Monday, December 27, 2010

Why bicycles don't belong on the sidewalk

On my way to Ulpan this morning, I looked away for a second, and when I looked forward again, I saw two people in a half roll with a bicycle about to land on the sidewalk about 50 feet in front of me.  The biker had come up behind the pedestrian woman and must have misjudged his clearance sending her in a spin to the ground.  There's nothing she could have done to avoid it.

Two people, who were already beyond the accident when it occurred, heard the crash and turned around to come back to help.  The biker had one of those, "I'm a real dunce" smiles on his face as he tried to check on her, and pick his bike up.  As I passed (I didn't stop because there were already 3 people trying to help them at this point), she was holding her leg and arm.  It didn't look like she was going to be walking away from that one. 

Israel certainly doesn't have a monopoly on poor city planning, but it was still sad to see.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Can't you pop into an Israeli Starbucks, if you really have to go NOW?

I haven't quite been able to figure out what's going on here in Israel, on the subject of peeing.  Yes, peeing.  Dan's first week here he had to chase off a man he caught peeing on the entrance to our driveway.  Since then, I have caught parents on more than three occasions directing their young children to drop trou in the planting strips along the sidewalks to both pee and poop!  (This post didn't seem appropriate to include a photo).  Walking down the sidewalk requires a keen eye for land mines of excrement, and I'm no longer certain that they are from the neighborhood dogs and cats. 

Yet, it is a common complaint by Israeli's all summer that they can't wait for the first rains to come and wash away the smell.  So WHY do they do it?  I suppose the answer is, the ones who don't like it are different from the ones who do it. 

Well, I'm not the only one who has noticed this behavior.  Check out this article on -
How Green Is A Quick Wee In Public? 

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Thai cooking class

Before it becomes a distant memory, I should wrap up a few additional thoughts about Thailand.

In Chaing Mai, we spent our last full day taking a traditional Thai cooking class.  The day began with pad thai, followed by tom yum soup and cashew chicken. 
Then we took a break to visit the local market with Yui, where we purchased some of the ingredients that are hard to find in western grocery stores - palm sugar and sticky rice (we bought kaffir lime leaves later in our trip).  Something I had never noticed before in a market (but have since) is that they bundle soup mix ingredients for sale, just like can be found in U.S. grocery stores.  However, these soup mixes are small rubber-banded bunches of lemongrass, galangal, and kafir lime leaves.

Upon our return to the classroom, we made our own spring rolls and finished off the day with mango and sticky rice.

Probably the most valuable part of the class was learning more about how to use fish sauce, soy sauce, and hoisin sauce.  Fish sauce goes with meat, soy with vegetables, and hoisin with both.  The amount used should be proportional to the quantity of the meat, but always less than you think.  As they say in Hebrew, le'at le'at, or "little by little."  Taste, add, taste, add, until it's right.   

It was a delicious learning experience!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Mishra hunting

Etmol (yesterday) at Ulpan, we worked on vocabulary for interviewing.  Some logical, and helpful words, included nisa'ion (experience), miktsoa (profession), hamlatsa (recommendation), and mashkoret (salary).  But there was a whole additional list of words that reminded me of my earlier post about the interview process here in Israel - gil (age), nisui/ravak (married/single), hametsav hamishpachti (family situation), ve yeledim (children).  These really are legal topics for discussion in an interview here.  It is hard for me to imagine wanting to work in a place with people who would discriminate on the basis of characteristics which should have nothing to do with a person's ability to do a job successfully. 

I recently sent out a couple resumes here in response to online postings, as a kind of fishing expedition to see how it works.  While this technique is generally about as effective as playing the lottery for the jackpot, I have had surprising luck landing several of my previous jobs this way (in the U.S.).  However, the Israeli online job sites require monthly subscriptions, which I refuse to pay out of principle (they make plenty of money off the corporations listing the jobs), so I am receiving somewhat limited, non-targeted listings.  This is a country based on human networks, so I expect that will be the required method for success, particularly because I am not looking for a traditional/well-defined job function.  One English listserv that I subscribe to here raised a confirming point in this matter - in Israel, "everyone know's everyone from the Army."  Of course, this makes it all the more important to position myself as having a skillset that is limited in availability, making it worth taking a risk with an outsider like me.

I may start pursuing networking more aggressively in the New Year, as I hope to be done with Ulpan sometime in the spring.  I miss having challenging, meaningful work.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Out with a bang

Well, I finally awoke to some patches of blue sky today.  The rain has been off and on, but the wind is calming down.

Everyone kept telling me this is what Israeli winters are like.  Just like they told me about the dry spells during Israeli summers.  Except this summer broke records, and now this winter is as well.  Finally a news article to corroborate my story - this weather is NOT normal.  There were 100 km/hr winds, and 10 meter waves.

