Saturday, September 22, 2012

!שנה טובה (Happy New Year)

Shana Tova everyone, or "Happy New Year" if you prefer english! The past two weeks have flown by, with my first visit to the Jerusalem Zoo, New Year's celebrations, Ulpan (hebrew school), and finishing up settling in to my new home.

The highlight of my trip so far was definitely my inaugural tour of the Biblical Zoo. The facility is absolutely breathtaking, and I haven't even seen the whole grounds yet. I was welcomed by my advisor, Shmulik, and brought in through the main gate. Right inside the gate is a truly awesome view: a giant lake with Siamang Gibbons on an island in the middle:

We didn't linger there though, I was rushed to the other end of the zoo so I could watch some of the team tranquilize and pack up two Arabian Oryx to be shipped to a breeding facility and their later release. I later learned that the Jerusalem Zoo is extremely active in their role as a conservation institution, both on the education side of things, and in breeding and release of endangered or functionally extinct species. Here I am posing with some of the Oryx herd pre-knock-down from the boardwalk above their habitat:

On the other side of the boardwalk was the most impressive Savannah exhibit I have ever seen. White Rhinos, Ostriches, Masai Giraffes, Maribou Storks, and a subspecies of Kudu all in one exhibit. Oh, and did I mention - a Hippo! Her name is Zelda and she is very old, but remains more than content to wallow in the large pool while the other creatures roam around on land.

I was almost equally excited to see their Collared Peccaries - with piglets! These even-toed ungulates are closest related to the pig family, though they themselves are not considered suids - but check out that little one - sooooooo cute!

Later on, when looking at the Kangaroo exhibit, I was informed that the rocks the Kangaroos live on are actually ruins of an ancient barn over 5,000 years old!

Last before the zoo closed, I poked my head into the reptile house. This little crocodile had a huge exhibit with a pool, but decided to wedge himself into this little corner. Typical...

On the Thursday before Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, my group volunteered for an organization that puts together boxes of food for families in financial need. The New Year is an important holiday here, and is a cherished time to feast with your family. I really enjoyed helping Shachen Tov (Good Neighbor) prepare these mini-feasts for families in need; I was happy to do my part for those who could use a hand during the holidays.

Later in the evening, we went to a concert at a club called "Yellow Submarine." Those of you who know me well might have an idea of how excited I was walking through a lobby painted yellow with portholes - you guessed it - very.

The band was eclectic, but rockin', and despite how tired I was I danced the night away!

Ulpan (my hebrew lessons) have been moving along well. I would not expect to be fluent after three weeks in Israel, and I am not, but I do feel as though I am making great strides. On the day before the start of the High Holy Days our teacher, or "morah," took us on a bit of a field trip. She told us we were going to Yamin Moshe, and taught us how to ask for directions. She then told us to ask and find it. "Slicha, ata yodea ech olechim la Yamin Moshe?" The people in Israel are very nice and are usually more than happy to help someone find their way, so it didn't take too long. We even happened upon a playground en route!

When we finally arrived, there was a stunning view of the "old city," otherwise known as what was for many years "Jerusalem." This is where the temple mount and the western wall are located.

The neighborhood itself was also gorgeous. Below you can see a fountain and courtyard in between some of the houses - how would you like this view out of your living room window?

Our field trip wasn't complete until we all did the hokey pokey in hebrew in a local park - I'm sure we were quite a sight to the locals...

I can't wait to start work at the zoo - I know it will be the experience of a lifetime! I miss interacting with animals so dearly. October 9th can't come fast enough - in the meantime I have a feeling I'll be visiting at least once more so I can see the rest - stay tuned for more pictures!

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Week one in the land of Milk and Honey

Wow. I can't believe it's already been ten days. I wasn't homesick in the slightest, until today when I started looking at pictures of the beloved animals I left behind - big mistake... Naturally, my heart aches the most for my beloved Sunny, who I rescued nine years ago.

 Also, as you could guess, I will miss Brian Wilson, the hippopotamus. However, there are hippos at the Jerusalem Zoo that might need a new companion!

Then of course there is Gauhati, the Asian rhino. I felt as though we bonded in particular over the past six months... Does anyone know how to teach a rhino to skype?!

I left my beloved San Francisco on Saturday, September 1st, at 11 pm. A six hour flight to New Jersey, five hour layover, and ten hour flight to Tel Aviv later, I found myself surrounded by Hebrew both spoken and written at 7 am on September 3rd, 2012. I recovered my enormous bags, made it through customs, and camped out at the coffee shop for the next four hours.

Just as I felt I had reached my personal limit of sitting in airports in a 36 hour period, the group organizers from Real Life Israel arrived. I have never had such a warm welcome - it was as if I was met at the airport by some extended family I had yet to meet.

As the other participants began to arrive, it became very clear to me that this was an amazingly dynamic, genuine, unique set of people. I received my israeli cell phone and, naturally, called my parents right away - it had been almost 18 hours since I got on the plane in New Jersey. We piled on the bus with our massive assortment of luggage and I sat next to a young woman with a british accent. We clicked right away and I found myself thinking "If I could pick my roommate I'm pretty sure this Zahava would be my choice." I was therefore amazed to find out when we arrived at our new homes that she was, in fact, my assigned roomie! I also met my other "flatmates," three young men from the US, and with every new member of the group I met I was equally impressed. So far it seems as though I could not have asked for better housemates and friends in this endeavor.

Our first whole day together was quite the adventure! We got on a chartered bus and drove out to the Judean desert, where we drove ATV's!

Half way through the desert adventure we stopped at what appeared to be a cave, but was once actually a cistern for collecting water. The Judean desert is the result of the Rain Shadow effect (if you're not a science nerd, look it up!) and therefore nomads needed a water source when traveling through the area. They built trenches that collected rain water from the mountain range and stored it in the cistern so there would always be clean water for weary travelers. Below is a picture of our ATV guide drawing a map of Israel in the sand at the bottom of aforementioned cistern.

That would have been enough for the day, but we continued with an amazing hike through the desert down to a canyon floor and eventually to a swimming hole - the hike was gorgeous and awe-inspiring, but HOTTT.

Especially for those of us from cooler climates (such as *cough* San Francisco) the heat presented a bit of a challenge, but I am sure I will remember that hike forever. The day ended with a barbecue at the home of the Director of Real Life Israel. Aryeh was so kind to open up his house and make us feel like a giant family - I could not envision a better start to this five-month adventure!

The next few days have been a bit of a blur. I started Ulpan (my hebrew classes) and it has presented itself as quite the challenge!  I am studying a lot and trying my very best to learn the language but I have come to believe that it is difficult for fully developed minds to create new language skills. Not impossible, but difficult... I have been writing my letters and trying my best to read every day, but I think these things take time. I can't help but wish that one day a switch will go off in my brain and things will suddenly make sense... Here's hoping! At least if nothing else my doodling skills are getting a workout.

I have been spending the rest of my time settling in, exploring my neighborhood, and navigating the social scene in the evenings. My apartment is less than a block from Mahenah Yehudah, the outdoor market, also known as "the shuk." I have spent a lot of time learning where all the best produce and deals are.

In fact, just today I made a huge pot of minestrone soup 100% from scratch with produce I purchased there - It's simmering now and I think it smells delicious, if I do say so myself!

I have an interview/meeting with my advisor at the Jerusalem Zoo tomorrow. I'm very excited to hear more about exactly what they intend to do with me - One thing's for sure though, a hippo or two better be involved!!!