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,...

Peru Travel Tricks and Tips: Part 2 (Puno, Ica & Lima)

Peru Travel Tricks and Tips: Part 2 (Puno, Ica & Lima)

If you’re thinking about Peru travel, start here with Part 1 to learn general tips or a suggested itinerary for things to do near Cusco.  Here’s a continuation of our itinerary, through Puno, Ica and Lima. Day 8. Lake Titicaca and Puno. Ideally, we wanted to do a 2-day Lake Titicaca tour which included a homestay on Amanti Island which was a better deal (two-day tour, three meals and accommodation for 75 sol… we paid 40 sol just for the day tour/ transportation and had to purchase lunch separately) but it wouldn’t get us back in time to make the bus to Ica. Instead, we booked the one-day, two-island tour through our Qoni Wasi hostel. We first went to Uros, the small man-made floating bamboo islands. When we first pulled up to an island smaller than my house, we weren’t sure how we would spend an hour there… it only had three huts and maybe five people living there. But the time passed quickly, as we learned how about how they built the island, how they find food and how the educational system works. What a fascinating way to live… and I guess family squabbles are pretty easy to resolve… they cut the island in two and anchor their half somewhere else! The next stop on our boat tour was the natural island of Taquile, to see a completely different lifestyle and, fortunately for us, completely different weather (sunny skies!).  Here, the island was large to support brick and concrete buildings, farms, animals and all things needed for a fairly modern life.  Although life looked a lot more “typical” on Taquile, they still had unique governance and dress that made it interesting to visit.  Unmarried men wore plain white hats whereas married men wore flashy rainbow colored ones… before they could get married, they had to knit this hat themselves.  Having a “pre-marriage challenge” like this one, probably gives you some idea of what a peaceful people they are… they also have a town council where they manage village decision-making safety and such without a police force. After our tour of the islands, we headed back to Puno, where the skies had turned stormy again.  As one of the poorest cities we visited so far, there wasn’t too much we wanted to do in the city itself but we did check out the Plaza del Armas and the shops and restaurants around the adjoining Jiron Lima street (the main pedestrian path in town).  Puno’s proximity to the highlands and Alpacas make this one of the best places in the country to find cheap, homemade textiles.  I rarely buy anything when I travel but I couldn’t resist thick knitted gloves (10 sol), wooly leg warmers (10 sol) and a warm, knitted poncho with llamas marching around the perimeter (30 sol). We also had an incredible three course meal (including beverages) for 18 sol at Lago de Flores restaurant- taquitos with homemade guacamole, Jimmy tried alpaca and indulgent chocolate cake for dessert.  It seemed to have won the locals over too because we basically shared the restaurant with a dozen Puno security officers who were happily stuffing their faces. Day 9.  Epic Bus Ride from Puno to Ica.  Our 9th day involved an epic bus journey from Puno to Ica, which you could potentially avoid with a flight.  It was easier to find nice, direct, comfortable night buses to Arequipa (we were pleased with Peru Bus) but options to Ica were more limited.  After arriving at the Arequipa terminal, bleary-eyed at 4 AM, Jimmy picked out Flores bus (the option the locals use) to get to Ica.  In general, we had been advised to splurge on reputable buses since some buses can get held up by thieves who want to hold the bus hostage steal things.  In order to board the Flores bus, we had to get fingerprinted and videotaped and we squeezed into seats as far away from the smelly toilet as possible.  The bus made stops along the way and random townspeople would board and walk down the aisle selling pears, meat pies, popcorn, jello, fruit popsicles and small sandwiches.  They’d join us for a stop or two, until the driver dropped them off in the middle of nowhere.  In addition to the excitement of seeing who was going to hop on the bus, the scenery also helped entertain us for the 12-hour ride.  Most of the route followed the coast, so we loved to peer out the window at abandoned beaches and wild, untamed coast.  We also knew Ica was famous for its desert but we didn’t expect our whole route to be sandy hills and dusty roads. Day...

