Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Arab Spring

G'day Mate

I was soo sad leaving Greece. Not only was chilling in the islands a great summer experience, but I feel like I am leaving family that I will not see for another year! I took the ferry from Spetses on Sunday avo and jumped on a bus direct to the airport. Destination: Cairo

Ok, so I know that Egypt kinda just went through a revolution and all - but has that ever stopped me before? As this would be my second visit to Egypt - I was curious to see if things had changed post Mubbarak.... I was a little apprehensive also because it was the middle of Ramadan, the holy Muslim month where believers fast every day from sunrise to sunset. I thought that the combination of lack of food/drink, 35+ summer sun and a revolution would make Egyptians a little on edge. Curiously, it turned out to be just the opposite - the locals seemed to be very relaxed and just getting on with their everyday lives.... Ramadan also provided an opportunity for me to real get into the spirit of Egyptian living.... During the day a few shops and cafes were closed, however due to Cairo's sizable Christian and secular populations finding a bite to eat and a bottle of water to drink is not hard at all. At around 7.30 every night the restaurants would pack out all over town as Muslims flocked to break the fast with the Iftar meal. After that its out to the Ahwas (Cafes) for a tea and Shisha, or its time to hit the shops! When I say shops I mean thousands of flea markets fillings every backstreet possible in downtown Cairo! Its quite a sight to see what seems like every Cairo resident (all 15 million of them!) out on the street enjoying life into the wee hours of the morning.

So what did I get up to in Cairo? Well after getting mobbed by 100 taxi drivers at the airport I decided to get a "Government regulated" cab. This mobbing was the first sign I noticed that Egyptians are getting desperate - you see, due to the revolution, Tourism has dropped significantly and it is this tourism that brought a livelihood to so many Egyptian families. I jumped in my "official" cab and after being told that the driver knows exactly where my hostel was, we drove around in circles for almost an hour until finally we arrived! The hostel was right in the heart of downtown Cairo - I chose this hostel because it was not too close to the infamous Tahrir square - where all the protests had been held during the revolution. That evening I popped up the street to one of the many small Ahwas (coffee shops) and enjoyed a tea and a Shisha (for less that 1 dollar!!!)

The next day I headed out to the Ramsis train station to buy a ticket to Alexandria. The train station is being renovated so navigating proved very difficult due to my inability to read handwritten Arabic signs! After finally getting my ticket I went for a wander through the backstreets of downtown Cairo. Cairo seems to be one of those cities that has more cars than people (and thats crazy seeing how many people there are!), so it should have been no surprise when I stumbled across a whole suburb of car part shops including a street market where you can pick up everything from a "taxi" roof-sign to a starter motor for a 1975 Lada (these are in hot demand!)

I finally arrived at Tahrir square. The square is really a large noisy round-about packed with cars, people, donkeys and western fastfood restaurants. Since January it is also home to hundreds of soldiers, tanks, and riot control men. They looked very bored I must say! Also to be found are plenty of peddlers selling pro revolution and pro Egypt flags and T-shirts.

That afternoon I took a taxi to the famous Khan-El-Kalili market - a must for any Cairo visit! This huuuuuge market is built in the heart of Islamic Cairo and is surrounded by historic stunning mosques and madrassas. I only visited one mosque on my previous visit to Cairo so I decided to do a Mosque-hop! I visited about 6 different mosques - it is a nice place to relax from the chaos of the city and the heat which is why they were all packed with men young and old half asleep on the floor.

Heading back to the market I was suckered into looking at some "genuine" egyptian perfume. This guy drove a hard bargain, and after an hour of debate I managed to score a good deal - and even got a free drink! The sun had gone down at this point so off I went to the famous El-Fishaway coffee shop to join scores of Muslims breaking their fasts. As I was not fasting I enjoyed a tea and a turkish coffee. Fishway is a historic building right in the heart of the market and a great place to soak in the Egyptian Ramadan madness.

At 9 o'clock that evening I headed out to view a free show put on by Sufi dancers. This was the most amazing thing I have ever seen!!! The show is in two parts - the first shows off the incredible talents of the many musicians including drummers and flutists. The skill level was truly incredible and the beats were enough to get your heart pumping! The second half is the real deal - the whirling dhirmishes.... This tradition of spinning continuously around in circles is a trance like religious dance that has its origins in Turkey. The men that twirl wear incredible colourful costumes that stream out as they spin. And boy do they spin! - One man span non-stop for over 25 minutes!!! Eventually, while spinning, the men remove their costumes and spin them above their heads in a beautifully complex coreography of rhythm and colour. Truly amazing!

Last time I went to Egypt I saw the Giza Pyramids as well as the Sakkara and Dashur pyramids so I figured that there is no point seeing them twice. However I reconsidered, as I figured that I may not be back in Egypt for some time - so off to the Giza pyramids I went! The 9 pyramids and the Sphinx are truly a must see. They stand their so graciously in all their ancient glory. I walked around to take in the view from all angles - the vast Sahara desert to the West and Giza city to the South. In the far distance you can just get a peek at the even older Sakkara pyramids to the south-west. Another sign of the decrease in tourism - every fricken camel driver strongly encouraging you to take a camel ride - "maybe latter??!!!"

After returning to Cairo I headed to the Salah-Addin Citadel perched high up in south Cairo hills. Built in the 12th century by Saladin as a fortress against the crusaders it boasts a number of structures - most impressive of which is the main Mosque with its huge turkish-style minarets. The view from the Citadel is incredible and one can see the Nile river and its many flanking skyscrapers. On the horizon lies the Giza pyramids. Also in the complex is the national army museum. Just outside the entrance are 2 Israeli tanks captured in the 1973 war. Next to them are 4 Egyptians tanks from the same war - it is clear how inferior Egypt's tanks were! The museum was pretty interesting but not much on display regarding the many wars with Israel - not surprising really considering they lost them all!

That evening I was off to Alexandria. I had heard that it was once had a romantic european-style charm - but I imagine (and soon confirmed) that this had unfortunately been lost. The train arrived around midnight and I took a cab to my hotel. This hotel receives the award for the wost hotel ever!!! Dirty sheets, cockroaches, no air-con and useless staff!! Only good thing is that it was located right in the centre of town next to the waterfront.

Early start and off the famous Alexandrian library. Of course not the original library that has long been destroyed but the modern, super-high-tech, architectually stunning complex built right on the waterfront. Nothing much to see inside - just books and a few pieces of Egyptian art - however still worth checking out. I popped next door in a pricey cafe for a quick lunch and was surprised to see "Fat Freddy's Drop" advertised in the Egyptian youth magazine - go NZ! I grabbed a ride on a horse and carriage driven by this young kid (who tried to sell me hashish and prostitutes) around the downtown sites including a set of 5 beautiful mosques, the citadel and the markets. Post-fast I popped down to the beach for a tea. I watched scores of little kids splash about in the meditteranean - rather them then me.... the sea along the Alex coast is anything but clean!!!

