Camino de Santiago: 2

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Who are these people who want to walk or bike hundreds of kilometers just to get to a particular city? Well, as I mentioned in an earlier blog Santiago de Compostela is a holy city and especially in the Middle Ages millions of people from all over Europe walked or rode their horse to Santiago for religious reasons. Nowadays many people still do so for religious reasons, although many others do it for a variety of reasons: it is an historic long distance path, it is easier than for instance the Continental Divide or Pacific Crest trail where you have to prearrange food drops because you are crossing so much wilderness. It is much easier than the Trans Canada trail which is still incomplete and is missing many sections. It is extremely well marked and you rarely wonder where the trail runs.
Nowadays about 55% of the pilgrims are male and (obviously) 45% is female. Many females are walking it by themselves and it is safe. Eighty seven percent of the people walk it, 12% do it on a bike and nowadays only 0.5% do it on a horse. Even 0.03% do it in a wheelchair (66 total in 2013).
How old are these pilgrims? Well, 28% are under 30, 56% are between 30 and 60 and still 15% are over 60. That last statistic surprises me, because the number of people I have seen of my age or older I can count on 2 hands.
Where do they come from? Well, not surprising, 50% of the pilgrims are from Spain, then Germany and Italy each ‘supply’ 14% of the pilgrims, Portugal 10%, the US 9%, France 7% and good old Canada does have 3% of the pilgrims on the trail.
There are many roads that lead to Rome, so there are also many routes that lead to Santiago. Of course in the Middle Ages people left from home and made their way to Santiago. My brother Rob in 1999 walked all the way from Amsterdam before I joined him in Pamplona to for the last 720 kms.
Nowadays 70% of the pilgrims follow the most common route, The Camino de Frances. However 14% are coming via the Camino de Portugal and the remainder are using one of the 9 or 10 other routes through Spain to Santiago.
In an earlier blog I stated that last year about 150,000 people made their way via de Camino to Santiago. Well, the latest figures from the Head Quarters in Santiago show that I was way too low: it states that in 2013 over 215,000 people did so and in the last holy year in 2010 272,000 people made their way to the holy city.
I am taking a rest day today in Burgos and spent a very interesting few hours visiting the cathedral in the old part of Burgos. Beautiful.
Tomorrow back on the trail, only about 20 km awaits me tomorrow, should not be a problem (famous last words)

Of Windmills and Lost Socks

I just sit down for a late lunch and before I notice it I have an open bottle of red wine plus a glass put in front of me. No questions asked about what I want. This is what you drink with your lunch. Fortunately I have already made my bed in the albergue next door and can sleep off my early drink after lunch.

Two days ago I left Burgos and the trail immediately starts rising out of town. I am going up onto the meseta over which I will walk almost the entire next week. It is a high plateau, ranging between 800 meters and 1100 meters. Walking across the top of the table mountain is fine, but hiking up it at a12% slope. Or coming down it at 18% is hard and tiring. However the views across the top seem to go on for ever. Fortunately there is a little wind on top and that makes it quite pleasant because otherwise it can be extremely hot in August on the meseta. Most villages on the meseta are located in a fold of the terrain and you always have to hike down into them and after a drink or lunch back up to the top of the meseta.

The Spaniards consider themselves great hunters and the result of it is that I have not seen a life animal expect cats and dogs anywhere. No birds in the sky except a few house wrens in the cities or swallows around a church. Not a dear, rabbit or anything else out in the field. Especially on weekends you constantly hear gun shots around you in the fields. What they are shooting at I have no idea because nothing has been left alive around here. Last February I was hiking in Andalusia in southern Spain and thought I noticed evidence of wild boars. However I was told the turned up soils were the result of farmers and their trained pigs looking for truffles. It is earily quiet everywhere you walk, no birds in the sky, no movement in the fields.

On weekends there also is a noticeable increase in cyclists on the trail. The Spaniards love to go out biking and you better watch out as a hiker, although I must say, 99% of them are very polite. Except that a bike bell does not seem to be part of a mountain bike’s equipment and they surprise you time and time again when they come up behind you.

In one of the last blogs I wrote about how pilgrims travel. On Monday I walked into Burgos and noticed a ‘pilgrim’ getting on a city bus to take her from the edge of town to downtown. It was not a pretty part of the hike, 1 1/2 hour of walking through traffic and an industrial area, but taking the bus is not part of hiking the Camino in my opinion.

One of the many changes I see now compared to 15 years ago are the forests of huge windmills. Just like in many other places in the world Spain has taken to building large windmill parks to generate electric power. Smart way to go, but it sure scars the viewscape of the countryside. The other change I may have mentioned, the Spaniards are spending billions on renovating older buildings and building new infrastructure. Everywhere, even over a small village, you see huge construction cranes swinging their loads through the air.

Three days ago I lost a sock, it took me days to find a sports store that sold the kind of socks I want. Finally this morning I managed to buy a new pair of socks. A few hours later I slide into my sleeping bag to sleep of  the too-much-wine-at-lunch and what do I feel in the bottom of the bag, sure, the lost sock. Now I have at least an extra pair.

The day I left Burgos I felt energetic and hiked 30 KM, I ended up in a quite village called Hontanas. This morning I did not feel as energetic and only did 20 km, so now I am in Itero de la Vega. (Population 190) so don’t look for it on the world map.

From Burgos to Leon

Boring, Boring, Boring
Ever since I left Burgos almost a week ago I have been walking on the meseta, straight roads mostly flat high country with few trees in sight and mile after mile after mile of grain fields and nothing much else.
That is nice for a day, but day after day the same in the hot sun does get tiring.
Much of the time I am walking along the road, just off the road on a specially designed path, but still along the road. Tomorrow does not offer much else, so until I get to Leon in 2 days it is boring.
In general the path is not bad, firm gravel, but also sharp rocks from time to time and since my left foot is acting up again it is rather painful at times. Today I saw a doctor about a huge blister but she just shrugged and sent me on my way.

Last night I was in Sahagun, a city I remember well visiting with Rob 15 years ago. Sat at the same outside bar on the same plaza where we sat 15 years ago. Just watching the people do their thing. Young boys playing soccer, old folks sitting on a bench where they probably sat for years, couples in love sauntering from one end to the other around the plaza.
Last night I stayed at an albergue in an old church, totally renovated, very nice and a fair amount of privacy which is something few albergues offer. In the middle of the night a terrific bang that seemed to shake the whole place, someone fell out of the top bunk in his sleep. I learned a few new Spanish curse words listening to the poor fellow.

Tonight was nice, I met another Canadian couple from Nova Scotia and they had made a stew of all kind of vegetables and sausages. They invite 8 other peregrinos and I brought a couple of bottles of wine. We had a great time conversing in English, Spanish and French as well as sign language. Unfortunately they had left the very hot peppers in the stew too long and the poor soul who had the stew from the bottom of the pan spit flames after a few bites. Even half a bottle of wine did not put him at ease.

I am sitting in a cafe because it is the only place in the village that has wifi. A soccer game is starting on TV. I don’t dare mention my Dutch background after the beating the Dutch gave Spain during the World Cup Soccer a few weeks ago.

wo more days to Leon, the biggest city between Pamplona and Santiago and I plan on taking a few days off there to take it easy, rest my feet and take in the sights. It has a wonderful cathedral, worth a visit. I might even take in a mass since it is a special place.
Boy, these Spaniard are getting into their soccer game, the noise around me in deafening.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Landed in Leon, that is half way between Pamplona and Santiago!
Time for a few days of rest so my feet can get back to normal if they still know what normal means. Found a cheap little hostel next to the cathedral and the first thing I did this morning was to visit the cathedral. It has the largest expense of stained glass of any medieval cathedral in Europe, absolutely beautiful with the sun shining though them from the outside.

