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Israel Travel Thoughts

My recent trip to Israel was not my first time off of the continent but it was my first time on a continent other than North America. (I’ve been to Hawaii which is not on any continent. Also, continents are weird and somewhere ambiguous.) I’ve sort of been out of the country if you count driving into Canada or stepping off a cruise ship in the Caribbean, but I felt like this was my first legit trip to another country and it’s one of the reasons I signed up for it.

I now have a much better appreciation for people who make long trips like this. It’s a 10 hour difference and I’ve never experienced jet lag like that before. I work with so many people from other countries and it’s amazing that they do this frequently. I’d say that coming back home (west) was easier than going there but both ways had a pretty big impact.

Sunset at the beach in Herzliya

The most common question I get about the trip is whether or not I felt safe. That’s always a hot area of the world, and while this is a relatively peaceful period in its history, Trump’s peace plan was still shaking things up a bit. Since I knew very little about what it was actually going to be like, I took advantage of a variety of tools. My company has a team devoted to keeping employees safe abroad so I had an app on my phone that gave me alerts from them. I also signed up for alerts from the US State Department. And finally I installed an Israeli app which gives you a notification if there’s a missile launch. We were staying all the way on the west side of the country in Herzliya so that warning would give me about 90 seconds to get to a safe zone. Upon arrival, the only recommendations were to stay out of the West Bank. Towards the end of our trip, they also recommended that we stay out of Jerusalem, but thankfully we had done that tour at the beginning of our trip instead of the end.

Speaking of getting to a safe zone, the office buildings had a steel column in running up the middle and that space was generally used for conference rooms, but it doubled as an area that should be able to withstand a missile attack. In the back of the room there was a ladder that went all the way down to the ground floor. It’s sad that it’s necessary but it was comforting to know it was there.

All that being said, I felt safer walking around in Israel than I do in Seattle. Maybe it was naivety, but people were generally friendly or at least ambivalent. Granted we were staying in a high tech, wealthier area of the country, but even walking around Jerusalem felt pretty safe. Walking around Seattle, I’m always on the lookout for someone who’s a little too desperate for their next drug hit or in need of medication to keep them stable, but there was none of that in Israel. I was all ready to come back and say that I never saw a homeless person in Israel but on the very last morning I spotted one guy sleeping on the street.

Security in the other airports felt much more useful and effective than in the US. Tel Aviv was very impressive. When we flew in from Paris, they made an announcement that within X miles of the airport, nobody was allowed to get out of their seat and the window shades needed to be up. Somebody did try to get up and boy did that get stopped quickly.

Flying out of Tel Aviv was even more impressive. Driving into the airport, everyone stops at a security checkpoint where they take a look inside your car and decide if you need additional inspection. Then before you can even get to the security area, they check your passport and boarding pass. And it’s not just a cursory glance. I had more of a beard than I do in my passport photo and he looked back and forth between my passport and me at least five times. He also took both of our passports and disappeared for a few minutes. I still don’t know what that was about. Then you get to the actual security screening. You don’t just put your bags on the conveyer belt and pull the toothpaste out of your bag. You set your bag on a table and unzip everything. They probably spent 2 minutes per person going through everything and touching everything in the bags with the residue detector. Then there’s the conveyer belt and metal detector plus another check with the residue detector on your shoes. But that’s not all. When you are boarding the plane, they check your bags all over again and scan your passport again. Upon takeoff, the same rules about staying seated applied. Again, it’s sad that it’s necessary, but they do it right. It felt like everyone in security there was doing it because they believed that they were protecting their home and their country as well as the people on the plane. Walking through JFK felt like people were counting the minutes until they were done with their shift and maybe trying to avoid getting a slap on the wrist if they missed something.

Sabich

Another common question is about the food. We ate breakfast in the hotel every morning and boy do the Israelis take breakfast seriously! I’ve never seen a spread like that or as many different kinds of foods available. We had some good lunches and dinners too. Some of my favorites were Greco and Zozobra, but my favorite was a local place that a couple guys from work took us too called הסביח של עובד. I never would have successfully ordered without their help but my traditional Israeli sabich was great.

As for beer, I tried most of the common brands and even did a sampler at a brewery, but it was… not good. I don’t know if our tastes are that different or if they just don’t have good beer, but of the 10 or so different kinds that I tried, there weren’t any that I wanted to have again.

So all in all, it was a good trip. I’m very thankful for the opportunity to get out of my comfort zone and experience another culture, even if only for a week.

Jerusalem Tour

I spend a lot of my time at work collaborating with a team located in Israel. So when the opportunity arose to have the company send me over there for a week, I did the opposite of what I normally do for travel opportunities: I said yes.

