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.

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