I left for Israel a week from today (though technically I've only physically been in Israel for five and a half days, thanks to an amazingly long 19.5 hours of travel time between home and here...) and have experienced a lot of newness in these past seven days. But let's start at the very beginning. It's a very good place to start....
Flights and Firsts
So, like I said, it took me 19.5 hours (three different flights) from taking off in Minneapolis to touch down in Israel. I left MN late morning on my first flight and arrived in Newark, NY mid-afternoon. After waiting a few hours in the airport, I boarded the airplane that would jet me away from the US, over the Pacific, and allow me to step foot for the first time ever on another continent. <- That flight was the longest one I've ever been on- seven hours. I flew on SAS, a Scandinavian airline, and was quite impressed by their level of service. Not only did they show recently released movies [I got to watch Argo, what what], but they actually served MEALS on the plane. Free of charge. And they came in the most adorable little portion-sized containers. I was so awed I took a picture, haha.
Although that second flight was great in many ways, it wasn't my favorite simply because
1) It was a "red eye" flight, but I couldn't sleep.
2) There was a freaky amount of turbulence as we were exactly in the middle of our trip aka over the ocean. I won't deny that images of a watery grave briefly flitted past my eyes before I shut them out and mentally chanted think positively over and over again.
3) We changed what felt like a million time zones in those seven hours, and so by the time we arrived in Copenhagen it was 7am in Denmark, while my body still thought it was 1am. After zooming through the cute and sleepy Copenhagen airport [they have hardwood floors, open lounge areas, inviting colors, and a little mermaid statue- how much more adorable can it get?] to find the gate for my third and final flight, I shlumped over and blearily stared at passersby through half-closed lids. Yeah, I felt pretty gross at that point compared to all the sharp-looking European travelers. And
4) I was located in the back of this huge airplane, in the middle row of three seats, and I just had to be put with this older guy who (even with the empty seat between us) had stinky farts. Not very conducive for trying to sleep....
My last flight was about four hours and landed me in Tel Aviv around 2:30pm Israel time on Sunday. Luckily the passport control guys didn't give me too much grief and I was riding in a shared taxi to Jerusalem half an hour later. I arrived at the Abraham Hostel in Jerusalem- recommended to me by the GoEco project- a bit before 5pm and immediately took a shower and tried to sleep. Key word: tried. I was physically exhausted, having at that point slept only about four hours of the past 36, but mentally I couldn't quiet down. I think I fell into a restless sleep around 9pm that night, but certainly woke up the next morning still feeling tired.
Orientation in the Old City
Monday was a jam-packed day.
It began with a two hour meeting in the hostel with GoEco (the volunteer agency) representatives. They gave myself and two other soon-to-be-volunteers [we were all leaving for different projects, however] an explanation of our volunteering projects and some basic information about Israel. Then one of them, Yan, acted as our tour guide for the rest of the day.
First, we explored and had lunch in the major Jerusalem marketplace [he managed to get us millions of free samples of cultural dishes by explaining in Hebrew to the vendors that we were foreigners and had no idea what any of the dishes were] before heading out to Jaffa Gate to take part in a free tour of the Old City. [The term Old City in any area refers to the location where buildings, monuments and historical places built hundreds of years ago remain intact and are still used/inhabited by people today. However, the Old City in Jerusalem is one of the most well-known as it contains many incredibly important religious sites.]
I was extremely awed on our walk through the Old City. We hit all four quarters (Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Armenian) and our guide was quite knowledgeable about the history of each quarter and their development. It was amazing to think that we were walking through streets and archways that had been there and seen by people for hundreds, maybe thousands of years. And to just actually be in this place I'd heard about for so long felt incredibly unreal. I mean, it was hard to wrap my head around the fact that I was literally standing 100 feet away from the Western Wall. Wow.
Since the free tour was a general overview of the Old City but didn't actually take us into buildings, once it was over Yan guided our volunteer group back to a couple of impressive sites. We watched the sun set while standing on the top of the Austrian Hospice, taking in the scenic view of the entire Old City; we walked through the [amazingly unpopulated] Church of the Holy Sepulchre once darkness had fallen, and then window-shopped in the new mall outside the Old City on our way to dinner. After dinner (my first authentic Israeli hummus experience!) we explored a few more buildings that had nice views (including one incredibly swanky hotel that impressed me almost as much as the Old City had, haha) and then headed back to the hostel to sleep.
Tuesday was the day I needed to catch my bus to Nazareth to actually begin volunteering, but that wasn't until 4pm, so I had a bit more time to wander around Jerusalem. I went out with Antonia, the girl volunteer I'd hung with the day before, and we saw the Western Wall up close (I did indeed put a piece of paper with a wish on it into an unused crack in the wall). We also walked up to the Dome of the Rock (an extremely holy Islamic site) and marveled at the detail and gorgeousness of the mosque. Finally the time to head to the bus station rolled around, and after a bit of messing around with a temperamental ticket machine, I was on my way.
