Monday, March 28, 2011

Israel Chronicles: Old IS Gold!

TP and I had decided on a loose itinerary before leaving for Israel based on our reading and our determination of what was a must-do for each of us. As per plan, we set off on a walking tour in the Old City. I highly recommend the Zion Walking Tours, though by Indian standards it seems steep (at approx 1000INR per person).( Our guide (coincidentally named 'Shalom') welcomed us on the tour.

We walked through the very private Armenian Quarters, soaking in the warmth and embrace of the Old City.
The Old City was built sometime in the 1500s and has a high wall all around it. Of the 4 quarters, the Armenian Quarters is most secluded. In it live Christians who practise the religion as per their very Orthodox church. The residents leave the Quarters for work but return by early evening, when the Quarters are physically locked.(Frost's 'The Wall' anyone?)
Some glimpses from outside took us to a world that I'd imagined from the Ukranian Fairy Tales my dad had bought for me when I was 8... women wearing shawls, men with Fez-like hats and black coats and speaking in a tongue that was strange, fascinating and interesting at the same time.

We then walked into the Jewish Quarters. In speech, and perhaps in belief, every Jew I met is highly 'Jewish', which can be loosely translated into anti-Arab (and therefore, anti-Muslim). The average man on the road will talk about how the Jordanian king razed down his grandfather's tombs, or how a Palestinian Arab shot his nephew or how the Muslim Kings built Al-Aksa on their Holy Temple.
A disclaimer here - please bear with my if the next couple of posts seem very Jewish, I shall present the Arab point of view later (when I narrate our visit to a West Bank PA Territory). But for now, let me reiterate that you can almost FEEL the Jewish character on the streets, especially in the Jewish Quarters of the Old City. Most Jews observe the tenets of their religion, growing their sideburns long, wearing a tzitzit (sacred thread) around their waist and their traditional kippah (skull cap). We walked through several interesting ancient structures like the Cardo, the Western Wall Tunnels and finally reached the Western Wall. During our walk our guide freely 'cursed' King Hussein of Jordan and believed it was his right because he fought in a 'war' against him...and my guide was a well-traveled 'liberal'(also his words)!

I can do a few posts on just the Western Wall. The atmosphere in the Western Wall complex is unbelievable. Tirupati perhaps comes close, but not really. Its quieter, more grandiose (no shrine, no idol, no priest, no collection boxes) and apart from the wall, you can see black everywhere(except for the military). The reverberations and energy one feels in the place is immense. The Wall is the culmination of 3 warring religions. The Jews,as per the tenets of their religion, have only one Holy temple(which only their high priest can enter) and several synagogues(for the average Jew to pray in).The temple was built to house the Ark of the Covenant (for more, pls watch Indiana Jones!) and the Foundation Stone (from which the Earth originated and from which Adam was made).
The Muslims also believe in the same Foundation Stone. So do several sects of Christians. Several centuries ago, the Arabs (being more powerful then) built a sacred mosque over the Foundation Stone, called Al-Aksa (one of their 3 holiest shrines, along with Mecca and Medina).The wall closest to the Foundation Stone is the
Western Wall(also called the Wailing Wall, the Holy Wall).The devotion there is touching, Jews from other parts of the world break down in tears, children keep quiet and recite the passages they know from The Torah and men solemnly gaze at the Wall.The sanctity or divine presence is perhaps the faith, hope people repose in the wall for a better tomorrow.

We walked on from the Western Wall via the Cardo(a magnificent Roman structure)to the Christian Quarters. While it does look like the Jewish Quarters, it is not as bustling or as traditional... until one reaches the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Queen Helena (mother of heathen King Constantine) built the Church to honour the last 5 stations of the Christ on his final journey. The spot where his body was prepared after his crucification and the place where he was crucified bear similar attestation to devotion... candles, tears, silent prayers and a strong sense of a divine presence. Again, for the un-religious, I feel it is just the faith that manifests itself as divinity.

