Haifa and Nazareth

As I mentioned in the previous post, I haven’t really been diggin’ the Tel Aviv scene as much as I thought I would, so I decided to make a quick two day trip to the north. I had originally planned to see Haifa, Nazareth and Akko but in the end had to scale it down.  On paper, it all seemed quick and easy… Certainly travelling in Israel is easy, but by the time you factor in walking to the station or bus stop, getting lost on the way, waiting for and getting the train or bus, traffic jams and so on, it all takes a lot longer than you think.  Getting lost here at least isn’t a big deal.  Most people you stop on the street are genuinely helpful.  Usually when you stop someone on the street to ask for directions, no-one knows a thing.  Here, however, people know where things are and are able to direct you with military precision.

Israeli trains are good.  The train to Haifa is very comfortable and takes one hour.  I had initially planned to drop my bag off quickly and continue on to Akko, but that didn’t happen.  I arrived later than I though and the extreme heat makes everything that much more challenging.  So, I decided just to take a look at the Bahai gardens.  The Bahai gardens are stunning, one of the most beautiful and well maintained gardens that I’ve ever seen.  One thing to note is that all of Haifa, including the Bahai gardens, is built on the side of a mountain.  Yes, that’s right… The side of mountain … Mount Carmel to be precise.  What this means is, that the only two ways you will ever go in Haifa is extremely steeply uphill or extremely steeply downhill.  Downhill is not a problem except that it generally involves an uphill return journey at some point.  Walking up to the temple was a test of endurance.  Imagine doing Step Aerobics in your jeans in searing heat and humidity.  Or for the bikram enthusiasts who may be reading this, imagine doing a triangle pose that never ends.  So after traipsing up and down the mountain for a while, I was ready to relax.

Haifa is known as the city of coexistence and unlike Tel Aviv, there is a very strong Arab presence there. For the two nights, I rented a room from Hanna, a Palestinian Christian.  The Christian part is only significant because he told me to help myself to anything in the fridge once I arrived ( he wasn’t home at that time) … There was no food, but there was a bottle of gin, so I was able to help myself to that.  It was interesting staying with Hanna to be able to get a different perspective of what life is like in the “promised land” for Arabs.  He was reluctant to talk politics but I pressed the issue… And didn’t I just open up a can of worms!  You can pretty much imagine what he said… “I hate this fucking country!!” he shouted… Arabs are second class citizens in their own country who are continually discriminated against only because they are Arab.  What’s more they are banned from travelling in much of the Arab world because they hold Israeli passports.  Double whammy.  According to Hanna, Israel has simply recreated the Holocaust.  This time however, the Jews are the Nazis, the Arabs are the Jews and Gaza is the Warsaw Ghetto.

Beyond politics, Arabs are very genuinely hospitable people and I was made to feel very welcome. When I went to a restaurant he recommended for dinner, he phoned ahead and made sure I received special treatment.  I was even given a Palestinian desert on the house; kanafeh, which is a kind of sweet cheese and pistachio pastry soaked in sugar syrup.  It was really delicious but the portion they gave me was like the size of an extremely large main course.  Not wanting to offend anyone, I ate the lot!  Then, with that and a couple of araks under my belt, it was a very long and slow stagger back up the hill.

The kanafeh in question:

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The next day, I made the bus ride out to Nazareth.  It was very simple.  For anyone who is reading this and might be interested in going, you take bus number 331 from Haifa HaShmona station and  get off at the last stop in downtown Nazareth.  It’s only 30 kms but takes between 60 to 90 minutes to get there.  I had read about Nazareth before I went, so I knew what to expect once I got there.  You imagine this kind of peaceful, rustic village surrounded by rolling fields of green.   The reality is that Nazareth is a large traffic choked Arab town full of kebab shops… Not that there is anything wrong with large Arab towns or kebab shops.  The Basilica of the Anunciation, Mary’s Well and St. Joseph’s church are right smack in the centre of town and beyond that is the old town with its souk.

