I is for Israel

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Next stop on the Eclectic Express is Israel!  Luther M. Siler will start us out on out with sharing some of his experience there! Luther is a science fiction author and editor, he lives in northern Indiana with his wife and son.  He can be found on his blog and twitter.

I am terrible at being on vacation.  It’s horrible but true: large blocks of unstructured time tends to make me crazy, and it’s hard for me to shake the feeling that I should be Doing Something and just relax.  This makes me a bad tourist under most circumstances unless everything’s on a tight schedule, and I don’t want to be the kind of person who’s always checking his watch to stay on schedule when you’re on vacation.
If you’re like me, then let me strongly suggest archaeological digs as great ways to visit faraway places.  In the summer of 1998 I had just graduated college and had a summer to kill before starting graduate school in the fall.  What to do with myself?  Go to Israel and spend several weeks in the desert digging a hole.  Obviously.
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The dig was at Tel Beth Shemesh, a site about half an hour’s drive west of Jerusalem.  Beth Shemesh means “House of the Sun.”  It’s an important site, mentioned in the Bible several times; the Ark of the Covenant was there for a while, and Samson hung out there as well.  We’d get up at four in the morning, be on the dig site by five, breakfast at 7:30 or so (I learned to eat tomatoes like apples while I was in Israel, because they rarely provided knives with our silverware) and back at the kibbutz by noon or so, to avoid the worst of the desert heat.  The rest of our time was taken up with classes, cleaning pottery, lazing about at the kibbutz (this one, although I don’t remember that pool) and whatever other nonsense 25-30 relatively unsupervised college students can get into while at a dry kibbutz in a foreign country.
We got kicked out of the cafeteria at lunch once for arguing too loudly about whether flight or speaking every language was a better superpower.  That’s not a joke.  This was an argument involving like fifteen people.
My square was pretty clearly a rubbish heap; most of what I unearthed was cow bones.  Fun thing about Israel’s antiquities department: they take unearthing human remains incredibly seriously, and the first time I pulled what was clearly a bone out of the ground it provoked absolute panic among the grad students and the dig managers– if it had been human, it could have ended the dig for the summer.
Another fun detail: if you’re not sure if the dirty piece of rocky thing in your hand is a bone or not, the best way to tell is to lick it.  If your tongue sticks to it, it’s bone, because bone is porous.
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At one point I literally dug up the jawbone of an ass at a Biblical site associated with Samson.  That was fun, too.
We took weekend trips into the desert southern half of the country and the more temperate northern region; the only problem was they flipped the order and didn’t tell us, meaning that everyone brought warm clothes and shoes not fit for hiking on the desert trip.  We had Tuesday afternoons off, and most of us used those to go into Jerusalem for the day.  On the last Tuesday of the trip I went to the dig director and told him I wasn’t digging that day, because the way the timing on the buses worked out we hadn’t been able to get to the Dome of the Rock before it closed to tourists.  I hadn’t gone all the way to Israel to not see the Dome of the Rock, so I went in by myself.  This ranks as probably the bravest thing I’ve ever done, and I was the only person on the trip who actually got inside the building.  I also got into a shouting match with my guide when we got to the Temple Mount and he tried to triple his price on me.  That could have gone much more poorly than it did.

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More free advice: if you happen to hit your head while standing up in the tiny crawlspace before Jesus’ tomb at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, it is frowned upon if you shout “JESUS CHRIST!” because of the surprise and the pain.  That wasn’t me, thank everything that ever existed, but I did have to keep a straight face.  Because, like, Jesus’ tomb is right there.  I was a religious studies major, which is not the same thing as being religious, but even I know how to behave once in a while.
Bedouin tea is really strong.
Being able to clearly see the border between Israel and Syria from a distance, because that was where the green stopped, was interesting.
There is a beach in Tiberias, on the Sea of Galilee, that may still be my favorite place on the planet.  There’s not even a story with that.  We were all exhausted and went and spent the evening on the beach.  And it was a perfect night.
Riding a bus with a soldier next to you whose machine gun keeps bumping against your shoulder is an interesting experience.
I declined to climb the Roman Ramp to get up to Masada and spent a couple of hours on the bus talking with our Palestinian driver, who gave me a brief history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, including taking out a map and circling all the areas the Israelis should “just give back” to make everything better again.  It certainly ranks as one of the more interesting conversations I’ve had in my life, quite possibly worth missing Masada.
All the cars in Israel are white.  Well, okay, not all of them, I’m sure, but… lots.
And when you try and fly out of the country, after your dig, make sure you have someone organized with you.  Someone who, when you’re asked if you can prove you were on a dig, will be able to produce all sorts of documentation, stuff which you threw away because you didn’t need it anymore.  Security at the airport at Tel Aviv was kinda scary 18 years ago.  I can’t imagine what it’s like now.
So, yeah.  I recommend trying Israel out sometime, guys.
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2 thoughts on “I is for Israel”

  1. Sounds like it was an exciting time! I once spent a summer at an archaeological excavation in Peru, but mine was a surprisingly low-key experience. (Which is probably for the best, given my physical state at the time.)

    I love that superpowers argument, btw. I’d have been on the “speaking every language” side, myself.

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