Monthly Archives: May 2009

Win one of FIVE copies of “Lost on Planet China” by J. Maarten Troost

Posted by on May 31, 2009

This week I have a great prize.

J. Maarten Troost is one of the best travel writers working today. He has written such popular books as The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific and Getting Stoned with Savages: A Trip Through the Islands of Fiji and Vanuatu.

I’ll be giving away FIVE copies of his latest book Lost on Planet China: One Man’s Attempt to Understand the World’s Most Mystifying Nation. Amazon.com describes his new book as follows:

Maarten Troost is a laowai (foreigner) in the Middle Kingdom, ill-equipped with a sliver of Mandarin, questing to discover the “essential Chineseness” of an ancient and often mystifying land. What he finds is a country with its feet suctioned in the clay of traditional culture and a head straining into the polluted stratosphere of unencumbered capitalism, where cyclopean portraits of Chairman Mao (largely perceived as mostly good, except for that nasty bit toward the end) spoon comfortably with Hong Kong’s embrace of rat-race modernity. From Beijing and its blitzes of flying phlegm–and girls who lend new meaning to “Chinese take-out”–to the legendary valley of Shangri-La (as officially designated by the Party), Troost learns that his very survival may hinge on his underdeveloped haggling skills and a willingness to deploy Rollerball-grade elbows over a seat on a train. Featuring visits to Mao’s George Hamiltonian corpse and a rural market offering Siberian Tiger paw, cobra hearts, and scorpion kebabs (in the food section), Lost on Planet China is a funny and engrossing trip across a nation that increasingly demands the world’s attention.

All you have to do to win is to leave a comment telling me your favorite thing about China: food, music, movies, language, etc.

Comments will be left open for about a week and five entries will be selected via Random.org.

The Paradox of Travel Blogging

Posted by on May 31, 2009

You may have noticed a significant amount of inactivity from myself on Twitter and on the website during the last week. Since I left Florence I’ve been extremely occupied taking photos, running around seeing things, experiencing Italy and generally doing things that travelers do.

The problems with a travel blog is if you are traveling you aren’t blogging and if you are blogging you aren’t traveling. In fact since I’ve been running this site I’ve noticed something peculiar: the days I’m actually out doing stuff are the days which I get the least amount of traffic. The days I’m sitting at my laptop are the days I get the most traffic. In other words, traveling is an impediment to travel blogging. I would like to hereby name this phenomenon “Gary’s Paradox”.

This isn’t the first time this has happened, nor will it be the last. Some places just don’t lend themselves to easy internet access or warrant spending time at the computer. When I drove from Darwin to Perth in Australia, my updates on the site were very sparse because there were few places to update from in Western Australia. Likewise, early in my trip while in the Pacific my updates were only about once a week. When your choices are swimming or blogging, it is a pretty easy decision.

Suffice it to say today I’m Turin, Italy sitting in front of my computer and not really doing anything, hence the blog post.

Housekeeping

The contest for the year subscription to National Geographic and Energizer Batteries is over. The winners of the subscription are Erik and Polara. The winners of the Energizer Batteries are Jen, Katie, and Doran.

A very photo intensive interview with me has been published on Wandering Educators. I was also interviewed for an article on traveling to dangerous places on CNN.com.

Finally, I did a lengthy interview with Craig Martin at the Indie Travel Podcast. It is about a 30 minute interview where we talk about my travels in the Pacific, guidebooks, long term travel and my future plans. Craig and his wife Linda have been producing their podcast for about as long as I’ve been running my blog. What I like about them is that, like me, they are doing all of this on the road having recorded podcasts all over Europe, Malaysia, Australia and New Zealand.

I highly recommend subscribing to their podcast on iTunes. Please also take a minute to give their podcast a review on iTunes. The more/better reviews they get on iTunes, the higher they appear in iTunes rankings, the more people can discover their podcast.

