Wednesday, May 30, 2007

How Did They Get Here?

Literally the first thing I saw in Albania was a bolt of lightning framed by ominously dark clouds amid a torrential downpour. Not the most promising start to a country. The south of Albania is home to the country's biggest tourist attraction: the ruins of Butrint. Probably 95% of the visitors to the country come here, not so much because the ruins are terribly spectacular (though they're not without their charm) but because they are less than an hour away by boat from the holiday island of Corfu. And so busloads of sunburnt Brits and Germans trample through on organised day-trips making inane comments as they pass. Once they are gone though it is possible to enjoy the place once more. The ruins are on a small peninsula in the middle of a brackish lagoon, joined to the mainland by a narrow isthmus. This means that everything is slightly swampy and partly underwater, giving the place a sort of lost-in-the-jungle atmosphere, especially with the throngs of sunning terrapins that slip into the water as you approach.

The southern port of Saranda, the entry point for the cruises from Corfu is certainly a strange place. There is a mad pace of development and there are many hotels strung out along the waterfront and more are being built, and yet I saw only one other tourist in town. Obviously they are waiting for next week's rush. Another paradox is that, despite being the second-poorest country in Europe (after Moldova) at least half the cars, and this is no exaggeration, are Mercs. Just like gold teeth and oversized shoes in Azerbaijan, Mercs are the must-have status symbol here in Albania. OK, so they're not brand new and are generally older, castaway European models, but they still point to something not quite legit going on below the surface, especially when most of the drivers seem to be young, thuggish looking men. Maybe it's better not to ask where the money comes from though (at least not the guys actually driving the cars).

Monday, May 28, 2007

Here Be Dragons

So here I am now in Albania. For quite some time now I've been telling all who would care to listen (and quite a few who didn't) that I was really looking forward to visiting the country. Not that I know much about the country, on the contrary, I know very little.Albania is Europe's very own black hole, a place we know must exist from surrounding,circumstantial evidence, but about which direct observational data is lacking. It is perhaps the most under reported country on the continent. But it must be a fascinating place as it is the only country unequivocally in Europe to have a Muslim majority; up until recently blood feuds were the norm in some regions; and during the Communist period it was one of the most isolated countries in the world (Enver Hoxha, the country's dictator, as well as breaking relations with the West, also broke diplomatic ties with most Communist countries because he perceived them as too lax and revisionist). But I have only just got here, so instead I will regale you with stories of my last few days in Greece.

After having been thwarted by Zeus on Olympus I felt determined to do at least some hiking and so set my sights on the Zagoria region in the northwest of the country. Despite Greece having a reputation as a beach-and-ruins holiday destination, the mountains of Zagoria easily hold their own in natural beauty and splendour when compared to other, more well known, hiking destinations although this may be partly because of the poorly marked trails on which getting lost is a certainty. It seems that the person marking the trails was given a paintball gun as the signs are just haphazard splotches of dull red paint, which unfortunately is very similar to the colour of a local species of lichen. Needless to say confusion reigns. But poor trail-finding aside I had a great time traipsing up and down the mountains and the fairytale gorges, though I am determined that in future I shall get myself better footwear and not just sandals held together by dental floss (a really useful tool for the intrepid traveller as it can be used to fix things, tie things together, as a fishing line, and, or so I am told although I believe it's an urban myth, one can also use it to help clean your teeth) and that I shall make a greater effort to leave non-essentials behind. Because I wasn't doing a circuit I had to lug all my baggage with me, which sometimes (depending on food and water) amounted to 25kg. Among the treasures of Zagoria were the Drakolimni (Dragon lake) whose population of placid, 5cm newts is scant reason for the fearsome name; the Vikos gorge whose awesome (in the original sense of the word), unscalable cliffs hem you in and make you fell oh-so small; and the traditional villages, with cute names like Papingo and Koukouli (reason enough to visit them), that blend into the hillsides with their simple and harmonious architecture. But the greatest feeling was finally coming out onto a high Alpine meadow after hours of slogging up a very steep hill and finding the place carpeted in yellow, blue and purple wildflowers in their millions, each smaller than a fingernail, tended to by bees living up to their reputations and knowing that I was the only person to revel in the sight, sound and smell of the place. Bliss, and certainly worth the preceding hours of torture.

