The Festival

Dressed up for the Holy Day commemoration

Dressed up for the Holy Day commemoration

Today is the last day of the Festival of Ridván, a twelve-day celebration commemorating the Declaration of Bahá’u’lláh in 1863. Ridván has given us the gift of some free time with two days off, and we’ve used that time to get re-acquainted with nature.

At Bahjí, we’ve been observing the peculiar behavior of some spur-winged lapwings. These birds are usually goofy and noisy with their long-legged prancing and squeaky squawks, but lately we noticed them acting more settled, sitting still beneath olive trees. We learned that they nest on the ground, so this was their location of choice for raising their new families. The female birds tranquilly incubated while the males squeaked threateningly at other birds that wandered too close, like the oblivious cattle egret whose itinerant grazing aroused the wrath of one ferocious daddy bird. The poor egret clearly just wanted to eat in peace, not to bother anyone’s chicks. After a few weeks, we saw that the baby birds had hatched. While we didn’t get too close so as not to disturb the brood or provoke the father’s sharp-spurred ire, we enjoyed watching the little dots of fuzz bob around their mother on their stilt-like legs and then scoot beneath her. (I don’t have any presentable photos, but I suggest searching “spur-winged lapwing chick” if you want your heart to melt!)

On the first day of Ridván, we headed up the mountain to hike around Carmel Forest. It was my first time visiting on a weekday, and it was beautifully unpeopled. We were practically the only visitors besides a man in an ice cream truck who seemed to have pulled into the park just to take a nap, since the first sign of him that we saw was his bare feet against the windshield.

The wildflowers were in bloom, from the red poppies to white Queen Anne’s Lace to a host of purple, yellow, and pink flowers I can’t name. We spent a pleasant hour hiking the paths of Little Switzerland.

Vibrant wild poppies in Carmel Forest

Vibrant wild poppies in Carmel Forest

Then, last weekend, we went on a stroll to Stella Maris, a promontory with a monastic history overlooking the sea, and discovered that the cable car from there down to the beach was working—a surprise since it was Shabbat. So, in a moment of spontaneity, we bought tickets and hopped aboard an orange bubble that wafted down the steep slope. After a walk along the windy seashore that compelled me to deploy my hood to avoid my hair blowing away, we located the Cave of Elijah (closed due to Shabbat).

We returned up the mountain in the funicular and decided to do a bit more exploring. A few hours earlier, we had seen an acquaintance walk down a path behind a parking lot, so we wanted to see what his destination was. The path led to a picturesque meadow with wild grasses and windblown trees, and further along, a small round white chapel that used to be a windmill.

The picturesque windmill-cum-chapel

The picturesque Holy Family Chapel

What a surprise to discover a wild place in the middle of the city, just a short walk down from the bustle of Stella Maris’s restaurant scene. Standing on the edge of Carmel on a small platform housing a single bench, we stretched out our arms in the strong wind and felt ready to take off.

Day 3: Boating down the Bosphorus

Turkish women wait at a dock.

Turkish women wait at a dock.

Istanbul straddles Europe and Asia, with the Bosphorus Strait splitting the European side, which has most of the tourist attractions and commerce, from the Asian side, which is largely residential. We decided to devote a day to seeing more of this important strait, which offers the nations around the Black Sea their sole path of entry and exit to the Mediterranean via the Marmara and Aegean Seas—crucial for trade and navies.

We boarded the ferryboat that would take us on a 1.5 hour journey from the old city up the strait, past the bankside sprawl of Istanbul, to a fishing village called Anadolu Kavağı situated near the mouth of the Black Sea. After claiming seats on the topmost level where we could enjoy the warm sun and chilly wind, we peered down into the waters of the inlet, where cormorants plunged into the depths, and impassive, translucent jellyfish wobbled through the water, almost indistinguishable from the plastic debris that floated on the surface. Seagulls silently swooped above us.

I have way too many photos of seagulls!

