Finding a beach on the Sea of Galilee is much more of a wild goose chase than you might imagine, in the childlike wonder of your innocent non-Israel-visiting brain. Coming into this trip I’d had one vision that I couldn’t shake from my head. I saw myself sitting under the shade of a tree looking out across this legendary Biblical sea, the green grass all around me. It was a brief scene but I could see it very clearly, and through it could feel what it felt like to be there. I was eating something, what is that? Hmm. Was this from a past life? Was I seeing this trip before it even happened? Well, either way, this shouldn’t be too hard to recreate in real life, right? To Galilee!
My brother Aster and I had driven up from Tel Aviv that morning, following the coast of the Mediterranean Sea up to the breezy coastal town of Haifa, where cars were hilariously triple-parked all over the place like the Rapture had just happened and one woman had pulled diagonally halfway up onto the grassy median on the left-hand side of the road, her tires cutting a swath through the grass and exposing the mud beneath, the rest of her car still very much in the driving lane, where she sat, calmly, taking in the scenery. What at first looked like some dramatic accident just turned out to be her needing a little “me” time. We’ve all been there.
I was nearly-equally amused by the tattoo parlor we drove past (isn’t that a big no-no in Judaism?)
And this car with lotsa lotsa crosses on it:
And this, Roomster.
From Haifa we turned inland and crossed the entire narrow country, stopping outside Tiberias to buy some figs and browse the many spices in a local grocery store.
And to marvel at yet another vintage McDonald’s sign.
And laugh at… wait, what?
We prepared ourselves to be spoiled for choice by the beaches of Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee. Lido Beach! Mehadrin Beach! The Quiet Beach! Tchelet Beach! We somehow managed to cruise past all of these no-doubt glorious beaches without seeing any of them. Huh. We pulled over and parked. It seemed like most of the beaches had hotels jealously hoarding them to themselves with fences and concrete. We squeezed down a neglected alleyway to pilfer some cheap beach enjoyment on the down-low. The alley dead-ended into a railing overlooking some boulders protruding from the surf. Looking up and down the coast, it was all the same.
Huh. Is this what passes for a beach in Israel? Jeez. Okay. Plan B.
I’d heard the Bora Bora restaurant had a nice beach, so we made our way up the coast. We found the restaurant, but the only thing in front of it was a Tiki hut that was completely underwater up to the roof. I looked up and down the coast and noticed all the underwater trees. Ohhhhh. It’s winter and the water level is way up. All the beaches are underwater.
We looked up the coast at the north shore of the sea off in the distance. It looked less developed. Maybe up there somewhere we can find my vision tree. At the very worst we can drive a lap around the entire sea and compare our time to Jesus’s personal best track record.
As we curved around the North shore, the buildings gave way to a lovely landscape of trees and grass. I was enjoying taking all of this in when I noticed a tour bus that had turned off a side road. Huh. Wonder what’s over there? We drove on.
Off another side street a few cars had pulled over. Yeah. We might be able to find some under-tree time up here. Aster we should- Ooh! Pull over up here!
We pulled in at a sign for Kfar Nahum National Park and parked. A path led off to the shores of the sea and we followed on foot.
Soon we were walking along a paved path that hugged the edge of the sea, dipping in and out. Periodic signs explained that this was where Jesus recruited the fishermen Simon, Andrew, John and James to be his apostles. This was where his ministry began. This is where he fed the 5,000 people on five loaves of bread and two fishes. This is where he walked on water across the sea. The sermon on the mount took place on a hill near here.
Oh shit, we’re in Capernaum. That’s why we saw those tour buses. Half the shit in the Bible went down right where we’re standing. Whoa.
We had the shore to ourselves as we continued to walk. Flowing water flooded over the path in places, necessitating hopping from rock to rock to keep my feet dry.
Turning one corner under a large tree, I was hit with an energy so intense I nearly fell out of my body. My legs wobbled under me and I half expected to look down and see my body lying on the path under me. Wow. What was that? My entire being buzzed and I felt like I was floating along the path, free of the physical entirely.
“Sean…” Aster whispered behind me.
I stopped suddenly and looked up. A large pile of boulders to our right was covered in strange fuzzy creatures.
I was startled by how many there were, as they continued to emerge from the crevices between the rocks to see what we were all about. I stood perfectly still, willing them not to run away. Although they seemed skittish and chirped amongst themselves, I was amazed that these animals weren’t running away, as we were standing quite close to them.
I later learned that these little guys are Syrian Rock Hyraxes, and though they look like rodents, they’re actually a mammal that is bizarrely related to the manatee and is also the elephant’s closest living relative. Despite being warm-blooded, they have to sunbathe like reptiles to maintain their body temperature. Clearly, we weren’t threatening enough to interrupt their tanning time.
I looked at each hyrax and held in my mind an image of them warm and safe, well-fed and at peace, and wrapped each one in the energy of that image. More and more emerged from the rocks to take us in.
We stood for a long while in this magical moment of communion with the hyraxes. As we walked away, I heard a scurrying behind us and realized the hyraxes were following us down the path, scurrying from rock pile to rock pile to watch us go.
Up ahead on the path, under the trees there were logs formed into benches amongst the scruffy grass. I sat down and ate one of the figs Aster had brought from the car.
Huh. I guess this is my spot.
I leaned back on the log and looked out across the sea to the distant shore. Birds flew across the water in the sunlight.
Why was I drawn here? I’m far from identifying as a Christian, and my general unfamiliarity with Bible stories had been a running joke between my brother and I all trip long. If anything, my experiences with Christianity in this life have turned me off to the idea of organized religion entirely. But even so, I have had Jesus show up numerous times in my meditations in recent years, his energy and presence always unmistakable. Each time I was surprised to find that he felt like a warm friend, a peer, rather than the kind of lord vs wretched sinner dynamic that the church likes to push on people to keep them out of their own power.
When my mom was pregnant with me, she experienced her own visitation from Jesus, a beautiful and profound experience that melted away her limiting beliefs about herself as well as a lot of the programming we’re burdened with in this life, the things that keep us believing that we’re less-than. He showed her that he could see her completely and that they were the same. She was everything that he was, not some lesser being. She had just forgotten this, as we all do, coming into this life. This experience impacted her very deeply. She immediately started taking care of herself much better and embarked on an intense spiritual path that has been the focus of her life.
She took the timing of this experience as a sign that Christ and I are somehow friends on higher levels, and that he’d come to her then to help pave the way for my own birth.
That probably sounds crazy and egotistical if you’re coming from the mindset that Jesus is way up there and you’re way down here, but it seems less crazy to me now, after having been vividly visited by numerous spiritual figures in my meditations in recent years and having remembered my own friendships with Gautama Buddha and others. And clearly I had something going on with Jesus if he was appearing to me now in spite of my concept of him having long since been tainted by association with the religion that bears his name. In time I came to believe that Christianity today has very little to do with what Christ was really about, and came to my own understanding of who he was.
Well, it seems like a shame to travel all this way and not talk to Jesus, right? So let’s see what’s up. I cleared my mind and sent out a mental invitation for Jesus to join me. Within a few minutes I felt his presence beside me.
I was trying to tune in to hear if he had anything to say, but was having a hard time keeping my mind blank. Thoughts kept popping up. At that moment, a man and a woman walked by on the path. I looked at the woman, and suddenly I saw deeply into her in a profoundly striking way.
Like peeling away layers of an onion, I saw through the layers of her identity. She was Jewish and was carrying the entire Jewish identity, the eons of persecution and struggle, the current conflicts in the world with Israel’s neighbors, all of this was on her like a huge heavy costume. I saw beyond this into her identity as a woman and the beliefs attached to that about what her life as a woman had to be. I saw into her personality and everything she believed about herself, the dynamics of her personal relationships and her roles in each of these. And I saw beyond that into her soul, which was limited by none of this.
