Jared in Turkey – Part Cinque

 WARNING:  THIS EMAIL CONTAINS SPIRITUAL INSIGHTS AND STUFF. BEWARE.

Today, I took my first bus ride during the day in Turkey, so I finally got to see some of the amazing countryside. This is probably the most picturesque country I have ever been to.  The mountains are so incredible and green, full of trees, and spotted with ancient stones.  From the road we traveled on, the hills sprawled forth, getting bigger as they got further away, finally giving way to massive mountains with green slopes and snow capped peaks.

The bus ride weaved its way through an entire range of this scenery, en route from Pamukale to Selcuk where I am now. Selcuk is a town near the coast of Turkey, a base from which to explore the ancient ruins of Ephesus, where I am going tomorrow. It is also the final resting place of St. John, author of a few books in the New Testament.

I was glad to leave Pamukale, as interesting as its calcium slopes and ancient ruins were….it just seemed a little desolate for my taste. The roads were barely paved and there were many abandoned hotels and almost no other travelers. I did encounter another traveling couple and spoke to them for a bit. But after a while, they revealed to me that they were on a mission from “The Lord” and were doing his work to spread the good news of the Gospel to the ends of the Earth.They became very insistent with me about the good news and quite zealously tried to “influence” me. I said that’s great and all, but I’ve already heard the story.

They intend to go to Israel next and spread the good news there…..I told them they wouldn’t be the first people to try that on the Jews. But I wished them well and put some distance between me and them, after refusing their offer to pray for me. No offense to anyone out there, but extremists of any kind rub me the wrong way….

As I am traveling, I am trying to have an “inner journey” as well as an actual journey. This involves being aware of what’s happening to you at all times, and allowing the experience to affect and change you. It’s about growth and evolution, both which were goals I established before I embarked on this trip. I guess I have not been too successful up until now, with fulfilling those goals.

It’s a scary thing to go across the world to a strange place, all alone, and allow yourself to be “blown by the wind”. So, I incorrectly opted to join a package tour that would provide structure so I didn’t have to find the courage to roam on my own. The last four days I have been on this tour, while I have seen many interesting things, have not been overly fulfilling.  I have decided from now on, not to book anything ahead or make any plans. I am just going to go, and see where the journey takes me. After all, the journey is the purpose, and not the destination. I’ll let you know how it goes.

I did have one very fulfilling experience in Istanbul that I neglected to share in my previous installments, which I shall now share. I had time during my last day before my bus left in the evening, so I decided I wanted to play guitar and sing in public. It would be the first time I would do this on this trip. Up until then, I was unsure of how the masses would react to me, and I didn’t want to offend anyone since it is a Muslim country and all. I didn’t know if people would flock around me or stone me to death….it was a gamble. But I took the chance.

I went to the lovely park that sits between the Blue Mosque and the Aya Sophia, both majestic buildings, the site of which can be very inspirational. I took out my guitar and began to softly strum. The fear was there…”what will they think of me? Oh man, I am disturbing these people…..I should go”. But I suppressed the fear and just continued strumming. I saw a few people looking at me, and I just looked down, not wanting to make eye contact.

A few minutes later, a couple of Turkish guys came over and introduced themselves to me….I thought it was a ploy to sell a carpet, but they seemed very interested in the fact that I could play guitar and asked me if I sing to. I said yes, of course and they became even more excited and said, “Play Hotel California!” That’s a standard, and easy enough, so I put aside the fear and began playing it. Halfway through the song, one of the guys said, “You know, you are very good. I think we should move to a more public place, because you can make some money”. I said, “Ok, if you think so…”

So I followed them to a more visible area, right in front of the Blue Mosque where there were a few dozen people sitting around. The guy told me to open my guitar case so people could throw money into it…..I did….and immediately he put a few bills and change in. He charged me to begin playing….so I launched into “Let It Be”…..and immediately people began to turn around and look at me….many of them were smiling and listening intently….some young kids approached me and sat down next to me….more and more people gathered around to look at the strange foreigner singing at the top his lungs in front of one of the most beautiful buildings in the world.

When I finished the first song, there was a round of applause! I couldn’t believe it. A bunch of people threw some change into my case, and the guy said, “Keep going!”  So, I did…and the crowd kept getting bigger and more people threw money into my case. The kids were dancing. Women in the traditional Muslim veils were smiling at me. Several of them took pictures of me. This whole scene lasted for about an hour until I had no voice left, and the crowd started to taper off. I was filled with happiness and fulfillment from this experience, and energized to do this much more often. It’s great to know that I can elicit that kind of reaction on the other side of the world. Plus, I made a million Lira….color me rich.

So now I am sitting in Selcuk at my hostel….so far this has been the nicest hostel…people are very friendly here, and I see some other backpackers so maybe I will meet some of them tonight. Tomorrow I shall tour Ephesus, the best preserved ruins of an ancient city in this country…..I am excited to see it. That’s about all…thanks for reading….

Jared

Jared in Turkey – Part Quatre

Greetings….this email will most likely contain many crazy characters instead of i. Oh well, it’s too frustrating to hit the other key when I am typing…so if you wanna get rid of them, paste the text into MS Word, do a search, and replace….

Here comes da news…

I spent my last day in Cappadokia just roaming around the town of Goreme. It’s a quaint little town, but there are almost no other backpackers there. It’s weird to walk around and see that I am the only foreigner. But it’s definitely a tourist town when the season is right.  I was the only one staying in my cave….kinda strange.

As I walked up and down the streets of Goreme, I couldn’t help but feel bad for all the shopkeepers who were just sitting around and doing nothing. Most of them looked at me pleadingly as I passed by, but what could I do? I think, because of the big earthquake last year, the tourist industry was badly hurt.

During the afternoon, as I was walking around, a man who owns a carpet shop called to me from across the street and invited me to come over to sit with him and have some tea. I knew this was a ploy to sell me a carpet, but I had nothing better to do at the time, so I joined him.

He served up some Chay (that’s what they call Tea here), and we chewed the fat for a while. In the course of conversation, I revealed that I was Jewish, and to my surprise, he claimed to be Jewish too. Immediately, I thought that was another ploy to try and shmooze me to buy a carpet. So, I started asking him questions about Israel and Judaism, and he didn’t know anything. Plus his name was Mohammed. That’s a nice name and all, but it’s definitely not one that Jewish parents would give their child…..so we drank tea and soaked up the sun, watching the dust of the town roll by.

Then he popped the question. “Why don’t you let me show you some of the carpets and Kilims I have available?” Boom. Well, I expected it….so I humored him for a bit as he made his pitch to me.  These guys are pros and make it very hard for you to leave without buying something, but I held my ground and made it back outside with no rugs. I spent the rest of the day finishing Exodus….a phenomenal book that I shall once again recommend.

Around 7:30am, I hopped on the bus to my next destination, a place called Pammukale.  This is a town that has many sights in and around for the tourist to gape at. I’ll get to it…but first, the bus ride. OY VEY. Another 10 hours on a bus….what the heck was I thinking when I signed up for this package?

First of all, a very drunk Turk who reeked of liquor had to sit in the seat across from me mumbling to himself half the time and snoring the rest of the time. To top it off, the entire stretch of road between Cappadokia and Pammukale was barely paved and full of bumps and pot holes the whole way. So, the bus was constantly hitting bumps, and it was quite uncomfortable and impossible to sleep. I felt like I was on a vibrating bed with wheels.  After 10 grueling hours of this, I arrived in Pammukale quite the agitated zombie. The shuttle took me to my hostel, and I immediately crashed.

I awoke at 9:45am to a knock at my door. A thick accented man was yelling at me that my tour bus was waiting outside for me. I bolted up and did a quick run through the necessaries and ran down to a van full of pissed off people, because I made them wait.  Oh well…that’s life.

