Sunday, February 24, 2013

It's Purim and I'm in Jerusalem!

The Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock

Happy Purim!

My flight landed into Ben Gurion airport at about 9:15 this morning. The flight over was uneventful which is a good thing. I didn't sleep much on Friday night, deliberately waking myself up at 3am on Saturday; I wanted to get a head start on beating jet lag.


I was seated the last row on the plane and so I was one of the last to get off. Not much of a wait to get through immigration though the officer did have a bunch of questions for me which I dutifully answered. She then handed my passport to me along with a border control that I need to keep;she had not stamped my passport so there is no Israeli visa.

I had no luggage to claim but standing in the claim area was an older gentleman with my name on a small placard. Transport to the hotel came bundled with the price of the tour and he was my ride. He handed me a black plastic bag. Inside was a copy of my itinerary, a map of Israel and a blue baseball cap. I hope they don't make us where the cap :-(

He had three other passengers to pick up so I stood aside and waited. A few minutes later, two guys showed up. There had been on the same flight as me but they were on different tour with the same company. They had flown all the way from Charlestown, WVA for a one week tour! All three of us and then a family showed up. While the family went to the money changer, our greeter told us to follow him. We headed outside the airport. The two guys went off with another man and I was shepherded to a shuttle. By suitcase was loaded and I got on board. We waited for the shuttle to fill up before pulling off. It seemed like an interminably long wait but I think I was just so anxious to get going that every second of waiting seemed like a minute.

Everyone on the shuttle was headed for a destination in Jerusalem which is located some 30 km east of the airport.

For some reason, I expected to see arid desert. So, I was surprised when we drove through fields of green. Lemon orchards, with trees laden with fruits, were a common sight. The landscape was flat.

Soon enough, flat land gave way to rocky terrain. The road wound its way up and between mountains and pine trees dotted the hillsides.

Fast forward and we whizzed by the Old City - I could see the gold colored Dome of the Rock and we headed into the surrounding hills. One by one, passengers got dropped off.

Shortly before noon, I arrived at the Dan Jerusalem hotel. It took a few minutes to get checked in. Standard room. Nothing fancy but I have very comfy queen sized bed.

Exhaustion was beginning to set in. I had signed up for a 2pm free tour of the Old City but I knew I wasn't going to make it. All I wanted to do was catch a catnap and so that's what I did. I set the alarm for 2pm and slithered into bed. I know my head the pillow, but I was so tired, I don't remember.

The alarm went off at 2pm and I felt refreshed enough to head out. I was determined that if nothing else, I would see the Western Wall or as they call it in Hebrew, the Kotel, today.

At the front desk, I got the card for the hotel and directions for catching the light rail. The receptionist handed me a small map and gave me directions.

I headed out. It was bit overcast today but it's early spring and all the trees are blooming. Temperature wise, it's somewhere around 60 degrees Fahrenheit - absolutely perfect for me!

It was less than a 10 minute walk to the light rail stop. The receptionist had told me that it would be 6.6 shekels for the fare, that I had to use the ticket within an hour of purchase and that I had to validate the ticket once I got on board the train otherwise I could be fined.

As I neared the platform, I could see two people purchasing tickets so I stood behind them. When it came my turn, I selected English as the language and followed the screen prompts to get my ticket. I inserted a 20 shekel bill and got my ticket, receipt and change. Easy peasy.


I didn't have to wait long for the train to arrive. It was relatively empty and I was able to get a seat. Luckily the map that the hotel receptionist had given me had the rail route on it. Starting point for me was Ammunition Hill.....I wonder about the origin of that name. In any event, it would just 4 stops to my destination; I was getting off at City Hall which is also known as Safra Square. I was headed to Jaffa Gate which is the main gate leading inside Old Jerusalem.

It was probably about a 10 minute ride to get to City Hall. I got off the train and started walking. After a few minutes, I decided to ask someone if I was headed in the right direction and of course, I was not. I turned around and short distance later, found myself standing at a crosswalk. Located diagonally across the street, were the old city walls. I knew where I had to walk towards.





The walk was a downhill one, the sidewalk ran alongside the walls. I had slowed down to a stroll. I wanted to take it all in.....no rush. I could see Jaffa Gate up ahead. I immediately recognized it. I had remembered that it's the only one of the walls that sits 90 degrees to the wall. Before I passed through the gate, I took a few minutes for a photo op. I'm about to burst with excitement at entering into the Old City.

Omar Ibn E-Khattab Square.

















The passage through Jaffa Gate is only a few feet but it's a L shaped path. This was intentionally designed this was a a defense mechanism.

On the other side is a wide sidewalk that is part of Omar Ibn E-Khattab Square. To the right is the Tower of David Museum which I will pay a visit to another day. Today, I only had one destination in mind and I had to figure out how to get there. I had pretty much memorized the route from having spent time looking at the map of the Old City but I wanted to be sure. The Tourist Information center is located just a few feet after you enter in through Jaffa Gate. I darted inside and asked for a map of the City as well as directions to the Wall.

