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Concave apricot slices are belly up towards the desert sky, their wet insides unaware of the drought to come. In three days time, they’ll shrivel to brown. Lulu and I have just finished spreading hundreds of these slices on four white tables, singing Hebrew nursery rhymes all the while, laughing as I echoed her words.

For two weeks now, I’ve been volunteering on the Arazuni Family Farm, located in a small Israeli town called Ezuz. I’m not sure if I can call it a town, really—it’s more of a collection of stone slabs and metal sheets slapped together to create a charming, ramshackle cohesion in the middle of the desert. Each home is a haven of shade, with flat roofs extending far beyond the borders of walls made of mud bricks and old buses transformed into living spaces. There’s no corner store here because there are no corners—just a circle of families vying for the simplest life.

As soon as I’ve secured the mesh screen over the apricots to keep the flies from feasting, I race back to the volunteer cabin and slip out of my farm clothes. The cabin is a converted train car that houses three of us: Laurette, a French woman who follows Bob Dylan on tour around the world, filling gaps between shows by volunteering on farms; Tom, an aquaculture specialist from Hawaii who’s travelled far from the sea, searching for something only found in open air; and me, a twenty-one year old student who fled to the desert between semesters to escape a life of appointments. I peel back layers of dirt and replace them with a clean Yankees shirt, grab my notebook, and head a half-kilometer to my favorite rock, hoping I didn’t miss the show.

I’ve claimed my rock among the hundreds lining the path, carving its contours from the sandscape. I mount it, loving it for its plateau top, for its cratered form, for its strong stoneness supporting me, for this earth supporting me. I stretch my legs out before me to welcome the sweet soreness now streaming through my thighs and calves—sweet like the plums I picked this morning, when the sky mirrored a dim purple. All through the day, I said to myself: This is how my body was meant to work—not hunching over an office desk, but stretching and reaching for the pear from the highest branch, or squatting to search for the ripest eggplant hiding beneath tangled stems.

While out in the orchard or the greenhouse, my mind tends to wander: what will I do with my life? What can I offer to this planet? Will today’s lunch be hummus or goat cheese? To these questions I have few answers, so I turn them off and reach into the depth of memory, hoping to find something more tangible: poetry. I repeat the handful poems that accompany me wherever I travel, reciting them to the coriander beds: Forever – is composed of Nows – and hope they can understand Emily Dickinson’s wisdom. But then, I admire their patience in the hot sun, and wonder if they understand her words better than I do.

And tonight, I’m reminded of Yeats’ sky—of night and light and the half-light—as I glance over my left shoulder to watch the sun’s descent. It feels like a crime to take my eyes off the scene to write what I’m witnessing—to slice the stillness with my pen—but I feel a duty to store this sky in ink, to save it for storm clouds. Telephone poles and wires fail to frame boundless rays of pink and purple. In the foreground, rocks and brush are steeped in amber. Above my right shoulder, a faint moon gets bolder against a deep blue, rising higher and higher, as if lifted by the heavy sun at the end of an invisible pulley.

Back in Manhattan, I don’t look at the sun the same way as I do in Ezuz. Seeing the sun in the desert is like running into an old friend out of context and suddenly noticing all the intricacies of his face. I watch in wonder as the sun sinks down before me, enwrought with golden and silver light, burning with a fervor matched by my gaze. And when it finally disappears behind the sand dunes, I slide off my rock, dusty toes hitting the earth, comforted by the tender desert air and the astounding knowledge that this has happened, and will happen, forever.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Gratitude Travel Writing competition and tell your story.

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My Haven.

The voice on the inspirational relaxation CD instructed me to “Find a place where I could relax and feel comfortable. Study it. Commit to memory how it looks, how it sounds, how it smells and above all how it affects my feelings.”

The theory was that if I could internalise the actual sensations of peace and positiveness; later I could sit anywhere, shut my eyes (and ears) and bring to mind my little haven of tranquillity enabling me the ability to find the strength and energy to tackle anything! My difficulties wouldn’t disappear, but they would become not only manageable, but resolvable. Life would become relaxed and filled with successful achievements. I certainly liked the sound of those ideas.

I had listened to the CD a dozen times, wondering if I would ever find the safe harbour the speaker was describing. Then one day, out of the blue I discovered IT!

I was accompanying my three grandchildren up the hill to the swimming pool. Climbing the slope was hot, tiring, thirsty work. We stopped half way up so I could rest on the seat, in the shade of a huge carob tree and take a drink from the mandatory bottle of iced water. When I’d quenched my thirst the children took the bottle from me, squabbling over it as they carried it further up the hill.

I sat and looked about. The sun was hot in the cloudless blue sky, but in the shade of the old tree the leaves rustled slightly, the birds twittered and all around was a sea of greens with bright yellow flowers scattered everywhere. I had discovered my haven.

“Grandma, Grandma” the children shouted impatiently. Reluctantly I returned my thoughts to the immediate time, I got up, changed back to loving, happy Grandma mode and we all continued to trudge up the hill.

Next day, with the grandchildren all at kindergarten, I returned to my little oasis to really enjoy it and to imprint it into my brain. I sat on the bench, in the shade of the the huge old carob tree with the sun shining in a cloudless blue sky. Everywhere was green, brown and yellow. There were green trees, carobs, pines and even date palms, green flowering bushes and green grass, with brown tree trunks and paths and a myriad of bright yellow flowers hanging in the trees and gently floating in the air as they joined their fellows carpeting the huge expanse of grass.. Above and around the various birds flew; sparrows, finches, tits, herons, crows, pigeons and larks all twittering, warbling, cooing and cawing at each other. Sweet-scented yellow blossoms perfumed the air, while a few bushes of red or orange nectar centred flowers also attracting the softly buzzing bees. In every direction there were sights, sounds and smells that I drank in and committed to memory.

This would be my oasis of peace and contentment. This is where I would go, in my mind’s eye, to revitalize my thoughts and restore my positivity. My haven would enable me to relax, gain the strength and inspiration I need to solve life’s problems.


The knowledge that I had found my haven at last, gave me the feeling I could cope with anything life threw at me, like I was almost immortal.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Gratitude Travel Writing competition and tell your story.

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Digital War

Israel under war 2014
Missiles range launched from Gaza Strip
[Publisher’s Note: This article arrived yesterday August 5, 2014, but is being published on August 6, 2014]

Today at 8AM a cease fire has been declared in operation Protective Edge. The public discussion over the operation, however, will stay with us for a long time.

