That Movie Screen is the Lebanese Border…Wait, what?

Posted in Uncategorized on May 22nd, 2015 by Rick

Our first day of hiking started out with a visit to Rosh Hanikra, on the coast right up against the border with Lebanon, or at least with the UN patrolled border zone with Lebanon. After a brief stop at the border fence (from which we saw a couple of UN vehicles exit into Israeli territory) and a short explanation of the local geology, which hopped on the cable car that took us to the grottoes of Rosh Hanikra. The grottoes are natural caves worn into the limestone cliffs, which have had some walking tunnels for visitors added. Really, spectacularly, beautiful. 

 Looking out from the grottoes at Rosh Hanikra Inside the grottoes at Rosh Hanikra

During World War 2, the British built a rail line from Egypt to Turkey to transport materiel free from sea-going attack and for the additional speed and efficiency. They built tunnels through the cliffs of Rosh Hanikra, as well as bridge between two of them (now destroyed). In one of the train tunnels (the rails are still there in the floor), there is a small theater set up to show a movie about the natural and human history of the site. The screen is mounted on the wall constructed to close the tunnel at the border with Lebanon. Huh.

Exiting Rosh Hanikra onto the beach at the southern end of the complex, we started our first, warm-up hike–5 miles down the beach to Achziv. Walking on sand in hiking boots is an excellent way to stretch the calf muscles. I enjoyed very much when we stepped off the beach onto the road. Like floating on a cloud.

Soon we arrived at the descent into the dry riverbed of Nahal Yechiam. Here is where I learned, or really was reminded, that while I am strong and able to traverse reasonably rough terrain, being blind makes me extremely slow compared to other hikers. For the rest of the week, I was definitely the guy at the back of the pack. Well, me and Eliana and the sweeper guide for most of my days of hiking, Maurice. (Also, for several of the hikes, the youngest member of the group, Sam, who volunteered early on to help with guiding me. Sam’s a mensch.) On the rocky terrain of the riverbed, I needed someone at all times to let me know where to place my hiking poles (the best thing I bought in preparation for the trip, hands down–without them, I couldn’t have done half of what I did) and, by extension, my feet. It was a physical and mental challenge (but mostly mental) for all of us. AFter 3 or 4 miles in the riverbed, we met the bus and headed back to Akko to clean up, eat, find out what the next day’s hike would be, and crash.

On Day 2, we will definitely need the water shoes. 

Best Laid Plans (Meta)

Posted in Uncategorized on May 22nd, 2015 by Rick

It turns out that hiking miles per day over rough terrain is mentally and physically exhausting. So I pretty much failed at blogging as we went on this trip in favor of collapsing into bed every night soon after dinner and evening briefings. 

The following posts are therefore slightly hazy reconstructions of what we did each day. 

B’ruchim Haba’im L’Yisrael (Welcome to Israel)

Posted in Uncategorized on May 22nd, 2015 by Rick

We landed in Tel Aviv at 0515 Tuesday morning, just about 24 hours after we had originally planned. We breezed through border control and baggage claim, found an ATM and loaded up on shekels, bought train tickets, and were headed out of the airport on the 0635 to Akko. A couple of hours and a short taxi ride, and we were at our first hotel, the Rimonim Palm Beach in Akko. 

Too early to check in, we stored our luggage, greeted the organizers, who were setting up the registration tables, and tried to get the lay of the land. Almost immediately, we ran into Richard, one of my fellow riders from the trip in 2013. We caught up a bit, and he helped us immensely by talking us past the staff monitoring entrance to the dining room so we could get a cup of coffee from the breakfast buffet (to which we were not entitled, since we hadn’t stayed the night before). My new best friend, Richard is. A couple sitting in the dining room, noting my hiking back (Eliana had sensibly stowed hers with the rest of the luggage), brilliantly deduced that we must be fellow hikers and called us over to join them. Susan and Howard are a delightful couple from Teaneck, who became frequent meal companions and now good friends.

After fortifying with coffee, we ventured to a nearby mall to perform the first important task for our time here: obtaining cell phone service. It was a tiny bit weird that we had to pass a guard to enter the mall, but the interior felt just like an American mall of the 1980s–two-story, open so you can see the shops above or below from the other floor, clean but a little old-fashioned. It was early, so there were no crowds, and we went to the BUG electronics store to sign up with Golan Telecom. The guys there were friendly, but spoke very little English. We managed the transaction successfully despite the language barriers, and quickly had reliable, cheap (if a little slow) internate service. Thus connected to the ‘Tubes, we headed back to the hotel to check in with the trip organizers and get our room. 

