Phuket is about a 1.5 hour plane ride from Singapore so, thinking we might escape the heat for a few days, my friend Jo Rifkin and I got out of Dodge, so to speak. But we didn’t escape the heat. In fact, it was even hotter than Singapore. We stayed at Karon Beach which turned out to be a very touristy area. Our hotel was filled with Russians. The beach was across the street from our hotel so we made our way on the burning hot sand to the dreamy, delicious water to cool off.
With only a few days to relax, we decided to take boat trips to islands and snorkel. The Phi Phi Islands (pronounced Pee Pee) boat trip offered us a day of sightseeing at Monkey Beach, Phi Phi Don Island, Viking Cave, Pitch Cove, Loh Samah Bay and Maya Bay. Snorkeling was less than I had hoped for but a treat nonetheless.
Another day we visited the Surin Islands. The Sea Gypsy Moken Village at Ruwai is inhabited by a gypsy community which managed to survive the tsunami. They live in raised thatched roof huts, fish and sell their handmade jewelry and trinkets. They have their own language and religion. Litter is everywhere, including floating in the water near the shore. Not very friendly, very poor people. I would skip this. The Nemo or Pineapple Gulf was far more pleasant as well as snorkeling at the Mae Yai Gulf and The Tao Gulf.
The Phuket Elephant Sanctuary was my favorite outing because I LOVE ELEPHANTS. And they deserve to live in peace and safety away from poachers and cruel owners who torture them to entertain humans. This is a sister sanctuary to The Elephant Nature Park in north Thailand where I spent time volunteering a few years ago. There are only 7 elies here so far. This is a worthwhile half day visit.
If I were to return to Phuket, which is unlikely since there are so many new places for me to experience, I would stay away from the maddening crowd and rest my weary head at either at a resort or an airbnb.
See you soon!
Soon after returning from Ethiopia and Israel I heard from my dear friend, Jo Rifkin, saying she is going to Singapore to visit her daughter, son-in-law and grandkids for 3 months. She and her S.O., Norman, were packing up their Pittsburgh life of 20 years and contemplating a possible relo to Singapore. Would I like to visit? Opportunity knocked. I answered. Two weeks later I was on my way…23 hours flying. One stop at LAX from EWR.
Jo warned me about the heat but seriously, this sweltering heat was way worse than I imagined. Singapore is a beautiful city-state and island country in Southeast Asia in case you didn’t know. Very close to the equator and humid. Like melting kind of humid. It’s a benevolent dictatorship and I’m not so sure this is a bad thing. No homelessness. No graffiti. Barely any crime. No drugs. Flowers blooming everywhere. Not a drop of garbage to be seen. In fact, there weren’t any trash cans in sight. Not even in the metro stations which, by the way, were efficient, immaculate and easy to navigate. Take an escalator in or out of the metro and everyone stands to the left so those in a hurry can pass on the right. Signs are in English, the first language in this global commerce, finance and transportation hub. Did I mention no gum chewing? No gum sold here. Want a cab? Call and they appear. The driver lets you know exactly when he will arrive.
The government provides assistance programs so acute poverty is rare. Subsidized healthcare, financial help for education and to buy apartments, money for the disabled, free money to exercise in gyms, and more. Yes, government is big here. But it also seems to care for the quality of life of its residents, rich or poor. Not much middle class here.
Ex-pats live well here. Last I looked, Singapore has the world’s highest percentage of millionaires, with one of every six households having at least one million U.S. dollars. Shopping on world famous Orchard Road, in Little India, on Arab Street, in flea markets and more will provide plenty of juice for the shopaholic in you.
It is quite expensive to live here but if you like living in a state controlled country where safety and security of its citizens is a priority, you can tolerate the rain forest climate and you have a high income, this could be for you.
Teaching English in Ofakim is yet another place where volunteering is highly desired and appreciated. Contact Michal Zur for this too. Her info is in the Arad part of this blog.
Next blog: Visiting Singapore and Phuket
Hearing the stories of the 5 Ethiopian Israelis who traveled with us made me rethink some of my priorities and what I appreciate. Walking in the Semien Mountain Range at night with no map or flashlight? Seriously? How dare I ever complain about anything. This was a life-changing experience. What could have left these folks bitter and weak has made them stronger and all the more generous in spirit. The true spirit of the Ethiopians is one of gentleness, kindness and peace. How unfortunate that such wonderful humans have had to endure such terrible misfortune!
There are approximately 8000 Falash Mura people in Ethiopia waiting and hoping to leave. Many converted to Christianity for the sake of survival. The most recent group to leave in 2017 was 1300 people. 2700 had applied through their Israel relatives. 500 were rejected. 900 are still waiting to see if they will go to Israel in 2018 and there is no approved Israeli budget yet. To learn more read about the dilemma of who is Jewish and who isn't, you can check out Law of Return.
