MBA Peregrinations

Charting the course of my travels through the MBA experience.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Lehitra'ot Israel

As promised, here is a wrap-up on my time in Israel. All said and done, I'm very glad that I came here. It was a learning experience - culturally, socially, politically, and educationally. I'm going to preface this post by pointing out that the following are my opinions based on my limited time in Israel, and I do not claim to be an expert on Israel in particular or the Middle East in general. I haven't set out with the purpose of writing anything incendiary, but I'm writing about a place and region that is bound to elicit emotion any which way anyone writes about it. Feel free to take everything with a grain of Dead Sea salt.

Overall, my impressions of Israel and its place in the Middle East are mixed. The Israelis have worked really hard to establish the nation and are developing new infrastructure quickly, especially here in Tel Aviv. Given that a lot of modern-day Israel was essentially a desert 50-60 years ago, the rate of development and growth is impressive. They have also worked to forge a presence for themselves in the business world, with strength in industries such as high tech/software, biotech/med device. More recently, Israel has developed a strong reputation in wine and fashion. It is apparent that the Israeli population for the last 50 years has been hard-working and driven to create a successful state, and I've met several Israelis that are smart, diligent, and passionate about the future of Israel.

It has been less obvious to me as an outsider what exactly defines Israeli culture. The Israel I've seen is an amalgamation of various cultures - the laid back and mostly secular living in central Tel Aviv along with the business-driven Ramat Gan (financial district), the juxtaposition of the ultra-orthodox religious Jews and tourism-driven commerce in East Jerusalem, the primarily Muslim and majority Palestinian West Jerusalem that marks the east end of the West Bank, the socialistic qibbutz-dwellers scattered all over the country, the Bedouin that sleep in tents in the barren desert in contrast to the individuals in the north that enjoy a relatively high standard of living and the lush vegetation, and those that host many an Israeli and foreign tourist in Vegas-style resorts in Eilat. Israel is culturally a mix of European and Middle-Eastern, not surprising given the background of those that have immigrated and made aliyah (become citizens of Israel) or been residents for many years here. Many French and Russian immigrants, along with those that lived in the Middle East and Northern Africa. Overall, the salient point that these very different groups had in common was their love of the Holy Land.

And at the center of this Holy Land is Jerusalem. Socially and politically, Jerusalem is the hot potato that will act as a lynchpin for any large movements. It represents what is so incredible about the state of Israel. In Jerusalem's Old City, you have the ultra-orthodox Jewish Israeli reading the Torah at the Western Wall. A few hundred meters away, you have (what I assume because I was never physically inside) the ultra-conservative Muslim Palestinian reading the Quran in the Al-Aqsa Mosque. And then you have everyone in between in the same places - devout Jews and Muslims living in Israel that practice their faith in peace and want to build a life for themselves and their children. The similarities between the two moderate entities exist, but they aren't often recognized as much as the differences - what is heard are the louder voices of the fringe.

I was in the company of secular and moderate Jews, whose often covert and occasionally overt dislike of their Arab neighbors and orthodox brethren is not only for religious and political reasons, but also economic ones. In Jerusalem, about 1/3 of the population is ultra-orthodox Jewish, another 1/3 is NUO-Jewish (not an official term but just easier than writing out non-ultra-orthodox, ranging from secular to religious, with the majority falling in the moderate category), and the last 1/3 is Arab and Muslim. Economically, the existence of the ultra-orthodox Jews in Israel is basically state-funded. The men study in the seminary, the women work, and they receive a stipend from the state per child. They don't pay taxes. And neither does the majority of the Arab Muslim community in Jerusalem on a macro scale. There may be a few exceptions to this, but I think that many of the Arabs have chosen not to become citizens of Israel and I'm not sure about the non-obvious [anti-Zionist] reasons behind this. Only the NUO-Jewish in Jerusalem pay taxes, which means that about 35% of the population of Jerusalem is supporting the economic infrastructure and development of the city. This blows my mind. (Granted, I am from the States and Chicago GSB at that.) The economics at work here is so incredible, and something that is terribly wrong with the state of Israel -- state-funded welfare for the religious fringe (that typically have more children and likely pass on this level of expectation to their offspring much more so than the secular and economically productive population) and no economic incentives to become productive members of society. The Arabs and especially Palestinians are another deal altogether because of the political enmity.

