Monday, November 24, 2014

Final Israel Journal post: Links to all blog posts

That's the end of another Trip blog! Here are links to each post from my Israel 2014 trip. Thanks for reading :)

Israel 2014 Journal

Israel 2014 Day 12: Home and Gifts

Israel 2014 Day 12: Home and Gifts

For our last day of the trip, we got up early and just had a small breakfast before making the trip to TLV airport. We dropped off the car, and got to the airport with lots of time. The airport is quite huge and we had a great time there -- there is a pretty epic duty free area with crazy stuff like fridges and TVs and so on. Funny.

Back to the airport!
Definitely the first massive mezuzah I've seen at an airport
Kosher Aroma
We stopped by Aroma one last time, of course... to get, as usual, an Ice Aroma. So epic. We also picked up an apple pastry for later (mmm), and got a tasty cheese bureka filled with egg, pickles, and tahina! So good.

Hebrew DreamWorks and Blue Sky movies
Ratatouille and Wall-E!
Tasty Aroma meal before the long flight!
We had an hour and a half or so, so we spent a bunch of time in the Duty Free shop. They had a huge section of unusual whiskies so it was fun to check those out. They had the Laphroaig "Qa" Cask (not "Quarter Cask", but "Qa Cask", a totally different one), and some other interesting choices like Talisker Dark Storm and a strange Jura one. They even had my Bruichladdich Bere Barley -- which was supposedly Distillery-only, but I knew was also available in "travel retail", i.e. in airport duty free shops like this one. They had some Port Charlotte too and some other interesting things to check out.

I bought some Pop Rocks chocolate which was epic and would be fun to take home to my colleagues, as well as some Max Brenner chocolates for the airplane ride. After a nice Aroma breakfast, we headed to the plane for the long trip back to SFO, via Toronto. The trip to Toronto was good -- I didn't actually watch any movies on such a long trip!! It was a nice opportunity to catch up on some things: reading all of my buddy Matt's Scotland travel journal, answering tons of emails, organizing my to-do list, and also finishing the notes for this journal. After many hours of doing that stuff, I still had 3 hrs left of the flight, and decided to get a little sleep. What an awesome trip.

Traveling via Toronto, as you can see
We transferred in Toronto, almost missing our flight back to SFO due to customs taking forever, but you can't keep me away from Tim Horton's even if I might miss my flight. I ended up haulin' it across the airport, carrying tons of stuff and running like a fiend so that I could grab a Tim Hortons coffee, and get Michal a Tim Hortons muffin. I sprinted to the plane and made it back just in time -- with a nice warm cup of Timmy's coffee for the ride back to SF. Sweet. :)

After getting back and unpacking, here's a few of the interesting things I received, bought or got for others as gifts.

"Yu-tan" letters, tea
Salad chopper, tea, and yarmulkes from Tzfat
Zaatar, shabbos napkins, and a hamsa
Israeli pop-rocks chocolate!
Special dreidels, plus 3 Mezuzahs and 1 scroll
Artwork I bought in Tzfat
Magen David surf necklace
Salad dressing pourer
...complete with a recipe
Awesome placemats and coasters!
And... time to prepare my own labne/zaatar combo at home :)
Looking back on this trip, I am very grateful to my girlfriend Michal for encouraging me to come with her and to her family for making the trip such a welcoming and enjoyable experience. I had always imagined that "one day" I would go visit Israel -- I even said that to Michal, "well, one day..." when she asked if I was ever interested to go. I never expected that "one day" would be so soon, but I am very glad for it. I look back on my first experience at the Western Wall with extreme gratitude and appreciation for the importance and weight of that opportunity. It was totally awesome, in the full sense of the word. I was welcomed with open arms, and met so many warm and sincerely caring people.

I am also grateful that I felt safe the entire time. To be very honest, this was a big concern of mine, visiting for the first time. It was not without reason -- the very tragic story of the three boys kidnapped happened just as we arrived, and very soon after we returned home to San Francisco, the terrible news that the bodies of the three boys were found; and violence broke out which has lasted for months. It is such a sad occurrence; for a place so beautiful and with so many incredible natural experiences, that there is so much hate and anger in the world for its existence.

