Day 13 - Up north to Haifa and Akko
The day starts with confusion. Daylight savings has started but only for the West Bank. That means the entire West Bank populace will run an hour late until the rest of the country catches up in October. We check on google and the absurdity hits us. Rob's mum giggles. "They fight even about the time," she says. She's right.
Our driver was the one to tell us this. He's on West Bank time but remains unconvinced that we're right. He got a text from the phone company letting him know about the change in time "in Hebrew" he keeps pointing out. "We'll ask an Israeli. He'll tell you it's 6.41 am. Not 7.41 am!" He's brought along a tray of dates. I eat it in the backseat and watch the drama for today. He beeps at the car stopped at the lights next to us. "What is the time please?" he asks. "Quarter to eight," the man says. The car erupts in glee from Rob and me, disbelief from our driver. "That Israeli! He's not right. He's asleep!" Our driver asks another person. This time a Palestinian Muslim woman. She tells him, "Quarter to eight." The morning traffic on the road now convinces him. "I'm pissed," our driver says. "Why they change my clock?"
On the long drive from East Jerusalem to Haifa, we pass a Coke factory and road signs that say "No Shoulders". I think for a moment that there are even signs banning the crazy sight of women's shoulders. Banks and banks of red, white and orange bougainvilleas growing like beautiful, tropical weeds stream past my window. Rob is snoozing in the front seat as landscape gives way slowly to sandy verges and a ribbon of blue Mediterranean sea. There's a lot more green up here.
Haifa is lovely. Breezy, casual, organised, and lots of laidback retirees with their shirts hanging open. There's gorgeous Israeli girls with caramel hair down to their waists and buff guys coming from the gym. There's a giant statute of coffee in a takeaway container and I think, Why hasn't Wellington got one of those? We have coffee, halva croissants and omelette baguette at Cafein, along with a small percentage of Haifa's over-65s. The bread is amazing. The coffee is good. Haifa is super relaxing.
We walk down to the Baha'i Gardens. There's a free English-speaking tour to the top terraces of the garden which is not accessible to the public. We're the first people there but in fifteen minutes maybe 50 more people join us. There's people from California, Russia, a large group from Mexico. Everyone shifts on their feet and avoids each other's eyes. Classic tour group styles. The Baha'i faith believes in a universal religion where everyone is equal. The complete symmetry of the gardens reflect this. The tour guide lets us know we'll be walking down 700 steps. My knees automatically lock up.
A strapping American dude asks the tour guide, "Who's the current spiritual leader?" A girl asks, "How did you acquire all the land?" These are some smart teacher's pet questions particularly when all I've been doing is taking pictures, tripping down the steps, and marvelling at the glamorous Russian girls' ability to pick a spot and pose their hearts out.
The tour finishes. We exit out a random side gate and get our directions to the German Colony from the security guard lingering near the toilet block. Left. Left. "Down many many steps". There's a roundabout. "And there it is."
We think we're following his instructions but end up lost somewhere in the hills of Haifa, walking through large apartment blocks, posh schools, and community centres. The land is steep. There's a lotta stray cats. A man is barbecuing on his windowsill. He waves cheerfully to us as we walk past. At the German Colony, we eat lunch at upscale but friendly Fattoush. The food tastes bland compared to the earthy, spiced punch of the Palestinian food in the West Bank at Al Falaha the day before.
After a short drive, we're in another port city. This time, we head to the Old City of Akko. It's riddled with Crusader and Knights Templar sites. There are atmospherically-lit underground tunnels and halls, families' fishing off the docks, and a brilliant walk along the top of the walls. The waves of the Mediterranean crash on the rocks below. Kids are caught in the sea spray and squeal. The sun is setting, everything is being cast with a lovely golden glow, and the shops are shutting. It's sleepy, it's idyllic, it's peaceful. The store where I buy fake Kit Kats and a bottle of water doesn't overcharge me (by much).
At the end of the day, I rejoice when I find a recycling bin in the carpark. Bins are rare things in this country. It's our last day touring around Israel and the Palestinian Territories. Tomorrow is a rest day. We're so tired. I'm ready to see Jordan.
The constant clash of faith and politics produces terrible things. I've seen only the smallest part of it. But it also produces sights and experiences and a mood that you will never ever witness or feel anywhere in the world. It is unique to this contested place.
I can honestly say that I never thought I would visit here but I'm glad I did. A lot of people choose not to visit because they're scared about security or they disagree with the politics of the place. But I think they're missing out. I hesitate to say it but I will - you won't have a hope of understanding even a little of the politics and the people without coming here, seeing for yourself, talking to the people, walking in their shoes, and deciding for yourself. It's so easy to stay away but braver still to come see for yourself.