Monday, September 26, 2011

Cyprus in the Blink of an Eye

So, we all sailed off to Cyprus. It was on a whim actually – needing to get away, anywhere, anyhow, for even the briefest of breaks, Marlyn and I – and our close friends, Lynore and Neil Blum – decided to take a weekend cruise to Cyprus. It was one of those absolutely-not-to be missed deals, priced at way less than you can get a "tzimmer" in the north, and with the promise of being "chutz l'aretz" (overseas) that enticed us to book.
To make it a real adventure weekend, we decided to take a train from the Hod Hasharon station near our home to Haifa port. Good decision, we felt, because we got off the train almost at the gangplank; well, except for negotiating check-in, passport control and the duty free shops.

And there she was, waiting for us, moored to the Haifa dockside, our splendid craft and home for the weekend, the Golden Iris run by Mano Cruises. At just under 17,000 tons, not the hugest of ocean liners, but neat enough. Of course, Marlyn and I couldn't help initially comparing it to the Caribbean Princess on which we spent a week swanning about the Caribbean on a gifted holiday in 2007. 
But comparisons are odious. The Caribbean Princess was 10 times the size, three times the height and carried nearly four times as many passengers and crew. But then, what to do you really need for an overnight float across a short expanse of Mediterranean blue? Believe me, our Golden Iris was more than up to the task. Very comfortable air-conditioned cabin ( give it the correct term); excellent meals, and all the shipside diversions and entertainment normally associated with "cruising" – if you like discos, rather over-loud and quite honestly, mediocre cabaret, a raucous and smoke-filled casino and a crowded duty free shop somewhat like an Israeli supermarket just before a "chag". Did I mention that the ship was full? One thousand Israelis of all shapes, sizes, persuasions and origins; English-speakers, Russians, Israeli Arabs, Israeli Israelis...French-speakers, Spanish-speakers...just the sort of ethnic mix you would encounter anywhere in Israel. We were a floating microcosm of Israel, sailing off to experience a microcosm of Greece... 
The pleasure of the cruise for us was sitting on deck, in the glorious moonlight, cruising along at a decent clip on a glassy, smooth almost unruffled sea. We didn't get entangled with a single Gaza-bound flotilla, never encountered the Turkish navy, nor got within eyesight of an Israeli-Cypriot drilling rig. The balmy night air, the hypnotic view of the wake thrust aside by the ship's prow, the throb of the engines and an ever-so-gentle swaying put us in the mood for a good night's sleep. Early the next morning, we entered Larnaca harbor. My immediate reaction on viewing it out of the porthole was that we had turned around during the night and sailed back to Bat Yam...but that's a tad uncharitable. Larnaca, it turns out, was a somewhat pleasant enough city, gently laid back on a Saturday morning, with not too much traffic in the streets; which it turned out was a good thing because driving in Cyprus – courtesy of its colonial heritage – is on the left, like in South Africa and we had decided to hire a car for the day. 
Actually it only took a few minutes for us to do the "mind switch" and revert from left-hand drive to right-hand drive and call on our early driving education (sitting on dad's knee steering his enormous old Chevy...) But don't be fooled – driving in Israel for more than 20 years has left its mark – our car was a manual model and more than once I found myself trying to shift the door handle into third...
Once we collected our vehicle we met up with friends of the Blums', Sharon and Frank, who had moved to Cyprus from Durban 10 years ago. They offered to show us around the island for the day, and off we trundled, following them along the main highway up into the hill country towards Nicosia, to the village of Lefkara, famous for its fine filigree lace.
Lefkara Lace

The view from Lefkara to the sea

Believing that traveling independently of the guided tours ensured we would not be crowded out by the unwashed hordes, we found Lefkara charming, quaint and very quiet – until the tour busses loaded with our shipmates all sporting their red Mano Cruises baseball caps, arrived! So, we beat a hasty retreat from Lefkara back to the coast. On the way we took in the view from the heights down the valley towards the sea. Lefkara sits in a landscape much like the Jerusalem hills. The terrain is very similar to Israel (well, it's only 260 kms away...almost part of it, you might say) and the temperature was about the same – HOT!

