Monday, October 31, 2011

Peru part 2: Arequipa


I surprised myself when I took the VIP “bed” option on the trip from Cusco to arequipa for more than double the regular fare. If you ARE going to afford yourself luxuries though, this is the place to do it. 10 hour bus ride with entertainment, first class seat and a meal all for 25$. Not bad.

I had been expressedly forewarned about about taxis robbing people in Arequipa and I must admit, I was not very reassured, when the taxi driver took the “industrial park shortcut” to get downtown. Fueling my mounting suspicion, the driver kept stopping sporadically in the middle of the empty street and honking. At what? I do not know. This was followed by a lot of looking around and then off we went again at painstakingly slow speeds.
This particular part of downtown Arequipa, at 6am on a Sunday morning looked like many suburbs and fringes of town I had been to in different parts of south America. The combination of lack of sleep, lack of knowledge and paranoia came to its boiling point and I cracked…
“Get back on a fucking main street before I start beating the shit out of you!!!”  Is about a rough translation of the threat I vociferated.
“This IS your street…” the driver replied in resignation as he turned the corner and pointed at my hostel.
I had heard about a good place to stay from a german couple that had gotten along well with my dad at the hostel in Cusco, and in a spout of organizational laziness had decided to join them there.
Howbeit, as the long night of the soul rolled along on the bus, I replayed the girl’s body language in my head and came to the conclusion that she could have been more pleased with my general presence. I decided to act on the ever so off chance that the little tourist kiosk at the bus terminal might point me in the direction of a half decent place to rest my head. Could have been worse…

Arequipa, other than the three street wide “DTZ”(designated tourist zone) isn’t pretty by any means. Diesel gas chokes your lungs as you walk down the crowded streets, the architecture is nothing if not unextraordinary, the decibel level is at all times higher than can possibly be good for you and it is a veritable breeding ground for pickpockets, bottom of your purse cutters and such riffraff. I loved it right away.

Maybe my acumen had been whitewashed by the Cuzcodian circus that I had spent the better part of the last 3 days in but the reality of a city with crime and whores recomforted me like 20/20 vision after going cross eyed.
My “experiencia Arequipena” was quite limited, be that as it may, impressions are lasting. When the whore on the street taps you on the ass as you walk by and tells you she would do you for free, when a custom made suit costs 100$, when the roasted chicken gives you a hard-on, when you wake up at 10 a.m. to a parade marching into your inner ear drum only to be informed by the cleaning lady that it is the first day of carnival, well then there are very few conclusions left at your disposal my friend. You are in Arequipa.

When it comes to seafood, for me its always hit or miss, so when I realized I had yet to try Peru’s famed “ceviche” I decided to go high end . Chi Cha, one of Peru’s finer dining establishments, did not dissapoint. Tropical fruit cocktails, Fish ceviche, alpaca steak and mixed berry mousse. That was my Peruvian sendoff. Next stop chile.

Peru part 1: Cusco and the Machu Pichu

Cusco and the Machu pichu:

I have to start by saying that I was under enthused at the idea of going to the Machu Pichu. I could smell the “faux adventure traveler” a thousand kilometers away but it was a Father-son trip of epic proportions so I soldiered on. A night sleeping on the floor of the Lima airport; 3 days in cusco, a 2 hour taxi ride, some rotten guinea pig, an extremely overpriced train ride and a night in tourist jungle hell later, there we were, father and son in the ruins of machu pichu. In awe.

We were not impressed by the same things though, father thought of the people who managed to labour such amazing stone work while son contemplated how special this particular spot was, sitting on top of the world, clouds running up the side of the mountain and hopping over the peak like sheep over a fence in the mind of an insomniac.

Now I know what it feels like to be a parent on Christmas day. The cost, the lineups, the bullshit, it is all worth it for the look on his face. I have never seen my father so excited about something before. So much so that he talked about wanting to be a guide there most of the way back to Cusco.
Reality seemed to seep back into his brain through his ears when he was informed that a guide, on average, makes no more than 40$ a day.
I must concede however that, with or without a parental unit, it is definitely a trip worth taking.
Cuzco on the other hand is worth steering clear of.

