Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Tea party on Mt. Liberty

Alternatively known as the Liber-tea hike. Get it?

Maddie, James, Emilie and I decided to lead a trip up Mt. Liberty in the Whites last weekend for the second week of Winter School. We carried up sleds to sled down! We even managed to summit before our turnaround time.

And we had a proper tea party on the way up. Jeremy was amused. And apparently I'm bad at taking photos with my glove liners.

Too bad it was super foggy at the top. At least the tea party lived on.

Unfortunately, James bummed his knee, but we got to drag him out on the snowmobile part of the way on a sled, and a nice snowmobiler drove him the rest of the way to the cars.

The weather was super warm so we all got pretty wet sledding downhill, but we all had a great time! Woohoo winter school!

Monday, February 3, 2014

Media Noche Salsa Jerusalem: German? English? Russian? Hebrew?

In trying to find open, interesting, and fun communities around the world you always come across gems like these.

Media Noche

I was surprised to hear that Jerusalem had a vibrant salsa scene, with salsa occurring almost every night of the week if you know the venue. I am slowly trying all of them, so on Monday night I went to Media Noche Jerusalem Salsa. Media Noche Salsa is an Israeli (all-volunteer) salsa group that comes together once a week to do salsa lessons and then open dancing in the Cuban style of salsa. 

While there are at least 3 Media Noche Salsa groups in Jerusalem, the one called "Media Noche Salsa Jerusalem" is held in the French Hill / Givat Shapira / Mt. Scopus neighborhood of Jerusalem, right next to the Hebrew University campus at Mt. Scopus. The space does not belong to the Hebrew U, but is used for free from an elementary school (Frankel Hill) in the area. 

Every Monday at 9pm, the "warm-up dance" starts, more like a group exercise class than a salsa lesson. After 15 minutes or so, there are a series of announcements (in Hebrew, you notice a few patterns after a while), and then the 100-person throng of people break up into smaller groups of about 20 to have small-group-style lessons for about an hour, then open dancing until 1am. 

Salsa in Hebrew? German? English? Russian?

I decided to post a message in the weekly Media Noche Facebook event before going to ask whether it would be OK if I showed up without any knowledge of Hebrew (knowing English and Russian). I only realized later that this was a silly thing to say - the majority of communication between dance partners is non-verbal. So I got ready for a lost conversational evening, but hopefully one filled with some fun dancing. With a slight lack of foresight I was wearing an MIT tshirt and a sweatshirt that day in the office, so I was going to go out dancing wearing no-too-flattering clothes. Oh well; it was Monday, I hadn't been social in a while, and I was itching to go dancing.

Because all the announcements, instructions, and directions were all in Hebrew, I was pretty lost for the first 10 seconds of any sentence. What I realized after the fact was that at the end of the announcements, the 6 volunteer instructors stated their levels of instruction (in Hebrew) so people could divide themselves appropriately. Everyone started moving around and I just gazed stupidly at the guy who had made the announcements, unsure of where I should go. Luckily I had been dancing salsa for years (and even knew a bit of rueda, which would come in handy), so it didn't really matter which group I would be put in. A savior took pity on me and kept repeating a sentence in Hebrew that included a word that sounded like "master", so I took his hand and joined that circle. By dumb luck, it was the circle that was led by Doron, the same man who had made all the announcements in Hebrew (I assume he was the host for the evening). 

I was talked at for a bit in Hebrew until I got the point across that I speak English. So Doron naturally kept making jokes in hybrid Hebrew and.... German. The lesson was indeed advanced rueda / salsa spins and moves, and it was a ton of fun. Not knowing Hebrew was only a disadvantage for my partner for the first 10 seconds - after the second time I could basically figure out what I needed to do. And luckily, many spoke basic English. In the enchufla-ridden rueda style of Cuban salsa, the dancers stand in a circle in pairs, men on the right and women on the left. The partners dance for a while and switch partners. In the switch, the men rotate to a new partner counter-clockwise and the women switch clockwise. When it was my turn to dance with Doron, he continued making jokes in broken German, to a laughing crowd. The most I could do was smile and nod. 

