Saturday, December 17, 2011

Modern Day Bethlehem and the Christmas Story







O little town of Bethlehem,
how still we see thee lie;
above thy deep and dreamless sleep
the silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
the everlasting light;
the hopes and fears of all the years
are met in thee tonight.

What a beautiful scene this hymn describes - a small, quiet, peaceful town  hosts the birth of Jesus.  In the Bible, God’s physical presence on earth begins quietly.  Yet, the reality of Bethlehem today plays out in the rough and tumble  politics of the area.

Bethlehem is really a suburb of Jerusalem - a mere five miles separates them.  It hosts the largest population of Christians in Israel and has traditionally been a required stop for pilgrims to the Holy Land.  Until 2006, this was an easy bus or taxi ride away.  Because Bethlehem is located in the West Bank, excursions became more complicated when Israel built a security wall to protect Jerusalem from terrorists.  Bethlehem is now separated from her neighbor by a 26 foot tall concrete fence, 14 feet taller than the Berlin Wall.    Israel defends the necessity of this partition as it has significantly reduced bombings and deaths.  Bethlehem argues the wall has separated families and friends, hurt commuting workers and  frightened away tourists.

Identification machine for fingerprints




Our day trip from Jerusalem to Bethlehem began with a taxi ride to the Security Wall.  The Jordanian driver (married to a Palestinian woman) phoned his contact on the other side of the wall to be sure we would be met.  We walked down a long, narrow passageway  into a metal building. Those ahead of us had to place their hands on a fingerprint pad for verification.  But  Israeli checkpoint guards didn’t even inspect our passports and waved us through.  After another long, winding walk, we exited to a crowd of taxi drivers.  Fortunately, Adnun, our guide, spotted us.




The short drive into Bethlehem followed the Security Wall,  filled on this side with graffiti and anti-Israel comments.  Adnun pointed out Bethlehem University which is financed by the United States and other European Countries.   Their police are also trained by U.S. forces.  Yet, he claimed tourist numbers are down due in part to our State Department’s warning against travel in the West Bank. As a Christian working in the tourist industry, Adnun was frustrated by this.  He had kind words for “The Lonely Planet” travel guidebook who strongly encourages readers to base their stay in quiet Bethlehem rather than the more expensive Jerusalem.



We visited The Church of the Nativity, where Palm Sunday services were being celebrated by the Orthodox Church, followed by the Armenians, and then Roman Catholics.  A new placard was hung each time the service changed.  Thanks to our guide’s persuasive ability and our claim to speak Spanish, we were allowed into the small grotto below the church for a celebration of a Spanish Mass. This is sacred territory, where it is believed Jesus was born - not in a stable but a cave.  While we waited, a tearful, blind woman was led by a family member to reverently touch  a silver star on the marble floor, indicating holy ground below.







Also in the Christmas story are shepherds in the field watching their sheep at night.  In that time, many shepherds lived in caves that were large enough even for their flocks to stay at night. At the “Shepherd’s Field YMCA”,  located at the edge of Bethlehem, a cave typical of the time of Jesus has been preserved in its rural setting..  We had to honk outside the gate to be allowed in, the only visitors that day.  The cave was spacious, cool, and surprisingly comfortable.  And it was here, away from the crowds of the Church of the Nativity, the politics of the Security Wall, and the ever present traffic, that the air of 2000 years ago could be breathed and the story imagined. It was a quiet moment when Bethlehem was as still as in the carol we sing and as peaceful as we can only hope for the entire region.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Brooklyn, New York - An Emerging Travel Destination With Much to Do





Pop quiz time.  Which of the five boroughs of New York has the most residents? Which claims that one out of every six Americans can trace an ancestor back to it?  And which borough would be the 4th largest city in the country if it were an independent city?  The answer is Brooklyn.  At a population of 2.5 million, it is twice as big as Dallas.  Yet, few visitors venture past the East River to this community rich in architecture, ethnic cultures and history.  We had an opportunity to explore it during a Thanksgiving visit to our son’s new residence.

