Emily C. Skaftun

(skŏf • tŭn) n. A writer of speculative fiction.

Tag: travel (page 1 of 2)

Have we been there yet?

Photo: Amy Lietz We spent about five minutes at Gullfoss in Iceland. Does it count?

Photo: Amy Lietz
We spent about five minutes at Gullfoss in Iceland. Does it count?

Lately a thing has been going around social media: a map of the U.S. called “States I’ve Visited.” Visited states turn a vibrant pink, bragging to all Facebook friends how well traveled one is. It’s a digital, national version of a gift we recommended last Christmas, a map of the world you can scratch off to show where you’ve been.

I think these things are fun, and I’ve even given the physical versions to a couple of people as gifts. But I must confess I have a hard time filling them out for myself. My hesitation comes from an uncertainty about what it means to have been to a place.

The first time I remember doing this same exercise, counting which states I’d been to, I got into an argument about Georgia. I’d transferred between legs of a flight to Florida in the Atlanta airport. The judges ruled that I had not been to Georgia.

I accept that. In fact, I think it’s generally agreed upon that airports don’t count. Just because you’ve sprinted for a connecting flight in Frankfurt doesn’t mean that you’ve been to Germany. The basis for this rule seems to be the idea that airports are all the same. Which has some validity, if our starting point is that you are a fairly well-traveled native English speaker. Even the farthest-flung airports I’ve visited have been variations on a theme of large windows and moving walkways, had signage I could read, and sold overpriced snacks and coffees (even often for US currency), though of course the size, quality, and interest of airports vary wildly.

But this rule sets a dangerous precedent; at least for me it is the first step of a slippery slope. You see, lots of places are basically all the same. I once spent several months traveling the U.S. while living in my car (long story; another time). I was in Providence, Rhode Island. I’d walked around just a bit—just enough to be unpleasantly far from my car, though I don’t remember seeing much of interest—when it started pouring. I mean, seriously heavy, drenching rain. I would have been soaked by the time I made it back to the car (which is problematic when the car is your home for the night) so I ducked into a mall to wait it out. Long story short: I spent many hours in this mall, and when I could I left the state as fast as possible. So have I been to Rhode Island? Malls are pretty much all the same, aren’t they?

Or for that matter, what about any number of the U.S. states that I drove through, on the Interstate, and maybe only stopped at a rest stop or a gas station, and don’t remember a single thing about the state? Have I been to those? My map looks very different depending on these answers. I’ve been to either 35 or 43 states.

Let’s say I’ve made it to a state and done a legitimate thing—stayed overnight, saw the sights, ate some local cuisine—in one city. Is it really fair to say I’ve been to that state? What if the state is Texas and the city I’ve been to is Austin? Seems like a stretch.

For that matter, even my home state is mostly a mystery to me. I know western Washington pretty well (well, except for Bellingham and most of the islands and almost the whole Olympic peninsula), but though I’ve been to the eastern places a number of times most of it might as well be full of sasquatches for how familiar I am with it.

Often times, travel articles add to the feeling that the way I’ve visited a place isn’t good enough. Titles like “You haven’t seen Seattle until you’ve eaten these four fish,” or some such. I know it’s hyperbole, but I am left wondering: have I ever really been anywhere?

 

This article originally appeared in the Jan. 22, 2016, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

A summer tour in the Holy Land

Ancient yet modern, safe yet violent, Israel is a land of contradictions

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun An example of the ancient ruins of Roman aquaduct outside Caesarea, a port city built by Herod the Great.

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun
An example of the ancient ruins of Roman aquaduct outside Caesarea, a port city built by Herod the Great.

 

Since returning from a hastily planned trip to Israel this summer, everyone’s been asking me how it was. Did I have fun? And I don’t entirely know how to answer. Many of the experiences one has in Israel can’t be filed neatly under the heading of “fun,” but it is definitely a trip worth taking.

The most prominent feature of the region is religion; therefore your experience with Israel will vary depending on your religious beliefs. For many Christians, visiting sites like the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem (where, according to legend, Jesus was born) and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (where he was crucified and buried) are life-changing spiritual moments. Muslims have the Dome of the Rock, where some believe Mohammed ascended to heaven, and which is, in any case, an ancient marvel of architecture (or so I hear, as non-Muslims are no longer permitted to visit the site) and for Jews, almost the whole country is a sort of miracle, not to mention housing many sacred tombs and the famous Western Wall.

Our group wasn’t particularly religious, so I chose a “classical” tour that would give us a taste of everything with a focus on history rather than faith—to the degree they can be separated in Israel. There’s little variation in what highlights are included in most package tours, so go with whichever best fits your travel dates and budget. Ours was an “11-day tour” (with two of those travel days) that had us leaving Seattle on a Thursday to arrive in Tel Aviv on Friday. The guided portion of our tour began Sunday morning when we swung north to spend two nights in the Golan Heights before going back to Jerusalem for five more nights.

A few words of advice. One, do shop around for your flights—it would have been simple to use the tour provider for this, but we would have paid hundreds more in airfare and/or spent eight more hours in layovers each way. I took to Travelocity.com and found us an itinerary that was far superior.

