Thursday, November 22, 2012

Giving Thanks -Thanksgiving in Kochi, India



Cooking pot at Amber Fort in Jaipur

There has been so much to report about since July 25th. Between moving and touring, I have been devoting my extra time to painting. What a great way to travel and experience the world this has been. I have encountered various types of people as I have worked in some amazing places. Not only have I been able to study certain views for 2 to 3 hours at a time, but many conversations have taken place between me and onlookers from all walks of life. Every time I have set-up in India, I have drawn crowds of up to 20-30 people at a time. It adds another element of pressure, and while a couple people have had to be told to keep their hands off the work, they all show interest and carry on conversations about it behind me.  More on my art later, but some of my favorite pieces are the paintings I did in Blenheim New Zealand, Florence & Venice Italy, Prague Czech Republic, Istanbul Turkey, Jerusalem Israel, and after a few paintings in North India- I feel like I hit the mark two days ago in Thekkaddy. I look forward presenting this work in 2013. I am incredibly thankful for the opportunity to work from life in these bewildering places, which brings me to what I really want to describe here..

Today is Thanksgiving. Shelley and I woke up this morning on a boathouse in Alleppey, India and had a wonderful breakfast consisting of omelets, toast and lemon jam, coconut, ginger and cardamom seeds crepes, fresh pineapple and coffee. We are thankful for this unique way to spend Thanksgiving, and are especially thankful to now safely be in Cochin ready to make our next move. (I say safely due to road conditions. This topic requires it’s own post). Before I offer more things we are thankful for in India, I am going to take the opportunity to bring my post contribution up to speed by going all the way back to California and list some special things for which I am thankful. Here are a small percentage of the many things I am now thankful for:

California:

Enjoying the majestic coast from San Fran to LA with brother and sis-n-law Paul and Meredith; An intimate and glamorous (with a touch of glam rock = Motely Crue theme) wedding in the Malibu Hills- congratulations to Jessie and Lizzie!; The continuation of fabulous hosts as our friends Charley and Vicky pampered us at the W Hollywood before and after our trek through New Zealand; In and Out Burger; Cupcake ATMs.

Not thankful for: Motion sickness of windy roads; Thinking about Great White sharks while SUPing in Santa Barbara, LA traffic.

New Zealand:

The Maori coast (NE North Island); No earthquakes while traversing the exterior of the Sky Tower in Auckland; A new sports hero- All Blacks captain Richie McCaw (wish many professional athletes in the States would model their behavior off this guy- on and off the field/court); Baby New Zealand Lambs; The closest living relative to the dinosaurs and defying all odds- the Tuatara; Nick and Pauline Seminutin and their family!!; Well-planned round-abouts; Marlborough Savingon Blancs; A bungy cord that works; Meeting some of the resilient people of ChristChurch; top notch beer; some of the most awe-inspiring views (this after covering much of the American and Canadian West).

Not thankful for: the stoats and rats that are driving the kiwi and tuatara towards extinction; having to leave NZ.

Fiji:

Fiji alone- it’s beautiful; island hopping on a seadoo with my woman clinging to my ribcage; the Australian tourists there; Cloudbreak (I hope to improve my surfing abilities and ride some waves there some day); the giant bats; just being in the South Pacific; If I had to turn 40- I’d just assumed doing it somewhere like Fiji.

                         Not thankful for: can't think of anything.

LA to New Orleans (drive):

Beautiful Arizona sunset;  Santa Fe, NM- one of my personal favorites; getting to see family, friends and Lola in Dallas; Dinner in Baton Rouge with The Pesses; the Stillwagon wedding festivities in a place I cherish- New Orleans. Congratulations to Claudia and Brad- it was a fantastic event!

                                Not thankful for: driving across west Texas; jetlag.

 Italy:

Seeing for the first time much of the art and architecture I have been teaching about for years; Leon Battista Alberti and a plethora of great minds and master craftsmen from one of the most innovative and inventive times and places in history; Spending a day in Florence with my parents; new fashion attempts; the football skills of Antonio di Natale (Calcio Udinese); Tutti! Tutti! Prego! And verbal passion and hand gestures in general.

Not thankful for: annoying trinket sales people at all the sites; cigarette smoke; late trains.

Czech Republic:

More top notch beer; More amazing architecture; A great ruler (King Karol/Charles) and his dedication to education and astronomy; Goulash and other dishes where I could mop-up the gravy like Uncle Argyle in Braveheart; Great Sparta Prague fans and their hilarious attempt at the Mexican wave; Jewish childrens’ art from the Terezin Ghetto (personal favorite); the rejection of communism; healthy snow fall on our final day in Prague; Dvorak and his compositions.

                                Not thankful for: jerk driver who took us to the airport, cigarette smoke.

Istanbul:

Carole and Martin (baby Tomas); Republic Day; rooftop views; Turkish bath; my shave at the barber; the underground Roman cistern; interior of the Blue Mosque; obtaining Shelley’s “travel” wedding band from the Egyptian Spice Market; hearing the call to worship for the first time.

