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.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Houses of Earth and Wind

I have spent the last couple of days living in a cave. I recommend it highly.

People here in Cappadocia have been living in caves for thousands of years now. The caves are man-made, and they've been carved into the super-soft rock, known as tuf. The rocks come up in peaks, and if you look closely, a lot of them have little holes in them for windows. Some of them are little one-room caves, but not all. Many Christians in Roman times holed up (sorry) inside these caves and even made churches out of them. There are elaborate altars with 1000-year old frescos of Jesus, Mary, the Prophets, and other biblical characters. Unfortunately, a lot of them have been defaced. I mean that literally, their faces are gone. It's a combination of Christians (among others) taking a piece for good luck and Muslims and also early Christians removing the face intentionally-- the eyes first because early Christians felt that Jesus was watching them, and then the rest because images of of holy people are forbidden by Islamic tradition.

After catching a bus from my cave hotel in Ürgüp and hiking through the Rose Valley filled with abandoned cave houses and churches, I came to the abandoned village of Çavuşin. It's not just a set of caves, its a vertical labyrinth. The picture you see here is a view from near the top, looking at the rest of town.

It's been a long time since I've had so much fun exploring a place. I was traversing ledges, finding tunnels and hidden stairways, following the wind through the cracks to find little nooks with fantastic views over the valley. I couldn't decide whether I felt more like I was in an Indiana Jones movie or just an adult-sized McDonalds PlayPlace made out of stone.

But that place was a little vertical tube compared to the underground cities. There are hundreds of known underground cities, and one of the biggest open to the public is in Kaymakli. If you've ever wondered what the inside of an anthill looks like to an ant, I think this might come pretty close. It's an eight story (five excavated) network of underground tunnels, pits, and caverns. This is the kind of thing you think must exist only in fairy tales. Let me tell you, the real world is full of them. Not as full as you might like, and not usually in the places you think they would be, but they're there.

My only complaint? The days are too short to enjoy the place. Though of course that doesn't stop enjoying things like Turkish food, or even more so, the company of the Turkish people themselves.

I feel like the vast majority of places I go, people are friendly to travelers, but in Turkey, especially here in Cappadocia, the people take it a step further. I've lost track of the number of times people have come over, just to ask me where I'm from, and try to talk with a mix of my phrasebook-Turkish and their high-school-English. They're almost always smiling, happy to see me, and often aren't satisfied until they've given me some hot tea in one of their trademark tulip-shaped glasses. When I leave, they want to know when I'm coming back.

I think my Turkish vocab runs about to "Hello", "Do you speak English", "I don't speak Turkish", "Please," "Thanks," "What's that," "Toilet" and "Where's the bus stop." It doesn't matter if those are the only words we have in common, I still get a seat, a tea, a lot of smiles, and any kind of help I can figure out how to ask for. I remember the word for yes, but I keep forgetting the word for no. I wonder if that has anything to do with why people seem to like me so much here...

Before coming to Turkey, I figured out that I had a dozen or so friends who just happened to be connected to Turkey or really like Turkey, and I was a little surprised at the coincidence. Now I know it isn't a coincidence at all.

Check out this entry's Photos.

P.S. Happy Thanksgiving from Turkey! I'd say "no pun intended," but I was taught that lying is a bad bad thing.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Travel Tip: Talk to Strangers

People ask me about me how I get into interesting situations, meet interesting people, and walk away from a place with interesting stories. Today, I'm going to tell you one of my tricks for accomplishing just that.

Your mother may have been one of the few mothers to tell you not to talk to strangers as a child. I'm going to tell you the opposite. If you want to get a full travel experience, you need to talk to strangers.

Talking to strangers teaches me about local culture and history, and gives an excellent sense of what's really happening wherever I am. It's the reason I'm never lonely while traveling solo. It also regularly gets me free food, drinks, transport, places to stay, tickets to cool stuff, and invitations to the kinds of things you only hear rumors about in guide books. All I have to do is talk to someone I don't know yet. If you try it, you'll reap benefits, too.

A disclaimer: This does not mean you should wander up at night to the group of shifty-looking characters with baseball bats in a back alley and ask if they can break a $100 bill for you. Please be selective in who you talk to.

