departure

Written May 28, 2011:

Well, I’m at Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv! …And I have been for the past 5 hours. I have a flight from Tel Aviv to London, and London to San Francisco, but my flight out of Tel Aviv leaves at 8 AM on a Saturday. Friday and Saturday are Shabbat, meaning that almost everything shuts down in Israel, especially in Jerusalem. So, in order to get to Tel Aviv, I had to take a sherut (a 10-person taxi) at 8 PM Friday night and just wait it out at the airport. It’s now 2:30 AM- only two and a half hours until I can check in! Luckily, the airport has free wireless internet, so I’ve been spending my time catching up on work and Facebooking. In case anyone was wondering, Ben Gurion airport is really boring from 9 PM – 2:30 AM.

A couple of my friends have flown home already, and they each had to go through a few hours of questioning before being allowed to board their flight. I’m hoping that I won’t have to go through much more than the average traveler- my friends had Lebanon and Iraq stamps in their passports, which surely made them a little more susceptible than usual. I guess I’ll find out soon enough!

The check-out process at the dorms was an entirely different story. You would think that Hebrew University would opt for the quickest, easiest option, but I’m pretty sure they chose the exact opposite. Again, we were all victims of Shabbat. The housing office closed at 5 PM on Thursday, and didn’t open on Friday or Saturday at all, meaning that I had to be completely packed by the time the office closed. So, my weekend looked a little like this: Sunday through Thursday, take a million tests and turn in a couple of term papers. Finish with finals on Thursday at 3 PM. Find out that the housing office closes at 5 PM. Frantically pack all of my belongings over the course of an hour and a half, get my room cleared for check out, then hop in the shower before realizing that all of my things were already packed away. Most residents ended up packing up at least a day or two before they were set to depart, which just ended up causing a lot of stress immediately after (and during) finals week. For each room to get cleared, the entire apartment also had to be clean- instead of having some kind of cleaning/maintenance staff do one final cleaning, the University had students do it, and then charged them when it wasn’t done correctly. No wonder my place was a mess when I moved in!

All complaints aside, I got to hang out with the rest of the Cairo Kids for our last few days and nights in Jerusalem, and had a great end of the semester. I really can’t believe that it’s over. Wish me luck with check-in!

Written during my flight from London to San Francisco:

You know how airlines always tell you to arrive at the airport three hours early for international flights? They do that for a reason. I got in line at British Airways in Tel Aviv at 5 AM on the dot, a good three hours before my flight to London. Before you even get to the check-in desk, they put you through a long line where attendants check your passport and x-ray all of your bags (checked and carry-on). As soon as my attendant saw the multiple Egypt visas in my passport, along with the U.A.E. and others, she took my passport to a supervisor, who then approached me with a number of back-up questions. All of this resulted in a series of stickers and bar codes being put on my luggage and passport. By the time I got through the x-ray machine, I had an idea of where this would be going.

The next set of security checks consisted of a large square table where British Airways employees checked every passenger’s luggage- this is all still before you even get to the check-in desk. Once I approached the desk, the woman took a look at the stickers on my baggage and immediately sighed, “…Come with me.” I was led to a separate side table, where each one of my bags was systematically unpacked. Every single thing inside- and I literally mean everything, including each page of my books and every coin in my wallet, was inspected. Every surface was tested for drug contamination. The airline employees were really nice the entire time, and the woman offered me a chair to sit in when I didn’t initially realize how long this would take. Makeup was put through another x-ray machine, along with my shoes and other solids. The fun part came when it was time to repack all of my things. I had packed everything pretty hastily to begin with because of the Hebrew University check-out procedure, but had put in a good amount of time making everything as compact as possible. Everything just barely fit into my two suitcases, and now that it was all deconstructed, it was almost impossible to get it back into place. The employees gave it a good effort, confident in their suitcase re-packing experience that had come with the job. But they tried and definitely failed. It took me a good couple of tries to put the puzzle pieces together, but I eventually was able to cram everything into two bags.

About halfway through the inspection (after a good couple of hours or so), the woman inspecting my bags turned to one of the other employees and mentioned that he would need to check in for me. That was a little surprising- it meant that she planned on taking the entire three hours just to finish my security check, not including the check-in process or time needed to drop off my luggage. The man immediately asked for my passport and itinerary and set off for the main desk. I, on the other hand, was told to leave my newly re-packed luggage behind and follow the woman to a back room. I followed her past the main desk, past the x-ray machine, and through two sets of doors with fingerprint-scan locks. After leading me behind a large curtain, I was asked to remove my jacket, shoes, scarf, and jewelry- everything except my most basic layer of clothing, my dress. All of these belongings were taken outside of the curtain and (I assume) put through another x-ray machine while I waited alone. After a very thorough pat-down, the woman handed me back my things and led me through the double doors. My luggage had been checked for me, and my boarding pass was printed and ready. The woman informed me that because I had gone through such an extensive security check, I would not be required to pass through more x-ray machines or identity checks. Instead, she personally escorted me past the main entrance to the flight gates, and nicely bid me adieu.

I made it to the gate just as the flight started boarding. It wasn’t until that point that I realized that I had somehow gotten a business-class seat, and once I got on the plane, also saw that the seat next to me was empty! I have no idea how this happened- the evacuation insurance company had purchased this ticket for me, so either they opted for the nicer seat, or I had somehow been upgraded during check-in. I didn’t question it- I’ll take what I can get! For the five hours to London, I immediately fell asleep and slept soundly for the duration of the flight. Those nice seats really are comfortable.

After arriving at Heathrow, I had an hour or two to kill before the next leg of my journey. I ended up grabbing some snacks and using my computer, and chatted with a nice Australian woman who gave me a detailed description of every major city in Australia. The flight from London to San Francisco was a breeze- the food was surprisingly good, I got to watch a couple of movies, sleep, and hang out with the passengers around me. Right next to my seat, one mother was traveling with FOUR young boys: a toddler, a three year old, a ten year old, and a boy who was both physically and mentally handicapped. It sounds like any traveler’s worst nightmare, but somehow, she kept all of her kids under control for the entire ride. It was amazing. I ended up playing with toy race cars with the three year old for most of the trip, along with a few rounds of “Tig,” which was his version of “Tag”.

It’s always funny to see how obvious it is that certain travelers are study abroad students. Once I disembarked the plane, I made my way towards passport control to enter back into the United States. The entrance form has you list what countries you have visited since last leaving the US, and the officer looked down at my form, looked up at me, and immediately asked, “Study abroad?” I could also pick out a couple of other 20-somethings at the baggage claim who must have just returned from a semester or year somewhere- they all had two huge suitcases and were traveling alone. I couldn’t believe that the journey had finally come to an end (for now). At that point, I was just amazed that I had made it!

Over the course of my time at the airport, I stumbled across the Douglas Adams quote, “I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.” I don’t think anything could be more true of my study abroad adventure. From Egypt and Team T.I.N.A., to the evacuation in Barcelona, to a 5 A.M. decision to move to Jerusalem, and all of the travels in between, it’s been an amazing year. I wouldn’t have had it any other way! Now, I’m off to California to reunite with friends and family, and eat some real Mexican food.

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spring break: egypt

Originally, we planned on waking up at around 5 AM to board a bus to the Central Bus Station by 5:30, where we would wait in line to (hopefully) get spots on the 7 AM bus to Eilat, the southernmost point of Israel. Instead, I managed to call the bus’ main customer support line and find someone who spoke English after countless call transfers. This allowed us to book seats for the 10 AM bus, meaning that we wouldn’t have to leave the dorms so early, that we definitely wouldn’t have to sit in the aisle of a bus for 4 hours, and that we would definitely be getting to Eilat that day.

So, at around 8 AM, we left the dorms and stopped by the mail room to check it one last time before departing for two weeks. An announcement suddenly came over the loudspeaker, which was strange for 8 AM on a Thursday. After the Hebrew version finished, a woman took over and mumbled something about how “There was an explosion……………..(mumble mumble) …………… water pipe”. We all let out a relieved sigh- for a moment, we thought that there had been an explosion or bombing somewhere near campus or Jerusalem, impeding upon our plans. A broken water pipe in a building wasn’t a huge deal. Off to the central bus station we went.

The central bus station is like an airport, but with way more shops. There’s security to get in, lots of escalators and luggage, and people getting impatient. You can also literally buy anything you would ever need- case in point, we ended up buying a vast supply of face moisturizer, dead sea scrub, and hair conditioner while waiting for our 10 AM bus, not to mention the bagels, hot dogs, doughnuts, and coffee that we consumed there. Once the bus arrived, we ended up putting our luggage on the wrong bus (twice) before resorting to asking people to translate the Hebrew announcements for us. The ride was pretty bland once we got past the cool landscapes- I slept for most of the time, only waking for the single bathroom break. At the beginning of the journey, we literally drove right up against the coast of the Dead Sea, with the Jordanian landscape peeking through the haze on the other side. Burnt brown cliffs and rolling hills engulfed the road in front of us as we rode around the curves of the highway.