Finally he got to asking me what languages I speak, so I say "English, ruski, español", to which he says "So ... you're not German? Jeez, I wasted all those German jokes..." and then proceeded to make jokes in broken Russian. Turns out, dancers are silly people. 

The lesson ended and the free dancing started, which I was happy to learn that the men asked all the women who were looking for partners to dance, no questions asked. In broken Hebrew, English, and Russian, I met people who were studying at Hebrew U, working as teachers, trying to start companies, programming computers, and everything in between. I pretended to know more Hebrew than I actually did, so I did a fair share of smiling and nodding as the evening progressed. 

The atmosphere

I left Media Noche with a smile and sore shins - exactly what I had hoped for. I did not need a command of Hebrew (and you figure out really quickly what is right and left - yameen and shmol and variants thereof, for those that are curious), and felt comfortable jumping right into a friendly environment.

I loved the open, fun, and inclusive atmosphere at Media Noche - it reminded me of open swing at MIT, and I hope to be coming back there many times in the future.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Birzeit vs. MIT

Birzeit University was the first university to be established in Palestine (for some definition of established and Palestine), but the indisputable facts are that it first opened it's doors for student enrollment in 1924 near the village of Birzeit near the (now West Bank) city of Ramallah, about 20 km northeast of Jerusalem. Today it is considered one of the premiere learning institutions in the Middle East. 

Comparing to MIT: Stats

Because my comparison to universities comes from my own alma mater, MIT, I find it easiest to compare basic facts. 

Characteristic MIT Birzeit
Undergraduate enrollment 4528 (Source) 8465 (Source)
Graduate enrollment 6773 (Source) 1388 (Source)
Percentage of females 45% female in undergraduate programs, 31% female in graduate programs (Source) 64% female (Source)
Housing ~75% live in on-campus housing, about 90% live in MIT-affiliated housing (Source) Most students live off campus, either at home or in the nearby Ramallah, Birzeit, or al-Bireh (no definitive source on this, gathered from asking a few Birzeit students)
Urban environment In Cambridge, MA; Greater Boston (population ~2 million) 20km north Jerusalem, 2 km east of Ramallah (population ~27000); suburban environment (Source)
Departments / majors 46 B.S. programs, > 24 post-graduate programs (including PhD and ScD) (Source 47 B.A. programs, 26 M.A. programs (Source)
Semester structure 2 semesters + 1 IAP + 1 summer semester 2 semesters + 2 summer semesters(Source)
Yearly (undergraduate) tuition $43210 (Source) 48 Jordanian dinars / credit hour; ~140 credit hours per major - ~$8500 total(Source)


Today I was lucky enough to go with Sadek (who is graduating from Birzeit this June) to see the university for myself. We started the morning at 8am leaving Jerusalem (we had to allot time to get through the traffic that would inevitably happen at a checkpoint before we crossed into the West Bank). His classes started at 9am, so for three hours I wandered the campus, poking into every single building, museum, lobby, hangout area, and open space that I could find. I wanted to get a feel for the campus and it's life uninhibited - I wanted to see what it was like to be a student at Birzeit for a morning. 

Here is a collection of observations about Birzeit, using MIT as a benchmark. 

  • As a woman not wearing hijab, I felt in the minority. But not for the reason you think - the campus is about 65% women. It turns out that the majority of women wear hijab and adhere to the stereotypical versions of Islamic dress. Of course, there are plenty of women on campus who do NOT where hijab, but I felt that my uncovered blonde hair was in the minority. 
  • The walls of the buildings were off-white. No posters, no advertisements, no photographs, no awards. In every building (except for the civil engineering hallway in the engineering building and half of a hallway in the business building) seem to boast or advertise for accomplishments of students and staff. The surface feeling you get from walking around is that either students are not encouraged to advertise, or they are actively banned from advertising. In either case, the multi-color that is present in any hallway of MIT is not there at Birzeit. 
  • There are no easily-accessible computer labs. Walking through a hallway at MIT you will see lounges, computer labs, benches, hangout spaces, etc. Walking through the hallway at Birzeit you do see benches everywhere, but few common study spaces where someone can sit with their computer and work. 
  • There is no open wifi everywhere on campus. My bubble world of MIT has taught me that I can have strong wifi anywhere I want. Apparently this is not the case at every other university - there is a strong protected network, but no open wifi. 
  • There are no carts of stuff moving back and forth. MIT's labs are either glass-walled or spread across parts of campus. There are constantly students, professors, staff moving carts of science, engineering, and interesting things all across campus. This is not the case at Birzeit. 
  • Of course, as is the norm at most American universities, each major or department has it's own building - there is no MIT norm of connected buildings, fluid and non-rigid differences between departments, and unclear boundaries between buildings.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Jerusalem Coffeeshops / Brunch / Breakfast Spots

