Tuesday, January 27, 2009


It took us 10 hours to get back to Manila from Banaue. I can understand why so many of the bus companies really focus on overnight rides. Not only is the traffic in Manila so terrible during the day, the "highways" are just 2-laners and choked with traffic so the going is slow. We wanted to see the scenery though so opted for the day trip. As we came out of the mountains and approached Manila the weather finally got warmer and sunnier so I've finally accepted "summer" and shaved my beard :)
We spent a day in Manila and because it was a Sunday we were actually able to get around a little. We went to the Greenbelt mall (very interesting with all the outdoor cafes in a green "courtyard" surrounded by 5 different malls) and then to the Mall of Asia, one of the largest in Asia, and I must say, it'll be hard to come back to the mediocrity of Canada. Unless technology has changed a lot at home in the last few years, we definitely can't think of ourselves as very advanced. There is something nice about a big middle class of course, but in all honesty, it's the places with the huge class differences that are the most interesting....
Now I'm getting off track again....
After a quick look around we then went to the harbour for a walk about. There were a lot of people beginning to gather along the street and we weren't quite sure why but on the way back we ran into the parade that had started. It seems that Filipinos don't need much of an excuse to have a parade or it's the season or something because we've seen quite a few now. This one was huge in length and even though we watched it for a while and then walked against it's movement for a km or so, we never saw the end. They were supposedly celebrating the day for Santo Nino (the young Christ I think) but since most of the parade was actually gay guys dancing all dressed up in tribal costume, I think it was some sort of pagan gay pride parade, disguised in Christianity! I'm so confused...... Woah! Not about that! Just about who exactly was running the show and how it was all supposed to fit together. It's actually a bit shocking how many gays there are in this country and the Filipinos are super tolerant about it. So different from the Middle East! It's also strange to see so many guys with long hair, earrings and tattoos here as well. It's been a long time..... The worst thing about being back in Asia is going to be the karaoke.... Has a worse form of entertainment been invented since feeding Christians to lions?
You can also really see the US influence here. The Philippines were originally a Spanish colony and some of the local languages still use Spanish words, most people are Roman Catholic and love festivals, etc. The Spanish lost the colony to the Americans during the Spanish-American war in 1898 so from then on it has mostly been influenced by the US. It's easy to see that influence in the language usage, the writing of forms (they do month/day/year unlike most of the world that does day/month/year) and various products. It's just "American" as opposed to an English-speaking, ex-British colony. In fact, one of the weirdest things about the American influence is that a lot of people yell "Hey Joe!" all the time to you. As a foreigner they just assume you are American and Joe goes back to the G.I.Joe days of all the military camps here.
I think our biggest problem is going to be the fact that it's too easy to upgrade to something a little nicer and the quality is so good. The air-con bus is just a little more, a cheap restaurant with good food is just a little more than street food, etc. It's too easy to get sucked in and spend just a little more.... We're getting soft! Speaking of food, they don't use knives here. I haven't seen one yet. They always eat with only a fork and spoon so you have to cut things with the spoon....
Ok, let me get us to Naga, our next destination. Our bus ride down there took about 10 hours on very slow, windy roads. I don't even really notice now when we lose the tarmac for short stretches :) Naga is in the Bicol region, southeast of Manila but still a part of the main island of Luzon. It is still the rainy season there so we have had many brief showers during the days that we've been here. Rain's no problem though, it's still warm and nobody really changes what they're doing :)
We are staying with another very nice local host family and they continue to introduce us to new and exciting foods. We also spend the day yesterday relaxing at a hot spring resort that we had all to ourselves in the rain. Perfect! Today we went out to their farm in a nearby village and were introduced to the world of rice. We eat it breakfast, lunch and dinner, so might as well know where it's coming from :) It was interesting as well, but I'll spare you the details!