Peru Travel Tips And Tricks Part 1: Cusco Area

Peru Travel Tips And Tricks Part 1: Cusco Area

Between having a dissertation to finish in the next month and a half, jobs to apply for and a million other things to do and only one hand to type with, I won’t be able to write as much about my trip to Peru as I would like to. Peru is a colorful, spirited and incredibly diverse country. In two weeks, we visited desert, beach, cloud forest and islands on the highest-altitude lake in the world.   If we had more time, we could visit the jungle, more beaches up north and/ or the Colca canyon, famous for its Condors. Peru is also an incredible bargain when it comes to tours, food and accommodation (especially outside of Cusco… anything related to Machu Picchu will be more expensive). Peruvians are quieter and more reserved than I expected from people of South America, but still warm and friendly. Huffington Post recently published an article where Peru placed 9 on their list of 15 top countries to visit in 2015, claiming the country will reach levels of culinary excellence akin to Thailand or France (I’m not sure what the French would say about that). Peru is still developing so especially in cities like Puno, most restaurants appear a bit dingy, potentially unclean, causal mom-and-pop operations and it took my brother and I a little while to warm up to the chicken and rice- based diet (especially since he got sick early on). But toward the end, we began to appreciate the fresh seafood, zesty dishes with an incredible flavor without being drowned in spice. It’s not the healthiest food but quite satisfying, especially when paired with an energizing, citrusy Pisco Sour or, my brother’s new addiction, the radioactive yellow Inca Cola. At the very least, I thought I’d share the two-week itinerary for the trip my brother and I just completed and non-trivial Peru travel tips and tricks we learned along the way. First, if you are planning your own trip to Peru, wait to book most of your tours until you arrive in the country. If you plan to trek the Inca Trail, securing a permit will need to be done months in advance (unless you go in the rainy season like we did, but I don’t know if I’d recommend that). You’re better off waiting for everything else (for example, tours of Lake Titicaca, bus transfers from Cusco to Puno, desert fun in Huachachina/ Paracas) since there’s a million tourist companies everywhere and prices will be three times cheaper booked in person, instead of online. Furthermore, tour companies have basically synched what they offer so you could pay a little more for a faster boat or a smaller group but basically all the tours follow the exact same schedule and take you to the same places. In almost every country I travel these days, I usually just withdraw money from the ATM (I have a Charles Schwab Checking Account with no foreign transaction fees) but Peruvian ATMs charges 12-14 sols for each withdrawal (~3 sol= $1 USD) so you might be better off bringing cash to exchange. Peru also has incredibly varied weather that can change quickly so when they tell you to dress in layers, they aren’t kidding. We went in mid/late January so it was hot, sunny and dry in Lima, Paracas and Ica, and the strong sun made sun protection important. In Cusco and Puno, it was the rainy season and weather could change from blue skies and hot (because of the high altitude, the sun is also very strong here, even if it feels cooler) to cold and rainy in the blink of an eye. In general, it’s not worth trying to look pretty in these cities- everyone is in hiking boots, wearing practical layers and a backpack with rain gear and sun protection. Day 1: Cusco. Everyone recommends that visitors to Machu Picchu spend a day or two tin Cusco to acclimate to the high altitude (3300 m above sea level) and explore the “center/naval” of the ancient Incan empire. We took altitude pills prior to arrival so we had no major problems with nausea and lightheadedness but we did notice getting winded really easily. Mint tea, coca leaves and rude water are local remedies that can help if you don’t have pills (I read somewhere that smelling lime or your armpits also helps haha. It’s a rather small, incredibly historic city with gorgeous nature and fresh air easily accessible beyond city limits. We arrived around 11 AM, walked around the main plazas (Plaza de Armas) and cathedral in the city center and headed up the hill to the Sacsayhuaman ruins,...