Life long Brooklyn resident, “Big Rick” Kadlub, guided us the first day on a walking tour.  He has watched real estate prices soar in recent years by those looking for a better bargain than in neighboring Manhattan.  Thanks to a four story zoning limit, much of Brooklyn feels like a neighborhood and is being rediscovered. The Park Slope area is an example.  In the 1950's it was an enclave for Italians and Irish, filled with Latinos and African Americans in the 60's. was joined by artists in the 70's and discovered by young professionals in the 90's.  New families now fill the beautiful brownstones and frequent the many restaurants.  Big Rick shook his head in wonder as hundreds of residents stream out of nearby subway stops in late afternoon - a stark contrast to the trickle of commuters in the past.

While most Americans know of Central Park, few are aware of Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, designed by the same Frederick Olmstead.  In fact, many consider Prospect Park superior to its Manhattan cousin and I have to agree.  Six hundred acres of forest provides strolling paths, the largest park meadow in the country, Brooklyn’s only lake, a zoo, birding opportunities, and an outdoor ice rink.  Next door are the Botanical Gardens,  Art Deco public library filled with books in 70 languages, and the Brooklyn Art Museum, a near replica of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, that houses the first feminist gallery and its famous Dinner Party installation by Judy Chicago.

On our second day, a 20 minute subway ride took us to the grandfather of all amusement parks, Coney Island.  The subway exit opens directly across from “Nathan’s World Famous Frankfurters since 1916", a required stop even though it was only 10 a.m.  We joined Al Capone, Cary Grant, Jacqueline Kennedy, Winston Churchill and the King and Queen of England as samplers of these surprisingly good hot dogs.  Across the street was the equally famous amusement park, sadly closed for the season.









The boardwalk along the Atlantic was even better than I had hoped for.  We merged with a leisurely crowd of mostly elderly pensioners strolling down the well-maintained wooden walk.  The clean beach was almost empty but could clearly hold the masses in the summer.  As we approached Brighton Beach, a Russian immigrant stopped to chat and tell us how much he loved America.  Originally built as an exclusive resort for the wealthy in 1909, Brighton Beach has most recently become the largest Russian community in New York.  Russian restaurants lined the beach and along Brighton Beach Avenue.  Bilingual signs advertised child care and dental offices. And a liquor store with a lit neon hammer and sickle boasted of many kinds of vodka.  We enjoyed a lunch of traditional Russian fare such as pelmenis and varkenikis.





On the last morning,  we walked with our one year old grandson across the 128 year old  Brooklyn Bridge and introduced him to the Manhattan skyline.  Through the weblike cables, the Statue of Liberty beckoned.  And on the return walk,  Brooklyn spread across the horizon.  Now no longer just one of the boroughs, Brooklyn had proved itself a worthy travel destination with much more to be discovered.  I look forward to it.







Contacts:
      Tour Guide, Richard Kadlub - A Tour Grows in Brooklyn, 212-209-3370

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Decades Later, Connecting With Ahmet Yilmaz, A Turkish Exchange Student



 It had been 45 years since I last saw Ahmet Yilmaz.  We shared a year at Plainview High School in 1965-66 when he arrived as an exchange student from Turkey.  Ahmet was placed through the American Field Service, originally a program for ambulance drivers in World War I that morphed into a student exchange.  In his year, 1500 students from around the world came to the United States to “connect lives and share cultures”.

Ahmet was selected from 600 students in his high school.  Because of his request for an agricultural community, he landed in Plainview, Texas, a High Plains farming town that knew much more about football and Baptists than soccer and Islam.  With an easy smile and open heart, Ahmet embraced all that was good about Texas - its people, friendliness, love of beef, and even the cowboy hat.  He was a favorite in our school.   My husband and I were traveling to Turkey and I wanted to find him.

Ahmet Yilmaz and Ed Clark
A Google search for Ahmet Yilmaz yielded hundreds of options.  That is, apparently, a very common name.  Only when I added Plainview, Texas to his name did I eventually find  the web site for Ahmet’s wife, Gonul Engin, an accomplished artist.  Soon we were corresponding and planning to meet in Istanbul.

Ahmet arrived at our hotel with a huge smile and hugged us all.  Despite the loss of hair and weight gain,  he still enthusiastically embraced life, just as in high school.  We compared stories while strolling to the er&ne&met Carpet Store where my husband and I were interested in purchasing a Turkish rug.

