Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Traveling the Mediterranean Coast of Israel

After Yom Kippur (an adventure unto itself), we have a few days off until the next holiday starts. This is the “High Holy Holidays” season, an expression you may have heard before, and as such it is sort of a time-off from class work. Taking advantage of this ‘bein-zman,’ some of the guys I’ve met here decided to take a trip somewhere in the country. After some swaying on the issue, we decided to go somewhere up north.

When I met up with the two guys I am friends with, I was a little unhappy to find out that we would be traveling in a group of about 8 or 10. I’ve backpacked America by myself, traveled to Israel and lived by myself, and generally tend to do things in smaller groups, or alone. The problems inherent in a large group manifested themselves instantly. Not only were there two schools of thought on where to go, there was dissension on how to get there and what to do once there. Seriously, I had a headache within 10 minutes.

Eventually we made our way to a bus stop, I argued with a know-it-all over what bus goes to the central bus station, and finally got the right bus. In the chaos of the bus station we all eventually lost each other, except my two friends and I who stuck together. Instantly freed of the dead, or extra, weight, we quickly got our tickets to Haifa. From there we would catch a train up to Nahariya, a small coastal town very close to the Lebanon border. The rides were comfortable and uneventful, especially the train, and I was feeling somewhat giddy about being a part of the country. Living in Jerusalem, amidst thousands of native English speakers (Anglos), it is hard to remember that this land is a miracle. We rode past hundreds of farms, not one tract of space wasted (unless laying fallow so it can produce even more the next year), literally growing fruit from rocky soil. Any other place in the world the inhabitants would have given up, but not here. The agricultural system is truly a miracle. I’ll have to write about it sometime.

Anyway. We made it to Nahariya, left the train station, and immediately felt 100% lost. All three of us were disoriented, not sure which way was up or down. I had never been to this part of Israel, one of the few remaining zones largely untraveled, and so I felt just as adrift. We were total tourists. There is a certain confidence factor someone has to have if they want to try to fit in as a new citizen of another country, a certain desire to blend in. But, in our present state, we were anything but Israeli, and anything but blending in. Sometimes you have to feel out of place, however, to find your place in the end. How could you ever know where you want to go if you only know where you’ve been?

Throwing appearance to the wind, we trudged on with our packs, bags of food from Jerusalem, and looked for the beach. With only what must be experience on the part of the Israeli tourism bureau we found a tourist office. Now armed with maps, we looked even more the part of the summer transients! The map was quite good, and even included most of the potential lodging options. Too bad there wasn’t a hostel, not even one, because we were forced to fork over a bit more money than at least I wanted to spend. We found that 100 Shekelim was going to be the cheapest, double what I was hoping, and with that we walked towards a potential ‘hotel.’

I use the word hotel quite lightly. Anyone familiar with the cheap motel system in America would be accustomed to the odds of finding a place that is not only clean, but also quiet, comfortable, safe, and aesthetically pleasing. I’m still young enough that I don’t care where I stay, as long as it is safe and quiet. My traveling buddies weren’t in the same boat.

The first place we went was a throwback to whenever it was built, not because the owner likes pre-1980’s style, but only because that was the last time it was ever updated! Still, it had 3 beds, a shower, a toilet, and an air conditioning unit. Good enough, 100 shekels, and the guy working the place was pretty nice. We talked for a few minutes while my friends had a furtive conversation about the room. Turns out that the guy was born and raised for 6 years in Germany, where his parents fled the war but then returned afterwards to live in an American compound. He was a character, with a voice so cracked by years of cigarettes that I imagined smoke would escape from his mouth and ears at any minute. It was good Hebrew practice, but I felt mildly bad chatting him up as I more and more realized my friends would want to move on.

We decided to take a look at another place which was advertised as having a pool and was generally more upscale. As we walked with maps in hand, we ran along a little place called Motel Ariele (Malon Ariele). I was actually the most hesitant in the group about approaching the place, as it looked like a tiny, private, and somewhat longer-term place. Something about a large, sterile hotel is more inviting to me. – It screams “peace, quiet, undisturbed, sterile.” As we walked into the front gate, through the massively overgrown ferns and other flora/fauna, I greeted a very old man sitting at a table watching television. He told me to wait, and buzzed for the owner. And here she comes.

