Day 7: Jerusalem (part 2), Camels, and Bedouin Tent

This seventh day started much earlier, with a 6:30 wakeup call and 8:00 departure time.

Once we got the bus loaded, we headed out to Jerusalem.  We spent some time in the old city and outskirts of the temple walls to learn about the history.  Shai then took us to a new area of the Western Wall, opened up to be a more egalitarian place for conservative and reform Jews than the main area.  I really liked this area, because I dislike the separation that occurs at the Kotel (Western Wall), but there was the added benefit that it was pretty much empty except for us.

We then went to the main part of the Kotel.  Many people in the group left notes and prayed at the Wall.

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Following our visit, we went for lunch in the old city.  I got another version of shawarma, this time with chicken.  After lunch we had a bit more of the history lesson in the old city and then departed for the Bedouin encampment.

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When we reached the Bedouin encampment  (which is really a tourist-focused place that exhibits an approximation of old Bedouin life), we rode camels for about 15 minutes.  We then went in for dinner.

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Dinner was “traditional” Bedouin cuisine.  It really reminded me of Ethiopian food, with a giant platter of food on a flat bread and eating without utensils. It was good, but I think the Ethiopian tej bread worked better for this kind of eating than the super thin Bedouin pita.

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After dinner we had a chance to meet a Bedouin man who told us about his life.  It’s very different: a more nomadic, animal driven lifestyle.  They also have somewhat different values than is more common in western society: he has three wives and 23 kids (15 boys and 8 girls).

We ended the night with a bonfire with the Israelis and prepared to say goodbye to them tomorrow.

Day 6: Jerusalem (part 1)

Breakfast this morning was at 8:30 so we got to sleep in a bit.  After breakfast, we left the kibbutz around 9.

Our first stop of the day was an overlook in Jerusalem where we could see the old city and also the green line (wall, security fence, etc).  We had a good talk about how the Temple Mount and Dome of the Rock both got to be in the situation today, then transitioned to a more political discussion about the Palestinian territory. I really appreciated how hard our guide Shai tried to present objectively, in awareness of his own bias.

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Lunch was on our own at Ben Yehuda street in Jerusalem. I went with a bunch of other people to get better shawarma than yesterday, and it definitely was better.  I then wandered around the area for a while until we met back up as a group.

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Our final stop in Jerusalem for the day was the cemetery at Mount Herzl.  Shai introduced us to the cemetery and tried to help us relate to the people who were buried there.  I especially liked the monument to soldiers who died in the war for independence and were the last in their respective families.

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After Herzl, we came back to Kibbutz Tzuba for dinner and a program led by our Israeli partners. We played a few games and then broke to pack for the next two days: the old city, the Kotel, camels, a Bedouin tent, Masada, and the Dead Sea.

Day 5: Rafting and the Golan Heights

Today we left Hakuk Balev.  We woke up early enough to load the bus at 7:15 and departed at 8.  Our first stop of the day was a nature hike.  It was pretty, but not very long or strenuous.

We then left for rafting. I was in a group of three and we rated for about 2 hours (getting stuck a lot along the way).  We finally got to the end and left for our next activity.

On the way, we stopped for lunch and I had my first shawarma in Israel.  It was decent, but I’m definitely looking for more later.  We then went to an olive oil factory and learned how they make both olive oil and cosmetics from the waste olive material.

Our last major activity of the day was to go to Mount Bental in the Golan Heights, on the border with Syria. Shai talked to us about the current situation with the various terrorist organizations operating in Syria and the UN mission in the DMZ there.  We also got to walk through a bunker at the top of the hill.

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Our lodging for the night is Kibbutz Tzuba, which I stayed at last time I was in Israel.

Day 4: Tzfat

The fourth day started out a bit earlier in the morning, with breakfast at 8 and departure at 8:40. Our first stop of the day was an older area of Tiberias, where we saw the ruins of an old synagogue and talked about anti-semitism.

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We then drove to a junction to pick up several Israeli students and soldiers. We picked up seven of the eight (one was running very late), and introduced ourselves. My group from the previous night was assigned to meet Tamar, who turned out to be an officer in Intelligence (that was as much as she could say). We took the rest of the bus ride to learn about everyone and then arrived in Tzfat.

Tzfat turned out to be really pretty. We got off the bus, took some group pictures, and then made our way up to an area with a bunch of stores for lunch. Shai (our tour guide) recommended this Yemenite place, so I went there. They served this crepe-like thing (though the wrap/bread was thicker) filled with spices, cheese, onions, and tomatoes…delicious!

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After lunch we met back up with the larger group and went to the home of a Kabbalah-inspired artist. He (the-artist-formerly-known-as-Robert) introduced us to the basic concepts behind Kabbalah and explained a few of his paintings. This was pretty interesting, especially as I had known nothing about Kabbalah previously.

We then went outside for an impromptu concert from some of Shai’s musician friends. They played with really old instruments, supposedly from biblical times and talked about the history of each instrument.

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Following the concert, we walked over to a candle factory and got an introduction to candle making. We then went to visit an orthodox Ashkenazi synagogue. The synagogue was pretty inside, though there was a person at the door who was making sure everyone was dressed appropriately.

After that, we had some free time to shop and then left Tzfat.

In the evening after dinner we had a short program to break the ice with the Israelis. We then ended for the day and I had a nice beer.

Day 3: Shabbat

Day three was definitely a restful Shabbat. I woke up in the morning in time to head to breakfast. After breakfast, our morning activity was Torah study for the weekly portion. Following the session, we broke for a bit off free time before lunch. Some of the guys in the group found some Israeli children playing soccer, so they started a game. At first the Americans were winning, but the Israeli kids one with a score of 10-7.

Lunch consisted of a beef stew, pasta, and french fries. After lunch, we had a session on Jewish identity. It was really interesting to hear how others in the group identified with Judaism and what they were looking to gain out of the trip.

Following the identity program we had some free time to relax. When that ended, we had a program to help us learn about the Israeli students and soldiers that would join us tomorrow and had a nice Havdalah service. We then left for Tiberias for dinner on the boardwalk.

In Tiberias, we went to dinner at a restaurant and then I was dragged to loudest club in existence. I think I escaped with my hearing, but my ears did hurt for a while. When we got back to the kibbutz, that ended the day and I went to sleep.

Note: I’m having trouble uploading pictures to the blog right now, so for now the pictures are just on Facebook.

Day 2: Arrival into Tel Aviv

I’m counting day 2 as starting when we left the airport at 7am local time. We got on the bus and met our driver, then left on a 20 minute ride to Naot Kedumim, which is a “biblical” nature reserve.

Naot Kedumim was pretty cool. The idea seems to be combining archaeological sites and information to present aspects of life around that time. We got to learn about some of the important plants and how they were used, some of the machines, and commentary on what it meant to our tour guide.

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Following the tour, we left for northern Israel and lunch. We stopped at a mall and I ate at a restaurant called Cafe Cafe. I ordered Shakshuka, which is an Israeli dish I had been wanting to try. It was delicious! Fortunately it looks like something that shouldn’t be too hard to make at home, so I will get to try cooking it once I get back to Seattle.

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After lunch, we continued to drive and ended up at a kibbutz called Hakuk Balev. I was randomly assigned to a room with two of the other guys on the tour, and got to have my first shower of the trip. Following that delightful experience, I fell asleep and took a nap before Shabbat.

Rabbi Emily (one of the Birthright group leaders) led a short Shabbat service outside. When the service was done, we went in the kibbutz dining hall for a dinner of chicken, potatoes, rice, and salad. After dinner, we had a group session where we played some name games and bonding games, talked about safety, and talked about the schedule for tomorrow.

When our session was done, that marked the end of the day. We then went to the kibbutz store and it was open for beer. I had a Goldstar dark lager (which was not bad) and socialized for a while.

Tomorrow should be a restful day with some Torah study, Jewish identity stuff, and relaxing. After Havdalah in the evening, we’ll head down to Tiberias and spend some time at the Kineret (Sea of Galilee).

