Lisa has always wanted to experience the European Christmas markets for the holidays. So we went to Germany.
Despite many cities having legendary Christmas markets such as Vienna and Budapest, (not to mention cities across Italy, France and Spain) we settled on Berlin to greet December the 25th, and meet our friend Lori for a few days of indulgence and sightseeing.
With over 60 Christmas markets popping up over the city in the days leading up to Christmas and continuing for days after, Berlin makes for a fun place. Our apartment was a short tram ride from Alexanderplatz station where two separate markets straddled the tracks and the nearby market of Roten Rathaus offered ice skating. The food alone was worth the trip alone. Every day, we devoured bratwurst, gluehwein, waffles, and potato crisps before finding such delicacies such as fried cauliflower with garlic butter, eggnog, and raclette. We found kiosks selling gingerbread which we took home for breakfast which paired well with crepes (a Christmas family tradition), pork sausages and pots of brewed coffee. We ate well.
The markets are set up to look like little Germanic villages in the mountains with icicles hanging from facades, boughs of pine trees festooned in every possible nook and proud vendors wearing lederhosen to show off their virility and brawn. Between snack sessions we took advantage of the following which made fun day trips:
A visit to the Berlin Wall and taking in the beautiful murals that have transformed monuments of division to art and expression.
Reading up on the history of “Checkpoint Charlie” and seeing the infamous crossing between East and West Germany
A walking tour between Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag and Memorial to Jews killed in WW2.
“Listicles”: Deceptive Click Bait?
On the travel blogging front, my PLN of travel bloggers and their quest for search engine optimization and a recent Huffington post article confirmed what I suspect we already knew- listicles are the new format of the internet. For a populace that is continually bombarded with content, how to get consumers of media to click, scan and share is the ultimate ‘brain hack’ so titling your articles with “Top 10 things to see here” or “Top 5 things to do there” is the new norm.
It makes content an easy pill to swallow. You know exactly what to expect after a link click and it keeps the reader scrolling to see if their experience was similar to the authors, or how many days they should allot to a destination on the horizon to prevent FOMO. It makes Pinterest boards easy to build for an upcoming trip, house remodeling or reminder list of what to buy your children when you take them out for back to school shopping. Ironically, a number of travel bloggers in my circle have built travel blogs and Pinterest boards flush with articles with such titles and haven’t even been there themselves! Posts are put together from lonely planet highlights or trip advisor recommendations so many of these so called ‘experts’ are really fraudulent fakes as demonstrated by destination photos with them notably absent. Some even go so far as to pathetically photoshop themselves in. For many, it’s not enough to merely experience a new destination but reduce travel to a series of checkboxes, tweets and likes that can be quantified. If you didn’t instagram your great meal, it didn’t happen.
One of my favorite reads this fall was an article from the NYT on how this decade was shaped by scammers, fake news and bots and that the future will be just as bad especially with ‘deep fake’ technology. This will affect the way we live, the way we think and what we ultimately believe. Because people are increasingly unable to distinguish truth from fiction, more and more are dismissing truth all together.
So, go spend time with your family. Pick up the phone and call your mother. Reach out to an old friend. Don’t waste time reading some self-proclaimed prophet on what they think you should see in Berlin after they they themselves have been there for only 5 days.
“This is where Jesus Christ was buried and some say resurrected after.” I told Ava.
“THE Jesus?” She asked.
“The one and only. All the churches we’ve seen in Europe have been a testament to his teachings. The Roman empire installed a governor named Pontius Pilates to enforce their rule and beliefs onto the population, but Jesus and his disciples had their own beliefs, and one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, betrayed him and he was later crucified which was a common form of punishment at that time.”
The first thing you see when entering the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is the anointing stone where Christ’s body was cleaned before burial. To the left is the chamber where he was entombed and the writings of Paul decades later reveal post mortem appearances giving the appearance of his resurrection and cementing him as the messiah for all his believers. A few hundred years later, the Roman empire would adopt Christianity as its official religion and six hundred years later, attempt to take back the holy land from Muslims in a series of conquests known as the crusades. The history of Jerusalem goes back much farther though, but its future was also just getting started.
