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long term travel

Around the world travel, Backpacking, Bucket List, Kathmandu, long term travel, Nepal, Travel

Hello Kathmandu, You’re Almost as Crazy as India

After a whirlwind 24-hours in Istanbul, I began my journey to Kathmandu, via Dubai. I began to get that “I’m not in Kansas anymore” feeling. Turkey and Israel had been relatively tame and definitely first world compared to where I was headed. And just sitting and people watching over a coffee in the Dubai airport made me want to return.

I boarded the flight from Dubai to Kathmandu, which was empty so I stretched out for some sleep, waking up in just enough time to catch a glimpse of the Himalayas before landing- a picture of what’s to come.
Upon landing in Kathmandu, I realized I didn’t have any dollars. And for some reason, they don’t accept local currency for visas, so I befriended Stevie, the Scotsman. He paid for my visa in exchange for Nepalese Rupees and we shared a cab to town, well actually just out of town, to the Sparkling Turtle Hostel, where I would spend the next few days.
I had hoped to get my trekking permit within days and get out of Kathmandu, but the permit office was closed for public holidays, so things were on hold for a few days. There was a great group of people at the hostel and we spent our days roaming aimlessly around the trekking shops and cafes, eating momos, drinking masala tea, and the evenings pub hopping and discussing life over Everest Beer, which is sometimes served in an Everest bottle and other times served in a Kingfisher bottle…odd.
I was slowly getting sucked into Kathmandu entirely, so the following day, I made my way with a few others to the trekking permit office. We were all going in different directions. I was headed to Annapurna, based on some friends’ recommendations, and a few others were headed to Everest, which I had heard was more touristy and less scenic. By the end of the afternoon, the permits were sorted and I had bought myself wooly socks, a hat, altitude sickness medication and a used NorthFace sleeping bag, of which I had little faith in.
We all reconvened at the hostel for a last supper before parting ways. After repacking my trekking pack and shedding the extra things I wouldn’t need to survive the wilderness, I headed upstairs for one last beer with the crew. Despite being in Kathmandu longer than I had anticipated, I was thankful for the people that I had met and the bond that had formed amongst the group. I looked forward to regrouping with them at the end of the month after all our new adventures.
Around the world travel, Backpacking, Bucket List, Israel, long term travel, Tel Aviv, Travel

Winding Down in Tel Aviv

We were up early Monday morning to return the rental car – so early we got there before the office opened, so we popped across the street for a coffee while we waited. The office opened at 8:00 and we quickly learned we had done double the allowed mileage on the rental car. Oops! So after some negotiations, we paid a much smaller fee than originally quoted and we also made friends with Roiy, who invited us out for drinks that evening.

Our only plans for the day were to chill out and cafe hop, and we did just that, while enjoying some of the amenities that come with being in a capital city. We strolled through Tel Aviv’s sprawling food market, window shopped on Shenkin Street and drank coffee at cafes that rivaled the hipster joints on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
We dodged late afternoon rain showers and made our way to met up with Roiy for some beers. I always appreciate time with locals, as it gives you better insight into what life is really like in a place. After a couple of beers at a typical Irish pub, we got to talking about life in Israel. Roiy spoke of the high cost of living in Tel Aviv which is crippling for so many people. He wants to be a hang-gliding pilot, but because of the cost of courses, his rent, and the low wage he makes at his current job, his certification is taking longer than he would like.
He talked to us about his time in the army, and his disposition changed entirely. He said that his time serving in the army, “put his light out,” and he quickly changed the subject although we were so interested to hear more. After a few more drinks, we headed for what would be my last late-night falafel and made our way back to the hostel. I said goodbye to Dave, as he was leaving for a very early morning flight. It stormed hard all night, and I was relieved to wake up to clear skies. There’s nothing like schlepping in the rain with a 25lb backpack on.
I arrived at the airport more than 3 hours prior to my flight, as recommended by other travelers and Israelis alike. The security checks were like nothing else I have ever experienced. Both my checked and unchecked bags were unpacked and repacked, down to every coin being taken out of my purse. Luckily, the questioning about my time in Israel and what I had done was not as grueling as I had heard it would be.
I headed to the gate with mixed feelings. My time in Israel had been an education from start to finish. But I felt like I had carried a weight with me the entire time, not one of worry, but one of trying to figure out the dichotomy of this young country. Each city felt like being in a new country, and there was no “getting used” to it. Many places I leave feeling like I know I will return to, but I didn’t feel that way about Israel. I feel like it was a place I needed to go out of a desire to learn and understand, but for me it didn’t offer that draw or magic that I’ve experienced elsewhere. I boarded my flight back to Istanbul, excited for one more day in what had turned out to be such a surprisingly likeable city before departing for a totally different experience altogether…Nepal!
Around the world travel, Backpacking, Bucket List, Dead Sea, Israel, long term travel, Masada, Travel

