February 7-10, 2009

Entering Israel

After several days in Dahab we decided to move on and leave Egypt.  The question was – where next?

A lot of travelers heading north from Sinai jump through hoops to avoid entering Israel.  Why?  Because many of these travelers have plans to visit Syria and Lebanon later in their trip, and those countries generally refuse entry to travelers who have an Israeli stamp in their passport.  Now, people who visit Israel can request to have their entrance/exit stamps placed on a separate stub (one they can hide from Syria and Lebanon), but if you go overland into Israel then you still have an exit stamp from the land border of the country you depart (e.g. Egypt), and that stamp might give away the fact that you entered Israel.  Long story short, many travelers end up taking a ferry from Nuweiba directly to Aqaba in Jordan, thereby skipping Israel altogether.  While Pnina and I were in Egypt (pretending to be “Jeff” and “Nina”) we told everyone that we were planning to do this.  And actually we did consider it; specifically, we considered traveling in Jordan first, then heading to Israel, then back to Jordan for our flight.  Why would we do it?  We had no plans to visit Lebanon and Syria – that wasn’t it.  But we did have plans for Dubai and Malaysia, both of which have shaky relationships with Israel.  So we thought about it, but then we discovered that the ferry to Aqaba is so obnoxiously slow and pricy compared to the simple minibus ride to Israel.  Long story short, we decided to take the minibus and visit Israel first after all.

The ride to the border town, Tabah, was beautiful – so many beaches with crystal clear turquoise water.

Ras El Satan, one of the rustic beach resorts on the way to Tabah:

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We shared our minivan with Nathan, a guy from Idaho.  He’s been in Amman for several months, studying Arabic and working on the side in a Palestinian-owned software company (reviewing English text for the PR department).  He got this study-abroad gig through a US State Department program that tries to encourage Americans to learn certain important foreign languages.  During our discussion he kept mentioning “Disneyland”, which was confusing until he explained that it’s a code word commonly used to refer to Israel when talking around locals who may not be so fond of that country.

After a couple of hours we reached the border.  As soon as we exited Egypt, Pnina and I turned to Nathan and said “surprise! we’re Israeli!”  🙂  It was such a release to go back to our real identities, Shahaf and Pnina, and to be able to speak Hebrew again.

Hi-five for Israel!

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Our Time in Israel

Altogether Pnina and I spent about three weeks in Israel, and most of that time was filled by visiting friends and family.  So this is just a fair warning – the next few posts are going to be pretty different from the style of the blog so far.  These coming posts will mostly have photos of people you probably don’t know, with just a few photos of sites in Israel.

To us, the visit in Israel was like a timeout in the middle of our trip.  Israel isn’t our home anymore, but it’s the closest alternative.  For these three weeks we finally ate and slept really well.  When I say that Pnina and I went on a year-long backpacking trip, I feel like I’m fibbing.  It’s more accurate to say that we had a 4-month trip in Africa, followed by a nice relaxing break, then another 7-month trip in Asia.

Lena and Nitzan

We spent the first night in Israel with friends who live in Eilat: Lena and Nitzan.  Lena’s family is from the same kibbutz as Pnina (kibbutz Gal Ed).  More than that, Pnina’s family acted as the “adopting family” for Lena’s family when they arrived from USSR (Ukraine), so the two families are very close.  Lena was two grades above Pnina, but they knew each other pretty well.

Lena picked us up from the bus station in Eilat.  While we waited for her we had some awesome shwarma and falafel.

A typical falafel stand in Israel – you can add as much of these different salads as you want:

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These days Lena is working on her masters degree in marine biology, something related to fungus and corals.  Apparently in order to do any meaningful work as a marine biologist you need to go scuba diving, a lot (maybe that’s obvious, but it never occurred to me).  Anyhow, Lena loves to dive so it suits her perfectly.

Her boyfriend, Nitzan, got a degree as a mechanical engineer but now he works as a manager with a fish farming company.  The company used to keep a bunch of fish farms in the red sea (basically large cages just off shore), but most of these farms were moved inland (to synthetic pools) when they discovered the damage that fish farms do to the marine ecosystem.

