We moved on to Maui after The Big Island. The flight itself was noteworthy because of how small the plane was: I had been on island-hoppers before, but those were all dual-prop planes you could stand up in. This was a single propeller plane and there's no way you could stand up in it. W felt every drop and turn and moment of turbulence acutely, like being in a car with an extremely tight suspension strapped to a roller coaster. The cruising altitude was also quit a bit lower than normal, which gave me a great view for watching the water and islands go by.

Clouds on the flight to Maui

Clouds just above the surface of the ocean on the flight to Maui.

Maui from the air

Maui from the air. It seems obvious why Jurassic Park was filmed here. Jungle everywhere. Ravines and waterfalls accentuating everything. It's wild and gorgeous.

We stayed at the Royal Lahaina Resort. It was a short distance from a bunch of other resorts and a small shopping and dining area known as Whaler's Village. And since all the walking was along the beach I didn't mind hoofing it everywhere. Though being in the resort-oriented part of town meant that prices were pretty inflated. The quality of the food made up for a bit. We especially enjoyed putting coconut syrup on our pancakes and waffles each morning - it's a unique, tasty substitute for maple syrup that I wish was easy to find back home.

Other islands seen from Maui

From the west side of Maui you can see some other islands.

Maui Beach

Where The Big Island was black and gray and stony, Maui is full of color. I didn't need any filters or manipulation for this shot.

Our resort was known for having a good luau, so one of the nights there we went and got front row seats. It was the usual family-friendly show of dancing, history, and fire poi that you'd expect. Overall a fun diversion that I feel like you have to do at least once during every visit to Hawaii.

Us at a Maui Luau

Luau time!

The nearby city of Lahaina offered a lot more to do. This included many more shops and restaurants, but also a few unique attractions. Chief among them was the banyan tree in the middle of the town square. It's one of the largest examples you can find of this fascinating type of tree, which generates so many different trunks that a single tree can appear to be a forest all on its own.

Banyan Tree in Lahaina

The banyan tree in Lahaina. Yes, that's all one tree. It has 16 different trunks and covers two-thirds of an acre.

In Lahaina, we also got to experience Warren and Annabelle's Magic Show, which is a neat little semi-participatory event that starts with food and drink and music and then turns into an evening of comedy and magic. There are similar shows in places like Las Vegas, but none quite this intimate. Since the theater only sat about 30 people it was more like being in a classroom right next to the magician than being in a huge auditorium. And being that close meant we could scrutinize all the prestidigitation, which made the tricks we couldn't figure out all that more impressive.

Our last night in Hawaii we took a cruise on the Pacific Whale Foundation ship Ocean Quest. Dinner and music were provided as we moved out into the Lahaina harbor. At one point we were lucky enough to have a trio of dolphins come right up next to us and swim alongside. Then we watched the sun set on the ocean and tried to hold on to those last fleeting moments before having to return to solid ground and thus admit the vacation was ending.

Lahaina Harbor

This is looking back at Lahaina Harbor as we pushed away on our cruise. The clouds were so low in the sky I felt like I could almost touch them.

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Our second adventure-filled day on The Big Island saw us meeting up with a local guide, driving an hour North, and then leaving the car parked on the side of a dusty road. We were headed out for a day of trekking and exploring around the West coast of the island.

The first stop was a lava tube cave - molten rock had hollowed out the ground, but then moved on before solidifying. I've never been in a cave like this before. Everything was perfectly smooth where the lava had been, despite being porous rock. And there was perfectly still, crystal clear water filling it about a third of the way up. We saw evidence of people who had obviously gone swimming or partied there, including a series of unlit candles that marked the path inside.

Lava Tube Cave in Hawaii

Due to the wet and rocky nature of the hike we were told to leave our cameras behind and rely on the guide. His camera - although waterproof - did not do that well even with a flash. So these pictures are going to be a bit lower in quality than I'd like. This is the best shot I could find of inside the lava tube cave.

