Remembrance of Trips Past

August 1989: Amtrak, Starlight Express from Los Angeles to Seattle

Morning somewhere before we reach Vandenberg: eating breakfast at a table with a young lady and her kids. We go past a nudist beach; the daughter points and says "Ma! That man is buck nekkid!"

Next day, I wake up in my seat to sunrise on Mount Shasta. I go to the observation car; nobody else around. Paradise.

In Oregon, clear cuts look like patches of ringworm. One pristine valley, no visible roads or buildings. On a slow bend, I reach out the window and brush my fingertips on rhododendrons.

Seattle slums. Clear cuts on the mountains are horizontal stripes between two arbitrary elevation lines. Smog and congested concrete. Why are people attracted to this place? I stay at a YMCA made of yellow brick.

High-speed ferry to Vancouver Island. Customs officials peer at my bicycle and camping gear, but I convince them I'm just here on vacation. Victoria city: tea houses, gardens, and bookstores. I feel like Anton[1] at the Liberace Museum. God, I could just dress up in 19th century clothes and woo a young lady over tea and scones.

Along the south rim on bicycle. Camping overnight at parks, washing up at laundromats. Chill, mist, and mosquitoes. Even the sea anenomes refuse to open. Mount Olympus is white and sparkling clean across the water. A logged area, resembling a battleground, has a sign posted by the road explaining the environmental benefits of clear cutting.

Back in Victoria, I had a dish called something like poo-tin. Cheese curds, french fries, and gravy: my heart still skips at the thought. Just recently had some in Flagstaff, but it wasn't nearly as good. Some time later in Hawaii, a couple of times I had a dish composed of rice, roast beef, and gravy, with an egg on top; I just can't remember what that's called. In Victoria, I stop at a bookstore and buy a complete set of Moorcock's Elric series. Heaven!

Spent the whole trip back reading.

February? 1988: Jordan and Israel

Detroit flight to Chicago: I'm thankful I packed two suitcases. A luggage handlers' strike deliberately lost one, but I still had the other. Overnight flight on Royal Jordanian Airlines. Midmost seat in the midmost section of a 747. Misery, but I'm a born stoic container (until I finally explode, leaving great soppy parts on the walls). Choice of Western or Middle Eastern breakfast. Both are salty pre-fab. [I forgot to mention surprisingly good coffee.]

Brief stop at Vienna. They wouldn't let us off the plane. I'm standing at the open door, looking wistfully.

Flying over Turkey. The mountains are magnificent. I sure would like to go there some day.

In to Amman. They just had the biggest snowfall in years. The whole city has taken a holiday, and everyone and their families are out playing in the snow beyond the city outskirts. Cars drive around with snowmen on their roofs. Oh yes, there's a Pizza Hut.

Jordanian beer rocks! I'm having a lovely amber at the hotel bar. Later that trip I would try Israeli beer (Maccabee! is that too ironic or what?), but it wasn't nearly as good.

Roman ruins at Jaresh. Incredible Byzantine tile floors, exposed to the sun and elements. Roman glass everywhere. Roman glass has a certain lustre similar to polished abalone; once you know how to spot it, you can't help but see it all around you. Just like oil lamps. The Middle East is one huge historical trash midden. Antiquities are a dime a dozen[2].

East side of the Jordan valley we stop at a fabricated biblical site: the place where Moses took his last look. Centuries of hucksters. Oh, I forgot to mention that this is a chartered tour group. A couple thousand bucks covered air fare, first class hotels (supposedly), a bus, and an affable though annoying guide. But that's not even the funniest part. The Japanese groups wore colored badges to keep themselves organized, and that made perfect sense, but leave it to the German groups: they wore colored paper hats. I was ready to shit my pants.

Crossing the border into Israel: the stamp goes on a piece of paper instead of on the passport. Officially, Arab countries can't let you back in if you have an Israeli stamp in your passport. This reminds me of the Red Cross. I used to be an almost religious blood donor, but one day they introduced a policy where the donor privately places a sticker on the blood bag indicating whether or not it should really be accepted. I KID YOU NOT! THEY'RE STILL DOING IT! AAAAGGGGGHHHHH!!!! That's why I can't stand to give blood anymore[3].

Back at the border, people with cameras have to take a snapshot of the ceiling to prove that the cameras aren't bombs. This is 1988, folks! And you're complaining about taking off your shoes at airports now ?!?!? The Jordan River. The Jordan Trickle, I should say. About the same as Oak Creek here in Arizona, at best. And that was during an unusually wet winter (more to come on that). "Jordan River, deep and wide hallelu-u-u-jah, milk and honey on the other side" pu-ure bu-u-l-l-shit. People really come here to get baptized though, and actually fill vials and jars full of the water[4].

Jericho. One of the world's first true cities is a now pile of dirt a couple of hundred yards across at best. Great fruit, though. Oh, the tour guide: he would go on about "drip dry underwears" and "only eat fruit that you can peel". I did try a pomegranite, though, and I thought it was terrible (even though I love the juice). The rest of the trip I only ate citrus, and no lie it was the best!!

