Thursday, July 19, 2007

Dahab - Sinai, Egypt

Ahhhhhhhhh, Daaahhhhhaaaabbbbb.

Five days of relaxing by the Red Sea. Not much to do but snorkel and smoke sheesha (don't worry mom and dad, that's just flavored tobacco!), and of course relax. The people are friendly, everything is dirt cheap, and the sea is clear and teeming with life. If I hadn't just taken a bus from the Israel/Egypt border, I might think I was back in Southeast Asia again.

Actually, while I was relaxing, Gil must have been working hard, because he somehow managed to learn how to swim while we were in Dahab. Like a fish! Nothing like the beautiful reefs and some puffer and lion fish to inspire an aquatic breakthrough.

While the coast is beautiful, we wish the Egyptians would take a cue from the Israeli's and go to greater length protecting the reefs - in the short 30 - 40 years this has been a diving destination, the corals have suffered extensive damage, and it doesn't look to us like much has changed to prevent further harm.

From Dahab we also took a midnight hike up to the top of beautiful and eerie Mount Sinai, where God delivered the 10 commandments to Moses. The stars were spectacular, and the sunrise was even better. At the base of the undulating mountain is St. Katherine's Monastery, the oldest continually functioning monastery in the world. The monastery houses the Burning Bush (well, a decedent of the bush) and the Well of Moses, a natural spring that is supposed to give marital bliss to anyone who drinks from it. Unfortunately, the day we visited, the monastery was closed for a special celebration, so I am not sure if that bodes well for us....

The ride back from Mt. Sinai was hot and sweaty, but we passed the time staring out at the endless burnt desert. Every now and then we would pass a Bedouin tent and wonder about these nomadic people who have chosen to make such a seemingly inhospitable place their home. I am sure they wonder about us as well, and what we mean for their future, since the tourist industry has been slowly encroaching on their land and impacting their livelihood for decades now. Hopefully they will find equilibrium.

Jordan & Petra

We were not originally planning to go to Jordan, but had heard from several people that it would be a crime to miss out on Petra given that we were so close. So, we decided to make a day trip of it and although it was a bit of an investment with exit fees and such, we were not sorry we did!

We crossed the border into Jordan and looked for a taxi to take us to Jordan. We found a legitimate-looking cab straight away for the same price that was quoted in our guide book, so we figured we were golden. That was, until about 2 kilometers from the border when the cab driver pulled over to the side of the road and told us to get out and get into the pick up truck next to us. He must have seen the concern on our face, and assured us that the truck was a 4x4 and would be better. So, we reluctantly switched vehicles and headed off. Our new driver seemed nice enough, but a few minutes later he told us we'd be going to pick someone else up because his friend's cab had broken down and he wanted to help him out by picking up his fare to Petra. At this point we definitely thought we were getting the run around, but we did in fact come to a broken down cab, with a nice Canadian chap stranded along the side of the highway.

When we got into Wadi Musa, the town near the Petra entrance, we were taken to a hotel where we again changed drivers. On the way home, we also changed vehicles twice. At that point it was almost laughable, as this is apparently just the way things go there. For all of our skepticism, the Jordinians were extremely nice and hospitable - you just need to go with the flow.

Petra itself was absolutely amazing. Nicknamed the "Rose-red City", it was built in the 3rd century BC by the Nabateans, who commanded the spice trade route in the area. They built palaces, temples and tombs into the rocky cliffs, and the site today has over 800 sites. But even without the ruins, the place would be worth a visit just to see the colorful sandstone, with its swirling colors and patterns that seem to grow more intense as the sun sets.

Our visit started by walking through the Siq, a 1.2 kilometer walk way that was created from a gorge that the Nabateans rerouted the river away from. The Siq led to the Treasury, one of Petra's most impressive tombs, which many of you may recognize from Indian Jones & the Last Crusade.

A trail up 800 steps took us to some sweeping views of the desert mountains and another towering tomb called the Monastery, so named because it wasused as a church in later years by the Byzantines. We also visited several other rock-carved tombs, an amphitheatre, and the Qasr al-Bint temple, one of the only free standing structures to survive the many earthquakes that forced the Nabatians to abandon the city.

We picked a particularly interesting time to visit Petra because the winner of an international contest to name the next "Wonder of the World" was to be announced that evening, and of course, Petra was in the running. There was a stage set up near the Treasury for a sunset party that the entire town appeared to be attending, and rumor had it that even the President of Jordan would be there. Judging by the news crews, we guessed this rumor may have had some validity! Unfortunately, we could not stay to celebrate, as we had already paid for our place in Eliat for the night and arranged with our cab driver for the round trip. If anyone knows the results of the contest, please post a comment


Eliat is a resort town wedged directly between Jordan and Egypt. Being that the city was only built in the 1950s, there aren't any historical sights to visit, but there are many beaches to lounge on and lots of people-watching to be had.
Eliat also sports some nice reefs for snorkeling, with hundreds of different species of fish to spy on. We spent a day at the Coral Beach Nature Reserve and appreciated that although it is a popular place, they've gone to great lenghts to protect the reef by marking underwater trails to follow and diligently patrolling for people kicking, standing on, or otherwise abusing the coral.