What is that white stuff on the corner of my patio?  It's SNOW!  Yes, it snowed in Tel Aviv last night, and I have proof.  It also rained in my apartment.  That is to say, the roof by our kitchen sprung a leak and dripped down the wall, across the light switches and power outlet, culminating in a puddle last night.  I piled old rags around the wall to contain the drip, and luckily it subsided as the rain did this morning. 

Here's a YouTube Video (taken by someone else) from the southern end of Tel Aviv looking north along the coast....

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Will it ever end?

Well, I had to go out in it today. 

This morning was my first day back at Ulpan.  It was my first day wearing closed toed shoes to Ulpan.  And my first day taking a jacket.  I chose my light blue Helly Hansen windbreaker, as I had stepped out to secure patio furniture again and despite the wind, it was still fairly warm.
I took a detour by the beach to see the waves up close, but didn't go as close as I thought I might.  The wind was blowing so hard I had to brace myself against the rail to get a photo without blurring.

As I headed north I saw debris in all the nooks and crannies of buildings, sidewalks, and alleys.  I watched a large recycling bin blow off the sidewalk and into the road.  And the sidewalk around this building (pictured right) was cordoned off.  See all that stuff on the sidewalk?  Those are shards of wall tile that had blown right off the building!

Have to say, I'm glad I made soup yesterday.  The temperature has been dropping throughout today.  It's now 10 C /50 F.  And yes, I have finally turned the heat on.   

Saturday, December 11, 2010

And I thought yeterday was intense

I woke to grey skies today, and a howling wind outside. 

Then the storm showed up.  It has been blowing so hard that I can hear the patio furniture sliding around the deck above me from our office on the 5th floor.  When I went up to inspect, the sliding glass doors were flexing in the wind, some patio chairs had been flipped right over, and others were across the deck piled on top of each other.  The grill cover had blown clear off, and the plastic lid on the top of our recycle bin cracked clear away.  I went out and tucked a few things away between gusts, wondering if I might blow off the balcony in the process. 

I feel helpless watching my poor fruit trees struggle to keep their leaves.  I'm sure glad I have them all tied to the rail!

Usually our view of the Mediteranean Sea is calm and blue.  There are breakers that make the beaches calm, shallow, and crystal clear.  I'm not venturing to the beach until this storm dies down, but I can see from here how wild it is.  White caps are everywhere, and they are crashing way over the top of the breakers. 

Oh, and remember all that construction going on around us with the large swing-arm cranes?  Well, the one three blocks up the street from us is spinning in the wind like a flimsy weathervane!

Batten down the hatches guys!  It's a doozy.  Glad I have a bunker to retreat to.  ;)

Friday, December 10, 2010

A fleeting storm

They said it was coming, but I wasn't convinced.  A few minutes ago, it showed though!  Weather seems to come in extremes here, no matter what weather it is.  I heard the rain, saw the lightening, and then came thunder that put New England storms to shame!  As the chest-shaking rattle died down, the cries of the young children in nearby apartments picked up volume.  (We have a daycare nearby, as identified by the daily squeals of playtime, although I haven't actually seen it).  After four crashing rounds, and about 10 minutes of good rain, it's over.  Skies are clearing, and we may have sunshine again like we did earlier this morning.  It's a week late (could have used rain in the Carmel Forest last Friday), but I'll take it! 
Let it rain, let it rain, let it rain! (since snow is out of the question).

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Coming "home" - take 2

This is the second time I've come "home" to Tel Aviv.  This time, it felt like I really was returning home.  I was looking forward to it.  It felt familiar.  I think a big part of that has to do with having our own space in a functional state now.  It's amazing how comforting it is knowing you're going home to your own bed, and having access to a few basic familiar things.

The grocery store, while still a challenge to find first-time purchase items like ricotta and lasagne noodles (yes, I made lasagne), is getting a little easier each time.   At the bulk counter, when my Hebrew was too limited to help me explain that I was looking for salted pumpkin seeds, they sent over a nice older gentleman who it turns out lived in Boston for a while, helping his brother run Rami's in Coolidge Corner and Framingham. 

I also stopped by the little shop where my sewing machine was getting fixed.  The repairman spoke English with me, and was quick and efficient.  When I left, a friendly Israeli stopped me to tell me that the plastic strip under the front of my car was dragging on the ground (thanks to the high curbs in the grocery store lot) and he even got on the ground to try to fix it for me.  It was a nice reminder of the potential value that this type of culture can provide.  The best way to describe the culture here may be through the words of an Ulpan colleague from Chicago.  He said that one of the reasons he loves coming to Israel is the connection and sense of community he gets from the people around him here.  I think this can still sometimes be found in small towns in the U.S., especially where there is relative stability and/or longevity in the population.  But it comes from a traditional European sense of family.  It seems that a communal sense of living has held on more strongly with the immigration to Israel, likely due to the recency of the process, as compared to the cultural changes that have occurred in the U.S. over the last 12+ generations of immigration there.  As someone from one of the most individualistic areas of the U.S. with family immigration having occurred between 3-12 generations ago, I still find aspects of this communal cultural behavior uncomfortable, such as the lack of appreciation for personal space.  But this time, I was pleasantly surprised by experiencing the positives, without the discomfort of the corresponding negatives. 

