Middle East

Israel December 2012

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Chris and I were able to meet in Israel for a week over the Christmas holidays.  I arrived in Tel Aviv on Christmas Eve night, and was exhausted from almost 20 hours of flights.

The next day was Christmas Day, but being Israel, everything was still open.  I walked all around Tel Aviv and down to Jaffa, exploring the Carmel Market, the beaches, and Old City Jaffa along the way.  Great temperatures in the 70’s and lots of sights to see.  Late that night Chris showed up, and the next morning I took him to visit all the sights I had seen the day before.  Then we got on a bus for Jerusalem.

After finding our hotel in Jerusalem, and having a great late lunch at a Georgian restaurant, we tackled the Old City.  We had two maps but as soon as we got in the Old City, we were totally lost.  So we decided to just wander around.  We happened upon the Via Dolarosa (stations of the cross and internet stand), I bought a souvenir for a friend, lots of churches, mosques, and synagogues.  At last we stumbled into a plaza and realized we were at the Western (Wailing) Wall.  The sun had set and the moon was coming up and it was quite a picture.  Luckily we were able to get two last spots in a tour of the tunnels beneath the western wall, where we learned a lot about the history of the second temple, built by crazy Herod the Great, of which now you can see only one wall of the former embankment walls.

The next morning we returned to the Old City to see the rest of the sights- the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, David’s City, The Temple Mount- we were not allowed to go inside the Temple Mount to see Al Aqsa Mosque or the Dome of the Rock- (don’t even get me started on sites that exclude due to sex, race, or religion)- but we climbed to the top of the Austrian Guest House and could see Jerusalem from above.  Later that day we took a bus to Bethlehem, where a friendly taxi driver showed us the Fields of the Shepherds, the Church of the Nativity, and lots of Palestinian street art on the wall that separates Israel from the Palestinian West Bank.

On Friday we took an organized day trip to see Masada and the Dead Sea.  Along the way we saw the Qumran caves, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found.  We took an aerial car to the top of Masada and learned about the siege by the Romans in 73 AD, which ended in the suicide of the Jews on the mountain.  We went to the Dead Sea, covered our arms and legs with mud from the banks, and floated in the salty water.  When we returned to Jerusalem, Sabbat had begun, so no trams, buses, and few restaurants open.  We walked down to the Old City and found an Armenian place open and it was great.

On Saturday we paired up with two other people and rented a taxi to Haifa, north on the coast.  What a beautiful city, or at least the part we explored!  It was a bit rainy and we were pretty exhausted from our continuing jet lag and all our walking around, so we had a late lunch, walked around a bit, and went to bed.

The next day, Sunday, we went to see the Museum of Clandestine Immigration and learned about all the sneaky ways the Jews got people into Israel before the British left in 1947.  They had artifacts and photos and even some of the ships they used.  Very interesting, especially if you’ve read Leon Uris’s Exodus.  Across the street was Elijah’s cave, a sacred site to Jews, Christians, and Muslims, and open to all.  Then we took a tram to the top of the Baha’i Gardens and took a tour down through the amazingly maintained green space.  It was really lovely.

All too soon it was time to take a train down to Tel Aviv, where we got a hotel right on the train tracks near the airport.  Chris left late that night, and I flew home the next morning.  At least I got a layover in Istanbul- mmmm, Turkish delight!!

Asia · Middle East

Sri Lanka March 2011

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After Chris and I won plane tickets at the Caledonian Society Ball in November, we decided to use those plane tickets to fly to Sri Lanka for my spring break.  We left on Sunday around 3 pm and after a short layover in Abu Dhabi, we arrived in Sri Lanka around 3 am.  We were tired but happy to be there.  We hired a car and a driver and set out just before dawn to the city of Dumballah.  We arrived around 10 am and luckily were able to check into our hotel a bit early.  A small nap, and we were ready to see the Sigiriya Rock Fortress, a tall magma plug that sits in the middle of a huge plains area.  You can climb to the top and see where a fortress once stood in the 4th century.  Beautiful views and remnants of the past in the rock paintings and lion’s paws that are all that are left of some past statue.

