The Land of Israel / by Simmon Li

So it's been a while since I wrote. The last time I wrote in my blog about Israel was to write about the Sabbath and the time of rest. Fast forward a few weeks and it's finally time for me to say goodbye. The time here has taught me a lot. I feel as if I've discovered a new part of myself. A part of myself that *likes* going to beaches and getting sand on my feet. I remember as a kid, I was neurotic about this kind of stuff. I didn't walk on grass barefoot. Needless to say, I've overcome that a little bit here in Israel with the help of some lovely people. The best part of the travelling here in Israel? I'd have to say that it's been the whole over-all experience. The mix of academics and travel has been a little hectic to say the least, but definitely worth it. I feel as if I've done a half year's worth of growing up and experiencing. I've become a bit of a GPA freak in the past year, and I think the course at Hebrew U has taught me again that sometimes in life, you just can't take yourself too seriously at school. It's important, yes, but other things matter too. Given the short time frame of my trip here, I learned how to let go of stress when it mattered. Of course, the staff and professors at Hebrew U helped immensely in that task. I think that was the most challenging thing for me to do here. To keep the pace of my travelling up while dedicating enough time to learning earnestly was difficult. I have to be honest and say that around the 2nd week of my program, I sort of resented taking an intensive academic course, because it meant that, compared to my other friends here, I had less time to travel and see Israel. Having finished it all now though, I have to say that resentment was unjustified, especially in light of the fact that I learned that sometimes, priorities can change. It helped that I took the Arabic course for personal interest, and so the burden wasn't as heavy as it could have been. Taken as a whole, the course was great and I've learned so much. Considering 5 weeks ago, Arabic was scribbles to me, I'd say that I did pretty well. That was the first challenge, but I think that I adequately surmounted it. Of course, with things like marks and academics, there is always more one could have done until one gets 100%. I'm very happy with my academic progress when considered with what else I did in Israel. The professor for the Arabic course was amazing. Just a fountain of knowledge and intrigue. He is definitely one of the more engaging lecturers I've had in my university career. But enough about my amazing class, I also would like to write about my travels!

Travelling Israel has pretty much been a breeze. Thank the stars that I just happen to randomly start travelling with the people whom I did, it was a wicked mash-up right from the start. It's a special kind of relationship that I don't think can be forged in quite the same way in other circumstances. Needless to say, it's been amazing to get to know Allison, Julia and Mark. I hope that they can say the same for me, I know I can get a bit prickly sometimes haha. Anyway, it's just been an amazing experience to travel with these guys. I think we had the right  balance of preparation and free spirits. It certainly helps to travel as a group, I think it gives all of us confidence. It was just incredible to experience the places I did with the people whom I did. They certainly challenged me to grow in ways that I probably would have shied away from had I been on my own. I think, in particular, that beach going has been an experience for me. I was a pretty neurotic kid. To the point that I didn't walk on grass barefoot. Of course, this extended to the beach and water in general. Travelling with fish, I was challenged to really give it all a second chance. I think I still get a little antsy with sand in my feet, but at the very least, I can say that it bothers me less than it used to. One step at a time. I think, at the very least, they challenged me to confront my fear of water. I mean, I don't think I really did confront it while in Israel, but I'm going back to Canada with a new sense of confidence that might finally push me to get into a pool and swim. It's funny how the people you travel with impact you in ways you'd never think was possible. I can only hope that people can say that I've been a positive experience for them as well.

