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Thursday, July 21, 2011


James Michener’s first book, Tales of the South Pacific, written in 1947 and based loosely on his own WWII experiences, earned a Pulitzer Prize and initiated a prolific writing career that left us a treasure trove of historical fiction.

Tales of the South Pacific is a series of loosely linked short stories, often featuring and developing the same characters as they evolve and react to their naval experiences on remote South Pacific islands. 

Is this a war story?  Yes.
Is this a story of human relationships? Yes.
Is this a story examining prejudices in society—between races, countries, and classes? Yes.
Is this a story that reveals how courage is shown and how heroes are made? Yes.
Is this a story that explores a world that existed more than half a century ago? Yes.
Is this more than any of these? Yes.

That’s why Tales of the South Pacific is such good reading.  It’s true that Rogers and Hammerstein’s Broadway show, South Pacific, has its origins in Michener’s tales, but if that show is what you’re looking for, you will be sorely disappointed.  This book is much bigger and broader in scope.  Much as I love South Pacific, this is one more example of how much finer is the book.

Picture yourself in the military in WWII, a time when most people did not travel far from home and when there was no television to make the inaccessible accessible.  You are stationed on Norfolk Island and meeting the descendants of the HMS Bounty mutineers.  That mutiny actually occurred in 1789.  Marlon Brando’s movie will not be made until 1962.

Picture being stationed for years on a tiny coral sliver where sailors are so bored they become suicidal.  Picture refusing love and happiness because of the race of your love’s children.  Picture giving up everything you know for love.  Picture storming a beach to conquer an island.  Picture startling and ancient religious ceremonies.  Picture a military cemetery on a small, remote island in the middle of the South Pacific.  Picture more.

Michener is able to make characters and settings become visual images for his reader who sees, in his mind’s eye, the glorious beauty of this infamous theater of war.  Get to know the characters, the way they look, and more importantly, the way they think and develop throughout the book.

Michener presents a cross-section of humanity—from the rich to the poor, from the sophisticated to the simple, from the wise to the ignorant, and from the good to the bad.

Can you tell that I am a long-lived Michener fan?

Here’s another plus.  This Michener novel is not one of his long ones; it runs about 300 pages which is just perfect as a travel companion.  Tales of the South Pacific is a book well worth reading for enjoyment but which will deepen your understanding as well.  What can be better?

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Saturday, July 16, 2011


Leaving as few sights unseen as possible, even the last travel day of our Margaret Morse Tour is filled with wonder.  It is time to return for our evening flights home from Tel Aviv.  But just in case we still feel the urge for remembrances, we leave the beautiful Hilton Eilat Queen of Sheba Hotel and head for the Eilat Stone Factory where we see the stonecutter working with Israel’s national stone, malachite, often referred to as a cousin of turquoise.  It’s beautiful.

Hilton Queen of Sheba
view from our room--but we were in Petra, Jordan on the full day here and did not enjoy these amenities

Watching the stonecutter transform the rough stone into a polished gem is fascinating.  Maybe mesmerizing is a better word as I do not leave the Stone Factory without a beautiful pair of earrings. 

Eilat stone

As our bus roars through the desert to our next stop, we see what Israel has done to make the desert bloom.  In the 1990s, embankments were created near wadis, which are gullies, streambeds or valleys that are dry except in the rainy season, and trees were planted.  Now those trees are beginning to come together to form forests in the desert.  It is truly an amazing sight to behold when contrasted with the usual tan barrenness of the Negev Desert.  On a sad note, today I wonder if the rich greenness was destroyed in Israel's devastating forest fires.

desert bloom

desert bloom

We stop for lunch at a palm oasis as we head toward Beer Sheva, Israel’s third largest city, the place where Abraham settled in 2,000 BCE and which King David made a part of Israel.  It is too bad we did not have an opportunity to visit this ancient city where there is a weekly Bedouin market, and one can still buy camels and sheep.  Indeed, 27,000 Bedouins still call the Negev their home.  This would be a must-see on a return trip.

camel crossing

Then we follow the road south through the central Negev through Mitzpe Ramon, often referred to as a crater but which is actually the world’s largest "machtesh," a valley surrounded by steep walls and drained by a single wadi or riverbed. 

Negev Mitzpe Ramon

Mitzpe Ramon

Picture this:  Mitzpe Ramon started forming when the oceans that once covered the Negev began to recede leaving rocks estimated to be 220 MILLION YEARS OLD.  Obviously it is an archeologist’s dream for it is filled with fossils and other ancient remains of civilizations that once inhabited this area.  Indeed, the word "ramon" refers to the Romans. Look at this vast wilderness. 

But remember this is the 21st century, and modern man has modern ideas.  Rappelling from these steep walls is a sport these days. 

Mitzpe Ramon

Visiting athletes require accommodations, and there is plenty of construction going on along the rim.  

mitzpe ramon  building

Remember the Nabateans of Petra who knew how to deal with this environment because they understood how to conserve water?  ( Our next stop is Avdat National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, named after a Nabatean king.  It was the Nabateans, builders of Petra, who created a city here in the midst of a desert. 


