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Shuk HaCarmel fruits and veggies

When I was a kid, every Saturday morning my Dad would get up at the crack of dawn to go to market. Yup, he was was the official cook of the family. He would return about an hour later laden with all sorts of goodies: prawns still jumping around in the basket, mud crabs snapping their claws, and squid so fresh you could see their spots blinking on and off like Christmas lights (they truly do that!).

He would then rouse us kids from bed and start designating tasks — that’s how we all learned to cook. By the time eight o’clock came around, steaming dishes would be making their way from the kitchen to the dining table, one after another like a grand lauriat feast. Saturday breakfast was always a grand affair in our family, as was Sunday lunch, but that’s a whole other story.

My dad took me to market with him only once or twice, but it was a lesson I never forgot. We always got our food from the wet market; fresh, cheap, and from sources we knew (suki). Buying meat and vegetables from supermarkets was an alien concept that came much, much later in adulthood.

That lesson has served us well here…. There are plenty of supermarkets that can make shopping so much easier and more…er…. sanitary, I suppose. But buying from the wet market always costs less, and it pays to know the people who sell your food. It also helps, of course, if the market is a tourist attraction.

Shuk HaCarmel (literally: The Carmel Market) is one such market. R and I buy our groceries there at least once a month (I used to do it weekly, until I just didn’t have the time).

A few of our local friends are surprised when we say we do our groceries there. They say the place is dirty. Well, dirty is relative. Apparently they’ve never been to Central Market or Burgos Market.

Shuk HaCarmel garden nursery

This is my favorite garden store. Staying a few minutes here is like going to the bookstore…. It never ends well for my wallet. This is where we bought the herbs and vegetables in our garden. We still go back for soil, planter boxes, and the occasional splurging on plants. R always tries to distract me whenever we walk by this store.

Shuk HaCarmel Mushrooms

We call the owner of this store “the mushroom guy” because this is where we get our fresh mushrooms and some veggies. He always has 80s and 90s rock music playing and likes to sing while handing us our change.

Shuk HaCarmel Maganda and Gwapo stall

This stall’s owner always calls us “gwapo” and “maganda” (handsome and beautiful, respectively), words he learned from his Filipino friends. Vanity! He sells us great olives and olive oil from his own farm. He also has good smoked fish (smoked salmon, tinapa, and something that looks like smoked sardines) and honey.

Shuk HaCarmel Candy Store

If you have a sweet tooth, have no fear. The assortment of candies in this place will make your head swim. Oops! That’s my brother buying swiss chocolates for the wifey.

Shuk HaCarmel Candy Store

Gummy worms, anyone?

Shuk HaCarmel Cheese Store

And of course, one of our favorite stores, the cheese store! All sorts of cheese you’ve ever dreamed of, and more cheese that you never knew existed. I can honestly say that my cheese vocabulary has increased fourfold since I’ve been here.

Shuk HaCarmel Meat

This is our regular meat store, manned by Yossi. So many of the people we know in the market are named Yossi, so he is known as “Yossi buto-buto,” because every time he sees us he goes: “Buto-buto, buto-buto!” (Beef ribs) Again, more words picked up from Filipino friends.

Shuk HaCarmel spices

Doesn’t this make you want to just dip your hands and run the spices through your fingers? (Probably not a good idea unless you want to be chased out by an irate shopkeeper and banned from the market.)

Shuk HaCarmel Dead Sea Products

Of course, what respectable local market would be without Dead Sea products? Here you can get all sorts of muds, lotions, salts and whatnot at dirt cheap prices. Pun not intended.

Shuk HaCarmel clothes

If you’re not too particular about the brand of your clothes, you can also find everything here. Shirts, pants, socks, underwear, belly dancing outfits, shoes, etc.

Since the Babii is growing so fast and spending mindless amounts of money on clothes that she would wear only for a a maximum of three months just doesn’t make sense, this is where we buy her socks, tights, house clothes and pajamas (thank goodness for school uniforms!).

Shuk HaCarmel artist

If you stay a little later in the day, you can watch some street performers entertain the pedestrians.

Shuk HaCarmel artist

Sadly, I just don’t seem to have the time anymore.

R and I go to market early, around eight o’clock, to avoid the weekend rush. Come at ten and you’ll be jostling with tourists armed with heavy duty cameras and families rushing to finish their groceries in time for Shabbat dinner.

