Up the Canaanites!

Remains of a tower

Last blog was in November, as we don’t seem to have done a whole lot, except short hikes in the forests, looking for flowers (found plenty, especially in Ben Shemen, Yakum and Rosh Ha’Ayin ). But yesterday, since rain is forecast from tomorrow for an indefinite period, we decided to take advantage of the wonderful winter sunshine to head off to Ashkelon National Park, which we have not visited in a very long time. Having renewed our pass when we were up in Bar’am, ( did I not blog that one? Oops!) we could just swan in for free as usual. However, on arrival at the gate, there seemed to be some kind of computer mishap, as the man in front of us sat in his car waiting for a ticket for rather a long time. Finally we got in and started to drive around the ring road that circles the park, stopping at the different sites. The day was glorious and the place nigh on deserted, except for a preponderance of workmen. They seem to be revamping the whole place. (And a quick Google reveals this to be the case

The first stop was the church of Santa Maria, or what’s left of it. Despite being pretty much in ruins, the site is very imposing, and you can climb up the steps next to it and get a view of the sea and the remains of the 12th century Crusader wall. Of course Ashkelon is an ancient city which was home to many different civilisations, the ancient Canaanites, the Philistines, Byzantines, Muslims, Ottomans and Crusaders.

We continued on to the oldest arched tunnel in the world, a Middle Bronze Age gate said to date from 1850 BC. It has of course been reconstructed, but the site is most impressive and you can see the rampart walls, the Roman basilica and lots of broken columns and other bits lying around, which I assume are in the process of being restored.

Ancient Arch

From the arch you can walk up a slope which takes you to a fantastic lookout point over the sea, giving you a really good sense of how the ancients knew where to build their cities. History buffs can of course read more about the details of all the archeological finds here . Suffice it to say that the major finds from the site now reside in the Israel Museum, but the impression we got is that a lot of work is now under way at the site, and it may well be worth a return trip in the near future, to see what else has been restored.

View from the top

After eating our sandwiches on a lovely bench in the overnight campsite part of the park we decided to head to the promenade of modern Ashkelon, where we wanted to do a bit of promenading and then catch the sunset. This proved to be an extremely good move. The weather was glorious, the views spectacular and the people of Ashkelon were out walking their dogs and running, but not in hordes. We had a quick ice cream on the prom and admired the whale statue which is in fact a kids’ slide. We also liked the bench which doubles as a lending library, and the sofas which are modern art.

Next we headed to the marina which was full of people eating and drinking in the many restaurants, and where we found a most wonderful hotdog in a place called Captain Hot Dog, manned by a charming Russian girl. We enjoyed this while sitting and admiring the view. When the sun started to go down we headed back up the hill to the promenade. As soon as the sun had set it became very cold so we headed home after a really refreshing day. Ashkelon, we shall return.

Sunset over Ashkelon Marina

An exciting Passover jaunt

I had been wanting to visit the Park Hamaayanot for some time, ever since I saw some photos of it online. Despite it being Passover week after a year of lockdown, and knowing the roads would be packed, we nevertheless decided to brave it and hop up to take a look, seeing how glorious the weather is right now.

Pleaes note that the same entrance is for Gan Guru, a sort of Australian style animal theme park, and for Gan Hashlosha. IF you only want to visit Park haMaaayanot you take the right parking lot.

As we are early risers we made it to the park by 9.30, and saw that there were already quite a lot of people but it was not dire. Also, after grabbing a map and heading off to the first spring, we found that many people just descend on the park to picnic right near the entrance; the further in we got, the less crowded it became. The springs are quite spaced out, and you can hire a golf cart or bicycle to get around (if you don’t mind standing in line for an hour or so) but the walk between the springs for us was actually the highlight of the whole experience. The sun was shining not too strongly, the air was fresh, and the colours really stunning. At each spring we saw groups of families picnicking, but in between we largely had the place to ourselves. At some points you walk along the river bank, and at others along fields. There are also parts of the trail designated “wet trails” where if you want you can walk in the water. The water is at a constant 24C so you can bathe here all year round. It all looked clean and lovely.

There are designated swimming areas, and others where you are not supposed to swim, but we saw people swimming all over. Again there are several different sites to choose from- we saw Ein Shokek and some other points on the river, but we didn’t go as far as Ein Muda, which also has a swimming place.

We also observed families of ducks, lots of birds and fish in the water. We decided not to visit all the springs, as it was getting warm, and the park was getting crowded, and we wanted to include the Bet Shean National Park ( which I had already made reservations for). So after a couple of hours we skipped the furthest spring Ein Muda and headed back to our car. This was just as well, as the parking lot was swiftly turning into a jungle. Getting out took a whole lot longer than getting in, and included a few fairly hairy almost- collisions. Fortunately we made it out and proceeded on to Bet Shean, only a 10 minute drive away.

Having the National Parks Matmon pass has been such a blessing. Not only do we get free entrance into all the parks, we also get a reduction on Magnum ice cream in the shop!

The cafe shop of the Bet Shean park has a lovely shady terrace with a fantastic view of the whole site.