A truly enchanting place to end my short stay in Greece, a country I plan to revisit for there is lots more to see. Though next time I will hopefully be able to pick up more of the language for I was spoilt by the Greeks' mastery of English (though my science background did help a bit in deciphering the alphabet and some of the meanings of words). One thing that I enjoyed linguistically though was finding uncommon English words alive and well and very common in Greece. So, for example, whilst waiting for a bus you are in stasis, when leaving the cinema you go out via the exodus, and metaphors aren't just for conveying ideas and images, but also goods (they're lorries).

But now for a change of scenery and a slightly more sedate itinerary of city-hopping, at least until my calves manage to untie the mass of knots that have formed in them.

Friday, May 25, 2007


In a slight change from my usual fare of travel posts, today's post contains 8 random facts about me as I was tagged by Ini with a malicious meme that is spreading around the entire blogosphere. Anyway, I'm not sure if I'll be able to come up with 8 interesting things to say about myself, but here goes anyway.
  1. As a kid I used to make sure I climbed the same number of steps with each foot i.e. if I went up a flight with an odd number of steps beginning with my left foot the next flight would be started with the right foot.
  2. I have developed an intense dislike for throwing food away and will go to great lengths not to (licking the very last morsels out of jars of honey or chocolate spread and picking the last scraps of meat off bones) and will generally finish up the leftovers from other people's meals. When I was housesharing I often didn't even have to cook!
  3. I used to be a huge Lord of the Rings fan (well before the films came out) although with some therapy I am slowly getting better. By the time I was 12 I had read the book over 10 times (sometimes I read in class whilst the teacher was talking and once he even confiscated my book, so I just went to the library and loaned it out) and have since read it in two other languages. I used to collect the original Middle Earth card game and my dreams came true when I lived on the road with Tolkien's Two Towers and could see them every morning from my bedroom window.
  4. I am not good around babies and little kids in general. They're OK from the age of about 6 until 12 when you can start indoctrinating them properly. Then is the whole adolescent period when they should just be locked away in a cellar until they're 16 (I speak from experience as a teacher!) when they can once again be let out once the whole puberty debacle has passed.
  5. I'm full of useless trivia. It comes from reading too much. I can't do anything practical, but ask me the height of Everest, the capital of Mauritania, or the names of the 4 stomachs of a cow (in order) then I'm your man.
  6. Despite having a driving licence for the past 7 years I've barely driven since and I, for one, certainly wouldn't trust me behind the wheel of a car.
  7. I am completely tone-deaf, can't sing (don't know the complete words to any songs anyway) and have next to no coordination. Therefore my only party piece is the ability to snap my fingers in a very loud and strange way.
  8. I've let my facial hair grow into quite an impressive beard, of which I am more than slightly proud, because I am lazy, I use it to store food, and because I thought it would help make me look more Muslim whilst travelling in the Middle East (didn't work though as I still wasn't allowed into the al Aqsa mosque).

Since this is a meme and must be passed on I tag Kangaroo so that she can practice her English and because there isn't anything better to do in Bielefeld. I know I ought to tag more, but since I'm travelling I don't have time to read hundreds of blogs regularly.

(In case you're wondering, the answers to the trivia questions are: 8848m; Nouakchott; and the rumen, reticulum (also sometimes referred to together as the reticulorumen), the omasum and the abomasum.)

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Mad(e) In Macedonia

For the past year or so I have been following, on and off, in the footsteps of Alexander the Great. From Mount Aornos and the banks of the Jhelum river in Pakistan, through the remains of Persepolis, a couple of Alexandria's (one in Turkey and one in Egypt) and as far as the Siwa oasis by the Libyan border. This guy sure got around! But now I have finally come to where it all started, here in Macedonia.