Friday, January 23, 2009

North Luzon

Let's make it official and say I really like it here in the Philippines. Every day I say to myself that it was a great choice to come here and Sky got screwed coming to West Africa. People have been so smiley and friendly here and I'm tempted to stay forever, like a few people we've seen already. Our hosts and other locals must think we're a little nutty because sometimes we still act like we just crawled out of the wilderness where we were raised by wolves...."Look! A Starbucks! Look, a skyscraper! Wow, traffic lights and garbage cans!" Yeah, ok, so culture shock works both ways....
The Philippines has a couple unique variations on the usual public transportation systems in existence. The first is the jeepney instead of a public minibus. A jeepney looks like the mutated offspring of a US military jeep and a Pakistani truck used to transport people around. All that means is that it has a jeep front and an elongated back with benches for people, and on the outside some very personalized and creative artwork decorating it. The second is that instead of tuk-tuks, they have tricycles which are the standard motorbike but with the people carrier on the side and smaller than the tuk-tuk they are replacing. They sound about the same and seem to make up most of the traffic, noise and pollution in the smaller places so far. It's also good to see that compared to Africa, there isn't going to be a shortage of casual wildlife (though so far it's mostly birds, giant cockroaches, butterflies and a couple of geckos), the buses run on time, you can almost take the electricity for granted, and things generally seem to work better. I'm writing this from a small mountain village internet cafe that has a better connection than Cape Town did and my pen which has given me nothing but stress since I got it in Rwanda actually writes better too. I kid you not!
Our bus ride to Vigan was an over-nighter so we arrived exhausted, our 3rd night of no sleep in a week. We had another amazing host in Vigan, this time with a local family that took great care of us. We spent a few days there, alternating between sightseeing and relaxing. Vigan is a Unesco heritage town (and I've never been in one that was more proud of that fact and so quick to advertise it) as it is the best preserved Spanish colonial town in Asia since it was spared destruction during WWII. You can see the old churches and important homes, now museums or hotels, and although not all the buildings are well maintained, it's still interesting. They have horse carriages to ride and the doors of the buildings, were obviously originally made for them. It was an easy comparison of sizes :)
You'd think it would be touristy but there was no hassle and the tourists were mostly locals. To make it even more fun, the Vigan City Fiesta had just started as we arrived for a week of local celebration. We didn't see much of it and it was very small townish but we did watch 100's of kids parading along the street and I swear while we were watching from the sidelines most of them turned to stare at me as they walked by. That's not the only attention I've been getting either. People have asked me for photos with them and boys will stand up when I walk by to compare heights. I suppose it's a doubly big thing here since basketball is also the national sport. It's all quite fun and I'm thoroughly enjoying getting positive attention again. I no longer need to assume everyone approaching is a beggar.
Filipinos are mostly Roman Catholic and the diet has consisted of a lot of pork and seafood including prawns, so I am no longer a good Muslim or Jew (yes, I actually pause and think about it when pork is placed in front of me). They also eat dog in some parts of the country but at the same time, many people have dogs as pets. Seems like it should be one or the other but not both....
From Vigan we exhausted ourselves on another early, early morning bus to get to Sagada. I hadn't heard of it before but everyone here raves about it as the perfect mountain getaway. Maybe it is. The village has only a few thousand people high up in the mountains with both rice terraces and evergreen trees in the same place between sharp limestone pinnacles. It's a great place for relaxing or trekking and they also have a number of caves to visit. The most unique feature is the presence of hanging coffins, where locals have been "buried" with their coffins attached to the sides of cliffs in groups left totally exposed. Very bizarre to come upon them when hiking in the woods, but after one or two they quickly get overrated.
From Sagada we travelled to Banaue on the top of a jeepney on some amazing mountain roads. With good weather the scenery was spectacular but the journey a little scary with some sheer drop offs on a narrow road that in parts has been destroyed by landslides that are still being cleared. Banaue is the main village for viewing the world famous Ifugao Rice Terraces, considered to be one of the natural wonders of the world. It's not the best time of year to be here right now because they are mostly brown and not green and growing, but you can still see how they've been walled in stone and carved out of the mountains. It's believed they were started 2000 years ago and now cover and area of 400 square km and if the walls were stretched end to end they'd go halfway around the world. It's very impressive and scenic even at the wrong time of year and with overcast skies. We've had a lot of rain here in Banaue in the afternoons/evenings so haven't done a lot of hiking around or visiting of neighbouring villages with other terrace views.
Tomorrow we head back to Manila and then further southeast to Naga.