Eilat is kinda like Las Vegas. There are a lot of scantily clad 20-somethings, chain restaurants, big attractions (including the necessary fake pyramid), and sand. We were literally only there long enough to switch buses and cross the border, but that was about enough for me. The border crossing wasn’t too surprising, except for its price. We first walked into the Israeli portion of it, where a series of security guards asked us to stop, show them our passports, and go through a series of lines. The first allowed us to exchange currency, and demanded a 100 shekel crossing fee. The second was passport control, where I ended up holding up our group for a little bit. When I had originally entered Israel a few months earlier, I asked the passport control to not stamp my passport, just in case I wanted to visit Lebanon (which you can’t enter with an Israel stamp). A few of the other “Cairo Kids” did the same thing. This isn’t really a big deal, but it does end up taking up some time when you cross any other Israeli border in the future. At this border, the officer spent a good few minutes just flipping through the pages of my passport, looking for my Israel stamp. Upon realizing that I didn’t have one, he had to call another officer, who showed up a good five to ten minutes later with an additional form for me to fill out. I didn’t actually get any trouble for it, it just took a little bit more time.

We eventually got past that checkpoint, and made our way across a gravel parking lot to the Egyptian border control. There was a distinct difference in how things were run there, namely the fact that we were able to ‘baksheesh’ (or tip… some people say bribe) our way through the whole thing. Within the first five minutes that we had crossed out of Israel, we sweet talked our way through the x-ray machine (we had too many bags) and got a legitimate passport control officer to get us Egypt visas into Cairo, which is supposedly not allowed. Visas into the Sinai are free for up to two weeks, as a result of the transfer of land of the Sinai a few decades ago. Any official source will tell you that you must get visas for the rest of Egypt at least a week in advance, and that they’re only available in Tel Aviv or Eilat. Here we were, 10 feet into the border, getting visas with no problem. Welcome to Egypt!

As we stepped out of the border control center, we started getting almost giddy with excitement. We were officially back in Egypt! During the evacuation, I would have never expected to return so soon. The best part, though, was that almost nothing had changed- as we walked outside, a crowd of men were gathered by large taxi vans, just waiting to prey on new tourists. We walked up and asked which car would be going to Dahab, a beachy town in the Sinai. All of the men answered consistently- any car would take us, but it would cost 100 Egyptian Pounds each, and we would have to wait for more passengers. We continued asking around, but got the same answer from everyone. Finally, we discovered that rides to Nuweiba were half as expensive, and ended up somewhere just as relaxing. Another tourist man waiting for a car to fill up advised us that he knew of a great place with huts right on the water there, and promised that it was much better than Dahab. One of my travel buddies had already booked a hostel in Dahab, and wanted to make sure that she ended up there that night, but the rest of us were completely flexible.

So, we sat and hung out with the drivers while waiting for more border crossers to show up. Most of the men wore long gallabeyas (a man’s cloak), a piece of fabric wrapped around their heads or necks, and thick leather sandals. Younger men wore casual pants and t-shirts. At one point, one of the guys put on our hats and sunglasses and rocked the look with his gallabeya for awhile. We all sat around, drinking tea and talking about where we were from, and where we were going for an hour or two until we started getting antsy about hitting the road. Once we started investigating other (quicker) ways of getting to Nuweiba or Dahab, all of the sudden our original drivers decided that they would be able to leave much sooner (surprise, surprise). Soon enough, our 50 EGP would allow us to leave almost immediately, stop by Nuweiba on the way, and continue on to Dahab. We climbed in the van with a family of three and one solo man and set off into the Sinai.

The desert has definitely become one of my favorite landscapes since going abroad. It’s shockingly majestic, beautiful, and powerful, especially in the right sunlight. As we made our way south, the road wound alongside the Red Sea, with rolling mounds of sand coming right up to the deep blue water. The sun was just beginning to set over the horizon, casting long shadows over the neutral hues of the earth around us. I was exhausted from the long day of traveling, but fought to keep my eyes open to take in the scene. Over the course of our ride, one of the guys riding in our van started telling us about the place that he was planning on staying at during his time in the Sinai. He was Israeli and lived in Eilat, but came down to this specific spot every couple of months for some downtime. We agreed to swing by it on our way to Dahab and check it out, but didn’t expect much of it. An hour or so later, the coast was speckled with small beach huts, one of which was where the man in our van was staying. By this time, it had gotten dark, but two of us climbed out of the van nonetheless to check it out. This place ended up being exactly what we had been looking for- huts on the beach, right up against the Red Sea, with food, clean bathrooms, and a quiet, laid-back atmosphere. Neither of us had any reservations at hostels in Dahab, and after looking at each other for a second, we knew that we couldn’t pass this place up. So, the two of us grabbed our bags from the van and set off into the darkness, as the third of us stayed in the van to continue onwards to Dahab.

This place was literally paradise. We couldn’t even see most of the camp, but immediately knew that we had made the right choice. Two guys running the main hut area showed us to our hut, gave us a couple of candles to light it with, and pointed towards the general direction of the bathrooms and food. The camp was based around a point of land in the coast, with small mountains blocking it off from the single main road. The huts were sparse, scattered amongst the coast and raised up into the side of the nearest mountain. They were mostly built out of posts of wood, with dried palm fronds as a roof and Moroccan-inspired threaded rugs lining the walls and floors as insulation. None had any electricity- they were lit by a couple of candles out of a supply sitting in a seashell or two in each room. Our beds were a couple of mats, with cushions for pillows and a thick blanket or two at the foot of the mat. The huts were more of a shade for the sun than actual shelter- large gaps between the door, windows, and posts in the walls ensured that we could always feel the sea breeze and smell the water immediately beyond our hut. It was perfect.

After dropping off our bags, we headed towards the main area to grab some food. One larger hut with colorful designs painted along its borders served as a main desk, kitchen window, and restaurant. We decided to order some chicken tajine (a stew of chicken, vegetables, and broth in a clay pot), and wandered a couple of feet across the sand to a large Bedouin-inspired tent to sit down with our fellow camp visitors. The sitting area was constructed on the sand, right next to the water with a great view of the water, moon, and stars. More large, colorful threaded rugs lined the ground, as wooden posts held up tapestries billowing above our heads. Cushions of all shapes, colors, and sizes were piled along palm tree trunks which lined the edges of the sitting area rugs, serving as backrests to our seats on the rugs and sand. Wooden tables were raised slightly off the ground, with just enough room to sprawl out your legs underneath them. Light was provided by candles held up by rocks from the beach alongside us, and colorful lanterns hanging from the posts.

The people there completed the scene. Everyone had a different home, story, and perspective, and varied dramatically in age. The owners and creators of the camp were a couple in their late thirties or early forties who had two young kids. The man was a Bedouin (a kind of Arab, traditionally nomadic tribesman) who wore a long white gallabeya, white scarf and camel hair rings on his head, and could often be found chatting with fellow Bedouin friends around a burning log, smoking cigarettes and playing backgammon. His wife was white, and their children were a combination of the two- one was a young girl with blonde, curly hair, and the other was a boy with olive skin and jet-black hair. They had been running this camp for a decade or two now, and would often join their visitors in the sitting area to talk.

The Sinai, being the buffer land between Egypt and Israel, has always been an interesting piece of land. Israelis vacation there alongside the Bedouin and Egyptians, usually in peace. Ever since the Egyptian revolution, travel warnings have been sent out for the Sinai in general, warning Israelis to avoid the area. So, as one camp-goer explained to us, the camp usually has a pretty balanced mix of Israelis and Egyptians, but lately Israeli presence has been very rare. Some say that travel warnings have other objectives, like hurting the Egyptian tourism business in the Sinai.

Nonetheless, politics don’t really have a place in beach camps like the one we stayed in. Instead, we lounged on mats and took in the scene around us. The camp was also a magnet for musicians worldwide- while we were there, we were graced with music from a French clarinet player, Egyptian oud musician, and the pluckings of visitors sharing a single guitar. Anyone was invited to sing along. Various camp-goers would congregate under the tapestries every night, exploring different types of music and instruments. We sat with other visitors for hours each night, sharing stories of our adventures, eating amazing food (each order was enough to feed the two of us and then some), and listening to music. Our first night there, we both ended up falling asleep right on the mats in the sitting area, nestled into the cushions around us. No one seemed to care very much- they joked that this was probably the only restaurant in the world where no one cares if you fall asleep there after dinner.