The Basilica of the Anunciation itself is relatively new but it’s built over the site where the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she would conceive and bear the son of God.  When you go down the steps to the lower level of the basilica, you pass the grotto which is believed to be the remains of the childhood home of Mary.  While I’m neither Catholic nor particularly religious, I could feel that I was in a very special place.  I posted a couple of short videos on my Instagram (martinkoskins).

And now back in the beachy city of Tel Aviv … With regard to not diggin’ the scene here, another point to note is that there  are aggressive, biting fish in the water at the beach here.  If you stand still for even the shortest amount of time, the fish come and bite you on your heels or ankle.  I know I could put it down to having a free spa treatment, but it completely freaks me out and I scream like a howler monkey every time it happens!  The only way to avoid being bitten is keep swimming or treading water.  It’s a great workout but doesn’t exactly make for a peaceful relaxing time!

Tel Aviv – Yafo

Meanwhile, I left the Istanbul penthouse last Thursday and flew to Tel Aviv.  Things went very smoothly again, although flight-wise it was yet another regret.  Just like Asiana Airlines was the cheapest ticket to Istanbul, the 7.55 am flight to Tel Aviv on Pegasus, Turkey’s low-cost carrier, was also the cheapest.  I wish I had spent the extra in order to fly non-Korean and I wish I had spent the extra so I didn’t have to take a taxi out to the airport at 4.30 am.  Oh well, what’s done is… But make a mental not to do it ever again.

 

The arrival into Tel Aviv went smoothly.  The airport was virtually empty. I got through customs and immigration in a flash, found a cab a shortly arrived at my final destination in Rashi Street in downtown Tel Aviv.  It was a bit spooky at first… Seeing all those Jewish grandmothers, I had a momentary PTSD spin-out moment and felt like I had time-travelled back to 1997 to Pier 5 Hickson Road Walsh Bay, when I worked at the Wharf Restaurant.

 

This is my third visit to Israel, the other two times being in 1999 and 2000.  I was obviously 18 years younger and I also stayed with locals on those two occasions.  It was also pre-iPhone and pre-social media.  I mourn the loss of pre-iPhone travel when all you had to do was go to the travel agent to get your ticket and the bookstore to get your lonely planet guide.  Then, if you wanted to rent a cheap room in someone’s house, you just approached an old lady sitting in the train or bus station holding a sign.  Unlike these days, you didn’t have to ask for a list of included amenities, cross-check her on multiple platforms or stalk her on social media.  No-one needed to be smiley and happy in those days, for fear that the other person would write a bad review

 

Rent and hotel prices in Tel Aviv is on par with    with a surname of the host.  It makes social media stalking that much more time consuming when you only have a first name to go by.  Anyway, my stalking paid off.  Everything here is fine, but still, sharing an apartment is sharing an apartment.

 

As I mentioned before, the last time I was in Israel was in 2000.  It was 18 years ago and I was obviously 18 years younger.  You experience life and the world differently in your thirties as you do in your fifties.  I think also distance and time lend a certain enchantment.  We tend to romanticise and build things up in our minds  when we are away from them.  I had also at that time travelled solo through Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt, so arriving in Tel Aviv was like seeing an oasis in the desert.  Bottom line is that I’m not getting the high pitched buzz out of Tel Aviv that I was expecting.  The food is indeed delicious, even simple street food is amazing… And the nightlife is better than Sydney’s.  What does that even mean, “the nightlife is better than Sydney’s”… I’m sure even Damascus and Bagdad have better nightlife than Sydney these days.  Nonetheless, I don’t think the reality of Tel Aviv as this amazing 24/7 party and foodie destination quite lives up to the hype (or at least my expectation).  As a result, I’m escaping Tel Aviv and heading north to Haifa for a couple of days.

