Dosa, or things that make me go hmmmm.

Amar is a Punjabi native who grew up in Delhi.  His family lost their businesses back in 1947 when India and Pakistan were partitioned.  Nearly fifteen million people were displaced and half a million killed.  The British Empire brought many good things to the world. The Latex condom was not one of those things, neither was figuring out how to peacefully divide populations into nation-states. The scars of partition still run very deep here.  It doesn’t help that the Pakistanis have a tendency of sending suicide bombers deep into India, the Taj attack in Mumbai being the most recent large scale attack.  When I asked what Indians think of Pakistan today, the universal response here was we hate them.  Room for improvement, as my school report cards used to say.

Although Amar’s past is a little more tortured than mine, he shares of a love of food and offered to take me out for breakfast to get way from 4 star dining and eat some proper street food with the students, truck drivers, and call center works ready to start their day.  Of course I would go, I told him.

The breakfast place was a small hole in the wall beside a noisy road where motorbikes and cars sped by, their horns blaring as they jockeyed for inches.  You never see an Indian driver shoulder check or have any obvious regard for the world, the horn does it all.  Perhaps it’s a form of echolocation. Even the pedestrians are equally adapted. They stroll across major highways, seemingly unconcerned by the cars which whiz by with only inches to spare.  It’s a remarkable skill.  Of course, I’ve been in two serious accidents in three days, so maybe they just think it’s a skill.

Amar found us a cramped little table in front of restaurant (I use the word restaurant in its broadest sense), and numerous times he went to the serving window and brought back dishes laden with all manner of South Indian foods.  Once seated, he would identify the new dishes for me, and we were off.  After I’d finished three servings and was feeling rather full, he looked up with obvious disappointment.  We’ve just begun, he said in surprise at my lack of fortitude.  Amar, I should point out, was not a small man.

South Indian food is strongly infused by spice, dal, and rice. This is unlike North India food which is cooler and based on wheat.  Sitting at that busy little truck stop, we had snow white Idli which are soft as clouds, stuffed Dosa, a crepe like dish with potatoes, Vada, a savory donut, Uttapam, a thick rice flour pancake stuffed with red onion, and finished off with Puri and Paratha, both flatbreads dipped into a cilantro chutney.  Having finally exhausted the menu, I told him I drank neither tea nor coffee, but he insisted I try at least the tea, which I did, and it was remarkably good mainly because it tasted nothing like tea. Any tea flavor was well hidden by warm milk and honey. The total price of breakfast was less than five dollars.  There are worse ways to start the morning.


Handcrafts, Mosques, and Car Accidents

Unless you’re eager to see the inside of an Indian Emergency room, Hyderabad is not a city for walkers. It’s not a city for drivers either, not skilled ones at any rate.  It was on my way to the 16th century mosque called Charminar that I was in my first car crash, the one I mentioned a few days ago. There was also a second a few days later. For the second, I was in a car driving down a typically chaotic multilane road and was startled by a thunk from the rear of the car. I turned about and was surprised to find a rather angry Indian man staring back at me from his position sprawled on the car’s trunk. We were still moving at speed, so this was somewhat concerning. His motorcycle lay crumpled on the road behind and was about to be run over by a truck. I yelled for the car to stop, which we did, only long enough for him to get off before we sped away. No good would come of sticking around, I was told. So that’s India; the journey here is often more exciting than the destination. Which brings me back to Charminar.

I had seen many photos of Charminar and its four towers set proudly amidst a major crossroads. It’s an iconic landmark in Hyderabad and the heart of the mostly Muslim old city. If the photos were anything to go by, up-close it had to be spectacular. Traffic was terrible, but we did manage to eventually snake our way to the site. Charminar, like a woman from an online dating service, looked better in its photos.

Charminar’s granite and marble facade, like much of Hyderabad, is covered by a layer of grime and decay. No doubt being surrounded by never ending traffic doesn’t help. For a small price you can climb the Charminar and stand amidst the jostling crowds that look down from a high parapet, a parapet that has no barrier.  The ghost of Darwin floats nearby I am certain. I chose to explore the streets instead.  They sprawl out in all directions from Charminar’s base. Hawkers sell fresh cut fruit, Muslim women in black Hijab’s go about their shopping, and shop keeps shout out trying to sell you a score of colourful bangles for which you have no need.  I didn’t stay long.

When I was in Mumbai, I was stuck by how everyone had an angle, be it the holy man looking for alms, or the guy on the corner offering to sell business receipts.  Although Hyderabad isn’t as accustomed to tourists, they make an admirable effort for your money.  On the way in from the airport, my driver Abdul had repeatedly asked if I liked handicrafts and purses.  I tend not to carry a purse, I told him.  Abdul, while not killing motorcyclists, seemed a nice enough man, but this was not the answer he was looking for and he was not about to let it go.  On the way back from Charminar, he again mentioned handicrafts and purses, and I again said no, though it seemed we had taken a circuitous route back to the hotel which just happened to pass by a very famous store selling handicrafts and purses.  Despite one accident, he’d kept me alive, so I relented. Aside from a tiny collection of handicrafts and purses, the store mostly sold five thousand dollar rugs.  If Abdul thought I was going to buy one of these, he is apparently not a very good judge of character.  I had no intention of explaining to my wife why I was bringing home a five thousand dollar carpet when our downstairs toilet still didn’t flush properly. I played my part in the charade though, and dutifully walked from floor to floor, before climbing back into the car only to learn that if I like handicrafts and purses, there was another very famous store just ahead… I understand that India is not a universally rich country, and I don’t have a problem with someone making a suggestion for profit, but once I’ve said no, that should end the conversation. Incidentally, on the way to the airport, he asked that question once more.

