Sunday, December 29, 2019

The First Surprise on the "Pilgrimage"

I am going to Israel for the TAU conference! When thinking of Israel, what comes to your mind? Religious history, rich culture, historical locations? As a person loving history, I have watched many YouTube videos about Jerusalem and several documentaries about Israel before the journey, such as Dancing in Jaffa, the Gatekeepers, etc. I am earnestly looking forward to the trip.

Scenes from the viewpoint near Hebrew University of Jerusalem

At the airport, I started to feel the ambiance of Israel. It was probably the most rigorous security check I have experienced all these years---indeed, this is one of those on the journey that I will encounter as the first time in many years. The boarding gate was separated from other gates and everyone, even those in premium member status, had to wait in one line and went through manual examination, one more time after the normal security check. Except that, the plane to Tel Aviv seems to have more men carrying a hat box, which Google says it is called "Tefillin". The plane also had many children and of course, many families in a large size.

We happily landed at Tel Aviv, the jewel of the Mediterranean Sea.

Tel Aviv, view from the Jaffa port

Whichever city I visit for the first time, I'd like to follow some conventions to get to know the place best. 

Rule 1: take public transportation alone to the lodging; no taxi, no Uber/Lyft. 

The test was easily passed. I collected a city map from the information desk at the airport, purchased a local transportation card called Rav-Cav, took the train from the airport to the nearest station in the city, then transferred a local bus and arrived at my lodging in one hour. Except difficulties in reading Hebrew, the trip was smooth. Israel is an English-friendly country, which makes the communication much easier, though most time a map is sufficient for me. 

In the afternoon of my first day, I already can move freely with any bus in Tel Aviv. I took different buses to and from Jaffa harbor and enjoyed a beautiful afternoon in the Ilana Goor Museum

View from the Sculpture Garden in the Ilana Goor Museum

Rule 2: rent an airbnb apartment and talk to local people.
 I enjoy talking to local residents. They often share with me their favorite restaurants which only locals frequent. In this trip, I tasted the best hummus in my life. Even writing this sentence, I can recall the luscious taste when having in mouth the warm hummus covered by juicy eggplant. In the culture of Israel, food is love.

Hummus at Etsel Mikha

Rule 3: shop in local grocery stores and cook breakfast with local yogurt, fruit, and veggie
My favorite drink in Mediterranean area is pomegranate juice, freshly squeezed. In Tel Aviv, there are many fruit stalls, some even running 24 hours. Getting a cup of pomegranate juice is always the highlight of my day. Just a sip can feel like an instant immune booster injected straight into your veins, which isn’t that far from the truth.

Rule 4: visit a local yoga studio
I squeezed in one yoga class on Tuesday morning before the start of the conference. Chandra yoga studio is located in a quiet residential area and I didn't expect that I would learn something new: Vijnana yoga, which extends Iyengar Yoga while emphasizes practicing, feeling, and understanding from inside. Quite a satisfactory experience, such unexpected moments are the beauty of travelling.

The first surprise

Some unexpected moments are beautiful, some are not.

Twenty-four hours after landing, I lost my wallet, the first surprise in this journey. For no reason the wallet slipped from my hand after paying lunch, without a notice. Hm...when was the last time I lost my wallet? Almost 15 years ago! Such odds -- probably I should buy lottery. Instead of buying lottery, I made a journal submission that night. Let's see what will happen. :)

Coming up with the surprise is my first lesson learned on this trip:
On the road, always having a backup credit card and cash in a place other than the wallet, for example, the luggage. 

Fortunately, I still had my passport. Even more, I had about 170 Israel Shekel exchanged earlier at the airport. Though it was less than 50 dollars, it turned out sufficient for the remaining three days. Thanks to the generosity of the conference organizer for providing free lunches and dinners. Thank you, Francesco, for paying me the dinner. Thank you, Yaron, Zack, Yuliy, for offering to lending me money. With a zero cost of capital they offer me, maybe I should borrow some? Remember Finance 101, there is no free lunch! :)

Still, thank you, my friends! It is such a great pleasure to get to know all of you in Israel!

Photographed by Jennie Bai.
Copyright ©Jennie Bai. All Rights Reserved.