Pammukale is actually very interesting, because there are sprawling ruins of an ancient Roman city called Hierapolis. As far as the eye can see, an entire mountainside is covered with broken columns, half standing pillars, evidence of once glorious structures, and Roman streets. There was also a well kept amphitheatre over looking the valley below the ancient city and beautiful snow capped mountains in the distance  We spent the morning roaming through these ruins and learning what they once were. Then the tour guide took us for lunch…which I was annoyed at because it turned out to be a rip off. They served salad, bread, rice, and potatoes. Almost entirely carbohydrates and zero protein. I felt like they were just too cheap when they tried to pass a bowl of potatoes off as a main course.

The afternoon was spent investigating the other main attraction here: Mountainsides entirely covered with beautiful white calcium deposits. Part of the attraction of the area to the Romans was the fact that natural hot springs bubble up amply in this region. The water is naturally carbonated with calcium-sulfate, and as the water poured down the mountain, over thousands of years, the calcium dried to form snow-like rivers of deposits.  Check of some pictures on the web. There are also many pools of hot springs, but most of them are not available for swimming, because they’ve been ruined by tourists over the years. Shame.

So now it’s late afternoon, and I am back at the hostel using their very slow and quite expensive Internet connection. Ironically, I have found the connections in Turkey to be painfully slow for a supposedly western country. They were much quicker in Bulgaria, a place that time left behind. Twist O’ Fate.

Later,

Jared

Jared in Turkey – Part Trois

Hey all! Wassup? I’ve been havin’ a blast these last few days….I decided to get out of Istanbul and see some of this fabulous country and lemme tell ya, there is a heck of a lot to see here. I signed up for one of those low budget package tour deals, which will send me to some pretty key spots in Turkey, then put me on a ferry to Greece at the end of it all.

I took another 12-hour bus ride from Istanbul to a place called Cappadokia, which is in the region of Anatolia in the center of the country. Ugh, the ride was way long, but somehow I managed to sleep, miraculously. I arrived in a town called Goreme at around 8:00 in the morning and was picked up by the tour company at the bus station. They dropped me off at my hostel, which turns out to be in a cave. Yep, a cave!

The deal with Cappadokia is that it’s an area formed out of volcanic ash and eroded over thousands of years to create these cone shaped, lava rock pillars all over the area. Since volcanic rock is soft, early settlers of this region, and then later the Byzantine Christians, carved all kinds of churches and cities into the rock itself so the area is full of caves and caverns all hewn by the hands of the ancients. It makes for some interesting sites, and people actually still live in the some of the caves….and they have also built houses out of them.

So, my hostel is in a cave. I felt like Fred Flintstone. I arrived and the hostel attendant showed me to my room, which I had to descend into. It was freezing cold, like your standard cave would feel. There was a musty smell coming from somewhere….at least there were Turkish rugs thrown over the floor. My bed was a pile of straw. Just kidding…it was an actual bed. I met a really cool married couple from Canada whom I hung out with for the next two days.

Our tour began at 9:30am. We spent the day exploring the region, and its many breathtaking panoramic views. We hiked around through valleys, going into some of the caves and seeing many of the well-preserved churches with amazing artwork still intact. We also visited a pottery making operation and got to see how all that works. In addition, we got to see how Turkish carpets are made. I was quite impressed with the process. It actually takes several months to a year of labor to produce just one carpet, depending on how elaborate the design is. I got to see the little old ladies in action. Of course, then they tried to get us to buy a carpet, but what the hell am I gonna do with one?

The weather is very cold here, to the point where I have to wear my hat and gloves. I have a space heater in my cave, but it didn’t do too much. On top of that, NO HOT WATER.  That doesn’t make your daily necessities very easy. But hey, I am sleepin in a cave for God’s sake. How many people can say they slept in a cave? That’s what I thought.

The next day, the tour guide took us to one of the underground cities. There are entire networks of caverns and rooms for a whole society, completely underground and carved out of the rock. We were told it took 1000 men 10 years to do it. Quite impressive.

The tour guide took us through very cramped tunnels that twisted and turned connecting the various rooms. We had to hunch over much of the time so as not to hit our heads. A couple of times I cracked my head against the rock ceiling and now I have a few bumps as souvenirs….ouch. A few times I started to get a little panicky when I saw how small the tunnel was, but I made it and was happy to have seen such an amazing creation. The afternoon was spent hiking through the valley of Ilhara and having lunch in a very ancient Turkish village by a stream. It felt like I was back in time. Some of these places haven’t changed for 1000 years.

The tour ended with a stop at a spot where a scene from the first Star Wars movie was filmed. When the guide said we would see where the movie was filmed, I was all excited, since I was obsessed with Star Wars for a long time…..I was all giddy thinking I’m gonna see where Obi Wan Kenobi scared the Sand People and saved Luke…… but it wasn’t too exciting….some more lava rock pillars and caves. But I was there man! I was there!

Anyway, that’s all for now. I can’t wait to get away from these Turkish keyboards. They stink. I’m going back to my cave now, where Wilma is cookin’ up some Brontosaurus burgers, and Barney’s coming over to chill….

Sorry I haven’t written to some of you, but I will as soon as the connections get better and I can find a decent keyboard…..but keep writing to me!

Jared

Jared in Turkey – Part Deux

WARNING:  PRETTY DANG LONG AND POTENTIALLY EDUCATIONAL. READ AT YOUR OWN RISK. GET THE REAL STORY ON TURKSIH BATH HOUSES.

I want to write about my first two days in Istanbul. As you know, I arrived at 4:00 in the morning on Tuesday with the crazy cab ride through the back streets, all lost and stuff. OK…

I went to bed that night and awoke around 11:00am that morning. That was the first glimpse of Turkey I had in the daylight, and I soon found out just how beautiful Istanbul really is. From the window of my hostel room, I have a full view of the Aya Sophia, which is completely magnificent. I’ll get to that soon. I decided to dress and get started on my exploration.

The part of Istanbul I am in is called Sultan Ahmet. It’s basically tourist central. That’s where you got all the big attractions and most impressive structures. Sultan Ahmet is located in the Golden Horn section on the European side of Istanbul. If you were not aware, Istanbul straddles two continents – Europe and Asia. Separating the two sides is the Bosphorous River that is the only outlet from the Black Sea into the Sea of Mamara, which in turn is the only outlet into the Mediterranean, through the Dardinelle straights.

That makes Istanbul a very valuable city, since all traffic coming in and out of the Black Sea must pass through its center. That, of course, was the reason Emperor Constantine founded Constantinople on this site back in the 300s AD, later to become Istanbul when the Muslims took over in the 1400s. And that fact has been the reason for countless invasions, by the Romans, Byzantines, Crusaders, Russians, Ottomans, and many others.  Each culture has left its mark on this city. So there’s a bit of history for you.

I started my first day with the aim of just roaming around to get my bearings. As I walked out of the hostel, not more than one minute later, I was approached by an over-friendly Turk who tried very hard to strike up a conversation with me – “What’s your name? Where are you from? Why are you in Turkey?”

I was immediately suspicious and hesitant to speak to him. I kept walking, but he followed alongside me. I cautiously engaged him in light conversation, only to find a few moments later that he was really just interested in selling me a Turkish carpet. That seems to be the huge business here, and I think a lot of tourists are getting conned into buying overpriced rugs, even if they are nice looking. I informed him I was not interested, and I am not going to buy a carpet. He said, “That’s ok my friend, if you just come to my shop, I can tell you all about Turkish carpets. If you don’t want to buy, it’s ok. We will have a cup of tea and maybe we’ll become friends”. I said, “I don’t mean to be rude, but I just arrived, and I want to walk around. See ya.” I walked away.

As I approached the main section of Sultan Ahmet, I had to fight off the little kids trying to sell postcards and shoeshines. Clearly there is a thriving tourist industry here. I made my way through the crowds of tourist trappers, and behold before me was the magnificent Blue Mosque. I highly recommend looking it up to see some pictures of it. It is unbelievably beautiful. It has six towering Minarets with huge domes made from stone and silver. Five times a day, the call to prayer roars forth from these towers, which you can hear it across the city.