Thursday, January 15, 2009


Wow, well, what a change it is to arrive in Asia. What's the biggest difference and shock? That's a bit of a tough one. Stepping off the plane, the first thing I noticed was the humidity. After the desert it feels a lot warmer and humid although they tell us here that it's nothing compared to later in the year..... Walking down the corridors to immigration, the second thing I noticed was that I could easily see to the end of the hall. Then I looked down...... Oh, there's everyone :) We are back in Asia!!!!!! Love it!
Our Manila hosts are awesome! We are staying with a Belgian couple (and their baby daughter and nanny) in a big home in a nice neighbourhood and living it up. You have no idea how it feels after so long in Africa....well, I guess that Savannah knows :) Our first day we were pretty jet-lagged so we just hung out at the house and even got massages, mmmmm.
The next day we got to know the chaos that is Manila. It's one of the biggest cities in south east Asia and has the traffic to prove it. What a mess. Tourists generally don't like Manila and we probably wouldn't either if it weren't for the luxury treatment we were getting with our own driver to take us around. The city is really spread out and with no major centre or anything really interesting to see so it would kind of be hell to be stuck here on our own. After the pollution and traffic in Cairo, the size of the city (~15 million in the metro area) doesn't shock us as much as it once would've. Driving around you can just feel the Asian difference. It's not just that the people look different, but there's just more organization to the chaos or something. Skyscrapers, the crazy electrical wiring on the poles, cleaner streets, more pavement, the motorcycles, something. Can't quite figure out what yet. The other big shock is seeing local women wearing shorts. It's been ages since that's happened.....
We did see a few things, the first was the Chinese Cemetary, which is just strange. The tombs are rooms built around them for the mourners, some the size of small houses or looking like small churches. Some have air-con, kitchens and bathrooms. Seems better than the poorer locals live. From there we also went to the old city and visited Fort Santiago. The old Spanish city of Manila was heavily destroyed in WWII and was never fully rebuilt or regained the importance it once had. For the most part we just enjoyed the drive and being stuck in traffic with a different view.
Today we went to one of the better hospitals in town for a checkup. We just showed up, asked for the doctor directory and were in to see a dermatologist immediately. I got a blood test right away too, without any wait. So much nicer than home.... Ok, granted, we did have to pay, and although $15 is not a lot to us, most Filipinos couldn't afford it so it's obviously not as busy as the general hospital.
Tonight we are on an overnight bus heading north to Vigan.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Eye-opening Israel

After having experienced the exhilarating wonder of skydiving free-fall, each of our family members will enthusiastically agree that never again will any of us ever be able to look up at the sky in the same way. For me it is the same feeling regarding Israel.

Throughout most of Africa seeing firearms soon becomes something not uncommon. However, in Israel it is the exceedingly high number of visible firearms in public places combined with who is carrying them that is both so surprising and unexpected. In every bus that we rode, we traveled together with those wearing military uniforms and carrying semi-automatic rifles similar to AK47s. This would include petite, shorter-than-five-feet tall, teen-aged females toting their clips of live ammo on webbed belts, and a group of young Jews, barely old enough to even think about growing whiskers let alone a full and proper beard, seen standing outside a quiet neighborhood synagogue where deadly weapons were slung on their traditionally well-dressed shoulders. It is quite a visual contrast and yet simply a way of life.

From the center of the walled city of Old Jerusalem, a square mile offers an unbelievable number of holy sites and their history. This proximity to each other is truly surprising and as a result, the abundance of newly introduced info flying my way was unexpectedly fast and furious.

For instance, the Dome of the Rock is a large, highly visible, gold-domed mosque that dominates the area on top of Temple Mount and is regarded by Muslims as very holy in regards to the prophet Muhammed. It is built on the site of King Solomon's Temple, location of the Holy of Holies and the Ark of the Covenent, which was later destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BC. The Western (Wailing) Wall is a short stretch of the original retaining wall left untouched in 68 AD when the Romans destroyed the second temple, which is a restoration built by Herod of Solomon's original temple. I found it quite unexpectedly surprising to realize that in order to keep the peace, the Israeli military are,in reality, providing security for Islam's third most holy site to insure the safety of a wall that serves all of Judaism as its most holy site. It is truly amazing to see a diverse people living in the relatively small area of Jerusalem with its Christian churchs, Muslim mosques, and Jewish Synagogues that, for the moment, have found a way to tolerate one another in relative peace.

The Mount of Olives, as viewed from the city walls, has many buildings on top with a Muslim graveyard covering half of it. Not much space for olive trees. The Garden of Gethsemane is at the bottom of the hill where one finds a few very old gnarled olive trees surrounded by a wrought iron fence next to the Basillica of Agony located on a very busy street. This was an unexpected setting and yet I did feel a sense of surprising peace here.

