|My mom and I took a morning walk to the Eldan office in Jerusalem, rented another car with much more waiting and disorganization, and then I thought we'd have no problem getting out of Jerusalem. Wrong. There is a conspiracy in that city against drivers who don't love one-way ("chad-sitri") streets! Perhaps this somehow links into Jerusalem syndrome (for more on this phenomenon see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jerusalem_syndrome), but I think I just managed to exit the city without going insane.|
Our next stop was Bet Shean, where there were incredible ruins of an old city that was big in Greek/Roman/Byzantine eras. Just before getting there, I guess because we were near a Jordan border crossing, we passed a checkpoint. Up until now, at every checkpoint we have just been waved on through, but this time the officer asked for our passports and after looking through mine she told me to drive to the inspection station. So I drove over there and after no immediate response on my part to "Mah ha-inyanim?" (which is like Israeli slang for " 'S up?" and I hadn't been able to figure out what the right response should be to that -- I know now it's "b'seder" -- which is probably the most commonly spoken Hebrew phrase) -- the officer asked me to get out of the car. He then proceeded to question me about why was I in Israel, where was I coming from, who did I stay with in Jerusalem, hmmm my last name sounds like a Jewish name and is it? Why then do I say I have only friends and not any family in Israel? The response I came up with -- I'm sorry, but everyone in my family who did not make it to the US was killed 60-70 years ago -- finally satisfied him. They didn't question my mom at all. And very surprisingly to me, after all that they did not want to inspect the trunk and the massive luggage in it. I figure it must be because they had some advance intelligence on how heavy the luggage was and how it contained dirty laundry ;-) My mom later speculated they must have stopped me because of the interesting-to-Israelis stamps in my passport from visits to Muslim countries like Malaysia and Indonesia that Israelis are not allowed into. My later host, Dyanne, told me they must have had some sort of intelligence info that there was some kind of incident that day and to look for some specific kind of person. Still, I doubt it was a redhead in a rental car who could speak some of the language travelling with her mom. But anyway, after all that they gave us directions how to get to the tourism oriented antiquities site of Bet She'an.
For more on that very interesting site, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bet_Shean, and my pictures which will follow at some point. It was really a whole city, again on the scale of Ephesus in Turkey and very impressive. Pretty much under any piece of ground in Israel is some sort of deep ancient history. Unfortunately it was very hot and my mom was tired, so she didn't feel like walking around crumbling stones (which to her is what archaelogy equals) so I did it on my own and tried to come back before she melted. We also stopped at a supermarket in Bet She'an and got a great picnic lunch of baba ghannouj and hot baked pita bread.
Next stop: Kibbutz Sasa. Partway there from Bet She'an, the surroundings started to become stunningly beautiful, green and lush. This is deep in the Galilee and close to the northern border with Lebanon. We were there to visit Gideon and Rina, our CS hosts. This kibbutz was started one year after the founding of the state of Israel (1949) by some very inspired pioneers from the US and Canada, including Gideon who was there when it was a start-up and was one of the founding members! They were a lovely couple, and at age 83 he is the oldest CS host in Israel. They were featured in a newspaper article about Couchsurfing that appeared in "Yediot Achronot" (a major Israeli newspaper) in 2007, which was actually how many of my other hosts were inspired to join! So it was cool to read that article which they had a copy of, and also to hear about the starting-out days of the kibbutz which was rough. Interestingly, my mom remembered that her grandfather had had a farm in New Jersey in the 1940s-1950s and that there were some young people that were part of the kibbutz movement who lived down the road and were training for a year before making their way to the grand adventure of Israel in those days -- and their house burned down and my great-grandfather was one of the farmers that allowed them to set up tents and camp on his land in the late '40s. Gideon said that some of these people were the same ones who helped found Sasa! So, a delightful piece of history coming full circle.
Sasa is now a very successful, wealthy kibbutz which has a plastics factory which manufactures vehicle armor. While they are more famous for this, they also produce broiler chickens and have a beef herd, and grow kiwi, apple, avocado and grapefruit. Everyone who lives there has a nice amount of space and seems to be into cultivating flowering plants as a hobby, therefore it was a beautiful, colorful place. I particularly enjoyed hearing the history from Gideon, and hearing Rina's news -- she just got granted her PhD at age 70 in linguistics, which she's been working on for 6 years! Proof that one can probably accomplish anything one sets one's mind to, and a good excuse for celebrating :) That evening we got to go with them to a sort of happy-hour with drinks and desserts at the Moadon, which is like the kibbutz' clubhouse. Very fun.
The following morning, we set out to see Bar'Am, the ruins of perhaps one of the oldest synagagoues in Israel (there's a lot of competition for that title).
After that, we decided to go to the Hula Valley Nature Reserve -- and drove along Highway 899, which after having "done" Israel I can now say is my very favorite road in Israel for its amazingly spectacular stunning views. Every two minutes I wanted to stop driving and take photos and sadly I could not, so you guys will just have to go there! The area is hilly with twisty/windy but good roads, and when you're up at higher elevation you can see the agricultural fields and other landscapes unfold below...
Hula Valley is pretty damn cool too! It was a swamp which the land of Israel was going to completely drain out in the early '50s and then at the last moment the conservationists convinced them to set aside a chunk of land for a nature reserve, as this is one of the major spots of the migration of birds along the Syrian-African Rift when each year they commute between Europe and Africa. For more, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hula_Valley. The huge migration in spring tends to end by late March, and during that time you can literally see thousands of birds darkening the sky above all at once, and I'd like to go back there during that time ... but for now we had to settle for an amazingly sophisticated multimedia presentation including a 3D movie in English with special glasses AND special effects called "Frequent Fliers" -- that and seeing the reserve itself and hiking a little trail. We did get to see a fair number of water birds, including a hide constructed over the water where you can sit and observe them without them noticing you. Of course it was nothing like the mass migration but still plenty to hold the attention and of course less tourists mobbing the place than I'm sure there are in March. We also saw lots of turtles, huge African catfish, and frogs. Missed the water buffalo. Next time!
After viewing wildlife I'm always hungry ;-) So we next went for an incredibly decadent and delicious lunch at Ein Camonim, a goat-cheese dairy where they have these lunches where you can't order anything specific -- they just bring you an enormous cheese board with a slice of at least 12-15 different types of cheeses, soft, hard, goat, non-goat, Israeli, non-Israeli, you name it! plus wine, plus all those little yummy salads you find in Israel, plus breads, plus coffee/tea/dessert. Apparently they will bring you as much as you want till you are satiated, but we were satiated after the standard serving size which was quite generous. It was a beautiful setting, very elegant, reminded me of the good things about Napa Valley ... yum!! Check them out at http://www.ein-camonim.co.il/cheese.html or a review at http://www.frommers.com/destinations/safed/D59742.html.
After that it was all we could manage to go later to a nice party at the kibbutz for all the people over a certain age celebrating birthdays in March through May. This featured ... cheese platters! Groan! I did however manage to have some truly delicious borscht, and Italian frizzante. What a vibrant group of older people many of whom were in the founding generation of the kibbutz. Though they are mostly from English speaking backgrounds, they seem to have a mutual agreement to use Hebrew as the spoken language.
We had a great time with Gideon and Rina, and were sad to say goodbye to move on to Tzfat and Tiberias ...