So, what the heck did I do with these amazing people? A lot! And I feel like that's an understatement. In my first weekend, I stayed in Jerusalem and walked around a bit just trying to familiarize myself with the city and where I'd be staying. I remember wandering into the Old City with Julia and getting lost, accidentally discovering all of the holy sites there were to see. We even came up on the Dome of the Rock, which sadly, was not open to visitors because it was Sabbath. Not to worry, we did see the Western Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and numerous other sites in the Old City. During my time here, I managed to stumble upon, in my opinion, one of the best restaurants in Jerusalem. The 10 shekel falafel sandwich is amazing. David's Kitchen, it was called. Just amazing. On my second weekend, we visited Ramallah and a Palestinian refugee camp just outside of Ramallah. This trip in particular marked the beginning of awesome for me. I mean, it was the first trip that I did while in Israel that was outside of the Jerusalem area, and going to Ramallah at that. I was told that it'd be dangerous and to be careful, and what not. Not surprising given the people I knew here, but it was a fantastic experience. The camp itself was pretty difficult to be in. We visited the children's activity center in the camp that was more or less like a daycare. I think this part of the trip was the most impactful for me. Of course, I study Peace and Conflict at home and we talked about this kind of stuff all the time (it was a pretty depressing course, content-wise) but being in the camp was a whole new level of experience. I mean, I can speak to it coming from a background of privilege, it was really striking just how little these kids had. Of course, learning about it and seeing it first hand are two different things, but it really hit home for me while being there. The hardships they dealt with were visible. I mean, it's funny to say "first world problems" back at home, but now I feel as if I understand in a more visceral way where that phrase comes from. Anyway, it was just amazing. The people and kids were so generous and gracious, which turns out to be a theme for this trip. After the refugee camp, we met up with some friends of a friend in a cafe in Ramallah and took a break. After a very tasty lunch, one of them told the story about their day of detention for attending a political protest. The details of the story are not all that relevant though I have to say, I quite enjoyed hearing the story given in Arabic and translated for us. It was a very heart-felt experience that I very much appreciated. To share a story like that is probably very difficult. Anyway, at the end of the story, he said that he realized that sticks and stones don't get you anywhere but in jail, and that peaceful protest with solidarity from others is what really gives force to your claims. It was interesting to see the change of heart in person and to witness someone testify about the power of peaceful protest. But again, the people that we met in Ramallah were gracious and generous. Hearing about the experience of detention made me wonder just how fragile our right to freedom of expression is, and the violence that violence does to any political cause or message.

The next weekend is probably one of the highlights of my trip here in Israel, or rather, should I say Jordan. It all started with our trip to Tel Aviv to pick up Jordanian visas. Our tendency was to be on top of things, so we got to Tel Aviv early and were there for the opening of the Jordanian embassy. Of course, we hit a snag that extended our adventures that day in Tel Aviv: we had forgotten passport photos that were required for visas. It wasn't difficult for us to find a place to do photos, though that ordeal lasted a good 2 hours. We were able to successfully get photos and visas done all in the day. It didn't help, of course, that UToronto's course selections were also that day, which put a massive time pressure on us. Thank god for free WIFi, I ended up doing my course selection at an Aroma in Tel Aviv. The rest of the gang got their course selections done as well, so it wasn't too bad. Getting to Jordan was a bit of a gong show, looking back now. Luckly for us, we found a pretty cheap sherut to the King Hussein crossing The fun all started when we got on a JET bus from the Israeli side of no man's land to get to the Jordanian side. Little did we know at the time that the bus driver was a de facto border crossing official. It was a little jarring when he asked for all of our passports and just took them. It was a little difficult to keep calm, but we did it and managed to make it through the border without huge delays. Withdrawing money was a bit of a pain in the ass in Jordan, but I had exchanged some ahead of time, so it all worked out. If there's one thing that was nice, it was the cab to Amman. Our driver was really nice and spoke a decent amount of English. "Welcome to Jordan!" We heard that a lot. The cabbie also commented on how attractive Canadian girls were (haha) and , of course, I had to nod my head and agree. We stayed with a friend while in Amman and she and her mother were the most gracious hosts ever. It was just the best thing to have happened to us while in a foreign place. We had dinner, shared stories, went out to Rainbow Street (a pretty liberal part of Amman), had some hukka and went to bed intending to go to Petra the next day. Of course, the universe had different plans for us. Long story short, we missed the only bus to Petra that day (it didn't really help that we were travelling on Sabbath) so we decided to make a day of it in Amman. It worked out nicely for us, I'd say. After a night out in Amman, the rest of my travel buddies decided to go see Amman. Here, I was torn between going with them and staying in to do my homework. I chose to stay in and do homework, while the rest of them explored some ruins and the Amman Citadel. They eventually came back (with some amazing falafel for me, I might add), we had some dinner, and we went to bed determined to catch the bus to Petra the next morning. This time, we did make it to Petra and the rest is in pictures. We hiked up to the High Place of Sacrifice and came down around the back way. It was surreal because it was clearly a marked path for tourists to hike, but there was no one else on this particular path. Only information signs. It was kind of cool, it felt like having a little bit of Petra to ourselves. We managed to see a lot of things and get a good hike in. There's really no describing our visit to Petra. The experience of walking into the dug in caves and tombs that provided refuge from the sun, it was simply something you had to do. The hiking was intense, for sure, but very much a good challenge. We did some singing and some good posing (which was enhanced by the fact that there were no other people around). We also had quite the knack for packing good hiking food (by which I mean not at all). It was kind of funny to hike around in Petra, and stop to have a bag of potato chips in a cool cave. Of course, salty potato chips weren't the best thing to have, but they were sooo good. We caught the bus back to Amman and were content to have seen Petra. After our trip back to Amman, we checked into the most interesting hostel I've stayed in for a while. It was fun, but certainly not something I'd like to repeat in the near future. The rooms were hot, and the shower was more or less a hole in the wall. I think, though, one of my most surreal experiences is owed to this little hostel. Muslims, as you may or may not know, pray at set times during the day. Anyway, we were sleeping and at 4am, prayer music gets broadcasted, very loudly. After realizing that all the complaining the world wouldn't make it stop, it become something else. Lying in bed at 4am, in the dark, listening to the melody of the voice on the loudspeaker. It was just an experience in and of itself. It was an amazing experience. I know music is a very powerful way of channeling experience, and certainly, I felt as if the music played a large part in why I liked the experience so much. I don't often like getting woken up at 4am. Looking back, I exaggerate, but it certainly felt like it after a long day of hiking. The trip back to Israel was pretty uneventful. Having already gone through the border, we felt pretty good about the experience. I just didn't expect that getting back into Israel would take so long, but it did end up taking us 6 hours. So much for attending class that day (as I had planned to).