This magnificent archeological site, historically known as Scythopolis, was the leading city of the Decapolis, a league of pagan cities. It was of course settled a long time before the Romans even from the neolithic period, and was subsequently inhabited by Byzantines, Greeks (there are some Greek inscriptions in some of the flagstones), the Egyptians and the Hasmoneans (and pretty much everybody!) . It has a huge amphitheatre, several bath houses with mosaics and public latrines, the main Palladius street and a vast array of houses, showing us how sophisticated and extensive the Roman city was.The current amphitheatre is being restored and is used for outdoor performances.

Amphitheatre

Since it was now after midday, and getting rather hot (Bet Shean valley is known to be one of the warmer places in the country) , we gave a miss to the ascent the Bet Shean Tel,with its copious steps, and decided to head home to beat the crowds. We did this in spectacular manner. Presumably as the main highways were all thronged with holidaymakers, our Waze navigator sent us through the backroads of the West bank area of Samaria. We wondered at the beautiful rolling green hills which we had never seen before. There were no villages or settlements, only a few Beduin encampments and lots of goats and sheep. The view was wonderful and relaxing. Then hubby said we only had enough gas for another 25 km or so. We started looking for a gas station (to no avail) . Google maps informed me that the nearest one was at the entrance to the West Bank town of Ariel (11 km away according to the map). We missed the turning (of course) .After another 2km we made a U turn and arrived at said station. All’s well that ends well.

Winter walking at Banias

I must have previously visited the waterfall at Banias, otherwise known as Panias and Hermon stream , possibly on my first visit to Israel as a kid, but I really couldn’t remember much about it. So after the first rains we decided to head up north and check it out. It really is a wonderful place and we enjoyed our day there very much. We had planned to see both sites,the waterfall and the spring, Saar Waterfall and also the Monument to the Helicopter disaster victims, and end up at the Kinneret. This, it turned out, was too ambitious, but we had a great day nonetheless.

There are two entrances to the national park ( both of which require an advance booking during this Covid 19 period) one at the Waterfall parking lot and one at the Banias Spring parking lot. The two sites are connected and you can hike from one to the other.

The Waterfall one has the circular red suspended path trail which takes about 45 minutes, and the blue trail which takes you to the Banias spring entrance and is about 60 minutes from the Waterfall so the whole thing would take you over an hour and a half each way.

As we got out of the car we discovered there was an incredibly high wind, which nearly blew us over. At the ticket booth the guy said to be very careful. It was kind of exhilarating as we made our way down to the falls. The air was fresh and everything was green around us, and best of all, there were no people. We breathed in the fresh scent of pine and figs, and enjoyed the stunning view over the Golan. The most wonderful thing about Israeli winter is that the sun is shining, the sky is blue but you are not so hot that you can’t walk, as in the summer. All in all, it’s a fantastic time of year to go hiking.

The path down to the falls was fantastic, and the suspended path was just a wonderful viewing point for the gushing water. I didn’t remember this bridge from previous visits, so I think it must be newish. In any case the view is really stunning. From the here you continue on till you reach the Falls themselves which are just breathtakingly beautiful.

From the Falls you can continue on foot on the blue trail to the Banias Springs, or you can return to the parking lot and drive there. WE thought we were driving to the Saar Falls so we went to the car. After reaching the Saar Falls and discovering them to be still dry, (albeit with a wonderful view) we went back to the entrance of the Springs which were very close by.

Saar Falls were dry

The Springs site is pretty interesting and has the Roman remains of the shrine dedicated to Pan (hence the name Banias) and the city Caesarea Philippi. This is currently being restored but there are some archeological remains to see, and also a cave. Also it’s an excellent place to eat a sandwich and have an ice cream.

We didn’t make it to the Helicopter Memorial because we wanted to buy some wonderful fresh trout at the Kibbutz Dan fish shop before catching the sunset at the Kinneret. The only disadvantage of travelling in the winter is that it gets dark so early. So we popped in to the shop and got 5 huge pink trout which the lady put in a refrigerated box, and told us it would be good for 6-8 hours. We then drove down to the Kinneret and caught a great sunset at Nof Ginnosar (too early, not even 5 pm) . We then drove home and put said fish in the freezer for tomorrow.

A jaunt to the North – Little Switzerland

I had heard about this destination before but somehow never made it up there. The name I think is somewhat of a misnomer, if you are anticipating snow capped peaks and little chalets, and cows with bells. The Carmel Park, however is a fine destination for a day trip and pleasant hike.

At the advice of a friend we parked in a car park called Hanyon HaPitul, but there is another one at the end of the hike called Little Switzerland car park. The whole red trail that we walked was only about 3km each way ( not a circular route) so it made for a very pleasant morning hike, and we got back to the car before it got too hot. Even better, we passed only three other walkers on the way so we really got that lovely feeling of being alone in nature. We saw a rock hyrax and a small snake, both of which disappeared before I could photograph them. The mountain air was just glorious as was the view.

You walk along the edge of the Galim and Kelach streams and you can see the dry riverbed down below you. Most of the path was in the shade (early morning ). In the cliffs across the valley there are numerous caves which apparently you can see on other trails, but not the one we took. There are several different trails to choose but the signposts don’t specify the length or difficulty of them.

