Wednesday, December 14, 2011
I think it is safe to say we are ready to go home. Maybe there is a twinge of sadness at having this thing we spent so long planning come to an end and a little resignation over, once again, being beholden to schedules and alarm clocks; but we are excited to see our friends, our cat, and have a place all to ourselves again. Besides, we are already scheming the next trip across the U.S. in a couple of years. We left ourselves open to the possibility that some new, enchanting land would call to us but in the end it just affirmed that we have everything we need in Portland. Still, we are gratified and pleased that we did something so life affirming. Aside from the places we went, the concentrated time we spent together changed all of us for the better. We took a leap of faith and landed on our feet.
I'd like to take a moment to acknowledge some of the people who made the trip what it was for us. Most of these people were total strangers to us and they treated us like family, giving us their time, homes, food and companionship. I hope that reading about some of our encounters demonstrated that there are more good people than bad out there and wonderful things can happen if you allow yourself to trust and believe this. In order of appearance:
* Todd and Reinhold (Amsterdam)
* Monique and Rembrand (Woerden)
* Chloe and Oliver (Paris)
* Gregory and Isabella (Grenoble)
* Gerard (Barcelona)
* Laura (Montserrat)
* Menna and Jem (Viam)
* Claudia (Nyon)
* Beat (Bern)
* Marina and Marco (Zagreb)
* Rita (Budapest)
* Brian and Elke (Stuttgart)
I also like to thank our parents for sharing in a brief leg of this journey with us.
And lastly, I'm humbled that so many of you read this and listened to our stories. I hope that if taking off and doing longer term travel is a dream of yours that you make it happen (I highly recommend Rolf Pott's book, Vagabonding, as a great "how to" guide). Homeward bound.
So often times it happens
that we live our lives in chains
And we never even know we have the key
- The Eagles, Already Gone
Monday, December 12, 2011
The singing, call-to-prayer from the loudspeaker on the top of the mosque behind our hotel began this morning at 4:30 am. I woke up briefly to notice that there were also a few roosters signaling the dawn but then I passed back out until around 8:00. Our hotel room was cold since we only got two hours of heat in the evening before they turned it back off. I attempted a quick shower but since the water wouldn't come out the top of the shower, I only succeed in washing my hair and flooding the bathroom. As run down as our hotel is, it is hard to be angry because the owner is so kind. He spent twenty minutes last night telling Bill and LaVonne a bit about his life and his frustrations with his business which he finds easier than his previous herding life but a good deal more boring and unsatisfying.
We left to walk down to the Petra monument at around 9:00 but got derailed when one of the shopkeepers recognized me and called me out on my unfulfilled promise to have a look in his shop yesterday. He wanted us to have tea (offers to sit and have free, "hospitality" tea are commonplace) and wrapped Vaughn's head up in a scarf but I decided to quickly purchase a tiny wooden box with crushed incense (Good for smelling nice and warding off the evil eye!) so that we could be on our way. In the time it took me to shop, Aaron had sat down to help the owners with their laptop problems and said he'd catch up with us in the park after he got them debugged. While we waited for Aaron to catch up with us at the entrance, Vaughn petted stray cats and watched the man near the gate doing sand bottle art. I had to laugh as I overheard him high-five Vaughn and refer to him as his “brother from another mother.”
A few words about Petra: It was named one of the BBC's "Top 40 Places to See Before You Die"; it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site; it was in the running in 2007 as a contender to be one of the new Seven Wonders of the World. It is over 2,000 years old but was not discovered by the Western world until 1812. Near the entrance to the monument, you walk through an awe-inspiring gorge know as al-Siq where the sandstone walls rise up to 600 feet on either side of you. Petra was the capital city of the Nabateans and they used it to control their caravan trade of frankincense, myrrh and spices. The buildings are carved into the sides of the sandstone mountains and the elaborate facades draw thousands each year to marvel at the ancient architecture. We spent the day hiking through the monument and made the trip up the 800+ steps to the monastery.
As I mentioned in my previous post, the Bedouin people have filled up the expanse of the monument (including the steep trek to the monastery) with their tourist trade. If you don't want to ride a horse, camel, or donkey, they will sell you scarves, jewelry or brass statues. Postcard selling is left to the children, including one I saw today who was no more than four. We went into the park, past the usual gauntlet of equestrian offers, this time feeling more confident and comfortable in our refusals. Two girls, about age 12, perched on a rock yelled down to find out if we'd buy postcards. Vaughn called back, "no thank you" which got back an aggressive, "what?!" This continued on for four more exchanges of "no thank you"/"what?!" until I finally stopped dead in my tracks and turned and said, "why are you saying 'what' when he said 'no'?" I almost instantly felt guilty and bad about my loss of composure, snapping at a girl whose life I knew nothing about except that it was undoubtedly hard. Just how hard, I cannot say. It's hard to know what life is like for these people. It looked like some of them might be living in the caves (although the hotel owner assured us that this might have been the case 25 years ago but it wasn't legal now). At any rate, it is a fascinating culture and I'd like to learn more about it.
