Distilling life into a simple answer


A dear friend of mine is setting off on a grand international adventure. In the midst of travel preparations we have had several pre-departure conversations. Although most of these involved expressions of travel jealousy, one directed itself to self transformation and lessons learned. Being the eloquent person that I am, my answer was a stammering response that basically conveyed that I had learned very little beyond an appreciation for mango fruit shakes and public transportation. Only days later have I been to better craft a decent response, while my pal has probably (and hopefully) forgotten the conversation entirely.

My short answer that I had learned nothing was a deer in the headlights response, and this certainly wasn’t the first time I’ve gotten that question. Surely in 3+ years of my life I learned some kind of life lessons. However, it is incredibly difficult to distill 3 years of vastly different experiences into a comprehensive and simple response. This is especially challenging because at no point in my life abroad did I have a moment of clarity. The growth I experienced was slow and sloppy, of the trial and error variety.

After a couple weeks of reflection and summarization, this is the best attempt I have to answer “what I learned while living abroad” question. My favorite thing about traveling is that it makes me feel blissfully insignificant. Stepping into a city and wandering the streets I become aware that life in the city has been going great without me there, and will probably continue as usual, completely unaffected by my brief stay.

This realization of insignificance doesn’t bring about feelings of self deprecation, but rather a overwhelming sense of freedom. Suddenly the huge pressures of home are put into perspective. The decisions that I put so much weight on, really don’t matter in the grand scheme of life, so long as I don’t hurt people along the way. This has opened me up to a trial and error approach to life. I’ll jump into things that seem like a pretty good idea, not completely sure of the results, knowing that there’s always other options in case one doesn’t work out.

I’ve also learned that life is incredible subjective. In fact our very idea of reality is warped based on perspective. We cannot fairly evaluate the actions of others without understanding or attempting to make ourselves aware of where they are coming from. So often I have witnessed other travelers and myself making judgements of other cultures from the lens of our own upbringing. We unfairly consider actions and traditions silly or shocking without taking into account the broad culture and history. I have carried this over into my life back in the homeland, by constantly striving to understand the point of view in which decisions were made before forming a judgment of other’s actions.

This is just my meager attempt at giving a articulate answer to a difficult and muddy question. Our travel experiences are as different as we are as humans. Several of my friends have had moments of crisp realizations, or have been able to focus and create a 3 year plan complete with specific steps. In the midst of my wandering and admiring humanity as a whole, I realized my competency in the midst of challenging and odd situations, as well as a few broader life lessons.

Mind wanderings

Honestly the current “political situation” has me sick. I feel ill every time I encounter the media, and almost all conversations on the street reference what’s going on. The war has seeped into everything here. Understandably so. But for the sake of my psyche, I’m going to play the denial card with a lighter post of random observances of my current geographical location.

blog pics1They don’t jaywalk here. Easiest way to spot a foreigner is to find people too impatient to wait for the crossing signal. // The hummus stereotype is real. Its better and everywhere. Same applies to falafel. // Old man people watching is the best here. Especially the backgammon tournaments. // Don’t expect to do anything on a Saturday in Jerusalem. // Despite the heavy use of artillery in the area, people still love to use fireworks for celebratory occasions such as graduation. Cruel joke on my nerves. // Jerusalem in all its ancient glory was not built to be stroller friendly. // Apparently lines or queues are just a suggestion. // How do the kippahs stay on men’s heads. (more of a question) // Its expensive.

under the surface

unnamedAt first glance the Jaffa street shopping district seems like a typical outdoor commercial area found in cities all over the world. A pedestrian only zone filled with stores selling fashion accessories and cheap trendy clothes, cafes with seating spilling onto the sidewalk, and various performers peppering the streets with their musical stylings. Upon further inspection details reveal the political tension that permeates the city of Jerusalem. Head coverings such as kippahs, and hijabs indicate religion, gender, ethnicity, and marital status are on display side by side in the sea of humanity that roams Jaffa center. The compound of sides isn’t all butterflies and rainbows though. In addition to musicians, public demonstrations and large and sometimes violent gatherings frequent these city blocks. In support of the police force, soldiers are often posted with loaded automatic weapons slung over their shoulders, with the occasional the riot control team. Violent outbursts are not common, but more often the stress buzzes just under the surface like a background static with unknown origin. Jaffa center is the micro view of the tension in Jerusalem as a result of the astriction of political and historical foes in the same city.