After returning to the car park we stopped near Kibbutz Beit Oren to see the monument to the firefighters killed in the Carmel blaze that raged in 2010. From the road it didn’t look very inspiring but close up I found it moving.

We then continued on to the coast at Atlit, where my map told me there was a Crusader castle. What the map didn’t say was that the structure is inside the army base so you can’t get right up to it. What you can do is walk along the pier into the sea and look at the view from there. The pier was somewhat wobbly and not very well maintained so I only ventured onto the end of it. Nearby there are flamingos at the Atlit salt flats but we couldn’t find how to access them so we left that for a subsequent visit.

Atlit

WE then decided to have our lunch at the beach of Hof Dor Nature reserve which was only a short drive from Atlit and indeed a splendid place to relax and eat one’s sandwiches. The beach is inside the reserve which has to be booked in advance, but this was an easy 2 minute process done online in the car, and as we have a pass for the entry to all Parks Authority’s reserves it was free entry for us. There were a few people swimming despite the fact that there is no lifeguard and officially not allowed. It looked tempting but we didn’t go in. We then walked along the coast a little way, where there are lots of beautiful coves, some sandy and some rocky. It was easy to find secluded spots and really very beautiful. We considered continuing south to the part of the reserve which has caves but the park was closing at 4pm and we wanted to catch a nice sunset somewhere so we decided to drive to Tel Dor. Again, it is always nice to leave something for a future visit. The Nature reserve part at Tel Dor is apparently still closed to the public, according to the nice girl at the entry booth of Habonim, but you can access the beach.

Unfortunately at this point Waze misled me and instead of directing us to Tel Dor, it sent us to Tel Dor Street in Hadera and once we realized the mistake we decided that if we wanted to catch the sunset (since we are now on Winter time clock) we should head for the nearest beach . This was a beach called Golden Beach Hadera which was actually very nice and full of kite surfers. By this time it was actually quite chilly (something we are not used to after the long Israeli summer) but we got our sunset and then headed for home.
Stay tuned for the next trip… will it be north or south? I don’t know yet but it will be after the RAINS! yippee.

Quick! Parks before next lockdown

Things are looking pretty bleak. We are being threatened with the second lockdown now, potentially for anything between two weeks and a month. This is set to coincide with the Jewish High Holy Days of New year and Yom Kippur and then Succot (Feast of Tabernacles), so everyone is somewhat glum. Fortunately just before this was announced we decided to get out and about in our area for some fresh air.

With this in mind I did a pass for the Israel National Parks, giving us free entry to all the parks countrywide.

We visited Appolonia National Park near Herzliya which was a lovely clifftop walk with a splendid breeze despite the 30C temperatures of end of August. We had a great morning there and came home refreshed and awed about how little history we actually know. Who were those Mamelukes anyway? Apparently the occupiers had been the Persians, the Mamelukes, the Crusaders and the Ottomans (but probably not in that order)

Entrance to Crusader city

WE spent about two hours walking around the site, and pondering. It was pretty much deserted , and the few people we saw kept distance and wore masks. If you want to visit you have to reserve online before you arrive. It was a very pleasant place. I shall have to read up on the history.

Stay tuned for next Park trip….

Sizzling Sicily Part 1

To be honest I possibly would not have booked this trip if I had realized just  how hot it was going to be. We travelled between 16 June until 4 July and most days it was over 30 and really hard to walk around. But, hey, you have a/c in your car and in your hotel so not so bad right? What we started to do was to rest between 12 and around 5pm and then go out at night, just as the locals do.

But let’s go back to the beginning. This trip only happened because D’s leg was good enough to be able to walk a bit before we left, and being unsure of how much walking he would actually be able to do, we planned it as mainly touring by car with bits of walking. In the event, by the end he was walking a good 7km a day so that was really fantastic. Had we known, we might have decided to ditch the car hire and travel by public transportation. Not sure how good it is, didn’t check it out. Car hire has its advantages of course, but also many diasadvantages. More of this later.

But having said that, it meant that he did a lot of driving (we did about 1,500 km over the 18 days) and that made it less enjoyable for him, especially because driving in Sicily is not at all straighforward. The roads are often extremely narrow, the one way system in the medieval towns is horrific, and parking is an added headache. But no matter! We did it and we enjoyed what we saw.

A circular, clockwise tour of the island, starting and finishing at Catania, gave us rather a good route, I think, with a few days at each base, (except for Ragusa) so as not to have to pack/unpack endlessly.

Route map

sicily map

Both the main cities of Palermo and Catania we found totally underwhelming. Despite having beautiful architecture, the centres felt run down and dirty and sometimes a little edgy at night. If you look at the photos it looks actually stunning, but we saw far more beautiful places- particularly Siracusa, which I think was one of my favourite places. Catania has the ancient Roman amphitheatre in its centre, but the rest of the downtown didn’t feel so inspiring. We did two day trips from Catania- one to the beautiful Taormina and its sister Giardini Naxos, and another to Etna.  Taormina, despite being something of a tourist trap, just screams to be photographed, and even the hordes of tourists cannot tarnish its beauty. Giardini Naxos at the bottom of the mountain has a gorgeous beach and harbour and is really quite a charming place.