Day 1: LAX to Madrid, Madrid to Tel Aviv

Today marks the first day of the trip! Most of the action is going to be dominated by some long flights; LAX to Tel Aviv with a layover in Madrid. I’ll be flying an airline that is new to me: Iberia Airlines.

This morning was spent with some last-minute shopping and then repacking everything. While shopping, we ran into one of my cousins and her two small kids; I had never met the kids before do it was pretty exciting for me. After I finished packing, my mom and I had to have lunch at In-N-Out.

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Once I got to LAX, I met up with the group of strangers and waited in line to check in. Even though I arrived at the airport around 2pm, we didn’t start going through security until around 4. I was able to grab some food from the 800 Degrees location in the international terminal (who knew?) and eventually we went to the gate. For some reason (my guess is that Iberia only operates one flight out of LAX), the plane did not actually park at the gate. We got on a bus and then drove across the tarmac to this weird building that consisted only of a ramp and air bridge.

On the plane, I had a bit of seat drama: a French woman who spoke very little English was sitting in my seat and was insistent that I switch with her husband sitting elsewhere. Eventually she involved the flight attendant, who helped her convince a person sitting next to her husband to switch and the issue was resolved.

Apparently the travel agent who booked the travel for Birthright requested kosher meals for everyone, so I had another experience with the strangeness that is kosher airline food. The dinner of chicken and rice was a bit less than pleasant as the chicken was super dry. When we got closer to landing, the lunch of deli meat with humus on challah was much better.

The plane had a pretty good entertainment system, so I was able to watch two movies: Ex Machina and Ocean’s Twelve. I had heard good things about Ex Machina, so I went into it with high expectations. Unfortunately it falls into the same trap as many other robot stories in pop culture: robots are evil/untrustworthy/uncaring and want to kill some/all humans. I tend to prefer Asimov’s approach to robot stories, where he constructs a set of rules and then tells stories within the framework of those rules. Ocean’s Twelve, which I had not seen before, was a lot of fun.

Our layover at the Madrid airport was 9 hours. Not much of it is terribly remarkable, though we did start to play some ice-breaking games and bond as a group.

Eventually, we got on the plane to Israel. They fed us (another) kosher dinner (which was better than the first) and I was able to get another few hours of sleep on the plane.

The arrival into Tel Aviv recalled the departure from LAX; the plane parked somewhere away from the terminal and we took a bus to get back to the airport. Passport Control was fine for me (and for most of the group), but one person got detained at the airport. He came to meet us several hours later and none of us understand the reason for his detention. Once through Passport Control, we grabbed our luggage and freshened up in the airport bathroom. We then grabbed some breakfast and left the airport for our first day in Israel.

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Day 0: SEA to LAX

20150616_120645Today is the day before my trip to Israel on Birthright starts. I’m pretty excited to go back to Israel; the last time I was there was when I was 16. I’m traveling with a group of strangers, so this is pretty similar to my last extended travel adventure.

I’m writing this while sitting on SoundTransit’s Central Link light rail, which provides service from Downtown Seattle to SeaTac airport. Since I moved out of Belltown, the Link is no longer within walking distance, so I took a bus from Ballard to Pioneer Square earlier in the morning. I was able to pack pretty light, so I only have my backpack and a duffel bag to take to LA. After my flight lands at LAX, I’ll be taking the FlyAway bus to Van Nuys where my parents can pick me up.

I hope I havent forgotten anything in Seattle!

Day 18: Rome, Vatican City

The last touring day.

We woke up this morning and met our tour guide for the day, Antony, in the lobby of the hotel/basilica. He distributed radio receivers and earbuds so that we could hear him on the tour without any shouting. As a system, it worked pretty well.

We left on the bus for our scheduled tour of the Colosseum. Arriving, it looked a bit different in the day from the way it looked at night: it was illuminated by the sun instead of by spotlights.

