Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Road to San Diego Comic Con 2014

After three long years, I finally returned to San Diego for the annual geek pilgrimage known as Comic Con International, aka San Diego Comic Con.

My journey began on July 18, when I left Tel Aviv Ben Gurion International Airport at 5:15pm on a  British Airways flight headed for London.  I landed around 8:30PM London time, or 10:30PM Jerusalem time.  The seats were comfy, the food was adequate, and the flight offered a wide variety of complimentary programming.  Being a huge fan of "The Walking Dead," and having only seen the first episode of season 4 at that point, I was pleased to note that the entire season was among the offerings.  As my much longer connecting flight would also be through BA, I rolled the dice and hoped that this meant I could knock out the remaining 15 episodes of the season before landing in Texas the following afternoon.  By the end of that first leg, I had completed the fifth episode.  Ten more to go...this was going to be doable, but tight.

Our friend Anwarul, whom we had met in Orlando during home leave in September, greeted me at London Heathrow Airport. I had a fifteen hour layover on the horizon and the thought was that, as Anwaral's home in Henley-on-Thames was kind of far from the airport,  we would have a proper fish and chips dinner, do a little nighttime sight-seeing, and dance/drink the night away so that I could collapse into a peaceful slumber on the second leg of this journey and he could fall asleep on the tube and probably miss his stop and end up at Downton Abbey.  Or something.  I don't now where the tube lines end.  (Fortunately, as this plan was formed prior to my knowledge of the in-flight programming) I discovered mere days before my journey that Gavin, a friend from our years living in Orlando, happened to be in London that same week for a Monty Python concert.  The plan changed from dancing all night to bumming a free place to crash until morning so that I could get a decent night's sleep as any self respecting 34 year old should do.

Anwarul and I still opted for a little nighttime sightseeing and a fish and chips dinner.  But first we stopped at Paddington Station so I could pose with...Paddington Bear!

The places Anwarul had wanted to go were either closed or super crowded, so we went to...McDonald's.  BUT!  It was a McDonald's with a view.  I had the Filet-o-Fish and fries, because I thought it would be funny.  It was.  But not tasty.  Here I am in front of the London Eye.  I had wanted to ride it since my study abroad trip in 2001, but I didn't have time then and I didn't have time now. No worries; TJ and I would be returning for two weeks in September.  I'd probably ride it then.  (Spoiler:  I didn't.)  You'll notice how dapper Anwarul looks.  I told him that, when picked at the airport, I always expect my greeters to arrive in suit and black hat.  And that's just what he did!  He says it happened to be what he had worn to work that day, but I choose to believe it was all for me.

Anwarul was kind enough to accompany me all the way to Gavin's hotel to ensure that I wouldn't get lost during the many station changes.  Before parting ways, he even mapped out my route back to the airport.  I then proceeded to enjoy a cocktail and a chat with Gavin before retiring at a decent hour, while Anwarul missed the last train and ended up on a terribly long bus ride before arriving home at quite an indecent hour.  Sorry, pal!

The next morning I awoke refreshed and scurried off to the airport.  This leg of my journey would clock in somewhere between 10 and 11 hours and take me to visit my parents in Texas.  I hopped into my seat and immediately began watching the next episode of "The Walking Dead."  I wasn't sure if I'd be able to finish the series, when suddenly a..."miracle"...happened.  The captain made a series of announcements over the course of the NEXT TWO HOURS regarding flight delays.  I won't bore you with the details, but it involved two wheelchair-bound passengers, a broken ramp, a jammed door, a lost spot in the take-off queue, and a long line for departure.  

After calling TJ to ask if he would first notify my mother of the delay and then call my friend Patrick, who was going to drive 170 miles from Houston just to have a quick dinner with me because he was supposed to visit us in Jerusalem but then cancelled his trip due to the summer war, and tell him that now *I* had to cancel because of the flight delay, I sat back in my seat and watched 10 episodes of "The Walking Dead" and two episodes of "Pawn Stars," followed by several uninspired rounds of Pac-Man on the seat-back's touch screen.  In hindsight, I should have napped.  The jet lag would stay with me for two weeks.  

By the time I landed at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, it was around 6:30PM...or 2:30AM the following day by Jerusalem time.  I couldn't find my parents.  I didn't have cellular reception.  I feared that they had gone to the wrong airport.  After walking up and down the International Arrivals corridor a couple of times, I walked the length of the Arrivals pick-up sidewalk.  I finally located them at the domestic Arrivals gate, where they were growing equally concerned by the fact that no flights from London were showing up on the board.      

