Day 6 – Tel Aviv

After we woke up on the sixth day and made our way out of our rooms, we compared notes and discovered that most rooms in the hotel were falling apart. Luckily I did not have to deal with the broken sinks or dirty rooms that most others did. To mitigate our discontentment we stepped outside, where we were treated to an unbroken vista of the Mediterranean, sparkling right outside of our hotel. Sadly I slept late, and could only rush through breakfast before packing up my belongings and boarding the bus; there was no time to enjoy the view.

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On the bus we sat through about an hour of stop and go traffic, evidently everywhere near Tel Aviv is like this, before reaching the city proper. We stopped along the side of one street and filed off the bus, only holding up traffic for a few minutes. We had arrived near Rabin Square, at the spot where Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. At the monument Shimi spoke to us about the assassination, and the life of Rabin.

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Afterwards we went over to the square and did an activity that had us speak to Israelis that we ran into. I ventured out with a few other people, and we ended up talking to a group of soldiers about their hopes for Israel. After reconvening and sharing our findings we got back on the bus for a quick drive over to Independence Hall. At Independence Hall, the site of the signing of the Israeli Declaration of Independence, we attended an excellent lecture on the events surrounding the signing, and listened to the radio broadcasts from that day. The building had been transformed into a museum commemorating both the signing and the history of the city of Tel Aviv. Following the lecture we watched a short film about the founding of the city, and it was engaging enough that only a handful of people napped.

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Now, to the great disappointment of all, we had to say goodbye to the soldiers who had been traveling with us for the past five days. We gathered in a circle and as each soldier said goodbye we shared how we had connected, and how they had helped show us a more personal side of the country. Of course once this was done we all left to get lunch, with the soldiers in tow, so it wasn’t a true goodbye, yet. We walked through the garment district, past shopfront after shopfront filled with hundreds of bolts of unique fabrics spanning every color under the sun. What shops that weren’t filled with fabrics held clothes, and wedding dresses in every style imaginable seemed to fill most of these windows.

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At this point we split up to eat lunch and do some shopping, with instructions to meet back up in two hours. I ended up getting a burger, I was slightly worried about the lack of cheese going in, but found that guacamole with fried peppers makes an excellent substitute. I also got some wings, which were some of the best I’ve ever had, no matter what country I was in. Afterwards I walked around the garment district and through the open air market; it was just a smaller version of the market in Jerusalem. As our time wound down, and the sky started to open up, I grabbed a coffee and waited for the bus under a tree. Here we finally said goodbye to the soldiers, and started our long trip down to Arad.

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Again, we sat through traffic as we left Tel Aviv, and then again as we passed by Jerusalem. Throughout the trip we did a lot of backtracking; evidently efficiency wasn’t a priority for our planners. The only thing to note on this trip was the strip mall where we stopped to stretch our legs a half hour out from the hotel. The strip mall itself wasn’t remarkable, but next to it was a playground. While walking around two of us stumbled on it, and to our delight it was nothing like playgrounds back home. The playground itself was huge, probably the size of a softball field, and dominating it was a huge jungle gym, reaching three stories into the sky and sporting three slides. One of these, a long corkscrew, started at the top of a three story tower, which I was able to summit by climbing up a rope ladder and a spiral staircase. Then, with not a little trepidation about its weight limit, I launched myself into the corkscrew slide. I bounced off the sides, and let my feet drag one too many times, but emerged from the bottom dizzy, and ready to run back to do it all over again.

We spent the entirety of the half hour we had at the playground, rode all the slides, climbed every tower, and swung every swing. By the end there were ten of us there, acting like kids again and loving every minute. Thinking back, it’s depressing that no kid in the US will ever get to play on a playground like that, it was possible to fall, and on slides that big someone could get hurt. But does eliminating every chance of injury really help anyone grow? I’ve never known anyone who’s been irreversibly scarred by breaking an arm as a kid.