Along the way, however, we get to see some wild mountain gazelles, Israel’s national animal.  Cute.  They were just walking in, taking in the tourist sights—us.



As we approach the National Park, we see one of Avdat’s remaining structures atop a hill.  Buildings like these were probably used as lookouts for caravans along this important trading route.  Alongside the structure is a long, dark, metal sculpture of an approaching caravan.  From far away it  looks almost real.  It’s impressive, and it piques my interest and imagination.


Today, in addition to the historical data, there is an experimental farm to study the way ancient peoples developed agriculture in the desert.  If ancient man knew how to tame this vast barren land, then Israel might have something to learn in order to house her growing population.

The Nabateans were conquered by the Romans who did not develop further, but later the Byzantines brought Christianity to the area.  A Byzantine church remains on the site.  When the Muslims conquered the area in the seventh century, development ground to a halt, and the area remained that way until the British took over from the Ottoman Empire.  Roads were paved from Beersheva to Eilat, and a new era began.

Most of the remaining structures, however, are not Nabatean but are Roman or Byzantine.  Still pretty impressive to me. 

Our next stop is Kibbutz Sde Boker where David Ben Gurion made his home in 1953 after retirement as Israel’s first Prime Minister.  He is buried here, and on his grave are two birthdates.  His real one was in Poland in 1888.  The second is when he came to Israel in 1906 which for him was a true birth.

Ben Gurion's view

David Ben Gurion is considered the architect of Israel.  He took Hertzl’s Zionist ideas and made them a reality by organizing the Haganah (military), schools, and other necessities of a country. 

Ben Gurion immigrated to Israel in 1906 where he began his new life organizing unions.  The Ottomans expelled him.  He came to New York, and he fell in love with American Democracy.  People come here to study, and Ben Gurion's papers are in the Heritage Center here.

Ben Gurion Heritage Center

Ben Gurion walked the walk.  When he retired, the people on the kibbutz wanted him to live with the special status he’d earned, but he insisted on living in a hut and working in the fields as all members of the kibbutz did.  He did not stop working in the fields until he became ill and unable to continue.

The view from his burial site overlooks the Negev, the place he envisioned eventually in bloom and home to many.  That dream is yet to be realized, but research goes on to make the dream a reality.


Sde Boker is certainly the intellectual climax of the day, but the emotional climax is arranged by Wendy Morse.  Once again she has reserved a restaurant, and we share a final dinner with our tour-mates back in Tel Aviv before we part ways and head to our individual post-tour destinations. 

Israeli feast

Tel Aviv restaurant

Thank you, Margaret Morse Tours.  Thank you Wendy Morse who accompanied us every step of the way and arranged special days and nights—dancing and music and entertainment, special presents—beautiful mezuzahs by an Israeli artist, special moments—our Bar and Bat Mitzvahs on Mt. Scopus with its panoramic views of Jerusalem, and even cds of the music we heard.  Thank you David, Alan, and the other guides for your encyclopedic and enthusiastic presentations.  Thank you for the new friends we made. Thank you Israel.   

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Friday, July 08, 2011


I'm not sure Kathryn Stockett's The Help will be the new American classic, but I am sure that its theme resonates within its readers' hearts and minds.  It is an  important theme, and Stockett's treatment is unusual, propelling this first novel from the ordinary to #1 on the NYTimes bestseller list.  It may be possible to count literature's great themes on one's fingers, but the superior writer is able to tackle her theme in a unique way.  Kathryn Stockett does this; the result is The Help is a tough book to put down.

The “help” of the title are the black women who historically took care of the South's white families and were treated as non-existent even as they moved through the rooms of those white families' homes.  The Help is set in Jackson, Mississippi, a city which gained fame during the Civil Rights period of the early 1960s.  Its main characters are three extraordinary women who buck the system, perhaps through fate rather than by choice, and emerge stronger and more independent.  The Help is also a book about women, regardless of race, coming into their own. Stockett's skillful development of these women's personalities raises them above stereotypes and allows each to emerge as a complete individual reacting to her times and situation in a personal manner.

Stockett's exposition comes through the voice of each character's immediate predicament.  We enter the homes of white women in their early 20s who were raised by black women and now hire them to serve in their homes and raise their children. It's a strange relationship not easily understood by those of us totally unfamiliar with the South of the 1960s. We're made to understand a little better through our main characters, a white twenty-two year old, Skeeter, and two very different black women, Aibileen and Minny.

We are reminded of the time, 1963 and 1964, through the rock 'n roll of the era and the Civil Rights events that occur, events I distinctly remember but only with the eyes of a Northern teenager.  Incredible as it may seem, as I read I began to see how whites could live both in the midst and apart from the incidents occurring around them.  These white women's daily interactions with the black help did not change. Fully expecting the status quo to remain, they remain blinded to the historical changes occurring in their own back yards.  Stockett does not stereotype southern women. The white women react to situations individually and according to their individual strengths and convictions.