Public opinion is one of the key influence factors on countries and people behavior. In the digital and social networks world, that opinion might very rapidly turn itself into large-scale action (the ‘Arab Spring’, for example) , thus better understanding of it might shed some light on future trends and phenomena which are about to take place.
During armed conflicts, in addition to the traditional battle front, another front takes place in cyberspace, particularly if Israel is involved.

The MasterMineDS office is based in Tel Aviv. From here, a quick look at Facebook provides the common Israeli sense of solidarity with the military operation, proudly showing Israeli soldiers finding another rocket launcher or assault tunnel on one hand, and mutually helping each other at the home front between missile attack sirens, on the other hand.

However, while this is the situation in Israel, a brief view on TV channels, as well as news websites from all around the globe, actually shows very severe reactions, emotions and opinions against Israel.


Twitter is Left Behind 

Israelis love social networks. They are highly active on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Instagram; WhatsApp and Viber were invented in Israel and are also very popular among its citizens.
But when it comes to Twitter, the amount of tweets per citizen is fairly low compared to the rest of the world, and it seems Twitter is being left behind in the Israeli arena.

With that in mind, we decided to research the global public opinion regarding operation Protective Edge as it reflects these days in Twitter, and by using sentiment analysis techniques find out whether Israel is regarded as a country who defends itself, or as an aggressor.


MasterMineDS’s Part – Tweet sentiment analysis

Twitter is left behind
Twitter is left behind

When you live in a country at war (like Israel), it is natural, although possibly incorrectly so, to feel as though the whole world is talking about the war going on in your backyard.

We at MasterMineDS are doing our part for the situation by trying to better understand the mood on Twitter regarding the on-going Israel-Gaza conflict from a quantitative, unbiased perspective.

We have decided to try answering the following questions through analyzing the data available from Twitter:

  • Level of interest by country: What portion of the Twitter conversations are related to the Israel-Gaza operation in every country?
  • Tweet sentiments: sentiment analysis will allow us to find the ratio of tweets supporting Israel’s activity to non-supporters in every country.
  • Anomalies: Who are the anomalous users in different regions and what are they saying?

After setting up a server to collect millions of tweets per day, we started analyzing the data.

The analysis is based on roughly 17,500 daily Protective Edge related tweets, gathered for over a week on July 25-July 31, 2014, over 120,000 tweets in total.
Total tweeter conversations during that period stood on roughly 10,000,000 tweets per day.
Those numbers represent only a portion of the entire tweets database, due to capacity limits embedded in Twitter’s api. Nevertheless, the gathered sample consistently represents trends and proportion between countries.


First Goal: Level of Interest by Country


A point of interest in this research is the volume of the conversation around the world about the situation in Israel and Gaza.

We wanted to find out, per country, how many people are talking about the Israel-Gaza conflict through all the general tweets out there.

We have mapped the top 40 countries in aspect of the public conversation per country about the Israel-Gaza situation:

Who is interested in the Gaza situation?

We have organized the list by the amount of interest, Markers with higher then 1% of conversation are Big on the map, less are just a red dot.

As you can see, Pakistan leads the table, with 5.25% of the conversations in the Pakistani Twitter are about the Israel-Gaza conflict. Despite being a Muslim country, the numbers looked a bit high, therefore we decided to more deeply investigate it. See results below. 

Next on the table are Israel’s neighbors Jordan and Lebanon, with 4.5% and 3.6% volumes, respectively. For those of you who were wondering, no, the conversations are not pro-Israeli.

Generally speaking, we noticed that the variance was high between the Arab countries that either contain a large population of Palestinian minorities or are known as radical  vs moderate Arab countries.

One of the big surprises for us was Turkey, where the interest in the situation was around 0.45% despite the high volume of general tweets [Turkey contributes about 10% of the world’s tweets regarding Protective Edge]. As it seems, the people of Turkey love to tweet in general, yet not discussing the situation at the same extent. Are these the first signs of a difference in priorities between the Turkish government and its citizens? Only time will tell.

For the people of Israel who were planning on taking a trip to see the great Safari in Kenya, prepare yourself for plenty of questions from the locals. Our data shows as much as 3.33% of Kenya’s Twitter conversations are related to our subject.

South America, in general, seems to be worrying about other issues and despite some media noise from some countries over there, the current Middle East situation is not on their daily agenda. 

The bottom line for the rest of the Western World is steady: less than 1% of the total conversations are related to the Israel-Gaza conflict. 


Second Goal – Finding the Sentiment:

After measuring the extent of the conversation, we wanted to test the sentiment level of the tweets for\against Israel.
For that purpose, we have created an algorithm for finding the sentiment level, based on the severity of the tweet content.
Then, we created user segmentation, based on their amount of followers, tweets, sentiments and sentiment levels.
Finally, each user was assigned to one of 4 types: with\against Israel, and high\low social impact using Protective Edge related tweets.

In order to better understand the general feeling or pulse regarding the situation, we have created the following map, and pinned around 2,500 markers on it

- The map contains random tweets related to the conflict, and has a negative\positive sentiment.  

- Pro Israeli sentiment is represented by green markers.

- Pro Palestinian sentiment is represented by the red markers

- The marker size represents the user’s involvement level

-The sentiment accuracy level for this map is 90%.

As you can see on the map, the USA is the only country that has a relatively high representation of the Israeli perspective by the users [around 30% of the tweets are in Pro-Israeli]. Other countries in the world may contain some Israel supporters, but they are quite a small minority. 

Final Goal: Anomalies and Interesting Cases

The Twitter audience is generally not fond of users who are extreme in their views. Users who are tweeting radical content are bound to have fewer followers. With this in mind, we have decided to look for and try to track the users that express their tweets demonstrating extremist content, or exhibit properties such as frequency or having an interesting social root.

Here are some examples of our findings:

Pakistani Hater

Zahid from Pakistan is flooding the stream with more than a 100 anti-Israeli tweets per day. Zahid managed to add 50 more followers to his list this week, with a total of 1,500.

The persistence of Zahid’s work in tweeting substantialy contributes to the extreme involvement levels in Pakinstan, a country that uses Twitter quite poorly.

A deeper analysis of the Growth Hacking Techniques used by Zahid can be found will be published soon.

