Israel

The chronicling of a pilgrimage.  By no means comprehensive.

12/20/09

  • 8:00 AM (GMT -8). Arrive at LAX for a 1:30 PM flight at request of group leaders.  Group leaders are late and roll in at 9:00.  Precedent is set.
  • 9:30. El Al security has this whole interview process before they give you a ticket — I was quizzed on Jewish holidays, Hebrew, my ancestry… And finally five years at Los Angeles Hebrew High School paid off: I knew enough about Jewish history to avoid having my carry-on taken and cavity-searched.  (Is that a verb? It is now.)  Money.
  • 12:00 – 2:00. Flight delayed.  Wait.  (El Al apparently also runs on Jewish Standard Time.  Not surprising.)
  • 2:45. Strap myself in for a sixteen-hour flight.
  • 4:00. Ohdeargod I’m bored already.
  • 5:00 – 11:00. Every movie on this flight is crap.  Start and finish Cat’s Cradle (excellent read).
  • 11:00 – 8:00. Sleep for thirty minutes.  Wake up, lament not removing contacts for twenty minutes, fall back to sleep.  Repeat ad nauseum.  By the end of this cycle I have spent 24 hours in transit.  Which means it’s actually…

21/12/09 (note date change to the convention EVERY SENSIBLE COUNTRY USES)

  • 3:00 PM (GMT +2). Land at Ben Gurion in Tel Aviv.
  • 4:00. Change real money to the New Israeli Shekel.  I now have a pocketful of Monopoly money.
  • 5:00 – 7:00. Drive to Tiberius.  My first memories of Israel are being passed the fuck out on a bus due to exhaustion and jet lag.
  • 7:00. Stay at the King Solomon Hotel.  Four years of Hebrew classes serve to only remind me that I once knew the word for hotel in Hebrew.  King Solomon is built like an Escher painting so that every single room has a secluded balcony with an amazing view of the Sea of Galilee.  Getting to the hotel at night, however, just meant it looked like I was confronting some gaping Lovecraftian abyss of isolation and nothingness every time I looked out the window.
  • 7:06. I close the curtains.

Turns out it looks like this, and not like the maw of Cthulu.

  • 9:00. Terrible ice breakers are played.  I overhear a joke about fat polar bears.  I like this group.
  • 10:30. Experience the magic that are duty-free purchases.

22/12/09

  • 9:00 AM. Hike Mt. Arbel, which apparently translates from Hebrew to “scale down a cliff to get to a castle”.  Amazing hike, great views of the Golan and of the Galilee.  Saw a hyrax, which is a surprisingly adorable meerkat kinda thing with a name that sounds like a Tolkien dragon and whose closest relative is apparently an elephant (evolution’s weird).  At one point the trail was blocked by a cow.

The views were okay, I guess.

  • 12:00. Visit צפת, city of a thousand transliterations.  (Seriously, I saw at least Tsfat, Tzfat, Tsefat, Safed, Safad, Zefat, and Zfat, all on signs in the city itself.  I’m going to stick to “Tsfat” because shut the hell up, that’s why.)  Had my first shawarma of the trip, and my first lafa of the trip — massive success.
  • 1:00. Walk around the city of Tsfat, which up to this point is the oldest place I’ve ever been.  See some crazy old synagogues, and more baby blue than I’ve ever seen before.  Turns out it repels evil spirits.  Or something.
  • 4:00. My first taste of post-Stanford pretentiousness comes with a visit to the Galil Winery for a wine tasting.

23/12/09

  • 9:30 AM. Visit Mt. Bental, which houses a decommissioned Israeli bunker that overlooks the Golan Heights, as well as Lebanon and Syria.  The only place I’ve been where I could see three different countries with my naked eye.  Pretty cool.  Driving into the Golan, however, is pretty terrifying — for probably a half mile, every single field is fenced off and dotted with “WARNING — LAND MINES” signs, remnants of the Six Day War in 1967 when Israel seized the Golan from Syria.  There are also herds of cows wandering around these fields, so I was kind of waiting for it to start raining t-bones in a tragically delicious explosion of beef.  Sadly, this never happened.

Lebanon

  • 10:00. Two UN soldiers roll up to eat brunch, no big deal.
  • 12:00. Tour an olive oil factory.  Turns out olives solve every single malady that has ever plagued a human being, from cholesterol to psoriasis to probably syphilis.  Olive soap, for the record, is a disgusting — DISGUSTING — dark brown paste, but feels amazing.  And smells like lemon-scented 409.
  • 3:30.  Hike around the ancient city of Gamla (translates to “camel” becasue the city was built on a hill that looks just like a hump).  Absolutely stunning views of the canyon it’s built in.