If the person makes you nervous, that's not always a bad sign. You just have to think about why you're nervous. If you're just nervous that the cute girl/guy at the bar won't like you, suck it up and go talk to them. If you think the old man on the porch won't speak your language or won't like people of your demographic, just be extra respectful, smile when you say hello, and judge further conversation based on his reaction. If you're nervous that bothering the guy wandering down the street at midnight swinging a machete might put you in physical danger, then maybe you should trust your instincts and go elsewhere.

I particularly encourage you to talk to local people. Fellow travelers are easy to talk to because you already have travel and being foreign in common. But locals are often more rewarding to meet. Ask for directions, instructions, and recommendations. It's flattering and you'll pick up information, maybe some new skills, and, if you click, a new friend or three.

If approaching random people on the street for that kind of thing scares you, we'll start somewhere easier. In fact, we'll start with four somewheres: your accommodation, on public transport, near tourist sites, and in nightlife areas.

For accommodation, it's going to be a lot easier if you stay somewhere with shared facilities than if you stay in a hotel. If you have a single room in the hotel, your opportunities are limited to the busy staff and people you see in hallways, elevators, and other places where extended conversation gets awkward, fast.

If you stay at a hostel on the other hand, you expand meeting places to a shared kitchen, common lounge most hostels come with, and of course the dorm you sleep in. Here are the magic words: “Hey, where are you from?” You can turn to anyone in any hostel anywhere and start a conversation, completely out of the blue, with those five English words. Even better, the staff are usually locals who like travelers, know the area, and often are more than happy to hang out and even show you around town after their shift is over if you take the time to actually talk to them.

As for transportation, especially on long train and boat rides, conversations spring up naturally if you're open to them. Everyone is going to be kind of bored and will be happy to talk to someone from out of town. Even if the “talk” is mostly gestures or passing a phrasebook back and forth. This is where you'll most often score free stuff like food or drinks. Just remember to share some of yours too.

Tourist sites, weirdly, are better places to meet people than you might think. Obviously you can meet tourists. But you should also talk to the staff, especially tour guides. They're mostly local people, most of them will speak English (and a few other languages to boot), and a lot of are often otherwise really bored and happy to have someone to chat with. You'd be surprised how little interest tourists seem to show in these people's lives outside of their jobs. Don't make that same mistake.

Finally, there's meeting people the same way a lot of people meet each other at home: nightlife districts. Pubs, bars, and clubs everywhere are places where you can, by unwritten law, strike a conversation with just about anyone. The only problem is that it's probably the most intimidating place to do it. If you're feeling self-conscious, just remember that 95% of the people you talk to are going to be worrying too much about what you think of them to pass any kind of judgment on you.

These are just a few places to get started. Don't let them limit you. You can talk to strangers just about anywhere you can find strangers, from in a public library to knocking on someone's door to ask to borrow some cooking ingredients. Unless stated otherwise by cultural taboo (see your travel guide or guidebook for details), they're all fair game.

If you're stuck for conversation starters, use props. One of my favorites is food. I've been a lot of places, and I have yet to find someone who doesn't smile when they're offered a cookie. Even if they turn it down, they'll often try to talk to you or offer you something of theirs within a few minutes. Another good prop is anything technological. If you've ever walked down the street with a friend who owns an iPhone or iPod Touch, you know how this works. My little netbook still gets me a lot of attention. But really anything interesting enough to elicit comment (though not offensively so), can work. I still remember walking down the street in Chicago with a bouquet of lilies and having every third woman I passed say something to me (mostly "ooh are they for ME?").

One last piece of advice. Think about the age of people you talk to. I was born in 1986. Almost anyone in the world my age or younger will speak some English, or be with someone else who does. However, if you've got the language skills, try to talk to older people. The older, the better. These are the people who lived the history of their homes and who can teach you more about the culture of a place than any of us youngsters can.

Now get out there and talk to people!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Nobody's Business but the Turks

In the background is the Hagia Sofia, also known as the Ayasofia, rebuilt as a church by the emperor Justinian in the 6th century, converted into a mosque in 1453 by Sultan Mehmet the conqueror after his conquest of Constantinople, (formerly Byzantium, today Istanbul), and finally secularized by President Ataturk and turned into a museum. It's an architectural marvel and a fascinating religious symbol, covered in Islamic tile work, slowly being scraped away to reveal Christian images beneath.

In the foreground is a cat sitting on my lap, purring her head off. She really liked tummy rubs.

