Istanbul not Constantinople

After not posting a blog in several months, with Kiran breathing down my neck, and having already returned to Southern California, I suppose it’s time to resume our posts.

Istanbul: We visited (occupied) Istanbul at the end of our Turkey adventure sometime in mid-June. As you may know, Istanbul was renamed from Constantinople once it was finally conquered by Mehmed II in 1453 after hundreds of years of attacks on the city, marking the end of the Roman Empire and the start of the rise of Istanbul and much of the Muslim world as we know it today. Kiran and I spent a week there several months ago, and it certainly met and exceeded our expectations. We should say that we think you probably shouldn’t go to Turkey without going to Istanbul; however, Kiran and I think the rest of Turkey was as incredible or even more incredible than Istanbul itself, so definitely see more of Turkey than Istanbul if you ever visit the country (and see our former posts for pictures/insights) and if you’re thinking about going to Turkey THEN GO!!!

The Blue Mosque was built in the 1600s (1609-1616), and Kiran and I would invariably visit it several times per day in some form shape or another, as it lies in the center of the Old City.
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It’s as beautiful at night as it is at day
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Inside and out
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We’d even see the Blue Mosque from our near-daily rooftop lunch perch at Doy-Doy restaurant (which we highly recommend).

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The Blue Mosque was designed using Hagia Sophia as a template, the Greek Orthodox church on which construction was first started in 537 A.D. The architectural similarities between Hagia Sophia and the Blue Moque are obvious, but Kiran and I think Hagia Sophia is even just a little bit more beautiful than the Blue Mosque, especially considering it is so old (and under repair).

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Most of the interior has been re-made over the years, since Hagia Sophia is nearly 1500 years old and it was converted from a church into a mosque many centuries ago.

There are so many different layers to the church/mosque. Here you can some of the older Christian iconography under the arches to the left. Under the right arch represents the Muslim “cover-up” of Christian artwork.

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But even much of the current Islamic decor is merely a shoddy modern paint job meant to represent what the beautiful original Islamic artwork/tile work looked like underneath. For example:

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And again, below the Islamic tile work you see the Christian artwork. Here’s a mosaic of Jesus dating back to 1261. Hagia Sophia is certainly an interesting religious mash-up.
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Hagia Sophia was built by Justinian I, who, along with 7,000 slaves, also built the Basilica Cistern, an ancient Roman structure that provided water to Istanbul nearly 1500 years ago. The cistern still stands today, and in writing this blog entry, I learned that it was used in the filming of the 1963 James Bond film “From Russia with Love.”

IMG_4022 I stole the photo below from WIKI to better show it

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We visited the Istanbul Mosaic Museum, also built around the same time period.

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Switching gears, we’re from Los Angeles where ALL the buildings are less than 100 years and everyone loves to shop. Old habits die hard, so we eventually had to do some shopping too – here’s the Spice Bazaar.
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And we went to the Grand Bazaar four or fives times, I think we lost count. This is one of the 18 gates.

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And when they say ‘Grand’ they really mean it. Over 550 years old, the Bazaar consists of 67 covered roads, over 3000 shops, and it employs nearly 30,000 people. Somehow, there are still no toilet facilities for tourists!?!

We especially liked the lamps, but since we have to carry around for months anything we buy, the only thing we purchased was cologne, which turned out to be fake, and I’ve since thrown it away.
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The inner Bazaar is closed on Sundays, but we went anyway as we had a secret mission. Kiran sweet-talked one of the shop owners on the perimeter to let us onto the roof so she could see where a chase scene was filmed for a more recent James Bond flick.
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If you’ve seen the movie then this should look familiar. And we consider ourselves pretty lucky since tourists generally don’t get to see this view of the Bazaar.

Another unique/non-touristy activity we enjoyed was having dinner with one of the legends in my fraternity, Phi Gamma Delta (FIJI). Say what you want about fraternities, but it’s pretty cool to be halfway around the world and get invited to dinner by some guy who has no idea who you are but knows only that you lived in the same house 20 years apart.
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Earlier in the week, we were in Taksim Square, home to some of the violent rioting and killing that occurred just a week or two before we arrived.
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We were there when most of the people had dispersed and only a few people where standing in silent protest.
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So I did some protesting of my own.
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I heard there was a ‘peaceful’ protest planned one Friday night so of course I dragged Kiran there. It started on Istiklal Avenue
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And emptied into Taksim Square. By the time we arrived the place was packed!
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It got a little crazy actually. People had some posters that blamed the problems in Turkey on the US and the CIA and it’s support of Prime Minister Erdogan.
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We eventually ‘bugged out,’ and I saw on the news later that night that the government brought out the water cannons and tear gas about an hour after we left.

Perhaps our favorite part of Istanbul started on our first night as Kiran was enjoying her favorite new drink, a mojito WITH a sparkler. Um, non-alcoholic of course.

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Some guy walked up to us and and asked Kiran if he had ever worked with her in Pakistan. She of course said no, and we found out the guy worked for the State Department. He’s worked in every place you would never want to go, and we and his now fiance eventually became friends and spent most of our time in Instanbul together.

