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Chromecast: The Cheap Smart TV Device I Only Bought for Netflix in 1080p

January 22nd, 2014 No comments

I already had 3 options in my living room for streaming media. I have an LG Smart TV with a ton of apps and DLNA. I have a Sony Blu-Ray player with a ton of apps and DLNA. I have a HTPC (home theater personal computer) running Windows 7 connected to my TV which I use to watch live TV and as a DVR. So why did I need to purchase a Chromecast? Isn’t it redundant? For the most part, yes the Chromecast is totally a redundant device for me, but it never occurred to me I wasn’t getting Netflix in 1080p. Yes, Netflix, the company that said 1080p streaming was available to all users, except when your device is not capable of 1080p. However, my Blu-Ray and HTPC both max out at 720p because of the age of their software. My TV is supposed to be capable of 1080p and even 3D streaming, but it does not seem to be getting enough bandwidth to stream in 1080p. Then Chromcast went on sale. At $26.48 after tax, it seemed like a good investment to try to get to 1080p.

Chromecast Unboxing Slideshow

Chromecast, created by Google, was their attempt to bring streaming media to the masses at a cheap cost. The small device gets plugged into an open HDMI port on your TV and it is powered either through a USB port on your TV or using an AC adapter. After plugging it in and setting it up, the Chromecast can then play video from Netflix, YouTube, HBO GO and Google Movies, audio from Google Play and Pandora, and saved videos and audio. None of this stuff is actually selected directly on the Chromecast like other Smart TV software. Instead, Chromecast receives a URL from any capable device with Chromecast app such as your smartphone or Windows PC and then streams the content.

Unboxing the device might have been the hardest part of setting it up. The box is very small so there is no unessential packaging. There is a little plastic sticker holding the box closed. I don’t usually like cutting those stickers. I try to peel them. I should have just cut it. Peeling this sticker probably took me several minutes. After peeling the sticker, then I had to slide the box out of the sleeve casing, which was a tight fit. Then the box lid opens easily and the device is right there. Under the device is the USB cable, the AC adapter and a HDMI extender cable.

Setting up the device was really quick from this point on. I plugged the Chromecast into one of my available HDMI ports and powered it using USB on my TV. My TV immediately recognized it and switched to the Chromecast setup screen, prompting me to go to a URL on my phone or PC to download the Chromecast app. The rest of the setup is done from the app. I downloaded it on my phone. The app walks through finding the Chromecast, renaming the Chromecast, setting up WiFi on the device and updating the firmware. This whole process took at most ten minutes. The next thing I did was begin testing out Netflix. The picture definitely looked clearer in comparison to my other devices. I started with a standard definition cartoons (Futurama) and a High Definition action movie (Marvel’s The Avengers). I also ran the Netflix Example Short to see the streaming quality statistics. I found Netflix maxed out at 4300 kbps and 1920×1080, which is good enough for 1080p, but not Super HD.

So far I have been pretty happy with Chromecast usage. I have watched two movies on Netflix using it. The quality is definitely better. I have noticed the picture does occasionally drop out of 1080p until the connection improves and the video buffers again. What I really like about the Chromecast, since it is so easy to set up and so portable, I can see bringing it to friend’s houses or while traveling to easily set up streaming media wherever.

The real downside to Chromecast is there are still a lot of apps not available to be used with it. I would like to see Spotify and Amazon Instant Video. Hopefully in time, more apps will be able to stream to Chromecast to make it a much more robust device. At about $30, I don’t see it as a waste of money and it is a good investment if you need to upgrade to 1080p streaming for cheap or don’t have a smart TV at all.

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Follow Up : Pebble Smartwatch

January 12th, 2014 No comments

Pebble with wrap and bandI have been using the Pebble Smartwatch now for about 6 weeks. It has been an interesting and enjoyable experience. I really like getting my notifications on my wrist. It saves a lot of time checking my phone. I don’t have to unlock my phone unless I want to respond or read more. I’m also starting to explore some of the other information I can send to the Pebble.

After using the watch for about a week, I upgraded to the SDK 2.0 Beta 2. I will say right away, Beta 2 was junk. The watch froze constantly and would lose connection and not reconnect. I would have to shutdown and restart the Pebble to get it to connect. Very soon after, they released Beta 3, which has been a much better experience. Installed apps can now be removed and some even managed from the Pebble app on the phone. They are now up to 2.0 Beta 5, and it’s looking pretty good. Battery life seems to be improving too. I get a lot of notifications, but I would say it’s now up to about 4 days battery life.

There are definitely still some disappointments in the Pebble that third party developers have been working to rectify. The biggest issue I still have is the stock Pebble app cannot push all notifications to the Pebble or select which apps with notifications can be sent. It will only push a select number of apps with configuration built into the Pebble. The notifications for those specific apps like phone, SMS, email/Gmail, calendar, Facebook and Hangouts all work very well. However, there are so many other apps out there that create notifications too. Other smartwatches, have this built into the software to select any apps with notifications to send. The Qualcomm Toq has this feature built right in. The other issue I had with Pebble is a lot of functionality was not built into the main UI for SDK 2.0, even though there are APIs built for it such as weather. I have other functionality issues such as the music app being slow to respond or not showing what is currently playing. I understand the goal for Pebble was to first launch the hardware with basic functionality then expand. I definitely like this and I am starting to see the potential in Pebble. Lots of third party developers are stepping up to create apps to fix the gaps in the stock Pebble UI. Some of these third parties include major companies like FourSquare, GoPro, and Pandora. Pebble is also making progress in their own software by creating an app store to have these apps available. The app store will launch soon, and I am very excited to see what will be available.

As mentioned, third party developers have stepped up to create watch apps for the Pebble to fix some of the UI gaps. I have downloaded three apps so far that I really like; Glance, Notification Center, and Pebble Cards. Glance serves as a great utility. I talked about it in length in the first post so I won’t go through more detail. I will say, I keep Glance set to a basic screen of time, weather and phone battery life. Glance does have more detailed screens, but I don’t need them. Glance also added a nice feature of adding the Pebble battery life to its settings menu. Notification Center has been a fantastic utility to get the notifications I actually want to see on my phone delivered to my phone. This app has allowed me to get only the Personal Inbox email notifications from Gmail, allowed me to start using a third party app for SMS again, and get ESPN SportsCenter alerts as well as my Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other apps stock Pebble notifications could not handle. After the notification clears, it returns the Pebble screen to Glance. Notification Center will also queue the notifications and clear them from the phone after viewing, or will clear from the Pebble when cleared on the phone. The last app I got was Pebble Cards. This is the app that I think will have a lot of potential with new versions. The developer said he was trying to mimic the idea of cards in the Google Now app. I like it a lot since it removes a lot of data Google Now provides to just give a clean and quick update. I set up weather, sports scores and battery life so far. It can also include stocks, calendar, traffic, custom JSON, and more. I don’t think it is as clean as the watch face on Glance, but definitely can show a lot more information. I assume all of these will be part of the Pebble App Store at launch.

Unfortunately, I still have not gotten a chance to really start playing with developing my own apps for the Pebble. The SDK 2.0 comes with so many example API pieces and a tutorial that it shouldn’t be too difficult to develop my own apps. The time I did sit down, I found out that they SDK cannot be edited on Windows computers. As an alternative, Pebble Cloud was created to allow for editing and creation of apps online. However, this reduces a lot of the access to examples Pebble created, unless you load them to your Pebble Cloud account.

20140112_142005The last issue I had with the Pebble was its physical design. The Pebble looks cheap and unprofessional. If almost looks like an oversized sports watch you might buy for running. I spent a little money to try to fancy up my Pebble so it looks more like something you might wear to the office. I purchased a SlickWrap for the watch itself so it would look less plastic. I got the Brushed Onyx metal series wrap to try to make it look a little more metal. I also purchased on eBay a Black IP metal band with polished and brushed metal and a locking clasp. I believe it looks a little more presentable and less plastic.

Fortunately Pebble also recognized their watch was not very professional and recently announced Pebble Steel, which is a metal version that comes with a gorilla glass screen, metal band and a leather band as well. The technical specifications are the same as the original Pebble. It is a little smaller but a $100 more expensive. If it was available when I purchased 6 weeks ago, I would have gotten this one instead.

