Thursday, September 29, 2005
from sea to sea to sea!
I apologize in advance, for this is going to be a very VERY long post. For those who manage to read the whole thing (let alone in one sitting) I applaud you. I won’t be offended if you give up halfway through, but I do promise to try and keep you entertained as I spin tales of my travels from the Red Sea to the Sea of Galilee to the Mediterranean Sea. This post will start with the post I originally meant to publish on Sunday and will flow into the adventures of the last three days I spent hiking and camping in the Israeli wilderness…

(just a reminder.. you can click on the pics to enlarge them!)

As the saying goes, when it rains it pours.

Right after I wrote that last post I packed up all my stuff and left the internet café and made my way back to the Livnot campus. The route back to the campus takes me right through this long artist alley where there are all kinds of shops on either side of the alley, usually with local artists selling everything from paintings to jewelry. On one of our tours we were introduced to some of the artists so I make a point of nodding and smiling on the way by and maybe say hi. There is one fellow in particular I would always say hi to and one day when passing I noticed he had broken his arm and made mention of it to him (his reply was “yeah, it’s a real problem”. Haha… yes, as an artist I suppose it would be). Yesterday when I passed him he was eating a pizza outside his shop so I stopped and talked to him a bit and he offered me his last piece (I took a pass on putting ketchup on it… blecch! Why do Israelis do that?!). Soon we struck up a conversation and not long after that he was hitting on me hard and fast. First my eyes were incredibly beautiful and then it was my lips. He said he wanted to “eat them” (does this work as a pick up line?? Does it somehow sound more suave in Hebrew? I can only guess). I laughed and asked how old he was to which he said 26, and he in turn asked how old I was. I told him that I was a lot older than him (5 years younger is just so unappealing for me) and that he should chase a girl a little younger. He replied by telling me he loved girls with short hair (in other words, he would not allow himself to be rebuffed). In no time at all he asked if he could “eat my lips for 10 minutes” to which I said that he MUST be joking. He quickly trimmed it down to 10 seconds which made me laugh and then told him I was leaving to head back to campus.
Oy, what is WITH the men here??

On my way back to campus I stopped in one of the little shops that was selling jewelry (silver pendants, my real weakness) and struck up a nice conversation with the man in there. He talked about Livnot fondly and how he likes seeing all the different groups that pass through (no doubt! Tourism is a short lived season in Tzfat and I’m sure the Livnot groups provide more traffic through the area than would otherwise be). He said that he had noticed me when I walked by, on several occasions. I asked why and he said because I was different, that I walked differently. He said that often I am alone and I walk… just differently than the others (I joked and said it was because I am Canadian unlike most of the group who are American). He said he noticed that even when walking with the group that I tend to walk alone.. a little ahead of the group sometimes, but more often behind. He told me he noticed this because it reminded him of himself, that we both seemed to be a bit of a lone wolf. I replied that I was impressed with his observation because very few notice that about me. Even when in a group situation I often find that I stay on the outskirts a bit and observe, opting not to be in the thick of things and overall avoiding “cliques” whenever possible. We continued talking for quite some time and conversations ranged from the sadness of Israeli music to how impressed he was by groups like ours coming to Israel and we even talked a little bit about Canada. And of course I ended up a few of his pieces (handmade!) making him both the nicest and smartest businessman I met that day.

Upon returning back to campus I joined the group on an outing to the artist colony in Tzfat to meet with a local artist who specializes in art relating to Kabbalah. His art was amazing and his story fascinating. He had grown up in Detroit and in his college days did as many did and sought something deeper in life. Assuming there was nothing meditative in Judaism he was packing up to head to India to find his answers. Before he had a chance to go to India he was given a book about Jewish meditations. He learned about Kabbalah in all it’s mystic intrigue and was hooked and moved to Israel. Despite his long unkempt beard you could tell he was a young man… perhaps my age? Maybe a few years younger? His enthusiasm for Kabbalah and his art was infectious and he spoke like a dude who likes to surf; informal and genuine and very laid back. I liked the art very much, especially the idea that it all had underlying meaning. I may stop back there to pick up something later…

After that visit it was a race back to the campus to pack and get ready to catch a bus to Tel Aviv. As luck would have it I managed to get a ride with part of my group that was sharing a shirut to Tel Aviv so I didn’t have to take a bus afterall (a shirut is usually an oversized van or something similar that seats 8 –12 people and often follows the bus routes. It’s sort of like a shared cab, and in this case we called and hired one to take us all and shared the cost). It took about 2.5 hours to reach Tel Aviv where I parted ways with my group who were staying at a hostel there and I was picked up by another friend and continued on to Eilat, at the very southern tip of Israel (for those following along with a map, the route was Tel Aviv down the coast to Ashdod, across to the Dead Sea, to Be’er Sheva, to Dimona (Whitney Houston’s favourite pitstop because of the high number of black folk living there) and then down to Eilat (the route runs along the border with Jordan for much of the way). At night it’s a really boring drive but during the day the desert is quite beautiful. We arrived around 2:30am. Dr.Phil came on at 3am and I really wanted to stay up and watch it because it looked like a good one… relationship rescue retreat! Couples on the verge of divorce calling each other all kinds of names and confessing all kinds of mean stuff they had done. Like I said, I wanted to stay up and watch (I haven’t watched any tv for almost a month!) but felt that I had better get to sleep because the noise of other hotel patrons would be waking me up in a few short hours.

Waking up the next morning in the beautiful Ambassador Hotel in Eilat the biggest decision I had to make for the day was …. should go for a swim in the pool or get some salt water and take a dip in the Red Sea? Decisions, decisions. In Eilat you have Egypt on one side, Jordan on the other and the Red Sea to play in…. it is a gorgeous city to chill out in.

Overall my weekend was spent hanging out by the pool and the beach reading a book and woefully attempting to get a tan. There are a few problems with my efforts to get a tan: (1) I find just laying in the sun for the sake of laying in the sun boring as all hell. (2) it’s hot just laying in the sun and who really wants to be that hot? Eilat is the hottest place in Israel! (3) let’s face it, acquiring a tan for me is near impossible. While I have managed to get a bit of a tan on my arms from all the hiking we have done, for some inexplicable reason my legs have remained porcelain white. Seems there are impervious to tanning and so I have tan sleeves but no tan pants. Pretty sexy look, lemme tell ya.

Saturday night I spent about 8.5 hours making my way from the southern end of Israel back up to the northern end of Israel. The car ride up to Tel Aviv was about 3.5 hours in traffic and I arrived with time to spare before catching a bus up the coast to Haifa. From there I was told I could catch a connecting bus to Tzfat. I hugged my friend and boarded the bus for Haifa. Upon arriving in Haifa I could not find the platform for the bus to Tzfat (there are signs at each platform saying what buses leave from each platform). Eventually I found the information/ticket booth:

Me: “slicha?” (excuse me?)

Ticket Dude: ken? (yes?)

Me: “can you tell me where I need to go to catch the bus to Tzfat?”

Ticket Dude: “Ah, Tzfat. You need to catch a bus to *someplaceIdidn’tcatch* and from there you can catch another bus to Tzfat”.

Me (now wondering what he just said… where? Was that one word or four?): “um…. Ok.”

Ticket Dude: “So you go to platform 12 and take bus 103 to *thatplaceIcan’tseemtocatch* and take the connecting bus from there”

Me: Er…. Ok. Platform 12, bus 103?

Ticket Dude: “yes.”

So off I went in the hopes that I could figure out from there where I was supposed to go. When the bus arrived shortly thereafter I boarded along with everyone else and dug into my wallet for some money. The bus driver said something to me in Hebrew that I did not understand but instinct made me blurt out “Tzfat” which he entered into his onboard computer for the ticket price (34 shekels, about $11 CAN). He said something else to me at which point I informed him in Hebrew that I do not in fact speak Hebrew so he asked in English “How many?”. I said just one, and does he go directly to Tzfat? (I knew the answer was no, but I was hoping that the third’s the charm and I would finally understand where I was supposed to go.) He said no that I would have to catch a connecting bus at *thatplacetheotherguysaid *. I gave up and moved down the bus to find somewhere to stand on the packed bus.

