Saturday, November 2, 2013

September Holiday

While school was starting through out the rest of the world that I knew, my friends and family in the United States, in Israel I finally had some time off. My Hebrew course ended on September 12 and another crop of very poor, slow, and confused Hebrew speakers were released to explore the land of Israel. Things started with a day on the beach and night out exploring the bar scene downtown to celebrate finishing the course and passing the final exam, which all in all, further convinced me there is no place I would rather spend the next 2~3 years. The downtown and waterfront scene has been renovated and our small group of students took advantage of live music in many of the pubs and plazas, promenades, and restaurants before calling it a night and heading back to campus. 
            September traditionally marks the start of the holiday season in Israel, as a Jewish state, all of the holidays revolve around the Jewish religion, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and Simchat Torah; which this year started the first week of September, and ended the last week of September. What this means for most students is that on the day of the holiday there are no busses, trains, and most shops are closed from sundown to sundown. But it also means that most people are on holiday traveling through the country and my group of friends and I decided to follow
suit. Our first venture was a day trip to the City of Akko, a short train trip north of my hometown, Haifa. Akko (Acre in English spelling) is an ancient fortified port on the Mediterranean Sea, which has been held, at one point or another, by basically every major civilization that has existed in the Middle East; but may be best know as a crusader stronghold. Within the Old City of Akko, we toured the crusader citadel, Templar tunnels beneath the city, a Turkish Bazaar, and Mosques. Akko was the first time that I had visited any of the real history of Israel and seen some of the antiquity, and what I found incredible was the contrast in Akko’s old city to the rest of the country I had seen. For the most part within the old city, modern life has integrated itself in to the ancient buildings, but as we walked by different storefronts and markets you could see the history coming alive. People worked as merchants selling fruit, fish, meat, spice, pita, pastry’s and more, with no commute, no rush, and no large scale production, just a small store front as I imagined people have been doing, in the same place on the same streets for thousands of years.
            After visiting Akko, came the big trip for the break, a three-night four-day trip to Ein Gedi, Masada, the Dead Sea, and Jerusalem.  Our fist stop was Ein Gedi, a fertile desert valley with a spring fed stream flowing through the bottom, in an otherwise vast desert lacking any vegetation whatsoever. We spent the afternoon swimming through small pools, and waterfalls that you would never expect to find in the middle of a desert at 400m below sea level.

After leaving Ein Gedi we returned to the apartment we were staying at for two nights and renting though Airbnb (which I would highly recommend to anyone traveling looking for nice accommodations while traveling for cheap.) We woke up the next morning to tour Masada, and ancient stronghold taken from, and later attacked by the romans. The views from the top and the ruins are stunning, located atop a plateau adjacent the Dead Sea with more or less shear cliffs on every side. It really makes you realize how innovative ancient civilizations must have been. Even today, with modern technologies, I would not be interested in living on Masada. The heat and sun are oppressive, there are no resources on or near the stronghold, and the terrain all around Masada is relentless. (A Recommended aerial photograph:

To cool off from a morning in the sun the afternoon was spent in the Dead Sea, which was my personal favorite part of the trip. To start off I cannot describe the sea with words. Every thing you get used to after swimming in water is thrown away in the dead sea, all the properties of water you expect to feel are off, the viscosity is higher, the density is higher, and of course you float in the sea, but the more time you spend in the sea you notice other differences. Air bubbles don’t rise to the surface like you expect, the sea doesn’t splash, there is a film of oil on the surface, and your fingers don’t shrivel up like in a pool. Also, if you have even the slightest cut or scrape it BURNS in the sea, and I didn’t dare to my head underwater. We left the beach at twilight and packed our things to leave for Jerusalem in the morning. After an uneventful drive we pulled in to Jerusalem in the early afternoon, dumped our things at a downtown hostel and headed for the old city. Our hostel was centrally located in the city and we were a simple train ride away from the walls of the old city, however, our small group had misjudged the magnitude of rush hour in Jerusalem. The first train stopped at our station and we all looked at each other, with squinted eyes and grinding teeth coming to a nonverbal agreement that there was no chance that a child would fit on this train, let alone a group of 6. Naively thinking there would be another train in the next few minutes, we were optimistic. Actually realizing it was a bout a 35 minute wait the patience came to an end and as the doors opened on the next train I threw myself in to the cabin, and after making room for another 6 people in a spot big enough for a couple to stand and hold hands, we were on our way to the old city of Jerusalem. We started in the Arab quarter where we ate lunch, desert, dinner, and desert again. I would argue it is no question that the best food in the old city is in the Arab quarter, everything that I bought included various bits size portions of some type of magic, sweet cheese, light dough, and pistachios. Being a group of primarily Jews, including myself, we then moved straight to the Jewish quarter, which was alive in the streets, all of which filled with music and people celebrating both sukkot and Simchat Torah, on their way to the Western Wall, the holiest place of Judaism.

By the time we had left the old city, and made our way back to the hostel night had fallen and we walked the long way around the perimeter of the old city before hailing a taxi to take us to rest of the way back to our hostel. Of all the hostels I have stayed in, this hostel in Jerusalem was the hands down nicest. Everyone enjoyed an evening in the second floor lounge where our coffee cravings were satisfied, followed by humus and pita for dinner and even behind a crowd of people in the corner of the lounge was a small bar serving Israeli beer on tap.

We woke up the next morning to visit Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial museum in Jerusalem, one of the few places that everyone in our group unanimously wanted to visit. The only word that I can find to try describe the experience is heavy. The museum is relatively small, and its exhibits tell the story of the development of Nazi Germany to the end of the war and the Nuremberg trials. There are no dramatizations, for the most part the exhibits are solemn concrete rooms displaying artifacts of the holocaust and the facts of what happened. I had the unique experience of walking through the museum with my closest friend I have made in Israel, who happens to be German, giving a unique perspective to the entire experience, providing translations of letters, propaganda, and videos recovered from the Holocaust. After visiting Yad Vashem I can defiantly say it is one of the places I believe everyone should visit if in Israel, there is something to draw for anyone who would visit.

As our trip came to a close the group of students I traveled with split ways, two of us returning back to Haifa and two of us heading to the airport in Tel Aviv to continue their travels though Europe. But when arriving back in Haifa I was presently surprised by the “change of seasons.” Coming from the Midwest one of the few things I have found myself missing from the United States is autumn, and especially the first day of crisp air, maybe a 60 degree morning with no humidity that forces you to grab a sweatshirt, a pair of jeans, or a light jacket. A day that always came within the first few days or weeks of school starting foreshadowing the break of the summer heat. Even though, at its coldest, the airing Haifa has never been below 65 degrees, there was a noticeable difference between the temperatures before I had left and when I got back. Now for a few years at least, there will be no color change in the leaves, no frost, no first snow, no halloween, and no thanksgiving, but I think I will still be able to say; my favorite time of year is when the temperatures begin to drop and whatever winter you have in store starts to show its self, and winter is pretty pleasant when its just at an arms reach.

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