Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Travel Tip: Street Food Primer

Here's an embarrassing story. In a Beijing bus station, I once remarked to some Welsh backpackers next to me that I'd been eating so much random stuff in China that I could eat just about any food from anywhere and not get sick. Less than ten minutes later, in front of them, I ate my first Mongolian street food and promptly got the worst 12-hour case of indigestion I'd ever experienced. Good thing one of the Welsh guys was a doctor.

My point is, no matter how tough and experienced you think you are, you've got to watch what you eat. This little episode aside, I think I can safely say I get sick way less often than your average traveler. This is because I tend to follow a few rules about food.

These are probably not the rules you think they are.

The Center for Disease Control has a saying about food while traveling: "if you can't peel it or cook it, forget it." This is a great guideline if you feel like living in a giant hamster ball. I can almost guarantee you that you will not get sick from food if you don't break this rule. I can also almost guarantee you that at some point, you will break it. If and when you do, you want to do it in an intelligent manner. That's where me and this entry come in.

Lesson number one: In the developing world, street food is often safer than restaurant food. Yes, you read that correctly. Street food. The food that has made me the most sick while traveling has almost all come from restaurants. The reason why, is that with street food, you see it get cooked right in front of you, and you see who is cooking it. In restaurants, you see neither. The methods the respective cooks use isn't much different. But with street food, if the cook is coughing up black goo into the same hands (s)he's smushing your falafel with, you know to go elsewhere. In a restaurant, you don't know whether that's happening or not. If the food is cooked right in front of you, fresh, by a healthy, clean-looking chef, you're in better shape than if it's sitting behind a glass case with insects buzzing around inside. And if it's in a restaurant, you just won't know-- many of these places aren't subjected to the same food code they are in the developed world, and even in the developed  world, if you've ever worked in the food service industry, you know some of these rules can be... well, I think you get my point.

Lesson number two: usually, if the tap water isn't safe, neither is the ice. This is seems obvious when written, but it's one a lot of of people forget in practice. There are a few countries, mostly in Asia, where ice is actually factory made from safe water. But please take the extra step and check that that's the kind of ice floating in your drink. Ask.

Lesson number three: what's safe for the locals isn't necessarily safe for you, yet. Legend has it that when Japanese baseball superstar Ichiro Suzuki first came to the United States and ate a hamburger, he was violently ill. We all have  little local beneficial bacteria running around our digestive tracts that helps us handle the local food. This differs from place to place. So take it easy for the first few days in a new place to develop your own. Supposedly local yogurt helps with this (though beware, eating yogurt that hasn't been refrigerated properly or that has expired is a fast way to making you sick). After you've been eating tame food (like vegetarian dishes) in a place for a bit, then try moving on to the more interesting stuff.

Lesson number four (this one is important): if the place is crowded, the food is probably good, and it's almost definitely being cooked fresh. This is an excellent way to pick street food vendors and restaurants. We'll call it the sheep method. The reason is that deserted restaurants and vendors are much more likely to leave things like meat lying around in temperatures that let nasty things start growing in it. Then when you order it, it'll get quickly reheated and served. Popular vendors, on the other hand, are having to constantly cook fresh batches to meet demand. And if it's in that much demand from the locals, it's probably because the food is especially good.

That should be enough to get you started. Everyone's body is slightly different, and soon you will develop your own rules for what yours does and doesn't like. For example, I avoid seafood unless I'm near the coast, where the seafood is fresh instead of frozen. Partially to avoid getting sick, but mostly because I grew up in a port city with world-class salmon, crab, etc. and I've become a snob about that kind of thing. When in doubt, err on the side of caution. But remember that trying local food is one of the best parts of traveling, so don't miss out just because you're paranoid about a tummy ache. Bon Appetit!

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Hope of 2000 Years. In 2000 Words. (*gulp*)

And for my next magical trick, I will now write a blog post encompassing a week in the focal point of three of the world's major religions and maybe the most far-reaching international conflict since the cold war. Hang on to your hats, kids, this is going to be a long, rough ride.

Why is this state different from other states? Well, for a start, if you mention the name in a room almost anywhere in the world, you've got about a fifty percent chance of coming back half an hour later and finding people yelling at each other. I've been a lot of places, but I don't know another place I've seen that elicits such strong reactions from people who've never been. China makes some people uneasy. Russia brings up a lot of old ghost stories. Colombia, Syria, and Lebanon may or may not have made my parents nervous when I was inside them. Germany has baggage, Vietnam has baggage, Nicaragua has baggage, but this place can challenge them all. Yes folks, I've come, I've seen, and now I've got to write about (yipe) the Holy Land, the Promised Land, the Hope of 2000 Years: Israel and the Palestinian Territories.