There are a host of other stores we frequent that I have not mentioned…. There is a pretty comprehensive Asian store, a long alley for chickens, another for fish. There are also various stores selling all sorts of cleaning and household products and (yes!) the ever elusive pork, bacon, ham and salami. When I say you can find everything here, I mean you can find everything here. (Light bulbs, anyone?)

For tourists who want to visit this market (and who wouldn’t?), here are a few tips:

1. Come on a weekday. The stores open a bit later (around 9 or 10 am), but you will avoid most of the serious shoppers. Those looking for the requisite keychains, shirts and Dead Sea lotions for souvenirs will find that prices here are significantly cheaper than prices at the mall or other tourist traps.

2. For those actually looking to buy food, prices are a bit cheaper in stores at the far end (near the bus terminal) and in the inner alleys. But it’s a long walk and not everyone has the stamina. I don’t, but we enter through the terminal and only go halfway up the market, so it’s easier on my limbs.

3. If you get hungry in the middle of all that shopping, there are quite a few restaurants (small and quaint, very touristy) in the market. There are also juice stands. Just keep your eyes peeled.

4. Always weigh the quality of the product against its price and don’t be cheap. Remember, you get what you pay for.

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Nope, it’s not as controversial as it sounds, although that is literally what happened– with a camera.

As we drove around Iloilo last January, I couldn’t help but notice that there were tons of beautiful old houses amidst the urban sprawl. I drew my camera a bit late, so I was only able to take a few shots.

Disclaimer: I don’t know the owners of these houses. If one of them happens to be you and having a picture of your house here offends you in some way, please contact me and I will gladly take down the photo.

To begin, let’s start with this very interesting house which has been turned into a boarding house (presumably for young people studying in nearby schools).

Eros Boarding House

The house itself is probably only a few decades old, although its design imitates a much older era. Painted white and red, the sign at the gate identifies it as the “Eros boarding house.” Yes. I’m not kidding.

Iloilo House

This second house typifies the old bahay na bato (stone house) of Spanish colonial origins. The bottom floor, which would have normally been used to house the family business and its storage rooms, is now being used by a local bank.

Iloilo House

This house appears abandoned, which is really a shame. I can picture it in all its glory, freshly painted, lit up and bustling with the sound of laughter and music during its heyday. (Cue ladies in 1950’s hair and vintage cars)

Iloilo House

One of the things I absolutely love about old Philippine houses are their windows— wide to let in the abundance of sunshine and allow the winds to circulate throughout the house to stave off the humid heat of the tropical islands.

 Iloilo House

There is really something about houses from this bygone era that make them so stately and elegant. There was a whole range of logistical, environmental, social and supernatural considerations that went into the building of each of these houses, which I hope to discuss at length one of these days. But for now, these houses are a reminder of an era of old world glamor, when Iloilo was the Queen City of the South, the hub of international trade after Manila and the capital of the sugar industry.

I find current architectural designs absurd, if not a little pretentious, when the instigators (really, instigators!) attempt to mimic houses in the Western hemisphere where there are winters, springs and autumns, leading their “modern” houses to require massive amounts of air conditioning and lighting.

I hope that people who own such ancestral houses know the cultural treasure in their hands and cherish it. I’ve seen a few such cultural/historical treasures demolished to make way for ugly commercial buildings, simply because the owners could no longer maintain it.

If I was filthy rich, I would definitely use the money to preserve such local historical treasures. Unfortunately I am not, so I have to be contented with drooling over these houses and engaging in armchair analysis.

One thing I can do, however, is to apply the lessons of the past to my own future. When the time comes to build my own house (and that time will definitely come), it will hew closely to the principles of the bahay na bato.

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The past few months have just whizzed by, leaving us (our little team of three) breathless, and before we know it, Holy Week is here.

If there is one thing that I tell my friends who plan to visit, it is: DO NOT COME DURING HOLY WEEK. Only the most determined tourists (or penitents) have the strength to fight through the crowds, the barricades, and the stifling heat of multiple Christian denominations simultaneously celebrating this major religious holiday.

I, obviously, do not possess the right constitution for such an activity.

I only discovered this, much to my regret, a few years ago when I was still new to the place and friend Kitty came for a visit during the Holy Week holidays. Kitty being religious and I being a good friend, I promised to show her around the holy sites.