Her soul, her true being, was not Jewish, was not a woman, mother, any of these things. All of these concepts and beliefs were like a complex imprint stamped onto her soul, like a cookie cutter into fresh dough. None of it was real, but it was a massive weight she was carrying regardless, because she believed in all of it. She existed entirely within that belief and the narrow corridor of movement it allowed her. None of it was being imposed on her in any real way, it was her own belief and her choice to live in this cage, even if the choice was not conscious. It was like a Halloween costume she could take off at any time, but she wasn’t ready for Halloween to be over.
I saw her as this vast, powerful being, having a dream that it was someone small and struggling.
It suddenly dawned on me that it was Jesus showing me all of this, before he spoke.
“You’re ready to step up to the next level. It’s time,” he said.
“Wow… okay. But how?”
“I will help you. Any time, you can ask for me. You have the ability to do everything I did.”
Huh. Really? I mean, I know that’s the central message of Jesus’ teachings that generally gets glossed over in modern Christianity, the whole “all this and greater, you will do also.” It wasn’t a new concept to me, exactly. But it’s pretty different to have Jesus himself say it to you, and you specifically. You will do this.
Where do I start? I mean, if I could do what he did, I’d be able to materialize objects at will, like Sai Baba in India. I looked down at the dirt in front of me. Strewn across the dark earth there were several small black rocks and one white rock.
I mean, if I could do what Jesus did, I’d be able to materialize another white rock, right? I mean, good luck! Ha ha. That seems too grandiose. But, you can’t get anywhere without starting. Might as well try.
I stared down at the dirt and tried to will up a sense of gratitude for the reality that there were now two white rocks instead of just one.
This is silly, right? What am I, going to just will up a rock out of the aether? Shhh. Just focus on that feeling of gratitude. Know that there are two white rocks, and feel how grateful you are for this demonstration of what is possible.
I looked down, and there were two white rocks.
WHAT THE FU- Hmmm. Okay, okay. There were probably always two white rocks. I must have just not noticed the second one when I started. It’s not like I created a rock.
But… maybe? Let’s try again.
I stared down at the dirt and felt a welling gratitude for the fact that there were three white rocks where there was originally only one. I cleared my mind and wound my consciousness inside a spiral of this intense feeling of gratitude.
After a minute or two of this, I watched as one of the black rocks turned white before my eyes.
WHAAAA- Hmmm. Could I- Hmmmm. Yeah, that rock just turned white. Was it a trick of the lighting? Maybe the sun… Okay, if I can make FOUR white rocks that’ll definitely prove-
Stop. You know there was only one white rock, and now there are three. It’s plain as day. The sun didn’t change. They’re right in front of you, between your feet. You didn’t fail to notice them before. You can talk yourself out of this experience if you want, or you can use this as a stepping stone to greater things, to open your mind to what is truly possible. You can crawl back into that old box if you really want to, but why?
Wow. Okay. My mind is pretty much blown here. I laid down and closed my eyes.
Again, Jesus told me it was time. It wasn’t that I’d been wasting time, exactly, but the feeling was that there was no more time to waste. I’d need to step up for what needed to happen next. To be able to fully do what I came here to do.
I opened my eyes and looked up at the trees swaying above me.
I flashed back to when I was a teenager, lying in the park in Southern California, looking up at the swaying trees just like this. I thought back to who I was then. What I was thinking about, what I believed about myself, what my pain was. So different from now. And yet, here I am, physically doing the same thing, looking up at swaying tree branches. How could I be so different now? It wasn’t like my eternal soul had changed massively in the last 25 years. That’s a blink of an eye compared to the eternity of my soul’s existence. So what really changed?
I saw in the swaying tree branches up above that what had changed was the same thing I had seen in that Jewish woman who had walked by. Everyone carries an imprint like hers, an imprint of story and personality. An imprint that they run around inside like a hamster in a wheel, mesmerized by the dramas of their life, the dramas of the Self. They never experience who they are beyond that storyline, the vastness of who they are eternally. When I was 17, looking up at those tree branches, I was fully inside my imprint. Fully in my personality and the storyline of this life. Unaware of anything beyond. Now… all of that was thinner. It wasn’t gone, entirely, but it was much, much thinner to where it was kind of translucent. I could see through it into the reality of who I was beyond this dream. Sure, sometimes I get distracted and wound up again in the drama of this life, but more and more that seemed optional. A TV station I could turn off. And it was time to let it go.
The tree branches swayed. Hmm. If I’m here to help the Earth shift into a new, higher vibration and to help the people here make that transition along with the planet, I can’t do it from inside my imprint. I can’t do it from inside the same limitations they believe in. It’s scary to leave all of that behind, that comforting limitation. The safety of believing what everybody else believes about the world and about themselves. The fitting in. If I have gifts to bring through into this reality, I have to be conscious of and step into my greater self and the higher realms I’m bringing them from. And I can’t do it while believing that I’m less than that.
I laughed as a stray thought popped into my head. Wow. Was this what Jesus went through? Did he have these same thoughts? Did he have to leave the same comforts behind? It feels like it was. Jesus, this is crazy.
It’s taken me a long time to write this blog because I wanted to get this part right, to accurately share what this experience was for me. In a strange way I feel like I owe that to Christ, in a sense, because everything he said and did has been twisted in so many different directions since his time. I worry that my non-Christian friends will read this and roll their eyes, like “Oh great, Sean’s talking to JESUS,” as I might have if I were reading this just a few years ago. And I worry my Christian friends will be offended when I say that I think that Christianity as it commonly exists today is subverting Christ’s intentions by teaching people that they are wretched sinners in need of external salvation. I think Jesus came into that lifetime simply and specifically to show people, by example, who they were and what they themselves were fully capable of doing. And I think that pretty much everything that’s happened since then has been an effort to obfuscate and bury this message, because you can’t control and have power over people who are fully realized and fulfilled in that way.
So in a sense, writing about this feels like a no-win scenario. Everyone’s going to have a problem with it, just for different reasons, ha. But that’s just my mind, my own limiting conceptions of where people are coming from and what’s possible. No doubt some will react in those ways, but then this isn’t for them. All I have on my plate is to reflect my experience as clearly, honestly and deeply as I can, and let that trigger and bounce off of people however it’s going to. If I can do that, I’ve played my part.
I looked up and Aster was pondering the sea from atop the rock wall along the path.
We headed back up the pathway to the car but before we got there, we noticed another path leading through a gate to the left. Huh. What’s in here?
The path led us past the watchful eyes of a standoffish peacock…
And a large and radiant tree…
And finally to the Greek Orthodox Church of the Apostles, which stands where the biblical town of Capernaum once stood, where Jesus lived and first began to preach at the local synagogue.
Inside, the church was packed with a busload of Greek Orthodox worshipers speaking… Albanian? A ceremony began and I tiptoed my way through the crowd, discretely snapping photos of the ornate artwork within the church.
I was both impressed and amused, reflecting of the simplicity of the experience I’d just had with Jesus by the sea in contrast with the convoluted cosmology I saw spilling out across the walls around me. It was as if this was Christianity’s own imprint, its own hamster wheel of drama to get trapped inside.
Outside, a stairway led down to the edge of the water. Hey! I will get to wade into the Sea of Galilee after all!
I had my shoes off and was balancing on a rock removing my sock when a woman approached me and asked in (Albanian?) if I would take a photo of her. Your timing is impeccable, probable Albanian lady! SNAP.
“Eeeeengleeeeesh? THAHNK YOOO,” she said, adorably.
I stepped into the ice cold water and reflected on all that had happened in and around this same body of water, 2,000 years ago.
Up the stairs, Aster was waiting with a shady cat who was hoping we would just assume he’d been with us all along.