So. Where to start. How about some ground rules?

Rule number one: no political comments on this post, please. I'm serious about this. There are loads, heaps, tons of places online where you can debate the policies of the Israeli state, Hamas, Fatah, and everyone else in this big fiasco. I will not allow this blog to be one of them. If you comment on this post, and the main point you make is political, I will delete it. I have a bachelors in politics and international studies. I have a few opinions on all these subjects myself, all of which have evolved since visiting here. I'd love to discuss them with you,  but not here. If you want to learn more from me, contact me directly. If you don't know how to do that, you'll find links to email me scattered around this blog-- if you feel passionate enough to ask me about my experience, you'll feel passionate enough to search for the link.

Rule number two: for the purposes of this post, I am going to take biblical/torah/koranic stories at face value. This doesn't mean I believe all three, it just means I don't feel like wasting time writing "alleged," "supposed," or "possibly the place where some people think that" a hundred times. Also, I realize some of these come into conflict, so if I mention for example, the place where Abraham almost sacrificed Isaac, there is no need to point out that according to Islam, he actually almost sacrificed Ishmael, not Isaac. I get it, but once again, this  isn't the place to debate these points.

Rule number three: most of you can skip this one, this is for legal purposes. Online blogs, including this one, are not reliable sources of fact. Even if the source can be legally traced to the real author (doubtful at best) the subject writing may very well be fictional. Photos posted online can be photoshopped. Legal proof of a person's entry into any state, Israel included, requires an immigration of that state stamp inside that person's passport. Keep that in mind when deciding whether to give me a visa to your country.

Now that that is out of the way, we can get to the fun part.

Let's go to Jerusalem. I'm walking down a street of beautifully preserved old city, inside the stone walls and stone streets, with my backpack. It's Friday, sunset, and I'm dodging Haisidic Jews scurrying to their shabbat services and homes, eyes to the uneven ground, tassles and locks swinging, wide-brimmed hats, and sometimes even huge fur hats never falling off their heads. Around the first corner, past my usual falafel stand (one falafel, six sheckels, a bargain here, more than three times the price of falafel in Syria), I hit the Muslim quarter. I didn't have to come here to hear the sunset call to prayer. A couple Korean tourists are squeezing past an Ethiopian tour group, making their way through the food stalls and past the electronics shop, all in the shadow of the houses that sometimes turn this street into a tunnel. I squeeze through, careful not to pivot and knock someone over with my bag. Souvenir merchants say hello. I say hello back without stopping and ignore the invitation to come inside for a "nice price." I smile and nod to a group of three soldiers, the one of the girls smiles and nods back. The guy and the other girl don't notice. Continuing, I hit a break in the stores to see a stone wall in the tunnel and a door with a sign. The walls are lined with people holding papers and singing in Spanish. Someone holds up a large wooden cross, and they make their way to follow him, past the Palestinian tourist shops, singing to Jerusalem not to cry. I bob and weave to get in front of them before they meet the other foot traffic, including a Palestinian teenager balancing a twin mattress on his head, trying to go the opposite direction.

I'm still running over some of the things I learned from the protesters in East Jerusalem who were released from jail that afternoon, and the Palestinian family that had been kicked out of their house and replaced. I was sort of sorry to leave the hostel since it had such interesting people, including a New Yorker, out of the country for the first time, who had come to help with a program in Gaza. But the dorms were way too cramped, and the price was too high. I still didn't get the logic behind giving a Korean-born American behind us a lower price for the same thing and then just saying "Japanese price" when asked. I was headed to a couchsurfing host anyway, so I should still meet more people.

I got a little lost after leaving the old city from Jaffa gate. I thought the shopping row, filled with North Face, Colombia Sportsware, Rolex, and other brand name stores would head closer to Zion Square, but it didn't. The Chanukah sale signs were still up in some of them. I stopped to ask someone how to get to the square, and he answered in perfect American English. Not learned American English, this was the real thing. I'm sure I would've seen this guy at a college football game back home. Walking down the street, I see and hear Americans everywhere. The old city amazed me for its diversity, but this place is where I've seen more Americans than anywhere since I've been home.

It's not the only thing familiar about this country. Like Australia or the United States, this is a country of immigrants. They come for different reasons than they do back home, but it results in a much more diverse country than I expected.

Having tourists come from all over the world helps the diversity bit. Because when you have the last Jewish temple's wall (Western/Wailing Wall), the tomb of Christ (Church of the Holy Sepulcher), and the place Mohammed ascended into heaven (Dome of the Rock) all five minutes' walk from each other, you are going to get a lot of attention. No matter which quarter you are in, you will pass row upon row of shops selling "Free Palestine" t-shirts, menorahs, and catholic crucifixes without any apparent contradiction.