Few Vs. Many

A few brave users can be found at the heart of some Arab countries, tweeting in favor of the Israeli side. For their own safety, and despite the great amount of appreciation we have for those users, we have decided not to reveal their user names. What we can say, however, is that it seems that some of those users are originally from Europe and are currently in those countries for work related reasons.

The first user is located in Kuwait, and he is calling on the Israeli government to stay strong.

Another user is located in Turkey. His tweets are arguing that the Hamas is a guerrilla organization who threatens journalists not to expose any violent actions it turns against the people of Gaza.

For the Attention of the Israeli ambassador in the UK:

שגרירינו באנגליה - דניאל טייבר
Israeli Ambassador Daniel Taub

 The user Tony Huges is busy these days promoting an e-petition calling to expel Israeli ambassador Daniel Taub from the UK to his 1,500 followers.




Israel – Looking for Tweeters?

Our findings show, that while the western countries are not extremely interested in the conflict, the amount of users who condemn Protective Edge operation is dramatically higher than those who support the Israeli side, legitimizing pretty severe messages through the web against the state of Israel.

As it has been demonstrated in this article, a deep sentiment analysis of social network data, such as Twitter, could lead to very interesting insights of global public opinion.
Intelligent use of some the of findings – in this case by Israeli foreign affairs officials and others – could help in engaging more people to help balancing the world’s public opinion, both during the fighting and after the cease fire.



About The writers:

MasterMine Data scientists is located in Tel Aviv, Israel and specializes in data science and analytic solutions

In 2012, I decided to move to Israel. Initially, I went to volunteer with the Ethiopian Israeli community and along the way, I had the opportunity to travel to Greece, Budapest, Petra, Germany, and throughout the entire state of Israel. My time in Israel was challenging. I did not know the language. I did not understand the culture. I was constantly frustrated at the aggressive nature of Israelis and my inability to understand what was going on. I was annoyed when someone I didn’t know gave me advice on a topic they had no knowledge about. I was so upset at the terrible customer service. I was confused by Israelis’ genuine desire to embrace you and also push ahead of you to get on a bus.

It took me a few months to recognize how to interact with Israelis and Israeli culture, which forces you to both be impersonal and exclusionary and yet welcoming and inviting. I was invited over for dinner by strangers more than once, but I had to fight to go grocery shopping or get on a bus.

I came to Israel with no support system in place, something I felt was going to make me feel free and unattached – an ability to make independent decisions for myself without my parents or my friends giving me input. I knew absolutely no one before I decided to make a leap of faith to come to Israel. It has been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

I did not know what meaning I would derive from my time in Israel, but I learned that being free is not what’s it cut out to be. The only way I learned how to live in Israel was because of people I met along the way. My host family and program facilitator specifically helped me learn things about myself and stay confident that coming to Israel was a great decision. Because of them and because I learned how to better interact with Israeli culture, I came to a point in my life where I had the confidence and, if I may, freedom to make decisions for myself. It was these decisions that led me to meeting my fiance, and to continue studying Judaism in a way that I never thought I ever would. After all the struggles I experienced I was able to find my way to freedom in a way that I never did in the US.

Every Saturday, my fiance and I would walk up to the Tayelet, a promenade that overlooks Jerusalem from the southern part of the city. It was there that we would feel the breeze coming in from the west and look out to the eastern and southern deserts. It was there that we would see the Old City, with the gold Dome of the Rock and be able to feel that we both belong and don’t belong in this city. And it was there that she proposed and we decided to spend our lives together.

None of that would have happened if I had given up or had not sought my independence or had not been open to learning about myself, another culture and country, and Judaism. It was only because I sought freedom that I found freedom. I’m proud of myself for being brave and making that decision back in 2012 to go alone to Israel.

Part of me will always remain in Israel. It’s where I gained friends, experiences, and a life partner, and where I came into myself in ways I never thought possible.

About the Author: Jessica is an Atlanta-born Jewish social justice and nonprofit professional. She is a traveler, writer, and life-long learner who is readjusting to life in the US after a year and a half in Israel.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence Travel Writing competition and tell your story.

There is something about landing down for the first time in Israel that is breathtaking. Many would argue there is nothing particularly stunning or original about the Tel Aviv airport. But you can feel the weight of the history of the land engulfing you, feeding you, squeezing you when you touch down.

I’ve had people ask me to describe what this feeling is. It’s exasperating how inexplicable it is. You stand there hoping that the emotions you felt and the beauty in the sights you saw could be played back in your eyes in the magnificence that you experienced them as they stare at you. But, try as you might, the only words that come out are “It’s hard to exactly explain the feeling of being there.” How can one recount a feeling of magic to someone? It’s not really the magician, it’s the wonders that the magician performs, the feeling that she leaves you with that is what you remember.

With both of my parent being Jewish, I knew some of the basics of Judaism, but outside of our little brown house it always felt that it was shameful or had to be hidden in some way. Even growing up in the safe suburbs of Los Angeles there were plenty of jokes made at the expense of Jews. Jabs that I had to hear and didn’t feel like I could speak up against.

After high school when I came out as gay I was pretty focused on the fallout and emotional turmoil from that. At the time I didn’t think too much about what it would mean for me Jewishly, but when I finally took the time to think about it, I didn’t think there was any space for me in Judaism. It felt awkward, almost like I could only be one or the other. Like the last missing piece in a giant jigsaw puzzle and somehow you have ended up with two pieces in your hand. You know that only one of those pieces is going to fit. So I just ignored it.

Then in college came the amazing opportunity to travel to Israel for free. Who wouldn’t want to take advantage of that opportunity? As someone that was not religious at all, I didn’t expect to have any great revelations there. How cliche are all the things you hear about people having emotional experiences in holy places? So I didn’t have high expectations about having any feelings there that were different than anything I had ever felt before.

But as our bus arrived into Jerusalem and then deeper into the Old City, and as I approached the Kotel, the Western Wall, something sparked in me that I didn’t know existed. When I stepped up to the wall, I felt the coolness and jaggedness of the rock in the palm of my hand. With the brightness of the blue sky above my head I felt the presence of all of the women around me praying, crying and hoping and I felt something open within me, and with it, the overwhelming realization that I was finally home.

At the end of the trip I returned to the US and finished college, but when I was finally able to return 10 years later, the tumult and ups and downs of life hadn’t changed the way I felt when I arrived in Israel. I fell in love all over again, and then, fell in love with my fiancee who I had the serendipitous fortune of meeting in Jerusalem.

