Friday, August 20, 2010

God Save the Queen

"When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford"

- Samuel Johnson (poet and writer 1709 - 1784)

We left Istanbul with one eye on our final destination, Vancouver, and the other on our next short stop - London. We were hoping to meet our good friends Matt, Cora and little Frank but sadly they were out of town but kindly let us use their house.

Upon arrival we made our way out to their area of town and bumbled our way out of the tube at 11pm that evening. Emerging out onto the streets of London we were first hit by the cool northern air and then by the sudden re-entry into "western culture". Within steps of the station, with backpacks on, we bumped into a group of three exiting the local pub. Being fairly inebriated one of them quickly watered down the wall of a nearby building while the other two started to get to know each other a little better. Classy.

Following Matt's directions we made to their friends place, received a map and keys and marched on to their new home. Their home is located in a very attractive, leafy area of the city and the home itself is complete with garden and large yard. We were tempted to extend our stay as squatters in the backyard but wisely decided against it.

(Iconic symbols of London)

(London from the eye - did Joel sniff glue?)

Both of us were excited to be here as Joel had enjoyed London previously and Tina had yet to spend any length of time in this great city. After a night spent practicing our English accents and inserting phrases like "bloody hell", "jolly good" and "cheerio" into our vernacular we were ready. For some reason most Londoners looked at us like idiots when we tried out our new lingo. Bloody hell.

(Tower Bridge)

(St Paul emerging on the Thame's shore)

We spent the first day checking out the most popular sites of London town. We started at the photogenic Westminster combination of the Parliament, Big Ben and Westminster Abbey. A walk across the Thames and we were on the South Bank where we strolled the next few hours. Clouds and intermittent rain welcomed us this day and we were glad to have it. We wore jackets and pants for the first time in many months and actually enjoyed it. That'll wear off quick.

(Does it get more "London")

(Looking over the Thames from millenium bridge)

A stop at the Tate Modern where Joel again faked interest for a few hours. A remarkable collection of work , it was a nice place to shelter from the summer rains, people watch and appear cultured while exiting.
Crossing back over the northern side we checked out the stoic St. Paul's cathedral, sucked down a tall Pims (Joel's man points were lost), fought the mobs at Buckingham palace, chased massive ducks in the park and ended our day with a curry on Brick Lane.

(Nice hat)

(part of Buckingham's surroundings)
Having done enough of the site-seeing we started our final day of travel by taking in the different market areas around London. Taking into account the relative strength of the Pound and weakness of our wallets it was more window shopping then anything else but a great way to take in the air of the different areas of this impressive city. Jolly good.
While seemingly half the city's summer population appears to be tourists like us, London has several layers of intrigue. Romanticized in both literature and popular culture, everywhere you turn is another moment that grabs your attention. Part of this allure is the theater district of London.
We decided to spend our final night of travel in the Apollo Victoria Theater watching "Wicked". It was such a fun performance and was a perfect way to end such an enjoyable and enriching three years of our lives. Good on ya London.
(Picadilly Circus - where are the clowns?)

(The other side of Oz)
An early train ride out to the airport and we were on our way to our new lives in Canada. We have tremendous appreciation of our time in Oman and the travel that it allowed. We are sure that this experience will help us as we re-settle in Vancouver.
Hello/Bonjour Canada!

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Turkey Delights!

"Gorunen koy kilavuz istemez". translation: "The one who enters a Turkish bath sweats".
(Used to point out that one's actions detemine the consequences and therefore one should not complain about them later.)
~Turkish Proverb

(Pictures: Aya Sophia and inside the Aya Sophia)

Making our way up through the Middle East we were ready to start our slow transition back to Western cultures. Sitting at the meeting points of the "east" and "west" Turkey figured to be the perfect launching pad to the next stage in our lives.
Arriving at the border was a smooth and orderly affair. The only hiccup was that in the line-up for passport control a "number 2" sat on the ground. Seriously. The painfully slow line of people discreetly examined the intruder followed by a customs guard breaking off a Turkish conversation to say in perfect english, "what is that!". As far as entries into a country this had to be on the low end. It had to get better from here. It did.

