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The first time I met my soon to be sorority sister, future roommate, and one day maid of honor, Selina, I'm certain there was a fair share of eye rolling and eyebrow raises on my end of the introduction. I thought she was most likely legally insane. Of course, that crazy person, as different as we were, ended up being one of the best friends I've ever had. 

A lot like college or joining a sorority, making friends while living in Hyderabad can be what Laura once described as "slim pickin's." While some might find that rude, I totally understood what she meant. For example, she was a transplant from the East Coast to suburban Georgia, mother of 3, and I was just a young, totally cool, ridiculously hip (duh!), half Mexican-American girl from the various ghettos of Ohio (yes, they exist). In no situation other than the one we were thrust into would we have ever had the opportunity to become friends. Pretty soon after meeting Laura, we began to "hang." She and our friend Heidi taught me how to play mahjongg, a game that I will most likely play wherever we go next, and soon I was living down the street from her in our neighborhood. I realized that her husband, Phil, was my brother from another mother, and our bond with this family soon deepened. 

Taking this unlikely match to the next level, we were invited to their son's Bar Mitzvah in November, 2012. Because there is a virtually (or actually) non-existent Jewish community in India, they were taking the party to the motherland itself, Israel! I knew their children relatively well (as much as a 29 year old could know a 12, 11, and 7 year old) thanks to the "teen" book club I run, so it was an easy decision for us. We couldn't resist joining the celebrations and booked our tickets.

Here is where I mention that in college and for quite awhile after, I was very interested in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, having read many books and knowing several people that it affected on a personal level. I didn't have much interest in visiting Israel other than to see a glimpse of history with my own eyes. I really didn't expect to enjoy it much as I did- other than sharing the joy of momentous event in our friend's lives. There were some slight complications, however. Because the conflict is never-ending, a week before we were scheduled to leave, things started to heat up. We were scheduled to leave on November 17, and on November 14, the head of Hamas military operations, Ahmed al-Ja'abari was killed in a targeted air strike, codenamed Operation Pillar of Defense, by the Israel Defense Forces. These airstrikes were retribution, as stated by Israel, for increased rocket attacks from Gaza. The next day, on November 15, two rockets were fired from the Gaza Strip at Tel Aviv. One of the rockets landed in the city's suburbs and the other landed into the sea.  On November 16, the day before we were scheduled to leave, a rocket aimed at Jerusalem set off air raid sirens throughout the city. The IDF announced the calling up of 30k reservists, readying itself for possible ground invasion in the Gaza Strip (You can see a brief timeline of events here and here). We suddenly found ourselves fielding phone calls left and right. We did our research... should something happen, we knew how long we had to take cover and the correct way to shield our heads. We were unshaken. We were still going. 

All the craziness of going through El-Al security aside (who knew there was such a thing as a friendly interrogation?!),  we made it to our destination in the early hours. We would spend the next few days in Tel Aviv, but the first location we'd be staying in would not be ready for us until that afternoon. So we jumped in cars from the airport and drove to Caesarea, a town (built by this guy) between Tel Aviv and Haifa, for the day. We stop first for food, of all places, at a GAS STATION, that has a ridiculously amazing breakfast. This wasn't your average Sheetz sustenance. 

Caesarea offered us our first look into the history of the region, as well as our first view of the Mediterranean Sea. The water was clear, the air crisp, the sun shining. We made the right decision in still coming. Nothing could go wrong...right? 

As the afternoon was winding up, we made our way to visit some of Phil and Laura's friends, an Israeli family that had lived in our neighborhood in India before we moved in. They eased our fears about safety, even as they showed us their mandatory bomb shelter, and fed us the most amazing food I think I have ever tasted on God's green earth. I stupidly refused an offer of jumping on the back of our new friend's Hyderabad-restored Royal Enfield, and soon we were on our way. Evening was upon us and the twinkling city lights of Tel Aviv could be seen as we navigated (with special thanks to this amazing app!!) our way into it's open embrace. 

