Sunday, January 29, 2006

Israel: Be'er Sheva

Ready for another road trip, I pointed the G3, the Green Gas Guzzler, south toward Be’er Sheva.

Accompanied only by my CDs, the drive of an hour and a half passed quickly.

My main interest in Be’er Sheva was the Israel Air Force Museum, so that is where I started.

I arrived just before noon on a January Saturday, and it looked like I had the whole place to myself.

Inside the exhibits hall, there were glass cases showing Air Force uniforms and gear from different periods. There were also several nice dioramas depicting famous Israeli air campaigns.

The hall was full of Israeli soldiers on a fieldtrip. Just like school kids on a fieldtrip, the soldiers seemed more interested in yakking with each other than looking at the exhibits. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I myself wasn’t much interested in the exhibits. I only looked around for a few minutes before I moved on to the main attraction, a parking lot full of aircraft.

The parking lot ‘o planes was cool. There were over 100 pieces on display, covering the full range of Israeli military air history.

Along with the planes, there was a lot of interesting information. For example:

-- Israel purchased five P-51 Mustangs from the U.S. in the 40s and smuggled them over as “agricultural equipment”. Once the planes were back in Israel, however, the reassembly took longer than expected. Only two were ready in time for the War of Independence.

-- Israel pieced its first two Spitfires together from junk planes that the British had left behind and from an Egyptian plane that had been shot down. During the War of Independence, the Israeli Spitfires (numbering around 90 at the time) took down 5 British planes, among others, and never suffered a loss.

-- On October 28, 1956, an Israeli Meteor N.F-13 shot down a plane carrying Egypt’s military leadership. The minister of defense, however, had changed his plans at the last minute and lived to see another day.

-- The first dogfight in the Middle East took place in August 1955 when an Israeli Meteor F-8 shot down an Egyptian Vampire.

-- In 1959, the Fouga Magister CM-170 became the first plane produced by Israeli Aircraft Industries. It was a training aircraft.

-- Israel captured two Syrian MiG-17s in 1968 when their pilots mistakenly landed on an Israeli airstrip. Doh!

-- In 1966, an Iraqi fighter pilot defected and flew his MiG-21 to Israel. The Israelis renamed the plane 007 as a nod to the Mossad and Air Force Intelligence agents who had orchestrated the defection.

-- A Syrian MiG-23 was gifted to Israel in 1989 by another defector.

-- The Israelis built two SA-341L Gazelle helicopters from Syrian units that had been shot down. To rub salt in the wound, Israel put them back into service with both Syrian and Israeli insignia.

-- In 1982 the Israelis decided to make their own fighter jet. Only four prototypes of the Lavi were built before the program was scrapped in 1987 for being too expensive.

-- In the 80s the U.S. Navy leased 25 Kfir F-21s from Israel for use in war games.

-- The Nesher was the first fighter jet made in Israel. Mossad spies provided the plans, and production began in 1969.

-- The Avenger, an anti-submarine plane, was only used as a crop duster in Israel.

-- Israel acquired some German Dornier DO-27s in 1964 as part of Germany’s reparations deal. Israeli lawmakers concealed this from the Israeli public until 1972 to avoid arousing anger.

-- The Douglas DC-3 served in every Israeli campaign from 1948 to 2001.

All told, I spent 2 hours among the planes, and I didn’t see anyone else until a family appeared right as I was leaving.

The Air Force Museum was on the outskirts of town, so when I finished there, I headed back toward the city center.

The name Be’er Sheva can mean either “well of seven” or “well of the oath”. Way back when, Abraham dug a well on the site of the current city. Water is a hot commodity in the desert, and soon enough some king laid claim to Abraham’s well. Before things got too far out-of-hand, Abraham offered the king seven ewes. The king accepted them and acknowledged Abraham as the owner of the well. So the name of the city can be interpreted as reflecting their oath of peace, the seven sheep, or both.

In any case, my next stop was Abraham’s Well which was downtown at the visitors’ center.

I paid the few shekels admission and had a look. The well was covered by a decorative wrought iron grate.

While I was there, I also had a screening of the town’s welcome video. It was quite a piece of work. The jazzy music and snappy cinematography really made Be’er Sheva look like a happening place. I was nearly ready to move there by the time the show finished.

Before I left, I perused some the pamphlets at the information desk. I also looked at the few items that were for sale. Alas, there was no “I ♥ B.S.” t-shirt.

From the visitors’ center, I went to the old city and wandered around. Nearly everything was closed, so there wasn’t that much to see. Be’er Sheva has much less of a European feel than does Tel Aviv, and the people I encountered were a more diverse lot.

Most of the townspeople didn’t pay me any attention, but some watched me like hawks as if they had never seen a tourist before.

While I was in the old city, I decided to rustle up some dinner.

Most of the restaurants were closed, but I eventually found one that was open. I had arrived between lunch and dinner, and the joint was deserted.

This particular place didn’t have menus, so the waiter tried to recite the options to me. Unfortunately, he didn’t speak English. Even with my sorry Hebrew, I can usually do OK in restaurants. On this occasion, though, I didn’t even have to try. As soon as he saw that I didn’t speak Hebrew, the waiter led me back to the kitchen and had me select my dinner from the fridge.

I picked out a chicken fillet, and the cook grilled it.

In a few minutes, I was enjoying the chicken along with fries and salad.

As I was eating, the owner of the place turned up. After checking on things in the kitchen, he came out to talk to me. He started in the usual way by inquiring as to how I liked the food.

Then he pulled up a chair and gave me an earful about all the trials and tribulations he had experienced in making aliyah (Jewish immigration to Israel). I do not recall from where he came, but he had had a rough time in Israel with culture shock, language, legal issues, employment, and all the rest. Six years in, though, he seemed to be doing pretty well for himself.

