Saturday, August 31, 2013

More happenings in Israel

In the Jewish culture, from Friday at sundown to Saturday at sundown is the Shabbat.  It normally starts off with a big meal with family and friends, and is a time away from technology to hang out with people and reflect on life.  This past Friday I was in charge of the Shabbat dinner.  The Israeli apartment of my friends got a Mexican meal for the first time.  Can't always have Israeli schnitzel and traditional foods.  Sometimes you need some new spices to come into play and take the party to the next level.

When I started to cook, I had no idea how many people were coming so I just made a ton of food, which we had bought at the local market that day (along with everyone else since all the stores close on the Shabbat).  Good thing I made a lot of food, since there ended up being 9 of us. Feasting with good people.  Homemdade Pico de Gallo, lime chili chicken, beans, Mexican rice, sauteed peppers and onions and chopped lettuce made up my portion of the meal.  Some other food was brought by the guests (not as good as mine) and we wrapped it all up in the Turkish bread Lafa, which is as similar to a tortilla as you will get at a market in Israel. 

Dinner was a big hit, and after we went through the weekly trivia questions which Gal translated into English for us.  We all did surprisingly well, apart from the pop culture questions from Israel.  It was a solid evening to wrap up a great day.  The day started with an early brunch at the best spot around, with the best bread in town and high quality, freshly roasted in house coffee.  Then to the markets, packed full of people and vendors shouting out deals.  Then I went to the holocaust museum, which is one of the best museums I have ever been to.  So much detail to what happened, with personal stories, videos, somber history and a well guided flow, topped off by a great sculpture garden outside.

The day before, I had gone down to float in the Dead Sea and see the ruins of the mountain fortress Masada.  The views from up on the fortress were amazing, with the Dead Sea and unbelievable mountains all over.  On the other side of the Sea is Jordan, where Petra is.  This part of the world is crazy beautiful, and I have become even more a fan of the desert.  Might want to be back more in teh Spring or Autumn though, as it was pushing 45 degrees Celsius when we were there, which is more than 110 Fahrenheit.

The Dead Sea is such a weird phenomenon, with a glossy finish on top of the water, a horrible taste (just had to try it), and the disability to sink.  You can lie on your belly and read if you want.  The classic photo is of someone reading a newspaper on their stomach.  Often when trying to put our feet down in the water, they either go forwards or backwards and float upwards.  The hardest part for me was fighting the urge to dive under water.  The stinging in the eyes would've been hell and it is strongly recommended not to do so, or to swim without goggles.  That saltwater is powerful.  It was amazing to float, stare across the water at the mountains in Jordan and relax.  Good times!

Thursday, August 29, 2013


Jerusalem is what's happening!

After two weeks bouncing around Israel and Jordan, I finally am in the cultural city of Jerusalem where everything all comes together.  So much going on here, with the white Jerusalem Stone creating a warm atmosphere, with the mix of cultures, locals and tourists all merge.

It's been fun to see the main sites of the 3 religions, get lost walking all over the place and explore some of the area outside of the city.  I'm staying with my friend Ziv and his roommates right outside the city walls, close to lots of sweet cafes in the area, and the Old City.  Perfect location to be in.  Here are some pictures from the last couple days.  More to come with more stories later on.  I'm still eating hummus and falafel every day and have to drink a ton of water to combat the heat in Israel.  Luckily in the Old City, there are a few places where there is drinking fountains so I can fill up.  The best drinking source is at the Western Wall, which is just impressive to look at as well as top up the body's water balance.

Kids in the Jewish Quarter

Me and the Western Wall

Looking down on the city from the Mount of Olives

Jewish Cemetery in the front with the Old City in the background
Mr No Knee at the Dome of the Rock
Dome of the Rock

View from the Austrian Hospice, the best rooftop view in the Old City

Friday, August 23, 2013

Monday, August 19, 2013

The Red Sea

The Cedar Pride wreck
As amazing as Petra was, it was time to get into some water, so I headed south to the Red Sea.  It somehow got hotter and the temperatures have been at least 100 degrees every day.  Didn't stop me from exploring a bit of the area and doing some diving, which was the main reason I was down there.

