Day 1 – The North

  

As I sit down to write about all that we did yesterday I’m astounded we managed to pack so much into one day. I’m also glad I’m endeavoring to write it down, because otherwise I’m afraid I would forget. After rolling into the hotel around seven last night, and playing ice breakers until nine, most of us went straight to bed. A few people had a drink at the hotel bar; I was not among them. I was, however, among the group of us who woke up at six to watch the sun rise.
  Stepping out of the hotel was my first shock of the day, unknown to us the night before our hotel overlooked the Sea of Galilee. In the quiet of the morning, if you really listen, you can hear the lapping of the water against the rocky shore. The hotel is up on a hill that rises steeply from the water, climbing to almost vertical beyond the hotel. My room is in on the third floor, and because it’s in the rear of the building it’s at ground level.
  It is interesting here, the sun rose far before six, but because of the hilly land we didn’t see the sun above the horizon until after six forty five. Of course once the sun first peeks above the horizon it is up in what seems like a matter of seconds.
  After watching the sunrise we headed back inside for some breakfast. Loads of veggies, fruits, salted fish, yogurt, honey, jams; I could very easily pack on the pounds. We loaded up on food, then packed some water and hopped on the bus for a forty five minute drive (we would later realize that everything in Israel is forty five minutes away by bus) to Nahal Banias for a canyon hike.

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Ruins of the Roman Temple

  Banias was an old Roman town, once centered around a temple to Pan. Before starting the hike our guide, Shimi, explained the situation that precipitated the Maccabean revolt by having two of the group members act out a play, staged in a bath house, of course. It was an entertaining look at a serious situation. After talking about the Greek influence we moved on to the Roman history of the town. Then we got a chance to look at a bunch of those ruins; my first Roman ruins. It’s awe inspiring to think that we are standing on ground that has harbored civilizations for so long.

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Views along the hike

    After taking a quick look at the roman ruins, though I probably could have stayed there for at least another hour, we started the hike through the canyons. Calling it a hike is a bit of an embellishment; it was really a relaxed stroll through the woods. Don’t let that diminish the hike, while not strenuous it was beautiful. The wildlife and fauna is so different from anything I’ve seen back home. We stopped along the way for some Druze pita; I got mine with Lebanon, a type of yogurt with spices and olive oil. Other people got honey, chocolate, or both on their pitas. The hike ended at a waterfall, where we got our first group picture; I think to prove to our families that we are in fact still alive and having a good time.

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The waterfall at the end of the trail

   Back on the bus for another forty five minute trip Shimi talked about the Druze people in the area, the Six Days War, the Yom Kippur War, and the crusades. It tied together, I promise. Along the way we drove past a crusader castle; I would have loved to get out and explore. There’s so much history here. I know I’ve said it before, but continues to blow my mind. Driving along these roads it seems as if every turn brings a new ruin, each with it’s own story.

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Syria - Damascus is in the upper left

  At the end of the journey; with our bus barely making it up the last hill, we arrived at Mount Bental, a volcano overlooking the Syrian border. Though in the past few years it’s been mostly turned into a tourist attraction, Mount Bental was an active military outpost, and is still staffed by the U.N. We looked out over Syria, all the way to Damascus. Shimi said that in the past he’s seen explosions and heard gunfire from the fighting in the capitol. The war has quieted down, or at least moved away from Damascus, so we heard nothing. Still, the views were amazing, and really drove home how compact the area is.
   We spent some time in the bunkers on the top of the Mount while Shimi told several stories from the wars. While the stories would be powerful in any setting, there was something about listening to them while in a pitch black room under tons of Earth that added some potency.
   After coming down from Mount Bental we stopped for lunch at a small shack. We ended up ahead of schedule, so we were able to stop at a near by olive oil factory. This was the only bus ride of the day that wasn’t forty five minutes. They gave us the full tour, including a cheesy introduction video with ridiculously high production values. The company also makes skin care products from the remnants of the olives, and gave us samples of an exfoliating cream and a hair treatment. I was skeptical at first, but eventually had to admit my hands have never been quite so soft. After the tour we sampled their four different types of olive, all of which tasted worlds better than anything I’ve had in the states.

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It felt "disgusting but amazing"

   Next on the agenda was a trip to the hot springs. These ended up being right next to the hotel, so we were able to walk back after our time there. While the springs are natural they have been tamed. It seemed to me like a giant bathtub, with pools inside and out, filled with salt water. Technically it was mineral water, but it had the same sort of smell. Don’t get me wrong, the hot springs were relaxing, and the two trips I took to the sauna (both wet and dry) were equally so. We spent about two hours there before heading back to the hotel, though not before a couple of the guys got the fish foot treatment. After changing we had dinner and then did a group activity.
  Tomorrow we will meet the Israelis assigned to our group, so Arielle, one of our group leaders, assigned us to groups, gave us the name of the Israeli we are assigned to, and had us draw a picture of what we thought they would look like. We were instructed to include as many stereotypes as possible. Not being familiar with Israeli names we had no idea if ours was male or female, so we started out drawing an androgynous person. This quickly turned into a hairy man, that I got to model for, with duck face. I can’t wait to see the reaction.

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  To close out the evening a singer from a famous Israeli band came to sing to us, and tell us his personal story. We heard about his father’s experience in the holocaust, and then his own in a town frequently attacked from Lebanon. He tried to keep the mood light,  but given the subject matter, and also how exhausted all of us were, it was difficult. I think most people only had a beer or two before calling it a night.

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