Friday, September 30, 2011

Shabbat Shalom

When I travel to a new country, I always look forward to enjoying their cuisine.
This time it was Levantine.

In a land where McDonald's is Kosher, you know the people take their food seriously.
And in Israel, the portions are larger than life.
Everywhere there was hummus and pita and foods laced with za'atar.
Most of my meals were pasta, sandwiches, shawermas, salads or bagels accompanied by a glass of freshly squeezed Orange juice.
And then there were those weird moments where I'd ask for a mango milkshake and they'd ask me whether I'd like it with milk or orange juice.

While Daniela was away, her friend Horin invited me for Shabbat dinners with his family.
Shabbat marks the weekend and is the day of rest in Judaism.
This means one doesn't use their computer, phone, elevator, car, kitchen or touch any switches.
Instead you spend this day resting at the beach, reading and eating meals with your family.
Doesn't that sound super?

It all started with a little prayer followed by the blessing of wine and bread followed by the meal itself.
And the food? Well, there was everything from rice, noodles, fish, schnitzel, baked beans, fried brinjal, sweet potato, some more veggies and fruits and even a special tea.

I felt so lucky to have been included in this intimate family dinner and to have been able to have experienced Shabbat in Israel.
Walking for 30 minutes from Daniela's house to Horin's house on the other hand was maybe not as fun as the meal itself.

While I was there, I even managed to learn some Israeli cooking.
So, here's how you make Ptitim.
You find a nice Israeli boy and get him to cook it for you.

Just kidding. 
That's only what I get to do.
The rest of you mortals can cook it yourself like this:

(I came back to Bombay and tried to re-create this wonderful preparation with all the wrong ingredients. Couscous instead of Ptitim, spring onions instead of white onions and a Maggi chicken cube instead of Knorr soup powder. It wasn't the same but was close enough).

And for dessert - A Mango.

It was time for me to stop pretending to live in the Blue Lagoon and learn to cut and eat a mango. Just incase I find my ship back to San Francisco and civilisation someday.

Horin taught me how. And I decided to illustrate it for my fellow cavemen.

You can eat it with a fork.
And if you're lazy/ not ready to let go of your aboriginal habits, you can use your teeth.

For me, the Mango tasted even better when it looked like a flower.
Presentation is everything.

Shabbat Shalom.
Have a super Friday.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

In a Nutshell

Have you read Eat Pray Love?
Well, I read Eat and was done with it.
I took the obvious route and got the DVD and frankly Eat was the best part of it.
After traveling to Israel what I realised was, Liz Gilbert got it all wrong.
You don't need to spend a year in 3 different countries to experience all that.
I got all that and more on spending a few weeks in the Holy Land.

Israel a tiny country but with so much to offer.
And no it's not in Europe. It's in Asia.

It has a super relaxed atmosphere except for the part where you're surrounded by 20 year olds carrying guns since every Israeli joins the Israel Defense Forces at some point. It took me about 2 days to get used to it and the whole time I was thinking of Zohan from You don't mess with the Zohan.

On most days I could be found in situ on the beach sipping my OJ and relaxing until sunset.
I even played Matkot (beach tennis) with a wooden bat and a rubber ball. Fun!
Enjoyed many Cocktails of the day.
Made many visits to the supermarket and discovered some new fruits.
And there was Hummus. Everywhere.
Attended birthday parties where I think they sang Happy Birthday in Hebrew.
Finally learned to play pool.
Took a lot of photos in Auto mode.
Enjoyed experiencing Shabbat.
But I didn't find time to see a Kibbutz. Oh well. Maybe on my next trip.

I met a lot of people. A lot of whom had traveled to India.
I was greeted with Namaste, Aapka Naam Kya Hai, Chai and even Chapati.
Did I look like one? Or was that the extent of their Hindi vocab?

