Saturday, March 22, 2008

Lots to Say About the Desert!

A few weeks ago, our class took it's 3rd and final tiyul to the Negev, the desert region in the Southern part of Israel. As we were gearing up to leave Jerusalem, I was becoming more and more worried about this tiyul; we were told it would be 4 days of hiking, sweating, schlepping through the desert, and constantly being around our classmates. For the most part, what we were told was correct; we hiked, we schvitzed, we schlepped, and we were around our classmates ALL THE TIME. However, I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by much of the trip. The scenery was beautiful, the sites were amazing, the ice cream was delicious (we stopped twice at a store located on Kibbutz Yotvata, which is known for making the best dairy products in Israel), and the weather was a wonderful change from the cold Jerusalem air. There is such peace in the desert air; you literally hear nothing except the sounds of the few animals who live there. Overall, it was a great tiyul, and I'm glad that I didn't punk out like I was tempted to.

Our first stop was in Sde Boker, where David Ben Gurion spent the last years of his life. He is buried there, so we were able to pay our respects and learn a little about the last few years of his life. Sde Boker also overlooks Maktesh Ramon, a huge natural crater that we later hiked across. It was a beautiful site and a great way to spend our first few hours outside of J'lem.

Soldiers raising the flag near Ben Gurion's grave

The grave of David Ben Gurion. His wife, Paula, is buried to the left of him. One of the interesting things about headstones in Israel is that there are up to 3 dates on a headstone: the date you were born, the date you died, and the date you made Aliyah (moved to Israel.) Ben Gurion immigrated to Israel from Poland in 1906.

Julia, Steph and I waiting for the bus to lunch. All 3 of us were a litttle doped up on Israeli Dramamine (which is MUCH stronger than it's American counterpart), but nonetheless we still enjoyed ourselves.

After Sde Boker, we went further into Maktesh Ramon to have lunch and Mincha services. We were all pleasantly surprised by 3 drummers who were playing by our lunch spot; while they weren't there specifically for us, they kindly played an encore just for us, and allowed us to take pictures and videos of them. The views of the crater were incredible and with the added element of the drumming, we had a great time eating and praying there. Dana, one of our guides, told us the story and history of the crater before we made our way down to schlep across it.

Maktesh Ramon, the huge crater that we hiked through, from the site where we stopped to have lunch and Mincha (afternoon) services.

The drummers who surprised us at our lunchspot. This is SO Israeli; you never know what you'll see or who you'll find in any given place. Nancy, the dean of students who accompanied us on the trip, assured us that she knew nothing about the drummers being at the site.

One of the most interesting things about hiking in Israel, in my opinion, is how they rate the difficulty of the hike. An "easy" or "family" hike in Israel is probably the equivalent to a "moderate" or "hard" hike in America (granted I never hike in America, so it's possible that I pulled that out of nowhere.) Basically, I've learned never to believe anyone who says a hike is easy, because it never is. The crater that we hiked across had cliffs, lots of rocks, uneven ground, lots of climbing, etc. It was not a fun experience, and as always, I finished the hike sweaty, grunting, swearing, and questioning (out loud, to myself and whoever else could hear me,) "People hike for fun? What the hell are they thinking???" But, as Nancy kept telling me, the sites were pretty and hiking is really the only way to truly experience life in the desert. Whatever.

One of the prettiest sites on our hike; a mountain made of layers of sandstone and limestone.

After our hike, some water and some snackage, we drove to Kibbutz Yahel, the first Reform Kibbutz in Israel. Yahel is beautiful, very green (despite being in the desert) and open, with spacious guest cabins. I shared a cabin with friends Nicole, Elana, and Lea, and we had our own hammock (heaven!), cable TV with better channels than what we pay for in J'lem, and a shower with plenty of hot water. Kibbutz Yahel is also know for it's "Pomelos for Peace" program, where it shares it's pomelo (a citrus fruit that is similar to a grapefruit, with a thicker rind and sweeter taste) crop with it's Jordanian neighbors who border them. In it's own way, Yahel has been a part of the peace process with Jordan, which it is very proud to have done. Ron Goldstein, known as "The Pomelo Man" of Kibbutz Yahel, gave us a short talk about the program and demonstrated the correct way to cut and eat a pomelo. He also gave us samples and whole pomelos to take back to our rooms, which was clearly the best part of the demonstration. After settling in our rooms a bit and a group dinner, we retreated to the lounge area where we spent the rest of the night drinking wine and singing kareoke. It was a very fun way to wrap up a crazy long day.

The Pomelo Man holding his pomelo while talking to us about his favorite fruit in the world

The next day we woke up early to go on our choice of hiking adventures. There were harder options, which many of my classmates chose, but I happily chose the "non-hiking" adventure and went to Timna Park with Nancy and about a dozen of my classmates. The park was incredible; there were so many beautiful rock formations! While we were told there would be no hiking, most of us chose to do a little to get up close and personal with the formations we looked at from afar. I was climbing up and down natural "ladders", shimmying through holes smaller than me, and climbing up millions of steps--and I kind of liked it! It was worthwhile to get to see and experience the desert in this way, and our group was so patient and supportive and fun that it made it an experience to remember.

The "Sphynx" or the "Lion", depending on which way you look at it.

One of the rock formations we climbed through--if you look closely in the middle, you can see the ladder we had to climb to get to the other side of the hole, where there were more ladders awaiting us to get back to this spot in the park.

Our group, which we lovingly named "The Good Times Gang" after deciding that our original name, "The Lazy Man's Group" was too negative.

