- Almost five months might seem like a long time, but it is no time at all. Three months in Italy whizzed by, and there were major parts of the country we avoided all together. Still, we know how lucky we are to have had this amount of time.
- With time to reflect, most of all I wax lyrical about Jordan, and Puglia. Jordan for its unknown treasures as well as the rightly famous Petra, and for its friendly people. Puglia for the light, the most picturesque of seaside villages, and the seafood.
- We found it is possible to travel both comfortably and relatively cheaply.
- Renting apartments and houses gave us stability, space to relax between sightseeing excursions, and gave us an insight into real Italian life.
- Travelling off the beaten track – whether it’s to Qatar, in the hills of Molise in Italy, inland from the Dead Sea in Jordan, or in the lake district of Poland – brings unexpected rewards and is always worthwhile.
- Even supermarkets give insights into local culture, and provide both amusement and horror.
- There are a lot of myths about places and people that shouldn’t be believed.
- There is too much waste and litter in this world.
- When life gives you lemons, make limoncello. It really is delicious.
- Travelling abroad for an extended period allows you to see with new eyes when you come home. Things, people, places we take for granted, appeared new and fresh on our return, and we were reminded how beautiful our own country is, and what gifts we have here. Maybe that’s the best gift of all?
Somewhat surprisingly (though I don’t know quite why I am surprised), the food during our three weeks in the Middle East has been a highlight. Well, for me at least. The husband has been less thrilled, though he did like the hummus. It started off well, when Fifi and Paul introduced us to some Arabian specialities in Qatar. Some of them saw us through the next few weeks:
- Mint lemonade, as it is known in Qatar, can be found throughout the Middle East. A home-made lemonade (lemon juice) with lots of crushed/chopped mint added. Mint lemonade in plastic glasses for an exorbitant price at the corner of the Via Dolorosa (Way of Sorrows) in Jerusalem. In Petra, in dire need of sustenance after descending from the Monastery, a Lemon Mint (same thing as mint lemonade) was provided with a sugar shaker to adjust sweetness, and a mint lemonade at the Four Seasons in Amman came in a carafe with another smaller carafe full of sugar syrup, for personal sweetening. I’ve always loved lime juice in Thailand. But mint lemonade is now a close contender for my favourite cooling juice drink. I will be attempting to make it at home this summer.
- Dips and bread. This is where they started. Hummus, home-made is best (thanks Fifi), with Arab flat breads. Za’atar (a herb and spice mix) on bread, a kind of local pizza. The delicious murtabal, an eggplant dip. And more. When we arrived in Jordan, we’d start our dinner with hummus and murtabal and flat bread. Fifi also
- Salads. Oh, the salads. The heat and dehydration made me crave salads. Fattoush (thanks Paul) was our first introduction, a lovely light salad with lettuce and cucumber and tomato and crunchy toasted or fried pita pieces. But everywhere we went, the salads were amazing. Maybe it’s just the time of year – the tomatoes (and the many divine cherry tomato salads I found in Israel and Jordan) were ripe and luscious and well, just my favourite fruit/vegetable on earth. But there were always zucchini salads, and eggplant, and Greek style salads with cucumber and olives and feta cheese. Which brings me to the olives. Oh yes, the olives here are wonderful. When we ordered a drink in Amman, it was brought with a big bowl of olives and cherry tomatoes. Bliss!
- Shawarma. You can’t visit the Middle East without eating shawarma, also called kebabs in western countries. Shaved barbecued spiced meats, wrapped in flat breads. I love them, but love the ones with the salads mixed in best. The ultimate takeaway food.
- Kosher food. Yes, I love kosher food. One of the rules of kosher food is that dairy and meats should not be mixed. A cheeseburger, therefore, is anathema. Pizzas with meat are not kosher, nor are pasta sauces with parmesan. And restaurants in Israel are often either dairy or meat restaurants, but rarely both. Or they have two completely separate sections – essentially two different restaurants, where even the seating is divided. So when we found places to eat in Israel, we’d often find dairy places. Pizzas with inventive, vegetable toppings, and pasta dishes with vegetable sauces. I was in seventh heaven. I could eat this way all the time. In Israel, I was a very happy diner.