Walking up the hill on the winding street and around the corner of the old city wall we found Calvary/Golgotha crucifixion site as the Protestant churches believe with a rock-hewn grave nearby. Oddly, it is located at the back of a bus station now. I say the Protestants believe this but located inside the old city, in the Christian quarter is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Ethiopian and Coptic Christians all believe it to be built on the site of the crucifixion, burial and resurrection of Christ. Inside the church you can see the hole where the cross was placed, the stone slab on which Jesus' body was prepared for burial, and where resurrected. It was a huge surprise to learn about this different scenario on offer and that I'd never even heard of this particular church, despite it's obvious importance.

Amazingly, our trip to the West Bank to Bethlehem, was the easiest day trip we've made in my memory, despite having to cross a wall and go through checkpoints. Whereas on the Israeli side the people are armed with rifles, the West Bank side seemed armed with graffiti....

To quote our Haifa host, the Sea of Galilee, is actually a "sweet water lake" and claims the people around here have a tendency to exaggerate. Since it's not even a particularly large lake, I'm hoping not much more over here has also been exaggerated! But even if it's only imagined (ie, wrong location, inaccurate date, false artifact, etc), we still all benefit from a sense of contact with divinity. The point is, it doesn't matter if Abraham was about to sacrifice Isaac in what is now Jerusalem or Ishmael in what is now Mecca, what does matter is that he was a faithful and obedient servant of God.

Having finally been there, Israel was an amazing trip for me, and, now, like skydiving and looking upwards, never again will I be able to think of Israel in the same way...


Sunday, January 11, 2009

Leaving the Middle East

Well, we made it out of Israel and back to Cairo without any major incidents. We are glad we went and hope that things will eventually quiet down over there again. At the same time I have to admit that I will be very happy to get out of this region of the world, with all it's retarded politics and issues.
I think one of the most interesting aspects of a trip to Israel was just seeing all the diversity. Lots of Jews from all around the world, so you can just walk down the street and see Russians, Moroccans, Americans, Ethiopians, etc. but they are all Jews somehow. It was also surprising to see that as a result of that diversity there are 4 main languages in use in the country. Signs are written in combinations of Hebrew, Arabic, Russian and English. It sort of depends on where you are but I was surprised at how often English wasn't written. I don't know why but I expected it to be more common, although it seems like everyone except the older Russians speak English anyway. I thought it was kind of cool because all 4 languages have different alphabets, and at times when English wasn't written I'd have to try to decipher the Russian or Arabic since Hebrew makes no sense to me at all....
Tonight we fly to Manila in the Philippines in search of sun and sand :)

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Still in Haifa

So we've ended up staying for the remainder of our time in Israel here in Haifa. We did another day trip out to Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee. "Sea" is a bit of a strong word. It's at best a decent sized lake. From Tiberias, which is at the halfway point on the western shore, you can easily see each corner of the lake. Not too big, but for Christians, full of New Testament history. Tiberias itself wasn't the most important place, but it is the largest town now and the easiest to get to. It was really quiet and in places starting to look pretty run down. As the largest source of Israel's drinking water, the water level is beginning to rapidly sink and the piers were standing out well above the water line. Historically the most interesting thing about Tiberias itself is probably that it was the site where in the 5th century, Jewish scholars finally compiled what was to later become the Talmud, a massive collection of Jewish philosophy, interpretations and laws (as well as history and legend) that is still one of their central theological books when combined with the Torah.
The north of Israel is supposed to be greener and prettier in a lot of ways compared to the south, but honestly, I can think of about 100 countries more beautiful than this one. It is a little greener but still quite stony where the land hasn't been put to agricultural use. But then that really isn't the main attraction out here anyway.
The following day we rested and ended up deciding to spend another day (today) here. This morning we woke up to learn that some rockets fired out of Lebanon hit a town not very far from here. From our view we can actually see the town further up the coast. For the first time since we've arrived there have been air force jets patrolling overhead. Hmmmm..... Nothing more has happened though so it's ok.
We managed to get to the Baha'i gardens for their little tour today as well. It's an interesting religion, only 160 years old, and very pro-humanity I suppose you'd say. Quite tolerant and oddly enough no Baha'i is actually allowed to live in Israel permanently or have Israeli citizenship although their headquarters is here in Haifa. Strange. Anyway, I left with a good overall impression.
Tonight we take an overnight bus back to Egypt to get back to Cairo in preparation for our flight out in a few days to the Philippines.