After our tour, we had a quick falafel lunch before PJ and I decided we needed to ride camels before we left Israel. My Birthright trip in 2004 did not include a camel ride, so I was excited to try it. It was perhaps the scariest thing I have ever done in my life. My camel, Brownie, did not like me so much. She kept bucking and reaching her head back to bite me. In spite of all this, I am glad to say that I have ridden a camel in Israel, and have the pictures (albeit very unflattering) to prove it!

Peej and I on our camels. Brownie was less than thrilled to be schlepping me around, but I've forgiven her.

Once we left Timna, we made our first stop at Kibbutz Yotvata to take part in some of their delicious, fresh dairy products. For the first time in a LONG time, I ate 2 huge scoops of ice cream, one dark chocolate and one marscapone cheese (which IS as good as you can imagine!) It was more calories than I've consumed in one sitting in a very long time, but completely and utterly worth it.

After engorging ourselves with ice cream, we left for Shacharut, the Bedouin tent (or Shmedouin tent, as it was more of a tourist attraction than a real Bedouin tent) that hosted us for the evening. The tent was literally in the middle of nowhere, and the views were amazing (though the desert all starts to look the same after awhile.) We waited for the rest of our classmates to arrive back from their hikes before partaking in a fun Bedouin storytelling/music session and delicious chicken dinner. We then had a ma'ariv (evening) service and song session, and then it was bedtime. Before I went to sleep, I spent some time outside, looking up at the stars. The stars were INCREDIBLE; they were literally everywhere. I've never seen so many in the sky at once--it was like the sky had thrown all the stars ever created into that one piece of the world. It was the most magical and special part of the trip for me, by far.

If only the rest of the night had been so magical. We slept in a tent. On the ground. On thin matresses and rented sleeping bags and no pillows. I slept in the same room as all 52 of my classmates and some faculty. It was FREEZING. Someone stepped on my glasses and bent them out of shape, which meant that I couldn't wear them. I might have had a hissy fit underneath the blanket that I brought (thank Gd I packed it!) after trying unsuccessfully to sleep. Thank goodness I never have to relive that experience. I was not a happy camper the next morning.

Our tent at Shacharut

The view of the desert from our tent; it was beautiful and peaceful, until I had to try to fall asleep. Then the beauty of the place really didn't seem to matter so much.

Sunset from outside the tent. So beautiful!

The next morning, after a lot of complaining, I got on the bus with my classmates to go to Kibbutz Lotan, an ecological-centered Kibbutz not far from Kibbutz Yahel, where we stayed a couple nights before. The ideology of Kibbutz Lotan is all about recycling and reusing EVERYTHING (and I mean everything!) to build up their grounds and save the planet. We toured the Kibbutz, drank tea from water heated on a solar heater, and helped the Kibbutz to make some mud bricks to build it's next house or building. We made the bricks from scratch, using mud, straw and water; we mixed with our hands and molded the bricks on our own. It was actually very, very fun and helped me to get rid of my horrible mood.

Captain Compost, the mascot of Kibbutz Lotan, who reminds the residents to recycle everyday.

Lauren, Alina and I mushing our mud brick stuff together. It was gross and fun at the same time!

Alina, Sam, Lauren and I showing off our muddy hands.

HUC's contribution to Kibbutz Lotan; a load of freshly made mud bricks.

After Kibbutz Lotan, my classmates went to the beach in Eilat, one of the southernmost cities in Israel. However, because my glasses were stepped on the night before, Steph and Nicole and I were dropped off at the Eilat Mall so I could get them fixed. It turned out to be an easy and free fix (though the woman told me she might break them by doing what she was a risk I was willing to take, since I had no other glasses with me.) Because they were fixed quickly and we didn't feel like spending a lot of time at the beach, we decided to get lunch and hang around at the mall for awhile. I bought a salad and a 20-shekel pashmina and then we went to the beach. We only stayed for about 15 minutes, but we had a great time taking pictures, enjoying the sunshine, and hanging out with our classmates.

The Red Sea on the coast of Eilat. The water is so beautiful and so clear, and there are lots of fish to look at if you choose to snorkel (or, in hebrew, shnorkehl.) Since we went snorkeling in the Red Sea when we were in Sinai, I didn't feel too bad about missing the chance to do it again on this trip.

The men of HUC showing off their human-pyramid building skills. If only 90% of them weren't already taken...

After the beach, we headed back to Kibbutz Yahel, our original stopping grounds, for a beautiful Shabbat. We had a lovely service in their synagogue, followed by a festive dinner and singing. After dinner, a lot of people were socializing outside of their cabins. After a nice walk with PJ, a glass of wine, and a little bit of socializing, I was ready to call it a night. Luckily, Nicole, my cabin mate, felt the same way, and we went back to our room to watch TV, where Will and Grace was on! I can't tell you how much I miss that show, as it's never on in J'lem. It was such a treat to get to watch it again. Anyways, after a beautiful Shacharit service in the desert the next morning, we had the day to just relax, which I did. I spent about 45 minutes rocking out in the hammock before going inside to take a shabbat menucha (a shabbat nap.) It was amazing. By that time, it was time to pack up and get ready to head back to Jerusalem. After we packed, we had a quick Q&A session with some members of the Kibbutz, a light dinner, and we were on the bus. 4 hours later, we were back in cold, dreary Jerusalem, dreaming of the hammocks of Kibbutz Yahel and dreading our Biblical Grammar classes that were awaiting us the next morning.

We had a wonderful trip, and while I am happy to be back in J'lem, where my daily hiking routine is a bit easier, I do miss the desert and the beauty that comes with it. I posted about 20 pictures on this blog (a new record for me!), but I do have more if you want to see them--let me know.

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