While my time in Israel has so far followed a similar theme to my time in Central America (volunteering for an extended period/traveling during service work breaks, etc.), there are some poignant differences between life here compared to anywhere and anything I've experienced before.
Israel vs USA
I'll try not to spew the obvious differences (like the fact that Israel is roughly the size of New Jersey or that the official languages don't include English here), but instead delve a bit deeper into dissimilarities.
•Israel is a land of extreme differences, in every way: socially, geographically, politically. We all know that the US is famed for the multitude of cultures/ethnicities/traditions it combines, yet Israel has all that plus some. You've got your wealthy citizens living in high rises on the coast, while not even 20 minutes away a Bedouin camp has been erected and the nomads are out taking their goat herds to pasture. (The juxtaposition of a Bedouin shepherd tending the flock while being immersed in a texting conversation via cellphone gets me every time.) Then there is the less comical distinction between Israel proper and the West Bank. The separation (physical or not) of Jews and Arabs.
Land-wise, Israel's small chunk of the world contains mountains, deserts, forests, seas, the lowest point on Earth (the Dead Sea), and both extremely habited and uninhabited land. An impressive amount of unique ecosystems.
And lastly, the political extremes found here top probably most places in the world. I'm not even going to get into that.
•Israel is both more forward and more backward than the US. For example, the amount of solar energy used here far surpasses that of America. And (though I'm not sure that this proves any sort of higher level of modernity) Israel has the largest per capita use of cellphones in the entire world. Yet they drive here almost like the only requirement to pass their test was being able to turn on the car. And separation of church and state (a basic foundation of the US) is essentially non-existent here. Which leads to a bunch of issues, as one can imagine... or hear on the news.
•People are extremely open. The good kind of openness that moves complete strangers to invite you into their houses for tea or coffee and to tell you about their lives. And the kind of open that nearly reaches the point of hostility when people discuss their political and social views, and urge you to state your opinions on the matter.
•Religion is paramount. While levels of religiousness differ, the majority of the population attends some sort of regular services, and on days of rest (be it Friday night-Saturday for Jews or Sunday for Christians) cities and public transport completely shut down. Quite inconvenient for traveling, I'll admit. Along those same lines, there is no such thing as a civil union here- you must be married in a religious institution (or alternatively flee to Cyprus to elope). And lastly, everyone wants to know what YOU are. Makes for an awkward situation when I confess to an Arab my mother is Jewish... I generally follow that up by quickly saying my father is Christian and that I personally am non-religious. Which is hard for some to understand. (Don't get me wrong- not everyone is biased for or against one religion/nationality. But in smaller, predominantly Arab cities like Nazareth, it's best to play it safe and not admit Jewdom unless directly questioned.)
•Guns are on display. I'm still not used to seeing the 18, 19, 20-year olds dressed in military garb casually having their M16's slung across their bodies. And whenever I'm overtaken by a group of them, I feel very uncomfortable. Though if I was raised in Israel I'm sure I wouldn't think twice about it.
Israel vs Central America
Certain aspects here are surprisingly reminiscent of my time in Costa Rica/Nicaragua. Like how the guys are pretty aggressive, or how the society is relatively chauvinistic (especially out of the big cities). And the copious amounts of stray animals (though in Israel it's cats instead of dogs) or trash in the streets. But being in Israel does provide some novelty.
•Food is waaaayyyyyy better here. Just look at the local fast foods of choice- hummus, falafel, or shwarma as opposed to McDonald's. And non-fast foods are inevitably more impressive than the ubiquitous rice and beans. The Mediterranean-infused cuisine regularly includes cucumber and tomato salads, fresh goat cheese, tabbouleh, omelets, kebabs, and baked eggplant. And while the selection of fruit in Central America was more impressive, the amount of fresh veggies at any time here is to die for if you're a salad junkie like me.
Don't even get me started on sweets here. Let's just say it's incredible what they can do with sesame seeds- grind them, spin them with sugar, bake 'em into cookies, the list goes on and on. Yum.
•The culture is much less risqué here. In Costa Rica, I literally saw people's grandmothers wearing short shorts and lace-backed tank tops. Maybe since it was so much warmer there, the culture just moved away from conservative dress out of necessity. But in Israel (especially the more traditional places), skirts above the knees/without tights, cleavage, and bare shoulders are a no-no. Here's to hoping I'll get to wear the tank tops and dresses I brought in Europe....
•I'd love to say public transportation here far exceeds that of Central America, but alas I would be lying. I guess the nicer thing is that here they have shared taxis called sheruts as an alternative to the bus system: large vans you can take to places that cost as little as the buses and don't take as long.