I have way too many photos of seagulls…

The boat was docked near the bridge across the Golden Horn, over which the tram passes back and forth to the New District. Below the traffic on the lower, pedestrian level of the bridge, there is a row of seafood restaurants. At 10:00 AM their staff were just starting to clean and prepare for a day of customers, and we watched in amusement as they hauled up water from the strait below to swab the decks of their outdoor seating. In that act, I was reminded of how provident the sea and its estuaries are to coastal cities. Little wonder then that successive empires made this area the focus of their empires, surrounded as it is by a natural moat of generous and protective waters.

The bridge looks like it is buoyed by restaurants.

The bridge with its undergirding of restaurants.

After some time, the engine started purring and the boat pulled away from the dock. As we moved along, we followed the tour in our guidebook, spotting such sights as the European wannabe Dolmabahce Palace and its nearby mosque and clocktower, the Rumelian fortress dating from the 15th century, and several towering bridges across the strait, one for city traffic and one for “intercontinental transit.”

Eventually, the crowded urban area thinned out into areas of mansions with tall trees. In one such tree we saw a cormorant worshipping the sun, wings outstretched.

Sunbathing cormorant

Sunbathing cormorant on the bank of the Asian side.

When we would approach the shore to pick up more passengers, flocks of seagulls would attach as if magnetically to our boat and hover around. Perhaps the wake of the boat stirred up small creatures for their lunch, or maybe they hoped we would jettison our own food—in any case, Jasmine encouraged me to get some action shots of these birds. There were, in fact, several species of seagulls, ranging from a long-winged pterodactylesque breed with harsh eyes to a chubbier, smaller variety with the charm of a flying porpoise.

Magnetic seagulls that orbited our boat.

Magnetic seagulls that orbited our boat.

Now that I’ve started on seagulls, I must digress to another scene. Seagulls were not only present above the Bosphorus, but also all over the Sultanahmet. They careened past the eaves of our hotel as we ate breakfast on the enclosed terrace. More hauntingly, one night as we strolled around the park between the Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque, we observed scores of gulls weaving like ghosts above the domes—like moths tethered to lights.

It's hard to see, but the white specks above the dome of the Blue Mosque are seagulls.

The white specks above the dome of the Blue Mosque (which looks like a yellow mosque at night) are seagulls.

Back on the strait, we arrived at the village. As we approached, we noticed two things: the ruins of Yoros Castle, our destination, on the peak of a hill, and the black-and-white clad waiters standing in front of their seafood restaurants flagging us down. As none of us care for seafood, we skipped the daily catch in favor of the village’s other specialty, lokma, which are syrupy balls made of a light dough deep-fried to golden perfection and sprinkled with cinnamon.

Deep-fried deliciousness.

Sticky and sweet deliciousness.

“Mmmm!” was our unanimous reaction to lokma. Yet this treat soon met a tragic end: as we walked away from the bevy of restaurants and hawkers in pursuit of the castle, I flung out my arm to point at a sign saying “Yoros,” just as Sergey was proffering the container of lokma to me. In the ensuing collision, the lokma scattered over the street like sticky marbles. I felt quite crushed by my role in this accident—as crushed as the lokma were soon to become under the tires of passing cars—but luckily, we were still close to the stand and purchased a refill.

Yoros Castle in Andalu Kavagi

The remains of Yoros Castle.

Up the steep hill we hiked, passing by a military zone protected by a high fence, higher and higher until we reached the surprisingly commercialized ruins of the Byzantine castle. We had to pass by another bevy of restaurants to reach our destination. While the castle was admittedly dull since we could not enter (unless we defied the law and scaled its crumbling walls, which some boys did), the summit of the hill did afford a striking view toward the Black Sea.

“Can you see Moldova from here?” I asked Sergey.

We are posing in front of the mouth of the Black Sea. If you look super hard and use your imagination, you can even spot Sergey's hometown of Chisinau (Kishinev)!

