Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A Wonderful Day (and why I'll be in no hurry to return to Israel)

By almost all accounts, my first day in Tel Aviv--after arriving last night--was extremely enjoyable. After all the history and gravitas of Jerusalem, and even the tour bus adventures to Masada and Petra, the coastal city of Tel Aviv--which next week will celebrate just its 100th anniversary--was like a breath of fresh air.

My hotel--in which I have a very nice suite--overlooks the Mediterranean Sea (for those paying attention, over the last 5 days, I've been to the Dead, Red and Med. seas). I began my day walking along the boardwalk, meandered comfortably around town--albeit to multiple tour book recommended places that no longer exist, were closed or are in disrepair--, saw a bunch of TA's famed Bauhaus architecture, learned about & listened to Israeli rock bands from a friendly record store clerk (I wound up buying 3 CDs), picked up a great chocolate-almond croissant from a local bakery for a Euro-style breakfast on the go, and went to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.

The collection there was great--within the 1870-1970 range--and included several Picassos of different eras, a couple Van Goghs, a really strange Klimt, a great Chagall and multiple works by de Chirico, Kees van Dongen, Pollack, Pissarro, Kandinsky, Magritte, Jawlensky, Renoir and others, including several by the Russian sculptor Archipenko. I really enjoyed it.

In the late afternoon, I took a train to Rehovot, where I was to visit with the only family I have in Israel--Faye, my first cousin once removed (I think) and her family. Faye, her husband Phil and 3 of their 6 daughters picked me up from the train station and took me to the home of another daughter, her husband and their young daughter. Another of Faye & Phil's daughters was already there. For those keeping track, that's 5 of 6 daughters + 1 granddaughter. (For those who know who these people are, you can guess which daughter I didn't see, privately.) We had a nice dinner together and everyone in the room enjoyed vying for the attention of the 18-month-old granddaughter. I had a really nice time, and if any of the family is reading this, thank you again for your kindness and hospitality.

So as I started with, it was a really nice day. And though the couple episodes I'm about to explain didn't really ruin the day, they did add to my dissension with certain aspects of Israel, predominently the attitudes of service and security personnel. To wit, today's fun encounters included:

1) The Stupid Cab Driver - Please believe that whenever I'm in a country where English is not the primary language, I am respectful of that fact. And yet, there is nothing I can really do about it. So no matter how loudly someone speaks to me in a language I don't know, well, I still don't understand. Anyway, I got in a cab and asked the driver, in English, to take me to the "Art Museum." He had no idea what I was talking about, so I showed him on a map and in my tour book. Still nothing. So he started driving, pulled up, and asked someone else to help translate. The "translator" had no idea what an Art Museum was either. They both yelled at me--this English they could speak--that I was asking for something erroneously. From my map, the driver seemed to grasp where I wanted to go, but brusquely told me that "next time, I should ask for the Israel Museum," and that there wasn't anything called the Art Museum. Now, there's another museum called the Eretz Israel Museum, which I didn't want to go to, and which is nowhere near the art museum. No, the driver didn't take me there; I did get dropped where I wanted to be, in front of a building clearly labeled Tel Aviv Museum of Art. Of course, I can't clearly convey the guy's attitude, but let's just say it was a miserable experience. But it must have been my fault, getting in a cab as a tourist, asking to go to the art museum and paying whatever it cost. I'm sorry, my bad; I did deserve to be treated like garbage. Because I didn't say Israel Museum when I meant Art Museum.