Driving down the coastal highway we passed through Limasol, taking a brief glance at the beachfront residential area – looks like a great place for an extended stay – and headed for Aphrodite's Rock – a legendary tourist  attraction almost at the far western end of the island. In mythology this is the birth place of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, beauty, and sexuality, (know by the Romans as Venus) and is the stuff of legends and superstitions. According to our guides, this was the ancient forerunner of Viagra; it is claimed that any man swimming around the rock, will be bountifully endowed. Neil, Frank and I agreed that none of us needed to take a swim, and off we went for lunch...
Aphrodite's Rock
Overlooking Aphrodite's Rock from an airy restaurant on the hill above the beach, we tucked into a delicious local lamb stew (at least we were told it was lamb, and we took their word for it, ignoring the goat herds in the vicinity...). Soon enough it was time to make our way back to Larnaca, return our car, and board the ship for the overnight trip back to Haifa.
It had been a magical day in Cyprus, and we had only one glitch – that was when we stopped for petrol right next door to a local branch of Marks and Spencer's - BIG MISTAKE. Marlyn and Lynore leaped out the car, with promises of "Just fill up and we'll be back..." The car was filled and the clock was ticking as we hung about for what seemed hours, waiting for the wives. The garage attendant started giving us strange looks and I swear she was on the verge of calling the local constabulary to check out these two weird looking guys, hanging around the gas pumps.  
Neil decided to mount a one-man search party and resolutely plunged into the store. I know what you're thinking – why not just call them on a cell phone? Well, it turns out that none of us had thought of setting up international calling facilities, so we had no reception...and besides, Marlyn had left her phone in the car. Eventually Neil staggered out of the store, totally bewildered. He had searched all five floors, and nary a sight of the girls. Had they been abducted by M&S staff, intent on holding them hostage until they bought thousands of Euro worth of goods? So, we waited – and I had visions of us missing the ship, being incarcerated in a Cypriot prison as illegal aliens, trying to explain to the children how their mothers had been engulfed in the bowels of M&S, when they appeared, smiling and – joy of joys – not a package between them (credit cards had been mercifully left in the car!).We made it back to the ship in time, took a nap, met for dinner and then settled in for the night cruise back to Haifa.

We arrived early Sunday morning, having been away for around 48 hours – and as we stepped off the Golden Iris and headed for the station and the train to take us back to Hod Hasharon, it really felt like a week. Until we got on the train – remind me, never, ever to take a train from Haifa (or anywhere in the country for that matter) between 7:00 and 9:30 in the morning. It was already packed with commuters and soldiers heading back to their bases – so full in fact that Neil and Lynore sat on the steps and I stood the entire 1½-hour journey home....still, we'd been to Cyprus, we'd been "chutz l'aretz" for the weekend– albeit in the blink of an eye – and it was worth every single micro-second – even standing in the train all the way home.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Jacob’s Ladder Festival – 35 years of Music, Camping and Family Fun

Hans Theessink Blues Workshop-Abrams Brothers closing the festival

Given its location, the artists and the ethnic make-up of the audience, Israel’s annual Jacob’s Ladder Festival could be considered one of the most unique music festivals in the world. The location – on the edge of the Lake Kinneret (Sea of Galilee to those outside Israel) is magical;  and the selection of top class artists from around the world and an audience of mainly Anglo immigrants from all the former colonies, gives this 35-year-old festival an uncommonly distinctive character.

Every year thousands of lovers of folk, blues, Blue Grass, country, Irish music and more, congregate to enjoy a weekend of music, camping, chilling out and taking in the “good vibes” and general camaraderie that this festival engenders. And many an aging – let’s rather say “mature” – hippie from the ‘60’s, finds this an ideal opportunity to revisit those long-gone days of their youth…

We still “let it all hang out” – some of us rather more than we wished – we still “groove”; no longer quite as late, or as early in the morning, as we used to; and “get high” on the music and whatever else takes our fancy –  nowadays it’s more likely to be a good Scotch or bottle of fine wine than anything vaguely herbal.

Because Jacob’s Ladder was almost exclusively patronized by Israelis of Anglo heritage – certainly in the early years – it is known in Israel as the Anglo-Saxon “Mimouna”,  in comparison to the joyous Moroccan festival held at the end of the week of Pesach, epitomized by song, good food and celebration.