Israel vs Nazareth
You may be wondering about this comparison, as Nazareth is a part of Israel. Let me explain.
•Nazareth is unlike the majority of Israeli towns. It is a predominantly Arab city, and parts of it appear (at least to my uncultured eyes) almost indistinguishable from the West Bank. The city doesn't shut down for Shabbat (instead, nothing is open on Sunday), Muslim call-to-prayers are heard in time with the tolling of the church bells, and the most common language spoken is Arabic (so much for my "Hebrew for Dummies" book). You're much more likely to see a woman in a burka than a man wearing a yarmulke here. A bit different from the rest of Israel, I'd say....
Nazareth vs Atenas
The two towns I've had as home bases are quite different, leading to very different experiences and relationships with each.
•Nazareth is a much larger city, with acclaimed restaurants, bars (sort of), a huge shopping mall, and pretty much any knick-knack you could think of. We were able to find a guitar and a capo in one of the jumbled shops. That would've been left for a shopping trip to San Jose in Costa Rica.
Plus, as there's more to do in town, it leads to staying out/getting to bed later, and it's harder to force yourself to get out of town. Sort of.
•While Nazareth is no tourist hot spot akin to Jerusalem, it certainly draws more foreigners than the sleepy town of Atenas did. So not only do you meet more travelers in day-to-day activities (working in a hostel helps that, too...), but the majority of the locals speak English.
•Nazareth's layout is way more confusing than that of Atenas. After one day of exploration (and yes, getting lost) in Atenas, I had the geography of the town down pat. Here, not only are the Old City streets super twisty and confusing, but once I get a bit away from the Old City I'm completely in unknown territory. I really only venture through the Old City, the restaurant district, the path to the top of Mount of Precipice, and the part of the Jesus Trail that doubles as my running route... anything outside of that sphere, and I could be on Mars. A Mars with atmosphere and civilization....
Hostel Work vs Orphanage
I've come to the conclusion that I much prefer the volunteer work I'm doing here in the hostel in Nazareth to helping out in the children's home in Palmares.
•As the local staff I'm interacting with are adults, not only am I making new friends I can talk with, but I'm also meeting people who I can go out with, or who can introduce me to more of the local community of Nazareth. Kids are cute, but their social lives are pretty bland.
•Along that same vein, I'm meeting just more people in general, as one of the main jobs of working in a hostel is talking with the guests. Some you just exchange pleasantries with and answer questions, while other you find yourself talking to for hours and going out with after shifts. I love that! (Originally I was apprehensive about working in a hostel, as I don't immediately label myself a social butterfly. But either my self-perception is really off, or traveling/working at the Fauzi has stretched my social ease. I've found it pleasingly fun and easy to get into conversations with total strangers. I feel the sociable persona is half a type of act and half genuine until you get to know someone and it's all genuine. A major plus of this increased comfort in initiating conversations with strangers is I think I've essentially become immune to feeling socially awkward. It's become so commonplace it barely phases me anymore, haha.) This work is certainly doing more for my Facebook friends list ;)
Major Differences in this Trip vs the First Four Months of my Gap Year
Just some general other differences I'm too lazy to try and categorize.
•I don't at all speak the national language(s) of Israel. The Spanish I started out with might have been basic, but it did allow for communication beyond "hello" and "thank you" (the extent of my Arabic... but I'm working on it!).
•I'm supposed to provide all my own food (though we get free breakfast, fruit, cake, and leftovers from the Fauzi, so...) instead of being provided with three home-cooked meals a day.
•There's a much more extreme time difference between the States and Israel than the US and Costa Rica. Like, eight hours vs one. Which makes it more difficult to communicate with people back home.
•My schedule changes daily. No set weekly routines of knowing exactly when I'll be working and when I'll be free. I guess for all the inconvenience that gives, it also inspires me to be more active in taking day trips and researching locations to visit.
•I'm sharing a room with the other volunteers instead of doing a home-stay. First extended dorm room experience?
•The hostel work (while in no way difficult) is stuff I've never done before, whereas I felt pretty confident I knew how to entertain children.
•This time abroad I'll be spending equal time volunteering and actively traveling. Instead of just tacking on the traveling at the end (besides weekend trips).
•Since Israel is a bit further from Minnesota, I won't get to see my family at all for these four months. Sadface.
•Going out, getting connections through the hostel and local staff, and being a bit more into exploring the town has led me to be much more immersed in the local community of Nazareth. Which is incredibly fun.
I've loved everything I've done so far, and every place I've traveled. This "gap year" just keeps getting better and better.
Now I'm off to learn the "Cooking by the Book" remix by Lil Jon. A farewell request from the lovely Mike Chong. Parental advisory suggested.