Let's get the parrot out of the way first.
We spent most of today -- Saturday the 9th -- in Jericho. Jericho is arguably the oldest city in the world; humans have been living there in some sort of urban setting, town or city or whatever, for something over ten thousand years. We spent much of the day there. We took the cable car to the top of the Mountain of Temptation, we walked through the ruins of an Ummayad palace, we saw what's left (very little) of the walls of Jericho mentioned in the Old Testament, we saw the tree that (allegedly) Zaccheus the publican climbed to see Jesus. The children liked this well enough.
But then there was the parrot.
It was a grey parrot that was sitting on a railing outside the control cabin of the cable car. When we went up (and a very interesting ride it was -- the scariest and most interesting cable car ride I've been on in years), the parrot was nonchalantly eating a sunflower seed. The boys liked it very much. But then, after we went to the top and walked where Jesus (presumably) walked, and was tempted three times by Satan -- you know, turn these stones into bread, leap from the pinnacle of the Temple, bow down and worship me! -- and explored the Greek monastery a bit, and stood on a cliff top with the Dead Sea in the distance and watched falcons flying a hundred feet below us, still hundreds of feet above the ground, and had coffee and ice cream, and chatted with a Filipino guy from Hawaii who had come down from Tel Aviv for the day and was horrified to find that Jericho was in Palestinian territory -- after all that, we got to the bottom again, and then David discovered that he had lost his hat! The new cap we had bought just yesterday, in Jerusalem, with Power Rangers Mystic Force on it! So we went back and talked to the very nice lady behind the counter, and she called up to the top, and sure enough they had found it! But we had to wait for ten minutes for it to come down the mountain in the cable car. So we went upstairs to wait, to the boarding platform where the cable cars loaded up...
...and the parrot was still there...
...and it was drinking a can of Fanta. Like, by itself. The can was almost as big as the parrot, but it was handling it without much difficulty. It tipped up the can and drank delicately, for long minutes, while the boys -- okay, the boys and I -- watched in utter, slack-jawed fascination.
Eventually David's cap arrived, and the parrot finished its drink and dropped the can on the ground, and we left. But sitting in the bus going home, when we asked the boys what they remembered from the day's adventures -- the ruined palace? The cable car ride? The mountaintop? -- the unhesitating answer was, "We had ice cream twice. And that parrot was awesome."
So. Here follow some scattershot impressions of the last two days.
Getting around the Holy Land, if you're living on the Palestinian side, is kind of a PITA. There are a lot of checkpoints and their difficulty level varies semi-randomly. There's general agreement that you mostly want to avoid Qalandia, but even Qalandia can be okay sometimes. On the other hand, a checkpoint might just close down for no good reason -- that happened to me last time. There are no clear rules. Anyway, to get from (for instance) here to Tel Aviv, which should be maybe 40-45 minutes, is either a two-hour (minimum) trip involving a bus change in Jerusalem, or a very expensive (like, approaching $100) trip involving a special taxi. More on this anon, perhaps.
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In the Old City of Jerusalem, you can follow the actual Stations of the Cross. I mean, the original ones. Well, probably. Maybe. Okay, let's face it, nobody really knows for sure. The whole idea of Stations of the Cross is a medieval invention, and the notion that anyone today can follow the actual path that Christ took up the hill is pretty ludicrous. In fact, it's not even completely clear that they've got the right hill, or the right part of the city, or even that it was in the city. That said, there is an official route that both the Orthodox and Catholic churches accept. (Many Protestants tend to drift outside to the Garden Tomb, which is pretty clearly not the correct location either but is at least not full of, well, Catholics and Orthodox.)
Here's a funny thing: I'm fine with the notion of stations of the cross. I think the iconography can get a little gruesome sometimes, but it makes sense to me. Not my thing personally, but I grew up amidst a big Irish Catholic family and I get it. It makes sense to me. But the "actual" stations of the cross along the Via Dolorosa? Mostly left me flat.