Friday, December 3, 2010

Forest fire in Haifa

On the news last night we learned that northern Israel is experiencing one of the great dangers of long dry spells - a forest fire.  International aid is coming in from all over, including Britain, Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, Jordan, France, Croatia, Russia, Spain, Romania and a NYC Fire Department plane. 

While it has rained here in Thailand (right) so much this season that they are having some of their worst flooding on record, Israel had one of their hottest, dryest summers ever, with negligible rain for the past six months.  Maybe we can bring the rain clouds home with us, and help out both countries in the process.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

A night in the Thai jungle

From our base in Chaing Mai, we booked a two day visit to the Doi Pui Suthep National Park.  We started with a mountain biking trip which lasted several hours, and offered varying degrees of difficulty.  Knowing one's limits was important, to avoid the fate of a few of the riders who went over their handle bars.  Riding through tropical forest, rice paddies in valleys, and meeting the farmers who gave us a taste of sugar cane cut right on their property reminded me how important a connection with one's environment is.  Thai's definitely have this.  Even the young guy who was guiding our biking tour could tell us about plants growing along the trail that are commonly found in Thai cooking.  Although Israel is agriculturally more advanced, I am not sure that Israelis connect with the land in this way, but then again, the people in most developed countries do not.  In the U.S., our national parks are visited by foreigners more than Americans. 
After a late lunch, we were shuttled back to the office where the two of us, plus a traveler from Scotland, were driven up to the base of the Flight of the Gibbon for a homestay. 

We arrived around 6:30pm, after dark, and our host family, a very welcoming Thai couple speaking nearly no English, showed us our rooms, the bath/shower, and began cooking up a delicious meal for us.  Dinner included a minced pork dish, something we've been eating daily upon arrival, and enjoying thoroughly.  There are so many ways to prepare meats here - basil and chili, garlic and pepper, fried, minced, crispy, etc. - and so many sauces, the options are endless.  I admit, I have been taking advantage of the pork options on most menus, as it is a real treat coming from a non-pork-eating country.

As you can see in the picture to the right, the kitchen in their home was very simple.  They were using gas and electric to cook on, and they did have a small refrigerator.  But they didn't appear to store much - they eat fresh - ironic as our standard of living in the West is so much higher, yet our food consumption is arguably lower quality.  

After dinner, we were invited to a traditional thai massage.  They set up mats there in our little wooden house, and worked on our soar muscles for over an hour!
The next morning, we said goodbye to our host family, and waited patiently for our ride to begin our zip lining adventure for the day.  This is when we discovered that the three of us had been lost between the cracks of their planning for the day.  At first, I wondered whether this was classic non-western culture behavior, under which you have to be prepared for the reality that all times are approximate.  However, after some discussion, we realized that they were truly overbooked.  We watched as others were shuttled in and out of the experience with efficiency and expediency. 

Despite this bump in the day, it turned out to be a worthwhile experience, as the network of zip lines, cable bridges and rappelling ropes created a 3 hour circuit of fun with incredible views.  I felt like I was in Fangorn Forest in the Lord of the Rings. 

This visit peaked my curiousity about what environmental education Thai's receive in school, and what outcomes they have seen from it.  There are clearly businesses in Thailand promoting eco-friendly tourism, but these are targeted toward tourists.  A quick google search shows that academic interests have looked at efforts here, but I didn't see an overall strategy or state-led effort.  However, when I googled "environmental education" generally, the third listing that came up was ironically the "Israel Ministry of the Environment." 

Moving to a desert, attending the Deserts Conference, conversations with my dad, and a couple recent articles, have really got me thinking about the issue of our human connection to nature.  To read the articles:

Losing Our Connection to Nature: Is Sustainability at Risk?
Humans Losing Touch with Nature

Interaction with nature was an integral part of my childhood, and I can't imagine childhood without it.  Do you think this is important?  Why?  What should we do about it?

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Use 'em or Lose 'em

More and more American companies have been restricting their vacation days to a "use them or lose them" policy.  So we're using up Dan's in Thailand.

This was my third trip this year through Israeli security.  They ask profiling questions that would never fly in the U.S.  When we flew in Sept. they asked me if I belong to any communities, and not knowing what this meant, I just said no, figuring I didn't, if I didn't know what they were asking about.  (Dan told me after that they meant Jewish organizations).  This time they just asked me if I have any family in Israel besides those by marriage.  It was pretty quick, likely because I don't fit any questionable profiles.  Two of Dan's work colleagues were questioned for nearly an hour each though, when they flew out in October after several days of business meetings in Isreal, even with letters in hand from the Israeli businesses to vouch for them.