Educationally, I believe that Israel has some catching up to do. I only took classes in English and perhaps the ones in Hebrew are much better. But I was not particularly impressed with the caliber of teaching nor the rigour of the education. And I've heard murmurings from other Israelis in their 20s that the educational system here isn't all that great. Let me be quite clear here - I'm not talking about primary schooling here, but higher general business education. The literacy rate here in Israel is outstanding and the country, for its small size, has been successful in technical innovation and feeds plenty of people into technical programs and positions abroad. But the impression I got was that many of the business ventures in Israel are innovation-driven rather than market-driven, which underscores the need for general business training. Additionally, because many Israelis work full-time and go to school part-time, the level of involvement was less than I would have expected from one of the premier universities in Israel. People were smart, but the communications were primarily through email, which made things extremely time-efficient and left little room for building relationships or a network. Additionally, the state-funded nature of the higher education system struck me as problematic. Continual protests and backing down to hikes in fees means that wages for human capital and other resources will eventually not be high enough to clear the market. Eventually, something will give - either higher taxes or reduction in tuition subsidies are the most likely. An increase in fees and/or reduction in subsidies may hurt the pocketbooks of Israelis, but paying more for it may drive individuals to demand improvement in education, which is beneficial in the long run.

Israel is a place that has some seemingly insurmountable problems, and I can see why the Israelis and Palestinians (and Syria and Egypt to certain areas) want to lay claim to the region. It has an amazing landscape and rich history, and it was well worth the visit. Toda raba to all of my friends here that educated me about life in Israel.

Okay, its now time for me to finish packing. Peace out from Israel y'all. Next stop, New Delhi, India.

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Friday, February 16, 2007

Done and Done

Done with my final exam, done with my final HW assignment, and done with my contribution for the group final paper, which means that I'm officially done with my academic responsibilities for the winter quarter!

Earlier in the week, R. flew in and we went to Jerusalem to meet some friends including a GSB alum, and check out the Old City. There were clashes last week between Palestinians and the Israeli police - the Palestinian were protesting construction going on near the Al Aqsa mosque. The mayor of Jerusalem actually went against the government's decision (in local opinion, an idiotic move) and decided to halt the construction, so I was able to go to the Old City without problem. Except that I wasn't able to visit Haram al-Sharif or the Temple Mount area - only Muslims were allowed in for prayer.

From there, we went down to the desert (via a freeway that cuts through the West Bank) to visit Masada (pics now posted) and then stayed at a hotel on the shore of the Dead Sea. It was the strangest feeling floating in the Dead Sea. The water felt oily on the skin, and I was ridiculously buoyant. Once the water gets waist-deep, its hard to stand but impossible to sink. I also had a spa treatment - got slathered in hot Dead Sea mud and wrapped in human-sized saran wrap. I'm not sure how healing it was, but it was certainly fun and a bit weird to lie in a pile of mud, squishing it between my fingers and toes.

I'm now back in Tel Aviv and leaving for the airport in the wee hours tonight. I've heard that you get plenty of grief from immigration when you leave Israel (just like when you come in), so the plan is to get to the airport early. After spending way too much time in a plane, I'll be in Delhi. It will be too short of a stay there, but no complaints. The GSB is sponsoring my trip to interview candidates for the class of 2009. After finishing up my interviews in Delhi with another GSBer C., I fly down to Bangalore and conduct more interviews along with Sloop.

After that, I'm going back to Chicago! I've had an amazing experience here and will give wrap-up thoughts soon, but I'm also looking forward to going back and seeing all of my peeps in Chi-town. WoOt.

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Saturday, February 10, 2007


Plenty has happened in the past few days, and plenty has to happen in the next few days. I won't have much time to post, so here's the skinny.

I've been done with classes for weeks now, but there are still assignments to be done. The schedule for classes is different here. You may finish with lectures, but most projects, term papers, and final exams are turned in or taken 2-3 weeks after lectures are complete. So in the next couple of days, I need to crank out a homework set, term paper, and take a final exam.

Next week, I'll check out Jerusalem once more and then head back to the desert to float in the Dead Sea. It will be my last week in Israel, but I'm not going back to the States just yet.

