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Total immersion, 300kmph, and bamboo flavoured poo.

Following the visit to Malong, the next big event that had the boys nervously excited was the day that was to be spent with the Chinese families. Unlike other situations, where less confident boys could exist behind the language skills of the more developed Chinese speakers, being by themselves would ensure that there was nowhere to hide (cue clichéd horror music from the shower scene of Psycho).

Thus, on our way to the pick up zone, we saw a combination of false bravado (picture a Chihuahua holding its ground to a Rottweiler), quiet contemplation, and straight cut fear. However, despite the fears, the boys found their time with their families to be the most rewarding experience of the trip and we have decided to share an example from one of the boys’ diaries below:

Jakob Hoogenboezem

Jakob and his host family for the day. The blonde man on Jakob’s left was the family’s adopted Romanian orphan, Magnus.

Today was the best day yet. The second we walked into the school I could tell that today was going to be awesome. I saw a young girl holding up a sign with my name in it. I approached her and introduced myself. Her name was Jessica and she was very kind.

We went to a shop and baked cupcakes and cake pops which was so much fun. We than had lunch which was Hao Chai and it was delicious. Then we went to Wu Chan, China’s oldest running market. During the trip, I chatted constantly with Jessica, her sister, her mum and her friend. Jessica became quite a good friend!

It was challenging because her English wasn’t very good but I managed to still talk with her.

We had dinner then bused back to the uni to home. She gave me a gift and we said our goodbyes. I thanked her for her hospitality and gave her some gifts.

Today it really showed me how hard it can be for others who are in New Zealand with a very small vocabulary. Today I loved it and it brought me a lot of joy. I even had a tear in my eye as it was such a memorable time. I will always remember this and will treasure it. Thanks for the nice day Jessica and Co.!

While the boys were out fraternising with the locals, the teaching staff were taken to the East Lake Scenic area. This is a massive park and nature reserve (87 square kilometres) that has been extensively developed with interconnecting paths and walkways. The place is renown for its picturesque landscapes, and on any given day, brides and grooms can be seen making the most of the stunning scenery during their pre-wedding photoshoots.

The happy couple just before they were photobombed by Mrs Kennedy.

Another great aspect of the area are the plenitude of cycleways and easy to access bicycles. For one Chinese dollar, you can hire a bike for a half-hour to explore the area. Being generally a bit slower than the boys, the staff opted to get tickets on the electric carts that drove us around the lakes, and gave us a fantastic view of both the greenery and the locals.

Mrs Kennedy, Mrs Shields, and Ping just before a round of dynamite fishing on the lake; a very cheap experience at only 10 Yuan a stick.

The East Lake Moto GP officials struggled to get all racers to go in the right direction.

The day following the family day was uneventful, with only a test and some shopping to break up the day. We had originally planned to leave Wuhan on the overnight train, but some struggling timetable logistics meant that there were to be some changes to the original schedule. Instead of taking the overnight train, we were now booked on the following morning’s high speed train to Beijing.

Life’s a whole long journey so before your grow to old, don’t miss the opportunity to strike a little gold…

The train itself looks exactly as you would imagine, long and sleek with a tapered front end. After being ushered through ticketing, we soon discovered that the trains are not ideally set up for large travelling groups. This forced us to spin the movable rows of seats so that each pair faced each other. In the space provided behind the turned chairs, we jammed in our suit cases. While solving the issue of the baggage, we had created a new issue. The chairs, now facing each other, had limited space and we all found ourselves with interlocked knees, and zero leg room, for the five and a half hour ride to Beijing.

Sleeping beauties.

However, as cramped as we were, the students generally made the best of the situation, with people sharing spaces, wandering up and down the train, and sleeping where and whenever possible. This was made slightly more bearable by the spectacular sight of the countryside and cities whizzing by at some 300kmph.

William Topham killing two birds with one stone. Having a nap while cleaning up everyone else’s rubbish.

When we arrived in Beijing, we were immediately ushered through the crowds to see the Beijing Zoo’s Panda exhibit. The Pandas are a major source of pride for the Chinese, and the animals are extremely comical. Like plush toys the size of a medium dog, the Giant (whoever named them giant must have had a seriously good stash of opium) Pandas rolled around, ate and defecated – much to the amusement of the boys. There is nothing quite so hilarious to a teenage boy as a Panda pushing poo off its mini zoo fort.

The most active Panda caught in between its favourite activities, pooing, eating, and sleeping.

