Wednesday, December 12, 2007

A Runners View of London

One day i took my camera out for a run around London. Who says its always cloudy and dreary in London?! Don't be fooled by the blue sky, it was pretty cold on this particular day. WARNING: This post may appear ridiculously tame after previous posts.

Hyde Park is one of my favourite places to run in London, no big surprises there. It is usually a hive of activity, except for on Christmas day when i think i was the only one up for a run!

Some days the fog is so bad that all you see here is a path disappearing into the mist. Its kind of cool.
London central city has a network of parks in close proximity, they are full of crazy little squirrels that zip around at your feet. I accidentaly came across Buckingham Palace on one of my runs through St James Park, which is right next to Hyde Park. The parks have lots of large ponds in them, which are quite picturesque, especially on a calm day.

Eventually you arrive at Big Ben and Westminster Abbey. This photo is the Abbey in the foreground, and Big Ben in the background.

Then you reach the Thames, which has paths running along parts of it. You can run down to the Tower Bridge, which is quite something.

London may not have hills, but a run around the city certainly doesn't disappoint!

Tales of an exhausted traveller in Slovenia

After 3 days in Budapest I jumped on a train to Slovenia. By this stage i was quite tired, and was craving some familiar faces! There was only one way to finish off a trip like this.
Slovenia has wicked mountains, and amazing scenery. The mountains are not as big as in the french alps, or even the southern alps in NZ, but the place is so picturesque. Its ridiculous. Sometimes you just have to stop and reflect on it. In this regard it rivals anything i've seen. The quaintness and tranquility is quite something. The place could have been designed by Kodak, everything calls for a photo. I was like a japanese tourist, which is not normally my style.

I'm talking beautiful churches placed on small islands in the middle of a mirror smooth lake with snowy capped mountains as the backdrop (pictured). Rustic colour trees all around, leaves falling on your head as you run through the forest (its was autumn). This is slovenia.

The capital city, called ljubljana, is small and hilly, absolutely magic place. I got rather intoxicated one night, stupidly. I blame the frech guy I was watching the World Cup semi final with. It was the first time in a long time actually. Some local girls found me in a disorientated state (many of you can probably imagine), alone, trying to find my way to my hostel using my map and compass. They took me under their wing for a couple of hours. The last thing i can remember was sitting in a bar with them. God knows why they took me to a bar. I'm just glad they weren't dodgy, i still had my 300 euros when i woke up in the morning.

I travelled with a couple of cool kiwi dudes for a while, they were classic West Aucklanders. We hired a car and cruised around the mountains for a few days. It was nice to have some dudes to mourn with. check out my shadow in this photo!

Slovenia was dead. Nobody around. Empty hotels and shops shut for the Autumn. It was hard to find coke but easy to find beer (the opposite of most other places i had been to recently). It seems that it booms in the winter and summer, as is quiet in between. I went running lots, and dragged my kiwi mates on short hikes etc. Soaked in the fabulous vibes in Lubljiana. I would recommend it to anyone.

Check out the clouds below us in this photo, the forest is so amazing in the Autumn time.

First taste of Eastern Europe - Budapest

After the abismal world cup quarter final i jumped on a flight to Hungary. The purpose of my mission was to watch one of my favourite bands (called Muse) play. I owed it to them, since they helped me get through Pakistan.

I arrived in Budapest at at 1am (budget flights are always delayed, this was no exception). Its becoming clear to me why these 'budget airlines' are cheap, its because they suck, and they arrive at times where you have to catch taxis because public transport is no longer operating, therefore you really don't save much money at all.

Buses had finished... Only overpriced taxis, whom were overtly involved in price fixing (agreeing between each other on price). this is illegal in nz, i had to make a decision based on principle, and told them with my body language where to go with their monopolist behaviour.

So i got out my mattress and sleeping bag and set up my 'bed' on the floor at the airport until the buses started at 5am. It was comfy and quiet, so i feel asleep pretty quick. While i was sleeping, this asshole tried to rob me, but i had locked my bag to my guitar right next to my head. Its hard to steal a bag that is attached to a guitar, it acts as an alarm, its so loud. He was spotted, in the act, by a bunch of cool israelis that i had met earlier, whom were also 'sleeping' at the airport. He was escorted away by the Police not long afterwards.

I then experienced the Hungarian public transport at 5am. THis was a rather depressing, but enlightening experience. I quietly observed people going about their lives, with glum looks on their faces. I felt like i was an extra in a black and white movie based in the former soviet union.

