Eastern Bloc (June 23 – July 13)   Leave a comment

East Germany

Berlin

Finally away from the chaos of Africa and the Middle East we arrived in Berlin to meet up with Robert and his Nazi girl-friend, Nadine. Europe is a glorious place where people understand order and reason; principles that elude most of Africa. The first few days of our European holiday were spent relaxing and seeing the sights, such as the Brandenburg Gate, Reichstag and Berlin Wall. Toward our final days in Germany we attended a large (70,000+ people) music festival called Fusion north of Berlin. Even though it claims to be a “communist holiday“ and was full of hippies, we had a great time. It was located on an old Russian airfield where everyone camps out and dozens of stages play an eclectic variety of music. When we weren’t taking part in the festivities the dancing hippies kept us entertained.

Berlin is a wonderful city and we had a great time hanging out with Nadine and Robert, but it was time to move on toward the full family reunion.

Czechoslovakia

Prague, Czech Republic

Continuing through the former Eastern Bloc we headed for the beautiful city of Prague. There isn’t much to do in Prague other than enjoy the city, but that is well worth the trip alone. The architecture is beautiful, especially in the main square with the easily recognizable Church of Our Lady Tyn dominates the skyline. Across one of Europe’s most exquisite bridges, on a hill overlooking the Danube and city of Prague, sits Prague Castle. More than a stunning vista, this complex contains a cathedral with some of the best stained glass we have ever seen.

Just outside the castle, near the US embassy, is a KGB museum. The eccentric owner took us through the exhibits with fervent enthusiasm showing us things such as Lenin’s death mask, Stalin’s scarf and many KGB tools and gadgets. We also learned that for a brief period Vodka was illegal in Russia, but was legalized again after the entire country got addicted to cocaine. He also showed us the “Angels of Revolution“ who would put counter-revolutionaries back in line, or in the gulag.

 

 

 

 

Czechoslovakia

Bratislava, Slovakia

Bratislava is a small quaint town with little to offer in terms of architecture, but maintains the charm of a nice European city with street-side cafés and nice boulevards lined with shops. The castle of Bratislava gives you a great view of the city, but doesn’t offer much else since it was almost completely destroyed in a fire in 1811 and renovations didn’t start until the 1950s (still ongoing).

A few kilometers outside of town sits Devin castle, which is a proper medieval castle on a cliff faced mountain. Although it was mostly destroyed by Napoleon’s army, it is still a great place to walk around and has a nice museum explaining medieval warfare and displaying various weapons used at that time. The view you get from the top overlooking the Danube is superb.

Hungary

Budapest

Continuing south we stopped for a visit in Vienna then continued on to Budapest where we met up with Justin and later Robert and Csapo. The city doesn’t offer much in terms of grand European architecture, apart from the parliament building, but once you immerse yourself into the city you find there is more to do than just looking for a pretty building.

A few kilometers outside the city is a monument park with statues from the era of Soviet control. The park includes monuments to Lenin, Marx and Stalin among others as well as structures honoring the people of Hungary in all their revolutionary glory. During our trip out to the statue park we were also lucky enough to witness a bum fight, one of Hungary’s national pastimes – along with gypsy bashing.

Our next stop was the House of Terror which is a building in central Budapest where the secret police would interrogate, torture and execute people who were declared enemies of the party or counter revolutionaries. This building is now a museum and shows Hungarian history from WWII through the Communist takeover, the attempted 1956 revolution and the Soviet intervention and finally the fall of the Iron Curtain. The bottom floor, or basement, shows the small dark cells that the prisoners were kept in before execution. One room had a wooden post where the prisoners would stand on a box, noose around their neck, while the executioner would hold the rope and the assistant would kick the box out from under the prisoners feet.

Across the river, on the Buda side of town, sits the citadel and castle. Inside the castle grounds is a nice cathedral, but it is the view of this area at night from the Pest side of the river that gives this city its beauty. The houses, churches and castle all lit up and reflecting off the Danube is an enchanting sight. Our last night in town was spent enjoying Hungarian beer and goulash. After a long night of making party we headed back for a couple of hours of sleep before the early train ride to Croatia where we would meet the rest of the family.

