Arriving in Cartagena

Just after escaping the busy airport, we were parallel to the ocean, enviously looking out at rows of strong waves, driving alongside the empty beach. This was like a dream. Soon, after passing a billboard advertising whiskey, we´d see beautiful, big colonials overlooking the ocean.

Then those walls — lower than expected but also more gorgeous and layered, so bare and humble at night with no one on them and almost no one looking at them. I thought the taxi would dance around them for a while, finding a major, wide opening inside the walls. Instead the round, dark driver who spoke very little English took a sharp turn onto a narrow road under an archway, putting us immediately inside the walls. To the left, we were told (perhaps wrongly) that Shakira lived in the big, yellow colonial. Other famous Colombians like Gabriel Garcia Marquez live nearby too.

Inside the walls, we rode through the narrow streets, some cobblestone, beside centuries old, colorful, strong — some degraded for the better — colonials. It was like how I´d imagine Rome but felt special because everyone visits Rome but how many know about this place?

¨Why is this place not more touristed?¨ I asked myself. Why hasn´t it been ¨colonized¨ by Chanel and Versaci and foreign property buyers? Or maybe it has — I don´t have any idea yet. At the very least I bet it´s been somewhat protected from American money over the years, and to a lesser extent European money, from people scared off by the stigma of the drug wars that have settled down.

Maybe it won´t be the most interesting city in the world — that´s why we are only staying two days — but its beauty stands out immediately.

The driver called out to three colleagues standing by their yellow cabs to ask for directions. They screamed back as we rolled away and it turned out we were basically there already. There it was, overlooking the small, historic square — a park with a statute of some famous Colombian in its center — with the historically ridiculous name¨Chill House Backpackers Hostel.¨

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Off to Colombia in a month

Just a quick update: My next trip will be to Colombia with a group of friends. I’ll be arriving on Jan. 31 in Cartagena on the Caribbean coast and leaving from Bogota, the capital, in central Colombia, 11 days later. I’m looking forward to sharing a couple of adventures with everyone.

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10 or so observations about Israel

Now that I’m back in lovely Washington, D.C., it’s time to reflect on Israel and my experience there. Here’s a list of some of the things that stuck out to me.

Realization that I MUST be the first to ever come with, like ever: Israel and the U.S. are the only countries of their kind that I can think of. They are almost entirely immigrant countries, settled wholly or almost wholly by people coming from different states. Yes, immigrants to Israel have mostly been Jews, which you could say are one nation, but those Jews also came from many different states and cultures.

Realization #2: Israel is a young project. The Israelis of my generation are very directly tied to this young project, and to the recent past, giving them a sense of purpose, brotherhood and belonging that we often lack. The Israeli grandmothers and grandfathers of my generation were the ones who, in many cases, were helping to fight for Israel’s independence in 1948.

Strangest semi-automatic gun sightings: A young woman in high heels and a short skirt carrying one at the bus station. A young man (either a solider or a settler) in shorts and a t-shirt going for a run with one in Hebron.

I could do without: Salad at breakfast. I appreciate it (I’m very pro eating healthy!) but I don’t see the point of it, especially if it’s just tomatoes and cucumbers. A salad can be refreshing at lunch or dinner time. At breakfast, I crave carbs and eggs and something strong to drink. Nothing dainty. Otherwise, Israeli breakfasts are plentiful and amazing. They often include an array of many large and small plates, including eggs, bread and different spreads.

Traditions I’ll carry on: Eating a lot of hummus. I’ve already been eating it with breakfast.

What’s good: Israeli candy (I could eat loads of it and I’m not a candy person), nuts and fruit (they’re bigger and better).

What’s surprisingly fashionable: Kippas/yarmulkes. These actually look good on guys and they come in all sorts of different styles. If I lived there I would rock one now and again. I wish I’d picked one up before I left.

Who’s hot: Everyone in Tel Aviv. Even the less attractive couples are pretty good looking.

Who’s sexy: The female bartenders. They’re cute, they perkily bop around the bar looking so darn happy all the time (maybe cuz they’re always tipsy), they’re laid back, and they smile at you.

Who’s gay: Everyone in Tel Aviv.

