Monday, July 18, 2011

A Burger a Day...

(Written on 5/7/2011 from Desert Ashram (Shitim), Israel)

I’ve never wanted a burger more in my life than I do right now.  A big, fat, juicy, medium rare, dripping with grease, topped with crispy bacon burger.  I apologize to the vegetarians in the world, but after living like one for 24 hours…I just can’t do it. 
Beyond the food (which is mostly bland vegetables and rice), the Ashram itself is a whole new experience for me.  Let’s just say that “blending in” aren’t the first few words that come to mind.
After we caught a bus in Eilat, it dropped us off in the middle of nowhere in the desert.  Robin and I walked 3 minutes from the road to the Ashram.  It looked like a green oasis in a sea of brown mountains, rocks and sand.  And as we arrived in the “check in” area with tents and mats on the ground, there was no obvious place for us to scream from the mountain tops (or the valleys of the desert) that we had arrived.  As such, we just asked the first person we saw – a young man with a lengthy beard, no shirt, some comfortable linen pants, and a teddy bear.  The guy stared back at us like he had seen ghosts...then walked away.  Welcome.

We were later informed that there was a workshop at the Ashram and most of the guests had taken a 7 day vow of silence.  Great.  Robin and me with a bunch of people who won’t speak to us.  This should be interesting.

On our first evening, after roaming the desert a bit (which we later found out was a military firing range....awesome), we attended a meditation session - a Kundalini style with 4 stages during the hour.  The first is to shake your body, the second is to celebrate, the third is to sit down and the fourth is to lie down and feel the earth below you. 

Meditation was interesting to me…I do believe in its powers, but obviously there are many different forms of meditation.  I’ve heard that you should try different methods and meditate multiple times before finding comfort and peace in it.  So at least this is one down and many many more to go.  J
Fortunately, not everybody had taken the vow of silence.  And at dinner we sat in a circle, blessing the bread and food that we would eat since it was Jewish Shabbat.  We sang songs (Robin and I mostly nodded our heads and hummed to the Hebrew) and shared bread and a sip of wine. 

Since hunger struck early in the day I was ready to stock up on dinner.  To my unfortunate surprise, dinner was exactly what we had for lunch (rice, vegetables and salad), plus a little pasta and tomatoes.  Apparently the workshop required a strict diet, and we all ate together.  (My friend who had been to the Ashram before claimed the vegetarian dishes were delicious and flavorful and I wouldn't have a problem....but it looked like I wouldn't be trying that food.)  Every meal was the same - unsalted and unflavored. 

Lunch, dinner, lunch, dinner, lunch....
Clearly, the lack of meat and variety is killing me.  I’m trying to be at peace with the food – and focus more on the company during meals (which is also lacking since more than half the community is currently in silence and isolation).  It’s hard to make friends when you’re told not to speak with or look at half the people here.
One person who could talk, our meditation instructor (an older gentleman from Greece who seemed to float around like a fairy, with shoulder length gray hair, a white linen shirt and no shoes) tracked us down after dinner to chat about our meditation experiences.  He told us it’s a beautiful thing to be young and curious.  He said we should learn as much as we can about different countries, different foods, cultures, languages, meditations, religions, people, and different boyfriends (that one was funny as he lifted his eyebrow and gestured toward a young guy walking by - cue girls giggling like teenagers). 

And he’s right….even though this experience may not fit in the confines of “my norm” it is a great way to experience a different way of life.  The more I know about how other people live, the more I can discover about how I want to live..
After our second meditation of the day, while we ate dinner Robin and I asked our (one) new friend why the workshop people were on such a strict diet.  I supposed it was some sort of cleanse or for nutritional value.  Why else would food be so limited, lacking in variety, and totally bland?
Hanging out with our one friend!
I was wrong.  He told us it was to keep the people from returning to their habits - if they rely on coffee, or bacon (okay…maybe that’s just me), or ice cream they can't fall back on it.  It's to keep people from their coping mechanisms and away from their normal ways of life.  He added at the end…. “And to break them.”
To break them?!  I started laughing so hard….these poor people who are stuck in this workshop for 7 days without being able to talk to anybody or look at anybody are also expected to eat crap for food?  Just to BREAK them??!  Okay….well….that being said I am 5 mundane meals in and have already been broken…
Robin and I decided our first order of business tomorrow morning when we depart the Ashram is a burger.  Bacon burger if possible. 

