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WHERE WILL I GO NEXT?

Yad Vashem November 23, 2018

Filed under: Uncategorized — Torrie Schneider @ 1:47 pm

Today was a rainy day, so it was perfect that our morning plan was to go to Yad Vashem, the Worldwide Holocaust Memorial. But apparently everyone had that idea. First, we popped into the market so Renee could get coffee at a place recommended by Ilan and I got a sufganiyah, which is a pastry/doughnut that is eaten in Israel around Hanukkah. I had seen them on Wednesday night and they looked good. I told Renee I needed to try one and then Ilan told us about them. I didn’t realize that they were seasonal or related to Hanukkah. It was tasty!

Then we got on the light rail and went out to Yad Vashem. We were there within about 30 minutes of it opening, but so were many, many tour buses. We went the wrong way to the Museum, so we ended up in an exhibition room instead. We spent at least an hour learning about photography and the Holocaust, which was fascinating. Seeing actual propaganda photos and videos, as well as Allied photos and videos taken to ensure that the world saw what the Nazis did and so that it would never happen again.

We realized then that we weren’t at the museum, so we found the entrance and it was mass chaos. There was so many people it wasn’t even enjoyable. The museum had an audio guide that we were trying to follow, but there were so many rude tourists in large groups that we could hardly see the displays or read the signs. Not to mention, many of these groups had a leader speaking into a headset microphone, so the groups were all staying together. It was one of the most annoying museum experiences ever. Renee and I both said afterward that they need to do staggered admission. They should not just let in however many people show up all at the same time. The space is just not large enough.

What I saw, though, was very moving. It had a lot more general history of WWII and the Holocaust, which I already know, but it was still very interesting. My favorite parts were videos of survivors speaking on different topics throughough the museum. I sat and watched almost all of those. It was also interesting to me having already been to the Warsaw and Krakow Ghettos, Oskar Schindler’s factory, and Auschwitz-Birkenau and Dachau. Seeing them depicted here was more meaningful having seen it all first-hand (as first-hand as you can 70 years later).

At the end of the museum was the Hall of Names. It was a large circular room with photos up above and books lining shelves behind the photo display. I was absolutely struck by the number of books. In the books is written the names and biographical information of Jews who were killed during the Holocaust. It was striking.

As we exited the museum Renee said, we probably need to hurry. I looked at the time and saw that it was 1:17pm! We had been there for nearly 4.5 hours. And the everything closes or shuts down early on Friday for the beginning of the Sabbath. We needed the light rail to get back home, a restaurant for lunch, and the market to buy food for dinner and breakfast. Ilan had messaged that he was in the market if we wanted to get together, but we were kind of rushing to get all of that done. We did run into him briefly, though, which was amazing considering how many people were there also getting food for the Sabbath. Apparently the market is always that frenetic on Fridays.

Renee and I bought challa bread, two different cheeses, two different kinds of olives (I went with traditional black olives, which I love and hadn’t even initally realized I missed eating on Thanksgiving!), and dessert. I bought a small rugelach, which was tasty! I have bananas and a cinnamon roll for breakfast. We won’t be in Jerusalem tomorrow, so we didn’t have to worry about getting food for tomorrow as well. We planned a tour to the West Bank, knowing it was the Sabbath and everything in Jerusalem would be closed. On our way back to the apartment we tried to stop into Hachapuria, a Georgian restaurant across the street, but it was closed already. Renee then said that she wanted another veggie burger, so for the record, we had burgers again because Renee wanted them! Ha! We got them as take-away and then have spend the late afternoon and evening relaxing. Something I had yet to do on this trip, so it was a welcomed forced relaxation!

Tomorrow we go to “Palestine”…Bethlehem and Jericho!

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Israel

Filed under: Uncategorized — Torrie Schneider @ 1:27 pm

We finally made it to Israel on Wednesday morning. It was a bit of a journey. We woke in the Bedouin camp, had breakfast, and a Bedouin drove us back to our car at 7am (earlier than anyone else). We then drove to Aqaba and the Wadi Araba border crossing. On the way, Renee called the rental car company to arrange them to be at the border crossing to take the car from us. But they informed us that they would not meet us before 9am. We were asking for 8:30am. We had a driver waiting for us in Israel at 9am. So Renee had to email them to tell them we were going to be late. Finally, the guy showed up and we were off!

I did not know about exit fees. I have never had to pay to leave a country before and I had given the last of my Jordanian dinars to Ahmed at the camp. And Renee did not have 20, which we needed for both of us to exit. So I had to find the currency exchange and change $10 to dinars. Then I got my exit pass, went to passport control, and was allowed to leave! We showed our passports to one more person and then began the (short) walk across the border. Once we arrived in Israel, we fielded some questions about our bags and whether anyone gave us anything, gifts, etc. Whether the bags had been with us the whole time. That stuff. We put our bags through an x-ray scanner and unfortunately Beverly was in front of us in line. See, Beverly had two large bags (that she could not lift…she was older) and they were inspecting them after the bags exited the x-ray. One bag just contained more bags/suitcases. But the other? Oh, that was a treasure trove of odd items. She had framed pencil drawings, ziploc bags of manila envelopes, bags of markers, pens and pencils, and many more oddities. Our bags were collecting on the x-ray table, but we didn’t know if we had to wait or what to do. Finally the guy searching Beverly’s bags told us to take our stuff.

The next stop was passport control. There appeared to be one line open with a guy in it. But no one working. We had to stand there for some time before the employee came. When it was my turn, I could see that I think the employee conducting the questioning was in training. She was incredibly thorough. I had to answer many, many, many questions about my previous travels, job, destinations in Israel, etc. She even asked to see my emails about hiring a driver to bring us to Jerusalem. But I made it! Unfortunately they do not stamp passports. We had thought it was an option for them to stamp a piece of paper instead, but she said no, they don’t even have stamps. Wah wah. Finally was customs, which we bypassed, and then one more passport checkpoint and we were in!

We met David, our driver, who had been waiting for us for an hour, and we were off. He was awesome. Very friendly, funny, and spoke decent English. Our first stop was Timna Park, in the Negev Desert. David initally thought he had never been there, then later remembered he was there as a child. So he drove us through (the park was huge and you needed to drive it) and acted the tourist as well! He snapped many pictures with his phone and went to see things at stops along with us. It was a lot of fun. Except for the altercation with Mr. Douchebag at the Timna Oasis. See my photo on Facebook for that story!

