Thursday was my only day off in Israel , and Dana from the customer had arranged a day trip to Jerusalem for me. I was up bright and early to be collected at 06:45. The tour company (Bein Harim Tourism runs many trips each day and collects people from all over the area in cabs and busses, bringing them to a central location in Tel Aviv via a hub-and-spoke process where we were sorted into the groups who were going on the different tours. Mine was the Jerusalem day trip which includes a bus tour of the new city, a walking tour of the old city and the holocast museum in the afternoon.

By the third bus change, I was in the correct group and we headed on to Jerusalem. Our guide Haya introduced herself to us. There were 14 of us on the bus and she kept a running commentary in three languages – English, French and Hebrew. This did at times get confusing as we went along. Haya definitely has the outer skin of the Sabra – quite prickly and she came across as a bit tough. She would make an excellent Sergeant Major, she kept us on track with iron control. As we drove she told us facts and figures in a steady stream – about the only one I remember is that Israel’s largest export commodity is diamonds, which are mined in Africa and cut in Tel Aviv.

We started the tour with a drive through the government sector of the New City – most of the government departments are in a single part of the city in new buildings.

Then it was on to the highest point overlooking the Old City, so we could see the panoramic view of the whole area.

From there we drove around the city walls, past David’s City and stopped at the Zion Gate. Old Jerusalem has four Quadrants – Armenian, Christian, Muslim and Jewish. The Zion gate leads into the Armenian sector. The streets in the old city are narrow cobbled stoned passageways between the buildings.

The city is built on top of layers and layers of previous buildings. In the time of Christ the street level was about 14 meters below where it is today.

So much of history is expressed in terms of the stories of conflict and conquest, and Jerusalem has been the centre of much of that history. The pity is how much we are defined by these conflicts rather than by the cooperation and collaboration that mankind is so capable of.

Haya led us at a brisk pace through the city, pointing out places and events in stattaco bursts.

We were allowed to stop in a store of her choosing to do some shopping, before we went into the Church of the Holy Sepulcher – built on the place where Christ was buried and rose.

Here we had 20 minutes to look around – I lit a candle of remembrance for friends and family who have passed on, and wandered through the church. I found it really moving and deeply spiritual experience.

We then traced part of the route Christ took carrying the cross. The Stations are marked out along the route.

From there we moved through the Muslim Quarter, stopped for a fresh orange juice and then on to the Jewish Quarter.

There we went through a security checkpoint and into the precinct around the Western Wall (the Wailing Wall) – the holiest place in Judaism. I donned a Yarmulke and went forward respectfully to pray. This too was a deeply moving experience. The sincerity and devotion of the people who come to pray there is obvious to all.

I felt the time I spent in the Old City was too short, and would love to go back there again, and spend time exploring it fully.

Over this last week I have been in or around the holiest places of all three religions of the Book. What I’ve found and felt is that we have far more in common than that what divides us. Why can’t we find a way to live in harmony?

After leaving Old Jerusalem we went to the Holocast Museum – a stark and brutal reminder of man’s inhumanity to man. Visiting this museum is an uncomfortable experience, you can’t walk through the structure and it’s surrounds without being moved, the horrors of the Holocast are shown in stark reality. I didn’t enjoy the experience – I truly hope no-one could enjoy it – but I am grateful that the tour took us there as it is something that I feel everyone should see, lest we ever allow something so evil to happen again.

I enjoyed my week in Israel – I made some new friends, enjoyed some great food and visited places that have had a profound impact on me. I think I understand a little bit more about my Jewish and Muslim friends’ cultural backgrounds.

My deep and heartfelt Thanks to everyone who made the experience special.

Leaving Israel and heading to the USA was a very different security experience to arriving there earlier in the week. My flight back to Istanbul was scheduled for 05:00 in the morning, which meant arriving at the airport by 02:00. Fortunately I was tired after the Jerusalem tour so could sleep early, but being ready for Miri to collect me at 01:30 was not easy.