Muse was an amazing concert, totally worth the effort. Budapest was ok too. It had many nice buildings, but overall it wasn't really my cup of tea. Didn't quite have the same impact as some of the other former soviet cities i have visited. However, i must admit i wasn't really in the mood for visiting cities at this stage, and it wasn't the best place to travel alone. These factors may have tainted my experience somewhat.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Anatomy of a World Cup meldown - Cardiff 6 October 2007

It started as one of the best days of my life, and ended in tragedy. Its hard to be down though, when you're surrounded by happy frenchies.

THe Millenium stadium in Cardiff is right in the city centre, which makes for a great pre and post game atmosphere. Fans were partying in the town centre from lunch time on saturday until Sunday morning. It was magic. Check out Astrix and Obelix. Gota love the french.

At the game i was surrounded by French, which was pretty cool. The crowd was like nothing i have seen before. The atmosphere was amazing, i lost my voice because i was screaming so much. THe French were singing and whistling relentlessly throughout the entire match. I was in awe of their fighting spirit.

The stadium is fantastic (it even has a roof). You can see how close we were to the action. 75000 people attended the match. Chris looks happy with his $12 beer, i hope it tastes good.

Check out these irish dudes, who thought that they would be supporting Ireland in the quarter final. They felt our pain.

Later that evening at the Cardiff Walkabout bar, a friendly Irish guy that i was chatting to started singing me a song of sorrow. Within 30 seconds we were surrounded by about 50 Irish dudes, all of whom were singing at the top of their voices. They were standing on tables and chairs, in a circle around us. It was incredible. The group got so large and out of control that the manager decided to close the bar. Everybody was there, even batman.

As you can see from this photo, Chris is still a clown.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Face to Face with Hezbollah

On my first mission in Syria i met a dude whom had just been to Lebanon. He said it was an amazing place to go, and really got me keen on the idea. However, at the time i had to get to Israel in a hurry to celebrate the hebrew new year. So I decided that I would go to Lebanon a couple of weeks later, when i had more time. WHile in syria i met a some germans who were studying Arabic in Damascus (capital of Syria). One of them had said at the time that she would like to join me for the trip to Beirut.

So from Jordan, i jumped on a bus back to Damascus and met up with Eva, and we then jumped on another bus to Beirut. Of all the decisions i have made on this trip, the decision to get on this bus was the one i was least certain about, because Lebanon is not exactly politically stable. However, i made a decision to go for it, and in the end my uncertainty was not warranted.

Beirut is one of the most interesting and surprising place i have been to. It is pretty much a western city. Its a big party city actually. Lots of great bars with live music, big dance clubs also. 50% of population is christian, 50% is muslim. This makes for an interesting social and political dynamic.

There are tanks, artilliary placements, and barbed wire installations all throughout the city, aimed at keeping Hezbollah members in line - Hezbollah are occupying (camping out on) public land in various places around the city, they are protesting for a change of government. But other than that, the streets in the city centre have a distinctly european feel to them.

THere were not many people around, other than the Hezbollah campers - apparently the locals are deterred by the military presence. The situation is terrible for the economy, the shops certainly didn't have much business, and nobody wants to invest money in Lebanese businesses because of the political unrest. Having said all that, it doesn't feel dangerous. It is too quiet and peaceful to be unnerving (the carm before the storm perhaps, lets hope not). It has nice beaches, made less nice by the rubbish on them.

Things are pretty tense between Israel and Lebanon, because Hezbollah wants to destroy Israel. Hezbollahs army (essentially a guerilla army) is much stronger than lebanons government army, which means the country is in a precarious political situation. I met some Hezbollah guys at one of their campsites in the city. Unfortunately they couldn't speak english very well, and my lebanese is a bit scratchy. They seemed pretty relaxed really.

Anyway, last year Hezbollah took a couple of Israeli soldiers hostage, and Israel responded by indiscriminately bombing cities in Southern lebanon, and killing 10 civilians for every 'terrorist' that is put to rest. THey used cluster bombs, but the clusters have a 90% failure rate for immediate explosion. Many of them blow up later, when kids are playing soccer nearby or something. Israel use of these weapons (which are US made) in civilian areas attracted strong criticism from the international community last year. The Israeli hostages are still being held by Hezbollah.

The christians and sunni muslim political wings are supported by the US and western powers, while the Shia muslims are propped up by syria and iran. There is a lot of money here. But you only have to cross town to see that there is also rampant poverty. From what i picked up, the poverty is experienced by both muslims and christians, and there are rich people in both groups as well.

I was asking lots of questions, and people were happy to talk, but no one really knows why there is fighting. Most suggested that Lebanon is used as a stage for a battle between the arabs and the west (kind of like the Vietnam war was a proxy war between the US vrs the soviet union). Its hard to understand why they live like this when they dont even know the motivations behind it.
At one stage Eva and I were taken into custody by the army for an hour or so because i was spotted taking a photo that had a military post in the background. We had to hand over our passports and cameras etc. Then I had to delete that photo, and show the guy all of my other photos, to prove that i wasnt an israeli spy. At the end i asked my interviewer if he knew a good place to get some lunch.