Israel part 5: Tel Aviv

Tel Aviv

“And the girl being interviewed said, - I don’t care if the rent is high, the apartments are run down and dirty and crime is rampant, I want to live in Tel Aviv”  he recites with the obnoxious and HIPSTER-like intonation of the young lady in question. My Friend is anything but; he lives in the north of the city in what most would call a suburb, he recites his list of annoyances with Tel-avivites as we walk down the main street. He is a tall, strong, idealistic type who grew up in a small town. Black curly hair , ie jew-fro. He makes me think of what the young Clark Kent from the horrendous tv show “smallville” would be like if he was stripped of his powers and moved to suburban LA.
We continued our condescending canter down a tourist street until he led me up a side street into a different neighbourhood, and for what it may have seemed, a different world. We stopped in a little restaurant which seemed as though it had been carved out of a broom closet, as we sat down and the elderly woman who was both cook and waitress came out from behind the counter and asked us what we would like to eat, my friends face uncringed and a smile spread across his lips as if to say “but then there is this side of the city :)
I had gone out the night before (my only night in Tel Aviv) with a group of El Al (Israeli airline) gate agents I had met in Hong Kong. In the group was a girl I had flirted with the whole night back in Asia but in this part of the world she had a boyfriend so the conversation was redirected to politics, food, and getting through airport security the next day…
My vaccine to the voracious disease that is Israeli airport security was Neta; A plump, smiley, mother of the group sort of lady. She had been weary of me when we first met or maybe I was too distracted by the blonde hair and cleavage sitting opposite her at the tacky Hong Kong cocktail lounge to notice her much. It was only in our second encounter that I realized the kind of human gem that was hiding in plain sight.
Being, at times, an incorrigibly shallow person, especially when it comes to women, I tend to do this- mainly, miss out on opportunities to exchange with amazing people in favor of distractions of the curvacious kind.
Neta drove me to the airport the next day, which happened to be Saturday, hence a day when nothing, including public transportation, is up and running in Israel.
She was friends with the young lady who performed the initial security categorization, where you get a number from 1 to 6 based on a couple of questions(Arr yu Jewish? Do you hrave family hrere? Did you visit east Jerusalem?) and this decides whether you will be getting on your flight or spending the next 6 hours being interrogated by an aging Israeli customs officer.
I got a 2(low threat) on this exam but was later informed that, had I been alone, I would have been a 5. I would have gotten to know, to a very intimate degree, the previously stated customs officer.
We flew through security and I got to the gate with lots of time to spare. Neta and I talked for a bit, then I thanked her for everything and we hugged out a goodbye.
It was a heart-warmingly clichéd end to a trip that was anything but.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Israel part 4: Haifa

After 5 days in the beautiful tranquility, zen pastures and orange groves of the Golan, I needed a drink...

What do you get when you mix an awesome loft painted all in white and nicknamed “the cube” with a beardy Israeli photography student who sleeps 3 hours a night, drinks and smokes, chases tail and leaves you a key? Something close to the perfect couchsurfing experience.

I had originally planned on staying in Haifa 1 day but extended my stay to 4 in the hopes of photosynthesizing some of this man’s energy.
Haifa has some amazing attributes for a “sleepy little port town”.