The structure is so immense that its presence completely overshadows everything else in the landscape. Muslims sure do know how to build their houses of worship. I took my shoes off, according to Muslim law, and went inside.The interior is equally as impressive.  The floor is lined with hand-woven carpets, and the room is completely open and is the size of the structure itself. Bluish tiles cover the ceiling and walls, adorned with Arabic writing of passages from the Koran. After gazing upward in marvel for nearly half an hour, I put my shoes back on and went outside.

I sat down on the benches in the courtyard of the Mosque and was again approached to buy a carpet. I made it clear that I was not interested, but the guy seemed genuine, so I ended up speaking to him for about an hour. His name was Ali. We talked about life in Turkey. I asked him what it was like to be here during the big earthquake. “Very scary”, he said. It turns out that nearly 50,000 people died, far more than the press reported. I can’t imagine what it must have been like. Turkey seems very modern, although that was not the impression I had of this place before I came.

After I left Ali, I decided to go to the Aya Sophia. Again, this structure is immense; even bigger than the Blue Mosque and far older. It was first built back in the 300s, but had to be rebuilt a few times due to earthquakes. Look it up to see some pictures. The building has gone through many changes over the years, because of i’s conversion from a church to a mosque, but the interior is quite amazing. Inside, there is a dark feel and coldness in the air. The floor is made of ancient stone with large pillars supporting very high domes. It was in this building that each Byzantine Emperor was crowned. The ceiling is full of Christian mosaics, as well as Islamic art that was painted over many of the original mosaics. They have been working to restore much of the art that was painted over throughout the years. Many battles took place in and around the Aya Sophia. Enough of that.

Next, I decided to check out the Grand Bazaar. This is an immense network of narrow indoor streets with arched ceilings lined with store after store of clothing, bags, Turkish rugs, giant water pipes, hand drums, chess sets, swords, and different types of food and teas. Most of the stores sell exactly the same thing as all the others, which is a shame, because you can spend hours roaming the corridors, not really seeing anything unique. The shopkeepers are very zealous and constantly beckoning you to enter. “Good deal!  Good deal, my friend! Come inside, please, come!”  I actually did get lost and ended up on the other side, with no clue how to get back to the hostel. I asked for some directions with a lot of hand gestures and finger pointing, I made my way back.

That night I hung out at the hostel and ate dinner in the cafeteria. That’s when I met a few people. There are a wide variety of nationalities represented here – Australians, Americans, Dutch, Spanish, and French, to name a few. We all hung out and got drunk in the pub. I played some guitar with a Turkish fellow who also played. The beer went to my head, and I had to hit the hay around 11:00………

Next Day:

I awoke to a determination:  I am in Turkey. I must have a Turkish bath.

Who has not heard about a Turkish bath? Everyone has, but like most people, I had no idea what it consisted of. I got a recommendation from the hostel on where to go for a good one. They pointed me towards a reasonably priced Haman, bathhouse, and I set out.

The bathhouse I went to was over 300 years old. The building looked very ancient, and it was domed like much of the architecture here. I descended into the bathhouse and was greeted by a nice man named Habib who spoke very little English. I was taken up to a small room where I was told to get into my birthday suit and wrap a towel around my waist. He then led me downstairs through a wooden door into the main bath chamber. The air was very hot, like a sauna, and extremely humid. I could immediately feel water droplets condensing on my skin. The main bath chamber is a circular room, all made of grayish-blue marble – the walls, the floor, the ceiling, everything.

The walls were again adorned with Arabic writing and the perimeter of the room was lined with marble water basins with faucets for hot and cold. In the center of the room, there was a giant marble platform, hot to the touch. The floor had little trenches for water drainage. There were also some smaller rooms off the main room with the same sorts of water basins and hot marble. It was dark, but there were small circular windows in the ceiling to let some light in. A very Gothic mood. Picture Indiana Jones.

There were two other people there, getting the treatment, so I had a pretty good idea what I was in for.  I sat on the marble platform for a while, just soaking it up, sweating profusely. After a while I began to wonder where the guy went. Finally he came back, and we got started. The first portion of the bath consists of a massage. Oh man, that hurt. These guys do not hold back. They literally kneed your flesh as if it were dough and pound your back with their fists, working every inch of your body. But, it felt pretty good when it was over.

Then, he broke out a sandpaper like scrub brush and began to sand every inch of my flesh, except a few important parts. I felt like a piece of wood getting smoothed down. The purpose, apparently, is to remove all your dead skin. Sorry if I am too graphic, but most of you will never have a Turkish bath, so read on. After the scrubbing, I laid on the marble platform, then he dumped large amounts of soapsuds on me, entirely covering me. I must have looked like one big sud to the onlooker.

Then, he began lathering me quite forcefully, really digging in, if you know what I mean.  Every inch. Unfortunately, the soap got in my eyes, so they burned for a while and were red for the rest of the morning. When he was done with the suds, he took me over to one of the basins on the side and sat me down. Bucket after bucket of warm water was dumped on me to rinse off the suds. Then it was over. I was all wet and in a daze.

I felt cleaner than ever and ready for a nice nap. He left me lying on the marble to take my time. When I felt ready, I went out the wooden door and was toweled off and sent back up to my little room to get dressed. I found my way outside and stumbled back to the hostel where I subsequently collapsed on my bed, giggling to myself that I actually had a Turkish bath. The real thing. So, that’s about all I have to say about Turkish baths.

After resting up, I made my way outside again, wanting to see a few more of the standard sights. First, I went to the Underground Cistern. This is an underground, obviously, network or water channels used to bring water to the main palace.It was built by the Romans, way back when. Descending into the main chamber, I was greeted by soft classical music and cold, damp air. The cistern is actually a vast open room about the size of a football field, full of Roman columns and arched ceilings. About two feet of water covers the floor, and there are platforms on which you walk throughout the cistern, gazing at the columns and feeling the mood.

It was pretty cool, but got old quickly. The main attraction are two columns that have giant Medusa heads as their base. I actually got into a bit of an argument with a tour guide who was talking to her group near the Medusa columns. I was standing near her group as she was talking, just looking at the columns and minding my business. Then all the sudden she asks me to move away from them! As if I were some sort of security threat, or I was invading her group. I said, “Ma’am, I paid my 3 million Lira, and I am looking at these columns”, and she said, “Well, we were here before you, and you have to wait until we are finished. That’s how it works!” I said, “You don’t own these columns. You don’t even work here. You are just a tour guide. Who are you to tell me what to do?”  But, in order to avoid a scene, I complied. Exit cistern.

This is getting pretty long already, so I will cut some details.

Next, I went to see the Topkapi Palace, which was the seat of the Ottoman Empire. I got see where all the sordid stuff went down. Those Sultans had lots of concubines, and they threw some massive “parties.” The palace is a very holy place to Muslims, because it contains many unique Islamic treasures, such as the tooth and hair of the Prophet Mohamed, as well as a letter he wrote, and some other stuff.

After the palace, I decided to walk until I could walk no more. I ended up going all the way down to the riverfront, walking along its edge, heading towards a bridge that crosses the river to Asia. Again, I had to fight off the little kids trying to sell me a shoeshine. A whole pack of them followed me for 15 minutes. “Shoeshine? Shoeshine? Good price Mister.  Where you from?” I clicked my tongue at them, which is the Turkish sign for NO, but they kept insisting. Then, one of them ran in front of me and in a flash, wiped some shoe polish on my sneaks. That made me angry. I started yelling, and they ran away. Too bad … I would have liked to catch one…..

It was a long walk to the bridge across the river, but I finally arrived and made the dramatic crossing to Asia. From the bridge, there are some breathtaking views of the city. The bridge is lined with fishermen who will catch you one and fry it up on the spot for a few million Lira. After my dramatic crossing, I went back to the Grand Bazaar and roamed around there for a while. I ended up jamming with a Turk at one of the shops that sold the hand drums. Fun stuff.

Tonight, I am leaving on a package tour for 5 days around Turkey….I’ll give ya all the details as it happens.