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Yesterday I visited Hebron, one of the most controversial cities in the West Bank. Part of the city is occupied by the Israeli Defense Forces. Over 1,000 of them, and 126 security cameras, protect around 400 Israeli settlers, who are armed themselves. I got there alone, leaving from Jerusalem, and in Hebron I was to meet a Palestinian man who works with a committee working to revitalize part of the Old City that lies in the shadow of Israeli settlements. He also gives tours once in a while, free of charge. He does it because he wants to show people the impact the settlers are having on the city.

Getting there was a bit scary since I was, well, an American going to the West Bank, and I was alone. First I had to get to Bethlehem, where I’d catch a taxi to Hebron. A small bus stopped just before a huge wall where the road ended. I had no sense of where I was but it turned out to be the Bethlehem checkpoint. Then there was this massive gated structure that a smiling Palestinian woman directed me towards. It looked like I was entering some prison in the middle of nowhere. Inside, it was more like a big, nearly empty customs station; I zigzagged through a wired-in pen that had been divided into long lanes where people would normally cue up. After some long passageways, with a few turnstiles en route, I was on the other side. Nobody stopped me and I don’t think the Palestinians that got off the bus were bothered either (maybe they would be upon returning to Israel, like I was).

Now I was in the West Bank, although a ‘Welcome to Bethlehem’ sign would have helped me be sure of that.  All I saw was the taxi mafia and some kids running around. After fussing with the cabbies, who wanted to take me directly to Hebron for about 150 shekels, or around $40, they finally agreed to show me where the shared taxi to Hebron was parked. That cost 15 shekels.

It took about 45 minutes to drive to Hebron. We picked up smiling passengers along the way as we passed through towns with chain chicken restaurants, a Huggies billboard, and a few men riding donkeys or horses. The buildings were generally in pretty bad condition and the streets were far from clean. Khalit, our very nice driver, had been to the United States before so I jokingly told him one of towns looked like New Jersey. If Route 1 in Fort Lee was less-taken care of.

To my surprise, most of the journey was countryside — empty, green Judaean Hills covered with terraced stones or what I think were olive groves that could use some love.

Downtown Hebron, which I knew very little about before I arrived, is a bustling city. There was a lot of traffic. Half of the cars were taxis. Men carried trays of tea through the streets.

My tour with Walid was really interesting. He took me to the Old City, where buildings range from 400 to 1,000 years old, and artisans traditionally sell their crafts. Some artisans are still there but the city stops bustling as soon as you cross into the Old City, which is controlled by the Israeli Defense Forces. Above one side of the market, Israeli settlers have moved into homes, displacing Palestinean families, according to Walid. The IDF has welded shut many of the shops on one side of the market. The homes on the other side, where Palestinians could presumably still live, are now abandoned too. The edges of the market are now sometimes covered in barbed wire, which one vendor used to display his clothing. The narrow opening above the market was also covered in barbed wire, with debris resting on it.

Walid, my tour guide, is working to revitalize commerce in the area. His group, the Hebron Rehabilitation Committee, gets foreign funding for this. We saw a couple of small shops in the cavernous Old City being reconstructed.

As we progressed through the market, and it began to look more like a ghost town, we got closer to one of the holiest sites for both Muslims and Jews, a place made even more controversial because they have to share it. For Muslims, it’s known as the Ibrahimi Mosque, and for Jews the Cave of the Patriarchs, where Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Rebecca and Leah are buried.* Along the walk, I’d sometimes look up and see a member of the IDF in a tower. One of them greeted Walid and asked me where I was from. Others stared down at us while we chatted with a group of international observers, who have had a mission in Hebron since 1997. Walid had other cordial discussions with the soldiers. He said he does not feel hostility towards them; he wants peaceful coexistence. They seem to have an awful job.

The holy site is the only divided mosque in the world, according to Walid. Jews and Muslims worshipped alongside each other until 1994, when right-wing Israeli settler named Baruch Goldstein massacred 29 Muslims praying there. The authorities then divided the mosque into Jewish and Muslims sections.

But the starkest example of division came outside the mosque’s walls. When we exited down the steps, we were confronted by a IDF-run checkpoint at the boundary of a Jewish settlement zone. The road behind the checkpoint was fairly clear. A group of Israelis going for what appeared to be a leisurely run, with semi-automatic guns around strapped around necks, jogged by. Meanwhile, Palestinians who were commuting through the area stood in line waiting for an IDF soldier to allow them to pass. Walid said the route the IDF was making Palestinians take had just changed slightly, restricting access to a portion of the street that they could previously use.