I spent Saturday evening through Wednesday morning with my parents.  For the most part, it was a relaxing visit filled with good foods and good company.  We ate.  We drank.  We reminisced.  My aunt came to visit.  My mom's dogs barked...a lot.  We went to Best Buy and looked at the technology that has been passing me by whilst living overseas, and passing my parents by whilst they don't regularly go to Best Buy.  Apparently, televisions are curved now.  Why?  I don't know.  I still haven't been able to explain it to TJ.  My dad showed me the newest classic Chevy that he was restoring.  Mom took pride in showing me her rock garden.  I visited my old college town.  I crawled through the barn and looked at my old toys.  I laid them all out and smiled.  As many as there were, I knew that many more had been sold off at one garage sale or another (with my permission, of course) over the years.

As much as I had wanted to, as much as I had planned to, I didn't tell any of my old friends that I was home.  I was nervous and sad and too anxious to do anything but spend time with my parents.  

While I was safe at home with mom and dad, TJ was once again assisting American citizens that were departing Gaza.  Rockets were exploding overhead, shattered glass and concrete rubble were everywhere.  Cell reception and battery power were not our friends that day, and I had minimal contact with him.  It wasn't until he made it home that I was able to relax.  The experience shook him to the core.  The following weekend, while I was in San Diego, he skipped town and visited Prague.  He just needed a break.

That was fine by me.  There had been talk over the last couple of weeks about sending family members back to the US if the conflict worsened.  I was worried that the order would be given while I was stateside, restricting my return while requiring TJ to remain behind to continue his work.  The thought of this made me sick.  I didn't want to be separated.  I hadn't left because of fear.  I just wanted to go geek out for a few days with my friends.  I wasn't able to truly enjoy my trip until TJ landed in Prague and I knew that, if any such order was given, we'd at least be locked out of Jerusalem together.  

Throughout all of this, my mother experienced her first (and hopefully last) cancer scare.  Tests had been run prior to my arrival, but the results would not be ready until after I had beens scheduled to return to Jerusalem.  I suspect she planned it this way deliberately so as not to dampen the mood of my visit, as I went running to her side the last time there was a medical concern.  She was in good spirits, and seemed to be in a positive frame of mind, but it was still cause for alarm.  Should I stay and await the results?  Should I go to San Diego and then come back if the worst was confirmed, or would she be better served if I went back to Jerusalem, and return home for treatments?  In the end, she was optimistic that things would be fine, so I continued with my planned trip, knowing that I could always return if necessary.  

Jet lag combined with the external stress contributed to wonky sleep patterns.  I found myself unable to fall asleep earlier than 2AM, but wide awake by 6:30AM.  Eating patterns mirrored the time zone I was inhabiting, so that was a plus., so early...on Wednesday, July 23, my parents drove me back to Austin, where I flew to San Diego International Airport via a connecting flight at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.  

The entire flight was filled with convention goers.  You could just...tell.

An obese, introverted geek sat to my left, an average, friendly, extroverted geek to my right.  When the flight attendant walked the aisles and asked that we buckle our seat belts, I could not find mine.  I turned to the large fellow beside me and had the following conversation.

"I think you are sitting on my seat belt."
"No, I don't think so."
"Well, could you check?  I kind of need it."
"It's not important."
"No, really, it is.  She just said so.  Get. Up. Now."
"Oh. Here it is."

I then turned to my right and did something I have never done before:  I conversed with a stranger on an airplane.  We talked for the duration of the flight about all sorts of nerdy, geeky, dweeby things.  I don't believe careers or family or other hobbies ever came up, because we were going to comic con and who had time to talk about real life, am I right?

My flight landed at 10:00AM...or 8:00PM Jerusalem time.  In the course of five days, time around had shifted by two, eight, and, finally, ten hours.  My internal clock had not yet adjusted.  It would never accomplish this task.

But Comic Con had officially begun.  

Saturday, November 22, 2014

How IS Jerusalem?

Way back in November of 2010, when TJ and I had just arrived at our very first overseas job assignment, I posted a blog entry entitled "How IS Guadalajara?" in which I did a brief tour around the neighborhood, discussed potential security concerns, and generally just tried to put family and friends at ease over any concerns they may have had about our making such a huge transition out of our previous lives.  I reread that posting in preparation for this one, and it brought a smile to my face.  Mexico was such a wonderful time in our lives, and it warmed my heart to relive those early days with the perspective brought on by four full years of additional life experience.

