I first noticed it on a trip to the U.S. when we were at a self-checkout counter. 

There were no human clerks nearby, yet the machine in front of me demanded to know how much I’d like to leave as a tip. 

20%? 25% A custom amount?

The same dilemma occurs when there is a human in front of you, but all they’re doing is taking your order – like at a Starbucks – and there is nevertheless a tip “recommendation” option on the checkout screen. 

Tipping in the 21st century has gotten weird.

I grew up with a simple formula: Did a service provider improve your experience? Then leave a tip. Taxi drivers and wait staff at sit-down restaurants fit this category. 

The counter person at the Dunkin’ Donuts stand at JFK Airport? Not so much.

That’s easier said than done when the fast-food worker is standing right there. Are you really going to choose “none” or a smaller-than-recommended custom percentage and risk a potential stare of disappointment…or disgust? 

“I tend to see it and just give,” Meeka Smith told the Los Angeles Times when she recently placed an order at a counter-service spot that already adds a 15% service charge to all purchases. The screen subsequently “suggested” another 10% tip.

Tip creep, emotional blackmail or a social tax?

The custom of tipping started in Europe as a way to ensure good service. Tips were typically given in advance. Indeed, some historians say that “T.I.P.” is an acronym for “To Insure Promptitude.” 

Tipping made its way to the U.S. in the 1850s when wealthy Americans traveling in the old country discovered it and imported the custom to demonstrate their worldliness. 

The concept met strong opposition. 

In 1904, the Anti-Tipping Society of America asked that its 100,000 members pledge not to tip anyone for a year.

A decade later, William Scott, in his 1916 anti-tipping screed, The Itching Palm: A Study of the Habit of Tipping in Americawrote, “Tipping, and the aristocratic idea it exemplifies, is what we left Europe to escape. It is a cancer in the breast of democracy.”

Tipping in the U.S. eventually took off, but for a less aristocratic reason. 

Following the abolition of slavery after the Civil War, newly freed slaves were often only able to get jobs in the service and hospitality industries. But many employers refused to pay them a decent hourly wage, if one at all. Relying on tips was the only way these employees could reasonably earn a living.

There have been several attempts in recent years to break our addiction to tipping. 

Danny Meyer is the CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group in New York. In 2015, Meyer eliminated tipping at nine of his restaurants. The prices were higher, but you’d no longer be enlisted to “make up” a server’s insufficient salary.

Another benefit: The new higher tip-included revenue could be shared with the kitchen staff. Meyer discovered that his customer-facing staff were earning two-and-a-half times what back-of-the-house employees made.

Yoni Van Leeuwen is one of the owners of Crave, a popular Jerusalem-based eatery that launched with a Meyer-inspired no-tipping policy.

That was, until Crave’s endeavor in equality ran afoul of the local tax authority. 

In Israel, 17% value added tax is added to nearly all purchases. That doesn’t apply to tips, although employees are expected to declare their tips and pay regular income tax on it. 

When Crave added the tip into the total price, the tax man wanted its 17% on the entire amount of the bill. 

“We couldn’t come to an understanding,” Van Leeuwen told me. “We had to go back to the way most of the world works.”

Meyer, too, has backed off

In 2020, he told his staff that Union Square Hospitality would abandon the no-tipping policy when its restaurants re-opened following the lockdowns of the early days of the pandemic.

“We don’t know how often people will be eating out, we don’t know what they are going to be willing to pay,” he told The New York Times. “We do know that guests want to tip generously right now.”

Tipping varies depending on where you’re located.

When I first arrived in Israel 30 years ago, tipping a taxi driver was optional. Sometimes the driver would refuse your money. (Some still do.) If you tipped in a restaurant, 10% to 12% was enough. 

In Japan, South Korea and China, tipping is considered downright rude, where attempting to give a gratuity suggests that an employer does not value its employees enough to offer sufficient pay. 

Economists have long struggled to explain tipping. 