We arrived in Jerusalem bright and early on Holy Thursday. There were more crowds and police than usual, but we did not pay much attention. When we got to the courtyard of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, however, we noticed that one Christian sect (that shall remain unnamed) was setting up in the courtyard for some kind of ceremony.

“Washing of the feet,” Kitty told me. The first new thing I learned that day. There was more to come.

Since it was still early, we thought we had some time and I proceeded to show her around the Basilica. (At the risk of being redundant, let me just say that the Basilica is split into several “areas” for the various Christian sects using the Church. It is the subject of much conflict and controversy and I am not even going there.)

Washing of the Feet Catholic Mass

On the Roman Catholic side, the ceremony for the washing of the feet was well underway. We paid our respects and moved on. When we were done, we moved to the exit only to be greeted by this:

Our futile attempt to escape

Gah!!!!!

The other tourist, however, started inching their way along the edge of the crowd (which was literally the edge of the wall— the place was jam packed), so we followed. Along the way, we received reproving looks, reprimands in strange tongues and fingers wagged in our faces. Obviously the constituents were not very happy to have us amongst them. Or to have us attempting to escape. Either way they were not happy. (And neither were we! FYI.)

Then the tourists ahead of us started trickling back– the exit was blocked, they said. Police barricades.

We looked for other exits, and at one point ended up in the Ethiopian chapel, at another point in an empty cavern with some broken stones. We attempted a few times to break through the crowd again, but were physically stopped by certain people.

Somehow, my brain could not wrap itself around the idea that there was NO WAY OUT.

(What if there was a stampede?!?!)

Then Kitty decided that if we were going to be stranded there, we might as well go back to the Roman Catholic ceremony, as there was no point in providing additional warm bodies to a group that was holding us against our will. (Really, I mean it. It’s been two years and I still haven’t gotten over it.)

So we all trooped back inside. In stark contrast, the people inside welcomed us and made room for us to sit on the stone floor.

Have I ever mentioned before that I am not even Catholic? Yeah, well…. Kitty listened to the Mass and I played with the camera.

Waiting at Christ's Tomb

We sat behind the edifice known as Christ’s tomb (it’s in danger of falling apart, hence the steel braces), beside some Ethiopian nuns. Two hours later, the outer ceremony concluded and we were free to go.

Was that the end of it? I wish I could say that it was. For the rest of our itinerary, we encountered other closed roads (closed for security, closed for a procession, etc.). At one point, we had to walk from one side of the Old City to the opposite side (as Bugs Bunny would say, “That is a looooooong walk!”) as the roads were closed.

It was a good thing that I was in good company, and Kitty and I joked that at least we did some form of penitence for Holy Week.

We did get to finish our itinerary, although not as quickly as we had hoped. That day we gained some new insight on human nature, and how religion can really screw things up for some people. View from the window at Dominus Flevit

What do you think?

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It’s easy to take Iloilo for granted. It’s so near and so easy to go to; just hop on the ferry and in an hour you would be there.

Throughout my life, I’ve criss-crossed that narrow channel between our islands: for exams, field trips, shopping, swimming competitions (not mine, my sister’s).

This time, however, it was special. We went there to visit old friends and to teach the Babii about our history.

Iloilo used to be the Queen City of the South. It was the original Sugarlandia, established as a center of industry long before Negros or Cebu. Then fortunes changed, as they usually do, and the bulk of sugar production moved to Negros in the 20th century.

We left Bacolod early on a Thursday morning via the Supercat ferry. At this point, I must say that the sea and I have never been really good friends, especially after that Corregidor incident where one stormy morning, I gave up my breakfast to a barf bag.

So, a tip from an islander: the sea is calmer in the morning and makes for easier traveling. By afternoon it gets choppy, especially in December. Then God help us all.

We arrived in Iloilo safe and sound. Our friends were still at work, so we first checked in at a hotel in Smallville, an area full restaurants and other places to hang out at night.

Then we visited some churches:

Jaro Cathedral

The Jaro Cathedral, also known as the Cathedral of the Nuestra Senora de la Candelaria (Our Lady of the Candles)

It took a few shots before I realized that the ground was naturally sloping, and by then the noonday sun was beating down so hard we had to rush to the shade.

