israel: surprises

If I were forced to come up with a one-word description of my trip to Israel, it would be "surprising."

I was surprised by how much I liked the country itself. Israel was my father's suggestion, not my own. Not that I didn't jump at the chance to go, please and thank you very much - but for various, complicated (or maybe not so) reasons, the Middle East didn't rank high on my list of desired destinations. But in every way it could surprise me, it did. I expected to feel "meh" about it, and I was beguiled, in spite of myself. It was prettier, more charming, and more accessible than I thought it would be.

outside the Old City

I know. Metal detectors and machine guns don't exactly say "accessible", but there you have it.

I was surprised by how geologically diverse it is, for a country so small. Israel is about the size of New Jersey. I stupidly assumed its terrain would be much the same all over. But even though it only takes a few hours to drive from the West Bank to the northern border, I didn't think about the variations in elevation, which are substantial. The changes in landscape I saw driving from Jerusalem down to the Dead Sea, then back up north to Tiberias were wholly unexpected, and added a pleasant dimension to the trip - particularly since there was so much driving.

A few shots to show the difference in landscape:

the Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem

Jerusalem, left, and Bethlehem, right


near the West Bank

the Dead Sea



I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the tour group experience. My father is 73, and finally starting to slow down. His days of unscripted adventure - at least of the type to unfold in a foreign country - are behind him, and understandably so. So, rather than wing it on our own (as we did in Argentina), we went to Israel as part of a tour group. I expected to feel constricted and bored. Embarrassed, even, to be a tourist as opposed to a traveler. I know: Oh, the horror! But the tour experience was such a delight, truly. For one thing, I was exposed to exponentially more information than I would have if we were alone. When you travel without professional guidance, tour books are pretty much your only source of historical and political context. And smart phones, if you spring for an exorbitant int'l data plan (I didn't). Those, and maybe the plaques/pamphlets of the places you visit. But thanks to having an incredibly knowledgable and enthusiastic professional guide (who'll I'll gush over more thoroughly below) we were relentlessly hammered with enough information to edit the Wikipedia page on Israel, should we so have desired.

So yes, I rocked a headset and a name tag, and I followed a little flag around.

We took turns wielding the flag, like gradeschoolers.

my dad rocks an earpiece and name tag.

reading a relevant bible passage (for historicity's, not religiosity's, sake)

But while at first I felt silly and self-conscious about these trappings, it wasn't long before I gave myself over to the cheerful cheesiness of it, and fully plugged in. In fact, I loved it. There developed a sense of camaraderie amongst the group, despite our socioeconomic diversity. I was the 2nd youngest person on the trip, and the youngest woman by about twenty years. But despite not having any "peers" in the group, I befriended some fun, funny, and smart people sitting (where else) in the back of the bus.

This is Jeff and Claude, single doodz traveling together. They were a couple of my buddies.

One's an ER doc and the other, an ER nurse (a total career change from being in construction all his life! I love that!), and they were more than happy to oblige my morbid curiosity about the crazy things they'd seen over the years. I'll never look at sex toys at quite the same way again.

I also befriended our bus driver, Yuval, who was cool as hell, and became my sort of post-activities drinking buddy. He knew I was itching to get a taste of night life, and offered to be my escort, so I'd feel comfortable and safe going out and having a wild night in a foreign country. Here he is:

Really nice guy, who had interesting things to say about his time in the military (at 42, he wishes he could still serve; I've never encountered patriotism like that I saw in Israel), the conflict in the Gaza Strip, and religion in general. He also acted as translator for me, when I'd want to ask a local a more complicated question than "where's the bathroom?".

It was a relief to have some people to socialize with a bit. My dad was fully absorbed in the trip in his own way, and he's not a particularly outgoing guy. He was also asleep by 8pm every night.

At one stop our tour guide was being so...thorough in his explanations that my inner thirteen year old lost all patience and I invented a game to play with my tour friends back on the bus. It was called Guess That Ass.

I know. I had the once-in-a-lifetime experience of going to Israel, and I took pictures of peoples' butts. I know. I swear I was fully attentive and learning for 95% of the trip; it's just that towards the end, I got a little burned out on all the history, of which there is a lot in Israel.

