Mosaics on the wall, heading into the customs/border control area.

Israel Trip: Traveling to Jerusalem

When I was offered the opportunity to go on this trip to Israel, I was really psyched about it. I mean, it’s not every day that you get the chance to travel to one of the most important places in the world. Israel, and Jerusalem specifically, has been the direction of prayer for Jews for thousands of years. For some Christians in some periods it has also served as a direction of prayer. The same can be said for Muslims. During the initial years of Islam, Jerusalem was the¬†qibla, or direction of prayer, before it was switched to Mecca to create a distinction between Muslims and Jews. Jerusalem has been a place of pilgrimage for all three faiths. Millions and millions of people have turned their thoughts, hopes and dreams toward that city. And, I got the chance to go for free. I’m still not entirely sure why. The Jewish Studies program director said it’s just because of who I am. I suppose he means personality and academic achievement, but no matter the reason, I am exceedingly grateful because it was an amazing experience. Life changing in some ways. And, while we didn’t all become the best of friends, we all bonded with each other to varying degrees. How couldn’t we?

The van ride to JFK

The van ride to JFK

But, that came later. Before heading to the airport, we all met up at our professor’s apartment in Manhattan. She had arranged transportation from there to the airport so we could arrive organized, as a group. It was less stressful for her to do things that way and reduced the chances of someone missing the flight.

Security was less aggressive than I expected. I suppose I had built up the interrogation process in my mind and the actual process was sort of a let down. I suppose that sounds sort of odd, but being battered with questions is part of the Israel experience now, for good or bad. I was asked about my identity, who I was traveling with, how long I’d known them, if I’d packed my bags and had my bags in my possession the whole time, and whether or not anyone had tried to give me anything to take to Israel. I was also asked who was in charge of the group and how long I’d known her. I think the process of trying to explain to them that we were all traveling as a group from a school was more complicated and tiresome than answering the questions and Professor Kornfeld handled that part of it anyway.

Awesome memory foam neck pillow.

Awesome memory foam neck pillow.

We wandered around the airport for a while before we headed to the boarding area. I bought a neck pillow. I figured I would need it and got a firm memory foam pillow. It came in handy, especially on the flight back. I thought about how long the week was going to be. Besides Professor Kornfeld, I was the only married person on the trip. I was also the only guy on the trip. That made things interesting, but not in a bad way. But, what I mean is that I was wondering how well things were going to go with my wife being alone for a week with the dog and cats.

People praying in the boarding area by the windows.

People praying in the boarding area by the windows.

When we got to the gate, we went ahead and got in line to board. We stood near the velvet cords that are removed when the staff is going to allow passengers to board. There were people standing by the windows praying. I’m not sure if they were doing evening prayers, praying for a safe flight, or both.

Chassidic guys that cut us in line.

Chassidic guys that cut us in line.

As the time to board came closer, a lot of the Chassidic people decided we weren’t important enough to be at the front of the line, or perhaps that they were too holy to be second, and walked in front of us and squeezed us out of our spot in the line. We had to start telling people the line actually starts at the back, not the front, or I think we would have found everyone bunched in front of us in a huge cluster of stupid.

The El Al staff wasn’t much better. The woman that checked my ticket and passport before letting pass through onto the boarding walkway even made a “psst” noise through her teeth as she handed back my identification. I didn’t have time to stop and think about it then, or perhaps I was too excited to be getting on the plane, but I can’t understand how these people can be so rude to customers and still have their jobs. The flight crew made up for it. They were extremely pleasant.

The El Al plane we flew in.

The El Al plane we flew in.

Interior of the El Al plane.

Interior of the El Al plane.

The plane itself was not impressive. It looked old. The screens on the backs of the chairs were discolored, flickered, or were dim. There was no on-demand video. There was a screen at the front of our section of the cabin that was just set to show what was on one of the available channels. It was worse than most domestic Delta flights I’ve taken. It didn’t hold a candle to Singapore Airlines. Those guys even give out slippers, tooth brushes and tooth paste. Complimentary champagne too, in economy class. El Al wouldn’t even agree to provide vegetarian meals for people in our group who don’t eat meat. But, at least it was safe.