We were able to rent a flat in Eliat as well (same price as a hostel, go figure) which made it a nice base for a couple of days.

Mitzpe Ramon

The car company forced us to rent the car for 3 days ("it's too many kilometers to Eliat to drive in less than 3 days" was the excuse - at only 320 km, this tiny country is clearly not of the same mindset as those of us who will make the trek to Tahoe and back in a snow storm in less than 12 hours...). But, it ended up being a blessing because we got to take more time to enjoy the beauty of the Negev desert on our way south.

We spent the night in Mitpze Ramon, a small desert town perched above the Maktesh Ramon crater - the largest crater in the world. (We also drove through the world's second largest crater, the Maktesh HaGadol, but were too scared to stop and take a picture when we heard the Israeli military doing bombing exercises.) The crater was breathtaking with it's many different colored sands and rock formations. We also got to pretend we were normal people again because we ended up having to rent a real apartment when we discovered the hostel was closed, and even got to have a home cooked meal and watch some movies (ok, so we cooked dinner in the microwave).

We hiked around the rim of the crater, which took us through a desert sculpture park. The sculptures were interactive with various gongs and bells, and once again, we could almost pretend we were back at Black Rock City. If the Israelis haven't yet discovered Burning Man they certainly are poised to.

After the hike we headed out for the final stretch to Eliat. Even though the distance wasn't that far, there are no gas stations the entire way, so we'd recommend filling up before you head out. Otherwise, you may find yourself driving in 100+ degree heat with the aircon off and your fingers crossed like we did....

Wednesday, July 18, 2007


Masada is situated on a desert mesa high above the Dead Sea. It is accessible by two paths: the steep Snake Path which winds its way up from the Sea, and the gentler Roman Ramp, which is accessible by driving around to the other side of the plateau through Erad. So, while the car break-in resulted in an unexpected trip to the Erad police station, at least it saved us a grueling hike in the desert heat by putting us only 20 minutes away from the easier entrance!

Masada was built by the paranoid Herod the Great as a protective fortress against a potential Jewish revolt or other invasions. Despite its natural defenses, it was captured by the Jews several years after Herod's death during the First Revolt against the Romans. After the Roman's cracked down on the uprising, it became a haven for Jews fleeing from Jerusalem. Despite holding out against the Romans for months, the Romans eventually were able to build an earthen ramp up to the fortress walls (today's "Roman Ramp" entrance) to lay siege on the defenders. But, before being captured, nearly all of the Zealots committed mass suicide, marking the end of the Jewish presence in Palestine. The site was later occupied by Byzantine monks.

It's a beautiful spot, particularly at sunrise, but it's Masada's legendary status in Jewish history makes it a must-see for any trip to Israel.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

The Dead Sea & Ein Gedi

We rented a car in Jerusalem and headed toward the Dead Sea. After a brief stop at Quamran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, we headed to Ein Gedi Nature Reserve. The reserve is situated in the around an oasis in the desert mountains, and has several waterfalls that you can hike, with pools to swim in. It was so refreshing to take a dip in the fresh spring water after a hike through the 100+ degree heat! We also had our first sighting of the plentiful ibex that inhabit the area, and visited an ancient synagogue situated in the reserve as well.

From Ein Gedi we headed straight to the Dead Sea for dip in the water - if you can even call it that. Consisting of over 30% solid material, the sea has a very strange, almost oily consistency. It's also hot. Because we went in during the evening, the surface of the water was actually cooler than its depths. And, you definitely float in it - in fact, it is almost impossible to push yourself beneath the surface. If you stand straight up in it, you don't sink much past your nipples. Also, become acutely aware of any minor cuts or scrapes you might have in the salty water. It was a fun experience, but I am not sure I would want to spend much more than the 20 minutes in it!

Coming back from our float in the Dead Sea, we made the unpleasant discovery that our car had been robbed. They somehow forced open the passenger side door and took Gil's camera and all of the cash from his wallet. Since literally all of our belongings were in the car, we consider ourselves lucky that they didn't take anything else.

We wanted to report the robbery to the police (the locals we spoke to say this happens daily), so we embarked for the town of Arad where we spent the night getting over it.

The pictures in this posting represent things we did, but were not taken by us.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007


Jerusalem is a fascinating city. We had heard there is a special energy that you feel instantly upon arrival and you definitely get the sense right away that it's a sacred place to many people, with a long and emotional history.

