Food, fruit, and small things

The last few days of staying in the Hebrew University dorms mostly involved wandering around Jerusalem in search of last-minute souvenirs and procrastinating on packing up our apartments. Ben and Alex invited the students to join us for dinner one evening, so with six or so students in tow we headed off along Jaffa Street in search of a meal. We stumbled across a Chinese restaurant (the Mandarin) and proceeded to teach several of our students how to eat with chopsticks. The menu was in both Hebrew and English, with one very bad pun.

Mein Course

Eugene ordered entirely in Chinese, resulting in some dishes that I’d never seen before (chicken with candied pecans and vegetables in a flour shell?). After mandating that all of our students speak in English all summer, it was fascinating to watch our pupils’ expressions as someone carried on a conversation in a language they could not understand at all.


The final night in the dorms, Anna and I decided to create a feast of our remaining foods. We had both stoves in two apartments going, and wound up with Moroccan lentils, corn fritters, garlic Swiss chard, polenta, pasta sauce, pasta, sauteed onions, sauteed mushrooms, and fresh dates with quiona for desert. Yum!

MEET: The Last Supper

The next morning, I woke up early and made omelets for my fellow instructors who were also awake and packing. We managed to get everything out of the dorms on time, then we packed up the vans and dropped off at the MEET office armloads of linens and kitchen supplies. Thank you MEET for giving us things to sleep on and cook with (though not at the same time!).


I spent the next three days near Jerusalem visiting with the parents of a friend from MIT. First off, it’s incredible that you can pick up any one of seven cell phone carriers from three different territories/countries.

Which carrier would you like today?

Despite it being a very hot August, the grape arbors, and loquat, olive, and pomegranate trees were very verdant and some were burgeoning with fruit.

Verdant garden

Pomegranates

Grape arbor

The chili peppers were also beginning to ripen.

Peppers

The figs here are incredible. As soon as they begin to split their skin, you know they are ripe. Oh, to have a fig.

Fruits from the vine


We visited one home that had an early copy of the Communist Manifesto in Arabic.

Communist Manifesto in Arabic


I then went to Mishmar Ayalon to stay with my cousins on a moshav, a small agricultural community with a little less of a socialist streak than the kibbutzim: land is owned individually, and not everyone is involved with agriculture. They too had a fig tree which was readily climbable. Oh, glorious figs. (Their passion fruit tree was just starting to mature, resulting in slightly tart fruit.)

My cousin then took me to Mini Israel, which is like a model village but has miniature versions of major landmarks of the region. Some favorites included the Baha’i Gardens, complete with the staircases and red-roofed houses of the surrounding German Quarter of Haifa.

Mini Bahá'í Gardens

The gardener is a nephew of my cousin, and had studied in Holland how to grow bonsai trees. When the nephew tried to introduce the Dutch techniques to the Middle East, the trees wound up growing too big due to the abundance of sunlight! He was eventually successful in growing tiny plants at Mini Israel: a tiny pomegranate tree had perfectly small fruits and flowers.

Bonsai Pomegranate

The Basilica of the Annunciation had the architectural details down, but didn’t have the wonderful murals and mosaics of the original.

Mini Basilica of the Annunciation

The Dome of the Rock was very impressive, and even had a small Mount of Olives behind it.

Mini Dome of the Rock

At the Western Wall (Kotel), you could leave notes and someone would transport them to the actual wall.

Mini Western Wall

There was even a small version of the ruins at Caesarea.

Mini Caesarea

MEET did a great job of showing us the area from north to south in six weeks, and it was wonderful to see a concise summary of our travels in one place.


And so ends my updates about MEET. I loved exploring the Middle East both gastronomically and geographically, but I especially loved teaching the brilliant, creative, and very adult students that compose the program. Thank you to everyone who made this summer incredible!

Nahsholim

After emerging from the desert covered in a thick layer of dust and salt, we made for the seaside kibbutz of Nahsholim, which means “tidal waves” in Hebrew. With a beach and ruins dating back to the time of the Canaanites, Nahsholim was resplendent with plumeria and numerous other flowers.

Plumeria

Pink plumeria

The northern beach had a sign admonishing us to not swim in the clear green Mediterranean water.

Don't swim?

In the evening, we drove up to the town of Zikhron Ya’akov and wandered off in search of dinner. We came across a pub called “The Hobbit”, complete with wizard decorations and not very low ceilings. The drink menu was in English, but the food one was in Hebrew, which made ordering somewhat difficult. We managed to get pretty good burgers and enjoyed listening to 1990s rock in the dark room of the pub.

The Hobbit

The next morning, Mor and I went to the restaurant in search of the breakfast provided by the hotel. I’m always timid about kosher dairy meals, but this was perhaps one of the best I’ve had: scrambled eggs; halva; fresh, stewed, and dried fruits; olives; and pickled fish. The 12 types of labane, yogurt, and cheese didn’t really appeal, but I was incredibly pleased with the food selection.

Later, some of us decided to explore beyond the resort beach. A small knoll stood to the north end of the cove, where we could see ruins from an ancient fortress. Excavations in the area have apparently found items left by Napoleon’s armada, and a group of archeologists were hard at work (not pictured) recovering relics and old pottery shards. When you have a site that’s been inhabited for roughly 4,000 years, you’re pretty likely to find all sorts of artifacts!

North from Nahsholim

Where the rocks meet the water, pools had been carved into the stones. Was this part of an ancient palace or fortress?

Herod's fortress

Ruins and waves

Timid exploration of the rocks yielded to jumping into the deep pools, mostly protected from the waves.

Swimming in the pools

Swimming group

After splashing around, it became apparent that the pools were deep enough to accommodate jumping, so Ben climbed a rocky knob and sprang into the water.

Ben launches

Kathleen followed suit.

About to enter

We spent the rest of the morning jumping off the rocks and exploring the small grottoes of the area.

Invisible chair

Houston, we have liftoff

Reluctantly, we loaded up the vans and headed back to Jerusalem.

