Countries Visited

Svalbard Spain United States of America Antarctica South Georgia Falkland Islands Bolivia Peru Ecuador Colombia Venezuela Guyana Suriname French Guiana Brazil Paraguay Uruguay Argentina Chile Greenland Canada United States of America United States of America Israel Jordan Cyprus Qatar United Arab Emirates Oman Yemen Saudia Arabia Iraq Afghanistan Turkmenistan Iran Syria Singapore China Mongolia Papua New Guinea Brunei Indonesia Malaysia Malaysia Tiawan Philippines Vietnam Cambodia Laos Thailand Myanmar Bangladesh Sri Lanka India Bhutan Nepal Pakistan Afghanistan Turkmenistan Tajikistan Kyrgyzstan Uzbekistan Japan North Korea South Korea Russia Kazakhstan Russia Montenegro Portugal Azerbaijan Armenia Georgia Ukraine Moldova Belarus Romania Bulgaria Macedonia Serbia Bosonia & Herzegovina Turkey Greece Albania Croatia Hungary Slovakia Slovenia Malta Spain Portugal Spain France Italy Italy Austria Switzerland Belgium France Ireland United Kingdom Norway Sweden Finland Estonia Latvia Lithuania Russia Poland Czech Republic Germany Denmark The Netherlands Iceland El Salvador Guatemala Panama Costa Rica Nicaragua Honduras Belize Mexico Trinidad & Tobago Puerto Rico Dominican Republic Haiti Jamaica The Bahamas Cuba Vanuatu Australia Solomon Islands Fiji New Caledonia New Zealand Eritrea Ethiopia Djibouti Somalia Kenya Uganda Tanzania Rwanda Burundi Madagascar Namibia Botswana South Africa Lesotho Swaziland Zimbabwe Mozambique Malawi Zambia Angola Democratic Repbulic of Congo Republic of Congo Gabon Equatorial Guinea Central African Republic Cameroon Nigeria Togo Ghana Burkina Fasso Cote d'Ivoire Liberia Sierra Leone Guinea Guinea Bissau The Gambia Senegal Mali Mauritania Niger Western Sahara Sudan Chad Egypt Libya Tunisia Morocco Algeria
Map Legend: 28%, 75 of 263 Territories

Monday, November 29, 2010

Expensive Eats in Jordan and Israel

Because Jordan and Israel are both small countries, and because neither one has a lot of foods that uniquely belong to that country, we are combining their foods. Israeli food also costs more than we can afford and we didn't think our readers would appreciate ten pictures of bread that we were eating for most of our meals, so those pictures are particularly limited. Enjoy the rest, though.

Egypt has hummus sometimes, but Jordan has a lot more hummus. I like hummus, but Tara loves hummus, so this was good news for her. For those who have no idea what hummus is, it is chickpeas, tahini (sesame paste), and olive oil blended with some other herbs and seasonings. Normally eaten on pita bread or as part of a sandwich. Here is the first hummus we bought in Jordan to eat in the Wadi Rum desert area because the restaurant selection was limited to one place that served one thing...And here is that one thing. In Jordan, they really like french fries on their sandwiches. This place made sandwiches with hummus, fried eggplant, french fries, and other salad. Pretty good and much, much cheaper than the food at the hotel where we were staying.

The owner of the restaurant also helped us book a day tour, so he provided us with lots of free tea. Jordanian tea is inspired by the nomads of the desert and has nice herbs, unlike the boring Lipton of Egypt. On the day that we drank these, we counted nine glasses of free tea consumed.

The yogurt of Jordan is apparently thicker than in many countries and the most popular flavor is plain. Tara seemed to enjoy it.

Jordan has lots of sweet shops. Fresh sweets come in two main varieties--soft and warm or harder and long lasting. The soft and warm look like baklava and related pastries that we really like. However, we were unpleasantly surprised to find that they are all filled with a weird cream-cheesy like substance. Tara loves cream cheese, but she still found these less than good.

