A Travellerspoint blog

Israel

Craters and Kittens
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We cross the border into Israel, to the seaside resort city of Eilat. It looks clean and modern but we don’t stay long, as we are off to Mitzpe Ramon. The bus drives through the desert, stopping at one base camp after another, and soon the bus is literally filled with young soldiers carrying assault rifles. It is a little unnerving being around guns but the locals take no notice of it, for after high school everyone attends military service (3 years for guys and 2 years for girls).
Mitzpe Ramon is a small town, population 9000, in the Negev desert situated on the edge of a crater. The crater, 40 km in length and __m deep, is the reason for our visit to this sleepy little town. We spent a day hiking around in the barren crater seeing no one but some mountain ibex. After hours of wandering we reached our destination, the “Lion King tree” as dubbed by our host Noam (the only tree we saw growing in the crater).
Speaking of which, Noam was yet another amazing host. He was so welcoming, I felt very comfortable there, plus it didn’t hurt that he had a cat and 4 adorable kittens. He grew up in a kibbutz and is now kind of a new age hippie.
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Fun fact: Israel like Jordan seems to have its fair share of stray cats.

Car-free in Jerusalem
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We arrive to Jerusalem midday and hit the grocery store to stock up for the next 24 hours because it’s Yom Kippur, a Jewish holiday of repentance where basically everything shuts down: no stores, no transit, no cars on the street. At around 6 pm people start to fast. For the next 24 hours people dress in white and go to the synagogue or the Western Wall to pray. If I ever live to see a zombie apocalypse coming I would imagine grocery stores to look like this: people buying carts full of water, loaves of bread, and toilet paper (minus the orderly lines). So feeling slightly under-prepared with our one bottle of water, couscous and canned tuna and tomatoes we wonder back to our host’s flat. That night we went to the old city to see tons of people gathering, praying, and singing while sitting in the intersections. Our hosts, 2 young university students: Gal and Chen (and their dog Rufus) were not observing Yom Kippur, so it was no problem eating there. They had some friends from out of town visiting so we hung out that night playing card games with Ouzo (yuck!). (jungle speed with a shot waiting for you after a mistake, I was apparently not very good :/)
I do not recommend sightseeing hung over…the sun was far too bright in Jerusalem. The old city is divided into 4 quarters: the Jewish, Christian, Armenian and Arab. The old city is very neat, tight cobbled streets that wind about in a maze-like structure. We rushed out in the morning to catch the free city walking tour; despite the website saying it was running, it was not. Left to our own devices, we wander around for hours visiting the church of Christ’s tomb location (there was a line to see some relic, I wonder if it’s Christ’s bones until Nicole says “wasn’t he resurrected and wouldn’t have any remains?” …oops my bad. It turns out it was just the tomb where he was for 3 days…we didn’t wait in line). We also find that there are plenty of restaurants open in the Arab and Christian quarters so even with Mark’s need to eat every 3 hours we don’t starve :P.
We made it up to the top of a lookout overviewing the old city, up above the garden of gesemeny. Walking all day in Jerusalem is exhausting both for my feet and my mind.
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Float like a Boat

We awake early to catch the bus to Ein Gedi an oasis town in the Judean Desert and most notably beach town to the dead sea. We spend the morning hiking at the national park, reaching view points, splashing about in the springs and waterfalls, visiting synagogue ruins and enjoying ice-cream walking along palm trees. If you’re lost in the dessert looking for water it’s very easy to spot look for the chunk of greenery.
We walk to the beach after our hike. The dead sea, the lowest point on earth, so named because no living thing survives in there (though I’m told it’s been discovered that some microorganisms do). The salt content is so high that you float. I’m not a beach person and the dead sea has not changed that. It’s worth going there because it’s so unique but a few hours was enough for me. I couldn’t believe how salty it was, beware of getting it in your eye or if you have any cuts it hurts! It’s almost too hot to swim and it’s oily. If you’ve ever wondered what it feels like to be in a pot of water salted and oiled put on boil for your spaghetti wonder no more at the dead sea. To be fair Nicole and Mark loved it, apart from the messy washrooms you need to pay for. The water is supposed to be good for your skin and apparently you don’t burn (but with that oily water you feel like you’re a gladiator baking in the sun).
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Our last night in Jerusalem we spend hanging out with our hosts and watch the movie Big Luboski say what you will but that’s just your opinion…man.
We leave Jerusalem for Tel Aviv but not without a quick stop to the market, so much food so little time.