Ad Hoc Desert Trip: Judean Edition

MSNBC visited MEET two weeks and spent a lot of quality time with my students, many of whom are featured in this clip. While it doesn’t show much actual Java or business, they did manage to capture a lot of the chaos of the water slide and of the perpetual singing of Shakira’s song with the “waka waka” chorus. Despite being pictured having water dumped on his head, Business Ben does a great job selling MEET.


We’d originally intentioned to leave last Tuesday morning for Eilat, but because of the rocket attacks, MEET cancelled our reservations and we were on our own for finding a “relaxing” activity for the instructors and staff. While Talya opted to find us bungalows at the beach for Wednesday night, several of us in the dorms were developing cabin fever and were itching to head to do something now and not wait another day. After three days of writing student evaluations, filling out surveys, and documenting the summer for the next generation of MEET instructors, the prospect of spending another day in Jerusalem was not very exciting.

In the spirit of last summer’s rather ad-hoc trip to Death Valley (seat of the pants planned and executed), all the instructors piled into the vans on about an hour’s notice and headed for the Dead Sea sometime on that Tuesday afternoon. Where exactly we’d go, or if we’d spend the night anywhere were undetermined. Yela!

Because of the State Department’s travel restrictions for the area, which MIT applies to folks traveling with MIT money/on MIT business, we weren’t able to take the direct route to the lowest point on earth, which takes a little over an hour and looks something like this:

j-to-dead-sea.png

Even though we wouldn’t have to pass through checkpoints, if MIT says we can’t enter the West Bank, we can’t enter the West Bank. Instead, we had to go all the way out of Jerusalem to the west towards Tel Aviv, turn south, pass through Be’er Sheva and Arad, then take a long (three hour), winding mountain road:

j-to-dead-sea-2.png

The highways to the desert start off along agricultural fields, but the expanses of corn and grapevines quickly give way to arid desert and Bedouin villages. In contrast to the lush green campus of Hebrew University and the tree-lined streets of Tel Aviv, these villages lack sanitary services, sidewalks, or any sort of infrastructure. Trash collects along the highways and in depressions in the towns. Houses are built out of corrugated metal and wood scraps. This is not the route the tour buses take.

After navigating the twisty desert road past markers indicating how far in meters we were below sea level, we arrived at the inland seashore, opened the van doors, and almost fainted due to the heat.

Where the dry, barren mountains meet the Dead Sea are a cluster of hotels and shops selling Dead Sea mud and other skin treatments. I’d rather not know what their bills are for air conditioning and fresh water.

Dead Sea Hotels

Ignoring the stores, we changed into our bathing suits and stepped into the intensely (magnesium) salty water. Maybe the sea would be cooler than the air? No such luck; it was probably 105˚F outside, and the water couldn’t have been much colder. Despite the lack of temperature differential, we had a lovely time effortlessly bobbing in the water.

Sababa!

Floating discussion

Relaxing

Parallel floatation

Blurry sea

Like the rest of the region, the Dead Sea is home to numerous feral cats and kittens, picking through trashcans, climbing trees, and generally looking forlorn in the darkness.

Dead Sea cats

Around nine at night, one van of sane, boring people opted to return to Jerusalem, while a group of seven intrepid instructors remained in the Judean Desert, hoping to climb Mount Masada at sunrise. The Magnificent (or Stupid) Seven set out in search of food for the next morning. Heading up Route 90, we passed Masada and eventually reached Ein Gedi where the beachside convenience store was still open around 10 pm. Despite being disgustingly hot for 10 pm, Ein Gedi was rather alive: feral cats were eating pita bread out of trash cans and a bonfire was roaring near the edge of the parking lot.

We retraced our drive back to Masada and prepared to sleep in the “campground”, a generous term applied to a broad, flat parking area carved out of gravel, sand, and small rocks. Picnic tables? Grills? Nah; just rocks. Spreading our towels on the desert floor, we admired the stars, listened to a group of French pilgrims party at an adjacent campsite, and eventually drifted off into fitful sleep, interrupted by gravel and pebbles poking into our backs.

Sometime in the middle of the night, I hear a very very strange noise: somewhere between clearing one’s throat and squeegeeing a bathtub. I turned over, unable to place the sound, focusing instead on how absurdly warm it was—without blankets, we were still baking in the desert night. Whatever that sound had been, it was not worse than the nocturnal heat keeping us awake.

At 4 am, we woke up and began repacking ourselves into the van. I started the van and turned around from the parking spot, waiting to flip on the lights until we were pointing away from the French pilgrims. Once the high beams were on I found that the windshield was covered in streaks of dust so thick that I could hardly see outside. There’d been no wind at night; what had happened to cover the windshield? Eugene and Jenny had attempted to sleep on the roof of the van, but Eugene’d given up sometime before we awoke and slid off the roof via the window, hence the odd sound and dusty streaks. Mysteries solved.

We parked at Masada and unloaded in the predawn stillness. Michaela was so pleased that she had trouble containing her glee at being up before sunrise.

Leaving before dawn

After paying 25 NIS to enter the park, we began the 350 meter vertical ascent up the side of the mountain along the Snake Path. Winding over two kilometers along a sheer cliff, the Snake Path was a secret route taken by rebels to avoid the Roman legions laying siege to the rebels’ mountain stronghold.

Eventually, the sky began to lighten and we could make out the cables for the cable car against the eastern sky. Even before sunrise, we’d worked up significant sweats in the relentless heat.

Dead Sea Dawn

Clouds drifted over the waning gibbous moon.

Moon over Masada

The path seemed like it’d never end.

Last few steps of the Snake Path

Finally, we ascended the summit.

Pre-Masada sunrise

Intrepid hikers

The sun rose over the mountains of Jordan, a bright magenta orb ascending rapidly over silhouetted peaks.

Sunrise over the Dead Sea

Mountains, sun, and clouds

We headed to the northern end of the mountain to see the ruins of King Herod’s formerly luxurious palace, but were deterred by the hordes of tour groups swarming the mountaintop.

Ruins of Herod's Masada palace

One tour guide dressed in a white toga and a huge floppy blond wig was leading a group of British students around Masada. I stepped aside to allow his group pass me on a staircase and said “boker tov” (good morning) to him. Without missing a beat, he brightly turned to his group and stated, “And here’s a rebel! You can even practice your Hebrew with her.” I think I uttered something along the lines of “toda” (thank you), smiled, and went on my way.