Pebble is showing itself to be the major competitor in the Smartwatch game. They have two options already on the market. They have a large community of apps that are going to be available very soon. They made it easier for outside developers to create apps. They have even gotten Mercedes Benz to make an app and give away the watch with the car. Pebble is definitely going to need to do something about their price to stay competitive. They are ahead of Samsung, Sony, Qualcomm and some of the others that have a Smartwatch available today in price by being at $150. However, the others are seeing they are charging too much and discounts are already available. Archos has two watches coming out which they hope to be major competitors, especially since the cheaper one they expect to release at around $50 each.

I definitely do not regret purchasing a Pebble Smartwatch. It has made checking notifications a lot easier since I don’t have to pull out my phone. It’s even better for those that I generally clear right away anyway like ESPN. I still believe the best is yet to come for Pebble in terms of apps that will be available.

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Pebble Smart Watch : First Impressions

November 30th, 2013 No comments

I received the other day the Pebble Smart Watch. Smart watches and wearable tech has been on the internet a lot lately with Samsung Galaxy Gear and Google Glass. Pebble is probably one of the cheapest contenders to the smart watch game, but also the one with some of the greatest possibilities. Launched via Kickstarter, Pebble is now available for general sale.

Pebble Box Pebble Box Open

First thing you might be asking yourself is what do I need a smart watch for anyway. After all, how hard is it to see notifications on my phone. The best use for a smart watch is for if you don’t have access to your phone or might not realize you received a message. Smart watches being attached to you allows you to feel the notification directly. As software improves on smart watches, users will be able to do so much more. Pebble is built exactly with that expansion in mind.

Upon receiving the Pebble, the packaging for the Pebble Smart Watch is smaller than what one might expect for a gadget. Probably smaller than most boxes for a high end watch. The box slides open easily and reveals the Pebble. The device looks large in comparison to the size of the box. Removing the watch from the box was a little difficult. The watch is latched into the packaging. This is great because it prevents the watch from moving in the package. However, it is latched in so tightly it takes a little force to unhook it. The only items in the box are the Pebble, the USB charger cable, quick start guide and product information sheet.

Pebble Unboxed 20131126_160923

After taking the Pebble out of the box, it is noticeable how the Pebble really is a light weight device. It weighs less than the stainless steel and aluminum watches I am used to wearing. The size of the watch itself is slightly larger than the average watch. The plastic casing and the rubber watchband definitely reduce the weight. The construction does feel very strong for a plastic device. The watchband can also withstand a good amount of tension. The metal latch holds in tightly as well. Unfortunately, the rubber watchband looks cheap. If you are planning to wear the watch in a more formal setting, the rubber is a little off-putting. Wearing the Pebble, it does feel a little large, but only because I am used to wearing a watch with a slightly smaller face. I am already getting used to it.

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Part of what makes Pebble so appealing is its low power usage and longer battery life. The device uses an e-paper display very similar to the one used in the Amazon Kindle. This is great because it because it doesn’t need a lot of power to show time and notifications. Pebble also uses Bluetooth 4.0 LE, which is low power consumption. This allows Pebble to stay connected to the smartphone while using as little power on bother devices as possible.

Powering on the Pebble for the first time was difficult. Only because there is no clear power button or something labeled saying what to press in the documentation. Figuring out needing to hold in the Center button for several seconds took me a moment. After realizing this, I am greeted with a Pebble splash screen. It is not a screen I will see very often unless I shut down the device. Right away, the watch will ask to pair the device with your phone. I am using a Samsung Galaxy SIII running Android 4.1.2. I downloaded the app from the Play Store. My phone immediately found my Pebble via Bluetooth and then clicking connect in the Pebble app connected instantly. After connecting, my Pebble required an update that took less than a minute to complete. This update will only complete if the phone is synced. The time on the Pebble will reset to the current time when the sync is complete.

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The phone comes preloaded with three watch faces for telling time: text read out, mock analog with date and a digital read out with date. Hitting the top and bottom buttons on the right will cycle through the watch faces. These are pretty simple and provides really just basic watch functionality. This is a little bit of a disappointment as I want bells and whistles. I want a smart watch to tell me more than time. Out of the box, the Pebble will be set to 24 HR format. Hitting the center right button will open an options menu to apps installed on your Pebble. The Pebble will come preloaded with a music control, Alarm, watch face selector and settings. As other apps are installed, they appear in this list.

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Settings has options for Bluetooth, Date & Time, Display, About, Shutdown and Factory Reset. There are not many things that are controlled on the Pebble itself at this time. Most settings are controlled through the companion app. I first entered Date & Time to change it to 12 HR format. Display controls the backlight, notifications, font size and vibration. Backlight options are On, Off and Auto. Motion Backlight controls are on and off. I changed mine to auto and motion control enabled.

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The other preinstalled apps are pretty basic. The music app will control pause/play/forward/rewind for the music app defined through the companion app. The alarm app, which is only set to 24 HR format and creates the alarm on the Pebble, not the phone itself. The alarm is great if you are wearing the Pebble, but not very useful otherwise, for say waking up in the morning.

As I mentioned, most of the settings are actually in the companion app on your smartphone. The companion app will control connection to the Pebble, installed watch faces, test notifications and notification settings. The test notifications gives you a pretty good idea of how your notifications will appear on the Pebble. Email notifications can just be scrolled through and cleared. SMS notifications are the same way. Phone notifications do allow you to see who is calling and reject a call, but not anything else.

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The settings part of the app is really where the most functionality is controlled.  The top setting is for Bluetooth, which just opens Android Bluetooth settings to pair the device. Next is Notifications. The Notifications section allows you to turn on sending notifications and what notifications to send. Here you can turn on notifications for calls, SMS, calendar, email and/or Gmail, Google Talk & Hangouts, Google Voice, Facebook, and WhatsApp. Other notifications require Android Accessibility settings to be changed. The Pebble app will notify you to make the change when setting up the notifications.

Screenshot_2013-11-26-16-29-27 Screenshot_2013-11-28-20-58-58 Screenshot_2013-11-28-20-59-07-1

While on notifications, I’ll voice my annoyance that SMS notifications will only work if you are using the stock Messaging app, Google Hangouts or Google Voice as the default. Any other SMS app like GoSMS or Handsent, which most people who own a Pebble are probably using, will not receive notifications. I am currently trying to use the stock Messaging app or Google Hangouts as my primary SMS app again. So far it is not a problem. However, that first iPhone group message I receive is going to make me realize how much I miss a more robust SMS app. The other annoyance with notifications would be email. You again can only use the stock Email or Gmail apps to get notifications. If you use an app like Good for Enterprise, your email notifications will not appear. Some of these notification issues might be resolved with other apps, but still not ideal.

After setting up notifications, you can also change what music app the Pebble will control. I have mine set to Spotify since it is my primary music app. Having pause/play/forward/rewind available is really great, but volume control would have been nice too.

When I was done setting up my Pebble, I installed Glance for Pebble. Glance is an app that replaced your watch face. It serves as a hub to give a little more functionality. It is available as a companion app from the Play store. After installing on your phone, it will then transfer an app to the Pebble. The companion app on the phone is where everything is configured. It was helpful because it adds more functionality to your watch face such as counters for new email, SMS and missed calls, weather, quick SMS responses and emergency SMS. These are really awesome features and truly expand the usefulness of Pebble. Having quick SMS responses is cool, but I am finding it hard to decide what to have as my quick responses. I’m leaning toward “OK”, “See you soon”, “Bring more beer/wine/whiskey”, or “What are you wearing?” Weather is also rather useful as it gives your current temp and conditions for your location, and you can see upcoming forecast. I strongly suggest installing Glance.

After using my Pebble for a few days now, I love getting the notifications on my wrist. Sometimes I see them there before they appear on my phone. Glance strongly improved the usefulness and functionality. The main thing I do not like so far is when using Gmail, it does not mute notifications for Social and Promotion emails. This can be annoying if receiving many promotional emails a day. The other thing I am not liking so far with the Pebble is the inability to delete emails and text messages from the Pebble. You can only ignore them. Another annoyance I have discovered is there is not a good battery monitor and could use a consistent icon showing battery level.

At $150, this doesn’t really break the bank and it is probably worth the cost. I didn’t pay that much for it. Best Buy is doing $30 off for people with an .edu email address or who have access to someone with an .edu address. I also strongly suggest the use of gift cards, credit card points, or guilt your relatives into giving you one. Pebble is definitely a great device with cool features now and a lot of great future potential. My next plans are to upgrade to the new 2.0 firmware and experiment with the 2.0 SDK to unlock some of the functionality Pebble has, but is not currently in much use.

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Where should I move?