My last day was time for a bit of archeology. First stop - the Roman theatre. A small set of ruins containing an ampitheater, and a Roman village. Next was the catacombs (which btw - no taxi drivers knew what this word meant - had to get it translated!!). Descending underground into an ancient graveyard is a Egyptian/Graeco-Roman tomb. As I explored the many tunnels and passageways of the tomb I was greeted to Indiana Jones music blaring out of some tourist's cellphone - it nicely set the scene! The final stop for the day was Pompey's pillar - another ancient Roman village flanked by a large pillar and two Sphinxes.

Friday - back to Cairo and time for a relaxed (albeit lonely) Shabbat. On Saturday morning I visited the Shar Hashamayim Synagogue in downtown Cairo. This is one of 2 open shules in Cairo (the other Ben Ezra I visited last time), however they only get minyans on Yom Kippur. Shar Hashamayim had been in the news recently because someone threw an explosive at the shule from a nearby hotel - it did no damage. The shule is surrounded by 15 or so soldiers and the caretaker (not Jewish) was more than happy to tour me around the complex.

On Saturday night I found out about the huge protests in Giza outside the Israeli embassy due to the IDF killing some Egyptian soldiers. One of the hostel staff members had just come from the protest and it was interesting hearing his perspective on the matter..... not so pro-Israel as expected, however not fanatic.

So long Egypt... Hello Dubai! I had 2 days to kill before I return home to Kiwi-land! First impressions of Dubai: Soooo clean (for an Arab country) and not many Arabs!!! So many internationals, mostly from Asia and India. Businessmen and woman everywhere!!!

My Hotel was pretty sweet and around the corner from the Dubai metro - a convenient driverless modern transport system. Islam is taken much more seriously in Dubai with all cafes and restaurants closed during Ramadan fasting - so if you combine this with 40+ degrees during the day its seriously a killer! I don't really know how people can live in a country that is 32 at midnight midsummer!!!

On the first day I headed out to the Dubai Mall - one of the largest malls in the world - famous for its aquarium and its proximity to the world's tallest building: The Burj Khalifa. I visited the Aquarium first - it is similar to Kelly Tartons with its huge tube passageway. It was cool to see divers training right above my head mingling with the sharks and rays! Next - off to the Burj Khalifa. This building is 828m tall - and standing at its base quickly gives you a sense of its massiveness! The viewing deck is on the 124th floor. Although this is not even near the top - the other skyscrapers start to look like matchsticks even from this height! Oh yea - thats the other thing about Dubai ..... millions of high-rise buildings everywhere!! In the evening I sat in a cafe out in the Dubai Mall promenade to watch the amazing water fountain show set to music. Good times!!

What I really wanted to do the next day is to go snowboarding in the world's largest indoor ski field at the Mall of the Emirates - however it was closed for repair.... lame.... So instead I wandered through various malls (nothing much else to do here in this heat) admiring the ridiculously overpriced fashion brands that I would never buy! Oh - I also spotted the famous Burj Al-Arab - the worlds only 7 star hotel (whatever that means!).

To be honest - Dubai is quite boring.... The city is fake - everything is high tech and modern with very little historical or cultural places to explore... If you like shopping and expensive restaurants - it is probably for you.... I prefer Egypt!

Well my trip has pretty much come to a close! I just flew for like 19 hours from Dubai to Auckland (with a 45 min stopover in Brisbane). I am sick and jetlagged and still have to wait until like 8.30pm for my flight to Wellington!!

I really had the most amazing trip of my life!!! Made some amazing life-long friends!!! Had some once-in-a-life-time experiences!!! And truly discovered myself! I will be returning to some of these places soon I know!!! (Especially Greece and Israel!!)

I am looking forward to catching up with all my family and mates back in Welly!! Will see you guys soon!!!

Signing off......


Friday, August 12, 2011

Deep Sea Baby!

Γεια σου, κόσμε!

Well here I am chilling in the gorgeous Greek island of Spetses, about 2 hours from Piraeus, the Athens port. Its absolutely stunning here! Its the ultimate summer holiday! Before I get to the details of my Greek experience, let me fill you in with the past couple of weeks.....

Ok ... so the last few weeks in Jerusalem involved sleeping in late, missing classes, drinking lots of beer at Kings bar and losing games of poker at 1 shekel per buy-in! I honestly think I had reached the point of burn-out when it came to Jewish learning! Don't get me wrong - my Yeshiva experience has truly been amazing and I love the learning - however there comes a time when you reach overload! I do not understand how the serious learners spend 10 hours a day for 5 years plus?!?!?! I can barely manage 3.5 months! I really picked up a lot of good skills and knowledge, and bought lots of books (going to regret the fact that I have to shlep them around Egypt!).

I enjoy going out to downtown Jerusalem. Even though we always go to the same bars (either Zollies or Kings) in crack square (known as American square by the locals because of all the annoying loud birthright kids!), its always a fun night - smoking Nargileh (free when you buy drinks) and chatting to random Jews from all around the world!

2 weeks before I left Rabbi Gefen (head of our programme) organised a trip to the north of Israel. Our first stop on the way was a small village called Mitzpe Yericho which overlooks the ancient city of Jericho. Unfortunately Israelis are not allowed to enter Jericho itself so we had to look from afar. The view is stunning - with the dead sea glittering in the background under the desert sun! The famous Jericho casino clearly stands out on the edge of the city - once a hangout for PLO militia and Israelis wanting to gamble.

Next the bus headed north to the ancient fortress of Gamla. Overlooking the Kinneret (Sea of Gallilee), perched on the edge of a pyramid-shaped hill protruding from a deep valley lies the ruins of Gamla. Gamla's story is not dissimilar to that of Matzada - where 1000s of Jews commited suicide in order to escape persecution from the approaching Roman legions. The walk down into the valley was easy - however the return trek in the blazing sun took it out of me!

Our journey continued up into the Golan heights - a controversial flat-top mountain range on Syria's border. This huge strategic piece of land once belonged to Syria, but was captured by Israel in the 6-day war and quickly annexed. It is easy to see why Israel won't give this mountain range up as it provides a protective shield against Syria who is not Israel's best friend at the moment!

From the top of the Golan is a stunning view of the Kinneret and its major port city of Tiberias. Looking out over the lake brings back memories of my crazy 7.5 hour bike ride around the perimeter! Good times!