It was a great way to recuperate from the seemingly constant tension we found in Israel- here, there were no politics, no arguments, and no plans. We spent our two days there bumming around on the beach, with nothing to do but eat, sleep, relax, and apply plenty of sunscreen (I promise, Mom!). Our first full day there, we slept in until noon, ate breakfast on the beach, spent the day switching between the sun, shade and water, talked to some new friends, and hung out in the sitting area- we were obviously pretty busy. We ended up hanging out with a Syrian-Italian translator who had grown up in the States, Canada, Egypt, and Italy, and an Egyptian who had gone to college in California. The man who introduced us to the camp in the first place also joined us for meals every once in a while- he filled his days leading yoga groups, reading, and hanging out with his dog, Yoshi, who he kept at the camp to “chase away the cats”. That was another great thing about this place- traditionally, animals are not very popular as pets in the Middle East, but the camp loved them. There were four or five dogs constantly roaming around there, and they were all in great shape and almost too friendly. One morning, I woke up to find one of them poking its head in our hut door to see if we were awake and ready to pet him yet. Yoshi did a pretty good job of chasing away the cats, but there were still plenty around, hiding under the tables and sunbathing on cushions.

So went our first couple of days in Egypt. We played cards (Egyptian Ratscrew, appropriately), dice, read, listened to music, ate too much, and lounged around each day before finally deciding that we would have to leave eventually. I could definitely see how you could get sucked into a place like that for weeks, months, or years. We fantasized about camping out there with some great books, music, a journal, and no phone or internet, and decided that we’ll have to come back eventually. For now, we had to move onward to Cairo. So, we tore ourselves away from the beach, put on “real clothes” (a.k.a. not a swimsuit), paid for our stay ($30 each for two nights beachside at the camp, plenty of food, fresh juice drinks, and dessert, and great music!) and asked around for the next bus to Cairo.

And then things got interesting. The guys working at the camp told us to just go down to the single road carving through the desert mountains to wait for the bus to pass by- apparently it was large, orange, and would surely stop for us. They even offered to drive us down to the road, which was only a couple of minutes away. We threw our bags in the back of a rusty pick-up truck, rode to the road, and then camped out under a single canopy which provided a little bit of shade. We were literally in the middle of nowhere- the road extended as far as we could see in either direction, surrounded by huge mountains of sand threatening to swallow it up. I had no idea what direction the bus would be coming from, whether it would actually stop for us, how much it cost, or when it could come- we had been told somewhere between 3 and 4 PM. So, we plopped down our stuff on the sand and hung out, assuming that we would figure it out eventually. If we missed the bus, we would just spend one more night at the camp- not a bad thing!

We got answers soon enough. Small, white microbuses flew past us at a million miles an hour, trucks drove on, and finally, a huge charter bus made its way over the hill to our left. I spotted it from a distance, and managed to say, “I think that’s…” before it zoomed right past us, honking wildly. We looked at each other for half a second with no idea what to do- until the rusty pick-up truck suddenly screeched to a halt alongside us. The man in the driver’s seat started hollering “Yalla!! Yalla!” (Let’s go!) at us, frantically motioning for us to throw our bags in the truck and hop in. A young boy with long hair, its ends bleached by the sun, started yelling in Arabic right along with him. We ran to our things, scooped up everything in sight, launched it all into the truck bed, and scrambled into the seats. As soon as we closed the door, the driver pushed the pedal to the floor and took off after the bus, which was quickly disappearing down the road into the desert.

The men in the front of the truck spoke no English, and we spoke almost no Arabic, so we sat in the back seat silently, our hearts beating wildly as the boys in the front chatted excitedly in Arabic. Our eyes flitted between the bus in front of us, as our truck slowly gained on it, and our bags in the truck bed- we kept our fingers crossed that none of our belongings would be blown out of the bed during the chase. As we got closer and closer to the bus, our driver started honking nonstop and flashing it with his brights, but the bus really did not seem to have any intentions of pulling over. We followed on its tail for a good couple of minutes before the bus driver conceded that we weren’t going to give up, and finally pulled over to the side of the road. Everyone in our truck cheered in victory for a moment, until our driver urged us out of our seats to get on the bus before the driver changed his mind. We hopped out, grabbed our things (all of which were miraculously still intact!) and ran to the door of the bus. In broken Arabic, we shouted our many thanks to the men in the truck, who smiled and bid us farewell before driving back down the single, dusty road into the middle of the desert.

The bus driver hurried us into our seats after the wild goose chase, eager to get moving. A few of the passengers on the bus (all of which were Egyptian at this point) were a little surprised to see two American girls climb onto the bus in the middle of the Sinai, seemingly emerging from the giant sand dunes around us. We settled into seats and pooled our money- at this point, we only had a few Egyptian Pounds left, and would have to pay for our $10 bus tickets in American dollars. The bus driver, a squat man with a strong personality, refused our dollars, still seemly a little angry that he lost the chase. An Egyptian man sitting next to us, who introduced himself as a pharmacologist from Cairo, quickly offered to give us Egyptian Pounds for our dollars and saved the day. We made it, and were able to settle into our seats for the next eight hours or so.

The ride was pretty anticlimactic, especially given all the hype that’s surrounding the danger of the Sinai right now. According to the news, we should have been robbed and kidnapped by Hamas. Instead, we drove through the desert at sunset, alongside long-abandoned mosques bleached by the sun and a few stray Bedouin leading their camels through the sand. The bus driver put on an old Egyptian movie, played music, and yelled at passengers to stop smoking on the bus for most of the trip- it felt great to be back in Egypt. As we traveled, we stopped at least once an hour at checkpoints. For most of them, we flashed our American passports and were left alone, but at others, military men climbed onto the bus and asked to see our Egyptian visas, bus tickets, and asked what we were doing in Cairo. The checkpoints were obviously new and hastily constructed- most of them blocked cars by stacking old tires, empty rusty barrels, and spare metal parts. Only a few had tanks waiting nearby. On a couple of occasions, a few military guys would join us for the bus ride from checkpoint to checkpoint, switching off shifts with other officers.

As we approached the city, a couple of Egyptian passengers sitting next to me started asking what we were doing in Cairo. One spoke English better than the other, but our conversation was still pretty broken. They were both students as well, and offered to give us a ride home so that we wouldn’t be stuck paying three times as much as we normally would for a cab from the central bus station. We agreed, and ended up talking to these guys about their experiences in the revolution, their travels (one had grown up in Dubai, hence his good English), and their plans for the future- namely, military service. Since we were arriving in Cairo so late, I ended up staying with my travel buddy for that night, instead of trying to find a hostel at 11 PM. So, the Egyptians drove us to her old houseboat in the Nile, where she and I would be crashing on the couch that night. Before leaving our new friends, we got some koshary (a traditional Egyptian dish) with the Egyptians at one of our old favorite spots, and settled in for the night.

I had never been on any of the houseboats in Cairo before, but soon realized that they’re probably the best place to live in Egypt. First of all, you’re literally living IN the Nile River. How cool is that?! They’re also much less hot than other places in Cairo, since you’re getting a nice breeze from the river, and they all have private gardens on the land that they connect to. They have amazing views of the water, feluccas, buildings, and mosques alongside the river, and aren’t too loud- the gardens and river block them from the city. If I ever end up moving to Cairo, I’m definitely taking a hint from these guys and renting out a houseboat.

We ended up staying at a friend’s boat a few places down the street, who was a Palestinian from New York that had moved to Egypt for a few years, just for kicks. His place was amazing- he’s not working during his time in Cairo, but he’s creative and very talented, so he just works on mini art projects all day, and his home shows it. Tapestries cover the walls, morphed balls of twine surround lightbulbs, and old wooden windowpanes have been filled with mirrors. As if this wasn’t cool enough, his place also has a patio with a swing bench and colorful lanterns that offers a cool breeze and great view of the Nile. Every once in a while, the boat would gently rock with the waves on the water, sending the lanterns undulating along with it. I would be eternally happy if I could just live there forever. And did I mention that he has kittens?! The garden in front of his boat has ended up being a kind of mini-zoo, with three goats, a puppy (!!), a couple of cats, two white doves, and a koi pond. One of the cats just had five kittens in a drawer in his bedroom a couple of weeks ago, so he took it upon himself to nurture them until they’re ready to be introduced to the world. They’re a lot of fun- every time I walked around the place, one or two would come explore wherever I ended up. At one point, I went in the bathroom to shower, and turned around to discover that one had wiggled himself under the door to come check it out with me. As soon as I got him back out of the bathroom, another one popped right back in. I also ended up finding them in my bags in the bedroom a couple of times. As a result, we were instructed to walk around the place shuffling our feet on the ground to avoid accidentally stepping on adventurous kittens.

We ended up staying up until the early hours of the morning sipping tea on the patio, talking about our time in Cairo, Israel, and the States. The guy was well-read and educated on the   Israeli-Palestinian conflict and had even studied for a few months at Berzeit University in Ramallah, in the West Bank. He had also remained in Cairo for most of the revolution, and even ended up getting arrested while attempting to accompany a friend as she evacuated her apartment.  It was a perfect start to our time back in Cairo- koshary, the Nile, hot tea, great weather, and good company.