UNESCO World Heritage Site #63: Old City of Jerusalem and its Walls

Posted by on May 30, 2009

UNESCO World Heritage Site #63: Old City of Jerusalem and its Walls

UNESCO World Heritage Site #63: Old City of Jerusalem and its Walls

From the World Heritage inscription:

As a holy city for Judaism, Christianity and Islam, Jerusalem has always been of great symbolic importance. Among its 220 historic monuments, the Dome of the Rock stands out: built in the 7th century, it is decorated with beautiful geometric and floral motifs. It is recognized by all three religions as the site of Abraham’s sacrifice. The Wailing Wall delimits the quarters of the different religious communities, while the Resurrection rotunda in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre houses Christ’s tomb.

The old city of Jerusalem is such a small place, yet on a square meter basis contains more history than perhaps any other city in the world. When you walk down the streets you can get lost and still run across things which have some historical or religious significance.

This photo was taken from the Mount of Olives across the Kidron Valley. I thought the barbed wire over the city conveyed the conflict and struggle over the city, which has changed control over 40 times in its history.

UNESCO World Heritage Site #62: Masada

Posted by on May 29, 2009

UNESCO World Heritage Site #62: Masada

UNESCO World Heritage Site #62: Masada

From the World Heritage inscription:

Masada is a rugged natural fortress, of majestic beauty, in the Judaean Desert overlooking the Dead Sea. It is a symbol of the ancient kingdom of Israel, its violent destruction and the last stand of Jewish patriots in the face of the Roman army, in 73 A.D. It was built as a palace complex, in the classic style of the early Roman Empire, by Herod the Great, King of Judaea, (reigned 37 – 4 B.C.). The camps, fortifications and attack ramp that encircle the monument constitute the most complete Roman siege works surviving to the present day.

Masada is in the middle of nowhere, but it was really in the middle of nowhere thousands of years ago. The dry conditions and the remoteness of the location has preserved some elements of the area extremely well. From the top of the mountain you can clearly see the wall (berm) the Romans created to encircle the mountain, the areas set up for their camp, as well as the ramp they built up the mountain.

It is a popular vacation spot for Israelis, especially for boys having their Bar Mitzvah. There is a hostel at the base of the mountain which mostly caters to large tour groups and an excellent museum with interpretive center.

The Tourist of Venice

Posted by on May 25, 2009

After my tiny two day adventure in the tiny country of San Marino, I arrived in Venice where I have been for the last day. Venice is an amazing city. The moment you leave the door of the train station you are hit with the Grand Canal and every sterotype of the city you’ve ever heard. The city is a giant maze. I’ve taken several walks around since I’ve arrived and am still pretty clueless as to where I am. The city also really stinks at low tide due to the alage which is growing on the surface of everything.

Vencie today seems 100% devoted to tourism, yet unlike some other places I have visited, the mass of tourists doesn’t seem to distract from the city as much. You can walk around and be pretty oblivious of everyone around you. Take away the gelato stands and the tourist traps, and the city looks like it would have several hundred years ago. Being a photographer in Venice is like being a kid in a candy store.

I will be here another two or three days before I head off for a brief stop in Milan before going to France. I might take a day trip to Padua from Venice because it is so close by train. I’ve heard good things about the tour of the University (the 2nd oldest in Italy).

My internet access is limited here. The internet connection at my hotel isn’t working so I have to rely on internet cafes.

UNESCO World Heritage Site #61: Petra

Posted by on May 19, 2009

UNESCO World Heritage Site #61: Petra

UNESCO World Heritage Site #61: Petra


From the World Heritage inscription:

Inhabited since prehistoric times, this Nabataean caravan-city, situated between the Red Sea and the Dead Sea, was an important crossroads between Arabia, Egypt and Syria-Phoenicia. Petra is half-built, half-carved into the rock, and is surrounded by mountains riddled with passages and gorges. It is one of the world’s most famous archaeological sites, where ancient Eastern traditions blend with Hellenistic architecture.

