It's hard for me to believe that the journey has ended. Four months ago I was on my flight to Dubai, nervous and apprehensive, thinking, "What if I hate it?" "What if I get lonely?"
I'm happy to say that India, a country I casually added to my trip back in October, really turned out to be the icing on the cake.
Note: My Nikon stopped working in India so all these pictures are taken with my crappy tablet camera :(
From Jaipur, I bussed my way over to Udaipur - known as the 'Venice of India' and the most romantic city in India at that.
There I met Deepak, Mark, and Ben: three funny, amicable guys that I would end up traveling the rest of India (the next 12 days) with.
With less than a million people, Udaipur is a small city by Indian standards.
More importantly, Udaipur showed me a side of India I didn't know existed: beautiful lakes, rivers, and most importantly - silence.
On one especially eventful day, the guys and I hiked to the top of a mountain west of the city just in time to catch the sunset.
With beers in hand, we laughed and joked the entire way up: one of the most pleasant evenings of my trip. I hadn't found a group this amicable since my time in southern Ethiopia. We all hit it off pretty well.
Had I planned more time for India, I would've liked to stay in Udaipur longer. Having a few beers on the rooftop restaurants along the canal reminded me so much of some European city.
Deepak left the pack a little early, but a day later, the rest of us moved on southward towards the one and only... Mumbai.
Abundant with massive skyscrapers, Mumbai is as cosmopolitan as cities get.
Back in Udaipur we had met Abhira, a Mumbai native that offered to show us around the sprawling city she calls home.
For two days, she brought us to awesome comedy clubs, restaurants, and local bars: a look into upper-class Mumbai that looked and felt just like home.
We saw another Bollywood film - this one a comedy - and laughed for hours! Thanks for everything, Abhira!!
The next day, Ben and I took a ferry to see Elephanta Island - an old isle outside of Mumbai harbor filled with old Hindu temples.
Little did we know the journey itself would turn out to be the majority of the experience.
20 minutes into our '45 minute' boat ride, our ferry's engine died in the middle of the bay. Their solution? Pack us all onto another ferry that was already over capacity.
Now carrying the weight of two boatloads of people, not surprisingly, within 10 minutes the engine of the second ferry died.
Solution? Another ferry! Ferry number three though, pulled us the rest of the way.
Three and a half hours later, we made the 10-mile journey to the island with three times the amount of people we started with!
And we finally saw the two-thousand year old Hindu temples carved into the island caves. I made sure to take my time extra slowly since we worked so hard to get there!
Through the ferry mishap, we also made a few new friends.
And as we ferried on back, the Mumbai skyline at sunset glowed from afar. This ferry only took an hour, thankfully.
Thanks to Slumdog Millionaire, Mumbai is also unfairly infamous for its slums. On one of our last mornings, we decided to visit the Dharavi slums - the largest slum in Asia and also where they filmed Slumdog.
While we expected to see poverty and beggars abound, we saw instead what felt like a normal neighborhood community of people working together.
Not only did nobody ask us for money, they welcomed us! None of us could believe how different everything was compared to how the movies portrayed Mumbai slums.
Where was the misery? Where was the desperation? People seemed genuinely happy and content with their lives.
One thing that did hold true was the massive gap between the rich and poor in Mumbai. Upscale malls one day? Slums another?
Through the dustiness I found a charm in Mumbai that surprised me: in a city of over 22 million people, there were so many places to explore from night markets on the beach to old British colonial neighborhoods.
After our 4 days of exploring Mumbai, we continued southward to the final destination of my trip: Goa.
In the states, we have our Hawaii, Mexicans have their Cancun, and in India, Goa is the beach place to be!
My first two hours in Goa, I got side-swiped by a car while testing out a scooter Ben had rented. The guy drove off of course, but I was lucky enough to just be a little scratched up.
On the bright side, Deepak rejoined us and the guys and I decided to go all out and rent a beachhouse directly on the shore!
Sunbathing by day and partying by night, I couldn't think of a better way to wrap up the Indian leg of my journey than in Goa!
After all the dust had settled, it was hard saying goodbye to an Indian adventure that really made my trip (and went by the fastest)!
Flying back to Dubai was a sad feeling, but I feel very content with the adventures had by the beach.
In just a few hours from now, I'll be on my flight back home where it was summer last time I set foot and the Olympics had just ended.
I've missed a lot back home - holidays, birthdays, music, but the experiences these past few months have altered me so much.
Has it really been four months? So hard to believe.
Four months of laughter, adventures, uncertainties, sickness, surprises, disappointments, hygienic challenges, and spiritual changes.
But what have these experiences with 154 different people from 46 countries taught me?
Well, for one thing, I've learned that there are only two types of people you encounter when you travel: those who will help you and those who will hurt you.
I've learned that first impressions can easily be wrong, but gut feelings are unmistakably right.
I've learned that the worse a hotel is the more you should sleep with the lights on because it keeps the cockroaches at bay. On that same note, I've learned to be able to fall asleep just about anywhere.
I've learned that in any country you visit, train station employees will be the most miserable people you'll ever meet; and the art of dealing with taxi drivers, that's been a good lesson, too.
I've learned that sometimes when things just don't go according to plan, it's OKAY. There's always a way around things - even if you're stuck in northern Israel during the Sabbath and you've missed the last train.
I've learned that gratitude is a universal gesture that isn't expressed nearly enough and that an extra "I appreciate it" goes a long way beyond language barriers.
I've learned that traveling alone is one of the best decisions I've ever made, and I can't imagine traveling otherwise. You meet so many people, you learn so much about yourself, and nothing is ever forced or compromised. It's the selfish but most fulfilling way to travel.
Most importantly, I've learned that there really is no cure to this thing called life.