That's just the old city of Jerusalem. In the last week, I've been staying with photography students in the new city, hanging out with a Math student and electronic music composer in Tel Aviv, eating poyke a stew made on a bonfire in Be'er Sheva, capital of the Negev desert, and then two more places that I just can't confine to a list.

The first was Bethlehem, Christmas Eve. Mary and Joseph found no room at the inn when they came on Christmas without any reservations. Figuring I'd learned from their example, I got a hostel bed in Jerusalem and caught the one-hour bus across the checkpoint, figuring I'd just visit for the festivities and go back sometime before dawn.

I mentioned the checkpoint? Bethlehem is in the West Bank. I got on the bus in the Jewish state of Israel, listening to the sunset call to prayer from the mosque. I got off the bus and felt like I'd stepped into a parallel universe. I was in the same country, but I was back in the Arab world. More, I was in Palestine. I walked down the dark streets with the same three word phrase running through my head like a broken record: "This is it."

The streets were quiet, I didn't see any signs, but I did see a lot of taxis headed one way. I followed them, and soon saw lights in the sky. I followed the light in the heavens to the place where Jesus was born. What I found was a massive square, packed with people, (mostly Arab men), watching a concert in, of all languages, Spanish.

I weaved through the crowd to the meeting spot we had chosen for the couchsurfing event I organized. I took care to pick a spot that wouldn't be blocked by the stage. What I failed to plan for was the Palestinian Authority security truck and six soldiers with automatic weapons that blocked it instead. Apparently these are things you need to take into consideration in the West Bank. I still managed to find a couple of the people I'd organized. The first, when he saw me gave a grin and a sarcastic "nice going, group leader." I probably deserved that, especially since we then got separated less than half an hour later figuring we'd find each other again without any trouble. We never did.

The music and dancers were all part of an event for Christmas that brought artists from all over the world in. There was a surreal moment when it sounded like a band of Scottish bagpipers were playing La Cucarracha, in Palestine, for Christmas. I guess the fact that all the performers after that were Spanish speakers was just a coincidence. Fun party though. I almost got into the packed midnight church service after, thanks to a British Muslim and a group of Polish nuns, but it fell apart thanks to a low cellphone battery. So I watched chunks from the press van, seeing clips of Mahmoud Abbas in attendance, among others.

The next day, Christmas day, was the start of a completely different experience. I was in the West Bank again, just a few miles away from Bethlehem, but to the people who lived in each place, each felt closer to Paris or Beijing than they did to each other.

Adin, a Rabbi who'd immigrated from Cleveland almost two years ago, picked me up in the southern end of Jerusalem and gave me a ride along the Israeli security wall to his family's home in the 25-year-old Israeli town of Efrat. He explained that the wall was put there to protect motorists from sniper attacks. I'm trying to decide which got my attention more, that explanation, or his wife Bracha's greeting when I entered their home: "Hello there! Welcome to the West Bank, you are now officially a settler! How does it feel?"

I'd come to experience Shabbat with an orthodox family. From sundown to sundown, I wore a kippah and prayed with the family, mostly observing the strict rules for the day of rest, including no active use of electricity (fire), no touching money, and, the killer for me, no writing.

According to Jewish law, being Jewish can only be inherited from a Jewish mother. My father is Jewish, and I've been to a few pesach seders, lit candles on a menorah for Channukah, and spun dreidels around as a kid. But according to orthodox Judaism, I am not Jewish. And this was my first time experiencing any kind of Jewish religious ceremony outside of the home.

After sunset, when the writing ban was lifted, I sat down and wrote about what had just happened for more than three hours. This post is far too long as it is. Here's the ridiculous summary: lots of prayer, lots of song, lots of food.

Oh man, the food.
“Yeah, you know thanksgiving?” I was told, “Well we basically have that two times a week.”
They're not kidding. The food there was wonderful, and it came in massive portions. I didn't dine with these people. I feasted with them. Being Jewish on my father's side has hardwired cravings for Challah bread and Matzo ball soup into my system. It's how I am. But I quickly realized that helping myself to second helpings of either was only going to make my life harder when the other courses started appearing. Fresh tart with leeks and sun-dried tomatoes. Chicken slow-cooked with sweet potatoes and figs. Salad using paper-thin slices of apple with dill dressing.

While we ate lunch at a neighbor's house, our host, David, asked me what my favorite part of Israel has been so far. I'd just put in my first mouthful of cholent, a special slow-cooked stew that I thought was just potatoes, beef, and barley from a crock pot, but clearly had half a dozen secret magic ingredients I wasn't going to learn without an apprenticeship somewhere. I pointed down to the rest of my helping with a fork,
“This is making a pretty good argument right now.”
“I wasn't fishing for compliments,” he laughed.
“I know.” I said. They didn't have to. Once again, this was feast prepared and kept warm without active use of electricity or fire. Impressed yet?