Two, if your itinerary is like ours, consider spending extra time in Tel Aviv. We arrived on a Friday afternoon, when everything was just about to shut down for Shabbat (the Jewish Sabbath, which goes from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday). Though more things in Tel Aviv remain open than in Jerusalem—like restaurants and some shops—this still limited our ability to see the city. On our only day in town, most of what we wanted to see—museums and two supposedly bustling markets—were closed or open for such brief hours that we missed out. This left us with Yafo and the beach (which, don’t get me wrong, are both incredible). To get our lower airfare we spent an extra day in Jerusalem, but I wish we’d had it in Tel Aviv instead.

Three, don’t let the tour people bully you into an upgrade; we went with base-level hotels and they were entirely acceptable. Only upgrade if amenities like swimming pools are vital to you. But if your trip is anything like ours, you won’t be spending much time at the hotel anyway.

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun Bedouin hospitality in this case included dressing up for photos. Unfortunately, the sword and helmet were out of our price range, and had to stay in Israel.

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun
Bedouin hospitality in this case included dressing up for photos. Unfortunately, the sword and helmet were out of our price range, and had to stay in Israel.

What’s awesome:
The age of the place. From Yafo (Jaffa), the ancient port city at the south end of Tel Aviv, to Tsfat (Safed), home of Jewish mysticism, to Jerusalem itself, it’s incredible to see how history has layered itself in these places, some of which have been continuously occupied for many thousands of years. For an American, this can be hard to quite understand. It’s hard to know how much of any given site is ancient and how much is new, because the construction matches so well. In many places it feels as if you’ve time-traveled thousands of years—until you catch the blue flicker of a television inside a building.

In Jerusalem, be sure to find your way to the “roof” of the city. The level at which you fight your way through aggressive vendors and crowds of tourists is only the middle. Older passageways are laced below, and newer ones above. The locals use the roof to bypass the throng below, but you can simply use it as a place to enjoy the view.

The food. Your mileage may vary, but I love falafel and shawarma in pita, hummus, and cucumber and tomato. The only downside is that there’s no bacon anywhere.

I found the implementation of kosher rules very interesting. Most restaurants do not keep kosher, but those that do are labeled as either meat or dairy (since the two are not allowed to mix). You can have pizza, but no meat toppings. Or you can have falafel (Israel’s national food—possibly in a semi-ironic way?), which I never even noticed was dairy-free. You can even go to kosher McDonald’s (we did not) and get a “Big American” burger, but you can’t add cheese.

The people. Get out of your tour group and meet some real Israelis. We did this by having dinner in a woman’s home (there are any number of people willing to do this, but we visited Iris: www.amechayeisrael.com). For the cost of a rather expensive dinner we had a truly fantastic dinner (with an obscene amount of delicious food), two or three bottles of wine, and hours of conversation on everything from American TV to cats to psychic powers to religion and politics. This was easily the most enjoyable part of the trip.

Another high point was allowing ourselves to accept a little Bedouin hospitality in the Old City. Of course, the shopkeeper would have been happier if we’d ended up buying one of his soft silk rugs, but he didn’t seem to begrudge the conversation and tea we shared.

What’s challenging:
The heat. Ohmygod, why did we go in July/August? I don’t recommend this. It was around 100°F most of the time, and we always seemed to end up out in the open during the hottest parts of the day, like when we visited Masada, the ruins of an impressive 200-year-old mountaintop fortress, at noon. I like hot weather, but there are limits.

The ubiquity of religion. Even a religious person will feel the strain of this, I suspect, because the three big “Western” religions are all heavily represented and have differing customs. Men have it relatively easy: for you it’s mainly a question of whether hats are required or forbidden. As a woman, I felt religion’s effects keenly. All of the holy sites require “modesty,” but they have differing standards and this is largely at the discretion of the man (always man) at the entrance. Is that skirt too short? Are elbows immodest? This leaves as the safest course wearing a lot more clothes than the summer heat makes reasonable. Female travelers, I recommend you carry a scarf in case your t-shirt is suddenly deemed unacceptable.

Another issue is that many of the Jewish holy sites, such as the Western Wall, are gender-segregated. Couples traveling together might find this inconvenient. Conditions on either side aren’t necessarily equal, either. I was shocked when looking at my husband’s photos how large the men’s section at the Western Wall was!

The fact that ideological violence is always just under the surface. Whatever your feelings about Israel—and there are definitely points to be made by all parties—the fact remains that the region is barely keeping itself together. During our week there, we learned of two ideologically motivated acts of violence. A house was set fire in the West Bank, probably by Jewish extremists, and a toddler inside was killed. And then, at the gay pride parade that wound right past our hotel, an ultra-Orthodox man stabbed six people.

(A quick look at the news shows that the violence has only gotten worse since our trip, with another war with Hamas looking like a possibility. Yikes.)

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun Silhouette soldiers point their guns toward Syria.

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun
Silhouette soldiers point their guns toward Syria.

