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The Camel Jockey, Baptism and some Dead Scrolls

In the interests of self-preservation in the face of youthful children, I have (and I hang my head in shame) neglected to complete the last few entries of my blog. The intensity of the last few days of my journey in Israel left me with little time to spare and I was the proverbial chicken with its head lopped off. Then my sudden return to Aotearoa coincided with an overabundance of man flu which saw what little time I had devoted to not looking useless in front of my students.

Now, with some time to spare, I will attempt to reconstruct the last few days of the trip and provide some more insight into the incredible land of Israel.

The final Saturday of our time in Jerusalem was welcomed by a flurry of ice, snow and the usual crazy driving of the local populace. In New Zealand, cold and wet roads generally send cyclists and scooters/motorbikes into their garages for warmth and safety. Yet in Jerusalem, it seemed to provide added impetus to the road craft of two wheeled vehicles as they fought frenetically for street position amongst the steel cages dotted along the roads. It still amazes me that in our time in Israel, we only saw two significant accidents, though many cars did bear the scars of the fight for transit primacy.

We started off the day with a wish and a prayer, our tour guide – the remarkably knowledgeable Amir – informed us that the highway south to Masada was awash with flash flooding and closed. For some of us on the trip, this was akin to a punch in the guts. Masada is something that occupies any history of the Jewish struggle and as a qualified history nerd, to miss out on the physical experience of the place was distressing to say the least. Yet, not to be outdone, Amir improvised and instead of taking us to the controversial site of Jewish resistance, he directed the tour to a stop at sea level where we were accosted by a local lad charging 20 shekels for a brief camel ride.

You are now standing at sea level!

Now a camel is a most peculiar animal, something of a cross between a cat’s disdain for humanity and a teenager’s ability to speedily follow instructions. Somewhere within all that mirth and animosity resides an animal that moves only slightly less haphazardly than the sinking Titanic. Being ushered by a young man to mount the beast, I quickly found that fitted jeans are not made with the intention of ever having to ‘throw a leg over’ what is essentially a 500kg lump of dumb. Thus, much to my handler’s delight, I quickly proved that the camel was actually more intelligent than myself as I hammered my shin into the thick wooden edge of the saddle. Ten seconds later – after an extended use of sentence enhancers – I was perched precariously upon the great ship of the desert. Hanging on for dear life, my hands clawed for purchase as the camel slowly, and awkwardly, unfolded itself (in every sense of the word) into a standing position and proceeded to walk me in a two metre circle. Following the circle and a moment of ‘full control,’ the camel’s owner hastened the camel back into a sitting position – by hissing at it like a snake and looking at the camel like he just might punch it – and the incredible unfolding process repeated itself in reverse.

Eat your heart out Lawrence of Arabia.

Once free of the dromedarian curiosity, the group boarded a tour bus where we began our descent from sea level to the Dead Sea. Once we had arrived at the literal bottom of terra firma (some 400 metres below sea level), we turned north and headed towards some rather unexceptional military zones and a large tourist building.

Gotta love a uniform!

Here we discovered ourselves at the fabled site of the prophet Elijah’s ascension into heaven, the crossing point of the Israelite migration into Judea, and also the traditional site of John’s baptism of Jesus. The place, Qasr el Yahud or Al-Maghtas – depending on whether you are Jewish or Arab – sits right on the border between Israel and Jordan and until recently, has been completely inaccessible because historically, both Israel and Jordan played a huge game of tiddly-winks with landmines around the region. Now opened to the public, this historic place reveals a shallow and tremendously boring little creek that had been stained brown by the overnight rains. Needless to say, despite the historical contexts, the Jordan River is easily one of the least impressive things visible in Israel. However, I did make good use of my time at the river by dipping some Christian bling into the murky waters for my daughters, and I also got a cheeky photograph with two IDF soldiers who were happy to mug for pics.

Looking over the Jordan River to the Jordan country.

