Another picture post today, as I spent the entirety of my summer volunteering at a nonprofit in Tel Aviv teaching Arabic. This was an interesting lesson for me. You see, I have always been an idealist, thinking that being a certified granola crunching woman of the land was my calling (never mind my air-travel pollution). So when I volunteered to teach at a nonprofit over the summer I thought a few things.
1. Finally! I’ll be able to make a difference!
2. Nonprofits are what I want to do for a living.
3. I can totally live on a pauper’s salary.
So, to no one’s surprise but my own, only 1 out of 3 of these thoughts was actually true. (#1, if you’re unsure). It turns out that the girl who flies around first class as much as possible isn’t exactly…stoked about working in a non-air conditioned office in 114 degree weather and 100% humidity.
Not that I’m complaining. I mean, I am. But it was a valuable experience, teaching, and I learned a great many things. I love helping people, that’s true.
But maybe I would prefer to help people somewhere cold. In the winter. With warm pajamas. Enjoy!
We left off most recently with trip reports on Israel, talking about venturing to Sderot and seeing how the people there live their lives in one of the most fortified cites in the world. It’s now been a few months since my (most recent) visit to Israel, but I’ve still got a ton of photos left, so you guys are in luck.
This next post is a little different. Rather than heading down to Sderot because it sounded fun, I went there on the recommendation of Harrison, who suggested I go check out the fortified city in order to better understand more about the Israel-Palestine conflict. So off I went.
I’ll admit, it makes a pretty powerful story. There’s only one person who runs the tours down there, a Jewish guy with American parents who runs a non-profit documenting life under constant fire.
He took me around the town to check out all the different bomb shelters, including one at a playground, which the people of the city have painted to look like a giant caterpillar.
Visually, it is very compelling. And from the perspective of the people who live there, live under fear of constant fire has got to take a pretty severe psychological toll. I hear that. I understand that.
What I didn’t understand was the desire for the people who lived there to…well, live there. Who would voluntarily subject themselves to that? Such was the question I posed to my guide, Noam, on multiple occasions. Essentially, he told me, it came down to finances. Many people from North Africa were settled here in refugee camps in the 50’s and never had the ability to leave. Now, people come because the housing is (understandably) cheap.
It was an enjoyable day, and I appreciated the opportunity to see a bit of the other side. Of course, with any tour, (Palestinian and Israeli alike) you’ve got to take what they say with a grain of salt.
But I particularly enjoyed the lunch we had. Since our tour group consisted of me, and, well, him, we ended up going to a house of a friend of his, who gave us a massive spread for free! Delicious. I also had a look at the border walls separating the Gaza Strip, though wasn’t able to see much of Gaza itself, since “tensions” had forced any viewpoints to be closed for fear of snipers.
All in all it was a good day. Politically charged? You betcha. But informative and unique and something I’d recommend anyone to visit. Here’s the contact link, if you’re interested.
I know you’re all waiting with bated breath to hear my next country of visitation. Bad luck for you all, I’ve already been there. Good luck for you all, I went to a bunch of new places! So, where did I go? Israel, of course.
I’ve brought this up once or twice, I know, but this issue stands at the forefront of my mind. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is something I keep coming face to face with, and I’m constantly struggling with my own thoughts about it. Who’s right? Who’s wrong?
But since this topic happens to be one that particularly interests me, I’ve tried to make the most out of the time I’ve been spending in the Middle East. What does this mean? I want to learn both sides, see both narratives for myself and figure out just what exactly I believe.
Now, when I had planned originally on coming to Israel, I had signed up to go visit Hebron (since the Gaza Strip is closed from the Israeli side, I figured Hebron was the next best), and also arranged for a trip down to Sederot, the nearest Israeli town to the wall that seals off Gaza. Like I said, I’m trying to be the best student I can.
Unfortunately, my trip to Hebron was cancelled, due to conflict in Hebron closing down the Old City. That was truly unfortunate. Next time, I suppose.
Fortunately, though, I managed to spend some awesome time in East Jerusalem, visiting the Garden Tomb (where Jesus may have been buried?)
and walking around, eventually meeting a nice Palestinian girl who inquired if I was lost (in English). I answered her, in Arabic, and we became fast friends, her taking me to lunch and then to her workplace, hanging out there before boarding a bus to…somewhere else? A church somewhere? Anyway, we walked around, walking and talking, and I had an excellent time. We were supposed to meet up again, heading to Jericho for the day, but unfortunately never got back in touch.