We moved on further to the northern edge of the heights to a beautiful area known as the Nachal Jilabun. Along the ridge are hundreds of destroyed Syrian bunkers flanked by luscious Ecalyptus trees swaying in the gentle breeze. What's with the Ecalyptus trees you may ask? Well - that is an interesting story..... an Israeli spy by the name of Eli Cohen lived in Syria for many years prior to the 6 day war and became very close to the officials of the country. He once suggested that the Syrian army should plant Ecalyptus trees to shade the soldiers in the bunkers. Their agreement gave Israel a huge advantage in the war, as Eli Cohen secretly passed this information to Israel which ordered its airforce to bomb all areas with Ecalyptus trees.

The hike through the Jilabun was fun and consisted of two refreshing pitstops in tributary lakes. The first lake was cold and full of freshwater crabs! Some of the boys discovered a cliff to jump off into the lake - and after a little convincing I found myself following suit.... good times! The second pitstop was another small pool, this time with a waterfall cradling the cliff-face. The sun was low by the time we got there which created an artistic rainbow in front of the falls. We swam into the pool and found that we could swim behind the waterfall! It was like going into a watery bubble - not being able to see or hear anything beyond the falls and the cliff walls. The day trip ended with a BBQ in Tiberias and a visit to the grave of Rabbi Akiva.

My last night in Jerusalem. A sad day.... especially due to the fact that it was almost Tisha B'Av - the commeration of the destruction of ancient Jerusalem and the Jewish Temple. Jerusalem really has a special place in my heart and I have always felt at home in the holy city. I really wanted to see the old city and the Kotel one last time before I left so I rounded the troops and we all headed down. We took our usual route through Damascus gate and down the Arab market. Usually at that time of night its empty and quiet - but what we forgot is that Ramadan had just started and we were pleasantly suprised by thousands of Muslims feasting, drinking tea, smoking nargileh and enjoying life! The coloured lights strewn across the old city walls made the whole atmosphere feel something like Arab Christmas! Some of my friends felt quite uncomfortable in a place with so many Arabs - personally I love it! I find Arab culture to be extremely interesting and I just love Arab tea! Anyways - we eventually arrived at the Kotel where I said my last prayers. We then grabbed some icecream and hung out with the Aish kids (young guys who attend the Aish HaTorah Yeshiva) in the Jewish quarter.

At 3.30am a Sherut (service taxi) picked me and my friend Izzy (an American friend of mine who is also studying at Ohr Someyach) and off we went to Tel Aviv airport.

We arrived in Athens, not sure if we were supposed to be meeting my friends in the airport or at their place. So first stop was Syntagma square in downtown Athens - on a mission to find a sim card (because surprisingly they dont sell them in the airport!!!). After hooking up with Vodafone we headed out to meet my Greek family (technically we are not related - but I love them!). We were picked up by sisters Idili and Nefeli and we wen
t back to their place to chill.

We were lucky enough to spend a night in a sweet Greek apartment with a sick pool! So we spent the 2 days that we were there swimming, chilling, smoking nargile and just enjoying life! Oh - I forgot! Before we left for the pool apartment, Izzy and I went exploring Athens. We go off the subway at Monastiraki and got ourselves lost in the flea market on a mission to find Nargile (yes I know - I am addicted and am seeking help!) I quickly discovered that Greeks do not haggle - in fact they get offended when you offer them a lower price!!! It was cool exploring the funky restaurants and shops that snake their way around up to the base of the Acropolis. We actually ended up climbing the Acropolis hill to check out the stunning 360 degree view of the city.

For Shabbat we joined the Chabad who are now providing meals out of their brand new Kosher restaurant! Thanks Chabad - we love you!

Ok.... time to leave the mainland! Izzy, Nefeli, Idili and George (my Athenian brother from another mother!) joined me on the adventure of a lifetime! (Ok a little lame - whatever!!) We jumped on a "flying dolphin" ferry and set sail to the Island of Spetses. On Spetses we joined Petros (the number 1 radio DJ in Greece) and made our merry way up to the family villa where we stayed until now.

The villa is amaaaaaaazzzzziiinngg!! Perched up in the hills, it has the most incredible views of the Mediteranean waters. The villa has 3 levels with balconies to chill and take in the view. Its a ten minute walk down to the port and centre of town. Although small, the town has many bars, cafes, restaurants and clubs spread out along the rough coastline.

The weather here has been incredible. 35ish during the days and 20ish at night. Perfect weather to kick back and bronze up! With the exception of Tisha B'Av, our days here have consisted of swimming in the crystal clear waters (a different beach everyday), sun-tanning on the stony beaches, having a few beers at the beach bars, partying at the exclusive clubs, taking in the breathtaking views, riding on horse and carriages, staying up to the wee hours of the morning to watch the sun rise and a whole lotta chilling!!!

There are almost no cars on the island so everybody gets around on scooters and mopeds - I have almost been hit at least 20 times! The houses here are whitewashed with red roofs - it reminds me a lot of the south of spain. The main road around the island is serviced with with horse and carriage and there is a public bus. Alternatively one can catch a water taxi for an exorbitant price. Spetses, like many of the Greek islands is a hangout for the mega rich - as the many bays are lined with super-yachts. Life on the island is very chilled - a great way to end my intense trip around the world!

Anywho.... I have to go work on my tan! I'm getting pretty black - jealous much?

Lots of love..... :)

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Indiana Jones Stylez

Shalom peoples of the world!

It has been almost a month since my last communication! So lets go back a few weeks to the festive celebration of Shavuot. Shavuot is the culmination of 7 weeks of spiritual preparation and the celebration of receiving the Torah (the Jewish bible) from G-d. It is a time where Jews all over the world come together and reaffirm their belief and commitment to G-d and his Torah. The tradition is to stay up all night and learn Torah - which is exactly what we did!!! Lectures from top rabbis ran through the night on all different fascinating and challenging topics. At 5am we headed down to the old city to pray with the tens of thousands of pilgrims at the western wall - this indeed was an awe inspiring experience. After prayer was finished thousands of Jews packed into a tight alleyway leading up to the Temple Mount, singing and dancing on the way. According to Jewish law, Jews cannot enter onto the Mount, so instead each of the pilgrims got as close as they could to have a look at the place which will eventually house the third Jewish temple in the Messianic era. On the way back to the Yeshiva I was impressed to see scores of tents and open homes providing food and drink for the returning pilgrims to feast and bless the occasion.

I forgot to mention, that a few weeks ago I attended a course at another Yeshiva, the famous Aish Hatorah. The course was called the discovery programme and was a fascinating 1-day overview of a series of major contemporary issues from a Jewish perspective. Topics included: the creation of the wold, the age of the universe and proof of the divinity of the Torah.