I met some wonderful people there and felt so welcome and encouraged by their community spirit and good nature. I saw Hasidim dancing and singing in the street to encourage happiness and joyfulness. I ate an odd McDonald's Hamburger and saw Hebrew writing written in "Chinese-style" for a Chinese restaurant. I floated in the Dead Sea and walked the ancient mystical streets of Tzfat. It was an incredible experience, and I am so happy not only to experience it for the first time, but for that experience to have been led by an epic girl whom I admire and appreciate more than she knows. :)

Where to next? Well, wherever it is, I'm sure it will be epic. :)

-Mike Jutan

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Bike Test: Specialized Tricross Comp Disc (Cyclocross)

A short note on a bike test I did last week.

As you've read in earlier posts, I'm trying to figure out what commuter bike makes sense in San Francisco (no, I'm definitely *not* getting a fixie).

I've tried a road bike (fast, but drop-bar position was a fail for traffic, and didn't have enough brake access while biking with hands on the break hoods) and now also a "Cyclocross" bike thanks to my buddy Nick, which is somewhere between a commuter hybrid/fitness bike and a road bike.

Specialized Tricross Comp Disc

It was a pretty interesting vibe. Interesting that Cyclocross bikes (or at least, this one) add an extra set of brakes on the top bar... presumably due to the necessity for faster brake access when commuting. So, that was pretty good. I found this one had a much more comfortable brake hood than the road bike I tried recently, and a bit better brake access.

The tires on this one were 700x32's -- wider than the 700x25's I was riding on a few weeks ago with the road bike. I sure do like the taller 700c vibe, that is awesome and I can feel the speed. These tires were pretty slick, but certainly the 25's ran faster. I suspect this vibe is somewhat closer to the Quick's tires.

The drop bar, as before, was fun and fast on a flat road, but those are hard to come by on my commute. Otherwise, down the massive hills in the Presidio, the drop bars were pretty nuts and I preferred to be more upwards so as to not break the speed of sound.

This bike also had SRAM shifters, which took a bit of getting used to since I am so used to Shimanos. I can see the pros and cons, but I think I am a Shimano guy (too many years of riding with those, I think I prefer them a lot). The ability to double-down on a shift in on direction or another is pretty sweet.

Nick had clips on this one, so I actually tried out real clips. The pull on the up-pedal sure is nice, but I don't like the fact that your feet are locked in. I think those would take a fair amount of getting used to. I could always consider adding that at a later date if I really found I wanted them.

Finally, this bike also had disc brakes. Those supposedly run better in the rain which is nice for San Francisco, but I've also heard that with a bike as light as one of these, it's not super necessary.

So... as much as I liked the Cyclocross, I still don't see myself doing super long-distance rides that would necessitate a drop-bar. Now that I've tried it, I feel like the 700x32 tires are pretty good and still have very good pickup. I think I am zeroing in on a straight-bar hybrid, without drop bars. I think I am still going to be able to get the speed I want as long as I have 700xsomething tires and a frame that is light enough. I may want to try the Quick and the Quick Speed next to see how those go. It's been really a great experience to try these bikes out and I think I've learned a lot about what I want to get from trying them on my actual commute.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Israel 2014 Day 11: Akko Hummus and Moshav Cheese

Israel 2014 Day 11: Akko Hummus and Moshav Cheese

Our last full day in Israel for this trip started, as they all did, with a glorious breakfast.

Breakfast in Rosh Pina
The pool in daylight

Our plan was to meet Ilanit and Nir in Akko but they weren't feeling super well, we decided to go anyway though, in search of epic hummus. Since we didn't have as much of a schedule as originally planned, we took the morning slowly in Rosh Pina and had a nice long breakfast upstairs at the B&B. We had cheese, dips, an omelet, a cappuccino, all excellent! The other couple staying there were from Oakland, California, so we had lots to talk about. We checked out after a nice breakfast and I wrote my journal at the pool cabana (man, a lot of cabanas on this trip so far!) We collected our stuff and headed out to Akko ("Acre").

