If I was limited to only two words, those are the words I choose to describe Israel.
The change started when I was invited to tour Israel with the American Jewish Press Association. I have not been out of the country since I was 14 and never had my own passport. I hoped my husband could go, but his work schedule did not allow it.
That meant I would be going to a different country thousands of miles away. Alone.
I didn't know anyone on the tour. I didn't know anyone in Israel.
Truth: I was nervous. But not enough to miss this kind of an opportunity.
I wasted a lot of energy worrying about whether my passport would arrive on time. Of course, it did. As my travel date approached, I felt nervous again. What if I got sick? What if someone in the family got sick while I was gone? What would it be like? What should I pack?
The translation, of course, is that I'm a closet control freak and there would be a lot of things out of my control.
I let them go and focused on packing.
Because the Israel Ministry of Tourism sponsored our tour, we were offered opportunities to see and do things that most people would not be able to do - at least not in the week or so we have been here.
I connected with history in a way I never imagined.
I got lost (fortunately, with a colleague) in the Old City of Jerusalem. We had a "map" that was not the most accurate device. I hate getting lost, but we just kept walking.
A young man from one of the shops in the marketplace helped us find our bearings. He was one of the first to do so without insisting on shekels first, so I asked him whether he had scarves in his shop - which he did. He wanted us to see his brother's jewelry shop around the corner, so we followed and spent nearly an hour looking at the lovely designs, talking with them about their life in Israel and purchasing some of their wares.
They offered us coffee or tea, which we gently refused - but then one of them said in his culture, it's important to receive hospitality when it is offered. So we accepted and were treated to a delightful cup of tea with mint leaves.
If we hadn't been lost, we never would have met them. Yes, they were selling but they were also open to talking about their culture.
I lost my fear of people I don't know - OK, so it's not fear, but it's a general discomfort that I can hide pretty well. I've gotten to know some of my colleagues and I feel like we're old friends after traveling together for so many hours and miles.
Like I said, Israel changed me.
Yesterday I checked three things off my bucket list. Things I figured I'd never do because I was really afraid to do two of them.
We went to a reef in Eilat, a beautiful resort area on the Red Sea, to swim with dolphins. Not just swim - dive. As in put on a wetsuit, mask, tank, weights, flippers and all those good things and gracefully descend into the water. I have snorkeled before, and love it. Getting used to only taking air through my mouth from a tank was a little unsettling. My teacher was a patient man who spoke calmly to me when I became impatient with myself. Meanwhile, the dolphins circled around us. I'm pretty sure they were laughing at me.
I finally relaxed and we descended 15 or 20 meters. I faced my fear and did it in Israel.
Like I said, it changed me.
A couple of hours later, I was high in the Eilat Mountains on the back of a camel. She was a lovely, soft creature with long eyelashes and a mellow attitude. It was more exciting than scary - I have ridden a horse before and I think it was more comfortable on the camel. Truthfully, it may have been faster to walk. But we were on camels! In the mountains! The only sound was the padding of their feet on the rocky soil, occasional laughter or conversation, and the wind whispering the secrets of the ages as we ascended the mountain.
After our ride, we gathered in a tent and enjoyed Bedouin-style hospitality. A young man served us tea and bread, both cooked over an open fire. Several ibex came down the mountain to check us out. We relaxed and enjoyed each other's company.
Then our host talked us into staying for the newly established "adventure course" - a complicated maze of ropes and zip lines. I said, no, I would watch the others and learned again that when hospitality is offered in Israel, it must be accepted.
Five minutes later, I was wearing a helmet and my legs, waist and rear end were wrapped up in a belt. I ascended a ladder to the first part of the course - truthfully only 20 feet or so off the ground - and stopped.
I was finished. I said, "Thank you," and started to go back down the ladder.
Our host - and my supportive colleagues - cheered me on, urging me to keep going. One deep breath and I was on my way across the rope, and then across another and then it was time for the zip line.
I held my breath, wrapped my hands around the ropes holding me up, sat back and jumped.
I never, ever thought I would do something like that. I felt like a little kid again (although I probably would have been too scared to try it when I was a kid.)
Inside, I realized that most of what holds us back is our own thought patterns.
I had to go to Israel to figure out how to let mine go. And now, I'm ready to take on the world!
Israel is more than history. It's more than politics. It's a vibrant, growing country with more opportunities than anyone can imagine, with strong, interesting, open people.
I love it here and can't wait to come back.
Thank you, Israel!