After viewing the Panda enclosures, we had about twenty minutes to see the rest of the zoo (for future reference, an hour at a zoo is far too little time). Unfortunately, the Beijing Zoo hasn’t kept up with the rest of the world. Its enclosures are tired, run down, and do not emulate the open spaced and unfenced enclosures of large modern zoos. It was quite sad to see large animals pacing in small spaces, and the Polar Bear looked so forlorn that many of our boys walked away feeling extremely sorry for it.

The unhappiest Polar Bear on the planet.

After another dinner at a nice restaurant, it was an early night for the boys. The following day was our ANZAC day and we had booked a spot at the New Zealand Embassy to commemorate the event. For the boys, that would mean a telephone call from the hotel staff at 3:30am to ensure that we were there on time!

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Independence, Fighting Fit and Peanut Butter

The start of our day began with a trip to Tel Aviv where we visited Independence Hall, the place where the State of Israel was declared back on May 14, 1948. The sight of the announcement occurred in the house of the first mayor of Tel Aviv, Meir Dizengoff who had converted his own house into an art gallery after his wife’s death. Eventually the gallery was renovated and served as the Tel Aviv museum until 1971.

A sculpture of Dizengoff outside his former house.

However, in 1948, the museum was to serve a more important purpose. The Jewish people were in the middle of a bitter civil war with the Arab peoples of Palestine who had laid siege to Jerusalem, and the British Mandate was set to expire the following day. Unable to declare independence from their spiritual capital, the Jewish leadership decided to use the Tel Aviv Museum on account of its ability to also act as a safe house in the event of a bombing. Invitations were sent out to important members of the public asking them to show up at 3:30pm the following day and to keep the meeting secret. Nevertheless, the next day crowds camped out in front of the museum and welcomed the leaders as they entered the building.

At 4:00pm, David Ben-Gurion began to recite the scroll of the Establishment of the State and approximately sixteen minutes later he asked Rabbi Fishman to say a traditional Jewish blessing. 25 members of the Moetzet HaAm (the Provisional State Council) signed the document – 12 members could not as they were trapped in Jerusalem. Once the members of the Moetzet HaAm had signed the document, the anthem Hatikvah played, following which Ben-Gurion announced to the world, “The State of Israel is established! This meeting is adjourned!” This then turned what was essentially a civil war into a war of independence as the neighbouring Arab nations of Trans-Jordan, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq all declared war against the new Israeli state.

David Ben-Gurion’s Place Marker and microphone (centre) in Declaration Hall.

Ignoring the political, military and social consequences of the signing, the site of the declaration is still a huge part of Israeli pride. Within the museum, the room in which the scroll was signed still remains in its original state (after being recreated by David Gafni, the man who had originally set up the hall). Around that walls are reproductions and originals of the art works that stood in the room as the declaration scroll was signed, including works by Marc Chagall and other Jewish painters. Finally, above the main table and sandwiched between two banners that would become the Israeli flag is a massive portrait of Theodor Herzl, the man who dreamed the Israeli state into being.

Declaration Hall within the Independence Museum, the place where the State of Israel came into being.

Following our time at Independence Hall our next port of call was the stunning Palmach Museum. The Palmach – established in 1941 – was the attack wing of the Hagana, the armed force dedicated to the defence of the Jewish communities prior to the establishment of the State of Israel.

The Palmach was made out of youthful conscripts, both male and female in their late teens and early twenties. These recruits received vigorous training to prepare them for the armed conflict and sabotage missions that they would be exposed to. Early on in their creation, weapons and equipment were in short supply and units might only share one pistol or a rifle between them. This changed when the British Army recruited the Hagana to help them in their defence against the German forces under Rommel in North Africa. Suddenly, the Palmach had weapons and equipment at their disposal and used this to effectively train the youthful soldiers.

However, after Rommel’s defeat in May 1942, the British no longer needed the support of the Palmach and Hagana and requested their equipment back. Unsurprisingly, the British equipment wasn’t exactly forthcoming. The loss of British support also meant that the Palmach could no longer support itself and it faced the threat of disbandment. This was remedied by Yitzhak Tabenkin, the head of the Kibbutz Union (a kibbutz was a communal farm in British Palestine), who helped to keep the Pulmach alive by assigning platoons to the various kibbutzim. The Pulmach then worked a monthly schedule that involved 8 training days, 14 work days farming the kibbutz, followed by seven days off.