Petra was recently named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. I can’t help but think that part of the reason it was picked was because it was a filming location for one of the Indiana Jones movies. I say that because there is usually only one photo of Petra which people every see, and that is the Treasury Building. While the Treasury Building is the most well preserved of the carved structures in Petra, there is a lot more to the location. You can spend a full day exploring Petra and be very tired at the end. Not only is it big, there is a lot of vertical distance to climb.

Visiting Wadi Rum

Posted by on May 18, 2009

The Seven Pillars of Wisdom

Road into Wadi Rum. As always, click on the image for a much larger version.

In my humble opinion, the greatest movie ever made is Lawrence of Arabia. Shot on location in Wadi Rum on 70mm film, a forerunner of IMAX, it is a fantastic story with amazing acting, directing, and cinematography. It tells the story of TE Lawrence and the Great Arab Revolt in WWI against the Turks. I’ve probably seen Lawrence of Arabia about a dozen times and couldn’t wait to go to Jordan to visit Wadi Rum and to walk where Lawrence and Auda ibu Tayi walked.

Tents at bedouin camp

Tents at bedouin camp

As it turns out, TE Lawrence never lead the Arab armies through Wadi Rum. They actually went around it when they attacked Aqaba. Nonetheless, it made a great location to film and the fact that history wasn’t quite like the movies didn’t dampen my desire to visit.

Getting to Wadi Rum from Aqaba isn’t easy considering it is one of the larger tourist attractions in Jordan. It is about an hour drive from Aqaba and your options are to either take a cab or try to grab a mini bus. There are no organized buses which go to Wadi Rum. I did meet some people who hitchhiked to the highway/Wadi Rum crossroads I took a mini bus along with ten Wadi Rum locals and a former wrestler from Ukraine. The Ukrainian guy was the most frugal traveler I’ve ever met. He managed to spend 45 days in Egypt and only spend $300. He ended up walking through Wadi Rum alone and slept outside, something I thought was pretty dangerous given the conditions in the desert and the fact he only had one bottle of water.

My desert transportation

My desert transportation

I arrived at the Wadi Rum visitor center not having any reservations or any idea of how things are done or what there was to do. Thankfully, the visitor center is very organized and is set up to take care of tourists. There are several Bedouin camps in Wadi Rum which are run by locals in the area. The visitors center acts as a booking agent for the Bedouins. You can just show up and they will radio one of the camps and set you up, as well as arrange transportation. Most people only stay one night in the camps but I stayed two so I could go explore some of the nearby desert during the day.

I took a jeep tour of the area around Wadi Rum as went out to the camp. It wasn’t worth it as I would have been driven out to the camp for free. The stops we made weren’t that great and the photos I got from it were pretty poor due to the lighting conditions. I was able to see some of the camel watering stations and some ancient script written on some rocks, but beyond that it wasn’t much more than I would have gotten just driving to the camp.

The Seven Pillars of Wisdom

The Seven Pillars of Wisdom

I ended up staying at the The Bedouin Meditation Camp, which really has nothing to do with meditation. The man who ran the camp was Zidane al Zilabieh who was a really nice guy. The camp was his family business and he went out of his way to treat all his guests well. The tents were Bedouin style, or at least what passes for a Bedouin tent in the 21st century. The walls of the tent were heavy black rug/blanket type cloth with rugs covering the floors. There were beds, matresses and heavy blankets for everyone so you don’t have to sleep on the ground. The first night I was there it was very cold and windy in the desert and I was kept very warm.

Dinner was cooked Bedouin style in a pit covered in sand. Food was chicken, rice and potatoes; simple but good. They also served tea before sunset. They had some old seats from cars set up on a dune where you could watch the sunset while drinking Bedouin tea, which is actually really good. The tea table was used in my May 2009 desktop wallpaper photo. The stars in the desert are some of the brightest you will see anywhere on Earth. What I saw was on a par with the stars I saw in the Outback of Australia or on islands in the Pacific.