You all know that the best times I have are when I learn to stop saying “no” and just go with things. So it was with her, when she dragged me on the bus and out of town we went, stopping for a photo of “the best view in town.” She wasn’t wrong.
Next up, my visit to Sederot, (probably) the world’s most fortified city, and an excellent insight into certain aspects of life in the Middle East.
The day after returning from my trip through Palestine, Harrison and I made our way down to Ein Gedi, a really cool nature preserve on the Dead Sea.
I’m going to tell you all, it’s super surreal being on the other side. Like, looking over and seeing Jordan so close…but as Harrison succinctly put it, “it’s a world away.” And that’s true, getting across is both time-consuming and expensive. It’s almost as if they don’t want to encourage border crossings.
Anyway, I enjoyed pointing out my hotel from the Dead Sea across the border (Hello Hilton!), and getting to see what life is like on the other side.
The Ein Gedi nature preserve is a unique place. It’s essentially a large park in the middle of the desert, where natural springs create a lush environment of greenery in an otherwise stark landscape. Ibex, Iroc, and other animals roam freely, unafraid of all the people wandering through.
Waterfalls make large pools that you can both swim in and drink from, though hopefully not at the same time.
We stayed at the Ein Gedi hotel, a lovely little place run by a Kibbutz. Do you know what a Kibbutz is? It’s essentially a communal living environment for Jewish groups, who all live and work together for the common good. Originally agricultural, Kibbutz’s have now expanded their reach to include things like light manufacturing and hospitality. So it was that we ended up staying here, right on the edge of the nature preserve.
One of the first things we did (and what we did most) was head out to the massive pool area, where everyone naturally congregates and whose size I cannot convey to you accurately. The pool was really big, all right?
There was a spa too, with free Turkish baths and even a pool filled with Dead Sea water, which I didn’t realize until I got in and nearly flipped upside down due to the buoyancy. Oops. Good thing I hadn’t shaved! (The water will BURN if you’ve shaved within the last 24 hours)
Our second day there, we went on a guided hike through the nature preserve, which I will summarily describe as “hellishly hot.”
Did I mention it was the Middle East in the summer? It was so hot that as soon as we reached the first spring, Harrison ducked right in despite being fully dressed. I happened to be wearing a white shirt, and wasn’t up for a wet t-shirt contest, so I made do with merely sticking my feet in.
We hiked all the way to David’s Spring, which is also apparently holy, and took a bunch of pictures before heading back down the mountain.
After that there was nothing left to do except go back to the pool, obviously. We were so overheated that other movement was not an option.
Picking up where I left off yesterday, we made our way from Ramallah straight to Bethlehem. Upon arriving, we stopped off for lunch, enjoying some Arabic food in the main square before heading to the Nativity Church, which is apparently the second holiest place for Christians (right behind the Church of the Holy Sepulchre).
The entrance is actually pretty neat.
This is the humble door, so called because it forces you to bow as you walk in:
The church has been undergoing extensive renovations for years, and will continue to do so until 2019.
An interesting fact, the Nativity Church is in fact inhabited by three separate churches. The Greek Orthodox Church has a home here, as does the Armenian Orthodox Church, and the Catholic Church. All three maintain the Church and all three have a separate place of worship within the confines of the building.
And here’s a short video of the other two:
Now here’s what you’ve all been eagerly waiting for.
Since the birth of Christ was so long ago, the ground level has been steadily rising, so much so that in order to get to the spot, you have to descend an entire staircase. The entire outside of it is covered in paintings and art.
It takes you into a stifling room, crowded and hot, where on one side you can kneel and touch the place where Jesus was apparently born, and on the other view the place where the original manger lay.
Even though I’m not religious by any stretch of the imagination, this was a really excellent experience. It’s awe-inspiring, really, to see such a place in person.
After the church we again walked through the streets, culminating in a journey through one of the refugee camps built by the UN and a stroll by the separation wall, which is covered in all kinds of different graffiti/ artwork.
For those of you who don’t know, Banksy, the famous artist, has come out to Bethlehem a number of times to paint and protest the separation wall and the Israeli state. He’s even opened his own hotel in Bethlehem, in which he’s hand-painted most of the walls and maintains a small museum. It’s a really neat place to visit, especially as he’s so well-known throughout the rest of the world.
Ok, now here is where things got a little squirrelly. As part of the tour, we were promised “a real experience in the life of a Palestinian having to cross the border and go through checkpoints.”
