Monday, May 24, 2010

Things that are Missing

Missing because the whole time in Israel so far, I've been traveling with friends, which leaves a lot more time to go out for dinner or a glass of juice on the streets of Tel Aviv, but a lot less time for blogging. To be caught up on eventually... TBD when exactly, but a preview of things to come in the mean time:

Bailey and I went to see Petra back before Yael's wedding. The Treasury - the most famous of Petra's 2,000 year old artifacts

Irina and I in the old city of Jaffa, with the sun setting over Tel Aviv

The old city of Jerusalem, with the Dome of the Rock prominently in the middle

Jerusalem's Wailing Wall on Shabbat

Floating in the Dead Sea - it's weird, you really don't sink! Spending a full two days here

The 2,000 year old mountain fortress of Massada features prominently in Israel lore. We climbed in time for sunrise

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Welcome to the Holy Land - Sometimes there's Drama!

We landed in Tel Aviv at 4 in the morning. There was very little drama, aside from the man with the giant lips. I went through Israeli customs and immigration; there was a little drama while I stood waiting in line for 30 minutes, after less than 30 minutes of sleep and decided it wasn't my idea of fun at 4 in the morning. By 5, I was finally outside, looking for my monit sherut - a shuttle van bound for Haifa. Michelle, whom the blogosphere might remember from such previous adventures as Gitika's wedding in India two years ago, warned that sometimes there's drama involved. Approaching sunrise at 5 in the morning, there was no drama. A French couple next to me chatted incessantly, but I insisted on catching up on sleep. Almost an hour later I glimpsed a Toys'R'Us along the side of the road and figured we had to be in Haifa. Another twenty minutes passed, and I was making a dramatic appearance at Michelle's apartment in Haifa, with the following twitter post summing up how I was feeling:

Haifa, Israel: on to Haifa - Hi, Michelle! I haven't slept tonight, where's your couch?

Not to say there hasn't been a bit of drama in this region for the past, oh, three thousand years or so, but the drama of my arrival was largely contained to the strikes in Greece.

After a couple hour nap to recover some degree of sanity, we headed off to explore Haifa.

Michelle, pointing out the natural attractions of the city

Me, finding my own ways to enjoy some of the not-so-natural attractions of the city. One of the things I've really found enjoyable about cities in Israel so far though, is that there is a lot of art on the streets - be it just sketches on a wall, or a big metal structure like this one, or something altogether more abstract (a giant abacus?)

The Haifa main municipal building is housed in a gleaming new skyscraper (which the locals seem to think resembles a missile... hmmm, aimed at nearby Lebanon?)

The star attraction of Haifa are the Bahá'í Gardens though. The Bahá'í Faith is a religion, founded in the middle of the 19th century, which emphasizes 'spiritual unity of all humankind.' While that does sound rather abstract and maybe even a little pompous, the faith does have a lot of aspects that I can wholly support - quoth wikipedia:
  • Unity of God

  • Unity of Religion

  • Unity of all humankind

  • Equality between men and women (!)

  • Elimination of all forms of prejudice

  • World Peace

  • Harmony of Religion and Science (!)

  • Independent investigation of truth

  • Universal compulsory education

  • Universal auxiliary language (?)

  • Obedience to government and non-involvement in partisan politics

  • Elimination of extremes of wealth and poverty
So, yeah, I came to Israel, the Holy Land for three of the world's major religions - Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and so far I've had a chance to learn about the Bahá'í Faith. Not to say it wasn't interesting... The big attraction in Haifa are the Bahá'í Gardens, which house the tomb of the Báb (the man viewed as the forerunner of the Bahá'í Faith), among other important structures. A tour here gives you some of the background about the faith and a chance to walk through the huge garden complex:

The Bahá'í Gardens

I wonder if the soaring eagle represents something to the faith too?

The entirety of the Bahá'í Faith crammed into a lens of my sunglasses?

