Monday, November 23, 2009

Exotic Istanbul

There probably is no better word than exotic to describe Istanbul, Turkey. Geographically it straddles two continents, Europe and Asia, yet it refuses to be defined by either. Parts of it are reminiscent of the Middle East and yet it is a distinct city with a feel and flare of it’s own. The landscape and buildings are breathtakingly beautiful with a rich and alluring history. With bygone eras piled in archaeological layers one on top of the other, history overflows from every corner of the city.

We stayed at a lovely hotel named the Ibriahim Pasha in the Sultanahmet district.

The Blue Mosque was our neighbor and each night we would sit out on the terrace with a glass
of wine and marvel over the view of the Marmara Sea as the sun set.For hours on end we would wander through the old city visiting places like the Hagia Sofia, Topkapi Palace, the Grand Bazaar and the ancient spice markets.
We cruised one day through the Bosphurus Straits, which is the body of water that separates Europe and Asia from the East to the West and connects the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara.

We fell under the spell of the city at night. Chestnuts roasting on open fires, Turkish coffee or apple tea with Turkish delights freely offered by restaurants and pubs in the neighborhood. It is alive and exciting.

One evening we indulged ourselves with a visit to one of the oldest hamans (Turkish bathhouse) in Istanbul. Cemerlitas has been in continual use as a bathhouse since the 1500’s. A natural floor heating system heats marble slabs. Pipes were inserted in to the marble blocks and steam runs through the pipes to heat the marble slabs. All this so one can be bathed and pampered like never before. The baths are separated for the men and women. Nothing in the experience has changed over the last 500 years. There is an unspoken language that informs you of what is to happen next; hopefully you don’t miss the queue. The massages are deep and penetrating. Sometimes it is hard to distinguish the pain from the pleasure. You are washed richly and deeply from head to toe. For the women we were rinsed with alternating cool and warm water infused with lemon. It felt like a wonderful dream. We reveled in the thought that we too were partaking in what Sultans centuries before us had enjoyed on a daily basis. We loved it but certainly not an experience for the modest or easily intimidated.

We met every Turkish carpet storeowner in town. Soon we developed an identity that would usually get them to leaves us alone. Instead being a retired American couple enjoying the Mediterranean for a few months, we became Electolux salesmen who had won a trip for high volume vacuum cleaner sales. We then informed them that our kids had chipped in the $200.00 we had for spending money for the week. It was a little hard for Tom to bluff his way through but after awhile we both got pretty good at this fa├žade and almost believed it ourselves!

We experienced and indulged in the rich culture this city has to offer.

Forever in our minds the infamous skyline will be imprinted along with the smells and sounds of this exotic city.

One of the Seven Wonders of the World

Our days in Jordan can best be described as some of the most incredible days of our lives. Not only is it filled with some of the most beautiful wonders in the world but also some of the kindest, most interesting people we have ever met. They take great pride in their country and were very excited that we were here for a visit. Everyone went out of his or her way to ensure we had a memorable time.

A father and his two sons ran our hotel. Each meal they would have the chef prepare something special for us. He took great pride in this task and I think he was happy to please us. Again, I have to admit, I wasn’t always sure what it was we ate, but it was good.

There were a couple of places we wanted to see while in Jordan.

We headed out to Wadi Rum, which is one of the most beautiful deserts we have ever seen in our lives. We rented a jeep and a driver who took us out for the day. Words really don’t describe the beauty here but we marveled at the tranquility and vastness and often found ourselves wondering about the Bedouin people who lived their whole lives wandering through the deserts. Such a hard life but really quite simple. They never seemed to want for anything; they either improvised or just decided they didn’t really need it after all.

We spent they day in Petra where we meandered for hours.

We had an excellent guide who provided us with a detailed history of this marvelous place. We can never convey how exquisite and awesome this place really is. Pictures won’t even do it justice. We actually rode on the back of donkeys half way up one of the rocky trails to a place called the top of the world.

Standing on that summit reminded us how very small we really are and how splendid is Our Creator. We felt honored to stand in this place and experience the moment.

We also took camel rides through some of our desert tour. We figured this opportunity doesn’t come along everyday so we better seize it while we can. We enjoyed the view from this vantage point.