After all, if you only tip when the bill is presented, you have no ability to proactively improve service. Moreover, if you’re a tourist and you will never visit a particular restaurant again, logically, “there’s no reason to tip,” writes Ofer Azar, a professor at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, who has studied tipping culture extensively. “Yet this prediction is sharply violated in practice.”

Psychologist Ernest Dichter explained why.

“It is embarrassing to have another person wait on you,” he wrote in 1960. “The need to pay, psychologically, for the guilt involved in the unequal relationship is so strong that very few are able to ignore it.”

Or, as Benjamin Franklin noted during one of his stints in Paris, “To overtip is to appear an ass. To undertip is to appear an even greater ass.”

While I’d prefer having the gratuity baked into the bill, I’ll nevertheless strive to avoid being an ass and tip an appropriate amount.

Just don’t “suggest” that I tip when ordering an old-fashioned glazed Dunkin’ Donut.

I first railed against over-tipping at The Jerusalem Post.

Photo by Sam Dan Truong on Unsplash

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On May 26, 2013, a decade ago next week, Israeli electric car startup Better Place went to a better place, figuratively if not literally.

Our Better Place car in a swap station

That is to say, the once-promising company, which had raised nearly a billion dollars in VC and institutional funding, ran out of money and was forced to file for bankruptcy.

There are many reasons for the company’s demise. Indeed, pointing fingers has become an Israeli pastime. 

It was the management. 

No, it was the board. 

It was Renault’s fault.

No, it was the business model – people preferred fast charge to swapping batteries in a robotically-controlled switching station, which was Better Place’s raison d’etre.

All those are true, although the real reason the company had to close its doors has as much to do with corporate bylaws as it does bad decisions.

Chairman of the board Idan Ofer, Israel’s richest person at the time, was ready to put more cash into Better Place, so as not to see his hundreds of millions of dollars in investment turn into something akin to the sludge mined by his Dead Sea Works operation. 

A previous investment round, however, stipulated that, for existing investors to put any further money into the company, at least one new investor must be recruited.

That proved to be insurmountable as the company hit hard times: By mid-2013, Better Place was on its third CEO. Even worse, Renault, which made Better Place’s sole electric vehicle, the Fluence Z.E., stated publicly it would no longer be making battery-swappable EVs. 

With no more than 1,000 cars sold in Israel (far short of the company’s first year sales projections of 4,000 vehicles), there was little to recommend the company to fresh capital.

Which is a shame, as there were a number of proposals that could have kept Better Place going.

Not that any of these would have been good for Better Place drivers in Israel.

Dan Cohen, the company’s CEO starting in early 2013, for example, proposed shifting the company’s center of gravity to China, where Better Place was in advanced discussions with local utilities and had a working demo center.

But, as Cohen explained to me for Totaled, the book I wrote about the rise and fall of Better Place, a pivot to China would have required $500 million and six months to get to profitability. 

Evan Thornley, who succeeded Shai Agassi as CEO before being ousted for Cohen, floated an alternative approach, focusing not on Asia but on Europe and Australia, where the company also had operations. 

Better Place was, in many ways, a victim of its own success.

“We raised too much money too soon,” Quin Garcia, who built the company’s first electric prototype, told me. “Raising too much money causes startups to achieve an inflated valuation.”

It was the valuation that ultimately killed Better Place.

Better Place was a “unicorn,” the term for companies with a valuation of over $1 billion. (Better Place’s was $2.25 billion.) That may sound impressive, but it meant the only types of investors who could afford to jump in were the big banks like HSBC which had participated in previous Better Place rounds. But, as conservative investors, they were put off by a company in trouble.

As for the venture capitalist world, which is more risk-tolerant, the company’s valuation was simply too high.

The bankruptcy wasn’t the end of Better Place’s bumpy road, however.

