Decidedly urban couple who quit their jobs and successfully backpacked their way through Asia for a year. They met Buddha, drank baijiu and learned to master the squat toilet. Now appearing in a new life as ex-pats in Singapore.

Middle East
Yes 'Little Timmy', the streets of Cairo are safe!

Yes ‘Little Timmy’, the streets of Cairo are safe!

Vinnie learns Towla from our friend Hazem

These days there is an air about Cairo that is exciting to be around. People fill the street-side cafes, sipping tea, smoking shisha, and playing towla (backgammon). People are warm and inviting. They smile with a genuine satisfaction. When you cross the street, you are likely to have an Egyptian man escort you pass crazy drivers and give you a big “Welcome to Egypt” when you arrive safely on the other side.

People ask where you are from with genuine interest. They are proud of their country right now and want to make sure you are experiencing the best of it, even if that means grabbing you by the hand and personally showing you famous monuments and attractions.

I feel fortunate to be here at such a time of re-birth and national pride. I haven’t experienced anything like this in our travels. It’s not frequently that a democracy is ‘born’ (and through non-violence no less). And it can’t be certain that a free democracy is inevitable as Egypt is still in purgatory between the revolution and elections next spring. If you ask people on the ground about presidential contenders, there is no strong figure that stands out that they wish to elect, though the mood is optimistic and you’ll hear “Anything is better than Mubarak!

You gotta fight to party!

Kristine fights for the rights of Egyptian citizens!

On our second night in Cairo, we were sitting at a packed outdoor cafe (alongside dozens like it, lining an alleyway). A football match was playing on TV screens up and down the street. After the match, all the cafe owners scrambled to move the tables and chairs inside. As it was 1am, we assumed it was closing time. But we soon overheard shouting and asked a local what was going on. The military was trying to issue a curfew and began marching down the street, instructing shop owners to move tables and chairs inside. This was met with angry shouts from patrons and soon a demonstration was forming – pushing the military back and out of the alley! Hundreds of bystanders became demonstrators (including us) and chants and shouts had a mix of anger and smiles. Citizens pushed out the men in uniform sporting face masks and machine guns. Finally congregating in a square which became ground for a larger demonstration with more people, megaphones, and cameras (tons of cameras)

In Egypt, the people corner the army!

There is a feeling (both noticeable and verbally *said*) that the “people” control the military and the police. When asked if demonstrations ever get out of hand or violent, one youthful group replied “No, we wouldn’t let that happen, we would step in to stop it.” When we replied, ‘isn’t that the police’s job?‘ they said “The country belongs to the people and the military works for us.

In addition to freedom, there is this sense of “ownership” that the people have over their country (that should permeate through any democracy), but I have never felt such a deep sense of ownership like I felt in Cairo. It’s amazing and we’re fortunate to be here right now, because as somebody from a country spouting to be the greatest democracy in the world – i’ve never come across this level of democratic emotion and I don’t think it can last forever.

The Pincer Movement

On our last night, we learned about the two phased approach of demonstrations that were going on during the revolution. The first is what we all watched on our TVs, hundreds of thousands of people in Tahrir square, protesting peacefully in the wake of violent lashes from Mubarak. However, there was a second movement happening off the screen. The military and police fully encircled the square for days so that supplies, like basic food, water, blankets, etc. could not be easily be brought in – and thereby weaken the protesters. Also, as with any volatile movement, there was the risk of looting through Cairo as many shop owners were in the square. So bands of youths came together to be interim village police and protect the community. They would form groups on each block to make sure nobody was looting nor causing trouble – as the police were hoping to encourage this behavior and have the people take themselves down.

It’s an amazing feeling on the ground right now. Egypt is safe, welcoming, friendly, and undergoing a transformation that you may only get to see once in a lifetime!

Food Wars

Food Wars

The fastest way to gain a few pounds is to tell a Malaysian that you enjoyed the food in Singapore. Immediately you will be forcibly carted off to a century old noodle restaurant to discover just how much beef and broth you can possibly fit in your stomach. And while your trying in vain to digest your first meal, your Malaysian hosts begin to cast aspirations that the next meal might be even better. Not two hours later you find out that dreams can come true, then you fall into a deep Thanksgiving-worthy coma only to be roused for an ice cream.

Ummm.. Beefy!

An extra five pounds is certainly preferable to a fist in the face, which is what might happen when you start drinking in South America.