After getting out of the cave we continued on foot throughout a rocky, forested area. It had a bunch of wild animals, but was dry, with packed dirt under our feet and dust in the air.

Hawaiin Goat

The number one thing I did not expect to find in the Hawaiian wilderness: goats.

Eventually we found the beach of Kiholo Bay, and along with it, several celebrity houses. An interesting (and useful) fact is that all the shoreline in Hawaii is considered public land, so while the private properties could be set back a ways, there were no private beaches. This meant that we were free to walk up and down the sand without fear of trespassing.

We found another cave, this one almost entirely filled with water and actually named with a small wooden sign that simply read "Kalealele." These neat little random finds meant that we could've spent the entire day just searching the coast.

After moving along the beach for at least an hour we came across a more preserved area where development wasn't allowed. We saw lots of schools of fish and these metallic looking silver-black crabs (my best guess is they were the baby version of what the locals call a'ama crabs) crawling around the wet black stones of the shore.

Black-Crowned Night-Heron and Sea Turtle

A black-crowned night-heron and a sea turtle, staring each other down. This bird is common in some parts of the world, but a rare sight in Hawaii.

About 100 yards off the coast was "turtle island," an unofficial name for a small piece of land that sea turtles liked to visit. So we did the only logical thing we could do: we swam out to it. We weren't disappointed, as we saw half a dozen of the creatures and managed to get quite close to them.

Swimming to Turtle Island

This is us making our spontaneous swim out to turtle island. Despite not being that much water to cross the current was still extremely strong.

Tired from a day of hoofing it, we went to explore some nearby resorts, including the Mauna Kea Hotel. There I was introduced to the "Trent Jones" which is the Hawaiian version of an Arnold Palmer, using pineapple juice instead of iced tea. I was disappointed: it's not nearly as good as it sounds.

Scarlet Macaw

The Mauna Kea Hotel had a lot of animals in and around it. We saw huge orange fish in ponds on either side of a walkway, and this scarlet macaw was just hanging out in a tree, no cage or anything.

Our last stop was Hanupa Beach State Park. We got in for free because our guide had a Hawaiian driver's license. Making the tourists pay instead of the locals seems like a smart way to fund it. We simply relaxed and enjoyed the ocean with everyone else.

Hanupa Beach

The ocean from Hanupa beach.

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Last fall I had the pleasure of going on vacation to Hawaii with Monica. I had been there once before half my life ago. But this time we'd be going to The Big Island of Hawaii and avoiding Oahu (and therefore the tourist-crowded beaches of Waikiki), making it very different from my first trip.

We flew into Kona late at night and picked up a Mazda 3 to drive around the island. The next morning we got breakfast at Bongo Bens in downtown Kailua Kona. Kona is known for a few things; the most recognizable product on the mainland is probably their coffee. I also knew it was the hometown of one of my favorite bands, Pepper, and the location of the Kona Brewing Company, which makes some decent beers that I've seen sold as far away as Chicago. Walking around Kona after breakfast we found the Royal Kona Resort, which claims to be the home of the original Mai Thai. I'm pretty sure they're not the only ones to make that claim though.

We set out to circumnavigate The Big Island. Getting out of the populated areas it reminded me more of Iceland than anywhere tropical. It's the youngest of all the Hawaiian islands, and also the most geologically unstable. So there was a lot of black and red lava rock. And many places where grass and trees didn't grow.

The Big Island of Hawaii

The Big Island might be able to give Montana a run for being "big sky" country. This particular area had a wild fire that destroyed most of the foliage not too long ago.

Hopping on the Belt Road we stopped to take some pictures and a dust devil formed just a few feet from us. It dissipated after about a minute and probably wasn't large enough to be dangerous (I'd estimate 6-7 feet in diameter), but it did provide a surge of adrenaline to be that close to such a rare and unpredictable natural phenomenon.

An Old Tree-Lined Road

An old, no longer used road not marked on any map. There were a lot of animal noises coming from the forest on either side along with waist-high grass, which meant we had no idea what was in there.