After we left Timna Park we were setting out for Masada. We stopped halfway for lunch at a coffeeshop called Aroma. I had a roast beef sandwich and a chocolate chip cookie. Both were amazing. The roast beef sandwich was probably the best I had ever had! Then we were back on the road. We noticed that David was drinking DC and eating Snickers bars (he is diabetic, so he had the Snickers on hand for emergencies), which have been my go-to on this trip because we have often missed meals. In fact, this day was the first that we had three meals in a long time! We arrived at Masada at 3:12. The last cable car up left at 3:00pm. They let us drive up to where you get tickets to see if there was anything we could do, but there wasn’t. I am very disappointed that I didn’t get to see Masada.

We jetted over to Ein Gedi then, but guess what? It closed at 3:00pm as well. We quickly learned that “winter hours” were not our friend. I think David felt bad about everything being closed (which, really, it was Budget Rental Car’s fault for not meeting us at 8:30!), so he went to a beach on the Dead Sea. You were supposed to pay to get in, but he talked them into letting us in for 10 mins to “feel the water.” We didn’t have the heart to tell him that we had already been in the Sea because he was being so nice! After that it was on to Jerusalem!

We arrived at our Airbnb around 6:00-6:30pm and set off in search of dinner and a walk through the Mahane Yehuda Market, which were almost staying right inside of! The market was amazing, but we decided not to eat there. Renee wasn’t feeling well, so she was going to skip dinner. In that case, I decided on a place called Burger Market on the ground floor of the building our apartment was in. She saw that they had a veggie burger, so she decided to eat after all. It was very good. She said her burger was one of the best veggie burgers she’s ever had. Mine was delicious as well!

After dinner I went through and researched opening hours for all of the places/sights that we wanted to see. I did not want to get caught in a “winter hours” snafu again! We decided that Temple Mount would be the first stop on our list for Thursday and it is only open limited hours. So we got up early and made our way to the Old City. We entered through the Damascus Gate, which was the light rail stop. We were making our way toward Temple Mount, but were slowed by a gaggle of children all walking to school. There were a few men walking with them, one of whom I was sure was carrying. But another one saw us and said good morning. We were behind the kids almost the entire way, before they turned off and we were met with a security checkpoint and x-ray machine. I was very confused because I didn’t think I had missed a sign for Temple Mount but didn’t know what was going on. The guy, Ilan, who had said good morning to us called out that the Western Wall was through the security. That wasn’t going to be first on our list, but we were there, so in we went.

It was pretty quiet that early in the morning and it was very peaceful. We did not approach the wall, but went into the women’s section and observed. I said a prayer. It was nothing like it would be later that afternoon! But we needed to get to Temple Mount, so we exited the Western Wall where we came in, because I thought I must have missed a sign and we had been supposed to turn. We ended up accidentally trying to access Temple Mount through a Muslim-only gate, so the security guard instructed us how to access it for non-Muslims. Back to the Western Wall we went! I had not missed a sign!

As we entered the area, we saw Ilan, the guy who had helped us earlier and was escorting the kids to school. He stopped us and we chatted briefly. He suggested meeting up with us later, when he was off of work, so we connected on Facebook. Then we were able to figure out how to get up to the Temple Mount and there was virtually no line. Winter hours may suck, but there are other serious pros to traveling in the off-season! It was somewhat surreal to be up there, in the holiest place on earth. At least to Christians, Jews, and Muslims. But it is also one of the most controversial, especially between Jews and Muslims.

This was the site where King Herod built the first temple and where the second temple stood before the Roman invasion in 70AD. Jews also believe that this will be site where the third and final temple is built. Because they believe that this is where the Holy of Holies stood, so they do not go to the Temple Mount for fear of walking on it. Temple Mount also has another name, Mount Moriah, which is said to be the site where Abraham was going to sacrifice Isaac and where Jews believe the foundation rock of the world exists. To Muslims this is the third holiest site as they believe it is where Muhammad ascended to Heaven. While Christians do not need a specific place to worship God or pray, due to the shared history and beliefs of the Old Testament with the Jews, it is still considered a holy place.

When Muslims took over the Temple Mount, they constructed the Dome of the Rock. It is stunning. It is one of the most beautiful buildings I have ever seen (the outside of). I think I took almost 20 pictures of it in some form. Maybe more! And because we were there so early, there weren’t many tourists. At first. We were up there for about an hour and at the end there were a lot more people there. We exited back into the Old City from the Muslim gate we initally tried entering through, and made our way to the Via Dolorosa.

The Via Dolorosa is Latin for “Way of Sorrow.” It follows the route that Jesus took after being convicted and sentenced to cruifixion by Pontius Pilate. It also contains the Stations of the Cross, which we walked. Starting with the Church of the Flagellation, where Christ was beaten and the other chapel where Christ received the cross (this one was closed because services were in session). We made our way along all 14 stations, at least until number 9. At number 8 a shopkeeper informed us where number 9 was, but I couldn’t find it. Even after backtracking. Numbers 10-14 are inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which we went into and walked through, but never saw the signs for the stations. Inside the Church we saw an Armenian Orthodox service begin, saw the anointing stone upon which Christ’s body was laid as they prepared him for burial, and we saw the rock of Calvary. I didn’t know that the Church was in the location of Calvary, as I thought Calvary was further outisde of the Old City. There was a place where you could touch the rock, which reminded me of the Scala Sancta in Rome. (The marble steps that were inside of Pontius Pilate’s house and that Jesus walked up to his trial. They are currently covered in wood and you ascend them on your knees, but at the top is a cut out where you can touch the marble.)

We then decided to walk around to find lunch and I am in the market for a new Nativity set, so we did some shopping as well. Earlier, Renee had bought a water from a Falafel shop and they gave her two free falafel balls. She said that they were the best she had ever had, so we decided to go there for lunch, as I had never had falafel before! It was delicious! Finally some new food I tried on this trip and actually liked! (Well, tabouleh was fine, but it was nothing to write home about.) In fact, I liked it so much I want to go there one more time before we leave!

