Impressions of Israel, Expressed Through Street Art

Impressions of Israel, Expressed Through Street Art

“I don’t know if it was just the shock of the new, or a fascination waiting to be discovered, but something about Israel and the Middle East grabbed me in both heart and mind. I was totally taken with the place, its peoples and its conflicts. Since that moment, I have never really been interested in anything else. Indeed, from the first day I walked through the walled Old City of Jerusalem, inhaled its spices, and lost myself in the multicolored river of humanity that flowed through its maze of alleyways, I felt at home. Surely, in some previous incarnation, I must have been a bazaar merchant, a Frankish soldier perhaps, a pasha, or at least a medieval Jewish chronicler.” -Thomas L. Friedman Disclaimer: I don’t pretend to know anything about politics but anything that has to do with the Middle East inevitably gets political.  I openly admit I’m not even remotely an expert on this issues so I’ll do my best to convey what I’ve witnessed and heard and have no intentions of making strong political proclamations.  I’ll try to base most of my claims in pictures. Israel… what a place.  This modern state feels like an idealogical pre-teen in shoes too big for her feet, blowing bubbles and dispensing free hugs outside a supermarket while the world falls apart around it.  I don’t know if that’s a good metaphor.  It’s one of the strangest places I’ve been and despite all my efforts to figure out this country, it’s still hard to articulate why.  Obviously, some of the weirdness comes from the founding principles of the nation: as one of the youngest countries designated as a Jewish State in 1948 to be as a home for people persecuted from everywhere.  So it houses an incredibly random crowd, from really Orthodox Jews with curls by their ears, to post-army, pot-loving people with strange piercings to non-religious Jews who are proud of their past but barely visit the synagogue.  In its 60 years of existence, it has quickly become home people of various backgrounds, languages, cultures and foods.  Most occupants are Jewish, with American or European heritage. But then there’s Arabs, most of whom are Muslim but there’s Arab Christians, Greek Catholics, Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic.  Part of this tremendous diversity is reflected in the food, which features falafel, hummus, kebab and sabich (my new favorite- an eggplant, hummus, tahini, boiled egg, parsley pita creation) from the Middle East, couscous and grilled meats from North Africa but also schnitzel and pastries from Jews that fled Old World Europe. So it’s a bit disorienting to be in a place with all these random people running around, all kind of loud and obnoxious and in your face, the Israeli way.  There’s Orthodox Jews hitchhiking.  Female, teenage soldiers putting on blush and lipstick while wearing army uniforms.  Schoolboys in yarmulkes elbowing each other to get into the synagogue in a boisterous buzzing pack. Crazy drivers, so much noise, but if you speak above a whisper on a bus… how dare you?!?! (I got yelled at three times haha).  All of this insane activity is set to a backdrop of a Mediterranean coast which implies relaxation but it’s hard to relax when you’re constantly going through checkpoints and there’s kid soldiers everywhere. Speaking of soldiers, security is yet another one of the many contradictions in Israel.  Based on my past encounters with Israeli security, Israel is one of the most tightly monitored and controlled countries (rightfully so!).  Despite being so uptight that they would not let me leave the country with my travel sized contact solution, when it comes to day-to-day operations, Israeli police are surprisingly laid back.  Drinking in public is supposedly illegal but it’s common to see people drinking at the beach or on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv (I don’t know how anyone can afford to drink at a bar, with beers usually starting at $7 for ~0.33 liters).  Marijuana is also supposedly off-limits but according to my friend, “everyone smokes pot” and clubs are clogged with it.  Graffiti is still illegal but municipal authorities usually turn a blind eye.  Furthermore, it’s no secret that most Israelis can successfully schmooze their way of speeding tickets and other minor violations with the local police. And then there’s the infrastructure.  Certain aspects of Israel are extremely modern and Westernized. As a country in a barren desert with few natural resources and water supply, the people had to be creative to survive and they are.  Israel has the largest number of startups per capita and the highest proportion of scientists, engineers and technicians worldwide.  Israeli companies have invented voice mail, anti-virus software, Uber app, electronic vehicle batteries, Video On Demand, and the list goes on and on… While this list (and the high...