More stories:
--The Second Surprise on the "Pilgrimage"
--The Third Surprise on the "Pilgrimage"

Friday, December 27, 2019

The Second Surprise on the "Pilgrimage"

One highlight of the conference is a daily tour to Jerusalem, the center of the Holy Land. For Christians, this is where Jesus was crucified and resurrected. For Muslims, this is where Muhammad journeyed to Heaven. And for Jews, this is where the Temple of Solomon stood. As the crossroads of three great religions, Jerusalem is the closest place on Earth to Heaven for so many people.

I am not religious, but regardless, it will be a wonderful experience to witness. I expected to head to the airport right after the tour and take an 11PM flight back to DC. Then it came, the second surprise.

Everything was exotic for me in the old city of Jerusalem. After hopping off the coach, we were immersed in the joyful celebration of Bar Mitzvah, a Jewish coming-of-age ritual for boys when they turn to 13 years old.

Bar Mitzvah at the Western Wall in Jerusalem (Source: Google)

(A video I recorded in front of Dung Gate in the Old City)

Following the flow of people, we trekked to the Western Wall. For a moment, I had the illusion of being in China: the square was swarming with people.

Square at the Western Wall
Everywhere was people: school boys singing the Song of Songs, Jewish families around the world celebrating bar mitzvah, pious believer praying to the Wall, and tourists eating and shopping around. The music, the attire, the religious zenith, the emotional singing, all happened at the Western Wall. I was overwhelmed and decided to find a quiet corner for rest.

The second surprise

I took out my phone. A new text message emerged: "Your flight to Washington DC is cancelled. Please contact the customer service of United Airline", and the reason was  simply that pilots cannot come. There was no further notice, email or message, about what I should do or whether I will be arranged to another flight. No more information.

I have encountered domestic flight cancellation or the delayed departure of international flight. As a loyal customer to United Airline over 16 years, I have never experienced an cancellation of an overnight international flight. My experience told me that I should call United as soon as possible.

After the tour guide brought us to the Arabic quarter for lunch, I hasted to find a Wi-Fi spot. Leaning back the front door of the restaurant, I held my phone to the ear, resignedly waiting to be connected to a human voice from the United service center. One minute, two minutes, five, ten, ..., fifteen minutes passed, I was still waiting in vain. Thanks to the Old City, the waiting was not so intolerable. The Arabic alleys are rich with sights, sounds, and experiences that reward the curious travelers. The shops were jammed, and the energy was exhilarating. Simply people-watching can yield the most fascinating cultural insights.

A store near our restaurant, selling spices

the Jerusalem bread, Matzah

the group finished lunch, my problem was still not solved. I cannot hold the whole group waiting for me, that means, I have to leave the wi-fi spot and cut off the call. Thus, I pleaded the customer service to call me back once he finds a not-so-bad solution -- at that moment the 'best' alternative route is to leave Tel Aviv one day later, which I was reluctant to take.

The following tour was about the Via Dolorosa, the route it's believed Jesus walked as he carried the cross. We would retrace the 14 stations of the cross, like what pilgrims do, and end the Pilgrim's journey in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Throughout the route, I was badly hung up on the flight cancellation.

Mural in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

I didn't hear much what our tour guide said, except some repetitive words, "holy of holy", "the most important church", "the most sacred site", etc. He said the lives of many Christians are divided into two parts, the one before visiting this church and the one after it. For me, my mood was divided into before knowing flight cancellation and afterwards. The problem was eventually solved by taking a 5:20AM flight and arriving home 12 hours later than initially planned, but my uneasiness and disappointment persisted.

It was the optimistic words from other conference participants that eventually warmed me up. Mete said, "well, this is at least better than you have to leave to the airport right now." You are right. If so, my experience in Jerusalem would be significantly shortened. I was unhappy since I couldn't go home as expected, but if changing a benchmark, it was indeed not too bad. Other people offered a variety of kindnesses from suggestions, jokes, to soothing words. Yaron even helped me fulfill my last wish in Israel, to have one more cup of pomegranate juice!

Many of these people only got to know me for the first time at this conference. Yet they generously shared with me their great kindness and valuable help, which uplifted my spirit. Thinking of this, spending the night till 5AM at the airport did not seem so miserable. What I didn't know at that moment was the third surprise awaiting ahead.

Photographed by Jennie Bai.

Copyright ©Jennie Bai. All Rights Reserved.

More stories:
--The First Surprise on the "Pilgrimage"
--The Third Surprise on the "Pilgrimage"