Masada and The Dead Sea… Against the Clock

On Sunday, we were up early to see the Church of the Sepulchre and Temple Mount before heading out of Jerusalem with Dave’s friends from Tel Aviv. We queued at the Church of the Sepulchre, where Jesus was believed to be laid to rest, and after 30 minutes, got a glimpse of the tomb. We them hoofed it over to Temple Mount, but the lines were so long, we had to miss it. We were disappointed but decided to walk down an alleyway to buy a coffee for our walk back to the hostel, and we noticed a door in the distance. We strolled down and talked to a couple of guards, and we found a different entrance to the temple. We weren’t allowed to enter, but we at least got an up close view and a photo opp of this special sight.

We sipped coffee and stumbled upon a pastry cart on the walk back. The city was just waking up, and I realized that I love Old Jerusalem best in the wee hours of the morning or the very late hours of night, when tourists have gone back to their hotels, and it feels like it’s just you and the locals.
We grabbed our bags at the hostel and headed over to a bus station on the main road, the place where Dave had arranged to meet his friends from Tel Aviv. They had graciously agreed to pick us up on their way to Masada and take us back to Tel Aviv that same night. Unfortunately, 2 hours later we were still waiting, so we made our way to Budget Car Rental and hired a Suzuki Splash for the day and made our way out of Jerusalem.
This was quite hilarious as the GPS was stuck on Spanish and suffering from a serious delay. It would have probably worked better if I tossed it out the window. Still, as we approached Arad, we stopped for clearer directions and lucky we did, as we learned that we needed to enter Masada from a specific direction if we wanted to take the tram, and given our time crunch we figured this was the best idea.
We pulled into the gates of Masada at 2:58 and the last tram went up at 3:00. Dave dropped me at the entrance, and I ran in to buy tickets and hold the tram while he parked the car. We made the last tram and breathed a sigh of relief as it climbed to the top of Masada. It would have been such a shame to drive all that way and not have the opportunity to see this historic fort and city. It was a bit of a whirlwind tour, but definitely worth seeing, and in just under one hour, we were making our way back down. We had about 1 hour left of sunlight and it was my last chance for a dip in the Dead Sea.
I made for the public restrooms near the parking lot at Masada and quickly changed, and we got back on the road to drive down to one of the public beaches nearby. We parked at Le Meridien and I walked right onto the beach and into the sea. I didn’t have the chance to lather up in mud, but I was just thankful I hadn’t missed the opportunity altogether.
I got a real kick out of floating and Dave laughed at me from the water’s edge. I’ve heard plenty of stories about this and have seen pictures, but it is so cool to experience. This is something that everyone should do once! I floated for about 20 minutes and gave myself a good salt scrub, then took a quick freshwater shower, did a deck change by the car, and we were back on the road. It had been a whirlwind of a day.
We made our way back to Tel Aviv with a quick stop in Arad for shawarma and by 8:30 we were on the outskirts of Tel Aviv. I was at the wheel and Dave was navigating, which was working for us. We found the hostel with no problem and located a public parking lot nearby, as well as a great market. I felt like I was back at the Amish Market in New York City for a second.
We set our alarms so we could get the rental car back on time the following morning, and I started doing calculations in my head of how many extra kilometers we were going to be charged for… oh well, we had miraculously seen it all and ended up back in Tel Aviv in one piece – that was all that mattered.
Around the world travel, Backpacking, Bucket List, Israel, Jerusalem, long term travel, Travel

Religious-ed Out in Jerusalem

We checked in at the Citadel Hostel in Old Jerusalem and headed for a breakfast of shakshuka and hummus. Food was quickly becoming a highlight of my trip to Israel. Here, Anita and I met Dave, a Canadian traveler, who had just arrived from Jordan, so the three of us set out to Rampart’s Walk for a tour of the rooftops of Jerusalem. We then left the Old City at Lion’s Gate and hiked up to Mount of Olives, where we watched Orthodox Jews visit graves and say their prayers. This is a holy place for Jews because they believe when the Messiah returns, this is where he will come. The hike to the top afforded us panoramic views of Jerusalem.