Last night I attended a pilgrims’ mass in another church. Did not understand a word of it, but the atmosphere and singing was nice to just sit back and let come over you.

It has been rather boring the past week, and the next 1-2 days don’t promise anything different but based on my memory and judging by my guide the rest of ‘The Way’ should get more interesting again as well as harder. The elevation maps in my guide are showing some rather high hills in my near future.

Cathedral of Leon

My guide is good as far as info about albergues / hostels / refugios and for elevations, other than that it is useless to find your way. However the trail itself is so well marked that you can find it without too much of a problem the entire way. Lots of signs, small as well as large with the well known camino emblem are showing you the way. And if there is not a sign there are arrows on buildings, on corners, on the road itself, on curbs and anywhere you care to look.
It seems impossible to get lost unless you are not paying attention. It is starting to get busier because several other caminos are joining the main trail. Plus that numerous people are starting their walk somewhere along the trail such as at Burgos or Leon.

Saturday, August 30, 2014
I think that after 50 years I may have discovered that I can slow down! Ever since high school I was made as competitive as possible: first my Phys Ed teacher, then my speed skating instructor, then 2 years of sports college and 2 years teaching Phys Ed in the army. Always I had to be the first, the fastest, the quickest, the highest jumper.

Even when I trained for the Camino I walked fast, at least 5.7 km per hour. As a result when I walked the first half of the Camino over the last three weeks, I seemed to be marching instead of walking. That too may have resulted in the injury that caused me to have to sit down for several days in Leon.
Today I decided to take it SLOW, and what a difference it made. It took me a while longer to get where I wanted to go, but I noticed much more from the surrounding area. I did not pass every pilgrim in front of me as I had done for the first 350 km. As a matter of fact I was being passed and I did not mind it for once. My previous injury did not come back because I did not need to push off as hard as I used to with each step. It worked!!

Today I left Leon after 3 days of forced recovery. First 2 hours to get out of town and then back up onto the meseta. There seemed to be a little more variety this time. Maybe I noticed it because I was sick and tired of watching crowds of people the last 3 days. Because most people only spent 1 extra day in Leon, I moved with a new “community of people”. The ones I had seen several times in refugios or rest places before Leon were replaced with a new bunch. You could also see who started the Camino in Leon because their legs were still milk white while those who had been o
n the Camino for weeks were dark brown from the sun.

In spite of slowing down I did 22 km by noon and now I am sitting in a nice albergue in Villar de Mazarife, again, don’t even try to find it on the map, it barely makes a speck.

Camino de Santiago

Sunday, August 10, 2014

In 1999 I walked the Camino the Santiago with my brother Rob. When I mentioned the Camino to people back then, I got a blank stare. Hardly anybody had ever heard of this 1000 year old pilgrim path that runs from the France/Spanish border to Santiago de Compostela in north western Spain, a distance of over 700 km or about 450 miles.
When I mentioned in 2013-2014 to my hiking friends that I was going to walk it again, they either had done it themselves or they knew someone who had done it. This trail has become very popular over the last few decades. Where in 1998 about 50,000 people hiked it, in a recent holy year about 250,000 did the same thing.
In order to qualify to have hiked the Camino you officially only need to do the last 100 km on foot or the last 200 by bike. However, just doing the last 100 is not really ‘hiking the camino’. It requires the endurance of the hardships for the full 700 km. Including sore legs, blisters and any inconvenience you can imagine. People have made this pilgrimage since the year 800 and in the Middle Ages literally thousands of people walked it every year. The benefit is, apparently, that you cut your time in hell in half when you walk the Camino. So I figured that if I hike it twice I am scot free and will go straight to heaven 🙂

After many months of preparation I was ready to leave. Margriet will join me for the last 100 km (just to be sure she qualifies for half her time in hell). However I will start in Pamplona, the first city after the Pyrenees where the trail starts. The reason I start there is because the first couple of days you only walk downhill and several friends have had to quit right then and there because they got shin splints so bad that they could not continue. When I walked in in 1999 with Rob I joined him there after he had walked from Amsterdam, several thousand kms. Unfortunately Rob succumbed to cancer a few years ago and even though we had promised each other that we would do it again together, we were never able to do so.

So this time I was going to do it by myself, until a few weeks before I left, a mutual friend of Margriet and I, Lies, whom we have known for 45 years, announced that she would join me for the first 2 days. OK, that was fine.
Margriet took me to the airport last Wednesday to get on the plane for (eventually) Pamplona. Victoria, Seattle went fine, no problems with the customs thanks to my Nexus card, on to Amsterdam via Delta Airlines. Ten hours is a long time to sit in a crammed place but at least you can watch as many movies as you want, so it is not too bad. In Amsterdam my luggage arrived no problem, which was an improvement since last February when they left my pack in Paris.
Got on the Iberian Airlines flight to Madrid, but it left 20 minutes late and as a result it lost it landing sequence into Madrid. We circled for an hour and then we had 5 minutes to make the connecting flight. I raced over to that gate and found my friend who was going to join me in Pamplona racing to it at the same time. That was a surprise because we had agreed to meet on the steps of the cathedral in Pamplona the next day at 11 AM. So, we made it but our luggage did not.
Lies went to her hotel 20 minutes from the airport which she had arranged beforehand and I found a hotel close to the airport to await the luggage. Since there are only 2 flights between Madrid and Pamplona a day, it made no sense to sit and wait so I went into Pamplona the next day. I had to buy a few things anyway, so that worked out fine. We explored Pamplona and walked the first 5 km of the Camino through Pamplona. I went to the  airport at 9 PM and lo and behold there were our packs.
The next morning we were planning to leave early, but when I called Lies at her hotel she had not slept well and was not sure she would make it very far that day. By 10 am we did make it to the spot where we had left the trail the previous day. Lies did fine that day, we hiked, climbed and cursed our way though some of the hardest 14 km the Camino can throw at you.

Day 2 announced itself with dark clouds and a forecast of thunderstorms that day. However, we decided to take a chance and go for it. First we had to take a bus to the point where we left the trail yesterday at the southern end of Pamplona. There the real hiking started. Lies did not feel very well and was not sure how far she would make it that day. However, after the first few miles she started to improve and felt a lot better. Lunch at a small village 2 hours out of Pamplona. There we had to make the decision to tackle the hardest pass we would be facing on the first part of the Camino. Or to stay put for the rest of the day. Lies decided that she felt good enough to continue, so off we went. I had trained a lot in hilly country but Lies, living in Rotterdam never had that opportunity and obviously that played a role in her falling behind quickly. However she is a determined person and did make it to the top of the pass and down on the other side. By that time we had done probably 15 km and those were some of the hardest 15 km the pilgrims face in the first half of the Camino. We found a nice refugio in a small village on the other side of the pass and stopped for the night. These refugios are like hostels with 20 or 40 people together in one large room in bunk beds. We had the first pick of the beds, but within a couple of hours the beds filled up in the room. These refugios are between 5 and 10 euros a day and a pilgrims meal is from 10 to 15 euros, ($15.- to 22.50). Not bad, although it does add up after 30 days on the trail.