Sunset in the desert

Sunset in the desert

The next day my primary activity was to go on a three hour camel trip through the desert to take photos. We left at 10am and my guide walked the entire time, which I sort of felt bad about. I had assumed that he would be riding a camel as well, not walking. If he was going to walk, I could have saved the money and just walked myself. My camel riding experience was oddly enough helped by Lawrence of Arabia. There is a scene where he is told to wrap his legs around the saddle so you don’t ride like you would on a horse. It worked well and was much more comfortable than letting your legs swing on either side. It also turns out that taking photos in the desert during mid day isn’t very good. Of the 240 photos I took, probably less than 10 were worth uploading, and those were just photos of the camel or odd rock formations. The light is just way to harsh.

I left Wadi Rum for Petra which is a much easier trip than coming from Aqaba. There is a bus every morning which goes from Petra to Wadi Rum village and back. The bus was mostly empty and reasonably priced. The trip to Petra is about 90 minutes which includes stops to pick up and drop off locals.

I highly recommend Wadi Rum if you are going to Petra. If you can, stay overnight in a Bedouin camp rather than just a day trip where you drive around and drive back to Aqaba. Even though the scenery is breathtaking, the Bedouin experience is what really makes Wadi Rum worth while. I had luck just showing up at the park, but if it is peak tourist season, you might need to reserve a place at a Bedouin camp ahead of time.

First Impressions of Florence

Posted by on May 15, 2009

Dome of the Florence Cathedral

Dome of the Florence Cathedral

Rome’s heyday was back in the days of emperors and gladiators. While many of the current structures in Rome were constructed around the time of the Renaissance, most of that talent and money to create those structures came not from Rome but from the north of Italy, in particular Florence. While Florence’s history does trace back to the Romans, it earned its place on the map as the center of the Renaissance. This is the city of Michelangelo, Galileo, Dante, Machiavelli, the Medici Family, and hundreds of other artists. Compared to Rome, Florence is a relatively modern city.

The moment I got off the train I was able to sense a difference between Florence and Rome. Florence is much smaller. The pace here seems slower. The people and the stores seem a bit more…..classy. There isn’t as much graffitti. While it clearly makes a living off of tourism, it doesn’t seem nearly as overrun with tourists as Rome.

Putting the art back into street art

Putting the 'art' back into street art

After finding a place to stay, as is my normal routine when I arrive in a new city, I set off with my pocket camera to get a feel for the place. While I was able to walk to most of the attractions in Rome, it would often take a while and at the end of the day my feet would be killing me. Walking around Florence is easy. You can get to all the major attractions in just a few minutes time. While there is car traffic, you get a feel that the city hasn’t changed all that much in the last several hundred years.

The biggest feature of the city is the Florence Cathedral. Its reddish/orange dome dominates the city skyline. It is said to be the 3rd largest church in the world after St. Peter’s in Rome and St. Paul’s in London. It is however much older than either of those churches with construction having begun in the 13th century, as opposed to the 16th and 17th century for St. Peter’s and St. Paul’s. The interior is downright bland compared to any of the major basilicas in Rome. Given how many artists came out of Florence, I expected it to be filled with art. The most notable artwork in the building is the painting on the dome which shows a scene from the last judgment.

Rub the snout for luck

Rub the snout for luck

From there it was a quick walk to the Piazza della Signoria where you really get the feel of being in a Renaissance city. The clock tower, the coats of arms and the sculptures, including a replica of David, thrust you back into the 16th century. Even though I’m a big fan of ancient Roman history, I got a bigger thrill being here than I did anywhere in Rome.

A few blocks further and I was at the New Market where they have the famous bronze statue of the pig. You can rub his snout for good luck, which given how shiny it is compared the rest of the body, it gets rubbed quite a bit.

There are two food items I was told to try while I was in Florence: Florentine steak and gelato. I’d had plenty of gelato in Rome and elsewhere, so I didn’t think it could be all that different in Florence, and it isn’t. The only thing I noticed is that the gelaterias have giant mounds of the stuff which look like something Richard Dreyfuss would have built in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I did order and eat a Florentine steak, which I learned is just another word for “porterhouse”. Nonetheless, it was one of the better steaks I’ve ever had and it was HUGE. I’m now sort of curious to find out how a steak became associated with the city.

