Today, the second day of my much anticipated trip, I headed way down south to the Negev city of Be’er Sheva. Having never been further south than Bet Shemesh, this was a true change is climate and landscape. When I got off the train and met my friend Ofir, who was my local guide for the day, I couldn’t help but notice the extreme dry heat that gusted from every direction like an oven. Outside, we passed by Bedouins, native of the Negev, who dressed very differently than the Muslim, Christian and Druze Arabs that I see all the time in the north. Sadly, I didn’t get any photographs of them. But I did get a picture of this street that, to me, was marvellously reminiscent of Miami – but in the old Turkish town area known as the Old City:
As we walked through the Old City, the crumbling Ottoman-era stone walls visible on nearly every corner, Ofir pointed out all the places of interest, including this – water in the desert:
After a little while spent roaming the streets in the blazing sun, with temperatures clearly surpassing 100° Fahrenheit, we ducked into a little café by the name of Lola where I ordered an iced coffee. It was fun because I never, ever, go to coffee-houses. Shortly after our coffee break we headed back outside and found ourselves in front of Beit Ha-Ful, a restaurant. Both of us hungry, we went on in and Ofir promised to get me this special food – I wasn’t quite sure what he intended at the time. The man behind the counter did some deft scooping and arranging-within-the-pita movements and then surfaced, asking me if I wanted lemon and charif (spicy – a generic term for something paste-like, spicy and made from peppers). He spooned in a little salt, much to my curiousity, and then added the lemon and charif. Next, to further propel my confusion and curiousity, he mashed up everything inside my pita. Then he asked if I wanted salads in my sandwich as well – I chose some chopped cucumber (somewhere along the line hummus was added in too). I took my completed sandwich from the man, waited for Ofir to get his and then took our mysterious culinary loot to our table. I examined my pita, noting the contents, and took a bite. What I was eating was beans and hard-boiled egg that had been mashed into one lovely, smooth, lemon-y and spicy entity. Here is what it looked like before I started eating:
If you think this sounds kinda gross… trust me, it is remarkably tasty. Here my sandwich is again, in an advanced stage of its short life:
After we finished our pitas and the complimentary falafel balls given to us, we took ourselves back into the afternoon sun and kept looking at cool things. The two museums in the area were both closed, in fact most things in Be’er Sheva worth visiting are being worked on now. But, the old WWI-era British cemetery was open. The final resting place for probably hundreds of soldiers who died for the British Empire is just smack in middle of a residential area in Be’er Sheva. I had fun imagining the British great-grandchildren of some of these fallen soldiers telling someone that his/her great-grandfather died during the Great War and was buried not in France or England… but in southern Israel. Makes for a great story, I suppose.
After seeing the cemetery we went up to Ofir’s apartment for some cold water and relaxation in the coolness of man-made shade. Ofir checked the times for our next stop, the Israeli Air Force Museum “just outside” of Be’er Sheva and we headed out for the bus at the appropriate time. Getting off the bus in what would seem to be wilderness if not for the large presence of military buildings and the planes flying circles over our heads, we made our way to the museum.
Having paid admission, we were let in by the IAF soldiers and we started our exploration of the museum. Obviously revolving around aircraft, most of the museum is actually outdoors – parked planes “on the tarmac” or in open hangars. The “Old to New” jet fighter exhibit has 150 different warplanes order chronologically – from the WWII-era Spitfire which Israel used in the 1948 war to the modern-day F-15 which is still in use today.
Part of the experience outdoors, other than the relentless desert sun, was made 0h-so real by (1)the IAF training planes circling overhead, and (2)the IDF/IAF gunfire in one of the bases just across the main road. The sounds, together with the visuals, really helped create an experience – that and the fact that my friend is an avid plane enthusiast. Getting back to the aircraft, some of the stories behind the planes were known to me from books. This Syrian MiG-17 has a story which almost sounds too “unfortunate” to be true:
Accidentally landing in Israel and then having to surrender the plane must have been very nerve-wracking for the Syrian pilot. But then again, simply flying one of the older planes in the IAF’s history is probably nerve-wracking as well, presenting the biplanes of old:
Some of the planes, a very small percentage, are open for sitting in but the ones that looked interesting had long passed by when I noticed the discreet ladders offering their services at the sides of the planes. Blame it on the heat and the sun. I did, however, sit inside the helicopter that hosted Begin and Sadat, leaders of Israel and Egypt respectively, as they flew to a military command centre in Be’er Sheva to sign the peace treaty in 1979. That was interesting.
On of the other interesting findings was the hang glider that was used by a Syrian-based terrorist to fly into Israel, in the Golan, and raid an sleeping army base in the dead of night. I had read the story in the book I bought from the Navy Museum in Haifa back in February (as can be seen here, in this old post: Haifa Again). Now knowing the story, it was both fascinating and chilling to see the exact hang-glider sitting in a hangar seemingly detached from the blood-drenched history that it helped make. If only aircraft had the power of speech…
Towards the end, we climbed into a dormant Boeing jet and watched a short film about the history of the IAF – with the comforting air conditioning cooling down the plane’s interior. It also should be noted that this museum offers extremely cold water on the far end of the main display lot so, should you go visit, you’ll know ahead of time to be liberal with your water. So, after about two hours of so, we had seen all the aircraft there was to see and had read about more incidents then we could remember and so we headed out, back out to the main road. The training planes had ceased for some time, and apart from the sporadic staccato of gunfire, it was hot and silent in the great desert expanse. Back in Be’er Sheva, I said my good-byes and thank yous to my friend, Ofir, and continued on to the train station where I boarded a train for Tel Aviv. As a parting shot, the perfect indication of a day growing old, here is sunset from the train, hastily photographed as the well-tended crops below whip by the windows:
Now that was a nice day trip. It’s good to have finally entered into the vastness of the Negev, if only just to see a city. Hopefully one day I will visit all that there is to be seen way down there (including the famous Ramon Crater and Eilat) but for now I have Tel Aviv to focus on. Until tomorrow!