Coffee into Theorems

Thursday, June 2nd, 2005

I just got back from my trip to Israel. I kept detailed journal entries while I was there, but I fell behind. In order to allow me time to finish the rest of the journal and keep from inundating my friends and family with too much journal at once, I'm uploading the journal entries one day at a time. Today you get Day 5 of the trip.

In yesterday's entry, I forgot to mention the shower in the hotel. Unlike in the previous hotel, this one had a proper shower basin. What it didn't have was a proper shower curtain. It did have a flimsy, light plastic curtain set in a very slick, small track in the ceiling. Unfortunately, it wasn't quite big enough to cover the last foot of shower. Also, it was so light that as soon as you turned on the shower, the shower curtain billowed in and hugged you tightly, splattering water all over the floor.

On Thursday morning, we first woke up to the loudest, most obnoxious, alarm tone that my PDA could produce. Since it's not an alarm clock, this meant that we awoke to a polite "bing-bong." We drove to a city high in the mountains of the Golan Heights. Its name is Tzfat, but I've seen it spelled "Safed," "Zafed," or "Tsfat." On the way up to this very holy city, the city with the highest elevation in the nation of Israel (the previous day, we visited the spot with the lowest elevation in the world), Mullafaphone and I looked up words in the Hebrew dictionary that I borrowed from my girlfriend. He requested that I look up the word for cheese, which is "tsifat." Sadly, I seriously damaged the book taking it out of my bag. It was a fairly old dictionary, over 40 years old, and I feel really bad about it.

Our tour of Tzfat mostly consisted of walking through its extremely narrow streets. The buildings are several stories high, but only spitting distance from each other. The view up or down any given street is magnificent, but if you stand there staring for any length of time, you're likely to get run over or shoved aside. Some may consider it the holiest city in the world, but it is still a city, and people live in the ancient buildings, and cars drive on those pretty stone streets. As we walked through the streets, I kept seeing signs mostly in Hebrew that had the word for "cheese" on them and arrows pointing down the street. I kept expecting to run into a giant cheese shop any minute. It wasn't until later that I realized that the Hebrew word for "cheese" is spelled the exact same way as the name of the town. The Tzifat Gallery turned out to be an art shop along the main shopping avenue.

We visited two synagogues with very different styles but oddly similar layouts. In one of the synagogues, a bird had built a nest at the top of one of the chandeliers and was busy bringing food to the baby birds. I spent a lot of time trying to get a photograph of the bird inside the building. I have no idea if I succeeded or not.

Eventually we were led to a market street and set loose on the all-too-suspecting shop owners. I 'm not much of a shopping person, so I glanced in at a few stores, but very little seemed worth buying. I know that there must have been hundreds of good gift ideas in those stores, but nothing grabbed me, and I always feel so shallow buying cheesy tourist crap. That's unfair. There were plenty of things in the shops that were neither cheesy nor crap. But unfortunately, that's what it feels like I'm buying. I hope no one is upset that I didn't really buy any souvenir gifts. "Cheesy" is not a pun, by the way.

I had been informed that we were supposed to haggle over the price of anything we bought at one of the shops, but I wasn't quite prepared for the reality of the situation. Haggling is so expected that the store owner has zero expectation of getting the posted price. Not even from a clueless tourist. For example, I was in a shop that sold miscellaneous Jewish bric-a-brac. There are many such stores in the places we went, but this one was crammed from floor to ceiling with so much stuff that it made everything in it seem cheaper just by being there. When I say "floor to ceiling," I'm not exaggerating. There were shofars in a tub on the floor and Star of David mobiles hanging from the ceiling. One of the other members of our group was looking at one of the mobiles when the shop attendant (probably the store owner too) approached him. What follows is a rough transcript of the conversation.

"Can I help you?" asked the shopkeeper in accented, but fluent English.

Idly, the shopper replied, "Yes, how much does this cost?" He didn't actually seem interested.

"Five hundred sheqel," blurted the shopkeeper so quickly that I could barely make out the words.

The shopper didn't quite hear him and asked a simple, non-agressive "What?"

Without hesitation, the shopkeeper ammended his previous offer. "Four hundred sheqel."

I was astonished at the speed with which he changed the price. Why even bother with the high price if you're not even going to pretend that it was reasonable? Such is the difference in culture.

After Tzfat, we drove to the Tel Dan Nature Reserve. This was a somewhat unexpected stop, since we'd been told that while there would be a lot of walking, there would be no hiking and that we could wear sandals. The trail was paved at first, so I ran into no trouble with my footwear. The park is a very beautiful place, and an incredible contrast from the previous three days we'd spent in the Negev desert. The Dan River wound back and forth, intersecting our path on several occasions. The Dan River is the largest of the three major tributaries to the Jordan River, which is the only river of any significance in the country. The fact that it was bridgeable by little ten-foot bridges may seem to undermine its grandeur, but nothing could demean its beauty.

We stopped at the edge of one of the bridges, and our tour guide asked for a volunteer. One of the group members got volunteered in spite of himself and stood by the guide. Reaching into the river, the guide picked up a small, black something, a few millimeters in diameter and held it up. He informed us that it was a Jordan River leech, and talked about how they excrete a chemical that slows blood clotting. We were informed that if one gets on you and you pull it off, it will likely leave a small open wound, and that the best way to remove one is to burn it with a cigarette. Then he proceeded to try and put the leech on the volunteer's neck. Predictably, the volunteer freaked out and squirmed away with many a "Dude!" At this point, our beloved tour guide informed us that he'd just been kidding and that it actually was a snail. I'm really not quite sure what the point of that whole thing was, but it was funny.

