Archive for November 2009

Safety in Rio

November 21, 2009 - 7:07 pm 1 Comment

When I started telling people I was going to Brazil, everyone who had been there went on and one about how AMAZING it is. So much fun, they say. So beautiful. The beaches are fantastic. The nightlife is ridiculous. Everyone is gorgeous. They really talk it up. But then they tell me stories about muggings and robberies. Particularly in Rio.

I’ve always heard that Rio was a little dangerous. But since booking a trip down there, I’ve been hearing stories from people who have been there and reading some online travel forums. And I am completely freaked out.

Most people I have met who have been to Rio have been robbed/pickpocketed/mugged or traveled with someone who was. The stories they tell are a little scary. Muggings happen on the beach, on the street, doesn’t matter. Stuff is stolen out of hotels in the nice parts of town. Pocket-pickers are everywhere. One friend told me that she traveled with a group of twenty people for about two weeks. By the end of the trip, each one of them had been mugged or robbed. One of the guys wanted to outwit the pocket-pickers, splitting his money up and putting a bit into every pocket on his cargo pants. By the end of the day, he had nothing.

And things sometimes get violent, too. I’ve read a lot of stories about local kids pulling knives or guys holding broken bottles to your face and demanding your money and bag. Cars don’t stop for fear of being carjacked at a light or stop sign. So if you arrive somewhere intact, you’ll probably get run over when you try to cross the street.

Stay in Ipanema, they all tell me. That’s the safest spot for tourists. Then I find this:

EUA – The Washington Post
Título: Rio thieves armed with grenades rob tourists
Data: 27/11/2006

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil (Reuters) – Thieves armed with automatic rifles and military-issue grenades robbed a busload of British tourists in Rio de Janeiro before dawn on Sunday, the latest incident in a wave of violent crime plaguing Brazil’s seaside tourist mecca.

Police said four armed men pretending to be police stopped the tour bus as it pulled into an upscale neighborhood in the southern part of the city.

At least 18 British tourists who had just arrived in Brazil were robbed, losing their luggage, passports and cash. One tourist who resisted was hit in the head with the butt of a rifle but was not seriously hurt, police said.

The robbery took place near Rio’s famed Ipanema beach, a swanky area where police and drug traffickers squared off in a prolonged shootout this week that sent tourists ducking for cover.

Two days later a prominent socialite was shot and killed by a teenage assailant on a bicycle as she pulled up to a stoplight in Leblon, another glitzy beach neighborhood popular with tourists.

Nestled between lush mountains covered in tropical vegetation and the Atlantic ocean, Rio has long been Brazil’s most popular tourist destination. But it also has one of the highest murder rates in the world, prompting some travel agencies to warn tourists that it might be safer to vacation elsewhere.

So I’m freaking out. I’m not worried about my safety as much as I’m worried about my valuables.

I travel everywhere with my laptop and photo equipment, necessary for keeping an up-to-date, photo-filled blog while I’m traveling. But after suggesting that I wanted to bring my laptop and camera equipment down to Rio, people have told me that I am out of my mind. If I bring it and keep it in the hotel, it might get stolen. If I carry everything with me, I might get mugged.

The prospect of going without this stuff and not being able to blog while I am down there is killing me.

OK, so if I do bring all my stuff down with me, how would I protect myself? Probably a good idea to get insurance on all my gear. And I don’t speak a lick of Portuguese, so it might be a good idea to learn some basic expressions beforehand. Things like “Get your hand out of my pocket!” and “Please remove the broken bottle from my face!” and “You can take the camera but not the memory card!”

During the day, maybe we’re fine if we stay in the touristy, crowded spots and keep our valuables out of view. If we look comfortable and look people in the eye and keep stuff in hidden pockets and don’t flaunt cash or MacBook Pros or Nikon equipment, we might be OK. After dark, we should not be on the streets or beach. Taxis to clubs with a bit of cash and a photocopy of our passport. That’s it.

Maybe we only stay at some of the nicer, reputable hotels. Preferably ones with safes in the rooms. I fear that might get expensive.

I’ve decided. I am bringing my stuff. If the blogging stops, you’ll know what happened.

Parting Thoughts of Israel

November 20, 2009 - 5:09 pm 1 Comment

Been back home a couple of weeks now, and I’m finally recovered from the exhausting trip to Israel. I’ve adjusted back to local time, I’m caught up on my sleep, and all of the hummus and falafel has made its way out of my system.

The three of us saw about as much of Israel as you can see in ten days, I think. We were always on the go, praying that the GPS would take us to the right place and doing our best with Jerusalem traffic.

One of the amazing things about Jerusalem is that it marks the physical and spiritual intersection of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim people. The more I saw, the more interested I became in Jerusalem’s history. The contrast between glorious mosques and churches to the completely plain Jewish holy sites was fascinating. Judaism seems to be, by far, the most modest world religion.