Far too soon our time at the playground, and brief relapse into childhood, was at an end. We climbed back on the bus and dozed through the last hour of our trip to the hotel. Here we got settled in our rooms, ate, and and gathered for an activity called “Where the Wind Blows.” The activity was similar to “Never Have I Ever,” though adapted for a larger group. Quickly this became as perverted as every other game of “Never Have I Ever” I’ve played. After everyone had been thoroughly embarrassed, and some rather personal questions asked, we split up for the night. While the other groups in the hotel were getting up at four to do the sunrise hike of Masada, Shimi decided we would wait until a more reasonable hour. The next morning was supposed to be overcast anyway.


With a few more hours of sleep to waste, a bunch of us gathered at the bar to play cards. We past an hour like this, but unfortunately met a young kid on another trip dealing with a serious bout of homesickness. I say unfortunate because it was quickly apparent he was having some serious mental issues and we were left to shepherd him through them. This eventually led to the front desk waking up Shimi, thinking that this kid was in our group, and then his group leader. Eventually we were all able to get some to fitful sleep, though several hours later than we had originally planned.

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Day 4 – Shabbat

Our fourth full day in Israel fell on Shabbat. I think we really lucked out by having Shabbat fall in the middle of our trip, it gave all of us a day to recharge and recover from the first half of the trip, not to mention the jet lag we were all suffering from to various extents. The first required activity was not until ten thirty Saturday morning, although we had to get up slightly earlier to get breakfast, so stayed up a bit later than usual. I think some people stayed up until the early morning, but I was not one of them.

I was still up by eight, and spent a long time grazing at breakfast and enjoying the terrible coffee with the few other early risers. Our first activity ended up being an icebreaker type affair where we shared how strongly we identified with various parts of a Jewish identity, for example how strongly we felt that we should marry someone Jewish. This wasn’t the most popular activity we did, to say the least, and I think we were all glad when it was finally finished.

From the hotel we went on a walking tour of the newer parts of the city of Jerusalem. While we had walked through many of these areas the night before, being out in the day, crossing deserted streets, really made the strangeness of the city keeping the sabbath hit home. To not see more than one or two cars on the road, and all the shops closed in the middle of the day was wild. It was more than wild. It was downright eerie.

We walked past a giant movie complex, they look exactly the same as back home, and then down to a plaza outside of the Supreme Court building. The Supreme Court and other government buildings were built with a lot of space between them, and away from Old Jerusalem, in order to protect them from the rocket attacks by the Palestinians. Yet another reminder of Israel’s history of being under siege.

After getting a history lesson on the supreme court, as well as the development of the government, we walked over to the the Knesset, Israel’s parliament building. Here we talked about the current political climate in Israel, which included some discussions in Hebrew between the soldiers (or arguments, I wasn’t able to tell). We also saw a giant sculpture of a candelabra, complete with many scenes from Jewish history, both biblical and modern.

We took our pictures, then went to find a bathroom. The entire trip could be broken down into travels between toilets. We ended up in a park where we got some active yoga (I did not risk death by trying this) and a game of ultimate frisbee going. I thought that having some experience with touch football would prep me for ultimate; little did I know we had almost two teams worth of people who played competitively. We did our best to split the skilled players up evenly, however it was my team that ended up getting shut out. Despite getting stopped I had a lot of fun; we all did. I also discovered that ultimate is much more demanding on the cardiovascular system than football, with none of that pesky downtime between plays. Sadly it started drizzling after a half hour or so and we packed up to go back to the hotel.

Back at the hotel we closed Shabbat with song and prayer, then went inside for dinner. After dinner we had an activity cooked up by the soldiers, the Israeli version of hot potato which was nothing at all like any hot potato I’d ever seen. We passed a package wrapped in layer upon layer of newspaper around in a circle and whenever the music stopped we would unwrap a layer.. On each layer was a dare we had to perform, which ran the gamut from a dance off (our resident break dancer won this) to a clothes swap. It was a great time.