I took a mini-bus from Petra to Aqaba, which left promptly 47 minutes after we got in, when it was finally full enough to leave.  Typical around here, so no stress and I had nothing booked.  Aqaba is just a big port city on the Red Sea so I bounced south 12km to the dive center area of the Sea.  Sorted out a cheap tent to sleep in at a Bedouin Village near the beach and organized two dives for the next day.  Then it was to the beach to relax.  Met some locals who took me to a wicked wreck of a tank 25 meters off shore.  Sweet to snorkel down to it and check out the site.  Resting up after hiking all over Petra.  Or at least trying, as it's always hot as hell down here, and the tent is windproof and contains heat very nicely.  Spent a bit of the night out on the pillows lying around one of the huts.
The tank

The day of diving was amazing.  Two great dives.  One full of colourful coral and fish in a spot called Japanese Garden.  Pretty sweet and a good first dive to get back into the swing of things.  Feeling like a champ again under the water.  The surreal aspect to diving never gets old and it seems like such a different world down there.

Yeah, I swam around that twice, pretending I was the captain
Dive #2 was to the wreck of the Cedar Pride.  74 meters long and almost 30 years in the sea after a fire caused it's demise in the early 80s.  It came up out of nowhere, just a dark shape that turned into this huge ship that is still intact and full of sea life.  We swam around it and through some compartments in the ship.  Amazing to be inside a ship, with ladders, stern, and all aspects of a boat intact.  I wish I had my camera with me, but will have to settle for the images from Mr Google.
Living it up on the Red Sea
It's been sweet as down here in the south of Jordan.  Looking across the Red Sea, I can see Egypt and Israel.  9km down south is Saudi Arabia.  Right in the middle of everything around here.  Tomorrow I'm off to Israel again to high five the border police and meet up with friends.  The fun continues...

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Petra, Jordan

Life is good in the Middle East!  It's been a great week so far, full of adventures, hiking, not being able to read or understand much, making new friends, hitching rides numerous times, jumping off waterfalls and basically living the dream.  Lots of good stuff to write about, and yet I am in one of the most beautiful places out there, Petra.  Yes, I was in the capital of Jordan with no money and hostel, at a church service in Arabic with fiery preachers.  Yes, I had to give directions to the Jordan border to the guy I was hitching a ride from.  Yes, I eat hummus at most meals.  Yes, you can hear gunfire as the Israeli army practices.  Yes, there are so many Jewish youth out traveling and hitching around the north of the country, that they will get dropped off by a car, and within minutes they are in a new one and on the road.  But let's focus on Petra, shall we?

Treasury at sunrise

Petra is most known for starring in the film, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, one of my favorite movies.  The Treasury is highlighted towards the end of the film, and is the main reason I am here.  But there is so much more, and it would take numerous days to hike around the see everything.  There are the main sights, such as the Royal Tombs, Monastery, Great Palace and more, but also the mountains the the region to explore.

Some of the Royal Tombs
I've been traveling with two Irish mates, and we hiked all over the National Park.  The first day, after arriving in the morning and sorting out a cheap place to stay ($5/night), we walked down the Siq (huge canyon that leads to Petra) for 1.2 km to arrive at the Treasury basking in sunlight looking magnificent.  Afterwards was on to see tombs, hike up to the High Place of Sacrifice for amazing views before walking down the backside of the mountain visiting more temples, tombs and carvings.  Then up to the Monastery, which is up 800 steps and amazing.  Similar to the Treasury, but less visited due to being so far away and so high up there.  But great views and good times all around.

The Monastery

Day Two:  Even though I was completely beat after yesterday, I woke up to get down to the park for sunrise.  Best decision yet.  Walking into the Siq and to the Treasury, there was no one else.  Yesterday had dozens of tourists everywhere, and today, no one.  Paradise all for me.  Spent time enjoying the coolness of the early morning, as well as the peace and quiet.  Then on to explore the Royal Tombs before the masses came in.  I met up with the Irish guys who wanted a little sleep in, and then we set off to hike the highest peak around, to see the Shrine of Aaron (Moses' brother).  Challenging hike, to 1,394 meters high, surrounded by mountains, desert and amazingness everyone.  Just unbelievable up top.  With a solid lunch break up top, we took on the steep descent and then saw a little bit more before the day was over.  12 solid hours for me in the park, hiking and living it up.
The mountain with the Shrine of Aaron on top

On top of the mountain!