I could tell by his “if I can make it, so can you, kiddo!” tone, that he thought that I was a new immigrant. This was understandable, I guess, since all he knew about me was that I was from America; I was living in Tel Aviv; I had been in Israel for 5 months; and my Hebrew sucked. I didn’t bother to set the record straight.

After I finished my meal, he continued talking to me over tea. When I eventually left, he saw me to the door and told me to come back with my friends some Friday night to enjoy the live music at his restaurant. I told him that this sounded like a good idea, although in reality I didn’t foresee ever spending a Friday night in Be’er Sheva. It’s a bit too far out of the way from Tel Aviv.

Anyhow, my car was waiting for me where I had left it, and I drove home under the setting sun.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Turkey: Istanbul

Having decided to visit Istanbul for Martin Luther King Weekend, I contacted my good friend Jacqui, who was serving in Ankara at the time, to get the inside scoop. As it turned out, though, Jacqui had only been in Istanbul briefly during a flight layover, I think, and had no real knowledge of the city.

She came through for me just the same, though. She gave me general information on Turkey regarding things like festivals, money, and language, and she also hooked me up with several of her colleagues who were living in or were otherwise familiar with Istanbul.

All of Jacqui’s friends sent me useful information, but one of them – the lovely and talented Nadia – really went above and beyond. Jacqui and Nadia had studied Turkish together for several weeks in Washington, but unlike Jacqui, Nadia was stationed in Istanbul.

Anyhow, Nadia told me that she would be hosting some friends over the weekend of my visit and that I was welcome to join them for sightseeing.

I gladly accepted her offer.

Then Nadia offered for me to stay in her apartment rather than in a hostel.

I also accepted this offer.

With my arrangements settled, I went to bed on the night before my flight. Take-off was scheduled for 6:45 AM, so I set my alarm for 3:30.

When I woke up, I instantly knew that something wasn’t quite right. There was way too much light coming in my bedroom windows for 3:30 in the morning. This was for good reason, though. It wasn’t 3:30; it was 9:15. The flight that I was supposed to be on had already been on the ground in Istanbul for 30 minutes. Doh!

All was not lost, however, because this bit of drama was unfolding on a Friday morning, and the Embassy was open. Since I had booked my tickets through the Embassy travel agent, I called the office to see what options I had.

Luckily, there was a second flight to Istanbul at 10:40 that morning. It was the last flight of the day, so if I missed it, I was screwed.

I got dressed, grabbed my bag, drove to the airport, parked in long-term parking, caught the shuttle bus to the terminal, and was at the check-in counter by 10:00 AM.

The check-in agents weren’t quite ready for me, though. They sent me off to the poorly marked Turkish Airlines office, which was a few floors up in the airport. When I finally found the place, the slow-moving woman at the desk charged me $50 and issued me a new ticket.

Then I rushed back downstairs. Check-in for the flight had already closed by this point, but the desk agents were waiting for me. I wasn’t checking any bags, so my check-in was of the least complicated variety.

By the time I cleared passport control and walked the 13 miles from the check-in counters to the gate, my flight was already boarding. Before I loaded up, though, I gave Nadia a ring.

I told her that there had been a snag and that I was still at the airport.

She was like, “That’s OK. Just get in a taxi and come to my apartment.”

So I had to clarify, “I’m still at the Tel Aviv airport.”

Since I was holding up her and her guests, I told Nadia that we could forget about meeting up and that I could tour on my own.

She wouldn’t hear any of this talk, though. She told me that they would wait for me and to call when I landed in Istanbul.

After a few hours in the air, we landed, and I called Nadia again.

She started by giving me directions to her apartment, but then decided to simplify things. She told me instead to meet her at the Starbucks in the mega-mall Cevahir (sounds like jevaheer) in the Şişli (sounds like sheeshlee) neighborhood. Cevahir, which was just across the street from Nadia’s place, is the world's second largest shopping mall after West Edmonton Mall in Canada.

I repeated the place names back to Nadia over the phone, but our connection wasn’t that great, and I didn’t get the pronunciation exactly right.

I hopped in a taxi and told the driver to take me to Java Hill. After a brief moment of confusion, he understood what I meant, and we were off.

The driver spoke a bit of English, so we shared some small talk as we left the airport and immediately hit a traffic jam.

Fortunately, this driver was all about using the shoulder, and we reached the mall in about 40 minutes.

I found the Starbucks easily enough, and there I met Nadia in person for the first time. I also met her houseguests, the lovely and talented Rasha and her mother, the lovely and talented Laila. Nadia and Laila had grown up together in Egypt. Laila had stayed in Egypt, and Nadia had immigrated to the U.S. as a young woman. They had a friendship spanning over 40 years. In Egypt, they had attended the same French schools, so they were both fluent in French and Arabic. They moved in and out of these languages with ease, but since I was not conversant in either, they made a conscious effort to speak English around me. As an American and a Foreign Service Officer, Nadia spoke English all the time. Laila, on the other hand, did not use English much back in Egypt and was understandably less comfortable. She did fine, though.

Rasha was quite impressive. She worked for Shell Oil and did a lot of traveling for her job. She was fluent in multiple languages, and she had charm to spare. A newlywed, Rasha was on this trip with her mother while her new husband was elsewhere on a business trip.

Also at the Starbucks were a few people from the Embassy in Ankara who were touring in Istanbul. They caught up with Nadia over coffee and then went off on their own.

Anyhow, after the introductions, Nadia led us across the street to her apartment building.

I thought that her apartment was pretty slick, but Nadia wasn’t overly impressed with its modern look. She would have gladly traded her curved walls and automatic blinds for a bit more space.

Laila and Rasha were staying in the guestroom, so I got the sofa bed.

I set my things aside, and then we had a nice lunch.

When lunch was finished, we piled into Nadia’s SUV for some touring. We started with the famous Blue Mosque.