We decided to make our way to the Room of the Last Supper and King David’s tomb, which meant that we exited out from the Western Wall area again. This time, the area was hopping! Inside, we saw a group with blue and white balloons, so I surmised that it was a bar mitzvah. After we exited, we saw below us a line up of bar mitzvahs waiting to get inside. They were performing ceremonies and it was awesome to witness. We stood there and watched and took photos and videos. One of the kids definitely looked embarrassed! Typical teenager!

The Tomb of King David wasn’t really what I was expecting, but I really like the Room of the Last Supper. I mean, it’s just a room with some stained glass, but I sat there and contemplated what occurred in the room. This whole part of the trip is just surreal. To walk where Jesus walked and to sit where He sat. To see and experience these things has been incredible. Across from the tomb building was a Holocaust memorial. We didn’t know anything about it beforehand, but went in to check it out. It was very moving. It was the first holocaust memorial in Israel (before Yad Vashem) and it was created by the Jews who fled Europe. There are marble headstones that represent towns in Europe from which the Jews fled. They were innumerable. They just went on and on in room after room. They also brought back ashes from the crematoria and there is a memorial of that with all of the concentration camps listed.

After we finished there, I was really over walking. Plus, our next stop was the Mount of Olives and it was too far to walk anyway. But getting a cab, that would take credit cards (because the ATMs had been hit or miss as to whether they worked or gave us enough cash), and drive us where we wanted to go was a hassle. Eventually I tried Uber, which I think just connected to cabs. One guy didn’t want to come to where we were and kept asking me to cancel the ride. So I did. Once we hailed a cab on the street. Which I thought was going to take a credit card. He didn’t. But he did take dollars. So we paid too much for that ride, according to Ilan, but we got to sit down for a while, so it was worth it! Plus, he didn’t understand where we wanted to go, but he understood Mount of Olives. So when he realized where we wanted to go was down, but we were already up, he suggested we get out to see the view and take a picture. We did.

Then he brought us down and we toured the Tomb of the Virgin Mary and the Garden of Gethsemane. Again, I can’t put into words what it was like to be in that garden. Where Jesus went to pray, knowing he was about to be handed over to the Romans. Just incredible. There was a church there, the Church of All Nations. We went inside and saw that a service was taking place. We observed it for a bit before heading back out. And trying to get another cab to bring us back to our apartment…or near there. Again, no luck on Uber. I had a driver cancel immediately when the ride was assigned; then I had a driver again ask me to cancel and I said no, so he said “fuck you” and gave me middle finger emojis…I told him I would be reporting him; and then we ended up with the same driver who had earlier asked me to cancel. He asked again and I said no, we would wait for him to get through traffic and pick us up. After about 15 mins, at least, I saw that he wasn’t moving and was faced in the opposite direction. It was clear he wasn’t coming. Thankfully a guy trying to sell us something either called a friend of his or saw a friend of his and asked him to take us, unbeknownst to us. The driver also said he would bring us to an ATM that would work with our cards. Along the way, he picked up another rider who was going in the same direction as we were.

Meanwhile, I was messaging with Ilan, who was going to meet us for a drink in the market. He told us we were getting ripped off and gave us the range that we should pay for the trip and what not to pay more than. So that helped! And when we were dropped off, Renee told the girl not to pay him when she arrived at her destination because we had paid him more than enough! I wonder what went down with her.

We then met Ilan at a bar in the market, where we chatted for a few hours before the three of us headed out to get dinner. I had to change first, especially my footwear because my feet were killing me! We found a restaurant that wasn’t crazy busy and I had pitas stuffed with lamb. It was ground lamb, though, which I wasn’t expecting. After dinner we had shots of an anise liqueur, which I figured I would hate because I hate black licorice, but it tasted more like black jelly beans, which I love!

We called it a night after dinner because we were exhausted. I actually fell asleep on the couch editing photos before 10pm I was so tired. We covered a lot of ground and saw a lot more in one day than I thought we would. Plus, we met a new, local friend! It was a great day!

 

Education is the Movement from Darkness to Light November 21, 2018

Filed under: Uncategorized — Torrie Schneider @ 3:55 pm

I saw that quote this morning as we were being driven out of the Wadi Rum desert and about to leave Jordan. It was painted on a school wall in English and, presumably, Arabic. It was a fitting thought for my time in Jordan and the Middle East so far as a whole. To me, it was a take on the Mark Twain quote: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it solely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

But before I get ahead of myself, Renee and I traveled from Lebanon to Jordan on Monday morning. We got our car at the airport and took off and didn’t stop until after 11pm! We started in Madaba and saw the Shrine of the Beheading of John the Baptist. There was also an ancient Moabite well, Ruth’s tent, and a climb up the harrowing stairs/ladders to the bell tower. There was graffiti scrawled on the walls all the way up, but on the way down I saw my favorite. It said: “The idea is to die young as late as possible.” I am going to make that my motto from now on!After that church we walked to St. George’s church, a Greek Orthodox church, that has as part of its floor a Byzantine mosaic map of “Palestine” and represents the oldest map of the area in existence. It was really quite impressive. The amount of mosaics I’ve seen on this trip is unreal, but they are just so fascinating.

Our next stop was Mount Nebo, the mountain where God showed Moses the Promised Land right before he died. Moses is buried somewhere on the mountain, so it is a very sacred place. Unfortuantely there was a lot of smog or haze, so we couldn’t really make out the Israeli landmarks that you are supposed to be able to. There is also a monument called the Brazen Serpent that an Italian sculpter did. It’s a bronze cross with a serpent coiled around it. It was very cool.

After that we went to the Jordanian Baptismal Site of Jesus Christ. The Jordanians are convinced that the baptism happened in the Jordan River within their borders, but the Israelis believe it happened on their side. But who knows, it’s the right general vicinity! I got to stand in the river…and man was it COLD! The bottom felt hard, like marble, and there was mud or silt covering it that made it quite slippery. We just tried not to fall! The river is very brown so it wouldn’t have been super appealing if we had fallen!

Next, we visited the Holiday Inn. Ok, not just the Holiday Inn, the one at the Dead Sea. For a fee you can use their beach and facilities in order to swim, er, float in the Dead Sea. It was surreal. And also very cold. The weather was great, but the water was freezing. I kept walking out because it was so cold, but Renee started floating almost right away. I finally gave in and plopped on my back. Sure enough, you float! It was so weird. We could do barrel rolls in the water, floating the entire time. We then mudded up and went back in, so we are supposed to have just wonderful skin now! It was sunset at this time and it was a really beautiful time to be there. There weren’t a ton of people and it was just really gorgeous. Watching the sun set over the calm, still waters was amazing. I kept taking pictures because it was so pretty, even though we had to haul ass out of there so that we could make it to Petra in time for Petra at Night and it was more than 3 hours away!