After a ride on that bus and a bizarre interaction with to Russian woman (language barriers ARE fun!) I found myself at another bus station. As I got off I began scanning the platform signs to find that one that said Tzfat. They were all in Hebrew but that was only slowing me down, not stopping me since I can read Tzfat in Hebrew, no problem. Sifting through all the other towns on the signs was what was slowing me down. Eventually I gave up and walked towards the information kiosk, only to find it was closed. Great. I went back to reading the signs and found that, duh!, on the other side of the signs the towns were listed in English! I moved quickly along as I scanned for Tzfat (listed as Zafat on the sign) and found it right near the end of the platform (of course). According to the sign I needed to catch bus 361 or 362. No problem! I made myself comfortable and began to wait. It was at this point that I wondered, Hmmm… just when will this bus arrive? Am I even sure it will, because bus schedules tend to be a bit sketchy on shabat (Saturdays). I got up and walked towards a framed piece of paper on the post (the schedule). It was of course, all in Hebrew. Doing some detective work and some broken Hebrew I managed to surmise that in fact neither of those buses would be coming until tomorrow. Time for a new plan. I looked back up at the platform sign to see what other towns were listed, and found that if I caught the 501 bus it would pass through Akko (Acco, Acre) and Karmi’el and Tzfat on it’s way to somewhere else. Not 5 minutes later the 501 arrived, I confirmed the destination with the driver and I was on my way back to campus. By 11:40pm I was hiking through the streets of Tzfat with two bags slung over my shoulder and I arrived to an empty campus with the exception of my roommate who was sitting on the campus computer. I could not have been happier to see a friendly and familiar face at that point. We hung out, talked, ate cold pizza and played on the computers until 3am and then hit the hay.

Sunday was the start of a new week. We had a group meeting in the afternoon to talk about our feelings towards the program and why we were in it (this is something we did at the beginning of the program but we were doing it again because the group was obviously unhappy about the way the weekend was handled. I was taken aside later by two of the program co-ordinators for a chat because… well, sadly I can’t really say. This blog is no longer a place in which I can share any negative thoughts about the program because too many of the Livnot staff are reading and I don’t need more backlash. Sorry folks! My fault for giving out the blog address). We also had an orientation for our three day hike in which we outlined the plan for the three days and what we would need to pack.. The plan: to start close to the Sea of Galilee (Lake Kinneret) and walk all the way to the Mediterranean Sea!

(Oh and btw, I have a cellphone now! Yael, expect a call next week when I am settled in and have recovered from my hike. We never really got to talk long, when I first got here, I’m sorry. And John, expect a call from me when I return to the Jerusalem campus in 2 weeks. We simply must have a coffee together some night!)

Monday morning it was rise and shine at 5:15am to quickly get dressed and grab some breakfast. By 6:30am we were on a bus and heading to our drop off point to start the hike. The group was mostly groggy (youngins staying up too late! Me, the old wise dog, went to bed plenty early) but I was pumped with excitement and admittedly annoying to the rest of the group with my giddiness. No worries, this enthusiasm would soon be sweat right out of me.

Day One. The first day of the hike would prove to be the hottest to endure. The goal was to make our way around the base of the mountain to the spot where we would ascend it the next day in order to go up and over to the other side. The hike itself was fairly tough as the trail had us climbing over large boulders and sliding down rocks faces. Early on I won the prize for first blood drawn, as I scraped my kneecap against a rock as I was climbing up it. Shortly thereafter I smashed the same knee into another boulder when trying to jump from one to another. The pain was a little on the breathtaking side and I had to take a moment to compose myself. Little did I know that injury would come back to haunt me for the next two days.

The group spirit was high even as we were drowning in our own sweat. We would take frequent breaks under the shade of a tree where our group leader would give us a history lesson about where we were. We drank massive amounts of water only to have it pour out our pores as sweat, soaking our shirts (by the way, we need to carry 2 –3 litres of water for the day which weighs a TON! It’s no fun slugging that up the side of a mountain, and gives you some incentive to drink often… the more you drink the lighter the load gets!). At one point I tried to find a dry spot on my shirt to wipe the dust off my sunglasses (it was often a very dusty hike!) but was unable to find even the smallest of dry spots * anywhere * on my tanktop. Ick. On one our first stops we could see these bizarre little furry creatures called hyraxes, across the valley from us as they sat munching on plants and making strange sounds. They sort of looked like overgrown groundhogs… quite large!

I could try and describe the gorgeous scenery of our hike to you but I’m not sure I could do it justice. And the fact that some of the paths we were walking had been taken by Jews, Romans and Crusaders hundreds of years earlier was mind blowing. We saw ruins everywhere and were able to touch a piece of history in ways I have never been able to before. We saw Citadels, archeological digs, ruins of homes, synagogues, churches, towns and even a castle! But more on that at the end….

Our first night camping was the roughest and most maddening. Exhausted and drained from our hike we were happy to see that our camp area at least had a few faucets we could use to get fresh water and to wash up a bit. By this point most of us had become quite proficient at going to the washroom in the woods and washing out hands with water from our backpacks. The faucet was an added bonus as we were able to stock up on water for our trip the next day and I was even able to wash my hair the next morning (nothing like using ice cold water on the scalp on a chilly morning at 6am!). We struggled to get the tents up and to start a campfire and barbeque so that we could eat and sleep as soon as possible. How strange it was to sit around a campfire in Israel after dinner with a group of people singing Bob Marley songs. It was a special night though many of us went to bed shortly after a few songs and attempts to make smores. Others stayed up later and sang more songs (did I really hear them singing Bon Jovi - Livin' On a Prayer??) and drove those of us trying to get some sleep a bit batty. As I walked to my tent I noticed that my knee was feeling incredibly stiff was the bettering it took earlier and I worried about the walk the next day. I put my earplugs in and did my best to drown out the singing, guitar playing, clapping and loud conversations…

In the end I hardly got any sleep at all. The ground was rock hard and the sleeping bag offered little in the way of help on the matter. Whoever helped pitch the tents did not bother to check to see where the tent was being placed and therefore did not clear the area of rocks and sticks. I found them all later as I tried to find a sleeping position that would in corporate them. The tent was also on a slight incline which meant that my tent mate spent much of the time sharing my sleeping bag with me as she kept rolling into my space. As I said, not much sleep was acquired.

As a bonus I found that when I awoke one of the sandals I had left outside the tent was missing. Before we went to bed out group leader did in fact warn us that only once in the last 13 years has it happened, but that indeed a fox has taken off with a hiking boot in the past. He suggested that we somehow secure our hiking boots to our bags or take them into our tents. I did opt to tie my hiking boots together and to put them under the weight of my hiking bag outside the tent, but did not consider the possibility that my sandal might be an attractive option. Frankly, I thought any of it was unlikely to be snatched, a point that was later proven wrong as myself and another girl awoke to find a single sandal missing. She had hers right by her head as she slept around the campfire which made it both horrifying and impressive that the fox had such nerve to get so close to steal it. As I stood and talked to her (about 5:45am, the sun not yet up) I shone the flashlight around the area as we stood by the campfire and indeed I found the fox standing about 20 feet away from us, not the least bit bothered by the light I was shining in his eyes. Twice we tried to chase him off, but he rather liked hovering near us. Nervy little monster! The other girl would later find her sandal quite a bit up the road and all chewed up, but I was never to see my sandal again. This had me angry on so many levels… firstly, that sandal was VERY comfortable and was seeing its second trip to Israel with me. And secondly, it is extremely important that I be able to get OUT of my hiking boots at the end of the day to let my feet breathe and air out. After 10 – 12 hours of hiking a day I assure you, you are ready to cut your boots off you want out of them so badly. So losing my sandals was a blow to my trip.

Day One Highlights:

1)Playing with a tiny baby chameleon, a lizard I have only seen in captivity. Our group leader said it was only about 2-3 days old. A few days earlier I caught a baby lizard outside my bedroom back at the campus, but a chameleon is special.