We wound up with a brief tour of the Arab Quarters, more a market. Our 'Jewish' guide, who spoke excellent Arabic (business is never confused with personal belief!) gave us some vignettes such as how the Church of Holy Sepulchre was literally a battleground with several Christian sects fighting over ownership and now each of the 'winning' sects have a few square feet each! Also, that the key of the Church is owned by a Muslim family which lives nearby. Finally, as we wound up, he expressed hope for Israel returning 'rightfully' to the Jews.

While we walked around we saw several Army recruits carrying their backpacks and machine guns! Its unnerving seeing 18 year olds walking around absorbing Jewish history and the jingoistic spiel doled out by their instructors swinging their machine guns like water bottles! But this is how the nationalistic spirit is driven in and surrounded by 'hostile' states, Israel does need it.
I have to say, these kids do look rather dashing (do I sound like Mrs.Robinson now?!) in their military fatigues and long sideburns. In fact ALL Jewish sites we went to, had atleast fifty or so military recruits (complete with machine guns) imbibing their ethos. Makes me think, it may be good for India to send all our army recruits to Jalianwala Bagh and Red Fort and perhaps Srinagar and Arunachal Pradesh.God knows we need to get a national spirit going.

After the walk, we indulged in a lovely Hummus and salad meal. The salad portions are huge and come with dips (labneh, baba ganoush). Lots of chick peas. At about midnight we reached a desolate parking lot, the starting point of a guided midnight bike ride. ( 2 South Indian women at 12 in the night at sub zero temperatures? (with teeth chattering and eyes watering) started praying to Tirupati Balaji that somehow the thing is called off (high on enthusiasm, low on warm clothing). HE is powerful, I kid you not. Coincidentally,the other participants cancelled and we gracefully demurred a private tour and came back with a free T Shirt to remember our midnight cab ride to the parking lot.But if you visit in summer, it is surely worth it. The guide and contact person are just so wonderful.The upside? The Parking lot (in an area called Talipiyot) has the loveliest look out of Jerusalem by night... all sparkling and lit up.

Moral of our day? : Warm clothes and good shoes are a must anywhere. Men (i mean people) can get carried away by perceived past slights and behave as though what happened over a thousand years ago can affect their rational judgement now.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Israel Chronicles: Israel Is Real!

Taking the first step out of Ben Gurion airport, the first thing 2 Indian overworked mothers do? Behave like 5 yr olds let loose in a candy shop! TP and I let loose a few whoops and some tribal jinga-la-la-ho steps and sobered up enough to hunt for a cab... being a quasi-Western nation, Israel of course does not have helpful 'bhaiyyas' to carry your luggage... to cut a long story short, we took a cab to our hotel.

We stayed in East Jerusalem. Now there is a road in Jerusalem which bifurcates East and West Jerusalem.East Jerusalem was captured by Jordan when Israel was recognized as a Jewish state by the British Mandate in 1948. It was recaptured by Israel in the 6 day war in the late 60's. Perhaps because of Jordanian rule or perhaps due to its proximity to Al-Aksa, East Jerusalem is primarily Arab dominated whereas West Jerusalem is Jew-driven.... and we stayed in Arab dominated East.

We stayed in a fantastic hotel called 'Addar'. Would I have thought glowingly of it had I traveled with my son? Perhaps not.
But for 2 women travelers it was perfect. It had a tiny bed room with 2 single beds and a separate living room complete with a kitchenette and even a tiny dining table! TP crashed once we checked in, and I(with my OCD to set up a 'system') rummaged around my suitcase for a couple of hours!

When I looked out of the window for my first glimpse of Jerusalem, I had to remind myself to breathe.
The entire city stretched out golden....most houses and buildings in Jerusalem are built of some kind of stone that reflect the morning sun rays with a golden shimmer... clean and silent, yet resonating with ancient voices and a character that is hard to translate into words.

When we set off to visit the old city, the first sight that we remember in Jerusalem was cabbages the size of melons!Vegetables so fresh that had my grandfather come with me,
he'd've insisted on carrying home a sack. Burqa-clad women speaking perfect English blasted the first myth that the west-dominated media feed us...more on this later.....the Old City beckoned us majestically. A bleached red-fort like wall rose into the sky... and we entered through the Damascus gate.