OK, I am fried and I am sure the few of you who actually read this whole thing are fried too.  I’ll let ya go. One thing:  A lot of people have said to me, “Why do you spend so much time writing? Get out and explore!” Well, first of all, I only spend an hour a day, or so, writing, so it’s not that much. This writing is very important to me, because when my trip is over, I will have a very thorough journal of my travels. Second of all, when you are alone in a strange place, it’s comforting to communicate with your friends and family. But, don’t worry, I am spending plenty of time exploring. Internet cafes are everywhere, including in my hostel, so access is very easy.

Thanks for reading, hope you enjoy these things as much as I do. Sorry if there are any more funny looking ý thýngýes….çþöðü…

Jared

Jared in Turkey

I packed my bags last night, pre-bus ride. Zero hour, 4:00am, and I’m gonna be iiiinnnnnnn Istanbul by then.

Hello everyone! I have arrived in Istanbul! OR is it Constantinople? Istanbul or Constantinople? I guess that’s nobody’s business but the Turks.

What a bus ride! We left Varna at 5:00pm yesterday and set out for a 12-hour tour. The weather started getting rough. It was snowing like mad as we passed through the mountains of southern Bulgaria by way of a very windy road…..the tiny bus was tossed. If not for the courage of the fearless crew, we may have tumbled off the mountainside, but we didn’t. I was crammed against the window with an old man next to me the whole way. He smelled like pencil shavings – 12 hours! Never take a 12-hour bus ride. It got dark quickly, so I didn’t get to see much of the picturesque landscape and that bums me out. Oh well. Then the fun started!

We arrived at the Bulgarian border, and the border patrol collected all of our passports. I was very nervous about surrendering my passport, but everyone else was doing it, so I thought it would be ok. They made us get off the bus and unload all of our luggage. They then proceeded to open each and every bag and examine the contents. What fun. I guess they were trying to catch those infamous Bulgarian smugglers in the act.

After we passed the Bulgarian border, we turned the corner and voila the Turkish border. They made us all get off the bus and go inside and stand in line to be checked in. When I got to the window, I was informed that I needed a Visa, and I couldn’t enter the country without it. No big deal…I knew that was coming…so I went around the corner and greased the palm of the border guy with 45 hard earned bucks. He slapped a sticker on my passport that said I was good to go.

Back on the bus. Oops, back off the bus cuz the Turks wanted to look at our bags too. We stood there for another hour as they opened each and every bag to examine the contents. Back on the bus. Six hours to go. Will it ever end? I dozed at some point and awoke to find us passing through some smaller towns on route to Istanbul.

Turkey looks like a pretty modern country! I could see the rows upon rows of very nice looking townhouses that we passed along the way. Everything looks new and modern, from the roads to the gas stations to the shops and larger outlet stores. It could very well be Israel or certain parts of America. The distinctive thing, though, is the towering Minarets (where the call to prayer is given) that protrude from the top of very beautiful mosque in each town. Don’t forget, this is a Muslim country.

We arrived at the modern looking bus station in Istanbul at about 4:00am. I was so wiped out, and I didn’t know what to do at that point. A lot of people were waiting in a room in the bus company’s office for their next bus, so many people offered to wait with me. I thought about it and said NO. I decided to make it for the hostel via taxi. Ohhhh taxis in Istanbul. Crazier than Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.

My driver did not speak a word of English, so it was very difficult to tell him where I needed to go. All I had was an address and a vague idea of where my hostel was…in the Sultan Ahmet section of town, right near the Aya Sofia (see previous letter). The guy had no idea where it was, so we spent half an hour weaving around the ancient streets of Istanbul.

No one was out at the time, so it seemed like a ghost town. I kept thinking, oh my God, it’s 4:30am, and I am lost in the back streets of Istanbul. Freaky. But we passed a lot of very large and beautiful structures, then we came to Aya Sofia. Extremely beautiful from the outside. After asking directions a few times, the driver found my hostel. He then tried to cheat me by quoting a higher price than what I was told at the bus station. I didn’t fall for it.

Enter hostel. Pretty decent. I got a single room…a little grungy with a sink…no bathroom…down the hall. The window was open, and it was absolutely freezing. I shut it and kicked on the heater, bundled up, and went to sleep.

By the way, I am a millionaire in Turkey. Of course that doesn’t mean much. The dollar is equal to 570,000 Turkish lira. So I got about 20 million. I’m loaded.

There ya go. The story of how I got to Turkey. You’ll hear much more soon…..

Jared

Jared in Bulgaria – The End

Yo, my people, what it be?

I am sitting in an Internet center in Varna, Bulgaria on the coast of the Black Sea (“Cherno Moreh” in Bulgarian). This will be my final transmission from this country, because this afternoon I am hopping on a 12-hour bus ride to Istanbul, Turkey. I am so very excited for several reasons:  1)  To leave Bulgaria;  2) To strike out on my own, finally; and  3) I have always wanted to go to Istanbul.

Ahhh, Bulgaria, will I ever return to grace thine rolling hills of dead vegetation and run down cities full of poor and desperate people? Nope. I don’t think so. If any of you have been considering planning a trip here, don’t. Even though it’s dirt-cheap, and you can live like a king on $500 a month, there ain’t much going on round these parts.

But, for the last few days, I have been living it up in a pretty nice hotel right on the beach of the Black Sea. I went for some walks, played a lot of guitar, and spent hours upon hours reading Exodus. I am absolutely fascinated by this book, and it has stirred within me an even deeper love for Israel. I have learned things about the creation of Israel, which I never knew. I highly recommend this book.

So, today I leave Bulgaria behind, probably forever. I hope my dad doesn’t move here, because I don’t think I will ever see him again. I am trying to persuade him to move to Israel. Cross your fingers, everyone. I will be arriving in Istanbul at 4:00am. What the heck am I going to do in Istanbul at 4:00 am? I have no clue.

I made a reservation at a youth hostel right near the Aya Sofia, a very ancient church – turned mosque – turned museum, dating back to the 500’s of this era. I will do as much reporting about Istanbul as I can, because from what I hear, it is one of the most incredible places in the world.

Everyone, please keep writing to me. It will help me stay grounded when I am completely alone on the other side of the world. Alone in Turkey. What have I gotten myself into? But I am sure it will be amazing, and I will meet tons of people at the hostels. From Istanbul, I will be heading down the west coast of Turkey to the ruins of Ephesus, an ancient Greek city from New Testament times. From there, I will be crossing the Aegean Sea, hitting some Greek Islands, most likely Santorini and Mykonos. If anyone has any suggestions, send them on over.

That’s about it. Thanks for following me around Israel and Bulgaria, hearing all about my dad and stuff. From here on in, it’s just me, so we’ll see what kind of trouble I can stir up in this part of the world. Hope I don’t end up in a Turkish prison!

Jared

Jared in Bulgaria – Part Cinque

Hi all! I will keep this short, because Vladimir is waiting to take me back to the hotel.  It’s kind of nice to have a chauffer, even if he reeks.

We left Plovdiv this morning and set out on the 6-hour drive to the coast of the Black Sea, IN a town called Varna, a major city in this country. It’s supposedly a resort town where all kinds of low budget Europeans come for vacation. Looks to me more like a ghost town full of run down hotels, and half built complexes, seemingly abandoned in mid-construction.  Oh well, what can I expect? I’m in Bulgaria, for God’s sake.

The drive here was quite annoying, because my father sat in the front with Vladimir and they were speaking Bulgarian the whole time. Here’s an exercise to perform:  Get a tape of a foreign language of which you do not understand a word, place in Walkman, and listen for six hours without stopping. Then, you will understand what I went through today. God,  I thought they would never shut up! There is a word in Bulgarian, “tooka”, which I think means “there is”. Like, if you were to say, “There is an Internet center here”, you would say “Tooka Internet blah blah blah”.  So it pops up all the time in conversation. All I heard was “Tooka tooka tooka tooka” all day, and I was about to go insane when we finally arrived.  No offense to any Bulgarians out there…it’s not you, it’s me.