I had a surprise on the plane. When I looked to my left I saw a guy I recognized and after a while I realized he attends the same synagogue I do. When I caught his eye he smiled and waved and I found out he was heading to Israel for a wedding. I bumped into him again at the customs/border control area.

Mosaics on the wall, heading into the customs/border control area.

Mosaics on the wall, heading into the customs/border control area.

Arriving in Israel, we discovered that there is no immigration stamp anymore. Because the Arab countries behave like children and won’t allow anyone in that has an Israeli visa stamp in their passport, Israel has had to change the way they issue visas. Now, they provide you with a printed card that looks sort of like an ID, with a photo and an entry number. You get another one as you leave the country. I was disappointed. Even though not having that stamp is probably best if I want to do more traveling in the region, it would have been cool to have. And, do I really want to visit and spend money in countries that behave like that anyway?

Balloons on the ceiling from families greeting returning loved ones.

Balloons on the ceiling from families greeting returning loved ones.

A large menorah outside Ben Gurion International Airport.

A large menorah outside Ben Gurion International Airport.

We left New York City at about midnight and arrived in Tel Aviv at Ben Gurion airport at about 4 PM. The drive to Jerusalem wasn’t that long at all. Before we knew it we were dropping our things off at the hotel. We were staying at the Eldan, across the street from the King David Hotel. I can’t remember if we showered. I’m sure I brushed my teeth at least, but before long we were back in the van and heading out for dinner.

To be continued…

Bus Breakdown

Broken down M100 Bus in Manhattan

Broken down M100 Bus in Manhattan

NYC uses a mix of old and new buses in the city. A few days ago, I was on one of the older buses (the M100) when I started to smell something burning. At the next stop, the driver turned the bus off and told everyone to leave. I think the engine must have been overheating in a serious way for that much of an odor to enter the bus. I thought a building in the neighborhood was on fire. An overheating engine makes a lot more sense, since there weren’t any sirens.

It wasn’t really too big of a deal because we were able to board the following bus for free. New York City is pretty good about that sort of thing and often provides free shuttle buses during subway downtime as well. I felt bad for the guy in the wheelchair, though. With the engine screwed up, there was no way to get him off the bus. The engine usually revs pretty hard when the ramp is being extended, lowered and retracted. The newer buses are designed so that the floor of the bus is closer to the street level, which would make getting a guy in an electric, heavy wheelchair, out of a broken down bus much easier.

I hope everything turned out ok for the guy. He seemed pretty cool when I briefly spoke to him as I was getting off the bus. I thought about staying to help, but I figured I’d just get in the way. When we were pulling away on the following bus, three police officers were standing by the open rear doors, probably figuring out how to get the guy and his chair out. The bus driver was still talking on the bus phone, probably requesting help. I think the LCD said “Maintenance Call,” when I had walked by.

Tickets!? Got your tickets!? (AirTrain from Newark to Penn Station)

When we were on our way back from our vacation in Georgia, I realized that I’d accidentally selected a return flight that would have us landing at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey. I didn’t realize this until we were at Hartford International Airport in Atlanta, checking in. I couldn’t figure it out at first. When I picked these tickets, I’d selected to see only flights for “NYC” on the website. Why would the Delta site show Newark in New Jersey as a NYC airport? It’s not even the same state!

AirTrain Newark Description

AirTrain Newark Description

So, while we were sitting in Hartford, waiting on our flight, we had to do a quick check to see what sort of transportation was available from Newark into the city. I did NOT want to spend 70+ dollars on a taxi. Luckily, there was another, affordable option: the AirTrain. On the website, it looked fairly new and the tickets weren’t that expensive. It’s been a few weeks, but I think they were only 11 dollars apiece to get to Penn Station.

The thing is, the site is a little misleading. I saw that shiny train and thought that’s what was going to take us to Penn Station. The reality is that it just drops you off at another train platform where you get on this old-timey looking train where conductors come through the cabs hollering to see your tickets.

Old NJ Transit train from Newark to Penn Station.

Old NJ Transit train from Newark to Penn Station.

I couldn’t help but think of that scene in the Indiana Jones movie where Jones threw the bad guy off the zeppelin and then told the stunned crowd that he didn’t have his ticket.

Train tickets

We had our tickets!

