Saturday, November 30, 2013

Just get on the damn train!: A global adventure with Mom & Dad... Part III: Israel, Cyprus, Crete, & Pompeii...

We pulled into Ashdod... the incredibly busy shipping port of Israel.  This was the major selling point of the tour to everyone.  Mom really wanted to see the pyramids, but as we all know, Egyptians can’t get their shit together (trust me… my office mate is Egyptian and every day I fight the urge to strangle him with his own arrogance.)  But Israel was something that our family as Catholics, and especially my father as a seminarian, felt a connection due to years of Sunday masses and CCD classes next to the church.  We had listened to the stories and knew the Biblical history; but to show up and see them in person was incredibly exciting for everyone onboard.
old city of Jerusalem...

Except me… I was scared shitless.  As most of you know, I live in Qatar, a Wahhabist Muslim nation.  And the Muslim people don’t have the greatest relationship with the Israeli’s.  Something about one family stole another’s goat way back when, or one tribe threw a shoe at the other… no one really knows why anymore.  My passport is covered with work visas and exit permits all written in Arabic.  According to Qatar, going to Israel is possible grounds for my work and entry visas to be cancelled upon arrival back home.  So I was a little wary of getting off the boat.

The steward assured me that I could request a paper visa so that no stamp showed up in my passport.  We waited for over an hour in the theatre until our color was called and headed to the front of the ship instead of out onto the buses.  This time, we had to give our passports by hand to the customs officials for inspection.  I handed my passport to the inspector, she saw my work visa, stared me down, then stamped a bookmark as my one-day, completely temporary, no permanent record entry visa into Israel.

On top of my flop sweat, we had another problem. It was a Sunday, and there was nothing in the ship’s daily newspaper about any masses held on board.  I went to ask Gopher and was sternly told, “There are no church services on board.”

Oh shit.  Oh holy shit.  There’s no mass on board and I’m with my parents.  This is not good.  My father has never, I repeat, never, missed a mass.  And here we were, pulling into the spiritual heart of our religion, and Dad doesn’t have a mass to attend.  Needless to say, the news did not go over well with Dad.  I argued that going to visit Israel was as close to a pilgrimage as you could possibly get; so maybe it could count? Dad countered that if we drove past a mass, he was getting off the bus.

As the buses pulled out of Ashdod, we were quick to notice two things.  One, everyone was armed.  As all Israeli’s are required to serve in the military, there were throngs of soldiers everywhere carrying assault rifles.  But they weren’t performing drills or KP duty, they were getting onto buses, pushing shopping carts full of groceries, and pumping gas; all while armed to the teeth while fighter jets buzzed overhead every two minutes.

the Wailing Wall...
The second thing was that Israel was beautiful!  The hour long drive to Jerusalem was filled with rolling green hillsides and orchards brimming with Jaffa oranges.  I was expecting the dry rocky outcroppings I had seen from Jordan staring across the Dead Sea.  As we approached the city, the fields of green died away and the meandering streets of Jerusalem pulled us in.  At a photo stop overlooking the city, we gazed upon the towering walls and terraces of the ancient city.  The old city stands like a castle surrounded with a dry moat.  The Dome of the Rock, the golden topped mosque stands above the city like a beacon welcoming you in.  It’s only then you realize that everyone in this country would celebrate for a year if the mosque that desecrates their holy city was blown off the face of the Earth.

Our guide was fantastic, telling us a wonderful summary of the city, the walls, and the creation of the Jewish state.  When he asked where everyone was from, I had to do my part and yell out “Qatar!”  A quick ugly glance my way later he continued to regale us.

Before I continue, I have to ask that you indulge me as we climb aboard the way-back machine to the early 80’s in Richmond, Texas.  It was there where my first memories of a Catholic rite of passage were created:  attending the Friday night Stations of the Cross during Lent.  Our priest, Father xxxxx, was not known for his creative approaches to church doctrine.  The sermons could knock you out cold due to sheer boredom, as my sisters can attest to dragging more than one comatose sibling down the aisle to the rectory.

But there was something about his Stations of the Cross.  Around the church was the customary fourteen plagues telling the fourteen stories of the crucifixion of Jesus.  We would pick up the worn little booklets with the prayers and hymns for each station, and get ready for an hour of the continuous kneeling, standing, sitting regiment.  Over the weeks and years we attended, Father xxxx’s mini-homilies for each station never changed, not by a word.  Amazingly, each was hauntingly beautiful as he discussed the grove of olive trees where it all began, walking the path of the Via Dolorosa, the meaning of Golgotha, how Simon of Cyrene was pulled from the crowd and made to carry the cross, and the pain Jesus must have felt, starved and naked, beaten until he fell three times.  He always discussed the statue The Pieta for one station, as Mary held her son in her arms… I now know where my father gained his admiration.  Each station was a location pinned to Jerusalem…
one of the Stations on the Via Dolorosa...

