Not crazy, just spicy in Chiang Mai and Koh Tao

Spending the weekend with my sister, I was able to enjoy the fast pace urban chic of Bangkok before taking the night train up north. The train was different compared to the one in Vietnam, packed with tourists instead of locals. I was headed to Chang Mai, an area nicknamed the capital of the north and the second largest city in Thailand. On first impression though, the city seems tiny. But the pleasant old town where most backpackers hang out around is only a small portion of Chiang Mai. The city is huge, as I discovered when renting a motorbike to take up into the mountains. There's a couple of overlooks and only then can you realize the magnitude of the city. 

Besides the motorbike ride Chiang Mai kicked my ass with the most intense yoga class of my life that left me drenched in sweat and serenity after two hours of pushing my body to the limits. This was followed by an unexpectedly difficult trek up into the mountains with a group of other backpackers and a local guide that offered more comic relief than information" "I'm not crazy, I'm spicy. No jokes no fun, no fun no babies, no honey no money," were a few of his one liners that were repeated throughout the night. On the trek I befriended the second duo of French girls (they're everywhere here!) and shared the experience of the breathtaking (I mean literally - gasping for air) hike up, and mudslide down. We also had about an hour of white water rafting which looked absolutely terrifying from outside the lake where the water crashed at peak heights due to the recent storming and flooding in the region. But it looked scarier then it was and after a few rapids we were allowed to swim along side the boat. It was fun enough until our boat guide refused to let me back in the water, pulling me under by my life vest! I think I managed to swallow enough dirty water there that has since settled in my stomach making me feel a bit off the last couple of days.

Overall Chiang Mai was a really nice city with a great mix of farang (foreigners) and locals. Despite it's size, the city maintains a small town kind of vibe that is welcoming and refreshing. I enjoyed my time in there. I only wish I'd had more time to stay so I could venture up to Pai for a few days and over to Chiang Rai where the White Temple is supposed to put all surrounding temples to shame. 

But instead after a couple of days I headed back on a night bus to Bangkok, a day layover, another night bus followed by a ferry ride to Koh Tao. It was somewhere in the beginning of this two day journey that I've experienced by worse luck so far. Somehow on the bus while I was asleep, someone managed to go into my backpack (which was right next to me!) and steal half my Baht from one wallet and from another $50. The thief got away with nearly $200 total which put a huge dent in my wallet and my mood. But that's been the only misfortune on this trip that I've experienced so far so I won't complain too much, considering. 

Besides nothing that a little sun, sand, and sea can't make up for. I arrived to Koh Tao last Tuesday and apparently brought some good weather with me. the whole week before it'd done nothing but rain, but fortunately since my arrival it's been all sunshine. My first day on the island was a bit of an off day that I think most solo travelers experience. After not really talking much fro the 48 hours of my travel and then spending the entire day alone on Koh Tao, I was a bit desperate for some company. For some reason it just wasn't happening that day. The next morning I went and found another hostel a bit away from the water but filled with backpackers, many also traveling alone. This changed my experience and within my first few hours there, a group of them went on a trek to a known cliff-jumping area. It was fantastic!! I think this is a year of facing my fears because a few years ago you would've never seen me jumping of a rock 30 feet (9 meters) into the ocean. But I did it! And I'm extremely glad I did.

The next day a few of us braved the infamously treacherous roads of Koh Tao on rented motor bikes and went beach hopping with snorkel gear. The fish were everywhere and sparkled under the water in so many different colors. 

Overall Koh Tao has been a nice place for a bit of adventure and relaxation too. Though I think I could grow tired of it quickly. A lot of Koh Tao and the islands revolve around partying with wasted nights equaling wasted days. It's not really my scene, and while I've met some great people, not really my place. The few days I spent here though did seem to put in a good space before I board another bus back to Bangkok to catch my flight to India. (SOOOO EXCITED!) But I feel like I have left a huge amount of southeast Asia uncovered. I think I'll have to come back someday.

The Strange and Serene in Sapa and Hanoi

After my sister left, I headed to the train station to grab the night train up north to Sapa. The night train was like VIP travel compared to the buses I had been taking before. The bunks were nearly long enough to stretch out in so I hardly complained for the extra hours of sleep when the 8 hour trip 11 hours. The only thing a bit strange was sharing the locked door cabin with three Vietnamese men. Maybe less strange then sharing the bus-bed in Laos with the girl, but there is something a little peculiar about falling asleep with three unfamiliar guys, but maybe the felt the same about me.

The train arrived in Lao Cai, a city that practically borders China and is the closest city to Sapa with a train station. From there it's an hour bus ride up steep rolling hills that offer some of the most stunning views of Southeast Asia. I was amazed by my first glimpses of the Sapa area. Mountains stacked with green terraced rice paddies that have been etched into the landscape by hand and hard work. The mist that settled in between valleys looked like something made for movies. And the scene stretches on for miles.

Sapa itself is a very small town nestled in between these hills. The quaint main street in lined with shops and restaurants catered to tourists. But somehow is still charming. Even the "natives" (what the Vietnamese call the local tribes people) with their black outfits, or striking red hats, are constantly smiling even as your refuse (for the thousandth time) their offer for a bracelet at a good price. Though all of that smiling could be due to the copious amounts of marijuana that seem to be consumed by local and tourist alike.

I had a pleasant couple of days in Sapa. The first day I went out with a group of British guys that I met. We rented some motos and managed to get ourselves lost off some tricky path in the middle of the most stunning scenery. Our motos were eventually stopped by the tricky mud slides, and rivers that were too hard to maneuver through, but not before we ran into a jovial local reeking of alcohol and barely managing his saw. When I say saw I literally mean a saw, the size of me(!) meant for cutting down trees! Our communication with him was limited, but we got that point that he wanted a ride into town when he tried to jump, saw and all, on the back of one of the motos. We managed to escape with apologies, and our lives, before heading back into town.

That night I met an Israeli couple that was staying in the same hostel as I was. They were great fun and we booked a trek together for the next day. The trek was beautiful, walking through some of the most stunning views, but with all the tourists it felt more like a middle school trip. Fortunately the company of the Israeli's and the view was great enough to make it a good afternoon. When we made it back, we had the best food I've had in all of Southeast Asia so far at the local market. Nothing compares to fresh food being cooked in a wok over coals right next to your table.

At night we headed out, Trang as our guide to get a massage from a parlor that apparently all the locals frequent. If anyone knows me, you know I'm apprehensive about touch. So when we arrived to this place with seedy pink lighting and was ushered upstairs to a room, told to take off my clothes, and lie on my back staring at floral heart and swan stickers that were pasted to the cieling, I was more than a little uncomfortable. The massage was nice, albeit awkward at times like when the girl jumped up on the bed, between my legs and massaged by calves. Weird. But overall not a terrible experience.

I came downstairs and felt slightly guilty. The atmosphere just seemed to indicate I'd done something wrong. But everyone was sitting around a table and Trung passed out more Vietnamese tea while he explained the appropriate way to smoke the waterpipe that every Vietnamese man smokes for Breakfast, Lunch, dinner, and more. We all somewhat successfully smoked the pipe, though it left some coughing and gasping for air, and others lightheaded and high (we were assured it was just tobacco) before headnig back to misty bar for a night of pool with the locals.

The next morning I had to leave early in order to catch my day train back in Hanoi. I booked the day one because seats were half the price as the night sleeper and I thought the scenary would be nice. The seats, however, were hard upright wooden booths, and the pain along with the noise of 50 overly jovial Vietnamese passengers in the car with me, distracted from any views that may have been had. I would maybe not opt for this 10 hour journey again.

Back in Hanoi, I negotiated for a cab to the airport where I was supposed to fly to Bangkok to  meet my sister again. by negotiate I took out all of the Dong (yes that is the Vietnamese currency, and yes jokes were made) left in my wallet and said this is all I have. It was still under so I offered to through in a few Kip, told him it was worth $2.50 and he accepted my negotiations.

From there we headed to the airport. Only not really. First my driver wanted to stop for food. Ok. i was hungry, but I had no money. He said it was no problem and we stopped for my last Vietnamese street meal of rice, veggies, soup, and coke. Back in the car the driver kept asking if i wanted to go to a hotel to shower or sleep before my flight. No dude. my flight is in 2.5 hours. Let's just go. "No money, no money," he kept saying as if that would somehow encourage me to go to the hotel with him. "Airport," was all I could say back.

So we drove. "Coffee?" "Airport." He stopped anyway, first for petrol (reasonable enough) then for tea and to take a hit from that water pipe. "Airport." I yelled out the window to him as he sipped his tea. Back on the highway, he kept trying to get my to drive. "No thanks." Before just trying to hold my hand, his stereo typically long Vietnamese fingernails scratching my palm. At this point I really feared I would miss my flight. But suddenly we were there and I nearly ran out of the cab to check in.

I should really get paid for the rest of this post because essentially it's going to be a raving endorsement for Qatar Airlines. Listen, now I know what a 5 star airline is like. Why it was the cheapset flight from Hanoi to Bangkok? I do not know and do not care. What airline passes out little mints before you take off? Unbelieveable. And a music, movie, and t.v. selection that rivals on demand cable! Plus the food was even good! I am not really a fan of flying, in fact I used to be absolutely terrified. I'm really ok now, but still get nervous with too much turbulence or something. Here, we were flying through a thunderstorm and I was stretched out over the entire empty row bouncing around wishing the flight would be longer! Only it wasn't. I thought about pretending to sleep through the stopover in Bangkok and head to Doha with them, but eventually I managed to pry myself out of their comfy seats and make my way off the plane. Besides, my sister was waiting at her hotel for me to arrive, so that's where I went.


Traveling through Souheast Asia has frequently left me perplexed and confused. I find myself again and again asking, "why?" This was no different when I left Vientiane on another 24 hour journey to Hanoi, Vietnam. The bus itself, was the first of many confusing encounters during the journey. It was a double decker sleeper bus that had seats similar to a regular bus, but were perpetually semi-reclined position with your feet stretched out under the persons chair in front of you. Intersesting enough. But what added to the atmosphere was the neon lights that were flashing throughout the bus, and the thumping house music that our driver was blasting from his cellphone. Fortunately, a few hours into the ride the lights faded and the music disappeared.... only to be exchanged with a few hours of dubbed in Thai Japanese Samari films followed by what I can only imagine was the Thai equivalent of American Idol. 