One of the more interesting stops on our tour was at a hilltop overlooking the Syrian border. Part tourist stop, part military emplacement, it had metal soldier silhouettes with weapons, and it also had real soldiers with real weapons. The hill was catacombed underneath with bunkers, but it also had a café and gift shop. Coin-operated binoculars pointed toward the war-torn neighboring country, and from time to time we heard large-caliber weapons in the distance.

To be in a country that in many ways seems just like home, and then realize that a horrific civil war is raging mere miles away causes some cognitive dissonance. The fact that Israel refuses to take in refugees, despite being a country founded by refugees, despite the memory of millions of Jews in need of refuge during WWII, and what happened to them when all the countries turned them away… let’s just say I found it interesting.

I’ll sum up with a representative example from our trip, which can stand as a metaphor for the whole: our visit to the Dead Sea.

Everyone knows the Dead Sea is salty as all get out. As of 2011 it was 34.2% saline (and given that it’s losing around one meter of sea level per year, that number is probably higher now), about ten times more saline than the ocean. In contrast, Utah’s Great Salt Lake ranges from 5% to 27%—so even at its saltiest it’s got nothing on the Dead Sea. But this fact is pretty abstract. Going in we knew were going to float, and that’s about all.

What we didn’t realize was that the “beach” we’d be going to was made of sand pure salt crystals (sharp!). We also didn’t realize the water would be quite so hot—like shower water when someone else in the house flushes the toilet. Even the freshwater showers on the shore were uncomfortably hot on that uncomfortably hot day. Finally, we knew that we didn’t want to get the saltwater in our eyes or mouths, and we knew not to shave before the visit, but we didn’t realize that the water would sting the skin a little bit even so—and more than a little bit on more sensitive skin. It’s hard to keep water off one’s face when it’s on one’s hands, and when one’s own salty sweat (less than 1% saline, and think of how much that can sting!) is dripping into one’s eyes.

We did float, of course. You really can’t help but float in it, even those who sink to the bottom of swimming pools. It’s a strange, funny feeling, and there was much laughter. Am I glad to have had that experience? Absolutely. But overall, was our trip to the Dead Sea fun? All things considered, I’m not sure I can call it that.

And that’s exactly how I feel about the trip as a whole: I’m entirely glad we went, but it hasn’t made my list of places to return to again.

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 2, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

Israel in summer, part 7: The trip winds down

Then it was Saturday again, and again nothing was open. We slept in, for once, and headed to the Old City. I got us lost, like a moron, and a man gave us directions and then extorted us for “donations.” There is a culture in the crowded tourist sites of what I almost want to call harassment—aggressive deal-making or outright panhandling. This is not my favorite thing, and I’ll be happy to have a rest from it when we get home.

We finally arrived at the Tower of David, and wandered through the pretty unimpressive exhibit until we ran into Ken and Nori. Together we went back over the stations of the cross, which were hard to find. Ken bought a map of them and they were still hard to find. When we were done we tried to think of something else to do, but failed at it and went back to the hotel for a nap.

The Tower of David.

The Tower of David.

Mom decided to keep napping through the evening, so it was just me and Husband exploring the city. We started walking through the vibrant area near the hotel, but it was dead, even though the sun had set. It was almost fully dark, and as we walked, the stores and restaurants started to open up. We ended up being the first diners at a place in a little square. When we walked back toward the hotel everything was open again and there was a protest or rally in the square. We couldn’t tell what was being said, of course, but the speaker was angry. There was, again, a lot of security, and we knew that it might not be overkill. We tried to avoid the plaza, but would have gotten lost doing it.

Charming Jerusalem is charming.

Charming Jerusalem is charming.

Sunday was a day too many. We went back to the Old City again and ran into a Bedouin named Neil (or something like that). He took us up to the “roof,” which did have amazing views, and then into his shop where he brought us tea and let us try on strange garb and tried to sell us things. All we bought was one pendant.

The Husband enjoying some bedouin hospitality.

The Husband enjoying some bedouin hospitality.

Then we tried to visit City of David, but everything went wrong. We bought tickets and then found out that it was a long underground tunnel, so Mom didn’t want to go. We also couldn’t go, because you can’t go barefoot through the deep water, and didn’t have water shoes. After a long struggle we got our money back and gave up and went back to the hotel for a nap and to pack.

After dark we went out and ended up eating at a lovely restaurant that specialized in seafood—it was the first we’d seen! Shrimps in many sauces, and a lovely meze of sauces and hummus and focaccia bread. Delicious.

In the square, the protest or rally or memorial was happening again.

At four in the morning, our cab arrived to take us to the airport, and the long journey home began. Did I have a great time in Israel? I can’t entirely say that I did. But I did learn a lot, and I will never regret travelling to a new place, even when it’s too hot and the religion makes me squirm and our guide is a moron. I wonder whatever happened to Tomer?

Israel in summer, part 6: Flavors of Israel

The next day we first stopped at Qumran, the place where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. The site was used by a sect that was really, really into bathing. We saw the actual scrolls the previous day, of course, in the museum. This was just more ruins. It was very hot out there, at least 100. I hate to say it, but it was basically too hot to care about ruins, especially when you hate your tour guide. He was bossy and uninformative and apparently very concerned about being sued if someone fell.