(Pictures: Entrance to Topkapi Palace, Sultan's Harem Room)

Joel's parents had traveled through Turkey 40 years ago and spoke glowingly about thier experiences here. As they traveled from north to south they recalled Istanbul being a gateway to the Middle East and North Africa. For us coming in the opposite direction it's our re-entry into Europe. Cobble stone roads, tramways, a language using Roman letters, these were all comforts that we didn't realized appealed to us so much. The "Europeness" of Instanbul is unquestionable but the influence of Central Asia and Russia are instantly reconizable. Combined with the Arabic and Islamic inprint on society makes for a facinating cultural mixture.
Aside from having one of the greatest skylines in the world, possessing the waters of Europe and Asia lapping at it's shores and boasting a cosmopolitan city infinitley proud of itself Istanbul seems extremely liveable. Within hours of our arrival Tina decided that this was a place we could live. Maybe not soon, but it seems very appealing.

(Pictures: The Blue Mosque)

Just wandering around the streets of the city you can't help but stumble upon the remnants of the Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman and Turkish civilizations. Standing at the Aya Sofia reminded us of being at the Taj Mahal in Delhi or Winter Palace in St. Petersburg - it's a human creation that is truly stunning. Walking inside felt like touring a functional piece of art. Along with the fantastic aestetics, the history of the building flipping from mosque/church/museum echoed the history of the country underlining its importance as an embassador of Turkey.

Highlights of the city not to be missed are the Blue Mosque, Palace, and underground cistern. The only drawback of course is that the rest of Europe already knows this. This is the first place in the last three years of living and travelling that we have been overwhelmed by tourists. We surely aren't blazing a new trail here but it's incredibly impressive.

(Pictures: Underground Cistern and Medusa Head Pedestal in the Cistern)

(Picture: Spice Market, Istanbul)

After a few days in Istanbul we had to pry ourselves away to see other parts of the country. We had our sites on the cave dwelling villages set in the region of Cappadoccia in Central Anatolia.

During the Roman and Byzantine times Christians settled in this region to protect themselves from persecution. The towering pillars of limestone were large enough and soft enough to allow these people to bury there homes inside of the rocks. Whole communities lived in these rocks creating homes, churches, monasteries and schools that would do Barney Rubble proud. Presently the towns are still inhabited but the caves are used for travellers to stay in. An unforgetable experience.

(Breathtaking Cappadocia Landscape)

(Pictures: Goreme Open Air Museum and Painted ceiling within Cave Churches)
We spent several days exploring the region hiking through the valleys and taking trips to neighbouring communities. In these trips we found incredibly detailed frescoes on the walls of cave monasteries, detailed rock embedded communities and entire underground cities.
We took a trip to see an underground city that plunged 8 floors beneath the earth's surface. This city included living quarters, animal quarters, schools, monasteries, kitchens and eating areas. It was capable of holding a population of 5000 people at any one time. The Christians lived in these underground cities when under threat from invading armies and a system of warning lights relayed this danger from as far as Jerusalem. This trip was one of the few times that Joel celebrated his vertically challenged build.

(Picture: Pigeon Valley)

(Picture: Hiking in the Ilhara Valley)

We planned to stay only a few days but extended our stay to both gain an appreciation of this "Star Wars" setting and take a few days to relax. We met some interesting travellers during these days and boarded the bus still gazing out the windows in wonder.

(Picture of other people taking balloon rides in Goreme)

With our departure time quickly looming we returned to Istanbul to experience some of her real pleasure - nightlife, a Bosphorus cruise and a day in a Hammam (a Turkish Bath). A good travel friend from Asia put us in contact with her relatives here and they kindly took us out in Istanbul. For a couple that are often in bed before 10pm this was a scary proposition. The evening was eye opening in that the country is 95% Muslim but this night was nothing like the evenings of juice sipping and sheesha smoking on the 'wild streets' of Muscat. Our hosts discussed this with us and explained that this proves a point of contention in regional affairs. Fun to see so many people (including ourselves) having such a good time.
In the morning we headed to one of the oldest Hammams in Istanbul. Neither of us were particularily looking forward to the event but when in Constantinople....
We've been married for about 6 months and Joel now admits that Tina has competition - he's old, fat, Turkish and doesn't speak a lick of english. But for an afternoon he tossed Joel all over a hot stone slab, grunting inaudible instructions, looking scornfully and scrubbing 30 years of dirt off him. The fact that he splashed soap in Joel's eyes causing him to flail miserably in pain did little to deflate the love.