2) Stringing up two hammocks at one of our rest spots and making Turkish coffee at nearly every stop using a portable stove. Israelis love their coffee, that’s for sure.

3) Seeing Tzfat far off in the distance and being amazed at how far we had come in one day.

Day Two. I searched the area for my sandal. No luck. We ate breakfast, packed up the tents and bags, filled out bottles with water and headed out. The day was cooler for walking which was very much welcomed by our group. This was the day we would climb up the mountain and walk along it for most of the day. Most of us were stiff and sore, and my knee was threatening to end my hike very early on in the day.

Hiking, hiking and more hiking. My knee did not much appreciate the uphill climb, an angle not appreciated by most knees even on a good day. Finally we reached the top and stopped to enjoy the view. We also took this opportunity to do some group bonding by participating in some team building exercises. In the first one the boys and girls divided up and played paper, rock and scissors amongst themselves until there was a winner. Each time someone lost the loser then became the cheerleader for the winner until there was a huge cheerleading squad for the winner from the boys side and the winner from the girls side. Then the two faced off. It was tense as it took several tries to finally break the tie but in the end the boys prevailed. After that we had a trust building exercise in which again the boys and girls were divided off. In each group the person stood in the middle of the circle and let him/herself tip back. Then the person who catches the one falling gently pushes him/her back into the standing position and then the person is allowed to tip forward again in another direction. The person is to remain standing, stiff and with eyes closed the whole time. It was very interesting and it helped one girl overcome her fears as she was never able to do this sort of thing before (even when it was her dad catching her!).

Once we got our activities and snacks out of the way we were off across the top of the mountain. At this point I began to notice a very serious problem….. my feet were hurting. And I mean REALLY hurting a lot. It felt like a few hot coals and been shoveled into my boots. At lunchtime I talked to the group leaders and said that I couldn’t go on. They said that I would have to wait until we reached some road and from there we could call the pickup guy to come and take me to campus. I was looking at another 3 hours of hiking with my knee aching and my feet so sore I was limping. What could I do but press on?

Eventually we got to the section of mountain from which we were to descend down to a town called Peqi’in. The goal was to get off the mountain and follow the long road into town and meet at some pita restaurant. There were a few problems with this plan: (1) the miles of thorn bushes between us an the edge of the mountain, and (2) the rockface we would have to scale down in order to get to this road.

We were told ahead of time that we had best pack a pair of pants for this part of the hike due to the thorns or else suffer getting severely scratched up. I had thrown on an old pair of jeans on and followed the group into the thick of it. There were screams, cries and yelps as we made our way through the maze of pain. I was lucky enough to have jeans on (which I often got scratched through anyway)… others did not pack pants and paid the price. Nothing like the salt of your own sweat running into fresh open wounds! Yow!

Once we emerged from the thorny hell we found ourselves at the top of a rockface looking out over the town we needed to get to. It looked like a loooong way away and I didn’t know how I was going to make it. My feet were in a world of hurt and my knee was begging me not to go down the mountain face. It was a sharp steep angle and sheer rock.. no room for mistakes. The group took a break and then began the descent; estimated time of arrival to town? 45-60 mins.

Going down hurt. A lot. My knee pain served as a distraction from the foot pain as I tried to find an angle for my feet to negotiate the descent. The group was exhausted and mistakes were becoming more frequent. Miraculously we all made it down with myself being somewhere near the front of the pack… around the 3 or 4th down. I was pretty much alone for my 45 min walk into town and feared that my feet were going to betray me and not complete the walk. I began to do the only thing I knew to do in order to get myself through it…. I started a walking meditation. I found that a deep breath released with a hum was equivalent to about 10-13 steps, depending on the angle of the road. I lost myself in the sound and feel of the hum in my throat. I focused on my breath and tried to let the pain wash over me. I was determined to get to the meeting point on my own steam.

The walk was longer than I thought and as I neared it I passed a hotel. I honestly thought about stopping in and getting a room for the night! Hahaha!!! Oh, how good a hot bath to soak my aching bones would have been. At that point it had been two hot and sweaty days since I had seen a shower. I persevered and walked on until I saw my group at the restaurant up ahead….. it was like an oasis in the desert.

I plunked myself down in a chair and proceeded to immediately remove my boots to give my feet the open space they craved. I talked to them, stroked them and apologized to them for putting them through that. I promised them they were done for the day and that a car would take them to a campsite rather than walk the last 1.5 hours to the site like everyone else. I had pushed them long after they told me they quit, and I felt my feet deserved that much reward.

The pita place was chosen because the pitas there are made in the ancient style, large and flat, unlike the smaller pocket pitas we know today. The girl who was making them was the 4th generation to learn this nearly forgotten technique and it was great to watch her in action. The loved the town itself which is an Arab Druze (Druze) town like a few others we had passed before (The Druze are a sect of Islam that broke off hundreds of years ago from mainstream Islam. Their practices are shrouded in mystery, but as a whole Jews have enjoyed wonderful relations with them and share many towns in peace with them. Druze also make a point of serving in the army and are very loyal to Israel).

After filling my hungry belly with a Coke (my first since arriving in Israel a month ago!) and a pita filled with melted goat cheese I went with our group leader to a soap store next door. Here an old Druze woman is world reknowned for the different soaps, candles and scents she makes. We were handed complimentary coffee (like I said… coffee is a staple here) and we were very warmly welcomed. We looked around, asked questions and did a little shopping. Overall the locals we extremely friendly and it made for an amazing experience.

After that I hitched a ride to the campsite (along with 2 other crippled girls) and we began to set up the camp and make dinner for the poor souls who were brave enough to walk the full distance. I started up the barbeque (old school style, with the coals) and obsessed over the cooking of the chicken for the evening (they came in frozen blocks and so had to be defrosted AND cooking on the bbq). All in all it was a great meal and the group was appreciative of our efforts. Without bragging too much I have to say… that chicken was the best I ever had. Maybe I was just starving for some protein?

After dinner the group leaders called us all together for a meeting. First order of business was some singing. We were encouraged to whine and complain as much as we wanted, but it had to be in a blues style of singing and it had to rhyme. Along with the guitar accompaniment it was actually a lot of fun. After that came the serious part of the meeting. We were told a sad tale of a terrorist incident in this town that happened in 1973. A pair of terrorist snuck across the Lebanon border (which was nearby to thetown we were in) and broke into a school with the intention of hiding out until the next morning when they would seize the school when everyone arrived. Tragically the school was full of children who had stayed overnight as part of a fieldtrip and they were taken hostage. In the end 22 children were killed, many from the town of Tzfat. Because of this incident we were told that each of us would be taking part in guard duty for the night. We would be paired up and asked to stay awake for 40 mins during the night and then wake up the next pair before going back to sleep. I was SO lucky… I got the first shift, Midnight to 12:40am. After that I got the best bed in the campsite… I snuck into the back of the van. I had set it up earlier in the night, complete with sheet, sleeping bag and travel pillow. It was a bit cramped since it’s not as wide as I am long, but the softness of the seat was a worthwhile trade off. The REAL trade off came a few hours later when it rained. Bwah ha ha! I felt an evil grin crawl across my face as I heard the rain coming down on the roof of the van (at one point of the guys who was sleeping without a tent came hopping into the front seat of the van, and was startled to find me sleeping inside. I told him to stay and dry off a bit, but kicked him out when he started to talk to someone who had walked up). In the end… a MUCH better nights sleep than the night before.. but would it save my feet?

Day Two Highlights:

1) coming across a BIG chameleon, not just a baby one like the day before. Watching it change colours right before my eyes was amazing.

2) Sitting in the ruins of an old synagogue at 7am and watching the sun just coming up. The synagogue had been wiped out my an earthquake long ago..

3) Coming across a pair of donkeys in a field by the side of the road. I stood and “talked” to the donkey in my version of donkey talk. The donkey did not look impressed. I felt like a dumb Canadian human.

4) Watching the group scale “Elijah’s Chair” first thing in the morning. It’s a giant rock that sits atop the mountain, overlooking the valley below.

5) Making it to the campsite at the end when earlier on in the day I was convinced my hiking for the day was over and questioned when I would even be able to hike the next day to finish the 3 day trek.

