Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Great hike--Qannoubine Valley

A second time on this beautiful hike for Tom and I, the first for Cam, who was suitably impressed. It is in northern, central Lebanon. We are dropped at the top of a narrow, steep gorge and immediately descend 200 meters on stone stairs above the valley.

You probably can't see the wooden cross in the photo on the right. It is said the Maronites have crosses of wood and hearts of gold.

Kris is the speck in the middle...

The land above the valley is dotted with monasteries and old caves that harbored people from various persecuted religions over the ages. Remains in the valley have been found that date to prehistoric times. Photo at left shows a monastery (sans roof) on the opposite side of the valley. At right is a cave church interior.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

UCLA Press release: Peace Pole

For Immediate Use Jan. 21, 2009

As conflicts rage across the globe, UCLA students dedicate campus 'peace pole'

Showing solidarity in their commitment to peace within UCLA's diverse campus community and throughout the world, UCLA students, along with Chancellor Gene Block, will dedicate a "peace pole" at a campus ceremony at noon on Friday, Jan. 23. UCLA's peace pole is a handcrafted monument that displays the message "May peace prevail on earth" in 14 languages. The planting and dedication of such poles by communities interested in making a public statement about peace is a tradition that spans the globe. According to the nonprofit World Peace Prayer Society, there are today more than 200,000 peace poles in 180 countries. Well-known peace pole locations include the Hiroshima Peace Memorial in Japan, the former World Trade Center site in New York City, and South Africa's Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned. Students organized the dedication to show their collective support for peace and tolerance at a university that attracts students from diverse communities and nations around the world. Although several smaller universities in the United States have dedicated peace poles, UCLA will be the first major American university to do so. In addition to brief remarks by Chancellor Block, Homaira Hosseini, president of UCLA's Undergraduate Students Association Council, and Ben Moore, the student who initiated the idea, students will read the peace pole's inscriptions in 14 languages: English, Arabic, Hebrew, Farsi, Mandarin, Vietnamese, Spanish, Korean, Tagalog, Russian, Hindi, French, German and Japanese.

WHAT:Dedication of UCLA peace pole
WHO: Attending the dedication ceremony will be UCLA Chancellor Gene Block and UCLA students.
WHEN:Noon, Friday, Jan. 23
WHERE:Meyerhoff Park, UCLA campus (campus map:
MEDIA CONTACT:Elizabeth Kivowitz Boatright-Simon, UCLA Office of Media Relations, ekivowitz@support.ucla.edu, 310-466-8769

Friday, January 16, 2009

Talk on Palestine in America, and latest stats...

Cam and I attended an interesting talk at AUB (American University in Beirut) this week. The speaker was a UCLA professor, and while the topic was “Palestine in America” the talk was mainly about the remarkably well established infrastructure of Israeli lobby groups in the US. I had no idea! There are countless groups on American university campuses, offering to fly in speakers and even free tickets to Israel to experience life on a kibbutz. Numerous information sites offer biased information under misleadingly trustworthy names (something like Mideast information service), and hundreds of paid employees watch newspaper editorials nation-wide and submit lengthy rebuttals to every anti-Israel piece they publish, forcing papers to run corrections and making them wary of running any provocative piece in future. Example: after the speaker wrote an article for the LA Times that said the wall Israel had built along the West Bank was three times the height of the Berlin Wall, CAMERA, the well-funded “Committee for Accuracy in Mideast Reporting in America”, wrote a 10 page rebuttal analyzing every word. The only factual error that stuck was that the wall separating Palestinians from Israelis is actually only twice the height of the Berlin Wall, forcing the paper to run a correction and to think twice before running another piece by the author again.

And Arab information groups are almost totally absent in that world. There is no well-financed, well organized group countering this information blitz. However the speaker closed the talk by saying that the American public is starting to doubt all it is fed by “spin doctors”, following the Iraq debacle, and that people are starting to question the US’ boundless support of Israel.

Cam adds Aside from the history of Palestine and the Israeli occupation, think of this: Israel has a right of return policy to every person of Jewish decent world wide, yet the people whose land it was only 60 years ago are stuck in refugee camps with no chance of returning, while the few of them left in Israel are stuck in apartheid-style townships lacking proper medical care and a constant supply of food.