We are posing in front of the mouth of the Black Sea. If you look hard and use your imagination even harder, you can spot Sergey’s hometown of Chisinau (Kishinev) behind us!

Soon enough, our time on the Asian side was over, and we re-boarded our boat, which felt tranquil after our return hike through the surprisingly traffic-congested lanes of the village. We chose indoor seats and spent most of the return voyage in a half-stupor.

Maiden's Tower seen on the right.

Maiden’s Tower seen on the right.

Towards the end, though, I decided I had to go to the top so I could finally photograph one of Istanbul’s well known sights, Maiden’s Tower, which sits upon a small island. As we neared the European side, the setting sun set the cityscape aglow, smears of saffron light upon the minarets of countless mosques…and neon light upon the signs of countless seafood eateries.

Cityscape centered on Mosque of Suleiman the Magnificent.

Cityscape centered on the Mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent.

Tests and tribulations, trials and travails

Boy, there are sure a lot of synonyms for “tribulations” that start with “t.” Thank you, English language, for offering so many opportunities for alliteration (and assonance).

I had to take a break from filling out applications to fill you in, dear reader. Life has been proceeding routinely since I last wrote, with a few exceptions:

1) Both my dad and Sergey had birthdays this month; Sergey is embarking on the first year of the third decade of his life. That is a complicated way of saying he turned 29. I wanted to get him flowers, but the shopkeeper sympathetically informed me that those are only sold on holidays, so I got him chocolate praline hearts and a Kinder egg instead. Out of the Kinder egg hatched a plastic bracelet ornamented with lion face stickers, which I believe has been re-gifted to me. It fits perfectly!

2) I was made co-emergency manager for the staff in my neighborhood zone because I am an excellent runner and would surely do well pulling people out of rubble. In my acceptance speech, I quoth, “Are you sure you wouldn’t rather ask Sergey?” So, more than ever before, I am really hoping Israel and Palestine cool down their tensions. At least I now boast the qualification of knowing the difference between vacuum cleaner noise and missile sirens.

3) The GRE. This forms my central subject (and the reason for the title of the post), so bear with me–I promise to make standardized testing entertaining!

Once upon a Tuesday, Sergey and I set out for our relaxing day-trip early. From crowded bus to crowded train to crowded bus we went until we reached the testing center in the Ramat Gan district of Tel Aviv. The Prometric site is located in a college that looks like it hasn’t undergone much change since the 1960s. Can I note that college students are starting to look pretty young to me? Goodness, how I’ve aged. Just preparing to eventually be an out-of-touch silver-haired professor…by the time I’m 30.

We poked our heads into the small facility, and the test proctor came to get my information. She was a lady in her early 60s, perhaps, who gave me an affectionate squeeze and told me that my scores would be good. I have to give this woman kudos. I don’t imagine that proctoring tests and interacting with nervous test-takers full time is an especially stimulating job, but she showed a good deal of human kindness. On my break, she handed me half of a clementine she had just peeled, for example. Also, now that I think of it, the bus driver en route to the college also went out of his way to help us. Sergey had asked about our destination when we boarded, and as he was about to pull away from one stop, the driver remembered this and communicated that we should get off.

Anyway, at the test center, I underwent an interesting bevy of checks. First I had to write out an affirmation of ethics–in cursive. It took me five minutes to write two sentences, clutching the pen like a tot just learning how to form letters. Thankfully, ETS is not scoring me based on the quality of my cursive. Then I was of course scanned with a metal detector, which is standard procedure in Israel. But the crowning ritual in this strange ceremony involved the Stripping of Worldly Attachments and the Turning of the Pockets. I was informed that my analog wristwatch and my packets of facial tissues, indispensable due to my constant allergies, had to remain in my locked cubby. After removal, I showed off my bare, ethical wrists to the video camera, in accordance with instructions. (I got a Prometric-approved tissue to replace my packets, don’t worry. And at the end of the test I disposed of this tissue in front of the watchful eye of the camera to prove I hadn’t transcribed test questions on it.) Then, in front of the video camera, I had to demonstrate that my pockets were totally empty. This raised profound questions I had never before confronted: how does one turn the butt pockets on jeans inside out? Or decorative breast pockets on flannel shirts? And is someone on the other end of the video feed laughing at my performance? For what it’s worth, the proctor let me know she personally hated this particular requirement.