From here Justin took off for Austria then to Italy to meet Isabelle, Csapo needed to take his Hungarian citizenship test (which started off right by getting drunk the night before) and Robert headed to bed only to be seen our last night in Croatia.

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The Holy Land (June 16 – 21)   Leave a comment

Jerusalem

Old Jerusalem, a city sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims sits behind high stone walls and contains a diverse cross-section of the faithful. There is an obvious religious and spiritual presence felt throughout the city and the animosity between the Jews and Arabs is palpable. The city within the walls is divided into Muslim, Christian, Armenian and Jewish quarters. Just outside the east gate sits Mount Olives with Orthodox, Armenian and Catholic churches marking everything from the final resting place of the Virgin Marry to Jesus’ first sermon.

Entering the gate begins the Via Dolorosa that marks Christ’s journey from condemnation to crucifixion. Winding through the Muslim section into the Christian section are various ‘stations’ marking the spot where Jesus was crucified and buried. The large church is an impressive sight and home to many uppity factions of Christians that often have confrontations over who has what duty. The keys to the church are kept by a Muslim family.

The Jewish quarter is filled with men in yamakahs and curly sideburns walking along side Israeli military up and down the winding allies. The most famous sight here is the western wall, a large open air synagogue at the western retaining wall for the temple mount. Here women and men are separated and sent to their respective section of the wall.

At the wall Jews stand vehemently rocking back and forth at the waist often with a Torah or Talmud praying and lamenting while everyone else places sheets of paper with prayers on them into the cracks of the walls. High above, almost in a sense of mockery, sits the Dome of the Rock.

Reached via a wooden ramp the Dome of the Rock is a Mosque that sits on the Temple Mount. While most Jews adhere to the law and stay off the temple mount, those less devout, as well as us other infidels, are allowed into this area a couple of hours each day. The Mosque is large and beautifully decorated adorned with a large golden dome. An impressive sight especially when you look over the city and see bell towers and minarets protruding from every corner.

Bethlehem

Heading through the large concrete walls into the city of Bethlehem really shows how the Israelis have isolated the Arab Palestinians from the rest of the region. Regardless, hundreds of tourists come every day to this holy city where Jesus was born. The main draw is the Church of the Nativity where Jesus is said to have been born in the grotto beneath the altar.

Acre (Akko)

This coastal city in northern Israel served as the docking point for all crusaders coming across from Europe. Its old city sits in the stone walls and still maintains a medieval feel. The city also houses a large Templar fortress with tunnels running beneath the city.

Dead Sea

Taking a day-trip from Jerusalem we headed to the Dead Sea, which sits 423 meters below sea level (lowest point on Earth without being under water). The water in the lake has 33.7% salinity which creates an extra buoyant lake and a shore with rocks covered in a salt coating. Entering the water almost feels like entering a lake full of oil. The thick water held us up where we didn’t need to use of hands or feet to stay afloat. Even holding rocks you only dip a couple of inches down into the water. It is more like sitting on a fluffy cushion than swimming in water.

The Rose-Red City and Crusader Castel (June 13 – 15)   Leave a comment

Petra

The rose-red city, half as old as time, sits in a large complex of valleys surrounded by tall cliff walls. As you start down the main valley you are led through a narrowing valley that slopes down flanked by carved dwellings and temples. While most of these are small it is impressive to see how they are carved into the mountain side, many of them with intricate detail. Although Petra was established in the 6th century BC (as the capital of the Nabataeans) it has withstood time and nature, even earthquakes, extremely well.

Towards the end of the initial valley sits a tall natural gorge known as the Siq. This is a 1 km long trail, at places only 3 meters wide, with tall cliff faces on both sides. Walking through here in the early morning with no one around gave us a sense of exploration and the thought of stumbling upon a long forgotten civilization.

As we meander down the Siq we suddenly find ourselves staring at the famous Treasury through the remaining gorge. As we walk out we are able to appreciate the full scale and detail of the structure. The most amazing part is that this building is carved right out of the cliff face. After marveling at the Treasury we continue along the narrow valley and find a large open valley with the walls covered with carved structures.

