Thursday, April 26, 2007


We really are in Jerusalem! After a few days of rest, grocery shopping in the market, and attending to the increasingly desperate laundry situation (which was alleviated in no way by camping in the desert), we bought another disposable camera and set out for a walking tour of the Old City. We passed through the gates, climbed the Citadel, fought off trinket vendors in the old markets and put on our most pious faces at the Western Wall and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

We've been a little unsure about what comprises Israeli cuisine. Flatbread, olives, dried fruits, falafel, shwarma and falafel, all staples throughout the Middle East, are common here; but you can also buy Eastern European specialties like pickled fish and cabbage in the markets, and all the famous Jewish breads and cakes, especially for Shabbat. We've been sampling all these things piecemeal, but weren't quite sure how it all came together. So in an effort to take the measure of our new home's national foods, we braved the crowds on Israeli Independence Day and made our way past Zion Square to celebrate with style at Chakra, a gathering point for hip Jerusalem gourmets, where we tested our mettle against the huge and tasty prix fixe menu. We began with fresh baked Iraqi pita bread and a tray of antipasti, which included peppery roast sweet potatoes, chunky guacamole, and chicken liver pate fortified with apple cider. Next came a whole roasted eggplant, shrimp fried in ribbons of potato, ultra-thin beef carpaccio, grilled fish, tender fried calamari, and grilled shrimp with artichokes, followed by a meat course of kofta, grilled entrecote and filet. For dessert, we enjoyed panna cotta with warm raspberries, molten chocolate cake, and vanilla ice cream topped with honey and pine nuts. Seriously. It was more food than we consumed in our last four weeks of travel. Excessive, but delicious; the seafood and the ice cream were especially notable.

The strawberries at the market have also been fantastic; we're been slicing them and macerating them in sugar, lemon juice and chopped fresh mint and topping with a little plain yogurt or marscapone cheese for a delicious and relatively healthy spring dessert.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Let's Go Get Another Guidebook

Last summer, after our wedding, we took a road trip along the coast from Charleston, South Carolina to Duck, North Carolina. Aside from boogeyboarding and sampling a variety of lowcountry delicacies (like shrimp and grits - mmm!), we weren't sure what we might do along the way, so we brought along a guidebook for the region.

Coastal Carolinas
is a quirky little book published by an unknown small company called Moon Publishers and written by one Mike Sigalis, a native Carolinian and Charleston fanatic with pronounced Bolshevik leanings, now living in exile somewhere in the Appalachians. As we plumbed through its pages, it became evident that Mike had no interest in hitting the appeal-to-the-masses tone of more commercial efforts like Fodor's; his book was totally idiosyncratic, sometimes hostile to its potential readership, and eccentric to the extreme in both its tone and its recommendations. One favorite passage, a digression on the relatively low elevation of the area, reads as follows:

With this lack of horizontal diversity comes a certain lack of drama. If Rebel Without a Cause had been set on the Carolina Coasts, Natalie Wood's boyfriend could never have flown off a cliff to his death. He'd have thudded into a huge barrier dune before he even got to the beach. And if he'd somehow reached the strand, he could never have drive neasily across the hard-packed sand, and once in the ocean, could have kept driving fifty yards towards Liverpool before the engine ever got wet at all. Then his car would have stalled out, and he could have swum safely back to shore through the pint-sized breakers.
Initially, we whiled away the hours in the car by reading such passages out loud to each other in incredulous, mocking tones. But as the days passed, Mike started to seem more sympathetic, like a slightly deranged but good-hearted uncle or a wayward frat brother. By the middle of our second tour, it was as if Mike was in the car with us, directing our travels away from overcrowded hotspots ("South Carolina's beaches are a national treasure, and certainly [with the possible exception of central Myrtle Beach] a vast improvement over the overbuilt strips farther south in Florida") and towards sites like the truly bizarre Weeping Radish Brewery on the island of Manteo, offering pink-hued political and social commentary along the way. "Mike thinks..." became a mantra, and Mike's favorites became our own. Even the dilapidated hotel whose rooms were themed according to decade (our door sign had lost some of its letters, and bore the engagingly pathetic moniker "Room of the oaring wenties") seemed, under Mike's influence, an endearing example of worn Southern kitsch. Frequently hilarious and consistently weird, our guidebook shaped our trip in its own peculiar way.