I had meant to do the same for Jerusalem shortly after our arrival, but for some reason it never happened.  I never really wrote anything about Jerusalem.

It started out innocently enough:  I was in Jerusalem.  Jerusalem.  This was going to be epic.  My first entry was going to have to be something truly special.  A full-on review of the Old City.  Only...I hadn't spent enough time in the Old City to write that "wow" story before we took an extended weekend trip to Tel Aviv.  I couldn't write about Tel Aviv first, now, could I?  Of course not!  That would feel cheap.

Excuse followed excuse, until so much time had passed that I basically lost interest in writing anything at all.  Finally, two months into living here, I forced myself to start writing.  I ignored pretty much everything that had gone down in those first two months and just chugged a snail's pace.  Today we find ourselves one year and two months into a two year assignment.  We've seen and done so much, yet I've not even managed to write an average of one entry per week.  As of this writing, I'm  approximately four months behind on subject matter.  Still, that's an improvement; it used to be six months.

I'm making decent progress now.  I want to get caught up so I can start chronicling our adventures in real time.  I think if I can just force this entry out, the dam will burst and the stories will flow with ease.

So.  How IS Jerusalem?

Well.  To start with....

Jerusalem was Hope

TJ and I both converted to Reform Judaism in October 2010.  It is not common for both people in a relationship to change religions at once, as one partner usually acts as a magnet for the other.  The rabbis thought it was odd.  Our families thought it was odd.  Our friends thought it was odd.  I thought it was odd.  What can I say?  We're odd.

We did so simultaneously and for similar yet strikingly different reasons.  Our reasons are personal and won't be shared here.  Suffice it to say, our thoughts on religion weren't especially changed as a result.  It was more of a sociocultural than spiritual decision.  Beyond Christmas and Easter, religion had never been a big part of my life pre-Judaism.  Post-Judaism, the same held true for Chanukah, Passover, and Purim.

We tried to connect to the community in Mexico, with mixed results.  The people were all wonderfully polite, but we just didn't feel as if we clicked.  Language barriers were the decided upon culprit.  When we began bidding on our second tour, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv made the top of the list.  We were elated when we were assigned to Jerusalem.  We saw it as an opportunity to learn some Hebrew, to connect with a broader Jewish community, and to learn more about this choice we had made.

When we returned to DC for post-Mexico, pre-Jerusalem training, we made an honest effort to check out a few synagogues near our home in Falls Church, VA.  None of them clicked.  Temple Micah, where we had undergone our conversion, was and remains our favorite, but due to work schedules and commute times, we were unable to attend Friday night Shabbat services there.  Of course, we could have gotten up for Saturday services, but....yeah.  That didn't happen, either.  Having seemingly struck out in Guadalajara and DC alike, we saw Jerusalem as our opportunity to finally form a solid connection.

As of this writing, we have yet to attend a service.  Perhaps we never will.  It's possible that the idea of Judaism was, for us, more appealing than the practice itself.  And that's okay.

Jerusalem is Closed

One of the hardest things to get used to is the fact that, from mid-afternoon on Friday to one hour after sunset on Saturday, just about everything is closed in observance of Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest.  Most local business maintain a Sunday-Thurday work week.  We, however, follow the American practice of holding office hours Monday-Friday.  This means that if we want to eat during the weekend, we best get our shopping done by Thursday evening.

There are exceptions, however.  Not every restaurant closes during Shabbat.  There are a number of Arab-owned eateries and convenience stores that are open at all hours of the day and night.  These have been my saving grace and I love them to pieces.

Despite the need for workarounds, there is generally something peaceful about knowing what your Friday night plans are going to be.  I mean, who could possibly complain about having to spend an evening at home with loved ones?

Jerusalem is Kosher.  It is also Halal

Religious practices and levels of observance dictate a number of things, including what types of foods are permissible.  In the absolute simplest of terms, Jews that keep kosher do not eat meat and dairy in unison.  They also refrain from pork and shellfish in all their forms.  Muslims that keep halal do not eat pork or drink alcohol.  For those that keep neither practice, you have just have to plan your shopping and dining excursions more strategically.  This could mean driving into the  West Bank to obtain pork in Bethlehem, or taking a day trip that will include a delectable seafood spread in Akko.  Jerusalem also has locations that can cater to your needs; you'll just need to do your research.    