To the left we climb a long series of stairs and switch-backs rising above the valley floor to what is known as the High Place of Sacrifice. While there isn’t much up there, it did give us an excellent view of the ancient city below. Once back down we continue through the valley to a large amphitheater carved into the side of a mountain. Farther along we come to another section with multiple, very intricate, structures carved along the cliff wall on a tall hill. Viewing these structures also gives you a view of the surrounding area where we were able to see many other carvings in almost every mountain face in the area.

As we continued to follow the valley floor we find a stone road constructed by the Romans after they had conquered the area. This road is flanked by the few remaining columns that once lined the path. On both sides sit the ruins of once large temples. Towards the end of the road, where the valley begins to narrow again, the path to the Monastery begins. This long and winding path led us up to the top of the mountains where, carved out of another large cliff face, sits the Monastery. This structure is just as impressive as the Treasury and was used as a Monastery during the Byzantine period.

Petra is an amazing sight and one of the most unique places on earth. The bright red, iron rich sandstone that the city is carved from shines in the morning and afternoon sun. Many of the dwellings and structures show layers of rock that look like paint swirls of dark and light red, orange and white. The entire area is huge and it is easy to picture the large caravans of camels bringing goods from Asia and Europe and finding shelter and a place to trade in the valleys of Petra.

Shobak

Shobak was built in 1115 by king Baldwin I of Jerusalem. After the success of the first crusade the christian armies extended their empire into what is today Jordan with fortifications to protect pilgrims and merchants. This particular castle sits on a steep hill and is  surrounded by hilly, yet fertile, terrain. In 1184 the Muslim commander Salah-ad Din besieged the castle and it fell two years later.


The castle itself sits primarily in ruins but enough remains to allow the imagination to fill in the gaps. Three walls surrounded the inner keep that all sit atop a steep and at some points cliff face mountain. Multiple levels are still standing and the lack of ropes, guards or tourists gives you the feeling of discovering a long abandoned fortress. It is great to stand atop the ruins and imagine the muslim hordes perched out side with their siege engines pounding the walls while your troops fire back with trebuchets, ballistas and arrows.

Our tour ended in an escape tunnel that, starting in the center of the fortification, winds down into the mountain at a steep angle. This pitch black tunnel seems to go forever until we finally saw a shimmer of light that leads up a ladder and onto the road that leads to the castle.

Posted June 21, 2012 by Magan and Brenden in Asia, Jordan

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Land of the Pharaohs (May 18 – June 12)   1 comment

Egypt

It’s easy to romanticize Egypt: Terraced balconies overlooking sand colored cityscape, minarets jutting up in every direction echoing the call to prayer throughout the day, large pillows surrounding a table with mint tea and apple sheesha, the Nile lazily meandering through the scorching Sahara bringing life to where it would otherwise be impossible, and ancient ruins carved from stone showing the might of the pharaohs who ruled the world’s super power of their time. And if you can look past the vicious touts, occasional terrorist attacks, current political unrest and spree of kidnappings this is very much what you will find.

Great Pyramids of Giza

Egypt for us began on a trip to Gaza. A few kilometers out of town we caught our first glimpse of the famous pyramids of Giza; the last remaining wonder of the ancient world. As we mounted our camels we were met with the 4,500 year old stare of the giant monolithic sphinx who sits perched up front, guarding the pyramids. Behind it were three great pyramids and six smaller queen’s pyramids. The first pyramid, the Great Pyramid of Khufu completed in 2560 BC, is the largest ever built (146 meters) and is truly an amazing sight. These large stone structures have withstood time and mother nature with relative little damage. The huge stones used to create the pyramids make you ponder the logistics of moving such stones hundreds of kilometer down the Nile and up the structures themselves.


The second pyramid, of Khafre (Khufu’s son), is slightly smaller (136 meters), but rests on a higher section of the plateau. It maintains a portion of the polished limestone covering at its apex. To see these pyramids fully covered in smooth stone and perhaps painted and covered in hieroglyphics would be a fantastic sight. After climbing up a ways for some pictures we head back to the camels and start towards the third pyramid.