There's a waterfall in here somewhere.

24/12/09

  • 8:30 AM. Drive to Jerusalem.  Turns out the fastest way to do this is through the West Bank — surprise.  The West Bank is a study in contrasts.  Every five minutes or so, the landscape changes dramatically from barren desert to irrigated fields, from destitute Palestinian settlements to heavily guarded and fenced off Israeli ones.
  • 9:30. Someone on the bus decides they have to pee, which leads to the best rest stop ever.  There was a group of Israeli soldiers hanging around the gas station, and were more than happy to take pictures with the annoying American tourists.  Now, when I asked one for a picture, he first HANDS ME HIS ASSAULT RIFLE and then says “Smile.”  This country is absurd.

I take some comfort in the fact that he could kill me twelve different times before I managed to put the clip in.

  • 10:00. As we leave, I notice that there’s a group of Bedouins who have parked their camels in the lot.  Seriously.

But can it go in the carpool lane?

  • 10:30. Arrive in Jerusalem.  The skyline of the city is completely unique and indescribably beautiful, so here’s a picture (mostly of the fog):

Now with more Dome.

  • 11:00. Sight see in the city, which includes King David’s tomb and the room where the Last Supper was eaten.  (I didn’t even know that room existed. So cool.)
  • 4:00. See the Western Wall.  It might be an understatement, but the wall was pretty incredible.
  • 5:30. See our first Nachman van — these Hasidic Jews drive around Jerusalem in pimped out vans with huge speaker systems blasting trance music and dancing.  Best religious expression ever.
  • 7:00. Go to dinner at the trip organizer’s CEO’s house… in the West Bank.  Being in a Jewish settlement in the West Bank was a strange experience — I could see Jordan from the guy’s house.
  • 10:00. Got back to the hotel we stayed in, which looked like an IKEA showroom, I kid you not.

25/12/09 — Merry Christmas! (Like that matters in this country.)

  • 9:00 AM. Start the day with a cheery trip to Mt. Herzl cemetery.  Solemn on the whole, but we did meet up with the seven Israeli Defense Force soldiers who traveled around with us for the rest of the trip.
  • 11:30. Visit the Mahane Yehuda market, which is like Olvera Street meets the Chabad Telethon meets Disneyland.

Meets Aladdin.

  • 4:30. Walk back to the Western Wall for Shabbat.  Now, on the 24th there were maybe 300 or 400 people there when we showed up.  On the 25th, there are easily 3000 to 4000.  We’re talking a sea of Hasidim.  Between the crowd of swaying black hats and the enormous dance circles led by bearded rabbis standing on chairs and chanting, it reminded me of what Paris Hilton’s bat mitzvah would be like if she ever deemed invading Judaism as prudent as her other wacky misadventures.  (Does this sound like a movie pitch?  I’m thinking of selling it to Hollywood.)

26/12/09

  • 1:00 PM. Walk to the Knesset, Israel’s parliament.  Turns out even though Tel Aviv is the capital of Israel according to the UN, Israel’s not too keen on that and has moved virtually all of her governmental buildings to Jerusalem.  Powder keg of international tensions  ready to blow?  Maybe.  Other fun fact:  proportional representation in Israel’s parliament means obscure minority parties get seats in the national legislature, including such luminary parties as the Taxi Drivers Union and the “Green Leaf” Party (I’ll let you figure out that they support on your own).
  • 2:30. Pass the coolest bridge ever on the way back to the hotel.

And on the eighth day, God got insanely jealous that man had created this bridge.

  • 7:00.  Night out in Jerusalem.  Highlights include bar hopping, delicious pizza, and a מקדונלדס (McDonald’s — they serve McShawarma).

27/12/09

  • 10:00 AM. Start the day with a somber visit to Yad Vashem, the world’s largest Holocaust museum/memorial.  Insanely powerful.  I spent the next three hours stupidly depressed.
  • 2:00. Visit the Jerusalem Artists’ house, see some cool art and stuff.
  • 2:30. Travel south to the Negev desert.  We stayed in Yerucham, which is a tiny town in the middle of a godforsaken desert.  Reminded me of Acton.
  • 9:00. Soldiers’ friends turn out to be a really good band, and give a concert.  Most interesting mix of hit seventies songs and contemporary Israeli music I’ve ever heard.

