Things never change

Church of the Holy SepulchreAn update to another past part of my travels. When I was in Jerusalem, I posted about the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and how it is shared by several denominations of the Christian church. And how they don’t like each other very much. And how there have been fights in the past.

Well, it happened again yesterday. Apparently one of the Armenian priests decided that one of the Greek ones had spent too long near the tomb. So he kicked him out. And then things got out of hand.

I just like the image of worshippers fighting police off with palm fronds. It’s just mad.


Nothing much to do today apart from pack, get picked up by the ever-helpful Noa, and drive to the airport. I was told to get there three hours before departure time by the travel agent and by Hen, who used to work there. But, we decided that was too soon and stopped for lunch on the way there. As you do.

Noa had forgotten to grab the tickets for the flight from her boyfriend (after I booked, ISSTA decided that I had to have two printouts otherwise they’d charge me an additional £25 reprint fee) so we had to get them redone at the ISSTA office at the airport.

Then the fun began. I’ve never been given so many questions on leaving a country before. I got all the usual. All of them. And more. They even made Noa go and get her ID card from the car so they could check she was… well.. I don’t know.

Did I pack my own bags?
Had anyone given me anything to carry for them?
Had my bags been secure since I packed them?
Had I stayed with Noa?
How long had I known her?
Where did I meet her?
How much time did we spend together in my two weeks and where did we go?
What did I do in Dubai when I was there?
Did I learn to read, write or speak any Hebrew while I was in Israel?

Excuse me? What the… Did I learn any Hebrew?! Is there an embargo on taking knowledge of a language out of a country now? Good grief.

My baggage was then completely dumped out, scanned, searched, swiped and repacked (badly so I couldn’t find half of my stuff) while I was metal-detected and rushed through the gates. Hen showed up at the last minute and was allowed to hand me a Hebrew copy of Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, so I managed to smuggle out some Hebrew! Bwahahaah! Take that, authority figures! And thank you for the book, Hen! Another for my collection.

All that to get to the gate which didn’t open until half an hour after the advertised time. At least Ben Gurion Airport has free wireless. Unfortunately, we sat on the tarmac for over ninety further minutes. As a result, a very nice person at the distant end who’d offered to collect me from the airport and put me up had to back out, as it would be far too late for him. Dave, I fully understand and thank you regardless for your offer.

Our 1755 flight started to taxi down the runway some time after 2000 and took off maybe ten minutes after that. It turned out that their was a partial strike underway whereby strikers were blocking transmissions between the aircraft and tower so that flights couldn’t make their “windows”. Thanks for that. I hate people who strike and disrupt my plans – how not to get my sympathy.

Another coincidence of note: the gentleman who was doing bizarre things with glass and pointy bits of metal in Tel Aviv was sat around four rows in front of me. I managed to chat to him for a few minutes and it turns out he just found out he would be performing at the Download Festival campsite the next night. The delay was causing him nightmares as he had to arrange collection of broken glass, a bed of nails, breeze blocks, a sledgehammer and a lawnmower (!?) from places around London before driving north.

Landing was a lot swifter except for passport control which took an age. And then I slept. On a concrete floor, due to my late arrival and Dave’s (fully understandable) inability to pick me up. Somehow I managed to sleep quite well. I guess I was more tired than I thought.

Holocaust denial is for fools

Today’s little trip was by no means a joyful one, but was certainly hugely educational and emotional. Noa took me to the Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum, which contains more information than just about any person can comprehend about the culling of the Jews (and other religions, races and whatnot) that the Nazis decided the world would be better off without.

It really is a harrowing place, though for obvious reasons given its geographical location concentrates most heavily on the Jewish aspect. I learned a lot when I was there as the story doesn’t stop when the war ends. Unknown to me, courtesy of my lousy history education, Britain pretty much ruled the roost of Israel around 1945 and refused to allow Jews who’d fled Germany into the country. Most other countries also closed their doors to them when they tried to escape from Germany prior to the war beginning. Too many people turned their heads and looked away. Shameful.

The imagery using is pretty brutal and doesn’t pull any punches. Like the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, this place rightfully believes that you can’t appreciate the horror without seeing it at its worst. Photographs are on display of people being hanged, shot and buried. Details are available of the “living” conditions in the concentration camps and the sheer numbers of people killed, tortured, experimented on. Poems by 14 year olds are on walls… followed by the date those same children were slaughtered.

