While it has been quite a journey to get here, we have finally made it to Israel. Day one of our three days in the country began in the port city of Haifa, where we met our guide and driver, Rami, for a full day of touring.
I’m so grateful to our Virtuoso on-site partners at Kenes for organizing this portion of our trip – they couldn’t have provided us with a better guide. Rami knows this country’s past, present, and future like the back of his hand. He is full of facts and has a no-nonsense answer to every question asked of him, which makes for a pretty funny conversation.
At one point on the tour, Rami stopped to show us a map of the country’s ever-changing borders from the past decades. While I’ve always been aware that Israel has had to fight for its land, to see the outcome of each war detailed and recollected in the way that Rami did really drove home their situation. Just looking at the country on a map makes me terrified for it – it’s the size of New Jersey and surrounded by enemies.
I say all of this not to bring up any political conversation, but to say that the atmosphere of Israel is certainly a humbling one. There is a palpable tension and somewhat somber tone, at least from what I saw today.
Our first stop today was the city of Nazareth to visit the Church of the Annunciation, built on top of Mary and Joseph’s homes.
We visited a number of other sacred grounds, like Tabgha, the site of the multiplication of the loaves and fish, and the Mount of Beatitudes, where Jesus delivered the famed passage. The Catholic church marking the latter site sits alongside the Sea of Galilee in a beautiful garden. When we pulled into the church parking lot, Rami turned around and announced, “I have a favor to ask of you. I need your help in reading something.” He then handed me his Bible, open to Matthew 5 – the Beatitudes. Reading the passage aloud in the place where the words were originally spoken ran a chill up my spine.
After walking around and watching a nun scorn a woman showing her knees, we continued to a seaside lunch of St. Peter’s Fish (aka: tilapia, according to the waiter, but it tasted more like catfish to me). Lunch was served with it’s head still in tact, which grossed mom out and the waiter happily beheaded the fish.
I was surprised to see people playing in the surf and even riding wave runners into the famed Sea of Galilee. Considering both it’s religious history and current standing as the country’s only source of fresh water, I never imagined the site to look like an average day on the lake.
My favorite sacred site of the day was Capernaum. The previous sites were beautiful in how they noted the significance of religious events, but Capernaum felt like a step back in time. The framework of nearly an entire village was intact, built right beside an immaculate synagogue.
The last biblical site of our day was the Jordan River, which I think might have been a completely different experience had we been traveling with our church. Unfortunately, we couldn’t pack Pastor Bill for this particular trip, so we happened upon the Jordan River as sheep without a shepherd. If we did want to be Baptized, we could purchase a robe screenprinted with Jesus’ own baptism on the front for $25. It even came with a complimentary certificate of authentication!
“I don’t know about getting bab-a-tized here,” my grandfather announced skeptically.
It was shamefully commercialized, kind of smelled bad and was home to two-foot long catfish (catfish aren’t kosher, so they are left to grow to enormity in the Jordan River). Just a little bit of a letdown and for lack of Pastoral guidance, we decided against being baptized here.
On our way back to the ship, Rami stopped at the top of the Baha’i Gardens, which cascade down Mount Carmel. He led us across the street and turned to us abruptly.
“Have you trusted me today?” he asked. Our five heads bobbed up in down in unison. “Then close your eyes and grab one another’s hands.” We did as told, except I think Mom might have peeked (I heard her say Oh wow! before we were instructed to open our eyes). When the time came to open our eyes, a view of the entire city of Haifa stretched out before us:
Wonderful way to end our first day in Israel. Tomorrow we’ll arrive in Ashdod, the closest port to Jerusalem, for two days’ worth of touring. While Haifa was a wonderful historical experience, I have a feeling that Jerusalem will be the real highlight of our trip.