Death by food?
Dining room at the Ashram

Leaving the Ashram through the rainbow tunnel...
Even though I don’t think Ashram life is made for me, I’m happy that I came and had this experience.  It is important for me to try to understand and live like others.  It seems like these people in the workshop are searching for something.  They are on their own journey to find something.  Maybe much like I’m on my own journey…and I hope and pray that they find what they’re looking for. 
Thought for you today…what can you do to shake up your routine?  Draw yourself away from your habits and see what you discover or experience differently.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Same Same but Different

(Written on 5/5/2011 from Eilat, Israel)

FOREWARNING: Splashing water from the Dead Sea into your eyes hurts……HURTS.  Not advisable.
But, after breaking my trusty, well-worn sandals the minute I touched the Dead Sea water, it was hard to keep my elephant feet from flailing water all over the place.  So when it bounced up into my eye and burned like $*#^@, I had to keep them shut and hobble over to the fresh water showers with my cousin guiding me like a blind man.
Luckily, unless you’re as clumsy as me, it’s difficult to actually get the water in your eyes since you naturally just bob around on top of the water. Robin and I entertained ourselves for a few hours soaking in the natural minerals (literally), and playing in the mud baths like a bunch of pigs, until we lost track of time and our tour bus almost left without us.
Hanging out at the Dead Sea
Robin floating around
Broken sandals :(  they were so good to me for 3 months...
Salt formations at the Dead Sea
Nothing like a good mud fight!
Our day tour began with a trip to Masada, a fortress built on the top of a hill in the Judean Desert.  It’s known as a palace built by King Herod, and also for the later resistance of the Jewish refugees during the Roman takeover.  Although I’m not normally a fan of tours, it was fascinating to walk amongst ruins that were still intact and well preserved, and to learn about the community of 960 who chose death over slavery by taking their own lives before being conquered.

At the top of Masada looking over the Dead Sea
And after a day of awe-full (not awful) moments…we ended with a bus ride back to Jerusalem, while I stared out the window, hoping for more sights of wandering camels in the desert.  
With the power of connections a friend of mine in Seattle introduced me to his cousin who is studying with a rabbi in Jerusalem.  Eager to meet up with David for shawarma and beer, Robin and I washed off the Dead Sea residue at the hotel and hopped a bus in to town.  After dinner, David took us to the Old City where he even showed us the house that he stays in….with the courtyard that opens up to the tomb of King David, with the room of the Last Supper directly above it, and a Mosque on top of that - a true testament to the fact that 3 religions can in fact live together in harmony and peace.

Robin and David
David was extremely knowledgeable and was a great tour guide – even allowing Robin and I to feel safe to ask any questions since he wouldn’t judge or deem any of them “stupid.”  J  We strolled through the cobble stone paths in the Old City making our way down to the Western Wall, where men and women were praying separately through all hours of the night. 
The Western Wall
As we observed our surroundings with open eyes, ears, and hearts we stood awe struck at the holiest of places.
David then took us over to a wedding on Mount Zion….where, once again, I felt like Vince Vaughan and Owen Wilson.  Robin and I looked totally out of place in our casual attire, but we were still welcomed warmly (even by the bride’s father) to join the group for dancing and food.  I’m pretty sure if it was my pops shelling out the big bucks he would have shooed away any random tourist moochers.

The new couple!

Wedding Crashers
After a fully packed day (now it included camel spotting, the Dead Sea, Masada, shawarma, the Old City of Jerusalem, and an Israeli wedding)…we headed back to the hotel to make it just in time for midnight.  We rang in the 10th anniversary of Robin’s 21st birthday with a bottle of wine, robes and slippers in the Crowne Plaza (ultra luxurious as far as my travels were concerned), and complimentary chocolates that we had saved for the celebration.

As we finished off 2 glasses of red each, and Bruce Willis finished off his opponents in “Red”, we slipped under the covers and fell fast asleep.
A Bar Mitzvah at the Western Wall

Made friends with a few Israeli army guys
In the morning we abused the breakfast buffet at the hotel before heading off to see the Old City during the day.  The thing that surprised me most about Jerusalem is the modernization of the city…the malls, and hotels and restaurants and traffic.  Road rage is an understatement for how I felt on the bus.  And patience may be a virtue, but it’s definitely not my strong suit.
After a painfully long 1 hour and 12 minute bus ride (yes…I counted) that should have taken TEN minutes…we packed up our stuff and headed out to Eilat – the very southern tip of Israel just between Egypt and Jordan.  If I would consider Jerusalem to be “night” then Eilat is definitely “day.” 
In 4 hours, we jumped from an extremely conservative city to one that looked like Vegas.  As we rolled into Eilat on the bus I couldn’t tell if the Luxor was ahead of us, or if it was a real pyramid with a light shooting out of the center.  Truth be told - it was neither, but I couldn’t help envisioning the first time I flew into Vegas with city lights aglow beckoning all the partiers.  I liken Eilat to the “Miami” of Israel – beaches, bikini clad girls, and a row of hotels ready to serve the next eager vacationer.