And there we found ourselves, in the grove of ancient olive trees just outside the city walls.  The trees, dated to over 2,000 years old, were gnarled and twisted, and under armed guard.  It was here where our guide told us about the thousands of graves that covered the small valley between us and the city walls; all awaiting their rising up once the second coming occurs.  He then proceeded to tell us that the second coming cannot occur since Muslims dug their graves right in the way of where the Lord is supposed to walk; and therefore it was the Muslims fault why he hasn’t come yet.  Heads were nodding in agreement around us… it took everything I had to stop from giggling. I guessed correctly that a visit to the Dome of the Rock wasn’t in the cards.

Two security checks, two metal detectors, and a full body search later, and we were inside the city walls.  Almost immediately we came upon the Wailing Wall.  The most important site in all of Judaism, throngs of locals and tourists were taking pictures of the men praying with foreheads pressed firmly against the stones.  Women were not allowed to get close unless they walked to a special area on a footbridge, and most of the ladies on our tour declined.  Dad and I stopped by an open table and picked up our guest yamakas.  Mom took advantage to comment that me and Dad’s matching bald spots made us look like we were already wearing skullcaps… pretty obvious joke, but funny nonetheless.

For one of the most holy sites in the world, the wall was fairly “unholy” looking.  There was no pomp or circumstance, no ushers asking you to not use any flash photography or velvet ropes curtailing what you couldn’t touch.  Instead there were junky white plastic lawn chairs that you pick up from Wal-Mart for ten bucks a set scattered throughout.  Men were putting on their shawls, wrapping cords around their arms, and adjusting the little black boxes full of prayers tied to their foreheads.  A group of little Orthodox school kids, all with their heads shaved and long curly sideburns, were washing their hands as their chaperone yelled at them to hurry up.  Religious or not, it’s hard not to approach the wall without feeling small compared to all the men bobbling back and forth, chanting their heartfelt prayers under their breath.  Dad and I each took a moment to pray, and stuffed our folded prayers written on the ship stationary into any crevice we could find.  I don’t know if the prayer slip works like blowing out the candles on a birthday cake, but I’ll tell you mine anyway.  I prayed that Mom and Dad would have wonderful time with me, and a safe return home.  Turns out it worked…

Meandering through the narrow alleys and tunnels of Jerusalem, we were amazed by the people we were running into.  Orthodox Jews followed by priests followed by Muslims in thobes followed by Latin American nuns followed by Russian orthodox monks; all mixing in and around with the people who were just trying to buy some bread and get to work on time.  The group stopped walking to stare at a tile street name buried into a stone wall, “Via Dolorosa.”  We were about to walk the Stations of the Cross.

As we climbed the steps of the Via Dolorosa, doorways were pointed out where in Latin and Israeli you could make out the words Station III, Station IV, Station V, and so on.  A group of Poles were carrying a large wooden cross and singing songs at each station.  We had to gingerly make our way around Brazilian nuns “walking” on their knees up the steps.  Mom and I were astonished to see the actual spots where all those scenes we had imagined in front of us; even though most had nothing special to see.  You pass by Station VII and the barkers from the storefronts are trying to convince you to buy old postcard sets, splinter-filled rosary beads, or frankincense shampoo “from the holy land!”

Dad was quiet and solemn most of the time.  I could see his lips moving as he said little prayers at each station.  I finally figured out that he was singing the Stabat Mater, the tiny hymns sung at the end of each station that he knew from memory…  “bruised, derided, cursed, defiled… she beheld her tender child… all with bloody scourges rent…”

At the end of the road was the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.  The non-descript entrance hid the ominous interior where the final Stations were held.  In this dark space, the walls blackened by years of incense and candle smoke, was where Jesus was crucified, died, and was buried.  Lanterns in the Russian Orthodox and Armenian styles were hung everywhere, as the candle light glistened off of the gold and silver reliefs that covered the walls.  Up some stairs we came to the final Stations and watched as people earnestly prayed upon the stone slab where Jesus’ body was washed with oil and prepared for burial.

