Thursday, December 30, 2010

Ukraine, Insane!

Flying between Tel Aviv and New York, Davo and I found a flight with a 25-hour, New Year's Eve layover in Kiev, Ukraine.

Oh hell yeah.

Here's what I saw in my 25 hours in the Ukraine:

Some really cool, beautiful architecture...  the buildings were lit up beautifully at night...  which is pleasant, because it gets dark at, like, 4:00 p.m. there.

OMG alcohol is SO cheap!!!  We splurged and went for the 750 mL bottle of vodka that cost a full 46 hryvnias ($5.75).  The guy in the store said it was good.  He was right.

Lots of furry hats.  And drinking. 

I started figuring out the Cyrillic alphabet really quickly.  Guess all the practice learning different languages in the past year actually made a difference!  This is the first sign I figured out.  It says, "De Niro."

Independence Square was a great place to ring in the New Year.  Lights, music, snow, booze!  The Ukrainians weren't particularly animated, though--Davo and I were the only two dancing fools in the crowd.

The perfect random, adventurous, fun, extraordinary end to a random, adventurous, fun, extraordinary year.  :-)

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The More I Learn, The More I Don't Know

In Israel, we stayed with two of Dave's father's cousins, Adela and Yoram (and his wife Yordana), as well as his friend from university, Steph.  All of them took amazing care of us.
sweet adela
After fending for ourselves for a year, it was so awesome to be totally spoiled.  They patiently listened to our travel stories, fed us delicious Israeli and Jewish foods, arranged our transportation, let us into their beautiful homes, and gave us a little glimpse into life in Israel.
caeseria with yoram
It was more than just a visit--they treated me like a friend and a family member.  If Adela, Yoram, Yordana, or Steph ever see this...
!תודה, תודה, תודה
dinner with steph (not pictured: enzo)
Other thoughts on Israel...

To be brutally honest, at first I didn't have much interest in visiting Israel.  Maybe because I didn't have many expectations, a crazy thing happened--I found a lot of meaning in my trip there.  It's a place I had to see for myself to begin to understand.

israeli flag at masada
Yeah, the traveling Israelis I saw everywhere in South Asia are generally rude, loud, and willing to argue over the equivalent of five cents.  But then I met two sweet, dedicated, 17-year old young women who are about to begin their military service.  I thought about what it would be like to dedicate my freshman, sophomore, and junior years of university to the defense of my country, how that would change me, and it became difficult to judge those young Israelis getting drunk in Pokhara.

Yeah, Israel is doing some nasty stuff to Arabs living in occupied territories.  But then I talked to multiple Israelis who believes that the two-state solution is the only solution (about 70% do)--anything else, everything else, would be perpetual war.  I thought about how the outlandish opinions of extremists and fundamentalists can alter the world's opinion of a nation.  Hell, I'm American, I know this too well.

praying at the western wall
On a personal level...  my dude pal, Davo, is Jewish.  We agreed early that, should we procreate someday, he would raise them with Jewish traditions.  (For the record, I would and should teach them about my family's Christian and Catholic religious heritage.)  Since Dave is not particularly observant, and I've had the most contact with Judiasm through him, I thought that raising Jewish kids would be as simple as lighting a few candles on special days.  I'm vegetarian--our kitchen would already be kosher!

After spending a few weeks in a Jewish State, where the buses don't run on the Sabbath, I see it's not that simple.  One of my former colleagues who now resides in Jerusalem, Oren, invited us to a Shabbat dinner on Christmas Eve.  When Dave celebrates Shabbat, he recites a few prayers before the meal, we eat bread and drink wine, and that's about it.  Oren is more observant, and so we went through everything:  the prayers before, the bread and wine, the ritual washing of hands, and many beautiful prayers sung in Hebrew after the meal.  An entire Shabbat world existed, and I didn't know about it!

The more I learn, the more I realize I don't know.  This is true of everything!  Languages, environmental issues, the economy, and yes, religion.  Dave goes through the routine of being Jewish in America, but when I ask why he does certain rituals, rarely does he know.  In 2011, we've decided to read the Bible (Old Testament) together.  And I'd like to attend adult education classes at a synagogue.  Even though I'll never convert, I've realized that there's more to being Jewish than matzo ball soup and bagels, and I want to know more.

Thanks, Israel, for inspiring more curiosity in my life!

Friday, December 24, 2010

Merry Christmas, from Bethlehem

I was talking to my Mummers on Skype a few weeks ago, just chatting about holiday plans and the usual.  In her usual motherly brilliance, she suddenly suggested that I visit Bethlehem for Christmas.

Nice idea, Mummers!

Since Christmas fell on a Saturday, and Saturday is the Jewish Sabbath, and Israel is a Jewish State, and therefore buses wouldn't run on Saturday, we took an Arab bus most of the way to Bethlehem (see below for details).

In a strange way, it felt great to be in Bethlehem.  It's an Arab village now, and it feels that way.  Thing is, I've gotten used to feeling like the "different" one wherever I go.  In Israel, I'm constantly mistaken for Israeli.  And I haven't been in a place so similar to the United States since leaving Australia.  Going to Bethlehem was like leaving "civilization" again, going back to a place where I'm the oddball.  This is normal to me now.

the mosque opposite Manger Square
When we got to Manger Square, there was a group of Latin American pilgrims playing "Hallelujah, Alegría," absolutely rocking out on guitars, drums, trumpets, whatever.  People were dancing in a circle, waving their arms in the air, and generally having a grand time.  It was a lot of fun!

