The Real Cambodia

You can’t say Cambodia without also uttering in the same breath: Angkor Wat. Yes, it is the symbol of Cambodia, but it is really the symbol of some other Cambodia – a glorious kingdom eclipsed long ago and also a symbol of foreign tourists enjoying their awe filled, colorful, delicious, and inexpensive vacation. Most Cambodians have never seen those magnificent temples up close, even if they live right around the corner in the very same villages their long ago ancestors, had inhabited a thousand years ago. They have no tuning water, sewers or electricity. They are too busy eking out their living, working long hard hours as rice farmers, fishermen, or construction workers to visit ancient temples.

Most tourists will never meet these hard working men and women, the backbone of Cambodia. You would this last week, if you travelled with our small all–woman group of donors/volunteers on a mission to make a difference – traveling with purpose.

While we did manage to marvel at the colossal architecture, admire the magnificent sculpture and savor the taste of the best Khmer cuisine, we spent the majority of our time out in the countryside visiting the villages where the organisation I have been volunteering for nearly a decade, works.

Through the years some changes have come to the villages closest to the city, most notably electricity reaching nearly all the way to the schools where we have been introducing English and computer classes. Well, those have been working on solar panels and still do. But take a few steps further into the countryside on bumpy dusty roads that turn to mud when monsoon rains arrive and you will find life as it was in the old kingdom. People living in houses with thatched roofs, climbing up the palm trees barefoot to collect sap and cook it down into palm sugar or spending hours and days weaving baskets at $1.50 each.To bring more protein into the local diet and business opportunity to local women we recently introduced a new program, Piggy Heaven, initiated by a 12 year old girl from California. Tabi, who came on the trip with her mom, raises and shows pigs for her 4H club. Last year she sold her first pig and donated all the proceeds ($1500) to buy the first piglets for the program. Many of her friends joined her and we now have 160 pigs and growing. The first piglet litters are on their way and from each of those two piglets will be given forward to new families. Most of the people are rice farmers and they have no technology to help. Buffalos plow the fields and rice is planted and tended to all by hand – backbreaking labor.

We hope to help the parents ensure a better future for their children. With good education, especially with some knowledge of English and computers there are good opportunities for work in the city nearby. As children come to Khmer school in morning and afternoon shifts, they have half a day available to learn more; besides English and computers they can also play sports and read in our libraries.We know that early childhood education is important so we introduced preschools in the community. It was hard at first to persuade the parents that play can be great learning. They still expect the littlest ones to quickly learn and recite their ABCs and 1,2,3s. But we try to bring some new methods to the largely rote learning in all classes.It certainly isn’t easy when you teach 53 kids in a hot classroom. Yup, 53, you can count them! The one saving grace is that the students are the most disciplined, best behaved in the world. They love coming to school! Even more for the supplementary classes we offer. In our schools they also come on time because they get free protein rich breakfast in the morning. Everyone pitches in with the clean up.

There are no janitors so the kids clean up the campus, too. There is not much time for play for Cambodian children, they work at home, too, from an early age. They might forage for frogs or little fish in mud. The food is always scarce and many families subsist on rice and vegetables.If you have no sibling to take care of you, you fend for yourself, while your mom works the land. We tried planting some morning glory seeds and it was hard hot work. Bringing fresh water to the families is the first step towards a better, healthier life. To date we have built over 1,300 water wells, donated by our friends and supporters all around the world. Meeting the family of your sponsored water well is the highlight of any visit. Philanthropy and volunteering changes everyone’s lives!

Blessings to all who make this world a better place by sharing a smile, planting a tree, or extending a helping hand!

Cambodian Community Dream Organization

Australia Open Live – For Tennis Fans And Others

Our second year of travel started with us going separate ways – just for 10 days or so. After spending the holidays with our girls in San Francisco, we embarked on another year of adventures nearly to the day of the start of our first year. Ksenija flew to Cambodia with a group of volunteers and I to Australia to fulfill a life long dream of seeing a tennis Open, not on a TV screen, but LIVE!

I was lucky to be able to stay with amazing Aussie friends Nellie and John in their beautiful home on the outskirts of Melbourne, taking the train into the city every day.

Women’s quarterfinals 

I arrived on a Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning saw me already in the Rod Laver Arena, on the court of a huge fifteen thousand seats capacity. I was very happy in the full swing of my tennis mode, despite having had arrived without my luggage. My itinerary took me from San Fran through New Zealand and during the process of transferring myself and my luggage I managed to transfer myself to the Melbourne flight but Singapore Airlines could not do the same with my duffle bag. Spectacular landing over striking shores of New Zealand.

Luckily the airlines generously provided me with a male emergency kit and my lovely hosts welcomed me with an Aussie T-shirt, so I looked civilized enough on my first Major of the year. My opening salvo was watching Serena Williams The green outfit, unfortunately was not very flattering

in her post-maternity heaviness, looking like a hippopotamus (those are very dangerous and deceptively fast when attacking), delivering to her opponent many successful shots accompanied with threatening killer screams. Luck would have it that she played one of those Czech tennis players with a difficult name to pronounce. Karolína  Plíšková to me looked like a giraffe. It was difficult to believe the official statistics putting Serena’s and Plíšková’s weight at almost the same 70+/- kg (154lbs) according to AO released information. Karolína Plíšková, serving. 

Excuse the quality of the photos but hey, I cannot carry one of those huge tele-lenses on our trip around the world! The photo was taken by my minuscule iPhone from my AUS$300-seat in the row F, seat 28!!! You can even see the ball in the right upper corner without tapping and zooming in! So, please do not complain! It was a very dramatic match with the Goddess of Luck distributing evenly between both ladies. In the final set, Serena started fully in charge taking the lead 5:1. Then suddenly the Czech giraffe took over, nailing six games in a row pushing herself into the Thursday semis for which I had already secured my ticket. This time AUS$200+, a cheaper deal, but this happened only because the rest of the Arena’s more expensive seats were already sold out.

The next morning I unwisely decided to stay for the Day Session. The heat and the humidity were growing by the minute even as I took my seat in the shade, watching one of the men’s double semis. Those doubles can be interesting, but not this one. With the roof open the sun lit seats were almost empty with spectators killing time in the cavernous air conditioned corridors sipping their drinks or having snacks.

By the time the next round came up for the first women’s semis match between American Collins and Czech Kvitova it was clear that the heat like this and top level tennis cannot coexist. When the score of unforced errors reached 4:4 an official showed up on the court and announced that the heat index, a combination of temperature (42C/108F at that time) and humidity (must have been 100) crossed the limit set by Australian Open rules (some magic number I do not know) and therefore they will close the roof and start air-conditioning. I did not hear what the players’ verbal reaction was but the crowed went wild with excitement that the weather torture was over. Sitting in the frying sun and looking at the players struggling with cruel court conditions was simply too much. The rest of the afternoon, including the other semi between Osaka and Pliskova was played in decent airconditioned environment, resulting in this OPEN becoming the first INDOOR MAJOR in tennis history. Still, it was not very good tennis. A lot of unforced errors, Collins arguing with umpire in one semis, and Pliškova’s subdued performance in the other made me feel rather disappointed. Well, you cannot get everything!

Stepping outside of the Rod Laver Arena the atmosphere was great, even if it felt like getting into a pizza oven with you being a pizza. But you got a few opportunities in the park to cool down. Like this walk-through-tunnel spraying cold mist all over you from all sides. Refreshing, indeed! To make spectators feel better the organizers released information on other places in Australia where the heat was even worse! Adelaide in Southern Australia reported a temperature of 47C/117F, the highest recorded temperature in major Australian city EVER!

I decided not to stay for the Night Session (Nadal beat somebody in quick three sets) and went to a beach bar instead. 

As the forecast for Friday was 41C/105F I decided to save the money and stay on the beach with friends drinking good cold Aussie beer. I did not miss much with Djokovic beating someone quickly and everyone going home disappointed.

Women’s Final

With temperatures mercifully dropping by 15-20C/30-40F on Saturday, I jumped on the suburban commuter train shortly after breakfast taking me to the arena well before the evening’s Women’s Finals! After my tennis quality of younger years made it clear that I will not qualify for any Pro tournament I wanted to at least see it. To be there and participate. I did try to get a ticket to this Australian Open Men’s finals early, ordering it nine months ahead, only to learn from organizers in October that this event was hopelessly sold out. When they offered me a seat for Women’s finals instead I took it.