Etna turned out to be a bit of a disappointment because although the drive up was beautiful, we didn’t go right up to the crater because it was horrendously expensive. At the bottom they said you can pay to do the final bit at the top, without adding it would cost double the price. We didn’t feel it was something we HAD to see, so we decided to forgo.

From Catania, we continued on to Siracusa, which is an absolute gem. The island of Ortigia is where most people stay, but it means not driving your car onto the island, where only residents can drive. This was in fact wonderful. We parked our car for 3 days in the Talete car park and spent three glorious days wandering around the little alleyways and courtyards and finding a wonderful sea view at every turn. The newly discovered Hebrew writing at the mikve underneath the Church of St Felipe was an added bonus. There is a great Jewish quarter with lots of wonderful stuff. Actually we saw two mikves, and the guide told us that there are probably many more that have not yet been excavated.

 

Apart from the Jewish quarter, we also enjoyed the Castle, the main Piazza Duomo area, the Fontana Diana and Fontana Aretusa area. The whole island is not that big, but wandering around the maze of little streets is just a delight.

Before leaving Siracusa we checked out the Archeological park in the other part of the city (not Ortigia Island) and saw the cave known as Dionysios’ Ear, with its amazing echo. We continued on to spend one night in Ragusa, the strange city on two hills connected by a very long staircase of over 200 steps. On the way there we stopped at the amazing mosaics at the Villa Romana in the city of Piazza Armerina.

 

Mosaics at Piazza Armerina

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Mosaics at Piazza Armerina

From Ragusa we continued on to Agrigento, famous for its Valley of the Temples. First we wandered a little around the old town of Agrigento which was pretty much deserted and absolutely charming. In the evening we went to visit the archeological site of the Valley of the Temples, a UNESCO Heritage site and quite splendid. This was a wise move because we saw the temples in the evening when it was still hot but bearable. There is a main concourse with temples all the way along, from Temple of Juno (misnamed) at one end and Temple of Vulcan at the other end, and various others along the way. It is a very impressive place if you enjoy history.

After two splendid days in Agrigento we continued on along the south coast towards Trapani but not without stopping at a couple of points on the way. The first was the amazing view of the Turkish Steps  ( nothing to do with the Turks) . The second was the little town of Sciacca to have a sandwich and gaze at the sea. We did not descend the white cliffs at the Turkish steps to the beach, but we saw people swimming down there (a long way down!)

I will continue the journey on to Trapani in the next entry.

The last leg- Mexico City, DF

After our wonderful time in Oaxaca we nevertheless had to move on, so as to be in Mexico City (referred to locally as Distrito Federal or D.F) for our flight home. We decided to spend a week seeing the capital city of Mexico ( with its mere 9 million inhabitants). I was slightly nervous about it, since many people had warned me that it’s very dangerous, lots of crime, etc. Even Mexicans said that we should not wander out at night, and that some neighbourhoods are out of bounds. Of course this is the case in many large cities in every country.

It transpired that the lovely Airbnb that we had booked was at the back of the American Embassy, the securest location in the whole city, judging by the number of armed police surrounding it. The neighbourhood, called Cuauhtémoc, is one of the most pleasant and safe in the city, and we had no problems at all walking  along the main boulevard the Paseo de la Reforma at night, eating and drinking there. It is near to the amazing Museum of Anthropology and the Chapultepec park and  had wide tree- lined boulevards and lots of lovely statues. On Sundays, the road is blocked off and filled with people on bicycles, skateboards, dogs and runners. It was a delightful place altogether, and far removed from what I had been expecting. However, we only went on the metro once, as it was incredibly crowded, and we actually saw two people fall out onto the platform once, when the doors opened. We took the bus once, which was easy, and otherwise walked everywhere. But we did not really go out at night except in our neighbourhood of Chapultepéc.

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Runners on Paseo de la Reforma on Sunday

Of course, as with any large city, the problem is deciding what to see without running around crazily and exhausting yourself. We had a few top sites we didn’t want to miss, and the first of these was the Frida Kahlo Museum. I also wanted to see some works by Frida’s husband Diego Rivera, and to see the Museum of Anthropology, which my cousin had told me was a ” not to be missed” attraction. We were also lucky enough to have some local people to meet up with, the lovely Francisco, whom we had met through Servas, when he was studying Hebrew in Israel, another couple from Servas, consisting of an Israeli called Anna and her husband and daughter), a girl called Cynthia, who is

a travel buddy from the now defunct Virtual Tourist, and a Couchsurfer called Sima, a Mexican who had lived in Israel for some years.

But we started off with a lovely day at the Chapultepec Park, a huge expanse of green in the heart of the city, which contains the Chapultepec Castle, several museums and lakes and other wonderful things. We didn’t manage to see the Castle, but we very much enjoyed walking around the lakes, and people watching in the park. You could spend days in this place as it is truly a relaxing and lovely spot. We especially enjoyed the secluded relaxation corner, which has benches for reading and  plays a different style of chillout music  for each day of the week.