We met a wonderful young man named Nezar who worked at our hotel. He is an English major at the university and works in the hotel to improve his English and pay his tuition. We grew very fond of him and after a couple of days he invited us to stay with his family in a small village out of town. He said they didn’t have a large house but that it had a natural spring near by.

He was very proud of his family and wanted to honor us by sharing what was so near and dear to him. We seriously contemplated this but because of time constraints we decided to wait until the next time we visited. We feel enriched to have had the opportunity to get to know him.

It was harder than we thought when it came time to leave. Each

time we arrive somewhere we add the people and places to our heart and at the same time a piece of our heart and soul remain. We do look forward to our return.

A Sense Of Adventure

We have always enjoyed our travels with a sense of adventure. The more you travel the more you realize that flexibility and tuning into the local customs can be quite delightful and actually allows you a glimpse of life outside your own. So with that in mind, when it was time to leave Israel, we decided to forgo getting a rental car and take the bus to the Southern most tip of Israel and walk over the border to Jordan. From there we would rent a car, visit the sites we wanted to see, drive up to and then fly out of the Northern part of Jordan. We had taken the ‘Arab’ bus to Palestine and the Jewish bus around Jerusalem so we felt fairly confident with our plans. We checked the visa and passport requirements and when we had that all in order we packed our stuff for departure. We said our goodbyes to Yossi and Vardi and set our alarm for 4:30 AM for a 7:00 A.M. departure from the Central Bus Station in Jerusalem. You have to go through a security check and customs so we decided to arrive a little early in preparation for this procedure. We arranged for a cab to deliver us and we arrived at the bus station at about 6:15 A.M. with out any hitches. It’s been along time since either one of us has ridden on a bus but when we saw the bus terminal we were amazed at its size.

It was four stories tall and a buzz with activity. People in a hurry to get …just about everywhere! There are guards with machine guns that usher you through each floor of the station. By the time we got to the ticket office the last ticket for the early bus departure had been sold. We purchased a ticket for the next bus, which left three hours later. With ticket in hand, we thought we would go to the bus platform and wait and see if there was any possibility we could get on the earlier bus. That’s where all the excitement begins. If you didn’t know there was a system, you might wonder about the commotion right outside the station on the platform. There is a man I called the “Bus Jockey”. I watched him for a few minutes and soon figured out he was the man to know. There were a few seats left on the bus and he was the man who could give them to you. What you do is hold a shekel (their money) in your hand, visible enough so he can see the denomination but not so blatant it looks as if you are paying him off. You wave your hand around as if you are pointing the direction you want to go so he is aware you are in the ‘bidding’ process. It is a fascinating system to watch. The Jewish culture is very sedate by nature but here, even they get into this process. And I am not talking about a few people, there must have been fifty people vying for these spots in a small crowded area. By the time I figured out the system and was ready to act on it, there was only one seat left. Needless to say the two of us didn’t take it.

We got on the 10:00 bus and enjoyed the drive through Palestine and then on through the desert. All the Palestinians said we would enjoy Jordan, as it is as beautiful as their land.

We drove through miles and miles of desert and wondered what they meant. Lush and green are two adjectives I associate with beautiful landscape and these were never to be seen. But, a funny thing began to happen. The more we drove the more beautiful it became. The immensity of it, the stillness all around elicits such a feeling of peace and respite. Miles of rolling sand, covertly changing colors until it had gone from a

pale white to a deep terra cotta and the observer never knowing quite sure when this happened.

Occasional oasis, which quickly disappear. The Dead Sea sits in the middle of nowhere, a beautiful turquoise body of water. We felt our self-drifting in out of deep thought brought on by this drive without distractions along the way. In the quite and the stillness it became a beautiful place to us.

By the time we reached Eliat, we were pretty pleased with our plan for travel. Quiet, restful, beautiful, and well within our budget. We needed to take a cab the short distance to the Jordanian border and cross over by foot. We explained to the cab driver our destination and even our plans while in Jordan. We drove for a while again lost in the landscape. He pointed out the Red Sea and explained why it was red. After what seemed like a rather long time, he dropped us off at the border. We walked through customs, excited to see the beautiful Red Sea in the background. When we went to change our money at the bank, we got the surprise of our life.