Toll to date in the 22 day siege: 1,140 Palestinians killed, 360 of them children, and 5,150 wounded. At least 600 homes and most infrastructure detroyed. There are 13 Israeli casualties, including 3 from friendly fire, and only 3 civilians. A hospital and a UN food warehouse were bombed this week, and ambulances have come under fire.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Tom's hike

Tom had a hike in Jezzine, southern Lebanon, today. He said it was beautiful--no pix, sorry. On the hike they found an ordnance shell and some geodes. The guide had no hands, having lost them in two separate accidents while clearing mines.

Its Genocide

Wake up America! To date 879 Palestinians killed vs. 10 Israelis, three of those by “friendly” fire. Another 3,700 Palestinians wounded. So many are children. Now Israel is using white phosphorus, which burns the skin and blinds people. People are without electricity, water, food. There is nowhere for families to go to be safe: Israelis have bombed a UN school and even ambulances. They have violated the daily three hour cease fire periods that were intended to allow supplies to enter and bodies to be retreived, and they have ignored the Security Council resolution calling for a cease fire.

Is is our tax dollars, America, yours and mine that purchased the bombs, the aircraft, the tanks that roll and the chemicals dropped from the sky that burn human flesh. Do you hear this side at all in the US??

Friday, January 9, 2009

Hot spots

We do seem to have a knack for picking hot spots to visit. We recently went to Syria soon after the US had bombed Iraqi targets inside Syrian borders, Istanbul during a pro-Palestine demonstration, and Athens in a lull between anit-police riots. And then there is Lebanon. On Thursday three rockets were lobbed into northern Israel and shortly thereafter a few more hit the Bekaa Valley (from Israel). But that seems to have been it. Hezbollah denied shooting them and it looks like cooler heads have prevailed, at lest on that front. Don't get me started on the carnage in Gaza.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Trip factoid

Our Lebanon - Syria - Turkey - Greece - Lebanon tour totalled 3,476 miles, 2,662 of which was by road and rail.

December trip part II--Konya - Peloponnesia

A four hour bus ride takes us from Cappadocia to Konya, home of Rumi, spiritual leader of the Sufis. We stay at the Dervish Brothers guesthouse, a warm, good vibes place chock full of colorful carpets on floors, seats, and walls. Our room has an actual water closet! You step up and over a ledge and into a small enclosed area with a toilet and shower. At dinner a lady makes me spice tea and I watch: a small handful of sage, a cinnamon stick, snapped into a few pieces, ~ 6 cardamom pods, a few black peppercorns, several whole cloves, maybe half a teaspoon of powdered ginger (she said you could use fresh), a little turmeric, and, to my amazement, two small dried red chili peppers. She said she likes to add more but was toning it down for me… When I tasted it I thought I could have had more as well. She added 2 cups of water and boiled the mixture a few minutes, then added ½ cup or so of milk, heated it, turned off the heat and stirred in honey. This is more an Indian concoction than Turkish. Of Turkish tea, we have had many, many small glasses--delicious--and so fitting in both cold and hot weather. It is a much simpler brew, tea leaves, steeped in a double boiler.

Only one night in Konya. We board an overnight train for Istanbul. Great sleeper car, with a compartment for four.

Istanbul, an old friend for us after our visit in 2002, our first family foreign adventure trip. We eagerly revisit the breathtaking Aya Sofia and Blue Mosque, the former 1500 years old and the latter 500. Camera batteries were dead at this point, so you will just have to imagine…

We also revisited the Grand Bazaar, but were not as smitten with it as we were on our first go round. It is more touristy and there is less bargaining.

Tom and Cam have an authentic hamam experience, and come back to the hotel just glowing. They had been steamed, scrubbed, rubbed, massaged and fed tea.

We take trams, a ferry, a taxi and the “tunel”--a short railway up a hillside built by the French in the late 1800s--getting around Istanbul. Everywhere that we have been in Turkey we have encountered efficient, frequent, easy to use transportation systems--both in and between cities. So civilized.