Impressed with how much Hindi the Israelis knew, I thought it was my turn to learn some Hebrew too.
This is how far I got.
Ken - Yes.
Lo - No.
Ma  - What
Shalosh - 3
Hamesh - 5
I don't know any other numbers.
Toda - Thank you
Tayelet - Promenade
Sababa  - Cool
Hodu - India
Ben Gurion  - Their first Prime Minister (who's picture is on their currency)

I learnt quite a lot. A lot about a whole new culture.
It felt as though I had been away for so long. Maybe because so much had happened in such a short span of time. My sister made sure she gave me regular updates. This is only a gist of what had happened:
Beyoncé was pregnant.
America experienced an earthquake.
And then a Hurricane.
There were terror attacks in Israel.
Gérard Depardieu peed on a plane.
And Anna Hazare fasted for 288 hours to bring some kind of change in India.
Which only made his Facebook fans go nuts.

During all this craziness Steve Jobs also resigned as the CEO of Apple.
My sister emailed me his parting note. Being in Israel at that point made me already feel like I was on a journey. And this parting note just took it to another level.

"Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma - which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary"

In a nutshell, I fell in love.
In love with Israel.
In love with everything around me.
It turned my world around. 
It changed my paradigm.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011


On holiday I am a moment-capturing maniac.
I enjoy taking photos of just about anything.
Here are some random photos from my travels around Israel.

Is it a flower? Or food? It's Chili pots.

When stores expand in Tel Aviv, they don't start chains. They just spill onto the street.

Tents on the street in Tel Aviv - an innovative way to bring down rent.
(Something we couldn't dream of doing in Bombay).

Advertising/ a joke/ Tel Aviv's version of on Ben Yehuda street.

The award for the cutest little kitten and puppy in Israel goes to:

A painted building wall giving the illusion of people in windows in Jerusalem.

Body Shop's evil twin in Israel. Also called Body Shop.

Tel Aviv - so inviting.

And people don't believe in brands.

Something that looked like french fries growing on Bat Yam beach.

Kwality Wall's ice-cream in Jerusalem. Felt good to see a familiar logo after seeing too much Hebrew.

And then I saw the Himalaya store in Tel Aviv and felt so at home.

And found an Indian flag.

A penguin outside a restaurant in Nahariya. I couldn't understand why.

A shop selling curios?

An Army advert at the train station. How cute is he?

You don't mess with the Zohan.

The luck that carried me through my trip.

Except while playing pool.

And then I came home after being hypnotised at the airport by a man who juggled for an hour.

Back to Bombay. Back to Reality.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Going in all directions

My trip to Israel was going pretty well as you can see.
Except for the part where I had to take a rain check on going to the Red Sea due to terror attacks in Eilat.

On Daniela's return, we traveled around the country a little more.
Israel as a country is really small but you somehow never run out of beautiful places to travel to and interesting things to see. Having covered a lot of the historical/ religious sights in Jerusalem, I decided to skip Bethlehem and Nazareth and do a day trip to another city with Daniela.

Daniela being the spontaneous traveler and me trying to be one, we decided to travel somewhere North one afternoon. I had just had a shawerma at a vegan restaurant with fake meat and at that point was ready for just about anything. We took the bus to Tel Aviv station thinking that was the day we'd probably go see the Roman ruins in Caesarea or the Bahá'í gardens in Haifa.
But, on reaching the station, Daniela bumped into an old friend who highly recommended a place further North called Nahariya.

He told us that Nahariya was just beautiful. On seeing the sparkle in his eyes on speaking about the beaches and the magical river that runs through the city I began picturing something right out of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

We took the train only to stop for a minute in Haifa. We saw the Bahai gardens from a distance. I suppose it was beautiful but frankly I could barely see it. We were so close yet so far. And lazy.
A long train and bus ride later we were in Nahariya clueless about the direction of the beach or the existence of the magical river. We bought some icecreams to feel recharged and made our way to the beach.

The beach was beautiful, lined with restaurants and bars that came alive at night.
And when we asked for directions to the river, it felt like people were laughing at us.
Maybe because when we got to it, the river was more like a puddle.