Now that Day has finally arrived and I will spend it enjoying the atmosphere. Not just in the Rod Laver Arena but in the whole Tennis Center. You do not have to necessarily pay obscene amounts of money for the ticket to watch the game in the Arena, like I and fifteen thousands other fans did. You can get to the tennis center for a modest fee, enjoy the ambience of the Major with other fans and simply BE THERE! And drink and eat, AND SHOP! In the Adidas shop you can buy the same stuff worn by those playersrepresenting the brand. Many of them were eliminated in the first week of the Major, well before my arrival to Melbourne. Other tennis stars were making big bucks in non-tennis related businesses like my hero Roger supporting Barilla pasta, his friend Rafa, proudly acting as the Global Ambassador of KIA cars (I wonder if he’s ever sat behind its wheel), or André Agassi favoring the Lavazza coffee machines promising that “each cup can change your life”! I like Lavazza, but I am afraid it did not change mine!

Caffeinated I walked past the statue of the famous Australian player Rod Laver and took my seat to see the final of the Boy’s draw, delivering the drama in the third set tie-breaker, drama so much missed in many one-sided matches in Men’s and Women’s single draws.

Then just walking around and following the crowd got me a close glimpse of some participants of the finals. On the practice court no.17  I found American Japanese finalist Naomi Osaka preparing herself hard under the hot Melbourne sun barely two hours before the women’s highly anticipated final.

I even saw Novak Djokovic hit practice balls in the Rod Laver Arena a day before his final.

But even he had to leave, the roof was closed and the entertainment show could begin. And when this artistic show of lights ended the arena roof opened again with players coming in.

When I bought my ticket sight unseen long time ago I had no clue which two women would make it to the last round. To make the final even more interesting the winner of this match would become the world number One player! Naomi Osaka, who won the last Open few months ago in New York was now facing Czech Petra Kvitova whose return to the top tennis was questionable after a serious injury she suffered in a gruesome knife attack by a robber in her own apartment two years ago, severing the nerves and tendons in her playing left hand. It was certainly an interesting game in which player’s luck shifted from one to another. Kvitova managed to survive three match points winning the second set, before Osaka prevailed in the last third set.

From my perspective I think Osaka was the better of two and her victory was much deserved. For Kvitova it must have been emotionally a very difficult match and let’s hope it signals her return to top tennis. The women’s final ceremony had not been the final closure of Australian Open for me, as the Laver Arena audience was treated with a nice dessert of mixed doubles played till wee hours of the Sunday morning. In the mixed finals the Czech-US couple Krejcikova-Ram beat their Australian opponents. It must have been disappointing for those Aussies still sitting in the arena, while giving happy Czechs at least half of the title in the first Major of this season.

And this was the end of Open for me. I ran from the Arena to the Richmond station to catch my train to my temporary home sweet home in the beach town of Mordialloc for early Sunday morning breakfast.

My first, and probably the last, tennis Major was over. This is it! Another big item on my bucket list could be checked off.

25 Favorite Shots from the 1st Year of Travel

As we begin our second year of travel we are looking back to the great experiences of the first. We were asked to choose some favorite photos for a travel presentation and we ended with about 160. Since many of you were not with us from the very start we thought you might enjoy the best 25. Paring them down was a challenging task, but it has given us some great remembrances and a renewed appreciation of the power locked inside the little iPhone 7 Plus.Sunrises in mornings can make getting up early really worth it.

The panorama feature is really rewarding for capturing the grandeur of the special landscapes. There are so many spectacular beaches and many we had all to ourselves. We never wish for clear skies as we find that clouds are a blessing on the beach, not just to lessen the fierceness of the sun, but to add drama to the photograph. It is pretty hard to shoot a good sunset without fancy equipment, but sometimes you get lucky and the colors turn out spectacular. The man made marvels can be breathtaking too, from ancient structures…to more newer ones. No need to lock yourself in a darkroom anymore, just switch to a B&W filter when editing your shots. Real people give scale and drama to architecture. People working the land with their hands is an endlessly fascinating subject. Let’s not forget their animals!And our close relatives amongst them. The mountains high and low challenge our sense of adventure. But probably nothing more than a sail and rudder. On a riveror on the sea sailing towards new adventures.

Jerusalem – The Holy City for All

It has been a tradition to celebrate our birthdays with a special trip and special birthdays with even more special trips. Ksenija’s 50th was with gorillas in Rwanda, Mirek’s 60th in with whale sharks in Mozambique.

“Mirek, where do you want to celebrate your 70th?”

“In Jerusalem!” came a surprising answer. And more specifically at King David Hotel. Since 1929 the famed 5 star establishment has hosted kings in exile, queens, heads of states and movie stars. One can literally walk in their footsteps. Here Winston Churchill’s, Silvio Berlusconi’s, and Elizabeth Taylor’s.

At the end after a quiet dinner at a small restaurant, and fantastic cake in a lively coffee shop, we only had birthday drinks at the hotel’s stodgy bar. We sat in the uncomfortable armchairs, drinking overpriced (and god awful) cocktails. We noticed some businessmen at the bar speaking Czech, then a whole bunch more Czech men in dark suits coming in. Turns out the Czech President with his entourage was staying there to open a Czech cultural center. It would be an understatement that Mirek dislikes the Czech President any less than the American President, so we hightailed it out of there.

We could walk back through the lit up streets to our cute Airbnb right in the Jewish quarter. We loved staying in the traditional heart of Jerusalem and four nights certainly was not enough. We were right on the seamless border of Armenian and Jewish quarter on a pedestrians only old cobblestone road. At any given time we might encounter monks …or rabbis…and sometimes we even visited with the Roman time market people. We soon found our favorite coffee shop for fresh morning pastries and excellent cappuccinos. We loved sitting at their window, watching people as they started their day. We could see men in their traditional orthodox black suits and black hats going to study Torah…many of them taking their kids to school or daycare on their way. Women with their long skirts and their fancy wigs instead of scarves covering their hair going to work or shopping. Or just getting a morning coffee and a bagel or delivering some.In the evenings we would cross the plaza with the giant golden menorah to stop a few doors down from our apartment at a neighborhood kosher restaurant; excellent, fresh and inexpensive. There we could observe the local families and chat with the cook and waiter.

We would venture into the Muslim quarter and feel perfectly safe. Mirek claimed he was surprised by the low presence of soldiers, but I think they were just not as noticeable because by and large they were young and cute and friendly. As there is a compulsory service there are also a lot of young women patrolling with their tight fitting uniforms. You are less likely to pay attention to their big guns and protective vests, especially if you are a man. As a woman looking at them I could not help but remember Gal Gadot in the movie Wonder Woman. The Israeli actress is a wonder woman in real life, too. She spent two mandatory years of service in the Israeli Defense Forces enlisted as a combat instructor and does many of the movie stunts herself, and she is a mother of two girls. (Which do you think is harder?)

The three quarters are all right next to each other in the old Jerusalem and the untrained eye can not tell right from the start where one begins and the other ends. The myriad of shopping stalls blend into each other, too. Except at night when the bazaars and souks empty and one is not allowed to enter into the Muslim quarter. There are also restrictions on visiting the Temple Mount, most holy to both Jews and Muslims. The Jews venerate it for here stood their temples destroyed by Babylonians. In Solomon’s temple was the Holy of Holies, the inner sanctuary of the tabernacle, where God’s presence appeared and Ark of the Covenant was held, containing the Ten Commandments given to Moses.

For the Muslims it is revered as the Noble Sanctuary, the location of Muhammad’s journey from Mecca to Jerusalem on a magical horse for prayers at the El Axa Mosque and his ascent to heaven and back. As a commemoration of this sacred event the famous gilded Dome of the Rock had been built.For a few hours a day people of other religions are allowed to visit the area, but not enter the sites or pray openly. The area is actually guarded by Jordanian security forces that politely but strictly usher everyone out when it is time for Muslim prayers. There is a certain level of antagonism at the Christian sites, too, though that is entirely internal. It is especially evident in the Church of Holy Sepulcher, which contains the two holiest sites in Christianity: the site where Jesus was crucified (Golgotha) and where he was buried and resurrected (the empty tomb). The control of the church itself is shared among several Christian denominations and secular entities in complicated arrangements. In fact historically the animosity between the Greek Ortodox, Armenian Apostolic, Roman Catholic, Coptic Ortodox, Armenian Apostolic and Roman Catholic was so bad, that the keys to the church have been given to two Muslim families, passed down generations from father to son. The different Christian factions have control over different parts of the church. In the back of the complex we discovered a small community of Ethiopian monks, where it seemed like nothing has changed since the early centuries.Interestingly enough some Protestants actually think the real tomb of Jesus is not here but at The Garden Tomb, at a rocky escarpment outside the Jerusalem walls. Whatever the case, the visit to this site is definitely more evocative and spiritual than the mobbed church.

Of all the religious places in Jerusalem and whole of Israel it was the Wailing Wall (Western Wall) that really touched us both. Because the Jews are not permitted to pray on Temple Mount, their holiest place, the Western Wall just under it, is where the prayers are said. I thought only Jews would be permitted to go to the wall and mourn the destruction of their temples, but it was open to all. Being the non praying, non religious people we did not intend to go all the way to the wall. Yet a sign there to the effect that “your sorrows being lessened at the wall” lead our steps to the men’s and women’s sections of the wall. Having just recently and unexpectedly lost my best friend back home I found it touching and healing to stand at the wall with many women pouring their grief to the stones that for centuries have stood as silent witnesses.