Ruins at Qumran.

Ruins at Qumran.

Next we stopped at a kibbutz that makes products from the Dead Sea minerals, called Ahava. I would have liked to see the factory in operation, but the place we stopped was just a gift shop.

Crazy salt sculptures at the Avada shop.

Crazy salt sculptures at the Avada shop.

From there we went to Masada–a fortress made by Herod, way, way up on an unpromising hill. It was built there because it would be so easy to defend. But it didn’t work; in the end the people there were besieged and killed themselves rather than become enslaved. Whoops. Still, it is a very impressive site. Amazing that people were able to live there and even retain their obsession with bathing and saunas and such. It’s also funny because it’s way, way up on a hill and yet it’s only at approximately sea level. I am still not clear on what they ate up there besides pigeons and fruit. It was noonish when we visited, which seems like the worst possible time to be somewhere so bloody hot, but I’m not in charge.

Masada. It really was a marvel.

Masada. It really was a marvel.

After lunch in the cafeteria, we went to the Dead Sea. This is really quite an experience, not one I’d call entirely pleasant, but an experience! First of all, the shore of the sea has receded very far from the “resort” where we parked and changed and such. There’s a “train”–some seats pulled by a tractor–that goes to and from the shore every 15 minutes. Also, Israel could take a few cues from Scandinavia on how to design public bath-type infrastructure. The “resort” had dirty bathrooms with wet, grimy floors. Third, I wish someone had told me before we left for this trip how sharp the “sand” at the shore is. It’s salt crystals. Duh, right? But it hadn’t occurred to me. I would have bought some shower shoes or sandals if I’d known.

But! It is really a strange place. Even the Husband, who always always sinks, floats there. It’s impossible not to float. It’s hard to stop floating; your legs just drift back to the surface whenever you stop standing on them. It really is saltier than salt. Sweat drips in your eyes, but don’t you dare try to wipe it away, because your hands are covered in something much worse than sweat. There were fresh-water showers on the shore, but the water in those was so hot–even hotter than the water of the sea, which was almost too hot to get into—that it was hardly worth it. Also, the water burns men’s junk. Not women’s, apparently, so that’s one more check for internal gonads (and having tougher skin in one’s nether regions). We laughed as a set of three guys waded in and successively discovered that fact. Hee hee. The Husband found a hat floating in the water and kept it, because he is strange.

Back in Jerusalem we said goodbye to our traveling companions and got ready for our dinner with Iris. This was one of the highlights of the trip, a meal with a real Israeli in her home, though getting there was an adventure. The cabdriver we flagged down couldn’t understand me or read English (I’d written the address, as recommended), but he zoomed off confidently. Then he pulled over and asked a stranger to read the address I’d written. Then he called someone to find out where the street was. I had to talk to the person for a minute. Eep! We did find it, though, and in fact it felt like we were going the right way the whole time.

Iris was immediately wonderful. Her “sister” Tami was there too, and over a very long and excellent dinner of many courses we discussed everything from American TV to politics. That day, or maybe the day before, someone had burnt a house in the West Bank and a little child was killed. They said that as Israelis they wouldn’t go to the Old City the next day, out of respect. But oh, did we talk about everything. Israelis (or at least these two) like us think their government is crazy, and want peace. They support the Palestinians but also, of course, are pro-Israel. They know much more about American television than we do.

Israel in summer, part 5: The “new” city of Jerusalem

We began our “new city” day at the Israel Museum, which had many more exhibits than we were able to see. One of the most striking is a big model of the Old City, but it also contains the Dead Sea Scrolls, strange sculptures, and antiquities like mosaics, Egyptian stuff, and Roman glass. I would have like to spend more time there.

Scale model of the old city.

Scale model of the old city.

Then it was on to Yad Vashem, the holocaust museum. Honestly, I think the one in D.C. is more affecting. There was a wealth of information here, though, and the children’s memorial, a very dark room with reflected points of light, where the names and ages of the dead children are read, was touching. There was a HUGE group of soldiers at the museum, which made it hard to get through. The museum has no shortcuts through the back and forth structure, so it was a maze.

We had lunch in the cafeteria there, which was divided into “meat” and “dairy.” We chose dairy. Apparently fish goes both ways. Oddly, few restaurants we’ve been to are kosher, but our dinner place was too, and it was on the “dairy” side.

Next we TRIED to visit the Knesset. Almost the first thing the guide said this morning (but not so early we could have done anything about it—Avshalom is a terrible guide) was that we needed passports for the Knesset. So back I went to the hotel while we waited for Israel Museum exhibits to open. What he didn’t tell us–and apparently didn’t know–is that there’s also a dress code for the Knesset: no shorts, t-shirts, sandals, etc. Most of the group didn’t pass, but weirdly I did (in my orange dress). We learned about Israeli democracy, and the key word is transparency. I wish we had some of that! While we’re at it, I wish we had a party system with coalition governments, but that’s a different story. We watched the rest of the group walk away, through the security fence, and had only to hope that they’d come back for us.