Travel Jordan: Ancient Cities, Otherworldly Desert and Arab Hospitality

Travel Jordan: Ancient Cities, Otherworldly Desert and Arab Hospitality

“Match me such a marvel save in Eastern clime, A rose red city half as old as time” -Dean Burgon Southern Jordan is a place that deserves to be described in haiku or serenaded with custom-composed symphonies.  Movie directors have discovered its magic and chose its otherworldly landscape to film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Lawrence of Arabia, the Mummy Returns and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen because who needs a movie set when nature created something infinitely more epic than Disney could ever design?  At the same time, sun rays shining through wildflowers created dancing shadows terracotta rock walls and set rust red sand on fire.  Throughout the years, rain and wind cut incredibly intricate carvings in the walls, creating abstract shapes infinitely more amazing than the man-made hieroglyphs left by ancient inhabitants. To add another layer of mystery and excitement, one of my favorite parts of walking around Petra was imagining what it was like in its hey day.  What is now an abandoned city hidden at the edge of the Arabian desert was once a lively hub for trade caravans. The canyon walls created a naturally fortified rest station for traders and became the crossroads for the people moving spices, swords and precious metals from 100 BE to 200 CE.  The intricate Greek column cravings, massive theaters, Egyptian ornamentation testify to how profitable owning this land was to the Nabataeans.  Even today, archeologists and scientists puzzle over the construction of these enormous city structures carved into rock The well-preserved opulent facades make difficult to imagine having to abandon such a magnificent structure.  During Roman rule, sea-based routes re-routed trade away from Petra.  Multiple earthquakes in 363 and 551 disrupted the water management system which caused many of the last remaining inhabitants to abandoned the area before the Arabs conquered it. Lucky for us (but not people who work here), Petra was relatively deserted so we were free to roam the 250 acre park alone with our imaginations.  We crawled into caves, wandered off the beaten paths to an abandoned temple where a dog was guarding her pups, climbed a lot of stairs to the monasteries and a few more to test out both sites which claim to be, in screaming black letters, “the best viewpoint in Petra”.  Both the nature and the architecture in this park were so mindblowingly beautiful, it was hard to tell what I liked more…. when the two combine, it culminates in creating one of the most incredible places I have ever been.  Then, to add to the natural splendor, you have an exotic parade bedouins wandering around with camels, donkeys decked out in Rastafarian blankets and other trinkets to make them attractive to tourists… I loved every minute of it!  Just a word of warning to the wise: people offer blitz tours of Petra from Israel or day trips which combine Petra and Wadi Rum from Amman, but having just a couple hours for this place is not enough!  We stayed close to Petra and were able to hike all the major trails in the park between 8 AM-5 PM but with more time, I heard it’s possible to hike to Little Petra and further explore the outskirts.  I highly encourage you not to rush your time here! The other must-do is Wadi Rum, a natural protected site and amazing desert.  We explored it through a 4×4 desert exploration and camping tour.  Around every corner, the desert had different epic landscapes.  I’ll let my pictures do the talking since words can not describe how amazing it was. Since the Arab Spring, tourism has decreased significantly in Petra and Wadi Rum, an UNESCO site that many consider one of the 7 New World Wonders.  Our desert tour guide explained that despite it being the high season for tourism in Jordan, the maximum number of people staying in the Bedouin camps are around 70 when a decade or so ago, the camps would have reached a maximum capacity of 200.  While we didn’t mind having the magnificence of the Treasury to ourselves, it was kind of sad realizing how significantly media’s footage of violence in the Middle East can impact the livelihoods of people working in an industry in a place where things are completely safe, the vast majority of the time. Sure, it’s not the best country to hang out in booty shorts.  Amman, the capital city, isn’t the best place to get drunk and dance.  But who needs nightlife when you can take selfies with camels? If you avoid the Middle East based on the media distorting reality or based on the advice from ignorant people, you will be the one missing out. Song of the Moment: Indiana Jones Theme...

