement along the mile-long walk through the gorgeous slot canyon that leads to the ancient city. These Muslim students had more high-tech video and camera equipment than we did!
This handsome young Bedouin’s voice echoed through the canyon as he sang a haunting melody. We do have a video of him singing for me, but I am not hi-tech enough to post it. Please ask us to show it to you when we see you next; it was wonderful! He also got me to buy three of his not-so-real-silver bracelets.
Guy-liner alert. Or, kohl, as the Bedouins call it, using it to line their eyes. We also found it for sale in the nicknack shacks!
Fantastic, right?! Literally carved out of the cliff face!
We made a last-minute decision to climb the mile and a half to “The Monastery,” arriving just in time as the sun was setting.
We got rides on camels for part of the long trek back, which thrilled me and annoyed the snot out of Ned. The guide eventually cut me loose, and I was able to find the throttle, brakes and steering on the cool creature and had a blast galloping all over the place. We spent one night at a nice hotel in Petra and grabbed a taxi for the two-hour ride back to the border. The taxi ride to Petra had been somewhat sedate by third-world standards, but the ride back…e-ticket. The driver couldn’t have been more than twenty, and, at one point, I clocked him on my GPS app going, with one hand on the wheel, 98mph while talking on the phone. Insane.
Our friends picked us up back at the Israeli side of the border in Eilat, and then treated us to yet another wonderful adventure. Having borrowed a Toyota Land Cruiser from their son-in-law, we embarked on a two-day, four-wheel-drive escapade through the historic Negev Desert, crossing the incense route and enjoying the beauty and the history.
We let Ilan and Dalia have four nights to themselves, and we rented a car, visiting the Sea of Galilee (where I did get a picture of Ned trying to walk on water). We then headed north to the Golan Heights. Maybe it was the constant rain or maybe I was tired, but it was there, in the Golan Heights, with the massive, barbed wired fences along the borders with Syria and Lebanon, the many gun turrets on hills aimed toward Israel and bombed-out buildings dotting the country-side, that I really felt the heaviness of the ongoing wars and conflicts. Just two weeks prior to our visit, Lebanon had lobbed a couple of bombs right where we had driven. The Israeli people live with this constant uncertainty…to never be able to take tomorrow for granted makes for a very different outlook on life.
We eventually meandered our way back to the Mediterranean coast, enjoying the sight of lush, young forests. When the Zionist (the return to Israel) movement began in the late 1800’s, there were no trees left in Israel. As American-Jewish children growing up in the sixties and seventies, we were encouraged to save money in coin folders. When all of the slots were filled, we could send them in and buy a tree for Israel. It was gratifying and impressive to see the now massive forests not only in the north, but also on the west side of Jerusalem.
One of our favorite stops was the walled city of Akko (also called Acre or Acho) on the Mediterranean. One of the oldest cities in the world, Akko has been continuously inhabited for over 4,000 years. What we see today was built by the Ottoman Empire (Turks) and is gorgeous and fascinating. It is a bustling blend of commerce, tourism, Muslims, Jews, Christians and Druze. The markets are lively and beautiful and the restaurants are delicious. We highly recommend a trip through its history with Wikipedia or even in person!
The last of our solo four nights, we spent in the lovely beach town of Netanya (the photo above is a view from our hotel window).
On a nice long walk on the beach at Netanya we met this friendly man who came to Israel in the forties from Persia. We asked him if he was a Jew or Muslim, and he said he was Jewish. He then proudly showed us a photo of himself, on this very beach, as a young, handsome lifeguard!
Our last night in Israel saw us back in Tel Aviv with Ilan and Dalia. We celebrated with a dinner of exotically different and delicious sushi and were pampered some more with a personal ride back to the airport the next day. We just can’t express enough gratitude to Ilan and Dalia for their unselfish donation of time, housing and expert tour guide services! We will never forget and will pass it on any time we can to other fellow travelers.
A note on modern history and politics:
I can sum up my feelings about the existence of Israel with an old Jewish saying I grew up with…Next year in Jerusalem!
Since the razing of the second temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, Jews, who then fled to many places around the world, have harbored a deep desire to return to the homeland. It is in our culture, our very blood. In light of religious persecution throughout history, especially the holocaust of Nazi Germany, it made sense for fleeing Jews to return. Where else made sense? I am deeply oversimplifying history here, but I think, sometimes, in the face of incredibly complicated human machinations, it helps to think in concepts rather than details.
That being said, I will give you some fascinating details told to us by Ilan, who would consider himself on the left side of politics (for those of you who don’t pay attention to issues like these, please skip ahead to Paris!):
• The Zionist (return to Israel) movement began in the late 1800’s
• In 1948, following the Jewish victory of the first Arab-Israeli war, Israel was declared a nation for the first time in over 2,000 years.
• In 1948 there were 1.3 million Palestinians living in the region, but very little infrastructure. What was there was build by the British during the British Mandate.