I remember a little while before landing in Israel for the first time, the flight attendant announcing, “We’re approaching our final destination, Tel Aviv”. Reflecting now, it’s funny how final destinations can really just be the beginning of things. There are a lot of stunning places, places so beautiful they make you want to cry. Israel happens to be one of them. But feeling safe, feeling embraced and being held by a community, that is special. Being celebrated for who you are- that is true freedom.F

About the Author: Emet Zyon is the author of Big Gay Breakup Book. She is recently engaged and now spends most of her time looking for wedding suits.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence Travel Writing competition and tell your story.

The names and places in this story have been changed.

I’ve experienced several Aha moments, as Oprah likes to refer to them over the course of my now fifty-nine years. Some small, some large, most occurring when least expected and all to some degree having a life defining affect. One memory in particular surfaced recently during a conversation with a friend about the transforming power of travel and how a particular place or person can forever alter long held perceptions.

Having been raised in a traditional, conservative, Jewish family, a constant thread of dinner table conversation often centered on the importance of Israel’s existence to the Jewish people as a whole. My parents and extended family were all extremely pro-Israel. There was no gray area when it came to this topic. Israel always wore the white hats. As a result certain perceptions were imprinted into my brain from a very young age about the world, cultures, and of course the situation between the Palestinian’s and the Israeli’s, which lent to the formation of some deep-rooted belief’s regarding the conflict and the people on each side.

I was almost twenty years old the first year I spent in Israel, arriving a few months before the Yom Kippur War broke out. I lived on a Kibbutz (a large, communal farm) by the name of Kfar Blum located approximately four miles from the Lebanese border in the northern region of Israel called the Galilee. From here, I could look out and see Mt. Hermon, as well as the Golan Heights, the mountain range dividing Israel from Syria in the not so far distance.

My days were split; one half learning Hebrew and the other working within the community alongside Israeli’s and student volunteers from all over the world. One small aha moment occurred a mere three weeks after I’d arrived with the realization I’m not in any way, shape or form meant to be a farmer. Another incident taking place on a Saturday evening in late September a few months later had a far longer lasting effect, though at the time I didn’t know how deeply it would change me.

My Friday started out like every other day, with me oversleeping, (I swear I’ve never had a reliable working alarm clock) rushing up to the dining room for breakfast and complaining about my boring work assignment to my friends. I’d been stuck on kitchen duty for more than a month. I guess the work manager thought I couldn’t do too much damage peeling potatoes and washing dishes. I’d already been fired from working with the sheep, (losing a flock of sheep along with the sheep dog I guess wasn’t particularly impressive) feeding chickens, (okay, stepping on a chicken’s head and killing it clearly not a point scorer) picking oranges, (did you know if you ate more than a dozen oranges within three hours’ time your stomach will revolt?) I don’t even want to get into what happened when I was assigned to work with the cows!

On this particular morning, my luck took an upward turn when I managed to trade my kitchen shift and get the weekend free so I could hitch down to Tel Aviv where friends were throwing a party to celebrate the end of an unbearably long heat wave. The trek down must have been unremarkable as I don’t recall any of the details, except I left right after lunch (weekend’s began Friday at noon in Israel) and traveled down to the city with two friends and fellow volunteer’s; Anne, who was from Sweden and Nancy from Toronto. I remember the party turned out to be not quite as exciting as I anticipated, though why I’ve no recollection at all. Maybe a boy I liked hadn’t paid attention to me. Maybe I got bored, ran out of money or had a quarrel with a girlfriend. I don’t recall why I decided to leave after being there just one day, or why I chose to hitchhike back up to Kfar Blum on my own.

I caught a ride within a few minutes of getting myself onto the side of the highway with an Israeli family heading north. I remember because I had to fold myself into the back seat of their small car and squish myself in beside three bickering tween age girls. They took me a good distance, about half way of the two plus hour drive dropping me off at a junction along highway ninety where two roads surrounded by fields of rock and patches of high grasses diverged in opposite directions. I was familiar with the spot, comfortable another ride would come by soon as had always happened in the past. I gave no thought to how daylight was fast turning to dusk. I didn’t consider how I’d be standing on this crossroad alone. At twenty I still held to the illusions of my own immortality, confident I was able to take care of myself in any situation. I assured my ride I’d be fine. The harried parents took me at my word and drove off.

I’d been standing there for about twenty minutes, I’m sure hoping for one of the many army trucks always traversing this route to come by, (they always picked up hitchhikers) wishing I had brought something to eat, probably wondering what my friends in Tel Aviv were doing and contemplating whether I should have stayed when a van pulled over maybe twenty yards from where I stood. Five men in traditional Arab dress stepped out. I watched them slowly approach. It didn’t take more than one terrifying instant to understand their intent was not a good one.

I had nowhere to run except out into the empty landscape where I knew for certain they would easily outrun me before I’d gotten more than a few yards. There wasn’t another car in sight, the nearest houses a shadowy mirage at least half a mile away across the field. I’ve no recollection of their faces. I couldn’t tell you the color of their robes, their headdress or if they were wearing shoes or sandals, yet with absolute clarity, I can still see them stalking toward me with each step I took back.

As the five of them came closer and closer, my breath felt like it was being choked off and my vision blurred. In a cyclonic whirl of dust an old, beat up station wagon screeched up within inches of me and the back door was thrown open. With one glance I took in the two men in the front seat wearing similar dress to those coming at me and the veiled woman with two small children in the back. With no more than an instant’s hesitation I jumped in just managing to pull the door shut as the driver peeled out in another spray of gravel and rock to speed down the road.

It was a long moment before I gained control of my breathing, gulping down wave after wave of deep, body racking sobs. My face was wet with tears I hadn’t been aware I’d given into and my clothes soaked with sweat. I felt a gentle squeeze around my fingers and I looked down beside me into the eyes of a dark haired little girl who had slipped her hand into mine. She had long black braids and eyes the color of chocolate. When I smiled back she climbed onto my lap. A little boy with equally dark hair and eyes sat beside his mother quietly studying me. All I could make out of woman was her eyes, a matching dark chocolate brown as her two children. I realized she was gently patting my back.