A quick shower, washing sweaty clothes, a beer and a nap or email and a meal – and we felt better. Lies and I had agreed that we would walk up for 2 or 3 days and then we would each find our own way to Santiago. I wanted to have some time to reflect by myself and be alone.

The changes I noticed compared to 1999 are (at least so far after only a day):
• in 1999 I noticed about a dozen pilgrims the first day on the trail. Today it was more like 50.
• In 1999 there were no mountain bikes on the trail, now there are numerous ones and not always very considered of the slower hikers.
• There are many more refugios, hostels and hotels along the route ( a good thing)
• the trail obviously is much more known and popular. It has become a multimillion dollar tourist attraction for the Spaniards.
These are just the initial changes I noticed between 1999 and 2014.

One Determined Pilgrim

Day 4 on the trail.
Yesterday was a ‘killer’ hike, today was slightly easier. I still don’t recognize any of the trail locations we walked 15 years ago. I wonder if they moved Santiago and had to built a new trail to get to it!
Nothing looks familiar, until I got to the overnight place today in Villamayor. Here I have been before. It is a regufio run by a Dutch religious organization so I can join in the service they offer tonight (if i am not asleep already). We left late, the last ones to leave at 8 AM. However, there are some people on the trail who are really hurting and hobbling along so we overtook several within the first 2 hours. How they ever will make the next 650 km is a wonder.
It is a lot quieter today. The first 2 days we walked, it was weekend and obviously many Spaniards are joining the trail just for the weekend. Still more hills than I liked, but that is Spain for you. My feet are not doing very well, the balls of my feet are hurting pretty good and I may have to take an extra rest day soon. In the last 20 years of hiking (including the 1999 Camino walk) I never had a blister and in the first two days on the hike now I have 2 blisters. Exactly on the same location on both feet so I blame the new insoles of my boots for that problem. Anyway even if I have to crawl the last 650 km I plan on making it. The first 3 days we did about 60 km so a pretty good average of 20 a day.
One thing that I noticed is that a lot more people are speaking English these days here in Spain. Especially the owners of all these new refugios are able to communicate in English. In 1999 nobody over 35 could speak any English and now I have not had a problem yet between their English, my few words of Spanish and a lot of hand gestures. I get what I want.
The refugio tonight is again a dormitory style with 8 bunk beds. Next to me is a deaf/mute man. I wonder if he snores being mute?
Well, off at 7 AM tomorrow because by 9:30 the sun is already too hot to walk comfortably, so up earlier from now on.

100 KM done, 620 to go!

Well, the first 100 KM are done, only 620 left. The last 2 days we have been lucky. Dark clouds all around us, but no rain at all. It sure helps to keep the temperatures down during the day. When the sun is out is get easily up to 30 degrees, but with a cloud cover it stays down around 25-27 which makes it just a little more comfortable. By leaving at 7 AM or even earlier, you get most of the hiking done before 1 or 2 PM when the heat starts to make walking uncomfortable.
I am not following the official stages which are described in most guide books of the Camino. Those stages usually lead from town to town but I try to find the smaller villages to stay in.
So on Monday morning (August 11) I left Lorca, half way between Puenta La Reina and Estella. Estella is famous for its beer, although it was too early in the day to try it. Ten km past Estella I stopped in Villamayor de Monjardin after a tiring climb up a steep hill.
The next day via Los Arcos on to Torres del Rio. That was enough for the day because after that village some very steep up and downs awaited. I’ll leave those for early next morning when the weather is still cool.
The landscape is interesting, but not spectacular. More and more vineyards are appearing, this area is famous for its wines apparently. The hills are primarily brown and yellow since there has not been much rain lately, few trees to be seen. Lots of old buildings, many just ruins.  Every village has a great church or even cathedral, often worth visiting.

Wednesday morning I left Torres del Rio and immediately had to climb several steep hills to gain (and loose again) several hundred meters in elevation. By 1 pm I walked into Logrono and finished the first 100 km of the planned hike. 
Even though my feet are still giving me some grieve I am glad that the head of the monster has been slain. Tomorrow is a long stage (30 km) which I am not going to do in one day I think. When I walked the Camino in 1999 with Rob we did do stages of 30 and even one of 38 km, but with 15 more years on this body I am not going to try that again. Twenty km per day is fine and that will get me well in time to Sarria where I will await Margriet’ s arrival a month from now.

A NEW EXPERIENCE – WHY, WHY, WHY?
Friday, August 15.

It is a special holiday in Spain today and everybody is enjoying a day off. Fortunately the stores and bars are open.
My last blog entree was from Wednesday afternoon I think. I was staying in a refugio run by a Dutch religious organization. That evening after a communal dinner, someone tried to make me believe something I could not believe. But his stories reminded me of a book I read 40 years ago called God’s Smuggler, an intriguing book about a Dutchman who smuggled bibles in his VW Beetle to countries behind the iron curtain. We had a cordial discussion about religion but after an hour I think he classified me as a lost soul.

Refugio Lorca

The next day I walked 20 km and by 1 PM found a refugio where I was welcomed by a very friendly nun who spoke excellent English. “Six euros for a bed, lights out by 10 and at 6 AM we wake you with music,” she told me. OK. This morning at 6 I heard some very faint chanting. It gradually grew louder and louder and by 6:30 the Gregorian chants were blasting through the refugio. Nobody was sleeping anymore. I laid back in my sleeping bag and enjoyed the chanting for half an hour before I got up. That was the first time I was awoken by Gregorian chanting, very very nice. I’ll try it on Margriet one morning when we are back home.
(Note from Margriet: not sure if this means Kees will do the chanting or if he plans to play a CD of actual Gregorian chants… The story reminds me of waking up in Saudi Arabia to the call for prayer coming from minarets).
So why in the world would anyone want to walk a minimum of 100 km – and many people walk 750 km – to a city for a look at a statue in a cathedral?
That’s what I wondered 18 years ago when I first read about the Camino de Santiago.
Well, as the article in Reader’s Digest explained at that time, Santiago de Compostela in the north western corner of Spain is considered the third most important holy city in the world for Christians after Rome and Jerusalem. Around the year 800 the bones of apostle James were discovered in the area. Ever since Christians have been making a pilgrimage to the site. Of course a church was erected on the site and it became a cathedral of great beauty soon after. During the Middle Ages literally millions of people made the pilgrimage. Considering the fact that the European population at that time was many times smaller than today’s population it was quite remarkable to have that many people make the pilgrimage. During the 18/19th century for some reason the pilgrimage became less well known. Not until the 1990’s did it again gain in popularity, primarily as the result of some articles in magazines and several books from people who had walked it.
By the mid 1990’s about 50,000 people walked the trail. However by 1999 150,000 people hiked it because it was a holy year (this happens about once every 10 years).
By 2013 the annual number in a non-holy year had shot up to 150,000 and in a holy year it is closer to 250,000.
I met a German lady who had just lost her entire family, husband and three children in a horrific car accident and she walked it to figure out what to do with the rest of her life. I met a Brazilian lady who hiked it because she had read a book about it by a famous Brazilian writer. I met a Belgian man who was in his 80’s and who claimed to have walked it 18 times. (He said he did at least 50 km a day!!) A Japanese fellow said his minister told him he needed to do it to find himself. Unfortunately all he found were some robbers who took his money and camera. I ended up sending him copies of all my pictures so he had at least some positive memories. Many people just want to experience the culture and the history of the ail. Some like myself want to do it because it is a challenge.

