Doha, Qatar to Jerusalem, Israel
19.12.2009 - 25.12.2009
Its dusk and I'm having a mint shai & nargileh on the rooftop of a cafe in the Waqif souq area of Doha, lounging on a divan and listening to the muezzin calling evening prayers from the surrounding mosques - quintessential Arabian nights! These 2 younger local guys sitting next to me, who happen to be college students in Florida, started asking me questions, like how I liked Doha ("Awesome!", but actually seems a bit boring!) and my impressions of the Middle East ("Different than what the U.S. Government would have one believe!").
So today found a much more convenient hotel with private room right next to the bus station in the city center, for only QR20 more (about US $5.50) per night than the dorm in the youth hostel way out of town. Today's weather was awesome - light breeze, sunny and around 22 C (upper 70's F), so I took advantage and walked the entire Corniche (about 5 km each way),
and enjoyed the people watching - loads of people walking, jogging, and biking around. Heading back to the hotel now, and when I asked for the bill, was told by the waiter the college kids (who left a bit ago) paid for my shai - how awesome!
Just had Skpe calls with the fam in a coffee shop near the hotel, now getting ready to find a bar in one of the 5-star hotels (here in Doha, the only places serving alcohol in the whole country!). Today was fairly low-key, I spent some time trying to track down a tour company for a trip to the desert tomorrow, then visited the Museum of Islamic Art. Overall nice displays & well organized,
but disappointed there were no pieces from Qatar itself (nor the Arabian Peninsula, for that matter), only Egypt, Iran, Iraq and Syria. But the building and grounds itself, designed by the renowned architect I.M. Pei (the Louvre triangle), did make an impression!
Just returned from my tour down to Khor Al-Adaid, in the southern part of Qatar, with seemingly endless sand dunes.
Myself and an older couple from S. Africa, who were in Doha only the day on a transit flight to India, signed up for this tour where our driver, Assam, took us down past the oil refineries
to the vast open desert. We stopped for tea in a local's tent,
while Assam let out some air from the tires, then we were off into the dunes. This guy was a crazy driver... more than once I though for sure we were going to spill!
But he is nothing short of a professional (done this more than once), and we arrived safely at the inland sea bordering the Empty Quarter in Saudi Arabia, perfect views at sunset!
Back here in Dubai overnight for the connecting flight back to Amman tomorrow. The flight from Doha was uneventful enough, but it got interesting when I got on the same bus # from the Dubai airport as last time, only today took a different route and winded up way the heck out somewhere... but finally made it back to the crappy hostel way the heck out in the other direction, and off to bed.
I had a surprisingly uneventful trip here into Israel today - up at the crack of dawn back in Dubai for my 8 AM flight to Amman (where I was required to buy a tourist visa instead of a free transit visa, despite my leaving Jordan the same day - B.S.!!), took the bus from the Amman airport to the Abdali bus station then a shared taxi to the King Hussein Bridge border crossing, then another bus to the actual border (mandatory, despite the fact you could walk there). My shared taxi was with 2 Palestinian men & an American/Palestinian woman, who were offering me their interesting perspectives on the whole region as we were crossing over into Israel (or, more accurately, Palestinian-controlled West Bank). It was a bit disappointing I ended up getting a stamp in my passport from the Israeli Immigration "officer" (18 year-old girl serving her military obligation), as that rules out about 1/2 dozen Islamic countries that I haven't been to, and now won't be able to visit, at least with the current passport. Well, at least I entered without any issues, even after I heard the girl tell her colleague at the next station while flipping through my passport, "Um, Syria....". After the 5 or 6 different control point/stations to actually enter successfully, got into another shared taxi-van (with at least 100 flies to accompany me) through the vast desert of the West Bank, past the border check point (flashing the passport), and into Israel-controlled Jerusalem. I got checked in to the hostel I had made a reservation with (anticipating a busy time in the next couple days, didn't want to risk my usual last-minute hostel shopping for fear of everything being booked.... although, the hostel did get my reservation screwed up anyway and stuck me in the wrong, but nicer, hotel section), then wandered over through Damascus Gate across the street into Old Jerusalem, which is divided into 4 quarters - Christian, Jewish, Armenian (random?), and Muslim, the latter of which I strolled around and watched the hawkers at their best!