Of course the soldier asked me for my passport, and because I was American, I could move fairly freely. So crossed the nearly empty street to the only shop on the street across from the mosque, run by an Arab. He said he has only a fraction of the business he used to. I bought a small ceramic bowl. If I were Israeli, a stop at this checkpoint would no doubt arouse suspicion. If I were a settler thinking of moving here, the IDF would welcome me. If not, they might question my motives. They may wonder if I am against Israel’s activities there. My friend’s aunt, an American who has lived in Tel Aviv for decade and used to attend protests against Israel’s West Bank policies, said that is why she and most Israelis no longer go to the West Bank–the authorities are too suspicious.

Walid wants tourists to return. Unfortunately, the only people I saw who were not Palestinians or IDF forces were international observers. Yes, it was the low season for tourists. And organized tours for settlers also go to Hebron. But Hebron used to be a place where Israelis like my friend’s aunt could visit leisurely, and I’d guess that this demographic would have accounted for a main slice of the city’s tourism. It seems unlikely that they’ll return anytime soon.

*Correction, Feb. 7: When I first wrote this, I neglected to give the Jewish name for the holy site.


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Moving on

My 11 day birthright trip came to an end yesterday. It was, well, painful. You don’t really get to experience Israel in a meaningful way, you are lectured all day, and the Zionist message was force fed so hard down our throats that I might just throw up for days. Our tour guide poured it on especially hard, perfectly orchestrating poignant moments aimed at making us feel like there’s no separation between American Jews and Israeli Jews–that when the Israelis fight, they fight for us.

On the other hand, a lot of those moments were indeed poignant. And I gained a lot from the trip, making friends and learning about Judaism and Zionism. Whether the free trip was worth it is yet to be determined. But I’ll figure that out as I think about it over time. For now, I just need a clean break– to look at Israel anew, without any bitterness.

That’s why I decided to spend the rest my week in Israel rather than split that time with Jordan. We’ve only been fed one side of the story here, we haven’t experienced Tel Aviv’s night life, we haven’t experienced Israel’s food and we’ve barely interacted with Israelis. I can’t wait to see the West Bank, the settlements and the checkpoints. I’m looking forward to starting my nights at midnight, rather than ending them then.

Two other things kept me from seeing Petra and Amman in Jordan. One is beer. The other is that I’m late to everything. Yesterday, after leaving our Jerusalem hotel around midday, a friend and I went to the central bus station. But we were told that there was only one seat left on the 2 p.m. bus to Eilat, where we would cross into Jordan. So we bought 5 o’clock tickets and, in the meantime, went downtown to a bar where we watched the Australian Open.

Of course we didn’t leave that bar until almost 4:30. Then, since we don’t understand the city at all and didn’t have much of a map, we tried to catch the train (new, great light rail system) back to bus station. Except we were waiting for it on the wrong side of the tracks (We were NOT drunk). We corrected the problem but only got to the bus station at 4:55. With the long security line, a queue we knew really well by then, we didn’t have much of a chance of catching the bus. We got to it as the driver was pulling away.

I think we sort of wanted this to happen. We did buy tickets for the next bus–at midnight from Tel Aviv–but we later talked it out and it just wasn’t in us. Our birthwrong trip had mentally wore me down–that’s how “they” get you not to go to any of those A-rab states after your trip ends! We just needed a break from bus rides, and needed to just not worry about anything for a couple of days.

Right now, I’m sleeping on foam mattress on the floor of my friend’s house in Jaffa, an urban suburb just south of Tel Aviv–it’s just a short ride from downtown. We met a cool couple today while eating a huge lunch at this Arab-owned place across the street, and may go out with them tonight.

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Just hummus for lunch

My best lunch so far was a lunch of straight up hummus and pita, at a renowned, no frills restaurant in the middle of the market in Acco, a mixed (Arab and Jewish) port city surrounded in northern Israel. Given a paltry hour and a half of free time we had for lunch (the only free time we get throughout the day), my friend and I jetted from our group meeting spot as soon as our tour guide finished speaking. We entered this hummus restaurant, which is in the middle of the city’s central market, a long, winding, narrow alleyway covered by tin roofing, walled in by the city’s old fort walls, and lined with spice and fruit stands.