We flew 10 hours to Bangkok and another hour up to Chiang Mai, the capital city in the north.  We spent the first day walking around the markets and wats (temples), pictured here.  From the moment we got off the plane, I was reminded of one of the aspects of Thai culture that I am certain attracts so many tourists - they are so sincerely friendly and welcoming.  I knew this from previous visits, but the stark contrast after being with Israeli's has enhanced my appreciation of these people - people, who in most cases live a much lower standard of living.  They are genuinely happy people.  They too have a cultural coming of age process, but instead of the army like in Israel, most Thai boys become monks for a few years of civic/cultural service from age 18-20. 

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A little joke about land in the middle east

The following is a little email joke that was sent to me by an Israeli.  It has to do with the conflict over rights to land in the middle east. 

"Who does Israel belong to?An Israeli Sense of Humor at the UN set the record straight.  An ingenious example of speech and politics occurred recently in the United Nations Assembly and made the world community smile.  A representative from Israel began:  'Before beginning my talk I want to tell you something about Moses: When he struck the rock and it brought forth water, he thought, 'What a good opportunity to have a bath!'  Moses removed his clothes, put them aside on the rock and entered the water. When he got out and wanted to dress, his clothes had vanished.  A Palestinian had stolen them!'
The Palestinian representative jumped up furiously and shouted, 'What are you talking about? The Palestinians weren't there then.' 
The Israeli representative smiled and said, 'And now that we have made that clear, I will begin my speech...'

Obviously this joke makes light of a complex situation steeped in years of history, tradition, and limited resources.  Take it for what it's worth, a clever little arguement for a particular point of view. 

Monday, November 22, 2010

Why it's important to park close to the curb

This is the second time I've seen a truck get stuck on our street.  Our street is like a funnel, narrowing as you drive around the curve and toward the light.  Last time the result was a car with a large horizontal gash from the tail light to the headlight on the passenger side. 

This time it was a tow truck, looking for victims.  In Israel the tow trucks pull up beside the car, extend a fork under the car, lift it up in the air, and slide it onto a flatbed.  I should know.  Check out my post "Learning for next time" dated 8/10/10. 

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Bicycling in Tel Aviv

Tel Aviv has many narrow streets that are difficult to navigate, regardless of whether you're in a car, on foot, or cycling.  But there are also beautiful tree-lined boulevards, and they have taken advantage of the middle strips for walking and biking paths, as you can see here.  I took this standing in the walking path, and you can see by the paint where the bicycles belong. 

Of course, many of these paths do not connect well.
And there are many sidewalks that don't have room for cyclists. But the crazy drivers endanger the cyclists on the streets, so the cyclists ride on sidewalks where they endanger the pedestrians.  And the pedestrians endanger the cats, and the cats endanger the rats, and so it goes. 

Dan has hooked up with a bike club here (thanks to a group that I found online) that goes on night rides between 9pm-midnight, when the streets quiet down a little.  Living in a city requires a bit of creativity and persistence with shared resources.  Well, living anywhere does, if you take a systems thinking point of view.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Changes around us

Tel Aviv is a young city.  It celebrated it's 100 birthday last year.  It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to the largest concentration of Bauhaus buildings in the world, among other things. 

It has become the 17th most expensive city in the world.  We discovered this when we began our adventure with our apartment hunting visit last May.  The place we chose was built just last year, so our neighbors also recently went through move-in balagan. Our building is only about 35% Israeli, the other 65% are foreigners like ourselves, or mixed marriages, like the southwest unit on our level (6/5) which is occupied by a British man and Israeli woman, and their kids.   

We continue to see city lots all around us in varying stages of destruction and reconstruction.  The weekday morning orchestra of city noises often includes jack-hammers with the car horns.  So Saturdays are a real treat, as it is nearly silent for this "day of rest."  This week we passed the above pictured lot around the corner from our place on the walk up to Ulpan.  Tel Aviv is continuously changing, and rapidly.  What I don't yet know is whether the city is taking this opportunity to enforce greener building standards.  In general though, most Israeli's I've met say that Israel is "waking up" to sustainable planning, not just as an economic opportunity, but as a social and environmental responsibility and necessity as well.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Environmental Education Field Trip

On my last day at the Drylands, Deserts, and Desertification Conference, last Wednesday Nov 10th, I had the incredible opportunity to visit four sites just south of Be'er Sheva, where the Bedouin communities are exploring various types of environmental education and social empowerment. 

Our first stop was at the Segev Shalom Bedoiun School (see right).  Although you probably can't read it, the painting in blue expresses that this is an experimental school with experiential environmental education incorporated into everything that they do. It turns out we arrived on "Olive Picking Day," so the students were involved in activities tied to this (such as the olive tree collages in the second photo.)  At different points there were groups using the outdoor courtyards, as well as a full seating area for a class under the trees.  Another small group was making traditional coffee over a small open fire. 