If you go to Jordan you can bet that everyone you meet will first ask you, "Where are you from?" and this will be immediately followed by, "You are welcome" and it is sincere and warm and honest. The people we met were lovely and gracious. I encourage you to go to Petra and be amazed - you will be very welcome.
Sunday, December 11, 2011
We got up at 6:00 in the morning to catch a cab to the Jordanian border because we had heard that it could take a while to get a visa and get through and that lines could be particularly long on Sundays. On the way there we asked the cab driver if he had ever been to Petra and he said no, that he was scared to go to either Egypt or Jordan. The maps in Jordan don't even list Israel, they simply state “The Holy Land” so I suppose I can see why. But we weren't scared – just excited to get to Petra. While we were waiting at the boarder for our visas to be processed, LaVonne bought Vaughn a souvenir sand painting in a bottle that had his name written on the inside in sand. Vaughn got to watch it being made and even help make the birds in the sky.
The cab ride from the border to Petra took about an hour and 45 minutes and it was a bit harrowing at times since our cab driver thought nothing of using both lanes and doing sketchy, last-minute passing. For the most part, the landscape was a vast expanse of brown desert and hills with the occasional outcropping of cinder block and tarp shacks. Sometimes we might pass a person on the road selling oranges or look out to see a donkey or a camel but mostly it was just road and desert. We stopped about half way along the trip to use the bathroom and Vaughn and I delighted in a couple of stray dogs with their litter of five fluffy puppies.
Our room is in a hostel and it is pretty spartan but functional. The pictures are faded posters glued to cardboard and at dinner they were only able to come up with two glasses for us but my only real complaint is that the building doesn't turn on the heat until 8pm so it is pretty cold.
After checking in we went and got lunch down the street. Despite being a major tourist destination, there is no escaping the extreme poverty of the region. The menus at our restaurant were old and frayed and the napkins were a box of Kleenex on the table (but maybe this is standard since the same Kleenex/napkins were there at dinner too) but the food was fresh and delicious. Everyone here is warm and friendly and we've been told “Welcome to Jordan” no less than five times. This doesn't mean that you don't have to clarify pricing up front but both merchants and people on the street have been kind and courteous. During lunch, some unseen loudspeakers began playing a loud recording of singing calling people to prayer (the same song/call to prayer started playing at quarter to five and was accompanied by honking on the street). The restaurant didn't have a bathroom but an employee offered to walk Vaughn and Jacob across the street to where one could be found.
We were anxious to get to the actual archeological site so we made our way down the hill to the entrance to buy tickets to the park. While we were waiting to get tickets some poor guy got dragged into a shop and struck by another man a couple of times. I'm not sure what he did to deserve it and it was a little startling to witness. He seemed almost resigned to his fate – like a relative that had messed up somehow.
After you pass through the entrance to Petra there are two dozen men offering horse rides at the entrance down the path through the canyon. The rides are for free (included in the price of your ticket!) and they are working for tips. It's the slow season and so they are quite aggressive but we continued on foot. Nothing tops the aggressive sales tactics of the children, most about Vaughn's age, selling books of postcards. They have their racket down: America is the best!; Make my day!; Is that your brother? He cannot be your son- you are too small! (that last one almost made me adopt her). One little boy actually tried to stick me with a packet as a “free gift” that I knew he (or a relative) would come to collect on later. I had to tell him I was leaving it on a rock and only then did he come back in a huff to snatch it off the rock.
I will save descriptions of the archeological site of Petra for my next entry since I want to be able to post as many pictures of the site as possible but I want to also include these pictures from the city.
Friday, December 9, 2011
We're spending five days in Eilat, a popular resort town with a Cancun-like vibe on the Red Sea. Eilat is the most southern city in Israel and from here you can see Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan. It was quite a haul to get here, requiring: a walk, bus, train, airplane and taxi.
The first day went to the coral reefs and rented snorkel gear (including wetsuits). The reef is accessible via many short piers and even without getting in the water you can see the many varietals of fish. Actually getting in the water is like being in one of those early tropical screen savers - I'd post some pictures here but we're still trying to find a place to develop our underwater camera film because who needs 1 hour developing anymore? Being out in the water is eerily peaceful and, as Jacob's mom said, the more you linger in one spot the more you notice. Naturally it was impossible for me to shake the feeling that a shark might come around the bend at any moment because, like all children of the 80's, I'm a little Jaws damaged (I'd be willing to bet that in any room full of kids from the 80's you could get a handful to confess that there was a time they thought it was conceivable great whites could show up in a swimming pool).