Things that go Splat

Sunday Morning

The Novotel is exactly the sort of place I really didn’t want to stay, but if you’re going to be in the middle of nowhere, four stars is a good way to go.  I’m out in what’s called Hi-Tech city, an area that only ten years ago was barren scrubland and squatters, and is now an area of barren scrubland and squatters punctuated by massive corporate campuses.  Google and Infosys are just down the road, and ICIC’s building rises like a glass Ayers Rock.  Every morning a stream of busses and little yellow 3-wheeled taxi drop off the thousands of works who populate the cubical farms behind the walled compounds.

After an Indian buffet breakfast, including a coriander chutney that was out of this word good, my driver took me out to Golkonda Fort.  It’s a massive structure, the outer walls of which stretch eleven kilometers in circumference.  Once the seat of power for the Turkic Qutb Shahi kings, during the 16th and 17th centuries it was the heart of the world’s diamond trade.  The Hope diamond came from here, which, when looking around today, is a bit of a surprise.  My driver warned me to be careful of the locals, but the only real issue was running the gauntlet of guides who were quite insistent I wouldn’t understand anything without their help.  I told them this was not an unusual for me, so I’d be fine.  What I didn’t count on was just how off the beaten track Hyderabad is.  Even the intrepid backpackers don’t make it here.  Perhaps they’re scared off by the tech companies.  Either way, it meant that a tall white guy stood out.  It surprised me at first when a group of pretty Indian high school girls all said hello and started giggling, but not long after another group came up and asked for a photo.  At one point I had five different cell phone cameras pointed at me as various friends and family stood with me to get in the picture.  Now I know how a Disney mascot feels.  At one point I started to wonder if I should be checking a mirror.  Perhaps I’d been burnt to a crisp and was glowing.  More likely it was that after six months of Canadian winter, I was whiter than anyone they’d ever seen before.  There friends will think the pictures got overexposed.

The world’s urban planners should come to Hyderabad and study what this city has accomplished in its race to develop.  Sometimes it’s best to see what not to do first.  In Hyderabad, and Indian in general, at some point every construction project it’s simply abandoned.  Sometimes it’s when work has barely begun and it’s not uncommon to see a vast empty hole where once a building was meant to go.  More often though it’s just before work is completed.  If a road is torn up to lay a new pipe, it’s never repaved.  If a building has a marble façade, the last few pieces are left shattered at its base.  Perhaps there’s some superstition around finishing a project. Even on the western style campuses, the further away you get from the main buildings, the more quality control is allowed to slip.  At the fringe of my office’s manicured gardens are abandoned bails of wire cabling, the sort that looks thick enough to be run under the ocean.

Even in the newest areas there’s a remarkable level of decay.  Between the roads and buildings there is a gap, sometimes as little as a foot, though often up to twenty feet.  This gap can only be described as a mini-apocalypse.  Regardless of how long in the past construction was completed, or how much money was spent; piles of construction detritus and garbage fill that gap.  It’s where wild animals live, and not only dogs.  Hyderabad also has wild goats.  I wonder if it has something to do with the Muslim population’s dislike for dogs.

Traffic here remains something out of Dante’s inferno.  I have never experienced anything quite like it.  And if I have, it’s been repressed.  There are no traffic signals, rules, or apparently fear of what happens when metal impacts flesh.  Perhaps it’s a form of population control.  Wives and children hang off motorcycles that weave wildly between the cars, tiny yellow three wheelers jockey for position, and once in a while you’re startled awake when there’s a brief flash of faces in your side window that are much too close, and have in fact just smashed into the car and are now lying unconscious on the road behind you.  You would think an ambulance would be called.  Apparently not.  In our case, people appeared out of nowhere, dragged the two limp men to the side of the road, picked up their motorcycle and waited.  A bit nerve racking actually.  After about five minutes the guys were sitting, a bit dazed, and slowly checking themselves over for new damage.  One was particularly upset by a torn hole in his shirt, the other seemed to have a lose tooth.  And then they were gone.  Done, just like that.

Tomorrow one of my coworkers is taking me out to a local breakfast stall for street food.  I can’t wait.

Hyderabad, a work in progress

Frankfurt 6 AM Saturday

There are two types of airports I like. There’s the dirty old sort with cinderblock walls and disinterested soldiers standing about with machine guns slung low. Everything is stuffed into one room, there’s a woman selling warm drinks, and a dog with an unusual number of legs lies beneath the only functional ceiling fan. The dog might be dead, but no one really cares that much because the plane is five hours late and there’s just been a coup. It’s the sort of place where the previous flight let off an English rugby team whose first three stops after arriving were the presidential palace, radio station, and army barracks. It’s not the sort of place you bring the kids.