We met with the Principal and learned the story of this place.  Twelve years ago, one of his teachers came to him and said, "I'd like to teach about the four seasons, but I do not have a lab."  His reply to her was, "You do not need one.  Take the students outside."  And so she did.  Upon her completion of her lesson, the Principal asked her how it went.  She told him about the success engaging the students directly in their environment, and said that she wanted to continue to incorporate this kind of learning into her curriculum.  So the students began spending part of their classroom time outside, and obvservations began to surface.  They noticed the large amounts of trash in their neighborhoods.  And they started asking questions of the traditional bedoins, such as, "why do you build your homes with goat hair instead of sheep? why do you build always with the door facing east?  why do you follow traditional says when you don't know what they mean?  And so the students began a discovery process, and what they learned they took back to those in their culture that had forgotten the reasons for tradition.  For instance, the bedoiun have a saying, "If you see a snake but don't catch it, don't worry, you can go to bed.  If you see a scorpion but don't catch it, do NOT go to bed that night."  Wondering why?  These kids discovered through their research that while snakes cover vast areas of land, scorpions are territorial, which means that if you didn't catch it, it's probably waiting under your pillow!
Because of their success developing new teaching methods, this school applied for experimental status 7 years ago.  However, a school can only maintain this status for 5 years, at which time they either need to revert to being a non-experimental school, or become a teaching/learning resource for other schools.  Two years ago they chose this path, and are spreading their experiential methods all around Be'er Sheva now.  Their intent is for the students to take home what they learn, teach their families, and develop a community consciousness of their connection to their environment. 
Our second stop was at a women's cooperative.  We met with the founder who started this project in 1996.  Before I explain what they do here, it is important to understand her story.  She was born to a family of nearly 10 children, as was her husband.  Bedoiun family tradition expects this, so much so that the Bedoiun population in Israel continues to double every 12 years!  Although we didn't learn what led to her unusual circumstance, she managed to meet and marry a man who wanted only 3 children.  She also wanted this.  She had two children, and when she got pregnant with her third, it turned out to be twins.  
She shared with us some of the traditional roles for women in Bedoiun society.  Women were responsible for building their homes, through careful construction via goat's hair fabrics.  Their embroidery work was their signature, used on their family and community's clothing, showing where they belonged and what their status was.  A large part of their day involved going to the community well, where women acted as the primary source of community communication, while men were out tending herds.  So as modernization came and the tribes became more stationary, most of the woman's crafting role disappeared.  They weren't building their new cement homes, clothes are machine made, and with running water, they lost their opportunity to connect with the community outside the home.

So this woman set out to create an enterprise that would fill some of these needs.  They produce the traditional embroidery of their culture, which can be done while home looking after their children, gives them a sense of community when they come in to exchange work, and an opportunity for educational meetings (like personal finance, health, etc) on these delivery days

Our third stop was at the solar powered village of Durigh'at.  Again, we met with the Principal of the school there.  His family leads this town of 80 families.  This town was a pet project of current President Shimon Peres, while he was Minister for the Development of the Negev, Galilee and Regional Economy.  It is one of many bedoiun villages that were not initially recognized by the Israeli government (usually due to disagreement over choice of location, from what I understand). 

So here's what happened in this village that ran on generators.  The government, who wouldn't hook them up to the utility lines, spent 1 million shekels (about $280,000) to outfit 20 homes with solar power.  Initially, the village was thrilled.  The idea was that then other families will see the benefit and purchase their own systems, for 48,000 shekels.  Five families have since done this.  But the rest are still using dirty old generators.  In the meantime, this project dropped on the governmental priority list.  The village is now in negotiations to get hooked up to the electric grid.  At this point, the Principal said if they don't do it, the village will ask for the supplies and do the work themselves.  Anyone who has spent time in the Peace Corps or knows someone who has, has heard stories like this. 

What was starkly absent to our visiting group of environmental education specialists, was the environmental education.  The Principal did not talk about any curriculum modifications surrounding this process, and there was a noticable increase in trash alongside the roads here, compared to the first school.  As we were hurried along for our next stop, I wondered if anyone had thought to get the Segev Shalom School together with this one here in Durigh'at.  The motivations and vision for the future here was at a much lower level of consciousness.  This Principal was proud of the handful of doctors and lawyers they had produced.  His focus is on bringing western prosperity to his community, with very little apparent thought about the ramifications of doing it without a systems approach. 

Our last stop was at a "green elementary school" in Arad.  Here we again met the Principal.  But his background was quite different.  He is an ecologist by training.  He came into his position about a year ago.  The current school was a combination of two previous schools, each with a focus.  One was the arts, the other was the environment, so now they work to incorporate both.  They work a lot with recycling concepts, using recycled materials from school or at home.  They built composters and plant gardens on campus.  The students were busy building outside classrooms with old tires and mud while we were there (see right). 