We had a chilled out afternoon and spent the evening at a bar in the New City before heading to Damascus Gate (the Muslim area of Jerusalem) for 7 shekel falafel – the cheapest, and best yet. We walked through the empty Old City on the way back to the hostel, playing an aggressive game of football with a group of street kids. The city had gone to sleep for the night, and I would later come to appreciate this time, when I could roam the winding alleyways, sans tourists and crowds.
The following day, we set ourselves up for a big day of sights, starting at the Holocaust Museum. We spent 3 1/2 hours taking in exhibit after exhibit and story after story of this period of history. The amount of material was extensive and the trip was so educational, but also emotional draining. Since we’d spent so much time here, we scratched afternoon plans and just regrouped over coffee.
I reflected back on the morning and thought about the oppression the Jews experienced. It made me think about my time in Palestine, and despite being on a very different scale, the oppression the Palestinian people are experiencing. Although this stems from religion, it now has simply become a matter of humanity and respect for other human beings. I felt angry knowing that in a way, history has repeated itself in many different places the world over since the Holocaust.
The following morning, we headed to Mount Zion to see the church where apparently Mary is laid to rest. This was flooded with Indian Christians, which was oddly bizarre. Indians believe that part of the God or Deity they are worshipping is alive in the statue or monument, and swarms of these tourists were climbing over security lines and barricades to touch the tomb and the sculpture of Mary resting on top. It was the same with the other sculptures of Mary surrounding the tomb. From here, we did a quick walk through the Room of the Last Supper, which was highly disappointing. We then made a stop at Schindler’s grave, something that had been on my list of things I wanted to see in Israel.
From here, it was time to part ways with Annita. She was heading back to Tel Aviv. I was sad to see her go and feared being a little lost without her. We had spent over a week traveling together and experienced so much. We promised to reconnect in Switzerland in the near future and agreed to make a return trip to Palestine for Yousef’s son’s wedding.
Dave and I continued on the sightseeing circuit, touring the Citadel & Tower of David, Church of the Holy Sepulchre, back to Damascus Gate for falafel and then to the Wailing Wall for the beginning of Shabbat. My head was spinning and Dave suggested a bottle of wine and some backgammon… we needed a break from this religious education. This entailed one more trip back to Damascus Gate for more falafel… an addiction was forming.
On Saturday, I decided to honor Shabbat and do nothing. One of the workers at the hostel invited me to a meal at a local rabbi’s home, and I gladly accepted, excited to witness Jewish traditions and to have the chance to partake in them. I couldn’t help but compare it to the experiences I had already had and unfortunately the hospitality just didn’t compare. Don’t get me wrong, I was gracious and impressed by this family taking in so many people from the local community and all over the world, but I was sitting with a group of people who couldn’t seem to understand why I wanted to be there. It also felt a bit “extreme,” sort of like taking a European to a Baptist Church in the heart of the Bible Belt, so after the breaking of the bread and listening to a few people talk, I snuck out the back door and headed to Damascus Gate for some falafel- shock!
I returned to the hostel and shortly after, Dave returned from his day trip to the Palestinian Territories. We had a lot to talk about, which was done again over red wine and backgammon – which i was getting surprisingly good at. We made plans to get out of Jerusalem the following day and make our way back to Tel Aviv, via Masada and the Dead Sea.
Around the world travel, Backpacking, Bucket List, long term travel, Palestine, Travel

The Other Side of Israel – The World Within the Wall – Part 2

Hebron is about 30 minutes by car from Bethlehem and a known hotspot for Palestinian and Israeli tension. We decide to begin our day with a visit. Yousef picks us up and during the drive we see a big security checkpoint on the opposite side of the road. I see Yousef tense up. He explains to us that the registration on his car expires the following day, but he can’t renew it due to the festival. He fears he’ll get a ticket if he’s stopped by a soldier.