Then there’s Frankfurt Airport. Toronto may have the same number of flights, but the two airports are worlds apart. Pearson is clean, modern, and its gates are lined with boring little jets taking you places like Edmonton and Winnipeg. The tarmac in Frankfurt looks like the locker room at a bodybuilding contest. Super Jumbos line up at the gates pumped up and flexed, each one beefier then the next. The planes are from everywhere. Air Namibia, Royal Thai, Qatar Airways, South African. Looking at them all, you can’t help but want to take a year off. And then you spot it. Sitting between two 747s is the Arnold Schwarzenegger of the aviation world, a massive white Lufthansa A380 looking like a stuffed goose ready to have its liver ripped out and served on a canapé. It reminded me of an apartment building with wings.

I’m typing this up in the lounge. No peanut butter, but plenty of nutella, and who doesn’t want nutella, cookies, and chilled Vodka at 6 am? (Bit of American imperialism here though…Word doesn’t know how to spell check nutella, but it does know Kraft, Pepsi, McDonald’s and Starbucks.)

Incidentally, the morning flight to Tripoli has been cancelled. Odd, that.

India, 2 AM Sunday

The first thing that strikes me when I leave the plane is the smell. It’s that same smell throughout the tropics; a heady mix of heat, plants, and anti-mosquito pesticides. DDT I imagine. It’s reassuring and I feel instantly at home. Otherwise Rajiv Gandhi airport is just that, an airport; large, modern, and entirely forgettable. My driver with his little placard that’s gotten my name entirely wrong, is waiting and we drive off.

On the way out, there’s a sign on the side of the road that says Work in Progress. That’s a nice way to put it. Immediately upon leaving the airport we pass a go-cart track where young Indian drivers can strap themselves in and drive like devils. It’s a bit redundant, actually. Given how my driver manages to narrowly avoid collision after collision, their cars must have breaking technology well beyond anything we have in the West. There are also sign against drinking and driving. No one in their right mind would drink and drive here, not twice at any rate.

Even in the dark, there are signs of growth and change everywhere, but it’s haphazard. The new highway from the airport is a monster 8 lane affair, complete with proper off ramps, signage and a divided median. The only thing missing are the potholes which seem to breed on Indian roads like rabbits. You’d never know you were in India. But then without warning the highway plunges down to a single dirt road in either direction and you’re instantly reminded as your head nearly collides with the seat in front of you. The dirt road continues for a rough hundred meters before the highway suddenly emerges again. There’s no obvious logic why this one section was left unbuilt, nor any signs this is about to change. Along the sides of the highway we pass half built concrete apartments. Some still have their wooden scaffolding, or a single light deep within casting eerie shadows. Rebar, rusting slowly, hangs limply out the ends of cement columns. There’s often little indication if the workers have gone home for the night, or the places will be forever abandoned.

The area I’m staying is called Hi-Tech city. Its home to US tech giants like Google and Microsoft, and a huge population of wild dogs who stand by the side of the road and watch trucks pass. You can see Darwin at work here. Regardless of the source breed, the dogs are all roughly the same size, about that of a large beagle. I guess that’s the perfect size for scavenging at the edges of society.

Half an hour later we pass through a security barrier, get an under the car bomb check, and arrive at the hotel. It’s Cricket world cup season, and the lobby is full of Indian cricket fans. Canada recently lost by some 200 wickets. Not sure what that means, but it can’t be good, even with the exchange rate at 30 to 1.

Hyderabad has roughly 6 million people, double what it had only ten year ago. Nearly half of those are Muslim, so it should be interesting to see tomorrow how all this mixes together.

Sunrise over Armageddon

This is a bit long, but then so was the flight.

You know it will be a good day when your first stop is sunrise over Armageddon.  I woke Friday while Tel Aviv was still asleep, grabbed a quick bite to eat, and then headed north-east towards Israel’s heartland.  I planned to skirt the West Bank until I reach the River Jordon, follow it north into the Galilee, turn eastward at Nimrod’s Fortress along the border with Lebanon—you can’t actually go further without getting shot and hence becoming a bit of a Nimrod yourself—and finally circle back around south across the Golan Heights along the DMZ with Syria.  This would take me past some of the oldest cities in the world, through the Greco-Roman world of Herod, biblical sites along the coast of the Sea of Galilee, beneath Crusader fortresses on the high bluffs, and finally see the result of the region’s most recent wars.  All this in one day with only the map provided by Avis.  What could go wrong?

For a place that’s meant to host the end of the world, Armageddon is a rather sleepy ruin that required the custodian to use his broom handle to reach up and turn on the lights.  By the time I was done walking about he’d managed to light a cigarette.  If Armageddon is coming, it’s going to have to get used to waiting.  The one notable feature, aside from hosting the end of the world, is the ancient city’s water-works, a massive pit dug straight down into the bedrock.  It descends over 100 feet before leveling out into a long tunnel that leads to a spring outside the city walls.  It’s a precarious trip down even now; I can’t imagine how they did it before the invention of public safety.