There were multiple services across the day at the synagogue. We walked into a room of men, with women behind curtains sections in the back, reading in Hebrew, some rocking back and forth, sometimes taking a few steps forward and back or bowing, first and the knees, then the waist. There was no obvious leader, everybody (but me) knew exactly what they should be reading an how to do it. All of it was half-sung. It sounded like an a cappella orchestra warming up. I did my best to follow along with a siddur that had both Hebrew and English translations, but not being able to read Hebrew, I was never totally sure where we were. But just observing the service was a thing in itself. Also the people doing it.

It wasn't until the third of these services that I noticed two of the guys were armed-- one with handgun in a hip holster, the other shoved down the back of his pants, gangster-style. One of the rules of the sabbath is that you live by the rules. You don't die by them. If you need to break them to save your life, you break them. Still a bit of a wake up call.

At one point I asked the kids if they had any non-Jewish friends. They thought and said no. One of them remembered one who wasn't born Jewish. That was it. They'd immigrated from Cleveland a year and a half ago. It's a different world from the one I grew up in.

All in all, it was an enjoyable and eye-opening experience. Even if I didn't always feel like I agreed with everyone around me, I felt that was just more Jewish tradition. I still remember being told at my one seder in a Hillel "If you put ten Jews in a room, you'll get eleven opinions." The family and everyone I met in the community were wonderful hosts to me and taught me a great deal about the orthodox Jewish way of life, and I'm very grateful for that.

Next up, before returning to Jordan (and actually seeing some of it this time) I think it's time to see life on the other side of that wall. I'm going to Ramallah.

Check out this entry's Photos.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Seeds of Conflict

I had my old room back in Damascus. Three beds, second floor in an ancient house that now had about twice as many right angles as it used to. I was looking at a piece of paper in my hand. It was exit tax receipt for five hundred Syrian Pounds-- around $11. On the back was a girl's name where mine should have been. The Syrian authorities had mixed up a few of these when four American passports without visas had come across their desk at the border crossing from Lebanon that morning. I read the name again. A part time firefighter with the Forest Service and a part time freelance writer, she'd written "journalist' as her occupation in her entrance form. Her visa application was denied ("not" the Syrain authorities were quick to tell us "because of her occupation"). I wondered where she and her sister had gone. Lev, a friend I'd met in Syria and re-met in Beirut, and I had gone on after being granted visas about two hours later.

I put away the slip, chucked my bag on my bed and started getting things out. The door opened, and one of my two roommates walked in. He was a quiet, well-dressed guy, about my age, with glasses and a shy smile. I slowly got him to open up. His name was Mohammad, and he was from the UK, studying in Cambridge. Actually he was born in Afghanistan. Actually his family was Iranian, but his mother still lived in Kabul. I asked him if he was asked a lot of the same questions over and over when people found out he was from Afghanistan. He said no, not really. I guess people are too intimidated. He asked me about my interest in the Middle East. I told him that, after the Bush administration, there were a lot of misconceptions about the region floating around the US, and that I thought the best way to combat them was to visit, learn something, and encourage others to do the same. Frankly I'm surprised I got him to talk so much. I got the distinct impression most people never got him past Cambridge.

A few hours later, I was upstairs, chasing a wireless signal for my laptop, I heard an older woman with an American accent come in and ask someone something. She was told that beer was kind of hard to find in Damascus. She said she understood. I heard Lev come in and say something. Turned out they'd both traveled South America. They were still talking about it after I'd gotten my email and left to get something to eat.

The next morning, the breakfast area was quiet. The American woman, whose name I never did catch, was sitting at a center table. I went to say good morning to the lady cooking breakfast, came back, and sat opposite the American woman a seat or two down. We started talking with a simple nod and smile, as Americans tend to do. Turned out she'd been on the road five months longer than I, on a slower and more complete route of Latin America and Europe before coming to the Middle East. She said she loved it and she really hated to go home to the US, but that she'd have to soon.

She'd had kind of a rough time over the last few days though, and was glad to be back in a hostel. She'd come over the border from Lebanon a week or so ago, and hadn't gotten across until past dark. She was nearly seventy years old. I expressed the  disbelief called for and how impressed I was that she was traveling solo. She smiled and said it just meant she didn't much like going on her own into town after dark. A nice Syrian man came up to help her some. What with one thing or another, they ended up figuring out they'd save money by getting an apartment together in town. Nothing romantic about it, they would be on separate floors with separate everything. The police didn't like the idea at all, since they weren't married, but the man had told them she was sick and needed someone looking after her. Possibly palms were greased. In any case, it was permitted.