It was winter, and the sun had set before we arrived to the mosque. As we stepped out of the comfortable car, it was quickly apparent that I had not packed enough warm clothing. I was wearing a long-sleeve t-shirt and a light jacket – Tel Aviv winter wear – and I was a might bit cold. I didn’t have anything warmer back at Nadia’s apartment either.

The Blue Mosque, unlike most other mosques, was framed by six minarets. As we approached it, Nadia peeled off and bought some snacks for us from the vendors who were hanging around. She bought a few bags of chestnuts (roasted on an open fire) and a glass of piping hot salep for each of us. Salep is a thick, white beverage made from a flour of ground orchid tubers. It is sweet, topped with cinnamon, and delicious. The chestnuts were tasty as well.

After we finished eating, we kicked off our shoes and checked out the mosque. It was nice, but we didn’t stay long.

We browsed the shops in the area, and aside from the memory card that Rasha bought for her camera, no one ended up getting much of anything.

All the while, there were snow flurries blowing around, and I was still freezing my ass off. The cold was such that my forehead and hands were really getting stiff. I would periodically move my fingers and my eyebrows, and each time, the relevant muscles seemed to work a little less smoothly.

I briefly toyed with the idea of buying some cold weather gear from the sidewalk vendors in the area, but then I decided against it. “This too shall pass,” I told myself, for in addition to being cheap, I also appreciate a certain amount of discomfort.

In any case, when we loaded in the car and headed back to the apartment, I was more than ready.

As we drove along and thawed out, Rasha was alarmed to see that a certain housewares store was closing. The storekeeper was locking the front door.

Rasha wanted something from this store, and she apparently wanted it pretty badly. She had discovered whatever it was that she wanted on a previous outing.

Without missing a beat, Nadia pulled to the side of the road and turned on her caution lights. Then Rasha jumped out to intercept the guy at the store. She told him how she was a tourist on her last day in Turkey and how she was a newlywed who was trying to furnish her home and how she knew exactly what she wanted and how she would be eternally grateful if he would open the store again for a few more minutes. And the man took pity on her.

He opened the door, and they disappeared inside.

A second later, Rasha ran back out to the car to get some money. Then she ran back into the store.

A few minutes later, she emerged all smiles, carrying a tiny bag. When she got in the car, she proudly showed us her treasure. It was a little silver dish shaped like a teapot. It was for holding the spoon once a person finished stirring his tea.

We all admired it, and Nadia took the opportunity to explain how important it was for newly married women to furnish their homes perfectly, down to the last detail.

This spoon rest was indeed the last detail.

Before we went back to the apartment, we stopped once more to pick up some groceries. We got what we needed and made our way to the check-out counter.

American diplomats abroad are exempt from paying taxes in the countries in which they are serving. (Diplomats from other countries may or may not pay local taxes depending on which agreements their countries are party to.) The mechanism for the tax exemption varies from country to country. In Pakistan, for example, tax was just subtracted from the bill and was never paid. Here in Israel, we must first pay the taxes and then submit receipts in order to get reimbursed.

In Turkey, Nadia was under a system similar to Pakistan’s, although it didn’t work very well at all. While we were at the check-out, Nadia presented her tax exemption certificate to the cashier. Unfortunately, the cashier appeared to have never seen such a thing in all her life. She called the manager for help.

When the manager came, the number of confused and useless people assisting us just doubled.

Eventually Nadia, not wanting to drag the shopping trip out all night, relented and paid for her groceries, taxes and all.

Then we went home.

Since it was so cold, Nadia decided to get me an extra blanket, which we got from her storage room in the basement of the building. As nice as her apartment was, this was the thing that made me jealous. I wish my apartment came with a storage room.

After we retrieved the blanket, we had some wine and then called it a night.

The next day after breakfast, we set out to see the Aya Sofya, also known as the Hagia Sofia, which Emperor Justinian had built in 537. The Aya Sofya sits across from the Blue Mosque in the Sultanahmet historic neighborhood.

On our way to the Aya Sofya, we drove through several streets packed with shops. Rasha was busily scanning them all. She was going to attend a formal event in the coming days and was on the hunt for the perfect dress.

Before long, a dress caught Rasha’s eye, and she excitedly called for a stop.

She dashed into the shop and immediately returned to the car with the shopkeeper in tow. As it turned out, the bulk of his selection wasn’t at the showroom, and he gave Nadia directions to his other bigger shop around the corner.

My three female companions disappeared into the bigger store for over an hour, and I took a walk around the neighborhood. As in the rest of the city, there were clothing stores and billboards everywhere. The Turks are really into fashion. Besides the convenience stores, though, not much was open.

After I had seen all the sites in a few blocks radius, I made my way back to the dress store. One of the salesladies escorted me to the upper level where Rasha was trying things on. When I entered, the young lady who was working with Rasha smiled at me and asked if I was the husband.

Before I could say anything, Rasha told the lady that, yes, I was her husband. There was no harm in it, I suppose, and really, I could have done a lot worse as far as phony dress-store marriages go.

As the husband, my opinion instantly carried a certain weight. The salesladies asked me in unison, “Doesn’t she look beautiful?”

“Yes,” I told them, “but then again, she always does.”

This went over well. Then I excused myself from the shop before the next fitting.

Soon enough the ladies also left the store and we continued on our way.

Rasha did look nice in the dress, but I don’t know if she ever ended up buying anything in Istanbul. Everything that she liked was expensive, and she was reluctant to pay hundreds of dollars for a dress that she would probably wear only once. I could see her point.

Anyhow, without further delay, we went to the Aya Sofya. As I mentioned before, Justinian built it in 537 as a super church. It was conquered and converted into a mosque in 1453, and then in 1935 it was reborn again as a museum. Over the years, the Aya Sofya underwent several changes as parts were added and destroyed, both by man and nature (mostly in the form of earthquakes).