Tomorrow I’ll be seeing the sites properly with more time and taking photos. The next few days I plan on taking day trips to Pisa and Sienna. From there I’ll figure out how to get to San Marino and then Venice. My first impression of Florence are very positive. I can see why so many people have fallen in love with the city and have been so vocal about it on Twitter.

Goodbye Rome. Hello Florence!

Posted by on May 14, 2009

I’ve been in Rome a few days longer than I had planned, but honestly could stay here two weeks longer and still not see everything. I think this is definitely one of the cities I’ll be coming back to at some point. During the last few days I made a trip out to Ostia Antica and another trip to the Vatican today to climb the dome on St. Peter’s Basilica and to go into the grotto where the popes are buried.

I also stopped in and saw the Capuchin Crypt which was one of the most macabre things I’ve every seen in my life. There is a very fine line between honoring your fallen brothers who have faithfully served the Lord and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre House. Making arts and crafts out of the spines and bones of hundreds of dead people is really, really, really, really spooky. I’d hate to think that one day my corpse might be used for decoration somewhere. If it is my fate, please at least prop me up like the Fonz giving a big thumbs up…..

Just like when I arrived in Rome, I could use some help for what to see in Florence. My current plans are pretty simple: a trip to Pisa, photos of the skyline, visit the Uffizi Gallery, and of course going to see Michelangelo’s David at the Academia Gallery. If you have any other suggestions, please let me know. I don’t plan on staying in Florence as long as I did in Rome. After Florence I have to decide on how to get to Venice and San Marino. I might have to backtrack a bit.

McKosher: McDonald’s in Israel

Posted by on May 13, 2009

Kosher McDonalds Sign

Kosher McDonald's Sign

There was an obvious question about Israeli McDonald’s I had before I entered the country: were they kosher? I had read that there were non-kosher McDonald’s Israel. In fact, the Internet told me, most of the McDonald’s in Israel were non-kosher. During my entire time in Israel I did not see a single non-kosher McDonald’s. Part of this might be due to where I’ve seen them: in a mall in Eilat, in a mall in Beer Sheva, at the bus station in Beer Sheeva, in Jerusalem, at the Ramat Aviv Mall in Tel Aviv, on the beach in Tel Aviv and the Ben Gurion Airport. All of these have been kosher McDonald’s. It could be that I just saw the ones in popular locations and those happen to be kosher. That’s just fine, because for the purposes of this article, I’m just going to focus on the kosher ones because they are the most interesting.

McDonald’s in Israel, especially the kosher ones, are some of the most unique in the world. For starters they are the only McDonald’s in the world (other than Argentina) that cooks their burgers over charcoal instead of frying them. I have no idea why they are allowed to do this, but as far as I know, there are no dietary laws that would prevent frying. The signage and branding of McDonald’s in Israel is different than the rest of the world. Some of the kosher stores are allowed to use a blue background instead of a red one. They don’t serve cheese in the kosher McDonald’s and don’t even serve ice cream in the same area. They have a small door which separates the dairy from non-dairy sides of the restaurant. In the Ramat Aviv mall, I noticed that the girl working the ice cream machine was Muslim.

Unlike McDonald’s I’ve seen everywhere else in the world, the menus were not in English. Usually they are in both English and whatever the local language is, but in Israel they were only in Hebrew. I had no clue what was on the menu until I saw the McDonald’s at the airport where it was in English as well. They have a McKebob sandwich which looks very similar to the McArabia I saw in the rest of the Middle East. It was a regular hamburger bun wrapped in flatbread.