About 5 hours into our journey the second large why (there were multiple littlie and medium "whys" all along having to do with our drivers capabilities on the road) occurred when our bus came to a halt and the crew disembarked after opening all the windows and shutting down the bus. Apparently we had already made it to the border crossing to Vietnam, which being midnight, was obviously closed. There we "slept" for 6.5 hours until 6:30 in the morning when they had us get off to check our passports. I still do not understand why they made the departure time from Vientiene 7:30 if only to sit at the border for nearly 7 hours making a potentially 16 hour journey into an entire day. Either way, we had our passports checked once, had to walk nearly a mile to the next place where they checked our passports again, and then once more before we finally get back on the bus to continue to Hanoi.

The border we crossed at was in the Mountains and I was surprised at how cool and temperate it was. The scenery for the next few hours before we made it to the bigger cities was some of the most beautiful I'd seen in Southeast Asia so far. Rolling hills collided with lush green rice paddies where Vietnamese labored in their traditional traingular dome hats. Little villages with victorianesque buildinds looked as if they were painted into the landscape in subtle and almost exotic pastels.

The serenity of the sceneray clashed violently with what awaited us all in Hanoi. Before you can even step off the bus you are bombarded with Taxi drivers aggressively offering you the best price to drive you to the city. As in any 24 hour journey, I became best friends with the person sitting next to me and we and his friends managed to negotiate the drivers best price down to one closer to ours before ventured into Hanoi's Old Quarter. The city was more alive and choatic than any I'd seen on my journey. Colors, and the constant flow of people, cars, and tuk-tuks flood the street at an overwhelming pace. The night was young, but the trip had been long so after booking ourselves into the hostel for the night we simply grabbed a bite to eat (I had my first authentic Pho which I was so pleased to try!), walked around the lake, and fell sound asleep.

The next morning I woke up early to wait for my sister who was flying in to meet me. We headed to the bus station and bought a trip ticket to Halong Bay. While we were waiting I found a stall selling fruit. We bought a few local kinds including persimmons which I was pleased to share with my sister as they reminded me of Tel Aviv. When we bit into them, our mouths instantly turned numb and a digusting coating covered our theeth and tongues. I later found out that persimmons are not immediately edible but must first either be soaked in water for 24 hours or in a tank of CO2 before that disgusting taste retreats. The things you learn!

After our unsavory fruit snack, Kristin and I began the bus, bus, boat, bus trip to Cat Ba Island, an area I'd heard shined in comparison to the hell hole that was supposed to be Halong City. If Cat Ba island is a glowing paradise in comparison, then I cannot even imagine the terribleness that is Halong City. Cat Ba itself was a disappointment, nearly empty of tourists (which in some cases is not such a good thing), but full of the aggressive Vietnamese vendors. The city is plopped right on a harbor, but somehow manages to destory much of the beauty cities on bays often have.

However, the beach was still nice and my sister was just thankful to be near water after living in the only landlocked country in the region. Particularly as every summer for the last several years she's all but lived on the bay working as a sailing instructor in the inner harbor. So any beach was better then no beach. And we did manage to have some fun. We also decided to rent a motorbike and cruise around the island for awhile which offered plenty of beuutiful views that Cat Ba neglected. It was actually my first time driving a bike since my accident in D.C. where mine was totaled. I won't lie. I was a bit nervous. Especially having my sister on the back. But regardless of a few awkward turns, I managed fine and we had a good time!

The highlight certainly came in the tour we booked for our second day. We went out with a local company from the Island that took you on a boat through the bay. Along the way were hundreds of little floating houses. I was told Cat Ba itself was populated by 8,000 people, and these floating villages had an additional 4,000. It was amazing to see people living, bathing, and working on these small floating shacks.

Away from the people and adjacent to Halong Bay is the even more miraculous Lan Ha Bay. These are the aweinspiring rocky cliffs, and pristine waters that you see in the pictures. After lunch on the boat we took kayaks out into the water and navigated our way around these massive rocks, through caverns, and into caves before tying up our kayaks to the edge of a cliff and swimming. The whole experience was quite breathtaking and could only be finished with several jumps off the two story boat before heading back to the Island.

The next morning we caught the bus, boat, bus, bus back to Hanoi where my sister and I parted ways once more. As she took off for Bangkok, I wandered through the busy streets until it was time to catch the night train to Sapa, in the north of Vietnam.


Despite the 25 hour bus ride, and the fact that I'd be missing many beautiful places and faces along the way, after Siem Reap I was ready to head to Vientiane, Laos to find my sister. I've been away from family for a year now, and while the sights of Cambodia and South Vietnam were tempting, the pull to Vientiane was stronger. I was also looking forward to dropping my bags for a few nights and having time to adjust and reflect on moving away from Tel Aviv, and begin preparing myself for moving back to D.C.

The route to Vientiane was about the longest one that could possibly be planned. From Siem Reap we took the bus North East, all the way across Cambodia to the border of Laos. The travel was beautifully scenic though. Houses in the countryside of Cambodia are built on stilts to protect them from the floods of rainy season. The houses are usually single rooms built from unvarnished and simple planks of wood. Ramps or stairs lead up to the single doorway where women or men were often sitting escaping the heat while they're children ran through yards chasing neighborhood dogs or each other.

From then southern most border of Laos, we continued north. Around 8pm, after 13 hours, I transferred buses in Pak Se, a small bustling town that borders Thailand. The bus I was moved to was a shockingly comfortable sleeper that allowed me to nearly fully recline (head and legs touching both top and bottom of a bed meant for someone slightly smaller). Sitting in a bus for hours on end leaves you surprisingly sleepy so I was out in a manner of minutes. Around midnight I was abruptly awaken by the driver pushing me into the window. As I moved over, a small Laos girl got into bed next to me. I wanted to laugh at the hilarity of the situation - something I found so awkward, but figured it was customary bust travel there so instead I just went back to bed. I woke up a few hours later lying flat on my back with her curled into my side. I think we slept like that until morning when the bus finally stopped at the Vientiane bus station and we both got out.

I was unsure of where to head from there. I had directions from the hospital that my sister had given me but mostly included "face hospital, go left, take next right, find metal gate, apartment number ..." Fortunately, Laos people are incredibly friendly, like Thai, and eventually I was led to the right address and woke up my sleepy sister! I spent a few days in Laos doing almost nothing but walking around in the searing heat, visiting my sister in her lab (the few feet I was allowed into), feeding the lab goats banana leaves, and eating lots of noodles.

I also made it to the the COPE Visitor Centre. The COPE center provides rehabilitation services for those who have been victims of the thousands of landmines that still cover parts of Laos that the U.S dropped during the Vietnam War. The Visitor Centre displays art from survivors, as well as the metal from the explosives, and information about the threat of land mines to today's society in Laos. It was an interesting experience, and was reminiscent of much of what I learned this last year in school. Particularly walking onto the premise. I was struck by the power and severity of the situation when I was confronted by a young boy sitting in a wheel chair, both legs in plaster casts. Maybe in the future, this is an area to think about focusing my work in.

On my last full day there I ventured to the market on a quest to cook some western styled tacos for my sister who was craving anything but Asian cuisine. The market was complete organized chaos. Spanning several blocks it must be nearly the size of the central bus station in South Tel Aviv. I guessed the direction of the meat and produce and found myself wading through sludge with vendors selling crickets, worms, full chickens, live ducks, eels, frogs, and was splashed by flailing fish before I made it to the vegetables. I gathered my ingredients before I headed to the import market for some taco shells.

I'm now thankful for the time I spent with Leah in Senegal, who taught me to cook with potentially gastrointestinal devastating produce. I washed all the veggies in bleach before dicing them and adding them to the rice and ground mystery meat. The tacos were not my best, but it was a fun experience and I think my sister enjoyed them.

The next evening, I headed back to the bus station to grab a 24 hour bus to Hanoi, Vietnam. Again, I was surprised by the conditions of the bus. While the seats were hardly comfortable, they nearly fully reclined with your feet straight out in front of the persons chair in front of you. But the complete awesomeness was found in the blasting techno music, strobe lights, and ultimate party bus scene that the driver was creating. I figured out early that this was going to be a long 24 hours.

Raiding Tombs in Angkor Wat

After a couple of days in Bangkok, I decided to make my way to Cambodia. First stop in the country would be Siem Reap. This city is one of the few built up and largely tourist established cities due to it's infamous appearance in Tomb Raider II. Just kidding. Tomb Raider chose this prime location to film because of the Angkor Wat temples that lie a few miles outside of the city.

Crossing from Thailand to Cambodia, the feeling and atmosphere changed instantly. Where Thai people are quick to smile and overly polite (though constantly making fun of you as soon as you turn your back, probably for good reason) the Cambodians I encountered offered stern glances and general disdain at anyone's appearance. Considering Cambodia is a relatively poor country, particularly in the region, and tourism is it's second largest economic industry next to textiles, I was surprised at how unwelcome I felt. Though I wasn't entirely surprised considering the influence my country has had in their history which completed devastated them for years following the Vietnam War.

But still, after arriving at the border every interaction I had with locals involved money, and left me feeling slightly cheated. Between additional bus fares that weren't supposed to exist, and a stop at a roadside market for lunch that cost infinitely more than a meal in Bangkok, I began to feel slightly uneasy about the area.

Fortunately, I shared the small mini bus I was traveling in with four other overly friendly and welcoming tourists that completely compensated for the feeling of hostility that hung in the air. Once at the guesthouse, we were all best friends and the two french girls offered me to stay in the extra bed that was in their room. I graciously accepted, anxious to get away from the feelings of isolation and loneliness that I'd experienced since leaving Tel Aviv.

That night I checked out the tourist friendly, and lively night/bar scene in Siem Reap and after a delicious local dinner and a taste of BBQ frog, I headed to "Pub Street" (yes, that is in fact the name of the lively street in Siem Reap lit up for all to fine by a bright neon sign) with the two expats of Dubai.

The scene was fun, and the night was young, but I ditched the boys early anticipating a long day of trekking through ancient temples. By 11:30 pm I arrived back at my guesthouse where my suspicions of the local population grew. There were about five male employees of the guesthouse barely managing to stay in their seats which were set around a table completely covered in empty beer bottles. They spoke with their eyes closed when I said goodnight, and I had to step over two of them who had passed out on the floor inside. While witnessing their drunken stupor wasn't threatening in any way, it added to a feeling of unease about the city. There is obviously a lot of pain buried underneath all of the stoic faces, and the drunken stupors didn't seem to be induced as a means of festivity, but something more sad.