Chillin' in Akko with some Pomegranate "Spring" juice
We walked along the shore to the Old City. Again the weather was quite hot so we stayed hydrated with some "Spring" Pomegranate juice. We continued walking along to the Akko old city/Arab village. It was super cool to walk in there, there was both a Mosque AND a Synagogue in there! It was nice to see a small village where people of different faiths lived in harmony together.

Cute kitten
Into the Arab village in Akko to go seek out epic hummus
Awesome-looking Mosque in Akko
Alleyways leading to epic hummus
We were walking in this area, seeking out Said (Say'eed) Hummus -- a shop that was, according to several websites online, the #2 Hummus in the country (after our previously-visited Abu Hassan hummus in Old Jaffa)! It was SUPER cheap and very tasty. It was only ₪7 for a tub of hummus (about $1.80) and only ₪2 ($0.50) for 4 epic pitas, which were still warm. It was very awesome. Still in my mind nothing can ever be as good as Abu Hassan's hummus, but this one was also just incredible. And it was truly unbelievable how little it costs compared to how much you are charged for Hummus at home, and how much better the quality is and more authentic the whole experience is. Super fun.

Here we are at Hummus Said, rated one of the best Hummus shops in Israel!
Wow, that Hummus smells amazing
From here we walked back to the car, via some pastry shop and to get some more liquids. From there we drove south to meet Michal's brother and sister-in-law at a Moshav, a small village which had been there since 1887! They were cheese makers, and had a cool tent atmosphere there. Lots of cats were running around, so obviously that made me super happy. We sat down at a table beside some roosters and all the cats and ordered a plate of 18 different cheeses!! It was all awesome and they were all freshly made there.

Meeting Michal's brother and sister-in-law at a Moshav
Massive assorted cheese plate!
Cats running around, so I was happy
A cat at the cash register
The first one was very "goaty", followed by lots of other interesting cheeses -- all very different and unique in their own way. We also ordered Labaneh and it was INSANELY AWESOME. I have never tried it like this, and it came with incredible olive oil, zaatar, and some other interesting and amazing spices on it. It was the BEST. We dipped some fresh laffas in there and it was pretty darn life-changing. Michal's brother and I crushed some olives too, and we also had fresh apple juice and lemonade. We ate tons of cheese, dolmas filled with goat cheese, and eventually ordered another plate of Labaneh before heading back to Ra'nannah.

OMG this labane
Then we ordered another one
Awesome little hut where we ate all the cheese ever
Great vibe here
Old scale
Cheese or Olives to-go if you wanted
Hanging out with a cow
We arrived back and went straight to Orit's for dinner and to have a nice chat. It was great, we had lots of time to get to know each other better and to talk about interesting cultural differences. I always love having that opportunity when in another country, to talk to some local people about their culture and to share my own... I find that is one of the best ways to learn about people, by seeing how they live, thinking about it, talking, and eventually comparing their life experiences with your own. It's always very enlightening and I've enjoyed doing this sort of thing wherever in the world I go.

Of course Orit was very insightful and I learned a lot. We talked a lot about the Israeli sense of community, and how if your car tire went flat on a road, people would actually pull over to help you -- very different than my experience back home, where more commonly there is a "it's not my problem" mentality. She talked about how the communication is more direct, and when in less-direct countries it can be very confusing. She used an example, if in the US people might say, "Your clothes look very comfortable" if they think you are dressed too casually for an event. In Israel someone might be a bit more direct, "You are dressed too casually." :) Some of her friends who went to school in the US were at first quite confused by the indirect manner of speech, and didn't always understand what people meant because phrases were wrapped in pleasantries or fake-positivity which can be very subtle and especially confusing if English is not your first language. And if USA is confusing, imagine Canada or Britain, where language can be even further distanced with layers of subtlety and indirection.

We talked about Israeli vs. American vs. Canadian ideals, immigration, racism, building a country's culture, the rich and poor gap, problems caused by a shrinking middle class, the dream of home ownership, a neighbourly culture of "we'll work it out together" vs. "not my problem"... we may have covered about 50 different topics in the span of an hour or so!! It was wonderful to chat, and as I mention, quite enlightening. I love talking about these kinds of things with someone who is open to discuss these things. In a non-judgmental atmosphere, you can really learn fascinating things about another culture this way.