After some quick pics down at the water, with some of the more adventurous members of the group getting their feet wet, we drove out of the militarised zone, back towards a largely stark looking set of cliffs and a large tourist hot spot. Here we found ourselves at Qumran, the now famous discovery site of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The scrolls were discovered amidst the chasms and crags of the Judaean Desert in 1948 by a couple of Bedouin herders who, having lost an animal, began to throw rocks into caves in the hope of scaring the lost animal out. One of the caves they threw rocks into startled the herders who expected to either hear the echoes of stone bouncing off stone or, at the very least, the cries of a stone struck goat who had deserted its flock. Instead they heard the distinctive sound of pottery breaking. Overcoming their fear of the dark and jinns (potentially evil spirits thought to dwell in caves), the herders discovered a bunch of ancient canisters containing rolled parchment with inscriptions.

A facsimile of one of the more complete Dead Sea Scrolls.

To cut a long historical story short, the discovery of the parchment led to the exploration and discovery of eleven caves that divulged over 800 scrolls of varying importance and significance. Within the scrolls are fragments of all the Old Testament books except Esther, and the oldest surviving text of the book of Isaiah. Surprisingly, there is also a copper scroll reputed to reveal 64 locations where treasure from the Jewish temple were spirited away for safe keeping. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the time, nor enough knowledge of ancient Hebrew to successfully undertake a treasure hunt, and as such, I will not be retiring or purchasing a Harley Davidson anytime soon.

A Cave which contained scrolls and was probably a great place to chill and pray back in the day.

Putting aside thoughts of buried treasure, Qumran exposes tourists to the monastic style of life that the community – called the Essenes – must have lived by. Isolated from civilisation, the community would have spent the majority of its days engaged in the religious and communal life designed to prepare the Sons of Light, as the Essenes called themselves (who doesn’t like a superhero name?), for the final battle against the Sons of Darkness (obviously the Sith). However, sheltered and isolated as they were, the Sons of Light could not withstand the might of the Roman Legions and the site was abandoned sometime around 68CE. It is thought that the Essenes hid their writings in the caves above their community buildings rather than let them fall into the hands of the dastardly Romans.

Remnants of the Essenes’ community dwellings.

After a good deal of time spent getting trigger happy with our cameras at Qumran, it was time to make some choices. Amir sternly informed us that the road south to Masada was still closed, so we planned to visit the Dead Sea slightly earlier than expected and see if the road opened up later in the afternoon. So, with the dust of one of the earliest Judeo Monastic cultures on our feet, we headed east towards the liquid salt-fest where we were assured of a fantastic time.

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Surviving Extermination

Throughout Europe in the 1940s, the complete annihilation of European Jewry was one of the foremost goals of any of the German occupied states. To minimise the Holocaust and claim that the planned murder and execution of the Jews was completely a Nazi responsibility is nothing short of a lie. The Holocaust was supported not just by the Nazis, but by local body governments, by everyday peoples, by housewives and even children. The indoctrinated hatred of the Jewish peoples throughout Europe was rife and many people, legitimised by the Nazi government, harassed and murdered Jews. The most infamous death camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau, or Auschwitz Camp II, received Jews from Upper Silesia, Slovakia, the Netherlands, France, Belgium, Yugoslavia, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Italy, all of which would not have been possible without the explicit help of everyday citizens within those cities.

Once in Auschwitz, just as it was in any of the other death camps, death was inevitable. In the original documents that J.A. Topf und Söhne (J.A. Topf and Sons was the construction company responsible for the crematoriums at Birkenau) provided to the German Command, is the statement that the furnaces they designed would effectively cremate 4,756 corpses per day.

Yet within the vast figure, of almost 6,000,000 executions, there were people who managed to escape the German killing apparatus. Eventually these people, often a long time after the fact, began to tell their stories. Yesterday I had the privilege to meet three of these people and listen to their harrowing tales.