The history and politics of Jerusalem is so complicated that it is very helpful to have a good guide to explain it all.

We joined two walking tours of Jerusalem. One took us to Mount of Olives where for me the most spiritual Christian place is located – the Gethsemane Garden. This is where Jesus went to pray after the Last Supper and in all his humanity, afraid of suffering awaiting him, asked God for “this cup to pass me by”. The Olive Grove has large old olive trees dated up to 900 years old, some probably offshoots of the same trees that witnessed Jesus’ prayers and fears. Gethsemane means olive press in Syriac Aramaic, the language of Christ. Across from the garden at the foot of Mount Olives is the rock cut Tomb of the Virgin Mary. It is interesting to note that Mary, Maryam, mother of Isa (Jesus) also has a revered position in Islam where one of the longer chapters of Quran is devoted to her.Not surprisingly the grave of Mary or Mariam, who was of course Jewish, is in close vicinity to the Mount Olives Jewish Cemetery, the most ancient and most important Jewish cemetery in Jerusalem, containing hundreds of thousands of Jewish graves.

Many graves have small rocks placed on top by visitors, taking place of flowers, harder to come by in the desert land.

Jerusalem is one of the oldest cities in the world and throughout its bloody history many of different faiths have fallen. Jerusalem has been destroyed at least twice, besieged 23 times, attacked 52 times, and captured and recaptured 44 times.

With so much to see in the old town, we barely managed to venture out into the new areas of Jerusalem. Except for one night when two lovely Servas ladies called Ravital and Tal took us for dinner to Mahane Yehuda market. The food stalls were just being converted into ad hoc eateries and the night was alive with the young Jerusalemites of all creeds, giving us hope for the peaceful coexistence in the future.

PS. This post concludes our year of travel. First year that is! We enjoyed it so much, that after a short holiday break back in California, we are embarking on our second year of adventures. Thank you for following along and as usual we are looking forward to your comments.

Holy Land for the Holidays

To our big surprise our first night at the kibutz was the first night of Hanukah. And Mirek got the honor of lighting the first candle at the home of our wonderful Servas hosts Ita and Avram. We came to Israel with a bucket list of places and experiences and visiting a kibutz was one of them. Some others high on the list were:

-Celebrating Mirek’s 70th birthday at King David Hotel in Jerusalem

-living like a local in Jerusalem’s Old City

– going to all three religions’ most holiest places in Jerusalem

-going to an orthodox synagogue for prayers

-walking the Tunels in Acre, the last crusader City to fall

-visiting the Baha’i garden and shrine

-seeing Mt. Harmon and venturing into Golan Heights

-crossing over to Bethlehem in Palestine and seeing The Wall with famous graffiti.

In short 8 days we managed to do all that and then some with the help of many new friends. We were warned that overall Israelis are not very warm and friendly, which was true to some extent, but we lucked out with one and all Servas contacts, that made our Israeli stay really special. Well, the truth is Servas people are special everywhere around the world.

While we had much help on our way, we did manage to get ourselves to Bethlehem on our own. We did try consulting with the Israelis in Jerusalem, but, you see, they are not allowed to travel the half hour distance into Bethlehem and they were quite envious that we, as foreign tourists, could. It reminded me of the time when I crossed Checkpoint Charlie from West into East Berlin and back, knowing that my East German friends could not. Not a very good feeling!

We had an offer from a Palestinian waiter at a restaurant where we had dinner one evening to organize a car trip for us but the price he quoted us of $200 was laughable. But he did suggest that as a bonus he would also take us into the West Bank to show us the world beyond the refuge camps, with glamorous Palestinian restaurants and night clubs.

After a lot of research and googling we found out that there were two bus lines, one Palestinian (also called Arab) and one Israeli. For the cost of less than $2 per person we took the Arab bus from Damascus Gate station and were spit out about 40 minutes later without crossing any checkpoints in Beit Yala. From there we walked for a short 20 minutes through prosperous looking Palestinian town to Bethlehem’s Church of Nativity, founded in the beginning of the 4th century by Constantin the Great and his mother Helena, who in her late 70is traveled all over the Holy Land to identify the places associated with the new Christian religion.

We entered through the small main entrance, the Door of Humility. Supposedly the doors were originally build so low so people could not ride their horses or drive their carts into the church. For those not familiar with the details of Christianity, this is a very holy place for Christians, who believe that Jesus Christ was born here. There is a silver star in the grotto marking the exact spot where his mother, Virgin Mary gave birth. The church was quite busy with tourists groups from all over the world, being herded by their tour leaders. It was a bit of a mob scene, not unlike the one in the Church of Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem (the place where Jesus was buried after crucifixion) or the Basilica of Annunciation in Nazareth (where angel told Mary that she will give birth to Jesus, despite being a virgin). Here and there we pretended we were part of a group and followed them around, but were quickly put off by the attitude of the “pilgrims”. To us it seemed there was an awful lot of jostling, posturing, and selfie photos, and very little real religious fervor.

We were happy to leave and walk around the corner to the Chapel of the Milk Grotto. Here we were nearly alone, but for a nun praying at the new Peace Chapel. God knows, she could have used some help to ensure lasting peace. The pilgrims were nowhere to be found, they were buying souvenirs.On the way back we decided to go with the Israeli bus and pass through the notorious checkpoint 300. It took us a while to find The Wall with its famous graffiti. There were a few by Banksy who inspired others. We walked quite a distance alongside it to find the Hole in the Wall. If we remembered the scenes from the media of masses of Palestinians being frisked at the checkpoint we were surprised that there was no one anywhere to ask for directions. At the last moment we saw a man with a young son and we followed them through the turnstiles to find one open door to get through. On the other side was an X Ray conveyer belt and a bullet proof glass cubicle. Again, not a soul. Kinda like in a Sci Fi movie. We put our passports to the glass and were waved through. On the other side an Israeli bus was waiting and we sat behind the man with his son and drove back to Jerusalem for another $2 each. Imagine my surprise when I opened the newspaper upon return to Europe to find an article about the very same checkpoint with a photo of Palestinians crowding around the checkpoint, climbing over each other. Were we there on a non work Sunday or perhaps Friday Muslim holiday? No, I went back to my calendar to check and it was a Wednesday. Ah, the media. If it bleeds, it lead is their motto, so please take everything you see and read with a grain, no two grains of salt. The world is a much less dangerous place than you are led to believe. Because most people believe that it is better to:We were lucky to stay with an interesting Servas couple, Arie and Varda, at their vacation home in the North of Israel. There they arranged for us to attend an ultra orthodox evening service. We two women had to be in a separate area behind a screen, while our two men donned the yarmulkas and stood in the main part of the synagogue. This reminded me of our time in other ultra conservative religious establishments–Ethiopian Christian churches or Turkish and Egyptian mosques. The service was so different than what we have experienced in our American friends’ reformed synagogues, where everyone participates together and there is a lot of beautiful singing.

The next morning our new friends suggested to explore an area by the Sea of Galilee where migratory birds were resting on the way to Africa. We thought it was going to be a bird watching expedition with a few birds spotted through the binoculars, but to our amazement and delight we were greeted by a raucous noise of thousands of large cranes and egrets who were gorging on seeds distributed by local farmers. The idea came from desperation. Every year the birds would ravage all the fields, until someone smart figured that if they gave them enough seeds in one area they would leave the rest alone. It worked pretty well and it became a big tourist attraction with bicycle and golf cart rentals for people who wanted a nice day outing. Afterwards our friends asked us where we would like to go next and Mirek rather timidly suggested that we would like to drive somewhere where we could see Mt. Hermon, even if from a distance.

“Oh, no problem, we can go to the top of the mountain. There is a ski resort and the ski lift works even out of season! And afterward we can go to Golan Heights for some wine tasting!”

Huh? We imagined Golan Heights with frequent check points and heavy presence of Israeli army because of occupation and the civil war on the Syrian side.

Well, we did not drive the whole 1800 square kilometers but the places we went were eye opening, totally normal, and very welcoming.

After drinking some coffee at a ski center at very top of the ski lift, we went outside for spectacular views. We noticed a ramp and a small post with a big Israeli flag manned by a young soldier. He walked towards us with a big smile on his face. I bet he must be terribly bored. We started chatting and then Mirek boldly asked the soldier if he would mind taking the photo of the flag and the mountain “Oh, no problem,” he answered. Why don’t you come over and take it yourself.” So, in shock, we crossed to the other side and we took a number of photos together with the soldier and his buddy, which I don’t feel comfortable posting in case they both get courtmartialed. But I wish I could, as they were the poster child for the Israel army. Young, healthy, beautiful; one an Eastern European blond blue eyed Ashkenazi Jew from Russia and the other a dark haired, olive skinned Sephardic Jews from Spain. Well, at least they were not fraternizing with the enemy, seeing that America is Israel’s best friend.