(Picture: Taksim Square, Istanbul)

(Picture: Bosphorus River Cruising)

(Picture: Cemberitas Hammam in Istanbul)

As we prepare to leave Instanbul if any of you are thinking of travelling to Turkey we greatly encourage you to do so. It's no secret but you can't blame a great destination for being popular. The mix of cultures, histories and current political changes make it far more interesting than merely the terrific sites that it offers.

This stop has suitably started "westernizing" us and our next stop will ensure our Engish is up to par.

London's calling...

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Promised Land

"Peace cannot be kept by force. It can only be achieved by understanding."

~Albert Einstein

(Jerusalem Old City from the Mount of Olives)

For several years one of Joel's travelling goals was to set foot in "The Holy Land". Tina was in it for the Hummous. Regardless of your religious persuasions it certainly is the center of our world's politics and history. This intriguing combination of religion, politics and history promised an interesting trip.

We started the journey by travelling through Jordan and attempting to cross the border near the Dead Sea over the King Hussein/ Allenby Bridge. I write "attempting" as this is a very difficult process with tight security and the very real possibility of being sent back. Given our time in the region we have collected some stamps that are undesirable in the Jewish State of Israel (as is also tru in the reverse).

The process was long and surprisingly chaotic with plenty of lines and checks, and lines and checks until finally we got to the border gate. At this gate we waited a long time and got to know some of the others in the line. One story sticks out:

A guy about our age was travelling from Jordan to Ramallah with his elderly parents to his engagement party. His wife to be is Palestinian and many of her family would not be permitted to travel to Jordan for the wedding later that week, thus they decided to hold the engagement in the West Bank. Therefore his parents must make the trip today so they could be engaged in the traditional manner. He told us the last time he tried to get through here he was forced to wait 11.5 hours until they let him through. His parents were of moderate health and were not doing very well as the wait progressed.

His father explained that he is Palestinian but worked as a labourer in Kuwait when the war of 1967 happened. He lost everything and was unable to return. He was granted assylum into Canada. He now lives in Jordan but said Palestine is still his home.

Finally, when they got their turn ahead of us they were told "no". No explaination was provided but if they did cross they would stamp his parents passorts (not done previously) and they would be unable to return. Just like that the engagement event couldn't happen.

At this time we also got sent to the waiting room and denied immediate entry. As we waited an hour or two a few phone calls were made and he was finally allowed to cross with his parents. He was very gracious but told us quietly that considering his parents being there and having to tell her family that he was "humiliated" by this ordeal. An interesting look into how politics effects the everyday lives of people in the region.

Soon we as well were granted entry and off we went on the road to Jerusalem.

(Picture: Jeruselam- Wailing Wall during Shabat/Temple Mount )

(Picture: The Western Wall aka The Wailing Wall)

(Picture: Dome of the Rock on Temple Mount)

(Picture: View from wall of the Old City)

Walking the streets of Jerusalem's old city was something we'd always dreamed of doing and it did not disappoint. With the spirituality of three of the most popular montheastic religions, their holiest sites, and the climate of occupation the streets are absolutely alive.

Arriving at sunset on Friday (Shabbat) we headed straight for the holiest of Jewish sites - The Wailing or Western Wall. Having no prior exposure to this religion Joel was wide eyed at the orthodox clothing and system of Torah recital at the wall. The area was completely packed with worshipers praying, singing, dancing and reading from the Torah. What an introduction.

On our first full day in this magical town we arrived early at Temple Mount. This site is the third holiest site in the world in Islam and without question the most photo-genic structure in the city. The Dome of the Rock marks the position that Abraham was meant to slay his son and where Mohammed ascended to heaven alongside Allah. Either way, it's really is jaw dropping.