The drive was harrowing. The roads were, once agian, incredibly wind-y with hairpin turns. The drivers weren’t so bad, but it was dark and the headlights on the car were pointing down that they basically only illuminated the five feet directly in front of me. That did not help matters. You know what else didn’t help matters? Speed bumps. Inconspicuous ones! Ok, Renee saw a lot of them, but for some reason I couldn’t see them. Even in daylight! They were the worst.

But we made it! Just in time. The hike in was beautiful, marred only by dumbasses’ flash photography. But that was the theme of the evening. People who think their flash is going to make things better when it’s pitch black. The hike in to Petra through the Siq is 1.2 km (but longer before the Siq, I believe). The pathway was lit by candles in paperbags. And they were real because I saw a bag go up in flames! It was a wonderful walk in and seeing the Treasury for the first time at night with hundreds of luminaria…spectacular! There were two Bedouin musicians…a flutist and an oud player. It was amazing, but would’ve been better if some chick who thought she was “Insta-famous” wasn’t acting like a raging narcissist. She was dressed in a long, white, gauzy dress and had an entourage filming her (with a light on the camera) and she would walk out into the rows of people sitting on the ground, pick up a luminaria and just overall act like a douchebag. I wanted to punch her in the throat. The music was incredible and then we had a narrator tell us a little about Bedouins and Petra, the Rose City. They gave us all Arabic tea. And then they lit the Treasury with a rainbow of lights. It was awesome!!

After we hiked back out we ate at a restaurant inside Petra. Except for the fruit and croissant I had had at the airport at 7am, I had only had a Snickers and it was 10:30pm. I tried chicken shawarma. It was good, but not what I expected. We then found our hotel and crashed. It seemed like a lovely hotel, I wish we could’ve spent more than 12 hours there! But we were up at 5am to be back to Petra at 6am. I hiked in and Renee went with a guide to see Petra from above. I knew we were on a time crunch and did not want to detour to see the city from above, come back out, and then hike in, but Renee really wanted to see it from above. So I suggested that we split up and she was going to come down the stairs inside Petra, so we would meet up shortly.

The hike in was so serene and peaceful. There were very few people so most of the time I felt like I was walking by myself through the Siq. It was just what I had wanted! Not to mention, great photos without hordes of people. Seeing the Treasury in the light was just as breathtaking as the night before. After spending some time reflecting on the majest of the Treasury, I moved on to the theater, where I was meeting Renee. But no Renee! Eventually she texted me and said that she and the guide were doing their own thing and we agreed to meet at 10:30. So off I went to explore Petra. It is a fascinating city. But aside from doing hikes (which Renee did), there wasn’t a hours and hours worth to see in the main city. So I decided I was going to hike to the monastery. Even though Renee told me it was 800 steps up. The guide later said that it was 900. I did not make it. It took me at least 45 mins to go a little over halfway and I knew that I was going to be cutting it close, timewise. Also I was exhausted. I had walked more than 24,000 steps the day before and I hit 10,000 by 8:25am. Not to mention, my bum left foot was killing me. So I turned around. I’m only slightly disappointed in myself for turning around! But it wasn’t just steps and even when there were steps, they weren’t regular steps. This was a very challenging hike. I did the best I could! Also, I hadn’t eaten breakfast, so I had no fuel.

I then went back to the Treasury and got a DC and a Snickers and waited for Renee. Then we hiked out with her guide. I felt better having about 30 mins to sit and rest. But Renee had been going that whole time, so after we exited the Siq we decided to ride horses back to the Visitor Center. That was fun! We grabbed food on the go, chicken shawarma again, and set out for Wadi Rum.

We met Ahmed, who I had set up the Bedouin camp reservation with, and he drove us to where we were going to be meeting the camels. We rode camels in the desert and it was awesome. Not quite as awesome as I had hoped, however. It’s really uncomfortable riding a camel. Even Ahmed told us that ahead of time. That’s never a good sign! And Renee had done it before and said it’s really uncomfortable. I got a blister on my hand from holding on to the post. But the weird thing is that I learned that you should sit practically cross-legged. Once the camel stands up, you cross your legs up in the saddle or across the camel’s back/neck. It was definitely more comfortable that way and I felt a lot more stable (camel’s are not a smooth ride), but the fur kept rubbing on the skin of my ankles and it got old. We rode for about 2 hours, maybe slightly more. It was too long.

Once we got to camp, we napped (after having our tea) and then went to dinner. We were the last to dinner. Dinner was chicken, potatoes, carrots, and all kinds of other accoutrements. The Bedouins cook their food underground in earth ovens and that is how they prepared our dinner. It’s basically a charcoal BBQ underground. The chicken and veggies were very good, but the salads and whatnot were not to my liking. After dinner was my favoite part. We went into a tent that had a wood-burning stove in the middle (much warmer in there!) and the Bedouins performed for us. They played the oud, sang, clapped, and danced. It was such a good time!

But as I sat there and watched them I was struck by how small the world is when you travel. Their music was beautiful, their culture is now not as foreign to me, and they were the nicest people (seriously, aside from Jordanian men being extremely easy on the eyes, they are some of the nicest people). If only more of us could look beyond all of our differences and just experience one another and learn about one another. If we learn about other cultures and other people, that only makes us better humans. And, during this Thanksgiving week, I am so thankful to have the ability and opportunity, not to mention desire, to do so.

This morning we got up and saw the sunrise in the desert before breakfast and being brought to our car. Which is when I saw the title quote. It really put a bow on this country for me!

 

More Lebanon, Less Beirut November 18, 2018

Filed under: Uncategorized — Torrie Schneider @ 1:14 pm

That pretty much sums up the last 2.5 days. We didn’t see a whole lot of Beirut–just the neighborhood we stayed in (which was awesome!) and Tiffany. I think it was to our host’s chagrin that we were doing two day trips and didn’t spend much time in the city. But I’ll start at the beginning.

