Monday, November 14, 2011

Nearing The End

Group H disbanded today, as the last of the organized stops came to an end at the original Western Pilgrim House, which was actually quite close to our hotel. Astrid and I got lost on the way there though.

But first we went to the buildings on the ark. This is an arc shape beside the terraces, where the administrative buildings are. It's a metaphor that comes from Baha'u'llah's Tablet of Carmel, where it says, "Ere long will God sail His Ark upon thee." Metaphorical writing.

These buildings include the International Teaching Center, the Seat of the Universal House of Justice, and the Archives Building, that I mentioned in some of my earlier posts. The fourth one is the Center for the Study of the Texts, and not yet built is the International Library. They mark the rounded border of the Monument Gardens, where I went yesterday.

I was able to sleep in a bit today, because ours was the last group to go see the buildings. I forgot my phone, but I got pictures from Astrid, so I'll be putting those up alongside my own from the past two days and tomorrow, once I get home. 

I learned that to build the Ancient Greek style buildings, they had to call up retired marble carvers, because it's a disappearing art. I'm glad they did, because the buildings are amazing, and they will last forever. They're pretty cool inside too, very elegant and beautiful, but not overdone at all. And most of the contents were donated or even bought from second-hand stores, and yet it fits together so well.

One cool thing that happened today is that I saw an original painting (not a replica) done by Marion Jack, the person I was named after. I got Astrid to take a picture of me with it. It depicted the Mansion of Bahji and was done in 1914. That was a long time ago. In case you didn't know.

I also learned, yesterday actually, that she taught English to the kids that lived at the House of 'Abdullah Pasha in 'Akka, where we went yesterday. That means she probably taught English to Shoghi Effendi, which is kind of cool. She's Canadian, so I wonder if he spoke with a Canadian accent.

I also wonder if there are any recordings of him speaking. You'd think there would be, with all the speaking tours he did, and yet I've never heard of any audio or video recording. He died in 1963, so they had the technology for it. Hmm...

It rained today, which is great for the people of Israel since they've been suffering from a drought, as I mentioned before. We had some wind yesterday, but not so much today, until this evening. 

In the morning, we were mostly inside, looking at the buildings and then visiting the Public Information Center, or somesuch, where scholars and others can pre-arrange visits if they want to learn specifically about the Baha'i Faith. Remember, Baha'is aren't allowed to teach their religion in Israel, unless asked direct questions.

In a circular room, they had some quotes from Baha'u'llah up on the walls, and each one was decorated with a border that ressembled the artistic style of various cultures and regions. They were all done by the same artist, and whoever it was did a good job.

After that, we went back to the hotel for lunch, and we had almost four hours before we had to be at our next and final stop. I took a nap, because I'm cool like that. When it came time to leave, I set out with Astrid. Glennys was nowhere to be found, so we figured she'd make her own way there, which she did.

On the way to the house, which is literally five minutes from the Port Inn, Astrid and I walked around the area for much longer than necessary. Finally we asked a guy who spoke barely any English, and he pointed the way. We arrived five minutes late and our group was involved in some sort of impromptu prayer session. Some people sang and one guy read a prayer off his iPhone, which I found amusing for some reason.

The Western Pilgrim House was built to house the early pilgrims from the West, because the original pilgrim house was too small to fit everybody from everywhere. There are a lot of photographs from people's visits, so when you go outside, you can see exactly where they were taken. That's different from most of the other places we've visited, and it gave me a weird feeling as I walked around.

We didn't get to go into 'Abdu'l-Baha's house, because it's being renovated, but we were still pretty lucky overall, compared to some pilgrim groups. We got to see every single other place in the region that is owned by the Baha'is.

In the garden next to the Western Pilgrim House sits the grave of Amatu'l-Baha Ruhiyyih Khanum, originally Mary Maxwell. She was the wife of Shoghi Effendi who died in 2000. It was dark by the time I gpt out to see it, so I couldn't read the script on it very well. I took picture though, so maybe I'll be able to make it out. I think it just said her name and date of birth and date of death.

Back at the Port Inn, we'd arranged to meet the others and have supper together, since it's our last night as a full group. Erik, Julie, and Glennys aren't leaving until Wednesday, but Astrid and I have to head out tomorrow night. Teddy, another person staying here who I've hardly spoken to, partly because she's gone a lot and partly because she seems to think I'm too young to converse with, wasn't around when we got back, so it was just the five of us.

Teddy actually had a nasty fall in 'Akka yesterday. Some people do this thing where they count forty waves coming in and each time one comes in, they say "Praised be God". I've never heard of this tradition before (and it's not a Baha'i tradition, at least not an officially condoned one). Apparently, after forty waves, you're absolved of all your sins, past, present, and future. Seems a bit odd to me, but I guess if some people believe it, then that's their prerogative.

So she was rushing up the steps of the seawall to do the forty waves, when she slipped on the uneven steps and fell on her knees. She sprained her wrist and finished her pilgrimage in a wheelchair, but she claims to have had a miraculous recovery. Also, one of the people working here at the World Center just happens to be a bone surgeon, so he had a look at it. 

She was already having some health issues and was praying for healing during her pilgrimage. So much for that.

I'm not sure where she was, but the five of us headed out to this Chinese restaurant. I had pat thai noodles and they were delicious. There was some sort of badly acted Chinese historical drama on the tv, so that was a little distracting, but overall it was really enjoyable. We ended up with a good group at the Port Inn.

Everyone except Erik then cabbed to the ITC for tonight's presentation. It was pouring out at this point. We had the best cab driver ever. He fed us almonds and dried apricots. Julie started singing and he said if she sang, our trip would be free, but only if she sang in Arabic. I sang something in Farsi, but it wasn't good enough.

He had us laughing the whole way there, and I don't think he took us a very roundabout way, unlike some of the other drivers. I'm not sure. It could've all been a grand scheme to trick us into not paying attention to how long it was taking.

After the talk, I met a guy from Tanzania who's been working here since July. He's on a twelve-month service contract, or whatever it's called. I also chatted with a couple other people I've met here, since I may not be seeing them again.

Tomorrow night there's a farewell to the pilgrims, but I might be on the train at that time, which sucks. I imagined that the last day would end relatively early, when I booked my ticket. Shows how much I know.

It's thunder and lightning out now, and the rain is really coming down. The window's open in the dorm because it gets stuffy otherwise, but it's a bit chilly tonight. Good thing the blankets are made of fleece. 

Tomorrow I'm meeting a friend for lunch, who I haven't seen since I was thirteen. We were Baha'i pioneer (sort of like missionary) kids together in Benin in the late nineties. I'm looking forward to that!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Four in One

This morning I woke up to a partially flooded dorm room. The drain in the bathroom has been slow all along, but I guess it's been getting worse. Luckily none of my stuff got wet. Astrid was using the rubber water pushing device to get it back into the bathroom.

I pulled myself out of bed around 7:30. We had to be up at the bus stop at 8:30, so I pulled on some clothes and ate breakfast. They had this vegetable casserole thing that was pretty yummy, although I think it was left over from yesterday, so it was a bit stale. Still good though.

We bussed out towards 'Akka again. Today we were visiting the Ridvan Garden, which was designed by 'Abdu'l-Baha as a replica of the Garden of Ridvan outside of Baghdad, in Iraq. That garden is on an island in the Tigris River; this one has a manmade stream around it, to sort of give the impression of an island. It was nice, and one of the original mulberry trees was still there. Baha'u'llah used to sit under that tree.

When we left, we got oranges and pomegranates. It's orange season. The last group of pilgrims got a lot of pomegranates, because it was pomegranate season. Which reminds me. I have a pomegranate to eat.

Then we went to the House of Abdullah Pasha, where 'Abdu'l-Baha lived with his family and where his grandson Shoghi Effendi was born. We got to go to the room where that happened, and our guide set the scene: "Just imagine being in 'Abdu'l-Baha's presence, and imagine Shoghi Effendi being born here."

That's not really something I want to imagine, but if you insist...

It's a big house, with a huge courtyard. The places we've visited have been in chronological order, except for the shrines, of course. Baha'u'llah never lived in this one, because he had already passed away.

This is where they hid the remains of the Bab for years before they were able to find his final burial spot on Mt. Carmel. It was in 'Abdu'l-Baha's sister's room, and nobody knew except the two of them. Imagine sleeping with someone's remains in your room!

