Today we visited the Accademia Gallery in Florence, the home of Michelangelo’s David.
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First all, I apologize for my absence! My keyboard broke about a month ago, the replacement didn’t work, and when I finally had a good keyboard, I was just starting my trip to Italy! So, let’s make up for lost time.
In Jerusalem lies the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built on Golgotha, place of skulls, where Jesus was crucified, buried and rose again.
To reach the church, you travel through the narrow sandstone alleys of Old City Jerusalem. The light of the plaza is blinding after the dim awning-covered alleys.
From the ground, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre presents one wall, with arched colonnades framing an imposing wooden door. Through the door is a small alcove, paved in black-and-white marble. Brass lanterns of many sizes hang from the arches, each candle casting glittering splinters of light.
After the alcove, the first thing you see is a stone slab, raised about six inches off the floor. Brass lanterns with candles hang over it and people crowd around, kneeling, praying, and pressing clothing and crosses against the stone. This stone is where Jesus’ body, broken and bloody, was prepared for burial.
Of all the blood that has been spilled through history, the blood spilled on this rock signaled something more: life not death, the triumph of the spirit over the body, and the end of suffering.
Behind the first room there is a great domed room; the vaulted arches that support the dome, many rows of them, are spangled with brass stars and hung with more brass lanterns. A beam of light as beautiful as grace streams through the single hole in the center of the roof, illuminating the great reliquary. The line is long and jumbled; we wait to enter and pray by the plain stone sarcophagus.
Groups gather in corners to pray or sing. A woman in a holy daze passes, her hands shaking as she crosses herself, her eyes fixed on nothing you can see. Through it all thunder black-robed Orthodox priests, shouting, corralling, trying to corralling, trying to give order, but nobody listens; this place does not belong to them.
One room leads into another, up, across or down into the earth. The steps have been worn slick with the centuries. On one staircase, a series of black Templar’s crosses, as thick as graves in a cemetery, adorn the walls.
This path leads down and down, to a place underground where natural rock forms one wall. In the shelter created by the natural rock’s uneven tilt, a group is gathered, singing in deeply resonant and beautiful voices of the wonder of our Lord. “I stand amazed,” they sing. This place, some say, is the true site of his tomb of holiness, not the place with the vast reliquary.
I think this entire place, this church, this city, this land is riddled with sacredness, like air bubbles in glass. There’s always more to find.
We had planned to travel by car up to the north of Israel, to the area around the Sea of Galilee. At the last moment, a business friend of Daniel’s offered to accompany us, and that couldn’t have been more perfect.
The north of Israel is greener and more hilly than the rest. Flowering plants bloom everywhere, and I was told that it is even more beautiful during the wet season.
First we traveled to the Sea of Galilee. Here we saw two churches, each right next to the other. One was devoted to the miracle of Christ’s walking on water (and the anointment of Peter as his agent on earth, if you’re into that) and the other was supposedly set on the place where Jesus performed the miracle of multiplying the loves and fishes.
Across the sea are the Golan Heights. Like all Israeli citizens, Daniel’s friend had served in the Continue reading
We began our tour of the Old City at the Tower of David, at the Jaffa Gate. The Tower of David, or the Citadel of Jerrusalem, is a fortress built during the Mamluk and Ottoman periods on the site of an earlier fortification. King Hezekiah was the first to build on this area. The Hasmonean kings also built on the area, as did King Herod. The Tower still includes the three original towers built by King Herod.
You can go here to donate to the Nepalese Red Cross in order to support both Nepalis and Tibetans in the wake of the earthquake.
In Pokhara, Nepal, we found Tibetan Encounters, a tour of three of the four Tibetan refugee camps in Pokhara. At first we had some doubts. Would this be like a slum tour? Would it be awkward? Were we indulging in the worst kind of voyerism? But this tour was one of the best things I have ever done, and I’m happy that my money went towards this project.
I’ve divided it into two overarching themes: the spiritual and the political. We’ll start with the political.
Over Tibetan tea – which is traditionally made with yak butter and is very salty – our guide told us about the political background. In 1959, China invaded Tibet and the Dalai Lama was forced to flee. Our guide recommended a book, Buddha’s Warriors, on the subject of the Dalai Lama’s escape, escorted by monks turned guerilla warriors, through the Himalayas and into Nepal. Here is some information about how China has attempted to erase Tibetan culture and assimilate it into China since then. Our guide was born in Mustang, a region in the high Himalayas that is the most common crossing point between Nepal and Tibet, in 1960, a few months after the takeover. This region is ethnically Tibetan, but, according to our guide, in order to bribe the Nepali-Tibetans into securing the border, the Tibetans in that area do not face the same economic oppression as elsewhere in Nepal. Continue reading
As most of you know, I flew out of Kathmandu about twelve hours before the earthquake hit.