January 13th, 2013 No comments

Alright, it is no secret I want to move out of Southside once my lease. I am coming up on 3 years in Southside and 4 years in Pittsburgh. My last 8 months in Southside have been filled with my car being scraped, my car broken into and the radio stolen, multiple domestic disputes on my block with the cops called, my parents and friends cars getting keyed, packages being delivered and subsequently stolen when USPS knows there is significant package theft occurring, and most recently mice. Don’t get me wrong, I have had a lot of fun Southside, have a lot of friends still living here and love the convenience of stores and proximity to Downtown. However, it is time for me to move on to another neighborhood. So at this point, I have narrowed it down to two places I believe I should move: Squirrel Hill and Shadyside.

This afternoon, I decided to walk around Squirrel Hill to get a feel for the neighborhood since I do not spend that much time there currently. Squirrel Hill is an interesting neighborhood with lots of independent stores and restaurants. It feels more laid back, more family oriented, more local, and very Jewish. The last one wasn’t really a requirement for me, but it’s hard to ignore when walking around and you see many Orthodox families walking home from Synagogue. I really liked walking around since there were so many options for food and even things to do other than drink. The main section of the neighborhood isn’t that big, but it is all on the hill itself, so walking will get tiring. The one thing about Squirrel Hill I still cannot get over is how much it reminds me of where my family lived in New York when I was a child. Murray Ave. reminds me of the main street in that neighborhood.

I have spent a little more time in Shadyside. This is also a cool neighborhood or should I say trendy. Shadyside is full of young professionals, grad students and families. There are many chain restaurants and stores. There are also a lot of really cool new restaurants and bars in Shadyside. Everything is relatively close so I probably would not need to drive much here either. The thing I like the most is Shadyside is so central. It is easier to get to many other neighborhoods from Shadyside because many streets lead directly to it.

In the end, I am really torn where to move. I am leaning more toward Squirrel Hill. However, I am working on a list of Pros and Cons because it is pretty much a split down the middle when people are telling me where to move. Feel free to tell me things to add to the lists. I need to start aggressively looking for a new apartment next month.

Squirrel Hill

Pros

Cons

Cheaper Rent Older places
More parking Fewer rental options
Lots of Chinese/Asian/Middle Eastern food options My diet will consist mostly of Chinese/Asian/Middle Eastern food
Easy to get Kosher Food Have you tried some Kosher food? Ehh.
Highway Access Further from work. Need to drive/bus
Fewer bars Fewer bars
Many bus routes Need to drive/cab to bars in Southside
Fewer Chain Restaurants I might spend too much on records
Close to Waterfront More family oriented
Bowling Alley
Movie Theater
Library
Jerry’s Records
Get Go

Shadyside

Pros

Cons

More rental options Higher rents
Trendy Less Parking
New construction Further from highway
Many bus routes Further from work. Need to drive/bus
More bars More chain restaurants
Closer to Bloomfield and Strip District Need to drive/cab to bars in Southside
Target, Market District, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s all in walking distance
Lots of new restaurants
Easier to get cabs to Southside
Marios East side
Mad Mex

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Attempting Blogging…Sorta

November 19th, 2012 No comments

Alright, so I said this almost two years ago. I’m going to say it again. I’m going to attempt to use this website more often. I pay for it. I have random/cool/geeky/boring things to say. I’m going to start saying them.

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My Israel Trip Journal

November 19th, 2012 No comments

I finally realized I still have not posted my journal I wrote for my trip to Israel. As background, I went on a Birthright trip to Israel this past June. Birthright is a program to bring young Jews to Israel to experience the country. This is sponsored by the State of Israel and other donors. I decided to keep a journal of the trip so I would better remember the experience, but so I could also share the experience with others who might not really understand the trip or just wanted to know more. I omitted most names of people on the trip in relation to the events. For some events, people will know who they are. Enjoy!

Day 1 – Flight

So my parents insisted we needed to leave the Poconos by 6:30 AM in ordered to get do Newark Airport in time. Google maps said about 1 hour and 56 minutes. I have a certain style of erratic driving I have always found effective; I got there in about 1 hour 40 minutes with rush hour traffic. During this drive, I discovered my dad needs to take better care of his SUV, but that is unrelated.  So I get to Newark super early. I hang out with others as they arrived. We all arrive by 9:30 AM to see there are at least 2 other Birthright trips on the flight and a group of people who are permanently moving to Israel. The terminal was crowded. We all get in line to check in when the terminal opens only to realize we are in the wrong line. We are now at the back of the correct line. We looked a lot like cattle being herded. Even though there was only one flight leaving at the time from that terminal, there was no room to spread out. Flights to Israel have extra security. We had to first get interviewed by Israeli officials. They basically want to understand 1) your reason for going to Israel and 2) if you are Jewish. When it was my turn, I got a slightly intimidating man with a thick Israeli accent. He grilled me for about 5-10 minutes about my luggage and how Jewish I am to confirm I’m good to go. He did not like how I packed my bags several days in advance of the trip. He did not seem to understand that even though I packed them days in advance, they were still with my family. Finally they decided I’m OK. Going to finally check in and get seating arrangements, we learn being in the back was good and bad. Good because a lot of us got seats right by the main exit of the plane. Bad because the rest were in the back. I got an aisle seat by the exit. I was set for the flight. After all of this, TSA was a breeze and took less than 5 minutes. Getting ready to board the plane, we all rushed to get food in what little time we had left. Once boarding started, almost everyone ran to get on the plane. I stuck behind a bit to watch bags for others not back from getting food. While waiting, this older man in a wheelchair comes into the terminal heavily guarded. I thought nothing of it.

I finally get on the plane. There has been some seat switching going on. I will be spending the flight next to three girls in our group who already know each other very well. This is probably a good time to mention this is a 12 hour flight. As the last people are getting on the plane, one guy sitting behind us goes “so did anyone else see the celebrity that got on the plane?” I say yes but could not place who it was. He replied “Hank Kissinger.” Henry Kissinger was the heavily guarded man I saw in the terminal. We all got a good laugh out of how some of the girls I was sitting with did not know who he was. Take off was about 25 minutes later, which isn’t much of a surprise leaving from Newark. During the flight, the screens at the front of the cabin showed distance, location and estimated arrival. Very helpful. In flight entertainment was fair. Each seat had its own TV, which were probably cutting edge about 10 years ago. The TV shows and movies available were mostly a couple years old. Those that were new were mostly crap (I’m singling out One for the Money with Katherine Heigl in particular. Please stop letting her act.). The first meal served was dinner at 3 PM EST. The idea is to try to adjust you to the new time zone on the plane. The meal was obviously kosher and most mass prepared kosher food is not a culinary masterpiece. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great. I had chicken and rice in some unidentifiable sauce. After dinner the lights were dimmed so we would try to sleep. I unfortunately barely slept the whole flight. I spent the flight reading, watching movies and walking around. I maybe slept a broken hour over the course of the whole flight. During one of the walking around points, I got to talk to one of the passengers making Aliyah. Well more like trapped between other groups of people standing in the aisles. Aliyah is when a person decides they want to permanently move to Israel. This guy was so excited in what he was doing by moving to Israel that he needed to share with people. He talked to a group of us for about 20 minutes about why he’s moving, his experience, what we should expect and so on. We mostly nodded and said ‘uh huh’. Although it is very interesting what he is doing, there is only so much one wants to hear about it from a stranger on a plane. I believe he expects everyone to want to feel the same as he does, and we did not, especially as a group of people who have never been to Israel before. The lights were brought up again at about 4:30 AM Jerusalem time for breakfast. I had finally fallen asleep and not happy about this. We landed at 7 AM Jerusalem time (Midnight EST). Boarder control at Ben Gurion airport was crazy. A second flight arrived at the same time. They only had 1 line open to start, eventually opening 3 more. In line, this older woman starts pushing her way right passed me. I edge forward too to make sure I did not lose my spot in the line. Apparently because I was American and spoke English, and she was older, and from somewhere in Eastern Europe, I did not deserve my spot in line. I learn later this was my first experience with the Israeli line (more on this later). They took a very long time with my passport since I had no the stamps in it. Finally, I am in Israel.

