Ein Karem and Mount Tabor

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The peak was not the crusader fort on Mount Tabor at sunset. No, the peak moment that weekend was gut-wrenching… laughing so hard our ribs hurt, and I fell onto the floor of the nunnery, keys clutched in my hands, unable to stand up. Sure, I was a little bit drunk, but it was the folly and karma and absurdity that actually rolled me onto my back, gasping for air.

Picture my beautiful travel companion and me, drenched from Jerusalem’s greatest torrents of rain in years, water oozing up from our soaked shoes and reaching above our knees, just from absorption by our pants. Umbrella broken and jackets sopping, we were just trying to get into our rooms. The keys just didn’t seem to fit the doors. It was approaching midnight; the convent at Ein Karem had checked us in (http://www.sion-ein-karem.org/guesthouse.htm), on our way into Jerusalem that afternoon, but now all were sleeping. It wouldn’t have been so funny, if we hadn’t just struggled in the downpour to open the front gate to the compound, just after struggling to find a way out of the locked car-park, just after failing for 5 minutes to unlock the alternate doorway from the car-park, after working a few minutes to get the car park open.

Well, there’s a lot of rain in this story. We were already soaked earlier, when we parked the car near King George street to find the Chakra restaurant. Supposedly at #43, and supposedly at the foot of HaMalka street, we walked up & down a few blocks in the rain looking for it. #43 was a closed coffee shop. We phoned to learn Chakra was “underneath Joe’s coffee”, that is, around the back, at the lower level, facing out onto the green park. Ironically, the rain was so hard, we’d walked by it on our way up to the street, from our parking spot which was 50 metres away.

Fortunately Chakra was delightfully full of beautiful people, scintillating conversation, delicious champagne, and a bottle of excellent red wine. Ah, and good food. Israel is full of good food, if not milk & honey.

Unfortunately 3 hours of dinner still wasn’t enough to dry our clothes, let alone our bones. We had earlier attempted to catch the Sabbath sunset at the Western Wall. There should have been thousands of the faithful exulting in the moment. After driving crazily through Jerusalem’s streets to make it in time, running from Jaffa Gate down through rivers that used to be alleys, and bursting through security with 5 minutes to spare… we saw the rainfall was enough even to quench most Jews’ appetite for the Wall. It was the tiniest crowd we’d ever seen there, perhaps a few dozen, most of them running for shelter. We watched while debating whether a taxi or two might save us some fraction of the soaking.

Next day, the Sabbath dawned sunny. We wandered the birthplace of John the Baptist (after a necessary cappuccino at Ein Karem’s famous chocolate & coffee shop), and across the little valley to the spring where the Virgin Mary met her cousin Elizabeth to chat about portentous pregnancies. The trees and paths and churches were beautiful. Bible phrases are translated into dozens of languages, a nice multicultural twist on top of the layers and layers of ethnicity and religion here. I wandered around the convent.

Our plans for that day were predetermined to fail. It was fun to flip a metaphorical coin between searching the southern desert for flooding wadis, or try to see snow on Mount Hermon and wander the Crusader fort at Nimrod. We headed North. First we tried to get into Jericho for lunch and revisit my friend there… but the IDF guy at the border wouldn’t let us take our rental car in. We tried another crossing around to the East, and were told it was military only. We considered crossing to Jordan, but knew the rental car would be a problem there too. The third crossing into Jericho, around the North side, has been bulldozed into a non-road. Starving, we headed up the Jordan river valley for Beit Sha’an, on the way to the Golan.

Now we started to see a pattern. Every time we got out of the car, it started raining. Glimpses of the amphitheatre ruins at Beit Sha’an were enough to call out the rain gods, in case we thought about hiking. All sane people were indoors with family; we drove on up the countryside, feeling like the last people on Earth. Lunch was junk food from a 24-hour gas station.

Moments of sunshine allowed some photos of the running wadis, the triple barbed fence kilometers off the Jordanian border, and beautiful meadows of flowers. As we drove North, the country grew greener. We kept stopping for interesting side-trips, like the (closing just as we arrived) Belvoir crusader ruins, the 18-month last stand of the Crusaders against Saladin. Later, an odd bit of picnic ground and agricultural research on the Jordanian border, set up in friendship between the two countries. Then another coffee shop (she’s a bit of an addict) as we approached the Sea of Galilee.

We tried reverse psychology on the rain gods, stating loudly that we’d take pictures of raindrops hitting the shrinking sinking Sea of Galilee, in its last years before it dries up completely. It should have been hard to lose… either we get our interesting photo, or we get sunshine. Of course, just as we pulled up on the seaside, the camera battery died.

It was too late to make Nimrod before sunset, so we headed back toward Tel Aviv. We’d heard Mount Tabor was interesting, although we both forgot why. It was on the way, so we took the meandering street through the Arab villages on the mountain’s shoulder, winding up to the hilltop. A friendly coffee-shop owner educated us – Mount Tabor is where Jesus met with Moses and Elijah, and was transfigured into a blinding white vision for his disciples. Franciscan monks run a pretty church on the hilltop, alongside more crumbling Crusader ramparts with arrow slits. Again we were alone. Darkness fell on the beautiful countryside. The pretty green rectangles from dozens of mosque minarets dotted the landscape. We followed the winding streets around the other side of the mountain, back to the highway.

It took a couple hours to zip back to the coast and down to the city. Starving again, and exhausted from our struggle with the rain gods, and two days of constant conversation, and the million curious sights this complex country affords, we still found a couple hours to enjoy white wine glasses at 33 Sheinkin. The cool people were there. The yam pancakes were divine. The weekend was closing. Time to return to laptops and cellphones.