Turning south, we left the crowds and went to the other end of the plateau, which was mostly deserted except for us.

Hiking to the south

Our next destination was a staircase leading into the mountain. We descended the stairs into a giant water cistern carved by King Herod’s workers.

Entering the cistern

Moon from inside the cistern

Carved into the living rock and sealed with eight layers of plaster and large enough to hold thousands of cubic meters of water, this cistern was part of a complex network of water diversion and storage chambers. As Masada gets only a few millimeters of rain a year, it was important in ancient times to gather as much water as possible during the winter rains in order to last during the dry months.

Cistern interiror

Ascending out of the cistern, we headed for the southern point of the rhomboid known as Masada. The southern lookout point was too windy to experience the echoing cliffs, so we turned around and three of us descended along the Snake Path, burning hot even at 8 am. The remaining four took the cable car down the mountain.

Cable car terminus

We were treated to some beautiful views of the Dead Sea and the surrounding valleys, filled with rills and wadis.

Dead Sea morning

Valley of rills and wadis

After drinking several liters of water, iced tea, and Gatorade, we loaded into the sandy and salty van and headed off for points west. I took the first driving shift, and after a few minutes I glanced in the rearview mirror to see that all my passengers had passed out. We stopped at some nameless desert town, purchased “lunch”, switched drivers, and continued off to the coast. For going from having no plan to climbing Masada 16 hours later at dawn, I’d say we did pretty well.

Dome of the Rock and Church of the Redeemer

I’d been wanting to go to the Dome of the Rock on Mount Moriah/Temple Mount/Noble Sanctuary for months, and when Ted suggested that I ask some of my students to take the instructors, it seemed like I’d found the best way to visit.

In Judaism, the Temple Mount is where G-d rested, gathered dust to create Adam, and called Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. The two Jewish Temples were built here as well around the Foundation Stone. In Islam, the Noble Sanctuary is the third holiest site for Muslims, and it is where the prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven by stepping on the Foundation Stone. The Dome of the Rock, on top of Mount Moriah, is one of the oldest Mulsim buildings in the world.

There’s a very rickety staircase descending from a parking lot by East Jerusalem/Damascus Gate, which has graffiti of which I’m rather fond.

Use at your own risk/I miss you

We met Sandra, Jumana, and her sister Lamia outside of Damascus Gate this morning and began making our way along the crowded cobblestone alleys of the Old City.

Entering Damascus Gate

The guard at the first gate told us that only Muslims could go that way, not tourists, so we pressed onward, opting to cut through the plaza at the Western Wall, then head toward the ramp at the southern end of the Kotel (Western Wall) up to the Temple Mount/Mount Moriah.

Apparently you can’t enter the Western Wall if you’re wearing a hijab, so Jumana and Lamia left the group to go through a Muslims-only gate and rejoin us at top of the mount. We passed through security and emerged into the courtyard in front of the Western Wall/Kotel. I didn’t know if it’d be appropriate to bring Domo-kun into the women’s section, but he did properly morn the destruction of the Temple.

Domo-kun visits the Western Wall

We exited the Kotel plaza, did a U-turn, and entered the security queue for taking a ramp to Mount Moriah. The security fellow tried to give Sandra some hassle, but she stood firm and we were able to pass through the metal detectors. The ramp appears to be temporary: it’s a wooden scaffolding with tarps on the first portion.

Ascending the Temple Mount

The ramp to Mount Moriah

Prayer at the Kotel.

Kotel

From the ramp, you can see to the south of Jerusalem.

South from the Kotel

At the first turn of the ramp was stacked numerous riot shields. I really don’t want to think about what the Jerusalem police expect here.

Riot gear

We emerged into the relative quiet and calm of the Sanctuary’s plaza, portions of which were covered in remnants of old columns.

Columnar remains

Columns

Further in, we saw the Al-Aqsa Mosque, which we are not allowed to enter as non-Muslims.

Al-Aqsa Mosque

Beyond some pine trees and a fountain, we saw the Dome of the Rock in all of its glory. The dome is made of 24 karat gold. The architects did an amazing job creating this building.

Dome of the Rock

Sondy at the Dome of the Rock

Like the rest of Jerusalem, there was even a feral cat.

Kitty in the courtyard

The detail at the shrine was amazing: the tiles were incredible beautiful, and the marble used was out of this world. It makes sense that a shrine for a holy rock would include some pretty phenomenal metamorphic rocks!

Niche

Niche details

Mosque detail

Flowering plants

Green marble column

Prayer niche

Wild marble columns

Rosette

Mosque and arches

Dome of the Rock and ladder

The doors were constructed from copper.

Copper door

Sandra, Ben, and Jumana posed for a photo, and I got one with all three students.

Sandra, Ben, Jumana at the Dome

Students

We left Mount Moriah, passing by other gates.

Morocco Gate

The Old City is always full of surprises.

Love cassettes

Amazing parking job

Sandra then took us to the Church of the Redeemer, built by German Lutherans.

Lutheran Church of the Redeemer

We had to pay 5 NIS to get in, and the church initially seemed a little plain, but Sandra held open a nondescript door and smiled, so I followed her directions. Inside the door was a very narrow spiral staircase going up to the top of a very tall tower. Climbing in the heat was a bit of an adventure, but we eventually emerged to the top of the tower and were rewarded with an incredible view.

Ben in the tower

Church of the Holy Sepulcher

Church of the Holy Sepulcher

Our dorms on Mount Scopus

Dorms at Mount Scopus

Mount of Olives

Mount of Olives

Church of the Redeemer

Spire of the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer

South of Jerusalem and the Security Barrier

Security Barrier

We made our way back along the vendors hawking spices, dresses, lingerie from China, cheap plastic toys, men’s clothing, and candy, including a mountain of zatar with a model Dome of the Rock on top.

The Dome of the Spices

MEET: the end of teaching

The last week of MEET came and almost went with the instructors, especially in year 2, feeling a little overwhelmed. Despite some brief breaks for Greek dancing and other shenanigans, we were a bit worn down.