A couple of weeks ago the Jerusalem city council put on a series of cultural events including the yearly light-show. All four corners of the old city were lit up with a collection of contemporary and interactive artworks including theatre, dance and music. The major gates of the city were illuminated with funky displays and there were 4 main routes lit up that you could follow to maximise the experience. It was truly amazing to see the unity in which the event brought to the city - Jews, Muslims and Christians were all partaking together without issue in this unique event.

I had been trying to organise another trip to Petra, Jordan (I had been once with my parents in 2006) for some time now - and finally I managed to find 3 other brave adventurers (Suri, Yael and Josh) to join me! I planned the event so that we could leave from Jerusalem, goto Petra and return to Jerusalem in 2 days - this is quite some task considering the distance in which one has to travel! To my amazement, we pulled it off without hitch! We jumped on a bus 7am Tuesday morning heading down to the most southern point of Israel (a 5 hour ride) - the resort city of Eilat. There we grabbed lunch before crossing the border. Initially it seemed that the border people on the Israeli side were not happy to let us cross, but in the end they decided all was good and let us walk the 200 metres through no-mans-land until we arrived in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. From here we took a 2 hour taxi ride to Wadi Musa (Moses Valley) which is the town built just outside of Petra. We checked into our hotel and headed straight out to what is known as "Little Petra", an extension of the ancient city further south of the valley.

Little Petra was a fun experience, as there is practically no one there (except for a couple of Bedouins chilling in their tents) and we could explore the sight inside and out. There are a few small temples to see (nothing as impressive in Petra proper) and also some examples of Nabatean paintwork more than 2000 years old.

That evening, the four of us went up to the roof of our hotel to chillax, smoke local Nargillah and drink tea! (Did you really think I would go back to Jordan and not smoke haha?!) We went to sleep quite early as we wanted to get down to the actual site of Petra by 6am, so we could get in early and avoid the heat and crowds.

5.59am - standing outside the ticket booth waiting for them to open! To get into the site is not cheap at all - 50JD which is about 100 bucks NZD!!!!! But definitely worth it! For those who don't know - Petra is an ancient city dating back to the times of the bible and was the centre of trade and commerce in the region for 100s of years. The caravan routes from the East and Arabia passed through Petra on their way down to Egypt and Africa. The most dominant peoples of Petra were the Nabateans, who are the ones responsible for the amazing temples and tombs that are there to this day, and later the Romans - however, the city was highly influenced by Greek and other foreign cultures. We entered into Petra and were immediately hassled by the donkey and horse owners who wanted to give us a ride down into the city itself. We declined, but instead hired a guide who promised us an alternative "secret route" through the hills. Our guide was a local bedouin whose father was born and raised inside the caves of Petra - in fact he took us to his family's cave half way through the tour. Usually when people visit Petra they enter the city through what is known as the Siq, a thin crevasse in the cliff-face which zigzags down and finally opens into the magnificent ancient necropolis. Instead, we were guided up westward into the hills towards the place of the high altar. The hike, although physically intensive, was worth it due to the fascinating geological formations throughout the hills and valleys. We finally reached the edge of a cliff face, a few hundred metres into the air, and as we approached the edge we were blown away by the sudden impressive sight of the Treasury (a Nabetean temple carved completely out of the rock) down below us. We decided to sit on the edge and take in the sight for a few minutes before we continued on our claim up and other the Treasury itself.

We reached the high point of our journey and as we started to descend down into the valley of Petra we noticed a bright blue lizard hanging out of a rock - photo op! The way down involved negotiating a large crevasse with the most stunning views yet! The rock face was a combination of bright reds, purples, yellows and blues dripping down the edges not dissimilar to Dali's melting clocks. Luscious green bushes with purples plumage were randomly scattered through the cliff-face adding to the beauty of the surrealistic image. Finally we arrived at the bottom in the valley of Petra. All around us were impressive ancient temples carved seamlessly out of the dramatic red rock.

It was not long before the Bedouin kids rocked up with their donkeys (which I had anticipated!). We decided that we wanted to go and see the second most famous temple (after the treasury) known as the Monastery - I had not seen this last time so was eager to go. We were told it is about a 1 hour walk each way, so we decided that the two girls take Donkeys (as they were pretty tired at that point) and Josh and I would do it on foot. The girls made the right decision, the path is pretty much completely uphill and involves quite a number of steps!!! After an hour we made it - totally broken but still alive!!! The Monastery is a truly impressive site - in my opinion, more impressive than the Treasury! It stands all alone, proudly boasting its ornate architecture and precision! It is quite amazing to think that a temple of that size was carved by hand our of a cliff face! The ancient world continues to impressive me! Opposite the temple is a cave kitted out as a Beduin tent. We chilled in the cave for a few minutes processing the breathtaking view. We headed back down to the valley and made our slow decent back up to the entrance to Petra. This time we headed through the Siq admiring the thousands of years of carvings and artworks.

It was just after midday when we left, so we jumped in a taxi and headed straight to the border. We arrived just in time to catch the 5pm bus back to the holy city of Jerusalem - what an adventure!!!!

That same week there was a concert on in town with two bands that I have always wanted to see - Matisyahu and an Israeli band Hadag Nachash. Hadag Nachash opened, and in true dubb/rock/reggae style worked the crowd! The vibe was amazing as the huge Jerusalem mosh-pit jumped away to their funky fresh sound. Btw - if you are wondering who Hadag Nachash are - watch the movie "Don't mess with the Zohan" - most of the soundtrack for this movie is them! Finally Matisyahu came on stage. Unfortunately his microphone was not so loud, but it did not really matter as his set rocked! All the big songs were sung including Jerusalem, One Day and King without a Crown. A few tracks were remixed and at one point a guest star - Shyne - popped in for a quick freestyle rap! Shyne is an interesting character - he is an black american rapper who while imprisoned found out about Judaism and converted! He even studied at my Yeshiva hahah!

That Shabbos was great fun! We were in Jerusalem and were joined by a large summer programme of young guys from the States known as the JLE. Late Friday evening one of the Rabbis took us down to Meah Shearim (an ultra orthodox neighbourhood in Jerusalem) and brought us to a very unusual Oneg Shabbat (an event held on Friday night in honour of Shabbat). A group of Lithuanian Jews get together late Friday night in the basement of their Yeshiva. The room is pitch black. Imagine this - 50 or so religious men singing a mantra in unison over and over again in the dark in complete harmony. To be honest - it felt like they were trying to conjure up some sort of evil spirit! Apparently this is an ancient practice and is supposed to bring the individuals to an elevated sense of spirituality so that they can really honour the Shabbat and G-d. Well.... each to their own.