Daniel Gold (Lithuania).

Daniel was born in Šiauliai, Lithuania in 1937. In 1941, the Germans occupied Lithuania, and the Jews of Šiauliai were enclosed in a ghetto. Two years later, the German Aktions were carried out and people not strong enough to work were taken away and liquidated, this included all the old as well as the children. Amazingly, Daniel managed to hide in a potato cellar with his cousins during the Aktion. Daniel spoke about the fear that he experienced that day. The tiny space that they were hiding in was so cramped that David, who was six at the time, and his cousins had to stand, pressed into each other in silence throughout the day. They could hear the drunk Lithuanian soldiers clearing the properties around them: furniture breaking, dogs barking, crying mothers and their children, gun shots, soldiers singing and celebrating their successes. Trapped in silence, with little air, the children who were unable to leave were forced to defecate where they stood.

Hidden away for the next year within the ghetto, Daniel managed to escape alongside his two cousins and his aunt and uncle, two days before the ghetto was fully liquidated. Hiding with a Lithuanian family, Daniel survived the Holocaust and was eventually reunited with his father who was liberated from Dachau by the US 7th Army. His mother did not survive.

Yehudit Kleinman (Italy)

Yehudit was an Italian Jew living with her mother and grandmother when one night, her mother received a phone call that left her ashen. Without telling Yehudit what was happening, her mother packed several suitcases and then took Yehudit, alongside her grandmother to the local civic offices. Once there, Yehudit – who had still not been told anything – described the oppressive nature of the room. German officers stood around a man seated at a desk who was writing down information. There was a very real sense of fear and panic in the room, but people were for some reason, following the orders they were given. When Yehudit and her family arrived at the desk, she was very surprised to see her Christian neighbour standing alongside the man at the desk. Suddenly, the desk clerk looked at Yehudit and asked her who she wanted to go with, pointing at both her mother and the neighbour. Yehudit was only 6.

Yehudit looked first at her mother and was confronted with a fear and look that she could never forget. Her mother’s face was grim and determined, ashen and deathly, hostile and unwelcoming. In a split second decision, Yehudit somehow knew that her mother was no longer an option and signalled that she wanted to go with her neighbour. Immediately German soldiers forcibly removed Yehudit’s mother and grandmother from the room while holding back the six year old. Amid the cries and panic, Yehudit was pulled in by her neighbour. Without even an embrace or a goodbye, Yehudit found herself without her family. She would never see her mother, or her grandmother, again.

Dropped off at a Catholic convent, Yehudit pretended to be a Christian and once the war was over, was found by a Jewish organisation who relocated her to an orphanage in Israel.

Rena Quint (Poland)

As a three and a half year old girl in Poland, Rena was one of the first people to encounter the Nazi ghettoisation of the Jews in 1939. Originally from a family who owned a nice house in Piotrkow, the forced settlement of the Jews in her area meant severe crowding with very little food, medicine, and heating. With entire families forced into single rooms, typhus soon became rampant. Within these conditions, the families were held together by the women as many men were forced into the labour camps.

Just before she turned six, she experienced her first German Aktion. Sometime after midnight, German troops rounded up the families and herded them through the streets, whipping the women and children like they were animals. They were then crammed into the local synagogue with 2,000 other people and Rena can remember the sounds of shooting and crying in the streets around her. Anyone who couldn’t fit into the room was taken out into the Radomsk forest where they were forced to dig the ditches that ultimately became their graves. While in the synagogue, Rena noticed a man, Rena wasn’t sure if it was an uncle, motioning for her to run out the door. Despite the fear that was engulfing her, Rena ran out the door with the man. She doesn’t know how she ran, or whether her mother pushed her, but that was the last time she saw her mother, brothers and her extended family. They were taken to Treblinka and the gas chambers where their bodies were piled into open pits and burnt. To this day, she still wonders what her mother was thinking as ran out the door.