 

Shortly I’m heading for the train station to make the one hour trip to Haifa.  My main reason for going there is to visit the mosques and old city of Acre and the biblical sites in Nazareth.  I’m not sure how I’ll go… The heat is absolutely.  It makes walking extremely difficult and what’s more you’re expected to wear long pants to enter the mosque.  If the same climate of political correctness whereby the locals need to adapt to ME and being offended is my greatest weapon were present here, I could just enter the mosque in shorts carrying a four litre cask of wine and claim it’s all religious.  Shorts are acceptable in my religion and wine is given at holy communion.  But hey, let’s see… Maybe just seeing the outside will be enough.

 

Here are a few random snappies from around Tel Aviv and Jaffa.  Tel Aviv and Jaffa are not exactly a photographers dream, especially after Istanbul.  But hey, here’s Jaffa

 

 

And Tel Aviv…

Lazy days

Hmmm… So, I’ve been giving this vlogging thing a go.  I’m not entirely convinced though. Seeing myself in video is way too confronting!  It’s like, “Do I really look and sound THAT bad and no-one has ever told me??”  Anyway, I’ll ignore the voices in my head for now and post it anyway…

 

And by the way, here are those purple beauties in colour:

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And some of the photos from the gallery:

 

One night in Incheon

This is only my second time flying on Asiana Airlines and second time passing through Incheon. The first time was 14 years earlier in 2004 and proved to be so traumatizing that I vowed never to return to the Korean peninsula ever again.

 
Let me first take you back to 2004 when a couple of young, happy-go-lucky chappies landed in Seoul on a stopover from Tokyo to Sydney. I was living in Tokyo at the time and flying back home for a holiday with my friend Shinya. My choice of flying Asiana back then, like today, was purely financial: It was the cheapest airline flying that route. Nevertheless, I decided to embrace this opportunity to stopover in Seoul and have my first experience of Korean culture. I booked a hotel in Myeongdong online. Everything was set and so off we went.

 
After a short flight to Incheon and then a bus ride into the city, we arrived at our hotel in Myeongdong, the so-called “Shibuya” of Seoul. No doubt a lot has changed in 14 years, but back then, clearly the person who drew the Shibuya comparison was using strong hallucinogenic drugs. Like the rest of Seoul, it didn’t have immediate aesthetic appeal. Unphased by our grim surroundings however, we proceeded to check in to the hotel, only to be greeted by the three hotel receptionists from hell, who had obviously misunderstood “hospitality” industry for “hostility” industry. They were clearly not as enthused by our presence in their hotel as we were about our holiday and embarked on a thirty minute passive aggressive dialogue (emphasis on the word “aggressive”) about why we wouldn’t be happy in their hotel. They obviously did not want us there, but didn’t have the courage to straight out say it. Although we did manage to stay at their hotel in the end, the damage had been done and I was scarred for life. As far as I was concerned, all Koreans were horrible. The final nail was hammered in the coffin of Korean hope when some years later I was working for a Korean employer who managed to cheat me and all the other staff while playing the victim himself.
Fast forward to 2018: I’m flying Sydney to Istanbul on Asiana Airlines with a one night stopover at the Best Western Premier Hotel Incheon Airport. A lot was riding on this: this was to be a return to the past and an undoing of the past. It was up to the Best Western Incheon to right the wrongs of their Myeondong predecessors.

 
The flight on Asiana Airlines was fine and we arrived at Incheon at about 8 pm after a ten hour flight. Five minutes in a shuttle bus later, I arrived at my hotel, the Best Western Premier Incheon. Much to my surprise (and relief) I was greeted at reception by extremely friendly, smiling and welcoming hotel staff who this time had clearly received the memo about “hospitality not hostility”. The room was comfortable, the shower was hot, the Wi-Fi was strong … and the staff were pleasant! Wow… winning!

