Reflections from Israel: Haifa

Part II: Haifa

My original plan was to travel to Haifa on Saturday—but as demonstrated earlier—My plan was shuffled to Sunday instead. A review of Israel’s geography shows that Israel is a tiny country, around the size of the state of New Jersey. Haifa is an ancient port city located on the Northwestern coast of Israel. It is home to a famous landmark that is amazingly not Jewish: the Baha’i Gardens. For those who don’t know, Baha’i is a recent addition to the monotheistic faiths that preaches unity. According to bahai.org,  “…all the world’s religions represent stages in the revelation of God’s will and purpose for humanity.” I personally believe this is something true.

We often meet people who cross our paths later in life. My trip to Haifa was a pristine example. Five years ago, on a flight from Los Angeles to San Francisco, I met a nice Jewish-Israeli lady. Through the years, we kept in contact and became friends. Haifa is her hometown and she was kind enough to introduce me to a friend of hers who lives there. Her friend and I connected on Facebook and she gave me practical advice about Haifa, Israeli public transportation, and Israel in general. She and her husband, a newlywed couple, were super-nice and even hosted me for an evening.

I checked my smart phone for the time, forty minutes until train departure. Earlier Saturday, I researched the train schedule from Tel Aviv to Haifa. I noticed there are trains running post-Shabbat. After some back and forth with my Haifa hosts, we decided it was easier to depart for Haifa Saturday evening, sight see Sunday morning, and return Sunday afternoon—to be back in time for my friend’s wedding in Jerusalem. I waited outside of my Tel Aviv apartment for the taxi to take me to the Central Train Station. Geez, they are late. My Tel Aviv hosts had called a taxi for me and they said there is a five-minute wait. It has been ten already! A beam of light in the darkening day snapped me out of frustration. It stopped in front me and a pair of eyes looked out at me from within. About time I thought!

It was the first Saturday evening post-Shabbat train up the Israeli western coastline. The shadows of the night covered up what was to be a fantastic view of the coast in daylight. Wow, pretty advanced! I thought to myself upon discovering the train itself, in addition to the train station, had free Wi-Fi. I had an hour to kill, why not research a bit about Haifa’s history and place in the Middle East.

I typed “Haifa” into Google search and clicked on the first search result, Wikipedia. Haifa, according to Wiki, is the third largest city in Israel. It was founded around three thousand years ago during the Late Bronze Age operating as a port and dye-making center. It is known as the “San Francisco of Israel” due to the city being built into hills like the former. The city was developed in “tiers” into Mount Carmel. I knew about the breathtaking views from upper Haifa and was secretly excited to finally see it in person.

The train slowed down, I turn to look at the information monitor to make sure the stop is for Haifa. Upon confirmation, I lifted my bags and pulled them over my shoulders and disembarked. I have to find the bus station. My Haifa hosts said the bus is the easiest and most inexpensive method to get from the station to their neighborhood. Seeing the crowd move in a certain direction, I followed them thinking the majority is probably also headed there. My hunch was correct as the sign for the bus stop came visible. Let’s see, I need bus #132. I walked through the bus station, saw busy #132, and waited.

More and more people gathered for bus #132. When it finally arrived, people were all fighting to board. The bus took its route around and up Mount Carmel. Predicting that my stop was coming up, I walked up to the bus driver to make sure. From the bus, I saw my Haifa host waiting for me. I got off and shook her hand and said nice to meet you. She was an attractive girl with long brown hair, gentle soul, and kind heart. We made small chat while she guided me to her apartment. We walked up few flights of stairs and arrived at our home for the evening. There I met her husband – who was also handsome, generous, and a great cook to boot!

They made a bed for me in the living area, introduced me to their adorable cat, and made me some dinner. I was really thankful for the hospitality that they showed me. After dinner, we went for a stroll to see Haifa at night. All the while, discussing options for where to go on Sunday morning. After taking in the serene view of Haifa, we went for some ice cream in the local hangout area. I learned that Haifa has the world’s only subway system that is vertical–it is used to go up and down Mount Carmel. How cool! Definitely have to come back again to try it.

With our sweet tooth satisfied, we headed home. I was pretty tired by then, so it was no surprise that I quickly fell asleep with the delightful evening breeze. The next morning, I showered, brushed my teeth, and washed my face. I’m only going to have time to visit the Baha’i Gardens today I thought to myself while holding a toothbrush. I packed and organized all my belongings. My hosts made me a lovely french toast breakfast, gave me a backpack to hold all my belongings and I was off on the Haifa adventure.

Retracing the same path as the evening before, I now can see the beautiful Haifa view in full daylight. The blue skies and oceans touch to form a distance border. I stepped up the pace to make an English guided tour of the Gardens at noon. The meeting point for the Baha’i Gardens guided tours uses an alternative entryway. Security was tight as the guard checked my backpack twice over. The Baha’i Garden is built into the side of a mountain. To tour it, one must keep descending the steps of the Garden around the fountains, terraces, and other structures. Our guide was a slender and tall Jewish woman with dirty blonde locks. She gave us some history of the Baha’i faith, how it is organized, and its followers today. I took many photos to preserve my memory of this beautiful location.

