Travel tips

Before a trip I often scour the internet for travel tips to various places. Here are my tips, gleaned from my recent 10-day trip to Israel.

Packing cubes are a gift from God. I tried a simple set from Amazon basics, and I am hooked. A few zippered bags made it so easy to organize and pack for each part of my trip. Where have these been all my life?

Travel-sized bottles of shampoo and conditioner, contact lens solutions and tubes of toothpaste last a lot longer than you think. Those quantities don’t seem much, but a bottle of each lasted us the whole trip. i brought extra, but never opened them. Good to know when you want to pack light.

Bring some instant coffee. My wife and I really look forward to our coffee in the morning, but quickly learned that whatever the hotel provides in your room will disappoint. Pack some instant from Starbucks.

A travel power converter is priceless when traveling overseas. Ours was light and affordable. It not only let us charge up our phones each night, but powered my wife’s hair dryer and curling iron each morning.

Pack snacks. I was pleased to learn that we would get two meals on the long flight from Miami to Vienna. I was not pleased at what they called a meal. I’m not even sure what some of that food was. Bring some fruit, nuts and bars. Your stomach will thank you.

I journal each day and love to use a fountain pen. I had no problem using a Kwaeco Sport with cartridges. I had no problem writing on the plane.

I brought along a money belt for my cash, credit card and passport. They weren’t very useful. Pants with zippered pockets worked better for me. I only brought along what I thought I would need for the day. Credit cards were welcome just about everywhere I went, so you don’t have to carry a lot of cash. My daily carry was about $100 cash, some local currency and one credit card. All the places we went welcomed American currency. Visa and MasterCard worked the best. I sometimes had problems with American Express.

By the way, you don’t have to let your credit card providers know about your travel plans. They let you know by text or email when your card is used away from home. If you have your phone in your pocket, they know it is you using your card.

I didn’t bring my computer on my recent trip and didn’t miss it at all. I was able to blog, navigate and WhatsApp with my phone. Leaving my computer and charger at home probably saved me five pounds in my luggage.

When you leave your country, just watch, listen and learn. I usually figured out what to do by watching the person in front of me. If I waited long enough, the announcement I didn’t understand was repeated in English. People are nice, helpful and friendly in every culture.

That’s all I’ve got for now. More later.

The sounds of Israel

So after spending 8 days in Israel and simply recording where we went each day, I now have time to stop and reflect on our amazing trip to the Holy Land. From the first moment, our tour guide, Tali, told us to take in our eight days with all our senses. I’ll begin with what I heard.

Twelve hours in the air from Miami to Vienna and then Vienna to Tel Aviv on Austrian Airline meant I had numerous chances to hear German followed by English instructions and updates on the plane. I took two years of German in high school plus two semesters in college. I may not remember much of the vocabulary, but surprisingly I could follow the conversation when the pilot let us know how far we were from our destination or what kind of food might be served next.

It was hard to get to sleep our first night at the hotel on the Sea of Galilee because of a large, loud party on the beach below us that didn’t break up till about midnight. I might not have minded had we been invited!

I sat in the front row of our tour bus, so I got to hear the wide variety of music our driver, Anatoli, played while on crowed city streets and highways between destinations. He switched between Hebrew talk radio, classical, Broadway show tunes, country, and a little techno thrown in for good measure.

From time to time we would be outside to hear a Muslim call to prayer. These were digital, not live. I am not sure I’ve ever heard one before and was surprised at how long a call lasted. Each seemed like a minute or more. We must not have been in Arabic locations, because I did not see many people bow in prayer.

A sea of tour busses surrounded us everywhere we went, filled with visitors from all over the world. As the groups passed, I heard Spanish, Portuguese, French, Russian and English tour guides pointing out the sites and explaining some history behind each. Each person in our group wore a headset, too, and the voice of our tour guide was always in our ear, explaining what we were looking at and where we were headed next.