But the two didn't mix.

"And he was so controlling!" She said. "I'd just be sitting there, and he push food in front of me and say 'Eat.' I told him 'thanks, but I'm not hungry,' and he'd get so pushy! 'Eat! Eat!' he'd say! I mean maybe he can boss some poor Muslim woman around like that, but not an American woman!"

I bit my lip, thinking of my friend Stef's advice about Lebanese culture: 'We show you how much we love you by how much we feed you. You show us how much you love us by how much you eat.' I held my tongue, figuring this woman just needed a sympathetic ear to vent to for a while, uninterrupted.

"The last straw," she continued, " was when I went out late one night. We each had keys, right? So I went to leave after he'd gone to bed. I found his key in the lock on the inside. I took it out and put right next to there on the stairs where he couldn't miss it, and then I left. I come back three hours later, and he's furious because I 'locked him in.' The key was right there, I said, but he just kept yelling and carrying on until finally I said that's it, I'm leaving."

I think this was around the time Mohammad came and quietly sat down to breakfast opposite me, a chair or two down from the woman.

"But that was just the last of a lot of small things. Like there was the time something was wrong with the TV, or so he said, so he cut off the plug with a pair of scissors! I was like, honey, you're going to electrocute yourself, but he went and stripped the wires and stuck the bare ends right into the socket.

"And then there was the praying! These Muslims, they do this five times a day. I'd he'd hear him upstairs yelling, banging on things, carrying on, and I had no idea what he was doing!"

This didn't match up with what I knew of Muslim prayer. It always looked very quiet and subdued to me. The loudest part I could think of was maybe washing up beforehand and rolling out a rug. Face Mecca, run through a few postures like bowing with your hands on you knees or kneeling and touching your forehead to the ground, and quietly say things like "Allah akbar" (God is great).

"Then there was this lady who was the neighbor's-- no he was the neighbor's second wife. Second. The poor thing had to stand in a shop all day, and when she was done go right back into her part of the apartment. Sometimes we'd have her over for dinner and hoo boy did she smell! I mean she must not have bathed! I'd offer her our shower, I'd ask 'would you like to use our shower' and she'd always say no."

I thought about all the perfumes I'd been offered and all the important cleaning rituals I'd seen in the region. This wasn't making sense. Was she exaggerating for sympathy, or was she really meeting outliers? Both? I refrained from interrupting until she'd come back to "these Muslims" and the prayer thing.

"I don't know what he was doing up there, banging away, talking to his God, and maybe his God was talking back to him. I just hoped he wasn't telling him to kill the infidel downstairs!"

"I think that's unlikely." I said, laughing nervously, hoping that was just a joke in bad taste rather than a real fear. My commitment to let her vent uninterrupted broke a few minutes later when she leaned forward and said, conspiratorially,

"You know, these are the people that strap bombs to themselves."

"Whoa, okay," I said, "that's not part of Islam."

"Oh I know" she said "I've seen some of the crazies we've got at home! There's that preacher on TV, whats his name, who is calling for us to drop the Bomb on someone! He thinks we have to start the next world war to bring about the book of Revelations! I mean-"

"Why," Mohammad said slowly, "are you in a Muslim country if you hate its culture?"

"I'm sorry" she said quickly, "I shouldn't have said that."

"No, don't apologize to me. That was extremely rude and offensive, what you just said."

"You're right, I'm sorry I said it."

"I don't care! Why don't you go back to your vulgar American lifestyle."

"I... well, I don't know what to do. I've said I'm sorry, and you won't accept my apology, so I'm sorry." And she left.

Mohammad looked at me, his attitude changing visibly as he remembered that I too came from that 'vulgar American lifestyle.' He quietly apologized. I did as well as I got up, simply asking him to remember that there are 300 million of us, and not all of us are alike."

A couple hours later, Lev and I were outside, heading out to cross another border, this time into Jordan. I told him what happened. He said he'd heard her say a little about how she'd been having a hard time the last couple days, but hadn't gone into specifics. He also said she'd revealed that the reason she had to go back to the US was that she'd just been diagnosed with breast cancer.

I think I learned something that day about where these conflicts come from.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Insert Multiple Updates Here

I remember a time when I had all the internet access I wanted, and I had to sit down and think pretty hard before I could think of something I thought worth putting up on this blog. I gotta tell you, times have changed.