We arrive in Hebron and park in a public lot. The day before, Yousef had told us how much the apparently “illegal” Jewish settlements are expanding. In some cases, the entrances to Palestinian peoples’ homes have been blocked, causing them to have to enter and exit through windows on the back side of their houses. As we park, we see a man crawling out of a window and down a ladder to the street. He comes over to Yousef to say hello and tells him in Arabic that he’s just been visiting his family. He doesn’t speak English and for a moment I’m thankful, because I’m at a loss for words.
We walk over to Ibrahim Mosque, through a security check and then up to the entrance for another security check. This is the place, where in 1994 a Jewish settler opened fire inside the mosque, killing 29 Muslims. Abraham is believed to be buried here, so the sight is sacred to both Jews and Muslims. Sadly enough, the entrance is divided so worshippers can enter on the appropriate side- Muslims to the left, Jews to the right.
After touring the mosque, we walk down the path to a shop run by Yousef’s friend, Abbot. We spend some time visiting with him, sipping sweet spearmint tea. Apparently the entire street used to be lined with Palestinian shops. Now they are all boarded up and closed. This area has now been deemed a Jewish settlement area and shop owners have been forced to shut down. As we sip tea, we watch two Israeli soldiers patrol a checkpoint, checking ID’s of each person who passes, making sure they are allowed to be in the area they are in. A Jewish man walks by carrying an automatic weapon. Despite being one of the 800 Jewish people protected by 4,000 Israeli soldiers, he still feels the need to carry his own weapon and is allowed to do so. I ask Yousef if Palestinian people are allowed to carry weapons, and he looks at me as if I have two heads. He said, if a Palestinian man were to carry a weapon, his own people would most likely turn on him.
From here, we walk through the main market of Hebron- which basically sits under a Jewish settlement. A wire roof has been built across the top of the shop roofs to catch the garbage that is thrown at them – this often includes human excrement. The wire roof is covered with trash. Israeli soldiers patrol each end of the market. We visit a few shops and walk back through the market to the mosque and queue in a long security line, something that is just a part of daily life for the people living here.
We head back to the car and back to Bethlehem. Five minutes into the drive, Yousef pulls over and asks a driver stopped at a traffic light on the other side of the road about the security checkpoint we saw earlier. We have the all clear to head back the way we came.
Yousef drops us at Manger Square in Bethlehem as we need an hour or so to see the Nativity Church and the Milk Grotto before heading back to his house for dinner. We have no gumption. Hebron has left us feeling flattened and emotionally and mentally exhausted – possibly with more questions in our head than we began with.
We sit down for a coffee and then force ourselves to see the sights. We’re then on a hunt for sweets to take to Yousef’s house. We find nothing that’s good enough, so when he comes to collect us we insist that we stop by his favorite sweet shop on the way to his home, no questions asked. He reluctantly agrees and takes us to buy $30 worth of kunafah, enough to feed the 13 of us that will be there.
Yousef is a gracious host and throughout the first few minutes, we begin to meet the five of his seven sons who are home. We then meet his wife, and when he returns from performing the formal call to prayer, we meet his father. We sit in the formal living room and Yousef breaks out a family photo album that includes all of his son’s school photos, graduation pictures, baby pictures, trips to Arafat’s tomb and in earlier days, trips to Jerusalem.
Not too long after we arrive, a massive plate of rice, chicken and vegetables is brought out and it’s enough to feed everyone, but we eat with just Yousef and two of his students from South Korea. Yousef also teaches Arabic. He insists we eat more, asking us why we don’t like the food, and then only stops insisting when he realizes we are in physical pain. After too much food, the plates are cleared and Yousef’s wife, Ramosa joins us, and one by one, the sons join too. It’s time for kunafah and this is a family affair. Ramosa prepares spearmint tea and we share stories and communicate in broken English and Arabic. The second to eldest son studies pharmacy in English, so he helps translate while Yousef leaves to pray.