We drove through the setting sun to the town of Nazareth, the childhood home of Jesus, which the locals call The Naz. I’m kidding, they don’t call it that but it would be cool if they did.
Nazareth has two major surprises in store. The first and lesser surprise is that Nazareth is predominantly a city of Arab folks, rather than Jewish folks.
The second is that the roads in Nazareth are fucking bananas. The Bible tried to warn us about this but they didn’t have bananas back then, so it just said the place was figshit but we didn’t know what that meant.
Aster was behind the wheel of our absolutely tiny Nissan Micra when we launched into the melee of Nazareth, which was for the best as Aster’s a more skillful driver than I am. Not safer, necessarily, I think we pretty much break even on that since I’m less tuned to physical reality at times but slightly more cautious because of it, while I think Aster tries things behind the wheel just to see what will happen. Oh, chickens fly everywhere? Well now we know.
The streets of Nazareth are old and narrow and full of cars and people, but none of that is really why they’re figshit. It’s because they’re STEEP. Nazareth makes San Francisco look like North Dakota. You turn a blind corner in the narrow, meandering semi-alleyway between buildings never intended for cars that you’re driving on and oh my God, they can’t be serious! I feel like I’m at the top of a roller coaster! Aster shifted down into first gear and we both instinctively leaned way back in our seats, to decrease the odds that he car would tip over forwards and roll down the street, end over end, like a child’s toy.
Shiiiiiiiiit. Oh man. I can’t believe we made it down that thing! Then you turn the corner and the next street is even steeper. Oh for the love of- The engine raced as Aster threw both the transmission and the brakes at the seemingly impossible task of keeping us from plummeting straight down into the tangle of pedestrians and cars below us.
Going back up the hills was just as scary. Now we were leaning all the way forward in our seats, willing the car to not tumble over backwards as we slowly climbed, the Micra’s tiny engine wheezing OH COME ON in car talk over and over. The only thing you could hear over the whine of the engine was Aster and my laughter at the absurdity of all of this.
Google Maps was attempting to either lead us to our hotel or kill us outright, it was impossible to tell which. Several of the turns it insisted on us making were straight down sidewalks and the wrong-way up one-way streets. We ended up having to circle the perimeter of the old town until we found a way in that was actually feasible, and even this involved us driving down stone walkways that may or may not have been legal to drive on, if such a concept even exists in Nazareth. Occasionally we’d encounter another car going the other way down one of these ancient walking paths and we’d have to figure out which one of us had to stop and drive out backwards, folding the side mirrors in to squeeze between the buildings.
Eventually we decided we were as close to the hotel as we were going to get in the car, and parked in a random spot that I wouldn’t have taken as a valid parking area if there hadn’t been other cars strewn around there too. We headed off on foot through the cool old crooked alleyways of the old town, following the tiny signs for our hotel that guided us like clues through the maze.
The 350-year-old guesthouse we were staying in was tucked down a narrow alley and inside gave the feeling of being buried deep ground. I couldn’t tell if we actually were under the ground or just buried under the city itself, the vast accumulation of stacked up ancient structures. The stone walls of our room were four feet feet thick, providing a sense of being deeply cocooned and safe, and utterly removed from time. This was the best I slept all trip.
In the morning, when my coma broke, we set out to explore the labyrinth of the old town, and quickly discovered a tucked away little nook that was serving falafel. The kindly old man working there fried us up the best falafel of our trip and squeezed fresh juice from pomegranates while we befriended an Arabic man and his young son, whom he was overwhelmingly proud of. The father spoke almost no English at all, but the boy was picking it up and the dad encouraged him again and again to get some practice with his captive audience of two native English speakers. The boy was not interested in this in the least and was understandably much more excited about playing his new plastic guitar. Eventually we made friends and helped him decode the English mysteries of the guitar’s packaging.
I was charmed observing the scene of the nearby shopkeepers interacting and bringing out little candies for the boy. I glanced into the closet-sized beauty supply shop across the sidewalk from us and suddenly flashed back to my own childhood, when our working-class version of day care every afternoon involved me walking from my elementary school to the barber shop where my grandma worked, and helping sweep up the cut hair with a big push broom, when I wasn’t busy eating pizza within the maze of old, broken televisions stacked in the mysterious and derelict TV repair shop behind the building.
After breakfast we said our goodbyes to our tiny ecosystem of new friends and zigzagged through the alleyways to the Basilica of the Annunciation, a large church built on the site of Mary’s house and the spot where by Bible lore the angel Gabriel appeared like a celestial pregnancy test to tell Mary that she was knocked up and that Jesus was on the way, so go get some Pampers girl.
The church is a strange and interesting time warp of design elements, a huge, open Italian Brutalist structure looming over the much older ruins of the Grotto of the Annunciation, which is thought to be what’s left of Mary’s childhood home.
Above, the octagonal ceiling is open through all the floors, leading up to a view of the interior of the tower like a portal to another dimension.
Down the stairs, an ornate gate keeps the grotto ruins safe from your greasy eyeballs.
I was fascinated by this area. Overall the building felt like any large modern structure, it might as well have been an upscale shopping mall. But there was something different about the grotto ruins. I peered through the gaps in the gate and projected my mind into the pale stone walls within.
I felt myself merge with the stone and immediately my sense of the solid structure broke apart, like I was floating in a vast field of light, some angelic realm. Vague images of light blurred around me as I felt myself disconnected from the Earth and anything solid at all. Whoa. I came back into my body.
I don’t generally believe in many aspects of the biblical account of Jesus’s life, I think it’s been manipulated over time to be used as a form of control over the population, and I think the idea of the immaculate conception is part of an intentional ploy to make people feel shameful about sex (such a dirty thing couldn’t possibly produce the son of God) and therefore in need of salvation via the Church and their mandates. If you can somehow convince people that their basic biological and emotional needs are wrong, you’ll always have power over them. It’s like the state passing laws that criminalize activities that people are going to take part in regardless (like smoking pot, or being gay), once you do that you have a legal sword to hang over the heads of that entire population, to control and manipulate them at will.
I think Jesus had a human dad just like everybody else, and the idea of making God his actual biological father is the church’s way of undermining the entire point and power of his life and message, which was to show people through demonstration what they themselves were capable of. For him to just be another person like you or me, with normal parents, who through effort came to an understanding and mastery of the full potential of the human experience and demonstrated this mastery through miraculous acts, is inspiring for everyone. For him to be the literal son of God born out of a divine intervention means that he’s not like you or me at all, he’s special and above us, and this sets him up to be worshiped rather than truly emulated in any meaningful way. It’s a twist that changes his story from being empowering to disempowering.
Buddhism has followed a similar path over time, in that very, very few Buddhists I’ve ever met truly believe enlightenment is a real possibility for them. And so a man who explicitly said don’t worship me, I’m just here to tell you the story of how I became enlightened so that you can do the same, instead has millions of people who worship him and worship his miraculous enlightenment that they themselves could never hope to experience.
So what does that mean for the Grotto of the Annunciation? Clearly something special is happening here. Maybe Mary was visited by Gabriel here, and told that Jesus was on the way. She doesn’t need to have been a virgin for that aspect of the story to be true. Or maybe I was just experiencing the effects of millions of people coming to this spot to worship over the centuries, their highest thoughts and reverence opening up a pathway to the higher realms in this space. Fascinating to wonder.
Upstairs, the church was even more impressive and less architecturally confusing.
The walls were lined with fascinating representations of Mary, each donated by a different country with a significant Catholic population. The styles of each were wildly different from each other.
I was especially taken by this unexpected Japanese Mary, and her son, Japanesus.
We ducked back out into the drizzle and wandered across the courtyard to St Joseph’s Cathedral, a much more modest monument to the dude whose wife cheated on him with God.