Actually it all started with Alexander's father Philip, who took Macedonia from being a poor, backwater Greek province to ruling the entire country, so that when Alexander came to power he had to look further afield to do his conquering, creating the largest empire the world had seen. It's a shame then, after spreading Hellenism far and wide and founding so many cities (at least 9 more bearing his name) that so little tangible evidence remains of those halcyon days in Macedonia itself. Of the once-great capital Pella and the majestic royal city of Aegae barely anything remains above a few foundations (even the names of the cities themselves are mostly forgotten). Luckily neither time nor people managed to get at Philip's tomb at Aegae where there is enough opulence and gold to give even Tutankhamun a run for his money.

And seeing as we're on the subject now's a good time to talk about the Macedonia question. Ask any Greek and they will tell you that Macedonia is the region of northern Greece, always has been, always will be. Whereas your average European would probably say, "oh, isn't that one of those countries formed by the breakup of Yugoslavia?" No (Oχι)! insist the Greeks. Only a small part of that country is actually Macedonia. And of course they steadfastly refuse to call it Macedonia, preferring to say Former Yugoslav Republic Of Macedonia, or better yet just FYROM or Skopje (after the capital) so that they don't need to use the M word. The Greeks feel that their northern neighbours are trying to usurp their history with every new instance of name-grabbing (e.g. calling the main airport in Skopje, Alexander the Great airport) making the headlines this side of the border and further fanning the flames of discontent. To illustrate how emotive an issue this is among the normally phlegmatic Greeks one only has to hear the story of a once-popular celebrity who got the dream job of hosting the Eurovision song contest two years ago when it was held in Greece. After inadvertently calling Macedonia (the country) Macedonia her gaffe made the front pages of every newspaper and her career lay in tatters. But at least it's good to know which buttons to press to annoy the Greeks.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Frappé In The Rain

"Welcome to the city of dampness," was how Theo, my local contact in Thessaloniki, greeted me. And although I'm sure he was exaggerating the weather seems to be wanting to prove him right with a steady serving of drizzle interspersed with regular downpours. And although Thessaloniki might not be everyone's number one sun, sand and sea destination the city has much to offer. Thessaloniki has always been Greece's second city, during the Byzantine period it played understudy to Constantinople and today to Athens; but Salonicans don't mind as they take things easy drinking their frappés (which, by the way, were invented in Thessaloniki) because they know that in terms of culture and nightlife they are number one. And so with Theo and a few of his friends I indulged in a spot of cafe culture, something I have rarely done on my trip (partly from expense and partly because nursing a solitary drink in a place crowded with groups of chattering people is a sure-fire way of feeling lonely).

At first glance it would be hard to guess at Thessaloniki's historical pedigree as most of the town is modern and extraordinarily unspectacular owing to a huge fire in 1917 which destroyed most of the city. Of the buildings that did survive many were churches, some amongst the oldest in the world. So, every so often, whilst wandering through the city, you will come across these squat, dowdy brick buildings sitting incongruously amongst the bland concrete jungle. And although the churches aren't particularly pretty to look at from the outside either, some of them have exquisite mosaics and frescoes inside. And if you're lucky you might even come across an old Turkish bath or Ottoman mosque, but you might not know as they look just like the old churches.

One aspect of Thessaloniki's history that I found rather intriguing was that, during the Ottoman period and after the fall of Iberia to the Catholics, it became the Jewish capital of Europe as the exiled Sephardic Jews found a new, more welcoming, home for themselves. And up until the beginning of the last century the Jews formed the majority in the city (before WWII there were more Jews in Thessaloniki than Jerusalem). What makes this particularly interesting is that, following the Nazi occupation of Greece when some three quarters of the Jews were killed and much of their property destroyed, very little remains to testify the once-vibrant community, and this, coupled with the scant attention that is paid to the Ottoman period of their history (unless it's the Greek resistance movement), means that this is a facet of their history of which many Salonicans are only vaguely aware.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Defying The Gods