                                Not thankful for: trains outside our room.

Israel:

Buses that worked; haggling at the market in Jaffa; exercise equipment on the beach; that I happened to hear my bag unzip as I was walking outside the Muslim Quarter in Jerusalem; attending mass; learning more about Armenia; the Armenian and Yemenite restaurants; the tunnel we took through the City of David; the friendly people we met on both sides; being at such significant places; the sensation of floating in the Dead Sea; the condition of Masada.

Not thankful for: the prick who unzipped my bag outside the Muslim Quarter, the tension in both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

Jordan:

Walking from Israel to Jordan; the cool shopkeepers in Aqaba; being able to take a taxi from Aqaba to Petra and from Petra to Amman (@ 300 miles total); Petra exceeding my expectations; Bedouin kids who made us laugh so hard; the very intuitive and complimentary driver to the airport.

Not thankful for: our driver and his wife smoking all the way from Petra to Amman; the kids being made to hock items to tourists.

India:

The idiot who finally ended his argument with the stewardess and took his seat when the plane was ready to take off; business class upgrade after missing our connection in Doha; finding our contact in Delhi airport; power nap; the sights in Delhi; the people who waved to us and wanted their pictures taken with us (with our cameras- not theirs); the food that did not destroy me right off the bat; monkeys, elephants, kingfishers, more giant bats and cobras; Diwali in Jaipur!!; Taj Mahal; Vikram – our driver who took extra good care of us everywhere we went, another new hero; No accidents along our drives (the roads and highways are a mess); South India with the food and cleaner air.

This place is very stressful, so I’ll just add that I am also quite thankful for logic, rationale, and plain old common sense. Oh- and hygiene and my personal space!!!

                                Not thankful for: the constant power outages.

If I were to come back to India, I know that I could handle about a week in and around Delhi, and probably 2 months in the South. Perhaps someday we can give The Himalayas and the eastern part of the country a shot.. But, many of the people we have met are compassionate and kind beyond necessary. While staying in Jaipur, I was painting and Shelley was writing inside the atrium one night when the hotel manager’s wife asked Shelley if she would be willing to let her dress Shelley up in one of her sarees. Just being asked was an honor. After watching this woman happily put her elaborate outfit on Shelley, I realized it was an honor for both women. This was one of the many moments we have experienced after being strained to the max, due to the circumstances this country has to offer, where we were astounded by the amazement of human nature. This was actually the best of those moments and we (Shelley) will treasure it forever. They wanted us to return to celebrate our 1st year anniversary.. 



Finally, this is what I am mostly thankful for- my wife.. We have joked that this has been an extended honeymoon. Not really- it’s not a vacation. There is work involved.  We can’t have expectations that things are going to be perfect. There are good things and bad things that come in quick succession (especially in India and Israel). We have been living out of backpacks and I have to give Shelley credit beyond just delivering interesting and informative posts. Finding reliable wifi is a rarity in itself, but only having a handful of outfits, being sick from Milan through Rome, having men (and women) staring at you all the time, and dealing with the exhausting travel conditions is not exactly always smooth. She has really proved her toughness and composure and I am proud of her. I will maybe post on here one more time, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to say this while I can. 

We just returned from having dinner at our hotel where an Indian singer, with synthesizer, was performing the likes of Kenny Rogers, The Eagles, and Neil Diamond. Not my favorites, but during our “Thanksgiving” meal, it was somewhat appropriate. Dinner consisted of Kingfisher Blue, Murgh Tikka Masala, Plain Naan, and Curd. That was our Thanksgiving dinner, and while we really miss our family and friends, it was a good turkey day meal (without the turkey- it was chicken and it was very hot/spicy).

Happy Thanksgiving Everyone!! From me and my wonderful wife!



P.S.- Hello to our new friend Ole Martin Christiansen from Norway. We enjoyed having dinner with you and hope to stay in touch. Best of luck with your new adventure!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Kerala

We just sat down at a restaurant perched high above ground at the edge of a coffee plantation. Coffee was severely lacking in North India, so we were excited to sit and have real coffee (not instant) and relax. Charles wanted to paint the street view below and I decided to get in some blogging.

Yesterday was a long travel day. We had a 6:00 am flight from Delhi to Kochi, which meant we had to get up at 3:30 am. We woke up and packed up our backpacks like zombies. We stumbled into the dark lobby to find that no one was waiting for us. We were supposed to meet our driver at 4:00 am in the lobby. The front desk worker, who was sleeping on the sofa in the lobby woke up when we intruded on his quiet and quickly stood up and turned on the lights and returned to his place behind the desk. I asked him to call Vikram, the driver to see if he was on his way. Apparently there was some confusion - we were told 4:00, but he was told 4:30.  Oh well.  We made it to the airport and through check in and security, we were pleasantly surprised by how smooth it went. The flight was easy as well, maybe our smoothest flight yet actually.