I can’t say much about the test, both because it’s all a blur of 35-minute periods passing too quickly yet four hours dragging on and on, and because I swore to full confidentiality in that cursive statement. Sorry. I know you were really looking forward to hearing some sample math problems.

What I can advise is this. Make cookies part of your test prep. I had a ten-minute break in the middle of the test, during which I stuffed my face with as many homemade oatmeal raisin cookies as possible. These cookies offer the tester two benefits: a lot of calories and a bit of protein, and fond memories of Mommy’s cookies. During a time like the GRE, any fond memory is useful!

So, with the test over, Sergey and I spent the rest of our day in Jaffa, the charming old city of Tel Aviv, where we had what was probably our most delicious restaurant meal post-US trip and contemplated the dark waters of the Mediterranean. And then, as must happen to every vacation, our relaxing time off drew to a close, and we made our way back north.

A Rainbow

A morning rainbow

A morning rainbow

Mornings are hard.  Back in my single life, I used to struggle to force myself out of bed.  You would think that marriage would somehow make Sergey and me into the sort of mature, efficient people who just spring out of bed at the first ring of the alarm.  Not so.  If anything, it made us even lazier, as we enabled each other to snooze later and later.  Finally, frustrated with my lethargy and lack of punctuality in the mornings, I told Sergey to start physically pushing me out of bed–and after much resistance (“How can I push a woman?”), he complied.  Now we are more on time, but the struggle remains.

I say all that as a preface, because the struggle of the morning contrasts so intensely with the often splendid seascapes outside our windows shortly after dawn.  This week, I saw one of the most beautiful–a sunrise rainbow!  As rain sprinkled the Mediterranean, the rainbow shone forth.  After stumbling into the kitchen to make our coffee, my groggy eyes caught sight of it, and I ran into the bedroom to tell Sergey to look.

Sometimes natural beauty is hard to appreciate.  For example, I find the beauty of Israel challenging–it can be hard to find anything wild in the paved, packed city, where the hot dust settles on everything.  The Bahá’í gardens are, of course, spectacular, but I crave something less manicured, something moist and verdant–basically, the leafy luster of the northern states of the US.  The tender evanescence of springtime, the green opulence of summertime, the jewel tones of autumn, even the silent blankness of winter (although I don’t miss that season as much!).

My natural environment, the green world.

Basking in my natural environment, the green world, during our honeymoon.

Spending some time on the land of the B&B where Sergey and I honeymooned reminded me that this terrain, this flora and fauna are planted in my heart.  In Michael Ondaatje’s novel The English Patient, the title character enjoys the solitary barrenness of the desert; on the contrary, his lover Katharine yearns for the moisture and verdure of rainy English gardens where hedgehogs roam.  I sympathize with Katharine, though I have seen hedgehogs in Israel.

But sometimes, it is patently easy to see the beauty of nature, when it stretches itself out right in front of you. Closer

A day at the beach

The last few weeks have been hectic as Sergey and I nailed down such wedding requirements as invitations, reception location, accommodations, and dress choices (for me, not him).  So we decided to go on a relaxing trip to the beach to recuperate.

Little did Sergey suspect that day at the beach with me is, well, no day at the beach.
 
Actually I was not the only companion–we went with a bunch of IT guys and a few IT ladies to a beach outside of Haifa where the aquamarine of the Mediterranean laps white sands scattered with seashells…and cigarette butts and charcoal, but still, a relatively clean beach.
 