Tiberias, on the Sea of Galilee... the most beautiful small town in the Middle East. I could retire there. I visited the open-air marketplace and bought a delicious piece of pizza via hand gestures. One of local bars served whole, unpitted olives as snacks (and they were GOOD!), and the bartender was from Los Angeles, of all places. I'm not joking here, my roomie and I followed a fraudulent rumor of a chance to buy weed, wound up at a plush resort at the top of a hill, at which the taxi service abruptly closed, and we had to walk the whole way back to our hotel. God, what a wonderful night that was.

North shore, Sea of Galilee, another probably fraudulent biblical site. Then Nazareth, and there (I'm pretty sure) we visited a chapel with an ancient floor mosaic map of the holy land (a beautiful work of art, actually, but still more centuries of hucksters). In any case, there I was, in a town on a high hill, with rolling clouds and cold mist flowing past me. I was standing on wet brick pavement, and a young, gorgeous woman wheeled by me in her wheelchair. I smiled at her, she smiled at me, and I really, truly experienced love at first sight. Feel free to call it puppy love, it didn't come to anything anyway (I was in a chartered tour group, remember?), but I'll carry it with me to my dying days.

Jerusalem, situated on high ground, surrounded by plateaus, well back from the Jordan Valley. Apartment complexes nearby are illegal Israeli settlements on Palestinean soil. Everywhere I look, houses and apartment buildings have passive solar water heaters. They look like this: a cylindrical tank sits on legs, with a solar panel below it. I actually took a course in college in solar heating: this is a very efficient design because the combination of hot water and siphon effect keep the water circulating, and a simple one-way valve prevents reverse flow at night (think about it). A visible wire goes into the bottom center of the tank to run the backup heating element. How many licks does it take to see this in the U.S., especially here in Arizona? The world may never know.

The Mount of Olives is a graveyard on another hillside facing Jerusalem. Someone offers to sell me some hashish, but by that time I consider the possibility of drug stings. Wisely, howbeit regretfully, I refuse.

Jerusalem. The height of the (then peaceful) Intefidah. Businesses run by Palestineans are closed by day, and open briefly by night. I present a seminar at the University of Jerusalem on my current work at graduate school. What a freaking waste of time. At least they're polite.

The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is dominated by Armenians, though Russian and Greek Orthodox have their territory there as well. Israeli teens have mandatory military service, by the way. Even off duty I see them in public transit wearing jeans, t-shirts, and military rifles. They love getting their picture taken, but my roomie made the mistake of asking one to flash the "peace" sign. Turns out that has strong Palestinean "victory" connotations. I won't complain about that.

Back in 1988, despite the Intifedah, all the Palestinian folk we met were just ordinary folk trying to get by and make a living, and as friendly and hospitable as you can imagine. What I can't imagine now is going back there after our tacit support of Israeli atrocities (not to mention those we carried out our very own selves).

The Church of the Nativity is a Circus. The Church of the Sepulchre is a sad joke. The one lesson I took away from Jerusalem: the best bread in the universe is sold by street vendors there.

Off to the Mediterranean. From the bus, my roomie and I spot a hillside covered with poppies. We recite "Wizard of Oz" lines for some time thereafter. It's good to be a nerd. We visit Caesaria at the coast (see the latest National Geographic article on King Herod!!!!), and OMG is it gorgeous. Elsewhere, we visit a beach near an aqueduct. (Yeah, all right, the Romans gave us that. But what else have they done for us?) Such a beautiful spot for a picnic, but the tour guide rushed us off.

Dead Sea. The water is so filled with salt it feels like oil. At resorts, open air showers allow to you attempt to wash it off, it clings so tightly. River rock, about egg sized or greater, not sand. Back to the Jordan River: because so much of it is captured for irrigation, the Dead Sea has shrunk to the point where Israel is trying to erect all kinds of fences to keep people from crossing the border (this is years before that damn barrier, which is even worse). While there, I hear ads on the radio actually encouraging people to use water so it doesn't end up in the Dead Sea. I could write a whole article on the ancestral Bedouin who by nature would traverse the land, but that would sound too much like the real Americans we've penned up here in our own continent.

Masada. Sorry, folks, but I haven't seen the miniseries. Think about this, though: the Romans were sufficiently concerned about a measly little molehill of inconsequential rebels that they spent INCREDIBLE amounts of labor building that humongous earthen ramp. Any lessons for today?

One more incident I remember: that same day (one of those "split-up" days), I tell the guide that I want a bottle of wine to take back home. We go to the outskirts of Jericho and visit a merchant booth that officially is closed for the Intifedah. The bottle he sells to me doesn't really look like wine, but at that point I don't feel like arguing. Upon returning to Detroit, I discover that it's actually some form of ouzo.

That's all I remember, kids. We go back to Amman of course to fly back to the States, but I don't remember any of that.

January 11, 2009

[1] A gay, brilliant acquaintance from the Detroit years

[2] Not anymore. Only stuff excavated before year such-and-such can legally be sold now.

[3] I actually wrote a story about it.

[4] Flashback: I'm pretty sure Mark Twain mentioned that in Innocents Abroad. I haven't read that in years.

The Circular File