Tag Archives: Animals

Travel Guide: Sapa

When my sister told me she was coming to visit, I knew I wanted to take her to Vietnam, but I also wanted to go somewhere I’d never been. We spent a day and a half in Hanoi before taking a very lovely night train northwest to Sapa to spend two days trekking with local Hmong guides. I first learned about the Sapa trek from someone I met on an airplane on the way to Hoi An a couple years ago and was excited to finally make it there!

We booked this part of our trip with the friendly, helpful, ever knowledgable people at Lily’s Travel Agency. They were very responsive via email and WhatsApp, which made the planning very easy on my end. Lily’s Travel works with Mao, a Black Hmong woman who leads Sapa treks, to provide a “backroads” trekking experience and an authentic look at the lives of the Hmong people.

Our train left Hanoi at 10pm and we arrived at Lao Cai station at 6am. It was very cozy and truly delightful to curl up with a book and listen to the sounds of the train. I’ve always found the whistle of a train to be simultaneously romantic, mysterious, and exciting.

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From there, we took an hour-long bus ride to Sapa where we met the spunky, warm Mao. Everyone we met in Sapa seemed to know her! Mao introduced us to several other local guides and to her sister-in-law, our guide for the next two days. Mao took a particular liking to my sister’s pink curly hair – but then again, who doesn’t?

Our trek started from the town of Sapa at about 8:30am to give us time to swap the glasses for contact lenses and have some eggs and coffee. It was sunny but cold and I was glad for my winter coat and gloves . . . and skiing sweatshirt . . . and thermal leggings. (My sister, on the other hand, had come from the very cold upstate New York and maintained that it was in fact rather balmy.)

I really love meeting fellow travelers and trekking in Sapa provided a great opportunity to do that. Our group included a Malaysian man, several Singaporeans, a French woman, and two German girls. Along the way, we met other travelers from the US, Canada, and Israel. I really enjoy knowing that people from all over the world were on the same trail on the same chilly but sunny day, happy to be where they were and excited for what they would see.

I also really loved that we were all guided on our journey by a group of Hmong women who were wonderfully knowledgeable, liked to talk and make jokes, and made for excellent company.

The trek took us through rice paddies that are dormant in the winter because of the weather. Winter in northern Vietnam is too cold and dry for rice to grow but I’ve been to rice plantations in Malaysia and can imagine what it looks like in the summer. For that reason, though, I loved seeing the landscape at a different time of year. It was beautiful just as it was.

We also saw our fair share of animals! Pigs, water buffalo, and dogs were all in abundance.

By the time we arrived at the homestay, also coordinated by Mao, we were exhausted and very glad to huddle up around a charcoal fire in a large stone bowl on the floor. Our crew for the night was a really lovely group – the German and French women we’d been with all day and an American living in Thailand who we’d met over lunch. One of the girls was brave enough to test the hot water in the bathroom located just outside the house. Thanks to her, we all took a hot shower! The hardest part was figuring out where to keep our clothes so they wouldn’t get wet. Except for my sister, we wore jackets, hats, and scarves indoors because any spot away from the fire was as cold as being outside. I slept in my jacket, too, but I think I was the only one.

It was really relaxing to sit and talk and get to better know the people we’d hiked with all day. Because of that, I’m glad we stayed in the more traditional of Mao’s two houses. Our homestay had a ladder to reach the unlit second floor loft, which housed cozy mattresses and quilts under mosquito nets. There were curtains on the main floor separating one room from the other, single lightbulbs to illuminate the kitchen and main sitting area, and a combination lock to secure the sheet metal door at night. Our guide told me that her home with her husband’s family is very similar to the house where we slept. We visited the newer homestay the next morning and while it was made of brighter wood, better lit, and had private bedrooms with doors and a staircase to the second floor, I feel that we had a far more authentic experience  than we would have otherwise. At any rate, it was an adventure and that’s why I travel.

And speaking of adventures, the second day of our trek was my first day of mountain trekking in mud and rain! The rice fields looked completely different and the mist all around us made for an experience quite unlike the sunshine of the previous day.

It was still pouring when we finally returned to the town of Sapa where we had arranged to spend a night in a proper hotel rather than taking the 9:30pm train back to Hanoi the same day. Since the downpour continued and we were cold, wet, and muddy, I am very glad we made this decision. I would not have enjoyed sitting on a train for eight hours under those conditions, let alone trying to sleep on one.

There isn’t much to do in Sapa, but we enjoyed a calm day of wandering. It was much warmer in town than in the mountains, which also very welcome.

That night, we were back on the train to Hanoi, already missing the mountains and the “trek life”, as my sister termed it.

I’ve been hearing wonderful things about Sapa since my first trip to Vietnam and I’m really glad that my sister and I could experience a new place together. After a couple days in Hanoi, we were off again, this time to one of my favorite destinations – Chiang Mai! Stay tuned!