If there's two things Istanbul is full of, it's these: historic architectural marvels of the ancient Roman and Islamic world, and stray cats.

It makes some sense. According to some here, Napoleon once remarked that if the entire world was a republic, this city would be its natural capital. It was the capital of both the Holy Roman Empire and the Ottoman Empire. It's the only place in the world I know of where you can take a ferry for about a dollar, cross to a different continent, and still be in the same city limits.

And as for the cats, the city is of full of fishermen at every dock and bridge to feed them, tons of tourists to lavish them with attention, and the craziest nooks and crannies you could ever hope for to explore and hide in. It's a pretty good life.

Like a lot of tourists, I spent a lot of time ogling things like the Topkapi Palace, containing what they claim to be Moses' staff, John the Baptist's skull, and an odd collection of Mohammed's teeth and bits of his beard. Then there was the magnificent Blue mosque, the only mosque outside of Mecca with six minarets (the towers from which we hear the call to prayer five times a day). And of course relaxing in a Turkish bath, sampling Turkish delight, and stuffing my face with kebab. Search “travel blog Istanbul” and you'll see similar stories about those.

I also met and petted a lot of cats. You might read something similar about that in those other blogs too.

So I'll write about something else. It starts with a local connection. Some of my best hosts on this trip have been connections that sound like something out of the Mel Brook's movie, Space Balls. This time, it was my father's colleague's identical twin sister. She invited me to a talk for an NGO about helping women entrepreneurs in countries like Turkey. Intrigued, I accepted.

I got to the talk and realized I'd gotten the concept backwards. I'd assumed I was coming to join a group of people, who generally wanted to do good in the world, listen to a speaker who was an expert in going to different nations and helping women entrepreneurs. Instead, I was in a room with some of the most powerful businesswomen in Turkey who had gathered to hear a motivational speaker who generally wanted to do good in the world.

So, the most interesting part for me wasn't the speech. It was the questions from these women leaders.

After the speaker went on for a bit about The Power Within You and how Nobody Can Lead Like You , and how We All Have The Same Goals and the effects of these Principles on Synergy, he opened the talk up to questions, so that he could try to address the specific concerns of women CEOs and business owners in Turkey.

They were not easy questions. A lot of them had to do with stories. One started with the phrase “Istanbul is not Turkey”. She went on to explain that she was the owner of her (Istanbul-based) business, and even in Anatolia, when she went to another company for a meeting or deal of some kind, the men there refused to believe she was the owner. Every time they spoke to her, they insisted on asking for her boss. They still cannot believe that a woman can own a business.

After a few more questions and stories like this one, the speaker came out with what he was really thinking:

“You know,” he said, “I think I'm giving this talk to the wrong people. It sounds to me like it's the men of Turkey who need the help, not you.”

The women laughed, and then looked around. Including me, there had been three men in the room at the beginning of the talk. Early on, both of the others had left. From the murmurs I heard in English, nobody seemed to know why.

That was one of two points that really stuck out for me. The other was a question posed by my host:

“I have always I wanted to be independent. I want to stand on my own two feet. Yet I also feel that I want to be a good Muslim. I asked one of the Muslim leaders I most respect about how I can unite these two principles. He told me that, after a time, I will enjoy being submissive, and that I won't feel the need to be independent anymore. I rejected that, yet I still feel a need for some connection to my faith. Something that doesn't conflict with my independence. How can I resolve this?”

Nobody had an answer for that.

Even in the car, before I was dropped off, one of her friends showed me something.

“Look at this, I have this on the radio.” She turned on the car radio and flipped through stations until we heard a man with a deep voice speaking evenly without any background noise.

“It's the Koran. Twenty-four hours a day. I listen to this in the car all the time, and I just can't stand it. I can't agree with Islam as I know it. I just wish there was something somebody could show me that could unite some of the principles we talked about tonight with the faith.”

It's funny. I'm used to giving advice to people on all sorts of things. Even if I don't have an answer, I usually have a few ideas, including for the other questions that had been posed that evening. But this time, I had nothing I to offer. All I know about “a woman's place” in Islam is what I'm fed by western media about extremist groups. I never believed that could represent mainstream Islamic thought. But if this night was anything to go by, maybe it's a bit closer than I realized.

With any luck, I'll learn more about this over the next few weeks.

