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P1050199 by you.
Taken inside Rabin Crossing (Israel/Jordan border crossing... no photography allowed)

Can someone identify these two world leaders for me?  I assume one of them is a past Prime Minister of Israel.

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I went down to Abu Simbel yesterday.

p1050731 by you.

Abu Simbel was officially a temple to Isis, but it's real purpose was twofold:
- Stroke the pharaoh's ego
- Scare neighboring civilizations into providing tribute.

The temple is filled with scenes of the Egyptian army slaughtering and enslaving other civilizations.  They made  sure to be racially inclusive.. they had a Nubian, a Hittite, a Greek of some sort, an Assyrian etc. 

Anyway, Abu Simbel was very impressive, and well worth the 3-hour drive each way through the Sahara.


So I have this thing about blogging at various ancient monuments and other nice places.  For example:

p1030752  p1030753
Ephesus, Turkey

p1010742  p1010744
Ankgor Wat, Cambodia

Taba, Egypt

Akko, Israel

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Having a laptop has been seriously wonderful.  I chose one (EEE PC 901) that has around six hours of battery life, weighs around two pounds, and costs only $350.  It's good enough to handle email, browsing the web, writing documents, and other basics.  The version of Linux that comes with it is kind of wonky though... any attempt to do something out of the ordinary (eg use an ipod as an external hard drive) has been a pain in th ass.    The computer also crashes half the time when coming out of standby.  Even so, it's wonderful, and it beats lugging around a full size laptop.  It's also a great conversation starter... apparently people haven't seen subnotebooks before.

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I crossed back into Israel from Jordan with a couple of people I had met during my Wadi Rum trip. They had been to Syria, so they had some hassle getting through. While they awaited their fate at the ultra-secure waiting room, I noticed the music that was playing in the background --- Monty Python's Always Look on the Bright Side of Life (unedited). This was followed by a saccharine Somewhere Over the Rainbow. This is especially interesting to hear while being surrounded by border guards with machine guns. It also recalls a particular scene from the 1997 movie Face/Off, which also featured men in machine guns superimposed with that song.

In other news, there appears to have been some kind of Christian holiday this past weekend, as loads of them (Copts, I think) were streaming out of Egypt into Israel, presumably to visit Jerusalem. I suppose that back in the day, the Christians needed something to compete with Passover.


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Look into the eyes of the cat on the left and try as hard as you can not to anthropomorphize.
On second thought, go for it:

P1040191 by you.

Taken by me in Jaffa, Israel.

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Old Jaffa had an artist's quarter that was almost entirely unimpressive.  There was a lot of trite biblical art as well as some guy who had become quite rich and famous selling shiny sculptures of limited aesthetic value.  I'm guessing the latter guy simply had a good marketing team. 

however, there was one lovely artist who crocheted bizarre organic forms out of various types of yarn.  She wouldn't let me photograph her amazing creations, didn't have a website, and didn't even know how to use a computer.  However, I did find some of her work on the web, probably from people who bought some and are reselling it:

You creative knitting/crocheting crafty folk (you know who you are...) would enjoy it. 

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The thing I posted about earlier with the security guy confusing Turkey and Syria sort of makes sense now.

Written sideways on the Turkish Visa is "Seri: A"  which presumably means "Series A" in Turkish.  Maybe, since he already had the passport sideways, he saw the star and crescent and "Seri", and thought that was the English spelling for Syria. 

Still, someone who does security for a living should know what a Turkish visa looks liek.
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It's the Israeli burningman.  This country more or less invented psy-trance, so I'm guessing the music would be fantastic.  It would mean spending a lot of extra time in Israel though.

This is offtopic, but I love this technically correct ly translated "Evacuation Plan" from the Q&A:

Where can we evacuate? The site holds in 2 kinds of lavatory's at 5 points (see map): comical lavatory's and "like at home toilets" (at cost of few shekels), reports of unclean points will be taken care of.

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Logistically speaking, more or less everything had been running smoothly on my trip. Not that I believe in the conservation of luck, but it appears that I was overdue for some trouble.