Lena and Nitzan live in a small apartment, but it was easily the best accommodation Pnina and I have had since that one 5-star hotel we happened to get in Nairobi.  What’s more – it was free!  🙂  Turns out that Israel is the cheapest country in the world; well, for us anyhow.

Lena, Nitzan, Shahaf

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Riva in Eilot

We spent our second night in a kibbutz called Eilot, just north of Eilat.  I have family there: Riva is my mom’s cousin.  I faintly remember visiting there years ago, when I was maybe 6 years old; I recall that my mom refused to let me swim in the kibbutz’s pool because it was too hot outside (that was a new concept – too hot to go swimming?).  Anyhow, flash forward about 25 years and here Pnina and I were visiting Riva’s family.  We were basically getting to know each other from scratch.

Riva, her grand-daughter Orli, and Shahaf:

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Many kibbutzim in Israel have a primary cash cow, and Eilot is no exception.  They have a factory that produces heavy-duty electrical equipment.  Riva is the head of the marketing department so she frequently takes trips overseas to sell contracts.  As an example, she said that in preparation for the 2012 Olympic games London is spending a huge amount on infrastructure.  Before starting construction on their new stadiums, they had to first upgrade the electrical grid in the region, and thus Eilot scored a nice contract.

Riva’s husband, David, handles all food acquisition for the kibbutz, including the communal dining room and the small tourist-geared restaurant they run.  Here’s something interesting: we saw banners all over the dining hall welcoming Nigerian pilgrims to Eilot for lunch.  Huh?  Turns out that it’s popular for Nigerian (Christian) pilgrims to do a tour that begins with Mt Sinai in Egypt and continues northward into Israel to visit the holy sites in Jerusalem (in fact, we saw one group like that in Mt Sinai).  Kibbutz Eilot managed to lure many of these tour groups to have lunch in their dining room en route northward.

Another interesting thing – Israel has accepted a growing number of Sudanese refugees fleeing from the horrors in Darfur.  The refugees make an arduous journey by foot all the way through Egypt and to the border in Eilat.  Along the way, if they encounter Egyptian soldiers they risk being jailed or shot.  But if they manage to reach Israel they know they will be given shelter and support.  I find some irony in this: Israelis are not allowed to set foot in Sudan, but these refugees find shelter in Israel (granted, these refugees are persecuted by the same militant Muslims who prevent Israelis from visiting Sudan).  Kibbutz Gal Ed is now home to some of these refugees, though there have been some issues getting them acclimated to kibbutz life.  Back in Sudan these refugees lived in tribes that often fought, and this inter-tribe conflict sometimes springs up right there in kibbutz Eilot.

We stayed in Eilot a second day in order to catch the Tu Bishvat celebration.  Tu Bishvat is an Israeli holiday that celebrates plants.  It’s kind of like Arbor Day, I guess, except that Israelis take it much more seriously.  The holiday is fairly old, but it took a new meaning around 1900 when Jews started moving to Palestine in greater numbers and efforts were made to restore/reclaim the parched land by planting trees.  When I was young, I remember taking field trips with school to plant trees in a nearby forest.  But in a kibbutz there’s a whole ceremony for Tu Bishvat, one that resembles the Passover Haggadah in many ways (including even the search for the afikoman) (but not including the “we were slaves in Egypt” part).  I’d never seen this Tu Bishvat haggadah service before and it was very lively.  Lots of singing, then kids doing skits in front of the crowd, then food.

Kids doing a skit in front of the kibbutz crowd in the Tu Bishvat celebration:

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Pnina spent a year doing service work in a town called Yeruham, after high-school and before the military.  She lived in a kind of commune with four other people, all of whom were volunteering in different schools in Yeruham (tutoring in math, English, etc.).  The people from this commune are now some of Pnina’s better friends in Israel.  While in Yeruham she also became close friends with one local family – the Raupers.  On our way north from Eilot we stopped by their place to say hello.  It was fun to hang out with them.  While Pnina and Rachel (mother) chatted away, I mostly hung out with the youngest son, Tsurel, playing soccer and looking at photos of different trucks from his dad’s army base 🙂  Tsurel was really into this new kind of dance called Tektonic so he also showed us a bunch of YouTube videos, like this one.

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