The next day I woke up early, and all of the men were up as well, ready to work for the day. We headed to the temples which were a beautiful sight! Construction of these temples first began in the 800's a.d. and finished in the 1400's after nine dynasties ruled over them, alternating times of Hindu and Buddhist reign. The temples were rediscovered in the 1600's by the French (yay colonialism!) and attempts for restoration began. Today Angkor Wat is the most restored, and most definitely a sight to marvel at. We were able to go back for another view the next morning at sunrise, to see the light ascend over the the temple illuminating it with serenity and mystery simultaneously.  Currently the temples are still used as sights for worship. Orange clad monks can be seen walking amongst the ruins.

I was told that Angkor Wat had the potential to rival Petra. I found that hard to believe because the experience I had in Petra was one of the most memorable I'd ever had. But it was explained to me that while Petra's buildings were empty on the inside, the Wats of Angkor were covered in engraved designs and statues of Buddha. This was true, and the insides were stunning, just as much as the grandeur on the outside. The place was miraculous and slightly magical. However, my overall fondness for the place was slightly diminished, again, by the people. I'm used to begging, and selling. It happened in Petra too. But overall, the Bedouins there are laid back and friendly. They respect the land and most still live in it. In Angkor Wat, the feeling from the locals was different. At the entrance and exit of every entryway children were sent to sell small goods and beg incessantly. Sometimes swarming you. And when you offered an answer like, "I'm sorry, no thank you," they answered with "Sorry no buy me food." While I suppose it's true, I was slightly shocked by such exploitative comments coming from exploited children. The one moment I was able to step outside of that interaction with these kids was when I caught a group of boys jumping and playing in a pool of water near the temples. Then it was no longer about money. I sat with them and asked to take their photos and they were thrilled as I caught them mid-jump into the water, laughing and shrieking at their image on LCD screen of my camera.

Following our second full day at the temples, the tension that I'd felt since arriving reached a culminating point when our tuk-tuk (motorcycle) driver, who led us through the temples each day, flipped out demanding to be paid 50% more than the agreed upon price. We (the two french girls that I toured Angkor Wat with) tried to negotiate with him, but it ended in him screaming at us that he never wanted to see our faces again. I didn't want to back down, simply out of pride, but since the french girls had to travel back with him, we decided it best to just pay the few dollars. For awhile, I thought perhaps it was simply just one guy. But when I arrived back at the hostel that night, I was again literally screamed at by the guesthouse owner about money as well. I suppose it was this hostility I sensed from the start, that was suppressed between the chiseled faces of the locals I had met. Though it's not surprising given the fact that less than 45 years ago, Cambodia endured a mass genocide that killed 2 million of it's people by the communist Khmer Rouge. This was influenced by the Vietnam war, and no one made an effort to stop them. Given a history like that, mixed with the dependence on tourism, the barely hidden hostility can be understood, I suppose. But this is not to say that one shouldn't plan a visit to Cambodia. I would've loved to see more, just not as a solo traveler. And I did meet some great locals as well. The Cambodians I met and had good conversations with were gracious and had a fantastic and sarcastic sense of humor. This is not to be overlooked as when learning a new language, translating humor can be one of the hardest aspects.

Either way, I was pleased to make a decision to leave Cambodia after this and head up towards Vientiane, Laos via a 25 hour bus ride. My terribly planned route through Southeast Asia was due to the fact that I was trying to meet up with my sister who is living in Vientiane (the Capital of Laos), join her in Halong Bay by the beginning of September, and adjust to her rapidly changing schedule due to work demands that would have her in and out of Bangkok, and Vientiane. So I said goodbye to Cambodia, though I saw so little and would love to someday see much more, and headed in the direction of Laos in the longest way possible.

Wat up, Bangkok

Bangkok is a city with more temples (Wats) then the bible belt has churches, and more 7-11's then New York has Starbucks. Actually, probably more 7-11's the the U.S. has nationwide. So much so that I'm pretty sure 7-11 is actually Thai, not American.

I made it to the Bangkok airport around 3 a.m. and decided to catch a few hours of sleep before heading into the city. In the early morning I grabbed the train from the airport into the city. From there, I got lost. Bangkok is one of the most densely populated cities with over 12 million people jammed into it's 606 sq. miles (1,566 km). It is the 73rd largest city in the world and it's overwhelming size was evident the minute I ventured out into its bustling streets.

Lost, confused, and completely overwhelmed I instantly felt helpless. Fortunately, this is a familiar feeling for me and in an effort to orient myself, I just asked everyone around me for directions. This was my first indication that Bangkok, despite it's size, is a hospitable and welcoming city. Everyone smiled, those who didn't know directions didn't pretend to. Most people, however, did know how to get to where I wanted to go and were overly helpful in offering directions and assistance.

On one afternoon I was attempting to travel back to my hostel and was lost as usual. I asked a well dressed man sitting at the bus stop for the bus number that would take me to Khao San road. At first he struggled to understand my terrible accent, but eventually figured out where I wanted to go and mentioned he was taking the same bus. We tried with little avail to have a conversation, but he struggled to understand my English. The guy was so friendly though, that he went through his phonebook trying to find someone to call that spoke English. When he was able to get a friend on the line she simply said the he wanted to know if there was anything else he could help me with. While we waited for the bus, he showed me pictures his family had professionally taken. In all honesty, they were a bit bizarre. Traditional painting styles of his parents sitting in tall back chairs while he and his brother sit on the floor holding their legs. Bizarre indeed, but the guy was great. He got me on the right bus, paid for my ticket (!) and then walked me to the street. I thanked him profusely, but I think he was most pleased that I let him take a picture of the two of us. I'm still overwhelmed by his kindness though, and I think such sincerity is truly common among Thais.

It took me awhile to adjust to Bangkok. Initially I wanted to leave and escape to somewhere quieter. But by three days, I realized i could spend months in Thailand happily exploring it's nooks and crannies. It is a city that is dominated by themes and cultures of the past, is pushing towards an innovative future, and lives at a bustling and chaotic pace in the present. The architecture is a scrambled and unplanned mix between beautiful Wats and modern skyscrapers. The public transit is affordable and practical filled with men in business suits, and women in heels. Tuk tuks (motorcycles with carriages attached the back) careen through traffic carrying local passengers to their destination. Five story malls sell brand name and designer wear while outdoor markets continue the traditional means of selling goods and produce. The culmination of past, present, and future create a city took me time to adjust to, but quickly became a city I more then enjoyed. 

Saying Goodbye

I can hardly believe that writing this from Kiev while I wait for my connecting flight tht will take me to Bangkok.

It feels surreal for so many reasons; lack of sleep, excitement, but mostly because I can't even process that my time in Tel Aviv is up. I'm in shock that the year flew by so fast, and while the year came with many difficult obsticles, I'm sad to see it end.

I've hardly even focused on my traveling plans for the next two months becuase I was too invested in trying to stay present for my last couple of days in Tel Aviv. I think I achieved that feeling of presence as much as I could've hoped for. I managed to drag some classmates and roommates out to watch a meteor shower from the beach followed by a sunrise swim in the mediterranean, I sang a song (in Hebrew!) for our graduation ceremony, I went dancing one last time in Jaffa to middle eastern dance beats, I took pictures of the Jaffa port illuminated at night so I can always remember what it looks like, my roommates skillfully organized an amazing surprise party on the beach with all of my friends and favorite food of Tel Aviv, I went night swimming and nearly got carried away by the current, and I had one last shabbat before my roommates took me to the airport at four a.m.

But I also had to say some of the hardest goodbyes. Mostly, my life has been made up of goodbyes that pretend to be temporary. "It's only goodbye for now, we're only a short plane ride away, I'll come visit sometime soon..." But these goodbyes were different. I don't really know if Tel Aviv will ever be in my future again, so some of the goodbyes I had to say there could carry no false pretense of being temporary. I found that very sad and tough to stomach. l really don't like goodbyes after all.

I can't even begin to undestand the way this last year and the people I experienced it with have changed me. I suppose in many ways it's difficult when you're sitll living there. I think maybe traveling, and especially when I get home it will be more apparent. Maybe not to anyone else, but definitely to me. I feel differently already, about life, about the world, about my role in both.

This past year I felt like I was beginning to understand, in a new way, who I am. I have to be honest. I feel more lost now then ever. I'm looking forward to just taking a few days to sit in a Bungalow on a Thai Island and reflect on all this year has brought me, while I wait for my India Visa to be prepared.

Out of Egypt

חג שמח, or Happy Passover! 

This morning, as I was sipping coffee and working on my computer at my kitchen table, I was suddenly aware of the smell of smoke. I jumped up and rushed to the window, worried I would find my backyard on fire (especially considering I saw a neighboring apartment catch fire the day before!). But it was not my backyard, it was the neighboring Synagogue's, and the flames were contained in a small BBQ pit. Children and men with kippahs on their heads gathered around the fire tossing in loaves of bread, and bags of flour as they rid the synagogue of chametz (leaven) or any food including leaven such as wheat, rye, barley, oats, and spelt. Some Jews also avoid rice, corn, peanuts, and legumes. According to my roommate (a verifiable source) this is a traditional Jewish custom of Passover. In fact, it's even illegal for stores to sell chametz during Passover (of course it's Israel, so there's always some stores that find a way around this rule).

This tradition of abstaining from chametz comes from the Biblical story of the Exodus, in which God led the Jews to freedom from the Egyptians. It's said that, after God inflicted ten plagues on the Egyptians, the Pharaoh finally let the Jewish slaves go. They left in such a hurry, they did not even have time to let their bread rise, hence the week of eating unleavened foods. Led by Moses, and with a few important stories and incidents in between, the Jews eventually made it into Israel and back to the temple in Jerusalem. 

(c) Steve Jeter
And while this year I'm in Israel, I had a very atypical Passover experience. Currently there are over 40,000 refugees who fled their countries (mainly Eritrea, and Sudan), and made their own exodus by land, through Egypt, and into Israel. They come here fleeing dictators, and regimes, war, and famine. But life in Israel has proved difficult and many of them end up living on the streets, desperate for work, food, and money. For the last couple of years, ARDC (African Refguee Development Center), has worked to commemorate this modern day exodus during the Passover holiday. This year, like the previous years, they organized a Passover Seder in Levinsky Park where the majority of the refugees "live."