During our visit, restoration work was underway, and there was a massive column of scaffolding in the center of the floor beneath the great dome.

Other than that, the place was pretty cool.

When the Aya Sofya was converted from a church into a mosque, the Christian mosaics were covered in plaster, and Arabic calligraphies were added. There were also other modifications, of course.

When it was turned into a museum, though, the mosaics were uncovered. One of the best is called the Deesis. In this mosaic, which has become a symbol of Istanbul, Jesus is flanked by Mary and John the Baptist.

Other than the mosaics, I liked the ramp that led from the ground floor to the upper level. Instead of building a stairway to connect the two levels, a wide cobblestone ramp that cut back and forth a time or two was installed. This was done so that the lazy royals could access the top by horse and carriage.

When we finished touring, we walked down the block to another Istanbul mainstay: the Grand Bazaar. As we were all starving by this point, we kicked things off by having some shawarmas. Then we entered the leather section of the bazaar.

Besides Rasha, Laila also had a son who had not come on the trip. I believe that he was my age, plus or minus five years.

Laila decided to buy him a leather jacket, and I found myself modeling coat after coat for her. I was bigger than her son, so she found a coat that she liked on me and purchased a size smaller. Since I was already modeling coats, two other ladies also asked me to try on some coats for them. I didn’t mind, although I was doubtful that this was really helpful. At least jackets are easy, though. In the malls in Israel, I have been asked to try on pants and shirts for ladies who are shopping for their sons, boyfriends, and whatever else. Usually when they ask me, I am already trying on something else, so it is no real inconvenience.

After the leather section, we wandered around the rest of the bazaar and checked out all the amazing things. There were stalls selling textiles, lamps, ceramics, carpets, jewelry, gold and silver pieces, traditional clothing, knock-off designer clothing, paintings, lingerie, toys, belly-dancing costumes, food, antiques, t-shirts, CDs, shoes, candy, books, and all sorts of other miscellaneous crap. There were thousands of shops, and we had a good time perusing them.

As always seems to be the case in places like the Grand Bazaar, the shopkeepers collectively seemed to speak every language known to man. They beckoned to us in English, Turkish, Arabic, Russian, all the European romance languages, Hebrew, and I don’t know what else. This was impressive and all, but what was really cool to me was to see the vendors speaking Asian languages.

Anyhow, we did a lot of browsing, and after a few hours, it came time for Rasha to leave. It was her last day, and the hour had come for her to head to the airport.

Since I only had a few days in the city, we decided that it wouldn’t be the best use of my time to make the trip to the airport. Rasha and I said our good-byes and exchanged contact information in the bazaar, and then Laila and Nadia took her to the airport. Once they dropped Rasha off, they were going to return for me.

As interesting as the bazaar was, I found myself getting restless almost as soon as the others had gone. There was one area that I had been avoiding, though, and without the distraction of the others, I found myself drawn there.

My name is Chris, and I’m a carpetaholic.

My problem had started innocently enough in Pakistan. Initially, I had no interest in carpets, although I frequently found myself at carpet stores with other people. Then one day, I bought a small carpet that had been made into a cushion. It was no big deal. Besides, everyone else was doing it. A few weeks later, I bought a small, inexpensive Baluch. Again, there was no cause for concern. I could quit anytime. As time passed, I purchased more and higher-value pieces, and before long, I found that I had to buy two carpets to get the same feeling that I used to get from buying one. I was still in control, though. It was just a hobby and nothing more. I kept buying, and my “carpet room” kept growing. My carpet guy had me on speed dial and started making house calls to show me his new arrivals. I was so deep in denial that I didn’t see anything wrong with this picture. When my friends staged an intervention, I decided that it was time to get new friends. Then, I finally hit rock bottom… I’ll spare you the details, but it involved an Iranian Qashgai and the selling of a kidney.

All of this is not really important right now, though. What is important is that when I was in the Grand Bazaar, I had been clean for 8 months. (Israeli carpet prices had sobered me up quickly.)

I went into a few shops and looked through their pieces. Nothing much appealed to me, and I kept moving.

Before long, though, I found a shop with a few promising pieces after the shopkeeper had unrolled nearly everything he had. Things were hunky-dory, and we chatted about the carpets that I liked over some complimentary apple tea.

Then came the time for price negotiations. As expected, the carpet guy opened with a ridiculously high price. Not in the mood for this, I turned toward the door. The guy panicked and immediately started dropping the price. I returned to the table, and we continued with the process. Although he had dropped the price some, he was resisting going into my targeted price zone.

Having reached a stalemate, I gave him my final price and told him to take it or leave it. Then a most unpleasant thing occurred. The guy started blubbering about how he needed the money so that his kid could get an operation. There were tears rolling down his cheeks and snot dribbling out of his nose.

Did this move me? Well, no it didn’t. Quite the contrary, I was disgusted with the whole display. It was disturbing enough to see a grown man carrying on like this, but worse still, I was not convinced that this wasn’t just another sales tactic. Istanbul carpet vendors know exactly what it takes to make a sale, and I figured that the odds were pretty high that there was no sick child in the picture.

I told him that he was too emotional and that I was finished dealing with him. Then I walked out.

He immediately leapt to his feet and shouted out a price that was below my final price. It was too late for that, though. There would be no sale.

I kept walking and left him to his misery.

Sure it sounds a bit cold, but I don’t think many people would want to buy a high-ticket item like a carpet or a piece of art or a used car from someone under these circumstances.

The next carpet store that I entered was a good ways from the crying man’s store.

This store had the biggest selection of all the stores that I had seen.

We got into the same type thing with free apple tea and carpets all over the floor. Nothing much was speaking to me, but the shop owner kept unrolling more and more pieces. At a certain point, however, the stack that the workers were pulling carpets from got small enough to reveal something to me. There, hanging on the wall, was a carpet that warranted another look.