• The 600,000 Jews living in Israel in 1948 began to build roads, hospitals, brought water to the desert and drained swamps, developing massive and successful agriculture methods.
• Today, one of Israel’s many Hi-Tech companies, Mobili, which developed an autonomous driving car, sold to Intel for 4 Billion dollars.
• Today there are 8.5 million Israeli citizens, 20% of the Israeli citizens are Palestinians (Muslims).
• There are 1.8 million people living in Gaza (on the Mediterranean) all of whom are Palestinian (not Israeli citizens). No Jews live in Gaza.
• There are 2 million Palestinian, non-Israeli citizens living in the West Bank (a large, bread loaf-shaped section on the west bank of the Jordan River. There are also controversially, 400,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank (who are Israeli Citizens).
• Ned and I were warned to not go into the West Bank as it would be very dangerous for us. We were really curious, though, and frustrated. From what we understand, it is very rough and not developed much. The people live relatively primitively. We would have liked to have seen it for ourselves.
• The Palestinians have some self-rule; a parliament, government, police, but no military and no international recognition as a nation. Israel, actually, still technically owning the region (having won it in the ’67 war, has ultimate authority there, but mostly stays out.
• The two-state solution, giving the West Bank and Gaza to the Palestinians to develop their own country, is very popular among most Israelis. Most just want peace.
• The West Bank is ruled by the secular Fatah and would agree to the two-state solution.
• Gaza, ruled by Hamas (religious, Muslim Brotherhood) has been the most recent impediment to the two-state solution; they want ALL of Israel and for the Jews to leave.
• There are also some extreme right-wing Jews who mirror these thoughts and want the Palestinians gone, but, while they have some political power, they do not represent the majority.
• The Jewish settlers into the West Bank are mostly the extreme right, and their actions are controversial among the Israeli Citizens.
• The company, Sodastream, used to have a factory in the West Bank, but relocated it under controversial pressure.
• Going all the way back to 1948, when the Palestinians were first offered the two-state solution, and in each of the many negotiations going forward, the Palestinians have rejected it. Being highly influenced by the other Muslim nations, they have been convinced that with enough of an Arab coalition, they could “drive the Jews into the Sea” and be rid of them. But every attempt to do so by full-blow war or myriad attacks has been prevented.
• The Capitol of Israel was originally built in Jerusalem (albeit outside of the walled-city), and it is there today.
• The American embassy is in Tel Aviv. The controversy is not where the Capitol is but whether it should be globally recognized and should the embassy move to the city where the Capitol stands.
I know that some of you don’t care at all and don’t follow the politics of the region. I also hear a lot of what I would consider to be un-truths being reported in the media and that you hear it too. I won’t give you a concluding opinion, though I’m sure you can guess where I stand. I do highly recommend, for those who want some eye-opening and fascinating information to read the following books:
• My promised Land by Ari Shavit
• Exodus by Leon Uris
• The Source by James Michener
• Things that Matter by Charles Krauthammer
From nearly the beginning of mankind, the region that Israel encompasses has been a crossroads of conflict, culture, trade, religion and human development. Its history is complex, intricate, often confusing and always controversial. James Michener called it a “Focus of Forces.” Here, the Mesopotamians fought the Egyptians, the Phoenicians and Philistines opposed the Syrians, the Greeks had it out with the Persians and the Romans went against the Parthians, Jews and eventually Christians. Then there were the crusades. All of this happened in tiny Israel, a country not much bigger than the state of New Jersey.
To visit there today is an incredible experience. In the face of millennia of conflict and nearly surrounded by the gun turrets of Egypt in the South, Jordan on the west, Syria on the northwest and Lebanon on the north, Israel is now a thriving, contributing member of first-world, developed nations and is worthy of a visit in person, or at least a little bit of research!
Now, on to Paris!
I first visited Paris on my solo trip through Europe in 1982 and had very little money, slept on the trains and ate in no restaurants, living on street food. Ned was determined to show me the real Paris this time, and we did have a blast. It was freezing cold and rained every day, but we still managed to walk miles and miles, taking in the sights of this gorgeous city and eating delicious meals…in fabulous restaurants!
The Arc de Triomphe…
…the Eiffel Tower (which we climbed to the top)…
…the Grand Palace along the River Seine. Everywhere we looked in Paris was beauty and art…
…the Cathedral of Notre Dame (where I lost the camera!)
…and the Louvre Museum…
We also spent several hours in the Musee de Orsay, which I loved even more than the Louvre. Again, we recommend an internet search or a visit in person, since I don’t have the lovely photos I took to share with you.
Inside the Louvre…
…the Girl, herself! To see these famous, magnificent paintings and sculptures in person is thrilling!
The Winged Victory of Samothrace…and a fabulous way to end this blog!
See you soon from beautiful New Zealand!
All our best,
Kat and Ned