The best part of the warm sweets is the vat of goo that they scoop over them. It seems to be a mix of honey (or maybe just sugar), rosewater, and some other spices. It makes everything taste a little better and every sweets shop has one of these steaming vats. Due to the high cost of food compared to Egypt (just wait until we get to Israel...), we resorted to our old friend, polony. At least that was what it was called in French speaking countries. Americans know it as baloney, but it is normally a little higher quality than American baloney. And it comes in fun flavors like garlic or pepper. For only a couple of dollars, dinner is served.Tara discovered these sesame-oregano breads in Jordan that she loves. We doubt they are Jordanian--probably originally from Syria or Lebanon, but she is still sad that Jordan was the only country that we were allowed into that had these.
In Jordan, they have "Strawberry" Fanta. Despite being the red color that normally equals horrible for Fanta, we were dumb enough to buy it. "Strawberry" is the same as Latin America's Rojo flavor, which is terrible. More like bubble gum than strawberry, but you can't even blow bubbles with it.
Despite the less than great warm sweets in Jordan, they make amazing baklava like pastries that are not quite as moist and sticky as normal baklava. They are more expensive, but are really amazing. And Jordanians are so friendly that they would always give us samples of different ones to try in the shop.
We were walking down the street one night when we saw this guy scooping what appeared to be a gelatinous white paste into a bowl and covering with a motor-oil looking sauce. In the 30 seconds that we were considering buying it, about 10 people ran up to the guy and bought some, so we thought it best to do the same. It was a coconut like jelly with some sweet sauce. Tara loved it, and I thought that it was decent.
While waiting for the bus to the Israel border, a guy was selling sweets. This one looked like a churro, one of Tara's favorites, but it turned out to be a semolina filled fried thing. A bit like a giant log of cous cous with sugar added. Not bad at all, and it was the last cheap sweets that we got before entering the land of the Chosen, who are also all apparently rich.
Our favorite falafel shop in Jordan was a place in Amman where we ate about five times over three days. They put a spicy sauce on them that made them excellent and they were very cheap. The upstairs, which is where we ate when the two downstairs tables were full, had a ceiling almost exactly the height of my head.
After arriving to Israel and getting over the shock of expensive transport and expensive hotels, it was time to deal with the expensive food. We walking around only to find that the food was even more overpriced than everything else. So, we went to a little grocery store, where we opted for a loaf of bread, a tub of hummus, and a yogurt for Tara. Total bill: $11. We did have enough hummus and bread left to eat it for breakfast the next morning, though! We had similar meals on several other evenings.
Day two in Israel: to have the same hummus dinner or something better? We opted for a liter of ice cream and a local fruit drink. The fruit drink was essentially an extra sugary nectar. After eating it, we decided that we made the right decision for dinner.
On Day 3, we were saved by the discovery of cheap knock-off candy bars at the market. At 30 cents each, these were the cheapest candy bars we had seen in a long time. We tried one and found it to be remarkably Bounty-like. Then we bought 10 more. Thanks, guy in the market who sells cheap candy!
Tara felt like we had saved so much on our candy that she could afford to shell out a couple of dollars for Reese's Cups, which are near the top of the list of things that she misses most from the US. Israel is the second place we have ever seen Reese's Cups, with the other being a random store on the Peru-Bolivia border where they cost about $10. It made her day, and the one that I got made me pretty happy, too.
Challah bread is often seen being sold in Israel, and we had to try some. We bought a whole wheat version, which I thought was okay, but Tara thought tasted bad compared to most Challah. We therefore counsel not to buy whole wheat challah.
We discovered that Israel had orange-mango Fanta, but it only ever seemed to come in giant size. Soda is only slightly more expensive than in the US, so when we were thirsty one day, we decided to buy one. The mango is largely obscured by the orange, but the fake mango is just strong enough to detract from the tasty artificial orange. So, Tara quickly declared that she hated it, but I wasn't in love with it, either. We finished it, but it required me holding Tara down and pouring it down her throat.
On our final night, we decided to go to a fancy restaurant. The most upscale place that we could afford was the corner deli, where we sprung for a pastrami sandwich to split between the two of us. Was probably about on par with a Subway sandwich. Maybe just a bit better.
So, to summarize, if you are going to Jordan, fill your suitcase with food in Egypt. If you are going to Israel, fill your suitcase with food in Jordan. If you are going directly to Israel, bring your savings!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Jewing (and Christianing, and Islaming) it Up in Israel

Israel was not on our itinerary. OK, not like we have a real itinerary, but we usually at least know what country we're heading to next, and after Jordan, the plan was to go to Syria, spending about a week there en route to Turkey.

