Friday, October 26, 2012

Israel: Guns and Moses

The main thing that struck me about the Jewish state was that everything important or interesting had a church built right on top of it. The shepherd's field? Church. The stable in Bethlehem? Church. The possible site of Jesus' crucifixion? Church. The sites where water was turned to wine, loaves and fishes were multiplied, and Jesus was baptised? All churches. There's even one where Mary supposedly breastfed her holy wee son.

I wasn't kidding... this is the church on the site of the holy breastfeeding.
The sheer number of churches was curious to me given Judaism's position on Christ, and the relative invisibility of synagogues by comparison. The realisation that the historical places I'd hoped to see had been completely bowled over and replaced with a hundred fairly typical churches - like seeing your childhood home flattened to build a mall - came quickly.

I guess with the amount of preconceptions I had about the holy land, I was bound to find 21st Century Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth and Galilee somewhat less than divine. Disappointing, even.

So, I felt like I had no choice but to ignore my preconceived hopes and focus instead on the genuine experiences that were still possible, regardless of their historical significance or lack of.

There are five that stand out. Perhaps unsurprisingly, none of them are churches.

1.  The Dead Sea
I've wanted to take this photo on the Dead Sea ever since I was a kid. And somehow I've always thought I'd be the first person who couldn't float in the Dead Sea. But, thankfully, I found the water so buoyant that it was difficult to sink - once the water passed chest height, I was unable to reach the bottom. The Dead Sea is the lowest point on earth, so it's a bizarre feeling swimming there. And the water feels thicker - the extra salt and minerals are actually tangible. Just don't put your  head underwater... it stings like getting chilli sauce in your eye!

2.  The Via Dolorosa
The Via Dolorosa has been a bustling shopping street for millennia, and criminals being crucified had to carry their crosses up it. When we were there, it was a public holiday and most of the city was closed for business, including the Via Dolorosa. So what we were struck with was a kind of eerie calm - like an empty fairground. This was the only place in Jerusalem where it was really possible to comprehend what it would have been like 2,000 years ago.

3.  The Wall
The wall that divides Israel from the Gaza Strip is 7 - 9 metres high. And standing next to it on the Palestinian side, it was very clear to me that it was designed to keep me out rather than the other way around. I found it fascinating reading the messages of hope that had been spray painted on, much like in Berlin; e.g. "the Palestianian spirit is stronger than any wall" and "Make hummus, not walls". Visiting the Gaza Strip wasn't anywhere near as difficult or as scary as I'd been led to believe. I never felt unsafe. But it's a strange feeling writing this just two weeks later in light of the fresh conflict in the area.

4.  The Dome of the Rock
The mosque called the Dome of the Rock is undoubtedly the most beautiful building in Jerusalem. When the sun is out, the solid gold roof gleams like an expensive piece of jewellery. Because non-Muslims aren't allowed to enter, the best place to observe it is from the Temple Mount, where the panoramic view of old Jerusalem is extremely impressive.

5.  The Sea of Galilee
In the north, the only site we visited that hadn't been knocked over and turned into a church was the Sea of Galilee, which, for obvious reasons, is the one place to remain relatively unchanged for 2,000 years. Standing on the banks with my brother, we were finally able to get a spatial sense of where we were, relative to the stories that we were so familiar with.

In hindsight, I think my expectations of Israel were a little naive and unfair. I'm glad that I was able to put them aside and enjoy what the country could still offer, rather than feeling too short-changed. I doubt I'll ever return, because I found that Jordan and Egypt both had so much more to offer, but I have no regrets about going.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Adventures in the Jordanian Desert

"The place on the planet with the most visible stars". That's what sold me on Wadi Rum, Jordan as the place to realise my goal of spending a night in the desert. And it turned out that the desert made famous by Lawrence of Arabia was special for a lot more than stars.

The newest tick on my T-shirt bucket list.

When we arrived, we were met by Atek, our pre-booked bedouin guide. It's surprisingly easy to book a night in the desert online.

The first thing we noticed walking towards the 4x4 was that the windscreen had a huge webbed smash . But Atek didn't seem to mind. We sat on fixed chairs on the tray in the back, and he would glance at us in the rear vision mirror with a huge grin, laughing as we became accustomed to the wild lurching motion of the vehicle moving. Every few minutes there'd be a loud grinding sound. Atek would turn around to face us and laugh "no clutch!"

Michael getting to grips with driving Jordianian desert style!