Monday, January 05, 2009


Well, I suppose I have to continue with a few more comments before I get started on the next bit. First, the media loves to hype up things much more than the reality. It is for the most part totally normal here and the Gaza war is not affecting our travels in the region in any way right now. Yes, there is increased security but I get the impression that there is so much here normally that it would be a shock to anyone from home anyway. I also think the problem is more political than religious as well, despite what the radicals and media like to make it out to be. Political in that it is all about a few manipulating the masses and a lot boils down to failed leadership on both sides...... Oh yeah, Shean, the fireworks were not set off by dad, he just encouraged it but wasn't around, hehehe, and one of the strangest things for us at the moment travelling in Israel is the set pricing. Everything is so easy and goes so smoothly because we can't really bargain and fight with anyone. The buses run on a schedule that works, they stop at crosswalks for you (this still freaks us out), and even form something resembling lines while waiting. Wow!
Anyway, we left Jerusalem to catch a bus down the hill to Tel Aviv where we were picked up by our host who then drove us to his home in Haifa, the port city in the far north. It's the third largest city in the country but at the same time, really doesn't have much of the big city feel. It has a lot of old people and a mixed ethnic population known to live in better harmony than elsewhere in the country. Talking to our host it sounds like the people are starting to distrust one another again (ultimately the worst affect of the whole war), but the biggest issue for the locals at the moment is whether or not they will be called back to the reserves as it all progresses.
We are staying in an apartment at the top of Mt. Carmel (the whole city is built up the side of the mountain) and have amazing views over the harbor and surrounding landscape. Granted the scenery in Israel is far from spectacular and you really do wonder sometimes why anyone fights for it... Leafy quiet streets are nice to walk along and it is so pleasant to have space on the sidewalk and fresh air to breathe. It is still pretty cold here though so we are constantly wearing our 5 layers of clothes. The security in the city also seems to be relatively non-existent except for at entrances to the transport stations and malls. Very much more laid back than Jerusalem.
On our first day here our host took us for a drive back down the coast a little ways to visit the ruins of Caesarea. It was built by King Herod in 10 BC and it eventually became the Roman capital of Palestine with a population of 50,000 and one of the busiest ports in the region. Later it was a Byzantine city and later fortified and modified by the Crusaders before it was completely destroyed as they were kicked out of the region. Today it is nothing much to see and as far as Roman ruins go there are much better ones in the region to visit, like Jerash, Palmyra, etc.
The following day we made another day trip up the coast to Akko by train. Ok, it was only a 1/2 hr journey but it was the first train we've been on in over a year and probably the last for a while. I like trains. Akko is another Unesco site and has an incredible amount of history. It was the main port in the area for the last 2500 years until very recently when Haifa took over. It is historically most famous as the little fortified Crusader city of Acre and parts of their legacy still remain. The current walls date from Ottoman times and successfully withstood attack by Napoleon. Ah, it's nice to be in a part of the world with some history again... To me the most interesting thing about Akko is that even though it is a world heritage site and should be a major tourist attraction, it wasn't busy and the old city is still lived in. It's not all tourist shops, but has small but authentic neighbourhoods and markets to wander in. It was also nice to just sit by the walls and stare at the sea a bit too. In a way it reminded me of some of the smaller towns on the coast of Lebanon or northern Cyprus, but then, it is the same region isn't it?
As I said before, Haifa is nice to wander around but there really aren't any major attractions here. The biggest site is the Baha'i temple and it's beautiful gardens but they require only a quick visit really. It is the central temple of the Baha'i faith, which I can honestly say I know almost nothing about except that it originated in Persia (where it is currently illegal) and attempts to fuse or recognize all the other major religions. I believe the story is something along the lines of all the prophets of all the religions serve the same one God and brought the appropriate message to mankind for that time and place, thus the similar but varied message of them all. Interesting. I'll have to see what else I can find out.