EDIT Nov 22, 2009:
Just got this response from my good friend, Ayse, a Turkish-American dual citizen:

"The problem is, is that it's not mainstream Muslim thought if one looks at the amount of female doctors, lawyers, etc., in Pakistan, India, America, England, etc.. If you were to go back to Turkey in 1923, you'd find that there were women leaders in the revolution and, early on, many women in parliament.The world's first female fighter pilot was Sabiha Gokcen, a Turk and daughter of Ataturk. The problem, especially now, has been the AKP government and the regression of modernity in Turkey as a response to rejection by the West.

P.S. How many female CEOs are there in America? Not many."

I thought that ought to be shared. 

Check out this entry's Photos.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Travel Tip: Get Quick Dry Clothes

Today, I have another tip for you that's simple. When you're shopping for a long trip, especially if you're backpacking it, buy clothing that dries quickly.

Obviously, clothing that dries quickly makes life easier if it accidentally gets wet from tropical rainstorms/saltwater spray from friendly dolphins/spilled Oktoberfest beer. Wet clothing that stays wet is uncomfortable and sometimes embarrassing. Remember, Murphey's law states that all spilled liquids will magically aim for the crotch of your pants. The longer it's wet, the more stupid jokes you have to make up about your 'little accident.” More importantly, packing wet clothing in you backpack causes problems, including making half of what's in your bag smell awful for the rest of the trip. Actually, that's more of a symptom. I'll let you imagine the problems it indicates for yourself.

The other big benefit of clothing that dries fast is that you can do your own laundry and have it ready to go soon later. Saves time and money over the ho(s)tel's laundry service, even if it “only takes 24 hours.” Since you won't be carrying that much clothing, you're going to need to do laundry a lot more often than you do at home. You'll want a drain plug, some laundry detergent, and a clothesline.

One thing I should clarify: when I say “quick dry,” I don't mean it has to be specialty clothing with a label somewhere that says Quick-Dry(tm). It just has to be made of a material that dries fast. Just take a look at the laundry label. Synthetic materials like polyester are usually the easiest of these to find. Nylon is also good, most commonly found when looking for pants. The material you want to avoid is cotton. Unless it's specially treated, cotton almost always takes forever to dry.

Unfortunately, cotton also what about 90% of clothing is made of today. So we need to find that other 10% I tend to look for sports clothing stores, outdoor supply stores, and occasionally, if I find them, dedicated travel supply stores (tough to find outside the US). Then of course there's the internet (don't forget overstock sites for discounts and googling for coupons before checkout).

An extra note on the specialty travel stores. They are good, but they're often the most expensive option, and you run the risk of walking out with an outfit more suited to a colonial era safari rather than modern Europe, Asia, or anywhere else today. Buy stuff you wouldn't get odd looks for wearing at home.

Now, one thing to note is that even the most expensive SuperDooperUltraQuik-DryMax shirt from BiggAdventure inc. isn't going to dry immediately in cold or damp places if you just ball it up and throw it in a corner. Drying this stuff out is going to take time. If it's completely soaked, it'll sometimes take a few hours. If you're smart, it'll take fewer. Here are three ways to dry your stuff out faster:

1) After wringing it out, roll it up in a dry towel and squeeze. The towel will take a good chunk of the moisture out. Yes, you will then need to dry out the towel, but since you're using it after you (I hope) shower, you had to do that anyway.

2) Hang it up, with space on either side of it, in a place that is warm, airy, and dry. In that order. In other words, hanging it next to your bunk in a heated dorm room is better than on a line outside in near freezing temperatures, even if it is airy and dry out there.

3) Wear it. Given a little time, your body heat actually dries damp clothing out pretty well, as long as you're not wearing much over it to keep the moisture in.

And there you have it! Clean clothing, and a bag that doesn't smell (much). Enjoy.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Online Traveler

Sometimes I think I spend too much of my time these days online. Having a laptop with so much free wifi around is a pretty strong temptation. I see travelers everywhere glued to instant messenger and Facebook. Back when I didn't have a netbook, I tried very hard not to be one of those people. I didn't want to spend all my time in a foreign country browsing the same websites and doing the same things online that I'd do at home.

But my line of thinking has started to shift a little bit. I woke this morning in Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria, and checked my email and one of the three online news sources I regularly read. On it, I found the headline, "Bulgaria Still Stuck in Trauma of Transition."