To end the night we had our free night. On every trip the organizers try to plan a night out in one of the cities. Unfortunately the only night that they could arrange was the night before we went to the holocaust museum, the only night we were not allowed to drink even after all activities for the day had finished. Still, we were able to get dinner and go to some shops in Jerusalem, so it wasn’t a total loss. I got a lox and bagel, which wasn’t nearly as good as the ones I get at home, before wandering around the shops. Like the old city most of the shops were filled with tacky tourist crap, and those that weren’t were far out of everyone’s price range. I saw a choir singing christmas carols in Chinese; talk about a strange sight. We stayed out until ten thirty before going back to the hotel and to bed.

Day 3 – Old Jerusalem

So I’ll admit it, my plan was ambitious, and ultimately an overreach. The trip itinerary was jammed packed, and the only way to get enough sleep was to not socialize. If you decide to socialize, which I did, there was zero time to maintain a blog. However now, up at three in the morning while attempting to adjust to the time change, I’ve got the time to relive our travels and set them down here.

The third day was my first getting a full night’s sleep, so full I slept through my alarm and almost missed breakfast. Luckily I was able to throw on some clothes and get ready without missing much. Soon after breakfast we filed onto the bus for one of our shortest trips. We closed the blinds of the bus as we left the hotel parking lot and Dvora and Arielle, our group leaders, handed out our official Taglit shirts. Under orders we fashioned these as blindfolds, to varying degrees of success, so we could have a proper first look at the city.

Before long the bus stopped and we slowly walked out. I was towards the front of the bus and so was one of the first to be lead out by one of the group leaders, or possibly Ido, I couldn’t tell. Then I was left alone, which I have to the admit is a very isolating experience. After a few minutes, and plenty of shuffling, we grasped hands with the two people on either side of us and walked to where we would see the city for the first time. We ended up leaning against a low wall, but still without any ideas about where we were. Finally Shimi told us to take off the blindfolds and greet the city.

Group overlooking Jerusalem

As much as trying to walk blind was frustrating and getting all of us in the right spot took time, I wouldn’t have wanted to see the city for the first time any other way. Below us the city of Jerusalem spread across several hills. Towards the center of our view, and immediately catching my eye, was the golden dome of the Temple Mount After taking in the view for a few minutes Shimi explained that we were standing on the very spot where when the Jews were last exiled from the city they stood and swore to return. It was in that moment when I really appreciated the way we approached site. Like a microcosm of the trip we started out alone, then came together, taking comfort from one another’s touch, and finally experienced the wonder of Jerusalem as a connected group.

Zion Gate

After spending several minutes appreciating the wonder of the city we reboarded the bus and headed to the gates of the old city. I could not keep my eyes off of the city as we approached, the magic held me captive. We got off the bus and went into the city through the Zion Gate. It was such a juxtaposition when a car came through the gate, barely making the turn, as I was trying to get a picture. The walls around the Zion Gate were pockmarked with bullet holes from the fighting in the War of 68. Even hundreds of years after they were built the walls of Old Jerusalem still see blood spilt on them.

Random Balcony

Walking through the old city was an experience in over-stimulation. Every few paces an alley or courtyard opened up, all in the standard pinkish limestone. The uniform color of the buildings simply make any color pop out. I could have wandered the streets all day simply exploring.

Roman Market

Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on your perspective, we run a tight schedule and were soon off to the ruins of the Roman market. Jerusalem is a city of layers, each civilization seemed to build on those that came before. Shimi spoke about the layout of the Roman city, and how every effort was made to erase the religious significance during the first Roman occupation.

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Next we went to an open square overlooked by the Hurva Synagogue, which had been recently been rebuilt for the third time. While Shimi was talking I have to admit to being at least partially distracted by a bird call filling the square. What can I say, it runs in the family; at least I wasn’t driving while trying to bird as my grandfather was prone to do. Luckily my obsession with audio books prepared me to listen to the lecture while searching out the bird; a search that eventually proved futile. After our history lesson we were released on the area. I zeroed in on some decadent looking donuts, along with a half dozen of us, set up on some tables along the main way. I may have covered the back of my camera with powdered sugar, but it was worth the trouble. We did some shopping, but most of what we saw screamed tourist to me so I bought a bare minimum, all the while regretting the missed opportunities in Tzfat’s artist’s alley.