Day Three. My day started at 5:15am in the dark. I fumbled around in the van to find toilet paper and a flashlight. Off to the woods to find some private time. My legs and knees had seized up in the night causing me to yowl in pain, and I found myself more sore than ever in the morning. My feet hurt from the moment they touched the ground. I got dressed, packed up my stuff and sat down on a rock to tape up my feet. I didn’t think it would take long on this hike for me to declare that I couldn’t go on, so in an effort to ease my pain I took moleskin and taped up the bottom of my feet and big toes where it hurt the most. I used a blister treatment patch on one of my toes where I had to content with a painful blister. I was hoping all this would buy me some time on the road.

We were told that most of the hike would take places on roads, dirt roads and trails…. Not so much of the hardcore bush and rock hiking that we had been doing up until that point (this would turn out later to not be entirely accurate as we hiked through rocky riverbeds). We headed off at 7:30am through the town and turned off onto a road where we stopped for an early morning group exercise. We had stopped at an olive tree field and the exercise was another one of trust and of sensory perception. We again paired off (I worked with a sweet guy named Zach) and I was blindfolded. Zach was then to lead me into the olive tree field, turn me around a bit and get me confused, and then lead to me to a tree of his choice. There I was to feel and get acquainted with the tree only through touch and then me lead away to the area where we started. It was there that the blindfold would be removed and I was to go back to try and find the same tree. I was successful and was happy that I allowed myself to trust Zach, as being lead around through a rocky field full of obstacles while blindfolded is not my idea of fun (did anyone ever see the episode of Survivor last year where they had to do a brutal contest blindfolded? Horrible! And that was what was stuck in my mind).

After that it was on towards a riverbed a path in the woods…. via a very long winding and downhill road. Oh my poor feet. OH my poor feet! Early on in the hike we ran into a little problem… we lost track of one of our group members. He had enthusiastically run ahead of us, but an hour or more later we had still not caught up to him. We were getting worried. The group had to stop and figure out a plan. A few of the leaders backtracked to make sure he didn’t take another pathway by accident. Another group member ran ahead to see if he was up ahead and waiting for us. Before we knew it we were now 5 people short. What to do? Nearly two hours were lost as we sorted out the problem (indeed, our friend was just far up ahead) and now we were not going to make our deadline for finishing the hike (the goal is to reach the Mediterranean Sea by sunset.. around 6:30pm). Tensions were high as people were angry and disappointed by the time lost, and with no sleep, irregular eating and drinking and no showering in 3 days….. fights were beginning to brew. Nothing serious of course, people were just feeling grumpy, tired and testy.

The decision was made that we would hike to a certain point and then a bus would pick us up and drive us the rest of the way to the Sea. Disappointing for some (happy for my feet!) but it had to be done in order to make up for lost time.
The hike went on…

Somewhere along the way we had picked up a dog. He started following us just after the olive tree field and was with the group member who had run ahead. This sweet and adorable doggie followed us all through our hike in the woods, through a river and during our pitstop for lunch. We tried to get him to follow another group we had passed on the trail so that he would head back in the direction from whence he came, but he would not go with them. In the end he broke all our hearts as we had to leave him behind at the side of the road when we boarded the bus. We begged the leaders to let us take him back to the town but time was not on our side. I hope he found his way home…

We boarded the bus and my feet got the break they so desperately needed. At end of that leg of the journey I was more sure than ever that I was just going to have to lay down and give up. The pain was excruciating and every step felt like my last. When I saw the bus (I was with a group of 4 who were very much the last to reach the bus) I thought I was going to drop to my knees I was so happy. I could not believe I had made it that far when 36 hours prior I was ready to give up on the hike altogether.

As we drove towards the sea the leaders decided there was enough time to finish the hike before the sunset, so after a 15 min drive the bus dropped us off at the famous banana fields (famous within the program, I don’t think the town locals would consider them famous). After declaring on the bus that I couldn’t take a step more, I found myself once again mustering the strength to try and finish the hike with the rest of my group. We all got off the bus and began walking through this huge field of banana trees, giddy that we were nearing the end of the most exhausting and trying experience we had ever had. Filthy, smelly and worn, many were looking forward to leaping into the sea at the end.

After stopping at a memorial by the sea we only had to cross a road and we were there. The sun was setting fast and the group had a sudden and renewed energy. Hooting, hollering and jumping we waited for a break in traffic… and then we ran as fast as we could to the beach. My feet and knee? Who cared, I had made it. I didn’t think I would, but I did and I was going to celebrate with my peers.

Many ran right into the crashing waves, a few of us stayed behind to remain witness to the sunset. The smell of the salt, the red of the sunset and the joyful chatter of the group was intoxicating. We had survived the 3 day hike and we were proud of ourselves.

Day Three Highlights:

1) finding a skull in a field of rocks across from the olive trees when I went to find somewhere to “be at one with nature”. It was either a small cow or a big goat, I have no idea which.

2) Creating a Canadian theme for the day. There is one other Canadian girl in the group and she and I put on temporary tattoos of a red maple leaf and got decked out in Canada/maple leaf bandanas. We were determined to finish this hike and represent Canada while doing it!

3) Skipping rocks with across a pool of water with a few others when we stopped for lunch.

4) Seeing an old castle that was made by the Crusaders back in the day. It was way on top of a hill and I could only marvel at it as I imagined how hard it must have been to build (or easy since they had plenty of Jewish and Arab slaves at their disposal).

5) Climbing “The Wall of Life”. It was a rocky wall that lined the side of the riverbank. Rather than cross the river and take the easy path we decided to challenge ourselves by climbing this wall across and down the river. While we were climbing another group was walking the easy path across from us and asked if we crazy for taking the hard route. That made me smile… right up until they all sat down to watch us cross and I nearly fell into the river because I couldn’t find a handhold and my backpack was pulling me backwards. I did NOT want to fall into the river in front that audience and be laughed at…. and I didn’t! :- ) In the end we showed that pack of Britons what we “spoiled Western kids” can do.

Upon returning home last night we had a quite dinner together, showered and hit the sack. Most of us slept for at least 10-12 hours, some even more. Today has been pretty laid back with free time all day until Hebrew class at 5pm (which I am loving, thank you very much! Great teacher, glad I switched classes!). After class we had dinner and we gather at 8pm to make dinner for tomorrow night (since you cannot cook on shabat. Crazy shabat rules!). Group cooking should be fun so I’m looking forward to it.

Reflecting back on the hike I have been asking myself… was it a life changing experience? I’m not so sure. At this point I’d have to say no, but that’s not to say I won’t find it life changing later. Perhaps when I go back home I will find I have more stamina at the gym or a better sense of community. By the end of the trip our group had really bonded and where we once may have hoarded food we now share. I had plenty of offers by one of the guys to carry my backpack for me when it looked like I was going to collapse; that meant he’d be carrying two! The idea of looking out for each other was reinforced during this trip and I think it’s help firm up the bond in this group. Will this apply to my life once I leave this environment? That remains to be seen. But what did surprise me is that I made it after I had believed that I wouldn’t. It just goes to show you that you really never do know what you are capable of doing unless you push yourself, HARD, and try. I just learned that I can hike for 10 hours a day through the roughest of terrain, for 3 days. Who knew?

Sunday, September 25, 2005
I just wrote a long post. It is now mostly gone (thanks for nothing Firefox and your session saver!). I'll recreate it later tonight or later this week when I have more patience. Just know that I am alive and well.

Thursday, September 22, 2005
postcards, haircuts and bourekas
Today several of us in the group elected not to participate in the morning activities. While I enjoy the community service aspect of this program I, and the others, had much to do in order to get ready for the long weekend since we can't stay on campus (um, didn't we pay to be here??). As I said before, the country is at it's peak travel season right now and findng a place to stay is no easy feat, especially so last minute.