I told the man to take everything else away and to lay out the carpet from the wall. It was about 8 feet by 10 feet and was predominantly yellow from saffron dying. It had 8 blue medallions and red trim. It was a beauty.

At the far end of the shop, there were several Korean tourists. When they saw my carpet, they all swooped in for a closer look. They all appreciated it.

According to the vendor, the carpet was an 80-year-old Oushak from Turkey, and it was very rare. I wasn’t convinced that it was 80 years old, nor was I sure that it was Oushak. It did appeal to me, though, and that counted for a lot.

We started negotiating, and this time there were no tears. The seller started with a high price and eventually accepted about a third of that. I won’t mention the exact price, but it was 4-figures.

Before I shook on the deal, I pondered the carpet for a good while over half a dozen glasses of tea.

As I was walking around looking at it from every angle, the carpet guy started telling me how buying a carpet was an investment and yada, yada, yada.

I told him that he didn’t need to convince me of anything. At that point, the carpet was basically sold. I was off the wagon again. I just needed time to come to terms with it.

We shook on the deal, and he wrapped the carpet up for me. I had spent enough money that he tossed in a runner that I had looked at earlier in our session for free.

Once he had wrapped the carpet up, he placed it in a duffel bag. It was the size of a suitcase.

Not wanting to lug the thing around, I walked a short ways from the shop and sat down to wait for Laila and Nadia. We hadn’t made a plan for our rendezvous, and I wondered if they would be able to find me.

This turned out not to be a problem, though, and they found me in short order.

In order to lighten our load, we left my bag in the shop of Linda Caldwell, a retired Foreign Service Officer. She was both the first foreigner and the first woman to own a shop in the Grand Bazaar.

Then we continued browsing. Nadia was looking for children’s clothes – for her grandkids, I think – and Laila got her son some shirts.

From the Grand Bazaar, Nadia drove us to a shop near the Blue Mosque. This was purely for a photo op. We dressed up in traditional robes and hats and took our pictures with the two guys in the shop. We didn’t buy anything, and they didn’t care.

Then we headed to Taksim, a busy neighborhood in modern Istanbul, where we whiled away the rest of the night. It was still decorated for Christmas.

To enter Taksim, we had to cross a busy intersection. It was dark; traffic was heavy; and we had the “Don’t Walk” signal. Nadia and I were standing by the curb waiting for a chance to cross when we noticed Laila out in the middle of traffic. Nadia yelled to her, but Laila waved her off as if to say that it was no big deal. I guess that you can take the woman out of Cairo, but you can’t take Cairo out of the woman!

Watching this short person weaving through the moving cars was hilarious, and Nadia and I had a good laugh over it. When we joined Laila on the opposite side of the street, she still didn’t understand what all the fuss was about.

In Taksim, we grabbed some dinner. We shared a sampling of Turkish dishes, and I washed mine down with some ayran, a yogurt drink.

Then we walked around a lot and did a bit more shopping. I bought some Turkish delight to snack on it as we walked, and on three separate occasions, a perfect stranger walked up to me and asked if he (or in one case, she) could have a piece. I shared in each instance, but I was thinking to myself, “Where am I? Bizarro World?”

It was after midnight before we started heading back to the car. As we were walking along, a boy approached Nadia supposedly trying to sell her flowers.

In a very loud voice, she started yelling for the boy to get away and to leave her alone.

Laila and I were walking ahead of her, and we both turned around to see what was going on.

The boy was unfazed. He and Nadia continued to walk along together, and she continued shouting at him.

As luck would have it, though, a policeman was walking through the area at the same time. Quickly assessing the situation, he rolled his eyes and told the kid to beat it. It was obvious that he thought Nadia was overreacting.

When the boy finally left, Nadia explained to us that the flower-selling routine was a known distraction technique of purse-snatchers. She was unwilling to fall victim to such a scam.

That night we all slept well, and no one woke up very early the next day.

When everyone did wake up, Nadia and Laila decided that they were going to spend the day taking it easy. I was willing to tour alone, so Nadia suggested that I visit either the Dolmabahçe Palace or else the Princes’ Islands. She and Laila, along with Rasha, had visited both of these places in the days before I had arrived.

Dolmabahçe is a popular attraction in Istanbul, but I chose the Islands instead. The main tipping point for me was the ferry ride. I like to be on the move.

Nadia hooked me up with some directions and a ferry schedule, and I caught the bus down to the docks. I found my boat easily enough, and the time that I had to wait before departure was just long enough to enjoy some more roasted chestnuts and some raki with a couple of friendly drunks. Raki is Turkey’s anise-flavored alcohol.

The ferry was hardly full, and I had my choice of seats on the upper closed deck. I picked a place by the windows naturally. Of course, it was also plenty cold.

After stops at a few smaller islands, we reached Büyükada, the largest of the Princes’ Islands. The trip took about an hour and a half.

Originally, princes who were not in line for the throne were exiled to the Princes’ Islands. In more recent times, however, the islands have become a popular summer retreat for the rich.

On Büyükada, as on the other islands, cars were not allowed, except for a few emergency vehicles. Getting from Point A to Point B meant walking, biking, or taking a horse carriage.

Just past the ferry dock, the carriage drivers assembled with their animals and tried to round up passengers. Being a tourist and all, I hired a carriage for a tour of the island.

The fine steeds pulling me looked like they could have used some grooming and some food. Manginess aside, though, they seemed like they were up for the trip.

The tour wasn’t the best I’ve ever had. The driver devoted all of his attention to the carriage and offered little explanation as to what we were passing. Furthermore, the roads were dirt, and most had become muddy messes. Oh, yeah, it was also still freakin’ cold.

So, we basically slopped up and down muddy lanes for an hour looking at fancy, deserted villas. We passed the occasional old lady schlepping bags and some boys doing tricks on their dirt bikes, and that was about it.