Fun fact: Dates are nature’s perfect dessert. Did you know they don’t need to dry them or add sugar? They are so good here!
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Feeling at home in Israel –Tel Aviv to Haifa
The next few days we stay in kera safa, a city on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, with Hila, Nicole’s friend from university, and her family. Mark and I stayed with her parents who live 3 houses down from her and her husband Roi and their 3 year old daughter Sari where Nicole stayed. They were the most welcoming people, we really felt at home; definitely a highlight of Israel.
One day we checked out Tel Aviv. Walked about Jaffa (old historical port area) had some lovely Arabic food at a place right by the clock tower. Mark and I rented bikes (which you can do from stalls around the city and drop them off at any one of them). There are tons of bike paths around the city but you share most of them with pedestrians whether or not they are marked as bike lanes so beware and use your bell, or in my case just brake as it squeeled louder than any bell.
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IT’s holiday time again in Israel this time it’s called sukkot which consists of people building huts outside their homes and the more religious people will eat out in the huts for the following 7 days. However for us the holiday consisted of a big family bbq to celebrate the birthdays of 2 of Hila’s sisters at the parent’s home with all 6 siblings and their families in attendance. Delicious food and fantastic people made for a good night!
Since it was a holiday making public transit difficult, we decided to rent a car to go to Haifa. Our goal was to visit the bahia gardens. I didn’t know much about the bahia religion before going but it sounded pretty cool, developed in the 1800s in Iran it is now based out of Haifa, with 3 million followers around the world. Its ideology includes equality to all, respect of nature and no clergy just a democratically elected parliament. The gardens were very impressive. The tour started at the top, we naturally parked at the bottom and hiked up to about half when thankfully we’re offered a ride by a local going that way since we were going to miss the tour if we walked. Wandered around a bit in the city before hitting the beach. Best beach of the trip! Sand a nice soft variety, water warm enough, clean facilities, and showers to rinse off at. I’d give it a 9/10 on my arbitrary beach ranking scale.
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Posted by nbergh 04:51 Archived in Israel Comments (0)

Reflections on Jordan

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Jordan, a small country surrounded by some the world’s most powerful and turbulent countries, is rarely heard of back home. There is a general ignorance of the cultural and social situation and it is shadowed by the term “Middle East”, a term often followed by red alert/ terror/ horror by newscasters. Spending a few days in a country obviously does not equip me to understand its cultural and political intricacies, but it does shed light on some stereotypes.

Jordan is the first predominantly Muslim state I have been to. Which, for me, meant I heard the call to prayer 5 times a day and didn’t find bacon on the breakfast menu. I saw some people stop to pray but in no way did life pause because of the prayer. At worst, you had to wait a few minutes for someone to pray (this only happened once). Most women wore a headscarf, a few wore the full burka. I did not wear anything to cover my head and found it caused no unwanted attention and felt completely safe. Women looked very fashionable with their colorful shawls and matching purses and makeup. I didn’t see many women working but I saw some and I suspect there are more in the modern parts of the city. Suzanna seemed to be treated with a great deal of respect by the locals. Omar also told us women are free to do and wear whatever they want.
Generally, I never felt unsafe or uncomfortable. People were very kind and helpful. Some people would be interested in chatting for a bit. The cabbies or vendors asking you to buy (“hey lady one JD” “my friend” “free to look” “where are you going”) was a bit annoying but a simple “no thanks” usually silenced most, the more persistent vendor needed a repeated no.

The Good: The rocks, the desert, the vast natural and ancient beauty! Hummus and falafel! The People.
The Bad: The garbage. Too much litter
And The Odd: No throwing toilet paper in the toilet. Lots of cars beeping.
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Posted by nbergh 02:08 Archived in Jordan Comments (0)

desert and sea

Stairmaster in Petra and off to the desert!