I've wanted to update several times over the last couple weeks, but couldn't. So I've got a backlog of adventures. Since I last put up an update that wasn't a tip, I've been to at least five different towns, two different major Roman ruins, multiple castles, a gorgeous river valley between snow-capped mountains, one of the most impressive caves I've ever seen, some of the oldest and most atmospheric Arabian bazaars in existence, some thumping nightlife and great live music, and, to my shame, because we really didn't have any other affordable options that didn't involve getting soaking wet, a McDonald's. Being able to say I've tried a McArabia sandwich almost makes it worth it. Almost.

That's the stuff I can put up in pictures and leave out of the update without feeling like I've missed something. That does not include the hijinks I've ended up in around here I couldn't explain with one photo and a two-sentence caption. Like talking my way through military checkpoints and discreetly following a nine-man armed patrol just to try some raw beef ground literally into a paste. The fat private guard told me to. And the meal was really tasty.

I've turned down the Hezbollah t-shirts being sold in their founding city of Baalbek. Even at US$3, I doubt they'd make my life easier over the next few weeks, especially seeing as I've somehow ended up in charge of planning a massive gathering of strangers in Bethlehem for Christmas eve and morning. Rumor has it the IDF is also selling a few T-shirts themselves, but seeing as Bethlehem is in the West Bank... did I mention I might be spending that evening in an orthodox Jewish household to observe shabbat? As in sundown, December 25th?

This is my life in the Middle East.

My academic specialty is international politics. Even mentioning this region to a room of international poli-sci people has a similar effect to tossing something small and furry into a tank of sharks and piranhas. It's not pretty. So, while I have a lot to say on the subject, I'm going to try to avoid writing about the political aspect. You can't do that completely, but I'll at least limit it to the tangible things I saw and heard.

While I'd love to tell you the stories of my having to disarm a ten-year-old with a knife in Palmyra and sitting in the midst of the last professional storyteller of Syria while he shouted and whacked his table with a stick, I've already done one post on Syria. Since then I've been to Lebanon and back, and I haven't said a word about it yet. So we're going to talk (very very briefly) about that country instead.

I'm used to seeing cops around. I've even gotten used to seeing them alongside soldiers in camo and berets, strapped with automatic weapons, guarding buildings with razor wire. I'm not used to seeing them manning strategically fortified positions with sandbags and cement roadblocks, and I'm definitely not used to seeing them in the street with tanks. Welcome to Beirut, 2009.

I've been to countries hit by war before. El Salvador. Vietnam. Bosnia. As always, I'm impressed by the damage, but I'm much more impressed by seeing life keep going, and finding people as happy as some people in places that haven't seen war in centuries. But El Salvador's civil war was during the cold war. Vietnam's war with the US was during the cold war. The last war of the former Yugoslavia was in the 1990s.

Israel invaded Lebanon in 2006. Not before I was born, not before I was tying my own shoes. This war was happening the same time I and those my age were half way through college.

When you think jeeps, soldiers, and tanks in the streets, you think of a city that has been shut down. Let me tell you, Beirut is a lot of things, but, aside from the blocks surrounding the parliament building, shut down is not one of them. Traffic of luxury SUVs and sedans jam up the streets between thumping bars and clubs, long beaches, sparkling high rise apartments, and a new, spotless modern downtown shopping district.

The military presence is off-putting at first, but that's before you look at it closely. Once you get past the M-16 strapped around his neck, you're likely to notice the soldier is rocking back on forth on his heels with his hands in his pockets. The tanks have covers slid over the turrets. The men in berets and camo are at ease, chatting and sometimes showing each other videos on their cell phones. If one waves you over, it's probably just to get you under cover and out of the unseasonable rain they've been having the last week.

There are other little things left over. Power outages, scheduled and unscheduled. A national postage system that doesn't quite exist. Internet connections slower than a hypnotized tortoise. If you ask why, someone will quietly answer "the war," and, if you're respectful, nothing more will be said.

I only saw so much of the little country. It has a lot to see. I manage to time it just when it decided to pour rain for a week, frustrating anyone who wanted to show me the usual sights outdoors, but I still managed at least one sunny day climbing into a gorge surrounded by the sounds of birds and waterfalls, looking up at the hibernating Cedars ski area in on the other side of the ridge. A couple days later, I came back to my Beirut hotel around 3:30 am from dancing at a bar called Cloud 9. I woke up the next morning at 8:30am and could hear the nearest club still blasting dance music.

And I wonder why I'm so sleepy right now.

It's been fun, the places have been great, and I'm full of funny, profound, and just plain bizarre stories, but we'll have to save them for another outlet. I'm going to call it a night soon. My connection might be good enough to get to Middle East album in place with the others. If not, I apologize, I hopefully will have better luck tomorrow in my next country: Jordan.