After Beirut i undertook a massive mission back to Israel, through syria and Jordan. And then jumped on a flight to London. THe next chapter of my journey.

Camel dodging in the Jordanian desert

After a few days in Egypt i said goodbye to Chloe and Elize and jumped in a local van back towards the Israel border. From there i would cross through Israel into Jordan. In the van i met a german girl (Geraldine) with a similar plan, so we joined forces for the mission.

We arrived in Jordan in the afternoon and went directly to Petra, which is an incredible archealogical amusement park (figuratively speaking). Along the way we had to stop the taxi because a bunch of wild camels were chillin out on the road. It was the quintessential Jordan experience (pictured above).

We went for a night mission around Petra that night (they set up candles all through this long canyon and have beduoin dudes playing music in the dark), then trekked around petra for about 12 hours the next day, climbed a few mountains, which offered grand views of the ruins. THis was the most impressive old stuff i have ever seen. At the end of the day we climbed this big mountain, where you could look down over the dead sea across to Israel.
This photo fails to show the scale of 'the treasury', which is a couple of hundred metres below my position. The thing is MASSIVE, a person standing in the doorway would be pixel sized in the doorway of my self portrait. Look how small Geraldine is in the photo of 'the Monestry'. Later there was a random local bedouin guy sitting on the roof of the Monestry playing a local string instrument, with his legs dangling off the edge! He was a mad hatter. The sound rang out in the valley, echoing from all around.

THe next day we went to the middle of the desert, to a place called wadi rum, where desert tribes live. We were like R2D2 and 3Po, trekking through the desert. This place is where the storz Lawrence of Arabia is based.

Then I went to a place called Dana nature reserve. THis is the known as the most lush place in Jordan, but is actually not very lush compared to the non-desertified world that we are used to. Anyway I went for a run down into a MASSIVE valley, which dropped about 1000 verticle metres below the little town i was staying in (by comparison, mount victoria is 200 verticle metres high). It was amazing, but then i ran out of gas half way back up, after having been running for a couple of hours. Oh dear, it was a hard slog walking out of there, and there was no beer awaiting me at my destination.

Rammadan was in full swing in Jordan, so finding food during the day was, at times, quite difficult. Finding beer at any was even more of a challenge, and seldom happened (but i was getting used to it by this stage).

Sinai Peninsula - Swimming With the Fishes

While in Jerusalem I decided to mission it to the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, so i jumped on a bus to Eillat, the southernmost point in Israel, which is at the NOrthern most point of the red sea. Eillat is a beach town that has a border with Jordan on one side and a border with Egypt on the other. In Eillat i met a couple of wicked french girls who were also heading to Egypt, so the next day the three of us set off together.

We stayed in this little beach settlement called Nuweiba for a couple of nights, along with an aussie dude that we picked up along the way. Nuweiba is a pristine and quiet little place, its picture postcard stuff that makes you feel lucky to be alive. Where the barren mountainous desert meets the emerald green Red Sea. I slept on the beach, and woke up to the pictured sun rise. Across the sea you can see the sun rise above the mountains of Jordan and Saudi Arabia. It was goosebump rousing stuff. The second photo is my hostel in Nuweiba, doesnt it look like a nice place to be!

For me this place was all about snorkling on the fantastic coral reef (i found memo, thousands of times over), running through the desert listening to Tool as the sun dropped behind the sand mountains, chilling out with a beer and a guitar, good food and good company.

Dahab was the second place we stayed, and was essentially a bigger and more touristy version of Nuweiba. The good thing was that i managed to catch the All Blacks Scotland match in Dahab. During the game i was teaching my french friends about the rules of rugby. I couldnt help but mention that France were going to get thrashed by the All Blacks in the 1/4 final, which i would be attending in Cardiff. As you can imagine, i have since lived to regret that.
I came across this cool as guitar playing taxi driver. I went for a day mission with him to a desert oasis, which was exactly like they are in cartoons, and to this crazy snorkling site, which was an underwater coral reef canyon. Had some great jams with the taxi driver dude at various locations, as we both had our guitars. I have a recording of one particulary interesting arabic part of the session, which i am still figuring out how to post online.

One of the big drawcards on the area for me was Mount Sinai. This is the mountain that moses climbed up, where god told him the ten commandments. I thought it sounded like a interesting idea to climb this mountain, but in the end it far exceeded my expectations, it was quite incredible. The idea is to climb the mountain in time to watch the sun rise.