Been a great time here.  This has been an amazing part of the world adventures, and more pictures will be coming soon.  Brace yo'selves!

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Life in Israel

Check out the video of me right on the Syrian border, looking out from the Shouting Hill in the Droze village of Majdal Shams.  Back in the day (pre-internet, and post war with Syria in 1967) the local villagers would shout across the border to Syria, talking with their family there often with megaphones.  I had to improvise as you can see. 

Good times out exploring the Golan Heights area in the way north of Israel.  Hiking around a fortress the Crusaders attacked and couldn't get in, enjoying waterfalls and a national park and chatting it up with the nice Israeli woman who picked us up hitchiking.  Pretty safe up here with super nice people. 

Been good hanging out with my traveling Dutch friends, Martijn and Tony, who I first met in Vietnam and now have traveled with in Central America and Amsterdam.  Wicked to have friends who you can meet anywhere in the world.  Tomorrow is another national park, which should entail a 30m walk through a lake to the path on the other side, some more waterfalls and some more adventures.  Viva Israel!

Shouting at Syria from the Shouting Hill

Typical site in Israel

The Nimrod Fortress, attacked numerous times by Crusaders

Roof fell in years ago, but still pretty badass

Monday, August 12, 2013

Israel #1

Israel is what's happening.  Just spent the last two days in Tel Aviv living like a king.  People say the city is completely different from the rest of the country. Big metropolis with amazing beaches.  Nice to go relax at the beach, play paddle ball (which literally everyone at the beach plays) and float around. Good vibes with the whole city being on the beach.

My good friend Shay and his girlfriend hosted me and took me to the good places to eat and showed me around the city.  They live super close to the beach and after just a few hours, I felt like a local.  Saturday was a chill day around the city, as its like the American Sunday with most stores closed, no buses and a free day for everyone.

Just south of the city is the old town of Jaffa.  This is the place to be in the night.  Old city streets and a huge Arab population serving some of the best food on the trip.  Crazy ordering and yelling to get the food. So many people out on the street enjoying life and eating.  Just like Europe, bread runs the show here and there are so many variations to try out.

The Carmel Market was packed full of produce, spices, cheap Asian products and clothes.  A unique experience which feels more like the Middle East than most of Tel Aviv.  Drinking carrot juice on the street is all the rage, as well as coffee in the cafes.  Been nice to try the local drink as well as spices, dates and such from the market stalls.  Not exactly a cheap country, but so far, a good time with good people.

Now I'm in a local shuttle up to the Sea of Galilee to meet my traveling Dutch friends for fun in the north of Israel.  The adventures continue!

Friday, August 9, 2013

Off to Israel

My flight from Sarajevo to Istanbul was supposed to arrive at 2:55pm.  We landed at 1:15pm according to my watch.  I had no clue what time it was.

Bosnia has been amazing.  A great culture with people who have lived through war and can still enjoy life.  Loads of unemployment, still some dislike towards other religious groups, and yet, I had a great overall experience.  It's a slow life of drinking lots of coffee, talking with friends and cracking jokes.  Most people are still nearby their families and know the people who live around them.  Quite nice and I easily see myself coming back for another visit soon.  Especially as all the locals in Sarajevo telling me I'm missing their big film festival and that's a problem.

I met some amazing new friends in Sarajevo.  Hearing their personal stories from the war, from the lack of humanitarian aid they received to going through the Tunnel of Hope to escape to new clothes, have been powerful.  We can talk about music and culture from the 90's, but then there is something so completely different from our lives back then.  It's been good to learn more about what happened, and what is currently happening in this troubled country.  

That's it from the Istanbul airport.  Go Dodgers!  Number 1!