The Church of the Nativity is nice.  Not the largest or grandest church I've visited, but probably the most crowded--it was PACKED with pilgrims.  A long line stretched from the back of the church all the way to the Grotto of the Nativity at the front of the church.  Somehow, Davo and I managed to get to the front of the line by going to the opposite side of the church, then getting waved through to cross the apse.  The actual spot where Baby Jesus was supposedly born is just a silver star on the ground.  You can see it on Wikipedia, if you're interested.

sooo crowded!
I've had a few people say to me, "Wow, to be in Bethlehem on Christmas...  I'm sure that must have been very moving, very spiritual."  Well, it felt like a big festival.  Everyone around me seemed quite happy.  But the atmosphere wasn't particularly spiritual.

christmas tree at manger square
The most touching moment of the trip was in the actual Grotto of the Nativity.  There were three or four monks down there.  One said, "Merry Christmas" to each and every person entering the grotto.  The others gently took each person's shoulders and moved them along, single-file.  One smiled and said quietly to me, "I'm sorry, the line is very long," as he moved me along.  I thought it was very touching that these monks were trying their best to make the experience special for each individual visitor, all 90,000 of us.  I guess I'm more interested in these simple, kind human touches in the present moment, rather than obsessing over legends from 2,000 years ago.

Merry Christmas!

For future reference, here's how to get from Jerusalem to Bethlehem.  You'll need 13 schekels for the round-trip fare.  Don't forget your passport.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Breaking the Silence in the South Hebron Hills (Part 3 of 3)

"To Control Them, They Must Fear Us"
Life in the South Hebron Hills

On a bright Thursday morning, Davo and I met a large group of internationals on a central street in Jerusalem. We piled into a charter bus, and off we went.  After only a few minutes on Highway 60, we had passed the green line from Israel into the West Bank.  The only change I noticed was a tall, concrete barrier on the side of the highway:  the separation barrier (yes, there is even controversy regarding its name).

the separation barrier
We drove to several viewpoints around the settlements at Susiya, Metzadol Yehuda, and Ma'on.  The landscape there was three colors only:  beige rocks and dusty dirt, dark green scrub and trees, and a big, blue sky.  The sun felt hot and strong, even though the air was cool.  Silence, except for the voice of the BTS guide.  It felt like there wasn't much around me, just emptiness and tension.  "Is this what people are fighting over?" I wondered again and again.

the land of the west bank
I had a hard time writing about the stories our guide told us.  He didn't talk about flagrant human rights abuses--it's easy to get worked up over rape, murder, torture.  Instead, he told us numbing, maddening, frightening little anecdotes.  He told us about Arabs chafing under the infuriating hassles of Hebron life, about "mapping" houses, checkpoints, curfews.  He told us about rock-throwing "pay the price" radical settlers who have declared that they will punish their Palestinian neighbors if the Israeli government enacts a settlement freeze.  He told us about 18-year old Israeli soldiers with automatic rifles, too much time on their hands, fear in their minds, numbness in their hearts.

In short, the situation just sucks.  For everyone.  Suffering exists, and it exists here.

the group at a viewpoint
Our guide explained the process of "mapping" an Arab home.  A soldier checks to make sure that the place is considered "innocent"--one doesn't want to wander into a den of terrorists.  Once an "innocent" house has been identified, the soldiers enter the home, segregate the male and female residents, question them about anything they want, go through their home, poke into closets, make a literal map of the layout of the rooms.  The point is to destroy any sense of privacy, of "this home is my castle," to ensure that the occupants know that the military is always present and has absolute power.

Concerning the IDF, the ease in which you actually do whatever you want to do unsupervised, that is, enter people's homes, conduct random searches.  Every officer, every commander can decide now I'm entering a home, ordering the family out, ransacking the house...  [...]  There are things, I believe, that an army should't do, like close schools; simply enter a school and: no school today.  Without asking too many questions.  That's it, in a nutshell.
Soldier testimony, Breaking the Silence: Soldiers Speak Out About Their Service in Hebron, page 8, Published by Breaking the Silence

Our guide explained that checkpoints are seemingly placed arbitrarily and enforced arbitrarily.  This person gets through, this person does not.  Open today, closed tomorrow.  Closed today, open tomorrow.  It becomes impossible to run a business, to hold a job, to make a doctor's appointment, to maintain family ties...  never mind trying to work your land.

Same deal with curfews.  Now it's possible to go outside.  Now it's not.  The orders come from above.  The soldiers can't explain why--they don't know.  "You just can't.  No." 