The man she had run out with eventually took her to her father, but what was he to do with her? Girls were useless. So her father cut her hair short and dressed her in boys clothing. He changed her name from Fredgia to Froyim and told her that she was to say that she was ten and could work. She then spent the next while working in the class factory as a boy until she was taken to Burgen-Belsen where, sitting amongst a pile of copses, she was liberated by the British in 1945.

During the Holocaust, all of Rena’s family were killed by the Germans. Remarkably, she eventually found herself in the USA with a loving family who renamed her Rena.

Daniel, Yehudit and Rena

In all, these survivors were the lucky ones. In many areas of Europe, no Jews survived the atrocities that befell their people. Yet in spite of all the horrors that Daniel, Yehudit and Rena faced, there remains within them a beautiful expression of humanism. While I am positive that many survivors succumbed to the evils they lived through, these three people exhibited a remarkable sense of peace that belied their journeys. Humour coupled with pessimism, and a journey defined by hope was evident in all of their stories, but by far the greatest light that shined from these people was their successes. Ultimately, Yehudit – whom I spent the afternoon with – found her ultimate success in revenge. The ability to marry and have children became symbolic of her victory over the Nazis who tried to destroy all the Jewish children. In this way, every Jewish child born became symbolic of the Nazi failure and the hope of a new Jewish nation.

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In the Footsteps of JC.

A walk in Jesus’ footsteps but with the advantage of not having to walk through all those damnable hills and valleys? Count me in! What better way to see the primary sites of Jesus’ early life and ministry than to get on a vivid orange bus and travel north from Jerusalem through Nazareth, past Magdala, and then stop off at Capernaum and go boating on the Sea of Galilee…

Showing the ancient Egyptians how it’s done at Tel Magiddo.

The exploration of Jesus’ footsteps began with a trip north from Jerusalem to Tel Megiddo, one of the most valuable archaeological sites in the world. A tel is basically a hill created by consequent layers of civilisation placed one on top of another over an extended period of time. The tel of Megiddo is a massive example of one of these, rising 60 metres above the plain of the Jezreel Valley and comprising of an area of 15 acres. The Tel itself dates back to the seventh millennia BCE (the early Neolithic period) and hosted the Canaanites, Egyptians, Israelites and Persians before finally fading from history sometime around the 3rd Century BCE.

What made the city so valuable was its tactical location. Located at a major strategic point on the Via Maris – the main trading route that travelled from Egypt northwards along the Mediterranean coast before turning east and heading into the modern day areas of Turkey, Syria, and Iraq. Basically, whoever controlled Megiddo controlled the trade route and the wealth of the region. It is little wonder then, that the town itself was primarily a military base and the remains of many stables testify to the large chariot armies that must have emanated from the city during times of hostility.

The excavations at Megiddo revealing the temple area from the Early Bronze Age.

One of the more amazing aspects to Megiddo is the city’s water supply. Originally water was taken from a spring outside the hill of the city, but sometime in its ancient past, the ruler of the city had a vertical shaft dug 36 metres straight down within the city walls. The vertical shaft then had a connecting horizontal shaft dug 70 metres through solid stone to meet up with the spring and channel water into the city. The spring itself was then covered over and hidden, allowing the city a permanent water supply during periods of siege. One can only imagine the amounts of hard labour, presumably slave based, that worked to create this massive irrigation system.

Looking down the main water shaft at Megiddo.

In more modern biblical history, Megiddo is foretold in the Revelation of John as the place of the final battle between good and evil. The actual Hebrew name Har Megiddo was corrupted by the Greek translation of the bible and, with the dropping of the ‘H’ and the addition of an ‘E’ or two, became the more recognised word, Armageddon. So the end of days will be apparently be fought here within the Jezreel Valley out in front of Tel Megiddo.