Here comes ‘Grandma,’ which my friend Joey eventually started to call her. Right away I could tell she was Eastern European, as are many people in this region, but also she beamed a certain courtesy. Stereotypically, people in this country are rushed, aggressive, and abrasive. She smiled warmly, genuinely, and started speaking to me in English. I refused to speak in English, and we began a half-Hebrew half-English conversation. Eventually she showed us through her office, which is also her home, into a small courtyard again overgrown with all types of green plants and flowers, and up the stairs to a quaint 3 bed room. It had a bathroom, air conditioning…and 3 beds. 100 Shekels. We took it, especially because of Grandma.

Grandma and I had an hour-long 90% Hebrew conversation on everything from the potential war with Syria, her home country of Romania (and the terrible pogroms of Jews that she had to flee), young Israelis, my life, her family and grandchildren, the Israeli mafia, drugs… Everything. She even told me where to get drugs, a suggestion I laughed off with a certain curiosity as to how a nearly 70 year old woman could even bring the topic up. It’s just a different culture here, I suppose. Maybe she wanted me to bring some back for her?

We left the hotel wanting to go find some dinner and have a walk on the coast. Israeli coastal cities tend to have a promenade, or walkway, called a ‘tayelet.’ The one in Tel Aviv is a massive thing, something of a pedestrian thoroughfare. The one in Nahariya is a small wooden boardwalk, but it is infinitely more peaceful and personable. Strewn along the sides are outdoor bars and restaurants, complete with lush leather sofas or Caribbean style wicker chairs and couches with pristine white cushions. All these bars were playing some type of quiet music, like the Bob Marley marathon at the ‘Papaya Beach’ establishment. At the end of the wooden walkway started a stone-concrete mixed footpath along the beach. To our west was the unending Mediterranean, aptly called The Great Sea in Hebrew, and to the east were posh houses with panoramic windows looking out onto the water. Because Haifa juts out into the Mediterranean, we could easily see the outline of the Carmel Mountain and the vast northern side of Haifa, alit with yellow lights and flashing harbor bulbs.

My friends took a dip in the ocean, which was about 80 degrees, and I sat on the boardwalk attempting to meditate on the glory of the ocean. It’s not everyday that one can feel so much at peace, especially when you are a country boy perpetually living in cities. I drank it in. But like all good things, we had to move on to find some food. Not wanting to gorge on what would inevitably be highly marked up common bar-food (not true, most of these places are very nice restaurants also), we made our way back to downtown and found a kosher restaurant. There is an attached picture of our cheese-stuffed mushrooms in a cream sauce ‘starter,’ and a huge stir-fry salmon salad. We were stuffed.

To walk off the waddling we decided to explore around a bit, see what Nahariya had to offer. Quickly we realized that it wasn’t the imposing city it seemed at first. In fact, it was pretty much a resort town packed with Russians and unbelievably gorgeous 20 some year olds. The main road was unnaturally quiet for the amount of bars and restaurants jammed into every block. After a while we tried to find a liquor store, just to get some fun into our break, but it took nearly 30 minutes to locate anywhere with more than 5 things available.

As fate would have it, my sense of curiosity was a blessing. Nearing the end of the main drag, I looked down a side street and saw what looked like a bit of life. I saw people sitting by a store (a common Israeli corner store where people sit and talk or watch soccer/basketball), and another larger store next to them. It turned out the other store was a big falafel shop. Dismayed, I glanced further down the alley, and saw a large car dealership or body shop for GM Israel. I told my friend (one was on the phone) that I wanted to just look at the dealership really quick. He assented, so we walked, and as I reached it I looked one block down and…voila, a grocery store! We couldn’t find a grocery store all day! We wanted beer or liquor and food that wasn’t marked up 100% for tourists, and here it was, a large Russian supermarket! Oh, and how it was Russian.

