Monday, February 28, 2005

Paro to Thimphu

This morning we took a short "trek" to a monestery on a cliff. It is in a spectacular location, impossible to imagine how it was constructed over one thousand years ago. Unfortunately I learned as we were heading up to it, that it had been burned down in 1999. Suspicion is that some of the treasures there were robbed, and the fire was to cover it. An immense tragedy.

The monestery has been reconstructed, and it still looks amazing. The story is that the founder rode in on the back of a tigress, and seeing the building on the cliff, you can almost believe it. The views from the trail are spectacular, either looking up the cliff at the buildings, or down the mountain at the fields below.

I have been having some back trouble. Oddly the hardest thing today was the ride to the hike. Once I started walking, I was fine, but it was very difficult to get comfortable in the car first thing in the morning. It came on rather suddenly, and I hope it goes away suddenly too, but that seems unlikely.

The ride to Thimphu was about two hours, not good for my back. I did see a good bit of the countryside, the road runs mostly along the river, which cuts a relatively narrow channel and has only a few fields alongside it. There is a monument at the confluence of the Paro and Thimphu rivers, as well as a police checkpoint. It was a bit of a surprise to me, but we passed through it no problem. Thimphu looks much like Paro, but it seems to have more than one street. I was told it is the only world capital without a traffic light, and I have not yet seen one.

I am still enjoying the refreshingly cool weather. After the plane landed, I was walking around in the air, almost bathing in it. Much prefer this to the heat of India.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Where is everyone??

It is a very disorienting experience to fly from Calcutta to Paro (where the airport is in Bhutan). Especially on a Sunday. Going from a place where there are people everywhere -- begging from you, asking you into their shop, trying to talk you into a rickshaw, walking past with a load of steel or some plates of glass -- to a place where there seem to be no people.

Actually there are a few on the streets here in Paro, but there were literally none at one of the monuments we visited. They have many sort-of-flags here, tall strips of cloth, some colored, some white with writing on. They are all flapping in the wind, making a very lonely sound. I feel more homesick here than I have anywhere, because of that sound, the empty spaces, and the fact that with the pines and hills it looks a bit like Northern New Mexico, or Southern Colorado here. If not for the fog that is covering some of the higher peaks, the Bhutanese architecture, the small fields, and the cypress trees, it would be a ringer. To me the Cypress trees look out of place, but it turns out they are the national tree of Bhutan.

The flight on Druk (aka Royal Bhutan) was very nice. They have upgraded their fleet to A319s. The landing in Paro was a bit hair-raising though, as the plane has to course through some mountain valleys between rather high peaks to arrive there. I was a bit uncomfortable looking out the window at a mountain right alongside the plane.

I can't draw any generalizations about the food from one meal, but I will mention the red rice which was unusual. Not soft and fluffy, more like brown rice, but ... red.

Last night I had Uttapam at a S. Indian place near the New Market, it was quite good, as was the sweet Lassi. I did not know what an Uttapam was, and am still not sure how to describe it, it was perhaps a chapati with onions and other vegetables on top. Tasty.

I don't know if I have already raved about the breakfasts at the Lytton hotel. Unfortunately my flight was too early this morning for me to have one today, but they had delicious fresh Papaya both days I was there, and Idli then Varta to eat with the Sambar and Chutney (you see I am partial to South Indian food, and especially so for breakfast).

They also had some meat dishes, but of course I did not eat those.

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Meeting people

I am sometimes asked if it is not lonely traveling by myself, and I usually reply that it is not so bad, as I often meet people on the road. Over the past couple of days that has happened a few times, and I thought I would share a few. On Thursday, after taxiing in from the airport (formerly known as Dum Dum on account of its having been built over a munitions factory) to the Lytton (pleasant enough place, and the Fairlawn was booked) I went back to the British High Commissioners club.

The BHC is akin to a consulate, I think, and every Thursday they have a club there, dating back to the days when Calcutta did not permit the sale of alcohol on Thursdays. I had been there the week before, at the suggestion of a fellow guest at the Fairlawn. I did not recognize anyone (no surprise really) but fell into conversation with a group of Medical students, some Finnish, an Australian, and some local. They went from the club to another place, called Shi Sha. It was very plush, would not have been out of place in SF or NYC. Except that folks were smoking ...

The A/C did a good job of clearing the air. Hookahs are available there, and while I will not say whether I did or did not inhale, I will confess to having developed a profound dislike for apple flavored smoke. We were drinking Fosters which was not as unpleasant as I remembered.

Yesterday I was sitting in the same internet cafe I am now in, and started talking to the British fellow next to me, who was doing some camera shopping. He does volunteer work, and we talked a bit about that, and then I mentioned that I wanted to see the Synagogues here, as I had heard that they were very beautiful.

Nothing is simple here, but Austin knew what was required. He took me to David Nahum's place in the new market. It is a Jewish Bakery. I spoke to Mr Nahum, and got a slip of paper recommending me to the caretaker of the synagogue on one side, with a hand drawn map on the other. With that in hand, we set off. I tried to insist that I could find my own way, but Austin was not afraid of being late for his yoga class, and saw me most of the way there. It was interesting to see him verifying the directions, and getting different (though as I later realized compatible and probably correct) directions from people.

In any case I shortly found myself walking along the shop-laden Ezra street, and figured I must be close, which indeed I was. At the entrance to the synagogue, I found a couple just walking in. She was Canadian/American, he British. It turns out they were just married, and were also on a bit of a tour of Jewish Calcutta. It was fortunate for them I had turned up at that moment, as the slip of paper was actually quite important.

We were admitted into the synagogue, where my ball cap served as a Kippah. Took some photos, then walked to another synagogue, nearby.

There was some fuss there as the paper had been taken at the first place, and when sent for was found not to mention Beth El, only Magen David (which in truth is the prettier of the two). Somehow we were allowed to sign another slip, and admitted there as well.

Martin and Esther were very pleasant, and invited me to tea at the Oberoi Grand. I accepted not just because I was enjoying speaking with them, but because it is the finest hotel in Calcutta, and I wanted to see it.

