Thursday, September 25, 2008

Break One: Ulpan - Semester

Below is a description of my activities during my first break in my Overseas Program. Some days have more detail than others and overall, this is a fairly long description (6 pages typed), so feel free to skim and skip around. I hope that this provides answers to many of you who have asked what I did during the break. The break was from September 11 -20.

Thursday, September 11

I just hung around the dorms, taking it easy. The German students left today and a spent a decent amount of time with some of them. It was sad to see these friends leave. Not a lot of the American students spent a lot of time with them and it was definitely a unique experience learning about Germany and German students in Israel.

I also spent some time looking up articles and watching videos about commemorating September 11, 2001.

Friday, September 12

Today we left for our vacation. I went with Aaron and Nick from my group. Aaron and I had planned on traveling around and invited Nick as he didn’t have any plans. We got on a bus from our dorm, showing up right before the bus. After arriving at the central bus station, our adventure really began. We were waiting in line for a bus to Eilat when a security guard came by and told everyone to leave (in Hebrew of course, we had to ask around to try and find out what was happening). An unidentified bag was found in the station and the police had been called to look at it as a potential bomb threat. We had to wait for over an hour. Once we got on a bus, I discovered that you can apparently reserve seats on the bus to Eilat. I lucked out with a seat, but two people on the bus refused to get up and our driver had to get a security guard to take care of them.

In Eilat, we got to our youth hostel, which seemed fairly decent, but we had to call a few times to actually find it. The beach in Eilat was nice, busy, hot, clear water, but was rocky with coarse sand and trash in the water – cigarettes, cups, etc. The beach wasn’t as nice as I remembered it being, but it eventually started to grow on me.

At night we walked along the Promenade/Boardwalk and decided to go to Jordan on Saturday instead of Sunday. I did some thinking and concluded that this was my first time going out and traveling alone (i.e. not family vacation or with an organized group). It feels kind of weird and nerve wracking sometimes.

Saturday, September 13

We got up at 6:30 a.m. to catch a cab to the border crossing at 7:30 a.m. We arrived at the border at 7:45 a.m. and there was a very long line waiting for the border to open at 8:00 a.m. We were behind a U.S. church group. It took over an hour to get through the Israeli side of the border as Passport Control was intense for some people. We paid the exit tax and converted money to Jordanian Dinars. In the area between borders, there were fences, guard towers, and mines. Security on the Jordanian side was much more lax.

We got a taxi to drive us to Petra, which we bartered down from 45 JD to 40 JD per person. It was much more expensive than we had thought it would be. Our driver took us to Aqaba, pulled over to the side of the road and soon another taxi showed up. We switched taxis as the drivers spoke to each other in Arabic, but not to us and off we went. On the way to Petra, we saw a lot of hitchhikers, people in a variety of dress, sheep farms, camels crossing the road, donkeys on the road, and a beautiful (and changing) desert landscape.

We got to Petra which was beautiful. We were constantly bombarded to buy a horse ride (2-10 JD), donkey ride (ignored the price), and camel rides. After much thought we decided to do the camel rides. How could we pass up the opportunity to ride camels in the Jordanian Desert in the historic Nabathean Capital City of Petra as traders had done thousands of years ago? We got the price down to 8 JD from 30 JD. It was fun, but the ride didn’t cover nearly the distance we had thought that it would. In Petra, I saw amazing landscapes, old buildings, Indiana Jones (just kidding), and more. There were a lot of Beduin kids who tried to sell us stuff as well and people from all over the world there. We saw everything except for the Monastery which is a 2.5 hour trip there, looking out, and back down. I think we were in Petra for about the perfect amount of time. I’m not going to write too much about actually being in Petra, my pictures can do the talking.

On the way back from Petra (We had wanted to leave @ 5:30 p.m. but our taxi driver asked for 4:30 p.m. so he could be home with his family for the end of the day of Ramadan as they ate at 7:00 p.m.) We got back to the taxi around 4:10 p.m. and after heading towards town and on to the border, our driver pulled over to the side of the road, got out, didn’t say anything, and came back a few minutes later. We were confused. It turns out that he went into a store and bought some traditional Jordanian bread. It was bigger and thinner than a tortilla. He gave us some it try and it was really good. We made it back to the border much faster than it took to get to Petra in a little over an hour and made it through the border with no problems.

We ate dinner in the mall on the beach and walked along the boardwalk. On the boardwalk, we met an Israeli who had lived in Alaska for four years (weird…). After going back to the youth hostel, we spent some time on the porch looking out on the city.

Sunday, September 14

We went to the Eilat Underwater Aquarium. It was more expensive than I expected, but amazing. They have a great aquarium with coral and the coolest fishes ever. They also have an underwater observatory that lets you go under the sea and observe the coral reef and the fish, etc. The colors and variety of animal and plant life is really quite amazing. We also saw the shark pool and a diver feeding Red Sea fish and coral fish as well as a pearl taken out of an oyster (from Japan…). After this we went to the bus station and headed back to Be’er Sheva to relax for the evening and finish planning the next leg of the trip.

Monday, September 15

We kept delaying when we were going to leave Be’er Sheva for the North, originally planning on early on the morning and finally deciding on mid afternoon. After all, if we are on vacation, why rush? We had planned to take the train from Be’er Sheva to Haifa. There is a train station near the University and we went there, but it was closed. Apparently they were doing work on the lines. We then took a bus to the Old City, but the train station was also closed there so we decided to take a bus. There are no direct buses between Be’er Sheva and Haifa though. We took a bus from Be’er Sheva to Tel-Aviv and then took a different bus from Tel-Aviv to Haifa. Our directions to the youth hostel were from a train station and there was one next to the central bus station. After discovering that our directions to the youth hostel were from a different train station (who knew there were three in Haifa?), we took a bus to the train station and walked to the hostel. The hostel was actually really nice and while the area was fine, it kind of looked sketchy because of the buildings were old and many shops were closed for the night.

At the hostel we coincidentally met Peggy, one of the German students who was traveling in Israel for two weeks and her friend who came to Israel to meet her and travel. We took the Carmelite (Israel’s only metro/subway – and it is underutilized from my observation) up Mt. Carmel took get dinner. We ate at a cool bagel place and then Peggy introduced us to frozen yogurt that basically squishes frozen fresh fruit and a yogurt concentrate into an amazing concoction. I had one with peaches, pineapple, strawberries, mango, and mixed berries. We then went to a live music jam session at a Pub near our hostel.

Tuesday, September 16

This was probably our craziest day of adventure.

We woke up in Haifa and saw Peggy and her friend before walking towards the Carmelite (we stopped at a bakery on the way for breakfast). At the tp of the mountain new started walking towards the Bahai Gardens. While we didn’t know exactly where we were going, we had a pretty good idea. As we asked for directions though, everyone told us it was a long walk and to take a taxi. Eventually we decided that we must have passed the Gardens and we got a cab that took us two turns and to an entrance. He took us to the Lower Entrance, which while cool, is not where we needed to be for tours (which we hadn’t prearranged as we were supposed to).

We walked around the lower gardens and it was beautiful. I kept thinking that I would like to see the Baha’i Gardens with my family, wishing they could all be there to see it. We saw the Gardens on the bridge and then they closed that area and opened the gardens by the Shrine (the actual Shrine was closed for several weeks for cleaning). Then we talked to a guard named Tahal about finding water to drink and he told us where to find a pipe that comes out of the ground that “is very good to drink from” and the Baha’i guards drink there. We did too. Then we talked to the Baha’i guards.

We went to wait at a bus stop for a bus to take us to the top. There, we met an Israeli lady who told us that we were crazy for studying politics in Israel. The bus never came so we took a Sheirut (shared taxi/mini-bus) up to the top of the Gardens. We had definitely walked right by them without seeing any sign. We went to a random gate and asked a guard about the entrance to the tours. Apparently we were at the right place. He checked a list, asked if we had a reservation (we didn’t), let us in anyway, and we joined an English speaking tour that was just beginning. It couldn’t have worked out better. We actually toured the upper and lower gardens this time and learned about the Baha’is. It was a good tour. We then went back to the youth hostel to pick up our backpacks that we had stored there. The whole ordeal took about 4.5 hours. Most people are only at the gardens for 1-1.5 hours.

We took a train to Bat Galim in Haifa to meet up with Peggy on the beach. We had an issue though – we couldn’t find the beach. Now, this is a little strange since Haifa is on the coast. The only beach we found was a private beach. That didn’t help us. We played rock, paper, scissors (literally) and thus concluded that we were giving up on the beach and going to Akko (Acre) earlier in the afternoon. We went to the bus station where a guy told us it was cheaper to take a train. We went to the train station and were told to take the second train to the North. We did. Apparently it was the wrong train. We got off at a station that was in a small town between Akko and Haifa. The only person who was there that we could attempt to figure out what was going on was a guard who didn’t know English. Eventually we figured out that the next train to Akko was in three hours so instead we waited for an hour for a train back to Haifa and then took a train for the 30 minute ride to Akko.

In Akko, we took a non-taxi (i.e. the guy told us he was a taxi but drove an un-marked white van) to our youth hostel. It was the sketchiest place I’ve ever stayed. It is called Wallied’s Akko Gate Hostel. We were kind of scared there. The building didn’t look so nice, not to mention clean. There were two bathrooms and one of the toilets didn’t have a seat. Hmm… It was the only hostel in Akko though. From this we conclude that you should never stay in Akko.

We left the hostel as quickly as possible and got falafel. Akko is mostly Arab so I asked if it was Kosher. The guy was really nice and then when I was finished eating called me over and after searching a pile of papers, happily showed me his Kashrut certificate. After dinner, we walked over to the Visitor’s Center (which was closed) and looked at a map of the Old City of Akko. While there a car drove up with two religious Jews who were guides in the city. They told us to be careful about walking around Akko at night by ourselves, especially since it was Ramadan. They said that there were two busloads of Israeli school children coming to Akko to do a night tour of the city and that we were welcome to join them. There was just one thing – the tour was in Hebrew.

We decided that we may as well go (Akko isn’t exactly hoppin’ at night) and while waiting, I bought a large bottle of water (the water in the hostel looked funky) and saw a bunch of guys gambling. The tour we did, while awkward at first, ended up being really cool and a great experience. We walked along the ancient city walls, went to the port, an old synagogue, and several other places. The kids (13-14 year old boys) were learning about Judaism. We had no idea what was going on. Our Hebrew wasn’t that good. Eventually some of the kids started talking to us, trying Hebrew and we also tried Hebrew and a few of them knew English so they asked each other to translate for one another. It was quite interesting. Some thought we were police traveling with them (an interesting dynamic that I won’t go into here). Some gave us some of their snacks that they had brought from home and wouldn’t take no for an answer. Later, they prayed and then their school had snacks and the kids gave us some. We thanked the guides and attempted to make our way back to the hostel.

On our way back to the youth hostel, we got continuously lost in the alleyways which were a bit frightening at times. We didn’t know any Arabic and most didn’t know English. We’d ask for the hostel and no one would understand, but if you mentioned Wallied, everyone knew. I want to know more about this guy… When we got back to the hostel we met some of the other guests, particularly a guy from D.C. named David. Wallied moved us up from a room with eight people to a room with four. I felt a bit safer there after that.

Wednesday, September 17

We got up and booked it out of the hostel. We went to the Visitor’s Center to get tickets to the sightseeing areas in the area and on the way stopped by a bakery that was opening up and each bought 2 fresh baked, still warm pitas from 1 shekel. What a deal. We got tickets and an audio guide and saw the Citadel and then (without audio guide) a museum about an Israeli artist from the area. We also saw the Akko Prison (not much to see as they are doing renovations), a museum about life in pre-state Israel focusing on how people lived in Northern Israel, the city market , and the Templar’s Tunnels. We also walked along the city walls and port again in the daytime.

We had originally planned on going to Rosh Hanikra as well (the very Northern point of Israel along the Lebanon border), but we wouldn’t have time and also didn’t want to take a bus south and then back to the very North. We didn’t know that there wasn’t a direct bus. We took a train to Tel-Aviv and then a bus to Jerusalem. After being told several different buses that would take us towards our youth hostel in Jerusalem, we finally got on one that went to the Jaffa Gate of the Old City and from there found our Youth Hostel, The Heritage House, at the corner of the Jewish, Arab, Christian. And Armenian Quarters.

The Heritage House is run by religious Jews and supported by American donors. It used to be free, but is now still the cheapest hostel that I know of in Jerusalem (25 shekels per night / 50 on Shabbat). For dinner we went to a place called Burgers Bar so I could get a glass Diet Coke bottle for Stuart, my brother (These bottles are almost impossible to find, but they have them there). In the evening we attended a class in the hostel on Judaism. We also were taken into a store to look at carpets by a nice guy who ended up being to persistant and kind of creepy. He wanted to show us his “hospitality” though and gave us free bottles of orange juice while he showed us his silk carpets (He dropped the price for one from $900 - $200 for my friend). While this was going on, I did buy two pairs of opal earrings from him for my Grandma.