Day 1.1 – Tzfat

At this point, I have pretty much been awake for 18 hours and need to stay awake for the next 16 hours, except for a couple of cat naps on the tour bus if I fall asleep. I got some cash at the airport, changed my shirt and got ready for the day. We board the tour bus for a quick ride to orientation for the trip. Tel Aviv by the airport looks like South Florida. I felt like I was leaving Hollywood International Airport. Lots of palm trees and dry land. Now time to resolve a misconception about Israel. Even though Israel is in the middle of the desert, there is a lot of vegetation, especially in the North of the country. It was surprising to see so many flowers and trees and other plants. At orientation, everyone introduced themselves and we learned the trip rules. The orientation was at a community center in Tel Aviv. This did not look like a very good neighborhood. It reminded me of some of the low class, white trash neighborhoods I’ve seen in South Florida where the residents stop taking care of the property and there is a car or two on the lawn. After orientation was a 2 hour bus ride to the town of Tzfat. Tzfat is a historical town in Israel because it is where many Jews moved in the 16th century during the Inquisition. We did not do much in this town but it was cool to see. The town had very few modern structures. Most of the buildings were probably 400 years old and renovated or restored for modern usage. The interesting thing pointed out to us was the bullet holes in one of the buildings as a reminder that Israel does have times when it is not peaceful. The other interesting tidbit is that the public bathroom was not very well maintained. The females on the trip were very unhappy with the lack of toilet paper. This would be a constant problem throughout the trip. We are told to drink at least three liters of water a day because of the heat and all the walking we will be doing. Finding restrooms was difficult.

We broke for lunch then began our tour of the city. My lunch was Shawarma. Shawarma is like a gyro, except with beef and like twice the size. This is a common food item here along with hummus and falafel. It was OK, but I would later find out the place I went to today was awful. Our tour guide, David took us by surprise as a tour guide in Israel since he is originally from England. Learning about Israel from a man with a British accent was not expected. However, David was a great guide for our entire trip. He was incredibly knowledgeable. Becoming a tour guide in Israel is rather difficult since it requires almost 2 years of training.

Our first stop was a synagogue built by the first Jewish settlers in the town in the 16th century. There was a lot of fantastic woodwork, and also lot of blue paint. The reasons for the blue paint were the fact it is a holy color, but it is a color of royalty. We did not spend much time in the synagogue. We next went to hear a kabbalist talk to us about Kabbalism. This word may be recognized by some as celebrities such as Madonna have claimed to practice. Our speaker was a man by the name of Abraham. He originally went by Robert and is from Detroit. The only word to describe him is “awwwsommme”. Kabbalism is the idea of loving spiritually through Judaism. He was originally looking into Buddhism until discovering Kabbalism. This was a man who was seriously high on life (or potentially something else) and referred to everything as awesome. All I could think of the whole time was “Dave’s not here man” and Spicoli from Fast Times. Abraham is actually a rather famous artist in Israel and his art is sought out in Israel.

The last stop on the day was at a cemetery in the Golan Heights. Our guide wanted to show us the graves of some famous people in Israeli history. The cemetery was beautiful. This is something I noticed as a trend among the places we visited. They were all well architected and landscaped.

Finally we arrived at where we were staying for the night. We stayed in a kibbutz in the Golan Heights. A kibbutz is a small community where everyone works together but also is many of the stores and conveniences of a community located on sight. This one also doubles as a hotel. That night after some dinner and icebreaker games, we hit the community clubhouse and bar. They pretty much only open the bar at the kibbutz when Americans are staying. It was nice to get out there with everyone, get to know everyone and of course, have a drink. Unfortunately, a beer was 15 shekels which is like $4 American. I also found out I was over tipping. 10% tips are still standard in Israel. Oops. You don’t want to reaffirm stereotypes, but sometimes it’s accidental.

Day 2 – Golan Heights

The Golan Heights are in the far northeastern corner of Israel. This section used to be part of Syria until the Seven Day War in 1967. Israel basically took control of the region after the war when Syria said they were done with it. Golan Heights were filled with plant life. Israel is very surprising in the sense that a large portion of the country is not desert. Only the southern region is really just desert.

We started the day with a “light hike”. Another item we learned is that a light hike is never a light hike. We hiked through Gilabun nature reserve which is the former Syrian army base in the Golan Heights. There were many bombed out buildings still standing from the war. It is rather amazing to see land go practically untouched since that time. The hike behind the base was grueling but beautiful. So much plant life and streams. It was unfortunate to see many people go to this area to have parties and then not clean up. There were piles of beer bottles located along the trail. Toward the end of the trail there was a small pond where a waterfall emptied. I did not have a swimsuit on but gave into the peer pressure of if everyone else is going to jump in then so will I. It was so refreshing to get into that water after walking for about an hour.  I had also never realized how difficult it is to swim toward a waterfall. There is so much current coming off the waterfall pushing you away. However, standing under or behind a waterfall is well worth it. It is such a cool feeling to have the water falling over you, and it is awesome visually to stare out through the waterfall at everyone else. The bad part of this whole thing was getting out and being soaked. The good thing about Israel is there so much sun you dry off rather fast.

Next stop was to see an old Israeli war bunker from the Seven Day War. This Bunker was at the top of a mountain and looked over the whole valley around it. The reason the Golan Heights were so contentious is because the mountains posed a defensive weakness for Israel in control by Syria, but also because of the large supply of fresh water in the kenesit, which is Israel’s largest body of fresh water. The valleys below are green and filled with vegetation. The mountain tops in the distance were still covered in snow. The inside of the bunker was incredibly basic, just a couple rooms, some cots and holes to lookout and to fire weapons.

After the hike, we headed to a shopping center for lunch. I ate at a place called Cafe Roma. It is like a Starbucks but with better coffee and food. The food was very good. I had a basic tuna sandwich this time as I was already sick of Israeli food after a day and a half. Now to get a little vulgar. Middle Eastern food is not easy to transition. It will make you a little sick if you are not used to it. The best part about stopping for lunch is the ability to get time to use the restroom. Birthright trips are so tightly packed, you barely have time to take a piss, let alone take a shit. Well this was one of those perfect opportunities. You might think, “no, that’s just you”. Believe it or not, just about everyone on my trip was sick at one point or another and running to the restroom. The food is probably only a small part of it. Not being used to the water, the intense heat and sun, or some kind of bug. I can say that others the trip have much worse stories about being sick on the trip.

After lunch we went white water rafting down what was supposed to be the Jordan River. It felt more like a lazy river. There were not really any rapids and the river was never wider than about 100 feet if that much. It did not help that there were so many other groups rafting at the same time. In front of us on the river was a group of Israeli soldiers who wanted to have raft wars instead of rafting. Avoiding people who purposely jump out of rafts or completely flip rafts. After getting passed them, we actually got down the river rather fast.

Exhausted, we were finally heading back to the kibbutz for the night. We asked our trip leader how long of a trip we had back. His answer was about 30 minutes. An hour later we are still on the bus. We asked our trip leader again what is going on and he said it’s a small country so everything is only like 30 minutes. He is wrong. Israel is the size of New Jersey. For those of you who do not know, it takes about 90 minutes to go East to West and about 3 to 4 hours to go North to South in New Jersey. This started one of our first jokes of the trip that every drive in Israel was only 30 minutes.

We arrived extremely late for dinner then had a program on Israeli cinema. It was interesting to see that most Israeli cinema looks like Indie films in America. Israeli films usually also deal with very serious or realistic subjects. If people in Israel want an escape from reality, then they go see the big Hollywood films.

A bunch of us decided to finish off the evening in the kibbutz bar. Little did we know the drinks at this bar would be the cheapest drinks we have all trip. We had a food time there talking, shooting pool and relaxing before the next day of driving.

Day 3

We started the day with an hour drive to the town of Shorashim. In this town we went to a school to learn a little more about the history of Israel and to meet with some Israeli Arab high school students to learn about what it is like for them living in Israel as a minority. It was a very interesting conversation with the students. Each was 15-17 years old. They all had a lot of ambition for the future, wanting to be doctors, engineers, pilots, etc. It was interesting though the boys were more ambitious and more outgoing than girls. It probably has to do with the fact it was not until recently in the culture that women were allowed to have ambitions. You could tell their culture has a very heavy American influence now as they told us their favorite movie stars were Angelina Jolie and Hannah Montana, and their favorite musician was Eminem. However, there was still a lot that was very interesting in their answers too. They were dressed like a teenager would dress in the US. We asked if any of them wanted to join the Israeli Defense Force since it is only mandatory for Israeli Jews and not Israeli Arabs. Most of them said they would not as you had to be crazy to volunteer for the IDF. Only the guy whose dad was in the IDF said he wanted to join. Another kid said he wanted to become an engineer because as an Israeli Arab he was not allowed to become a pilot. Another boy said he did not want to visit the US because he feared 9/11 related discrimination. This was something of a shock to use since it was 10 years ago, but I can understand the fear. The funniest question was one girl ask the one black man on our trip (yes there a black Jews) if he knew Usher. I’m not sure if it was meant to be a joke, but we all got a good laugh from it. The time spent with these kids was enlightening especially to see their views on things. Israel is a country like the US where on paper, everyone is supposed to be equal, but it might not always been the case. Israeli Arabs are supposed to have the same rights and education but differences are possible and noticeable.