Last Shabbat was the best one yet. The Yeshiva brought my whole programme and the JLE guys north for the weekend. Firstly we were off to the Arbel mountains, where we hiked down the cliffs overlooking the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee). Next, we were off to the Kinneret itself for a quick swim and a sunbather before heading north to the mystical city of Tzfat.

Tzfat is the world capital of Kabbalah (and no - not Madonna's type of Kabbalah). This is where the famous Arizel taught and learnt Kabbalah - a collection of deep spiritual teachings about G-d and the world. Tzfat has had its fair share of mystics and great rabbis and today is a centre for Jewish learning. We spent an amazing Shabbat in the old city which included praying in the streets and dancing our way through the thin and winding alleyways. At our hotel we enjoyed amazing meals, amazing speeches from our rabbis (including the head of the Yeshiva - Rabbi Schiller) and truly amazing singing and dancing into the wee hours! On Saturday afternoon, a local rabbi gave us a fascinating tour of the old city of Tzfat sharing with us a combination of ancient and modern history. We visited the shule of Yoseph Karo (the author of the great work of Jewish law - the Shulchan Aruch) as well as the Arizel's shule.

Saturday night we boarded a bus that took us across the valley to the small town of Meyron. As you may remember - we had been here before on Lag B'omer, however this time there were no crazy crowds! We visited the grave of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, the author of the Zohar (the major Kabbalistic work). After this we joined the singing and dancing planned for the evening. This tradition of eating, singing and dancing on Saturday night is known as a Melave Malka and is a way of brining the spiritual experience of Shabbat into the week. The band rocked away, and we danced until 2am..... to discover our bus had left without us!!! Turns out that the bus driver could not be bothered waiting for us and decided to leave with all our stuff.... Luckily he returned (at 4am) and we arrived back in Jerusalem to see the sun rise!

One last thing that I forgot to mention.... A friend and I went down the other week to the grave of Rachel (the wife of Jacob from the bible). The grave is in Bethlehem but sectioned off (by huge concrete walls) from the Palestinian area. Not so exciting - but now I can tick that one off the list!

Anyways...... That is about all to report!! Hope all is well back home!! PEACE!!

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Na'aseh V'nishma

Shalom chevrei!

Well, life is good as I continue to shteig (Yiddish for learn) away at Ohr Someyach. I am really starting to get into the learning here and my skills are developing quite quickly. Even though I am taking a lot of the learning and meeting some very interesting people, I can't quite help thinking that the bubble that is the Yeshiva world is getting smaller and smaller every minute - and yes I am starting to feel a little claustrophobic! Luckily I have a few opportunities to get out and explore and catch up with old buddies.....

It was really nice the other week to be invited over to the Grossmans for a lovely Kiwi shabbat! It was great to relax out in Ma'ale Adumim with great friends, great food and 3 energetic Grossman boys!

On the 33rd day of the Omer count (the count between the festivals of Passover and Shavuot) is the festive celebration of Lag B'omer. This truly is an amazing festival in Israel, as on every street corner there are scores of giant bonfires burning long into the night. A few guys and I went down the road to a local park where hundreds of locals were igniting everything from scrap wood to old mattresses! We grabbed some beers and some marshmallows to toast on the fire and sang and danced the night away!! Later that evening we joined the hundreds of pilgrims making the journey down to the tomb of Shimon Hatzadik (a famous Rabbi from the Mishna period) who is buried just down the road from our yeshiva in an arab suburb called Sheik Jarrah.

The next day the Yeshiva organised a day trip for us to make the most of the festivities. Firstly we went north to the Kinneret (sea of Galilee) to go for a swim and relax in the summer sun (yes, I got sunburnt!). We also enjoyed a yummy BBQ near the seaside - good times! After that we continued north to the Kabbalistic city of Tzvat. Tzvat (also known as Safed) is a fascinating place best known being a haven for Kabbalists including Yosef Karo (the author of the Shulchan Aruch) and Rabbi Shlomo Halevi Alkabetz (the author of the song Lecha Dodi sung on Friday night). The city, perched high in the hills, has a certain mystical feel to it as you wind your way through the many alleyways. I have been to Tzvat a few times before, however this time the Rabbis took us to a place I had never been - the old Jewish cemetery. Buried here are the aforementioned Rabbis and many other famous and influential Rabbis and Kabbalists.

We wandered down through the cemetery and past the Ari Mikveh (where hundreds of men where dunking themselves in order to purify). A few guys decided to go dunk, however I chickened out - mainly due to the fact that getting naked in the presence of hundreds of religious men (including my Rabbis) is not exactly my cup of tea!

Our final destination for our trip was the highlight - Mount Meyron. Here the famous Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai is buried. Lag B'omer is the anniversary of his death and due to his holiness Jews flock from all around the world to visit the grave and celebrate the festival. Over half a million Jews come to Meyron every year and pack out the place!!! We arrived at around 5pm, but the craziness had anything but finished! The bus dropped us off at the base of the mount and the 15 minute walk to the top was truly inspirational! Thousands and thousands of people singing, dancing and eating (there was huge tents packed full of free food including cholent, kugel, cakes etc) all the way up! The top of the hill revealed a Charedi mosh pit all wearing black and white with their funky black hats! There were bands rocking the scene and the dancing was truly unlike anything I have ever seen! A few of us boys decided to try and get to the grave... easier said then done! The first challenge is to enter the outer courtyard which is packed to the brim! Outside the entrance is mental with hundreds of people pushing a shoving in all directions. Finally we got inside the outer courtyard and was greeted by pumping Charedi beats! Challenge number 2 - get inside the tomb room! This took some serious elbowing, opportunity taking and luck.... but we made it (well at that stage it was each man for himself!!). After leaving the tomb we went down to the main event - the dancing and sining around the Yerushalmi Chassidic Rebbes who were igniting the final bonfires of the festival. We continued to dance the night away with our Rabbis and the thousands of black-hatters! Check out this youtube video of the action:

Two weeks ago I received a call from Rabbi Dovrat (the previous Rabbi of Wellington, who currently lives in Modi'in) invited me, and the other Kiwis of Israel, to a special ceremony in honour of the Rabbi and Rebbitzin. The Wellington Jewish community had sponsored the planting of a forest in Israel to honour the great work that they had done while in Wellington. The Jewish National Fund ran a small ceremony, with speeches and messages from family and friends. The Rabbi planted a Strawberry tree, and I did the Haka to commemorate the New Zealand connection.