I had been aiming for three full days of rest, recovery, and relaxation in Haifa, but the Greek financial crisis had other ideas, I arrived a day late, and two days later, I headed down to Tel Aviv to catch up with Bailey and make a three day trek to Petra, just across the border in Jordan. Petra was amazing, and will require a full blown post of its own at some point (hopefully soon), but we'll skip it for now, and stay focused on adventures in Israel, which quickly led to the actual reason I was here in the first place: Yael and Etai's wedding:

Yael and Etai holding their marriage contract, while the rabbi reads the ceremonial texts. The entire ceremony takes a refreshingly quick ten minutes. All marriages in Israel have to be religious, by the way, and inter-faith marriages are best handled someplace across a border...

Action shot of Etai smashing a glass - good luck was ensured!

Sharing a kiss on the dance floor

The ceremony was held at the beautiful and posh 'Q,' in Kibbutz Glil Yam. Apparently Israeli Kibbutzes have expanded beyond collective farming to things like hosting glittering wedding ceremonies. The official part of the ceremony was very quick, and beyond that the reception was absolutely free-flowing - we ate, we danced, we drank, ate some more, danced some more, wondered around the gardens, chatted with the newly-weds for a bit, then danced some more. Israel is generally a lot less into rigid rules and structure than we are in the States, and the wedding (on a Wednesday night) was an apt example of this free-flowing liberty. That being said, it was certainly a big party - the guest list was over 400, and the dancing went on till after 1 in the morning. Which, technically, is a rather early night out in Tel Aviv...

The next couple of days were spent exploring Tel Aviv. It doesn't have any of the history of neighboring Jerusalem (what having been founded just over a hundred years ago and all) - it is, however, a relaxed, yet vibrant city, filled with markets, cafes, night clubs, and people on the far extremes of religious observance. A lot of Israel shuts down on Shabat (Friday sundown to Saturday sundown) - Tel Aviv just slows down and relaxes a bit more. Life in pictures:

On the beach in Tel Aviv. The old city of Jaffa in the background

Like I said, art on the streets. I think Sigmund Freud and I make for a nice couple. Sorry about the bunny ears, Siggy!

Michelle had come down from Haifa for the wedding and to play tour guide for a day around Tel Aviv

Fresh fruit and vegetable market. Tel Aviv is actually a very compact city, so it's easy to walk around and get everywhere you want to go

In Jaffa, the old city, where the twisting stone streets (all named after zodiac signs) host an abundance of art galleries. Or sometimes just a hanging tree...

The Frank Meisler Gallery was the most remarkable that we saw, with his variety of sculptures. The Temple of Jerusalem here.

Sunset over the Mediterranean

It's a Jewish state, of course, but there's no shortage of Mosques and Christian Churches in the Holy Land

The people of Tel Aviv tend to be on the liberal and progressive side - this is a demonstration pushing for legalization of marijuana that I stumbled upon when passing through Rabbin Square one afternoon...

Some additional general impressions on Israel... Everybody - men and women - serves in the army. I knew that. And everybody takes public transport to get to and from their army bases (the soldiers often get weekends off). I knew that as well. And while I also knew that the soldiers on their way home do take their guns everywhere with them, it was still a slight shock to see all these 18 and 19 year olds riding the train with their M-16's. Not loaded... The trains and buses do feel quite safe though - not sure I'd want to be a pick-pocket getting caught by a bunch of armed soldiers...