2) The Overintense Security Folks - Again, believe me, I get it. Hardcore security is vital in Israel. And I know that traveling alone, carrying a big camera bag and snapping pictures of everything, I'm an easy target for the terrorist detection handbook. So thus far, I've been through several (at the airports, at the borders) inquisitions about what I'm doing in Israel. And how do I readily explain that I simply enjoy seeing, learning about and photographing (extensively) places that are famous, attractive and/or interesting, and that this year I chose to do so in Israel. And that yes, I am traveling alone. (Actually, this is where mentioning that I have family in Rehovot has been quite helpful). Anyway, back to today. So I'm walking to the train station to go to Rehovot--where I needed to catch the 4:04 train to be met at the preset time of 4:30--and I'm crossing a bridge and see a really architecturally unique building. So of course I snap a picture. I was not in the building nor the train station; I did not use a telephoto lens. It was simply a full building exterior shot. After shuttering, a guy comes up to me and asked me why I took the picture. I said I thought it was a nice building. He told me I had to delete the photo, so I did. He then asked for my passport (he was wearing some sort of security-guy looking jacket, but was not a policeman or soldier). I gave him my passport, which he looks through and asks me why I went to Jordan. I explain the Petra tour. He also asks to see the other photos I've taken, so I show him, which are primarily many more architecturally interesting buildings. He tells me the building I photographed is a government building. He then calls another guy, who we wait about 10 minutes for. The other guy asks basically the same questions, as well as about the Egyptian visa in my passport (I thought Israel was at peace with Egypt & Jordan; heck, I'm flying El Al to Cairo). I'm worried about being detained for some nonsense, but also concerned about missing my train, as I have no easy way to call Faye from outside my hotel.

I'm pretty certain they called in my passport, and hopefully learned that I've never even gotten a speeding ticket, because they let me go on my way. And I made the 4:04 train and met the family at the other end. But this is the kind of shit that makes me think that perhaps I'm in the wrong country. Despite all the great parts of it. And days like today. Mostly.

Tomorrow might be another adventure, as I intend to go to Safed via a train + public bus combination. We'll see how that goes.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Spectacular Petra

It's late, I'm tired (but have reached Tel Aviv), so I'll keep this brief. I just wanted to convey that Petra, an archeological site in Jordan, has to rank among the most astonishing places I've ever been. And despite some troubling memory card issues, I should have some good pictures to share when I return.

But after getting down to Eilat yesterday, getting up before dawn, spending hours at border control getting into Jordan from Israel, riding 2+ hours to Petra, walking miles around Petra (though on the way out, I took a horse-drawn chariot), getting back across the Israel border with crazy security, getting to the Eilat airport, flying to Tel Aviv and getting to my hotel (a nice Best Western with a big suite), it's time for bed. Vacation is hard work.

I heard it snowed in Chicago; sorry I missed it.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Eilat to Enjoy

Eilat is a coastal resort at the southern tip of Israel. It really only factored into my trip as a gateway for a guided tour to Petra in Jordan tomorrow, which based on what a couple friends who've been there have conveyed, promises to be phenomenal.

It took a 4+ hour ride on a public bus to reach Eilat--another reason I love Springsteen: one bootleg show on my iPod nearly covered the whole trip, plus a bit of sleep--which meant I got there too late to either see dolphins at its famous Dolphin Reef (I wasn't going to swim with the dolphins, but those who can, can; hopefully I would have at least been able to see/photograph some) or view the impressive coral colors of the Red Sea at the underwater observatory. Not for lack of trying mind you; it took about $20 in cab fare to learn I was too late.

But with the lovely sea, a great promenade walk allowing for excellent photography of the coastline, palm trees and the beautiful mountains of Jordan in the background, wonderful weather, the ability to wear shorts, an indoor shopping mall complete with a McDonald's, western music playing along the promenade, and an excellent Asian restaurant in my hotel at which I just had the best meal of my trip so far--sushi and Malaysian fish--all served to make the past 5 hours or so more acutely pleasurable than any of my time in Jerusalem. Of course, given another 3 hours of daylight to see dolphins and the coral reef, and I would be completely bored here. There's a reason I've never made Acapulco, Hawaii or other beachy locations a vacation destination. But for a little while, Eilat has been exactly what I needed.

Early to bed, early to rise. The bus leaves for Petra tomorrow at 6:50 am. Then it's back to Eilat, for a small-plane flight to Tel Aviv, arriving near 10:00pm. So until next time...