The Pulmach continued to exist and engaged in operations against both the British – in an attempt to force them out of Palestine – and the Arabs, in both a defensive and offensive capacity, oftentimes against civilian populations. The museum attempts to recreate the experiences of a Pulmach platoon from its inception during World War II through to the Pulmach’s assimilation into the Israeli Defense Forces in 1948 and the end of the Israeli War of Independence. As an experimental museum there are no normal displays or photographs. Instead groups are led on a journey that is seen through the eyes of the individual soldiers during the existence of the Pulmach. This journey includes watching battle scenes and listening to the stories of the soldiers as they experience both triumph and tragedy.

Members of the Israeli Defense Forces strutting their stuff in Tel Aviv. The Pulmach and Hagana were the forerunners of these modern units.

The actual museum is run by the Israeli Defense Forces and we were guided through our tour by two young female soldiers. Unsurprisingly, the extreme nationalism evident in the museum failed to mention some of the more questionable actions of the Pulmach, especially incidents in which they deliberately attacked Arab residential zones with the sole purpose of destroying them. Atrocities aside, the museum was a fantastic experience and really brought to life the fears and desires of a blossoming Israeli nation.

Following a visit to the Pulmach Museum, we then took a quick ride out to the city of Jaffa. To cut a long story short, we used the opportunity to frolic ankle deep in the Mediterranean and eat a vast quantity of caramel and peanut gelato. It seems that the residents here have a particular fondness for peanut butter flavour and it can be found in just about any snack, including chips, and I for one, cannot complain!

Standing ankle deep in the Mediterranean. The locals thought we were nuts, we thought the water was warm!

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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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Shabbat and the Old City

On Friday morning I woke and trotted off to the gym. Little did I know, but being the day of Shabbat, Israel tends to run on a different time, and despite my enthusiasm, I was too early for the gym and was forced to go for another run around the city. If I knew how much walking I would have to do further in the day, I might have foregone the running option.

Leaving our hotel, we – the New Zealand group of educators – were introduced to our guide for the day. Our guide, Amir is an archaeologist from the Hebrew University with a plethora of knowledge and dad jokes that he spreads throughout his commentaries with great gusto (Why do archaeologists need counselling? Because their lives are in ruins.).

It was Amir’s job to oversee us for the next two days and introduce us to the historical side of Israel. First up was a trip to the Old City, past the Lions and Golden Gates, through to our entrance, the stunningly named Dung Gate. On the way past the Golden Gate, we got our first look across the Kidron Valley (Valley of Jehosafat) to the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane. Next to these significant Christian landmarks is sited the oldest Jewish cemetery on Earth. Jewish tradition states that in the Final Judgement, the people buried here will be the first raised to new life, effectively giving them all a front row seat to the dawning of the New Jerusalem.

Looking out from the Old City to the Mount of Olives and the oldest Jewish cemetery.

From the Dung Gate, we side stepped the numerous Hasidic Jews begging for coin, and entered into the Ophel Archaeological Park. The park itself sits south and south-west of the Al-Aqsa Mosque and is a live site, meaning that parts of it are still being explored. So far the site has managed to unearth the remnants of the Temple Mount, dating back to the period of the Second Temple, 530BCE – 70CE.

The place is incredible and the depth of the digging to reveal the ancient stones is extensive. Here, with some imagination (helped in part by a range of videos, sketches, and photographs), one can imagine how the city must have looked and felt around the time of Jesus. One of the more special aspects of the park are the steps that reach towards the Al-Asqa Mosque. These steps are the original steps that Jewish people walked upon when taking sacrifices up to the temple. They are also the place where Jesus himself would have walked during his time in Jerusalem. Indeed, so significant are these ruins that Neil Armstrong, while touring the Park in 2007, said to his tour guide, “I am more excited stepping on these stones than I was stepping on the moon.”

The original stairs of the temple during the Second Temple Period, the same stairs that Jesus would have used.

Viewing the Al-Asqa Mosque from the archaeological park.

From the park, we walked up and around to the most spiritual place for modern Judaism, the Wailing Wall. This part of the exposed brick work of the original Temple Mount is the last link that the Jewish People have to the Great Temple which housed their Holy of Holies. Here, thousands of Jews and Christians gather to pray and seek intercession from God. On the day we visited, the Muslims were having their big prayer services up at the Al-Asqa Mosque and there were riot police wandering around in a heightened state of tension. Apparently, the Muslims can sometimes get a bit worked up and begin throw stones off the Temple Mount down onto the Jewish people praying below. At that point, the riot police have to run up a causeway into the Muslim zone of control to contain the violence. It is a job that is fraught with danger and the Israeli authorities do not take any chances. Just as the call to prayer began to ring out, our tour guide and armed guard decided that for safety reasons, they would escort us out of there and into the Jewish Quarter of the Old City.