We also visited the Dumballah Buddhist cave temples, home to over 150 statues of Buddha, some over 11 m tall.  Also around the caves were dozens of monkeys, which are always really fun to watch as they scamper and play.

After a good night’s rest, we headed into the center of the island to visit Kandy, a former capital city.  Kandy is a lovely city with a square man-made lake in the middle, with dozens of guest houses and hotels on the hillsides looking over the lake.  We visited Buddha’s Sacred Tooth Temple and went to a traditional Kandyan dance show, including firewalkers.  We also visited an elephant orphanage, where I got to bathe an elephant and Chris and I went for a ride on one.  Very fun!  Later, our guest house provided a fantastic meal of rice and various curries, with ice cream for dessert.  We ate it all, with several Lion Lagers to wash it all down.  So far, the food had been excellent everywhere we went.

On Wednesday we left Kandy and on the way out of town we stopped at the Botanical Gardens that were once a rajah’s pleasure gardens.  Huge bamboo trees, a giant javan fig tree, tall majestic king palm coconut trees, and amazing expanses of grass… a wonderful park.  I only wish we had been able to really laze around and take a picnic lunch and enjoy the park all day.  But, we wanted to go down to Ella and see some tea plantations and visit an ayurvedic spa, so we were soon heading south again, winding around high mountain roads with green tea fields on either side.  We stopped for a look at a double waterfall, Rombola Falls, and a tour of a tea factory (with a cuppa tea and a slice of chocolate cake afterward, yum).  When we arrived in Ella it was misty and raining but for us from Sudan that is a great feeling.  We went for a walk, I had a massage, and we sat at a roadside bar and shared some spiced cashews and some beers as we held hands and watched the pedestrians.

Another fabulous meal at our guest house, with a wonderful view of Ella Gap.  Bedtime came early for us and the next day we left the highlands and headed for the coast.  We passed a national park and without even entering the park we counted 12 elephants sighted just along the perimeter.  Wow!  Then the coastal road as we headed toward Unatawuna, a quiet and simple stretch of beach with a dozen or so guest houses and restaurants, and two dive shops.  We arranged two dives- one around a large rock on the ocean floor and another of an 1869 sunken ship- and had a great time in the ocean.  Later, a long walk on the beach and a fish dinner, complete with more Lion beer, made a fantastic end to our day.

On our last day we went into Galle and walked around, enjoying a lunch while overlooking the ramparts of the fort.  While driving up towards Colombo, we stopped at the Matura River and went on a boat ride, stopping at a cinnamon island, a fishery, and seeing several shrimp catching systems along the way.  Monkeys, water monitors, and lots of birds kept our attention as we boated around the seawater river and “lake”.  After leaving the river, we passed through Colombo, but as it was raining and rather dark we really didn’t stop to see much.  We enjoyed one last lovely dinner with our driver at his house, meeting his family, and then we were on a plane heading home.

As we had a 24 hour layover in Abu Dhabi, we got a hotel room in the city so we could enjoy some shopping, a movie, and a dinner at Chili’s.  All too soon it was time to board the plane to Khartoum and start thinking about work again.

Middle East

Lebanon, Sept 2010

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Although we’ve only been back at work a month, it’s time for a vacation- Ramadan is ending and we have off for Eid Al-Fitr.  So my colleague Diane and I decided to head to Lebanon, just three hours away from Sudan by a BMI flight.

We arrived in Beirut and felt a bit discombobulated at first- the high rise apartments, the beach, the mountains, it was all so different from Khartoum.  The first day I went to the mall and had Starbucks! and a movie! and bought two sundresses!!  I know, I know, not what you’re supposed to do on a cultural vacation, but all things I couldn’t do in Sudan.

The next day I was ready to sightsee.  First stop was a day trip to Sidon, home of a small crusader castle, the Musee du Savon, and a very cool souq.  I spent a pleasant day in Sidon walking around and seeing the sights and learning about the Phoenician, Greek, Roman, Muslim, Crusader, Turk, and Mamluk history of Lebanon.