I cannot say I was sad to leave North India behind, I enjoyed the people and the  culture and the food, but was ready to be done with the filth and the dust and the honking and the crowds. I had read that South India was very different, slower paced and more rural - full of tea and spice plantations.  As we began the descent into Kochi I raised the shade on the window and looked down.  I knew immediately when I saw lush green hillsides and palm trees spreading in every direction, that I would like South India better than the North.

As the plane touched and began to cross the Tarmac to the jetway about 30 people took off their seat-belts and began opening the overhead compartments to retrieve their bags. We were still moving, pretty quickly actually. A few seconds later a flight attendants voice came over the speaker asking everyone to sit back down, only a few listened. Oh, India!  We fought our way into the aisle to get off the plane and onto the bus that takes you to the airport terminal. Once inside we waited for our bags to appear. Charles' came first and he noticed that his luggage lock had been broken, but nothing seemed to be missing so we were grateful it was only a broken lock. My bag came still intact. We went to find our ride.  We saw several men with white pieces of paper folded in half, we knew from our arrival in Delhi that these were the signs they held up to find their passengers, except they only hold them up for a few seconds. They also wait both inside and outside thei airport and as we learned in Delhi, if you leave the airport you cannot re-enter unless you buy an entry ticket. So, we waited inside and tried to catch glimpses of the names written on the pieces of paper in the few seconds they were held up. Charles spotted our driver outside with a quick flash of paper that said Watson. We were on our way.

Our itinerary (more about this to come - we decided to use a travel company in India and I am SO happy we did) had us traveling to a tiger preserve about 165km (100 miles) from Kochi, so we got in the car with that as our destination.  The scenery was beautiful.  The towns that we drove through were much more orderly and much cleaner than what we saw in North India. We drove up into the mountains past small homes set among rubber trees.  Winding through narrow roads and rising slowly in elevation.  Our driver stopped every once and a while to ask for directions or to inquire whether a road was closed.  We were getting hungry. We thought about just waiting until we got to the hotel, but we really weren't sure what time that woulds be.  So, we asked our driver to stop at a restaurant.  About 10-15 minutes later we stopped at a restaurant with a sign that read Family Style.  We walked in, very unsure, and were pointed towards a table.  The men sitting at the next table were shirtless and wore only a sarong around their waist.  We asked for a menu and were told they only had Thali, so we ordered one.  It arrived on a stainless steel tray with several bowls of different curries, yogurt, and rice pudding.  Then a man came over and shoveled rice from a bowl into the middle of our tray. We glanced up at him and asked for forks, he nodded and walked away. A few seconds later he came back with two spoons. We received stares from everyone in the restaurant, they were all eating with their hand. The food was good, very spicy, and very authentic. After eating we paid our bill and got back in the car, hoping we were almost there.  The road twisted and turned and continued to rise up into the mountainsides with tea plantations in every direction. I kept thinking we were getting close, then another hour would pass.  The drive took 6 hours, plus a 30 minute stop for lunch, for a total of 6.5 hours. It took us 6.5 hours to get 100 miles!  We finally arrived at about 4:30 p.m., exhausted.

After relaxing in the hotel for an hour we went to a martial arts show. The martial art is called Kalaripayattu. The performance was entertaining. It was a mix of yoga type poses, staged fighting with various weapons, flips and cartwheels, fire batons and hoops.  I wonder how authentic it was, I'll have to do some googling.

Today we went to a spice plantation, which was really cool. This afternoon we are going on a boat safari and are hoping to see a tiger, although with all of the over development here, we don't think it's very likely.  Ok, time to head out into nature...

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Oh, India! where do I begin....

I almost titled this blog post India 1 - Watsons 0, but I am not quite ready to admit defeat, after all we are still here and still have several more days to go.  We have been in India for one week and oh what a week it has been.  I have felt so many emotions, seen so many things I could never have imagined, and experienced people more gracious and friendly than anywhere we have been up to this point.  All at once India is dirty, beautiful, obnoxiously loud, full of flavors that burst in your mouth, dangerous, disgusting, shockingly friendly, holy, illogical, colorful, and hundreds more things.  This place is like no other place on Earth.  In some ways we love it and in some ways we hate it. 

We are currently in Delhi, which was not our plan.  We were supposed to be in Varanasi today, but when we arrived at the train station on Thursday night at 10:30 p.m. we learned that our train was late and was not scheduled to arrive until 4:00 a.m.  We had only planned to spend one night in Varanasi then take the night train back to Delhi.  If we took the train at 4:00 a.m. and it actually arrived at that time we would have arrived in Varanasi at 1:00 p.m. extremely tired only to go on a tour that afternoon and the next morning and get back on a train that night.  It was sounding like Varanasi was not in the cards for us.  We had to make a decision - chance it with the night train and go on very little sleep for the next 48 hours, or bail on the plan.  We bailed, Indian Railway 1 - Watsons 0.  We are so happy with our decision.  I am sad we won't see Varanasi, but we have really enjoyed going at a slower pace the last 24 hours in Delhi. 