I went to the seder and volunteered, putting up tables and chairs, and passing out plates of food to over 300 people. Instead of doing the typical ceremony that accompanies the dinner, a speech was given in English, Hebrew, Arabic, and Tigrinya. The speech briefly explained the history of Passover and then went on to say this: "Today tens of thousands of our brothers and sisters are fleeing countries run by modern day Pharaohs. Fleeing brutal dictators and organized murder, running for their lives. Many of you here today made the same journey across the same desert. You have arrived here in Israel hoping to find freedom and rebuild your lives. The question we have today is where is our Moses? Who will lead us all to freedom?"

Throughout the speech, many of the refugees seemed skeptical, choosing to stand on the outskirts instead of taking seats at the table. Things like this don't usually happen in Levinsky Park, and rarely are events organized specifically for asylum seekers. Except for maybe mass deportation. The skepticism increased when they saw all the cameras documenting the event. Many hid their faces confused as to what the photographs would be used for, worrying they might lead to police detainment or worse.

But the draw of food was too strong for the hungry bellies. After the volunteers began passing out dinners, the circle was closed and everyone near came to eat. It was hard seeing people so filled with hunger. While there's a high rate of poverty and homelessness in D.C., there's also numerous social services to counteract it; homeless shelters, soup kitchens etc. Unfortunately in Israel these services don't exist for this population.

Eventually, stomachs were filled and the mood lifted. The music got louder and the dancing began. Eritreans, Sudanese, Ethiopians, Israelis and Americans became entangled with one another as arms waved, feet kicked, and hips swayed to the beat. It was fun to dance with everyone and feel like, maybe just for for five minutes, nothing else mattered!

Conflict Zone

In the U.S., when you think of Israel, oftentimes images of explosions, suicide bombings, soldiers armed with M-16's and mass panic may come to mind. This image, courtesy of indoctrination from the media, is why so many people were shocked and confused when I told them of my plans to move here. But those images are nothing like actually living here. The only explosions I've seen in Tel Aviv involve heavy nights of drinking, and loud music....mostly

Recently, I was offered the opportunity to, once again, venture outside of the Bubble a.k.a. Tel Aviv and get a little bit closer to the side of Israel that is always highlighted by the international media. First I was offered to join a ride-along with the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) on the northern border of Gaza. It was a long ride (which in a country the size of New Jersey means about 1.5 hrs) south, to the border. There we met with the officers accompanying us on our tour of 'No Man's Land' and the fence that separates Israel from Gaza. 

We were put into armored vehicles in order to brave the borders, as vehicles in the area are often targeted by home-made bombs, and gunfire. The "car" I was in looked like a safe room, with six inch metal walls and a door that sealed shut so tightly I think we could've been submerged in water and it wouldn't leak. There were bowling balls lodged into the walls, with meant for assault rifles. The barrel would fit through the hole and it could be rotated in the wall of the vehicle in order to aim. 

As we drove (the red line on the map), it seemed as though we were taking the scenic tour. Out the window were the most pristine, and stunning beaches I have ever seen, with crashing waves and perfectly white sand. All of the sudden, our armored vehicle veered left, up and down a few small dunes, and there we were. A barely obstructed view of Gaza. How surreal it was, to be just on the other side of that fence. The few high rises we could see in the distance hardly belied the reality of what was on the other side.  Just behind that barrier was a city of half a million; a city that is one of the most densely populated in the world. Gaza is city that lives in extreme and widespread poverty.

The calm I experienced at the border is entirely misleading, however. Two days later, and a stones throw from where we were, Israel successfully launched an air-strike on Hamas members who were setting up missiles to launch over the wall into a nearby city of Israeli Civilians. Since I've been in Israel, there have been two major missile attacks coming out of Gaza. Some argue it is a reaction to violent assaults carried out by the IDF within Gaza that have been known kill civilians including women and children (as happened earlier this year). However, it is also unimaginable what neighboring Israeli cities such as Sderot, and Askelon endure when, in the span of a few days, over 100 missiles rain down around them.

The next trip was to Nabi Saleh, a West Bank village of about 500 people just north west of Ramallah. I went with a film crew on a Friday to capture some footage of the weekly protests that occur there. The protests takes place in response to a settlement that was built across the main road into Nabi Saleh. Protestors gather at the road of the town and march as a group towards a spring that is owned  y a villager. Following the building of the Halamesh settlement access to this well by the owner and residents was restricted as it's on the other side of the settlers road. Palestinians are banned from going there.

A few hours before the noon 'call to prayer,' we gathered in the home of Nabi Saleh's media spokesperson. She does all of the interviews for international press when they come by. There were about 20 of us gathered in her home, some press, some israeli activists, some international activists looking to join the protest. She spoke about Nabi Saleh, Mustafa Tamimi (the protestor who was fatally injured the month before when, against Israeli policy, a tear gas canister was fired point blank into his face) and the spring that everyone was walking towards. Her words were interesting but rehearsed. What turned out to be most moving part of the experience was my trip to the bathroom - no water. No water to flush, no water to wash your hands. No water. These people are marching to a spring. Not just out of symbolism but out of necessity. It used to be a supplementary water supply for the villagers. This was not just a symbol, but a practical necessity. Last summer, typical water shortages forced Israel and the West Bank to run on a more limited supply of water. Israel (who controls the water pipelines) cut off the water supply to Nabi Salih for 40 days during months when temperatures typically reach above 80F.

Witnessing that really helped me understand why, for two and a half years straight, these villagers and outsiders gather together and protest every Friday afternoon. So this week, I gathered with them, hiding behind my camera as the action played out in front of me. I watched the events occur with ritualistic practice - villagers marched, the Israeli Military stood their ground, children in masks threw stones, the IDF responded with skunk water, children threw more stones, the IDF threw tear gas. There was lots of running, dodging, and heavy breathing. About an hour in, I experienced my first real dose of tear gas. Wow. That stuff hurts. It's like swallowing a 4th of July sparkler. The hairs in your nose feel like they've caught fire, your eyes water so much you can barely see, and all the while you're running and stumbling to get away from the gas. 

It's almost debilitating. I'm not sure if it was the adrenaline or the gas but suddenly I was shaking all over. My friend and a local woman were handing me onions to smell and eat and alcohol swipes to put up my nose and rags drenched in lemon juice - all homemade methods to help alleviate the effects of the gas. 

The protestors were slowly pushed further and further from the spring and back into the village. At that point we bolted, cameras and all, towards the car and took off to avoid any possibility of arrest. Slowly, as the adrenaline started to subside, it occurred to me what might be the actual reason for the protest. Fun. That may sound crazy, but in a way it's like extreme sports! And on both sides, IDF and protestors, all of the anxiety and oppression of the week - working at checkpoints or border control, or living in destitute conditions with a beautiful settlement and brightly painted playground across the road from you -all of that builds up into a giant release of tear gas and stones and community and energy and adrenaline and endorphins. An explosion of endorphins! I wanted to do it again. Right away.

But instead, we drove out of the West Bank, and back to Tel Aviv where the adrenaline rush comes from a run on the boardwalk next to the beach, or dancing all night at clubs and where water is unlimited and the only stones being thrown are skipping across the Mediterranean. 

Taking a "Teul"

Israel is not suicide bombers, missiles and warfare as we are led to believe it is. Tel Aviv in particular is beaches, cafes, fatalism, and fun. But despite the beach town, chic, and edgy city, it still comes with a certain amount of stress for me.  Not only have I packed up and moved myself across the world, leaving my friends and family behind, but I've plopped myself down and made a cozy little impermanent home for myself right in the middle of the Middle East.

On a daily basis, my mind is often reeling. I struggle with missing my friends and family, I grapple with constantly feeling like an outsider as one of the few non-jews here,  I try to adjust to the bomb sirens, practice drills, and gas masks that act as a constant reminder that war is always a threat. I stifle the horror and absolute sadness I feel when working at the clinic and am presented with terrible cases of torture, rape, and sickness from the asylum seeking community here. I feel physical pain in my body when I hear devastating personal Palestinian and Israeli narratives about losing sons, daughters, brothers and sisters. Then I sit in class several hours a week listening to lectures about torture, trauma, abuse, PTSD, traumatic grief and disaster. Sometimes bike rides, or runs along the Tayalet with the Mediterranean at my side is not enough to combat the pressure that builds between my rib cage from witnessing such devastating stories. 

Sometimes I feel like I just need to get away. Fortunately, Israel, despite the aforementioned, is also filled with places to escape and retreat to. Israelis, probably facing similar feelings that I have, are notorious for going out on day, or weekend excursions to the northern forests or south to the Negev. These excursions are known as "teuls" in Hebrew.

The other weekend I was able to get out with a few friends and away from the pressure building up inside. We drove out of the city leaving Tel Aviv behind. We drove for hours through rolling, rocky hills, and deep green valleys. We drove through the land of Moses and Jesus and Abraham and Sarah. The second I left the city, I could feel the fresh air washing over me, calming and cleansing; brushing away all of the dirt, dust, and grime of the city, relieving the pressure and making me feel light and whole again.

We drove south of Jerusalem and hiked for a bit. We climbed the rocky hills, and explored ancient caves that were dug deep into the earth. It's easy to imagine biblical and present day history being made in the scenic areas of Israel. Occasionally we stopped and did some impromptu yoga. My friend was nice enough to capture me in a headstand moment. I think all the pressure and blood rushing to my head was really effective in making all those thoughts in my brain slow down. Before the day was over, I had even found a souvenir! My friend didn't want me to put it in his car....but I insisted.

We watched the day end as the sunset over the hills, and then headed to the Moshav to see some friends' of friends. A Moshav is a really close community of families, similar to a kibbutz. Since it was Saturday night, we were able to celebrate the end of Shabbat with the community. There was candle lighting, prayers, songs, and more songs. It was a really beautiful experience and a perfect way to end the day and our Teul. I was sleepy, but felt rejuvenated from our Teul, ready to continue my work at the Clinic the following day.

Holidays in the Holy Land

Happy Holidays and Happy New Year from the Holy Land!