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Without waiting for too long, we were admitted to the inside of the Colosseum. Antony told us quite a bit about the history of the Colosseum (including the fact that it was not originally called “the Colosseum”) and then set us loose to look around. I spent some time in the museum on the second floor before going out into the interior. I got a lot of great pictures including the only surviving stone seats as well as continuing archeology.

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Following our visit to the Colosseum, we left for Rome’s city hall and saw one of the earliest surviving bronze statues. After grabbing some water, we did not go to the Forum (as it was too hot), but were led to an overlook to see a good view of the city and some ruins.

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We then got back on the bus and went to the Vatican. Antony took us inside St. Paul’s and I was pretty impressed by the size and decorations. I thought my mom would really like the dome above the altar.

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Antony left us after St. Paul’s, so a few of us decided to go through the Vatican Museum and see the Sistine Chapel. The Vatican Museum was long and they made you walk through the whole thing before getting to the chapel. When we got to the chapel, I was disappointed by the total lack of crowd management; it was jam-packed and every 30 seconds the employees would be yelling “no pictures, no pictures!”

After grabbing a quick lunch, a few of us went out in search of the catacombs. Unfortunately, we were given bad directions and by the time we asked someone more knowledgeable, the catacombs were closed.

Dinner was at a traditional Roman restaurant, complete with live music. While we ate our (really salty) food and drank our wine, we were serenaded by a guitarist who spoke very little English. It was fun to see everyone and sad to think that this was our last meal together as a complete group.

When we returned to the hotel, a large group of people went on the roof. While looking out at the city, we said our goodbyes and enjoyed the company of everyone for the last time.

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Day 17: Florence, Rome

We awoke this morning and went downstairs for breakfast. EuroPython (a conference about the Python programming language) was going on at this hotel, so I was able to easily see the people present for the conference. After breakfast, we all boarded the bus bound for Rome.

Along the way we stopped for food at a gas station/rest stop. This place was a little weird in that you paid for your food, then brought the ticket over to where the food was given out. I paid for a slice of pizza, but when I got back to the food area the last slice was being given away. The woman behind the counter quoted 10 minutes of waiting, and since I had 20 minutes before I needed to be back on the bus, I consented. Ten minutes later, no pizza, and an updated quote of 15 minutes. I declined and there was some confusion. I ended up with a plate of penne in marinara sauce with about 2 minutes left before I needed to be on the bus. Bolting some down, I ran outside for the bus and was very unsatisfied with my lunch experience.

Eventually, however, we arrived in Rome. We’re staying in a hotel connected to a Basilica, which is pretty unusual. My guess is that the rooms used to be used for people living at the church, but that’s only a guess. My room is decent even if it does appear old. I think this hotel has the second-best shower of the trip, behind the hotel in Lucerne. We had some trouble with the safe, but the front desk was able to resolve it.

Meeting in the lobby, we decided to head out into the city. This marked our fourth Metro and seemed to be reasonably nice. Rome’s Metro consists of only two lines: A and B. Line A has modern cars with air conditioning, automated announcements, and screens showing the upcoming stop. Line B has fairly old cars literally covered in graffiti with none of the modern features found on Line A. Both lines are powered by overhead wires rather than a third rail; this is the first underground Metro I’ve seen with that configuration.

When we arrived at the Spagna station, we walked out and found the Spanish Steps. After climbing and enjoying the view, we set off for the Pantheon and several fountains. Each of these were nice to look at. I thought that my mother would like to have the Pantheon’s dome in our house, but I’m not sure how it would match the rest of the architecture and decor.

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We grabbed a quick bite to eat at a restaurant advertising happy hour. The food was decent and the waiter was the best one that I’ve had in Europe, so I actually left him a tip (tipping in restaurants is not really part of European culture). After dinner, I finally tried my first Italian Gelato, which was quite good.

We then decided to check out some of the other historical sights while it was dark out. After a quick Metro ride, we arrived at the Colosseum. Seeing it at night, in real life, was as mind-blowing as seeing the Eiffel tower.

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After looking at the Forum from a distance, we journeyed back to the hotel and turned in for the night.