Walking past the security guard as I said quite plainly ‘hello!’ and quite plainly being ignored, I pushed through the turnstiles and entered a veritable paradise. As with all Israeli supermarkets, fresh-everything was on display. Meat was hanging from terrifying hooks, all types of cheeses were soaking in tubs behind displays, vegetable dishes like hummus, tehina, matbucha (a type of salsa), babaghanush, and so on were sitting perfectly undisturbed in their refrigerated exhibits. I don’t know why I got so excited, but I always do with the unbelievable reality that people can have such a rich life in such an oppressed area of the world. I guess it’d be like finding a Whole Foods Market in the middle of backwoods Alabama (it’s just a nice surprise).

Being that the store was Russian, the only thing you heard was Russian, from the workers to the few patrons. Not to stereotype, but as I looked for alcohol I slowly realized that more than 50% was vodka. Exactly what I wanted. We weren’t trying to get drunk, we just wanted something to sip while enjoying the beach. Nothing wrong with that.

After a while we found ourselves back at the beach, sitting on a bench, reminiscing and just generally being alive. Some friends of David from New York, one of my friends, walked by with backpacking packs on, and they randomly just happened to see each other. Apparently they almost got stuck out on a hiking trail at night, but luckily found their way to the road, and then had to hitch-hike into town. Not the smartest thing to do, but it worked out for them. It was just another instance of Israel being a part of that ‘it’s a small world’ coincidence.

Eventually we settled in on some couches at one of the bars, Papaya Beach, and ordered a round of Israeli beer. I was sitting with my back to the north, looking southward at the outline of an illuminated Haifa. It was hard to imagine that I was actually going to live in Haifa, until the very last minute before I left America. Those plans changed overnight and put me back in my yeshiva, a place I was very hesitant to go back to. But, as I had told myself to no avail for the weeks before, ‘everything happens for a reason.’ Just imagine if I would have actually moved to Haifa. Chances are I wouldn’t have met these two great people I was with, and I wouldn’t be sitting at that table, looking at the purple sky and yellow harbor, listening to the lapping ocean, and smelling the salty atmosphere. How lucky we are that everything always works out, in some way, with no visible or clear warning! So what if your plans are ruined? Even the worst turn of events has a positive outcome.

After a long while we decide to head back, but not 10 feet out of the bar did the extraordinarily stunning hostess of the next bar distracted us. I’m trying to not use immature expressions here. Let’s just say making this woman smile was worth the extra hour (it was a slow night). As soon as we sat down my friend started talking to two girls sitting by themselves, and in an instant we were all sitting together. Two hours later my head really hurt from all the beer, Hebrew, and blue lights tinting everything neon. It’s funny how a split-second decision can turn into an entire night. What was going to be a 30 minute beer turned into a two hour episode. Eventually we did make it home, only to get a few hours of sleep before we arose for a big day. On the walk home we found it funny how we could have ever felt lost in this small, warm coastal town.

We took a sherut, or a shared taxi-bus, for the 10 kilometer ride to Akko (Acre). Akko is an ancient port city between Haifa and Nahariya. It was once the headquarters of the Crusaders (for a couple centuries), and because of this military presence it has a high walled Old City; cavernous, indiscernible tunnels underground, forts, jails, and so on. Interestingly, this was also the site of Napoleon’s defeat to Ahmed al-Jazzar in 1799 during his Egypt-Palestine campaign.

We had come to Akko because David, my friend, had randomly met a guy in Old City Jerusalem the day before that offered to take us sailing. Sailing. When David told me that I refused to get excited, mainly because I hear these types of promises all the time and never see them carried out. Not that I hear of sailing offers for free in Jerusalem, but in general, in this world, many things are said and many of those things never happen. But, each passing event made the promise more and more real.

We arrived in Akko, got lost again, but the guy that David met came in his car and picked us up. Sailing was certainly going to happen. Riding through the Old City, dodging Arab children and honking at the random van stopping to chat with a pedestrian, finally we made it to the port. This was really something. Not only were we getting onto a fairly nice sailboat, we were departing from a Biblical city. I personally felt like Jonah.

