Friday, December 10, 2010

Tel Aviv, Israel to Kiev Boryspil Airport, Ukraine to Bangkok, Thailand


Greetings from Bangkok, where I have, over the course of the past 16 hours since I arrived, consumed about half my weight in delicious Thai food. Even the airport food I ate while waiting for the first airport shuttles to start working was SO GOOD. I need to stop choosing to go to places with such awesome food, or else I'm going to need to expand to my budget to include larger pants... I can always go back to Ukraine, I guess, where the only vegetarian airport food is a soggy tomato sandwich (I have flown through Kiev 3 out of my 4 my flight series this year, so I came prepared with food bought in the Tel Aviv airport).

I wanted to share a few pictures to sum up my last few days in Israel. I think they speak for themselves...

In case you can't tell- I kind of used my hair as a paintbrush, and apparently acrylic paint does not wash out of hair once dry, so I've been rocking a yellow-tipped look for several days now. Israeli airport security was not too into my freaky hair combined with my Uzbek visa stamps- they gave me the second most dangerous security classification out of six possible classifications. This included testing for various chemicals/bomb-making materials, accompanying me in person to my terminal, and unpacking my bags three separate times. And... I'm Jewish. Cool.


Monday, December 6, 2010

Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Israel to Ramallah, Palestine to Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, Israel


Last night, or rather, far too early this morning, the humidity up on the roof woke me after just a few hours of sleep. Looking through the mist, I heard a familiar sound- rain drops on walls and windows. I smiled. So cozy and warm in my little nest of blankets… wait. In my little nest of blankets on the roof. I poked my head out from under the blankets, and all of a sudden, the sky was collapsing and all of the rain that had not fallen for nearly two months came pouring out of the clouds. It took me about thirty seconds to gather everything essential (aka not waterproof) up into a sheet, a minute to climb down the ladder and lower myself down the wall to the apartment’s terrace, so that by the time I was inside, I was completely soaked. Luckily I had moved most of my stuff into the apartment the day before, to avoid awkward questions from the visiting landlord and angry exchanges with a new tenant who has partial ownership of the upper roof, but being woken up and soaked at the crack of dawn? Not so fun… plus the challenge of finding a warm place to sleep in the apartment (Tal, I may or may not have taken advantage of your empty mattress- but I did put a water glass under a leak, saving your room from flooding, so we can call it even?) in the wee hours of the morning. I think this is Israel’s way of telling me it’s time to move on…

While I have been in Tel Aviv, though, a few significant holidays from the land of Hummer’s, Starbucks, and Walmart took place: Halloween, Martina’s birthday, and Thanksgiving. Read on…

Halloween, it appears, is a holiday only popular in America. I found only one Halloween-related event happening in Tel Aviv on October 31st, so I knew I had to pull something together on my own. The fact that I had met not a single American, with the exception of Patty- and Texas is arguably another planet, not just another country- since I left Poland nearly two months earlier, was not particularly heartening. However, Halloween rolled around and in walked a student from Kentucky, traveling through Israel after studying Arabic in Cairo. Speaking of which- if you know of a really good, Arabic-intensive language course (MSA and Egyptian Arabic as well) in Cairo, or maybe Damascus, I would LOVE to hear about it. Email me- Anyways, I had my American partner in crime, and we decided that in true Tel Aviv-United States fusion, we would “carve” a jack-o-lantern sandcastle out on the beach. After a bit of strategizing and a lot of digging we had something that resembled a pumpkin rather well. I was satisfied.

The next “holiday” was Martina’s birthday. Martina, from Sweden, seemed to think that birthdays are not a big deal. I have since taught her otherwise. After sleeping over half the day (even for Martina, who sleeps more and in more random places than nearly anybody I have ever met, except perhaps Sarah Pincus, this was a lot of sleeping), we gave Martina small presents (despite her insistence that she did not want presents, I felt it was necessary to inject at least a little of America’s hyper-consumerist culture into the day) and journeyed around to various Tel Aviv favorite spots, including the beach restaurant next to one of our sleeping spots, Max Brenner Chocolate Restaurant where we enjoyed some very excellent chocolate foods, Bjorn’s increasingly crowded apartment (at various points there were as many as six people sleeping in the small two-bedroom apartment- and there were only enough mattresses for three, technically), our favorite bar, and some particularly inviting alleyways. Even Martina had to admit it was a nice birthday. I felt very proud.