Jerusalem is Convenient

Literally everywhere that I go within the city on any sort of regular basis is walkable.  It takes me 5 minutes to get to my favorite pizza joint.  10 minutes to get to the grocery store or one of those heaven-sent Arab markets.  12 minutes to get to work.  45 minutes to get to the mall and the Old City.  I don't drive unless I have to.  Which is good, because...

Jerusalem is Aggressive

Horn honking, road rage, and cutting off the guy beside you is par for the course.  And I usually witness all of that before I even turn out of the parking garage and onto the side street in front of my apartment.  A cab driver was behind me once.  He thought I was driving too slowly.  Instead of just passing me, he passed me, stopped his car in the road in front of me, and got out of his car to come yell at me.  No, really.

There is no line culture.  You have to watch out for that little old lady behind you at the grocery store.  Blink and she's suddenly in front of you, like a ninja.

Jerusalem is Healthy (Well, Healthier)

Guadalajara was chock-full of American brands.  Jerusalem has McDonald's, Pizza Hut, and Dominos.  Bethlehem has a KFC.  That's pretty much it.  This is a blessing and a curse.  Fast food is in short supply, so it generally makes for healthier, tastier dining experiences.  We've managed to lose a little bit of weight, which is inspiring and very much welcome.  But...sometimes you REALLY just want to pig out and be a fat gross sloth of a human, am I right?  Bare minimum, I'd like someone to hand me food through my car window from time to time.

Jerusalem is Delicious

I've attended two cooking classes in my time here.  One of these days I would like to prepare the foods, photograph them, and share the recipes with you.  Until then, you will just have to trust me.

Jerusalem is Expensive

With an 18% VAT (value-added tax), you really have to reevaluate your spending power. has become my best friend.  

Jerusalem is Heartbreaking

Ah.  And here we are.  This is the part I've been dreading.  This is the touchy part.  The controversial part.  The part that, should we be honest with each other (and we should), prevented me from writing about Jerusalem and stinted my writing for so long.  Hell, I started this particular post over a week ago and had to stop because, suddenly, Jerusalem became even more heartbreaking.

Conflict has been a fact of life in this region since time immemorial.  That certainly did not change when the State of Israel was established on May 14, 1948 following devastating losses to the Jewish people during the Holocaust.  Israel was quickly attacked by her neighbors.  Despite being a newborn nation, Israel won that particular fight.  New boundaries were drawn.  The unrest continues to this day.  

Jerusalem is central to the ongoing struggle.  The Israelis have proclaimed Jerusalem as their capital, while the Palestinians who inhabited these lands up to the May 14, 1948 termination of the British Mandate for Palestine also lay claim to the city.

Who's right?  Who's wrong?  Who knows?  History has a tendency of favoring, or at least being written by, the victor.  As of yet, there is no victor.

For its part, the US government does not recognize Jerusalem as the capital for either party.  It is desired that an international regime be established for the city, as outlined in the 1947 partition plan that preceded the State of Israel.

The newsfeed was filled with stories about altercations between Israeli soldiers and Arab terrorists the moment we stepped off the plane.  Keep in mind that terror covers a wide swath ranging from stone throwing to kidnapping and murder, so thorough reading of any article is necessary to understand just what is going on at any particular moment.

Despite all of this, Secretary of State John Kerry was making frequent visits to the region and, for a time, it looked like we might actually be present for the historical creation of a two-state solution between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples.

Then, on June 12, three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped in the West Bank.  Their bodies were found on June 30.

Hamas, the terrorist government regime in control of Gaza, took credit for the crime.

A retaliatory terror attack saw the kidnapping and murder of a Palestinian teenager by Israeli settlers.  He went missing on July 2.  His remains were found the following day.  He was stabbed and burned alive in the woods near Jerusalem.

These murders set off a chain reaction of violence that neither side has yet to recover from.

In the first week of July, 250 missiles were fired into Israel from Gaza.  Israel began a counter-terrorist operation on July 7.  It would ultimately involve air strikes that devastated entire cities and a land invasion to destroy tunnels that had been dug to infiltrate Israel.

On July 13, TJ and I joined a contingent of our colleagues in assisting in the departure of 150 American citizens who had found themselves trapped in Gaza over the course of the previous few months  (Entry/exit requirements are strict and the US government is unable to intervene unless during times of crises).

We could hear rockets exploding in the distance, and once we were even required to seek shelter in a safe haven.

