Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Adventures in Israel: Hula Nature Reserve

My parents are big fans of national parks. They always have been. We used to spend time camping in the Great Smokey Mountains and visited quite a few of the others on road trips over the years. In Israel, a lot of the ruins are national parks as well. My parents bought themselves an annual pass and, as they joked while we were there, it more than earned itself during our visit. Most of the places we went either they or I had been before--however, there was one place none of us had been: the Hula Nature Reserve.

In part, this is because the security situation in Israel for the better part of the last decade has involved flying objects coming from the north (ie Lebanon) and the Hula is within range of that. Although we weren't there during the right time of year, the reserve was still really lovely and reminded me a lot of some of the marsh areas of the Everglades. I spent way too much time looking for alligators.

The Hula Nature Reserve is a bird santuary. See, the migratory patterns of most European and West Asian birds takes them south to Africa for the winter. The layover destination of all these guys is Hula...over 200 different species. So in the high season there are tens of thousands of birdies hanging out with the muscrats and water buffalos (click the photos below).

There was also a video that went with the tour. You sit down in what looks like a really small and very old movie theater and put on 3D glasses...which work suprisingly well over real glasses... Soon, the music starts and you realize that not only is this a 3D movie, this little adventure also has other effects...the chairs move as the birds fly...when they fly past you there is a whoosh of air in your face. Unfortunately, the birds went through a rain storm at some point during the movie, which meant we went through a rainstorm, got shot in the face with water, and some strange little contraptions binked me in the backs of my calves. I say bink because they reminded me of the little mallets used to play that persian instrument called a santour (hammered dulcimer)...anyways, it was all very sensory and really pretty dope. There aren't usually things like that in the parks here and it was a really neat experience.

So, back to my alligator thing. I absolutely expected to find them...and go figure there weren't any, BUT i did find something else that was undoubtedly grateful for the lack of animals with chompingly big teeth: world's most enormous catfish.
Yes, more catfish--about the same size as the ones that live right by the Baptismal area on the River Jordan....These bad boys were ALL over the place and would jump out of the water.

It was a beautiful and super calm place. I can imagine it gets crazy with people during bird season---but the quiet (between large groups of American tourists) was really calming.
And just for good measure...here's A and I on the boardwalk.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Stories from Israel: Akka

On our second day in Israel we went to Akka (also known as Acre and Akko). It is a World Heritage Site and pretty cool place. Lately, there's been an increase in gang violence after about 4 pm, so we confined our visit to the day. We took a sherut (like a multi-person taxi) and then walked into the Old City. The Old City reminds me a lot of Jerusalem---small narrow streets and cramped 'souk' or bazaar like areas. One of the great things about it being a world heritage site is that they have done work to make tours available for reasonable prices. We went and got a multi-site pass which allowed us to visit the Crusader Fort, Turkish Bath, Museums, and the Templar Tunnel.

The Crusader Fortress is in varying stages of excavation
On the left are the Crusader Latrines, to the right is a Tombstone and below is Adam with some of the carved arches.
Touring around we climbed a wall and looked back over onto the Old City. From there you can also see part of a nifty looking cemetary:

Akko is alway full of smells (fallafel, schwarma (usually lamb---dripping fat from its turning skewer while you shave thin strips off into a pita), zatar and spices and the fish in the market), sounds (honking, loud discussions mostly in Arabic, and music from the cars of 20 year olds who have nothing better to do than drive) and stray cats. The Turkish bath featured a movie which is way over the top stereotypical, but funny and gives a sense of the history related to a ruthleess ruler named Al'Jassar, for who a green domed mosque in Akko is named. We didn't go in there because the guy wanted to charge us 10 NIS each. Okay, so i admit that's only $2.50 USD, but the thing is that 6 months ago it was 5 NIS a piece. I blame it mostly on Adam being so blonde.  :)

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Stories from Israel: Camels

I promised more detailed stories from our trip...they definitely won't be in chronological order. Here's the first:

Ahhhh Camels...how uncomfortable art thy saddles!

