Monday, September 30, 2013

How do you know Brazil has good weather?

So, apparently, leaving the door open, or for any matter unattended is frowned upon in many cultures.
We went out tonight for a mini staff-retreat, to the local bar of Mitzpe Ramon - Hahavit, a place where the portions are big and so is the variety of beer. sitting around the table were Lee and I, both from Israel, Gabriel, from Brazil, Yelena, from Russia, Tina, from Slovenia, and Brian, a really cool guest from Ireland who came along for the company.
The bar was pretty crowded (good thing we had reserved a table in advance) and people were coming in and out all the time.
At this time of year Mitzpe Ramon weather is already changing and, in the evening, a chilly wind blows pretty regularly. Not something you would expect in a desert, but nonetheless sweater-worthy.
As our table was located close to the door, and the cold outside air could be felt every time someone entered or left. Lee got very irritated with the people who didn't bother to close the door behind them, and after the fifth one she muttered out "Were you born in a tent?!"
Of course, none of the others around the table had any idea what she was talking about- since no one else grew up with desert references, and after we explained the saying, and even added the other famous Israeli one- "Were you born on a bus?!" the others started sharing theirs:
Russian St. Petersburgians have "Were born on an elevator?"
The Irish prefer- "Were you born in a field?!"
Slovenians prefer the anatomical - "Do you have cat's tail?" (think about that for a minute and you'll get it)

Only Gabriel had nothing to contribute. Apparently the act of leaving a hostel door open in Brazil isn't offensive or irritating enough to award it its own ironic response. I guess the weather is good all the time...

Saturday, March 2, 2013

The next step

Something funny happened to Lee and I, on a bus ride two weeks ago-
We decided to open a Hostel in Beer Sheva- The Green Backpackers Beer Sheva

We were actually on our way to go the offices of the cellphone company, accidentally got on the wrong bus and went on an unexpected site-seeing drive through various neighborhoods of the city. We found ourselves looking out the window and discussing how a hostel should "theoretically" work, if it were to be located around those areas.
by the end of the ride, we pretty much decided- Why not just go for it?

We've been thinking of expanding for a while, and we really love what we're doing...
I can't think of a more rewarding project than opening a big hostel in Beer Sheva.

So, what I'm trying to say is- This Blog just changed its face.
From now on this won't be just a blog with good advice for travelers,

From now on this is where Lee and I will be telling the story of opening a hostel in Beer Sheva.
Hopefully there will be a story to tell, as the challenges are great, and this is just the beginning.
We describe our steps, share our thoughts and probably complain a lot as well.

Beer Sheva has great potential and we're both really excited about this-
Wish us Luck

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Chapter 2- City buses

This is the most common form of mass city transit in a country that has virtually no subway systems. There are some differences between cities in the companies operating the busses and fare rates, but in almost all of them the bus lines are numbered and have a set schedule. Make sure to find out which company runs the lines in the city you're planning on visiting- and check their website for information. 
"Dan" buses run in the greater Tel Aviv area
This site gives a lot of information about the diefferent regions:
Line in a crowded stop

Apart from a few exceptions, city buses do not run on Shabbat, so if you're visiting around the weekend always make sure to find out what time the services stop on Friday and when they resume- on Saturday night or on Sunday morning. Bus stations are clearly marked and will have a sign with the numbers of all of the lines stopping at them. Feel free to ask people waiting at the bus stop for help with the line you need- Israelis do it all the time. Many bus stops are well lit, and the buses are clean, air conditioned and safe. Women traveling alone should not hesitate for a minute about using the bus- at any time of day. 
Passenger paying with Rav Kav card
During rush hours, some lines do get extremely crowded, so be ready to waver your right for personal space- a rare term in Israel as it is. As far as payment goes- there is no need to purchase tickets in advance, just get on the bus and pay the driver. Drivers will give you change, but try not to use large bills. For people who use public transportation regularly in Israel a special pass card exists called "Rav Kav". If you are planning on spending an extended period of time in one area of the country (a few weeks or longer), and you intend on using the buses often- consider investing in one of these.