We met the Americans as they exited Gaza, registered their travel and provided them with evacation loans, and escorted them to Jordan.

Our involvement in the operation lasted over eight hours.  In total, the day's work lasted for over sixteen hours.

On July 20, despite my express wishes to the contrary, TJ went back to assist in a second evacuation.  He's just that kind of guy.  He wanted to help.  I was in Texas visiting my family and had little to no contact with him during the operation.  He was terrified.  Rockets were exploding much closer than they had the previous weekend, and they had to seek shelter more frequently.  He was shaken for days  afterward.

By the end of the conflict in late August, the Palestinian death toll had soared to over 2,000.  The Israelis lost 68 people, 64 of which were soldiers.

Thanks to its Iron Dome missile-defense system, which calculates missile trajectory and launches a counter-missle should a populated area be at risk, Israel escaped the conflict with far less damage than it would have otherwise.  That, of course, comes as no consolation to those that were affected.

Negotiations for a continued ceasefire are still underway, though they appear to have stalled.

Recently, tensions began to rise once more.
  • A Palestinian teenager was shot three times in the chest and killed by Israeli police during a public demonstration on October 17.
  • A baby was killed and seven others Israelis were injured when a Palestinian driver hit passengers at a train station on October 22.  The driver later died of gunshot wounds.   
  • Another Palestinian teenager was shot in the head and killed during an altercation with Israeli police on October 24.
  • A rabbi was shot by a Palestinian man in Jerusalem on October 29.  His assailant was killed during the arrest attempt.  The victim was gravely injured and is still recovering. 
  • Israeli settlers set fire to a mosque in the West Bank on November 12.
  • Five Israelis were killed and several others were seriously injured while praying at a synagogue on November 18.  The responsible parties were killed on the scene.  
This is by no means a comprehensive list, but you get the gist.  When talks cease to be sufficient, acts of violence are carried out tit for tat.   

News analysts are falling all over themselves trying to decide if and when another Intifada (uprising) will begin...or if it already has and we just don't realize it. 

Such is life in Jerusalem.  We are blessed in that we are not (yet) the intended targets of any of these attacks, yet heartbroken in having so many wonderful, loyal, kind local friends on both sides of the conflict that will have to live here and endure long after we have moved on to our next assignment.

Jerusalem is Hope

I have no answers to provide, no solutions to offer.

All I can do is look at everyone that I've met in this beautiful land and pray that one day they will be able to open their eyes knowing they have woken up to a day of peace and mutual understanding.

That is my wish.  That is my hope.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Rosh Hanikra

On July 4th, we traded fireworks for ocean views and visited Rosh Hanikra with our friend Jeremy.

Located along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea in the Western Galile, Rosh Hanikra is a national park notable for its white chalk cliff face and beautiful, natural, grottos.

The steepest cable car ride in the world (so they claim) awaits you at the entrance to this seaside destination near the Israel/Lebanon border.  The car descends from a height of 70 meters above sea level at an angle of 60 degrees.  The ride takes approximately two minutes in either direction and affords breathtaking aerial views of the sea and cliffside that visitors will soon see up close and personal.

Upon exiting the cable car, you are invited to view a short film that tells the tale of ancient Rosh Hanikra.

Legend speaks of a young Israeli woman from Akko that was betrothed involuntarily to a wealthy old man from Lebanon.  Distraught over her lot in life, the young woman is said to have leapt from her horse into the Mediterranean Sea as her father escorted her on the journey to meet her future husband.  The ghost story claims that her sad song can be heard deep within the grottoes to this very day, worn deep into the cliff by the crashing waves.

This probably didn't happen.  Or maybe it did.  All I can say is that I didn't hear any ghost whisperings, and arranged marriages continue to this day, making this an interesting, yet failed, cautionary tale.

The grottoes are arguably the main attraction here.  They formed hundreds, if not thousands, of years ago when a series of earthquakes ripped holes into the bedrock.  Rainwater trickled into these rifts, dissolving the rock and forming tunnels and caves that even now continue to expand due to the intensity of the waves crashing into the ageless rock.

The grottoes aren't the only point of interest, however.

The British Train Tunnel has quite a storied past.  It is a carryover from the days of World War II, during the British Mandate in Palestine.  During the war, a need arose for a land continuum between the Middle East and Europe.  The British, with the help of thousands of laborers from the Australian, New Zealand, South African and local workforce, laid down the track for a rail line between Haifa, Beirut, and Tripoli.

