Day 6: The Sea of Galilee, Dan, Banias, and the Golan

Have you ever wondered what Nazareth looks like at 6 o'clock in the morning? I found out today when we had to be to the bus by 6.30. Eek. This is the view from my window at the Sisters of Nazareth Convent.

There are, of course, McDonald's restaurants in Israel. However, this is one of the only McDonald's signs I saw in Hebrew.

We started the day off right with a drive up to the edge of a cliff overlooking the Sea of Galilee. This cliff was just above town of Tiberias, but it overlooked the Sea just about as far as the eye could see.

I had another "I wish I had the iPod so I could be listening to a movie soundtrack" moment here. Can you guess which movie? Pride & Prejudice, the 2005 version. Even without the accompanying music, I still had a major Lizzie Bennett moment standing on the edge of a rocky cliff overlooking glorious countryside.

And then, somewhat anticlimactically, my camera ran out of batteries. So I'll have to give you the rest of the day's story without photographs until Matt (Matt, if you're reading this, get on the ball already!) sends me his.

After our overview of the area, we went to Tell Dan. If there was ever a place for anyone, Tell Dan is it. It's part nature reserve, part incredibly ancient ruins, and part war-enthusiast heaven. I enjoyed all parts of it immensely.

We started off with a hike through a cool forest to an ice-cold natural wading pond. Miriam loved it, of course. We then continued up to the site of an old temple, which was more interesting for its also being the location of some old Syrian bunkers leftover from the 1967 war. After that, we curved around to see the ruins of the gates of the city, made out of clay bricks that were somehow, amazingly, still intact. Abraham would have come through those same gates to save Lot way back in the day. We finished out the site of Tell Dan at an area with more substantial ruins dating from a later period. It was really an interestingly versatile visit.

Pressing on, we visited both halves of Banias. The first half was a short hike down to a beautiful waterfall. I took Miriam on my shoulders the whole way, telling her she could go swimming when we got there. But then we got there and there were "NO SWIMMING" signs posted, so I had to go back on my promise. Oh well.

Before I got back on the bus to go to the second half of Banias, I bought some pears, apples, and plums from a fruit stand vendor. They were Golan pears, apples, and plums, which meant they were guaranteed to be delicious. I was not disappointed.

The second half of Banias had more water pools (unswimmable again) and a few ruins of a pagan temple up on a hill. My memory of these sites is hazier than the Jerusalem ones since Jeremy wasn't there to help with Miriam. Often, the group and the guide were off learning important things about the location we were in while I was pointing out interesting things to Miriam. Which is not to say we didn't have our share of fun, because we did, picking up rocks and noticing small animals.

Finally, it was lunchtime. We stopped in a small Golani town for some falafel - the most expensive falafel I have ever had. It was something like 18 shekels for a sandwich, which is equal to about $4.50. It was very good falafel, don't get me wrong, but I'm not sure that a falafel sandwich is ever worth $4.50.

Then began our glorious tour of the Golan Heights. I had been to the Golan Heights twice before, with two visits to Quneitra, Syria, in 2004 and 2007. From there, you can really only gaze at the region's beauty from a distance. On the Israeli-occupied (even the UN agrees that Israel is occupying it) side, however, you are right in the middle of a gorgeously fertile, rolling-fields landscape.

We stopped at a "scenic overlook"-type pullout, complete with a pre-recorded audio presentation on the "history" of the area. I use the term "history" loosely because it was actually one of the funniest misrepresentations of actual events that I've ever heard. A wholesome-sounding Israeli lady told the story of the 1967 war over the background of a sweet folk song, sprinkled with phrases like "brave Israeli fighters" and "numerous goodwill gestures." I thought the Syrian side of Quneitra was a see-through example of propaganda, but now I think the Israelis did an even more thorough job of it.

Miriam finally got a good bus-nap in as we drove back towards Nazareth, by way of Tiberias. We made a quick stop at the new Mormon church building in Tiberias, and it ranks waaaay up there with the Jerusalem Center as far as amazing places to hold a church meeting go. The entire eastern (? - sea-facing, anyway) wall is glass, with a walk-out patio just beyond. The view is of the Sea of Galilee and the beautiful shoreline. Miriam slept through all of this in my arms until some of our group who were lagging behind rang the doorbell and woke her up. There was still time to admire the beautiful building, and also notice that they have the hymn numbers posted in four different languages. The congregations of these Middle Eastern branches are so diverse.

Back at the Sisters of Nazareth Convent, we made an appointment with a nun to take a tour of the remains of 1st-century Nazareth below the convent. The nun saw Miriam and told me that she didn't think "the baby" could go. I wasn't sure why she thought that: whether it was because she didn't think Miriam (or I) could handle it, or if for the sake of everyone else she didn't want a baby along. But I figured that Miriam hadn't come all the way to Nazareth just to miss out on the 1st-century ruins!

So down below the basement we went. The true nature of our nun-guide was almost immediately apparent when she chastised a few members of our group for taking along small water bottles. Those instantly had to be put aside. A few minutes later, we were allowed a short time to look around the ruins ourselves. Two of our students disappeared for what could not have been more than 15 seconds into an alcove (more of us had been there just before them) and when they emerged, the nun gave them a look like they had just desecrated a holy place. I'm not sure what exactly they did that deserved such disapproval, but it was clear they were now going to go to hell.

Meanwhile, I was walking on eggshells with little Miriam. The last thing I needed was for this woman's ire to turn on my daughter. Fortunately, she was very well behaved, and even prompted some nice comments from the lady. The nun said that the little boy Jesus must have grown up in a home much like the one we were in - and then gestured to toddling Miriam as a kind of visual example.

Somehow, we made it out of there alive and up to dinner at the convent. It being a convent and all, we thought the first course of bread and thin soup was all there would be. Instead, it was a full-on Arab meal with potatoes, salad, grilled meat, and fruit for dessert. Miriam ate a little and then wandered out to the courtyard to play with the bus driver. I let her (our bus driver was a really nice guy) until she came back into the dining room holding...a cigarette lighter. The bus driver's cigarette lighter. I didn't know anyone thought that was a child-safe toy.

We settled in by 9 o'clock or so for our second-to-last night on the road. I could hardly stay awake, but Miriam required almost constant storytelling to fall asleep. Counting in Arabic finally did the trick. Go figure.

Day 7: St. Joseph's Church

Day 5: Church, Armageddon, & Nazareth