Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Birthright Trip to Israel: Days 1-3

Photo by Taylor Arion
I just got back from a Birthright trip to Israel, and I promised some blog posts about it, so here is the first one! I am clumping the first three days together because the first two days were mainly travel (and since we were traveling forward in time, it was like we missed a day).

Our group met at Dulles and instantly started mingling and sizing each other up (though ice breaker games were mandatory, sadly. Luckily Starbursts were involved.). We flew from Dulles near DC to Brussels, and then we went on to Tel Aviv. In total, this takes about 14-15 hours. The seats were not very comfortable on Brussels Airlines, but each seat had its own monitor where you could watch movies or TV shows, or even play games, so that part was fun (although the audio on my monitor didn't work, so watching movies/TV was out for me). You also get several meals (I think on our flight across the Atlantic we got dinner and two breakfasts!). Although airplane food isn't awesome, I do like free food (and since Southwest Airlines never offers meals, this was a nice change). We had BBQ chicken and rice for dinner (with still-frozen veggies on the side; we also got pita bread and marinara sauce, as if we were supposed to pretend the pita was actually mozzarella sticks); breakfast was all carbs: a bagel, croissant, and TWO muffins (and still-frozen orange juice). When we landed in Brussels, we had a short layover (Note: the bathrooms in the airport almost mimic the bathrooms from an airplane. Ew!). For our connecting flight, our plane was not at the gate, so we had to take a shuttle to the airplane. I felt so nauseous that I took a Dramamine, and then I was knocked out for the whole second flight. I was so tired that I couldn't even eat my meal; the flight attendants kept trying to take it away from me, but I insisted on taking it with me. I didn't know when our next meal was going to be, so I wanted to save what I could!

FINALLY we arrived at the airport in Tel Aviv (another bathroom note: they're not into toilet paper at this airport; luckily a stranger was nicely handing out tissues for us to use). Our American group leaders from Shorashim left a bunch of us behind to find our own way through the airport, but we figured it out (thank goodness!). We could not get our passports stamped because many other countries will not let you in if you have an Israeli stamp in your passport; instead we got little pieces of paper. We quickly got our bags, and then were greeted with singing and dancing from our Israeli comrades (with Shorashim, you get to experience the trip with young Israelis for the entire ten days); one of them was dressed like a camel, FYI. We exchanged our money (essentially four shekels equals one dollar), and got on our bus. Then we were on this bus for several hours before reaching our hostel in the northern part of the country. By the time we arrived it was late at night, and we still had to eat dinner and then play ice breaker games before we were able to go to bed. Keep in mind that most of us had not showered, washed up, brushed our teeth, etc. for more than 24 hours! Ugh...

This was our home-away-from-home on this trip. We traveled everywhere in it! All 50 of us!
This very tall man in Slava, our bus driver. How he made it through some of those little streets in a charter bus is beyond me!
Welcome to our first hostel!
Our hostel in Peki'in was very nice. I had never stayed at a hostel before, and I wasn't sure what to expect. Three people were assigned to each room (though the rooms are meant to fit five), and each room had its own bathroom (divided into three "mini" rooms for sinks, the shower, and the toilet, which made it very easy for three people to share). There was also a patio where people could relax, and some of the rooms even had their own balconies! And of course there was a large dining room; there we enjoyed our buffets breakfasts and dinners.

View from our hostel.
Speaking of food: It was not all that. Breakfast was so-so. On the poor side: mediocre scrambled eggs; weird cheese; bland French toast; hard boiled eggs (for breakfast?); bread (no toaster for toast). On the good side: cereal; whole milk; pudding! (instead of yogurt. A much better choice, I think). Dinner was pretty much the same: some sort of meat (fish, schnitzel, no pork obviously); tomato and cucumber salad; hummus. And NO dessert after dinner. Hmpf!

This is what much of the Israel country side looks like.
Anyway...Onto the first full day of our trip. After filling my belly with pudding, we started off the day with a hike on the Yehudiya Forest Nature Reserve. Since it was quite hot (it was after all August in the Middle East), we were told to wear hats and sunscreen, and to drink lots of water; this became a daily routine for us. The landscape is very arid, so we saw lots of plants that you won't see on the eastern United States (everything there looks sort of like southern California, actually). The hike wasn't too difficult, just hot, and there was a spring where we could go swimming to cool off.

Hiking in an Israeli national park
Swimming hole
After the hike, we went to a shopping center for lunch (this was not unusual for this trip). My sister and I had salads, since it had seemed like ages since we had eaten some healthy food; we also got chocolate milk shakes to balance the meal (and then one of our fellow Israeli trip-mates drank some of my shake without asking. Rude!). Once we were done eating, it was time to head to Har Bental, the top of the Golan Heights. Here we could see the border of Syria, and we talked about the conflict over the Golan Heights (it's high in elevation, so strategically good to have for war). We could even hear bombs going off (though they were far away; we weren't in danger).

Syria is in the distance.
We were standing on an old bunker. We were actually on the edge of the mouth of an ancient volcano.
Next we went onto see Mitzpe Gadot, a war memorial for the soldiers of the Yom Kippur War and the first war with Lebanon (1982). It sits on top of what used to be a Syrian fortress. Here we learned about the history of Eli Cohen, an Israeli spy who worked as the Chief Adviser to the Minister of Defense in Syria and was key in helping Israel win the Golan Heights.

It is a Jewish tradition to leave rocks on a memorial or tombstone. It represents that someone has visited, and rocks last longer than flowers.
Then we got back on the bus to go back to the hostel. This is when I learned how annoying the Israelis in our group were: they would sing 90's pop songs, take pictures of you, and touch you, all while you were trying to sleep! I couldn't believe how rude and immature they were. Ugh, don't get me started...

Once we were back at the hostel, I wrote a blog post about our day for the group. Each of us HAD to join a "committee" to do different things (write blog posts, help design the group T-shirt, remind us to drink water...); I'm under the impression that the purpose of these committees was to have the participants (i.e. us) do the work that our American group leaders were too lazy to do themselves. But at least I already blog in my free time, so this task was easy. Then I got my first real shower (it felt so good to be clean!) before we had to do more group activities. The games included "2 Truths and a Lie" (not so bad) and then creating a dance for an Israeli song of our choice (HORRIBLE). This was the moment I realized that this trip is less of an educational, cultural experience and more of an adult summer camp...NOT my idea of a good time.

 And then we were finally able to go to sleep. And this was just the beginning.

Some facts about Israel:
-Israel was founded as an independent country in 1948.
-It's about the size of New Jersey.
-There are 8 million people who live there (about the same number of people in New York City!).
-Roughly 6.5 million of those people are Jewish; the rest are Muslim, Christian, or part of other religious minorities.

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