India is stressful.  We hired a driver for our first few days here to see Delhi, Jaipur, and Agra and it was the best decision of the trip.  The roads here are crazy.  There are no lanes people just fit their vehicle wherever they can on the road and jumble forward as a screaming conglomeration of horns and wheels.  No one walks to get anywhere they take a bike, a rickshaw, a tuk tuk, a motorcycle, a car, a truck, a taxi, or they ride on top of a commercial truck filled with grain.  Also, there seems to be no limit to how many people can fit on any one vehicle.  We have seen 20 people crammed into a mini-bus taxi - standing and holding onto the roof and standing on the rear bumper, people sitting on the roof and hanging on to the roof rack like handles.  We have seen families of 3, 4, 5, and 6 on motorcycles.  It is insane! 

The poverty is overwhelming, it stares you in the face at every turn.  The streets are filthy and piles of garbage seem to sit at every corner and in between every street stall.  Sometimes it all becomes too much and those are the moments when we almost admit defeat.  Then a child sitting wrapped in his or her parents arms pulls up next to us in the car and the child smiles at us and we love India again. 

The people here are so kind.  We have had entire families come up to us and ask to take a picture with them.  I have had little girls come up to me and ask if they can have a photo with me like I am a princess at Disney World, not an overtired traveler with grungy grey pants and a dirty t-shirt on.  Charles draws an admiring crowd anytime he gets out his paints and they will sit for an hour watching his brushstrokes develop into the landscape before them.  They are beautiful, gracious, friendly, amazing people. 

While we were in Jaipur the entire country of India was celebrating a holiday called Diwali, which is known as the festival of lights.  Everyone decorates their homes and business with lights, flowers, and streamers and the entire country buzzes with excitement about this big holiday.  The night of Diwali we were sitting in our hotel relaxing after a busy day of touring and the owner of the hotel and his wife came in.  The owner said his wife wanted to show me a sari and was wondering if I would like to try one on.  Of course, I could not pass this up.  So I followed her into their room and she dressed me like a doll in a beautiful Indian saree. 

The past week has been draining and stressful, but at the same time it has been uplifting and beautiful - and this we have discovered is the paradox of India. 

I often keep notes on my iPhone while we are traveling to help me remember things I want to write about: observations we have, people we meet, stories to tell, etc.  I am going to just cut and paste my notes on India here, uncensored and unchanged, because I'm not sure yet how to talk about all of this in a way that will allow the reader to understand what it is like here.  I'm still working on how to approach my posts while in India, because it doesn't seem like my normal chronological account will do this place justice.  So here it is along with a few photos, because everyone likes pictures:

India Notes

Jaipur guide - Karan Singh
Delhi guide - Manvendra (Manuv)
Driver - Vikram
Agra - Jain


Delhi
- mix up with pickup
- airport ride 5 men peeing
- nap
- deet application
- sight seeing (Hindu temple, lotus temple - Baha'i)
- hawks everywhere
- car horns (even through cell phone)
- dinner
- swedes
- day 2 sight seeing (mosque, rickshaw ride, india gate, lunch, qutub minar painting
- painting
- Kashmir carpet
- first monkey sighting
- writing letter for our guide
- dinner
- Skype attempt

Drive to Jaipur
- first swerve around a cow
- families of 4 on motorcycle
- men in skivvies on the side of the highway bathing and grooming
- two little boys going #2
- camels pulling carts
- women carrying giant bundles of grain and straw on their heads
- camels have markings shaved into their fur
- cow with its horns painted blue
- fields of marigolds
- feeding monkeys one grabbed Charles' leg so he would give up the banana
- commercial truck speeding wrong way down the highway
- elephants on the highway
- close run in on the highway with a cow.
- family of 4 on bicycle
- goats and herder
- boxed new refrigerator on a bike cart

Afternoon Jaipur:
- hanging out at hotel
- beers painting writing
- dinner with Rajasthani dancers
- tuk tuk ride

Touring Jaipur:
- dead horse
- palace of winds - dangerous walk across street
- hit a rickshaw
- amber palace
- elephant ride, picked up hand sanitizer
- water palace dead camel
- gem stones, chai tea
- lunch
- astronomical observatory
- Charles with cobra
- City Palace, more monkeys
- near brawl in the weapons museum
- painters, Charles bought two brushes
- charles with cobras again
- textile market to kill some time
- drove through city to see Diwali lights
- dinner - first thali
- painting in hotel
- Diwali fireworks
- dressed up in a sari