If I hadn't seen that, I would have had no way of knowing that today marks the 20th anniversary of Bulgarian independence from its communist leader, Todor Zhivkov, and the start of a democratic state. There are no celebrations here in the former capital. There don't seem to be any celebrations anywhere.

The newest and poorest member of the EU is still showing a lot of ambivalence about its new democratic system. Probably the most impressive statistic I saw in the article was that, when asked if the changes in 1989 benefited ordinary people, only 11% said yes. It's a surprising sentiment I've found in a lot of different former soviet states, including places like (former) East Germany.

But my point isn't about the debate over communism vs capitalism (somehow still paired at the hip with democracy, as if democracy can only exist in a capitalist system). My point is that if I hadn't flipped on my computer and spent half an hour on the internet this morning, I would have completely missed the significance of this day in this country.

A lot of shelves and server space is filled by articles talking about how much technology, especially the internet, has changed the world. I don't know if I'm the most qualified to say anything about the subject, but I can tell you it's changed the way I travel.

I spent the first six months or so without any laptop of my own. I even left my old 30gig iPod Photo (remember those?) at home. I had a digital camera and cell phone that technically can browse WAP internet, but charges a hefty amount by the kilobyte in the countries where it works. Aside from the that, the only piece of technology I carried was a portable FM radio. My idea was that I wanted to immerse myself completely in the places I was, rather than sitting in my little American bubble with my American music and my usual American websites where I talked to my American friends.

I'd spend about three hours a week in an internet cafe on on a hostel computer, taking care of my photos, updating this blog, and checking my email. Sometimes, if I trusted the connection, I'd do some online banking to make sure my travel funds were under control. That was all I did with the internet or technology as we talk about it today.

The FM radio worked a lot better in theory than in practice. I got to hear some kids radio plays in El Salvador, and occasionally in major cities I'd find music stations (mostly playing American music), but when the thing worked, I mostly only got talk radio in whatever language the country spoke. Great, if I spoke the language. If I didn't, or if I was between cities (like on a bus, when I most wanted something to listen to), I was sunk. Plus the radio broke and had to be replaced twice, and then was stolen along with my sweater and had to be replaced again. Now it's broken one more time and I haven't bothered with a replacement yet.

Then came the netbook.

I wasn't sure buying it was a good idea. But it was a small, light computer, for about US$180. I fiddled with it some, spent a ferry ride between the north and south Island of New Zealand making a case for it out of duct tape, and got it doing the things I wanted it to. Which it mostly did, even with a tiny (we're talking 800x480 pixels tiny) screen, and a hard drive with only four gigs, more than three of which were taken up by the operating system.

I was still nervous. I determined to limit my time on the thing as much as my will power could allow, because I figured I'd  spend all my time online, not learning a thing about where I was, wherever I was.

But instead of locking me into a bubble the way I thought it would, it led me deeper into my travel destinations. First was the wealth of free information. I could check the local news in my language anywhere I got an internet connection often including responses from the people I met. Through first wikitravel, and then when I found they posted all their guides' info online for free, I could find out opening hours and tricks to check out experiences I otherwise wouldn't have known about at all. Then I could go out and use that information to get somewhere and try new things out wherever I was.

But the bigger impact for me was through online communities. Facebook of course lets me stay in touch with the hundreds of people I've met from all over the world. Travel forums and networks like Bootsnall and the Thorn Tree, I can learn a lot about different people's experiences in different places doing different things. If I wasn't sure if I wanted to do something, I'd just check the forums or other travel blogs to see what kind of people liked it (if anyone did).

But the by far the biggest travel community I've tapped online has been CouchSurfing. 1.5 million people in almost every country in the world dedicated to meeting each other and helping each other travel. And it's growing fast.

So not only has the investment brought in a wealth of information and opportunities, but it's given me free places to sleep, often free food, led me to art exhibitions and shows (yes, many of which were free), and made two-day acquaintances in Asia turn into friends I get to see again in multiple countries in Europe.

Most importantly, it's led me to some of the adventures I started traveling for in the first place. Midnight bus to hike up to the top of Mt Fuji? Tip off of Wikitravel. Cheap ride on the autobahn from Berlin to Munich in time for Oktoberfest? Arranged ride from German ride share website. Party on a skyscraper's helicopter pad in Seoul? Couchsurfing connection. Last minute deal on an icebreaker to Antarctica? Contact found on the Thorn Tree forum.