Following our encounter with Tel Megiddo, we modernised a bit (going from 300BCE to 3BCE) and travelled to the Palestinian city of Nazareth. Nazareth stood in stark contrast to the Jewish quarters we had previously seen. Narrow streets and a lack of civic maintenance really had a few of us questioning just how the Israeli state allocated funds within its territories. Nevertheless, we made our entrance into the hilltop community and walked towards the Basilica of the Annunciation. As someone who has previously struggled with Marian theology, and who has only really begun to explore it in the last few years, I was questioning how I would feel or respond spiritually to the place. The basilica itself is believed to have been built over the place in which Mary was told by the angel Gabriel that she would bear the son of God. The structure which stands above Mary’s home is a stunning example of architecture. Designed by a Jewish architect for the Roman Catholics and built by Muslims, it really is a testament to the diverse cultures that exist within the region. This cultural theme is then further emphasised by the numerous mosaics and images of Mary that adorn both the basilica and its grounds. These images, gifted by Catholic communities around the globe, depict Mary in the cultural traditions of that region. From African, to Chinese, to Russian, the art works and depictions are stunningly beautiful. One image hard to miss is the American depiction of Mary. This picture is three dimensional and created from glass, bronze and aluminium. Our tour guide told us that the image is composed of materials from the Apollo Missions, but I found nothing to support that so will take that information with a grain of salt. Interestingly, the site was spiritually uplifting and really prompted a questioning of the role and importance of Mary within the Catholic faith. This is certainly an area that I will continue to explore.

The Basilica of the Annunciation, the place where Mary was visited by the angel Gabriel.

Following the experience at the Basilica of the Annunciation, we headed off to the Church of St Joseph, a structure little more than a hundred metres from the Basilica of the Annunciation. This church is built on the remains of a Jewish home dating back to the time of Christ and while there is no evidence to support the notion that it is the home that Jesus was raised in, it is interesting to see the ritual bath, storage areas and beautiful church that surrounds it.

The church which sits above the presumed home of Jesus and his father Joseph.

At this point we were hurried back to our bus and experienced the joys of the underdeveloped Nazarene street system. Facing a traffic jam of moderate – but extremely slow – proportions, we were astounded as drivers took liberties around the bus, around each other, and around the foot path. Not to be deterred, our bus driver pulled a U-turn in the middle of the traffic jam and proceeded to another one where regular horn use, dramatic gesturing and enthusiastic posturing from locals was the order of the day.

After escaping the hustle of Nazareth, we headed off to lunch at Magdala. Magdala is a small town on the shores of Galilee and is most famous for its connection with Mary Magdalene, the female disciple from Jesus’ posse. Mary in the Gospels is famous for having seven demons exorcised, but there was no demonology to be seen as we settled into the local restaurant for lunch. Here we were introduced to the local experience of service. While Mary was faced with demons, we were faced with staff who made every effort to serve us well, but with language and cultural barriers and a limited amount of time in our pocket, the experience was one of the most confusing I have ever had. With most of us looking awkwardly at each other – and the odd sideways glance – we ate a relatively sumptuous meal; unless you ordered steak. Meat in Israel must be kosher, which means bloodless and salted, in other words, killed beyond belief.

From lunch, we then travelled north up to the town commonly associated with Jesus’ early life and ministry, Capernaum. Capernaum was a small Jewish town on the northern shore of Lake Galilee. It was from this small town that Jesus is reported to have recruited the fisherman Simon, better known as Peter, the apostle on whom Jesus’ new church was founded upon. It is also the place where Jesus performed twelve miracles including the healing of Simon-Peter’s mother. The town is now just a series of ruins, but central to the city are the rebuilt remains of a white Jewish synagogue. This building is actually built upon the original synagogue contained within the city and is likely the synagogue that Jesus drew massive crowds to as he preached. The New Testament acknowledges that sometimes the crowd was so big that Jesus needed to speakoutside the synagogue and archaeological evidence has revealed a massive courtyard on the western side of the temple. It is assumed that this is the area in which Jesus delivered his message to the gathered crowds.