I approached this trip hoping it would improve me - turn me into a better person, a stronger individual - and all my problems back home would somehow just disappear.
And while the things I wanted to escape from haven't changed at all, I've discovered so much about myself and what really makes me tick.
When you're in a place thousands of miles from the closest person you know, you see your raw, uninhibited personality - one without the influence of others. You simply don't care, because there's nobody around that knows you enough to judge you.
And in that time I've been able to peruse the things I like and the things I dislike from food to people to my very own personality traits.
I've attained an extra sense of self-confidence and self-assurance; to trust myself wholly because when there's no one else to turn to, I've even surprised myself at times.
To those of you who have been following my journey (and even those of you who just come for the pictures!), thanks for all of your moral support.
To those of you I met along the way, thank you for telling me your stories and sharing with me your world and companionship. I hope to cross paths with you again!
And while I'm itching to head back home for the holidays, I know it won't be long before the travel bug bites me again.
The world is so immense and I'm lucky enough to have seen so much of it already.
Next on the list? Central Asia? Southeast Asia? South America?
There's still so much left!
Not too long ago, I would have told you the most crowded place I had ever been to was probably Shanghai, Hong Kong, or even Cairo.
New Delhi, (or just Delhi) to the average tourist, is a massive shock to the senses. People and rickshaws flood the streets and the constant honking and crowds are overwhelming to almost everyone I've spoken to.
Luckily for me, I had just experienced more than a month in Africa so to most people's utter disbelief, arriving in New Delhi was pretty refreshing for me.
Street food in Delhi is heaven for foodies: whether it's chow mein, a breakfast chopati, or something sweet, there are vendors on just about every corner - any time of day.
My first day alone, I had no less than 10 different street food snacks. I really could not stop eating all the delicious concoctions!
According to LonelyPlanet, the general rule of thumb is if it's fried or boiling, it's safe to eat. And NEVER eat meat!
The one time I didn't obey this rule (had rice and chicken), I paid a big price for. Let's just say one of my days in Delhi was spent entirely in the hotel... getting to know my toilet.
I also spent a good chunk of another day getting my train tickets together. I waited almost 4 hours to buy them, but I met some good company along the way: Anastasia and Stanistlav from Russia and Geraldine from Germany - all in India escaping the bitter European winter.
The next day, I also ran into Christian - a guy I had met back in Egypt in my Cairo hostel! One continent and 4 time zones away we managed to bump into each other in India of all places! Unbelievable!
His girlfriend joined him in India, so the three of us went out to have some "Korean" food... which was basically Indian food with a different name.
In terms of sights, Delhi has so many incredible things to see from forts to palaces to temples.
I easily got lost in all the beautiful buildings built by emperors and kings along the way.
This was used to tell time back then!
I realized very early on that it's impossible to take a picture without SOMEONE being in it.
Everywhere I turned though, there were just hundreds of more people. The lunchtime rush here is no joke!
Being a city person myself, I adjusted to it all fairly quickly.
And Indian English, as they say, is very different than American English. There were some quirky things along the way.
After a few days in the capital, I hopped on a train to Agra that was not only clean and comfortable, but even included breakfast! Very different than those pictures of Indian trains with people on the roof. I couldn't find one of those trains!
Arriving in my Agra hostel, I immediately met David from France and Alice from Taiwan - the only other Taiwanese person I had met after almost 4 months of traveling!
We spent a relaxing day lounging around a rooftop cafe, swapping stories of our adventures so far. David cut his hand open from broken dishes. Didn't stop him from traveling!
The next day, we woke up at 5am to see none other than one of the seven modern wonders of the world.
I realized going on a Saturday during peak season was not one of my best ideas...
There are some things out there that are overrated. The Taj Mahal, to me, was not one of them. In fact, it was much bigger than I had imagined!
I ended up spending over 5 HOURS at the complex, admiring everything from its colossus size to just the sheer amount of people.
That afternoon, I wandered over to Agra Fort - just a hop and a skip away from the Taj.
There were monkeys everywhere.
I'm happy to say my body's officially adapted to Indian food. Since I've sworn off the street food, every restaurant meal has been incredible thus far.
After a wonderful final night of conversations in the hostel, I embarked for the city of Jaipur on a bitter cold Friday morning. Yes, northern India gets COLD!
My train was delayed 2 hours (no surprise there) but when it finally arrived, sitting next to me was Consuelo, a Guatemalan transplant living in Barcelona for 7 years and counting.
We got to talking and eventually decided on the same hotel. This being my last few weeks of traveling, I decided to splurge on a nice hotel for once.
We went out for lunch at none other than Pizza Hut! While the portions were tiny, the Hawaiian pizza tasted just like home...
And just a few blocks away was a gigantic Indian cinema. We decided that no Indian trip is complete without seeing a Bollywood movie!
The next two days, we tackled Jaipur to see the fantastic sights of Rajasthan.
Just outside of the city was a sight more impressive to me than the Taj Mahal: The GIGANTIC Amber Fort - built to protect and house the royalty of medieval Jaipur.
We literally spent the entire day exploring this maze-like palace, built to confuse any would-be invaders.
That night, we had dinner plans with Zoey, a British lady we met with ambitious plans of traveling the world for 5 years! She's on her second year at this point, 5 months in India alone...
At this point, I must admit I'm getting a little homesick. While the past four months have been incredible, I also never realized how long four months can feel being away from friends and family.
As I've met so many people in India at the start of their trips, I've noticed just how tired I've become, especially since my African leg of the journey.
With only two weeks left, from here on out, southbound I go along the western Indian coast! Thanks for reading!
Car bombs. Kidnappings. Extortion. Pirates. These are the things that usually come to mind when people mention Somalia.