So we basically traveled far and long to reach yet another beach and bum around on it till sunset. But, I wasn't complaining. We walked around and explored the city. This was difficult at times since Daniela and I were like the Hare and the Tortoise who had been forcibly programmed to walk at the same pace somehow.

After our adventurous trip to Nahariya, we woke up the next day and decided to laze around, have a late breakfast, late lunch and an unhealthy dinner - cooked by me.
Daniela was so into her health food and salads. And, me with my lack of culinary skills would try and help her make something wholesome which would usually turn out to be instant noodles, orange juice and flavoured yoghurt for dessert.
I tried looking after myself by taking Calcium supplements which I'd end up breaking with my tablet crusher since I have big tablet swallowing issues while Daniela thought I looked like I was doing some weird Indian drugs.

The rest of my days in Israel were spent mainly beach hopping.
- On Bat Yam beach and making a turtle out of shells to showoff our creative skills to the rest of the beach bums.
- Or Tel Aviv Beach where we sipped on Orange juice and ate watermelon.
We did also go shopping (which was fun since it involved more meal time than shopping time).
And then we'd go to bars and I would get a colourful girly drink - usually cocktail of the day.

We also spent a day exploring Jaffa - the old city in Tel Aviv. Here we walked along the beach and into the old city, saw newly married couples, art galleries, jewelry stores and even made a wish on a wishing bridge.

So many wishes on this wonderful holiday in a wonderful country.

I don't even remember what I had wished for, but if had anything to do with the outcome of my trip, I know it came true.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Lowest Point

The lowest point?
Of my trip? There wasn't one.
Of the Earth?
Yes, I made it there.
And it was spectacular.

I heard they're bidding to make the Dead Sea one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. And I really hope they win.
Now this is not just a beautiful travel destination. The caves along the Dead Sea have also housed the Dead Sea scrolls for thousands of years. These scrolls are a great source of knowledge on Judaism and Christianity and shows us the evolutionary link between the two.

I had been wanting to go to the Dead Sea for a long time after having read about it in magazines. It seemed like an exciting place to visit. The perfect blend of exciting and relaxing, if you know what I mean.
And a few weeks after I left Spencer Tunick was going to be doing a photoshoot there. A photoshoot of nude people forming a sort of phalanx over the Dead sea - and call it art. Would you do it?
I checked out the website out of curiousity. Volunteers could sign up and be a part of this event and even 'prepare' for it at weekend parties on Tel Aviv's Carlton beach.

Going to the Dead sea was just magical. Horin picked me up shortly after lunchtime. In a 4 wheel drive. I'm saying that because that's the day I realised that it means a little more than a car with 4 wheels.
Since I hadn't had lunch, we stopped at a gas station along the way. The cashier at the gas station store thought Horin like every other Israeli had traveled to Hodu (Hebrew for India) and had brought me back (as a souvenir?). I picked up some peanut butter chips and peach water and a Magnum icecream - just something to prevent me from being melted away by the non-sympathetic sun.

We drove South in the direction of Be'er Sheva and Eilat (recent terror targets), passed through Arad while being surrounded by nothing but open land on all sides. All I could see were beautiful cloudy shadows cast on the uneven desert. It was surreal enough to form the background of a Dali painting.
We even saw a mini vertical dust storm and a little army base.
I suddenly felt so far away from home. But, in a good way.

Horin played the perfect tour guide and kept showing me little things along the way.
He also stopped to pick fruit from a cactus. I loved his enthusiasm but I'm really not that adventurous. This was seriously not a wise move since I never ate the fruit and he had cactus spines in his fingers for the rest of the day.

Driving through the desert and along the route côtière was breathtaking.
We stopped on the way so I could have ten minutes to just take in the crazy beauty I was surrounded by.
Plus I was going 'Yay! I'm going to the dead sea' in my head all through the journey.

Along the way, we could see signs starting from +500 mtrs and by the time we got there we were at -400 mtrs. This is because about 400 metres below sea level lies the Dead Sea - the World's deepest hypersaline lake.

