Christmas in the Holy Land
Trip Start Mar 04, 2004
77Trip End Jul 02, 2005
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My adventures in Israel began with a flight into Tel Aviv via Tashkent. "Where's Tashkent?" I hear you thinking. Well, its the capital of Uzbekistan and I flew with a ton of Israelis on Air Uzbekistan out of Dehli cause its right cheap. I stayed one day in Tel Aviv with my friend Yael and relaxed on the beach, looking out over the Mediterranean Sea, drinking an iced mocha. Pretty much the exact opposite of mad Delhi, which is what I needed
I arrived in the Old City of Jerusalem the next day and booked into Tabasco Hostel, which is only 100m behind the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. With Christmas Eve being the next day, I went to the Church to commemorate Jesus's crucifixion and death before I celebrated his birth. Its a powerful place and somewhat overwhelming for me to stand on Golgotha where Jesus was stripped of his clothes, nailed to the cross and then died for the sins of humanity. I cannot believe the Orthodox and Catholic churches allow photography in Jesus's tomb. It led to think some very very un-Christian things about the other tourists there.
Christmas Eve! On this rainy afternoon, when I was alone and unsure of how to get to Bethlehem or exactly what I would do there, God cast a kind eye on me and I had a wonderful experience. First I met up with 20 Japanese backpackers on the street and we commandeered a service taxi to take us to the Israeli checkpoint, then we split taxis into Bethlehem. As we passed the checkpoint we could see The Wall going up. I made it to Bethlehem just in time for the Lutheran Service at 5. The service was a combination of Arabic, German and English. In what would prove to be a trend for the next two days, I belted out carols with an unusual gusto. I am truly sorry to all those who ears were injured by these actions. I later found out from others that all the Arabs were staring at me
At the post-service coffee I met Rachael and Kim, American missionaries on vacation from Cairo. This turned out to be extremely fortuitous later on... I was also accosted by Andrew the ebullient, bald anthestologist from Perth who realized I was alone and swept me up into his group which included Tim, an NGO worker about my age, and Gillian, a drama teacher. We found a little cafe and ate sweets and drank a bottle of wine together. They headed off for dinner and I found myself standing alone in Manger Square, listening to the international choirs in the drizzling rain. But not for long. Running scuffles broke out and I wandered over to see what the problem was. I remembered reading that the Palestinians had been handed security of the Christmas celebrations for the first time in four years, to prep for the upcoming elections. Four young Palestinian boys latched onto me and explained that the Muslim young men just came to Bethlehem to look at the foreign girls. One of them had tried something with one of the girls and now the police were whacking him and his friends and carting them off. The one of the boys explained to me how he was going on a speaking tour of England soon to convince the rest of the world that not all Palestinians want to be Hamas suicide-bombers. I ate a shwarma and started looking for a way to sneak into the Anglican Carol Service and the Church of the Nativity. I did some shuttle-reconnaissance and managed to sneak right in the front security barrier with a Korean group
From the grotto I heard the sound of voices raised on high. So I found a backdoor and slipped into the Greek Orthodox chapel, who in an uncommon act of interdenominational generosity, had lent the Anglicans the place for an hour. Standing on my tippy-toes and avoiding the backends of Japanese videocams, I realized that sitting up at the front was Mahmoud Abbas! So that's who was in the limo with security-men swarming around it. Mahmoud Abbas is the acting Palestinian President and front-runner for the permanent job. The sermon was strongly political and pro-Palestinian, calling for an end to the occupation and peace, echoing most of the Christian celebrations I attended. The carols were wonderful, led by a choir all the way from London.
The service ended and I went to take a look at the line into the Catholic cathedral. It was huge and everyone had tickets in their hands (but me). I thought to myself "If God wants me to get in, He will provide a way." So I started milling about with the crowd and saw a door off to the side. I walked in and lo and behold
Meanwhile: From the Globe and Mail: "Israeli police detained nuclear whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu at a checkpoint Friday as he tried to travel to the West Bank town of Bethlehem, preventing him from attending midnight mass in the traditional birthplace of Christ, a police spokesman said. Mr. Kleiman said Mr. Vanunu was in a Volkswagen van emblazoned with the letters TV - commonly used to identify press vehicles - and had a Santa Claus hat in his possession." Oooh not a Santa Claus hat! Politics everywhere!
Once inside the Church a giddiness came over me. I made it! I had actually made it to the Midnight Mass in Jerusalem when a week ago I was in Nepal with no ticket and only a vague plan. I was awed by all the things that had come together for me to be in this place at this time. Later on in the service Andrew the mad Aussie found me and explained what was going on. Not being Catholic I was a bit out to lunch. Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah spoke long on the need for peace and Mahmound Abbas was there until after the always fun "Peace be with you" bit. Then Andrew and I scooted our way to the railing for a fantastic view and to recieve communion. I have some wonderful photos and footage I will put online soon. My throat was sore from singing. Once outside, Andrew lent me his cellphone so I called Tina to say Merry Christmas and tell her I love her.
In the completion of a perfect night, Tim offered me a ride home and I was in bed by 2:30am.
I awoke on Christmas Day in Jerusalem with such a feeling of lightness and well-being. For my first service of the day I went to the Lutheran english Chapel and met with the Aussies again. The pastor gave an interesting sermon on the exact meaning of Christ's incarnation in the Gospels. I think I could really get into this debate, its the kind of serpentine, cloudy issue that makes for great mental exercise and I could really put those Monophysites and Monothelites in their place! For Communion I thought Christ's blood had a nice aroma and a fruity yet sweet body. We met Brigette who, along with Tim, was also having a birthday on the 25th. Apparently, the Spring Equinox is as popular time as ever to make babies...So Andrew of course invited everyone out for a huge Christmas lunch in East Jerusalem. Now, I'm a dirty backpacker travelling on shoestring budget so I was somewhat daunted by the menu. Incredibly, Andrew insisted on picking up the tab for lunch, including Italian wine and two appys, which I really really appreciated.
Despite the rain, we all decided to head for the Dead Sea as our Christmas activity. It was almost like having instant family. Andrew and Gill, like all good Perth folk, are complete larikins and the whole day with them was a riot. Andrew and I put on our togs and headed into the Sea for a float. While floating we actually watched the sun set and turn the cliffs of Jordan pastel pink. Don't miss the Dead Sea! It lives up to all the hype.
Then, for a record-breaking FIFTH service in 24 hours, we went to Evensong at the Jerusalem Anglican Cathdral. The whole service was sung, led again by the London Choir group. I ran into the American girls again and we made plans to see more of the multitude of holy places the next day.
Then our insta-family headed out for dinner at a swanky yet funky bar in the New City. At dinner we found out Brigitte owns 97 gnomes...For a finisher Andrew and I went to see the Western Wall by moonlight. As it was Shabbat, the Wailing Wall was filled with Orthodox Jews in massive fur hats and black cloaks. Andrew, you are a real saint and thank you so much for you huge part in making my Christmas absolutely fantastic.
This Christmas was certainly one to remember for the rest of my life. I feel truly blessed to have had the experiences I did. I hope each of you reading this has also had a special time with family and friends.