After our super engaging conversation, we had dinner and I mailed some postcards home. We had pizza and "sticks", and chatted more with all the kids. It was super fun. We said our goodbyes after dinner and headed to go fill up the car with "Delek" (Gas). This was super complicated, as you needed some sort of Israeli driver's license or something like that. It was confusing. So we drove to another gas station and the dude there was super helpful. As Orit had suggested, he was very much in the "let me help you out" mentality, and it was so funny. He was so excited and happy to help us, and excited that we were travelers. He just about gave me a hug!! It was hilarious, I called him my "gas bro".

Back we went to the house to pack and clean up, and prepare to head home the next morning. Our wonderful hosts said we should leave plenty of space for gifts... uh oh!!!! They were INCREDIBLE. Michal's uncle and aunt presented us with many super thoughtful and kind gifts: tea, a salad chopper so we could continue to make Israeli salad at home, Organic Tahini for making Tahina sauce, and even some Tea infuser mugs!! This was wild, as the whole week from these lovely people was a true gift, and this extra generosity was totally unexpected and so kind. They had given us a home for the week, and then picked us up such perfectly-chosen gifts. Wow. :)

Of course it was time for more eating! We had some ice cream, and reminisced about the trip. What a great family. We said our goodbyes, and thank yous, many many times.

Israel 2014 Day 10: Tzfat and the North

Israel 2014 Day 10: Tzfat and the North

This morning started out with a nice breakfast with everyone, followed by a goodbye to Michal's parents who were heading home this morning. Our first stop after breakfast was Ahusa St. in Ra'nannah for some shopping. Today's theme: Judaica!!

And as always, a photo of a random cat
Let the mezuzah shopping begin!
We went to a cool housewares shop, where we found the local artist cake dishes and housewares with cute kitchen drawings and recipes in Hebrew written on the dishes themselves. I really loved that stuff, and got an Olive Oil pourer/Salad dressing mixer, as well as a placemat/coaster set from the same artist. Awesome.

We wandered more Judaica stores and I found some Shabbos napkins for my Mom, as well as a store that just had trays and trays of different Mezuzahs. I've never seen so many in my life!! It was incredible. I looked for maybe 30 minutes at all the different options, all so different. Some made of Jerusalem stone, metal ones, wooden ones, modern, old-school, glass-blown ones, anything you might imagine. Very fun. I ended up getting a pretty modern-looking silver one, as well as a Pomegranate painted one that looked a little like the eclectic artwork from the lady who made the kitchenware.

From there we went to an even fancier shop that had some great artwork, and even an artist in the basement of the shop selling her handmade candlesticks and other Judaica. It was a great shop. One of my favourite things was a really nice funky blue Menorah, by an artist named Emanuel. It was so nice, both modern but also classic at the same time -- I don't really like super modern-looking menorahs, so this one was a crazy colour scheme and a little wild but still in the very classic, historic fashion. Totally perfect. I loved it, but I've recently bought a new Menorah myself in San Francisco (that is super classic) so this will have to wait for another time. Very awesome though.

The exact kind of Menorah I would have
I picked up some "Nes Gadol Hayah Po" dreidels (Dreidels have a different final letter on them in Israel as compared with the rest of the world, so that was fun). I also got one paper prayer roll (that goes inside a Mezuzah). The store clerk asked me "Ashkenazi or Sephardic?" -- I didn't know there was a difference in the Mezuzah scrolls you would buy if you were from one or the other stream of Jewish culture. The scroll was already wrapped and in a small plastic bag, ready to install into a Mezuzah. It was made in Bene Beraq, a religious area near Jerusalem. After a morning of awesome shopping, we had earned ourselves a Falafel Sandwich. It came with everything, chips (fries), tahini, eggplant, the works.

Crushing a pita with falafel in it
And onwards we went, "up North". Our first stop was Tzfat/Safed/Zefat. I had learned about Tzfat in the very surprisingly available course I was able to take at Waterloo, "Kaballah and Jewish Mysticism." Tzfat has been a center of Jewish Mysticism for a long time and it sounded like a really cool artist colony and that it would be totally up my alley (it was). We got there, parked the car and started to wander... it was SO hot. My phone said it was only 28C, but it felt much hoter.