Next we took another “short” ride to Karmiel. We visited this city because since it was a Pittsburgh focused trip and Karmiel is the Jewish sister city of Pittsburgh, and the Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh Mega Mission trip was visiting there too. The Mega Mission trip comprised of almost 300 members of the Pittsburgh Jewish community. I had shawarma again for lunch. I don’t say this often, but the size of an average shawarma wrap is too much for me to finish. I also got some incredible rugala for dessert.

After lunch we headed to a park up the block. This park was built with donations from the Pittsburgh Jewish community. We started in this park by discussing our feelings so far about the trip. One of the first comments was not enough bathroom breaks. After discussing our feelings, the Mega Mission group arrived for the park dedication. It was really cool to see so many members of the Pittsburgh Jewish community in Israel at one time. Playgrounds in Israel are really cool too. They do not just have standard playground equipment. Playgrounds also have workout machines. They are very basic and cannot change weight, but they encourage physical fitness very well. The United States should take a lesson from this and have the same type of equipment in playgrounds. While we were there we were given the opportunity to add to the community garden. They were lining a stone pathway with cement footprints we got to decorate ourselves. It was really awesome to get to decorate one of these footprints and leave it in Israel, knowing I have now left my mark on the opposite side of the globe semi permanently.

Next was a nice short two hour bus ride to Jerusalem. We arrived in Jerusalem at nightfall. We were staying at the Jerusalem Gold Hotel along with what seems to be like every other Birthright trip currently in Israel. This is a hotel that once was probably a very fancy place to stay. Now only the lobby and dining room were fancy, everything else was a disaster. The room was incredibly small. We were staying three to a room, in rooms meant for two. The third bed was a fold out recliner. We were also encouraged to lock expensive belongings in a safe, except the safe was broken in the room. This did not matter too much at the moment as we needed to get ready for our night out in Jerusalem. We were taken to Ben Yehudah Street in Jerusalem. This is an area with lots of shops, restaurants and bars. This is also a big tourist location. There were lots of Judaica shops that had an incredible markup with signs in the windows for Birthright 50% off to make it seem like we are getting a deal. One of my biggest regrets for the trip was not buying stuff here. The items were the basic Judaica I was looking for on this trip. Instead, I assumed I would find it someplace else. Next we headed to the bars with drinks already in hand. There is no open container law before 11 PM so we were able to walk down the street drinking our beers. We went to a bar and club that was clearly for the American tourists. Drinks were about equal to $5.50 American for a beer and $10 American for a mixed drink. The bar was a lot of fun hanging out with others on the trip. It was interesting to see how the Israeli men just target the young American women. There were no Israeli women in the bar.

Day 4 – Jerusalem

We started with breakfast. The hotel put out an amazing spread of food. This was probably the only redeeming quality of the hotel. Of course, since my stomach still could not take the food, I ended up running to the bathroom immediately after. Then I was 10 minutes late for the bus, holding everything up. First stop upon leaving the hotel was to pick up 8 Israelis who were joining us for the next 4 days. Three of the Israelis were still in the IDF and the others had finished their time in the IDF and were in university or already working. We went next to old city of Jerusalem. The old city is surprisingly still a functioning part of the city with stores and people living in apartments. Much of the architecture was restored to how it looked 2000 years ago. While walking through the old city, I was talking to one of the Israelis who joined our trip. We discussed differences in culture, climate, profession and more. I found life for them after serving in the IDF is very similar to Americans.

After walking through the old city, we were let loose for a couple hours to eat and shop. I ended up starting in the marketplace looking for gifts. This was extremely overpriced to jewelry. However, haggling is not just encouraged but the rule in Jerusalem. I found a piece of jewelry my parents asked for in this marketplace and haggle the price down more than half what was being asked. I still feel as though it was slightly expensive. Oh well. The problem with the marketplace is once one merchant sees you make a purchase, they all come after you. I got out of there quick and found lunch. I figured I would get something my stomach was a little more used to eating, pizza. Bad choice. I felt sick again instantly, but was going to need to wait to take care of that until we were back at the hotel hours from then.

Next stop was the Western Wall. This was probably one of the most meaningful and interesting experiences of the trip. Arriving at the wall, it was first not as large I has imagined. Not to say it isn’t still an impressively large structure. Walking in, you’ll first notice the area is split into three sections. There is a main section where everyone can gather. The next section on the right side of wall is for women to view and pray at the wall. The left side of the wall is for men only. In Orthodox Judaism, men and women are not allowed to pray together. This is why the sections are split. I made sure to write down a note with a prayer to place in the wall. I walked down to the wall. It is seriously a powerful experience being in front of the wall.  Walked up to the wall and placed my hands on it. Then found a crack for my note. I stood around a while after to see others at the wall. There are many where you can see it definitely brings them closer to faith as I noticed for some in our group. For others, they spend their days at the wall, praying constantly. One of the other things that I noticed was the Chabad was at the wall looking for those who are clearly not religious to teach them how to put on tefillin. Tefillin are boxes with a pray I side that a person should wear while praying. One goes on the forehead and the other on the left hand. The idea is it is supposed to bring the prayers closer to your mind and heart. It is considered a mitzvah to teach someone to put on tefillin. I personally did not feel comfortable doing heart as I am not religious. I think I’ve put them once in my whole life. Honestly, the Western Wall is probably one of those places everyone should see at some point in their life.

We headed back to the hotel for a little refresher the headed back to the Western Wall for a Kabbalat Sabbath. This is basically a Shabbat service before Sabbath begins. We did the service with the Mega Mission. After the service, we went back into the Western Wall to see how the area transforms for the Sabbath. Basically once the whole wall is cast in a shadow, Sabbath begins. The area around the Western Wall becomes incredibly crowded. There are Orthodox Jews who come to the Western Wall every week for the Sabbath to pray. It was obvious there were men who have their spot every week. Another thing you see is a lot of IDF soldiers at the wall for protection. As we were trying to leave, someone had the idea to have a group hug. This was a bad and potentially dangerous idea. Men and women are not allowed to dance, let alone congregate together at the wall during the Sabbath. We were approached twice and told they would call the police to take us out. Finally they understood it was a mistake and we were leaving, but it was still rather eye opening. The religious culture and laws of Israel are not something to mess with.

Leaving the Western Wall, Jerusalem is like a ghost town. The city looks like the cities in post apocalyptic movies, except without all the stores ravaged from looting. Jerusalem essentially shuts down. All stores close. Almost no one is on the streets. No one is driving around. Cars are parked everywhere on the streets and sidewalks wherever there is space, and even where there is not. Since Jerusalem is still a very religious city, everyone shuts down, goes to Shabbat services and then spends the rest with family.

We returned to the hotel, ate dinner and then did more icebreaker activities. After the activities, we were free for the night. We expected to just hang out, but found out the hotel bar was open. This was a little of a surprise, except the hotel was actually an Israeli Arab owned hotel, so the Sabbath was not exactly a concern. The hotel was not ready for this. The hotel bar is not used to a bunch of young Americans rushing the bar asking for multiple drinks. The bar also did not take cash, so each transaction needed to then be paid for at the front desk. They had a line of young Americans running around the corner into the lobby. Soon the bar manager abruptly shut down for 10 minutes in order to recover. We were all pissed. They don’t seem to understand switching out to take breaks. They reopened and just made it worse for themselves. We were buying beers by the armful just to not have to deal with them. Those of us more cocky Americans, such as me tried to explain how to move faster and serve more customers, but were not very receptive. I tried to show them how to properly open a beer bottle and got yelled at by the bar manager. Furthermore, they did not like us playing drinking games in the middle of the lobby. However, we had a great time hanging out in the lobby drinking and getting to know each other. The best part to me was watching the American girls hitting on the Israeli guys and the guys not being so receptive. Israeli guys are the ones who like to be aggressive.

Day 5 – Still in Jerusalem

Today was the first day of the trip that we were really able to sleep in. I took some advantage of this since I was in the hotel bar until after 2 AM. We could sleep in since there really was nowhere to go in Jerusalem on the Sabbath with everything being closed. While getting ready to go to breakfast, I was talking to the Israeli I was rooming with about differences in higher education in Israel versus the United States. In Israel, most people do not have the opportunity to go to university until after they finish their time in the IDF. Their tuition is also significantly less expensive than tuition in the states because the government values education and supplements the cost.