But just a few hundred miles north of the most dangerous country on earth is a place just the opposite: the wonderful, peaceful (independent) Somaliland.
Though not officially recognized, Somaliland broke from southern Somalia during the civil war of the 90s. Due to its strange political status, I knew I had to visit this place!
Bussing my way through eastern Ethiopia, there were some desolate, dusty old towns along the way which reminded me of the old west.
Once I got to the Ethiopian-Somaliland border, I was shocked to find it open and almost completely unregulated. You could easily walk between the two countries without getting anything stamped... not a great idea, but definitely doable.
Somaliland is similar to Ethiopia in the sense that the words "maximum occupancy" do not exist. The minibus from the border to the capital city was definitely an experience... I'm also really good at tying my backpack to the top of a bus now!
On the way to Hargeisa, I met Tanat, a Somali expat living in Denmark who was on his way back to visit his wife and son. He found me a great hotel and brought his son to visit me a few times!
Hargeisa, to my surprise, was a vibrant little capital city. There weren't any paved roads to speak of, but everything was orderly and peaceful - a stark contrast from chaotic Cairo or even Addis Ababa.
In fact, the city is so safe that there are money exchange stands on just about every corner, completely out in the open.
I exchanged $50 and received a whopping 340,000 Somaliland Shillings - at 6,800 shillings to the dollar! It's not as great as it sounds though considering it costs 3,000 shillings for a bottle of water!
Carrying around a bag full of money is pretty fun though!
Despite its stability and safety, the tarnished name of 'Somalia' means that Somaliland's tourist industry is basically nonexistent. I felt like THE tourist of the entire city.
Just about everywhere I went, people greeted me, some offered me tea, and most wanted to strike up a friendly conversation with me. Nobody had any ulterior motives or wanted money from me. It was a very genuine friendliness.
Was I in Palestine once again?
Though Somaliland isn't your typical sightseeing destination, war monuments and colorful murals dotted the city recovering from a pretty rough civil war.
I learned the hard way that there are NO ATMS in all of Somaliland. Luckily, I had just enough spending cash for the week - but I was strapped!
I also just happened to be there during their presidential elections. Every day it was rallies, busloads of party members, and signs - all demonstrated peacefully, of course.
For lunch, Somalilanders gather in the streets every day at noon to eat delicious spaghetti prepared by street vendors, one vestige of their Italian occupation days.
Like anywhere else in this part of the world, utensils are not so commonly used, so I ate spaghetti with my hands, just like the locals. When in Rome!
One Somali man even offered to pay for my lunch, but I couldn't accept it. Like the other Muslim countries I had visited, Somalilanders were incredibly hospitable.
I met Ridwaan and Abdi, two restaurant cooks who introduced me to 'shurro,' a popular Somali breakfast dish consisting of corn, milk, and spices!
After a day and a half in the capital, I took a minibus out to Berbera, a small port city on the northern Somalian coast.
What was supposed to be a simple two-hour drive ended up taking FIVE with checkpoints, meal breaks, and even a prayer break. While the people are kind, they are also painfully inefficient...
Berbera is like the Disneyland for people who like conflict tourism. Unlike the rapidly developing Hargeisa, Berbera is a city crumbling in ruins from the Somalian Civil War.
With three incredible shipwrecks visible in the main harbor, I felt like I was in some post-apocalyptic world. It simply did not feel real to me, to see such large ships in ruins.
Berbera wasn't just all wrecks and ruins. Just 2 miles north of the city, I discovered a completely untouched coastline.
I hadn't seen the ocean since Alexandria, so I decided to take a relaxing beach day - picnic and all. There I was on the beach, facing Yemen, in pirate alley. No pirates on my watch, though.
On the beach, I met Abdimajid, a talkative guy who was surprised to see me on his daily walk. Sunbathing, after all, isn't exactly a popular pastime in the muslim world!
"Are you a journalist?" he asked me - a popular question people ask out here.
I also ran into two Italian guys on the beach, the only other tourists I would end up seeing!
Unfortunately, my time spent in Somaliland was cut short by a terrible bout of food poisoning that left me in bed for the better of the next three days.
Somaliland wasn't too bad of a place to get sick, I realized. Strangers came to my aid and brought me ice for my fever and when I went to the hospital, they didn't even charge me a penny to see a doctor and get rehydration salts! Does Somaliland have more affordable healthcare than back home? Sadly, I think yes.
When the fevers, chills, and diarrhea finally stopped, I made my way back to Hargeisa and spent my last day swapping stories over milk tea with Ridwaan and Abdi!
Leaving Somaliland was a sad ordeal - not just because of the wonderful people I had met - but because I knew I had a daunting 2 day bus ride back to Addis ahead of me.
But somehow through the post-sickness haze, I survived the 30 hour bus ride.
On my final night in Africa, I met up with Feleg and Agata (the two Americans I met last month) again in the upscale neighborhood of Bole, and we went to the local 'beer garden' for some good old fashioned Austrian-German sized drinks!
Feleg and Agata both welcomed me to Ethiopia when I first arrived and sent me off on my last night!
In my original plan, this would have been the last stop of my trip before going home. However, I've decided to extend my journey three more weeks to see India
while I'm in the area!
So it's technically not 105 days of backpacking anymore... but 126. Not as catchy, as I know.
Africa this past month has taught me a lot more than I thought it ever would. It's taught me lessons in patience and has definitely increased my physical and hygienic tolerance. I now appreciate more than ever the things I used to take for granted: a toilet that flushes, a shower with running hot water, a clean bed, and a normal car ride.
Next up... Delhi!
PS: Happy birthday to my beautiful sister, Winny!!