Mural by Chagall in the Knesset.

Mural by Chagall in the Knesset.

They did. Or rather, Avshalom did, and then we went back to the Israel Museum for the others, and then WALKED BACK to the same exact place he’d picked us up to look at a stupid menorah statue. He is really an idiot. I dislike him intensely.

We drove through the neighborhood of Mea Shearim, gawking at the Hasidic Jews. Seems kind of rude. I wondered what would happen to us improperly dressed gawking tourists if our bus broke down, but thankfully we didn’t have to find out. We skipped a stop from our schedule, Ammunition Hill. Will ask Avshalom tomorrow.

Back at the hotel, a pride parade was setting up outside our window. It looked very small compared to home, and with a HUGE police presence. This was needed, though, because there was a stabbing. We saw… not it, but the response to it. The emergency vehicles that had been trailing the parade suddenly dove through it like parting the Red Sea. Husband looked it up to know what had happened and found early news reports about the stabbing. In a shocking coincidence, apparently the same stabber attacked the parade 10 years ago, when Husband’s cousin was marching in it. Small world. The stabber had apparently just been released from prison, having had a 12-year sentence commuted to 10. Great job, guys. He was clearly not rehabilitated.

Our view of the Jerusalem Pride parade from the hotel window.

Our view of the Jerusalem Pride parade from the hotel window.

Even before the sirens started up, I’d been thinking how brave the queers of Israel must be to march in their pride parade. I didn’t even know how true that was.

 

Israel in summer, part 4: A city divided

Our first stop in Jerusalem was at Rachel’s Tomb, which is down a long, unpromising street of high concrete walls built to protect the Jewish and Christian worshippers from attacks. I didn’t go inside. It looked like there was little to see and I was unclear on the garb required and made very uncomfortable by the whole thing. This felt like a genuine, still-in-use religious site, and my secular tourism felt unwelcome.

Even doves need bulletproof vests here?

Even doves need bulletproof vests here?

The first real stop of the day was Bethlehem, which is in territory controlled by the Palestinian Authority. It is in the West Bank. We had to get out of the bus, walk through a border, and meet a different guide on the other side–Adel. He was like Tomer light, but I presume he was a Palestinian Christian, because those are the things his guiding focused on.

He took us to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, which supposedly covers the place where Jesus was born. It’s a large church, shared by various Christian sects, with predominantly Byzantine art. Talk about gaudy! There was a mass downstairs when we went, so we had to wait seemingly forever to go down to the spot where Jesus was born, and then it was so crowded that we could barely see anything. Supposedly the manger is down there too, but I didn’t see it. I was surprised a stable would have been around long enough for people to start venerating it, but Bethlehem was in Jesus’s lifetime a very small town, I guess. It is pretty much inside Jerusalem these days.

They never heard the phrase, "tone it down."

They never heard the phrase, “tone it down.”

Next we visited a gift shop, which I suspect was run by Adel’s family. This took a very long time.

We got lost both ways going through the border again. We had to show passports to get back to the “Israel” side, though the person looking really wasn’t enthusiastic about it.

The border.

The border.

Then Tomer handed us over to a new guide, Avshalom, who was a huge step down from Tomer. Where Tomer was confident, Avshalom was timid and uncertain. We started with a VERY overpriced lunch, then visited the Mount of Olives. There is a massive Jewish cemetery there; very hot and grim, with no vegetation to speak of. At the base of the hill we drove past the Garden of Gethsemanee, which seems quite far outside the city for a quick place to go pray. We only drove past the garden, unfortunately.

The cemetery. To me it seemed a grim place to

The cemetery. To me it seemed a grim place to be dead.

Finally we arrived at the Old City. We entered through the Zion gate, which is riddled with bullet holes. As it turns out, much of the “Old City” is only 50 years old, having been destroyed in 1948 and rebuilt after a few wars. As always, it’s strange to see how the country lives with history–and isn’t too precious about it. We are allowed to touch almost everything. The drag is the religious part, which wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t so sexist. You really can’t tell me that god is offended by my shoulders. He made them!

Bullet holes in the Zion Gate. Just inside is a huge mezuzah made from an artillery shell.

Bullet holes in the Zion Gate. Just inside is a huge mezuzah made from an artillery shell.

At the old city, the first stop was David’s Tomb. Upstairs from the tomb is the room where the Last Supper supposedly took place–except that there’s absolutely no evidence to support that “tradition,” as Avshalom called it, and plenty to support the fact that the building dates only to the Crusader era. Oh well.

After that we walked to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where Jesus died. As the story goes, all the important places (location of crosses, tomb) were once outside the city, but since they are now holy places there’s a massive church and it’s all within the current walls of the “old” city. In that church are the last few stations of the cross, including the crucifixion spot and the empty tomb–the latter having been excavated around such that it’s hard to see it as the cave it must once have been. The church is large, maze-like, and again shared by several brands of Christian, some gaudier than others.

Jesus's three-day resting place, so the legend goes.

Jesus’s three-day resting place, so the legend goes.