We found a room nearby the Jaffa Gate in the oldest hotel in Jerusalem. It's famous patrons include Mark Twain, who wrote his impressions of the Holy Land in "The Innocents Abroad". Like the city itself, the hotel definitely shows its age, but some of our favorite moments were sitting on our balcony and watching the many people and costumes parade in and out of the old city. Whether it was Orthodox Jews hurrying to the Western Wall to pray, young Americans dressed to impress heading out to the city center for a night on the town, a Priest leading a group of Italian Pilgrims toward the Via Dolorosa, or a group of Arab-Israelis taking advantage of Shabbot to throw an impromptu dance party, we were constantly entertained right out our window.

Our first couple of days we spent taking in the sites of the old city. We visited the Western Wall several times, the most memorable being for the start of Shabbot on Friday evening when the area was filled with families and groups of visitors praying and singing. We also took a very interesting tour of the underground tunnels near the Wall. It gave us a better sense Jerusalem's varied past, because each meter we descended down below the present-day surface represented another era in the city's history. It's amazing how many different structures (and the cultures they represent) have been destroyed, buried, and (for the lucky ones) rebuilt again.

We also visited St. Anne Church, which is situated next to the ancient ruins of the Pool of Bethesda, and walked along the Via Dolorosa (Way of Sorrows), stopping at the 14 stations that trace the route Jesus carried his cross. The last stations are in the Church of Holy Sepulchre, which which is interesting not only because it is supposedly the site of Jesus' crucifixion, but because it is shared by several different Christian faiths, and therefore is dissected into separate parts and adorned in a wide variety of styles.

After getting the visiting hours wrong a few times, we finally made it to the Temple Mount as well, which encompasses the Dome of the Rock, a (used to be real) gold plated mosque that covers a slab of stone sacred to both Muslims and Jews. The Muslims believe this is where Mohommed travelled in his night journey to heaven to join Allah, and it is the third most sacred place after Mecca and Medina. The Jewish faith believes it is the foundation stone of the world, where God gathered the earth to form Adam and also where Abraham nearly sacrificed Isaac. As such, it was the site of the First and Second Temples built by the Jewish people, which were later destroyed. The Western Wall is sacred to the Jewish faith today because it is the closest part of the Second Temple to the "holiest of holy" that remains today. Gil and I were disappointed that non-Muslims are no longer allowed into the Dome of the Rock, but it's a pretty good mirror of how divided the religious groups seem to be in Israel overall.

We also visited the Citadel or "Tower of David", which was responsible for protecting the city from invasion, and too has been reshaped by many different groups over time. There was a really cool art and music installation (very Burning Man-esque!) set up in the courtyard.

We also spent a lot of time outside of the old city, first visiting the churches and various ruins on Mt. Olive (which was pretty much the only thing we could do on Shabbot since the whole city shuts down for 24 hours!). One of our favorite parts was the Garden of Gethsemane, an olive grove that is over 2,000 years old. In some ways this was more spiritual than the old city, because it seems history has been rewritten so many times that no one is really sure where sacred events occurred, but these ancient gnaraled trees have certainly witnessed it all.

We also spent time in the city center experiencing "modern" Jerusalem. This primarily meant eating gelato and watching the various music and dance performances happening on Ben Yehuda Street (from traditional Jewish "rapping" to drum circles to break dancing...). It also gave us a better sense of Israeli security efforts - we thought 19-year-old kids carrying automatic rifles made us feel safe until we actually got locked inside of the restaurant we were eating at in the German Colony for our own protection (hello, fire codes?).

Our most emotional experience was visiting Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum. The very well designed exhibits tell the story of one of the more inhumane and horrific events in history in a very humane way - through news and video clips, interviews with survivors, and the personal items of a select few of the millions men, women and children thoughtlessly murdered in such a short period of time. It could elicit no other response other than a sickening remorse for the past and anger that we as a society continue to allow genocide to occur in the world today.

On that positive note, we are sad to report we have no pictures from Jerusalem (these pictures are all stolen from the internet, but are very similar to ones we took), as Gil's camera was stolen from our rental car the day after we left. It was a blow, but the thieves were kind enough to leave behind our passports and credit/ATM cards, so it could have been much, much worse.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Haifa and Akko

We also headed north from Natanya to Haifa and Akko. We hitched a ride up to Haifa with a friend of Gil's family who works at Intel, one of the many tech companies who have set up shop in there. It's a very beautiful city, situated on a hillside overlooking the sea. The city's most prominent feature is the gorgeous Baha'i Gardens. Baha'i is a fairly young religion whose central beliefs are unity and equality (how refreshing!). They identify with many different profits who have appeared throughout history, including Moses, Jesus and Buddha. The gardens surround a shrine of one of the religion's spiritual leaders and are exquisitely manicured, with over 100 full-time gardeners on site. It was interesting that the shrine itself, while very ornate on the outside, was quite modest and simple inside.

