Friday, November 26, 2010

A Stroll Through the Desert

When my friends told me they wanted to do an eight-hour, 23 Kilometer trek from Arad to the Dead Sea, I laughed.

Next I know it, I’m waking up at 4:45 am, putting on my hiking boots, ready to embark on a fifteen-mile Journey through the Negev (or Desert).

With three sandwiches, apples, crackers, four liters of water, sunscreen, a hat, bathing suit and towel, my backpack weighed about twenty pounds. I wondered if I’d make it out alive, especially after a nearly sleepless night.

Groggy and tired, I joined the group of twelve courageous souls down the road, leaving Arad.

It was still dark. Some locals were by the bars, after a long night out, astonished to see a pack of Americans and Brits bearing hiking gear, a map, a compass, and eager expressions. Despite it being the middle of the night, we couldn’t wait to get started.

We began by walking down the winding highway as the sun was rising behind the mountains. Not a bad way to start.

The first five kilometers, which is around three miles, was just road. But unlike highways in America, to our right and left we saw endless hills of sand and rock. Just that incredible view alone would have been worth seeing.

While we walked we alternated between word games, chatting, and making up our own “Year Course” lyrics to popular songs. Though these games helped me stay awake, it was during the moments of silence, between conversations, that I felt most content. There was a calm nothingness in the air--a silence I’ve only ever experienced in the desert.

When we began getting a bit hungry and sore, and we hadn’t yet reached the path, we knew something was wrong. According to our map, we missed the left turn to the trail that was supposed to be marked with a blue white blue symbol. We called our hiking leader, woke him up, and made him confirm that the path was, in fact, blue white blue. He insisted it was, and that we simply missed it by a few Kilometers on our left.

So, we turned around, and stopped when we saw the tiniest rock with a white blue white symbol. We had seen it when we walked by the first time, but automatically dismissed it because we were instructed it was, for sure, blue white blue.

It was the right path after all.

Turns out that slight err of detail was the cause of our frustration. My friends and I came to the conclusion that in addition to reading backwards, Israelis must also have their colors backwards.

In the end, I’m happy that those extra few Kilometers didn’t dissuade us from continuing the hike. While the others in our group remained on the windy road towards the Sea, four of us decided to take the true path through the desert—the real deal.

And so the walking began.

The soreness and blisters emerged soon after, sometime between the hours of eight and ten AM. However, I’ll never really know, for the hours are blended together in my mind as one big physically intense challenge.

Around every bend and after climbing every hill, my friend Tasha would exclaim “I promise we’ll see the sea just after this turn!” We would automatically yell back, “TASHA, WE AREN’T EVEN CLOSE YET!” This went on for about six hours, until we finally reached the last stretch of hike.

Though much of the hike itself is merely a hazy memory of sweat, snack breaks, and guzzling water, I’ll never forget when we reached the halfway mark. Due to my level of soreness, I thought for sure we were nearly at the Dead Sea. When Josh showed me where we were on the map, I couldn’t contain myself. In a state of utter delirium and dehydration, I began to laugh. Correction—I BURST out in laughter at the helplessness of the situation. I was going to finish this darn hike. There was no turning back.

The uncontrollable laughter didn’t subside for a good twenty minutes. My friends thought I was going insane, and insisted I finish my bottle of water. It’s easy to forget to drink when you’re focused on the fifteen blisters that are overtaking your feet.

We were able to distract ourselves from our aching feet every time we took a second to notice our incredible surroundings: No buildings. No electrical poles. No streets.

To many who’ve never been, the desert seems simple—rocky, sandy, dry. But when you have walked miles through it, lived in it, and been immersed in it, you see much more. You see the craters that appear to be miles deep; hills of every shade of red, orange, and brown; blue-ish purple mountains in the distance, where the ground fades into immaculately blue sky. And from the top of a mountain, seeing it all at together, makes you feel so small in the vastness of Israel’s Negev.

Every time we stopped to notice our environment, we felt that we had to express our gratitude:

How lucky are we to be doing this hike, with our best friends, in our favorite place in the world?

Hours of hiking passed; ten AM turned into noon, and soon, it was the hottest part of the day. Around one, we reached the hardest part of the hike.