The fastest way to make an enemy in Peru is to mention that their national drink, Pisco Sour, is originally from Chile.  And no matter how much you kick back in Chile never insinuate that, technically, the grape brandy in their favorite tipple originated in Peru. In fact, don’t talk at all, just shut up and enjoy that frothy bitter sweet concoction sent down from the Gods of alcohol.

All smiles until you mention the pisco!

Food and drink are heated topics worldwide, every country believes that their food is the absolute best. (And they’re all wrong, the award for best food in the world has already been given to San Francisco.) As usual the Middle East brings some very impassioned, very loud voices to the great food debate.

Hummus.

My favorite meal

In the Middle East this dish isn’t doomed to linger on the appetizer list. It’s not a dip or a salad or a less-fattening alternative to mayo on your sandwich. Hummus is a meal meant to tide a working man over from morning to night. Huge steaming bowls of creamy, olive oil soaked chickpeas are served alongside massively fluffy, steaming hot pita and perhaps some deep fried falafel.

Hummus in Jordan

It takes a lot of work to arrive at point where you can lift the last bit of bread and wipe it across the naked bowl to make certain that the last vestiges of hidden hummus are properly consumed. Most westerners can simply not eat that many beans in one sitting.

BUT I CAN.

Hummus with Fuul

Hummus scooped with raw onions and crunchy pickles. Hummus covered with fuul or whole chick peas. Hummus served with meat, hummus with mushrooms, hummus with tahina. I ate it all. Everyday. That is, until I discovered just how many calories a blue-collar bowl of hummus contains. A lot.

HUMMUS.

There is only one dish on this menu - HUMMUS!

I refuse to state which (non-)country had the ultimate bowl of this deliciousness for fear of destabilizing the entire region and causing The Great Hummus War.

And because I’m such a peace loving person let me warn you now: no matter where you eat this be careful how you say it. It turns out that my American accented “hum-us” sounds suspiciously like “Hamas” in Arabic…

Named after my friend, Emily Hummus

 

THIS IS PALESTINE!

THIS IS PALESTINE!

When I was 20 years old I spent the summer in Spain. One week a friend and I took the ferry across Gibraltar to the port town of Tangiers in Morocco.  When we disembarked there was a hoard of men waiting to descend upon the fresh faced backpackers on board.  They screamed at us, “You’re not in Europe anymore! This is AFRICA!”

And I was scared.

Bethlehem

I felt very similarly as I took the bus to the Israeli border and walked up to the imposing 26 foot high security wall, continued through the intricate set of turnstiles and down a chain-link fence alley way into Palestine with nary a security check or someone at the border to approve my passage.

In my mind I was thinking, “You’re not in Israel anymore. This is PALESTINE!”

As seen from Israel

Show no fear!

But instead of PALESTINE! I found Bethlehem, a quiet little town surviving from the trickle of tourists that make it across the border. Tour buses of people come to visit the site of Christ’s birth, to kiss his star and absorb some of the holiness that might still lingering in the air. I did this too but after saying my respects to baby Jesus, I wandered around the city streets looking for signs of PALESTINE.

Church of the nativity - The manger had a facelift

Give baby Jesus a big kiss!

Instead I found love, peace and Banksy!

Olive branch Banksy

Bethleham is just too small, I reasoned.  It’s not the “real” Palestine. It’s not the place of malcontents and keffiyeh wearing radicals waiting for statehood. The next day I once again crossed the border, this time into the de-facto capital of the West Bank.

A young Israeli soldier with reflective glasses, heavy black boots and a large automatic weapon boarded the bus to check our papers. Seeing my passport, he studied me.

“This is the bus for Ramallah.”

“Yes,” I responded in my most polite, deferring to authority voice.

“You want to go to Ramallah?!”

“Yes,” with a little less certainty.

In a deep, serious voice he said,”Be very careful”

His words reinforced what I believed, that I am heading to a dangerous place. I am going to find PALESTINE!

"Take my picture!"

I was mentally prepared. I imagined refugee camps, a smattering of chaperoned women with babies and angry men openly carrying guns wandering the rubble strewn streets. I fantasized that my blatant American accent would insight an Anti-American riot culminating with a chorus of bearded men shouting “ku-lu-lu-lu” and shooting machine guns into the air as I was shoved in a van and whisked away to be held for a ransom that was never to be paid. Or at the very least I would get some hostile looks.

So two things should be obvious: one, I clearly have an overactive imagination and two, none of this happened.

