Posted in Travel

A rainbow dress on Rainbow Row

When my wife and I went to Charleston, SC in September, we got down to Rainbow Row in the historic district of the city on East Bay Street. As we stopped to take pictures from across the street, we just happened to catch this young lady wearing a dress to match the colors of the row homes.

My brother looked up a few of the house values along that street. All were upwards of $2 million. But a rainbow dress on Rainbow Row? Priceless.

Posted in Travel

Good to see you again, Big Tex!

We got to Texas just in time to attend one of the last days of the Texas State Fair. We last went five years ago and I was itching for a little fair food.

Since it was Saturday, the fairgrounds in the heart of Dallas were only a thirty minute drive from our Airbnb in Rowlett. We picked up three of our grandchildren and headed out in a wonderful fall-feeling fifty degree morning.

We found a $20 parking spot in a convenience store lot just across the street from gate 5. Just about anyone with some blacktop was running a $20 parking business in the surrounding area. There was no line to buy 2 senior (yes, we both qualified), 2 child and one (free) toddler ticket for admission. We were already in for about $100, and we had just arrived. Going to the fair is not a cheap date.

Our first stop was a children’s aquarium, promising sharks and sting rays. (Oh, by the way, that was a separate admission price.) It was actually a nice collection of fish and sharks, and we did get to pet some baby sting rays. We also dipped our hands into a tank filled with doctor fish that gently pecked away at the dead skin on our hands.

Our seven year old, Eden, wanted to ride the huge ferris wheel, so she and my wife got in line. I bought a bunch of coupons for rides and food and gave them twenty for the ride (BTW, coupons are $1 each), while I took the other two off to grab some corn dogs. After they quickly disappeared, we headed to the cattle barns.

Inside one of the cattle barns

As with any good state fair, the livestock barns are enormous. We walked through stall after stall of beautiful cows being cleaned and prepped for showing that day. They were the best of the best. The ferris wheel riders met us at the swine barn, where we saw the best hogs from around the state. The champion boar, weighing in at 1155 pounds, was sound asleep in his pen out side the barn.

Boris, 1155 lb. champion boar

By now everyone was hungry again, so I rounded up two more corn dogs, some lemonade, a burger and an huge plate full of french fries. Fully fueled we made our way back to the birthing barns.

The birthing barns were cool. We saw several calfs born that morning as well as litters of hogs from the past few weeks of the fair. A few goats were about to give birth, too. This was a very popular and crowded venue.

Bull born that morning

From there we walked through some shopping booths, filled with lots of unique jewelry, clothing and toys. By this time, we had done a lot of walking and still needed to see Big Tex, so we made our way back towards the gate where we came in. By mid-afternoon, the fair was crowded, but we made it to the big guy. We did lots of walking, but the kids (and the grands) took it in stride.

On our way out, people continued to stream in the gates. Cancelled in 2020, this year’s fair was expecting 2.5 million visitors over twenty-four days, taking in over $65 million dollars and generating close to $500 million of business for the community. It is the biggest state fair in the country.

Just one of the grills with the biggest turkey legs I’ve ever seen
Posted in Travel

Back in the air

For the first time in more than two years, my wife and I took a flight for our latest trip to Texas to see our son and his family. Our last flight was to Israel in September of 2019. We had been doing a lot of driving, but decided it was time to get back in the air.

Everyone was wearing masks, as required by the airports and airlines. I didn’t hear anyone complain or make a fuss. We both had some comfortable masks that I had bought at Home Depot, of all places. However, when we finally got into our rental car, we were glad to be done with them. All the people in the pre-flight safety videos were wearing masks, too.

At first it felt very strange to be back in the airport after such a long time away. The lines were not long and the concourses really weren’t very crowded. I guess Thursday noon isn’t the busiest travel time of the week.

It didn’t take long for me to remember how much I like watching people at the airport. I commented to my wife that eighty percent of the people dress like they do on any other day. But the other twenty percent wear clothes you never, ever see outside of the airport. Outrageous bold colors and prints, outfits that look more like pajamas than street clothes, very tight dresses, and shoes that look extremely uncomfortable.

Both of our flights were completely full. The flight attendant hands you a small disinfectant wipe packet as you board the plane, to either clean your hands or wipe down your seat and tray, I guess. A man across the aisle from us had brought a spray bottle of disinfectant, and sprayed down everything in his row.