It is really an oasis of calm in quiet in a very chaotic city. We had "high tea" I think, tea and sandwiches. It was wonderful. It turned out that both of them are authors, and Martin has a website where you can read about and buy his books, including a biography of Winston Churchill. I showed him this blog, and he was kind enough to compliment my photographs.

After taking my leave I went back to the Lytton to rest a bit, then wandered about the street looking for something to eat. I ended up not bothering with an actual restaurant, dining instead on the offerings of various street vendors including roasted corn (4 rupees) and egg roll (really a wrap -- 7 rupees) a veg roll (6 rupees) a small bag of pakora (I think, 5 rupees) and a fresh fruit drink, a mix of sweet lime and orange (about 10 rupees).

Something like 30 to 40 rupees in all, or about 80 cents. Not a bad deal really, as it was all quite tasty. One just has to learn to ignore the site of a bare hand being plunged into the bowl of veg stuffing that made its way into the "roll".

Today I rested a bit, and went to the Victoria museum, which has an amazing exhibit on the history of Calcutta, as well as some arms.

Writing about dinner has piqued my appetite (which is often not strong in this heat) so I will go and get something to eat now.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Girl in a chair

girlchair, originally uploaded by efroymson.

This little girl was at the wedding on Friday. I thought this pose looked cute, although makeup on small children always creeps me out just a bit (shades of that murdered child in Colorado whose name (like so many things in this weather) I cannot recall).

I have many many more pictures. I printed some out at a shop here yesterday, and was very pleased. I took a few pictures in "High" resolution mode, but I think there is little point, as the inevitable blurring from shooting handheld was becoming visible. At least I don't think it was out-of-focus blurring I was seeing, as the depth of field should have covered it.

Anyway, the camera is a lot of fun. Have I mentioned how many people ask to have their pictures taken?

I also brought along an MD recorder, but I will wait until my return to create some MP3s and put them somewhere. I recorded some bird song in the country side, a concert Mahbub arranged, and a concert at the Goethe Institut, but that one did not come out well, as I was trying to hide the mics, and it sounds like it was recorded in a bathtub.

a bit more

Did I mention that the reason for the power cuts is that there is not enough natural gas for the power plants? Apparently there are some large gas fields in the country, but they are running out. I should count my blessings though, as the paper this morning mentioned that Chittagong, the port city, has only 60% of the required power, and thus at any time 40% of that city is dark and fanless due to "load shedding".

Another delightful detail from a few days back was that one of the largest stations was offline for "routine maintenance". It was unclear that any steps had been taken to accomodate the gap that would thereby be created.

The paper this morning also mentioned that some Islamic Militants had been rounded up. There have been some bombings, though nothing like other parts of the world. One can tell this is an Islamic country from the absence of cows on the streets (they eat them here, and do not worship them) the head coverings on some men, the abayas a few of the women wear, and the many mosques, but the sense I one gets is that there are few fanatics here. Many women wear saris that are indistinguishable from their cousins in India, and while alcohol is not sold, it is consumed (if you visit, bring some Johnny Walker, it seems popular).

There was one moment of nervousness for me. We were walking down a street here in Dhanmondi and I heard the man behind us singing. For some reason the thought entered my head "this is a Muslim country, I don't understand Bengali, perhaps he is singing 'kill the Jews, kill the Jews, if only we could find some we would kill the Jews'". Of course I was pretty sure that was not what he was singing, and Devin immediately remembered an episode of Futureama that was on point: the robots are singing in binary, and it turns out that the song is "kill the humans". Devin is always there with the pop culture reference. We probably would have discussed the relative of obscurity of Futureama, but we started talking about something else.

I am back to Calcutta this evening, for a few more days, and then to Bhutan.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Dhaka traffic

Yesterday I went to the Parliament building. It is by Louis Kahn, and is a very nice building. It was too hot out to enjoy it. I am told that it is usually not too hot at this time of year, but that summer has arrived early.

On the way over we noticed some students marching with a banner that had a picture on it. It seems they were upset about the death of a fellow student. We rode past them on the rickshaw (cycle driven) and had no problem.

On the way back, they were a problem. We were in a CNG rickshaw (aka baby-taxi, auto-rickshaw, tuk-tuk in different countries). The driver became agitated by the inability to move, which is unusual here. Mostly drivers will honk, and try to get any advantage they can in the slow moving mess, but they don't seem to become upset. This jam was so bad though that a car being pushed by two guys was able to keep up with traffic. Our driver was yelling at the driver of a cycle rickshaw, who then got off his seat and walked up to our vehicle. The CNGs here have a sort of cage, apparently to protect the driver from his passengers, so our driver was pretty safe I suppose. In any case I was waving my arm palm down, hoping that what I think of as "calm down" was not a rude gesture to a Bengali.

Eventually we arrived back at the office in time for lunch, and I neither threw up nor passed out, however much I felt like I was about to. The heat was one thing, the exhaust from the cars and buses right next to us was another. One travels for "experiences" and that was for sure one, albeit a rather unpleasant one.

Last night Mahbub took me to a performance of an Ionesco play. I suppose the only thing more absurd than absurdist drama is seeing it in a language you don't speak. This play dealt with a young woman who wants a doctorate in three months, and the professor who tries to teach her arithmetic, and the philology of neo-spanish (there was a precis available in English). I was able to understand a small percentage of it, including the part where he tries to teach subtraction by asking how many ears she would have if he pulled off one of them.

On the way back we took a rickshaw until the traffic halted, then walked a bit and took another until we had to get off because rickshaws were banned from the rest of the street. The second rickshaw was driven by an older gentleman, who at one point received an assist from a bus passenger who seemed to be under the impression that if only he gave us a push, the Bus would be able to make better progress. It seemed an unlikely hypothesis to me, as we were far from the only rickshaw on the street, but it did give a momentary thrill to suddenly accelerate from the rather leisurely pace that is the norm for the cycle rickshaw.