Israeli owners of the Renault Fluence Z.E. refused to give up. Even after the swap stations had been shuttered, they figured out ways to keep driving using apps like PlugShare, which allowed car owners to navigate to charge spots in other people’s backyards if they needed an urgent boost.

Some car owners carried portable chargers in their cars’ trunks, which they’d plug into a standard power outlet in a mall parking garage.

Indeed, so badly did Fluence Z.E. drivers – including my wife, Jody and me – want to keep our cars that, when we, along with other owners, sued Renault following the bankruptcy, it was not to get our money back but to procure new batteries. But when Renault made us an offer for half of what we originally paid for our now four-year-old car, we took the cash.

There are still about 50 Better Places cars still driving in Israel, according to Doron Cohen, a mechanic in Hadera who fixes electric vehicles. 

Cohen told me he’s Jerry rigged a Fluence Z.E. battery that can get up to 250 kilometers on a single charge. That’s nearly as good as many EVs on the roads today.

Cohen’s battery is one that Joseph Shaw would love to get his hands on.

Shaw, who lives outside of Jerusalem, bought his Better Place car after the bankruptcy. 

“A family was selling their two-year-old Fluence,” Shaw told me. “It had just 18,000 kilometers on it and the price was right.”

Ten years after Better Place’s demise, the EV world has changed dramatically. Every automaker is working on new electric models, General Motors has pledged to stop making gasoline-powered cars entirely by 2035. 

Nowadays In Israel, it seems like every other car I see is either a Tesla or a Geely or a BYD. (The latter two are Chinese electric carmakers.) 

After Better Place went belly-up, Jody and I begrudgingly bought a gas-powered Suzuki. But I have a feeling our next car will be 100% electric again.

For that, we must thank Better Place for helping to put the electrification of vehicles on the tech world’s agenda. 

Better Place, the company, may not have lasted. But the vision lives on.

I first eulogized Better Place on this auspicious anniversary in The Jerusalem Post.

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From bother to benefit

by Brian on May 7, 2023

in Cancer,Covid-19,Health,Travel

“You have to put up with some bother in order to reap the benefits,” my therapist cautioned me just prior to our two-week excursion in Ecuador.

In Quito’s Old Town

What he meant was that everything involves some “bother” – annoyances you simply can’t avoid. The key is to put the bothers in perspective, so you don’t lose sight of the big picture – in this case, the fun we were planning to have on the vacation.

Bothers while traveling abound.

Standing in lines at the airport is no one’s idea of a good time. 

Tight seats that don’t recline with no leg room are a pain. But you have to go through it in order to get to your destination.

Your hotel room might be facing a bright streetlight. Should it ruin your enjoyment of all the daytime activities you’ve got lined up? 

You went to a fancy restaurant, but you didn’t love what you ordered. Frustrating, yes, but it’s not the end of the world. 

Bothers have a psychological term: reactants – “an unpleasant motivational arousal to the loss of freedom.” 

“I’m sorry, your carry-on can’t go there.” 

“It’s not time for your group to board yet.” 

Even “Please buckle your seatbelt” can be a reactant. 

This mantra became incredibly helpful during our time in South America. 

When the passport control line wriggled and wound its way in crazy-eights for more than an hour, my wife, Jody, and I simply repeated the “bother to benefit” message and, before you knew it, we were in Quito.

But what happens when the bother is bigger than a long line or a mediocre meal?

A few days after we arrived in Quito, Jody noticed something odd going on with my left foot: It had turned black and blue and swollen to twice its normal size. 

My foot at its worst

Not just the foot – my whole leg was retaining fluid. And it hurt like crazy to walk. I could barely pull on my hiking boots – not the best situation when you’re about to start a holiday that is primarily about trekking.

I’ve never been someone who slows down. My fear-of-missing-out on seeing a penguin or giant tortoise is too pronounced to skip a day of snorkeling or climbing to the top of that volcano.

But I was concerned. We were about to fly to the Galapagos. I needed to be sure this unexpected edema was not a thrombosis. If a blood clot traveled from the leg to the heart or lungs and I was on a flight over an ocean, that could be bad.