Ramosa enjoys having guests and putting her sons to work for her – something which probably isn’t a common occurrence. It’s up to the woman to run the house, and she is up daily at 4:30 to take care of everyone before the first call to prayer.
The conversation turns to marriage and dating and Yousef tells us he struggles with the western world’s views on dating today. He explains how it works in Palestine. Say his son is interested in a girl. Yousef will take it upon himself to learn all he can about that girl’s family through asking the village people. If he feels she is a good person, Yousef will then approach the family and show interest in the daughter. Then the girl’s family will do the same sort of background check on Yousef and his family. If they are in agreement, the two can start to see each other, only in supervised settings at first. Four to six months later, Yousef will ask his son if he wants to continue seeing the girl. If so, the visits can now be unsupervised now and plans for an engagement and wedding (which all fall financially on Yousef) can be made. We shared stories of our traditions and Yousef made us promise that we would not only return for his first son’s wedding, but that we would stay in his home. The Arab hospitality puts many others to shame.
Grandpa is still with us at this time and something is said in Arabic that causes an uproar of laughter. You can tell the boys are encouraging Yousef to tell us something. He says to us, “How old do you think my father was when he married?” Anita and I look each other and don’t know where to start. So, I throw out the number 14 and one of Yousef’s sons pushes his hand down as if to say “younger.” We begin counting down until we get to 9. Apparently the two families wanted this couple to wed, so it was arranged. Yousef’s father was 9 and his bride was 14. Yousef looked at us and said, “You always hear of the groom carrying his bride to bed, but never of the groom having to be put to bed by his bride.”
Yousef and his boys have a good laugh, and grandpa sort of shrugs and looks at his watch as if it’s time to go. It was time for us to go too, but we were reluctant to see the night end. We piled into Yousef’s car- Anita, Ramosa and me in the back, Yousef in the front passenger seat with his 6-year-old son Mantes and Ahmed at the wheel. He tells us not to worry, that he has a license, and Yousef said it was good for him to remember what it’s like to be driven around.
They drop us back at Ibda and we say a heartfelt goodbye. Ramosa squeezed our hands for so long, it was like we were saying goodbye to a lifelong friend. We thanked Yousef profusely. Hebron had been a difficult way to start the day, but spending time with Yousef’s family was a testament to optimism and hope and shows that sometimes in bleak conditions, you find reassurance and happiness in the compassion between family and friends, and in what you value and believe in. It had been a day of rich experiences.
We checked out of Idba the following morning and headed to the bus station for public bus 21. We had heard that this was an easy checkpoint and that travel would be more straightforward. As we boarded the bus, we saw Yousef across the street and called out to him. He knew we would be there, and we had the chance for a final goodbye. We had no problems crossing back into Israel, and no more than 20 minutes later we were back at Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem. It was hard to believe that less than 5 miles away a wall contained such a different world, and here we could come and go so freely, while some people within will never get to see Jerusalem. As the man we had shared a taxi with earlier said, “We live in a very big prison.” My initial impression had been an accurate and lasting one.
I hoped that I would continue my time in Israel with an open mind, but I knew it would be difficult to push this experience to the back of my mind. My time in Palestine would come up in conversation again and again throughout my trip, with other travelers and Palestinians. I hoped too that it would be part of conversations with Israelis as well. I had so many burning questions in my mind and needed to feel like there was another side to this story.
Around the world travel, Backpacking, Bucket List, long term travel, Palestine, Travel