We weren’t in Jordan, we were in Egypt! Somehow, unknown to us, the cab driver had taken us to the wrong border. And once you’ve crossed, there is no such thing as turning around and going right back out. They did take pity on us and after awhile and with the help of the supervising Border Patrol agent, we did manage to leave.

When we got back in the car, we were very clear about were we needed to go this time. It was starting to get dark and without GPS we had hoped to be on the road during daylight hours. But this was not to be. There is no such thing as rushing through customs, especially in Jordan. We sat outside while they looked through our paperwork and chatted for a while with people employed at the customs office. This is really is a casual place, with young men and women who take their jobs very seriously. In the vast open desert we were able to see the most beautiful sunset and so, we sat and enjoyed it while we could.

After an hour and a half they let us through. Believe it or not, I think they enjoyed our company.

We did not get the early start we had planned nor did we enter Jordan during daylight hours. They have a GPS in Jordan but somebody else was using it so we set out on our own. Driving was pretty easy as there really is a minimum of traffic and the signs are in both Arabic and English. We were feeling pretty comfortable about how we had managed all the unforeseen events of the day, when much to our surprise, we were being waved down by a Jordanian police officer who was standing on the roadside. Not quite sure what the problem could be, we pulled over a bit perplexed. He said is name was Masan and he was a “Jordanian/Bedouin/Police Officer”

and he needed a ride to his next station. So, what else can you do? We took him with us thinking that this was our first hitchhiker…ever (but not the last!) and it should be pretty safe…

Well, all that to say, we arrived at our hotel near Petra, starving, where the chef made us…well, we are not sure but it was tasty.

Off to bed we went with a thousand memories of our adventure tucked into our hearts.

Saturday, November 14, 2009


Shalom. Peace be with you. We are here at the crossroads where religion, culture and history meet. The depth of this is apparent everywhere you go and with everything you do and experience.

This is a country seeped in traditions that date back before the birth of Christ and they are still adhering to these age-old customs today. And, some of them are so beautiful and sacred it makes you want to weep.

We arrived very early in the morning in Tel Aviv at the most beautiful airport we have seen. We took the shuttle to Jerusalem and arrived about 4 AM. The first thing we saw as we stepped out of the shuttle were the walls of the Old City (Jerusalem) and the Tower of David, all brightly lighted.

It was a sight that took our breath away and one we have enjoyed every day we have been here.

We are staying at a lovely place our friend Lisa told us about. For us, it is perfect.

It is a small apartment in a quaint old Jewish section of town near the Old City of Jerusalem. Our
apartment is actually three levels below the street and it is absolutely delightful.
Our hosts are Yossi and Varda Avissar and they are wonderful. In 1968 this street was actually considered no mans land; the Arab-Israeli border. Yossi recalls the barbed fences and war zone around his house. Today, it is rebuilt with the original cobblestones streets of Jerusalem stone.

Each night we sit out under a 150-year-old olive tree and enjoy a glass of wine and marvel at the beauty of this area.

We spend our days meandering through the Old City, amazed and in awe of the history we are walking on. There are no words to describe the beauty here.

At the end of each evening we feel as if we have lived a dream. It is incredible. We have learned so much and this has ignited a desire to learn and study more.

One evening our hosts took for a ‘private tour’ of the area.

He picked us up a kosher dinner; bagels, labhen (a thick yogurt), and hard-boiled eggs. He then proceeded to show us all the sacred Jewish places, all the sacred Christian places, and then all the sacred Arab places. He smiled when he found out that my roots were Lebanese in origin. “A Jew and an Arab sharing dinner”, he laughed. “Well, Shalom does mean peace and this is the city of brotherly love” so we drove around together for
hours enjoying our meal and seeing parts of the city we would not have otherwise seen.

We went to the Western Wall in the Old City of Jersualem during Shabbat. The Western Wall is the most sacred place for the Jewish people and they find it an honor to pray at this place.

It was a very powerful experience.

One day we decided to take the ‘Arab’ city bus to Bethlehem. We were told to take our passports with us, as we would be entering Palestine. According to the Palestinians, there is no country of Israel so we would have to go through their border. It was very fascinating and we enjoyed our day there.