Looking over at the driver, my gaze met his in the rear view mirror. Unlike his wife and children, his expression held little sympathy. He looked like he had been waiting for me to make eye contact with him. He looked angry. He began to shake his head at me and then he began to shake his finger at me as well. He began to speak and though I had no understanding of the words. I did understand his tone. He sounded just like my father when he went into lecture mode, usually after I did something that scared the hell out of both he and my mother. If I had to guess at the meaning of his words, I imagine they went something like: “Stupid, reckless, crazy American girl. Your parents should not allow you out of the house on our own…ever!” I could be wrong about the translation. I doubt it.

Over the course of maybe a half hour he seemed to repeat the same rant over and over, every few moments. He would shake either his head or his finger at me. The other man said not a word, though I could see him shake his head from time to time as well. I didn’t know where they were taking me, but I was certain they were not going to hurt me. I don’t know why, but I felt safe.

After another ten minutes or so, I could see we were driving through a village. Small, stone houses were set in no particular pattern on one long, curvy gravel road. Smoke curled out of many of the roofs. I could see sheep wandering about at will. Pulling up to one of the structures the man driving turned off the ignition and everyone got out. The woman gestured for me to follow her and the children inside.

I remember one large room with two smaller rooms off the end. There was electricity for light, but no running water and the bathroom was outhouse style. The woman began to cook on what I can only describe is a combination of hot plates somehow jury-rigged together. For the next hour or so, I tried to help her but was shooed away. She kept trying to get me to sit on the one cushioned chair in the room. Instead, I played with the children all the while trying to figure out where I was and how I was going to get back to the Kibbutz; every moment, supremely grateful I was not back on the road with those men. Through gestures, smiles, and laughter the three of us managed to communicate an exchange of names. The little girl was called Laila, her brother Makhi and the mother’s name, Hana.

Pointing outside to the two men now sitting right outside the door, smoking, I learned from Laila, her father’s name was Yusuf. I don’t remember the other man’s name or what his relation was to this family. I taught the kids the Itsy Bitsy spider. (The only fun childhood song I could remember all the words to.) I wasn’t able to get them to say the words but they could follow along as I sang and quickly learned the finger motions. Eventually the men came in and we ate. I remember it was lamb and rice. I had the feeling they normally did not eat this well or have as much food on their table. With little ability to communicate the remainder of the evening passed quietly, ending around nine and with me sharing a small bed with Leila and Makhi.

The next morning, I woke to find Hana again cooking up more food. Yusuf was there, sitting with another man. He motioned for me to sit and once I had settled myself at the wooden table, he nodded to the other guy who began to speak in halting English. I was relieved at being able to communicate, to be understood. I was overjoyed I was going to be able to figure out where I was and how to get back. Equally as important, I was going to be able to thank Yusuf for saving my life.

Rashad was the name of the English speaker who also turned out to be Yusuf’s brother. I explained who I was, how I happened to be on the crossroads and where I was going. Yusuf began to shake his head again. Before he started his lecture, I asked his brother to tell him I knew how reckless and stupid I had been. I asked Rashad to also relay to Yusuf how grateful I was for what he had done. Apparently my words took Yusuf off guard because he didn’t begin his rant again. He gave me an almost smile, a nod and immediately began to eat without uttering another word.

Shortly after breakfast, we all piled back into the station wagon. I assumed Yusuf was going to take me back to the crossroad where in daylight it would be safe for me to hitch a ride. His brother turned and informed me they were going to drive me to Kfar Blum. He said it was an hour’s drive from where we were. I wanted to tell them it wasn’t necessary, that I would be fine now. I couldn’t bring myself to say the words. What had almost happened last night and the terror I’d felt was still very much with me. I didn’t want to be dropped on an empty road again.

We reached the gates of Kfar Blum in an hour as promised. Hana and the children gave me hugs and kisses goodbye before I got out of the car. Rashad stayed in his seat as well, turning to look at me with a friendly smile and wish me well. Yusef walked me to the gate. I think he wanted to see me walk in. I knew he wanted to give me his lecture one more time. He did. Before going in I grasped his hand and squeezed. I repeated the word Shukran, over and over. Rashad had taught me how to say thank you in Arabic. Yusef nodded as if he had done nothing remarkable and turned back toward the running car. I watched them drive away.

I’m not sure I could find the village or if its even still there. I don’t know if Yusuf or Hana are alive. I have often wondered did they get to raise their children into adulthood? Did they get to see them married and have children of their own? I hope so. What I do know with absolute certainty is in the middle of one of the most long lasting and violent conflicts between two groups of people, this man did not give into the hate must have been born into from birth. He saw a human being who needed help. He chose to risk his own life and that of his family to do the right thing. Those five men could have been armed. I’m certain they could have easily found out where Yusef lived and taken retribution for his interference. I’m not sure they didn’t. Seeing me on the road, Yusuf had to know from his first look at me, I was not a Muslim woman. He probably thought from my dark, Mediterranean complexion, and dress I was Israeli. He still intervened. For me it was a lesson in the importance of seeing people as individuals, not as one homogenous group whom all feel and think the same way. Fanatics screaming their hate and call to violence are not all the people in any group. There is in the end very little in this world that is black in white,, most times all you have is varying shades of gray.

So many people are born into hate without even knowing why they hate. We are taught to see certain groups of people in a certain ways. We are taught to fear what’s different. We are taught to fear the others and to expect the worst from them. I have to wonder what would happen if we dumped our learned preconceptions of each other and simply began to talk, one person to another.

Too simple, I am sure they would tell me. Neither side would do it, I’m certain they would say. Maybe the answer is we all need to stop listening to the fear the “theys” running our governments work so hard to instill in us and begin seeing each other as individual human beings, some good, some bad, all of us unique.

About the Author:
Bobbi Lerman is a writer of historical romance, memoir and travel essays.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence Travel Writing competition and tell your story.

photoBreath in, breath out. Breath in, breath out. I could breathe for hours, when I stand here. I could sit in this beautiful place, just relaxing. I could let myself to be swept away by the moment, as long as I was here. I could sit here just focusing on now. When I look out over the beautiful scenery before me, there is no need to think about anything else. What I see before me are dark green, rolling, gorgeous mountains. In the morning light, they are natural and pure. They show me what this world could be like. Without hate or war, the world could be as natural, pure, and beautiful as the mountains before me. I feel like this is the most spiritual place I have ever been to. I feel like thousands of wishes, dreams, spirits, and hopes are floating around me. With everything that I think I feel going I going on around me, I have to realize that I am barely physically moving. I am standing relaxed, at peace. I also feel that, here, I’m spiritually at peace.