Train tickets clipped to the back of the seat in front of us.

Train tickets clipped to the back of the seat in front of us.

It wasn’t a bad experience. It’s really convenient, even. But, from now on I’ll definitely be double-checking that the travel websites are actually showing me NYC airports that are in NYC. Landing at Newark, as opposed to landing at LGA, added about an hour to our total travel time.

Way Down Yonder on the Chattahoochee…

So, down in Georgia, there’s a river called the Chattahoochee. According to Alan Jackson, it gets hotter than a hoochee coochee and it’s a great place to learn to swim, love, and live.

Back in the 70’s, which is when I assume he’s talking about, that might have been true, but these days there’s so much industrial pollution and waste water run-off in the Chattahoochee that if it’s hot, it’s because it’s burning your skin. Atlanta pumps a lot of waste into the river, ruining it for all of the cities downstream.

Chattahoochee River, River Walk, Phenix City side.

Chattahoochee River, River Walk, Phenix City side.

That hasn’t stopped both Columbus (on the Georgia side of the river) and Phenix City (on the Alabama side of the river) from both trying to develop the area. One of their projects is a river walk. I remember when the Columbus government first started building the river walk back in the mid 90’s. If I remember right, I did a March of Dimes event there when I was a sophomore in high school. It was pretty nice. The view was good. Even going back there now, after having seen the skylines of so many cities in and outside the US, it’s still good, though that may be partly the nostalgia.

Blown dam on the Chattahoochee River

Blown dam on the Chattahoochee River

The other project that Columbus is working on is something to do with white water rafting. The city government has this idea in their head that if they build it, ‘they’ will come, in the hundreds of thousands, so, sure enough, several historic dams that were built to power factories that used to operate along the waterfront were blown open to create a ‘white water’ effect in the river. Personally, I think it looks more like a ‘lazy river’ ride at a theme park, way too tame for someone seeking a real white water thrill, but maybe they haven’t opened up all the dams yet.

My wife and I went down the Phenix City riverwalk with my dad and he was telling us about how the city made a big deal out of blowing the dam we happened to be looking at, at the time. It was televised and people were expecting a large explosion, but it wasn’t really anything special. I still wish I’d been there to see it, but mostly because I’d have been interested to see what was at the bottom of the river. I bet they pulled a lot of neat stuff out of there.

Covered over square tunnels visible in far walls.

Covered over square tunnels visible in far walls.

Across the river from where we were, for example, there was a wall built of large square stones that was previously submerged. In the side of that wall there were square tunnels running back into the bank. I wonder what’s in there? Was it used fro waste run-off or sewage? The way it was built, with two walls in terraced set-up, it seemed like there used to be a road down there.

Old factories and a power station (small building 1/4 from the right)

Old factories and a power station (small building 1/4 from the right)

Anyway, there’s a lot of history in that area. One of the last major wars of the Civil War was fought in Phenix City. Columbus used to produce most of the boots and swords for the Confederate Army. Columbus was also the end of the line for river cargo from the Gulf of Mexico, since it sits on the fall line. Now, those old factories are being converted into expensive lofts and the river is being turned into a commercialized tourist attraction (which will probably fail due to health concerns), but at least the river has a bit more character now. I wish I could get down in there with a metal detector…

The National Infantry Museum at Fort Benning / Columbus, Georgia

While my wife and I were down in Georgia, it wouldn’t have made sense for me to not show her around Fort Benning. I did my basic training there in 1998, after all, on Sand Hill at 2/54 (2nd Battalion, 54th Infantry Regiment). After spending some time driving around Sand Hill, getting lost, using my phone to consult Google Maps and then finding our way back to the highway, we got over to the National Infantry Museum. Technically, it’s not on Fort Benning; it’s just out the gate in Columbus, Georgia.

The National Infantry Museum at Fort Benning Georgia.

The National Infantry Museum at Fort Benning Georgia.

I wasn’t really expecting much when we drove up to the parking lot. I’d heard good things about the NIM but I remembered how decrepit the old museum building was. I’d only gone there once when it happened to be closed and spent my time outside looking at the tanks. From the moment we walked up to the building entrance, though, I could tell the planners had put quite a bit of effort into making the NIM a place worth visiting.