After passing through Waimea we took a turn onto a road that was marked simply "Scenic Drive." This eventually lead us to the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens and the Onomea Trail. It was a fun area to explore and the part of the island I remember being the most full of diverse plants and teeming with life.

Onomea Bay Inlet

An inlet in Onomea Bay, it was very private and we were told locals sometimes swim there despite the rocky obsidian beach.

Onomea Bay Inlet

Another Onomea Bay inlet, this one with some intense waves that sprayed up to my height when they crashed upon the rocks.

We diverged from the highway again to hike around Akaka Falls, which is a state park focused on a waterfall over 400 feet high. I was impressed by how many state parks Hawaii has, especially considering how accessible and cheap they are - they just made you pay for parking, and it was otherwise free to get in and walk around.

Akaka Falls

Akaka Falls in all its 422 foot glory. The sense of scale is totally lost here, but it kind of was for us too because the viewing platform is so far away.

We descended into Hilo for lunch at a cafe. We got fresh fish and walked around the surf-side town that was very empty during the early afternoon.

Our next stop was the Kalapana viewing site in the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. This put us on top of the volcano that was active during our time there. We were a little worried that it would interfere with our plans as the lava flow was moving at a pretty rapid pace of 50-100 yards a day and often turning in unpredictable directions. Luckily it did not cover the freeway - which was a major fear for residents as it would force them to evacuate as there is only a single road going into some of the neighborhoods there. There were updates every 15 minutes or so on the radio so we always knew what the situation was. When we got there we had to park outside the lava fields and then continue on foot. Feeling the warmth of the rock and knowing that flowing lava could just be inches below the surface was incredible.

Kalapana Lava Fields

Land on the Kalapana lava fields is passed down hereditarily to native Hawaiins and is not taxed, so some choose to build houses there, even knowing they could be destroyed at any time by the volcano.

We then turned around to check out Rainbow Falls. This was a much smaller park and waterfall than Akaka. And because we got there when it was cloudy and the sun was setting it did not live up to its name and give us a rainbow.

Back in Hilo we had dinner at Cafe 100, which we had been told was a local favorite. We ate the specialty, Loco Moco, which is essentially a layered dish consisting of rice, a sausage patty, a fried egg, and a brown gravy, in that order. It was rich and tasted very salty and fattening. I won't be craving it any time soon.

Finally, we drove into the center of the island and up the mountain of Mauna Kea. It was dark, as there were no street lights on the road, so we had only the car's headlights and their reflections to guide us. Nor were there many other cars. Add to that the rain and fog and the visibility became extremely low. At points I could only see a few feet in front of me. A few miles that the map said would take us 20 minutes took well over an hour. And despite the fact that the speed limit was 50 or 60 MPH, the tiny car never made it above 25 on that 15% slope. It was easily the most harrowing drive of my life.

When we finally burst through the clouds it was a magical, surreal experience. The night sky was so bright and the air so clear that I felt like I could see forever. The water bottles had been crinkling from the pressure change and I could discernibly feel the lower oxygen amount. At 9,000 feet the visitor center for the observatory is only a hundred or so feet above the clouds, but it was enough. I wish I could've captured what it was like in a picture, but given the light levels and the fact that using a flash would ruin mine and everyone else's night vision none of the shots I did take turned out. So you'll have to trust me: it was nothing short of amazing.

They had a guide with a laser pointing out constellations and constantly talking about what we could see and the site itself. Being that high put us above the clouds and over 60% of the water vapor in the Earth's atmosphere. So stargazing there is like very few other points on the planet. It's also one of the only places it's guaranteed you'll want pants and a warm jacket in Hawaii.

I've always been a huge fan of space and astronomy and being up there was easily the highlight of the trip for me. They had several huge telescopes set up for the public to use and seeing the rings of Saturn with my own eyes - live, not some picture - was awe-inspiring. I found myself continually going back to that telescope, even though others were pointed in some interesting directions, like Mars and Polaris. I hope that the current tensions about building a new telescope are resolved, as it was an experience I want everyone to be able to have well into the future. If you don't know what I'm talking about, the best piece I've seen on it is here.

