Nazareth and Galilee

St. Mary's Church

“I am smiling because I have positive energy!  We are going to have a good day!” said our new tour guide.

I had only been on the bus five minutes and already she was getting on my nerves.  She professed to be an expert on all three religions of the area, a leader in the Kabbalah movement (made semi-famous by Madonna and other celebrities), and had written three books on positive energy.

For the first 90 minutes of the bus ride through northern Israel from the port in Haifa, she chattered away about the amazing sights we were going to see and how great a tour guide she was but that she didn’t have an ego, while mentioning positive energy about ten times.

Our first stop was the Mount of Beatitudes.  This is a hill overlooking the northwestern part of the Sea of Galilee where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount.  The Sea of Galilee isn’t really a sea, it’s a large lake.  I suppose thousands of years ago the local people hadn’t ventured as far as the Mediterranean Sea, so they called it a sea instead of a lake.  It is a nice looking lake, with hills on one side and the mountains of the Golan Heights on the other.

church at Mount of Beatitudes
The church at the Mount of Beatitudes

There is a Franciscan church on the site.  The landscape and grounds are meticulously manicured.  It is a beautiful site; however it is very hard to picture what it must have looked like in the time of Jesus.  Right now it looks like a country club in San Diego.

I soon realized that seeing an old church on the traditional site of something relating to the life of Jesus was the rule.  This rule must have been established sometime after Constantine declared Christianity to be the religion of the Byzantine Empire.  Of course, the experts are not necessarily sure that these sites are exactly the sites mentioned in the Bible.  But, they’re probably close enough for most people.  If they’re off by a few yards, who would know?  You can’t see much of anything existing from the time of Christ.

The corollary to the “church over the miracle site” rule requires that there must be a gift shop selling religious artifacts to the visiting faithful pilgrims.  The gift shop must be entered by the faithful pilgrims prior to exiting the holy site.  There must be no exit that bypassed the gift shop.  Gift shops accept all of the major currencies and credit cards.  On the plus side, the gift shops are air-conditioned and usually include the toilets (an important resource on long bus rides).

When we got back to the bus at the appointed time we had lost the tour guide.  When she finally arrived, several people complained that she was supposed to explain the sites to us and not disappear.  She apologized a dozen times and said that since she had positive energy she wouldn’t let it happen again.

We drove closer to the shore of the lake and stopped at a place called Tabgha.  I had never heard of this place and wasn’t sure what we were going to see there.  I soon found out that there was a church built on the spot where tradition holds that Jesus performed the miracle of the two fish and five loaves.  This church is fairly new, having been rebuilt recently by a German evangelical group.  Right in front of the altar in the church is an original floor mosaic from the Byzantine era marking the spot of the miracle.  The mosaic designer must not have gotten the correct design memo 1,700 years ago.  He got the number of fish right but only put four loaves in the basket!

floor mosaic in Tabgha, Israel
How many loaves?

Farther up the coast road is the site of the village of Capernaum.  This is the place where Jesus stayed with Peter and performed a miracle by healing Peter’s mother-in-law.  The original village was replaced by one in the Byzantine era, then destroyed at some later point in time and never rebuilt.  There are the ruins of a synagogue in the village and remnants of walls built from local stone. The village is quite small overall, and the rooms of houses are also very small.  Following the established rule, there was a church built over the site where it is believed that Peter’s house stood and the miracle occurred.

the house of Peter in Capernaum
House ruins in Capernaum, Israel
ruins in Capernaum
Ruins of first century village of Capernaum

We drove most of the way around the Sea of Galilee and ended up at a place called Yardenit on the banks of the Jordan River.  This is near the place where John the Baptist baptized Jesus.  People come from all over the world to be baptized here. For this site, no one is claiming this to be the exact place of the baptism of Jesus because nobody knows, but it is close enough.  Maybe for that reason there is no church here, but there is a gift shop.

The Jordan River was smaller than I expected.  It also was home to a family of nutria who did the backstroke upstream, came on shore to clean their whiskers, and spooked unsuspecting pilgrims who stood in the water.  They can be nasty creatures when provoked.

Jordan River in Israel
Baptismal site at the Jordan River

We went to a kibbutz near Tiberias for lunch.  A kibbutz is a social commune where everything is co-owned by the members.  Despite this, they provided a decent buffet.  Since the idea of a kibbutz sounds like Communism to me, I expected a simple uninspired menu, but it was edible.  The guide explained that kibbutzim in Israel today are losing young people to the cities.  She was saying something about the lack of positive energy in today’s kibbutzim as I drifted off to sleep.