Living in a foreign country / environment teaches you a lot about your priorities. One of the things I discovered I like to do is eat breakfast / brunch on a weekend morning, and read, work, blog, write, and code in a café with wifi after brunch. 

Because Jerusalem is a city where the three main populations have three different modes of weekend, finding the "perfect brunch spot" was quite a challenge. 

My ideal set of characteristics for a brunch spot / coffeeshop is: 

  • Coffee, tea, hot chocolate, or some kind of beverage
  • Cheap good food to eat
  • Unlimited free wifi
  • A power outlet
  • Working phone service
  • Walking distance from home
  • Open on Fridays and Saturdays
  • The staff let you sit as long as you want

Notice how I don't care if the staff speaks English or not. 

After exploring the city a bit on foot, I've made this ordered list of my favorite coffeeshops / brunch spots in Jerusalem. I have not ventured to find coffee shops accessible only by bus / train, since I didn't want to spend the time or money doing so. 

My recommendation is to not sit at places like Aroma Café or Café Hillel, which are just coffee shop chains with bad coffee that cater completely to foreign tourists. Try for the more interesting coffeeshops / brunch places along the way.

Places with Wifi

1. The Gallery Cafe in Sheikh Jarrah
My favorite place by far. They have the cheapest breakfast / brunch option of all the places I have been. For 15 NIS, you can get eggs, toast, and a small cucumber / tomato salad. For another 12 NIS or so you can get a cappucino. They have outlets, unlimited wifi, phone service, and are a 15/20 minute walk from my apartment. Usually their hours are 10am to 10pm, but they are sometimes closed on Fridays.

2. The Educational Bookshop in Bab Az-Zahra

Not only a cafe, but also a bookshop where you can buy your mostly-Israeli-and-Palestinian-conflict-themed books. They also have a selection of translators, phrasebooks, guidebooks, and the like. The staff are extremely friendly, speak amazing English, and offer a range of coffees, teas, sandwiches, and light snacks for a decent price. They have the best hours of all the coffeeshops I frequent - the owners cater to foreigners and don't often close for holidays and weekends.

3. Café de Paris in Rechavia
Good wifi, outlets, and a big breakfast are definitely pluses for this coffeeshop. The drawback is that it is closed on Saturdays. The staff speaks very good English and you can sit as long as you want to nurse that coffee.

4. Tmol Shilshom off of Jaffa Street in Nachlaot
First and foremost a bookshop, Tmol Shilshom is the counterpart (not the equivalent) of the Educational Bookshop in the west side of Jerusalem. There are occasionally chats with literary figures, a selection of books, and a selection of decent breakfast items. The average cost for a plate of food is around 50 NIS (a bit more than I'd like to pay for a weekly brunch outing where I can get better-tasting food at The Gallery Café for half the price) and lacking power outlets, they have wifi, a good atmosphere, and a friendly staff.

Places just for breakfast / brunch without wifi

1. Cafe Paradiso in Rechavia
A selection of good food, but a bit on the expensive side. I do like their cappucinos though. Also closed on Saturdays.

2. Mamila Café in Mamila
A selection of good food that for being in Mamila, a shopping complex right in the middle of town next to the Old City, is reasonably priced. The drawback is that they are closed on Saturday mornings. 

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Jerusalem Snowstorm of 2013, or 15 MITOC Winter School Lessons for Snowstorms and Bad Weather

The largest snowstorm in the last 50  years hit the Jerusalem area this weekend. According to some news articles and hobbyist meteorologist forum threads, the snowfall accumulation was about 50cm from Wednesday night December 11th to Saturday mid-day December 14th. For a place that is used to about 2-3 cm of snow total throughout the winter season on a typical year, this storm was quite a shock (it caused problems in Cairo, the Golan Heights, Syria, and Gaza too). 