This year, as we've begun to make our way around the world, we've had to rely on guidebooks in a more serious way, not just to find the best restaurants and hotels with clean sheets but to navigate the public transport, visa systems and cultural landscapes of totally foreign places. Over dinner at the Jerusalem favorite Spaghettim (where they top heaping plates of pasta with over 75 different sauces) yesterday, as we discussed our upcoming trip to Fiji, Laura commented that, while she is aware that people have travelled abroad without a guidebook, she's not sure how. The importance of the guidebook has been accentuated recently by our sad dependence on the thoroughly unreadable, out-of-date and generally unreliable Let's Go Travel Guide to Israel and the Palestinian Territories (after a similar experience with Let's Go Italy, Bill Bryson christened the series with the more appropriate title above; we have yet to come across a restaurant listed in this book that is still extant and/or occupying the listed location, although luckily some recommended drinking holes have survived). We were informed by a bookstore owner the other day that Let's Go is nevertheless the best guide to the area; a Rough Guide hasn't been published since 1998, and the Lonely Planet is even older. So Let's Go remains the only viable option, despite all its deficiencies and passages like "the Russian Compound's hip bar scene hugs the old world Mea She-arim like spandex on a yenta." Yikes. Where's Mike when you need him?

Monday, April 16, 2007


One interesting (and, for Americans, very handy) aspect of travel abroad is the near universal presence of English. German tourists rely on their English to communicate with Italian hoteliers in Florence; English signage in Paris caters to international visitors from all over the world. In the Middle East, this phenomenon can be attributed to colonial influences as well as touristic convenience, but it's always fun to see "grilled lamp shops" (mmm!) on a menu or "McDonald's" transliterated into Arabic under the golden arches. We noticed advertisements for telegraph(!) facilities at the train station in Alexandria and for what may be air conditioning at a pool hall in Cairo; the sign for the Burger King in Aqaba stands against a mountainous backdrop at the edge of the desert, and an Egyptian tourism poster states the obvious.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Keeping up with the Joneses (and T. E. Lawrence)

Looking back ... we took a minibus from Aqaba, cramming ourselves into a vehicle full of people and luggage and food and with even more suitcases and taped-up boxes strapped to its roof. The crowded, weighted-down bus got a flat tire just as we crested our slow, steady climb from the Red Sea into the mountainous desert to the north; the driver pulled over and all the men nimbly leaped over the luggage on the floor and out the door. In no time, they efficiently jacked up the bus and replaced the tire, allowing them all to have a smoke break in the process. It was a well-honed system.

We got to Wadi Musa in the evening. The town, just outside of Petra, exists solely to serve the tourist population, and as such doesn't feel like part of Jordan at all; it's more of a neutral international space, not unlike a rather dusty outdoor airport. Succumbing to the atmosphere, we had some ice cream (okay, and a little whiskey, too) at the Swiss-owned luxury hotel Mövenpick. (We were amused to note that a small postcard shop called the Pick 'n' Move had sprung up next door, across from the Indiana Jones Snack Bar.) We watched the other tourists as they gawked at the belly dancer in the bar, and prepared ourselves for an early assault on the huge site of Petra the next morning .

You approach the ancient Nabatean city through a long, dramatic gorge called the Siq, emerging suddenly into the light right in front of Petra's most famous facade, the Treasury. A day scrambling around on the rocks yielded glimpses of caves, huge carved facades, dramatically lit stone landscapes, streaky worn sandstone; natural and man-made wonders combine to make Petra completely astonishing.