In Egypt you can go up Mount Sinai and talk to God. But here in Greece you can go up Mount Olympus and talk to twelve! The highest mountain in Greece is home to Zeus (god of Thunder) and his band of deitic henchmen: Poseidon (Seas), Hera (Marriage and general Queen), Demeter (Agriculture), Artemis (Hunting), Apollo (Light and Music), Athena (Wisdom), Hephaestus (Fire and Craftsmanship), Ares (War), Aphrodite (Love), Hermes (Messenger), Dionysus (Wine and Festivity). Together they sometimes fought against evil and injustice, but mainly squabbled amongst themselves like a large, unruly family, with many petty jealousies, intrigues and plenty of infidelity. Rather than ineffable the Greeks preferred their gods to have human qualities.

It is not hard to see why the mountain was considered the home of the gods, and of Zeus in particular. Rising almost straight up from the sea the 2900m of rock dominate the surroundings and an almost permanent cloud swirls around the top, obscuring it from view giving Zeus et al. some much-needed privacy. The cloudy summit didn't bother me as the conditions change rapidly on mountain tops and I was planning to stay the night at a refuge some 2100m up and scale the final stretch in the morning. The path to the shelter leads through a steep and beautiful gorge full of trees, chattering birds and also the occasional waterfall. Despite the odd bit of drizzle the going was straightforward and enjoyable. As I reached the 1500m mark the deciduous trees (hornbeam, oak and others?) started thinning out to be replaced by fir and pine* (or some other coniferous tree type). Now that I had lost my cover the rain started to really pour, and so by the time I reached the refuge I was well and truly soaked, But that was OK as I had spare clothes and there were wood fires to help dry my stuff. No, the real problems started the next morning. When I woke up it was to see nothing but white outside the window. Initially I thought it was just low-lying clouds, and to a large extent it was, but there was something more sinister afoot. After more than two and a half years of successfully oscillating north and south to maintain myself in clement weather I thought I wouldn't have any more climate problems here in Europe in May. How wrong I was, and so here in Greece, in May, I experienced the first snow storm of my entire trip. (Upon returning to the saner weather at the foot of the mountain I told the lady with whom I had left my large backpack that it was snowing on the top; she was so shocked that she crossed herself in worry.) Obviously Zeus was not wanting to be disturbed and was trying to give me a hint. It was not good news as my shoes have finally developed a hole (in the sole that is, as they've already had quite a few holes round the sides for some time now) and walking on snow would be pretty dicey (I had already experienced snow on a mountain in Pakistan and didn't enjoy it, and so I certainly wasn't planning on repeating the unpleasantness here). I was therefore stuck, with a large gaggle of older Germans, waiting for the weather to clear. By noon it had, but a good deal of powder had already been dumped, especially higher up and so, despite not really wanting to, I had to turn back and cut my losses rather than risk pressing on for uncertain rewards and definite risks. A real shame as I had been looking forward to bagging myself another mythical peak, but at least I know it's not going anywhere and I can try again later.

*I'm not much of a botanist and during the course of my trip I've seen many different plant species, and my combined experience has led me to develop a new, revolutionary classification system for flora that, in my opinion, is far more useful than the classical Linnaean taxonomy. I have split plants into two main families: prickly and non-prickly. The former I loathe and are to be avoided at all costs, whereas the latter are generally OK as long as their branches don't whip into my face as I walk past.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Suspended In The Air

It's good to be back in Europe. The more I travel the smaller the differences between European countries and the greater the similarities become, especially the little things that I've missed in the wilds of Asia. It's not that the public transport is better or more punctual, it's that people allow others room to get off before getting on themselves (anyone who's been on a train in India will know what I'm talking about); it's not that food in shops is of a better quality (it often isn't), it's that you don't need to ask the price of every single item and be suspicious of being overcharged; and it's not even that the toilets are cleaner (personally I don't really care), it's that even the public toilets have paper; but best of all no matter what you are buying, no matter how small, every shop has change and there's no need to go running round the neighbours to break down a 10 euro note. Though perhaps things are a bit too clean and sanitised here as I've just discovered that I suffer from hay fever, something that didn't afflict me in the grubbier parts of Asia.

