Holy Land Pilgrimage, Day 1: This Place "ISRAELI" Great!

Greetings from the Holy Land!

As I sit here at St. George's Guest House with my Taybeh beer (a local Israeli brew similar to Yuengling but, you know... holier) I finally have a chance to think back and reflect on the past 24 hours.

The flight over was painless enough, save for the hour of turbulence off the Atlantic Coast of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia where I was certain we would all perish in cold, watery graves. But we didn't, so here we are!

Last night was a complete blur of lack of sleep, excitement, and jet lag, but it culminated in a delicious dinner of Maqloobeh (Arabic for "upside down"). Maqloobeh is made with layers of carrots, cauliflower, rice, and incredibly aromatic Middle Eastern spices in a large pot, served dramatically by turning the pot upside down quickly on the biggest serving platter I have ever seen in my life. After scarfing the food down and doing compline, we all turned in, watched a bit of local tv (I am fairly certain we spent an hour watching a Saudi Arabian camel auction, but I can't be sure...), and slept like the dead.

Six thirty in the morning came quite quickly, and to be honest, I turned the alarm off and turned over as if it was another Monday morning. But the best thing for jet lag is to push through it, and we were able to make to breakfast - only 15 minutes late! Breakfast here includes olives (did you know that 7 olives have the same amount of protein as an egg? There... now that's a thing you know too!), fresh fruit, breads, jams, and beans. Then off to the chapel here at St. George's for morning prayer.

We began our morning with a walking tour of the neighborhood with our AMAZING tour guide Iyad (pronounced Ee-odd), a local Palestinian Christian. I now know where the pharmacy, ATM, and the BEST bread stand is - goodbye, spending money! Our driver, affectionately dubbed Omar the Magnificent, picked us up and spirited us away to Mount Scopus, a hill that overlooks all of Jerusalem and the adjacent Judean desert. What a magnificent view! We could spot the Old City, the Dome of the Rock, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, our quarters here at St. George's, the Judean desert, and, despite the cloudy and windy conditions, you could even make out the Dead Sea!

After Mount Scopus, we moved to the Mount of Olives, again with beautiful vistas of the Judean desert. We were lucky enough to spy with our little eyes a Bedouin shepherd with his sheep and goats - and his trusty sheepdogs, of course!

Lunch was served at the Orient Restaurant in Beit Sahour, a Palestinian village on the outskirts of Bethlehem in the West Bank. The West Bank is occupied by Israel, but this particular village, along with a few others, is governed by the Palestinian National Authority. We were treated to zarb, a traditional Bedouin way of cooking that usually involves an underground earth oven. This particular restaurant built their earth oven above ground so that we were able to see the unique way of cooking - a fire is built in the oven of olive wood; potatoes, carrots, and onions are placed on a roasting rack, with marinated chicken on top; the oven is then closed and sealed the oven closed with mud, leaving the ingredients to cook for 45 minutes. The result? Absolute deliciousness! And if the food isn't good enough reason to visit Beit Sahour, the village also boasts an original artwork by the graffiti artist Banksy.

Since we all basically ate our body weight in zarb, what better to work some of it off than to hike to King Herod's fortress palace and tomb at Herodium. Herod built this fortress almost 2000 years ago, and we were able to visit the ruins of the bath house and explore ancient cisterns that were built into the hill. We were also able to walk through tunnels carved by the Jewish people during the Bar Kokhba revolt against the Romans between 132 and 135 AD. The tunnels are amazingly only carved into chalk, not a hardened rock, and have withstood almost 2000 years! The vistas of the surrounding hills and olive groves were definitely worth it, despite the quite real danger of being pushed off the mountain by the incredible winds!

Back at St. George's, we had our first of many lessons from Iyad on the current political climate here in Israel and Palestine and got a quite dismal update on the state of the Holy Land's Christians, who number less than 2% of the total population.

Our evening is ending in an amazing display of fellowship - currently most of the group is gathered in the lounge area of St. George's, chatting loudly about anything and everything. I am certain that this trip has bought me 31 new great friends.



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