Then we hit the other stations in reverse, zig-zagging through markets and rushing through them until we hit the first one, where Jesus was sentenced, if I’m not mistaken. Things were really blurring by then.

After that we hit the Wailing Wall. Again, we were separated into men and women. I always find it weird to be in the presence of people with real religion. I don’t like it. Especially to come and gawk at it like a tourist. But nonetheless I put a very inappropriate prayer in the wall. One that would take a real miracle.

Prayers in the wall.

Prayers in the wall.

At around this point in the afternoon we had an awkward amount of time left (which never would have happened with Tomer as our guide), and walked a lot needlessly, then had less than an hour free before dinner. Diner was good–Armenian, which is more of the same–and then we went to the “sound and light show” in the Tower of David. This was very, very cool. Gorgeous and impressive. The Tower itself is really a castle. It has a huge moat and crenellated top and all the works. During the show Husband and I saw two UFOs. I think they might have been birds on an updraft–or possibly flying pigs. 

Israel in summer, part 3: The Golan Heights

Our first morning in the Golan Heights started in Gallilee at the Mount. The Church of the Beatitudes commemorates all the blessings in the Sermon on the Mount. It has a nice view of the Sea of Gallilee and it’s very pretty, though not very old. It was built in 1938. Combine the newness of it with the religiousness of it, and this wouldn’t have made my must-see list. But Mom seemed to appreciate it.

Luckily, I make my own fun.

Luckily, I make my own fun.

Then we went to Capernaum, where Jesus apparently lived and preached. There is a spaceship-like church built over the ruins of his place, which would have been used as a church. The spaceship has a window in the floor. I like the way that the sites are built over without erasing what’s below. Next to it is the ruin of an early Sephardic temple.

The spaceship at Capernaum.

The spaceship at Capernaum.

The next stop was probably my favorite so far–a hill overlooking the Syrian border, with bunkers and battlements and real soldiers up there with metal silhouettes (and wacky metal art). Artillery fire in the distance. Cafe serving coffee. Tourists. Soldiers. Totally surreal. Things like this are why traveling on a guided tour sometimes makes sense. I am sure this random hilltop would not have been in my Frommer’s Guide to Isreal.

Soldiers, both real and silhouette, patrol this border.

Soldiers, both real and silhouette, patrol this border.

After that we went to a “sound and light show” that was propaganda for the Golan heights and taught us nothing. It included fake wind and rain. I consider this a total waste of time, especially as there was a brewery next door that we did NOT visit. We DID visit the Golan Heights Winery, which was lovely because wine. It’s actually very good.

After that we stopped at a falafel and shawarma place for lunch. Delish. There was a whole table of soldiers with rifles slung over their shoulders eating at the table next to us, and they invited James the Texan to be in a picture with them. Very charming. We actually saw a ton of soldiers on the road that day, mustering for some reserve training. Mary found it disturbing to see them all there, waiting for busses and such, but it didn’t seem that strange to me.
Our next stop was Tzfat, the center of Jewish mysticism. We couldn’t go into the temple on our schedule because of a Bar Mitzvah, so we mostly had time to stroll down the artist-lined street and be tempted by their wares.

Tzfat is a charming old town.

Tzfat is a charming old town.

This town gets me.

This town gets me.

It gets Husband too.

It gets Husband too.

Finally we headed back to the Kibbutz, and over dinner had a wacky conversation with Ken about tarot and numerology. He shared his Golan wine with me before we headed to a lecture about kibbutzim. Basically, they are communes.

The next day we left the kibbutz, after visiting their synagogue furniture showroom. They’ve sold furniture to IKEA–for the worship areas in their three Israeli locations. Our first stop was Nazareth, the Church of the Annunciation, where Mary was told of her impending virgin birth. There is a truly impressive church there, filled with beautiful mosaics from all over the world. The church is built over Mary’s supposed home–or the home of Jesus as a child. They were apparently troglodytes: they lived in caves.

 

Inside Mary's church.

Inside Mary’s church.

Mosaics from all over the world celebrate the Madonna, in strikingly different styles.

Mosaics from all over the world celebrate the Madonna, in strikingly different styles.

The town of Nazareth is Muslim-controlled now, and they wanted to build a big giant mosque next to the church, dwarfing it, but Israel wouldn’t let them. They even checked records to see if there was evidence that the person the would-be mosque-builders wanted to honor had died there, and couldn’t find any. So they had to settle for signs telling the Christians to convert. Tomer seemed very offended by this, but it pales in comparison to Westboro Baptist Church in my opinion.

Still not as offensive as Westboro Baptist Church.

Still not as offensive as Westboro Baptist Church.

Our next stop was Beit Alpha, where we saw its famous zodiac floor. This had the BEST video explaining the origin of the floor, with reenactors. According to the video, the mosaic artist was new and therefore cheap. But he also sucked at understanding Judaism and art. The video made it look like he sketched one idea and then totally went with that, which is what the floor looks like, honestly. An actual quote from the video is “Those are barely cats!” in reference to the “lions” portrayed. Rarely does a historical site so blatantly mock itself. Or display any sense of humor, actually. This was a welcome breath of fresh air.