The Rabbis of our programme organised a special Shabbat that week just for our group. It was a really beautiful experience and was a great opportunity to bond with the group. Firstly we all went down to the Kotel, where I lead the Kabbalat Shabbat service. Another group of young Americans joined our prayers and we danced and sang for 3 hours!! There truly is something special about Shabbat in the old city - it is like another world and there is a certain sense of spirituality that flows through the many alleyways and squares. After praying we sang and danced our way back to the Yeshiva where we continued to sing late into the night! That evening a few boys joined me as we went down to Mea Shearim to visit the Yeshiva of Toldot Aaron, a Chassidic groups native to Jerusalem. From about 11pm until 3am they (and many other Chasidic groups) run a special service called a Tisch. Tisch means table in Yiddish and refers to a special singing service in honour of Shabbat. A large table is placed in the middle of the room with the Rebbe sitting up the front and all the elders of the community sitting around. Hundreds of the Rebbe's followers flock around the table and up on grandstand style seating to sing and received blessing from the Rebbe. It is a fascinating experience - and you really feel like you have stepped back in time as everyone is dressed with either a garb typical of the old Ottoman empire or the aristocracy of 1700s Europe!

The next big event on the Israel calendar is Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Day) celebrating the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967. In the evening the Yeshiva brought us up to the tomb of Shmuel Hanavi (Samuel the Prophet) perched up high on one of Jerusalem's northern hills. The experience up here was kind of like a mini-Meyron with hundreds of black-hatters coming to sing and dance! We got there early and were able to appreciate the view looking down into Jerusalem. In the other direction we could see the Palestinian town of Ramallah and a few other villages scattered throughout the hills. The interesting thing about the tomb is that it has a mosque built on top (Muslims typically build mosques on sites that are holy to other religions) and it was cool to see Jews and Muslims praying simaltenously in peace!

The next day I went into the city with some friends in search of the grand parade. In previous years the parade had come through the centre of town, but due to the new tram installed in Jaffa street it was relocated - which I only found out later!! We manged to find a smaller non-official parade and joined them and they danced, sang and swung Israeli flags all the way down to the old city. On arriving in the old city we went to the new building of Aish Hatorah and went up to the top floor. The view from the top of the building is stunning with a fantastic vista across the old city and the temple mount. We decided to get some dinner and on our return we were greeted by the tens of thousands of Jews who had come from across Jerusalem to dance in celebration at the Kotel. There was a Jewish band rocking up beats all night and we danced with the multitude into the night!

Last week I was invited to one of my Rabbi's house for Shabbat. Rabbi Geller lives with his lovely family in Ramot in the north of Jerusalem. I had a lovely shabbos and even got to go to another Tisch (a small local Chasidut sect) and explore the bunkers and gun emplacements built by the Jordanians pre 1967.

We recently had Shavuot celebrations here - but you will have to wait until next blog update for all the details. Hope everyone is well!! Until next time......

Monday, May 16, 2011

Do the Jew

Hello World!

Yeshiva has officially started now and I finally feel like I have settled in. I have about 8 hours of class per day which include a range of topics such as Gemara, Chumash, Jewish Philosophy and general Halacha. The teachers are excellent, inspirational and seriously smart people! I am in a programme called Shoresh (which mean root) and is the basic intro programme to the Yeshiva. The guys in the programme mostly come from similar backgrounds to me and have become religious later in life. There are 4 or 5 other programmes running simultaneously including a central Beit Midrash housing some seriously advanced scholars. Most serious students wear the penguin costume (black suit and white shirt) and big black hats! Although I think the black hats are funky, I hope I don't walk out of this place wearing one!!

Over all I really like the Yeshiva experience and really look forward to learning more and more! There is one thing that does annoy me - and that is the fact the the Yeshiva is non-Zionist. I just have learnt to keep my mouth shut when it comes to Zionism issues! Don't get me wrong - they are not anti-Zionist; but when nobody (except me) stands up for the Yom Hazikaron siren you know that there is something fishy with their ideology. At the end of the day it doesn't really matter - I am there to study, not talk politics, and the study environment there is top notch!

Just before classes started I was invited to join a group to travel up to a Palestinian village near Schem (Nablus). This was a special organised trip for the purpose of visiting the grave of Yehoshua Ben Nun and Caleb - both very important biblical characters. Being a Palestinian are, Israelis are not generally allowed to go but once a year on the Yahrtzeit of Yehoshua the army shuts down the village and provides safe access to the 1000s of Jews who make the pilgramage to the graves. We left after 11pm and got there around midnight where we had to make the 20 minute trek through the village up to the graves. It was amazing to see some many observant Jews praying, singing and dancing around the grave site. Yehoshua's grave was inside a tiny housed area, so with some difficulty I squeezed inside to be part of the awe-inspiring experience.

That next Shabbat I was invited to Eli and Leah Janovsky's place in Maon. Maon is a little settlement in the west bank not far from Hebron. I have not seen the Janovskys since I left New Zealand, so it was so nice to catch up and enjoy a relaxing Shabbat in a such a quiet beautiful area in the west bank. It was also great to see their kids Sarah and David and see how much they have grown!

The day before class started my British friend Josh and I went for a walk from the Old City up to the top of the Mount of Olives. Although I have been there before this was the first time I have actually walked up. From the top is the most incredible view looking over the old city and beyond to the new parts of Jerusalem. The mount of Olives is named such for the ancient olive trees on the hill where Jesus supposedly hid behind (or something like that). There is also a huge Jewish cemetery here, as the belief is that when the Moshiach (Messiah) comes the bodies will be resurrected and will be able to commute directly to the holy temple. Also scattered up the hill are an array of churches and monasteries including the magnificent Russian Orthodox church with its golden domes.

The next Shabbat Michael and I were hosted by one of the Yeshiva Rabbis, Rabbi Geffen. He and his family are very sweet people and we enjoyed a lovely Friday night meal together. The next morning I got up early to go pray at the Great Synagogue of Jerusalem. That week a famous Israeli Chazzan (cantor) and his choir wowed the synagogue with 5 hours of beautiful melodies and impressive harmonies! For lunch I went to Rabbi Machlus, who lives just behind the Yeshiva. He and his wife are amazing people because they host 100ish guys and girls every week for Shabbat!! Lunch was lovely with a great atmosphere, lots of singing and dvrei Torah.

During the week I met up with Eitan Grossman for a coffee downtown. It has been almost 2 years since we have seen each other so it was really nice to finally catchup! Actually this week I am going over the the Grossmans to have a proper catchup with the whole family :)

The Yom Yoms have come and gone. I feel kind of bad, but I did not make any effort to commemorate Yom Hashoah (Holocaust day). In Israel there is a siren that goes off so that the whole country can stop and pause to remember the victims. This is truly an amazing thing to see: cars will stop in the street and the drivers will step out and stand in silence for one minute.