Within the span of just one year the men bore 200 meters of tunnel into the rock of Rosh Hanikra, suspended 15 bridges along the route, and built supporting walls to fend off the sea waves.

The tracks that passed through these tunnels served the British for their military needs between 1943 and 1948.  In 1944, this rail system was used to bring Jewish concentration camp refugees to Israel.

During the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, the western Galilee was cut off from the rest of the country.  The bridge was blown up in March 1948 to prevent the passage of Lebanese weapons and soldiers into the region.  Though the train no longer runs through the area, the tunnel and sections of track remain as evidence of Rosh Hanikra's important role in the history of this region.

Clocking in at just over two hours commuting time from Jerusalem, Rosh Hanikra makes for a beautiful change of scenery and a worthy option as far as day trips go.

To ensure a lovely day, please verify that your travel companions would sooner spend time with you than jump off a cliff. 

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Living it Up at the Dead Sea

I remember one sunny springtime afternoon when I was walking home from work with a colleague who lived nearby.  We were discussing regional travel as we descending the steep hill on top of which our office sits when he suddenly commented that he could not believe TJ and I had not yet visited the salty tourist spot known as the Dead Sea.  "It's no big deal," I said, casually pointing southeast of our current location.  "It's right there.  I see it every day."

I could play it cool all I wanted, but we all know that seeing isn't experiencing.  I was dying to visit the Dead Sea.  It was with great joy that I was finally able to take a dip on June 22nd when we visited the Ein Gedi Sea of Spa resort.

The Dead Sea came by its gruesome moniker due to the fact that the harsh environment created by its high salt content makes it difficult for animals to flourish there.  Weighing in at approximately 35% salinity, it is one of the world's saltiest bodies of water.  It is the world's deepest hypersaline lake (1,004 feet deep).  And, because it likes to be the best at what it does, it also features the lowest land elevation on the planet, with a shoreline sitting at 1,400 feet below sea level.

Chunks of salt rock scattered across the shoreline

Located approximately 35km from Jerusalem, the Dead Sea is a landlocked body of water surrounded by Jordan to the east and Israel and the West Bank to the west.  It has attracted tourists for thousands of years and numerous spas and resorts have popped up on both the Jordanian and Israeli shorelines.  Although the Israeli side is more convenient to reach from our Jerusalem home, we've heard it said that the customer service is superior on the Jordanian side.  Perhaps one day I'll do a comparison piece about weekend travel accommodations, but this particular visit was just a quick in-and-out.  So far as I could tell, the service for a simple afternoon visit was more than adequate. The staff at Sea of Spa were friendly.  They gave us towels.  They provided safe and secure storage for our personal belongings.  They sold us beer. I couldn't possibly ask for more out of a short afternoon visit.  The resort was undergoing some construction/renovation, so there was a bit of a "Pardon our Dust" feel to the place, but it didn't detract from or enjoyment.  I'd definitely suggest it for someone's initial Dead Sea experience.    

We began our visit with a dip in the sulfur pools.  Sulfur pools are usually found around volcanic areas and hot springs, and are apparently full of keratin proteins, which are key structural materials in the creation of skin, hair, and nails.  All I know is that sulfur stinks to high heaven.  The warm water was very relaxing, though, and left my skin feeling soft and silky.  It was also slightly buoyant, which helped prepare us for what came next.

The seawater of the Dead Sea has a density of 1.240kg/L, which means that natural buoyancy turns your afternoon swim into something more akin to a casual float.

Walking in the water is fine; you carry on as you would at any beach.  It's not until you attempt to transition from a vertical to a horizontal position that things get wonky.  If you aren't careful, you'll find yourself rolling around like a fishing bobber.  Once you find your center of gravity, though, you will be able to enjoy a relaxing lounge without need of treading water or focusing on that perfect floating position.  Word of advice:  do NOT get the water in your eyes.  It will burn like fire.  Lots of parents failed to educate their children regarding this, and screams of pain could be heard all around.  Also, don't get in the water if you have an open cut/sore...that, too, will burn like fire.

The Dead Sea is known for more than its unique swimming opportunities.  It is also famous for being a natural health spa, and merchants claim to be able to bottle its "healing powers."

Sea salts and body lotions are produced and sold on the international market, while visitors are able to spread deposits of black mud all over their bodies, which is said to provide the skin with nourishing minerals.
I'm shy. So please enjoy muddy pictures of strangers.  
Especially the hottie on the right.