I will be flying out to India in less than 2 weeks. This is a last-minute thing, so I'm not sure if I'll have much time to update while there. It will most certainly be a whirlwind of a trip, but I'm looking forward to it.

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Friday, February 09, 2007

Wine and Hummus

At the end of last week, I went to some more wineries in the region between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. We visited two boutique wineries and although the tours and discussions were enjoyable and more personal given the smaller group size, I didn't really like any of the wines. I was disappointed that we were unable to go to Castel, but it was still a great experience chatting with friends while driving around the hills.

After the strenuous winery visits, we went to Abu Ghosh, an Arab Israeli village not too far from Jerusalem. After driving around a bit, we found Abu Shukri and got what is apparently the best hummus in Israel. It was pretty tasty, though I have to admit that the best hummus I've ever had was made by the wife of a former Palestinian co-worker of mine. There are three Abu Shukri establishments all within feet of each other. This seems to be pretty common here. A place gets famous, and people open up a knockoff that has the same name and serves the same type of food to cash in on the original brand. I guess its not so unusual to try to capitalize upon someone else's brand name, but it takes chutzpah to do it right next door to the original.

Anyways, great day overall - pics are here.

Speaking of wine, I had drinks and dinner with a GSB alum several nights ago. He is originally from France, but graduated a few years ago and works just outside of Tel Aviv. We chatted for a while on a variety of topics ranging from learning languages to the future of medical technology to career goals to travel. Fueled by too much wine, I came home loopy and full of energy, and got into a wrestling match with the puppy. I think she was confused by my hyperactivity at 1am. The next day, I spent a lot of time rehydrating and picking the dog hair off of my jacket.

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Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Yafo on a Rainy Day

It has been stormy in Tel Aviv off and on for the past week. The day after returning from the crazy jaunt all over the country, I took a leisurely walk around Yafo. It was pretty deserted given the "cold" weather, but good for grabbing a hot sandwich from Abu Lafia and taking some pictures of the main square.

I was walking along the beach several days ago and saw some surfers in the water. Although you can barely make them out in the pics, I took a few anyways - KV would appreciate them.

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The Galilee & Golan Heights

The day after leaving the southernmost point of Israel that borders the Red Sea, Jordan, and Egypt, I visited the northernmost point that borders Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea. Rosh Haniqra wasn't all that exciting to me, perhaps because it seemed like small fries compared to other water-molded "grottoes" in the world. The film about Rosh Haniqra was yet another cheesy production, replete with overly dramatic storytelling and ineffective sensory experiences (we got sprinkled with water during the film to demonstrate that the caves were carved by the ocean... great, thanks). Given the Israeli-Lebanon strife that went on several months ago and the riots that went on in Beirut a few weeks ago, I didn't go into Lebanon. Its unfortunate - Lebanon is supposedly beautiful and Beirut used to be called the "Paris of the Middle East".

The rest of the day was spent driving around the Galilee, which is a lovely region. Its quite opposite to the Negev, fertile and green. We visited an old synagogue at Bar'am and walked around Tsfat, which is located on a mountain and is the center for Kabbalah. Madonna has apparently spent a good amount of time there. Many artists set up shop in the windy streets of this old city to sell religious art and judaica. Virtually all of the non-tourists in the city were Haredim (the ultra-orthodox Jews with the black hats and long curls on each side of the head). We then got dinner at a French inn in swanky Rosh Pinna.

We had planned to stay in a Qibbuz that evening, but it was closed for no apparent reason. Damn those socialist communes and their lackadaisical schedules. So we ended up at a hotel, and then spent the next day exploring the Golan Heights, which is the region bordering Syria. Israel captured Golan from Syria during the six-day war, and Syria wants it back with good reason. It is a beautiful region, filled with waterfalls, springs, and lush in vegetation fed by the rainfall and melting snow from Mt. Hermon. We started the day early by taking a morning walk through Tel Dan nature reserve and then checking out Banias waterfall, and many Roman ruins.

Took a pit stop in the middle to buy a tasty Druze pita and tea flavored with fresh lemon verbena leaves. Here's the guy that made the pita for us. He kicks ass not only for making an awesome snack, but because he's got a killer mustache.

We then carried on to see Nimrod's Fortress. Again, opposite of the desert - it was cold up there during the height of the afternoon with the sun shining.

