Monday, November 9, 2015


Eilat is a strange city. There is the eastern half with residential areas and industrial zones, and the western half with most of the big hotels, the marina, and the beaches. They are divided by the airport runway, making it awkward to go from one side to the other. The arrangement also means that all the hotels are in the flight path of the airport.

The residential parts of Eilat are nice and green, but outside the desert begins and doesn't end for a very long time. They have a network of hiking paths there that I was using in the morning. The trouble with deserts is, once you have seen a small part of one, you have pretty much seen it all. It's surprisingly colorful; the red rock is what gave the Red Sea its name.

Sunday, November 8, 2015


Petra in Jordan was the center of the Nabatean culture, abandoned in the 7th century after an earthquake. It's built mostly in and above an extremely narrow two-kilometer canyon that is in some places no more than a few meters wide. Except that the city wasn't built, it was carved, like a sculpture: start with a rock face and chisel away everything that isn't part of the design, top-down, inside and out, in great detail.

The Treasury, the most well-known building (carving?), is where Indiana Jones has found the Holy Grail in his last crusade (first picture). Oddly, the movie doesn't show the hordes of tourists doing selfies, the tables of the souvenir vendors with their identical trinkets, the horse buggy operators with their electrical cables for whips zooming through the crowds, and the coffee and snack containers all over the place. Despite all this, the magic is still there. The city is much larger than I expected.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Diving in the Red Sea

The big thing at Eilat, besides buying tawdry souvenirs, is diving. One dive yesterday and three today. They have sunk an old missile command ship of the Israeli navy, which is now sitting on the seafloor at 25m. The sea is very clear and visibility is excellent, so one gets a good sense of the size of the ship. Corals are beginning to colonize it, but for now it looks fairly new.

The corals at Eilat aren't the best I have seen. Much of the seafloor is sand, but due to the clear waters the colors of the corals and fish are brighter than what I have seen elsewhere. Big yellow-silver moraines with gaping mouths are waiting for prey, and we have seen stingrays and sea snakes too. Big schools of orange, blue, and silver fish, and a few enormous blue-green-yellow ones, didn't mind at all that we were plowing through them.

The good news is that most diving sites don't need a boat; you just step into the water at the shore. The bad news is that scuba gear, when wet, weighs close to 30kg, and I had to walk barefoot over sharp gravel... The same gear that lets you float effortlessly under water is enormously clunky on land.

Eilat is at the intersection of Israel, Jordan, and Egypt. I could see the others at a distance today. Tomorrow I'll do a day trip to Jordan.

Friday, November 6, 2015

The Red Sea

It's over 200km from the Dead Sea to the Red Sea, 400m higher, through the Negev desert. For Israel, that's a long distance. The bus was packed and I sat next to a soldier who I hope had his machine gun set on safety.

Israel only has a few kilometers of coastline at the Red Sea, and the port city of Eilat. Like Ein Bokek, Eilat is a major beach tourism hub with all the concomitant ugliness. But unlike Ein Bokek, it's a real city where people live, not just some lifeless vertical concrete in the desert where tourists in bathrobes trek from hotel to beach and back with empty eyes.

You can't dive in the Dead Sea. You'd need a block of concrete to submerge, and one wayward drop of water would be the end of the adventure. But the Red Sea has many diving centers. There is one legal roadblock: although I have the Advanced Open Water license, my last dive was in February and a couple pages down this blog, and that's too long ago for Israeli law so they require a (rather trivial, but as expensive as three regular dives) refresher course. Did that today.

I had a restaurant recommendation, the Fish Market down at Coral Beach where the dive centers are. I ordered fish (what else) and expected the usual slab of stuff on a plate. Instead, fifteen little plates appeared with fish, hummus, salads, baked eggplant, and other dishes. Delicious!

Thursday, November 5, 2015


Ein Bokek is the main Dead Sea resort. It consists of a dozen nondescript concrete hotel towers, lots of parking, two malls of the kind they were razing first when East Germany joined the west, lots of ailing palm trees, and gigantic construction sites that were blocking more than half the beaches. Ein Bokek has no soul and no charm, it's the most depressing place I have seen. All signs show Russian, maybe the Russians go for this. It's inordinately expensive too.