The next day we ventured down to the Historic city centre where most of the big tourist sites are located. Here you can find the Zocalo, as in all the other Mexican towns we had visited, but here of course there is more of everything- more galleries, more churches, murals, theatres. We took a free walking tour with this company, which was extremely enjoyable, even if the guide did sometimes stand in a spot where we couldn’t hear her because of the traffic, it still introduced us to some sites that we decided to revisit at our leisure later on. The tour begins every day outside the Cathedral at 11am, and although it is 100% free,you are invited to give your guide a tip at the end if you are satisfied.( we were)

One of the tips that we got on the tour was where to have lunch. The restaurant on the walking street in the Sanborns department store, called Casa de los Azuelos,(House of Blue Tiles), had already been mentioned to me by Sima the Israeli- Mexican, and it looked like an amazing place to try, so we went there, and although the food was not the most amazing we had eaten in Mexico, the ambiance of the place was really something unforgettable, with a live piano and violin performance.

sanborns
Casa de los Azuelos

We went to see Frida Kahlo’s House the next day, and didn’t manage to book online for technical reasons. However, lining up outside, we were approached by an employee of the museum who asked us if we were over 60. When we admitted that we were, she queue jumped us inside, and also charged us only 50%, something which had not been clear to me from the website, so it was all good. You pay an extra (small) fee if you wish to take photos inside. The place is stunning, and well worth the wait, although many things are not labelled in English. There is a great video about Frida’s life and death (which you will probably know about if you have seen the movie) but it was still fascinating and intensely moving, especially for me the part about Trotsky, who stayed in the house while on the run, and which reminded me of the brilliant Barbara Kingsolver  book The Lacuna. The whole place was just fantastic.

After this we messaged Sima, who said that she lived nearby in Coyoacán district and would come and meet us in a restaurant. We waited for her for a long time in the restaurant, by which time we were starving, and not sure what had happened to her (traffic) so we had a soup and finally she arrived, declined to eat anything, poured out her long and involved life story to us, and took us on a walking tour of Coyoacan, which was great, especially the food market.

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Sima and D in Coyoacan market

In DF we saw murals by Diego Rivera, Frida’s husband, in the Palacio de Bellas Artes (with another couchsurfer called Miguel Noguera) and also in Tlalpan, an area of the city far from the centre, which our friend Francisco took us to by car. It seems that the whole city is full of artwork. It’s quite overwhelming. But we also did some more prosaic sightseeing, or so we thought. The market of Sonora, was in fact very weird. At first it looked like any other market, but at the back there are some stalls that sell witchcraft and voodoo items, which we were not supposed to photograph, but I managed anyway (hope I am not jinxed now)

One of the highlights of Mexico City, although everything was pretty wonderful, was the aforementioned Museum of Anthropology, which was our last day in DF, and appropriately took us back to Chapultepec Park, as on Day 1. I cannot emphasize enough how amazing this place was. We spent about 5 hours there, and could have spent another 10. It is just too amazing for words.So I will just leave you with a few photos.

And there endeth our 6 weeks in Mexico. Please feel free to comment- I love getting blog comments! And now to plan the next trip.. destination as yet unknown.

Oaxaca

The last day in San Cristóbal, after eating out at a fancy restaurant (not at a street tacos stall) I was visited by Montezuma’s Revenge. This is something that happens to every traveller who spends any time at all in Mexico,, at some point or another. It happened to me the day before we were due to take another long, 12 hour bus journey from San Cris to Oaxaca City. Fortunately for me, after a couple of pills of Immodium, I was fine, and actually the bus ride to Oaxaca was pretty enjoyable. We left San Cris at 10.30 am and arrived in Oaxaca about 22.15 to be met at the bus station by our Air Bnb hosts!

I have to say that I love this website more and more. We got to stay in cheap, self-catering places and we met charming, kind local hosts, and found it that much more pleasant than staying in impersonal hotels. So if you are not familiar, go ahead and sign up! You can use this referral to join.

Anyway so the lovely couple at our place picked us up in their car so we would not get lost late at night, and drove us to the apartment, which was small, clean and had everything we needed including a small kitchen, charming patio where we ate breakfast every day, and a parrot (in their place not ours) which continually shouted “Hola!”

Next morning we got up to explore Oaxaca, and by lunchtime we had decided that we really liked it a lot and were going to extend our stay there. We had intended to go on to Puebla after Oaxaca, on the way to Mexico City. But we decided to skip Puebla and stay in Oaxaca for another week. There seemed to be so much to see and do there, but the pace of the place made us feel like we wanted to just relax and “be” there,, not necessarily charging around from site to site. Since our friends Renee and Barry had recommended the place, we started to see the charm of it right away.

If San Cristobal had been the “musicians’ city” , Oaxaca was the artists’ city. Everywhere we saw beautiful artwork, galleries, museums, and street art. The vibe felt relaxed, despite the fact that Oaxaca was about the most political place we went in Mexico. And when I say that, I mean that there were armed police everywhere downtown, and the Zócalo had at least 3 demos or political gatherings going on at any given time. Nevertheless, the place had a distinctly artistic feel to it and we enjoyed it a lot. As to what we did there, mostly just hang out, walk around and photograph the beautiful buildings and squares and eat and drink  the delicious Mexican chocolate. We did take one tour from Oaxaca, which was to Monte Alban, the Pre- Columbian Zapotec site, which was wonderful. The tour was combined with a place where they demonstrated weaving and dying yarn with natural colours, Mitla, another important Zapotec archeological site, and with Hierve el Agua , an incredible rock formation that looks like a frozen waterfall. We also got to see how the local liquor, called mezcal,  is produced from the agave plant, and of course to taste several varieties of it.