New albergues, even new provinces.

Finally my feet are getting with the program and have stopped complaining about the daily mistreatment I dish out on them. Yesterday I did 32 km and today 23 without any problems.

Wow, I am very impressed with the tremendous new infrastructures the Spanish people have developed over the last couple of decades. Brand spanking new highways, new subdivisions, a whole new city (Ciruela) have sprung up in places where I just saw raw land 15 years ago.

Also the infrastructure they have developed for the Camino is really impressive. Where 15 years ago you had to walk on the edge of the highway are now separate pathways, adjacent to the highway, but protected by guard rails and sometimes vegetation. I suspect that the Camino is being developed and maintained by provincial departments because signs often refer to a provincial department. Many cities have gone out of their way to develop nice picnic sites, parks and campgrounds. Not every thing is well maintained, but they sure are doing their best in my opinion.

Today I even walked into a new province: Castella y Leon, from La Rioja. La Rioja was really interesting. In the beginning I saw nothing but vineyards, and more vineyards, mile after mile. Finally after more than a day walking through those, a few sugar beet fields showed up and then grain fields, km after km of rolling grain fields, no end in sight. And today suddenly sunflower fields, still grain fields, but also colorful yellow sunflower fields.

Tonight I landed in Belorado after a 23 km day which was a lot easier than the 32 km yesterday. In two days I expect to be in Burgos and probably will take a day’s rest. The weather is absolutely fantastic for hiking, 25-28 degrees, sun, but also clouds from time to time and a little wind to keep cool. Hopefully it will stay like that for a while.

To Be Continued..

Shanghia: Face of the Future

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

There is a saying that says “If you want to see the China of the past, go to Xian. If you want to see the China of today, go to Beijing and if you want to see the China of the future, go see Shanghai.”

I think this is true.
Beijing is an impressive cohesion of ancient buildings, the Forbidden City, the mesmerizing hutongs.
Xian is amazing in its immenseness and how the terracotta warriors were ever made, let alone how they are being discovered and excavated.

But Shanghai. It’s not my favorite place. 
24 million people in one city…
It you like modern architecture, or if you like to shop, see haute couture, it will be a great place to visit. Skinny women in tiny mini-skirts, towering high-heels and dangling gold. Men in suits with smart-phones pressed to the ear. Children wearing the latest brand names, being pushed in the fanciest strollers you have ever seen. Bullet trains, elevated walkways. This is China, too.

I did not see any slums. Which is good. I’m told everything old has been bulldozed and people have been given apartments. This may be good now but wasn’t at the time.
But it’s hard to look across the street because of air pollution.
Everything is constantly grey – as if it is very foggy. The top half of skyscrapers is erased in grey. I did not see blue sky or clouds. Just grey.
There is an air pollution index which people receive on their smart-phones Something like ‘under 50’ is OK. If it is more than 85, the kids have to have indoor recess. While I was there, this index hit 300. And that was not an exception.  There is often ‘square’ dancing in the street at night.
And I did notice that every square inch is planted with trees or shrubbery. That should help. My hotel was across from Central Park and people jogged or walked there all day long. Even the sidewalk was half pavement, half running track. I enjoyed walking to school and observing people.

The food was great. Very kind teachers took me out for traditional Chinese food: homemade noodles, fresh tofu, soups, meats. I even ate a whole bowl of peanuts with chopsticks at one point!

The other best thing was massages: about 7 dollars for a one hour massage. Not as good as in Thailand but still… I love it.
Crazy traffic, wild taxi drivers. I loved shopping in local stores and brought back all sorts of packages of which I had no idea what was in it: crackers, cookies, fruit? Most turned out to be good 🙂

The rice isle in the supermarket!
The egg isle in the supermarket!

Holland: Hiking, Biking and much more

  Tulips came originally from Turkey in the late1500’s to the Netherlands. So it seems only fitting that we, newly arrived from Turkey, immediately set off to visit Holland’s most famous garden: the Keukenhof. In fact, on our last day in Turkey we visited the palace of the very Sultan who gifted the first tulips ever to arrive in the Netherlands. What started with one bulb is now a major export industry. The Dutch brought tulips to countries around the world, including to Canada as a perpetual gift for hosting the Dutch Royal Family during the war. An enormous show garden, the Keukenhof has thousands of bulbs blooming at any given time in the spring. Beds are planted in such a way that there is a multitude of color, and fragrances, through the spring. We admired rows and rows of hyacinths, tulips, daffodils and other bulbs. 

There are even special buses running to this major attraction from Schiphol airport. We caught one and within a half hour we were dropped off at the entrance. Fast and easy. If you visit Holland in the spring, be sure to include a visit to this world famous garden. See: www.keukenhof.nl

Transportation in Holland is pretty impressive. If you ever plan to travel here, you might want to do the following: buy a OV chip card which you can use for all public transport.

You start by buying the card at the airport or at a train station, or at supermarkets or newspaper/book stores. Throughout the country are special posts where you can upload credit, swiping your creditcard and then your OV chip card to load credit onto it.

Each time you travel by tram, bus or train, you swipe your OV chip card when you board and when you disembark. Upon leaving the bus or train, the reader will show your cost and your remaining credit. Simply upload as needed.

This is a fantastic system since it makes public transportation seamless. Just don’t forget to check out. Trains have a large number 1 for first class on the outside, or a 2 for the regular, economy class. Trains also now have many ‘silence’ compartments, in which you cannot have loud conversations or be on your cell phone! A wonderful bonus. And while public transportation in the Netherlands is efficient, it is not cheap.

To plan any trip, across town or across the country, access this website: www.9292.nl  You can select any date, place and time here to see the most efficient way of getting somewhere. We bought a SIM card for our iPad so that we can access this great service anywhere in the country.

I like alliteration, which is why I used ‘hiking’ and ‘Holland’. But, technically, we are not in Holland right now. We are in the Netherlands. If you’d like to know the difference, besides the simple fact that Holland refers to the provinces of North and South Holland and that the Netherlands means the entire country – check out this funny video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eE_IUPInEuc&feature=youtu.be

Today we traveled by train and bus from Amsterdam to the province of Drenthe – a beautiful, rustic part of the country with sleepy villages, gorgeous old farm houses and heather fields with flock of sheep. Here we will spend some time hiking the Drenthe Pad, a beautiful long distance trail.

Poffertjes!

 

Right now, we are circumnavigating the province of Drenthe, which is in the north eastern part of the country. The Drenthe Pad is a hiking trail of some 325 KM. And it might well be one of the best kept secrets in the world of hiking.

The trail is well marked, in most places. A yellow/red symbol is nailed to posts or painted on trees almost everywhere. But the comprehensive trail guide and map issued by NIVON: (http://www.nivon.nl/wandelen/detailpad.aspWandelpadID=28&GroepsID=180&GidsenID=10)

is a valuable addition. As far as I know this guide is only in Dutch but with the map and the signs anyone should be able to follow the trail. The terrain is relatively flat which makes it easy. And it is very varied: from ancient, sleepy villages you enter a quiet forest, cross a sandy path and walk along the moors (fields of heather which will bloom in August), then along a farm field, back into the woods. On the next heather field you might encounter a large flock of sheep, with or without a real live shepherd and his dogs.

Today, just when I said “We haven’t seen any kind of wildlife!” a large deer slowly crossed the path. We heard woodpeckers and met a large flock of curious sheep with their newborn lambs.