During my first full day in the city, we slept in (only to be woken a couple of times by the call to prayer of the mosque down the street) before waking up and being served a delicious breakfast by our host. He made french toast out of a thick baguette, and served fresh juice, coffee, and tea, which we enjoyed on the patio alongside the early afternoon breeze of the Nile. We soon set off for Zamalek, crossing the bridge and passing a few local cafes before ending up at Metro Towers, a tall apartment complex that a few friends from AUC ended up living in. We split up as one of us went to buy an Egyptian cell phone, and I used a small internet cafe to check my email and look up names of hostels nearby. I eventually made my way towards downtown Cairo, taking my time and walking through Zamalek to take in all of the little things that I had missed about Egypt. It felt great to see that, while so much had changed internally, Egypt was still Egypt. Traffic was terrible, taxis honked constantly, stray cats roamed the streets, it’s hot, crowded, and chaotic. This was something that we talked about on the houseboat that morning- the country doesn’t try to win you over. It is what it is, take it or leave it. It’s crazy, but for some reason, you can’t help but love it.

I walked around for a good hour or so before finally hopping in a cab and braving the traffic into Tahrir Square. My driver spoke no English, but could say one thing: January 25, the first day of the revolution. He repeated the date three or four times, and once I acknowledged it and showed my support, he smiled and didn’t say a single thing for the rest of the ride, apparently satisfied by my response. We crossed the Qasr al-Nil bridge, and as we approached downtown, I could see that everything really was basically back to normal. The torched, gutted NDP headquarters still stood, its windows blown out and walls charred, but nobody seemed to take much notice of it anymore. Traffic was crazy, and young Egyptian couples stood along the sides of the bridge, chatting and taking in the view. Cars and people roamed freely about the square, with traffic being directed by policemen in white uniform. There was no obvious military presence to be found. Restaurants were open, and the square was surprisingly clean- it looked as though the grass and plants in the middle of the midan had been re-planted and maintained.

Only two new things stood out to me: carts selling revolution memorabilia, and remaining graffiti. You literally couldn’t walk more than twenty feet without passing by someone selling t-shirts, flags, pins, bumper stickers, or trying to paint an Egyptian flag on your hand. Souvenirs could be found everywhere- almost every car on the street had some kind of “January 25” bumper sticker, the most popular being a fake Egyptian license plate with “Jan 25” as the number. Most of the graffiti in the square had been removed or painted over, but metro stops were still marked with a few anti-Mubarak or pro-Egyptian statements. I was surprised to see that the AUC downtown campus had left a lot of graffiti up- images of the Egyptian flag and statements in support of the revolution were still standing. You could also tell that the Hardee’s, KFC, and McDonald’s had all had to replace most of their shopfronts with new glass and signs. Other than that, Tahrir Square was largely back to normal.

I ended up booking a bed at the Sun Hotel, which is literally right on the main circle of Tahrir and has windows offering great views of the now-historic area. The effects of the revolution could be seen in the absence of tourists there- the ten-bed dorm room that I was put into was largely empty, and I ended up sharing it with only one Italian girl. After booking, I walked around the square a couple of times, checking out the memorabilia, graffiti, and people before making my way back to the houseboat to collect my bags and move them to the hostel. Instead of just grabbing my things, I ended up sitting and chatting for a good few hours with our host. He offered me tea and a place to sit on the patio, which I welcomed after spending a hot afternoon walking around the city. We discovered that we were both members of Greek life in college, and he suggested places to check out in Israel. I complained about how my program won’t let us visit the West Bank, and he responded, “Honey, your university is IN occupied territory,” referring to the fact that Hebrew University is right on the border of the West Bank, technically in East Jerusalem. Eventually, he took me out to the garden in front of his houseboat and introduced me to the animals there. I watched as he let the goats out of their pen to snack on some tree leaves, with the puppy and cats watching curiously nearby. He even pulled out a homemade fishing pole, grabbed a worm from the garden, and caught a small fish from the Nile running under the short bridge to his boat, then fed it to the cats.

My short stop by the houseboat turned into an entire afternoon there. After an hour or two, my travel buddy showed up to change before going out to dinner with some old friends from AUC. I ended up joining along and abandoning my plan to bring my bags back to the hostel entirely. We grabbed koshary from a favorite place across the street, only pausing for a few minutes to wait while the entire staff finished praying on mats outside of the front entrance to the restaurant. We had planned to meet up with a few more old Cairo friends later that night for drinks, and made our way back downtown. ‘Horreya’ is a popular spot for Egyptians, expats, and international students. I’m pretty sure it literally only sells one thing (Stella beer for 10 EGP, which is under $2- and no, it’s definitely not the same thing as Stella Artois), but it’s one of the cheapest places in town and has a great environment. It’s basically just a huge open room with tons of stray tables and chairs. A couple of employees walk around with armfuls of Stella, replacing empty bottles with full ones unless you yell at them to stop. The left-hand side of the huge room is reserved for non-drinkers, and is usually full of Egyptians sipping tea, reading the newspaper, and chatting. The right-hand side is always packed with rowdy customers laughing and yelling at friends across the room. You always see someone you know there, and the employees know most of the customers by name and will greet you like an old friend.

That night at Horreya, I got to meet up with some old and new friends, including a couple of the ‘Cairo Kids’ that are studying in Jerusalem with me. One of the girls there had been working as a translator for the past couple of months for media outlets covering the uprising throughout the Middle East- she had spent more than seven weeks in Libya collecting interviews for the Sunday Telegraph, CNN and NFP. We really came full circle- when I first met her, we were also at Horreya, and she was telling me about how she has lived in Egypt her entire life, but her mother had always insisted that she work hard on speaking English well (which she does!). Now, months later, we meet again at Horreya, and her perfect English ended up getting her jobs translating for high-end news agencies on the front lines in Libya and Egypt. It was great to see her again and hear that she’s safe and doing well. She ended up riding along with me in a taxi that night to gather my things from the houseboat, accompanied me to my hostel in Tahrir, and ensured that we would all get home before curfew (which is still instated from 2-6 AM). She’s an awesome person.

That night, once I returned to my hostel, I ended up talking to the Italian girl in my room for a little bit. I noticed that she had spent most of her time in our room instead of sightseeing or souvenir shopping, as I would have expected her to. In broken English, she explained that she was only in Egypt in transition to go back to Italy. She told me that she had been “working with refugees in Palestine” for four or five years at this point, with various organizations and UN groups. Recently, she had been working closely with one family in particular, but was suddenly forced to leave after something went wrong with her visa. I had a hard time understanding exactly what had happened, but basically she had to leave her work quickly and against her will, and was now en route back to Italy after being away for years. She was obviously upset and hoping to return to her job as soon as possible. At one point, she asked me how I had liked living in Egypt, and mentioned that she might just move to Cairo if she isn’t allowed to return to Israel or the Palestinian Territories.

As I was getting ready to go to bed, the night took another turn- first, all of the power went out in the building… twice. It wasn’t a huge issue, as I could still use my computer, but then I heard some scuffling in the dark. Using the handy-dandy flashlight that’s built into my cheap (but amazing) Egyptian cell phone, I shone light across the room and ended up looking directly into the eyes of a tiny little mouse. After years of growing up with Monty, my family’s cat in California, I had grown accustomed to having mice brought into our house and having my mom return them outside. So, I didn’t want to bother the hostel manager or Italian girl, and just let the mouse be. A few minutes later, I heard it rustling again, but this time closer to my bags, and decided that I really didn’t want to wake up in the morning with a mouse in my things. So, I ventured through the dark out to the main desk, and mentioned that there was a small mouse in my room. The four or five grown Egyptian men immediately all took interest after they realized what I was talking about- I had no idea how to say “mouse” in Arabic, so it took a fair amount of charades and synonyms to get the idea across. They all came rushing into the room. A couple of them started moving beds around and shining cell phone light into dark corners, looking for the mouse. Finally, one saw it dart under a bed, causing the four other grown men to shriek and run around the room, leaping onto beds like young girls. It was priceless.

The men chased the mouse around the room for a good ten minutes, intermittently screaming, running after it, and daring each other to move more of the furniture. Eventually, they cornered the mouse near the door. It wasn’t until this exact moment that I realized that not everyone deals with mice like my family does- usually, we capture it and let it back outside. Egyptian men, I realized too late, have a different approach: they throw their flip-flops at it until it’s dead, and then throw it out the window. Needless to say, this was a little traumatizing for me and the Italian girl. I kind of wished that I would have just let the mouse rummage through my bags for the night, but at that point, there was no turning back. At least now I know why you usually don’t find mice in Egypt, right?

