Sunday, March 27, 2011

Ba le Jerusalem

First let me give you a context. When I was about ten years old I was enlisted to help two of my closest friends with filming a movie for Hebrew School. Being in Jewish Day School, I though I had excellent Hebrew, so I starred in their film they produced about Jerusalem by jumping onto the screen and reciting the three words: “Ba le Jerusalmem,” meaning “Come to Jerusalem,” except that I forgot the word for Jerusalem in Hebrew. This still makes the three of us laugh today, but come to think of it, its not that funny at all.

Regardless, I have arrived in Jerusalem and am alive and well. My six roommates and I share a really nice apartment in a quiet neighborhood called Talpiyot. We’ve got three bedrooms, an adorable little kitchen, and a huge living room. Abby and I are roommates again and sleep in tiny children’s beds we like to call our “Polly Pocket beds.”

As we’ve been working on our internship placements this past month we haven’t done much at all except get adjusted. And an adjustment it has been. I’ve had a few reverse culture shock moments that remind me I’m no longer in India:

1) Cross walks. As in, it’s not ok to cross the street whenever?
2) Trashcans. It is no longer acceptable to throw my trash directly on the street.  For something that took me so long to get used to in India, it’s a wonder I have to catch myself before littering.
3) Clean air. I never realized how much I missed it until I got it back. It is all of a sudden enjoyable to go for a run outside.
4) People with skimpy clothes. I just stare. It is shocking to see spaghetti straps or a skirt above the knees.
5) It is not necessary to argue with the cab driver to put the meter on.
6) Sidewalks. I can enjoy the beauty of walking somewhere.
7) A whole new set of oily foods to try and avoid: butter naan and samosas have been replaced by falafel and chips.
8) It is acceptable to eat with both hands. I still find myself tearing pita bread apart with my right hand only, leaving my left hand in my lap.

As for the past few weeks, we go to Ulpan (Hebrew class) three times a week, where it has become painfully apparent that I lost the majority of the Hebrew I once knew. I have been frequenting the market, or shook, where I love to buy my fresh veggies, fruits, nuts, cheese, bread, and hummus for the week. I’ve explored the local nightlife scene, and although Tel Aviv in known to be the life of the party, I’m still convinced Jeru knows what’s up. One week in there was spent at a leadership conference organized by MASA in a Jerusalem hostel. And otherwise, we’ve just trying to stay busy exploring the country. Gabe took a group of us on a tour of the old city. One day we went to the Biblelands museum (womp womp). I’ve been on an exercising kick, and am training for a 10K. And Abby and I have been busy visiting various friends and relatives. We went to Benyamina, a beautiful city close to Haifa, for a relaxing Shabbat at her friend Jen’s house, filled with eating and a walk on the beach. Last weekend we stayed at her cousin’s house in a settlement in the West Bank. The whole experience was unique. We took a bullet-proof bus in, passing rocky uninhabited hills on the way to their settlement. Another Shabbat filled with eating and sleeping, and then we hitchhiked to get back to Jerusalem. I love how saying something like “I hitchhiked in the West Bank” sounds so much more bad-ass then it actually was. We rode with a sweet older couple and everyone does it anyways to get in and out of the settlements.

This week I’m set to start my internship most likely working for an organization that provides higher education support for African refugees and asylum seekers… I will keep you posted.

One last note before I part, for those who haven’t heard, a bomb went off in Jerusalem last week. It was an abandoned bag left in a place across from the Central Bus Station, a place I’ve been to several times at this point. I was thankfully far away, at a leadership seminar with my fellows. It was a strange moment for us all. After reading the news together, my Israeli program director said something like “Welcome to Israel.”  While there hasn’t been this sort of violence in several years, it is unfortunately somewhat commonplace for Israelis. The two Israelis I was with at the time took the news very matter-of-factly, with little emotional response-- what strikes me as an adopted coping mechanism. Life continued in Jerusalem as if nothing had happened the rest of the day. There is the sense that Israeli society must be resilient and not let the attack change day-to-day life, because that is precisely what the terrorists wanted. The whole thing put things in perspective for me, making me realize how delicate the political situation is in this country.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

I hate goodbyes.

Well, the title says it all. I hate goodbyes. And although I find myself writing three-weeks into my fancy new life in Jerusalem, with a whole new set of adventures ahead, I cannot help but feel nostalgic for India. So, I’m going to devote this time to say goodbye to India. More on Israel to come.

I spent my final weeks closing up things in Hyderabad and then traveling with friends in the northwestern state of Rajasthan, both of which reaffirmed and invigorated my love of the country. I think goodbyes always have a way of reminding me what I love about the person or the place, and about all of the good memories we shared together. So in an effort to say goodbye to the places that have meant so much to me, I wrote them letters:

Dear Hampi,
Thank you for awakening my thirst for travel and discovery. You will always be remembered as one of the most beautiful places I have ever been.
Your cliff-jumping-hitchhiking pal,

A memorable Hampi moment.