Why the Middle East? And Obligatory Post About Israel Security

Why the Middle East? And Obligatory Post About Israel Security

Sorry it’s been so long since I posted but after writing a 300+ page dissertation and working on another publication, the last way I want to spend my free time is by staring at a computer screen.  Especially when the sun is shining on the side of the Mediterranean and there’s vitamin D to absorb!  But I didn’t come to the Middle East to just get  a tan so it is about time to start sharing my thoughts. First, where exactly am I going?  I have 3 weeks to spend exploring Cyprus, Jordan and Israel.  Why?  When I saw $367 round trip tickets from JFK to Israel, I decided it would be the perfect PhD graduation gift to myself, especially since I have a friend to visit in Tel Aviv.  But that’s not the only reason either.  I think it’s impossible not to be intrigued by Israel.  The land where three major religions are rooted.  An artificial country created sixty years ago and an attempt to provide a home for mis-matched Jews from everywhere.  A hotly contested area to this day.  The homeland of many people I’ve met along my journeys, who travel after finishing their time in the army.  A land unified by religion but according to Thomas Friedman, it’s a land where Jews can be themselves without worrying about obeying Jewish stereotypes abroad.  So they drink, wear jeans at weddings and be on a first name basis with everyone.  I love diverse nations and have always found Israelis incredibly laid back and open minded.  But I am also completely oblivious when it comes to politics and wanted to learn more about the current political situation without watching the news.  And I want to see Petra (preferably without breaking a bone or the onset of a debilitating disease which is what happened when I tried to visit similarly epic sites).  Based on my experiences in Egypt, I am not sure how much I will like traveling around the Middle East but it’ll be different, it’ll be interesting and unfortunately, with the political situation continuing to escalate, I don’t think it makes sense to wait. “Run from what’s comfortable.  Forget safety.  Live where you fear to live.  Destroy your reputation.  Be notorious.” -Rumi So anyone who writes about their time in Israel almost always includes a border crossing tale.  Even Paul Theroux, one of my favorite writers, documents his bad moment in Pillars of Hercules: A Grand Tour of the Mediterranean.  I entered the area the Middle East through the Tel Aviv airport and I had no problem getting into the country. Border control at the airport asked me why I came (tourism and to see a friend).  That response was enough to get me a stamp on the paper passport insert that they use to keep track of your entry and exit (supposedly many Arabic countries won’t admit you if they see an Israeli stamp… Lebanon Iran, Libya, etc.).  When I told them my friend’s name was Erez, the security officer broke into a huge smile of approval and enthusiastically handed my passport, happy to hear a good Hebrew boy would accompany me on some of my adventures. I braced myself for an item-by-item inspection of my luggage and could not believe that I could pass through customs without sending my bags through a machine.  There wasn’t even a security guard to see me visit.  “Well, that was easy,” I thought to myself. While it doesn’t make too much sense to me, it seems getting in is easy part of traveling in Israel.  I was arriving in Israel on a Saturday afternoon, right in the middle of sabbat, when Israeli public transportation doesn’t operate as normal.  I didn’t buy a Jordan Visa in advance so the closest border crossing (King Hussein bridge) wasn’t an option.  After 15 hours on planes, I did not want to deal with an uncertain crossing into Jordan so a week or two I bought flights for 5 days in Cyprus, leaving directly to Jordan.  After a few hours in the Israeli airport waiting for the plane to Cyprus, I was briefly questioned by an airport security who wanted to know why I would fly to Israel, just to fly to Cyprus.  I explained my situation, showed her some documents and then she nodded and left me alone.  “That wasn’t bad,” I thought to myself. Where I ran into issues was getting out.  The Israeli airport recommends you arrive at least 2.5 hours before departure and luckily, I started the process 3 hours before my flight.  The first part of the process involved investigation.  The security guard flipped through every page of my passport and barraged me with questions, especially about my stamps in Indonesia, Malaysia,...