We reached by mid afternoon and sneaked into a private hotel beach where we enjoyed sipping their ice water and groovy music. I couldn't believe I was there and within 10 seconds I was in my swimsuit and ready to go in for a dip. 

As you walk into the sea, it's a little pebbly but after a few steps you're walking on nothing but salt. The water is slightly oily which makes your skin feels baby soft in seconds. The Dead Sea also has a very high salt content so you won't find any fish swimming around you, since they can't survive in this sort of an environment. And, for this reason, it's called the Dead Sea. I was warned not to put my face in or suddenly try underwater swimming but if you have any cuts or wounds, too bad.

With the high mineral content, it's only natural then that you float. This was so much fun since anyway even when I go swimming, I only float around in the pool. I tried every angle and I still floated. Even on my stomach. It was amazing. I felt like I was in the circus with a safety net.

We then went and bought some mud. I thought I could just pick up mud from near the sea but that's not how it works. I applied the mud and went for my second dip in the sea. We floated around till sunset, watching the colours change over the water. It was nothing less than perfect.

Before leaving, Horin helped me take back some dead sea water as a souvenir. Yes, I was brave enough to carry the dead sea in a water bottle on my flight back and go through terrorist interrogation once again. All I needed to put on was my armour of nonchalance.

We drove back after sunset. It had suddenly become chilly. Above us was the most starry sky I had seen in my life. Enveloped in a blanket of stars made it feel like a festival in the desert.

It was the end of a perfect day.
Too good to be true.


Monday, September 19, 2011

The Holy Land

Israel's Holiest city is so holy that even the bagel I ate there was from a place called Holy Bagel.

Jerusalem is a potpourri of the 3 major Abrahamic religions - Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
And I was lucky enough to go there twice.

The city is divided into 4 quarters - the Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Armenian.
Walking through the cobbled alleyways, surrounded by the limestone walls made me suddenly feel transported straight into a dreamworld.

The first time I went to Jerusalem was with Daniela.
We took a bus and then a minibus and made it there by lunchtime.
We had shawermas and frozen yoghurt - the first of many.

As compared to Tel Aviv, Jerusalem has a completely different feel.
While everyone is Tel Aviv is in swimwear, the people in Jerusalem are more orthodox in their beliefs, behaviour and choice of clothing.
It's funny when you travel from one city to another for just an hour and see a world of a difference.

Daniela and I walked around the old city, took pictures, visited a little art gallery and finally made it to the Western Wall after having had a gallon of water. It was like the sun was on steroids.
On our way to the Western Wall we met a man who started chatting with us and tied red Kabbalah threads on our wrists for luck. I said "Cool, thank you". Then I realised even luck isn't free these days. And for 10 Shekels I bought enough luck for my whole family.

After being bubble-wrapped in luck, it was time to go to the Western Wall.
The Western Wall is a remnant of the ancient holy Temple. Daniela told me even Shakira and Obama had paid a little visit there. We covered our shoulders with scarves and walked down to the wall ready to make wishes.
I love making wishes. I wrote down everything I wanted which frankly isn't much. But, I went a little crazy writing my note which looked like I was writing Chapter One of a book. After writing our wishes on little pieces of paper, we folded and pushed them into the crevices of the stone wall before walking backwards away from the wall out of respect.

It felt like a special day, just being there.

After this we made our way to the fruit market where we met the Halva king who gave us commoners some free halva samples.
I bought bananas, grapes and mango for breakfast which are basically easy-to-eat fruits which I don't need to cut. (Incase you're wondering how I eat mango without cutting it, my secret is that I pierce a hole on the top and eat it out of that. It's a little caveman-like but it works.)
We then got our dose of fresh orange juice because my day would feel incomplete without it.