28/12/09

  • 10:00 AM. Went for a hike in the Negev desert.

I can kind of see why the Israelites decided to wander around the desert for forty years.

  • 11:30. Visit David Ben-Gurion’s tomb.  Guy has a great view.

Ladies and gentlemen, for your consideration... the Jericho.

  • 2:00. Visit a kibbutz and plant a self-watering tree (slanted hole covered in plastic collects dew and waters the sapling).  I get to use a pickax.  Dangerous?  Probably.

Also, these were the two guys who met us there. LOOK AT THEM.

  • 4:00. Show up at the Bedouin “tent” where we’re spending the night.  Real Bedouin settlements look more like corrugated steel sheds erected temporarily in the desert; we had working toilets.  (Dude ranch : cattle driving :: our Bedouin tent : Bedouin lifestyle.)  Still pretty cool though.  Plus I got to ride a camel and they served me delicious food I got to eat with my hands, so what’s not to love?

29/12/09

  • 4:00 AM (yes, you read that right). Wake up before dawn to go hike up Masada, an ancient Jewish fortress.  I didn’t even know this side of 4 AM existed.
  • 5:30. Reach the top of Masada.  Masada is apparently right around sea level, but overlooks the Dead Sea — so you’re about 1300 feet up when you look off the side.

One of the best sunrises I've seen.

  • 11:00. Go to the Dead Sea.  Potentially one of the coolest parts of the trip — I knew you float in the Dead Sea, but I didn’t actually know that YOU FLOAT IN THE DEAD SEA.  So cool.

And I got a full spa treatment -- I covered myself in mud, and I went in a sulfur hot spring (where I ALSO COULD FLOAT).

  • 1:00. Travel to Tel Aviv, the one city in Israel we visited that reminded me of America.  Unlike other cities, where modern buildings share streets with 3000 year old ones, Tel Aviv is mostly new.  And shiny.
  • 6:00. Night out in Tel Aviv.  Highlights include one club, even better pizza (served by an Austrian immigrant who used to work in New York as a stock broker), and great dancing.
  • 2:00. Attempt to find my way back to the hotel with a group of three other lost Americans.  Sat by the Mediterranean Sea and ate delicious Israeli snack food for a while before making several wrong turns and taking almost an hour and a half for a walk that should have taken a third of the time.

30/12/09

  • 9:00 AM.  Sight see around Tel Aviv, including the place where Yitzhak Rabin was murdered and the place where a magician was in the process of breaking David Blaine’s submerged-in-a-block-of-ice record.  Oh, Israel, you are dichotomy exemplified.
  • 10:30. Visit the IDF museum, which has the largest collection of guns and tanks outside of an army base probably anywhere.  Our guide, Dafna, was irresistibly adorable, even when talking about amphibious tanks that turn into bridges or Israeli militants hiding ammo in desks.
  • 2:00. Visit Independence Hall, where the creation of the State of Israel was declared.  I wish I had more to say on this, but by this point of the trip I was so sleep-deprived that I slept through the entire presentation.  Whoops.
  • 5:30. Free time in a really fancy Tel Aviv mall.  Why?  I think they just ran out of things to show us.
  • 8:30. Get to the airport and… leave.  Really couldn’t believe it was actually over until I was sitting on the plane.
  • 10:00. Well, okay, at this point at hadn’t gotten on the plane yet because I had the single worst check-in line of all time.  Also, I have a standby seat on the airplane.  I am upset.
  • 11:30. Turns out that I’m given a seat in the row behind first class, which has about three times as much leg room as the rest of the plane.  I am placated.
  • 12:30 AM. Plane takes off, but that means it’s really…

12/31/09

  • 12:30 AM (GMT +2). Like I said, the plane takes off.  I actually just assume it took off — I fell asleep literally as soon as I sat down in my seat and didn’t wake up for eight or nine hours.
  • 9:00. This flight was exponentially better than the one to Israel, from the movie choice to the leg room to the SCREAMING BABY TO MY LEFT THAT WOULD NOT SHUT UP FOR THE LAST SIX HOURS OF THE FLIGHT.
  • 6:30 AM (GMT -8). Land at LAX.  Go immediately into withdrawals.

About a third of the group, but the best (digital) group picture I have. So deal.

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