Alas, all good things must come to an end. Thankfully, the same generally holds true for crappy things. When my hooptie returned to the carriage queue by the dock, I disembarked while we were still rolling. Then I was off to bigger and better things – namely lunch.

Along the waterfront, there were several restaurants. They all looked about the same, so I went to the one closest to the dock. Although it was a bit overpriced, I had a nice meal of fish and chips, beer, and raki.

Then I caught the evening ferry back to the mainland. This ferry was deader than the first, and I again had my pick of seats. This time the view was less important to me, and I leaned against a heater and went to sleep.

Nadia cooked dinner that evening, and she timed it well. Shortly after I arrived back to the apartment, her meatloaf was ready. It tasted great to me, but Nadia thought that it was entirely too salty. The cook is always the most critical.

We snacked and drank wine late into the night. There were plenty of entertaining stories, and we shared a lot of laughs.

The following day was my last in Turkey, and we started that morning with a drive from Europe to Asia via the Bosphorus Bridge.

With nothing specific to do on the Asian side, we returned to the European side to the Golden Horn area.

There, we visited the Spice Bazaar, which was just behind the Pigeon Mosque.

We bought a few odds and ends in the Spice Bazaar itself and then continued browsing in the street markets that were emanating from it.

As we were walking, we passed a booth selling purses. True to the stereotype, Nadia and Laila were drawn to the handbags like sharks to chum. They must have spent twenty minutes there just rationalizing to themselves why they needed the bags they had chosen in the first few minutes of the stop.

When we started moving again, Nadia resumed her search for gifts for the grandkids. She found a promising stand selling sweatshirts and sweaters, and she picked out several. Then, after several minutes of negotiating, Nadia decided that she wasn’t yet ready to purchase anything. As she walked away, I looked at the vendor, and I could practically see the smoke coming out of his ears. He was not happy.

Our final stop in the area was to a deli where Nadia got some nice olives, cheeses, and sausages.

Then we headed back to Sultanahmet to see Topkapi Palace, the home of the Ottoman sultans from the 1400s until the 1830s. We arrived late in the afternoon and missed the opportunity to see some of the add-ons like the harem and the treasury, which closed earlier than the rest of the complex, but there was still plenty to see.

We saw the porcelain collection, the weapons collection, the portrait collection, and various sitting and receiving rooms.

We walked through the gardens, which I liked for their touch of Frankensteinism. On the perimeter of the gardens, there were weird trees in which deciduous and coniferous trees had been grafted together. While interesting, I didn’t find these to be very attractive.

We admired several monuments, and at one point, Nadia was taking my photo in front of one of them. As she was, another woman came up and started complaining about something in a language none of us could understand. We assumed that she wanted me to get out of the way, so Nadia took my picture and I moved. When I did, the woman gestured again like she wanted me back in the picture. I stepped back into the shot, and she was still mouthing off about something. None of us could figure out what she wanted, so we just walked off.

The last thing that we saw at Topkapi was the room of relics, which was pretty cool actually. Among other things, the room contained Muhammad’s cloak, several of his swords, one of his teeth, and a hair from his beard.

Before we left the palace, we watched the sun set on the Bosphorus. It was indeed a view fit for a sultan, and the perfect finish to my vacation with my new friends.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Israel: Rosh Pina

It was a stormy January Saturday when I set out for Rosh Pina with my good friend Yoav.

I enjoy driving in a good downpour, and I wasn’t disappointed on this trip. The storms pummeled us in waves, and in between the sky would clear.

Rosh Pina is in the hills of the Galilee region, and as we gained altitude, low-hanging clouds shrouded the road.

In a little over 2 hours, we had arrived. The town was quiet because it was both rainy and Shabbat.

Having no specific plan, we decided to start by finding a place to eat. We picked a random place that was open and looked promising.

It was a bed and breakfast with a café attached.

As we passed through the courtyard, Yoav got distracted by an orange tree that was full of fruit.

The place was empty, so when the waitress seated me, I had the pick of the tables. It was at least 10 minutes before Yoav came inside.

This café didn’t have a written menu, so the waitress also stood around waiting for Yoav to come inside so that she could tell us the offerings for the day. I really didn’t understand why he couldn’t steal his oranges after the meal.

When he finally arrived, the waitress told us what was available. They weren’t yet serving lunch, so breakfast it was. I don’t know if there were other options, but the waitress was pushing a breakfast that included an omelet, coffee, juice, bread, and unlimited sides that included tuna, other salty fishes, jams and spreads for the bread, salads and vegetables, olives, and several cheeses. It cost about $11 per person, and we both ordered it.

Everything was good, but we didn’t end up requesting more on much of anything except for the tuna.

As we ate, a pair of hungry birds was lurking around. Yoav started tossing them pieces of bread, which they readily ate. He threw these pieces of bread all around, and the birds retrieved them. It was fine when the bread went in the floor. When pieces landed on other tables, though, it was kind of gross. The birds would jump all over the clean dishes, silverware, and glasses to recover their snacks, and I’m sure that these place settings weren’t going to be changed before they were used. Birds are notorious germ-carriers, so these little guys probably had a disease or ten. Of course, the restaurant was completely open to the outside, so the birds had probably also trodden on our dishes before we arrived.

When we finished eating and paid and started heading for the door, Yoav got distracted again. This time it was by a fireplace on the patio. After 10 or 15 minutes, Yoav finished trying to stoke a log that was never in need of tending. Then we were off.

Rosh Pina, which means cornerstone, was one of the first permanent Jewish settlements of modern times. It was founded in 1882 – in the times of the Ottoman Empire – by 30 Romanian families.

More recently Rosh Pina was in the news when Madonna started trying to purchase property there. The Times in London ran a story on this in March. Kabala followers believe that the Messiah will pass through Rosh Pina when he makes his appearance, so Madonna is looking to set-up a Kabala study center in town. Some residents were reluctant to sell because their homes had so much sentimental value, but Madonna’s name-your-price offer seemed to be helping several people to get over this hurdle.