It all started when I had the bright idea to ship my Eurail pass to my friend's cousin's house in Tel Aviv, Israel instead of sending it to the bay area and having one of the people in the bay area who is coming to visit me bring it. It seemed like a good idea at the time to get this expensive package somewhere close to me instead of relying on someone else to tote it overseas. (Eurail passes, which give you unlimited travel on all of Europe's trains, run around $800 for 3 weeks)

The first bad sign occurred when I got a very anachronistic phone call from a Eurail representative while wandering through ancient roman ruins at Ephesus. They couldn't find anyone to sign for the package, so it was being placed on hold. My friend told me that I'd have to retrieve it from the Tel Aviv DHL office in Airport City. She also gave me a note allowing me to pick up the package even though it was mailed to someone else. “Hey, that's easy”... I thought. “I should totally ship more stuff to myself that way. I can get Lonely Planet guides for $10 off Amazon instead of paying the $50 local booksellers want.”

everything breaks along the way but it turns out ok in the end )

So, what have I learned?
I love the DHL employees of Tel Aviv.
Google Maps is not the pope. Google Maps is not infallible. Then again the pope isn't infallible either. But they're still different in other ways.
Always have a phone number for the place you're trying to get to as backup.
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Israel spends a huge amount of money on security. They treat train stations, bus stations, malls, and even some restaurants the way we treat airports. However, there are high value targets and not-so-high-value targets, and resources are limited. Apparently the Lev Hamifratz train station is in the latter category.

Security officer: (at entrance to train station) Passport please.

He looks at the passport... he starts looking really concerned when he sees the United Arab Emirates stamp, complete with scary-looking (pretty) Arabic script.

Me: I went to Dubai.
SO: That's what this is? U.A.E. ?
Me: Yes.

He keeps looking.

Me: No, I didn't go to Syria. That's Turkey.
SO: That's not Syria?
Me: No, that's a Turkey visa. That's the Turkish flag. It says “Turkey” right there.
SO: Where's your Israel immigration stamp?
Me: Over here. Ben-Gurion airport.
SO: Oh, ok. Go ahead.
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More stories from Jerusalem:

This place is the closest you will come to experiencing day-to-day life in a city of 2000 years ago. Cars are kept out of the old city, so you pass through everything on foot. Streets are a cavernous human-scale tan stone habitrail of arched passageways, stairways, and narrow alleys. Religious buildings dominate the skyline, and people are squeezed into stone buildings in between. Every shop is a little hole-in-the-wall. It's glorious.

Ah, back to religion, the city's focus.

The holiest Christian site, the location where Jesus was supposedly laid to rest, was honored with an enormous church, but the six responsible Christian sects were fighting so bitterly about how exactly to decorate the church that they had to hand over the keys to the church to a Muslim because they couldn't trust one another. The responsibility of mediating for the squabbling Christians has been passed down through the same family for generations. Even now, Christ's tomb is decorated in a mishmash of six different styles of candelabra. The line for Christ's tomb was very long, but I found a porthole where I could look in. While the sight of a rock that may or may not have been the location of Jesus's final resting place didn't have much effect on me, I was very interested to see how it affected true believers. Their emotional reactions were stunning and beautiful. This was their culmination of a lifetime of faith – a trip to the holy lands, and a chance to ground their faith in something physical.

There's a huge jam-packed Jewish cemetery by the Mount of Olives. Apparently the Bible can be interpreted to state that at the end of the world, God will raise the dead starting at the Mount of Olives and then gradually working his way out. Basically, these people are all jostling (and I mean jostling.... these graves are cheek-to-cheek) to be the first in line to Heaven. They want to get all the good seats before they're all taken.

My friend Daniel was hustled by a rabbi at the holiest of Jewish holy sites, the Western Wall. While we were looking at an old copy of the Torah on display at the Wall, the rabbi pulled him aside, gave him some blessing, and then hit him up for cash. Daniel provided some, and then the rabbi tried to hit him up for more cash. So much for the holiest of holy sites.