We also saw the place where 'Abdu'l-Baha met with the first Western pilgrims, and the dining room where they all sat together to eat. I guess there weren't as many pilgrims in those days. There's a book called Some Answered Questions which is a compilation of 'Abdu'l-Baha's answers to pilgrims' questions. These discussions also took place in that dining room.

I took pictures with my phone all day, because my camera's broken. I figured out the problem: one of the three prongs that are supposed to connect to the battery is missing.

The house is right beside the prison, and from one of the windows you can see the two windows of Baha'u'llah's cell, framed between two buildings. 'Abdu'l-Baha lived in that prison too, so it must've been strange to view it out the window, thirty years later.

One of the guys in our group was telling me about his motorcycle escapades, both as a kid in Tehran, Iran and as an adult in the US. He used to ride around on a dirtbike at age sixteen, before he could legally have a license, and he'd taunt the police who were on foot. He also gets a lot of speeding tickets, apparently. In the US, his riding group has nicknamed him "Quick Nick". They call him Nick because, like many North Americans, they refuse to even try to learn his actual name, which is Nadjmi. Pretty hard, eh. Or not.

He gave me all his contact information, and if I ever go to Atlanta, he said he'll teach me how to ride well. He gave me a bunch of advice about motorcycle types and the best ways to learn to ride. Harleys are to be avoided; on a tour with about thirty people, only the Harleys needed to go to the shop.

He and another man in our group from the southern or midwestern States somewhere, judging by his accent, decided to walk to Bahji (about forty minutes), because 'Abdu'l-Baha did it when he was in his seventies. The rest of us hopped back on the bus.

I sat in the library in the Visitors Center and read A Traveller's Narrative, which is 'Abdu'l-Baha's account of the life of the Bab, though the translator didn't know he had written it at the time. Hence the obscure title, I guess.

I didn't go to the Shrine of Baha'u'llah, because yesterday I thought it was our last visit, so I sort of already said my goodbyes to the whole place.

Normally the bus lets people out close to the Port Inn, but I decided to go up to the PRC to get the key to the Monument Gardens. This is where Baha'u'llah's mother, daughter, son, and daughter-in-law are buried. The son is the one who fell through the skylight at the prison when he was twenty-two, if you remember from my earlier post.

They were doing some work on the garden, so it was a bit noisy, but still enjoyable. I got some cool views (and pictures) of the buildings on the arc, which we're going to see tomorrow, by the way. That's the Seat of the House of Justice, the Archives Building, the Center for the Study of the Texts, and the International Teaching Center. They're in an arc. On the mountain. Beside the terraces. You'll see what I mean when I put pictures up.

I slipped into the upper terraces because a guy was coming through the gate. Normally you can't go in on the side without a key. I walked up to the top, and I've gotta say, the upper terraces are much more breathtaking than the lower ones, at least for me. Maybe because you have a view of all the terraces, or because every time you look behind you, you see the glittering golden dome of the Shrine of the Bab, with the city of Haifa panned out around you until it reaches the sea.

There's also more variation from terrace to terrace. The fountains weren't running today, but a lot of birds were flying and walking around. I have no idea what kind of bird they are, but they were interesting.

At the top, I met up with Astrid and Glennys who were on their way down. I wanted to hang out for a few minutes, so they went on ahead. But I caught up with them farther down and we took some pictures. Glennys left her camera on the bus yesterday, so we were in the same boat, both resorting to taking photos with our phones.

The terraces close at five, because it gets dark then. It's a safety precaution, because some of the paths are a bit steep. It was getting dark and the lights were coming on as we descended, and the guard who let us in to the lower terraces told us to take our time. He was taking a few photos himself and then making his way down to the bottom gate, so he could let us out once we got there. He was nice. Young guy from Nebraska.

It's so international around here. Everyone's from somewhere else. I love it.

Malena, the little girl from Greenland, was hanging around me a lot today. I don't know why she likes me so much. I can't even speak to her! But then again, no one else even tries, so maybe that's it.

We grabbed supper at the seafood restaurant where we ate before, but I got a kebab this time. The cat we'd been feeding was back, with another cat. The little one sat on my backpack under the table for most of the meal. Must've been the most comfortable seat it has had in a long time.

I got home and climbed onto my bed. I'm on the top bunk, in case you were wondering. I chatted with our new dorm mates; there's people in and out every day. One is a girl named Apple, born in the Philippines, but grown up in Florida. The other I spoke to more briefly, but she's from Russia. They both seem very considerate, so that's good. It's nice to have considerate people sharing a room with you.

Tomorrow's not quite as early, but we do have to go up the mountain to the International Teaching Center to start our tour of all the buildings. That's going to be really interesting. The architecture alone is astounding, so learning about the things that go on in each building will just be an added plus. It's supposed to rain tomorrow, too, so it'll be good to be inside.

Our afternoon schedule is indoors as well, at the Master's ('Abdu'l-Baha's) house, where Shoghi Effendi's wife Ruhiyyuh Khanum lived until she died about ten years ago. It's close to the Port Inn, so it'll be nice to walk home after. Unless it's raining, of course. But either way, it'll be close.

I finally bought some postcards. No point in sending them now. I'm just going to deliver them when I get back home. Sorry to those who wanted one. If you really want one with a stamp, let me know.

I also bought some wooden nine-pointed stars. I'm going to ask a friend of mine who makes jewelry to make them in to earrings. You know who you are.

The store also sold decorative plates with what Baha'is call the Greatest Name on it, a calligraphic representation of the name of God in Arabic. Baha'is often put this symbol somewhere high in their house, to show its importance. I was wondering if people who don't know what it means come into the store, buy six plates, and use them to eat off of. "Oh, look at the cool Arabic writing!"


Saturday, November 12, 2011

Birth of Baha'u'llah

We've been having incredible weather, but it's not great for the people of Israel. It's been sunny with almost completely blue skies since I got here. Too bad that means it's a drought and the country's running out of water.

Today was the celebration of the Birth of Baha'u'llah. Normally, the Baha'i World Center commemorates Holy Days according to the lunar calendar, so it would not have been today. But for some reason, this year is special, so we ended up celebrating it during our pilgrimage, which is good, because it was one of the reasons I picked these dates. Someone said something about the Ascension of 'Abdu'l-Baha and the Birth of Baha'u'llah falling on the same day in the lunar calendar, so they wanted to be able to keep the two days separate.

By the way, I don't understand the lunar calendar. I'm just glad it worked out.

In the morning, my Port Inn-mates (see what I did there?) planned to take a sherut out to the Junayn Gardens, which I'd never even heard of before this trip. Apparently, that's where Baha'u'llah and his family used to go for picnics and meetings with officials and stuff. Also, and I'm not sure this is correct, I think this is the place where 'Abdu'l-Baha took the officials of 'Akka to negotiate Baha'u'llah's release from the prison city.

The Junayn Gardens were completely destroyed at some point, so they only opened them up to the pilgrims this year. Since we're the second group of pilgrims for this year, we're also only the second group of pilgrims to set foot in these gardens. So that's kinda cool. Like, totally.

It also means they are very young. All the plants are small and there's a lot of sand in between. It still looks very desertic, not quite like a garden. In some of the old photos, you can see big trees and streams, so I was a little disappointed. It was still interesting to go there though.

Erik (with a "k", as I learned today) and I walked around outside the gardens a bit, just up and down the streets. It looks like a new subdivision, with construction all around. I took some pictures, which you can see on Facebook, with the rest of my photos.

I saw a synagogue, only the second one since I got to Israel. However, I'm not sure synagogues have specific architectural features, so they may not always be recognizable to people who can't read. Like me. For all I know, I've seen hundreds of synagogues.

Our sherut came back at twelve to take us to Bahji, where the Holy Day celebration was going to be. It didn't start until two, officially, but tea and cookies were served outdoors at around twelve thirty. At that time, I was somewhere in the gardens around the Mansion of Bahji, or possibly behind the original Pilgrim House. I didn't realize last time how extensive these gardens are!

I caught the tail end of the refreshments, though all the cake was gone. They told me it was really good too...

Then we went to take our seats in the "Most Holy Precincts", the area of the garden where the Shrine is. I heard that about a thousand people attended, including all the staff, pilgrims, and visiting Baha'is. Most of the pilgrims are over thirty, so it was a different vibe with all the youth volunteers around. Also, they all knew each other well, whereas the pilgrims obviously don't have the same kind of long-term relationships with one another, for the most part.