The next morning, I woke up to a call from one of the other Cairo-Israel kids, who had just arrived on the overnight bus from Dahab. Her hostel, another place near Tahrir Square, had apparently filled up and lost her reservation, so she ended up joining me at the Sun Hotel. We grabbed some of the free breakfast before she headed off to the Cairo Museum across the street (she had never been) and I showered and answered some e-mails. At lunchtime, I walked a couple of minutes to meet her at the entrance to the museum, and made a new discovery- about ten to fifteen huge military tanks were lined up along one of the back streets that lead right up to the museum, and military guys in full uniform lounged under the trees and in the tanks. So this was where the military presence was! They seemed to just be waiting it out, ready to emerge if protests got too out of hand or violence ensued. Tourists coming out of the museum approached the military guys, taking pictures with tanks and having officers hold their babies. I met up with my hostel-mate, took a couple of pictures (we had to!) and made our way towards lunch.

Being back in Cairo, I didn’t really feel the need to hit up any major sites in particular- I was lucky enough to have seen most of that last semester, before the evacuation. It was just great to be back in Egypt, in that kind of environment. I ended up spending most of my time just walking around or sitting outside, meeting up with people and taking it all in. For lunch that day, we met up with a friend in Zamalek, which allowed us to visit the AUC Zamalek dorms, see some favorite restaurants, and enjoy the great weather- it had cooled down dramatically since the day before. We got koshary (of course) at a place down the street before heading back to the dorms to try to locate some abandoned luggage- during the evacuation, most people were only allowed to bring one large suitcase, meaning that there were tons of bags left at the dorms. I was luckily able to bring all of my things, but she had left a bag, and it had not been sent to Hebrew University yet. An hour or so later, the security guys at the dorms still couldn’t locate it, meaning that it had probably already been put in the mail. Who knew when it would make it through customs and to the university.

We eventually made our way back to the hostel downtown, hopping on the Metro mostly just to show my hostel-mate what it was like and to ride in the women’s car one more time. We quickly noticed that on the metro stop map, the “Mubarak” stop had been scratched out on every sign. I heard a few weeks ago that it has officially been renamed “al-Shahada,” or “the martyrs” of the revolution. We soon realized that we had to figure out our sleeping situation for that night- my roommate from before the evacuation knew of an open apartment that we could crash at for the week, since AUC had the same spring break and most students were traveling. So, we talked to the hostel manager on the off-chance that he would give us a refund for that night (even though I had already paid for it, and we had both left our bags there all day)- we ended up only having to pay half of the rate. Woohoo! By the time we had that all figured out, the sun had set and I was getting hungry. We briefly considered going to Khan al-Khalili that night, the huge open-air bazaar near Islamic Cairo, but decided to postpone our trip until the next day, and walk around Tahrir Square instead. I picked up some tacky souvenirs, like a t-shirt and Egyptian flag, just for fun. A guy walking around with red, white, and black paint insisted on painting a flag on my hand, and sold matching beaded necklaces. As the square descended into darkness, people began to come out and socialize throughout the area- vendors sold everything from popcorn to t-shirts, restaurants were lively, and there was a real sense of community in the air.

We made our way to a restaurant for dinner, and decided on koshary… again. I honestly didn’t realize how much of it I ate until I started writing this post, but hey- you can’t get it anywhere else! Our Libya translator friend ended up meeting us there, and we all made our way back to Zamalek to meet up with a few more old friends at Metro Towers. I was eventually able to meet up with my pre-evacuation roommate at the Towers, where we got a key to the empty apartment and moved our bags there. Over the course of three nights, I had ended up sleeping in three different places. This would ideally be the last move for the next couple of days, at least! We returned to the first apartment in the Towers and listened to crazy stories about Libya before finally heading to bed (or couch, in my case).

The next day, I slept in a little bit while my hostel-mate (now apartment-mate) returned to Zamalek to try to track down her luggage one last time. I met up with my old roommate for lunch, who chose a nice Italian restaurant that served pork, which is an extreme rarity in Egypt. Finding a place that serves pork is like finding a needle in a haystack here. We caught up and chowed down on salad, pasta, and dessert before I made my way back to the apartment, gathered my things, and set off for Khan al-Khalili (the giant bazaar) with my apartment-mate. We both had tons of souvenirs to stock up on before leaving Egypt, and only wanted to make one trip to Khan. We were on a mission, bartering and picking up one item after another. I grabbed some colorful tapestries and bags, while my apartment-mate picked up maps, scarves, and jewelry. Khan was the same old Khan, with shopkeepers shouting out nationalities in an attempt to guess where we were from, but its narrow streets were much less crowded than usual. On some stretches, that made things a little more difficult, as we were getting twice as much attention as usual. On others, it came in handy- I was personally shown to shops carrying the style of bag that I was looking for, and we didn’t have to muscle our way through large tour groups. After only an hour or so there, we were ready to go.

We ended up meeting up with my old roommate for dinner at Felfela, one of my favorite restaurants in Egypt. It’s pretty touristy (the vast majority of its customers on any given night are not Egyptian), but the food is good, comparatively cheap, and it’s a nice, sit-down restaurant. I indulge in it every once in a while. It was a little bittersweet to be there- by the time we were evacuated, I had begun to recognize and know some of the waiters there, and definitely had favorites on the menu. This would certainly be my last visit for quite some time. So, I made sure to enjoy my falafel, tahina, and fried eggplant a little more than usual that night. We even got a favorite waiter, one who strangely resembles Christopher Walken, to take our orders, and had a busboy play the usual jokes on us, like pretending to almost drop our dishes. It’s always a classic.

The next morning, I wandered down the block to find a cafe to sit outside and start on some schoolwork. It was an absolutely beautiful day out, and I just wanted to hang out and absorb some Cairo surroundings. I ended up finding a nice table outside, and sat and drank tea while working on a couple of papers- as soon as spring break ended, we had to return to a couple of last weeks of school, and then finals. I had a lot of work to do. This was a great way to kill two birds with one stone by enjoying the city while being a little bit productive. In the afternoon, I met up with my old roommate again to head over to Dokki and visit our old stomping grounds. We wandered up and down the streets, checking out the familiar shops and some new patriotic graffiti. It was strange, and bittersweet- almost everything was exactly the same, except for the new street art and a few shops whose storefronts were still boarded up or painted over. The same old men sold fruit and vegetables from corner stores and donkey carts, and children ran up and down the street yelling and playing tag. It was a really nice day- around this time of year, the weather hadn’t yet reached its typical Cairo peak of heat, so we walked comfortably shaded under the trees hanging overhead. Our old building had one notable change- the front entrance, formerly a glass door, was now guarded by a barrier of thick steel wire. Rumor has it that the night after I left, our doorman tackled a looter who had made it inside, and shots were fired. Other than the new barrier, the building itself had returned to normal. The road blocks and makeshift bonfires had been cleared away, as the local men (and one feisty woman) had long relinquished their roles as the neighborhood watch.

Eventually, my old flatmate and I hopped on the Metro one last time (and he beat me to the ticket counter to purchase tickets, as usual) and rode into Zamalek. I had plans to meet up with the other students who would be joining me to Ethiopia so that we could put together a rough schedule of sights that we were interested in. We met in one girl’s flat right in the heart of the island, and rode the elevator (always a death-defying experience) to the top floor. She had a beautiful place with windows overlooking all of Zamalek and Cairo, making the view at night breathtaking. All of the furnishings were true to typical Egypt style- lots of antique furniture with an abundance of gold lion heads, plush cushions, and more chandeliers than you could ever need. It was great. We put together a general list of Ethiopian destinations- two or three cities, a few sights, and some hostels to start off at in the capital city, Addis Ababa, before securing plans to meet at the same place the next night in order to set off for the airport together. For the rest of the night, a couple of us returned to the flat that I was staying in to hang out one last time.

The next day, I set about checking things off of my to-do list, most of which revolved around getting my bags set for the trip. Over the course of the week, I had somehow attained about twice as much stuff as I had arrived with. The trip to the Khan al-Khalili souk had left me with an entirely new bag full of tapestries, shirts, and scarves, not to mention the various Egyptian flags and pins that I had picked up from Tahrir Square. So, I ended up packing up a bag of souvenirs and other things that I wouldn’t need in Ethiopia and planned on leaving it on the houseboat. I met up with my old roommate for lunch, and the two of us got koshary (surprise, surprise) one last time with my new flat-mate at Abu Tarek, a well-known restaurant in the backstreets of downtown Cairo. We spent a good deal of time just searching for the place, wandering down narrow streets of stray cats and makeshift tea and backgammon cafes. Old gallabeya-ed men smoking shisha pointed us in various directions until, about 20 inquiries later, we found it. The place was obviously successful- its two stories were packed with customers, both Egyptian and foreign. An enthusiastic waiter showed us his favorite ways to prepare koshary, which basically involved different combinations of tomato sauce, hot sauce, garlic, and fried onions mixed in a cup and poured on the rice and noodles in front of us. Somehow, the simple construction was always delicious.

