I think it was the 4th day of my dad’s trip that we slated as our day to spend in Jerusalem. Our sightseeing up to that point had consisted of seeing the Bahai Gardens in Haifa. Unless you count looking out the window on the drive from the airport as a cultural experience, my dad and I had not accomplished much in terms of seeing this ancient, famous country. Thus, that Sunday we woke up early and headed off for the Holy City.
The first thing we saw upon arriving in the city was a wall of traffic. Smooth sailing down the toll road had transformed into a bottleneck on the hill leading up to Jerusalem. This was probably an ominous sign considering how the first half of our day would go. We were anxiously trying to make it to the Jaffa Gate by 11 AM so we could take the free walking tour that I had read about online. Even though I swear we were following all the signs pointing us toward the Old City, we apparently made several wrong turns, then decided to just cut our losses by parking and hailing a cab. Thank god we did, because we were headed in the complete wrong direction. About 10 minutes later we were outside Jaffa Gate, the tour had not left yet, and things were looking good.
We approached the woman who appeared to be in charge to make sure that we were in the right place. She assured us this was the spot to be, but she also assured us that it was not actually the free tour that we wanted, but rather the tour that would take us to several important sites that the the free tour missed out on. As much as I would like to blame my dad for being suckered in by such an obvious money-making ploy, I have to say that the tour sounded like it was worth the money. For only 75 shekels (about 20 bucks) each we could go with a smaller group that was seeing multiple intriguing places that the free tour passed on. We ponied up the money, took our ticket, and waited anxiously for the start of what was sure to be a fun, enriching and holy experience. Oh, the pleasures of being naïve.
Everything began about 5 minutes later, when our guide Philip gathered us up and began his intro speech. I don’t really remember much about this other than that he made a big point about the importance of keeping up with the group, because he would be moving a little faster than usual for the first half hour so that we could make it to the Temple Mount by a certain time. He also warned to stay close when moving through the construction zone that made up the first leg of the tour. He picked the biggest guy in our group and told him to bring up the rear. When this guy showed up to where Philip was standing that would be the sign that the group was together and that the tour could continue. And with that, Philip was off, darting into the swirling throngs of people that covered the sidewalk around the construction zone. Keep in mind he carried no flag, or megaphone, or anything that might make it easier for the group to keep track of his whereabouts.
My father and I were somewhere in the middle of the pack, slowly bumping by the foot traffic going the opposite direction. There were thousands of people moving both ways on a slab of sidewalk about 5 feet wide. It was not ideal walking conditions to say the least. Apparently we were falling further behind, because my dad was making an effort to walk faster than normal in order to keep up. I distinctly remember saying “take it easy dad, we aren’t going to lose him.” My casualness was unflappable. This would come back to haunt me.
About a minute later we were walking through what seemed like the worlds biggest bazaar. Shops extended on both sides of the walkway for hundreds of yards, the patrons aggressively hawking their crosses, scarves and spices. After about a minute of trudging through this shopping district, we started to sense that something was wrong. Philip was nowhere to be found, and neither was the large guy who was supposed to bring up the rear. It also dawned on me that it would not make a lot of sense to plunge a whole tour immediately into the heart of all these vendors, especially when we our time was strictly budgeted. My dad and I discussed the situation and realized we could not possibly be in the right place. Yet, we decided to continue on a little longer, just in case they had turned the corner up ahead of us. I don’t know if it is just human nature, or being stubborn males, or me and my dad being an absolutely horrific team in terms of sense of direction and having poise while being lost, but we just could not yet accept that we had erred and should turn around. We simply had to make sure they were not around the corner, if only to justify having wasted so much time in the first place. This might shock you, so I hope you’re sitting down: There was nothing around the corner. Philip and his band of tourists who were capable of following a tall guy with a beard wearing a bright red shirt and a cowboy hat were long gone.
We finally accepted that we needed to get back on the main walkway, but once we were there our situation did not look much better. There were still crazy amounts of people jammed onto sidewalks that would have felt cramped had it been just two people side by side. Frantic glances ahead revealed no sign of Philip or the group. Our prospects were getting grim. We hurried through the crowds and finally came to the end of the construction zone, our goal being to catch up with the group by following the path they must have taken. This turned out to be extremely wishful thinking. At one point we came across the free tour group we were going to be with originally. I thought we should ask their guide where the other tour was. My dad wanted to continue walking down the path as to not waste time. I finally convinced him we should stop and ask the other guide, but true to my flip-flopping nature I immediately changed my mind and decided that time was wasting and we needed to forge ahead. The guide was in the middle of his talk, and every second we stood there waiting for him to finish meant our real group was getting farther away. As it turned out, not consulting the free tour on the whereabouts of our group was a true testament to the scrambled and haphazard nature of our search. I think it is just human nature to not want to idly wait around, especially when what you are waiting for is to ask directions. It felt better to be moving and feeling like we were accomplishing something. Therefore, as was the case in the marketplace, we rushed ahead, maintaining our hopes that the group would be patiently waiting for us around the next bend. After walking a good half mile in the direction they MUST have gone, we finally gave up.