Adam had only one request for our trip---i guess it comes from the stereotypical image of people riding camels through the desert wastelands of the middle east---he wanted to ride camels. I really wanted to go eat Bedouin food because its freakin yummy, but that would not be. Back to the point, it was his only request...so when we got all the way to the southern most tip of Israel, a narrow stretch of land bordered by the Red Sea, Jordan and Egypt, we arranged to go on a "sunset" camel ride--a 4 hr (half-day) excursion. If you want to know more about the Camel Ranch you can click its name.  The group was the two of us, a couple from Finland, a family comprised of two moms, a son and daughter (we think they were a blended family because a different mom responded to the word when each kid said it), and a Russian New Yorker and a woman we couldn't quite place because she was our age but he was in his 50s....use your imagination.

 So, the 12 of us set off with our guide into the wilderness. We started all linked together and then were set free after learning how to turn the camel. What a joke...there is no camel turning. They do this once a day, know exactly what they are doing and where they like to walk. The son in the group was frantically trying to make his camel go faster, but after an hour or so of "kadima, Kadima!!!" (forward), the rest of the group requested he give it a rest.  The epitome of this was when we tried to go to the top of a big hill. Each camel did precisely what it wanted, including standing around looking at the vista for a few minutes without moving.
Adam's camel was named Shula. Both his and mine, Myriam, had served a stint in the Israeli army when they wanted to see whether or not to bring back the camel patrol units that used to exist along the Egyptian border. Alas, it was not to be.

As it turned out, Shula was actually the smart one in the group. There's an electric fence that runs the perimeter of the camel pen. As per usual, the tasty grassy treats are just outside this pen. The electic fence also makes a popping noise as it goes by. Usually, a camel gets zapped once or twice and that's it. Shula learned that if she waited for the pop she could then stick her head outside to eat. Adam said it was only fitting he was riding on the brilliant camel! HAH. In the pic of Adam above is one of the moms, the "kadima kadima" son, the daughter and the Finnish husband.

So, back to the top of the mountain...it was lovely. Less than a km from Egypt, you could see Aqaba in jordan and a little industrial site in Saudi Arabia. It was also a little chillly and a little windy. We walked our camels down as the sun set---seeing as how riding camels downhill is not so comfy.

In the center of this picture is both Aqaba and the border with Saudi...where there is no fence or marker.

Also, its a picture of Shula, the wonder camel.

By the time everyone had walked the camels down the hill, it was dusky. Our ride continued for about 20 minutes into the dark...at last arriving at a fire pit. We all sat around the camp fire while our guide/host made delicious tea including a plant called "flour flea" that tasted suspiciously like camomile (sp?). He also made this yummy Bedouin bread called kafir. It is a flat bread made only of water and flour and cooked on a large iron semi-circle (like if you flipped your wok over). It was smothered with labaneh (a slightly sour but VERY TASTY) goat cheese with zatar (a spice) and of course there were olives. 
So we dined in the darkness while he told us stories about scorpions! Four hours after we started...we were back at the ranch--mission acccomplished--with very sore bums.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Quddus Michael....mi amorcito

I should tell you every day of the week to remind you that i love you. i didn't at first...you were unruly, had no taste in words and liked to shock more than awe people. my parents liked you--you were "edgy" my dad said. i couldn't understand.

it turned out you weren't really that person, you liked to sit in your chair and listen to classical music, had embraced neruda into your soul, and liked to draw creepy pen drawings in your moleskin notebooks (they had to be moleskin--there was something about the texture). i fell in love...not in the romantic sense, but in the i cannot bear my life without you sense.

So, i'm making a list of the things related to you that i love...since you love lists:
1. that red sweater (but i will never say so again.
2. you have never failed to come when i needed you most. this puts you on a list of fewer than 5 people who i am endlessly devoted to for their loyalty.
3. the fact that you find beauty in the smallest and most imperfect of things.
4. your *insert word stronger than devotion* for sahar....
5. the way you make tea and the way you wrap your fingers around the cup like it were a sacred chalice.
6. your ability to fit seamlessly into wherever you are--even when you think you don't belong

Happiest Birthday from one of your biggest fans....

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

A prayer request

As some of you may know, the Baha'i Community has been under severe and sustained persecution since its inception in the 1800s in Iran. I wrote my senior thesis in university on the use of the Baha'i community by the Iranian government as an "other" in geo-political theory. That means, everytime things start going awry for the government they employ the spectre of the Baha'is as an evil to rally the people around the flag again. Recently, they have also used, women, liberals, and students in the same manner. I'm not sure who they think is going to be left to come to the flag raising with them. 