The reactions of the black women are equally believable.  Depending on their circumstances, their reactions differ.  Their jobs and their livelihood are crucial, so how much they can be part of the Civil Rights movement happening around them varies from individual to individual.  It's easy to say everyone should be involved; it's quite another thing when one’s livelihood is threatened by that involvement.

The individuality of each woman—black or white—is essential to the theme.  We react as we do because we are all equal in our individuality.

If this were all there was to The Help, it would not have made the leap into a first rate book.  Kathryn Stockett took each situation whether it involved class, marriage, civil rights, freedom, or understanding and skillfully made parallels between the black and white characters in the book.  We are exposed to the complexity of relationships, the complexity of race, and the consequences of not dealing honestly, fairly, and openly with one another.  We all bear the burdens caused by these shortcomings in society.  We share a common humanity, for good or bad.

The Help is set nearly 50 years ago.  Times have changed and so have some situations.  But not everything has changed.  It is important, periodically, to be reminded of how far we still have to go. Kathryn Stockett gently but firmly urges us to be better.

The Help will be out as a movie this August.

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Friday, July 01, 2011


camels in Petra Jordan
I really like this!!!  But I did take this photo in Petra.

It doesn’t get much better than Petra, Jordan, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and now considered one of the wonders of the ancient world. I cannot begin to post photos until I try to convey a portion of Petra’s timeline and history. Where we walk and what we see takes us to a time beyond our ken.

Petra Jordan
modern Petra--building and attracting many tourists

Here is a city dating back to 6,500-7,000 BCE, and evidence of that ancient community can still be examined! By the Iron Age, Petra was inhabited by the Edomites, but the real building of this great city was done by the Nabataeans, a nomadic Arab tribe impressed by the high protective canyons and the ample water supply that could be directed from above the city through channels and tunnels into cisterns to give the city life, so much life that it grew great as part of the major trade route linking China with Rome. A literate people, they left us calligraphy on the walls as a reminder of their civilization.

ancient calligraphy in Petra Jordan

Rome eventually annexed Petra, introduced Christianity to the area, and there is evidence of at least three churches.

Petra Jordan

Petra was so fiercely guarded and lost to the Western world after the 15th century that it was only “re-discovered” in 1812 by a Swiss traveler posing as an Arab coming to offer a sacrifice to the prophet Aaron. The world is the benefactor of that deception.

Petra Jordan

To reach the major part of the ancient city, we walk more than half a mile downhill to and then through The Siq, a narrow .6 mile long gorge flanked by tall cliffs. The rock formations are enchanting and colorful as if some painter of nature exercised every color in his palette.

end of the Siq in Petra Jordan
a horse-drawn cart bringing visitors back up through the Siq

Petra Jordan

Petra Jordan

We pass tombs and monuments, but we are not prepared for the magnificent sight of The Treasury, an incredible façade carved into the mountains and whose decorations indicate that it was carved from the bottom to the top. Treasury is the modern name.

Out of the Siq in Petra Jordan

The Treasury in Petra Jordan

Was it a memorial? A temple? No one knows. What every visitor does know, however, is that this is awesome, a sight that causes one’s jaw to drop in wonder. Think of it--an ancient people using the rudimentary tools of their age to sculpt detail and beauty that we can enjoy THOUSANDS OF YEARS later.

Fans of Indiana Jones might recognize the façade from the final scenes of the Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

Experiencing the full wonder of Petra requires three or four days. We had a scant few hours, and my walk downhill had to be followed by another mile or so uphill, so with sad resignation I did not venture much further into the city. Rob, however, continued to walk and saw some cliff dwellings and other monuments and buildings carved into the cliffs’ walls.

Petra Jordan

Petra Jordan

I walked back up the Siq, but seized the opportunity to ride a horse for some distance. Wow! An Arabian stallion! Not quite I think by the looks of him, but he was beloved by me.

Wendy in Petra Jordan

After dismounting, I still had a way to go uphill to the Jordanian tour bus, but it had been a glorious visit! Once again I was transported back in time, awed by ancient man’s accomplishments. I walked in his footsteps and on his roadways and was touched in a way I will never forget.

Off the record, there were carts to bring people back uphill, but it looked like an incredibly jarring ride over the rocks and cobblestones. I had the feeling the drivers enjoyed messing with the tourists!

cart in Petra Jordan

Camel rides were available.

Petra Jordan

It is important to know that Petra requires significant walking, and a lot of it is uphill. And it is hot.

Depending how one looks at it, there are the ubiquitous memento shops.  See anything tempting?

Petra Jordan

Petra Jordan

As we drive back through the modern city of Petra, we see men, women, and children going about their daily business. We see the mixture of old and new as this city grows and changes to meet the onslaught of tourists. New hotels are springing up everywhere as are homes and roads and new sidewalks with trees beautifying them.

Petra Jordan

Petra Jordan

Petra Jordan's children

Petra Jordan

Petra Jordan's women

We stop at Petra’s Magic Restaurant for a late lunch. It is a marvelous Jordanian smorgasbord. Then I doze on the long ride back to the border.

My advice—if you are in this part of our world, don’t pass up a chance to visit Petra. Bring your camera, good walking shoes, a walking stick, and a few bottles of water.

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