We got on a night bus to Mount Sinai, arrived at about midnight, and started climbing the mountain, with the help of flashlights and the moon. THe road end is quite high up the mountain so the climb is only about 3 hours. THen we sat at the top and froze our arses off until the sun peeked above the horizon at about 5am. It was the first time that i had been cold in a while. The view was mindblowing. When the sun came up a congregation inside this chapel was singing a hym. This is Choe and Elize (partially), my french travel buddies, and a cool quirky swiss dude we met in dahab.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Israel - the land of milk and honey

Crossing the border from Jordan to Israel is like stepping into an alternate universe. Israel is a pocket of the west in a world of deserts, ramshackle cities (with the exception of damascus), and arabs. As such, crossing the border was an extreme reverse culture shock.
Its like teleporting from the backdrop of a BBC middle east report onto the set of desperate housewives. Its a strange experience, you start to doubt that a couple of hours earlier you were actually in a bleak and hostile desert surrounded by camels, scorpions, and beduins. Photo - This is the middle east? where did all the trees come from... temple mount, Jerusalem

As well as having westernised infrastructure and housing, Isreal is conveniently located on the western side of a narrow crescent shaped slice of fertile land that circles the middle east. This means that unlike its neighbours Jordan and Syria, Israel has trees and grass and all of those things that we take forgranted in NZ. Im sure that the fertility of the land is probably what lead the first settlers to the region. As such, Israel is known in the middle east as 'the land of milk and honey'.

When i arrived at the Israeli border, i was confronted by a dozen or so young ladies carrying machine guns (guys and girls between the age of 19 and 22 are serving a compulsory 2 or 3 year stint in the army, and are required to carry M-16 rifles or glocks. Some of the dudes look like a baddie off 'Rambo', and the pistol cladded girls looked like something out of 'Charlie's Angels').

One of the 'border control officials' grilled me about Pakistan and Syria. She didn't fall for the "I like to go trekking in the mountains" line. Oh no, she saw right through that ridiculous excuse. So she requested the assistance of the Israeli Intelligence Agency to consider my case for getting an entry visa. Ironically, about 15 Islamic people wearing the full traditional dress got straight through the border while i waited. I had to bite my tongue to stop myself from inappropriately pointing out this irony to the border patrol.

I waited patiently (playing my guitar) for three hours before they were convinced that i hadnt been training with Al qaida in the NOrth West frontier of Pakistan. Unfortunately, by this time it was too late to get on a bus to Jerusalem so i had to stay in one of the most boring towns on earth - Biet Shian (that may be a little harsh). I was exploited by the only local taxi driver, who was well aware of his monopoly power, as there was no bus running from the border to the nearest town.

Then the YHA informed my that a bed was NZ$66 for a bed. I laughed, thinking he was joking. He wasn't. I found alternative accommodation in a nearby B & B, thanks to some helpful locals.

I intentionally arrived in Israel just in time for the Hebrew New year, which i spent with my friend Dekels family in the Northern city of Haifa. The food, and the company, was fantastic. A big thanks to Dekel and family for showing me such wonderful hospitality.

Haifa is a pleasant green city, on the mediterrainean coast in northern Israel. Haifa is seen as being quite a relaxed city, with less political and ethnic tension that Jerusalem. However, Haifa is close to the Israeli-Lebanon border, and was the target of a series of rocket attacks from Hezbollah forces based in Southern Lebanon in last years month long war (I have since visited a Hezbollah camp in Beirut). Haifa residents (including my hosts) were forced to take shelter for several weeks in their mandatory bomb shelters, and were able to come out only at night (ROcket attacks ceased at night because firing rockets in the dark would reveal Hezbollahs position to Israeli patrol aircraft).

After the new years celebrations, we headed to Dekel and Michal's home in Jerusalem, where i crashed with the for a few days (thanks so much girls!). Jerusalem is full of extremist jews (dudes with funny beards and long black coats over suit and white shirt), extremist muslims (wearing robes and head scarves etc), and christians. There are also a whole bunch of preppy looking teens who look straight out of American Pie.

THere is a lot of tension in the air because there are so many religious fanatics living in a small city. The problem being that the city holds great significance for three religions, and each group have different ideas about how the world should be. I have noticed that the Israeli Jews and the Arabs don't want anything to do with each other. They seem to ignore each other on the streets. I haven't met a jewish israeli that has a muslim friend (though i'm sure there must be some).

More generally, the people of Israel are an incredibly diverse bunch, in terms of race and culture. Israelis themselves have come from all throughout europe, the US, Africa, and Central Asia. And then there are the muslims. This makes that activity of people watching rather fascinating - every day is like a costume party in Jerusalem.