Outside and down a set of stairs there’s Mary’s Crazy Maze, where lucky children who navigate the labyrinth can twist Mary’s hand and have a delicious M&M dispensed.
Nearby you can see the many layers of ancient Nazareth. I always find it fascinating that these towns and churches are built on top of layer upon layer of older churches and towns, like a giant cake.
We made our way through the city in vague hope of finding where we’d abandoned our car the night before.
Luckily (??) we found the car and were soon fighting our way back out of Nazareth like marines trying to escape Mogadishu. On the outskirts of town we stopped at the Mount of Precipice lookout and enjoyed the views of the entirety of Nazareth and the beautiful landscape beyond.
On the way down to Jerusalem, Aster drove while I dealt with absurd Israeli car insurance requirements over the phone. We stopped at a convenience store for much-needed provisions and I found some red-white-and-blue all-American Oreos and whatever the hell a Corny bar is.
While I was waiting to pay, a huge, loud and long argument broke out between the Jews running the shop and Arabs shopping there, in languages I did not understand at all. I slipped into the middle of this like a ghost to pay for my pomegranate-mango sorbet bar and spectated for a bit longer, thinking about the conflicts in this region and waiting to see if a fist fight would break out. Wait, hold on guys, let me get a Corny bar before this kicks off. Thanks.
As we coasted into Jerusalem, immediately shit was eerie. The city was too quiet. Aster instinctively slowed down, to be ready for the inevitable zombie attack. We turned a corner and the streets were full of people, who were walking right down the middle of the road, as if cars had never been invented or at least had gone missing for decades, ever since The Event. We drifted along like a ship in the water, the Jews parting before us, turning to give us quizzical looks as we rolled by.
Who were these strange future men with their iron chariot? What do they want with us?
Ohhhh shit, it’s Saturday. It’s the Sabbath. We’re the only people in this city who are disobeying God’s law by performing the labor of operating a machine. These guys won’t even a press an elevator button and here we are Nissan Micraing all over their Amish Paradise.
The attitudes of the people seemed less judgmental than they were curious, and some called out “Good Shabbos!” in greeting as we passed. Men in huge, hilarious fur hats purposefully trod up the sidewalks at a brisk pace as groups of children ambled more aimlessly, eyes on the clouds and minds more in the moment.
After locating our well-hidden AirBnB down a narrow alley in the old town, we discovered that the “Parking!” advertised in the listing meant “You can pay to park elsewhere in the city, there’s a pay parking garage two miles away that we recommend” which is a bit like saying a tour comes with lunch because it takes place within a human civilization where things called restaurants often offer food for sale. I was trying to figure out a listing that would not qualify as having “Parking!” under this loophole, possibly an undersea scientific base or the inside of an active volcano.
The parking in the back alley seemed likely to be for residents only, but we decided to chance it since we couldn’t read the Hebrew signs at all.
We were off on foot to the Garden of Gethsemane, skirting the walls of the Old City and passing through heavily Arab neighborhoods full of intense traffic and street vendors selling various hot meats. Eventually we crossed the busy road and entered the garden at the foot of the Mount of Olives, which had been a frequent gathering place for Jesus and his disciples. Gethsemane is where Jesus was arrested after being betrayed by Judas, so it’s a bit like a cross between a spiritual site and the alleyway in Chicago where they shot John Dillinger.
A fence kept us to the outer path circling the garden. I wondered how long ago it had been when you could just wander in and walk between these ancient olive trees to your heart’s content. It was surreal to be here. Even after the experience at the Sea of Galilee, I was still adjusting to the idea of these Bible locations being actual places. It’s not that I’d thought they were imaginary, but there’s something very different about actually standing there. Like… really? Jesus stood here, literally right here, and then the sun went up and down a bunch of times and now I’m standing here? With all these tourists from Latvia? There’s something strange about casting these mythical events into a concrete physical space that’s right in front of you.
I thought about what other places could be like this in the future. Perhaps one day my brother will accomplish something astonishing and this will be a site that’s famous for Aster’s pilgrimage. People will argue about whether Aster and Sean really stood here or if they went to the falafel joint up the street like the Greek Orthodox people believe.
These can’t be the same trees from the time of Christ, can they? It turns out olive trees can get to be extremely old, and these particular trees have been carbon dated and are generally thought to be some of the oldest in the world. Opinions are split on if these are actually the trees from Christ’s time, or possibly descendants of those trees, which are none the less each at least a thousand years old.
Right next to the Garden stands the Basilica of the Agony, which is an entire church built around the rock where Jesus is thought to have prayed after the Last Supper, as he chatted with God to pass the time until the cops got there. Apparently it was one of those stressful parental conversations since scripture has it that Jesus sweated blood, which the Catholics interpret literally. If that was really true I’m not sure Jesus had that long to live anyway, that sounds like a serious condition.
My favorite feature of this or any church was this sign outside:
Truly, you will find no explanations within.
I’d never seen a church built around a rock before, but was mostly impressed by the cool ceilings and the tree motifs in all the interior designs of the church.
Immediately next door down the hill there stands the Tomb of the Virgin Mary. I had no idea this was even a thing, I just wanted to see the garden, but you know, when in Jerusalem. The tomb was extremely bizarre. We followed stone steps down way below street level and across a sunken courtyard. An African couple stopped us and gestured with their phone. I reached out to take the phone to take a photo of them in front of the tomb, to which they recoiled and said “No! Not you! We want photo with him!” gesturing at Aster. “He looks like Jesus!” Fair enough, he does.
Inside the crypt more stairs took us down into the dark. A preposterous number of oil lamps hung from the ceiling, apparently for darkly decorative purpose.
Built during the Crusades, the church above us was called the Church of the Assumption, I guess because they assume Mary was buried here. Down in the crypt there’s a ton of swag that was completely baffling, as near as I can tell the crusader kings buried their wives down here too. Off to one side there’s a room with a heavily adorned tall standing closet that you can kneel down and crawl into and then out the other side, with a big rock inside covered in field trip permission slips. I think this is the tomb? But it’s also said to be empty? So yeah. I have absolutely no idea what this thing was.
Behind that, there’s a monument to Mary.
I’m of two minds about this, but part of me thinks the ambiance of the whole place might have worked better if they hadn’t been blasting Paul Lekakis’ “Boom Boom (Let’s Go Back to My Tomb)” inside the crypt the whole time, but I’m probably not the right person to be making these decisions.
Back outside, we made our way through the Lion’s Gate in the towering city walls and into the Old City of Jerusalem.
We were on our way to the main event, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Google Maps was helping us out by weaving us randomly through the maze of alleyways when suddenly we were stopped by two Palestinian soldiers with big guns.
“Closed!” they said to us as they nonchalantly waved several people through the small gate they were guarding.
“Wait, what’s closed?”
“Closed,” the soldier repeated, which was clearly the full extent of his English.
I looked at the people who were being waved through without issue. Hmmm.
Oh, they’re Palestinians. This nondescript back alley must be the dividing line between the Jewish and Arab sections of the city. Their faces were their invitations. We clearly were not Palestinians. We turned around and looked for another path through this ancient maze.
The endless stone alleyways were packed with tiny shops selling assorted crap. One thing that caught my eye was a shirt with Pikachu on it wearing and orthodox Jewish hat and beard. The shirt said PikaJew.
But my favorite of all was the rock tee-shirt that said “Guns n’ Moses.”
Cats slunk through the alleys and I thought about how I hadn’t seen any dogs yet in Israel. Huh. Israelis must be cat people. I wonder if all the Palestinians have dogs? I think I may have got to the heart of the problem here.
Eventually we found our way through the labyrinth and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was before us. This building contains the two most sacred sites in all of Christianity: Golgotha/Cavalry where Jesus was crucified, and his empty tomb. Jesus’s tomb being empty made a lot more sense to me than Mary’s empty tomb, hers just seemed like whoops they misplaced her body or it was on loan to the British Museum or something.