We made our way towards downtown, emerging into more familiar territory near the Egyptian Museum, where the torched NDP building still stood and leftover graffiti proclaimed “freedom” and “January 25”. We made a decent effort at figuring out my temporary flat-mate’s train ticket for that night (she was making her way to Jordan to catch a flight out of Amman), only to discover that she would need to buy tickets from a different station. Oh well! The two of us moved on to the next thing on the to-do list: grabbing our extra bags from the flat to drop off at the houseboat. As always, we ended up sitting with its owner on the porch, drinking tea and talking for much longer than expected. The calm breeze and rocking of the Nile tends to suck you in like that. The houseboat owner was a little worried about my friend’s train schedule, seeing as this weekend was apparently a holiday in Egypt and tickets might be sold out. This prompted my friend to hurriedly get her bags together and head out to grab a cab from the busy street outside. We set her off, giving excited hugs in the middle of the ever-present Cairo traffic and shouting goodbyes. I finally tore myself away from the houseboat and met up with my old flatmate to visit a favorite shisha cafe one more time before sending me off to the airport. We walked down the street, making our way towards the Zamalek Hotel, which has a great cafe on the rooftop of the building. You have to make your way up a rickety old elevator and past some abandoned hotel rooms, but once you get to the top, it’s great. This was one of the first rooftop shisha places that I was introduced to in Cairo, way back at the beginning of my year abroad.

We secured a table right next to the railing, which overlooked the Nile and laid out all of the city’s blinking lights in front of us. After catching up for a good hour or so, I realized that I had barely enough time to meet up with my travel buddies, as we had agreed upon. We decided to indulge in the cheap taxi cabs and ride the whole five blocks to the building to pick up my bag, which ended up costing about 25 cents. I said goodbye to my old flatmate, gave him the keys to the spare apartment, and made my way to the McDonald’s across the street to meet up with my friends, who all grabbed some (extremely cheap) McNuggets before setting off for the airport. One of the guys traveling with me had taken a cab earlier that evening, and had absentmindedly mentioned that he would be going to the airport later that night. The taxi driver not only met us outside of the McDonalds to drive us there, but also waited a good hour past the time that we said we would be ready, with no guarantee that we would ever show up. Again, only in Cairo.

So, we were off to Ethiopia. That week in Cairo had been a great breath of fresh air after the hectic transition to Jerusalem, not to mention the little piece of paradise that we found in the Sinai It really allowed me to get the kind of closure that I had missed out on during the evacuation- I visited with old friends, saw favorite sites one last time, picked up plenty of souvenirs, and ate enough koshary to hold me over for a few years. It was also great to see post-revolution Egypt and talk to locals about their experiences. Despite the now-perpetual unrest around town, the people really seemed to have gained pride in their abilities as a nation and as a people. The trip got my spring break off to a great start. Now, onto Ethiopia!

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finals

Remember when I said I wouldn’t be updating often at the end of the semester because I had so many finals to work on? Procrastination definitely wins this round. I’ve ended up writing blog posts instead of writing papers, which I guess is still semi-productive?

Anyway, a couple of things that have cropped up recently:

As the semester comes to a close, I’ve started trying to really take in everything that makes Jerusalem different. The orthodox men walking around in black wide-brimmed hats, buildings made of stone, signs in Hebrew, Arabic, and English, etc. One of my favorite little moments during the day is my walk to and from school when I pass Hadassa Hospital on my way up and down Mount Scopus. There’s a bus stop outside that serves both Israeli and Arab buses, meaning that the passengers waiting at the stop are always pretty varied. It’s one of the few places that I’ve seen around Israel where strangers from the two populations spend any amount of time together, even though they normally don’t talk or associate with one another. Jewish men with long beards sit next to women in hijab, while international students from Hebrew University rush by. It’s always fun to see who’s waiting there each day.

Next to the bus stop, there’s also a small convenience stand that sells snacks and newspapers. It’s run by an Egyptian man who’s always there- he opens in the morning, and closes at sunset. During one of my last walks home, I caught him looking at one of the Hebrew newspapers, reading the front page. He held his finger under each line, moving it slowly along each word as he formed sounds with his mouth. The guy obviously speaks Arabic, and has mastered English pretty well. It was cool to see him actively working on learning the language of someone who is historically supposed to be his enemy.

This last week has been full of final tests and papers. It’s already been a little strange for me to take classes here, because they’re so much smaller than what I’m used to, and the semester system is different from UCSB’s quarter system. Adjusting to finals was no easier. Hebrew University really takes this stuff seriously- each final had two proctors administering it who assigned us seats (each of which were two seats and one row away from any other student) and checked our identity multiple times. We had to sign off on our test, and professors had almost no say in the layout of the class or instructions given to us. Everything goes through the main office. Making things even more interesting was the fact that these proctors spoke almost no English. They gave directions completely in Hebrew, and our test-taking booklet even opened from right to left and had no English on it. I had to ask repeatedly for them to explain things in English, and even had to get other students to show me where to write my name on the test. At one point, one proctor asked me, “Aren’t you here to learn Hebrew??” to which I muttered a defiant “….no.” under my breath. That was fun.

Finals week also marks the beginning of the end of my year abroad. I can’t believe how quickly this semester went! A few friends have already started setting off for home, which makes things really weird. I keep catching myself thinking that they’re just going off for another spring break trip. After tests end, we literally only have a day or so to get packed and move out, so I’m sure it’ll be a little bit of a shock to find myself moving out again. Time flies when you’re… eating too much falafel in Jerusalem?

Next up: the long journey back to the States!

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full circle

So, my year studying abroad has officially come to an end. I landed safely in San Francisco on Saturday, May 28th and have been spending the past few days unpacking, readjusting, eating lots of Mexican food, and spending time with family. I’ll be sure to write a good post or two about reverse culture shock when I get a chance. Over the course of the next few weeks, I’ll be visiting Santa Barbara, Iowa, Los Angeles, and moving back to Isla Vista for my last year of university- crazy! This blog has really come full circle- when I first started writing, I was moving out of Santa Barbara in preparation for my time overseas. Today, I’ve returned to the States and am starting to plan my move back to Southern California.

And yet, this blog is far from finished. I do have a lot of stories to catch up on, which I’ll be working on this summer. Prepare for lots of flashbacks in no particular order! Until then-

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nakba day

Israelis know May 15, 1948 as the day that Israel gained its independence. Palestinians refer to it as the “nakba,” or the “catastrophe” in Arabic. This day symbolizes the exile of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes in the creation of the State of Israel. In years past, the anniversary is marked by small demonstrations of Palestinian solidarity. Yesterday, international headlines covered the march of protesters from Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem to Israel as they symbolized the “right to return”. Casualties number in the dozens, and the wounded account for many more. This wasn’t your ordinary Nakba Day.

The demonstrations, however, were not unexpected. I mentioned a few months ago that a Facebook group had been created to spread word about a “Third Intifada,” or a calling for another uprising. Facebook eventually took down the original page at the request of people worldwide who cited a number of violent posts as being grounds for removal, only to find that more (almost identical) pages popped up almost immediately. The group called for Arabs and Palestinian supporters worldwide to march towards Israel and unite on May 15, Nakba Day. In response, warnings were issued from various organizations and embassies to prepare for mass demonstrations and potential violence.

I had been getting e-mails and text messages from Hebrew University, the U.S. Embassy in Egypt, and family to avoid demonstrations, certain neighborhoods, and “seamline areas” as a safety precaution for weeks. It had already been made (very) apparent to me that I have to stay out of the West Bank, and now the warning had been strengthened. The Arabic classes at Hebrew University ended up scheduling a field trip for May 15, leading my roommates and I to joke that they had scheduled the trip for that day on purpose to ensure that they would know where we were. All of the “Cairo Kids” are taking Arabic, and have gained a bit of a reputation for being “adventurous”. If they had us stuck on a charter bus somewhere, we would surely stay out of trouble.

The warnings to say away from “seamline areas” was also kind of funny- Hebrew University and the Student Village are extremely close to the West Bank, which can be seen on any map that shows the borders of the Occupied Territories. We’re literally surrounded by “Arab neighborhoods,” and yet my program forced us to live in the dorms for “safety reasons”. Some argue that the University itself is in Occupied Territory- Mount Scopus is technically part of East Jerusalem (it’s on land that was under Jordanian rule from 1948-1967, although it was known as “no man’s land”). In addition to this, the University is in Jerusalem, which brings up an entirely new set of issues- it’s contested whether the city is part of Israel. There are a couple of interesting cases where children have been born in Jerusalem to American parents, and the U.S. will only state their place of birth as “Jerusalem,” not “Israel”. But yet, I’m still considered to be doing a study abroad program in Israel. I don’t get it.