I thought that an early morning departure would mean fewer people at the airport – no such luck! When I got inside the terminal it was sheer bedlam, easily 3000 people queueing to go through security screening. After some searching I found the priority queue (thanks to Air New Zealand Gold status) and only waited about 30 mins for my bags to be screened. They slap a barcode on them and put them through an x-ray – one bag was fine, but I have some electronics (portable hard drive with backups and some cables) which showed as ‘suspect’ so it was into another queue for a hand search of the bag. The system is efficient – the x-ray image is linked to the bar code and the person doing the manual search scanned the codes on my bags and knew which one they wanted to look at and where to look. My passport was checked twice in the initial screenings, and the bar code for my bags attached to the back of the passport.

The second queue was about 15 mins long and I was free to go and check in. The Turkish Airlines counters are in a separate check-in area, so I was able to avoid the masses who were flying to Bulgaria, Rome and a whole slew of other locations.

Checking in was easy, no queue, but unfortunately no upgrade for today’s trips (Tel Aviv to Istanbul to Chicago to Salt Lake City). I was given boarding passes for all three flights and my thoroughly screened bags were checked in and wouldn’t be seen again until Chicago.

From checkin it was time to go through passport control – another 30 minutes in a queue to have my hand-luggage screened then into the immigration queue, fairly short (priority again), a brief interrogation about my movements in Israel and where I was heading to, another security sticker on the back of my passport and through to the Turkish Airlines lounge. Not as comfortable as in Istanbul but somewhere to relax for a short while, get a coffee and make a couple of Skype calls.

I thought that would be it for security screening until I got to the USA – no such luck. Upon arrival in Istanbul I tried to go into the “Transit” queue, had to show passport and boarding pass and was immediately whisked into a special queue for people going to the USA. This took about 45 minutes with three different security officers: my passport was checked three times, my electronic visa checked, the address of the hotel where I’m staying was checked and possibly my blood type as well. I was quizzed at length about where I’d been and where I was going, and another three security stickers eventually put on the back of my passport, very obviously OVER the Israeli ones 🙂

After this I was able to go up to the departures level and relax in the Turkish Airways lounge. Great food and fantastic Turkish coffee. Of all the airline lounges I’ve been in this is definitely the nicest.

The flight to Chicago left on time, and all I can say is it was long, nothing makes economy class long-haul flying fun 😦

Arrival in Chicago meant a 45 minute queue at immigration, a short discussion with the immigration officer (my electronic visa was in order), retrieve my bags with their own array of extra tags and stickers, a short wait to get through customs and recheck my bags for Salt Lake City – so I know they are in the USA and are hopefully on this plane (this part being written on the way to Salt Lake City).

Chicago Airport is so big it has it’s own train line to move from terminal to terminal, I landed at terminal 5 and had to go to terminal 2 for the domestic trip. A short train ride and I was confronted with ANOTHER queue, this one for security screening to get to my flight. I found the priority queue, and only had to wait for 20 minutes or so until I was taking off my shoes and belt, and getting my hand luggage x-rayed again (a few more trips and that bag will glow in the dark, I’m sure).

Finally I could make my way to the United lounge to await the departure of this flight. Compared to the other lounges I frequent, I’m afraid United’s Red Carpet lounges are pretty mediocre – the highlight of the available snacks is pre-packed carrots that have been cut into bite-sized pieces with ranch dressing on the side. The coffee’s not bad; the chairs are fairly comfortable and there is at least somewhere to plug in an iPad charger (battery anxiety) but the level of service and food offering doesn’t come anywhere near the other Star Alliance carriers I’ve traveled with.

The next week is about all things Agile, I’ll probably blog about some of the sessions on the Software Education blog, and will be writing InfoQ articles.

I have some time next weekend to explore Salt Lake City, another religious centre, and will probably write about those experiences on the way back to New Zealand.