The Other Side of Israel – The World Within the Wall – Part 1

Anita and I had been discussing a trip to the West Bank since we met and we were glad to embark on this together. From Nazareth, we boarded a bus to Jerusalem and two hours later we were dropped at Center Bus Station. We cleared security at the main shopping center and went to find a quick snack and coffee. It was odd to be sitting in the middle of a shopping mall, watching people go about their days, while Israeli soldiers patrolled with semi-automatic weapons. There was such a heightened level of security compared to Haifa and Nazareth.

We took a taxi to the road that leads into Bethlehem, but a checkpoint was set up and unfortunately our driver was unable to take us any further. So we got out and began walking to the barricade, not knowing what to expect. We passed a couple of security guards and were stopped by one who sternly asked us where we were from, then smiled and let us pass.
About 5 minutes later, we reached the checkpoint and the passport control office- a huge, monolithic building that sat off the road to the left. To the right was the imposing wall, continuing on for miles in the distance. I looked to Anita and said, “I feel like we’re entering a massive ghetto.”
A father sat with his two sons just outside the office, and he introduced himself to us and his twin boys and said, “Welcome to my Palestine.” From there, we crossed over, barely showing our passports at all. On the other side, we were met by a gaggle of taxi drivers who wanted to take us on tours, show us their land, tell us their stories. We negotiated a ride to Ibda Refugee Camp on the outskirts of Bethlehem. There was hostel like accommodation here for volunteers, and we had hoped that by staying here we’d have the opportunity to talk to some of the volunteers and refugees alike. Unfortunately, due to the festivities surrounding Eid, no one was around, but we did manage to get in touch with a worker and get a room.
We headed into the town of Bethlehem. Our maps were not very helpful, so we stopped along the way to make sure we were heading in the right direction. The last person we asked was standing on the side of the road with three huge black bags. He spoke no English, but motioned for us to follow him. We each carried a shopping bag and began walking. When we arrived where he needed to be, he took his shopping bags from us, and motioned us down the road. We were not far from Manger Square, where the Church of Nativity sits.
Enter Yousef, a man who would dramatically change our time in Palestine. I know I say this a lot when I travel, but you can tell a lot about a person’s character in their eyes, and we were immediately won over by Yousef. We had arrived with no plans, just wanting to better understand the Palestinian way of life and to learn about the plight of its people. So after listening to Yousef’s sales pitch about where he could take us and for how much, Anita and I did what we do best and consulted over a big bowl of hummus.
We decided to go with Yousef for the afternoon to see some local sights and villages, take a visit to the monastery and to see the wall. The adventure began immediately and we were treated to Yousef’s warmth and hospitality. He was eager to teach us about his people and educate us about the situation in Palestine. Our first stop was Herodian, which afforded views of Jordan and the Dead Sea, as well as the surrounding landscape. You could see the number of settlements that have popped up over time. Yousef explained to us the 3 areas: A, B and C and explained the presence the Israeli military had in each. I became dismayed as I learned more and frustrated with myself for not knowing more.
I asked many questions to try and get an understanding of the situation, but you can’t fully understand a situation that just isn’t right. The immediate difference in the quality of life slaps you in the face. Palestinian villages are in rubble, trash is everywhere because there’s no garbage collection and dumps are not designated, buildings are old, schools are fewer in number. The Palestinian’s daily life is controlled- their roads are monitored, their goods are taxed going in and out and there is no guarantee their property will be theirs the following day. And this is all overseen by the Israeli army- boys and girls, approximately aged 18 years. They are probably some of the few Israeli’s who have seen Palestine, and I wonder if they are old and wise enough to question what they are doing and seeing on a daily basis. Other Israeli’s are forbidden to enter Palestine, under Israeli law, and I can’t help but think that Israel doesn’t want their own people to see what is going on behind the wall. They are most likely told it isn’t safe for them to be there, and unfortunately this is a misconception and a reason many tourists steer clear of the West Bank. Still, my time here was the highlight of my time in Israel and you can either be disheartened by the situation or amazed at the strength of the human spirit.
After leaving the monastery, we drove back to Bethlehem and Yousef invited us to his home the following day for one of the feasts of Eid. I was so thankful for his invitation- I had wanted nothing more that to see his village and home and meet his family. He drove us to the wall for a closer look at the size and scale of it and to look at Banksy’s famous artwork. We also saw where the Pope stayed on his visit to Palestine and had a closer look at the Aida Refugee Camp.
Questions flooded my mind, but the type of questions you’re not sure you can ask for fear of offending someone, but over a dinner of shakshuka later that night, Yousef began to tell stories that answered some of those difficult questions. He told us that the situation is improving, that five years ago it would take him 1 1/2 hours to do the 7-minute drive from his home to work due to the number of checkpoints he would have to go through. He spoke of the derogatory treatment women were subjected to from soldiers and he spoke to us about his family- his seven sons. The oldest has finished his education in business but can’t find any work. Two weeks ago, his 12-year old son was arrested in front of him and imprisoned, accused of throwing stones at Israeli soldiers. The same happened to Yousef’s older son and he was sentenced to 18 months in prison and cannot leave the country for 5 years. Even Yousef cannot enter into Israel with the ID card that he has. If he were to travel anywhere, he would first have to go to Jordan. He tells us about his dreams of traveling to Argentina.

Despite the current situation, there is a lightness about Yousef, and Anita points out that the creases on his face aren’t worry lines, they are smile lines. He is happy to be sharing with us and proving that the West Bank is a safe place, made up of decent people. It is evening when Yousef drops us back at Idba and we make plans to meet him the following morning for some more sights and a visit to his home.

Around the world travel, Backpacking, Bucket List, Israel, long term travel, Nazareth, Travel

Christianity 101

From Haifa, we head to Nazareth, but not before learning that it’s Eid, a Muslim festival, equivalent in importance to Christmas. So we’re leaving during Shabbat, arriving in a predominantly Muslim city during the middle of a huge holiday, and we’re being driven by a Christian bus driver. Dizzying. A fellow traveller said to me, “The more confused you are the more you are beginning to understand Israel.” Ain’t that the truth!