Jaro Cathedral InteriorThe interior

The last time I was here was twenty years ago (wow, I just realized that). I was happy to see that the interior had been renovated. The blue and yellow worked well, but did they really have to add green on the pillars?

Nuestra Senora de la CandelariaNuestra Senora de la Candelaria

Legend has it that the Lady grew a little bit each year. To tell the truth, she does look bigger than when I saw her last.

Then we went to the Molo Cathedral:

Molo Cathedral

Again, either the ground is sloping or my eyes are.

 Molo Cathedral

The Babii was intrigued by the headstones embedded on the floor. It was a colonial practice for the rich and powerful to be buried in the church itself, on the very ground people walked on. Having been to other churches like this, I figured there must be a catacomb somewhere, but was not in the mood for such a macabre excursion.

Molo Cathedral Baptismal FontThe baptismal font reminded me too much of the Spanish Inquisition (hint: it’s the chandelier!).

We also went to the Museo Iloilo, but the collection seemed much, much smaller than when I was there last. (Well, that WAS twenty years ago.)

Museo Iloilo

We contented ourselves with snapping photos outside, as taking photos was not allowed inside. I also did a little drive by shooting of some old houses, which I just love, but I’m still trying to sort out that group of photos.

Later in the evening we met our friends and went on another food trip (more on that later). Then we went back to Bacolod the next day.

We left quite late in the day, however, 3 p.m. to be exact. It was just after December, it started raining, and it was the ferry ride from HELL.

My scrumptious seafood lunch threatened to make an untimely reappearance, and while I tried to keep it down, I simultaneously ran emergency scenarios in my head on how we would chuck our luggage and slip on our life vests (the Babii first!) all at warp speed. (Living in this part of the world does that to you.)

All the while, I was thinking, OMG OMG OMG I don’t want to drown/be shipwrecked/eaten by sharks or giant squid/drift out to sea to die a horrible, salty, dehydrated death.

And yes, I can swim.

I was never so happy to step on dry land.

There go my dreams of a Mediterranean cruise.

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R and I are proud Negrenses. We were born and raised here, our home away from home has that distinct Negrense flavor, and we continue to talk, think and behave the way we were taught by our Negrense parents.

(A Fil-Am friend who visited us earlier this year expected to learn more Filipino during his two-week stay at our house. He went back to the United States speaking Hiligaynon.)

Despite the time we spend away from Negros, we always make an effort to educate the Babii about her roots. And yesterday, we took her to the Negros Museum.

 Negros Museum facadeFacade of the Negros Museum

The Negros Museum used to be housed at the Provincial Capitol a few blocks away. The Provincial Capitol used to be the seat of the Governor, but over the years, some Governors stopped using the place and it was given over to the Museum. Some years back, however, Governor Joseph Maranon revived the Provincial Capitol as the office of the Governor (rightfully so, I think). The Negros Museum was moved to a smaller building behind the Capitol, formerly occupied by the Provincial Library if memory serves me right.

Negros Museum floor

I have a weakness for old tiled floors, and the Museum’s is no exception. I dream of  my future house having tiled floors like this (I cringe when I see houses and buildings tiled with bathroom-like tiles). The walls in the Museum display a good number of paintings and murals depicting pre-modern and modern life in Negros.

Talibong

At the entrance, one is greeted by a huge talibong. R says the length indicates it was wielded by a tall man.

I was looking forward to showing the Babii the gallery of international toys which made a big impression on me ten years ago, but sadly the gallery was closed. We moved on to the second floor.

Negros Museum stairwayStairway of the Negros Museum

The Museum, fittingly, has a grand stairway. The Babii, however, asked: “What is that thing at the top?” (Uhm, I don’t know, maybe it’s some revolutionary theme?)

At one wing on the second floor is a display depicting life in the sugar industry, the backbone of Negros.

Hacienda House

Above is a typical model of a hacienda house. Note the 360 degree view on the veranda and the little watchtower at the top for, uhm, certain activities.

Hacienda ViewA mural on hacienda life.

Further in, gadgets related to the production of sugar are displayed in various cabinets and tables.

Sugar Gadgets

On the left is a “quedan machine” according to R. Quedans are those little slips of paper confirming how much sugar a haciendero has in a particular sugar mill. This machine is supposed to type out those quedan amounts. On the right are laboratory equipment used for testing the concentration of sugar in the sugarcane brought into the mill.