We board an overnight train to Thessaloniki, Greece. It is apparently not a very popular run--only three cars long. The sleeping compartments are all doubles, and have an odd configuration. Some you step up into and the bunks are on either side, others have upper and lower bunks and no seating area. At 1:30 am. we stop and are boarded by Turkish border guards who take our passports to stamp them and by customs agents who half heartedly glance at our bags. Some time later there is another stop on the Greek side. Here are Cam and Ben after being woken up by their mother after an interesting night.


The train is 3 ½ hours late getting to Thessaloniki. Our plan was to board another train to Athens, but we learn there are no seats left on any train to Athens that day. Tom looks into buses and we dash, making the bus with seconds to spare. It is a six hour ride. No movie or attendant offering tea on Greek trains...

Reaching Athens, the bus driver appoints a lady to show us the way to the Metro station. She doesn’t speak any English but takes her role seriously and shepherds us along. So sweet! It is evening. We emerge from the metro at the foot of the Acropolis, lit up, towering over the sprawling city.

We have only one full day here, but walk the whole day and evening, tour the Acropolis and various neighborhoods, refueling periodically with souvlaki and “Greek coffee” (formerly known as Turkish coffee before the Turkish invasion of Cyrus). We are struck by the guidebook descriptions of of what “used to be” in a particular spot--details of buildings and statues, where only ruins are visible. In Lebanon we have either the standing object or ruins, but no wide knowledge of former history.

Here is a meat market we came across in our wanderings. The pigs definitely looked like they were smiling.

We pick up a rental car for the last leg of our trip--to the Peloponnese peninsula, southeast of Athens.

Momenvasia! An impossible hunk of rock accessible by a land bridge. UNESCO world heritage site, topped by a castle. Lovingly restored stone buildings, our hotel among them. Our room has stone walls, arched or wooden beam ceilings, a fireplace with a full bin of wood, tasteful rugs on the stone and marble floors, all modern conveniences, and a relaxing private patio with decorative stone work. The scenery--oh oh oh! The sea framed by incredibly picturesque hills. The beauty makes me weep! Well, that and knowing we have only two days left together. We hike along the city walls and up to the castle and old city ruins at the top, terrific views all around.

It was more magical timing: our day on the rock island of Momenvasia has sunny, blue, cloudless skies and temperatures up to 60°. The day we leave the clouds and rain move in. It is hard to leave, because it is so lovely and peaceful, and because it is our last day together.

Ben enjoying a pomegrantate in our hotel room.

We leave paradise for Sparta and Mystra, en route to Athens. Mystra, a world heritage site, is now assorted ruins on a hilltop 620 meters/2000 feet high, was a cultural center of the

Byzantine world, home to a school (of the day) of humanistic philosophy, and a flourishing silk trade, built in 1249 by the Franks before being won by the Byzantines.

Later, we are back in Athens, at a hotel near the airport. We had originally planned a third night in Momenvasia, but had to skip the third night when a flight schedule changed and required an early departure.

It was so nice to have a second Christmas season in Greece. In Lebanon, Syria and Turkey we had largely missed Christmas fanfare, but it was there in Greece in January, where Christmas falls on January 6th. Trees, lights, cookies--all good.
Goodbye to Ben at Athens airport

and later Tom and Cam and I fly Cyprus airlines back to Beirut.

Monday, January 5, 2009

December Trip--Part I, Aleppo to Cappadocia


We set off on our journey, having negotiated a taxi from Beirut to Aleppo ($110), a five- to forever-hour drive depending on time spent at the border. One can never know how long the remarkably labor-intensive paperwork and other assorted delays may take. In our case, it turned out to be 1 ½ hours, and money changed hands (unbeknown to us), as apparently the visas we have arranged in advance listed the wrong entry point. Our Syrian driver is skillful, but is occasionally seen simultaneously smoking and talking on the cell phone in addition to driving, and there are no working seat belts.

We stay two nights in Aleppo, ancient city and more recently (until the 1930s) the terminus of the Orient Express. We visit the souk (market) and the remarkable citadel, which holds a commanding view of the whole city and area and has a terrific moat. Photos are Ben and Cam outside the citadel, and the hamam (bath) inside it.