Sunday, January 04, 2009


...And then that was it, Savannah was gone. The first out of the original four to head back home for good. Her trip completed. I couldn’t really grasp what was happening until it hit me later that day. Wow. The trip was no longer the same. Bye, bye my wee little sister, such good times we’ve had. It won’t be too long before I see her again because my trip has only a few weeks left to run before we meet up again on Canadian soil. When the family started the trip together I always assumed that we would also finish it together and all of us would head home on the same plane. This as you can see was not the case.
Mom, Dad and Ammon will continue to roam around this planet until winter ends at home, they run out of money, something crazy happens and they are sent back to Canada, miss everyone too much, or realise that at some point they have to start their life’s back at home once again. Of course I don’t want this adventure to end! Kees, Ben and I split off from them in Cairo Egypt. A sad goodbye indeed but one we had to repeat only a few days later......
Let me explain. Off to the Libyan border we drove with hope in our hearts that we’d make the boat back to Europe in time for Christmas, wrongfully assuming our final interaction with African politics would go smoothly....Haha!
Once we left the family we drove to the border over a number of days wasting time until we received a call from Sammy, our Libyan fixer, to meet him at the border where we would collect our visas and continue through the country with the obligatory guide required for even the shortest journey in this paranoid, socialist country. We were ready to go at the drop of a pin from our hotel camp 15 kms from the border and on the morning of Dec 18th we left the town of Soloum without Egyptian police escort and arrived at the traffic police office so Ben and Kees could start the lengthy process of handing back their Egyptian number plates and receiving the relevant stamps on their carnets.
We were officially stamped out of Egypt and in no-man's land where we met our guide Mr Ahmed who had driven for 7 hours from Benghazi to meet us with all the relevant paper work for us and the trucks. We presented ourselves to the gate officials who checked everything and decided to develop an irritating problem with the Arabic translation in our passports which developed into a point blank refusal for entry into the country. CRAP! Ben and Kees were pissed off. They would only allow us entry with an official translation stamp from each of our relevant embassies 750 kms back the way we came in Cairo!!
We were stuck in no-man's land for a while because the Libyans wouldn’t let us go forward and the Egyptians were being supremely difficult at reissuing the vehicle licence plates and cancelling the exit stamps in our passports. After 5 hours of battling and visiting office after office we retired to Kees’s truck for the night much to the disgust of the police who instead wanted us to return to the border town leaving our vehicles in their compound....yeah, as IF.
At first light we started the process again and surprisingly had everything completed and left through the exit gate only a few hours later. The next day the three of us including Bindhi left at just after midnight in Ben’s truck to start what would be a 1500 km round trip back to Egypt’s capital via Alexandria to visit each of our embassies for new translations. Once everything was finished we took a quick stop off back at the Sultan Hotel to visit the remaining members of the family for our second farewell in a week, complete with koshary and a juice bar visit! Yum.
I’ll tell you a funny story... A year ago when Mom, Dad, Ammon, Savannah and I were just leaving Cairo, Egypt I said “What would you do if in one year from now we were back here?” They laughed and said it wouldn’t happen and yet there we were. Then just as Kees, Ben and I were leaving the first time, I joked and said the same thing “What would you do if in one year from now you ended up back here??” and a week later there we stood in the same spot. Hahaha. I’ll watch what I say from now on.

We eventually made it into Libya at the second attempt but the delay we’d suffered meant there was no chance of making our boat from Tunisia on the 21st and instead would have to settle for the later date of the 28th giving us a different Christmas in Africa.
We only spent a grand total of 3 days in Libya but we did have enough time to visit the most preserved Roman ruins in the world, Leptis Magna and they were amazing!! A complete coastal city built around 300 BC. All the structures including the roads, baths, arena, cathedral, theatre, market area, light house and port were a stunning original and from them it would be easy to see quite how life would have been back then. Wow. I have always loved the Roman style with all the pillars! Beautiful! Ammon said that if I hadn’t gone he would have disowned me. lol
We spent Christmas in Iles de Jerbera, Tunisia. Ben and I stayed in a luxurious hotel with all the trimmings and meals included! Oooo La la! In the afternoon Kees, Ben and I we went ATVing (quad bikes) along the beach and through the sandy tracks which interlace the town. I have been talking non-stop about doing this for the past few weeks (I must have become very annoying) because I have always wanted to do it!! You can imagine the huge smile that was plastered across my face for the entire trip. Unfortunately our guide either had a really slow bike or he didn’t want us to have the fun that we craved. So every time he had his back turned and was looking the other way Kees, Ben and I immediately played the naughty students by sliding, wheel spinning and generally abusing the machines. It was so much fun!!
It’s been Ben's sole mission to find anywhere in Africa (apart from South Africa) where they can cook a steak properly….which means RARE! Since this was the last chance he had before going back to Europe we headed off to a Texas Steak house for a final attempt and once again they failed. I gave up on hoping for good steak a while back and ordered a Caesar salad. After that we headed off to the only active place in town. A small bar with a 2-lane, 10-pin bowling alley. We were the only non locals there of course. It was quite funny goofing off and laughing loads at each other with our lame attempts and random strikes while even wearing Santa hats! Haha! Good times.
We caught a boat from Tunisia to Italy on the 28th of Dec. At the first gas station the three of us popped into Kees’ truck for our final super before separating for good. Some mighty sandwiches we had!! It’s too weird to say goodbye to someone you have spent so much time with because you can’t really grasp the concept of not seeing them for a really, really long time. After some big hugs and a group photo Ben and I were off. It was only when I looked in my mirror and watched the big truck with Kees and Bindhi inside slowly started to fade into the distance because they couldn’t keep up (we do call the truck the yellow tortoise for a reason) that I got sad but it was more of the thought that we were taking off, not waiting for him and not joining back up again that made me cry. A realization that this trip is really coming to an end and it isn’t going to be the big group of best buddies travelling together any more. That sucked.
Ben and I raced on because Ben had to get back to run his marathon on new years eve. We drove through the night and passed through Italy and Switzerland. Slept in a very cold tent for a few hours rest at 2am and were up driving before I knew I had fallen asleep. Onwards through France and to England by the next night. My conclusion of the drive....Italy is the land of tunnels, Switzerland is freezing, in France every road has a toll to pay, and England has people with funny accents who I mimic and joke about.
Early the next morning after no sleep and hardly any food or training Ben was running his last marathon to the town square where all his friends, family and camera crew/media were waiting for his grand arrival back home. He was pretty shattered at the end but happy to see all the smiling faces. Well done Ben. I took photos and was introduced to too many people to remember all the names. Eeek. Now he is busy being the superstar and Mr Popular with all his interviews, phone calls and visiting people. Wow.
I am off to London and will be back asap..tell you about that later!
I’ll keep you lot posted and I’ll be back before you know it!

