10 November 2009

Welcome to Jordan!

After paying about $25 (94 NIS) to leave Israel, I walked across the border to the Jordanian passport control station. The gentleman running my bags through the x-ray machine asked, "Where are you from?" I said, "America" (as I've learned it's a more widely understood response where I've been than the otherwise preferred "The States"). This Jordanian border patrol officer gave me the most genuine smile and warmly said, "Welcome to Jordan!" Now, I've since been welcomed to Jordan about 50-70 times, but his smile and demeanor stand out with those of only a few others as being truly truly welcoming. What a terrific first impression of the people of this country!

Dov & Dolphins

I planned on flying from Tel Aviv to Eilat, where I would dive with dolphins at a place I had learned about called Dolphin Reef. Rather than departing from the larger Ben Gurion International airport, I got a flight out of the smaller Sde Dov airport, which is closer to where I was staying. Adi dropped me off around 8:15 for my 9:20 flight -- this airport is a one room operation. This should have been fine if security hadn't, for some reason best known to themselves, targeted me as their object of scrutiny in a paranoid Israeli power trip act. They put me through a 35 minute inquisition that involved my recounting my travel itinerary to date to two people independently, showing pictures of Adi in Israel to them on my camera (after I said I had been staying with her during my stay in their lovely country), giving them names of some other Israelis I know, showing them pictures of lions and Israelis in Zimbabwe on my computer, and finally giving them Adi's phone number so they could call to verify our acquaintance.
The guard who was the magister of the inquisition said several times, "Why do you look so nervous? Don't be. You'll get your passport back and make your flight." If that was assuredly the case, why the hell were they going through all of this? I was very calm and collected for about 25 minutes of the process, and then I finally said, "This is incredibly frustrating. I have no idea why you don't believe my story and have kept questioning me about things that seem to largely be private and of no concern to anyone's security." Well, that's what I was thinking (or something very similar). What I said was certainly a much milder version which I uttered pretty calmly and with confidence because I had done ZERO wrong and was finally annoyed with the whole situation. She responded well to this, probably because they knew I was actually telling the truth about everything. Don't they regularly get foreigners coming through here saying hey met people from their country while working with lions in Zimbabwe?! She said they were just going to call Adi as the last part of the process. They did. Fortunately, she wasn't so fed up with me as to say, "David who?"

I was on my way after that. In retrospect, I'm wondering if they have some sort of special x-ray scanner that showed them the Palestinian kefiya I got in Jerusalem in my bag. Hmm…

Upon arriving in Eilat I headed straight for Dolphin Reef. The dolphins there go out at night into the Red Sea but they come back every morning to spend their days around the resort. In addition to the excitement from this being the first dive after my Open Water certification in Knysna, I was mesmerized by the fact that these dolphins were swimming all around me -- that I was truly in their world more than they were in mine, which is the case at an aquarium or a place like Sea World. This event triggered lots of memories from when I was younger and wanted to be a marine biologist studying animal communication.

One fantastic aspect of Dolphin Reef is their emphasis on non-tactile interaction. The dive master I swam with stressed that under no circumstances should we touch the dolphins during our dive, even if they swim right past us. This is not a petting zoo for the guests who come. These are not trained dolphins. There was one scientist who was talking about the dolphins to people. If they dolphins came up to him, he'd rub them for a minute and they'd swim away and maybe come back a while later. My analogy is that these are more like playful cats than the dog-like trained dolphins who jump through hoops or do tail moonwalks on command. Dolphin Reef also has a more new-agey area that offers water relaxation workshops and relaxation experiences in some pools of different temperatures, with audible music below the water. Maybe I'll check those out next time. Being underwater with the dolphins and sitting on the beach for a couple of hours afterwards was relaxing enough for me. In a heartbeat I would dive again with these animals.

09 November 2009

A Little Judaica, a Little Christianica, and a Little Islamica

Adi and I booked a tour of the "tunnels" underneath the Western Wall (Kotel) in Jerusalem for 9:20 a.m. At 9:20 a.m. Adi and I are sliha-ing people right and left, running through the streets of Old Jerusalem to get to the Western Wall. No problem. After going through the worthwhile underground tour and saying a prayer at the Western Wall, we set off on a self-guided amble through the Muslim Quarter and the Christian Quarter, stopping along Via Dolorosa a few times, as one should.

I really just wanted some falafel as a snack for lunch while walking around, to round off the bread and zatar we had. But the Hummus Tour had to continue! We had falafel and a bowl of Jerusalem hummus (mine with foul) each. Must walk off the chick peas!

Jerusalem is a place, like many others, that must really be experienced first hand. I'll simply say that there were several times during the day that I was moved. The greatest of these was in The Dormition. We met with Adi's friend Roni and then went to visit a friend of his named Bilal. Both of these gentlemen showed us great hospitality and generosity. Here are some of the other places Adi and I visited in the Holy City of Jerusalem:
  • Church of the Holy Sepulchre
  • King David's Tomb
  • Crusader-built Room of the Last Supper

Later in the week we traveled northeast to the Galilee. En route we stopped for a few hours in Nazareth (الناصرة‎/נצרת). Since Nazareth is heavily Arab Christian and it was Sunday, there was very little to going on. Even most of the shops were closed. We did, nevertheless, spend a good amount of time at the Basilica of the Annunciation and checked out the highly disappointing and poorly kept "Mary's Well" (if indeed what we were looking at was Mary's Well). In the evening, I took the opportunity to attend my first mass in Arabic with Adi (her first full mass ever) at the lower grotto of the basilica.