Just outside of this area the church opened up into a gorgeous array of stonework, frescos, and tiled marble. It was here where we saw the Aedicule that contained the Holy Sepulcher itself.  Dad took a moment to himself as I watched the various priests staring the tourists down.  Fun fact, the church is run by four factions of the Catholics: the Eastern Orthodox, the Armenian Apostolic, the Greek Orthodox, and the Roman Catholics.  All of which despise each other!  Every few years the priests in charge take offense at one of the other sects, for instance, leaving a door open or sweeping the floor out of turn, and the priests will beat the shit out of each other!  The churches purposely station young and strong priests willing to fight there… amazing!  There’s a ladder from the 1700’s that hasn’t been moved because it would upset the status quo that no religious order can make changes without the approval of the other orders… totally insane.

the grotto to the birthplace of Jesus...
We left Jerusalem thru the Jaffa Gate, boarded the buses, and headed to the next part of the tour, Palestine and Bethlehem.  The massive wall separating the two countries was imposing, just as the extra security sweep thru the bus and all the passengers.  Once through, you could immediately tell that the prosperity of Israel did not extend to Palestine.  The homes were in rough shape, the roads were crumbling, and the little towns we crossed were definitively in a class below those just beyond the wall.  We stopped at a tourist house where we met our Muslim guide for a massive group lunch of hummus, fish and tabouli… pretty standard fare for me.

In Bethlehem, we walked up the hill to the Church of the Nativity, the site of Jesus’ birth.  At first glance, there’s really nothing much to see.  It is just a big, bland church from the outside with the exception of the door only being three feet tall.  The guide explained how it was to keep horses out and to make the priests bow in penitence.  I’m pretty sure it was made so the crowds could get a laugh as I had to crawl on all fours to get through.

underground city in Cyprus...
The interior of the church was interesting as they worked to restore frescos buried under centuries of plaster on the walls while we walked on planks to protect the tile floor underfoot.  The complex is actually three separate churches, none of which are very remarkable.  But we followed the crowds to a long queue and waited our turn to see the actual birthplace.  Tucked away under the altar, we had to funnel down into a grotto, shoving and elbowing our way into another very tiny door.  In the dark room we saw what we came to see… a tiny semi-circular alcove that looked more like a fireplace than anything special.  Inside it was coated in marble with a silver star inlaid into the ground.

And that was it… a little bit of a letdown after Jerusalem, but still interesting.  I ran to the gift shop to buy postcards and get them ready to mail before the bus took off.  Dad went exploring and found that one of the churches in the complex, an incredibly plain affair that would not look out of place in Tucson, was just about to start the communion wafers.  I told Dad we might have just enough time to join in so he wouldn’t have to miss mass, but he turned to me and Mom and said, “I’m pretty sure God will forgive me considering what I’ve experienced today.”

And with that, Dad missed mass… and didn’t regret it for a moment.

Back on board the boat we fell into what became our routine.  Mom and I would wake up super early and walk to the rear deck to smoke after fiddling with the self-serve coffee machine that never worked.  Next would be the mad dash to the breakfast buffet complete with the copper-haired throwing elbows in the omelet line.  After this was the walk around the ship to find any available chairs in a smoking section where we would order our daily round of anything we wanted since we paid handsomely for the drinks inclusion package.  Dad would sometimes splurge and order the non-inclusive drink of the day… which came back to bite him when he tried the chocolate martini. Mom and I would hit the casino when they opened, which was never the same time or days on end depending on the local maritime law. Later we would dress for dinner and join the second seating with our missing tablemates, and our Portuguese waiter would delight us in the meal options and just for good measure, would bring me two or even three of the entrees to sample.  Finally, we would order all the desserts available, binge on the last of the red wine, try to gamble some more, change out the orange peels in our shoes, wash our socks and undies in the sink, and pass out cold while praying the neighbors wouldn’t complain about Dad’s snoring.

eating gelato after stealing my umbrella...
The next excursion was to Cyprus, the Greek island half occupied by Turkey, or as our guide liked to call them, “The Turks!!”  We went through customs in Limassol where the bus, this time filled with Danes, drove amid undulating hillsides to the city of Nicosia to visit a very old and very cramped Greek Orthodox church that was so exciting and memorable, I can’t find it on Wikipedia.  After that we headed to the coastal town of Paphos, known as the birthplace of Aphrodite.  Overlooking a bluff, the guide pointed out the exact rock that rose from the depths carrying the goddess of love and beauty.  It would have been more memorable if they weren’t talking about a figure from mythology. If Bea Arthur had risen from the sea on that rock, I probably would have taken a picture.

We did visit the Roman theatres, the Greek mosaic floors, the Byzantine fortress, and the underground catacombs where the influential apostles Barnabas and Saul of Tsarses visited.  You remember Barnabas and Saul of Tsarses, right? They traveled around the Med preaching about Jesus during the day, and at night solved crimes; unmasking greedy businessmen scaring away customers from the old amusement park.  The only thing really memorable about Cyprus was that Mom and I got into an argument over who got the umbrella when it started to rain (even though I was the one who had brought it!) that devolved into a hair pulling match.  Mom, who claims her hands are so weak that she can’t carry her luggage, somehow found the strength to get a death grip on the few short, wispy strands I have left.  She won, and then gloated by making me buy her a gelato and not sharing.