Perhaps a few more words on them is in order. They are three wheeled vehicles, with the front for steering (just like a bicycle) and the rear two are driven by a chain. There is no gearing, so sometimes at starting, or on a bit of a rise (Dhaka is very flat, so this mostly seems to be at bridges) the driver will dismount, and push the cycle forward. Other drivers will back pedal a bit at the bottom of every stroke, so they can get more leverage, and avoid the point when the pedals are vertical.

One sees all manner of goods being transported manually. Last night there was a cart with bamboo poles that may have been thirty feet long. Just like the Fireman's system for ladder trucks, where there are drivers at both ends, there were some fellows by the cart pushing it, and some at the far end of poles, way in front, pulling and steering. And yelling at each other, the other drivers and so on. Rather an amazing spectacle.

The museum here is not too great, but it has a mix of things you don't see in western museums. Stuffed animals, birds, rockes, minerals, paintings, dioramas, tools, historical documents and so on. There was even a poster for the movie made of the 1971 concert for Bangla Desh, which was produced by Phil Spector. I don't recall it. There was plenty of mention of the rebels during the "War of Independence" but no mention (none I could see) of the Indian Army, which defeated the occupying Pakistanis in what they call the 1971 India-Pakistan war.

Bangladesh has a bit of an identity crisis, in that it was originally formed as part of Pakistan, in other words as part of the nation for Indians who are Muslim. Within just a few years there was trouble though, as the Pakistanis wanted Urdu to be the national language. In a way that is perfectly natural, as Urdu is the most common tongue of the Muslims in the sub-continent, and it is related to Arabic, and so on. The Bengalis were of a different opinion however, and many of them protested this plan. Some were martyred and that is why they have a "language day".

At this point one has to ask, if India is a multi-religious, multi-linguistic nation, including both Bengali speakers and Muslims, than why shouldn't Bangladesh be a part of it (East Bengal, in particular). Obviously there is history, and national pride, and the fact that India doesn't really need another 140 million mostly poor people living on land so poor that rocks are not even available.

Reading the newspapers here is a very interesting experience. I had always assumed that corrupt governments went hand-in-hand with an unfree press, but that does not seem to be the case here. The press reports relatively freely on the depredations and incompetence of the government (there was a ferry sinking here in the storm a few days back, the ferry was apparently aged and unseaworthy, but was fully certified by the government) and also on the evils of the previous government, now in opposition (they had handed out gun permits to god-fathers and criminals and party hacks). The most embarrassing news for this country was the story about the donor conference in Washington DC, to which the Bangladeshis were not even invited.

In case of power cut, I will post this now.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Eating Bangladesh

I have been here a few days, and have not been too good about blogging. The internet connectivity here is rather poor, which makes it frustrating at times. Since everyone is very interested in the food, I will talk a little about that.

Two days ago we went running around to the Chinese embassy to get my visa (which I had neglected to do in the States). I am not sure how exciting it was to see the lines of Bangladeshis applying for visas, and I know it was not fun to wait in the line as the A/C was not working, but Mahbub was very good to me, and even let me sit in the car with the air on reading Boswell's Life of Johnson while he waited in the pick-up line.

It was Ashura, and I had hoped to see some of the Shi'a flagelating themselves (I saw a tv program that claimed that the Penitentes in Spain (and thus the ones in New Mexico) acquired their custom from observing the Shi'a during the time that Spain was under Muslim rule) but we missed the start of the parade. It was fine though, we walked around old Dhaka, where there are now lots of Machine Shops, which I photographed.

There was also a traditional chutney vendor, who had several different kinds in plastic tubs that he served up on scraps of paper. As a white person I was quite the attraction once I started eating them. Some were very delicious, others I decided one taste was enough. There was such a crowd of people gathered around watching me eat, that the vendor did not even charge for the chutneys. Perhaps he made a bundle by selling "what the white guy had".

That night we went again to "Bistro" and had more fish and the excellent garlic nan and dal. There was another wedding party after, but I could have none of the food. I did try the milk drink they were serving, the one I have called "milk pickle" in the past, and again I did not like it. Milk and Pickle are two great tastes that do not taste great together. The party was very similar to the one of a few days before, except that the light was not as good, so I took fewer pictures. Did manage to find a few people who spoke English, and some who were trying hard even though they did not speak much.

Mahbub (my brother-in-law) took me to his ancestral village yesterday. It is near Comilla, and we stopped at the big restaurant there for lunch. We had rice, some curried pomfret that was really good, not extremely hot, but very tasty, some vegetable curry, and dal. We went to his farm and had some coconut water while soaking our feet in buckets of water. That was very pleasant. Apparently coconut water is a sort of natural rehydrating solution, and thus comes in very handy.

The power just went out, and came back, so I will post this now, to make sure it gets out.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Unhappy Couple

Unhappy Couple, originally uploaded by efroymson.

After all the difficulties with getting a visa for Bangladesh, I am now in Dhaka. Arrived yesterday, in time for the wedding ceremony. There was no drinking or dancing, but there was food and an opportunity to view the couple, first individually then together.

Traditionally Bangladeshi brides are to look unhappy at their wedding, since they are leaving home. This bride had an additional reason to look unhappy, as her father had passed away after a long illness just two days before.

There was a lot of meat, both chicken and beef, of which I did not partake. (I had a very large lunch after arriving here which was delicious, including fish tikka with chili, vegetable curry, and a very fine dal. Eaten with garlic Nans that were also delicious, and washed down with a lot of water, as I am beginning to become more wary of dehydration). The chicken legs looked like they had come from some very thin birds, but they were covered in a red sauce with all kinds of spices in.

Some other impressions: terrifying the children by hoisting them in the air and flipping them over my shoulder. Two of them actually sat down and put their hands on their chests as if they were having palpitations. Perhaps Bengali parents are not as physical with their children as some of us?

Wedding as fashion show. The bride is dressed beautifully, but there were plenty of other sari and jewel bedecked women and girls. The jewelry apparently inspired the presence of a sub-machine gun toting commissioner, who successfully deterred any dacoity.