See, even diplomats can be silly and have fun.

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Lastly, we loved seeing our new favorite international meteorologist Mari Ramos on TV in Turkey. But Mari, you gotta mix up the outfits once in a while!

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Cappadocia – a different planet?

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After our lazy vacation along the mediterrean coast, Scott and I were recharged and ready to explore the unknown in Turkey! Our next stop was the historical region of Cappadocia, a land that…well… we didn’t know anything about and were simply mezmerized by.

To give a very brief history, Cappadocia is located in the very center of Turkey and has the craziest terrain that I have ever seen. Basically, volanic eruptions occurred millions of years ago, resulting in white ash, mud and lava spewing all over a plateau, creating mounds of sedimentary rock. After years and years of weathering as well as a river that once cut through the mounds/mountains/whatever you call it, you get something that looks like this:
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crazy right? yup. here’s more:
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INSANE! what are these things? When you see it in person, you just think that you are on another planet. Which only makes it fitting that George Lucas filmed a scene from Star Wars here! More on that later =)

Okay, it get’s even crazier. PEOPLE LIVED HERE. In caves. There were kitchens, dining rooms and even wineries. They also cut churches out of rock.
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Oh and yes, at times they lived UNDERGROUND. I’m talking 60 meters underground with sophisicated defense systems, air vents and tunnel connections. I see remnants of buildings, temples, cities, etc in every country we visit that were built hundreds and hundreds of years ago and I just am in awe of human intellect.

Feel free to call us the flintstones from now on because we stayed in a “cave hotel” which was really cool! This was our hotel:
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And this was the view from our hotel:
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We stayed in Goreme, around the corner from their open-air museum. This place was great because it gave you an authentic representation of what life was like in the 10th, 11th and 12th century.

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We saw preserved frescos
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And um, yeah preserved skeletons…?

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Cappadocia is full of hiking trails. We often went for long hikes, just exploring the valleys and plateaus all around us. Our minds couldn’t comprehend the crazy nature all around us!
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One day Scott and I did our usual routine – rent a scooter and explore the town.
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Our first stop was Derinkuyu, the largest underground city in Cappadocia. This city went down as far as 13 levels and housed over 20,000 Christians that were hiding from Roman persecution in the 5th century.
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Now, I will admit that I am slightly claustrophobic. It isn’t so much being in a small place, it is the fear of feeling/being trapped. If there is an exit available to me then I don’t panic. But In order to see this city, we had to go far underground. To make things worse, the exit and entrance was one very confined tunnel and I had to follow a line of mass tourists that took their sweet time getting through. Nonetheless, I was determined put aside my fears and went in…
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Boy was that a mistake! I got through it but I will admit that I had minor panic attacks going through the tunnels. Finally when we were 5 stories underground and tourists were shouting at each other in a confined room, I panicked completely had to get of of there ASAP. I felt bad depriving Scott of real time to explore Derinkuyu, but he did a great job of supporting me the whole way through. Even though the experience was terrifying, I don’t regret doing it at all.

We then drove to Ilhara Valley, one of the most beautiful valleys in the Cappadocia region. You can spend a whole day exploring beautiful nature entrapped in this Valley.
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While the day started out beautiful and sunny, the weather turned nasty in our time at Ilhara. Before we knew it, we were taking shelter in a rock-cut church to avoid a massive downpour.
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It finally stopped raining for 20 minutes and we took the window of opportunity to hike out of the valley quickly. We didn’t even have jackets and knew we would have a miserable 1.5 hour drive home if it was raining the whole time! We spent 20 minutes driving around in the pouring rain going to markets and asking if they had large trash bags. They had never even heard of such a thing.

So, we decided to outrun the clouds. Scott rode as fast as he could and soon enough the grey clouds were behind us and we dried off eventually.
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It felt good to be back in the sun.
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We took different roads coming back and ended up at the location where a scene from Star Wars was filmed. Don’t ask me which episode… Maybe episode 3?
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Scott was driving down a dirt road and we noticed a big “rock” in the middle of the road. Turns out it was a tortoise trying to cross. Scott decided to help it by picking it up and placing it on the road divider. The turtle promptly, turned around, got back on the dirt road and even walked around Scott’s bike to make a point. Apparently he was doing just fine on his own.
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We ended our time in Cappadocia with a bang – a hot air balloon ride! Neither of us had done it and were a little terrified, but it is one of the most memorable things I have done on this trip:
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There are multiple hot air balloon companies in Cappadocia that offer rides at sunrise. I have never seen so many balloons in the air at the same time. I still can’t decide if it was the balloons that impressed me more or the terrain. What I do know is that the combination is something you only see in Turkey…

I learned quickly that Turkey is brimming with rich history in any city you visit. I would like to return to Turkey and visit a few more cities because if they are anything like the Cappadocia region, they are definitely worth the visit.
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Sailing the Mediterranean in Turkey

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When Scott and I were in Jordan, we met a lot of great people. People that, like us, were traveling extensively and Turkey kept on coming up in conversations. We heard constant rave reviews of many cities aside from (but still including) Istanbul. Our plan was always to get to the country somehow from Greece but only visit Istanbul for one week. In a matter of 7 days in Jordan, all of that changed. Suddenly, we had a 3-week Turkey itinerary in the future. I guess that is the fun in having an open summer, you can just plan as you go and make decisions on the spot!