You might ask where this place is. This place where I feel so at peace and at home. The place that grants me a kind of fulfillment I never experienced before. I am standing on a balcony in Tzfat, overlooking the Golan Heights. Tzfat is in the north of Israel. It is a place full of rich history and stories just waiting to be discovered. The people who live there are almost as unique as the place itself. It is often thought of as Israel best kept secret. It is a secret that should be shared, yet only with certain people. It is a secret that has been well kept and preserved. It is a secret full of wisdom and knowledge. This little town, this secret, is full of people from all over the world who have come to find something special. They also feel the special feeling that you can only experience in Tzfat.

Tzfat has a kind of pull to certain people. It has a quaint aura about it. It has a spiritual feel that people in a certain mindset can truly enjoy. You have to be open to relaxing and taking your surroundings in. You have to be open to learning from what’s around you, and in turn teaching the people around you what you can. In Tzfat, you are given the opportunity to share your knowledge, abilities, and experiences with the people around you. But Tzfat is more than physical place.

Most people say that Jerusalem is the most spiritual place in Israel. I consider Tzfat to be one of the most spiritual places in Israel. But those people probably have never experienced Tzfat like I have. Tzfat is a different kind of spiritual. Tzfat is quiet. Tzfat is beautifully simple. Tzfat is the kind of place that allows you to take a step back and appreciate life. Tzfat allows you to take life one step at a time. Tzfat allows you to forget about time and remember to be in the now. Tzfat allows you to breathe. So breath in, breath out. Breath in, breath out.

About the Author: Sarina Maurice is currently a student. She was born in Israel, but is American and British as well.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter our next Travel Writing competition and tell your story.

Camel2The Land of Milk and Honey

In February 2011 my husband, Luke, and I boarded a flight from the USA bound for Tel Aviv. After 11 hours in the air we arrived in the Middle East. We had dreamed of making this pilgrimage for most of our lives. The thought of walking in the footsteps of Jesus, King David and the prophets gave me chills. This would be an inspiring visit to the birthplace of the world’s three major religions.

We left behind 15 beehives on our small farm in Indiana. Weather reports predicted a rare warm spell for the Midwest giving us an opportunity to peek inside the boxes to determine how many colonies had made it through the winter. But that task would have to wait until we returned home a week later. I prayed that we would at least lay eyes on some of the native bees of Israel while we were there.

It didn’t take long for our first sighting. It happened while exploring the ruins of Caesarea on the Mediterranean Sea the next day. The other tourists must have thought we were crazy snapping pictures of insects while they were busy lining up the perfect shot of the engineering wonder of the roman aqueduct. But they soon got used to our enthusiasm and gained a whole new perspective of this country through our eyes.

The capitol city of Jerusalem was a two day affair. While there we admired such places as the Upper Room, the Western Wall, and the Dome of the Rock Mosque. My legs ache just remembering walking the hilly ground of the old city along the route of the Via Delarosa or the way of the cross. Thankfully the next day’s walking was downhill. A short bus ride took us to the top of the Mount of Olives where we enjoyed a camel ride before descending past the Jewish cemetery and through the Garden of Gethsemane just outside the city gates.

It was then I began to wonder why this place was referred to numerous times in the Bible as a land flowing with milk and honey. After all I had only seen one bee so far and that had been three days ago. Almost as if on cue a honeybee buzzed past my ear. God’s creation was speaking to me. This was but one of many little miracles that occurred while experiencing the holy land.

During the remaining three days we stood atop Mount Carmel and saw Nazareth but unfortunately never got to walk in its streets. We toured the Holocaust Museum but ran out of time before getting to the museum where the restored scrolls of antiquity were housed. We marveled at the massive stone columns still standing in the town of Capernaum and the national park at Bet She’an. We stared in awe at the intricate mosaic tiles on the floors in the church at Tabgha. Along the way our favorite bugs were always present. They were there dancing between wild red poppies blooming at Megiddo. They were abundant when we ascended to the top of the Mount of Beatitudes to get a spectacular view of the Sea of Galilee. And they made themselves known along the Jordan River where we stopped to buy handmade wood carvings made from the area’s olive trees.

Our final day was spent driving across the dessert, seeing the Bedouins as they herded flocks of sheep and goats just as they have done for centuries. We viewed the caves at Qumran, rode the cable car to the fortress of Masada, and relaxed by floating in the mineral rich waters of the Dead Sea. Regretfully, we didn’t make it into Bethlehem or Jericho.

With spirits renewed and minds full of precious memories we left with a slight feeling of sadness. As a consolation we would take back hundreds of pictures, a few souvenirs and seven containers of sweet honey. On the long flight back we planned our return trip – someday.

Dozens of questions from family and friends greeted us back home. My best advice to them was to go and not be afraid. Go and meet the friendly people there. Go and be immersed in the history and culture. But be sure to allow plenty of time when you do. Six days just isn’t long enough to do it justice.

Oh, and if you plan to bring back any eucalyptus or date palm honey make sure to pack plenty of Ziploc bags. I found out the hard way that pressure changes during air travel tend to pop the seals on jar lids. I had a sticky mess on my hands when it came time to unpack our suitcases. A sweet, finger-licking good mess to be sure, but a mess all the same.

About the Author: Stacey Pauley is an American healthcare worker who enjoys the simple life of farm living caring for lots of animals both domestic and wild. She loves beekeeping, growing orchids, writing, painting, quilting and photography.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter our next Travel Writing competition and tell your story.

Garden of Gethsemane” Where did David fight Goliath? Where did Abraham almost sacrifice his son Isaac? Where did Jacob dream of the angels going up and down the ladder? Where was Moses leading the children of Israel to the place they called the land of milk and honey? Where did Jesus born and crucified?” my pastor used to say. “It is in the land of Israel.” I loved hearing these stories when the Sunday school at the church. For those who grew up Christian, as I did, Israel was the Holy Land — where Jesus lived, preached, died on a cross and then rose again. Thus, travel in Israel, for many, means visiting these holy sites and walking in Jesus’ footsteps. Wow! What a place that must be. I will go there one day!

