Interview with Chris: Bahrain, Kuwait, Eritrea, Jordan, Lebanon, Cyprus

Lebanon, Beirut

After visiting Qatar and Oman for Christmas,  I had to fly back to the States to return to work.  Chris stayed in the Middle East to do a little more exploring. Here’s an interview with him about his six-country tour:

So, tell me about Bahrain.

“Well, it’s a small island and most of it is one big city. A lot of bars, nightclubs, and nightlife catering to the Saudis coming over on the weekends. I visited Bahrain fort using public transportation, as well as the old souq, but mainly it’s a lot of skycrapers. The city is pretty spread out, not a very walking friendly.”

What was Kuwait like?

“Kuwait was pretty similar to Bahrain. The main downtown has skyscrapers and businesses, with a big souq/mall area in the center. The biggest tower is closed to the public, but you can go up inside the iconic Kuwait Towers, which look like giant balls skewered on sticks. The view from the inside is very nice. Public transportation is readily available but not all the places I wanted to get to were on a bus line. I went to the Al Qurain Martyrs Museum, where a bunch of Kuwaiti resistance fighters tried to hold off the Iraqis in 1991. It was closed when I got there, but the caretaker let me in after I told him I was in Desert Storm in 1991. The fish market and the corniche are a really nice area to walk around. “

Eritrea is a hard country to visit- tell us about it.

“Getting the visa prior to going was difficult but I finally managed one from DC. The visa only gets you into the capital- if you want to visit another area of Eritrea, you have to get a permit from a government official in Asmara. Asmara is a sleepy town with really nice people who are eager to speak to the few tourists they get. It has some nice old Italian buildings and a coffee culture. You can visit the tank graveyard from the war with Ethiopia (you will need a permit). I took a 3 hour bus to Massawa- spectacular scenery as you go from 9000 feet to sea level. Hardly any guardrails on the road so I was glad the bus was pretty slow. Massawa was practically deserted- it took “sleepy little town” to a whole new level. Very few tourists, a few business owners. I was able to do some snorkeling with their dive center but since there wasn’t any other tourists, we couldn’t organize a dive. Even right off the island of Massawa the coral was pretty good. A lot of the times the restaurants didn’t have much available on the menu but did generally have spaghetti and injera.”

What did you do in Jordan?

“In Jordan I visited the city of Amman, and then went up to Umm Qais to see the Roman ruins right at the intersection of Golan Heights, Syria, and Jordan. Then I went to Jerash to see other ruins. I took a public bus down to Petra and hiked all around- get the two day pass, it’s worth it. I went very early in the morning and there were no other tourists yet. I met a Swedish guy in the hostel back in Amman so after taking the public bus to Petra, he and I wound up sharing a taxi on the way back to the capital so we could see the Dead Sea. Jordan was great- the food, the beer, the people. A little chilly in the wintertime but not freezing like up in Europe. Definitely worth a visit”.

Did you go to Lebanon just because Deah has already been?

“(Yes). I spent all my nights in Beirut and used it as a base- I did a winery tour in Bekaa Valley where we visited three wineries, and saw the Roman ruins at Baalbek- the local microbus system is easy once you figure that out. Byblos is just a short hop up from Beirut and it’s cool to see the Phoenician ruins and crusader castles, as well as where the alphabet began. Also north of Beirut is Tripoli, kind of like a border town, so close to Syria. They have some crusader castles up there too. South of Beirut there’s Tyre and Sidon, and you can see where soap was originally made. There’s two UNESCO sites down in Tyre- it’s easy to take public buses from Beirut down to the sites. In Beirut itself it’s fun to wander through the various neighborhoods- the walking tour was really nice, and you can visit the big mosque. I stayed at Saifi Urban Gardens hostel, which also has a bar and a language institute, so it’s a nice mix of locals and tourists, and of course great beer.”

What do we need to know about Cyprus?

“From Beirut I flew Cobalt Air into Larnaca, which felt like an off-season beach town. I wanted to get to Nicosia, so I took a public bus to get there. Nicosia is a nice walled city, but it’s split in half with a UN-guarded line between the Greek southern part and the Turkish northern part. There’s no problem getting back and forth, as long as you enter Cyprus from the south (the southerners consider it illegal to enter the northern part first). The two sides of the island have a different vibe- Greek food versus Turkish food, lira versus euro, Keo beer versus Eres. While on the Turkish side I took a bus over to Girne, which has a big castle that was variously controlled by all the different empires over time. It has a nice little harbor and locals there spending a day at the coast. I also visited Limassol, which felt like a beach town with a small Byzantine crusader castle.”

From Cyprus, Chris flew Aegean Airlines to Frankfurt, and then Wow via Iceland to Washington DC, taking advantage of their $99 one-way fares. Overall, he says, the hardest part of the trip was the variable weather with lots of rain, but still a fun, off-season foray into an area he’d always wanted to visit.

Oman, an Oasis in the Desert

oman fortress model with arabic calligraphy in background

From Qatar, it was just a short 90 minute flight to Oman. The main city of Muscat is a long narrow strip along the coast, running 40 miles east to west. It was once four towns but they’ve g Continue reading “Oman, an Oasis in the Desert”

A road trip around Israel

woman applying mud at dead sea israel

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, 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.

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 a 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!!

Sri Lanka: Island Adventure

Deah in Sri Lanka Unawatuna

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.

kandy dancers cultural sri lanka
Kandy dancers
temple of buddha's sacred tooh kandy sri lanka
Temple of Buddha’s Sacred Tooth
Kandy Lake Sri Lanka
Kandy Lake
riding an elephant in sri lanka
Elephant Ride
deah bathes an elephant in sri lanka river
Elephant Bath

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 Unawatuna, 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.

girl at unawatuna beach sri lanka
Deah at Unatawuna beach

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.

girl in orange shirt pounding cinnamon on sri lanka island
Deah, cinnamon island
man in boat on river safari sri lanka
Chris, river safari

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 out.  All too soon it was time to board the plane to Khartoum and start thinking about work again.