In a country of 33,889 square kilometers of land (13,084 square miles) and a population of nearly 17 million, the Netherlands is among the most densely populated countries of the world. However, on this trail we hiked for the last two days without seeing a soul until hours after we started. Yesterday, we saw two people all days. It is rare in this country not to see a church spire, or power lines or hear traffic noise. On this trail, there is complete silence except for the singing of many different types of birds. It is probably one of the few areas in the country where you can still get completely lost and wander.

For 19 E p.p. this was our home for the night

Usually most hiking trails here have an abundance of benches, picnic tables or little restaurants with a patio. In Drenthe you can walk 20 KM and not see one. But the wild swans on the lakes make up for not being able to order a coffee.

We have walked from town to town and stayed in either B&B’s or local hotels. If you are planning a hiking or bicycling trip in the Netherlands, and there’s no better place to do either, you should join this organization: Vrienden Op De Fiets (Friends On Bikes): http://www.vriendenopdefiets.nl/nl/ (or .en for the English version).

This fabulous network across the country offers accommodations in private homes, much like B&B’s, but at a cost of E19 p.p.p.n. including breakfast. Accommodations are typical Dutch hospitality. No need to reserve long in advance, depending on the time of year, you can often phone the day before. Rooms can vary from a simple spare room to your own whole cottage. We’ve always had clean rooms, comfortable beds and a great breakfast. But – you can only arrive on foot or by bike. If you rent a car, you can’t use this organization. Annual membership fee is 8 euros and that includes the complete catalogue of 5,000 addresses and contact information.

After having walked some 60 KMs this week, from village to village, we have arrived in Appelscha, Friesland. This is just across the provincial border.

Lucky for us because not only does each region here have its own dialect and culture, it also has its own speciality foods.

Now we enjoy Frisian sugarbread (gooey bread with lumps of sugar baked into it) AND Drents raisin bread (weighs as much as a brick).

Not only do the Dutch brew Heineken and Grolsch, they also produce many local beers ranging from dark to blond to fruity.

For this weekend we found a place to stay 2 nights, basically for the same price as the Friends On Bikes network plus dinner. The hotel had a special super deal that includes an elaborate breakfast and dinner. Since the forecast was for rain, we decided to stay in one place for two nights.

Instead of walking tomorrow’s section of the Drenthe Pad, we rented bicycles. The Dutch have state of the art bicycles, including tires that will not pop anymore. Cost for a full day bike rental is 7 to 8 euros. We cycled through the village, across farm fields, national nature reserves, forests, a wild bird sanctuary and historic fields of peat moss. No less than 60 KM! Now, in addition to sore backs and feet, we also have sore butts and knees….Halfway it started to rain. We donned our rain capes – thank goodness we did not carry them for 2 months without ever needing them! I never felt more Dutch than pushing the peddles across a windswept bike trail through the fields.

Those bike trails are amazing. Our route for today looks like this: 60 – 65 – 72 – 73 – 79 – 91 – 84 – 65 – 60. Sounds like a secret code, doesn’t it?

But it’s all you need to find your way across the country. It’s a mind boggling system of (mostly) paved or concrete bicycle trails. At an intersection you will see a small sign with a number, either the number of the path you are already on, or pointing to the next number you need to follow. Simple. Just don’t miss one. At major crossroads there is a large regional map showing you all the routes so that you can easily change or adapt the route you are on. Ingenious.

And the best part is that most bicycle paths are away from roads or other traffic. Just you and nature. It’s a system of hiking and biking trails that the Netherlands can be proud of. And that more countries should adopt.

160 KM of hiking. Ten days. Fifteen kilo packs. Two blisters.

We did it.

And it was fun.

Mostly it was fun because we took it easy. We slept in, had a lazy breakfast and still headed out on the trail by about 9 AM each day. No rush, no race.

We stayed with the ‘Friends On Bikes’ accommodations which are just like B & B’s and allowed us to stay in different Dutch homes, meeting interesting people.

 We also stayed in a few small hotels and we enjoyed roaming the villages, visiting the bakery, sampling typical regional dishes.

Holland may be a small, densely populated country but in Drenthe it is still very green and very quiet. There were days when we barely met other people on the trail.

We visited the very cute village of Orvelte, which is more like an open-air-museum with its historic farms. There is a glassblower, an antique store, a cheese maker and much more. We toured a historic farms full of furniture and household items of at least a century ago. The tour included a very nice movie about the village and life as it has been here during the ages.

This village is high on our list of recommendations, but only during the shoulder seasons. In high season it’s supposed to be very, very crowded!

Several times while hiking across the moors and heather, we met large flock of sheep. No shepherd, just a very special local breed of sheep on skinny legs and with long tails. These sheep help keep down any invasive species and promote the growth and expansion of the heather.

We also found large Highlander steers and cows with enormous horns on our path. The drawback of hiking in April was the fact that farmers were spreading manure. The smell was often overwhelming. We only had 2 days of rain so can’t complain. It was a sunny, early spring in Holland.

Concentration Camp Westerbork

On one of our last days of hiking we entered the Westerbork concentration camp area: an area where Jews were interned and from there shipped to extermination camps by the Germans during the war. It is an impressive and, of course, very depressing area but important to be preserved as a reminder of the horrors of war. While we were there, hundreds of school children visited the Museum.  See: http://www.kampwesterbork.nl/museum/index.html#/index

One of our favorite events was being in a small village (Dwingeloo) while an age old tradition was going on: Palm Pasen or Palm Sunday, the week before Easter. The children of the town all showed up for a parade with wooden crosses, decorated with garlands of candy and flowers, crepe paper and topped with a rooster made of bread. When I was a child I made the same cross and joined a similar parade. It was fun to see this tradition continue. We completed about half of the Drenthe Trail and hope to hike the remainder soon. Next time I will carry much less weight and will make do with fewer clothes etc. The best piece of clothing I brought on this trip was a large scarf. It served as blanket in the plane, as shawl when it was cold and as head or shoulder cover in churches and mosques.

 Our last night in The Netherlands is spend in a very futuristic hotel at Schiphol Airport: http://www.citizenm.com

Decorated in black and red, the lobby feels as if you walk into the future. The staff and technology reminds me of a Mac Store, the compact rooms of IKEA. One remote controls the blinds, lights, temperature and TV. Our view from the kingsize bed is directly onto the runway! The hotel states that:

citizenM is a new breed of international hotel, welcoming the mobile citizens of the world- the suits, weekenders, explorers, affair-havers and fashion-grabbers.

Hhmm… wonder which catagory you would put yourself in?

For now, we are headed home after an amazing two months of exploring. We can’t wait to hug the grandbabies, play with them and show them what we brought back.

A real sign spotted in a Dutch forest!

Turkey: From Bazars to the Bizarre

Friday, March 28, 2014

Blue Mosque, Istanbul

My favorite quotes:
• From a taxi driver: “Trust everything on a stick!” 
(he meant food, like kebabs).
• From 4 year old Nico: “You’re going to Turkey? Will you send me a postcard with turkeys on it?!”
Turkey means good food.
Even before you get to the country, the clues are there: Turkish Airlines serves a meal and freshly squeezed orange juice, even on a short three hour flight (take note United Airlines!). More than that: when you walk onto the plane there are regular flight attendants but also one dressed like a cook, in white apron and tall white cook’s hat. The airline magazine sports recipes.
Everyone is Israel who heard the word ‘Turkey’, said “Food!”, rubbing their bellies and licking their lips. Apparently Turkey means good food. “Eat! Eat! Eat!” said our last taxi driver in Tel Aviv. He didn’t speak much more English than that.