 
After a good night’s rest, I got up, had breakfast, hopped back on the shuttle bus and arrived back at Incheon airport. I proceeded to the baggage drop-off area only to become alarmed by the realisation that I had left my suitcase on the bus. Despite all the yoga that I do, it didn’t count for a thing in this moment and I rapidly went into meltdown and turned into a hysterical screaming maniac. I ran out to the street but couldn’t see my beautiful purple case anywhere. I jumped in the first taxi and went straight back to the hotel. I raced into reception and in blurted out, “I left my case on the bus and now it’s gone… I can’t find it anywhere!!! Help me!!” Sensing my panic and desperation, the two hotel receptionists mobilized into action like two superheroes, Batman and Robin. Robin got straight onto his mobile phone and started calling all the shuttle bus drivers while Batman whisked me out the back to the Batmobile and we zoomed back to the airport. We located the shuttle bus in question but shockingly, there was purple bag in the luggage hold. Back into the Batmobile and after a sweaty 15 minute loop around Incheon, we managed to locate the purple beauty on the side of the road. Thank God it was Korea because in Europe or the Americas, an unattended bag outside an airport would have brought in the federal police and the bomb squad. Thankfully though, the Koreans weren’t concerned. Suitcase in hand, I expressed my gratitude to Batman and I was ready for the next leg of the journey: Non-stop to Istanbul!

Dusting off the blog again

Good morning São Paulo!!
The view from my room…

And here I go again, off on another adventure!!!!

So far everything has gone very smoothly… It was my first time flying on LATAM and first time flying on a Dreamliner. Somehow every time I think of Dreamliner, I get that Mariah Carey song “Dream Lover” stuck in my head. But other than that, it’s been a smooth ride and a surprisingly nice experience starting from check-in through to arrival. I did think for a moment though at the check-in counter in Sydney that there needs to be a mandatory IQ test or some kind of travel quiz for anyone buying a ticket on a plane and one of the questions needs to be:

Which of these is NOT an acceptable form of container for your checked luggage?

A. Hard suitcase

B. Soft suitcase

C. Duffel Bag

D. GLAD garbage bag.

Yes, that’s right…Abuelita rocked up to the counter and had decided that putting all her belongings in a garbage bag was a far better idea than putting them in a suitcase. It slowed things down considerably… If it was all Aussies, they would’ve just told her to “Get f***ed” and pushed her aside but since most of the passengers were Latinos, the other passengers at the other two check-in counters had to stop and help her repack her stuff.

My travel arrangements had all been moving along nicely in the weeks preceding my departure but then hit a couple of speed bumps just recently. The first speed bump was trying to book internal flights in Venezuela. At first glance it seemed that it would be the same as booking flights on any other airline. However, even though the various web pages are in different languages, they’re set up in such a way that they only accept Venezuelan credit cards, ID numbers and phone numbers. So now the challenge was trying to find someone to buy me a ticket.

I’m renting an apartment in Caracas from a lady named Liza Lopez and she put me on to her travel agent Francoise to help me book the ticket. Of course, Francoise just had to be French didn’t she. As well as being French, Francoise writes all her e-mails in capital letters. What sort of normal adult person does that? I mean, it’s like the net equivalent of shouting. Anyway, the short story is that she agreed to book me a return ticket from Caracas to Porlamar and asked me to transfer her US$28 to the company bank account. After I transferred the money at a cost of $30, she tells me she can’t accept US dollars after all and the bank is sending me the money back, again at another cost to me of $30. Now, could I please just pay her in person when I arrive in Caracas. Of course I not-so-delicately pointed out that it was her mistake and would not be paying her again since I had lost all the money. Eventually though I relented because I thought I may need her help again in the future. It seems though that the damage has already been done because when I asked her to book me another ticket she flat out said, “NO”!! She’s probably gone and cancelled the ticket to Porlamar just to spite me.

The second speed bump is the money situation. I’ve basically been banking on having a “black market” holiday for the five weeks in Venezuela. Hence my underpants are stuffed to the brim with greenbacks. Again, this part of the plan had been going OK until recently. One US dollar on the black market was fetching a thousand Bolivars. The biggest banknote in circulation is only 100 bolivars. Even still, I wasn’t going to let that be a deterrent. I’d just be like a “trummerfrau” I thought, risen from the ashes of the Weimar Republic, wheeling my barrow of cash round the streets of Caracas. Then suddenly about two weeks ago the bottom fell out of the Bolivar and is currently at 2400 to the dollar. Because the country has run out of cash, the government has placed a cap on cash withdrawals and the daily limit is now 10 000 bolivars. This basically means, I’m screwed.