Check out this entry's Photos.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Travel Tip: How to Sleep on Buses, Trains, and Planes

Sleeping on moving vehicles packed with people is a skill. It can be learned. Some people are naturals at it, but most have to practice a few times before they get good. There are techniques which help you get better at it more quickly.

If you're an independent traveler on a budget, this is a skill you'll want. Spending a night on a train or a bus saves you the money you'd spend on a hotel or hostel. It also means you can hop on a bus for 12+ hours, if you really just want to get from point A to B, and that's the simplest and cheapest way to get it done.

Like a lot of things in life, there's no one "right" way to do this, but I do know a few tricks that work for me. I'm going to be writing this the most common (and next-to-hardest) situation in mind: something that has you sleeping in a single reclining seat with people next to you. I'll say "bus" throughout this next example, but this applies equally to many trains, most airplanes, and some boats.

Getting to sleep easily for me is all about routine. If I can do all the little things that signal to my body that it's bedtime, it's a lot easier to sleep in something uncomfortable and un-bedlike than if I've just been running around in circles drinking red bulls. I don't drink caffeine (or taurine) right before bed, so I don't do that if I'm about to sleep on a bus. I usually brush and floss my teeth before I go to bed, so I try hard to make sure I do that before going to sleep on a bus. Learn to do this with just a water bottle and a place you can spit without making anyone mad, and you'll go far. If you have a bathroom with a working sink on the bus, take advantage of it. To do so, you'll need your toothbrush, etc. in your carry on bag, so decide when and where this will happen before you check any bags.

This next trick might seem a little extreme, but it works for me. I never recline my seat unless I want to sleep, or unless the seat is just leaning forward too far (Japanese Shinkansen, anyone?). This means, after a few times, my body associates a reclined seat with sleep, and drifts off more easily when I lean back. Also this means to really wake myself up in the morning, I just return the sight to its upright position.

I tend to sleep more easily in the dark. Light (especially sunlight) wakes me up very quickly. So, before I sleep I blindfold myself. This keeps me asleep whenever we go through a bright town or the lights come on. There are cute little eye-masks for this purpose everywhere, but I just tie my bandana around my eyes.  As a warning, with either method, friends will sometimes find this kind of cute and hilarious, and will show you the pictures they took of you while you slept the next morning. You'll get used to it.

Next is simple comfort. Most of this is mental, these seats aren't going to be very obliging. If you obsess about the one thing that's poking you or doesn't feel right, shift a bit and concentrate on the parts that are comfortable. An inflatable neck pillow can help, though I don't have one. What I usually do is just make sure I'm not too hot or cold, and then use something as a cover, usually my jacket. I'm used to having a cover on a bed when I sleep, and this mimics that enough to put me to rest.

Know what kind of noise level lets you go to sleep, and get it. I sleep best with no noise, or maybe some white noise like rain, so I use earplugs. I personally prefer swimmer's rubber earplugs to the cheap foam kind, but try a couple different ones to see what works best for you. If you're like some of my friends who usually go to sleep with a TV on, get some noise-blocking earbud headphones. They don't have to be fancy, the $6 pair with the fitted rubber buds work almost as well as the fancy electronic noise canceling types, and are usually a lot less conspicuous. A pair of those and your mp3 player (or anything else that does music) should do the trick nicely. Make sure your music device is tucked away somewhere that's not obvious to any would-be thieves.

While we're on the subject, make sure your belongings are safe. On buses, you can usually check them into the compartment below. Trains are trickier. If you're on a bunk, there's sometimes a space underneath you can put your bag that can't be accessed without lifting up your bunk. if you're on a top bunk, just sleep holding your bag or with it possibly tied to you somehow. It's actually a lot easier and more comfortable than it sounds. On airplanes, rest easy. With that many flight attendants hovering around and the paranoid air about any kind of security, you can just about dangle half an electronics store and jewelry shop across your lap and wake up with all of it there in eight hours.

Finally, a few specific notes for airplanes. Do yourself a favor and do not watch the movie unless you'll have enough to time between its ending and half an hour before landing to sleep. If you're on an airplane ride long enough to sleep on, chances are good you're making a big time zone change. As soon as you board, change your watch to the time zone you will arrive in, and try to mentally shift to that time. The meal schedule won't always oblige, but just think of whatever meal it is as being oddly early or late (or just think, "hey! breakfast for lunch!"). And sleep no matter what. Think of it either as a daytime nap or you nighttime sleep, whichever makes more sense depending on the current time in your destination. These, combined with holding out until bedtime to really sleep in your destination will help prevent jet lag.