-       The Bahaii faith’s headquarters are here.
      built at a cost of over 250 million dollars, this monument to anal retentive gardening stands tall overlooking the port and more directly, the street that leads up to it, the aptly named “german colony”. (the only street in the city that has undergone extensive urban planning)
-       A beautiful view of the mediteranean
-       The downtown area next to the port has everything needed (including placement) to create an “artsy” bohemian neighbourhood complete with crumbling ex-great buildings and a scenery that could survive nuclear attack.
-       The beach
-       The strange funiculaire like subway

Haifa was and is a cornerstone of geopolitical history, the largest city in northern part of the country and the third largest in Israel it was built on the slopes of mount carmel and has been ruled by everyone from the pheonicians to the british and most recently the Israelis.
Having always been an important port town its economy still depends heavily on polluting the sea but now includes several “high-tech parks” (the name makes them sounds more fun than they actually are) and an oil refinery which has a cooling tower that looks like that of its nuclear equivalent. Which I guess makes the town  dangerously vulnerable to the attacks of a heinously misinformed terrorist organization. Hidden in plain sight in some of these “high-tech parks” are some of the companies that develop the most sophisticated “anti-terrorist” software used vivaciously in the “global war on terror”. Also Intel does a good share of its Research and Development here for its processors.
In a nutshell, Haifa is a city blinded to and by its own potential…
My time in Haifa was divided between walking for hours by the beach in the hot Mediterranean sun; drinking with my host, becoming overwhelmingly infatuated with a curly haired psychology student and making a day trip up to the Lebanese seaside border. The latter was one of the more important motivators for my trip to Israel, I had come quite close to the Israeli border during my time in Lebanon and had decided it would serve me well to be able to compare the two. And what a comparison it is ..                                                                                                                                                
 While the Lebanese side boasts a Hezbollah strong hold thinly veiled as a fishing village,
 where the trauma of residents can be read on their faces and the streets smell of fresh fish and cluster bombing, the Israeli side of the border is a tourist attraction, the grotto of Rosh Hanikra.
Complete with cable car ride, multimedia show and American tourists.

ts enough to almost make you forget that just up the hill from this fairytale is a military installation that was active in the campaign against Hezbollah forces in southern Lebanon no more than 3 years ago and if history is any indicator, will be used again for that same purpose in the not too distant future.

Access to the road leading up to the installation was not guarded and I was able to get halfway up the hill before a jeep carrying 3 pimple faced soldiers passed by and stopped long enough to tell me to turn around.
Having seen about all I was going to see, I headed back to Haifa with a pitstop in the town of Akko, a beautiful seaside settlement with a majority Arab population where I watched the sun set while smoking Narjilé.

As it often will, my time in Haifa came to an end and I headed to Tel Aviv by train. I managed, in my travel induced stupor, to miss my stop and had to backtrack in the opposite direction. That train however, was the express to Haifa… I did this twice…

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Israel part 3: The Golan

The Golan:
I left Jerusalem and made my way up to the Golan heights. My first of many run-ins with the Israeli bus service. I was quite excited to be going to the border area as I usually am whenever I go anywhere there has been recent conflict . That and to see the Lebanesse and Syrian borders was one of the main reasons I went to Israel in the first place.
The bus ride up was aesthetically pleasing to say the least. I spent  a little over half the trip talking with a young American girl who was serving in the IDF as a field intelligence officer. I have always had some deep seated and romanticized desire to work in intelligence and so when she asked me what I do I couldn’t help myself from pretending to have previously worked in this field (in retrospect a horrible idea I  know). It did provide for some interesting conversation and she did share some information im not sure she would have otherwise but after she left the bus the realization of how potentially stupid what I had done was hit me and since I was in the land of security hypersensitivity, I started getting paranoid about my surroundings, which paved the way for one of the more extreme panic attacks I have experienced… Hot flashes, believing the falafal I bought at the bus stop was poisoned, heart palpitations, etc. This lasted for a good part of the rest of the trip up north and was the first (and most severe) of several panic attacks that came knocking that week.