I landed in Beirut about an hour or hour and a half before Renee. It took a full hour to clear passport control…the line was semi-long (but nothing compared to the line behind me when I was about halfway through) and they had many people working. They were just horribly slow. Once I was finished my bag was there, obviously. So I exited and waited at arrivals for Renee. We had a driver picking us up, but we scheduled him for when her flight was landing. So he wasn’t there when I came out and as it was time for her flight to land, I kept trying to look for someone with a sign with my name on it, but it was too difficult for me to see. Eventually Renee found me and she said that the driver was trying to convince her that there were no flights from Athens today, that I was obviously not there and not coming until tomorrow, so they should just leave. Yes, the driver was super quick to want to leave me at the airport. Thankfully Renee resisted!

Unfortunately our phones don’t work in Lebanon (well, it will work but it will be hella expensive), so we don’t have internet unless we have WiFi. That was part of the problem at the airport when Renee couldn’t find me. But when we got to our Airbnb we didn’t know how to check-in. Tino, our host, had been great but he did not tell us how to check-in. So we assumed he would be there, considering he knew when we were arriving because he set up our driver. Nope. So we were locked out. But we had his WiFi info, so we were able to connect to it outside of the building and contact him to ask about how to get in. The cleaner was working in the apartment, so she buzzed us in. But we had no keys, nothing. We waited and waited, but no word from Tino. We wanted to get out and see things or walk around, but we didn’t know how. Eventually we messaged him and we realized that the people who were here before us left with the keys. So he told us to just go out and pull the door closed behind us, that he would be home after we got dinner and straighten everything out. Ok! So we shut the apartment door and walked down the stairs, only to find that the front gate didn’t open without a key. We were locked in the stairwell. So we thought we would go back to the apartment. Nope. That locked behind us. He was supposed to be home at 6pm and it was 5:40, so we just waited. But 6pm came and went. No Tino. So we messaged again and he told us how to get out. Right at that same time, his partner Laura came home and let us out and gave us keys. She was lovely!

We went to dinner at a nearby restaurant and it was not a great start for me in the Middle East, culinary-wise. I had a “lamb sandwich.” It was ok. Renee got hummus, which I tried and did not like. I will try it again. I also tried a fried cheese ball/roll. I did not like that either. The cheese was icky. The lamb sandwich was in a tortilla and had hummus in it. It was fine but it did not hit the spot.

After dinner we spoke with Tino to discuss our day trip the next day and just other things. This is when he asked us when we were planning on seeing Beirut, knowing about our day trips! Whoops! I had mentioned that I needed to go to Starbucks to get a mug and Laura came up to us later and said she overheard me telling Tino I liked Starbucks. So we bonded over Starbucks. She gets hers delivered…I’m jealous! She also brought us a pamphlet of places to eat, drink, etc.

Saturday morning our driver picked us up at 8am and we were off to Baalbek. I’m glad that Renee did not tell me about seeing signs counting down the distance to Syria. We got within about 10km. I’m also glad that I had forgotten about the blurb in my travel book warning about ISIS in the area and the fact that this is the administrative headquarters for Hezbollah. Also, that there is a long tradition of foreigners getting kidnapped here. Real glad I had forgotten about that otherwise I would have been a nervous wreck going through all of the military checkpoints that we did. Yikes.

Heliopolis Baalbek was amazing, though. Roman ruins, some dating to 60 AD, including the Temple of Bacchus, one of the most well-preserved Roman temples in the entire world. As a result, it is often described as the most beautifully decorated temple in the Roman world. It was really amazing. Then there is the Temple of Jupiter, which had 54 columns and were the largest in the world. Today 6 remain. The courtyard to the temple was hexagonal, which was also the only one in the world. We spent a good deal of time here and it was really fun. There were very few oher people (save a large group of kids on what appeared to be a Boy/Girl Scouts outing).

After Baalbek we had a change of plans. We had intended to go to The Cedars of God, but we received word that the road was closed due to snow. So we had to head further south (deep into Hezbollah territory…this I knew but didn’t tell Renee that we were far south) to the Barouk Cedar Forest (or Al Shouf Cedar Nature Reserve). This was also amazing. It was a gorgeous day, though it was chilly in the forest. The cedar trees are so unique looking and it was nice to get out into nature and hike around a bit. I definitely felt the altitude (all day long we were going up into mountains, then down, and then back up…my poor ears), about 4000 feet above sea level. So I was sucking air going uphill, but it was still a great time. The cedar forests of Lebanon are some of the oldest documented forests in history and they are actively trying to save the cedar trees. They were too harvested, so now they are trying to save them.

Because we couldn’t go to the Cedars of God, we also couldn’t go to Bcharre, a village that we had wanted to see. So instead, after the forest we went to the Beiteddine Palace, which was in the area. The palace was built over 30 years in the early 1800’s. It was really lovely. There were a ton of recovered mosaics on display. The mosaics date back to the Byzantine period, 5-6th century. They were incredible. The palace was huge and my favorite part was probably the Turkish Bath.

We then headed back into Beirut and I had to put “Tiffany” into the driver’s GPS so he knew where we were going. Eventually he goes, “jewelry?” Yes! Tiffany was in a very fancy part of Beirut. We definitely weren’t dressed the part, but it’s my thing! I had planned on buying two things on this trip because there is also a Tiffany in Amman, but we won’t be spending time in Amman, so I decided I would buy two things in Beirut instead. I really wanted the Olive Leaf pendant necklace and earrings. That is appropriate for this trip! Unfortunately they were out of the pendant (just like the Dublin Tiffany is always out of the shamrock pendant whenever I go there), but they had two types of earrings. I got hoops. I never wear hoops, so it will be a nice change. Then came the difficult task of finding my second item. You know you are a true Tiffany afficianado when the salesman repeatedly suggests things that you already have! I went with a necklace that matches my silver ball earrings (these are my daily earrings). I have a matching necklace, but this one was different, it is just the silver ball on a chain. I love it!

