Monthly Archives: May 2009

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.

The Story of the Rome Keyhole Photo

Posted by on May 12, 2009

The door to the SMOM HQ

The door to the SMOM HQ. Click to see a larger image of people looking through the keyhole.

This article is all about the daily photo from May 12, 2009. If you haven’t seen it, please check it out. It is a photo of St. Peter’s Basilica through the keyhole to the door of the headquarters of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta. (that is a mouthful)

There are certain iconic photos of famous places that everyone is familiar with. If you have seen a photo of the Taj Mahal, odds are it is of the building taken from the front with the building in the center and reflecting pool in the foreground. If you’ve seen a photo of Machu Pichu, you’ve seen it taken looking down from a hill above the ruins. If you’ve seen a photo of Time Square, it was taken near ground level pointed at One Times Square. Every one of those iconic photos can differ slightly depending on where you are standing, what you are standing on, etc. The Rome Keyhole photo is one of the few iconic photos I know of that everyone pretty much has to take exactly the same. The camera has to literally be in the same spot to get it to work.

The key hole

The key hole

If you look at the top photo on this page (click to see a bigger version) you’ll see a girl taking a photo through the keyhole. She was actually rather frustrated because it wasn’t working out for her. While I was there about a dozen people walked up to the gate to look through the keyhole. I took over 30 photos with various settings on my camera to get it to work. It is a really tricky shot because you are dealing with a very small hole, not much light, and a very far away object. The lack of light means a longer exposure time and the far away object means it will move around significantly with the smallest movement on your part.

If you look at the second photo, it shows the entire keyhole with some of St. Peter’s in the hole. This is a much harder shot because you need to get the door and the dome in focus. This would have turned out much better if I had my tripod with me. I should go out of my way to note that this photo is far from original. If you search for “Rome keyhole” on Google, you will find a ton of almost identical photos.

The view through the keyhole is so perfect, you can’t help but wonder if it wasn’t planned that way. Not only is St. Peter’s perfectly framed by the garden arch, but the two domes are in perfect alignment. If the garden were aligned just a slight bit differently, or if the keyhole were in a slightly different spot, it wouldn’t work. I have to believe that during construction, someone noticed the view and set up the arches and keyhole on purpose.

SMOM Letter box

SMOM Letter box

All of this, of course, raises the question: what exactly is the Sovereign Military Order of Malta? They are better known as the Knights of Malta and their full name is the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta. They are what is left of the former monastic order of the Knights Hospitaller which were created during the Crusades to protect pilgrims in the Holy Land. They used to control Malta until they were expelled by Napoleon in 1798.

They are a very unique entity in the world. They claim to be a sovereign power and have diplomatic relations with over 100 countries and international organizations. Yet, they have no territory. They also have permanent observer status at the United Nations similar to that of Palestine, the difference being that Palestine, however you define it, is a place. The SMOM has extraterritorial jurisdiction over this location and another building near the Spanish Steps in Rome. The buildings are Italian soil, but the SMOM has authority over it as if it were the embassy of a foreign country. Some people think they are an independent country like the Vatican, but they are not. (However, I think it would be cool if they were because the world needs more tiny countries.)

The SMOM has their own license plates, coins, stamps, and passports. Despite the use of “military” in their title, their current mission is that of providing humanitarian and medial aid. Its mission is similar to the Red Cross.