I called a doctor. 

Within an hour, an emergency medicine physician and nurse arrived at my hotel room where they did a full assessment. They took blood and brought in a portable ultrasound unit to image my leg. 

Everything came out negative: I was clear to fly. The doctor prescribed some painkillers, compression socks for the flight, and blood thinners to take prior to boarding.

“Did you really need to see a doctor in Ecuador?” my therapist asked upon my return. “Maybe it wasn’t necessary?”

“I could have died if I didn’t get this diagnosed correctly,” I exclaimed. 

Still, I understood his point, even as it frustrated me. 

do tend to run to doctors more than the average person. I have been zealously monitoring my body – my therapist would say “over monitoring – since I was a teenager with Crohn’s disease and needed to report to my gastroenterologist all the bloody details.

Since then, my monitoring has bordered on obsessive. 

Is that dry cough turning wet? Is another round of pneumonia coming on? 

Am I feverish? I just took my temperature 20 minutes ago. Should I do it again?

Is that sudden flurry of floaters a sign of retinal detachment? My ophthalmologist sent me to the ER, and I dutifully complied. 

My eyes were fine.

“Do you feel that all your monitoring might be getting in the way of you focusing on what’s important?” my therapist asked.

“Sometimes yes,” I said ruefully, not wanting to admit that a change in behavior might increase my overall engagement with life.

Don’t get me wrong: The trip was wonderful despite the physical challenges. But upon our return, I was so unable to walk that I stayed in bed for 36 hours with my leg elevated.

The edema miraculously resolved nearly entirely.

Meanwhile, Jody and I began to explore some tough questions.

Were we getting too old for this kind of adventurous travel? I’ve tried to ignore the role my cancer might be playing in all this, but maybe that’s no longer prudent.

Should I just accept that, after these kinds of trips, I’ll be laid up for a few days – or longer – and that’s the price of seeing the world for someone like me?

Going forward, should we eschew the challenging treks in favor of more relaxing beach holidays? 

Meanwhile, my therapist had started to come around. 

“There’s a difference between a ‘bother’ like getting stuck in traffic and a potentially life-threatening condition. You were right to call the doctor in Quito.”

Now back in Israel, I still need to figure out what caused my foot to swell so much that it looked more like a tree trunk or an animated golf putter than an actual human appendage. 

Was it the high altitude? (Quito’s elevation is 3,000 meters.) 

The 25,000 steps a day we were logging? 

The plane ride itself?

My doctor scheduled more tests.

Until then, I’m finding myself monitoring my foot from time to time, an over precaution to be sure, but changing old habits is hard. 

It’s a fine line. The goal now is to learn how to thread it.  

I first wrote about bothers and benefits in The Jerusalem Post.

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Exploring exotic Ecuador

by Brian on April 30, 2023

in Uncategorized

We had been warned about the shower.

Our hotel on Isabella Island

The proprietors of the Iguana Crossing Hotel on the sparsely populated island of Isabella in the Galapagos were proud of the system they’d implemented. The shower water would turn off every seven seconds, at which point you would have to press a button to restart it. Alternatively, you could have a partner join you and hold the button down while you cleaned the suds off – a cumbersome if somewhat more romantic option.

The Iguana Crossing’s logic was hard to argue with: The Galapagos has very few sources of fresh water, so it relies on water shipped in from the Ecuadorian mainland or from desalination. The seven second system is a tangible way to demonstrate the hotel’s sustainability chops.

Imagine our surprise, then, when we got to our room and there was no button. It was just a normal shower with a steady flow.

“Oh, that’s because you’re on the third floor,” Jonah, the night manager, told me. “It was built for the owners’ family when they visit from the mainland. They wanted regular showers. But when the owners aren’t here, we book the rooms for outside guests.”