A few months ago, I had dipped my toes into the Mediterranean for the first time in Tel Aviv. It is perhaps a little out of order that I entered the Dead Sea, a three hour drive away, so much sooner than the Mediterranean, which of course borders Haifa, but beaches kind of scare me.  Actually, I have been to a Mediterranean beach before, in Barcelona.  My overall impression of that beach was indeed fear.  I was with my mom and Jasmine, and in our street clothes we felt a bit overdressed in the midst of what we realized was a topless beach.  It was nothing I hadn’t seen before in art class, but…
 
 
Back to our present beach. Now, my ideal beach activity would involve lounging in the shade of a parasol with a good book, the soothing sounds of the waves in the background.  Some people, however, prefer actually entering the water.
 
Not me.
 
I have a deep distrust of any open water between the size of large puddles and the Pacific.  I think this arose from several mildly traumatic incidents.  The first happened when I was a toddler and my swim instructor forgot to put floaties on me.  Following his instructions–which I remember as him goading, “Don’t be a scaredy cat!”–I obediently proceeded to step underwater and came up having swallowed enough chlorine to bleach my insides clean.  He was very apologetic.  Besides that, there were the books and movies involving watery graves–Moby-Dick, Life of Pi, Titanic.  Then there was the incident when, in my senior year at Mount Holyoke, I capsized a canoe, resulting in the loss of my spectacles and my dignity.  And the latest and greatest, the escapade in which Jasmine and I almost floated over to Jordan on the Dead Sea.  I still have the scars.
 
So, I argue that I am neither a coward nor a scaredy cat.  I am simply more aware of the dangers of water than are others.
 
To compound these concerns, I was feeling genuinely sick, and unfortunately the seaside vendors seemed to only be hawking tiny kidneys–or at least that’s what the local snack appears to be–instead of ibuprofen or acetaminophen.
 
I started out with “I will walk in the surf.”  I enjoy the nonthreatening whoosh of foam around my toes.  Then Sergey convinced me to actually go inside the water.
 
There were two sides to this beach.  One had some sort of breakwater that kept all the waves out; this is where most of the kids were.  And that was the only side I would even consider entering.  I waded in slowly, whining about the cold water, which was actually pretty warm.  I swam a little in the midst of the happy children and their floaty toys.
 
Then Sergey decided to push his luck and induced me to come into the side with waves.  Small waves, but still, waves.  I demanded he hang on to me–“Don’t you dare let go!”–and we rode the waves up and down a little.  Then I demanded he release me when I started to fear we were in too deep–“Let go of me NOW!”  (Don’t worry, I could still touch bottom.)
 
Once I had gone through my odyssey, I could finally exit the water and do what I had come for: lie down, put on a sunhat and apply multiple coats of sunscreen, and read my book while daydreaming about painkillers.

Guess who’s back?

Thus I return shamefacedly to the blogosphere after a truly prolonged one-month absence.  It has been far too long, my friends.  I know you’ve all been biting your nails to the quick, desperate for news of my life.  Has she been wandering in the desert of Israel?  Dallying with her hordes of suitors?  Or working in an office by day and doing more Bahá’í activities by night?

Ok, all three have been a little true, but mostly the latter.  But I did have a very important break from my routine: Jazzy came!

That’s right, and I’m just now recovering.  As of a few days ago, no longer does putting on my jacket chafe my elbow wound excruciatingly.  No longer am I partially deaf.  Just kidding, Jasmine, it was precious to be with you and suffer multiple physical privations together, one of them the cold that you brought for me (imported from the good ole U.S. of A.!).

The elbow–ah, yes.  When I knew that Jasmine was coming, several months ago, I started planning our itinerary.  She would volunteer while I was in the office, and then when out of the office, we would go to the Bahá’í Shrines and then explore Haifa and Israel with my boundless energy.  Seriously, this was the most amazing, compulsive itinerary, with a full spectrum of color codings.