Guilty Pleasure

IMGP2318While traveling, I have the tendency to guzzle Diet Coke. Typically I consume the borderline toxic substance on a bi-montly basis, but while cruising unknown city streets, its difficult to fulfill my DC cravings. I even disgust myself while drinking the stuff, yet somehow that doesn’t stop me. I suppose there’s worse things to get into while abroad, just as long as I leave this nasty habit as soon as I arrive stateside.

Tel Aviv Trip

IMGP2267Took a weekend jaunt to Tel Aviv, to see the beach, some city sites, and well the beach. Staying in Tel Aviv was a huge sigh of relief. Rather than being a city divided between Israel and Palestine, Tel Aviv is primarily Israeli. There isn’t the threat of demonstrations getting violent, or the underlying tension that occurs when two sparing groups co-inhabit in a relatively small city. I didn’t feel like I was getting constantly judged by the ultra religious folk who disapprove of wearing tank tops or showing my hair.

IMGP2250 IMGP2213

Tel Aviv is a beautiful combination of beach front joints, and a city full of great cafes and boutiques. Not terribly unlike Southern California, except the planes flying over the beach weren’t carrying banners of advertisements and marriage proposal, they were carrying explosives en route to Gaza, and instead of  fireworks, there were missiles. While Tel Aviv doesn’t have the rich history of Jerusalem, its much more friendly for long term residence. The people were incredibly friendly, and I made friends just hanging out on the beach. As I’ll be returning to the landlocked state of CO, I already have another trip to the beach planned.

IMGP2217 IMGP2355

Finding Balance

Somehow or another I’ve found myself in a war zone. Ok, war zone is a bit of an over statement. Technically, yes, Jerusalem is a war zone,(Sorry Mom.) And yes, on some days there are rockets that have been intercepted on route to the city that I’m staying in. But those rockets have been intercepted, are of low power, and infrequent. This in no way compares to the terror that is occurring on the Gaza Strip. Over 80 people have been killed, and several more injured. Three injuries have been reported in Israel. To make any assumption that both sides are having a similar experience of the conflict is tremendously unfair. Sure, I knew there was a greater chance of violence in Jerusalem, rather than the crazy metropolis of Fruita, CO. But didn’t think anything would actually happen. Events of the last couple weeks have dramatically shifted the nature of my summer “vacation.”

This upheaval of reality has brought out a vast amount of emotional and cerebral experiences. The most basic being my definition of safety. Earlier this week I received an email from a dear friend asking me if I “felt safe.” That simple question brought me into a tail spin. I couldn’t give a direct answer. For the first time I realized that safety isn’t black and white, it lies on a spectrum.  With recent events, decisions in the house have been made based on our location on the safety spectrum.

Two nights ago I had my first rocket siren experience. This wasn’t some fire drill so frequently practiced in school, this was the real thing. My host parents and I scrambled to scoop the kiddos out of their beds and haul them into our safety room (the bathroom.) Its an odd experience waiting for something to happen, while hoping that it never comes. We were quiet in a dark bathroom, all nine of us just sitting there. I managed to grab a beer en route to the bathroom and chugged it quickly after confirming the safety of all small humans. The adults put on a facade of cool, collected, and rational, while I was internally flipping my shit. Once we got the ok clear and put the kids to bed, my host parents and I discussed exactly what was happening.

Here’s the deal:  After talking logistics, we came to the conclusion that a direct hit on the house is extremely low. However, having rocket fire become a reality has caused some serious cracks in my foundations. Honestly I’m not 100%, there’s no way that a sane person would be. But I’m learning how to rationalize the situation, in order to have a reasonable emotional reaction.

As I’m currently dealing with a safety spectrum rather than an absolute, I’m working on finding a balance between sanity and perceived safety. For the first 24 hours after the siren I left the house only to take the kids to the playground and go to the corner market. There was a brief period that I just wanted to crawl into bed and cry. Then I realized how much I was over reacting. Once I regained my confidence and made it outside, I found that life in Jerusalem was continuing almost as usual. An uninformed observer wouldn’t be able to tell a difference in the downtown shopping area. In fact there was a smaller military presence, and less tension than last week’s clashes. Conflicts such as the one occurring now are a reality of life here, and while its important to make smart choices, life still goes on. The threat isn’t enough to hole ourselves up at home, waiting for something that may never occur. I’m picking my activities and destinations with caution, and keeping my guard up at all times. I’m not taking the situation lightly, but I’m not allowing myself to become paralyzed by fear. The situation hasn’t gotten to that point yet. And if it does, I’m lucky enough to be able to go to a truly safe home, unlike many people here.