Drive from Jaipur to Agra
- almost hit another cow
- families of 3-5 going home on motorcycle after Diwali
- more boys and men bathing in skivvies along the highway
- bus with people hanging out the back and riding on the roof
- camels with herder on highway
- bright saris among the rows of green in dusty brown fields
- we've seen so many dead animals by the side of the road we've stopped counting
- barber shop in tiny container shed on side of the road
- peacock
- cool crane with white and black red beak

Agra
- walked to the mall
- tried to get info at movie theater but line never moved forward only grew sideways
- dinner on smoky rooftop at hotel
- Skype with Paul
- taj mahal, no painting supplies allowed
- agra fort, paid for ticket again
- lunch, venting about guide
- huge piles of trash surrounding a completely empty dumpster
- went to park to paint taj mahal
- taken to another shop-tourist trap
- restaurant to kill time before train
- annoying tour guide departs
- annoying tour guide venting
- ride to train station, delayed train, waiting in locked car, pig, power outage
- tractor carrying giant bundle of something
- scary night drive back to Agra, almost hit cow that was lying in road, looked like it had been hit once

Drive Agra to Delhi
- dog chasing a monkey on a roof
- thatch huts, farm land, cow patties
- two guys on motorcycle - guy in back has laptop out and is typing.
- incessant honking
- two dogs on top of the trash heaps in the dumpster
- terrible headaches
- hanging out in the room watching titanic and transformers 3 and scream 4
- Dinner at blueberry hotel - good paneer kadai

Delhi
- slept in (much needed)
- blogging/painting

Random  Pictures from the past week:

First day in India at Lotus Temple - this family asked to take a photo with us

2nd Day in India - Jama Masjid Mosque (the outfit is not mine, they made me wear it)

Rickshaw ride through the market

Charles painting at Qutub Minar

Amber Fort in Jaipur

On Diwali in Jaipur with our sweet host

Taj Mahal in Agra


Family of 6 on a motorcycle in Agra

Charles painting the Taj Mahal from a park across the river

Kids who asked to take a photo with me

Marigold wreaths being sold on the street

Snake charmer and Cobra Commander (Charles' new nickname)
That's it for now...much more to come.

The Middle East in the news

We woke up this morning to see two news stories this morning that were definitely unsettling, we feel very lucky in the timing of our visits:  The first story was of the escalated violence in the Gaza Strip and bombings near both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem from the militant group Hammas.  We feel extremely grateful that the middle east portion of our trip ended and we were far outside of Israel before this conflict began again.  When we were there we could definitely sense tension in the air, while we thought that was just the normal tension caused by the religions clashing going on in this part of the world, I can't help but wonder if perhaps it was intensified because this was on the verge, who knows.  The second story was about the violent protests occurring in Amman, Jordan in response to rising fuel costs, wherein the protesters are demanding the resignation of the king.  Needless to say, we are glad we were there last week, and not now. 

We truly did enjoy our time in the Middle East and it saddens me to see that there is so much conflict and hate in that part of the world. 

I have already posted a couple of times about our time in Israel, but I had a lot to say.  I haven't yet had a chance to post about visiting the ancient ruins of Masada (a fortress built by King Herod in the desert), the Dead Sea, and the ancient city of Petra.  I was planning to write about India today, but because of the news we heard this morning, my thoughts are on these places instead.

We took a day trip to Masada and the Dead Sea from Jerusalem, it was awesome.  The ruins of Masada are incredible to see, they are in remarkably good shape considering the fortress was built in the late 1st century B.C.  The fact that it is completely isolated in the desert and doesn't get much erosion from rain has left it in very good shape.  After visiting Masada we went to float in the Dead Sea.  I was excited to float in the Dead Sea and cover myself in black mud, but it was so much better than I had imagined.  Floating in that water is such a cool sensation, it's truly like nothing I have ever experienced.  The water does not feel like water at all.  Here are a few pictures:

Desert fortress of Masada


Floating in the Dead Sea

Famous black Dead Sea mud

The day after our excursion to Masada and the Dead Sea we had to cross the border from Israel into Jordan.  I was nervous, we had done tons of research, but we were doing it on our own and the idea of walking across the border from one country into the other seemed strange to me.  We took a bus from Jerusalem to Eilat, which is a small town on the Red Sea at the tip of Israel.  In Eilat we got off the bus and found a taxi driver to take us to the border crossing.  We arrived at the border crossing and paid our Israeli exit fee and received our exit stamps in our passports.  Then we walked out of Israel and into no man's land until we reached the gate with Jordanian border guards.  They checked our passports and pointed us to the security check point.  They put all of our bags through x-ray machines and waved us on to the visa terminal.  We had heard and read tons of various prices for the Jordan visa, they ranged from $20 - $65 per person.  We weren't sure how much it would be, but I had my USD ready.  The man examining our passports and issuing our visas asked me the meaning of my name, I was rather thrown by this question and told him I didn't know.  (Actually, we looked it up this summer, but I really could not remember and figured it wasn't all that important to memorize the meaning of my name...guess it might have proved useful in Jordan.)  The border agent then asked what my surname meant, I looked at Charles since Watson is his surname and he tried to explain the origin of the name, but neither of us knew the meaning.  The Jordanian guard then went on to tell us the meaning of his name and lectured us on how every word in Arabic has a distinct meaning and that knowing that meaning was very important.  We just stood their nodding and watched him fumble with our passports, and I waited for him to ask for money.  He never did.  He just handed them back to us and pointed towards the immigration check.  We handed over our passports again and I was ready with the money, they never asked for any.  They checked all of our stamps and visas and returned our passports and waved us towards the exit.  I just went with it, I thought at any second they would realize their mistake and come back to us asking for money, but it never happened.  We still aren't sure exactly what happened.  Our theory is that the agent preparing the visas was so concerned with the meanings of our names and explaining the importance that he forgot, which works great for us! 