The scenery was undeniably breathtaking. Possibly the best I've ever seen. Definitely the most unexpected and least repeatable. I always imagined all deserts to resemble the Sahara - rolling banks of infinite golden dunes. But in Wadi Rum the sand is every shade between bronze, rust and red, and the rolling dunes are punctuated by enormous canyon-like rock faces rising from the sand.

Standing in Wadi Rum and looking around, you could well be on Mars. And indeed it has substituted for the red planet in more than one movie.

Conversely, the 'attractions' we'd actually heard of before coming, such as Lawrence's [of Arabia's] Springs turned out to be kind of anticlimactic. I've seen toddlers who can piddle faster than that spring. I guess being from New Zealand, I'm inclined to take water features for granted more than the average thirsty desert-dweller.

Lawrence's Springs aka the toddler's piddle spring.

After a few hours of wide-eyed driving, including a few short climbs to panoramic vistas, Atek pulled over and climbed a few metres up the rock face to a small shelf. With a cheeky look in his eye he asked if we knew why he'd brought us there, then said this was his favourite part of the day.

"How you say hello in New Zealand?"

"Kia ora", I replied.

"KIAARAAAAA", shrieked Atek, as if in response.

The sound of his cry reverberated around us in every direction, a supersized echo taking on its own shape and continuing for what felt like ages. I turned immediately to my brother Michael, who is profoundly deaf. He was astonished, having just heard his first echo.

We stayed put for ages, enjoying creating every echo we could think of. While we sat there, Atek made a small fire and began cooking lunch for us. Pita the size of a table cloth, a whole tomato and cucumber each, laughing cow cheese, canned tuna, and more mint tea than we could drink.

After lunch, we drove to the steepest dune I've ever seen. Atek took a snowboard out of the car.

I'm sure the gears turning in my head were visible as I realised what was about to happen. SAND BOARDING!

Having never been  snowboarding, I wasn't sure how I'd fare. But I discovered that not only was it relatively straightforward to stay on the board, falling off didn't hurt! After several goes, I had red sand in every bodily crevice. I was still washing it out of my hair, ears, and elsewhere days later in London.

Word to the wise: don't sand board with shoes on!

When planning the trip, I had worried that a whole day in the desert would be too much. Wouldn't sand, sand and more sand get boring? Nope.

My favourite moment of the day: climbing on to a rock bridge for the mother of all photos.

The full 360 view.

Before the sun went down, Atek drove us to the place he believes has the best sunsets in Wadi Rum. Understatement of the century: he was right!

After sunset, Atek drove us to his desert camp, where his wife Alia had already prepared a feast of epic proportions. She'd barbecued the chicken to perfection on an open fire, and served it with several kinds of Jordanian salad and rice.

The open fire provided our light, and we sat on thin cushions facing each other. Alia taught us a few words of Arabic, then challenged us to get up and dance while she plucked a small instrument and Atek sang. We couldn't quite shake the feeling of looking like a pair of headless chickens, but nonetheless obliged.

Afterwards, we walked out into the sand with bare feet, away from the light of the camp, and looked up to the stars. There weren't as many visible as we'd been hoping - it was a cloudy night and the moon was bright.

But after about 20 minutes, we saw a brilliant green flash in the distance, and something resembling a comet darted across the sky with immense speed. Trying to remain sane, we surmised that it could have been a flare or something less exciting. But without any kind of smoke trail, were unable to think up any other plausible explanations for the celestial occurrence.

Our beds were inside a large bedouin tent. They were extremely comfortable, and we fell asleep immediately.

When we woke, we discovered that we were right next to an enormous rock face. I guess that's the joy of Wadi Rum for you!

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Petra: The Rock City (in Photos)

I've wanted to visit Petra ever since watching Indiana Jones as a kid. The idea of a mysterious, ancient city carved directly into rock thousands of years ago by a lost civilisation (the Nabataeans) and forgotten by the western world until two hundred years ago is too exciting to be true, surely?

Petra is Jordan's #1 attraction by a long shot - and the entrance fee alone is £50. But the moment you glimpse the famous Treasury at the end of a kilometre of a twisting canyon, you realise it'd be worth ten times that. My words can't do it justice, so here are the photos.

The quintessential Petra photo at the end of the siq.
The Treasury in all its glory.

From further back, you realise just how incredible the carving into sheer cliff face really is.

But there's more to Petra than the Treasury. We were there from sunrise until sunset.
The royal tombs.

One of many merchants at Petra.

Not enough people visit the Monastery, setting of the final scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, because it's up several hundred steps. Having climbed Mt Sinai the day before, we opted for the less strenuous ascent - by donkey.