Thursday, September 18

We started off the day by going to the Kotel (As it is the time before Rosh Hoshanah I saw/heard the blowing of the Shofar at the Kotel which was awesome) and then stopping by Jeff Seidel’s building to confirm that he would be able to set us up with families for meals on Shabbat ( We then took a bus with a really cool driver (as in he may have taken us past his route and he got out of the bus to shake our hands before he drove off) to the Israeli Supreme Court building. There we went in a waited and in about half an hour there was an English tour that explained the role of the Judiciary in Israel and showed us the courts as well as a museum about major decisions in Israel’s history. It was quite interesting. I also go to unlock one of the courtrooms. I never expected to have a key to an Israeli courtroom in my hand.

After the Supreme Court, we went to the Knesset building. I had been told mixed things about whether or not they offered tours of the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament. After trying to figure out whether to stay for what may or may not be a tour, we followed the rather forceful instructions of a guard and went inside the security area and sat for a half an hour to wait to enter the Knesset building. We then went through security during which time they padded us down and took our cameras from us for when we were in the building. We then walked to the Knesset and on our tour saw a video about the building, saw the library, saw the Plenum (meeting) room and saw the state reception hall with all of its Marc Chagall mosaics and tapestries. We learned a lot about the structure of the Israeli government and got a helpful pamphlet that explained more.

After the Knesset, we went to the Israel Museum. The majority of the museum is closed through 2010 for renovations, but we saw the Shrine of the Book – the Dead Sea Scrolls and a model of Second Temple Period Jerusalem. We then took a taxi to Ben-Yehuda Street and walked along there before heading back to our youth hostel. At the hostel, we decided to talk to the Kotel (why not, we were only a five minute walk away). There was a huge crowd with a lot of soldiers. After asking a lady I found out that they were celebrating the end of Basic Training for a paratrooper unit. It was quite amazing to see.

Friday, September 19

We took the day a bit slower after several crazy and exciting days. We started off again at the Kotel and then walked around the Old City including the underground Cardo mall. We went to a genealogy museum at the Kotel that was interesting, but I don’t know if it needs to be seen more than once. It discussed the history of the Jewish people and the importance of Jerusalem to Judaism. We walked in ancient tunnels from different periods of the city. Most of the museum is conveyed through glass towers and sculptures and was described via audio guide. The coolest part was a 3D video type thing at the end.

After the museum we walked to Mea Shearim to see what it looked like. There were (obviously) a lot of Hasidic Jews. It was kind of cool, but not really the image I had had in my mind. Of course, we could have been in a different area of the ulta-Orthodox neighborhood than I had expected. We then got lunch (Shwarma and Falafel) and went back to the Kotel for a bit before returning to the hostel to get ready for Shabbat.

We davened Kabbalat Shabbat at the Kotel (what an experience!). It took a bit of minyan hopping between a Hassidic group and a yeshiva group, before we decided to pray with the Yeshiva students. They did a lot of singing and dancing which I love, especially at the Kotel. We (the Yeshiva group) ended up being in the middle of two groups of soldiers and one of them would dance with us. That was awesome. We only made it through Kabbalat Shabbat before we had to go meet the family that was hosting us for dinner. On the way, I met a Chabad Rabbi who knows my Rabbi from DU.

The family that had us over for dinner was very nice. They are American and the guy is studying in a Yeshiva to become a Rabbi. They live just past the Jerusalem Great Synagogue. In a crazy incident, the power in their neighborhood went out and we ended up moving their dinner to their friend’s home across the street since they were not home and had electricity.

Saturday, September 20

Apparently a lot of the young folk don’t go to Saturday morning services. I wanted to go for a bit though and went to the Kotel and found a late starting minyan to pray with for about an hour. While I wasn’t there too long, I did pray part of Shacharit, the Amidah, and start the Torah service with them. Seeing and hearing the reading of the Torah at the Kotel on Shabbat was very enjoyable. I then met a guy named Amir who works with Jeff Seidel and we walked to a family’s home for lunch (back near the Great Synagogue).

The family whose home I went to was extremely religious and I wasn’t the biggest fan of the company, but they grew on me. The food though was insane. It just kept coming, course after course, and after lunch, they put out snacks. We walked back to the youth hostel where I relaxed for a bit and read a bit before going back to the Kotel for the last time for Shabbat. Upon rearrival at the hostel, we had a small dinner and then a lesson by a Rabbi on the Torah Portion. At this point Shabbat was over. We did Havdallah, we packed up, and took a bus to the central bus station. We got on a bus back to Be’er Sheva and arrived back at Ben-Gurion University without incident.

It was a long, crazy, exciting, fun, adventure-filled break.

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