From there we went to an unscheduled stop at a park with a spring, where many went swimming. The water was lovely. We just put our toes in after eating terrible mystery sandwiches. Could they have been ham? Seems unlikely to me, but the others insisted that’s what we were eating.

On the way into Jerusalem were stuck mightily in traffic. But we did make it, eventually.
After checking into our hotel and having a rest, we went to Lavan at Cinemateque for dinner. It was quite a nice dinner, though we got very lost trying to find the place and wandered almost into a canyon. Thanks a lot, misleading sign! As we were finishing dinner, an outdoor movie started up right next to our window–Back to the Future! No matter where you go, there you are!

Back to the future!

Back to the future!

Israel in summer, part 2: To the sea of Gallilee

In the morning our tour started. Our group is really small—there’s the Texans, two women from NY, Mary the blond and Randi, the odd couple of Nori and Ken, and Sadira, master of scarf-wearing. Our tour guide/driver, Tomer, is much more mellow than whoever picked us up from the airport, thank the stars.

We started at Ceaserea, where the ruins are impressive in the way of all ruins. The amphitheater is still used for shows, which seems really cool. On the other end, restaurants nestle among the ruins. I would have enjoyed visiting them if we’d been there without the group. We also stopped at a section of aqueduct on the beach, which was very pretty with the blue Mediterranean behind.

Aqueduct and sea behind.

Aqueduct and sea behind.

Next we drove to Haifa, and paused to look the Bahai shrine up and down–literally. We looked up at it, and then we looked down at it. I would have liked to see inside the actual building, but it is nevertheless neat to have seen two of the shrines now. The gardens are incredible. I wonder what it takes to be allowed to walk the length of them. A shame that everyone isn’t doing so. What good is it to create a marvel and not let people fully enjoy it?

The Bahai shrine, from the top.

The Bahai shrine, from the top.

From there we sped on to a Druze village. I don’t know what I was expecting, but this wasn’t noticeably different from any other little roadside town. We had a decent but not mind-blowing lunch and then were harangued by merchants wanting to show us their “hand-made” merchandise, which I am sure I could buy at Target.

Next we stopped at Megida (Armageddon), which was more ruins and hot hot heat. It takes a lot of imagination to appreciate ruins, and I was out of that brand of imagination for the day. One nice thing is that they let people crawl all over the ruins here; they’re not all precious about them like so many other places. But I guess that goes with them being not all that impressive, really. We did walk down to a tunnel dug under the city walls to reach the town’s water source. Pretty cool thing to have done in ye olden times, and a welcome break from the heat.

The original Underground Tour.

The original Underground Tour.

Our last tourist stop was at the Jordan River, supposedly the site where John the Baptist baptized Jesus. It was pretty. A great many people in robes were being baptized there, and across the way horses were running about for no apparent reason. We were able to just step into the river, where tiny fishes nibbled and tickled our ankles. Have I been saved now?

These fish live on a diet of almost exclusively sin.

These fish live on a diet of almost exclusively sin.

Finally we reached the Kibbutz where we stay for two nights. I am still not totally clear on the kibbutz concept, and hope it gets explained tomorrow. Our accommodations are what you’d expect from any hotel. We had a nice dinner and nicer chat with our traveling companions, and then Husband and I tried to walk the “promenade” that loops around the kibbutz but probably were going the wrong way and so we turned around and came back that way. Lame.

Israel in summer, part 1: Tel Aviv, or nothing is open

I joke that we are trying to visit all the “I” countries—Iceland, Israel, etc. It’s not true, of course. We’re in no hurry to see Iraq or Iran, despite the lovely things I’ve heard about the city of Tehran.

Actually this trip was Mom’s idea. Is it a religious thing? That residual Catholicism can be hard to get over. Who knows. Mom said let’s go to Israel, so to Israel we went.

We were met at baggage by a caricature Israeli—he really reminded me of the tour guide from the Simpsons episode—fast-talking and impatient. We made it to the hotel to find it perfectly adequate despite the tour company’s attempts to upsell me—I’m glad we didn’t pay more to upgrade. Our hotel was two blocks from the beach, which is amazing. It’s really nicely integrated into the city with a boardwalk and cafes and anything else you could want.

We had dinner at a place on the beach. Great ambiance, okay food, lousy service. Don’t be in a hurry!

By the time we got in and sat for a minute it was Shabbat, and our options were somewhat limited. We walked just a tiny bit, marveling at all the stray cats in the city. They meow with no discernible accent.

IMG_3389

Dinner at the beach.

Saturday morning the Husband woke up feeling unwell and didn’t join us for the day. The museums Mom wanted to see were closed on account of Shabbat, and the buses weren’t running, so we walked all the way to Old Jaffa (Yafo)—about two miles—along the beach. It was really lovely. The old city is amazing and well restored. Unlike a lot of ancient sites, it’s been in constant use, which is nice to see. We attempted to visit the market on the way back, but (duh) it was closed. So we just walked back.