Once we were safely in Jordan and in a cab to our hotel we relaxed.  It was much easier than I had imagined.  Our next task was to figure out how to get to Petra, which is about a 3 hour drive from the city of Aqaba where we were staying that night.  We inquired at the hotel and they recommended we talk to Hertz to rent a car or a driver and a car - it was ridiculously expensive.  Next we went to a tour operator and their quote was even more expensive.  I had read that many people just take a cab.  I figured it would be just as expensive, if not more than making arrangements with a tour group, but it was worth a shot.  There was a taxi right outside our hotel and we went up to him and asked him how much to drive us to Petra the next morning, he said he would do it for 50 Jordanian Dinars, which is about $70.  We were thrilled, we made the arrangements and he said he would arrive at 9:00 the next morning.  We did a little exploring of Petra that evening, the city of Aqaba is on the Red Sea and so we had to go and stick our feet in, we walked through the market and stopped into a few shops. 

Walking into Jordan

Red Sea in Aqaba

Had to stick my foot in...

Markets in Aqaba

Charles with a shop owner, he was a character
The next morning we got up early to head to Petra.  After a long drive through the desert in Jordan we finally made it.  We dropped our stuff in our hotel and made our way to the park.  Petra is incredible.  It was built around 312 B.C. and it is like nothing I have ever seen.  Truly amazing.  We met two Bedouin girls our first day in the park, they came to see what Charles was doing.  They were completely in awe of his paintings and loved all of them.  We spent an hour or so visiting with them, even being introduced to some of their family. 

In the Siq about to see the Treasury for the first time.

Treasury in Petra

Bedouin girls - so silly and funny

Our new friends

Charles showing them the bowtie

Monastery in Petra

Shopkeeper where we had lunch - he would yell out have a break, have a kit kat

Camels in Petra
We really loved Petra and are glad we planned two days there, we could have easily spent a few more.  I loved interacting with the kids in Petra, there are tons of them running around, but it made me sad to see them working and peddling things to tourists.  As you walk through Petra someone is always yelling some slogan or price to you in hopes that you will stop and spend your money.  Overall though, we really loved our time in Petra and in Jordan as a whole. 




Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Giving Jerusalem a second try

I already wrote a little bit about our first day in Jerusalem, if you missed that post you can find it here.  Luckily even though our first 24 hours in Jerusalem were pretty terrible, the rest of the time there was much better.  We woke up our first full day in Jerusalem a little uneasy about what the day would hold, but we were planning to participate in a walking tour and felt like that would ease us into exploring the city.  The tour was recommended by our hotel and it was free, so we felt like we couldn't pass it up.  If you are ever in Jerusalem, I recommend taking the walking tour from Sandeman's New Europe.  So, after breakfast we made the long walk from our hotel to Jaffa Gate, where the tour was meeting.

We signed up for the tour and met our tour guide Naomi.  She assembled the group and we entered the old city walls to begin learning about Jerusalem and its history.  The old city of Jerusalem is divided into four parts the Christian Quarter, the Muslim Quarter, the Jewish Quarter, and the Armenian Quarter.  We started in the Christian Quarter and our first stop was the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which is the church built over the place of Jesus' crucifixion and burial tomb.  We didn't have time to go into the church on the tour, but Charles and I went back later that evening to see the different parts of the church.  It truly was amazing to be there and to be among all of the people visiting from all over the world.  After visiting the church we made our way to the Muslim Quarter, which is the largest and most populated section of the old city of Jerusalem with about 24,000 people living there.  Naomi pointed out that some of the graffiti we noticed the day before when we were wandering lost, was actually happy graffiti.  The tradition is to spray graffiti on the home of someone who has recently returned from their pilgrimage to Mecca, which is indicated by hanging a sign above the door of the home.  Next, we made our way to the Western Wall, also sometimes called the Wailing Wall.  Naomi explained that the reason it is so important to the Jewish people is that it is the closest that they can get to the Temple Mount that now lies under the Muslim Mosque called the Dome of the Rock.  The Dome of the Rock is built over the place where Muslims believe that Mohammed left earth and ascended to heaven.  It seemed that everywhere we turned all of the religions seemed to overlap in both history and time, all in this one small city.  After the Western Wall we continued into the Jewish Quarter, which was extremely quiet, since it was Saturday morning.  Naomi explained that this section of the old city looked entirely new because it was rebuilt after the Six Day War.  She also showed us where the new part of the old city is built over the roman ruins, you can see the main street below with Roman columns on either side of the wide avenue.  From the Jewish Quarter we made our way down Ararat Street and into the Armenian Quarter.  Mount Ararat is the mountain where it is believed Noah's Ark landed.  It used to be within the borders of Armenia, but now lies in Turkey, although the image of the mountain still appears on the Armenian crest.  The Armenian's claim to be the first nation to convert to Christianity and they have been in Jerusalem since the first century B.C.  There are very few Armenian's still living in the Old City, but we enjoyed learning about their history, and eating Armenian food for lunch once the tour was over. 