But Syria didn't like that plan, and wouldn't grant us a visa when we showed up at its border. Technically, Americans can only get a Syria visa in their home country, but we'd heard about other lucky travelers who'd recently managed to buy one at the border (though none were American), so we came to try our luck, too.

But no amount of discussing, explaining, begging, or offering to pay "extra fees" was budging these border guards. Americans, take note: Syria is strict on its buy-your-visa-in-the-USA-or-else policy.

So, it was back in the taxi and back to Jordan, which, I must say, has the kindest border guards on earth. They canceled our exit stamp no problem, offered us coffee and handfuls of nuts, and told us that we were most welcome back into their country. Which we then only stayed in for a few more hours, en route to another border post...the bridge over the Jordan River to Israel.

Knowing that there was a chance we wouldn't get into Syria, Andy and I had formulated a very hypothetical backup plan a few days earlier: If we got rejected, we'd go to Israel instead, travel south back to Egypt, and fly from Cairo to Istanbul (the cheapest Istanbul-bound flight in the region). But we'd really hoped Syria was going to let us in, and had not planned one bit for an Israel trip. When we got across the border, night was falling...we had no guidebook, no idea what city we wanted to head to first, and no idea how much things cost in Israel.

Well, we got schooled fast in that last one. Israel is EXPENSIVE! I actually spent two weeks there in 1999, but that was on an all-expenses-paid tour for college students (thanks, Birthright Israel!) and I'd barely had to shell out for more than the occasional ice cream. So, I had no memory of whether the country was pricey or not.

Turns out that just about everything here costs way more than in the neighboring countries--hotels, transport, and especially, food. A falafel sandwich in Egypt or Jordan costs around 30 cents US. In Israel, you can't find one for less than $4. Eep!

But I'll try to keep my complaining to a minimum (or at least save it for the next finances post). I'll just say that for us, Israel has been the French Guyana of the Middle East, meaning that we shell out over $50 a night for cheapest hotel room in town, live on grocery store white bread and hummus (which still costs us $10 a meal), and grumble a lot.

All that said, a lot of the religious sites and tourist attractions in Israel are free to visit, so that helps ease the pain a bit. Here's a taste of what we did during our six days in the country.

At the end of a day that saw us take 12 different buses or taxis in three countries, we arrived in Tiberias, Israel, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. This is where Jesus supposedly walked on water. The next day, we attempted to duplicate his feat, but we fell in. Luckily, we had thought ahead and were wearing our bathing suits.
Two of those claw machines at the local mall, where you put in money and can pluck out a toy, also had cigarettes as a possible prize. What the ?@#$%! Words fail me.
Next it was on to Tel Aviv, Israel's glitzy, modern, second-biggest city. It has some impressive skyscrapers.
Less than a week left until Harry Potter 7!!! The caption says "Harry Potter" in Hebrew, by the way.
Tel Aviv's beachfront boulevard looks like a cross between Rio de Janeiro and Miami. There are no pink buildings in this shot, but trust me, they exist.
As you may have gathered from the pictures, we didn't really do much in Tel Aviv other than wander around. It's a very pleasant city with lots of plants, bike lanes, and stylish cafes that would probably be to eat and drink at if they weren't twice as expensive as such places in New York. At the big Carmel Market, we finally found a few good food deals and stocked up on cheap candy bars and cereal, which kept us nourished for a couple of days. If I had to live in a city in Israel, I would definitely pick Tel Aviv. Part of its appeal to me is also that it's very secular--if it weren't for all the signs in Hebrew, you'd probably hardly know you were in Israel at all.

Quite a different vibe is found in Jerusalem. It's only an hour from Tel Aviv, but has a totally different fashion sense.
Jerusalem also has many more important religious and historical sites. Many are found in the "Old City" part of town, which is surrounded by stone walls like this one and entered only by various gates.
Inside the old city, here's a night shot of the Western Wall, also known as the Wailing Wall. It's the only remaining structure from the great (but long-destroyed) second temple on this site, and pretty much the holiest spot in the world for Jews.
The first time I visited, it really annoyed me that about 4/5ths of the wall is reserved for men, and women have to crowd three people deep into the tiny section off to the side that's set aside for them. Ten years on, the situation is the same, and it still annoys me.

