Monday, October 12, 2009

Sukkot Vacation - Tel Aviv, Eilat, Petra, and Jerusalem

Back in Ashkelon after a busy week of traveling and a great Sukkot vacation. I traveled mainly with 3 friends – Brett, Derek and Ari, and then we met up with some other people from our program this past weekend in Jerusalem for Simchat Torah.

We left for Tel Aviv Friday afternoon and stayed with two of Brett’s friends, which was clutch. Friday and Saturday nights we stayed with his friend Jonathan, who is about to start studying at Technion University in Haifa. He gave us quite a tour of Northern Tel Aviv, where he grew up and his parents live and made sure we got to do the things we wanted to and volunteered to do some chauffeuring around. We also did a lot of walking around Tel Aviv, which was great because I’ll be more familiar with the city when I live there starting in April. We got some great falafel, checked out the Carmel shuk, and went to the Diaspora Museum which has so much Jewish history that I feel like I might need to go back because there was too much to absorb in a single visit.

Our Petra adventure was by far the highlight of the trip. It’s the remnants of an ancient city built by the Nabateans about 2,000 years ago, and it’s located in the middle of the Edom Mountain range in Jordan. We took a cab from our motel in Eilat to the border crossing and thankfully beat a big tour group to the passport control on the Israeli side and didn’t have to wait at all. We paid our exit tax, changed some money over to the Jordanian Dinar and then literally walked across the “no man’s land” and the international border into Jordan. Nobody hassled us with our bags or passports, and naturally one of the Jordanian security asked if I was an Arab. We then took a cab from the border in Aqabba to the town of Wadi Musa where we stayed (it’s called Wadi Musa because it was the riverbed created when Moses struck the rock and water started flowing from it).

The staff at our hostel was very helpful and friendly, and they insisted we have some coffee before heading out to begin our tour. They also invited us for an all you can eat buffet dinner for 5 dinar (about $8) so we signed up on the spot, and then walked down from Wadi Musa to the entrance of Petra. We definitely made the right decision to tour on our own instead of with a tour guide because not only was it cheaper, but we went at our own pace and stopped where we wanted to and when we wanted to. We had two different tour guides and an additional map to point out the major sites to see. To get to the main sites of Petra, you walk down a gravel path and pass by several tombs carved into the sides of mountains. Petra was the capital of their empire, but also a necropolis because they believed that if they showed respect for the dead, the spirits would look after them.

After about 15 minutes of walking down a gravel path through the mountains, Petra’s most well-known façade comes into view, the Treasury, which was featured in the Indiana Jones movie. Its size and detail was absolutely astounding. Somehow, the Nabateans carved this façade into the side of the mountain. I can’t even fathom how much time and cooperation it took, and how they were able to build that far up with the technology available at the time.

My favorite part of Petra was the Great Temple. Historians aren’t sure exactly who prayed there, but the most fascinating part to me is that it’s a gigantic structure with 3 different levels, and it was discovered by Brown University archaeologists in 1994 – a full century and a half after much of the rest of Petra was discovered by a Swiss explorer. We hiked up two different mountains (one the first day and one the second) and took plenty of time to enjoy the spectacular views down from the top.

One weird – and sad – part about touring Petra is that everywhere you look there are Bedouins selling cheap souvenirs, jewelry and even rocks for a one or two dinar. Many of them live in the caves in the Petra mountains and there are children as young as 5 and 6 trying to sell souvenirs to tourists. It was actually the way we knew we were on the right path on our hikes, is if we took a turn or climbed up some stairs and we passed by a table. I tried to take a lot of pictures to illustrate the scale of the buildings and how high we climbed, but I’m not sure how well it will translate when I upload them to Facebook.

We came back to Eilat Wednesday night and hit up Big Apple Pizza, which was really good. Apparently it’s a chain and there’s one near Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem too. My 3 friends stayed in Eilat for Thursday, but I took the bus up to Jerusalem to spend the day with family. I had a late lunch/early dinner in Efrat with Ephraim, Batya, Eli, and Ma’Or and then at night met my cousins Chaim and Rivka at the “Rock Ami” concert at Kraft Stadium and we saw a few bands play, such as Soulfarm and Moshav Band. Kraft Stadium was built by Bob Kraft and it’s where the Israeli American Football league plays. Inside the stadium there’s a wall with pictures of Kraft with the Patriots, and there’s a Benjamin Watson jersey hanging on the wall. Kraft brought Watson and his wife here two summers ago and he loved it. There were a couple of food vendors, and to my surprise, there were taps from Dancing Camel, a micro-brewery located in Tel Aviv. I had the stout beer and it was easily the best beer I’ve had since I’ve been here. The company rep handed me a sheet listing all the locations around Israel where they either have their different beers on tap and there are a few in Haifa (none in Ashkelon though)

I also wanted to be in Jerusalem for Simchat Torah and it did not disappoint. I went to a shul just outside Jerusalem for hakafot on Friday night and then had dinner with Datia, Guy and Michal. Then I went to the Kotel Saturday morning and joined different minyanim dancing and reading Torah. I got to dance with one Torah and had an aliyah at another minyan.

I’m sure I left some details out but if anyone has questions about the trip, let me know and I’ll holler back! I’ve uploaded a small batch of pictures from the first few days, and I’ll try to get the rest up on Facebook tomorrow and I’ll post a link to the pics.

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