Monday, January 30, 2012

Tilt-shift function on my new camera
Countryside in the north

Elite Aardvark hiking crew

On Volunteering, Improved

I decided sometime last month that if I'm going to be spending a significant portion of this year volunteering, I want to be doing something valuable to both the community and to myself. Enter Ultimate Peace.

Ultimate Peace is an organization that's goal is to teach young Israelis to play ultimate, and through the spirit of the game, to promote peace. The organization has numerous "camps" set up throughout Israel, mostly in Israeli-Arab towns, but also in some Jewish towns and Palestinian towns in the West Bank. The organization is all-volunteer, with mentor-coaches going to every camp each week to host an organized practice—stretches, drills, and a scrimmage. Ultimate Peace splits the coaches into three teams consisting of two committed volunteers who go every week and a few occasional volunteers. Each team goes to multiple camps every Friday to hold practices.
Arab and Jewish kids shaking hands before the "disc-in"
 My coaching team is led by Dan, who is one of the foremost ultimate players in Israel. He coaches the Israeli National Team, runs an Ultimate league, and plays actively on the best Israeli club team. Needles to say, he's dirty. Anyway, this Friday, Dan, Abe (another committed volunteer), and I went up north to two Arab towns: Tuba-Zangaria and Daburia. We left Tel Aviv at 8 and got to Tuba at 10. The sessions take place, for the rainy season, in local gymnasiums. The kids in Tuba were great. They have pretty developed throwing skills and are learning the fundamentals of the game (which I never took the time to learn). I helped with some of the drills, feeding the kids throws and collecting discs. At the end of the practice, we scrimmaged and I was man-on-man with Dan, who ran circles around me without breaking a sweat. Fun.
Scrimmage with the kids in Tuba-Zangaria
We left Tuba at 11:30 and got to Daburia at 12:30. The kids at Daburia are a bit more advanced and energetic, so we focused on more complex concepts, like faking and forcing. After the session, we got shwarma and headed back to Tel Aviv, stopping at the beach on the way back to watch the storm-fueled waves devour the beach. And this will be every week. Yeee.
Dan showing the kids the business in Daburia
It was really incredible to work with Arab kids in such a fun environment…I'm starting to see a different side of things. And I'm going to get much better at ultimate through coaching, which is a fantastic benefit.

Ultimate Peace is one day a week for eight hours, leaving me with a good chunk of empty volunteer time. For two days a week, I'm essentially apprenticing at a woodshop where they host classes on woodworking, as well as making furniture. For the last couple days, I've been organizing wood to size and chopping them down with power tools. Isn't that great? I get to work with power tools for a volunteer job. The best part of the job is that I'm allowed to make whatever I want for myself using their wood. Today, I had the place to myself for a while, so I made a paper towel dispenser. Simple, but a great addition to our apartment. The resources at the woodshop make the art studio I did sculpture work in look pathetic. They have so many tools and so many different types of wood. I'm going to make it a point to make something small at the end of each day there…gifts for friends, things for the apartment, or whatever.
Chilling at the woodshop
So that's my volunteering schedule. I'm so thankful to be working in environments where I can actually take something out of it.

Something for Windy - Bonobo

On Tel Aviv (!)

I'm not too sure where to begin on this post. I have too much to say for one post, so this will be the first in a series of a few.

I've decided Jerusalem isn't a city. By all technical definitions, I guess it would have to be a city. A million people strong would have to make it a city. But it never really felt like a city. Sure, I whined a bit about the urban plight and sacrifices necessary to adjust to live in a place with the density of a waddle of penguins huddling for comfort (a slightly applicable analogy). Still, Jerusalem is safe. Most everyone is religiously Jewish, and Jewish values promote a very…interesting environment. Needless to say, Jerusalem is different. It's not a city in the way New York, or Boston, or Hartford, for that matter, are. It's too wealthy, too beautiful, and the culture is based so heavily on tourism that it feels like I was living in a zoo. I hated being grouped with the American tourists because I spoke English (I mean, I am an American tourist, but, like, yeah). The nightlife in Jerusalem is even weirder. It's a mix of religious Americans and asshole Israelis, granted there are some interesting people here and there. I guess I'm coming to realize this as I type this, but it was never really my scene.