Warm and humid, at one point it occured to me to go outside to escape the heat generated by the crowd of guests, only to find that the hall had A/C and it was warmer outside.

Having been told that Lunch is Ready, I will close here.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

"Other than India"

I got my visa to Bangladesh today. It was rather painful. I think the heat here, unseasonably warm for February, is affecting my memory, because I got into a cab for the Consulate without my passport. We were almost there, when I asked to be taken back. I found where I was meant to go, Counter 4, the "Other than India" counter. Of course being from the US, I qualify.

There was a crowd even there, and a delay in just getting the form I needed to fill out. Then I was told that I also needed a photocopy of the Indian Visa in my passport, which was annoying but easily remedied at the "Xerox" shop down the street.

I could not fill out the entire form, as I did not know what type of Visa I needed, and for some reason I did not notice the signature line at the bottom. When I went back up to the window, the woman behind it told me I needed a "Single" visa (as in single entry), and showed me where I needed to sign. I had a pen in my jeans pocket, as my t-shirt was pocketless. The woman next to me kindly offered me her pen, and I took it.

Somehow she offered it with the tip up, and it must have been a relatively fine ball-point, as when I reflexively "clicked" it to open it it up, it drove into my thumb. There was not a lot of blood, though some of it got on my Visa application form, which was interesting ... I have never signed anything with blood before. Unfortunately some rather distressing thoughts about germs began circulating through my head. I chased them off by recalling that all of my vacinations are up to date, and it was a relatively clean pen, and so on.

I began to think I was doing a pretty good job of just relaxing and waiting at the window, as I had been asked to do. As the woman sat at her desk behind the window preparing the receipt for my passport and 5000 rupees (about $120, not a cheap visa) I apparently began relaxing too well, as the next thing I recall is lying on the floor surrounded by worried Indians, at least one of whom was splashing my face with water. I was actually a bit disappointed to come to, as the Bangladeshi High Consulate was a rather less pleasant place to be than the one I had just been visiting.

Anyway. It was suggested that I wait there, and my visa would be ready within an hour, which was a better deal than coming back at 5:00. In any case I could not leave, since at 11:30 they close the windows, and lock the doors. Not that everyone has left when the doors are locked, there are some folks still in line, and we were all locked in together. I joked with some of the other folks there that we had been kidnapped. Actually the correct term is "unlawful imprisonment" I think. Probably also a violation of the fire code.

In any case today I also booked my flight to Dhaka for tomorrow, and visited the Museum here, which combines Natural history with archaeology and art and some other things I had no time to get to.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Kote Gaesh

Calcutta is perhaps the best place to walk around and take pictures I have ever been. It is almost disconcerting how many cool things there are to photograph. Many of the people in the street will actually ask to be photographed when they see you with a camera.

I suppose I should post one of my pictures to accompany this ... but the real point I wanted to make was a bit different. One of the not so great things about Calcutta, with which you are probably already familiar, is the great poverty. I have a rule, which is not such a great rule, and which I occasionally and for no reason will break, of not giving money to beggars. I find it demeaning on both parts, and since I give a sizeable sum to charity each year, I feel I am doing my part.

Some of the people begging are obviously not in real need. One young man pointing at his mouth and asking for Rupees had a fine physique, it looked like he was working regularly (I would say "working out" but that is not likely under the circumstances). Some of the folks begging could well be in need, the women with children, the man with one arm. Nonetheless I don't like to encourage the aggressive dependency they manifest.

I also don't like the habit that some young children have of begging for sport. It is undignified, and annoying. A group of urchins, I think three, all about eight years old (if I have to guess) surrounded me and began demanding Rupees. I said "no, no" and tried to gently push my way through them. At that point I noticed that one of them, more enterprising than the others, had put his hand down my front trouser pocket, where I keep my wallet. Before I was annoyed, that angered me. I pulled his hand out, and without really thinking about it used my thumb to bend his hand into a sort of Kote Gaesh, pressing his palm forward (Aikido devotees please spare me if I am inaccurate or incorrect). He began hollering something that sounded to me (with my ears attuned to Hebrew from my stay in Israel) like "Abba, abba" (father, father in Hebrew). I was twisting hard enough to make an impression, but I had no desire to break his joints, if only because he was just a child.

I guess my goal was achieved, because the kids backed away after I did that, and it seems that they began to mock him for crying out.

Walking away I was troubled. Was that the right thing to do? After all, he was just a kid. But a kid, even a poor one on the streets of Calcutta, has no right to put his hand in my pocket, no matter I am an American with a nice camera, and plenty of Rupees in my wallet. Was it wrong of me to take advantage of my size, and strength, and then add to that a martial arts technique? Perhaps I should not make too much of it, because any adult can twist a child's wrist, but it added to the sense of imbalance in the encounter. An extreme example of something that is most always with me in India.

What do you think?

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Hare Krishnas in Bombay

Ate dinner at a "Govinda's" set up in a field where they are having a big ISKCON conference. I was curious to see how it plays here, given that Krishna is a major deity for the Hindus. Oddly there was an American speaking in English when I showed up. He talked for quite a while, in fact I had listened, taken some pictures, gone to Govinda's, and almost finished my Thali when he stopped.

One story he told was interesting. It concerned a man who had a desire for women that was so strong, it interfered with his desire for Krishna. So one day, upon seeing a beautiful woman, he followed her home. Knocking on the door, he was invited in by the woman's husband, who took him for a wandering pilgrim, or mendicant. After feeding the visitor the husband asked if there was anything else he could do. The visitor asked to see the man's wife. She came out, with hairpins in her hair, and pressed her hands together and asked how she could serve. The man asked for two of her hairpins, and then plunged them into his eyes.

The people at the house were obviously horrified, but Krishna eventually appeared to the now blind man, and escorted him to his destination, a place whose name I have forgotten, but is apparently the beautiful domain of Krishna himself.

Later I was talking to a woman who was interviewing a man who looked to me like a Sadhu. I was curious about the MD recorder she was using, I wanted to know if it was one of the new Hi-MD recorders. I don't think it was. Anyway, they invited me to sit and talk, and I did.