I have found Israeli people to be somewhat sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinian arabs. However, those whom i have met have all strongly of the belief that the jewish state of Israel is both necessary and justified.
The general view seems to be that (1) the decision by the Palestinians to reject the UN proposal for the division of Palestine in 1948 (2) the ongoing attacks on Israel; and (3) corruption in Palestinian leadership is to blame for the bad situation in which the Palestinians now find themselves. When i say bad situation, i mean that the average wage of a Palestinian is US$1,100 per annum, compared to US$21,000 for an Israeli. Many Palestinians have fled from poverty in the occupied territories (Gaza and West Bank) to refugee camps located in neighbouring arab countries, im not quite sure how this would render them better off...

The Dead Sea was totally bizarre, you can sit in the water as though you are sitting on an inflatable tube, except with no inflatable tube. This phenonomon is caused by extremely high saline levels in the water. It buzzed me out much more than i thought it would. The problem for me was that the salt penetrated all of the cuts that i never knew that i had. I made a fairly quick exit from the water, but the blistering sun was not much better.

Tel Aviv is a much nicer place than i expected. It is a big city, but still has quite a cool funky vibe to it. It is referred to as the party city of Israel. Plenty of good bars and cafes lining a beautiful beach (for a city beach), and some shops that actually interested me. Nice to be able to chill out and swim on an urban beach without having to pay (i was asked to pay NZ$15 to swim in the sea of Gallilee, it didn't happen). I had a swim and then sat in a great beach bar that had free internet. It was a nice touch actually. Beyond my computer screen was a golden sand beach, and the glistening mediterrainean. NExt to my screen was a cold beer. At that moment I reflected on the bleak London winter that i will soon face, at least i'll be able to run in that climate without melting (i'm clutching at straws now). Photo: View beyond my computer screen at the internet pub in Tel Aviv - great idea that is.

After a few days hanging out with my wonderful hosts, i jumped on a bus to the Red Sea town of Eillat, in Southern Israel. This is where my next fantastical adventure began - Sinai Peninsula, EGYPT.
For more Israel photos, see my previous blog.

A Brief History of the Middle East Conflict - A problem with no solution?

Before i launch into my own experiences and reflections on Israel, I feel it is useful to give a brief lesson on Israel and the middle east conflict. You may prefer to skip it. This is my lay-mans take on the situation. Please keep in mind that I am not a historian, and alot of this stuff is open to interpretation. Please feel free to correct me or shut me down in a comment.

The land called Israel and Palestine is a small (much smaller even than the north Island) area of land at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea. Its ownership has changed hands many times over the last few thousands years.

Photo: A photo of Jerusalem. THe old city in the foreground, temple mountain, the dome of the rock, the new city in the background. THis photo is taken from Mount Zion. Jesus was here 0 BC.
According to the Bible, Moses led the Israelites, or a portion of them, out of Egypt. The leader of the israelites (King David) then conquered Jerusalem about 1000 B.C. and established an Israelite kingdom. Ever since then, Jerusalem has remained the center of Jewish sovereignty and worship. However, it has not always been good times for the Jews. The region was subsequently conquered so many times by different hegemons (i won't go into detail).

At the time of Jesus life, Israel (along with the inhabiting jews) was ruled by the Roman empire. Around 60 years after Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem, the Israelis revolted against the Romans. They were defeated, and were booted out of Israel.

With the onset of christianity, in the centuries following the writing of the new testament, Jerusalem also became a place of huge significance for christians. This is of course where Jesus was crucified, and ascended to heaven from his tomb.

During the seventh century (A.D. 600's), Muslim Arab armies moved north from Arabia to conquer most of the Middle East, including Palestine. Muslim powers then controlled the region for a large part of the time up until the early 1900's (broken by the crusaders for a while etc...). The Muslims allowed Jewish and CHristian people to live in Israel. Many Israelis (or Jews) never returned to Israel after being exiled by the Romans - however, many others did return (slowly, over hundreds of years).

The rulers allowed Christians and Jews to keep their religions. However, most of the local population gradually accepted Islam and the Arab-Islamic culture of their rulers. Jerusalem also became holy to Muslims as the site where, according to tradition, Muhammed ascended to heaven after a miraculous overnight ride from Mecca on his horse Al-Buraq.

THe muslim leaders built a mosque on the site generally regarded as the area of the Jewish temples. This was a slap in the face for the Israeli Jews.
In 1880, about 24,000 Jews were living in Palestine, out of a population of about 400,000 (mostly muslim). Most of them lived in Jerusalem. Jews formed a majority of the population of Jerusalem, but not in the whole of Palestine).

Around this time Jews from all over the world started returning to Israel (this mass migration movement is called zionism), which according to the Old testament was gifted to the Jews by God (through the messenger, Moses). There were a number of reasons for this. One of them was because the jews were having a rough time fitting in throughout europe etc. They were a population with no real home (since israel was occupied by the Ottoman empire, or turkey).