The Pyramid of Menkaure is smaller than the other two (65 meters) and is flanked by 3 satellite pyramids. Despite a 12th century caliph’s attempt to demolish this pyramid (unsuccessful 8 month attempt) it stands as magnificently as the other two. Magan and I climbed one of the satellite pyramids and got a great view of the surrounding area. After taking in the panoramic view we headed up the Nile to Saqqara.

Saqqara

Traveling south along the Nile to the town of Saqqara we come to another large necropolis with the center piece being the Step Pyramid of Djoser. Entering the courtyard we pass through a long corridor of columns connected to the walls shaped to resemble large bundles of plant stems. At the end the court-yard opens up to Egypt’s oldest pyramid – one that served as a prototype for future pyramids. Its six distinct steps create an interesting yet underwhelming experience after the showpiece in Giza. On the opposite end of the courtyard lie several tombs while in the distance, through the dusty air, sit other pyramids including the famous bent pyramid.

Abu Simbel


From Cairo we boarded a luxurious sleeper train for the over night journey to Aswan. While Aswan doesn’t offer  much more than a pretty view over the Nile and laid back atmosphere, it serves as the gateway to the temple complex of Abu Simbel. The convoy (to avoid sand people) departs at 4 am and takes about three hours. Abu Simbel consists of two large structures built by Ramsses II to commemorate a large victory and show his might to Egypt’s Nubian neighbors. Although the temples were built around 1250 BC they were relocated in 1968 AD to a man-made mountain to avoid being covered in water due to the Aswan dam. The first temple we visited was the temple of Hathor and Nefertari. The temple is dedicated to the goddess Hathor and the front has 10 meter tall monuments of Ramesses II and his wife Nefertari. The interior contains small rooms attached to a main large room covered with hieroglyphs, carved and painted. Thanks to the glorious revolution happening in Egypt at the time we were the only people in the temple.

Next door sits the much larger Great Temple of Abu Simbel dedicated to the gods Amun, Ra-Horakhty, and Ptah. The out side is covered with various hieroglyphs and carvings, but most impressively with four 20 meter tall statues of Ramsses II. Inside the temple is a large room with eight large pillars and statues of the pharaoh. The walls are covered in carvings showing various victories in battle as well as some graffiti from the mid 1800’s AD. Attached to the main hall are multiple smaller rooms full of colorful pictographs of upper egypt.

Luxor

Luxor, formerly Thebes, was the ancient capital of Egypt and contains many temples and tombs. On arrival we hired a taxi and set off for the west bank of the Nile that contains a huge necropolis. The first stop was the Valley of the Kings. This valley has many underground tombs carved into the mountainside sloping down toward a large burial chamber. These were all full of pictographs and hieroglyphs as well as large sarcophaguses that once housed the mummified remains of the pharaohs.

Further along the west bank we passes two large structures known as the Colossi of Memnon depicting the pharaoh Amenhotep III en route to the impressive Mortuary Temple of Queen Hatshepsut. This monument sits at the bottom of a cliff and  rises 97 feet high consisting of three levels with double colonnade and a large ramp up the center. The temple is covered in reliefs and is by far the most impressive structure on the west bank.

Back on the east bank, in the center of town, sits the Temple of Luxor. While this temple certainly adds character to the city the only thing of note is a hieroglyph on an obolisk that I am pretty sure is a X-Wing.

A couple kilometers north of Luxor sits the best temple in the area, the Temple of Karnak. This vast complex covers 2 square kilometers and contains many buildings and courtyards, but the main draw is the forest of gigantic pillars. These massive columns stand at 80 feet and create a humbling environment. Standing and walking amongst these pillars rates with the pyramids of Giza.

Sinai

 

The last few days spent in Egypt were in the Sinai Peninsula. We first departed at 10pm for Mt. Sinai to see the sun rise over the desert. Mt. Sinai gets its claim to fame because the pharaoh was the first in a long line of people to kick the Jews out of his country. Once completed they wandered for some time and during this time Moses went up Mt. Sinai where God gave him the 10 Commandments. Here sits the famous Saint Catherine’s Monastery that continues to house monks at the base of Mt. Sinai.