It was raining hard that day but the restaurant was still full. The server quickly found a spot for us and, just after we sat down, the staff cleaned the scraps left by the folks sitting there before us. The server immediately told us the options; there was no menu. I love places like that. He suggested that we try three different kinds of hummuses: one mixed with fajol beans (spelling?), one mixed with whole chickpeas (the winner), one mixed with chickpeas and tahini sauces. We simply had a stack of pitas alongside the hummuses and a bit of salad. It was fantastic and so big that we couldn’t finish it. The hummus was far better than the others we’ve tried in the rest of Israel, which is spread on pitas for falafel and shawarma, both of which have been pretty ordinary, not tasting too different from what we get in the States.

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And we’re back–and on Birthright

Here are my thoughts on Day 4 of my 11 day Birthright trip. Written on Jan. 21. 

This blog has been in exile for over a year, and I haven’t been on an international trip since leaving Thailand in late 2009. But, thanks to rich North American Jews, the Israeli government, and North American Jewish community organizations, I’m abroad again. I’m on Taglit-Birthright, a free trip to Israel available to Jews all over the world–or even half Jews like me.

I’m now on my fourth day here, all spent in northern Israel, and so far, the trip has exceeded my low expectations. They were low not only because I generally like to keep them low but also because I expected to be talked at a lot, babysat, and around mostly Japs.–as opposed to say, being able to explore, make my own adventures and form my own opinions. Most of all, I feared that our trip leaders would present very biased perspectives and that I would feel alone as a secular person who is ambivalent about Israel.

Some of those fears have definitely come true. But in interesting—and sometimes more drastic—ways that I did not foresee. And others, delightfully so, haven’t been realized. There have also been some pleasant surprises.

The trip is not that jappy and I’ve made some good friends. Over the last couple of days, I’ve had meaningful conversations with a bunch of different people. I’m also glad that this is not a religious trip. Our trip operator is a secular one and our tour guide, a politically conservative Israeli (and American) from a family of Jewish settlers in the West Bank, says he is secular. I expected to be one of the few people on the trip who didn’t have a Jewish mom, who didn’t go to Hebrew school, who was not Bar-mitzvahed. Nope. There are plenty of those.

But I’m very taken aback by the hard core political conservatism spouted at us—if this trip isn’t meant to force religion down our throats, it is definitely meant to convert us to Zionism. The drumbeat meant to convince us that we are Israelis too, that its struggle is ours, is on. Our tour guide, as I wrote above, grew up in a Jewish settlement in the West Bank. His views are very pro-military, his war history one sided, and needless to say he does not present the other side of the argument or even acknowledge that such an argument might exist.

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The most quixotic man ever

A Nepali man, who these days is riding his bike in Manhattan, has been traveling the world for the past — wait for it — nine years. This guy might be both the most extreme traveler I’ve heard of and most idealistic person in the world.

From the Times: “I am riding bicycle to promote the world peace and universal brotherhood, sir.”

Worth a read on I want to know more about him.

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Tracy Morgan = Walt Clyde Frazier?

Tracy Morgan could play a mean Walt Frazier. Just saying.

Frazier is the longtime Knicks color analyst known for being so well dressed, fond of using the adjectives vivacious and majestic, and big on the phrase “dishin’ and swishin’.” He and Tracy Morgan/Jordan have the same stupid gaze, the kind of gaze which looks like they’re only realizing what they’re saying as it’s coming out of their mouths. Morgan does a great job of saying things that can’t really be followed up by much. They just sort of hang in the air. Clyde is prone to that.

Frazier does have his good moments by the way. He does say smart things sometimes and, somehow, his catch phrases don’t get old.

Here’s a Q and A with Walt.

Other Clyde notes: He likes saying “Defense can be your best offense” and says he owns 100 suits and, to match his handkerchiefs, 50 ties.

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Why not make this video

I’d like something like this on the streets every day. Soon I will make a video of similar spirit to this one.

After minutes of the girl’s awkward dancing and frolicking, which was funny enough, the video could have ended. But no — they decided to bring a guy in a bunny suit and have a celebration with the fat princess on a rooftop. Why? Just because they can.

Also, this Of Montreal song is so good.

Categories: Listening to, Watching | 1 Comment

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