After leaving Temple Mount we walked the stations of the cross. Many a Sunday growing up the pictures of the stations on his church wall were the last things Joel saw before he dozed off. On this day we had the privilage of walking this route. In a city teeming with pilgrims an Italian group walked with us carried a cross, sang, chanted and added a great deal to the atmosphere. The stations end at The Church of Holy Sepulchure - where Jesus died on the cross. Regardless of your thoughts of religion to walk the steps of this historical event was very impactful.

(Via Deloroso - Stations of the Cross)

(Picture: Church of the Holy Sepulchre)

The next day we set out for the West Bank city of Bethlehem. Going across to the West Bank requires crossing the separation wall. This is a wall that Israel has built around the Palestinian territories. It's shocking. hundreds of km's of concrete wall stretches around the country with look out towers throughout. To pass through is similar to crossing a border with papers presented and bags checked. We had tea with some young guys in the West Bank that day and they had never been allowed beyond the walls. Israel claims it needs the wall for protection, Palestine claims that the wall is designed to break their will and refer to it as the Aparteid Wall. Either way it's bewildering that it's come to this. There is graffitti covering the Palestinian side and we walked along the wall read some of the work.

Walking the small alleys of the town of Jesus' birth and seeing the spot where the event occured was humbling. The town remains small and it's importance to Christians worldwide evident by the pilgrims present on this day.

(Picture: The Wall between Isreal and the West Bank; Graffiti Art on the Wall)

(Picture: Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem)

On our final day in Jerusalem we walked up the Mt. of Olives where Jesus is said to have been arrested and ascended to heaven following his death. We went for the view. Overlooking the walled city you notice the only gate that is filled in - The Golden Gate. All three monotheistic religions beleive that this is where judgement day will start. Helpful hint - if you start seeing bricks breaking away from this gate you better get your life in order quick.

We were genuinely sad as we walked out of the gates for the last time. It was a mesmerizing city and a time in our travels we won't forget.

(Picture: Golden Gate - and Dome of the Rock)

From Jerusalem we headed north to the city of Nazareth. Aside from being the home where Mary and Joseph raised Jesus it was a really nice chance to see life in the north of the country. Nazareth is a small, almost entirely Arab (Muslim and Christian), town that is charmingly understated. We took a walk around the town and got some inside knowledge of daily life.

(Picture: Grotto where Gabriel told Mary she would have Jesus)

(Picture: Basillica of Assumption; Nazereth)

(Picture: Old City in Nazereth)

From there we took off for the coast to stay in Jaffa - southern part of Tel Aviv. This place was entirely different then the rest of the country that we saw. We often just people watched as it was beach life everywhere. Although religion must play a part in the lives of the citizens it seemed to take a back seat to tanning, surfing, and enjoying life. Very different.

(Picture: Tel Aviv Coastline)

(Picture: Using your head at the Beach in Tel Aviv)

Israel/Palestinian Territories promised to be a place of great interest - religion, politics and history and it did not disappoint at all. It was an incredibly facinating, eye opening and unsettling place to see. It's where we've been, why we're here and hopefully not where we're going.

From here we are off to Turkey for kebabs in Istanbul. Getting closer to Vancouver.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


"An eye for an eye, and the whole world would be blind. "

- Kahlil Gibran, Lebanese artist, poet, and writer born in B'charre.

Recovered from our hike of Mt. Sinai we prepared for a "leisurely day" crossing into Jordan via the Egyptian ferry. Arriving at the terminal at 11:30am and ready to take the 2pm boat due to arrive on the Jordan side at 3pm we were all set. So we thought. Fast boat tickets were sold out so we opted for the 2 hour slow boat at 3pm. We have been in this region long enough to know that all those times are estimates at best but this was a personal record. The boat didn't leave till almost 7pm and dumped us on the other side at 12:30am. On the bright side the boat was well kept and we traveled with a great Danish/American couple that kept things fun.

A bus up to Amman and a bag full of DVD's later and we were off for our next destination - Lebanon.

