Animal Farm

One weekend, Sergey and I were invited to accompany some colleagues to a place called Hamat Gader. This destination boasts stinky hot springs that fill a giant bathing pool. Now, marinating myself along with flocks of sweaty strangers is not my usual cup of tea, but we figured this was a good chance to see some of the Galilee region.

We were right. The winter rains had turned the hills and valleys of Galilee a vibrant green, shining like an emerald in the morning light. En route to our destination, we stopped at the most scenic gas station I’ve encountered. The station overlooked a field where cows grazed peacefully beside white cattle egrets. Occasionally this pastoral scene was interrupted by groups of bikers who zoomed down a path through the field, startling the cattle.

Cows and bikers

Back on the road, after driving along the border with Jordan, we arrived at Hamat Gader. Sergey and I set off to explore the flora and fauna of the park. We found the predecessor of today’s pool, the ruin of a Roman bath.

Roman bath

After documenting the ancient bath, I was distracted by a flock of birds: white-spectacled bulbuls twittering upon some trees near the ruin. Beyond them, I could just make out the shape of a mysterious green parrot, gazing impassively into the surrounding hills.


Then came the unmelodic squawk of an itinerant peacock. We gave chase. Above the ruins of a Roman amphitheater, we stalked him in pursuit of the perfect photo. He was not particularly interested, and gave us a final look of disdain before disappearing over the crest of the hill.


After our nature experience, we had a decidedly unnatural visit to the park’s “zoo,” which seemed more like a hapless mess of cramped terrariums and odd combinations of chickens and gazelles. Actually, perhaps that mysterious green parrot I saw was an escapee of the zoo’s tacky attraction, a parrot show. Sergey and I sat among hordes of tired parrots—I mean parents—and their shrieking children to watch parrots, macaws, and cockatiels perform tricks like pedaling a bicycle across a tightrope.

And a parrot biking across a tightrope.

But the weirdest part was yet to come: the Alligator Farm. The farm consists of a series of enclosures tightly packed with alligators, crocodiles, caimans, and, strangest of all, gharials.

Pretty guy

These thin-snouted creatures look like something out of Dr. Seuss (especially the males, which sport a “sexy” bulb on the tip of their noses), but actually, they come from India, where they are extremely endangered. While at first their slender jaws seem like an evolutionary mistake, apparently the shape enables them to effectively hunt fish, and even to stun them with underwater jaw claps.

Rivaling the crocodilians in strangeness were our fellow visitors, who, clothed in bathrobes and flip-flops, apparently had emerged from the hot pool to cool down by strolling through the farm. I wonder what the crocs think of these oddly clad bipeds. Would he look good as a handbag?


Soaking in the pool was…sulfuric. I was disappointed that afterwards my skin failed to sprout yellow crystals. What I will remember from this day are these comical snapshots of human-animal coexistence: spandexed bikers shepherding cows aside, and pink-skinned bathers walking between some of Earth’s oldest predators.

Skipping town: Galilee

The past month, my mild case of wanderlust has also pulled me out of Haifa.  First there was the Dead Sea.  Next there was Carmel Forest, where I observed picnicking Persianly:  kebabs, backgammon, and tea.  (My take on picnicking requires Bananagrams.)  And next came Galilee.

Sea of Galilee, where the disciples of Jesus fished.

The Sea of Galilee, where the disciples of Jesus fished.

Galilee is a region with many sites associated with the life of Christ, many of them in the form of ruins encapsulated in grand churches like the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, which holds the house of Mary.  Across the way from the Basilica is St. Joseph’s church, which holds the remains of his carpentry workshop.  There we observed an ancient wonder of Israel, the money pit flooded with eery green light.


Actually this is a view down to the original level of the structure, or something like that…

We drove through Cana where Jesus turned water into wine.  We saw the Sea of Galilee (actually a lake).  We saw the boat of Galilee (it’s a super old boat).  We saw Capharnaum where Jesus lived for a few years and where the ruins of an ancient synagogue still stand.  We saw the church built where Jesus preached His Sermon on the Mount.  And we saw so, so many pilgrims, massive groups on tour buses.

Our final stop was the Jordan River, which to me proved the most interesting item of our busy itinerary.  Christians come here for baptism.  I watched a number of these baptisms, the pilgrims in white tunics having a private spiritual experience in a very public place.  I felt guilty for ogling them like zoo animals, but I have never before witnessed a baptism and I was intrigued, especially when a Nigerian ruler and his entourage showed up, giving all us onlookers something else to watch.

Do you see the guys chilling and fishing upstream?

Baptisms at lower left; Nigerians, upper left; dudes chilling and fishing, upper right.

Eventually someone in our group had the innovative idea that we should go down to the river (cue “Down to the River to Pray”).  In the water were enormous slow-moving catfish and dense schools of minnows in the shallows.  We took off our shoes and let the minnows tickle our feet with their hungry mouths.

It was a full day, and I felt we must have exhausted all the sacred Christian sites in Israel.  However, Jerusalem beckoned…