Negros Museum food vendorA vendor selling local delicacies. But who eats at a food stall wearing a barong (formal wear)? (Ok, maybe the guy just came from High Mass.)

Negros folk songs

Local folk songs printed on canvas hang from the ceilings. A nice touch. I was quite surprised though when R started singing them.

Negrs Museum closed section

There was another display involving a huge boat and religious figurines, but the gallery was also temporarily closed.

On the right end of the second floor is another display on Negros life and the Negros Republic.

Negros Museum Wedding Dress

I took a lot of pictures, but posting them all here would just be picture overload. Above is an old wedding gown, probably donated by some kind soul. I forgot to take a closer picture of the details, but it was clear that each flower was painstakingly sewn and attached with a lot of care. One of my grandmas used to make dresses this way, but they don’t make dresses like this anymore (unless you want to pay an arm, a leg, and your first born child to a designer label, that is).

The Negros RepublicA brief history of the Negros Republic

Very few Filipinos know that when the Tagalogs launched the Revolution in Luzon, Negros launched its own revolution and won against the Spaniards. The Republic, however, was short-lived as the Americans arrived and the rest, as they say, is history.

Some observations and unsolicited (amateur) advice:

1. The Museum has a lot of potential, but space limitations are very noticeable. The Provincial Capitol was a lot bigger, and displays that are evenly spaced from each other give a significantly different impression compared to ones that are placed right next to each other. Sensory overload, and sadly some stories may fall into the cracks.

2. Aside from the stray foreigner who arrived just as we were leaving, there were no other visitors in the Museum. Unfortunately, this just confirms my observation that not too many Filipinos visit their own museums (aside from the mandatory school trip). If we don’t make an effort to know where we come from, how can we go anywhere?

3. I suppose that funding, as in most historical institutions, is an issue. I am sure that museum officials are exerting their best efforts, but sometimes the best of plans can’t move without funding.

4. I hope that the Museum can soon migrate its website to http://www.negrosmuseum.com from negrosmuseum.blogspot.com. Having recently migrated our company files, I know that it takes some time and effort, but it can be done for a minimum fee or even free (if you’re a geek).   The hardest part is generating the content, and I would recommend including  a history of Negros, its geography, and short introductions to each gallery/section of the museum. Who knows, it may just garner more attention from potential funders.

5. Christmas season is the time when Negrenses come home for the holidays, often with some non-Negrenses/non-Filipinos in tow. This is the best time to showcase the Museum, but having certain sections closed is disappointing for visitors.

6. There was a scooter parked in the Museum. Right beside the Governors’ Gallery. Paging the parking police….

Scooter in the Negros Museum

The Negros Museum is on Gatuslao St. behind the Provincial Capitol. Entrance fee is P50 (US$1.14) for adults and P20 (US$0.46) for students.

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Or, we can call this: How to Survive the Bethlehem Midnight Mass.

Attending Midnight Mass, on Christmas Eve, at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is a once in a lifetime event. Truly. What self-respecting Christian wouldn’t welcome the opportunity to experience Christmas at the exact spot where Christ was born?

(Warning: no religious/historical/factual debates here, ok? St. Jerome disapproves.)

St. Catherine'sSt. Jerome (R)

Anyway, allow me to give you some survival tips  insights based on the things I’ve learned during my own Midnight Mass experience.

First of all, how does one go about attending the mass? I suppose one must get themselves to Bethlehem one way or another, which isn’t always easy for many reasons. But before that, some preparations:

Church of the Nativity St. Catherine'sChurch of St. Catherine, Bethlehem

Step 1: Get tickets

The mass on Christmas Eve is a Roman Catholic mass. To gain entrance to the Midnight Mass, one has to apply for tickets at the Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem. As far as I know the tickets are free, but the Latin Patriarchate only gives a limited number of tickets to certain people.  And tickets usually run out months before Christmas. We were fortunate enough that  a good friend of ours managed to score some tickets for the mass (Thank you, Aling Jo! Pinoy Power!).

Step 2: Book a hotel in Bethlehem

This part is not a necessity, but can be quite practical because the Midnight Mass takes place around, well, midnight and finishes in the wee hours of the morning. If you have digs in Jerusalem or prefer to make the long drive back to Tel Aviv or wherever you are staying, you are of course very welcome.

Since my group and I brought all our children and the kitchen sink as well, we decided to stay the night.