The Old City is a walled area, about 1 sq. km divided purely on basis of religion into 4 quarters - Arab, Jew, Armenian and Christian. Given our hotel location (and perhaps our affiliation, but I am getting ahead of myself!) we entered the Arab quarter and were shocked. You'd think India would prepare you enough for noisy bargaining crowds, colorful stalls and disregard for any orderly movement, but it doesn't. Yet the Arab quarter isn't difficult to navigate, it is just so colorful, so lovely, yet without the filth and jostling of Indian bazaars and thankfully sans the humidity! As we walked through the Old City towards the Jaffa Gate (the entrance to the Jewish Quarters),TP and I fell in love.....

Moral of the Story: Always pack light! Always remember the moment you fall in love.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Israel Chronicles: All-well at El-Al

D-Day finally arrived. My travel partner (referred to as TP) and I literally bounded to the international airport in Bombay to fly to Tel Aviv. Did not realize that Mr.Murphy was hanging on my back a-la betaal. Our very entry into the airport (involving a simple procedure of flashing the passport and ticket) took us half an hour. And then the El-Al drama began. Israel as a nation was founded as a country for Jews. And non-Jew Asians being notorious squatters(read illegal immigrants) are subjected to extra scrutiny at the airport itself.

We waited for almost 40 minutes before they called us in for questioning – at two different tables. It was like some tandem competition – any question that my TP answered differently from me would be put forth to me again and again and again, faster and faster each time… now I had no idea what my TP had said, so the answers they got from me were the same... again and again!I felt as though I was in a Hollywood movie, being interrogated by an FBI agent! The supervisor came in after his minions 'failed' to 'extract' top-secret info from me.He tried interrogating me to see if it really made sense for 2 Indian mothers to leave their children behind and travel (of all the countries) to Israel… my retort “Why Not” left them stumped.

Finally after almost 45 minutes of intensive questioning, (during when I noticed 2 fellow travelers being asked to leave), the El Al guys (who I think were Mossad agents getting trained!) checked my profile online and 'almost' figured that I wasn’t going to bomb Israel or steal the Wailing Wall or liberate Palestine or more probably immigrate to Israel as a domestic help. Finally, they asked me one last question “Why only Jerusalem, why not Bethleham”. At this juncture, I lost my cool and went into my 'bhaashan' mode....I 'declaimed' that I had no ulterior motive and as a practising Hindu my attempts to understand other religions deserved applause, not reproach. Also, I was contributing to their country’s travel industry, so they ought to welcome me with a glass of Israeli wine, rather than interrogate me. Tired of my tirade (or perhaps convinced), the supervisor finally ‘approved’ my travel and I got my ticket to the Holy Land.

TP and I literally ran through security (wasting precious time with a STUPID travelex chap who insisted that as per law I could only convert 7500 INR per passport, thereby increasing my stress levels) and finally made it to the flight in time.

El-Al as an airline is quite decent. Tasty airline food for a change, pleasing crew, ontime departure and arrival and terrible Israeli wine!

One more round of questioning followed in Israel where a moron stamped my visa with a ‘work permit’ stamp. Some more interrogation (yawn!) Once the officer-in-charge figured we were in Israel on a holiday, she almost hugged us for our chutzpah and ‘shalomed’ us to Israel! The grand journey begins…. ‘

Moral of the story: Always eat before you reach the international airport, otherwise you may eat dinner (however good and hot) at 2.00 a.m.the next day.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Travel - Daddy vs. Mommy

Scenario 1: Dad is leaving for a week's travel. What does he do?
a) Pack his bags.
b) Send his contact details to wife.
c) Kiss wife and son goodbye.