For Yom Hazikaron (rememberance day for the fallen soldiers) I went to a ceremony in Jerusalem at a place called Amon Anatziv. A couple of my friends were singing in part of the ceremony. Unfortunately the buses in Jerusalem are sooo slow and unreliable at times that by the time I got to the event it was almost over! After that I joined some friends and we went down to the Sultan Pools (just outside Zion Gate of the Old City) to watch a large musical ceremony in honour of the fallen soldiers and the victims of terror. The show was a couple of hours long and hosted many of israel's famous contemporary singers.

Yom Haatzmaut - Israeli Independence Day! Always good fun in Israel! In the evening I went out with some friends to town to enjoy the festivities. All the main streets in downtown Jerusalem are closed and are packed full of people dancing the night away in front of the many stages set up across town. At times it was so packed that it was difficult to move! I also met up with Nandor and we went to check out the party in the Shuk (market) but by the time we got there it had been shut down due to too many people! Due to the fact that the Yeshiva does not celebrate Yom Haatzmaut there were classes throughout the day, however my friend Daniel invited me out to a BBQ with his Aunt - so I had one more opportunity to celebrate my independence day!

So that is what I have been up to recently!!! I hope everyone is well back home!

Until next time..... L'hitraot!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Why is this night different to all other nights?

"Jerusalem.... If I forget you...." It really is amazing how at home I feel in Jerusalem! Before I share my Jerusalem adventures lets recap the last week......

There is not a lot to do on the Kibbutz so I decided to do a day trip to Tiberius, an ancient city banking the shores of the sea of Gallilee. The town contains the burial sites of two very famous rabbis - Maimonides and Rabbi Akiva. I went for a wander down to the waterfront and watched the many Christian tourists boating across the lake for their own personal "Jesus experience". I had a few errands that I needed to run including getting myself a sim card (my israeli number is +972 52 290 1728) and getting a haircut. I then grabbed some kosher McDonalds and then headed back to the Kibbutz.

I joined my family for Seder on Kibbutz Lavi (the kibbutz famous for making shule furniture). Hillel, my cousin Gatit's husband is from this Kibbutz so we joined his family for a lovely Seder. The Seder was really nice with dvrei Torah in Hebrew, English and Swedish! The food was divine, the company was amazing and we did not finish to after 2 in the morning!

After Yom Tov I jumped on a bus to Jerusalem. I met up with my good friend Michael, who has recently moved to live in Israel, and he helped me check into my accommodation. I am staying at a Yeshiva (a religious school) called Ohr Someach where I plan on studying for the next few months. The campus is nice and the people are really friendly with interesting stories to tell. Classes do not start here until a couple of weeks so I am lucky that I can sleep and eat there in the interim. The location of the Yeshiva is relatively central - 15 minutes walk to Geula/Mea Shearim (ultra orthodox neighborhood), 40 minutes walk to the old city (or a 10 min bus ride) and about 40 minutes walk to the downtown/ben yehuda area. Jerusalem have just recently installed a tram ride that stops outside the yeshiva and goes directly to downtown via the old city - however they are still testing it and it may be a while before we can actually use it!

That evening I was invited to an amateur production called Jewtopia. I managed to score free tickets because Michael knew one of the actors. The play was a hilarious parody of modern Jewish life, focusing primarily on the Jewish dating scene. After the play I headed to the old city to soak up some of the culture. The old city of Jerusalem is my most favorite place in world! With an intense blend of Jewish, Muslim and Christian culture, amazing souks, imperial walls and its feeling of ancientness - anyone who travels there is bound to be inspired.

Shabbat was a really nice experience, as I was invited to join my friend Suri with her good friends out in a place called Efrat. Eftat is a religious village in the Gush Etzion bloc and it was truly amazing to be able to walk around the town without seeing a single car! Shabbat was very chilled and peaceful - just what I needed!

Sunday night / Monday was the last day of Chag and Michael and I went to eat by a nice chabad family in the old city. We davened at the Kotel amidst the hundred of ultra-orthodox dudes wearing striemels and long black coats. It was nice to spend chag in the old city as you can really feel the atmosphere! It was also interesting to see the hundreds of Christians parading around for the Easter celebrations.

Yesterday afternoon was the last few hours of Pesach. I went along to a Seudat Mashiach which is a Chabad tradition of welcoming the Mashiach. It is said that the Jewish Messiah will come during Passover so in the last few hours the Chabadnicks make a crazy meal of Matzah and wine to welcome his arrival! Wow did i eat sooooo much Matza!!! It was a great experience with plenty of singing, dancing and words of wisdom!

Ok ... well that is about all that has happened recently! I will be spending the next few months in Jerusalem but I do plan on doing a few small side trips around Israel - there is so much to see here! I hope everyone is well!! Enjoy the Chametz!

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Crossing Sheik Hussein

Shalom Aleichem!!

Arrival in Amman was the first time that I had to buy a visa on my whole trip. It only cost 20 Jordanian Dinars but just like everything in Jordan - it took time! Finally I got through immigration and jumped on a bus to downtown Amman where I checked into a 3 star hotel.

Jordan is an interesting country as it has an ancient history (the Greeks and Romans were here) however most of their cities are very new and industrial. Things are expensive too as the exchange rates are terrible with 1 euro buying 0.9 Jordanian Dinars. The money system here is confusing with three levels of currency. 1000 Fils = 1 Jordanian Dinar (usually referred to as a "JayDee") and 100 Fils = 1 Piastre. Prices can be advertised in any 1 of the 3 types! Some things are cheap like a Falafel sandwich will set you back 800 Fils max but a 3 star hotel will cost you 20 JD a night!

Amman is a pretty boring city to be honest and the downtown is not so exciting with mostly travel agencies and corporate offices. It feels like any other big city and is a little dirty. However if you take the time to explore you will find some hidden gems. On the first day I set out to see the ancient Citadel, propped up on one of the hills of the city. This site has been settled by Greeks, Romans, Byzantines and in later times Muslims. There are some well preserved remains, although small, throughout the site including the temple of Hercules, a Byzantine church and a Muslim royal palace. Also on the site is Jordan's first archeological museum, a cute little collection of artifacts found around the Citadel site. I spent a good hour walking around the site and admiring the impressive view of Amman city. Down the west side you can see the ancient Roman Amphitheater (which I visited later) and in the distance a great flagpole (flag-less at that time because the King was not in the country) that used to be the tallest in the world.

On leaving the site I met a tour guide who tried to sell me a trip and tour of other nearby sites. After bargaining hard I managed to crack a good deal and so off we went! The first stop on the tour was a small village called Madaba (about 45 minutes outside Amman) which is known as the city of Mosaics, so-called because of the many ancient mosaics found in the city and the numerous mosaic factories working today. On the drive down the guide explained the history of the area including the biblical story of the many nations that resided in the area such as the Moabites.

