SPOILER ALERT: This is a long post and kind of a grown up version of “What I Did This Summer.” So skip over the boring parts and I hope Laura or Bill or Meredith do not grade it.
(This person is from one of my favorite books, “Hyperbole and A Half.”)
ACTUAL POST BEGINS HERE:
I am already more than half way through my original plan to travel for four months. Coincidentally, I am also at a geographic half way point because on Thursday I am leaving the part of the world we call the “west” and heading to the part of the world we call the “east.”
One thing that makes this kind of travel so interesting is comparing my experiences in the places I have visited. Because I am at a sort of crossroads, I thought I should share some general observations with caveats you might expect — that I have biases, that my experiences are very limited and that my impressions are superficial because I haven’t had enough time to become an expert on anything.
Reminder that I have been to six countries — technically seven because northern Cyprus is part of Turkey:
Spain Hungary Slovakia Israel Cyprus Jordan
I have broken down my observations into a few categories to create some type of organization and because I know how to write a memo.
Politics and Local Economies
All of the countries I have visited have been some combination of conquered, conquerors, occupiers and occupied numerous times over the past 2,000 years, which seems normal in this part of the world. I think this is a hard context to appreciate for us non-native Americans, who are the first(ish) conquerors in our country.
Most of the countries I visited seem to have a very strong national identity, except that Jordan seems to see itself less as a nation and more as a community of Muslims and Bedouins sharing space with a few Christians. Jordan’s politics are tied to the wars and unrest in neighboring countries and its commitment to maintaining stability and neutrality. Israeli politics seem to be an in-your-face part of daily life because of the prospects for violence, the impacts of the occupation and the relationship between religion and government in a country that is very religious.
In Cyprus, politics and the economy are part of almost every conversation, mostly about whether and how the two parts of the country will reunite and how the country is going to recover from the economic crisis. Hungary has a controversial prime minister, Viktor Orban, who, depending on your politics, is either an authoritarian promoting corruption and bad social policy or a strong leader promoting a strong market economy. I didn’t learn much about Slovakia. Spain’s politics seem stable except for the Catalan referendum to split off into an independent state and the usual back and forth between left and right.
Every place I have visited is struggling economically. Jordan was struggling to begin with — unlike other Arab countries, it does not have oil resources — and has borne a huge economic burden as a result of its humanitarian support for more than 1 million refugees from Syria and Iraq. In addition, the violence in the region has drastically affected tourism. A few years ago, Petra had 3,000-4,000 visitors a day. Now it averages less than 500.
Cyprus’ economic problems seem acute in contrast with Jordan’s chronic. The collapse in Cyprus was recent and drastic, and occurred after a period of strong growth. Cypriots are hanging their hat on the recent discovery of natural gas in their territorial waters. Spain and Budapest seem to be thriving, but my impressions are based on visits to touristed areas. Israelis talk about an economic problem developing with increasing numbers of Orthodox Jews and Palestinians needing support from government social programs with fewer tax revenues available to support the programs — and the military infrastructure is very expensive.
Eating and Drinking
Because I don’t eat meat or dairy and I am rarely going to high end places or eating with families, my observations are limited in more ways than raw numbers. One thing that seems to characterize all six countries is that meals are social events. And because I am traveling in warm climates and during a warm time of year, outdoor tables at cafes are busy and families are eating on patios and porches.
All of the countries I have visited are very meat-focused, but fortunately have traditional foods that include a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables. Except for some Arab dishes, the foods in the countries I have visited are low on the herbs and spices scale compared to, for example, Asia. Good bread seems easy to find everywhere.
Bratislava seems to have the most diverse types of restaurants in the central area of the city and a focus on fresh and nouvelle-ish cuisine. The Muslim quarter in little Akko had some interesting cafes that are updating traditional foods. Israel, Hungary and Spain have plenty of world class restaurants (where I did not eat) but I found little in the way of updated dishes or restaurants that draw on other cuisines. Safed has two kinds of restaurants — Dairy and Meat. It took me a while to figure out that this is because a kosher kitchen cannot mix the two. Desserts do not seem to be a big deal except Hungarians (Daisy) love fresh pastries, and ice cream is popular in Cyprus and Spain.
I have seen a lot of unhealthy foods everywhere — deep fried everything, potato chips, pizza, coke. As you might expect, there seems to be a correlation between the prevalence of junk food and income levels. Corporate fast food, mainly McDonald’s and KFC, has hit all of the major cities I have visited but not the smaller ones.
One thing that stands out is how much drinking is going on, especially beer — young, old, affluent, not affluent, tourists and locals. Except for Muslim communities and Safed, drinking in cafes and bars starts early in the day and ends early in the morning. Alcohol is cheap everywhere I have visited except Jordan, which imposes high taxes on beer and wine. Spain and Hungary have fantastic wines. Cyprus, Jordan and Israel are working on it.
Everywhere I have visited, people drink coffee in outdoor cafes all day long and espresso drinks are standard. Cypriots love whipped, icy coffee drinks. Freshly-squeezed juices at small kiosks are common in Jordan, Cyprus and Israel.
My own staples have included falafel, shakshouka and salads with peppers, tomatoes and cucumbers. I eat fish when I am near the coast. When I have had a kitchen, I eat salads and veggie pasta dishes. In Israel and Cyprus, I found some really good locally made granola and, surprisingly, I have had no problem finding rice milk.