Prayers were read and chanted in English, Farsi, and Arabic. One guy who chanted had a beautiful voice. I could've listened to him all day. Unfortunately, I was exhausted and nearly fell asleep during the hour-long prayers. I was sitting next to my Veterans for Peace friend, so I hope he didn't notice. I felt bad, but I really couldn't help it; the atmosphere was so relaxing.

It was supposed to rain, but didn't. We did see a thunderhead somewhere over Galillee, so I guess it rained there. That's good, because apparently that's where they're hit the hardest with this drought.

After prayers, a thousand people circumambulated the shrine. That was a site to see. I can't even describe it, and my pictures don't capture the silent movement of that many people. People were heading back to the Visitors Center, while others hadn't even started their circumambulation yet. So many people in one spot.

And a lot of them were crying. There's been a lot of that on this pilgrimage. Emotions run high and everyone's tired. A lot of the holy places have tissues outside them to bring in with you.

I went back to the Mansion of Bahji, but it was starting to fill up with people. I went into Baha'u'llah's room, the one with his taj and shoes, and also an original oil lamp from when he lived there. (Everything else was taken away by the side of the family that didn't follow him.)

I also went into the Shrine for a bit, but it was overcrowded, so I didn't stay long. I hopped on one of the buses to take us back in to Haifa, and it filled up completely. Some guy, possibly from the Universal House of Justice, or maybe the custodian of Bahji, got on and told the staff members that the buses were for pilgrims and they needed to get off if pilgrims wanted the seats. I'm pretty sure it filled up with pilgrims.

A woman from Uzbekistan sat beside me, and we had a grand ol' chat on the way back. She hardly spoke any English, but it was more than my Russian. Still, we managed to talk about our families and she told me that her husband really doesn't like that she's Baha'i. I'm not sure, but she seemed to be saying that he fights with her about it; I don't know if she meant physically or verbally.

She got carsick on the way back, though luckily not enough to throw up. She pulled out a piece of orange peel and held it to her nose on the way back, because she was feeling ill because of the stale air on the bus. I can relate, and this is the first time in my life that I've connected my strong sense of smell to my proneness to carsickness.

When we got back into town, I asked the driver to let me off near the Port Inn, which he did, though not where they usually drop us off. I walked back to the hostel, and then Erik and Jordan, this guy from New Zealand, invited me to go hang out with them. We went back to the same place where I went with Abby a few days ago, where we ended up never paying.

You meet a lot of interesting people when you travel. Jordan says he's "a disciple of Jesus" and he's trying to learn as much as he can about him. He's travelling around to all the Christian lands now, but he doesn't belong to a church. It's more of a personal thing. He listens to Bob Marley and seems to live a compatible lifestyle. And yes, we discussed whether Jesus would have listened to Bob Marley.

Back home at the hostel, I went to the common room to write this blog. A guy sitting there greeted me, and we started talking. He's the first actual Israeli that I've had a chat with. The receptionists and cab drivers et al. don't count.

He's from Tel Aviv and teaches computer stuff to office workers around the area. His name is Itzrat. We talked about what I was doing here, and Glennys and Astrid joined us. We told him about the various gardens around, and he was surprised because he thought there were only two. I said he's going to think that all Baha'is do is make and visit gardens.

That's probably what you think to, judging by the activities I've described in this blog.

We also talked about the various places we've each been to. Quite a few between us all. Itzrat had only been to Los Angeles and New York, other than places in Israel, but Astrid and Glennys have been all over. I guess when you're a traveler and you meet other travelers, they will have been around too, because they're travelers. That was a convoluted sentence.

Time for bed now, methinks. Full day again tomorrow. This trip is wearing me out. I'm also dismayed because my camera battery seems to have completely given up the ghost. I may not be able to take any more pictures. I'm hoping it'll magically fix itself. Sometimes that happens.

I may be able to use my phone, as one of my friends suggested, but I think it charges me roaming fees whenever it's on, even if it's not in use. So I don't really want to risk that.

Sigh. Well, other people have cameras, so I can get some shots if I really need to, I s'pose.

Friday, November 11, 2011

A Restful Day Off

I slept in to about 10:30 today, which felt like such a relief. I'm tired again now already, but it definitely helped. This pilgriming stuff is intense!

I missed breakfast, but that was okay because I still had some leftover pasta in the fridge. Hopefully I can get my 40 shekels back, but if not, it's not a huge deal.

I didn't do a lot today, compared to other days. I wandered up Ben Gurion Avenue and walked up the lower terraces. It didn't take me nearly as long as I expected. The terraces are all laid out exactly the same way, although the plants and decor is different.

I had to be let in at the bottom. That blue badge that says "Pilgrim" is magical. The guy that let me in is from Germany and he was wearing a cowboy hat.

Just before I got to the terraces, I saw a group of women dressed in black with black signs in their hands. It was obviously some form of protest, so I asked what they were about. A couple of them spoke very fluent English and they told me that they are a group called "The Women in Black" who protest the occupation of Gaza every Friday from one to two o'clock. They have chapters all around the country, in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and other places. I stupidly told them it was a good thing they are doing, and then I said, "But I guess you know that."

She agreed. "We wouldn't be doing it if it wasn't a good thing."

That was a cool experience. This place doesn't let you forget about its politics very long, even in Haifa where the tension is comparatively low and Arabs and Jews seem to coexist peaceably. As far as I can tell from my outsider perspective, that is.

At the top of the lower terraces, I came to the Shrine of the Bab. I went inside for a bit. A friend of mine asked me to say some prayers at the Shrine for her and her family, so I did. Then I went to the Pilgrim House to check out the library. I'd really like to read The Dawn-Breakers and some other books about early Baha'i history, even though I know most of the stories. It's just different when you've seen the actual places.

There I chatted with a couple from New Zealand. They were trying to convince me to work in the gardens. A lot of people have asked if I'm thinking of applying to serve here, I guess because I'm young and it's mostly youth who volunteer.

Julie told me in the morning that some of the others wanted to get a sherut (basically a minivan for hire) at four to go to the Baha'i cemetery here. It may be the only Baha'i cemetery in the world. So I hurried back down for four to make sure I was there, but when I got to the bottom, there was no guard at the gate. They were sitting down at the farther gate, so I was locked in.

I considered hiking back up to the Shrine and walking down by the road, and started back up the steps. I met an older woman there and asked her if she knew how we can get out. She didn't, but when I went back down, the German guy ran up the steps and let me out.

We ended up not going to the cemetery in the end, though, because it looked like rain and I was tired, as were Julie and Eric, I think, after going to the archives today. Astrid went today as well. Instead we ventured out for some supper.

We went to a seafood restaurant where Astrid ate yesterday. It was a little pricey, and I took a risk ordering something that I didn't know what it was. It was called St. Peter and the guy just told me it was a type of "sweet water" fish (I think he meant freshwater). When it came, it was an entire fish, fried, and with the eyeballs removed, but nothing else. It has to be one of the boniest fish out there: it has a spine on its back, on its belly, and where a spine is supposed to be. Plus it has little bones that seem to float around randomly in the meaty part. It tasted alright though.

A wedding party came through while we were eating. They went inside and played some catchy Arab music. The bride and groom were both very elegantly dressed; the groom wore a suit with a silver collar, which was kind of cool. The bride had a white dress. Most of the Arabs here are Christian so I guess they follow similar wedding patterns as Christians in other parts of the world. Or it's just globalization.

After supper, we had to hunt down our server to get them to bring us the bill. This seems to be a trend here. Then we had ice cream at this place right next to the restaurant, called Booza Booza. I got two scoops, to try two different flavours, but they turned out to be huge, so Eric and Julie had to help me finish (Astrid had gone off by this time).

Then we headed back to the hostel. I was thinking of checking out the karaoke down the street from the restaurant, but nobody was there and nothing was on the go, so we just came back.

It was nice to get a break. Tomorrow is the Birth of Baha'u'llah celebration and we're going to Bahji for it. It's also a full moon (for those of you that live in Newfoundland, that means this big white thing in the night sky is round, but you'll never have seen it through the clouds and fog... it really does exist though).

It was so nice to have the day off! I even sent in my bibliographic essay to my professor. Oh school, always getting in the way...

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Faces and Places of Baha'u'llah

I saw the pictures of Baha'u'llah and the Bab today. [SPOILER ALERT: if you are planning on going on pilgrimage yourself and don't want to know about my impressions of the archives, skip the next four paragraphs.] I also learned that Baha'u'llah was almost the same height as me. I'd heard before that he wasn't very tall, but it's different when you can picture him and see his clothes.