IMG_3426

A typical scene from Yafo.

It is beautiful here. Oddly more "mediterranean" than I'd expected.

It is beautiful here. Oddly more “mediterranean” than I’d expected.

We rested a long while then sought dinner around sunset—only to find that it was some kind of fast day, and NOW, even the things that had been open for Shabbat in relatively easygoing Tel Aviv were closing. Oh, you haven’t eaten since breakfast? Well too bad. We finally resorted to eating at the same restaurant from the night before. Ugh. Why weren’t we warned about the holiday? Seems like something the folks we bought the tour from might have told us.

Fire & ice: winter tours in Iceland

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun Bárðarbunga from the air

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun
Bárðarbunga from the air.

I recently took a week off to visit Iceland. Iceland in winter. We’d been to the country before, right around the summer solstice, and loved it. So part of the impetus for this trip was to see how we felt about the place when it wasn’t summer—when it was covered in ice, and when the sun barely made an appearance.

The eruption of the Bárðarbunga volcano, with spreading lava field in nearby Holuhraun, began after we booked our trip, but immediately made the top of our list of things to see while there.

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun The long view shows just a portion of the vast lava field laid down by the volcano. For scale, the mound that’s been built up is around 70 meters high. The lava field is bigger than Manhattan. I also found it interesting how utterly flat the landscape is that it’s rising out of.

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun
The long view shows just a portion of the vast lava field laid down by the volcano. For scale, the mound that’s been built up is around 70 meters high. The lava field is bigger than Manhattan. I also found it interesting how utterly flat the landscape is that it’s rising out of.

Fortunately, this is easy to do, as long as you’re willing to pay for it. The lava field is roughly in the middle of the country, so there are small plane and helicopter tours available from both Reykjavik and Akureyri (in the north).

Costs vary quite a lot, with helicopter tours typically much more expensive than planes. Flights out of Reykjavik also tended to cost more, and since we were going to Akureyri anyway we booked ours from there. The company we went with was called Mýflug (www.myflug.is), and they were great. Before we flew, they checked and double-checked the weather to make sure we’d see something. It was touch and go for a while, but as you can see from the pictures, the day turned out gorgeous. We flew out to Holuhraun, then back and forth near the caldera several times before heading back to Akureyri, and only then did they run our credit cards. I respect that.

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun Iceland’s newest volcano sends clouds of smoke to blot out the sun, as seen from the tail window of a Cessna.

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun Iceland’s newest volcano sends clouds of smoke to blot out the sun, as seen from the tail window of a Cessna.

Other major companies are Saga Travel, Extreme Iceland, Iceland Travel, Nordic Visitors, and Iceland Unlimited, all of which cost more than ours. Though the cheapest, it was still over $300 per person. We justified the expense as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Of course, the other fire we wanted to see while wintering in Iceland was in the sky: the Northern Lights. Don’t miss your opportunity to go on a tour to hunt this phenomenon. You may think you’ll be able to simply look up and see them, but going with a guide gives you better odds. Most of these tours also come with a guarantee, whereby they’ll take you back out the next night if you don’t see anything.

Be forewarned: this will be the coldest part of your trip. Winter temperatures in Iceland are surprisingly mild, hovering around freezing most of the time. But at night, in some windswept place far from light, when you are just standing around looking up, it’s much colder. Wear thick socks.

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun Iceland isn’t all fire; in winter it also has a lot of ice. This is Goðafoss, the waterfall of the Gods, into which all the old Norse Gods were ritually tossed upon Iceland’s conversion to Christianity.

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun
Iceland isn’t all fire; in winter it also has a lot of ice. This is Goðafoss, the waterfall of the Gods, into which all the old Norse Gods were ritually tossed upon Iceland’s conversion to Christianity.

We did manage to see some Aurora on our first night out, though it wasn’t anything you’d put on a postcard. We had a better view, oddly enough, during our flight to Iceland. If you fly Iceland Air, be sure to reserve your seat selection as soon as you can to get a window seat. That too is another article.

Finally, you may wish to see some of the other wonders of Iceland: the Golden Circle, stunning waterfalls, geothermal sites, or even movie sets. Movie sets? A number of things have been filmed in Iceland, most recently and notably, the “beyond the Wall” segments in the popular HBO series Game of Thrones. We chose a tour purporting to take us to places featured on the show, and while the GOT-related content was disappointing, the tour itself was marvelous.

I recommend taking a tour whether in the north or the south, because having a guide along helps enhance the experience in a number of ways. One, they know what they’re looking at, and usually quite a lot of history and interesting tidbits about the location. Two, the tours are planned to take you places at times of day that make sense. We self-guided along the Golden Circle, and ran out of light (which is easy to do in the winter). This won’t happen on a tour. Three, the tour guides have support and backup. We did manage to get our tour van stuck at one point, but she was easily able to summon help (perhaps the Hidden People). Meanwhile, when we tried to drive to a farm we wanted to visit, we were turned back by an impassable road.

However you do it, end your tour in one of the many geothermal baths that make Iceland in the winter much, much cozier than we would have guessed!

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 6, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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