Scenario 2: Mom is leaving for a week's travel. What does she do?
a) Prepare child for mommy's absence for a week - TOUGH job.
b) Ensure that groceries are stocked up for a week.
c) Pay all utility bills, so that there are no disruptions in her absence.
d) Store the valuables safely, knowing that cupboards could be left open.
e) Instruct daily help on the 'NO LEAVE FOR A WEEK' policy and promise rich rewards if they are punctual and do their work without constant instruction.
f) Call child's teacher, doctor and neighbors to be on standby - just in case child is sick or dad is late or forgets to pick him up!
g) Fix back-ups
- telling (mom's)mom how the house JUST cannot run if she doesn't come for atleast 3 days to look after child.
- sigh to (mom's)mom-in-law that her help is most necessary as her son would be hard-pressed for time handling work, child and house.

h)Pack his bags.
i) Send his contact details to wife.
j) Kiss wife and son goodbye.

This is true in every woman's life, give or take a few activities. Having said that, I must add disclaimer that I can actually leave my house to my husband and travel knowing well that he does a good job if he puts his mind to it!

Women - my heart-felt salaams to you. May your feet travel as much as your heart does!

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

"THE" school interview

Button's letter inviting us for an 'Interaction' arrived a few days ago (for a place in a really prestigious school in Chennai) and we've been trying to teach Button the art of answering (with hilarious results). D-Day arrived this morning and here are some Buttonisms.

Teacher: (pointing to a car) "What is this?"
Button: (thinks, thinks)
Mamma: "What IS this?" (Mentally getting worried, because my son can identify makes of almost all cars on the rooad, and therefore getting stressed at his silence)
Teacher: (possibly thinking that the child does not know) "Is this a bus?"
Button: "No, I want to know if it is an Audi or is it a BMW?"
Teacher: (stumped) "I will check and let you know!"

Teacher: "Could you please sing a song?"
Button :"No. I don't FEEL LIKE singing a song now"!

Teacher: (pointing to a duck and duckling)"Do you know what this is?"
Button: "Yes, it is a duck. This is a mother duck."
Teacher: "And this is a baby duck."
Button: "Yes it is a duckling".

Teacher: "Let me draw a star for you. You've done well."
Button: "Thank you." (pauses) "Please draw moon for the star to play with"

Bottomline: He is IN. (praise be to the Almighty). We've paid the fees. I can leave for my holiday to Israel in peace, I've earned it!

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Overheard: Check the price

My maid talking to her son on her cellphone "Yes, I know we are usually loyal to 'two leaves'. But check the price being offered by the 'sun' group. If they offer us at least a thousand more, along with clothes, promise them the entire street's votes. Otherwise, let us stick to 'two leaves'. At least they pay us immediately"

The state of our country!

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Govinda Govinda

As per our family's custom, we decided to let Button adopt the bald look again. Some trips are just jinxed from the start... this was one of them. First, the husband went a day early on work to Tirupati. Like Murphy would have it, the driver who drove Button and I to Tirupati decided to drive to Bangalore instead. A journey that normally takes 3 - 4 hours from Chennai took us 6 hours! Button cooperated brilliantly, otherwise he may have been witness to his mom murdering the driver.

We checked into Fortune Kences hotel at Tirupati (supposedly one of the best hotels). Balls! Read my rant at Tripadvisor.

In Tirupati, as was taught to him, Button repeated ad nauseum that "he was going to give ummachi (God) all his hair" and that "he would not cry, he would be happy". One cold morning at 4.30 a.m. the barber did away with Button's lovely curly locks, and true to his promise, he did not cry, even utter a word of protest.
However, when we took him into the public bathroom to bathe him, he HOWLED and how! He yelled to anyone who'd listen that the floors were dirty(!) and that mamma get 'mausi' to do 'poncha' immediately. We managed to bribe him to take a quick bath with promises of chocolates and ambulances and proceeded to the darshan lines.

And then the long wait in the queue began... although we were in the Rs.300/- queue, we waited from 5.30a.m. to get darshan at 10.00 a.m. With a two and half year old, its hardly my idea of piety or spirituality! But Button got into the groove yelling 'Govinda Govinda' in the ears of anyone who dared nod off in the long queue of waiting devotees!

We'd been telling Button that Venkateshwara being the God of Plenty would bless him with wisdom, riches, health and prosperity. To simplify these words, we told him Lord Balaji would give him "many-many" of everything. When my dad asked him on his return what God would give him in exchange for Button's hair, his reply was "Many many taxis. 10 for each hand!" Amen!!