There’s a city, and a road that runs through it, and then one day someone decides “this road is a strategic asset”. In other words, we need it. We, the State of Israel, need it. So Palestinians may no longer use it. So what do they do? Go all the way around it. For a Palestinian to cross a street that is not even a main road, just a mere… street, he has to bypass the whole center of town in order to get to his destination. SO if a guy wants to visit his cousin across the road - and this is a hill-town, mind you – he’ll walk all the way around the city center in order to get there. Of course he’ll be running into countless barriers on the way.
This is not a normal life routine. You can’t live like that. You can’t get through the simplest day. 
You can send your kid to school in the morning, but no one can guarantee that 10 minutes later soldiers won’t come along and close the school, or at noon time… 
And always the uncertainly, and all within army routine. Everything is decided in seconds. A message comes through, originating somewhere among the top brass, God knows where, and ends up with the simple soldier that has to set this curfew: “Today there’s curfew in H-2” . “Wait, so School X is now under curfew or not?”. “Ask the company commander.” “He’s in a meeting.” Back and forth a few times, and then it’s “Go ahead and close it. No more time.”
Soldier testimony, Breaking the Silence: Soldiers Speak Out About Their Service in Hebron, page 18, Published by Breaking the Silence

This is the reality of life under martial law: no predictability, no protection, no control over anything.

If I go to the sergeant now and tell him: "There's this woman and her child is ill, and she wants to take him to the hospital," and could I let her through, he asks me: "How does she seem?" 
I think she's okay, I tell him.  Not suspicious.  
The company commander and HQ get on the line and tell me: "No way.  There's curfew on.  She's not going anywhere."  
And sure enough, she doesn't.
Soldier testimony, Breaking the Silence: Soldiers Speak Out About Their Service in Hebron, page 34, Published by Breaking the Silence

Our guide did not paint a flattering picture of settlers' actions and attitudes toward their Arab neighbors.  Settlers throw rocks at Arabs.  Settlers can have guns--in fact, our guide noted that it's easier to get a firearm if your address is in the disputed territories, so some Israelis who live outside the disputed territories will register an address inside.  Arabs, unsurprisingly, may not own firearms.  Settlers trash stores, occupy dwellings, make threats, act on threats.  Arab children are beaten on their way to school.  I would like to note that, unsurprisingly, settlers have their own stories of violence at the hands of Arabs, including a quadruple-murder just six months and a stone's throw from where I stood on Thursday.

It was curfew, the streets totally empty of Arabs, and a 12-year old kid with a skullcap and side-curls was walking around, all jolly. He went into a yard, as we walked by, and we saw the Arab family that lives in that house, sitting behind the barred windows on the second floor, peeping out. In the garden of that house grew a pomegranate tree. 
The kid picks a pomegranate, and throws it at the window, breaking the glass right where they’re sitting. They yell at him from upstairs, so he picks another pomegranate. 
I started stepping in his direction, to stop him. I asked him to move away, perhaps lay a hand on his shoulder to try and stop him. 
Two adults walked by just then, so I was glad I could ask them to take the kid away, he was only causing trouble. To make a long story short, they yelled at me for being just another leftie-softie soldier: 
“Go handle Arabs and leave us in peace” or something of that nature. 
Anyway, another incident where you suddenly realize that the children’s violence is nurtured by their environment.
Soldier testimony, Breaking the Silence: Soldiers Speak Out About Their Service in Hebron, page 9, Published by Breaking the Silence

Soldiers must deal with constant flux between boredom and fear, always on edge.  Soldiers have the power to detain, to break, to play.  Most of these soldiers are young, 18 to 20 years old.  Our BTS guide told us about one soldier who spoke of being in charge of a bulldozer.  What happens when you give a bulldozer to a 19-year old?  He plays with it, of course.  Arab cars picked up and moved here and there.  Terraces uprooted.  Things of that nature.  Because he could, and because Arabs couldn't do anything about it.  In order to control a people, they must fear their controllers.

...I remember a very specific situation:  I was at a checkpoint, a temporary one, a so-called strangulation checkpoint, it was a very small checkpoint, very intimate, four soldiers, no commanding officer, no protection worthy of the name, a true moonlighting job, blocking the entrance to a village. From one side a line of cars wanting to get out, and from the other side a line of cars wanting to pass, a huge line, and suddenly you have a mighty force at the tip of your fingers, as if playing a computer game.
I stand there like this, pointing at someone, gesturing to you to do this or that, and you do this or that, the car starts, moves toward me, halts beside me. The next car follows, you signal, it stops. You start playing with them, like a computer game. You come here, you go there, like this. You barely move, you make them obey the tip of your finger. 
It’s a mighty feeling. It’s something you don’t experience elsewhere. You know it’s because you have a weapon, you know it’s because you are a soldier, you know all this, but its addictive. 
When I realized this... I checked in with myself to see what had happened to me. That’s it. And it was a big bubble that burst. I thought I was immune, that is, how can someone like me, a thinking, articulate, ethical, moral man—things I can attest to about myself without needing anyone else to validate for me. I thought of myself as such. Suddenly, I notice that I’m getting addicted to controlling people.
Soldier testimony, Breaking the Silence: Soldiers Speak Out About Their Service in Hebron, page 9, Published by Breaking the Silence

meeting with Arab residents of Susiya
After visiting a few viewpoints to observe Jewish settlements and outposts and Arab villages and camps, we visited the Arab camp at Susiya.  The history of this little piece of land is so complex that I can't figure it out from my scribbled notes--suffice to say that the Arabs here have been kicked out, moved, allowed back theoretically, allowed back in reality, kicked out again, and allowed back temporarily and possibly illegally...  or something like that.