On the way to Nazareth we passed Cana, where Jesus performed his first miracle turning the water into wine.  A lot of the shops in Cana had signs that referred to this miracle, such as the “Water into Wine Falafal Shop” and the “Water into Wine Dry Cleaning” service.  Really, I don’t make this stuff up or embellish things.  This travel blog tells it like it is.  By the way, for a reason unknown to this author there is no church to visit in Cana, despite the first miracle having been performed there.

In Nazareth, we went to the spot where it is believed that Jesus lived as a child with Joseph and Mary.  There was a big Catholic church, called St. Mary’s Church, built over the ruins of a 1st century house.  Many countries of the world have donated large mosaics or other kinds of artwork depicting Mary and baby Jesus to this church.  They are shown on the walls inside and outside the church.  The crowd was too big for me to get to see the house ruins.

ruins of first century house in Nazareth
Ruins of first century house believed to be boyhood home of Jesus
Mary statue
Statue of Mary outside St. Mary's Church in Nazareth

Next door is St. Joseph’s Church.  Joseph didn’t get as big a church as Mary and I don’t think it is built over anyone’s house ruins.  Still, it is a nice looking church.  While we were there a visiting African congregation was holding a service in the church.  The people were fancifully dressed in the traditional robes, singing and swaying to the music.

St. Mary's Church
St. Mary's Church in Nazareth

As we pulled back into the port at Haifa, the guide was sitting behind me explaining the difference between Christianity, Judaism, and Islam to a couple from New Jersey.  I think she was getting some of her facts wrong.  She still had her positive energy though.

Israel is still a dangerous place.  The day after we left Israel, terrorists attacked a bus and a car in southern Israel on the road from Be’er Sheva and Eilat (Eilat is a resort town on the Red Sea).  Seven people were killed and a couple of dozen people were wounded.


Israel and the Ancient City of Jerusalem

Mosaic in Jersualem
Mosaic in Jersualem
Mosaic in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Old Jerusalem

Riding the bus from the port of Ashdod, Israel, on the Mediterranean Sea inland and up into the hills to Jerusalem was like traveling back in time.  On the coast, the ship docked in a modern, busy, industrious port.  Giant cranes lifted and stacked containers five stories high.  Thousands of new cars sat in rows collecting dirt on their windshields before being cleaned and shipped to dealers.

The tour bus cruised down new highways in heavy traffic and then past the place where Abraham was to sacrifice Isaac 4,000 years ago.  Before the road climbed into the Judean Mountains, we saw the battlefield where David slew Goliath.

Despite this area being a desert, there were many fields planted with crops such as grapes, oranges, corn, and cotton.  It was land irrigated using reclaimed waste water.

There was a marked difference between lands of the people groups here.  The Israelis have built sophisticated irrigation systems and their land was generally green.  Social communes called kibbutzim were scattered across the desert, each like a green oasis.  The Palestinian areas were dry and dusty, and generally look poorer.  In some areas Bedouins lived not in tents but in shacks along the side of the highway.  One extended Bedouin family and their camels and goats lived in each grouping of shacks. The Bedouin areas were completely desolate.

The mountains used to be full of trees. The guide explained how the Turks of the Ottoman Empire had caused the destruction of all the trees in Israel during World War I by offering three gold pieces to anyone who brought a load of wood to the railroad stations.  The wood was used to make steam for the railway.  Since the creation of the new state of Israel in 1948, young Israelis have been planting trees.  The mountains are now full of trees again.

After a ride of 1 ½ hours, our first stop in Jerusalem was at the Garden of Gethsemane and the Church of All Nations.  The garden looks out over the old city of Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives. The church itself was not memorable to me, and I was surprised at how small the garden is today.  I don’t know if it was larger 2,000 years ago.  The garden has a dozen old olive trees with very gnarled trunks.

Garden of Gethsemane
The Garden of Gethsemane in Jerusalem

We passed through the Jaffa Gate to get inside the old city.  We saw the Tower of David, which is now the tower of a mosque, and walked to the square in front of the Western Wall.  The Western Wall (also called the Wailing Wall) is revered by the Jews as part of the foundation of the Temple Mount, the sole remnant of the Second Temple, which was built by Herod the Great and destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D.  The area in front of the Western Wall is divided into two sections, one for men and one for women to get close to the wall.  Several hundred people were bobbing and praying at the wall and sticking written prayers in cracks of the wall.

Western Wall in Jerusalem, Israel
The Western Wall in Old Jerusalem

The day was sunny and very hot.  I stood for quite a while in the square in the sun waiting for the tour to resume. I was sweating heavily through my clothes and I wondered how the many Orthodox Jews in their black clothes and hats dealt with the heat.