That was Turkey for us – one great decision after another.

We entered the country via ferry from Rhodes into Fethiye. Fethiye is a lovely port town where French, Dutch and English retirees spend their summers, either on their boats or in a purchased home. The population is so foreign that the ATMs spit out Euros, Pounds in addition to Turkish Lira.

If you take one look at this town, you can’t blame anyone for settling here:
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Our guesthouse was along the waterfront and this was the awesome view from our room:
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Being a port town, the highlight of this town is the Fish Market. In the evenings you can go to a courtyard of restaurants. The center of the square houses freezers where local fisherman will sell you the fresh seafood they recently caught. You select whatever fresh fish, squid, prawns, etc that is on display and you pay the fisherman directly. Then you point to the restaurant you want to eat at. The fisherman will clean your seafood and take it to the restaurant for you.
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For about $3/per person, any restaurant will grill your seafood and along with tons of salad and garlic bread. Yummmm. It was so delicious I forgot to take a picture!

Fethiye historically is known for being the beginning of the Lycian way, a 510km footpath of the ancient civilization that once ruled Turkey (I think around 1250BC). Scott and I hiked up the small mountains that backdrop the city and saw very old Lycian tombs.
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(You can spot the tomb in the top right)
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Of course we experienced a typical night of kebabs, shisha and Turkish delight tastings!
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Fethiye also was the starting point of our 4 day cruise along the Mediterranean Coast. Commonly referred to as “The Blue Cruise” the boat sails east, visiting many islands, bays and small towns, that are along the way to the final destination of Demre.

This was our boat!
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It was literally our vacation from a vacation. For four days, we didn’t have to worry about planning activities, transportation, meals, etc. We just swam and ate when we were told to and relaxed the rest of the time.

So that is exactly what we did. We swam
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explored
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and relaxed
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and swam
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and explored
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and relaxed
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….and swam some more
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explored
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and relaxed
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and relaxed
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and relaxed…okay we slept a lot
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We had a great group of shipmates on board which only made the trip a lot better. We got to know each other as we visited beautiful towns, ruins and sunset points
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Once we arrived in Demre, we drove on high cliffs along the coast for about one hour and it felt like we were back on highway 1 again. The views were simply breathtaking.

We finished our 4 day excursion in Olympos, an important Lycian town settled along one of the most beautiful beaches in Turkey. Olympos, now only survived by ruins, dated back to at least the 2nd century BC. I believe it also is the end of the Lycian way. At night you can see “eternal” flames spitting out of Mount Olympos due to Methane pockets. But we were only visiting for the day since we had to take an overnight bus to Cappadocia.
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The Cappadocia post is forthcoming and I guarantee it will be one of our most fascinating posts. If you haven’t heard of it, it is worth a two minute google!

On the Rhodes Again

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We spent five nights in Santorini and only spent an afternoon in Rhodes while we waited for another ferry to take us to Turkey. In retrospect, I would have shaved a day or two from Santorini to spend more time in Rhodes, but lesson learned. Rhodes is pretty awesome. It’s a medieval town that retains much of the architecture introduced by the St. John’s Knights when they arrived to the island from Jerusalem in 1310 A.D.And walking around, at times, you’d swear you were still in the medieval times.
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This is the remains of an old gothic church
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And there’s beaches
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And urban parks
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And we only visited one part of the city of Rhodes, yet there’s the entire island that’s also called Rhodes which we hear is awesome. Definitely consider including some time in Rhodes if you’re planning a trip to the Mediterranean, we wish we could have spent more time there.

Santorini = sun, sand, sleep and Scott’s birthday!

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After a quick stint in Athens, Scott and I jumped on an 8 hour ferry to the beautiful island of Santorini. I heard great things about this island from my family and friends so it was a must-see for me. Scott didn’t know anything about Santorini and couldn’t believe I was dragging him to a place he didn’t know about for his birthday. An unknown place that looks like this:
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Poor. Scott.

Once he took a good look at the island, I think he was okay with spending some time here =)

Santorini is a wonder of nature. Once a rather large (and whole island), a massive volcano on the island erupted sometime in 1600 BC. Eventually 1/3 of the island collapsed underwater, causing Santorini to now be a crest shaped island with the tip of the volcano peeking out of the water
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We didn’t take many photos because all Scott wanted to do on his birthday week was sleep, either in the hotel or on the beach. After all of the nonstop activity and travel we had gone through the past 6 weeks, I was perfectly okay with that plan.

Despite the restrictions on celebrating his birthday, I did surprise Scott with an Oreo Chocolate cake! We agreed that it was the best birthday cake we’ve ever eaten.
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Scott devoured the cake in less than two days, with my help of course.