Israel is a place that inspires me to spend my time wisely with no regrets. Because in Israel, I would like to do a spiritual journey, especially in Jerusalem. Spiritual journey in the Holy City of Jerusalem – Holy Land Trip, and visiting historical sites are a source of spiritual inspiration experience will not be forgotten. Jerusalem, that has meaning the Holy City is a source of human civilization, proven by all the tourist destinations that have high historical value. Many travelers who have been many times and even dozens of times, made a pilgrimage holy city, but they still can not afford to lose a lot of admiration for destination that recorded in much of the literature, even noted in Scripture passages.

Jerusalem has a lot of place that must be visited by travelers. One of them is Garden of Gethsemane. It’s known as the place where Jesus formerly prayed at night before He was arrested and taken to the house of the high priest Caiaphas (Matt. 26:36). The meaning of Gethsemane is the place where the olives pressed in Hebrew because the location of the garden of Gethsemane is on the slopes of the Mount of Olives in an area where there are a lot of olive trees and located not too far from the city of Jerusalem. In this place, there is a cave that is believed used previously by Jesus with His disciples to rest. Today, near the Garden. there is a church called the Church of All Nations and the Grotto of Gethsemane. And in the garden is still growing olive trees are believed to have been more than 2000 years old, or has grown since the time of Jesus. I feel it’s a special place because it has beautiful scene with its olive trees as a shade place so we can feel calm that can relax our mind.

Besides known as spiritual journey destination, Israel is also known as a popular medical tourism destination especially as a result of its international reputation for high quality healthcare and state-of-the-art medical facilities. It is one of the world’s main medical leaders and is the most cost-effective of the top options. The country is also became number one in health-related innovations. Israeli-invented medical equipments have created a practical contribution to all areas of medicine. Israel’s medical tech and biotech industries are the most advanced in the world. Moreover, the winning collaboration of medical research institutions and industry, has bridged the gap between basic and applied science; making it easier for new technologies to arrive at our doctor’s doorstep. The most up-to-date research and development extracted from the public universities and research institutes coupled with the rapid progress made by medical manufacturers has proven unequivocal success.

About the Author: My name is Desy Anggraini Soetanto. I’m from Indonesia and a college student in Brawijaya University. I like sports especially badminton, reading novel, and listening to music. I love traveling so much.

 Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter our next Travel Writing competition and tell your story.

hebron border
The border hut between H1 (Palestinian Hebron) and H2 (Israeli controlled Hebron).
palestine hebron
Downtown Hebron, but this city is divided and has been the flashpoint in the Israel – Palestine conflict for years.

Having grown up on the streets of Northern Ireland in the 1980s, cultural, political, religious and geographical divides have always been a part of my life. Whether I’ve wanted them to be or not. As my travel lifestyle has developed over time, I have become much more intrigued by the parts of the world that are sadly still experiencing war, hate and bloodshed and those trying to change from a history of problems and move on. Turning these problems into peace is every man’s dream. But the reality is, places like Hebron in Palestine are divided cities for a reason. Until you’ve been there, you don’t have a clue! So it was time to go…

hebron backpacking
Backpacking in Hebron’s Apartheid Street with a political edge to the adventure.

So I was backpacking in Israel and Palestine and decided on a full day trip to Hebron as part of a tour that allowed us to spend half a day on both sides of the city – I’d get to experience what life as an Israeli and life as a Palestinian is like. Our bus left from Jerusalem main bus station and yes, the windows are protected and almost “bullet proof”. Just to put things into context here, the week before my visit to Hebron, an Israeli soldier was shot dead by a Palestinian sniper. This trip ain’t for the faint hearted. It’s an eye opener. In general though, it’s a safe enough trip and you’re advised to do it with a guide – besides you get a better insight into the situation with a local guide.

hebron palestine
With a fellow traveller and Mohammed my guide for Palestinian Hebron (H1).

The special thing about my trip to Hebron was that I got into both sides of the divide, on a “double narrative tour” run by Abraham Tours (they are based in Jerusalem and highly recommended). I was with a Jewish tour guide taking me through the Israeli controlled section, and I was with a Palestinian tour guide taking me through the Palestinian controlled section. It was Palestine in the morning, and Israel in the afternoon, well so to speak. Locally, in English at least, the sides are known as H1 and H2, almost as a cover up for the fact the city’s name is Hebron. Or to be . I’d prefer if it was called Israeli Hebron and Palestinian Hebron though, as throughout the day I got confused as to which part was H1 and which was H2.


hebron tour
Our tour group assembles in Apartheid Street to begin the Hebron Tour.

To start the tour we get off the bus on Apartheid Street. Nice introduction. With a name like that I had flashbacks to my time in Soweto and Pretoria. Here though, the meaning is the same. It’s two separate religions or cultures, separated by a street which these days nobody lives in. And why would they? The street was evacuated some years ago due to the high tension. All the houses are boarded up, they have turquoise doors and the place hasn’t seen any dwellers since the 1990s. Currently, that’s the way it will stay. We leave our Jewish guide at this point, and head to H1. H1 is a Palestinian area only. Israelis are not allowed in. Let me explain…

hebron border
The border hut between H1 (Palestinian Hebron) and H2 (Israeli controlled Hebron).

Modern day Hebron is a Palestinian stronghold and houses a Palestinian population of 160,000 or thereabouts. There are also around 700 Israelis living in Hebron giving it that divided edge. These figures don’t include the Israeli army that man the city day and night – 24 hours a day this place is under Israeli army control. They’re all armed. It is illegal for the Palestinian soldiers or police to carry a gun. It is illegal for Israelis to enter H1. For these reasons, Hebron is split into two and referred to as two separate parts – H1 and H2. H1 is controlled by Palestine and H2 is controlled by Israel. However the borders are manned by Israeli soldiers. You can feel the tension in the air. You can see it with your own eyes.

hebron border
The border blockades between H1 and H2 in Hebron.

We meet our Palestinian guide Mohammed and are taken through a security hut which doubles up as the border between H1 and H2. We leave H2 and we are now in H1. We’re on a prominent corner in downtown Hebron but we take a walk down a side street again and back towards the border. Mohammed points out the dividing wall. It’s a dead end street with bricks, bottles, barbed wire and a notable gap between what you could describe as Israel and Palestine. This is a world border right here. Hebron is sadly a flashpoint in the conflict here and this becomes apparent.

hebron H1
Above the market in H1, Hebron is proof of the bricks and litter thrown across the dividing line.