But despite the close proximity of these religions in Jerusalem, heavy security prevents open integration. Non-Muslims do not visit Muslim holy sites. Dome of the Rock, the holiest site in the world for both Muslims and Jews, was inaccessible.

The social situation in Jerusalem is complicated. Arabs outside of the city are kept out by guys with guns and barbed wire and giant walls. Bethlehem, another place I wanted to visit, is just outside the city walls and off-limits. Inside Jerusalem, there are small pockets of Arabs communities, but for the most part, there is very little residential integration.

Segregation fosters intolerance, and for a surprising number of “educated” urbanites, there is an irrational hatred of Jews for Muslims or vice versa. At the same time, there seems to be peace and brotherhood among many of the commoners who work and live together. The issues are either obvious, complicated, or nonexistent, depending on who you talk to.

Most, if not all, of security in Israel seems to be for the protection of Jews and Jewish holy sites. In the city of three religions, it’s the Jews who are the targets. I felt a constant tension in Israel. But the suicide bombings and shootings are rare, and people seem to go about their daily lives without worrying about any of that stuff happening.

Israel is definitely a different kind of trip. There are beaches and clubs and drunk people, but it’s more of a cultural and educational experience.

Traveling with my Dad and Marion was about what I expected. I’m glad I went with them, and I’m not sure I ever would have gone to Israel with anyone else. Other than trying to keep up with them at lunch and dinner (they eat a lot) and my Dad cupping his balls on the way to the bathroom at 3am, there were no issues. I’d take another trip with them for sure, but maybe something a little less physical. This trip pushed them to the limit, I think.

So onto my next trip… Rio for New Year’s! Just bought tickets for a three-week trip to Brazil and Argentina with Doug.

I’m starting to feel a bit guilty. I can’t believe how much traveling I’ve been able to squeeze into the 18 months:

Peru – 10 days
Bahamas – 1 week
South Beach – 3 days
Thailand/Laos/Cambodia – 3 weeks
Ireland – 6 days
Vegas – 4 days

Maybe Iceland and Spain in 2010. 🙂

No Regrets!

My Last Day in Israel

November 8, 2009 - 12:53 am No Comments

Woke up this morning on a mission to squeeze in as much as I could on my last day in Israel. We had a plan to drive up the coast a bit before driving back to Tel Aviv to drop me off at Ben Gurion Airport.

Warm sun, cool breeze. Another perfect day. Every day has been warm but not hot, every night has been cool but not cold. This must have been the perfect time of year to come to Israel.

In the car, Marion kept talking about how much she enjoyed the camel ride in Petra. She can’t stop talking about it.

Our first stop was Soreq Cave, just outside of Jerusalem. I didn’t have high expectations for it, but I found it to be surprisingly large, ornate, and creatively lit.

Soreq Cave

Soreq Cave

Soreq Cave

Soreq Cave

Soreq Cave

It was also pretty warm and humid in there, so by the end of it, we were all a bit damp and gross.

From the cave, we drove up to Caesarea (rhymes with “diarrhea,” not “malaria”), a Roman-style port with ancient ruins and lots of restaurants and shops. After picking out a restaurant, it took almost 30 minutes to get a table (apparently the locals have priority) and another an hour and a half for the waitresses to finally get our lunch order right. Restaurant service here is mediocre at best.

I’m not impressed with Israeli food. It’s almost like they got together and decided to put all of the foods I don’t like onto one menu. I’m overloaded with hummus and falafel and onion and mushrooms and eggplant and tabouli salad. (No, I’m not the pickiest eater I know.) My Dad and Marion seem to be coping with the food selection, but I’m tired of it. And it doesn’t matter if it’s Israeli or Jordanian or Lebanese, it’s all pretty much the same.

Many, if not most, of the restaurants in Israel are kosher. Following laws laid out in the Torah, kosher means that there are specific requirements for what food is served and how it can be prepared. It usually means a very limited selection of meat, and you can never have meat dairy with meat, so no cheeseburgers or pepperoni pizza or real lasagna. If you’re eating seafood, you can have fish but no crustaceans.

The things I can find everywhere and enjoy, like lamb and chicken and potatoes and cole slaw, are served at every meal, so I’m starting to get sick of even that stuff. If you have a craving for iced tea, bottled Nestea Peach is about the only kind they have. I take for granted variety of food we have in America.

There are some pretty decent computer simulations showing the history of the place, but there’s not much to look at. Most of the ruins are really ruined. Today, it seems like Caesarea is mostly a romantic place for local couples.

Smokestacks, Statue, Wall, Sun

Horses of Metal

Beach at Caesarea

Ancient Closets

Roman Aqueduct

After Caesarea, it was off to the airport. While I had to head home and get back to work, my Dad and Marion are staying a few extra days, so it was time to say goodbye.