Tel Aviv is a fucking city. The roads are constantly brimming with people. Density got bumped up a notch to slave ship status (terribly analogy, I'm sorry…still, relatively applicable). Urbanization is everywhere. Plots of land are perfectly rectangular, with buildings nuzzling their neighbors. The city is not a perfect grid, but most of the city follows a general north-south pattern, our neighborhood especially. And it's big. I mean, big is relative. Jake from London doesn't seem to know what I'm talking about, but compared to Jerusalem, and compared to Hartford, Tel Aviv is huge. I'll talk geography at some later post, when I've had the change to significantly explore the city.

Beach after a stormy day
We live in Florentine, a neighborhood in southern Tel Aviv, originally built to house an influx of immigrants (I think Baltics this time). It's pretty hood, as most immigrant neighborhoods are. Nowadays, there's a mix of immigrant workers and hipsters living in Florentine (I guess it's ironic to live in the ghetto). But actually, there's been a significant revival effort in the neighborhood and it's now one of the trendiest places in Tel Aviv for the younger crowd. There are some really, really cool places. Hoodna Bar has live music most nights. Chocolulu's restaurant has some of the best food I've had in Israel. Levinski Market is miniature shuk. I'm more than happy to be here. It's something so different from anything else I've experienced.
Dinner at Chocolulu's
 Most importantly, there's a wide spectrum of peoples in Tel Aviv, not just religious. Secularity…There are people who play ultimate every day; there are people who kitesurf every day; there are people who bike instead of drive a car, and people who live in tents . There are people who love life, and there are people who hate it more than anything else. Diversity here is limitless.
Graffiti everywhere...everywhere
Our apartment is pretty chilled. It's four of us: Ari, I, and two new kids—Michael Fooks and Adam Wertheimer. They come from extremely different backgrounds as us, but we get along well enough. They're clean people, which goes a long, long way. The place itself is pretty nice in it's layout. It's small, but well furnished and it has a homey feeling to it.

The social dynamic has been a bit revamped. Our section has doubled in size, and we've been integrating relatively seamlessly (from my end). Aardvark has been dealt a pretty good hand this time around. Many of the new kids are more than willing to step outside their comfort zone, willing to explore and do and see things they've never done before. Of course, there are people who aren't, but it's nice to have a larger circle of peers to socialize with. I think 44 is a good number (certainly not the first time I've seen this number). Ari and I have been cooking more than ever, and we've been having people come over mostly every night for dinner. Last night, I made goat cheese, balsamic reduction pasta, wild rice, and Ari made eggplant parmesan, to entertain a crowd of about 8. It's really great fun.
New faces!
I've been keeping to some very good habits. I've started eating mostly organic food (my breakfast this morning was muesli and chai). I've been passionate about my volunteering (see my next post). I've been writing, reading, and meditating often. I've been practicing Hebrew frequently with friends, as well as studying on my own. I've been very productive, neat, hygienic, responsible, and social. I barely have touched my computer since I moved to Tel Aviv. And I feel really, really good about myself, and I feel healthy.

We Will Commit Wolf Murder - of Montreal

Friday, January 6, 2012

Sitting yet again at Aroma in Mamilla. I should be at volunteering (sorry Paula, it's the last week), and it seems this semester has come full circle…but we know that's not true. I must say, today is an incredibly beautiful day. It's about 60 degrees, sunny, and not a cloud in the sky. This past weekend was fantastically peaceful, remarkably mind-blowing, and perhaps the greatest music festival I've ever taken part of. It was certainly the most spiritual.

The 6th Galactic Rave at the Desert Ashram, celebrating the last new year of this era. Where to start…

Ashram Bamidbar functions as an actual Ashram (see: Wikipedia) when there is no festival, with group meditation in the morning and work in the afternoon, three communal meals a day, drum circles, and instruments at night by bonfire. The grounds, as such, abound with creativity, artwork and sculptures. At the end of the Ashram is a gate to the Negev that's always open. Upon exiting, you're made aware of just how very isolated you are. It's 70 km to Mitzpe Ramon and 80 km to Eilat, the two closest cities. In between: desert, and more desert. Essentially, Shitim is one of the most isolated place in Israel.