British mythology is rather anaemic compared to its continental cousins, which is probably why, as children, we are reared on ancient Greek legends instead. For us they're just rather colourful stories and little else, but travelling through Greece makes them more real. Just driving along, every corner of the country seems to have mythic connections - there's the spring in which Achilles was dipped as a baby; there's the crossroads where Oedipus killed his father; and this is the temple of the Delphic Oracle. For the ancient Greeks there was nowhere as important as Delphi, for then it was, quite literally, the centre of the world, and there was even a special stone to mark the exact spot (Delphi joins the select club of the Templo Mayor in Mexico City, Cusco in Peru, and Jerusalem, each of which was considered to be the exact centre of the universe by the local people). The Oracle was the most most important figure in the Greek world, handing out ambiguous predictions and always consulted during the most important political disputes. Sadly little remains of the glorious temple of Apollo and its vast wealth, but the site still retains a certain mystique as it hugs an only-mildly-steep slope below the towering cliffs of Mount Parnassos, and from its lofty position commands a breathtaking view all the way down to the Gulf of Corinth. The sparsely populated mountainside is also an ideal place to camp out (a combination of rising accommodation prices and dwindling funds are making this my first choice option) despite there not being enough level ground to set up a tent. The pleasant climate, great views and clear, starry skies made a simple mat ample for my needs, although the cheeky owl in the tree above me needed to be taught some manners for waking me up in the middle of the night with his impertinent hooting (or perhaps he was sent by Athena to scold my cheapskate behaviour).

From Delphi I managed to hitch north to the gravity-defying monasteries of Meteora, immortalised in pop culture by the James Bond caper For Your Eyes Only. The name means "suspended in the air", and although the epithet could be used for much of Greece (which I am informed is 75% mountains) it is particularly fitting here. Over a small area, and seemingly out of nowhere, massive sandstone pillars reach skywards. Already 1000 years ago the spot was popular amongst anchorites trying to get away from it all and over time monastic communities were set up. During Ottoman rule they were a bastion of Greek Orthodox culture and today, due to the combined attractions of the natural scenery and immaculately preserved churches (with undoubtedly the best Orthodox frescoes I have yet seen), they are one of the country's biggest tourist draws. Unfortunately that is the one drawback of the place as the asphalt roads that now connect all the monasteries allow busloads of tourists to be disgorged beside modern, wide stairways that lead to the summits. The erstwhile magic of their isolation has been heavily tarnished. Still, it is possible to get away from the masses and get lost (literally) amongst the alleyways between these natural skyscrapers and forget about the modern world for a few hours just like the tortoises that crash through the undergrowth oblivious to everything else, safe in the knowledge that they are protected by their shells.

On a rather unrelated note (and being too lazy to try to seamlessly bridge two disparate topics) I noticed something in one of the monasteries that made me laugh and cringe in equal measure. In a small history and folklore museum there was a display conflating the glory and achievements of the ancient Greeks (which are undeniably many) with the Greek Orthodox church and Byzantine empire. Among the many claims made are that the Byzantine Orthodox empire [sic] is the spiritual, moral and mystagogical inheritor of ancient Hellenism and that it provided the "moral principles and values of the universe". Dramatic hyperbole aside it is important to note that there are civilisations more ancient than the Greek that gave the world such things as writing and codified laws, but more importantly that it was the Byzantine church that destroyed and desecrated the heritage of the ancient Greeks (most probably being responsible for the destruction of the library of Alexandria), and any writings that survived were handed down to us via the Arabs. Similarly the Ottoman Turks were described as bloodthirsty, torturing atheists. Now personally I find nothing wrong with pride in one's country and heritage, but such misrepresentations only breed ignorance and bigotry. I'm very curious to see how much these views are shared by the average Zorba on the street.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