Okay, two exceptions, one good, one weird. The good: at one point we passed a group of Spanish women carrying a cross. This is a thing that some pilgrims do, yah? You can rent a big wooden cross and retrace Christ's journey. There were maybe ten of them, of all different ages, and they were obviously taking turns with the cross, four of them carrying it while the rest marched alongside. And they were singing a hymn in Spanish, and they all seemed really happy. It was a nice break from the endless groups of tourists being led around by various sorts of priest.
The weird: right next to the Eighth Station, there's one of those arcade machines where you put in a coin and then operate a crane, trying to pick up a prize. (Presumably it belongs to the small Palestinian shop next door.)
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We're not exactly supposed to be riding Palestinian buses. To be precise: I,as a USAID contractor, am kinda not supposed to be riding Palestinian buses. The rule isn't perfectly clear (like a lot of USAID rules), so perhaps it might not apply to me, but the course of prudence would be for me to stay off the buses.
So I'm not going to say that I've been on any buses. I will say that Claudia and the kids have now been on three -- one coming back from Jerusalem, a "servees" or "sherut" bus to Jericho, and another sherut coming back -- and it was fine. Reasonable prices, clean, safe. I wouldn't say luxury, but by the standards of developed world travel? Very good indeed.
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We got caught in the post-Friday afternoon exodus from the Dome of the Rock. Thousands of people flowing out through the narrow, pedestrian-only streets of Jerusalem! I put Leah up on my shoulders and we moved slowly along, jammed together in the crowd, until we finally got out through the Damascus Gate. There was one brief alarming moment when the crowd suddenly surged for no good reason -- you can totally understand how people could get crushed in a panic -- but mostly it was okay. Uncomfortable but kind of interesting. Oh, things were slowed down considerably by the presence of some tour groups who were determinedly shoving their way upstream, trying to get into the Old City. Honestly, people.
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The American Colony Hotel in Jerusalem has a very nice bookstore. Unfortunately, it's a bookstore that has no children's books. We walked fifteen minutes in the heat to get there, and another fifteen back, and this was commented on.
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The Ummayad palace "Hisham's Palace") in Jericho really is worth a visit. It was built around 740 AD, during the springtime of Ummayad expansion, and then destroyed by an earthquake less than a decade later. (Dead Sea region, fissure in the Earth's crust, tectonically active, yadda yadda.) It's basically a Roman-Byzantine building on the outside (lots of Roman arches and a central dome) and a Persian building on the inside (central courtyard with columns and fountain, divan). The Islamic restrictions on representative art hadn't really kicked in yet, so the palace was full of mosaics and paintings and human statues. The British excavated it in the 1930s and '40s and carted all that stuff off to Jerusalem, so it's in Israel now and you can't actually see any of it, but it must have been quite something back in the day.
The site is down near the Dead Sea, which means it's hot. Bleak barren moonscape and hot. Where there is water around Jericho, everything grows, green green green. No water, it's desert, hot sand and bare rock. The caliphs had water piped in -- they had fountains, and a frickin' swimming pool in the basement -- so their palace must have been full of green things. But not any more, so bring bottled water and sunblock and a hat and all that.
The high point for Claudia and I was definitely the famous Tree of Life mosaic, which is indeed as gorgeous as advertised. The high point for the kids was the miniature version of the palace. This was actually a very clever idea, and one I haven't seen anywhere else: they built a scale model of the palace, as it looked when intact. Maybe 1/20 scale or so? So, two or three meters on a side and maybe a meter tall. And then they lifted it off the ground so that you can walk under it, and put a hole in the middle so that you can stick your head inside through the central courtyard. Very cool, and -- it turns out -- just big enough for a child to crawl around inside. We lifted the kids inside and they just fit. They got to imagine that they were giants inside a palace, just barely big enough to crawl out through the massive front gates... Fun! (Though still not quite as awesome as the parrot.)