He looks a lot like 'Abdu'l-Baha. In fact, the picture was taken in the exact same place and position as one of the latter as a young man. However, there are some major differences as well.

Baha'u'llah had long black hair and long black beard, not bushy, but also not spindly, like Jafar (yes, I mean the one in Disney's Aladdin). Apparently, he used henna in his hair, not for the colour, but because it's healthy for your hair. His face is gentle and full of love for humanity; it's amazing that a photograph can capture that. I always imagined him as a bit stern and awe-inspiring, but he really didn't give off that vibe as much as one of extreme kindness. His eyes are full of soul, like there's a lot going on inside. His manner and his face are handsome in a very elegant way.

The Bab looked much more serious and determined, like nothing could stop him from fulfilling his purpose.

Other things we saw were the clothing and other belongings of the key figures of the faith, tablets written by them, including one Baha'u'llah wrote for Abdu'l-Baha, where the handwriting looked much more hurried, or perhaps weaker. Maybe he wrote it after he was poisoned. That hadn't occurred to me until now. They had Mulla Husayn's sword and a cannonball from Fort Tabarsi. They also had Shoghi Effendi's typewriter (that's Abdu'l-Baha's grandson, Baha'u'llah's great-grandson) and the pencil crayons he used to mark the legends on his maps. And Mirza Mihdi's bloodied clothing from the day he fell through the skylight. For some reason, that story is really sticking with me after seeing the actual place where it happened. Maybe because he was my age at the time.


After the archives, we took a group shot. Our larger group was divided into three smaller groups to see the archives at different times, and my mini-group was the first. The others haven't seen it yet, so I'm trying not to blab about it, even though it's so interesting to me. I want to let them have their own experience of it, without being unduly influenced by mine. I did tell them to dress warmly though, because it's cold in there.

It's also a gorgeous building with a single large room.

We went to the Mansion of Mazra'ih and the Mansion of Bahji after that. These are two houses where Baha'u'llah stayed. I was exhausted after the archives, because I haven't been getting enough sleep since I got here, and I actually have very vague memories of the first place, even though it was today. I think I was still caught up with the archives, too.

The garden was gorgeous though. Much less geometric and regimented than the others I've seen so far. Don't get me wrong; those ones are nice too, but you sort of feel like if you breathe on things, you'll destroy them. At Mazra'ih the garden is not full of paths. Instead, you can go wherever you want, and pick the oranges and other fruit from the trees. The oranges are admittedly tart, because apparently it takes several years for orange trees to produce tasty fruit.

At Bahji (remember Bahji?), we went into the mansion this time. It's spacious and superbly decorated with photos, maps, and furniture, again by Shoghi Effendi. Only the lamp, taj, and shoes in Baha'u'llah's room are original, but Shoghi Effendi's writing table and bed are also in there, as well as beds where some of the Hands of the Cause stayed after the Guardian died. (Ask me if you want to know who they are. It's a little complicated to explain right now.)

They've covered over the courtyard on the second floor, but you can imagine how it was when Baha'u'llah lived there. We also saw the original Pilgrim House that 'Abdu'l-Baha had built back in the day. Up until about ten years ago, it's where pilgrims were housed and fed, but then the groups got too big so they built the Pilgrim Reception Centre and asked the Baha'is to stay in hotels or with other Baha'is.

I was the first one into Baha'u'llah's room, and I let the smell of rosewater (or whatever it was) waft over me. It smelled amazing, just like the Shrine of 'Abdu'l-Baha. I have a pretty strong sense of smell, so I notice these things. People filed or shuffled in; some people waited and took a look at the various other rooms in the house.

There are no prescribed ways of praying in the Baha'i Faith, so people took up various positions. Everyone was silent, so as not to disturb each other, and I imagined we were pilgrims from the early days of the Baha'i Faith who were sitting in Baha'u'llah's presence after travelling to see him. It was much easier to imagine after seeing the picture today.

I slipped out to check out the rest of the house. Only the top floor is open, but there are a lot of rooms up there, and a lot of things to see. The custodian answered any questions we had, like who wrote the name Roy Wilhelm in pen on the wall (turned out to be Ruhiyyih Khanum [originally Mary Sutherland Maxwell], the wife of Shoghi Effendi. Fun fact: her father was the architect who designed the Saint-Louis and Riverview wings of the Ch√Ęteau Frontenac in Quebec City, among other things).

I went out to pee (painfully detailed, isn't it) and when I came back in, I thought I'd visit Baha'u'llah's room again, since the atmosphere is so relaxing in there. There were only two other people in the room, and they soon left, so I got to be there by myself. I walked around a little and enjoyed my time there. When I left, another guy from our group, from the UK, went in by himself as well.

Out on the balcony, I got to see some of the sunset. The pollution and dust in the air makes for great sunsets here. On the other side of the house, you could see the full moon.

I napped on the bus and felt much better when I got home. I made supper at the hostel. Joel (not Joe... oops) and Dino are gone today, but Joel added me on Facebook so if I ever go to New Zealand - or when I go to New Zealand - I'll definitely look him up.

Yesterday when I took a psychic type test for fun, I came up as a mental intuitive, not psychic, which means I'm telepathic, essentially. And brilliantly inventive. And my brain will drive me crazy if I'm not balanced out by an emotional intuitive, such as Julie. It was her book. Just wanted to fix my terminology from yesterday.

Tonight another Baha'i came into our dorm. She's not on pilgrimage though; she's visiting her Jewish relatives in another city. She was put in the coed dorm by mistake, so last night she was in there, but today she asked to get transfered to ours. Her name is Merijn and she's from the Netherlands.

She has a Maori identity tattoo on her thigh. It's a seahorse in the sea, and it was done by one of the top tattoo artists in the world. You can tell too; it's excellent quality, very crisp. It represents a person who is balanced and complete, according to the cosmology, and it took six hours to get it done. In one go. And the guy sang a prayer while he did it.

What a cool story.

Tomorrow is a day of free time, except for the presentation in the evening. I think it's a Universal House of Justice member giving a talk this time, but I could be wrong (not that that ever happens). I'm going to sleep in as much as possible, which probably won't be that late. I don't really want to miss breakfast, since I paid for it, but I'd rather get enough sleep. I've been so sleep deprived since I got here.

And then I got a professional shiatsu massage from Julie. Like five seconds ago. And I saw that it was good. (She also plays the piano and organ in a Baptist church. That's her day job. Or maybe it's the other way around.) I need to get more massages.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Moonlight Circle

Today I got up super early and boarded the pilgrim bus to 'Akka (or Akko, or Acre, depending on who's transliterating it). The bus company is called Egged Tours. Sounds lovely, eh.

'Akka used to be a prison city, kind of like Australia was a prison continent, except 'Akka is a lot smaller. You can walk around the old city in less than a day. Actually, if you didn't stop, you'd probably walk all the way around the perimeter in an hour.

Baha'u'llah and his family were incarcerated in this prison for a lot of years, like so many that people died, married, and had kids during that time. The story behind this imprisonment is beyond the scope of this blog, but if you want to know, the internet oracle or myself will tell you upon being questioned.

We went into the city through the Land Gate and made our way to the prison. The entire old city is encircled by a wall, clearly designed to keep people in, not out, and within these walls, there are prison buildings. I'm not sure how the whole system worked exactly, but it was something like that. People could come visit the city, but prisoners couldn't leave, even though they could rent property and stuff. I'll have to brush up on my history for this one.

The prison has been turned into a museum, with the focus almost exclusively on Jewish prisoners during the pre-Israel days of 'Akka. However, one section has been cordoned off for the Baha'is only, with the cell where Baha'u'llah stayed, as well as the place where his 22-year-old son, while reciting his father's writings, fell through a skylight to his death. He was only a year younger than me! And I'm only starting out my life, really. Tragic.

I knew the story, of course, but seeing the actual skylight and the place where he landed, with the original floor at that spot, somehow made it a lot more immediate.

Baha'u'llah's cell was opened for about forty-five minutes for us. It was a lot bigger than I'd imagined. Not that the size of your cage makes much difference when you're a prisoner, plus it was filthy and dark. They've modified the windows by putting in glass, and cleaned up the floor with nice, flat marble. They've also completely or partially removed some of the doors and other barriers, so the overall impression is a lot different from what it was like 143 years ago. Still, it was quite the experience.