Due to the festivities, we’re dropped the other side of town in Nazareth and have about a 30-minute walk to the guesthouse, through parades, fireworks and screaming children. We’re glad to arrive, but it’s odd to be in a place with so much Christian significance during a Muslim holy day.
The following day we set out to see Nazareth’s sights, which doesn’t take long seeing as they all fall within steps of each other. I’ve never been a hugely religious person, but I’m interested to visit the biblical places I’ve heard stories about my entire life. The first stop is the unassuming Synagogue Church- apparently the place where Jesus attended church and later preached. We’re greeted by the church innkeeper who gives us a brief overview of the church, yelling over his shoulder to us, while ringing the morning bells. Interestingly enough, he tells us Nazareth is still 40% Christian.
From here, we head to the Church of the Annunciation, where according to The Bible, Mary announced she would give birth to Jesus. We listened in on a Sunday morning mass in Italian and toured the grounds. Many countries have donated mosaics of their interpretations of The Virgin Mary and Jesus – the artwork was beautiful.
We did a quick tour of St. Joseph’s, where Joseph’s carpentry shop was believed to be, and then went to Mensa Church. ‘Mensa’ means ‘table’ in Latin, and a huge rock sits in the middle of the Church. This is believed to be where Jesus ate with his disciples after rising from the dead.
The last stop was at a Greek Orthodox church, where we managed to sneak in during a christening. We had just a few minutes to take in the ornate paintings and decor.
It was time for lunch and my first opportunity to try falafel- and definitely not my last. This was followed by a trip to a sweet shop that came highly recommended. As we were surveying all the different varieties of baklava and deciding what to sample, I couldn’t help but notice a man in the back of the shop, washing his feet in the sink. I was a bit disturbed by this, and didn’t put two and two together, until he laid down his prayer mat and knelt to say his afternoon prayers. Then, it all made sense, but it was still slightly disturbing.
That afternoon, after sampling the baklava, we hiked up to the Salesian Church on top of the hill. The church was closed but we had some great views of sprawling Nazareth below. We picked up a bottle of Israeli red wine on the way back to the guesthouse, and after the first sip decided they should stick to making baklava!
That night we made plans to head South and West… into the Palestinian Territories
Around the world travel, Backpacking, Bucket List, Haifa, Israel, long term travel, Travel

Hummus, hummus and more hummus

A week has passed since I’ve been in Israel. I’ve covered a lot of territory but haven’t been moving at break-neck speeds, leaving enough time for soaking in the culture and that has been interesting enough to say the least. There are so many components to Israel, so many different people, that it’s difficult to sum up this country concisely.

I began my journey in Haifa, where I was fortunate enough to cross paths with Anita from Switzerland, who is on a 3 week trip to Israel and Jordan. She took the train 2 stops too far, and I got off 2 stops too early and we ended up at the check-in desk at the Port Inn at the same exact time- gotta love coincidences!
We began our afternoon dodging rainstorms in a cafe near the Port Inn over the biggest bowl of hummus and made a plan for the next few days. The following morning we headed to Ben Gurion Avenue for breakfast and to tour the local shrine and gardens.
Ironically enough, I wasn’t beginning my time in Israel learning about Judaism, Islam or Christianity, but a more newly formed religion, called Baha’i. We took a guided tour to learn a bit more. I liked what I heard- a religion founded upon the goal of uniting all of humankind, one that believes in gender equality, education for all and non-violence. Funnily enough, there are no Bahai’s living in Israel as that is against the religion, and the country with the most followers – India.
From here, Anita and I were on a wild goose chase to find the Hertz car rental office. Shabbat was beginning at sundown, so we knew if we wanted to see anything the following day, we would need a car. After 30 minutes of literally running in circles, a kind gentlemen told us that the office had moved… so we weren’t unable to read the map, but we were without wheels!
We still managed to get to Acre the following day by sherut, or shared taxi, but other than being an old port town with some of the best hummus I’ve ever had, Acre wasn’t much to write home about. After stuffing ourselves on hummus, pita, tabouleh and french fries, we roamed the port town in a semi-conscious state, plopping down for double espressos by the waterfront.
With nothing left to do in Acre and Haifa but eat, we decided to move on to Nazareth, public transportation allowing.
Around the world travel, Backpacking, Bucket List, Haifa, Israel, long term travel, Travel

Israel – The Beginning of An Education

I spent my last evening in Istanbul over a couple of glasses of wine with Shelley and Rodrigo at the upstairs bar at Cheers. It was busy, there was a light energy in the air, and I was tempted to stay awake all night and not sleep pre-flight, but common sense got the better of me, and I managed a few hours sleep before the 4am shuttle to Attaturk airport.