Being the ambitious young adults we are, we chose the most difficult trek down. The Red Path.

We proceeded to rock climb down the incredibly steep mountain, which may have just as well been called a cliff. Thankfully, we could see the Sea from the top, so we had a clear destination in our view.

At first, we were all a bit hesitant to start climbing down. Blistered and bruised, we were ready for bed. It took all of our strength to push ourselves down the mountain, taking caution with each shaky step.

At one flat formation on the way down, we decided to take a break. The view was absolutely stunning. We perched ourselves on different rocks on the tiny plateau and sat in silence, marveling at the crystal blue still water. We knew, as we stared at the sea below us, that we had truly accomplished something great. Though we hadn’t yet reached the bottom, we didn’t need to touch the Dead Sea to affirm our efforts. That view was enough.

When we did finally reach the bottom, we hobbled like penguins across the road and immediately removed our hiking boots. Our feet weren’t a pretty sight. We had a bit of a laugh comparing blisters, aches, and pains. Fifteen miles of hiking will do that to you.

At that point, all I could think was hallelujah! I’m in civilization! Now someone get me an iced coffee!

Without exaggeration, a turtle would have beaten us in a race to the nearest Aroma (the Starbucks equivalent in Israel). We inched our way there, laughing as people five times our age in wheel chairs blew past us at lightening speeds. (Others joined in laughing, too, making us a great amusement to the Dead-Sea goers.)

When we finally made it to the cafe, we purchased some iced coffees as a gift to ourselves for completing the biggest hike we’ve ever done. Sipping on that iced Aroma, with my feet up on the big comfy chair, was everything I needed at that moment.

The only thing that could have made that moment better was if we somehow found a hot tub to soak in.

So we did.

Pretending to be guests at the Crowne Plaza Dead Sea hotel, we changed into our bathing suits and casually walked right in.

We placed our backpacks and shoes on a spa chair, stepped into the soothing, bubbly Jacuzzi, and thought silently to ourselves:

What a day.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Carefree in Qesarya

Do you ever feel like you owe it to yourself to do absolutely nothing for an entire weekend?

Do you ever shamelessly plop on the couch and stare wide-eyed at the television, in a half coma, watching Friends reruns for the majority of the day?

Well, if you can’t relate, I’ll simply describe the events (or lack there of) during my trip to Qesarya last weekend.

But before I begin, I want to thank Sharon, my new French friend, for hosting the magnificent relaxation fest that was November 4th- 6th. I wouldn’t have had a sitcom filled, chocolate covered, popcorn flavored weekend extravaganza had she not invited me, along with three of our friends (Maya, Emily, Izzy) to her home in beautiful Qesarya.

Now, step inside the Volcot-Freeman household. You will experience what modern art truly is.

Inside the maroon and yellow painted home, every square inch of wall is a canvas for every color on the wheel. Three dimensional junkyard paintings hang side by side with abstract naked women, adjacent to a portrait of a Chassidic man. Nothing relates, yet a sense of unity exists between the jumbled pieces of art.

You can tell, even behind the modernity of the d├ęcor, that the house isn’t in fact new. Layers of paint reveal that it has been re-done and refurnished, as the house once belonged to Sharon’s Grandparents generations ago.

After marveling at the full size beds we were going to sleep in for the next two nights, we explored the rest of the house. I wouldn’t be lying if I said that what amazed us the most was the colossal bathroom. After living in an apartment with one-and-a half bathrooms for six girls, I’ve come to appreciate such things. Like enclosed showers, tile floors, clean toilets and full-length mirrors, just to name a few.

We had been traveling for nearly four hours, so we were famished. (I forgot to mention that I took a train for the first time in Israel—definitely a few notches up from Metro North Railroad!) There was legroom, a table between every four seats, outlets, and more.

And since we have all become pro-grocery shoppers, we walked down the street to the local supermarket to get ingredients for dinner. A simple penne with marinara and a side salad was all we needed for the perfect low-budget-yet-delicious dinner.

We finished the evening with a lighthearted chic flick, and of course, I was passed out on the couch halfway through the film.