The next day I went on a day trip to Byblos (both Sidon and Byblos are one hour from the capital, so no reason to change hotels each time).  Byblos is where the alphabet began- the first two letters of the Phoenician alphabet was “aleph” and “beth”.  A cute little fishing harbor, strongly reminiscent of Greece (not that I’ve been there yet), and a great museum dedicated to ancient fish fossils.  I bought a fish fossil that is 80 million years old!  And of course some Roman ruins and a crusader castle to explore.  On the way back I rode up the mountain in a “teleferique“, basically a ski lift/cable car contraption that quickly gets you to the top of a mountain and lets you see amazing views and get some fresh air. If you click on the link I made, and wait a second, you’ll get a little animation that actually feels like you’re on the “terrorferique”!

On Friday we tried to go to the museum in Beirut but it was the start of Eid, so it was closed.  Instead we hopped on a bus and cruised over the mountains almost to Syria, to visit the ancient Phoenician city of Baalbeck, dedicated to the Phoenician sun god Baal.  Later the Romans built some of the last pagan temples (dedicated to Jupiter, Bacchus, etc) before the conversion to Christianity.  Baalbeck is the most well preserved site of Roman ruins in the Middle East.  We saw some great ornamentation and amazing architecture and thouroughly enjoyed our day there.

The next day we decided to pack a day bag and head up to the Cedars ski resort area for some cool air.  Although it was only September, and no snow, the area is still great for cooler weather and the famed Cedars groves.  We went through Tripoli, stopping only for some pastry and coffee, and then took a smaller bus to Bcharre, a small mountain village that hosts a great hostel (Tiger House) and also the Khalil Gibran museum (author of The Prophet, who was born in Bcharre).  Along the way we met two British guys, Joe and Fraser, so we hung out with them for the rest of the day and visited the Cedars park and shopped for souvenirs, and found a bar to drink beer and smoke nargileh (hubbly-bubbly, hookah, whatever).

We should have just stayed in Bcharre another day, it was so beautiful, but Diana and I wanted to have lunch at Pepe’s fishing club in Byblos and go see the Jeita grotto, an amazing cavern.  Lunch was awesome and the cavern- wow.  The upper cavern is explored on foot while the lower cavern is explored by boat.  Seriously, this place was great.  There’s a contest to name it one of the 7 wonders of the natural world and they have my vote!

Another day trip the next day to the south, visiting Tyre and stopping briefly in Sidon again.  Tyre is very close to the Israel border so lots of armed checkpoints, tanks, guns.  But everyone very friendly (well, as long as you’re not Israeli).  In Tyre is the largest remaining Roman hippodrome in the world.  And of course that’s where my camera battery ran out!  But luckily Diane’s was still going strong so she was able to capture the moment.

We ran into Joe and Fraser again and decided to go to Zahle the next day and spend the night and track down this Lebanese winery we had heard about.  Zahle is a cute little town up in the mountains, halfway to Baalbeck, on the west side of the Bekaa valley.  We found the winery, which includes caves going back to Roman times, which were expanded to tunnels during Muslim/Crusader times- altogether 2 km of tunnels, where they now keep the wine as it ages.  We toured, we sampled, and then we walked along the town and collected a great dinner of roast chicken, cheeses, and breads, and sat in the upstairs reception room of our 18th century mansion-turned-hotel and ate it that night!  Along with our wine we had bought at the winery, our after dinner conversation went on until midnight, complete with a spirited discussion of Israel, Palestine, and the Bible.

The next day Diane and I went to Aanjar, a Muslim Ummayyad capital city from the 700’s.  The ruins were great and practically deserted, perfect for wandering around and taking pictures.  That evening we returned to Beirut and went to Gemmayze Street, the area of the bars and nightclubs, for a final visit out on the town with our new friends.  The next day, we finally visited the Beirut museum– quite a good one, not too overwhelming, and with a fabulous documentary about the ways the museum protected the artefacts during the Civil War in Lebanon- and then we all went to the mall to see one last movie, eat one last sushi dinner, and do any last minute shopping.  And then suddenly it was time to return to Sudan.

And on the day of my return…. Happy Anniversary to my special sweetheart.  It’s been amazing so far!