They also started a used clothing drive/store run by the kids.  One of the guides told of the response she got when she asked on a previous visit why the kids working in the store were sewing designs on the used clothes.  The boy's response, "sometimes it is uncomfortable for someone to see their classmate who donated the item they are wearing, so we change the clothes by sewing new details on them, making them new!"  Our final stop was in a classroom where a group was involved in a drama performance about recycling.  Before it started, the Principal opened the class discussion by introducing us, and letting our group ask questions.  One member asked, "what are you all doing?"  Half the little hands shot up in the air, butts nearly falling off seats, hoping to be called upon.  For the first time, I could understand the hebrew around me.  And the funniest part - one boy, who had been listening to all the English, and looked like one of the Ethiopian immigrants, answered back in English (the Israeli children don't learn English this young.) 

I left the group at this point, got a short ride to the bus stop, where I caught the bus to Be'er Sheva, about an hour.  Then I waited a half hour and caught a second bus from there to Tel Aviv, which took about another hour and a half.  It was an absolutely fabulous day! 

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Drylands, Deserts, and Desertification Conference

On Sunday evening November 7th (my birthday), our bus load of participants drove down to the Sede Boquer campus of Ben Gurion University.  It was a 2 hour drive, punctuated by a stop in Be'er Sheva at a mall to buy dinner (not the best).

We arrived at about 8pm, well after dark.  After dropping eight participants at a hotel outside the campus which looked like a glorified motel complex (they used four locations for boarding the 600 participants from 65 countries), we arrived on campus at the field school housing (no better than the off campus options). 

We were greated by frantic 20-somethings, students and staff who were nearly as confused by what needed to happen as we were.  It took them about a half hour to track down all the room keys for the participants.  They could not answer basic questions about the campus, such as where/when breakfast was to occur the next morning, or whether there was internet access somewhere nearby (as there wasn't in the rooms).  Remember, these participants are experts in their fields from all over the world.  This was not their first conference, and I could tell they were more than a little frustrated by the lack of information and resources that enabled them to prepare for their speaking engagements in the following days. 

After about an hour and a half of trying to get participants settled, I was ushered onto the lap of one of the student coordinators in a tiny car full of oranges, pizzas, and more, with my suitcase in tow.  We drove to the one retail outlet in the area, a pizza joint, where we waited a half hour for them to bake 4 more pizzas.  Finally we drove to the student housing area where we met with the conference chairman.  He proceeded to provide the 20 or so student volunteers the structure for the upcoming day.  I asked about the possibility of getting a few basic resources for the participants, based on my observations earlier, including printed maps of the campus that they could use to get around.  I was brushed off in typical "don't bother me with the details" fashion, at which point I wondered if anyone was thinking about the details at all.

The student coordinator took me across the path to her apartment around 11pm (don't forget we had to be up at 6:30 to get the conference going the next day.)  Instead of finding the location where I was to stay, she insisted that I sleep at her place, in her bed (not with fresh sheets, mind you).  Although a very nice girl, she clearly hadn't the head for events management, appearing quite frantic, and insisting that she planned to stay up all night to everyone who would listen.  I gave up and tried to get some sleep in her bed, despite the chatter downstairs.  After 2 hours of restless sleep, I awoke to her coming in to bed herself, on our couch.  She said she found the key to my place, but at 2am I wasn't interested in searching for it in the dark.  Luckily though I was given another opportunity at 6am when her alarms started going off every 5 minutes for 20 straight minutes.  She was 5 feet from them, but didn't budge.  So I gave up, dressed, grabbed the key from the table, and went out to look for this illusive room. 

Rolling my little suitcase along behind me, I headed for the guard shack, hoping for help.  Unfortunately, they weren't even up at work yet.  While surveying my options in the intersection (north, east, south or west), I saw a guy a block down walking his dog.  I went up to him and tried my hebrew on for size, "eifo ha ___" and pointed to the sheet of paper with the info on it.  I was pleased to learn he knew exactly where to go, and he walked me there himself.  It turns out this room was in a small trailer, surrounded by other trailers, which I can only imagine became the cheapest, quickest way to house incoming research students on this tiny campus.  With my copy of a copy of a key that would sometimes take 5 minutes of attempts to unlock the door, I finally got in to discover a clean, never-before-used, mini apartment.  Perfect for a shower (and a nap later that day!)

The Conference opened with the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, Luc Gnacadja.  I was excited for this section, hoping to learn a bit about the global strategies employed in this field.  My excitement ended in disappointment as his accent was so strong that he was hard to understand.  While there were translators for the participants listening with headphones, there weren't translators for the presenters, so the non-native English speaking presenters were really at a disadvantage trying to communicate their hypotheses and discoveries.