Making my way through security, I was the subject of the interrogation. “Did you pack your bags? Where did you pack them? Who packed them? Did anyone else pack them? Who were you here with? Who are you traveling with? Where did you stay?”

If you say something like “I am here with my Dad,” they will quickly respond with “Are you traveling with him? Why is he staying? Where is he staying?” It’s all very fast and fluid, and they follow every tangent as far as it will go. You have to really pay attention to avoid misanswering them or stumbling over your words to arouse suspicion.

Going through the metal detector, I didn’t have to take jacket or sweatshirt or shoes off. It’s almost like interrogation (and presumably also racial profiling) seem to be more effective screening processes than any reliance on machines.

Why isn’t it the same back home? Do we rely on half-naked passengers walked through hypersensitive metal detectors because we don’t have a properly trained staff to interrogate people? Is it because we don’t have a population that would tolerate interrogation? Or is it because the general population would struggle with rapid fire, repetitive questions in general, making interrogation useless?

Imagine if there were a change in policy and Americans had to have these extended conversations for all flights? Americans would go apeshit. Too much work. Americans want to be safe but don’t want to be inconvenienced with conversation.

In any case, airport security is arguably more effective and definitely less of a hassle in Israel than it is back home.

I have a window seat on the plane. Every time I fly, it amazes me how small the seat and legroom areas are. I know it’s coach, but it’s uncomfortable being confined in those tiny seats for ten hours at a time. Yes, you can get up and walk around, but when you have two sleeping people between you and the aisle, I feel like a bit of a dick waking them up. If you need to get something out of your bag, it’s quite possible that you will pull a muscle trying to retrieve it.

On the seat back in front of me, I just watched Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, parts of which were shot in Wadi Rum and Petra. The movie got the geography horribly wrong, obvious to me since I was just there a couple of days ago.

It’s black outside. Going to try to get some sleep.

Vacation from my Vacation

November 6, 2009 - 6:12 pm No Comments

The last few days have been exhausting. Marion and my Dad are both beat up, and I’m just plain worn out. Of course, I’ve also been staying up late trying to catch up on my blogging. It’s very time-consuming, especially because I’m trying to include photos as I go. When I fall behind, it starts to snowball, and it makes it even harder to catch up. It’s borderline stressful, so I hope people are reading this! 🙂

We didn’t do much of anything today except catch up on sleep and eat. Had an early dinner at a Lebanese restaurant in Abu Ghosh, an Arab settlement in the hills near Jerusalem. I had stuffed chicken, Marion had lamb shashlik, and my Dad had tasty but diarrhea-inducing lamb chops and onion salad.

Israeli Ketchup: Tomatoey

Old City Sky

Tomorrow, we’ll squeeze in a few more sights, including a cave recommended by Sarah and a quick trip to the ancient port of Caesarea. Then I head home. Where all of the girls I know who do not wear dresses will be waiting to beat me up.

Jerusalem Nightlife FAIL

November 6, 2009 - 3:48 am 2 Comments

It’s Thursday night, the big night to go out in Israel. And I felt like I needed one more taste of Israeli nightlife before going home. Somehow, I mustered up enough energy to go out.

I picked a place called Haoman 17, which according to one of my guides is one of the best clubs in the world and a conveniently short walk from our hotel. I copied a map onto my phone, cleaned myself up a bit, and headed out.

The walk took me through a neighborhood of sketchy apartment blocks, stray cats, and used car dealerships. Heard the music from around the corner and finally found myself standing in front of it.

From the outside, Haoman 17 looks like a warehouse shithole. There was a crowd of people at the gate by the street yelling at two bouncers and pushing to get inside. The bouncers were not shy, yelling and pushing back whenever they were tested.

None of the bouncers spoke English. I observed for a few moments before walking in. They quickly patted me down, and then I walked to the second gate, where more people were yelling at the bouncer and pushing to get in. Really, is all the screaming necessary? Not my style, so I patiently waited and observed some more.

Seemed like this bouncer was arbitrarily allowing people into the club. It wasn’t based on the order you arrived or what you were wearing, and nobody was giving him money. You were either selected or you were not. I was not. After a few minutes, the bouncer motioned with his hands to back up and told everyone who was left to leave, so I returned to the street.

Outside the gate again, I tried to be friendly with one of the bouncers. Older, beefy Russian guy. I asked him what was going on and what I had to do to get in, and he just shook his head. He spoke almost no English, but he managed to tell me that he had family in New York City and that he had never been there himself.

People continued to push, and predictably, a fight broke out at the gate. As the fight pushed out onto the street, the bouncers started yelling at and manhandling each other. The whole scene was tense and chaotic.

I waited for the ruckus to die down before asking my Russian bouncer friend if I could come in. He shook his head, and I gave up.

I’m not sure why I didn’t get in. Was it because I wasn’t yelling and pushing? Did I not have the right look? Was I not wearing enough black? Charm and a little patience will usually get you into a club at home, but not here.