Israeli riot police prepare for any outcomes at the Wailing Wall.

Getting spiritual at the Wailing Wall.

To cut a long story short, we then spent the afternoon wandering through the stalls, ancient streets and building of the Old City, learning about how the city may have looked and functioned two centuries ago. After a proper tour of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (where I finally got to learn what all the rooms I had previously visited were), my mate Pete and I ambled back to the city and through the markets to pick up some snacks. Now if you haven’t had the privilege of visiting a Middle Eastern market, then you should put it on your bucket list.

The entrance to the markets – insanity at its finest, a treat not to be missed!

The markets are action packed avenues of every imaginable nut, candy, piece of clothing, and odds and ends. Muslim, Christian, Jew, and tourist all jostle and bump as they navigate the throngs to argue with the store owners and try to secure the best dollar for their products.

The process of securing the best price for their product is an art in itself. Store owners go through a range of emotions in their attempts to sell produce. Initially they are extremely positive, insisting that their *name of produce* is the best in all of Jerusalem. On naming a low price, they then look almost insulted, before reminding you that they need to feed their families and that they couldn’t possibly part with their item for that price. A brief exchange then follows with the shopkeeper parrying away lower prices while thrusting pricier options under your nose. While this is all going on, there are arms waving, dramatic posturing and gesturing, weeping and gnashing of teeth, and emphatic points of order. From a social perspective, it is literally something that requires an overdub of David Attenborough…

“And here we have the Armenian store keeper attempting to sell a Christian Cross to an unsuspecting American tourist. Note how the Armenian assumes a lower stance than the tourist, a cleaver trick designed to make the tourist think that they have the upper hand; meanwhile, the store keeper knows that they have forty other identical blessed-by-the-Pope rosary beads and that with the tourist reaching for their wallet, a sale is guaranteed.”

Following the markets, we rushed back to the hotel just in time to ensure we were ready for the Shabbat.

In the Jewish faith, the new day starts at Dusk in the early evening, and the celebration of Shabbat begins in earnest when three stars become visible in the night sky. Once dressed, the group headed out onto the nearly empty streets – Jews are forbidden from creative work during Shabbat and driving is included in this – and walked to the local synagogue. Here I was treated to what can best be described as organised chaos. The actual service follows a very strict schedule, but it is what goes on around that schedule that is the fun part of participating in a Jewish service. Men wander around, shaking hands and making plans on the sly. People bob up and down to the rhythm of the Hebrew prayers giving the congregation the impression of a slow motion mosh pit. Men eagerly sing jaunty tunes while the odd man ad-libs with clapping and scat and children run around like there is nothing going on.

Showing off my colour coordinated ensemble for the service at the synagogue. Note how the kippah more than hides my bald patch!

At the conclusion of the service, there is a lot of catching up between men and women (who sit separately from the men during the service), before everyone rushes off to dinner. Now meals over the Shabbat period have to be all pre-prepared as people are not allowed to work. So when we got to the hotel, we sat down for a series of Jewish prayers and blessings before we got stuck into the richness of the Jewish religious foods. Must haves here are the gefilte fish and the chopped chicken liver. I won’t go into detail here, but these two food are completely in the realms of the love or hate relationship. I for one had no problem with them, but I am firmly of the belief that if it breathes, then it is edible. Unfortunately, the gag reflexes of some of my colleagues indicated that my approval of the Jewish customary foods was not shared by all. Yet, after a long and tiresome day, with a few beers to wash down the pulped fish and chicken livers, I went to bed suitably full and happy.

 

 

 

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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.

 

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Jaffaville and a few light refreshments.

So after much toing and froing I managed to finally pack the ‘mid-sized’ suitcase borrowed from my in-laws. By midsized, I mean large enough to store a body in as long as you had some good butchering skills and a few power tools you wouldn’t mind getting a wee bit unsanitary. However, I have seen videos of migrants squeezing themselves out of similar size suitcases, so providing you were inclined to put a hit on someone, you would need to ensure that either they were very flexible, or that you had the aforementioned power tools.