Cheap Travel And The Myth of “Cheap” Countries

Cheap Travel And The Myth of “Cheap” Countries

People always ask how I can afford to travel so much on a graduate student salary. There’s hundreds, maybe thousands of blog posts and articles online so I’ve never felt a need to write about it. Furthermore, most of my trips are based around free flights courtesy of physics fellowships and teaching opportunities. When you come from America, flying anywhere is unavoidably a large part of your travel expenses so when that cost disappears, I’m not paying rent back home and getting paid for researching remotely, travel becomes much more affordable. However, the average person who wants to travel the world isn’t getting a PhD in physics, probably doesn’t have a job where they can work from anywhere so much of what works for me isn’t transferable advice. So what else do I tell people? This advice is a little more nuanced than other bloggers make it sound so read carefully… 1.  Use couch surfing… even if you don’t feel comfortable staying with people, this website allows you to connect with locals for free walking tours, free entertainment and free tips for really getting to know a place. Sometimes, people have cars and offer to drive you places that you can’t get to as a solo traveler reliant on public transportation. Sometimes, you’ll get a free meal or a free drink. However, cost saving isn’t the primary reason I use couch surfing. You can’t and shouldn’t expect to get any of these perks for free. If you want to stay with a local, you’ll probably be living farther from the center, in less touristy parts and end up spending as much time and money on transportation as you would spend on a cheap hostel. If a host accepts your request, don’t expect an all-service hotel… you may be sleeping on a mattress on floor without a pillow, there may not be internet, you may get kicked out when your host is at work… By agreeing to stay with someone, you need to be flexible and adjust to their schedule, not your own. I use couch surfing to find out what a place is really like, beyond the postcard pictures you see online, behind the optimistic information you hear on free walking tours, in the random parts of the city you’d never see when you’re on a mission to visit the essential tourist sights. The experiences I’ve had couch surfing (sleeping outside near an Egyptian pyramid mound in Giza, staying in a traditional Nubian village by the Nile in Aswan, shopping at markets and cooking in Tbilisi, Georgia) have transformed my perceptions of what it means to really live and you could never put a price tag on that. 2. Try workaway or WOOFing … I haven’t had time to really take advantage of these websites but if you want to spend an extensive amount of time in a place, these websites that allow you to work in exchange for housing (and sometimes food) are a great resource. If you don’t want to work on a farm through WOOFing (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms), workaway has a larger variety of options- babysitting, language exchange, working in hostel as well as plenty of farming opportunities. You can pursue the hosts on the website for free but you need to pay an annual membership fee to contact them. Getting free accommodation abroad sounds too good to be true and it kind of is… I found that the response rate on this website was quite low so I had to send dozens and dozens of emails to get a response and hosts have limited openings. I’ve only used it successfully in Passau, Germany, helping a college student prepare for English exams so I’ll have more to say about this after I try it again in Belgium in a week. 3.  Use car shares… for many of the reasons above, I haven’t planned ahead enough or spent enough time in one place to be able to use couch surfing for free accommodation this trip. However, I have saved a ton of money and time by finding ride shares, primarily through blablacar. On this website, people post rides, times and prices then you can email the driver to see whether you can tag along. There’s tons of options in Europe and it’s a way to get to smaller towns not easily reached by public transportation. Car sharing wasn’t too helpful in Balkans and Romania but you can ask locals whether a similar resource exists in their area. For example, this facebook group works in Romania (you may need to use google translate to figure out what people are posting). Like couch surfing,...

Things to Know About Traveling The Balkans

Things to Know About Traveling The Balkans

If you’ve been keeping up with my continuous stream of photos on facebook, you would understand why I’ve been rather negligent on updating my blog. I’ve been too busy having adventures to write about them so Richard Burton may be proud but I think it’s time for me to take a step back and summarize some of my experiences, since traveling in this part of the world is different. “If we stop moving and try to explain everything, we truly die; if we pause, if we take our gaze off the shimmering horizon for an instant, if we abandon the path in order to reflect or to plot our silly course, we go into exile” -Richard Burton This whole trip evolved into something different than I planned when I booked my flights and I’ve been living one day at a time, planning by path based on what I’ve heard from others and what countries pique my curiosity. Since this trip is probably my last venture before getting my PhD and potentially entering real life, I’ve been moving fast, trying to survey the land in hopes of finding a place that speaks to me. I know you can’t claim to know a city or a place after a few hours, nose buried in a map as you follow the well-trodden tourist pilgrim path. Since I’ve been spending only 1-2 days in each city, that’s kind of what I have been doing. But I’ve also made a point to get lost, meet locals (or at least current residents of a city), sample the street food and most importantly, absorb the energy of a place. It’s amazing how quickly you can get a general feel of a place, and admittedly, first impressions may not be perfectly accurate, but I think they can lead some insights to the spirit of a place that isn’t easily captured in photographs. Since I’m so behind on my writing, I doubt I’ll be able to catch up on entries from everywhere so here’s some of the things that stuck out about each country and followed by commonalities for this area in general. I entered the area through Slovenia, the wealthiest country of ex-Yugoslavia who escaped the socialist empire relatively unscathed, both economically and psychologically. Slovenians share a café culture like the rest of the Balkans but you can see a spunk and an intelligent sparkle in their eyes that is largely absent in the faces of countries hit harder by the war. In Serbia and Bosnia, wrinkles create craters in the faces of people whose only source of daily solace and pleasure is found chain-smoking cigarettes and nursing sludgy Turkish coffee. Serbia even created their own trademark caffeinated beverage, a milky espresso, to make drinking coffee occupy a larger portion of the day. In Slovenia, I also didn’t hear any of the catchy but excessively mindless “techno-folk” that entertain Zagreb and Belgrade club goers. Even I found it impossible to resist their bouncy beats but it became a guilty pleasure once my Croatian friend started translating the lyrics, something along the lines of “I don’t want love, I only want money. If you come to my bedroom, bring your wallet…”. He seemed to think these songs accurately expressed the current priorities of society, “Croatian girls are like this. They are just looking for a rich man to save them”. Slovenia didn’t seem to be as stuck in this desperate sense of helplessness as the other countries, probably due to better educated occupants who were more equipped to help themselves. Next I visited Croatia, which tried desperately to emphasize its European-ness and disassociate with its Yugoslavian past. In Zagreb, you’ll find people sipping cappuccinos in Ban Jelacic Square, instead of Turkish coffee. The 19th century architecture, carefully painted in complementary pastels, racial homogeneity (except for its gypsies) and popular opera all serve to exaggerate the more aristocratic air of this place. According to “Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the War”, even during the war, Zagreb largely lacked any evidence of conflict- no sandbagged buildings, no gun emplacements on the roof of commercial buildings or fixed checkpoints. The city’s occupants look rather happy, filling wide pedestrian streets on the weekend with almost every kid munching on cones of popcorn and roasted chestnuts. Intermission Song of the Moment: Tango– Vatra (a band from Croatia who filmed their music video in Zagreb) As you leave the city, the coast is beautiful but there’s not much evidence of industry, prosperity or much going on. Like its occupants whose dreams are expressed in folk-techno songs, I think the country of Croatia itself is wistfully waiting for the...