Michael, Paul and I at the top of the climb, with the royal tombs visible in the distance.

Dwarfed by the gigantic Monastery.

A daredevil leaping across the Monastery. (Paul shrieked).

Some locals by the royal tombs, on the way back.

My day at Petra was one of my best days travelling, anywhere. It trumps anything I saw in Egypt. If I could have stayed longer, I would have. I really can't rave enough.

Tip: do not join one of those tours where they come here just for a few hours before lunch!

Monday, October 22, 2012

Accidentally in Israel

Fact: public transport in the Middle East is notoriously unreliable.
Fact: the only way to get directly from Egypt to Jordan is by ferry across the Red Sea.
Fact: the alternative route crosses overland through Israel.
Fiction: Nothing could possibly go wrong!

The ferry from Egypt to Jordan leaves from the port town of Nuweiba. When we arrived, it was crowded and smelled like a slaughterhouse. You can’t buy ferry tickets in advance – you have to just rock up and hope. Thankfully, our driver knew where the ticket office was – it’s a small, relatively nondescript building, where you can purchase tickets from a small, relatively nondescript man through a small, relatively nondescript window.

With a faint smirk, the ticket man informed us that the ferry wasn’t running that day. Or that night. There was a strike of some sort. Apparently the terminal was full of thousands of stranded passengers, and it’d be at least three days before anyone could get to Jordan.

At that moment, Paul spied the logo of a familiar tour company out the corner of his eye, and ran over to beg for help. The guide was friendly and accommodating – happy to share his information in order to help us work out the best alternative route to Aqaba. After about two hours in a greasy diner that appeared not to serve any kind of food at all, he informed us that his group would be heading overland, and advised us to attempt the same.

It would require three taxis in three countries, and two Middle Eastern border crossings. The risk of something going wrong was high, but it was certainly the cheapest option – and if all went to plan it could even turn out to have been a better option than the ferry. He bargained us a great price for a taxi to the Egyptian border and then wished us luck and returned to his bus to drive the tour group.

Taxi #1 – Egypt
Relieved to be on our way, we hopped into the car of a young guy wearing long white robes. The seat covers were three dimensional Minnie Mouse heads, with her nose perfectly positioned to make your own head, resting against it, as uncomfortable as possible. Shortly into the journey north, we passed a small river that appeared to run across the road permanently. Just past it was a pile of burning tyres, and a main with one eye wearing a loincloth and covered head-to-toe in mud. A familiar sound rang in my ears – the default Nokia ringtone from the early noughties. Our driver answered his phone with one hand, and continued hurtling down the centreline by positioning his other hand on the horn. Good times.

The coral reefs of the Red Sea make the whole drive rather pleasant!

Taxi #2 – Israel
Our driver was a calm, middle-aged man wearing a jewish Kippah on the back of his head. He spoke perfect English and his late-model BMW had a screen in the dashboard with a camera to help him reverse. I found myself experiencing reverse culture-shock from the stark contrast with Egypt!

Taxi #3 - Jordan
The driving is calm compared with Egypt, but Jordan clearly doesn’t experience the same level of foreign investment as Israel, judging from the state of the roads. At precisely 7pm, our driver pulled over, removed a small mat from the glovebox, walked to the front of the car and kneeled facing Mecca (a direction even I could have established because we were so close to Saudi Arabia). After around five minutes of prayer, he returned to the car and wordlessly continued driving us to our destination.

We pulled up behind these guys somewhere on the Sinai Peninsula. 

Relieved that our border crossings had been non-eventful, we arrived in Aqaba at around the same time as we would have if we’d been able to take the ferry in the first place. And it had actually cost less!

Reflecting on our unexpected visit to Israel, I realised that the day's events had inadvertently overshot my goal of visiting 40 countries before I'm 30! 

So thank you, Israel, for being my 40th. Normally I wouldn't count a visit so short - but seeing as I'll be back in a few days to see more of the country, I'll let it slide this time.

Bus Egypt: Conquering Sinai

Climbing a holy mountain at 2am will leave you dazed at the best of times, but add a million stars and a few dozen bellowing camels into the mix and I defy you not to feel like you’ve stepped into a Christmas carol.

We even had heavenly activity in the form of a lightning storm over Saudi Arabia while we were waiting to be picked up from our hotel in Dahab. Having disappeared only for a quick snooze after a tiring day, watching a lightning storm over Saudi Arabia while drowsy at midnight felt rather like an episode of the Twilight Zone.