Ted teaches Greek dancing

The projects weren’t going as well as they could have been; we were constantly being interrupted by visitors; and it didn’t feel like we’d really taught the students what we’d set out to do at the beginning of the summer. A circle of students had formed during lab one day, channeling “ghosts from the underworld” and all chanting “Java sucks, Java sucks, Java sucks…”

Java brings students together

I’d been up past 1 am for two consecutive nights trying to debug my students’ code to no avail. Something worked at one point, and Ted managed to capture the “it compiles!” moment. Probably the happiest I was all week.

It compiles!

Even the year 3 instructors were having trouble focusing during the end-of-the-day meetings: their goofing off escalated into a full-scale card-throwing war that enveloped several year 2 instructors in their skirmish.

Card Fight I

Card Fight II

I know you’re thinking, “This place has really gone to the dogs!” And you’re right. It was a balagan, without the positive connotations. Then, one afternoon, one of our board members came by and started telling us what the visitors had been saying. Who’d been visiting MEET? You know, the usual suspects: The ambassadors from Norway, Japan, and Germany; Ethan Bronner of the New York Times; Warren Spielberg of the New School; Ben Reis; Dan Ariely… and that was just the beginning. Anat began telling us how impressed the visitors were with what MEET had created: “normal” interactions for our students in both the lab and outside on the field during snacks. Even Media Line did a nice piece on MEET, available here, as well as a video. After a particularly taxing few weeks, it was nice to hear some external encouragement and validation for the work we’d been doing.

The program ended on Thursday with the students’ final presentations and class council elections. After a few delays, we all made it down to lunch and an inflatable water slide. Some of the year 1 girls decided that this would be an excellent opportunity to ponytail Justin’s hair.

Justin's new hairstyle

“More about the water slide,” you demand! My students thought about trying to dunk me, but I pre-empted them by changing into a year 2 t-shirt and shorts and going down head first. Eyal decided that since he was so soaked that it would be a great opportunity to provide some very damp hugs to Veronica, who appeared very dry and happy with her current state.

Wet hug, part I

Veronica, as expected, wasn’t not terribly enthusiastic about this idea.

Wet hug, part II

Eyal persisted. Veronica was about to relent when…

Wet hug, part III

… two more friends of Eyal, also sopping wet, decided that Veronica needed more than one soaking wet hug. Needless to say, Veronica was non-plussed. But then she went and hopped in the slide, all smiles.

After cleaning up epic amounts of trash, the instructors piled into vans and headed into Jerusalem for MEAT BURGER. It is what it sounds like. And not kosher, so if you want cheese and bacon on your burger, you’re set.

Meat Burger


The next evening, after writing evaluations of my students, updating the wiki, and filling out more surveys, I went into Jerusalem to meet my (distant) cousin for dinner. I passed through the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood and encountered a gathering of protesters. I wasn’t entirely clear what they wanted, but the signs in English said, “Jerusalem will not be Hebron”, and “Co-existence in Sheikh Jarrah”. They also had a pirate flag.

Jerusalem will not be Hebron (complete with pirate flag)

Further down Route 60, I walked past the Museum on the Seam (the 1949 Armistice Line) with its sign that reads, “OLIVE TREES WILL BE OUR BORDERS”.

Olive Trees Will Be Our Borders

All I knew before meeting my cousin was that his name is Mario Baras, and that he immigrated here at age 16 from Brazil after his family fled there from Europe before the Holocaust. He and his son Yoav picked me up and we drove almost down to Tel Aviv, where they live on a moshav (a community of ~100 families, several of whom farm the land). We stopped to get gas, and I saw a Haredi man filling up his motorcycle’s tank. On the back seat there was a specialized holder for his black hat!

Hat holder for haredim

Mario’s moshav is very quiet and is in a lovely area south of the road to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv. I ate figs directly off the tree Yoav planted when he was tiny, as well as passion fruits from the neighbor’s tree. Sababa! We then headed into Rehovot for dinner, and the pasta bar had GLUTEN-FREE PASTA. Granted, it tasted sort of like cardboard, but it was still EDIBLE PASTA.

Gluten-free pasta

It’s been incredibly hot here: ~100˚F/38˚C, with more humidity than usual. I’ve been brave and have been wandering the Old City and East Jerusalem in search of postcards, ceramic pomegranates, scarves, and other souvenirs, but I sort of feel like I’ve been swimming when I return back inside.


Tonight is the year 3 students’ graduation, and then we’re leaving early in the morning to hike Masada at sunrise. We’re also supposed to head to Eilat tomorrow for a few days of R&R on the Red Sea, and the weather seems to get hotter and hotter every time I look at the forecast.

Picture 4.png

On top of that, some folks have decided that this morning was an excellent time to fire rockets at Eilat, which missed and injured some folks in the neighboring city of Aqaba, Jordan. I hope this doesn’t cause MEET to cancel our retreat down there. It’s only acceptable in my mind to lob rockets at inanimate things like the moon, Mars, asteroids, Neptune, Trojan asteroids, etc. And by “lob at” I mean “carefully design a mission to”. We clear on that? Thanks.

EDIT: okay, we’re now not going to Eilat. Nothing can abate the strength of my displeasure.

The Desert Speaks

We really had no idea what was in store for us when we pulled up at the auto dealership in Tel Aviv. Something about borrowing “Jeep-type vehicles” had been floating around, but we certainly weren’t expecting almost new 4x4s in the form of Mitsubishi Hunters (also known as the Magnum or Triton) and Pajeros (Desert edition). With cruise control. Plenty of power. Sufficient air conditioning. Amazing suspensions. Petrol costs covered by a generous donor. Sweet!

An eternity passed as we packed the vehicles, rearranged who was in what truck, and eventually set off for points south and hot. Shortly out of Tel Aviv, we passed this incredible cement plant on the way down to the desert. You’d hardly ever see anything industrial this colorful in the US.

Nesher Cement Factory

Dust devils followed us down the highway as we passed farms, vineyards, and fields of corn.