Jerusalem is not properly equipped with snowplows and salt like we are used to in the American northeast - most of the snow-clearing vehicles on the streets are of the bulldozer and army tank variety, and I haven't seen salt being used on the main roads inside the city (I assume the small supplies are being used in clearing the two major highways entering Jerusalem). 

My source of (correct) weather throughout the last week has been this amazing Jerusalem weather website

Thanks to some techniques (and practice) gained through MITOC's Winter School (The MIT Outing Club's lecture/trip series in the winter time, filled with tips and techniques for winter hiking and camping), me and my roommates braved the storm and had lots of fun prancing in the storm. 

Before the storm

The 3 or 4 days before the snow had been filled with cold, wind, and rain. It's not unusual for Jerusalem, just mildly unpleasant when you walk to work. 

And when the path from your apartment to the street is covered in an inch of standing water. 

We kept joking back and forth that it's going to snow and not to snow - but by Wednesday afternoon you could smell that frost smell in the air that every New Englander knows. I had stocked up on rice, granola bars, and chocolate (MITOC lesson #1), but not on purpose - I just like to eat those things. Lo and behold, the snow started.

Wednesday / Thursday (Day 1): A Reasonable Storm

By New England standards, the falling flakes of snow were like a light snow not uncommon in Boston or New York. I just never expected to see it in Jerusalem. 

The apartment was slowly getting colder. Remember, buildings in places not used to snow don't have luxuries like central heating. I wore my wool socks (not cotton, in case they got wet, MITOC lesson #2) and slippers, together with a fleece, and was perfectly warm and happy throughout Thursday. To sleep under my three thin blankets, I boiled water before bed and put it in my Nalgene covered with a sock (MITOC lesson #3). In the absence of a person, there is nothing like hugging a radiating bottle of warmth in bed.

That day was clearly not a work day, so I slept, ate, read, and was generally lazy most of the day. But every New Englander knows that they have to clean their porch during the day after a snow so it won't freeze and become black ice the next day. No shovels, but squeegees do just fine. Let's ignore for a second the fact that it rarely gets below freezing and the likelihood of black ice accumulating on our steps was close to zero.

I went to go sit in the nice wifi with a coffee at the Educational Bookshop for an hour before meeting Noemie and Wilem (my roommates, French and Belgian) for a walk. (Of course at the Educational Bookshop I met an international filmmaker who wanted to ask me questions about MEET, but that's a separate story). 

With a city not prepared for snow like this, the roads don't have proper drainage from the melting snow. And the temperature outside was hovering right above freezing, so there was no ice accumulation on the streets. But for those experienced with snow this can only mean one thing: the dreaded slush. To combat this (in the absence of waterproof footwear), we put plastic bags around our feet, socks around them, then put our shoes on. Mountaineers have a fancy name for this - a vapor barrier liner. The idea is to trap the heat around your foot so that even if the thing around your foot is wet, you stay warm (MITOC lesson #4). 

Of course, the rewards of going out in the evening in a snowy city are unbelievable. Hot drinks (MITOC lesson #5) and "it's all about the picture" (MITOC lesson #6). 

 Note the fire coming out of a trash can by the bread seller on the streets of the Old City. 

And the magical palm trees with 2 inches of snow on the ground. Breathtaking. 

It is critical to stay out of the wind to stay warm (MITOC lesson #7), so Noemie, Wilem, Stefano, and I taped the seams of the window frames in the living room with plastic wrap and blankets to block the cold wind from invading the apartment. 

That night was colder than the last - Noemie and Wilem had two space heaters, so we sat all together in the living room with the space heaters until it was time to go to sleep. This time, it was time for the sleeping bag, chocolate and jumping jacks before bed, hot water bottle, and hat / gloves on standby (MITOC lesson #8). 

I kept my cell phone and computer under the covers in case our power went out and I needed to preserve battery. Cold doesn't do good things to electronics (MITOC lesson #9). 

Friday (Day 2): A Bit More...