Arriving in Beirut were were smacked in the face with how different it all was. On one hand it was a city of opulent lifestyles - huge expensive SUV's, numerous pool bars around the Mediterranean Corniche, elegant fashion, expensive restaurants, art galleries and luxuries shopping. On the other hand there are tanks rolling in the streets, soldiers armed in bunkers at street corners, frequent power cuts, heavy air pollution, begging street children, refugee camps and bullet ridden buildings.

Walking around you can't help but wonder how does this all work? Equal amount churches and mosques, people fully covered and others wearing virtually nothing, incredible wealth beside staggering poverty. Does it work here? Can it work here?

A few days in the city is hardly enough to comment but it seems the only way this works is the people that inhabit this place. They seemed resilient and welcoming regardless of the situation. We soon had our fill of this busy, hilly, humid, hot city and set our sites inland.

(Beirut Cornish and sunbathers)

(Martyr's Square and Mohammed Al-Amin Mosque)

(Beirut Holiday Inn post-civil war)

(Beach Clubs and Barb Wire in Beirut)

(Pigeon Rocks, Beirut)

We hopped in a cramped mini van and headed for Baalbeck in the Bekaa Valley. The beautiful drive up and over the mountains immediately took us back home as the terrain matched that of the interior of BC in the summer months.

We headed to Baalbeck to see arguably the most important and well preserved Roman ruins in the Middle East. Baalbeck's temples were initiated by the Phoenecians, and the Romans extensively developed this grand complex well into the 1st century AD. Always used as a site of religion - be it pageon or christian - it was a place of great importance for hundreds of years.

This tiny cobble stoned town was again very welcoming, and home to the best hommous of our trip so far (no small feat). It is also well-known as the head quarters of Hezbollah. The flags and images of this party are all over the city and the prayers over the loud speakers seem laced with party messages. It was slightly unnerving to wander through the ruins, listening to the loud speakers while "booms" of the military "practicing" echoed all around us. As safe as we felt in the city it was still time to go after a day at the ruins.

(Baalbeck Ruins)

Finding our way out of the Hezbollah countryside and into the Christian dominated hills offers no public transport. A few service taxis later we found a guy willing to take us up into the beautiful mountain villages of the Cedars. We headed straight for the tiny town of Bcharre which most resembled a village in the Alps then one in the Middle East.

The town is home to the famous poet Kahlil Gibran and many ancient Maronite monasteries carved into the mountain valley below. We spent two days hiking through this gorgeous region stumbling upon grottos, monastaries and elaborate churches. Gibran is buried in the hills here and a museum was put over his tomb. Art in the Middle East is something that we have not seen a great deal of but here in Lebanon they champion artists and it was refreshing to see. Joel still can't figure out why this guy was so famous when his poems didn't even rhyme! There's no accounting for taste.

(Bcharre and the Qdisha Valley)

(St. Elisha Monastery)

(Hiking in the Qdisha Valley)

(Khalil Gibran Museum and Tomb)

From the hills we headed back to Beirut for a day of rest and then another "leisurely day" of travel back to Jordan. Wanting to skip the cost of a taxi we opted for a public bus to the airport. Assured of our destination by the driver off we went. Needless to say it was the longest 2 hour, 6km drive of our lives. Time was ticking and the route and traffic just kept getting worse. Soon we were in the south of Beirut in an area we were told not to walk in (refugee camps). We realized quickly (not quick enough) that we were well past the airport and the driver had forgotten about us.

We jumped out of the bus, departure time approaching and needing to get a ride. We ran to some vans and arranged a ride through two guys and off we went. We thought. We were explaining our rush in Arabic and they began fighting with each other. They blocked each others vans and argued. Time kept ticking. We continued in our broken Arabic and finally it was agreed we were off with the second guy. So we thought again.

Now speeding down the highway the first guy drives up and they shout at each other, he cut off our van and slammed on our brakes. Jumping out of the van in the middle of a highway we switched to the first van and off we went with the first guy. Crazy finale to a unique Middle Eastern country!
Our next stop: The Holy land
Inshallah things will be smoother...
Je t'aime Lebanon!