Three months into my travels, Ethiopia has shown me the trials and tribulations that come with traveling in the developing world. It has definitely not been easy and, in some cases, frustrating. But man, I have learned so much.
I also feel like my physical tolerance is much higher now than a few months ago. Although it's still hard not to go batshit crazy every now and then when it takes 4 hours to travel 60 miles...
Being all bussed out in the south, I decided this time to fly into the north, compared to the alternative of a rough two-day bus ride.
What I didn't know was that planes in Ethiopia operate like busses. My what-I-assumed-was-a-direct flight to Lalibela flew first to Gondar, then the northernmost city of Axum, before finally backtracking to Lalibela. What was supposed to be a short 45-minute flight ended up taking over three hours.
"This is Ethiopia" pretty much became my mantra every time something ridiculous or unexpected happened.
Lalibela, known as the Jerusalem of Africa, is known for having the largest monolithic churches in the world - eleven of them in fact. Monolithic meaning carved completely out of one single piece of rock!
I'm not sure why King Lalibela decided to carve these churches from the ground, but I've never seen anything like it. Amazing!
I also happened to be in Lalibela on the day of their weekly market. Northern Ethiopia being VERY cold this time of year, I quickly bought a traditional 'gabi' - a large thick blanket that Ethiopians drape across their necks. And wonderfully toasty it was.
From Lalibela, I bussed an incredibly scenic route westward towards Bahir Dar - a city situated on Lake Tana - the only coastal city in an otherwise landlocked Ethiopia. The Ethiopian highlands along the way were spectacularly photogenic.
When I arrived, I managed to hit the lottery and found a hotel that was not only clean but had hot water and free wifi. Most Ethiopian hotels don't even offer a single of those three things, so this certainly felt like the Sheraton!
In my hotel, I met Hal and Leslie from Wales and we shared a boat out to see the monastaries of Lake Tana.
Unfortunately, boat scams in Lake Tana are commonplace. After we initially paid, they told us that "a few people cancelled" and that we would have to pay more. They also refused to return the money we already paid. Again, this is Ethiopia, I told myself.
I learned afterwards that this scam happens to basically everyone.
On top of that, the island monasteries on the lake treat tourists like cash cows. Entrance is 100 Birr (6 dollars) PER monastery, and if you don't want to visit their monastery, they basically kick you off the island. Yep.
We decided to pay to see the biggest (and oldest) monastery on the lake, this one being from the 14th century.
I've been to loads of churches over the years, but Ethiopian Orthodox ones feel and look completely different than western Christianity ones.
The lake is also known for its hippos, but we weren't lucky enough to see any that day.
The next day, I got a guide that took me to see the Blue Nile Falls outside of Bahir Dar.
On the way, we passed a religious ceremony honoring the day of the goat, an Ethiopian holiday according to my guide.
We walked through incredible scenery and medieval bridges and villages before making it to the falls.
Apparently during the wet season, the amount of water here is more than doubled!
Sadly, it was all downhill from there. Leaving the falls by boat, I was forced into paying 150 Birr (9 dollars!) for a 1 MINUTE boat ride that was supposed to cost less than 50 cents.
To make matters worse, my tour guide also tried to scam me by telling me I had to tip him a "set fee of 350 BIRR" (21 DOLLARS) for his "guide association fee" and that anything extra would be for him. He conveniently told me this while I was trapped in the middle of nowhere with him!
I threatened to call the police and demanded to be taken back to Bahir Dar, which surprisingly worked. I just couldn't believe that in two days, I had been scammed twice.
Despite these discouraging mishaps, there was a silver lining in Bahir Dar. Hal and I went out for a few beers one night and we met some college students who brought us to some cool Ethiopian bars and clubs!
They bought us drinks and showed us a pretty good night on the town, something that helped pick me up from some of my bad experiences before.
A few days later, I headed northbound to Gondar, a medieval town in northern Ethiopia known for its castles built by the emperors.
When I read about Ethiopian castles, I wasn't sure what to expect. I guess I had my bar set low because I was pretty blown away by the Gondar castles!
Inside, some of them were bombed by the British in WWII (when Ethiopia was occupied by the Italians).
Gondar is also a popular staging point for treks through the famous Simien Mountains, a popular camping spot.
I met Maude and Osho from Quebec and Rabia from Switzerland, and the four of us went around town arranging a trek to see the mountains.
Knowing a little Amharic goes a long way! I was able to negotiate $40 off per person for our three day, two night trek - which included everything from food to tents and mules!
In our group, we also met Rhona from Ireland and Cameron from Australia, and the six of us set off for what would be three grueling, but rewarding, days of hiking!
Approximately 12,000 feet above sea level (almost the altitude of my skydiving in April), the air in the Simien Mountains was not only thin but freezing cold.
Two people in the group experienced a bit of altitude sickness our first day. The views, however, were spectacular.
I'm not much of a scarf-wearing guy, but when it's that cold, I'll take what I can get!
We also spotted wild baboons and ibexes! It was the first time I had been so close to such exotic animals without some sort of barrier...
At night, our chefs in the camps cooked us some incredible 3-course dinners, as well as plenty of snacks throughout the day.
On the last night, I witnessed our cook kill a chicken for our dinner...
And of course, I taught everyone Daifugo, the Japanese card game I mentioned in my last entry!
During the course of our three days in the mountains, we climbed and trekked a total of 25 miles!
When we got back to Gondar, I coincidentally ran into Hal and Leslie (from Bahir Dar! It was a pleasant surprise to reunite with them for another night of drinks.
In terms of natural scenery, Ethiopia has been the most beautiful country I've seen on my trip thus far.
Though in terms of the local people, it has been a bit disappointing.