Jerusalem: A City Divided
For all the peace, tolerance and unity that organized religion promises, the capital of the region is a very tense place. Coming from Amman into Jerusalem was a 4 hour process of tedious checkpoints rivaling the thoroughness of airport security with flak jacket clad agents and soldiers armed to the teeth inspecting bags and visitors. It’s reported that unclaimed items are simply taken away and blown up.
The city walls of Jerusalem have been razed and rebuilt over the years, but the city as a whole is divided into Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Armenian quarters all having a legitimate claim to their homeland through some era in history. Walking to the Haram esh-Sharif, the words ‘Temple Mount’ were scratched off the navigation signs in the Muslim quarter attesting to its place as a ‘Muslim’ place of worship. The Dome of the Rock, where Abraham was told by God to sacrifice a son to show his faith was also the place where the prophet Mohammad had his night journey to heaven. You’ll seen T-shirts with “I love Palestine” in some quarters, but “I stand with Israel” in others.
Most people have a dim view of the Israeli Palestinian conflict. The World Zionist Organization under Ottoman and British rule funded land purchase in Palestine giving Jews safe haven from growing antisemitism in Europe and Russian going back as far as two centuries, but the official establishment of the Jewish state was post world war 2 in 1948. Slow encroachment of Israeli settlements have given rise to Palestinians protesting the land grab, sometimes violently, and petty attacks going back and forth have grown militarily in scale. Palestinians firing homemade rockets into Jewish neighborhoods are met with disproportionate air raids by Israeli gunships in the Gaza strip. Just last month, an Israeli airstrike killed suspected Hamas fighters along with dozens of Palestinians including 5 children. “Sorry about that, we’ll look into it” is always the official statement with the unofficial one being ‘collateral damage‘ and payback for Munich and 2002-2003 when 383 lives were lost by suicide bombers. The stories don’t even register on Western news outlets anymore as motherless and fatherless children on both sides grow up without love in their hearts; so evil fills the void and the circle of violence continues.
“Someone once said that being ‘educated’ is being able to listen to a point of view contrary to your own and not lose your temper.“
Since we arrived here, I have been thinking a lot about the word ‘hatred‘. Back home, as the seemingly ‘United States’ are becoming increasingly divided during the impeachment proceedings, it’s becoming hard for political groups to even tolerate one another in this current political climate as they are fed deep fakes, selective reporting, and alternative facts that cause them to see only one ‘story‘. It’s easy to fool someone, but impossible to convince someone they’ve been fooled.
The New City
We met our host ‘Lior‘ in the so called ‘New City’ just west of the old town where yamakas and peyots were proudly worn by boys and men of all ages. College students and young hipsters lounged among the pastisseries and art galleries and with the wide variety of restaurants and modern development, you wouldn’t think we were still in the middle east. We had a tiny apartment above the Sira Pub on Ben Sira street and enjoyed deli sandwiches, cheap beer and a great Mexican taco place with cooks from Oaxaca that knew how to make corn tortillas like jack ballin motherf&#@ers.
We used our apartment as a base to explore the old town and area west of us which took us through ‘Zion Square’ to the happening downtown triangle and ‘Ezrat Yisrael’ for evenings and the nearby shops for Christmas gifts. Ava and I finished ‘Number the Stars’ by Lois Lowry and she is near preparing for her final course challenge for mathematics which she’ll take in a couple days.
Highlights in and Around Jersualem
Getting lost in the old town
Rising early to visit the ‘Dome of the Rock’ and ‘Al Asqua Mosque’
Visit the ‘Church of the Holy Sepulcher’ to see the tomb of Jesus Christ
Trying ‘Shakshuka’ or poached eggs in a rich tomato sauce on a cold morning
Day trips to Bethlehem and Jericho
Giving pause at the Western Wall
Taking in the mosaic of history at the Museum at the Tower of David
Visiting King David’s tomb and Oskar Shindler’s grave south of the city
As we head to Tel Aviv and the coastal areas tomorrow with Christmas only a week away, we’re increasingly counting our blessings and reasons to be thankful and grateful for the many good things in our lives. What Jerusalem taught us was a heightened level of ‘empathy’ and the importance of trying to understand the views and beliefs of others whose values run so counter to our own.
After all, if you are ignorant of a man’s understanding, you will remain ignorant in your understanding of the man.