In my opinion, they are living in a makeshift and precarious position.  Since their waterhole was destroyed by combined action of the Israeli military and settlers, they must purchase their water in the nearest city.  It's extremely expensive.  They have wind- and solar-generated electricity, however, provided by various not-for-profit groups.  This electricity allows them to have a cell phone to call the police, should they need protection. It also lets them charge a video camera battery to document any interactions they have with settlers.  Electricity has provided them more security than the Israeli military could every provide.  They're happy to see us--the more international attention is brought to their lives here, the less likely they are to be attacked by settlers or removed from their land, forcibly, legally, illegally, or otherwise.

For the record, we did not visit any Jewish settlements or outposts, nor did we speak with any  Jewish settlers or active duty Israeli soldiers.

After this visit, we piled back on the bus and head back to Jerusalem.  I watched the olive groves and concrete buildings fly by my window.  No problems at the checkpoint as we passed to the other side of the Green Line.  Dave and I didn't say much on the drive back.

Over the intercom of the bus, our BTS guide made a few closing remarks.  He noted that many people say that the anecdotes collected by BTS are the stories of the "bad apples," and that overall Israeli soldiers do not destroy property, humiliate Arabs, or make life unduly difficult for occupants of the disputed territories.  He counters that BTS has never found a soldier that contests the reality of daily life the disputed territories, both for residents and soldiers.

He is adamant that we not blame the soldiers.  He is a former soldier himself, and it's easy to sympathise with the 18-year old version of him, fresh out of secondary school, given a gun and told to protect his people, given a bulldozer and no supervision.  These young men have barely started shaving, yet they are in charge of determining who goes where, when, if at all, for an entire community.

Surprisingly, he is equally adamant that we not blame the settlers.  Of all the players in this game--soldiers, Arabs, settlers, Israeli society--they are the only ones who are honest, brutally honest, about their motivations and aims, he says.

If there is blame in this situation, he says, it falls squarely on Israeli society as a whole.  He said that this attitude--"this doesn't happen everywhere, all the time," or even "this doesn't happen at all"--is what allows the suffering of this reality to continue.  Israeli society as a whole does not know, does not want to know, what is happening in its own backyard, he asserted.  Rather than talk about their experiences, most soldiers simply want to bury the memories and to forget.  Soldiers' silence allows the rest of Israeli society to live in denial.  He tells of meeting with mothers of soldiers, and how one mother indignantly said, "My son would never take part in such activities!"

So what the hell can be done?  BTS itself proposes no solution to the conflict in disputed territories.  They only want to expose Israeli society to the reality of life for all parties involved in the disputed territories.

I've tried to keep my own opinions out of these posts and tried to report only what I was told.  My own opinion on the situation?  No group is completely wrong, completely evil.  Yet each side vilifies the other.  Since I've been in Israel, I've been inwardly shocked at the casual racism I've heard coming from educated Jews directed toward Arabs and Muslims.  I can only imagine the rhetoric that extremists on both sides are teaching their children.  To me, sometimes it seems like neither side truly wants peace, only to win, whatever that means, at any cost.  Like I said...  so sad.

To read more first-hand accounts of Israeli soldiers serving in disputed territories, visit Breaking the Silence, or read their PDF booklet here.

Breaking the Silence in the South Hebron Hills (Part 2 of 3)

Boring But Necessary Political and Legal Background

A little background on the situation in the West Bank...  before World War I, the Ottoman Empire administered the area now known as West Bank as part of the province of Syria.  After the war, the Brits got the land and allocated it to the British Mandate of Palestine.  In 1948, during Israel's War of Independence, the land was taken by Trans-Jordan/ Jordan, though many states (including Arab states) did not see this annexation as legitimate.  Israel then took control of the land during the Six-Day War in 1967.  The West Bank was never annexed by Israel, though Israel has established martial law there.

Head spinning yet?  And remember, this is a gross oversimplification of the history of the land.  People write doctoral theses on this topic.

The important thing to remember is that the West Bank is under martial law.  This means:
  • Israeli civil law does not apply there;
  • Laws in place before martial law cannot be changed;
  • The military calls the shots, not the police force;
  • The military is present to protect Israeli citizens.
Enter the settlements.

Some Jews believe that they have a religious claim to the land in the West Bank.  Other Israelis see strategic political, economic, and security reasons for Jewish settlements there.  Others simply see it as their historical right to the land.

Remember how laws in place before martial law cannot be changed?  Under Ottoman law, if a man doesn't work his land for a certain period of time, the land becomes "no man's land" and reverts back to the Sultan.  Back in the 1980s, Jews looking to settle in the West Bank (and Gaza, etc.) identified parcels of land that hadn't been worked (often these parcels of land are on the tops of hills, where the soil is poorest; hence many Jewish settlements are on the tops of hills), and claimed that they were "no man's land."  Also under Ottoman law, if a man works "no man's land" for 10 years, it becomes his.  Basically, the strategy of establishing a settlement is to squat on the land for 10 years, then claim it as your own.

settlement building
The problems arise when the land actually still "belongs" to someone else.  I need to put "belongs" in quotation marks, because many poor and/or nomadic people do not hold a paper title to their land, only the claim that they have lived there since their grandfather's grandfather's grandfather's time.  Now, the West Bank is criss-crossed with razor wire and Israeli military check posts and is constantly subjected to curfews.  Everyday life is constantly disrupted in the West Bank.  It may be impossible to work the land, and someone (a settler) may move in before the next opportunity.