At any rate, this is this morning's headline and regardless of your faith or convictions, i'm asking you to say a prayer for protection of these people who did nothing wrong. Our faith promotes justice, unity and following our governments.

GENEVA, 12 January (BWNS) – The trial of seven imprisoned Baha'i leaders began today in Iran. Initial reports indicate that the trial is marked by numerous violations of legal due process.

"We understand that no observers were allowed in the court," said Diane Ala'i, the Baha'i International Community's representative to the United Nations in Geneva. "We find this completely outrageous, given that these seven have been held purely because of their religious beliefs, in total contradiction to any human rights standards.

"We understand that even the lawyers had to argue their way inside the court – lawyers who in any case had virtually no access to the accused for nearly two years.

"At the same time, the prisoners' interrogators from the Ministry of Intelligence and a film crew were seen going in, raising questions about the nature of the trial," she said.

Ms. Ala'i also noted that an Iranian Web site linked to state-run television posted a story Monday evening announcing that the trial had already begun and listing the same baseless accusations made in the past against the seven.

"In any event, all of these accounts point to a trial that is highly irregular, very similar to the show trials that have been held in Iran in recent months," she said.

The seven are Mrs. Fariba Kamalabadi, Mr. Jamaloddin Khanjani, Mr. Afif Naeimi, Mr. Saeid Rezaie, Mrs. Mahvash Sabet, Mr. Behrouz Tavakkoli, and Mr. Vahid Tizfahm.

All but one of the group were arrested on 14 May 2008 at their homes in Tehran. Mrs. Sabet was arrested on 5 March 2008 while in Mashhad. They have been held in Tehran's Evin prison ever since, spending their first year there without formal charges or any access to lawyers.

"Whatever happens, it is clear that the trial of these seven innocent people represents the trial of an entire religious community, and is an attempt to further intimidate and ostracize all Iranian Baha'is simply because they hold a different religious viewpoint from those in power."

To view the article with photograph, go to: http://news.bahai.org/story/748
For the Baha’i World News Service home page, go to: http://news.bahai.org/

Additionally, the US Dept of State released this:
Persecution of Religious Minorities in Iran

Philip J. Crowley, Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Public Affairs, Washington, DC, January 11, 2010

The United States strongly condemns the Iranian government’s decision to commence the espionage trial against seven leaders of the Iranian Baha’i community: Mrs. Fariba Kamalabadi, Mr. Jamaloddin Khanjani, Mr. Afif Naeimi, Mr. Saeid Rezaie, Mr. Behrouz Tavakkoli, Mr. Vahid Tizfahm and Mrs. Mahvash Sabet. Authorities have detained these persons for more than 20 months, without making public any evidence against them and giving them little access to legal counsel. Reports indicate as many as 48 Baha’i are currently imprisoned in Iran solely on the basis of their religious beliefs. The Government of Iran is responsible for their safety while they are in prison.

These persons are entitled to due process. The right to a fair and public hearing is embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Iran's constitution provides the right to legal representation in criminal cases, as does the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Iran is a party. In addition, the right to freedom of belief and conscience is enshrined in both the UDHR and ICCPR.

We are deeply concerned about Iran's ongoing persecution of Baha'is and treatment of other members of religious minorities who continue to be targeted solely on the basis of their beliefs.

We join the international community in urging the Iranian authorities to release all religious minorities who are currently in detention for peacefully exercising their human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Adventures in getting back

i cry whenever i leave my folks. usually, the israelis have the decency to ignore me and i am traveling alone. this time, poor adam was subjected to my intermittent sniffling on the train to ben gurion airport. we bummed around duty free and sat while a flight paged two passengers about twenty five times. when they finally appeared the gate agent yelled at them, gesticulating that they were horrible people who should never be allowed to take their inconsiderate selves on a plane again and didn't you hear us page you about 80 times??

we were sitting by ourselves, which was great, but the plane was old...so no personal screens to watch movies on this time. luckily we were exhausted, so sleep came easier. About 7 hrs into the flight, i woke up to a man two seats ahead of me, turned around grumbling loudly about how he couldn't go into business class to see his father...who apparently was hyper tensive and had a broken arm and thus couldn't feed himself. they are going to kill him, the man repeated over and over in a thick Hungarian accent. the colonel and his wife sitting in front of us indulged the man, perhaps because he was basically leaning over their seats too...asking him questions about his past...that's how i learned the accent is hungarian and not russian, that he once took on the KGB, and graduated with honors from medical school.