And here we are in glorious Tzfat!
Cool Tzfat alleyways
We parked near the Artists' Colony and walked the wrong way at first... but by chance we happened upon the two rivaling cheese shops: Hamieri Cheese and Tzfat Cheese!! They were both super chill spots and we ended up at Tzfat cheese to wash our faces in their bathroom (it was sooo hot) and hang out inside for a bit. Several other people were doing the same.

An older woman was sitting there, along with a long-haired weird hippy dude. The first thing he said to us, "Why are you guys so sweaty?" hahaha. It was like walking into someone's kitchen (I think it was someone's kitchen), and, as expected, the older lady said to us, "Sit, sit! Have something to eat!" haha. Loved it. We got some of their homemade dolmas, cheese and olives. We tasted a few different cheeses, including one called Tzfatit which was very salty, and a bit like Parmesan. Super funny situation there yet super welcoming and fun. Totally perfect.

"Sit, sit! Have something to eat!"
We did as we were told and sat for a few minutes, talking to the weird hippy dude, and then headed off to a winery place that had a great view. We got some lemonade there and some watermelon and "bulgarit" (Bulgarian Feta) salad. Mmm.

Watermelon and Feta
Note the right-side opening of the book, since Hebrew is written right-to-left
After more wandering in the intense heat, we finally found the artist's colony!! It was AMAZING!!! At first there were a few very touristy shops, but it was easy to spot the difference between those and the legit, artistic stores. We found some really fun stuff to look at and peruse: a pile of shofars, Mezuzahs, interesting hand-painted art and jewellery. My favourite of all the places was the Fig Tree Center area... I liked that the most. They had some "Metal Lace" Mezuzahs which were totally over-the-top amazing. Like something my buddy EJ could make with his laser cutter. :) It was so ornate and detailed, and I really loved the designs. I think they were like $200 or something wild, so we decided to keep that for a future purchase. But oh MAN they sure were awesome. Also in the Fig Tree center was a place that Hand-Crocheted Yarmulkes and Tallit. It was reallly nice and some very impressive handiwork. I actually got 2 of those -- a while/gold one that Michal LOVED on me and the staff said it was good for "special occasions". I also got a green/blue/yellow one which I loved too. I also bought a small tree of life painting with a blessing written in Hebrew around it. Some really beautiful artwork was there, and I really enjoyed this. I could have spent several days there, it was so fun.

A box of Shofars
And now, we shop
This was awesome
So many Tallit
Super amazing "Metal Lace Art" mezuzahs
Tallis weaving factory
Oh look, a Tallis being made!
On the rooftops in Tzfat
One the way out of the market, we got some fresh cherry juice that some guy was somehow squeezing (?) on the side of the road. Dodging the bees, we tried it out and it was tasty. A quick stop at the local supermarket was useful, and we grabbed some more of the life-changing Israeli cottage cheese, honey turkey, pitas and hummus for dinner. We then drove to Rosh Pina, our home for the evening.

Our awesome B&B!
Our awesome B&B!

Outside our room, a nice pool
The view of Lake Tiberias (Sea of Galilee) from our backyard!
Good times
This was a really epic place. Wow! There was a hot tub in the floor, an amazing shower, a nice pool outside and a wicked hot tub outside too. We took lots of photos, and enjoyed some wine and snacks ready for us on arrival. We walked around Rosh Pina a bit, but there was not much to see after our epic day in Tzfat. It was quite a small town, so we just walked around a little now that the temperature had cooled down a bit, and walked by another grocery store to buy my favourite popsicle again: the one shaped like a watermelon. Michal tried to take a bite when I wasn't looking.

Michal trying to steal my favourite Watermelon popsicle
After a long day outside in the sun, we decided to have a dinner picnic at "home" in the hotel. We had a nice Nespresso, and just some chillin' and a quick swim. The hot tub outside was totally amazing, it had rotating lights, a pillow light, and a water feature light. Of course I played around with all the settings, finding one that let you cycle through all the different LED colours automatically. Yes! A long and fun day, again! I had a great time and we slept well after all the walking and our tasty dinner.