Finding Fauzi Azar
I sat next to a very... talkative... guy on the bus who also happened to be going to the Fauzi Azar Inn. He came in handy, though, when asking for directions [we arrived at night and the Inn is tucked away in a part of the Old City that takes some maneuvering to get to] and in making me feel a bit more secure when hiking past groups of smoking guys in black leather jackets. But finally we found it, and I had arrived to the place I'm going to be calling home for the next two months!
[I'll be posting specifically about the Fauzi and my duties in another entry very soon!]
I met the other three volunteers that I'll be working with for the next few weeks at least (since two are leaving in a few weeks and new people may be showing up):
Pat- extremely sociable Australian guy working here for his summer break.
Jess- another girl taking a gap year! She's from London and will spending eight months (until August) in Israel doing a variety of activities. Once she's done volunteering at the Fauzi she's heading to a kibbutz for five months. You can bet I'm going to be visiting her.
Mike- Canadian, eh? ...Sorry, he's taking some time off from studying software engineering to travel and has a bunch of short-term volunteer gigs lined up in various parts of Israel.
(Oh, and there's also a long-term volunteer lady, Linda, who gives all the guided tours. But she's pretty much a permanent fixture as she's been here for four years.)
Pat and Jess have both been here for roughly a month and only have a few weeks left, while Mike will be leaving only two weeks before I am. I really like them all, and the vibe is great because there's enough of us that we won't get sick of each other too soon, but not too many that it's hard to get to know everyone. Though I do hope that when Pat and Jess leave, other volunteers show up. I like you Mike, but some new
The night I arrived was a first-ever movie night, so I dropped my backpack off at the volunteer apartment (about 20 feet up the street) and went back to watch Life of Pi. After the movie I went out for a late-night snack with Pat, Mike, two German guests, and a local named Fadi. The food was good, but I was pretty much falling asleep at the table, so it was relieving to just head back to the apartment and go to bed finally at 2am.
Wednesday began with free breakfast at the Fauzi and then a guided tour of the Old City. It was a great, alternative tour that ignored the holy places (since you can do that on your own) and instead focused on getting to know the locals and the back roads of Nazareth. It was a great introduction to this city I'm going to be based in for the next while. I then grabbed lunch with Mike, hung out and explored the city some more with Jess, and had the most touching hospitality experience I've felt in a while.
A local Christian Arabic family that Mike and Pat had met earlier had invited them to dinner, and since I was free, both I and a Fauzi guest Jackie were invited along. However, when we got to the family's house after running through the winding alleyways in the pouring rain, we discovered that the electricity in their area was completely out. No lights, no heat, no nothing. Certainly no cooking, we surmised [<- like my word choice, Pat&Mike?]. But the family surprised us, and after an hour of sitting in the candle-lit living room
An amazing spread of traditional Arabic food lay on the table before us. The four of us sat down with Ruth and the dad, Adell, and had a wonderful meal highlighted by lamb, rice with a special yogurt sauce, and Italian champagne. The food was very tasty (and they managed to magically heat it somehow- candles?), but there were about a million dishes and each was heaped onto our plates in such great quantities that I couldn't even finish half of it. After dinner the electricity came back on (of course) and we moved back to the living room to join the rest of the family (mom, brother, Jessica and fiance) in smoking hookah (first time for me!) and listening to music. And when we finally excused ourselves after lavishing thanks upon the family, the brother insisted I take the sweatshirt of his I'd been wearing for warmth as a parting gift. To be honest, I'm a little wary that somehow I've bound myself to a romantic obligation... but I'll admit its oversizedness had come in handy as a makeshift tent-like changing room, as there is no real privacy in our tiny volunteer apartment. Alla in all, I was incredibly touched by their generosity in feeding four guests (two of which had been perfect strangers before that meal) in the middle of a power outage. And we have plans to go back soon and learn how to make authentic felafel, so yay! Free food and good company is always something to look forward to.
Experiencing Everyday Events enjoying the alliteration of the section titles?
Thursday I was shadowing Jess on the afternoon shift, but beforehand we walked up a scenic hill named Mount Precipice and on the way to the Inn stopped by a small cafe for Qatayaf (a traditional Ramadan sweet- essentially a small pancake filled with either soft cheese or walnuts, fried, and then drizzled in syrup. As delicious as they sound). We were kept at the Inn for a while after our shift had technically ended, so just came back to the apartment and slept after.
Friday I attempted to find the Jesus Trail (a hiking trail that starts at the Fauzi- more on that in the next blog post!) and failed dismally- got a good run in anyway, though. Then half slept half read in the sun, and was on evening shift with Mike. Bed.
Today I hiked the Jesus Trail with Pat and Mike and five Fauzi guests. Luckily we didn't get lost, as Pat is an expert Jesus Trail navigator. The first leg takes roughly four hours to walk, and really is pretty gorgeous once you get past the highway. We hitched back to Nazareth (a somewhat depressing only 15 minutes away by car) and grabbed a late lunch before coming back home to chill.
I can't believe I just used the word "home" so naturally. I must really feel pretty comfortable here.
Tonight we're heading out to a local restaurant to see some sort of music. Maybe dancing will be involved? Whatever it is, should be interesting.
Off to find Mike and ask him about that stir fry he's supposedly making....