New Finds Old

Athens! Home of philosophy, democracy (possibly the two most important ideas that Western civilisation has given the world) and other such worthy ideas. No other city epitomises classical civilisation as much as Athens and the Parthenon, which presides loftily above the city, is one of the most iconic buildings in the world. The city itself is generally clean and pleasant, having been spruced up for the 2004 Olympics, with plenty of streetside cafes for al fresco espresso-sipping and leisurely people-watching. On the whole though Athens is rather generic and unassuming (without the Parthenon it could be any prosperous, large Western city) since it lost its pre-eminence and became a provincial backwater in the Middle Ages; most of the buildings have sprung up since World War II. A few antique columns can still be seen here and there in parks and below the Acropolis and indicate a more illustrious past. And indeed, if you scratch the surface you will be rewarded, as many recent developers have found out. As you wander around downtown you may notice modern buildings performing contortions around ancient remains that were only brought to light during their construction. It's one of the reasons why the city almost wasn't prepared for the Olympics on time, as building plans had to be altered in light of new archaeological finds. The new museum being built to house the Parthenon exhibition is behind schedule because an ancient neighbourhood was discovered on the site and so the design had to be altered to incorporate it into the display (at least now you get two museums for the price of one). And even some of the new metro stations contain in situ remains that are more interesting than some sites I've had to pay to visit. But apart from the old relics Athens doesn't hold much fascination for me, so it's off into the Greek hinterland today.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Pirates Of The Mediterranean

What shall we do with the drunken sailor,
What shall we do with the drunken sailor,
What shall we do with the drunken sailor,
Early in the morning?

I'm the wrong person to ask that question to as neither did I see a drunken sailor, nor did I get up early in the morning to observe them, had they been drunken. Yes, the passage to Greece was pretty uneventful and I was mighty glad that I had managed to find a second-hand English bookshop in Haifa before leaving. The boat was a rather small ('only' 150m long) ferry that mainly transported containers although there were a handful of drivers sharing the passage with me. There wasn't much to do aboard except reading, sleeping and eating, all of which I did in abundance. I'm certain that the cook, despite being Greek, had learnt his trade at a greasy spoon cafe in the Eastend of London: breakfast consisted of bacon, processed sausage and eggs over-easy, whereas lunch and dinner were invariably a combination of pasta, potatoes and some sort of meat.

On the second day I was looking forward to some time looking around Limassol (Cyprus) but we were docked for only a few hours and were denied shore leave (and since the second mate had my passport I was in no position to argue). At least I knew I was well and truly back in Europe as the sky was heavily overcast and there was a constant miserable drizzle. Our excitement for the next day (it is in short supply on the monotonous seas and therefore has to be rationed) was passing between Rhodes and the southwesternmost tip of Turkey. But at least the sea was calm throughout the voyage, with only a slight, soothing rocking to accompany the low, enveloping vibrations of the motors. (How Odysseus managed to get lost for 12 years on these waters is completely beyond me.)

And now here I am in Piraeus, Athens's port. I'm somewhat disoriented and need time to regain my balance as I was popped out at the goods terminal some way out of town. I was looking around desperately for the immigration office but was told that there's no need (god bless the EU!) and so I hopped aboard a random bus and hoped it was going somewhere useful. I managed to find the town centre and an internet cafe as well as a metro station (yay!) and so now I am desperately searching for places to stay (anybody have some room to spare in Athens??).

Tuesday, May 08, 2007


I have been here in Israel a month now and I'm leaving today. As I've promised myself that I wouldn't fly and with the infamous Israeli passport stamp travelling through the Middle East has become infinitely more problematic. My only solution as I saw it, without unnecessary backtracking, was by boat. Finding one here in Haifa was altogether less adventurous and far more easy than in Djibouti: I went to the port, who told me to try a travel agency, who gave me the name of a shipping company, and a short conversation and credit card transaction later I was the proud owner of a ticket by cargo ship to Piraeus, Greece. OK, so the process wasn't particularly glamorous, it's slightly more expensive than flying and it will take two and a half days to get there, but I'm stubborn and I decided to go by boat so I'll bloody well go by boat (plus it's a far more environmentally friendly way to travel than by air).