None of us thought we got any sleep on the two hour drive to Mt Sinai, but clearly we must have as it only felt like it took half an hour – including the two abrupt awakenings as the driver swerved to the correct side of the road to avoid a head on collision. Egyptians have somehow decided that the safest place to drive in the middle of the night is right down the centre-line, like a slot car. I’m not sure if it’s just a misguided road safety tip or actually an attempt to subvert would-be kidnappers – who apparently operate in the area.

Either way, we were quite glad to arrive at the base of Mount Sinai.

It starts off easy. For the first 45 minutes or so, you’re barely going uphill at all. It’s quite a pleasant stroll, and it’s quite exciting realising that you can’t see any light at all besides the moon and your torch. And ahead of you, the torches of others form a large daisy-chain of lights far up into the distance. We reached the first rest stop with minimal exertion and then patted each other on the back.

When Rachael asked how much ground we’d covered so far, our Bedouin guide started laughing. Apparently this stop was the first of six, and it merely signalled that we’d reached the start. My bad.

I started to distract myself from the climb by staring up at the stars. I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of them – more than I’d ever seen. Several rest stops and around 90 minutes later, I almost overbalanced when I caught the sight of a shooting star out of the corner of my eye. Having never seen one before, this gave me quite a lift! Some of the others reported seeing three or four. My eyes were clearly too focused on avoiding camel poo to notice the rest of them.

About half an hour before the summit, the path reached its steepest point and became a series of abrupt steps. Being allergic to exercise, it took all my strength not to sit down on every fifth one. But sunrise was approaching quickly – and we’d climbed all night for the promise of dawn so weren’t about to waste any time.

At the point where strong winds hit the trail, a group of Bedouin shopkeepers make a killing lending blankets to climbers. They’re great as long as you don’t mind smelling like camel. At about the same point, the trail reaches a point where you can see the horizon stretching in front of you. I was suddenly aware that an impending glow had rendered my torch obsolete, and switched it off.

Time to turn the torch off.

For some reason, I always imagined the summit to be rather large and flat. Perhaps with a nice grassy patch. I guess I always thought it would have to be quite roomy in order to fit both Moses, God, and the two stone slabs that became the ten commandments. But it’s really quite tight on the top, and there are dozens of grannies and nuns who worked as hard as we did to make it, so every climber jostles for the best spot like a queue of Ryanair passengers.

Fortunately, Rachael found us a wee spot around the way and down a bit. The rocks were somewhat precarious – and of course there was no safety railing – but most importantly we could sit alone as a group and feel proud of our efforts as we waited for the sun to surface.

The spot Rachael found us.

Around ten minutes later, we let out a collective gasp when a sliver of intense scarlet light became visible. Though we’d been anticipating its arrival, the sun was far larger and more brightly coloured than we’d expecting. It wasn’t hard to see why the Ancient Egyptians considered the sun the most powerful of gods.

We spent around 45 minutes at the top taking photos, sitting in silence and watching the sunrise, talking about some of the many events that had happened there, and even singing Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah.

The six of us who had the balls to spend all night conquering Sinai.
My brother Michael on top of Mt Sinai. I love this photo.

Then, it was time to begin the trek back down. We opted for the lesser-known route: 3,750 steep steps directly down the side of the mountain. The path was created by a monk who intended its climb to be used as penitence. I can barely comprehend how hard it would have been in other other direction. Long before reaching the bottom, most of us were getting the yips – our knees threatening to twitch at exactly the wrong moment and fling us down to the rocks below.

One of the easier stretched of stairs.

The way down felt vastly different to the climb up. Partly because it was steeper and there were no camels, but mainly because the sunlight enabled us to see the immense canyon we were climbing. As a kid, I always imagined Mt Sinai would resemble the mountains I was familiar with – grassy and fertile. But it turned out to be more like the Grand Canyon: vast, bare, red, and rocky.

A small Greek Orthodox church part-way down.

Our descent took less than half the time our climb had taken. At the base of the mountain, we visited St Catherine’s Monastery – the oldest Christian church in the world. Sadly we weren’t able to go inside, as we were pressed for time to get back in time for our onward journey to Jordan.

St Catherine's Monastery.

Later that afternoon, we found out that other tour groups had been cancelling their Mt Sinai climbs following kidnappings in the Sinai area. I’m relieved that I didn’t know this in advance as it may have made me uneasy about taking part. And I’m stoked that our group were fortunate enough to have to opportunity.

I spent the night in a Christmas carol, and it was choice as.