When I asked about that story, I mentioned that I had looked around, and did not see any people with their eyes out, so I guessed either it was not a model, or was a level that they had not yet reached. The Sadhu appreciated the joke, and slapped me on the back. You perhaps will not find it so funny.

If anyone is wondering about the two previous posts, it is just my effort to get Glenn Reynolds to notice this blog. Why I want that, I don't know, other than that everyone likes a little attention.

How instapundit really works

sign, originally uploaded by efroymson.

See the small print on the sign. He is obviously outsourcing to Bombay.

VietPundit: So-called "InstaPundit"

VietPundit" has a good point. I think I have discovered the secret. See next post.


shield, originally uploaded by efroymson.

I visited the museum formerly known as the Prince of Wales museum (now like half the things in Bombay it is named after Shivaji) today. I took a few photos, until I was told not too. It was a little unclear where it was allowed, and where not.

Anyway, this is one of my favorites. The entire zodiac is on this one, but I took this section because of the Mogen David on it. Very cool.

There were also some magnificent miniatures, jades, stuffed animals (including a huge sawfish, and some very impressive tigers), snuff bottles, more weapons, etc.

Worth the visit I think.

Tomorrow very early I fly to Calcutta, I am not looking forward to waking up for that. Actually it will be lucky if I get any sleep at all, as the Hotel Supreme seems to specialize in Nocturnal Noise. There is a phone in the hall that rings occasionally, and intermittent scraping and rattling sounds. My room is equipped with an air-con unit, but no window (there is one in the attached bath) so the street noise is kept well down.

Last night I had beer and Papadoms for dinner, as I was hosting an alcoholic retired law professor. He had a severe limp from an accident, but he could drink beer rather well. Once again I regretted breaking my rule of not getting involved in conversations with anyone here ...

I am planning on checking out the Hare Krishna festival, and getting something a bit more substantial for dinner.

Monday, February 14, 2005

Brief explanatory note

I am not an expert in Israeli marriage, but I think it must be sanctioned by a religious authority, there is no civil marriage there. The Muslims can get married in a mosque, the Jews in a synagogue, the Christians in a Church. The problem comes if you don't have a religion, or you don't want a religious marriage.

I post this due to some questions I have had.

In Bombay now, about to go for some lunch.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

At airport

About to fly to Bombay from Tel Aviv. It has been a great trip so far. I went to the Ramon Crater today, which is a spectacular sight. There is an explanatory film that describes how the sandstone was covered with a layer of limestone, there was an uplift, and then there was a great deal of erosion, which accelerated after the limestone layer was gone.

The result is called a "crater" in English, but is really just a very wide canyon. It is very beautiful, and looks like something from another part of the world. There are even volcanoes in it, that look like black mounds, some with red coloring around them.

I have some pictures of it, but I have not uploaded them yet.

For those who are interested in such things I will mention that I am using Flickr (flickr.com) to host the pictures. They make it very easy to integrate them into a blog such as this one. In fact, it is as easy to blog a photo, as to type an entry such as this one.

The camera I am using is an Epson RD-1, which is a wonderful gadget. It is as much like using a film camera as a digital could be. In fact I generally do not use the lcd display at all, as all the important controls are accessible by dials, and the important info is always visible on a set of needles. The only reason to avoid the camera is that you may find yourself in a state of idolatry with respect to it. I really like that it does not have a bunch of weird modes that try to do your thinking for you. Instead it lets you take the picture. The magic part is that when you change the ISO you are not just accomodating a new roll of film, but changing the way it acts, so it is useful in broad daylight, and around a campfire. Of course I have relatively fast lenses (f2) so that helps as well.

While I am rambling on and waiting for my plane, I may as well mention that the train ride from Be'er Sheva to the airport was easy and inexpensive. I have never heard anyone talk about the trains in Israel, but they are very convenient. Service to Jerusalem should be starting soon, and that may cause an increase in attention.

Last night Martin and Inbar took me to the Be'er Sheva Sinfonietta. It was a good concert, given the limitations of a Sinfonietta. I had never heard one before, it is a sort of reduced orchestra. There was a young woman named Kinneret who was the violin soloist for the first few pieces. Oddly enough she was the third woman with that uncommon name I ran into this trip.

There was also a soprano who sang some Tchaikovsky, and other things. I think the Russian was a sop to the large number of Russians who live in Be'er Sheva. Unfortunately not so many of them come to the concerts, the hall was not full, and it was very very small. The Beethovens 4th symphony that finished the concert was lovely in parts, although it really suffered from the diminished string section.


Ein Yorqe'am Feb. 2005 049, originally uploaded by efroymson.

I was walking backwards, focussing, and trying to correctly compensate for the backlighting on the camel. I was not paying so much attention to the camel itself, which seemed likely to want to eat the camera if it got close. Maybe it was just curious.

We felt bad for the camels when we noticed that their Bedouin herder had hobbled them, by tying a short length of rope to each of their front feet. Some of them had rubbed their ankles raw, and they all had a trouble negotiating the rocky ground.

I suppose there is no other way to keep them from running off.

Looking for my lens cap

Ein Yorqe'am Feb. 2005 028, originally uploaded by efroymson.

I was taking a picture from a bluff above this when I somehow dropped my lens cap. I should have given it up for lost when I heard the "splash" but I decided to give it the old college try. I walked through the water you see here, but when I got to the place the cap was, it was obviously hopeless. Not only did I not remember which of the three visible chutes it had fallen down, but the water was impossibly murky, and the cap did not float.

Martin offered to come back in the summer, when it is dry here, but Inbar mentioned that there will likely be more flash floods, and the cap will be washed into the Dead Sea. Where it will be difficult to find.

It is no great loss really, as it no longer fit well after I put a UV filter on the lens. Now to find a cap that fits the 39mm Hoya well ...

"Cowboy Field"

Ein Yorqe'am Feb. 2005 003, originally uploaded by efroymson.