- The serving sizes. We didn’t notice this so much in the Gulf states, but in Israel (and also sometimes Jordan) the serving sizes were huge. A single serving was enough for a family of four in Asia. We wondered why, assuming at one stage that it must be the American influence. Then on our tour to Masada, we met the hairy Oklahoma twins. We sat together at lunch, devouring enormous shawarmas. I asked them about the serving sizes. “Oh yes,” they said, appreciatively nodding at the shawarma. “Northern Europe has such small servings. The UK especially! At least here, they’re normal serving sizes!” They were so blissfully unaware that “normal” was only “normal” in the US and Israel, and maybe, we eventually agreed, Germany.
Six days is obviously not enough to sum up Israel. It’s not enough even to simply visit as a tourist. But as this leg of our top was a bit of an add-on, and Israel was even more of an afterthought, six days has been enough. After all, think what happened in the Six Days War. The shape of this entire country changed.
So, impressions of Israel after Six Days? Well, I like it more than I expected, or even wanted. And yet I don’t. We met some lovely people – unfortunately due to our time constraints and the fact we didn’t in the end hire a car, we didn’t have time to meet my delightful colleague’s father. Yet we also found lots of people very aggressive and unpleasant, even when I think they were trying to provide a service and be hospitable. I could look into this, and imagine it is a result of everything the people of Israel go through on a daily basis, and have been through. Or I could surmise that it is cultural, and just a feature of culture that is misinterpreted as aggression by polite and retiring New Zealanders. Or I could make some conclusions that this explains why the country is so aggressive to its neighbours. But I can’t, because I simply don’t know enough.
Jerusalem was fascinating, with all the sights in the Old City, both human and physical and historical. Of course we visited all the sights – and we took a day tour to the amazing fortress of Masada, and dropped down to the Dead Sea, where we floated uncomfortably, and struggled to find our feet, at 400 metres below sea level, and in 40 degree heat (and at a surprisingly unsophisticated facility). But Jerusalem was more than that. We couldn’t ignore the history, and visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial and museum where time seemed to disappear. A beautiful museum at the end of the tram line, set in large grounds, on a hill. To be expected, it reduced me to tears – not so much for the factual accountings we read about, but for the personal testimonies from Holocaust survivors, and the very simple, matter of fact ways they talked about life and death then. None of this was necessarily new to me. In seeing this, in Jerusalem, it was personal, and much more intimate.
But the rest of Jerusalem seemed a long way from the mid-20th century ghettos of Europe. I was surprised that it had such a lovely, open atmosphere, a cafe culture, full of people eating outside, families and friends together, tourists and locals, everyone relaxed and happy. We found Tel Aviv to be similar, but even more relaxed and liberal, The obvious religious conservatism was out, and skimpy beachwear and gay culture (at least near the beach where we stayed) was in.
I did however feel quite foreign there at times, simply because Hebrew is the official language, and Arabic the alternative. Sure, many if not most people spoke English. The receptionist at one of our hotels, with a strong American accent, admitted she had learned Egoish by watching movies and TV! But all the daily signs of life are in Hebrew, and my offline map app was also in Hebrew. I felt quite disoriented, perhaps because it looks so similar to a stylised font used in Thai. I’d start reading it, and realise that it didn’t make sense, or wonder where the strange extra letters came from! Now I understand how people feel when they go to Thailand I guess …
We didn’t have long enough time to go north and explore Roman ruins, ancient fishing towns, and natural reserves in the far north. We didn’t have time (or, to be honest, inclination) to explore the many Christian religious sites. I l don’t regret that. But I do wish we had had more time to meet more locals, and to see more about life there today – for all inhabitants. Maybe another time.
* Photos to come at another time, when I can overcome some of the difficulties of using technology when travelling
When I was a child, I remember learning about Israel – about kibbutzim, about the religious history of course (at Christmas and Easter), and about Israel being, apparently, the “promised land,” the “land of milk and honey.” Later, during fifth form history, I studied the Israel/Palestinian question, and then again from a slightly different perspective at university. It is therefore a place I’ve always felt I knew, but it wasn’t till I was in my late 30s and 40s that I really personally got to know anyone who was in fact Jewish or Muslim, and who actively practiced their religion. This isolation, and perhaps our sheer distance from this most troubled of areas, kept me (and most New Zealanders) somewhat ignorant of the situation Israelis and Palestinians find themselves in daily, and I believe/hope I have therefore been able to see both points of view, albeit from afar. Inevitably I have views. I was interested to see how these might change, or be solidified, in a visit here.