When we finally got tired of the cold we headed back down the mountain, which was a much different experience than the drive up: mostly, faster. I was braking the entire drive down just to keep control of the car. When the land finally leveled out near sea level I could feel the tension seep out of me. In a single day we had seen multiple waterfalls, lava fields, beaches, planets and stars, scaled a mountain and put close to 300 miles on the rental car.

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About a year ago I went with my mom to the British Virgin Islands for her birthday. It was a sunny, relaxing week off. And there were some interesting things about being there that I didn't expect.

The first was just discovering that despite being UK owned the country uses the US dollar as its currency, heavily inflated prices included. And while getting in as a foreigner was easy, we were warned that we would have to pay an exit fee when we left. I've had to pay for visas upon arriving before, but never on my way out. And a pleasant surprise was that during our layover in Puerto Rico I still had full non-roaming cell phone service. Losing it in the BVI seemed to emphasize that we had entered another country.

We stayed at the Sugar Mill Hotel, which as the name suggests is an old sugar mill and rum distillery, neither of which are operational any longer. The main building was all stone, and each of the rooms was essentially a condo on its own floor, with many separate buildings scattered throughout the grounds. There was a pool, but the best feature was that a white sandy beach was directly across the road. There was even a covered pavilion where lunch was served right next to the beach.

Little Apple Bay Beach

The water of Little Apple Bay right in front of our hotel.

Sugar Mill Equipment

Old and rusted sugar mill equipment was still scattered randomly around the hotel.

The island of Tortola itself is extremely hilly. When looking on a map two points might appear very close, but they can take long minutes of driving because of the roads winding up and down the hills. And other than the tourist parts the water front was usually hard black obsidian, jagged and dangerous, which meant walking along the beach could never be done over great distances.

Tortola Ocean and Hill

A view of the ocean and hills seen from our hotel.

Tortola Sunset

A similar view as the above picture, but at sunset.

We took a day trip into the nearest big town at Cane Garden Bay where we of course met other Minnesotans also escaping the unexpected blizzard that had caused our cab to take two hours to get to the airport on the way out of town. While there we experienced the ebb and flow of a rush of people disembarking and then embarking again on a cruise ship. The bustle was temporarily exciting, but I was glad when things quieted down again.

Cane Garden Bay Sunset

Sunset at Cane Garden Bay after a brief but intense afternoon rain.

We didn't rent a car, but there seemed to be plenty of taxis available at the airport and our resort. Of course in the town after things started shutting down this wasn't true. There wasn't a taxi to be found anywhere. When we had Myett's - the restaurant where we had dinner - call for one it was close to an hour before he showed up, and he wasn't in any kind official looking vehicle. He was just some friend of a bartender who drove people home occasionally.

On the drive back we passed the famous Bomba Shack, built and decorated out of driftwood, broken surf boards and anything else washed up by the ocean. The driver told us about the Full Moon Parties that happen there. They sound like crazy events where anything goes. A kind of recurring spring-break atmosphere for the locals, with loud music and too many drinks and everything else you'd expect, including the special Midnight Tea, the ingredients of which are carefully kept secret. The place and those parties certainly sound intriguing.

Overall it was a pleasant, serene experience where we didn't have to do much. The perfect kind of vacation to get away and be isolated from the rest of the world for a while.

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This is the third set of extra pictures from my Israel trip. You can find the previous part here.

Dome of the Chain Ceiling

There's an open-air hexagonal gazebo-like structure next to The Dome of the Rock. It's called The Dome of the Chain, and this is its beautiful, intricately tiled and patterned ceiling. The building itself marks the center of the Temple Mount.

Dome of the Rock

This is an obverse view of The Dome of the Rock from what I previously showed. To the left you can see the exterior of the structure from the above picture. This shot emphasizes how flat and empty the surrounding area is.