The end of 2011 (and most of the year, really), has already brought so many changes and new beginnings for me and for the entire wold too. I can only imagine what 2012 will have in store for us all. In anticipation of the new year, international news coverage was recounting the front page headlines of 2011, a lot of them including the Arab Spring and the Occupy movements in the U.S. I can hardly believe that I was able to experience a glimpse of both with my own eyes!

Despite all my traveling this summer, my sense of adventure has not abated, which is why the New Year of 2012 finds me relocated in amazing city: Tel Aviv! But while Tel Aviv is always full of excitement and adventure, the vivacious city that I now call home (albeit temporarily) is like living in a bubble. It is a bubble compared to the rest of Israel, and certainly a bubble compared to the Middle East. It is a beautiful, safe city where I can walk alone at night and not carry my keys between my knuckles like I did in D.C. It is a city where I can barely maneuver my way through the masses of people clogging the Shuk (outdoor market) and barter for the best vegetable prices, or stop by the "Mega" supermarket (essentially a Safeway) on my way back from class and pick up any groceries I need in one convenient and quick stop. It's a city which hosts and hides a lot of trauma and crisis (which I've been exposed to because of my Masters program at TAU: Social Work for Trauma and Crisis Studies) particularly in the south where there is a large asylum seeking community. It's a city where I can work with a woman who's been stabbed in the face while trying to cross the Sinai on a journey from Eritrea to Israel. It's a city where I can work with this woman and then decompress as I walk through sand and water on the shore of the Mediterranean while en route back to my apartment.

This city is a bubble that contains so much life, so much heartache, so much vitality, pain, suffering, beauty, and resilience. A bubble that contains so much that at times it seems it might burst.

So far I feel like my time in Tel Aviv has been a true gift, and every moment has been blessed. I was so thankful to arrive at the same time as my friend, Aziz. As a local of East Jerusalem, he was able to navigate the Hebrew websites offering apartment rentals and I found a place to live within a week. This truly is remarkable in a city where even locals may spend months looking for a flat! Not to mention, I ended up in probably the best apartment in the city, with the best people in Tel Aviv.

I truly am lucky to have ended up where I live, in a beautiful apartment with a balcony attached to my bedroom, a huge living room, a dining room that has hosted more than a few large dinners, a teeny kitchen that I've gotten accustomed to cooking in, and a rooftop that accommodated over 400 people at our New Years Party (I wish I were joking).

Not to mention I live with three lovely roommates who introduced me to their amazing friends. By amazing I mean the night before Christmas Eve, I came home from class and two of them had gone into the dog park nearby and picked branches off trees until they had enough to stick in a pot and make it look like a little Christmas tree - decorations included! Not only that but they accompanied me on an Christmas Eve trip to Jerusalem. They even let me drag them to midnight mass! Clearly these are friends for life!

Lucky. That's the way I feel at the end of 2011, and if 2012 brings half as much excitement and joy as 2011 brought, then it will be an amazing year!

A Temporary Homecoming

Landing in D.C. after another full day of flying was like exhaling after holding my breath for two months. I had no idea how much I missed the familiar smell of D.C. urban decay, and plastic suburbia of my parents city. It was like smelling spring flowers after the dust, pollution, and rotting fish and veggies of developing cities. Though even this I grew to love after several weeks time.

As much as I enjoyed my travels, it felt good to put my bag down and leave it. It was a curious feeling the first morning when I awoke in my own bed (well to be fair that's untrue considering I don't have my own bed anywhere, anymore), and was able to reach for a fresh t-shirt and a pair of jeans which I hadn't worn since traveling! Denim on skin! What a bizarrely comfortable sensation, though much more restricting then I remember.

Traveling is amazing, and really makes you appreciate everything you have at home, such as long showers (or showers in general), familiar food, and most importantly friends and family. I couldn't even imagine how much I would miss people. D.C. is full of transience, but I've been lucky to have formed pretty stable friendships during the past six years. I didn't realize how much I would miss the comfort of them and their stability when everything else, including where I would be the next day, was up in the air (sometimes literally, if I was en flight).

But another wonderful thing that occurs during traveling, is the friendships you make. Oftentimes they are sincere but fleeting, knowing you may never see the other person again. This is an unusual scenario considering you end up spending days on end with someone; sight seeing, walking, eating, and sometimes sleeping next to them. And suddenly they're gone!

Alejandro was one of those friends I made. I honestly could not fathom backpacking without having met him. I think he really changed, and shaped the experience of my trip. Definitely for the best too! So when his work brought him to the states, and he was able to get a few days off and booked a flight to D.C. from Miami, I was thrilled.

Being the best person ever, he brought me cookies from Argentina! And I, in turn, forced my friend in D.C. to provide him accommodation in his house, where we all stayed in the same room for the weekend (just wanted to recreate the familiar hostel environment for him, obviously).

Needless to say, it was a fantastic time had by all. I ran him around my Nation's Capital like a crazy person. The first day I put him on a bike on  D.C. streets and lead him around the Washington Monument, WWII Memorial, Lincoln Memorial, Capital, and most importantly ended the day with a skate board session brought to him by my dear friends.

But I made sure he didn't just see the new Martin Luther King Jr. memorial, and Jefferson and a few of my favorite Smithsonians. I forced him to take a bite of a Ben's Chili Dog and eat some Chili Cheese fries. I took him out with a few friends to the Potomac at Georgetown and we kayaked and paddle boarded, all the while careful to not fall in and catch any of the diseases I know float down that river.

It was really lucky to be able to continue a real friendship with Alejandro, even after traveling. Often times those friendships become just memories of your trip, but being able to show him a bit of my life at home was a privilege most travelers may not get to experience. I look forward to taking him up on his offer of hosting me in Buenos Aires someday in the near future.

The Journey Continues

So after the Great Bike Adventure! we decided to take it a bit easy and headed (on a two day sept place journey - because that is obviously the start to taking it easy) to the beach at Cap Skirring. Apparently the cows needed just as much R&R as we did. We sun bathed (with care considering most of us were taking doxycycline for malaria which makes your skin highly sensitive to sun), we went for long walks on the beach, and we stuffed our mouths and bellies with amazing Senegalese seafood.

After a few days, Leah and I left the crew to head back to Dakar, via ferry of course. The monster cruise liner was to be our 16 hour hostel as we rode from Zigounchour to the city. Despite the fact that the distance is only a couple hundred Kilometers, it still takes nearly a full day at sea to get there. While the ship was so much nicer than I would've imagined (posh restaurant, comfy seats and all), the ride was anything but fancy. Apparently it is not so advisable to take a small ferry for an extended period of time during rainy season. The water was so choppy it was like being on a roller coaster for hours on end. Nearly all of the passengers succumbed to sea sickness, and all of the cabins became infirmaries.

But finally our boat docked in Dakar and we stepped back on solid land looking as though we'd spent months at sea. It took a full day for the ground to stop feeling like it was moving!

My time in Dakar was quick, filled with family souvenir shopping and N'Ice Cream :) It was much too soon when Leah dropped me off at the airport and we said goodbye, but overall my experience in Senegal was one of the most eye-opening and life changing experiences. Certainly one of the best and most memorable too. I can't imagine what an impact it must have on Leah after living there for 2 years, because a month was certainly profound for me. 

Biking - Peace Corps Style

Biking is a primary means of transportation for a lot of Peace Corps volunteers. Cars may come and go, but bikes are the only "reliable" form of transportation, especially for those who live in remote parts of Senegal off the beaten bush path where sept plus' and buses are infrequent. This is why no one particularly found it daunting when it was suggested that 17 Peace Corps members, and myself venture on a 25 km (which turns out to be a lie - it was much farther) bike ride through the bush to camp for a night by a waterfall that even most locals have not trekked to.

The day began bright and early, and we were all packed and ready to go by 8 a.m. Our plan was to take a sept plus (the cars that I mentioned in my earlier post) with 10 people to Dindefelo - the closest town to the waterfall that we could reach by car. To ride from Kedougou to Dindefelo would’ve literally doubled the mileage of the trip, so half of us opted out of that and allowed only the most serious (or seriously deranged) of Peace Corps bikers to bike and meet us there. 

Taking a car with 10 people, however, also included 10 bikes and half of our group's supplies! We really had a magical sept plus driver who actually managed to, somewhat, secure 10 bikes on top of each other, on top of a sedan! This was quite a sight to behold, and if it weren’t enough for the locals to be amused by so many tubabs (white people) in a car, they were that much more amused to see the bikes on top! And with all the potholes and flooded out sections of the road I’m still quite uncertain how we made it to Dindefelo without a single mishap.

At Dindefelo we added another member to our team, Lily. Lily is from Spain and has spent the last two years living in Senegal in order to study the behavior of Chimps. We waited in her hut, which, needless to say was covered in pictures of primates and Jane Goodall, for the others to arrive by bike. Finally, by 11 a.m. after everyone had rolled in and our bellies were loaded with omelet sandwiches, and cafe tuba, and our bikes were loaded with all our tents, supplies, 12 chickens, and a bucket of beans, we were ready to set off into the Bush!

First stop, Eric’s Village. He lives on a bush path between Dindefelo and the waterfall, about 7 km in, and trying to keep up with him was no easy task. The path is filled with sand so slippery it feels more like skiing than biking, not to mention the trail is littered with sharp ominous rocks that are there to catch you when you fall. We did have a few casualties along the way but nothing too extreme. 
We reached Eric’s hut within an hour, which made me optimistic about the next alleged 18 km left. We continued on and eventually the sand turned into mud that clumped to our tires. The puddles of mud then turned into rivers that we all had to wade across. 

Several km later led us to another village deep in the Bush. It was like something the yellow brick road would lead you to in Oz. The whole village was filled with row after row of planted corn; in fields, in backyards, in side yards, off the path. Though it was rainy season, this rivaled any of the greener sceneries I had seen in Senegal so far. The rows of corn literally formed a maze around the village, and we had to lift our bikes over several fences in order to make our way through it. The people were incredibly friendly too, and helped us along the way.

Biking down one of the village's narrow, corn surrounded, gravelly paths, we had our first real bike accident. One of the girls' tires slipped out on the gravel and, in the process of trying to break her fall with her hand, she managed to carve a small, but deep cut in her palm. The amount of blood it created was overwhelming despite the small size of the wound. Fortunately Peace Corps volunteers are ready for this kind of thing and after swabs of alcohol were used to clean the cut (which was way more painful than the fall it self), and a bit of gauze, we were back on the trail again. 