The shower was just one of many surprises awaiting my wife, Jody, and me as we spent 13 days in Ecuador. Isabella was our last stop. We flew from Tel Aviv to New York and, after a few days in New York, we continued on to Quito.

Quito in the sky

The first thing we loved about Quito was its airport, which was built around the same time and is visually reminiscent of the current Ben-Gurion Airport in Israel. It is modern, efficient and pleasant with just a single easy-to-navigate terminal. Our Quito guide, Giovanni, met us and drove us the hour-long journey into the city’s Old Town, which in 1978 was the first city to be declared a UNESCO World Heritage status with its evocative colonial architecture, large plazas and abundant churches.

Main square in Quito Old Town

Quito is also high up – at 2,850 meters, its elevation is no less than Jomsom in the Himalayas or Cusco on the way to Machu Picchu. That means you can easily get winded walking around. 

As we were eating lunch at a restaurant along the main square where the president’s house is located, a loud ruckus broke out. Protesters blowing horns chanted in Spanish calling for a change in the government. Giovanni was eager to share with us highlights of the political problems beleaguering his country following a turn to the Right several years ago.`

We’d hoped for a slight break from the protests back home. No such luck.

Quito is right on the equator. That means the sun rises every day at 6 am and sets at 6 pm no matter the season. (“Ecuador” comes from the word equator, something I should have known but didn’t.) The Mitad del Mundo – the museum at the “middle of the world” – about a 45-minute drive out of town, is informative and fun. Take a selfie in front of the “latitude 0,0,0” mark. 

At the “middle of the world” museum

No-rain rainforest

I have long been fascinated by the prospect of visiting the Amazon. To reach the rain forest, you take a 35-minute plane ride from Quito to Coca, a bustling town on the edge of nowhere.

Canoe ride on the Napa River in the Amazon Rainforest

From Coca, we took a two-hour motorized canoe on the Napo River (the Amazon River itself doesn’t flow through the Ecuadorian part of the jungle), then transferred to a paddle canoe for another half hour before we reached La Selva Lodge, our home for the next five days. La Selva is situated on a lovely lake home to multitudes of piranhas and caiman (a relative of the crocodile). The latter moved in during the height of the pandemic, when the lodge – along with much of Ecuador – was shut down. 

Ecuador was hard hit by Covid. Giovanni, our Quito guide, has one of the most tragic Covid stories I’ve heard – he lost his mother and three siblings in a single month.

Our room featured a large bed with mosquito netting and a waterfall shower, but no windows, just bug screens. In the dining hall, gourmet meals were served. At the end of a long path leading halfway into the jungle is an open-air spa with a nice variety of massage treatments. There’s no air conditioning and the ever-present ceiling fans attempt – but never entirely succeed – to ameliorate the intense humidity of the rainforest, which rarely dips below 80%.

Our room at La Selva Lodge

Each day, our naturalist guide Sebastian and his machete-wielding local sidekick Enrique led us on walks and more canoe trips (was this the inspiration for Disneyland’s Jungle Cruise ride?) through the dense foliage as we searched for animals. 

That was harder than you might expect. While a single hectare of rainforest has more biodiversity than all of North America, Sebastian told us, the numbers of actual animals per species are relatively few and the animals tend to stay far away from human visitors – a good pair of binoculars is a must. “Have no expectations” implored Sebastian. 

Are these mushrooms magic?

That said, we still saw many different types of birds and an equal number of intriguing insects, plus one recalcitrant sloth. Sebastian made up for mammalian paucity by giving us a comprehensive history of Amazon foliage, including all manner of mushrooms – edible, poisonous and magic.

On our first morning in the rainforest – wakeup call is at 5:30 am because the animals are most active in the morning and late afternoon – I was startled to hear what sounded like a superhighway outside our room. 

That jungle jangle turned out to emanate from the local howler monkeys and it was the constant soundtrack to our daily (and one nighttime) excursions. A single howler can sound like Highway 1 at the entrance to Tel Aviv. Combine the howls with the cacophony from the cicadas and frogs and grasshoppers, and it’s clear the jungle is far from deserted.