Continuing on our way through Golan Heights we stopped at a friendly Druze restaurant where we had the best Lebanese meze and a peek at the local dress of Druze women, using white scarves to cover their mouth. Surprisingly we never encountered that in the villages on the other side of the border in Lebanon. It showed us Israel is a lot more diverse than we think.

As we drove to the winery for wine tasting on the road right along the Syrian border we were in awe of what the Israelis accomplished. You could clearly see the border fence. On our side there were orderly rows after rows of pear and apple orchards and swaths of vineyards. On the other side: nothing, only rocky ground. While every other country around the area has been complaining about the years of drought and the lack of water, Israel has a surplus of water because of their ground breaking desalination program.

It is the indomitable spirit and hard work of the people that makes it all happen. We learned first hand about it from Avram on the Kibutz Masaryk (population 821). It was his father that started it before the II World War with a small band of young people from Czechoslovakia and Lithuania.It was uncanny to see our enthusiastic guide in front of the picture of his father (both in hats) in the small museum next to the dining hall, where we ate most of our meals. The resemblance and the smile were a clear connection and it was also clear to us that there was the same knack for hard work, engagement in community and sense of leadership. We felt very lucky not only to be able to stay on a kibutz but to also get an inside view of the traditional life and the modernizing changes that have ensured that kibutzes still exist.

Growing up we were both fed a lot of communist propaganda that in theory sounds pretty good. The utopian Marxist principles of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” were very attractive, but we did not see them enacted in our lives.

If anyone ever came close to this utopian idea it was the people on kibutz. All the money that was made was communal property, people ate together in the dining hall, the laundry was done all together and there were communal bathrooms. Avram was born on the kibutz and he showed us where he lived as a child. The Children’s House of his childhood is now attended by his grandchildren, but they only stay there during the day. In his time the conditions on the kibutz were so harsh that the only decent place was a Children’s House where there was heating, electricity, water, so all babies and children lived there permanently. Soon after birth the babies were placed into the care of qualified child care workers while their mothers returned to work, mostly on the farms.

“I was very lucky that I had the same woman who took care of me for my first 13 years of life,” he said. I know he was right as I read about the difficulties children from kibutzes had forming attachment when they grew up, because they were separated from their primary families early on.

“It must have been really hard for your mom,” said Mirek.

“Oh yes”, replied Avram. “She told me how she could hear me cry and would come to the nursery to breastfeed me, but if it was not yet the regular scheduled feeding time they would tell her to go away and come back later.”

“I guess the best job for a mom on the kibutz would be doing the child care, so she could be with her children,” I had a brilliant motherly thought.

“No, not really, the woman who took care of us, had her own children in the other children’s house being cared for by someone else. So no child would be treated differently,” he negated my idea. Then he continued, “Those first settlers were tough, I tell you, and they suffered a lot. They came with nothing, but their own two hands. They lived in tents and worked the land that was either desert or swamp. My mom came from Poland as a young woman before the war and her family was very upset that she went to Israel, as she was the only one with a job that supported everyone. She carried a lot of guilt her whole life, because everyone she left behind were killed by the Nazis.”

“But she would have perished with them!” we protested.

“Nevertheless, that’s why it is called survivor’s guilt.”We felt strongly we had a duty to pay respects to the Holocaust victims at the Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center. I particularly wanted to visit the Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations where some of the bravest of nearly 27,000 humanitarians from 51 nations are honored with trees and small plaques. I often think of the moral dilemma of helping others while putting yourself and your family at risk. I hope fervently that I would have had the moral fortitude like these incredible people from all walks of life that saved so many lives. The stories of their heroism are endlessly fascinating and touching. It is interesting to note that the founder of the very persecuted Baha’i religion found final refuge and resting place in Israel. the Bahá’í religion originated in Iran and its adherents were and still are persecuted for their beliefs, which advocate universal peace and unity among all races, nations, and religions. The the spiritual and administrative centre of all is now in Israel at the Bahá’í World Centre which consists of the Shrine of the Bab (the forerunner of Bahá’u’lláh) in Haifa and the Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh himself (the religious leader and the founder) near Acre. Both have beautiful gardens,but the buildings are not as spectacular as some of their contemporary structures we have seen around the world, especially their Lotus temple in India.

There were other structures that called us to Acre or Akko as it is called now. Seeing many of the crusaders’ castles in Lebanon we wanted to see the one that held the longest. The fall of Acre in 1291 to the Mamluks signifies the end of the Kingdom of Jerusalem and the crusades. The siege and the fall is spectacularly portrayed in Knightfall, a historical fiction series, we recommend highly. It was not filmed in Acre but in the Prague film studios and Dubrovnik, Croatia.It certainly could have been filmed in Acre as the excavations at the Citadel have brought to light magnificent Knights’ Halls and tunnels. Just before the sunset we spotted a small boat going out to sea for a little cruise and we jumped in to join a few happy locals. Never missing an opportunity to make a fool of myself…We were told that if you really want to have fun you have to go to Tel Aviv. We flew in and out of this modern city, but had too little time to do more than take a (glorious) glimpse.

The only dancing we did was a quickstep through the galleries of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. We could not discover all the treasures, but were excited when we came across a new painting of one of our favorite artists–Gustav Klimt. We were a little smarter by allocating more time to the fantastic city of Jerusalem.

The Remarkable Women of Egypt

Cleopatra! Did I presume right that you thought of this remarkable woman when you read the title? Except that Cleopatra was really not Egyptian, but actually Greek of the Ptolemaic Dynasty. Nevertheless she was the first in this long line that spoke Egyptian (on top of another eight languages) and was thus accepted, if not straight out loved, by the Egyptian people. Cleopatra was actually the 7th Cleopatra of the dynasty and she was exceedingly smart, capable, ruthless (you had to be to be a queen and a pharaoh), and beguiling (after all she had seduced two of the strongest Roman statesmen– Caesar and Marc Anthony), but she definitely was NOT as beautiful as Elizabeth Taylor in the bellow photo (no copyright infringement is intended)who portrayed her so famously in the Hollywood spectacle of a movie. In fact Plutarch writes that:

her beauty, as we are told, was in itself not altogether incomparable, nor such as to strike those who saw her; but converse with her had an irresistible charm, and her presence, combined with the persuasiveness of her discourse and the character which was somehow diffused about her behaviour towards others, had something stimulating about it. There was sweetness also in the tones of her voice; and her tongue, like an instrument of many strings, she could readily turn to whatever language she pleased…”

According to (a weird pharaonic) tradition Cleopatra was early on nominally wed to her younger brother, actually two successive brothers in order to rule Egypt. After they were effectively disposed of, she partnered up with 32 years older Roman consul Caesar and had her first son Caesarion. She even went to Rome to try and secure her son’s future. But after the murder of Caesar, she realized her lover chose his nephew Octavian as his successor and she fled with Caesarion back to Egypt. She was not very lucky in the choice of her second man, either. Mark Anthony claimed he was in love with her since he first met her when she was 14. Nevertheless he married twice, second time a prominent and rich Roman widow with whom he had two sons. When he met up with Cleopatra again he started a fateful relationship and fathered her twins, Alexander Helios (Sun) and Cleopatra Selene (Moon), that he never saw until they were three years old. When his powerful Roman wife died unexpectedly, he agreed for political reasons to marry his co-consul Octavian’s sister and then for very personal reasons also had two daughters with her.

After Cleopatra bore him another son – Ptolemy, he married her in Egypt and only then divorced his wife back in Rome. That really pissed her brother Octavian and then when on top of that Mark Anthony started giving away chunks of Roman Empire to his Egyptian wife and children, Octavian’s cup runneth over. The miffed brother in law got his revenge and defeated the joint navy of Cleo and MA, after which they both committed suicide. Octavian had Cleopatra’s eldest son Ceasarion expediently killed, but did bring the other three kids to Rome in golden chains no less. He dropped them off to his jilted sister to bring up along with her own kids, their half sisters. Only Selene lived and even became a minor queen of Mauretania.

If Cleopatra was the last remarkable and famous Egyptian queen, the first to undeniably achieve the status of pharaoh, the position reserved for men only, was Hatshepsut, 1400 years before. Because the name was so hard to remember we were given a fun mnemonic device to remember: Hat-ship-suit. Hatshepsut became queen of Egypt when she married her half-brother, Thutmose II, around the age of 12. Having had only one daughter, upon the death of her husband, she began acting as regent for her stepson, the infant Thutmose III, and soon decided to take power into her own hands. She persuaded the top religious bras to concoct a story of her divine birth so she could proclaim herself a pharaoh. She donned the false pharaonic beard and all other insignia of pharaohs and started a construction spree, building hundreds of projects and the tallest of obelisks. The most impressive is the immense Hatshepsut temple at the entrance to the Valley of the Kings. We were fed an exciting story of intrigue about her marrying her daughter to her stepson and then slyly sending them far off to “mature and gain experience”. When her son in law came back, he killed her, sacking the temples and erasing most traces of her, including her name cartouches on the walls.