I mean that’s cool and all, I don’t mind checkpoints.
What I did mind, however, was learning that my way back, taking a public bus back to Jerusalem from the border, was to be accomplished alone, which was exactly opposite of the point of me signing up for a group tour.
The German family were going back to Tel Aviv, so they were picked up in a shuttle right outside the gate.
In contrast, I waited at the Banksy hotel for our tour guide to come back and escort me to the entrance of the checkpoint, at which point he clapped me on the shoulder, told me to look for a blue and white bus, and bid me adieu.
What in the actual f***.
To my eternal gratitude, another guy happened to be walking through the checkpoint, so he volunteered to show me through, which is excellent because how am I supposed to figure out a random border crossing in the middle of Israel?
It turned out the guy was also heading to Jerusalem, to Jaffa gate (my stop), and so he actually showed me the entire way back. Chatting, I learned that he was a Palestinian volunteering at a joint Israeli/Palestinian peace organization, working to create better relations between the two. He spoke excellent English and I ended up having a very pleasant time on the way back to Jerusalem.
I know you’ve all been waiting with bated breath for this post. Who doesn’t want to visit Palestine? (Don’t answer that).
I signed myself up for a couple different tours during the week, one of which was a day trip to both Bethlehem and Ramallah. Now, there is a way to get to Bethlehem via bus or taxi from Jerusalem, but as a single female (I know I say that a lot), I didn’t feel especially safe just wandering the country alone. Thus, I joined up with Green Olive tours, which I would highly recommend.
My tour mates were a German family of five, whose youngest was still in a baby carrier. I have no idea what they were doing there, but they seemed pretty stoked to be on vacation.
The day started early, meeting at 08:30am to start the drive outside the city. Originally, we were supposed to head to Bethlehem first and then Ramallah, but our tour guide switched it up so we made our way to Ramallah first.
It’s an interesting place. I’m assuming most of you have heard buckets of things about it. For those of you who haven’t, it serves as the de facto capital of the Palestinian state. Because of this, I was envisioning some dystopian nightmare, where electricity was nonexistent and trash drifted freely through the city.
To my complete surprise, it wasn’t like that at all. It was actually pretty…well…nice. Most of it is new (since it is constantly being rebuilt), and once inside it functions much like a regular city. In fact, it reminded me greatly of Amman, minus the Palestinian flags flying everywhere.
Nationalism is strong here.
Our tour guide was obviously an Arab, so I spent most of the time chatting with him (half in Arabic, half in English) as we wandered the streets of the city. We walked through a busy street market and wended our way about town, eventually stopping for some 10am ice cream at an apparently famous shop.
Yes, it was delicious.
We also saw Yasser Arafat’s grave, which is given a place of honor in the middle of Ramallah’s capital building.
Pause for a moment here. As you have probably all figured out, much of what I know about the Middle East comes from an Arab perspective. And yes, I’ve studied a lot in college and done a lot of research, etc, but still- most things I know come tinted with the taste of Arab culture.
So, it was a shock to me when I learned that Yasser Arafat is considered a terrorist by many- and most especially by Israelis. This may sound obvious to some of you, but the only things I’d ever heard were praises singing of his desire for deconflicting the Israel-Palestine situation and his efforts to create a solution for the both of them. Upon learning this, I went online to look- and yes- there it was, his history as a supporter of violence and his youth spent battling Israel. Of course, this all culminated in his recognition of Israel as a state and his further efforts to create some peace…but it’s just another radical example of differing narratives. Israel/Palestine is a study in those.
Anyway after Ramallah we made our way to Bethlehem to go visit some Jesus-y goodness. It’s a long story, so I’ll post it separately tomorrow.
See you guys soon!
I’m writing to you from the roomy excess of Economy+, where I shelled out an extra seventy bucks for the ability to recline my seat more than two inches. I know, I’m fancy.
So yesterday I told you all about how I got to Israel, and promised lots of stories on the things I did while there. First up is the city of Jerusalem.
I’m going to try to keep this as apolitical as possible. That seems like an impossible task, doesn’t it? Suffice to say that Jerusalem, and Israel as a whole, is a divisive country. Of course everyone already knows that, but it’s one thing to read about in the newspapers and another thing entirely to witness it firsthand.
Take for example, the choking air of intentionally lit forest fires, struck simply to cause terror and otherwise defile the city. Or the ominous clattering of armed guards gathered solemnly in a market, an overt presence that no one fails to notice. In short, it’s tense.