After a brief stop at a bus stop to buy a simit like round from an Arab kid who spent most of his time texting, I arrived at Scythopolis.  Utterly destroyed in an earthquake during the 8th century, Scythopolis is a massive Greco-Roman excavation with everything you’d expect from a proper Roman city including 2000 year old public toilets.  This was the first place that had foreigners in any number, and must be one of the big sites for tours coming out of Jerusalem.  Amidst the ruins there’s an ancient Tel that’s been inhabited since before written history.  Although it’s a bit of a hike, from the top the view is pretty spectacular, but what caught my eye were the remains of an ancient bridge on the other side of the Tel, the side without the marble Agora, well-kept theater, or busloads of tourists from New York.  I climbed down, headed down a deserted path, trudge through a bit of underbrush and finally got down to the water’s edge.  It looked like something from an 18th century pastoral painting.  All that was missing were the scantily clad Rubenesque women who had the unfortunate habit of slipping out of their tops every time an Italian painter happened by.   There was a shepherd and his flock atop a nearby hill, thick Egyptian grasses swaying in the breeze at water’s edge, and above it all the ancient bridge reached over, its arch half collapsed, letting light filter down to the gurgling water.  Pretty damn impressive and the photos I took won’t even begin to do it justice.

I won’t bother mentioning my time in the city of Tsfat.  Frommer’s mentions it.   Frommer’s is the reason I went to it.  Frommer’s is stupid.  The hour long side trip I took to get there is an hour I want back.  The Crusader Castle of Belvoir, however, was easily worth the damage I did to the rental car engine while climbing the twisting path to the promontory on which it sits.  Commanding the Jordon valley below, Belvoir was the last castle still held by the Crusader’s when Saladin’s forces finally took back the region.  And unlike the others which fell to his siege, Belvoir never did. The Hospitallers inside finally surrendering when they realized the only land the Latin Kingdom of Israel still had under its control was roughly the distance they could piss from their castle walls. For fear of it being re-occupied one day, Saladin had the castle mostly torn down, but it remains impressive.

Winding my way further north I crossed the Jordon river a number of times, but if there hadn’t been a sign, I wouldn’t have noticed.  We would call it an irrigation ditch.

The Vatican has a small church on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, reputedly built atop the rock where Christ performed his miracle of feeding thousands with a single loaf of bread.  All sharp angles, it looked to be a terribly uncomfortable place to stand about making bread, especially in sandals, but then I’m not the Messiah, so what do I know?  There’s another rock nearby where he appeared after his death.  In a region that’s full of exposed rocks, it’s impressive someone had the wherewithal to record both spots and never lost track of which was which, not even once, but did manage to lose the nearby Roman city of Scythopolis.

I had come to the area for two reasons.   My daugher’s teacher had asked if I could take some religious pictures for the class and  I was also curious to get a flavor for a region that’s been such a major part of western culture.  I’m not sure what I was expecting, something a little more serene I suppose, perhaps with an old wooden boat bobbing along the shoreline, fishermen casting out their nets, maybe even a donkey or two.  Something.  Good luck with that. Instead, seeing the biblical sites of the Galilee doesn’t require faith, it requires you to close your eyes and pretend you’re somewhere else.  Instead of anything even vaguely evocative, what I got was Tiberius, a massive sprawl of resorts and holiday go-ers who flock to the region in the summer for its beaches.  It’s brash, and loud, and the sort of city where they serve fries with everything.  The whole place smells like Piña colada scented sunscreen.  After taking a few pictures of the church, and picking up a pamphlet for my daughter’s teacher, I stopped at the Church’s bathroom where I paid my Shekel to the attendant outside, one of the monks, went in, and then heard his voice, much closer this time, slightly off to my right now, and asking where I was from, if I was alone, and generally making small talk while I stood in front of the urinal doing my business.  The Roman Catholic Church should seriously look at its hiring policies.

Why all Israelis aren’t bi-polar I’ll never know.  They live in a strange netherworld between war and peace.  The day before, while in a meeting with the company I had come to see, I heard a major event was happening near the borders with Lebanon and Syria atop Mt. Hermon.  The Syrians and Israelis have fought over the mountain a number of times, the last during the Yom Kippur War when Syrian commandos overwhelmed the small Israeli listening post.  It was that same listening post that had noticed the massive Syrian army buildup the day before, but been ignored by their command hierarchy.  Arab armies were not capable of attacking Israel, so had gone the thinking on October 5th.  On October 6th Israel was invaded on two fronts.   I arrived late in the afternoon, the colour of the land slipping into gold as the sun sunk towards the horizon.  Nimrod’s fortress was to my left, perched on an impenetrable spar of rock.  A steady stream of cars was coming down from the mountains to my right.  As I climbed up through the winding passes, the thermometer in the car was slowly sinking towards zero.  And then, after rounding a bend, there is was, the reason tens of thousands were streaming past.  Snow.  Israelis were grabbing great handfuls, throwing it onto their car hoods and heading back down into the Galilee and beyond.  I suppose they were hoping the stuff would survive the trip.  I don’t really know.  Local Druze stood on the side of the road selling fruit, bread, and hand knit touques.  It was getting late so I snapped off a few photos and then headed the other direction towards the Golan Heights.  And here’s the thing.  Within two minutes of heading towards the Golan Heights, a rusting old fence was running along both sides of the road with yellow warning signs plastered ever fifty meters warning of landmines.  The place was absolutely littered with them and explained the general advice to never stray off the road.  To my left, towards Lebanon, a razor wire fence snaked through the hills.  Hezbollah were just a few hundred meters away and yet only a short distance behind me Israelis were happily skiing down slopes, careful to stay on the well-marked paths so as not to explode.  Odd.