Ashram Bamidbar
We were six people strong: Ari, Jacob, Gabz, Raquel, Zoe, and I. The crew was originally supposed to include Oscar, but complications arose and he never ended up coming. Eh. We all split a sheroot (a large taxi) from our apartment all the way down to the non-existent entity called Shitim, appearing on maps for cartographical reasons, I think. Shittim is a power grid converter and a couple large water tanks, as well as containing the spiritual mecca, Ashram Bamidbar (lit. ashram in the desert)

We all got to Ashram at about 21:00, set up camp (I brought a large, bamboo rug, and a few tapestries to decorate), and Ari and Gabz cooked a yummy couscous dinner.

Dinner by headlamp
Camp Aardvark
Thursday night was welcoming. Everyone was excited to be taking part in the festival; everyone was excited to be alive.

There was an incredible moment of awe as I set out to explore the premises. It's a wonderful place: there's a koi pond I spent many hours sitting in front of, thinking and exchanging pleasantries. The bonfire drew people together like flies to a lantern. There were so many beautiful people, in every sense of the word. And it was a festival with really amazing music, the kind that I would listen to on my own: downtempo, electronica, and psytrance. I even gave the DJ a hug after his set.

Thursday was an early night…I crashed around 3:00, and despite the booming music, was able to sleep relatively well in my yellow tent, my mobile home. Friday morning was overcast and on the chilly side and we ate our oatmeal surrounded by grey negev (a suiting environment for eating oatmeal, I suppose). I took off after breakfast with a camera, trying to capture the atmosphere of the desert, and falling pretty far short, as to be expected. Nevertheless…


Setting off on my own, I decided to walk into the desert and just keep walking. I saw the most perfect tree in the distance to sit underneath and meditate, so I spent about 20 minutes walking towards it, only to see someone already sitting under it. Bummer. So I settled for a mediocre tree about 5 minutes further. After I've been sitting there for about half-an-hour, I see a person approaching me.


Turns out Ari was off wandering the Negev at the same time, in the same place, collecting rocks, and basically doing what I was doing. What's remarkable is that we were a good 25 minutes away from the Ashram. "That's saying something." Anyways, we walked back to the festival together, reunited with the group, made burritos for lunch, aaaand cue the rain. Piss.

I'm not going to pretend like it was welcomed. The rain really sucked. That being said, it only rains in the Negev on average five days a year, so to witness such an event was pretty rare. We hibernated in my tent for a bit before checking out the stage, which was packed with people and protected from the rain by a giant tent. Seriously, the stage area was packed, it was crazy. There were live bands all day Friday, and in between were mass-meditations (See: Vimeo...seriously, check this out).

The rain gradually petered off, and by Friday night, it was done (I gave up caring about being wet much before). There was a Kabbalat Shabbat ceremony Friday night that I went to, which was essentially two hippies singing, "YKVK! YKVK! YKVK!" Pretty funny stuff.

We all went to "Tantric Meditation" that night, which was essentially a guided meditation to explore all of our emotions. They were speaking in Hebrew, originally, so I took off, decided to explore some more on my own. Ari, who stayed, said it was one of the most interesting things he's ever done. Basically, they had everyone scream at each other and hurl insults. "You don't speak Hebrew? Why don't you fucking learn the language or just go back to you country." After an emotional barrage lasting 15 minutes, they had everyone hug each other and forgive. Next, they had everyone act crazy, and, according to his word, people went batshit. And this went on with other emotions.

 Raquel and Zoe left the meditation about when I did and we all went into the Negev. It was about midnight at this point, and we were rather drunk. Way out in the boonies of the desert area was a roaring (I mean able to support 100 people) bonfire. We checked it out, and there was a man talking in English (everyone else was quiet) talking about being prepared for the ceremony…must be hydrated…leave all inhibitions behind…etc. The hell? Maybe a cult? I was pretty confused, but we hung around. Then everyone started getting undressed, down to their underwear. I had to ask someone what was going on. Turns out, they were getting ready to enter a sweatlodge adjacent to the fire. Cool. Figuring this would be a pretty interesting experience, I stripped and joined the procession into the sweatlodge.