Ahmet Yilmaz on the terrace of carpet store
The traditional tea was first offered on the store’s landscaped terrace under the shadow of the Blue Mosque.  Ahmet’s excitement soon bubbled over as he began chanting “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Come on Bulldogs, Let’s go” I jumped in.  “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Come on Bulldogs, Let’s go” Then we moved to  “Push ‘em back, Push ‘em back, WAAAAY back.”  The carpet owners looked bewildered as we laughed our way through football memories from decades past, including Ahmet’s one attempt to play.  Because of a cheerleader distraction, he missed the quarterback’s call and was run over by the offense.


Ahmet and Gonul Yilmaz

Upon returning to his homeland, Ahmet spent his career in education and first thought of opening private universities in Turkey as an option to public schools.  He helped establish the Istanbul Culture University where course work is taught in English and he served as its first administrator.

On our day of touring with Ahmet, he filled us with Turkish information.  All state schools, hospitals, and medicine are free.  Private health insurance cost around $3,000 a year and private universities between $5,000 and $10,000.  There are 147 churches, 18 synagogues, and 3000 mosques in Istanbul, a city with a history of religious tolerance.

“If a person is a real Moslem, he could never be a terrorist.  We can’t harm anything,” Ahmet assured us.  Many Turks have Biblical names like Musa for Moses and Isa for Jesus.  All Iman salaries are paid by the government and no charge made for utilities at mosques.  Maintenance is provided by the sale of the carpets which Muslims are required to give once in their lifetimes.  No one “belongs” to a mosque - a Muslim usually just  prays at the nearest one.

During our yacht ride on the Bosphorus Strait, Ahmet continued his lessons.  One thousand boats pass through these waters every day and the larger ones must have a Turkish pilot.  Nine computer controlled towers give the go ahead for the hundreds of boats awaiting passage as well as direction along the 20 mile waterway.   Turkey had the world’s first car ferry, beginning in 1869.  When the work on an underwater tunnel is completed, one can take the train from Europe to China.

Ahmet recognized some of the problems of modern Turkey.  More than 60% of Turkish men smoke.  Tax reform is badly needed with few companies paying any.  Traffic is always bad and often horrible.  “God knows” is the standard response to a query of  how long it will take to get anywhere.

Turkey is known as a secular Muslim Democracy and touted as a model for the countries experiencing the Arab spring.  Ahmet explained that Ataturk, father of Turkey’s democracy, changed the Turkish mind, creating a nation out of the sick Ottoman Empire.  The Turkish flag has a crescent and a star.  When Allah’s name is written in Arabic, it looks like a crescent moon.  The five points of the star represent the five parts of man - head, two legs and two arms - God and Man together on the flag.

In 1961, President Kennedy addressed the American Field Service exchange students on the White House lawn, telling them he hoped they would return with a favorable impression of our democratic way of life, messy though that was.  He acknowledged them as friends of peace and that they will be the future leaders of their countries.  Clearly, Ahmet has done both - been a friend of the United States and a leader in his country.    By endearing all of Plainview High to its first Muslim student and charming American visitors to Turkey, Ahmet has brought the countries closer. The return on his time in Texas couldn’t get much better than that.


P.S. And a special thanks to Google for making the reunion possible!

Contact Information - gonuley@gmail.com
  www.gonulenginyilmaz.com
  www.gonulyilmaz.com

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Turkey - Cashing in on Its Waters


Ataturk's Yacht on Bosphorus Strait


With 4454 miles of coastline at the crossroads of Europe and Asia,  Turkey has long been a popular spot for traders and conquerors.  Today, tourists are the newest invited invaders who are taking advantage of this now stable democracy.  On a recent trip, we discovered it has some of the most beautiful waters in the world to be enjoyed on both land and sea.
View of Antalya harbor

View of water and mountains


Antalya, a city of three million, lies on the edge of the Turquoise Coast along Southwest Turkey.    Originally a small town with a safe harbor, Antalya has grown exponentially with the advent of tourist resorts.  The Russian crowd particularly enjoys vacationing here.  On the rooftop terrace of our pension in the old section of town,  we could see the advance of the new condominiums and resorts as the lights extended around the crescent shore.  Despite this boom in building, the city’s perfect view over the waters with the Taurus mountains in the distance has not changed from Roman times.