The next weekend was our trip to the Galilee and Tiberias. "The weekend that prompted us to rent a car." A lot of beach going and a wicked hike. We arrived in Tiberias no problems, and promptly checked into Panorama Hotel. Compared to the last hotel we stayed in, it was a dream. Julia was very happy about that. We unpacked and went right to the beach to swim a little. They swam, anyway, I just waded. After that, we caught dinner at a nice restaurant on the Promenade and then headed to a tourist bar for some drinks (some is the right word, it was expensive!). The next day, we caught the bus took a cab to Yehudiya Nature Reserve and hiked some of the Golan Heights. It was a beautiful hike and it was only made a billion times better by the fact that were was a spring pool that we could swim in near the end of our journey. It was amazing. I mean, I still maintain my fear of water, but heck, it was definitely worth going in. I was scared for my life because it was literally a pothole, but the water was so refreshing. Just the thing we needed. After that, we hiked back out and caught a bus back to Tiberias for a good night's sleep. They went for another swim, but having had my fill of water for the day, I caught some early sleep. The next day was just a loungy kind of day. We walked about 5km south of Tiberias (it felt about that much, yes it was longer to the free beaches than we anticipated) to get some free beach. Luckly for us, we managed to find one, and stayed at the beach for a good portion of the day. Walking back to Tiberias didn't suit us, so we ended up calling a cab for the last 4km or so. After that, we tried to find some dinner and ran into my roommate from the Student Dorms. It was kind of funny. We ended up having, to my recollection, peanuts for dinner. After that, bed and the next day. We decided that we'd stay for a bit and tried to check out the areas around Tiberias. We ended up getting to the Mount of Beatitudes a bit late, and found it closed to visitors. We did end up getting a nice view of the Galilee. The bus to the Mount, though, ended up dropping us off at the side of the road. Good times. We ended up lucking out and catching a bus before the sun set completely which also happened to be a direct bus back to Jerusalem. Allison was going to Nazareth, so  she got off the bus while the rest of us continued. I got the most intense sunburn while at the beach south of Tiberias, but it was worth it. With a little aloe, it was no problem at all.

The last weekend was probably the busiest weekend in Israel for our little travel troupe. The nerve-racking experience of racing against the light to catch a bus prompted us to rent a car, which turned out to be one of the best decisions we made while travelling in Israel. The weekend was jam-packed in the best way possible. In order of experience, we floated in The Dead Sea, experienced Bedouin hospitality at its finest, hiked the Snake Path up to Masada, explored Ein Gedi, went back to Jerusalem for a breather, and drove to Haifa and back for a meal and some sight-seeing. The driving in Israel was nice. The roads seemed to me to be much better maintained than the roads in Canada (especially in the GTA). To be fair, Canada is much larger than Israel, so there's much more road to maintain (probably). It was a lot of fun to be driving somewhere else in the world, and it's actually something that I don't think I would have done had I been travelling on my own. I don't usually do things like rent cars to drive around a foreign country.