The remainder of our days were spent under an umbrella on a beautiful beach with clear blue water in Dahab.

Rwanda: Genocide and Jesus (May 16 – 25)   1 comment

Rwanda

Upon crossing into Rwanda it felt as though we were able to take a large breath of fresh air. The air is crisp, the countryside is green and hilly and there is no litter. While throwing trash in the street is a hobby in most African countries, here it is actually illegal and you’re not even allowed to have plastic bags. The people happily smile, wave and shout camara (hello) or mozungu (white person) rather than crowding you trying to get you to buy something or give them money.

Rwanda’s nickname ‘the land of a thousand hills’ becomes obvious as we travel south along a winding road to Huye (Butare) through undulating hills covered with lush plots of green crops and banana trees all sloping down, sometimes terraced, into a valley of rice or cassava fields. We were extremely lucky while in Rwanda because we were able to spend time with John who took us around with ZOE Ministries, which is a Methodist organization that works with orphans here. We also had a chance to see the history first hand of the 1994 Tutsi Genocide.

Genocide

**The first two pictures below are off the web, because they wouldn’t allow us to take pictures inside the memorials.**

The very mention of Rwanda often evokes images of a gang of machete wielding Africans marching through the streets slaughtering men women and children for belonging to a different tribe. This is exactly what we saw at many of the country’s memorials and museums. Since the 50’s, while under Belgian rule, the Hutus had continuously tried to kill and remove the minority Tutsi from Rwanda. In 1962, after independence, the killings continued culminating in the 1994 genocide.

A few kilometers from Gikongoro on a hill that used to be a campus for a technical school houses the most grotesque and captivating memorials I have ever seen. The area was called a ‘safe zone’ and at one point was even occupied by French troops. Many Tutsi were told to seek shelter from the slaughter there, but rather than safety they were simply being gathered for mass execution. Everyone there was killed and thrown into mass graves while the french troops played volleyball.

As we walked past the museum we saw long brick buildings that once housed vocational classrooms but now contained the remains of the genocide victims. As we walked toward the farthest building we could smell a faint stench in the air, almost like a rotting animal must be near by. As we turned the corner and entered the first room our senses were overloaded by the acrid smell of decaying bodies piled onto tables and contained in a small concrete room along with the sight of scores of bodies twisted and contorted, shriveled and covered in lime, frozen in time in their death throes. Their faces seemed to call out to your soul while their withered skin revealed rib or leg bones ripped back by machete strikes and their skulls were shattered by nail ridden bats or blunt wooden clubs. Standing there with your stomach in knots, breathing through your mouth to minimize the pungent odor and gazing through tearing eyes due to the vapors of lime or decaying flesh you ask yourself how could this have happened.

Bodies fill every room in multiple buildings that range from adult to toddlers and 2 month old babies. Even our guide pointed out the room that contained her family. A true reminder and solid proof of the attempted genocide that killed 1,000,000 people and left many more wounded or displaced.

We also visited churches in Nyamata and Ntarama where 10,000 and 5,000 people were killed respectively. While many people went to churches to seek refuge, this simply acted as a convenient place for the Interahamwe (Hutu death squads) to find large numbers of Tutsi. The churches are filled with the clothes of the dead as well as hundreds of skulls and bones. The outsides are punctuated by large holes from grenades and the insides are riddled with bullet holes. One building had a large brown stain at one end; the guide informed us that this is where babies and small children were smashed against the bricks. Outside each church were large underground vaults that serve as mass graves for those killed at the churches.

ZOE Ministry

(Orphan with two younger sisters now has a house, pig and business selling avocados)

The other extreme of human nature was shown in the work of ZOE Ministry (Click here for more information). If anyone is looking for a great ministry or charity, this is it; although it is more of an empowerment movement than a charity. The group gathers orphans from poor areas and puts them through training for food security, income generation, hygiene and more. Rather than give them food and clothes (which is an ephemeral solution and merely creates dependency) ZOE teaches them to earn their own money or grow their own food and not rely on anyone but themselves and each other.