When we were finished in the cell and the place where the family was, we could look at some of the other stuff nearby. The courtyard has been excavated in one spot, so you can see a part of the city beneath the city. Apparently, 'Akka was destroyed or covered twice, so there are three layers of city, one built on top of the other. Archeology is cool, and I'd like to go back and learn more about this aspect of this city. It was pretty cool!

I also saw the prison clinic, called "hospital" by the prisoners. It's in the same area as Baha'u'llah's cell, interestingly enough. Also, beneath and a little ways off is the death row and the gallows. A bit morbid, to be sure, but I have a morbid streak, so I found it fascinating. The only prisoners listed as having been executed were a handful of Jewish people with whom I was unfamiliar. Some sort of rebels, "Defenders of Jerusalem" or somesuch. Again, more time, different trip, more learning.

Following the visit to the prison, we went to the House of Abbud, which Baha'u'llah's son 'Abdu'l-Baha rented for the family after a couple of years. They all lived in a cramped three-bedroom apartment for a while, where Baha'u'llah wrote the Kitab-i-Aqdas, which is considered by Baha'is to be the Most Holy Book. It contains the laws that Baha'is must follow.

Eventually, they had the whole house at their disposal, starting when 'Abdu'l-Baha wanted to get married. Abbud, the owner, gave them another room so he and his fiance could wed and have a space for themselves. It's really a mansion, so they would've been much more comfortable, in spite of their continued imprisonment.

When we went into the house at first, a couple of volunteers served us tea and cookies (a Baha'i tradition if ever there was one... which there isn't). It was like being welcomed by Baha'u'llah or 'Abdu'l-Baha. They used to have pilgrims stay at the house when they were there.

The rooms as they are now were furnished by 'Abdu'l-Baha's grandson Shoghi Effendi, called the Guardian, in the mid-twentieth century. It's more like a museum than a holy spot, in most ways, although seeing Baha'u'llah's actual hat in his room was pretty amazing. People said prayers in both of his rooms, the one in the smaller apartment and the one he occupied later on.

I also wandered through his wife's, his daughter's, and his son's room. At any given time, other people would be staying in these rooms as well, and there were a couple rooms that our guide didn't know the purpose of. A lot of pictures and maps were placed on the walls, not all of which had to do with the House of Abbud itself (e.g. a city map of Washington, D.C ca.1950, or photos of the Illinois House of Worship).

Our guide told us that a festival was on in the city, so our buses couldn't reach the house. We had the option of staying behind to look around the city some more, going to Bahji (see previous post), or going back to Haifa. I stayed behind with four other people, Astrid, Glennys from Australia, and a couple from the US whose names I didn't catch.

Was there ever a festival on! It's the last day of Eid, today, the commemoration of Abraham's near-sacrifice of his son (Ishmael in the Islamic version, Isaac in the Christian telling) and how God allowed him to keep him. They seem to celebrate with a lot of horse and donkey rides, as well as the bazaar, which may or may not be there regularly. Bouncy castles and these giant transparent balls floating in water, with kids scampering in them (pictures will follow) seemed to provide fun for the younger crowd, and a lot of different foods and music filled the area.

We became tourists, for the most part, and I took a million pictures, which I will sort through and post tomorrow. We went to the mosque and paid 10 shekels to get in. I wanted to go into the prayer part, but it was only for men and I couldn't figure out where the women's room was. One of the women that was with us seemed really uncomfortable wearing a cloth wrapped around her legs to cover the bare part. I was asked to cover my shoulders as well, so I put on my hoodie, even though I was wearing a tshirt. I guess not enough of my arms were covered.

Astrid and I looked around there a bit. They had a couple graves with no explanation other than names, and a place for ablutions, where men and at least one boy were washing their hands and face. It also looked like some sort of bathhouse rimmed the compound. (Everything has walls around it in Israel that I've seen so far. Just assume that.)

We considered visiting the Turkish baths, where Baha'u'llah and the others used to go, but you had to go off somewhere else to get a ticket, and we had to make sure we got back in time to catch the last pilgrim bus from the House of Abbud. We'd already lost some time eating lunch on the wall looking over the sea. Okay, maybe "lost" isn't exactly the best word.

There were these rocky outcrops in the water near the wall, and some people were standing on them fishing. Fun fact.

We bought some tourist-price candy. I got some sort of white nougat with nuts in it. I've had it before, but I don't know what it's called. He definitely overcharged us. Mine came to 15 shekels. To be fair, it was a big chunk, but that still doesn't seem right.

They had a camel in one booth. It was lying down and you could get your picture taken sitting on it. A lot of the local Arabs were doing exactly that. So much for Israel=desert=camels. They'd probably never seen one before in their lives.

It was all Arabs, probably come from miles around. Some of the hijabs are so pretty. Regardless of what you might think about their symbolic meaning, good or bad, they are definitely a nice stylistic addition to an outfit. And some of the patterns and sparkly beads and colours are gorgeous. Some of the dresses are too.

Men's clothing is boring. Except for in West Africa. But I digress.

We passed by the Sea Gate, by which Baha'u'llah and his family and followers arrived from Haifa. They took a boat to Haifa, but the sea is too shallow across the bay for a large ship, so they sailed across. Apparently, the wind was so weak that it took them about eight hours to make the crossing, even though you can see the other city from the shore.

The Sea Gate is now the entrance to Abu Christo, a seafood restaurant that's apparently pretty good. A bit incongruous if you're trying to build a mental image of what the city used to look like, but that's the reality of change in an anciently inhabited area.

We caught the bus home. On the bus, a nice middle-aged lady from California, though born in Canada, sat beside me. First she called me a Newfie, then she told me I should read Erik Erikson's Childhood and Society because I'm studying anthropology. She said it was about how children develop in "primitive societies". I told her it sounded interesting, but he's a psychologist, not an anthropologist, and anthropology has sort of abandoned the racism of the concept of "primitive".

She responded that it wasn't a psychology book (fair enough), and that he didn't use that word. He called them "pure societies", apparently, which is supposed to be better. It's just as racist, implying not only that the society is simple, but also that our own society is some sort of complicated deviation from these other societies.

Anyway, I didn't argue the point, and we had a grand ol' (mostly one-sided) chat about taking pride in your children's intellect, when it has nothing to do with you. She believes that you can only take pride in helping your children reach their potential, whatever that may be. If you're proud that they're smart, it might mean you would be ashamed if they were less apt. Interesting food for thought.

The sunset was pretty. Smog in all its glory. Pollution always makes the sunset better.

Back at the hotel, Glennys, Astrid, and I headed out for a bite to eat. The guy tried to rip us off, but luckily Astrid was paying attention. She questioned his total and asked to see the menu again, and he had to admit it was wrong. Then he gave me back 3 shekels; I'm still not completely sure why, because the total on mine seemed right to me, although I never did get my salad. Hmm...

In the evening, there was a reception with the members of the International Teaching Center. Joan Lincoln, one of them, greeted us and introduced the institution and its current members. Then we were invited out row by row to meet them individually. While we were waiting, some people started singing, mostly Baha'i songs from my childhood, including "We Are Soldiers" and "I Think You're Wonderful" (except in Persian, with an English chorus). Also classics like "Look at me, Follow me" and "We are Drops".

At this reception, I met a Veterans for Peace chapter president who's been camping out at Occupy Nashville and Occupy Washington. He's a social worker (maybe now retired, not sure) who mostly focused on homeless people, so we talked about Maslow's hierarchy of needs and how the movement changed the lives of the homeless. According to him, while they were in the camps, a lot of them - not all - stopped drinking and doing drugs, and some even became leaders in organizing security, hygiene, food, and other elements of the occupation.

It's amazing what community and respect can do for a person.

He gave me his card and I gave him mine. I'll definitely be in touch with him. Too bad I can't interview him for my thesis! Maybe for my post-graduation project. It's a secret.

We had tea and cookies, surprise, surprise, and I chatted with a bunch of other Canadians. I didn't mean to; it just kind of turned out that way at the table. One guy went to the Archives Building today, so he was telling us a bit about that. You can see pictures of the Bab and Baha'u'llah (the only place where you can, in order to avoid a cult of personality or idol worship), as well as artifacts from the early days of the Faith. One of them is a sword and another is a cannonball. Apparently.

I'm going tomorrow morning, and I'm very excited. It's definitely one of the highlights of the pilgrimage, for me.