That's why I didn't stay there and went to Neve Zohar, a pretty village 5km south. The beach is a kilometer away, at Hamei Zohar. Still too much concrete, but far nicer than Ein Bokek, and no jackhammer noise. It's nearly 400m below sea level.

Swimming in the Dead Sea is weird: you can't. You float on top of the water because it's so dense with salt. When floating upright, your armpits stay dry, but it's hard to stay upright because your legs want to float to the surface like submerged champagne corks. Swimming amounts to floating on your back, two thirds submerged. It feels like a very soft water bed. Breaststroke swimming is a bad idea, if you get water in your eyes or swallow any water you'll need to see a doctor asap. The beach here is sandy with thick salt deposits along the edge of the water.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The Dead Sea

The Dead Sea is a short bus ride east of Jerusalem. The scenery become4s very arid quickly, with only rocks and a few shrubs visible as we got closer to the sea. The elevation kept falling slowly until we were 340 meters below sea level. We kept passing through desert until the Oasis of Ein Gedi.

Ein Gedi has little to do with the lush oriental paradises in the movies. Two wadis - river beds - meet the Dead Sea there, and the few groves of trees would be boring if they weren't in this desert country. They have a number of hiking paths there that go up the wadis and over the hill connecting them. They are surprisingly steep, but harmless compared to the Calanques in Marseille. The highest point was at an elevation of -163 meters.

Masada is a massive hilltop fortress half an hour south of Ein Gedi. It's so tall that the top is at 44m, above sea level. It was built by King Herod but became famous for a thousand Jews who held out against a Roman army in 72 CE, until the Romans finished a gigantic ramp up to the gates and smashed through the walls, at which point all Jews committed mass suicide. The outlines of the Roman camps, and of course the ramp, are still visible (third picture). The three-level palace at the northern tip, connected by very long stairways, is very impressive; the second picture shows the lower levels.

Since Masada consists of only two buildings, the visitor center and a huge hostel, there isn't anything to do here at night. But there are no lights and no noise, around me is just desert.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015


Jerusalem has a large number of attractions, most of which involve Jesus, and the bad time he was having at the end. I saw the place where he had his last supper, was betrayed and arrested, where he stumbled and held his hand to the wall (now a deeply worn stone because everyone puts their hand there now), I saw the drop of his blood that sank deep into the stone (and just happens to have the color of Jerusalem sandstone), and also the gloomy black tomb of his mother and numerous other places he has been to.

There's this thing about all these places: nobody knows for sure. Usually, a thousand years or so someone pulled some vague evidence out of a hat and calls it proof, because Popper hasn't had the chance to define what is a proof and what isn't. The "proof" became dogma and a church or chapel or other big pile of stones gets erected there and all the pilgrims start sticking their hand into holy gaps in the wall and feel enlightened. Good for them.

Spent a lot of time just wandering through the narrow alleys and markets of Jerusalem. It's very easy to get lost there and very difficult for a GPS unit to catch a glimpse of the sky.

I am staying in a very nice hotel but the WiFi was disconnected. Fortunately I wouldn't dream of travelling without an RJ45 Ethernet patch cable, or you wouldn't be reading this.

Monday, November 2, 2015

The third-party Bloggeroid app works! Here are the Akko pictures.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Tel Aviv pictures

4000 years

Akko is old. Very old. It was inhabited without interruption for over 4000 years. It did get destroyed and rebuilt a few times but it still feels that old. It reminds me a bit of the medina of Marrakech, with the same maze of narrow alleys and markets,  except better maintained and cleaner.

The main attraction is the crusader citadel, built by Templar Knights 800 years ago. It's a large complex with huge vaulted halls,  courtyards, and an entire underground city,  all very well maintained with only a few gaps filled in with modern materials. They really make you feel like the knights might walk in and sit down in the huge dining hall any moment. There is also an old Turkish bathhouse,  the Hammam al-Pasha, a forgettable modern museum and an intriguing historical museum in the city wall that packs more artifacts per square meter than any other museum I have been to, arranged in historical workshops. Akko also has a delightful old port.