Waking up on Friday to even more snow on the ground (and an even colder apartment) had the same feeling as waking up during the American northeast Snowpocalypse of January 2010 - WHAT. I seriously considered making a website called bostonorjerusalem.com. As you can see, I didn't. The wifi (and perhaps the power too) had gone out in my apartment, so I decided to try my luck in finding my usual Friday morning brunch place with wifi. 

Damascus Gate was surreal. 

And believe it or not, there was a snowman right next to the Western Wall

And the street musicians on Jaffa street apparently continue to try and sell their wares. 

By far the most creative snowman I saw in the city - on Jaffa street. 

 As it turned out, I didn't have much luck in finding power or wifi until I walked around the entire city to the touristy Jaffa street. I ended up having brunch at Tmol Shilshom, the famous bookshop near Jaffa street. 

After sitting in the cafe for a few hours and the snow again starting outside, I decided to make my way back home.

There was still the one dedicated fruit seller near Salahuddin Street / Damascus Gate. I was tempted, so I bought some tomatoes. It was getting tiring to eat just rice and sausages for all your meals ...

At this point home was getting inevitably colder. I wish I had a camping stove so I could continuously boil water. Putting on a hat inside made it infinitely warmer (MITOC lesson #10). Noemie's approach was the burrito wrap (MITOC lesson #11). 

The wall of heaters in the living room threatened to throw the circuit breaker every time we made a pot of tea. Every time it did, I'd have my headlamp in my pocket so I could find the breaker switch to flip it, and make sure you have spare batteries (MITOC lesson #12). 

And the snowmelt kept dripping into the apartment through the leaks. The landlord basically said this was the worst snow in decades and that he'd fix it when the snow stopped. In temporary consolation he gave us a third space heater. As long as we kept ourselves dry, we'd be warm (MITOC lesson #13). This meant there was a constant changing of socks, pants, and shoes every time anyone went outside.

Saturday (Day 3): A Real "Sheleggedon"

By Saturday, Day 3 when the snow continued (the roads had been closed for two days now, basically no travel in or out of Jerusalem), the Old City was absolutely gorgeous. People were playing in the streets, snowmen and snowangels abound, and all the shops around were closed. 

The trick to staying warm outside: scarf, hat, gloves. And layers! (MITOC lesson #14). 

Now that the storm is over, the temperature is getting warmer, and there is no need to worry about freezing. There never really was (the temperatures barely got below freezing), but all the same I am glad I had my Winter School skills to back me up. 

Our main concern right now is that our water tank on the roof might be to cold to supply enough water. In fact, the  houses in our neighborhood have a water shortage because of burst pipes in the region. Good thing I stocked up on water from my previous hiking adventures to definitely have enough for a few days (MITOC lesson #15). 

The next challenge is to take a shower out of the water bottles heated in front of the space heater, but this is a challenge easily solved.

A Recap: Winter School Lessons for Real Life Snowstorms and Cold Weather

  1. Stock up on carb-filled and fatty foods. They give you energy and alleviate the need to go find a shop to sell you food during a storm. Chocolate is great for a quick burst. 
  2. Wear thick wool socks and slippers to keep your feet warm.
  3. Sleep with a Nalgene filled with warm water wrapped in a sock. In the absence of a Nalgene, rubber hot water bottles are great. 
  4. Make your non-waterproof shoes waterproof with makeshift vapor barrier liners made of plastic grocery bags. 
  5. Drink warm liquids. Tea and hot chocolate are great. 
  6. Whatever your situation, make sure to take epic pictures. 
  7. Wind-seal leaky window frames with plastic wrap, tape, blankets, sheets, whatever.
  8. Do jumping jacks before bed. Eat a bar of chocolate before bed. Keep a hat and gloves near you in case you get cold at night. 
  9. Sleep with your computer and your cell phone (unplugged) under your covers to conserve battery.
  10. Wear a hat inside. "If your toes are cold, put on a hat", said someone famous. 
  11. No hat? Burrito wrap yourself in a blanket!
  12. Keep a headlamp nearby in case the power goes out. Make sure you have spare batteries for said headlamp.
  13. Keep yourself dry. Change wet socks immediately, especially if they are cotton. Better to dry your clothes while they are off of you.
  14. Layer up. It makes you flexible and traps air between your layers of clothing, adding to the insulation.
  15. Stock up on water just in case.