There’s a 10 hour difference between home and Israel, so when we finally got to the hotel on Friday evening (local time) about 25 hours after leaving home, I didn’t really want to do much more than lay around for a day and recover. My co-worker convinced me that we should get outside to help get adjusted to the new timezone so we signed up for a tour of Jerusalem. There are a lot of things to see in Israel, but as a Christian, seeing Jerusalem and the surrounding area is pretty high on my list.

We’re staying at a nice hotel so we basically just asked the concierge what she recommended and asked her to sign us up for it. A bus picked us up from our hotel in Herzliya around 7am and after stopping at a couple other hotels and meeting up with some other groups, our group of around 40 people was on a bus headed from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. That’s about a one hour drive and we stopped along the way at a rest area for coffee and a bathroom break. (The rest area was Elvis themed. This is not a joke.)

We had a great tour guide, and along the way, he filled us in on a lot of useful local customs information (you generally pay to use bathrooms, always tip 10% or risk being chased into the street, etc). We learned about local agriculture (olives and grapes), why Israeli wine is better than Italian wine (drink too much Italian wine you get drunk, too much Israeli wine and you’re holy), and generally enjoyed seeing the terrain. I’m probably showing my ignorance here, but it was so much greener than I expected. The guide said that Israeli’s plant a tree every time a baby is born and that they are the only country who entered this century with more trees than the start of the previous one. that seems hard to prove but it’s hard to deny that they’re basically terraforming their country.

Our first stop was at a vantage point near Hebrew University northeast of the city [map]. I was immediately struck by the scale of the area. For example, when I read about Jesus walking from the city to the Mount of Olives, I think of that as a decent sized hike. Nope. It’s down through a valley (the Kidron Valley) and up the other side. If you told me you could run it in a minute I might not bet against you. Or how about the distance from Jerusalem to the Jordan River? It’s less than 20 miles! Most of the Biblical area of Israel would fit between West Seattle and Snoqualmie Pass, Puyallup and Bellingham. It raised some new questions for me such as when Jesus went into the wilderness for 40 days and was tempted, why weren’t there other people around him? You could probably have sat on a hill and watched him for most of it. Anyway, from this great vantage point, we could Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Jericho and the tip of the Dead Sea.

View of the city from a hill near Hewbrew University
Looking out towards Jericho and the Jordan River

From there we hopped back into the bus and drove to a spot near the bottom of the Kidron Valley looking up at the eastern wall of the city. To the east of us was the Garden of Gethsemane. We spent some time there looking at the ancient olive trees and visiting the Church of All Nations. Olive trees can live well over 1000 years and it’s not impossible (but realistically unlikely) that some of the trees were around when Jesus was there. The church was built most recently in the early 1900s after previous versions had been destroyed but there were still some well-protected sections of the mosaic floor that date back to around 300 AD. There is a rock in the front near the altar that is supposed to be the rock where Jesus prayed before he was betrayed.

From the Mount of Olives, across the Kidron Valley up to the eastern wall of the city
Garden of Gethsemane

At the next stop, we got off the bus and started the walking part of our tour. We entered the city from the west side of the via the Jaffa Gate. My first impression of the city was “Hmm… it’s weird that I’ve never thought about what this place looks like in real life.” Up until that point, the images in my head of Jerusalem were whatever was in various Bible story books. So many civilizations have destroyed and rebuilt the city over the years that it’s hard to know how much of today’s city matches what it looked like in Jesus’s time, but it’s probably not that far off. (The last time the walls were built was in the 1500s by the Ottomans.) The whole city has been destroyed and rebuilt so many times that it’s much higher than before but supposedly many of the holy sites are still in the same spot. The city is currently divided into four quarters for the Christians, Armenians, Muslims and Jews. You can generally flow pretty freely between the quarters.

City wall near Jaffa Gate
Narrow streets

From Jaffa gate, we wound our way through the narrow streets with limestone buildings rising up on each side. The first major stopping point was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This church is now inside the city walls but during Jesus’s time, it was outside the city and it’s where he was crucified, his body was anointed and where he was buried. There are a lot of things in this church that were supposedly touched by Jesus many people wait in long lines to touch them, make their items holy relics, etc.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Next stop: lunch! Doing that on my own would have felt intimidating but our guide had it all planned out. We ate lunch on the roof of a cafe with a great view of the city and my falafel pita sandwich was good too.

View from our lunch spot

After lunch, we continued our walk down the Via Dolarosa which is the path that Jesus took to his crucifixion. There are 14 stations along the way and we covered the final ones at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Going backwards is not the common way to travel it but it means you get to walk downhill and you also don’t have to follow the crowds of people walking the “proper” way up the path. This was the busiest and most crowded area of our whole tour. We took brief stops at some of the stations but mostly tried to keep moving and keep the group together.