Muslim Quarter
The Muslim Quarter in Jerusalem

The Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem consists of many narrow lanes lined with shops of all kinds.  There streets were mostly deserted because of Ramadan.  The Muslims were fasting during the daylight hours and probably stayed at home.  We walked to several stops on the Via Dolorosa (also called the Way of Sorrows).  According to Roman Catholic tradition, this is the path that Jesus took through Jerusalem on his way to his crucifixion on Calvary Hill.

The Way of the Cross
A station on the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem

The Via Dolorosa ends at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.  This church was built in the 12th century by the crusaders and today is shared by several Christian denominations.  According to tradition, this church was built on the site of Christ’s crucifixion, entombment, and resurrection.

The final stop of the tour was Bethlehem.  This city of 35,000 people is in an area controlled by the Palestinian Authority.  To get into Bethlehem we had to pass through a checkpoint through the border wall recently built by Israel.  The border wall is made of grey concrete panels about 20 feet high.  It is an ugly structure.  It was “decorated” on the inside by several colorful protest murals.  According to a sign I saw, Israeli citizens are not allowed in this area.  Since our tour guide was an Israeli, he left us on the Israeli side, and a Palestinian Christian became our new guide on the other side of the wall.

The new guide took us to the Church of the Nativity on a hill overlooking the desert valley.  This church was built in 530 A.D.  Everything in there definitely looked 1,500 years old!  We stood in a large upper room for almost an hour in the heat to get our turn to go down a narrow stone stairway to a small, dark lower room to see the birthplace of Jesus and the manger site.  The birthplace site was denoted by a large silver star on the floor.  I couldn’t get in to see the manger in a small adjoining room because of the crowd.

Site of Christ's birth in Bethlehem, Israel
The birthplace of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem

I had a look in the Catholic chapel where the Christmas Eve service is held every year and shown on TV.  Outside the Church of the Nativity is the Manger Square, which is also shown on TV.  The square is not very big and I could imagine how crowded it must get at Christmas time.

Church of the Nativity
The Catholic Chapel of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem

The tour was a long and exhausting, but fascinating look at ancient Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

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The World’s People on a Cruise Ship

spa on cruise ship

I have long resisted the idea of taking a vacation on a cruise ship.  I like to be an independent traveler, going where I want to go when I want to go.  No organized tours for me.  Being cooped up in tiny room with a small porthole, a worn out bed, and crowds of people smoking by the elevators didn’t appeal to me.

The bow of a big cruise ship
All aboard!

With some trepidation I booked a room on the inaugural Eastern Mediterranean cruise of the Celebrity Silhouette.  It was too good of a deal to pass up, especially since we were already going to be in Rome near the sailing date.  Somebody told me later that there were thousands of cancellations by Americans after Bin Laden was killed by Navy Seal Team Six.  People were afraid of a possible Al Qaeda backlash I guess.

From the moment I stepped on board my misconceptions evaporated.  This new ship was an enormous five star resort hotel on water.

spa on cruise ship
A rare bit of solitude on a crowded ship

The world’s people were represented on the ship.  They were not represented very well, and certainly not proportionate to size of population. The ship departed from Rome, so there were many Europeans, probably 80% or more, and not very many Americans (as compared to a typical Caribbean cruise).  A ride in the elevator or a trip to the café was like a meeting of the General Assembly of the UN without the translators.  You never knew what language you were going to hear – Italian, French, Spanish, British, German, Chinese, Polish, or something I didn’t recognize.

Americans have a reputation as being loud and obnoxious travelers, but on this ship there was no national monopoly on that behavior.

It started with the Serbian in the cabin next to me who started smoking on his veranda.  We were very near the front of the ship, and his cabin was just forward of mine.  This meant that because of the movement of the ship his smoke blew backward into my veranda.  He would also spontaneously burst into snippets of operatic arias several times per day.

The French and Italians jockeyed for supremacy in the high art of reserving deck chairs.  They would scamper out first thing in the morning and put their towel and book on all of the best chairs, ignoring the rule against this selfish act.  When I wanted to sit in a chair, I simply moved the towel on the deck and sat down.  Being an innate rule-follower, if I was confronted, my strategy was to invoke the rule and tell the chair hog to go see the pool butler.  I never had to follow through.

a ppol on a cruise ship
The Pool Deck on the Celebrity Silhouette

The British were continuously getting lost on the ship and loudly arguing among themselves.  I would walk through the restaurant to find my morning allotment of fresh squeezed orange juice to hear the following conversation.

“Where ya goin’ Luv?” said the man.

“I doan know, I’m looking for me tea,” said the woman. “Café is aft.”

“Yer bloody daft, woman, tis over there.  Can’t you read the signs.  Aft is that way!” said the man.

“Whats yer ass?” she replied.

The captain of the ship is a Greek with a dry sense of humor.  Every time he spoke on the loudspeaker he had some deadpan joke to throw into the daily report.  During the opening night show, he introduced the senior crew members and noted disdainfully that some of them weren’t Greek. He said the officer who was second in command had the responsibility to lead the ship when he went to party.

