Sunday, May 29, 2011

Israel Recap

Hey all! A week ago I returned to the US after a long trip to the Middle East and I have a lot to write about. The last week has been a whirlwind of car travel -- from Richmond to Charlottesville to DC back to Charlottesville and then 1200 miles to Houston. Finally I'm getting settled in one place and have time to recount my travel adventures.

Best thing I think will be to give you a day-by-day view of Israel, which will organize my memories and allow you to take a break if you get tired reading this! Here goes...

Saturday, May 7, 2011: It was a rush to get to this point...Darden classes ended on Wednesday and I needed to cram an exam, a presentation, and a paper into Thursday and Friday, but somehow I was able to get everything done and pack my bags on Friday night for the long trip. I'm always anxious before a big trip because I fear not packing something important.

After leaving a few minutes to jot a quick blog entry :) -- my two Darden roommates and I received a Saturday morning pickup from our classmate Cassidy in her Scion xB, what I like to call her "toaster-mobile". She handled the 90-minute drive to Richmond Airport and we waltzed through security. I really love RIC...the airport always feels empty, and I think the TSA agents outnumbered the passengers in the security line. So much nicer than Dulles airport.

We transferred through New York's Kennedy airport, which is the polar opposite of RIC -- crowded, unwelcoming, almost no natural sunlight...a concrete jungle. The boarding area for Tel Aviv could probably only seat 1/3 of the passengers on our massive double-decker Boeing 747. And we waited over a hour on the tarmac while we waited for all the European red-eye flights to take off ahead of us. Ugh...I hate Kennedy worse than Dulles.

Dinner was a disgusting kosher meal on Delta (they were out of non-kosher), triple-wrapped in plastic by the New York rabbinical mafia. I took a sleeping pill and tried to pass out in my window seat, also giving one to my nosy Israeli seat neighbor.

Sunday, May 8: The sleeping pill worked! I slept about 6.5 hours until the breakfast meal service, another gross triple-wrapped delicacy. We passed through Israeli passport control, which wasn't any more strenuous than entering the US, and hailed a taxi to our hotel in Herzliya, a suburb north of Tel Aviv. Despite my sleep, my mind was still wiped out from the journey, and I wasn't able to make much conversation with our talkative and opinionated taxi driver from the airport. The driver claimed to be a tour guide and insisted on an extra-special gratuity for the service! He told Aaron to write down all his recommendations, which we promptly ignored.

I believe the best remedy for jet lag is to get some natural sunlight. With our hotel on the beach this wasn't going to be difficult! I tossed a frisbee on the Herzliya beach with several of my classmates and enjoyed the sea breeze of the Mediterranean.

The evening was the welcome reception for the Darden school trip. We ate a full dinner at the hotel and observed the 8PM siren which announced the beginning of Israeli Memorial Day (Jewish days run sunset-to-sunset). After dinner we watched a long movie chronicling the Israel-Lebanon conflict in 2000, sort of like an Israeli "Saving Private Ryan". The whole room almost fell asleep.

Monday, May 9: The Israeli Memorial Day meant we would have a light day. Unlike Memorial Day in the US, which is more about going to the beach than remembering soldiers, the Israelis take their Memorial Day seriously. After a morning meeting with an expat venture capitalist, we traveled to Yitzhak Rabin Square in Tel Aviv which was the place of the prime minister's 1995 assassination. There we watched a moment of silence at 11AM. A siren sounded and everyone left their vehicles, standing at attention. A very powerful moment! We then grabbed a long lunch with an Israeli entrepreneur who we had been working with on a US market entry strategy.

A quick nap at our hotel, and then on to Independence Day festivities! Israel has deliberately placed Memorial Day and Independence Day back-to-back to ensure that they remember the fallen who helped create and preserve the Israeli nation state. There was a stark contrast between the somber Memorial Day and the exuberant Independence Day celebration. As a group we went out to see the street music and celebrations in Herzliya. Lots of young Israelis were out, carrying around plastic Israeli hammers and silly string. Our Israeli Darden professor Gal Raz claimed that the hammers had no significance, but I think you could play "hammer an Egyptian" with them :). I was too jet-lagged to stay out for the Tel Aviv "afterparty".

Tuesday, May 10: Independence Day continues with American-like activities -- lots of Israelis out grilling and watching an aerial demonstration by the Israeli Air Force. We went to the Israeli Independence Museum, the Heichal Haatzmaut, to see the place where the Israeli state was declared in 1948. The rest of the day consisted of a HUGE lunch -- Darden made certain we were VERY well-fed -- and walking tours of old Tel Aviv and the port of Jaffa. Not too interesting, but there wasn't much else to do on Tuesday as most businesses were closed.

Wednesday, May 11: Early wakeup as we hopped a 7:30 AM bus to Jerusalem. We had several meetings at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, first with Israel's Accountant General (the CEO of Israel), then with a nutso right-wing wack job in Foreign Affairs who gave us a heavily biased history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and finally an entertaining diplomat who shared a candid view of behind-the-scenes negotiations for peace.