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After learning about the city in its Roman guise we walked up to the roofs of the old city. In front of us we could see the Dome of the Rock, and behind us was the Holy Sepluka. We talked about the formation of the city and it’s division into quarters. While we were talking the bells from the Christian quarter started tolling. I wandered towards the back of the group to take a picture of the Holy Sepluka, but couldn’t find an angle without barbed wire in the picture. It was quite a statement to me that the three holiest sites in the world, at least for the Abrahamic religions, have to be divided like a war zone. Before releasing us Shimi showed us the third incarnation of one of the most famous synagogues in the city. It was a very recent construction, only ten or fifteen years ago it was only represented by an arch.

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Finally we were on to the main attraction, the Wailing Wall. We got our first look from an overlook, but before we were able to appreciate the wall we were sidetracked by a proposal taking place in front of us. I was towards the back of the group so I didn’t see the event, but based on the crowd of suddenly cheering, dancing, and signing people I can only assume the answer was yes. Within seconds a mob of girls, presumably friends of the bride to be, ran out of a nearby alley and caught everyone up in an infectious display of singing and dancing. The spontaneity and joy of the moment made it one of my favorite on the entire trip.

We left the happy couple to share the moment with their friends and family and started towards the wall. After passing through security we took a moment to appreciate the wall from a distance, wrote notes to put in the wall, and set a meeting time. Then we went to the wall. The wall is segregated, with different sides for the men and women. To show proper respect those of us without hats, myself included, put on yamakas before entering the area next to the wall.

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Whether or not you’re religious, I’m certainly not, the Wailing Wall emanates power. Standing beneath it, looking up at two thousand years of history, is a humbling experience. The stones were cool to the touch, and worn smooth by the touch of untold millions. When you learn the history of the religious significance of the wall, at one point Jews secretly prayed in an alley that ran alongside the wall, the weight seems even greater. I think most of us placed a note in the wall, and stood at the wall, either in prayer or quiet reflection.

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As we prepared to leave the wall there was one more obligatory task: the group photo. I handed my camera off to another tourist and the guys gathered around (remember the men and women are segregated at the wall). Before a photo could be snapped this old man, dressed in a black hat and long black coat, and sporting a very impressive beard, ran into the picture. He stood in front of me, saying that the picture wouldn’t be authentic without him. We were all laughing as the picture was taken.

While we were standing around under the wall we had one more spontaneous experience, and yet another as we were leaving. At the wall we saw a boy getting bar mitzvahed, and after asking around we discovered that anyone can come to the wall to get bar mitzvahed, no reservation required. Then, while leaving, we saw a very young boy getting his upsherin, or first haircut in a small plaza overlooking the wall.

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Leaving the Wailing Wall we headed to the shuk, an open air market where the city was doing it’s last minute shopping before Shabbat started. One of the market goers actually complained that we, the birthright group, were going to the shuk right before Shabbat since we would only get in the way. A group of us went into a side alley and got falafel, somehow my first of the trip. As always we had our trusty guard Ido there to help translate. While the falafel was delicious, it was made better by the chaos of the market surrounding us. After finishing it I spent some time wandering the shuk, simply taking in the sights and sounds of the place. It fulfilled my every expectation, and then some, of what an open air market should really be like. The people were jammed packed, I was constantly jostled, and conversation and laughter rang. Luckily the soldiers were there to help us haggle; a major part of the market life.