The bad news? None of these tricks will work the first time you try them. It took me two straight nights on buses for them to really solidify. the first night I barely slept, and then the next night I was so exhausted that I slept like a log. I don't really recommend such a crash course (though I will say three consecutive nights on transport will make you an expert at falling asleep just about anywhere). My point is, that it will be a few times before you'll be able to drift off normally on these things. Like I said in the beginning, it's a skill, and it will take practice. Best of luck, and sweet dreams.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

American in the Middle East

Traveling as an American alone in the Middle East is fraught with risk. I have learned this the hard way. Without warning, you might be kidnapped, fed, whisked through the town sights, taken into a stranger's home, fed (again), and tossed in a very comfortable bed, have your captors drop everything to show you whatever you want, wherever you want, whenever you want, and then finally shower you with a ridiculous number of gifts when you finally convince them you need to leave.

I should have taken it as a warning sign when I was given a free coke, tea, AND coffee when I was just sitting around waiting at the border for my visa application to be processed. But it was still a surprise when, after my bus-to-minibus-to-minibus transport to Aleppo, I had walked less than half a block when two Arab guys my age saw me ask directions from a shopkeeper and asked if I wanted a hotel. I was friendly, but a little evasive, figuring they were touts trying to get me to stay at *their* hotel. But they just wanted to help me find a place. Then they asked if I was hungry. We went into a fast food place, I tried to pay, and was strenuously opposed. Then it was time for evening prayer, so they asked if I wanted to see the grand mosque. A few hours later, I was sitting in one of their uncle's houses, polishing off a home-cooked meal with homemade ice cream and homemade chocolates with hazelnuts and being told by everyone in the room that I should “feel at home” for however long I liked.

At one point about midway through the evening, we passed by a historic lane filled with traditional candy shops. Tareq, my eventual host, mentioned that candy was a traditional gift in Arab society. I immediately took the hint, and said I wanted to buy them some. But the plan completely backfired when Tareq and his buddy physically barred me from paying while they got out their own wallets. “Come on,” Tareq said, as he handed me the bag of sweets, “it would make us very very sad if you paid.”

And the trend continued for three meals out, at least ten rides in taxis, tea in a traditional hammam, two CDs of Arab music, a set of Muslim prayer beads, a Syrian flag keychain, and a build-your-own jewelry box with an Arabic inscription congratulating someone on completing the Hajj (pilgrimage).

Lonely Planet guidebooks usually have a color section in the front with their highlights of whatever country or region you are visiting. In the China guide, this had things like the Heavenly Temple in Beijing, The Great Wall etc. In Australia, it had the Great Barrier Reef, Ayer's Rock, etc. In my guide to the Middle East, one of the highlights is listed on the last color page: Syrian People. I've learned why pretty fast.

Overall it's been a pretty intense cultural experience, I've spent the last couple months in similar places where I was seeking out the differences between the place I was and my home. Now I'm back to territory so different that I'm seeking out the similarities between here and home instead. Just crossing the border, even from another majority Muslim country like Turkey, I really had to take a second to just absorb the scene, the carpet sellers, a couple camels, the uud and drum music playing through loudspeakers, the long, flowing clothes the men wore, the veils of the women, and mosque a ways across the rocky desert. There's something rewarding about a place seeming just how you imagined it.

Inside the house in Aleppo were a couple implicit guidelines. There were a couple times when I went to exit a room and was told to wait a few minutes. Even at one point when I went into my room to grab something, Tareq came after me, and said I wait to wait a second to exit again into the hallway. It didn't take long to put this together with the fact that I'd been introduced to the uncle, a brother, and two male cousins, and that they were the only ones I'd seen in the house. The men and women do not mix, even in the home.

The kids too were separate. When I sat down to eat with the men of the house, the kids would stick their head in and out occasionally, and the oldest would sit there to obey orders from the patriarch, like filling empty glasses with tea or bringing sugar when needed. Before leaving for school, the littlest ones would line up to kiss their father's hand and tap it to their forehead, the traditional way to ask for the elder's blessing.

Tareq asked me at one point why people in the west are afraid of Muslims. I answered the best I could, explaining that most people in the west don't really know Islam or Muslims, they only know news reports about war and terrorist attacks in the Middle East. I don't know if I'm right, and I'm sure there's more to it when it comes to perceived and real differences in culture. But a lot of the stuff that seems strange to me as a modern American is stuff I've either seen elsewhere or that I knew happened where I'm from in our past. In Mexico the kids don't usually leave the parents house until they get married. Not all that long ago, Christian women were expected to cover their heads, especially in Church. Yes, the veil is a bit different from a bonnet, but does it justify the attitudes we hold?

I'd encourage anyone who actually wants to learn about this to come check it out. Just be careful, you might get abducted by Arabian hospitality.

Check out this entry's Photos.