Journal Entry # 61 - Road Entry#51 (Uludag University – Gourkle, Turkey (Outside of Bursa) - 12:11pm (Local) - February 22, 2011)

I am sitting in a Turkish Economics class at Uludag University with my Couch Surfing host Ertug. I will write about this eventually, but now back to the story of my journey in Israel on the final day of the Taglit-Birthright program.

It is January 19th and Ron is sleeping on the ground near the beds. He is the first to wake up as he, Matan, and Oria have to catch a taxi to the train station to get back to their respective bases. They have to work today. I get up right after Ron gets out of the shower to put on my running clothes. I am 9 days away from running my first marathon and I have to get at least 5 miles in this morning.

I left the hotel as the soldiers are getting into their cab and I say goodbye and “see you later”. I then warmed up for a minute before setting out on a run north along the promenade. I took my camera and iPod with me and took some morning-glory photos while listening to music along the way. The run took me 2.5 miles out past the new-port area of Tel Aviv. This is where you can find trendy shops, discos, cafes, and beach-lounge areas – with a “Miami” type flare. Past this area you find an old lighthouse and the beginning of an air force base. The air force base here in northern Tel Aviv serves all the small planes coming to and from other bases throughout the country (the majority coming from Eilat).

I ran back to the hotel, showered, ate a quick, last-second breakfast with Marat, Bobby, and Audrey; and then got my bags packed and stored inside the room where Sarah, Anna, Nettie, and Jackie were staying for their extension night in Tel Aviv. Johnny, Sam, Adam, Sarah, Anna, Nettie, Jackie, and I decided to rendezvous at the hotel after the program ended and to make moves from there. We all got on the bus and rode off to the Jaffa Institute for our first agenda item of the final day.

Before we boarded the bus, we all noticed that Roxy had to be helped down the stairs and into the bus. She said she had twisted he knee the night before while coming back from Mike’s Place. She was obviously too intoxicated to be dancing or showing off to the point where she hurt herself severely. She was taken to the hospital right after the bus dropped the abled-body members off at the Jaffa Institute.

Jaffa (Yafo) is the southern part of the metropolitan area. We went to the Jaffa Institute, a non-profit organization, which assists low-income families and children of the country (this branch specifically servicing the local Jaffa area). Jaffa is currently known as the low-income, poor, rough, and immigrant ridden neighborhood of the Tel Aviv area. We came into the Jaffa institute and were split into two groups. The group I was in was placed in the conference room where we introduced to the history, statistics, operations, and mission of the institute. The summary took 30-45 minutes where we then switched with the other group to take on the service part of our day. We formed two lines to pack almost two dozen boxes with non-perishable food items. The kindness exhibited on behalf of the Taglit group meant a lot to me. I felt uplifted and inspired to help in the future.

(continued writing in Bornova, Turkey after I got off the bus – Café Hane waiting for my host, Ece)

The next move for the group was to get charted around the block to the old port city of Jaffa. This area is considered the oldest port city in the world. We started on the northwest portion of the port, near the sea along the promenade. Ran guided us towards the central port area where we got introduced to the current architecture and the history of the docks. We then went up some stairs and through the narrow streets and ally-ways to the central square of the current old city. We took a bit of time here to take some pictures and use the restrooms.

I Found These Steps Especially Charismatic

Ran told us that Jaffa was and is a historically significant place for the Arab people. Thousands of generations of Arabs lived and worked in this tight community by the sea. He Ran also took us to the historic ruins of the old city, where you can still see some of the underlying foundation. This area is adjacently situated next to a monument and park area of Jaffa. Here we saw other tour groups, tourists, and locals all spread throughout the grass and walkways.

We all sat on the grass and then Ran had us to an activity to recap our whole experience throughout Israel. He used three volunteers (Sam, Adam, and I) in this activity. Adam and I were holding cards with the names of all the places we had been to over the 10 days. Sam modeled his body as the state of Israel and its boundary. Adam and I would hold up the cards one by one and then group would tell us where everything went. It was a geographical quiz that had everyone laughing at Sam and his modeling skills.

After this we walked down to the clock tower in Jaffa, east of the port. Here is where Ran allowed us to venture out for some free time through Jaffa’s Sheinkin Street market, have a last chance souvenir shopping spree, and get some food. Nettie and I walked for a little bit, checking out some antique places before we split off and wandered the area alone.

