Birthright Day 4: Mt. Arbel and the Baha’i Gardens

I knew before boarding the plane to Israel that I would probably have a difficult time with the Birthright itinerary and travel style, so I’m actually pretty surprised that it took until Day 4 for me to start getting annoyed.

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We started off our day with a hike down Mount Arbel, still in the north of Israel. It was a beautiful view as we climbed down, and there were some very cool caves along the way along with a very impressive fortress built into the rock, but unfortunately we didn’t learn anything about them at all. It was around this time that I realized our tour guide might not be very good, and my opinion of him only went downhill from there. His whole schtick that had amused us for the first few days had worn off by then, and I felt like he wasn’t very knowledgable, or at least didn’t communicate clearly. When we were at the top of Mount Arbel waiting for some space to open up between us and the group in front of us (another constant problem with Birthright trips), he briefly told us that there were caves in the side of the mountain that people used to live in. But rather than tell us who these people were, when they lived there, or why (things I was quite interested to find out), instead he just shared some unrelated parable about a carob tree that I’m pretty sure I heard in Hebrew school when I was eight years old.

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It was a rough hike down the mountain — yes, it was mostly downhill, but the path was quite steep with slippery, unsteady rocks in certain areas and the cliff edges were complete drops. It was absolutely beautiful, though. Unfortunately we were rushed along the whole time — to the point where half the time when I stopped to take pictures I was told to hurry up, I was falling behind the group (even though that wasn’t true because a good chunk of the group was there with me taking pictures!) We were told we should be constantly drinking water (which is obviously important in the full sun when climbing a mountain), but we only took one five minute break on the two or three hour hike. I found it exhausting and frustrating at times. What’s the point of a grueling hike in 95 degree heat if you can’t even enjoy the view for a moment?

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Afterwards we had a quick ice cream at the stand by the bottom of the trail (quite a lucrative business concept they’ve got going on there) before bussing off to Haifa for about 5 minutes at the Baha’i Gardens. I wish I were kidding. It felt like a cursory visit, something we did just so they could say “See? We don’t only focus on Jewish holy sites!” but I feel like the hasty visit and extremely basic Baha’i 101 we got only emphasized it and made the site feel like a throwaway in our itinerary. I’d love to go back on my own and spend more time there, visiting the inner garden as well.

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After that ridiculous charade of inclusivity, we boarded the bus once again and drove to a small park where we would finally meet the seven Israeli peers who would be joining us for the next five days of our trip. There was a weird song and dance about this too: when we showed up to the park the Israelis were all already there, but we were led straight past them. Our guide and trip leaders kept us separated for like 10 minutes (while they introduced themselves and talked to the Israelis, I guess), so it was super awkward when we all finally met. Somehow they were all tall and attractive and seemed older than us, even though most were younger (I guess it’s the military that does it). Then since it was Friday, we were only given about 20 minutes for a very late lunch before the shops all closed for Shabbat. More rushing around!

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