We prayed on the Mount of Olives, walked through the Church of the Nativity, the place where many believe Jesus was born. We strolled through the Shepherds

Field where there is now a small church to mark where the shepherds of biblical times were reported to have been tending their sheep the night Jesus was born.

We went through the Damascus Gate of the Old City where there is still a very active market.

We would stop when invited and sit and enjoy a glass of tea with the locals. We meandered for days and know that we have lightly brushed the surface of this city.

We head off soon for Jordan where we will visit Petra and Wadi Rum. We have rented a car and will meander up to Amman where we will then fly to Turkey and spend the rest of the month. We will pass the Dead Sea on our way and look forward to the adventures the change of our location will bring.

The depth and beauty of this land has moved us in a way we never expected. The sights, the sounds, the smell, and the depth of its culture have changed us. We are returning home…we will just not be the same as when we left.

Monday, November 9, 2009

In The Eye Of The Beholder

We are actually writing this post to you as we leave Lebanon. Most of the places we have been are not even aware there is such a thing as wireless Internet.We are, as we speak, heading toward Israel and then on to Jordan and Turkey for the rest of this month.

When we arrived in Lebanon, it was very early in the morning and we were told our hotel was only six minutes away. With eager anticipation to get to our hotel and rest, we set out to drive the mere six minutes. Suffice to say it took us 45 minutes to drive those six minutes. Even at 4:00 A.M. in the morning the traffic keeps you on your toes. It feels as if you are driving in the middle of unfamiliar Los Angeles traffic without any street signs to guide you.

The casual attitude of the Grecians was quickly replaced by a type of security reminiscent of a …war torn country.Everytime you slow down or stop you are scanned for bombs. At every intersection there are fully armed young men who look as if they take their jobs very seriously. There are no public garbage cans as this has the potential of being a bomb receptacle. All the elevators are glass so that everything is visible. It took us awhile to get used to this and realized this was not personal and actually was for our safety.

The drivers are outright scary. Everyone we see is driving as if they are the only person on the road. A two-lane road can accommodate five lines of traffic- somehow.

We are sure we are watching absolutely everyone trying to figure what he or she may want to do at any given time, and we are also sure that they are not watching anyone!
Combine that with the fact that ¾ of the signs do not have any street names on them and the other ¼ of the signs are written in a language that makes Greek look easy.

We always register with the state department when we travel and this time after reading the warnings and our first 45 minutes in the country we were feeling a little tense. To top it off, there was an extraordinary thunder and lightening storm the night we arrived.

As we sit here and try to put into words the way the events played out and the utter beauty of this country and the things have seen and experienced, we still know the words seem inadequate. We could scan a hundred pictures and not capture what we have seen or felt. It could be hard to find beauty in a war torn country that even after nearly twenty years has not rebuilt its infrastructure and the ruins are visible on nearly every street. The civil war in Lebanon had been the longest civil war in the history of the world and the city still clearly shows signs of this. We have been to some of the most beautiful cities in world and yet we see beauty here with a different eye, our hearts eye.

Let us tell you a story. A story not so much about what we have seen, but about the real beauty of this country, it’s heart and soul; it’s people.

For me it began many years ago, when I was a small child. My mother would tell us the story of my grandmother (Sithee in Arabic) and her youth in Baskinta, Lebanon. At times it seemed somewhat unbelievable; as a young girl (she was only 14 years of age) she was sent to the river to bring water for her family and was kidnapped and wed to a young man. In those days one did not protest these events but merely lived with them as this was the way things were done. It would have also been considered disgraceful for her to return to her family after being gone for even one day and that disgrace would have extended to the entire family. I have never been really sure of the dates and timelines for all this (no one is) but I know she had a son and both her husband and son died in the 1918 influenza epidemic. My Sithee then moved to the USA with another prearranged marriage to a distant relative. She willing left and never returned to her homeland.

The older I get the more I value this history and the culture of my family that has now inculcated into my own life. Going to Lebanon was something that began as a stirring in my heart many years ago; one of those things you say to yourself that you always hope to do. We talked about and planned for it and while in Greece we had the opportunity to fly there during one of the local airlines promotional flights.