Statue at the front of the National Infantry Museum

Statue at the front of the National Infantry Museum

There was no fee to get in. That was a bit of a surprise. I guess I’m used to New York City, where every museum and art gallery wants to push you to the brink of poverty with their entrance prices, though those prices are usually just recommended donations, meaning you can give less and still get in. Anyway, there were donation boxes scattered around the lobby and we gave about ten bucks.

Information marker stone in front of the eight historic battle recreations.

Information marker stone in front of the eight historic battle recreations.

The most visually appealing part of the museum is the ramp that stands directly ahead of the entrance. It takes you up through recreated scenes of eight famous battles that were decisively won by the infantry, from Redoubt #10 in the American Revolution to WWs I and II and up to the recent invasion of Iraq in 2003 (of which I was a part). There’s no Natural History Museum or any serious art galleries in Columbus, but having a military history museum available must be nice, especially considering that quite a few people in the area are military or military dependents (wife/husband/kids). While we were looking at the recreations, a man was walking up the ramp with what I assume were his sons, telling them about the battles and why they were significant. The kids looked really impressed. I wonder why it is that war is always such a hook for people (especially kids) when studying history?

Behind the ramp of the eight historic battles was an area that had a lot of photos and videos about drill sergeants and infantry training on Fort Benning, called OSUT now, which stands for One Station Unit Training. Unlike other job specialties in the military, infantryman do all of their training in one spot, from beginning to end as one unit. For example, I wasn’t infantry, so while I did my basic training in an infantry training battalion on Fort Benning, I did my advanced training at Fort Lee, Virginia.

Statue of mother and child left behind by soldier at war.

Statue of mother and child left behind by soldier at war at the entrance to a small gallery about soldier’s families during deployments.

After you finish looking at the training stuff, you can go down to the lower level and look at thematic galleries that address different periods, wars, or theaters of war. Those were pretty cool. There were a lot more artifacts there than I expected, the most surprising of which to me was Hermann Goering’s Nazi baton.

Hermann Goering's Nazi Baton, crusted in diamonds.

Hermann Goering’s Nazi Baton, crusted in diamonds, presented by Adolph Hitler in February, 1938.

The baton made me think about how these days you can’t keep anything you find on the battlefield. Now they call them “war trophies” and a soldier can face legal action under the military justice system for sending that type of stuff home. I don’t know why. If you’re going to ask soldiers to do something stupid for ambiguous reasons, you ought to at least let them keep a souvenir. Not that I think wholesale looting should be allowed, either, though. I suppose the problem of where to draw the line led them to think it would be better to ban it all together.

Mock trench

Mock trench

My favorite parts of the display were the mock trench from the trench warfare in World War I and the explanations of how the 3rd Infantry Division got its motto: “Rock of the Marne”. I was in a unit attached to the 3rd ID during my first enlistment and while I was in Iraq. At Fort Stewart, Georgia, where the 3rd ID used to be based out of, we’d sing the Dog Faced Soldier song every morning before PT, and Rock of the Marne was a go-to phrase when greeting officers (ex: “Rock of the Marne, sir.”)

Captured artifacts from the Philippines Insurrection and Moro Wars in the late 19th / early 20th century.

Captured artifacts from the Philippines Insurrection and Moro Wars in the late 19th / early 20th century.

I also enjoyed seeing the stuff from the war between America and the Philippines, which mostly revolved around fighting the tribes in Mindanao who refused to be subjugated. The information placards there indicated that the US eventually won that fight, though my wife disagreed and said that’s wrong, that those people were never conquered; they resisted the Spanish, the Japanese, the US, and even the national Philippines government. I think just recently the Philippines government had to grant them limited autonomy to get them to stop blowing stuff up.

A POW - MIA memorial outside the NIM.

A POW – MIA memorial outside the NIM.

A family member told me that a person could probably look through the entire place in about 4 hours, but I have to disagree. If we stopped to read and look at each exhibit thoroughly, we could easily spend two days there and not get bored. When we went, two of the galleries, the ones for the earliest periods of US history, weren’t even open yet. That would make the trip even longer. We wished we had more time to enjoy the museum, but we’d only set aside one afternoon of our vacation for the museum. We’ll have to go back again next time.