Israel will never give up the Golan Heights, that’s clear to me now having driven through it.  It’s simply too close to their population centers to cede to a foreign power, especially one they have a tendency of getting into wars with.  Amidst the mine fields, I drove past abandoned villages where buildings had blown out walls and farm equipment was slowly rusting back into the earth.  The Golan Heights is an area expecting another war.  There are massive stone tank traps intersecting roads leading towards Syria which forces you to slow to a crawl as you navigate through, no doubt providing future Israeli tanks ample opportunity to destroy anything coming the other way.  There are hilltop forts brisling with all manner of listening equipment focused on the Syrian plains below.  There are small memorials to particular tank brigades that were called up from the population in their desperate attempt to hold back the Syrians.  And there are Shelter signs everywhere, pointing to culverts or bunkers beneath the roads.  In-between vineyards and mine fields, small Israeli settlements have sprung up. Unlike the well-built suburbs of Jerusalem that push into the West Bank, these have a more militaristic feel.  There’s little else here besides these news settlements and remains of the last war.  I stumbled across the turret of a Challenger tank from ’76, its gun still pointing eastward, and another area where a Syrian bunker had overlooked the Israeli towns in the valley below.  Barb wire and trenches have been left where they were when the last war ended, no doubt as a reminder why Israel won’t be leaving any time soon.  Standing amidst the ruined Syrian fortification I could see the entire Israeli plain below.  They say gunners here used to take pot-shots as Israelis working their fields below.  I wanted to spend more time, but the sun had set, and without GPS or a descent map I figured it was time to go.  I turned westward and began the descent back into the Galilee.

You don’t take a sign that says Danger, Tank Crossing seriously until you happen across an Israeli tank brigade crossing.  Just past, along the side of the highway, there were at least thirty tanks plus various smaller support vehicles pulling into a field for the night.  It’s a powerful reminder of just how serious the whole thing really is up there.  I pulled over and approached one of the guards.  His assault rifle was slung low down across his chest the way they carry their weapons here.  I asked if I could take a few photos.  One, maybe two, he said sternly.   I took one.  You just don’t argue with a guy who’s just climbed out of tank.

The last time I was here, when I asked for local food, the Israelis wondered if I meant Eastern European, and then joked that I probably meant Middle Eastern.  Nothing has changed.  Tel Aviv is a wonderful place if you’re looking for Sushi, or Thai, or a great steak house, but anything Arabic, forget it.  Earlier in the week I had spent half an hour researching where I could go out to eat, finally settling on a place run by Jews from Eastern Turkey who’d brought their skills and culinary heritage with them to Israel.  No one mentioned they’d run the local school cafeteria back in Turkey.  When I saw long tables looking ready to take in bus tour groups I should have run away.  But it was late, I hadn’t slept in two days, and I just wanted some food.  That was a mistake.  This cycles repeated itself nightly until finally on Thursday I ended up at a place in Jaffa, the old Muslim quarter of Tel Aviv.  The restaurant hadn’t been listed anywhere, but what a feast.  The mixed salad plate included 14 separate dishes, and when I inquired if I would be getting pita, the waiter looked at me as though I were an idiot and said, of course, we’re making it now.  It’s rare that I’ll gorge myself in a restaurant, but I had to.  It was simply one of the best meals of my life.  I sat their eating for an hour, a pitcher of freshly pressed pomegranate on the table.  There were dishes with tangy apples, an amazing cauliflower, pickled cumquat, olives, eggplant, and bits I couldn’t recognize but tasted wonderful.  It was the perfect bento box if the Japanese were Muslim and had a habit of eating goats.  My main course was a lamb kebab in a rich tomato broth, baked within a pillow of sesame encrusted flat bread.  Who needs the 40 virgins when you have that sort of meal?

My only real disappointment was a lack of baklava.  Last time I was in Israel, I found the most amazing variety in East Jerusalem.  The one guy I found selling something similar was in the covered market in the old part of Tel Aviv.  I asked for one piece, he put three into a container.  I told him no, I only want one.  He took one out, and tried to give me two.  Whatever, I gave in, remember that last time I’d gone back for seconds, and asked how much?  He told me 20 Shekels, which is roughly five dollars, or about 3 times the price in Canada.  I frowned and said too expensive, so he quickly dropped down to 10 Shekels, at which point he was just plain annoying me.  I don’t mind a bit of haggling, but if you start off by trying to rip me off, I’m going somewhere else.  So I did.  Of course I never did get my Baklava.

One last thing.  Last Wednesday morning I headed out to Akre, an ancient city that once served as the Latin Kingdom of Israel’s capital until it fell to the Arabs sometime in the 13 century.  It’s a wonderful old city, fully of crooked alleyways, dark tunnels that snake beneath the fortifications and a beautiful old Ottoman bath where I was forced to watch a 15 minute long video reenactment of what it’s like for a small thin man to massage a large fat man.  I could have gone back to the Church in the Galilee if I’d wanted that.

Setting aside the politics, Israel remains an amazing place to explore.

Hummus, Guns, and Sabbath Games

Here are some last observations before I hop on a plane tomorrow.