We had breakfast at Gassabah’s family home in Petra - fresh falafels (I don’t think I will ever be satisfied with falafels back home again). Gasab teased Mark some more. We went into Petra the back way (yep, there’s another way in which is a good option if you’re doing 2 days, as there are next to no tourists on this road) and spent the morning checking out the monastery (about a million steps).
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Next we were off to Wadi Rum (literally Moon Valley) in the desert. We took a cab there and met up with Gassab’s girlfriend, who is a Hungarian tour guide. She was conveniently in Wadi Rum leading a group and we decided to join them for a jeep tour and stay in the “Bedouin camp” out in the desert. There are tons of these camps there for tourists, not really the genuine camp they claim to be, judging by the running water and electricity, but it’s fun to camp in the desert. You stay in your own tent with a bed and electricity (powered by solar panels) and there is a big tent for dinner and breakfast. There is also a washroom with showers…that may or may not have enough water to work… ours did not, nor was there any hot water left, but we managed to clean ourselves. But who am I to complain - washing your hair while camping, let alone in the dessert, is beyond luxury.
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The desert is vast and awe-inspiring with strange rocky hills and mountains scattered throughout. We did a jeep tour with the Hungarian group which allowed us to see a great deal (scrambling up a stone bridge, running around on sand dunes, observing the Neolithic stone carvings, having tea with some Bedouins, and standing where Lawrence of Arabia once called home.) The rock is extremely featured and looks like climbing paradise but beware: it’s a mixture of sandstone and basalt which makes it very crumbly in parts and one should only climb with a guide who knows where the rock is solid. One day I would love to return to do a climbing trip.
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Under the sea!
After an early start to watch the sunrise, we ate breakfast and cabbed to Aqaba. Aqaba is the resort city of Jordan, situated on the Red Sea. It is the most modern and clean city we saw in Jordan with lots of bars and cafes. We have yet to be in contact with our host so we try to find a WIFI café…a little difficult but not impossible. We cab to the free south beach since we had no luck talking to our host. The Red Sea is beautiful and not the least bit red (obviously didn’t expect it to be, but am now wondering why it is called the Red Sea). We sat on the beach which I’m sad to say was full of litter and unpleasantly windy. So that was somewhat short-lived, not that I minded as I am not a beach person. Apparently the Red Sea has renowned coral reefs, excellent for scuba diving and snorkeling. The 3 of us went out snorkeling with Mani, a guide.
I saw clown and lion fish, fed a school of fish and stepped on a sea urchin. Yep, you read that right. On our way out of the sea, my left foot slammed down directly onto an urchin and, in my pain, I backed up into another urchin with my right heel. So down I went, almost drowning in 2 feet of water. I frantically try to remember if urchins are poisonous and curse my lack of sea creature knowledge. It hurt like hell but I am told they don’t need to amputate. I staggered out of the sea and our tough-love-guide suggested, aka forced me, to walk hard all the way to the hotel where I had to do laps around the deck. The bottom of my foot had 6 urchin needles in it = searing pain every step I take. Never got a clear answer as to why I needed to walk on it… suspect I was dealing with a sadist. I was given some lemon to rub on it and promised the pain will cease in a few hours…it doesn’t.
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That night we went out to an English pub with our host Omar, another couch surfer, and Omar’s diving instructor friends for some beers. If you told me we were in Canada that night, I would have believed you. It was a great night with lots of laughs.
We cab to the border (15 min) the next morning, pay our “departure fee” of 10 dinars (yes, they charge you to leave the country!?) and say goodbye to Jordan.
Fun fact: Urchins hurt but so does some of the coral if you touch it (Nicole has proof on her knees)

Posted by nbergh 10:02 Archived in Jordan Comments (0)

Jordan - Bedouin hospitality

We take the early bus at 6:30 am to Petra (JETT BUS). It’s about a 2 hour drive down with one stop for coffee and snacks and they play a 30 min travel video of King Abdullah showing you around the sites of Jordan. He seems like the nicest guy.
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Petra, made famous by Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, is one of those famous monuments that gets a lot of hype, like Stonehenge or the Mona Lisa (which I’m sorry to say are somewhat disappointing). So I feared Petra would be the same, a crowded overrated site. I’m happy to report it was not. The tickets are pricey (50 JD a day ($80 CAD)) but since it’s 55 JD for 2 days we decided it would be a better deal to take 2 days to visit Petra. It’s about a 2 km walk in through a slot canyon which itself is beautiful. (Mark, the rock climber that he is, got lost imagining the potential for routes). Slowly the rocks open up and reveal the Treasury. As you walk about discovering one carved temple after another there is a stream of Bedouin offering camel rides, donkey rides, or merchandise. Though the offering is endless, a simple “no thank you” was often enough for them to leave you be. Nicole did get suckered into buying a bracelet ($1 CAD) from a woman who talked of her starving children... I think the bracelet has grown on her now.
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Bedouins are a tribal people native to the deserts of Jordan. They lived out in camps and are renowned for their hospitality of giving without expecting anything in return. The Bedouins of Petra used to live in caves - now most of them live in the village. The world has changed and now most Bedouins you meet in Jordan will be trying to sell you something. We did meet a true Bedouin, Gassab our host.