Other birds we spotted included various parrots and parakeets, macaws, kingfishers, finches, “stinky turkeys,” herons, needle billed ducks, bats, owls, kites, plum-throated cotingas, three kinds of woodpeckers and some lovely and colorful toucans.

Barbecued beetle larvae

On our last canoe excursion, Sebastian took us to a nearby indigenous village to get a feel for local life as well as some interesting delicacies. Anyone up for barbequed beetle larvae? I hear it tastes like chicken. Plantains – related to the common bananas we eat in the West – are everywhere in Ecuadorian cuisine, as chips, mashed like potatoes, ladled in veggie and meat stews. 

About the rain: As much as I don’t like rain, I was prepared to get wet. This was a rainforest, after all. And yet, the rain never came…until the last day when, miraculously, the skies opened a minute after we’d returned from a two-hour open canoe ride. It poured again while we were eating dinner, but we never had to pull out our ponchos or umbrellas. The lodge provides all that, if you need, as well as rubber boots for traversing watery pathways.

Hiking in the Amazon can be challenging, especially when it’s wet, but you return from your morning excursion no later than 11:30 am and the afternoon one doesn’t start until 4 pm, giving you plenty of time for a massage or yoga facing the lake.

Animals in your face

Israeli Sabra cacti in the Galapagos

The Galapagos – an archipelago of 13 major islands – is a markedly different ecosystem from the Amazon. It’s mostly barren, essentially a collection of volcanic rocks and lava flows, dotted with prickly pear cacti (the same that we find in Israel). There’s vegetation for sure, including lush greenery on the way up to the Sierra Negra volcano, but the main attraction is the fauna, not the flora. 

Because the Galapagos is a protected region, the animals have little fear of humans. Some, like the giant tortoises, have no predators on the islands at all, adding to their boldness. We saw sea lions everywhere – on benches at the pier, sunbathing on the rocks. We toured the “bachelor beach,” where the non-alpha males patiently wait to try their luck at joining a herd and becoming an alpha themselves. 

Sea lions sunning

Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island, our first stop, is the Galapagos’ main population center, with 20,000 inhabitants. We loved seeing the wildlife by day and strolling Charles Darwin Avenue by night, with its art shops, souvenir stands and smoothie vendors. Darwin’s presence is felt everywhere – this is, after all, where he conceived his theory of evolution after visiting the islands in 1835.

Isabella Island is more laid back, with just a few restaurants and a main street that’s charmingly unpaved. The iguanas really do cross right in front of the eponymously named hotel on Isabella, which is situated not far from a small flamboyance of flamingos (yes, that’s what a group of flamingos is called). You’ll also find frigates, pelicans, yellow warblers and crabs of all shapes and colors.

Both Santa Cruz and Isabella have tortoise breeding centers. Tortoises were hunted for their meat and oil before the Galapagos became a national park in 1959. The breeding centers allow young tortoises to mature without risk of being eaten by angry birds. When they turn five-years-old and their shells are sufficiently hardened, the tortoises are returned to the exact location where the eggs were collected. We were particularly taken with a unique local species with a long giraffe-like neck for reaching higher-up vegetation.

Saddleback tortoise

There are two ways to “do” the Galapagos. You either cruise for a few days to a few weeks, or you can stay on land. We opted for the latter because both Jody and I tend to get seasick. We were happy with our choice because that allowed us to get to know the towns better. 

Land-based programs include day tours by yacht or speed boat that usually feature a short walk on one of the islands beyond the main ones, followed by snorkeling and lunch. The yachts have all the gear you need. Bring both water shoes and hiking boots – you’ll need the former for “wet landings” where the dingy can’t land directly on the beach, and the latter for hiking over those volcanic rocks.