My roommate and I went to the post office to mail some stuff back home and then went to a money exchange where I could finally trade my American and Canadian dollars for some Israeli money (shekels, shqalim, whatever!). After that I tried to take some more money out of the bank machine but was unsuccessful and I'm not sure why. Although I chose English when using the bank machine (and the menus were indeed in English) suddenly the screen went black for what seemed like forever, and then a beeping sound started. The message along with this annoying beeping was all in Hebrew and all I understood were the two options I had in response to the message I could not read: ken? o lo? (yes or no?). I said no, just to be safe since I had no idea what I might be agreeing to. What happened to the English??? So frustrating.

When walking along the street I found a hair salon that looked quite nice and modern and so I popped my head in and asked how late he was open until. He told me 7pm but convinced me to get my hair cut right then (which I am glad he did. yay for a haircut!). The guy cutting my hair was a very nice Israeli lad who had worked and studied his craft in Japan, Italy and the US (or so he says). And as is true to the stereotype he wasted no time at all in hitting on me (he really likes Canadian girls he said, though I'm sure an American girl would do nicely as well) and complimented me on everything from my lips to the country I live in. It was all very smooth and charming right up until he point blank asked me if I had ever slept with an Israeli guy before. PARDON ME?? Yes, I am aware of the Israeli habit of being brutally honest and nosey, but no I didn't much appreciate such a personal question. I'm used to the usual nosey questions (how much do you make? what do you pay in rent?) but this was going too far, and I told him as much. By the end he was giving me a discount (shyeah, right) and talking about how we should get together. *sigh* Too bad Livnot has me so darned busy! (whew!)

Anyway, I am finished running my errands and now I just need to look up the bus schedule to see how I am going to get around this weekend and how much it's going to cost me. I may disappear off the radar after this until Sunday. So if you don't hear from me before then, take care, have a great weekend and thanks for all your support.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005
when 16 days feels like 16 months
Yesterday was ‘community service day’ here on the Livnot Campus in Tzfat. For half of us that meant heading back to the Ethiopian Immigration Absorption Center to help paint and plaster walls, for the rest of us it meant digging and excavating the future site for the expansion of the campus. I elected to dig because evidently I enjoy heavy lifting and filthy manual labour in the blistering Middle Eastern sun. Also, because I had already been to the Ethiopian Center last week and thought it would be nice to try something different.

This would be the first real physical activity I had taken on since being sick the last week or so. It wasn’t too bad though I tired easily and didn’t last as long as the rest of the group. I rested frequently (at the bidding of my peers and group leader!) and then I left a bit early to shower and take a nap before lunch. After lunch I stole another hour of sleep before heading out for a group trip to meet a local artist in his home. Pretty thrilling level of activity, no? Hey, I’m trying, alright??

Today we went on a hike to Tzippori (Zippori, Tsippori, however you want to spell it) just north of Nazareth and took in some cool sites and old ruins. That’s what I love so much about this country… the rich history that goes back thousands of years. This is one thing that is seriously lacking in Canada; to touch history there you are only really going back a few hundred years. Here you have can follow in the footsteps of Romans, Byzantines, Turks, and more. This country has seen more action than pretty much any other place on the planet!

Anyway, tomorrow night marks the beginning of our first free weekend. Since we are all being kicked off campus some of us are scrambling to make plans and find places to stay. This is proving a bit challenging as we are in the very northern part of the country and getting to any central city, like Tel Aviv, is about 3+ hours away. That and the fact that this is the busiest time of year and many hotels are booked up. Several from the group are considering sleeping on the beach in Haifa.

You may be able to tell that I am not particularly impressed with the fact that we are being forced off campus whether we like it or not, nor am I impressed that we are going to be forced to pack up all our stuff yet again (just after being told we could unpack because we’re staying here a month) and are being told we have to move it all to one room to be stored while we are away for the weekend (seems others will be using our rooms. lovely.). Indeed I am experiencing a high level of frustration with this program which is something I have not been discussing up to this point (nor am I going to get into a lot of details…. just yet). I don’t mind living together as a group with all kinds of rules… that’s cool, that’s what I expected. But when people go and change the rules as things move along.. that’s not so cool.

I’m not going to say more than that at the moment, but let’s just say that I am not the only one considering other options for my time here in Israel. Many of us are sharing the same frustrations and concerns and despite airing them many times with the group and staff we still feel like we are not being heard. I am doing my best to give this program a good chance but 16 days into this and I am seriously questioning how this program is run. While I greatly enjoy the hiking and community service there is still MUCH left to be desired. It’s about quality, not quantity and having us hopping from 7am to 10pm everyday doesn’t necessarily equal a good program. Perhaps it’s because this is only the second time they have run the five month program, a fairly new edition to the list of programs available (generally most programs are 3 months or less), but I am not enoying being the guinea pig while kinks are being worked out. It’s also worth mentioning that 4 people left the program in the first week alone (3 on their own accord, 1 was asked to leave) and for many of the same reasons that still more of us (at least 5 that I can think of) are thinking to leave. People are dropping like flies and Livnot doesn’t seem to want to listen to the reasons why. If this doesn’t change more will leave, I guarantee it.

I am feeling out sorts, confused and a bit lost. Being recently sick (almost over it!) and having my cat die was horrible while being away from home. Now I got an email from my mother telling me that my grandma is slipping quite quickly as well and if this is the case my trip will be cut short immediately. My grandmother isn’t dying or anything, but her health has been noticeably deteriorating these past few months and she’s finally admitting it, something she has been steadfast against until this point. This was my worst fear…. losing my cat and my grandma while I was away. This free weekend will give me time to clear my head and consider all avenues. I need to decide if this is the path for me here or if there is another…

Monday, September 19, 2005
Israel calling
The most amazing thing happened here in Tzfat yesterday morning…. it rained. This is a first for me, since I have never been witness to rain in Israel before so it was a pretty special start to the day. Many celebrated by slipping on the smooth stone roads and stairs in this crazy ancient city.

I know I haven’t written much lately and that’s largely do to the fact that I have had little to say as I have not been attending much of the activities going on here. I sleep, cough, choke, spit and sleep some more. I attempt to join a class or outing here and there, but overall I’m still not feeling too well so I have been keeping it low key. And of course I am still privately mourning the loss of my cat Abby, which some have been very understanding about while others don’t understand what the big deal is. Hey, it’s a big deal that I’ll never get to hear her purr or snuggle in her soft fur ever again, ok? She’s been my companion for over half my lifetime… that’s a long time.

Anyway, I’ll start here by inserting the original birthday post I wrote last Tuesday, shortly before my world crumbled, and then I will bring you up to speed on where I’ve been since (aside from bed and the doctor, which was an amusing outing in of itself).

Tuesday September 13, 2005

Well, I am happy to report that I had a very wonderful birthday here in the Holy Land. The morning started off a little rough as I was incredibly stiff and sore from the huge hike yesterday, but my birthday improved as the day went on.

After breakfast I was to join the group and participate in the community service (in this case, helping to renovate the Livnot’s Tzfat campus) but I felt I was just not up to the work that needed to be done in the tunnels below. Lifting rocks and getting filthy in a dark tunnel was not how I wanted to spend my birthday especially when I wasn’t feeling up to snuff and it was beautiful and sunny outside. I opted instead to work with the kitchen volunteers and I helped make my birthday lunch. When asked what I wanted for the meal I requested one of my favourites… mashed potatoes. Little did I know that I would be the one peeling them! Hahaha.. Nevertheless I had a fantastic lunch complete with my favourites (potatoes, pita and the Israeli version of Nutella) and even got a cake with candles. On top of that my roommates each got me a present (one gave me a Napoleon Dynamite t-shirt, the other a box of my favourite Israeli cereal “Oogi”) and I got a very nice necklace from one of the sweetest guys in the program, Kenny. Everyone else was great too, all pitching in to make food, a birthday hat and sing Happy Birthday. When asked at the end of dinner how it was reflecting on the past year I said that if you had told me a year ago on my last birthday that next year’s birthday would be celebrated in Israel, I would never have believed you. How lucky am I?

After dining on the best lunch meal here to date we had a nap (a favourite pastime here) and then we had a 4 hour class discussing Jewish history and current events in Israel. What a great class!! We got very involved and had a great debate and conversation. Exactly what I love. After that a few of us did some yoga on the roof while the sun was setting… so amazingly beautiful and so nice to stretch out my sore muscles. Then we had dinner and here I am post-supper, writing a post. All in all, it’s been a great birthday. I think I might end it by calling my grandma back home (my mom and dad are vacationing in Italy right now).