The other thing that kept coming up in conversations is that Israel may very well be a totally different country in another 30 or 40 years. And the threats it faces don't come from the surrounding Arab world (well, there's plenty of those too, but we're not talking about them now). There is drama here after all - internally, Israeli Jews conform to a wide array of religious practices. Currently, the majority is secular, and religion plays about the same role in their lives as it does for most secular people in the world. However, that's not everyone in Israel - exactly the same as Islam has its extremist factions, and modern Christianity produces lots of devout fundamentalists, Judaism has its fair share of Orthodox Jews of various sects. The people that I had only pictured as cartoons on the the streets of Brooklyn at the turn of the 20th century are alive and well here in Israel. Generally, I'm all for a 'to each his own' approach, but that tolerance runs into some brick walls when the Orthodox sects practice a lot of the similar social practices that I find downright appalling in the extremes of the Arab world - segregation and extreme inequality between men and women, lack of formal education beyond religious studies (and even the religious studies tend to focus on rote memorization rather than interpretation), and closed-minded, ignorant, and rather militant mistrust of the outside world, especially the non-Jewish world. And where all this becomes a problem for the state of Israel is, quite frankly, sex - much like the fundamental principles of the other major religions, Jewish Orthodoxy preaches that sex is to be used for pro-creation only, which makes birth control irrelevant. Nature, however, has other ideas, and human beings tend to be hormonally induced to be drawn towards sex, even the fundamentalist and orthodox human beings, and the result is that the Orthodox population is growing exponentially in Israel, which will make them a majority in the country within another generation (which will turn Israel into a Jewish version of Saudi Arabia?), and, at the current state of affairs, will bankrupt the state, as anyone pursuing an Orthodox religious education in Israel is eligible to be entirely supported by the state while they study (until age 40 generally), and are also exempt from military service. So, that's all a little scary... The place is filled with lots of really smart and ingenuitive people, so I hope they figure out a way for everyone to get along, without becoming a fundamentalist religious state!

And on a brighter note, in a couple of hours, I'm heading off to the airport to pick up Irina (from such previous adventures as Colombia) and we'll be spending the next two weeks exploring Israel and Egypt together. So, hopefully, the next mentions of the Orthodox sects here in Israel will be confined to photographs of people the two of us will be encountering in Jerusalem!

Friday, May 7, 2010


Really, how can a man support such an enormous set of lips? Wouldn't you have to have extra strong neck muscles, or something to support such things? The man with the lips and I got off to a bad start immediately - I had my window seat on the plane to Athens, and was looking forward to having an entire half row to myself for the 35 minute flight. But then, the last two to come on board were the man with the giant lips and his ugly lady friend. No, I mean, really, she wasn't very attractive. They took the two aisle seats in row 4, I took note of the over-sized lips and went back to trying to fall asleep. But sleep wasn't meant to be - the man of the giant lips and his lady friend had a lot to say to each other, across the aisle. And they proceeded to say it, loudly. And they laughed, boy did they ever laugh! I would call the laugh infectious, but not in the sense that I wanted to join in, more that I thought he was infected with some sort of a terrible affliction that caused this. And then a phone rang (five minutes after taken off). And kept ringing for a minute - eventually the lip man tore himself away from the laughter and conversation and picked up his phone. Stared at it, seemingly in no way surprised, (or sorry to be receiving a call in flight), ignored the call, put the phone back in his pocket (still turned on - the next call might be important, you never know), and turned back to his ugly lady friend.

I decided I'd make him famous through my powers of the blogosphere in retaliation, so here's to you, loud annoying man with the giant lips (and an AWFUL lot to say with those lips!)

Michelle's rendition of the suspect based purely on my descriptions

PS. On the bright side, my flight, delayed from the day before by the general strike in Greece, was otherwise uneventful, and I arrived in Tel Aviv, Israel a few hours later. Sadly lacking in sleep...

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The rioting Greeks

It finally started to rain around shortly after noon. It had been dark and gloomy ever since the morning, which seemed to fit my mood; I tried to busy myself going off to find a place to exchange my left over Albanian Lek and Serbian Dinars. I got 7.40 Euro for my efforts - the night before I spent 35 Euro for my taxi back from the airport and a second night at my hostel here in Thessaloniki. Net loss. And why was I back at my hostel in Thessaloniki (instead of on a beach in Haifa)? Well, because the airport is closed - the whole country is on strike. I posted this on twitter two days ago, while somewhere in the middle of Serbia, upon learning that the Greek trains were on strike:

Q: How would Greek financial crisis affect the trip?
A: Trains on strike, getting from Macedonian border to Thessaloniki TBD at the moment!