There was great art throughout Jaffa.

I then bought some sweets: some pistachio sweets and a kinafet pastry. This was the second time I was eating kinafet. Kinafet is a cheese based dessert – a classic in Arab culture. I like it and it was introduced to me by Oria. She loves it and says it’s her favorite dessert in Israel.

I took my huge kinafet and sweets to find a place to sit and eat when I saw Nettie with her souvenirs and a huge shwarma wrap. We mutually agreed upon splitting each and having lunch together. We sat down by the clock tower and talked about Los Angeles and getting together once I get back from traveling. We also talked about the next couple of days and what we wanted to do in Tel Aviv on our extension. We finished with time to spare and walked around more. Eventually our walking around more led us to a place within the market area we must have missed earlier. It was a tiny little ally with vendors crammed in side-by-side. I bought a small bracelet for 10 shekel and then we had to get back to the clock tower to meet the group.

The group boarded the bus and we drove 10 minutes north to the Yitzhak Rabin Square (Kikar Rabin). Ran sat us down to fully detail the events of modern Israel and the events the led up to Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination after his speech. To give us young Americans some perspective, he told us that Rabin’s death was like the assassination of JFK or the death of Princess Diana. Everyone with affiliation to Israelis and Palestinians know where they were on November 4, 1995.

(continued writing in Izmir, Turkey at the central bus terminal on my way to Kusadasi)

“Imagine all the people living in harmony. You might say that I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one”. Our voices resonated in unison as Ran played Lennon from his little mp3/speaker set in Yitzhak Rabin square. Rabin was a visionary and an unforgettable leader of the Israeli people. I felt that most of us were in awe of his legacy as our voices didn’t embellish the lyrics of such a popular song. Ran took us to the exact location of his death after we finished singing. After his death, there was a mixture of emotion resonating amongst the Israeli and Palestinian people. And at his death-site, you can find his official memorial and some old graffiti on one of the walls nearby. I forgot what the graffiti said exactly, but it was preserved by the Israeli government because it symbolizes the positive impact Rabin had on the people. (I should look up what it says again…)

We walked back through the square to a fountain where Rachel and Ran gave us evaluation forms to fill out. The entire group had to review the tour from start to finish. We were allowed free time along with this process. Adam and I decided to fill our forms out and talk at the café across the street. We got a couple of caffeinated drinks, talked, and wrote. Adam is a program coordinator for ‘Teach for America’. He was a teacher in New Orleans in the low-income neighborhoods for 2 years after graduating from Grinnell University. I can say that Adam definitely opened my mind to a lot of possibilities in teaching both in the United States and abroad. I hope I can visit him in New Orleans or wherever he might build a home. He is originally from Sherman Oaks and I appreciated his sense of humor, candor, and laugh. What a friend!

The Fountain in Yitzhak Rabin Square

Another reason we chose to sit at the café was to access some WiFi after our evaluations were filled out. I had to check my messages regarding Couch Surfing and Adam had to logistically plan for a return to work in New Orleans after a 4 day impromptu extension in Israel. We sat there while the majority of the group came to the café as well and ordered drinks/snacks. We left the café to visit Independence Hall by bus.

Another quick 8 minute bus ride later the Amazing group is at a new location...

We are now on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv. Rothschild was one of the founding streets of Tel Aviv when Jewish settlers moved from the Jaffa area. It is a wide street with a small promenade running through the middle of it. Its promenade has trees, grass, art sculptures, benches, and a bike path. We enetered Independence Hall to meet our institutional guide for the evening. During this process, we started to sign the Tarbuka for Ran as a thank you gift. Sarah bought a Sharpie earlier and the drum was being passed around through the bus and the conference room for people to sign.

The conference room is where we were introduced to the foundation of the state of Israel and it’s 20th century history. We saw and 15-20 minute video on the Zionist movement, immigration, foundation of Tel Aviv, and establishment of the state in 1948. Our institutional guide for the evening was candid, funny, affable, and laughable. I wish I could remember his name because he knew exactly how to capture our attention and hold it for the remaining 45 minutes in the main room where Ben Gurion declared independence. It was remarkable to see that everything in the room was in original condition since 1948* (besides slight modifications of course). The chairs we were sitting in were the exact chairs! I was awestruck and inspired.