Sometimes I heard nothing. Silence. Some sites prohibited explanations, so we took it all in with our other senses. At some, reverence for the moment and respect for those praying or meditating dictated quiet. Silence has a way of accentuating the holy. It was very quiet at the Church of the Beatitudes. A nun made sure of that. It was also virtually silent at Mary’s house in the Church of the Annunciation.

Church of the Beatitudes
(See the water flowing from the altar)

It was not quiet at all in the church of the Holy Sepulcher. I thought the place was packed, but our guide said it was only about 60% of what she had seen. Crowds of people in long lines and constant conversation in every conceivable language surrounded us everywhere we went. We did not stay long, but it is a busy, busy place!

Church of the Holy Sepulcher

In some remote places like Qumran, Masada and Caesaria Philippi, I heard the songs of birds. Some where there because our guide brought a few crumbs to feed some of them. Others were just curious or up in the trees.

At the Western wall in Jerusalem I was surrounded by many speaking or singing prayers. They sat in chairs in front of the wall with prayer books or scripture open before them. Many sang psalms at the site of King David’s tomb as well. We didn’t spend a lot of time in those places, but I imagine that some who came spent a large portion of their day there.

The souvenir shop at the Jordan River baptismal sight had a selection of shofar (rams horn trumpets) you could try. I heard these being blown in the store and also several places along the way. I was the only one in our group to blow a few notes.

At Temple Mount, a vigilant voice broke up couples who were simply holding hands or had arms around one another for a picture, warning, “No hug! No touch!” No one had to be warned more than once.

A boat took us out onto the Sea of Galilee. Once out there, the pilot cut the engines, and I heard nothing but the breeze, a few birds and the sound of gentle waves against the side of the boat. I really enjoyed this calm, peaceful moment.

On our way from someplace in Jerusalem to some other place, we came across a family celebrating their three-year-old son’s first haircut. I didn’t know that was a thing. But they beat on drums, sang songs and released blue and white balloons into the air, too.

First haircut celebration

Other sounds included the hiss of the espresso machine at a market coffee shop, the sizzle of an omelette griddle at our second hotel, the enthusiastic description of so many dried fruit mixes at one market stall, and the endless invitations to check out the merchandise at each and every shop in the Arab market.

For me, the best sound was my own voice singing in St. Anne’s church by the pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem. The acoustics were amazing. A sung phrase would linger in the air for five seconds. So I could sing and then listen, sing and listen, and marvel at the rich sounds surrounding me.

St. Anne’s

Unfortunately, my days were peppered by voices in our group complaining about long lines, waits and walks during the day and hotel room problems at night. Each concern was legit, but come on, folks. The opportunity to walk where Jesus walked and see all those places I’ve only read about before is worth a little inconvenience. At least it was for me.

When I began writing this, I had no idea how many sounds I would recall. I suspect I’ll remember more, so there might be a part two.

Israel (Day 8)

Today was our “free” day. A few of us decided to spend s little more time in the Old City of Jerusalem.

When we met in the hotel lobby after breakfast, there was already a cabbie looking for a fare, so we hopped in. Our driver was a native of Jerusalem and shared s little of his views on yesterday’s election.

He dropped us off at the Jaffa gate, after we got our bearings, we headed down through the Arab market. We happened across Bassam Barakas, a fourth generation antiquities dealer who had more to offer than the usual trinkets (like yarmulkes with NFL logos). We purchased a pendant with a “widow’s mite” from the 1st century B.C. from him.

Bassam told us that his brother Yosef owns Tony’s Pizza in St. Augustine. We’ll check it out when we get home.

We returned to yesterday’s lunch place, the Upper Gate, for fish meatballs, salmon, and falafel.

After lunch we left the city and took a tram to Menachen Yehuda market, a huge area selling everything you can imagine. We bought some awesome dried fruit from Haachim Levy, drank a Tanzanian long espresso from a little coffee roaster, and bought some baklava to bring home with us.

After a quick taxi ride home, we packed a little, had a drink, and joined our group for a farewell dinner. Our bus to the airport leaves very early in the morning, so it’s time to get a few hours sleep.

