Monday, January 26, 2009

Old, Older, and Oldest

Weird faces in front of ancient ruins

Because I have read the Bible since I was a small child, and because I have studied the life and history of Old Testament prophets both at the university and privately, I had quite high expectations of seeing Israel. But Jerusalem is one of those places that no matter how high your expectations are, this city will always exceed them.

Jacob and I questioned the safety of traveling to this ever-volatile place. But because Scott, a good friend of ours and an ex-roommate of Jacob's, was going to be there, we thought it would be the chance of a lifetime. So we changed our plans and pushed Istanbul to the back burner. And we flew out of tiny little Skopje Alexander the Great Airport, where there are only three to five terminals. Jacob and I are now of the opinion that all taxi drivers are crooks. You have to be very, very careful with them. You have to give them the exact change, make sure your luggage isn't in the back, and be able to speak English with them to even be able to have the chance of not getting ripped off. I guess it's a pretty stressful lifestyle though. That day we saw two taxi driver fights. We asked one how much it cost to get to the airport. He said no one would charge less than 1000 denar. We didn't say we would go with him; we just wanted to know. Another driver comes over and undercuts the price for 800 denar. We told him, naturally, we would go with him. The first driver became furious! He threw his cigarette against the lamppost and began shouting at the other driver, who kept his composure. Luke, Jacob, and I stood helplessly by as their tensions mounted. The first driver told us, "Fine, 800!" and pointed to the door. But we didn't want to get in the car with this furious man. Finally a third taxi driver showed up while we were arguing and we went with him.

I'd now like to put in a plug for Turkish Airlines. They say in their official magazine that they believe food makes the experience. And for a flight, when there's not much else except the safety of the aircraft involved, I'd have to agree! Both flights we had with them that day, although only 1.5-2 hours, and one which was at midnight, were full-out meals and excellent tasting. One was a sushi salad, a sandwich, a raspberry muffin, and cherry juice. The other was chicken, fresh bread, salad, and Milka-flavored pudding. We weren't even in first class!

We forgot about the time change in Istanbul (or rather, didn't know there was one). Even after a six-hour layover. we ran to catch our flight, in which we were asked special questions by security because we were American. Like why are we going, what are our professions, are we in school, etc. Someone implied later that what they really want to know is if we are Muslim, because of all the terrorist attacks in Israel about 5 years ago. In any event, we passed the test, and no one even asked me about my name change from my passport (whew!)

The airport in Tel Aviv is very beautiful, and it was a nice change to have drinking fountains available again. But we had another incident with the sherut, or taxi van. We kept waiting and waiting for the van to fill up (not easy at 3 in the morning). Finally one guy gathered the others to take another taxi. The drivers started arguing. Jacob and I were left to wait for the taxi to fill up again. We were getting ready to leave, finally, when a security agent told us to enter the airport. There was some sort of threat. Great, we thought. It turned out to be some Arab runningpast a blockade, and the thing with Israelis is, they take no risks. That's why everyone, including Israeli citizens, are encouraged to carry around machine guns.

We slept on and off on the way there. But when we pulled into Old City I got goosebumps. Surrounded by a wall put up by the greatest sultan of Istanbul, Jerusalem just feels old. I was so pumped to be there, and added to that the fact that the hostel didn't have a room for us just yet, I couldn't sleep. Jacob conked out on the couch while I explored the city in the early daylight hours.

The city is made of winding paths and intricate alleyways. There are four quarters: The Christian, the Muslim, the Jewish, and the Armenian.

Cats are everywhere in the Old City. Brought over by the British when they had problems with mice on their ships, when they went home, the cats stayed.

I was brought to tears looking out at a magnificent view past the city without knowing why. I just thought it was so beautiful, and I had a very special feeling when I looked at it. Later I learned this was the Mount of Olives, where the Saviour Jesus Christ suffered for my sins.

I've learned more in a few days about other religions in this city than I could have ever learned in a book. The Muslims have a call to prayer five times a day here. It's very loud, and because there are several mosques nearby, they echo one on top of the other. I find it hauntingly beautiful. I would love to put up more photos of their buildings, but they don't let non-Muslims inside. When with the Palestinian family, Riyah showed me all of the gifts her fiancee had given her, as well as her favorite outfits. It was kind of cute. She showed me ones with no sleeves, and said that she of course cannot wear them unless only with women since she is Muslim, but with a shawl she can.

The orthodox Jews dress in black and white and have one long curl on either side of their head. It was a fun experience to see them dancing to celebrate the Sabbath because most of the time they seem rather straightlaced. It was a good feeling, to know that after all the persecution Jews have experienced throughout history, that they can finally come and worship how they please with other people who believe like they do.