View of Kas from Plateau above
Further around the coast and directly in the heart of the Turquoise Coast lies Kas, a small fishing village that has managed to stay charming despite the growth in condos in nearby areas.  The British are major visitors here.  We rented a boat for the day with Captain Ergan, a remarkably young (24) and poised Turk, who plans to own a fleet of yachts someday.  We snorkled and kayaked in the clear blue green waters, explored a Crusader castle, and ate fresh seafood on board.  At the end of a very pleasant day,  Ergan passed out cards that encouraged us to evaluate him on Trip Advisor.  Such savvy marketing had already led us to him and would surely bring him even more business.  Someday soon, the other captains will need to figure that one out.

2400 year old Lycian tombs in Dalyan
Beach at mouth of Dalyan River
Up the coast but inland is Dalyan, a German favorite located on the river of the same name.  This is another small town that grew up quickly, thanks to the international airport built nearby in 1981.  It has a rather odd combination of tourist sites that have been brilliantly combined into one daylong boat ride.  We stopped first at Roman ruins of the seaport it once was and then moved down river to the spawning grounds of the large Loggerhead turtles, saved from development by the Turkish government.  A bonus from this ecological decision is a pristine beach with only a snack bar and umbrellas.   Returning to the river, we motored past carved 2400 year old Lycian tombs and stopped at Aqua Mia, some hot springs that provided our first (and last)  mud bath experience.


The ferry boats of Istanbul are another rich source of “on the water” experiences.  In a city of 15 million (give or take five million), only 2 four lane bridges link the European and Asian sides of the city.  This means ferry boats must transport thousands to and from work every day.

Ferry on Marmara Sea, near Istanbul
On a crisp, clear October morning, we boarded a ferry on Buyukada Island for the hour and a half ride to the city.  The skyline of greater Istanbul lay to one side and Princess Islands to the other.  As the boat neared the mouth of the Bosphorus Strait, large tankers lay idle on the Marmara Sea, waiting their turn to sail to the Black Sea.  The famous Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia and the Topkapi  Palace began to take shape.  Small fishing boats and many more ferry boats passed by.   And at our ferry terminal, two enormous cruise ships moored nearby, patiently awaiting the return of their guests who had been released for the day.

Yali or shore mansion 
Our final Turkish water experience centered on a boat ride on the Bosphorus, a place that gives strength to the residents of Istanbul.  Its history plays out on the shores with several Sultan Palaces, many yalis or shore mansions that have been rebuilt or restored in the original Ottoman style, a military high school, Ataturk’s yacht, restaurants, hotels, and of course, minarets.  Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, describes the experience  - “To be traveling through the middle of a city as great, historic and forlorn as Istanbul, and yet to feel the freedom of the open sea — that is the thrill of a trip along the Bosphorus.”


Most of Turkey is inland, without access to the seas or rivers.  But it is the country’s waters that attract the growing international crowd.  After exploring the shores of Turkey, it is easy to understand why Troy, the Hittities, Romans, Byzantines and Seljuks wanted to control these beautiful waters.  We’re just grateful the Turks have opened their world for all who now want to enjoy it.

On Bosphorus Strait



Sunday, September 18, 2011

It's New Zealand's Hour - Rugby Union World Cup


Rugby Scrum between Shirley Club and Russian team


I saw the countdown clock on the square of Christchurch, New Zealand in April of 2010.  At the time, it showed 76 weeks, five days, three hours, and 40 minutes to the most popular event in all of New Zealand and much of the world down under - the Rugby Union World Cup.  Yes, it was a year and a half away but the Kiwis were already counting.  They are not alone.  Viewership worldwide for these games ranks third  after the Olympics and the World Cup of Soccer.

Christchurch and its environs are typical of the rugby mania in New Zealand’s communities, with 49 rugby club teams, averaging a team for every 7,000 people.  This would be the equivalent to seven adult football teams in Lamar County.  Each club team has its own field and club house where gear is stored and players gather for a beer after games.  Most run a sports program for the youth and host family parties.  Some teams have been around for over 100 years.