Right after I wrote that post I went to find a way of getting online in order to post it only to be dragged out to another group outing late that evening. I never got to post it, and I never got to speak to any of my family and friends. While I appreciated that the whole group had written and sang a song for me for my birthday (“Pita”, sung to the tune of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It”. Very funny stuff!) I was extremely upset that I hadn’t been able to hear a familiar voice or retrieve my birthday emails ON my birthday. It made me feel a million miles from home despite my group’s effort to make me feel at home.

The next day was of course when everything went wrong. I was sick so I stayed on campus while everyone else went hiking. I took the opportunity to finally get my birthday emails but never read them because I saw my brother’s email first telling me the bad news of our cat. After reading that, my birthday seemed silly and trivial and I skipped the rest of the emails and left the computer room crying. In an effort to clear my head I went on a long walk around Tzfat and spent some time alone with my thoughts and memories and sorrow.

The day after that, Sept 15th, I decided I would try and join the group again as they headed out to do community service. The activity for the day was helping paint and clear up the walls at the local Ethiopian Immigration Absorption Centre. I wanted to see where the Ethiopians came to when they immigrated to Israel and to learn about the process as they are absorbed into Israeli society (they often stay in the centre for 1.5 years before going off on their own!). It was a nice low activity as we all repainted some walls in the hall that were in need of a new coat. A young Ethiopian by the name of Yaacov (almost 13 years old) was very interested in our group and it’s activities and hung around with us while we worked. He dabbled in the paint and helped with the cleanup effort and so on. When we took a break outside he and (what I can only assume was) his brother followed us out and sat with us. Language barrier did not deter him from sitting with one of our group members to watch as he played his guitar. He was absolutely fascinated by the guitar until our friend finally handed it to him to try. It was just amazing to watch this boy connect with us despite age, race or language. It was a great outing, for sure. I have enjoyed the community work here in Israel.

Later that day I recall having my first Hebrew class but I was so sick that I couldn’t really hear what was going on. Everytime I blew my nose my ears would plug up and cause me great pain. That night I went to the doctor and got some meds to relieve the pressure. The Hebrew class was a bit on the horrifying side as I was slotted to be put in the ‘advanced’ class after doing the hardest little test I’ve ever seen in Hebrew, which was meant to sort us into only two levels. Far too easy for me, or far too hard for me. So of course I got put in the far too hard for me course in which the teacher did not speak a word of English (not that I could have heard her anyway) and I was lost most of the time. Here’s hoping it’s better this week or I’m sliding down to the easy class.

Friday (Sept 16th) was spent preparing for shabat (ie: cooking and cleaning). Still sick as a dog I did not do much in that department either. That night, during the big shabat dinner I had attempted to join in but didn’t last long; I ate only the soup and then left to go back to sleep. The next day Yom Shabat (Saturday, yesterday, whichever) I got up and tried my best to pull myself together in order to head out with my partners to the host families that we are sent to for shabat lunch. Due to my illness I was reassigned to a family that lives practically on campus (as opposed to a 30 min walk to another family in the city). The family was of course one of the founders (or is he THE founder?) of Livnot whom I had met before so it was a very lovely shabat. Despite an enormous coughing attack in the middle it was a wonderful lunch, though again the fine meal was wasted on me as I only ate a few beans and a mini potato. It comes as no surprise then that I did not participate in the closing of shabat last night (havdala) or the meal that went along with that. I had decided last night that I would go back to the doctor today.

Which brings us up to yesterday’s events! As I said before, the day started with a little rain which is always welcome here. After breakfast we had a flag ceremony of sorts. Without getting into sordid details or pointing fingers and making accusations, let me just say that someone in the neighbourhood has been expressing his/her/their unhappiness with our presence by attacking the Israeli flag we have hanging on our building. The first time they simply tore the flag. The day after that (when we replaced the flag) they snapped the flagpole right off (so we couldn’t hang another, I suppose). This caused a wide range of emotions within our group, from fear to anger to disbelief. Many theories were developed about who and why it was done, but I still feel it was because certain orthodox religious groups don’t much appreciate girls in shorts (and tank tops) in their hood. While we have made the effort to be as modest as we can when walking out in public, but there are times when we are coming to and from hikes and there’s just no way we’re going to wear pants or skirts between the bus and the campus door, I’m sorry. We’ve had some Orthodox man scowl at us, making spitting motions and mumbled under their breath in protest. So was it them that attacked our flag? We can’t know for sure but we decided we weren’t going to let them win. Shortly after 8am two of the guys from the group stood atop the roof and hung the biggest flag yet from the top (try and reach THAT, you meanies!) while the rest of us stood below and sang Israel’s national anthem and cheered. It was a great morning.

The activity of choice following that was a tour through Tzfat (yes we’ve been here a week without a real tour. What does that tell you about how packed our schedule is? Oy, don’t even get me started). The tour was really great as we visited the artist colony and a few of the old local synagogues. We met some amazing artists and learned of the stories on how they came to be here and how they chose their art. It was very nice to be in touch with (friendly) locals. I of course had to bow out the tour for a few minutes as I had a coughing attack that was severely unpleasant, and hours later I would have several more. Hmmm… maybe I should have gone to the doctor instead of taking the tour?

Last night I went to the most amazing music show here in Tzfat. It was a music group composed of 3 men who played a fantastic assortment of instruments and Middle Eastern music. The setting was wonderful as the room had been transformed to look like a tent inside, complete with the ceiling draped in cloth and low tables and chairs to sit at (with lanterns and candles for lighting). I was mesmerized by the hypnotic rhythm of the drums and the bittersweet tunes playing…. truly I loved every minute of it. And near the end we were invited to play along as hand drums were handed out to us and we created a thundering beat as we all played together. Wow, wow, wow! A fabulous night.

Anyhoo, I went to the doctor this morning and picked up some cough syrup and antibiotics. All going well I *might* go to Eilat this weekend, but that's not confirmed yet. Because I have been sick I have stayed behind on yet another hike today which is starting to get VERY frustrating. This weekend we will have a free weekend and then next week we have a big three day hike! We will be hiking from Tzfat to the Mediterranean Sea!!

Before I go, a few random points/observations:

- I hate, and I mean HATE, the shower we have in our room. The shower head is in the middle of the ceiling leaving you nowhere to really go to get away from it. This means that when you try and soap up you are getting rinsed at the same time. Plus there are a few rogue jets of spray that get worse if you try and point the head in any other direction other than straight down. The cherry on top would be the shower curtain that practically molests me the entire time I’m showering. I really hate it when the shower curtain touches me let alone glues itself to me.

- I’m not sure what the deal is here in Israel but they seemed to have dispensed with any need for light fixtures. More often than not you will find a lightbulb screwed right into the socket with nothing over it to soften the harsh light. Very odd and not very esthetically pleasing.

- I managed to slice my thumb open with a plastic knife during a hike when cutting up a yellow pepper for the group’s lunch. Perhaps the airlines need to consider giving us NO utensils because now if anyone were to threaten ME with a plastic knife I would do whatever they want.

- I have seen several lizards, some small some quite big, ALL too fast for me to catch. I did however, manage to get a picture of one as it ran out from under a rock to drink the water on the rocks that we had been dripping all over after climbing out of the river we were swimming in. I also got a good pic of a frog sitting on a rock.

- I grew up in a country with mosquitoes the size of bats, horseflies with a bite worse than a dog, and blackflies as small as ants which enables them to crawl up your pantleg to bite you real good and in some very special places. However, the mosquitoes in Israel are far more slick (I have seen maybe ONE) and yet I keep finding more and more bites. But most notably I have much more severe reactions to the bites here than the ones back home. Are these Israeli mosquitoes vampires or something!? Also I have developed a strange rash on the inside of my left wrist and it’s been driving me nuts for nearly two weeks. I have no idea what caused it, but I’d very much like it to go away.