The next day we spent preparing for Shabbat. After sleeping in, I dedicated a few hours to read outside on Sharon’s swinging bench. I can’t even describe how amazing it is to be reading again. I got so lost in the book (Paper Towns), time literally must have flown, because 10 am turned into 1 pm and it was time to do grocery-shopping trip number 2 for our Shabbat meal. We got all the ingredients for a delicious stir-fry, tomorrows breakfast, and some Manishevitz and Challah bread for a real touch of Judaism.

I’ve discovered that cooking Shabbat dinner can be a bonding experience. Maya cooked the chicken and Emily was on vegetable duty all while I created an artistic hummus-cucumber platter and blasted music.

We said our prayers, Challa was thrown across the table, and we exchanged life stories. Our dinner beautifully transitioned into a Friends marathon that would continue for the rest of the weekend.

Besides going on a long run through Qesarya and finishing my book, Saturday was fairly uneventful—plus I have a lot more to talk about in this already lengthy post—so, I’ll sum it up by saying that by Saturday evening, we were well rested, well fed, and well versed in all that pertains to the show Friends. In fact, the theme song “I’ll be there for you…” lingered in the back of my mind for what seemed like an eternity.

The weekend was finally over and Sunday rolled along, bringing another week of volunteering, Ulpan classes, trips, meetings, and group activities.

However, this past Sunday was a special break from the weekly norm--one of the kids at the foster home, Natalie, officially entered the adult Jewish community as a Bat Mitzvah.

We spent the entire morning at Beit Mazor peeling, chopping, stirring, and gathering decorations for the ceremony. After the cooking was done, all of the volunteers decided pitch in for a Bat-Mitvah gift for Natalie—we decided on a silver bracelet with a Star of David charm attached.

The event was held at an upscale Dead Sea hotel, which is about a fifteen-minute drive from my apartment. Fortunately, a significant percentage of the Bat-Mitzvah costs were covered by donations, including the hotel.

When we arrived to help set up, Alon (the owner of the home) meant business. We hurriedly hung up stars, set tables, arranged the buffet, lit candles, and tied maroon and gold tapestries to the walls to create the fairy-tale theme Natalie wanted.

In the end, the party was a huge success. Natalie made a grand entrance (that involved kids throwing flower petals I handpicked from the garden) sang a song, read a speech and danced the night away. Maya and I got to have some fun too, dancing with the kids and embarrassing ourselves as we partied with twelve-year-olds.

Because we worked so hard the previous day, Alon called me the next morning to give me the day off. Although I didn't even want it, he insisted. I decided to do everything I have been yearning to do here in Arad; I took a book out from the library (Eat Pray Love) and read for hours outside on the grass. I'm already in love with the book. I was also able to find some time to draw a portrait in my sketchbook that I'm pretty proud of, AND review for my massive Hebrew test. It was a full day, but totally relaxing.

Well, there's still a lot more to catch up on...but I'll save it for next post. Gotta go to a group activity about my Jewish Identity!

Oh, Year Course...

Saturday, November 6, 2010

15 Seconds

Imagine a nightmare in which you have fifteen seconds to run for your life.

You hear a whistle, and soon after, an explosion that may or may not have hit your home.

Imagine you are a mother, driving in a car, when The Alarm goes off. You pull over to the nearest shelter, and you are faced with a dilemma: which child to save first.

Imagine you are ten years old, playing at recess. All of a sudden, your teacher is yelling at you to run, and you don't know why, but you do it anyway. Then you see parts of your school in flames, while you look through the opening of the "kid-friendly" painted bomb shelter.

To the everyday citizens of Sderot, this nightmare is a reality.

Although the rockets from Gaza to Sderot have dramatically decreased since the Gaza war of 2009, the people of Sderot still live with a constant fear over their heads.

This past Thursday my section visited the city for our weekly Siyur. Before the day trip, we all wondered what we could possibly be doing in the city; gloomy and poverty stricken, Sderot isn't exactly a tourist attraction. However, turns out a lot can be learned from the graffitied buildings and painted bomb shelters.