After breakfast we walked through Jerusalem to the Rose Garden. Jerusalem looks like a scene out of The Walking Dead the morning of the Sabbath. Almost no one is on the streets. Cars are parked all over the place on grass and sidewalks, and covered in a coating of dust. Our group was the only people we saw other than the occasional car actually on the streets.

Places like this just add to the beauty of Israel with plenty of flowers and trees all well architected and organized. The rose garden also overlooks the government building of Israel. We took this time to discuss Israeli government and elections. Although it is a democracy, elections only occur when needed because the government has collapsed due to in fighting and lack of good faith by the people. Right now, the current government has been in session for three years, which is considered to be a long time. The other interesting piece is for the congressional seats, you do not vote for candidates but for a party. Pretty much anyone can create a party and run. If a party gets a high enough percentage of votes, the party gets a seat and assigns someone to the seat. More seats are awarded based on percentage of the vote.

After our discussion on Israeli government, we broke into groups again to share our feelings on the trip so far. We had to pick Disney characters and say how that character related to our feelings. I took a cop out of the seven dwarfs so I didn’t have to do any generalization or feelings.

After lunch, we did an activity with the president of the tour company running our Birthright trip. The president, Joe, was originally from Philadelphia and made Aliyah to Israel at 18 to join the IDF. He has been in Israel since. Between his age and personality, he reminded me a little of my father. He also kept referring to God as ‘she’ or ‘her’, which I think some people did not know how to react. The activity was to give us a brief history or Israel and its borders. It was a good activity. I also think it is really cool that as the president of the company he takes the time to meet with each of the groups.

Next was nap time. The only dedicated nap time we get on the trip. We returned to our room to find out we did not have towels. Cleaning took all the towels and didn’t replace them. When we asked for more they told us the hotel was out of towels and we had to wait until after the Sabbath for towels. Over the next 24 hours, I asked the fro t desk for towels 4 times and got a different reason why I couldn’t have towels. It was not until the next morning was I given a real answer that the laundry staff was not even there until the morning. Talking to our tour guide and others on the trip, everyone had some kind of problem with the hotel. One room didn’t have a working shower. Another room with a broken toilet. Our air conditioning kept leaking.

For dinner we went back to Ben Yehudah Street. A group of us picked a place called Cafe Hillel. The food was a little more American influenced here. I got fish and chips which were nothing special, but it was served with a spicy Japanese aioli which was fantastic. Other people got pastas, pizza and some other stuff. The best looking meal to me was the fish kabob wrap that some people got. It was huge and looked rather good.

Day 6 – Last Day in Jerusalem

My morning started off early. I have become accustomed to waking up with the sun on this trip. After a while of reading, I finally went down to the front desk to ask for towels. Once again told to come back. After returning, I finally get the real answer of they just started laundry and didn’t understand why I was told there would be towels.  I gave up and used a shirt to dry off after my shower. At least this was our last night there.

Breakfast conversation was basically complaining about the hotel. They did not want to set the table for us or serve us coffee, but got mad at us for serving ourselves. We then sat and discussed all the issues we had in the hotel over the last three days. Our tour guide, David, had stayed in the hotel a total of 7 days over the course of the summer. He said he did not want to stay there again. I don’t blame him. It’s not that the hotel itself was awful. It was just the customer service.

Our first stop of the day was Yad Vashem; Israel’s official memorial and education center for the Holocaust. We started the tour of the memorial viewing a documentary of a Holocaust survivor’s return to his hometown in Greece 60 years after the end of the war. It was a very sad story, as most are most Holocaust stories. He lost his whole family. Yad Vashem’s approach to teaching about the Holocaust is very different in comparison to the Holocaust museum in Washington D.C. In D.C. the museum is structured to teach about the Holocaust as a whole, and potentially in the most depressing way possible. The museum in D.C., you start out walking through a recreation of what it was like to be processed at a concentration camp. Yad Vashem’s approach is to teach about the individual experiences and memories of the Holocaust. Yad Vashem starts the tour of the museum at the end of the War, then moves to the beginning and works back to the end. Walking through the museum, the story of the Holocaust is told mostly through articles recovered from the war, or donated by survivors. Yad Vashem is setup in a way that you remember the Holocaust was not just events in a war, but affected millions of people. They have items donated so they can tell a specific story about a Holocaust victim or survivor. One of the items was a desk specially built with a large hiding place so the person who built it could hide when the family he lived with was searched. Another item was a very beautiful necklace with a large emerald. This was donated by a survivor of the Holocaust who ended up dying a poor man because he kept the necklace to remember his wife who lost her life. It was donated anonymously. There were many other items like this in the memorial to tell individual stories, and not the events overall. We were fortunate enough to have a guided tour though the museum. We had a great tour guide, but I felt she gave a brief overview in each section, and did not address many of the exhibits or items that were there. I spent much of the tour walking around and reading about all the additional items. It was amazing that for many of the items displayed, they knew who owned each item, and the story of that person.

At the end of the memorial museum, there are two additional memorials. First was the Hall of Names, a room with photos and testimonies of Jews who lost their lives in the Holocaust. In the middle, carved into the mountain rock the building was constructed is a reflecting pool to reflect these images. Surrounding the hall is the collection of Pages of Testimony. The Pages of Testimony are short biographies of holocaust victims. This is an ever growing collection. So far there are two million stories with room for six million. The second children’s memorial. The children’s memorial is in a hollowed out cavern to pay tribute to the estimated 1.5 million children who died in the Holocaust. The room is completely dark except for the light of 5 candles, reflecting off of mirrors around the room. Inside, a recording of names of children who died are read aloud.

Yad Vashem is by far a much more eye opening experience than the Holocaust museum in Washington D.C. Yad Vashem really humanizes what happened during the Holocaust. It connects the Holocaust to the experience of the individual. The museum in Washington D.C. is really about the events as a whole. I feel as though the museum in D.C. attempts to trigger much more depressing emotions while Yad Vashem is trying to convey emotions of endurance or no emotion at all, but rather actually educate.

Following Yad Vashem we visited Mount Herzl. Mount Herzl is Israel’s military cemetery. Many important people from Israel’s modern history are buried here. The main tomb is Theodore Herzl’s. Theodore Herzl is the founder of the Zionist movement. Zionism is the belief in the nationalization of Jews to create a Jewish state in the Land of Israel.  The movement started in the late 1800s. He was considered an important player in Israel’s history because he pushed so hard to create a Jewish state. He died in 1905 long before Israel became a state. Mount Herzl is also the final resting place for Prime Ministers Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin. Mount Herzl also has memorials for citizens who have lost their lives in terrorist attacks and a World War II soldier memorial. Lastly, Mount Herzl is the cemetery for Israeli soldiers. The burial plots are very different in comparison to Arlington National Cemetery. While Arlington is a very nice cemetery, everything is very uniform. Mount Herzl has a much more personal feel to it. The graves are truly set up as a memorial to each individual there laid to rest. Each grave is adorned with plants and flowers which can be watered by the family or by the groundskeepers. There are also many personal affects left at the graves. I really felt that this helped make a connection to the people buried there.

It was now time for us to leave Jerusalem. We had a 2 hour drive ahead of us to the Negev desert. I actually got some sleep on this drive. We arrived at the hotel about 8 PM.  This was a surprisingly nice hotel. Much better than where we were staying in Jerusalem. This place also had a pool and spa. Unfortunately we got there so late there was no way we were going to have time to use it. We were actually only staying in this hotel for like 8 hours total as we were checking out at 5 AM. Before checking in for the night we did some activities with our Israeli friends. They wanted us to act out situations in Israeli culture. The first was to cut a line in Israel. In Israel, lines are sort of a joke. A line may form, but people will come up with any excuse possible to cut the line, especially if you are a foreigner. If you are not paying attention, you will get cut in line. This one was not too bad. The more interesting activity was to pick up and Israeli woman/reject an Israeli arse. This was one of the more entertaining ones as one of the guys literally picked up the girl in the group and walked out the door.