Transportation in Israel Chapter 1

One of the best things about Israel, speaking from a visitor's point of view, is the combination of accessibility and diversity. On one hand Israel has cultural sites, religious highlights, great spots for partying and sites of agricultural and industrial entrepreneurship and invention, but also breathtaking views: Mediterranean forests, beautiful streams, deep canyons and vast deserts. On the other hand, the county is very small (only 6 hours driving across, the long way) and well mapped, with completely modern highways and roads. Cellphone coverage is very good almost all around the country- even in many remote hiking destinations. Maybe most important of all- Almost all of the signs have English on them, as well as Hebrew, and Israelis, for the most part, speak English to a reasonable degree and are happy to assist a traveler in need- sometimes without being asked to.
Israel also has a very good system of public transportation that extends outside of the major cities and to all of the remote communities in the country. Prices are fixed and regulated so, in most cases, you won't have to haggle. Services are usually regular and, apart from a few exceptions; do not depend on a minimum number of passengers.
The main disadvantage of the public transportation system in Israel is that it is not unified. Different services and different regions are operated by different companies, and though all of the information is available online- it's not always easy to find or easy to understand which company's website you need to be on, in order to find. Additionally, not all of the online information about transportation in Israel can be found in a language that is not Hebrew. Like other businesses in Israel, most public transportation services shut down on weekends and during Jewish holidays- and the information about what is still working is not always easily available to the outside visitor- simply because we take it for granted.
Another public transportation challenge, that is unique to Israel, has to do with our security reality. No, it has nothing to do with any real or imaginary terrorist threats, though you will encounter a metal detector at the entrance to most malls and bus stations, no, it is, in fact, the weekend soldier traffic. Israel has a large military, and joining the military at the age of 18 for 2-3 years is compulsory. Young soldiers rely on public transportation, and any soldiers in uniform can use busses and trains for free. On the other hand, being the army of the Jewish state, the IDF shuts down all none-combat related activities for Shabbat- the Jewish weekend. Most soldiers are released home for a weekend -leave between twice and four times a month, and Shabbat dinners and religious services are held at all military units that remain on duty.
This means that on Sunday morning (the Israeli work week starts on Sunday and ends on Thursday or Friday) thousands of soldiers crowd all of the public transportation services- busses and trains to the most extreme degree, on their way to various military bases. This phenomenon repeats itself on Thursdays and, to a lesser degree, on Fridays, when soldiers are moving in the opposite direction- from their bases to their homes for the weekend, with plans of going out with their friends, after a week of being shouted at by a drill-Sargent, and eating mom's cooking, after a week of mess-hall army food. At some of the central transportation hubs like the Tel Aviv central bus and train stations, and the Beer Sheva central bus station, crowded lines of pushing soldiers, trying to get on the bus with their huge backpacks, and the threat of disciplinary action hanging over their head, will give you a very aggressive response, passive as it might be, to any attempt you make at getting on the bus with them. We've had many cases of tourists that were not warned about this weekly ritual, being delayed for a number of hours, finally getting to us at The Green Backpackers, asking "Has Israel gone to war? Why are there so many soldiers with guns on the bus? Why were they so pushy?"

Now that you are at least somewhat aware of your challenges, the following posts are dedicated to helping find your transportation solutions.

Friday, October 5, 2012

When Should I Come?

You already have all the reasons in the world to come and visit Mitzpe Ramon.
Hiking, mountain biking, jeep tours and star gazing- Mitzpe Ramon offers plenty of that year round, along with amazing scenery and a friendly, chill, small-town atmosphere.
Mitzpe Ramon is the most isolated community in all of Israel (40 km from the nearest neighboring community). It is located in the middle of the Negev- a harsh and challenging desert with surprising and breathtaking spots of life and beauty hiding in its canyons and between its rocky ridges. Getting to Mitzpe, however, and traveling from town to the trails and sites in the area is actually quite simple. One bus line connects us to Beer Sheva and to most of the sites and trailheads. It starts working at 5am, runs about once an hour and continues until 11pm. If you prefer driving, it's just one hour from Beer Sheva to Mitzpe Ramon, or a little less than two hours from Eilat.
Now, the only thing left is to figure out when to come. To help you make up your mind, here are six reasons to make the journey to the desert during specific times of the year.