Temple Mount from Mt. of Olives

This is looking back at the Temple Mount and the city from the Mt. of Olives cemetery. You'll notice on the far left that I happened to catch a bird mid-flight.

Broken Bottle Security System

This is a wall at the Mt. of Olives cemetery leading to a private area. It's secured not by barbed wire on top, but by mixing broken bottles right into the cement and having the pointed glass stick out.

Church of Gethsemane Front

This is the best exterior shot possible of this building without having to stand in the middle of a busy road. I previously called it the Church of Gethsemane - which is colloquial - the formal name is actually the Church of All Nations because the funding to build it was donated by over a dozen different countries. It is yet another church designed by the same architect we kept seeing everywhere, Antonio Barluzzi.

Stained Glass Cross

A purple stained glass cross inside the aforementioned church.

Jerusalem Old City Wall

The Jerusalem old city wall, as seen from ground level at sunset.

Church of the Nativity Chandelier and Window

A chandelier and window on the sparse half of the Church of the Nativity.

Church at Shepherd's Field

The Church at Shepherd's Field in Beit Sahour.

Thanks for checking out these extra pictures! More travel posts to come!

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This is the second part in a short series where I upload extra pictures from my Israel trip in November of 2013 and briefly explain what they show. You can find the first part here.

Sunset over Qumran

Sunset over Qumran.

Jerusalem Market

A market in the middle of Jerusalem.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre Exterior

Church of the Holy Sepulchre exterior. Extremely nondescript and easy to miss.

Gothic Cross

A cool looking Gothic cross inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre Ceiling

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre ceiling. It's one of the most impressive things about the place, but I bet some people never look up.

 Church of the Holy Sepulchre Column

This is just a column off the beaten path inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, but I think it's an awesome column (all marble) and it's framed nicely by those doors.

Ancient Jerusalem Market

This is where the ancient market in Jerusalem was (contrast with the modern one above) but the canopy is entirely artistic rather than an attempt at being authentic.

Jerusalem Water Tunnel

One of the few pictures I took inside the water tunnels underneath Jerusalem. At this moment the water level was relatively low (you can see the water marks on the woman in front of me to get a sense of how high it got), the ceiling is at about average height, and it's probably six inches or so wider than average.

Pools of Bethesda Garden

The garden at the pools of Bethesda.

Update: the third part is here.

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When I go on long trips I take a lot of pictures. Coming back from Israel I had many images that didn't quite make the first cut, either because they didn't fit the narrative flow of a post or needed a little cleanup or simply because I didn't have time. Now I have the time so I'm just going to dump a bunch of pictures here that I think are notable, interesting or show something I didn't before, without much in the way of comment. Enjoy.

Tel Aviv from the North

This is an evening shot looking back at Tel Aviv from our hotel to the North. As you can see, there's lots of parkland and beach.

Caesarea Harbor

The Caesarea harbor, which was a mainstay in Mediterranean trading during ancient times.

Church of the Beatitudes

The Church of the Beatitudes, on top of the eponymous mount.

Tel Dan Nature Reserve

A wider view of the nature reserve of Tel Dan. Lots and lots of trees.

Temple of Pan, Caesarea Philippi

A closer look at the wall where the icons of gods were kept in the Temple of Pan at Caesarea Philippi.

Sea of Galilee from Capernaum

Sunset on the Sea of Galilee as seen from Capernaum.

Road in Beit She'an

Pillars lining the central road of Beit She'an.

Masada Siege Ramp

The siege ramp at Masada.

Ein Gedi

Birds flying over the oasis of Ein Gedi.

Update: you can continue on to the second part here.

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We began our final day by going into Bethany. It was immediately apparent that this was Palestinian territory thanks to the numerous flags, posters, and signs. We didn't have to cross through a security checkpoint, but the change was stark.

Poster of Yasser Arafat in Bethany

Palestinian flags and a poster of Yasser Arafat in Bethany.