Out for Robin's birthday in Eilat

It amazes me that in so many parts of the world there is so much diversity in such a close proximity.  And although we are all very different in some ways…at the end of the day we are all human, and more similar than you might think.  We all have the same biological needs and desires - they are just manifested in different ways. 
Today I encourage you to think about other people in terms of your similarities.  Many times we observe people in terms of our differences – religion, race, nationality, language, socio-economic status, etc., but there is so much more to who we are than those traits that are easily recognizable on the surface.  How often do you relate to somebody (especially strangers) by what you have in common? 

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Taxicab Confessions

(Written on 5/2/2011 from Jerusalem, Israel)
I just had two of the most opposite cab ride experiences ever.  On the way to the Jerusalem mall (yes…there’s a mall in Jerusalem, and yes…I went to it) we had the slowestttttt driver in the world.  This old man who picked us up from the hotel had to carefully lower himself into his seat (bad sign #1), then didn’t hit more than 10 km per hour the entire way (bad sign #2), while he was driving in the wrong gear (bad sign #3), and everybody on the road was honking at him (bad sign #4).  All in all it took us about 20 minutes of squinting through our fingers covering our eyes before we arrived.  And then “this old man” (he played one….) proceeded to try and scam us for more money.  (Uhhh…sorry sir….not gonna happen.)
Fast forward 2 hours (and one meal) when we got into the taxi on our way from the Jerusalem mall…our energetic driver trotted out to us as we exited the mall and asked if we’d like a cab.  We negotiated a deal back to the hotel and jumped in as he rattled off stories in nearly perfect English…while his Whitney Houston soundtrack played in the background.  Then at the stop light he pulled out magic tricks for extra entertainment.  And then even asks if it’s okay if he lights up a cigarette while driving.  Wow…courteous, considerate, and a magician?!  After our (only) 5 minute taxi ride back to the hotel we were rolling with laughter.
Now you might be wondering who “we” is…and I’m super excited (insert high pitched girly voice) that my cousin Robin decided to join me in Israel.  About a week ago she told me her promise to herself was to take an international trip every year for her birthday in her 30’s.  I know….she doesn’t look like she’s old enough to be in her 30’s but she is.
Robin and me on the bus to Jerusalem

Obviously we are related...

It’s been a blessing to have Robin on this journey.  After a few months of travelling and a tad of loneliness here and there, it fills my heart to have my family (and friend) here with me.  On top of that, Robin has introduced me to some incredible people.  Before she left the U.S. she connected with (wait for it….) her half sister’s half brothers that live in Tel Aviv. 

Amazingly, they offered to let us stay with them and have since been almost overly hospitable.  Even though Robin has never met her “brothers” (and as I call them my “cousins”)….it’s like we’ve been family forever.
Malak took us to the beach for some watermelon :)
James and Malak have been the saviors (no pun intended) of our trip to Israel.  They borrowed a car from a friend to pick up Robin from the airport at 4 AM, they’ve let us stay with them, showed us around Tel Aviv, and helped us get off to Jerusalem.  They even refused to let us sleep on the couches and made us take the bed at the apartment.  Even my own brothers wouldn’t give up their bed for me to sleep in…
As a small token of my appreciation, I brought out the rolling pin (aka empty wine bottle) once again to whip up some (this time cheese filled) empanadas.  Since it was the Holocaust Remembrance Day and all of Israel closed down – and I mean CLOSED down - we stayed at home, chatted, watched some historically relevant TV shows, and topped it off with a glass of wine.

James and Malak at the apartment...ready to eat!

My thought for you today is about connecting people.  Not only was I thankful to have Robin with me, but she also connected me with some amazing people who changed my visit to Israel.  I always enjoy the excitement of introducing people to each other and helping them create bonds or relationships.
Oftentimes when I talk to somebody I’m listening for if they have any “desires” that pop up in conversation …whether that’s a new job, hobby, travelling somewhere, volunteer opportunity, information about xyz, etc.  And then I rack my brain for who I know that could help them out.   And if they’re willing, then I introduce the two.
If there’s anything I’ve learned so far on my trip….it’s that relationships make the world go round.  Who can you help to connect today?
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