I'm surrounded by backpackers calling overseas for free using an iPod Touch and Skype. People are reserving hostels at 3/4 price on hostelbookers and hostelworld and finding them with their smartphone's GPS. Even my travel insurance is completely online, down to how I make claims if I ever need to.

Yes, sometimes I will end up curled up IMing my friends from home and watching reruns of the Daily Show. I still think a lot of travelers spend too much time on Stalkerboo-- erm, Facebook. If you're not careful, the web will shut you up in a bubble even more than I originally feared. But I think, if you can use it the right way, you end up getting a lot more out of my travels than you would have otherwise.

Anyway, I think I'll let the pictures do the talking when it comes to the stuff I've been doing offline in Romania and Bulgaria. The only one I can't share that way is the inside of the Peles castle in Transylvania. If I win billions of euros someday, I might buy it. Search online for photos of the interior if you want to know why (I sadly wasn't allowed to take any).

But here's the ending headline that has nothing to do with anything else mentioned in this post (don't you love it when I do that?). Tomorrow marks the beginning of a big transition in this trip: I'm going from Europe into the Middle East.  Tomorrow, with any luck, I will wake up in the city of Istanbul, right smack in the middle of the two. Stay tuned.

Check out this entry's Photos.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Travel Tip: You Don't Speak the Language

One of the most common excuses Americans use to not travel internationally is that they don't speak the language. As any Aussie, Kiwi, or Brit can tell you, this is a dumb excuse. More than you probably realize, thanks to a combination of the British Empire, the Marshall Plan, and the budget of Hollywood and American pop music, English is the international language of the world. When two people from different countries with different languages meet, 95% of the time, they will speak to each other in English.

That said, nobody likes the tourist who walks up to locals, asks for something in English, and when not understood, repeats themselves more slowly and loudly. The surprising thing is that most of the people who do this aren't native English speakers themselves (and are probably repeating themselves because they think they messed up). The point, however, is that to have a deeper experience in a country, you need to speak a little of the local tongue.

This is a problem. Learning a language can take years. If, for example, you want to do the traditional backpacker's circuit in SE Asia of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, that's four languages to learn right there, ignoring regional variations complicated enough to make people from opposite ends of each country not understand a word the other is saying. Unless you're an amazing linguist (I've met them, they exist) learning them all could take you half a decade or more. I don't know about you, but I'm not that patient.

So, what do you do? Strike a quick balance. How quick depends on how long you will be in the area. If you're in a place for more than a month, consider at least language tapes or a lesson or two before and during your stay. While traveling abroad local language classes are usually cheap and easy to find. If you're there for a few weeks, get a phrasebook published in your country (if you speak with an American accent and you get a British-based phrasebook, the pronunciation guide will be completely off). If you're not going to be in the country very long, then you just need the very basics. Here's where I usually start:

The first four things I try to learn are "Hello", "Thank you", "Sorry/Excuse me," and here's the big one: "What is ____ in (your language)?" Most people miss this his last one. This question, combined with pointing, is how you're going to actually get a deeper experience out of your travels. Full disclosure: you're going to forget 90% of what you are told almost immediately after they tell you, but that other 10% will come in useful, and there's a good chance that you'll recognize at least some of the first 90% the next time you hear it. More importantly, you are already ahead of the average traveler because you are displaying a genuine interest in this person's home and people, and it takes them out of the awkward situation of bending over backwards to try to communicate and help you in a language they're trying to remember from high school.

Next, learn what language quirks you should be familiar with to be polite. For example, in Spanish, there are two words for "you": tú and usted. Depending on the country, you'll hear both used very often. But if "tú" should only be used with people you are really familiar with (and maybe small children and pets) or you'll offend someone by being overly familiar. In Thai, it is considered respectful to end all your sentences with either "khaa," if you're a woman, or a higher-pitched "krup" if you're a man. Things like that. Guide books will tell you these things-- borrow a friend's if yours doesn't. If you can't find it in a guidebook, you can usually find out at the nearest tourist anything-- hotel, info counter, transit center, or anything else with at least a sign on the wall in English.