But far and away the funnest day hanging out was at a winery in Tiberias, where we were guided by vintner and undiscovered YouTube sensation "Shalom". Here's Shalom:

"You want I should show you where we stomp the grapes?"

And yes, his accent was as thick as it looks. The guy was awesome, and my greatest regret is not filming him a little bit, because his mannerisms and expressions were comedy gold. And that probably sounds horribly patronizing, but really, I have the utmost respect for the man. He's very knowledgable and engaging and great at what he does. He's just a colorful guy. In fact, we declared him an SNL character waiting to happen.

That night we bought a bottle of wine and walked down to the waterfront (the Sea of Galilee). We strolled on the boardwalk, wandered through shops, got hammered, and swapped war (read: divorce) stories. Another night, back in Tel Aviv, some of the guys treated me to dinner at a beachside restaurant where we noshed on all kinds of Israeli tasting dishes and a whole sea bass, filleted table side. Afterward, we stumbled upon a chocolate bar, where we picked out two truffles each, which were wrapped and presented to us in a gold foil, embossed box. We sat and savored them slowly, comparing notes while we discussed, awesomely, women's issues. The next day, apparently one of the guys told my dad how impressed he was that I'd "held my own" amongst a table of professional men, which is kind of lulz-y, for myriad reasons, but a nice compliment nonetheless.

And here's Bill, who was with us that night:

Bill went running every night before dinner, no matter what part of the country we were in. He's 72. I love that (though it sobers me a bit to consider he's only a year younger than my father, who couldn't run if his life depended on it). When he found out I'm a runner, he insisted I join him. I declined, disappointed I hadn't packed my running shoes. "I only have Converse," I explained, pointing at my Chucks. "Those will do fine," he said. "Meet me in the lobby at five-thirty." Bill is 6'5", a trial attorney, and a former basketball coach who's raised two of his own daughters and a handful of foster kids. Bill brooks no dissent.

I exchanged contact info with a few people, and we've kept in touch since the trip. Unexpected, really nice connections. But far and away the most unexpected and awesome connection I made was with our tour guide, Ezra.

It started the day we went to Masada, near the Dead Sea. On the drive down, we saw several Bedouin camps in the hills along the freeway. Ezra told us about their culture, customs, and involvement in Israeli society, generally. I was fascinated and intrigued, and ended up in a semi-heated discussion with him about Bedouin women's rights (think arranged marriages and child brides). From that point on, Ezra was my bud.

He made a point of making himself particularly accessible, helpful, and friendly to me. In the Old City, when he'd notice me trying to get some particular shot (usually involving the stalking of children or rabbis or other unwilling subjects), he'd slow the group down to give me more time. When one afternoon I expressed a desire to leave the group and go exploring alone, he discreetly took me aside to give me some advice about how to handle what he called the "inevitable" and unwanted attentions of local men. (For the record, only once was I ever made to feel uncomfortable, and that was partly my own fault - more on that later. But I've traveled solo before. I went to both Greece and Australia alone, and I like to consider myself somewhat travel savvy, as a woman.) When my dad was being crabby and indecisive at lunch - and I was losing patience - Ezra quietly and calmly took charge of the situation and ordered for him. When he saw me struggling with getting good, low-light photos, he came over and demonstrated how to use settings on my camera I'd heretofore been unfamiliar with. On the bus, he'd come back to my seat and I'd show him some of my favorite shots from the day. At various stops, when there'd be down time, we'd seek one another out to chat about the place - or even just share a few moments of companionable silence, while the others hustled around snapping pics and hunting for souvenirs. He'd tell me about his travels (the man has been everywhere; next on his agenda? Trekking Burma. I die.) and career as a life-long freelance tour guide (since he was 24!) What an incredible life.

Ezra was unfailingly cheerful, diplomatic, engaging, energetic, and warmhearted, and I just adored him. I clicked more with this 63 year-old man than I've clicked with anyone in years; he just kinda got me, in a really lovely, fatherly way. When I had to say goodbye to him, I bawled. Bawled. He got pretty emotional, too. Even now I'm getting choked up thinking about him. Such an amazing man.

I made a very special friend in Ezra, and I'll never forget him.