Cloud falls
September through December
One of the first signs that the summer is coming to an end here in the desert is when the nights start to get misty and foggy. This doesn't happen every night, but becomes more and more the case as summer gives way to autumn. Local conditions in Mitzpe Ramon, on the edge of the crater, right on the cliff, also include a very dominating and constant wind that blows from early morning to late at night.

In order to see what happens when this strong wind blows the fog over the cliff you will have to get up very early, but you will not be disappointed.
Thick flows of fog, clouds really, roll over the cliff in the early morning light, and fall down 200 meters to the bottom of the Ramon crater, where they disappear. Here and there one of the higher peaks sticks out above the flow of mist like an island in a gushing river.
The silence of the still-sleepy town just intensifies the magic of this short-lived morning phenomena. When the sun rises, its rays warm the air and dry up the fog.
This excuse to get up early will work well with a healthy hiking schedule out here. Since even in the fall we get some pretty hot days, it's always a good idea to go hiking early in the morning, and get back to the Hostel before noon. Then you can cool off and chill out with a book or a movie, or just hang out in the hammock.

Ibex sparing
Talk about your extreme sport… Young Nubian Ibex slamming their heads against each other, while trying hold their ground on narrow ledges hanging over a sheer drop of over a hundred meters.
Nubian Ibex have chosen one of the toughest environments to reside in. They graze and live on the steep cliffs of desert ridges.
Early in the fall the young male ibex start sparring and dueling over the right to challenge the alpha male who is the only one who gets to mate with the females of the herd.
The horns of the male Ibex are long and curved backwards. In full grown males they twist almost all of the way back to a complete circle. This makes them completely impractical at stabbing (the short pointy horns of the females are much more dangerous in that sense), but backed with the ramming power of their back legs and thick necks, these blunt weapons can cause some serious damage. Charged duels usually take place on narrow ledges where you or I would think twice before even just simply walking. 

The two opponents face each other and very quickly get to business. 
Bashing heads together at first on all fours, and as the battle heightens, rising on their back legs and diving down head-first for added momentum. The banging can be heard all around town early in the morning. The Ibex around Mitzpe Ramon are somewhat used to people, and the fighting parties are no different. Focused on the battle, they will pay little attention to hikers and photographers, so If you're willing to get out on the trails early enough, you have a good chance of getting a pretty close shot of the battle. 

Feburary or March

Purim is the Jewish holiday when everyone gets dressed up. The Ben Guryon College, north of Mitzpe Ramon, is home to, among other educational facilities, the environmental high school- a boarding school that specializes in environmental studies and outdoor education.
Put the holiday and the high school together, and you get one of the most amazing Purim parades in all of Israel.
Huge floats, constructed from trash and recycled materials only, are planned and built over a period of weeks, and sometimes months, before the parade. Each of the four participating classes of the school picks a theme and designs all of their floats, costumes music and choreography to complete their theme. The themes can be as corny as "Brazil", as random as "Monkeys", related to the curriculum like "The Great Moments of Zionism" or just vague- "Street Life". Teachers and staff help a little, of course, but this truly is a project of the students. On the nights before the parade, the parents of the students take turns driving down and preparing midnight snacks for the kids because work on the floats and rehearsals on the choreography can last all night.
This parade started as a small school tradition involving only the students and the staff. Over the years, with more and more of the families of students coming from all over the country to see the parade, and with graduates and alumni of the school using this occasion as an excuse to come and visit their old school and to catch up with their friends- it became a huge colorful festival of costumes, dancing, crazy float-designs and a matter of pride for the participating classes. At the end of every parade the winning class is declared, and this honor goes with them throughout the rest of their years in the school, and for years after that.

Spring blossom
March through May
Living conditions in the high elevation desert around Mitzpe Ramon are challenging to say the least. The summer sun is blazing and hangs high in the sky for many hours. In the winter, cold winds blow relentlessly bringing temperatures down almost to freezing, and sometimes below that.  The surface is covered with bare rock, with very little soil, and the little rain water that falls here comes in only a few short violent bursts lasting a couple of hours at the most. With all of these limitations and environmental barriers the window of opportunity for plants to blossom is very short. But when it does happen- well, jackpot! It is on!
Because they are all forced to blossom during a short limited spring, the plants must compete against each other in order to attract the insects and birds that pollinate them.

