Masada, the Dead Sea and Ein Gedi Nature Reserve

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I found myself rising out of bed at 4:00 am a couple weekends ago. I was filled with excitement, nonetheless moving ever so slowly, gradually dragging myself from my room to the kitchen for some coffee. Why was I doing this?!? And why of all days did my single sized foam bed ever feel so deliciously embracing! I had agreed to head over to the south of Israel to see the sunrise out of Masada and climb its famous Snake Path with a friend. We would follow this with some relaxing and reinvigorating floating time in the Dead Sea (Yam Hamelach in Hebrew)…maybe throw a little rejuvenating mud into our mix and then head over to Ein Gedi Nature reserve for another hike.

View From Masada

View From Masada

Masada is one of Israel’s top historical sites, and has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. Back in 30 BCE King Herod ordered this fortress to be built at the top of a cliff facing the Dead Sea. Architecturally, I can only imagine the problems that may have been posed in constructing this palace, which in itself makes it impressive enough. Add to the fact that Masada is built in the middle of the Judean Desert, and was able to maintain a logistics network comprehensive enough to sustain the lavish lifestyle of the King (there was a swimming pool in one of the palaces) and this place, along with its panoramic views really leaves you breathless!

What Masada originally looked like!

What Masada originally looked like!

Getting there was fairly simple although we misjudged the time and ended up seeing the sunrise just before we got to Masada. In the clarity of daylight though, I now also saw the famous Masada Snake Path. I understood then, why all tours bring people here in the dark: Tourists can’t really see what they’re about to embark on…I am sure the temperature is the secondary consideration! Forty five minutes of steep leg-toning-and- muscle-burning-hiking along the side of the mountain was the start to our day. Once at the top though, we were well rewarded as we saw the incredible views which the inhabitants of Masada had the privilege to enjoy and the amazing architectural feats that were achieved in constructing this palace. The climb is a must to really understand the feats

Floating in the Dead Sea. You cant sink!

Floating in the Dead Sea. You can’t sink!

which were made with the finalization of this palace. Soon enough I would be reminded of the popular saying, “what goes up (in this case who), must come down” as we began our descent back down the Snake Path.  Although gravity was on our side my legs felt that they were about to crumble with every step… I couldn’t wait to get to the Dead Sea!

Throw on a little Dead Sea mud for some fun...and baby smooth skin afterwards!

Throw on a little Dead Sea mud for some fun…and baby smooth skin afterwards!

Three hours plus of hiking were decently rewarded with a nice relaxing session at the Dead Sea and the effortless feeling of floating in the water without even trying! It truly is a cool experience, and what’s more, supposedly

since it’s the lowest point on earth at -417 metres below sea level there’s more oxygen in the air… which in turns makes you feel happier! I don’t know if that’s true but I was feeling pretty good, and I wasn’t missing my bed now!

What came next must be one of my favourite destinations yet! Ein Gedi Nature Reserve is a must see for all! Come prepared for Masada like hiking here if you want to get the full experience. This place is out of a movie!

Wadi in Ein Gedi

Wadi in Ein Gedi

You’re hiking in the desert, and all of the sudden you encounter clear blue pools of water, streams and waterfalls called wadis. For a second you think it’s the heat getting to you but then you kneel to refresh your face with this clear water and you realize it’s not an illusion.

Having a drink at Wadi David

Having a drink at Wadi David

The most famous wadi here is called Wadi David and it’s a short hike from the entrance. Although, for the true experience climbing all the way up to Dodim’s Cave is both extremely exhausting and wholly gratifying!

After a one and a half hour climb in the heat you are rewarded with a secluded- and thankfully shaded- small cave which houses a pool of fresh water ready to refresh your hot sweaty body!

The best way to refresh! Cooling off at the Hidden Waterfall, another 2 hour hike from Dodim's Cave.

The best way to refresh! Cooling off at the Hidden Waterfall, another 2 hour hike from Dodim’s Cave.

Relaxing by the natural pool at Dodim’s Cave and remembering my lazy self in the morning I knew that at night, back home, my single sized bed would surely feel like a queen sized cloud filled mattress ready to completely envelope my body into its sponginess!

Thank you for reading!

David

 

Forget the DeLorean…It’s all about going on exchange!