Anyway, I did my best to avoid “seamline areas” by staying inside my dorm and going to class at the University, both of which are in a seamline area. All morning, my roommates and I could hear helicopters flying overhead and what sounded like shooting in Essaouia, the “Arab neighborhood” that literally shares a boundary with the University and road that I walk down to go to class. I later found out that the shooting sounds were IDF soldiers shooting tear gas into the neighborhood to disperse protesters, along with flash bombs and non-live ammunition. On the walk to class that afternoon, I found myself recognizing a certain smell in the air- tear gas. When I first left my dorm, I could sense smoke in the air from burning cars and tires in Essaouia. By the time I had gotten halfway to the university, the same thickness and burning in my throat and eyes that I had experienced in Cairo had returned. I ended up walking onto campus with red, teary eyes and a sniffling nose. My Palestinian Islam professor spoke about how he had left Ramallah (a city center in the West Bank) early that morning with his wife and granddaughter to avoid the demonstrations. Over the course of class, we heard a couple more shots fired in Essaouia as the Call to Prayer echoed through the neighborhood and into our classroom.

Later that afternoon, I read through a few news articles to survey the events of the day, and was surprised to find that Hadassa Hospital on Mount Scopus was listed in a couple of reports. I walk past the entrance to the hospital daily on my way to class. Apparently, some protesters had launched firebombs and Molotov cocktails into the back of the hospital earlier that day, which was probably another cause of the smoke that I had smelled that afternoon. Major Israeli news sources, namely Haaretz, Jerusalem Post, and Ynet had all covered the demonstrations, focusing on clashes at the Egypt-Gaza border, Lebanese border, and Syrian border. By the end of the day, BBC, CNN, and al-Jazeera had posted reports as well. One of my professors today cited the fact that this Nakba Day was unlike anything that he had ever experienced before- he had never seen it get such widespread coverage.

By today, things had calmed down in the area, except for a demonstration in front of the university by a group of Palestinian students and another group of Israeli students. All of my professors spoke about the events during class, explaining a bit of the background of the day, the significance of these demonstrations, and what questions arise. My “Radical Coexistence” professor commented that the storming of the Syrian border was unheard of since the Yom Kippur war, and that this was a new strategy: a non-armed demonstration which denied the symbol of Israel’s sovereignty, the border. This basically brought the fundamental message back to 1948, as opposed to 1967. In ’67, the issue was the definition of the West Bank and the withdrawal of Israeli presence from certain pieces of land. 1948 brings about a different discourse, and is what this Nakba Day was about. It goes back to the very foundations of what Zionism is trying to accomplish, questioning how we can be here, and how we can coexist here. These demonstrations were trying to get us to think about the foundations upon which the State of Israel was put. Professor Isaacs went on to state that this moves beyond the basic question of the nature of regimes in the Middle East, which is what has been going on in other demonstrations in the region. Here, we’re going back to basics and asking foundational questions- what does it mean to have a Jewish state in this location? Nobody is sure where things will go from here.

So, it’s been a pretty interesting couple of days. Here are a few links to news sources about the events listed above. Enjoy!

http://www.haaretz.com/news/diplomacy-defense/palestinian-protesters-clash-with-israeli-forces-on-nakba-day-1.361793

http://www.jpost.com/NationalNews/Article.aspx?id=220590   (Issawiya is the same place as Essaouia- just different ways of transliterating the name into English from Arabic)

http://www.haaretz.com/news/diplomacy-defense/clashes-erupt-as-nakba-day-protests-sweep-palestinian-territories-1.361851

http://www.immigrationdirect.com/immigration-news/2011/05/supreme-court-to-hear-us-passport-case-involving-jerusalem/index.html   (Regarding the birth of U.S. citizens in Jerusalem as opposed to Israel)

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may

The beginning of May marks a few big events in Israel. First up is Holocaust Remembrance Day, which I mentioned in a previous post. Last weekend was also Memorial Day and Independence Day- the country has been busy! The lineup of holidays is a little strange to get accustomed to, with the first two days being marked by mourning and solemn services, and Independence Day being the complete opposite.

On Memorial Day, a couple of friends and I made our way towards the Western Wall in the Old City for a ceremony in honor of the day. Israeli President Shimon Peres (Netanyahu is the Prime Minister, not President, as is often mistaken) was scheduled to speak, and hundreds were expected to attend. As we entered the Damascus Gate of the Old City, we noticed that something was different- the usually packed Muslim Quarter was almost empty! Most of the storefronts had already been closed for the night, and there were almost no shoppers rushing around. That was a first. The farther we walked, though, the more crowded the narrow walkways became. By the time we got to the security gate that leads into the Western Wall plaza, we were surrounded by people, young and old, pushing to get into the plaza. Security was pretty tight- we walked through metal detectors, put our bags through an x-ray, and had them searched before we were allowed inside.

Inside the plaza, there was little space to move. People were packed in like sardines, except for one section near the fence leading to the Western Wall which was cordoned off by security. IDF officers and security forces were everywhere- you couldn’t go anywhere without almost running into a guy wielding a huge gun or baton, and the main podium was surrounded by bulletproof glass. We walked up a few stairs at the back of the plaza and stood on tiptoes, vying for a view of the podium. We had made it just in time- only a couple of minutes later, the ceremony was started with yet another siren, just as eerie as the last. The entire crowd of people froze in place, and nobody spoke. As soon as the siren ended, people continued to rush into the area, searching for the best view. Men stood on pillars in the back of the plaza, teetering on their toes to get a glimpse of the main speaker.

A set of military commands resulted in the movement of various soldiers as they stood at attention and engaged in a flag ceremony. Soon enough, President Peres took the podium and spoke for a few minutes, completely in Hebrew. I can usually understand a bit of Hebrew, just because of similarities with Arabic, but all I got was something about “every night”. A couple of our fellow Hebrew U students had ridden on the bus with us, and they luckily spoke about a billion times more Hebrew than all of we did, combined. One of the girls provided a short summary of Peres’ comments about how Israel is alone in the region, but will prevail nonetheless by uniting its many types of people. Next, a military official spoke (again, completely in Hebrew), but not after a few more commands from another officer to set soldiers in place. A man lead the crowd in a couple of songs, including a traditional Jewish song of mourning, as well as the Israeli National Anthem. I had never heard either of these before, but the entire crowd sang along with gusto. Once the ceremony ended, almost everybody attempted to leave at once, causing a huge block in front of the exit door. We had been locked in, and had to wait for a soldier to return from the ceremony to open the door before we were let out. I assume that they wanted to secure the exit for the more notable guests and speakers before unleashing hundreds of Israelis into the Old City.

The next day was Independence Day, which took on a completely different feel from Memorial Day. Huge street parties were planned in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and many students traveled across the country to celebrate. Fireworks shows and jet displays by the Israeli Army were scheduled, and Israeli flags were everywhere. A few friends and I decided to go down to Ben Yehouda Street to check out the festivities. It was like Purim all over again, but even bigger. Every street was packed with people for as far as you could see. Security barriers had been set up, and soldiers checked bags and patted down visitors before allowing them into the main stretch of street. Parties had been set up within the souk (or bazaar), complete with food, drink, and DJs. At one point, a condensed group of 50-75 boys in traditional orthodox wear came stampeding down the street, hollering and cheering for Israel. They waved gigantic Israeli flags and skipped around boisterously. Music boomed, people danced, and friends chatted excitedly as they moved in waves down the street. The festivities continued into the next day, when I could hear jets flying overhead two or three times, presumably on their way to the air show in Tel Aviv.

We got a couple of days off of school for Memorial Day and Independence Day- the dates are connected to the Hebrew calendar, meaning that they vary according to our calendar. The actual date of the original Israeli independence was May 15, which is now more commonly associated with the “nakba,” or the “catastrophe,” from the perspective of Palestinians and many Arabs in the region. This day definitely was not celebratory- you may have heard about the demonstrations in the news. I’ll write about my “Nakba Day” experiences next!

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parents in israel: the grand finale

That Tuesday was my Mom’s birthday (woohooo!), and it was also my parents’ last day in Jerusalem. We woke up early in order to make it to the Dome of the Rock, which is only open for a couple of hours each morning. By around 9 AM, we were walking down Jaffa Street towards the Old City’s Damascus Gate, and from there we made our way towards the Temple Mount. We had to be careful to approach it from the right direction, because our options were a bit limited- the Al-Aqsa Mosque is also in the area, which only Muslims are allowed to enter. Out of the nine entrances to the plaza, non-Muslims are only allowed to enter through one. So, we asked around and managed to find our way to the Western Wall, from which we could walk up a tall, angled platform to the Temple Mount.

The background of the Temple Mount is a long and complicated one. It was home to the first Jewish temple (supposedly with the Arc of the Covenant inside), about a thousand years before Christ, and is also known to Muslims as Haram ash-Sharif. Basically, Jewish holy text states that God gathered earth there which was used to form Adam, and that many biblical figures have performed ritual sacrifices there. The site was later home to a second temple (only to be destroyed by the Romans), and King Herod created the plaza that stands today. This land is also holy to Muslims, technically the third holiest after Mecca and Medina, due to the story that the prophet Mohammad traveled here in a single night and led other prophets in prayers. The event is known as the isra, or night journey, and was shortly followed by his ascension to heaven. After the Six Day War, control of the Temple Mount was handed over to Jerusalem’s Muslim leaders, which has been cause for plenty of controversy and even a few failed plots to blow up Muslim holy sites. This is one of the most holy, and disputed, pieces of land on earth.