A very short hour later we reboarded the bus and headed back to our hotel to do our own preparations for Shabbat. We showered and dressed up, then walked back to the old city. This time we left all technology in the hotel, or tucked discreetly into our pockets, to respect the orthodox tradition. After carrying my camera around constantly, of course not something I regret for an instant, it was nice to simply live in the moment for a while. Getting to the Wailing Wall took almost an hour, and it astounded me how much it had changed since we had been there during the day. On the men’s side, I can’t speak for the women’s, there was singing and dancing. Overall it was an incredibly joyous affair. First going in the guys stayed together, I think we were all slightly intimidated by the commotion. Before long we were swinging around in circles singing songs in Hebrew to which we didn’t know the words. I distinctly remember seeing an old man, easily in his seventies if not eighties, crouching over to join a circle with two young boys, laughing and smiling as he lead them through the circle. While the Orthodox Jews we saw seemed very serious during the day, we saw them laughing and singing and relaxing at the wall. It was an eye opening moment for me, and I think many others.

We walked back through the old city, where almost every doorway was lit up with a menorah and shabbat candles. It gave the city the glow of life. Back at the hotel we lit our own candles before eating dinner and doing some group activities.

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.

Day 0 – The Journey’s Start

  For the next ten days I’ll be reporting on my own travels through Israel as I embark on a birthright trip. After my younger sister went on the trip this summer she told me in no uncertain terms that I wasn’t allowed to pass up this opportunity. I saw her pictures and listened to her stories, and had to agree. I got my act together, finally got my passport, and applied for the program.
    Four months later I’m sitting on a plane to Tel-Aviv while the rest of my group sleeps through the night. I started the trip at noon yesterday, leaving from Baltimore on the train. Traveling by train was also a first for me, and I’ve got to say it’s the way to travel. Two minutes after getting dropped off I was ready to board, no security, no lines, it was great. Then I got two large seats to myself in the quiet car, and was able to write and read without distraction while we sped north. The travel time might be longer than by plane, but overall I probably spent less time than if I had flown, was much more comfortable, and paid half the price.
     The train dropped me off in Penn station, though it left me with some sort of allergen that I’ve yet to shed. I tell you, sneezing every five minutes sure makes a great first impression. At least I won’t be forgotten. Penn station was an interesting experience, I wasn’t sure what I was doing, but when I found a subway map, not a trivial task mind you, I spent only thirty seconds studying it before a native asked me where I was trying to go and gave me directions. I never expected NYC to be such a friendly city.  The ride on the subway was also interesting, the breadth of cultures jammed into such a tiny space was astounding. Another hour of travel later and I was at JFK.
    Beyond the terminal we had no meeting spot, but I found several other people from the trip, who were also wandering around looking lost. Eventually we found where the group was gathering and got the all important nametags. Then it was off through security and to the gate, where we would wait another two hours before boarding the flight. I stopped at Panda Express before hitting the gate to get my last taste of some traditionally American food for the next few weeks.
   At the gate a group of us started talking, and we established that we were all at the top of the age range; and were all glad to meet one another. I know I was worried about being the only twenty six year old in the group. After unofficially getting to know one another the trip leaders brought us all together to go over some announcements and do some icebreakers. Unfortunately the airport’s PA system had other ideas. The leaders forged ahead, but I think most of the group only caught most of the words. When it came time for us to do icebreakers I gained new appreciation for their ability to project; I don’t think I even heard a third of the introductions. Still, I’m sure we’ll be introduced several more times before the trip is over.
     Soon we found out that we would be going through yet another security checkpoint, after passing through the gate. The security is much tighter going to Israel than I’ve ever seen. We passed through the checkpoint and started waiting once again, we were on the plane an hour before we were scheduled to take off. I went to fire up True Detective, my planned entertainment for the trip, only to find that I had only put episodes four through eight on my tablet, forgetting the third episode, the next one I needed to watch. With my original plan killed by my carelessness I resorted to the kindle through takeoff, then promptly fell asleep. It’s a testament to my exhaustion that the discomfort of airline seats barely disturbed my sleep.
   In thirty minutes, give or take, I’ll be stepping off the plane into a new county, for the first time in my life. I couldn’t be more excited.