Jerusalem is 75 % Jewish, but in the Old City, there are by far a majority of Arabs.
As we went on a tour (free provided by the city) we learned more from our Jewish guide about their perspective on God and Christ. Well, it was one man's opinion, and there are sects of Judaism just like Christianity. But according to him, it is very anti-Jewish to even think that God has a body. Instead, he is a divine presence, not a spirit, but a manifestation that last resided in the holy temple now destroyed, except for the Wailing Wall (hence their reverence for it). Also, he described Christ as "new age" and one of many teachers who caused conflicting ideas during the time period. A troublemaker, essentially, who was killed at the hands of the Romans, not the Jews. But because of the anti-Semitism that arose from Christ's death, the Jews have felt resentful towards this figure. Understandably, I think. They believe that the Messiah will come as a descendant of David, will ride on a white donkey, and will resurrect the dead: but that Christ was possibly one of the false Christs mentioned in the Torah, and that in any event, Jesus never wrote scripture himself so no one knows if he really claimed he was the son of God. Very interesting. I could also see this man didn't know much about Christianity from many of the comments he was making (as he could probably divine about us and our ignorant questions of Judaism). However, studying the Old Testament does give a fairly good representation of the faith of Jews.

I placed a prayer in the wailing wall. It is interesting, because the men's section is WAY bigger than the women's. Our tour guide explained that the roots of Judaism (like most religions) are rather chauvinistic.

Our guide also explained in the Church of the Holy Sepulchure, built on top of the hill Golgotha, many Christian sects argue about who should get what part of the church. He told stories of how people broke out in fist fights over Christ's tomb and couldn't change a lightbulb from mistrust of the other denomination. Stories like these help me to understand why some people become disillusioned with religion.

This is at the Antonia Fortress, where Jesus is believed to have been whipped. Here are Roman stones carved with games upon them.

That's Jacob wandering around in where tradition says Jesus, the thieves, and Barabus were kept in prison.

We went on a "tour" today which actually turned out to be collective transportation with no tour guide. It was still a good deal though. We saw the Qumran cave where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. The Essenes were an ascetic group who disagreed with the way the temple was being run in Jerusalem. So they took to the desert to try to live as Isaiah recommended. They are the ones credited with copying out the Dead Sea Scrolls, in which all of the Old Testament books were found, except for Esther. Too bad, that one's my favorite. It's also the one most disputed for its authenticity.

The caves pretty much looked like holes in the steep interface: not easily reachable, and very small.

The Essenes, very concerned with cleanliness, took ritual baths at least twice a day.

It did NOT seem likely to flood here. We saw a place for rapelling and thought Luke would like to have a go.

We went to Masada, Hebrew for fortress, which was built by King Herod. Rebel Jews, 1000 of them, took up camp here, and when the Romans approached and they knew they had no chance, they took their own lives and the lives of their women and children rather than to be slaves. It's now sort of a rallying point for Jews in their history.

Remnants of former magnificence in King Herod's Palace

We took a cable car up, a privilege the early inhabitants surely did not have:
Jacob being shy (yeah right)

We thought we would be later than the other two people on the tour, so I practically ran down the hill in these fancy sandals from Riyah (the 20-year-old Palestian girl) until they started falling apart! Made in Saudi Arabia, I suppose they were made for show, not steep desert mountainsides.

We drove to the Dead Sea next. Gorgeous blue in the incredible rocky, dry, and barren landscape.

Oh yeah before I forget. My favorite part of the day: I rode a camel! It was so up and down bumpy, but I loved it. The fur of the camel felt wooly and it was pretty obedient to this guy.

This was the special pose the camel owner insisted on

Back to the Dead Sea: Jacob didn't think he would float. He thought he would defy the law of physics, and be the first man to sink! Consequently, when he did indeed float, this quickly became the favorite part of his day. I loved it too, although if you have any open cuts on your body, they sting! Razor burn included. We went out deep enough to where we could stand straight up in the water. Unbelievable!
Jacob wants to go back with really good goggles to look in the beautiful blue water, but I'd be nervous: just a drop or two in your eyes from this water that's eight times saltier than the ocean and your eyes will be red for days. So I hear. The water was chilly at first, but there are warm spots and the mud, renowned for its healing powers, feels great. I still have salt almost like sand oozing from my pores. Doesn't Jacob look like Batman?