We met a cool guy in Thailand (Matt from Canada) and he recommended a place for us to stay. It was called Stelio’s Place and was perfect for our travel budget. It was located just steps away from Perissa beach and had a lovely pool, even though we used it just once:
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Perissa beach was really beautiful and a great place to relax all day:
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One day we digressed from our lazy routine and rented a motorbike for the day. image
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We came across some great lookout points. See Scott in that cliff?
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Here is the photo he took from that point:
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We visited a lighthouse at the southern tip of the island
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uhh, Scott?
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ahh, okay
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Seriously, who owns this house?
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We drove all around the island, stopping at the main town of Fira and its beautiful church
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My favorite stop was the Red Beach:
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Scott’s favorite was Oia, the famous town with an even more famous sunset.
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I have never witnessed an applause once a sunset is over, that is how beautiful the view is. Our cameras couldn’t capture the beauty but here are some attempts:
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On our last day in Santorini we were catching an overnight ferry to Rhodes at 12:50am. We had time to kill so we attended a Greek night at a local restaurant. They played Greek music, served authentic Greek dishes and gave traditional Greek dancing performances and yes, I danced a little too.

They also smashed plates! And yes, I smashed a plate too. It was an awesome way to end our stint in Santorini =)
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Athens: That City ‘Mess’ Up

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In an ode to the colorful grammar used by one of my sister-in-law’s former 3rd grade students, I have to say Athens is a little ‘mess up’ right now. The ruins are in ruins, of course.
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My little Hercules at the Temple of Zeus
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But even the modern buildings suffer the scourge of relentless graffiti and urban decay.
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Being in Athens often felt like what I imagine NYC was in the 70s, or at least the pre-Rudy Giuliani era.
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That said, it seems like everyone and their mother warned us about Athens, about the crime, about not going out at night – we even met a woman on the subway who lived in the OC for 35 years. Even she warned us to make sure we were home before dark. I don’t know though, people in Orange County probably say the same thing about LA too. Still, parts of Athens were certainly no trip to Disneyland.

And speaking of theme parks, we went to the site of the 2004 Olympic games.
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Here’s her hurdles pose
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But those stadium grounds were pretty mess up too.
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It felt like being in an abandoned theme park.
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We were told by a lone security guard that the stadium was closed, but we managed to finesse our way in for some quick photos. The stadium was immaculate inside.
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Architecturally speaking, I loved this building – the Velodrome.
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Inside (through windows) you can see the bicycling oval track. We saw signs taped to the window regarding a bicycle race in 2011 so at least the place isn’t a total ghost town.
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If you know Kiran, you know you don’t go to Athens and visit just one Olympic Stadium, you visit two. Here’s the site of the 1896 Olympic games, built on the site of the ancient Olympic games from a couple thousand years ago.
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Kiran ran inside. I waited outside to save the €3 admission fee. That little spot in the center row at the back is Kiran.
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Here’s the shots she took from that point
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When I say Kiran ran inside, literally, Kiran ran inside.
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You study the Parthenon in history, you see the pictures, but like the Great Wall, you really can’t know what it’s like to see it until you’re actually there. Built under the direction of Pericles in the 5th century BC, the Parthenon and the hill it sits upon and the surrounding structures (the Acropolis) have seen numerous changes. The Parthenon has been a church, a mosque, and an army garrison headquarters. One of the surrounding buildings, the Erechtheum, used to house an Ottoman governor’s harem. The Parthenon also used to be a gun powder storage house, and when it was shelled by the Venetians in 1687 during the X War, the building blew up, causing much of the damage still seen today. Sadly, much of the Parthenon’s statues were looted by the English and now sit in the London Museum. Shouldn’t the Brits give that stuff back?
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Anyway, this was our best self-photog attempt
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Some stank face self photog
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Regarding safety in Athens, and anywhere where you travel, they say to avoid demonstrations and large crowds. And, generally, being right outside the US embassy isn’t the brightest idea either.

So when Kiran and I were walking through Athens one evening and we heard a guy on a loudspeaker and a large group of people shouting chants in unison, you know I had to go check it out.
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Well, it turns out I took Kiran to her first neo-Nazi rally! Technically, it was a gathering of Greece’s far right “neo-fascist party,” Golden Dawn. Golden Dawn members say they are nationalistic and racist but not neo-Nazis. Either way, at first, I didn’t think anything was that suspicious – half the people there didn’t even look white, not by Scandinavian standards at least. But as soon as I saw some guys with shaved heads and white shoelaces, I thought it was time to get the h-ll outta there – get Kiran out of there at least, I figured I was safe with my blue eyes.

The lack of police, or any people protesting them whatsoever, was really surprising honestly. Sad really. Later I read that Golden Dawn is a minor but ever growing political force in Greece. And assaults on brown/ black people by members of Golden Dawn are quite frequent. WTF Greece?