Jasmine gets a taste of Israel

Jasmine gets a taste of Israel

One of my goals was to have Jasmine visit the Dead Sea.  It was such a strange, otherworldly experience for me to float upon the water and look across the sea to the mountains of Jordan.  So Jasmine would float there too.  Thing is, it’s rather far from Haifa–three hours one-way–and I’m too dangerous a driver to rent a car here.  So I organized a ten-person sherut trip.

I had been the concerned about the temperature.  I mean, “beach in January” sounds rather unappealing, unless you’re a penguin.  But thankfully, the temperature was as cooperative as possible.  The real problem was the wind, which stirred up waves–not whitecaps or anything, but still, steadily rolling, hyper-saline waves.

As we walked down to the beach, we passed two other members of our group.

“How was it?” I asked.

“I would not recommend going in,” one replied.  “I got water in my eye.”

After that ringing endorsement, we went in.  I think we managed to get at least a few moments of calm floating in, although the waves made me nervous.  Jasmine glommed onto me and we floated side-by-side like a human raft.

We were actually moving quickly away from our point of departure, pushed by the waves.  “Let’s try and get back to the shore,” we decided.  So we “swam” Dead Sea style, doing a slow, splash-less backstroke.

Five minutes later, my friend Reggie, who was accompanying us, said, “Hey, remember when we said ‘let’s get back to the shore?’  We’re actually farther out now…”

And now I was tired.  Thankfully he offered us a lift back, grabbed my leg, and pulled me (with Jasmine in tow) back to the shallows, where I managed to get water in my mouth and eye.  We at last hefted ourselves out.

My other friend joined us onshore.  “You’re bleeding,” he pointed out.

“Oh, interesting,” I said.  There was a scratch on my back, scrapes on my elbow, and little scratches on my forearms from a run-in with a salty rock formation.  And poor Jasmine’s feet were wounded, which was not helped by the extremely painful barefoot journey across the sharp stones of the shore back to our things.  I clenched my teeth and pretended I was one of those silly people who test their resolve by walking across hot coals.  Actually, hot coals might have been preferable.

Eventually, two freezing public showers later, we got back in the sherut.  I examined my wounds.  “Souvenirs,” I concluded.

“Well, I’m glad I got to see the Dead Sea,” Jasmine said, “because now I know I don’t need to go back there.”

I smiled, dabbing some dried salt off her cheek.  That’s my girl.

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.

IMG_2820

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…

The sea below the sea

I’m back in the office, and my back muscles are sore.  It’s from all the floating over the weekend.

That’s right: for the first time since my train pulled into Haifa, I stepped foot outside the Haifa-Akka area.  When I signed up for the Dead Sea trip, allured by the promise of adventure, I knew one thing: it was salty.  And also dead, as anything that tries to live in the sea would probably become quickly pickled.  I had a feeling it had some biblical significance, like, wasn’t that where Jesus walked on water?  Or where Moses parted the sea?  (I assume your Bible knowledge is better than mine and you know that would be the Sea of Galilee and the Red Sea, respectively.)

It was a rather long ride in the sherut, as we must avoid the West Bank.  I plugged in my earbuds and listened to Devendra Banhart.  I wish I had chosen someone more pronounceable and less indie to listen to, because when questioned about my music choice, my response provoked raised eyebrows.  “Dev-end-ra-ban-heart, have you heard of him?”

If I didn’t pay too much attention, it would have felt much like the trip from Verona to Chicago–wide highways, green signs (except in Hebrew, Arabic, and English), gas stations en route.  But after a while we entered the desert.  I knew I had entered a strange land when I saw the camel crossing signs, and then the camels, a few clustered by the side of the road, probably waiting for a sherut with open seats to come pick them up.

“Alright, we’re about to go underwater,” Abboud, the sherut driver famed among the Bahá’ís, said.  “You all ready to hold your breath?”

We were going below sea level, deeper and deeper “underwater.”  The Dead Sea, Wikipedia tells me, is the lowest point on dry land in the world.  It’s a sea below sea level.  Interestingly, because of the great atmospheric pressure, you’re safer from the sun’s harmful UV rays there, despite the constant clear skies.