Above the entrance to the church leans the famous “immovable ladder.” One of the fascinating things about Israel is the way that Christianity, Judaisim and Islam all melt together in this place, the dividing lines between these seemingly diametrically opposed faiths getting very blurry as most of the ancient sites in Israel are holy to all three religions and the various subdivisions of each. Even Mary’s Tomb is holy to Islam and visited by Muslims, because Muhammad saw a light in the sky above her tomb way back when.
Because of this logjam of faiths in one place, an 18th century agreement called the Status Quo was put in place, where nine sacred sites in Jerusalem and Bethlehem are administered by personnel from a rotating cast of different faiths. It’s a bit like visitation for divorced parents, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is parceled out in sections between the Greek Orthodox, Armenian, Roman Catholic, Coptic, Ethiopian and Syriac Orthodox churches, and common areas have rules about who can be where depending on the day of the week. Extremely minor violations of these rules have resulted in fist fights and hospitalized monks.
When the Status Quo was announced in 1757, it was decreed that nothing could be moved from where it was at that moment without agreement of all six orders, which included this ladder belonging to a mason who was doing restoration work on the church. It’s been propped against this window ever since, becoming famous as a symbol of the divisions within Christianity.
Inside the entrance of the church you’re greeted by this mosaic of Jesus being taken down off the cross. My favorite part was the angels up above weeping into handkerchiefs. Why would an angel have a handkerchief? Do they blow their noses a lot up there? And aren’t they insubstantial spirit beings to begin with? Are those spirit hankies? Somebody didn’t think this mosaic through at all.
And wait, wouldn’t the angels be happy that Jesus was home with them now? They should be partying! It makes no sense at all for these angels to be sad about things. I call bullshit on the historical accuracy of this Jesus mosaic.
I think the skull and bones pictured beneath the cross are meant to be the bones of Adam, as in Adam and Eve, who Christian tradition bizarrely states was buried directly below the spot where Jesus was crucified, the blood of Christ running down and filling Adam’s skull. That… yeah sorry you lost me on this one what are you guys even talking about.
Near the mosaic you’ll find the Stone of Anointing, where Jesus’s body was said to be taken down from the cross, laid down and prepared for burial by Joseph of Arimathea. People were lining up to kneel down and touch their foreheads on this large stone inset into the floor.
I touched the stone and energetically, it felt like a big rock that a shit ton of people had touched. Okay.
Immediately upstairs from here is the Cavalry where Jesus is said to have been crucified. It’s a bit hard to wrap your head around this as it’s all inside a huge church now, there’s no hill, you’re just going up a staircase. But at least it’s up, right? Cavalry translates to “skull,” though there are disagreements on if the name means the original hill was shaped like a skull, or if it’s because Adam’s skull was moved and buried here from the resting place of Noah’s Ark under the guidance of angels, or if it’s just because the Romans crucified a lot of folks here and so there was an abundance of skulls.
Now there are two chapels, an extremely ornate Greek Orthodox chapel and next to it, a Catholic chapel. A seemingly continuous Greek Orthodox ceremony was taking place in the former while we were there. I initially attempted to wait out the ceremony before taking photos, passing the time by trying to figure out if a nearby seated monk was real or an elaborate wax figure. Eventually I realized this ceremony had been going on since the Tuesday after Christ died, so I asked the Greek Orthodox God for forgiveness and took my photos.
According to the Greeks everybody involved is a shiny knight now, I guess. I admired the ornate gold-flaked paint in the ceiling and archway decorations.
Directly downstairs there’s the Chapel of Adam, where a crack visible in the Rock of the Cavalry is said to have been caused by an earthquake that was triggered by Christ’s crucifixion.
I was fascinated by the elaborateness and certitude of this place and the stories it was based on. The entire reason this church is here is because Helena, the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine, came here on vacation. Finding a temple to Venus built on the spot where Jesus’s tomb was thought to be, she had the temple torn down and found a cross buried beneath, which she decided was the cross Jesus was crucified on. Constantine built the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on that spot, and here we are.
I find the clash between the extreme fuzziness of people taking a book written by several different people over hundreds of years and using it to find very specific locations that people can’t even agree on today, and the elaborate certainties that this church represents (“Jesus’s blood ran down this crack in this rock here…”) completely fascinating. The people visiting the church obviously took this all very seriously and literally.
I can of course understand the usefulness of having a physical location to focus your devotion and prayers, whether it’s the actual spot or not. Choosing the site of the murder of your savior as the focus of your devotion, rather than the sites of his miracles or great deeds, seems a little dark and counter to Jesus’s message to me, but different strokes and all.
Writing this now, with the benefit of the internet research to help contextualize what we were looking at then, probably fails to communicate how confusing this massive, sprawling church really was. After the Cavalry, Aster and I wandered through the endless levels and chapels spiraling out into infinity. At some point we ended up in some kind of underground cave where there was a statue of Mary... or is that Helena? I have no idea what was going on in here.
The pilgrims gathered in the cave spontaneously began singing a beautiful, but sad, religious hymn, the harmonies reverberating off the stone walls and up through the labyrinthine building.
At another moment we found ourselves in some kind of basement. I had wandered up some stairs to a locked door with a window looking into some kind of church offices. Down the same stairs there was this strange basement room. A crack in the wall led into a tiny dark tunnel. I crawled inside, half-expecting to emerge inside John Malkovich’s head. Instead, I found myself in an even darker space that energetically did not feel great at all. Nope! I’m crawling back out of this place now, thanks.
Everywhere we went I was fascinated by watching the Christian pilgrims from all over the world. There were a large number of nuns and priests, and I found myself aware of a shift that had occurred within me without me realizing it. I realized that I’ve always regarded priests and nuns with a certain degree of reverence. Even if I didn’t belong to their specific church, I’ve always operated under the belief that they had dedicated themselves in some way that I had not, and therefore had some insight I didn’t have. But looking into the eyes of each nun and priest we passed, I could see into them in a new way and realized, viscerally, that they were just seekers. They didn’t know anything I didn’t know. If anything, I felt a little sad for them that they had signed up to lock themselves into a structure that I felt would limit what they would find. But, that may well be right for them and where they are at right now.
This shift in perspective, from a kind of lifelong reverence to a kind of poignant, almost parental empathy, was startling to me.
The largest area of the sprawling church is the immense rotunda and dome over the Aedicule, a small chapel containing Jesus’s tomb that looked like it might motor around the room and buff the floors at night.
The line to enter the tomb wrapped all the way around the structure and was hours long. I couldn’t help but feel like we were waiting in a department store line to see Santa.
Portholes in the side of the tomb allowed the line-adverse or time-challenged an opportunity to peek upon the splendor. Nuns made full use of these holy portholes.
Inside, people were… yeah I can’t see what the hell’s going on in there.
As we finally approached the entrance, it became clear the church was about to close and they were rushing people into the tomb to get the rest of the line through before the church became a roller disco or whatever happened after closing time. The feeling of being rushed through the department store Santa line like Ralphie in A Christmas Story was even more powerful now.
Some Greek Orthodox authority figure chastised a group of nuns for taking too goddamned long inside the tomb. Oh man! It’s almost our turn! What do I want to ask Jesus for? A football? What’s a football?
The gate was moved and we were rushed into the tomb. Inside it was dim and completely confusing. The entire experience of being inside Jesus’s tomb was very much like being mugged. I’m still not entirely sure what happened in there.
I pretty much hit the shutter button on my phone continuously while we were in the dank tomb and only two of the photos came anything close to coming out. One was this lovely photo of the lights or whatever was hanging from the ceiling in there.
The other was this photo of my brother Aster contemplating… yeah I have no idea what we were looking at.