The next stop was to Crete, and the cities of Heraklion and Knossos.  Heraklion was uneventful save for the winery we stopped at to try all the local vines and the grappa.  I’m pretty sure we bought a few bottles, but I can’t remember getting on the boat with them… or really much from this excursion.  Next was a long drive through the scenic mountains of Cyprus to Knossos, Europe’s oldest city.  This Bronze Age marvel nestled up in the mountains is a tiny town with archeological ruins that simply baffle you with the size and scale of city.  It became less impressive when the guide explained that this was the exact site where Hercules wrestled the Minotaur; a creature that walked the Earth three thousand years ago.  There is only so many “oh for fuck’s sake” I can take on any given day.

best part of Crete...
We walked through the alleyways of the town, us three always at the back of the pack stopping for swigs of wine and more gelato.  The tour ended in a large restaurant decorated like a nursing home cafeteria where we dined on fried dough balls, creamy cheeses, grape leaves, and more grappa.  Unbeknownst to Mom, I kept pouring my grappa into her shot glass, insisting that she had to finish or it would be rude to the hosts.  Dancers in traditional spangled outfits covered in tassels came out and danced for us for a few minutes.  I always like these little demonstrations of the old customs and traditions, as it helps make you feel less like a stranger in a foreign land… as long as they know when to get off the stage.  The pairs of dancers just kept going song after song like they were getting paid by the twirl.  At some point you want to have a conversation or keep eating, but you feel obliged to keep your eyes focused on them at all times.  You’d hate for them to go home after the show feeling that they didn’t give their all since they couldn’t keep the attention of the chunky American in the back of the room. I gave up and downed more grappa.

We had a full day of really rough seas, making the indoor chairs a hot commodity.  That night Dad surprised us by having me make a reservation at the private dining room on the ship.  No ready-made entrees for us, we were having five-star a la carte French cuisine.  I put on my grey suit with my brown shoes (Dad did not approve) and we sat in the candlelit room picking out the finest red wine that wasn’t part of our drinks inclusion.  We had a wonderful five course meal with multiple bottles of wine.  For the appetizer we ordered the escargot, my first attempt at eating snails.  Dad downed them like oysters, floating globs of grey meat drowning in pools of butter and garlic.  Lord, were they good! We passed through the Strait of Messina, staring down the night lights of Sicily just off the port railing.

Our final excursion was to Naples for a full day tour of Pompeii.  The trip was made more exciting as we were deluged with rain, walking ankle deep in water just to get on the bus with the Germans again.  At Pompeii, we met up with a fantastic guide who gave us probably the best tour of the entire trip.  The city is magnificent in its scale and technology.  Paved streets perfectly aligned, multistory buildings with running water and plumbing, fancy villas with indoor pools, ancient ovens and flour mills that would still work perfectly today.  The scale of it is unbelievable; you can’t see the ends of the roads as they go on for miles.
Curiously, both Dad and I discovered the cocks carved into the roadways before the guide even acknowledged them.  “The penises point in the direction to the brothel,” the guide chuckled.  The brothel is, and probably was even in 79 AD, the highlight of the tour.  Inside were paintings above each room depicting a particular sex act.  Want a hand job, just head to the hand job room.  Everyone was quietly giggling to themselves when Dad, a man not known for his volume control, suddenly exclaimed “Look Cory, there’s one we haven’t tried yet!”  The packed crowds had a hearty laugh while I lamented that I had eaten two helpings of snails the night before.

Mt. Etna with a dirty camera lens...
Pompeii is also somber as you are taken past the plaster casts of the people who had died there in agony as their bodies were choked and smothered with burning ash.  Mothers holding children and men curled up in agony remind you that this was a major city that was suddenly, and painfully, extinguished. The bus ride back to Naples was solemn and quiet, but the clouds finally parted and gave us all a quick glimpse of Mt. Etna still foreboding on the horizon.

The last night during dinner the waiters did a special entertainment routine involving lots of flambé and musical interludes.  It was a fitting sendoff, but I’m sure it was designed to keep you distracted from the final bill that was quietly slipped under the door before you got back to the room. We packed up our still-not-dry socks while I calculated how much more my credit card could handle from all the tips we were required to leave.  In the morning we pulled back into Genoa on a clear but bitterly cold and windy day, said our goodbyes to our purser and the rest of the crew, ready for our final leg of the trip back in Italy.

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