If the written language doesn't use characters you know, the obvious temptation is to learn it so that you can read street signs and building names. It's not a bad thing to learn, but that's not really the right reason. Street signs are notorious worldwide for simply not existing when you need them, and major cities' signs are usually transliterated into the Roman alphabet anyway. You're generally better off with a map, a friendly local (remember "excuse me") and a little gesturing. Don't forget the "thank you" afterward.

There is, however, one thing you will want to know written: restroom. There are times when you need to know where the toilet is and you won't want to waste time with a map and gestures. Not every toilet in the world had a little white person with pants or a dress over a blue background on the door.

Finally you'll want a set of emergency words. "Toilet" aside, there are a couple more words you won't need or hear very often, but that when you want them, you want them right away: "Help," "Stop," and "Doctor," should all be in your vocabulary, for obvious reasons. Just don't wander down the street practicing them out loud. Also, while not really an emergency thing, I'd learn the word for "soap." It comes up more often than you might expect.

After that, it's mostly a question of not being shy and remembering to keep a smile on your face. Pass around the phrasebook if you have it. Figure out nonverbal ways of communication (don't underestimate the power of the gesture). Don't be afraid to look dumb and make mistakes. The fastest way to learn a language is to talk to people and read. The rewards are immediate, not just in feeling good about being better than the average tourist, but also in things like free food and drinks, behind the scenes "tours", new friends, and great stories. Even "hello" by itself is enough to turn a suspicious look at a foreign stranger into a big smile.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Balkan Talk

This is Belgrade. This is a bomb crater. This is the leftovers of a war that I grew up hearing about but never remembered. I knew enough to burst out laughing when somebody pronounced Sarajevo something like "Sarah-Jehovah," but not much more. Thanks to a couple good friends, including one who's starting a masters degree on the subject in Vienna, I know some more about the story. I'm not here to write about that though. I'm just going to tell you about a few conversations I had.

The first was on an overnight bus from Croatia to Bosnia. The sleepy-looking woman next to me was a couple years older than I, and she had a Croatian passport. She said she was going home to see her parents. I asked why the Croatian Passport if she and her family were from the Bosnian countryside. She just explained that they were "Bosnian-Croatian."

She translated a few things for me, including a couple of the epithets an old man hurled at the driver for turning on a Bosnian TV show at full volume around midnight. I don't remember how I steered the conversation to the war, I just remember being very careful about it, ending by saying I'd only been a kid and didn't remember much.

"Well, it was from when I was eight until when I was ten." She said. "I mean, if I hadn't been here, I wouldn't have paid attention or remembered it either."
"Did you know anyone who died?"

She snorted derisively. Not the smartest question on my part.

"Yes. Of course."
"Anyone in your family?"
"Well, not my parents or my sisters. But there were some cousins who were killed." She looked out the window. "And for nothing. Just stupid politics."

I didn't ask any for any more details. There was silence for a while. She translated a loud comment from the old man about how he had no leg room. I said something about the TV show. She said something about how I could learn a bit about the Bosnian way of thinking from the show. The conversation veered off again.

"Do you think there will ever be a united Yugoslavia again?" I asked.
"No. Never." She said. "If anything I think Bosnia might split up too, maybe three ways. It'll be political again."
"You think it will just break apart?"
"I don't know. I don't care. I just don't want any more war."

A day later, I was outside Sarajevo with some Bosnian college kids hiking towards a waterfall. They told me they do that every weekend or so, but usually they'd just stop at a cabin partway up because it had good homemade food, and fresh rakia (plum brandy). I told them about the Bosnian show I'd seen on the bus from Croatia, and they all groaned loudly.

"Yeah that show is terrible. So awful." Said one..
"Only the old people like it."Added another.
"I don't know," I said, "Is it that bad? I didn't understand what they were saying, but I had someone next to me translating bits. Even without that, I think I got what was going on at least."
"Yeah. Well, nobody watches it here anymore," the first said. "Only the Slovenians and Croatians like it." she gave me a look that said very clearly 'and what does that tell you.'

One of them peeled off ahead of the others with me to tell me about her time working with youth programs in Germany. Interesting stuff.

"But I like it here better," she said afterward.
"How come?"
"Well, people there are so... hard. Like I was three minutes late and they yelled at me! In the Balkans, that's just how things work! People here are just more relaxed. Life here is nice."