After spending time in the gardens, we wandered around Haifa's many neighborhoods - the trendy Carmel Centre, the Russian Hadar area, the Arab quarter called Wadi Nisas and the German Colony with its pretty stone houses.
Later that afternoon we took a train along the coast up to Akko, an old Arab city that is very well preserved. We arrived too late to explore the town's underground tunnels, but spent the evening wandering the narrow streets and passageways above. The city was quite a drastic change from Tel Aviv or even Haifa, and it seemed like we had stepped back in time a few centuries. From all of the references to Napoleon, it appears that Akko's proudest moment was when the city was able to hold off Napoleon's advances. We took in the story of the long battle that ensued from atop of the ramparts on the southern wall of the city.

A final heartfelt thank you to Sveta, Yuri and Masha who, in addition to providing us with food, shelter and wonderful company, helped us get home when we found ourselves stranded at the train station upon our return to Natanya from Akko late that night!

Tel Aviv

While staying in Natanaya, we also spent several days in Tel Aviv. Tel Aviv is Gil's birthplace, and although he only spent 3 short months of his life there, I think some of the city rubbed off on him. First of all, it's a very young and vibrant place. Whether enjoying the beach, sipping a latte in a cafe, or playing boccee in the park, everyone seems to take time to enjoy life. Secondly, the people in Tel Aviv like to stay up late! Bars barely open up at 10 and the outdoor sushi cafe we ate at was packed with people at midnight. Apparently, its not uncommon to wrap up a long night of clubbing or raving in the desert with a drink at a beach bar the next morning. Finally, despite what I have heard from other travelers about the "rude Israelis", everyone in Tel Aviv was very sweet and ultra helpful.

We primarily spent our time in Tel Aviv wandering around the different neighborhoods and trying various falafel stands. We visited the flea market in Old Jaffa, admired the Bauhaus architecture in Neve Tzedek and drank coffees on Sheinken Street. We also spent a fair share of our time relaxing and swimming at the excellent and plentiful beaches!

We really enjoyed Tel Aviv and its hip, modern vibe.

Hello Israel!

Natanya and Ceasaria

From Istanbul, we took a short (but expensive) flight to Tel Aviv, where we were prepared for the infamous third degree inquiry from the Israeli border police. Surprisingly, they were more than happy to let us in... however, in order for us to leave, it would take some work. Because Gil was born in Israel and is technically a citizen, he is required to have a passport to enter and exit the country. Fortunately, the process was relatively painless, and it allowed us to spend a little more time with Gil's cousins Sveta and Yuri and their daughter, Masha in Natanya. We owe them a debt of gratitude for all of their kindness and hospitality, the delicious home-cooked meals, and of course, all of their excellent advice about traveling in Israel that helped make our time there so wonderful! Thank you!

From Natanya, we took a day-trip trip to Ceasaria, one of the oldest and most important ports in the region. The remains were really quite impressive and still under excavation. Highlights were the well preserved arena for chariot racing, the palace with fresh water swimming pool and the enormous community bath with beautiful tile mosaics. Thanks to Sveta abd Yuri, we also got to visit a beautiful hacienda-style museum housing a private collection of works by Spanish and Latin American artists, including several surreal Dali scupltures.

We also visited the beaches in Natanya and South Natanya. If this is the Holy Land, then God must really love the beach, because the beaches in Israel are nothing short of spectacular. Fine, blond sand as far as the eye can see, with gentle waves lapping the sea shore. With a large population of French Jews settled in this area, it is sometimes compared to the French Riviera. I haven't been, but would like to if the beaches are anything like this!

Tuesday, July 3, 2007


By popular request, here's the lowdown on my shoe situation.

I took the advice of those of you I consulted with prior to the trip and decided to 1) left my beloved Sauconeys at home and 2) sucked it up and bought a pair of Tevas. So, I ended up taking 3 pairs of shoes along for the ride - my hiking shoes, Tevas, and a pair of flip flops. The Tevas have proved invaluable for navigating through wet canyons and swimming on rocky beaches. And as much as I wish I could slip into my cloud-like Sauconeys after a long day of pounding the pavement, I would definitely not have had enough room for them.

As for other travel gear, here's our initial thoughts:

3 ipods and travel speakers - the speakers are worth their weight in gold, but I think we could have gotten by with just one ipod (Gil may disagree with that one...)

Laptop - didn't bring one, but often wish we did. Free wireless has been everywhere, and it would have made blogging much easier.

3 swimsuits - definitely overkill.

Packing cubes - one of the best investments we ever made.