Kid and Father with one leg (year 1)  –  Pig given by ZOE for family to sell piglets

Kid and mother with crippled leg (year 1)   –    Bananas given to ZOE by orphans

The people we met and stories we heard were truly amazing. Orphans living under bridges at age 7 were raising pigs and goats or growing bananas two years later and looked completely different. Many of the kids were raising younger siblings or looking after their old or disabled guardian and had no hope until ZOE Ministry gave them a chance. The kids in the program for 2 or 3 years no longer needed help from the organization and would even tell ZOE they no longer needed help and to move on and help others. Many of these kids had found other orphans in the area and were helping them to get established. Even if your attitude is “screw them Africans”, at least look at the above link and see how ZOE truly lets these orphans help themselves. America could learn a thing or two from ZOE.

1) This orphanage gave us many gifts and told us they no longer needed help and that we should move on and help others. 2) Magan helping feed the orphans at lunch time.

Posted June 7, 2012 by Magan and Brenden in Africa, Rwanda

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Safari (May 9 – 12)   1 comment

Safari

Since we took so many photographs on this Safari, we have put them all into a slide show at the bottom. There are around 60 pictures, so it might be a good way to pass time at work.

Lake Manyara

Our safari began with scenic Lake Manyara. This large salt water lake is surrounded by lush forest and small plains. Here we saw many animals all congregated in a small area, perfect for a short game drive and introduction to the area.

Serengeti

The second two days of our trip were spent in the Serengeti. When you imagine Africa this is what you think of. While this park has a vast array of landscapes, the most impressive was the large sea of grass that stretches for miles in every direction punctuated with the occasional granite rock island or lone acacia tree. On these plains were thousands upon thousands of zebra and wildebeest. During our stay there we saw a wide variety of animals including lions, leopards, hippos and many different types of antelope. It was amazing seeing the kilometer long lines of hundreds of wildebeest beginning their annual migration to follow the rains.

Ngorongoro Crater

The third night of our safari was spent on the rim of the Ngorongoro Crater, a collapsed volcano, where we had a spectacular view. That night we camped in a grass field which is apparently grazing ground for water buffalo because they kept us up half the night munching the grass around our tent. Worried that we would spook them and start a stampede or mauling frenzy Magan and I laid perfectly still and let them go about their grazing. The next morning we descended into the crater which contains large grass fields surrounding a soda lake (full of flamingos) with small patches of forest. This crater creates a micro-environment where all the animals live in close proximity. Although the animals can move over the steep cater walls they prefer to stay there due to the year round supply of water and green grass. Here there were many lions as well as a few black rhinos.

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Zanzibar (May 1 – 5)   1 comment

Zanzibar

After a long-awaited hot shower in Dar es Salaam we enjoy a night in a bed before being woken up by call to prayer which Magan described as a satanic sound that gave her the chills. From Dar we took the ferry to Stone Town on the once independent (formerly Portuguese then Omani Arab) spice island of Zanzibar. Here we wandered aimlessly through the winding streets enjoying the smells of the distinct culture of this island. Since the town is more of a labyrinth than a grid we let ourselves get lost amongst the kids running and men playing dominoes often being greeted by hello, jambo and even Hakunna Matata or Rafiki.

St. Josephs Cathedral and Slave Memorial

Slave holding cell and inside the cathedral

Stopping at random stalls to try the local cuisine or grab a cup of spiced tea we were able to immerse ourselves into the flow of daily life. While in Stone Town we also visited the former slave market and St. Joseph’s cathedral. Hundreds of thousands of slaves were captured by the Omani Arabs and sold through here to the Seychelles, Mauritius, Persia and other destinations. Thanks in large part to Dr. Livingston slavery was abolished and a church built on this site. The baptismal pool is where baby slaves (unwanted) were drowned and the altar sits at the former whipping post.

Baptistry and Altar

The next few days were spent at Matemwe beach on the eastern shore where white coral sand beaches meet clear turquoise water. Here we had the entire resort to ourselves and enjoyed good food and warm ocean. One day we hired a local to take us snorkeling at the reef near a resort island a couple of kilometers away. The beautiful coral and hundreds of colorful fish made for a day of fun that will be long remembered and more than makes up for the down side of the beach, which is the local population coming down to defecate on the shore during low tide.