Pinnacle Rock on Bartolomé Island

The name of our tour was the “Penguin Pursuit,” but we only spotted two – one on Bartolomé Island, on one of our day tours, and one off of Isabella while we were preparing to snorkel. On our last day we also caught a glimpse of the islands’ fabled blue-footed boobies.

There are two seasons in the Galapagos. From December to April, it’s warm and wet. The rest of the year is cooler but with less rain. But these are not normal times, so our timing, during the “wet” season, was both hot and dry. And by hot, think of Tel Aviv in August (fortunately, our Galapagos hotels had air conditioning).

Another benefit to the warm season: The water is much more pleasant for snorkeling. (Wetsuits not required.)

We snorkeled three times. We saw translucent green and blue parrot fish, tiny sardines, colorful clown fish, sharks, rays and marine iguanas. But the highlight came on our last day during a day tour to Tintoreras Island when we came across a huge sea turtle swimming to the surface for a breath of air. We followed it, at times snorkeling directly above the turtle, which was entirely nonplussed by the presence of 18 odd creatures with plastic tubes attached to their mouths. 

It was a dramatic ending to a trip of a lifetime. If you fancy a vacation based more on animals than monuments, Ecuador has it all. 

Just watch out for the howler monkeys on the Amazon superhighway.

If you go…

Ecuador is about as far away from Israel as you can get. We were on a total of 13 flights to and from Israel; the final leg home lasted some 43 hours door-to-door and took us through four countries (and that was the fastest itinerary we could find).

We flew via New York on El Al and then JetBlue to Quito, but you can go through Europe as well. Our return flight on Avianca left at the grueling hour of 3:00 am and stopped for two hours in Bogota, Colombia, on the way home via New York. (The shopping at Bogota’s El Dorado International Airport is fantastic.) That said, Avianca is a budget airline with tiny seats and no legroom – avoid it like the plague!

There are regular flights to the Galapagos from Quito or Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city. The plane to Santa Cruz lands on the adjacent island of Baltra. From there you take a bus and a ferry and drive 40 minutes into town. The flight from Baltra to Isabella is on a bumpy eight-seater propeller plane. Fortunately, it’s only a half hour in the air!

While you can handle all the arrangements yourself, we found it easier to work with an Ecuador-based travel agency, Galapagos Island Tours, which booked all our flights, hotels, guides and meals. Word to the wise: Don’t let the agency reserve for you three meals a day. They tend to be more international than local, and you will definitely come home heavier than you left, despite all the hiking and snorkeling.

Yoga on the lake at La Selva

When you’re in the Amazon, your lodge will organize the tours and guides. We stayed at La Selva, but the nearby Sacha Lodge has the same tours (the only difference, really, is that Sacha doesn’t have a spa. A slightly less pricey alternative, the Napo Wildlife Center, is another option.

View from our room at the Illa Experience in Quito

We loved the Illa Experience, our hotel in Quito’s Old City, with its breathtaking views of the Virgin of El Panecillo sculpture on a hill in the center of town. The Iguana Crossing in Isabella is highly recommended – if you can get a room on the third floor. In the town of Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island, we stayed at the Ikala Suites, which was equally lovely and has offers free bikes to traverse the town’s extensive bike lanes. 

Ecuador switched in 2000 to the U.S. dollar, so it’s easy to figure out how much things cost. Tipping (guides, yacht captains, hotel staff) is always recommended. While our agency took care of almost all our fees, there is a $100 per person Galapagos National Park fee payable at the Quito airport prior to boarding your flight. Another $20 is due for a Galapagos “transit card.” Isabella asks for $10 to enter. Why? No one could explain it in English. All the fees must be paid in cash.

You don’t need any vaccinations to enter Ecuador, although it’s a good idea to get a shot against Yellow Fever which the Amazon mosquitoes can carry. 

The paletas in Israel are better

Finally, if you enjoy a tasty paleta (a South American popsicle), you’ll find those in Puerto Ayora on the road to the Darwin Center, although truth be told, the paletas in Israel are better! 