So, as my time here in the Promised Land (a.k.a. The Conflict Zone) is drawing to a close what are my thoughts? Well, first of all it would have been easier for my political views if the Israelis were all obnoxious, overbearing, conceited fascists. Unfortunately they are friendly, welcoming and hospitable people; and so too are the Palestinians. So what's causing the mess here and how can it be resolved? Well I'll be buggered if I know. But it seems to me that there is an irrational part to many people's minds when it comes to discussing the situation and that it has been festering for so long that people don't know what to do without it; it has become its own raison d'etre. I even met a Palestinian who stated that the Koran says this region will have continual violence and that there's no point in trying to stop it. Such fatalistic attitudes are not particularly helpful. I was, however, heartened to meet a great deal of Israelis who detest their own country's colonialist stance and would love to give back the Golan, the West Bank and Gaza for peace but there are too many interested parties on both sides to be able to reach some sort of consensus. (Actually, come to think of it, I didn't talk to a single religious Israeli, and if I hadn't seen all the yarmulkes and curly side-locks in Jerusalem and Hebron I would have thought the Jewish Israeli was just a myth.) Personally I think the opportunity was missed right at the start in 1948 when a single, federal state was proposed as a solution but rejected. Such a settlement may not have been perfectly harmonious, but it could hardly have been worse. A Palestinian state cut in two by another (not necessarily friendly) neighbour just isn't viable, especially given its small size. But who am I to judge, far cleverer people have spent years trying to resolve the Gordian knot that is Palestine and Israel, but there's just not getting over the twin irrationalities of nationalistic pride and religion to make any sensible solution possible.
To illustrate the point people from both sides they have no problems with people from the other, often saying that they even have Israeli/Arab friends. Often Israelis will even say they prefer Arabs, on a personal level, to Europeans. So when I was hitching in the desert I put on my keffiyeh to protect me from the harsh noon sun. I was standing for quite a while before I eventually got picked up by a kind couple. They saw that I was a foreign backpacker, but advised me not to wear the keffiyeh as people "might think I'm an Arab".

But enough of politics, from a purely touristy aspect there is a multitude of things to see here and despite the small size of the place I particularly enjoyed some of the natural highlights; and especially the verdant hills of the Golan (after the parched, open landscapes of the Middle East) have made me long for the greenery of Europe and certainly appreciate plain, simple grass more. So, Europe, here I come!

Monday, May 07, 2007

Too Much Holiness

How much holiness can one land have? Not enough apparently. Israel (and the occupied territories) is not only home to the holiest sites of Judaism, Christianity and Islam but also of the relatively new Baha'i faith. (Actually, just to be perfectly correct, the territory also contains the holiest sites for the Druze and Samaritans, but they're not the focus of today's post.) The religion's prophet, Bahá'u'lláh, was exiled from Persia to the Palestine city of Akko (Acre) where he spent the rest of his days writing and preaching. Now the cities of of Akko and Haifa, looking across at each other across a shallow bay, house the holiest sites of the religion as well as the Universal House of Justice, the world headquarters of the religion. The gardens surrounding the Baha'i shrine here in Haifa have even become the city's biggest tourist attraction. What makes this pretty odd, at least in my opinion, is the fact that there are no Baha'is in Israel. This dates back to even before the founding of the state of Israel when the Baha'is thought it best not to get involved in the local politics and made a decision not to have any permanent community there. So all the Baha'is that administer the site are here only as temporary volunteers. But the Baha'is themselves don't seem to mind as they are a rather easy-going and accepting people,and anyway, even if they did mind they're pacifists and wouldn't be able to do much about it anyway.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Reality Shock