Once back at the apartment we looked for a place to eat, as we had not had lunch, but a lot of restaurants didn’t even open until 7-8pm. So we decided we would go somewhere for an appetizer and drink and then move on for dinner. But when we got to the place, I saw there were chicken gyros on the menu and we decided to just have dinner. I had a limoncello spritzer with dinner and then we stayed for a second drink. Mine was an elderflower mojito. There were three more bars we wanted to hit, but first the ATM. On our way back from the ATM we stopped at the first of the bars on our list…and we never left! It was called Floyd the Dog and the bartender and waitress were the most amazing ladies! There weren’t many people in this small bar (that opened out onto the street) and we didn’t know what we wanted. It was really a cocktail bar, so the waitress asked us what kind of liquor we liked and the bartender went to work. The bartender also told us how to give people the finger in Lebanon, because Renee was worried that all of my “thumbs upping” to people was an offensive gesture here. It is not. We ended up staying here the rest of the night because the bartender was a freaking magician when it came to cocktails. My first one was a cucumber cocktail (I was drinking vodka) but it was also sweet. So good. Next was a lavender and thyme cocktail. Then a raspberry and cucumber. Finally a cherry, strawberry, and basil cocktail. They were delicious. We took a picture with the waitress as we were leaving, at this time it was really busy, and bartender came over saying she wanted in the picture, too! Loved them!

Our driver picked us up today at 9am because we had less driving to do, thankfully. According to Google maps, the route we took yesterday was over 4.5 hours in the car. I think it was longer. And it was bumpy, herky-jerky, wind-y, with hairpin turns. Not to mention the fumes. The gas and exhaust were making me sick. Today we took a quick jaunt to Jeita Grotto for our first stop. Before that, however, we went to Starbucks so I could get my mug. And they did not have Chai Lattes. Like they had no concept of it. I had no words. Then we stopped at a bakery to get a Manousheh, which is a traditional Lebanese breakfast, which is basically pizza without the sauce. Renee was adventurous and got the za’atar, which has no English translation. According to Google it’s a mix of spices like thyme and sumac. I just got cheese. With a fruit loops donut as a back-up breakfast. But the manousheh was good! I liked it!

Then it was to the grotto. This place was beyond incredible! Unfortunately we could not take pictures, in fact they make you lock up your phone and cameras before you enter. And Renee saw a sign that said you could be arrested for taking pictures. She thoughts she would take some on the sly (before we saw the lockers) and I told her I wasn’t bailing her ass out, so please don’t. There are two grottos: the upper and lower. According to my travel guide the upper grotto is “simply extraordinary.” That sums it up. It is HUGE and has the most incredible stalactites and stalagmites. Some are just enormous. One looked like a dead baby. Renee claims one looked like Jesus, but I didn’t see the resemblance. This part of the grotto is done on foot, walking through the whole thing. It reminded me of the Cave of Wonders from Aladdin! The lower grotto is explored by boat. It was also very cool and we got the front seats! Sailing through the water and looking at the formations was a really neat experience!

Next we were off to Harissa, which is home to the Our Lady of Lebanon shrine. This is a Marian shrine and is a pilgrimage site for Lebanese. It definitely was that. People were very reverant when up on the shrine. I didn’t realize that it’s considered one of the most important shrines in the world that honor Mary. We met a new friend when we were up on the shrine…some man wanted to take his picture with Renee, so I obliged. Then he wanted one with me. Then he went back to praying. We stuck our heads in the basilica as well and I was really touched to see Catholic Mass being said in the Middle East. The screen with the words on it was all in Arabic (and of course they were singing and speaking Arabic) and I really wanted to take a picutre, but I knew that was inappropriate. I know that Lebanon is the largest Christian country in the Middle East, but seeing this just really made me wish everyone would stop the sectarian violence. And I also thought that if Lebanon can have Muslims and Christians living together so peacefully, why do they have to hate Israel so much? Why can’t they also accept Jews?

Our next, and last stop, was Byblos. This city really felt Mediterranean. We bummed around for four hours, starting in the souk (where I FINALLY found a DC…it had been Pepsi all day…ugh), then we went through the Roman ruins, and finally had a leisurely lunch/dinner with dessert. Byblos is a port city, so we had some tasty, fresh seafood. We shared calamari and I had shrimp. Renee ordered a bunch of Lebanese food: tabouleh salad, stuffed grape leaves, and labneh. I tried all of it and only liked the tabouleh. The grape leaf was gross…super mushy. The labneh is basically cream cheese, which I can’t stand. But I tried it! And then we ordered baklava for dessert…I had never had it. What we were served was a sampler platter of different styles. So I got a nice introduction to it!

We then met our driver (after searching for 25 mins…we were waiting for him in the wrong place and we didn’t have WiFi) and came back to Beirut. We are all set to leave for the airport at 5:45am and move on to Jordan. I am very excited for the next week! We really enjoyed Lebanon, even though we didn’t see much of Beirut. It was a really nice country and I am glad that we came (Hezbollah or no Hezbollah!).

 

24,126 November 15, 2018

Filed under: Uncategorized — Torrie Schneider @ 1:09 pm

That is how many steps I took today. Which isn’t even entirely accurate because I don’t wear my Fitbit while I’m getting ready in the morning. So it’s higher. But it does represent how much walking I did around this great city today. A little over 10.5 miles, to be exact. And my legs and feet (mostly that stupid left one) are feeling it! But what a great city this is! I felt more welcomed to this city than I did in all of Romania. People were more open and friendly, literally telling me “welcome” when they learned where I was from. Now there are some less friendly people, like my waiter tonight, but on the whole I have nothing but good things to say about Bulgaria and Sofia specifically.

I started my day getting breakfast at a bakery in the Market Hall, which is kitty-corner from my Airbnb. Market Hall, or Central Sofia Market Hall, is basically an indoor farmer’s market. There are stalls for all kinds of things. Souvenirs, leather goods, ornaments (I got a Christmas ornament for my misfit tree), fruits, veggies, spices, and food. The food was both unprepared and prepared. Mostly unprepared. Butchers and fish mongers, etc. But there were sweet shops, bakeries, and a place called K-express, which is where I got lunch. After breakfast, which I went out on a limb and got something that I didn’t know what it was (well, to be fair, I didn’t know what much was) and it was not great. It was a pastry stuff with melted cheese. Not so much a breakfast item. I ate a couple of bites and tossed it. Then I went to a different bakery stand and got something with powdered sugar on it. I was confident that would be something sweet! I think it had apple inside, so I guess I’m a sucker for apple strudel type items!