During my 4 weeks in Ethiopia, I was scammed twice, had two theft attempts, and was grossly overcharged for everything from water to bus fares.
Sadly, almost everyone who approached me wanted money, and for the first time, I had people ask for money for giving me directions!
It's sad to me that, for such a beautiful country, there's so much blatant discrimination against foreigners, or "faranjis." Most restaurants and hotels will overcharge foreigners as much as they can get away with. Even if you know the real price, they'll tell you directly "No, you will pay the faranji price."
As for the begging, the kids in the cities basically know two English words: "Hello," followed by "money."
In one instance, I had a security guard in a church ask me for money. "If your face is white, everyone assumes you have money to give them," one Ethiopian told me. They refer to all non-Africans as 'white.'
And the staring... oh, the staring. This must be how celebrities feel all the time.
Despite these hindrances, Ethiopia, to my surprise, will remain one of the most stunningly beautiful countries I've ever visited.
Next up... the northern Somalia de facto Republic of Somaliland!
Yes, I really am going there!
Never in my life have I ever been as dirty as I was during my 9 days in southern Ethiopia; but it has been an incredibly life-changing experience, one that I feel lucky to have experienced.
If you've ever browsed the Discovery Channel or opened up a National Geographic in a waiting room, you have likely seen pictures of the Mursi tribe in Ethiopia - the people with the discs on their overstretched lips.
These people, along with hundreds of other tribes, all live in the Omo Valley of southern Ethiopia. Getting there, however, is incredibly difficult: planes do not fly and roads are either in terrible condition or nonexistent.
Because of this, organized jeep tours cost over a thousand dollars per person for an 8 day tour of the tribes - 8 days being minimal considering it takes 2 days to get there and another 2 back.
Luckily, I met Hitomu, Akira, and Aki: three independent backpackers from Japan who had the idea of trying it ourselves - without a tour.
Very few people go tourless simply because it's very, very difficult.
Bus travel in southern Ethiopia is like a safari in itself. The roads that are paved are extremely bumpy and the roads that aren't feel like a magnitude 6.0 earthquake. Add in tribal pedestrians, large slow animals, and water crossings and the bus is going at a top speed of about 35 mph.
Not to mention the cramped conditions. In one of our minibuses, I counted 22 people in our bus built for 12. I did everything from sitting on the floor to laying in the back of a truck.
This was taken right before 5 more people came on board.
One silver lining is that the scenery along the way is quite nice.
Two days by bus from Addis, we made it to Kayefour, a town without electricity or running water, where we found a guide that brought us to see our first tribe: the Bana people.
Of all the tribes we visited, the Bana were by far the most welcoming and least exposed to tourists of them all.
We were quickly welcomed by a Bana family that invited us into their hut for refreshments and (interpreted) conversation.
They offered us roasted coffee, brewed beer, and invited us to stay with them for the night! Even hospitality can transcend language barriers, it seems.
The Bana people are especially known for their beads and bracelets in Ethiopia. I made sure to buy a few when we visited their weekly market the next day!
I also tried chewing 'chat' for the first time - a popular Ethiopian narcotic. Instead of slowing things down like marijuana, chat actually makes you incredibly alert and aware.
The first time I tried it, I read 34 pages of my Dubai guidebook before I realized what I was doing. One guy told me he chewed chat and read the entire Quran in one sitting. Where was this amazing plant during high school?
A few days later, we finally made it to Jinka - the closest town to the Mursi people, known for their discs.
It's worth nothing that only the married Mursi women have disc lips as they consider it beautiful on women. The men just paint themselves in white and look tough.
While I was hoping for something a little more pristine, the village we visited felt more like a business than anything. The Mursi people are so used to hoards of tourists coming in jeeps that they simply ask for tips and pose for photographs. I suppose the downside of being so famous is the inevitable commercialization that follows.
"You can touch them, y'know. They really don't care," said the tour guide to me as he casually copped a feel on one of the young girls.
At the Jinka market, Tom, being a tall guy, was naturally very popular with the local kids. They jumped, climbed, and swung from his arms; he was basically a walking jungle gym! It was pretty adorable.
At one point, Akira suddenly disappeared. A few minutes of searching later, we found him like this.
Being the only girl in the group, Aki also got a bit too much attention from the market kids.
Wise word of advice: Never wear a skirt to a tribal market!
Sadly, Akira got pretty sick in Jinka. Turns out, he contracted an intestinal parasite and, not wanting to risk losing hospital access as we went deeper into the Omo, he decided to call it quits and head back to Addis Ababa to see a hospital.
However, at the same time we met Daisuke (also from Japan) and Jong Ho from Korea, who both decided to travel onward with us. Even with Akira gone, our group rose from 4 to 5!
We missed the last weekly bus to the next town (Turmi) so we had to contract a private one to take us. I've realized that splitting everything 5 ways is quite nice!
In Turmi, it was cheap enough for all 5 of us to get our own private rooms.
Akira and Tom taught me an amazingly addictive Japanese card game called 'Daifugo.' We played a round of it to decide room picks and - being the winner - I got the 'suite!'
If you've ever traveled through Africa, you'd understand how nice this room is! This is like Vegas status in the Omo Valley.
From our hotel, we walked a good 4 miles with a guide to visit a Hamer village during their evening dances.
The Hamer kids were initially shy about getting their photos taken, but once I showed them pictures of themselves, they all started fighting to have their pictures taken!
Nighttime in the Omo can be pretty lonely as electricity is pretty limited, if any at all.
We resorted to hanging up some flashlights and the five of us started playing Daifugo for money. What started as 1 Birr stakes (5 cents) quickly escalated into 30 Birr stakes (2 dollar) a few hours later. With a game this fast, you'd be surprised at how much people start to owe after a while. The most we ever played for was a 200 Birr game, roughly 12 bucks!