Many people who come to pray at the wall write a note to God that they then stick in a crack in the wall. The wall is now jammed with these notes in every crevasse, and the ones that have fallen out are all over the ground near the wall, too.
In the "New City," Andy and I visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum. I went to a Holocaust Museum when I first visited Israel, but apparently this one is new since 2005. Here's a shot of the main hall--very modern architecture on the outside, to match the very multimedia experience on the inside, I guess. It's still a moving and educational experience, but I found all the video and different-colored and -fonted posters and such a bit overwhelming at times.
Overlooking the old city is the Mount of Olives, a significant area for both Christians and Jews. There are several churches, but the Basilica of the Agony pictured here probably has the best name.
The inside of this church does have cool windows made out of purple-stained alabaster stone, which filters the light a lot and keeps things appropriately gloomy.

I really like the golden domes on top of the Russian Orthodox church in this area.
And speaking of golden domes, let's not forget the Dome of the Rock, the huge mosque built in the 600s on the Temple Mount (site of the destroyed Jewish temple, and a bone of contention between the two religions ever since).

The Mount of Olives has a huge Jewish Cemetary. My great-grandfather is buried somewhere in here, but I had no idea where to even begin to look...and it was Shabbat when we visited, so the info center was closed. Maybe next time...
Nearby is a church built on the site of the assumption of the Virgin Mary. Andy was really impressed not only with the number of chandeliers hanging in this church, but with the fact that their candleholders have all been replaced with CFL bulbs! Who knew Mary was so green?
Back in the Old City, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is built on the site where many branches of Christianity believe Jesus was crucified and raised from the dead. The centerpiece of the church is this shrine...which to me, looks like a cardboard cutout wrapped in tin foil, but it seemed to impress a lot of other visitors.
I liked the painted dome with the skylight within the church much better.
And that pretty much wraps it up for Israel. We haven't had a bad time, but it probably would have helped if we'd done a bit more advance planning. Budget travelers will definitely want to try to couch-surf in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, where cheap lodging is pretty much impossible to find. There are plenty of free sites, museums, and beaches to visit, though!

In closing, I realize that there is not a single picture including Andy in this post! I promise, he really did get into the country, even though he is not a Jew. Though the border guards did pull him into a little room and practically strip-search him when we came across the border from Jordan, while I sailed through security with no problems... Hm. Maybe he just looked a little crazier than I did.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Crossing Jordan