We immediately started running into people I knew from the bike ride 2 years ago, which was great fun for me. Everyone was bummed that Derek couldn’t make it this time, mostly, I think, because they were looking forward to drafting off the back of a tandem again (an experience one guide last time described as “like riding behind a truck”). We had lunch with a couple of people at the Sephardic restaurant next to the hotel. I really didn’t know exactly what I was taking from the cafeteria style warming tables or what it would cost, but everything looked great, so I took a wide variety. Turned out not to be cheap–an expensive restaurant nex to a resort hotel on the beach, go figure–but everything was delicious. Anyway, it was the last meal we had to pay for until the hiking trip ended a week later, so not really a problem.

After lunch, we went back to the room to rest for an hour before the scheduled walking tour of Old Akko. Turns out, we needed a nap more than  a tour. Old Akko will have to wait until a future trip.

Before dinner, we made it down to the beach to dip our toes in the Mediterranean. Then we joined 120 other hikers, riders, volunteers, and guides for the official start of the 2015 Ramah Israel Bike Ride and Hiking Trip.

And That Was Quite a Bit Less Disappointing

Posted in Uncategorized on May 15th, 2015 by Rick

We finally made it to Israel early Tuesday morning! The journey redo was not entirely without problems. The flight scheduled for 11PM Sunday, didn’t take off until nearly 1AM. First, we couldn’t board the plane until the catering truck delivered and loaded the meals for the flight. The passengers at the gate nearly revoted, and the poor BA gate agent was brought to tears. I felt badly for her.

When pre-boarding started, we were met by the redoubtable Hugh, the Cabin Service Director, and ushered into the little pre-boarding lounge at the top of the BA jetway. He’d been very nice to us the previous night, so Eliana had written a little thank-you note to him and the rest of the crew. He seemed quite touched that someone would do this, and hurriedly wrote on our boarding passes and handed them back to Eliana. After he walked away, Eliana leaned over to me and quietly whispered “You’re welcome.” Seems that some of the business class passengers from the previous night had made other arrangements, and there were a few seats empty there, so he’d just gone ahead and given us an upgrade. BA business class is a damned fine way to travel for 8 hours. I’ve heard that first class is even swankier, but that level of luxury probably would have made my head explode. As it was, I was gob-smacked by the gap in comfort and service between what we paid for and what we got. Since this was BA, let me put it this way: my outer Labour voter was appalled by the astonishing class inequity, but my inner Tory was certain that we deserved to travel like this. Forever.

 Grinning like a madman in the too comfortable business class seat.Yes, I look a little manic. The luxury is about to give me apoplexy. 

Because of the change in schedule, our 10 hour layover in London turned into about 6.5 hours. Getting through UK Border Control and onto to the Heathrow Express went pretty quickly, so we ended up with about 3 hours in central London. Not enough time for much, but we managed to have a little dinner in Covent Garden, then walked through Trafalgar Square down to Westminster before hopping the Tube back to Paddington and there to Heathrow. 

The 4 hour flight from London to Tel Aviv in coach was a bit of a comedown, frankly. 

Well, That Was a Bit Disappointing

Posted in travel on May 10th, 2015 by Rick

An adventure, someone once told me, is an experience you hated while it was happening, but makes a great dinner party story. Yeah, we had that.

Everything was going so well, at first. We got on an airport bus in Boulder that was just needing to be moved to the airport, so it made no stops, took the always-empty toll road, and got us to the airport 20 minutes before we had expected to arrive. Terrific. They say to get to the airport 3 hours before an international flight, and we’re at T-3h20m, so we’ve got plenty of padding for checking our luggage and getting through security and getting a bite to eat. Fantastic.

And DIA is practically empty. We wait in line to check luggage at the BA counter for about 30 seconds. Luggage away, we head to the usually packed TSA checkpoint. No line. Boom, we’re through.

It’s now T-2h45m, so we take the train out to Terminal C for a sit down meal at the satellite outlet of a trendy Denver restaurant that Eliana likes, even though our flight leaves from Terminal A. We have plenty of time. Dinner is pricey, but excellent.