It doesn't sound like a lot, but once you get used to spending less than $20 a day in Ethiopia, 12 dollars is a LOT. We also chewed some chat while playing, of course!
On our last day in Turmi, we were lucky enough to witness a Hamer wedding ceremony. There's a big reason why they wear bras for this ceremony.
A Hamer wedding ceremony, for those not warned about the customs, can be a huge shock to experience.
The women wear bras because the husband-to-be and his family whip (that's right, whip) the bride(s) to symbolize them giving themselves to their husband.
Watching it was completely different than what I had expected. Not only do the women not mind being whipped, they absolutely want it! The husbands, on the other hand, didn't seem to enjoy it, but the women aggressively sang, danced, and shouted to be whipped. To them, it's an incredible honor to be whipped by your husband's family.
It got to the point where brides would actually fight each other to be whipped first. One bride almost cried because her husband didn't want to keep whipping her.
While to outsiders, the whole concept is extremely gruesome, the married Hamer women flaunt their scars with a huge amount of pride. These are, by far, the toughest women I've ever seen.
After the whipping, the final ceremony is the bull jump, where the husband must jump and run across a line of bulls 8 times to signify his manhood.
Never in my life did I think I would ever witness this type of tribal ritual. It's all been extremely surreal to me. I've definitely come a long way since Dubai!
Everyone else being on their way down to Kenya, I said a few bittersweet goodbyes to the group of awesome people I traveled with for over 9 days.
I miss everyone already!
Going back to Addis, I hitched a ride with an overnight banana truck.
A terrible 23 hours later, I finally made it back to the capital, barely intact.
As for my experiences back in Addis Ababa, this dusty city has been overwhelming, to say the least.
I've also been hanging out with three American expats living in Addis: Marie Claire, Feleg, and Agata. We've been hanging out between my trips to the outer regions of the country.
I also made an afternoon trip to the Entoto Mountains north of the city. What surprised me was how the Ethiopian highlands look more like Canada to me than the way I pictured 'Africa' to be.
And today, I had my first hot water shower in almost 2 weeks.
While I won't miss not showering for 4 days at a time and sleeping in mosquito nets, I sure will miss those kids.
This is by far my longest entry to date... so sit back, relax, and enjoy the pictures!
After a few days in Cairo, leaving feels like changing out of bowling shoes into regular ones: it's that refreshing. As much as I loved the energy of the city, the incessant honking and the air pollution makes LA feel like a little town in Kansas.
And the smog... oh man, the smog!
And so, I hopped on a train from Ramses Station and headed to Alexandria, Egypt's window to the Mediterranean.
Alexander the Great was a creative man and basically named all of his cities Alexandria - this one being just one of them. After he died, most of them changed their names, but somehow this Alexandria remained.
While I was expecting something of a Mediterranean beach city like Tel Aviv, Alexandria felt more like Cairo's little brother... with more water.
If you ignore the trash though, Alexandria is quite the beautiful city. French buildings, fantastic sunsets, what more can you ask for?
I watched a young Egyptian couple have a romantic dinner on the beach - that is until they tossed their trash straight into the ocean...
The city also uses their original 19th century trolleys as their metro system. It's painfully slow, but gives the city a pretty authentic vintage feel.
What used to be one of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World, the Alexandria Lighthouse stands no more. But in its place is a crusader era fortress.
Most tourists skip Alexandria, so I stuck out like a sore thumb everywhere I went.
In fact, some places I felt like a tourist attraction myself. Egyptian guys and girls would approach me asking to take a picture with me in the most random places.
On the street? Sure, why not. In an internet cafe? Alright. In the bathroom though, that was a strange one.
As with any ancient city, you have your plethora of ruins.
The Romans really liked their amphitheaters. I swear I've seen at least 10 amphitheaters at this point. My guess is acting was a pretty stable job in Ancient Rome.
And perhaps the loneliest pillar in the world. Forever alone.
A few days later, I decided to take an overnighter (i.e. sleeper train) straight to Aswan, the southernmost city on the Egyptian Nile and slowly work my way back up to Cairo.
A rickety thirteen hours later, I woke up to a bustling town on the southern Nile.
The Lonely Planet guidebook called Aswan a "small city much more relaxed than Cairo or Luxor."
Lonely Planet lied.
Much to my disbelief, the concept of no thank you did not exist in Aswan. Right from the start, this "relaxed town" had the most aggressive street vendors I had ever encountered.
A simple "la shukran" didn't cut it in Aswan; street vendors chased me, grabbed me, and yelled at me because I wouldn't buy their stuff.
One night, I couldn't even leave my hostel to buy some water without being mobbed by at least 5 different people. I wasn't the only one with these experiences, of course.
I did, however, meet Yuya and Masato, two Japanese guys who had a great sense of humor!
We escaped the city and took a three hour ride to see Abu Simbel, an incredible temple carved by Ramses II once upon a time.
Ramses II also built another temple close by for his favorite of his 54 wives, Queen Neferteri. I'm pretty sure the other 53 were very jealous.
That same day, we took a boat to see the Philae Temple, the last Ancient Egyptian temple built before the Romans came and wreaked havoc.
It's safe to say we were pretty exhausted after 13 hours of sightseeing. One can only take in so many hieroglyphics in one day.
The next day, I took a boat across the Nile and did some climbing to explore some tombs on the west bank.
What I expected to see at the top were some more dusty tombs. Instead, I discovered an impeccable view of the Nile all to myself.
Instead of the usual train ride to the next city, I decided this time to drift my way to the next destination.
I met Matt from Canada, and we signed up for an overnight Egyptian felucca ride up the Nile to Luxor!