Believe it or not, many travelers attempt to carry on even more than they did before. A man ahead of me carried on a suitcase and two backpacks. No wonder the overhead compartments fill up before the plane does. I enjoy the freedom of traveling very lightly, carrying as little as I possibly can.

Our flights to Texas were all on time. The only delay came at the car rental desk, where everyone, including us, had reserved a car from Budget. All the other desks were just about empty. I waited about an hour to get our car. And then after we were just about to pull out, a woman knocked on our window. Another agent had assigned her the same care. She went back in. We quickly pulled away.

Easily the most interesting guy I saw at the Jacksonville, FL airport today.

Posted in Israel, Travel

Mahane Yehuda Market

Our last day in Israel was the “go do whatever you want day.” My wife and I and a few friends decided we wanted to return to the Jewish quarter of Old City Jerusalem and then check out the highly recommended market, Mahane Yehuda.

When we started out, we didn’t even know the name of the market. But a shop owner said, “You are probably looking for Mahane Yehuda” and he wrote down the name for us. Great. Now, how do we get there? “Oh, it’s easy. You have to go deep into the Arab market, out the Jaffa gate, and head towards Jaffa road and St. George.” We thanked him as if we knew what that meant, and headed towards the Jaffa gate, where our taxi had dropped us off early that morning.

We got to the Jaffa gate. Now what? Aha, there’s a tourist center here. He sent us out the gate and up the hill to where we could catch the tram, a light rail train that would take us to the market. We saw the tracks in the road, and waited for the next train to come so we could see where the stop was. Once we got to the stop, it looked like we would need to buy a ticket. Not quite sure how to do that, a random guy simply directed us to a machine that had an English option. As I fiddled with the buttons and my debit card, a train came and left. Finally the machine spit out five tickets for us, and we boarded the next one.

I think this is the first time my wife and I have set out to explore a city on our own without a translator or guide with us. I really enjoyed the adventure! As we were told, everyone we asked for direction was extremely gracious and helpful.

Sitting on the train, I looked up and saw a sign announcing the next stop – in Hebrew. I can figure out some Hebrew, but now quickly. Before I knew it the announcement changed to Arabic. Not helpful. Finally came the English. We reached the stop specially designed to bring traffic to the market, and started down the street.

There is a lot of information on Mahane Yehuda Market on Wikipedia. Over two hundred and fifty vendors lined the streets, some out in the open, some under cover. There were fruits and vegetables, fish and meat, bread, halva, baklava, coffee shops, spiced and dried fruit, olives, and candy as far as my eye could see.

Turning into one of the covered areas, we came across Haachim Levy spices, teas and fruits. The young man working the booth enthusiastically described and let us try many of the blends of dried fruits out front that could be used to make tea, infuse drinks, or mixed into oatmeal. We bought three sweet and one savory blend from him.

Baklava, anyone?

We asked him where to get the best baklava and coffee in the market. With booth after booth selling those items, we wanted a recommendation. He directed our eyes down the long row of booths past several signs his favorite coffee roaster. “Just past that you’ll see an old man – that’s where you want to buy your baklava.” At the coffee roaster, I got a delicious long espresso made from a Tanzanian blend. Sure enough, just a few booths down we found a huge display of baklava. We loaded up a box with one of each that was sealed up so we could take it home with us.

As we continued to walk through the market, I couldn’t help but wonder how many in Jerusalem did their food shopping here. Throughout all our travels, we hand’t seen any grocery stores or Walmarts in Jerusalem. Maybe we just didn’t go through those parts of town. After a little research, I learned that there are some grocery chains there. But most people talk about the markets.

The experience reminded me of the markets in Baltimore when my wife and I lived there. The best thing is you buy everything fresh! I suppose after a while you would have your favorite vendors and be able to get exactly what you wanted in season and for special events. I could get used to a great selection of fish, meats and vegetables. I am too often disappointed with the grocery stores near me.

One cool thing about the market is that you get to talk to the person working the shop. Everyone was very proud of their booth and products, encouraged me to try samples, and loved to talk about their product, their family and the market. The few farmer’s markets near us give us a bit of that, but it just wasn’t the same.

I think I could have spent the whole day there!

Posted in Travel

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.

Posted in Israel, Travel

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.

Posted in Israel, Travel

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.

Posted in Israel, Travel

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 the rubble of 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!

Posted in Israel, Travel

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.