Tuesday, January 28, 2014

"Mom, you have no idea..."

This is a phrase my mom has heard or read countless times over the past 5 months.  A typical exchange could go something like this...

Mom: Sis! Where are you?!?  How are you?!?
Me: Moms! I'm in _______ (fill in the blank with most recent destination). 
Mom: Well... how is it?
Me: Mom... (long pause) 
Mom: I know, I know... I have no idea.
Me: Pretty much. 

She has come to understand that my mode of travel, while intriguing to her, is something that she will most likely never experience for herself.  There have been times where I'm not exactly sure how to describe the people I've met, foods I've eaten, places I've slept, sites I've seen or transportation I've taken.  And then I consider if I should even tell her in the first place.  It might be against my better judgment, but I usually divulge. As you may have learned, I'm pretty much an open book. 

And so, during my last week in Israel and Jordan, I kept thinking to myself... "Mom, you have no idea."  

Although I've enjoyed the experiences I've shared with Annette, I've found that traveling alone opens many more opportunities to meet interesting people along the way.  During these 7 days, I saw some amazing places, but my greatest joy came from the string of people I had the pleasure of sharing life with, sometimes for as short as an hour.  Here is an account of some of those exchanges. 

After my wonderful day at the beach in Tel Aviv, I headed back to my room at the Gordon Inn. I was staying in the 4 bed dorm at the top of the hotel. When I opened the door and overcame the smell of "boy" I was greeted by Garrett. I said, "Hey. How's it going?"  He says, "Where in the U.S. are you from? The Midwest?" I said, "Wow! You're good!"  He guesses, "Illinois?" My response: "Impressive!"  He asks, "Chicago?"  I said: "Do I really sound like I'm from Chicago??"  Granted, I had only uttered 8 words.  Garrett was from New Jersey, was 21 years old, and was in Israel to enlist in the military. He had actually been living in this room at the Gordon Inn, free of charge in exchange for some maintenance work, for the past 4 months. Garrett reminded me of a young, more disheveled David Arquette, without the confidence, but making his best attempt. He asked if I liked football. I was reminded the Broncos would be beating the Patriots at 10pm, local time. We ended up heading to Mike's Pub (conveniently located next to the American Embassy) to watch the game with all the other ex-pats who enjoy American football. Justin from San Fran and Ori from Israel, both guys who work at the Gordon Inn joined Garrett. Katz, my Camino Amigo and one of the few Israelis who play American football (he's on the roster of the Tel Aviv Pioneers team) joined me as well as a couple of his buddies.  It was a memorable evening of watching a great game, sharing entertaining stories and learning more of the Israeli culture.  I was definitely an outsider as the only Gentile in the group, a not-so-surprising trend that would continue for the rest of my time in Israel. But I felt welcome.  

The next day I took a train north to Haifa to check out the immaculate, yet peculiar, B'hai Gardens. I ate an amazing lunch near the port at a place called, Hanamal 24. My meal included pumpkin and butternut squash soup, goat cheese stuffed ravioli with liver pâté, and finished with truffle gnocchi.  I may sleep at the cheapest places in town, but I do have a knack for splurging on a good meal. For the sake of my budget, I wish I was not this way. C'est la vie. 

I then continued on to Akko for a wander around the ancient port city before the sunset. I really hadn't had much human interaction throughout the day and was feeling content, but reflective. But that changed as I was finding my way through the maze of streets to get back to the train. I passed Captain Sammy's house as he was on the doorstep cleaning out the coffee pot. "Where you from?" came his greeting. "U.S." came my response with a smile. As an aside, I had been considering that this announcement may not come as welcome news to some people in this part of the world.  But without exception, during my time here, my declaration of my nationality came with responses like "Ah! America! Good!" Or "America! Welcome!"  Sammy's was one of these followed by an invitation to join him for coffee. Annette had recently challenged me to accept the hospitality of others when traveling. I have typically turned down such offers, not because of concern for safety, but because I am typically thinking of where I need to be going next.  But, I'm also slowly adopting a slower pace of life that much of the world practices. So this time I took Sammy up on his offer. "Why not?!?"  As I entered his house, it appeared that there was some business deal being negotiated and my presence was largely ignored. I sat in Sammy's big leather recliner with my legs crossed at my feet, my hands folded in my lap and a "What now?" look on my face. The business deal came to a conclusion with hand shakes all around just as the coffee was being served. Captain Sammy took a seat and informed me that Akko is a "very, very important city."  Funny. I had never heard of it before. I asked why. He gave me a brief run-down of the long history of the city.  He then informed me that he is the captain of the port, hence his name. And, he makes drapes. Of course.  It also appeared that Captain Sammy considered himself to be quite the ladies man.  He did extend an offer to join him for the "best fish in the world."  I declined as I had a train to catch back to Tel Aviv. As a traveler, it's always nice to have the excuse of imminent onward travel at moments such as these.  But I was grateful for the hospitality of Captain Sammy. 