I must admit I felt a little overwhelmed when we first arrived. The fast pace of Beirut, the fact that I had only a few tidbits of family history made the task of trying to locate my family’s birthplace a little overwhelming.

We met a young man while at the Coral Beach Resort of Beirut with whom we shared our plans to drive to Baskinta and walk the grounds of my forefathers. He was the only person in Lebanon we had told of this plan and the first thing he said was that his Aunt lived in Baskintha and that we would love it. “You will find the people are lovely and the countryside exquisitely beautiful”. He then told us about “ El Mokhtar” (he is the mayor and the record keeper of the area). For most of us needing information on births, deaths, and marriages etc. we go the hall of records and look this information up. Not so, even the 21st century for Baskintha, Lebanon. He explained the process to us. El Mokhtar would look up the name Alam (our family name) and then be able to tell us if we had any relatives in the area. He may need to make a few calls but if they were there, he would know. He then called El Mokhtar and explained our situation.

He wrote down his name and told us once we got into Baskintha go to the bookstore across the street from the Nuns school and he will be waiting for you. This had the familiar ring of a recent hike we had taken in Greece; slightly vague. We set off with some information that our brother in law Jeff Long had found for us. The names and dates he gave were unfamiliar to me. To say the least I was a bit skeptical but persevered knowing I may never have this chance again. We did manage to find a Lebanese GPS and ventured out on a clear and sunny day. As we left the city we began to relax and the countryside quickly changed. It was beautiful and old.

We marvel at how the pace of life had changed (not the speed of the traffic) and we began to savor our adventure. We did find Baskintha with few hitches and actually did find the school and subsequently the bookstore (which really looked like a hardware store to us). We arrived at lunchtime so El Mokhtar was gone for the next hour. Next door was a beautiful fruit stand and market so we asked where we might get a bite to eat ourselves. The young woman called after two young men in Arabic and they promptly came over.
They looked at us for a few seconds and then said, “Well come on, lets go get something to eat.” They drove us through town and took us to the only opened restaurant in Baskintha. We felt as if we were eating with family. Plates of hummus, tabouli, bread, chicken, meats, potatoes, nuts, cabbage salad, meat and cheese turnovers, and a relish plate! It was delicious! We then walked back to El Mokhtar’s store and he was waiting for us. He had been expecting us from the call he had gotten from the night before. We sat in his office and reiterated the information we had.
He made a few phone calls and two men appeared. Both men’s surnames were Alam. They drove us to meet their families. I was somewhat excited to meet someone whom we were probably somehow related to how and enjoyed the coffee and deserts they offered. They do speak a little English so we shared stories about our family.
They then said it was time to go and meet more family. We shrugged and got in their car and off we went. We pulled up to a beautiful house and the led us to the door. “Welcome to your family home” they said and knocked.
We looked at each other not sure what to expect. When the door opened I will never forget the amazement I felt when I looked in the eyes of my mothers cousin. I knew this woman Samiri from a visit she made in 1974. My recollection at that time was she was moving to Australia. She did, and lived there for 15 years before moving back to Baskintha.
We kissed and hugged and within a few minutes all the cousins I had never met were at our door, greeting each other’s as …long lost family! Of course we must stay with her the rest of our trip and of course she would make us dinner! We did and they made a beautiful birthday celebration for Tom.

She revealed as much family history as she could. We were staying in the house my Sithees father had built and had left to his only son. This was the house were she grew up, the very house she had slept in!

It was amazing to say the least. We felt loved and welcome by everyone. News soon got out to the rest of Baskinta and people came from everywhere asking us to come visit with them as we were welcome as the rest of the Alam family.

Our visit was not quite as we had expected.

To walk on Baskinthas ground would have been enough. But what actually unfolded by far surpassed anything we could have expected.

The kindness of so many strangers, the welcoming of so many family members is now forever imprinted upon our hearts. To describe this as beautiful seems as if I have forgotten to tell you of the depth of its richness. The words seem insufficient but it feels as if a large piece of a puzzle in my life has been found and I am enriched because of it.

Of course, this is not the end of the story… only the beginning of another. So until then, au revoir!