“With all the conflict nearby, Jordan has been a real uniting country for the region.” Our friend Vaughn said while driving us to a Wadi for a day hike just outside of Amman.
“You have Syria to the north, Iraq to the east, and Saudi Arabia to the south with Israel to the west of the Jordan river.” He pointed out. “Jordan is not a rich country and doesn’t have oil reserves like the Arabian peninsula, but they are a very hospitable people and take in those in need. People here have nothing, but they are always mindful of those less fortunate.”
There are dozens of refugee camps in Jordan and the Zaatari camp in northern Jordan is the sixth largest refugee camp in the world. Since 2014, Jordanians have been taking in Syrians displaced by war and the Assad regime because taking in people fleeing violence is, in their opinion, the right thing to do. A far cry from the populist and nationalist rhetoric that is growing around the world.
Landing in Amman with the ‘Jordan Pass’
We had a Royal Jordanian flight from Larnanca, Cypress to Amman on December 4th and bypassing immigration couldn’t have been easier with the ‘Jordan Pass‘. Our friends in Amman turned us on to this find which costs 70 JD (about 100 dollars) and includes your visa and entrance to 40 sites around Jordan including Petra, Wadi Rum and dozens of ruined cities. Overall, it reduced our entry fees by 50% and although it was a big chunk to pay up front, it reduced costs down the road.
We met our friends from Saigon (Vaughn and Ally) who work at the premier international school in the city and used their house as a base for exploring the city. The first day, we visited the Citadel and walked down the hill to the souks and roman era amphitheater with a stop at the Afghan market and ‘Hashems’ for lunch with some of the best hummus we’ve had in the middle east. They call Jordan “The City of 7 Hills” as the city’s neighborhoods sprawled out from these notable hilltops which gives Amman a feeling of being at sea with the peak and troughs of waves covered by domiciles and houses in every direction.
What really amazed us was the hospitality of the Jordanians as a whole. We would frequently be asked by locals: “Where are you from? Oh really? Welcome to Jordan!” without any hope of reward, baksheesh or patronizing their establishment. Being badgered by touts in Egypt made us hard and suspect of strangers and it took a couple of days for us to let our guard down.
Our dollar rent a car rep came to our house and dropped off our car and we were off to Jerash. Like most places in the region, cities were clogged with traffic and getting around was a little bit of struggle, but once were outside the city center, things opened up. It was nice to drive on the right side of the road again and not have to content with driving a manual transmission with my left hand. I had to force myself to stay right at roundabouts (which was the opposite in Cyprus) and use my horn fastidiously when cars veered into my lane which was…all the time.
We’d never heard of Jerash before coming here, but it was the best preserved Roman city we’d ever visited. Entering through Hadrian’s gate (pictured above) through the southern entrance gives you a view of the best preserved ‘Hippodrome’ in antiquity complete with spectator seating for the chariot races . The similar ‘Circus Maximus’ in Rome with its broken down arches and grass taking over the stone blocks gives you a footprint of what such a site could have looked like, but in Jerash you see what it was.
From the ‘Oval Plaza’ and it’s dozens of columns, it’s a long walk along the beautiful ‘Cardo Maximus’ which takes you to the north gate where market vendors once sold their wares to the north amphitheater, Nymphamium and the Temple of Artemis.
Floating the Dead Sea
We found a good hotel deal at the lowest place on earth which broke up our trip down to Petra. At 400 meters below sea level, the dead sea with its shrinking and ever receding coastline must have looked like an oasis to water starved travelers in the ancient desert and filled them with false hopes of nourishment. It’s 9 times saltier than the ocean and its salinity allows only a few forms of resilient bacteria to thrive. Because salt is more dense than freshwater, it gives a bather a buoyancy unlike any other place in the world.
Walking into the water, you first feel the soft mud on the bottom and chunks of salt crystals squishing between your toes. Upon getting ‘waist deep’ you can simply sit down and raise your arms and lets above water level. Wading out to deeper water, one floats at mid chest level verses the neck when treading water. The ‘Hilton Dead Sea Resort and Spa’ had staff down by the waters edge that covered us in mud and then gave us salt scrubs taking off 2 pounds of dry skin from as far back as Morocco.
Petra- Nabatean Perfection
We drove down to Wadi Musa and spent the night there before the long walk to Petra- the crown jewel of the Nabatean kingdom and they carved out (literally) a civilization in the sandstone walls across the wadi valleys.
