Distilling life into a simple answer

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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.

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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.

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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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All that glitters…..

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Clash with Reality

Beyond the beautiful history in the city, Jerusalem (and Israel) have a turbulent current situation. The Israeli and Palestinian populations are in a constant state of conflict. At times this conflict is an under riding tension, while other times the tension explodes into clashes. Upon arrival I was immediately taken aback by the constant military presence. I found it incredibly unnerving to encounter military personnel carrying automatic weapons while on simple retail outings in the city. I never expected it to turn into something.

Then news happened. Earlier in the month 3 Israeli teens were kidnapped on the West Bank, yesterday their bodies were found. The last few weeks the Israeli Defense Forces have been conducting raids on the West Bank, resulting in several hundred arrests and 5 Palestinian deaths. Hours after the  report of the bodies discovered, a revenge murder of an Arab teen occurred late last night. There have been several clashes reported in the last 24 hours, some have been violent, some have not. Public transportation has either been canceled or greatly diminished.

Honestly I’m not sure of the likelihood of any immediate danger to me or the family I’m staying with. We’ve been sent notices to stay close to home, and avoid demonstrations and specific locations in the city. I knew there was some risk in coming to this part of the world, but I honestly never thought that risk would be so relevant. After talking to a few Israeli’s, situations this tense aren’t anything new, and is unfortunately part of life here. Walking home from the grocery store this evening, the streets were still full of families, and the playground full of kids.

Having grown up in a middle class American town, I’ve never actually felt an actual fear for my safety beyond walking home alone late at night and hoping I didn’t get pick-pocketed. Receiving a Red Alert Security Notice from the US consulate has been deeply unsettling. Although I don’t worry about the case of an actual event, I’ve been in a state of stress all day. I could be blowing the severity of the situation out of proportion, American’s tend to do that. Hopefully I am.   Suddenly the minutia of my personal problems have been put into perspective, from a graceful slap of reality.

Here’s a couple articles with more information from various sides on the current situation:

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/israel-murdered-teenagers-body-of-arab-teen-found-in-jerusalem-in-suspected-revenge-killing-sparks-clashes-9577858.html

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2014/06/30/israels-slain-teenagers-4-things-you-should-know/

 

 

Unexpected Reunion

Upon arrival in Israel, I hit up my social media world to see if I had any connections in my current location. Some were dead-ends, but one turned into a beautiful reunion. Erika, a friend from my days at Chapman University, and Rock Harbor Church was also in this fine city, and even better actually wanted to hang out.

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We grabbed some coffee and set off to take the city by storm, or just walk several laps around town. The majority of our time was spent making tracks in the old city and hitting up two of the three main religious sites, including the Church of the Sepulchre, and the Western Wall. We continued to wind through, around, and over the old city. 

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After we had gotten our fill of extremely old, and extremely important sites, we made our way to the newer part of the city. As Erika had already spent a couple weeks here she was happy to show me some great spots, along with places that are actually open on Shabbat.

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Our adventure didn’t end there, we made our way to the Arab neighborhood close to my house for falafel and some World Cup madness. Holland was playing and I have adopted them as my secondary team to cheer for. I’m already a shameless bandwagon World Cup fan, I’m totally ok with picking and choosing my teams. It was a delightful time hanging with a heard of old dudes smoking hookah and cheering on teams that neither of us actually had roots with.

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Hang day with Erika was grand demonstration of how big and small the world can be. Although I’m half way across the world I was still able to run into someone that I knew. Being in a place that is so totally different its nice to have a familiar face. Although I had only been in town for a few days it was great to verbally digest the political information that I had already been bombarded with. We both come from relatively similar backgrounds, in that we grew up with similar religious beliefs, in a middle class American town, and we blessed with a university education. She has spend her time here gathering stories and perspectives, from various stand points. To hear what she has learned and her stance was a great introduction. Unfortunately her synopsis is that the more you know, the more difficult and cloudy the situation becomes.

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J-town So Far….

After a 32+ hour marathon of travel connections I arrived in the Tel Aviv airport, just a little tired and disoriented. It was a glorious welcome to have most of my host family waiting for me at arrivals. I left the same family last year at the Amsterdam airport in a violent fit of tears, unsure when I would see their little faces again. I never imagined I would be lucky enough to see these nuggets so soon. As with all good friends, we picked up right where we left off, even though we were meeting a year later which is practically a lifetime in children world.

Last day with the family July 2013, and my how they have grown.

Last day with the family July 2013, and my how they have grown.

My glorious host family wasted no time getting me into the swing of things. Within the first couple days they had taken me to the Machane Yehuda Market, along with a couple more major shopping areas, Garden Tomb, Mediterranean Beach, as well as the Dead Sea. Unsurprisingly I needed a couple days to recover from transportation as well as travel.

The neighborhood

The neighborhood

So far Jerusalem has been everything I hoped it would be, and more. The neighborhood we’re staying in is “old” however new by Jerusalem standards, built in the 1800’s. There’s outdoor markets galore and just about everything is within walking distance, including the Old City which holds the holiest sites for Islam, Judaism, and Christian religions, as well as countless other old and significant sites.  I may need another 6 weeks after this trip to process everything here, between the culture, history, and current politics.

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I'm floating in the Dead Sea, I'm really floating!!!

I’m floating in the Dead Sea, I’m really floating!!!