Bright and early Friday morning the instructors rolled out of bed and loaded into the vans for a tour of the northern areas: Akko/Acre, Haifa, Nazareth, and the Galilee. Our first stop was along Route 6 to pick up our tour guide, recommended by the fellow who showed us around Old Jaffa the other weekend. We then proceeded to drive across the rolling hills of the north toward the Lebanese border.
While we were taking in the view and learning about the history of the conflict with Lebanon and the Bedouins, several IDF vehicles pulled up, some with machine gun turrets. Just business as usual around here. Strange to think that some of our students could be doing this in a year or two. They asked us not to take photos of them, so we complied (they were armed!).
On the way back from the lookout, we encountered a traffic jam. Ben managed to capture the moment, complete with my driving the van surrounded by cows.
We then retraced our steps and headed toward the sea to the coastal border with Lebanon at a place called Rosh HaNikra, the only non-sandy bit of coastline in the area. The coast was just as warm as Jerusalem, but strikingly more humid.
Rosh HaNikra has these incredible white cliffs studded with bits of flint. We took a cable car down the cliff to an old railbed that once ran along the coast.
A tunnel had been dug to accommodate the train through the cliffs, and apparently in this process a number of natural grottoes had been discovered, extending far back into the cliffs.
Inside the grottoes it was much cooler, but still incredibly humid. The caves were packed with other tourists snapping photos of the turquoise green water rushing in and out of the clefts in the rock. Think Carlsbad Caverns meets the Mediterranean. I’d love to try kayaking through here at low tide, or even SCUBA diving here!
We emerged from the grottoes to see waves crashing against the cliffs in the strong daylight.
Smaller grottoes inhabited by pigeons could be seen forming in the cliff faces.
We took the cable car back up the cliff and encountered a fruit vendor selling lychee, passion fruit, figs, and a very strange tropical fruit that looked more like a fish than a fruit. It had a texture like aloe, bright magenta pulp, and big black seeds. The folks at the local kibbutz who grow these fruits pollinate them by hand at night.
Our next stop was the ancient town of Akko/Acre (inhabited for approximately 10,000 years), including the beautiful Mosque of Jezzar Pasha built by the Ottoman Empire there. While putting on scarves and coverups before entering the mosque, I asked the attendant if I needed something to cover my knees since I was wearing shorts. He pointed at the scarves and skirts, responding, “These are only for ladies, not for men.” I guess the short hair signals “MALE” despite the other visual and auditory clues I provide? Amusement aside, this is the first time I’ve passed as male since I was once bundled head to toe in ski gear in elementary school.
The mosque was beautiful: calligraphy, marble, granite, stained glass, and a gorgeous dome. Outside, the gardens were blooming with plumeria, hibiscus, and roses.
We continued on through Akko, seeing graffiti (perhaps Paul the Octopus?) and blue doors (to ward off evil spirits, as is common in areas once inhabited by the Greeks) everywhere.
Driving into Akko was pure madness. The narrow streets are hardly wide enough to deal with one car, much less our huge van and whatever other lunatic hurdling past us at maximum warp in the opposite direction. The heat was starting to get to me, so I was quite exhausted by the time we rolled into town and I was faced with navigating through a number of hairy situations on blind 90˚ turns in the middle of the Old City as we tried to find parking for both vehicles. When we finally found a spot and I had pulled in the mirrors, Talya remarked, “you’re such a calm driver!”
At the waterfront, we saw the remnants of a palace that used to have a chamber for sea water to flow under its floors.
Further down the wharf we encountered boys jumping off the wall (30 or 40 feet high and almost 30 feet wide; survived bombardment by Napoleon’s armies) into the sea. I had half a mind to join them, but the tour guide kept saying, “yela! yela!” (let’s go, let’s go!) so I moseyed onward.
We drove back south to Haifa to see the Baha’i Gardens that take up most of the slant height of Mount Carmel.
Haifa is a blue collar port city with Druze, Muslims, Christians, and Jews living side by side. There’s even a Google office here!
A photographer was in the garden with a couple, taking what I can only assume were engagement shots. Her dress was stunning: backless with sheer fabric studded with gemstones. Amazing. She blended in perfectly among the petunias. If I had been the photographer, I’d have waited for later in the summer when the light was lower to do the shots.
Back up Mount Carmel (where the prophet Elijah once squared off against a pagan prophet) we saw a church built by Templars at the end of the Crusades.
We returned to the Baha’i Gardens, but this time from above (900′ higher). The view, as usual, was incredible. The large white building in the center left is used for storing flour shipped in from the rest of the world.
We drove further down to Carmel on the coast and went to the beach as the sun was setting. I waded out into the water to enjoy the last minutes of daylight as Orbital’s “Halcyon + On + On” wafted over the waves from the beach restaurant.
In the morning I was treated to this view of pink-tinged clouds rising above houses on top of the cliff near our youth hostel.
We left for Nazareth and went to the Basilica of the Annunciation. A statue of Mary was surrounded by a labyrinth with Platonic solids in its corners.
The church itself was built in the 1960s, but managed to be very tasteful and architecturally interesting. Several grottoes were preserved to the side of the church, including one known as “The Virgin’s Kitchen”.
Built to resemble a lily (representing Mary’s purity), the church had two levels, the lower one encompassing a grotto. Inside the lower level, a mass was being conducted in Spanish.
The upper level had an opening (to the left in this image) down to the lower level and the grotto as well as numerous mosaic murals commemorating the angel Gabriel’s telling Mary the good news, and of the Madonna and Child. I walked past a tour group from Spain standing beneath the Spanish mosaic and singing hymns. The artistic styles were all very different, yet it was beautiful to see such interesting variations on a theme.
After leaving Nazareth, getting stuck in some awful traffic, and navigating the highways of the north, we met up with the rest of the group at the Jordan River for an afternoon of kayaking. The Galilee/Golan was less humid than the coast, but was it ever hot. Eric and I commandeered an inflatable kayak and began to paddle down the gentle river, passing by banks filled with families grilling food, smoking hookah, and listening to music. We joined swimmers in splashing one another and even discovered a rope swing. The cold river water was quite the delightful shock as we took turns jumping into the river. Running the rapids resulted in a few splashes, and we even decided to take one backwards in the kayak. Totally worth the three hour drive home.
This week we have a day away from MEET due to it being the Ninth of Av. We’re taking this as an opportunity to catch up on work, sleep, and cooking. Last night I made a chicken-lemon-cilantro stew with tomato and vegetables (based on this recipe). While the store had neither salsa nor lime juice, I think the stew turned out pretty well: not very heavy, and with plenty of flavor.
Tomorrow our students are participating in MEET’s “Apprentice” program: they get to help a startup develop business plans. Yohanan, MEET alum extraordinaire and MEET’s transportation coordinator, has opened a juice bar with MEET’s student relations manager Mustafa and the two want to double their revenue. Our students tomorrow get to come with suggestions on how to increase the customer base for the juice stand, and we’re really looking forward to seeing what ideas they generate.