Saturday, March 11, 2006

Israel: Akko

When you bring people together from different areas of your life, they don't always hit it off. My trip to Akko in March was a good example of this.

For this trip, I invited my good friends Geoff and Masha from Column A, and my good friend Micheline from Column B. Geoff and I worked in the same office, and Masha was his girlfriend at the time. Micheline worked in a different office in the embassy, and she and Geoff did not know each other (or at least not very well) before joining me on this trip.

As we drove the hour or so north, things were sociable enough in the car. The conversation, however, remained a little too polite for my liking.

We reached Akko at around noon and found the Old City after a few minutes of driving around the New City. Then I parked the G3, the Green Gas Guzzler, on a street by the ancient city walls near the Mediterranean Sea, and we continued on foot.

Akko has been around for ages, and it's been conquered and lived in by the Crusaders, Ottomans, and the rest of the power players. Currently, and for at least the last century, though, it has been an Arab town.

We started our sightseeing by checking out the ruins of a sea fortress which was close to the car.
Then we passed by the lighthouse and entered the winding streets of the Old City. On our way to the souq, we passed through the Khan al-Umdan with its clock tower.

The souq was full of good looking fruits and vegetables as well as nice seafood. The shrimp in particular made me wish that I had brought a cooler along.

In the seafood area, there were also a few sharks on display that were for sale, I guess. Each was about six feet long, and they were hanging on hooks. Up until that point, I had never really thought about sharks swimming in the Med.

Near the sharks, there was a boy with a python around his shoulders trying to attract a few tourist shekels.

At the end of the food market, the cobblestone street gave way to a paved one, and the food stalls were replaced by tacky tourist stores. The crap in these stores was of two varieties: There were souvenirs like seashell baskets, belly-dancing skirts, and olive wood camels, and there were general, generic gifts like soccer balls, remote-control cars, and baby strollers for dolls.

Among these lower-end stores, there were a few places that were more upmarket, selling things like jewelry and art.

Micheline was interested in some small sculptures, but the prices were dangerously bloated in Akko. Pieces by the same artist could be found for much cheaper in Jerusalem, and the same was true for most everything else in the store.

We left empty-handed.

Our location at the market put us near the Citadel, so before we moved away, we put the Citadel to a quick vote. Masha, Geoff, and I weren't really interested in touring it, and while Micheline thought it was worthwhile, she had toured it already on an earlier visit. So, she also voted against it.

We moved on to the Mosque of al-Jazzar, where we looked around for a few minutes.

Then it was time for some lunch.

As we walked back through the market, we passed a variety of options but settled on a small hummus joint. It was after 2:00 by the time we sat down, so we had missed the noon rush.

We ordered some pitas, a few plates of hummus, and some vegetables to share.

It was good, and the price was right.

After lunch, we poked around the Old City a bit longer. When we emerged at the marina, Geoff suggested that we take a cruise around the harbor. Masha and I were keen on the idea, but Micheline wasn't interested. Her trick knees were already a bit sore from the walking earlier in the day, and she just wanted to rest. She found a bench and insisted that we go ahead without her, and we did.

At the waterfront, we found a boatman without much effort and bought some tickets for a cruise. Then we waited for several minutes for him to finish rounding up a critical mass of passengers.

The cruise itself lasted about 20 minutes, and it was a pleasant diversion. It afforded us nice views of Akko and of Haifa to the south.

When we rejoined Micheline, she was carefully studying the dynamics of a group of teenagers as she sipped on a cup of coffee. We tore her away just moments before she gained the trust of the leader.

Then we worked our way back to the market. Geoff asked if we were interested in getting a nargila to smoke, but none of us were. Instead, I purchased an assortment of Mideastern sweets to try from the market's bakeries, and the others had hot drinks.

As we had our snacks, the market began shutting down. It was approaching 5:00.

We wrapped up our day and headed back to the car.

Along the way, we passed a little boy who was peeing in the street.

“Just like a little taxi driver,” I commented.

Everyone laughed about this, and then we spent the next several minutes sharing tales of private acts done in public that we had observed on the mean streets of Israel.

Soon enough we were on the road again, and it wasn't long after we reached the highway that our conversation petered out. Micheline, who was sitting in the front passenger seat, went to sleep, and Geoff and Masha, who were sitting in the back, talked to each other. I listened to a CD.

About halfway home, Masha started laughing and groaned out, “Geoff!”

And about two seconds later, I could smell why. The hummus was fighting back.

Without saying a word, I used the master control panel at my seat to lower Geoff's window long enough to aerate the car. Then I put it back up.

I didn't think much about Operation Fresh Air, but Masha really got a kick out of it. She would laugh about the incident for months to come.

We made it home without any further excitement, and everyone claimed to have had a good time. I don't doubt that they had enjoyed themselves, but I felt that, considering the slight bit of tension that seemed to be hanging over the group, the trip could definitely have been better. In any case, Akko itself ranked very highly with me. Even though we skipped the Citadel, the subterranean Crusader city, and many of the other main attractions, it was still one of my favorite places in Israel.

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