Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Lessons in Jerusalem: Intro to World Religions

Today was our first day in Jerusalem. We woke up feeling considerably cleaner and better rested. Israel is much more expensive than the rest of the Middle East, so staying in a cheap hostel meant sharing one big room with 12 people, but everyone is considerate and we slept well. Most of the people here are students, but some of the hostel residents are much older. These older guests are quite a cast of characters. They have all come to Jerusalem to study religion in some form or another. They want to stay in the Old City, but because it’s incredibly difficult to get an apartment here, (families keep them for generations) they are staying in the hostel. My three favorite long-term guests are a gangly blonde German w/glasses (we’ll call him Heimlich), a mumbling, overweight man with an accent I can’t place who smells perpetually of cheap wine (we’ll call him Tipsy McHoodwinked), and a wandering Russian Jew who has lived in 40+ hostels in Jerusalem since 1994 (his alias shall be simply The Pilgrim). All three of these people are very nice, although Heimlich likes to talk about how much people’s souls are glowing, and this morning we decided he has a huge crush on the woman who works here. I noticed they were flirting over breakfast when I walked in the room. I also noticed the room smelled…pungent. ‘Ah,’ I thought. ‘The smell of romance is in the air.’ Alas, I realized after a moment it was simply the canned sardines The Pilgrim is addicted to. Lovely.

After leaving our host of characters, Ainsley and I set out for a three-hour tour of the Old City. We are staying in the Muslim Quarter (the largest); the other three are Jewish, Christian, and Armenian. Our tour guide was great, and she took us through the Via Dolorosa to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and to all the famous sites in each quarter. It sounds silly, but I hadn’t realized that Jerusalem was so important to Christians and Muslims as well as Jews. We saw tour groups from China, India, England, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the US.

After the tour Ainsley and I went back to inspect the sites more closely and to shop. We then met up with Nur-E and Camille, Brian, Tim, and Kathleen (who had come to Jerusalem alone), and we headed out for a dinner of bagels in the New City. (I had salad with bagel toppings.) The New City is completely different from where we were staying. The new part looks like Europe, and has anything Western you could want. We were initially jarred by how Western everything was. Three signs we were definitely not in Kansas anymore: The streets were almost blinding, they were so clean; we could order our lattes with soymilk; when we went to use the bathroom, we found the stalls not adorned with Quranic verse, but rather phone numbers for women’s groups and rape crisis centers. We had a great day taking it all in, and the bagel-topping salad and the soy latte were an excellent way to end the day. When we were done with our coffee we headed back and easily fell asleep, lulled into slumber by Tipsy’s resounding snores.