We immediately and effortlessly switched gears from searching to complaining. We realized we had gone wrong at the junction of the markets, where the sidewalk continued off to the right but also led straight into the shops if you weren’t paying attention. I most definitely had not been paying attention to anything but the back of my dads head, so I placed the blame squarely on his shoulders. If, I insisted, I had been aware that the sidewalk continued to the right I would have obviously taken that path. The fact that he had been aware of the possibiltlity of making the turn while I had not was enough to convict him in my book. My dad, being the more mature one, focused his anger not on his family member but on the incompetent Philip, who had recklessly plunged a group of directionally challenged tourists into unfamiliar, crowded territory. This anger would boil over in a little bit.
W trudged all the way back to the starting point in a last gasp effort to see if there were any signs of the people in charge of the tours so that we might get a refund. Of course there was no one there. There was supposed to be another tour starting at 2 PM, so we resigned ourselves to exploring on our own for a couple hours and then taking another stab at following a guide for more than 30 seconds without getting lost. We walked about a mile, in search of a brand new holocaust museum that was supposed to be nearby. We followed some signs, asked some people, and eventually made our way off the beaten path to a small stone building. Once inside, we instantly realized this was not a state of the art place, but in fact the first holocaust museum ever established. You would think the first museum would be a grand and stirring monument to the strength of the survivors and the horror of fascism. Rather, it was a rundown looking low slung stone building with about six or seven tiny rooms. There was definitely some interesting stuff in there, but it was not at all what we were expecting. It was after this that my broken and defeated dad suggested we wander a little more and then leave. I couldn’t believe it! He had come all the way out to Israel, and once we were in the heart of the only place he really had any interest in visiting he was going to leave without seeing any of the famous sites. I guess in a way it is kind of awesome to be that cavalier while in the midst of all sorts of people who thought this was the holiest place in the entire world. This seemed like the sort of irreverent f-you to organized religion that I should have appreciated. (note- my dad is normally both religious and adventurous. Our ordeal that morning was enough to break anyones spirit.) Nevertheless, I convinced him we had nothing better to do but stick around for the next tour. After stopping for some food to kill time, we were about ready to head back to the starting spot and demand either another tour or a refund.
We got back to the Jaffa Gate but there was still no one there. As we were waiting for the guides to arrive, a man with a beard, jeans and a cowboy hat wandered by us. This was the same outfit that our guide, Philip, was wearing. My dad immediately let out an aggressive “Philip!” The man, apparently recognizing that he was being spoken to, turned around with a curious expression on his face, and gave a confused “yes?” My dad demanded to know if he was indeed Philip the tour guide, the man who had caused us so much anguish just hours earlier.
“Are you Philip?!”
“Were you just running a tour??”
(puzzled look, then a smile) “You want a tour?”
At this point I had done the math and realized that not only was this guy about 30 years older than Philip and wearing a different shirt, there was also no way that the other tour would have been finished at this point. My dad continued to stare bullets at this fake-Philip-actually just an innocent passerby until I convinced him that it was not the same guy and that we should go stand somewhere else. My dad was hilariously indignant about the situation, noting that “he responded to Philip.” He was still seething a minute later, convinced that it actually was Philip and that he had come back to mock us. It was probably a little bit of a stretch to assume a tour guide would do that to his jilted followers, but anger is a powerful emotion.