In the afternoon we toured the Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust museum, not a happy place! Despite living for six years in Washington DC I never visited the American Holocaust Museum, because I didn't want a day in which I would feel totally miserable, and now I knew why! In the evening we had another long dinner and received an entertaining lecture on Israeli business culture following our evening dinner. For those of you who will be doing business with Israelis in the future, just remember that they tend to be impatient, direct, and informal.

Thursday, May 12: Another early wake-up as we were headed to a morning meeting at the Ministry of Trade. We then traveled to the Israeli Parliament (the Knesset), where we received a tour of the building. It was a busy day for the tour guides as the Parliament wasn't in session that day and several packs of elementary school students were passing through.

The afternoon we were touring the Jerusalem Old City. Given the significance of this place to the three major monotheistic world religions, this promised to be intense. We even had an armed security guard for our group of 30. Our tour included the Church of the Holy Sepulchure, believed to have been built atop the hill where Jesus was crucified and buried, and also the Western Wall, one of the holiest sites for Jews. We then toured the City of David, the oldest settled neighborhood of Jerusalem.

We stopped to dine at a delicious Arab restaurant on our way back to Tel Aviv -- hummus, falafel, and kabobs. Yum! Our bus ride back had a karaoke competition, and our student group went out to enjoy the nightlife afterwards. I ended with a group of students sampling shisha on the Tel Aviv beach -- life is good :)

Friday, May 13: Yet another Friday the 13th without incident-- I'm starting to become skeptical about this whole bad luck concept. The Darden group traveled north to Kibbutz Magal to visit with Netafim, an Israeli pioneer in a technology called "drip irrigation". This water-conserving irrigation technique has allowed Israel to reclaim much of the desert for growing crops. The kibbutz is an Israeli commune designed during Israel's socialist era to provide jobs through communal living and protect Israel's frontiers -- this kibbutz overlooks the West Bank.

We returned to our Tel Aviv hotel for a late afternoon debate between a reform Jewish rabbi and a follower of Orthodox Judaism. It got heated! I hadn't realized how the Jewish state is largely secular and has an even more intense debate about the role of religion in society than we do in the US. At 6PM we recognized the beginning of Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest. Orthodox Jews don't drive cars or do much of anything besides sit around with their families on that day, but in largely secular Tel Aviv it was plainly visible that this custom is not widely observed, much like you may find businesses open on Sunday morning in the US.

Saturday, May 14: Saturday was a day to work on our group projects for our Sunday presentations. My group needed to get out of hotel, so we looked for an outdoor cafe with WiFi. But then a shower passed through, unusual for Tel Aviv in May, so we found refuge in a much nicer hotel lobby which also had great WiFi (and a nice wine bar). After a productive few hours, we took some break time on the beaches of Tel Aviv -- the sun returned -- and in the evening sampled some African-inspired Israeli music at a local club.

Sunday, May 15: Sunday is a work day in Israel! My internal clock was a bit off when I was told we would be waking up for an 8:30 AM presentation by the head of PR at Better Place, and Israeli electric car startup. The car launches later this year and sounds way cool -- I want one! We then caught the bus to Haifa, Israel's third city. Haifa is a lot like San Francisco...hilly, quiet and sophisticated. Tel Aviv is more like Israeli New York -- the big city and the cultural hub, and Jerusalem is sort of like Israeli Washington -- full of important government figures and a place which takes itself a little too seriously!

In Haifa we visited the Technion, Israel's equivalent of MIT. And indeed it shares MIT's ugly concrete architecture and density of NERDS (albeit happier ones than at MIT). At the Technion each of our student groups made presentations to the startups which we had been working with on US business strategy.

The American news was filled with stories about the Arab border infiltrations on "Nakba Day", the annual day of commemoration for the Palestinian people of the displacement that accompanied the creation of Israel in 1948, but in Haifa you wouldn't have been able to tell what was happening. In fact, we all were surprised to read about it in the news while checking email over lunch. Life carried on as usual in Israel -- I was quite surprised.

Monday, May 16: Long day. We drove northeast to the Tefen Industrial Park where we met the highly energized founder of luxury soapmaker Gamila's Secret. "Just sell the f---ing soap!" was his motto. We ate a nice (and again very filling) lunch on the Sea of Galilee, did some brief kayaking on the Jordan River, and toured an army base in the Golan Heights just a few miles from the border with Lebanon. The army base felt like something out of a Vietnam War movie -- all the soldiers were about 19-22 years old. We received a demonstration of firing mortar shells from a tank (which had been purchased from the US) and learned about the compulsory three years that every Israeli man spends in the military.

In the evening we had our final group dinner in Haifa and saw exuberant celebrations outside our hotel afterwards as the Maccabi Haifa soccer team had just captured the Israeli championship, with an afterparty at the club next door to where we were staying.

Tuesday, May 17: Final day of the school trip. After a boring meeting with Qualcomm we visited the Israeli headquarters for Google, which had many of the features of the Googleplex in Mountain View -- cushy seating, free food, and a casual dress code (T-shirts encouraged). Google also had an amazing orange-juice machine which sliced the oranges, squeezed the juice, and discarded the rinds. So much fun to watch!