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Things are ramping up at Hebrew U. I have had two weeks of classes so far. I wasn’t sure what to expect, I knew it would be good but I must say my professors are truly awesome!

The Rothberg tower at Hebrew U.

The Rothberg tower at Hebrew U.

… well in general this University is pretty remarkable all around! Hebrew U. is one of the oldest academic institutions in Israel and at the moment it is the best University in the country. This really comes as no surprise when you learn that the University was founded by some pretty sharp men such as Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud and Chaim Weizman among others, and when your professors end up being some of the most prominent academics in Israel. For the three courses I am enrolled in I have two professors that were former advisers to several Israeli Prime Ministers and had leading policy making roles in government. They lived, saw and acted in the definitive events that shaped this country. My third professor is currently the head of Jewish studies at a major academic institution and his articles are frequently published in news media. The most awesome thing is that my classes are anywhere from 15-25 people so in general it’s a more intimate class setting and I get to have a greater interaction with each professor.

...Lost? No worries Einstein, one of the founders of Hebrew U. will help guide you to class!

…Lost? No worries Einstein, one of the founders of Hebrew U. will help guide you to class!

 

All my professors offer a distinct perspective of Israeli and Middle Eastern society, culture and politics, and all exude a true passion for teaching and really communicating with students. In the two weeks I’ve been in classes I can say that my understanding of Israel and the Middle East has grown exponentially. From the shawarma I’ll have for lunch, to the name of the street I’ll be walking on, to the very view of the Samarian Desert that overlooks my classroom window, these men have helped enhance my understanding of the history of Israel. The rich history and anecdotes that my professors have discussed with us in class has also given me the ability to see everyday traditions and customs within their proper historical significance. If I feel like this in two weeks, I can’t wait to see what I’ll learn by the end of the semester!

 

walking through campus...

walking through campus…

The Hebrew U. campus is beautiful too! On breaks I’ve been roaming around and exploring all the different areas of the University. The campus is located on Mount Scopus overlooking the Judean and Samarian Deserts, the Mount of Olives and the Old City of Jerusalem. The grounds include an amphitheater, a botanical garden, some ancient ruins, and lots of green space to relax outdoors, eat lunch or study while enjoying the warmth of the afternoon sun. You can even get on the roof of the buildings and study up top while overlooking the Old City or just chill on one of the Rothberg School terrace’s and enjoy a casual conversation there after class.

Intense studying is definitely more enjoyable outdoors!

Intense studying is definitely more enjoyable outdoors!

 

As I settle into my weekly routine I am definitely looking forward to the rest of the semester. I know it will only get more intense, this week coming up I have two assignments due and a Hebrew quiz, but the feeling of walking down a street of Jerusalem and seeing a familiar historical name and being able to know how to read it in Hebrew and then understand the significance behind it is the coolest thing! In the blink of an eye, all of the sudden, I get transported into the past and I truly see myself at the time in history when the event occurred! I must stay frozen for a couple of seconds or even minutes reliving the moment…then the honk of a car or someone saying “Yala!” (“Lets go” in Hebrew slang) will wake me and I’ll come back to the present! Forget about the DeLorean in “Back to the Future” it’s all about going on exchange!

“Sheruts” to “Hebrewglish”

The first couple of days in Israel went by in a flash.

I arrived at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel-Aviv and although I had planned to take a taxi, because of the amount of luggage on me, I decided to take the more adventurous and local way to travel.  It works out that this option is also one of the more economical modes of transportation from the airport to the University.

Sherut- Ben Gurion Airport to Jerusalem
Sherut– Ben Gurion Airport to Jerusalem

I took a sherut which is basically Israel’s shared taxi/minibus. For anyone travelling to Israel I totally recommend they use this service to travel between the major cities. It’s a little slower but you pay less than a quarter of what a taxi would charge, and the extra travel time is shortened as you get to chat with the people around you!