We continued East toward The Galilee, passing through Cana (where we didn't stop for a glass of wine!). In Tiberias we found a very nice restaurant called Little Tiberias (scrumptious eggplant roulade that was effectively deconstructed caponata with feta, and filet of a Red Sea fish called Denise in an herb butter sauce), and made our way to sleep in Migdal (also Magdal[a], as in Mary Magdalene). I saw no prostitutes on the streets of Migdal, so maybe it's been cleaned up in the past 2000 years. The following day we trekked on to
  • Kfar Nachum (Capernaum), where Jesus spent much of his time and where Peter and a few other apostles came from
  • Mount of the Beatitudes, home of the Sermon on the Mount
  • Tabgha, where the miracle of the loaves and fishes purportedly took place
  • Upper Jordan River

On the way back to Tel Aviv, we stopped in Safed/Tsfat (צפת), "World Capital of Spirituality and Jewish Culture" and home of the Kabbalah. There's an Ashkenazi Quarter, a Sephardic Quarter, and a Citadel atop a hill which provides stunning views of the surrounding area. It would have been nice to have a bit more time there to appreciate the art and cultural elements, but we wanted to make one more stop and had to make it back in time for an appointment in Tel Aviv. To take in a bit of a different culture from the region, our final brief stop in the predominantly Druze village of Holfesh for a Druze pita: a gigantic flatbread smeared with labaneh, zatar, something spicy like harissa, and a generous drizzle of exceedingly fresh olive oil, all folded into a manageable po-boy size sandwich. The kind lady running the roadside restaurant brought us an herbal tea made with freshly cut leaves typical of the Druze. This made for a fine late afternoon snack.

08 November 2009

Dining in תל אביב

After a super 3 a.m. airport reunion with my friend Adi, with whom I had almost instantly hit it off in Zimbabwe and later traveled to Chobe National Park in Botswana, my first day in Tel Aviv was spent chilling, sipping Arak (cf Pastis) at Mezizim beach on the Mediterranean, and sorting out how we would work the week. Adi generously shuffled her entire life around to accommodate me, and in advance of my arrival discussed Israeli culinary options with her network of friends. She had a list of roughly ten places we should go while I was visiting. Unfortunately, I don't know that she grasped, before I arrived, what the gastronomic aspect of my journey is about exactly. [Ir]regardless, we did not starve.

Within the first two days I must have consumed about 1/2 kgArak and Olives of olives. Adi made me an Israeli breakfast of salads, cottage cheeses, silan (date syrup), and bread. We had Libyan food at Casserole one night, including an incredible eggplant mousse and a spicy beef cheek & lamb stew with couscous. The next night we had Georgian food (not of the fried green tomatoes, field pies, and chicken fried steak ilk, mind you) at Nanouchka. Herbs, walnuts, and plums seemingly play prevalent roles in Georgian cooking. I had a white bean and white wine braised lamb shank. Adi and I went for a drink nearby. I'm fairly certain Jesus served me my black russian.

Well before I ever stepped foot on a plane, a friend in Seattle gave me a few suggestions of things to see and do while in Tel Aviv. One that percolated to the top of my list was having hummus/masabaha at Abu Hassan in Jaffa. Evita had her rainbow tour; the lunch at Abu Hassan, eating hummus using layers of quartered onion thus began my hummus tour of Israel and beyond. Thanks, Anat, for pointing me in this direction. [Here's a picture of the awning at Abu Hassan in Jaffa. Only just realized that the post is blocking the name of the place. Well, at least you can read what they serve: hummus, foul, masabaha, labneh]Abu Hasan

beachI wandered around Jaffa for several hours then and on another day walked from Jaffa back up the beach front to Adi's. Such strolling is necessary after consuming a few cups of blended chick peas at one sitting.

Chez ParentsOne other noteworthy dining experience in Tel Aviv was having Friday night dinner at Adi's parents' place. We had her dad's famous grilled whole eggplant with tahina, avocado salad, puff pastry stuffed with mushrooms and vegetables, and goooooood goulash. Besides this, it was a real treat getting a chance to meet the parents I had hear so much about and converse with them for a few hours about everything from lions to sociopolitical tensions between Israel and the Palestinian Territories.

07 November 2009

Bobbing Along, Bobbing Along, on the Surface of the Extremely Briny Sea

(Obviously to the tune of this Bedknobs and Broomsticks song)

A trip to Israel or Jordan would not be complete for a tourist without a visit to the uniquely salty Dead Sea. People may or may not be aware of how much easier it is to float in the ocean, a gulf, or some other body of salt water. However, the experience of swimming or floating in the Dead Sea, besides leaving you with a slightly less than pleasant film of minerals coating your entire body, greatly magnifies the effect of salt water on an object's buoyancy. Oh, and it'll quickly remind you how much salt burns if you have any scratches or cuts, or if you get it in your eyes. The most impressive part, when you stop to think of it, is that almost your whole body is on top of the water. You could be in water two meters deep, lie on your side, and it would look like you're practically lying on sand just a few inches below the surface.

On the same day as our visit to the Dead Sea, we spent a few hours in Ein Gedi at Wadi David, or David's Valley, where there are a few waterfalls, some cool freshwater pools beneath them, and pretty trails of varying degrees of difficulty on the mountain. Just be careful the Nubian Ibexes (or Ibices even) are not throwing rocks down on you from above. I hear they do that sometimes.