But every day we walked down town from our apartment we felt relaxed, whilst never quite knowing what we would see. One day, there was a wedding with huge puppets representing the bride and groom, and all the guests dancing in the street; another day a load of parades (political demos?), another day we came across some kind of municipal festival in a huge open air amphitheatre, with lots of stalls, and free tastings of food, and local dances. One day, as advised by our “Oaxaca guru” Renee, we went to the public lending library for a language exchange, where I tested the limits of my Spanish, and D met a man whose mother tongue was not Spanish but the Zapotec minority language. It was all great fun. Oaxaca is a city where you can walk around and continually be surprised.

Oaxaca is such a pleasant city that  it’s hard to really sum it up. I can say that the market is a great place to eat and sample the special cuisine they have, and that there are many lovely squares where you can sit, eat, drink and people watch. It is highly recommended to try the local chocolate, which is not like any other chocolate I have ever tasted. You can pop into art galleries and chat to the artists everywhere you go. And in the evening there is (as in everywhere else we went in Mexico) live music of all kinds to go with your beer or mezcal. We found a lovely restaurant-bar called Praga, which had live jazz every evening, and lovely quotations from poets all over the walls.

Of course there were also many churches, museums and galleries to see in Oaxaca. But just hanging out there was really the thing I will remember most about our stay there.

One day on one of the main parks, El Llano, we saw a VW bus painted like the Magic Bus, from which a woman,a  blond girl and two dogs emerged. They were from Patagonia, in Argentina, and were travelling from Patagonia to ALASKA in this bus. The girl had been born on the road. They were financing the trip by selling a book and T shirts. When we asked them when they would get to Alaska, the woman said, “It doesn’t really matter, but it won’t be this year!”.

As hard as it was to drag ourselves away from Oaxaca, we knew we had to be in Mexico City by a certain date to fly home, and we didn’t want to miss the main sites in the capital, so we gave ourselves a week to be in DF, as it is called, before our flight, so eventually we had to book our Airbnb in Mexico city and buy a bus ticket, for our final ADO bus to the capital, a mere 8 hour trip. So stay tuned for the Mexican finale, DF, the Mexico City bit….

Chillis, Chocolate and chapulines- latest trip.

Part 1- The Yucatan Peninsula

This blog post will be the first of several on our latest trip to Mexico. I don’t like to write really long posts, and of course a six week trip through Southern and Central Mexico warrants a bit of space. So bear with me on this. I shall try not to waffle too much.

We flew into Mexico City and immediately on to Cancun to start our Mexican Experience. And when I say “immediately” I mean after a 2 hour wait at passport control and a mad dash for the connecting flight. The passport chaps did not care who was travelling onwards and who had arrived at their destination. After arriving in Cancun we got a bus to Playa Del Carmen, our first port of call. The bus ride to Playa was smooth and comfortable- about one hour on a lovely ADO bus (more of this great company anon). Playa is a lovely seaside place teeming with tourists from all over the world. The beach is great, and lined with great cafes and restaurants. Very little of the “real Mexico” here, but a great place to start our trip. We enjoyed strolling up and down the main pedestrian drag, especially at night when it was full of live musicians- from Mariachis to Led Zeppelin covers. Sitting on the beach with a mojito and watching the sunset was a great start to the trip. And the day trip we made to Tulum was fantastic.

The colour of the Caribbean was a sight to behold. We visited many archeological sites during our Mexican trip, but the setting of the ruins at Tulum was what made it stand out in my mind.

Many people (especially young American students) come to the State of Quintana Roo, where Playa is located, and stay only in this one place, on the beach and never see any more of Mexico. This would be akin to coming to the US and seeing only the beach in Florida. We wished we had seen more of this Caribbean coastline, but wanted to do more than see the beach. So after a couple of days we boarded another ADO bus and headed for Valladolid , which was, we were assured, the REAL Mexico. ADO buses, by the way, are fantastic. They are air-conditioned, have lots of legroom, movies (in Spanish) and toilets. When you buy a ticket you get to choose your seat, and when you hand in your backpack/suitcase you get a little tag for it, like on a plane. The longer in advance you buy your ticket the better the price.

Valladolid  was indeed less touristy than Playa. The town has a sort of rough and ready feel to it, and although tour buses sweep in and out of the main Zocalo (town square), many tourists seem to see it as a day trip and do not stay the night.

The colourful house fronts and the busy street market are interesting, and typically Mexican, and the main Zocalo is closed off for dancing on Sundays. Other than walking around the streets or popping into the nearby cenotes, there is not an awful lot to do in Valladolid. But it does have a certain raw charm.There is, however the amazing little Chocolate Factory. (there is another one in Merida). Here you can learn about the whole process of making chocolate, taste some unusual ones such as Oregano Chocolate and Chilli Chocolate, and of course buy some to take home.