Once we finished with the nature and culture portion of the program, we raced south to get to the Golan Heights Winery for our appointment (winery tours and tastings here are by appointment only). There were only a total of 5 of us when we got there, and the tourguide mentioned that the remaining group was running late. We would start without them, so I was looking forward to a personalized experience. Unfortunately, the remaining group showed up a few minutes into the tour, and it turned out to be tourbus full of people. *sigh*

The tour started out with yet another cheesy film about the history of the winery. What cracked me up most was the portrayal of the American in the film. There was a genie flying around the world (don't ask), and he gets to the States and encounters a white guy from New York that dressed and talked like Ali G (seriously, he had a fat gold chain around his neck and his sole line in this masterpiece of a film was "Yo yo - respect!"). The tour pretty much sucked - we only saw the automated barrel mover/washer/whateverer and the steel fermentation tanks from a distance, and the automated equipment used to bottle the wine.

I was also extremely disappointed with the selection of wines that we tasted - three lackluster wines. Depressing. But then my two travel mates and I started talking and thought hmm... maybe we can ask to try more of the wines once the behemoth group of tourists have finished buying the mass-produced swill and leave. So that's what we did, and it certainly paid off. We were able to taste everything that we asked for - 8 to 10 samples that were mostly reds and dessert wines. And I was delighted to come away with the knowledge that the wines produced in Israel are world-class. I practiced severe restraint given the luggage space restrictions and bought 3 bottles, one of which was a Cabernet Sauvignon. To get me to buy a Cab is a feat, so the wine has gotta be good. By the end of the tasting, I had to cut myself off as the designated driver. The other two took on the difficult task of finishing the samples, and below is the photographic evidence. More pics of the north here.

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Tuesday, February 06, 2007


After too little time visiting southern Israel and Jordan, we drove back north through the desert, listening to Arabic music and marveling at the landscape. And the road signs.

We made our way to Metzada, which has an absolutely fascinating history and is a spot that every Israeli (and probably most tourists) visits at least once.

As the story goes, the Roman king Herod the Great used Metzada as one of his abodes during the Roman rule of Judea. Located on top of a cliff overlooking the Dead Sea, its an amazing complex that contained a palace for the king and separate dwelling for his guests, bathhouses, storage for sustenance, and fortifications. At the onset of the Jewish-Roman War, the Romans began to enslave and massacre the Jews. A group of Jewish rebels took Metzada from the garrison that was guarding it and lived up there while the Romans systematically razed Judea. Eventually, a Roman legion came to conquer the fortress and built a ramp to get to the cliff. When the dwellers realized that they would not be able to protect themselves much longer, they set fire to most of the buildings and committed mass suicide to prevent themselves from being enslaved or executed by the Romans. The storerooms, that still contained plenty of food and liquid, were left standing to show that the defenders retained the ability to live and chose death over slavery.

Despite the cheesy film shown in the visitors' center with the overly-dramatic announcer (are we sensing a theme here?) and the hordes of tourists (I was amazed at the number of large Korean tourist groups there) that crammed into the cable cars, Metzada was fantastic. I decided to hike up the Snake Path to get to the top. Even though the air is oxygen-rich at Dead Sea level, I was winded and it took me about an hour to reach the top - an elevation change of about 300 meters. All throughout the hike and atop the cliff, the views of the desert and the Dead Sea were beautiful. And the drama - the story of the Jews that protected their stronghold until the end and chose death over slavery - certainly added to the experience. Many soldiers in the IDF have hiked to the top of Metzada, carrying torches and swearing the oath that "Masada shall never fall again."

I didn't get through the entire complex, so I plan to return to Metzada once more. I'll post pictures of the complex after my next visit, but here is the view of the Negev and Dead Sea from my hike on the Snake Path to the top.

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Sunday, February 04, 2007

Eilat, Israel & Petra, Jordan

We checked into a swish resort hotel in Eilat after a long day of driving, and got up early the next morning to go to Jordan. I was able to take a few shots of the view from our balcony at sunrise before we left.

Picked up in the morning in an open-aired truck, we were dropped off to the border by the Israeli driver. After a lengthy wait at the Israeli side of the border, we crossed over to Jordan and were greeted by our Jordanian guide - Ali. We gave him our passports (reluctantly, its a bit weird to hand over your passport to someone that you just met) and stood around for another long wait at the Jordanian side of passport control. We then met Wael, our driver, and hopped into a small van to get a quick driving tour of Aqaba before heading to Petra.