The best place to stay would be at the Casa Nova, run by the Franciscan Fathers. The hotel is located right beside the Church of the Nativity and can save you from the long qeue and all the hassle of going through security (more on that later).

Don’t expect five star digs, since the religious prefer to live on the simple side, but it’s a nice, clean place to stay, with decent food. I have dealt with their staff a few times and they are always pleasant and accommodating.

Casa Nova Pilgrims House

So now that I’ve sold the place, what’s the catch? You have to book around a year in advance because about a million other people agree with me.

There are a few other hotels in the area, such as Intercontinental (and Four Seasons, I think). There are also new hotels popping up left and right, which is always a good thing.

For our group, we managed to book ourselves at the Carmelite compound. They have a nice guest house with an underground dining room, and good food too.

Carmelite Compound

All in all a good place to stay if you’re on a budget, but the catch with staying in religious places is that there are certain restrictions you won’t find in a normal hotel. Such as a curfew. Although in our case, since it was Christmas, the people running the guest house told us to just call them when we returned so they could open the gate.

Breakfast and dinner are also limited to certain hours. If you miss it, you’ll have to find food elsewhere. But for $30 a night with free breakfast (this was in 2009), this was already pretty ok.

Step 3: Tuck the children in bed and leave them there!

Did I mention there were children?

So our group had an early dinner and trooped through the narrow streets (on foot) to enjoy the sights and sounds on Manger Square before the mass. Yes, we brought the children, the youngest of whom was four at that time.

At this time Manger Square is ablaze with festivity. There are shows, food booths, loud music, and all sorts of things you would find in a giant fiesta, including the sea of humanity.

But what we thought would be an easy entrance to the Church of the Nativity (ala rock concert only– although to be honest I must have been thinking it would be as prim and proper as a ballet recital) turned out to be chaos. Understatement of the year.

Security is very, very tight because of local VIPs attending the mass. They ALWAYS attend the mass. Police units lined the streets and snipers were posted on the roofs.

There was a HUGE crowd waiting to enter, and it got to a point where there was a lot of shoving, shouting, jumping the qeue, more shoving…. It seems that the Christian values got shoved out to the side of the road as well. It was utter bedlam, and no I don’t have pictures to prove it because I was busy making sure my daughter didn’t get smothered.

At a certain point, a policeman in full SWAT gear started pushing his way through the crowd to let someone jump the line. At that point I was yelling hysterical because he was pushing against the Babii. Then a light bulb went on and I thought, WTF, I don’t have to do this. But we were in the middle of everything and the only way out was to move forward.

We did make it into the church compound. Eventually. Forty-eight years later. By that time the Babii was tired and sleepy and so were the other kids. The mass had started and we couldn’t care less. To recover from the trauma, we all went to the Casa Nova restaurant instead to get some coffee.

Step 4: Find a place to sit

We did eventually make it into the church (just so we could say that we were there), but the sea of humanity had  also moved inside, and there were bodies half-lying, half-sitting on the ground that you have to walk over to go…. anywhere. All the people looked tired. Some were sleeping. It was clear that many of them came from the far corners of the world.

And I wondered what it all meant for them, this shoving, yelling path they took so they could sleep through a ceremony in five languages.

In the end, we made our way back to the courtyard. Midnight found us under the ancient tolling bells, hugging each other against the cold and wishing everyone, friends and strangers, a merry Christmas. We were together, safe and sound, which is all I really want for Christmas.

P.S. Will I do it again? No. Once in a lifetime is enough.

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Church of the Nativity Facade

No visit to Bethlehem would be complete without stopping by the truly awesome Church of the Nativity.

This Basilica is one of the two oldest standing original structures dating back to the 4th century AD (or the 6th, depending on how you look at it), the other one being the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Both were built by Queen Helena, mother of the famous Emperor Constantine.

When she converted to Christianity, she organized an archaeological expedition to the Holy Land, paving the way for the Christian world to identify the sites where Christ preached and performed miracles.

Now, I’m sure you’re saying: “Wait a minute, how did they KNOW that those were the right places?”

Forensic anthropology having been delayed by a few thousand years, Queen Helena’s team employed good old fashioned investigation, research, and actual digging. It helped that a lot of urban legend had sprung around the sites, which had by now been turned into shrines by the earliest followers of Christianity. It also helped that there were prolific writers who documented all the tales and landmarks, making it easier for the archaeological team to trace the sites one by one.