Israeli Food

There is no such thing as traditional Israeli food.  Sitting down for lunch with a small group of friends highlighted the challenge here.  Two were from Ukraine, another two from Moldavia, one was an Uzbek, and one a Pole.  Only the Pole was born in Israel, the others had immigrated as children. These were not people who grew up eating feta and figs. For them it was cabbage and vodka.  So when I brought up the topic of local food, they all sort of shrug and suggest that I was looking for Arab food.  I didn’t bother mentioning that I thought Arab food was Israeli food.  In Tel Aviv, Arab food was not as easy to find as I had thought.  Neither the grocery store across from my hotel, nor the hotel itself, had pita for the hummus I’d bought earlier in the day.  French baguettes, however, were available aplenty. I ended up eating the hummus with a loaf of white sandwich bread.  I might as well have been in Iowa.

Which brings me to the institution known as Abu-Hassan. If you didn’t know any better you’d think it was a rundown hole in the wall that served little more than ground up chickpeas mixed with tahini, olive oil, garlic, and lemon juice. Well okay, you’d be right, but you’d also be missing the point. Abu-Hassan does one simple thing very well. The make the world’s best hummus. Across all of Israel, since the mid-60s, when someone wants to go out for the perfect hummus, they get in their car and drive down to Jaffa, the old Arab Quarter of Tel Aviv, and wait for a table at Abu-Hassan. Hummus here is not a side dish. It’s the only dish. You sit around your beat up old table, on cheap metal chairs, and scoop hummus by the mouthful. Note: this is not the sort of place you ask for a receipt.


I’ve seen three distinct types of checkpoints in Israel.  The first control access to buildings and public transit.  The simplest has the pencil thin Falasha Jew from Ethiopia who likely isn’t armed.  He’s got a wand, checks your bag, and waves you through.  At train stations they add in the typical x-ray bag scan and have pistols.  If something goes down, I’m assuming they yell bloody murder and the police will come charging while the civilians scatter.  The second type is the car checkpoint.  There’s a fair bit more conversation about one’s purpose, and then a mandatory trunk check looking for bombs.  My Canon 200mm great white lens in the trunk was the topic of conversation and slowed me down considerably.  The guards at these checkpoints are armed with weapons bigger than pistols.  If they find something that upsets them, you’re stuck behind a barrier and are likely going to get shot.  On the highways the military handles the checkpoints and they carry assault weapons.  A Caucasian Canadian who doesn’t speak Hebrew gets an easy wave through.  Arab Israelis don’t have it so easy.  There is very clear racial profiling happening here, but then that’s not wildly surprising given the frequency, in the late 90s, of Palestinians blowing themselves up. The final sort of checkpoint straddles the security barrier between Israel and the Palestinian territories.  These are the ones you really don’t screw around with.  Purpose built and nasty looking, no one here is playing games.  Battle ship grey, hung with barbed wire, and manned by heavily armed soldiers, they’re ready to stop an insurrection if need be.

The Sabbath

Israelis don’t say Sabbath, they say Shabbat, and for those who follow it, what a wildly complex beast it is.  I first noticed the effect returning to my hotel in Tel Aviv one Saturday night.  Although the mechanized gate arm was still functioning, the revolving door was not.  For reason I do not understand the former did not violate Sabbath, but the latter did.  Three of four elevators were operating normally, and the forth had been configured to stop at every floor, over and over, so that a devout Jew need not press the buttons to actually make the blasphemous contraption do his bidding.  Pressing an elevator button, after all, is a grave affront to God.  Listening to a bastardized version of Sweet Child ‘o Mine by Guns ‘n Roses as you ride up, is not.  Apparently it’s the little details that really get under God’s skin.  The mechanical keycard to enter my room was okay, but turning on the lights was not.  Opening the closet door which automatically turned on a light was also very, very bad.  Only cold dinners were available, cooking after all would violate the rules, but opening the fridge door to get out the cold tuna salad did not.  When the kitchen staff opened the fridge door to get the tuna, I wonder, did the light go on?

There’s a joke here, and it goes like this:

God:  Moses, it is cruel to cook the meat of a cow in the milk of his mother.

Moses:  So you’re saying we should not eat meat and milk together.

God:  No.  Just don’t eat the meat of a cow with the milk of that cow’s mother.

Moses:  So you’re saying we should have two separate sets of plates, one for dairy, one for meat.

God:  No.  It is cruel, Moses, to cook the meat in the milk of the same cow’s mother.

Moses:  So you want us to wait 6 hours after eating meat, before we have dairy.

God:  Moses…fine, do whatever you want.

Jews and Palestinians.