I walked back to the hotel with Astrid and Glennys. I had a chat with Joe, my New Zealand friend. He and his brother and father are leaving tomorrow, in all likelihood, so we exchanged contact info. They seem like very interesting people, and if I ever make it out to New Zealand, which I hope to, I'll definitely look them up. You always meet so many people when you travel, and most of them you never see again, no matter what your intentions are. It's too bad, in some ways, but from another perspective, that's one of the beauties of travel. Twenty-four hour friends and brief moments of contact. It's a different dimension of human interaction.

I sat outside with Eric and Julie (remember them? from group L?) for a bit. Eric and I did a test to determine our "psychic type" and we both came up as mental psychics. Julie said she was an emotional psychic, as were two others she knows. She wondered if it was a generational thing, since Eric and I are about the same age, and the three of them are as well. That would be an interesting thing to explore, to see how the zeitgeist of the time influences your psychic type... or well, maybe not. But how it influences your way of thinking and your attitudes.

Now it's time for bed. I used real shampoo instead of soap in my hair tonight, so I may have less of a mat in the morning. I need to get up to hike up the mountain to the archives. If the terraces are open, I might go that way. But I also might just take the bus. That's a lot more likely, since I don't want to be late! On the other hand, I have no idea when the bus goes either... Hmmm... I'll have to check my schedule to see when the terraces open up in the morning. I think it's nine.

Anyway, I'll figure it out, and I'll let you know tomorrow.

I've been adopted by a little girl named Malena who speaks very little English. She's from Greenland and her parents told me they speak Greenlandic, which is about seven syllables long in Greenlandic. She's the only kid in our group. You'll see her in the pictures if you check them out on Facebook. After I put them up tomorrow.

I haven't gotten enough hours of sleep since this thing started, but I guess that's not the point. Besides, Friday is a free day except for the evening presentation. I might go to the Baha'i cemetery here in Haifa, as well as some of the museums. Also of course, the terraces. Gotta walk them all the way up and/or down at least once, and that seems like a good day to do it.

The moon did something cool tonight. It's almost full, in case you live in Newfoundland and haven't seen it since August. The sky is very clear here, and the moon cast a ring of light around and away from itself. It's not easy to describe, but it was basically a very large circle on of luminescence in the night sky, with the moon at its center, and a bright star or planet slightly off from the moon. I've never seen that before, but Eric said he has. It's caused by refraction and something. That was the gist of his explanation.

Good night!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Rocking Out at Bahji

I'm going to talk about the highlights of today, instead of giving you a play-by-play account, like yesterday. I can hear the cheering already.

This morning we took the Carmelit subway up to the Pilgrim Reception Centre (PRC). We were a little late, but we had to meet our guides before we left on the bus to Akka, so it was all good. By we, I mean Astrid from Ireland, and Julie and her nephew Eric from the US. They're in a different group from me and Astrid, so we split up and took different buses, but we went to the same place, the Shrine of Baha'u'llah in Bahji.

After "refreshments" at the Bahji Visitors Centre, which consisted of cookies and coffee, juice, or tea, we filed into the shrine, taking off our shoes before going in, as is customary. The ground is covered in lush Persian carpets, as are the two shrines I visited yesterday (and again this evening). We managed to get the whole group inside, which is unusual. Usually there are three groups, so we circumambulate as a group and then go in as individuals, but for some reason, we were only two groups. So that was cool.

One of the guides (not ours) chanted the Tablet of Visitation, a special prayer read at the Shrine. He was really good! And this is coming from someone who's heard a lot of Persian chanting in her life. Trust me.

After that, people sat or stood in silent prayer, with some going into the side rooms behind curtains to do this privately. I sat on the carpet. People took turns approaching the actual door where you could see the inner sanctum, for lack of a better term, where Baha'u'llah is actually buried. It contains some decorative and commemorative items, like candles and flowers. The flowers and other plants in the whole shrine gave off a very attractive scent, though I still think the Shrine of Abdu'l-Baha smells the best. It's amazing. Too bad blogs and photos don't capture smell.

I learned that you shouldn't drink tea before going into a shrine, so I had to leave relatively soon to empty my bladder. But I went back afterward. I had to fight my way through a throng of teenagers doing a tour of the surrounding gardens. All the girls' hair was cut exactly the same way, and the guys matched pretty well too. Now I know what the fashion is here. I'll need to grow mine longer and cut the bottom in a sort of uneven curve.

It's interesting being able to go to places at times when others are not allowed, just by showing my nametag. I also really understand why religious groups keep visitors out of some areas permanently. There's a certain lack of respect apparent in most tourists. Nothing against them, but it's clear that they have come to see, not to respect. Even if you don't believe in something, you should give the people who do the space to immerse themselves in their experience. Or so I think.

We didn't see much of Akka this time around, but we're going back three more times to visit some of the other Baha'i sites. For those of you who don't know, Baha'u'llah (the Founder of the Baha'i Faith) was imprisoned in that city for years with his family and some of his followers. We're going to see the restored prison cell where he was, as well as a few other sites. I'll fill you in when I've actually been there.

Around one o'clock, we returned to Haifa and had lunch. I met a woman who is friends with an anthropologist and author, Joseph Sheppard. He wrote The Island of the Same Name, which is a pretty cool book if you're into sci-fi, culture, humanity, linguistics, anthropology, archeology, or Indiana Jones.

After lunch, I thought I'd take a power nap in the "resting room" in the PRC's annex building. At 3:15, I was supposed to be up at the International Teaching Centre, up the mountain a short distance from the PRC through the Monument Gardens (lots of gardens around here). I startled myself awake, surprised by the fact that I'd actually fallen asleep. My headache was gone, which was a blessing, but when I went upstairs, I saw that it wa 3:45. Half an hour late. To meet the members of the Universal House of Justice, the international administrative body for the Baha'is.

In a panic, I rushed up the mountain, through the Monument Garden. It was a bit weird to rush past the monuments themselves, since I haven't given them a proper look yet, but I was horrified at being so late. I wondered if they would even let me in, but tried to calm myself down by assuring myself that these were the Baha'is, not some sort of tour group. They are much more human than some humans about these things.

When I got to the steps of the Seat of the House of Justice, which looks a little like the Parthenon, a woman was sitting outside with a young child. I asked her if she thought I could still go in, and she smiled. "Oh yes. They should be starting in another ten minutes."

I was kind of glad I didn't get there on time. Forty minutes is a pretty long wait.

Six of the members came in and everyone stood up for them, which I found interesting. I understand it's a sign of respect, but in the Baha'i Faith, the elected individuals have no power; it's only when they act as the institution, i.e. together, that they exercise any authority. I suppose they were technically acting as the House, but it was sort of murky. They said a prayer and welcomed us, and then came down from the stage and individually greeted us all.

Meanwhile, staff members sped our chairs away so that the members of the House would have room to file between us. They were pretty expedient about it and the chairs disappeared in no time. I was quite impressed.

Supper consisted of shawarma and a pastry for desert. I met a lady who is here with a helper because last year she was unable to complete her pilgrimage. She's a bit older, and apparently on the second day (today), at the meeting of the UHJ, she tripped over one of the column bases and broke her knee and shoulder. She was in the hospital here in Israel for a week, before Blue Cross flew her home to Canada, where she spent another two months in the hospital there. Two months. So she asked if she could finish her pilgrimage with a helper, and once the letter was received from her doctor, they invited her back.

No wonder they make us all buy health insurance now.

I met a guy, Sebastien, who was one of the key organizers of the Youth Congress I went to in Quebec in 2001. He was actually the one who invited me and the others to supper at this shawarma and falafel place higher up Mount Carmel. Everyone except him, Astrid, and me took a taxi back down; we braved the bus and made it down very quickly. Sebastien and I went to the Shrine of the Bab again, while Astrid went for a nap at the PRC.

Then there was a presentation at the International Teaching Centre by a member of the same. Several people fell asleep during it, mostly from heat and a long day, but it was still amusing.

Afterwards, I wanted to check out this open mic down the road from the hostel. I chatted with Joe and Dino (Dean), two brothers from New Zealand who brought their 70-something dad here because it's been a dream of his to visit Israel. He suffered three bouts of cancer, one that led to the removal of his eye, so Joe was happy to see him excited about being here. I didn't meet him, but hopefully tomorrow.

They were brought up in a Christian sect/denomination (Joe called it a sect) called Christadelphia. All I know is that it's very strict and doesn't allow its members to play sports, but I'd love to learn more. It's intriguing. There's so many versions of Christianity out there!