Earlier that week, I was in Durbar Square and Bhaktapur, which are now wrecks. I also stayed in Bandipur, mere miles from the epicenter. Continue reading
Monkey Temple, or Swayambhunath
Located 365 steps about the city, Swayambhunath is a Buddhist and Hindu temple that is among the oldest religious sites in Nepal, possibly founded at the beginning of the 5th century CE.
Mythically, the entire Kathmandu Valley was once filled with water. In the center grew a lotus. A holy man named Manjusri had a vision and traveled to the lotus. Seeing that the valley would be good for human settlement, he cut a gorge at Chovar and drained the lake. The lotus was transformed into the hill on which Swayambhunath sits and the flower became the Swayambhunath stupa (a stupa is a rounded structure containing Buddhist relics; the white in the image below is a stupa).
The stupa has Buddha Eyes, or Wisdom Eyes, painted on it. They symbolize the omniscience of Buddha. The curly “nose” is the Nepali character for “1” representing uthe unity of all things as well as the path to enlightenment. The dot represents the third eye, another indicator of wisdom.
The same holy man who drained the lake let his hair grow long, and he developed head lice, which were then transformed into the monkeys that still live at the temple.
I’m sorry for the radio silence. My Dad and my uncle Doug came to visit for two weeeks, and we did so much that my blogging couldn’t possibly keep up. So here’s a round up of what we did, in no particular order.
Crossing the Cambodian border is legendary for its difficulty and general unpleasantness. Scams are plentiful, officials are corrupt, and actual guidance hard to find.
The games started on the bus, before we’d even reach the border. The bus pulled over and one of the bus operators handed out “official” Cambodian forms. “For visa,” he said. “For quick processing.” The form was filled with typos and so badly photocopied that the government seal was not legible. Although that may have been on purpose.
According to him, it will be a mere $33 for “quick processing.” This is a scam. You can’t get your Cambodian visa until you are in Cambodia. That money will go in his pocket.
It’s okay, I’ve prepared for this. This is like my Olympics. I’ve been training. I will not be taken in.
I raise my hand and oh so politely but oh so loudly ask what the $33 is for. Do we still have to walk across the border? What’s quicker about that?
He won’t meet my eyes. It’s okay, though, I’ve clearly made some allies. Other backpackers look at me and nod. We’re serious. We’ve read up on this. Not going to be fooled.
Ultimately only 5 or 6 people of the 30 on the bus pay up. Good.
Now we have to get out of the bus and walk. It will meet us on the other side, we hope.
The Cambodian border is a scammer’s dream: there are three or four separate buildings, spread out over about a quarter mile. None of the buildings are visible to each other, and official signage is bad or missing. This gives the touts and scammers lots of opportunity to swarm you and try to point you “This way, miss. Miss, lady, this way. Quick processing.” Eyes ahead. Show no hesitation. Reveal no fear.
At this point about twelve of us have banded together. We’ll get through this.
We make it through three buildings, collecting various stamps and whatnot. We hear one tourist complaining that she paid $60 on her bus for her visa, why does she have to pay more? We shake our heads. Should have read the blogs.
We bob and weave around the touts and scammers, keeping our eyes ahead.
The third building is where the challenge is: these officlas say the visa is $30 (true, true, according to what we’ve read) but there is a 1,000 baht processing fee. Oh no. Not true. Generally speaking, when an official asks for payment in two currencies, one of those is going into his pocket. 1,000 baht is about $3. I pay it. Do I regret this?
The American couple behind me, however, refuses to pay it. They claim to only have $30. Good for them. Stick it to the man. The rest of us gather to wait for them.
One of the officials makes a shooing motion at us. “Go next building!” “No, no, waiting for our friends!” We say, with big smiles, pointing to the American couple. They have backup. We’re here for them. They are bolder than we, but we won’t desert them in their time of need.
The official is a little flummoxed but recovers. “Oh, you wait long time! Looong time!” We smile back at him.
The American couple must be made to wait for the sin of not paying the bribe. Te rest of us stand like a Greek chorus and smile at them the whole time.
After about 20 minutes, they decide it is better to get rid of us (what if we say something to the next tourists to enter? This could look very bad, such a large, stationary, smiling, watching group of tourists). The two Americans are given their visas. We go to the next building which, like all the others, is not air conditioned.
After about an hour and a half, we finally make it back to the bus. There have been casualties. One person had been told to go to building #4 instead of building #3. Now he was to go back and start all over. We wait in the air conditioned bus, feeling triumphant. We have succeeded.
Although I did pay the $3, for which I feel a little regret.
I took no pictures of the border crossing because everything I owned was padlocked and zippered away from prying hands. I didn’t dare take my camera out, or stop for a picture. But here’s a picture of Angkor Wat, which is what made the border crossing worthwhile: