Saturday, March 18, 2006

Israel: The Galilee

It was ten minutes after eight on Saturday morning when I was woken by my ringing cell phone. It was my good friend Doni. We had planned to take a trip to the Sea of Galilee, and the departure time was supposed to be eight o'clock. Doh!

I told Doni that I had overslept and that I would be over in about ten minutes. Also scheduled to make the trip were my good friends Geoff and Masha, and right after I got off the phone with Doni, they called as well.

The most embarrassing part of the whole situation was that the night before, we had all been at the same party. As they left one by one, my traveling companions had warned me not to stay too late. When I overslept, they all knew all too well that I had indeed stayed too long at the party.

Everyone was still interested in making the trip, though, and by 8:30 we were on the road.

In my haste to get out the door, I had skipped breakfast. After a night of drinking, I always have to eat breakfast, and my decision to skip it meant that my stomach would be raw until lunch.

This was only a minor inconvenience, though, and we had an enjoyable ride up north.

In about an hour and a half, we reached Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee. In Israel, the Sea of Galilee is called Lake Kinneret or just the Kinneret. The Israeli nomenclature is more accurate because the “sea” really is just a lake, and not a very big one at that.

By whatever name, the Galilee region is quite Biblically significant.

Although he didn't have anything to do with Tiberias, Jesus had many connections to the Sea of Galilee. It was here that he performed several miracles, including walking on water, calming a storm with his hand, and feeding a million people with a tuna sandwich. He also gave his famous Sermon on the Mount on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. And beyond all the flashy things, much of Jesus's everyday life revolved around the Sea. He fished, washed, and swam there. He also drank the water of course. Even today, the Kinneret is an important source of drinking water.

Anyhow, following in the tire tracks of Jesus, I parked my SUV in a dirt lot near the Sea, and we set out to explore on foot.

The parking lot ran all the way into the water, and although there wasn't a proper beach, there were a few Israeli rednecks there having a soak. (No, America doesn't have a monopoly on rednecks.)

Doni, Masha, Geoff, and I walked down to the water's edge, looked for a moment, and moved on. We passed by a few churches and the ruins of a Crusader castle.

Then we reached the promenade (i.e., tourist central). This was the land of milk and honey and combination fish platters, and as we walked down the boardwalk, we were harassed by seemingly every restaurateur in town. The approach was the same every time. Once we crossed some imaginary line about 10 meters from the entrance to a restaurant, a guy would rush out and shove a menu in our noses. Then he would start rattling off everything that he was nice enough to include with the purchase of an entrée. The chips come with the fish? Wow!

It was a bit early, so as a group, we weren't really looking to eat just then. By the time we got to the end of the promenade, though, we had been broken. We settled down to lunch at 10:45 in the morning. With my stomach still struggling to emerge from party-mode, I personally had no objection.

The deal we ended up getting was pretty much what every restaurant had been offering: our fish came with chips, a few salads, tea, and dessert.

The food was OK, but the dessert never did turn up. Worse yet, none of us realized this until we had already paid and left.

All was not lost, though, because Geoff treated us to ice cream instead. What self-respecting promenade doesn't have an ice cream parlor or two?

As we ate our ice cream, we planned our next move.

Geoff and Masha are Jewish, so we decided to toss something Jewish into the mix. We would visit the Tomb of Maimonides, the famous philosopher rabbi. Maimonides is often referred to as Rambam, which is the acronym of his name in Hebrew.

So, armed with the basic map in our guide book, we set out to find the Rambam. We left the promenade and found that the rest of the town was deserted. This was no great surprise, though, since it was Saturday (Shabbat), and most everything in the entire country would be closed.

Tiberias is a hilly town, and we walked up and down several hills in our pursuit of the Rambam. In the end, though, he proved to be too elusive, and after 20 minutes, we terminated our search. Yes, we are lame.

A few days later, when I was discussing our trip with my other good friend Geoff, he told me how he had had similar problems in his search for the Rambam. Unlike us, he stuck it out and found the tomb. In his estimation, though, it wasn't worth the effort.

To each his own, though. I'm sure visiting Maimonides's Tomb is a powerful experience for some people.

In any case, once we had thrown in the towel on our tomb quest, we headed back to the car by way of the promenade.

We got attacked by the restaurant people again, but this time we did not succumb to their wiles.

No, instead of eating again, we took a gander at the small market that had sprung up in the center of the walkway.

I don't mean to be critical, but this was possibly the saddest market I ever did see. There were probably a dozen vendors, and every last thing for sale was magically craptacular. I'm talkin' mood rings, windsocks, lacquer boxes, lamp shades stenciled with the signs of the zodiac, faux leather belts, and temporary tattoos.

Oddly enough, we all walked away empty-handed.

As we left the market, our tour of Tiberias had basically concluded, and it was only 1:00. Since we were already in the area and since we still had daylight left to burn, Geoff asked if we would be interested in stopping to see some of his relatives (his aunt and uncle I think) who lived just south of the Kinneret. They lived on the Ashdot-Ya'akov kibbutz.

We were all keen on the suggestion, and in less than half an hour, we reached the gates to the little township. Geoff's uncle, whose name was Efraim, met us and showed me where to park. Then we walked with him over to the house where we met his wife (named Tirza, I think).

Efraim and Tirza had many lemon trees and they were heavy with fruit. Inside the house, there were copious amounts of lemons as well. All around there were buckets and baskets brimming with the fruit, and once Tirza had seated us all in the living room, she served us (what else...) lemonade and cake. I love lemonade, so I definitely wasn't complaining. I also love cake.

Initially our conversation was in English and very easy Hebrew, and I did OK, especially with the English. In no time flat, though, the conversation switched exclusively to harder Hebrew, and I was the odd man out. Geoff spoke fluent Hebrew, and Doni and Masha, while both novices, were able to understand quite a bit. My skills were just advanced enough to say things like, “More lemonade, please.”

As usually happens when family members get together, the talking went on and on. Occasionally someone would address me directly, but for the most part I just focused on my lemonade or the TV, which was also in Hebrew. I didn't mind zoning out, though.

Then, after two hours of this, Efraim broke up the party and offered to show us around the kibbutz. Before we started with the kibbutz, though, he showed us his backyard. There, there were more lemon trees and many cages housing a variety of different birds. With all the talk in the news at the time, my thoughts immediately went to bird flu. I brought this up, but Efraim didn't seem overly concerned about it himself.

After the backyard, we walked to my car and started on Efraim's tour. As we drove out of the gates, he told us a bit about kibbutzim and Ashdot-Ya'akov.

Here is my totally simplified version, which completely glosses over the whole Ihud vs. Me'uhad thing:

The original concept of a kibbutz was to have a community where everyone contributed what he or she could to the community and took back only what he or she needed. Property was owned by the community, not individuals. People didn't earn wages for their work. Daily life was communal with people working together, eating together in dining halls, sometimes sleeping in communal dormitories, and sometimes sharing child-rearing responsibilities. Initially kibbutzim were almost always agriculturally based, but as times progressed, many migrated into other businesses. Today, for example, there are kibbutzim making ammunition and bullet-proof glass. That's a bit removed from growing strawberries.

Efraim explained how Ashdot-Ya'akov, like many other kibbutzim, had really lost most of its original vision. Now it was almost indistinguishable from any other gated community. In the Ashdot-Ya'akov of today, people earn money for working, and they also pay for things that they need. The dining hall is only open a few times a week because it is too expensive to open it more frequently. Even when it is open, though, many people still choose to eat at home in private.

We drove by a building that I think Efraim told us had at one point been a bottle factory. It was shut down.

Ashdot-Ya'akov did still have plenty of farming going on, though.

We drove past groves of date palms and fields of other crops. Then Efraim took us to a spectacular viewpoint.

Ashdot-Ya'akov sits very near to Israel's border with Jordan, and it overlooks the Jordan and Yarmuk River Valleys. Efraim had me drive out to the border itself, and I parked the car there.

Down below, he pointed out some farmland that was technically inside Jordan but that the kibbutz had been allowed to keep. Using special border permits, the residents of Ashdot-Ya'akov were able to tend their fields.

We walked along the border, just near the barbed wire, and there was even an abandoned guard tower that we got to climb inside.

We remained on that ridge overlooking the Jordan River for about an hour. Then the sun left us, and we returned to the town.

Back at the house, Tirza was happy to see us again, and another conversation erupted. She and Efraim knew that we had to get going, though, so they didn't keep us long. Geoff, as it turned out, decided to stay the night in Ashdot-Ya'akov and return to Tel Aviv later by mini-bus. This would give him plenty of time to finish catching up without having to worry about Doni, Masha, and me.