The White Synagogue in Capernaum, residing over the remains of the original Synagogue dated to the time of Jesus.

Once finished with Capernaum, we headed off to Ginosar where we boarded the slightly infamous Jesus boats. These boats are large vessels that take tourists on trips around Galilee to see sights such as Tiberius, Capernaum, the Mount of the Beatitudes and the area where Jesus performed the miracle of the fish and the loaves. Hilariously, the boat ride began with the raising of the New Zealand flag and the singing of the New Zealand national anthem – beginning with the Te Reo. From there, the boat began to crank out happy clapper church songs, with a bias towards Hillsong styled Christian hymns. At this point, the boat’s First Mate headed out onto the deck and promptly initiated a call to arms which resembled a local folk dance. Never one to miss an embarrassing opportunity, I dived into the local dance and proceeded to get my white boy dance moves into gear. Fortunately, my impression of a dying flamingo did not jeopardise the ability of the boat to sail, and nor did it promote feelings of sea sickness in the observant passengers. Following what is probably the worst example of communal dancing ever witnessed in both the Eastern and Western Worlds, the boat returned to shore and released us for the long ride back to Jerusalem.

The Jesus Boat on the Sea of Galilee at sunset.

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Blindly Stumbling Through History

Please note, there are no photographs for this post as I don’t carry a camera running. I will ensure that there are pics up before the end of the week.

After another fantastic four hours of sleep (seriously body, this is getting ridiculous), I decided to don the running gear and go for a run from the hotel to the famous Jaffa Gate. The Jaffa Gate – which is a part of the walls surrounding the Old City of Jerusalem – was commissioned by Suleiman the Magnificent in 1538. Just inside the gate are two tombs which, legend has it, belonged to the two engineers who Suleiman put in charge of building protective walls around Jerusalem. Unfortunately for the engineers, they seem to have misunderstood Sule’s instructions and they did not include Mt Sion and King David’s tomb within the wall’s enclosure. As punishment, they were executed, but because they had done such an impressive job with the walls, Sule gave them the honour of being buried within the Jaffa Gate in the Old City.

The run to the Jaffa Gate took me along the light rail line and at 6am, there was little to no evidence of life in the city. Cruising up and down the hills, the soft beige of the Jerusalem Sandstone (the city is modelled on the Henry Ford philosophy of: you can build in any colour and form you want as long as it involves Jerusalem Stone) framed the darker paving stones of the road and gave a sense of timelessness to the markets and commerce areas that increase the closer you get towards the Old City.

As I entered through the gates, the age of the city was immediately obvious. Instead of the roughhewn sandstone that decorates the modern city of Israel, the roads and paths within the Old City have been worn smooth over the centuries. These shiny pathways had me cautiously navigating the avenues in an attempt to not fall face forward and add my own blood to the historical collection embedded within the stones.

As I blindly ran around the city streets, I soon found myself in the courtyard of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Originally built by St Helen (the mother of Emperor Constantine) in 330CE, the church has been destroyed and rebuilt several times over the centuries. The Church itself houses the most important physical sites for the Christian faith – the place of Jesus’ crucifixion and His resurrection. However, this history was completely lost on me as I began to explore what was essentially an empty building. Toddling around the passages, I was reliving my childhood fantasies of Indiana Jones styled adventures. With my sweaty runner’s face, I walked around in circles, jogged up and down stairs and had literally no idea what each altar meant (there are altars around every corner with icons, candles and prayer intercessions scattered left, right and centre). I walked into one enclave and thought it looked important so whipped out a quick Pater Noster – in English of course – to feel suitably Catholic. I then wandered down some stairs into a lower recess and was confronted by a room filled with a giant chandelier, many swinging lanterns and a massive artwork of the crucified Jesus on the wall. Obviously thinking that I had discovered something important, I walked to the side of the room to see if there was anything that I could explore behind the altar. In the far right of the room I discovered a tiny steel door set in stone that was heavily padlocked. Feeling suitably ripped off, I naturally assumed that the door had blocked me from exploring what was obviously the path to the tomb of Christ. Little did I know, but I had actually stumbled across the site in which St Helen had discovered – quite conveniently in 327CE – the true cross alongside two other crosses in a cistern. So here I was – an idiotic runner – completely alone at the site of one of the most questionable miracles, looking for a bloody tomb. I can only imagine Jesus looking down and face palming Himself as he watched me explore the back of the altar for secret passageways. How my grandfather must be turning in his grave.