But this story seems to have been made up just to entertain the tourists. In fact her stepson was quite happy to be her general and recently Hatshepsut’s long lost mummy was discovered and she did not die a violent death at all, but died of bone cancer in her fifties.

I find Hatshepsut’s statues and portraits quite beautiful, as I do many others. The beauty, of course, is always in the eye of the beholder.

But no one compares to the strikingly beautiful Nefertiti. Her name in fact means The Beautiful Woman Has Come. Her most famous portrait is in Berlin, but even this unfinished bust from the Cairo museum conveys her beauty and the regal bearing. Owing to the colorful Berlin work, Nefertiti has become one of the most famous women of the ancient world, and an icon of feminine beauty, but she was much more.

She was the Great Royal Wife of the rebel pharaoh Akhenaten and was elevated to a co-ruler status. Unusually she was not his sister and though he had a number of secondary wives, she was indeed the number 1 in all aspects. This marriage seemed like a true partnership. Together they introduced the worship of sun god Aton and moved the capital of Egypt from Thebes to Amarna. They also revolutionized the artistic style of the time from highly stylized to exaggeratedly realistic. Some of the depictions of the whole family with their little daughters are very sweet.

Nefertiti bore no son, but six daughters, one of whom married her half brother Tutankhamon.

It was a strange coincidence that one of the first contemporary Egyptian women we encountered was famous in her own right. As we were waiting for the luggage at the Aswan airport I noticed a perfect on board roller backpack. I am always on the lookout for a better travel bag with wheels–something small enough to take on board, but large enough to pack all the stuff I need. This one looked just the thing. It belonged to an attractive woman with short dark curly hair. Of course I asked her where she got it. Bought it online in the States! We started to chat a bit about travel when an older woman approached us.

She said excitedly, “Excuse me, are you dr. Salima Ikram?”

“Yes, I am,” responded my luggage consultant.

“Oh, I always watch you on TV,” gushed the woman, but then her luggage arrived and she left us.

Turns out dr. Ikram is a famous Egyptologist. She was on her way to a dig at a nearby Philae temple, where some exciting new finds started to come to life. She was very modest and gracious, gave me her business card and agreed to a fun photo. After I had a chance to google her, I found out that she is not Egyptian at all, but Pakistani, a distinguished (and very popular) professor at the American University in Cairo and amongst many other illustrious designations also a preeminent expert in animal mummies! Wow! I am sooo impressed with her intelligence and manner and love to watch her interviews and programs.

We have been lucky to have met a whole range of women in Egypt that were surprisingly, even shockingly open in conversations about life and position of women in Egypt.

As you might remember we always try to connect to Servas International members on our travels. If we do not have an opportunity to stay with them for a few days, we at least meet with day hosts. In Cairo we had two wonderful opportunities to spend time with dr. Elham, an eye doctor, who upon our arrival took us on a night exploration of the city, including tea at the famous tea shop with musicians and a fabulous, entrancing performance of Sufi Dervishes.

Elham was an epitome of a fun loving, modern, progressive Egyptian woman.

She insisted on NOT covering her hair, refused to wear the hijab or any kind of scarf even when we visited a mosque. Yes, of course she gets a lot of slack for her attitude, but she is very firm in her response that hijab is not a requirement in Koran and that her religion is between her and her god. It was therefore very interesting to come across two young women taking selfies at the mosque. I quickly offered to take their photo together and then of course we had to have one of all of us.

“I wonder what made the girl wear a niqab (the face cover),” I commented to Elham. “Why don’t you ask her?” She suggested. “I can’t, as she will take it as an affront. But you can, as a foreigner.” And so I went to talk to them and soon I had to ask Elham to translate. The girls were both university students and they were quite happy to chat. They wanted to be teachers. They were both adamant to finish their university studies before they were going to get married. And then I asked the big question. The answer surprised me and incensed Elham. They were taught at the university that prophet Mohammed’s wives decided to cover themselves fully to be closer to god. So, she too, wanted to be like the prophet’s wives and be closer to god. Elham did tell the girl that this certainly was not written anywhere in the Koran, but I could see she was not going to get far against the whole university establishment.

“They are studying at a very conservative Muslim university,” she explained when we left.

Another young Muslim girl we met on our own outside the mosque at the Citadel right after the prayers was a student of dentistry. She did not wear a niqab, but was covered head to toe. She had a bright smile and a sweet, friendly face. She was distributing literature about Islam, but nobody was interested. I guess it was a clear case of preaching to the choir. She was an optimistic young thing, very convinced of her rights as a Muslim woman. “I have a right to education and a right to speak my own mind,” she explained fervently. She was going to be a dentist and she would find a kind, loving husband. She told us that Koran explicitly instructs men to be kind to their wives. Of course, she said, sometimes they are not, she did have a neighbor, whose husband beat her all the time.

“What was the neighbor’s recourse?” we asked. Obviously this was going on for awhile and nothing changed, so it was hard for her to answer. She did mention a possibility of divorce. But we knew that it was very easy for a Muslim man to divorce (saying on three occasions before witnesses “I divorce you” is sufficient) and much more difficult for a woman. Besides she could only keep custody of her children until 15 and would loose it no matter the age of children if she remarried. That’s why the majority of divorced mothers never remarry.

We found out from one of our women guides, Gi Gi in Luxor, it was quite difficult to remarry if you had children. She was a widow with 5 children, whose life turned upside down when her lawyer husband suddenly died. No Egyptian man would want to take on another man’s children and she certainly would not leave her children behind with her parents.

She was a vivacious woman, who knew everyone and everywhere we went people greeted her with smiles and admiration. We were told she was instrumental in the Association of Tourist Guides and had helped many a young guide. Yet, just under her gregarious surface there was a lot of sadness and frustration for the loss of her husband and the way men went after her as an easy prey. She told me she did not leave her house for a year after her husband’s death and when she realized her well to do husband’s brothers were not going to help and she had to take care of her children, she took off her mourning clothes and got to work, just to be met with wagging tongues. She invited us to her home for tea and we met her three daughters and her parents, who were helping her with the kids while she worked. Her parents would have wanted for her to remarry very much if only for the grandchildren to have a better future. They wanted a better education in private schools for them, which was now not possible any more.

Women with husbands though complained bitterly about the lack of support for their working. In Cairo the manager of the hotel customer service volunteered information about only ever being able to have one child if she wanted to have a career in hospitality. My husband won’t lift a finger when he gets home and handling more than one kid just wouldn’t work.

“I know women who are much higher up the career ladder, but they never married or had children. I had to make a compromise, at least I have one.”

We had two other women guides, a Coptic Christian in Giza and a Nubian Muslim in Aswan and both said that in order to be able to work as guides (and incidentally bring home much more money than their husbands) they had to get up at 4 am to get all the cooking and home duties done so they were not faced with too many domestic complaints.

But then at least they were allowed to work. One evening we were invited to our driver Muhammad’s home for tea. He had only recently been married and had a young son of about 18 months. Muhammad could speak only a few words of English but his wife could speak and understand much more. After leafing through all the wedding albums and drinking some strong black tea, his young wife told me that she had really wanted to finish her studies at the university and then work. Her mother was very willing to take care of the baby, but our dear Mohammad would not allow her to study or go to work. We tried to persuade her husband through his wife’s translations that a Happy Wife meant a Happy Life for him. We told him she will be a better, more educated mother to his son. He laughed and his wife sighed, “He is an Egyptian man, his mind is closed!”

We left thinking of all the hopeful young girls we had met who thought their future husbands will be different.

And then on our day of rest we met Noor. She was swimming at our Luxor Hilton hotel swimming pool with her mother. They both wore bikinis! I had to swim over and ask some probing questions. They cheerfully indulged me. Noor’s English was fabulous so we could really delve into many subjects. One of them was a question of dress. I told them about my encounter with the girl covering her face. Noor’s mother said this never used to be the case, but there was radicalization coming from the Gulf states to Egypt. Many young women were now dressed all in black and many little girls wore head scarves, especially to school. It was a refreshing exception to see a little girl with her hair free. Noor’s parents were divorced and she had travelled with her father and his new family. While they were living in Morroco, she studied design. Now she was back with her mom, and both were working at the Hurgada Hilton. They got a free vacation and they enjoyed their time together. Noor told me the story of her classmate in Morroco that never finished her courses after she got married. Her husband promised she could, but then he became more and more possessive, waiting for her after class, calling to check where she was. One day she just stopped coming to class. Noor had seen her mother go through divorce. She has learned her lessons carefully. No silly dreams of princes on white horses for her. If she ever got married she will weigh her options carefully. She will look at it as an economic transaction. It worked well for her grandparents. It was an arranged marriage and it worked well for all their lives.

