Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Haifa

Natan and I awoke early in Jerusalem to another bright sunny morning. We checked out of the hotel and headed back to the Central Bus Station. The city was just beginning to wake up, with delivery vans unloading produce and baked goods all along Jaffa Street. We made our way to the bus station, which was already teeming with people. We would be taking a bus to Tel Aviv, where we would meet up with Natan's brother Daniel and then proceed to Haifa. We grabbed a cup of coffee and watched as Israelis tucked into their breakfasts. I was struck by the difference from the standard American breakfast fare. Instead of bacon, eggs, toast and the like, the Israelis went for large salads with a lot of vegetables.

The bus to Tel Aviv did not take very long. Getting off the bus at the station was where I encoutered my one and only unpleasant experience with the Israeli Security Apparatus. Natan and I had both stowed our bags underneath, and after grabbing these I followed him toward the station entrance. There a baggage screener was checking bags, which surprised me slightly since I had already gone through security at the Jerusalem station. The baggage screener, a middle-aged blonde woman, briefly glanced through Natan's bag. When I placed my backpack on the table she said something in Hebrew and made a gesture toward the door. I didn't know what she said so I took my bag back, which made her start to berate me in Hebrew. I shook my head and apologized, saying I didn't understand what she was saying. She repeated, in Hebrew and louder (I think I can now commiserate with foreign tourists in the States). Natan finally came to my aid and translated that she wanted me to open the bag. OK, but she had been opening everyone else's, but whatever. I opened my backpack and she pulled out the plate from the Old City, which was wrapped in a black plastic bag, then pulled out my "ditty bag" and said something else in Hebrew. I was getting flustered so I start rambling on about my toothbrush and toothpaste and Armenian ceramics, until she rolled her eyes and yelled "OPEN!" Now, I like to think that I made a genuine effort to try to fit in as best I could during my time in Israel, but I'm pretty sure I came across as an American that obviously didn't know what was going on. Once I did open m ditty bag, she didn't bother to look and just waved me away. I don't know why it made me so angry, maybe just the embarrassment of it all, but I stewed about that for the remainder of the day.