The inspiration triggered hunger. (HAH! – yeah right…).

But we al went up the street to Z Bar & Grill for our final meal together and final group summary. We sat in a convoluted circle facing each other. Ran instructed us to close our eyes and remember all that we had done. He carefully recounted each location of our journey. His voice was soft and as reminiscent as an old man tells the story of his one true love. We all opened our eyes and found smiles beaming across the room. He then opened the floor to personal reflections, pinnacle moments, and appreciative remarks. A lot of people said something and I felt tears of joy creeping towards the sides of people’s eyes. I said something thankful and appreciative to then try and find the nomadic Tarbuka to present to Ran. It was my idea to give him this gift, and I wanted to present it to him. At the end of everyone’s share-&-tell, I got up and presented Ran with the gift. He said that it was the first time any group had given him such a gift, and he sincerely appreciated it.

Then FOOD!

The floorspace was rearranged to a cafeteria style floorplan and I sat with Ben, Hannah, Carter, Igor, Marsha, and Adam on one end of the table. We all enjoyed eating hummus, pita, cucumber, tomato, and meat together one last time! It was so delicious and heavy. They must have brought out 15-20 dishes just in our section (Americans eat a lot…)

The elation, spirit, and grace of the group hit its pinnacle. The people boarding the flight back to Los Angeles got on the bus and the extension group stayed on the ground. There were hugs, goodbyes, and best wishes. 11 of the 40 Taglit-Birthright members had an extension. Johnny extended the longest, 90 days. I extended the second longest almost 60 days. Everyone else extended 2-9 days more. The bus was away…

Now I was free! Free from a program, plans, rules, restrictions, and liabilities. For moments throughout the journey, I felt as if there wasn’t an adult level of trust between the staff and the members.

I’m pausing the story because I just realized that trust in my self is more important than other people’s trust in me. When I was traveling in Boston, I wrote innocence, that of a child, is my ideal way of living and operating. This is true to a degree where I must include trust, accountability, and honor as a man and adult. I need to trust that holding my head high, opening my eyes wide, and broadening my shoulders in taking responsibility in my personal and professional decisions.

Story time…

The girls and Sam got in a taxi back to the Marina hotel were all of our bags were. Noah was the only one that brought his bags with him. I was inconvenienced by the fact my Couch Surfing host’s (Itay M.) apartment was only 3-4 blocks away from the dinner location and I didn’t have my bags with me. I had to go back to the hotel and then return to almost the exact location to spend the night with Itay. Noah, Erez, Johnny, Adam, and I all decided to walk up Rothschild and over back towards the hotel instead of taking a taxi. Noah was staying with his friend nearby so he walked with us for a bit before peeling off. It was a beautiful night in Tel Aviv. There were people everywhere on the streets. Tel Aviv is a city that never sleeps.

The four of us joked, talked, and enjoyed the evening stroll back to the hotel. Adam and Johnny were staying there and Erez and I were leaving back towards Rothschild. Erez lives right off Rothschild, actually a block away from the Z Bar & Grill. He and I took my bags to Ben Yehuda Street to catch a 6 shekel bus. While on the bus, Erez helped Sam, Johnny, Jackie and I I book our tickets to Eilat. We were off to Egypt the next night! I paid for the four tickets via credit card and they reimbursed me. The bus south was a midnight express leaving Thursday and arriving at the border at 5am Friday morning.

I got off the local Tel Aviv bus with Erez to call Itay and meet up with him. Itay met me once I got off the bus and said goodbye to Erez. Itay’s friend Gilad was with him as well. We walked 2 blocks from the bus stop back to his place where I set my things down and we got to talking. Itay’s first offer was a Gold Star beer or a whiskey drink. I chose to relax with a beer and have conversation. It was around 11pm when I settled into his place.

Itay is 28 and works for Pay Pal. He just got back from Austin, Texas and San Francisco the night before I arrived at his place. He said he was still jet lagged. He finished university and started working for Pay Pal right after graduation. He does sales and business development in Israel. We talked for hours into the night. Before sleeping, Itay helped me do some laundry and give me a rundown of his apartment. He had a slight malfunction with the drain and his shower, so he tried and go to the store for a snake or liquid snake. He came back with no solution and I decided I would shower the next morning at the hotel with my friends. I finally got tired and went to bed around 2:30am.