We did one day trip from Valladolid to the pyramids of Ek Balam which we enjoyed immensely.

We visited several archeological sites during this trip, and found each one amazing in its own right. I thought (as someone not very well up in ancient history) that I might get bored, but each place was different and had its own fascination.

One day we were strolling around in Valladolid when we chanced upon a large group of young people in a public square, dressed in traditional clothes, clearly preparing some kind of dance performance. We asked when there would be dancing and singing and they said to come back at 6pm. So we had a quick tea in a nearby place, to escape the rain, and fortunately on the dot of 6 the rain stopped and the chairs near the square filled up with people. We joined them and asked the lady next to us what was going on. She said it was a performance of students of education celebrating the end of the term (if I understood correctly). They performed a number of traditional dances and it was all rather charming. Later, in Merida, we saw a similar thing but it was for tourists. The Valladolid one was “the real McCoy”.

From Valladolid we took another bus, for 3 hours this time to the city of Merida, which, sad to say, was a bit of a disappointment to me.

I had read a lot about Merida, and had expected to love it dearly and wish to spend a long time there. However what conspired against us was, to my surprise, the Merida Carnaval, which took place while we were there, and was the reason that the regular events, street dancing on Sundays downtown and performances of the Mayan game of Pok a Tok ( despite the tourist office assuring us they were still happening) were all cancelled. At least twice we waited in the Zocalo to see something which never happened. Usually we found other tourists, also waiting to see something and eventually we gave up. We thought about going to the Carnaval, but our Airbnb host Maurizio, assured us it would be a bad idea. Once the Carnaval was held in the town centre, but the police could not cope with it, so it was moved to some fairground about 2 hours outside the centre of town, and reached by shuttle buses from all over. Apparently it would be crowded and full of drunks, so we decided to pass. A young couple also staying at our place did go and concurred it had not been a great idea.

We did enjoy walking around Merida’s broad avenues, especially the Paseo de Montejo, and visiting the Anthopology museum there housed in a wonderful old colonial building built in the Porfiriano period of 1909. We even took a horse drawn carriage back down to the Zocalo once, when it was too hot to walk.

Downtown there are a number of interesting buildings to see, and we took a free tour. After about 30 minutes, however, we discovered that what we had joined was not in fact the free tour, but a private tour paid for by another tourist which we had inadvertently gate crashed! A shame because the tour guide was wonderful, spoke great English, and there were only 4 other people. After discovering our mistake we rushed off to find the free tour, for which the guide was incomprehensible, and  which had about 35 other people! It did, however take us round the main sites downtown- the Palacio de Gobierno, Palacio Montejo  and the Modern Art Museum (MACAY)

The one day trip we made from Merida was to Celestun. We didn’t do it by organized tours, as we had for Ek Balam, but simply got a bus from the second class bus station and got off at the bridge before the town (as instructed by the lovely American- Mexican couple we met on the bus). From there you simply walk down to the pier and join with other tourists to share a boat tour. The tour is around 90 minutes and takes you to the place where the thousands of flamingos can be viewed, and you also see “Bird Island” with lots of other seabirds (pelicans etc), and some crocs, and a little peek at the Mangroves. It’s beautiful and serene. We shared a boat with a charming Korean and his two daughters who were taking him on a trip after he had been very ill.

Here ends part one. From Merida we leave the Yucatan so I will continue the trip in the next post.

Monks on a bus and monkeys on the roof

Now I’ve got your attention. This had to be the title for this blog entry, especially after I saw the number of “likes” my monks on a bus photo got on Facebook. Here it is:

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Travelling to school

Anyway, how to sum up this crazy experience of a month teaching Buddhist monks in Bhiksu University, Sri Lanka? Was it what we had expected? Of course not! Things never are. On the plane over to Sri Lanka we again looked at each other wondering whether we were totally insane. How bad could it be, we thought? We had spoken via Skype to the Reverend Mediyawe Piyarathana, the English lecturer in charge of the program, and we had been interviewed by Paul Ellmes of http://www.giveafigvolunteering.com, who also lived there in the city, and seemed to be a nice, friendly chap.  Just for a month….. what could go wrong, we thought. Well one or two small inconveniences did occur. I hobbled home on crutches  with a sprained foot and a touch of gastroenteritis. Both of us were exhausted.. but to say that the month wasn’t the most fantastic experience would not  be doing it justice. Things are never straightforward when you fly halfway around the world. We certainly learnt as much from the monks as they did from us. But mostly not about meditation, Buddhist philosophy and so on, but more about how people are just people everywhere. The monks were all MA and PhD lecturers in Buddhist culture and philosophy, Sanskrit, comparative religions and other subjects. But they were above all lovely kind open-hearted people with whom we talked about anything and  everything in class.