The Tel Aviv Central Bus Station is a huge structure that contains a variety of shops and restaurants. It is basically the combination of a bus station and a shopping mall. However it is starting to really show its age. Natan told me that it was a major destination when it opened in the 1990's, but now is in decline. The layout of the station was very confusing. There seemed to be multiple floors with almost randomly-placed escalators throughout the structure. It was really confusing to get around between the different floors, and I was never quite sure of where I was at any given time. Natan's brother Daniel met us at the station after about an hour. It really goes to show how difficult living without a cell phone becomes once you're used to them, since neither Natan nor my phone worked in Israel. Just like in olden days we had to figure out where to meet the night before.The bus to Haifa was also quick. We arrived and started walking, to where I was not entirely sure. This would be the theme of my time in Haifa, walking to some unknown destination. We originally tried walking from the Haifa bus station toward Mount Carmel but the sidewalk soon ended, dispelling that plan. We doubled back around the bus station, stopping at a nearby mall to grab a quick falafel. Natan and Daniel decided that walking up the side of Mount Carmel would not be the most feasible of plans, so we caught a cab and took a ride up to the top of the Bahai World Centre gardens. The views were astounding. We entered the gardens at the Upper Terrace. The port of Haifa was bustling, with a line of ships coming and going on the impossibly blue waters of the Mediterranean.The Shrine of the Bab was closed by the time we arrived, but several of the terraced gardens were open for touring. The landscaping was meticulous, as you can see. The gardens include 18 circular terraces that extend all the way up the slope of Mount Carmel on both sides of the Shrine. We started at the top and walked down toward the Shrine. It was growing late into the afternoon and the gardens were set to close at 5. We decided to head down toward the port and waterfront and find a hotel for the night. We kept looking but came across nothing. After a good hour of walking through downtown Haifa we stopped for a quick coffee. I went to use the restroom and came upon a problem. Up until this point I had been lucky to have either English translations or pictograms delineating the men's and women's. My luck ended here, as the two signs were Hebrew only. Luckily for me there weren't proper doors to the restrooms, just beaded curtains, so I could look into both and see through to the stalls. In the second restroom I saw the international sign of a men's room: the seat was up. Crisis averted. We resumed our search for a hotel and we were hopeful as we came up upon the building pictured to the left. If anything looks like a hotel, that would be it. Unfortunately it turned out to be the Sail Tower, a government building. So we kept walking. After another mile or so we found ourselves in a decidedly industrial area. It was time to give up and hail a cab. The cabbie laughed when Daniel explained our predicament and told us that there were absolutely no hotels anywhere near where we had been. He drove us halfway back up Mount Carmel to the Tower Hotel Haifa. The price wasn't terrible but the amenities weren't exactly modern. We were on the 14th floor, which did make for a nice view.We left our bags in the hotel room and walked down the commercial street where our hotel was located. About half of the shops closed around sundown, but we perused the remainder for about 45 minutes. Daniel had been stationed in northern Israel during part of his stint in the IDF, so he knew of a large mall called the Grand Canyon. The walk to the mall must have been at least three miles. I'm not really complaining, but I started off with Natan and Daniel with no real idea of where we were going since Natan and Daniel spoke to each other in Hebrew. After an hour of walking I was starting to have doubts. We found ourselves walking along a ridge overlooking the city. The view of the port at night was pretty impressive. In the distance the mall was visible, adjacent to what appeared to be a tunnel under construction. It took another 30 minutes to make it to the mall, and it became apparent that pedestrian access from the direction we had come probably had not been considered by the mall's designers. We actually followed the road down into the parking garage and took the elevators up. The mall was, well, very mall-like. There wasn't much to distinguish this with any new shopping mall in the States. Normally I'm not a big mall aficionado, but it was interesting to see the similarities of the respective Israeli and American consumer cultures. I attempted to order a falafel in the food court in Hebrew, which was a partial success. I nearly received shawarma, and after deploying my newest vocabulary addition (Water = Mayim) I got a Coca-Cola. Daniel also pointed out the Maccabi Haifa F.C. club shop, where I bought myself the one souvenir I had really been coveting: a knit cap with a soccer logo. When I was last abroad (read: Fort Frances, Ottawa) I bought myself an Ottawa Senators hat, so I felt I needed something comparable from Israel. This actually proved more difficult than I had anticipated. In searching the shops in Jerusalem and earlier this evening, I had found nothing except the occasional Yankees hat. Natan suggested I could just switch over to the Evil Empire and be done with it, but that simply will never happen.

It was sufficiently late enough to catch a cab and head to a pub. It was here that I enjoyed several Leffe Browns and spoke with Daniel about his job as a pub manager on a different kibbutz near Urim. It was a day that felt as if I could have easily have been back in Madison. It really drove home the point that the similarities between Israel and the U.S. are not insignificant. This night I also snapped the strangest picture of the trip. It occurred after I had gone to the restroom and for the second time that day realized there were no signs in English, just Hebrew. I stuck my head around the corner and saw a urinal, solving the riddle, but later as I related my troubles to Natan and Daniel they claimed that there were no signs in any language. So the next time I went to the restroom I snapped this picture of what I took to be the sign for the men's room.It's probably a good thing I didn't memorize these symbols, because Daniel informed me with a smirk that this sign read "Fire Extinguisher".

3 Comments:

Blogger over my head said...

Haifa looks really beautiful! I was wondering when you were going to try some Israeli beer. How did it measure up??
Oh and the fire extinguisher thing made me crack up!! :)

4:30 PM  
Blogger Belle of Madison said...

Usually the ladies' room is on the right and the mens' room is on the left. Here in America, anyway.

6:17 PM  
Anonymous J Soul said...

Thanks for giving the blog (J Soul) a shout! Haifa is gorgeous, and I miss Israel. I haven't been since Birthright a long while ago.

7:25 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home