Dust Devil

Our first stop was Midreshet Sde Boker, a kibbutz on the Negev Desert. David Ben-Gurion retired here after serving as Israel’s first prime minister. His intent: to live out his dream of being a desert pioneer; farming the land and making the desert green. The kibbutzniks, however, told him to just write his memoirs instead of trying to till the land.

The tombs for Ben-Gurion and his wife Paula overlook a vast wadi (dry riverbed; equivalent to an arroyo in Spanish), Tsin Valley. Ben-Gurion had hoped the Negev would be the future of Israel and would bloom as settlers moved to and developed the desert. Some portions of the arid expanses have been given over to agriculture, irrigating with wastewater recovered from Tel Aviv, but at present, there are only a few hundred thousand living in the desert. The lack of residents allows for the preservation of the incredible beauty of this area.

Holding Hands

Tsin Valley

Looking out at the Negev

Our caravan of 4x4s then turned off the main highway and plunged into the Tsin Valley. I’d driven down terrible dirt and gravel roads in New Mexico in my Camry, but nothing could compare to rumbling over rocks, creek beds, and sandstone slabs with ease as we followed the 4×4 track to the Ein Akev oasis.

Ein Akev

Fed by a spring half-way up a waterfall, the pool at Ein Akev was effectively bottomless as we plunged into its bluegreen depths. It’s astounding at how abruptly its cool, dark water ends and dry desert rock begins.

Jumping into Ein Akev

While we were in the pool, an ibex came by to watch us. We returned to the top of the valley, and Kim was euphoric to be driving the Hunter we had commandeered.

Kim takes on the terrain

Back on the highway, we continued further south as a waxing gibbous moon rose above the desert.

Moonrise on Route 40

Numerous signs warned us that camels would be alongside the road, but I wasn’t really expecting an entire herd.

Negev Camels

We soon arrived at the town of Mitzpe Ramon (Roman Lookout), a poor desert enclave with a majestic view of Makhtesh Ramon. Makhtesh Ramon is the remnant of a mountain that was once encrusted with harder rocks surrounding softer assemblages. Water began eroding the mountain, revealing layer upon layer of clay from an ancient ocean floor. Small volcanoes left mounds of basalt on top of limestone formations, leaving the floor of the makhtesh dappled with browns, beige, and white.

Makhtesh Ramon

The road we took into the makhtesh had a few warnings.

Dangerous Curves

Again, we diverged from the paved road and set out into the gathering darkness along a 4×4 track toward our campsite. There was some discussion about where the group had stayed during previous years. While we were waiting for Mustafa to confirm our camp’s location, an impromptu dance party began on top of the other Hunter.

Dancing in the moonlight

4x4 sunset

After making dinner and establishing a gigantic bonfire of forklift pallets (“It has to be visible from SPACE!” demanded Ben), Kim, Eric, and I decided to hike up the mountain overlooking our camp (the one in the shot of the three vehicles). The moon had risen a few degrees, so the desert was mostly bathed in soft light. Our path, being on the northwestern edge of the ridge, was shaded from the moon, so our climb was softly illuminated by starlight and photons reflected from the sun to the moon to the valley below.

The first part of the hike mostly involved walking up a gentle sandy slope, which gave way to a steeper hill covered in sharp rocks. We pressed onward until we reached an almost vertical cliff made out of the desert stone that composed the final few dozen feet of the ridge. Rather than go around the ridge and look for a shoulder with less of a slope, I opted to scramble straight up the cliff face. The rough rocks made it easy to boulder straight up the cracks in the stone, though the occasional rock did dislodge and tumble off into the darkness.

I pulled myself up onto the lip of the ridge and almost fell off the cliff in shock at the brightness of the moonlight and the starkness of the other side of the ridge. The eastern flank of the ridge was one long slab of hard sandstone at a 45˚ angle from the desert floor that descended for hundreds of feet down toward the other side of the valley. I was reminded of Vasquez Rocks in the Mojave, jutting out at an acute angle from the ground, perfect for filming scenes from Star Trek.

At the top of the ridge we encountered six or so other instructors who’d taken the easy way up: along the shoulder and back of the ridge. They, alas, didn’t appreciate our hardcore tale of freeclimbing in the dark. The way down was much easier as we passed a mysterious pipeline under construction alongside high voltage wires strung between towers, transformers humming incessantly in the otherwise quiet night.

The next morning we awoke as the sun rose over the desert. MEET graciously provided us sleeping bags but not bedrolls, so, operating under the assumption that a corrugated plastic floor would be more comfortable than a rocky desert one, I’d slept in the bed of one of the Hunters. Better than the beds at the hostel in Carmel!

As the day brightened, we looked at the ridge we’d climbed, which looked a lot more impressive in the darkness than it did in the daylight. Turns out it rises about 250′ from the desert floor, but what it lacked in elevation it made up in the last cliff’s being all but straight up.

We climbed this mountain

We cleaned up camp and set out for the day.

Cleaning up camp

Even Domo-kun was ready for a day of four-wheeling about the desert.

Domo-kun wants to go driving!

We crossed the makhtesh and came across Nabatean ruins along the former spice trade route. This former khan, or inn, along the route was once two stories and was a rest stop of sorts for traders and their camels bringing frankincense and myrrh through the Middle East. The Nabateans were known for their secrecy and understanding of the desert—they were the ones who built Petra in Jordan, and even managed to develop terraced agriculture here in the incredibly arid climate of the Negev.

Nabatean ruins

Our next sojourn off the paved road took us to the edge of an IDF firing range. We all stopped as the tour guide put a call into the military to check if we could use the road. While we waited for them to ring him back, it became rapidly apparent that it was imperative for everyone to pose with the amazing sign we had encountered.

Danger! Photography ahead

The “all clear” came through and we set off, passing mountains that looked like basaltic syrup on top of vanilla limestone, something you could buy at the store in the ice cream section of the numerous convenience stores across the country.

Mountain

Continuing onward along a dry riverbed in the firing range, we saw Mustafa’s Pajero in our review window one moment, then he was gone. Where was he? We stopped to see if he would catch up. No sign of his truck. And the other 4x4s had disappeared as well. Eric and Ben climbed a hill and scanned the horizon, looking for any evidence of Mustafa or the trucks that’d been in front of us. Mustafa was behind us to the south! The other trucks hadn’t waited, but we could see them further up to the north. Fantastic. I turned the Hunter around and we rumbled back along the wadi to find Mustafa et al. changing a rather ripped tire.