So, I have officially laid eyes on the Black Sea. Looks like your average body of water to me. We checked into the hotel, which is right on the beach, but wayyyy the heck out of town. So, I am basically going to be stranded here for the next few days, because we are sending Vladimir back to Sofia. So, you may not hear from me for a few days.

My dad wants to remain here for two weeks of rest and relaxation. I want to hop on the next bus to Turkey and begin my own personal journey……but that will probably not be until Tuesday. Oy. Well, thank the maker I have my guitar, and I bought a really good book called Exodus by Leon Uris. All about the creation of Israel. Good stuff; very interesting. It has my official stamp of approval.

Sorry, I don’t have much exciting things to report, cuz I spent most of the day in the car, and I got Funky Vladdie standing over me looking all impatient and stuff. So, I’ll leave you now.

Onto Turkey! Hopefully soon…

Jared

Jared in Bulgaria – Part Quarte

Great news everyone! Vladimir bathed! OH, what a relief! I was really beginning to worry that I’d have to spend the next few days in the midst of thick Bulgarian funk…

Okay, on to other news.

After my last installment, I ventured out into the city center of Plovdiv. Ya know what? This ain’t such a bad city. It has a whole strip in the center called, “Knyaz Alexandar” where there are dozens of shops, people hanging out, and people walking to and fro, arm in arm with smiles on their faces. I saw a number of street musicians, artists, and vendors selling different books, crafts, and religious icons. That’s a big deal in this town – religion. I think they are pretty into it – Bulgarian Orthodoxy. They have many old churches dating back centuries with some of the most impressive designs and murals depicting Jesus and his gang, and all their wacky doings.

As I walked around the city center, I came upon a girl playing guitar right in the main square. I decided to approach and listen for a bit. It was one of my goals before I embarked on this journey, to meet and commune with the local musicians, being that I am one and all. I sat down a few feet away, smiled, and motioned for her to continue playing.  She was decent, but her guitar was all beat up and sounded pretty bad. I felt sad about this, knowing that back at my hotel room, I had a pretty nice one sitting there, and if, heaven forbid, something were to happen to it, I could easily buy another if I had to.

She was clearly poor, as she had a box strategically placed for people to drop spare change into. I know she depended on this, so I emptied my pockets of loose change and she looked at me graciously. She said something in her tongue, but I replied, “No speaka Bulgarian. English!”, while making convoluted hand gestures.

“Ahhh, English?” and I nodded, which to her means “no”, but then I remembered and shook my head to indicate “yes.” So, she consequently broke into a rendition of Alanis’ “Ironic.” Imagine hearing this song sung by someone who clearly does not understand the words, and pronounces them with the heaviest of Slavic accents. Go ahead…imagine.

I was nice and I sang along. A few moments later, we were approached by some Mormon missionaries. These guys are relentless….everywhere, converting the world. Even in Bulgaria! I knew right away what they were, so I started talking to them. I guess they figured they shouldn’t bother with me, since I was not one of the local heathens, but I spoke to them for a bit anyway. It was nice to talk to some Americans, after nearly two weeks of solid foreigners….but of course, I am the foreigner now.

A group of rowdy, drunk Bulgarian youth approached to check out the girl who was playing guitar. Clearly, they had their fill of Vodka that afternoon. I was quietly writing in my journal, listening to the girl, soaking up the atmosphere, when one of them came over to me and asked me a question. Again, I said, “No speaka Bulgarian. English”. Bad move.  Seconds later there was a swarm of drunken kids around me saying “American?  American?”

They got pretty close, and decided they were interested in my sunglasses, so I let them take them off my face and check them out. I suddenly became very friendly and pointed at myself saying, “Me, Jared”.  Luckily, they were receptive, as one stepped forth and said “Me, Nicolai”.  Then, they all decided to spout whatever English words they could think of:  “Chicago”, “Cowboys”, “Bill Clinton” (pronounced “Beel Cleenton”), “Derek Jeter”! I kept smiling and nodding approvingly, thinking to myself, “I gotta get the hell out of here”.  Luckily, some of the Politza (police) came over and sent the kids packing. They drunkenly waved and screamed, “bye-bye Americana” and walked away. That was my que to hightail back to the safety of the hotel. I spent the evening in my room, playing guitar on the balcony and surfing through the limited variety of TV channels. Not much on, but Bulgarian porn. Click.

Next day:

I awoke to find out my dad arranged to have an English speaking tour guide named Svetlana show me around Plovdiv. Vladimir took us to the city center and from there, we hoofed it up to the ancient part of the city where there’s some Roman ruins of an amphitheater and maze of ancient looking cobblestone streets with very old-school looking European houses lining them.  We went to the museum of Bulgarian Renaissance.  Eh, I’ll skip that, cuz it was pretty boring, considering all the text was in Bulgarian, and I no speaka Bulgarian. The old city is very nice. It is set on a hill, so much of the walking was on either a steep incline or decline. The hill has been settled for over 4000 years, and Svetlana explained that the settlers chose the site because it was easy to defend.  I guess rocks roll down a hill a lot easier than up a hill.

Later in the afternoon, we drove up into the mountains to the Bochkovo Monastery, which was quite beautiful. The mountains surrounding Plovdiv are more alive than the ones in between Sofia and Plovdiv. There were several quaint towns with red-shingle-roof houses, and step farms carved into the mountainsides.

When we arrived at the monastery, we were greeted by a chorus of bleating sheep and a kind old gentleman with a long white beard in a black robe (picture the typical monk) who was kind enough to show us around.  This place was straight out of a fairy tale.  It was so ancient and mystical looking, that I understand the drawing power it has on the locals, who make regular pilgrimages here to pay homage to their faith and kneel before their prized possession, a very old Icon.

An Icon is a religious painting (I think…someone correct me if I am wrong) that supposedly holds miracle-working powers. The one they have here was found in the hills hundreds of years ago by the monastery’s Patriarch, and it is said to have healed the blind and opened the ears of the deaf. Maybe, maybe not.

Anyway, that was today. It’s 7:00pm here now, and I will be heading back to the hotel.  Please keep writing to me! I am heading for the coast of the Black Sea tomorrow!

Thanks for reading,

Jared

Jared in Bulgaria – Part Trois

Day Three:  My water supplies have run out, and I am lost in a Bulgarian desert with no food. Wait…is that some Feta cheese I see in the distance? Ohhhhh…..I am saved!

Reality:

Last night Vladimir (our friendly cabbie) returned to the scene for a little tour of the surrounding mountains. Sofia is quite dramatically set at the foot of a huge mountain called Vitusha. It’s one of those gigantic pointed-peak, snow-capped types that and is quite breathtaking. I can see it from the balcony of my room.

Vladdie trucked us up to the foot of Vitusha to this quaint little restaurant by a lake. We were served up the real Bulgaria goods this time. They have the best Feta cheese here, and for those of you who know me well, that should tell you I am a happy camper when it comes to food. This cheese is a staple in their diet, so it came on the salad, and in a fried form mixed in with corn meal (I never had anything like this before).

The main dish was chicken, with onions and peppers in a tomato base…it was okay, but it didn’t blow my mind. I couldn’t finish all the food that came, so I wanted to make sure it was not thrown away. In a country where many people cannot afford to eat, that would be a grave shame. I had my dad ask the waiter what he would do with the leftovers, and I was told not to worry that it would be eaten. When we were walking out of the restaurant, I peered around the corner and saw them dumping the food into dog dishes. Well, at least Fidofsky didn’t go hungry last night.

We hired Vladimir to drive us across country to the Black Sea coastal town of Varna, by way of Plovdiv, the second largest Bulgarian city, and supposedly its cultural capital. The next morning Vladdie showed up at 10:00am, and my bags were packed and ready to go.  As I was carrying them around the car to the trunk, he met me there to assist in lifting the bags (he’s a little overzealous). Immediately, I was met with the heaviest punch of body odor that I have yet to smell from European or Israeli people alike. Whoa…I almost fell backward as the pungent odor filled my nostrils and went straight to my brain’s “nasty sensors”.