Outside of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher

Happy Graffiti and Sign of Pilgrimage to Mecca

Western Wall

Lunch - Armenian Restaurant
After our morning of touring Charles wanted to paint and I decided to stay with Naomi for a second tour of the Mount of Olives.  Charles and I went our separate ways agreeing to meet at the Austrian Hospice in the center of the Old City at around 5:15.  On the afternoon tour of the Mount of Olives we went to the following sites:
  • Chapel of Ascension - which marks the spot where Jesus ascended into heaven (it is now a mosque)
  • Convent of Pater Noster - the convent built where Jesus taught the disciples the Lord's Prayer, it includes the Lord's Prayer in hundreds of languages, it was wonderful
  • Jewish Cemetery - which is where Jews believe the resurrection will begin when the messiah comes
  • Church of Dominus Flevit - which is the place where the Lord wept and predicted the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple
  • Garden of Gethsemane - the place where Jesus was arrested the night before his crucifixion
  • Church of All Nations - the place where Jesus prayed before his arrest
  • Tomb of the Virgin Mary - believed by some to be the tomb of the Virgin Mary, there is some discrepancy here between the actual place and beliefs of whether Mary was buried before she ascended, or simply fell asleep and ascended to heaven. 
The tour was wonderful and Naomi did a fantastic job with the information about the Mount of Olives.  I also had the chance to meet some wonderful people on the afternoon tour - Mark and Jenny from London and Edwina from Australia.  I really enjoyed swapping travel stories and learning about what brought them to Jerusalem.  Believe me when I say I was overwhelmed in so many ways with all of the history in Jerusalem.  It is amazing to walk in the places where all of these biblical stories took place and originated.  Unfortunately, since I was on the tour by myself most of the pictures are just of scenery. 

Door of the Chapel of Ascension

The Lord's Prayer in Maori in the Convent of Pater Noster

On the Mount of Olives looking towards the Old City

Jewish Cemetery

Garden of Gethsemane and Church of Nations
After a long day of touring I met Charles at the Austrian Hospice and we found a spot for dinner.  His painting of the Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock is beautiful and he had some great interaction with kids from the Old City who stopped to admire his painting.  Overall our second day in Jerusalem made us realize that coming to Jerusalem was not a mistake after all. 

The next morning we woke up and our hotel had no power....but we had a plan for the day so we just went with it.  We walked to the old city and got some breakfast (since our hotel didn't have power they weren't able to supply coffee) and then set off to walk the ramparts of the old city.  Walking the walls of the city was a great way to see Jerusalem and be away from all of the other tourists and vendors in the winding streets of the city.  In the afternoon we visited the archeological site of the City of David, the Church of  Dormition (the place where the Virgin Mary lived after Jesus was Crucified) and the place where the Last Supper took place.  All without a guide, which felt like a big accomplishment.  After our sightseeing we decided to find a place Charles could paint and we could relax before we went to mass that evening.  All in all a great day in Jerusalem. 

Charles with the Old City wall and a UN vehicle

Inside the room of the Last Supper

Monday, November 12, 2012

More on Isreal



We’re currently in India, but I still have lots of things to say about our time in Israel and Jordan, before I can attempt to cover India.  Since it’s late and I’m tired from the hectic ride from Delhi to Jaipur I’m only going to try and cover Israel, and even then I know I won’t be able to do it justice. 

Israel was not at all what we expected.  In some ways it was worse and in some ways it was better.  We arrived in Tel Aviv on Wednesday, October 31st around noon.  We had booked a hostel and they had emailed me directions using public transportation, so after getting through Israeli immigration we made our way out of the airport and into the train station.  Purchasing the tickets was easy, the train came on time and we got on and had almost the entire train car to ourselves, it was actually kind of strange after the crowded trains in Italy and Istanbul.  Once we arrived at the main train station in downtown Tel Aviv we had to find bus #16 and take it to the oceanfront.  It sounded easy enough, except we couldn’t find the bus stop.  I noticed it was across the highway from where we exited the train station, but we weren’t sure how to cross the highway.  Eventually a girl walked up to us and asked where we were trying to go, I guess seeing us looking confused carrying large backpacks was a dead giveaway that we were lost tourists.  With her help we made our way down the street to cross over to the other side of the highway and sat and waited at the bus station.  As we waited we looked around at the city of Tel Aviv, it was not quite as shiny and cosmopolitan as we imagined.  