Lunch was finally at a place that had a falafel shop and a shawarma shop. I went into the shawarma shop and was actually able to order off the menu and know what I was going to pay ahead of time. "Shawarma pita" isn't too hard to read, even in Hebrew. I'd been looking forward to some good shawarma since I got to Israel, and this stuff was okay, but it had bits of bone and gristle in it that I had to spit out. We'd been informed that the next stop was to be kayaking on the Jordan River. I had my doubts about the translation of the word "kayaking." Would we really be using kayaks? It was conceivable, but it seemed more likely to me that we'd just be in rafts. In the meantime, we were asked to go change in the public restrooms at the strip mall we were in. The restrooms were the dirtiest I've ever been in. Not the smelliest or most unsanitary, just the dirtiest. There was mud everywhere. It was very difficult to find a place to put your clothes down while you were changing, and people found different ways to put on bathing suits without stepping on the floor.

Eventually we got to the river, and I saw the rafts we'd be using. There were two types of raft, one for two people and one for five or six. The two-person rafts weren't quite kayaks as they were open-topped and didn't look like they'd tip easily, but we were given two-sided oars, and the rowing technique was similar. I ended up being partnered with the rabbi. He knew how to row a raft like this, but I didn't. It wasn't hard to figure out, but it was subconsciously counter intuitive, so I occasionally pushed on the wrong side of the boat without thinking about it, causing us to turn a bit too much in one direction. I got chewed out a few times by the rabbi, who really just wanted to sit and let the river take us. This was a valid tact and would have easily got us to the bottom, but I tried to talk him into rowing faster just because I thought it was fun to control the raft and pass other rafters. We were one of the last people in the water, but we passed almost all of our group due to my not-perfect efforts with the oar. As we passed them, the rabbi would admonish them for splashing each other right before getting them as wet as he possibly could. The only people we didn't pass were Mullafaphone and his partner, but that was no surprise. She was an experienced whitewater rafter, and Mullafaphone has limitless energy and very strong arms. After the only true rapid on the river (about a two foot drop), we caught up with them, struggling to go upstream. We tried to do the same, but as soon as we got turned around, the third group in line caught up to us and pulled us back to forward, thinking we'd gotten accidentally turned around (a problem I'd figured out how to avoid after the first minute or so). The trip down the river was fun and a welcome break from using my legs to climb stairs all week.

After everyone caught up, we got changed and got back in the bus. Water always tires me out, and I would have been happy to go to our hotel room and zonk out. But there was one more stop before we would get to our hotel in the city of Tiberius. We drove to the top of a tall hill named Har Bental, where there was a military bunker. It was currently set up as a tourist attraction, but we were informed that it was ready for use in case there was a need for it. At the top of the bunker, you could see into Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. Those sides of the hill were covered in a wide strip of barbed wire. Our tour guide told us that the barbed wire was covering a mine field with anti-tank and anti-personnel mines. As if on cue, a little cat came out of nowhere and walked into the mine field. Presumably a cat doesn't weigh enough to set off a mine, but it was still a bit unnerving. I'm not even sure I believe our guide about there being mines. Mullafaphone loved the bunker; he always gets a kick out of military stuff. He also had a good time throwing rocks at the foreign countries. Of course, they were all miles off, and he didn't think he'd hit them, but he got some satisfaction out of it anyway.

Finally we got to the hotel in Tiberius. We were given time to freshen up, but we had to be back down in the lobby for one more program. The door to our hotel room had no knob. There was a cylindrical brass protuberance with a keyhole extending from the door, but it didn't move. It served as a hard-to-grip handle with which one could push the door open, provided that the key was being turned in the lock at the exact same time as you pushed, but it was by no means a doorknob. On the other side of the door, the same handle-thingy was there, but instead of a keyhole, it had a button on the top that you had to push while pulling open the door. The shower made about as much sense. This shower had a proper basin and a passable shower curtain, but the shower head was set in the back side of the wall, facing out of the shower, instead of on the side of the shower so it could spray its water length-wise. The upshot of this was that if you weren't in the way of the water, it sprayed directly into the shower curtain. Bizarre. Not unfunctional, but bizarre. I was beat, but after taking a shower, I stumbled back downstairs anyway.

When I got downstairs, the lobby was full of little drums called darbukas. People were moving them into a room that our group had reserved for the evening, so I helped schlep them in there. Each darbuka is about a foot and a half in diameter, and about two and a half feet tall. The ones we had were cheap metal things with plastic drum skins. They made a satisfying sound when struck. Our program leader was a darbuka player for the Israeli National Orchestra, and when everyone else arrived, he played some demonstrations and taught us the basics of drumming on the darbuka. It was impressive to watch him play, and fun to play myself even though I have no real sense of rhythm. But I was tired, and I spent most of the evening with a droopy kind of look on my face. Eventually the program was over, and I was able to fall asleep. Somehow everyone else was drinking again. I don't know how they do it.