Instead of a poorly developed, poverty stricken town, Ramallah is a lively, bustling city overflowing with men, women and children. Ice cream parlors filled with families line the street and jam packed shawarma restaurants are busting at the seams with teenagers on cell phones. The foot traffic on the sidewalk swelled into the street where taxis, buses and the odd new model Audi struggle to move an inch.

There is no sign of rubble or collapsed buildings. Instead you see store upon store and the streets filled with things to buy. Outside the open air malls mannequins with headscarves and full-length grey trench coats stand next to piles of sneakers and lipstick. Nuts, dried fruit and gummy bears sit in huge barrels. It’s nearly impossible to resist the siren call of freshly roasted coffee that wafts from every other shop entrance.

Coffee Shop

Instead of a rowdy, unemployed youth and angry, radicalized machine-toting men, each and every person I met was unerringly polite.  “You’re from America?” they repeated after learning my homeland. This was quickly followed with “You are welcome here!” or “Welcome to Palestine!”

Peace in the Middle East, yo!

I walked through the refugee neighborhoods and peered into the homes clearly equipped with the modern basics. I wandered the markets and lingered around the male dominated tea-and-hooka stalls.  I searched high and low for assurance that I was indeed in that famous non-state, the center of conflict in the middle east. Instead I found myself in a peaceful, modern, and distinctly Arab city.

I was in Ramallah just days before Abbas headed to the UN to ask for statehood and when my own government was thwarting that effort. I am amazed at how Middle Easterners – from Jordan to Egypt  – have separated the person from the politics.

It’s intimidating to break out of your comfort zone; no one wants to find out that their assumptions or their stereotypes are misguided. I’ve continued to confront the fact that ‘Arab’ doesn’t mean radical, the Middle East isn’t all bombs over Baghdad and perhaps what I’m sure I “know” is just something I heard on the news.

(My camera broke falling off of that bus to Ramallah so I borrowed the most accurate pics I could find of that city.  Here are some shots of Bethlehem.)

 

 

 

Are you there God? It's me, Kristine.

Are you there God? It’s me, Kristine.

Jerusalem is a heavy destination.

Mount of Olives

For Jews it’s the cornerstone of the world, the location of the Holy of the Holies and where your prayers go straight to heaven. For Christians these are the streets where Christ walked, where he healed the blind, ate his last supper and eventually died for the sins of the world. For Muslims it’s the third holiest city after Mecca and Medina, where Mohammed ascended to heaven.

The city was destroyed by the Romans, sought after by the crusaders and remains a core issue in the Israeli-Palenstian conflict.

This is SERIOUS SHIT.

Site of Christ's cruxification and entombment

Entering the city walls is like entering a spiritual vortex where millenia of religious struggle weighs upon you. And then there are the guns. Lots and lots of guns.

Virgin Mary in her Church

Groups of Orthodox Christians dressed in bright colors and headscarves wander alongside orthodox Jews with huge black hats and curly sideburns who brush past Muslim women covered in all-encompassing black dresses. Everywhere you look there is a different sect, a different set of beliefs, a different uniform, a different way of worshiping God.

At every church, every temple, every wall there was a person covering their face, crying, or rubbing their religious accoutrements against a holy stone, or kissing the building. Groups of tourists carry a huge cross to recreate Christ’s final steps. They stop along the way to drop their cross in the same place where Jesus fell for the first time or pause to pray at the place where he met his mother.

Tourists recreating Christ's crucifixion

It was a lot to take in and the intensity of this religious furor left me depleted and bewildered. I expected to feel some connection, some familiarity with the rites and rituals of my upbringing. Instead I felt as confused as I was when I cleansed my soul in the Ganges, entered the Masjid Negara or meditated my way towards enlightenment. It all felt foreign to me.

And mixed in with all that religion, politics is simmer just underneath the surface. Little kids run around aiming plastic pistols at each other. Gates to the Temple Mount are guarded by men with machine guns and when they see a non-muslim heading to entrance, they block the path with their gun. All religions are allowed to the Western wall, but to get there you pass through metal detectors. Groups of Israeli soldiers with guns mill around the plaza.

There are way too many guns in what is supposed Holy Land.

Streets of Jerusalem

Squabbles between different sects of Christianity is not unheard of. Five different groups of Christians claim ownership of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre – the  site where Christ was crucified – and run the site by ‘status quo.’  Everyone must agree before changes are made to any common area but agreements rarely happen.  There is ladder from construction that took place in the 19th century still leaning against the building. The can’t agree to move it.