I reviewed our trip to Ecuador first for The Jerusalem Post.

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The protests that have roiled Israel for months have been all about “dem-o-cra-tia” (the Hebrew chant equivalent for “democracy”). But that’s not the only message of this horrendous, historic moment we’ve collectively been living through. This has also represented a mass demand for freedom and that makes the demonstrations of 2023 a perfect Pesach metaphor.

What does freedom mean to you? It’s a question we ask at the Seder table every year. It’s one worth asking on this Shabbat of Hol Ha Moed.

What freedoms do we take for granted? What freedoms are we willing to fight for?

What rights and privileges might be lost if the coalition starts up the process again achrei ha hagim and it turns out the much vaunted “pause” was actually a bluff? It’s not such a stretch to imagine: Even as he announced he was delaying the votes after the dramatic events on that unprecedented March madness, Bibi took pains to emphasize he still plans to pass the “reform.” What if there’s no compromise and no dialogue in the making? 

Here are 20 examples to get us started. The question now is: What freedoms do you cherish?

1. Freedom to love and freedom to marry – whoever you want, however you want: traditional, secular, religious, gay, straight, with the Rabbinate, online via Utah, in Cypress or Prague, or simply by living together common law style.

2. Freedom to vote – that’s a right no coalition, right, left or center, should ever be able to restrict.

3. Freedom to work in a stimulating and satisfying profession that pays beyond the poverty level. Important corollary: The freedom to choose the core curriculum needed if one wishes to progress economically.

4. Freedom from tyranny and freedom from slavery – Moses experienced both while leading the Israelites out of Egypt. Modern Israelis have now woken up to what that means, too, both real and metaphorical. Who will be our contemporary Moshe?

5. Freedom to dance – even mixed if you so desire. Because we could all use a bit more rock and roll these days.

6. Freedom to eat – whatever you want, including a nice bready sandwich at Hadassah or Ichilov Hospitals over the Passover holiday.

7. Freedom to travel – inside our wonderful country or to one of many exotic destinations (I’m writing this from Ecuador – more on that next time.)

8. Freedom to protest and strike without being labeled a traitor or an anarchist; without being water-cannoned, skunk-sprayed, tasered, or charged by horses. Freedom from arbitrary politically-motivated detention.

9. Freedom from discrimination, whether based on gender, race, social origins, disability or age. No doctor, baker or candlestick maker should have permission to refuse service based on religious beliefs. 

10. Freedom to pray however you like, in whatever synagogue, church, mosque or shrine that suits you, to whatever god – or no god – that speaks to you (or doesn’t).

11. Freedom to speak up without fear of cancellation. May what happened to Defense Minister Yoav Gallant not be a harbinger of a future where the right to free expression is abridged for petty politics. For an in-depth non-Israeli take, listen to the fascinating new podcastThe Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling.

12. Freedom to complain …albeit in moderation. 

13. Freedom to say no to invitations – you don’t have to attend every wedding or bat mitzvah or accept every Shabbat dinner invite! Really.

14. Freedom to hold different opinions as long as it doesn’t harm anyone (other than climate change denial which most definitely causes harm).

15. Freedom from fake news. Here’s an abridged adaptation of the classic Serenity Prayer: Grant us the wisdom to tell the difference between what’s real and what’s not, and the courage to change the things we can.

16. Freedom to raise kids with the values you want them to have. Freedom for our kids to then reject those values.

17. Freedom to walk safely at night. While Israel is far safer than strolling the streets of Quito after dusk, there’s still risk. Let’s work to end that.

18. Freedom to laugh at the absurd. Freedom to cry at injustice.

19. Freedom to partake ravenously from the buffet of life. 

20. Freedom to love this country unabashedly, no matter what happens.

A very happy Passover week to all democracy and freedom lovers in Israel and beyond.

I first wrote about freedom for The Jerusalem Post.

Photo by Kristina V on Unsplash

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