The sweatlodge
Inside the sweatlodge, it was pitch black. The leader had us sit in three concentric circles surrounding a circle dug into the ground for the "glowing rocks" to be placed. It was a bit too crowded, and I wasn't quite able to sit cross-legged. So I was a bit uncomfortable, but boo-fucking-hoo, whatever. He began by explaining the tradition of the "red people" and how the sweatlodge was their method for prayer. By sweating out the demons, we are able to bring ourselves closer to whatever spiritual deities we believe in. He reiterated that this will be uncomfortable, and your initial impulse will be to leave, but no matter what, to stay. Fight the heat. Okaaay. He also explained that there would be four rounds, each about half-an-hour, of hot rocks. The first round would be a bit longer, about forty-five minutes. Cue the rocks…cue the heat. The gimp (politically correct: lackey) outside brought in eight massive, glowing hot rocks. After each rock was brought in, we greeted it, "hello", "baruch haba", "welcome". After all the rocks were in, our guide had us hold hands with our neighbor and guided us through the first meditation.

Guide: All the two legged creatures, all the red people, the white people, the brown people, the yellow people, we are all one.
Chorus: We are all one.
Guide: All the four legged creatures, those that crawl beneath our feet, those that live amongst us, and those that soar above our heads, we are all one.
Chorus: We are all one.
Guide: All the plants on this planet, all the grass we tread upon, all the trees we seek sanctuary in, all the vegetables and fruit we sustain ourselves with, we are all one.
Chorus: We are all one.
Guide: And all the rocks on the planet, all the minerals, and of course, the Earth itself, we are all one.
Chorus: We are all one.

And then we chanted some Native American spiritual hymns, as well as a few Hebrew songs, which I actually knew (Hinay Matov U'ma Nayim…), all the while, sweating my balls off. Literally, I was dripping sweat, and not only was I dripping sweat, but evaporated sweat was condensing on the ceiling and dripping on my leg. Mmm. So as soon as the gate was open, round one was over, as beautiful as an experience that was, I took off, half naked, through the desert, back to the campsite.

The rest of the night I spent talking to people and taking turns between dancing my ass off and hanging out by the fire. I stayed up until sunrise, which was about 6:00, wherein we all went out to the Negev (maybe about 400 people), and all held each other as the sun rose. And then I went to bed for about…four hours? Yeah.

Saturday morning was beautiful, blue skies with a few clouds here and there adding definition to the sky. So apparently the festival ended Saturday afternoon. I originally planned to spend three nights at Ashram…bummer. We called our roommate, who had computer access, and had him look up the bus schedule, who confirmed that there was, indeed, a bus coming Saturday afternoon at 5:00.

I spent the morning in the Negev playing frisbee with some remarkably talented players (it's incredible to be able to throw with people of the same level I am). I threw for about two hours with maybe ten different people over that time, and took a few people's information down…I'm going to join an ultimate league in Tel Aviv, as well as volunteering at an organization called Ultimate Peace. Anyways, during the frisbee tosses, three planes flew by so, so, so low to the ground. Maybe 20 feet, if not lower. They were just dancing around the sky, it was strange, but awesome.

We packed our belongings in the afternoon, and all attended the closing ceremony. Hallelujah, by Leonard Cohen (although I think it was the Jeff Buckley version they played) came on, and everyone formed a giant "love circle" and held each other and sang along. The whole experience was really quite moving, and I felt so at peace with everything.

As we're getting ready to leave, I had a revelation. Why…do I have to go home? So I decided to stay another night at Ashram by myself, and I set up camp in the Negev beyond Ashram, the rational being that it's not like they could really tell me I couldn't if I wasn't on the Ashram itself. And I did. There were actually a significant amount of people that stayed Saturday night, and we all hung out by the campfire. At one point, there were two hangdrums (see: Youtube) being played along with a violin—one of the most beautiful harmonies I've ever heard. I went to bed at around 8:00, and ended up waking up at 10:30, decided to go back to Ashram, and joined people in singing songs around the campfire. At around midnight, music started back up, and people flooded the dance floor, bringing the party back to life.

My camp that night was something else. I was alone. Very alone. I think I was the only person camping beyond the Ashram that night, and I was a good ten minute walk from the gate. I slept without a fly on the tent that night, fighting the chilly breeze that brought the temperature into the 30s for a remarkable view of the night sky. Definitely worth the fight...people could write poems about how beautiful the stars were.

My tent and I and the morning sun
All around, this was one of the coolest places I've ever been. I'll definitely be back. I've come to realize how much more there is to life than the conventional life. It seemed like everyone there floated a few inches above the ground, and their words carried a weight that escapes description. There was so much love.

A Nervous Tic Motion of the Head to the Left (Fingerlings 3) - Andrew Bird
Dawn Chorus - Boards of Canada