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.