It’s a considerable walk downhill through the narrow Siq, but after the last turn, the most iconic structure, (the treasury) appears between the sinuous canyon walls and you can’t help but feel like explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt did in 1812 when laying eyes on it for the first time. Petra’s other notable structures are the beautiful royal tombs and Monastery which open up in the valley below. Gazing around the cliff faces, you see hundreds of hollowed out holes where whole families must have lived and interestingly, many modern day Bedouins have taken refuge. Visiting the royal tombs, I spied some small make shift kitchens and sleeping cots for the touts and vendors that still this day call this place home.
We chartered mules to take us up the 800 steps to the Monastery and save us 3 hours of climbing. Our guide ‘Mohammad’ was only a kid, but helped us mount ‘Champagne’, ‘Shakira’ and ‘Katy Perry’ for the long trip up.
“Don’t have your feet all the way in the stirrups, just have the tips of your toes in.” I told Ava.
“Why not?” She said back.
“Because if the mule falls over the edge, you can jump off more easily.”
“Well, accidents DO happen, and chance favors the prepared.”
Sure enough my foresight didn’t assuage her fear, but heightened them and as we climbed up, our mules toed the edge of hundred foot canyon wall drops by mere millimeters.
“Daddy I’m freaking out! Why did you tell me that!”
“Well, I just wanted you to feel safe!“
Wadi Rum: Desert Camping
We drove two hours south to Wadi Rum from Wadi Musa to try some desert camping. When looking for a desert camp in Wadi Rum, I was pleasantly surprised to see amidst all the luxury camping options, Bedouins renting out their caves in the desert on Booking.com. We were given GPS coordinates to a gas station in the middle of nowhere and were met by our hosts that drove us to their family’s camp snuggled in at the base of a huge sandstone monolith amidst the red sea of sand dunes.
Our first night gave us one of the most spectacular sunsets we’d ever seen in our lives and we spent the evening with other guests sharing our stories, and playing card games. Ava won a memory game that night, beating out all the adults and our hosts gave her complimentary meals for the duration of our stay as reward.
In Comes Google Lit Trips
As Ava finished her year long Math curriculum five months early and started to review for her final course test, we started reading ‘Number the Stars’ by Lois Lowry with ‘Google Lit Trips‘. Google lit trips layer Google earth images with the storyline to give the reader some discussion questions that relate to the text but also with images for reference that come up in the reading. In the case of ‘Number the Stars’, the story takes place in Denmark at the start of Nazi occupation and cites castles and places were new to both Ava and I.
“So Ava, what were your favorite parts of Jordan?” I asked.
“I loved floating in the dead sea, playing with all the kitties, and Petra“
“What did you like most about Petra?”
“Taking the mules up to the Monastery was amazing don’t you think? Daddy?…..Daddy?…..Daddy?“
Cyprus is the forlorn lovechild between Greece and Turkey.
In 1974, Turkey invaded northern Cyprus as a deterrent to a coup supported by the Greeks and the island has since been effectively partitioned off into two separate territories with each country having a claim to the land either north or south of the jagged ‘Green Line’ running horizontally across its length from shore to shore. It’s attracted a fair share of Russian weekenders and British retirees so you’ll see plenty of ‘русский язык‘, mixed in with the local ‘Ελληνικά‘ at the local pub. Coming to Cyprus in November was like visiting a ski resort in the summer, it was a ghost town with many businesses closed until spring.
In addition to making sense of the signage, driving was a big challenge. The last time I drove a car legally on the left side of the road was as a foreign exchange student in Australia which was over 20 years and 100,000 hair follicles ago. Furthermore, since the driver’s seat was on the right side of the car, I had a manual transmission which I had to shift with my left hand which was awkward beyond belief.
Autumn caught up to us as well. As our friends back in Korea have been posting scarlet hued pictures of leaves as far back as October, we’ve managed to escape the chill by traveling through north Africa and the Middle east which have kept us in shorts, t-shirts and sweat every step of the way. After leaving Egypt to fly 400 miles north, we had officially left the desert for lowland scrub and found that mornings were actually chilly and we had to dig into the farthest reaches of our bags for jackets and scarfs before stepping out the door every morning. As winter was around the corner, we have been looking for thrift stores in Jordan and Israel to buy used winter clothes to keep us warm in the Christmas markets of Germany and cruising through icebergs in Antarctica which we’d see in late December and early January.