Next: Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving at home is always a little tricky, because the primary food item is of the animal nature, and thus, as a vegetarian, I do not partake. However, stuffing is essential. But I had no idea how to cook any of this… and then Bjorn decided to schwenk on Thanksgiving Day! What is schwenking, you ask? I suggest you educate yourself on this important cultural activity of Saarland ( but if you are short on time, from my limited experience and observations, I can tell you this: the schwenker is a special swinging grill indigent to the Saarland region of Germany (debatably its own autonomous zone, but that argument is for another time), held over a fire by a tripod. “Schwenker” can also refer to the pork most commonly cooked on the fire, though in Tel Aviv fashion, we schwenked kebab, pita with hummus, and pita with eggs primarily. (For other international schwenker events, past and future, check out: There is also the schwenkmeister, in this case Bjorn, though we all got to practice swinging the grill and even my four-year-old friend Laila got the hang of it by the end of the evening.

Later on Thanksgiving evening, I headed back to Sarah Robins apartment, and came across a gathering of extremely stuffed American teenagers and a table full of leftovers. Though the pie was finished, everything else was delicious: wild rice, green beans, two (!) types of stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, and a couple of non-vegetarian things. Hummus has contributed to the healthy development of my food baby, but I think I made some real progress toward its growth after my multiple-meal Thanksgiving evening.

The day after the original international schwenkmeister (Bjorn) departed for Saarland, Martina and I headed out of Tel Aviv and toward the Jordan River… that is, Jerusalem and Ramallah. Martina had heard about a workshop in Ramallah that we might be interesting, and we decided to check it out. We spent the night before the workshop in Jerusalem to avoid having to wake up super early, and of course, we slept on a roof there… Jerusalem is significantly colder than Tel Aviv (perhaps not actually much colder, but when you sleep on exposed rooftops, you notice even the slightest alterations in temperature and humidity). This roof belonged to a hostel, though, which was a nice change of pace from the Florentine rooftop bubble, and we did our best to convince everybody we met to go to Tel Aviv and stay in Florentine. Jerusalem reminds me of Washington, DC, in the sense of the low-rise, all-white-stone buildings. Though DC is divided up by wide-sidewalked avenues and parks filled with monuments and mid-Atlantic-specific foliage and Jerusalem seems to have developed from a desire to tone its inhabitants’ calves, between the local sport of dodging other passersby on tiny alleyways and the stair-filled passageways, walking around each of these cities gives me a similar feeling.

Upon sitting down in a conference room with the other workshop participants in Ramallah, we had to go around and say our names, where we were from, and why we decided to join the workshop. After two English/Kiwi guys stated their desire to make a difference on the ground, get their hands dirty, help the suffering Palestinian people, I felt a bit intimidated- I just came to be exposed to another perspective on this conflict, and had no idea upon joining of the history or activities of the hosting organization, which I think is called International Solidarity Movement. About half the workshop sessions were illuminating for my purposes, and the rest of the time we discussed how to avoid being blown up by poorly directed sound bombs, “rubber-covered steel bullets” (it’s true that the rubber bullets were actually steel bullets covered with rubber), and tear gas bombs, as well as how to physically avoid arrest by, for example, lying on top of one another and going limp, and finally, what to do in case of arrest. Though the specific knowledge I gained from those parts of the workshop are probably not going to be useful in my life, seeing footage of the demonstrations and non-violent work of the organization was fascinating and it really gave me a sense of the on-the-ground reality of the current situation. We learned that people here have been programmed to react violently or through endless negotiation processes, and efforts at non-violent resistance are often met with confusion or sometimes just violence. Though the organization claimed that they did not determine the definition of legitimate resistance, the general opinion on Palestinians throwing stones at Israeli soldiers was that it was symbolic, and therefore non-violent. This seemed a bit off to me, so I pushed further, asking if the Palestinians intended to hit and injure Israeli soldiers if possible, and the workshop leaders said that yes, they did, but compared to Israeli weapons, stones were pathetic. While I agree that the deck is loaded in favor of Israel in terms of weapons, somehow I can’t see how hurling stones at human beings with the intention to cause them pain is not violent. My overall conclusion coming out of the workshop was that conflicts don’t make me empathize with each side, believing each to be valid and “right,” but rather, conflicts make me feel that each side is “wrong” and should handle the situation better. Kind of harsh, yes, but whoever decided to fight fire with fire in the first place must have been insane- don’t they say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results?