I spent some time walking through the Muslim quarter. Parts of it have the edgy rough-and-ready feel you get in some lower-class neighborhoods in the US. However, other parts were filled with schoolchildren happily playing, oblivious to the tension. I noticed a lot of Palestinian kids with toy guns. These toy guns were all black, unlike the orange-lined ones you see in toy stores in the US. These also weren't little shiny funny-shaped ray guns. They looked sufficiently like real guns that I felt a bit uneasy. There were 14-year old kids waving around convincing-looking toy machine guns just a couple of blocks from where 19-year-old Israeli Defense Forces soldiers were standing around with real, loaded machine guns looking for signs of trouble. This can't end well.

I have very limited data to go on, but it seems like the Israeli government is already making a lot of compromises to the Palestinians to keep the peace in Jerusalem. Non-Muslims are not allowed into many sections of the city, and Muslims are given full control of the top of the Temple Mount even though it's also one of the holiest sites in the world for Jews, and there's plenty of empty space up on the Temple Mount to put up a Jewish temple in between the mosques.

My friends and I discussed various potential solutions to creating peace in the Middle East, but almost all of them came down to the same problem... there are enough fanatics on both sides who will screw up any compromise even if it's not in their best interest to do so.

I think the only real solution will have to involve forced cultural intermixing, and for that to be successful it has to be started when people are very young. It's hard to demonize a group when you've had playmates from that group as far back as you can remember. Currently parents can choose public integrated schooling or various faiths of religious schooling for their kids. Thus fundamentalists can raise their children in a very indoctrinating environment where they are not exposed to peers of other faiths. For intermixing to occur, public school needs to be mandatory and fully integrated, starting from preschool. This needs to happen for the good of society. It will require very effective teachers, as fundamentalist parents will probably be arming their children with various prejudices. It will also require Israel to give up some aspects of being a Jewish state, as ultra-orthodox Jews would no longer be able to raise their children in a biblically strict manner. However, the benefits of educating an entire generation of tolerant youth are well worth paying for, especially given the astronomically high cost Israel currently pays for security, both in terms of military budget and in terms of lost productivity.

I'm relatively new to this whole situation, so those of you who are experts on the Middle East should share your thoughts.
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There's so much to say about this place. It's beautiful, unique, and completely fucked up.

Jerusalem is an especially ancient city that happens to also contain the holiest sites of three of the world's religions. It's been fought over, captured, and recaptured by many different groups for millenia. It's currently filled with Israeli-Palestinean tension, and the police are constantly on high alert.

So what's it actually like in person? Here are some tales:

First, Jerusalem reminds me a lot of my visit to Houston. Why? Because it's full of Texans. There are more bible-belters here than just about anywhere else in the world, and that includes any blue state in the US. Jerusalem is basically a giant biblical pub crawl. Here's the place where Jesus had his last supper, there's where he dropped under the weight of the cross and Mary helped him up again, there's the tree that some prophet climbed up to hear Jesus give a famous sermon etc. It's fairly common knowledge that most of these sites were “discovered” in the 12th century when the crusaders showed up, but that doesn't stop the people from coming.

I soon realized something: In terms of both tourists and, especially, residents, Jerusalem attracts fundamentalists of many faiths, and the trouble with many fundamentalists is that they're fervent, stubborn, unswayed by logic, and sometimes a bit crazy. So essentially, the city is a magnet for crazies. This partially explains why things are such a mess. I've met fairly secular Jews in Tel Aviv who basically see Jerusalem as nothing more than a big security risk.

An anecdote about the crazies: As many of you may know, orthodox Jews see the Shabbat as a day of rest and contemplation of the Torah. Many things are forbidden on Shabbat, including the use of any fire or its modern equivalent, electricity (except for the use of candles for reading light). I watched as a group of rabble-rousing Muslims gathered in an open field at the corner of the city to shoot off fireworks right after the start of Shabbat just to piss off the Jews inside their homes studying the Torah.


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February 2011

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