The next day, we got another early start to take the 6 AM bus to Wadi Rum, a 30-square-mile protected area southeast of Petra containing some of Jordan's most beautiful desert scenery. It's often associated with T.E. Lawrence, although his actual connection with the place was limited to a passing comment that it was a very attractive landscape, because the movie Lawrence of Arabia was filmed here in 1962; now many of the canyons and rocks have been renamed things like the "Seven Pillars of Wisdom" and "Lawrence Spring."

There's nowhere to stay in Wadi Rum. If you want to spend some time here, you have to arrange to camp at a Bedouin campsite, and you really need a guide to go hiking or driving around; all those red rocks start to look the same to the uninitiated after a while. Our guide met our bus and took us on a jeep tour, including some hidden Thamudic petroglyphs carved into the rock. We cooked chicken and stew over an open fire in the company of our fellow campers, an English/Dutch family based in Amman who proved to be incredibly athletic. In the time we were there, they managed to hike every trail that we did and climb every (steep, windy, hot, drifting, generally grueling) sand dune that we did - twice, literally! (To add to our disgrace, they were all scheduled to compete in a 50K run from Amman to the Dead Sea the next day.) We were shamed, but our own slow and pathetic amblings did yield some great vistas and the supremely satisfying sight of about ninety camels grazing quietly in the desert.

More (alas, grainy) pictures of our hair-raising, spine-tingling, transfiguring adventure are available here:

Rooms with views

So far, on our journey around the world, we've been fortunate with our blind choice of accomodation (knock on wood). Herewith, some photos of the often incredible vistas from our various homes away from home...

The rural countryside from the one-time honeymoon suite, Provence, France

Paris, France

New Town, Edinburgh, Scotland

Athens, Greece (yep, that's the Acropolis)

Over the harbor towards Kosta on the mainland, Spetses, Greece

From the foot of the Akronafplia fortress, Nafplio, Greece

Down onto the Midan Tahrir (Liberation Square), Cairo, Egypt

Across the Eastern Harbor towards Fort Qaitbey and the Mediterranean Sea, Alexandria, Egypt

From our sleeper carriage from Cairo to Luxor

The rural area around the village of Gezira, across the Nile River from Luxor, Egypt

The Red Sea coast from Nuweiba, Egypt (actually, our room didn't have a window; this is from the breakfast patio. We know, we're only cheating ourselves.)

The town of Wadi Musa, outside Petra, Jordan

From a Bedouin camp in Wadi Rum, Jordan

Friday, April 13, 2007

The Flat II

Our garden level studio apartment in the Nahala'ot neighborhood of Jerusalem (our camera still isn't working; these pictures were kindly provided by our landlord):

In addition to the patio, there's a small kitchen with a dorm size refrigerator and a hot plate; there's also a microwave, cable TV and wireless internet. We're off today to explore the neighborhood and get some groceries!

Thursday, April 12, 2007

A three hour tour

There’s a ferry that sails from the port town of Nuweiba, on the eastern coast of the Sinai Peninsula, to Aqaba. We decided we would make the short flight from Luxor to Sharm el-Sheikh, then find a way up the coast to Nuweiba in time to catch the ferry to Jordan the next afternoon.

We arrived into the Sharm el-Sheikh airport at about 11 PM and discovered that there were no more buses to Nuweiba. There were, however, a number of taxi drivers hanging around and, after an hour of haggling, theatrical walking away on both sides, chasing down again, reconciliation, and repeating the terms, we finally got one of them to agree to take us north, over the mountains to our destination.

Clearly, the paltry sum of money involved meant that our driver could to take his time. We stopped at a truck stop for tea; at a gas station to top up; along the side of the road to chat with the folks in another taxi; and, at the very top of the mountains near St Catherine Monastery, to douse the radiator with water and pray under the full moon by the side of the road. Our driver tried enthusiastically to teach us some Bedouin songs and explain the lyrics and we sang and coasted down the mountains with the headlights off (as the Egyptians do) as the shadowy rocks rose up on every side. We found our hotel at about 3 AM and collapsed into bed.