In Bethany we visited the Tomb of Lazarus, another church designed by Italian Architect Antonio Barluzzi, who I mentioned in an earlier post. Despite this it was relatively plain and unremarkable. As usual there was a service going on. They seem to happen at all hours any day of the week at these tourist spots.

We then visited the Israel Museum, which has the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Aleppo Codex on display. It was a great opportunity to be able to actually see these historic writings up close in person. So I'd recommend a stop at this museum if you get the chance.

Model of Jerusalem

This is a scale model of ancient Jerusalem in the middle of the Israel Museum. It really helped me to visualize the past version of this city.

We then moved onto Bethlehem, which is a bustling, busy city in Palestinian territory, and this time we did have to pass through a security checkpoint. It was embedded in a tall, seemingly never-ending shear concrete wall. Once inside Bethlehem we visited the Church of the Nativity. It's a really unique setting because next to the church is a 30 foot tall pine Christmas tree that stays up all year. That northern tree looks completely out of place in this dry, arid part of the world. And just past the tree there's a minaret that sounds out the call to prayer several times a day. It's a thought-provoking combination.

Bethlehem

A view of downtown Bethlehem: the Church of the Nativity on the left, the permanent Christmas tree center, and a minaret on the right.

The church itself is also made up of disparate elements, as control of it is shared between Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox, and Armenian Apostolics. The interior is even split into different areas so that each denomination can care for and decorate it as they see fit. If there were ever a building that was a chimera, this is it.

Outside of the church we visited a shepherd's field, which is a collection of rocks and caves preserved to show how people might have lived thousands of years ago. Each house was quite literally a hole in the ground. Furniture like chairs and tables were carved directly from the stone. This included beds and cradles for infants, and they didn't look comfortable.

We then went shopping at a store in Bethlehem devoted entirely to olive wood. The pieces were smooth and beautiful, full of knots and whorls in the wood, but quite expensive.

Upon returning to Jerusalem we finished the day by visiting the Garden Tomb, another suggested location for Golgotha, the "place of the skull." It's owned and operated by a British group. It was fun and a mild shock to hear English from other native speakers. The garden itself was full of meandering paths and flowers, a good place for contemplation.

Golgotha

Do you see a skull?

And so another journey came to an end. I'm grateful to my mom for inviting me and bringing me along. I'm not sure when I would've made it to Israel by myself, and now I have a lot of memories from there that I'll never forget.

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We woke up early to beat the crowds to the Temple Mount. Despite this we still stood in line to go through security. Several of our group were turned away because of inappropriate dress - the culprit was cargo shorts. It's surprising to me that they showed up like that because we were told repeatedly - including the night before - that Muslim dress codes were enforced on the Temple Mount.

Once through security and at the top the first thing I noticed was the armed guards. They're state police meant to keep the peace between religions in this highly contested area. We talked to one and he was quite friendly, laughing and joking with us.

We turned our attention to the Al Aqsa Mosque, commonly considered the third holiest site in Islam. It's a long rectangular building with a dome of steel gray on top. It's notable, but not the oldest or most well known building on the Temple Mount.

We walked a short distance and up some stairs, emerging onto a flat, open plaza, its center dominated by the iconic Dome of the Rock. It's an impressive, beautiful landmark. And it's considered one of the oldest examples of Islamic architecture. The intricate script, mosaic tiles, and morning sun reflecting off the golden dome mesmerized me for some time.

The Dome of the Rock

The Dome of the Rock. If you didn't know - and I didn't - the "Rock" in its name is a reference to the Foundation Stone inside.

We continued on to the Pools of Bethesda, which translates as "The House of Mercy," a place of healing. It combines old stone ruins, including a cistern, and a contemporary church that was holding a service as we walked through. They seemed used to the tourists.

Just outside of the Old City we had a short ride to Mt. Zion, which is probably where the first human settlement was in the Jerusalem area. It also turned out to be the home of my favorite church of the entire trip, for purely aesthetic reasons. The Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu is covered in bright paint and flowing text telling various biblical stories. In a unique twist for the area, the words were in French. This is because the church is owned by a French order called the Assumptionist Fathers. The stained glass was amazing, second to none, and when the sun shone through the prismatic patterns were almost neon.

The Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu Interior

A look at the altar inside the Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu. No picture I took did the swirling colors and light of this place justice.

Then we bused to a pedestrian area in the middle of the city. We walked through some twisting streets before crossing a legitimate - although unfilled - moat into a fortress. This was the Tower of David Citadel and Museum. It was probably my favorite museum of the trip (despite the out of place Chihuly ceiling sculpture in the entrance), as it had a lot of interesting exhibits, but also one of the coolest layouts for a museum I've ever encountered. Since it's set in what is essentially a castle, the exhibit halls and rooms are set in the stone walls. The only access to these disconnected rooms is through doors in the courtyard, which is exposed to the air. So it would be miserable on a rainy day, but given the local climate that wouldn't matter most of the time and it makes for a very unique and memorable museum experience.

The courtyard of the Tower of David

This is the courtyard inside the Tower of David. The exhibits are all inside doors throughout the perimeter. Finding some of the doors can feel like a discovery all on its own.

View from the Tower of David

The Tower of David had some steep stairs I climbed, which rewarded me with some rare views of Jerusalem from above the buildings.

We shopped in some of the pedestrian mall market stalls before continuing to the Mt. of Olives. The main feature on this hill just outside the city is the cemetery. It instantly reminded me of the memorial in Berlin. The influence is palpable.

Mt. of Olives Cemetery

The cemetery on the Mt. of Olives. You might be able to see stones on top of some of the graves, which is a more common Jewish tradition than laying flowers.

As the sun was setting we made it to the Garden of Gethsemane, which was home to some twisted trees and an old church, and didn't feel much like a garden at all.

Prayers inside a wall

In a wall near the Garden of Gethsemane I discovered the tradition of writing down prayers and putting them inside cracks in a wall. They were right next to garbage like popsicle sticks and used tissue.

In darkness we returned to the Tower of David for a light show. To get there we had to navigate a tightly packed crowd spread throughout several streets that was watching fire poi, live music, and some Renaissance-Fair-like performers. Jerusalem really felt alive while we worked our way through that maze of people. Finally at the citadel, we sat down to watch a projection of moving pictures and words on the walls, making for a pseudo-3D movie. When we left some of the crowds had dispersed, but the streets we walked through were buzzing with conversation and culture, rife with tangible energy.

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We started our first day in Jerusalem by going under the Western Wall into a series of tunnels still being excavated. This is another area where the layers of time are obvious: there's an entire city underneath the one on the surface. It contains a lot of history and significance, including the largest single cut stone in the entire world, a Roman cistern, and an arch considered to be the closest point to the Holy of Holies that's not on the Temple Mount. Something I had never realized before was why the Wailing Wall was where it was and why it was a place of mourning, but it became clear when I saw people praying and weeping at this arch in the middle of this dank, dark tunnel. Even though the Temple Mount is technically a part of Israel, it is still forbidden for non-Muslims to pray there, and this restriction is enforced by the state police. A few people can come to this arch instead, but it is too cramped for many, whereas the Wailing Wall and the square next to it can accommodate hundreds or thousands. Despite having heard so much about this place in the news and history, it was an epiphany for me.

Tunnel Under the Western Wall

One of the tunnels under the Western Wall. It's particularly hard to snap any good pictures underground in low light conditions.

We emerged from the tunnels onto the Via Dolorosa, a road along a series of stations marking important points in the Catholic Easter tradition. The road ends at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where the Catholic church believes the crucifixion took place, but this is obviously highly disputed even among Christians.

The church itself is unassuming from the outside, and could easily be missed if you didn't know what you were looking for. Inside, pilgrims wait in line to touch the ground in several places around the church where it is purposefully exposed through holes in the floor. The design alternates between being dark and austere to bright and ostentatious. There are plain walls without anything on them, and others inlaid with gold tile. There are three domed ceilings, one of which has a circular hole in its center and alcoves around it, sparking an intense feeling of deja vu in me from seeing the Pantheon in Rome.

Inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher

Inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

We went back to spend some time at the Wailing Wall. The square next to it is fenced off and split in half to create separate sections for men and women. I put on a yarmulke to cover my head and went to touch the wall. It was a moment I honestly never expected to have in my life.

The Wailing Wall

The Wailing Wall.

Moving a short distance away we entered the Jerusalem Archaeological Park. It's basically a set of ruins in the middle of the city. It's funny at how it didn't feel out of place, but there's nothing like it in any city in America. We walked through an ancient marketplace, and got some great views of a cemetery and residences on an adjacent hill.

Jerusalem Archaeological Park

A view near the old Temple Mount steps in the Jerusalem Archaeological Park.

Jerusalem Residences on a Hill

Residences on a hill across from us in Jerusalem.

Next was the City of David, a large-scale attempt at restoring some of the ruins to emulate old Jerusalem while educating people about it. We saw a short movie about a tunnel carved into the rock below us to bring water into the city in the event of a siege. And then we learned our next activity would be walking through it from end to end.

We were warned ahead of time that the tunnel would have ankle deep water, so I removed my shoes and socks. We were also told it would take about 30 to 40 minutes to walk through it. To get there we had to walk down winding metal staircases through a series of restoration projects in the middle of being worked on, loud saws and drills drowning out attempts at conversation.

Then we finally entered the tunnel proper. It was crazy. Imagine being barefoot on slick stone in a cramped, pitch black space barely wider than your shoulders and barely higher than your head. Had I been much bigger in any dimension - taller, fatter, or wider - I would have gotten stuck. I was shocked to realize there had been no warning or limitations on size before entering. And then I realized that because there was no one controlling the pacing of people entering the tunnel, if someone did get stuck, it would mean everyone in the tunnel would be trapped for a very long time. There was no turning around. No going back. Forward was the only option.

The tunnel was very uncomfortable. At several points it dipped and narrowed so much that I was walking bent over at an angle - hunchbacked and sideways - just to fit through. I had one hand above my head constantly scraping the ceiling just in front of me, feeling for bumps to avoid banging my head when the roof dipped unexpectedly, a lesson painfully learned early on. And the water was much higher than advertised: it was often above my knees and at its highest came up to my hips. When I could walk forward while standing straight up the tunnel was still so narrow that my pinky toes were consistently catching the edges and outcroppings of the stone on the sides. They were a bloody mess by the end. I tried not to think about the fact that others were probably bleeding in this same water.

After about 15 minutes without any light, I started hallucinating. Mostly I saw red dots or waves. Some of the others in the group near me also reported seeing red. I was thankful when we finally emerged into the white, scalding light over an hour later. The walk had taken longer than it should have due to several excruciating stops when we were not moving for 5-10 minutes at a time, the cause of which I never discovered. I was then surprised to learn that our group had been given flashlights. Because of the tunnel's twists and turns I had only caught rare, brief glimpses of artificial light ahead of me. It turns out that whoever handed out the lights just gave them to those at the front of the group, who then stayed clumped together at the front when entering. Of course there was no re-ordering once inside the tunnel - it would've been physically impossible for one person to get around another - but why someone didn't think to pass a flashlight back I'll never know. It was an idiotic situation.

The experience was something I'll never forget. The worst moments were at the beginning when I realized what I was getting myself into. But I never felt scared. All of my worries and fears were on an intellectual level, not a visceral gut one. For most of the time I just felt a sort of Zen calm. I never panicked, and I'm thankful for and proud of those in the group near me. We helped each other out by communicating about turns and sharp points. It was a definite bonding experience. And it proved to me once and for all that I am in no way claustrophobic. Not even a little. But if you are you should never go into this tunnel. It would be terrifying.

We finished the day by visiting and dining at the Ramat Rachel Kibbutz. It had a relaxed atmosphere and lots of open spaces, which was a welcome change.

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