The nervous Ottoman government responded by imposing severe restrictions on Jewish immigration and land purchase, and also began actively soliciting inviting Muslims from other parts of the Ottoman empire to settle in Palestine.

In WW1 the Ottoman empire (muslims), which ruled Palestine, was defeated by the British. The British supported the idea of setting up an Israeli (Jewish) state in Palestine. Due to ongoing conflict and tension between the arabs and the jews, the British governed the state of Palestine for the next 30 years.

In the meantime, the zionist movement gained momentum. THe mass genocide of Jews that occured in German occupied Europe during WW2 lead to a radical increase in the amount of Jews migrating to Israel in the decades following Hitlers extermination campaign.

The British came under pressure, particularly zionist political groups, to hand over governance of Palestine. The UN (the British) proposed to cut palestine into two, the Israeli (Jewish) side and the Arab side (Palestinian). The Palestinian Arabs strongly disagreed with the proposal, which would leave them with less land than they started with. This lead to the War of independence between the Israelis and the Arabs, which was won by Israel in 1948. As a result, Israel got even more land than they would have got under the UN 'resolution'. The only land retained by the arabs was the west bank (which became part of Jordan), and the Gaza strip (which became part of egypt).

Photo: The sun rising over the mountains of Jordan, reflecting on the dead sea. Taken from the Masada fortress on the Isreali side of the Dead Sea. The jewish lead their revolt against the Romans from this fortress in 60 AD. I ran up this hill at 4am on 15 September 2007 to see the sun rise. The dead sea is 400m below sea level. I am at Sea level where this photo is taken. wierd.

The Israelis see this as getting back what was rightfully theirs. After all, GOd gifts Palestine to the Israelites in the old testament right? INdependence day is celebrated by the Israelis every year, but is know by arabs as 'the disaster'. Arabs see it as colonialism, the Israelis stealing land by virtue of their past corraboration with the hegemonic Western powers of Britain (and now the US). Israel is also considered by some to be a pocket of the West in the middle east. A base from which the West can attempt to assert some form of control over the middle eastern arab states.

On May 16, 1967, a Radio Cairo broadcast from the Egyption ruler stated:

"The existence of Israel has continued too long. We welcome the Israeli aggression. We welcome the battle we have long awaited. The peak hour has come. The armies of Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon are poised on the borders of face the challenge, while standing behind us are the armies of Iraq, Algeria, Kuwait, Sudan and the whole Arab nation. This act will astound the world. Today they will know that the Arabs are arranged for battle, the critical hour has arrived".

THe goal of the arab states was quite clearly, 'to wipe israel off the map'. Later that year the arab states surrounding Israel planned an attack on Israel. Israel received intelligence about the planned attack and bombed the crp out of the arab forces before they even had a chance to breach the border. THe Israelis easily defeated the Arab forces. THey took not only the West bank and the Gaza strip off their arab neighbours, but also the entire SInai Peninsula (a massive desert/mountain scape that is now part of Egypt), and the southern part of Lebanon. Israel used this newly captured territory as a buffer between itself and its hostile neighbours.
As a result of Israels occupation of southern lebanon, a islamic fundamentalist group called hezbollah was formed in Lebanon to fight Israel. Hezbollah are still an active political and milatary group in Lebanon. Last year Hezbollah fought a 1 month war against Israel. THe northern israeli city of Haifa was bombed extensively by Hezbollah mortar fire from across the border.
What followed this defeat in 1967 was the rise of islamic fundamentalism. Since 1967 there have been several military campaigns from within Israel (arabs living in the occupied territories of the West Bank and the Gaza strip), and coming from Lebanon, Syria, and Egypt (which retook the SInai peninsula from Israel in 1973). Even this week Israeli has been under fire from Palestinian militants in Southern Israel.
As a result of this ongoing conflict, millions of Palestinian arabs are living in poverty ridden cramped conditions in the gazy strip and the west bank, which are two small pockets of palestinian land occupied and controlled by Israel. Most Arabs think that the Palestinians get shafted under Israeli occupation. IN particular, that they do not have the resources and the infrastructure necessary to create a life for themselves within the West bank and the gaza. Many palestinians have fled to refugee camps in neighbouring countries such as Lebanon. These conditions act as a breeding ground for fundamentalism, anger, and ultimately war.

This conflinct underpins many of the issues that exist today between the islamic fundamentalists and the West, which is seen as propping up Israel - 'an illegal state'. THe tension between arabs and Jews can be observed first hand when walking through the streets of Jerusalem, and every day in the World section of the Dom Post. Arabs are still fighting in any way they can, not only in Israel but throughout the entire middle east, and even as far away as New York, London and Indonesia.