We spent several hours at the resort, rotating back and forth between floating in the sea, cooling off in the pool, slathering ourselves in mud, and enjoying a beer in our deck chairs.  We were each given a bottle of Dead Sea foot cream as a parting gift.  All in all, it was a great foray into Dead Sea indulgence.

I'd like to say that we've been back since that wonderful June day, but we haven't.  There were many contributing factors, other travels and increasing security concerns within the country being but two of them.  I'll touch on both in the coming days.  Suffice it to say that, with 9-10 months left in Jerusalem, one or two return trips, minimum, are on the to-do list.  

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

A Festival of Lights

No, not Chanukah.  Though, that would be some amazing synergy were they to host the event closer to that time of year.  

The 6th International Festival of Light in Jerusalem was a series of light-inspired installations and displays that ran throughout Jerusalem's Old City every night from June 11th-19th (excluding Shabbat).  Admission was free, and people arrived en masse.  We are talking crowd chaos on the level of 5am, Black Friday at Wal-Mart, and Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft are all releasing their newest video game platform.

Visitors shuffled along four separate pathways within the Old City, viewing a variety of exhibits that featured costumed actors performing in illuminated clothing, three-dimensional art pieces, and videos projected onto landmark buildings.

The festival provided a unique way to see the Old City, which is, well, old, in a new and exciting light (pardon the pun).  As someone that adores Christmas and all of the external home decorating that goes with it, something like this always makes me smile.

It strikes me as funny that I'm sharing this with you before writing one word about the historic sites of the city itself, but c'est la vie.  All in good time.  When I do it, I want to do it right.

I feel that I seriously missed an opportunity with this exciting event, as I didn't understand that it was happening until the week was half over (I saw stuff going up, but had know idea why), and I didn't realize it was ending until the night before.  We rushed to the festival on the evening of June 18th, taking in as much of it as we possibly could....which wasn't nearly enough.

The crowds made it difficult...okay, quickly navigate through the exhibits.  The sheer expanse of it all (I read somewhere that it was up to four miles of pathways?) made seeing it all in one night quite a challenge even had the sidewalks been empty.  Which they weren't.

All told, I think we saw one full route, and then tiny chunks of two or three others.

That's okay.  It was a completely beautiful, if not stressful, event.  I fully plan to go again next year.  Hopefully, advance planning will allow me to go on multiple nights so that I have the opportunity to see it all.

Until then, I hope you enjoy the photos of what I was able to catch this time around.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Yotvata Hai-Bar Nature Reserve

The morning after Eilat Pride, TJ and I met up with Jacob, Pete and Shawn for a delicious breakfast at what looked like an Israeli version of the Cracker Barrel, minus the country fried steak and cinnamon apples.

After noshing on a delicious breakfast of salads and sandwiches, we loaded into our cars and headed for home...with one tiny pitstop along the way.

Yotvata Hai-Bar Nature Reserve is a 3,000-acre breeding and reclamation center administered by the Israel Nature Reserves & National Parks Authority.  Located 30 minutes north of Eilat, the reserve is situated within the Aravah, a section of the Jordan Rift Valley that runs in a north-south orientation between the southern end of the Sea of Galilee down to the Dead Sea and on to the Gulf of Aqaba.

The Fat Sand Rat, the largest member of the gerbil family, lives on plateaus, in wadies, and on salt flats.  
It is native to the southern Dead Sea, the Negev, the Arava, and the southern coastal plain.  

Endangered and locally extinct animals mentioned in the Bible are nurtured here until they can be released into the wild.  The Asian Wild Ass has already been reintroduced into the wild via  Makhtesh Ramon.  Ostriches, oryx, and addaxes are among the critters on hand for your sightseeing pleasure.

You are able to purchase a CD to play in your car that tells you about the animals as you drive along the nature trail...but it's kinda boring and only useful if the animals in question are within your line of sight.

Your tour is supposed to end with a visit to the Night Life Room (think: bats!) and the predator center, home to spotted leopards, wolves, caracals and snakes...but we took a wrong turn at Albuquerque and actually did that part first.  I assure you it did not detract from our enjoyment in the slightest.

In lieu of a photo of a nocturnal predator (which was impossible to obtain, as all the lights were off...duh), please enjoy this photo of a donkey-type creature with zebra-type leggings.  I took the liberty of selecting the photo without the huge pile of animal poo in the frame.  You're welcome.