Poor Vaughn had it harder. Even though we got him a life jacket on top of the very floaty wetsuit, he still really struggled with getting off the stairs from the dock; it was just too deep. We were able to get him out a little ways but he couldn't relax enough to put his face in the water and we finally had to bring him back.
Today we went to an aquarium park where we rode in a glass bottomed boat, saw mammoth sized sea tortoises and watched a movie in one of those theaters where the seats move according to the action in the film.
Tomorrow I think the plan is to go back to the reef and possibly look into scuba diving. Honestly, it doesn't matter what we do because it's December and I'm wearing a t-shirt outside. On Sunday we leave for Petra in Jordan.
Sunday, December 4, 2011
The night we got back from the camel farm, Jacob went in to see Bill and LaVonne's dentist. His brother Aaron had also had some pretty extensive work done and all three of them proclaimed him to be a miracle worker; so even though we are anticipating having dental insurance back in just a couple months, the price was so low that we decided to pay out of pocket and have three teeth that Jacob was having problems with filled.
Aaron and his girlfriend drove us to our appointment which was scheduled at 7:30 in the evening. We had been forewarned to not be put off by the fact that the office was housed in an apartment building in a residential neighborhood and were assured that the dentist had state of the art equipment and training. Even still, as we walked up the dark sidewalk Jacob turned to me and remarked that he felt like he was arranging to buy a liver on the black market. The dentist's limited English and our complete lack of either Hebrew or Russian (his first language), didn't help matters.
We were there about 15 minutes early and the dentist was in the back with a patient. Hanging on the wall was a shark jaw and to the right of the door was a giant glass case full of a variety of medical-themed statues and miscellaneous knick knacks. Upon further inspection we realized that maybe 40% of the statues were dirty if not downright x-rated in nature. Buxom nurses bending over in too short skirts, a nurse chihuahua in panties, and a lecherous doctor tapping the bare breast of a patient with a caulking tube labeled "silicon" were interspersed with costume jewelry and Laurel and Hardy statues. Jacob nervously said to me, "Do you think this is a mistake?" to which I replied, "Don't worry honey, I'm sure Israel is littered with medical offices with statues of a pig dentist working on top of a topless female pig sporting human double-D breasts."
Despite all this, Jacob walked away in less than an hour with three perfect fillings - all for just $250.
Today we drove into Jerusalem and we had to run to catch our 1:00 tour of the underground tunnels next to the Western Wall. Our tour guide was the enthusiastic and animated sort and it was easy to imagine she might have done really well in drama in high school. We went and sat down in a map room with a giant model of the old city and she began to talk to us about the various sections and where they believed the Arc of the Covenant had been. Not having a ton of religious knowledge but armed with a fervor for Raiders of the Lost Ark, I used this time to allow myself to mentally drift to the scene where Dr. Jones uses the medallion and staff to know just where to start digging.
After the tour we grabbed some lunch and then headed back to the Arab district so I could purchase some bracelets. While there we spotted a smokey arcade teeming with kids so Vaughn, Aaron, Jacob and I stayed behind so that Vaughn could play some games while Bill and LaVonne went to the car to get Bill's coat. Aaron and Jacob quickly reverted to their old sibling rivalry ways on the box soccer table and a small crowd gathered 'round ready to jump in to challenge them. I think we were there for about an hour and they must have played doubles with just about everyone in the place, including the guy who ran the falafel stand across the way.
Poor Vaughn is under the weather and was running a small fever at this point so we knew that we had to begin the trek home. On the way back to the car I spotted some patchwork pillowcases that I had wanted (I briefly considered a "Guns and Moses" t-shirt but decided I didn't fully understand the potentially offensive repercussions). LaVonne not only speaks perfect Hebrew but is also very well-versed in the language of haggling - a must for doing business here. She was up ahead a ways so I had to get Jacob to help me get the pillow cases down to a reasonable price. I walked away feeling pretty proud of myself when really, my only contribution was to say a polite 'thank you' and turn away when the initial offer was laid down.
