Friday, March 25, 2011

Middle East Recap: Days 1 and 2

March 7, 2011
7:45am, EST, 2:45pm Israel time.  Half an hour from touchdown.  It has been an eleven hour flight, but it didn't feel that long at all.  The flight had an amazing in-flight movie-TV selection (I watched The King's Speech, The Town, and the first part of Easy A) and time flew.  (LITERALLY!  Ha.)  I slept for two hours or so; we land at 4pm and immediately get thrown into the agenda for the day, so I'm hoping I can stay awake until bedtime.

The initial nerves I felt---packing, waiting for the airport cab, overcompensating for my pre-flight anxiety with copious junk food purchases---have largely given way to a mix of impending jetlag and excitement.  It still hasn't sunk in that I'm about to go on a two week tour of Israel and Jordan.

My sister Becky in the cab on the way to the airport.

 My bag BARELY made the weight restriction.  It would have been a $150 supplemental charge for overweight bags!

Most of my fellow travelers seem nice.  We've got a good mix of personalities, and right now we're all in that nice place where we're kind of excited and confused and a bit tired, all together.

Our row on the plane: (from L-R: me, my sister Becky, Ashley, Sara).  Photo courtesy of Ashley.

One uncomfortable moment from our airport ice breaker:  one of our trip leaders made us all tack onto our group introductions whether we are a "red light, yellow light, or green light."  Meaning our relationship status.  Meaning "green light = all systems "go" for a hook-up."  Kind of awkward.  Of course, Birthright Israel is sort of colloquially known for its secret mission of getting Jewish young people to hook up--->get married--->have Jewish babies.  It's been called "Birthrate" rather than "Birthright."  Funny, yes?  Except when you're making awkward red/yellow/green light pronouncements.  (My favorite response---by someone else---"I'm a red light. ......Maybe a yellow light.")

It's strange to fly east into the future day.  A lady cracked open her window shade at 1am (NYC time) and bright sunlight streamed through.  The Israeli people on this flight are such an awesome shade of warm gold, baked by that same improbable sun.

March 8, 2011: On the Extremes of Growing Up Israeli
We spent our first night in Israel on a kibbutz just North of the Negev Dessert.  (In the map above, the Negev desert is the orange section).  We enjoyed our first non-microwaved meal in the dining room; it consisted of several Israeli dishes that were still familiar, like goulash and schnitzel and hummus.  Then we did an icebreaker and learned the rules of the program.  (Largely:  no drinking during the program day, no getting stupidly drunk, no wandering solo).  A big group of us went to the kibbutz pub that night and drank Israeli beer (Gold Star for me---very hoppy) and danced enthusiastically to American music.  At one point, the DJ played the signature line from a Green Day song ("Don't want to be an American Idiot!") which prompted a few boos from our group.

This photo courtesy of Ashley.

After breakfast (for me: French toast, hard-boiled egg, some cereal) we took a tour of the kibbutz.  For those who are unfamiliar, a kibbutz is a variety of communal living in which everyone sort of lives and works together.  Private assets can be different depending on the kibbutz's structure.  Our tour guide seemed to be in his mid- to late-twenties, and he grew up on the kibbutz.  As a child, he lived in a special children's home on the compound, supervised by one of the kibbutz women.  He saw his parents for a few hours each day (he said from 4pm--7pm) before he returned to the kids' complex.  At first glance this seemed harsh, but isn't it kind of close to American households with two hard-working parents?  Kids in daycare or after school care, dinner at home, then early bedtime?  I don't know.  It feels quite a bit different to me, and it seems even the kibbutz has struggled with the practice.  They did eliminate that system of child care for a time, but it may be reemerging now.

Our kibbutz guide.  Image courtesy of Eli.

Our guide took us to his house on the kibbutz and showed us an amazing house he is building in his backyard from mud and straw.  The outside looked dirty and lumpy, but inside it was smooth and beautiful; the unassuming beer and wine bottles he shoved into the mortar filtered the light and created a beautiful stained glass effect.  A hut of salvaged materials and mud, complete with a fireplace, TV, and running water.

Making mud with Jess, a fellow participant.

All the modern amenities!

These bottles did not look like much from the outside...

...but they created a beautiful effect inside!

Our guide was married with a new baby.  His wife is from Holland; he met her while traveling (I know because I asked).  I wish I could have asked even more questions about their courtship; I wonder so much about her.  What was her life like at home?  Did it take some convincing for her to move to Israel? To live on a kibbutz?

This particular kibbutz is agricultural (although not all are).  Our guide took us through some of the farmland, which is all the more amazing when you remember that you are looking at crops on desert sand and not soil.  We pulled carrots right out of the sand, dusted them off on our pants and polished them with our hands, and ate them.  They were delicious!


This was *in sand* a second ago.

Only a wee bit sandy.

After the kibbutz tour and a nature walk in a nearby area, we went to eat lunch and tour the town of Sderot.  Sderot is extremely close to the Gaza Strip and is often hit by homemade rockets launched by Palestinian radicals.  The rockets are filled with bullets and other shrapnel.  As our bus approached the town, our tour guide Yael told us that if we heard a siren blare, we should immediately run for the nearest shelter (following the locals would be a good strategy).  We could expect impact as soon as fifteen seconds from the warning blare.

It was so easy to forget this warning while eating lunch---we were ushered into an adorable spot that could fit no more than 20 people (with space for an extra ten or so outside).  The proprieters, who would remind you of your grandparents, brought us plate after plate of delicious food, family-style.  All we could say was "Toda!" (thank you), but I started a round of applause for them at the end of our meal.  Grandma was so proud.

At the diner in Sderot (we were relegated to outside seating).  L-R: Me, Becky, Patrick.  Photo courtesy of Patrick.

Our brief mental respite from the reality of Sderot's proximity to the Gaza Strip was soon shattered by our tour of the town.  Yael took us first to the town's police station.  On a shelving unit in back, the police have stored and inventoried the hundreds of rockets that have hit the town in recent years.

My sister pointed out that, given this context, the design on my T-Shirt may not have been 100% appropriate.  I didn't realize!

We drove by the town's elementary school, with fortified walls and absolutely no windows facing Gaza.  Approaching the school from the Gaza side, it looks like a prison.  (When you turn around to go back, you notice rows of windows on the side not facing Gaza; the rockets can crash through windows, hence the design).  The school's field is spotted with bomb shelters in case a rocket launches during recess.

A different school than the one I just described; you can see the shrapnel damage in the bottom left corner of the front building.  Image courtesy of Ross.

We visited a nearby playground that featured two huge, fanciful dragon/caterpillar figures made out of cement and steel that were hollow in the middle.  Aside from being imaginative objects for play, they doubled as---you guessed it---bomb shelters.

The contrast between a childhood in Sderot and a childhood on the kibbutz was marked.  While the kibbutz was within the range of the more advanced Palestinian missiles, those were usually saved for more populated targets.  The kibbutz seemed more peaceful---or at least there were no "in the event of air siren" warning upon our arrival.  Then again, childhood in neither place really resembles what we would recognize in the US---farming at an early age while removed from our parents or running for shelter from an impending bomb on the playground---it's all different.  I don't know.  I feel grateful to have had a childhood lived in peace.

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