The accident was fortunately minor, but all Peace Corps members are aware of how bad bike accidents can be sometime. Leah, especially. The year before, a simple attempt of dismounting her bike had led to an accident that snapped her ankle in half. She had to be med-evaced to D.C., where she had surgery! So the fact that we had managed to make it about halfway (or so we thought) through such rough terrain with only a minor cut, was quite an accomplishment!

We stumbled out of the village in Oz and continued on our way. From here the path got even more difficult! Puddles of mud turned into whole fields of it that clumped and stuck to our tires. When it became impossible to pedal, we had to push our bikes, trudging through wet hot mud that splashed several inches above our ankles. This is the first of many places on this trip that I may have adopted my parasitic friend that made itself home in my intestines and also, probably, my mysterious rash. 

Finally, after five hours, another near casualty of Peace Corps member who became so dehydrated we thought we would have to send for a moto (aka motorcycle obviously) from a nearby village, ample use of ORS salts (hydration salts) and some more river forging, we finally made it to the fall! And what a sight it was! It was incredibly spectacular and my photos hardly do it a bit of justice. Left out of the photo, after climbing all those rocks to the very top is a pool where the fall feeds into. It’s like a small wave pool from Disney world. You can swim out right under the waterfall, though it feels like a ton of bricks landing on your head.

Our time to swim was cut short by the rain that started about an hour after our arrival. Leah and I frantically set up our tent, but by the time we managed to secure our haphazard rain tarp, the downpour had already caused a minor flood inside. We spent the next hour, four of us huddled in the tiny tent, laughing hysterically as we used cups to literally bale ourselves out! What an experience. 

Finally the rain passed, and we set about the difficult task of building a fire with wet logs to cook the 12 raw chickens the boys thought would be a good idea to bring for dinner. Eventually the fire was made and the chicken began to cook. We boiled water from the river to make pasta, and I contributed by filtering, pumping, boiling, adding iodine tablets, and bleach (I think my teeth goth whiter from all the bleach water I drank) to several liters of water to make sure we all could hydrate.

We all went to bed with full bellies and exhausted bodies. Thank goodness because that made it possible to sleep on the wet, hard, ground. In the morning we had bean sandwiches and another swim in the waterfall before it was time to head back. Such an adventure for such a short time at the falls.

It was only about 45 minutes into our inevitable five hour trip back before the greatest of all bike accidents occurred. Fortunately no one was at all injured, but as we attempted to trudge our way through the first muddy swamp, Kate’s tire went flat. Flats our usually no big deal when you bring a patch kit and a pump, like we all had. However, this was not a simple puncture in the tire. The tires nozzle had been pulled right out of the tire in the sticky mud! We were doomed! Half of our group continued the bike trek back to Dindefelo with Eric. Eric biked ahead to his village where he knew he had another tire in his hut, and three of us stayed with Kate and walked. 

Apparently, with the amount of rainfall the night before, biking wasn’t much faster than walking, though. After an hour we had caught up to the entire group washing their bikes in a river. The mud was so thick that biking most of the route so far had proved impossible. I’m not surprised since just attempting to push it through the mud was nearly an unachievable feat!

But they continued on their way and we sat for awhile cooling off and splashing in the little river. Fortunately the four of us were a great group to be walking together. We merrily made our way to the village of Oz where some members who spoke Pular were able to ask for the robinet and we were able to fill our bottles with more water. We made small talk with the kind hearted citizens of Oz before we were on our way again. 

Just outside of Oz we met up with Eric who had managed to make it to his hut and race back with the spare! He fixed Kate’s bike, we had a few snacks, and were on our way. 

At this point we were all so delirious that everything became funny. Especially our attempt to cross the biggest river of all! I had no strength left in me and one of the other girls had to come back and lift my bike above the waist deep water to prevent all our gear from getting wet. Leah had planned accordingly, and had offered to take all of our gear that was wet from the rain the night before, thus not worrying if it went under the water in this river. In fact she did not even attempt to keep it from going under. It was quite hilarious, when after sweating profusely from the exertion of getting our bikes through, we all looked back to see Leah, merrily wading through the water, with her bike so submerged only the handle bars were showing! I know someone has a picture of this somewhere!

The sight of Dindefelo could not appear more welcoming when we finally strolled up to it’s huts. Lily had a fine pasta meal waiting for our muddy, sweaty selves which we ate with enthusiasm before running to catch the car that would take us back to Kedougou. I don’t think a bucket shower under a canopy of stars has ever felt more nice than the one I took when we got back to the Peace Corps house!

Best Day Ever!

Life in Peace Corps: Senegal is not always easy for the volunteers. Living in a hut, trying to dance around unfamiliar customs of locals, while also dealing with Western bureaucracy of the Peace Corps, while simultaneously learning to use a hole for a bathroom, a bucket for a shower, and function while undernourished because of the lack of nutrition in the village meals is as far away from the night I spent in the Radisson Blu as the moon is! (phew end of run on sentence, but I think you get the point) However, I was exceptionally fond of Leah’s optimism and the way she stayed more positive then most. She has adopted a sort of personal mantra in which she reflects upon, even the smallest positive things, and refers to them as ‘the best day ever!’ My arrival in Dakar - ‘best day ever!’ Running water - ‘best day ever!’ A lunch served with egg plant so heavily cooked all the nutrients had dissolved into the boiling water (but still a lunch with veggies!) - ‘best day ever!’ You get the idea. But honestly, every day I spent in Saraya (Leah’s village that is about 160 km east of Kedougou and a rocks throw from Mali) really was the best day ever. 

We left the Peace Corps house, aka campground (there are no actual enclosed building structures on the compound) at about 8 a.m. and headed to the Kedougou garage. The garage is where you hope to find a driver and a car going to the city you want, and you wait...and wait....and wait....and wait until the driver has enough people in the car to go. The cars are called Sept places (french for seven places i.e. seven seats in the car) but they usually turn into nine or ten places and the driver! The cars themselves appear as though they’ve been shipped over from a European junkyard where they were stripped of all their parts; dashboard, radio, door panels, floor boards, had a shoddy engine installed and are now ready for the Senegalese road i.e. asphalt with so many potholes it is often better to drive on the side of the road than on it!

Fortunately the car was nearly filled when we got there and we took off an hour after arriving. The drive from Kedougou to Saraya is the best drive ever! The road is actually new and the one exception to the pothole filled roads of Senegal. It winds through greener scenery than I have ever seen, and clouds that look like cotton candy, so low to the ground you feel you could easily lasso them and pull them out of the sky. All of this is courtesy to the rainy season, and not an image that appears year round, but I was thankful to have witnessed it. It was one of the most beautiful landscapes I’ve ever seen. 

Just at the point where my newfound claustrophobia, induced by nine unfamiliar people crammed into the car along with me, took over, we reached Saraya. Slowly, so slowly, we made our way to Leah’s compound stopping to greet everyone along the way. In Malinke you greet by asking repeatedly if there is evil around and by acknowledging that, no, there is not. There is no evil with my brother, nor my mother, nor my father, nor my sister. It is a long greeting, and complicated. By the end of the week I only could manage to ask or respond to the very first part! 

Finally, after about 150 meters later, wee arrived at Leah’s compound. I met the family: mom, dad, sister, sister in-law, brother, deaf brother, 15 year-old brother. They are all some of the most amazing people I have ever had the opportunity to meet! Mom even gave me a name - Diounkounda Sakilabah! I was named after the sister that lived on the compound, as recycling names often is apparently a common practice. 

I ended up staying at Saraya a whole wonderful week, despite the fact that it was sweltering there considering they had no rain in ten days (it usually rains at least every other day in the rainy season). The first night I was literally floored as I watched Leah do her weekly radio show entirely in Malinke! To say I was impressed is an understatement. Leah is a Health Volunteer so in between songs by Amy Winehouse, Regina Spektor and whatever else she chose for the night, she’d offer her Malinke audience a few health tips. It was Ramadan, so a lot of them revolved around that: don’t fast if you're breast feeding or pregnant, if you are working in the fields and feel dizzy sit down and if it doesn’t get better break fast and drink some water, try to stay in cool places if possible. 

Around the compound, I learned to shell peanuts with Leah’s ‘Mom.’ We even went to the fields with her, but the lack of rain had dried up the soil so much that there wasn’t much work to be done. One evening Leah and I made beignets but Leah added moringa (an outrageously nutritious, vitamin filled leaf) to them to show her family how they could cook and be healthy. I also learned the art of the douche. Having a hole for the bathroom was definitely new terrain for me, as well as no toilet paper. Mentally I was unfazed by it, but the logistics are not always easy! While there was no running water in the village, thanks to the sweltering and humid days in Saraya, I also really learned to appreciate my nightly bucket bath! 

I was incredibly fortunate and honored because Leah’s family deemed me a guest worth cooking for! We had thick mafe with meat (it is usually only a runny sauce served with leftover carne) and bisap and moringa leaf sauce that was delicious. The food is all a grain (rice, millet or cous cous) based meal with the sauces poured over top. It’s eaten out of a communal bowl with the right hand. Leah and I eat with spoons - the family knows we have them and apparently think it’s weird when we try to eat without silverware. 

I did catch a glimpse of what Leah’s regular meals were like though, and they certainly left something to be desired. For lunch we’d occasionally eat with the kids (the parents were fasting) and it usually was an oily rice dish with crushed peanuts that were almost unnoticeable in flavor. Not to mention eating with kids is not like eating with adults. The whole cleanliness idea really just goes out the window! Leah and I usually ended up going to the sandwich lady in the market and getting a bean, or omelette, or just a mayonnaise (yes, and it was delicious) sandwich. 

One of the most memorable moments of my time in village was when Leah, Kate (the agricultural volunteer) and I biked to Pondala (Kate’s former village) a 20 km ride from Saraya. There, on the boutique (the local shop) we painted a mural. Usually the Peace Corps promotes educational murals to be painted around villages, such as world maps. But a world map had already been painted on one of the walls of the boutique, so we decided to spice it up a bit. I designed a vintage postcard style mural that said ‘Aloha Pondala’ at the top. We spent the entire afternoon painting it and the village loved it!