I arrived at Kibutz Ortal (Kibutz: a collective community in Israel that was traditionally based on agriculture)  around 10 pm, just in time to call up some delivery hummus from a place called the blue bus, have a few beers and call it a night. Zzzz
Morning: I wake up to a wonderful, calm and charming estate. My first Kibutz experience was a success. I got to visit the stables, (where the kids living on the Kibutz get to ride whenever they want) have lunch with the members in the communal cafeteria and take a tour around the grounds. I also had the opportunity to visit the chicken farm and had great conversation with its caretaker, a Russian jew with a great sense of humor and a love of…chickens, his will to learn English pushed him to get me to spend most of the afternoon with him.
Rudi, my host, a young man of Russian decent with a big heart and a receding hairline of Jack Nicholson proportions, then took me out to the Syrian border through a road whose entrance included a big sign saying “ military personnel only”
On this road I got to see my first formally marked mine field. Its yellow and orange signs marked “danger, mines” had an attractive quality I had not been witness to, some strange mixture of bug light and bungee jumping. I resisted the unexplainable temptation to take a picture from the “live” side of the barbed wire.
I must admit, I expected to see a little more infrastructure on the border. For the seperation of countries that hate each other so much there was little dividing the two except a few “decoy tanks” on the Israeli side and a bizarre Technicolor mosque equipped with green LED lights on the Syrian side. All of this guarded by a very basic and, lets face it, slightly impotent UN base. Not much to set one’s eyes upon however the implications set forward by the setting’s history were enough to make it a tantalizing experience.
Two days on the kibutz and it was time to head out. It was hard saying bye to Rudi, a generous young man, interested in life and in love with it. My kind of people.
After a failed attempt at hitchhiking, I dropped the hitch and started hiking, occasionally, and in a rather shy way, sticking my thumb out as I walked along. Some twenty kilometers later I washed up at my next hosts doorstep, tired, thirsty and sunburned.
It was my hosts birthday and she had invited 10 of her friends to stay overnight in the half-trailer she had ingeniously turned into what she called home. Approximately 5 meters by 3 meters. A room, a bathroom, a living room and a kitchen. Ten friends, herself and myself.
Where am I? I remember thinking as I woke up on the floor of the porch, my head hanging over the edge. I had passed out on the floor in the middle of  what im sure was a very interesting account of a recent trip to Georgia three members of our little congregation had taken
I was able to arouse enough interest in it that a dip in the adjacent pond became a reality.
After breakfast, the amalgamation dissipated and none but myself; a short, stalky, blond woman in her mid 30’s and my host, Shiran, remained.
I loitered the day away in the hamac overlooking the pasture down below, watching the bulls chase tail. (The blond woman later sent me an email asking me if I wanted to be a guest at her house in the south as we had shared a “moment” and we could have a lot of “fun” together… I was confused at best).

Friday, January 21, 2011

Israel part 2: The dead sea

The Dead Sea:
Is there no bigger cliché than the picture of the fat, sunburned man pretending to read a newspaper while floating offhandedly in the dead sea? Yes! Does that take away from how wonderful it actually is to spend time in this sea of salt? Well, a little, but I am willing to overlook that and proclaim that it is one of my favorite places I have ever been. I am an inherently lazy person, that being said, the proposition of swimming without any effort on my part was one to look forward to but it is much more than that. The tranquility that I was able to find at the dead sea is not equal to any I have found anywhere else. Letting yourself float…
I met a very endearing german man as I got off the bus at the dead sea with whom I shared the experience and the ride back. 30 something newsroom video editor, fathered a child with the wrong woman then met the right one, soccer fanatic (he had followed his team to Israel for a match), lifelong Berliner. Covered with tattoos and almost a chain smoker he would not conjure the idea of  ideal father to most. But after a long conversation about growing up, manhood and what it means to love your child, I realized how close to it he really was.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Israel part 1: Jerusalem