Having just attended the 35th Jacob’s Ladder festival at Nof Ginosar on the shores of Lake Kinneret in mid-May, I can tell you that the festival has lost none of its charm. There were more than 3,000 or us this year with a healthy percentage being kids whose own parents were hardly thought of when Jacob’s Ladder kicked off with its first gathering  back in 1976. This was when Menachem Vinograd (festival director) and two friends from Kibbutz Machanayim, just north of the Kinneret and  then largely inhabited by immigrants from the UK and US, started a folk club to quench their longing IMG_1603for the folk and protest songs they had left behind them in their native countries. The name “Jacob’s Ladder” was chosen to reflect the Kibbutz’s supposed link to the biblical story of Jacob and the fact that “ladder”  in Hebrew (“sulam”) also refers to a musical scale.

We went to our first Jacob’s Ladder in the late 1980’s, a year or two after our arrival in Israel. Our three kids were still littlies and camping was a new experience for us.  We had bought a new – and to us then, a very expensive – tent which we all shared…together with our faithful Corgi. Believe it or not, we STILL have that tent, and still use it – it’s an identifying beacon for our camping crowd: “look for the Butchins’ tent – that’s where you’ll find us…!"

To us, coming from staid and conservative South Africa, Jacob’s Ladder was the closest thing to Woodstock we had experienced. Nothing remotely like it in size or scope you understand, but the free and easy atmosphere and rocking to the legendary Libby and her hard-core band belting out earth-shattering blues at four in the morning, took us to new heights. We were also convinced that most of the audience were gently floating about a foot off the grass …. the Friday night music marathon would always end with Libby leading a raucous rendition of  "Goodnight Irene" … just as the sun rose.  Since those heady early days, we have attended nearly 20 festivals – with a few misses over the years. Migrating from Horshat Tal – that magical camping site on Israel’s northern border with its ancient oaks and icy water tumbling from Mt. Hermon, we followed the festival to the steamy surroundings of Gan Hashlosha in the Bet Shean valley; then to the shores of the Kinneret where we picked it up again at Karei Deshe, just a few kilometers north of its present location at Nof Ginosar, which offers hotel, “Zimmer” and camping facilities.

IMG_1575While the present day audience it is still  predominately made up of Anglos, there is a growing number of native Israelis attending. Many of them the spouses of Anglo “Olim” children who have grown up in Israel and represent the second generation of “Jacob’s Ladderites”… now bringing THEIR children – Jacob’s Ladder’s third generation – for a shot of rhythm ‘n blues and the fun of camping out, barbequing and running free. Our group this year was a microcosm of this little bit of festival anthropology: we were a crowd of 27 altogether, 10 “1st generation”;  10 “2nd generation” and seven “3rd generation”  –  with three more 3rd generation future festival fans on the way!

The Jacob’s Ladder festival is marveled at by the Israelis who attend. They remark at the open family atmosphere, the friendliness and respect that everybody shows and that when packed up, the campsites are left clean! There is very little mess around the many stages and music venues now a part of the Jacob’s Ladder scene – this is as much due to the vigilance of the festival staff as to the natural instinct of Anglos to clean up after themselves. But whatever the reason, it makes it all the more pleasant for festival-goers not to have to wade through mounds of rubbish.

From it’s early single night roots, Jacob’s Ladder has grown substantially and now runs for two nights and two days. It is now held in mid-May, instead of late August, providing much cooler weather than in earlier years. A round of applause must go to the festival directors, Menachem andIMG_1592 Yehudith Vinograd and their team of volunteers, stage managers, security people, sound and lighting engineers, caterers, and – perhaps most important to the campers – the team providing the amazingly efficient, clean and pleasant ablutions (after many years of having less than rudimentary facilities), with piping hot water showers at any time of the day or night.

This year’s festival was rated one of the best ever: the organizers compiled a program featuring high quality music, talented performers and other fun entertainment – from prominent international Bluegrass/rock groups such as the Abrams Brothers from Canada (now on their third visit to Israel), to Blues “meister” Hans Theessink from Holland, to local harpist Sunita with her specialty Irish and Jewish melodies, folk/rock duo favorites Larry and Mindy and Irish groups and continual pick-up jam sessions wherever there is an open space.  This year’s program featured workshops, storytelling, Balkan dancing, Square dancing, tap dancing, Yoga, Tai Chi and Chi Kung lessons to name a few…a well-rounded program catering to the entire family with much aimed at little ones.

And this year, the old tradition of singing “Goodnight Irene” was revived again, with the large crowd – not a dry eye among them – joining in the chorus at the closing of the festival late on Saturday afternoon.

So Jacob’s Ladder moves towards it’s 36th year with the knowledge that a sound tradition is being passed on from generation to generation – it’ll be a blast to still be around for the 70th anniversary!