Jericho is known as the oldest continuously inhabited city on earth, and boy do they proclaim it. On signs everywhere. It's a Palestinian territory: no Israelis allowed, according to the sign as you cross the border. We visited the Mount of Temptation, which I have no idea how they know this is it, but it looks just how I pictured it: vast, rocky, and steep. Hopefully we'll get pictures emailed to us from our friend Jasik from Poland, because our camera died. We also saw the ruins of the king who lost to Joshua in the Battle of Jericho (as in "Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho").

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Palestinian dinner party and some other stuff..

Old Jerusalem is like a blast from the past, err is the past... .that's really corny so let's start over.

Jerusalem is really neat...

Ok.. let's just look at some pictures first...

This is the room where tradition says that the last supper was had.

This is the wailing wall, or the west wall. It is the holiest spot in the world for Judaism. Basically this is the only spot on earth where Jews believe that a temple was authorized. And this wall is the closest point to "the holy of holies." This was anciently the wall where Solomon's temple was. People write prayers and stick them in the cracks. Underneath us there is are catacombs and paths which we took a tour of. This same spot, Jews claim, is where Abraham was going to sacrifice Isaac.

The dome if the background has now taken the place of where the temple was. It is called the Dome of the Rock. It is the third holiest site in Islam.

Jesus was buried in a tomb like this one. This is the actual tomb of Joseph of Arimathea.

Some kids were once throwing rocks at my friend Scott near the Mount of Olives when he was on a study abroad last year. They were Palestinian children. One day Scott went over and asked them their names and they went and got their parents. This was the beginning of a very good friendship between Scott and this family. We had the privilege of being invited to a dinner that really became an all evening feeding frenzy. I haven't eaten that much ever, and don't plan on it.

We were really impressed with the generosity of the family and what a great family they were. Their little girl was a fireball. While we were there she did everything from lock herself in the bedroom, to giving us all kisses, to singing and dancing for us. Kalli and I were both given gifts. Very nice gifts, you can see the coat I am wearing in the picture is a very nice suede jacket, it's brand new as far as I can tell. They gave Kalli shoes, sweater, and a very nice belt.

Words can't convey the warmth and hospitality that prevailed during our evening/afternoon. Their English was fairly good, and although our Arabic was nonexistent, but with some Spanish, German, and Scott's portion of Arabic we got along just fine. We will likely see this family again soon as we have been invited back.

My friend Scott is on the left.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Macedonia, Farewell!

We just finished a four week stint in Macedonia. We had a great time! The people of Macedonia are renowned for their hospitality. We were invited into their homes and enjoyed baklava, pickled vegetables, and other traditional Macedonian fare. 35% of the population doesn't work, and while that has been tough on their economy, it did meant that they had plenty of time to spend with us.
A typical day in Radovis was spent sleeping in, getting up and playing with the dog, pictured here:
Her name is Jagoda, which means Strawberry, and she was the most affectionate dog ever! She's a mini Doberman. Luke explained to us that dogs here aren't used to getting that much attention. In fact, their dogs just wander the streets without leashes or owners. They are slightly mangy, but you can tell they aren't wild by the collars around their necks. I was very sorry to say goodbye to Jagoda, even though she was stinky (even after I gave her a bath).
After this we would go get breakfast. Typical breakfast here is called burek and you always drink it with natural yogurt. It's an acquired taste, but it doesn't take long to acquire it. Before long Jacob and I would get cravings for our burek fix. He would get meat and I would get cheese.

During the day we would work on our sites, read/study German, and visit with Luke's friends. In the evening we would go and get one of the fantastic Macedonian salads, which beat American salads any day. And then at night we would hang out with Luke, where Jacob and Luke would discuss the states of their beards. And other various topics. We were grateful to Mr Branco, who gave us a floor of his apartment to stay in. This is us in Mr Branco's store:
Jacob lit the fire every day, and these heaters are very powerful, which is a good thing because it was snowy for the most part while we were there.

It was all very relaxing and we hope to be able to visit Radovis one day again! The culmination of our trip was skiing and Skopje, the nation's capital. I had never skiied before, and as it turned out, neither had Luke or Jacob, having only snowboarded. We went with Elena, Luke's friend who did my nails and gave me a facial, and met up with her first cousin and her boyfriend. It was fun! Jacob and Luke went to snowboard the first day, while the beginners learned together on a rather steep slope. Dragan, who teaches people to ski professionally as well as gives guided tours of Macedonia, was very helpful. I will recommend him if any of you ever visit! I was falling down constantly, but I didn't care because it was still a lot of fun. By the end of the second day, Jacob and Luke had nicknamed me "the Flying V" because of my position (toes pointed in) and the fact that I would speed right past them. Learning to brake was definitely the hardest part. Luke had some funny moments too, including getting dragged up by hand on the ski lift. Jacob picked up skiing like it was second nature for him, which didn't surprise me. He's naturally athletic with everything he does. The view from our window:

The resort we stayed in was in the mountains. It had the infamous Turkish toilet, which is basically a hole in the ground. I took a picture of one the first time I used one, but I will spare you. The drains here don't have the system to swallow up toilet paper, so you just throw it in the trash can.
Can you find Jacob?