McDonalds Sign in Eliat

McDonald's Sign in Eliat

I had the opportunity to be in Israel during Passover and was able to observe some of what observant Jews go through to keep kosher for Passover. I’m a gentile from the Midwestern United States. My knowledge of kosher laws consists of “don’t eat pork”. I knew there was a special kosher for Passover, but I had no idea what it was. It was just another symbol you’d sometimes see on food packages. I also didn’t know much about Halal dietary rules in Muslim countries before I arrived in the Middle East. I made it my mission to find out what all these rules were about.

I should make it perfectly clear up front that I’m not a student of Jewish or Muslim dietary laws. I think I’ve managed to figure out the gist of it, but I’m sure there are some details that I might miss or get wrong. If that is the case, please feel free to correct me in the comments.

So pork isn’t kosher. I knew that, but I didn’t know why. According to Jewish law, an animal (not including birds or fish) is only kosher if it a) has a cloven hoof, and b) chews the cud. Pigs are eliminated on the basis that they do not chew the cud. However, there are a host of animals which also fall under this umbrella that I never thought about. Horses aren’t kosher because they don’t have cloven hooves. Rabbits aren’t kosher either. Basically the only mammals which are kosher are cows, goats, sheep and deer. I also read that a group of rabbis also declared that giraffes are kosher, not that anyone is going to be eating them anytime soon. Bison are also kosher by the same rules.

All reptiles and amphibians are not be considered kosher, so no frog legs. Also, with the minor exception of a particular species of locust, insects are not kosher, so escargot is off the menu. Fish is OK so long as it has fins and scales. This means clams, oysters, shrimp, octopus, squid, and every other good thing you can get at a sushi restaurant is right out. There is also some debate as to the kosherness of catfish, because they don’t have scales. Birds are all right so long as they are not predators. Chicken, duck, goose and turkey is acceptable but if you want to grill an eagle for the 4th of July, forget about it.

This house is a chometz free zone

This house is a chometz free zone

Outside of meat, the other big kosher no-no is mixing dairy and meat in the same meal. That means no cheeseburgers, no chedarwurst, no milk with dinner, and no ice cream for desert. There is some debate as to how long you have to wait until you can eat dairy products. I’ve read between 1 and 6 hours depending on how strict you want to be. That is why they keep the ice cream machine in separate area at McDonald’s.

If a utensil comes in contact with something non-kosher, it is considered unclean and makes anything it comes in contact with non-kosher. This can set off a whole chain of events rendering food which is normally kosher to be non-kosher. The solution is to have a kosher kitchen, so you have a self contained area where everything non-kosher is kept out. There is much more to being kosher than what I’ve outlined including removing all blood from meat, the condition and health of the animal at slaughter, and the method of slaughter. However, I think those are the major parts of keeping kosher.

Kosher for Passover basically involved avoiding leaven bread. That sounds simple, but in addition to not eating it during Passover, you can’t possess it. You can’t have any crumbs in your house, so you have to really clean everything before passover starts. Many restaurants and Israeli institutions like prisons and universities give power of attorney to a rabbi for all their leaven bread (called chometz) who then sells it to a Muslim Arab for the duration of Passover.

This means that every bakery and pizza parlor pretty much shuts down for the 9 days of Passover in Orthodox neighborhoods. McDonald’s that I saw did not keep kosher for passover and sold hamburgers with buns. Burger King, however, is very kosher and was certified kosher for Passover. Their menu was very limited selling only fries, salads, chicken wings and hamburger patties without buns.

Muslim halal rules are much simpler than kosher laws. Pork is excluded by name in the Koran, so most non-kosher meats could be considered Halal. The biggest part of halal is the method of slaughter, which requires the animal to be killed by slitting the throat with a sharp knife while saying a prayer. For the most part (depending on which Muslim scholar you listen to) kosher food would also be halal, but the opposite is not true. The biggest example of this would be camels. Many Arab countries will occasionally eat camels, but they they are strictly non-kosher because of the hoof/cud requirements.

So if you are ever in the Middle East and go past a McDonald’s give a few seconds of thought to what goes into making it kosher/halal. Keeping a kosher ain’t easy.