We arrived at one of Istanbul’s two airports: Sabiha Gökçen. It is about an hour out of town and in Asia. Our hotel had quoted us 70 euros for airport transportation. I just about choked. But after some internet research (Trip Advisor) I found a hotel shuttle for 10 euros p.p. I booked this via their website (http://www.istanbulairportshuttle.com/).
They even met us upon arrival with a large name sign and brought us to our hotel. It is good to know, when traveling to Istanbul, that the OTHER airport, Atatürk, is 20 minutes away and in Europe. Be sure to double check at which airport you will arrive and depart. In our case we arrived at one but will depart from the other. Tricky.

City walls

Halfway between the airport and the city we crossed a large bridge over the Bosporus. I spotted a sign along the road saying “Welcome to Europe!”
Again, we are thrilled with the hotel we booked via the internet. It is often a gamble and difficult to judge but we lucked out again. Angel’s Home is in the old city: Sultanahmet. Its crooked, narrow streets and hills remind me of Mont Martre in Paris but its atmosphere is distinctly Middle Eastern with many cafe’s and patios along the streets, fruit stands, water pipes, and twinkling lights.

Cats. What’s with cats in this part of the world? We must have seen thousands of cats, all over Israel, Jordan and now Turkey. Cats around apartment buildings, cats outside stores, cats in garbage cans and along the water front. Cats have inundated the Middle East, it seems. There are more cats here than there are bunnies on Salt Spring…

Mosques dominate the skyline and the call to prayer twirls out of many minarets, swirling its haunting tunes over the rooftops.
Tonight we obliged those who told us to “Eat!”. We had traditional Turkish food in a roadside restaurant, served on beautiful white tablecloths, under colorful lights made of gourds.
A sizzling stone dish held chicken and veggies and mushrooms and rice. We had chestnut puree in a type of corn pastry for dessert, with Turkish coffee and Turkish tea… Then we rolled home to our hotel to watch the lit up skyline and freight ships on the Bosporus. 

Bathing in History

 Today I decided to be brave and experience something unique.
Did you ever laid naked on a slab of marble, covered by 4 inches of foam and then they bring out the sandpaper to work on your body?
Today I took a Turkish Bath!
They advertised everywhere and, since I love Asian massages, I decided to give it a try. The bath people even offer a free ride from and back to your hotel. When the van picked me up, there were already two British ladies on board. I figured correctly that we would get to know each other intimately. The first half hour was spend stuck in traffic in the narrow streets of Sultanahmet, or old Istanbul. Fruit carts, delivery van and buses were stuck in a solid knot while drivers snoozed, honked or swore in Turkish.

The bath house, or hamam, built in 1475, was shaped like a mosque with many domes. The marble entry hall had two storey-high wooden change room structures for men. The women’s bath was off through another hallway under another marble dome with similar change rooms. The two English ladies and I were ushered into a very small room and told to strip naked. We were each handed a cotton strip of fabric, which I hoped to be the size of a table cloth. It actually was the size of a small table runner.
We tried to pull and tug but it stayed the size of a small table runner.
We were then led into a sauna. A small, very hot sauna with cedar benches and a glowing fire. At first I didn’t think I could breathe. But once I relaxed it was fine. I sat until sweat poured freely from my spontaneously opening pores.

‘My’ masseuse summonded me. I tried to look dignified, but all sweaty and wrapped in a handkerchief, this was hard to do. She instantly unwrapped me, spread my cloth like a place mat on a huge marble slab in the center of the room, and ordered me to lay down on it, much like a turkey on a dinner table.

She proceeded to pour warm water over me, before bringing out the heavy artillery in the shape of a sandpaper glove. It wasn’t as bad as I had feared and actually felt quite invigorating. 
More warm water was followed by about 6 inches of foam, spread all over me. Soap crawled into my ears and mouth as I had a massage that was not as good as an Asian massage, but not bad. I flopped around on the marble slab like a slippery bar of soap, trying hard not to slide off and onto the floor. Then I was ordered through an arched doorway, up the steps and into another arched dome with a small pool.

“Swim, lady, swim!” my masseuse ordered. I flopped into the water like a slippery trout.
Cold! It was cold water. But once I decided to endure a Turkish bath, I think I resigned myself to accept my fate lock, stock and barrel – without complaining. So I swam.
After this I was invited back into the sweat sauna, or to take a nap on the slab of marble. I decided that clothes and tea sounded like the most attractive next step.
On the way back to the hotel, and once again stuck in traffic, cars honked, tourists shopped for leather shoes and the driver mumbled many Turkish swear words.
But I just sat there, gloating. I felt very clean.
And very serene.
I had just had a Turkish bath!

I’m sure you will appreciate the fact that there are no accompanying photos for this story. 

Bizarre Bazaars

Sultanahmet or old Istanbul is a medieval city centre, a mixture of Asia and Europe. And it is full of shops. The best place for shopping: the Grand Bazaar which is more than than just little shops. The enormous, ancient bazaar is all indoors – covered by arched ceilings. Its little alley ways crisscross into a labyrinth where you can get lost for hours. Vendors sip tea from tiny glasses in their doorways. Their displays include sparkling silver, hand painted china, woven rugs, cheap t-shirts, dangling blue eyes made of glass that are supposed to bring good luck. There are water pipes for sale and for rent. You can eat fresh bread or drink fruit juice, Turkish coffee or Turkish delight. The market’s stone floors have been worn smooth over the ages, stone steps even hollow out by the millions of feet that have shuffled here.
Across town, past the many mosques, minarets and domed roofs of palaces, is the Spice Market. In this similar labyrinth of alleys, all covered, you can find baskets and mountains of cinnamon, curry, peppers of all color, dried rosebuds and sage. There are many different kinds of tea, cumin and rosemary. You can buy, and smell, dried apricots, dried octopus and
dates. After a while: sensory overload. Add to this the fact that the vendors yell and praise their wares. They invited you to come in, try this, buy that! And you have to barter. It’s exhausting…

We strolled back to our hotel along the Bosporus and the Sea of Marmara. A long walk along ancient city walls, ferry terminals and one of the busiest waterways in the world. We watched little tug boats plowing alongside huge freighters.

Formerly known as Byzantium, then as Constantinople, and now as Istanbul, the city lies half in Asia and half in Europe. And it shows. With its roasted chestnut stalls and coffeeshops, Istanbul sometimes feels like Paris. Its narrow streets with patios and trams feel like Amsterdam. While its forest of minarets, shoarma stands and water pipes give it a distinct Middle Eastern feel. Women wear burkas or tight pants, hiking boots or high heels. You can buy roasted corn or a Starbucks. Istanbul is a meeting place of east and west.

I’m sure you can spend an infinite amount of time in this city, but to us three days were good. We walked all over the cold city, got a good sense of it and visited its icons: the Blue Mosque, the Topkapi Palace and the bazaars. We walked and walked and walked, but also lounged on patios. 

Monday, March 31, 2014:

Kees, Margriet and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

 We set our alarm for a 7 AM airport pick up. But when we got to the hotel lobby, it was only 6 AM. I still can’t fully explain it, but apparently several countries changed to daylight saving time last Sunday. Except Turkey. Apparently the government decreed that the change in Turkey would happen on Monday, not on Sunday. So it was confusing. When we searched for ‘current time in Istanbul’ the internet said it was 7 while the clocks said it was 6 AM. All we could do was wait for the shuttle and hope that the airline knew what time it was.