I then set out in search of Starbucks to get my mug. At the closest one they had the old style mugs that said “Sofia” but the new style that said “Bulgaria.” I thought that might be a sign that others would possibly have the old style Bulgaria ones, so I went to another one. No such luck. So I bought the new style and moved on to the Aleksander Nevski Cathedral. Which, wow. This place was incredible. It was enormous and the outside was just so beautiful. You couldn’t take photos inside because there was a sign saying it was forbidden. But you could also pay 10 lev for the privilege, which I guess made it not so disrespectful?

Next to the Cathedral is Sofia Sveta Church. On the side of the church is Bulgaria’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and eternal flame. This church has stood in this spot in some form since the 3d century. When they built this iteration, or just before, they located a necropolis underneath. Excavations revealed many tombs, some on top of another. The tombs, as well as walls and parts of earlier iterations of the church, date back to the 3d-5th centuries. One of the masonry tombs even still had wall paintings intact. And they uncovered mosaics. It was just increidble. When I first entered the church, however, I heard singing or chanting. There was a service in progress, so I got to watch/listen to part of an Orthodox service. It was really beautiful, even if I had no idea what they were saying!

After this I was hungry but had no idea where to eat. So I decided to head back toward the Airbnb and go to the Market Hall again. But first I stopped at the mineral water station. Sofia is apparently awash in mineral water, so they have these taps that are constantly running and you come and fill up your bottles for free. People were filling very large water bottles/jugs. Some people just came and drank straight from them, which is weird because the water was actually hot. As such, I saw one lady doing laundry and one lady washing her leg. (This is why at another “faucet” nearby there was a sign forbidding washing, washing-up, or bathing.)

At K-express for lunch I just tried a little of several things: a chicken kebab, a chicken tender with weird seeds on it, a triangle hashbrown thing that ended up being fried cheese, and some potato wedges. Did not eat it all, just wanted to try different things! After lunch I went to the Ladies Market, which is basically an outdoor farmer’s market. It is several blocks long and is Sofia’s largest and busiest. It sold mostly produce, but also clothes, souvenirs, clay pottery, spices, and honey. Oh and axes and kitchen faucets. Because why not?

I had also wanted to go to the Sofia Synagogue, which was on the way, but it was closed for “technical reasons.” Because of course it was. This synagogue is the largest Shephardic (I don’t know what that means) Synagogue in Europe and it houses the largest chandelier in Bulgaria. I am super bummed not to have been able to see it! But I then decided to go to a print shop that my Airbnb host recommended for me to print my boarding pass for tomorrow, as apparently Ryanair discriminates against non-EU passport holders. If you’re non-EU you cannot have a mobile boarding pass. Um, ok.

Then I walked down to the Palace of Justice, just to see it. I was going to start venturing down Vitosha Boulevard, a pedestrian mall, but decided I would come back for dinner. So I went home and rested. My feet were aching!! After a two hour, or so, rest (no sleep…had to stave that off so I could sleep tonight) I went back to Vitosha for dinner. Ended up with Italian. The restaurants weren’t quintessentially Bulgarian, which sort of surprised me and sort of didn’t.

Now I have to get my bags packed up…creatively. I don’t think Ryanair is going to be as forgiving about me being over the bag limit as Tarom (Romanian air) was. And I think their kg limit is lower. Sigh. Then I need to go to sleep so I can get up at 3:45am. Because that sounds SUPER fun. I thought by flying out at 6:45 (not my first choice, thank you Turkish Airlines), I wouldn’t need to get to the airport super early and could wait until 5am when the metro starts running again. But then I got an email from Ryanair stating that there have been “security delays” at the Sofia airport and to be there 2 hours in advance. I googled and someone who flew on my exact flight (granted I think it was in 2017) said that she got there 90 mins before and almost missed her flight. Great. But hey, when I meet up with Renee tomorrow she will be jetlagged and I will just be plain exhausted!

 

Up a Bulgarian Mountain November 14, 2018

Filed under: Uncategorized — Torrie Schneider @ 1:59 pm

That’s pretty much all I did today. Well, up and down, up and down. I spent most of the day driving, but I had gorgeous views and almost no trafic. So I can’t complain. I got up and left Plovdiv about 30 mins later than planned. The first half of the morning drive was back on the freeway, so that was nice. But once I turned off, I thought it was going to be rough going, as the first road I was on had these squares cut out of the tar and they were all over the place. No apparent rhyme or reason. And I was really trying not to get a flat tire. Thankfully I wasn’t on that road for too long.

Once I started up the mountain, it was a really peaceful. I saw a two lakes on my way up and was able to stop and get some photos at one of them. I took my time, stopping here and there pull-offs to see views and snap pics. I knew the name of the town/village where I was going to get the chair lift to the Seven Rila Lakes, but I also knew that the chair lift wasn’t in the town proper. So after a turn off to that town, I backtracked and found the entrance.

It was chilly at the chair lift. It had crossed my mind this morning to wear my big, comfy UMD Hockey sweatshirt (that I brought for sleeping in the desert), but didn’t think it would be THAT cold. Wow was I wrong. I had a long-sleeved t-shirt, puffy vest, and my windbreaker/rain coat. Thankfully I had the wherewithal to bring gloves and my running headband because holy cow, it was FREEZING. I had never been on a chair lift before, so that was an experience! The ride up was about 20 mins and all was well…at first. Then I saw that were getting into the cloud/fog and it was a little freaky. Also, very cold and at times windy. The fingers on my right hand were numb by the time I got to the top.

The top wasn’t any better. You could see about 10 feet in front of you and that was it. Clearly there was not going to be any hiking going on today! But I didn’t want to just turn around and go back down, not least of all because, have I mentioned, I was COLD! So I thought if I just walked around up there a bit I would at least get the blood pumping again and maybe unthaw my legs. I came upon a building and realized it was the ski chalet. And it was open! Score! I thought I would just go in and try to warm up a little by being inside a building, but then I saw that there was a cafeteria. So I asked a lady working if I could order something to drink. She said, “yes, tea?” Oh yes, please!! When she brought the tea to the counter she immediately walked away. I was putting sugar in my tea and she came back into my general vicinity, so I asked her if I could pay for the tea. She said no, it was free. Free? Best cup of tea I’ve ever had. It hit the spot and gave me the courage to get back on the chair lift and shiver the 20 mins back down!