Israel (Day 7)

Dome of the Rock

We really covered a lot of ground today. Our group left the hotel about 8 am. Our first stop was Temple Mount. The security line was short and the crowds were few, but we also couldn’t go inside due to remodeling work being done today. Even so, the Dome of the Rock was beautiful under clear blue skies.

At the Western wall

We next headed to the Western wall of Herod’s temple to join many others in prayer. I went to the left with the men, while the women went to the right. The crowd was still small when we arrived.

I watched with interest as many sang psalms and said prayers while others place their carefully written prayers into the cracks in the wall.

We walked further down the western side of the wall and marveled at the size of the stones used to build the wall over 2,000 years ago.

Rounding the corner, my wife and I ran up the southern steps as had many pilgrims before us. The steps are different widths, to keep folks from running too fast.

On the way to King David’s tomb, we ran into a special Jewish family celebration. A little three-year old boy was about to get his first haircut! He didn’t seem too happy about it, but the family and many bystanders joined in songs, cheering, and a blue and white balloon release.

Even though King David probably isn’t buried there, I was fascinated by the location of his tomb. Men and women entered on separate sides. Chairs were filled with men praying and reading psalms. I appreciated the reverent atmosphere of that room.

The upper room we visited probably wasn’t the site of Jesus’ Passover meal with his disciples, but we went to that place as well. More Muslim than Christian in design, it was much larger than I would have expected it to be.

As we walked through the Jewish quarter, we paused to look at some of the old wall of Jerusalem, from the time of Solomon. There isn’t much from the first temple period, so I appreciated this ancient site.

Caiaphas’ house is where Jesus was taken after his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane and where Peter denied knowing Jesus three times. The house include some deep pits where Jesus May have been held prisoner before his trial. I read Psalm 88 to our group, and we thought about the only One we can cry out to for help when we’re “in the pit.”

Golgotha

Waiting to go into the tomb

Inside the tomb

The very last place on our tour was Golgotha and the Garden Tomb. This place was simple and was more like a place where Jesus could have been crucified, buried and the resurrected. We met for communion and a chorus of “Jesus Christ is Risen Today” before we rode back to our hotel.

Tomorrow is a free day. I think we’re going to go back and wander around the Old City again, and spend some time at the market.

Israel (Day 6)

Cave at Qumran

Our journey today took us first to Qumran, where the Dead Sea scrolls were found. The uncovered ruins revealed much about a community that was able to thrive in a dry, barren, hilly wilderness. Ibex wandered ahead of us on the path to see some of the caves.

Ibex joined our tour

That wilderness seemed to go on forever as we drove to Masada, where we saw Herod’s fortress and the place of the Zealots last stand in AD 73. I remember watching the TV miniseries with great interest in 1981. (You can watch it now on Amazon Prime.)

Masada

We took the cable car to the fortress remains to see the palace complex, the siege ramp, and an amazing view.

En Gedi waterfall

On our way to a beach on the Dead Sea we stopped at Wadi David, or the springs of En Gedi where David hid from King Saul. We didn’t go too far in, just enough to see a beautiful waterfall.

I did get to float in a very warm Dead Sea under a clear blue sky. Some in our group applied lots of mineral rich mud in pursuit of younger looking skin.

Today was great from start to finish. Tomorrow, we’re back in Jerusalem.

Israel (Day 5)

We hit the ground running at 7:30 and got a bird’s eye view tour of Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives.

Garden of Gethsemane

To save a little time (and energy) we drove the Palm Sunday walk to the Garden of Gethsemane. I led a communion service there for our group. I’ve done it hundreds of times, but never “on site” before. What a great experience!

Pool at Bethesda. You can see one of the seven colonnades.