Anyhow, the café where we had breakfast was close to the historic old city, so Yoav and I walked up the hill to have a look. The road was made of cobblestones which were quite slick in the rain. Yoav had a hell of a time walking on them in his no-tread sneakers. We reached the top of the hill, though, without any injuries.

The old city consisted of a few cobblestone streets flanked by little stone buildings. These buildings were mostly homes, galleries, shops, and cafés, and most were closed. There were historic markers here and there explaining the significance of certain buildings (“This building was the home of Dr. X, the dentist of the original settlement…”).

At the edge of the old city, there was a cemetery climbing up the side of a hill.

Yoav and I walked through town as the rain fell in various cadences.

Of all the tourist attractions in the old city, only two appeared to be open.

The first was a shop selling Moroccan products. While neither of us was much interested in the imported handicrafts, we were interested in getting out of the rain. We popped in for a look.

Right when we got inside, Yoav started playing with the owner’s white cat. He asked me to take a picture, and as I stepped back to frame the photo, I kicked over several glass lamps.

This was definitely a you-break-it-you-bought-it kind of place, and when the lamps fell over, the three of us shared a collective gasp. By some miracle, nothing shattered.

For all my trouble, though, the photo wasn’t anything special.

The owner was a bit perturbed by this point, but she still showed us the overpriced treasures that she had spread through the shop’s two or three rooms. Then we made a bit of small talk and moved on before I had time to smudge any expensive paintings or spill coffee on any fancy textiles.

Catty-corner to the Moroccan shop was Chocolatte – the chocolate café. Before our trip, some of our Israeli colleagues had told us that Chocolatte was really the only reason to visit Rosh Pina, so it was already on our to-do list.

When we entered, we were the only customers. The café was in an old stone building with a lot of arches supporting the ceiling. It was once horse stables or something.

As you probably guessed, the menu was all about chocolate. There was an assortment of chocolate-based beverages (hot and cold), as well as appetizers, soups, and mains, each with some element of chocolate. And, of course, there were chocolate desserts. There was also a glass display case near the entrance filled with truffles and other chocolate candies.

Having recently finished breakfast, Yoav and I passed on the real food. Instead we both ordered beverages made with melted chocolate and alcohol. I also took the house specialty: a chocolate soufflé with a hot, liquid fudge center, served with vanilla ice cream.

As we drank our drinks and I ate my dessert, Yoav noticed an advertisement. It was for a local psychic. This was right up Yoav’s alley, and he asked if I would mind waiting while he had a consultation. I told him that it was fine with me, so he called the psychic and she headed over to the café.

It took the good clairvoyant a good 45 minutes to get to the café. Then she and Yoav moved to a table in the corner and started the consultation which was supposed to take an hour.

By this point, my dessert and beverage were long gone. I whiled away the time by walking around the café looking at the décor. This killed about 5 minutes.

Then I returned to my table and sat and blinked.

After about 20 minutes of this, some other diners entered the establishment. Much to my satisfaction, they sat at the table directly across from mine.

With nothing better to do, I shamelessly eavesdropped on their entire conversation.

There were 3 guys in the group, and all seemed to be in their early twenties. Two were Israelis, and the third was a Brit. The two Israeli brothers had recently completed their compulsory army service and had not yet transitioned to the next phase of their lives (work, travel, or studies). The Brit was a friend of theirs who had been touring in Israel for 3 weeks. The day that I encountered them was the Brit’s last day before flying to Austria for some skiing.

They ordered the chocolate soufflé thing also, and when it arrived, the Brit asked me to photograph the three of them with it. I was happy to oblige. They wanted a few retakes, which I had plenty of time to do.

The rest of their conversation was standard last-day tourist talk. The Brit fell into reminiscing about his great visit to the Holy Land. He was really keen on Jerusalem.

At one point during the eating and the trip down memory lane, the Brit lamented that someone named Dana hadn’t come with them to Rosh Pina. He thought that she would have really enjoyed Chocolatte.

This reminded me of a Dana in Tel Aviv with whom I had been briefly affiliated. I hadn’t seen or thought of her in a long time, so when the Brit mentioned her name, I found myself wondering if I could still picture her face. I could.

Soon enough, though, my source of entertainment dried up. The three amigos paid and started to leave.

On the way out, the Brit decided to buy some of the chocolate candies as a gift for the people he was going to meet in Austria. He told the man behind the counter that he wanted half a kilo of assorted chocolates, and the man just couldn’t grasp the concept.

The man kept asking him which ones he wanted.

The Brit told him several times that he just wanted roughly equal amounts of everything so that the total weight was half a kilo.

In the end, he had to select each piece individually and wait for the clerk to put it in the box on the scale until the desired total weight was reached. It was all about 10 times as complicated as it should have been.

When they left, I resumed sitting and blinking.

Then I checked on Yoav. I don’t know what all treatments he received, but when I went over, the soothsayer was readying some tarot cards.

Not wanting to snoop in Yoav’s future, I didn’t linger.

Finally, after a very long hour, Yoav and the fortune-teller wrapped things up.

As we left Rosh Pina, the rain cut us some slack.

After a bit, we passed a national forest, and at my suggestion, we stopped for a look. It was nice for what it was – a bunch of trees – but we didn’t stay long. It was getting late, and we both had things to do back in Tel Aviv.

When we were back on the road, Yoav brought up his psychic consultation. Evidently, psychic predictions are like birthday wishes: if you tell them to anyone, they won’t come true. Yoav was torn because he wanted to share, but he didn’t want to queer the deal on the fortune-telling.

I wasn’t overly interested in hearing about it, so I encouraged him not to risk talking about it and to ponder the predictions silently. Yes, I’m a lousy friend.