After failing to discover anything super explorable, I walked back up the stairs and began my reconnoitre of the church once more. Currently, the church is undergoing a massive amount of renovation and as I walked around the building, the massive amounts of scaffolding and sheeting had me unaware of where I was within the building. Eventually I came into a larger room with a big tower of scaffold and white plastic sheeting in the centre. Not paying too much attention to what was in the room, I casually walked around the sheeting and discovered a whole bunch of monks and a few nuns looking suitably holy. The next thing I knew, an organ (I still don’t know where it was) kicked into gear and three priests entered the area. Suddenly it dawned on me that I had stumbled into an early morning mass. Moreover, it was a sung mass and it was all in Latin; what an opportunity! Here I was, wearing active wear, still covered in sweat, participating in a Latin mass in the holiest church in Christianity.

As the service progressed, the officiating priest would disappear into the plastic scaffold structure only to emerge with the various tools of the Catholic trade. At this point the sun had risen enough to reveal that the service was being conducted under a massive dome. It then dawned on me that the service was being conducted in the church’s rotunda at – what I would later discover – was the place of Jesus’ tomb and resurrection. Once again, Captain Ignorant had no idea of the significance of the place of the service he was in attendance at.

Note to future self: it might pay to do a little more research into the places I may potentially run into during forthcoming travels.

Once the service had finished, I took my extremely out of place self (who wears short sleeved activewear to a service in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the middle of winter?) back onto the streets of the Old City to find my way back to my hotel. On the return journey (which seemed to be completely up hill), the formally empty streets had opened themselves up and I ran through throngs of young women in army fatigues who jostled for sidewalk superiority with Hasidic Jews riding electric bicycles, their beards and coats flying behind them. Muslim men and women boarded trains alongside young Jewish children wearing kippah with bright modern patterns and I couldn’t help but feel suitably impressed with this city that oozes culture and faith from every pore.

On the way back to my hotel, to emphasise the erratic nature of my early morning jaunt, I managed to somehow tear my running shorts on something as I navigated my way past a series of rubbish collection points. Now, by tear, I mean that I literally ripped one half of my shorts off. So there I was, trying to look fit and confident, with my underwear showing off my chicken legs and the Nation of Israel all coming out to have a laugh. So I did the only thing possible. I tucked the ripped part of the shorts into my waist, exposed the bright aqua liner of the shorts and proceeded to run as if my pants were purchased like that and were all the rage on the catwalks of Milan. Even now, I still firmly believe that no one noticed the over-sharing of skinny upper thigh as I ran alongside the light rail full of Israelis heading off to work for the day.

Arriving back at the hotel, I had just enough time to shower and dress before I boarded the bus that was to take us to the Yad Vashem education centre. All this before 7:45am – what would the rest of the day have in store?

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Operation Chromite and arrival in Israel

Incheon at night looking over the Central Park

As I prepared to board the Korean Air 747 in Christchurch, I couldn’t help but think about the age of the global 747 fleet and whether or not I was actually boarding a plane old enough to be a grandparent. However, images of engine failures and lengthy plunges into the cold ocean were soon overcome as the professionalism of the Korean crew and pilots put any fears to bed. I mean, if we were to crash, it would be so precise and controlled that the air hosts would probably provide all the passengers with seaweed soup as we exited the crippled plane.