We have the feeling we are being watched. Ben thwarts a flock of would be robbers in the souk: women in full abayah surrounding and bumping me, feeling Cam’s pockets for a wallet. There are very few Americans in Syria now. I think we only got the visas because we had applied for the before the US bombing inside Syrian territory.

We have a great mezze meal--how could we manage it after all the great street food we’d had all day: almond/coconut cookies; omelet sandwiches; warm, thick rice drink with cinnamon; fresh squeezed orange juice (see photo).

The next day we negotiate a cab for the three-hour trip to Antakya, Turkey. We wait 45 minutes sitting in the car at the taxi stand/bus station, watching our passports pass from hand to hand. There is so much archaic bureaucracy in Syria.

At the Turkish border it takes 30 minutes to exit Syria and enter Turkey. A (Turkish) sign: “hope you happy travel”. Also waiting to enter is a line of vehicles with Russian license plates, filled with tired travelers. Tom learns that they are returning from the Haj! What a trip they made: Russia, Georgia, through Eastern Turkey, all through Syria, across Jordan and into Saudi Arabia--no wonder they looked tired now, on their way back, and T reported they didn’t smell so great when he was standing next to them in the passport line.

As we enter Turkey we see a very long line of trucks waiting to enter Syria.


Antakya, AKA Antioch--a very pleasant city. Tom calls Antakya an Arabic city with sanity. A lighter, happier feel. Few women with headscarves, wide sidewalks, the Orontes River. Internet cafes on every other block--nice ones with comfy chairs, and cheap internet, about 75 cents an hour. So civilized. People are so friendly. We visited the Byzantine mosaic museum--here are two stone lions from the 8th century BC. , and a couple of mosaics.

The main reason for our trip here is to see St. Peter’s cave church, where Peter preached in around AD 50. Photos show the outside and inside of the church:

Later, at the Oasis café, free backgammon and Wifi, a small playground. We play backgammon and drink tea. Later they bring us complementary fresh squeezed juice--lovely--orange and tangerine. People are so welcoming!

At dinner we have a feast for 35 Turkish Lira, about 23$. The waiter gives us an extra salad, and, after we eat, wet wipes and cologne. People are so friendly, and the town has a laid back feel, yet vibrant feel--so refreshing after Syria. We are not anxious to go back to Syria anytime soon--glad we were able to see all we did there.

Tom, on the balcony of our 2 star Antakya hotel.

Antakya is in the Hatay Province of Turkey, the farthest south bit, hanging down in the middle of the country, looking rather like a penis on the map.

An odd sounding restaurant:

Next, a cushy Turkish bus passing through hilly green countryside. The bus has an attendant who puts a Gladiator video on, serves us hot tea, and later, refreshing cologne.
We have several bus rides totaling about 8 hours to reach Goreme, in Cappadocia.

Cappadocia: land of the fairy chimneys! Cave churches dating to 4000 BC--the Hittites--and later used by Christians. We see amazingly well preserved paintings of biblical scenes.

After the churches we hit the hamam (spiritual and physical cleansing) at our 4 star hotel, much of which is in caves.

Ben finds Christmas music on the radio. The tunes are familiar and we decide they are in Armenian. Christmas is not a holiday for most of Moslem Turkey, but there are quite a few Christmas trees and colored lights around.

At dinner Ben orders a local specialty, “pottery kebab”, meat cubes cooked in a tapered clay pot whose neck is broken at the table.

The next day we took a couple of buses to reach a vast underground city built by the Hittites 4000 years ago. There are 8 levels underground, that housed 10,000 people! Huge round stones were set upright and sideways into a slot carved in the stone, to slide across the narrow pathways to block intruders. A four inch diameter hole in the center of the stone allowed spears to protrude through and skewer would be attackers. It is a complete city--we saw school, kitchen, church and wine press.

And we had a white Christmas! Christmas Eve it snowed, making the fairy chimneys even more beautiful.

Christmas in Cappadocia--more magic. Tom uses an ATM and forgets his card. We check for it later--gone--was it stolen?? Next day we check at the tourist information office to see if any kind soul has turned it in. They call the bank and the bank staff jump in a taxi for a 25 minute ride to reach us and open the ATM. Card is found. No charge.