Many arab countries still do not recognise Israel as a state. Unfortunately the fight for Israel is far from over. THe situation poses too many questions and not enough answers. Infact, i'm not even sure that there is an answer.
I hope that at least one person has found this interesting. My next post will be about my experiences in Israel.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Syria - Now we're talking

Syria is a blast. It sets the craziest mood. Honestly, you've got to see this place!

I spent the first day and night in Aleppo. This city looks like it has been carved out of sand. I love it, although i'm glad i can leave. Check it out! THere are big mosques, ruins, and remnants of the christian crusader era everywhere. I don't think they've heard of paint.

Later on i hit the desert, heading to Pamyra, which is a roman ruins site in the middle of this massive barren desert. Travelling along the highway, it looks like those desert shots fromt the war in Kuwait, except with ancient roman ruins scattered throughout.
Check out Rag head.

Pretty everyone in Syria hates the US, and especially Israel. The Syrian government, along with many of its arab and muslim allies, doesnt recognise the state of Israel. They argue that the state is illegal, and should be abolished.
Obviously it was an absolute secret while i'm in Syria that i would be visiting Israel. I would be in pretty serious trouble if they found out my plans. I'm pretty sure the friendly mood of the locals would turn sour pretty quickly, and i would be deported in no time. You've got to remember, these people have been taught their entire lives to hate Israel. Using careful language, i advised a couple of locals, whom i trusted, that perhaps they shouldn't blindly hate israeli people without having met at least one. Generally i kept my mouth shut though.
Syria is effectively under a dictatorship (in that they better vote at the polls for their current leader or trouble will come their way), and is probably one of the US's most obvious enemies, alongside North Korea. The people are a little brain warped by their governments propoganda, but no more so than most of the west is brainwarped by media hype etc. Being here makes me realise that it is the leaders of state (governments) and the media that have turned the west against the east, and vice versa. On a personal level these people are cool and fairly easy going (not compared to kiwis of course). Yet it is foreseeable that in coming years the US will attack Syria, and that Syrians will continue to develope a sense of hostility towards the west, and that many westerners will ignorantly continue to think that muslim arabs are terrorists.

I had to visit the immagration office in Damascus. It was a madhouse, made worse by the fact that there are hundreds of Iraqi refugees fighting to be next in the que (of which there is none). Arabs don't understand que's, nor do Turks or Pakistanis for that matter. They just barge right through and start yelling at the officer behind the counter. Its difficult to compete with.

I drove past a road sign before that said - IRAQ 150km DAMASCUS 140km. I had a 'er... What am i doing here?' moment. THese moments are one of my favourite things about travelling.

Damascus is the most western city in Syria. Parts of it feel quite similar to a European city. It has an awesome old town, with a great undercover market - which is called a souq. In Damascus i chilled out for a couple of days. Hung out with a Kiwi one night (Iraqi immigrant now working for a US company in Bahgdad). He was about to jump on a bus to Bahgdad. he said that the money was good. Went to a Hammam, which is this whole bathing/steam room/massage/exfoliate experience. The hammam was pretty good actually, it was 800 years old.
I guiltily drank beer in a couple of dodgy bars (not many bars here because its a muslim country). Everyone in the bar looks guilty because they are committing a cardinal sin, and are losing their entry pass to Shallah (heaven). I wasn't allowed to drink beer on the balcony because people on the street might see me. Hung out with some germans who were studying arabic in Damascus.

Its crazy driving through these military installments in the desert. The other day one of these instalments fired upon some Israeli aircraft that breached the border. It has caused a bit of a stir, and has sparked fears of further retaliation from Syria (If the Syrian government doesn't react to an israeli incursion into its territory, it will come across as weak). No one wants a re-run of last years month long war between Israel and Lebanon.
Given my interest in middle eastern politics, this journey is becoming a fascinating insight into the hearts and minds of the middle eastern people. In a general sense, as well as in relation to the political crisis that exists in the region. I spent every day in Syria talking with those locals who could speak a bit of english. The level of contact you share with 'real people' in places like this far exceeds anything you would ever experience in Europe, or even in NZ for that matter. This is despite a significant language barrier.
Syria was a rewarding travel experience, i didn't feel in danger at all.


Change of Plan - Destination Middle East

A couple of weeks back i recieved an email from a Israeli friend of mine (Dekel) who lives in Jerusalem, inviting me to come and stay with her. I liked the absurdness of this suggestion, so i did some research into flights from Istanbul to Tel Aviv (Israel). Immediately i realised that flying was not an option, because flights were too expensive.

This left a much more exciting option for getting to Israel, that being to travel overland through Syria and Jordan. Maybe that way i would see a scene something like that pictured in this blog entry. As you can see i ended up seeing something precisely like this picture.