Settlements are expanded and legitimized in clever ways.  Around each settlement, a "security buffer" is informally established by the Israeli military and a local Arab security contact.  Arabs are not allowed into the security buffer--even if it is their land.  Settlers plant trees in barrels in the security buffer, then after 10 years, claim that they have been "working" the land and that it's their own.

barrel: eventually this will be a land claim. "working" the land for 10 years..
Settlers may also establish an outpost, maybe just one or two houses.  In order to adequately protect Israeli citizens, the military must make patrols.  As another few buildings go up, the military must provide constant security.  To provide for the soldiers, the military extends water and electric lines to the outpost, and consequently provides services to the settlers.  With the new utility services, more settlers move to the outpost, and eventually it becomes a settlement.

International law (Fourth Geneva Convention) states that an occupying power may not transfer its own population into an occupied territory.  Basically, you can't push a people out of their land by moving in your own people.  For this reason, most of the international community considers the Jewish settlements in disputed territories flat-out illegal.

Remember how martial law means that Israeli civil law does not apply in disputed territories?  There are two sets of laws:  one set for Israeli citizens (settlers), one set for Arabs (non-citizens).  If a 12-year old settler boy throws a stone at an old Arab man's face, the most the Israeli military can do is to call the police and ask them to talk to the minor's parents.  If a 12-year old Arab boy throws a stone at an old Jewish man's face, the military can detain and treat the boy as a terrorist.  The Israeli military is unable, or unwilling depending on who you ask, to mediate conflict between settlers and Arabs.

All of this leads to trememdous conflict between Jewish settlers and Arabs.

Whew!  I think that's enough political and legal background for now.  Most of this information was presented by our BTS guide, and obviously he has an opinion on the situation, but I've done my best to present the facts neutrally.  I'm neither historian nor lawyer; yell at me if I've got anything horribly wrong.

Breaking the Silence in the South Hebron Hills (Part 1 of 3)

There's No Way To Talk About This Without Getting Shot

There is no easy way to write about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  Even calling the Arabs who live in disputed territories "Palestinians" invites criticism from supporters of Israel, as there is no currently, universally recognized entity called Palestine (though there is the Palestinian Authority, and there was the British Mandate for Palestine, but I digress), so therefore there can't be Palestinians.

Commence cross-fire from keffiyeh-wearing activists.

If I'm going to write about the disputed territories, to use the most neutral language I can find, I need to state my own biases at the start.  So here we go.  I support Israel's right to exist.  I also support the right of all human beings to exist in dignity.  I am not Jewish (or Christian, or Muslim, though I should state in full disclosure that my boyfriend is Jewish and has family living in Israel).  I am primarily concerned with the issue of suffering--the suffering of all people who live in fear, of all people who struggle with the oppression of both outside and inside forces, and the suffering of all mothers and sons, regardless of which version of the same God to which they pray.

I wanted to visit the disputed territories to see with my own eyes and feel with my own heart what is happening there.

herding sheep
I heard about the organization "Breaking the Silence" from another traveler who wrote about his experiences in Israel.  "Breaking the Silence" (BTS) was founded in 2004 by "veteran combatants who served in the Israeli military since the start of the Second Intifada and have taken it upon themselves to expose the Israeli public to the routine situations of everyday life in the Occupied Territories."  Disturbed by events during their military service, they originally targeted their message at the Israeli public, which they assert does not, and does not want to, understand the reality of everyday life for both Israeli soldiers and the people they must control.  They collect and publish testimonies from veterans "to make heard the voices of these soldiers, pushing Israeli society to face the reality whose creation it has enabled."  BTS also runs organized, educational tours in English for international tourists (and Hebrew for Israelis) to allow an "unmediated encounter with the reality of the military occupation."

Dave and I signed up for the December 23, 2010 educational tour to the South Hebron Hills.

olive trees behind razor wire
In the next two posts, I hope to explain the little political and legal background for anyone who isn't familiar with Hebron or the issue of Jewish settlements in disputed territories.  I'd also like to share some of the stories I heard about everyday life in the South Hebron Hills for both Israeli soldiers and the people they must control.

As best I can, I will keep my opinions to myself.  Draw your own conclusions.  If you can't, visit the West Bank and hear the stories for yourself.  You need to know the price that is being paid for security, religion, politics, strategy, history.  Is the price worth it?

Monday, December 20, 2010

Escape from Azerbaijan

Davo and I always buy the cheapest airline ticket. My only requirement is to go from City A to City B. Long layovers (catch up on my email), no in-flight service (bring my own snacks), and being shoehorned into a hobbit-sized seat (go to sleep) don't bother me.

A direct flight from Istanbul to Tel Aviv in the third week of December would have cost something like $400. For the bargain price of $230, however, Azerbaijan Airlines offered a ticket with a connection in Baku, Azerbaijan.