Next Location: Hurfeish, Israel, a Druze Village
I went to Hurfeish and lived with two separate Druze families for 4 days. I was sent here by the Metro West Jewish Federation of New Jersey to prepare 8 Lacemakers for a trip to the United States.
The Druze are the nicest, most hospitable folks I have ever known. Upon entering a Druze home, out comes coffee with cardamom or tea with fresh mint, fresh fruits, cakes, cookies, and nuts. And you must partake or you will insult these kind souls.
The Druze originated at the end of the 10th century in Egypt, a monotheistic, secretive religion blending Islam, Hindu and Greek philosophies. Families all live together until the kids marry and move into their own homes, which are either next door or around the block. Family is a central value in this village. They are not Muslim. Marrying outside the religion is not accepted. They have a choice in choosing whether or not to live a fully religious life. They believe in reincarnation. Their sacred text is called Kitab Al Hikma (Epistles of Wisdom). There are no Druze clergy, ceremonies or rituals as they believe that would distract from one’s connection with God. Druze women may seek higher education and employment. Druze villages exist in Israel, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. They adapt fully in their adopted homelands and are a very close-knit, family-oriented people. The Druze in Israel speak Hebrew and Arabic. There are about two million Druze in the world.
There are about 6700 people in this village. And about 2 Million in the world, which includes the United States.
Teaching English And Learning About The "Lacemakers"
The “Lacemakers” was initiated by a woman named Afaf Faris, who leads a group of 70 women who meet every Monday for 2 hours to crochet, knit, sew, embroider and share their lives. The “Lacemakers” make hats, sweaters, scarves, gloves, socks, key chains, handbags and sell them from a very old stone building on one of the oldest cobblestone streets in the village. They contribute to the family income which gives them a sense of purpose and pride.
When they travel to the United States with either a husband, father or brother as is the Druze custom, they will be hosted by various families in the community. For most of them, airplane travel will be a new experience.
To learn more about the "Lacemakers" check out this article: www.bbc.com/travel/story/20160808-the-women-who-never-leave-home
I also had the opportunity to teach English to some of the Druze kids in Elementary School B in Hurfeish. The 5th and 6th graders were very enthusiastic and excited to practice speaking English with me and each other. We played some games, created little skits in English and enjoyed the chocolate snacks I handed out after the lessons were completed. Now I am working on an email exchange between some of those students and some here in the U.S. so they can learn about each others’ cultures and speak with one another in English.
Stay tuned for my next post about Arad and Ofakim, Israel.
Sorry it’s been a while but I am back now and excited to continue! Before I go on about Ambover Village here’s a little more about Ethiopia:
The nickname of Ethiopia is “Land of Origins” and has been used as Ethiopia’s official tourism motto since 2016. The name comes from “Lucy”, whose earliest remains of our human ancestors were found in the Awash Valley. I wrote about her in an earlier blog. But now the Israelis have found remains of an older humanoid so it looks like Lucy will lose her status. Sorry old girl!
Ethiopia is the birthplace of the wild coffee plant known as Arabica. I am enjoying the Ethiopian coffee I brought home, so sweet and smooth, and wish I had bought more! The Blue Nile, earth’s longest river begins in Ethiopia. There are astonishing varied landscapes in Ethiopia as well as ancient churches, monasteries, ruins of palatial structures and medieval forts. Nine sites have been registered as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the largest number for any African country. The Semien National Park is one of these which I visited. But more about that later…. Much to learn about Ethiopia.
I found this great website with the complete timeline of Ethiopian Jews.
Check it out by clicking on the timeline below.
We followed Belaynesh up a steep mountain path to what was once her one room, childhood home. I had to stop several times to catch my breath as the elevation was quite high. Imagine her trekking up and down the mountain to attend school and to fetch water several times a day.
Also with us was David Ermiase, now a social worker with Ethiopians in Ramat Eliyahu. David grew up outside Ambover in another village and walked here to attend school every day. He showed us where he sat in his former classroom and told us about his escape from here to Sudan at age 18 with friends through the Semien Mountains. Bandits preyed upon them demanding bribe money. By the time he arrived to the Sudan border, his mouth was so dry from not having water that he completely lost his voice. This was his first visit to Ethiopia since he left. He declared this “the best day of my life” and cried tears of joy and sadness. We all cried with him.
Ambover Village: This was once a thriving Jewish village in northern Ethiopia. Unlike other places in the world, Jews flocked here from other villages to live together and build their own isolated community. Not a ghetto,not a shtetl. This was a choice these Jews made to maintain the purity of their deep, religious beliefs. The synagogue and school remain and the village is occupied today....but the Jews all left. Jerusalem was their holy goal.