So my plan to hit eastern europe was put aside for the moment. Travelling through Syria was apparently easier said than done. The Syrian embassy advised me that i could not travel through Syria without a pre-arranged visa, which i obviously did not have. I didn't believe them, because i had heard elsewhere that visas could be issued on the border. Secondly, Syria will not let you into the country if you have intentions to visit Israel, or if they see evidence that you have visited israel (stamp in passport etc).

I made a risky call to take a long long bus ride to the Syrian border from Cappadocia, on the hope that i would be able to obtain an entry visa. Upon my arrival at the Syrian immagration office on the border (after a long night on the bus), i was whisked away into an office where i met my first syrian.
'Where are you from?', he says.

'I'm from NZ', i reply proudly.

'Oh', he says. worryingly.

'Do you have a visa?'

'No, i was hoping to get one from you actually', i said with a wry smile.

'Im afraid this is not possible', he said sternly. 'You must return to Istanbul'.

My heart sinks, as my thoughts immediately turn to the 20 hour bus ride i am about to endure back to Istanbul. All of a sudden the stern border control official with an AK 47 on his lap bursts out laughing and starts ranting in arabic to his side kicks about how he tricked me. I've got to give it to him, it must have been hilarious watching my face drop. This type of dry humour is fairly typical of turkish and arabic guys, yet i never see it coming.
I picked up a visa for free. I would have paid over US$60 if i had been more organised. Funny how that works sometimes. That is Syria for you.

This is where the next fantastic chapter of my Journey began.

Next stop Cappadocia- Flintstones country

Cappadocia is a region in central turkey that is home to some of the strangest land/rock formations i have ever seen. The region is largely underlain by soft white sedimentary rocks that were formed in lakes and streams, and volcanic rock.

I stayed in a great little town called Goreme. The soft rocks of Cappadocia in and around Goreme were cut away by rivers and streams into spectacular valleys that branch out in all directions from the town, and perhaps more incredibly, hundreds of spectacular pillars and minaret-like forms. People of the Cappadocia Region used tools to carve out these rock formations to create houses, churches, and monasteries.
Words can't speak nearly as well as photos in this case (although photos can of course only give you an idea), so you will see a couple of photos that i took on my walking and running excursions around Goreme. I would definitely recommend this place to anyone visiting Turkey. I spent half the time running, and the other half standing with a bemused look on my face, shaking my head in disbelief at what surrounded me.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Rock'n'Coke music festival - Istanbul

I went to a music festival in Istanbul and saw some cool bands. Including Franz Ferdinand, Chris COrnell (Soundgarden), Smashing Pumpkins, and Manic Street Preachers. I hung out with some new TUrkish friends that i met on the first day of the gig, and a couple of Aussie's that i had met a couple of weeks before to the gig. Here are some photos.
This is Franz Ferdinand rarking up the crowd. The crowd was kinda lame actually. Very quiet compared with BDO styles.

This shouldn't be hard to spot, for any of you who were teenagers during the 90's grunge era. And no, his voice hasn't changed one bit.
Its always cool hangin out with Locals. This was a bunch of Turks that i hung out with on the second night. They are all cousins, brothers and sisters.
By the way, its no coincidence that i'm always wearing this tshirt in photos, i wear it almost every day (sometimes i wash it at night:-) Big thanks to my comcom buddies for the Tshirt!

If i jumped off a cliff, would you follow?

One polish girl did.

I went on a 4 day boat trip from Fethiye to Olympos (see map on previous blog). The first stop on the first day was at an island off the coast of Fethiye. The small island featured a choice of cliff jumps into the ocean below. Naturally i quickly spotted the most massive and scary looking option, off a ledge approximately 13 m above the water.
I jumped off the boat and began climbing up the rocks. When i came out onto the ledge i realised that the jump was higher than it had looked from the bottom. However, by this stage about three boats (each with 20 people on them) had pulled up and were expecting me to jump.
So i pulled myself together, trying not to get the shakes, and took the plunge. I swear i could have finished a vessel on the way down, it took so long. The impact of the landing was quite intense, my Chinese necklace (a gift from a family i stayed with) snapped right off, my neck was creaky for a couple of days.
So the next thing i know a polish girl from my boat is calling out to me from far above 'Is it ok?'. Surprised, but not wanting to appear doubtful that a girl could pull it off, i said 'Yes, just make sure you jump out a good distance to clear the rocks'.
Apparently this instruction didn't register with her, because she seemed to fall straight off the ledge towards the rocks below, to the cries of 50 people watching from the surrounding boats. She must have missed the rocks by less than a metre, but the impact of the landing, and the akwardness of the fall, broke her lower spine. We took her to Kas, where she was taken to istanbul for surgery. Madness.
The gullet trip was nice. Every night we would pull up in a cove, have a few beers, play some guitar and go snorkling.