We also learned a bit of Arabic (ana nabatiyah means “I’m vegetarian), some Palestinian customs about drinking coffee and tea, not pointing the soles of the feet at a person, and male-female relations. After the sessions finished for the first day, Martina and I wandered around suburban Ramallah. We both agreed that if it weren’t for the inordinate number of empty lots filled with trash, Ramallah would be a really beautiful place. I also spotted an Arabic billboard for Ben & Jerry’s, so my life is now complete.

I’m choosing which books to have my familia bring me when we meet up in a couple weeks in Vietnam, so if you have any book recommendations, please let me know, and I will send them out to find them. English books in Israel are not cheap unless you stumble across them secondhand, and I’m guessing I won’t have a good selection in Southeast Asia. So… anything good you’ve read lately, anything you think is relevant to my experiences this year, or anything you read at my age that you think I would benefit from or enjoy- email me!

A belated public happy birthday to my brothers, Alex and Ben, and my soul sister ISABEL O WALSH, and a pre-emptive strike: happy birthday Mr. Esteemed Guatemalan Honorary Consul to New (ton/ England?) (questionable). How old are you now, sixty-five?


And a last note… I am sitting in my favorite café, Casba, and I just watched a waitress apologize, out loud, to the dog she bumped into. Dogs in Florentine are like cows in India… but still—that was definitely one of the more “Florentine” interactions I have witnessed.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Tel Aviv to Jerusalem to Tel Aviv to the Dead Sea, Israel to Jericho, Palestine to Ein Bokek to Tel Aviv to Haifa to Tel Aviv, Israel

Shabbat Shalom!

Very long time, no blog post… as my friend Marc says, I have been “immersing myself” in my new (temporary) Israeli life. I have quite a few stories from the past weeks that I will be telling my grandchildren, and quite a few that I will most definitely NOT be telling my grandchildren… here are some of the former. First, though, the basics:

Patty came and went in a brief but joyous five days, spent taxiing back and forth between the Herzliya Medical Center and Tel Aviv proper, where we consumed obscene amounts of hummus, swam in the Mediterranean, went to a Tel Aviv art museum and replaced some of my more destroyed clothing (Kazakh ambulances are a bit wearing). It was very surreal seeing her show up at the airport, suitcase laden with American junk food and Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory candied apples (note that I do not qualify these as junk food- apples are healthy). Though she refused to stay at a hostel, I managed to convince her that when our family meets up in Vietnam for Christmas, we will all spend at least one night in a hostel together. I think she’s already having nightmares about this.

I live on a roof. Not in a penthouse, not in a tent on a roof, not under a canopy… just- on a roof. I have several blankets and a borrowed sleeping bag that form my nest beneath the solar panels, an extension cord to charge my laptop, a melting candle-pile, a line of empty wine bottles, a makeshift cinderblock table and some hanging sheets for coziness. I am not, however, squatting: I ran into my old friend Sarah Robins, of the Charles E. Brown Middle School variety, one day on the street and she very generously rescued me from the hostel I had been staying at and allowed me access to her roof, her shower, her Thanksgiving dinner, her kitchen, and her roommate Shira’s season pass to Glee… I owe the girls of Nehalat Binyamin Apartment 13 a MASSIVE thank you. And a bit of an apology for continually allowing two drunk Europeans to sleep on the roof as well- though that is a different story.