Small but scenic… loving Bled & Ljubljana, Slovenia

Small but scenic… loving Bled & Ljubljana, Slovenia

I came across a Slovenian proverb, short and sweet, “All roads do not lead to Rome”.  For me, stopping in Slovenia on the way to Italy (and never actually making it to Rome) was the best decision I’ve made on this trip so far.  The country and its capital are small (the smallest capital in Europe, to be precise), but as I was warned, something about Slovenia and its capital that steals hearts. To capture the essence of this endearing and precious capital, I think the city emblem is a good place to start.  Through my journey through Europe so far, cities have been saturated with lion statues, which symbolize many of the same traits as the dragon (strength, courage and might).  But there’s something about the dragon and the way it perches on the city’s most famous bridge, adorns manhole covers and makes an appearance of the coat of arms and even represents the local soccer team that is so much better than the cliche choice of a lion.  It’s not the scariest looking dragon, but its a little quirky, a little badass and infinitely more memorable.  Legend has it that this fearsome lizard lurked in the marshes that surrounded the city, gobbling up fish, otters, river rats and even unfortunate farming folk that crossed its path.  Its reign of terror ended after a legendary Greek hero raged an epic battle against the sinister scaly creature.  There’s more details about the grisly battle and Slovenia’s “first fireworks show” as the dragon fought to its death but in the end, killing the dragon made the mudflats an infinitely more pleasant place to inhabit.  And that’s what Slovenia initially was mudflats, inhabited by people undeterred by a little dirt. I first learned about Slovenia when I saw the popular image of its most famous attraction: Lake Bled, the fairy tale lake that contains a floating castle and is snuggled at the feet of the Alps.  This relaxing resort town is about an hour’s drive from the city center and just breathing in the invigorating air is worth the trip.  You’ll also have spectacular views of mountains and cute, white houses along the way.  There’s not too much to the town except for sauntering alongside the lake, feeding the ducks and climbing the castle… if you’re lucky, there will be a makeshift camp of medieval men who may challenge you to a hatchet throwing contest or invite you to an evening of fire celebrations. If being Robin Hood isn’t your thing or you’ve already wandered through all the Bled woods, don’t worry, there’s plenty to keep you occupied in Ljubljana. I pictured the capital full of charming, colorful Old World plazas, cutesy baroque churches, overlooked by a castle on a hill.  Ljubljana certainly has all of that, enhanced by rivers, bridges and cafes galore.  Despite colorful exteriors, the buildings were more worn than other parts of Europe and the peeling paint and faded exteriors made them all the more endearing.  But what I found most interesting is the city’s punky alternative vibe.  There were lots of people wandering the streets with pink hair, piercings and skateboards.  Not rocking dyed hair in a scary extreme way, more like “I think about things and I don’t need to dress like my grandma”.  The city has its share of graffiti and actually has an area dedicated to alternative cultural expression in metelkova mesto.  First built as the barracks of the Austro-Hungarian army, it has been used by the kingdom of Yugoslavia, Italian facists, German nazis then the Yugoslavian army again.  Despite authority’s initial attempts to regulate it, squatters insisted on expressing themselves in the former military barracks until the government eventually accepted it as a cultural space.  There’s artist studies, cafe bars, art galleries, second hand galleries and it hosts various events throughout the year.  This is something that I kind of explored the outskirts of but didn’t really find out about until I left, which kills me! In general, this area and the city represent an energetic spirit, not strangled by its small size or old school past or series of army occupations.  There’s an intelligence here, a creative thinking-outside-the-box, a kind of rebel-without-a-cause vibe which I never expected but absolutely adore.  In closing, I only spent about 24 hours in this country but it was enough to convince me, without a doubt, I need to come back! Song of the Moment: Preko Beograda do Ljubljane– Djomla KS (Ft. Mambo King)… not sure this counts as quality music but it’s filmed in Ljubljana so you should watch the video! If YOU want to go to Slovenia: You can get to the capital rather easily from Vienna or Budapest…...