In case you’re wondering how all this happened, here’s the short of it: David was talking to someone in an open area of the Old City about where we were going to go for the break, this guy overheard him and invited him to sail on his friend’s boat, David got his number, and we met up at the predetermined time. The owner of the boat was Joel, a 69 year retired orthopedic surgeon who has lived in Israel for 30 years. He wanted guys to come along because you can’t just properly sail without a small crew.

I’d never been sailing before, and the waves were incredibly tall north of the port. I wasn’t scared, but I would have liked to have a few horsepower with all those waves throwing us around. Luckily the wind was really blowing. I took half a Dramamine before setting out, just in case I got sea-sick (the mother of the guy David met was there and had them). Well, the ridiculous scenery was ruined for the first hour and a half, as I was sitting in the stern turning green. The whole time I had to gut it out, stick my eyes on the coast, and try from burping up the beer from the night before. I was definitely dehydrated from the night before, and hadn’t had breakfast, so the only thing that kept me from leaning overboard was that there wasn’t anything to throw up!

I felt pretty stupid sitting there, while everyone seemed to be having a great time, wanting to puke my guts out. I was literally in a cold sweat, totally absorbed with my own misery. Next thing I know David is leaning overboard. Joel told me that splashing me with water would help a bit, so I leaned over the railing as he dumped a bucket on my head. It worked for 2 minutes. Eventually the opinion came up that sitting up on the bow helps a lot, and the guy that David met was sitting up there cause he was feeling sick too. I quickly glanced to the bow, not trying to divert my attention from the fixed shore, and was daunted by the narrow walkway and endless sea ahead. I said thanks but no thanks. The woman persisted for 5 minutes, and one thing she said really sent me packing: It couldn’t hurt! I did feel like death itself, so I gave it a chance.

5 minutes later I felt like a million bucks. Well, I felt extremely weak on account of the lack of sleep and food, but compared to how I felt! And then I was able to appreciate the amazing coast we were sailing. I’ve sailed the Mediterranean! We went up to Rosh HaNikra, which is literally on the border of Lebanon, and then sailed all the way into the private ‘yacht club’ of Haifa. There were some million-dollar sailboats in there.

We were out for 6 hours. David never got better. I had him come up to the front with me, because I felt so good up there compared to the stern. Alas, he still felt terrible, and ended up puking about 3 times, once just about 15 minutes before we docked at the end of the day. We were out from about 11 until 5. The ironic part was that he was the one that made it happen, he was the one that kept talking about it with all the guys that were supposed to come with us! And then he was the only one that didn’t have any fun. The thing about being truly sea-sick is that it is all-absorbing. There is nothing on your mind except your own wretchedness.

Here are a few pictures. To be honest it was really hard to take pictures, especially because I had to help sail while we were at the best picture taking places (the ports) and because I was terrified of either dropping my camera into the sea or of getting disoriented while looking at the screen and falling into the sea. I did get some pictures of the yacht club marina, a few of the cargo ships (many are from Turkey, the second best economy in the Middle East behind Saudi Arabia), north-Haifa and the port, and some crappy ones of the Akko port. The waves were too strong to take a steady picture, and I didn’t have time. Sailing is a lot of work… I think I prefer motorboats.

Certainly a once in a lifetime experience. Or at least a once in a lifetime turn of events. I could easily go sailing anytime Joel goes out, because it wasn’t like he was doing us a favor. We were his crew, and you can’t just go out by yourself. He said it many times over. I doubt I’ll go out again, but I would definitely enjoy it if it did happen again.

Joey on the left, David on the right
1/50th of the vodka
Shower, brush your teeth, and sit on the toilet all at once
Timber headed to wood-starved England.
How Turkish people spell stuff.
Looking back at Haifa
A very fake smile, still felt a bit sick.
The only place I could sit and not be sick
This is sea-sick
Akko walls
Akko marina

From our dock

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