- I said it before and I’ll say it again…. I feel like I’m living in bubble here as I have little-to-no exposure to world news. Hell, I only found out today that Britney Spears had a baby boy, and that was only because another girl in our group was told by her mother on the phone! And here I have an issue of People magazine showing Britney’s baby shower. Ucch, I am SO out of touch.

- I am starting to feel really sad that I will be missing my favourite tv shows this fall. Lost, Battlestar Galactica, Desperate Housewives, Survivor, ER, Scrubs, Boston Legal and a bunch of new shows that were coming out. And don’t even get me started on all the movies I’m missing. VERY upsetting. Omigod. Survivor started last night. (* crycry *) Call me a spoiled Westerner if you like, but I can’t help it if there are some tv shows that truly bring me joy!!

Friday, September 16, 2005
one wicked-bad week
Well all the fun and games of this trip came to a grinding halt this week. I was devastated by the news of my cat's death, something I will not be quick to get over. This is something you either understand or you don't. I gave her lots of extra loving before I left just in case, but can you ever have enough time to say goodbye? :'-(

Wednesday I stayed in bed as the rest of the group went on a hike... I was feeling really quite sick. It continued into the next day and then finally I went to a doctor last night and have been set up with some medication for a sinus infection. I am sick as a dog and spend much of my time in bed.

I am trying to pull myself together in time for shabat dinner tonight, though food isn't of much interest these past three days. Where's my grandma's food when I really need it??

Anyway, back to bed. Shabat Shalom everyone!

Wednesday, September 14, 2005
tears tears and more tears
I just got an email from my brother telling me that my beloved cat Abbey has died. She was 17. I was afraid this would happen and spent a great deal of time with her the night before I left (I even kept telling her not to die while I was gone!). I am devastated and reduced to tears.

I'll write more some other day.

Monday, September 12, 2005
celestial blue, reporting from Tzfat
Frustration is mounting as I find myself unable to get online most of the time. We are kept very busy and given very little time to actually do anything outside of the program. And while the program is great and very “action packed” I am not terribly impressed with the lack of free time. We have been in Tzfat since Sunday night and still I haven’t had time to walk around the town to look around. I haven’t been able to get online to post or check my email and, more importantly, to see what’s going on in the world. Some people enjoy being able to unplug from the world, but increasingly I feel like I am living in a bubble. Anyway, I’ll end my rant there.

Friday was yet another packed day as we headed to the tunnels under the Kotel (Western Wall) and walked the route that was chisled out underground some 3-4 thousand years ago. It was an incredible experience as we shut all the lights off and walked through the dark tunnels for…. I have no idea how long. 30 mins? 40? To add to the experience there was water all along the tunnel (as part of its original purpose was to supply water and it IS underground afterall) and we were walking through water the entire time; sometimes it was only ankle high, sometimes it was up to your… privates, depending on how tall you are. I’m a short gal, so my ‘bits’ got a dip in the cold tunnel water.

What a crazy adventure as we walked in the cold damp dark, with our hands on the walls at all times so we could feel our way as we traveled. What an odd feeling to know that your are running your hands along the same place that someone took carved out with a hammer and chisel thousands of years ago in order to survive. Occasionally we would run into the person ahead of us, the wall as the tunnel made a turn, or smack our head on the ceiling as it was unexpectedly lower in some parts. Sometimes we took pictures and every so often we would flick a light on for a second or two just to help get our bearings and to see the magnificent tunnel work. The water didn’t feel at all cold once you got used to it and in the end we were happy to see daylight again.

After this daring adventure it was off to the Jerusalem shuk (pronounced shoo-k). The shuk (market) is liveliest on Friday afternoon as everyone rushes to do their shopping before shabat at sundown, after which all the stores will be closed until sundown Saturday night.

I was happy to be heading to the shuk in Jerusalem for two reasons: 1) I love me a good shuk, and it’s one of my very favourite things about Israel, and (2) I have not yet been to the shuk in Jerusalem, only the one in Jaffa/Tel Aviv. As was expected it was packed and bustling with shoppers, all pushing and shoving and fighting for the best deal. A couple of us stuck together and found a place to eat before shopping around. I opted for the chicken kabob that was cooked right in front of me on a grill and then put in a pita with all my favourite trimmings. A few of us took a walk across the street to a little park and sat down to enjoy our lunch. And of course, being the bleeding heart that I am, I tossed big pieces of chicken to a stray cat who sat nearby hoping to get a meal. After lunch of my program-mates (classmates?) and I went back to the shuk to look for something to take to our host families for shabat on Saturday (Friday night shabat is spent together but Saturday lunch shabat we are scattered and sent out to spend a meal hosted by a local Israeli family who offers to open their homes to Livnot participants. Nice, no?). My classmate and I picked up a couple of cakes at a very good price and then I headed to the candy store, yet another favourite thing of mine in Israel. I love the shuk, I love the dairy products and I love the chocolate and candies. Once we were all done out shopping (though I didn’t get to see even a quarter of the shuk!) we loaded back up on the bus and headed back to the campus for a nap before shabat celebrations.

Friday evening we all dressed up in our nicest of clothes and headed to the Kotel. Livnot has a place overlooking the Kotel where we are able to set up a meal in a hall and eat as a group right there in the old city. So we set up the tables for the meal ahead and then as a group we headed up to the roof to partake in some shabat traditions. The view was extraordinary and I only wish I could have taken pictures to show you (ah ah ahhh! No electronic items during shabat!). From the roof you could look out over all of old Jerusalem at sunset and it was breathtaking. From high above you could hear singing below as people gathered at The Wall were singing and praying and celebrating. It was amazing to hear it echo all around as others in neighbouring buildings held their own celebrations and singing could be heard emanating from their buildings. Soon enough our group joined in as we sang songs in Hebrew and danced in circles and rang in the shabat evening. After much rooftop singing and dancing we headed down to The Wall to be a part of the scene there. As is tradition, I took a prayer that was written on a piece of paper and I inserted it into a crack in The Wall in the hopes that it be answered (it was a request by one of the fine folks who bought a bracelet of mine in support of this very trip). After pressing my hands and forehead to The Wall and just closing my eyes so I could the vibration and energy of it all, I rejoined the group and we began our dinner.

The dinner was a long process as it involves more singing and ritual and by this point I was getting a bit grumpy. As much as I enjoy the history and rituals I am learning about I also enjoy FOOD and eating at 9pm when lunch was a good 8 hours earlier was not making me a happy girl. Eventually the food came and we all shared in the tastiness of it and laughed and shared stories. At the end we gathered around on the rug on the floor and drank beer (shyeah right! I drank water, of course) and each of us made a toast to someone or something important to us, and after each toast we raised our drinks and cheered “L’Chaim!” (‘to life!’). I made a toast to my grandma and talked about what an important role model she has been to me and about the times I had traveled with her across Canada (car trips with grandma!). It was a nice way to end the evening.

Saturday was a little more laid back as we got to finally sleep in (I slept in until 8:30am!! Oooo!!) and then got dressed up in our shabat best again and headed out to the homes of complete strangers for lunch. Another classmate and I were welcomed into the home of a family that had made aliyah (moved to Israel) from the United States in 1982. They served up a huge and wonderful lunch (I was so full I didn’t bother eating dinner tonight!). There was lots of great conversation over lunch as we talked about Israel, the US and Canada and there was more singing and ritual. After lunch we headed back to campus and of course… I napped.

After naptime it was another outing in the form of a quickie tour of the area. We were taken rooftop so as to see out over the area and were given a bit of a rundown in terms of history for this neighbourhood (Katamon). Then we walked to the nearby park where we sat in a circle and another history lesson of various battles that took place locally. Upon returning to campus we had dinner and we closed shabat (more singing in a circle) with the ritual of havdala. celestial blue’s tip: don’t volunteer to hold the candle. Wax IS hot and you will get it all over your hands during the ceremony.

Overall shabat was an interesting experience but a little intense for me. I’m not much for extreme religious rituals and rules and not being able to tear off a piece of toilet paper or turn on a light seems a bit much. Clearly this is something I need to learn a bit more about in order to really understand the point. Doing it just for the sake of doing it is not enough for me.

