Category Archives: Travel Guide

Travel Guide: Washington, DC

Last week, I spent three days in Washington, DC with the seventh grade students at school. The most difficult part of the trip for me was not knowing any of the students I was chaperoning. It’s hard to manage a group of 60 when I’m constantly trying to describe what I’ve seen or overheard to other colleagues because I don’t know who I’m talking about. For example:

“Three boys with glasses and brown hair are standing in the back of the bus.”
“A tall skinny girl is crying in the hallway.”
“I think two kids were out in the hall after lights out but I don’t know if they go to our school.”

Etc.

But DC itself was fun! The highlight for me was seeing my brother, who is a sophomore (second year, for those not attuned to American school slang) at a university just outside of DC. He joined us for lunch and a trip to the National Archives one afternoon.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. How did our 60 students spend three days in DC? We ate a lot and visited a lot of washrooms, but managed to take in a few cultural sites, too.

Washington, DC is about six hours from New York City by bus, so we left first thing Monday morning. Our first stop upon reaching DC was the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which I cannot recommend enough. It opened in September and it’s quite difficult to get tickets – and I completely understand its popularity. The museum is designed so that visitors begin at the bottom, in the “belly of the boat,” as it was explained to us. From there, visitors work their way up through the darkest hours of African American history in the United States, including the slave trade and the aspects of America that were built on the backs of slaves. The exhibits devoted to the civil rights and Black Power movements were fascinating, too. The museum ends in sun-soaked galleries highlighting achievements in sports, the arts, and politics, as well as a look at how discrimination stills plays a huge, ugly role in American history and culture.

The design reminded me a lot of Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, and the stories run parallel to each other in dark, sad ways. When we “other” the people around us, we lose our collective humanity and we do terrible things to each other. That’s the sorry moral of the story that society has yet to learn.

I truly wish we had time in the museum without students. I could have read every single artifact description, all the names of slave ships etched on the walls, all the names of those sold at auction. Like when visiting Holocaust museums, I felt this pressing need to pay my respects to those who died at the hands of people who didn’t consider them people. I’d love to go back on my own when tickets are easier to get so I can spend more time learning than I was able to on this trip.

That evening, we took a boat cruise on the Potomac and I was completely in my happy place. I love water and boats and it was sunny and the kids, though not the best museum-goers, were excellent DJs.

The next morning started with a visit to the US Capitol, which I don’t remember doing the only other time I was in DC about seven years ago. We had a really interesting tour and learned about the architecture of the building. There’s an awful lot of patriotic symbolism in there! And, no surprise, there were differences in political opinion each step of the way, lately regarding selection and placement of statues, which are gifted by the states but placed by the federal government.

I was responsible for picking up House and Senate passes from our local Congressional representative, which was fun because the Congresswoman’s aide gave me a behind-the-scenes tour of the underground connecting hallways of the Capitol when she brought me back to my group. She told me how the whole underground structure was redesigned after 9/11 to allow safe access from the Capitol to other government buildings across the street.

The House wasn’t in session (what do they do, exactly, aside from pass healthcare bills that will ruin all of us and then promptly exempt themselves from regulations?) but the Senate was! After yet another round of metal detectors, locking up all of our belongings, and still another metal detector, we were let into the gallery overlooking the Senate with strict instructions to remain silent. For a few minutes, all we could see were pages fetching water or sitting around and talking to each other. Senators occasionally entered the chamber and walked through it to one of the three or four doors along each wall. Just as we were about to leave, Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey began to speak. From where I was sitting, all I could see was the cameraperson filming his speech. Without that speck of a visual, he was just a disembodied voice, though one speaking very passionately about healthcare. The strange thing, at least to me, was that he was speaking to an empty chamber. He addressed the presiding officer who was seated on a dais looking out over the Senate desks. A few minutes in, Markey noted Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s entrance to the chamber and gave Schumer the floor. Again, Schumer spoke into a camera in a room empty but for pages, Markey, and the presiding officer. It appears that the senators often watch speeches from the comforts of their offices rather than on the floor. Who knew?! Schumer, too, lambasted the Republican healthcare bill and it was so exciting to hear him. Especially because I know I was not alone among our trip staff in voting for him!

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We lunched in the Sculpture Garden across from the National Archives and that’s where my brother met us. We fed him and he joined us for our exploration of the Archives. As a former student of history, I love old documents. It’s fun to piece stories together and to find accounts that corroborate and contradict each other. I still remember the thrill of finding the source when I was writing my undergrad thesis on the Hitler Youth movement. There are some really amazing memoirs out there by people who were children in Nazi Germany! The National Archives are a lot of fun because they freeze moments in time, moments when key decisions were made that shape the history of this country.

Every school trip to Washington, DC includes visits to the monuments. We started at the Lincoln Memorial . . .

. . . which is where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech . . .

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. . . and provides a great view of the Washington Monument, which we did not visit because it’s closed.

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A lot of the kids were tired after the Lincoln Memorial but about half wanted to see the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and we gladly obliged. The kids know very little about Vietnam and they’re not alone in that. While most students can talk about World War II starting in elementary school, the vast majority of students I’ve taught know nothing about Vietnam until we bring it up in class. And they have a lot of questions. One of my favorite lessons involves Vietnamese textbooks that explain the Vietnam War in very different words than the (*cough*) big name, biased, overly simplistic, corporate, Texas-influenced US textbooks (*cough cough*) use. Having been to the War Remnants Museum (formerly known as the Museum of American War Crimes) in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam since my last visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, I had a different understanding of the pointlessness and devastation of Vietnam. Land was burned, lives were lost, and stories were buried. That’s what shame means, I think. And that’s why the memorial is important. It’s a black expanse of wall that lists names of the fallen, explains nothing, and invites questions for everything. The kids asked those questions and I was glad for the opportunity to answer them.

I was also glad to spend a moment at the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, which I hadn’t seen before.

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The next day, we spent the morning at the Newseum, which was full of flashing headlines about the FBI. As good a time as any to talk about freedom of speech (and the press and religion and assembly and petition)! Now that I’ve lived in Malaysia and Singapore, neither of which have all of those freedoms, I find myself wondering about the merits of such a free society. For instance, freedom of speech in the US led to an acceptance of hate rhetoric, which led to Trump. So I wonder.

Before hitting the road for our drive back to New York, we stopped at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, which was a nice bookend to the National Museum of African American History and Culture that started the trip. Martin Luther King, Jr. was my professor’s chosen case study for a required college course on rhetoric and argumentative writing, so I am very familiar with King’s life, writing, speeches, and civil rights partners, including the SCLC, SNCC, and the NAACP. It was really powerful to see his words carved into stone, especially because of their implications for our choices and policies today.

One of my coworkers kept laughing at my penchant for taking pictures with my well-traveled Converse and suggested I try one with my hand instead. So I chose to photograph my hand with the word that seemed the most meaningful, the most important, the most pressing.

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At the end of the day, that’s what we’re working for.

Travel Guide: Tel Aviv

A lot gets packed into our eighth grade trip to Israel. After four nights in Jerusalem, two nights in the Negev, and three nights on the Kinneret, the trip staff were exhausted. Built into the trip was a weekend with host families, usually students’ relatives or family friends. For staff, this meant two nights to choose anywhere in Israel to stay and just relax. One of my carpool friends was also a trip chaperone and we chose to spend the weekend in Tel Aviv; it was nothing less than glorious.

With the kids, we stopped in Tel Aviv twice over the course of the trip: Once to eat falafel and hang out in a park before visiting the Olympic Museum, which was entertaining for the kids and a lovely display of Zionism, and once to go to the beach. Suffice it to say that Tel Aviv (and perhaps anything) with kids is completely different than with adults.

After traveling by bus with a group of students also staying in and around Tel Aviv, we were free! We dropped our bags at the hotel and headed straight to Nachlat Binyamin, the artists’ market where, back in 2007, my parents bought a fruit plate that still sits on their kitchen counter and I bought a pair of purple earrings that I wore every single day until they turned green. (Those earrings are the reason that I chose purple studs when I pierced the second hole in my right ear.) I didn’t buy anything this time, but it was still fun to look around.

From there, hungry, in the mood for shakshuka, and still in need of gifts, we wandered Shuk HaCarmel, the most famous of Tel Aviv’s markets. As readers of this blog know, I adore markets. I love food and smells and flavors. I love the dedication of the vendors, the passionate bargaining of customers, and the speed of each transaction. I love the crowds and how markets are universally loud, frenetic, and a true delight for all the senses.

This particular market area of Tel Aviv is also a great spot for really neat street art. Shout out to my weekend partner-in-crime for her patience every time I said, “Wait, need a picture.”

Truth be told, however, we spent most of our weekend just sitting on the beach. I’m generally really bad at sitting but that’s all my body wanted to do. Sometimes we sat with food or drinks and sometimes we just sat and watched the water. We met up with a friend and some friends of friends and had ourselves a lovely time.

In addition to a great beach atmosphere, Tel Aviv also has a great restaurant and bar scene. On recommendation from one of our trip guides who lives in Tel Aviv, we went to Four One Six, a vegan restaurant that exceeded all expectations. After a few minutes of talking to the owner, we made a New York connection – he and his twin brother, the head chef, are from Brooklyn and opened the restaurant together a few months ago. He had previously worked at Candle 79, a phenomenal vegan restaurant that was blocks away from my Upper East Side apartment for the month that I lived there. The owner was really friendly and told us that he and his brother are working to challenge the food scene in Tel Aviv by introducing delicious vegan food that highlights what vegan can eat rather than what they can’t. Sounds a little like Candle 79! (And Vedge in Philadelphia, which I also highly recommend.) The owner dropped off a plate of chocolates and stopped back to ask if we’d figured out the flavors. Delicious isn’t a flavor but that’s what they were.