As we drove on by the glow of our trusty mobile GPS, we wound up in the neighborhood we thought we'd be spending the night. Just like how on a TV commercial that cheeseburger looks so delicious and succulent, with it's perfectly melted cheese and strategically placed lettuce and tomato, a little bit of special sauce peeking outside the bun... only for you to rush out to the nearest fast food joint, order that same cheeseburger and have it be, well... a dump? No one can blame our awesome trip planner for what we found next. The room was....incredible!...in the way that a Russian spring break cement block hostel with the words "F(*#&$ THE POLICE" spray painted on the outside might be. In a past life, or if we were a lone couple, or even with other people, I could imagine a freak out. A total meltdown. We're in a WAR ZONE. Here's where we'd be frantically imagining all the horrific things that could happen to us if we stayed in this place, air raid sirens and all...and at the moment that we decided we were not staying, and we were slamming the car doors on our way to find a new resting place- what's that? A SIREN? AN AIR RAID SIREN?! Oh, ohhh yes. At that very moment, sleeping children in the backseat of a car and all, we jumped out of that sedan shouting "WE HAVE 90 SECONDS TO TAKE COVER!!" (WE DID OUR RESEARCH.) grabbed the frazzled children and ran back into the den of past spring break debaucheries. The long-haired Israeli Michael Jackson, who was in charge of opening the place for us, sat with us on the cots. "There will be three blasts," he said, someone clearly feeding this information through the cellphone attached to his face. And...there were. In the middle of what seemed like a precautionary Ohio tornado drill, we heard what clearly was NOT the sound of a tornado. Blasts, not unlike what you can hear here: Anderson Cooper taking cover from Explosion in Gaza (not coincidentally, a couple days after we arrived in Tel Aviv). Each pair of eyes, the size of our breakfast plates that morning, darting back and forth at the others. Murmurs of "Mom, what IS that?" And the looks on our faces that said it all, "Dude. What are we doing here, again?" After the third blast, the long-haired guy said "Well, that's it." And clearly planned on going about his business, only a couple minutes interrupted. I don't really remembering leaving that place, I just remember R driving, our friends behind us. 

"Where are we going?" I asked. At that moment we pulled into The Sheraton, it's red logo blazing like a beacon of hope to weary travelers. When R emerged from the building with Phil, we had rooms booked for the night. "They said that there's a lot of open rooms but no one can stay on one side of the building... in case of a hit," R explained. We grabbed our bags and checked in. 

On the way to our rooms the luggage guy made sure to show us the bomb shelter. "This is just in case, but in the event of sirens, you can make your way here." He then explained the structure of the building, built to withstand such blasts. I won't lie, that night I took the fastest shower ever, asking R from behind the curtain, "Soooo, what if we're in the SHOWER and the sirens go off?!" I quickly rinsed the shampoo from my hair and dried off. 

Over the next couple days, we experienced some more craziness. While Hamas was calling for an end of Israel's blockade on Gaza as stipulations for a cease-fire, Phil and Laura's parents flew into Tel Aviv from the U.S. for the big day, which was later on in the week. While Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-Moon, visited neighboring Egypt for talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Prime Minister of the Palestinian National Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, the grandparents were getting a flat on the highway and experiencing their own ridiculous journey through Israeli rental cars and tire shops on our way back from The Jewish Diaspora Museum. While then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton came to help bring an end to the recent violence, and while a "A knife and ax-wielding Israeli man attacked and lightly wounded a security guard at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv ," we walked just minutes from the scene of it all, on the Tel Aviv beach, visited the Old Jaffa Flea Market, and ate more of the best food of my life with friends and their family by our sides. 
While I know you are all dying to know what happened after we left Tel Aviv for Jerusalem, a day before this bus bomb, and how the actual Big Fat Israeli Bar Mitzvah went, I did warn you that this was a post in numerous parts. I will give you a hint. We are still friends with Phil and Laura, survived another vacation with their family, and it's not just because of the a limited friend pool here in Hyderabad. ;) 

(We miss you guys!) 

-L
 


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