Friday, December 2, 2011
We will be in Israel for just over two weeks and Jacob's parents, Bill and LaVonne, have an agenda of non-stop action. After an initial day of rest, we drove over to the Arab District in Haifa to visit two of their friends, Milad and Nadia. Milad has seven children and 15 grandchildren and travels half the week to assist in the construction of the fence being built between Israel and Egypt. Over pizza at the restaurant below his apartment where his daughter works, he explained to us that family is everything to him and that he considers Bill and LaVonne family and so, by extension, we are his family. After lunch we went up to the apartment that he and his wife share with his brother and his wife to have Turkish coffee and cake and meet another daughter and four of the grandkids. As we left his daughter gave Vaughn a Saint Maria necklace that she gives to her children.
After our visit there was shopping to be done since LaVonne planned a party with four of the Russian children to whom she teaches English. She and Vaughn hung streamers and made animal balloons and we all pitched in to make falafel fixings. The party was big success and, like all good parties, continued on much later than the intended completion time. The kids bobbed for apples, played several games and had a spelling bee. You might think that a spelling bee isn't exactly the kind of game that kids would want to play at a party but LaVonne has been teaching these kids English for several years and they were excited to practice and show off what they had learned.
The next day we had reservations to spend the night at a camel ranch in the desert area of Negev. On the way down to the camel ranch we stopped off at the Dead Sea for a quick swim. The Dead Sea is the lowest point on Earth, 1,388 feet below sea level. It wasn't overly warm either outside or in the water but it seemed like heresy to not go for at least a quick swim. The high saline (33.7% salinity) content means that it is impossible to sink and I have to admit that it was pretty novel to bob around and float out in the water with little regard to how far away we got from the shore. At least that was until Jacob got a tiny splash up in his eye and we had to quickly head for the showers to rinse it out. Even with a shower rinse the salt continued to show up on my face in thick, white layers after the water evaporated.
LaVonne has begun teaching Vaughn Hebrew and he is an enthusiastic pupil. By the time we reached the Dead Sea he had learned how to say: “hello”, “my name is Vaughn”, “I speak English”, and “I am 9." LaVonne has a no-fear approach to learning a language and she found several people throughout the afternoon to have Vaughn practice his new phrases on. By the time we were going to bed, Vaughn was writing “I love mom and dad” in Hebrew and intently studying the dictionary he borrowed from Bill and LaVonne.
The Dead Sea was about three hours southeast of Bill and LaVonne's home in Haifa and the camel ranch was another hour further south. We didn't arrive at the camel ranch until around 6:00 pm and it was already getting dark. I rushed over to the camel area but after the camel I was petting went from friendly to lunging/snapping combined with a weird guttural growling noise, I decided I'd wait for a lesson in camel body language before proceeding further.
Our housing at the ranch is a little hut with straw mats placed directly on the sandy desert floor. Nevertheless, it is quite comfortable with electricity and a heater in the room, a necessity on a chilly December night. Dinner was a wonderful “camel shepherd meal” of saffron rice, tahina, lentils, vegetable stew, bread cooked directly in a fire, olives and dates and lots of sweet tea. By 8:30 we were crawling into bed exhausted.
The next day we headed out for a one hour camel ride. Our camels were dromedaries, the one-humped camel, and they were domesticated about 4,500 years ago (if that seems like a long time ago, consider that dogs were domesticated approximately 10,000 years before that). In case you were wondering if you sit in front or behind of the hump, you actually sit on top of the hump on a bunch of padding. Our camels were tethered together and Vaughn and I made up the rear on a 24 year old camel named Rachel. Riding the camels was a little uneventful, you really just plod along in a row but it was a fun experience to ride such a large and graceful animal. Our guide was also a little surly (and misread his audience a bit by taking a swipe at Obama) but he did a nice job telling us about the history of the area and the Bedouin people. Tomorrow we are heading off for a day trip to Jerusalem.
Sunday, November 27, 2011
I feel a little like we're in a witness protection program. Our little Austrian town is caught in-between seasons- devoid of snow and too cold to do much anything else. We are the only apartment rented in our building and as such, get extra special attention from our hosts - some homemade Austrian pastries from our landlord upstairs and a welcome cake from his parents downstairs. Occasionally I notice a couple on holiday and I kind of feel sorry for them since, while sunny and cute, Radstadt feels like a ghost town. A good chunk of the stores seem to be closed most of the time. It's a little disappointing since when we rented the place a month ago, we imagined a snowy cabin with lots of snowshoeing, drinking hot tea and building armies of snowmen. We have tea.
Despite all this, we've had a relaxing week here. Jacob taught Vaughn how to crochet; Vaughn wrote two stories about dogs in space; and I went on daily walks in the expansive field behind the house, ignoring the faint but persistent smell of manure. We also pondered important questions such as: why does the church bell have to start chiming at six am? If nothing else, Radstadt marks the end of our solo time together. Next stop - Israel.