There is always the government and the “official” exchange rate, but that will easily quadruple my travel costs. So now, I’ve been fishing around madly looking for options. I have one contact who works in customs at the Simon Bolivar airport and whose name is Libya Gomez… I wonder what inspired her parents to name her “Libya”. Anyway, she claims to have enough banknotes to do the exchange in cash. Another guy I’ve tracked down by the name of “Charly” claims he can open up a Venezuelan bank account for me and do the exchange via transfer and I’ll be able to pay for everything by card (no need to channel my inner trummerfrau and get a wheelbarrow). Another two people have offered to lend me their bank accounts and IDs for the time I’m in Venezuela. Apparently not having a picture that looks like you on your ID in Venezuela would only be a very minor problem. Hmmmmm… I know what you’re all thinking!

Anyway, I’ll cross all of those bridges next week when I come to them. Hopefully everything will work out fine. And now off to explore São Paulo… I’m still determined to Bikram tonight! Fingers crossed!

From Guadalajara to Puebla

Today I headed south-east from Guadalajara to Puebla, Mexico’s fourth largest city. The journey involved taxi, plane, bus then taxi again. It all went pretty smoothly without any major disasters although it took way longer than I expected. I left for the airport at about 10 a.m…. Miguel called me a “special” taxi. He promised me that this “special” taxi would get me to the airport at half the price… Afterall, who doesn’t like a bargain? So I said, “Bring it on!” It was an unlicensed cab and indeed it did get me to the airport at half the price … and at twice the speed! He drove like a Formula 1 race car driver and had all the windows open so the wind chill factor in the back seat was about minus 50. I didn’t know how to politely say in Spanish, “Can you wind the freakin’ windows up, please?” so I just had to suffer in silence.

I checked in to the flight. I was told boarding would start at 11.25 a.m. for a 11.55 a.m. departure at Gate 16. I didn’t even think to check the departures board, but I did think it was weird that while I was waiting at the gate there was no aeroplane and very few other people waiting. Finally I checked the board and it turns out they had changed the gate to 28 and not informed me! But at least these days, no plane would ever leave with an unaccompanied checked bag so I figured I was safe. I bolted to Gate 28 but the flight had been delayed for about 90 minutes anyway so no worries there.

The flight on Interjet was really good. It was less than an hour’s flight but the rum Jack Daniels was flowing freely! And finally we touched down in Mexico City.

  
It seemed so frantic after spending the week in laid back Guadalajara!  

I headed straight for the Bus Terminal at the airport and got myself one of the last seats on a bus bound for Puebla, leaving in about 10 minutes. My seat was wedged between the WC and a 5 year old girl. Fortunately though, Mexican 5 year olds are much better behaved than Australian 5 year olds! The security was good… Everything X-rayed… 

  
A security guard even came on board and took an individual face photograph of everyone, presumably to make identifying the bodies easier should the bus get torched en route to Puebla. The bus trip to Puebla is supposed to take about 2 hours but most of the motorway looked like this…

  
So the trip ended up taking well over three hours. At about 7 p.m. we reached the Estrella Roja bus terminal in Puebla and from there it was a short cab ride to my hotel in the Centro Historico.

  
My room at the Meson Sacristia de la Soledad is cool, complete with art works, flower arrangements, polished concrete floors… And tolietries in glass bottles!!   I wonder how that will end up???

   
   
And then finally it was time for some dinner: Chicken Enchiladas with Mole… The Mexican philosophy of food seems to be similar to that of the Latvians:  Too much is never enough.

  
And now to bed. It was an exhausting day. The city from what I have seen though looks beautiful. I can’t wait to go exploring in the morning.