There was a large stone inside that I think was supposed to be the stone that Jesus rolled back to exit his tomb after being resurrected. But if he was buried in a cave… I have no idea how this ornate room within a room inside a huge church is somehow also that cave. Whatevs, weird fascinating Church.
We were ejected back out and a slot in the side of the tomb buzzed and spit our our strip of commemorative holy tomb photo booth photos, all blurry shots of us looking totally confused. Dammit, we should have brought funny hats.
(I’m kidding, Jesus’s tomb did not actually dispense photo booth photos. But it should have.)
Before I knew what was what we were back out in the Jerusalem night, dodging the raindrops on our way to the Western Wall.
This dizzying historical whirlwind of the centuries continued as we floated down alleys and through checkpoints and bag scanners on our way from the Christian quarter to the Jewish section of Jerusalem. Suddenly everyone was wearing big hats and we were facing a huge white wall, in the large, open section where Jewish men prayed, with a separate, much smaller section way off to the right that was for women’s prayers. Hmmm. Incomplete grade there on gender equality, Judaism.
My brother and sister are both half-Jewish (we have different dads) so I was completely reliant on Aster here for what the Wailing Wall even was and why it’s here. I… I was not prepared for the length of the answer.
So, it’s truly an immense story and this is but a humble travel blog, but we’ll see what we can do here. We’ll start with a hill. There’s a hill in Jerusalem called the Temple Mount. It’s a big deal. In Judaism, it’s the holiest place in the world and where it all began. It’s where God gathered up dust and created Adam. It’s where the high priest spoke to God, and where God is believed to literally still be present. Judaism teaches that Israel is the center of the world, and Jerusalem is the center of Israel, and the Temple Mount is the center of Jerusalem, and at the center of the Temple Mount is the Holy of Holies, the inner sanctuary of the Tabernacle where the Ark of the Covenant containing the tablets of the Ten Commandments was kept.
So, naturally, a temple was built in this spot. But it was destroyed by the Babylonians. King Herod built a second temple, which was destroyed by the Romans. The last remaining part of this second temple is a retaining wall that was erected to hold back the earth of Temple Mount to create more space for the temple. That remaining wall is the Western Wall, which was called the Wailing Wall by the British in reference to the sounds of the Jewish prayers they didn’t understand that would take place at this wall.
The Western Wall is where Jews mourn the destruction of the second temple and pray for the construction of a third temple that was prophesied in the Book of Ezekiel.
Right now, constructing a new temple in this spot would be difficult because there’s a huge mosque there now, called the Dome of the Rock.
We weren’t allowed into the Dome of the Rock because we’re not Muslim. I’ve always wondered how rules like this work in places like Mecca. How do you prove you’re Muslim? Do you need to bring a punch-card from your mosque detailing your attendance? I suppose it’s a moot point when you’re obviously Irish-American white guys. The rock in the mosque’s name is the Foundation Stone, which Judaism identifies as the literal center of the world and the spot where Abraham was to sacrifice his son. Islam identifies it as the spot where Muhammad ascended to heaven.
What was most interesting to me is that there’s a cave beneath the Dome of the Rock called the Well of Souls, which is thought by some to be the location of the Holy of Holies. Aside from having a completely badass name, the cave has Islamic legend on its side stating that the spirits of the dead can be heard inside this cave, awaiting Judgment Day. Islamic lore has it that the cave was created when the Foundation Stone lifted up and tried to follow Muhammad up into heaven, and had to be held back by the Archangel Gabriel, whose effort left a handprint in the stone.
I’m endlessly fascinated by how these different religions all overlap in this one place. The situation is especially strange since this is the holiest place for Jews, and yet only Muslims are allowed to pray on Temple Mount, by order on the Israeli government. When Israel took East Jerusalem from Jordan during the Six-Day war in 1967, they left the Jordanian royal family in place as custodians of Temple Mount. I haven’t totally wrapped my mind around their reasons for that, other than possibly as an effort to keep the peace between Jews and Muslims. Since it’s the single holiest place for the Jews and only the third-holiest for Muslims, it seems fairer that the arrangement should maybe be the other way around. Regardless, Jews have to make do with praying in the direction of the Holy of Holies, wherever in the world they are, and praying at the Western Wall.
Aster did his best to clue me in to the Western Wall etiquette, which involves not turning your back on the wall and not yakking on your cellphone while you’re there. I cautiously approached the wall, eager to not give offense or get hit with a shoe by a rabbi for walling wrong.
Approaching the wall, there were little slips of paper, I presume with prayers written on them, slipped into the cracks between the limestone blocks. Huh. I bet these have to be cleared out periodically like the prayer flags on the mountain passes in Tibet. I put my hands on the wall and touched my forehead to the stone, closing my eyes.
Huh. Yep. Feels like a lot of people have touched this. I looked up at the limestone, brightly lit up, even at night.
Should I say a prayer? Hmmm. Schlemiel! Schlimazel! Hasenpfeffer Incorporated! Okay, I’m good.
I backed away, wondering how far you have to walk backwards before you’re allowed to turn around. Hopefully before I get to Tel Aviv.
I realized it was safe to take out my phone and take photos when I saw the extremely religiously-dressed Jews talking on their phones a few hundred feet away from the wall.
From here Aster and I made our way to the entrance for the Western Wall tunnels, which lead you through the majority of the Western Wall that is now below ground. Security guards quickly turned us around. Nope, closed. Okay Jerusalem. Your rules are bizarre, old city.
Aster and I navigated through the empty maze of back alleys in the Jewish quarter on our way back to our AirBnB, with cats as our only company. Well, cats and lottery monsters.
Aside from the famous Biblical sites, I had one thing I really wanted to see in Jerusalem.
The Mifletzet is a huge sculpture in a children’s playground in Jerusalem depicting a giant, nightmarish monster. Children climb stairs up the monster’s back and slide out of its mouth along one of its three long tongues. When the artist presented the plans for the sculpture to the parks commission, the commission understandably said “Wait… are you crazy? We like our children not being traumatized for life, thank you very much. Hell to the no!”
But the artist, Niki de Saint Phalle, was able to convince the commission of the value for children in learning to face their fears. I agree very much with this philosophy and also how am I not going to visit the giant monster playground? Come on.
Heading out to our probably-illegally parked car, we found a handwritten note pinned beneath the windshield wiper. Huh, interesting. It was all in Hebrew. I immediately figured it was a note letting us know we had parked in somebody’s parking spot and asking us not to do that. But… there was a phone number at the bottom. Did they want us to call to discuss this issue further? That would be strange. Huh. We’ll have to find some local who can read this to us. Maybe a waiter in the next restaurant we eat in. Aster stuffed the note in his pocket.
We squeezed down the narrow alleyway but were blocked from turning onto the street by a huge garbage truck. Local garbage men were pushing some kind of giant trash sledge out into the street and connecting it to the back of their truck. Whoa. This is crazy. What’s going on here?
We sat in the car and watched, fascinated, as slowly and expertly, they connected chains to the sledge and maneuvered it into position behind the truck. Pneumatic pistons fired and the truck picked up the entire sledge, tilting it into the truck as all the trash slid into the back of the truck to be compacted.
The whole process took a solid twenty minutes but we weren’t the slightest bit impatient with the wait, finding ourselves mesmerized by the entire routine. Eventually the garbage men realized they had an audience and grinned charmingly at our applause and thumbs-up gestures.
In time the sledge was set back down and slid back into its normal place by the side of the street. The truck lumbered away, with our tiny Nissan Micra in close pursuit.
Aster and I fought our way through crazy Jerusalem traffic and the fact that the Mifletzet park had three different names on maps and inconveniently none of them were Giant Monster Park. Eventually I got us on the right road and then, suddenly, there it was, peering down the road at us. We pulled over and quickly disregarded any and all regulations about the age limits for children’s playgrounds, running straight to the slide.