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From the cable car, I noticed a number of banana farms. Also at least one that looked abandoned, the banana plants withering or dead. Asked about it the next morning at the office. Turns out Jericho used to be a major center for growing bananas! But the banana industry is dying, because bananas are thirsty plants that need large amounts of fresh, high quality water, and the Palestinian water situation is bad and getting worse. So, no more bananas.
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We stopped at the Austrian Hospice on the Via Dolorosa. This was a recommendation, and a good one. It's not mentioned in our Lonely Planet, and we would never have discovered it on our own -- it's a nondescript door that is closed and locked much of the time. But it opens on stairs that go up to small hotel with a very pleasant rooftop garden. ("Hospice" to me means a place where people go to die, but apparently this is not always the case. Anyway, apparently the hospice has a complex history, which includes periods in Austro-Hungarian, British, Jordanian and Israeli hands, and periods both as a guest house and a hospital. It's a hotel now, and owned by the Austrian government.)
On the first floor, there's a gallery of notable guests, which includes the Emperor Franz Josef and, hey, my old friend Vincent Sheean. Downstairs there's a chapel which is straight out of a Joseph Roth novel -- 100% pure Austria-Hungary, with "Maria Queen of Austria" on one side and "Maria Queen of Hungary" on the other, and banners and coats of arms and big plaques commemorating the members of the Hapsburg royal family who'd made pilgrimages there before WWI. Basically, nothing there has changed since the last Austro-Hungarian left the building in December 1917.
Anyway, you can have coffee in the nice rooftop garden, and apple strudel.
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One of the tourist attractions in Jericho is the tree that Zaccheus is said to have climbed. The story comes from Luke, Chapter 19:
Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. 2 A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. 3 He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.
5 When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” 6 So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.
7 All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”
8 But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”
9 Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
So the tree is supposedly still there. It's right by the side of the road, next to the new Russian museum, just a few minutes' walk from the center of town. I have to say it doesn't look 2,000 years old. Various online sources claim that "experts" have examined it and said that it might be, but I haven't been able to find a primary source. Also, a bit of digging turns up the fact that there are at least three different trees around Jericho that claim to be the Zaccheus tree. Hm.
But anyway! I always liked the story of Zaccheus, because as a small boy way back in the Nixon administration I learned a peppy little song about it. The song was burned into my memory, but I hadn't actually heard it for almost 40 years. Seeing the tree inspired me to go look it up. Here it is. Singing nuns seem to have gone somewhat out of style since my childhood.
Also, noodling around a bit about Zaccheus let me to this factoid: "According to Clement of Alexandria... Zacchaeus was surnamed Matthias by the apostles, and took the place of Judas Iscariot after Jesus's ascension." Really! I had no idea. So this in turn led me to start reading Clement (a second century Christian writer who either is or is not a Father of the Church, depending on whether you're Catholic or Orthodox). Which in turn kept me up past bedtime last night, because Clement is interesting reading. There's one bit where he's mocking the oracles of antiquity: "Explore not then too curiously the secret shrines of impiety, nor the mouths of caverns full of prodigies, or the Thesprotian cauldron, or the Cirrhaean tripod, or the brazen urn of Dodona: leave also to antiquated fables the old stump held sacred amid desert sands..." And I was like, I think I know about the tripod and maybe the urn, but what the heck was the "Thesprotian cauldron"? Turns out it was this here. Huh.
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Oh, and Jericho has flame trees! Delonix Regia, the Royal Ponciana, Madagascar's great contribution to world arbiculture. I lived with them on Saipan for seven years, and have missed them.
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We have persuaded the boys to nibble on bits of falafel. Much grimacing and mournful looks. Game of inches.
OTOH, in Jericho we bought a big of sweet apricots, and Leah demanded the right to carry them. As we walked around the city, she ate them, handing me an apricot pit from each one as she finished. By the end of the day I had a lot of apricot pits in my pocket.
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And we went to the Wailing Wall. But that maybe deserves a post of its own sometime.