Changing a tire

Their wrench wasn’t up to the task, so we loaned them ours and gunned it back along the wadi. Just after spying the other vehicles, we saw a rather intimidating-looking sign.

Danger Mines!

Of course, more photos were obtained.

We climbed up a very horrible patch of “road” (I use this term generously) studded with terribly sharp rocks and big ruts and parked behind the other Hunter, the contents of which were also changing a tire that had seen better days. The manual, of course, was in Hebrew, which didn’t help many of them all that much.

Punctured tire

The road wound up along more wadis up the side of a ridge, but lost the sharp rocks characteristic of the lower track through the firing range/minefield.

4x4 trail

We emerged to a saddleback with the ridges of the makhtesh rippling off into the distance above basaltic volcano leftovers.

Ridges

Along with the basaltic hills, various folds in the clay of the ancient sea floor poked up at the border of the makhtesh.

Sedimentary folds

After enjoying the overlook and the incredible vista of the makhtesh, we started back toward Tel Aviv, pausing to grill lunch at Mitzpe Ramon amid a stray cat and a very deserted sculpture park overlooking the makhtesh and an abandoned housing development.

We arrived back in Jerusalem covered in a layer of thick desert dust, ready to take on our final week of teaching at MEET. The title of this post comes from the Hebrew words for “desert” (המדבר) and “speaks” (מדבר) are only one letter apart. There’s something about the dry, clean, solitary landscape that’s refreshing for the soul.

Sounds of Thursday

We returned to the apartments tonight to the sound of wedding celebration fireworks and the evening call to prayer from East Jerusalem, Shu’afat, and beyond. The fireworks have continued for the last two hours, as have the prayers sung out from the minarets.

In the midst of this cacophony, Shiri and I decided to make something with the vast quantity of lentils that I acquired last week and eventually settled on this recipe (though only the soup part). We didn’t have fennel, ginger, cinnamon, saffron, parsley, bay leaves, sugar, or chickpeas, but the stew turned out pretty fabulously. I know what I’m having for breakfast tomorrow! I’ve never had standby dinner plans beyond “steam chard; cook rice; heat chicken sausages”, so it’s incredibly satisfying to find robust recipes that can be easily made night after night.

The next culinary goal is handmade tortillas, perhaps for a Mexican-inspired birthday meal on Sunday (we’ll see how perky the instructor team is after returning from four-wheeling around the Negev Desert all weekend). We’re doing pretty well without an oven, though I’d be curious to hear thoughts on no-bake dessert recipes.

While browsing the store tonight for chicken and watermelon tonight, Shiri and I encountered a display of my favorite local snack: Bamba (בַּמְבָּה‎; corn poofs that look like large Cheetos, except flavored with peanut butter instead of cheese). Not only did they have the chocolate nougat-filled Bamba that my students had brought to MEET today, but also halva (חלבה)-filled Bamba. Sababa! Will we be able to find strawberry-flavored Bamba (“Red Bamba”) before we leave in a few weeks? Stay tuned for more…

North: Akko, Haifa, Nazareth

Bright and early Friday morning the instructors rolled out of bed and loaded into the vans for a tour of the northern areas: Akko/Acre, Haifa, Nazareth, and the Galilee. Our first stop was along Route 6 to pick up our tour guide, recommended by the fellow who showed us around Old Jaffa the other weekend.  We then proceeded to drive across the rolling hills of the north toward the Lebanese border.

Lebanese Border

While we were taking in the view and learning about the history of the conflict with Lebanon and the Bedouins, several IDF vehicles pulled up, some with machine gun turrets. Just business as usual around here.  Strange to think that some of our students could be doing this in a year or two. They asked us not to take photos of them, so we complied (they were armed!).

Cow jam

On the way back from the lookout, we encountered a traffic jam. Ben managed to capture the moment, complete with my driving the van surrounded by cows.

South from the border with Lebanon

We then retraced our steps and headed toward the sea to the coastal border with Lebanon at a place called Rosh HaNikra, the only non-sandy bit of coastline in the area. The coast was just as warm as Jerusalem, but strikingly more humid.

Rosh Hanikra rocks

Rosh HaNikra has these incredible white cliffs studded with bits of flint. We took a cable car down the cliff to an old railbed that once ran along the coast.

A tunnel had been dug to accommodate the train through the cliffs, and apparently in this process a number of natural grottoes had been discovered, extending far back into the cliffs.

Reflecting blue sea; illuminated red rocks

Inside the grottoes

Looking out from a grotto

Inside the grottoes it was much cooler, but still incredibly humid. The caves were packed with other tourists snapping photos of the turquoise green water rushing in and out of the clefts in the rock. Think Carlsbad Caverns meets the Mediterranean.  I’d love to try kayaking through here at low tide, or even SCUBA diving here!

Flint embedded in the cliffs

Elephant Rock

We emerged from the grottoes to see waves crashing against the cliffs in the strong daylight.

Proto Grottoes

Smaller grottoes inhabited by pigeons could be seen forming in the cliff faces.

Strange fruit at Rosh HaNikra

We took the cable car back up the cliff and encountered a fruit vendor selling lychee, passion fruit, figs, and a very strange tropical fruit that looked more like a fish than a fruit. It had a texture like aloe, bright magenta pulp, and big black seeds. The folks at the local kibbutz who grow these fruits pollinate them by hand at night.

Jezzar Pasha Mosque

Our next stop was the ancient town of Akko/Acre (inhabited for approximately 10,000 years), including the beautiful Mosque of Jezzar Pasha built by the Ottoman Empire there. While putting on scarves and coverups before entering the mosque, I asked the attendant if I needed something to cover my knees since I was wearing shorts. He pointed at the scarves and skirts, responding, “These are only for ladies, not for men.” I guess the short hair signals “MALE” despite the other visual and auditory clues I provide?  Amusement aside, this is the first time I’ve passed as male since I was once bundled head to toe in ski gear in elementary school.