The relationship between the Jews of Israel and the Palestinians of the occupied territories is complex. The relationship between the two ethnic groups within Israel proper is even more so. For the most part Jewish Israelis never call their Arab neighbors Palestinians, they call them Arabs.  This, no doubt, is a deliberate attempt to remind the world that in Israel’s eyes there is no such thing as a Palestinian. Many of the Jewish Israelis, especially those from Tel Aviv which has almost no Palestinian population, are afraid of the Arab population, and are reluctant even to drive into Israel’s Arab areas, even if it means missing out on a good meal; Cabbage and Vodka can only go so far. Unlike their parents, many of the younger Israelis see the current problem along economic lines. They believe the Palestinians need a viable territory and jobs…a two state solution.  They view the West Bank as Palestinian territory which should become a Palestinian nation.  They don’t hold the West Bank and its religious sites in reverent awe, but then of course many of them also eat bacon.  At the same time, they fear the Palestinians do not see the world in the same way.  Jobs, they fear, are secondary to the politics of Israel’s existence.  Still, with the younger generation there’s always hope.  But then mortars, fired from Gaza, just landed in the south, a Palestinian has been shot trying to take hostages at the Turkish Embassy, and I am working in a conference room in the middle of a building which has a steel door and a ladder which runs both up and down to other similar conference rooms.  Why I asked does it have a ladder?  Because it’s also a bomb-shelter.  Ah.  Complexity.

Heatstroke and Soup

First thing Saturday morning I was back on highway One, leaving behind the American Colony Hotel and all its luxury.  Sabbath had begun so traffic was lighter, similar to a typical Canadian weekend.  Most Israeli’s simply aren’t that devout.  There are areas of Jerusalem where the ultra-orthodox will stone your car if you drive on the Sabbath, but the orthodox remain a minority, and typically keep to their own areas.  Despite all of the their indignation at Sabbath driving, it’s not easy getting out to throw stones at cars on the highway when you have to walk the whole way.  Sometimes the universe appreciated a bit of irony.

The first military checkpoint is just east of Jerusalem, and for what matters, this is where the West Bank really begins.  For the first time a new type of car appears on the road, one with green plates with a distinctive “P” on the left side.  It’s a not so subtle way of telling you that this car belongs to a Palestinian from one of their West Bank enclaves.  Without that plate, however, you might never know.  For the most part it seems Palestinians who can work through the red-tape to get access to the Israeli roads within the West Bank, also have access to funds.  The cars are new and well kept.

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Leaving Jerusalem drops you into another world.  It is the line between the semi-arid, but still productive center of the country, and the barren wasteland of the Judean desert.  Hot, bleak, oven like. As many adjectives as you can think to describe heat, this place can use. The scenery is spectacular, particularly if you hate green.  Nearer the Dead Sea there are signs warning of road closures due to floods.  Locals here assure me that flash flood are a real danger, and there are even photographers who go out into the desert to chase them down, but it’s hard to believe when all you see is an endless expanse of rock and heat.

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Not far from Jerusalem you see the first Bedouin.  But these aren’t the Bedouin of movie fame.  You aren’t about to see Omar Sharif offering you figs from the comfort of a colorful tent.  These Bedouin look as though they’ve survived a nuclear strike, eking out the most meager existence, their homes clinging to the sides of hills.  These are makeshift structures of corrugated steel and other bits they’ve scavenged.  Nearby, their herd of goat manage to subsist on the barren scrublands.  And then before you know it the Bedouin are gone too, the climate too harsh even for them, and there is nothing left but rock and the occasional military radio mast atop the hills.

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My goal for the day was Masada, built by Harod around the time of Christ, and later the scene of the mass suicide of the last Jewish Zealots fighting off the Roman Legions.  For years the Israeli army did their swearing-in ceremony here, until someone realized that perhaps the glorification of mass religious suicide wasn’t the best model for an army with a goal of actually winning a war.  Driving towards Masada, on the west you have a line of desolate red mountains, and to the east the Dead Sea.  It is the only body of water I’ve ever seen that has no plants on its shores.  Nothing.  The landscape is utterly, and totally dead.

Having had huge expectations I was surprised when I finally reached it.  I had expected a single grand monolith like Ayers rock in Australia.  It’s not.  It’s just one of many burnt red mountains that are part of the long line I’d been driving next to for an hour.  It’s tall enough that at first I didn’t even realize it was Masada.  Unless you look closely you don’t see the tiny trail that winds up the east face or the ruins atop the mountain.  Either the climate really has changed dramatically, or Harod was a madman to build a palace out here.  Its total isolation must have been a reason it fell out of use so quickly once he died.  And my god it was hot.

I had planned to hike the Snake path, the original trail used by Masada’s inhabitants.  On a good day in the winter it can take a couple of hours to climb.  Today, one of the hottest days in the year, it was going to be a nightmare.  Groups stood about in the air conditioned visitors center, slathering on sunblock, getting their water ready, buying specialty hats, all in preparation for the arduous trek up ten stairs to the gondola.  The gondola?  Cowards.  Ready for anything, I marched passed them feeling rather superior, got out to the trail head and stopped.  Close due to extreme heat.  Damn it.  In hindsight, this was a very good thing.  A Danish cyclist died that day from the heat.  No doubt I would have as well.

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The gondola ride up is actually rather nice, and a good way to go if you’re not a fan of heat stroke.  Still, there are two sides to Masada.  I was on the eastern side which has the Snake path which can be closed because you can take the gondola instead.  On the western side there’s the Roman siege ramp, but no gondola, so they can’t very well close that one, can they?  Anyone coming from the west has to climb the mountain.  So once at the top I spent a bit of time looking up at the sun and sweating, then walked around to the western side and headed down the path to the mountain’s base.  I had come to Masada to climb it, and damn it I was going to climb something even if that meant going down the wrong side first.