At least I gave it a shot. Having gone and been denied, I have no regrets.

Magnificent Petra

November 5, 2009 - 11:54 pm No Comments

Woke up to find my Dad and Marion feeling good and ready to go. Had a quick breakfast and walked down to the Petra visitor’s center. From there, my Dad arranged a donkey and buggy ride for himself and Marion, while I walked with Mahmoud, our tour guide for the day.

Walking the Siq

Rocks of the Siq

Mahmoud was really good, discussing everything I was seeing in articulate, easy-to-understand English. He answered all of my questions and stopped with me whenever I wanted to take a photo. He even taught me some Arabic:

zakee jeh-den : very delicious

A Glimpse of the Treasury

We all met up again at the Treasury, a sight as impressive during the day as it was last night.

Kids at the Treasury

Mahmoud Explains Stuff

Hardly anything to explore inside, though.

Inside the Treasury

Camel Face

Need a Ride?

We walked further into Petra, exploring the buildings and tombs and mountains around us. Walking around Petra is like being in Manhattan. You really have to stretch your neck looking up and all around to see everything. Mahmoud led us around, stopping every few minutes to give us some history and answer all of our questions.

Sand in the Bottle Guy

Sand in the Bottle

Petra is made of sandstone, which is easily eroded. All the structures are decomposing right before our eyes. Worse, people can walk all over them everything, breaking them down further. Tourists collect rocks and put sand into water bottles to take home. I’m really surprised preservationists and archaeologists don’t have a problem with any of this.

Faded Archway

Petra Residences

Arched Gate

The Lonely Donkey

Marion’s knees and my Dad’s back were aching, but we got through it. At the end of the day, my Dad arranged for camels to take us back. Marion can’t stop talking about how much she loved the camel ride.

On the Camels

The Treasury by Day

Me in the Siq

After a quick meal of hummus and cole slaw (for a change), Mohammed #2 picked us up and took us back to Aqaba, telling us a bit more about his personal life as he drove. He described his wife, who religiously covers herself from head to toe, as a “walking tent.” He also thinks that, at age 33, I should be married with kids.

On the way back, the back right tire went flat. We pulled over at the top of a hill and watched the sun set over Jordan. What a great place to stop!

Flat Tire Sunset Over Jordan

We crossed the border back into Eilat, took a taxi to the airport, flew back to Tel Aviv, picked up our rental car, and drove back to Jerusalem.

A very long day, but Petra is definitely worth the trip.

Airport Security and the Drive to Wadi Rum

November 5, 2009 - 12:49 pm 6 Comments

Made damn sure I woke up on time this morning. We made our way to Tel Aviv and to Sde Dov Airport, apparently and confusingly also known as Dov Hoz Airport. Parked the car, went through security.

In Israel, airport security seems to be run almost exclusively by young girls. Whether it’s the girl checking your passport, leading you through the metal detector, or staring at the x-ray machine screen, the girls in charge are in the early twenties at the most. Are these girls assigned these airport jobs through army service? And, um, is there any occupation more masculine than airport security? I can’t imagine young girls working airport security at home.

Israeli airport security relies on careful passport scrutiny and interrogation rather than hypersensitive metal detectors and shoe removal. When the girl at the door examined our passports, she really looked at them, verifying our names and studying our faces for a moment. Not like the cursory glance you get at home. The metal detectors must be cranked way down since I was able to walk through with my metal belt buckle, my watch, and a handful of change in my pocket. They didn’t even make me take off my sweatshirt or shoes.

We approached the counter, where a young girl was waiting to examine our passports once again. She then proceeded to interrogate my father, asking him where he’s been, whom he’s been visiting. She wanted specific names and places. She asked him about his personal life and how active he is in the community back home. Three different times, she asked him if he speaks Hebrew. She was trying to keep it casual and conversational, but he questions were all asked quickly and repetitively, and every tangent was explored.

I was getting a little antsy listening to this. It was getting awfully repetitive and I was starting to get annoyed. But I kept reminding myself that she was just doing her job, waiting for us to get impatient or slip up. So I kept my cool.

While waiting to board, my Dad thought it would be funny to take pictures of the security officials at work. Given how strict they are about security, I knew it was a bad idea. A few seconds later, a young guy rushed over to look at my Dad’s camera and see what pictures he had taken, demanding that he delete the one he took of the security officers.

Israeli passengers are pushy getting onto a plane. Everyone just has to get on first. What’s the rush?

Our flight took us to Eilat, a city on the southern tip of Israel and a convenient spot to cross the border into Jordan. Flying over the massive Negev desert, all you see is brown mountains and brown sand. No vegetation at all.

There was a shuttle just outside the plane waiting to take everyone back to the terminal together, but that didn’t matter. Israeli passengers are just as pushy getting off the plane as they are getting on.