From Jaffa Gate, the route to the Wall takes you through the heart of the market aka.....narrow path lined on both sides with shops, mainly selling souvenirs. Ugh.


The path was lined with slick stones so I paid careful attention to each step I took; I am a bit of a klutz. At the same time, I had to look at what was for sale. If I didn't know better, I could have been in Cairo or Fes - pretty much the same stuff. I will take a closer look at some point in time but I was on a mission today and was not about to be deterred.

I followed the route that the guy at the Tourist Information Center had marked out - pretty much a straight walk. What's really helpful here is that the streets in the Old City are marked with signs and they correspond to the map!! There's even a sign that points to the direction of the Western Wall. You end up down a small alleyway that is store free. There's a sign informing you that you have to go through a metal detector. Wow!! Security is indeed tight here.

I passed through the metal detectors. As I left the entry area, I found myself standing at the top of the stairs leading down to the Western Wall Plaza. Directly in front of me was THE Wall!! I have finally arrived! 





I could not believe the amazing sight. There's a perforated metal partition positioned quite a distance back from the wall itself. I walked up and down the metal partition, taking in views of both the men's and women's sections of the wall. The men's section is the larger of the two and it was not crowded but above the crowd, I could hear the sounds of some of the men reciting prayers. I had to shoot a bit of video to capture the experience.



The Western Wall Plaza is not a large plaza but it was fairly crowded today. There was small contingent of soldiers standing by, plenty of locals out and about and a fair share of tourists. I think I was the only Asian in the crowd though.

















I walked towards the Dung Gate entrance to the wall. From that vantage point, I caught my first real look at the Dome of the Rock. I wanted to get a better viewpoint from higher up and I could see people standing at location that would have been a good viewing spot but there was no clear way of how to get up there. I made a mental note to map out a route to explore. Later on, I found a sign pointing towards that direction. It was labeled "Jewish Quarter" so it gave me an idea of where I have to go.

I headed back to the partition and watched the women at the wall.  Their section is so much smaller and from what I had read in my trip research, unlike the men, they are not allowed to read the Torah out loud.  A small group of women has started to protest the restrictions placed on them.  It will be an uphill battle but I hope that they will one day win the fight so men and women can pray alongside each other.

I'm standing in the women's section which is divided by a partition from the men's section.

Men praying at the Wall.  Anyone can pray.

This isn't the best video - a bit shaky.  It was hard for me to shoot it because the partition, that I have to stand behind is almost as high as I am tall.  But, I was determined to preserve my experience so here it is!



I spent quite a bit of time hanging around the wall but I'm going to be here for another 3 days so I don't have to take it all in right at this moment. Besides, I was starting to get tired again. It was just shortly after 4pm but decided that I needed to make my way back to the hotel.

View of the street heading back into the market.

The market.  Reminded me of Fes, Morocco.

Quiet side street.
On my way back to Jaffa Gate, I kept my eyes pealed for a bakery. It's Purim today and I think it's only fitting that since I cannot dress up in festive costumes, as many locals did today, that I can at least get some hamantashen.

I passed plenty of stores selling Middle Eastern style candies and cookies but no hamantashen. Of course, had I walked back via the Jewish Quarter I probably would have come across plenty of bakeries. If only I wasn't so tired :-(

Nearby the City Hall light rail station, I had passed by a small (two tables) restaurant that was also a small convenience store. I saw some pastries and the man behind the counter said they were borek. I asked him they were Turkish and he didn't know what I was talking about. The flaky pastry, lined up on the trays atop the counter, they looked pretty much like the borek I had in Turkey. Turns out they are a popular street food in Israel - wouldn't be surprised if this is something that was influenced by the Ottomans centuries ago. In any event, he gave me several filling types to choose from. I picked mushroom. I grabbed a small Sprite from the refrigerator and than forked over 24 shekels for the two item. Whaaat?? 24 shekels? That's somewhere between $7 and $8 for a borek and a Sprite. Highway robbery if you ask me. I don't know if I got charged tourist price or if this is the *regular* price but it's expensive. Better be good1










Flash forward and I'm back in my room. I walked in to be greeted by a small basket of hamantashen and piece of paper rolled up and tied with a blue ribbon.The paper told the story of Purim which I already know :-) Given my disappointment of not finding them earlier in the afternoon, I was thrilled to see the hamantashen!! I will have some for breakfast tomorrow.

The borek turned out to be fairly tasty - would have been much better had it been hot but room temperature is okay.

Tomorrow, I am heading to Jericho. I signed up for a half day tour. I need to rest up so I'm going to make it an early night. I'm going to finish up the borek, take a shower and then watch some TV (they have English language channels here!) before turning the lights out!

Still can't believe I'm actually in Israel. Really excited about the rest of this trip!

Good night from Jerusalem!