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.