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Other than the incredible location, Masada is famous for the 700 Zealots who committed suicide rather than be taken captive or killed by the Romans.  Because the Romans couldn’t possible attack by way of the perilous Snake path, to get to the top they simply built the mother of all ramps and wheeled up their battering rams.  This is why Rome conquered the world.  No one could compete with that.  Today, the siege ramp, a containment wall, and numerous siege camps are all still laid out around the mountain where the Roman left them over 1,900 years ago.  It was a remarkable place to explore, and I did it entirely alone.  The entire time I was there I could count the number of people who climbed that siege ramp on one hand with all the fingers hacked off.  There was nothing alive except ravens, and I’m lucky they weren’t vultures. They would have seen me wandering down along the siege wall, nearly a kilometer from any source of shade, and pecked out my eyes.  At some point my brain kicked in, I turned around, and started the trek back up.  It was head down, one foot and then the other.  There was a good reason the Snake path was closed. Once aback atop, although climbing up the Snake path was forbidden, I realized that climbing down was not, so that’s how I returned to the absolute bliss of the visitors center, and it’s popsicle sales woman to whom I quickly became a regular. The moment my body heat that cold, air-conditioned air, my sweat stopped evaporating and I was drenched.

When Masada fell to the Romans, it was abandoned almost immediately.  Much of what was there was left in place, including human remains.  While leaving the onsite museum the attendant asked me what I found most interesting.  For him it had been eleven clay port shards, each with a man’s name on it…without question in his mind the famous lots the Zealots had drawn to see who would kill the 700 others, and then commit suicide himself.  Lovely group, Zealots.  Historically interesting, sure, but the find seemed just a little too prosaic to be believed.  What really caught my attention was a braid of woman’s hair, as though just recently cut.  Very moving.  One of the wives of the Zealots, says the museum.  More likely a Roman woman captured and killed when the Zealots first seized the place, say modern archeologist.  And the Zealot remains who were given full military burial by the Israeli army?  Likely Roman soldiers from the original garrison.  It’s good that they all agree.

That was the further point south I went.  From there I headed back northwards.

It’s no longer accurate to call it the Dead Sea.  The sea level is dropping a meter a year, and has now broken into two distinct sections.  What a wonderful environmental disaster it has become, and a great spot to stop for a bit of a swim.  I halted at a place near Ein Gedi, which also had a true desert oasis which I completely missed because I was too intent on watching Russian matrons float like Beluga. For man of the Russians, the real joy here was they could float and smoke at the same time.

From Ein Gedi’s original beach area you have two options to get to the sea.  You can walk to the new shoreline, or take a makeshift train.  It’s the sort that drags families around amusement parks.  When you’re standing at a sign that says “Shoreline: 1985” it seems silly to do anything but walk, so I did.   It seemed even hotter there than at Masada, but I was going to a beach, and planned to cool down in the water.  After baking under the sun for about ten minutes I came to a well-constructed wooden deck that at some point had been the new beach area.  No signs of water.  I kept going.  I came to a shower facility used to get the salt off your body when you’re done swimming.  I kept going.  I passed a sign that said “Shoreline: 2000”.   See where this is going?   Finally I came to the new, new wooden deck area, stepped off, and kept going.  The Dead Sea will not be of this world much longer.  It took fifteen minutes of walking, before I’d finally reached the beach, and it is a beach from hell.  It is not sand, but salt.  And I don’t mean salt like.  I mean actual salt.  This is not an exaggeration.  You can reach down, scoop up a handful and sprinkle it on your fries.  The spa which controls beach access demands you wear footwear when going near the water.  This is because natural salt is not soft.  It is sharp and jagged, and if you’re not careful will slice your feet apart.  This brings up a minor inconvenience of with the water.  The ocean has about 3.5% salinity making it unpalatable, and deadly if you drink too much.  It’ll also stings your eyes.  The Dead Sea is currently at around 35% salinity, ten times higher.  This isn’t water anymore.  It’s a giant chemistry experiment.  I tasted the water and felt my tongue string.  It is poisonous even in low quantities.  Before swimming they warn you if you have any cuts, or get water splashed on yours eyes, that it’s going to burn.  What they don’t warn you is that it will burn any opening, or openable, part of your body.  Any.  So you sit in the water, which is Jacuzzi hot, bobbing like a cork, and hoping the stinging pain goes away because you really don’t want to be the first one to run out, holding yourself, and whimpering.

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Now the really cool part about the Dead Sea is that you really do float.  In general, I tend to sink.  Not here.  A person cannot sink.  I doubt a brick could sink.  It’s impossible to get your entire body underwater at one time.  It’s as though someone took a bicycle pump and had a go at turning you into a balloon.  Stick your leg down, and it floats back up almost instantly.  Stick your legs out, and you tip backwards.  Put your head back, and it’s like there’s a pillow there.  When I finally manage to get myself upright, I floated up out of the water close to my nipples.  It really is a remarkable experience once you get over the pain of salt sneaking its way into ever orifice.  One local described it like swimming in soup.  That’s about right.

I rinsed off, trudged back to the spa, and then was on my way back to Tel Aviv, driving below heavily guarded settler communities atop the barren hills.  It’s almost Sunday, and it seems I’m expected me to work on this trip…