Travel Guide: The Negev

The Negev is Israel’s desert and my favorite region of the country. I first visited the Negev on my second trip to Israel in 2013, which was the start of my fantasy of living on a kibbutz by the Dead Sea. I’ve slightly modified that dream based on this trip to Israel and now I think I’d prefer to live on a moshav and work with Israeli and Palestinian children on conflict resolution and restorative peace practices. If my next life plan doesn’t work out, there’s always that!

Having fallen in love with the desert in the past made me even more excited to bring students there on our eighth grade Israel trip. We began with four nights in Jerusalem and then drove to the Negev to hike Masada, an ancient fortress where Herod built palaces for himself in the late first century BCE and where Jews hid after the destruction of the Second Temple. We hiked the winding snake path, built by the Romans in 73CE to reach the hiding Jews. Those Jews, known as Zealots, committed suicide rather than be taken by the Romans. Or so the stories tell us!

It was a hot day and the hike was difficult for many students, which tells me that there’s not enough (or proper or effective) physical education in schools and physical activity in general. The staff on our trip, all of which exercise regularly, had little trouble.

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I love pictures of waving flags but there was no wind when we reached the top, so this was the best I could do.

To the sounds of prayer and singing at the top of Masada, I wandered off alone to meditate and take some pictures. I love the desert because of its colors and its desolation. Such emptiness makes me feel close to the sky and reminds me that in the grand scheme of the world and life, I am nothing, not even a speck on the trajectory of evolutionary history. Those feelings remind me that my own problems are easy to solve and really don’t matter very much at all.

Guards accompany large tour groups in Israel and it was so interesting to see the different responses of each guard to our group’s prayers that afternoon. Most Israelis are secular Jews but we had Jews of many kinds in and among our group throughout our two-week trip.

That afternoon, we visited the Dead Sea, the lowest point on Earth. It is receding at a terrifying rate of about one foot per year. I noticed the shrinking size of the Dead Sea, which is actually a lake, upon seeing it for the second time in 2013 as compared to my 2007 trip, and it was even more obvious this time. The hotels that used to sit right on the shore are now a short car ride away.

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Across the Dead Sea is Jordan!
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Salt from the Dead Sea, which gives it its the Hebrew name Yam HaMelach, or Salt Sea

We spent our two nights in the Negev at Kibbutz Mashabei Sadeh, which had really fun and eclectic decor in front of the reception office:

The following morning we visited Makhtesh Ramon, a geological phenomenon that requires a little explanation. Makhtesh Ramon is often translated as “Ramon Crater”, which is inaccurate. A crater is formed by impact, usually from a meteorite. A makhtesh, however, is formed by erosion and geological changes occurring over hundreds of millions of years. Visiting a makhtesh is basically a journey through evolutionary time. The only examples of a makhtesh are found in Israel’s Negev and Egypt’s Sinai peninsula.

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I spent more time at Makhtesh Ramon back in 2013 and took a lot more photos. For your viewing pleasure, and because I love it there, here they are:

The next morning, we visited an alpaca farm that also raises llamas, camels, donkeys, sheep, and other animals. The owners actually brought the alpacas and llamas to Israel from South America and now have an organic farm where they give tours and sell wool that they make on site.

That afternoon, we hiked Ein Ovdat, a desert canyon. By this point in the trip, we had a number of students ill with a stomach virus and others struggling with dehydration so we didn’t climb the waterfall but that’s supposed to be really beautiful, too.

In addition to hiking Masada, no trip to the Negev is complete without a stop at a Bedouin tent to learn about this group of nomadic people who used to inhabit the desert. In Israel today, 100% of Bedouins live in villages and towns so their desert hospitality tents, complete with dinner, a camel ride, and the option to spend the night, exist only for tourism and education. While camel riding is one of those activities that everyone does when visiting Israel, it is simply the Middle Eastern equivalent of elephant riding, the problems of which I learned about on a trip to Chiang Mai, Thailand about 18 months ago. If elephant riding is animal abuse and needs to be stopped, so does riding camels. And considering one of them bit a student and the rest were stubborn, snorting, and protesting the entire time, I’d say the camels more than agree.


We left the Negev after two nights and I was sorry to say goodbye. The desert is beautiful and I hope you make it there someday, to any desert. I love waterfalls and trees as much as the next person, as my post about the north of Israel will demonstrate, but the desert is special. It’s nothing and everything all at once.

 

Travel Guide: Jerusalem

I recently had the pleasure of chaperoning a two-week trip to Israel with the eighth grade class at my school. The purpose of the trip was to develop strong cultural connections with Judaism and the land of Israel, celebrate their B’nai Mitzvah together as a grade, and form new and better friendships with their classmates. Based on the reflection that the guides led on final night, I’d say that mission was accomplished.

Many organized trips to Israel like ours cover the three regions of the country; the north, the south, and the central region, which includes Jerusalem and its surroundings. We spent the first four and last three days of our trip in and around Jerusalem, and that’s what I’ll walk you through in this post. Stay tuned for the others!

We hit the ground running after a 12-hour flight that landed at Ben Gurion International Airport at 6:30am! Despite kids’ pleas to go to bed, we headed to Neot Kedumim, a biblical garden and land reserve that highlights animals, plants, and plant products mentioned in the Old Testament.