Despite the organizational challenges, there were some great presenters.  On Monday morning I attended the Public Health and Desertification session.  Professor Jonathan Patz of the Univ. of Wisconsin talked about the impact of the 3 degree Celcius increase in air temperative that the earth is currently undergoing in relation to public health.  Two examples that I had never considered really stuck with me.  Afterall, how could a slight temperature increase impact our health?  If anything, us northerners would be happy with a little less snow, right?  (Never mind the melting of the polar ice caps and rise in sea levels, but I digress).  Patz talked about the impact of 3 degrees on mosquitos.  Mosquitos are cold blooded, and thus take on the temperature of the air.  Any blood they suck will then also be air temperature.  When that blood carries malaria, it is now warmer which means it is less likely to remain dormant and quicker to spread.  A few degrees isn't a lot for a human, but it can be deadly via those pesky little mosquitos.  Second, with the temperature change we are seeing an increase in precipitation intensity (not volume).  This is leading to things like sewer overflows into places like Lake Michigan.  When tested, these waters have E. Coli and all kinds of little nasties, and guess what?  Our drinking water is being pulled right back out from these lakes.  Another very important point he made was that if you consider a more holistic view of the cost to convert to clean energy, it suddenly becomes a no-brainer.  Cities in the midwest U.S. showed a $4B healthcare cost savings by electing one day per week without driving (less polution, more exercise - kind of makes your head explode with the obvious simplicity of it).

In the Economic Development Strategies, Public Policy and Remote Sensing category, Alan Grainger from Leeds University talked about the World Forest Observatory, the first global monitoring system for the forest lands we have left.  Sounds crazy that we wouldn't have global monitoring systems by now (doesn't google monitor everything?) but it has been a real challenge create a publicly accessible data warehouse or wiki.  This one appears to be launching this year, however, and they hope it will lead to other global resources for gathering and monitoring data that spans the globe. 

In this same panel, I learned about two Israeli companies that have developed Concentrator Photovoltaics which significantly improve the efficiency of solar energy.  The companies are Zenith Solar and MST

During our Monday field trip, we visited a UNESCO world heritage site - the ancient Nabataean city of Avdat.  It was a major stop on the incense route from Asia for over 600 years B.C.  Continuing with the theme of the conference, we were shown their advanced agricultural techniques which allowed them security and prosperity with less than 8cm of rain per year, that hasn't existed in the area since.  While there, a military helicopter did several fly-bys and then hovered over us for a while (quite irritating when trying to listen to a speaker.)  This wasn't the last of the military operations overhead though.  There were planes rocketing overhead on a regular basis out there in the Negev.  Sadly, less than a week after the conference, a plane went down due to pilot error in practice, killing the 28 and 30 year old pilots.  It has been big news here.

The bottom picture here is the view from the field school in Sede Boqer.  I went out for a morning walk on Tuesday and ran into a family of mountain goats.  They were curious about me, but as long as I didn't get too close to the two young ones, the parents left me alone and continued along the edge of the cliff.   I didn't know what to expect in the "desert,"  but I was surprised by the large valleys.  I could never live in a place that dry, but it was definitely worth a visit!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

A Weekend in Jerusalem with Desert Scientists

Last Tuesday (Nov 2nd), I received a call from the conference coordinator of the Drylands, Deserts, and Desertification Conference to be held Nov 8-11th, asking if I was still available to volunteer (and thereby attend) the conference.  She asked that I meet a group of incoming participants in Tel Aviv Friday morning November 5th and escort them for the weekend, a pre-tour that seven individuals had elected as part of their visit to Israel. 
How did the conference get my name?  I shared a book on sustainability with the Wellesley Club of Israel, to which one of the members responded.  Turns out she's the PR Director for Ben Gurion University, the host of the conference.  I agreed (and Dan rescheduled my birthday dinner to Thursday evening before I left). 

I met five individuals at a hotel just 10 minutes north of our apartment, tracked down our bus driver, and we were on our way by 11:10am.  We drove the hour to Jerusalem (top pic), where we met our tour guide, Noa Karmon, who works in Shimon Peres' office during the week.  Tour guiding is a weekend side-gig for her, and based on the receipt she gave me to pass along to the conference coordinator, it is a lot more lucrative than her 6,000 shekel/monthly salary (less than $2,000, for which she works 12+ hour days). 

Our first stop was the Jerusalem Shuk (outdoor market).  It was not unlike the one here in Tel Aviv.  At the opportunity to split up for lunch, I encouraged Noa to show us a place that she recommended (to try to get something more authentic).  The little home-cooking spot she chose was excellent.  I suggested we order for the table to share, and the others seemed greatful for the chance to try a variety of local arabic dishes, including kibbe, mousaka, rice and chicken. 