Once I got down, I got back in the car and headed to the Rila Monastery. Although the monastery is about 3 miles away from where I was, it was literally on the other side of the mountain. So back down I went. I had to stop and get gas at this point and about halfway through filling up, an employee came over and basically wrenched the nozzle out of my hand and asked me, “full?” Perhaps they are just full service stations here? Am I not allowed to do it myself? Then I was back on the road for another hour and a half…around the mountain and then back up again. This time, or on this side, the weather was much better. Sunny and crisp. Not freezing. Again, I stopped here and there to take photos. It really was a gorgeous drive.

The monastery was beautiful. I had wanted to tour the sleeping quarters, but some of the things were closed for the season (like the tower) and I couldn’t find anywhere to ask about the tour, so I just skipped it. The chapel was incredible. Simply incredible. I don’t understand what “icons” are in the Orthodox faith, but the chapel was covered in them. It was like murals on steroids. So overwhelming, but stunning. Inside the chapel there were chandeliers that were amazing as well. I took one photo inside the chapel and as I was lining up my second shot, someone tapped me on the shoulder and said, “no.” Whoops. There weren’t any signs for no photos. Because I am a total rule follower and wouldn’t have taken any had I known! Next, I went to the museum, which was a bit underwhelming, and then just walked all around. It was such a nice afternoon and the place was so beautiful I didn’t want to leave so soon!

I then made my way back to Sofia. Took about 30 mins longer than anticipated because I had to get gas in order to return the car to the airport. I took the metro into the city and by this point I was shaking I was so hungry. Basically hadn’t eaten much of anything the entire day. I’m glad I had snacks with me because I housed some cashews while on the metro! Once at my stop I realized, at least so it seemed, that I had to haul my bags up many stairs. I couldn’t find an elevator anywhere. So I started going up and about 6-8 steps up, I feel someone grab the side handle on my suitcase. I turn to look and it’s a blonde chick who didn’t speak English, but the message was clear. She was going to help! Once we made it to the top, I turned to thank her and then she went. back. down. Yep, she wasn’t even going up, she just saw me and came to my assistance. It was such a nice gesture, especially after the less-than-friendly Romanians. There are kind people everywhere!

I got out my phone to figure out what direction my Airbnb was. I knew it was very close, just not in which direction. That’s when I realized that this was a major intersection and there were gates all around the sidewalk. I couldn’t cross the street. But there was not a chance in hell I was dragging my bag back down into the metro. Not after that girl helped me carry it! So I went around. A couple blocks out of my way in total, but I made it. And eventually saw elevators at the street level. No idea where they were downstairs.

Now I’m settled into the apartment, which is really right in the heart of everything and I can’t wait to explore this city tomorrow!

 

Europe’s Oldest City November 13, 2018

Filed under: Uncategorized — Torrie Schneider @ 12:53 pm

Ok, that should actually be Europe’s Oldest Continually Inhabited City, as there is evidence of habitation as far back as the 6th century BC. It was first known as Phillippopolis due to the Greek conqueror. But eventually it became part of the Roman Empire (what didn’t?) and there have been some recent discoveries and excavations from that time period. One of them was my first stop in town, the Roman Stadium. It was a small ruin of an old stadium that would have held 30,000 people. Having already seen Rome and Athens, it was quite small as far as ruins go.

I then met my Airbnb host to get the key early and lugged my bags to the apartment. I wasn’t parked far away, but I couldn’t drive into Old Town from where I was parked and so the host just thought I was parked close enough. What he didn’t know was that I had a 50+ pound rolling suitcase and the cobblestones here are ridiculous. They are of the large variety with lots of room between them. Pretty much the opposite of optimal suitcase rolling circumstances. But I did it.

Then I went in search of lunch. I was going to have Italian, but when I came around the corner I saw Happy Bar and Grill, which is a very popular (at least as determined by number of establishments) Bulgarian chain. So I thought I would give it a try. Not great, but I suppose the first clue should have been the “Mexican sauce” that was listed as an ingredient of my wrap. Yeah, I think they meant salsa.

After lunch I walked around and was eventually seeking the Roman Theater. First, I walked through the Tsar Simeon Garden, which was nicer than the park in Bucharest. But still definitely closing down for the season. Then I found the Ancient Theater. Up steep hills and many stairs. What annoyed me was that I had been halfway up earlier in the day but thought I was going in the wrong direction so I went back down. Facepalm. It was definitely worth going back up! It was more of a proper Roman ruins. The theater was stunning. They date it to the 1st century AD under the rule of Emperor Domitian. I took my time there and was appreciating the fact that I took that Roman Architecture class online from Yale.

After leaving the theater I went to the Balabanov House. This house was built around 1830 and while the original was demolished, this one was rebuilt as an exact replica. I didn’t learn that fact until after I went through it and was quite surprised. For a building constructed in the 1970’s it sure seemed old and decrepit and, frankly, not well-cared for. I thought maybe it had just fallen into disrepair and they weren’t big on maintaining things like that under communism. Guess that’s not true. Interesting that they still haven’t taken great care of it, though. Anyway, the house is supposed to be one of the best examples of Bulgarian Revival style and it was the first home with running hot and cold water here. I actually much preferred the gardens and exterior spaces.

After that tour, I returned to my apartment and rested. Took a brief nap (I got up at 4:15am, after all). Then I ventured out for dinner. Headed back to the Italian place I skipped at lunch. I tried to do Bulgarian. I really did. There are just so few options in Old Town and what I saw, I just couldn’t bring myself to eat. So I compromised and had a cheese (it said Margherita, but it was definitely NOT Margherita) pizza with a Shopska salad. Shopska salads are also known as Bulgarian salads and has cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, and onions with sirene. Sirene is white brine cheese. I could’ve done without the cheese or at least without so much of it. It wasn’t my fave. But the tomatoes and cucumbers were very tasty. The cucumbers were a little different from back home, but still tasty. And I had a Strongbow…but it was a berry one. Not my first choice, but it was the only cider on the menu.

Overall a good first day in Bulgaria! I am looking forward to some nature tomorrow. Rila National Park and hopefully, fingers crossed, a wee bit of hiking to one or two of the 7 Rila Lakes! Today’s travel was slick, basically freeway from Sofia to Plovdiv. I think tomorrow will be more challenging…heading through the mountains!