Temple Temptations in Egypt

In 6th grade I had this fantastic history teacher. I don’t remember her real name, but due to her exotic looks and lustrous black hair always combed back and fastened in a bun, we called her The Indian. She really knew how to bring history to life and it was Egyptian history that was her biggest love.

I was totally mesmerized by the colorful and mystical stories about Egyptian pharaohs, gods and goddesses, pyramids, and temples. Years later I went on to study art history and history in college.

I wish it hadn’t taken me so long to see all these treasures in person and I could have told my teacher how she had enriched and influenced my life with that first history lesson.

In truth this is my second time in Egypt. Almost 35 years ago Mirek and I stopped in Cairo on our honeymoon to East Africa. But it was just a one night stop over to take a quick peek at the Pyramids. At the time I remember thinking they were rather plain looking and not that impressive, but now that we are spending two weeks in the country I find that day by day I am more impressed by the technical and artistic skills of Ancient Egypt and my Egyptian fascination continues to grow.

Knowing how overwhelming Egypt can be, what with the traffic, incessant hawkers, heat and myriads of monuments we opted not to do everything on our own as per usual, but to rely on a steady dose of professional drivers and guides. It had proven a really good idea. Not only do they protect you from the onslaught of all sorts of people desperately trying to make a living from the grossly diminished numbers of tourists, they efficiently get you to a number of places and strategically position you at the right corners to have the best views. And of course they point at and tell the great Egyptian stories of kingdoms and gods. Last but not least they know good local places to eat. I made a special request that whenever possible we get a woman guide. Even Mirek admitted it was strike of genius and the three women guides each gave us their life story and a unique insight into the position of women in modern Egypt. (Those revelations in the next blog-stay tuned).

We figured two weeks was way too little to do any more than the top three: Cairo with the Giza Pyramids, Aswan with the dam and Abu Simbel, and the Nile with Luxor. Of course, we quickly figured out that we had way too little time to even scratch the surface (of the desert).

Our little hotel in Giza was chosen for a great position right across from the Pyramids. Every morning and evening we had our fill of all three Pyramids and the sphinx from the rooftop terrace, including a free Sound and Light show while sipping a beer before bed. This vantage point also gave us a closer look into the other side of tourism. Early morning and late at night we could see the gathering of camels and horses catering to tourists led by their owners and handlers. In the alley next to our little hotel a boy of no more than 9 was shoveling camel dung instead of going to school. In the corner just opposite a big heap of garbage was regularly picked through by different people. One morning a fight broke out when a man with a horse cart tried to take out some recyclables. Another man in a traditional white galabiya came at him with a thick stick. Quickly the local police appeared and shoved off the cursing man with the horse cart. Not a pretty sight, and one that tourists would prefer to miss. But as always we try to take the bad with the good and want to understand what real life is about. We ask probing questions and accept invitations from drivers and guides to have tea in their modest homes with theirfamilies. Life is far from easy after the Arab spring revolution, prices have gone very much up and tourism very much down. But there is a glimmer of hope this year with more tourists returning. While we still enjoyed some sites in perfect solitude, some were already quite inundated with large tour group buses.
November is the beginning of the season, the weather ideal, with warm sun, but no scorching heat and no snow like in Europe or another bad fire like in California.

It is nearly impossible to choose just a few representative photos from the hundreds upon hundreds we have taken in Egypt so far. It is amazing how $2.99 a month iCloud storage can suppress your best intentions to control your creativity when your iPhone memory limits are lifted.

The best intentions, too, of not climbing on a camel for a silly tourist shot are overpowered by the salesmanship of the camel handler.

Years back I tried to see Tut’s funeral mask in San Francisco’s de Young museum, but the advertising poster was a scam. It is interesting what 25 pounds of pure gold and archeologist Howard Carter’s smart marketing can do for the fame of a young man who died some 4,500 years ago! Finally, we made it for the real deal in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo! And together with us thousands of others trying to scramble literally over thousands of artifacts lying willy-nilly on shelves and floors. This is hands down one of the worst museums we have ever been to, which is a shame considering the amount of treasures they have.

From crazy Cairo we flew to Aswan, a quiet, but colorful spot on the Nile, at the edge of ancient Nubia, where the color of skin is darker and the features more beautiful. Nubians are still mavericks of sailing and we spend a few dreamy, late afternoon hours on a felucca with its charming captain. Abu Simbel Temple is barely 50 miles from Egyptian border with Sudan. After a few thousand years left in peace, Ramses II and his lovely wife Nefertari watching over the River Nile cataracts UNESCO lifted both temples from the location being flooded by rising water of new Lake Nasser in the mid 1960’s when the huge Aswan dam was built. Finding out that police convoys at 4 am were not obligatory any more, we hired a driver and guide and started of after breakfast. Thus we arrived after the few early bird visitors turned back home and had, like in Lebanese Baalbek, this stunning top notch historical place all for ourselves!

We always dreamed of floating down the Nile to Luxor and we managed to score a last minute deal on a quite luxurious cruise ship Royal Lily. A little luxuryat our age is not a bad thing and it is indeed an easy way to travel with stops on the way to see more beautiful temples. Still, two days was enough to reassert our motto of being too old to backpack, but too young to cruise.
How many temples can you see, before they all become a blur? It is difficult to decide which is a favorite, because they all have something special of their own.
The only temple by a female pharaoh Hatshepsut is the most impressive regarding its size and exceptional setting. Carved out of the rock at the end of the desert valley west of Luxor its inner beauty and artistic refinement were destroyed by the next pharaoh but its sight from the distance is certainly breathtaking! But bigger is not always better. Some smaller temples like this one at Philae are lovely and perfect. But what you can see IN some of those tombs, and sometimes in the most strikingly stunning colors is really exceptional. How on earth could these colors have survived for so long?

It does make you a little bit suspicious that the Government Department of Antiquities engages young Egyptian artists in repainting some of the frescoes overnight for the new daily batch of tourists! When the day is done you have a chance to enjoy more illuminated temples in the night. Yesterday in the late afternoon my glass of patience with all those temples of Egypt overflew and I stated, maybe clearly, but still carefully, that I can hardly see even one more. As a result the leader of our expedition decided wisely to go instead into the air and in one early morning hour see all the rest of the temples in one bold stroke. It did require a 4 am wake up call and a quick river crossing to the liftoff site on the West Bank, but it was a lot of fun. As a positive outcome of this smart decision we have been lying at the swimming pool all day long while thinking independently what would be our mutually agreeable venue for dinner.

This I would call a relaxing travel day at its best.

Deep in Lebanon–It’s Complicated

More than 30 some years ago we naively drove from the ancient Syrian ruins of Palmyra to the Anti Lebanon mountains at the border.

“How the hell did you get here and where do you think you are doing?” was the question of the soldiers at the check point.

“Uh, we just want to see the cedar trees.”

“Are you crazy, don’t you know there is civil war raging on the other side? Turn around and go back down before we arrest you.”

All these years later we are driving a few miles from the border again, except on the other, Lebanese side. Damascus is just about an hour’s drive away. And we can’t cross to the other side.

As the French say so well: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose…The more things changes, the more they stays the same.

Because it is complicated. The politics of the Middle East in general and Lebanon in particular. Always in the crossroads of geography and history with many diverse nations, ethnicities, religions, languages and even alphabets. Did you know Lebanon, more precisely Byblos, is the cradle of our alphabet? Why would you go to a country most people hear about only when something blows up or somebody is assassinated?

Because war has been over for over 25 years and you should not believe everything you hear in the news. It is a beautiful country and it is sad to see so few visitors come and enjoy Lebanon and the hospitality of her vibrant people. If you go you will be rewarded with many great sights and experiences. /On the top of the Byblos crusader Castle, a colorful Maronite town full of ancient history barely an hour drive along the coast north from Beirut.

You are not going to die here by starvation. Food is good and seafood here is really out of this world. I love it, here on the picture are the shrimps beautifully presented in the cozy Bistreau (sp.!) in the fishing port of a small hamlet called Batroun. But all other stuff was excellent anywhere we stopped to recharge our batteries. I usually go for octopus, and these guys know how to prepare it– juicy and soft, not rubbery as is too often the case.

The huge medieval Citadel of Tripoli in the north. Any minute now a crusader knight will gallop by on his sturdy steed… The second largest city in the country, predominantly Muslim with a lot of Palestinian refugees. Maybe because of the intensity of life there driving through this town was a very exciting and quite a memorable experience. We are happy to report no car damage! Unbelievable!