The site doesn’t just contain the museum, but also a reference library detailing every single Jew killed during and around the war. People are invited to submit information on friends or relatives not yet included. There is a memorial hall, a garden of remembrance, trees planted and dedicated to non-Jews who helped save lives and a separate monument to the children killed – in excess of one million.

This is the one that really got to me. Inside this small structure is a darkened room with mirrored walls and a handful of lights which are reflected myriad times. Each light representing a child’s life. A light extinguished like a worthless candle by the Nazi war machine. As you stand in the near darkness, a voice reads out a different name and age every few seconds. It only takes a minute for the whole weight of the numbers to settle on your shoulders and make you realise how awful a place the world can be.

I congratulate the people who have set this site up for keeping attention focussed on one of the worst massacres in human history, and for not missing out a single detail. For not shying away from pointing a finger of blame at any country which refused to lift a finger, or delayed in doing so. And for presenting it so well. It’s truly a beautifully designed “attraction” and worth a visit… no, demands a visit from any visitor to Jerusalem.

Besides the historical perspective, anyone interested in architecture will be fascinated by the fairly recently opened prism-like building which houses the majority of the exhibits.

Leaving the museum at closing time, Noa drove me to her house where I met her brothers and mother (at last!). We decided that Jewish mothers are pretty much like Scottish grandmothers in that they will not allow you to leave their house without eating at least a certain amount of food. After forcing me to eat far too much fresh fruit (I protested so much), Noa took clippers to my head and readied my hair for Download. I’m sure she nicked my scalp on purpose.

And then back to the hostel for my last night on the roof. I was really going to miss this place. And the free wireless.

Lord of the flies…

…and mosquitoes. The 6-legged flying evil things are a lot more prevalent in Eilat than they are in Jerusalem. Despite the heat, I had to wrap myself in a blanket to limit their access overnight. The mosquitoes drilled for blood like a continent full of sheikhs who have just realised their wells are running dry. At around 5am, they were replaced by flies trying to suck up moisture from the only available source (my face) the way a fleet of Chelsea tractors drinks fuel. Oh, and some muppet decided to water the trees (and therefore, inadvertently, myself) at 1:30am.

After I woke, I went for a quick and fruitless search for a bakery to get a strudel or something. On my way I located an open-air market being set up. It just stocked the usual stuff you see at any market – cheap underwear, cheaper sunglasses, even cheaper electronic goods. The entry was blocked by a row of “Police” barriers with two gaps where bags were being searched and metal detectors run over bodies.

You don’t realise how serious the security is here until you see a granny’s handbag being rifled through and checked for Semtex. Airports, markets, bars, restaurants, bus stations, malls… Everywhere. And I’ve yet to see a single person moan or complain about the inconvenience. The probably remember all-too-recent incidents where such security has stopped more serious injury, or where it could have had it been in place. I just wish more people at airports worldwide would recognise this fact.

Well, I settled on fruit for breakfast before I was picked up shortly after 9am by another staffer from Lucky Dive and introduced to Roni (I hope I spelled that right) who looked a hell of a lot better in a wetsuit than Alan. No offense to Alan, mind. Roni’s one of these lucky people who gets paid to do her favourite hobby. If she wasn’t working showing people like me great dive sites, she’d be out there anyway diving for free courtesy of the company. I let her pick the sites for the day as she definitely knew the good ones.

Three dives followed – the Satil wreck and two from the Reserve, which incurred an extra 23NIS charge for entry. All three were superb with even better visibility than the day before. Roni was great company and it was heartening to be complimented on my diving when I’m relatively inexperienced. A shame I left my camera in the van as I could have got some great snaps on the last dive, which was fairly shallow.

With time left before my bus when I got back to the dive shop, I took advantage of their internet and allowed Israel’s friendliest cat to curl up on my lap for a while. A final falafel called my name, and a short walk around the block killed the rest of the time before catching the last coach of the day back to Jerusalem.

The route back was quiet and the bus pulled in shortly after 9pm. I gave up waiting for a local bus and walked back to the hostel via my now-regular New City shawarma shop.

Fed up and dived out, I slept like the proverbial on my rooftop perch.

Zemanta Pixie

Back among the fishies

The early bed the night before was due to tiredness and the need to be up at 5:30am to ensure being able to catch a 7:00am bus to Eilat. When I woke, my sleeping back was damp. Actually, not damp. Wet. It’s weird how it doesn’t rain here, yet things are often wet in the morning like some kind of hyperactive dew. Or maybe there’s a random madman armed with a watering can who runs around the rooftops at night.