All the colors that you can imagine, all of the shapes and variety, they all come out, for a short time, in the flowers of the high desert. The patches of greenery and flowers stand in complete contrast to the rocky bare slopes around them, and the real jewels can be found in the form of the waterholes that are still full from the last rain.  An intoxicating smell is carried by the cool breeze and the bees, beetles and butterflies just go into a frenzy. 

Effie Perry- Har Hanegev Field School
Effie Perry- Har Hanegev Field School
Effie Perry- Har Hanegev Field School
Nimrod Ben Aharon

Meteor showers
Mid-August and Mid-December
The night sky in Mitzpe Ramon is always amazing. With the high elevation, the clear desert atmosphere and the distance from any major source of light pollution, the Milky Way will seem like a scarf draped across the sky, and the face of the moon will never seem so close and clear. These pristine conditions are well recognized: The largest research observatory in Israel is located on the outskirts of town and many star fans and amateur astronomers frequent Mitzpe and the surrounding area on a regular basis.
A few times every year this nightly sideshow becomes the main event.
The Perseids (Mid-August) and the Geminids (Mid December) are two meteor showers that occur every year and can be seen in many places around the world.

 In Mitzpe Ramon they are the reason for an all-town, all-night festival. To improve the sighting conditions even more than usual, the whole town is darkened. Street lights and store signs are turned off, and the residents are requested to keep their outside lights turned off or dimmed. The football field is converted into a giant observatory with a line of telescopes and volunteer astronomy guides that will be happy to give you a tour of the night sky. 
Ira Machefsky the Star Man of Mitzpe
On the center stage astronomy lectures and talks go on all night, featuring many experts and researchers talking about their discoveries in terms that everyone can understand. Honestly, though, this is all just icing on the cake. Thousands of people from all around Israel come with blankets just to lie back on the grass and look up at the shooting stars. At the peak of the shower the average is between one and two shooting stars a minute, and every once in a while one of them shines so bright it actually lights up the sky, casts shadows on the ground and leaves a streak that will last a few seconds.

Flash floods
From October to April
These are probably the most awe- inspiring and shocking event on this list, but also the most difficult one to predict and plan for.

In an area that gets an average of less than 80 mm of rainfall every year, the rare shower is a true occasion. Rain is not only scarce; it's also concentrated in short violent bursts that last usually no more than a couple of hours. Because there is little vegetation, and because much of terrain is covered by bare rock, a relatively small number of rain drops get absorbed after they impact. Most of them flow freely down the rocky slopes. Trickles join to create flows, flows gather and become streams and very quickly gushing rivers form in the bottom of the canyons and valleys. These rivers will only last several hours- at best, but they unleash enough energy to carry boulders, collapse banks and drag tree trunks downstream.Many careless drivers have lost their ride home because they underestimated the power of the flood, and after attempting to drive across it ended up watching their car sail away downstream. The contrast in the desert is even more extreme, because rain is usually localized to a very limited area, and the flash flood will occur not directly under the assailant cloud, but further down the slopes, where the critical mass of water accumulates. So you could be standing under a clear sky, with the sun shining, and watch the gushing water in the ravine below you.
If you really have been good boys and girls this year, you might just be lucky enough to witness the first wave. You see, all of this water collecting and flowing happens on and in what, just a few moments earlier, was a completely dry riverbed. And with some luck, or a good tipoff from a local, you can catch the first wave of the water as it advances. In fact, in some cases the water is advancing at a pace you can walk. You can walk in front of the wave, on dry gravel, and following you will be an advancing front of brown muddy water creeping and chasing you, washing away your footprints. 

No matter when you decide to make your Journey to the desert, there's always what to see, and we'll be happy to have you here at The Green BackPackers.

We'll be glad to sit with you over a cup of tea from our garden and help you plan your hiking and sightseeing so you can make the most of your visit.