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Today I Rode a Camel

Not for very long mind you, and not out in the desert. But just for a couple minutes on the Mount of Olives, overlooking the Old City. It was cool. It may not have been the highlight of the unnamed camel's life, but I enjoyed it.

For about 4 hours today, I had a cab driver take me around to a bunch of places I wouldn't have seen otherwise. Such as a bunch of places on the Mount of Olives and further out around Jerusalem. It was fine and the cost was reasonable, and at the end I had him drop me at the Israel Museum, where I saw the Dead Sea Scrolls.

I will probably wander out to find something to eat, now that the Sabbath has ended (most of Jerusalem shuts down during the day), but am basically done with Jerusalem. I have enjoyed the experience of being here and much of what I have seen, and as often happens, will realize the wonderment of being here more so after my trip than while I'm actually on it. I'm sure I got tons of great photos and learned a little about a lot of things.

It would be unfair of me to say that I didn't like the people, as I didn't meet many, if any, real citizens of Jerusalem. But the people I did meet, from the taxi drivers I rode with, to a barrage of street vendors, was a constant stream of people trying to hit me up for money. And not taking "No, thank you" as an answer. Today, near the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives, a guy kept trying to put an olive branch in my hand, not just out of kindness, but wanting money. I kept giving it back or resisting, and he kept saying that he could give me change. And he kept following me around. I finally had to scream "I don't want it" at him. Another guy, near the camel, kept trying to get me to buy a souvenir book of Jerusalem, to the point of following me back to (and nearly into) my taxi.

Even the 4-hour tour taxi driver, a guy named David who seemed nice and stuck to our set price, asked me if I wanted him to drive me to Eilat tomorrow, instead of having to take a public bus. His price was probably fair from his end, but was at least 4 times what I could really consider as making sense to me (especially as I already paid for the bus). I told David no, he tried a little negotiating, which is fine, but I still said no and explained it just wouldn't work. And he must have asked me about 50 more times. Seriously.

And the cab driver I had bring me back to the hotel after the Israel museum, told me that he wanted to take me for a cup of coffee and hear him play the lute. I have no idea if his intentions were exactly that, but I desperately wanted to get back and lie down. And I had to tell him no about 10 times, the last quite vehemently, before he finally just took me to the hotel.

As I referenced, when I look back at my photos and think about all I saw--though, and no offense to anyone, but all the "Jesus did this here, Mary did that here, Herod built this here, etc.," got a bit wearisome. Just give me a great jazz club, and I think I might be happier. Though the one place I read about, a joint called Yellow Submarine, has tonight an Israel songwriter with "complicated views on Israel and Israelis." I think I'll skip it--anyway, looking back I believe I'll remember Jerusalem fondly. Right now, perhaps not so much.

It's off to Eilat on the bus in the morning, and then Petra on Monday. Not sure about blogging possibilities, so I'll post when I can. I did learn that Ahava, a Dead Sea lotion manufacturer, took its name from the Hebrew word for love, so...

Shalom & Ahava,

Friday, March 27, 2009

Highs, Lows and the Bloody Dead Sea

This morning I had to catch a Tour Bus at a much nicer hotel than mine, for the trip I'm about to describe, at 9:00am. So I planned to wake at 7:00 and leave my hotel at 8:00 (turns out the Inbal Hotel was only 15 minutes away, but I'm neurotic about getting lost or spending a half-hour shooting photos of stray cats, of which there seem to be many in Jerusalem, or some other diversion).

I had set my iPhone alarm for 6:50am, allowing for 10 minutes of snooze. All trip I've had my phone on Plane Mode, so as not to risk exorbitant data roaming charges, or even be tempted to make expensive phone calls. But I had to switch off Plane Mode for a moment the other day, so that the time would auto-adjust. Well, fortunately, even in Plane Mode, my iPhone knew to auto adjust for the time change in Israel, about which I was completely oblivious. Thank you iPhone for your higher intelligence. Left to my own, non-Apple devices, I probably would've missed the bus. (For those keeping track, I am now 8 hours ahead of Chicago, 10 ahead of the West Coast and 15 ahead of Hawaii, I think.)