We didn't make it to the open mic because a rock cover band was playing right on the street. We went down to check them out.

They were pretty cool. One band member, originally from the US in a previous life but now from Israel, told us they played there every Tuesday, and have been for seven years. They pass the hat during the show to get paid. Not a bad gig.

Joe and I talked politics, economics, and religion (obviously), while the Swiss girl who came with us and whose name I didn't get talked to Dino about drunk people. And banks. Or something.

I also learned the correct way to nail together corrugated metal sheets to make a roof, and what layers of stuff go underneath it. I now have one useful piece of knowledge.

On that note, I have to get up at 6:30 tomorrow (gack-aahh-thud) to go back to Bahji. At least they're picking us up close to the hotel this time. And Bahji is really nice. Like, really nice. Like, totally.

Monday, November 7, 2011

It Begins

I met a lot of people today. Mostly Baha'is, but not only. This morning after breakfast I met four other people staying at the hotel who were heading up to the Pilgrim Reception Centre to register and all. They were waiting outside for a cab called by Rachel, the owner of the Port Inn. She had somehow forgotten since yesterday that I was also going on pilgrimage.

A quick discussion led to the conclusion that we couldn't all fit in the cab, so I said I would take the subway, which was what I had planned to do anyway. Rachel apologized and frantically explained to me how to get there and how much it was and so on. Then she made me show her St. John's on their wall map. It already had a pin from there - and a ton of other places.

The public transportation was on strike this morning. Shortest strike ever. I don't know what time it started, but it was over at 10. Metrobus should've done something like that: shut down at peak times and run when most people don't need its services. Very effective. Maybe. Haifa will find out in the near future.

The subway is also the shortest of its kind, especially for the size of the city. It has six stops, which it travels in about five minutes each way. The city of Haifa is 63.7 square kilometers, according to our friends and enemies at Wikipedia, so the subway covers the equivalent of the city's big toe. Up and down the mountain, and that is all.

Since it was 10 o'clock and the subway was just kicking back to life, people were frenetically buying tickets. I changed my 100 shekel bill into ten 10-shekel pieces, bought a single ticket for 6.40 and missed the subway by one second. It was pulling out just as I was stepping onto the platform. A man in the same boat struck up a conversation with me. He turned out to be a musician and piano teacher from Nazareth ("You know? It's Jesus city!"). He gave me his card and told me to look him up on Youtube, which I did when I got home, but I'm not at that part of the story yet. But you can listen now, if you really have to.

Khalil was on his way to Carmel Hospital to visit his mother who had some sort of airway obstruction, from what I could understand. He said the doctors were in the process of deciding whether to cut into her neck or into her abdomen. Fun times.

At my stop (Masada), I got out and realized immediately that I had no clue how to get to the Pilgrim Reception House, in spite of Rachel's directions. The lady in the fluorescent jacket looked like she might know something, and she kindly pointed the way. I asked two or three other people and managed to find the place, but only through a very circuitous route. It turns out the PRC is unmarked, so nobody knew what it was and they were actually directing me to the entrance to the garden. When I got there, the guy at the gate was scanning some visitors with a handheld metal detector. More security. So disheartening.

He was very friendly and helpful, though, and he welcomed me warmly with an "Allah-u-abha" once he realized I was coming for pilgrimage. He pointed me down the street to the PRC, and I got all registered and bought emergency health insurance. It's not absolutely required, but it's very strongly recommended, and I figured if I get malaria or get run over, it'd be good to have options. It was also relatively cheap for the nine days.

As I was waiting to watch the insurance info video, a lady with her own radio show and I started talking about racism and how genetically it makes no sense. I said that people in sub-Saharan Africa are more genetically diverse than the rest of the world put together (true story), and she said she would like to get some quotes from me for her show. Second interview proposition since I got here. Man. I didn't know I was going to be so popular!

Upon registering, we were given our group (I'm in H) and the schedule for the first day. Then we got some informative booklets and a full schedule for the rest of the pilgrimage. We were free to do as we liked until 2:30, when we would reassemble for an orientation and the first visit to the Shrine of the Bab.

I hung out with a mother and daughter from the Philippines, and another younger woman from Macau, who was surprised at the lack of Asians in the crowd. I hadn't really noticed, but she had a good point. It could just be chance, but who knows.

The girl from Macau and I wanted to get some lunch, but we had to walk down the mountain to do so, and the older woman didn't feel up to it, so we found a grocery store and bought some yogurt drinks. Then we went back to the PRC and ate crackers and very watery macaroni with no flavour. Not the best meal, but no one really cared. The conversation was alright, and it was interesting to hear about what is going on in other parts of the world.

I went for a short walk up to the garden where the Pilgrim House is. I can't believe people used to stay there when they went on pilgrimage. Lucky them. It's right beside the Shrine and right smack in the middle of the terraces. Logically, since it's behind the Shrine and the Shrine's in the middle. Yeah.

I didn't go in the house, because I wasn't sure if it was open. I headed back to the PRC and petted the cat that was hanging around. Smart cat. It knows all the Baha'is will feed it.

Before orientation I talked to a couple with two kids, from California but now living in Arizona. It was the woman's first time out of the US. We talked about the Omnibus Crime Bill and whether or not Canada is better than the US (he asked for my views on the subject), as well as the effectiveness or not of the war on drugs. Then we went to the Internation Teaching Centre (ITC) for the orientation.

It was presented in DVD form. We were asked not to record video or audio of any of the talks or presentations at the ITC. I still haven't figured out the reason for that; I'm sure it's valid but I don't see it. I'll ask someone tomorrow, maybe.

After that, we filed out through the Monument Gardens, where the administrative buildings stand in an arc. We found our way to the garden where the Shrine is, and then we had two members of the ITC welcome us. One chanted the Bab's tablet of visitation in Farsi or Arabic (not sure), and then the other recited 'Abdu'l-Baha's tablet of visitation in English. Then we slowly and silently circumambulated the Shrine and returned to the Pilgrim House.

I felt a lot of things as we walked around the Shrine. But after a bathroom break in the Pilgrim House, when I returned and actually went inside first the Bab's and then 'Abdu'l-Baha's shrine, I had a different kind of experience. It's hard to explain or even describe it at this point, so I'll have to get back to you on this one.

I will say this though: I was surprised by how the shrines looked on the inside. Not at all how I'd been picturing it my whole life. And I found the much smaller, more fragrant, and dimmer room where 'Abdu'l-Baha is buried somehow more approachable and relatable. The Bab's was too bright and ornamented. Or something. Like I said, it's hard to explain at this point.

I walked home by the road, and it didn't take nearly as long as I'd expected. I was back in about half an hour, and some of that time was spent deciphering a French poem/plea/ode/paragraph written in large blue and white tiles with no spaces between words, on the wall of the Arab Jewish Centre, ostensibly a place for peace and an end to the conflicts in this region.

Once back at the hotel, I heated up some leftovers and chatted with Julie and Astrid, and Julie's non-Baha'i nephew Eric who is also doing the pilgrimage. We shared our food with each other (yay hummus!) and planned for the morning, which begins at 8am. Grossness. Oh well. It'll be worth it, I'm sure.

There's a presentation at the ITC in the evening, as well as an open mic night down the street from here which I may check out afterwards. We also get to meet the members of the Universal House of Justice (basically the globally elected administrators of the Baha'i Faith).

I realize there are a lot of names in here that might not mean much to some of you, so just ask if you want to know. Or ask the internet oracle, but beware of its wiles. Sometimes it lies.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Dining and Dashing in Haifa

Tonight I left a restaurant without paying. I tried really hard, I promise. I went with an actor girl I met here from Kansas (currently volunteering in Palestine) and the waitress kept asking us if we wanted anything else. After about the fifth time of this, Abby (the actor girl) asked for the bill. The waitress went off, and then about half an hour later, she came and asked us if we wanted anything else. Again.

Eventually, we gave up. I figured if we started to leave, they'd nab us in a second, but even standing by the door didn't get their attention. So finally we just left. I feel kind of bad, but seriously, it shouldn't be that hard to give someone your money.

Other than that, today was mostly uneventful. I mostly stayed at the hostel, although I did venture out in the morning. I was thinking of going to Elijah's cave (yes, that Elijah) or the monastery, or even the Arab market. I also considered walking up the terraces but figured I'd save that for a day when I'm actually there anyway. I wanted to go to the surfer beach too. I ended up doing nothing. I walked around a little, sat down and wrote in my journal (thanks, Mom) and then went and got my US dollars changed into shekels. I got disoriented heading back to the hostel, because I thought it was closer than it was, but I found it again and then I came inside and worked on my bibliographic essay.