I still say however, if you live in fear, then the terrorists win. So before we left, we made our requisite pilgrimage to the US embassy in Athens.
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Then, next door in a park, we heard another person on a microphone and saw another crowd gathering. Undaunted, we went to check that out too.

Turns out it was a sound check for an awesome blues band.
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We stuck around and spent the early evening listening to some great R&B in a city park with the beautiful American flag waving to us in the background. Look in the upper right hand corner. As CEO of Silverado Hospice Loren Shook says, “Love is greater than fear.”
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Leaving Athens, we took an early AM ferry to Santorini on June 1st and we’ll celebrate my birthday there on June 4th.
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For my birthday, I said the only thing I wanted from Kiran was to NOT go out to eat. No restaurants, just stay home. I think that’s what most men want actually.

Lastly, thank you to Bruce and your wife not only for dinner but for the awesome restaurant recommendation. Neoklassiko was AWESOME and so cheap!

One day in Tel Aviv

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After a great 5 days in Jerusalem, Scott and I had plans to head to Tel Aviv for one day and quickly enjoy the city before our flight to Greece.

Tel Aviv seems to be a modern city with stylish buildings, an energetic nightlife and a beautiful beach stretch.
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Personalized by the Jaffa sandstone that you see all over Israel
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There are tons of beach bars, hence the umbrellas
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Sometimes a little too many umbrellas though…
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Israel overall is an expensive vacation destination and Tel Aviv accommodations were astronomical. With our flash-packer budget of $100 a day we were not exactly in a position to pay for even the cheapest hotels that ran about $130/night. So we leaned on Airbnb for help. We stayed with a fun college couple that open their homes to travelers on a daily basis. They were great hosts and we found it amusing living in a college student’s house again!

Scott and I only had one day in Tel Aviv but that was enough to explore the city. We spent the entire day just walking anywhere and everywhere. It wasn’t an eventful walk but I have a few fun things to point out. For example, we found a cool park with the coolest workout machines:
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We walked down a street filled with street art and I found this awesome building
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I found this random chain-linked fence with post-it’s on it and signs that I couldn’t read. I have no clue what this was about but found it visually fascinating. If anyone knows what this is about, please share it in the comments section!
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Scott made us visit the embassy of course
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And we took a stroll down a lovely street in the middle of the “White City”
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I really didn’t know what the White City was but Scott whipped out his phone and told me that he was going to take me on a walking tour and he was going to be my tour guide! So, I played along.

According to Scott: “As originally designed by architect Sir Patrick Geddes, the White City of Tel Aviv is one of the best examples of large scale urban planning to date. The White City represents architecture’s Modern Movement, and various buildings and spaces were designed by architects who had studied at the Bauhaus school, and with Le Corbusier and Erich Mendelsohn.”
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Below is a picture of the Dizengoff House, where on May 14, 1948 David Ben Gurion declared the state of Israel.
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Some of the buildings need a little work
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Scott ended the tour with “the part where you hold the tour guide’s hand and take a romantic stroll.” He did a great job so I tipped him the one shekel, that I found on the ground =)

We left the following morning and boy do I have a fun airport story! After receiving our boarding passes we had to drop off our bags to the security officers. I was stopped by two officers and questioned for about ten minutes while everyone behind us had to wait. “Why did you go to Jordan? Who did you stay with? Who did you talk to? Where did you stay in Israel? What are their names? Where do they live? What is your ethnic background? What are your parents names? What are your siblings’ names? Where were you born?” And every time I answered a few questions they would walk away (with our passports), hide behind an X-ray machine and talk about me. Scott says they were trying to figure out if I was Muslim, even though they never asked me directly. At one point Scott said, “This is ridiculous.” The officer then explained the reason they’re so strict is because they’ve had instances where people have tried to bring bombs on planes, or people placed bombs in other people’s luggage without them knowing. Scott said he was American and was living in New York City on 9/11 and didn’t need a lecture on airline security. Finally they let us through. It was… a very odd experience. The End!

Jerusalem: Can’t We All Just Get Along?

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In retrospect, taking these photos may not have been the brightest of my ideas, since a Jewish guy was shot dead at the Western Wall recently when a security guard thought he was a terrorist after the guy yelled, “Allahu Akbar.” Why a Jewish guy was yelling Allahu Akbar I’m not really sure. I suppose one could ask why I was wearing a Jordanian headscarf as well.

We had to stand around at the Western Wall forever to wait for the wind to cooperate and kick up the flag – even I was a little uncomfortable standing around in that headscarf honestly.