So, about 3 minutes out of Jerusalem, we were in the desert on our way to Masada. You can learn more though the link to Wikipedia, but Masada is a mountain where in about 31 BC, King Herod built himself a couple of mountaintop palaces, but more compelling to tourism is the story of the story of the Jewish extremists who wound up on the mountain about 35 years after Herod, trying to outlast a Roman siege. The Jews committed mass suicide rather than become slaves, and Masada has become an Israeli Alamo. The story was fascinating, but more spectacular was the scenery, including numerous palace ruins that still exist. And the weather was absolutely beautiful.

I'm not a huge fan of tour buses, but this one was quite nice, with a good tour guide and some pleasant co-tourists. Though I'm glad I'm not doing my entire trip on a tour, I'm happy I did this one. A cabbie I rode with the other day, and who will take me to some destinations in Jerusalem tomorrow for a reasonable, agreed-upon rate, mentioned that he could have taken me to Masada & Dead Sea if I hadn't already booked the tour, but there is no way he could've provided the experience and information the organized tour did.

On the way to Masada, Marianne (the guide) informed us about a variety of historical events that happened in the lands that we were passing. I can't keep it all straight, but she mentioned Jesus, Moses, Joseph, the city of Jericho and its tumbling walls. She also pointed out that we had reached the lowest point on Earth, at 1200(?) feet below sea level, and made some bad puns about it, which I always appreciate.

After Masada, which only took about an hour to reach, the tour went to the nearby Ein Gedi Spa, from which one can float in the salty Dead Sea. Believe me, I'm all for ragged edges, but the place could be well-served to be bought and enhanced by Marriott. First was lunch in a cafeteria style restaurant with a sausage-shaped beef & lamb concoction. Barely digestable and perfectly forgettable. Then, before heading down to the sea itself (where no one actually swims, just floats due to some Poseidenous phenemenon I can't explain), you stop to put mud on yourself for some reason I also can't explain. Now if you're thinking of me in a bathing suit covered in mud, you may be feeling like I did after lunch. And no one told me that being covered in mud would invalidate me from being able to ride the makeshift tram (a tractor pulling an open trailer with benches; again, "Hello, Marriott?"), so I had to shlep about a mile.

But then came the fun part. First of all, the sea bottom and beach is comprised completely of salt crystals, so even walking a foot sans shoes hurts like hell. And being a non-swimmer and bit of a wuss, I was afraid to wade in too far. Fortunately, for I barely floated, maybe for a few seconds, but for the most part my ass was on the sea floor. I guess I defy natural phenomenon. And as Marianne had informed us, getting up from that position isn't easy (especially, for an agility-challenged fatso like me). Marianne had also told us not to get salt water in our eyes and mouth. Well, I didn't, at least not the first time I tried to stand, though I scraped my hand along the salt crystals. But then, as I gingerly tried to walk to shore on the crystals, I lost my balance, spun, and went down face first into the water, getting water in my mouth and eyes, and bloodying both my hands and knee on the crystals.

Moses parted the Red Sea; I turned the Dead Sea red.

Fortunately, a couple of tour bus mates helped get me up before I drowned. But blood was oozing pretty good from my hands & knee. After washing myself off, no major harm seems to have been done, but my left hand is pretty abrased (is that a word?). And I still don't know what the mud was for.

I know that people come from thousands of miles for this experience, but I think I would've been better off staying on the bus and reading my book.

But now I'm back at my hotel, after nightfall of the Jewish Sabbath, so I fear my dining options may be quite limited. But I may just stay in and watch TV; last night they had the episode of "24" that I had just seen on Monday, in English with Hebrew subtitles. But they also had an Odd Couple rerun in English, without the Hebrew subtitles. I guess Felix and Oscar don't need translation, but Jack Bauer's grunting exhortations do.