I was not looking forward to riding two hours in a car with this beast-like smell.  As we got underway, I rolled the window all the way down and practically stuck my head out like a dog would, with my face to the wind. My dad screamed at me to close the window, because it was cold. Hell no. Next time hire a cabbie who bathes from time to time.

The Bulgarian countryside is full of rolling hills and mountain backdrops. It’s clear that the land is for the most part neglected, because it has an overall tinge of brown to it. You know, the color of dead plant life. There is also a strange haze that seems to hang over the whole country, as if to reflect the lack of clarity and direction that its people seem to have.  Along the way, I listened to music provided by my good friend Kevin Kline (it was the Zeppelin mix CD, Kev…). With the wind blowing in my face, I was able to survive the ride with Funky Vladdie.

Right now, I am sitting in an Internet center in Plovdiv.  Many of you may wonder where I am accessing the Internet from so often from. Well, there is a strange contrast of extremes here in Bulgaria. While you can find things like Internet access, and the standard trappings of western goods (I speak mainly of food), the situation is indeed as bleak as I have been painting it. Plovdiv, however, seems to be a lot nicer and better kept than Sofia.

First of all, our hotel is not a dump. It can actually be said that it’s “nice”. I wouldn’t go further than that though. There is definitely a more youthful and alive energy to Plovdiv.  Young faces roam the streets, in modern dress and style. The town center is not grungy, and there are many shops and street vendors selling religious icons and various handcrafted items. And, of course there’s the local McDonald’s. 🙂

So, that’s that. I am about to go and explore Plovdiv for a bit….maybe have a snack or something, and then meet up with dad and Vlad later for some dinner. I hope Vlad is smelling better by that point.

Stay tuned…

Jared

Jared in Bulgaria – Part Deux

Since we last spoke, I headed back to the hotel taking the long way around, so I could get a better feel of the city by foot. I was shocked and dismayed to see the following things (in no particular order):  Kentucky Fried Chicken, Dunkin Donuts, Pizza Hut, Burger King, and many more McDonald’s. It seems McDonald’s goal is to litter every part of the world with its fascist arches, gaining more control over the globe than Rome ever did in its most powerful and glorious times!  But I have to say, it’s good to know the cheeseburgers are there.

I decided to make my first attempt at Bulgaria cuisine. I read in my Lets Go Europe book that street venders were a good source of cheap food and stomach cramps. I gave it a go at the first one I saw. The dish was some sort of bratwurst looking thing (you know, those long thick sausages you can get at the standard NY street fair). Of course, I did not have a clue how to order, so I simply pointed at the thing and held up my index finger indicating I wanted one.

The perceptive Bulgarian went to work frying up my lunch, and in a matter of minutes I was handed a charred sausage in a toasted bun, drowned in sauerkraut and mustard. As I was wolfing, I began to ponder exactly what it was that I was eating and ruled it to be mystery meat (in fact, it is still a mystery, but I am inclined to say it came from a pig), but it tasted decent. Hours later, I am still tasting the nasty stuff that stubbornly will not digest.  Note to self: Stay away from strange mystery meats!

When I got back to the hotel, my father and I decided to hire a cab to take us around Sofia. We flagged down a guy named Vladimir who was more than willing to take our American money and show us around. He actually proved to be quite informative, and he even spoke some French so I could converse with him (yes, I speak French…surprised?).

We first went back to the house of my dad’s birth to give it a more thorough checking out.  I really wanted to go inside, but my dad didn’t. He said it would ruin his memory of days of yore. I said, “But isn’t coming here and seeing it in that condition doing just that?” Logical, right? Well, he wouldn’t agree to go in, but I wanted to anyway.

I had the cab driver ring the bell at the door of the house for me and propose to whoever answered that I am the son of the former owner of this house, and I would like to come inside to see it. No dice. Each one had a sob story, or suspiciously backed away from the window they were peering out of to see who was ringing their bell. One lady reluctantly agreed to let me in. We waited 10 minutes, and she never came back. I never got to go in. The contents of the house remain a mystery. Perhaps it is better that they do. People are not overly friendly here.

As we continued to drive around, my dad would get all excited every time he saw something he recognized, such as his former school, a bread bakery that was still in operation, and a street he once played ball on. He would start screaming at me in Bulgarian, as if I understood. I just kept nodding and encouraging him.

We ended up at a very old synagogue, the biggest Sephardim Jewish synagogue in Eastern Europe (Sephardim Jews are those who originate in Spain and left during the inquisition in 1492). It turns out my grandparents were married there, and my father had many memories of the place.

An old Jewish Bulgarian was kind enough to show us around, and my father spent about an hour talking to him. I obviously didn’t understand what they were talking about, but that’s okay. The big story behind this building is that the local Jewish population holds it to be the site of a miracle, because during World War II, a bomb fell right into the courtyard of the synagogue, but it did not explode, averting the destruction of the place. Thank God, right? 🙂

After we left Vladimir, we decided to have a nice dinner of authentic regional cuisine. We picked the most civilized looking restaurant and ordered a series of local treats. I enjoyed a cold soup concoction of yogurt, dill, garlic, and cucumbers called “Tarator”. We also had a very strong alcoholic drink (the name escapes me), which gave me a nice buzz in a matter of a few sips. There were some musicians playing local sounding tunes, which my father enjoyed. He tipped them 20 Leva (roughly $10) to play a little ditty, and that made their night. They dedicated the rest of the evening to their rich American guests (us). These people are very poor, and they have very little direction, so there is much desperation and poverty.  For us to spend a little extra, which is nothing to us, makes all the difference to these people whose lives were ravaged by communism.

After dinner, we concerned ourselves with nightlife. We were advised to stay off the streets and not wonder around, because apparently it is pretty dangerous at night. Even the police are frightened, so I am told, so we hit the Casino in our hotel. Let me see if I can draw a comparison for you that will give you an idea of what this was like. If anyone has seen the most recent James Bond flick, there is a Casino scene in the movie, which would give you a good idea of it. It seemed like a pretty shady mafia-run operation with underdressed waitresses coaxing you with their batting eyes to empty your pockets at the black jack table. Lots of screaming and yelling in Bulgarian. We had to pass through this bulletproof glass revolving door. My dad got happy and blew $100. Waste ‘O Cash. Well, I guess the casino business is the most profitable industry here.

That night, I was alone in my hotel room (we decided to get separate rooms after all, and thank God, because my father snores like a dying bear). It was really freaky, the realization that I was in some grungy hotel in the middle of a run down, formerly communist city in a forgotten country, once behind the iron curtain and now hopelessly set back by its 50 years of darkness, barely able to stay alive in the modern world. It was hard to sleep with the fear that I could wake up to some intruder who heard some Americans were in Bulgaria and decided to break in and do some looting. Of course, I was fine.

Next Day:
We set out to find the best “Banitza” in town. Banitza, or Boraekas, are a regional pastry made with filo dough (ever have spinach pie in a Greek restaurant?) and cheese. We got in a cab that took us to this little back alley place where we found what we were looking for.  Good stuff! I still can’t get over how cheap things are in this country. A bottle of cola goes for the equivalent of 40 cents in American money. Last night’s dinner with all it’s courses, came to less than $10. Unreal.

After breakfast, we hopped on one of the many public trams that run to and from the outskirts of the Sofia to the city center. It was a good way to get a real sense of what life is like here. Folks, let me tell you, we Americans are very lucky to have what we have. This city is so run down and neglected, yet evidently once quite glorious. It’s obvious that in its time, the architecture was quite beautiful, but now it’s mostly crumbling away. The streets are very dirty, and the roads are full of potholes. There are so many people just standing around with nothing to do and nowhere to go, and many beggars who plead with even more emotion than the ones on our very own NY subway.