And then the rain that’s been falling all day turns to snow. Wet, heavy, Colorado Spring snow. Uh-oh.

At T-2h, we are at the gate, and the flight is still showing on time. In fact, the 747 arrives shortly after we do. That’s good. They have plenty of time to turn it around.

Boarding is supposed to start around T-45m. The plane is a 747, so you can’t do the board-everyone-in-30-minutes gig. Thing is HUGE. We get a little hint of issues when boarding gets pushed back to T-20m because the ground crew isn’t finished cleaning up, and the flight crew hasn’t gotten on board to do security checks. Fine. We’ll be 30 minutes or an hour late. We’ve got a 10 hour layover scheduled in London. Still penty of time to go into the city and check out a few sights.

We pre-board, using my magical blind-guy cane. The crew is chipper and friendly as we board. Couldn’t be nicer. We are seated, as comfortably as possible in coach, pretty close to the time we’re supposed to push back from the gate. Running a little late, but not so bad.

We finally pull back from the gate at around T+1h, taxiing pretty slowly towards the runways, then stopping. Here’s where things start to get slightly annoying. Nobody says anything about the delay for too long. Seems obvious it’s weather, but communication is a little slow in coming. Eventually, Captain McNamara comes on the PA to tell us that only two runways are available due to the weather. Because we are are a heavy 747, we can only use the longer one. The longer one is being plowed. We need to be deiced. We must take off almost immediately after deicing, so we can’t start the process until the plowing is done. There are only four deicing stations, a lot of traffic, and we are so big we need two of the four stations (adjacent ones, obviously). Sigh.

At T+2h, we finally get our slot for deicing. Initially, the co-pilot tells us it will take 25-30 minutes. Fine. Starting to look like we may miss our afternoon/evening in London, but there’s still plenty of time to make the connection to Tel Aviv. London was always a bonus part of the trip, anyway. More than an hour later, we are told the good news that “the first phase of deicing is done.” Huh? We are so big, and there was so much snow and ice already on the plane, that it took that long to just get the plane ice-free enough to apply the antifreeze coating that keeps the ice off for enough time to take off. We are told this will take 15-20 minutes, but it’s more like 30. T+3h45m.

[Oh, did I mention that during the deicing, the engines need to be turned off? No air conditioning. So what? It’s 29 degrees Fahrenheit and dark outside. We’d need heat, right? Did it ever occur to you (it hadn’t to me) that the passenger compartment of an airplane is basically constructed like a Thermos bottle? Planes fly in air that’s 50 below. They’re insulated. And there are several hundred people sealed in the bottle. I can hear the auxiliary motor that keeps the lights on and minimal air circulation, but the temperature is climbing. Fast. That just added to the usual comfort of modern air travel.]

Deicing complete, we move towards the runway. Slowly. This is bad. The plane is supposed to go straight from deicing to take off. So the co-pilot, then the pilot, come to check the wings. Icicles. Damn. Back to the deicing pad, this time via a long route down the runway and back along the few taxiways that have been cleared of snow. We are warned that we are now running into crew work hour constraints, and BA Operations are being consulted. The captain also mentions that we have now exceeded the U.S. limit on holding passengers in a plane on the ground. He says that any passenger may request to be let off the plane. If that happens, we will have to return to the gate and that will definitely put the crew over time, thus canceling the flight. He was perfectly cheerful about it, but his implication was clear: If you ask for this, your fellow passengers will do something awful to you, and good luck finding witnesses for the prosecution.

We’re now at T+5h, and it’s over. They can’t find an intermediate airport to stop for a fresh crew, we don’t really have enough fuel for that anyway, and it’s 2 in the morning. Back to the gate we go, when the cabin crew asks if there’s a medical doctor on board. Just what you want to hear. Then we need to stay in our seats for a few extra minutes while the paramedics come onboard to take care of the passenger. Turns out he’s basically ok–a little bit of exhaustion and dehydration made him feel badly, but he got off the plane on his own steam.

The BA ground staff worked hard to communicate with everyone about rebooking and options. The crew was extremely solicitous and kind to us. But at 3AM, DIA is basically shut down. There were no hotels available, no ground transportation, and no food. Also no baggage handlers, so our bags had to stay on the plane for the night. According to the staff and the BA website, our flight would now depart at 5PM Sunday, a mere 20 hours late.