There was also a smattering of Germans, Russians, and Scandinavians.  However, I saw few passengers who were not white Western Europeans or Americans.

The crew was a different story.  The cabin stewards were typically Indians.  Most of the waiters were Filipinos.  The European crew was mostly from Macedonia or Slovenia.  South America was represented by Peru and Chile as coffee bar baristas.  The only black people on board were bartenders from Jamaica (Ya mon! Red Stripe for me!).  There were no Chinese among the crew.  Their poor young workers are stuck in China making all of the goods sold at Walmart.

There were no black Africans (other than a couple of South Africans), Arabs, Pakistanis, or Indonesians.  In these times of Islamist fanatical terrorism, I suppose it would be unsettling to American or Western European passengers to be served by someone like that.  It’s hard to enjoy your vacation and forget the cares of the world if you suspect the waiter might have a suicide vest.

The Celebrity Cruise Line probably has very tolerant employment policies which are open to all.  The workers have to speak at least some English, be willing to work for peanuts, and be gone from home for months at a time.  That must restrict their pool of available workers.  But as I noticed when getting on the ship, perception is everything.  The ship must be perceived by the passengers as safe, welcoming, pampering, and relaxing.  No potential jihadists need apply.

All of the service crew were excessive polite and gracious.  It must have been drilled into them nonstop during training.  It made me feel like a colonialist.  I was the Governor General of this colony and I didn’t have to make the bed or put my dishes away.  I did, however, put the toothpaste on my toothbrush.

The excessive politeness was robotic at times.

“Good morning, Mr. Steve.  How are you today?” asked the stateroom attendant as I left my room.

“Great, thanks.  How are you?” I responded.

“Fine, thank you,” replied the attendant.

After walking 10 yards down the hall, I realized I forgot something in my room, so I went back.  Less than two minute later I saw the attendant again.

“Good morning, Mr. Steve.  How are you today?”

“I am just as good as I was 120 seconds ago, but thanks for asking.”

grass on a cruise ship
The lawn on the Celebrity Silhouette

The advertising for cruises usually show some photogenic couple lounging poolside, eating gourmet meals, and dancing the night away.  The man is typically a distinguished looking CEO type in a GQ suit.  The woman is always quite a bit younger, a big haired trophy wife with a big diamond ring.  The ads are meant to convey the idea that cruising is glamorous, exciting, and extraordinary.  If you go on the cruise, you will enjoy yourself like them, look like them.  You will be them.

I didn’t see anybody like that.  I’m sorry, but I must call it like it is.  I saw lots of fat, ugly, old people.  They weren’t just Americans.  Europeans have definitely caught up to us Americans in the obesity department.

I saw few young adults, and only a handful of children. They were some honeymooners, but younger people typically can’t afford to go on a cruise.  They’re working hard to start a career, buy a house, and raise a family.  Only richer, older people can indulge themselves in a week or more of gluttony, sloth, and late night karaoke contests.

It’s funny how you see the same people over and over on the ship even though there are 2,800 passengers on board.  Like the old Chinese man with the mysterious scar on his head, the typically loud know-it-all New Yorker, and a Russian guy who looked like either a mixed martial arts competitor or the muscle for the Moscow Mafia.  We kept running into one particular American couple and one night had a long and interesting conversation with them.  We also got to know a very nice Portuguese couple.  It’s good to make new friends.  But what I want to know is why is it that I saw the beautiful young Italian supermodel-type woman in the string bikini only once in twelve days, but saw the current champion of the world’s ugliest woman contest three or four times every day?

I did see lots of fat old women in strange looking swimwear lying in the sun with their pale white wrinkly skin getting completely fried.  Here’s a beauty tip: given your age, body type, and weight, getting sunburned or even deeply tanned will not make you more attractive.

I saw old men with enormous tanned pot bellies protruding over their tiny Speedos smoking cigars while drinking beer and reading Italian men’s magazines.  Once per hour they flipped over and rocked from side to side on their rounded bellies with the movement of the ship.

One time I walked out of the café and glanced to one side and saw a large woman sunbathing topless.  She had large dark, flat nipples, and quite a pair.  Wow, I knew there were lots of French people around but I didn’t think this was that kind of ship…  On closer inspection (but not too close…) I realized that it was a man with his head covered by a towel.  Yes, he had man boobs! From a distance they looked almost like woman boobs.  Dude, either wear a man-bra or put a shirt on before some teen-aged boy takes your photo with his cell phone and it goes viral.

And please, Ms. Middle-aged Italian woman, if you’re going to wear that small of a bikini and lie on your stomach, please get a full wax job first…