Trip to the Holy Land
Israel never appealed to me; I had no interest in going and experiencing religious fervor. I wasn't drawn to the Dome of the Rock, wasn't mesmerized by the three-religions-in-one-city package deal, and hadn't heard anything spectacular about the cuisine there. But at my mom's insistence that a friend had exclaimed that it would be "such a loss" if I were so close and never visited Jerusalem, I used up the last of my vacation days to see the Promised Land.
Crossing the border through the Allenby Bridge was fairly easy. I had anticipated being held up, interrogated, searched, and stared down. Instead, the only questions directed were, "What's your purpose? Are you traveling alone? Did anyone ask you to take something for them?" My answers must have been non-suspicious, because I was waved on through. Two hours later, I found myself facing a huge walled city and feeling like I was in Amman. Turned out that I was in the Muslim District just outside the Old City, and I used my Arabic to ask for directions and buy a phone card.
Over the next two and a half days, I planted myself in Jerusalem and walked through every valley, alley, courtyard, church ground, and market until my feet were sore and my camera saturated with look-a-like photos of religious sites.
I stood at the Wailing Wall, watching as visitors closed their eyes and bowed their heads in fervent prayer. I noticed scraps of paper jammed into cracks in the wall, and my Jewish friend explained that people write prayers to God and tuck them into the wall. I'd been told that visiting the Wailing Wall would be an extremely moving moment, and some experience a religious revelation. I must be immune to any type of religious fervor, because after taking two pictures, I was bored.
I walked through the Via Dolorosa, the route that Jesus followed from the site of his condemnation to the site of his crucifixion. Each event on his walk has a chapel commemorating it; together, these chapels comprise the 14 Stations of the Cross. I made it to the first 3 stations, was still uninspired and uninterested, and sidetracked to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, believed to be the place of Jesus's crucifixion, burial, and resurrection. However, the church was so tourist-packed that it was difficult to appreciate anything other than the exit.
I escaped the Old City chaos by climbing the endless spiral staircase in the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer. The bell tower held an amazing view over the Old City and beyond its gates. From here, I could see everything and hear nothing.
I skipped the Tower of David, a.k.a. The Citadel, at a local's insistence that it was just a tourist trap. I wandered through the Old City alleyways, stumbling upon children skipping home from school and Jewish men scrambling to the synagogue. I weaved through the hordes of tour groups either walking snail-pace or not walking at all. I promised to never subject myself to traveling with a group I don't know and am only tied to by my bright green t-shirt or silly yellow hat.
I was denied entrance to the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque, the famous landmark in Jerusalem that dots all postcards. This complex is one of the holiest Muslim sites; it is where God took Muhammad on his journey from the Holy Mosque at Mecca to heaven. The guards turned me away, saying "Today is only open for Muslims. Come back tomorrow." Since it was my last day in Jerusalem, I marched to the second entrance, speaking in Arabic to the guards and claiming that I was a Muslim from Malaysia. To my dismay, one of the guards didn't trust my claims, demanding that I repeat the sura fatiha. My hesitance in reciting the opening chapter of the Koran betrayed my guilt. I was turned away a second time and resigned myself to the fact that I would only be seeing the Dome of the Rock from a distant view.
I hiked up the Mount of Olives and visited a lot of churches that I couldn't tell apart. There were also a lot of cemeteries that I passed on my way down to the valley, but I've never been interested in visiting stones of dead people, even if they are famous. I met a Canadian and a British traveling together on a Bible study tour, and they treated me to an ice cream.
I took my only bus ride in Jerusalem to Yad Va-Shem, the Holocaust Museum. I loved it; the testimonies of victims made me cry, the Nazi records and numbers amplified the traumatic event, and the pictures of starving children huddled in the winter needed no words to explain the lifelessness in their eyes. I took a lonely recovery stroll after the Museum through the Jerusalem Forest, passing an older man wearing plastic-framed glasses and a shirt that was folded over his belly.
Having covered every neighborhood in Jerusalem, I took a road trip with a girl from Los Angeles who happened to be visiting Israel for 2 months to see family. Our first night, we were randomly invited to a mamouna, a Moroccan festival to celebrate the last day of Passover. It was a blast – eating sweets and dates, watching four generations of one family eat dinner together, and sampling mufletta, a traditional Moroccan doughy crepe buttered and dotted with honey and sphing, a fried donut drenched in honey and served steaming hot. As explained to me by the Moroccan host and his Israeli wife, the night of a mamouna is spent visiting neighbors, eating homemade cookies and cakes, and chatting with extended family. I happily sat in a corner, unnoticed and unheard, munching on my mufletta and sphing and watching a grandfather twirl his granddaughter while his son warned him not to drop her or make her throw up. It reminded me of how much I miss my own family and eating dim sum with them.
The next day, my fellow traveler and I drove to the Galilee. Luscious green everywhere, perfectly parallel rows of fruit trees, and mountains surrounding the highway; it was my perfect escape from the brownness of Jordan. We hiked Mt. Meron, the highest mountain in the Galilee, and had the whole trail to ourselves; not once did we pass another hiker. From there, we drove to Kfar Bara'm, a village just several hundred feet from the Lebanese border. My Israeli-born friend explained to me that "everything green is Israel; where you see brown is where the border to Lebanon is." We stopped by every tiny village along the way, ticking off Arab village, Jewish village, Christian village, and Druze village on our fingers.
Meandering along the highway, we capriciously turned into a tiny road that eventually led to Dalton Winery. After sampling 3 whites, 6 reds, and 4 liqueurs, we tasted olive oil fresh from a neighboring factory. It was my first time at a winery, and I expected to pay for the tastings, but was surprised to learn that it was free. Winery etiquette, I learned, is to buy something after sampling wines and feeling a little too loose. I bought some goat cheese, happy with my purchase and glowing from the wine.
Our next stop was the quaint and charming village of Rosh Pinna, where we ate lunch and enjoyed the view over the Galilee and Lebanon. Our day ended with a stop in Tzfat and a stroll through its Artists' Quarter.
Jerusalem and the Galilee area were a great weekend trip from Jordan. The border crossings were easy (relative to Cambodia's), the people-watching entertaining, the atmosphere relaxed, and the scenery gorgeous. I met some amazingly friendly locals who were amazed at the fact that I am a Chinese born in America and working in Jordan. And the best part is that I got to experience Passover Jewish style (no leavened bread and no restaurants open for a week), Muslim style (hide the leavened bread), and Moroccan style (eat trays of sticky sweets and laugh a lot once Passover ends).