St. Anne’s

From there we entered the old city of Jerusalem through the Lion’s Gate. We first stopped at St. Anne’s church and the Pool of Bethesda. Amazing excavations brought the story of John 5 to life. In St. Anne’s we sang a few songs (everyone knew “Jesus Lives Me” and the Doxology) in a place with remarkable acoustics. The hang time of each phrase lasted at least five seconds. I did a verse of “Of the Father’s Live Begotten” because you can’t take the Seminary Kantorei out of the kid.

A very crowded Via Dolorosa

Beginning at Pilates judgment hall we then walked the Via Dolorosa past the fourteen stations of the cross. This path takes you up and down through a maze of churches, shrines, and markets jam-packed with people of who knows how many nationalities.

The place where Jesus died on the cross

We finally arrived at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, within which are one tradition’s location of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial. The line to see that last station was three to fours long. We plan on going back there on our free day.

The stone of anointment, where Jesus’ body was prepared for burial.

Today was also our day to go to Bethlehem. Our Israeli tour guide handed us off to an Arab tour guide for this part of the trip. We first stopped at a great restaurant for lunch of schwarma. We also spent a little time at a store selling olive wood carvings. We got a few gifts there, but many of the items were way up there in price.

Church of the Nativity

Inside the church of the Nativity. Long line to the right.

We got onto a smaller bus that took us up to the Church of the Nativity, but not after backing over a concrete barrier. This driver was definitely on the wild side. But then again, so was everyone else on the road.

The wait to see one traditional birth place of Jesus was two hours, and most of our group didn’t want to do that. The rest of the church was either under construction or not open to the public. So we really didn’t see much there. I wasn’t impressed by the town of Bethlehem at all.

Overall it was an up and down day. In some spots I saw more than I expected. In others I saw less. But we were right there where it all happened.

Israel (Day 4)

Even though many in Israel were observing the Sabbath, we had a busy day.

We were on the road at 8 and went to the site of John’s baptisms in the Jordan River. The Jordan is a modest river but the setting of this place was beautiful. At many locations along the banks, groups were baptizing and renewing baptisms. When Lisa and I dipped out feet in the water, lots of little fish tickled our toes.

The Jordan River

The gift shop there was a marvel of the tourist industry. Items for sale included small jars of water from the Jordan, vials of mud from the riverbed, shofar (ram’s horn trumpets), menorah, balms from the Dead Sea, replicas of the ark of the covenant, rosaries, jewelry, dates, honey, dates and much, much more.

We were most interested in the fresh juice drinks sold at a stand. Delicious!

Our next stop was the ancient ruins at Beit She’an. King Saul’s head was displayed there after his defeat on Mt. Gilboa (1 Samuel 31). The Romans built quite a “spa” complex there, complete with bathhouse, theater, amphitheater, hippodrome, temple and shops. The excavation was enormously impressive.

Ruins at Beit She’an

From there we stopped at the springs of Harold, or Gideon’s Cave and springs where he whittled his army down to 300 soldiers to defeat the Midianites ( Judges 7). The park here is a popular Sabbath destination. Tents and picnic blankets stretched as far as you could see. Kids splashed in wading pools as parents grilled supper. Women lounged in the refreshing springs just feet away from the cave itself. We ate our picnic lunch here too, with freshly baked pita, mango, olives, and homemade cheese and mango jelly.

Gideon Springs

As we made our way south to Jerusalem, we made a quick stop at Bet Alef, the ruins of a 4th century synagogue with a beautiful intact mosaic floor. The history and design we learned from a film was fascinating.

4th century flood at Bet Alef synagogue

As we drove south, we saw the mount of Jesus’ temptation in the distance and drove by the Samaritan Inn. The wilderness all around made me appreciate Jesus’ forty days of fasting and temptation (Matthew 4). The deserted road from Jericho to Jerusalem helped me picture Jesus’ parable about the Good Samaritan.

We finally arrived in Jerusalem and caught a glimpse of the city as we made our way to our next hotel, the Jerusalem Ramada.

First glimpse of Jerusalem

Tomorrow we begin to explore the city.