Saturday, January 03, 2009

A few more thoughts

Archaeology must be really cool to do out here too. We overheard a guide telling his group that there are 17 levels of civilization under old Jerusalem and there are parts of some earlier levels that are uncovered in places for you to see. And then there are some very deep holes to look down.....
It's funny coming here after all the rest of the middle east. If you walk around in the more Muslim sections it feels like the middle east still but somehow sterilized. It's just a little too clean, the food a little too tasty looking, etc. Yeah, there's a little more hassle and shouting at the markets on the Muslim side but it's nothing compared to the other countries. It's kind of cute actually :)
Today the security situation seems to have gone back to normal as there weren't as many guards kicking around. It definitely gets pleasantly quiet during Shabbat, the holy day of the week. Except for the tourists of course. There are just way too many of those and a lot of the main streets in the old town are just too tacky souvenir stalls.
The newer city center reminds us of Europe more than anywhere else and so do the prices. It is painful to buy food.....

Friday, January 02, 2009

Jerusalem and Bethlehem

Despite warnings from Egyptians and the hesitation from other travellers, we jumped on an overnight bus that took us to Taba, Egypt the border crossing with Israel. It was a miserable bus ride because the air temperature inside was the same as outside, which is to say nearly freezing in the desert. They had the air conditioning on all night instead of the heater...... There was only one other foreigner on the bus, a Filipino Fransiscan priest. He used to work in Libya, attending the ex-pats working there. I didn't think that would be allowed there but I guess it is.
We arrived at 5am and even at that early hour the 24 hour crossing was still pretty busy with package tourists heading into Israel. I'd always anticipated a problem with me crossing so I was not surprised when they let mom and dad through and then pulled me aside to ask about the Sudan visa in our passports. I'm glad that was an easy one to explain away but it still took an hour of questions (they want to know everything) and background check. I'm glad I didn't try to come in before with my other passport.....
After the chaos of Cairo, Eilat (the city on the Israeli side) seemed really quiet. It reminded me of our trip to the Spanish enclave of Ceuta when we visited from Morocco. Just more developed, organized, modern and all that. Becauase it was still quite early the city buses hadn't started yet so we had to take a taxi from the border into town. The taxi driver was a strange guy, complained about the stupidity of paranoid tourists, always thinking their being ripped off by taxis and then letting the big hotels and travel agencies ripping them off for way more. I guess they have a point. He also couldn't wear his seat belt because he was part of a special anti-terrorist response team or something and had his gun beside him all the time. What a great into to Israel! Of course it seemed like everyone except us had a machine gun. It is truly bizarre to see little girls (and I mean little because more Israeli's seem really short) talking on cell phones and lugging their bags around the bus station and also having a gun slung over their shoulder. Oh, I'll just do a little make up today and oil my gun...... Damn! I can't say whether or not it has anything to do with the Gaza issue but I get the impression that it is pretty normal. There may be a few more in random places because the reserves are being called up but who knows?
After a short wait we got on the next bus heading to Jerusalem. Once again my seatmate was the priest and with heroic effort I stayed awake for most of the 4 1/2 hour journey. The land is still pretty barren in the southern desert but at least our route took us past the Dead Sea for a long stretch.
Jerusalem is big. And hilly. Not a lot of vegetation and lots of limestone block buildings. We've gone back to couchsurfing again so had a walk into the center of town from the bus station along their main road, Jaffa. It is currently all chewed up as they are putting in a tram line. The city center is nice enough but obviously not the main attraction.
On our first day out we were forced to deal with the typical Vancouver winter weather of cold and wet. We still managed a few hours in the old town before retiring for the day. The following 2 days were cold and sunny and it is close to freezing with snow a possibility here soon. I don't know what to say about the old city besides the obvious. We went to the major highlights like the Wailing Wall, Temple Mount and various churches marking significant event in the life of Christ like the last supper, his crucifixion and resurrection, the Garden of Gethsemane, etc. What have I learned? Well, that you need a lot of time and a really good guide in Jerusalem to get anything out of it.