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Our first colonial abode

The first few days after our arrival were the full moon festival or Poson. This meant that thousands of devotees, dressed in white, had flocked to the town to celebrate and visit the many holy places. Anuradhapura, a UNESCO heritage site,  is the old capital and a famous centre of Buddhist worship that houses the famous Boddhi Tree and many other important sites. Our Reverend took us to visit many of them, including  MahintaleRuwanwelisaya and Abhayagiri where we met the Chief Incumbent monk himself, and actually had tea at his house. He was a lovely laughing chap who had been to study in China so we exchanged a few Chinese words, which was all rather amusing. Anyone who entered the house bowed and kissed his feet, and we were directed to low stools while he sat on a higher chair. Apparently we were told by Paul that this monk is pretty much the second most important guy in the country after the President.

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Full moon celebrations at Mahintale

The Reverend took us to the holy sites to experience the tradition of dansale at the celebration. People had travelled from afar to cook meals and distribute them free to others. We saw huge lines of people waiting to receive meals, sweets and even free ice cream. The Rev took us in to eat something and (embarrassingly for us) passed in front of the whole line since he is a monk. It was useless to object. The monks are revered by all. This happened again in supermarket queues and elsewhere. Sometimes people would come up to him and hand him gifts in exchange for prayers and blessings.

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Family in dansale tent

One evening the Rev took us to visit a nunnery. The kids seemed quite well cared for and happy. The Reverend himself became a monk as his mother had to travel to work in Saudi Arabia and so she entrusted him to the monastery. He speaks to her frequently on the phone and doesn’t seem to have any problem with her decision. He loves his work helping people and is extremely devoted to the worshipers, and all the monks are very keen to help their devotees by giving them advice and hearing their problems. They help with all kinds of problems, and are always available to help in any way they can. The monks seem to have a far better life than many of the poor rural people and have a great education and live comfortably in their temples.

 

All in all, we were royally looked after during our whole stay. Everything was paid for by the University, including our board and lodging, and trips to Wilpattu Safari Park  and Sigiriya  Lion Rock (where I slipped and sprained my foot after managing to ascend and descend all the steps successfully) . The accommodation provided by the University was a little spartan: the initial place we were given looked amazing from the outside (a gorgeous old colonial building) but was somewhat run down inside, and had no hot water or functioning wifi. We therefore asked to move to a hotel but the inimitable Reverend Piyarathana who was responsible for us flatly refused and said he would find alternative accommodation. This proved to be the Vice Chancellor’s Lodge which was equally impressive from the outside, and actually did have hot water, good wifi and a/c. This is not to say that it was palatial, but it was okay. The original place came complete with a cook.So now we had no cook. “No problem “,said the Reverend. Every day he would send his chauffeur-driven car round to fetch us and transport us to Mango Mango, the local Indian restaurant where we could get good food just like in London!

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The Reverend’s driver Sisera enjoying his bettel

At night we heard jackals and dogs fighting outside, and monkeys jumping on the roof. There were loads of monkeys and wild dogs wandering around the campus. In fact I have never seen so many dogs in my life.Apparently because they are Buddhists, the inhabitants cannot get the dogs neutered, or do anything to deplete their numbers- many looked mangy and neglected- so sad. We also saw innumerable cows wandering around, mongoose and a snake .And one evening a tiny frog jumped out of the toilet!

Every day we went off to class either by tuk- tuk (called a three-wheeler in Sri Lanka) or on the school bus together with all the monks. Class was from 8 till 11.30am with a 30 minute tea break , and again in the afternoon from 13.00 till 16.30 with a similar break. In the break we got tea, bananas, and a host of other (mainly spicy) unidentifiable foods. We did find it amusing to see a load of saffron robed monks all sitting around munching on their bananas. In class we did much the same as in any oral class I have ever taught- debates, discussions, pair work etc, on any topic we wished. The monks were lively , highly knowledgeable and fun to work with. We had internet and projector in the classroom and as much photocopied material as we needed.

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Monks in class

After our 20 days teaching were up we were presented with a gold- plated award for our work, and the students got certificates for completing the course. Many students had come over to visit me while I was laid up  with the  sprained foot, and had presented me with gifts such as home made curd, sliced bread, marmite (!) , fruits and other goodies.  Our next door neighbour monk, also called Piyarathana (and hence christened by me Piyarathana number 2) came over and brought us many fruits, and on our last evening invited us into his place for a cooked meal, which he cooked personally.They were all incredibly kind and hospitable and I will miss them all.

We then had 3 days at the beach resort of Trincomalee on the north east coast,where we relaxed and took a sailing boat to see dolphins, and visited the historic site of Fort Frederick. This was a nice way to wind down our trip, and then finally we spent two nights in Colombo, where unfortunately we couldn’t see much due to my sprained foot, but we did see the Galle Fort promenade, which was enjoyable.

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Fishermen on beach at Trincomalee

So if this has piqued your appetite and you are interested in teaching in Sri Lanka please contact Paul Ellmes at http://giveafigvolunteering.com/ or the Revered Mediyawe Piyarathana at revpiyarathana@busl.ac.lk  or on Skype at piyarathana78. You too can have an unforgettable experience and do something worthwhile!

NOTE: Paul Ellmes says that in future all accommodation arrangements will be taken care of by his organization so I am sure all will run smoothly! So go ahead and message him on his webpage. You will have a fantastic time!

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View from the top of the Sigiriya Lion Rock Palace