Out of this strong building program come the professional teams.  Before the earthquake, the Christchurch Crusaders played at AMI stadium that held about 40,000 fans.  Because of the cracks in the facility, Christchurch couldn’t host its seven World Cup games but they are well represented on the national All Black team with 12 of the 30 players.

During our visit, the Shirley Club team was playing on a Sunday afternoon and we caught a city bus out to their field.  Fans were sitting on the ground or standing behind.  I sat by Anita, a Polynesian woman, whose son was hoping to play for Shirley.  He had played in Australia but couldn’t support his family since they only got paid if the team won.

Rugby Throw In
The game was a bit unusual as the opposing team was Russian.  We learned there was an offside as in soccer.  Throw-ins were great.  Each squad lifted a player high in the air to catch the ball- similar to our cheerleaders stunts. And then there is the scrum, a way of restarting a game.  Each team circled around in a common huddle while the referee barks out “Get Set.  Touch.  Engage.”  The successful team handed off  the ball to a player in back and all moved forward - a kind of quarterback sneak.  A few players wore helmets, a possible indication that the player had suffered from a concussion but most men preferred to play macho and bareheaded.

Anita’s  son favored the “union” style of rugby most popular in New Zealand to the “league” style of Australia.  The details of the differences were too technical for my limited knowledge of the game but I did understand  the union style allowed unlimited tackles and more points for the different scoring chances, including increased points for just trying for a goal.   After that, I felt like an European soccer fan watching American football for the first time - bewildered.

What distinguishes the New Zealand All Black team is the performance of the Haka before each game, a tradition that began as far back as 1894.   This Maori dance startled Wales the first time it was performed on a European tour in 1903.  “After that, the All Blacks became the most feared opponent in the sport. Fierce rivalries existed between all the rugby powers, but the men wearing the black jerseys with the silver fern and delivering the formal challenge of the haka had a psychological edge on the opposition whenever they stepped onto the field.”

The following  translation of the haka isn’t particularly frightening and seems barely connected to winning a game.   But chanting it to a pounding rhythm can rattle opponents.

Ka mate Ka mate  It is death It is death
Ka ora Ka ora  It is life It is life
Ka mate Ka mate  It is death It is death
Ka ora Ka ora  It is life It is life
Tenei Te Tangata Puhuruhuru  This is the hairy man
Nana i tiki mai whakawhiti te ra  Who caused the sun to shine again for me
Upane Upane   Up the ladder Up the ladder
Upane Kaupane   Up to the top
Whiti te ra  The sun shines!

As host, New Zealand is anxious to win this year’s trophy.  Their last victory was in 1987, the initial year of the Rugby Union World Cup. A recent article in England’s Guardian newspaper describes New Zealand as desperate to win.  Another claims “Our Turf Our Time”.  On the web, the Wait-of-a-Nation site pokes fun at the hand-wringing and misery of fans who feel the team capable of winning but fear it won’t.

With the entire country almost at a standstill, the tournament is being broadcast on at least four channels and by satellite. Twenty teams will play over the next two months until the final on October 23rd.   New Zealand’s  All Black team is actually favored to win - 4/7 odds - with Australia picked for second.   For a nation who has suffered devastation and loss from recent earthquakes and who loves the sport more than any others, I hope the countdown clock is to victory.


Saturday, August 27, 2011

Despite Problems at Rocky Mountain National Park, Nature Rules

View from Ridge Trail Highway at Rocky Mountain National Park
It’s all true.  Everything you’ve heard about Rocky Mountain National Park’s beauty and vastness is accurate - 415 square miles filled with sixty mountain peeks over 12,000 feet, an accessible Alpine Tundra, waterfalls, trout fishing, 350 miles of hiking trails and the Continental Divide that weaves its way through the park.   While famous for glaciers, clear water and open valleys, there were stories behind the beautiful scene. 

Mills Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park
The first morning, we headed to Mills Lake for a family hike.  After entering a park gate and paying $20, we moved slowly over a winding road until directed to an overflow parking lot.   An overflow parking lot? A shuttle bus to our trail?  What happened to “getting away from it all”?  What happened was 3 million visitors a year to Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP).  It is the 5th most visited park in the country.   That’s a lot of cars on the road and the attendant air pollution.