Skopje was relaxing. We stayed with Nano, Luke's friend, and Jacob was ecstatic because this guy knows computers and helped Jacob buy new gadgets and accessories to help the computer go faster. Here's Luke, Nano, and his girlfriend: (and can you find Jacob?)
We went up to a fortress and met an interesting man who seemed articulate, could speak every language we all knew and more, but said he was a prophet who would unite Yugoslavia and destroy the United States, starting in Dallas. He claimed to be descended from the Nephites, and in fact he came from Columbia. Very interesting...

The view of Skopje was nice from the fortress, which was used in defense against the Turkish empire.

We are going to Israel in approximately 3 hours. Wish us luck!!!

Friday, January 2, 2009

Germany Road Trip

We've been meaning to write about this for a while. Actually it was kind of meant as a Christmas present for Al and Laura. We went on a road trip before leaving Germany. We managed to get a rental car from Duesseldorf, and after figuring out the GPS and the roads, we were on our way. First destination: Rodenhausen.
There's a reason you can't find out anything about Rodenhausen on the internet. It because it's actually now officially a part of Lohra. Rodenhausen is the town in which Jacob's great- great- great- some more great grandfather was born. He later became a Hessian soldier and moved to America. We wanted to see what it looked like.
It was a beautiful drive about 2 hours away from Heiligenhaus. We found it almost by happenstance by seeing a road sign called Rodenhausen. This place was tiny. Not more than 100 or 200 people lived there. Our first stop was a cemetary, hoping to find Casper Cable's relatives. But all of the graves were pretty new. We met a native of Rodenhausen, who told us that no one of her generation knew anything about the generations before, where they are buried now or anything else. That's a shame. She was very helpful and friendly--I believe we only spoke in German with her--she was surprised we'd come all the way out from America to see this place.

We visited a church that had been around for several hundred years. And we imagined that this is where Casper went to church. It was a cute little town, but so small that the nearest restaurant was miles away.
Here's some videos: (Errr the videos won't post. Maybe later)

We also visited Lohra, which was unquestionably bigger, yet the graveyard here was still relatively new as well.
Visiting this part of the world renewed and refreshed our interest in our ancestors. Note to Jacob's Mom: we would love it if you could send us any pertinent information about Casper Cable and his family that you have learned.
We continued on our road trip to the Frankfurt temple. First we stopped and ate some Iranian food, which I unfortunately did NOT like. Jacob ate his everpresent doener which never fails him. I don't actually remember what it was that I ate, but its flavor would take getting used to. It was the first time I went to a temple outside of the States. It was small but beautiful. We were surprised

to learn there were full-time French speaking missionaries there. Frankfurt is the closest temple for the French, who have no temple. It was special to me to go through the temple in the German language. I have adopted the Germans as another culture, and I even married a man whose heritage is German. Consequently the temple was a beautiful experience for me.
After that we wanted to be on our way along the Romantic Road, but it was already getting dark. We hit a couple spots there, and we'll share the highlights in photos:
Jacob liked this part because we snuck in with a group to go down to... the wine cellar. It turned out to be a wine tasting party, so we left early, but it was cool to see the massive barrels at the bottom of the castle in the basement as large as the castle itself.

Here's a picture of me with the statue in front of it:

We had some Italian gelato in the shape of spaghetti...yum! Sorry about the sideways pic

Rothenburg ob der Tauber was probably the cutest town we'd yet seen. Unfortunately, it was completely dark and everything was closed. We'd had an interesting incident with our GPS... it died. Which is amusing to lose GPS when you are out in the middle of nowhere on the Autobahn in Germany. We were about to buy a new one when someone told us there was a Eurocar just around the corner, open til midnight. So we switched the broken one for a new one. But that took a little while. We also saw the notorious red flash on the Autobahn, which usually means you get a ticket. We've heard nothing so far, so maybe we got lucky.

This town was surrounded by a medieval wall, kind of like San Giminano. We actually got up and walked on top of the wall, and it was fun to pretend we were defending the castle.

We got back super late but all in all it was a very successful road trip.
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