After a 10 and a half hour plane ride and an intriguing but ultimately unrecommendable   proposition by one of the air crew, I arrived at Ben Gurion airport, Tel Aviv.
I was waived through customs, at my great surprise since I had a Lebanese stamp in my passport and no concrete travel plans.
Step 2: shuttle bus to Jerusalem. “where in Jerusalem?” the driver asked me . “where should I go?” I answered. He gave me the half puzzled, half uninterested and blazéed look that I would become accustomed to in the next 2 weeks and mumbled “jaffa gate” under his breath as he closed the door and started the engine.
The shuttle was filled with  Montrealers, I felt like I was in Outremont.
An old ultra orthodox who wouldn’t shut up and for some reason had set his conversation sights on me; a diamond dealer in town for an important conference; a young Jew who was coming to Israel to complete his Aliyah(or ascent*)The owner of a bagel shop and a tour guide who, when she found out I was coming to Israel for the first time insisted on going to work and telling me everything she possibly could about Jerusalem in such a short trip.
 Heeding to her recommendation, I set out to find “the best hostel in Israel”. 30 mins of walking around Jerusalem’s new city later… I remembered that I had not slept in over 30 hours and was decidedly “tired of this shit”.
I walked into the old city, where hostels abound, and stopped at the first one I could find. The Petra Hostel. This place had all the charm of a funeral home, without any of the “joie de vivre”.
The only other person in my dorm room was a very socially inept man in his early 50’s, from the United states who had grown up with his missionary parents in Peru. His dad had died when he was 17, which lead him to quit school and take a job waiting tables in order to support his family (which he continued to do for the next 20 years). He explained that he had been living in the hostel for the last 2 years, doing laundry and cleaning in exchange for room and board. When I asked him how long he thought he would stay in Jerusalem, he replied quite nonchalantly “until I die”. 

I mention this man and his story because he is a great example of these individuals that make you feel uneasy but engender a creeping feeling that you must talk with them, follow them a little down their road and explore their world. I have met quite a few of these people in my life and it has not gotten any easier to interact with them. However, retrospectively he was probably the most interesting part of Jerusalem for me.

I spent the better part of my time in Jerusalem wandering around the old city from sunrise til about 11 am then back to the hostel, sleeping til 3 or 4 pm then going out into the new city for supper and drinks into the night(which made me realize something I think few ppl realize; the old city is exponentially better to visit at night. No little trinkets for sale, unfettered access to a bounty of nooks and cranny’s, IDF soldiers creeping around every second corner that are strangely reminiscent of their Roman counterparts..).
 It took me a almost a week to regulate my sleeping pattern so I could sleep more than 3 hours at a time and as far as I can remember it is only the second time I have ever experienced jetlag.

Word to the wise, if you are an atheist 1 or 2 days in Jerusalem is enough. The crowds during the day in the old city are unbearable and the atmosphere is quite tense. My personal favorite Jerusalem site though is the western wall. The energy is amazing. If you want to feel absolutely out of place and unwelcome this is as good as it gets. In the 20 minutes I spent at the wall the following things happened; A old man spit on me(though I couldn’t make out if it was intentional or not), A young orthodox maybe 2 or 3 years my cadet started chanting AT me and followed me around for the better part of 5 minutes, a middle aged man, seeing that I was wearing the little visitors kippa, asked me with a half frown “r yu jewysh”, as I was resting my head and hands on the wall with my eyes closed old men wearing Tallis (the religious scarf for men) came to pray next to me, so close that I could smell their breathe, even though half the wall was free. There is much more to be said about this holy of holy sites but I believe you get the point.
On my last night in Jerusalem, the old city hostel atmosphere became unbearable and I packed up appendage and dragged my carcass to the new city where I found a more suitable hostel for a good nights sleep.

 In a nutshell: Jerusalem is a city primordially defined by its conflictual nature. Jerusalem  without some sort of conflict would lose its essence and feel. In a strange twist of fate: it is the very tensions that threaten to rip Jerusalem apart that keep it together…

Thoughts from the Road:
   an example of Israeli sarcasm and blasé attitude: -This is the Uganda right?(to bartender at a bar that was hard to find and had no sign out front)

            bartender nods
           "why is it that I asked the bouncer at the bar next door and he didn’t know where Uganda was?"
      because he is stupid…(he does not know said bouncer personally)

-       he who owns Jerusalem must play the roman. As the roman soldier patrolled the streets as Jesus ascended the via dolorosa, the IDF soldier patrols as the Palestinian drinks tea while trying to sell crap to tourists