Following the Google meeting was a visit to the beautiful Baha'i Gardens. I didn't learn anything about their religion, but really enjoyed the view from the immaculately tended grass and palm trees. A group lunch followed and then goodbyes to most of the students on the trip!

This wasn't the end of the trip for me, however. Cassidy, Ronald, Aaron, and I fetched an Avis rental car and set out for a road trip! As Israel is about the size of New Jersey, it would be possible for us to traverse the entire country over a few days.

We drove our car from Haifa into the Negev Desert, settling down into a hippie tent village just outside the town of Mitzpe Ramon. We were hoping for an amazing view of the stars, but the night sky was clouded up, sadly. Sleeping in a tent was quite the contrast from the hotels we had stayed at on our school tour, though!

Wednesday, May 18: After a filling breakfast in Mitzpe Ramon, we plunged our rental car into the Ramon Crater, the largest "erosion crater" (i.e. not formed by a meteor) on the planet. You could hear a pin drop in the hot desert -- hardly any signs of life but flies and the occasional ibex -- except for the sounds of the Israeli fighter jets. The air force was playing Top Gun above us all afternoon, flying only a couple thousand feet above our heads. From the top of the crater we were almost level with the planes. So cool!

We hiked to a peak inside the crater. Amazing to see nothing but rocky desert extend for miles all around you.

In the late afternoon we arrived in Eilat, a resort town on an inlet extending from the Red Sea. Though we were given high expectations by the Israelis, Eilat definitely looked like the Jersey Shore of Israel. Lots of tattoos, greasy hair, and scandalous cleavage.

Thursday, May 19: Our purpose for being in Eilat was to catch a bus tour to the lost city of Petra in Jordan. Our tour company almost left us behind, but after a border crossing through a barbed-wire demilitarized zone we found our tour bus and went north into the Jordanian mountains.

Jordan was far more accessible to Americans than I had imagined. Road signs were in both Arabic and English and most young Jordanians spoke decent English. The kingdom of Jordan is on good terms with the U.S. and has normalized relations with Israel. Petra has a lot of Western tourists and if you have time you can also stay at one of the many luxury hotels in the nearby town of Wadi Musa.

Petra, for those not familiar, is a 2000-year-old ancient city carved out of sandstone canyons. The canyons made the city defensible from outsiders and the architectural feats are remarkable for people who didn't have modern construction equipment. In fact, it was recently named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, alongside the likes of the Great Wall of China and Machu Picchu.

If you've seen the end of "Indiana Jones and the Last Cruscade", you've seen Petra, which stood in for the temple housing the Holy Grail. The entrance of this temple is Petra's Treasury, the most famous place in the ancient city. The city extends far beyond the Treasury, but we only had a couple hours to walk around so we certainly couldn't take in everything.

Friday, May 20: We hopped in the car again and drove north to Masada, an ancient fortress atop the Dead Sea. Masada was the last stand for a Jewish revolt against the Roman Empire and besieged in 73 AD. The last Jewish survivors, rather than succumb to a life of slavery, committed a mass suicide, and the site today holds great symbolic importance for the Israeli military. "Masada shall never fall again!", their soldiers chant as they are sworn in. A cable car ride to the top saved us from a strenuous hike in the 95 degree heat.

We descended to visit the beach of Ein Bokek, on the shore of the Dead Sea. The sea is actually a salty lake, with nine times the amount of salt as the ocean, and is the lowest point on Earth. With all that salt you couldn't sink in the sea if you wanted too! To float on the Dead Sea, you wade into the water until you can squat, and then your feet let go of the sea floor as the water pulls your whole body to the surface. Such a cool feeling. The salt also leaves your skin feeling slimy so you don't want to sit in it too long.

We ended our day in Tel Aviv, about a two-hour drive from the Dead Sea. It felt great to be out of the desert and back to 70-degree temperatures! We had an easy evening by the beach and dancing in the club Lima Lima, again not thwarted by Shabbat.

Saturday, May 21: Final day in Israel, which we celebrated with a lazy day at the beach. Any remaining pale skin was tanned, and the crowded beach provided ample opportunity for people-watching.

Security at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv was as challenging as we were warned. My bags were fully searched and my passport stamps were heavily scrutinized, particularly mine from the Emirates and Malaysia. But I passed through and ended up in Charlottesville on Sunday afternoon after a long dark flight to Atlanta.

I came away with a view of Israel quite different from what you see on the evening news, a view of a country which lives a rather normal lifestyle, albeit with typical Israeli impatience and informality. The school trip allowed me to get a far deeper understanding of Israeli society than I would have received otherwise from traveling around, and I saw a country of great resilience faced by great challenges, not only from the Arabs but also from Orthodox Jews, a lack of water, and an endless stream of immigration. That Israel continues to survive is a small miracle and a testament to the strength of purpose shared by its people.

For those of you considering a trip to Israel...don't believe what you see on the news! Israel is a safe country and has great weather in the spring. If you're intimidated, than do what I did and sign up for a group tour -- so much easier to visit an unfamiliar land when you have someone else planning everything for you! As long as you can eat mostly kosher for two weeks (no pork, ham, bacon, shellfish) then you will enjoy it immensely!

Many more photos from my trip are on Facebook

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