In exchange for leaving Geoff behind, Tirza and Efraim gave us three large bags of lemons before they sent us on our way.

Geoff versus some lemons… Man, we made out like bandits!

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Israel: Akko

When you bring people together from different areas of your life, they don't always hit it off. My trip to Akko in March was a good example of this.

For this trip, I invited my good friends Geoff and Masha from Column A, and my good friend Micheline from Column B. Geoff and I worked in the same office, and Masha was his girlfriend at the time. Micheline worked in a different office in the embassy, and she and Geoff did not know each other (or at least not very well) before joining me on this trip.

As we drove the hour or so north, things were sociable enough in the car. The conversation, however, remained a little too polite for my liking.

We reached Akko at around noon and found the Old City after a few minutes of driving around the New City. Then I parked the G3, the Green Gas Guzzler, on a street by the ancient city walls near the Mediterranean Sea, and we continued on foot.

Akko has been around for ages, and it's been conquered and lived in by the Crusaders, Ottomans, and the rest of the power players. Currently, and for at least the last century, though, it has been an Arab town.

We started our sightseeing by checking out the ruins of a sea fortress which was close to the car.
Then we passed by the lighthouse and entered the winding streets of the Old City. On our way to the souq, we passed through the Khan al-Umdan with its clock tower.

The souq was full of good looking fruits and vegetables as well as nice seafood. The shrimp in particular made me wish that I had brought a cooler along.

In the seafood area, there were also a few sharks on display that were for sale, I guess. Each was about six feet long, and they were hanging on hooks. Up until that point, I had never really thought about sharks swimming in the Med.

Near the sharks, there was a boy with a python around his shoulders trying to attract a few tourist shekels.

At the end of the food market, the cobblestone street gave way to a paved one, and the food stalls were replaced by tacky tourist stores. The crap in these stores was of two varieties: There were souvenirs like seashell baskets, belly-dancing skirts, and olive wood camels, and there were general, generic gifts like soccer balls, remote-control cars, and baby strollers for dolls.

Among these lower-end stores, there were a few places that were more upmarket, selling things like jewelry and art.

Micheline was interested in some small sculptures, but the prices were dangerously bloated in Akko. Pieces by the same artist could be found for much cheaper in Jerusalem, and the same was true for most everything else in the store.

We left empty-handed.

Our location at the market put us near the Citadel, so before we moved away, we put the Citadel to a quick vote. Masha, Geoff, and I weren't really interested in touring it, and while Micheline thought it was worthwhile, she had toured it already on an earlier visit. So, she also voted against it.

We moved on to the Mosque of al-Jazzar, where we looked around for a few minutes.

Then it was time for some lunch.

As we walked back through the market, we passed a variety of options but settled on a small hummus joint. It was after 2:00 by the time we sat down, so we had missed the noon rush.

We ordered some pitas, a few plates of hummus, and some vegetables to share.

It was good, and the price was right.

After lunch, we poked around the Old City a bit longer. When we emerged at the marina, Geoff suggested that we take a cruise around the harbor. Masha and I were keen on the idea, but Micheline wasn't interested. Her trick knees were already a bit sore from the walking earlier in the day, and she just wanted to rest. She found a bench and insisted that we go ahead without her, and we did.

At the waterfront, we found a boatman without much effort and bought some tickets for a cruise. Then we waited for several minutes for him to finish rounding up a critical mass of passengers.

The cruise itself lasted about 20 minutes, and it was a pleasant diversion. It afforded us nice views of Akko and of Haifa to the south.

When we rejoined Micheline, she was carefully studying the dynamics of a group of teenagers as she sipped on a cup of coffee. We tore her away just moments before she gained the trust of the leader.

Then we worked our way back to the market. Geoff asked if we were interested in getting a nargila to smoke, but none of us were. Instead, I purchased an assortment of Mideastern sweets to try from the market's bakeries, and the others had hot drinks.

As we had our snacks, the market began shutting down. It was approaching 5:00.

We wrapped up our day and headed back to the car.

Along the way, we passed a little boy who was peeing in the street.

“Just like a little taxi driver,” I commented.

Everyone laughed about this, and then we spent the next several minutes sharing tales of private acts done in public that we had observed on the mean streets of Israel.

Soon enough we were on the road again, and it wasn't long after we reached the highway that our conversation petered out. Micheline, who was sitting in the front passenger seat, went to sleep, and Geoff and Masha, who were sitting in the back, talked to each other. I listened to a CD.