The next morning, we made our way to the port. Nuweiba is not, as our guidebook would have us imagine, a little holiday town by the sea, popular with campers. Instead, it’s a commercial port with few buildings and lots of barbed wire. We waited for four hours in the customs area for our ferry, surrounded by hundreds of people. When the ship finally arrived, there was more delay as the authorities collected everyone’s tickets and passports on the boat; and then, when we docked in Aqaba, it took another hour to get our passports back. By the time we got into Aqaba, it was nearly 10; our one-hour ferry ride across the Red Sea had lasted nine hours!

It was all worth it, though, when we headed out to the beaches south of town the next day to check out Aqaba’s famously unspoiled coral reefs. We swam with the fish (and eels, and sea slugs, and all kinds of exciting marine life), marveling at the colors and variety of the reef and reveling in the beautiful water.

When we got back to Aqaba, we sampled some of the local marine life in a different and delicious form. Fish sayyeida - essentially, spiced rice served with fish or fish broth - takes a variety of different forms throughout the Middle East. The sayyeida we tried in Aqaba recalled our own recipe for Cinnamon Chicken and suggested a variety of improvements, including using top-quality Basmati rice (always a good idea) and topping it with very crispy thin-cut fried onions. Since our original post, we've also learned the virtues of pickled lemon and often serve it as a condiment with this and other dishes.

The most common local fish served in Aqaba's restaurants is red mullet, freshly caught and usually grilled whole. In addition to the sayyeida, we tried the "Floka special fish," served (not unlike a hotdog) with two sauces, mustard and tangy tomato, and the "Floka spicy fish," topped with a spicy tomato and red pepper sauce. All versions were quite delicious.

More pictures of our exciting underwater adventure are available here:
A postscript:
Sadly, our efforts to capture our submarine expedition for posterity have left our "waterproof" camera frankly frizzled. With disposable cameras in hand, we travelled from Aqaba to Petra (aka the Canyon of the Crescent Moon) and camped with the Bedouins in Wadi Rum (where Lawrence of Arabia was filmed). We hope to post photos of our exciting adventures in the Jordanian desert soon; until then, suffice to say that we were awed by each step. We made it to Jerusalem, by walking across the border from Aqaba to Eilat and then taking a bus via the Dead Sea, and are now looking forward to some much needed rest in the Holy City.

Thursday, April 05, 2007


Before leaving Luxor, we visited Karnak, a vast temple complex (over 200 acres!) just north of the city. Under the scorching sun, we explored the Precinct of Amun, an enormous temple dedicated to the various incarnations of the supreme god of the New Kingdom. We strolled past colossi and obelisks, sphinxes and reliefs (one detailing the earliest known peace treaty), into the Great Hypostyle Hall, which our guidebook poetically describes as "a forest of titanic columns covering an area of 6000 square metres – large enough to contain both St Peter’s Cathedral in Rome and St Paul’s Cathedral in London."

Parched, we returned to our hotel for a little unwinding in the tropical garden and some fresh fruit juice. Throughout Egypt, thirsty travelers can refresh themselves with a fresh squeezed glass of whatever’s in season at any number of corner juice stands. In addition to mango, orange, guava and apple juices, our hotel made its own karkaday, a sweet, deep-red concoction made from hibiscus flowers and served cold or hot.

More pictures of our exciting adventure in Egypt are available here:

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Tombs & colossi

On the west bank of the Nile River, past the small village of Gezira (where we're staying) and vast plantations of sugar cane, the Theban Necropolis houses countless tombs and temples. We visited the Colossi of Memnon and the Valley of the Kings, then trudged over the hot, dry Theban Hills to Deir al-Bahri. We caught a ride to Deir al-Medina, where ancient Egyptian craftsmen constructed mini-pyramids to mark their own small but elaborate tombs, and explored the Ramesseum (the inspiration for Shelley's "Ozymandias") before retiring to our hotel for icy drinks, a brief siesta, a dinner of kebab with aubergine sauce, and a couple more drinks. Intrepid exploration is hard work, but it's not without its rewards.