The first stop was the Dead Sea. I have to say, it was hot as all hell. We got out of the car and instantly were hit by the heat. We stopped by Mineral Beach on the Dead Sea, but were dismayed to find that the admission fee was 50NIS, which is a little expensive for a dip in the Sea. Luckly for us, we had a car and were able to drive 10min south and find ourselves a free beach to experience. Had we not been prepared with a car, we would have been out 50NIS each. The car was definitely a good idea. The dip itself was interesting. Those that know a little bit about me will know that I actually have an irrational fear of submerging myself in water. The experience at the Dead Sea was fun though. Floating without effort was kind of cool. I did stay close to the shore, simply for my own sake. Even though floating was effortless, I didn't want to start freaking out about not being close to shore and somehow manage to incapacitate myself. I know it's stupid, but hey I ended up getting in the Dead Sea. I also learned, after much too long, that I am not a good beach goer. I was thoroughly unprepared to go to the beach on several occasions while in Israel, with the Dead Sea being a particularly egregious one. Tie up shoes on the Dead Sea beach were not a good idea, especially considering how hot those rocks were. My feet were burning! Anyway, I learned my lesson. The dip was fun, but let's just say I was not too broken up about going back into the AC in the car. I suppose, in hindsight, visiting the Dead Sea at high noon wasn't that smart. But hey, we got it done!

After our Dead Sea experience, we decided that we would huff it over to where our Bedouin family was. The drive was surreal. Being from Canada (and especially Toronto) I wasn't used to driving on such curvy roads. It was actually a ton of fun. In and around Toronto, all our roads are pretty straight and arranged in a grid pattern. We changed up drivers so that others could do some driving, and I was able to enjoy the trip through Arad and Beersheba. We drove off the highway a little ways to find the Bedouin family, and it was kind of exciting. Looking back now, I will admit I was a bit nervous about the whole experience. Apprehensive about staying in the middle of the desert with strangers, but, having experienced it, I can now say that it was probably one of the best experiences from all the things I did in Israel. We pulled up and were greeted by the father of the household. He offered us water and snacks, even though he was fasting for Ramadan. It was a little weird at first, but we got used to it. His wife invited us to see how she made naan bread on a stove, and even let Allison and Julia have a go at it. Fresh off the stove, it was amazing. I don't think I could ever make the bread the way she did. Without gloves, on the blistering heat. It was truly impressive. After resting up a little bit, he took us around the village, showing us his sheep, camels, and the scenery in general. He also took us to some fig trees and picked us figs right off the tree. They were so good! I'd never actually had figs before going to Israel. I've heard that you can only get dried figs in Toronto, which is a bit of a shame, but we'll see. Anyway, he showed us around the desert a bit more, and actually took us to a rock face that had salt on it. I feel as if he showed me why the Dead Sea is so salty, the salt was just sitting there on the side of the rock face. I tasted some! He then took us to the house of another family where we played with the kids and talked a little bit. It's remarkable how much communication is non-verbal between humans. Even with the massive language barrier, we were able to share some stories about our experiences. The kids were energetic. There was a little girl who was very sensitive to us. She was very shy and seemed as if she was scared of us as a group. It was cute, but I still wonder why she was brought to tears simply because we smiled and waved at her. Who knows, maybe she was just unaccustomed to strangers. As the sun set, our host began to count the minutes until he could eat again. The meal was amazing. Rice, chicken, humus, pickles, the naan bread, soup and salad. There was some eggplant on the rice that was absolutely delicious. We ate as much as we could, but only managed to finish about a third of what was offered to us. I feel badly because we couldn't even finish half of the food, but I think they expect that from foreigners. After that, we sat under the stars and chit chatted about why we were in Israel and what we were doing the next day. Julia and Allison learned some dancing, while I took in the stars. We ended up sleeping out on the patio. It was amazing. The breeze was enough to keep us cool until the morning. Wanting, of course, to catch the sunrise at Masada, we got up at 3am, bid farewell and hit the road again. The drive was amazing, and again we pulled off to the side of the road to grab a view of the stars. As a city dweller, stars are not something I see often, so it was a treat. We got to Masada right as it was about to open, which was nice. We actually drove past 2 barriers, which was kind of funny because the booths were manned, but no one said anything to us. After we found some parking, we lined up to enter.