Overall, a good day, but just a bit worse for wear. But at least I didn't die in the Dead Sea; I don't think I could ever live that down.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

A passage back to the place I was before?

OK, so the two posts I put up earlier today and tonight were kind of heavy. So before I head to bed, I'll share a lighter note.

Having been able to travel to a variety of places, especially over the last 10 years or so, I enjoy discovering things that provide a sense of linkage from one place to another. One thing that really strikes a chord on this note (puns intended, of course) are street musicians. From the blind opera singer in Prague who read sheet music in Braille, to the one-handed drummer in Copenhagen, to the guy with an acoustic guitar and harmonica in New Orleans--who when I gave him some money and asked if knew any Neil Young, pulled out "Powderfinger" as the only one he knew--I always enjoy watching street musicians of various types and often give them some money in exchange for being able to shoot a bit of video.

So today, as I'm walking through the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem's Old City, I came across a guy with an acoustic guitar playing and singing on a bench. I had already seen another guy singing songs in Hebrew, so I thought this guy might be too, but as I got closer, I discerned that he was singing "Hotel California." I did catch a bit on video, but he didn't notice me, nor had a tip jar or open guitar case, so I just walked on.

But tomorrow, I'm off on a day-trip down to Masada and the Dead Sea, so I'm sure a dark desert highway awaits. Not so sure about the warm smell of Colitas.

OK, now I'll stop for the night.

Six Million Reminders

Thank you to everyone who offered their condolences about my Aunt Mickey's passing (see post below). Like myself, Mickey was never much of a practicing Jew, but also similarly, she was always proud of her heritage. So I think it may have been somewhat fitting that today, in addition to getting back to the Wailing Wall and making it up to the Temple Mount to take great pictures of the Dome on the Rock (but not actually enter, as that is reserved for Muslims), I spent well over 3 hours at Yad Vashem, Jerusalem's museum about and memorial to the 6 million Jews who were murdered during the Holocaust (the museum text pointedly uses the word "murdered" extensively).

I have certainly read much and seen many movies about the Holocaust, visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington, and toured numerous other Holocaust remembrance sites, everywhere from Prague to Amsterdam to Venice and beyond. And in less than a month, after a long genesis, a new Holocaust Museum will open in my hometown of Skokie, and it supposedly will be one of the largest in the U.S. Obviously, the topic can't be anything but harrowing, but it was especially so in a museum in Jerusalem. Particular lowlights (to say "highlights" just seems wrong) included an actual rail car that transported people to Auchwitz, barracks from one of the camps and a model depicting how victims were led to the gas chamber.

Certainly, this wasn't enjoyable to see, but yet it felt essential. And if you've been reading along, you've probably picked up on my admitted lack of Jewish devotion and may have wondered what compelled me to visit Israel. Obviously, the Holocaust was a horror that you don't need to be Jewish to grasp, but without saying this as evocatively as I might, Yad Vashem helped to remind me of my inherent identification with Judaism, one of which I am proud and would never want to forget.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

A Moment to Reflect

In checking my email this morning, including many kind notes based on my message yesterday, I saw that my sister Allison let me know that my Aunt Mickey passed away last night. I certainly knew this was coming, and as she had become bed-ridden, pain-riddled and uncommunicative, at this point her passing was merciful.

I did not have the closest nor warmest relationship with Mickey in recent years, but I loved her and will miss her. We were very close when I was younger; her lifelong love of travel, theater and the arts undoubtedly influenced mine; and she was always quite appreciative & admiring of whatever creative pursuits I shared with her, from my poetry, pun cartoon calendars, greeting cards, photography and whatever else. And for all of that I will always be grateful.

Mickey was 76 years old, and only learned of having cancer in the beginning of February. It is sad that she passed so quickly after that, but good that she was able to live her life so fully until. It was heartwarming to see the outpouring of love from her many friends, and all the family members who came to town to say their goodbyes. In a way, she reunited us.

I had a chance to see Mickey three times in the last month, most recently this past Sunday night. And as she had requested, I had a chance to say a prayer for her at the Western Wall, seemingly just shortly before she passed.

