Where we left off, Barbara and I were on an AACI-sponsored cruise on the good ship Crown Iris, which was heading up the coast of Italy on its way to Venice. What happened next was something unheard of. The two of us were whisked away on a virtual helicopter (!) and moved ahead in time from Oct. 27 to Dec. 9, to allow us to join another AACI activity, one of their Study Trips, this one focusing on the beleaguered community of the Sderot and surrounding area. (We were assured that once this four-day trip was over, we would be returned to the Crown Iris by the same virtual helicopter (!) in plenty of time to land at the Pearl of the Adriatic. No worries.)Part One
My friend Ezra reminded me that our families had gone together down to Sderot some ten or so years ago along with a busload of people whose mission it was to buy anything and everything they could carry back and thus help the local merchants who had little if any business. In those days, Sderot was a basket case as a result of the on-going rocket attacks from Gaza. How much different was the situation today? Considering the recent flare-up of hostilities, would our trip even take place? Again, no worries. Two busloads of senior AACI-ers left from the Inbal Hotel bright and early Mon. morning to see what we could see. Here’s what we saw, and here’s what we heard.
I say ‘heard,’ because one of the features of the Study Tours is to listen, not just to a tour guide – in this case, Jaimie Salter (no relation to the esteemed Maestro, Paul Salter) – but to special people who are involved in doing things worth knowing about but you rarely hear about in all the inane chatter in the media.
The first person we met was Ovadia Kashi, who along with his brother Abraham, runs the Granada Pomegranate Winery in Gan Hadarom, near Ashkelon. I can’t say I was overwhelmed with their pomegranate ‘wine,’ but their story is fascinating, all about how their father managed to leave Bagdad with his family and wend his way to Israel, where they wound up in the middle-of-nowhere. Needing to feed the family, the Kashis began planting, first the usual cucumbers and tomatoes, then oranges, and finally pomegranates. All of which Ovadia described to us in his limited but effective English. We could barely hear him because the rain. Every drop of water that hadn’t fallen anywhere in The Land in November came down in one downpour that lasted for about an hour and pounded on the corrugated metal roof of their warehouse. We had to move to another space that had a real roof so we could hear and taste what they had to offer. I had no interest in buying any of their ‘wine,’ but I did shell out for some pomegranate seed oil, which supposedly has medicinal properties. We’ll see. At least, we were indoors out of the deluge, so we weren’t washed away with the tide.
By the time we left to get on the bus, the rain had pretty much stopped. A good thing, because our next stop was in the great outdoors, the Ashkelon National Park. Here Jaimie, our guide, was on his own to explain what was there. The biggest attractions in this park are the Canaanite ramparts and gate. The photographs I’m including show the ramparts and archway, built millennia before the Romans re-invented the same kind of arch and got all the credit.
We did get a chance to walk around for half an hour or so, past a mosaic floor that has only recently been uncovered – so recent that our otherwise well-informed guide did not know about it. There in the distance, we could see the smokestacks from the Ashkelon desalinization plant, which is now used to pump water down to Eilat.
There was so much more to see, but, as so often happens on a group excursion, there is a schedule that must be adhered to. We had to head into Ashkelon proper to check into the Leonardo Ashkelon Hotel, which is not as deluxe as the name and their website would lead you to believe.
One thing about this trip: whether Jeff Rothenberg, the organizer, has powers of prophecy or whether it was just dumb luck, we kept missing the rain. The day before we arrived, some of the streets in Ashkelon were flooded. Granted, it wasn’t as horrific as what would be occurring in Venice, where much of the city was underwater, but it was sufficient to arouse the ire of the locals, who blamed their municipality for mismanagement. Speaking of mismanagement, our hotel came in for its share of complaints. Apparently, their system was designed so that there would be air-conditioning most of the year and heating for the rest. Even though it was now December, they were still on summer weather and weren’t planning to do the switch-over for several more weeks. Why is it blowing cold air into our room when I set it for heat? Go figure. Or better still, go get the extra quilt from the closet and put it on the bed so we won’t freeze overnight. At least the food in the dining room was good; not as exciting as on the Crown Iris, but you can’t have everything.
One of the regular features of these trips is a ‘group social evening’ the first night, an opportunity for everyone to get to know each other – even though many, even most of the participants have been together multiple times and should know each other’s curriculum vitae by heart. I usually skip this event (I’m entitled as a certified curmudgeon), but I must have been in an especially good mood that evening because I showed up. At least they didn’t go around the room and make everyone say something about him or herself. Rather, Jeff asked if anyone is or was involved in X, or Y, or Z. I was pleasantly surprised, being with a group of very accomplished seniors: academics, medical people, business types, even a musician or two. I’d better be on my toes to keep up my end of the conversation with our fellow travelers. Actually, I’d best be on my way to bed. There’ll be a full day ahead of us, one in which we proceed full steam ahead down the short distance to Sderot.