We are lucky to live relatively nearby, but we still had to wait until 4:30AM for a bus back to Boulder. We took care when we finally arrived home not to frighten Bonnie and Daniel, who’d been asleep before most of the delays happened. I crashed for 4 hours and woke up to texts and email from BA that our flight would now leave at 11PM, 26 hours after we meant to leave. We’ll get to Israel a day later than planned, but still in time for the Ramah Trip.

See you from Israel on Tuesday, kein eina hara.

Off We Go!

Posted in Israel, travel on May 9th, 2015 by Rick

I’m once again off to Israel in support of the special needs programs of Camp Ramah. Unfortunately, Derek couldn’t make it this trip. Happily, I get to hike the north of the country with my wonderful daughter, Eliana. For some reason, I couldn’t convince her to captain me on a tandem bike going up and down the Golan Heights. Imagine that.

We leave tonight and will be landing in Israel on Monday morning, local time. In between, we have a long enough layover in London to head into the city for a few hours. That’s the plan, anyway.

We’ve raised over $4300 to date, but we’d love to exceed our goal. It’s not too late to donate.

A Heap of Jerusalem with a Dash of Chicago

Posted in Uncategorized on May 13th, 2013 by Rick

Now that I’m back in Boulder and mostly recovered from jet lag, I need to finish journaling the last two days of our trip.

Friday, we started out a little late in the morning. Our friend Hillary, who took a lot of the photos on the ride and helped with guiding and organizing, is actually a licensed tour guide. Apparently, this is a thing in Israel, the licensing of tour guides. Anyway, after the ride, Hillary was contracted to guide a group from the Jesse White Tumbling Team from Chicago. After checking with them, she allowed us to tag along for part of their tour of the Old City. We thought this would be good, since the Old City is a lot like a living museum with very few explanatory labels on the Very Important Bits. We met up with them by the Damascus Gate in the late morning, from which we intended to proceed to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Interesting fact, Orthodox Easter is not at all the same date as Roman Catholic/Protestant Easter. Yep, it was Good Friday for the Eastern Rite churches, and a decent chunk of the Old City was closed off with crowd control checkpoints. No way to get near the Church with a group of our size. We walked along the city wall to the Jaffa Gate, chatting with Jesse White, the founder of the organization and the current Illinois Secretary of State, some of the troupe members, and their armed guard. That last bit was weird. I assume his presence was thought necessary because Mr. White is a government official, but maybe every tour gets a bodyguard–part of the ambiance of the Middle East.

We went inside the Jaffa Gate for a little shopping. I negotiated extremely badly for a gift for my lovely wife. Properly fleeced, we followed the tumblers to the nearby Mamilla pedestrian mall, which is upscale like Pearl Street in Boulder, with a Crocs store like Pearl Street in Boulder. Here we were able to see the tumblers do a performance in the mall’s little outdoor amphitheater. I couldn’t really follow the action, but by the audience reaction, it was quite the show.

We said good-bye to Hillary and the troupe, and decided to check out Jerusalem’s big, old market hall, Machane Yehuda. On the way, we ran into Cliff, one of the other Ramah riders, and his cousin (it’s a very small country), who were also headed there. I’ve been in a lot of market halls in the US: Emeryville, SF Ferry Building, Quincy Market in Boston, Pike Place in Seattle, and others. They are to Machane Yehuda what EPCOT Center is to international travel. It was hot, crowded, loud and frantic with the approach of Shabbat (we were warned that Friday afternoon could be a little crazy–oh, yeah). We tried coffee flavored halvah. Bought some. Got some of the cheapest and best rugelach I’ve ever had, still warm from the oven. Bought loose tea for Eliana’s souvenir (pomegranate and Bedouin). My kind of place.