So, I was wrong. The trains weren't a problem, it was the airport that got me.

This brings up an interesting question - what's worse, spontaneous riots on the streets of Kathmandu over raised fuel prices in the impoverished country of Nepal, or well organized strikes and demonstrations in Greece? Sure, sure Nepal still loses - they were throwing bricks at us, but at least the Kathmandu airport (guarded by UN peacekeepers) remained open throughout. Here, nobody wanted to bother me, but the airport was participating in the strike, and, voila, I was stuck. And getting stuck upset me far more. (Or is that the Kathmandu was over two years ago, and I've just moved on? Hmmm...) After all Tommy went off into the riotous crowds back in Kathmandu to get some pictures and [to our astonishment] returned unharmed, describing the rioters as rather friendly...

I was supposed to be in Israel by now, having left Thessaloniki on a flight to Tel Aviv at 11:30PM last night. It was by the time that my last pre-strike bus of the evening got me to the airport that I began to realize that there may be a problem - the terminal seemed deserted; I found a display, and, of course, all the flights are canceled today... The tower workers were taking part in the nation-wide strike! Til midnight. My flight's at 11:30, think they just pushed it back by 31 minutes? Nope, I'm now ticketed to go on the same flight 24 hours later (calling the airline for a strike update before leaving for the airport tonight).

And what exactly might we be striking about, you may be wondering? Well, it's probably been in the news back home - the Greek government has this tiny, little insignificant financial ... catastrophe. They've got some loan payments due, don't have any money to pay them, and nobody will lend them more money because, well, you apparently can't ask a sovereign state for their first-born as collateral. So the rest of the Euro-zone countries, along with the IMF, are providing a 110 billion Euro loan package (at 5 percent). It's not real popular back in Germany, France, etc. either, but it's apparently even less popular here. Because, believe it or not, those other EU countries and the IMF have insisted on some guarantees that Greece will be able to cut its national deficit over the next few years and, you know, repay the 110 billion Euros via some 'austerity measures.' And now we're protesting... and striking... and my flight is canceled because the airport is closed, and unlike the train service, they wouldn't just provide a bus to Tel Aviv instead. And I totally saw amphibious tourist buses in Budapest...

The demonstrators marching through the center of Thessaloniki

Contrasting them to the rioters in Kathmandu - the Nepalese have really got the riot thing down better

I met up with Jimi here in Thessaloniki - Jimi, the Greek mini enthusiast, who spent half a day working on mine back during the rally after we run into him in the middle of Serres, and is far more responsible for the mini getting anywhere near Mongolia than any of the other [many] mechanics along the way

The waterfront in Thessaloniki - before I got pissed off about being stuck here, I went for a little sight-seeing

it's just called 'The White Tower'

And this is the Rotunda of St. George. Sits just outside of my hostel

Jesus keeps suffering inside the Rotunda

And yet roses bloom outside of it, ignorant of his suffering...

Well, back to the strike - is it all just a scam by the Greek government to help stimulate the economy? After all, school's out today (teachers on strike) and all the kids are hanging out at the street side cafes all day long, playing cards and backgammon and drinking coffee... The adults seem to be enjoying a day of shopping as well. On the other hand, the post office down the street from me had all of its windows smashed, and this in relatively calm Thessaloniki - three people were being reported dead in Athens... It's a good thing Californians only riot over police brutality (or Lakers championships), not when Schwarzenegger cuts a bunch of their state benefits to try and balance that state's budget...

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The 'B' Capitals of Eastern Europe

Berlin... Belgrade... Budapest... Bucharest

Believe it or not, I liked geography back when I was growing up too. And since I was growing up in the Soviet Union, a lot of the geography I paid attention to dealt with the countries of Eastern Europe. And a lot of them had capitals that started with 'B' (and then when I was six, a huge shopping center named 'Budapest' opened right across the street from our house in Moscow, really captivating my attention and imagination). So, why not see all these 'B' capitals!? I got to Berlin just before the Mongol Rally in 2008; a certain Moldova-sponsored detour, brought me to Bucharest in July. That detour continued on to Budapest, but all I saw was the ring road that took me right around the city, so this time I was back!