The solution at this park and others is mass transportation.   A Hiker Shuttle is available  to whisk riders to various trail heads.  Bear Lake and Morraine Park Visitor Center also provide shuttle buses to the more popular trails.  Unlike the parks at Grand Canyon and Yosemite where bus rides are mandatory, RMNP allows free choice.  The reasons for mass transit are obvious.  Maintenance of roads, frustration with traffic, air quality in the pristine setting and protection of animals are all concerns  One hundred elk a year are killed by cars in RMNP.  According to the National Park Conservatory Association, replacing 5,000 private vehicles per day with 30 propane-powered buses, can eliminate more than 13,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions in a year.  

The shuttle bus filled quickly and dropped us off at our trail head.  Upon return,  many had finished their hikes and were watching for the bus.  A volunteer ranger radioed back about the awaiting crowd and the next bus was lightly loaded and able to hold most us.  Despite my grumbling and frustration with the delay, I had to admit the shuttle bus system worked well and was better than the huge parking lot that would be required near the fragile trail heads.  

Dead trees from bark beetle
Cut Lodge Pole Pine Trees to be burned
Although most of the park was incredibly green from record rainfalls, we noticed whole mountainsides were brown from dead or dying trees - the work of bark beetles, a native insect that has flourished thanks to warmer than average temperatures.  To suppress the beetle’s activities, temperatures must stay below freezing for 30 straight days in the winter.  Absent this, the beetles reproduce mightily and devour lodgepole pine trees.    High value trees can be treated but thousands are being removed each year.    Campgrounds lay in the open without shade trees -  made bare from fear of dead trees toppling on sleeping campers. The silver lining is the appearance of more wild flowers and aspen trees who are not affected by the beetles.  As one ranger said “It’s like pressing the reset button on nature”.    We can only hope.

RMNP is far enough north to have deer, elk, and bears and all want the experience of sighting these fine animals.  We got messages along a trail that a mother elk and two babies were ahead on the lake and in nearby  Estes Park,  cars had pulled over to see an elk in the stream.  But what we didn’t realize is the park has twice as many elk as can be sustained on the property without damage to the number of aspen trees and other elk favorites.  Rangers estimate only 30 bears live in the park but as many as 3100 elk do.  An ideal number would be 1500.  The solution has been to allow hunting of 30 female elk each year by park employees.  Since implementing the policy, there has been a gradual decrease in the elk number and increase in their food supply.

I’m not sure we met any “real” park rangers.  Those taking our money, riding the bus with us, and giving information were volunteers, as noted by their name tag and uniforms.  Because of dwindling federal money, most national parks operate on two-thirds of their needed budget.  So began the “Volunteers in the Parks” program.  RMNP has one of the largest with over 1700 volunteers at a savings of $2 million a year.  They are used to clean trails, remove and modify fences, handle the crowds, educate on wildlife, answer questions, collect seeds, and be ambassadors for the park.  The good news is many want to volunteer the selection process competitive.  The National Parks Service website even suggests you have a better chance of being chosen if you can provide your own housing.   The need for volunteers will just grow greater and may be the perfect place for baby boomers to give back.
 

Above tree line on Ridge Trail Highway


Glaciers at Rocky Mountain National Park



With one last drive along the famous Ridge Trail Highway, the highest in the country, we looked again at the park’s vast beauty.  Yes, there are too many cars and elks.  Thousands of trees are being leveled because of the pesky bark beetle.  And volunteers are filling the funding gap for the park.  But what we saw from on high was a landscape that’s had years of practice at rejuvenating itself.  We’re confident it will again.

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Kibbutz Maagan - Changing with the Times

View of Sea of Galilee from Kibbut Maagan Holiday Village Hotel

As a teenager, I was drawn to the idea of the Israeli kibbutz - a community of like-minded residents who worked hard, celebrated often, and contributed to the greater good of the country.  It was romantic in a foreign sense of the word and I envied those who got to join one. But how has the communal setting aged in the modern world of individual rights?  On a recent trip, I was impressed the kibbutz still played an important part in Israel’s culture and economy but with a different model.