I have been based in Florentine, a “poor musician” neighborhood in the south of Tel Aviv, for the past six weeks or so. Tel Aviv is awesome, and Florentine especially so. I literally cannot leave one building and walk to the next without running into somebody I know. Israel is debatably the least shy country in the world, and this was proven over and over as I met people pretty much everywhere I went. And you don’t just meet people and walk away- usually you get invited to go on a road trip somewhere, or go out in a different part of town, or come over for Shabbat dinner. Usually I like staying in hostels so that I can meet people easily, but here, it’s really not necessary, and maybe even better, because I’ve gotten to know a lot of local people. I got a month-long membership to a dance/yoga studio and met several cool people there, while trying to work off some of the hummus weight that inevitably piles on when chickpeas constitute about half of one’s diet. I have a favorite café and a favorite bar, and as it turns out, they are owned by the same person- I have been at the bar, decided I want the best sandwich in the world, and then wandered down the street, picked up a sandwich, and brought it back to the bar. I know all the waiters and bartenders by name, and they know that I like my coffee with ice, sugar, no milk, and chocolate powder.

There is a lot of street art in Tel Aviv, and especially Florentine. It’s easy to identify the artist from the style, and one street artist, Luca, has been staying at the hostel for months. You can see some of his work here: The hostel has an eclectic mix of vacationers, long-term backpackers, and people staying in Tel Aviv for an extended period. I originally intended to base myself out of Jerusalem, but Florentine is kind of magnetic, how Samarkand was, and how Santorini, Samode, and St. Leonard du Bois were for my family when we traveled around the world eleven years ago. However, I have managed to leave my ten block radius and explore some other parts of Israel.

My first departure from Tel Aviv was a day trip to Jerusalem back around the beginning of November with my friends Bjorn (from Saarland- which is definitely an independent nation, and by no means is it part of Germany), Martina (from Sweden, land of reindeer, Ikea, and smart, simple solutions), and Bjorn’s roommate Lee, an Israeli who, in typical Florentine style, Bjorn met randomly at an ice cream shop and moved in with in a matter of days. We walked around the old city, took a nap on the ground next to the Western Wall, and saw sunset over the Jerusalem rooftops.

The next excursion was a bit more of a production to organize. Or rather, we didn’t organize it, and this led to a lot of… problems. Bjorn, Martina and I wanted to go to the Dead Sea and sleep out on the beach. Because Martina had begun working at the hostel, we had to leave Friday afternoon, and in Israel, nearly everything closes down from Friday afternoon until Saturday evening, for Shabbat. The rental car place in downtown Tel Aviv was closed; only the airport rental car place was open. Okay; we could take the direct train to the airport. Not so fast. The last train stopping at the airport had already left (we learned this, of course, after we had already bought tickets). Fine then- there must be a sherut, a shared taxi, that goes there. Nope. A bus? The last one had already left. A taxi then… but because of Shabbat, the taxi cost significantly more. Whatever. We had to make this work. We arrive at the rental car center and walk from rental car shop to rental car shop, but most are either sold out or only have large, expensive cars to rent. Eventually we found a sales-guy sympathetic to our quest, and he found us a car within our budget (although as the day wore on, our budget had become more and more flexible- we were hungry, tired, and really just wanted to GET IN A CAR). However… in order to rent a car, you need a passport. Bjorn was the only one of us old enough to register as the driver, and in the rush to get out of Tel Aviv, he had forgotten his passport. After hours of waiting on a bench outside of the rental car place, where people returning their cars gave us a week’s supply of unopened water bottles and a lot of pitying looks. We tried to get a copy of Bjorn’s passport from the hostel, from his roommate, from his bank in Germany… from anybody we could think of. But eventually, our need for hummus and pita and falafel became too great, and we hitched a ride back to Tel Aviv. Except wait. The woman driving the car was, shall we say, a little bit crazy, and we ended up getting out of the car at Terminal 3, where we were resigned to take a taxi back to Florentine. Except- Terminal 3 is closed on Shabbat. We considered sleeping on the grass by the empty parking lot there, it already being nighttime, but we could not resist the draw of Israeli hummus. After creeping out a bunch of security guards, we ended up calling a cab that took us to the doorstep of a falafel/hummus place in Yaffo. Not wanting to return to the hostel defeated, we decided to pretend that the Mediterranean was the Dead Sea and sleep on the beach in downtown Tel Aviv. On the way there, we ran into the hostel owner, who was mad about us calling about the passport… it’s not fun having the person who controls your sleeping space be mad at you.