And I got inside the ring road:

I also didn't have a car to worry about anymore

In fact, I got to spend an entire weekend wondering around Buda and Pest and taking in the sites of the city, which has begun to once again attract hordes of tourists, since its re-liberation in 1990. Before we get the photo gallery, a few general thoughts on the place... Now, just because I'm grouping Berlin, Budapest, Belgrade, and Bucharest together doesn't actually make them at all similar. Berlin is, of course, a beast entirely of its own, a German city of never-ending night life extraordinaire. Budapest, a former part of the Austro-Hungarian empire stands out, not so surprisingly, for being far and away the closest to Western Europe (its location is the most Western-most too). The architecture is more reminiscent of my brief visit to Vienna than anything else, the city (and the entire country) is predominantly Roman Catholic, unlike its more Russian/Greek Orthodox dominated sister cities to the East. That being said, Budapest also has that unmistakable look of a big city in a formerly Communist country - it's mostly just a feel for me, but I tried to categorize the visual clues that gave me that distinct impression. In the words of Jeff Foxworthy:

Your city might be a former Eastern bloc capital if:
- your public spaces are relatively unkempt. The pavement on the sidewalks and roads is torn and cracked, and there's graffiti on the houses
- your downtown buildings are all older. Even if reasonably well maintained, there's hardly any new construction sprinkled in.
- once you get out of the center of the city just a little, your city is noticeably green and verdant. Wild green, nothing like the manicured Central Park in New York or London's Hyde Park
- the insides of your buildings (say, my hostel) are characterized by big, wide, empty, and usually unlit stairwells, and no elevators. Bonus points for trash and smells of urine in abundance, but those were thankfully not present in my hostel
- smell of urine in your alleys? Definitely a plus!
- shady looking men looking to sell some sort of unspecified (but shady) goods and services outside the train station, an even bigger plus! These guys, by the way, seem to have been generally replaced by the Nigerians in a lot of the Western cities these days, including Tokyo, Paris, and, surprisingly enough, Thessaloniki, Greece, where I am at the moment

So, while Budapest is certainly very closely tied to Western Europe - culturally perhaps more so than to Eastern Europe, 40 plus years of Soviet domination have left some indelible signs of being a communist-run city. Alright, enough cultural anthropology, on to my favorite sights on the place:

The House of Parliament sits on the banks of the Danube

Did I mention the Roman Catholics? The St. Stephen's Cathedral in Pest, named for St. Stephen I of Hungary (c. 975-1038) - his mummified hand resides in a chapel inside. It's apparently traveled extensively around Europe, but has been returned to Budapest after WWII.

The inside of the Basilica - the Catholics sure do know how to decorate. Decorations a bit less blood thirsty than the ones in South America though...

A trip to the observation deck up on the roof gives an expansive view of the surrounding city

Across the river, in Buda, sits the grand, yet slender Mathias Church. Uniquely beautiful inside too, I've been told, but sadly I showed up an hour too late to go in!

Back in Pest, this is the Budapest Great Synagogue - second largest in the world according to my hostel, somewhere in the top five according to wikipedia. Either way, an amazing sight, and remarkable for having survived both Hitler and Stalin...

Ah, those crafty Jews with their funny synagogue signs...

"The Shoes on the Danube Promenade" is more somber - a memorial to Jews who were executed on this spot by the Nazis during WWII. The Germans had the foresight to make their prisoners take their shoes off prior to shooting them...