Zoos, nature walks, and safari treks are always a hoot.  Especially when you get attacked by a curious ostrich.  Well, I guess that's only a hoot if your windows are up, which ours were.  No war wounds here, no sir.

Hai-Bar is not a very large park (or at least the portion that you are given access to isn't), but visitors are free to drive along the marked roads as quickly or as slowly, and as many times, as they wish, which I feel adds a significant value to your entry fee.

Israel maintains more than 150 national parks/nature reserves.  As of this posting, I think I've only been to a half dozen or so.  I've greatly enjoyed aspects of each one that I've had the opportunity to visit, and would love to be able to say I've visited them all...but given the amount of time we have left before leaving for our next assignment, I think I'd have to visit 16 per week.  So....maybe I'll just shoot for the highlights.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Israel Pride 2014

If you don't count watching parades, I've never been much of a participant in Pride.  No particular reason behind it; I just haven't.  Oh, I take that back.  We did reserve a hotel near Walt Disney World one summer during Gay Days Orlando.  Or maybe it was One Mighty Weekend.  I'm not sure which one it was.  It's the same weekend, either way.  Just depends on which event planner you throw your money at.  But it doesn't really matter.  We had all but decided not to go when we found out that our house was facing a wee bit of a termite problem and had to be fumigated.  We needed a hotel anyway, soooooo....whatevs.

Passing interest changed to active participation this past summer when TJ and I joined friends in celebrating not one, but TWO Pride weekends in Israel.

First up was Eilat Pride May 16th-17th.  Pete and Jacob had invited us to join them and another friend, Shawn, for a weekend of fun in Israel's southernmost city.

We weren't really sure what to expect here, so it was a bit of a trial run.  We opted not to stay at the host hotel, but rather a more economical option a few blocks away.  The location was decent enough and it was apparent immediately upon arrival that not staying at the main hotel was a good idea, as music could be heard blaring from the epicenter for blocks and blocks.  Within the confines of our room...delicious silence.  Pete, Jacob, and Shawn stayed even farther away, so we sadly didn't see them as much as I'd expected.

The room itself was a bit dingy.  It reeked of smoke.  We called the front desk to ask if it would be possible to get a non-smoking room and were told no without apology.  There was a small kitchenette, which was nice...but there was neither an ice bucket nor a place to get complimentary ice.  There was, however a small store in the lobby from which we were able to purchase bagged ice for $5.00.  How...generous.  Circulation was poor, resulting in a clammy, never-dry (much less clean) feeling throughout the weekend.  This was very disappointing as the hotel was within the Isrotel family that brought us the amazing Beresheet Hotel from my birthday.  Just goes to show that quality does not equal consistency.

The big draw for this Pride weekend was supposed to be a Boy George concert.  What we didn't realize until the party started was that Boy George was only pulling DJ duties.  Le sigh.  No worries.  The party was a smashing success and we took many pictures together as we drank and danced the night away, "Karma Chameleon" be damned.

No clue who the guy in the white tank is.  I assume somebody did.

Drag and semi-nudity always makes for a good party.

The next morning we met for breakfast on the beach and then parted ways to....well, recuperate.  That evening TJ we reconvened for some delicious Chinese food before parting ways again.  TJ and I headed to the Wow Show, a music, dance, magic, and acrobatics-filled extravaganza sponsored by the Isrotel family of hotels.  Better than (but in the same vein as) any cruise ship entertainment we have ever seen, this was our hotel's redeeming quality.  No photography allowed, though.  Boo.

The final morning of our weekend getaway will be discussed in my next post, as it is a total thematic shift away from the subject matter at hand.  So, moving on...

Next up was Tel Aviv Pride June 11th-15th.  This came at no invite, but as Jacob, Pete, and Shawn live in Tel Aviv, we did run into them a time or two.  Also in town were our friends Yann and Charles from Paris, and their friend Patrice...though sadly, we somehow managed to not take any photos together...

We marched with US Embassy Tel Aviv and our friends in the annual Pride Parade....

...and attended some amazing parties.  

TJ even got to meet his idol, Israeli sex symbol and party-/self-promoter Eliad Cohen.  Who, being relatively famous, was not interested in becoming best friends or anything.

All in all, two fantastic Pride weekends that, hangovers aside, made me wonder why I'd never bothered to really participate before.

No need to cry over any spilt milk.  One more year in Israel means two more Pride celebrations on the horizon.