The mosque was beautiful: calligraphy, marble, granite, stained glass, and a gorgeous dome. Outside, the gardens were blooming with plumeria, hibiscus, and roses.

Change in Acco

Octopus

We continued on through Akko, seeing graffiti (perhaps Paul the Octopus?) and blue doors (to ward off evil spirits, as is common in areas once inhabited by the Greeks) everywhere.

Driving into Akko was pure madness.  The narrow streets are hardly wide enough to deal with one car, much less our huge van and whatever other lunatic hurdling past us at maximum warp in the opposite direction.  The heat was starting to get to me, so I was quite exhausted by the time we rolled into town and I was faced with navigating through a number of hairy situations on blind 90˚ turns in the middle of the Old City as we tried to find parking for both vehicles.  When we finally found a spot and I had pulled in the mirrors, Talya remarked, “you’re such a calm driver!”

Palace ruins in Acco

At the waterfront, we saw the remnants of a palace that used to have a chamber for sea water to flow under its floors.

Cliff Jumping 1

Cliff Jumping 2

Cliff Jumping 3

Cliff Jumping 4

Further down the wharf we encountered boys jumping off the wall (30 or 40 feet high and almost 30 feet wide; survived bombardment by Napoleon’s armies) into the sea. I had half a mind to join them, but the tour guide kept saying, “yela! yela!” (let’s go, let’s go!) so I moseyed onward.

Baha'i Gardens

We drove back south to Haifa to see the Baha’i Gardens that take up most of the slant height of Mount Carmel.

Haifa from the Baha'i Gardens

Haifa is a blue collar port city with Druze, Muslims, Christians, and Jews living side by side. There’s even a Google office here!

Engagement photo shoot

She matches the petunias

A photographer was in the garden with a couple, taking what I can only assume were engagement shots. Her dress was stunning: backless with sheer fabric studded with gemstones. Amazing. She blended in perfectly among the petunias. If I had been the photographer, I’d have waited for later in the summer when the light was lower to do the shots.

Templar's Church, Mount Carmel

Back up Mount Carmel (where the prophet Elijah once squared off against a pagan prophet) we saw a church built by Templars at the end of the Crusades.

View from the Baha'i Gardens on Mount Carmel

We returned to the Baha’i Gardens, but this time from above (900′ higher). The view, as usual, was incredible. The large white building in the center left is used for storing flour shipped in from the rest of the world.

Sunset from French Carmel

We drove further down to Carmel on the coast and went to the beach as the sun was setting. I waded out into the water to enjoy the last minutes of daylight as Orbital’s “Halcyon + On + On” wafted over the waves from the beach restaurant.

Sunrise from Carmel

In the morning I was treated to this view of pink-tinged clouds rising above houses on top of the cliff near our youth hostel.

Mary

We left for Nazareth and went to the Basilica of the Annunciation. A statue of Mary was surrounded by a labyrinth with Platonic solids in its corners.

Ceiling

The church itself was built in the 1960s, but managed to be very tasteful and architecturally interesting.  Several grottoes were preserved to the side of the church, including one known as “The Virgin’s Kitchen”.

Inside the Basilica

Built to resemble a lily (representing Mary’s purity), the church had two levels, the lower one encompassing a grotto.  Inside the lower level, a mass was being conducted in Spanish.

Upstairs at the Basilica

The upper level had an opening (to the left in this image) down to the lower level and the grotto as well as numerous mosaic murals commemorating the angel Gabriel’s telling Mary the good news, and of the Madonna and Child. I walked past a tour group from Spain standing beneath the Spanish mosaic and singing hymns. The artistic styles were all very different, yet it was beautiful to see such interesting variations on a theme.

Madonna and Child from Japan

Japan

Madonna and Gabriel from the Philippines

Philippines

Madonna from Nazareth

Nazareth

Mural from Thailand

Thailand

After leaving Nazareth, getting stuck in some awful traffic, and navigating the highways of the north, we met up with the rest of the group at the Jordan River for an afternoon of kayaking. The Galilee/Golan was less humid than the coast, but was it ever hot. Eric and I commandeered an inflatable kayak and began to paddle down the gentle river, passing by banks filled with families grilling food, smoking hookah, and listening to music. We joined swimmers in splashing one another and even discovered a rope swing. The cold river water was quite the delightful shock as we took turns jumping into the river. Running the rapids resulted in a few splashes, and we even decided to take one backwards in the kayak. Totally worth the three hour drive home.

This week we have a day away from MEET due to it being the Ninth of Av.  We’re taking this as an opportunity to catch up on work, sleep, and cooking.  Last night I made a chicken-lemon-cilantro stew with tomato and vegetables (based on this recipe).  While the store had neither salsa nor lime juice, I think the stew turned out pretty well: not very heavy, and with plenty of flavor.

Tomorrow our students are participating in MEET’s “Apprentice” program: they get to help a startup develop business plans.  Yohanan, MEET alum extraordinaire and MEET’s transportation coordinator, has opened a juice bar with MEET’s student relations manager Mustafa and the two want to double their revenue.  Our students tomorrow get to come with suggestions on how to increase the customer base for the juice stand, and we’re really looking forward to seeing what ideas they generate.

Games

Weeks begin here on Sunday, and rather than starting off this one with lectures and labs, the year 2 students piled into a bus and we drove down to Caesarea, a former port city conceived of and built by King Herod on the Mediterranean Sea. Caesarea, named for the obvious ruler in Rome, has changed hands a number of times in the last 2,000+ years since its founding. Ruled by the Romans, Christians, Muslims, Crusaders, refugees from Bosnia and the Caucasus in the 19th century, and finally the Caesarea Edmond Benjamin de Rothschild Foundation, Caesarea remains standing watch over a relentlessly blue sea by a coal plant between Tel Aviv and Haifa as it has for thousands of years.

Mediterranean Sea

Coal plant

Mustafa divided us into three groups and I set out with nine students to build a scale out of ropes and pulleys. We then created a catapult out of crooked sticks and rope, solved pattern puzzles as a team, crossed 50′ of sand using boards on top of blocks, poured water from a jug to a bucket 30′ away using bamboo slats to carry the water, and even got to dabble in archery for a few minutes.

