BY: BRIAN VARELA
When I got out of the airport the first thing I noticed was that everything was in Hebrew. I had just arrived in Tel-Aviv, Israel to begin my year-long study abroad program at the University of Haifa. After an 18-hour plane ride, including one layover and more than 24 hours without sleep, I now had to make the journey across a country I’d never been to before that spoke a language I did not know.
I was told by a middle-aged Israeli man who sat next to me on the plane that the best way to get to Haifa from Tel-Aviv was by train. Lucky for me, the train station was right outside the airport. I found an automated ticket machine, and bought a ticket with New Israeli Shekels (NIS) that I exchanged my U.S. dollars for at the airport.
I had to ask several people around me which train would take me to Haifa before I was satisfied that I was getting on the right train. Most people I ran into spoke at least broken English and were happy to help me with directions and Hebrew signs.
I took a window seat and watched the countryside go by. The train was traveling north through Israel’s coastal plain. The green farms and fields contrasted with the dry hillside in a way that made the vegetation pop. There were worn, abandoned houses and modern neighborhoods that showed the age and development of the country.
The Mediterranean Sea was almost overwhelmingly blue. The water appeared clear and without fault. I could see boats splashing around in the September sun. At various locations along the coast there were people lounging about in the sand and wading in the water. It was a perfect day to be at the beach. It was a Sunday afternoon and it was about 78 degrees without a cloud in the sky.
Then, I missed my stop. I was listening to the automated recordings call out several stops in Haifa, but I never heard mine. After it appeared I had left the city, I got off and asked for directions.
It turns out I was about four stops away from where I needed to be. One of the attendants told me to just get on the next train going back and get off at the fourth stop.
So I waited, with my luggage, and watched the people go by. I was carrying my backpack, laptop and duffle bag that held about 100 pounds of my belongings that I would need for the next nine months. It seemed to get heavier with each step and there was no comfortable way to hold it.
I began to feel conspicuous because all around me were Israeli soldiers with their guns slung over their shoulders. I had seen a few soldiers on the train, but now there was a large group of them. What kind of conclusions would they draw when a foreigner in aviator sunglasses carrying a large, military-green duffel bag got off the train, only to get back on it, with a nervous and anxious look on his face?
Military service in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) is mandatory for both men and women, with men serving for three years and women for two years. There are some exclusions, like for the minority populations and those unfit to serve. After the soldiers finish their mandatory service, they join the reserves where they serve for a total of one month out of the year. Should the need arise, those in the reserves can be called into action within hours, according to the IDF.
Once I finally made it to my stop, I still had to make my way to the university. Outside the train station I found a taxi and we left for the University of Haifa.
My Israeli friend next to me on the plane told me that the drivers in Israel are the worst in the world. He was right. The lines on the roads are more like guidelines. The people, my taxi driver included, were cutting each other off, running other cars off the road and driving directly over the lines on the road so that they were taking up two lanes at once. At one point I saw a car driving on the sidewalk. Meanwhile, my taxi driver was cussing at everyone and singing along to the radio.
The university is located on Mount Carmel and overlooks the city and the Mediterranean Sea. Mount Carmel is about 21,000 acres of national park. The park is dominated by pine, eucalyptus and cypress trees. A majority of it is also a nature reserve where animals that were nearly extinct are being reintroduced, such as ostriches and the fallow deer, according to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Mount Carmel also hosts Elijah’s Cave where it is believed he prayed before challenging 450 prophets of Baal. According to the Bible, 1 Kings 18:16-40, Elijah challenged the group of prophets in front of Ahab, the king of Israel, and the Israelites who were unsure of their faith to call upon their god to light a fire for a sacrifice. The 450 prophets prayed all day long, but couldn’t produce a flame. Elijah built an altar to the Lord and poured water over it to make it that much harder to light. He prayed and fire fell from the sky, consuming the altar and all of the water.
Once at the university I had no problem locating the international school. I checked in and was taken to my dorm. By this time, I was exhausted from my long trip and went straight to bed. I was excited to begin my adventure as a stranger in a strange land.