Hiking trail up to Masada.  No thanks, I'll take the cable car.

Hiking trail up to Masada. No thanks, I’ll take the cable car.

Our first stop was Masada, the ruins of a fortress and palace built on a plateau by Herod the Great.  When the Jews rebelled against their Roman overlords, they made their last stand there, kind of like the Alamo except less Texan.  In short, the Jewish men decided to commit mass suicide and die free rather than allowing themselves and their families to be captured and enslaved by their foes.  When the Romans entered the fortress, they were greeted by hundreds of lifeless bodies.

Ancient columns.

Ancient columns.  A key part of ruiny décor.

Mainly what I learn from visiting places like Masada is that I don’t have the mind of an archaeologist.  I have a hard time looking at stone walls and envisioning Herod or the Jewish rebels.  But the panoramas of the alien landscape were something to behold.

IMG_1282

At long last, we reached the shores of the sea.  The beach, which was more of a rocky hill, was full of tourists, some of them painted with mud, some of them floating.  I could see that some of the rocks on the shore were actually covered with large salt crystals.

Beach

I tentatively stepped into the water.  My flip-flops escaped my feet and shot to the surface.  Ok, new plan: unshod, I waded into the water, wincing over the bumpy rock bottom.  I crouched down, then let myself float up to the surface.  Now, I’m not much of a beach goer.   As you know, the double threats of sunshine and drowning prevent me from getting seduced by that scene.  But I have found my perfect body of water in the Dead Sea.  You can’t swim, but only float–perfect!  I don’t need to fear going past my depth because I physically cannot sink!  You can’t put your head underwater unless you want to damage your eyes–wonderful!  I dislike the sensation of submersion.  I let myself float a little deeper, watching the pink, dry mountains on the Jordanian shore and the quiet desert sky above.  The water was warm and oily–I could see the shadows of the oil projected on my hands underwater.  Once I actually wanted to move, this proved complicated.  I tried a few strokes, to little avail, and started to wonder what would happen if I just never got back to shore, floating immobilized, a victim of buoyancy?  Finally I found a very slow breaststroke worked.

And I must have gotten back to shore eventually if I’m writing this now.

So shiny

We’re on the roof of a building in the Abdullah Pasha compound in ‘Akká.  It’s 7:00 PM and the sun is setting over the Mediterranean, painting sky and sea.  Viewed through the chain link fence bordering the roof, it becomes a gleaming mosaic.   A mosaic in a Mosaic land.  If I had brought my camera, I would have indulged in some shutterbugging, but I try to take “photos with my brain” instead.  Although I could really use a better memory card.

At least someone remembered their camera!

At least someone remembered their camera!

So we’re on the roof for our weekly reflection program, a change of habitat from our usual multipurpose room.  The group is singing the song we always sing, “Unite the hearts,” when the call to prayer rings out from the nearby mosque.  I find myself wishing church bells would start tolling and the worshippers at a synagogue would start harmonizing in an interfaith mashup.

The previous week, a member of the Universal House of Justice talked with our group about the spiritual prerequisites for success.  I had the (nerve-wracking) honor of introducing him (I cut the word “prerequisite” out of my intro after its multiple R’s proved hostile to my pronunciation) and sitting beside him for the duration.  The scent of his attar of rose permeated the air.

I made a card to thank him for joining us.  It was the first time I’ve painted in quite a while, and losing myself in the watercolors for a few hours reminded me why I love making art.  The line written in the lower left corner comes from the 28 December 2010 message of the UHJ to the Continental Board of Counsellors, which discusses upholding Bahá’í values and nurturing good habits of thought:

May every one of them [youth] come to know the bounties of a life adorned with purity and learn to draw on the powers that flow through pure channels.

Card

I can’t help but notice a resemblance to an earlier painting…

Watercolor - Forest Meditation

Five years have elapsed, and my muse remains the same.