The Western wall (The Waiting wall)

I spent several days wandering the old city contemplating WHAT DOES THIS MEAN. Surrounded by all that religious piety and political tension, I felt exhausted and not at all uplifted.

Finally I decided that it doesn’t mean anything – it’s OK that I don’t want to carry the cross down the Via Dolorosa or believe that my prayers at the Western wall go straight to God. It was enough to be there and witness, once again, the diversity that exists in our world and remember that I don’t have to understand everything.

So after four days in Jerusalem, I said a prayer for my Grandma and I felt comforted by this quote from the 14th Dalai Lama,

I don’t think there could ever be just one single philosophy or one single religion. Since there are so many different types of people, with a range of tendencies and inclinations, it is quite fitting that there are differences between religions. And the fact that there are so many different descriptions of the religious path shows how rich religion is.”

(Pics of my first few days, no photos of the temple mount because my camera fell out of the bus and broke.)

All The Single Ladies!

All The Single Ladies!

Heading to an Arab country for the first time is a little intimidating, particularly for a single, American woman. “They don’t like modern women!” people warned, “be careful and don’t walk around alone.” Among other impractical advice I was told to: Cover your head! Don’t talk to men! Say you’re from Canada!

I arrived prepared.

Amman, Jordan

At the airport in Amman I was ready for lascivious, predatory taxi drivers and questioning stares from burka clad women. My guard was up: shoulders back, reflective sunglasses firmly in place and Beyonce loudly cheering me on in my headphones.

Perhaps my guard was too firmly in place. A man waiting outside the airport attempted to help me – to sell me a ticket, direct me to the next bus and place my bag in a pile of other luggage. In return he received a stern dressing down, replete with finger pointing and accusations that he was either overcharging me or attempting to steal my only possessions. The words, “My Husband!” and “Italian Mafia!” may have have been thrown around.

It turns out that he was the bus driver.

Petra!

He had clearly heard the accusations before because he calmly pointed to his price list and time schedule. The bus left 20 minutes later with my belongings firmly secured in the back of the locked trunk. This was my first indication that my expectations may be off the mark.

This was confirmed the longer I stayed in Jordan.

Saving me from car troubles!

On the street strangers would approach me, wanting to know where I came from and why I was traveling alone. Instead of the ardently anti-American refrain that I had prepared for, each and every person gave a huge smile and proclaimed, “Welcome to my country!” -or- “You’re American? You’re welcome here!”

Latest fashion in Amman

It wasn’t just the absence of anti-western sentiment that surprised me; the most difficult aspects of travel – bargaining, transportation, and avoiding touts- were far easier in Jordan than in Asia. The word ‘No!’ actually works in Jordan! Bargaining was as simple as saying, “I’ll only give you 50cents for that bottle of water.” Cabs readily turned on their meters and the only guide who offered his services was a 75 year old homeless man.

In fact, the only problem was that too many people wanted to help me. Women on the bus made certain that I paid the correct amount and counted my change. Cars would slow down to ask if I was lost or if I needed help. Everywhere I went men warned against other men, “watch for dangerous guys at the beach! Are you sure you don’t want me to come with you..”

Mud bath at the Dead Sea

Confronted with all this kindness, I left Jordan with the feeling that I was missed out on the best part of this country. I felt that I couldn’t accept this genuine hospitality because I was a single woman and it might give the wrong impression.

Every night I relaxed at the same restaurant and every night after serving his tables my very gentile waiter would invite me to join him at his table for dinner. I really wanted to sit with him, to ask questions and hear about his life. Instead every night I declined – smiling demurely, sitting all alone, enjoying my second sweet mint tea. I knew this man wasn’t interested in me romantically but I didn’t sit with him because I didn’t want to give his friends the wrong idea.

The world's tallest flagpole

I am the type of person to say ‘Yes!’ and I enjoy finding myself in unusual, interesting, and exciting circumstances –  the very experiences that have made this trip so memorable. But in Jordan I felt that I didn’t have that luxury. Although I felt incredibly safe, it was clear that I was in a man’s world and that there were specific gender roles that I needed to follow.

I enjoyed my time in Jordan – it’s safe, stunning and full of warm, welcoming people. But to really enjoy every minute and take advantage of every opportunity, it helps to bring a friend.