About halfway home, Masha started laughing and groaned out, “Geoff!”

And about two seconds later, I could smell why. The hummus was fighting back.

Without saying a word, I used the master control panel at my seat to lower Geoff's window long enough to aerate the car. Then I put it back up.

I didn't think much about Operation Fresh Air, but Masha really got a kick out of it. She would laugh about the incident for months to come.

We made it home without any further excitement, and everyone claimed to have had a good time. I don't doubt that they had enjoyed themselves, but I felt that, considering the slight bit of tension that seemed to be hanging over the group, the trip could definitely have been better. In any case, Akko itself ranked very highly with me. Even though we skipped the Citadel, the subterranean Crusader city, and many of the other main attractions, it was still one of my favorite places in Israel.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Israel: Mini Israel, Latrun

It was a nice enough Saturday in March when I organized an outing to Mini Israel (See it all small!) in Latrun with my good friends Andy and Yoav.

As we started the trip, we weren't five minutes down the road before Yoav started complaining about the music I was playing. Not interested in the whining, I let him select a different CD from my collection.

He chose Yo-Yo Ma.

Unfortunately, we were flying down the highway with the windows down, and the subtlety of the classical music was overwhelmed by the roaring wind. In order to compensate for this, we had to crank the music to a completely inappropriate level, which we did. Thankfully, though, the complaining ceased.

Latrun is about halfway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and we arrived in about half an hour.

Mini Israel is a tourist attraction (trap) that features over 350 models of the top sites in Israel. Nearly all are rendered at a scale of 1:25.

While the models were scaled down, the entrance fee certainly wasn't, and we all experienced sticker shock at the ticket window. An adult ticket cost 65 shekels, which was about 15 bucks a person.

After a moment of serious deliberation, we decided to tour the place in spite of the price.

The park was divided into six parts that were loosely laid-out in a Star of David pattern. The six zones included three cities (Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Haifa) and three regions (the North, the South, and the Center).

We started by touring Haifa and then moved on to the North.

At about this point, Yoav casually asked if anyone was up for grabbing coffee at the little café that was near the park entrance. Andy wasn't interested, and neither was I, so we continued looking around.

Yoav's query was more of a cry for help than a question, however, and when Andy and I passed on the coffee break, Yoav basically stopped functioning. He was debilitated by his lack of joe. It was 2:30 in the afternoon.

Before things got too theatrical, though, we trouped over to the snack bar, and Andy and I watched Yoav drink a coffee.

When he was sufficiently revived, we finished touring.

Mini Israel, while expensive, was actually pretty nice. The detail work on most of the models was impressive, and some were even interactive. For example, at the Western Wall, you could make the crowd pray by pushing a button.

On our way out of the park, we noticed a coming attraction that, when completed, would make Mini Israel loads better. They were installing a go-kart track.

It was after 4:00 when we hit the road back to Tel Aviv, so I tossed out the idea of stopping for an early dinner. Andy and Yoav were agreeable, so we set about deciding on a restaurant.

Yoav was from Bat Yam, which we would pass on our way to Tel Aviv. I suggested that we stop there for a bite, and Andy seconded.

We were both completely serious, but Yoav was convinced that we were making a joke. Bat Yam is a suburb of Tel Aviv, and it has a big inferiority complex. It is one of those places that people with Tel Aviv addresses like to mock, kind of like people in the U.S. used to (still do?) laugh about living in Jersey. I had been to Bat Yam several times prior to our trip, though, and it seemed like a perfectly fine place. Besides all the usual shops and apartments, there was an attractive boardwalk by the sea, and its reputation as the “armpit of Israel” didn't seem to fit.

The more we pushed the issue, the more adamant Yoav became that we shouldn't go to Bat Yam. By the time he wrapped his brain around the fact that we really did want to dine there, we were already back in the heart of Tel Aviv. I turned the car around and drove back.

Even as we parked the car outside the restaurant, Yoav continued resisting. “There - now you've seen Bat Yam,” he announced before we went inside. “We can go now.”

Of course we didn't.

We went to a branch of the chain steakhouse, El Gaucho, and it wasn't nearly as horrible and backward and uncivilized as Yoav would have us believe. We could have been in Tel Aviv as far as I was concerned.

Yoav never could relax, though, and so I stopped short of suggesting a second Bat Yam stop for after-dinner ice cream, lest the strain prove too much for him to bear.