The Local Environment
Because I am only sharing what I have seen as a visitor, my observations may not be what you would hear from the local environmental groups. It is obvious, however, that Jordan has a lot of visible environmental problems — a lot of mostly plastic trash in the streets, no recycling and cars that spew a lot of shit. There is a lot of phosphorus mining in the desert that has left huge piles of tailings and gouges in the earth. On the other hand, the air is clean except in the parts of the desert where there is mining. And you better know how to conserve water — you get your allocation delivered to your property and if you use it up before the next delivery, you are out of luck.
Spain, Budapest, the Hungarian countryside and Bratislava seem to be really clean communities. Israel and Turkish Cyprus have a lot of trash almost everywhere I visited outside the touristed areas. Cyprus has clean air on the Greek side but serious air pollution on the Turkish side, which appears to be at least partly from cement plants. Cyprus appears to have a lot of solar water heating and people generally seem very conscious of energy conservation, probably because of the very high cost of electricity.
Jordan and Cyprus have a lot of feral cats scrounging in the streets but they probably don’t have many rats.
Madrid cleans up in the category of fine arts and Budapest has a lot going on as well, especially in performing arts. Cypriots gamble a lot on both sides of the island and Nicosia has an evolving arts community that has lost a lot of steam because of the economy. The places I visited in Israel and Jordan were focused on religion, family, and the historic. I am sure Tel Aviv has a major arts community but I was only there for a (very nice) lunch with a friend of Deborah’s. Jordan has some interesting local art but its antiquities are the real attraction. Amman has a lot of cultural centers that host and promote local cultural events, provide Arabic language lessons to new comers and generally act as liaisons to connect locals and outsiders.
I don’t notice the obsession with texting and emails that is apparent in the US, and most of the obsessors I have seen are tourists. Jordanians and Cypriots are commonly on the phone while driving although I don’t often see people on their phones in public places. I rarely see laptops, kindles or ipads in public places.
I have seen little in the way of high fashion, even in Madrid. Orthodox Jewish women wear a lot of interesting layers and head scarves and most Jordanian women wear jilbabs. The fashion faux pas of my journey so far…women with spare tires wearing tight knit t-shirts. A close second is the haircut some young men are sporting that looks a lot like Kim Jung Un having a bad hair day.
Public Safety and Health
I never feel unsafe except I was careful about the crazy drivers in Cyprus and I was scared silly during one bus ride in Jordan, one boat ride in Israel and on my second big hike in Petra, which featured a lot of sheer drop offs along cliffs.
The crime rates in all of the countries I have visited are significantly lower than in the US, especially Cyprus. People in Jordan talk about the rest of the country as if it were one big Bedouin family. Members of Israel’s military are everywhere in Jerusalem, which for me compromises a feeling of public safety because it is a constant reminder of the distrust and tension there, and because Israel’s military is comprised of so many (very cute and proud) young people whose frontal lobes are not quite developed.Is
Jordan has the highest incidence of smoking in the world. In addition to cigarettes, Jordanian men smoke narglia. The World Health Organization found that one session of narglia or “shisha” smoking can have the health effects of smoking up to 100 cigarettes. (I have read two guide books on Jordan that recommend going to a nargila cafe for a cool experience!). Budapest and Bratislava are also full of obsessive smokers.
Interactions with Locals
I have met a lot of friendly people everywhere and it is risky to generalize within or across cultures. However, Israel seems to be wound pretty tight. Older men in Hungary seem to have some issues with women. Cyprus was very friendly,especially the people in the neighborhood where I stayed in Nicosia. Jordanians win the prize for most warm and friendly, and hospitality is a part of of their culture.
Israel was just loaded with children in public places at all times of day and night, and there were a lot of Bedouin children in Petra.
More than half of my travel days have been in places where the call to prayer is in the air many times a day, starting at sunrise, and I love it. I also loved the chanting from the Greek Orthodox church near my guest house in Nicosia. The whistles,words and clucks of parrot Bouwa in Amman made me happy. My favorite music moment was hearing Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” echoing down the canyon in Petra while I was hiking along the cliffs trying to ignore my vertigo.
My favorite smells have been the herbs and spices in the Amman souq, the smell of the sea in Akko after a month inland, and the smell of horses.
I get a special kind of joy when I have a dog to pet, which I missed in Jordan and Israel, where not many people have pets, although in Jordan I got to touch some camels, horses and donkeys.
I have enjoyed all kinds of food but I will never forget the Hungarian stewed pepper dish Daisy gave me at one in the morning when I arrived at her apartment in Budapest, the pasta and garlicky prawns Mags and I made in Cuenca, and the frothy iced coffee drink I had at a Nicosia cafe after walking more than mile with 50 pounds of luggage in 100 degree heat.
The views from the hillside in Petra and standing in the courtyard of Al-Aqsa mosque on Temple Mount in Jerusalem were breathtaking.
Mostly, I am happy. I get lonely sometimes and I miss Gabe — and others of course but not the way I miss Gabe.
I am reminded 100 times a day that I am very privileged and lucky, and that I have a responsibility to be grateful and generous and kind.
Epiphanies — none. I frequently remind myself that travel is a process, not an event.