Other food highlights from the weekend include shakshuka, which we didn’t find at Shuk HaCarmel but ate outside at a sidewalk bakery/café, and burekas, which we also enjoyed while sitting outside. I could eat nothing but Israeli food every day for the rest of my life and never get bored. Every meal, including breakfast, is full of various types of fresh salads and I just love it.

After dinner, we met up with our guide, his girlfriend, and a few other friends at Dizzy Frishdon, a great bar with outdoor seating, several indoor bar areas, a table with swings instead of chairs, and a few rooms of normal tables and chairs. It was a really lovely evening to sit outside (are you noticing a theme?) and enjoy just being in Tel Aviv and watching the nightlife all around us. Our guide’s friend is a part owner of the bar and that came with food and drinks perks, which was a lot of fun.

Overall, it was an incredibly relaxing weekend and exactly what we needed to prepare for the final two nights of the trip back in Jerusalem. It actually ended up being two and a half nights after a seven-hour flight delay, so it’s a good thing that we were relaxed and rejuvenated. Beautiful beaches, beautiful food, and beautiful people have a way of doing that.

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View from our hotel room

Travel Guide: The Kinneret

After four nights in Jerusalem and two nights in the Negev on our eighth grade Israel trip, we headed north to the Kinneret, the region of Israel around the Sea of Galilee (Yam Kinneret in Hebrew). We stayed at a kibbutz where I’ve been before and had the best food of the entire trip. Unfortunately, we also had an insect infestation to go along with the stomach bug, fever, and colds freely passing from student to student. This meant changing the kids’ rooms every night to quarantine the sick and avoid the rooms with unliveable colonies of insects. No exaggeration. I slept in a different room each night and spent one night on the couch of a room two colleagues were sharing. Our sleepover was honestly a lot of fun!

As much as I love the desert, I do agree that the Kinneret is beautiful.

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Sunrise

The Kinneret is home to the Banias, which our trip guides consider Israel’s most beautiful hike. The site centers on a waterfall and a cave with shrines dedicated to the Greek god Pan. It was a gorgeous day, warm with spring flowers blooming. After our time in the Negev, it was nice to see the world returning to life after the winter.

After our hike, we drove to Har (Mountain) Bental in the Golan Heights, Israel’s most strategic defense point and one that it has so far refused to give up. From Har Bental, you can see the border between Israel and Lebanon, as well as the remains of an army bunker.

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We spent the afternoon in the Golan and visited De Karina Chocolate Factory to learn how chocolates are made and try out making our own. My favorite part of De Karina was the hot chocolate I bought at the café after the tour. It was simply melted chocolate, whole milk (which I never drink), and real whipped cream (which I never have) topped with chocolate shavings and served with a house-made praline. It brought a huge smile to my face.

The next day, we participated in the first of two service projects for the trip (the second was Latet in Jerusalem, which happened three days after this one even though I wrote about it first). This was my favorite activity so far and, I think, my favorite activity from the entire two weeks. We volunteered with Leket, an organization that collects surplus food products from a variety of venues to distribute to people in need, harvests farm produce that will otherwise go unharvested, and also runs its own farm with all products going to the hungry. Our task was to harvest a field of kohlrabi. If we could accomplish that quickly, the Leket staff told us, there was a field of beets that also needed harvesting.

Our eighth graders didn’t need telling twice. It was a bright, sunny day and energy was high. Excited about playing in the dirt, the kids filled buckets and buckets of kohlrabi and emptied them into packing crates. I heard more than a few races and competitions and tried to point out that the goal was the same, no matter who filled the most buckets. However, I ultimately found myself in a flow state much like what Levin describes in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina when he mows hay with his peasants.

Time slipped away and I didn’t notice the dirt under my nails, the stiffness in my knees, or the sunburn on the back of my neck until we were done with both fields about an hour later. All I knew was that you use both hands to pull up the kohlrabi, break off the leaves, and throw it in the bucket. The beets were easier to pull out of the ground but the technique was the same. If I could make a living just doing service work with students, I think I would.

That night, two drummers came to the kibbutz to lead us in a drum circle. I was pleasantly surprised at how many Jewish and Israeli folk songs the kids knew – and how many I knew! Songs I hadn’t heard in years and some of the dances that came with them just soared. It was such a great experience to have as a community, especially following an afternoon working together to help others directly from the land that we were singing about.

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One of the drummers playing a shofar as an instrument!

Energy was obviously running high and it took us a while to get the kids calmed down with suitcases packed and into bed. We needed to leave the next morning for host family destinations for the weekend. For my colleagues and me, that meant a free weekend to relax and refresh. More on that soon!