Kiran said as soon as people saw someone wearing an Arabic headscarf, everyone around me cleared out. At least we got a photo of my new Packers Hebrew shirt at the Western Wall.
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Here’s the close-up
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Go Bucky!
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Kiran represented LA (technically I didn’t take this photo until Prague).
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My Hebrew cousin shoutout to Ryan and Andy
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We were in Jerusalem from May 22-27th (obviously we’re way behind on our posts), and I have to say Jerusalem is a great and weird place – complicated is probably the only way to describe it. The Jews and Palestinians fight over things like little children; except, when they get mad, they don’t hit or mope, they kill each other. Without assigning blame regarding the entire Arab-Israeli conflict, I think it’s important to state that 82% of Palestinian children in East Jerusalem live in poverty, hence the prayer I placed at the Western/Wailing Wall.
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Unbeknownst to me, Kiran took photos of me placing the prayer in the wall as well (that’s me without the headscarf and Packers t-shirt in the middle). I tried finding room in the wall but those cracks were JAM packed.
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So I had to go high.
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Personally, I think we should return Jerusalem to the UN like it was supposed to be in 1948. If they can’t share Jerusalem, then no one should get it.

Walking around old town, at times, you could feel transported back hundreds or even thousands of years.
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Stumbling through the streets on our first day, we came across spots like:
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And where Jesus needed help from Simon carrying the cross. The dark square on the right is where Jesus is said to have rested himself by leaning up against the wall.
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It’s the fifth station of the cross, and I stole this photo from allaboutjerusalem.com to show it better.
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Speaking of Jesus, we saw where he was crucified (on the right) and where he was temporarily buried (the left)
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This place is now a church, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Apparently, Christians have fought over and claimed every little detail in that church. Catholics own some parts, various sects of Protestantism own others, the Greek Orthodox has their share … if light bulb #143 burns out, they actually know who is responsible for changing that bulb, or any other light bulb, or actually any other part of the entire church (tiles, railings, chairs, EVERYTHING).

Who keeps the key you ask? Well, that right was fought over for so long that for hundreds of years now, a Muslim family has kept the key and has opened the church every day for the Christians. Can you believe that? Christians had squabbled like little kids so much so that they have to be babysat by the Muslims.

We took a tour of Mount of Olives, the 3000 year old Jewish cemetery where Absalom and Zechariah, among 150,000 others, are buried.
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Near Mount of Olives is the spot where Catholics say Jesus rose after death. Interestingly, the place is currently a Mosque.
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The rectangle is supposed to be the ‘exact’ spot.
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Looking at the hill from the old city, you see the hill where Jesus was said to have ‘risen.’ The tower to right is where Catholics say he rose. But the tower to the left is where the Russians say he rose. To the left of that out of view is where German Lutherans say he rose. Good God, does everyone need their own space?
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We went to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum. As a building that provides a museum experience, I think Yad Vashem ranks right up there with the Guggenheim. The layout and content of the museum was world-class, simply superb. The subject of course breaks your heart.

Photos weren’t allowed, but I felt it my mission to sneak at least one, considering there are still people who claim the Holocaust was a hoax. This is a room with book after book after book of names of those killed in the Holocaust. There are two stories of books filled the names of people murdered in the Holocaust. And I think they continue to add names to this day.
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On the grounds of Yad Vashem also sits the National Cemetery. Here is the grave of Golda Meir
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Perhaps most importantly, Yitzhak Rabin.
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All the former Prime Ministers’ graves are flat and all black, except Rabin’s
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I paid homage by laying a stone on his grave
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And we went to the Israel Museum and saw the Dead Sea Scrolls … great photo, huh?
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But the rest of the Israel Museum is incredible as well, and I gained a greater appreciation of Andy Warhol
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Warhol is an amateur compared to the master of course
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Back in the old city, we learned that if a family member goes to Hajj (pilgrimage in Mecca), Palestinian families decorate and graffiti their front door to announce/brag that someone living there went to pilgrimage. I’m sure our neighbors will love that if Kiran ever goes.
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And we took several pictures of Kiran and the Dome of the Rock/Temple Mount.
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The first photo of Kiran was taken atop the Austrian Hospice Hotel. If you’re ever in Jerusalem, just buzz the front door, they’ll let you in, and simply walk up to the rooftop. The Austrians let everyone take in views of Jerusalem from the rooftop. I suppose that’s the least they could do for giving the world Adolf Hitler. Here’s one last view from the rooftop
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And, in the spirit of Jerusalem, I’ll share authorship of this post with Kiran. Turning it over to her:

Scott and I would spend a lot of time just wandering around the market and looking at the colorful shops
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During our normal routine of getting lost in the market, we ended up at a local’s back entrance to the grounds of Dome of the Rock. Unfortunately it was prayer time so Scott was stopped by Israeli guards. Even I had to “prove” to the guards that I was Muslim by reciting a verse from the Quran and answer a few questions.

In case you didn’t know, Dome of the Rock houses the rock that Prophet Muhammed ascended to heaven from, making it the third holiest site in Islam. However, it is the holiest site in Judaism because it also houses the foundation stone, the same rock Jews believe is the spiritual junction between heaven and earth. Muslim authorities do not let any non-Muslims in, which is pretty wrong in my opinion. But I understand that a history of squatters and squabbling has led to that decision. Tourists are allowed to visit the outer grounds for a 2hr period during the day. Despite being the core of bitter disputes between the two religions, the building has never been destroyed since it’s construction (around 685). I find that remarkable.