Back to the hotel for a little break (more Goldstar!) before Shabbat. I had contacted our friends Rachel and Danny, who lived in Boulder for a few years back in the early aughts, and we were excited to be having Shabbat dinner with them. We met Danny at Shira Hadasha, where they pray, for Kabbalat Shabbat services. The synagogue is Orthodox, in that the men and women are separated, but about as egalitarian as possible within that limitation. As far as I can tell, the only real restriction on female participation there is that they do not lead the required portions of the service. They did lead the kabbalat shabbat psalms, and Danny told us that women read and are called to the Torah during morning services. The service we attended was crowded, lively, and the singing was, frankly, some of the most beautiful I’ve ever heard in shul. It was so good that even I was having an easy time staying in key (I’m pretty sure…no one shushed me, anyway). Nice to see Orthodoxy without misogyny (and with decent musicality).

We walked with Danny back to their apartment, where we were met by Rachel, their two daughters (who are close in age to my kids), and Danny’s mother. Their sons, who were just boys when they lived in Boulder, are now young men out of the house, one away at college, the other a tank commander in the IDF (I was at his bar mitzvah just yesterday, I’m quite sure). Dinner was delicious, and I very much enjoyed the opportunity to catch up with old friends. Can’t wait to get back to Jerusalem to see them again.

We Look At Some Old Stuff

Posted in Uncategorized on May 4th, 2013 by Rick

We went to bed very late Wednesday night, but we had made a commitment to our new friend from the ride, Lorraine, to attend morning services at her synagogue, just across the street from our hotel. So, up around 6AM. Again. The congregation is located at the Masorti Center, and is primarily made up of Conservative Jews from the States. Thursday is a Torah reading day, and I was honored with an aliyah, my first in Israel, which was lovely of them. It was also the first time Derek had seen me in full Jew-niform–talit and t’fillin–so that seemed to be interesting to him.

After services and breakfast, we met with Dennis Allon from the Israel Guide Dog Center, which hosts Ken Velo, the group that rented us the tandem. Dennis pointed out a little of the history around our hotel, including the complex where the pre-state “government” like the Jewish Agency and Keren Kayemet (JNF) were (and still are) located. We sat down at a cafe, and we chatted a little about the work of the Center. Nice man. Next time in Israel, I will try to visit and see the puppies.

Off to the Israel Museum. We went to the Shrine of the Book, home of the Dead Sea Scrolls, to see some of the oldest copies of Biblical texts. The highlight of the main part of the museum, for me, was the Herod the Great exhibit. It contains a lot of very heavy parts of some of the palaces Herod made, and includes his tomb from Herodion. We were told that the building required quite a bit of reinforcement. Big pieces of stone. I believe it.

In the afternoon, we finally headed for the Old City. Entering the Zion Gate, we finally found a stand to get a felafel sandwich, our first since arriving in Israel. Two things I have not had in a felafel sandwich in the States: pickles and french fries. Odd. Delicious.

Some people plan their walk around the Old City. Not us. So we wandered around a bit…Ok, Derek wandered, I followed. We came across the Corta, the Byzantine-era central road of the Old City. It is partially lined with the original, excavated columns. We followed the Corta through the Jewish Quarter into the Muslim Quarter, where it became older, narrower, and busier. Derek led us up some steps at one point, which caused a child behind us to yell (in Hebrew): “No, no, no! That’s my house!” Oops. Later we came to some other steps, where an Arab man yelled that it was closed. Huh? THE FREAKING TEMPLE MOUNT. Oops again. He pointed us in another direction, and we finally came to the Wester Wall (HaKotel). This is the holiest location in Judaism. I was…unmoved. The noise, the tourists, and the many, many soldiers with very, very big guns detracted somewhat from the feeling that this was a holy place.

We moved on out the south end of the plaza, and quite accidentally found the steps up to the ramparts of the city wall. Good views over the Temple Mount/Kotel area and into other parts of the city. We climbed blocky stone stairs and gradually seemed to be quite high above the street, then kept climbing and were eventually back at street level. A city built on hills can be somewhat unintuitive.

Back to the hotel for a break, and then to Ben Yehuda Street, a very busy pedestrian mall. We were about twice the average age, but the scene was still interesting, in an anthropological way. We went to a shwarma place for dinner. I liked it. Derek was unimpressed.

What Are You Gonna Do Now That You’ve Spent A Week In The Desert?

Posted in Uncategorized on May 3rd, 2013 by Rick

Go to the desert, of course.