That awesome boat in the center... was not our boat. We had the tiny little budget felucca on the right.
Small, but comfy indeed.
We met Ajit from India and Mariya from Bulgaria and, as we drifted slowly down the Nile, we swapped travel stories over some wonderful food.
I slept like a baby that night on the felucca. Unlike the restless ocean, the Nile River is calm and gentle. That night, I realized without this little river, none of Egyptian civilization would have ever existed.
On the way to Luxor, we stopped by two temples: one devoted to the crocodile god, Sobek, and the other to the sun/bird god, Horus.
As Matt gleefully pointed out to me, "It's a bird... with a hat!"
Not just a casino in Las Vegas, the real Luxor is where the ancient Egyptian capital of Thebes was - home of the Valley of the Kings.
As for all the things I saw in Luxor, let's just say I did so much I'll let the pictures do the talking.
You might notice I'm wearing the same shirt in all these pictures. Why? Because this is all one day. This was, if I recall correctly, a 21-hour day.
That night, we enjoyed some Meister (Egyptian beer) and cheap Egyptian food on the rooftop of the hostel.
After Luxor, just when I thought I had seen everything there was to see in Egypt, a few passing backpackers urged me to go see the western desert.
While I did see a lot of desert already from Dubai to Jordan, I decided to squeeze in one last stop: Bahariyya, a little oasis in western Egypt.
Best last-minute decision I've ever made.
The Black Desert was one thing, but the White Desert... oh, man!
On my desert safari, I shared a car with three Chinese girls, and we set off for camping in the desert!
When there's no snow to snowboard on, why not sandboard instead?
That night, we shared a campfire with some funny Aussies, who I'm sure had more than just tea to drink!
We also had a thirsty little visitor at our campsite!
The next morning, we were surprised to find our little fox sleeping just a few feet away from our tents. I guess it gets pretty lonely out there in the desert.
After my impromptu desert adventure, it was time to go back into that hazy circus known as Cairo.
While I was gone, they apparently had another protest and burned a bus!
With an extra day to burn, I decided to go see the pyramids of Giza again... yes, they are that amazing!
On my way there, I ran into Lara and Geoffrey from France who I had met in Aswan, so we ended up spending the entire day together.
Seeing the pyramids a second time was just as spectacular to me as the first. That night, we tasted some local juices and went browsing in the night markets. I would say Lara, a spice lover, bought at least 8 pounds of spices alone!
After they flew back to France, my final night in Egypt was spent hanging out with Bruno and Eva from Hong Kong, who treated me to some delicious farewell ice cream downtown.
It was a wonderful way to top off the end of my Egyptian saga.
On my way to the airport that night, I experienced an unexpected final act of kindness in Egypt. Being a little lost and not being able to locate the airport bus, I went to an Egyptian guy for directions.
Juhanna, a college student, not only spent 10 minutes looking for my bus, but when he found it, he even took the one-hour ride to the airport with me! He insisted on paying the bus fare and wanted to make sure I got there!
What a wonderful lasting impression of Egypt. Shukran, Juhanna!
As with any country I've visited, leaving has always been the hardest part.
While my 21 days in Egypt did have its corrupt cops and crazy hasslers, my memories of this wonderful place are filled with its history, its culture, and its much-too-often kind strangers.
I'll definitely miss you, Egypt!
PS: Happy birthday, dad!
So before I delve into details about my visit to the pyramids, I must start with the beginning of the Egyptian chapter of my book thus far.
One thing's for sure. I'm sure as hell glad I made the decision to come anyway, despite the protests and post-revolution state!
First off, if you fly into Cairo, getting a visa on arrival at the airport is easy as cheese, but land crossing into the Sinai peninsula from Israel is as bad as it sounds. They "technically" don't issue Egyptian visas because Egypt has recently lost control of the Sinai, but as you know, most rules are flexible in this part of the world.
I ended up paying a big bribe ($85) to get my Egyptian visa at Taba, but it was well worth the alternative of being stuck in the Sinai. Getting the visa in Israel was a no-go, since then I would have proof of having visited Israel.
I also met some new friends at the border crossing: Korken from LA and Kaori from Japan. The bargaining power of the three of us gave us a two and a half hour TAXI RIDE to Dahab for 18 bucks a person? I'll take it.
Dahab, a sleepy little beach town on the Sinai, was a wonderful way to ease into Egypt. After the hustle and bustle of Tel Aviv, this place was quite nice to reflect and unwind.
Just a few hours into Dahab, we had some awesome koshary - the Egyptian vegetarian dish that even a week later, I am still hooked on!
The owner of the restaurant, Mohammed, was a bike enthusiast and asked us if we knew how to ride a motorcycle. Next thing I knew, I was behind the wheels and learning how to weave through the streets of Dahab!
Egypt is by far the cheapest country I've ever been to. After adapting to Israeli prices, I was shocked at how cheap everything was once again: hostels from as low as 4 bucks a night and meals for less than a dollar!
Korken and I made a midnight trip to climb Mt. Sinai - the place where Moses is said to have received the ten commandments. Watching the sun rise from the peak was worth every minute of that 10 mile climb!
I also went SCUBA diving for the first time since I got certified in July. Everything from the equipment to the guide cost a total of only 25 dollars! And the Red Sea felt wonderful.
After a few calm days in the Sinai, I parted ways with my new friends and disembarked on a 9-hour bus ride to Cairo. This massive Egyptian capital of 16 million people is certainly not for the faint-of-heart.
While downtown Cairo was fairly upscale, other parts of the city were simply trashed beyond belief. The smog and air pollution during rush hour made it hard to breathe at times.