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Bosnian soccer match

That's me under the VFC flag on the right side.  Made it to TV!
Marching through Mostar getting ready to board the bus

Cheering louder than everyone else.  Not a packed house though

The police waiting for us outside the bus

When some of the locals I'd made friends with in Mostar told me there was a soccer match that evening, I was in.  Can't pass up the opportunity to see a live sporting event in any country, especially a soccer match, the world sport. It would be an away match and there was a bus for the rowdy Mostar Army supporters to take us to the other city.

We met up with other supporters at the Red Army meeting spot. Murals, flags, photos, history was all there in pretty much the headquarters of the Red Army supporters.  Loads of people were showing up, singing Army songs and getting pumped for the game.  The players are from the local area, so we went to cheer them on as they got on their bus for the game.  Then, with flags waving and flares blazing, we marched through the city letting everyone know that the team was number one.  Little rowdy, but no problems, and the police were waiting for us at the bus, standard protocol.  Nice police here in Mostar, as one riot officer chatted with us, showing us pictures of his bicycles and telling us the next 2 days he was riding 300km.

The city of Mostar was divided during the war on the west and east, and there are still divisions with 2 soccer clubs, 2 post offices, religion on separate sides and still some conflict.  As we drove through the west side, there was lots of jeering and shouting at the people outside, showing a strong disliking for the people in west Mostar.  It may be over 15 years since the war, but the feelings sadly haven't changed as much.

Our police escort vans left us with new riot police who weren't the nicest and gave full pat-downs and were pretty strict with letting us into the stadium.  Inside, we were in a cage on one side of the field, away from the rest of the spectators.  Apparently there is strong feelings against the other side and there have been major problems in the past between the the supporters of the two clubs. And also trouble with police as I learned of a fan being shot by police 3 years ago.

The cheering and singing was awesome on our side.  Very loud and excited for most of the match.  Of course when the team got down 3-0, the voices weren't as loud.  Fun to cheer on the Army, although I couldn't join in too much with the words.  And a lot of what they were saying to the other fans wasn't that nice anyway.  Crazy times out there.

Leaving by bus, we had more police escorts and took a backroads, dirt road back to Mostar, to avoid any trouble with people waiting for us along the way.  No problems. 

Monday, August 5, 2013

Mostar Photos

The bridge in Mostar, the classic image of the city.  Built in 1566 and bombed down in 1993.  Rebuilt in 2004.  Amazing.
View of the east of the river from the bridge

Wind picking up around the mosque

Chilling by the river with one of the best views in the world.  And yes, people do jump off the bridge.
Cemetery and mosque.  This used to be a city park until the war, and now it is all graves from 1993-95

Bullet destroyed building in the center of town

Quite common to see brand new, next to war-destroyed

More of war and rebuilt together in Mostar

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Mostar, Bosnia

The life is good in Bosnia.  I've been here 4 days and am loving the culture.  Very friendly people here, with such a mix of religions all together.  Right now I can hear the call to prayer from the mosques and see two churches.  Things seem good here, which is nice to see after all the fighting at the end of the 20th century.  There are definitely still signs of the war here, with many buildings still showing bullet holes ad some stand as barely a ruin, right next to renovated houses.

I've been staying in Mostar, getting to know the people and the area.  It'll be my 4th night here, which for a small city is not too many days. Feeling at home here.  Good people, good prices (they seem so cheap after Croatia) and a cold river to cool off in.

I had an amazing day rafting yesterday. Some awesome rapids, amazing canyons, and a fun crew.  The water was the perfect temperature on a hot day , and was clean enough to drink (something I've been doing a lot of lately).  We rafted for over 4 hours, with some stops along the way so we could slide down some rapids ourselves.  Don't worry mom, we had life jackets as helmets on.  

Another day trip was to a Dervish monastery built into the mountain at the source of a river.  Quite nice trout at the nearby restaurant and it was unique to be standing next to the  Muezzin as he sang the call to prayer.

Right, I just finished my espresso for .50 and the waiter just a brought me some meat burek fresh from the oven.  Time to have a late afternoon snack.  Loving Bosnian life.