Halfway through the tour, many were drenched in sweat and tried to stand in the shaded areas. The sunlight was punishing our tour group I thought. When we reached the end of the garden, I was part relieved and part sad to see the tour end. I had no time to worry though; I hopped in a taxi and headed for the train station.

I must make it in time to Jerusalem for my friend’s wedding this evening!!

Next time: Eternal Jerusalem

Israel?! Secure, Friendly, and other Initial Impressions

Made it safe and sound to Israel! Heart of the Middle East.

Boy, was it a long flight – a bit over twelve hours to be exact.  My flight to the Middle East via Central Asia was what I expected; much wind and cities whose names I have never heard of, not to mention pronounce.

El Al was super secure. I was interrogated about the purpose of my trip to Israel, what I was doing in Hong Kong, names of my friend who was getting married etc. Every passenger goes through this process so I have no complaints. The bright side is that the airline is doing there jobs and doing it well. I went through Hong Kong immigration without issues and walked towards my flight gate.

We boarded the plane, a Boeing 777, capable of flying up to 5400 miles. The diversity of the passengers was awesome! Many native Israelis returning home, a group of Vietnamese students on an exchange program with Israel, various other Asians (I’m in this group) visiting Israel. If you don’t know, summer time is rainy season in Hong Kong with chances for typhoons. Unsurprisingly, the Captain came over the intercom and announced a 45 minute delay due to the weather. Yikes, I thought to myself, now I’m going to arrive late! After much agitation of all the passengers we finally took off in the light rainy Hong Kong afternoon.

When the plane reached a healthy altitude, we started to cruise.  Flight attendants and their drink and food carts came out in full force – serving and pleasing passengers. El Al served two meals, breakfast and dinner. The food was alright taste-wise, but it was certified kosher by Rabbi Avtzon, whom I’m familiar with, of the Chabad of Hong Kong. I plugged in my headphones, turned the audio to traditional Israeli music, and dozed off.

Why are people clapping?  Without realizing that I fell asleep towards our descent into Ben Gurion, noise of claps jolted me awake. Apparently, passengers clap when a flight lands in Israel safely. So the Israeli expectation is that it will NOT land safely? I may be missing something that only native Israelis are able to understand… I gathered my suitcase and bags, stepped off the plane, and into Israel.

The walkway to the airport exit was long and full of turns and shopping opportunities. (similar to Hong Kong)  I love taking the horizontal escalators, they take me to where I need to go in half the time. I noticed arrivals were on the second floor when I saw departing passenger in the lower floors. It seemed like a never-ending walkway, I followed the crowd instead of reading the direction signs.

Something I wasn’t prepared for was how long and tedious the immigration checkpoint was. I was lucky and was not selected randomly for additional questioning. Would like to suggest that Ben Gurion airport open all immigration windows – not just half of them. There were elders, women, and children waiting over one hour to pass immigration – and I don’t think there was air conditioning…

Next step was to get in a taxi and drive into my accommodation. My driver was so friendly and helpful, we talked about some sights for Tel Aviv and my first trip to Israel.  It was already 2 in the morning by this time. He turned on his GPS system, entered the address, and off we went.

In the heat of the night, Tel Aviv looks like any other modern and developed country. Wide and smooth highway system, new cars, and lights from high-rise buildings buzzing in the blackness. After what seems like eternity to a person who is still awake at 5 am (Hong Kong timezone) without any sleep, we made an exit of the eternal highway and entered suburbia. Our search for the address ended at our destination. I pulled out the brand new Shekel bills I got from the airport ATM machine and said my farewell to the driver. Lifted my suitcase and started my climb up several flights of stairs to my apartment. I sank into the comfy bed and fell asleep.

Next morning, the rays of the sun entered my room, piercing me to awake. My first full day in Israel, I thought to myself! Excited! Got ready and out I went in Tel Aviv. First order of the day, take care of my tummy and get some breakfast. I’ve read and heard about Israel’s famous breakfast so decided to try that out at a local neighborhood cafe. An Israeli breakfast,  going by what I had this morning, consists of two eggs, Israeli salad (tomatoes and cucumbers), various types of cheeses, tahini and bread. It was like a vegetarian meal as no meat was served. According to Jewish food laws, meat and dairy should never be served together.  It kind of makes sense now that I think about it. That’s just too much animal at one time! ;-P

In the middle of my culinary experience, a random man came in held up a piece of paper and ask for a donation from me.  The “paper” that he showed me says that he is a deaf man and needs ten Shekels. I reached for my wallet, took out a ten Shekel coin and handed it over to him.  It was only afterwards that I learned this man comes to the cafe all the time.  The server tells me matter-of-factly, “he’s always here”. I had a quick chat with the server afterwards, I told him I’m from China. He didn’t know where Hong Kong was, maybe I was saying it wrong.  (Note to self: start learning Hebrew)

After my tummy was filled, I ventured around my Tel Aviv neighborhood. Strolled through many small mom and pop shops and boutiques and bought a straw sun hat to shield my skin from the glaring Israeli sun. Instead of the hunger I felt earlier, now I felt thirst. My body carried itself to a grocery store for replenishing. The varieties of olives, yogurt, and fruits from all colors of the rainbow distracted me from my goal of getting water. Thirst called out louder, I had to adapt and went to the water aisle.

Now, I’m planning my Israel adventure for tomorrow. :-)

Until tomorrow!

xoxo

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