Day 7 – Masada and the Dead Sea

I woke up bright and early at 3:45 AM to get ready. We were hiking Masada today. Masada was the site of the palace of Herod the Great at the top of the mountain. In the First Century AD, the Romans laid siege on the palace at the top of the mountain. The Romans first built a ramp up the mountain, moving thousands of tons of stones and earth to reach the top. Today, Masada is a site of the ruins of the palace with some of it reconstructed. We left the hotel at 4:30 AM to be at the base at 5 AM. There are two ways to hike up the mountain. The fast way is the Roman ramp which takes about 20-30 minutes. It is a steep incline. The slow way is the Snake trail which wraps down the other side of the mountain and takes over an hour. We went up the ramp. Surprisingly, I was not too winded by the time we got to the top of the mountain. I think the week of walking everywhere was starting to pay off. The views from the top of the mountain were amazing. We got to the top just before sunrise. Watching the sun come up from behind the mountains and reflecting off the valley and Dead Sea below was so beautiful.  We then walked around the ruins, learning about how the palace was fortified and some of the interesting and ahead of its time design. One of the most interesting features was the bath house. There was a room for a cold water plunge and then another room that was a thermal bath. The thermal bath, the floors were raised and there were pipes in the walls to carry the heat from a furnace creating a sauna. We hiked down the Snake to the bottom of the mountain for breakfast. It was incredibly exhausting just going down this trail in the heat. At this point I’ve probably had almost 2 liters of water and its only 9 AM. As we are going down the mountain, we are seeing families with young children making their way up the mountain on the Snake trail. I thought they were crazy as I was sweating to death and panting walking down the mountain. At the bottom of the mountain, breakfast was there waiting for us.

After breakfast, we took a short ride over to Ein Bokek, a fresh water spring located in the middle of the desert. We had to take a short hike over to the spring. When we got there, another birthright group was already at the spring. The spring was a very small pool where a waterfall empties. The pool was packed with the people from the other group. I think this was one of the biggest problems with the trip. Every birthright group had very similar schedules on some of the days. We would all end up at the same place at the same time. This was not one of those places where having multiple groups there at the same time is a good idea. My goal was to get in the water and relax. I was exhausted and overheated from the hike on Masada. I got in the pool and propped myself up against the rocks. The water was nice and cool and it was just what I needed at the time. It was also weird because something kept hitting me in the leg. I realized it was a small frog that kept swimming into me.

Next we headed over to the Dead Sea. On the way to the Dead Sea, we stopped at the Ahava factory. Ahava makes all those Dead Sea minerals lotions and beauty products. We stopped there so we could get free admission to one of the Dead Sea beaches. This is such a tourist trap. Another place where they expect Birthright groups and give a discount. However, you will probably spend more there than it would have cost to pay the admission to the beach. The best part about this little stop was we were told to watch the advertising video. The advertising video is 5 minutes of a beautiful woman in a white swimsuit on the beach explained to us to be like soft core porn. The video was much overhyped.

The Dead Sea is probably one of the cooler experiences on the trip. The Dead Sea is the lowest point on earth. The salt content is so high that nothing can live in the Dead Sea. Also, anyone can float in the Dead Sea because the salt content is so high it creates natural buoyancy.  Because of this high salt content, we were all told a few things days beforehand and the day of. First we were told to not shave for several days leading up to going into the Dead Sea. Second we were told if we had any cuts, they would burn. Third, we were told not to fart or urinate in the Dead Sea because the Dead Sea creates a vacuum and what comes out must be replaced, and it would burn. Last we were told a nice story about why you do not have sex in the Dead Sea. You would think this out go without explanation, but apparently has happened on previous trips. It was a painful sounding story. With all this in mind, I had not shaved for days and I had a nice scratch on my leg. Walking into the Dead Sea, you can already feel the water is different. There are signs everywhere for no slashing because of the salt. I started to lean forward a bit walking in and immediately started to lose my balance and float and my stomach. Then the difficult part is getting on your back or standing again. The water is so buoyant it is difficult to really get yourself straightened out. The scratch on my leg was starting to burn. Not shaving for several days did not matter either. My face still burned. I got some of the salt water in my mouth and it tastes horrible. Some water went up my nose and my sinuses burned (plus side, it works better than any nasal spray I’ve ever used before). After about 20 or so minutes, we were all getting out to cover ourselves in Dead Sea mud. The mud is so mineral rich it helps make your skin really soft. It felt great to put on. It really cools you down too. It is harder than it looks to wash the mud off too. It took me like 5 minutes to get most of it off and even still, I missed spots where I was finding mud afterward.

We finished the day by heading over to our accommodations for the night, a Bedouin Tent. Bedouins are nomads that live in the Negev desert. However, our Bedouins have given up the nomad life for a life of service and show. The redeeming factor of this place was cold water. Yes, cold water. They had a refrigerated tap for cold drinking water. It is amazing how refreshing cold water is when all you have been drinking is lukewarm tap water for days. The other amazing thing is cold water. Yes, cold water. It was the first time the entire trip where the temperatures were 90+ degrees everyday that I could take a cold refreshing shower. Forget hot water. Everything else was pretty much downhill at the tent. Before dinner, we got to listen to one of the elders of the Bedouin community talk about the days of old. It was really interesting to listen about their culture, but it is evident how it has changed due to modern influence. Unfortunately, by the end of his talk, it is very apparent how his talk is completely for show and scripted. He finishes off the talk by playing a flute like instrument, and the finale is telling us as a special treat he is going to pretend to make coffee the old fashioned way and sing the song that alerts everyone he is making coffee. Once he said special treat, we all knew he did this for everyone. There were a couple of items about their culture I found pretty cool. The first was that they do not have doors to their tents in order to be more welcoming. The second was they greet guests with a small cup of coffee only filled half way. If the guest looks around suspicious as being given the cup, they fill it up the whole way and ask the guest to leave when it is finished. After this little lesson in Bedouin life, we had dinner. We had to sit on the floor and dinner was served on trays. We ate dinner with our hands. Dinner was very good. Dinner was also a mistake. A large number of people in our group were sick again after eating this meal. After dinner we went out into the desert, in the dark of night, to sit around and reflect on our trip. None of us had flashlights. We were walking through a rocky desert, through a field covered in camel shit, up a hill so we would be far enough from lights to reflect. For some of the people in our group, this reflection did them a lot of good. For me, I do not reflect well in silence. My mind was running about how much I still really needed to shave and how much I have forgotten my high school education of constellations. Returning to the tent, I was exhausted and ready to pass out. We were sleeping on foam mats and sleeping bags. Since it was still 80 degrees outside, I balled up my sleeping bag as a pillow and passed out. I was asleep far before just about everyone there. It might have been the best night’s sleep I had on the trip, which is rather amazing since it was the only night I didn’t sleep in a bed or bed like structure.

Day 8 – Camels and the Road to Tel Aviv

I woke up bright and early at 5:30 AM. I grabbed a shower and got ready long before everyone else was awake. I found the one live electrical outlet and charged my phone for as long as I could while hanging out and reading. Everyone started waking up about 6:30 so we can ride camels. This was the most anticlimactic part of this trip. The camels are all lined up and ready to go. We get on the camels and they lead us around a small section of desert. Camels do not like walking in a line. If they were not tied together, I am pretty sure my camel would have ran off as it did not like being in the middle. Now, don’t get me wrong. I will always be able to say “Yes, I have ridden a camel in the desert”.

We left the Bedouin tent and headed for Tel Aviv. On the way there, we stopped at the tomb and memorial of first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. It was a beautiful park out in the Negev. It was out there because after he finished serving as a prime minister, he moved to a kibbutz in the area. The park was filled with Ibex, which was a local type of deer.

We arrived in Tel Aviv around lunch time. We ate at a local marketplace where there was a flea market and craft fair. The craft fair had so much local artisan goods. It was the type of place that would have been great to spend the entire day buying all my gifts and souvenirs. Unfortunately, we were only given 2 hours to shop and have lunch in this area. I found many nice items. It was too bad I could not buy everything I wanted, nor did I have any idea how I would get half of it back to the states. This market place also had tons of spices, fabrics and other wholesale goods. I would have been nice to have time to find spices to bring back with me. The other interesting thing I learned very quickly in this neighborhood was in Tel Aviv, it is a lot easier to find non-kosher food. We went to a burger joint for lunch, and noticed there were cheese choices for the burgers.

After lunch, we started making our way across Tel Aviv.  We went a few blocks and stopped in an alley. One thing about Tel Aviv compared to the other places in Israel we visited, it is more humid. Our guide pulls out a bottle of talcum powder and pulls all the guys over. The women in our group are laughing. He explains there is a good reason to have the talcum and tells all the guys who are interested to stick out their hands. He then tells us that we have to be like Oliver and say “please sir, may I have some more” if at any point we need more talcum. All the guys in the group then proceeded to take a handful of talcum and shove our hands in our pants. A couple of the women did appear to be a little jealous they did not get talcum too. The women were more than happy to hand us antibacterial after we were done.