Whew, that was fun. Let’s do it again! I need to try all three tongues.
We had so much fun on the Mifletzet that the sun set on us.
Whew. We should go get some hummus.
After spending the morning at the bazaar seeking out the best hummus in Jerusalem, which ended up tasting a bit like egg-flavored peanut butter, we were off again, bombing down the East side of Israel on our way to the Dead Sea.
We stopped at a gas station to fuel up and I was transfixed by the high school girls who were paying to ride a camel back and forth across the parking lot.
The shore of the Dead Sea is the lowest place on Earth, so the drive there takes you down, down, down as if coming down from the top of a mountain you didn’t know you were on. A sign and a huge crab marks when you cross sea level, and then you keep on going down, seemingly forever.
After you bottom out, you can see the salty expanse of the Dead Sea off to your left, separating Israel from Jordan. Finding a place to actually visit the Dead Sea had been a bit of a challenge, since a lot of the beaches are fenced off and the wild places are full of seemingly legitimate warnings about sinkholes. There are resorts of course, which seemed more touristy than what we were going for, but thankfully I’d done some research ahead of time and had found the one free public beach on the southern end of the sea, at Ein Bokek.
Tall mesas lifted up out of the bare desert to our right, one of them featuring at its top Masada, the ancient fortress built by Herod the Great in 37 BC. During the First Jewish-Roman war, after the Romans captured Jerusalem and destroyed the Second Temple, the Jewish forces made their last stand inside the seemingly-impenetrable fortress at Masada. The Romans built a massive ramp hundreds of feet high to get up to the mesa and breach the fortress walls, upon which they found that all 960 of the remaining Jewish rebels had committed mass suicide.
Driving through the desert with the windows down in the warm February air, I couldn’t help but notice that the vibration of the place reminded me very much of Southern California, strikingly so. It’s funny how the world kind of repeats.
When we finally reached Ein Bokek I was struck by how nice the beach and facilities were, for a completely free public beach. We took a quick look at the indecipherable Hebrew parking signs, laughed and stripped down to our swim trunks. Well, my swim trunks and Aster’s underwear.
Across the sand and into the water. The water was brutally cold, a fact Aster coped with by shrugging and diving straight in. I tried to acclimate instead by wading in gradually, but the water stayed shallow for so long that this was really just drawing out the pain. The ground beneath the water was lined with sharp salt crystals that dug into my feet. Ow! Really should have sacrificed a couple of shirts to made room for water shoes in my tiny little travel backpack. Okay, this is ridiculous. I flopped into the water awkwardly.
Whoa! This is crazy! I’m not sinking into the water! Obviously I knew that the Dead Sea was special because the extremely high salt content meant anyone could float effortlessly. But I didn’t realize what that would actually feel like. You lie on top of the water, like you’re reclining on a giant waterbed, the majority of your body sticking up above the water’s surface. This feels completely bizarre, like being on another planet where the physical rules are different.
You truly do float effortlessly, so much so that it was actually difficult to swim over to where Aster was floating in his Jesus Christ Pose. My body wasn’t penetrating into the water enough to perform any real swimming motion. We were still only in about two feet of water, so it was easier to awkwardly swivel my feet back underneath me and walk over to where he was floating before reclining again.
I leaned back on the water and took in the blue sky up above us, planes arcing overhead. Between my feet I could see hotels lounging at the foot of mesas in the distance. This is really bizarre and idyllic at the same time.
You were floating so high on the water and so effortlessly that the sun would dry off the top of your body while you were still in the water. Crazy.
Once Aster had got his fill he made his way to a lounge chair on the beach while I continued to soak up the experience. I leaned back and chuckled as someone in the distance got some of the ultra-salty water in their mouth and retched. I’d been warned that getting the water in your eyes was a bit like getting pepper sprayed. The very name came from the fact that nothing could live in water this salty. I was suddenly very glad I hadn’t shaved that morning.
I eventually joined Aster on the lounge chairs and we dreamily lounged in the warm sun and listened to the Jewish-American tourists to our right debate the best ways to smear therapeutic Dead Sea mud all over themselves. Tiny birds flitted over to our chairs and the back up along the beach.
My whole body was buzzing. Something about being in the water, probably the high salt content, had been extremely purifying. My entire field felt different, some stress and tension was gone, and now there was just the warm throbbing of the energy of this place and the warmth of the sun passing through me.
Man, I don’t usually think of my trips as “vacations” in the common sense but this here feels like vacation. I briefly imagined the ice-encrusted deep freeze of Minneapolis in that moment as I traced a helicopter across the blue sky.
We luxuriated in this moment so long there was a parking ticket on the car when we got back. Oh well, it was worth it. Paying the ticket online ended up being pretty funny since it was clearly not sent up for non-Israelis. The poorly-translated website kept asking for my national ID number and local address and all kinds of things I didn’t have, but I eventually convinced it to shut up and take my money.
We continued across the vast, barren desert that makes up most of Israel, dipping far south just to see what was there (nothing) before we looped back up to the West and made for Tel Aviv.
We were in Tel Aviv at both the beginning and the end of the trip. When I landed in Tel Aviv from Budapest, my brother was waiting for me in the long hallway leading from the arrival gates. We went through Immigration together, which is generally recommended since Isaeli Immigration is notoriously tough and they tend to give more scrutiny to men traveling alone. We managed to breeze through fairly easily in spite of the immigration officer being completely confused by the fact that we were brothers with two different last names, who don’t live in the same country and hadn’t flown here together, since my brother had come straight from where he lives in Wales.
I was slightly paranoid that he was going to stamp my passport, since an stamp from Israel is the kiss of death if you want to get into most of the Islamic countries in the world, including Yemen, where I was headed next. Thankfully this was a non-issue since Israel doesn’t even stamp passports anymore, instead they printed out little ID cards with our picture on them to keep in our passports until we left the country.
After going through a very long and funny exchange with the rental car girl who had been up for three days straight and figuring out what code we needed to punch into the little keypad on the dash of our tiny car to enable the ignition, we were off into the wackiness of Tel Aviv. Aster, who had been here years before as part of a program where young Jews can travel to Israel for free, explained the difference between Hebrew and Yiddish to me as I weaved through the confusing streets in the dark.
I’d been curious to see what driving in Israel is like because, along with Ireland and Jamaica, Israel is the third country that credit cards traditionally have refused to insure rental cars in. It probably says something about me that I’ve rented cars in all three of these places now. I’d learned why they refused to cover cars in the other two places (because driving there is a whimsical game of death), which left me feeling apprehensively curious about driving in Israel.
In the end I needn’t have worried too much, as Tel Aviv was pretty tame by world crazy driving standards, and I wouldn’t be the one driving when we got to Nazareth.
We eventually found our hostel, where I’d rented out an old quasi-military RV they had parked in the backyard. Seemed like it would be a memorable place to sleep. It was.
We set out to find something to eat and found a completely magical vegan ice cream shop within short walking distance.
The next morning we’d wander around Tel Aviv and found a hole in the wall restaurant called Hummus Eliyahu that had the best hummus I’ve ever had in my life. Beyond being delicious, it was light and airy and had a wonderful vibration to it, like the ingredients were all fresh and vibrant and the hummus itself had been home-made with care. As we stuffed our faces I marveled at how this could be so much better than any hummus I’d eaten before. It didn’t seem like a complicated dish, how was the rest of the world screwing it up so badly?
On our return to Tel Aviv at the end of the trip we were staying in Jaffa, the ancient port city that grew into present-day Tel Aviv. Jaffa was where Jonah’s ship left from when he was swallowed by the whale.