After a week in Saraya, I was really sad to say goodbye. I even hugged my namesake, the first Diounkounda, goodbye! This is something that is not really done in Senegalese culture. While I cannot imagine living there for 2 years (Leah I give you so much credit), the week was a wonderfully memorable experience!

Be sure to check out Leah's blog of her experience in Peace Corps: Senegal here 

Welcome to Senegal!

After flying from Istanbul - sketchy stopover in Tunisia included, I finally landed in Dakar, Senegal at 1 a.m. I was instantly confused by the lack of queuing observed at the Immigration line, but finally managed to work my way through the mobs of people there. Getting around baggage claim and through Customs was like being a running back in football and dodging opponents left and right! And then I was free. 

I searched the mass of people outside for my friend...and found her almost instantaneously. We - the only white people around - both stood out like glow sticks in the crowd. Even at our most tan we were not close to blending in. I was so pleased to see Leah, I jumped the fence, ran and hugged! And then found out that her boyfriend was there as well but puking his guts up around the corner. He must’ve eaten something strange. I immediately thought to myself, ‘oh god, so this is how it’s going to be!’
That night at said boyfriend - a.k.a. Nathaniel's apartment I acclimated to the Senegalese weather. I was used to the heat at this point, the idea of air conditioning and a fan had be come an utmost luxury I’d learned to live without, but the humidity of rainy season was entirely new to me. I spent the night lying on my back, arms and legs stretched out because it was too hot to even touch my own skin, melting drop by drop into a puddle on the mattress. 

Fortunately Leah is an early riser so the next morning, after a large mug of Starbucks Via Instant Coffee (courtesy of a care package from the U.S.), we left poor Nathaniel (still sick from whatever he ate) in bed and headed out into the city. Leah took me through the markets first. It reminded me a bit of Cairo, but smaller, less populated, and way sandier. Much more colorful though, with vibrant wax fabrics of sunset reds, deep sea blues, canary yellows, and lush tropical greens, being sold in every shop. 
The day passed quickly, and by 10 p.m. we were boarding the night bus from Dakar to Kedougou. Kedougou is a town about as far South East as you can go and still be in Senegal. It's is only a short distance from the borders of Guinea and Mali. 

For some perspective Senegal is slightly smaller in size than South Dakota, but by bus it still took a full 12 hours to arrive in Kedougou. Fortunately we only had one minor break-down en route. At about 1 a.m. I woke up as I felt the bus shuddering to a stop. I stepped outside along with everyone else and watched as every male passenger proceeded to help the driver fix the flat, at least that’s what I hoped they were doing. Mostly it just looked like a bunch of men standing over a large tire beating it repetitively with a wrench, hammer, and a few sticks as well. 

I settled down next to Leah on the side of the road and prepared to wait it out. I was informed that sometimes these break downs could last as long as 5 hours before they were fixed! Fortunately this one was minor and we were on the road within the hour, but not before I  managed to catch a glimpse of the sky out there in the ‘Bush.’ I never knew there were so many stars up there. I could even see the milky way! It looked like someone had just thrown white glittery paint on a black canvas, and what had appeared was shining orbs, flecked in an array of sizes and intensity. I was awestruck. 
We arrived at Kedougou with no other set-backs, besides are bags having been momentarily ‘misplaced.’ But those too arrived after a few hours of waiting. We made our way to the Peace Corps Regional House (where all 20 or so members placed in nearby villages can come to have the occasional running water, internet access, a full kitchen, books, and other americans around). I also managed to have my last ‘real’ shower of the week there. 

That night we went out with a couple of volunteers to have dinner. However, the restaurant we were hoping to eat at was closed due to Ramadan. We had to look elsewhere, so by day two in Senegal, I was already breaking one of two rules Leah had established for me - no street food, and no well water. That night was a delicious meal of chicken and french fries served from a little shack in the market. 

A 24 Hour Love Affair

After arriving in Istanbul late at night, I was prepared to set up camp and curl up on an airport bench until the next morning. I figured I'd be able to ditch my bag for a few hours in a locker and then have all afternoon to tour the city until my connection left from Istanbul to Dakar (including a brief and sketchy stopover in Tunisia of course). Though the idea of a 20 hour layover may seem absurd and inconvenient to a lot of people, I thought it was just a bonus of my ticket and an opportunity to see some of a city that I'd heard such wonderful rumors of.

After landing, I decided to head to the Turkish Airlines desk and find some information out about the city before finding a cozy corner to curl up in. This turned out to be, arguably, the best decision I made this trip! I was instantly asked where my accomdations for the night would be, and when I said, "here," pointing to the floor of the airport, the desk attendents just laughed.

Apparently, with little to no coercion, on layovers longer than 10 hours, Turkish Airlines books you a room in the swanky, five star, Radisson Blu Airport Hotelo. The whole concept of a free room seemed quite foreign to me and I kept insisting there must be some catch. The room did turn out to be free - no strings attached, and made the 24 hours I spent in beautiful Istanbul that much more fun and rewarding!

I woke up at 7 a.m. the next morning and took full advantage of the Raddison Blu complimentary breakfast (mornings like these are so amazing after traveling for a month in cheap hostel accomdoations). Afterwards I checked in with the front desk about check-out time and learned Turkish Air had booked the room up until 5 p.m., when I would need to leave for the airport!  How exciting! That meant I was able to leave my bags, and all my valuables in the safe confines of my locked room. I left the hotel with happy stomach, and a ligther bag than I've carried in weeks (it's really the little things that make a difference sometimes)!

Istanbul itself is gorgeous and the tumultuous history including the rise and fall of many empires is evident in it's architecture. It is also huge. The city itself is the size of Delaware (around 2,000 sq miles) and a metro population the size of 10 million making it the 12th most populated city in the world. There are as many people in Istanbul as there are in Michigan or Ohio! Thank goodness they have such an established public transit system. I jumped on the metro at the airport and easily navigated my way to the tram stop that dropped me off right in front of the Ayasofya.

I walked around the former church and mosque for awhile, amazed at the impressive New Testament  mosaics and huge circular tapestries praising Allah. If only there were a couple of minorahs thrown in the mix it would've been a complete site of worship for all Abrahamic faiths!

The Blue Mosque was also quite impressive. Not as blue as I thought it would be, but stunning none the less. People were preparing for prayer during ramadan outside, cleansing face, hands and feet in the gold lacquered faucets that surround the mosque.

I decided to just walk around aimlessly for the rest of the afternoon. I strolled through the historic Markets, which were closed in creating a simliar feel to the Old City in Jerusalem, but much bigger with wider and cleaner streets making it less chaotic and claustrophobic.

Out of the market, the streets have a very European feel, but still quite Middle Eastern. It's a nice mix. It's relatively clean for a city, with some tall buildings and cobblestone streets, littered with outdoor cafes, similar to what you might find in cities like Prague or Vienna. The Middle Eastern feel comes from the buildings painted in shades of pink and aqua marine and shops spilling out of the doors and onto the streets with merchants luring you in with promises of good prices. I really enjoyed the overall feel of the city, very urban and chic but full of life and a character of it's own.

By 2 p.m., I had to talk myself in to getting on the train and heading back to the hotel to pack. My layover in Istanbul had turned into a nice little addition to my travels thus far, and I look forward to coming back in the future and giving it, as well as the rest of Turkey, more time to explore.


Dahab has totally changed my perspective on Egypt. I guess you can never really qualify an entire country based on one city, but the Sinai was such a different experience than the one I had in Cairo.

My friend Steve and I took the 'night' bus from Jerusalem to Eilat which is the Israeli border between Israel and Egypt. The bus was certainly not meant for sleeping though, as Israelis were singing, talking, and yelling all through the 12 a.m. to 5 a.m. tip. When we arrived before daybreak, completely unrested, it was at least a releif that the Eilat border crossing was much less time consuming than the Allenby Bridge. Although my Israeli student visa seems to cause more skepticism and concern than traveling without an Israeli Visa. Apparently they're skeptical of anyone from the U.S. who wants to study there. Well, that bodes well for my academic future.

Leaving Eilat and crossing the border put us in Taba, Egypt where we able to grab a shared taxi to drive the hour south to Dahab. Steve and I just randomly selected a Hotel I'd written down, and I really think we lucked out.  For $13 a piece at 'Dahab Plaza' we managed to get our own room with our own bathroom (WOW!!), with airconditiong (I'd nearly forgotten what that was!), linen, towels, T.V. (for practicing my Arabic), swimming pool, free shisha, coffee, and tea, and continental breakfast at a reastaurant nearby! I fell in love with Dahab right then.

Dahab is like the West Coast of Egypt if Cairo is like the East (don't get me wrong, I actually love the East, obviously). While the economy is still made on tourism, they are much more laid back about everything. Hustling is not as important as enjoying the day. Sure, 'business is business,' as they say in the Middle East, but in Dahab there is more to life than just business. I think there's something to be said for living and working on the water. I saw several waiters end their wait shifts with a jump in the ocean! How refreshing.

The couple of days spent there went by so fast considering Steve and I hardly did anything! Which for two fast-paced people like us, slowing down is usually a very difficult thing. A lot of the day revolved around lounging in the restaurants and cafes that literally sat on top of the water. We enjoyed the best fruit smoothies and drinks I've ever tasted, wonderful sea food that was scooped right up from the water next to us. We even smoked shisha under a canopy of stars.

We went snorkeling as well, which was one of the most amazing experiences ever. Definitely the best snorkeling I've done - which is not to say I've done a lot, but I have done it in a few places. This blew them all out of the water, pardon the H2O pun.  You can literally snorkel anywhere. In between sips on a coffee, you can don your gear, walk down the steps of the restaruant, float on your stomach and bear witness to amazing sights of coral and fish.

Steve and I walked down the boardwalk a ways and found a beduin camp that did snorkeling at a place called the 'three islands.' It was intimidating at first, where the water is waste deep and your floating over sea enenomeas with long black spikes threatening to stab you in the stomach. But as you swim further you come to a coral reef and a drop off where you are free to dive down and examine the depths of the sea. It was wonderful, until we spotted two poisonous lion fish! But actually that was quite wonderful too! From a distance.