We were met at the airport by a tour guide holding up a sign with our name and it and driven to the Jordan border. Our guide managed the whole process for us, which consisted of a bit of paperwork and a quick look at our passports on both sides.

This Way to Jordan

We were met by another driver on the Jordan side, who gave us a quick tour of the town of Aqaba. Nicer architecture than Israel, with new hotels and resorts under construction all over the place. You can tell that tourism is what brings the money in. With lots of palm trees and mountains all around, Aqaba is a spitting image of Palm Springs. Chants from nearby Muslim mosques and an enormous flag of Jordan over looking the city, probably the biggest flag I’ve ever seen. And it was from Aqaba that I caught my first glimpse of the Red Sea, which is not red but very, very blue. Turns out that Jordan is NOT named for Michael Jordan like I always thought, but from a Hebrew word that means “down-flowing,” presumably an ancient description of the river that runs between Israel and Jordan.

Mohammed, our huge and scary-looking driver, turned out to be quite personable and informative. We asked him a bit about Jordan, his personal life, and his attitudes. When we asked how he feels about king Abdullah, he hesitated for a moment before telling us what a good man he is. I got the impression it’s unacceptable, and perhaps punishable, to speak badly about the king, similar to how it is in Thailand.

The drive took us through the red and mottled granite mountains of southern Jordan, which look quite different from the brown sandstone mountains of Israel. A few minutes later, we arrived at Wadi Rum, a nature preserve in the desert and site of our first tour. It was there where we were handed off to another guy named Mohammed, who had a 4×4 waiting for us.

Mohammed #2 quickly established himself as a crappy tour leader. From the beginning, it was obvious that there was a language barrier. Instead of acknowledging my Dad’s request for some water or telling us exactly what we were seeing or giving us some history or answering our questions, he’d put a big smile on his face and say “yes, very nice” over and over and then laugh loudly. And that was when he wasn’t jabbering on his cell phone in Arabic. Shame, because I feel like we could have learned a lot more from another guide.

This “organized” tour feels a bit unorganized. We’d been with them barely a couple of hours, and we’ve already dealt with a girl at the airport, a guy to process our passports at the border, a driver to Wadi Rum, and now this new guy. And each person isn’t completely clear about what the others are doing or what is coming up next for us. They haven’t put in too much effort into making things easy and seamless.

The Road to Wadi Rum

The Seven Pillars of Wisdom

When we stopped for lunch, Mohammed #2 asked us to pick a table and then grabbed his food from the buffet and started eating before we even sat down. After joining him at the table, he jabbered on his cell phone again. Rude. I was a tour leader myself once, and the little mistakes I see other tour leaders make really bug me.

Mountains in the Windows

All that aside, the scenery around Wadi Rum really was fantastic. Multicolored, sculptured mountains set in a desert of immaculate brown sand. It was the location for movies such as Lawrence of Arabia, Red Planet, and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.

Mohammed #1 picked us up from Wadi Rum and took us for the two-hour ride up to Wadi Musa, the gateway town for Petra high in the mountains and the location of our hotel, the Petra Palace. Marion chatted with Mohammed #1 the whole way while my Dad and I passed out in the back seat.

Donkeys on the Move

Had dinner at the hotel. In contrast to Israel, the tourists here seemed to be almost entirely older people. Wonder why that is.

After seeing some sweet photos of Petra at night, we booked a night tour of Petra. The walk took us to the visitor’s center for orientation and then down a very long, narrow, candlelit path with huge canyon walls on either side. Walking with my tripod, I was approached by a Turkish guy named Aybars (EYE-bars). He had a furniture business back home and was in the area for one of his projects, but he was also a photographer, with a bag full of flashes and radio transmitters over his shoulder. He seemed like a really good guy, and we were both excited about seeing Petra at night. It’s funny how photographers always find each other in a crowd. Instant friends.

Petra at Night

The walk ended at the Treasury, the most famous structure in Petra. Even at night, it was impressive. A full moon shone overhead while a warm glow from the candles lit the structure in front of us. Warm tea, music from traditional instruments, and a whining stray cat set the mood. A very cool experience.

The Treasury by Candlelight

After the little show, Aybars and I hopped around and started taking photos. Although the guide had said there would be plenty of time after the show for photos, they started extinguishing candles and cleaning up right away. We asked them what the deal was, and they said that they had to make sure the place was empty in ten minutes. “Take your time, but be quick!” they told us retardedly. Aybars and I were pissed.

The Treasury at Night

The Treasury by Candlelight

Tree in the Siq

The Walk Back to Wadi Musa

Before saying goodbye, Aybars invited me to Turkey and offered to show me around if I come. Another place to add to my list. 🙂

The walk down to the Treasury and back nearly broke Marion, and she’s in pretty serious pain right now. I feel kinda bad. It’s been a very physical trip, and I think they are both reaching their limits.