The Cedars of God, the last remains of those very old trees everybody in history used to cut down. Starting with the Phoenicians building their famous trading ships, and Solomon building his famous Jerusalem temple. Lebanese are trying to protect what is left and replant at least some, but seeing all the barren hills around, it looks too little, too late. But as they say: What is the best time to plant a tree? Forty years ago. What is the second best time? Now!

Bcharee, another pretty town predominantly populated by Maronites, the birth place of the famous poet Khalil Gibran, the 3rd best selling writer of all times. What, you haven’t heard of his book The Prophet? You are missing out on our youngest daughter’s favorite reading. Bcharre sits on the rim of the canyon-like Qadisha Valley. It is the Lebanese (mini) Grand Canyon, filled with numerous caves hidden in the canyon’s sheer limestones walls. For centuries these caves housed Christian hermits, and gave basis for many monasteries and churches. We saw how easy it must have been to hide here, as we could not locate quite a few of the sites by car and by foot despite GPS.

Crossing the mountains via the shortcut from Bcharre to Beka’a Valley. The Ainata mountain pass at elevation of about 7,500’ above the sea level surprised us. We heard all sorts of warnings, but we found the road excellent. Definitely the paving was much newer and much better than in our hometown. The only other people we met were a bored soldier at the checkpoint and some friendly shepherds in red and white checkered headscarves trying to shoo their flock to the side so we could squeeze by! With all the global warming the big rains and snow are late yet again so it was smooth sailing all the way down to the fertile Bekaa Valley.

The Bacchus Temple of Baalbek. A huge Roman temple complex well hidden in the traffic of this capital of Beka’a Valley. Unless you speak Arabic or travel with a guide holding your hand 24/7 you are toast. Well, we were until we finally spotted the old institution from the golden age of tourism-rather forlorn looking Palmyra hotel. We parked in the front and were greeted by an old gentleman in lovely English. Over Turkish coffee he proceeded to reminisce of kings and artists and jazz singers he had served in the past nearly 60 years. Now he was all alone with only black and white photos of celebrities keeping him company. The war on the other side and the facts that Baalbek was supposed to be the center of Hezbollah acitivites didn’t help. The only presence of Hezbollah we saw were the T shirts emblazoned with their name being sold at a few souvenir stalls by the entrance to the archeological complex right across from the hotel.

The seafood discussed above is not the only culinary attraction of this country. You should not miss Lebanese wine to complement the local chefs’ surprises served at your table. Here we are in the Chateau Kefraya Winery, another well known wine lover’s delight after Ksara Winery we saw the day before. Ksenija discussed with our winery guide Tamara, an agricultural engineer, the size of the Lebanese wine market, considering that over half of the local population are moslems and they are prohibited by Koran to drink alcohol. Tamara had an easy answer:

– 15% of Lebanese moslems admit easily to frequent sinning in drinking alcohol

– 80% of them would never admit to drinking alcohol, but secretly they actually DO

– remaining 5% swear they never DO and never WILL but nobody believes them.

Understandably the winery owners plan further expansion!

Yup, it can get cold in the Lebanese mountains and any fireplace can get very handy. Even the pleasant balmy climate of Eastern Mediterranean can betray you when you drive up to the elevation of five thousand feet or more. You better pack Long Johns, or at least a warm jacket!

Looking for a romantic evening on the coast? Opportunities are plentiful. Like this photo taken from the corniche of the city of Sidon (Saïda in Arabic) where we decided to have a dinner in a beautiful restaurant. If it were not for the great seafood we ordered (another octopus, I could not resist!) we could have easily forded the shallow water between our table and “ramparts” of the castle! No wonder crusaders lost their cause a long time ago.

In our quest to see as much as possible of this country we continued even further to the south, crossing the Litani River into the former so called Israeli security zone. We stopped at the village of Cana where Jesus performed his first miracle at a wedding – turning water into wine. How fitting for Lebanon.

While the tank on the picture was empty we did come across a group of United Nations peace force soldiers out on their day off admiring the local sights.

Well, all those pictures, no matter how colorful they are, do not tell the whole story. Only when you talk to locals, you get some hints why this country lost almost twenty years and over 100,000 thousand lives in the civil war. You keep wondering, after talking to all those pleasant, helpful and positive Lebanese people from all walks of life why the heck had they been killing each other?

As you can expect, it is complicated. It is a very small country. How small? I do not want to bother you with square miles. Let me just tell you that even after criss crossing most all of this country we did not have to fill the gas tank even twice.

It must be that such a small country has an incredibly large variety of religions. There are 18 official government recognized religious sects, Muslim, Christian and other. How come that French eating more than 300 varieties of cheese could still get along and 18 kinds of church/mosques/sanctuary goers could not, even as many are French speakers? There are to boot conflicts within the main religions themselves. The next problem is that many people being born and living in Lebanon all their lives are not recognized as Lebanese citizens. Some of them are legal residents, but many of them are officially registered refugees and a lot are something in between living on the margins of society. And that is a terrible way to live.

We spent an interesting morning talking to a man with a Lebanese Maronite Christian mother and Palestinian Christian refuge father. Even though he was born in Lebanon some 50 years ago he can not have the citizenship, because only a father can bestow that on a child. So he can not get a passport. He can not go to public university or officially work and can not own his home. (He put it in a friend’s daughter’s name and has to trust and pray that she will remain a trustworthy person.)

I cannot be an expert after just a week spent here but some of the conversations we had with a few couples about the issues they face in their everyday lives really took us aback. For example you can not get married in Lebanon if your partner is not from exactly the same religion and sect. So couples have to get married in Cyprus and jump on a plane to get back to their wedding reception by the evening. The foreign marriage certificate is then recognized in Lebanon.

I am quite hesitant to say something which may not be necessarily correct. But I strongly feel it is not easy in economically, religiously, racially and politically highly stratified Lebanese society to navigate through norms, taboos, and customs to pursue their happiness/full potential or at least not to feel totally stuck and miserable. It maybe the reason so many “true” Lebanese are living and working in diaspora overseas because they stopped hoping things will ever change. Yet so many Palestinian and now Syrian refugees are staying put, still hopeful things will change for the better. As I told you in the beginning of this blog:

It is complicated.

Goodbye Lebanon, hello Egypt!

Lebanon Surprises– the Good and the Bad

“Madam, I am very sorry about the bad news from California,” says the guard at the ancient Roman site of Tyre. Our conversation started with a traditional, “Where are you from?” and then quickly turned a surprisingly strange corner.

“There was a shooting in a bar in California.”

“Another one?” I say in dismay.

“Yes,” he says, “every week another one.” Then he starts rattling off all the places of the recent mass shootings, shaking his head. “I don’t understand how a great country like America can not have laws that stop selling guns and those fast ammunition clips.”

I have no answer to offer, but the irony is not lost on me. Here is a man who lived through a bloody civil war and then some in a country that is still on many a “dangerous” no travel warning list, addressing gun gun violence in America.

When we told people we were going to Lebanon, they were horrified, including our expat Lebanese friends. When we told them we will be renting a car and driving around ourselves, even more so.

And yet in our week of travels to all corners of this small and incredibly diverse country we not only felt perfectly safe, but incredibly welcome by one and all, looked after and cherished even. From our Airbnb hosts to owners of coffee shops, people pressed on us their personal cell phone numbers to “call if we needed anything, anything at all”. People on the street called out to us, asking if they could direct us anywhere and strangers told us “Welcome” and “We love Americans”.

Even the soldiers at the numerous checkpoints we passed through, just nodded and waved us on. In anticipation of challenges and possible solution with bribery, we bought a big box of cigarettes in Duty Free shop at the airport, but we didn’t even have a chance to break it open. A great relief and wonderful surprise.

I thought I did my homework by studying guidebooks and blogs and websites as per usual, but this is probably one of the countries that caught me by surprise the most. Both in good and bad ways.

Besides being very friendly, we were surprised how keen and open the Lebanese were to share their opinions and freely talk about politics, religion, war, refuges, you name it. There was no off the limits subject and they were self critical as well. We were surprised how few Syrian refugee camps we saw.

On the other spectrum of humanity Beirut is full of sophisticated people, boutiques and high end restaurants. Beirut used to be called Paris of the Orient. Now I would call it Fashion Capital of the Middle East. (Think Elie Saab.) We were quite surprised that there were definitely more churches than mosques in the country. Sure, we heard about the Maronite Christians, but there were many other branches, too. And in many places it was lovely to see the churches and mosques architecturally coexisting together. We were surprised how good the roads were everywhere and how much ground we could cover by car. Except in the cities where the traffic jams were bad and nerve shattering. The Lebanese are surprisingly, I want to say bad, but in truth, just totally undisciplined drivers, who don’t care about any kind of rules. For people who are so friendly, gallant even, on the road their worst instincts come out. They all run red lights, they push from all sides and cut in, not looking left or right, they step on the pedal if they see a pedestrian crossing the road. Yet despite seeing tons of beat up cars everywhere, we only saw one accident and it was just a scrape really. Surprisingly quite a lot of women of all ages were behind the wheels, and they were just as “aggressive” as the male drivers. I must give it to my husband, he got us through, but he soon too, became “Lebanesed” and became an aggressive driver, riding the horn instead of the breaks. It is surprising how draining such a car war can be on a navigating co pilot.

