Friday, December 2, 2011

Camel Days

We will be in Israel for just over two weeks and Jacob's parents, Bill and LaVonne, have an agenda of non-stop action. After an initial day of rest, we drove over to the Arab District in Haifa to visit two of their friends, Milad and Nadia. Milad has seven children and 15 grandchildren and travels half the week to assist in the construction of the fence being built between Israel and Egypt. Over pizza at the restaurant below his apartment where his daughter works, he explained to us that family is everything to him and that he considers Bill and LaVonne family and so, by extension, we are his family. After lunch we went up to the apartment that he and his wife share with his brother and his wife to have Turkish coffee and cake and meet another daughter and four of the grandkids. As we left his daughter gave Vaughn a Saint Maria necklace that she gives to her children.

After our visit there was shopping to be done since LaVonne planned a party with four of the Russian children to whom she teaches English. She and Vaughn hung streamers and made animal balloons and we all pitched in to make falafel fixings. The party was big success and, like all good parties, continued on much later than the intended completion time. The kids bobbed for apples, played several games and had a spelling bee. You might think that a spelling bee isn't exactly the kind of game that kids would want to play at a party but LaVonne has been teaching these kids English for several years and they were excited to practice and show off what they had learned.

The next day we had reservations to spend the night at a camel ranch in the desert area of Negev. On the way down to the camel ranch we stopped off at the Dead Sea for a quick swim. The Dead Sea is the lowest point on Earth, 1,388 feet below sea level. It wasn't overly warm either outside or in the water but it seemed like heresy to not go for at least a quick swim. The high saline (33.7% salinity) content means that it is impossible to sink and I have to admit that it was pretty novel to bob around and float out in the water with little regard to how far away we got from the shore. At least that was until Jacob got a tiny splash up in his eye and we had to quickly head for the showers to rinse it out. Even with a shower rinse the salt continued to show up on my face in thick, white layers after the water evaporated.

LaVonne has begun teaching Vaughn Hebrew and he is an enthusiastic pupil. By the time we reached the Dead Sea he had learned how to say: “hello”, “my name is Vaughn”, “I speak English”, and “I am 9." LaVonne has a no-fear approach to learning a language and she found several people throughout the afternoon to have Vaughn practice his new phrases on. By the time we were going to bed, Vaughn was writing “I love mom and dad” in Hebrew and intently studying the dictionary he borrowed from Bill and LaVonne.

The Dead Sea was about three hours southeast of Bill and LaVonne's home in Haifa and the camel ranch was another hour further south. We didn't arrive at the camel ranch until around 6:00 pm and it was already getting dark. I rushed over to the camel area but after the camel I was petting went from friendly to lunging/snapping combined with a weird guttural growling noise, I decided I'd wait for a lesson in camel body language before proceeding further.

Our housing at the ranch is a little hut with straw mats placed directly on the sandy desert floor. Nevertheless, it is quite comfortable with electricity and a heater in the room, a necessity on a chilly December night. Dinner was a wonderful “camel shepherd meal” of saffron rice, tahina, lentils, vegetable stew, bread cooked directly in a fire, olives and dates and lots of sweet tea. By 8:30 we were crawling into bed exhausted.

The next day we headed out for a one hour camel ride. Our camels were dromedaries, the one-humped camel, and they were domesticated about 4,500 years ago (if that seems like a long time ago, consider that dogs were domesticated approximately 10,000 years before that). In case you were wondering if you sit in front or behind of the hump, you actually sit on top of the hump on a bunch of padding. Our camels were tethered together and Vaughn and I made up the rear on a 24 year old camel named Rachel. Riding the camels was a little uneventful, you really just plod along in a row but it was a fun experience to ride such a large and graceful animal. Our guide was also a little surly (and misread his audience a bit by taking a swipe at Obama) but he did a nice job telling us about the history of the area and the Bedouin people. Tomorrow we are heading off for a day trip to Jerusalem.

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