That evening, when I got back to the Gordon Inn, I had to switch rooms because of previous reservations. This allowed me the opportunity to meet Rickshanna. She was from London but of Bangladesh decent and worked in the oil and gas industry.  She was also traveling Israel solo, and is one of the few solo women I had encountered recently. I am well aware that many of my encounters seem to be with men. Annette and I have observed that most, if not all, of our destinations have been to male dominated societies and/or places that men are more inclined to travel to than women. We have given these places names like the CaMENo de Santiago, IstanBOYS, KathmanDUDE, Everest BOYS Camp, TanzMANia, AmMAN, JordMAN and JerusalMEN.  But I digress. Rickshanna had travelled to many places in the world that I had not, and vice versa. She was also planning a trip to the U.S. this summer. Her plan was to start in Chicago and work her way south, and eat the food her destinations were famous for. Examples: Mississippi Mud Pie, Jambalaya in Louisianna, and she was embarrassed to say, Kentucky Fried Chicken. I was happy to encourage her on that one.  After swapping travel stories, we both decided we would be good travel companions, but went our separate ways the next day. 

On my last day in Tel Aviv, I started with the Sandemans tour of the Old City of Jaffa, a recommendation from Rickshanna. Sandemans offers free tours of cities all over the world. You just tip the tour guide at the end whatever you think it was worth.  By the end, I began to consider that this could be a job for me. (Too bad Vail doesn't have many historic markers tourists would be interested in.)  During the tour, I met Hope. My first exchange with Hope was to ask if she was from Colorado. I thought the REI backpack, SIG water bottle and especially the Danskos were a dead giveaway. She said no, but the stocking cap she was wearing (in the balmy Mediterannean air) was a gift from a guy from Colorado. Hope turned out to be from Vernon Hills, Illinois. She went to school at NYU, taught Special Ed for a year in Chicago Public Schools, worked on an "unsustainable" organic farm in California, and then did some hands on learning of herbal medicine in Oregon. To that, I said  "You mean..." She said, "no, but you are very perceptive."  Most recently she was working some land her brother owns in Maine. And now she was traveling around Israel before finding a kibbutz to live on. I shared with her about my sabbatical experience. By the end of the tour she was beginning to think the idea of sabbatical sounded pretty good. I didn't tell her I wasn't sure it counted as sabbatical if you have never really had a career, but to each his own.  Hope was a cool chick. 

I spent the rest of my day sampling the various culinary delights that had been recommended to me by Katz. I had a breakfast of shakshuka at Dr. Shakshukas in the flea market. I wandered through the Yeminite Market eating a cup full of pomegranate seeds. And I continued down King George street, trying to work up an appetite for an amazing ratotuille pita at a restaurant I wasn't sure was right as all signage was in Hebrew.  And then I rolled myself onto a bus bound for Jerusalem. 

I arrived back at Matan's house (the AirBnB host where our Jerusalem adventure began). I had ditched a bag there to lighten the load for the Jesus trek so I had to pick that up. And Matan graciously saved a bed for me as well. Upon arrival, I was greeted by Phillip, who was there our first night as well. Phillip was a tall, thin, ruddy-faced Brit, doing research for Cambridge on the Islamic faith as well as taking Arabic lessons in Bethlehem.  Florentine and his girlfriend were also spending the night at Matan's. Florentine was a bright-eyed, althletic Romanian eager to see as much of Israel as possible. I did not meet his girlfriend as she was already asleep when I arrived. Matan invited the three of us to join him for a drink in town. We headed to Mahane Yehuda, the old market, and enjoyed a piece of the Jerusalem nightlife. Matan was surprised that all three of us had an interest in gleaning a better understanding of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. But he was happy to share his perspective, coming from a 23-year-old, not long out of the military.  It was the perfect way to spend my last night in Jerusalem.  

Then it was time to head south. I made a quick stop for a float in the Dead Sea before continuing on to Mizpe Ramon, in the middle of the Negev Desert.

I arrived at the Green Backpackers Hostel (a place I cannot recommend enough for hostel-goers) just in time to catch the sun setting over the Mahktesh Ramon crater. 