We arrived late one night, to the friendliest immigration officer I think at have encountered anywhere except the Philippines (immediately after a change of government). “It’s my Kiwi day!” he declared happily. “More kiwis today than Australians.” We both agreed that could only be a good thing. And, showing once again how beneficial a NZ passport is, he waved us through.
OK, so that was a good start. Having checked in, and had a good night’s sleep, the next morning we decided to immerse ourselves in Jerusalem’s religious history, and set off down the street towards the old city. First impressions, in this old part of Jerusalem (just outside the walls of the Old City itself), were of an open, bustling, charming place, full of locals and tourists, all relaxed and happy. Cafes, and in particular, bakeries abounded. And it was a good ten or more degrees cooler than Dubai, which made us very happy.
What we had noticed already, and what became only more obvious over the next few days, is how obvious, how in-your-face religion is here. It is even more noticeable coming from New Zealand, where religion is one of the three topics to be avoided in conversation, where religion plays little part in the daily lives of the majority, and where religion forms no part of our political landscape. Yet religion pervades everything here, even to the toppings on pizza, or ingredients in your sandwich. Or, on a Friday night or Saturday lunch, whether it is even possible to buy lunch, or get a taxi. Our taxi driver, who was clearly one of the only casually religious, pointed out to us the conservative, Orthodox areas, filled with women who cover their hair and dress very conservatively, and the men in the black suits, black hats with large rims, and the ringlets in front of each ear. He referred to a “crazy” Orthodox area that has, on the Sabbath, regularly stoned cars driving past on the motorway to Tel Aviv, angry that others are driving cars when they believe it should be prohibited. And even in our hotel, on the Sabbath (or Shabat), one of the two elevators was designated a Shabat elevator, which means that it is programmed to stop at every floor, so the religious don’t have to “operate” technology/machinery by pushing a button for a selected floor.
In Jerusalem, it can be very easy to look at someone, and know their religion. Many men wear the skull caps or Kippah (yarmulke), the more orthodox Jewish women and most if not all Muslim women cover their hair, but use different scarves and techniques. And if someone is carrying a gun, then it is pretty sure they are Jewish. Then of course the other category is the tourist, and we are identifiable by our sweat, our hats and cameras, and sensible shoes.
The Old City is walled, and – except for Saturday morning – thronged with tourists from all countries and religions. They come here to the Western Wall, or to the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa mosque. There are restrictions though. Perhaps our timing was poor, but we were unable to get near the Dome of the Rock, arriving too close to prayer time, and turned away by the soldiers arming the gates. Beneath the mosque is the Western Wall, where Muslim visitors are able to walk past but behind a barrier, unable to get too close. The tension of this area was illustrated the day after we visited, when a security guard shot dead a Jewish man who apparently shouted “Allahu Akbar” in the Wall compound.
Then there are the Christian tourists, pouring into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, an 11th century church commemorating the site of both the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus (though this is debated even among Christians). The faithful kneel at the Stone of Unction (or Stone of Anointing), touching the stone for blessings. Wikipedia tells me though that the belief that the stone was where Jesus’ body was prepared for burial is a recent one (dating only after the first Crusades), and that the stone itself is only two hundred years old. Throughout this city though, belief (no matter what your religion, no matter how humbling the displays of faith) trumps fact.
What surprised me was how truly small the Old City of Jerusalem actually is. Visiting and walking through the city, with Christians, Jews, Muslims, and atheists alike, it becomes patently obvious that the city needs to be shared. And the intransigence displayed by the different sides of the conflict merely sets them all up for difficulty, if not disaster. And the tragedy unfolds …
As we drove through the West Bank to the Dead Sea, the wall erected by the Israelis is clearly visible. Tall, concrete, and foreboding – it brought to mind the walls and ghettos of World War II. And that’s the irony and tragedy of Israel.
* I have to credit the Jewish Kiwi Australian we met who described Jerusalem this way.