I left a note in the wall cracks, as is custom. It said simply: G-d Bless Mickey Arkin 3/25/09.

Be at peace Mickey. Love, Seth.

Holy Land, Batman!

If ever there was a day that could have brought my spiritual awakening, today was it. After arriving at my hotel in Jerusalem a full 22 hours after leaving my home in Skokie, which with the time differences made it 3:00pm Wednesday in Israel, I still had enough energy and daylight to traipse through much of the Old City, which houses the most sacred (or nearly so) sites in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Although I am Jewish, I am far from observant, nor do I--as a lady asked me at JFK Airport before my connecting flight on El Al--"speak Jewish." And while I try to be respectful of anyone's beliefs, I have scant theological knowledge of other religions. But I am interested in religion's historical impact, and thus, when in Jerusalem, do as the pilgrims do.

Certainly, I can't deny the historic and photographic attraction of the Wailing/Western Wall, Judaism's most sacred place of worship, the Church of the Holy Sepulcre, which my tour book told me was on the site of Jesus' Crucifixion and commemorates the spot of his original tomb, and the beautiful Dome on the Rock, an ancient mosque that I photographed plenty but did not go into today. But even at the Wall, where I said a quick prayer for my Aunt Mickey (who is gravely ill) and left a note to that effect in a wall crack along with this more universal message, my reverence was far more mental than emotional.

But in visiting this religious melting pot (and I will return to the Old City tomorrow along with getting to some other parts of Jerusalem), I did re-discover the one thing that truly unites all cultures: tacky souvenir shops. It took me more than 2 hours to even find the Wailing Wall due to being caught in a labyrinth of bazaar-like souvenir shops lining several streets of the Old City, with all three religions and additional cultures being represented. And me being Mr. Uber-tourist, traveling alone and shlepping a Digital SLR, well, I was obviously a beacon for the merchants, with seemingly every one solicting me to enter their shop. Which despite predominantly selling tacky souvenirs--my favorite was the Guns 'n Moses t-shirt--didn't have my tacky souvenir of choice: shot glasses.

Anyway, there's a computer in the lobby of my little hotel, so for more of this invigorating insight--souvenir stands in tourist areas, my how shocking!--check back in the days ahead.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Israel & Egypt 2009: Pre-Departure

I am about an hour away from leaving for the airport, for a flight to New York, where I will connect to an El Al flight to Tel Aviv. Of course, I am excited, though I usually wait until I arrive somewhere to get really pumped up about it. And while I obviously wouldn't be going to Israel unless I wanted to, it really isn't a place I've dreamed about going all my life. Though I am Jewish and proud of my heritage, I am not observant nor all that knowledgeable about Jewish or Israeli history.

But after having gone to several places in the U.S., Europe and even Australia, Israel just felt like the right place to go in my 40th year. And although many travelers to Israel, particularly Jews, don't go to Egypt, because my interest is more acutely photographic and historic than spiritual, I am really looking forward to my visit to Cairo as well.

A quick rundown of the itinerary and then I will try to post along the way:

Wednesday, I arrive in Israel and go first to Jerusalem. I stay there through Saturday, though on Friday will take a day-tour to Masada and the Dead Sea. Sunday, I take a bus down to Eilat, at Israel's southern tip, which serves as the gateway for a tour on Monday to Petra in Jordan. Getting back to Eilat, I then fly to Tel Aviv, where I stay for 3 days. I hope to get north to Akko, Safed & Haifa one day, and another will visit some cousins in Rehovot. Late at night on Thursday, April 2, I fly from Tel Aviv to Cairo, arriving at 1:40am. I have 3 days in Cairo, with my hotel literally across the street from the Great Pyramids. On Monday, I fly to London, where I have one night in town before flying home on Tuesday.

"The dogs on Main Street howl
'cause they understand
If I could take one moment into my hands
Mister I ain't a boy, no I'm a man
And I believe in a promised land"