The night, back in Sarajevo, inside a restaurant called Aeroplan. I was part of a group of about fifty couchsurfers who had come to a town for a big Balkans meetup. It was getting very hot, so I stepped outside for some fresh air. A Serbian girl from my table came with. I asked her about something she said earlier. She'd told me that she didn't identify herself as Serbian, she identified herself as Yugoslav. As soon as I said something about the history, she started talking about how so many Serbians talked about how it was so terrible what the Americans did to them, etc. but they "deserved it."

"But what people need to understand that what our president did isn't what the people wanted to do."
"Yeah, well," I said with a wry smile, "I think I know what you're talking about. I know what it's like to feel like you're supposed to defend a president who does things you don't agree with. We had one of those." She laughed at that.

I swapped story for story, telling her about my dad's visit when it was still Yugoslavia, and talking about how surprised he and so many others were when war broke out between the people.

"Well, Tito was good at holding us all together. 'Peaceful coexistence' he called it. After that, everything fell apart."
"So life was pretty good under him."
"It was good for the time. Nobody thought about the future. He didn't do anything for advancing anything. It was just a big party while it happened. I mean, he didn't even build a subway or anything in Belgrade. I mean, it's a major city and it still has no subway! Can you think of anything like it?"

To be honest, I could think of half a dozen cities like it that way, but decided against bringing that up.

At that point, a French-Canadian came out with a cigarette. We said hi. He figured out that the war and politics were on tap for discussion, and immediately interrupted with why communism sounded so great to him.

"It sounds like such a great way to do things. It's appealing."
"Well, it was great at the time," The girl started, "but under Tito--"
"I really like the idea," he interrupted. "But it doesn't work. Unfortunately, competition is necessary."

I tried steering the conversation back the Yugoslav girl's experience, and he interrupted a few more times, repeating that capitalism is the least worst system there is. Finally he asked,

"What was it like here during the war?"
"I don't know." She said flatly. "I'm from Belgrade."
"Hmm. I can't imagine it," he said, staring moodily into space. "I need to know what it was like. How it felt."

I considered telling him he wasn't going to find out until he stopped interrupting and started listening for a change, but decided against it. So the conversation went for ten minutes before we the Yugoslav girl and I "got too cold to stay outside."

Two days later I was sitting in a hostel kitchen in Belgrade with a couple backpacking kiwis who were raving about how cheap everything was.

"Even the food is like three bucks! And if you pay more you get something massive as!"
"We went and asked for this burger thing they do-- actually no first we went and nearly asked for a doner kebab, you know because everywhere else in Europe those are so cheap. Then we figured out, that's the wrong thing to ask for here."
Doner kebab. Turkish. Muslim. In Belgrade, Serbia.
"Yeah." I said. "'Bout that." They laughed, slightly uncomfortable.

On my way out of that hostel, I happened upon a BBC article online, talking about how Serbian Radovan Karadzic, accused of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and more against was being defiant at his hearing in the Hague. I clicked on a video link for a related story, and saw the typical wartime footage, this time archived from the conflict. Explosions, people scattering for cover. A lot of grey and dust colors everywhere. A dirty undecorated street. I stopped the video and looked more closely. I knew that street. I'd walked down that street four days before in Sarajevo to catch a bus. Same buildings, same bridge over the river, probably the same streetcar tracks. I replayed the clip, and it looked very different from the first time.

I left and looked around at how unaffected the whole place seemed. in the whole city, I saw just two buildings like the one I pictured above, with the craters still in them, "to show what the Americans did to us." No hostility, just a simple display.

In Brasov, a town in Transylvania, I brought that up. I was talking to a group that included two veteran travelers, a 31-year old American who left the states in 2005, and a man in his sixties who told us a Dutch girlfriend he'd had seven years ago once counted up how many countries he'd been to and come up with the number 140.

"Hell," he said, "I was there when the bombing was happening."
Everyone else's jaws dropped all around the table.
"Really. I mean, they were very upset, of course. They wanted to know why we were doing this, and they all had several reasons why Clinton should die." But they hadn't been hostile to him personally, even as our country dropped bombs on them.

Nobody had anything to follow that up with. Even now, deep into Romania, I don't know what I've learned, but I don't know if I need to. Some things with history like this seem to overpower the present for anyone visiting. Maybe the experience of seeing it touch everyday life was enough.

Check out this entry's Photos.