I then took a 30-minute walk to the industrial part of town that was newly "revitalized" into an art district / restaurant locale. The vision is great but judging by the ghost town I walked through to get there, I'm not sure it's totally caught on. But I did enjoy a wonderful dinner of a healthy serving of bruschetta.  As I was leaving I began to consider that I wasn't really in the mood for the 30-minute walk back to the hostel. Considering that Mitzpe Ramon doesn't quite have the market to sustain a taxi business, my only option was to try to hitch a ride. (Ok... Please don't judge. First off... Israel has a thriving culture of hitchhikers. This seems to be the transportation method of choice for many of the soldiers trying to get from Point A to Point B. Secondly, my short time in Mitzpe Ramon lead me to believe this was the Mayberry of Israel. Additionally, I have never nor would ever hitch hike in the U.S.  And even though I may have an adventurous spirit, I also feel that I have a pretty good discerning spirit.  So with those things in mind...) I pointed my finger to the road as I walked in the same direction of the non-existant traffic. Three cars passed in 3 minutes. The fourth one stopped. I asked "Green Backpackers?"  Matan said "Hop in."  This is a different Matan. But I love that both of them explained to me that their name means "gift".  The first Matan was the last of 4 boys and was considered a "surprise".  This Matan was an only child. It seemed their parents chose their names wisely. After I told Matan what I was up to, he graciously invited me to join him for coffee.  Considering my Akko coffee experience didn't disappoint, I accepted this offer. And not much else seemed to be happening in Mitzpe Ramon this evening. Once I arrived, I met Yogi, Matan's friend from military days and "twin brother from a different mother".  Yogi was dishing up some schnitzel and pasta. It soon became apparent that I would be eating a second dinner in addition to coffee. The 23-year-olds regaled me with stories of their 5 month travels through much of Africa. Yogi expanded my musical library by offering some new suggestions in addition to cueing up some Trevor Hall. (This prompted the story of the time that I met Trevor Hall. It started with my desperate attempt to get tickets to his sold out show at the Belly Up in Aspen. I created a MySpace page (yes...this happened some time ago) for the sole purpose of getting in touch with Trevor to make a plea for tickets.  The next day my friend, Travis and I had the opportunity to thank Trevor personally for coming through for us as we chatted it up after his set. Random!). And then Matan had to go work the night shift at the hotel. Yogi invited me to stay and join some friends coming over to watch "Searching for Sugarman" (a mind-blowing documentary you should see if you haven't already). After the movie, I struck up a conversation with Shira. She was happy to give me recommendations for my next stop, Eilat. And she offered to walk with me back to the hostel. But first we stopped by the hotel to talk to Matan.  This turned into a two hour discussion on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.  Although much of my desire to visit Israel had to do with enriching my faith journey, I have also had a long standing interest in the social and political turmoil in this part of the world.  I actually taught a short unit on the conflict in my Current Issues class, which required me to do some learning of my own. My one regret of my travels in Israel is that it didn't include time in the West Bank or Gaza, something Matan suggested I do to gain better perspective. Next time.  Shira explained her perspective coming from an orthodox family living in one of the Israeli settlements in the West Bank. She recognized the controversy in this and admitted there are two sides to every story. But I especially appreciated the fact that she stressed the need for people to be educated in order for progress to take place in the peace process. Matan shared from his secular viewpoint. In the end, he sent me off with the following charge: "Send peace and love to the world!"  I'll do my best, Matan. 

After a short night sleep, I made it a priority to take a hike through the crater before heading south. The views were amazing, but I was most thankful for the solitude that allowed me to reflect on the amazing encounters I had with people during the past week.  Well, for the last 5 months for that matter.  But the best was yet to come. 