Although still developing, Aqaba is quickly becoming the Jordanian version of Eilat. Located directly across from Eilat on the Jordanian side of the Red Sea, many investors including those from the U.A.E., Europe, and the States are pouring money into developing resorts in Aqaba. It most certainly helps that the Western-educated ruler of Jordan, King Abdullah II, has maintained positive foreign relations with the Western world, Israel, and other Arab countries, mitigating the political risk associated with being in the most volatile region of the world.

On our long drive to Petra, we stopped off in the middle to take a quick restroom break. We also got some freshly made Turkish coffee (with cardamom, mmmm), which I was very much in need of given my lack of sleep the previous night due to the snoring roommate (I thought I was bad, but he was worse!). There was a group of Arab tourists that stopped off at the same place, and we were treated to a group of men singing and drumming at the rest stop. I really like Arabic music, with its energetic and infectious beats.

So once we get to Petra, Ali starts to tell us about the history of the place as we walk through al-Siq. And we were pretty much paying attention, until we got to the main part of the city and saw the amazing edifices carved into the stone.

This building, although known as the Treasury, was more likely a burial ground for royalty, evidenced by the urn shown at the top. The little divets on the side were used to climb up the side of the mountain to carve and touch up the building. Petra was the capital city of the extensive Nabatean empire, built on trade and the transport of incense from southern Arabia into Europe. We only brushed the surface with our tour - one day is definitely not enough to explore Petra fully. But we made the most of our day and were able to climb up onto some of the mountains and get stellar views during our walk.

Oh, and there were camels. Because no trip to the Middle East is complete without them.

The grandeur and scale of this place was truly amazing - hopefully some more pictures will help to relay that. We got back to Israel pretty late in the day, and woke up the next morning to indulge ourselves in the massive breakfast at the hotel before taking off to go back north.

p.s. We missed the suicide bombing in Eilat by 2 days.

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Thursday, February 01, 2007

Negev & Dead Sea

So after a debilitatingly large meal, we hopped into the car and started the long drive into the Negev. The desert is not sandy at all, more craggy and with plenty of interesting topography. On our way down, we gave a couple of German backpackers a lift from a lookout point down to the sea. As a side note, most of the backpackers I've met during my travels (not just here) have been Aussies, Brits, or Germans - rarely do I meet American or Asian backpackers.

On our way to the Dead Sea, I marveled at how much the topography of the area reminded me of my drive through Utah. And then I realized that Utah also has the Great Salt Lake, which I suspect is very similar to the Dead Sea. So if any of you have ever driven through Utah, that's similar to what the Negev around the Dead Sea looks like... with a few palm trees and wild animals thrown in.

Once we reached the shore, we decided to check out the water. You can read more about it here, but the highlights of the Dead Sea are:

- The shore is the lowest (dry) place on Earth.
- It is the saltiest body of water on Earth.
- Because of the high salinity, objects are unusually buoyant - so people float easily.
- Its called the Dead Sea because nothing can live it - no fish can survive the salinity.
- There are many spas and treatment facilities around the area because the high mineral content of the water and high oxygen environment of the area are supposed to have health benefits. People come from all over the world to experience these benefits.

I didn't have my swim gear on me, so we just rolled up our jeans and stood in the water. We were in a public beach, so there were other people around. It was wild to see a guy just floating in the water.

I can't swim and have a tough time staying afloat in water, so I may have to go back to test out the buoyancy. We also tasted the water - it was crazy, salty to the point of being bitter. Once we got out, the water felt strange on my skin, almost oily. We let the water air dry instead of wiping it off, and were left with streaks of salty residue. Luckily, there were showers close by, so we could rinse off before getting back into the car. We did stick around long enough, though, to enjoy my favorite time of the day - dusk. Here are a few more pictures.

I've heard that there are all sorts of therapies given at the spas, including a mineral mud bath that is supposed to feel very strange. My curiosity has been peaked, so I'm hoping to return to test out the buoyancy effect and be slathered in mud. Awesome.

Next up, the resort town of Eilat and a day trip to Jordan.

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