We arrived in Madaba and went straight to the St George's Church which houses the most famous Mosaic. The Mosaic is an ancient map of the area showing Israel, Syria, Egypt and Jordan. Although it is 1500 years old it is surprisingly accurate and is the oldest surviving map of its kind. In 1967, excavations in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem revealed the Nea Church and the Cardo Maximus in the very locations suggested by the Madaba Map - amazing!

Next stop was Har Nevo (Mount Nebo), the biblical location where Moses looked into Israel and passed away. At the top of the hill is a church dedicated to Moses where monks live and many pilgrims visit from all around the world. The view is quite amazing, the opposite to what I am used to! Looking into Israel you can see the dead sea as well as Jerusalem (the other side of the mount of olives. It was amazing how close I was to the holy land.... but I would have to wait a few more days before entering.....

That evening I went searching for a place to eat in downtown Amman.... surprisingly hard! I found a place down a little side street which only makes Felafel. It was a tiny little establishment with an Arab dude with a funky mustache making and cooking felafel balls at the speed of light! I dubbed him "The Felafel man" and attempted to order my sandwich (he didn't speak much English but at least he gives you free fresh felafels to try while you wait!) .

The next day I walked up King Hussein street to the King Abdullah bin al-Hussein mosque. This mosque is not some ancient wonder like you would find in Istanbul, however it is impressive with its stunning blue dome and fresh white minarets.

Next I was off to the Roman Amphitheater (the one which I could see from the Citadel). This theater is in very good nick and is still used today. It sits in the middle of downtown juxtaposed to an array of crappy, half complete apartment blocks. I sat at the top and watched the myriads of tourists from all over the world wandering through. Next to the theater is a museum called the "Museum of Popular traditions" and contains a small collection of traditional clothing and jewelery worn by different tribes from around the area. I found it disturbing to see signs of tribes from BeerSheva described as Palestine. (Later, I found it even more disturbing that there is a TV channel called Al-Quds dedicated to Israel bashing - although this may not be Jordanian in origin).

The only other thing to see in Amman is the vegetable souks (markets) behind the King Hussein Mosque in the heart of downtown. Unlike Israel or Egypt there are no great traditional Bazaars or Souks to explore. The vege market is the closest thing you will find - it is still fun to wander through and hear all the sellers shouting their latest deal to the crowd.

That evening I visited the Hashem restaurant (as recommended in Lonely Planet). This restaurant is a vegetarian (slash kosher) dream! There are no menus but I just asked for something of everything ... and was brought a selection of salads, pita, hummus, and tea. Yum!

The next day I left Amman and headed north. I managed to strike a deal with the tour guide from before to take me to Jaresh and Irbid (including a tour along the way). Jerash is probably one of the most impressive Roman ruins in the world. It was destroyed in the middle east earthquake of 749 CE but after extensive excavations has been revealed as remarkably well preserved. The most impressive stretch is the Cardo Maximus and the Oval forum at the south end. There are also two large temples (dedicated to Zeus and Artemis), a long hippodrome, two amphitheaters, a couple of Byzantine churches and much much more!!! The site is huge and with its many pillars an arches is truly an awesome site. The town used to be called Gerasa and was a major trade connection point between Jerusalem, Damascus, Baghdad and Philadelphia (the old name for Amman). I was guided around the main sections and was also allowed to explore on my own for 30 minutes before we had to head off. The site was packed with Jordanian school kids singing and drumming. I was approached by some 15 year old gilrs (with Hijab and all) and was asked if I had a girlfriend - when I answered no, they quickly retorted - "well why not - you are very good looking!" - what a crack up!!!

That afternoon we arrived at Irbid. There is nothing to see in this city, so I was only stopping here because it was close to the border with Israel. As there is no too much tourism here, I found it very hard finding a hotel (let alone of cheap one) and had to settle for a slightly more expensive, but luxurious, hotel. Oh well - 1 night in luxury is all good!

Irbid is a university town and is sprawling with young hip Jordanians students. The main drag of the downtown (called university street - funny that) is packed full of American fast food restaurants, Nargileh bars (known locally as Arguileh) and internet cafes (in fact Irbid has the Guinness world record for the most internet cafes!). I really preferred Irbid over Amman - it had more of a young vibe and great nightlife. The city is relatively clean and modern and the residents seem to be more western and connected to the world.

In the evening I popped into a local Arguileh bar (well technically not a bar, because no alcholol is served) and ordered an Arguileh to smoke and some mint tea to drink. That night was a big night as Real Madrid were playing Tottenham Hotspurs - so the place packed out pretty quick. The locals at the bar were very friendly and were interested to know about me and my travels. They were also kind and made sure I was comfortable the whole night and even recommended to me a new type of tea to try - tea with sage... yummmmm!

The next day I took a taxi down to the Sheik Hussein border crossing. I thought it would be a quick crossing but boy was I wrong!!! Firstly there are no signs in English or information people to assist you. I just attempted to follow the crowd (which was large and consisted mostly of arabs and a couple of israelis). I figured out that I needed to get a exit stamp - which I had to queue 45 minutes for! Next I had to pay tax (well I assumed we had to pay as everyone else was doing it) and I walked outside to attempt to cross. Carrying my heavy backpack in the hot sun I walked to the crossing only to be told that you cannot cross by walking - only by bus! So back I went to wait for the bus! The bus came, and on trying to get on was informed that I had to buy a ticket..... Finally I was on the bus. However the bus took almost 1 hour to drive about 50 meters!!!!! By this point I was quite pissed off, hungry (I had not eaten and it was like 3pm) and thirsty!!!

Finally crossed to Israel!!!! No buses - but luckily managed to hitch a ride with some kind Israelis to Beit Shean where I headed straight to the Kosher McDonalds!!! After I had re-energised I hitched a ride to the Kibbutz (Sde Eliyahu) where I will be staying for the next few days. My mother's cousin Arieh (originally from Wellington) lives on the Kibbutz with his family (4 out of 6 kids are currently on the Kibbutz) and mother. It was great to see them again after about 1.5 years. I spent a lovely Shabbos with them enjoying the last of the Chametz that the Kibbutz has to offer!

Pesach is soooo close! I am quite excited - I love Seder but am sad that I will not be spending it with my Family. I am also not looking forward to trying to find kosher l'Pesach food in Jerusalem that is not Kitniot - I remember it being quite difficult!!!

Anyways... my next update will be from Jerusalem. I wish everyone a Chag Pesach Sameach V'Kasher!!!!!