Even though we were hassled by the guards, especially when Scott picked a fight with one of the Muslim gatekeepers when Scott asked who was he to decide who enters God’s house, it was worth it to see the wondrous gold-domed building:
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I met a nice man that took me inside and showed me around. I felt weird taking photos there as usually I never even take my phone with me when I go to pray. But I saw enough women taking photos with their iPhones so I sneaked two that are not very good:
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After taking two photos I felt uncomfortable and just focused on experiencing such an important piece of my religion. The interior is going through a lot of restoration work so I couldn’t see the foundation stone however I was still able to touch the exact place where they believe Prophet Muhammad ascended.

All in all I feel grateful that I was able to visit. However, the experience felt uncomfortable all the time. I thought the nice man was just showing his fellow Muslim an important pilgrimage site, but before we departed he asked for a tour guide tip. Another man tried to get me to buy a skirt for $15 when he clearly had loaner skirts laying around. The looks of disappointment when I said I was Ismaili Muslim (I am Shia and they are mostly Sunnis in Israel) was disheartening and most importantly, I should not be lectured by a complete stranger about my marriage to a non-Muslim. The two guys that did were surprised to hear a woman talk back to him like the way I did!

Well to sum it up, I consider every Muslim a brother and sister and treat them as such initially. But the frequent attempts to squeeze money out of tourists is distracting to those that are trying to experience something deeply religious. Although disappointed by their actions, I was able to get past it and if you can too, you will truly enjoy Jerusalem and all it has to offer.20130710-113515.jpg

Running around Wadi Rum desert!

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After a full day in Petra, Scott and I were ready for our next Jordan adventure: exploring the massive red desert known as Wadi Rum.
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This was something that I was really looking forward to on our trip because #1 I have never camped before in a tent (I have slept in cabins but those don’t count to me)
#2 The possibility of running around like a fool in a desert has been something I have always wanted to do
#3 repeat number 2

Our hotel set us (Scott, myself and a very cool couple from Australia) up with a local Bedouin guide that would take us around for the day, provide us with meals and also set us up with a tent to sleep in overnight.

Our guide was Muhammed and he was pretty awesome. He likes to drive like this:
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Or like this:
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Muhammed spoke very good English and had been running tours for years now. He was 23 and single but hoped to have 3 wives one day (it is allowed in Bedouin cultures as there are far more women than men). I told him it was a bad idea because 3 wives means 3x the nagging, anniversary gifts and in-law drama. But he was pretty set on those plans so I wished him luck…he’s going to need it.

We rode around the desert in a 4×4 open-air jeep and boy, was it fun. Here is a picture of our jeep:
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And here was the flat tire we got:
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One day when we hang out in person you MUST ask me how a Bedouin changes a tire in the desert. It is very interesting. Scott was able to tear through the desert in this jeep too! And no, that is not how we got the flat tire.

Wadi Rum is a massive desert and we barely saw people the entire day. We felt like we had the whole desert to ourselves.
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We walked through valleys
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Climbed tall boulders
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drove around and just explored random places
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We ate lunch in some random shade we found and then napped for about an hour. Our tour guide even napped with us. It was one of the best naps I have ever had. Complete silence found in a desert is priceless.

Eventually we woke up to some tea, or as our guide called it – Bedouin Whiskey
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Resuming the plans for the day, we sat atop some ruins and lovely lookout points
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Saw some really old carvings that instructed fellow Bedouin on how to cross through the desert
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Scott, of course, was snooping for treasure again
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And my favorite, we visited the most beautiful red sand dunes I have ever seen
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The best part about being in the desert is that you run around like a fool in the desert! And take fun photos while you are at it!
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here are our new very cool friends from Australia, Oz and Shirin
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and of course, Scott took his classic kung fu pose
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At the end of the day we drove out to a tall rock where we watched the sunset. We looked up at the rock and – it was Jason! The friend we made in Amman and saw in Petra was also on top of this rock! What a small world…
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Unfortunately we didn’t get a very good sunset, but when you have just climbed on top of a huge rock watching a sun set in the middle of a vast desert, you don’t complain.
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We returned to camp and were treated to Mansaf, their national dish which is meat roasted underground. We ate, laughed at jokes, sang songs and danced a little bit. It was a really fun evening.

Before retiring to our tent, Scott and I took a romantic walk out in the desert. We counted stars and pointed out planets and constellations that we spotted. It was pretty hard to see far away but luckily the moon provided enough light for us to see in front of us. We went to bed in the quietest of nights – all you could hear was a gust of wind now and then.
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Scott and I both woke up at 4am and had to use the toilet. We both walked out of our tent together and looked up at the most beautiful sky. I have never seen so many stars in my life and I certainly have never seen the Milky Way. Words cannot describe how beautiful the Milky Way is. I will never forget the way the stars looked that night and certainly will never forget seeing two shooting stars in a span of one minute!

What a day…
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Feeling like Indiana Jones in Petra

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Any Indiana Jones fans out there? Well, this is the post for you!