The hike itself was fun, though not too difficult. Once we got to the top, we climbed out onto a wall and sat down, waiting for the sun. It was an experience to watch the sun peek out over Jordan and the Dead Sea. The vantage point was amazing. The best bit about the sunrise was probably the group of Americans sitting next to us, confirming stereotypes. As soon as the sun peaked out over the horizon, one of them announced, "Alrighty, I'm hungry. Let's get some food!" The group agreed and left. Of course, I was hungry too, but it's the Masada sunrise! We stayed until 0730 to catch a few more pictures, then decided to check out Ein Gedi. Ein Gedi wasn't originally on our schedule, but I was glad we stopped by. Compared with the hiking in the Golan Heights (Yehudiya nature reserve), it wasn't as amazing, though to be fair, we didn't hike the actual hiking path at Ein Gedi. The waterfalls were beautiful, but they definitely felt more constructed than the spring pool we saw at Yehudiya. For one, there was no moss in the pools at all, I think that was a big give away. Nonetheless, we found a nice little pool that we had to ourselves for a good 2 or 3 hours until it started getting busy. The advantage to getting there right as the park opened was being able to see all the animals as well as being able to take in the tranquility of the park itself. By the time we left, all the animals had disappeared, probably bothered by all the noise and commotion of tourist groups. After our trip to Ein Gedi, we drove back to Jerusalem for a little time out. Then, we decided, more or less because we could, to drive to Haifa for dinner. I'd never been, and the others kept raving about this restaurant in Haifa called Fatoush, so we did it. The drive was fun, the food was food, and Haifa is beautiful at night. The rest of them ended up going for a dip in the Mediterranean before we left, I waded in but got freaked out by the waves, so I stood on the beach like an idiot. Either way, it was fun. The drive back as fairly uneventful, though my navigator freaked out at the sight of a MacDonalds. We all got ice cream. It was good. After that, it was exam time, check out time, and the next thing I know, I'm staying at Abraham Hostel again. It was a nice way to end the trip, back where I started. I decided, mostly for my mom's sake, to visit Bethlehem and do a tour of the area. Unattached as I am to the religious significance of the Church of the Nativity, I did get to see some of the significance of it through experiencing other's attachments to it. It was interesting, and I did get some good pictures, but I'm glad it was just a half day tour. After lounging around a bit, I got on a plane and came back.

After it's all said and done, I really enjoyed my trip to Israel. Learned a lot about myself, met a lot of people and made some new friends. I think too, that the trip challenged me in some ways that were new and interesting. The fact that I wore sandals and shorts is a big one. There was something nice about having a trip like that to reset one's mind. Seeing what I saw and experiencing what I did, it sheds light on the way I live at home and on the comforts and conveniences that we enjoy at home. Certainly, I hope that I am a bit more conscious about the way I live now that I've lived somewhere else and seen the way others live.

I think the thing that stuck me the most about living in Jerusalem was the politics of the place. Often times, we in Canada are apathetic to the politics of every day life. I think it's especially the case here in Toronto. I just found the acuteness of politics in Jerusalem to be a welcome change. Simple things like saying "Thanks" were a bit more difficult. Do I say it in Hebrew? Arabic? Or maybe I should just stick to English and play it safe? Often times, English ended up coming out of my mouth. We no longer live politics the way they do, though I'm sure at one time, and at a time in the future, we may again. It was refreshing to experience. The conflict itself seems infinitely more complex to me now, and being in Jerusalem has given me a bit of insight into the multi-layered complexities of conflict in that region of the world. I mean, I had read about the conflict from an academic perspective, but when you're there, you can't escape the fact that reality is infinitely more complex than academic theory can present. Of course, this kind of insight is always in the back of your head when you're in school, but it's easy to forget sometimes unless school is supplemented by a healthy dose of reality. I have to admit, I was probably forgetting that reality generates explanations.