One thing I realized is that the way we nod our heads to say, “Yes” and shake our heads to say, “No” is actually reversed here. Shaking is yes, and nodding is no. Quite confusing, and I kept forgetting. When I hailed a cab and motioned to the driver as if to say, “Are you free?” he shook his head (which to me, means no, but to him means yes) and then motioned for me to get in. I find it very odd, this reversal.

OK. Long enough, right?  Sorry…well, not really. Tonight we may go to a Bulgarian opera.  Tomorrow, we set out for Plovdiv, the next biggest city here, and then on to the coast of the Black Sea. From there, I leave to Istanbul, Turkey! Stay tuned…same Bat email…

Jared

P.S.:  I would love to hear from all of you!

Jared in Bulgaria

Bulgaria. Let’s all say that together…Bul-gar-i-a. I absolutely cannot believe that I am in Bulgaria, but I really am! It’s real folks!

Some questions you may be asking yourself are, “Bulgaria? Where the hell is that? And why the hell would anyone go to Bulgaria?”

First let me say this – Right now, where I am sitting, I am less than a few hundred miles east of Bosnia Herzegovina. Yep, I can smell the ethnic cleansing.

Bulgaria is a tiny country, roughly the size of Pennsylvania in the Balkans, with a population of 8.2 million. If you go to maps.com and check out a map of Europe, look for Greece and Turkey. Bulgaria is right above both countries, bordering the former Yugoslavia on the west, and the Black Sea on the east.

Now as for why I am here:  My dad was born here, in the capital of Bulgaria, Sofia (accent on the first syllable), and he has not been back here for 50 years. He has this crazy idea about retiring here, because it’s so damn cheap. This country has barely seen the light of capitalism and a free market economy, since it broke free from communist Russia about 10 years ago when that whole game fell apart. So, he wanted to come and check it out. When he invited me to come too, I thought, “Hell no”, but then I realized it would be a free ticket to Europe, and I’d get to check out all the places that he has been harping about for 20 years. Well, I am not sorry I came yet …

Here’s a little story ’bout how I got to Bulgaria, and my first impressions: 

My dad and I left the Kibbutz in Israel around 3:00am to head for the airport and catch a 5:30am flight. We passed the rigorous Israeli security inspection (they are completely obsessed with security, and rightfully so), and I managed to get by the customs people without getting hassled about why I am not an Israeli citizen and in the army. Whole other story.

We made our way to the Balkan Airlines check-in. Ever heard of Balkan Airlines? Me neither. When I found out this would be the airline, I immediately envisioned myself sitting next to a goat or a sheep, with chickens running around the isles of the plane. I dunno…  Maybe they were the official Bulgarian airline/poultry and livestock transportation method.  But the flight was civilized enough. The food was nasty though. What can you expect?

When we arrived at the airport in Sofia, I immediately got the impression that this country does not have its shit together. It was pretty dirty … locals sitting around smoking cigarettes, and the air was cloudy with smoke. We made our way through the crowds of people holding signs in what looked like Russian (Bulgarian is a Slavic language like Russian, and there are many similar words), and arranged for a taxi into the city.

Along the way, the first thing I saw looming in the distance was the Golden Arches of Mickey D’s. Yep, seeds of western ways are being planted already. I had to laugh. There are Coca Cola signs all over the place, indications of a society envious of the west, but not quite grasping it.

As we passed through the city, I noticed many fine European structures, Coptic looking Churches, and potentially magnificent houses. As we got closer, it became immediately evident that all these buildings, once the pride and glory of this city, had been left to the wind by 50 years of communism.

The city, by and large, looks like a run down remnant of a time long past. The people in the street don’t seem to have much to be happy about and there are many beggars. It appears that the standard of living here is quite low. Even our hotel room, which costs $85 a night (expensive by this country’s standards) is pretty grungy. But there is still an element of the old city there, as parts of it have been better kept than others. I have yet to really explore this place, so I will fill in the details later.

We already drove by the house where my dad was born, and it was very nice to be with him as he returned to it. Of course, when he would describe it to me when he was as a child, he made it out to be this glorious mansion with all kinds of decorative adornments. Now it’s just as run down as the rest of city. I imagine it was a disappointment for him, but just being here has already triggered many memories for him. I am happy for him.

Anyway, it seems I have just written a book. I am sorry if this is too long for many of you to read through completely. I do hope you enjoy reading though.

Bulgaria. I have to pinch myself. I am really in Eastern Europe. What shall become of me?  Stay tuned….

Jared

Jared in Israel – Part Quatre

Greetings from Tel Aviv!

Have you heard of it?  Of course you have….its one of those cities that gets mentioned in the news a lot. Remember back in the Gulf War 10 years ago, when Iraq was shooting scud missiles at Israel? Most of missiles landed in the Tel Aviv region. That was a scary time…people had to walk around with gas masks readily available in case there was a scud attack. They also had to build sealed rooms in their apartments to avoid airborne chemicals that was potentially contained within Iraqi missiles. What a way to live your life.

Israel is a country that has basically been under siege since its foundation. They have fought 5 wars with their neighbors against tremendous odds and managed to stay alive in the midst of a very difficult environment.

Everyone in Israel enters the army at age 18. Men go for 3 years or so. Women go for a year and half. In America, at age 18, it would be unthinkable for the average person to go to the army.  Of course, some do, but it’s a personal choice. Many are caught up with deciding on a college to attend, obtaining a job, parental pressures, and so forth. Young adults here are fighting a guerilla war in Lebanon, or patrolling the Gaza Strip raiding terrorist factions.  What a different type of existence.

When I was in Jerusalem staying at the Youth Hostel, there were many soldiers staying there as well. A whole unit of soldiers, called the “Golani” Brigade were in Jerusalem to serve time patrolling the streets of the city in an effort to prevent terrorist attacks, which are always a looming threat here. By the way, my first night in a hostel was not so great. For some reason, the sleeping problem was still there, and it was compounded by the “strange bed” syndrome. I guess I will have to get used to that. 

It’s quite common to walk around and see young men and women in uniform carrying machine guns. Yet people walk around freely, and the cities are bustling like any city with a thriving culture and economy.

So, tonight I am in Tel Aviv staying with my cousin, Sharon. He has an apartment right near Rabin Square, where the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was slain by a fellow Jew who did not agree with his peace moves. This country is quite divided, politically.

The parliamentary government is so fragmented that no one party can gain a clear majority in the “Knesset” (the name of the parliament). In order to form a majority, several small parties have to ban together and form a coalition. Because of that, there exists a sort of tyranny of the minority, because certain smaller parties are able to enforce their will on the rest of the country as their votes are needed to pass coalition goals.

If one of these small parties doesn’t get what it wants, it can threaten the power of the entire coalition. For example, on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, most of the bus lines shut down by law, because the religious factions of the government wanted it to be so. Even if they are not the majority, they get their way. That’s how it works.

Otherwise, Israel is very western. There are all kinds of western icons here: McDonald’s, Burger King, Office Depot, Planet Hollywood, Hard Rock Cafe, Ace Hardware, Microsoft, and many more. In fact, now, when you are driving around, you can always see the Golden Arches beckoning from almost anywhere around Tel Aviv. Everyone even has a cell phone…it’s just like New York!

Monday, I am off to Bulgaria for a week or so, and then to Istanbul, Turkey! Once I get there, I don’t know if I will be able to check my email so often (I know, you are saying “whew!”), but I promise to keep this going as often as I can, because many of you have written to me saying you are enjoying these travel blogs.

Please send me email addresses of anyone who wants to be on my list!

Jared

Jared in Israel – Part Trois

Once again, I am lucky enough to have access to the Internet here, so I will write as much as I can while I have the ability to do so. Keep in mind, I am doing this for my own benefit as well, because this will be sort of a journal of my travel experiences, which I am very happy to share with you, my friends and readers.

Right now, I am sitting in an Internet cafe in Jerusalem, right outside the old city in the Russian compound. It is amazing to be back here, even though I have been to Israel and Jerusalem so many times before. It always stirs within me the deepest emotions of connection and roots. What can I say? I love it here!