Via Dolorosa

Around station 5 where Simon of Cyrene helped Jesus carry his cross, we broke off the Via Dolarosa and headed into the temple mount area. This is where the temple was and today this is where you find the famous “western wall”. I had been under the impression that this was the last remaining part of Solomon’s temple, but that’s not quite right. The wall we see now was finished around the time of Herod (~4 BCE). It was a retaining wall built around the area where the temple had been and we can only see the top half of the wall. The reason why Jews go to pray here is that the Holy of Holies from the original temple was on the other side of that wall. So this is the closest that we can get to the most holy place of Solomon’s temple. The most famous part of the western wall is in the Jewish quarter but it extends a long way into the Muslim quarter as well. I don’t have a great photo because this was one area where they really didn’t want you using technology on the Sabbath.

Western Wall

From the western wall, we walked along the top of the city wall and exited the city through Zion gate. Our next stop was Mt. Zion where we saw the room where Jesus had the Last Supper with his disciples and David’s tomb. Our guide noted that neither of these locations can be proven by archaeology, but they are likely very close to the correct area of the city.

Last Supper and David’s Tomb

The final part of our tour took us along the outside of the wall and back to our bus near the Jaffa gate. The bus ride back to Tel Aviv took about an hour and then our guide had taxis lined up to take us back to our various hotels.

Exterior wall on the walk back to the bus

Someone in our group said that we covered about 5 miles on foot and I believe it. It was a lot of walking and a long day, but it flew by in a blur. I took a ton of pictures along the way, not necessarily with the intent of capturing great photos (the internet is full of those), but to remember where we had been.

Overall I give this tour two thumbs up. Specifically, this was the “Jerusalem Old and New” full day tour by Ben Harim tours and our guide was Itamar. He did a great job of explaining all the locations while keeping our group together and answering questions along the way. He also stuck to the facts about the realities of having so many faiths together in one location rather than getting into the politics.

Many of the churches and holy sites kind of blended together for me because the appearance of those locations has changed so much since Jesus was there. Plus, it’s hard to know how much of the relics and artifacts are legit and even if they are, they don’t make a difference to my faith. I’m going to heaven because Jesus died for my sins, not because I touched a rock that he touched too. However, seeing the architecture and landscape while understanding the distances and relative locations of sites filled my head with a lot of visuals that I’ll draw on for the rest of my life. I’m so thankful for this opportunity!

Christmas 2019 In Indiana

This year we made the trek back to my parents house in Indiana for Christmas. While we didn’t get to enjoy sledding and playing the snow, we did enjoy easier travel with unusually warm weather.

We had a nice time playing lots of games, doing a puzzle, taking walks through the woods, hunting for golf balls on the golf course, lunch at the Studebaker brewery, buying treats at the South Bend Chocolate company, canoeing and taking a tour of the Oliver mansion with my grade school teacher.

As always, my parents deserve a huge thank you for putting up with six extra people in their house. They always make us feel welcome … and full. Yum!

Indiana Vacation

I posted earlier about our trip to Maine but that was only the first half of our summer vacation. From Maine, we drove back to Boston and then flew to Midway where Dad picked us up and took us back to Indiana.We spent just over a week there and had incredible weather! We went in the pool every day (often twice a day), visited the dunes, played putt putt, rode tractors and generally filled our time with lots of smiles and good food.

One big difference on this trip was that Don joined us for the second half of our time there. It was fun to finally show him where I grew up and Elijah loved having both Grandpa’s at the house at the same time!

I put together a video for this part of the trip as well and there are a couple family photos below.

Camp Ticawa 2019

If you search this blog for posts about “Camp Ticawa”, you’ll find a lot of entries. When I lived on the east coast, I frequently had the pleasure of hanging out with the Abendroth family at their place on Long Lake near Harrison, Maine.

Since moving to Washington, the trips have become a lot less frequenty. Tyla and I made it out there in 2011 and this year, we decided it was time to go back. Luckily the Abendroth clan was cool with us inviting ourselves out to invade their family vacation!

Getting to rural Maine from Woodinville with a 6 year old in tow isn’t easy. There weren’t any great options, but I think we ended up with a good one. Don was kind enough to get us to the airport by about 4:30am for a very early flight out of Seattle all the way to Boston. There we rented a car and made the ~3.5 hour drive up to camp. After factoring in the time change, we arrived around sunset.

We were blessed with beautiful weather all three days that we were there and we spent it floating down the Saco River, tooling around the lake on the pontoon boat, and relaxing around camp. It was great to catch up with old friends and meet a couple new faces as well. I can’t say enough thank you’s to the entire Abendroth family for letting us crash their family time! You all made us feel so welcome and we will cherish those memories forever!

Apparently, Jay had been passing around the old videos I made of camp and I was immediately asked by a number of the kids to make another one. So here we go! It’s the 2019 Camp Ticawa montage video: