Monday, August 29, 2011
And the Berlin Wall came down
I love to travel. I should do it for living. I wish I could do it for a living. I love to travel, write, paint and surf.
Have you ever traveled by yourself? It’s a good way to learn about your self.
About twenty years ago, I was living on the island of Maui, the owner of my own business that had come about by some good karma on my part at the right time and the right place.
I was living in my own house, which I designed and built on a four plus acre lot of which I had designed and created as part of a thirty four acre - ten lot subdivision with friends and neighbors that liked me, and then surrounded me.
You would have thought I was the happiest person. Good health. A nice wife, two healthy nice kids on this slice of paradise. Business was good. Yes, for all the reasons standard among mankind, I was a successful person.
But! … There I said it!
But, some chapter of my life had gone missing. A chapter that I had in my memories but not in my active conscious. And it became an itch that needed to be scratched.
I told my wife one day that I wanted to take a trip, by myself, to the Holy land. We had gone there in 1975 and I had seen something’s I wanted to explore. It would be a two week trip. She said ‘okay’. I said ‘Cool’!
I booked a flight and stayed in the Avalon Hotel in Jerusalem, which was the same hotel I had stayed at in 1975. I checked in and walked to a restaurant just a block or two away. It was around 5PM Israeli time. It was the opposite time from Hawaii. I had slept on the flight but the fact as we know it, any flight over 6 hours turned you into a zombie.
As I entered the restaurant I saw a family I had seen on the plane from NY. They had been sitting together in the center isles, just opposite me. A father, mother, son and daughter. They had smiled at me on the plane and now as I entering the restaurant, I received the same smile and to my surprise a gesture to join them. They seemed as surprised and happy to see me as I was to see them. So, I joined them. Kamran and his wife, Neda. I don’t remember the kids’ names but they were polite and seemed so happy.
No, actually they were very happy and content. It was a very nice good family with lots of love. Much like my own I had left on the other side of the world to be here.
We sat and eat dinner while talking. They were from Canada. Their original home had been Iran which they had left to go to Canada after the overthrow or abdication of the Shah in seventies. I told them about myself. They were going to be doing a local tour of the sites of Jerusalem and then heading up to Haifa to stay for a ‘Baha’i Pilgrimage’ for ten days. I told them that I was also going to Haifa in two days and staying at the Dan Carmel Hotel. They both laughed and said: “Well!, See you there!” “What?”, I responded. “We are also staying at the Dan Carmel.” Now the chances of meetings, after the plane and staying in the same Hotel in Jerusalem, the Avalon, and then going to Haifa at the same time and staying at the same hotel was becoming to much of a coincidence.
They asked me what was my agenda for the next two days in Jerusalem. I told them I was going to retrace my steps of ten years previous by going on the path of Jesus through the stations of ‘Christ’ and then the next day going out to the Dead Sea and to Masada.
They said that they were on a package tour and were not sure exactly where they were going. They thought they were going to the Dead Sea the next morning.
We continued chatting as we walked back to the hotel where I immediately crashed.
The next morning, waking to the sound of a mosque calling Muslims to prayer, I bought a ‘walking guide’ for Jerusalem and after a continental breakfast included in the Avalon room fee, struck out on foot for the ‘Stations of Christ’. I had half expected to see the Canadians at breakfast but they were not there. After a lunch of hummus I went to the Wailing Wall and to the Church of the Ascension. I eat dinner not far from the Avalon and went to my room.
The following morning I rented a car and headed out to the Dead Sea and Masada. I was not going to make the same mistake twice and go swimming in the Dead Sea. The alkaline percentage is so high that even a drop of it in your eyes will be a horrible experience. The ‘Dead Sea Scrolls’ were discovered here along this area in some caves. Arriving at Masada after going through the pillars of Salt was just as breathtaking as I had remembered. It was just as amazing to walk through this fortified fortress I had remembered it before to be. The well system for drinking water, the gardens and the defense system from attack. The views of the Dead Sea and Jordan across the valley… They were all breathtaking.
By now I was recovering from my jet lag and when I returned to Jerusalem late in the afternoon I was feeling good and energetic. I was now ready to go to Haifa and explore those places I had traveled half way around the world to explore and understand.
I paid my bill at the front desk since I was going to be checking out early the next morning and catching my bus. Standing there at the desk I suddenly heard the two young kids of Kamran and Neda calling me and running up to me.
We eat dinner together at the same restaurant where I discovered that we would be on the same bus to Haifa in the morning. Of course!
The next morning on the bus greeting them again I sat separately to read about the area of Haifa and in particular about the city across the bay from Haifa called Acre or Akka depending on weather you were Arab or Jew. An ancient city with a history that went back to the eons. From Mount Carmel in Haifa you can look at this small port city across the bay. It’s white and light brown buildings sparkle above the blue Mediterranean Sea. That was the place I had come half way around the world to see.
We arrived in Haifa in mid day and checked in. I throw my bag on the bed and took a walk down the road where I was very anxious to see the view of Haifa and Acre across the bay. The Dan sits on the top of Carmel Mountain and I knew I could walk to that place were I remembered standing and looking down a terraced stair case descending to the foot of the mountain.
Approaching this same place now I was anxious about it, because I had held it in my memory only. Would it be the same? Standing there I followed with my eyes the straight path down this terraced stair case and the avenue at the bottom out across the Haifa Bay to that city of brilliant white and brown. I must have been intensely studding it as I did not hear the approach of a park guard. He suggested that I use the telescope to view what I was staring so hard at ten or twelve miles distant. I said thank you and walked over to the mounted telescope on it’s pedistal. I dropped a few shekels and now it was clear and up-close. As I was staring at it the guard, when I exhausted my shekels worth, came over and asked me what I found so interesting. I told him I had been here on a tour ten years earlier and had stood right here at this exact spot and seen that city across the bay. I have never forgotten it and if I told you it is the reason why I am now standing here now, you may laugh. But the truth is, that’s why I am here. I want to go there. I have just a few minutes ago arrived.
He didn’t smile or laugh but said to me, it’s very interesting that you should make that observation. This stair case and terraces was built to point directly at Acre. I was suddenly surprised. I looked up and now across the bay following the path and stairs in minute detail. Yes it did. If pointed directly like an arrow at it.
The guard said that actually the path and stair case pointed directly at Acre and a place that was also in line with this same straight path called al Bahja, just a couple of kilometers beyond Acre. If you look again through the telescope you will see a very verdant green cluster of trees just past the dry arid port city of Acre. He dropped two coins into the telescope and said, ‘Here look!’
Sure enough there it was, an oasis of green trees and some sort of a building in it’s midst, directly, as he had so in detail told me. Now I looked through the telescope and elevated it from the avenue below to straight out to Acre and then just there immediately above Acre, al Bahja.
The coins expired, my view went blank and I turned to him and said, “What is that place?” He looked at me and said, “You should go and see for yourself! I think it is important for you.”
“Why so mysterious? What is it called? Al Bahja?”
He smiled and said: “It is not that I am deliberately trying to be mysterious, but it is really something, as it is for anyone, to discover for their selves. I could tell you what I know of it, but until you see it for yourself, it will not have any real meaning. And isn’t it the reason why you are here? Because you needed to discover this for yourself?”
Now I was smiling. “How do I get there?”
He asked me, “Where are you staying?” I said at the Dan Carmel. He said to just check on the bus schedule with the front desk.
I stood there and again returned my gaze to the city across the bay and that spot of green just above it. I told the guard thank you and walked over to the railing and took in the whole panoramic view of Haifa. It had grown in ten years time. Haifa port seemed to me larger too.
I went back to the hotel and walked past it to a café. I eat and strolled around the top of Carmel looking at the various shops and stores. I felt a little sleepy and went back to the hotel. I booked a morning bus tour to al Bahja. They said I could catch a bus from there to Acre every 15 minutes and then back to Haifa also.
The next morning I eat and met the tour bus to al Bahja in front of the hotel. The two hour ride was interesting along the swing of the bay. Lots of aqua marine fishing farms, apartments and the bay to the inside with the ever blue Mediterranean beyond. As we approached Acre I could see the port entrance and made a note of it’s location so when I came back I could go there. It was beautiful with the back drop of the Mediterranean. We drove through gum and eucalyptus trees and then turned into a huge parking lot with olive trees set in rows with towering stately gum and eucalyptus. A beautiful building like a mansion set in the middle with tiled roof. Under the olive trees were manicured gardens surrounding the entire estate. It was absolutely beautiful. I had no idea. I felt like I was in the Vancouver Rose gardens, but this was much more expansive and far more beautiful. The space and veneer was serene to the eyes. A true paradise. I was indeed surprised. The Carmel Mountain guard had not let on at all what I would find.
As I walked along the paths as they circumambulated the gardens and the majestic mansion in the middle I came upon a lady sitting on a bench. She was crying and holding her head in her hands. I didn’t want to disturb her and quietly tried to go past her. She suddenly looked up. It was Neda! I was so surprised as she obviously was too. She asked me to have a seat. She said this was a very holy place for her and she, Kamran and the children had come here to this place. She asked me how I had come here. I told here. She looked at me and broke into a teary smile and asked me to do her a favor. She asked me to go into that room, as she pointed, and to please read these prayers for some of her family and dear friends. I was shocked and asked her why and what is this place?
She said, you will find out. I asked her, why can’t you do this? She said she is not ready to go into the shrine yet. I asked her, “Shrine?” She said, “Yes, but you will find out.” I looked at the book she was handing me. It was cloth covered and embroidered. It had maybe a dozen markers in it. I asked her, “You want me to go into that shrine and say these prayers for these people?” She said, “It would make me very happy if you would.”
I looked at the prayer book. I looked at the shrine. I looked back at her, “Your not going to tell me what this place is?” She smiled and that was all. I said, “Ok, This place is fascinating. I am curious about it. In that room, where do I go?” She said there is an inner garden. Find a place to sit and be comfortable.” “Ok!” I got up and walked along the path and then turned into the main path that went directly to this shrine. There were lots of shoes outside and I took mine off. I opened the giant door and as I stepped in. I saw people sitting and kneeling along this entrance corridor. I closed the door behind me. Some of them were reading from their pray books but all in silence. It was an atrium with a inner garden just as Neda had said. There was carpeted corridors around this oriental garden with roses and a small leafed tree. Tiny leaves. Almost lacy. A curtained section of an annex room and there, more roses in vases of exquisite décor and design. Birds of paradise, nightingales just beyond a thin vale which you could easily see through. I walked along slowly and found a place next to the garden and sat down with Neda’s prayer book. I looked around. Everyone seemed to be in various states of emotional continentment. Some happy, smiling through their tears others in deep reflective thought. I looked in detail at this garden with this tree rising up toward the top of this atrium with glassed in windows on the sides. A few of the windows open allowing the breath of winds to flow through. It was cool and comfortable. The air was very pleasantly perfumed with rose water. It was a delightful fragrance. Now I looked at this prayer book and turned it over in my hands. I opened it to the first indexed paper and saw a hand written note for six or so names. I read it. I moved to the next and like wise read it for each of the noted persons. Beautiful prayers. Very touching. To the next. This prayer had like twenty names. I sat reading their names line by line and suddenly a very curious thing happened. I tiny leaf from this oriental tree floated down and nestled into the fold of this prayer. I would never have picked it. It was a gift. I read this prayer and then moved on to the next and the next and the next. Finished, I looked around to see all the people which had been in the room, when I came in were now gone. There were just two others than I. I started to get up and faltered. My legs had gone to sleep and I had not noticed it. I stretched them out and waited for the pins and needles as the blood began to flow through them. Finally subsiding I got up and backed out of this room. I put my shoes on and looked in the direction of where Nada had been. She was still sitting in the exact location. I walked back out this path and then turned to where she was. As I approached she was beaming with a smile. I again sat down next to her and handed her, her prayer book. She was looking into my eyes the entire time. As I did she put her hand up as to say no. I looked with a question as to why. She said to me, “It would be a great honor for me if you would accept this as a gift. It can be for you a souveiner for your search and journey. I want you to accept it as a gift of our friendship, please!”
What was I to say? I looked at her and knowing that she was very serious about this, I said, “Thank you! But can you please tell me what is this place? It is the most beautiful place I have ever seen. How come I have never heard of this place?” She continued to smile and said to me, “It is a place of timelessness with no connection to anything or anyone. It is holy and sanctified. It is here and yet it is not. It is the essence of faith and love. The name al Bahja, means ‘light’.” I looked at her and just stared. Trying to absorb what she had just conveyed. It became etched in my memory and remains to.
Suddenly she said she must go and got up, saying “God bless you! Take care of yourself!” I stood and thanked her. She walked off toward the shrine now and I watched her remove her shoes and before she stepped in she looked up and waved at me. Then she stepped in and closed the door.
I sat there in the eucalyptus and olive trees. Gardens of flowers set in ‘some eight pointed stars, spread around. Finally I went back out the way I had come and walked to the bus stop. I got on the bus to Acre and there walked out to the port entrance which I had seen. As I was famished I found a restaurant and eat a hummus lunch while overlooking the sea, the bay, Haifa across the bay and Mount Carmel.
After lunch I walked around and found some incredible places. Camel barnes. Structures that were pre Christ. All of it was so beautiful. I came around the corner and saw again the port from the other side and looked across the bay to Haifa and Mount Carmel and could make out the rising stared path ascending to the top of Carmel. The calm sea laping on the shore. Boats rocking on the gentle swells.
I saw a storied building with a open restaurant and went up. Got a drink and walked over to the balcony. I had a clear view of Carmel and exactly opposite the gardens of al Bahja. I was right in the path.
I went back to Haifa and to my hotel. I eat dinner and retired early. Before I retired that night I opened Neda’s prayer book to that prayer of which the leaf had floated down and nestled into the crease. I closed it and went to sleep.