Tomorrow, we are supposed to spend the day exploring Petra. It’s a complex of multiple buildings at different elevations. Rides on donkeys and camels can reduce some of the walking, but I’m a little worried that my Dad and Marion might have had enough.

Tonight, I get to share a room with my Dad and Marion. Sweet!

Masada and the Dead Sea

November 3, 2009 - 8:22 pm 3 Comments

The 3am wake-up call came to my room since it’s the only one with a phone in it. Apparently, I answered it, thanked the guy at the front desk, and went right back to sleep. I’m awesome.

Off to a late start, we threw our things in the car and then booked it to Masada. Leaving Jerusalem, we passed various checkpoints, some empty and some with guys and big guns. Dad is getting good at turning on the charm when we have to stop and talk to them. We also passed an interesting sign that said that it is prohibited to have your car towed or serviced by the Palestinian Authority. Know why?

Through the dark and cold and windy and desolate Judean desert, up and down winding mountain roads, our little Chevy Aveo was pushed to the max. The GPS did help us today.

We arrived just as the sun was coming up. There were no tour buses or other cars there. Parking lot was completely empty.

Determined to get to the top as quickly as I could, I bounded up the steps with my camera gear and left my Dad and Marion behind. The ramp up the west side of the mountain wasn’t too strenuous.

Climbing Masada

Byzantine Gate

I reached the top just as the sun was cresting over the Jordanian mountains to the east. There were a few people around, but it was almost completely silent. The whole experience had a certain magic to it. Ravens everywhere made it surreal.

Masada Sunrise

Sunrise Over Israel

Masada Sunrise

It’s a much larger complex on the top than I was expecting, with lots of little buildings and restorations and cliffside views to explore. My Dad and Marion, who finally made it up, appreciated the view, but it came at a cost. The climb wrecked Marion’s knees, which were already suspect to begin with. She would hobble around for the rest of the day.

Israeli Flag on Masada

Israeli Flag

Judean Desert at Sunrise

Masada Sunrise

After Masada, it was time to head to the Dead Sea. In a nerdy way, I’m into oddities of the physical world like the lowest point on Earth and water so salty that you can float in it, so it was one of the places I really wanted to go in Israel.

Judean Desert Sign

We drove for a little while before reaching a line high in the mountains that marked sea level.

Sea Level

We continued to descend for another twenty minutes before we connected to the road that runs along the edge of the Dead Sea. Aside from groves of date trees, the entire area is a wasteland.

Our first stop was at the nature reserve at Ein Gedi. We walked around the gardens for a few minutes but got annoyed with the flies and stopped at the restaurant for lunch. Things were OK until we saw two employees pull food off the buffet tables with the fingers and eat, after which I lost my appetite.

After lunch, we drove down to the Dead Sea for a swim. The whole scene is very eerie. It’s like a beach, but not really. It’s like an ocean, but not really. The sky was cloudy and gloomy, the air was silent except for the sound of tiny waves trickling at the water’s edge.

Salty Rocks at the Dead Sea

Shore of the Dead Sea

Shore of the Dead Sea

There I was, in my sweet new gray shorts, standing at the lowest place on Earth. I hopped around a bit, taking photos of the salt deposits on the rocks. Then it was time for a swim. For those who don’t know, the Dead Sea is so salty that buoyancy is altered. You just need to get in on your back, and you will float without any effort.

I put my feet in, and it was cold. My Dad and I share an intolerance for anything colder than bath water, so we stood there like idiots while Marion frolicked in the water. We don’t get to the Dead Sea every day, so we finally manned up and fell in.

Me in the Dead Sea

Floating in the Dead Sea really is an amazing sensation. If you relax, your body will naturally float in a fetal position, with your head comfortably above water. I put a pile of rocks on my stomach and I was still floating. Any other position and you start to flop around a bit as you try to keep your balance.

And that water is damn salty. It feels a bit greasy in your hands, a bit like watery suntan lotion. It’s so strong that you can actually see the little swirls in the water when you wave your hand through it. After wiping my face, it stung my slightly chapped lips and really burned when it seeped inside my mouth. I don’t even want to know what it would feel like to get it in your eyes.

While floating around, two F-15’s roared overhead. Heard a distant sonic boom a few minutes later.

We returned to Jerusalem just in time to get honked at by angry taxi drivers in rush hour traffic. They really are crazy. A moment’s hesitation and they are screaming things like “Alechi tisdaynu!”

Catching a flight to Petra early tomorrow morning! We’ll be taking an organized tour down there, hopefully less stressful than trying to do everything ourselves.

The GPS Lady and the Arab

November 2, 2009 - 11:54 pm No Comments

Today was a chilly, blustery day. We decided to take it easy, driving around a bit to explore some of the surrounding neighborhoods and find some sweeping views of the Jerusalem.

Next to the Old City, the Mount of Olives is covered with an enormous Jewish cemetery, Christian churches, and mostly Arab settlements. Garry wasn’t with us, so we relied on the GPS to get there.