One of the biggest misconceptions people have about Lebanon is that there must be sand and desert. Of course we knew it was not so, still we were surprised how little green there was. We were particularly looking forward to seeing the famous Lebanese cedars, but they were quite few and far between. In fact so few that when we drove up to the mountains to see the famed Cedars of God Nature preserve, we drove right past it. Not surprising as there are only 375 trees protected by a wall.

After initial disappointment we really enjoyed the walk through the small grove and marveled at some of the biggest, thousands of years old, majestic trees. The most shocking surprise was how incredibly built up Lebanon is. And not only in the capital Beirut, where after the war’s near total destruction, the city has been rebuilt with huge, ultramodern buildings. Everywhere, even small old villages are overwhelmed by monstrous multi story concrete houses, many of them unfinished. When we asked about this trend, we were told, “Well, the Lebanese do love their big, ostentatious homes. Also a lot of the money flows back from the millions of expats working abroad, and they want to show off how well they do in foreign lands.”To the contrast of these big modern houses and generally a very cosmopolitan and Western feel of the country as a whole, the amount of garbage strewn around everywhere is shockingly third world. Beirut proper and a few other happy (and remarkably) clean exceptions, a lot of the country feels like it is drowning in trash.

The biggest pleasant surprise was the quality of the antique monuments. Of course we eagerly anticipated the raison d’etre of the whole trip-Baalbek temples, but there were other places that added significantly to the excitement of walking amongst the well preserved ruins of the country’s rich heritage from Neolithic to Phoenician, Greek, Roman, Crusader and Arab civilizations. Sometimes only bare stones remained, but they were mighty ones.

Speaking of Baalbek, we were surprised, thrilled and elated to find ourselves one beautiful morning walking up the steps of the huge Jupiter temple all alone in the company of a private local guide (who not only gave the names of all the VIPs he had guided (different presidents, ambassadors, movies stars and Anthony Bourdain) but also showed us their photos on his smart phone. There was not a single other visitor in this, one of the most spectacular wonders of ancient world, Lebanon’s greatest treasure, the grandest, best preserved, most intact site of Roman temples anywhere in the world. Luckily every now and then the guide tactfully disappeared to answer yet another VIP phone call and left us to wander alone, with our mouth hanging open in awe. The enormous, intricately carved, Bacchus Temple was the creme de la creme and every antiquity lover’s dream come true.

We quickly forgot all the frustration of driving in circles on one way streets in morning traffic for better part of an hour to find the place in the first place. The Ministry of Tourism and the Department of Antiquities, surprise, surprise, totally forgot to put one bloody sign anywhere. Well, seeing that we were the only visitors there, might not be worth the effort, indeed.

A much better job was done with the National Museum of Beirut that holds the most spectacular finds from Baalbek and other ancient cities. It is one of the most wonderful small museums I have ever been to. Coming from someone who really likes museums, that is saying something. It is light and airy, wide open and full of light. It has a perfect amount of spectacular exhibits, perfectly exhibited. When a museum is able to present even sarcophagi and funerary arts in a cheerful light, then you know they are doing it right. Even my husband did not fall asleep. And that is a rare exception for someone, who claims to be afflicted by a strong case of “museolepsy”.

Video & Photo Guide to Last Georgian Frontier: Crossing Abano Pass

Despite all the dire objections we read and heard about driving to Tusheti, at the end, we had to trust a local. We were talking Nino, the proprietress of our wineyard hotel, about the road to Omalo in the remote Tusheti Region on the Georgian border with Chechnya and Dagestan. It is always put on any list of the 10 Most Dangerous Roads in the World. It is about 72kms/45miles long and it takes you over 2,926m/9,600’ high Abano Pass, open only during the summer season from mid-May till mid-October. Google Maps was not encouraging.

We repeated all known impediments, but Nino just laughed them off and said, “Well, if the road over the pass is not too dangerous for me and my kids to go up every summer and visit my husband’s family, you can go, too. Just don’t drive yourself. Let me find you an experienced local driver!”

We decided to abandon the plans for the rest of our trip and give Tusheti a try at least for two days and one night. Our new Czech traveling friends Míša and Jirka were willing to do the same and go up with us. Then the rains came. If the road is dangerous in sunny weather with plenty of water flowing on the path of traffic from regular waterfalls and streams, in the rain it was really impossible.

We arrived to the hotel on a gray Tuesday, and weather forecast was getting only worse with plenty of rain coming down on Thursday. Our Czech friends could wait no longer and left for the airport.

With our own Monday departure for Istanbul looming, every day passing towards the end of the week made us more depressed. Finally, the window of opportunity opened up as the weather forecast for Omalo showed the rain tapering off through Friday night and possible improvement during Saturday and blue sky on Sunday!!!

On a still drizzly Saturday a Tush driver came to pick us up with his Mitsubishi Delica 4xWD minivan – a rather surprising, but frequent local transportation choice, to get us safely there and more importantly safely back.

“Don’t worry,” was Nino’s sendoff. “There will be sun waiting for you on the other side!”

I wasn’t quite sure if I could believe her as we started climbing up enveloped in low clouds. The river in the gorge to our right was running fast and full and deep potholes were still sloshing with rain water.

Quite soon we were stopped by the multitude of sheep coming down from the summer pastures.

We consulted the shepherds on the road conditions up ahead. We continued climbing steadily. I distracted myself by keeping track of turns and conditions, writing them down in my cellphone for a German professor that had been corresponding with me, his big wish to drive the pass, after two trips through Georgia, still unfulfilled.

After fording the water spilling over the road, we stoped to admire the waterfalls.

I am not easily scared and I don’t suffer from fear of heights, but a few times I must admit I felt some trepidation as I looked at the narrow strip of earth we travelled on, flanked on one side by peeling layers of slate spilling over our roadway, and on the other side crumbling soil eaten away by water, dripping a thousand meters down.

Ooo, and here comes a truck laden with hay and a friendly guy leading a horse on the very edge of the road,or a bulldozer pushing the debris to the side. I checked my seat belt and held to all available handles.

“Why don’t you wear your seat belt?” we asked our driver in mixture of Russian and hand gestures.

“Oh, I want to be able to jump out of the car if we fall!”

Not a very encouraging answer especially when you just passed yet another granite marker to accident victims, pretty much all male. Some had lovely portrait etchings and even a bench to sit on and a few bottles of chacha stacked up to toast the unfortunate drivers. It seems contraindicative at best to drink to the memory of someone who quite possibly had a few too many at the time of his fatal accident, but then we have told you about the suicidal Georgian drivers and the tradition of toasts. (see previous post on Driving in Georgia).

Half way up we burst through the clouds to a spectacular view. About 3 hours in we crested the Abano pass. As expected it was desolate, windy, and chilly at nearly 3000 m. We said a quick hello to two construction workers building a simple stone church of Saint George, and started our descent. If the road was a little wider on this side, it was also steeper with even sharper hairpin turns. Not any easier to confront the herds of cows and local cowboys going home for the winter. But the hours went by quickly, a new view at every turn, accompanied by the lively Georgian music looping again and again on the driver’s CD player. It contributed to a heightened sense of unforgettable adventure with all our senses sharpened.

Our final destination, the village of Upper Omalo where we arrived after four hours of driving was a joy to behold. Nino was absolutely right. There was sun in the blue sky warming up the old stone houses and tall towers amongst the trees glowing in yellow fall foliage. Most have been repaired and some turned into guest houses. The first one we asked for lodging in was in the process of packing up for return to the valley. But the next one, Gordila, was still in operation for another few weeks. It was just opened this season and we were shown to a little wooden room with private bathroom and fresh white comforters. We were the only guests and we were plied with food, tea and attention from two women–a young student and an older cook. She shared her disdain for Russians and love for English language. After dinner we made a fire in the little rusted stove we taught her to play gin rummy and she told us her secret love story.

Our next door neighbor was a local Tush professor of history and archeology that suffered from sciatica. I showed him some stretching exercises and was fairly shocked when in the morning he greeted me with a huge smile, called me his witch-healer and exclaimed he felt so much better that he could walk up to the top of the hill with us and show us his tower museum with old statues going back millennia. Though Christianized, Tush people still worship some of the ancient deities of Sun and Moon and follow old folk traditions.

In our short stay up the Tusheti mountains I had one of the most magical horse back rides in my life. (See post on Caucasus Mountain Magic)

Before attempting the challenging drive back we took a morning drive to a side valley to visit Dartlo village – one of the most remote and beautiful villages in all of Georgia.

What a perfect ending of our Georgia Adventure.