I left my stuff indoors to dry off, grabbed my pre-packed daybag (recovered from Noa the night before and minus the Twister) and caught a local bus up to the Central Bus Station. From there, it was a comfortable 4-hour trip to Eiliat with a half-hour stop at a decent service station to break the journey up. The hostel I’d picked was only a few minutes’ walk from the station and I was glad I’d pre-booked. The usual evil “that hostel has nothing for you/is closed/has rats” brigade were out in force as I disembarked and I laughed at their now-tired arguments.

The Shelter wasn’t closed (and didn’t have rats) but also didn’t have my reservation on the books, despite me having chatted briefly with them on email. As an upshot, all the dorms were full so I had to settle for a mattress outside – for 20 Shekels less than I was quoted for the dorm. So all good! Had I known there was an outside option, I’d have gone for it anyway especially as Eilat at supposed to be quite expensive for accommodation.

The staff were super-friendly (and somewhat religious – I was invited to their Bible class at 11:00 the next day) and scoped me out a diving school for the afternoon. At $30 for a dive including all equipment hire, plus $15 for mandatory 5-day tourist dive insurance this must be one of the cheapest places in the world to SCUBA. After one of the best falafels I’ve had in Israel (from a little blue kiosk on Shderat Hatemarim) I was picked up by a chap called Alan in a converted, and somewhat well-worn, GMC ambulance and ferried to Lucky Divers.

The building was as much a cat & dog shelter as it was a dive shop. At least three cute, friendly dogs greeted me as well as Israel’s friendliest cat. And some very helpful staff who reconfirmed my flight for me when ISSTA’s website (and backup automated phone system) wouldn’t let me. They organised my insurance, decided on a dive location and we kitted up and set off.

I was one-on-one with Alan and we did a 46-minute shore dive. It’s really not necessary to get a boat out for so much of the stuff worth seeing off Eilat, and even with my depth limited to 10m with my un-housed camera (the housing is somewhere in the post on the way home) we saw so much phenomenal stuff it was amazing. Moray eels, lion fish, trigger fish, angel fish, wrass, clown fish, nudibranches… superb. Visibility was apparently “poor” despite being over 20m. It’s normally around 30m. You can duck your head underwater at the shoreline and see countless beautiful fish swimming around, but the swim out to Moses Rock is worth it for the coral alone.

Before typing this up almost a week on, I wrote the original words down in a succah at the hostel. A succah is an open-sided structure, this one made of palm tree trunks for support and branches/leaves for the room. Very sturdy and very ecological. It was filled with comfy chairs and sofas and two bookshelves chock full of Bibles in various languages. Somehow I didn’t spontaneously combust. I sat and watched kids play chase and football and “hit the small kid on the head”. All popular playground games.

I also watched the huge number of flies trying to invade my every orifice. They were hugely annoying. I don’t know why they liked my face so much. I didn’t like theirs. I decided to try to escape and went for a burger for dinner, which turned out to be a moderately OK decision. Nice burger, much too large a bun. Result: dry and chewy. Nice big chips, though. I’ll stick to falafel.

After chowing down, I went looking for an internet connection but the only convenient one was over £2 an hour. Ouch. The library is the cheapest place at 10NIS an hour, but is only open for limited hours. I decided to be cheeky and use the dive shop’s the next morning. Instead I took a walk down to “Millionaire’s Row” where all the rich people stay when visiting Eilat. I found an Irish bar, Paddy’s, with a huge Brown Ale logo painted on the side, but I fear in Israel it will be the filthy draft version which tastes like it has come out of a SodaStream. Nothing wrong with SodaStream per se, but it’s not for making beer in.

The “Row” area houses a large street market that comes to life as the sun goes down. It sells all the usual tourist claptrap, but it nice for a walk along while people-watching. The accompanying restaurants and bars are expensive, but look like a nice area to hang around with a partner or family. The guy on the bridge trying to advertise his restaurant was hilarious. I didn’t understand a word of his Hebrew, but he sounded like someone shouting “”Rrrrrroll up, rrrrollll up for the most amazingest restaurrrrant experrrrience of a lifetiiiiime!!!” or words to that effect. He certainly talked to a lot of people and handed out a ton of leaflets.

I got back to the Shelter around 20:30 to find a group of locals/guests sat in the succah playing acoustic guitar, singing and clapping. I hid on the other side of the building and cranked up the new Megadeth album on my MP3 player. I felt safer.