We had dinner again in the same little hummus shop and it was somehow even more delicious this time. I’d branched out to order mashawsha, a hummus dish that added lemon and garlic, and I made obnoxious noises of delight the entire time I was eating it, an experience which more than made up for the waitress spilling olive oil all over my only clean pants when she brought out our food.
Aster’s a carpenter and general handyman, and his souvenir hope was to bring home a tool made in Israel, which led us on a funny wild goose chase first to find a hardware store that was open at night and then to find something in the hardware store that wasn’t made in China. This was enhanced tremendously by the only Israel-made thing we could find in the first hour inside the shop was a massive and hilariously-threatening-looking curved knife, which would have been an adventure to get onto the plane. Eventually a kindly old guy working in the shop pointed us toward an Israeli-made toolbox that Aster was able to pack with clothes and just barely fit into his backpack for the trip home.
I was keen on finding a vegan chocolate shop I’d seen online, and when we did find it, it did not disappoint. We were picking from the assortment of mind-blowingly rich bon bons in the case when the owner asked us if we wanted to try the Peruvian hot chocolate he had just brewed up. I wasn’t fully paying attention to what he was saying because I was doing complex calculations about how many of these awesome-looking bon bons I thought I could cram into my overstuffed, hummus-packed stomach. I wish I had been listening better since I know he said more about what he’d put into this hot chocolate that was about to tear the lid off my skull and pour the universe in like an overflowing goblet. All I remember him saying was “It’s so rich it gives you a little buzz!” Yeah sure weird chocolate guy, whatever.
We bought our bon bons and took the cup of Andean Satan chocolate out into the night, sipping as we walked down the street back toward our hostel. Wow, this stuff is rich! I mean, it’s delicious but I didn’t know anything could be this rich. I feel like my face is melting. Wow. This is some cra-cra-cra-cra-cra-cra-cra-cra…
Aster? Aster? What did we drink? Aster?
My body consciousness was swimming in opposite directions as I tried to walk up the street in something sort of resembling a straight line. All the colors of everything looked weird and time seemed to be breathing in and out.
Oh my God, am I high?
“So rich it gives you a little buzz!”
A little buzz? I tried to remember if the Chocolate Shaman had said it would give you a little buzz, or if he said it would completely fuck you up like Hunter S. Thompson on assignment and you’d wake up naked in the desert in the middle of the night, yelling about bats.
I don’t know where we are, but it’s not Israel any more. The lights on the street were doing weird things and I became overwhelmed with the sensation that we were inside a giant fish bowl.
Oh man, I am so glad Aster is here. There is absolutely no way I’d get back to our hostel on my own. All the streets seemed to wrap around, looping and doubling back on themselves, like tied shoelaces.
We eventually found the hostel and I flopped down on the weird little couch in our spartan room.
This overall trip had been a proof of concept that I could work remotely and be productive in the midst of having international adventures. I’d been getting up at 4am every morning and working in the dark on my laptop for four hours until Aster woke up and we started our day. In the evenings I’d get back online around 7 or 8 and put in another half-day before turning in for bed. I was really thrilled with how well this had worked out, as this would free up my ability to travel even more beyond the bounds of my admittedly very generous allotment of vacation time.
I’d planned on working that night once we got back to the hostel, but after accidentally dosing with that LSD hot chocolate I instead spent an hour just staring at my hand, lost in some kind of cosmic Incan reverie, before I realized where and who I was and decided to go the hell to bed.
We had to be up painfully early to return the rental car and make our flights onward, Aster going back to Wales and I was off to Greece, and then Egypt and Yemen. I was still in some kind of chocolate Twilight Zone that had been compounded by four hours of sleep on a rock hard hostel bed, as we tried to navigate the dark, early morning Tel Aviv roads and the gas station near the airport that seemed to not have an actual entrance.
At one point, as we zoomed around the cloverleaf of a freeway offramp too fast, I braced myself and mentally cried out “Aster!! Slow the hell down!” and then after a long beat, came to the startling realization that I was the one driving. Oh man. Chocolate is a hell of a drug.
We pulled into the airport parking lot and the Hertz guy came over to inspect our car. I nervously eyed the long, deep scrape that ran up the right side of the car, exposing the silver metal of the body panel. I had first noticed this when we were leaving the beach at the Dead Sea. Had that always been there? I didn’t remember seeing it before but it also didn’t seem like it could have happened at the Dead Sea, since that side of the car was up against the sidewalk. Huh. Well, they also hadn’t inspected the car when we picked it up, they just gave us the keys and told us to get lost, so maybe they won’t know who did that.
As soon as I’d noticed the damage, I’d started focusing on doing gratitude work. I worked on welling up a feeling of gratitude for how well this morning had gone. I imagined myself at the end of the day, looking back at the day’s events and marveling with gratitude that everything had worked out so perfectly with the rental car and everything else.
“Oh my. What happened here?” the rental guy noticed the gouge right away.
Shit. “Is that new?” I asked.
He pulled up photos of the car apparently taken before we picked it up. No damage. Damned cell phones.
When the hell had that happened? I was pretty sure we hadn’t hit anything while we were driving. Then, in my chocolate-addled brain, the gears began to wheezily turn. Oh. Oh oh oh!
“Aster, the note!”
Aster still had the Hebrew note in his pocket that had been left on our car back in Jerusalem. We’d never remembered to have someone translate it for us. Aster handed it to the car rental dude. He read it quietly by the light of his phone.
“You guys are SO lucky!” he laughed.
“What does it say?”
“It says Sorry, I hit your car while it was parked. Here’s my phone number, contact me and I’ll pay for the damages. So lucky!”
The counter girl inside took a scan of the note and said they’d contact that person for the damages to the car. We were free to go. Well hot damn!
We’d arrived at the airport plenty early because we’d heard horror stories from friends about the long hours it takes to get through exit immigration in Tel Aviv. Israel’s airport security is the envy of the entire world and is primarily based on interviews with passengers rather than body scanners or other technology.
Thankfully this went far smoother than expected as well, as the girl interviewing us was a bit taken aback by our differing last names but otherwise found our stories plausible and let us go after only chatting for a few minutes.
We made our way to the food court to wait for our flights and I marveled at the McDonald’s, which had two completely different restaurants in one. One, a Kosher McDonald’s, and then a separate counter for all dairy products. So interesting.
We ordered an elaborate breakfast from another restaurant and I waited to pick up our food while Aster scouted out a table for us in the crowded food court. Every single name they called out as orders became ready sounded like “Sean!” They got really tired of me walking up to the counter to take food that wasn’t mine. Damn. I should have picked another name that was more phonetically distinct. Like Adolf.
Aster and I sat by the fountain and ate our multi-course breakfast with thoughtfully wrapped breadsticks and little compartments of hummus and tofu. Some loud prayer was going on across the other side of the food court.
What a great trip. Both for the experience of Israel and to get to share that with my brother, who I don’t get to travel with as much as I used to. I laughed as I thought of Aster’s role on this trip as a “been to Israel once before” tour guide, default Bible explainer (since he and my sister went to Catholic school while I was at public school) and all-around authority on all things Jewish.
“Oh, right, this is where Jesus spit in the mud and made eyeballs for the blind guy.”
“Yeaaaah, I don’t think that’s how that story goes.”
“I’m impressed I got it that right.”
I looked up at the boarding screen casually and realized the name of my flight was flashing in all caps. Hmmm. That can’t be right, it’s way too early. Well, better check it out. I told Aster I’d be back if it was a false alarm but I should check at the gate, hugging him goodbye just in case.
When I got to the gate, they were waiting for me. I was the last one on the plane. Damn Israel, you guys are the anti-Poland. There’s a WWII joke in there somewhere, I think. OK guys, thanks for the amazing hummus, psychedelic chocolate, cleansing Martian salt baths, and terrible but very honest drivers.
Zay gezunt Israel, it’s been כֵּיף.