Balancing act

Returning to the van

What an astounding place to have such easy access to: Roman ruins of a stadium and racetrack; artisans’ shops; great SCUBA diving; and lots of lush grass. Did the year 2 students come down here often on their own? One remarked that he couldn’t visit the sea unless he was with MEET due to where he lived and the permit process. Couldn’t we have a bit more unstructured time with our toes in the sand, watching the waves and skipping stones?

A brief moment of normalcy


We split on Monday into project groups to build the different components of our instant messenger client. My group is developing a plugin that lets you play games against different buddies, regardless if they’re on Google Talk, Yahoo, or Facebook chat. We didn’t start building until today, but I’m really excited to see how the students will run with the project and make it their own.

One pair in lab has all but implemented the graphics for their own version of Pong (complete with paddles and a moving ball); the hard part for them is understanding the underlying “physics” of how to make sure the ball doesn’t go through the paddle. We’ll see how it goes playing collaboratively over the network!


Earlier this week I was playing a theater game with a number of year 1 students, the one where you point at another person in the circle and say either “zip”, “zap”, or “zop”. The next person in the circle then decides whether to continue zipping or zapping around the circle, or opts to point at another player and choses one of several actions. My favorites from high school include “viking” (the selected person uses their fingers to form viking horns and the two people standing next to the viking begin paddling and chanting “Viking! Viking! Viking!”); “impersonation” (the selectee has to act like a celebrity, a mutual acquaintance, or even an animal); and “baroogah!” (everyone jumps up and shouts “baroogah!”).

The students had some other variations: “Charlie’s Angels” (three folks do the Angel pose); “astronaut” (selectee pretends to be walking in a spacesuit; folks on either side make alien ears and go “beepbeepbeepmeepbeep”); and “toast” (people on either side pretend to be a toaster oven; person in the middle hops up and calls out “bing!”). My favorite one, which almost had me falling over while laughing, had a distinctive Middle East flair: “schwarma”.

Around here, schwarma is meat of either the lamb or turkey variety roasting on a big spit rotating vertically in an oven. At the schwarma shop, the fellow behind the counter uses an electric shaving device to cut off little bits of the meat into a pan, transfers the shavings to your pita, laffa, or plate. The game version? The student in the middle rotates while the folks on either side make sizzling noises and hold their hands up, pretending to be the heating elements of the roasting oven. A fourth person begins making shaving noises and pretends to trim pieces of schwarma off of the rotating “meat”.


One of the Y1 students was having a bit of a rough day, so Michaela asked her if the student would feel better and work in lab if the student got to draw a mustache on Michaela’s face. Believe it or not, it worked.

Michaela is gangsta


Dvir and Rene were horsing around a little too rowdily before lecture the other morning, so I had the taller of the two carry the smaller up the stairs to our lecture hall. At the very least, we were all entertained.

Piggy back rides


We had Sports Day yesterday, with lots of soccer (that’s what American Football is called here), Ultimate, basketball, volleyball, paddleball, and a mysterious game involving acting like a ninja. I lost on the first round every time, but the Y2 students managed to hold their own against the other instructors and Y3s. For lack of photos of the game, here’s one of Tiny Cat from two weeks ago. See his white-tipped tail?

Tiny Cat returns!


Tonight marks the beginning of the weekend, as well as the parent event. We leave tomorrow at 7 am for the north to see the Golan as well as Nazareth. Afterward, we’re going kayaking on the Jordan! Next week we’re having some visitors from the Japanese and German embassies (the former sponsors MEET; the latter is considering doing the same), and our students will start having enough time to make great progress on their projects. We’re really looking forward to the results.

This week’s questions:

  1. What are you most looking forward to this weekend?
  2. Did you have any opportunities to “play” this week?
  3. What was something you did with unexpected results?

Thanks for reading!

Mediterranean Sea

We drove down the hill to Tel Aviv-Yafo on Friday morning, leaving behind the dry heat of Jerusalem and our first week of teaching for a weekend of humidity along the coast.

South from Old Jaffa

Jaffa/Jappo/Yafo/Yaffa has been around since at least the time of the Ancient Greeks: it’s where Perseus rescued Andromeda from the jaws of a sea monster. Even the Egyptians had a gate on the hill dedicated to one of their pharaohs.

Ramses Gate

The Ottoman Empire built fortresses in the city overlooking the transparent ocean, as well as fountains for caravans with elaborate inscriptions in Arabic.

Watering hole

On a clear day you can see to the snow-capped mountains of the north and the Gaza Strip to the south; alas, Friday proved hazy.

Tel Aviv from Jaffa/Yafo

The most incredible part of the tour was a citrus tree suspended in air growing out of an egg. Seriously.

Floating tree

Citrus in egg

We found the flea market in Jaffa, next to which a pickup truck was overloaded with watermelon. At 1 NIS/kilo, these things are incredibly cheap and tasty.

Watermelon truck

We had a lovely tour through Old Jaffa with a hilarious tour guide recommended by the American Embassy, then headed to the beach in Tel Aviv. Warm, decadent water. Big waves. Lots of wind. Random catamarans and paddle boarders bobbed by as we played in the surf.

Catamaran navigating the waves

More photos here.

Saturday morning I rolled out of bed at the youth hostel and ate the breakfast provided by the hostel (yay, free food; boo, kosher dairy meals), then went back to our room to take a nap. I woke up to find out that several of the other instructors had gone out to get brunch at a place with gluten-free bread. And didn’t bring me any. Oh, the injustice of it all. Woe.

We drove over to a beach north of the power plant in Tel Aviv for the afternoon where I spent as much time as possible swimming in the incredibly clear water. Eric and Shin got stung by jellyfish, and I still have water in my ear four days later, but it was incredible to be somewhere with no deadlines, no computers, and just sunlight, sand, and water.

In other news, teaching is going pretty well: the year 2 students adore Domo-kun, and only 24 hours after being introduced to the idea of interfaces I was able to convince an anti-interface student that this concept is awesome. Labs are occasionally a bit chaotic (big balagan), but I think for the most part our students are getting the ideas we want to convey. Hopefully week two will prove to be even better.