Have I gotten anything out of it? Hmmmm, tough to say. Dad is thrilled with being here and seeing it all. I can't say I'm feeling any holier or I've been touched by any angels. I've had a terribly sore throat for a long time now and I'm still waiting to get miraculously healed...... But at the same time, it is interesting to put the historical places to the stories in their proper relation. Events took place very close to each other if you believe that the real sites have been found. There is not as much harmony and brotherly love here as you'd think though because there's more than one crucifixion and resurrection site on display depending on which sect you talk to. I suppose the biggest effect this city has had on me is that it's making me miss the scholarly thing. I kind of wish I could stick around a couple years and study religion. In a historical, philosophical and psychological kind of way.
The different religions have their own explanations too. It's all very interesting. On the surface it seems peaceful though, despite the current events in Gaza you'd never really know anything was going on over here. There is tons of security anyway, for obvious reasons, and you don't really think about it much. Today was the first friday since the Gaza bombings began so there was a very heavy security presence. The first very noticeable change here. We decided to do a day trip over to Bethlehem on the West Bank. Maybe you guys think that is not a good idea, especially with Hamas asking everyone on the West Bank to make trouble and it being a friday. But I think that it wasn't really very risky. Bethlehem sees more tourists than the other towns and the population is largely Christian.
Of couse the main attraction is the Church of the Nativity where Christ was born but actually the most interesting "attraction" is probably crossing the wall that separates the West Bank from Israel. It's a very serious wall and they aren't messing around with it. It's just interesting because at the same time you can imagine all the other walls and barriers of the world like Berlin and the Koreas and everywhere else. Actually it was really strange today because as we were walking across through the security fences we could hear the call to prayer and the friday afternoon sermon (the biggest and longest of the week) and in a way it totally fit the imagination of being in the Soviet Union with propaganda speakers...... We walked the few km from the wall to the center of Bethlehem and the church. It was a beautiful day and the views over the hills were great. The city doesn't seem all that poor, the people look quite well off but again, I suspect that it is not the true story or very representative over here. We saw more Christmas decorations than anywhere else this season as well. The Church of the Nativity is a big compound now with a couple churches, monasteries, grottos and the like all compressed together and on top of each other. It was interesting. Getting back into Israel was a lot easier than I expected too.
Of course, reading the news today we have learned that there were some protests and stone-throwing etc, here in Jerusalem and in other parts of the West Bank. Good thing we decided not to go anywhere else like Ramallah :) Seriously though, I'm still not too worried. The Israelis have things under control.
On a more personal note, we are having a good time here with our host. He is busy a lot of the time so we are mostly on our own all day long. It's interesting though because our host's sister has just won the first Big Brother competition in Israel and is now a celebrity. It has also been quite amusing to see all the ultra-orthodox Jews here too. Jerusalem is a lot more conservative than the other big cities and there are a lot of guys running around with the black suits and hats and the curly sideburns. It's strange after coming from Africa because in a way it is exactly the same to look at them and see them as you would see tribal Africans with their strange costumes and customs and symbology. We were also very lucky in being able to meet with an Israeli friend that we had met when we were travelling in Georgia over 2 years ago! It was a great visit and definitely helped in giving us some understanding (it is impossible to actually understand the country and these people) of life out here.
Tomorrow we will head north to Haifa for a couple days.