The driver drove like a bat from hell. He actually did 110 KM in a 30 KM zone… By far the craziest drive we had this month.
It was going to to a Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.
We’ve not often seen an airport that was slower than Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport. The passport line alone was over an hour of standing and shuffling.
The flight was delayed for an hour. They said it had something to do with loading luggage. Not ours, as it turned out.
It was to be a Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.
It got worse when a Dutch guy across the isle from us boarded and started bossing people around, shouting and pushing. He swore and became quite violent. We expected the flight attendants to call in the police but that never happened. All we could do was hope he calmed down, once we were in flight.
But a second guy drank enough to turn violent, very loud and verbal. This time the swearing and yelling was in Turkish. We have never quite experienced anything like it. At one point, during landing, he took his seat belt off and nearly attacked the flight attendants. Still no police was called.
When we finally made it into Schiphol Airport, shaken and tired, we discovered that our luggage had not accompanied us to the Netherlands. Even after a 2 hour wait – no backpacks. It was a Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.
We filled in paperwork and left. At least I had the presence of mind to ask for a toiletry kit, which includes a clean t-shirt and socks. But all we can do is hope our clothes and other things show up tomorrow. A beer and croquettes helped.
And, as Alexander knows, some days are just like that. Even in Istanbul.*
* referenced to Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst.

Israel: Random Observations

2014-03-07 05.11.01_2
Everywhere throughout Israel are roadside stands, and little restaurants, with a huge fruit press. Huge piles of fresh oranges, pomegranates, and many other kinds are simply sliced in half and hand squeezed in the press. Delicious! I want one of these presses but they don’t fit in my backpack…

People in Israel, by and large, are very welcoming and kind. Arriving at the Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv, we were told to go outside, cross a road and find a local bus stop for the bus ride to the hotel. We couldn’t find it for the life of us. Kees asked a taxi driver but he just tried to talk us into taking the taxi. A passing man stopped and asked “How can I help you?” He then proceeded to ask around, take us across the road and walked us to the bus stop. He shook our hands and was off.
As soon as we got on the bus, I asked the driver where we had to get off. He didn’t know. Instantly four or five people on the bus called out “Don’t worry! We will help you!” They whipped out cell phones, punched in the address we needed and each kept an eye on us to tell us where to get off the bus. I just hoped they agreed on where we had to get off… Many of them asked “Where are you from? Ah! Canada. So far away! So beautiful! I have a cousin in Montreal!”
We have to grin when we listen to people talking together. Using hands and arms, they can have very intense discussions and it sounds to us, as if they are always in a heated argument.
If you plan to travel to Israel it might be useful to know that you can get an entry visa upon arrival at the airport, at no cost. However, if you leave the country via a land border, i.e. driving into Jordan, it will cost you 110 NIS (New Israeli Shekels) per person (about US$ 35.-). When you leave Israel by air, there is no exit fee. Entering Jordan at Aqaba did not cost us anything but the exit fee was about 5 JD (Jordanian dinar or US $7.50). 

Israel is very expensive. Eating out, even groceries are much more expensive than in most other places. Perhaps the cost resembles that of Australia, where we also found daily living to be very expensive. Public transportation is the exception in Israel: we found it very reasonable.

Internet is readily available everywhere. And, unlike Australia, is free in hotels, restaurants, even on the long distance bus!

Israel in the north is much more lush and green than the arid, rocky south. The south is warmer but, to us, much less attractive.

We were surprised to learn that orthodox Jews do not serve in the Israeli Army, even though this is their own country. Arabs do not serve, which might be understandable in terms of politics and religion. This leaves a relatively small section of the population that has mandatory military duty.

In Jordan we were told that many people have canceled plans to travel there, since the troubles in Syria and Egypt. In daily life, we notice little or nothing of the conflicts in and around Israel. However, while we were here a partial mobilization had been called and there was military personnel on almost all buses going to and from their stations. We see the odd military helicopter patrolling the shore, but not much else is noticeable. I  sure hope peace prevails for all countries in this region.

Along major highways, signs are bilingual or trilingual – in Hebrew, Arabic and English. But in most other places, they are only in Hebrew. My first reaction when we arrived, was that we could have rented a car to drive around. Traffic is fairly civilized, although some drivers are crazy and lines on the roads seem to be mere suggestions. But the further we traveled around the country, the more we realized that streets often don’t have names, and that many signs are not decipherable at all. It would have been very difficult to find our way around, unless you have a very good GPS.

Our Arab taxi driver in Jerusalem heard that we were born in Holland. “Alles goed!” he yelled while gripping the wheel and swerving through traffic. (‘all is well’) Each question or concern we had, he waved away with a hearty “Alles goed!” So now that’s what we say when we’re not sure how something is going to work… alles goed!

Language: we’ve picked up very little here in the way of language. Some in Hebrew, some in Arabic.
‘Shalom’ and ‘Salaam’; ‘To da and Shukrah” for thank you.

We are staying south of Tel Aviv, in Bat Yam, right now, and not many speak English. Even the restaurant menu’s are in Hebrew only. We have no idea what we order but ‘beer’ seems to work in all languages. Tonight I asked for white wine. It came in a large glass, more than luke warm, it was very warm. I asked for ice. No ice. Did I want cold wine? Well, then they had red wine for me. It was ice cold. Tradition! 

My favorite airport moment: an Orthodox Jewish family walked by us. All dressed in black and white. The father had long corkscrew curls and wore a black hat, the mother long black skirt and white shawl. The little boy spotted the punk ahead of me in the check-in line. He stopped and his mouth dropped open. He stared at the blue mohawk and earrings, the black lace gloves and studded jacket. A wonderful cross-cultural moment.

We have had a fantastic adventure traveling around Israel and into a small corner of Jordan. We have met such nice people and seen many amazing places. Tomorrow we leave for Turkey.

Shalom, Israel.

I Looked Over Jordan and What Did I See?

Sleeping in a Bedouin Tent in Jordan

The bus from Tiberias drove south, as far south as you can go in Israel.
We slowly descended to the Dead Sea which, at 417 meters below sea level, is the lowest spot on earth. Crusted salt deposited clung to the shore line. The air was hazy with sand blowing in from Egypt. All day we drove along a solid wall of light brown mountains to the east – behind which we knew was Jordan.
Via Jericho and Masada, we drove south through the Negev desert. Considering that the bus cost us only about $25.-, the bus seems to be one of the most economic ways to travel throughout Israel.
Eilat, the southern most town in Israel, was a disappointment. It seemed a dusty, run-down version of Las Vegas with glitzy hotels, a small strip of beach and lots of amusement places. The worst thing was the airport. It is right smack in the middle of town. Huge airplanes come thundering over, missing the mall by a few feet. You can sit sipping beer on the beach and watch the belly of an airplane come right overhead.
We were glad we hadn’t planned on spending more than one night here.