Essential Cairo Attractions: Planned and Unplanned Adventures in “The City of 1000 Minarets”

Essential Cairo Attractions: Planned and Unplanned Adventures in “The City of 1000 Minarets”

I don’t like big cities so planning to spend 3 days in Cairo probably wasn’t my best travel decision but it allowed me to catch up with some old friends and experience the good, bad and the ugly of Egypt as opposed to a place like Dahab, which I probably would have enjoyed more but would have been a touristy-seaside-paradise that doesn’t reflect the country as a whole.  Nevertheless, Cairo attractions are pretty fascinating… you can cover the highlights in a day or two but make time for experiences that just kind of happened, as many memorable moments do. The Ultimate Tourist Evening in Cairo: Khan El Khalili Bazaar, Feluccas and Koshary When an old couch surfing friend had one night to show me Cairo, he came up with “the plan” that almost everyone recommends for one night in Cairo. He told me to invite the Aussie and Japanese guy and sternly warned us to be prepared to stay up late because Egyptians don’t like to sleep until after the sun comes up. We decided to head into the city early to do some independent explorations before we met Omar and his Egyptian friend after fast breaking. Somehow, we got off the metro at a random square, bazaar and busy bus station so we wasted a couple hours walking around in circles trying to figure out to get to Tahrir Square, where we’d be meeting our Egyptain tour guides. Somewhere along the journey, we found a huge tent covered in royal purple carpets. We poked our heads in, realized it was a Ramadan-fasting breaking tent and tried to excuse ourselves but it was too late: someone had spotted us, gladly greeting us with the typical “Welcome to Egypt” and all the tent’s occupants mobilized to convince us to stay. They found us a seat in the corner, near some English-“speakers”. Before we knew it, the members of the army delivered bright pink boxes with our free dinner: guava juice, dried dates, pasta, peas and some fried balls soaked in sweet stuff. We took selfies with the people at the table, enjoyed our meal as we tried to figure out whether we were eating with poor people, prisoners or mentally unstable people then concluded that they were nice and it didn’t matter. Everyone scarfed down their meals at lightining speeds and they invited us out for coffee but we excused ourselves and continued our search for Tahrir Square. On the way, a few people handed us free treats for Ramadan: a drink of dates in coconut milk and apple juice boxes. We kind of felt guilty because we weren’t Muslim but when we saw how happy they were to give it to us, we gladly accepted (although nothing’s open during Ramadan, it’s a good time of year for hungry backpackers to travel through Islamic countries because everyone’s especially generous!). Eventually we figured out were at the wrong metro station the whole time so we backtracked to get to our meeting point. As the location of the start of the Egyptian Revolution, the government removed the main metro stop to Tahrir Square and it still has security guards and movable gates covered in barbed wire throughout the area. To meet Omar, we passed a memorial for the people who died and lots of intense, freshly painted graffiti showing starving and abused Egyptians. Our first stop was Khan El Khalili bazaar in Islamic Cairo, a place that helped me understand the nickname, “city of a thousand minarets” . Unlike the non-descript, crumbling architecture elsewhere in the city, this area was filled with cobblestone streets, cozy passageways, lined with small shops of people selling spices, hookah pipes, bold-colored tapestries, ornate metal lamps and mother-of-pearl chess sets. The whole place smelled delicious: the sweet scent of shisha, street-side falafel, nectar of prickly pear cactus, dusty old books and waves of cumin wafting around corners. We watched Egyptian families with three generations and a dozen people crowd into closet-sized jewelry stores to help the bride-to-be pick out her wedding ring. Although the areas we were in appeared to be bustling, Omar pointed across the bazaar to a line of shops that had to close their doors after the revolution. Considering the bazaar was bombed during the revolution, the area recovered remarkably well. After we wound ourselves out of the maze, we headed into the car for a felucca ride on the Nile. I couldn’t believe that a 15-minute drive and a sailboat ride was all you need to find serenity in this crazy city but floating on the Nile is an undeniably tranquil experience. I felt like Baby Moses in a basket...