I'll give you a moment to enter Azerbaijan into Google Maps.

This is how our journey should have gone: depart Istanbul at 10:00 p.m.; arrive in Baku around 3:00 a.m.; go through the transit desk to pick up our boarding passes; catch a few hours of sleep in the terminal; depart Baku at 9:00 a.m. Easy.

The journey started off ominously when we almost weren't permitted to board the flight in Istanbul, because we didn't have an Azerbaijani visa or a letter of invitation. At Atatürk International Airport in Istanbul, a pasty man with a tight necktie and a thick accent poured through a volume that resembled the phone book, newsprint pages covered in tiny print. The Official Rules of Airplanes, Etc. He squinted at one page for a while, then, satisfied that he wouldn't be thrown into the gulag for allowing us into his country, grunted and jerked his head toward the check-in desk.

The flight to Baku was uneventful. We disembark the plane at Heydar Aliyev International Airport, and right there in the hallway is a sign for “Transit Desk.”

There's no one there.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Turkey, I Love You. Let Me Count The Ways...

Turkey was the first country that I was sorry to leave, the first place I can truly say that I see myself returning some day. I've thought about why I love Turkey so much compared to, say, Nepal. Though I can't come up one significant reason that puts this place above others in my mind, my heart is filled with dozens of small anecdotes, minor details ever so specific to Turkey that, together, have made an unforgettable experience.

blue mosque interior
Turkey, I love you. Let me count the ways...
  • Amazing Architecture (not only the Aya Sofia and the Blue Mosque). An Alphabet I can read (first since Malaysia) helps, too. I think Ayran (a yogurt-based drink) single-handedly healed my stomach issues from Nepal.
  • Bazaars, Baklava, the Blue Mosque, and the Bosphorus. Also, the long-distance Buses are fast, clean, secure, and comfortable. Don't forget Bubby and Boss!
  • Cats: the fluffy, furry, fat cats that are everywhere in Istanbul. Couchsurfing in Turkey has given me some of the best experiences of my trip. And Cheese, lots of tasty tasty cheese! 
  • Diyarbakır, city of my heart. Also Döner, Dave's tasty snack on-the-go for about $0.70. 
  • Ethnic pride, specifically Kurdish of southeast Turkey, stands out in my mind. Turks care for the Environment: we saw no trash or graffiti in Pigeon Valley, and the Bosphorus has little to no trash floating in it. The Eggplant here is the best I've ever had (sorry Mummers). 
  • Friendliness. Smiling Thais? Meh. Friendly Nepalis? Get real. The Turks are masters of friendliness. 
  • Göreme. The very first tourist town that hasn't made me nauseous. Quite a compliment, Göreme. 
  • History is everywhere. I got a new skin in the Hamam. Hygiene is so good that the unthinkable—someone touching my food with their bare hands—does not freak me out. Turkey was Hassle-free compared to the rest of Asia. Even the carpet sellers are laid-back and polite! And don't get me started on Hospitality
  • Istanbul. For a city of 18 million, it's not that bad. 
me and my juice
  • Jetties on the Bosphorus where men bring their fishing rods and I snap dozens of photos. I had my first cup of freshly-squeezed pomegranate Juice
  • Kindness to animals. Unlike the Nepalis who throw rocks at dogs and seem to enjoy it, I noticed multiple acts of kindness toward stray animals.  There were three homeless dogs on a random corner, sleeping in a makeshift cardboard and trash bag shelter someone had made for them. A ripped-open clear plastic bag of leftover meat and pasta was at their side as they slumbered, protected from the drizzle. I can't tell you the number of times I saw burly Turkish men with stern moustaches stop in their tracks to scratch a street kitty under the chin. Our couchsurf host told us that stray dogs in Istanbul are routinely tagged and vaccinated as a public service. The Turks' kindness toward animals is apparent, as strays are uniformly clean, calm, and approachable. Some of the stray cats are even borderline overweight! 
  • Lokum (turkish delight) is ok, not to my taste, but I understand why some love it. I prefer the Language, which is much easier than any South or Southeastern Asian language. 
  • Mosques and Minarets—they're everywhere! And, of course, Mr. Turkish Bull
  • Neckties on men serving tea and cakes on the buses. Seriously. Tea, cakes, and neckties. On buses. I rest my case. 
  • Old people sipping çay in a courtyard. Olives sold by the kilo. 
  • Pomegranates, my favorite fruit. I ate a lot of Pide (turkish pizza), which is quick, cheap, vegetarian friendly, and delicious. Perfect street food! 
  • Quiet, quaint villages. It's SO EASY to get off the beaten tourist trail here. Just go anywhere east of Göreme. 
  • Rumi, the mystical Sufi poet, whose masterwork I hope to read at some point. 
  • Sanlıurfa and it's lovely public and historic spaces. Just in time for winter, steaming cups of Salep (powdered orchid root drink) topped with cinnamon. 
  • Tea! Tea! Tea! Anything and everything is an excuse for çay. And Textiles—if you're into fiber arts, carpets, wool, max out your credit card in Istanbul. 
  • Üsküdar and Uçisar, two Unexpected places that feel Untouristy yet welcoming. 
  • Vegetables. After eating only starch and fat for most of Southeast Asia, I hit Istanbul's fruit and veggie markets hard. It was awesome. 
  • Wi-fi. Finally, and internet connection that is fast and reliable? Whoa! 
  • X is the intersection between "west" and "east," "old" and "new." And it's true. Turkey brings it all together. 
  • Yoğurt. Oh, so this is what yoghurt tastes like without additives, stabilisers, and flavor enhancers. America, yer doin' it wrong. 
  • Zero moments when I questioned my decision to travel or what I was getting from/ giving to the experience. 
To be fair, there were moments when I wasn't feeling so keen on Turkey. Four out of five days in Istanbul brought nasty, cold, damp weather. I was hardly in the mood to wander around random neighborhoods, and there isn't much nature in the city. I regretted giving five whole days to wandering around Istanbul and wished I had spent a day or two in another city, perhaps Konya.