After lunch we walked through the neighborhood across the street from the shuk.  This historical district (2nd pic from top) has gone through many changes, but thanks to a little foresight, has maintained it's character.  A cheap place to live in the 1970's due to newer, more modern developments elsewhere, it is now one of the hottest neighborhoods in town.  As part of it's historical significance, there are plaques on the outer walls of some of the homes with photos and stories of the families that lived in/owned the properties during the establishment of the state of Israel.  Tel Aviv has a neighborhood like this which is walking distance from our place, Neve Tsedik.                                    

We spent the late afternoon on Friday at the Israel Museum, where the dead sea scrolls are housed.  In order to create an environment that would mimic the cool, dry climate of the caves that they were "lost" in for over 1000 years, the museum built a water cooled underground space that looks a bit like a white spaceship on top (3rd from top).  Two hours here wasn't nearly enough time, but luckily I can go back.  I walked through the ancient civilizations section and the modern art section (rather quickly).  My favorite piece in this wing was the floating band (see right).  The large square building (right) is the Knesset, or Parliament building, the seat of the Israeli legislature. 

Noa left us from the museum, so I was in charge of helping our driver get us to the hotel, Ramat Rachel Kibutz, where we were staying two nights.  The bus driver wasn't familiar with Jerusalem, but luckily he asked for directions from other vehicles, as I wouldn't have been much help.  (As an aside, I have heard that the joke about men not asking for directions doesn't translate here.)  At the hotel I spent a little time sorting out the reservations, as we were missing two who had cancelled, they had my name wrong, and they didn't have our driver's name.  After a few phone calls we worked it out, and put in a request to track down one participants luggage (El Al lost it on the way in from Africa).   

Once everyone had a chance to get settled, we met up in the dining room for dinner.  Buffet style, it included hot dishes and a variety of salads.  Turns out this was the same cafeteria that the guide brought us to for lunch a few weeks ago, when I was out in Jerusalem with Dan's work colleague's wife from Dubai.  The participants were happy with the variety and quality, which worked well, although I am not usually one for mass produced cafeteria style food.  It wasn't the best, but it was convenient.  Of the five participants, there were three from the U.S. (one born in China), one from Australia and one from Africa.  The Americans were two professors and a grad student in agricultural sciences.  The Australian and African were from the public sectors in their respective countries.

On Saturday we met Noa for a full day in the old town of Jerusalem, including a visit to the Western Wall /Wailing Wall.  At our lunch break the group split off for coffee so I had a chance to go with Noa deep into the Muslim quarter where we ducked into a little 3 table eatery where the chef brings in home-cooking and sells until it's gone each day.  We had hummus with meat, pita, pickles, rice, and boy was it delicious!  In the evening I escorted the Australian and African women to a multimedia performance at the Tower of David, back in the old city.  The Americans decided to get some rest, due to their jet lag. 

Sunday morning we said goodbye to our driver Riad, and joined several groups of incoming conference participants for a full 35 person bus tour day in the old city again. This was a bit repetitive, and gave me the first taste of the disorganization that was to follow.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The shuk on Friday mornings

Yesterday we took a 15 minute walk down to the big outdoor traditional market in the city of Tel Aviv.  It runs 6 days a week, and has several blocks of the cheap chinese made clothing and kitchen items that you can find in many third world markets.  But it also has 4 or 5 blocks of fruit and vegetables, and several side streets with meat, dairy, bakeries, and dry goods, which haven't been open during other times of the week.  I should have expected a crowd, as everyone does their shopping on Fridays in preparation for Shabbat (or because it's one of the few non-work times that people have to do their shopping).  Luckily we weren't in a hurry. 

We've been going here once every 1-2 weeks to load up on fruit and veggies.  This time we spent a little extra time exploring the side streets, which paid off nicely.  We discovered a pork vendor, with fresh cuts of all kinds of pork (they had bacon but couldn't slice it, so we only purchased a couple pork chops for the week).

We also walked into a dry goods store with asian writing outside, but discovered much more than asian sauces and noodles.  They had tortillas, quinoa, and much more.  I was reminded of an observation I have made while shopping here - there is more variety.  Take quinoa, for example (top pic).  Besides the fact that this is a south american grain that I didn't expect to find in Israel, this living room-sized store carried 3 different varieties - royal, red, and trio royal - all organic, and priced similarly to the U.S. 

And speaking of variety (and quality), there are the bakeries.  We discovered an amazing one where all the loaves were 10 shekels (about $3).  And pitas are sold on every block.  There are the traditional Israeli pitas which are the most common (on the right side of the middle pic).  Then there are Arabic pitas, which are larger and not made to open into a pocket but rather used like a wrap.  And then there are the Druiz pitas which look more like a large crepe (you can see one of these bubbling up on the hot plate with the Druiz woman in the background.  They slather these with various spreads.  Dan almost bought one, but they wanted 15 shekels for one here, and he wasn't that hungry.

The shuk, while not terribly efficient, can be quite fun when you have time, a sharp eye, and an adventurous spirit.