After a weekend here, I felt like I had Budapest well covered, along with prior visits to Berlin and Bucharest, so all that was left now was Belgrade, the capital of Serbia. Serbia has some other distinctions as well - Belgrade is directly on the way to Thessaloniki, where I was headed to visit friends and catch my flight to Tel Aviv, and Serbia is the only one of the seven former Yugoslav republics we didn't make it too during the rally in 2008 (Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Kosovo, and Macedonia being the others. Granted the coastal road in Croatia passes through Bosnia for all of about 10 minutes, but that's ten more minutes than I had ever spent in Serbia). So, in short order, I boarded my Belgrade-bound train in Budapest Monday morning... and 8 hours later I had arrived in Belgrade (the journey really wasn't interesting, so I won't dwell on it).

Belgrade isn't a whole lot like Budapest. Serbia isn't in the EU; it doesn't draw anywhere near the numbers of tourists (I heard almost exclusively Serbian on the street, which is a LOT more similar to Russian than Hungarian is, by the way), and in a clear sign that reminded me of Russia and Ukraine, most women, these days, choose to dress like they are in some way employed by the adult industry (no complaints!). I also got to spend all of one evening in Belgrade, so my sight-seeing opportunities were a bit more limited, but here's the best sites of the place from the time I had:

The St. Marco Church - me thinks we are a lot more Greek Orthodox around here...

The Belgrade Fortress as darkness gathers. This is a city park, by the way, which was filled with locals just hanging out, strolling around, and generally enjoying this warm Monday evening

A relic from the Balkans war from the 90's. I don't know what used to be in this building that caused NATO to bomb it, nor why they're refusing to fix it, but it's a pretty poignant reminder

Hostel reviews along the way: Budapest, Belgrade, Thessaloniki:
- Carpe Nochem, Budapest: Cleanliness #3, Fun #1. It wasn't dirty, but it was in that older building, with the unlit stairwell in Budapest, and was always full. It wasn't full at 9 at night, every night though, as around 8:30, the whole hostel was out for a pub crawl along the local pubs, bars, and clubs, every night. Returning some time around 4 to 6 in the morning...
- Manga Hostel, Belgrade: Cleanliness #2, Fun #2. Not quite full, but close to it, close enough for their to be enough other travelers to hang out and watch a movie with at night. Quite clean though, and has an attractive little garden outside. Hard to compete with 'pub crawl till 4-6 in the morning every night' though
- RentRooms, Thessaloniki: Cleanliness #1, Fun #3. Spotless, and empty. The place is clearly quite new, and pristinely scrubbed - in a fun area of town too (University district) and also features a nice garden/backyard, but backpackers in Greece all flock to Athens and the islands, so the only ones here are just stuck making a connection (which is really what I'm here for as well), so there's hardly anyone here. Limits your fun potential... In fact, when I got stuck here for an extra day last night (damn strike!), I found the two other guys in my room asleep at 10 o'clock at night.

As for where we started this whole post:
Berlin: early July 2008
Bucharest: late July 2008, but I wasn't in the mood for any sight-seeing...
Budapest: April, 2010
Belgrade: May, 2010

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Some Budapest thoughts

- my feet hurt. Spent all day walking around town yesterday, followed that up with being out till 4 in the morning last night. Today's been a struggle. Looking forward to spending most of tomorrow on a train (to Belgrade). Maybe I should have done the thermal baths after all...

- I love Nestea's Peach tea! Loved it last time I was in the area, still loving it now. The peach juices in South America were amazing too, why aren't there more peach-flavored beverages available in the States!?

- the 'Terror House', a museum documenting the Soviet occupation of Hungary, is kind of a chilling experience... Growing up in Soviet Russia, you don't quite get the same story about the Soviet Union's interactions with 'our Eastern European brothers'

- just as my parents had described it, you hear plenty of Russian speech on the streets of Budapest. I'm not used to coming to a city for the first time, that my parents have already been to though - I thought I was the traveling trendsetter in the family

- it looks like I'll get to visit the two biggest synagogues in the world on this trip. The second biggest is here in Budapest. Is the biggest one some place in Israel? Of course not, it's in New York City. But I'll get there in July too... Hmm, turns out wikipedia disagrees with the sources at my hostel: they think the biggest is in Jerusalem

- I do have lots of pictures, they'll be in another post, these are 'thoughts' after all