Anyway, regardless of my initial fears, some quick research showed me that the plane was in fact a 747-8i and as such, was probably built no earlier than 2012. After sitting through a safety video that left me somewhat cold (Air New Zealand’s are soooo much better), I found myself – four movies and eleven hours later – touching down in Incheon, South Korea.

Incheon, for those who find the name unfamiliar, is an ancient Korean city most famous (in the West) as the scene of the American General, Douglas MacArthur’s most decisive military victory. As the primary organiser behind Operation Chromite, MacArthur led a UN amphibious force into Incheon where he captured the city and the port, and ultimately gave the UN army the necessary advantage that allowed them to defeat the North Korean Army during the Korean War.

Northeast Asia Trade Tower, Incheon (305m)

Needless to say, South Korea is a stunning place. In Incheon, massive skyscrapers dwarf the pristine city streets and everything seems to be designed with thought and splendor in mind. Even the gardens, trees, walkways and rocks appear to have been perfectly placed to enhance feelings of peace and beauty.

One of the highlights of the Korean leg would have to be the Korean toilets. Now in various situations in life I have often heard mention of these fantastical devices. Mostly, those telling the tales do so with a kind of wide eyed awe coupled with a knowledge of adventure that we mere mortals could only grasp at. I now believe that I can join that club, but in the interests of honesty, I will endeavor to describe these marvels of the art of ablutions.

The first thing I noticed about Korean toilets was the amount of buttons that one can push. Needing no further encouragement, I positioned myself on the toilet and began to do what any rational male would do when faced with so many buttons with Korean glyphics – I hit every button possible in no specific order to see what would happen. Well, after some initial surprises, I came to the following conclusions. The first button, it would seem, initiates stage 5 water blasting and high pressure colonic irrigation (I was not a particular fan of this and immediately began to push every button within reach to end the suffering). Button two was much more civilized – a warm cleansing spray of water provided a much more relaxed pathway to nether region hygiene. Finally, button three seemed to be reserved for women only – either that or I was sitting incorrectly on the damn thing which possibly meant that I needed to revise buttons one and two. Finally, there was a series of small buttons that I eventually worked out controlled the heat of the bottom cleansing water and the seat itself. Now call me soft, but after sitting on a heated toilet seat, no other toilet experience will ever be comparable. This is something that all New Zealand toilets need.

Giant bed. Like MASSIVE bro!

After a stay in a hotel where the bed seemed made for a giant and the food was oustanding, groups of us managed to brave the -7 degree Celsius morning for a walk around the city before we once again boarded another Korean Air plane and strapped ourselves in for another 11 hour flight. This flight was a little different as we knew that we would be passing close to zones of conflict and there were a few bets as to which route the plane would take. Obviously, Korean airliners and Russia don’t have the best track record (Russia has shot down two Korean passenger planes, one in 1978, the other in 1983), and we would want to avoid the skies around Syria for obvious reasons. Thus, no one was too surprised when we almost avoided Russia completely and flew the long way into Tel Aviv by flying out across Cyprus and the Mediterranean via Turkey.

Just hanging out with the Emperor and Empress of Korea

Once in Israel we quickly attempted to get through customs but were slowed down by a massive influx of several planes all at the same time. We had heard stories about the Israeli security and we had become apprehensive in the long queues. By the time I got to customs, I was sure that I looked like a suicide bomber to any number of the airport security who were wandering around ensuring that we played by their rules. Once I got to my customs officer I did my best to look charming and innocent; I needn’t have bothered as the woman behind the counter didn’t say a single thing to me and ushered me through with as much disdain as is humanely imaginable. Heading off to our hotel in Jerusalem, the night hid the wonders of the ancient city and its stories. With almost the whole tour party falling over with exhaustion, the tangible expectation of what we would see, learn and discover over the next few weeks had everyone participating in various levels of stupid.

Tomorrow would be our first day in one of the most influential cities in Western history.