Thursday, January 20, 2011

Impulse Travel

I've been trying to plan where to go for President's Day weekend for several weeks now. And having procrastinated dearly, my cheap flight options were dwindling. I did dozens of searches to find a relatively inexpensive flight to somewhere new, but even places relatively close by were more expensive than I would have liked. Finally, I happened upon a cheap flight to a new place; even better, the flight times were relatively ideal.

So. I'm going to Sri Lanka!

I don't know anyone living there and have only done a little bit of research into what to do, where to go, and where to stay. I have three full days and three nights there. So I'm opening it up to the wonderful FS  (and beyond) community for any suggestions you might have. Have any of you been to Sri Lanka? What should I definitely do or definitely not do?


Monday, January 17, 2011

Two Countries, Three Religions, Four Days

I am just back from a wonderful long weekend visiting friends in Jerusalem.  My A-100 seatmate and a good friend from Arabic class both had babies within a few days of each other, so it was a good excuse to see a new country, spend some time with friends, and hold babies.  Those are among my favorite things to do, so it worked out well!

I have long been curious to visit Israel, and Jerusalem in particular, and I had a wonderful time.  There is so much history in the area; it is really overwhelming at times.  I did not have an agenda or list of things I had to do, so I was able to take time to wander around and soak everything up at a leisurely pace.  I went during the Saudi weekend but the Jerusalem work week, so I was on my own for a couple days.  The first day I jumped right in and spent a very long day exploring the Old City.  I got lost dozens of times, visited each quarter (Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Armenian), and visited a few sites.  I toured Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which was a site I knew very little about before visiting.  I spent an hour or so at the Western Wall, watching the faithful in prayer.  Several bar mitzvahs were going on, so I got to peek over the wall at the men's side to see the pomp and ceremony.  I found it quite funny that a relatively high wall has been erected to allow the pilgrims a modicum of privacy, as well as to separate the genders, but dozens of tourists (and perhaps locals as well) were standing on the plastic chairs provided for contemplation in order to get a better view.  I timed things right to be able to access Temple Mount, where I got to see Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque up close.  The area is beautiful and peaceful and has some architectural gems around every corner.  I ate lunch in a square overlooking Hurva Synagogue in the Jewish Quarter.  The Old City is absolutely packed with phenomenally important religious and/or historic sites, and I only saw a few of them.  I only visited Jaffa Gate, didn't go to any museums, and missed dozens of other churches, mosques, synagogues, and other landmarks.  There's lots to do on a future visit! 

The Old City is packed with souqs - alleys overflowing with vendors of various wares.  I was surprised (and slightly dismayed) to find that some were as aggressive as those I encountered in Cairo.  The only things I bought all day were a few pieces from an Armenian ceramics artist.  The store was tucked into a corner on a very quiet street in the Armenian Quarter.  Christmas carols blasted from the radio as I browsed.  I love the Palestinian/Jerusalem/Armenian pottery style (they call it each or all of those names); the color blue features heavily in the decorations, and pomegranates and birds, fish, and/or deer adorn most of the pieces. 

I indulged in several Old City favorites while browsing.  I had a great bagel and cream cheese for breakfast, fresh pomegranate juice for a snack, and a falafel pita for lunch. 

On Friday I took things a bit easier, having overdone it a little the day before with the miles of hills and stairs and meanderings.  I headed to Mahane Yehuda market two hours before Shabbat.  I was curious to see the market itself, but, more importantly, I wanted to take in the famous pre-Shabbat rush to do shopping and get home in time for sundown.  It did not disappoint.  Thousands of people crowded in the market, bargaining over produce prices, finding the perfect breads and pastries, stocking up on spices and dried fruits, and buying just about any other fresh food product you can imagine.  My friends had told me how much they love Jerusalem for its fresh, local, quality produce, and I could see exactly what they meant.  It was truly amazing.  I had a leisurely lunch of mezze (and an obligatory cup of sahlab, a hot, milky drink) before one more wander through the market.  This time I happened upon a pottery cooperative.  As you may know (or are coming to realize), I adore handmade pottery and frequently seek it out for souvenirs and gifts.  I bought a beautiful pomegranate figurine (a popular creation in Jerusalem) and a whimsical spoon rest.  I could have bought significantly more if I'd had room in my suitcase...

Friday night we went out to dinner for my friend's birthday with some other friends and colleagues.  The majority of restaurants in Jerusalem are closed Friday evenings for Shabbat, and the streets are largely deserted.  It's quite a sight.  Similar in some ways to Saudi in the daytime during Ramadan.  We had a wonderful dinner and lots of laughs.

Saturday was the one overlapping vacation day my host had, so we headed farther afield.  We drove down the coast of the Dead Sea, past Qumran (where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found), past the garden centers with camels out front as advertisements, and down to Ein Gedi.  I imagine in the summer this is a very busy beach with lots of floating tourists, but it was empty and quiet and wonderful.  We didn't go all the way down to the water, as it was an awkward access point if we weren't actually swimming (and it was way too cold to even think about doing that!).  Hard to believe we were at the lowest point on Earth.  We headed a bit farther south and went to Masada, the site of the last siege during the First Jewish-Roman War between CE 66 and 73.

Masada is located on a plateau high above the valley floor.  You can take the Snake Path up, a winding, 45 minute, strenuous climb up hundreds of stairs.  We opted for the cable car.  It took three minutes.  We wandered the ruins and dodged tour groups and admired the spectacular views.  The Dead Sea is not very wide, and we had great views of Jordan on the opposite bank. 

Travel in the West Bank is severely limited for FS personnel (even those on personal travel).  There are a couple of main roads you're allowed to drive during the daytime, and Jericho is an allowed destination.  So when we finished at Masada, we headed up to Jericho.  My understanding is that Jericho and Damascus tussle over which is the oldest continually-inhabited city in the world, but they both have a pretty long and impressive history of which to boast.  Jericho is also one of the lowest cities on the planet, lying just a few kilometers from the Dead Sea.  We drove through town, which was largely deserted at that time in the afternoon.  It really felt like being in a different country - signs in different languages, different license plates, different feel.  We ate lunch at a great little restaurant on the main drag, ordering a ton of mezze and splitting a delicious musakhan, a traditional Palestinian dish.  It's a roasted chicken in savory spices and onions over bread.  Absolutely delightful. 

To end the day, we stopped at the house of my friend's colleague, who has a connection with olive wood artisans and sells their wares at wholesale prices.  I bought lots of Christmas ornaments, a camel figurine set, a mortar and pestle, some great spoons, and a cheese board.  I was ecstatic! 

We went for drinks at my A-100 colleague's home; she also had visitors in town.  It was a great way to cap off a wonderful weekend.  Unfortunately my flight yesterday morning was hellishly early, but my amazing host drove me to Ben Gurion in the middle of the night.  I got through security with no problems, but my flight was delayed over an hour due to bad weather in Amman.  The flight between Tel Aviv and Amman is very interesting; both times I was in a wide-body Airbus plane, but our flight was 25 minutes cruising at about 9000 feet. 

No delays coming out of Amman, no problem getting back into KSA, and I was home by 4:30.  Just in time to go to a 4.5 hour dinner event.  What day off?!

Pictures will be forthcoming; my priority for tonight is unpacking and sleeping.