It’s very easy to get turned around in Jerusalem. Even though I generally have faith in GPS technology, it seems like we’re often driving around in circles. And maybe we are. Today, I noticed that what the GPS lady says does not always match the directions shown on the LCD screen.

At one point, we found ourselves on the top of the Mount of Olives, turning in to alleys that got smaller and smaller. Eventually, we found ourselves at a dead-end, crammed between parked cars and schoolchildren. The only way out was backwards and uphill. So my Dad rode the clutch and fired it up in reverse. After a few minutes of this, the only thing we had done was fill the car and surrounding alley with the smell of burning clutch. A friendly Arab fellow kindly helped guide us out of the alley and back onto the main road. And we went down there because the GPS lady told us to.

Backing Out of an Alley

It doesn’t help that the drivers here are among the most impatient and selfish in the world. Drivers have NO problem getting in your way, but will do anything to get you out of THEIR way, including screaming and making aggressive hand gestures and laying no the horn. My Dad has been getting into it, honking back to any cars that honk at him, and even taunting other drivers by slowing down or even stopping when he feels like he needs to teach someone a lesson. Unfortunately, there are too many drivers here to “educate.”

An Arab and his Donkey

Dome of the Rock

Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount

At a particularly majestic viewpoint over the Old City, my Dad struck up a conversation with an Arab guy who stopped to show us what we were looking at. His name was Abraham (Ibrahim in Arabic), and he invited us back to his friend’s restaurant for lunch. While I was a little hesitant, my Dad and Marion felt comfortable going with him, so we did.

We had passed his restaurant earlier but didn’t even notice it. Tucked away into an alley, we walked into what turned out to be a well lit, charming, lavishly decorated cave. Abraham led us to the nicest table in the back of the restaurant and sat with us. If not for the other tourist couple eating in the restaurant, I would have thought that this was when we get mugged.

Instead, Abraham sat and talked with us about his upbringing, his work, and his attitudes. He told us that he buys his food only from Jews because he knows they are more careful about food preparation than Arabs are.

We talked a bit about the religious and military conflicts it the region, and we told him how we have waited to come to Israel for so long because we were a bit scared. He was disappointed that we were scared and that there are probably millions of other tourists who are afraid to come for the same reasons.

Abraham’s take is that many of the region’s issues are perpetuated by greedy politicians and overblown by the media, but that in reality, many of the “conflicts” as reported by the media don’t really exist. He conceded that there are extremists on both sides who ruin it for everyone else, but that everyone gets along fine for the most part. He works with other Arabs and Christians and Jews every day and considers them all brothers. He even started to refer to my Dad as “brother.” We share similar customs, languages, hopes for peace. His message was that since we all have so much in common, we should work together for peace and harmony from the ground up. Abraham even holds peace meetings at his restaurant once a week.

Given what we have seen and heard about Arabs in the media, Abraham’s message and optimism was refreshing. If people from all religions were as levelheaded and hopeful as him, we’d solve a lot of the world’s problems.

Then the food came. Big platters of lamb and kebab and chicken and vegetables and bread and hummus and sauces. It was delicious, the best meal we’ve had in Israel so far.

We asked Abraham what the restaurant was called so that we could recommend it to friends. He said it was the Stone Cave Restaurant. By the way he looked up just before saying it, I got the impression that he came up with that off the top of his head. But I guess that’s what it’s called.

Lunch at the Stone Cave Restaurant

Stone Cave Restaurant

After lunch, Arab kids outside the restaurant were friendly and cheerful, and I started to think that maybe Abraham is right about everything.

Abraham offered to help my Dad get his cell phone problems worked out. He was willing to take us anywhere: any of the Arab territories, Bethlehem, Bedouin tents. But it was getting late, and we didn’t want to overcommit to this guy. As they said goodbye, my Dad and Abraham gave each other a hearty hug. My Dad doesn’t hug a lot of strangers.

We thanked him in Arabic, which sounds like “shook-uh-dun.”

We drove around the Mount of Olives for a few more viewpoints. Winds from an incoming storm kicked up some dust, basking the Old City in a golden glow.

The Old City

A Message from Above

Church of All Nations

Inside the Church of All Nations

Then a quick drive up nearby Mount Scopus, where the GPS was better behaved. From Mount Scopus, we looked east, away from the Old City and out across the Judean desert.

It really was a great day, could not have planned it better. If you had told me that we were going to take a photo with a guy and a mule and hang out with a random Arab guy who would take us to a fantastic restaurant and take photos of the Old City in golden sunlight, I would have never believed it. Sometimes, it just happens.

Tonight, I’ll get a few hours of sleep before leaving Jerusalem at 3am. We’re going to watch the sun rise from the top of Masada.

My Dad just walked past my bedroom to the bathroom completely naked. Sweet!