We departed Egypt on the very expensive "fast ferry" to Jordan. As it turns out, the ferry is much faster, but not really subject to any schedule. So, it left a few hours later than expected, but only took an hour and a half to cross the Red Sea. The "slow ferry" is only slightly cheaper and takes somewhere between four and eight hours.We were lucky enough to meet a Dutch couple on the ferry who had a car rental arranged in Jordan and who were going to the same place as us. They kindly agreed to take us along to Wadi Rum, a town in the desert of southern Jordan famous as much for Lawrence of Arabia as for beautiful landscapes. This is the Seven Pillars of Wisdom rock formation. Unclear why this one is so special since lots of them in the area look like this. Given the popularity of Lawrence of Arabia in these parts, it is probably because T.E. Lawrence once looked at it in a loving way.
On our hike around the Seven Pillars (which resulted in us getting rather lost), we found two good living things. The first was this lizard. The second was a Bedouin who was stranded until a mechanic came to fix his Jeep. He had been there for a week. We talked to him for a long time and he gave us amazing tea. Glass after glass. He showed us how he catches birds to eat under a pan and then showed us some birds he had caught. No pictures of him, though.
We took a Jeep tour of the Wadi Rum area to see the highlights. The first stop was "Lawrence Springs" some springs where Lawrence of Arabia once drank! So, I hiked up a sizable rock avalanche to see this. Pathetic. Maybe it is because I have never seen Lawrence of Arabia (yeah, yeah, I know--it was a book, too, but I haven't read the book, either), but they kept taking us to these sites associated with Lawrence of Arabia and all these old people would look on excitedly while I laughed at how ridiculous they were.
Wadi Rum has a long canyon that is very nice. Unfortunately, we only had time to walk to the part that gets difficult and then we had to turn back to see more things. Seemed like a great place for a combination hike and climb. The colors in much of the sandstone were really spectacular.
Wadi Rum feels a bit like the American Southwest, and even has some arches. Unlike Arches National Park, you are allowed to climb on the arches in Jordan. Here is Tara on the little one.
And me on a much bigger one. Based on the skills of some of the other people going to the top of this one, I completely understand why the US national parks don't let people climb arches.
Tara took this one of me coming down. I am not sure if the look on my face is concentration or concern that the old woman I just passed being helped up by a guide looked like she would have a hard time walking on the ground, let alone climbing rocks.
Our driver didn't speak much English, so it was unclear whether he thought these nice camel inscriptions were important because a.) they are really old; b.) Lawrence of Arabia is somehow depicted; or c.) his kid drew them. We took a picture like good tourists, though.
While visiting this nice red sand dune tucked snuggly against a small mountain, Tara and I decided to race up the sand dune. I let her slowly climb half way up and then we raced to the top with me starting at the bottom. She won by a couple of seconds, but was so exhausted that she laid down to rest while I climbed the rest of the small mountain/hill. She appears in this picture as a small bluish dot just inside the shadow.
Our guide and another guide making tea in the desert at sunset. No, I did not wear, nor do I ever plan to wear, a red and white checker board cloth on my head.
Sunset at Wadi Rum. I realize that sunsets are boring, so I selected only one. You can thank me later.
Tara is drinking her ninth glass of tea of the day in this picture. That explains her smile.
From Wadi Rum, we proceeded to Petra, the most famous place in Jordan. Petra was a huge city about 2000 years ago. They built especially ornate tombs carved into the rocks of the valley where they lived. Due to massive earthquakes, all that really remains is these tombs (and some more recently excavated temples). This is one of the earlier ones, but I like it because it has tombs on the top level and a big dining room on the bottom level so that you can come eat with the dead.
The Siq is a canyon leading the the main part of Petra. A great natural protection and also a nice natural setting. Through the crack in the canyon, you can see "The Treasury", probably the most photographed building in Petra. The building never had anything to do with money, but stories proliferated that the rock urn on top of the facade was filled with treasure. Not true.
Here is the full treasury with a bonus camel. The urn at the top is filled with bullet holes from people trying to shoot it down for the treasure. Unfortunately, I left my gun back at the hotel, so I didn't get a shot.
The next most famous building is the monastery. Not a monastery at all, but, surprise, surprise, a tomb. It is about 160 feet tall. Inside is one, small, disappointing, rectangular room.
Some of the sandstone of Petra is filled with a rainbow of colors. Not sure how this will look on your screen (the screen I am using is probably from the 1940s), but in real life it is filled with color.
Behind Petra are large, colorful mountains. If we had it to do over again, I would have made Tara hike over these mountains like a Hobbit rather than pay the $70 entry fee to Petra.
This facade is rather eroded, but you can see the vibrant colors even better.
The most ornate inside also has one of the best ceilings. This one was originally a king's tomb, but was later used as a church. I think the Christians made the inside a bit more ornate.
Tara found these giant grasshoppers that were hatching. This one wants to know why I was disturbing him.
This one just wants to eat something. Or kill someone.
The "Life Could Be Better" Pharmacy. What a great name.
Amman has a massive Roman amphitheater, but before we found it, we found this tiny theater next door that we thought was it. We sat there eating some pastries for a long time, wondering why there were no other tourists. Then we walked out and saw the massive theater next door.
This is the huge Roman theater. Looks like they still use it for performances. Also like they are building some huge building right in front of it.
The Dead Sea is the lowest land on Earth, and so salty you supposedly can't drown (a stupid bit of folklore since you could easily float with your face down). Here I am walking in.
A view of the surprisingly blue dead sea with the West Bank on the opposite side.
Me floating. Yes, it looks like I'm sitting on the bottom, but I really am floating here. You almost feel like you can sit up. I wanted to go under and our guide first advised that I lick my finger. I did and my tongue immediately burned like I had poured acid on it. That didn't stop me from later going under. For anyone curious, the incredibly high salt concentration burns your mouth, your nose, and your eyes. A lot.
Here we are with some Dead Sea mud ready to go to war. Our skin was surprisingly soft afterward, though our guide was insistent that we wash it all off really well or face a bad rash later from it drying out our skin so much.
Jordan is a much more developed country than I anticipated. The people here have been very friendly and the infrastructure is good. Petra is very expensive, and the rest of the country is not cheap, but it has been worth a few days in the country.