I was there too early to check in, but I recognized a guy from my airport shuttle, and he suggested a coffee while we waited. I had no lira left, so I gave him pounds in exchange for a coffee and muffin. We sat for the next hour sharing our Istanbul stories. Less than three hours later, I was on the ground in Tel Aviv.
I had a hard time stifling a smile at immigration. There’s an energy that comes with arriving in a new country, especially one that is so foreign to me, promising and slightly intimidating all at the same time.
I decided logistically to begin my journey in Haifa, just north of Tel Aviv and then head East, working in a clockwise direction, ending back up in Tel Aviv in a couple weeks’ time. I bought a train ticket from Tel Aviv to Haifa and waited the 40 minutes at the train station. As Israeli man returning from Moldova sat down next to me and we struck up a conversation. He wanted to hear all about my plans to see his country and offered to be a tour guide for me when I returned to Tel Aviv. He dug through his duty free shopping and gave me a Toblerone, saying it was good travel fuel.
On the train ride, I sat next to an older woman from Jerusalem who explained to me the dichotemy of the old and the new world here, how Tel Aviv is the land where anything goes, where people are liberal and open-minded, while in Jerusalem, she is put off by the “ultra-religious-ness.”
We exit the train together. She wishes me a good journey and I realize I’ve got off the train two stops too early. Seeing a concerned look on my face, three separate people approach me and ask me if I need help. They get me to the right platform to continue the journey to Haifa.
I strike up a conversation with a young girl in her army fatigues. She is 10-months into her 2 year mandatory military service. She wants to go to university in California when she’s finished. I ask her if she likes what she’s doing, and she just kind of gives me a look like, “well, i have no choice.” She replies, “we have to.” We board the train and two stops later, I thank her and say goodbye.
At the station in Haifa, I open my map to get my bearings and a group of taxi drivers standing nearby ask me where I’m going. “Port Inn?” I say and instead of trying to talk me into taking a taxi, they give me walking directions and tell me it’s not far.
My first impressions are that the Israeli’s are kind and helpful. I have no preconceived notions about Israel. I know little about this country other than its religious importance through history and its political struggle with Palestine. Until this morning, I was unaware that the country is no bigger than the state of New Jersey and was formally founded in 1948.
Very rarely do you travel somewhere where you have no expectations and know so few stereotypes prior. I will let my time in Israel form my opinions as I go. I have a lot to learn and feel dizzy already by what I’m hoping to accomplish in two weeks. Let the journey begin!
Around the world travel, Backpacking, Bucket List, Istanbul, long term travel, Travel, Turkey

Istanbul’s Charm

I wake up feeling lethargic and wanting more sleep, but breakfast ends at 10 and Rodrigo and I have plans to see the Archaeology Museum, so I pull myself out of my warm, cave-like bottom bunk. Breakfast, coffee, coffee, clothes, GO. I’m seeing sculptures and reliefs and remains and ruins, but there’s so much to take in, it’s almost overwhelming. My attention span is limited, so I head outside for some fresh air- and maybe a tea, or coffee.

I head back towards the hostel and pass the owner in the side street. He asks me what I’m up to and I suggest a tea. He links his arm in mine and says, “Come with me.” We stroll to the back of the Sultanahment District, towards the water, snacking on some street corn on the way. Literally, within ten minutes we have lost the crowds from the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia and I feel like I’ve entered a new section of the city, quiet and much less frequented from where we were.
We visit Little Hagia Sofia- a smaller scale replica of the more grand mosque of the same name. Craftsmen occupy small workspaces in the mosque’s courtyard, creating and selling everything from paintings to jewelry to plates. We leave the mosque and walk across the street to a Nargileh Cafe. It’s getting cold and gray and we warm up with an apple tea and a water pipe, whiling away an hour of the afternoon.
We then venture further into the back roads of Sultanahmet, down winding alleyways, over bridges, passing old, dilapidated wooden houses that have retained so much character they almost tell a story. We loop back towards Topkapi Palace and Hagia Sofia and rejoin modern Istanbul, almost like we opened a door and climbed back through from old to new, leaving a magical, more unknown world behind. And I realize this is Istanbul’s charm – a beautiful, harmonious balance between old and new, east and west, and it reminds me of something a Turkish man told me prior to my trip.
He said, “Istanbul is the city where my heart, my whole existence belongs to. Some say it’s too crowded, some say it’s dirty, some say other bad things… some poets say Istanbul is a beautiful old lady that has too much makeup on. I don’t care…I am still in love with her.”
I’m leaving for Israel in the morning and I feel like I’m leaving reluctantly, or should I say, with much inclination to return. Istanbul is a very inviting city – one that asks you daily if you want to stay a bit longer. My answer could have easily been yes.