Sunday, September 28, 2008

In unoccupied territories to "occupied" areas...

ORIGINAL POST: 26 Mar 2008

The next day, we left our little bungalow cabins by the Sea of Galilee to drive up north to the area made famous by numerous conflicts in the past century: the Golan Heights.

As we drove up into upper Israel, our guide told us the first of many stories that convey a sense of wisdom brought on by unique circumstances very few in the Western world can or will ever understand... especially in these days:

"During the last war with Lebanon a couple years ago, I was called up from reserves to serve in the intelligence command center.
Well, I was in the command center on day - 80 meters underground, it's like the safest place in Israel - and we have these computers that can tell us when Lebanon launched a missile. And they'll say, 'Launch! Launch!' every time one goes up and you know what's going on immediately because they put up on the big screen where the rocket will go and how long it will take to get there.
So, one day I was in the command center and they said, 'Launch! Launch!' and - oh my goodness - the missile was headed down to my village down south! So I got on the phone and called my wife at home and told her to get ready and - you know, just in case...
But she says, 'What missile!?' - she said, "You mean another one... they've been hitting out here all day!" There had been an armored division moving through the area and Lebanon had been shooting at the area to see what they could hit.
Anyways, the same day, I saw on another set of computers in the command center that has all the locations of the platoons and tanks and things. I saw up on the screen that day that my son's unit was on the screen because they were in a dangerous spot at the time. Well, I could see the exact place - to the exact building on the street - where his platoon was and how close they thought the enemy was.
So, I could see rockets landing in my village and see my son - where he was - in the enemy territory, and I was sitting there 80m under a mountain in Israel... I thought to myself, 'What is this!? What kind of crazy thing this is! I mean, what are we doing here!' It is so bizarre.
Oh well... Such is life in Israel sometimes. But that is all over now... and... I hope never again."

With that, he sat down.

So, we arrived at our first location for the day: ancient Dan. Or what is known as "Tel Dan". The word 'Tel' means 'hill' or - more specifically - 'old hill' or 'archaeological hill'... hence the name Tel Aviv can loosely be translated as 'old hill that now flourishes'.

Tel Dan was our first experience with the wilds of Israel. It can be quite bizarre sometimes, actually. It isn't every day that you see live trees growing sideways...

...or even more rare for us Americans, water that you can drink directly out of the stream without fear of a stomach virus on par with Montezuma's revenge.

It was a brief introduction to ancient Israel and really picturesque spot for a quick lecture.

Speaking of introductions, meet our leader, guide, and primary instructor for our stay in Israel - Soffer Avner.

A registered guide, an ex-conservationist and official in the national park service, a senior officer in the Israeli communications and intelligence reserve, and generally a guy who tends to think deep thoughts, Avner (as we called him) earned our respect quickly as we followed him through the Israeli countryside.

Anyways, you'll be seeing plenty of his unique qualities soon. You've already seen a little story he told us while riding along in the bus in the preface of this blog post.

But Dan was pretty cool and had some awesome trees. Crazy lens flare from the 18-135mm, too...

Oh, here's one of those "moments in nature brought to you by Avner" commercial breaks:

After drinking from the stream, you don't really think too much of that since it is perfectly good water from underground. But, it isn't every day when we all stop and he says, "See all these yellow flowers around? Eat it."

Skeptically we just kind of look around at each other. "No really," he urges and picks a handful himself, "Eat it and guess what it is."

So we did.

As Bobby shows us here... as Ben remains skeptical behind... I ended up having eight - and I'm still here! If you're curious, it is wild mustard and it kinda tastes a little like mustard... as you'd expect from something called 'wild mustard'.

After lunch we moved on to the area of Cesarea Philippi and to the Sanctuary of Pan that was built into the cliff over a number of caves. It was pretty cool, actually. In ancient times, there was a temple here dedicated to Pan, but now nothing but the caves and small carvings remain.

Needless to say, this was the first time to see this - pretty cool at the time - but this only foreshadowed something later on.

Here's a random moment of humor:
This guy is packing two different ways to shoot a scene...

Just wait for it... you'll see it... and I'm not talking about the backpack...

And furthermore, you get used to the beggar people in certain areas of Israel whipping out their cell phones.

Someone should tell them that's sort of detrimental to their "begging" status...

Moving on...

The trees are nice and the sky is blue. Beautiful day!

A nice day for a little jaunt through the woods towards the Baniass waterfalls a few kilometers away.

Punctuated by ancient mills on the river along the way.

This was done with a fun little technique I've been working on these days. Since on-camera flash quite frankly sucks pretty bad, I've gotten away from that and gone to develop my roots of using off-camera flash so I don't get goofy flat-lit images. Oh, but HOW do I set up off-camera flash during visits to sites like this in the middle of absolutely nowhere.

Okay, its not that hard... set the camera to open-shutter BULB and wait for someone's red-eye reduction flash to light up and hit it, wait for their flash to fire, and let go. Instant off-camera flash and a bit of a shutter drag effect of Avner across the DO NOT CROSS ropes for the first of MANY times.
This is the same way I did the photo of the deep dark hole at Mycenae a few weeks ago.

And we got another dose of random nature from Avner as we stopped by the river. We met Avner's pet that comes with him everywhere on trip like this.

Yes, its real. Very very real.

He explained to us that there are hundreds and hundreds of scorpion species in the world, but there are only a few dozen species actually in Israel and none of those are dangerous. This one isn't dangerous.

"Have you ever been stung?" someone asked.

"Yes," said Avner, "and even though it is not dangerous, it still hurts... a lot!"

Touch it, Lauren.

I think that is a 'no'...

When you're in northern Israel and see a small pasture surrounded by barbed wire fences and there are no cows inside, it is probably a good idea to respect it as very off limits. This region tends to have areas that remain as active minefields from conflicts in the late 20th century.

Pretty flowers and rocks and mines...

Just a little barbed wire and red triangle signs - the universal sign of the active minefield.

The waterfall was within earshot of this and we arrived there within a few moments.

Pretty place. The Baniass waterfall...

...and the locals selling their home canned vegetables, jams, and preserves.

We left here and headed to one of the bunkers on top of the Golan Heights. The views on the way up the mountain from the safety of the bus (on a road with no guard rails) were amazing...

These roads DO exist!

But the top was very cold and very windy... but nothing could detract from being in Israel and seeing territory controlled by Syria and Lebanon at the same time.

Yes, this is worth clicking on for the enlargement. Directly under Avner's hand is a UN military base. Directly to the left of the UN base is a dark strip of land - that is no-man's land between Israel and Syria.

Damascus is somewhere out there in the distance. You can't really see Damascus from here, but its there, I promise. A mere 60km away.

And the turrets in the trenches still rotate...

Scott was in his element crawling around the bunkers on top that mountain. I kept the shutter clicking no matter how cold I was. I've gotten to the point now where I still take picture no matter what - whether I'm tired or sick or freezing cold and being blown off the mountain by gale-force winds - I'm always taking pictures.

Why? Because some of the places I'm going these days are once-in-a-lifetime opportunities and I can't take a break for anything.

But once we came off the mountain, all was warm again.

Speaking of once-in-a-lifetime... no matter how many times you may see it, one person can only see the Jordan River for their "first time" once. No matter how cold, you get warmed up...

Its what you expect... but not... at the same time...

So ended our day in the Golan Heights.

And the upper Jordan River...

We returned to our little bungalows by the Sea of Galilee for one more night.

Good day... very good day...

Stay tuned for the events of the next day. Let me just foreshadow it by saying it was not QUITE as good. Well, they were all good places to go - just bad for some equipment.

But that for tomorrow...
~Noah D.

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