The Sea of Galilee is ringed with kibbutzim.  It is here they first began with Kibbutz Degania Alef, established in 1910.  Based on a socialist idea and manned by secular Zionists, the first kibbutzim were developed for protection as well as communal working of land.  The farmer-warrior image continued from the 1948 War of Independence to 1982 when many northern kibbutzim used their bunkers for protection from Syrian missiles just a few miles away.  During a tour of the Kibbutz Maagan on the south end of the Sea of Galilee, much of this history played out in the lives of the residents.

Our guide, Eli Kedem


Our guide Eli Kedem, a small, fit man in his early 60's, was born and raised on this property.  His parents were early residents who, like many pioneers, helped Israel stake out territory for the eventual drawing of the country’s boundaries.  After World War II,  citizens of Hungary and Romania came as a part of the Jewish Youth Movement.  Some were Holocaust survivors.  .

As was customary, Kibbutz Maagan began with agriculture, relying on all residents to help in the fields.  This program was instrumental in turning the desert lands of Israel into many productive fields and orchards.  Throughout the Jewish world in the 60's, 70's and 80's, speakers and rabbis encouraged young adults to volunteer and work at a kibbutz in the new country. We heard many such stories.  Eli met his wife who came from Holland to work at Maagan.    Our native Zimbabwean guide in Jerusalem started her life in Israel on a kibbutz.  A family friend from Ohio also met her Russian husband on a kibbutz and now lives in Israel with her family.  The kibbutz served as the Facebook of its time, connecting Jews from all parts of the globe.

Communal bicycles
It also tested the idea of a socialist economy on a small scale.  The first model had three principles - equal income, no private property, and direct democracy.  Eli and his wife raised their three children on the kibbutz.  Although Eli had lived apart from his parents at a children’s house, their children remained in their home.  School was held on the premises and children were expected to work.

The big changes at this kibbutz occurred six years ago. The commune was losing members.  Individuals wanted their own cars, homes and careers.   None of Eli’s children remained on the kibbutz.  After a passionate vote, rules changed.   Salaries are no longer equal although there is a minimum wage.   A member can earn more if they work longer or have a better job.  They can now work outside the kibbutz. And each family has its own budget. Major decisions for the kibbutz are still made by direct vote from each member but day to day ones are controlled by an economic manager and a social one.


Workshop Participant

Communal laundry



Elderly Workshop Gifts 











Vestiges of the socialist era remain - a common dining room, laundry room, daycare, and a workshop for elderly people.  Bicycles are scattered around for anyone’s use.  Sadly,  no more young volunteers work there. As Eli commented “paid employees stay longer”.  Some of the members continue to farm 400 acres for bananas, avocados, and grapefruit but most of their income is from the Kibbutz Maagan Holiday Village hotel where we stayed.  Eli now works with Christian and Jewish companies in the United States who sponsor tours of Israel and send their filled buses to the hotel. From Maagan, many holy and historical sites are available.  Since membership is no longer required to stay on the kibbutz, many students from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem attend a nearby university, work at the hotel, and rent an apartment on the kibbutz.

Buses in front of hotel
Maagan is not alone in making changes.  Today, only 15% of the country’s Kibbutz membership work in agriculture.  Laborers from Thailand now pick the crops. Some kibbutzim have branched into such businesses as diamond cutting, drip irrigation systems, plastic and medical tools, and even a Naot shoe store down the street from our kibbutz.  Many own hotels.  And despite their small number (only 1.5 % of the Israeli population), kibbutzim produce 9 % of the country’s industrial production as well as one half of its milk and 40% of its agriculture production.

Front yard of kibbutz home
Renovated kitchen
As Eli led us toward a line of duplexes that faced the Sea of Galilee, a woman waved us into her home.  Her front yard was filled with flowers and the door open to the cool morning air.  Inside, she proudly pointed out her newly renovated kitchen and introduced her husband who was just finishing breakfast.  They laughed easily, especially about us getting to meet real live kibbutz residents.  Both were artists and sold their sculptures and handbags in the marketplace.  They clearly enjoyed the beautiful, communal setting and were thriving in its new economy.