Portrait of an Israeli

November 2, 2009 - 1:02 am No Comments

One of the things I enjoy doing whenever I travel is meeting the locals and figuring out what makes them tick. Tel Aviv gave me a good chance to do this.

Everyone, young and old, is pretty serious. I’m not sure if it’s because they have been hardened by their mandatory stints in the Israeli army and rocket attacks and constant security checks everywhere, or if it’s just a cultural thing from the days before Israel even existed, but people are direct and to the point. There are no friendly smiles or little nods when strangers meet in a store or pass on the sidewalk, no courtesy waves when you let someone into your lane. Interactions are practical and quick.

Drunk Israelis

There ARE people laughing and joking around, but those people are friends who already know each other. There are a few others who have smiled and extended themselves for us, but most of those people are in the hospitality industry. They are the people who work at hotels and book our tours and guide us around and work at airports and deal with tourists on a daily basis. But being nice to tourists is their livelihood, and I don’t think people who work in the tourism industry are ever representative of the true national personality.

There do seem to be some differences between older and younger Israelis. I’m not sure what the age cut-off is, maybe 40 or so, but there is definitely a distinctive personality for both.

Older Israelis always seem angry. Whether it’s the people I watched at Carmel Market or strangers on the street or people on a bus, older people have a permanent sneer on their faces. They are always on edge, waiting for that one little thing to send them into a screaming tantrum. Unless you are about to give them money, they are especially impatient with tourists. And in cars, they are even more impatient, honking at the slightest hesitation.

Is it just this particular generation that’s like that? Or do all young Israelis get like that eventually?

I spent most of my time socializing with younger Israelis, and most of the ones I’ve met are a little more chilled out than the older people. Although it would be a stretch for me to say that they look happy, they do generally seem to be comfortable with life. Most seem to have a sense of humor, but you have to crack the shell to get to it. My attempts at humor are usually appreciated but rarely reciprocated.

Conversations with some of the locals about the “illusion” of security in Israel were met with disdain. They insist that the guards ARE in fact well trained, but mostly in the practice of racial profiling. If someone is Arab in appearance, they might go so far as to perform a full strip-search on them, while more “Israeli-looking” people and regular tourist folk get a superficial check and a wave. Racial profiling seems to be appropriate and accepted here in Israel.

The clothes young people wear are typically European: tight pants and ill-fitting shirts with lots of black and neutral tones. Guys flaunt chest hair and old school haircuts.

Israel is a Middle Eastern melting pot, so you get a lot of different skin and eye and hair colors, a lot of different body types. There is some natural beauty here for sure, but the girls don’t make the most of it.

In general, the girls here just aren’t very feminine. Clothing is tame, with many girls wearing the same drab, ill-fitting clothes that guys wear. Little to no make-up. It’s also the seriousness that bothers me. Seriousness is a masculine quality. Girls are supposed to be fun and smiley and dainty, but they’re just not like that here. And their voices. All the girls seem to have raspy, old woman voices. Is it because Israelis are always yelling at each other? Is it because they all smoke? Is it a Middle Eastern genetic trait? And Hebrew isn’t the most feminine-sounding language, either. Like Russian or German, spoken Hebrew is full of harshness.

Call me a traditionalist, but I like to see girls dress and look and act like girls. Is that a Western attitude? Am I a superficial prick?

At the same time, one of the good things about this indifference to femininity is that the most attractive girls don’t know it. At home, attractive (and even mediocre-looking) girls are objectified from an early age, developing attitudes of entitlement and selfishness along with a low self-esteem. Getting into a relationship with a girl like that is like hitting yourself over the head with a frying pan. Attractive girls here don’t have any of that baggage.

One of the redeeming qualities about Israelis is that when you’re in, you’re in. There is a certain loyalty that develops between friends that you can feel. Garry and Sarah have definitely gone out of their way for us, accommodating our every desire. Elior and Eli were gracious hosts who fed me and showed me a good time. And the friends I made in Tel Aviv are all very cool.

Noa, Relly, and Me

Just trying to paint a picture based on my experiences. There are certainly exceptions to my above generalizations.

I’ve learned a bit of Hebrew here as well.

toe-dah : thank you
toe-dah rah-bah : thank you very much
b’va-kashah : you’re welcome (actually a multipurpose phrase, it seems)
slee-chah : (seems to be used to get somebody’s attention, like “excuse me” or “sorry”)
ken : yes (also how you can answer the phone)
lo : no
shek-a-leem, or sh’kaleem : plural for shekel
shach : informal plural for shekel, like “bucks” in the US
tay-eem mee-owed : very delicious
at tay-eem-ah mee-owed : you are very delicious (to a girl)
alechi tis-day-nu : go fuck yourself

Furthermore, there really is no “J” sound in Hebrew. The Hebrew pronunciation of Jerusalem is “yeh-ROO-shuh-LIE-im,” Jaffa is “YAW-foh,” and Jeff is “AW-some.”