Friday, July 2, 2010

Third Quarterly Report

To think that it's now month 9. The first part of our trip seems like a vacation we took years ago. People have started asking us which country we've enjoyed the most. I'm tired of the question already! My answer is that having the time to move slowly and really observe things has been my favorite part of this trip. I have most enjoyed the places I knew the least about. This quarter has been all about surprising places. From a rowdy Buddhist New Year's on the south coast of Sri Lanka to the syrupy sting of the Dead Sea in Jordan, our mantra quickly became "Who knew?" And when it comes to surprises, the Middle East has been very rewarding. Hospitable, safe and welcoming, there is much to see here in terms of people, history and natural beauty. What a shame we met so few Americans seeing it for themselves.

Countries covered this quarter: Sri Lanka, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Israel and Palestine, and Egypt
Days in the Middle East: 74 (April 16th- June 29th)
Miles traveled in the Middle East: 3,900 (Most of those logged on a train to southern Egypt)
Cousins Visited in the Middle East: 4 (Thank you for offering up your cousins, Loussi and Maya).
Accommodations used to date: 109
Pictures taken by Juliah: 4,920 (Mark had shipped home a memory card and was unable to provide an accurate count)
Maximum number of falafel meals consumed consecutively: 4. Cheap, ever present and delicious, a large portion of our body mass is now made of falafel.
Next on the Agenda: East Africa

A Few Highlights from the Middle East:
Diving the Blue Hole in the Sinai Peninsula. We suited up in 5 millimeters wet suits, put on our tanks and started walking down the dirt road. We passed a cliff with at least 20 memorial markers for the divers who had died at this site. Summer, our dive master, made a point of humming a happy song as we continued our walk. Then we got into the water and began our 30 meters decent down a stone shaft. It felt like a free fall. I had to pace myself to make sure didn't fall on top of Mark who was right below me. The fall ended when we emerged through a tunnel in an immense reef wall. To our right, reef pulsating with crazy corals and little orange fish. To the left the deep blue Red Sea, mysterious and seemingly bottomless.

Getting pulled off a bus by Israeli Defense Forces headed back from the West Bank. Apparently foreign tourists were not permitted to pass through this security check point. We suspected that the Sargent on duty was just miffed that we had visited Palestine. With the Turkish flotilla incident just weeks behind us, perhaps the Israelis were feeling even more on edge than usual. The Israeli soldier barely looked up from his cell phone when we tried to protest this "new policy." So we were forced to walk along the highway in growing darkness until we found a cab to take us to a different security checkpoint that would let us back to Israel.

Touring the tunnels below the Islamic Temple of The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. Burrowing through the dark and muddy tunnels you eventually find the foundation and original door to the second temple, the most sacred site for Jews and an undeniably eerie place for the rest of us.

Climbing a hill in Amman to see the sunset. As we reach the top, two Palestinian women pull us into their home and demand we stay for coffee. We meet their children and heard all about how much they love American people. They hope we enjoy Jordan. We completely miss the sunset.

Petra at sunrise. I'm torn between the stately symmetry of the carved facades, statues and niches and the beauty of the stone itself. The cliff faces are marbled with white, red and orange hues that would make them stunning even had they not been carved by an artful ancient people. The stones reminds me of salmon and then I long to poach salmon and eat it with a nice salad. I found myself walking away from one building only to turn back for a second look.

Staying the night in a 10th century monastery tucked between rocky mountains above the desert in Syria. We ate homemade cheese with the monks and slept above the chapel which let the smell of frankincense wafted up from below.

Smoking shisha (tobacco water pipe) on the banks of the Euphrates river at sunset in eastern Syria. Eventually the guy at the next table started chatting with us, paid our bill and took us cruising around town as the desert air cooled and the locals finally emerged for the evening.

Sleeping on the roof in Damascus. It's cheaper to sleep on the roof rather than getting a room and besides they still give you breakfast. There are 25 cots set up on the roof, most just 6 inches from the next. Blankets quickly become a commodity between our 25 roof mates, most of us sleeping just inches from each other. The 4am morning call to prayer finds us wearing rain coats and wool hats and snuggling to keep warm.

Wading in the Mediterranean on the south coast of Lebanon and collecting a few choice pieces of sea glass for my desk at my next job. The southern coast of Lebanon has been inhabited for thousands of years. Its difficult to choose between the colorful bits that turn up among the pebbles in front of the light house turned hotel we have been sleeping in.

And How Would You Say Things Are Going?
It's amazing what seems normal after a while. After nine months on the road, I can't imagine doing anything else. It has been a very good use of a year. By moving slowly and not pushing ourselves to do the "must sees" we haven't burned out yet.Though, there are a few indicators that our stamina may be waning.

For one, everything we own is falling apart. My watch, which got a new band in Northern Thailand and a new battery in downtown Mumbai just got fixed for $1.25 on the streets of Nairobi. To my shock and dismay, the watch repair guy actually used his teeth.

What's next on the agenda?
Africa! East Africa. In 2006 Mark and I visited Ghana, Togo and Benin in West Africa. We looked forward to returning to Africa ever since.
The guide books that we bought in Cairo for Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya all have animals on the covers. Usually the cover of a guidebook excites me, but I couldn't be less excited about these book covers. Chimps? Elephants? really? What excites me instead about East Africa is meeting people, enjoying some lush beautiful country and seeing how people live. It will also be nice to eat with our hands, drink beer and have really good papaya again. But still, I will take 120 giraffe pictures when the opportunity arises.

When are you coming home?
This is a frequently asked question, to be sure. We will probably be home in later September or early October.


Mark and Juliah

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