Within the walls


Stepping into the Old City of Jerusalem is an assault on your senses. The ancient city explodes with commercial stalls overflowing with colorful goods, and the even more colorful characters who sell them. The plethora of spice shops with bins of neatly pilled cinnamon and cardamom fill the air with delicious fragrances. The spicy smells only last until wandering into the butcher alley where animal organs not even known to be edible are on display, permeating the air along with the extraneous juices from the butchering process. Soon enough though the produce stalls fill the air, and flirt the senses with stacks of beautiful fruit, and various unidentifiable vegetables.

IMGP2046 IMGP2007

The best parts of the Old City are the pockets of genuine humanity, often hidden by the overwhelming presence of “salesmen.” The old men playing backgammon, hanging out at the barber shop, sleeping on the job, shooting the shit with their friends across the alley. The crowds of people clamoring at the bread cart as he momentarily stops his mobile store. The mothers buying the parts of the evening Ramadan Meal, or their counterparts preparing for Shabbat. The best place to experience these glimpses into real life is the Arab Quarter where the store keepers are more concerned with selling their shoes or house-hold tools, than even looking at the passing tourists.

IMGP2104 IMGP2100 IMGP2128

Its nearly impossible to get to a specific place on purpose in the Old City. The narrow alleys and rows of identical stores immediately steal away any sense of direction. I find that its best to go with the flow and see what wonderful things the circus of the Old City brings your way.

IMGP1902 IMGP1992

The Update.

photo credit: Sliman Khader/Flash90)

photo credit: Sliman Khader/Flash90)

Call it American paranoia, but I’ve chosen to stay close to “home” this weekend. The update from actual news reporters.



Like usual, things sound much bigger and widespread than they really are. I’m not making a call on the importance or severity of the situation, more like the physical location. Although we are also staying in Jerusalem, close to Damascus Gate, we haven’t so much as heard any evidence of disturbances. The only indication of clashes we’ve encountered are a significant increase in police and military presence, and a slowdown of public transportation. Mom, I’m OK.

All that glitters…..


This Sunday, I finally got to see a glimmering jewel of the Jerusalem skyline, the Dome of the Rock. As its hot as heck these days, I decided to get up and get after it nice and early. It was a treat to walk through the streets of the old city before the commercial stalls were open, when only the trash collectors and street cats were out and about. Once I got to the gate, I was confronted by the fact that I wasn’t the only one that woke up with the sun that morning, the line was at least 100 meters back.


Unsurprisingly it was well worth the wait. After being squished in the narrow streets of the old city, the complex of the Temple Mount is vast and open, and and the golden dome is in the middle of it all. Throughout the grounds there were various Islamic study groups set up on plastic chairs in the shade of buildings, or olive trees.


I was blown away by the structure. Beyond the glittering gold, the base is covered by intricate designs of colored tiles, worthy of striking awe into the even the least enthusiastic of viewers.


The serenity of the grounds did not last long. A group of young Jewish men decided to take a “tour” of the grounds. Lead by an IDF soldier, it could be said they were there to provoke. As they moved through the complex each study group started singing/chanting and increased in volume as the group moved by. A groundskeeper “accidentally” sprayed them with water as they walked by, causing the soldier escort to confront the man. As energetic words were exchanged, it was tempting to get closer and observe, but in this end of the world, arguments can quickly escalate, so I decided to find the furthest exit and hope things settle down. As I didn’t read anything in the news, things seemed to have leveled out.


This site is hotly contested amongst several religions. The current structure is a temple build in 688 CE but renovated several times, with the current gold top dating to the 1980’s, to house the rock that the Prophet Muhammad is said to have ascended to heaven. The Jewish and Christian religions lay significant claims to this area as well. The same rock is said to have been the site that Abraham started to sacrifice his son before being stopped by an angel. It is also the site of the first and second temples, and the most sacred site of the Jewish religion.