The Dome of the Rock is probably the most recognizable symbol of Jerusalem. It is, as its name suggests, a huge dome in the Temple Mount that is covered in gold, which was donated by King Hussein of Jordan. The walls of the dome are completely covered in traditional Islamic mosaic and Quranic verse decoration, with no images of people or living things, in accordance to the Muslim belief in avoiding idolatry. The dome covers a piece of stone which is sacred to both Muslims and Jews. In the Jewish faith, Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac here, and in Islam, the prophet Muhammad launched himself heavenward on this stone. Apparently, the stone inside still has a footprint from when the stone wanted to join the prophet Muhammad in heaven and attempted to rise from the earth, leading Mohammad to push the stone back down to the ground with his foot. Jews also maintain that the dome marks the center of the world. Nonetheless, the interior of the dome (like the al-Aqsa Mosque) is only open to Muslims. I think that the landmark is pretty fascinating- coming from a place like the California, where religion doesn’t often play a huge role in everyday life, the fact that this one piece of land is so important to so many people is really eye-opening, especially because of the interplay between two of the biggest world religions- how crazy is that?

We made our way around the Dome, taking in the detailed calligraphy and colorful decoration covering it. The gold covering the dome glistened under the sunlight, and the blues, greens, and white of the supporting walls were fully covered in detailed geometric design. In addition to the Dome, the Temple Mount also hosts a few other shrines and buildings. At one corner of the platform, a series of columned arches offers a beautiful view of the Mount of Olives, including the gold-plated mosque on its slopes. We wandered around the area, admiring the Dome from all sides and checking out the view of the rest of Jerusalem. Eventually, we made our way towards one of the arched exits that lead us back into the heart of the Old City. A short walk through the city later, we emerged through the Damascus gate and hopped in a cab to swing us back by our hotel. We picked up the rental car from the parking lot, dropped it off at the rental agency, and were soon ready to take on the next stop: Yad Vachem, the Holocaust Museum.

The creation of Yad Vachem began in 1953, organized by the Knesset (the Israeli legislature) in an attempt to memorialize the six million or so Jews who died in the Holocaust, and to honor those who tried to save them. The museum houses a prism-shaped history section, Hall of Names, Children’s Memorial, Avenue of he Righteous, and Hall of Remembrance complete with an eternal flame. We opted for a cab ride to the museum in an attempt to avoid the confusing set of bus and shuttle routes that could have gotten us there. It was definitely a good call- the museum was much farther away than I expected, and in a cab, we were able to enjoy the journey there. We ended up driving through a new area of Jerusalem that I hadn’t explored before, with a more residential feel and lots of rolling hills full of thick green trees. Yad Vachem stood proudly at the top of one of these hills, known as the Mount of Remembrance, its triangular prism of an entrance protruding from the top of one of the highest points. The prism is said to symbolize the bottom half of a Star of David in reference to the half of the population of Jews worldwide which was lost in the Holocaust. As our taxi pulled through the main entrance gates, large groups of IDF soldiers were casually standing around, waiting for their personal tour of the place. The museum is a major site in Israel, especially during Holocaust Remembrance Day and Independence day. We made our way inside, picking up some audio tour headsets along the way.

I realized too late that it might have been a little strange to go to the Holocaust Museum for my mom’s birthday, but it is one of the major sites in Israel, and one that she had shown interest in. When in Israel, right? The museum itself was very well organized, rooted deeply in symbolism. Almost everything, from the shape of the building to the sculptures and foliage around it had some kind of significance. It was also very well organized- I was glad to have my headset to explain the chronological and thematic layout of the place. We walked alongside a wide range of visitors, from schoolkids to soldiers to orthodox Jews to tourists, all taking in the information together. I had studied the Holocaust in junior high and high school, and have visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C., but had never experienced it in this much detail. The amount of information that this place provided was overwhelming. I could have easily spent days there, just to read every caption and listen to every information package that they offered. My mom, Mark, and I each took our own time making our way through the series of exhibits, reading and listening to as much as we could. I was personally most impressed by their follow-through on Holocaust survivors. One of the last exhibits had photos and statistics on the survivors of a women’s death march, both upon their liberation, and years later, including a detailed account of every single woman’s family and children. The amount of research that had been put into it was impressive, to say the least.

After making our way through the main exhibit, we stopped by the child’s memorial before heading back towards the main entrance. We hopped in a cab and headed back to the hotel, stopping to grab some birthday dinner along the way. The restaurant choice of the night was sushi, which I had never tried outside of the US. The food itself was pretty good, but we ended up in a kosher sushi restaurant, meaning that our options were pretty limited- shellfish isn’t allowed, so we opted for lots of salmon and tuna. Afterwards, we indulged in a some birthday frozen yogurt on the way back to the hotel. I returned to the dorms a little earlier that night, because I had a paper due the next day that I still had to finish up. We got a good night’s rest on our last night in Jerusalem, and prepared to set out for Tel Aviv the next morning.

The next day, Wednesday, my parents packed up their things and we walked down the street to a sherut stop. A sherut is basically just a taxi van that holds about ten people. The vans just wait out at this stop until they fill up, and then depart for their destination, which is usually Tel Aviv. We threw our luggage in one of the sheruts, paid a few shekels, and rode the hour or so that it takes to get to the transportation center there. I haven’t spent much time in Tel Aviv aside from trips to or from the airport, so this was a fun, new experience for me too. Tel Aviv is known as Jerusalem’s much more secular, open minded counterpart. It leaves the historic attractions behind in favor of beaches, shopping, and bustle. Its history is also pretty short- Tel Aviv was created by a few Jews who wanted to move out of the predominantly Arab town of Jaffa, relying on a set of town planners to create the new area. It was officially inaugurated in the beginning of the 20th century, and has accepted waves of new immigrant arrivals ever since.

We hopped in a cab to take us from the sherut station to a hotel that I had booked right on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. My parents had a flight back to the States early the next morning, so this would work out perfectly for them, providing one last day to relax seaside before heading out. There aren’t really any hotel options near the airport, which is about twenty minutes from the actual city, so we decided to live it up in Tel Aviv for a day. I had picked our hotel (the Lusky Suites) almost on a whim after reading a few reviews of different options in my Lonely Planet guidebook, and ended up getting ridiculously lucky- this place was great! Not too expensive, but still clean, quirky, homey, and in a great location. Upon our arrival, our room wasn’t quite ready yet, so we left our luggage there and walked down the street along the ocean to a small restaurant to grab some lunch. The hotel had given us a card that would get us each free dessert, so we decided to check out their recommendation (and probably earn them a little commission too!). This place was just as good of a find as the hotel was- great views of the ocean, huge portions, delicious food, and awesome service. I ate enough to feed about 100 people, and then couldn’t resist taking advantage of the free dessert. I almost felt like my parents would have to roll me back to the hotel.

By the time we returned, our room was all set. My mom wanted to check out the Diamond Center, citing the fact that in her years of training in gemology, Israel was always cited as a major center of quality work. The hotel arranged a ride over to the center, where we got a personal tour of the display room. This place was crazy- I usually complain when I have to pay more than $10 for…anything, and here we were admiring jewelry that was worth tens of thousands, and sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars. We ended up indulging in a more reasonably priced pair of earrings before making our way back to the hotel. Tel Aviv, aside from the beach, also has a great shopping scene. We walked down the street to the Carmel Market, a large type of bazaar or souk that sold everything from fish to purses. Sundown was quickly approaching, meaning that shopkeepers would start packing up soon, so we went on a walk through the two main paths of the market (and made friends with a shopkeeper’s dog) before emerging from the souk and making our way back towards the hotel.

We ended up first walking towards the water, as most of the main city center of Tel Aviv is situated pretty close to the Mediterranean. It was a beautiful sight- the deep hues of the sunset reflected off of the blue of the sea as we walked back, only stopping to pick up some snacks for the night along the way. By the time we made it back to the hotel, we were all exhausted. It had been a busy, adventure-filled week, and a hotel on the water in Tel Aviv was a great way to wrap up the trip. My mom and I indulged in one more excursion to get some ice cream before heading to bed for the night.

We all woke up pretty early the next morning. The hotel had arranged a cab to pick up my parents at around 7 or 8 AM, so we dragged ourselves out of the room for breakfast downstairs before packing up one last time. The time came for the parents to set off for the airport, so we loaded up their luggage, and said goodbye for now. It was a great trip- I always enjoy showing people around and realizing how much I’ve come to know about an entirely new country, and it was really nice to be able to see family after months away from the States. Only one more month until I’m back in California- I can’t believe it!

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