If anyone has ever seen Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, he is on a quest to find the Holy Grail and rides his horse through a narrow red rock valley and ends up in front of a huge temple cut out of rock. Well guess what – that scene takes place in Petra, Jordan.

Scott and I didn’t visit Petra for that reason. Petra is considered a must see in Jordan because it is a city that was literally carved out of rock. This full-fledged city had a water aqueduct system, theatre, monastery, streets and royal tombs. Oh yes, and it was built sometime as early as around 300BC. So it really is a testament of one the most intellectual ancient Arab tribes that ever existed, the Nabataeans.

But that didn’t prevent me from singing the Indiana Jones theme song all day long! Poor Scott.

Petra is a 3 hour drive from Amman. So, most tourists will take an exhausting 12 hour day roundtrip tour instead of staying overnight in the nearby city, Wadi Musa. We chose to stay in Wadi Musa so that we could enjoy Petra in the early morning – before the unbearable heat and tourist groups arrived.

Instead of shooting down the main expressway, we also chose an alternative route – a 6 hour scenic ride down the Old Kings Highway. This highway was actually the most important spice trade route in the middle east, spanning from Egypt (through Jordan) to Syria. The route is 5000 years old but now is nicely paved. Scott and I are proud to say that we travelled down the oldest road in history =)
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Yes, people used to live in those caves.
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I took this picture from Kerak castle, one of the largest crusader castles in Jordan. The castle was built in the 1100′s and was pretty fun to explore. We had a great tour guide, he drew maps in the sand and made us take corny photos
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We also stopped in the city of Madaba, containing the largest Christian population in Jordan. There was a beautiful Greek Orthodox Church that contained the most beautiful floor mosaic. The floor mosaic is the oldest living map of the holy land.
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There were some awesome lookout points along the way
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That tiny spec is me:
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We shared a van with two couples, one from Australia and one from Great Britain. It turns out that both couples were doing the same thing as us! They planned on traveling for almost one year around the world. They were a lot of fun to travel with and here is a photo of us all eatiıng lunch at a local falafel shop. Apparently the building used to be an old school or something. The owner took this fuzzy photo of all of us.
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The next morning we were ready for Petra and met our new friends at the entrance around 7:30am and we immediately started a tour. Our tour guide actually was a former archeologist turned tour guide. Even though he was of Nabataean descent and highly educated, they only excavate in Petra two months out of the year so he saw a larger financial benefit in being a tour guide. That is the case for most archeologists in Petra which is quite sad to hear. But good for us because we had so many questions. This place just seem out of this world…
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We first walked through a long and windy rose valley that winded down for 1km. It was a very cool walk.

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Looking up:
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Suddenly from out of the rose valley we saw the infamous Treasury peeking out (from Indiana Jones)
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Now this thing is called the Treasury, but wasn’t actually used as a bank. In fact it was empty most of the time inside. It was really just created to give visitors an impactful first impression of the city and the Nabataean people. I would say they accomplished that goal.
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Can you believe the symmetry of this considering it was all carved out of a large rock wall? Oh yeah, and there has been only a tiny bit of restoration work done to this because the Nabataeans carved it in a location and way that sandstorms and rainstorms do not damage the treasury. So this really is still well preserved after 2200 years. Amazing
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Look who else we found there:
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Just kidding! Obama visited about two weeks before us. Imagine the Secret Service all over this place!

Scott and I wanted to get another view of the Treasury so we hiked up a mountain trail behind some very massive royal tombs.
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Along the way, Scott was hoping he would find some treasure…
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We also found this guy’s house along the way. Talk about a house with a view:
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After one hour of hiking we made it to the top and were rewarded with a great view.
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We only saw one guy on the trail the entire time all the way at the top and he was nice enough to take a photo of us.
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Scott then stole a photo of him
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He also wished his dad and stepmom happy birthdays which were a day apart from one another.
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We then strolled around the ancient city some more. I loved staring at all the camels there
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And the donkeys
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Scott made a friend
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We came across this very cool temple.
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While I read the sign about it, I looked up and…Where’s Scott?
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Oh. Yup. Just look closer. There he is.
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Lastly, we hiked up to a monastery. By this time we had been hiking/walking for over 7 hours in the heat and I was exhausted. I stopped halfway through the steep trail while Scott continued on.
From the top.
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Meanwhile, I did some people/donkey watching. I caught this little treasure that I now watch anytime I want to have a good laugh. Make sure your volume is up:
good laugh in Petra

It was an exhausting 10+ hours but exploring Petra was one of our most memorable days so far. The only issue we had was the cost of the entry fee. It will cost you about 75 US Dollars to visit Petra for one day. Angkor Wat was 40 US Dollars for 3 days, but you saw the money going towards preservation and restoration of the temples. Here, we are not sure where the money is goıng because the city does not need to be preserved (at least not Luke Angkor What) and excavations only occur two months out of the year. They offer free horse rides, but you have to tip the workers about 10-20 US dollars per horse so we are not sure they even get a cut of the admission fee. Well, we just hope the money is going towards something good for this amazing country.

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