One of the sights on the way to Monkey Temple.

Dear Delhi,
If there were any city in India I could see myself living in, it would be you. You have so much going for you between your numerous markets, historic sights, and diverse neighborhoods. Your many parks were at once surprising and refreshing.  I hope you realize your potential. While most people might think Mumbai is where the “scene” is at, don’t worry, I believe in you.
Perhaps your future resident,

One of the more beautiful sights I saw in Delhi at the Hauz Khas Village.
One of my favorite views of the Phar Ganj Main Bazaar.

Dear Pushkar,
Thank you for teaching me how to live life shanti-shanti, even if it was only for one week. I will never forget your bustling market or the cool nighttime motorcycle rides. Thank you for hosting me at my first Rajasthani wedding, even though that meant dancing in front of a crowd of strangers for hours. For me, you were a city of memorable rooftops—breakfast on rooftop restaurants, sleeping on a family’s roof for the night, and beautiful views of the setting sun watched from a guesthouse roof. Please don’t ever lose your charm.
With Boundless Love,

The view from a Pushkar roof.
Even the dogs are shanti.
The Rajasthani wedding-- the bride is in red in the middle.

Dear Bundi,
I will remember always your narrow alleys and your rooftop dinners. Your old havelis with crackling walls and your secret green spaces.  The late nights of whisky and dancing under the stars and then the early morning chai sipped on the porch that followed. Thank you for the lazy afternoons spent in Papu’s shop and the best samosa I have ever eaten. Thank you for the new friends and the memories we shared together. You were a city of allure for me, one with hidden adventures inside to unlock. Thank you for teaching me how to take a risk-- your home-cooked meals and unassuming beauty were worth it alone.
-A relaxed and rested Rachel

The narrow alleys.
New friends Papu and his wife Babi G. They hosted us every night for dinner on their rooftop home.
Dear Hyderabad,
I know I was rough on you at times about your traffic and your pollution, but you will always hold a special place in my heart. Although it may be hard to admit, I will miss your bustling streets and your littered roadways.  I will miss my daily challenges like crossing the street or fighting for a good price on a rickshaw. I will miss my walks to the Bakshi apartment, ignoring stares from men and the always-tempting street food.  I will miss shopping in the market at my vegetable man and I will miss the pharmacist who stocked up on my hair gel for me. I will miss naan, aloo gobi, malai kofta, and eating it all with my hands. I will miss the me who was all of a sudden cooking new recipes and good with directions. Most of all, I will miss the wonderful people I met within your walls and the times we spent together—a fight at Syn, Charminar at night, dinner with family, Sunday gameday, bonfires at farms, a broken table, nerf guns, skeets, bat-hunting, late night moped-rides home, Just Foods, free plates at Kibbeh, face-painting, and Moses—the memories are as vibrant and diverse as the city itself.

I wish we could have had more time together. With more time, I could have learned more about your nuances, your history, and your cultural depth-- something I still question. Though, I only wish the best for you. I hope you continue growing, and continue finding you cultural and social identity among India’s numerous cities. To my friends and coworkers who made the experience memorable, thank you. And to the city that was there when it all began, thank you.
With love always,

Some of the people that made Hyderabad memorable: my coworkers. 
And my roommates. Plus Lakshmi, the girl the Bakshis referred to as their "servant." 

Of course there were many cities along the way that made India a truly remarkable experience for me, but these were a few of the exceptional ones.

I have always valued the importance of place and the ability it has to shape a person. A certain building or a particular city can have profound affects on a person-- make us feel happy, comforted, at home, content, at peace, spontaneous, explorative. Sometimes a place can simply draw us in.  And I think India, unexpectedly and with full-force, did just that. It drew me in with its’ colors and foods, the people, the places, and the sense of adventure it all represented. Dear India, I will miss you. Hope to be back soon.  Love, Rachel.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011


While sitting here in my Jerusalem apartment, I am going to tell you about how I learned Hebrew in India. There is an Israeli phenomenon where young people, shortly after their time in the army, leave the country for months at a time to explore and travel exotic places. Their brains are fried after years of service and they need an escape. As I learned from Nurit, my Israeli roommate, the places most commonly visited are South America and India. So many Israelis come through the small, laid-back cities of India like Pushkar and Hampi, that you can find remnants of them all over—signs and menus in Hebrew, a Chabad house, and even Hebrew speaking Indians. Because of the abundance of Israeli travelers in proportion to travelers from other countries, many Indians with poor geography think Israel is a huge place with a huge population. The locals that work in the tourist industry end up learning some of the key phrases to get the travelers to stay at their guest house or shop at their store. As I discovered in Pushkar, an Israeli hotspot in the Northwestern state of Rajasthan, they often stand on their stoops and holler “taltalim,” meaning “curls,” to the passing Israeli women who are known for their voluminous kinky hair.  While walking on these streets I often got the same cat-call, which I always greeted with a smile. Because as I have observed on the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, to be confused with a beautiful Israeli woman is a compliment in my book.