Church of the Nativity Doorway

Like most old churches in the Holy Land, the Church of the Nativity has seen more than its fair share of bloodshed. At the top of the picture, you can see the lower part of the original doorway. This presented many problems in the past, however, as it allowed invaders to come charging in on their horses.

The second doorway is the arch that has since been closed. Now, people have to bow down to enter the tiny church door. According to my priest friends, this is to remind people that they must humble themselves before coming into the presence of Christ. (As well as to keep out all those Saracens and war horses too, I’m sure.)

The interior is grand, in the historical sense. It is huge, wide, and the columns and pavement made of the pinkish Jerusalem stone that the region is famous for. But centuries of damage wrought by war, fire, water and general deterioration can also be seen on the walls.

So you ask, “Why not have it restored properly?”

There is an entire political circus around who owns what and who can do what in many of the old churches that I am not even going there.

Church of the Nativity Mosaic Floor

In certain parts, one can still see the original Byzantine mosaic floor. Aaaaahhhh, I still get goosebumps whenever I see such things….. Sigh, I really should have been an archaeologist.

Church of the Nativity Paintings

There is still quite an impressive collection of Byzantine paintings and artifacts hanging on the walls. Note, however, that a significant portion of the walls is (relatively) newly plastered. Apparently, a few hundred years ago there was a scuffle between certain Christian religions (who shall remain nameless) over control of one of the most important Christian sites, leading to the burning of frescoes installed as far back as the Crusader periods. (Aha! Destruction of evidence!)

Church of the Nativity Mother of Perpetual Help

One of the most dazzling portraits in the church is this silver and gold image of the Mother of Perpetual Help. There are a few more similar portraits hanging on the walls right above the steps leading to the cave where the Altar of the Nativity is located.

If you are lucky to survive the crush of human beings lining up from the tiny doorway up to the cave, prepare yourself for some more jostling and pushing as everyone struggles to enter the cave first. Sometimes a serious Greek Orthodox priest reprimands the unruly pilgrims, sending them back to a semblance of a line, only to fall apart again at the next instance. Good luck with that.

On one side of the cave is the altar, believed to be the spot where Christ was born. (Someone told me before that it was where the placenta dropped. TMI!!!!) On the other side is a small alcove where the child Jesus was supposed to have been placed in the manager and visited by the three wise men.

Because of the huge crowd and the claustrophobia (largely on my part), I was not able to take a halfway decent picture of the cave where Christ was born. Just a blur of gold and candles as the wave of humanity descended upon us.

Church of the Nativity St. Catherines

Moving from the Basilica, one can walk to the adjoining Church of St. Catherine. The Church itself is fairly new, but if you are lucky, you can get to go down a set of steps on the right which lead to a network of caves. (The caves are sometimes closed.)

The nearest cave holds a shrine for the children murdered by Herod on Innocents’ Day, while further in one finds the tomb of St. Jerome, who translated the Bible from Hebrew to Latin. Even further in is a small chamber where tour groups often hold masses. Be careful you don’t wander off and get locked in with them. The masses could last a while.

Things to remember:

1. Decent toilets, but maintenance usually can’t keep up with the hordes of tourists during Christmas season, so come prepared with you own wipes and anti-bacterial juju.

2. Like in any touristy place, watch out for sticky fingers trying to pick through your bags. In the Holy Land there are holy thieves, says one tour guide.

3. Souvenir shops line the streets around the Basilica. The ones behind the Basilica, on Milk Grotto St. give better prices due to their slightly more obscure location. Nevertheless, haggle, haggle, haggle.

4. Despite what you see on the news, the people here are quite nice. Tourism is their livelihood and they value it.

5. If you are a history buff, or even a seriously religious person, and you want to visit and drink in the aura and nuances of the place, Christmas is NOT the time to come. If you can’t avoid it, come to the church very early. Or better still, schedule your trip for a different season. Summer leaves most of the holy sites deserted, but visiting at this time can also fry your brain in the heat. Trust me, I tried.

6. The Church is located across from Manger Square, where you can buy local food and drinks. If you have trouble with Middle Eastern spices, though, bring your own food.

7. Entrance is free, but there are donation boxes in strategic locations. It costs money to maintain and preserve historical sites, and a few coins can go a long way.

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