We are taken through the market to meet the locals. On route there’s a sign that the Palestinians are hemmed in. They don’t appear to have any freedom here. There are bricks on top of wire fencing over the market. It’s not pretty on the eyes. It’s a hard life for them here, that’s for sure. You don’t make stuff like this up just to show the tourists. The bricks have come from the Israeli side, but the locals refuse to surrender to their demands. We have coffee with a local guy who lives right on the border – he’s been through it all, ten times over. One of our tour group asks him why he doesn’t move to a new flat, when his children are at risk. He gives the obvious and expected answer “this is my home. I’m not moving”. He also admits that for $100,000 US Dollars he also wouldn’t move. These are Palestinian family homes and have been for generations. For now we side with Palestine.

palestine flag hebron
There are a few reminders that we are no longer in the “Israeli part”: This is Palestine.

We head into the Ibrahimi Mosque. this Mosque has security gates on the way in, and we are on the Palestinian side. The Mosque is also a synagogue. This building has an entrance for Jews and an entrance for Muslims. Even the religious buildings are segregated. Probably the saddest and most telling part of the entire tour. There was a shooting here in 1994 – while Muslims were praying a Jew walked in and opened fire.

mosque ibrahimi palestine hebron
The marvellous interior of the Ibrahimi Mosque.

Inside its a holy Muslim place of worship, so we dress appropriately and take our shoes off. As we should and as you should too. However I get angry as I see a lot of disrespectful Jewish people walk on in, without removing their shoes, some of them even wearing shorts. I find it completely disrespectful to the Muslim religion. In a holy place. These Jews even have the audacity to take photos and laugh at the fact that Muslims are prayer. I’m a bit disturbed by it, as is Mohammed and most of our group.

ibrahimi mosque jewish
Some Jewish people came in and walked on the floor of the Ibrahimi Mosque on the H1 side without respecting the Muslim culture.

After this I buy some Palestinian coins in the local market for my collection. Palestinian banknotes are not available, and I have picked up some postage stamps in Bethlehem before. It feels like a different country. We head to a viewing tower which again shows how the Palestinians are denied freedom here. All around there a guard posts manned by Israeli soldiers. I thought of West Belfast for a second then realised – no, these people have no freedom, in West Belfast they do. It’s almost like their city has become a prison. For a Palestinian to escape their home town and go abroad is an arduous task. Getting to the border and into Jordan can take the best part of 11 hours.

watch towers hebron
One of many Israeli watchtowers staring down at Palestinian controlled H1, 24 hours a day.

Lunch is served politely, courteously and in generous portions as we eat hummus, salad and chicken with a local Palestinian family. After lunch, we are “relaxed” back into H2, the Israeli controlled side of Hebron for our tour by the Jewish guy. This is where things get odd. We’re now seeing the same city for a different point of view.

synagogue hebron
The exact same Mosque/Synagogue that I was in earlier, except this is from H2, the Israeli controlled side.

We walk into the same building we were in before (The Ibrahimi Mosque) and we are now in a synagogue with lots of Jews praying and reciting verses. There seems to be a denial or a disbelief that Jews viewed from the other side were wearing shoes and laughing at Muslims. I almost wanted to call Colombo (Peter Falk) and get him to investigate the case. Although, for today thankfully no homicide, just a mystery of conflicting views and opinions within the same building. Our Jewish guide insists this building belongs entirely to Jews and the Muslims shouldn’t be allowed to lay claim to it, as they took it illegally. Earlier we heard a similar tale from Mohammed our Palestinian Guide.

palestine death
A plaque at a memorial of one of the deaths carried out by Palestinians in the area.

We head to the point in the road where last week a soldier was shot. It’s a poignant moment and for now, we side with the Israelis. it’s an emotional sectarian drama before our very eyes – and we came here as tourists. Another spot in the road was the scene of a horrendous suicide bombing, where Israeli children were killed some years ago. This is sad. We visit the memorial, which is still there. A Jewish synagogue is also here and in good condition. It’s survived some bad times.

hebron israeli controlled
A synagogue in H2 – the Israeli controlled part of Hebron.

Murals on both sides seem to portray the exact opposite to one another. I have a chuckle at the “Free Palestine” and “Free Israel” signs. On a later trip to Bethlehem, I was also startled but not surprised to see the Israeli Jews being compared to Nazi Germans in a wall graffiti act bearing the Swastika. It’s interesting when you look at the world from someone else’s point of view. The Palestinians are the weak ones here – they’re enclosed in a vacuum.


hebron israeli controlled
In front of one of the soldier checkpoints and viewing towers in H2 Hebron (Israeli controlled).

The Jews are in the major minority in Hebron, but we catch up with a local lady who has been through family deaths and lives a tough life. We totally side with her and later walk up to a guard post. The Israeli soldier there talks for 5-6 minutes. He has no fear in life. He shows us the exact location where the Palestinian sniper came from the previous week and killed one of his army colleagues. It’s a matter of life or death in parts of Hebron and it’s truly sad. Israelis find it hard to trust any Palestinian.

hebron view
A decent view of Hebron from H2 (Israeli controlled side).

Our final part of the tour on the Jewish side takes us to the Jewish Museum, which I find biased. It completely only shows things from the Israeli side. There are no photos or mentions to the fact that the Palestinians are blocked in and controlled by the Israeli state who man the borders. Palestinians live here too and are good honest, hard working people for the most part. That’s the reality. But how can a tourist solve a problem which has been going on for years.

jewish museum hebron
The Jewish Museum in Israeli Controlled Hebron (H2)

A tour of Hebron is one of the biggest eye openers from my travel journeys and completely educated me on the whole problems with the Israeli – Palestinian conflict. I also visited Ramallah, Bethlehem and Jericho in Palestine, but Hebron is the place to see things at first hand.

hebron warning
A warning notice on the Palestinian H1 side of Hebron.

It’s sad to see the divide and how the Palestinians are completely enclosed. Whether a two party state or a one party state is the best option for peace, one thing’s for sure, closing people off from fellow humans is in itself absurd and inhumane. My heart goes out to everyone in Hebron. I highly recommend this to anyone visiting the region. By far this trip was more interesting than Masada, Akko, the Dead Sea and Nazareth.

To the people of Hebron, “Your destiny will keep your warm”

Peace, love and safe happy travels to one and all.