My second trip to the capital was when Daniela was away.
This time it was to explore the Christian quarter.
I found a tour group in Tel Aviv and went along with them. It was an interesting mix of people. Some Japanese, some American, German, Brazilian and 2 Indian guys (a perfect example of awkward-friendly).
I had woken up at 6 am that morning or I wouldn't have been able to make it to Tel Aviv to catch the bus at 7 am and so I slept for most of the journey only waking up to catch glimpses of vineyards, olive trees, almond trees and cotton fields.

We reached Jerusalem soon enough and as I looked out of my window, I could see limestone buildings everywhere. I noticed a beautiful bridge which I later found out was designed to look like a harp since the harp was the instrument known to be played by David (King David of Israel). Design with meaning is always something I appreciate.
Overall Jerusalem is just a beautiful and well planned city - now with a new tram.

Our first stop that day was at Mount Scopus from where we could see all of Jerusalem. From here we could see the Al Aqsa Mosque inside which lies the Dome of the Rock - the shrine built on the spot where Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven. It is no wonder then that Jerusalem is Islam's third holiest city.
Even the Jews pray facing this direction as they believe that there lies the Foundation Stone where Abraham prepared to sacrifice Isaac.
We could also see the Mount of Olives - where Jesus spent time after the last supper, the Church of Holy Sepulchre - where Jesus  was crucified and resurrected and the Western Wall.

I felt so overwhelmed just being there. Being Hindu, it didn't have any religious significance for me, but something about it felt special.

We then passed through the Kidron Valley - the Valley of Judgement for the Jewish people which also happens to be the location of the Tomb of Mary.

From here we began our walking tour through the different quarters and I got to go back to the Western Wall to make my wishes again. Just as a reminder.
This time however, being a Monday, I got to see the Bar Mitzvah ceremonies that were taking place that day. I climbed onto a chair like many other women from the ladies side of the wall so I could get a good look at the ceremonies taking place on the men's side of the wall. It was exciting to be present for such a significant moment of a stranger's life and still feel like a part of it. I especially loved the part where we were showered with sweets after every ceremony. Mazel Tov.

We then moved into the Christian quarter of Jerusalem. We walked along the Via Dolorosa - the route marked by the stations of the Cross through which Jesus walked before being crucified. We were then led to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre - where Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected.

I went to a Christian school where we grew up singing the 'Our Father' which to me felt like just a song we sang every morning but being in Jerusalem that day suddenly felt a bit surreal.

After all this, my group was taken souvenir shopping. And I faced the usual stuff. "Are you from India? Namaste. Are you married? Oh, this would look lovely on you." And the whole time I was thinking 'Ok bye. I just want to go next door and eat my Shawerma'.

My group bonded while I got my fill of Shawerma and OJ. Everyone seemed nice and fun and mingled well. While Indian guy no.1 (who gave me his card with the hope of a future 'friendship') insisted on a pure veg meal and was wondering what chickpeas were, I was too bored/mean to bother to tell him it's channa after being annoyed by Indian guy no.2 (with his George Michael earring) who had had a beer for breakfast and blown smoke in my face through the tour.

After lunch I went to visit Yad Vashem - the Holocaust Museum.
It is a huge museum dedicated to the Jews who lost their lives in the Holocaust and is divided into the 3 parts - the main museum, the Hall of Remembrance and the Children's memorial.
The garden at the entrance is lined with thousands of trees to honour those who helped the Jews during the Holocaust.
Seeing photos, belongings and videos of the people who had actually experienced being there at a young age and losing their loved ones was really difficult. It seemed so cruel that it just didn't seem real. It felt like I was a part of a really sad movie. But, then from time to time I'd realise that it wasn't a movie but someone's life.
I think I could've skipped this and visited Bethlehem instead that afternoon.

I left Jerusalem with a lot of thoughts - about life, death and how humans can sometimes be so inhuman.
Yad Vashem seemed like a bad dream. I had fallen asleep on the bus on my way back only to be woken up by a bunch of people laughing at me having dropped all my belongings. Or maybe I was snoring. Who knows.
It felt good to be back in Bat Yam. Back in the present. Back to reality.
Reality being my holiday.

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