Eli smiled warily as we left.  He loved growing up on the kibbutz and raising his family there.  But he knew the changes were necessary.  Encouraged by the slight up-tick in members since the rules were revised,  the kibbutz expects more will be enticed to work there. Maybe even Eli's grandchildren will continue this century old tradition.  He can only hope so.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Mayan Riviera 36 Years Later


I last visited  Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula in 1975, when my husband and I spent our honeymoon there.  We were poor, ill-prepared and rode buses to the ruins of Chichen Itza and slept in hammocks at Isla Mujeres.  Since development at Cancun only began in 1970, there were just a handful of hotels and about that many tourists.  When I returned this summer to the now named Mayan Riviera for a family wedding, I was dumbstruck by the changes.

Our Continental flight from Houston was filled with summer clad tourists who happily accepted the offer of beer or Margaritas in the air.  At the Cancun Airport, the control tower was even wrapped in a large ad for Corona beer.  Planes from around the world nosed into their gates -   Air Canada, Air Cubana, and even the English Thomas Cook charter known for packaged holiday tours.  Twelve American airlines and thirty-one foreign ones now serve this very busy, modern airport where English is the first language of announcements.  An enormous customs hall filled with agents processed the approximately 1,000 arriving travelers within 30 minutes.


Outside, a squadron of white-shirted tour representatives held  placards as they searched for their named tourists.  Fortunately, mine was in a red shirt and easy to spot.  We chatted while awaiting the emergence of my sister-in-law. He felt about half the tourists came from Europe and half from the United States and Canada.  It had been slower this year, he said, but that was hard for me to gauge.  I did note the outdoor bar for those who just couldn’t wait.

The drive from the airport to our resort was along the four lane Highway 307 linking the 79 miles from Cancun through Playa del Carmen to Tulum in the south.  Spread along this road were literally hundreds of hotels and resorts.  Trip Advisor lists 258 hotels in the area.  Some are for adults only, others have great children’s programs, many are all inclusive and a few are for budget minded travelers.  The larger hotels cover acres and have pyramids peering over the trees.  One driver described them as “pueblitas” or little towns.

Security is a major concern today even though this area has not seen the crime waves reported in other parts of Mexico.  But the hotels take it seriously.  At each of the resorts for the two couples in our van, a guard at the gate checked the guest list before allowing us through.

Our resort, the Royal Playa del Carmen, faces the beach in the middle of the town of Playa del Carmen.  While it had no gate, security was heavy around the large driveway. We also saw policemen patrolling the area with regularity and even one handcuffed man being whisked away.  But there was never a moment that we felt at risk, even as we strolled the streets of the town.

Our hotel shone with  marbled floors, manicured lawns, numerous swimming pools and was filled with approximately 1500 friendly, hard-working employees who greeted us with “hola” and a hand over their heart.  It was a far cry from our motel at Chichen Itza years ago where we were just happy to have air conditioning.  This was also my first “all inclusive” experience and I could get used to ordering freely from the menu and not having to calculate tips after every meal. The choices were international with many fusion dishes but the portions small.  If you were still hungry, just order another course - which was true of the weak drinks they served.

Destination weddings are increasingly popular because of the romantic settings, reduced costs and  shortened guest list.  At our niece’s lovely wedding, we enjoyed  a familiar ritual in a tropical setting.  White gauze entwined the ocean front wedding gazebo where I had enjoyed a yoga session that morning.  Chairs with white covers were arranged on two sides of the aisle and parasols available for those in the sun.  The groom’s brother-in-law officiated even though he had no real power. The bridal couple had married in a civil ceremony in California before coming.  Evidence of our presence south of the border were numerous. Throughout the service and dinner reception, live and recorded music played from a harpist, Mariachi band, and a great DJ.   Groomsmen wore white Mexican shirts and sandals and sunglasses soothed the eyes of guests.  The wedding party had shots of tequila after the service while the hors d’oeuvres displayed all the wonderful fresh fruit and flowers available in those parts.


The resorts on the Mayan Riviera do provide a relaxing environment to eat, drink, sun, swim as well as marry.  Although the quality of lodging has changed significantly since our first trip there, the clear blue-green waters and white beaches haven’t.  I’ve long noticed how few Americans are traveling in the out-of-the way places I frequent.  But I found them on the beaches of Mexico, enjoying a taste of luxury at reasonable prices.

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