Israel (Day 3)

We headed out a little bit earlier today to get a jump on all other tours. This morning’s journey was to several places on the west side of the Sea of Galilee.

Church of the Beatitudes

Our first stop was the Church of the Beatitudes and the site of the sermon on the mount. At a small shaded chapel area we read from Matthew 5 and talked a little about how differs Jesus’ kingdom is from any other.

We then had ten minutes to visit the church along with throngs streaming in and out. My favorite part was the mosaic floor depicting water flowing from the altar.

This site did a brisk business selling intentions for $15 and rosaries beginning at $20.

If you used your imagination, you could picture thousands sitting on the hillside as Jesus taught one afternoon.

The next stop was Capernaum. We saw ruins of Peter’s house where Jesus healed his mother-in-law’s fever. The excavated ruins here were extensive and fascinating.

Ruins at Capernaum

A very short drive from here brought us to Tabgha, the traditional site of Jesus’ miracle of the multiplication of the fish and bread. The old mosaic floors were amazingly well preserved.

Site of the Multiplication of the Bread and Fish

Our last stop on this part of the trip was The Ancient Boat, a fisherman’s boat preserved from Jesus’ time. Here we also got to go out in a boat on the Sea of Galilee. We meditated on Jesus walking on the water, sang a few hymns, and enjoyed a breezy time on the water.

A short distance away we stopped for lunch at Kitsa Halahal, a roadside Lebanese restaurant with some excellent tilapia. Washed it down with some Maccabee beer.

They thought my fish was too small, so they brought me a second.

It then took us an hour to drive up to Caesaria Philippi where Jesus told Peter he would build his church on the rock. The massive stone cliff still loomed Over rubble ancient remains of temples, fortresses and churches.

Caesaria Philippi

Since Jesus was in Galilee for so much of his ministry, this was a good day. Just not long enough to see enough of everything, though!

Israel (Day 2)

Sunrise over the Sea of Galilee

Ruins at Caesarea

This was our first real full day of touring. After an amazing buffet breakfast, we were on the road at 8 am to Caesarea. Tali our tour guide used our hour drive time to review the religious and socio-political history of Israel.

A nice video helped us understand the history of Caesarea before we stepped out to the edge of the Mediterranean to see what was left of the harbor, hippodrome, amphitheater and Pilate’s lake house.

On our way to Megiddo we passed Mt. Carmel where the prophet Elijah had his showdown with the prophets of Baal. The visitor center at Megiddo is being renovated so many of the structures were temporary. A little bit of an uphill hike took us past twenty-seven layers of ancient cities until we reached the top of the tel where we had a great view of the Jezreel valley. The panoramic view from the top of the tel was awesome. On our way back we went down many flights of steps to the springs far below the surface that provided water to the fortified cities that once stood there.

Ruins at Megiddo

Lunch at a little restaurant near Megiddo gave me my first taste of falafel. Not too bad, especially when you spice it up.

Church of the Annunciation

Mary’s house; place of the annunciation

Our next stop was Nazareth. I was surprised to learn that the population of Nazareth is mostly Islamic, with a few Arabic Christians mixed in. Jews do not live in Jesus’ hometown.

The city of Nazareth was old and kind of dirty. The closer we got to the Church of the Annunciation, the more souvenir vendors lined the street. This church is amazing. Beautiful stone architecture and artwork. The grotto on the lower level, supposedly where Gabriel told Mary she would be the mother of our Lord looked liked little more than a small cave. Many tourists knelt there to pray.

Our last stop for the day was Cana, where Jesus did his first miracle of turning water into wine. The church itself and several side chambers were filled with couples renewing their wedding vows. We headed into the basement to see a twenty gallon stone jar, like the one Jesus told servants to fill with water.

Church at Cana

Upon returning to Tiberias, we stopped in the National Diamond Center where a crack team of salesmen leached onto us until we finally found the exit and escaped.

A busy day. Each site was full of tour busses just like ours. A thriving business for sure.

Tomorrow we head to Galilee.