My trip so far has been hassle-free and more or less without hitch (apart from losing my camera in Azerbaijan and getting stuck in Djibouti), for which I am very grateful. I am always surprised when I hear scare stories of people getting robbed, horribly conned or even physically threatened. But all this became frighteningly real for me today when I received an e-mail from a Mrs Chicovsky, the mother of Ryan, a guy I had met whilst travelling in China. Although I only spent a couple of days with him I remember him well and have fond memories of our adventure together. It seems that last year, whilst travelling in Laos Ryan went missing and hasn't been seen since. I feel somehow slightly guilty that I ambled through the same place without incident and that my glowing praise of the place may have helped convince Ryan go himself. However, there is no evidence that he is dead and therefore hope still remains. If you think you may have any information please visit the following website and get in touch with his parents. I cannot begin to imagine what they must have gone through this past year and I sincerely hope the situation resolves itself happily.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Land Mine

I had seen the south and centre of the country and now it was time for the north. So I made my way to lake Tiberias (a.k.a. the Sea of Galilee, or the Kinneret in Hebrew) passing by Nazareth and Megiddo on the way. The former was the home of Jesus and, as such, has the requisite churches commemorating various events of the Bible; and the latter is where the end of the world will happen (Armageddon is an evolution of the term Har-Megiddo, or "hill of Megiddo"). For a place with such a weighty destiny the unassuming mound with its assorted ruins falls rather short of the expectations built up by Hollywood films. There is, however, a rather cool underground water reservoir and, something I found highly ironic, a large military jail close by. I wonder if the inmates ever think about whether they will get out of Armageddon before Armageddon. Lake Tiberias itself is part of the same water system as the Dead Sea and is therefore over 200m below sea level, giving it a particularly warm climate all year round and therefore making it a popular weekend outing spot for Israelis and camping by the lake shore is fun and easy. As per usual there are your standard Jesus sites dotted around the place, such as the place where Jesus performed the miracle of the loaves and fishes and gave his Sermon on the Mount (rather a misnomer if you ask me, as the mount in question is probably below sea level), possibly the most important part of his teachings. Somehow though the teachings, especially those of helping thy neighbour, fell on deaf ears, at least for the pilgrims that actually visit the church that now stands on the holy spot, as I had to wait over an hour to hitch a ride out of there.

But in the end I did manage to continue my journey northwards into Upper Galilee and the Golan. The Golan Heights are probably one of the most contentious pieces of real estate in the world. The high plateau overlooks the Jordan valley below it and is a source of much of the water flowing into lake Tiberias, and as such is strategically very important for Israel. However the Heights do not belong to Israel and are Syrian, which is the view of the international community despite Israel occupying the area since 1967. The land is now the bone of contention between the two sides with the Syrians, justifiably, wanting it back and the Israelis saying that "retaining Israel's sovereignty over the Golan will be the basis for an arrangement with Syria". And the unfortunate Druze who are caught between the two sides, their community split, are the ones who are paying the price. Most of them are still Syrian citizens and would like to be reunited with their families whom they cannot visit. The closest they come is by shouting to each other from hills on either side of the dividing fence (a situation described in the film The Syrian Bride). A real shame as they seem to be such friendly people, going about their business and tending to their apple orchards that deck the hillsides, the women wrapped up in voluminous white shawls and the men sporting bushy moustaches and white beanies.

Whilst traipsing about I accidentally stumbled across the "line of disengagement" as it is known; I could tell as, along with the abandoned remains of Syrian bunkers I was suddenly surrounded by a barbed wire fence with signs proclaiming that ahead was a mine field. I decided to turn back. I can certainly understand why both sides are scrapping over the land (apart from the aforementioned strategic reasons) as it is undoubtedly the most beautiful part of Israel and its various occupied territories (ah, the linguistic contortions that we have to make to remain geopolitically correct), teeming with lush greenery and humming with bird life. Coupled with the clear air and the wildflowers it was hard for me to imagine that so much blood and tears had been shed for this little idyll, and that many more probably will be before the situation is resolved. In the main Jewish settlement in the Golan I saw various posters justifying the Israeli de facto annexation and the one that irked me most was one that said that the Golan was less than 1% of the area of Syria. As if the relative size was a valid justification in its own right. I had an overwhelming urge to write below it that Jerusalem was less than 1% of the area of Israel, but then I thought that some locals might take it seriously and I didn't want to get lynched.