Located in the southwestern part of Israel, the small city of Sderot overlooks Gaza, thus making it an ongoing target for Quassam rocket attacks. To protect the cities neighboring the Gaza strip, The Israeli Defence Forces have set up the "Tzeva Adom" or Red Color alarm system that sounds, for fifteen seconds, upon detecting a rocket signature. We learned a bit about the alarm system and the citizens of Sderot during the bus tour of the city.

The sights we visited can be defined with the following adjectives: surprising, horrific, and sadly ironic, in that order.

The first place we visited was a large display of Quassam rockets. We learned how to tell the difference between the rockets from different terrorist organizations based on their markings. I was surprised simply by the sheer quantity of rockets present, though it was just a small sample of thousands. Snapshots of explosions appeared before me, and behind each explosion, a story. Although many of those rockets landed in middle-of-nowhere desert, I couldn't help but think of who may have been affected by that piece of metal, now sitting idly on a shelf.

The second sight we saw only through our windows on the bus, but it was nevertheless intense. The visual looked as such: an elementary school with bulky black coverings for protection above the roof. A pink trailer (a separate classroom) worn down and covered in holes from shrapnel. To think an elementary school was targeted for a rocket attack is a horrific thought--it is an image that has yet to escape my thoughts.

One of our last stops of the tour was a playground. As shown in the picture above, a girl stands innocently within a tunnel, and behind her is what seems to be an ordinary jungle-gym. However, if we were to zoom out, we would see that the tunnel is truly a snake shaped bomb-shelter, created specifically for children. I couldn't help but think of the irony in the juxtaposition of the bomb shelter, a refuge from death and terror, and a playground.

I got the feeling that the children of Sderot are unlike other children of Israel.
Babies reflexively lift their arms to be picked up at the sound of sirens. Kids practice running into one of the many shelters dispersed throughout the town. People hop in and out of the shower, just incase they don't hear the alarm. Headphones are worn sparingly. Because hearing the alarm is the difference between life and death, all residents of Sderot are trained to be aware at all times.

Our last stop in Sderot was a place I wasn't expecting Year Course to take us--the Israeli-Gaza border. Like most borders, there is no real geographical separation of the territories. Thus, the view wasn't anything special, or momentous, like one might think it would be. Very anticlimactic, to be honest. Looking over at Gaza, the Israeli-Palestinian struggle became so futile in my mind. Why we couldn't just peacefully inhabit the same space baffled me in my naive, ideal mind.

Overall, I'm glad Young Judaea decided to take us to Sderot. We were exposed to an important part of Israel--it's damaged goods.

Not every party of Israel is Eilat, Jerusalem, and Tel Aviv. It is just as important that we see needy places like Sderot as it is we see beautiful Haifa and the Ein Gedi falls. And as much as I like to believe I'm always safe here in Israel, it's still important to be aware of the fact that terrorism exists.

Supporting the places that are the most affected by terrorism is crucial to maintaining the foundation of the state, for all of Israel is interconnected--when one place suffers, the rest of the country suffers.

Garin Arevim, the student-run volunteer group I joined, is planning on visiting Sderot soon to help paint bomb-shelters and improve the city. I'll be sure to post pictures when we do!

That's all for now...

ps. I'll be posting about my weekend in Qesarya sometime this week. Tune in soon to find out.

pps. I'm going to Poland!

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Halloween in the Holy Land

Two nights ago, around midnight, I got back from the busiest week of travel I have had thus far on Year Course. Jam-packed with long bus rides, tours, concerts, dinners, parties and costumes, the week is finally beginning to wind down.

So, I am back home in quiet Arad, reflecting on the past week, and couldn’t be happier.

The week began on a musical note when on Sunday, the majority of section one hopped on a coach bus to see Idan Raichel, a well known Israeli singer, perform at the MASA event in Jerusalem.

Lets just say I have never seen so many Jewish American teenagers in one place, at one time, in my life. The auditorium holds up to 3000 seats, and nearly every one was filled by a teenager on some Israel program. So, not only was I able to re-connect with people from other sections, I also ran into friends from various other programs.

This was my third time seeing Idan Raichel perform live, yet the experience was completely unlike the previous two. The cool thing about him is that he always performs with new people from different cultures and backgrounds; each time the shift in language, dance, and voice adds something special to his performance.