Tel Aviv is often called the White City or the City that Never Sleeps; we had read that it was a hot destination full of beaches and restaurants.  It was less sparkling than we imagined.  There were parts that were nice, but there was also a lot more poverty and dirt and crumbling buildings than we expected.  When the bus arrived at the bus stop we were a little unsure if we should get on.  The bus was a little more like a mini-van and it looked like it might break down at any moment.  The driver waved at us to get in, I hoped in with my back pack still on and tried to maneuver to the back of the bus hoping I wasn’t giving anyone in my wake a black eye.  Charles paid our fare and since there were no seats left he hunched in the aisle and heaved his backpack to his feet.  The bus weaved its way through the streets of Tel Aviv stopping here and there, we heard no announcements of stops and didn’t see any names of the stops, so we weren’t sure when to get off.  Charles asked the driver and he assured us he would let us know when we arrived at our stop.  In hindsight, we probably could have figured it out, our stop was the last stop, we were the only people still on the bus, and there was the Mediterranean right in front of us.  We followed the hostels instructions and made our way down the street a few blocks until we found it.  We checked in and were given the keys to our room, it was less than desirable especially the communal bathrooms at the end of the hall, and despite being a hostel it was more expensive than many of the hotels so far on our trip, but cheaper than any other option in Tel Aviv.  I was pretty bummed out.  But, we were determined to make the most of it, so we decided to walk around and check out the neighborhood around the hostel.  

Waiting for the train at the airport train station

Waiting for the bus to go to the hostel

Our hostel room
We walked a block down and oddly enough saw a pub called Mike’s Place.  We noticed they were advertising a Halloween celebration and so we thought as American’s we should go in and help celebrate Halloween.  The staff was all dressed in costumes and the whole place was decorated for Halloween, we immediately felt at home and didn’t realize how much we were missing America.  We began chatting with the bar tenders, who were both Americans who came to Israel to become citizens.  They were really nice guys and gave us some tips on restaurants and things to do in the country.  Charles really enjoyed talking to them about college football and we both enjoyed just catching up with other Americans.  We hung out for about an hour and then decided we should find a place for dinner and get some sleep, we were both pretty exhausted from our whirlwind tour of Istanbul.  They tried to convince us to come back later for the real party, but we declined.  They assured us if we changed our minds the party would continue on until well in the morning, the rule in Tel Aviv is you don’t close as long as there are customers.  So, I guess the tour books are correct on that front – it really is the city that never sleeps. 

We followed one of the bar tenders instructions and walked a few blocks down until we found a kebab restaurant.  The food was awesome.  We had hummus, falafel, and kebabs – yum!  After dinner we walked back to cozy up for some sleep in our awesome bunk beds. 

The next day after a good Israeli breakfast of eggs, tomato and cucumber salad, feta, and some bread with hummus and jam we were ready to tackle the day.  Our plan was to go visit the old city of Jaffa, which is part of the city of Tel Aviv, then just relax and get some exercise.  We walked to Jaffa, thinking it was pretty close – it ended up being almost 2 miles away.  The walk was nice though, we walked along the oceanfront and took in the sights.  The old city of Jaffa was wonderful.  It definitely made up for the disappointment we felt when we arrived in Tel Aviv.  Jaffa is famous for being the town associated with the biblical story of Jonah and the whale and the story of Andromeda’s rescue.  The history in this tiny port town is wonderful, we really enjoyed learning about the stories that originated in Jaffa.  After exploring a bit, we walked through the market and met the most interesting man selling artifacts and signs.  He was a character!  We enjoyed sitting with him and having tea and learning about all the languages he speaks and all of the places he has lived.  
Just before we reached Jaffa


Jaffa

After our afternoon exploring Jaffa we made our way back to the hostel to change and go for a run along the waterfront.  It was awesome.  We miss getting in good heart pumping exercise, we walk a lot, but it’s different than planning a real work out.  We were happy that Tel Aviv seemed to be a place where people work out and we were happy to fall in with the crowd.  After our workout we went back and cleaned up and found a place for dinner.  I tried a traditional Israeli dish called shakshuka and some Israeli wine and was pleasantly surprised – it was delicious.  After dinner we went back to our hostel to get some sleep before heading to Jerusalem the next morning.  

Shakshohka and Charles' giant schnitzel

Bus to Jerusalem listening to Girl Talk  (Yes, that's the same shirt Charles was wearing the day before)