Desert Sleepovers and Sunrise Chakra Alignment in Giza, Egypt

Desert Sleepovers and Sunrise Chakra Alignment in Giza, Egypt

When I was young, I liked to read the book, “Are you my mother?” by PD Eastman. The story is about a baby bird who hatches when his mother flies off to look for food. He peers around, then walks on wobbly legs to search for her, asking a kitten, hen, dog, cow and giant machine, “are you my mother?”. Eventually the bird gets scooped up by a noisy, big and scary digging machine and once the poor bird thinks that things can’t get worse, he gets dropped back in the nest where his mother is waiting to hear about his adventure. On this trip, I’ve felt like the wobbly little bird, but instead asking, “is this real life?” as I look for the place that I belong. Is real life skyping in for research meetings from Bocas del Toro beach in Panama, the microphone picking up the breeze blowing through palm trees? Is real life teaching Indian brainiacs how to make kick-ass PVC catapults? Is real life cutting up cucumbers and tomatoes with Orhan’s mother and sisters for the perpetually present salads that keep the eight people in his family fed, three times a day? Is real life writing about crazy places that most people are too scared to go, and inspiring people to take a chance and travel? Experiencing Giza, Egypt with my spiritual Bedouin host was one of my most bizarre travel experiences but also surprisingly powerful. We slept in the desert next to one of the oldest ceremonial sites on the planet and woke up before sunrise to align our chakras with the help of the proper essential oils by the temple. When you’re alone in a place so ancient, absorbing the energy from such a sacred site, ordinary existence seems laughably trivial. Is this real life? Personally, I aspire to do more than meditate my life away but checking in with yourself is important: living out of alignment and off-balance isn’t the way we’re supposed to exist. But I’m getting ahead of myself. The Cast: A Random Assortment of International Misfits So how did I get here? I accepted a couch surfing invitation from Rami, a 35-year old Bedouin man who lived near the pyramids whose family has guided people around the desert for decades. It sounded to me the ultimate authentic experience of Egypt and I couldn’t wait to meet him at the train station. I guess I envisioned my arrival in Giza to be instantly exotic: a lanky camel waiting in the sand to escort me to a cloth tent under a palm tree in a desert oasis. That is NOT what happened. I disembarked the train and waded through the trash on a concrete sidewalk to meet Rami, who led me down a dirty street, parted some curtains and invited me for coffee at a fly-covered street-side “coffee shop” where old men looked at me suspiciously as they puffed on hookah. Although the place looked sketchy, the shot of Turkish coffee startled me with its deliciousness: the thick espresso had a surprising complexity and almost tasted spice-filled. I instantly warmed up to the man who caffeinated me after a 10-hour overnight train ride and listened to Rami explain his connection to the area. His grandfather and father had been giving tours of the pyramids from the early 1900s (and he had pictures to prove it). In addition to having extensive knowledge of the desert, Rami briefly mentioned that his father and grandfather had a heightened sense of people’s souls, a trait that Rami had also inherited. He paused to look deeply in my eyes, “you have a very strong spirit. It’s a bit strangled at the moment but we’ll work on that”. “Hummph,” I replied and I asked him about his other family members, which saturated the city. He had uncles with rooftops where we could watch the Light and Sound show at the Great Pyramids, cousins in hookah bars, and was currently planning a wedding for his brother, which he promptly invited me to. I felt special until I learned I was one of 1600 invited guests. We finished up our coffees and Rami brought me home where he introduced me to two other current surfers. One was Daymo (“Like the song! Daymo… I say Daymo…”), a male nurse from Australia who was perpetually singing, quacking and unsuccessfully attempting to make armpit farts. He hadn’t planned to be in Egypt but his ex-girlfriend expelled him out of Mexico then after a miserable week with her in Canada, Egypt was a cheap place to escape. The other was Mino, a young Japanese guy in swishy wind...

