Sunday, May 16, 2010

Falafel and Humus - Eating throughout the holy land

After crossing at the Arava border on foot from Jordan to Israel, We arrived ready for the pleasures of the modern world, the comfort of family, and some downtime. We rented a car in Eilat, a resort town at the southernmost point of Israel on the Red Sea, and drove north to meet up with Guy’s aunt Ofra and family in the town of Omer, near Be’er Sheva. For the first time in 6 months we slept-in on a good mattress, ate a home-cooked meal, and drank cappuccinos. After spending Friday night in the comfort of their home, we spent Saturday exploring a bit of the Negev desert, the southern desert of Israel. We hiked a beautiful Wadi that still had water in it from the winter’s heavy rainfall, an unusual sight in those parts, a crater made by a meteor millions of years ago, and an old mine. The next day we headed to the central part of the country, to Guy’s saba and savta, his grandparents, who were to be our hosts for the rest of the trip.

Our plan for the visit was to see family, sample some of Israel’s unbelievable cuisine, replace some of our worn clothes that have been limping along with us, bruised and battered from travel and harsh laundry, take care of some logistics before India, and see the country as best we could. We happen to be in Israel during Memorial Day followed by Yom Ha’atzma’ut: Israel’s 62nd independence day. Memorial Day is taken very seriously, as everyone in the country is affected and knows someone who has died for the country. It is a moving day of speeches, stories, memorials, and times of reflection, including a 2 minute ‘moment of silence’ during which sirens signal the entire country to stop what they are doing. Everyone does stop, including people driving on the highway, who get out of their car and stand in silent reflection. Memorial Day gives way to Independence Day, where everyone takes to the parks and the beaches and barbeques up a storm, celebrating and watching fireworks. We spent the day on the beach, enjoying the sun, getting fed by strangers, and watching the Israeli defense force parade ships and planes overhead. We met up with the rest of the family that afternoon to celebrate Saba and Savta’s 60th wedding anniversary. It was very interesting for me to see the intense pride and national unity around the day. It is very moving to watch the whole country stop and reflect, seeing how everyone feels as one, with personal connections and gratitude to the fallen soldiers who make Israel possible.

Guy’s grandparents asked us to present a talk to their residential community about our time volunteering in Uganda and it ended up being the biggest audience we will probably ever gather to hear about our experience. We produced an hour-long powerpoint with pictures about the state of healthcare in Uganda and about our volunteer assignments at KCCC. His grandparents gave it the lofty title of: “Guy and Rusha: volunteer doctors working in Uganda: Dream and Reality”, which we then had to live up to. We had an audience of about 150 people, and while some of them fell asleep and the average age in the lecture hall was well over 70, many asked questions and were active participants in the talk.

The next day we went for a bike tour of the area with our friend Dr. May, a retired doctor who lived in Colorado and now lives in Israel with his family. He took us on a back roads tour of the area around Ra’anana, Netanya, and the Sharon through fields of strawberries, orange and grapefruit orchards, (which we picked and ate), by roman aqueducts, and sand dunes overlooking the Mediterranean, all accompanied by a steady stream of philosophy and history and spectacular wildflowers. We also spent another day biking up north in the Galilee with Moishik, a cousin of Guy’s mom, and his son Oren. They live in Kfar Vradim, near the Lebanese border, and the place was made for mountain biking. . They are both hardcore mountain bikers and orienteers and took us on a tough ride through fields of wildflowers and olive tree groves, stunning views and high heart rates. We finished the day with a well earned meal of the best hummus in Israel, which comes from that region, and spent some time with Moishiks other children and wife, who has been battling MS for close to 20 years. That evening we made it for Friday night dinner at Guy’s aunt Adi’s house, to spend the night with her and her family.

Guy’s grandparents treated us to a 5-star visit to Jerusalem for 3 days. We stayed at beautiful unique hotels (nothing to get used to, unfortunately) and toured the city with 2 experts in Israeli history, both ancient and modern. We visited the Supreme Court and saw a judge trying a case in progress of a Palestinian terrorist who was petitioning to see his 7 year-old child. It was interesting to see democracy in action, especially at this level, even for someone who committed such a heinous crime, knowing that this justice would not be reciprocated. We saw the Knesset (the parliament), spent a whole day walking around the old city in the Jewish quarter, visited the Kotel (Wailing Wall), eating falafel in the Shouk Machane’ Yehuda, walking through the German colony and the neighborhood where the first Jews to live outside the old city walls lived, and visiting the house where Guy’s grandpa lived as a child. We even popped our head into the music conservatory in Jerusalem and were rewarded by being able to sit in on a world famous pianist (who's name escapes me right now) giving a class to students. In between we enjoyed the swank accommodations complete with a Turkish bath. It was a really special, unique way to see Jerusalem and we felt very lucky to have been treated to such a trip.

The 2 weeks were rounded out by visits to Guy’s aunt, Adi and her family. Her son just started his service in the navy this year, so we went with them to visit him on his base with all the other families bringing suitcases of food both to picnic and to leave for the kids, who are complaining that the food is neither good nor plentiful on base. We also visited Haifa and walked around the lower city, which is the arab quarter, where we ate amazing falafel and shwarma and saw the Bahai temple gardens. We saw all of Guy’s cousins several times and visited with his childhood friend Liat who lives in Tel Aviv, as well as a friend of Guy’s from college who has since moved to Jerusalem and now is a practicing orthodox Jew. And of course, we ate, and ate, and ate. The food in Israel is AMAZING and as always, too much. Even I was tired of humus by the time we left. The best type of food is of the traditional middle eastern variety where as soon as you sit about 15 plates of different types of salads, pickles and other goodies are brought to the table: humus, tahini, eggplant, pickled beets and cabbages, red peppers, green salad, cucumber salad, you name it. Then pita, falafel and usually some rice dishes come, depending on the tradition from which the restaurant comes from. And that’s only the appetizers! The main course, if you can still fit any food in there consists of kebabs, bbq, grilled anything, or other specialties and the meal turns into total food frenzy, with reaching across the table and piling food on your plate, wiping the good sauces and dips with fresh pita, and tasting and sharing from everyone’s loot.

We left Israel relaxed and happy and stocked with new tank tops and t-shirts and underwear to replace our worn stock from Africa, full to the brim with Israeli food and family love, ready to tackle the next beast of our trip: India.To see more pictures from Haifa and the north click here.

To see more pictures from Jerusalem click here.

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