That aside, it’s a remarkable country, and a true joy to visit. This wasn’t actually my first time here. I made a short stop in Jerusalem awhile back, but didn’t get the chance to really explore like I did this time. Even better- you guys remember Harrison, of Ethiopia fame? Remember how I said he lived in the Middle East? Yeah, this meant that I had an awesome place to crash, which was excellent because hotels in Israel are *disgustingly* expensive. (Minimum $200/night! And no points redemptions!)
So here we go!
Jerusalem is packed with things to see and do. I spent most of my first few days simply wandering around, hitting up famous places like the Western Wall:
And Machne Yehuda, the bustling market where fruit vendors vie for attention with tiny bars and hole-in-the-wall restaurants (with the best food).
As well as the Old City, whose narrow corridors are packed with shopkeepers and their wares, each shouting louder than the last in order to sell you “real Dead Sea mineral mud from Israel!”
I even ventured out to the Israel Museum, which is enormous and whose archeology department is one of the ten best in the world. I spent an hour and a half here and only managed to get through this one section. It’s huge and very cool- definitely worth a visit.
Unfortunately I didn’t make it to the Al-Aqsa mosque (Temple Mount), as things were…in a bad way. Just a few days prior, there had been an attack at the mosque and several people were killed. Thus, it was closed. Next time?
I did, however, have one of the best meals of my life. (This was actually from my first time here, but I’m only just now getting to write about it). There’s a restaurant called Machneyuda, owned by 3 famous chefs, where apparently there are tons of lines and it’s nigh impossible to get a reservation. Luckily, Harrison managed to snag one for us and we celebrated by eating approximately all the food. Seriously, we did a tasting menu, which was like…seven courses long.
I even ate things I’ve sworn off of for forever, like tuna (raw!), scallops (what was I thinking?), halibut (no but seriously I swear I don’t eat fish), and bone marrow, which was surprisingly my least favorite thing on the menu. I don’t recommend it.
It also came with five different desserts, which I somehow managed to eat all of because everyone knows that your dessert stomach is separate from your food stomach.
Unfortunately for us, we had a lunch reservation rather than dinner, which meant that after eating the whole day was shot. I think I trundled back to my room and watched crappy Hebrew tv for the next five hours. I’m a superstar tourist, you guys.
Anyway, Jerusalem is really cool. It’s this weird mix- in which ultra-Orthodox Jews mingle past girls in daisy dukes clutching frappuccinos. (Ok that was me). There’s new next to old, and an ever-expanding city that promises a respite from the harshness of the desert via A/C and deeply tinted windows. (And, like, nice designs too, I guess).
Up next- a day tour to Bethlehem and Ramallah, because of course I did.
I’m writing to you from the sunny beach of Tel Aviv, where I’m resisting a second mimosa because it’s ten am and maybe I should have some self control?
Anyway, I’ve been in Israel for the last week, doing tons of cool stuff which obviously I’m going to write about.
First, the fun stuff. How did I get here? *bragbragbrag* Flights to Israel are stupid expensive, so I wasn’t looking forward to dropping over a thousand bucks to haul myself across the world. It took a few weeks of searching, and just as I was resigned to hopping a complicated points-based itinerary through Europe, I happened to see- somehow- a single day of flights out of Boston that were priced at $600 rather than the normal $1200. Even better, the flights were on Delta.
As I’ve mentioned multiple times, the American Express Business Platinum card will give you a rebate back on points redeemed for your chosen airline. For new sign-ups, the bonus is 35%, but I’m grandfathered in (until October) at a 50% rebate. Delta happens to be my preferred airline, so I redeemed 30,000 American Express membership reward points for my flight. This effectively meant I paid $300 ‘worth’ of points for my round trip itinerary to Tel Aviv and back. Yay!
Of course, I still had to get to Boston, but luckily flights out there from San Francisco are very cheap. (And I used points, obviously).
This is the second time I’ve given myself the benefit of the doubt and scheduled a day long layover somewhere in the hopes that I would go explore the city. It’s also the second time that I’ve been a total lazy-ass and sat in the lounge for the whole day while watching Netflix and generally mucking about online. I’m so impressed with myself.
Anyway, here I am, hanging out on the beach and roasting in the Middle Eastern summer sun. Maybe that’s why flights were so cheap?
Up next- exploring Jerusalem, being Biblical, and hiking at the Dead Sea.