The Kibbutz near here is called Sde Boqer which translates as "Cowboy Field". (For those of you with Hebrew comparable to mine, you may be wondering why that is not "morning field", and it is because Bo'ker is not Bo-ker' ...) From this picture you can see why. The Bible mentions the wilderness of Zin, but you wouldn't know that they were talking about something that looks like the deserts of New Mexico or Arizona. It was literally staggering when I first looked out at this.

Of course a lot of this trip has been surprising. For example, it is difficult to reconcile the luscious green fields of the Northern Negev with the word "desert". It is one thing to read about the Israeli pioneers "making the desert bloom" and another to look out at it from the window of your car.

Obviously this section of desert has not been made to bloom, nor is that likely.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Fire is pretty

The mission was advertised as a "volunteer" or "hands-on" mission, and one of the hands-on, volunteer opportunities was to put on cloth gloves, and drag branches into big piles where they could be burned. It was not very pleasant working with the thorn bushes, as they easily penetrated the gloves, our hands, and even the rubber soles of our sneakers.

The Eucalyptus grove was much more pleasant, as the leaves have a good smell, and there are no thorns. At one point I was dragging two huge branches behind me and felt rather like an Ent.

There was a chance to stop and take some pictures too. I tried to ensure a fast enough shutter speed that the flames would be frozen, I hope you like it.

"Brackish Water"

We were told that the reason these cherry tomatoes (the most common sort found in Israel, it seems) taste so sweet is that they are given salty water. There is a huge amount of water under the Negev, and there are desalination plants to process it for human uses, but finding plants that can tolerate the salt is still a good idea.

(This is from the earlier part of the trip, near Nitzana)

Volunteer Unicyclist

This boy is about 13 years old, and is part of a volunteer group that entertains in hospitals and what-not. He was from Holon, but we met him at a dinner in Jerusalem that was meant to recognize a variety of local volunteer organizations.

Old City Shuk, meat market, Jerusalem

Wow. As a "mostly vegetarian" I suppose I should not enjoy photographing meat markets this much, but I am fascinated by them. I took several pictures in the Shuk in Jerusalem, before the butcher chased me off.

The shuk is in the Arab quarter, and is just steps from the Cardo, which is I believe the oldest shopping street in the world. The history of Jerusalem is best treated in more space than would be appropriate for a photo caption, but there was a time when it was part of the Byzantine empire. Apparently Byzantine markets were meant to have wide streets, with columns running down the sides.

The Cardo was discovered during excavations of the Jewish quarter, and has been turned back into shops, mostly selling Judaica and touristy things. Stepping from it into the Shuk is like walking from a suburban mall into the middle ages.

While the Shuk is certainly representative of a different cultural tradition than that manifested in the Western reaches of Jerusalem, I don't think it is correct to say that it is part of a different city (so-called "East Jerusalem"). Rather than stray further from history into politics, I will stop here.


EPSN0431, originally uploaded by efroymson.

This woman did not want me taking pictures of her wares, but I did not understand what she was saying until I had snapped this one. Not sure my wide aperture idea was quite right, but I like it anyway.

The watches did not seem to be 100% Kosher on close inspection. Some of them were labelled:

Baverly Polo

Bedouin Shuk in Be'er Sheva

EPSN0445, originally uploaded by efroymson.

The most amazing olives anywhere, and at a very reasonable price. After spending the night at the Moshav where Inbar grew up (her Father is from Iraq, and a grape grower) we came to Be'er Sheva. The Shuk is mostly like a flea market, but had some finds, including this fellow.

Really tasty black olives with hot peppers, and some amazing purple olives (that I did not really like) and green ones that were as good as I have had. All for very reasonable prices.


EPSN0408, originally uploaded by efroymson.

The wedding took place at the Gesher Theater, just prior to a performance of a play based on "The Marriage of Figaro". The play was in Hebrew, with Hebrew and Russian supertitles, so I couldn't understand it, and left to get a sort of latke in a pita after the intermission, but the Israelis seemed to enjoy it.

This fellow played a Countess who discovers that Figaro is her son after he moons her, if I understood what I saw at all.

I was backstage, because I had to put my bags somewhere while going out to eat. Since Martin came with, he suggested we use his dressing room.


EPSN0346, originally uploaded by efroymson.

Another guest, from Bukhara in Uzbekistan.

Russian Guest

EPSN0338, originally uploaded by efroymson.

This woman was one of the Russians at the wedding. I caught her at an (in?)opportune moment.

TV Personality

EPSN0359, originally uploaded by efroymson.

This woman works for one of the Israeli Tv Networks, and interviewed Martin and Inbar. I did not know that when I took her picture though.

Under the Chuppah

EPSN0385, originally uploaded by efroymson.

Another one from the wedding, this one you can see a fellow who looks like a Musketeer, that is Inbar's brother.

Perhaps I should mention that this wedding was in part a political act, as marriage in Israel is problematic for the non-Orthodox. This wedding was intended to show that a meaningful Jewish marriage ceremony could be performed outside the regulations imposed by the Orthodox movement.

As a result there were a number of photographers, and even cameramen. The Russian television station here put on some footage from the wedding as well (many Russians in Israel are not Halachically Jewish and thus cannot marry here).

Inbar and Martin

Inbar and Martin, originally uploaded by efroymson.

I took some pictures at the wedding, this is a good one.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Good food

The food in Israel seems better than ever. Went to a Chinese restaurant (Mandarin by name) on Ben-Yehuda street our last night in Jerusalem. I was a bit concerned, because Israel does not strike me as a good place for Chinese food, but I was proved wrong. I had Ma Po tofu and it was about the best I have ever had. The vegetables were fresh, and not overcooked, the sauce was spicy but not overbearing (is it too obvious that I saw "Sideways"?). Anyway it was really good, and you should go.

Last night I visited my cousin here in Tel Aviv. They ordered in some Indian food, which also turned out to be very good. The papadams were perfect, the fish dish was lightly spiced but very tasty, and the eggplant and the spinach were also good.