Our next stop was in a park in Tel Aviv. We sat in the grass in the park and proceeded to make a web.  Our guide pulled out a large bundle of yarn. We tossed the yarn and had to share a memory, feeling or a lesson from our experience in Israel or with our Israeli friends on our trip. We learned none of us are very good at throwing yarn. There were a lot of items shared. We were also very glad this was our last touchy feely session of the trip. This one also took way too long. We spent almost 2 hours sharing. We then headed to Rabin Square and Yitzhak Rabin memorial. Rabin Square was where Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by another Israeli. His views were slightly controversial because he was making agreements with Arab nations to work toward peace. The square was named for him after. A memorial was built around the corner as well.

We finally were on our way to the beaches of Tel Aviv. However, since we had spent so much time making our way to the beach, we only got about an hour there. The beach in Tel Aviv was so gorgeous.  The sand was white and the water was blue. Tel Aviv is on the Mediterranean. The changing rooms were way too far down the beach, so a bunch of us just wrapped towels around ourselves to change. We then ran down to the water. It felt so good to get in there and cool down. After a while, a few of us walked down along the beach a bit. The women of Tel Aviv are very attractive. There were some clouds rolling in though while we were at the beach, so it was a little difficult to get a tan.

After the beach, we had an hour bus ride to the kibbutz we were staying at for the next two nights. This kibbutz seemed to be far more religious than the kibbutz we stayed at the beginning of the trip. We arrived late and they were very angry they had to hold dinner for us. Our room for the night was incredibly hot when we got in there. The heat was turned on. We had to turn the AC all the way down. The room was very nice considering.

Tonight we were heading back into Tel Aviv to go out to the bars. Unfortunately, since we were an hour away, we were only going to get 2 hours out at the bars. Tel Aviv is a lot of fun.  Live music and house music are really popular in the bars. The disappointing part was even on a Tuesday, it was hard to get into some of the bars. Most of the bars were rather small and with all of us trying to pack into some of them, there was no room to move and it was difficult to get drinks. The first bar we went to was a dance club, but later in the night.  We walked in and some of us got drinks, to realize everyone else walked off. We found them down the block in a much trendier bar with house music. After an hour and some drinks, we moved on to look for this bar that was suggested to us by someone that lives in Tel Aviv. We arrive at this bar to find out it is usually an “alternative lifestyle club” on weekends. Inside there was a live band playing Mediterranean music. The room is packed. It was live belly dancing night. The bar was really cool. There was a deck bar outside with more of a tropical feeling. Back inside, the belly dancing has started. I think I would have been more impressed if the women were stunning and gorgeous. The cool part was how they invited everyone to join in. Most of the bar was up on the floor attempting to belly dance. It certainly was a sight. Not necessarily a good sight, but a sight none the less. We could not stay long because of our long drive back to the kibbutz. I got on the bus ready to pass out. I looked around, saw one other person asleep and passed out for the ride. I understand I missed a rather exciting bus ride and dance party. Oh well. Sleep was worth it.

 

Day 9 – Jaffa

We got on the bus for our ride back toward Tel Aviv for our last day of activities in Jaffa port. Jaffa is just outside the city of Tel Aviv. The port has a rich Jewish, Babylonian, Persian, Roman, Christian and Muslim history. We spend much of the morning seeing the old buildings of the port as well as learning about the rich mythology. First we headed down to the shore to see the view of Tel Aviv. We also acted out the story of the Andromeda rocks just off the coast. The story from Greek mythology is about how the beautiful Andromeda was chained to a rock off the coast as a sacrifice for a sea monster. However, she is saved by Perseus, one of the first true heroes of Greek mythology. He had just returned from slaying Medusa, and used the head of medusa to turn the sea monster to stone. The acting in our group was rather good, especially with our group leader David as the lovely Andromeda.

We then toured some more of old Jaffa. We stopped at the Wishing Bridge. This bridge has each of the astrological signs every few feet. The idea is to find your sign and make a wish while touching it. We then had our second acting adventure of the day. We acted out the story of how doors for the new temple in Jerusalem carved by a Greek carpenter arrived in Jaffa. These doors were large and made of heavy wood. When it came time to ship them to Israel, he had to hire a ship and crew. On the way to Israel, the ship encountered a storm and a sea monster. Afraid of sinking and being eaten, the crew opts to throw the doors overboard. The first one goes over and the carpenter is in a panic. As they are getting ready to throw over the second door, the ship regains, the seas settle and the monster is gone. They arrive at Jaffa, but with only one door. Soon enough, the second door, assumed lost, floats ashore. Both doors are then taken from Jaffa to Jerusalem for the temple. It was great having a professional actor in our group. He really made the character and the story come to life.

At lunch, we were given time to walk through a local flea market to look for souvenirs and treasures. Instead of looking for treasures, some of use headed back to a little café we saw along the way. This café had a good fusion of European and Mediterranean flavors. Another great thing was the restaurant was not kosher. I had what was one of the best meals of the trip at this little café. I got fried calamari on fresh greens and kabob meat stuffed with goat cheese. One of the things I would love to do if and when I go back to Israel is just do a tour of food. Although we ate well the entire trip, I believe we could have eaten well and tasted many more flavors if we had tried harder to find them.

After lunch, we headed back into Tel Aviv to see Independence Hall. The hall was where Israel’s declaration of independence was signed. This building was first owned by the first mayor of Tel Aviv. Tel Aviv was one of the first cities to be completely planned from the ground up with running water and electric.  Inside Independence Hall, the main room is restored to look like it did the day the declaration was signed. The funny thing about the room and the day the declaration was signed, it was supposed to be a small gathering of Tel Aviv’s most important people. Instead, word got out and the room was packed with people gathered in the streets in front of the building.

Following Independence Hall, we walked though Neve Tzedek, the first Jewish neighborhood of Tel Aviv. This neighborhood was interesting, but it would have been nice to have had time to walk around and look in some of the shops. A lot of us still needed gifts and souvenirs and saw great things in windows. We finished the walk at Hatachana train station complex. This was a train yard converted into shops and cafes. It was very trendy and a little more expensive than what we all wanted to spend on gifts. Even still, I found some really cool puzzles made out of woods indigenous to Israel.

We returned to the kibbutz to find our room to be a sauna again. We put in a request to have it repaired over dinner. After dinner the room was even hotter with the AC on. We managed to freeze our AC and it had to thaw. The room was so hot the thermostat did not display a number.  Our last night in Israel, we started out with a “talent show”.  Most of us did not have a great talent to show. The best might have been between one member of our group rapping Big Willie Style and our tour guide David doing an interpretive reading of My Humps. We also had to do our last sharing of our experiences on the trip. I believe at this point, we had shared our feelings and experiences so much; it had completely lost all feeling. We finished the night by just hanging out outside our rooms and talking. It was a lot of fun.

Day 10 – Flight back to the states

The flight back to the states really was not as interesting as the flight to Israel. We arrived at the airport at about 8 AM. Getting through baggage security was a breeze. It seems like there is much more security going into Israel than there is leaving. We got our seat assignments and headed toward the terminal. Inside the airport I had to make two stops, post office and duty free. The post office took me forever. The woman in front of me needed a money order, but had no cash. They had to get her cash first before they could create the order. I needed 6 stamps. Post offices were very hard to find throughout Israel, so I had just given up and waited until getting to the airport. Next I made my way through security. This took a very long time. Between the family at the front of the line having an in depth security check, and the guy in the other line trying to bring through a gun shaped lighter, it took me about 30 minutes to get through. Inside the terminal is duty free. This being my first experience outside the country, duty free is really awesome. I only bought some chocolate, but if I had the ability, I would have purchased so much more. You don’t really save too much, but it is still a great difference. It would have been nice to have purchased some wine to bring back as well.

The flight itself was pretty standard. I ended up with an uncomfortable middle seat. I spent the majority of the flight trying to type this up, only to realize that there was so much to right it was crazy to think I would finish, even on an eleven and a half hour flight. I also watched some more bad movies. Hollywood really needs to step up their game. The food was also better on the return flight. I think the fact it was not prepared in America helped.

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4th Time’s the Charm

March 5th, 2011 No comments

This is the fourth time I am restarting my website. My hope is to actually use my website for something. Not sure what yet. I might just decide to be a boring blogger like 99% of the people on the internet today.

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by Bliss Drive Review