Upon my arrival, I checked into the University, had my room assigned and settled in. I arrived on a Thursday and so I made sure to head over to the supermarket to grab some basic necessities and food prior to the start of the weekend and Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest (Friday sundown to Saturday Sundown). During this time most of the stores in Jerusalem are closed and I definitely wanted to ensure I had survival goods to make it through the weekend. Next, I had to figure out where my classes would be held and if I needed to complete any homework/assignment, or purchase a textbook prior to the beginning of my class. Here classes begin on Sunday and run until Thursday. In Israel the weekend is considered to be Friday and Saturday. Once I figured out locations and course requirements I focused on catching up on missed work. I arrived a week late to Ulpan, which composes the first three weeks of the Spring Semester at Hebrew U, and is an intensive Hebrew language immersion course. My class breezed through the work the first week – I guess it’s noted to be intensive Hebrew for a reason- and consequently between trying to catch up and the jet lag I experienced (Jerusalem is seven hours ahead of Toronto time) the week went by within the blink of an eye.

Jerusalem from Mt. Scopus

Jerusalem from Mt. Scopus

I’ve been in Jerusalem for over a week now and I am still in slight disbelief that I am actually here. Yet, as I start my days, I realize I am not in Toronto when at dawn I hear the Adhan, the Muslim call to prayer, being emitted from the minaret of a nearby mosque.

Sunrise on my morning run

Sunrise on my morning run

Then, as I got out for my morning runs, my body- in between huffs and puffs- and particularly my legs realize I am not in Toronto as I begin running up what is one of the many steep and long hills of Jerusalem! Nothing compared to Toronto’s relative flatness… Soon, I reach the crest and look over to my right to see the amazing panoramic views of Jerusalem. Ahead of me I make out the dunes of the Judean desert, nestled in there, I catch a glimpse of the Dead Sea! “Yep”, I realize, “definitely not in Toronto!”

What’s more! A couple of nights ago I had my first dream in what I am recalling to be “Hebrewglish” and so I presume the intensive Ulpan course is working. One thing I know for sure is that I would definitely not experience this in Toronto!

“Lehit” (Short form of “Lihtraot”= “See you” in Hebrew)

David

Shalom Shalom!

Shalom Shalom!! [Hello in Hebrew (lit.Peace)]

Entrance gate to HUJ at night

Entrance gate to HUJ at night

So why did I pick Israel? Well…Thanks to CIE and to Canadian Friends of Hebrew University I was here last summer on a scholarship at this same University (HUJ). It was my experience in the summer that really got my exchange bug going and where I saw what a special place Israel and the city of Jerusalem are!I’d say I’ve done my fair share of travelling… I’ve been to many of the world’s major capitals New York, London, Paris, Rome, Amsterdam, Brussels and I’ve travelled through most of Eastern Canada, Mexico, and Western Europe and last year, BAM!! I landed here in Israel!EYE OPENING EXPERIENCE!!! It was like someone slapped me with a gigantic pita to wake me up and open my eyes…and yes, they were opened and hence I am back here for a 6 month semester.

A lot of IR students, myself previously included, want to study Europe, live in Europe, work in Europe, and wish to do many other things in Europe… we basically breath Europe. Europe after all was the main centre in which the fields of International Relations and Diplomacy developed, and where some of the world’s greatest statesmen practiced this craft.

Jerusalem- Centre of the World

Jerusalem- Centre of the World

Yet, last year when I was here I could not think of a better place to truly explore and study IR. Jerusalem is, after all, the junction of the three world’s major religions, and a place that has been desired, won and lost by many over the centuries. There is within its streets an infusion of its local cultures and traditions blended in with its Mediterranean and European influence of past and present. People from all around the world live in and visit this city. Moreover, what occurs in Jerusalem, where the seat of the Israeli government is, influences the whole Middle East region, and this in turn concerns the whole world… Talk about International Relations!

Also did I mention the food is delicious?! Keep in mind though, if you are allergic to chickpeas you may want to reconsider your exchange location. Furthermore, for us Canadians the Israeli winter is but a mere tickle!

I am not trying to sell you on the idea of coming here, but you have to admit it sounds like a pretty solid exchange location. Then again, maybe I did just sell you on it which is awesome! But, if you’re still unsure about going on exchange, either here to Hebrew University of Jerusalem, or elsewhere, you can just read my blog and hopefully I’ll be able to share with you some of the adventures and escapades I’ll experience while I’m on exchange…and by then you’ll be sold on going abroad! Yet, the CIE deadline to apply will have expired…so why not just apply now?

Thank you for reading!

Lihtraot! (Hebrew for “See you!”)

David