Every hotel puts on a major spread for breakfast, including several kinds of fish, cheese, salads, breads, pastries, hot dishes including eggs, potatos, quiche, and yogurts, puddings, fresh fruit and so on. One of the guides was explaining that Israelis are often disappointed when they travel and are presented with "continental" breakfast. Things are a lot different from the days on a Kibbutz when the joke was "Q: What is the difference between breakfast and dinner? Ans: Which side of the room the sun is on."

The one exception to the excellent meals I have been eating was yesterday, when due to time limitations I had snacks for lunch, including sunflower seeds, hotel chocolates left over from the Citadel's "turn-down" service (Parve, and thus dark, and thus delicious), a fruit bar from the flight to London I had deposited in my backpack as "emergency rations" (like the powerbars in the trunk of my car at home) and from the snack bar at the Ayalon Institute some cone-shaped corn chips and a hazelnut filled chocolate bar. Fortunately I did not become ill, and I was actually hungry for dinner, which was a nice change from the fattened goose feeling I had had for a few days.

Now I am getting hungry again, and thinking about the little felafel shop I passed by on the way here ...

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Secret weapons factory

One of the coolest places in Israel. A secret factory outside Tel Aviv, used to manufacture 9mm ammunition for the Sten guns (primitive sub-machine guns) used by the Haganah in pre-state Israel. I had never heard of this place, but can heartily recommend it to any visitor.

I was reminded of the movie "The Great Escape" in that both detail a secret underground operation, with moving equipment to cover access points, snooping yet not 100% competent guards, and true heroism.

The Ayalon institute. Go.

Also visited the Palmach Museum, which was very moving. The Palmach was the striking force of the Haganah. In the War of Independence they suffered 25% losses, which is rather staggering. The museum is an interesting combination of Tableau Vivant, Cinema, and Narration. Training, operations, and a brief history of the War are all covered.

It ends with poem commemerating those who died.

I can't say any more, but you should go see it as soon as you can.

Monday, February 07, 2005

Condi and Me

Condi Rice was staying at the same Hotel in Jerusalem that I was. I did not really see her, though I did watch a bit of the Superbowl with a member of her security staff. One of the largest fellows I have ever seen, I actually thought he might have had a professional interest in the game, as a former NFLer, but it seems that he was not. He was in the Marines though.

Yesterday morning I was in Yad V'Shem, the holocaust memorial. It was very moving to see all the Israeli soldiers walking through there. The phrase "never again" has some more meaning when you see how we are ensuring that a holocaust will never again happen to us. I was shocked by one of the displays, that simply noted that there were 3,000,000 Jews in Poland before the War. Ten percent of the population. And yet essentially helpless to defend themselves. The displays of hand made weapons made a startling contrast to the Glions and M-16s in the hands of the young Israelis.

I had a lunch meeting at the offices of the New Israel Fund, where I enjoyed an interesting conversation with some of the staff there. I was able to continue that with them today, and to see some of the areas of concern to them, of which more in a bit.

Dinner was at Darna, an amazing Moroccan restaraunt. The quantities of salads was unbelievable. I was not really hungry, but somehow managed to eat a great deal. The highlight was possibly the sweetened tomato salad, that was almost like a tomato jam. Unreal.

A short nap followed by a bit of football, followed by a bit more sleep, then a breakfast I really did not need.

Took a tour of the fence this morning. Leaving the hotel noticed Condi's motorcade preparing to depart. Headed off to Gilo, a very good spot to observe the fence, in both its "fence" and "wall" incarnations. The rain made standing outside looking a bit uncomfortable. As we headed back to the car, we noticed Condi's motorcade coming to the exact place we were. Decided not to stick around and try to overhear the presentation that she was receiving.

Went to a few more places to look at it, talked about the different parameters that go into locating the fence:
Human rights
Other (religious, etc.)

In some places the fence deviates from the established municipal boundaries of Jerusalem so as to exclude a Palestinian neighborhood, even though doing so might lessen the security benefits. In one place it deviates outward from Jerusalem, into Bethlehem in fact, to include Rachel's tomb, a point of religious value to Jews. Of course the loop into Bethlehem inconveniences the Palestinians who live near the fence at that point. Is it worth it? I don't know. The Israeli Supreme Court ruled that it was acceptable, and that is good enough for me at any rate.

The saddest part of the fence is where it walls off a road in the middle of Abu Dis, a Palestinian village on the outskirts of Jerusalem. For years noone noticed that the village straddled the municipal boundary, as it was nothing more than a line on a map. Now that there is a concrete wall it is a different matter. Is the inconvenience to the Palestinians acceptable? I was arguing that the creation of an international boundary where previously there was none is bound to cause problems for those who find themselves on the wrong side of the fence. I think Sarah (who was showing me around) agreed in principal with that statement, but felt (as does her organization) that the fence should be placed between the Palestinian and Israeli populations, rather than along the more arbitrary Jerusalem municipal boundary, where it in many places seperates Palestinian from Palestinian.

I felt that her preference for a rather complicated arrangement of dual sovereignity over the old city was unworkable, and thus prefer the simpler, if harder on the Palestinians, solution of a united, Israeli Jerusalem. The Palestinians who find themselves inside Israel would of course be offered Israeli citizenship, if they want it, or a chance to move to Palestine if they prefer that. The ones who remain in Israel would of course have easy access to the holy sites within Israel, including the Al Aqsa mosque and Haram al Sharif, which would remain under Muslim religious control (as they are now). Those in the Palestinian state would of course have to cross the international boundary to access Jerusalem, but that is nothing more than I had to do, and could presumably be made as easy as the security situation allowed.

In short while I was upset by the ugliness of the wall in the middle of the road, I could not say I found it to be per se unacceptable or a violation of human rights. Of course the final lines of the boundary need to be decided by negotiation with the Palestinians, and I look forward to that.

The visit continued with a trip to Deer Valley, where I saw small antelope and Chukkers (sp?) a sort of quail or partridge. Very unusual, as it was right in the middle of Jerusalem. A plan to turn the who valley into apartments has apparently been stopped, but it is not clear if that is permanent. I certainly hope so. A park with wild animals in it would certainly add to the attractions of Jerusalem.