A few other less-than-perfect points:
  • Overnight bus rides (though, admittedly, those have been my choice); 
  • Getting lost (though someone has always offered to help us become un-lost); 
  • Some people have been over-zealous in sharing/ pushing their Muslim faith; 
  • Food and accomodation in touristy areas is expensive and poor value (i.e. you don't get much for the cost); 
  • Google Voice doesn't work; 
  • I wasn't able to download NPR podcasts. 
If I'm whining about missing NPR instead of missing clean drinking water, then I guess I don't have much to whine about.

Three cheers for Turkey!

Friday, December 17, 2010

My Turkish Hamam Experience

Scrub-a-Dub-Dub, It's Time for the Tub
How I Came to Know Bubby's Boobs
or even
Grey, Tarry Turd Caterpillars

Back in the day, before most Turks had nice bathrooms in their houses, everyone went to a hamam, or community bathhouse, to clean up, relax, socialize, and gossip. One of the things I wanted to do most in Turkey was to visit a hamam. Why? I've gotten quite dirty from traveling for a year. Like, really dirty. And why not? (For your own sake, note that this sentiment most often leads to humiliating and/or grand adventures.)

There are a few tourist-oriented hamam that charge waif-like French visitors 75 Euro. But I (stupidly?) wanted the real deal: the "local experience" with "local women" at the "local price." Our couchsurf host pointed us to Çenili Hamam on the Asian side of the Bosphorus.

that's it
Dave and I found the place without too much difficulty and planned to meet up in 90 minutes. The ladies' side was clearly labeled "bayan." Deep breath. Let the adventure begin.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Istanbul in Images

This is what I saw in Istanbul.

a man selling mussels plucked straight from the bosphorus

on every street corner, doner (meat on a stick next to a fire)

itty bitty turkish kitties EVERYWHERE...  and lots of people being nice to them

the blue mosque/ sultan ahmet mosque

a very grand bazaar

more fruits and veggies than i could eat in 5 days, though i tried valiently

old stuff

the bosphorus
the bridge between old and new, east and west
More images here:

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Zeytinyağlı Yeşil Fasulye (Green Beans in Olive Oil)

I had this multiple times in Turkey, and I plan on making it when I return to the U.S.A.  Maybe with a little less olive oil, though...

  • 1/2 kg runner beans (or green beans)
  • 1 onion, very finely chopped
  • 2 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
  • 2 or 3 tomatoes, peeled and very finely chopped
  • 1/2 c. olive oil (you read that right)
  • 1/2 to 1 1/2 c. hot water
  • Sugar and salt to taste
Clean the beans (remove top, tail, and string, if applicable).  Chop into 2-3 inch segments.

Saute the onions and garlic until onions are turning clear.  Add everything else, bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer.  Cook until beans are soft but not mushy, 30 minutes to 1 hour, depending on the type of bean.

Remove from heat.  Serve at room temperature.

(Apparently, this can be made in a pressure cooker, as well.  Cook the beans about 15 minutes.)

Monday, December 13, 2010

Cappadocia in Winter

Thinking about visiting Cappadocia in winter? Good idea.

Cappadocia, or Kapadokya as Turks spell it, is known for its beautiful rock formations. A long time ago, a volcano belched out the precursor to a layer of soft, gritty rock. Over time, wind and water have eroded the rock into pillars, caves, and arches. Enterprising humans (or just Christians looking to lay low) constructed everything from pigeon coops to houses to churches inside the soft rock. An entire tourism industry has sprung up around hot air balloons, guided walks, and ATV rides around the countryside.

Davo and I stayed in Göreme, a village full of pansyions advertising cave rooms and tourist restaurants advertising meats cooked in special clay pots. Yes, we stayed in a cave!

our cave dormitory
Lucky for us, we visited during the off-season. We were two of about 20 tourists in the entire quiet, low-key, laid-back town. The rock formations don't change with the lack of tourists, though, and the setting of the village is lovely. Göreme is the very first tourist-oriented town that I've actually liked.

the village of goreme
Even luckier for us, the very first snowfall of the winter coincided with our arrival. All of the rock columns, cliffs, and cones were frosted with the purest white, glittering snow. So pretty.

so pretty!
Since we've put in a collective 13 years in Upstate New York between the two of us, a little snow was not going to stop the hiking.

snow?  i eat snow for breakfast.  BRING IT, WINTER!
We walked through Pigeon Valley to Uçisar, only about 4 easy km each way. The track was difficult to find, since it was covered in snow and there were no other tourists about. Actually, the first day we couldn't find a crucial turn at all, but we got it right the second day.