The next morning we took a taxi to the Jordanian border. The paperwork on the Israeli side took perhaps a half hour because of line ups. The Jordan side was faster. Then we sat sipping Turkish coffee until our taxi showed up. We had booked this via our accommodations in Petra. A beautiful new car with a lovely guy who spoke English picked us up and drove us the 2 hours to Petra, at a very reasonable rate.
Driving along we noticed large white tents with U.N. logos. “Tents given for free to Syrian refugees,” our driver explained. Then he grinned. “Once the refugees move to the city, they sell these free tents for a profit to the Bedouin!” Probably not what the U.N. had in mind…
The accommodations I had picked from the internet. Petra is surrounded by regular hotels: the Ramada Inn, the Marriott. But, I thought, why would you want to stay in a normal hotel when you visit a place as unusual as Petra? Especially when you can stay in a bedouin camp?! On the website, Seven Wonders Bedouin Camp looked like fun. (http://www.sevenwondersbedouincamp.com/homepage.html)
We decided to be brave and booked a 3 night stay in a tent. And we were glad we did. To us, three nights was the perfect length of time.

The camp turned out to be a collection of square white tents, with inner and outer shells, a sold frame with a door. Inside were two metal bed frames with a big soft mattress, topped by 3 heavy blankets. When we crawled in at night, we felt like we were in a big warm nest surrounded by cool desert air and no sounds at all. Until 6 AM when bleating sheep strolled by. And until our last night when we laid awake listening to the distant thunder of shooting in the Gaza strip.
We only had electricity between 7 PM and 11 PM but didn’t miss anything. Internet was turned on for about an hour at night and one could see why it was so limited. As soon as they had internet, guests were staring at their devices instead of talking to each other! We met people from all over the world in this camp, and there were only about 14 people there at the same time, which was lovely and quiet.

Besides the 20 some guest tents, there were several very large, black traditional Bedouin tents. These had carpets on the floor, and many large woven pillows for reclining. At one end was a primitive wood stove belching smoke into the tent. And heat. We were toasty warm and ended up eating most meals here. We also drank endless small glasses of tea. We liked that this camp, as many Muslims sites, was alcohol free. But tea, in contrast, flowed freely. A sweet black tea with sage. Very addictive…
On the first night we were told that they made a point of serving something different for dinner every night. Every night we had rice, chicken, salad and potatoes. It was good – but no variety :-)The camp was run by several very nice, friendly young guys. They were very thoughtful and kind, bringing us tea, offering rides, etc. At night they played a traditional string instrument and a drum, singing long, soulful ballads in Arabic. At US 45.- p.p. for one night, including breakfast AND dinner, this was likely a fraction of the cost of one of the fancy hotels and we thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

On our first afternoon, we strolled down to “Little Petra” – a small version of cave dwellings and carved facades, which is still ‘in the wild’ without entrance fee or any protection. It was a Friday afternoon – weekend for the Muslims who were out in full force: family after family squatting in the shade of rocks, making campfires, cooking tea and grilling meat. Children were running everywhere, women sat in the shade visiting. Smoke twirled up behind every rock from their little fires while they laughed and sang and enjoyed a sunny afternoon.

When I watch a real shepherd, complete with crook, walking through a field of boulders with his flock, wearing a long black dress and flowing head scarves, I marvel at how little seems to have changed in this area over the ages.
Until he whips out his cell phone…

Our dinner is cooked in a pit in the ground.

Petra – truly one of the Wonders of the World.

The 1 KM long Siq of Petra

How can words describe the world wonder that is Petra?
Before we left on our trip, I read many books and websites. Lonely Planet perhaps described it best of all: “Nothing you read about Petra will prepare you for your first glimpse of the Treasury when you emerge from the Siq.”
And that proved to be true.
I had read about the Nabataeans who lived here more than 2,000 years ago. How they carved facades of buildings out of the rocks in which they made their homes. About how Romans eventually conquered them by cutting off their ingenious water supply systems. I had seen many pictures of the red rock carvings. I knew from tourist information that the Siq, the long steep gorge leading to the site, was over a kilometer long.
But indeed nothing prepared me for that first sight. It truly did take my breath away and left me all choked up.

Beforehand, I had found it hard to picture it all. Turns out that ‘Petra’ only refers to the actual archeological site itself. The town immediately around it is called Wadi Musa.
That’s where the hotels, the restaurants and everything else is. But there’s a part of town right outside Petra, so that you can walk there. And then there’s most of Wadi Musa which is way up on the hills and much too far to walk.
Our Bedouin Camp was a 10 minute drive away, near Little Petra – a small, more natural side of cave dwellings, not incorporated into the preserved area. Our camp offered rides to and from Petra whenever we needed them.
Entrance tickets are expensive: 50 dinars (about $75.-) for one day, 55 dinars for 2 days. So we bought 2 day tickets, which really is the minimum you need to do the place justice.
We walked past the customary tourist traps toward the Siq – a good 10 minute walk. The Siq is a canyon with steep rock faces on either side, sometimes not more than 2 meters wide. I was surprised to see that most of the ground surface is ‘pavement’ – even when it is ancient Roman roads. Inside the Siq it is cool and shaded.
After just over a kilometer, you spot a top glimpse of ‘The Treasury’. A few more paces and you emerge from the shade onto a large, dirt ‘market place’. At first glance all you see is The Treasury: sunlight paints this facade orange. It towers almost 40 meters high. Especially when people stand in front of it, you realize how huge it is. How did these people carve these facades, and pillars? Did they build scaffolding? Use ropes? It boggles the mind to think these masterpieces were made some 2,000 years ago.

The other thing I had not quite realized, is that Petra is not the odd ancient building, but the actual remnants of a large city. Once you emerge from the Siq, you enter what once was a complete and bustling city. Old roads are still visible, some lined with columns. There are many homes, also used as tombs. Besides the large Treasury, there are many other major buildings, including the Monastery. There is a large amphitheater and numerous other buildings. It is believed that some 20,000 Nabataeans lived here.

Walking around Petra all day, climbing staircase after staircase, I kept thinking of the Swiss traveler who rediscovered Petra in the early 1800’s. He would have been so amazed to come across these unexpected sights. Petra was, by then, a city in ruins and used by Bedouin who made their homes in the convenient caves. It is believed that only 15% of Petra has been uncovered today. Perhaps one day scientists will learn why the Nabataeans seized to exist.

We walked in the hot sunshine, climbing, scrambling over rocks. Two days gave us a good impression. I wouldn’t want to “do” Petra in any less than that. The Bedouin women everywhere try to sell you jewelry, tea, anything. I was shocked to see little children, as young as 5 years old, selling postcards to tourists.
One of my favorite books ever is I Married A Bedouin by Marguerite van Geldermalsen. This New Zealand woman traveled to Petra when she was about 20, fell in love with a Bedouin, married him and spent much of her life living in a cave and raising her children there. (http://marriedtoabedouin.com/)
The book is a fascinating account of an unusual life. After her husband died, she left but has now returned to Petra to make silver jewelry with local women. It was fun to meet the author and chat with her. She confirmed that those little Bedouin children should be in school and that tourists should avoid buying from them. Every penny they earn is discouragement to send them to school.
We climbed the 850 steps to the impressive Monastery, the largest structure in Petra. By then I was willing to pay well for fresh lemonade! Which we did…
The books also did not tell us about the piles of warm donkey dung we would encounter on most steps… Donkeys raced through the Siq, their hooves clattering on the old stones, as they gave rides to tourists who had underestimated the amount of hiking you have to do in Petra. Donkey and camel owners everywhere shouted at us “Ride a sexy donkey for a sexy lady?!” “Taxi with air conditioning!”

I am forever grateful that we were able to visit Petra and see the amazing sites with our own eyes. Hope you can visit it, too, some day.

For more details on Petra’s history read: http://science.nationalgeographic.com/science/archaeology/lost-city-petra/