This time, the auditorium was filled with over the top, visually impressive eye candy. Acrobats hung from the ceiling, dancers flew across the stage to African rhythms, and confetti was released during a climactic song. Truthfully, I was expecting it to be an outdoor hippie-fest (which is usually is) with a mix Young Judaeans and Israelis. Though it wasn’t quite what I expected, I enjoyed his music nonetheless and appreciated the change of venue.

Wednesday, after Ulpan, the local community center hosted a Yitchack Rabin memorial, during which a famous singer from the 90’s made a guest appearance. I really like his music…. it’s Eddie Vedder meets Incubus, with an Israeli twist.

After the concert our apartment headed over to a local restaurant bar called Max’s and ate a delicious dinner together with our leftover stipend money…oh the benefits of good budgeting!

For our Siyur on Thursday, all of Year Course headed back to Jerusalem for the annual Breast Cancer walk. My friend Melissa (from section 1) and I were chosen by our leaders to carry the Hadassa and Young Judaea flags and stand at the front of the group, which apparently is an honor. I even had a short conversation with the president of Hadassah, Nancy—and for some reason it felt like I was meeting a celebrity?

After the 5 K walk my friend Izzy and I walked a few miles to our friend’s apartment from section 1. We napped, ate a nice dinner at “Waffle Bar” for our friend’s birthday, and stayed out until pretty late. It was a nice mix of people from all sections—I feel like I’m really starting to get to know people in Jerusalem and Bat Yam…so it’s a shame Year Course doesn’t have more activities with the “others.” (Side note: I think a greater sense of Year Course unity would greatly benefit the program.)

The next morning, on Friday, we discovered a bus that goes directly to Bat Yam from the Jerusalem bus station! This was pretty exciting news, seeing that we are constantly traveling on weekends, and direct busses are just so much better.

I’d like to think I’m becoming fairly travel savvy in Israel. I’m also getting familiar with the areas I’m going to be living in during my second and third trimesters in here, so I feel like I already have one foot in Jerusalem and…one arm in Bat Yam?

Ok, moving onto the exciting part of my weekend!

Once I arrived to Bat Yam all could hear from all Year Courser’s was: “have you figured out your costume yet!?”

Clearly, despite the pagan decent of the holiday, no American can pass up celebrating the most exciting holiday of the year—Halloween.

Two of my friends and I decided to dress up together as Charlie’s Angels, myself being Lucy Liu, of course. Basically we needed a costume that was do-able, easy, and affordable. So, we frantically ran to the toy store, bought the least intimidating Nerf guns (in the world) and got white poster board to make wings.

With our sleek black outfits, guns, wings, and makeup, I think we pulled the costume off. We finally made our way around 10 pm to the club in Tel Aviv and had a great time. I must say, some people got really clever with their costumes…my favorite of the night probably was Jimmy, who dressed as an old cat lady. Definitely appropriate for Israel, the land of stray cats.

The next morning we woke up hoping to spend a lazy afternoon on the beach; to our dismay, we got there on the one cloudy, drizzly day Bat Yam has seen in a while. Nevertheless, the majority of Year Coursers were on the beach, exchanging funny stories about the night before.

After packing all our belongings, Ben invited Jake and me to dinner with his parents in the beautiful (and ancient!) port city Jaffa. We celebrated his parent’s last night in Israel with delicious mushroom salad, chicken, and seafood. After a bit of schmoozing and eating, we bid his parents farewell, hopped in a cab, and arrived at the central bus station.

October 31st, Halloween. I woke up as if it was any other day. There was no scent of autumn, no pumpkin carving, no kids dressed up in costume eager to fill their baskets with candy. I even forgot it was a holiday until somebody asked me about it at volunteering!

So, to officially recognize the holiday, I figured I'd do something small and cozy with a few friends--we made punch and brownies, got a bit dressed up, and downloaded scary movies. Surprisingly, I fell asleep while watching The Exorcist (I hardly ever make it through movies past 12 am) so I ended up sleeping at my friend's apartment.

The next morning I woke up with the hype of Halloween behind me, ready and excited to begin a productive week of volunteering.