I had planned to catch the 1:30 bus to Eilat. Shira suggested that I just hitchhike.  She explained that a 4 hour ride by bus was just 2 by car. I considered the success of the night before and with her pointers I decided to give it a shot.  And if I couldn't get a ride, I always had the bus for back up. I stood at the main thoroughfare and pointed to the road. After about 10 minutes, the first car pulled over. It was a family of three. The mom was in the backseat feeding the baby a bottle. (Does this help you see that this is a way of life?). The dad explained that they weren't going all the way to Eliat and they were stopping in a few minutes for coffee, but I was welcome to go so far. I was grateful for the offer, but decided to pass it up for a direct ride.  A few minutes later I saw a white utility van approaching. I'm not sure these vans have the same reputation they do in the U.S. and I hesitated in flagging this ride down. But at the last second I threw my hand out. The van pulled over. I approached it as a rather burly Israeli rolls down the window. "Eilat?" I ask. He nods to hop in. I throw my bag in the back and hop in. Quickly I realize that conversation will be limited as he asked if I spoke Hebrew and had to respond in the negative. Despite his limited English I figured out he was going to Eilat to visit friends for the weekend but could never determine what his job was and thus the need for the white utility van. He did tell me he had 5 kids ages 3 to 18, but didn't appear to be married any longer. Again, the language barrier proved to be the problem. And so we drove through the desert with only music to entertain us.  It started with Élan expressing disgust at the electronic music that kept coming on the radio. He finally resorted to the CD already in the player. I was immediately humored as Élan began to sing along with "Here Without You" by 3 Doors Down. But words he didn't know he substituted with whistling. Next up, Adele. Again, I was smiling to myself as the American and Israeli roll down the road singing "Someone Like You" together. I started to suppress laughter as Mariah and Celine seranaded us next. I began to wonder who made this playlist for Élan.  And then we came to a checkpoint right near the Egyptian border. There had been military installations on all sides for the past twenty minutes. It could have been considered a tense situation, but there's nothing like a little George Michel's "Careless Whisper" to lighten the mood. Ok. I was really laughing to myself now.  "Mom, you have no idea" is coming to mind. And then the icing on the cake: We had just crested a mountain when I see a valley below and get my first glimpse of Eilat and the Red Sea. I let out an audible "Wow!"  As if by cue, "Take my Breath Away" by Berlin comes on the radio. You know... the song in the sappy love scene in Top Gun.  I'm sorry. You can't make this stuff up. A few minutes later, Élan dropped me off at my hostel. I tried to offer him 50 shekels to pay for the coffee and water he bought me, the ride, and as a token of my gratitude for adding some great music to the ever-growing "Sabbatical Soundtrack". He would not accept.  As soon as I had checked in, I sent this text to my mom...

I made my way to the Red Sea just in time for sunset. (Are you seeing a pattern here?)  It's a good thing the Red Sea is world-reknown for their scuba diving and marine life, because the beach sure is nothing to write home about. But my time there again gave me a moment to appreciate the experience I just had. And then I got cleaned up for an early dinner at Eddie's Hide-Away, a suggestion from Shira AND Lonely Planet, a sure winner. I enjoyed my catch of the day with a sense of security as the table next to me was occupied by 5 Israeli soldiers... and their M-16s. Later, Lance, Eddie's son joined me and shared with me the REAL reason for the name of the restaurant and humored me with stories of his "problematic" soldier days. Entertaining!

And then, my time in Israel came to an end as I crossed the border into Jordan. I won't dwell on the horrible encounter I had with an extremely rude taxi operator who refused to let me share a taxi with 2 other American tourists heading to Petra. I was shocked as he slammed the trunk on me but even more so when he threatened to send me to the police when, how should I say, my fiestiness got the better of me. Luckily, a reasonable soldier who had just checked my passport came to my rescue. I left the scene, in a cab by myself, fuming... for hours. By the time I arrived at the Valentine Inn 2 hours later, I had mostly calmed down. But I made sure others in the tourism industry knew of my experience.  I do have to say that this has been my only truly bad situation I've experienced in 5 months of international travel. That is pretty amazing when you think of it. Thank you, Lord, for keeping me safe. 

But then, all was forgotten as I spent an amazing day exploring Petra.  This is a place I've wanted to see for at least a decade. And it did not disappoint. It also helped to have some great company in Clémon. He was a student from Grenoble just finishing up 6 months in Lebanon as part of his degree in Middle Eastern studies. We were both in awe as we rounded corners and were struck with scenes like the following: 

Seriously incredible. We climbed around the ruins, sat on the edge of the Petra "Grand Canyon" and talked about what is next for each of us. Clemon was about to head back to "real life" (well...the college version) and more and more my thoughts have been turining towards what I'll do next June.  We finished the day back at the hostel by watching Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade... set in Petra. 

And just like that, the sun set on my time in the Middle East and east of the Atlantic.  

I'm still enamored by life. Maybe even more so as I consider the time I've had since I hit Paris in September. Spain, Istanbul, Nepal, Germany, Tanzania, Israel and Jordan. Are you kidding me?Just today I had the thought that I've had a lifetime of travel in a few months. And I can't believe I'm just over halfway done. 

In addition to being enamored by life and the place I've been and people I've met, I'm blessed to have spent 2 days in Peoria with family. Zack and Carolyn both took Monday off work to spend with me. Seriously?  I said it was like Christmas, a month late. We missed Luke and Rachel but we had no shortage of entertainment by Hudson, or "The Bob" as he's going by these days. Love him! And his amazing parents. And my amazing parents...who braved white out conditions to get me home from Chicago, made my favorite meal and continue to be my greatest encouragement on the journey. Blessed indeed. 

Mom, you have no idea. 


  1. Hey, this is randy chen, we went to grade school together! Trip looks awesome!

    1. Randy! Great to hear from you! Wow... Charter Oak Bobcats. Those were the days! Hope you are well. Thanks for reading!!