Finally, mercifully, the next tour began to organize and we were able to talk to some people about what had happened. They offered us free admission to the next excursion, which sounded good until we realized that it would not be visiting the same sites that our original tour went to. The tour going to the sites we wanted to see only ran once a day. God damn it. At least they were kind enough to give us our money back, and we went off in with the hopes of finding a different afternoon tour that went to the famous places. Before we could find one we were hustled on the street by a man who could tell some tourists ripe to be taken advantage of when he sees them. This man stopped us and asked if we wanted a private tour. He told us his brother would happily take us for only 200 shekels a piece. The guy seemed nice enough, and after some bargaining we agreed to 100 shekels a piece and we were off following this guy to his shop to meet his “brother.” His “brother” turned out to be his “cousin,” and we were assured we would get a fantastic tour, but we would we just check out his shop for a few minutes until his cousin showed up? Once in the store we were bombarded with requests to buy all sorts of cheap looking knick knacks at exorbitant prices. Eventually the cousin, Joseph, did show up and we were finally on a tour. Unsurprisingly, our first stop was another store that we were encouraged to go check out. I refused, and stood outside while they sweet talked my dad for a good five minutes. I am somewhat shocked he was able to leave without being guilted into buying a knockoff persian rug. Apparently Joseph had exhausted his options in terms of getting us to spend money at a friends store, because he began to walk us along the path that Jesus took while carrying the cross, and did a surprisingly good job of relating the history of it all. He eventually took us to a rooftop that promised to overlook the entire city of Jerusalem in all directions. It probably goes without saying that this was not the case. We were barely able to see the Dome of the Rock peeking out over the buildings, but besides that there was not much happening on the rooftop. At this point, Joseph takes us down the stairs, points indiscriminately to his right, goes “Well, I have to be somewhere at 3. The Wailing Wall is that way,” and declares the tour over. In a show of decency I did not expect Joseph admitted his faults as a tour guide and told my dad to pay him what he thought it was worth. My dad chose to give him 100 shekels, half the price we agreed to pay. This seemed outrageous to me. We hadn’t seen anything! More than half the time was spent silently following him through the crowded marketplace! I loudly objected to paying this fraud 100 shekels, basically berating my father as we parted ways with Joseph. Apparently Joseph heard me and was shamed, because he found me before we got out of earshot and gave me 50 shekels back. Alright! Who said loudly complaining never got me anywhere??
It turned out to be relatively easy to find our way to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Wailing Wall. The church was cool and all, but the biggest line was to get into a covered area that contained “Jesus’ Grave.” Now, this seemed a little ridiculous to me, because it was obvious that Jesus wasn’t really in that grave, so what were the people looking at? Apparently something life altering judging by the crowd of solemn looking people clutching their crosses who anxiously awaited entrance. My dad insisted on waiting the hour to get into this area until some combination of my nagging, grating pessimism and his better judgement motivated us to move on.
The Wailing Wall was a sight to behold. It was just so massive for something that was built such a long time ago. The most interesting part of this last leg of the trip was a Hasidic guy who insisted that we wear tefillin, which are leather straps worn by observant jews during prayer. Since we are not observant and had no interest in praying, we politely declined. But, this guy would not take no for an answer, and harassed us for a few minutes, asking “Wouldn’t your Grandpa want you to do this?” and “Were you not Bar Mitzvahed?” I cannot belive how passionate this guy was about it. I guess he couldn’t have known how little affect his shaming would have on a couple of disinterested, non-practicing jews. Had he been less annoying we might have put them on to be polite, but it became a battle just to get the guy away from us. Another cool part about the wall was that there was a whole separate section for the women to pray. My dad and I found this quite amusing, and took a picture to document it.
All in all it was a not the way we were planning on spending our one big touristy day, but it was fun nonetheless. We took the road less traveled, but in the end we got to see everything we wanted. I like to think we had some innate desire to make things more challenging, which in turn made the whole trip more memorable.
As for a more timely update, I am back in Israel after having spent the last week at home. As to be expected, upon my arrival I was greeted by the usual challenges and annoyances of living in Israel and relying on unreliable people. When I left a week ago I did the honorable thing by turning in my rental car so that they would not have to pay for it while I was gone, and I was assured that someone would pick me up from the train station when I got back. Of course I got back on Saturday and the trains were not running, so I had to take a cab all the way into Haifa. At that point a few phone calls confirmed that the inconvenience of picking me up outweighed the actual will to make good on the original promise to pick me up, so I had to take a cab all the way into Tivon. Then, upon entering my apartment I see someone elses stuff in my hallway and foreign sheets on my bed. Apparently they had taken my absence as a means to break in a new roommate who would be staying with me 3 nights a week. Thankfully this is a guy I know who has been around the team a lot. He is always really nice, so having him around 3 nights a week shouldn’t be so bad. The more pressing problem is that also missing were my pillow and blanket. I have yet to determine there whereabouts. Also, not only was I missing a blanket, but the goddamn electric blanket that I used half my suitcase space getting out here does not work. The second I plugged it in it blew a fuse or something, and all the lights on one side of the apartment went out. After flipping the breaker and getting the lights back on, I tried to work the blanket again but to no avail. I was so looking forward to its warmth, and I had to settle for curling up next to my space heater instead.
We will be making our national TV debut this Tuesday when we play the number one team in the league on the road. It should be exciting, and it will be fun to be back on the court after not playing a game for 2 weeks. My body is feeling good and my spirit is recharged after my time at home, so I am looking forward to a much better second half to the season. Nothing could possibly be worse than the last 4 months, so there is nowhere to go but up.