Regardless, having the medium sized case and a desire to face any eventuality, I arrived at Christchurch Airport with a slight feeling of trepidation. Glaring at my medium case with the kind of hostility usually reserved for career criminals by judges, the Air New Zealand staff only saw my case as an occupational health and safety risk and quickly questioned the weight of the case. With a quick smile – designed to overcome any hostility and bag inspections – I cheerfully replied that my bag only weighed 18kgs. Begrudgingly, the staff at the bag check motioned to the conveyer belt and signaled that I should put the bag on myself. Maintaining my air of pleasant charm and grace, I managed to nonchalantly hoist the case onto the ramp and sauntered off as if it were the lightest thing in the world. Meanwhile, my back and arms were doing their best impressions of Arnie’s Pumping Iron and I felt the need for a deep tissue massage the following morning.

Once on the plane, I was impressed to discover myself seated next to a four bar captain of Air New Zealand. Here I was, little old Captain Undertraveled, seated right next to a man who could – in theory – rescue the occupants of a plane experiencing any number of major difficulties. Yet here also was a man, who despite his intricate knowledge of aeronautical endeavors, listened in complete rapture to the inflight safety instructions from the crew. His perfect example has left me suitably educated and I will now no longer browse the inflight magazine during the safety videos. Instead, I will scrutinize meticulously the intricate features of the videos, paying particular attention to any of the minor Kiwi celebrities and who-was-thats that feature in the safety demonstrations. For the record, I did recognise glimpses of Scott Dickson, Eliza McCartney and Rachael Hunter in the clip. Some of NZ’s greatest children!

After a rather uneventful flight – I say that because the windshear caused by the mountains only rocked the plane like a boat and didn’t throw the crew and food around the plane like I was hoping for – I arrived in the temperate economic capital of Aotearoa. After a quick walk to the Budget Ibis, where I was staying, I acquainted myself with the local shops and came to two conclusions. Firstly, Christchurch is a ridiculously Caucasian city, and secondly, my arteries and general health do not work in a symbiotic relationship with Carl’s Jr.

Settling in for the night, I found the stark, almost medicinal qualities of my tiny room unbelievably welcoming (though a few BrB Stouts may have helped). Tomorrow I  would start out on the first leg to South Korea, the home of Hyundai and the 39th Parallel. Following that, a flight to Israel and the opportunity to immerse myself in a culture and history that has been 3,000 years in the making.

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A road frequently traveled (but just not by me).

As interesting as life can get, mine always seemed a little less interesting than my peers. Forgoing the big OE after University, I watched as friends discovered the US, Britain, Africa and countless other destinations. I listened in rapture as they spun colourful tails of European nightlife, of escaped muggings, of escapades that surely even Dorian Gray would have been proud of. Yet here I was, trapped at the arse end of the South Pacific, in the semi-colon of beauty that most of the world would struggle to find on the map.

Don’t get me wrong, my choice not to travel and sate the wanderlust that dwelt within wasn’t all grim memories and despair. While my contemporaries were off gallivanting and seeking fame, fortune and a warm bed for the night (sometimes two if they were lucky), I did manage to snare a beautiful woman, trick her into marrying me (John Cadbury – I owe you one) and together we have been fortunate enough to create two wonderfully trying bundles of venomous energy.

Eventually, I found myself at the point in life where a mortgage, two sprightly bundles of joy and a job were severely limiting my prospects of travel. Moreover, my wife had already experienced Disneyland, safaris in South Africa, and I couldn’t help but think that she found a certain joy in laughing at her backwater husband. But then I came up with a master plan… why not use my skills and my profession as a teacher to seek other avenues that could possibly be more beneficial to a traveler on a budget? Most importantly, I needed to further educate myself to ensure my continued inclusion in the local pub quiz team.

It was with this in mind that I stumbled across the Yad Vashem Educator’s Seminar and scholarship. For those in the know, Yad Vashem is the organization responsible for ensuring that the Jewish Holocaust (Shoah) is not forgotten. As a history and religious education teacher, I was already teaching students about the Holocaust and it had impacted me and my studies through university. It seemed like the travel gods had heard my plea and had opened a door for me. Needless to say, after completing a whole bunch of paperwork and getting some good references (wine works best), I applied and was eventually awarded a Yad Vashem scholarship.

So, here I am. The night before I leave to Auckland to connect with my flight to Israel and I’ve never been on a flight longer than three and a half hours. What do I pack? What do people even wear in Israel (yarmulke, check!)? Is deep vein thrombosis even a real thing? What if I have to go for number twos on the plane and there’s a queue behind me? Arghhh, the nagging doubt of uncertainties!

Nevertheless, I will try to pack light and keep a notebook so that any forgotten items or essentials unthought-of will be rectified the next time I travel.

Escapades loom.