All along the way to Ambover, young children ran beside our vehicles waving and yelling “Money, Money”. This was hard to see and hear. The countryside of farms and thatched houses made of whatever could be found, is exquisitely beautiful, the fresh air soft and delicious. The poverty I witnessed is beyond disturbing. In a way I felt very uncomfortable....what am I doing peeking into their lives without their permission like some kind of voyeur.
This road trip was a glimpse into a distant past for us....but a present time for these people. No running water or electricity, few vehicles, no modern farming tools. People were walking many kilometers to and from market, carrying heavy loads on their heads and backs. Some had malnourished donkeys to help shlep their slim bounty. Babies were carried on the mothers’ backs. Many were dressed in the traditional white robes, ghost like figures wearing rubber shoes and sandals, carefully stepping between loose rocks. Some wore no shoes at all.
Next post: More about Ambover Village and introduction to Micha Feldmann, “Abba Micha”, as the Ethiopians affectionately and respectfully call him.
We flew from Addis to Gondar and received a surprise welcome as we exited the airport. Live music, dancing, the mayor of Gondar! Both Israeli and Ethiopian flags waving hello! Such a thrilling entrance to begin our Gondar adventure and introduction to local culture. I was immediately engaged and felt so honored to be part of this "mission".
We checked into the Landmark Hotel in Gondar, supposedly the best hotel in the city. I think I was bitten by bed bugs here! Ahhhhh! Gross! Breakfast is included which consists of pasta (yes, pasta), good bread, sour tasting butter (ew), hard boiled eggs and vegetables. Lucky me as I did not suffer from stomach “issues” but quite a few of my fellow travelers lost a few pounds on this trip! Oh well, to be expected in third world countries! But good coffee, bottled water and sodas are readily available in the hotels and restaurants
Our first stop in Addis Ababa was the National Museum of Ethiopia. Here we saw fossilized bones of “Lucy”, a tiny human believed to have lived over 3M years ago. She is the oldest humanoid ever found. The real “Lucy” is safely stored elsewhere but a replica of her skeleton is on display here. She’d have been about 3.5’ tall, weighing 60-65 lbs. She was discovered in Hadar in 1974 and was named “Lucy” from the Beatles song, “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds”. This song was often played in the celebrations of her discovery. I don’t get it, maybe you do?
From here we went to the nearby “Lucy Lounge and Restaurant “...a cozy, busy restaurant with a big menu of Ethiopian food, salads, soups, fish and pasta. Someone said: “The food is nice but watch out for the bones”.
Next, we went to The Red Terror Museum which was established in 2010 as a memorial to the victims of the Red Terror under the Derg government. Torture instruments, skulls and bones, coffins, blood stained clothes and photos are on display. Don’t go here on a full stomach. Maybe don’t go here at all. Or maybe you like this stuff. Not me.
The city of Gondar is next, the real essence of this “mission”.
Love this sign above that I saw on my way to the gate at JFK.
The trip began with a wonderful connection while waiting to depart. An Israeli artist living in NY and I chatted non-stop and shared pictures of our creations and ideas. The first leg of the trip was from NY to TLV where I was to meet the Israelis and Americans who were going with me to Addis Ababa, usually referred to as Addis.
Dinner was at the Tel Aviv Sheraton Hotel with Ruth Bar-On, founder of Selah. And Micah Feldman who wrote "On Wings of Eagles: The Secret Operation of the Ethiopian Exodus" and who led our mission. READ THIS BOOK!!!
We had no idea what to expect on this trip. And good we had no expectations. Night flight to Addis. So get this: I was seated next to a NJ woman, strictly by chance, who turned out to be one of my bunkmates at Camp Pinemere eons ago. We sang camp songs, recalled our male counselor crushes, shared which boys we kissed and remembered a disastrous overnight canoe trip. A great beginning!
Dinner was at the Tel Aviv Sheraton Hotel with Ruth Bar-On, founder of Selah. And
Micah Feldman who wrote "On Wings of Eagles: The Secret Operation of the Ethiopian Exodus" and who led our mission. READ THIS BOOK!!!
We had no idea what to expect on this trip. And good we had no expectations. Night flight to Addis. So get this: I was seated next to a NJ woman, strictly by chance, who turned out to be one of my bunk mates at Camp Pinemere eons ago. We sang camp songs, recalled our male counselor crushes, shared which boys we kissed and remembered a disastrous overnight canoe trip.
A great beginning!
Stay tuned for more posts and photos from my trip.
Miriam Seiden is a cultural explorer who loves to write about her living bridges around the world.