For the next week and a half after breakfast I would walk to the top of the stared path descending Carmel and follow it down and then out across the bay to Acre and that green spot just on the other side, called al Bahja. I explored Haifa with some tourist spots, Elijah’s Cave and its monastery. The Arab quarter and then I ventured back out to al Bahja. But the gates were closed and I could not find an entrance that was open. I went to Acre and explored more of the ancient tunnels, aquaduct system and other historical edifices. I loved the hummus and bread, with all he condiments. The view of the Mediterranean Sea was so peaceful and relaxing.
My days passed away in this way until I returned to Tel Aviv and flew back with a connecting flight to Maui.
I arrived back on a Saturday afternoon and then the next morning in the Maui News was a featured front page article: ‘To Russia with Love.’
Three Art teachers on Maui had just returned from Moscow and attended an Arts Symposium. The Russian hosts were so impressed that these three teachers had organized this trip to bring to Russia 12 art students that they were coming to Maui as an appreciation for this gesture of good will. The three teachers were suddenly overwhelmed and where turning to the public for assistance to help support this visit.
This article literally jumped off the page and into my heart. I called the journalist who had written the article and got the phone numbers for the three teachers. I called them and got the details. I contacted an organization that could help with this and this organization met with the three Maui teachers and made a decision to provide all the food and cooking for this visit. A local farm with facilities to host the Russians had volunteered to provide the hospitality. Our organization supplied all the food, cooks and servers. The two week event went off without a hitch and was very successful. Russians and Americans bonding.
The principle chaperon of the Russians, Mrs. Velakova on about the third day of this event came and sat down with me with coffee. We talked. She suddenly said to me that she wanted me to organize a tour of Americans to come to Russia. She wanted me to organize it. She would arrange all the Visas. I was suddenly envisioning some grand endeavor toward Peace. The Soviet Union had only opened its doors and declared Perestroika in 1985. This was 1988. And that after sixty years of rigid communism rule and isolation from the West.
We came up with a number of sixty-five youth. I got in touch with the Youth Ambassadors of America who had sponsored the three Maui teachers and under their umbrella we started planning this event. In the end we got five youth from each of the Hawaiian Islands and five from Australia, A couple from New Zealand and then twenty odd from the various states . A couple from Canada and one from Germany: Total: Sixty-two.
On November 26 1989 we arrived in Moscow and went to the Red Square. I was the tour director. We stayed in Moscow and then went to Kazan. It is realistic to say that each of these sixty-two youth met over twenty thousand Russian counterparts on this trip. Some of them are married to Russians now.
I met a wonderful friend on this trip. Shamil Fattakov who remains to this day a most cherished friend. He invited me back to Russia the next year. I did so and stayed with him for 2 months.
I met many wonderful friends in Russia who I truly love to this day.
My life, as I had known it, up to that point was nice and comfortable. But something missing was always nagging in my consciousness. And those things left un-checked will keep on calling until answered. It is not that I fell out of love with my wife as much as it was that I was not happy.
Ten years after this trip I went back to Russia. I have a very good friend who is now living on Oahu. Shortly after arriving here, my life long good friend, Peter Wade called me up and we had a good visit. He told me something that I had forgotten. This is what he said, “Do you remember when we lived in Kailua as boys. I was 10 and you were 9. Johnny was 10. We laid in the back yard of your house and looked for Sputnik in 1957. When we say it, you said, ‘I am going to Russia!’ Johnny and I laughed and laughed at you. ‘You can’t go to Russia! They are the enemy!’ We laughed at you. But you held your ground and said, ‘No! I am going to Russia!”
He read to me an article that was submitted to an Indiana newspaper about a person from Maui who had organized a tour of sixty-two youth. It had so influenced this youths being that he felt that it was the principle moment in his life to be happy. Peter’s Sister, living in Indiana had sent it to Peter, very surprised to know this Bob Palmer as mentioned in the article.
It is not that Natalia, my Russian friend and I are so close. We have evolved into being good friends. For me it is much more to realize how important it is, to be you.
Shamil, my best friend in Kazan said to me once: “If you want to know Russia you should come in the summer.”
I said: “No! If you want to know Russia you must come in winter. Just as it is with your self; if you want to know yourself you must come by yourself on all your adventures. And to know your self is like Russia in winter. Then you can enjoy summer.”
On that first night in Russia on the outskirts of Moscow with snow falling, having arrived that day, my room mate said a prayer for the success of our tour. I opened my suit case and pulled Neda’ prayer book out. I opened it to that prayer of which the leaf had floated down and nestled into the crease. I now read that prayer again and as I did, the leaf followed my words line by line moving down the page. I finished the prayer as the leaf floated to the ground and there is remains, having brought with it sixty-two youth from the West into the Heart of the East and one boys dream of love and unity for mankind.
On the 12 of December 1989 we departed Moscow back to the West. The Berlin Wall came tumbling down!