Saturday in Israel is the Shabbat,  where everything shuts down,  even public transport and most restaurants. Not so in the old town of Akko because it's 90% Muslim. Getting back to Tel Aviv was also easy -  trains and buses are out,  but large taxi vans,  Sheruts, still operate. My connection in Haifa was seamless,  the drivers are happy to help. During the hour-long drive from Haifa to Tel Aviv I had to sit on the floor though; demand for Sheruts is high on Shabbat.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Israel's Mediterranean coast

I am still amazed how close everything is in Israel. In a few hours you can go all the way up or down the coast from Tel Aviv. Caesarea is an hour north. It's an old town dating back before Roman times that was turned into a fairly large city by the Herod.  Many large caverns open to the beach, ruins of Roman homes with mosaic floors,  a large marble terrace with columns,  a bathhouse with the remains of the underground steam heating system, and the obligatory hippodrome (U-shaped horse racing circuit with a side business of gladiator fights) and theater,  which is still used today. All that with beautiful views of the sea.

Next stop was Haifa. I found it rather boring,  and for some reason everybody I talked to was grumpy and unhelpful. I never found that bus that would take me north,  so in the end I went with a (grumpy) taxi driver.

Akko,  on the other side of the bay from Haifa, is the opposite. It has a stunning old town, a maze of ancient sandstone houses with a maze of narrow alleys,  arches,  vaults,  markets,  and tunnels. One of those,  the very long Templar Crusader tunnel, runs from the Templar's main temple complex in the middle of the town to the sea. Most of it is still intact, with a few repairs done in modern times. Now I now why the Haifa are so grumpy: they'd rather live in Akko.

Friday, October 30, 2015

No elephants

Asia - images of elephants, pagodas, monks in orange robes, and noisy scooters. But not this time. I am in Jaffa, Israel, at the western edge of Asia. It's easy to get here, there are no formalities of any kind and none of the interviews and inspections I was expecting. Israel is far nicer to tourists than the USA.

Tel Aviv is a beautiful city with lots of trees, if you ignore the hotel highrises at the coast. I chose a hotel in Jaffa, a quiet old town at the southern edge of Tel Aviv. And in this country, when something is old, it means that it was old when the Romans came.

The northern old town is, appropriately, a maze of narrow twisty passages, although not huge and all those art galleries and souvenir shops take away some of the charm. The southern old town is larger and doesn't have this problem, and I have seen few tourists there. They go where the souvenirs are I suppose.

Google owns Blogger and Android, but their Android Blogger app is a disaster. So, no photos.

Sunday, February 15, 2015


Time to say goodbye to the Philippines, this was only a brief vacation and it's time to get back to work. One last look at Manila from the plane, on my way to Bangkok. Bangkok is a convenient stopover on the long flight home, and I have friends here I can say hello to.

Bangkok has open air markets that are larger than entire towns elsewhere. And Thai food is probably the best in the region, a welcome change from the culinary desert in the Philippines.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Hey Joe Viagra?

Went back to Manila. It's a monster of a city with an unbelievable traffic problem, but the oldest part of it, walled Intramuros, is a (mostly) quiet oasis with restored historic buildings, narrow streets, and a much slower way of life than outside. Part of it is given over to tourists, but just a few blocks away the locals have their shops and markets, with children playing on the street and the locals laughing and bantering.

Tourists for some reason don't like to stray from the paths laid out in their guide books, and the few who do, like me, become part of the banter. For some reason, we always seem to be called "Joe". I have been offered three wives along with various chemical enhancements. Despite the great colonial facades these people are quite poor but love to laugh a lot.

Also checked out a few other neighborhoods, but none with the charm and friendliness of Intramuros. Chinatown is a claustrophobic maze of traffic, shops, and noise, and the business districts are just faceless traffic disasters with the usual gigantic malls that the Filipinos are so enchanted with. Rizal Park, next to Intramuros, is a nice place for ending the day with people watching.