Paphos to Limmasol
Paphos was a 90 minute drive from Larnaca airport and a nice place to chill out for a few days. After so much traveling and staying with friends for the last month, it was so nice to just ‘sit’ and do very little other than binge watch our favorite movies, read books, cook and plan. The first day in Paphos we stocked up on supplies and spent most of our time hobnobbing around the neighborhood exploring and enjoying the fact that we were back in Europe which meant well stocked supermarkets and good local food. I befriended an old Greek woman who ran a local supermarket who gave me daily oranges and pecans from her village to take back to Lisa and Ava as snacks. A nearby, competing shop owner bewailed me every time I did this and wondered why I didn’t come into his shop more often. In Greece, rivalries between families and business can transcend generations like the ‘Hatfields and the McCoys‘.
Having an Airbnb with a good wifi connection was immensely productive. Since we now had the start date of our next school where we’d be starting in June, we could start to work on logistics of the spring. Up till last week, we had our trip planned up till mid January, with only some rough ideas for what to do afterwards. In Paphos, Lisa spent 2 full days booking open-jaw airline tickets through Argentina and Brazil, and reserving accommodation from Argentina through Uruguay to Brazil through booking.com which gave us an itinerary through early March. Those purchases along with visas for Jordan and a trip to the local dentist for our 6 month cleaning, broke our budget of $1,000 per week, so we spent most of our time in Cyprus not going to restaurants and cooking in our apartments (with the exception of Thanksgiving) to make up for the additional costs and get our budget back on track.
A Real Thanksgiving for Travelers
For American Thanksgiving, we found a nearby shop that had beautiful roasted chickens and we made stuffing, gravy, mashed potatoes, and baked two pies the day before to round out our meal of giving thanks for the things in our lives. We spent the afternoon going around the table and giving thanks for the people, family and little things in our lives that had made our little trip so wonderful:
A good clothes washer and effective spin cycle.
A large drying rack on which to hang your clothes.
Smart TVs that are Chromecast compatible.
Supermarkets within walking distance.
A coffee machine and fresh Lavazza every morning.
Contrary to what most children learn in school, the origins of American thanksgiving are quite distorted from its portrayal in picture books. It was first a commemoration of massacre of the Pequot people in 1637, and then a reminder not of religious expression, but entrepreneurial pursuits of the Pilgrims and finally a celebration of civil war victories under Lincoln. Over the years, it has been whitewashed into a ‘feast to bring locals and visitors together’ despite Wampanoag natives may not even having been invited to the original table. In short, it’s a holiday that celebrates a history that people ‘wished’ to have happened much like the reasons that Columbus day is so unabashedly celebrated in classrooms around the country while turning a blind eye to his barbarism. Proof that history is written by those in charge.
Limmasol to Ayia Napa
Our apartment in Ayia Napa overlooked the ocean and had one of the best kitchens we’ve had on our trip. I cooked french toast for breakfast most mornings and in the evening we had ravioli with white wine garlic sauce, mexican style burritos, pizzas, and fish tacos for dinner. While at the local ‘Metro’ supermarket, I spied English sausages and made biscuits and gravy the last morning which is one of my weekend specialties back when we had our own apartment in South Korea. Between meals, Lisa tentatively reserved a 20 day itinerary for Peru and Machu Pichu and I found a good price for one way tickets from Cuzco Peru, to Cartagena, Colombia for $630 for all three of us with an overnight layover in Lima. I booked our final flights from Bogota to the Aruba and a series of puddle jumper flights that would take us from there to the islands of Bonaire and Curacao for scuba diving before flying back to Los Angeles in early May. With the rest of our flights booked the end of our trip had taken shape and, we realized that we were over the halfway point of our trip. Where does the time go?
A Persuasive Essay Turns Infographic
As Ava worked on her second writing piece of the year: ‘Why we need to save the Rhinos’, inspired by our time in Kenya, we thought that it would best be supported by images and statistics not ideally displayed by traditional word documents. For this, we settled on an infographic which we used ‘piktochart’ to make which has more allure as a poster or printable flyer.