Steve and I also took a jeep ride to a snorkeling spot called the 'Blue Hole.' It is almost an immediate drop off here, surrounded coral and caverns and teeming with sea life. The fish are unperturbed by any human prescence and swim within inches of you. I saw more colors there than I've seen in one place before. It was really an incredible experience. Full of mystery too. The caves and caverns of the Blue Hole stretch down for meters and meters. In fact, no one knows how far. The deepest depth to be recorded thus far is 400 meters! It's an interesting experience to be offered a view at this whole new unerwater world and know that it is literally, just the surface view of the life that exists below you!

It was a sad day when Steve and I grabbed the noon bus to head from Dahab back to Cairo. We both could've easily spent weeks more there. In fact we both looked into changing our tickets. But alas, we could not stay in paradise forever, at least not in this lifetime, so we donned are packs and boarded the bus. It was a 10 hour drive to Cairo, where, my parents generously offered to pay for a hotel room outside of the city. I took them up on the offer even though it'd been rumored that the protests in Tahrir square would be dissolving due to the start of Ramadan.

However, watching the news that night, I was glad to be holed up in the confines of a hotel. Images of Tahrir square showed hundreds of soldiers and tanks rolling through dispelling the last of the protestors. Perhaps it was not as dramatic as seen on T.V., but it wasn't really something I wanted to be involved in. It was an interesting experience, however, to watch the Mubarak trial on T.V. in the airport cafe with Egyptians surrounding me. As Mubarak's trial commences, I bring my time in Egypt to a close. Good bye Egypt, it's certainly been an experience!

Deheishe Knows What It Is To Be Free

Traveling between Israel and Palestine might be one of the most difficult processes ever! It is deceptive at first, since it is no problem to walk into the New Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv, and buy a ticket for a bus to Jerusalem for 20NIS (about $6), that run about every 20 mins. I assumed that traveling the hour from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem would be longest part of my transit to Bethlehem which lies a few minutes drive outside the gates of the Old City. This assumption is false.

From the Jerusalem Central Bus Station you must take another Israeli bus to the Palestinian/Israeli - East/West "border." I put border in quotations because, unlike most borders in the region, there is no physical separation between the two except, perhaps, on some maps.

From West Jerusalem, where the bus drops you off, you must cross the street to East Jerusalem and board a Palestinian bus that takes you....not TO Betlehem, but to the checkpoint. At the check point you have to disembark from the bus, walk through several narrow barred off hallways, show your I.D. to a guard who seems disinterested by any U.S. Passport, and finally you are in Bethlehem.

From the other side of the checkpoint I had to take a cab to get to a (apparently there are multiple) Cultural Center in Deheishe Refugee Camp. All in all the trip took me 5 and a half hours - more than a bus ride from D.C. to New York, and nearly the time it takes to fly from the East Coast to the West.  However, the distance between Tel Aviv to Bethlehem is only about 40 miles! The bureaucracy makes everything more complicated.

Before arriving in Deheishe, I had corresponded with a contact who had organized my volunteering there. So, after 5 and a half hours of traveling, and finally arrivign at the Community Center, I was a bit dismayed to discover they had no idea who I was, or even who my contact was either! I was quite convinced that I would have to immediately turn around and head back to Tel Aviv, or at least I would end up back in Jerusalem with nothing to do, for the foreseeable future.

Things started looking better when Aysar, a sort of volunteer coordinator showed up. While trying to, at least, find me a place to sleep for the night, we walked over to the other cultural center. I am really lucky that he is a volunteer at both centers because once we arrived at the other place, I immediately began recognizing faces from when I came here with Aziz and our group last year. At this Cultural Center they still weren't expecting me, but at least they knew who my contact was!

My awkward start at Deheishe was anything but indicative of the couple of days I ended up spending there. The first night I spent with Morad (a young volunteer who, last year, gave my group a tour of the camp - his father, Ngegy runs the center), and his family at a street party that rivals any one I've ever seen in the U.S. The whole camp was celebrating, and all of Palestine too. The High School seniors had just gotten their results back from their end of the year exams. These exams rival our SAT's and ACT's, only they are used to determine whether a student will receive a high school diploma or not. Only about half of the students who take the exam will succeed. Morad's family had particular reason to celebrate since, not only had Morad's younger brother passed the exams, but he had also been accepted into Brown University on a full scholarship!
Fireworks were going off until midnight, disco lights were set up in the middle of the street, foam was being sprayed all over everyone, music was blasting at full volume and people were dancing, dancing, dancing. According to my friend in Jerusalem, the festivities were so loud it was audible across the wall!

Though considerably less conservative than Cairo, Bethlehem still keeps up with some tradition, including separating women and men during parties like that. I was nervous at first because I didn't know any of the girls yet, and while this may come as a surprise to most people who know me, I am painfully shy when in a new environment. It was of little concern to the women though. Grandmas were grabbing me and leading me out to the dance floor, their hips gyrating to the music in a way that might make Shakira blush! Which I think is ultimately why they separate. The girls just wanna have fun and they don't need the guys around to do so. Not to mention that the minority of women who do cover get to shed their veils and hijab's, let down their hair, and shake what their grandma's gave them!

After the party Ngegy (Morad's father and the one in charge of the Phoenix Cultural Center) drove me back to the center where I would sleep. He led me to a room full of nine bunks that I shared the first night with three other french visitors, but after had all to myself.

I haven't had such pleasant accomdations on all my trip as I had there. The next morning before the kids came I went uptairs to snack on the hummus and pita that I'd carried with me from Tel Aviv. It cost me 22 ILS (about $6.50) and I was stretching it out into a third meal. Anticipating my miniscule breakfast (and if you know me and my eating habits at all) you can imagine my surprise and excitement when I discovered the counters of the dining hall lined with trays of hummus, pita, yogurt, orange jam, nutella, cereal, nescafe, mint tea, cheese, and meat. I was in heaven.

But really, I think Deheishe is making me fat! They prepare amazing feasts lunch at the center as well; chicken and rice, fish, arabic salad! And don't get me started on the falafel! This is not necessarily a good thing for me considering I'm supposed to be snorkeling in the Red Sea in the upcoming week.

Let me stop with the food tangent though, because that is not why I came to Deheishe. My afternoons here have been spent volunteering at a summer camp for the kids. I spend a couple of hours each day watching the kids learn karate, make art, and teach each other new games. The kids here are really amazing; so resilient and full of life that you would never guess they come from a refugee camp. Their smiles are so bright and when they meet new people they are so trusting and full of love. I was truly blessed with the opportunity to learn from them these past few days.

The kids are really an indication of what the population of Deheishe is like. Physically they are a caged people, living in the confines of a refugee camp that has slowly traded it's walls of canvas tent for concrete homes. The streets are so narrow that two cars can barely scrape by each other, and are not only used as roads for vehicles, but as playgrounds for the children into all hours of the night.

Deheishe is subject to nightly raids by Israeli soldiers, forcing it's population to carry identification papers on them at all times. An unimaginable 80% of the male population in Deheishe will serve at least one year in an Israeli prison, and most will never know why. I know this is not an exageration after walking through the streets with Aysar and stopping every five minutes to talk to a young man about how he's adjusting since being let out of prison, or meeting mother's who don't even flinch when they mention a son is BACK behind bars.

Despite all of what they live with, I have never in my life met more genuine, hospitable, and friendly people as here. Their bodies and minds may be repressed by occupation, but their souls are free. They live each day truly knowing it could be their last. They form deep friendship and family bonds knowing one day they might lose eachother. They talk openly and candidly knowing they must speak their mind or else they might never get the chance to.  Despite the harsh conditions they live, most would never trade being Palestinian for any other nationality in the world. Despite the harsh conditions, they have yet to give up on the goodness of humanity. And most importantly, and perhaps because of the harsh conditions in which they live, they dream of futures bigger and brighter than anything I can even fathom.

Deheishe really left a lasting impression on my mind and in my heart. I look forward to returning in the near future to volunteer. Though really I have little to teach but so much to learn from them.

Hipsters Occupying Tel Aviv

I felt awakened as I passed through the rolling hills, greenery, and desert sand of Israel leaving behind Jerusalem as a small speck in my mind. I sometimes find it hard to appreciate things in Israel after seeing places like Deheishe, however, the whole point of enrolling in Tel Aviv University was to challenge my thoughts and awaken myself to both perspectives. The further the bus drove from Jerusalem, the further we got from the conflict. It was easier to open my mind to the other side, which eventually made me realize why it was so easy for the other side to close their minds to what is going on outside of big cities like Haifa and Tel Aviv.

I was looking forward to spending time in Haifa, a beach town in the north of Israel. I was often told it was like being in a different world, a world living without a clue as to what conflict is. For those who spend much time in Jerusalem, or in the border areas, I can see why they feel this way, but for anyone coming from outside, signs of the conflict are still everywhere. The buses and trains and even beaches are filled with soldiers in their green uniforms, their M-4's hanging casually off their shoulders. For me this signifies anything but a conflict free area. But I can't complain too much. The beach was wonderful, besides the jellyfish that kept being washed on shore, and to be honest, the soldiers are hot!

After two days Alejandro and I (yes we meet again!) headed to Tel Aviv via the train. We arrived at our overbooked hostel ('tis the high season apparently) and settled into our lovely tent in the backyard! We spent the day walking around the streets of Tel Aviv and, of course, visiting the beach. I can definitely say that it will not be very hard to move to this city! If Haifa is a place removed from the conflict than Tel Aviv is a pradise where conflict never even existed. Now, honestly I know this statement could not be further from the truth. Tel Aviv has a violent history of occupation, war, and conflict that dates back to biblical times, but mostly youth dominates Tel Aviv now. And what a youth they are!

Tel Aviv's artsy hipsters give places like D.C. and New York a run for their money! And as my fellow D.C.ers are aware, that is no small statement. Seriously, Black Cat, Brightest Young Things, the Red Derby.... Tel Aviv may have you beat in the ways of overzized specs, crimped hair, gaudy red lipstick, skinny jeans and the "i haven't showered in a few days" eau de perfume.

The streets are full of artwork and people. Nearly every wall has some type of graffiti (and not just tagging), or posters, or painting. And then there is the awesomeness of Carmel market in the old Yemeni district that rivals the size and yelling of the souks in Cairo, though not the touching, thank goodness.

I really enjoyed my time in Tel Aviv, and left with the comfort of feeling like I'd made the right decision about choosing to go to school there. I am nervous and excited about this part of my future, but as my coffee cup read - the thing I am nervous about will turn out well. Enshallah.