A Lightening Tour: Luxor, Egypt in 24 hours

A Lightening Tour: Luxor, Egypt in 24 hours

Immediately after getting off the train in Luxor, I was swarmed: taxi drivers, hostel owners, souvenir sellers and cafe owners. I waved them away, called my host, but they followed me thinking that if they waved their hands more vigorously, I might actually buy something. So that’s how I traveled down the street of Luxor: talking on my phone to Ernesto, leading a parade of skinny Egyptian guys, brochure flags a-flying to shouts of “welcome!” And “maybe later?”. Fighting my way to the café where Ernesto (my host) told me to wait for him, a Finnish woman came to my rescue and shooed my followers away. She asked, “I saw that you needed help. Can I sit and wait with you? I wanted to go shopping but with Ramadan all the stores are closed. They’ll reopen in an hour. Maybe”. I happily made room and we chatted under the shade, covering our juices with our hands to keep out the leaves and bird poop that was raining down from the tree above. She married an Egyptian, owns a café and has lived in Luxor the past four years. When I asked her whether she lived living here, she shrugged. “It’s cheap, it’s where my husband is from and we built a house. I still don’t understand them- they’re always praying, shops are never open when you want them to be but Luxor’s nice. Even during the revolution, Luxor was safe”. I asked her if she spoke Arabic, and she sighed apologetically, “I know a few words. I should learn. Building my house taught me that. I thought I could communicate with the workers and tell them to paint the walls gold- I showed them too. I turned my back and all of a sudden, the interior of my home was bright orange”. I get the impression that ex-pats don’t make too much of an effort to integrate themselves and resign themselves to a chaotic existence. But at least it doesn’t cost much. Dripping with sweat, the pale-skinned, redheaded Ernesto eventually arrived, panting and complaining about finding a bus around the fast-breaking time. Since nothing operates as it should during Ramadan (somehow I doubt things operate on schedule, ever in Egypt). We bid farewell and good luck to the Finnish woman, stowed my luggage at Ernesto’s favorite café then headed across the street to the Luxor temple, which they keep open after dark. From a young age, back home in Uruguay, Egyptian culture fascinated Ernesto and all he wanted for his birthdays were books about this ancient civilization. He first came to Luxor in 2004 to study Egyptology, stayed near the Valley of the King with locals and was treated as one of the family. He returned twice since then, and when the government relocated the family out of the hills to new land in the middle of nowhere, Ernesto decided to build a house in the family complex and stay. I asked him whether he planned to stay forever and he replied, “who knows? Moving here just kind of happened. It only cost a couple month’s rent in Uruguay to build this house. I’m here now. Where I’ll be permanently, God only knows”. Approaching the temple, I felt instantly dwarfed by the massive structure. I walked backward, trying to zoom out enough to capture the entrance in a photograph. Ernesto gestured for me to walk further back, down a pathway lined with sphinxes, for a more dramatic shot. He claimed that the government hopes to continue this path from to the enormous Karnak Temple Complex, which makes this one look teeny. He explained how ordinary citizens weren’t allowed inside the temple and how the temple got smaller the farther you walked back, because of increasing restrictions about who can access it. Local Life in Luxor Our conversations about Egypt continued well after we finished the temple tour and took the ferry to his home on the West Bank. He told me about how his host family lost their tourist shop and source of income when the government relocated them but their hospitality for Ernesto never waned. In their current village, they deal with daily power outages, unannounced water shortages and even the “supermarket” was a sad sight: no bread, no fruits and veggies and you’ll have to battle your neighbors for chicken which sells out quickly after a shipment arrives. However, the family works through these difficulties together and Ernesto was proud to be a part of it. When we returned to his home, he pulled books out of his Egyptian library to show me pictures of what I would be seeing in my...