"we go that way...  i think."
Highlights of the hike were the a-may-zing views from Uçisar and the pups that played in the snow all the way down the hill.

our pup friends
view from the top
I probably would not have liked Kapadokya at all if I had visited during the main tourist season. Having the place to myself and playing in the snow for the first time this winter made my experience there memorable and enjoyable.
fairies live here :-)

Friday, December 10, 2010

Adventures with Old Maps, Buses, and Trusting Strangers

Maybe we shouldn't carry a guidebook that's 10 years old.

Well, we don't usually carry a guidebook at all.  Our experiment with Lonely Planet in Indonesia was a disaster--so much energy wasted on making sure we saw each and every temple (really, after two or three, they all look the same) and getting frustrated when the quoted prices were totally different than LP's estimates (and they always were).  Otherwise, we've been mostly guidebook-free, relying on internet research and asking around to make our way.

But then I ran across an old Turkey guidebook in Nepal for only 200-something rupees, and I couldn't pass it up.  I mean, Abraham's birthplace has been, well, Abraham's birthplace for the past 6,000 years, so certainly I could use the guidebook to research interesting cities and sites.

According to the map in the guidebook, Şanlıurfa's old city center is only 1 km east of the otogar, or bus terminal.  We stood facing east, looking down the road.  Not much in that direction, just dusty beige hills in the distance.  Hmm.

I popped my head into a bus and asked, "Şanlıurfa?"  The driver pointed to the other side of the road, the side that heads west.  Not east.  Hmm.

A man stopped his car on the other side of the road.  I think he was asking where we were going, and we said, "Şanlıurfa!"  He waved us to the other side of the road.  I looked at Dave, puzzled, then looked at the map again.  Yep, east is still on the right side of the page.  We want to go east.  Hmm.

The man flagged down a west-bound bus for us.  The driver actually exited the bus and waved at us.  Hmm...

I hesitated.

The man charged across the street like a testosterone-pumped bull charging a red cape.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Father Abraham (In a Purple Headscarf?)

After Mr. Turkish Bull got our stupid, foreign asses onto the right bus, we found ourselves in the middle of Şanlıurfa. On a whim, I dragged Dave into a bookstore, where I scored a pocket Turkish/ English dictionary for 3 lira.

This came in handy, as shortly thereafter we were mobbed by a dozen young boys who would be our friends for the afternoon. Twelve-year old Mahmut somehow had a Turkish/ English phrasebook with him, so we swapped phrases such as, "I hope you have a safe journey" and "How many children do you have?"

little mahmut in the white shirt next to dave
The boys decided to take us to "Fish Lake." As the legend goes, King Nimrod got really pissed off at Abraham and threw him into a fire. God/ Allah was all like, "Oh no you don't," and He turned the flames into water and the coals into carp. The fish in this pond are huge, glossy, and very excited to eat the pellet food sold by vendors in the park.

"fish lake" at dusk
The next day, we made a pilgrimage to the cave where Prophet Ibrahim/ Patriarch Abraham supposedly was born. The sign next to the door noted the segregated sides for men and women and requested that women to wear long skirts and headscarves (and to refrain from taking photos during prayer). Fortunately, I happened to wear my long skirt and to have a scarf in my bag.

entrance to ibrahim's/ abraham's cave
I don't think I would have taken any pictures, anyway. The mood inside the cave is pretty intense. Women swathed in the purple headscarves typical of Şanlıurfa sat on carpet squares in tight rows, either praying or sitting quietly. One woman was reading a beautiful Arabic Quran. Some women were filling up cups or bottles with holy water from a spigot. A little boy ran around, occasionally shrieking. One woman was crying.

It blew my mind to think that Abraham was born here, oh, plus or minus 4,000 years ago. And this city has been continuously inhabited for nearly 6,000 years! Even the historical Buddha was born "only" 2,500 years ago. Such history! And how lucky I am to have visited so many sacred places this year. Too bad Christians, Muslims, and Jews seem to forget that they are all children of Abraham...

urfa's citadel
After visiting Abraham's cave, we climbed to the top of the Şanlıurfa kale, or citadel, to enjoy the great views of the city. Highly recommended, it was a lovely little walk.

other tourists at the top
Şanlıurfa fashion is... distinctive. Many women wear traditional clothing: a velvet, floor length dress with a leather belt, a velvet cloak, and then another light brown cape. It reminds me of medieval dress. Both men and women wear purple headscarves, apparently all the rage this year. But there are also many women who wear trendy long skirts and snazzy, urbane long jackets.  This is Turkey: part West, part East, part modern, part traditional.

women in typical urfa dress
How could I resist? My lone Turkey souvenir is a trendy purple Urfa headscarf.

this picture destroys any chance at holding public office in the united states.
(i'm not sure i'm disappointed.)
but isn't it a pretty color?
Did Father Abraham wear a purple scarf?  I guess we'll never know...