Don't judge me. I still have school when I get back, okay?

I stayed out in the courtyard for a while because it was warm and nice, but then my laptop battery started to die so I went up to the dorm. Someone new arrived to replace some of the girls who left, and I started chatting with her. She told me her name was Adriane, she was from Geneva and that she spoke French, so we chatted in French. I need to practice. She's a photographer/independent filmmaker, and she's doing research on religious gesture, so when I told her I was doing a Baha'i pilgrimage, she wanted to interview me about the Baha'i Faith. She knew virtually nothing about it. I agreed before thinking it through, and she went off in search of food. A few hours later, I was just about to venture out again, in search of food myself, when she asked if I wanted to do the interview now. I agreed again, and we went up to the dorm. Adriane asked the receptionist if we could use the kitchen where breakfast was served (good breakfast too), but she refused, so we tried the dorm.

After much fiddling around with her new camera and sound capture device that looked like a taser, we got set up. A girl came in a couple times, so we had to cut it off, but overall, it went okay, I think. It is hard to say at this point.

I left some of my Spinoza Gambit manager cards at the reception, so Jason may get a following from Israel. Or not, since none of the guests I've spoken too are Israeli.

Abby turned out to be Jewish though, so if she wanted to she could become an Israeli citizen. I started talking to her after I bought some groceries and made myself food, because she was the one who came in during the interview. I also spoke to a retired couple from Arrington, BC (grass roof and goats, if you've been there). They hadn't heard about the Occupy movement because they've been traveling for seven weeks, so I filled them in. We also talked about electoral reform, Stephen Harper, Elizabeth May, and Newfoundland hospitality, which was rated highly right up with Arab and Irish. I talked to a man from Amsterdam as well, who has been living in various parts of Israel for a couple years.

Another girl going on pilgrimage arrived tonight too, Astrid from Ireland. She was super tired, so she didn't come out with Abby and me. I s'pose I'll talk to her more tomorrow. There's supposed to be a third person here going on pilgrimage as well, so it must be a guy or someone with a separate room.

Abby's views on Israel and Palestine were very interesting, especially her first-hand stories about life in Palestine and Gaza. She told me how she got in an argument with a Zionist lady who professed to believe that Arabs kill people as martyrs and then eat their livers.

Which reminds me. There are a lot of Arabs here, more than I was expecting. According to Amsterdam dude and Abby, Haifa is in a very peaceful region where the Jews and the Arabs get along quite well. In other areas, especially Jerusalem, the tension is much more palpable, especially since the Jewish authorites decided to expand the Jewish quarter in that city. They ordered the Arabs to demolish their own houses, or otherwise they could pay the authorities to get the job done. Ergo, tension.

I'm going to bed now. I got home much later than I expected or wanted to, what with waiting for the bill and all. It was alright though. Abby was pleasant to talk to and she had a lot of interesting experiences to share. Plus her minor is in archeology, so we had at least a few similar interests.

Oh, one more thing. Sunday is like Monday here, because the weekend runs Friday and Saturday, instead of Saturday and Sunday. So that's kind of cool, to be in a place with a different take on the calendar. I mean, it's not so different, but still. It's interesting to me and it reconfirms my belief that nothing is real; we live in a socially constructed world with socially constructed meaning ascribed to everything. Liberating and frustrating at the same time, innit.

Good night everyone and Eid Mubarak to all my Muslim friends! (If you don't know what Eid is, look it up. It's a pretty cool holiday.)

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Sore Feet and Sunshine

I've made it to my hotel in Israel safe and sound. On my way into Haifa this evening, I caught my first real-life glimpse of the terraces and the shrine and they were all lit up and it was as beautiful as in the pictures!

I've hardly slept since yesterday morning. My plane trip was surprisingly undramatic, in spite of multiple security obstacle courses designed to prevent the faint of heart from traveling to the Middle East. Or some other group. Not too sure.

At Toronto, I had to go through another gate into an even more secure area, where the woman advised me the doesn't "make money to chat, sweetheart." Sorry for asking about the brace on your wrist...

Then my gate was in a separate glassed-in room with barriers across the entrance. When they finally opened it, they checked passports, boarding passes, and luggage once again. They also swabbed my palms and the top of my bag with some kind of funky device. That's what they should do in kindergarten: "Did you wash your hands?" "Yes!" "Let's find out" *swab swab*.

Anyway, so that was all well and good. At last, we were on our way (both flights were jam packed; I had to sit in the seat reserved for crew on the first one). The guy beside me on the way to Tel Aviv was super shy but super nice. He gave me his blanket while I was sleeping (guess I looked cold), but he never said a word the whole time. When I tried to engage him when I first got on the plane, he just sort of grunted and shrank a bit. I didn't talk to him again because I didn't want to make him disappear entirely.

Once we hit Israeli airspace, nobody was allowed to get out of their seats. More security. On my way into the airport in Tel Aviv, a security agent randomly stopped me and asked my why I was here, who I was travelling with, and so on. Then at customs, I found out the Israeli government has a list of all the Baha'is invited on pilgrimage and the dates of their stay. Makes it easier all around, I guess.

I spent the day in Tel Aviv, which was kind of a mistake but worth it, now that I'm actually settled in. I could've taken a sherut (a sort of group taxi/shuttle service) directly from Ben Gurion into Haifa, but opted to try to find the Occupy people instead. I took a cab into town (a bit pricey) because public transportation was not running today, it being a Saturday, and Saturday being the Jewish sabbath and all.

It turned out the Occupy Israel people took down their tents a couple of weeks ago, for whatever reason, but they still communicate and protest and organize stuff. You just have to know where to find out what's going on when. Needless to say, I did not know where to find out, so I never found them. So that was too bad.

Instead, I lounged on the beach in 23 degree sunshine. It was awesome. The beach sand was soft and felt like a massage on my bare feet, and the water was warm enough for wading, although swimming was prohibited. I think they built the rock breaker strips (what are they called again?) to stop people from drowning. I climbed up on some of the breakers and got soaked in spots by the waves crashing against them. They were much more powerful up close than they looked like from the shore.

Then I saw some sort of dance group, although they weren't in costume or even that synchronized. I'm not sure what it was all about, since the sign was in Hebrew, but it was kind of cool. They were dressed in their normal clothes and seemed to represent all walks of life, ages, styles, and other variations of humanity. I took a short video, which you can watch below. Quality is poor and someone's arm is trying to steal the show.

I thought it was going to rain, because the sky was crackling and booming with blackness floating in disguised as clouds. So instead of continuing up the coastline towards the old Tel Aviv port, I headed for the train station, even though I knew the trains didn't run until 8 pm. I figured I could sit in there, do some reading, maybe even use their wireless connection if they had one.

But when I got there, after a couple hours of walking through the city (pictures forthcoming), it was all shut up and I saw that to even get into the building, you had to pass through a scanner, as did any bags you were carrying. The door was locked anyway, so I wandered around some more.

I found a park, where I took a brief nap, then wandered some more, took another brief nap at a now defunct and slimy but otherwise cool fountain in the House of Europe Square. The House of America was beside it too. I'm not sure what they were, but they looked very artsy.

There's a lot of modern art around town, and the architecture is interesting too. The vegetation reminds me somewhat of Cotonou, as do the buildings, with their large communal courtyards and unpainted squareness.

Also, there are cats everywhere. Strays, as far as I can tell, and I mean everywhere.

If I were an anthropologist typing up my fieldnotes right now, I would remark on the following: outside a lot of houses, people had left items on or in front of the low wall, as if for other people to take. Here there was a blue button-up men's shirt, there a pair of shoes, at another place, a couch, and somewhere else some unopened bottles of some sort of drink. I don't know what the significance of this is, how often it occurs (on the Sabbath? once a month? every day? randomly?), and what happens to the objects, but it was certainly intriguing. If anyone knows, please enlighten me.

Weary and bleary-eyed, I finally made it back to the train station, and set off for Haifa. I got off at the earlier Haifa stop, instead of the one right by the hotel, so I took another cab right to the door. They put me in their registration as wanting a male dorm, even though I'd clearly marked "female" on the form. The receptionist even double-checked. Luckily, there was a bed available in the girls' dorm so I'm all squared away, as it were. I just need to get some food tomorrow, and change over some coins into shekels.