Wednesday morning, we have a reservation for a tour of Masada and the Dead Sea. In retrospect, I booked the wrong tour for us. I should have known it was the wrong tour, because it was scheduled to leave Jerusalem after 9AM. Masada and the Dead Sea are in the Judean Desert, which is hot. If you want to go and be at all comfortable, you go to Masada at dawn or before, and walk up the Snake Path. Instead we went in an 18 passenger van, full, with poor air conditioning. Two-thirds of the passengers did not speak English. Turns out to be a bilingual tour, Spanish and English. So at most half the information can be conveyed as a monolingual tour, since everything needs to be said twice. Oh, also, some of the passengers speak neither English nor Spanish–there’s a young Japanese woman with very limited English, and two French women, only one of whom speaks Spanish (and a little English) who is simultaneously translating for the other one, which is not distracting at all. I and the woman from New Zealand are, I think, the only Jews in this group, which I suppose was fair for Derek, considering the whole previous week.

Anyway, the tour was too commercial by half. We stopped at the Ahava cosmetics factory store by the Dead Sea, where the tour guide assured us of the miraculous powers of the skin treatments, and where we paid scurrilously high prices for iced coffee drinks.

On to Masada. We should have brought our ride water bottles, since bottled water was at least 3 times the price as in the city. Here we rode up in the cable car and had a very rushed hour of seeing the ruins. His information was fine, but just too little, too fast. Back down to the visitor center for lunch, where we get coupons for free bottles of water with a purchased lunch, which we skipped.

Now to a beach at the Dead Sea. Neither of us wanted to go in, but we sat in a shaded hut and watched people on the beach slathering themselves in mud and getting in the water. A forbidding environment, full of Russians. We moved back up to the snack area and got beers, which were cold and therefore good, and sat with the Kiwi, an Australian, and the Japanese woman. I practiced by 10 words of Japanese, for which she was politely (but I have no idea how sincerely) impressed.

Back in Jerusalem, we met up with Bruce Shaffer, who made aliyah just last week from Boulder, for a lovely dinner in a quiet neighborhood restaurant with garden patio tables. The couple who owned the place were extremely nice, and the pumpkin soup was terrific. Bruce was thrilled when the husband identified him as a Jerusalemite and us as tourists. Considering the short time since his official immigration, this gave him quite the boost. Afterwards, he took us on a little walking tour of the neighborhood around Gan HaPaamon (Liberty Bell Park). In the park, we saw the basketball courts where young haredi men were playing against secular teams. Very local slice of life. We also chatted with a woman who was waiting for a cab on one of the residential streets, for no reason except that she said hello. She was unusually bold in her conversational style, asking me right away if I was blind. I have no problem at all with open questions like that, and told her yes, at which point she took a conversational left turn and asked if I played music. Apparently, she thinks blind people are all musicians. Talking to strangers is so entertaining–I really should do it more often. Bruce gave her a hug when she also thought he was a local, and when he told her that he was newly immigrated, she told him to look her up with my favorite sentence of the trip: “My name is Yael Shwartz, spelled with one vav.” That just made me smile.

Day 7: Goodbye, Eilat. Hello, Jerusalem. With Ice Cream.

Posted in Uncategorized on May 2nd, 2013 by Rick

Tuesday morning we have some free time in Eilat, so we head to a marine reserve a few blocks from the hotel (and a few blocks closer to Egypt), so Derek can snorkel with some of our fellow riders. I hang out on the beach and piers with Triss and Rachael from the Chai Rollers, wading in a bit to enjoy the relatively cool Red Sea water.

Our bus to Jerusalem leaves pretty much on time at 1PM, and we head north much faster than we headed south. We stop for glida (ice cream) at Israel largest dairy, Tnuva, just a little south of Kibbutz Ketura. I asked the counterman for a flavor I don’t see at home: date honey and yogurt. I ask for a small, and he wants to know what other flavor I want, since a small is 2 flavors. He has a children’s size, but insists it is too small for me. So I add mango. I am now spoiled forever. I want to go back.

We make another quick stop at the Dead Sea. We’ve now done all three: Med, Red and Dead as part of the trip. Expensive Dead Sea cosmetic products at the store. Lots of Russian speakers everywhere. Hot. We’ll be back tomorrow.

We arrive in Jerusalem around 6. Since we’ve just spent a week with everyone, we feel like it’s a really good idea to join up with a few of our fellow riders for one more dinner together: good dairy Italian in the newish pedestrian mall of Mamilla. I’m going to miss these people.