Christmas Eve in Jerusalem (very cool!), about to head over with a few other "pilgrims" staying in the hostel, on the ~8 km walk to Bethlehem for Midnight Mass. Today in Old Jerusalem (love this place... so much history!), started out with a visit over to the Western ("wailing") wall, Judaism's holiest shrine, with dozens of Bar Mitzvah ceremonies taking place, kids dancing around singing and carrying the Torah(?, looks like the Stanley Cup!) and weaving between the praying ultra-Orthodox men sitting by, or leaning up next to, the Wall. I first entered the immediate area to the right, then quickly realizing that all around me were (very good looking) women cheering and throwing candy over a segregating divider, so backed out of there and over to the left (men's) section, donning the obligatory Kippa and all...
Next joined a free tour to some of Old Jerusalem's more off-the-beaten-path sites, like the Armenian quarter with its Orthodox church.
I split off from the tour to visit one of the holiest places in the world, the "holiest in the holy land" (so my guidebook tells me), the Temple Mount.
Only open for a couple hours per day for non-Muslims (and closed tomorrow for the Muslim Holy Friday), wanted to make sure I didn't miss it! The atmosphere was really special -- people wandering around the plaza, or picnicking on the grass under the trees, all very peaceful and relaxed in this region often wrought with conflict. The centerpiece, Dome of the Rock (AD 691), was built over the slab of stone where it is said Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son, and where Mohammed supposedly ascended to heaven. While wandering around amazed at the history I was in the midst of, I bumped into a couple staying in the same hostel (hotel?) who were telling me of their "adventure" earlier today visiting the ultra-conservative Jewish Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearm, where they almost got stoned (not drugs, but rather rocks thrown at their heads...). "By the local punk kids?", I ask. "No, by the crazy middle-aged women on rooftops!". Yeah, I think I'll skip that area!
Merry Christmas from Jerusalem! Last night I did the pilgrimage to Bethlehem.
During the ~8 km trek, I felt I had fulfilled my Christmas spirit obligations as the group and I helped push an Orthodox Jew's broken-down car along the main street about 500m up the road. But when the car, loaded with bottles of mineral water, started up, he just waved and drove on by... uh, thanks for the drink and/or ride offer there, buddy! So it was an interesting stop crossing the check point into the West Bank,
where the security wall was showing a lot more life and character on the West Bank side, with the graffiti - some paintings with more peaceful messages than others...
When we crossed through (quite simply), the first image was a Palestinian bar/restaurant where we had our Palestinian Christmas beers (I negotiated a few Sheckles off my beer... "C'mon, it's Christmas!"),
and immediately outside, there was a gate in the security wall that opened and the Israeli border guards came out, displaying their usual high-level of discipline while smoking, taking photos and hitting on Svenja, the cute German girl in our "pilgrimage"...
Well, there was certainly a different vibe going on in the West Bank - not sure if this is because I was in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve, or if this is the norm, but either way it was a really fun atmosphere! We walked past the empty lots strewn with garbage (not the cleanest place) to Manger Square where 100's of people (mainly Palestinian teenage boys) were crowded together watching the free rock concert.
Right next door, the Church of the Nativity (site where Jesus was born) was a madhouse with the security during Midnight Mass.
Stopped off for another beer & sheesha at a pro-Arafat cafe (as all shops still seem to be in Bethlehem),
before walking back to the checkpoint. And what a joke, there were about 20 people trying to cross back from the West Bank, we're sitting at the check point for about 20 minutes with the Israeli border control shouting over the speaker system to go to one of the lines, then sitting and nothing's happening?!? Finally we were herded through like cattle, flashing our entry stamps and bussed it back to the hostel. So this Christmas morning back in Jerusalem, checked out tons of historical sites: Coenaculum (site of the Last Supper),
King David's tomb, Church & Monastery of the Dormition where Virgin Mary died (which is apparently different location than her tomb, which I also visited and was very cool with the hanging lamps).
Next was Pillar of Absalom (Tomb of David's son),
and nearby olive grove garden of Gethsemane where Jesus was betrayed the night of his arrest.
After all those places, entered back into Old Jerusalem through Lion's Gate and walked with dozens of other pilgrims the Via Dolorosa (Way of Sorrows), the landmark 14-stage path where condemned Jesus lugged His Cross to the Calvary.
The final 5 stages, at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, were quite a site - hundreds of people packed into a tiny area where Jesus was nailed to the Cross,
then adjacent point where He died on the Cross, where there was an ongoing, intense prayer procession with the Greek Orthodox Priests.
The site where his body was laid out downstairs (or down the hill, that the Church was built over), and finally Christianity's holiest site, the cave where the Body was buried and resurrected (now a chapel built over).
Despite the huge crowds and queue, got to see it all! Now back in the hostel/hotel, the fellow "pilgrims" and I are heading out for a Christmas drink in New Jerusalem... well, we'll see if that is possible during Shabbat!