So, we waited out Shabbat and on Sunday headed to the rental car place just a few minutes walk from Florentine. After a few technical difficulties, Avis, whose tagline is, perfectly, “we try harder,” hooked us up with a bright green, brand new Ford, and we were on the road. We spent the first night on a cliff overlooking the Dead Sea, talking and eating dinner in the dark, and then taking advantage of the total silence and isolation by climbing on top of the car and screaming. Sometime in the middle of the night some guys walked up to us, and before Martina and I really knew what was going on, Bjorn was off searching for hot springs with them… this was a very Bjorn thing to do. We spent the rest of the night sleeping in the car- Bjorn has a lot of experience with making cars sleep-worthy after years of living out of a car himself.

The next day, after exploring the Dead Sea below the cliff, we decided we should go to Jericho for lunch. After nearly entering a military zone accidentally, then being stopped by a Palestinian soldier to whom we confusingly requested the best place to eat lunch in town, we eventually found our way to a second-story terrace in the town center and a massive meal of salads, pita, hummus, and kebab for Bjorn and Martina. We walked around the town a bit, picking up more water and groceries, then sat down a bench where I promptly took a nap. When I woke up, we were surrounded by about thirty young Palestinian guys, practicing their English and trying to take pictures with Martina and I as close as possible. It seems that Israeli friendliness extended to the Palestinian neighbors.

After failing at entering Jordan and making it a three country day (apparently Israeli rental cars are not allowed into Jordan- also, this time Martina did not have her passport), we picked up a hitchhiker and drove to Ein Bokek on the Dead Sea. The Dead Sea is… the Dead Sea. Fun and cool but exactly what you expect- you can’t really swim because you’re so buoyant, and every tiny cut you have from sleeping on beaches and cliffs becomes extremely painful. We made use of the outdoor showers to take our first and only showers of the road trip, then found a suitable spot to sleep at by the main road and watched shooting stars while trying to share our few blankets to stay warm enough throughout the night. We also saw some local wildlife- ROCK RABBITS!!!

Early the next morning we drove back to Tel Aviv to return the car, but as it turned out, it was cheaper to keep it for another night than pay the extra kilometer charges, so we road tripped it back up to Haifa, but had to stop before sunset. We camped out on a beach full of kitesurfers coming in for the night, and had a little picnic on a sand dune. Despite the cold we swam in the sea then ran around on the beach until we were too exhausted to move… and fell asleep by 8pm. We slept on the sand dune, in the car, and out on the sand next to the car, and early the next morning we drove into and around Haifa, without really stopping. The main goal of the day: Swedish meatballs at Ikea!

We actually arrived at Ikea before it opened, but they give out free café au lait a half hour before opening, so it was all good. We spent hours in Ikea, trying out blankets and pillows and being those annoying people that pick everything up and put it down in the wrong place. At this point I knew I would be living on the roof, or at least in Sarah’s apartment, so I was very tempted to buy a lot of semi-useless stuff, but I abstained, and as it turned out this was a very good decision- Sarah’s entire apartment is furnished with Ikea stuff, from the couches to the paintings to the knives to the blankets. So beautiful!

In order to do justice to the rest of my Israel/Palestine experience, I’m going to leave off here. More to come in the next few days, since on Thursday morning I leave for Thailand and Vietnam and I’m sure I will have plenty of southeast Asian tales to tell.

Much love from my roof ☺