I stole my dad’s rental car, after promising to drive safe and not talk to strangers, and drove to Jerusalem by myself. That was interesting, never having driven in Israel alone. Let me tell you, these people are CRAZY drivers. When you are stopped at a red light, the light turns yellow before it turns green, and they slam their horns yelling at you to go even before you are allowed to. More people die of car accidents here than of terrorist attacks.

Jerusalem is beautiful. This evening I met my old friend Shlomi near the “Mishbier”, which is a landmark in the city center that everyone knows of. It’s basically a glorified indoor flea market next to a very tall building visible from all of Jerusalem.

I was starving, so I had to go right away to McDonald’s for some authentic Israeli cheeseburgers (Shlomi wasn’t hungry yet, so I had to have something to tide me over). I know my way around here pretty well, so I led the way to the Old City (I am speaking of the ancient portion of Jerusalem when I say “Old City”). It is enclosed within the most amazing walls. It is such a beautiful sight, especially at night when it’s all lit up.

Jerusalem is divided into two sections – east and west. The Old City was part of the eastern section, which was captured by Jordan in 1948 and held by them until the 6-day war in 1967 when Israel took the West Bank and annexed east Jerusalem. The Old City is the source of one of the biggest disputes ever over such a small piece of territory. Within its walls there are some of the holiest sites to the three monotheistic religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

For the Jews, it contains the Western Wall that they regard as the last remnant of their ancient Temple. They gather there constantly for prayer and meditation. For the Christians, it includes the Via Dolorosa (“Way of Suffering”), the path taken by Jesus to his eventual crucifixion, as well as the church of the Holy Sepulcher, enclosing the site many Christians believe the crucifixion and burial took place. For Islam, the city contains the Dome of the Rock, the third holiest site to Islam from which Moslems believe the prophet Mohamed ascended to heaven for a little tour. The city is under a major dispute between Israel and the Palestinians. Israel captured it in 1967 and annexed it, vowing never again to relinquish hold on the city. The Palestinians, however, regard the eastern section as the future capital of the emerging state of Palestine. So, that presents a bit of a problem when one side holds the other side’s coveted prize. We shall see what happens.

We walked all around the Arab markets, where you can find some of the most interesting cultural items, as well as the standard touristy useless stuff. You can bargain as much as you want here. Never pay what they ask, if you manage to find your way to these markets.

After a dinner of “Laffa” (a giant flat bread containing chicken, humus, salads, and “chips”) at this fine cafe, Shlomi patiently waits for me to finish this update. Tonight I shall have my first stay in a Youth Hostel on this trip….yay!

Shalom,

Jared

Jared in Israel – Part Deux

Shalom Chaverim! (This means “Hello Friends” in Hebrew … go ahead and say that next time you are around a big group of Jews. You’ll score some points!)

Thanks to everyone for the overwhelming influx of responses to my “update”! I am trying to respond to everyone individually, but please forgive me if I am not able to do so. My access to this computer is limited, and it will be even more sparse when in Bulgaria, which I am finding out is a rather backward country that missed the last 50 years of advances.

Day Two:  I got drafted into the army, handed my M16, and sent to Lebanon to fight the Hezbollah (a group of Lebanese “militants” who are fighting a guerilla war with Israeli soldiers occupying a southern portion of their country for security purposes, so they say). Just kidding! I wasn’t drafted, but if anyone follows the news, the big story over here is that Israel decided to withdraw unilaterally from Lebanon by July, if they cannot reach a peace agreement with Syria. Ironically, Syria doesn’t want this to happen (they are the main power broker in Lebanon), because it would decrease the leverage they have over Israel in negotiations for a complete withdrawal from the Golan Heights (territory that Israel won from Syria in the 1967 6-day war). For more info on this just search for Israel on Yahoo, and you’ll find plenty of good stuff.

Today I woke up at 2:45 am Israeli time. Let me tell you that jet lag is a real problem, and I am basically losing my mind from lack of sleep. I killed the early morning strumming softly on my guitar so as not to wake my hosts. Thank God I brought my guitar.

I went downstairs to forage for food, only to find my father awake as well. We shared our first game of chess together, then treated to an Israeli breakfast of bread, cheese, tomatoes, cucumbers, and olives. Israeli cuisine is quite good. Those of you who frequent the falafel places in the village are experiencing a pale likeness to the goods over here.

My father and I decided to take a drive, which ended up being an all day event. If you look at a map of Israel, the town I am near is called Netanya, which is about an hour north from Tel Aviv on the coast. Israel is a very small country, roughly the size of New Jersey, with a population of about 6 million, mostly crowded into the dense Tel Aviv region.

We drove from our Kibbutz to the Galilee (for my Christian readers, yep, it’s where Jesus lived and did his thang). We ended up in a city called Tiveria, or in English, Tiberias, named after the Roman Emperor Tiberias. This is a beautiful city sitting on the coast of the Sea of Galilee, or the Kinneret, Israel’s second largest internal body of water, next to the Dead Sea that it shares with the Jordan.

We dined at a touristy, overpriced restaurant, but good Humus and some fresh fish. From Tiveria, we took a drive up to the Golan Heights, the territory in dispute with Syria. My father fought in the 6-day war to capture the Golan from the Syrians, and he wanted to see it one more time before it returns to Syrian hands, which it most likely will in an eventual agreement. Check out a wine called Yarden, which is made from vineyards on the Golan.

From the Golan, we drove straight across the country to the coast in just an hour and a half. It’s that small that you can traverse it so quickly. We passed through Haifa, Israel’s main seaport city where most of the shipping comes and goes. Then from there, we drove back down the coast to Netanya and the Kibbutz.

More about a Kibbutz. I got a question on the philosophy behind Kibbutz life. The basic philosophy behind kibbutz living is “everyone does what they can to contribute to the collective, and everyone takes what he or she needs from the collective”. All property is collectively owned, and most Kibbutzim (plural) are in the business of producing something. My kibbutz produces various drugs, baby food, dog food, avocados, milk, and cheese. In recent years, the inherent social values of some kibbutzim have slipped toward capitalism and private ownership, but others struggle to resist the tempting global market and retain their traditional ideals.

Thanks for reading. Please pass these emails to friends and share them with anyone who may be interested in what I am doing. Again, I want to hear from everyone, and if you have any questions, please ask and I will do my best to answer!

Until next time,

Jared

Jared in Israel

Greetings friends!

I have arrived in Israel…after a very long flight, including a stopover in London for a few hours and some Crumpets. (it’s not a cookie, it’s a newton, and we can’t be proper all the time).

I arrived in Israel at 5:30 am with my dad (who, by the way is insane, I think). We rented a car and drove an hour north toward a town called Netanya near which lies a lovely place called Kibbutz Maabarot. Upon arrival at the kibbutz, we were greeted by the smell of cow dung and my cousin Hagi (he’s the lucky guy in charge of milking cows here and the one kind enough to allow me to use his computer). By the way, a kibbutz, for those of you who do not know, is a self-sufficient socialist-based collective living community. There are about 150 throughout Israel. Some are nice, some are dumps. Mine is on the nicer side, but it still smells like cows. That’s not a familiar smell if you if you are a new yorker like me. The weather is nice…actually on the chilly side for Israel, and there is talk of snow tomorrow! Unheard of!

After catching a couple of hours of sleep, me, my dad and aunt and uncle drove to Jaffa, the ancient port city right next to modern Tel Aviv, to visit the Balkan Tourist office and arrange the next portion of our trip…to Bulgaria. Should be exciting. After figuring out that we will be flying out next Monday to Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, we treated ourselves to some good old fashion Humus, Pita and Kebab (little balls of hamburger…good stuff) and “chips” (those are basically greasy French fries)

It’s now about 8:00 pm and I am pretty tired…but having some coffee to keep me up long enough for a game of chess with my cousin.

I will write periodically like this to everyone on my list….let me know if you don’t want to live vicariously through me and I’ll take ya off! 🙂

Till next time, “Lehitraot!” (“See Ya” in Hebrew)

Shalom,

Jared