For his part, Yoav agreed to keep it to himself. He did tell me a few things that the palm-reader had seen, though. For example, she knew specific things about his present life and some of his past lives.

As for the future, without giving any details, he was happy to report that within a year, every aspect of his life would improve – work, friends, love, money, and so forth.

I don’t know about the rest of the predictions, but Yoav did upgrade jobs within a year of the consultation. So, the psychic got one thing right at least.

As we continued on down the road, Yoav started doing his impersonations of people at the Embassy. He’s got a few that are really good and others in various stages of development.

After he had finished all of his stock material, Yoav tried out a new impersonation for the first time. The attempt sounded more like Arnold Schwarzenegger than the intended subject, and Yoav ran with it.

So, I got to listen to Yoav trying to do Arnold for the next hour.

Very quickly this went on my list of processes that no one should ever have to witness, right up there with making sausages and passing legislation.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Israel: Ein Afek

On a fine January Saturday, I decided to visit Ein Afek Nature Reserve.

I hopped in the G3, the Green Gas Guzzler, and in about an hour I was passing through Haifa. Ein Afek is just north of the city, so I was in the vicinity.

I ended up turning too soon and found myself at Kibbutz Afek, from which there is no access to the reserve. A friendly kibbutznik tried to help me, but she spoke only French and Hebrew. My very basic Hebrew and even worse French weren’t cutting it, so our conversation wasn’t at all productive.

I backtracked, though, and it didn’t take me long to find the reserve.

Of all the sites in the Israeli National Park System, Ein Afek is not one of the bigger draws. This was pretty obvious when I pulled up. My arrival doubled the total number of cars in the parking lot.

I checked in with the park ranger on duty and got a copy of the park’s informational brochure. Then the reserve and all its wonders were mine to enjoy.

For me, Ein Afek was a good illustration of one thing: Israelis are about as good at managing wetlands as Americans are (Everglades anyone?). The area was once a vast and verdant marshland which was drained almost entirely to make way for farms and suburbs. The government then realized the error of its ways, restored some of the swamps, and made a park.

I started walking down the path and soon came upon the only other visitors in the park at the time. A woman was peering into a pond with her two kids, and while I couldn’t understand her, I could tell that she was trying to make things interesting for the young ones. There wasn’t that much to see in the pond so she was probably showing the kids a water flea or something.

I passed by a few more ponds, and each one had a viewing platform or two. There wasn’t much to see besides an odd fish and some cattails.

This part of the park was close to a highway, and I could see cars whizzing by. It was nice, though, because if I hadn’t been watching them, I probably wouldn’t have noticed the cars. The park was pretty well insulated from the noise of the traffic.

I continued down the trail, and the path gave way to an elevated wooden walkway as it continued through the heart of the swamp. The walkway was fun and all, but there was still an undeniable lack of wildlife. I saw some spiders and mosquitoes amid the rustling reeds, stagnant waters, and muck, and that was about it. I couldn’t help but think, “What this swamp needs is a gator”. Historical accounts place some sort of crocodilian critter in Israel, so an alligator in Ein Afek wouldn’t be so far fetched.

After a few minutes, the wooden walkway ended, and I was back on the dirt path. At this point, there were monstrous grasses topped with plumes on either side of the trail. These grasses were 10 feet tall if they were an inch.

The path formed a loop, and as I neared my starting point, the wall of grasses fell away. Off in the distance, I could see a few water buffalo grazing. These non-natives were brought in by the parks department to help keep the vegetation under control.

Going at a very leisurely pace, I had killed about an hour, and I was basically finished with the park. I had seen some plants, a catfish, 3 or 4 fish that looked like bream, a few ravens, and a bunch of uninteresting bugs. This would have been good and well if I had not had certain expectations. Before coming, though, I had read that in early January the park would be overrun with migratory waterfowl. If there were any waterfowl there that day, they were doing a stellar job of hiding.

At that point in my visit, Ein Afek was looking at 9.5 yawns out of a possible 10 on the Chris Call Scale of Boredom. That’s nearly a perfect score.

There was one chance left for redemption, though. I had saved the Crusader fort and water mill for last.

I moseyed on over and had a look. There wasn’t much to the building itself, but it did provide a great view from its roof.

With my bird’s eye view, I turned my attention, well, back to the birds. And suddenly the park sprang to life before me. I spied a white crane, a pair of cormorants, a kingfisher, and… And that was it.

I’m not picky, though, and I was pleased with my finds. The kingfisher is one of my favorite birds actually, so I spent a bit of time watching this electric-blue dive-bomber trying to spear fish in a pond.

While I was watching the kingfisher, though, something more interesting came into view.

The park was surrounded by a coil of barbed wire. In the barbed wire on the back side of park, there was a gate that was chained shut. As I was watching, a group of people came tromping through the brush toward this gate. Once they reached it and discovered that it was locked, they pulled on the barbed wire and created an opening. Two of the little kids in the group crawled through. Then there was trouble: The third person got snagged in the wire. Maybe these people had some arrangement whereby they were permitted to sneak into the park, but their entrance really looked dodgy.

Anyway, this was the scene: Two little kids were inside the park; an older kid was stuck in the wire; and 5 other kids and adults were on the outside. The ones on the outside were sticking their hands through the wire, like prisoners in cells. The kid in the barbed wire was squirming. The whole thing looked ridiculous.

The mission was clearly not going as planned, and soon the two kids on the inside were dispatched to fetch the ranger.

In no time, the ranger had surveyed the situation and unlocked the gate. Then the group extricated the lad from the wire. They accomplished this task relatively quickly but without any real urgency. This led me to believe that the boy was unharmed by the ordeal.

As the ranger spoke with the gate crashers, I descended from my perch and headed back to the G3.

Between the kingfisher and the barbed-wire eight, Ein Afek had indeed redeemed itself for the day. My final score was a respectable 7.5 yawns out of 10.