We then went to a beautiful park in the West of Jerusalem where we saw the hills that are threatened with development. I was really upset by that, since the drive to Jerusalem from the West is one of the most beautiful experiences in Israel. The ground rises from the coastal plain, and becomes rocky and hilly, and covered with trees planted by the JNF (and the collected nickles of my youth). Then as the road winds around the hills the western neighborhoods of the city itself become visible. It is sad to think that those beatiful hills would become just another neighborhood.

One very interesting thing however is that that the NIF is on the one hand suggesting that territory to the East of Jerusalem be given to the Palestinians for their state, while on the other hand that same exact land is what would best be used to build new houses, as it is close to the rest of the city, ripe for development, and not nearly so attractive as the western reaches. Interesting problem (though not for me, I would use the current fence line as the boundary, and put the new neighborhoods where they would both connect the current Jewish neighborhoods to each other, and facilitate the development of public transit).

The last visit of the day was a foundation for Judaism as culture. The conversation with the director was one of the most interesting and thought provoking I have had in a long time, but I think I will have to wait to blog it, as I tire.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Catching up

It has been difficult to blog on this trip. Too much going on to take time to visit an internet cafe. Perhaps it will be easier now that the less structured part of the trip is beginning.

Have been in Jerusalem the past couple of days. Heard an interesting speaker yesterday morning who told us that one of the differences between Israelis and Palstinians is that Israel is a post-ideological society, and the Palestinians, who do not yet have a state, have not reached that stage. What he meant (as I understood it) was that for most Israelis the things that motivate them are essentially quality of life issues, they want to be able to get a decent job, travel, raise their children. Palestinians are still struggling with identity, and their role in the world. One question is whether they will work to advance Palestinian interests, or remain a sort of proxy for pan-Arab or pan-Islamic interests. The issue to me is that the dream of (some) Islamists of returning the entire land of Israel to the rule of the Muslims, prevents the Palestinians from reaching a two-state solution, which if they can acknowledge the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state, they might be able to benefit by.

Being in Israel at this moment has been interesting. I was exhausted two nights ago, and did not go out, but some of my friends here did. They had some trouble getting around Jerusalem, because there were a lot of roadblocks, and checkpoints. The paper next day reported that a 16 year old boy had been discovered with explosives. It was not clear to me if he was a potential suicide bomber, or a courier. In any case, not good news. At the same time however are reports of Palestinian police patrolling in Gaza, siezing Qassams, and so on.

Interesting times.

Condi Rice is due in Israel soon, and apparently will be staying at the same Hotel I am in. It would be very cool to run into her in the lobby.

Spent today at Masada and the Dead Sea. I hiked up to the top, took about 40 minutes. It is rather steep, but being near the lowest point on earth, the air is rich, and breathing was much easier than it was a couple weeks ago in the Manzanos. Our guide was very interesting, and I somewhat regretted missing some of his commentary (the rest of the group took the cable car up).

Floated in the Dead Sea for a while, it was amazing. In water that went just two inches above my ankles, I could lie down, and be supported. It feels a little slippery, but not bad at all. Remembered my lesson from 33 years ago, and did not splash any in my eyes.

The lunch at the hotel was delicious. Hiking and soaking built up quite an appetite, and the buffet was much better than I expected. In the states a buffet is generally rather un-tasty isn't it? This was food that would have been well worth eating even in individual portions, and it was surprising to be able to get as much as I wanted.

Yesterday we volunteered at a soup kitchen. I do not think I am cut out for it. The man in front was giving me instructions in Hebrew, and I could not figure out how much chicken to put in a bag even when I understood that it was meant to feed five. Very frustrating.

I have more, but since I have not visited an ATM, I should go before the internet cafe bill exceeds the Shekels in my pocket.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

On to Jerusalem

We stopped at an Air Force base on the way to Jerusalem. The Academy is there as well, and we got to eat lunch with some of the cadets. Apparently there is now more emphasis on academic training, not just flying, and they were leaving to study for their economics test. It was macro, not micro (which I once took) so I was unable to help them. I did say "money supply, inflation, unemployment" to help them, but they just groaned.

One of the cadets was a young woman, and we were told that there are no limits placed on women in the Israeli Air Force. Very few of them become fighter pilots (I think there is just one now) and the woman at my table was training to fly the C-130. Some of the others were navigators, and one fellow was a fighter pilot.

One of the squadron commanders gave us a bit of background on the place. He was wearing a patch that some folks thought was rather funny, it said "Size does matter" and had the silhouette of a 707. We learned later that he was the pilot of Israel's equivalent of Air Force One.

We got to see some of the Black Hawk helicopters in use at the base. They are used not just for military rescue, but for civilian car wrecks as well, especially in the Negev. There is not the sharp line between the military and the civilian that exists in the US.

We did a bit more of the "hands on" part today. Went to a group home to paint, fix up the garden, and set up the computers. I got the last two jobs, and tried to explain how to prune the rose bushes. It was fun, and very interesting to learn about. They had shown us a heart-breaking video about the kids who end up in the home, one fellow is now with a national dance company, and would likely be on the streets or in jail were it not that they had taken him in.

It is a bit harder to blog than I had thought, finding time to get away to an internet cafe, and finding the energy to type are both difficult. Perhaps next time I will schlep a laptop, and blog when I can't sleep.

We heard Raanan Gissin last night. He expressed cautious optimism about Abbas. It was interesting also to hear his take on Iraq, his concern seemed to be with the tribal aspects of the region, more than anything else. I suppose we have to await not only the results of the Iraqi election, but the political games which will follow.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

End of the Earth, turn left

I have just spent two days in Nitzana, near the Egyptian border, midway between Gaza and Eilat. Not near much of anything, and there was no internet cafe. We are due in Jerusalem this evening, and I will have more to say then.

Lots of aircraft overhead, beautiful weather, mountain biking past groves of trees watered with the brackish byproduct of the desalination plants, and the Nabatean ruins.

Dinner at a Bedouin tent last night, delicious.