Highlights included herding sheep . . .

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. . . and planting trees, a vital part of every first trip to Israel as a way of “giving back” to the land and contributing to its continued prosperity.

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It was the first trip to Israel for many of our students and we spent some time singing and celebrating on the Talpiyot Promenade that overlooks the Old City.

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This was also a perfect location to experience some of Israel’s idiosyncratic juxtapositions of religious and modern life.

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We spent most of the following morning at the City of David, the archaeological sites that date back to the Second Temple period (about 530 BCE-70 CE). Attractions included a walk through Hezekiah’s Water Tunnel, an underground tunnel built in the 8th century to protect Jerusalem’s water from Assyrian invaders. As it was a bit chilly that day, I opted to wait outside and take pictures overlooking the Old City, but my students said it was a lot of fun.

We also visited the Davidson Center, which is a museum dedicated to the ongoing archaeological excavations around the Temple Mount area of the Old City.

No visit to Jerusalem, at least for Jews, is complete without a visit to the Kotel, or Western Wall, part of the ancient retaining wall of the Second Temple. Most of the wall is reserved for men and therefore all of my pictures come from the women’s section. The segregation irritated me more this time than it has in past visits to Israel. There’s something truly fundamentally wrong with separating men and women because of invented notions of purity.

We walked back through the Old City as the sun was setting. It was beautiful.

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The next day we visited Beit Guvrin, an active archaeological dig that is a lot of fun no matter how many times I’ve done it. There are so many artifacts yet to find! Spelunking there is great, too, because some of the completed excavations are best experienced in the darkness by candlelight. This time, we visited a columbarium dating back to 200BCE! And the park itself is beautiful.

After celebrating Shabbat together in Jerusalem, we went to the famed Ben Yehuda Street to eat and shop. I bought some gifts and had a delicious and overpriced falafel – my gift to myself!

We returned to Jerusalem for the final two nights of our trip after traveling through the country. Our first stop when we got back was to Latet, an organization that aims to reduce poverty and create a better, more just society in Israel. We volunteered by sorting boxes of food for delivery to needy families for Passover. The kids received very little instruction, someone hooked up an iPod full of Israeli folk songs, and suddenly everyone had organized themselves into groups sorting different food products. In moments, without talking about it at all, everyone knew who was packing boxes of canned vegetables, grape juice, matzah, chocolate spread, and others. There was so much excitement and energy in the room, cheering as boxes filled, laughter as we threw food products to one another (until we smashed a wine bottle and had to clean that up . . . and then promptly continued), and genuine joy in the work we were doing. We participated in two service projects on our trip and I absolutely loved both of them. Doing service work with students is high on the list of my favorite things.

The same day, we visited Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial and museum. Our visit started in the Avenue of the Righteous Among the Nations, the area of Yad Vashem that honors non-Jews who saved Jews during the Holocaust. Remembering that there were people, however few and far between, who risked their own lives to save others is the only way to go through the rest of the memorial without losing all hope.

The museum itself is designed to mirror the darkness of Hitler’s rise to power – you are literally underground in a close, constrained environment. Yad Vashem does not allow visitors to freely walk from one room to the next. Instead, all must pass through each room in turn, zigzagging across a long hallway the way Hitler’s persecuted people had no choice of where to go or how to get there. By the time the war ends, visitors are at ground level and the museum opens to a beautiful view of the world outside. Unsurprisingly, most students were especially moved by the Children’s Memorial. The fact that it even exists is enough to say about it.

But two days later, we visited Yad LaKashish, a beautiful contrast to the Holocaust. Yad LaKashish is an organization that teaches the elderly different types of crafts, like metalworking, bookbinding, jewelry making, and silkscreening. The artwork is then sold in the gift shop to finance the whole program. The artists love visitors, especially young people, and they make truly beautiful things. I was not alone in wishing aloud that I had any artistic ability whatsoever. Clearly it’s never to late to learn!

That afternoon, to bring the story of Zionism to a conclusion, we visited the Herzl Museum and reviewed much of what we’d learned in social studies class (a nod to my department – we done good!) prior to the trip about the Dreyfus Affair, Theodor Herzl, and the origins of the idea of a Jewish state.

Our final evening was spent reflecting on what we’d learned and experienced, thanking all of those who had been part of the trip, and enjoying one another’s company before heading to the airport in the wee hours of the morning.


I love Israel because it feels like home. This was my third time there but that feeling was present within me from the first moment I landed at Ben Gurion International Airport back in 2007. There’s an unspoken understanding among Jews in Israel, and this is most certainly a sign of privileged status in the country, that you’re welcome to visit, to explore, to ask questions, and to call Israel home. I did a lot of exploring this time around. I asked a lot of questions, specifically about the relationship between being religiously Jewish and culturally Jewish. Israel answered a lot of the questions I’d been asking before the trip and as always, I left wanting more.

Stay tuned for my posts on our time in the south, my favorite part of the country, the much greener but equally beautiful north, and the vibrant city of Tel Aviv.