Sunday wasn’t all that exciting, mostly it was spent heading to Tzfat. In the morning we headed into another part of Jerusalem to hear a rabbi speak to us for a while about “Jewish ethics”. Basically it was stories from his past illustrating how we should all be nice to each other. Unfortunately most of the group was falling asleep from being out late the night before at a bar.

After that we packed up all our stuff and climbed into the bus for a 3 ½ hour bus ride up to Tzfat, traveling along the Jordan and Syrian borders as we went. We made a quick pitstop by Tiberias so we could take a dip in the Kinneret (aka: the Sea of Galilee) and then it was back in the bus and on to the Tzfat campus. We unloaded and got somewhat settled in our rooms and tried to get sleep for the big day ahead.

Ah yes, today was a great day indeed. Today we headed on a full day hike in the Yehudia reserves in the Golan Heights (along the border with Syria). What a gorgeous green and lush area as we traversed rocky paths, climbed under and over trees and swam in a river. The highlight of the trip was when we all gathered along some cliffs and took a leap from a point about 25-30 feet up and into the water below. Of course, I make it sound easy when really it took about 5 looong minutes of pep talks, negotiations and cheering from my classmates until I finally jumped. I. Was. TERRIFIED. Several times I almost jumped but pulled back everytime. Eventually the pressure of the others lining up behind me for their turn got me to take the plunge. It was amazing to face my fear of heights and conquer it, though I’m in no hurry to pull a repeat performance.

Once we had all taken the plunge and carrying our backpacks across on a raft we regrouped and finished the hike up the mountain. Oy yo yo….. what a hike. It was exhausting and my body is feeling the pain tonight, lemme tell ya.

As for tomorrow……. It’s my birthday. ;-)

Thursday, September 08, 2005
hiking, hiking and more hiking

Today was another fine day in the Israeli wilderness! We headed out west of Jerusalem to take in the John F. Kennedy Memorial and to hike the trails surrounding it.

What can I say about that, really? Not much because any way I describe it won’t do it justice. It was gorgeous (and yes, Israel DOES have trees!). One of the best parts? We came across a fig tree and we dined on fresh figs right from the tree! Behold! (you can click the pics for larger image)

After that we returned back to the campus, packed up lunch and headed to a park nearby for a picnic lunch. After that we had a circle discussion about our experiences and how we were feeling about the program. Following that… a much needed nap. Hahaha! This oldtimer needs naps in order to keep up with the younger crew.

Once I dragged myself from my slumber it was time for a class in which we talked about shabat, the customs and how it all came to be. Most interesting! Tomorrow it’s a road trip to the City of David, the shuk (Jerusalem market) and the Kotel (WesternWall). I probably won’t get a chance to post again until Sunday or Monday as we will be observing shabat which means NO electronic equipment. So there’s a good chance that the next time I post it will be from Tzfat. See you then!

P.S. Can some Israeli please tell me why there have been fireworks here in Jerusalem almost every night since I got here??

Wednesday, September 07, 2005
celestial blue, reporting from Jerusalem

Another day, another adventure. Yay!
Today we did some community service, which was simply fabulous. Nothing like volunteering to really help put life in perspective.

We started the day by having a class after breakfast to discuss the poverty situation in Israel. Something like 1 in 5 people live below the poverty line here, many of which are children and the elderly. Devastating numbers if you think about it.

After the class we all loaded up onto a bus and headed out to a local soup kitchen type of place called Hazon Yeshaya to help prepare lunch. Our group peeled cucumbers, onions, sweet potatoes, and other such activities as we prepared for the droves of hungry folks looking for a hot meal. As they began to arrive I helped carry the tray out to the waiting group and had mixed experiences. Some were grateful, others were demanding. For example, I had set a tray down in front of one woman and she quickly said something to me in Hebrew. I replied "Ani lo medeberet Ivrit" ('I don't speak Hebrew') and so another woman translated and said "She doesn't want that" and I looked back at the first woman and saw that she was pointing to the beans on the plate. I looked at her and said "So..... don't eat them then! That's all we have though, I have nothing else to give you". Coz hey... this wasn't a *restaurant* for Pete's sake! And the meal was good, too! Soup, salad, beans, pita.. and something else, I can't recall. Not too shabby! So what? You want me to whip up something else just because you don't like a handful of beans?? hahaha.... crazy lady.

Overall it was a very rewarding experience and very emotionally challenging. One girl was so overwhelmed she had a bit of a cry near the end of our time there. So many people who need help and so few of us and so little money to do it. I very much enjoyed my time volunteering and look forward to doing it again later in the program.

After we returned and had lunch we had another class. It was sort of philosophical in nature as we examined the age old question "Who am I?". We did a number of exercises together and dug deep to find some answers... or at least to ask more questions that might lead us to some answers. Sometimes we worked all together and sometimes we worked in pairs. It was a three hour exercise that was also quite rewarding if you put your all into it. We learned a lot about each other and though this is only our 3rd day together we already have a strong group bond. If we know each other this well I can't imagine what we'll be like after 5 months together!

Before I go a few notes:
- I have seen a couple of lizards and a teeny tiny little red snake (at first the guys thought it was a worm it was so tiny!). I went to pick it up and decided not to. Note to self: read up on Israeli snakes.
- I have two big blisters on my right foot. Ow. Thank you Dr. Scholl, you are the best.
- my feet just never seem to be too clean when I am in this country. Sandals are like that.
- buying the camel pack for water was the best investment I made. Sipping water straight from my backpack was a blessing while hiking.
- the fact that this program has us hopping from 7am until 10pm or later everyday means I don't get to blog like I'd like to and I certainly don't get to upload pictures like I'd like to. And worst of all, I can't read everyone else's blogs like I am dying too. *pout*
- hold the phones..... I think I may be getting a very light tan. *eek!*
- what the HELL is with this country's love affair with coloured toilet paper?? And the colour of choice seems to be PINK. This sounds like a bad bad idea to me.
- speaking of toilets, I said it before and I'll say it again..... the toilets here are *brilliant*. The half flush (to save water) and the full flush (for bigger jobs) are just genius for water conservation. Why are we not using this in North America??

Ok, I'm outta here. People look like they are going to beat me up for the computer soon. I'll write again soon! Thanks for your comments and lovin'... you guys rock, as always.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

What a day, what a day!
Up and eating breakfast at 7:30am. Had some speaker come in and talk to us about... er.. stuff. He was a journalist for Jerusalem Post, I think. I harrassed him with lots of questions. Heh. After that we packed up and went for a day hike to the Bet Shemesh/Luzit area.

Hot hot hot as we hiked through scrubland and fields to get to a giant manmade cave. Evidently this is where Jews gathered. After we hung out there, made lunch, ate and cleaned up we moved on to the much more exciting caves... those made by the Jews when hiding from the Romans. Few words will do the experience justice, but let me just say it was incredible. To think that thousands of years ago Jews secretly dug these tunnels and then hundreds hid within... wow. The tunnels were dark, damp and in many places very tight. We had to crawl on our bellies and hands and knees at several points to get to the next chamber. When we finally got to the largest and innermost chamber we sat and listened as our teacher told us about the history and stories surrounding this incredible place. After that we shut all the flashlights off and sat in the dark for one minute....... it was scary but very moving. While the lights were still off many began to sing in Hebrew as the rest of us clapped or kept a beat on our knees. It was amazing! Such an incredible experience.

Ok, I had a lot more to write but I am *seriously* distracted by the loud Orthodox women who have taken up a discussion in Hebrew RIGHT beside me here in the dining room. Who are they? I haven'ta clue because they aren't with this program at all. Strange. They have gathered in a round circle to have a talk about....well, I don't know what other than the one word I understood: pigua (peegooah). Terrorist attack/bomb. They're even recording their talk with a little tape recorder!

Anyway, I had more to say about the caves and our trip to the Kotel (Western Wall) last night but I can't think with these loud Israelis in my ear. I will try to post pictures soon.... I have *hundreds*! Thanks for looking in on me and not giving up! I'll post again as soon as I can. :-)