About 9 hrs in, said gentleman had managed to piss off the flight attendants by being rude and refusing to sit in his seat. lord knows in a time of security trouble, on an already high security flight from tel aviv, this is exactly what you want to do. the co-pilot came back to speak with him, explained that it was a security violation for him to go back and forth between cabins and told him that either he sat down and stopped making a scene or they would face possible arrest. the man then started yelling...you are threatening me? i want everyone to see this man is threatening me, you are an a%%hole! you are going to kill my father, a holocaust survivor.

the co-pilot calmly went back to the front. about ten minutes later, the magic on board moving map changed...we were now aimed for bangor maine. because the man was sitting in a an exit row, it took him a long time to realize we were diverted...but when he did he started yelling agian about them punishing his father. the flight attendant sitting closest (since we were about on the ground) calmly told him that not only did he not bother to tell anyone at the gate in tel aviv about these problems, but he didn't get seats together and refused to let his father move back to coach to be with him...finally it was really his own fault, since he had chosen to escalate the problem.

we came down in bangor maine and it took two hours for homeland security and the fbi to get him off the flight and take everyone's statements....bye bye connection. A tried to get a picture, but forgot to turn off the flash...resulting in someone making us delete the picture in front of them...hahah. bangor seems like a pretty place, cold with snow and nice sunrises over rolling hills. it also looks very very boring.

with the connection gone, we were granted a 10 hr layover in new york so we could get on the next seattle flight and we were given two seven dollar meal vouchers each. the guy putting bags back on the carosel whispered to me that i should write delta a letter. i grumbled, but to no avail. A suggested over our lunch that we use those magic red phones over in the lobby area and see what we could do about this. after a brief, you call, no you call, no-wait, seriously...you won't call?? i called and the red phone gods were with us. The girl on the other end moved us to a different airline...hallelujah. only misfortune was being seated behind the two worst behaved little girls in the history of plane flights.

back at last.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

One Epic Fail and a couple epic sucesses

We've been in the south. the land of nothing...and i mean nothing except a strange balloon floating over the Dimona power station (aka nuclear something) and lots of rocky desert.

Internet for A's competition brief was found by driving around the moshav (neighborhood like a kibbutz but where everyone owns their own stuff) clicking the "find networks" button until we could pirate some poor unsuspecting unsecured network.

We stayed in a place called the Dumela African Village....a quaint little b&b run by a woman from South Africa. It was clean and cute...with pirate-able wifi and hot water. What more can you ask for in the Negev/Arava deserts??

We spent our two days there seeing the sites around the Dead Sea:

1. Massada: where the Jewish Zealots killed themselves rather than succomb to the invading Romans who were busy trying to build a GIANT ramp to get to them...since they were camped out at the top of a big ass mountain.

We hiked back down while the parentals took the cable car back. there were a lot of people hiking up..more power to them, it was warm and its a long climb...like stair master from hell.

2. Ein Gedi: Its a nature reserve and spring...we just hiked out to the spring part.

The epic fail came when we were in Eilat on the Red Sea and decided it would be fun to go across the border into Jordan. We got to the international terminal thing, walked in and realized that it was FULL of tourists...who incidentally spread their group thru all the lines and when one gets to the front the other twenty all suddenly cut in. Please, imagine for yourself all the four letter words in three languages i could come up with. turns out, you can't just walk back out. The people behind the counter have to stamp a piece of paper for you to get out. So, an hour later and thoroughly irritated, we decided to call it quits and hang out on the beach.

The epic success involved a sunset camel riding trip, campfire in the desert and the fulfillment of A's one adventure request:

More details on all these things later when life gets boring and i need stories to rehash. Today was Jerusalem and here's a little montage. If you look carefully at the bazaar shot..there's a car driving thru:

This guy was making suits.  The last photo is the Dome of the Rock mosque.