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First day in Petra, we wandered up to the high alter of sacrifice where we were able to get a 360⁰ view. (It’s worth the sweat up the stairs in the desert sun). We wandered around after that for hours, barely seeing anyone and finding a very friendly and hungry cat. Exhausted, our tired legs took us back to town stopping to chat with a young local guy, Abraham, who works with the horses there while attending university.

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That night we stayed in a cave! A friend recommended we stay with Gasahab, a local Bedouin and pioneer of couch surfing in Petra. We hopped in his jeep, bought some food for dinner and drove off the road into the desert. It’s a strange thing to get in a car with someone you just met and drive in the middle of nowhere to his cave and somehow not worry about the possibility that he is a psycho killer and just enjoy the bumpy ride. It was surreal off-roading through the rocky terrain among the cave homes and herds of sheep. After watching the glorious sunset perched on top of a cliff, we prepared dinner (chicken, veg and potatoes cooked over the fire outside the cave). Mark was tasked with the man jobs (getting firewood and building the fire). The feminist in me would normally have something to say about this but my tired self was all too happy to be excluded from those tasks. Nicole got a little freaked out by the spider on the ceiling over her head. Gassahab tried to assure us there were no spiders in Jordan, which was unsuccessful as he reluctantly admitted that it was, in fact, a spider, which he thenn graciously removed. (In my defence, it was a rather large spider, literally perched over my head as I tried to fall asleep). The cave was warm and cozy and I slumbered through the naturally quiet night.

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Note of the day: Gassahab was amazing. If you ever get the chance to stay in his cave - do it! He and his brother run a travel guide company called Bedouin Brothers. If you ever need an outdoors guide for Petra or climbing in Wadi Rum, he’s your man.

Posted by nbergh 10:42 Archived in Jordan Comments (0)

Jordan - First Impressions

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After 22 hours of travel (which includes a long layover) we arrive in Amman, Jordan at 5 am. My first impression of Jordan is that people here drive like maniacs. I have since learnt that only our cabbie drives like a maniac. I was however too tired to get worried about driving on the other side of the median. We arrive in downtown Amman white knuckled and 22 JD (34 CAD) poorer. Not having booked a hostel prior, we pop into a few and bargain for a room (which consisted of us saying the hostel across the street offered less… so they matched the price) The hostel was amazing solely due to the fact that they had a bed with fluffy pillows (my less tired self would give it a neutral rating). The washroom was the only interesting feature (interesting, as in strange). It was basically a room with the toilet, a small sink and a shower spout …so taking a shower just made everything in the bathroom wet for the rest of the day.
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Amman, population 1-4 million depending what source you read, is a chaotic and crowded place. The city is built on 19 hills, so all the streets curve upwards or downwards in a way that makes it rather easy to get lost, especially if you rely on the map they provide you with at the airport. The day was spent in a jetlag haze getting lost in the buzzing streets filled with venders trying to sell you all the things you don’t need. If you’re ever in Amman try the date or fruit smoothies. Yum!
Amman is a mixture of traditional and modern. We were mostly exposed to the old city where all the shop owners are men, the crosswalks are just for decoration, the streets burst with colors of merchandise, and the stray cats roam. As we drove out of town I could see the skyscrapers, modern buildings and the yellow and blue Ikea. I have honed the perfect way to cross the street in Amman: find a relatively large local woman about to cross the street and shadow her (she likely knows what she’s doing and won’t get hit or if she does you’ll likely survive). I have however yet to discover the secret behind all the cars beeping…for the most part there seems no rhyme or reason to it, but it is unrelenting.
Fun fact of the day: Every time I introduced myself I get “Nora ahhh (stranger proudly smiling) it’s an Arabic name, did you know?” It means “light.” Have yet to tell them it’s also a Hungarian name and the name of the main character in the Swedish play “A Doll’s House” (who I was named after).

Posted by nbergh 10:28 Archived in Jordan Comments (0)

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