Some Egyptians told me the trash is temporary from the revolution, but I don't know. I've seen people throw their leftovers directly on the street...
My hostel, close to Tahrir Square, was virtually empty as you can imagine! Because of the revolution last year and the recent protests, there were almost no tourists in Cairo. I could go three hours walking through downtown without seeing a single other foreigner. This was totally different (and way better) than the tourist-flooded Egypt I had long heard about.
Despite what you may hear on the news, I felt very safe walking around Tahrir Square at night. For the most part, it's just a hangout spot for the Cairo youth: there's even a KFC and a Pizza Hut there.
I talked to a few young Egyptians who protested during the revolution last year. "Egypt is nowhere near perfect yet, but we're much happier now than we were with Mubarak," one college student told me.
Of course, there are still remnants of the revolution.
Near the square, I walked to the US Embassy where barbed wire buffered the building a block away - to stop the protests.
The next day, I finally made my way to the Pyramids of Giza, something I had dreamed of seeing since I was a kid.
I splurged and hired a horse (hosan in Arabic) and guide since walking between the pyramids on thick sand is absolutely killer to the knees.
My guide, Mohammed, a college student working part-time at the pyramids, basically took me anywhere I wanted for a good two and half hours. He had a Chinese girlfriend in Libya and was thrilled when I told him I was from Taiwan.
There are basically 9 pyramids at the Giza complex: three large ones for 3 Pharaohs, 3 small ones for their wives, and 3 for their sons.
It's hard to imagine just how far away 5,000 years is! 2600 BC was a long, long, very long time ago.
Because of the revolution, I was almost completely alone most places with Mohammed! I felt like I was discovering the pyramids for the first time myself.
Where were all the busloads of tourists? Where were the long lines? Where were the aggressive vendors?
I don't think there's a better time than right now to see the pyramids! In a few years, once the new government is stable again, pictures like this will be impossible once again.
Oh hello there Sphinx!
After the tour, Mohammed invited me to see his grandfather's farm outside the city. In a spontaneous turn of events, I ended up spending that afternoon drinking tea with Bedouin farmers, all of which were thrilled to meet me!
After two weeks in Israel, I really missed that Arab hospitality!
He also introduced me to some of his friends and we picnicked and had koshary on the farm.
Of course, Mohammed's grandfather asked me to stay with them, but I had to go see the rest of Egypt.
Not only did they not have Facebook, Mohammed didn't even have an e-mail address! It was incredible to me to meet other young people completely untouched by social media.
I went from watching the sunrise that morning in Giza to watching it set on a Bedouin farm along the Nile.
Back in crazy Cairo (Kha-HERA mag-NOON in Egyptian Arabic), I did have a few run-ins with the usual tourist problems. I had a cop approach me asking for my "photography license" - something that doesn't exist - basically to ask for a bribe. Luckily for me, a kind Egyptian passer-by yelled at the cop to leave me alone in Arabic, and walked me out of there.
A few days later another cop approached me and directly asked for money, but I simply ignored him. If I didn't do anything wrong, what could he stop me for?
I also got pickpocketed for the first time on the Cairo subway. I lost about 50 Egyptian Pounds (8 dollars), which left me more impressed than anything! I'm still baffled as to how on earth the guy managed to get into my money-belt.
Despite these mishaps from corrupt officials, I realized quickly that the regular Egyptian people are just as friendly as Palestinians, Omanis, and Jordanians.
It's sad to me that Egypt gets a bit of a bad reputation because of their tourist scammers.
On another day, I visited Saccara and Dahshur - home of the original pyramids. These pyramids are a few hundred years older than the Pyramids of Giza!
Smaller, but built over 5,000 years ago...
The Bent Pyramid, funny enough, was not intentional. The pharaoh building it at the time didn't exactly have the best engineers and so, sometime about halfway through, they realized the angle was too steep to be stable and changed it.
The inside of some pyramids were lined with thousands of hieroglyphics, each one carved individually by workers once upon a time. I can definitely see why Egyptians are so proud of their culture.
Duck, owl, snake, slug, eye, foot...
They also illustrated some interesting stories in the tomb walls.
I guess this is where the PAUSE button was invented.
Even though so much sand, dust, and time had passed, I was surprised at how well most things were preserved.
Note to self: If you want to build something that lasts, do it on stone!
Roman ruins feel almost recent compared to these ancient tombs. When the Romans stormed Egypt and defeated Cleopatra, these had all been around for almost 3,000 years!
Two millennia later, they're still here and thousands of years from now, they're still likely to be around.
My last few days in Cairo, I met Jay from South Korea who had traveled all the way to Egypt by motorcycle. He biked through all of Russia and Europe before ferrying from Turkey to Egypt.
His ambitious round-the-world trip includes going all the way to South Africa, ferrying to Brazil, and biking up through the Americas, Alaska and back to Korea! I invited him to stay with me in LA once he reaches California sometime next year.
All in all, the Sinai and Cairo have been surprisingly safe and friendly places for a guy like me. Even in Egypt, I've realized just how different my experiences have been compared to what I expected.
More adventures to come as I drift further along the Nile and deeper into Egypt!
Oh and here's a mummy if anyone's interested.
Warning: It's a little creepy.
Going into Tel Aviv from Jerusalem is like going from Utah to Las Vegas. For such a small country, the two largest cities are night and day: you have the religious, conservative, shops-close-at-six Jerusalem to the East and - just an hour away - you have the liberal, sex-shops-galore Tel-Aviv on the Mediterranean coast.
Being in Israel during Jewish holiday season was not quite like how I pictured it. Rosh Hashana, or the Jewish New Year, basically meant everything in the country would be closed for almost 3 DAYS: busses, trains, restaurants, just about everything came to a halt.
Tel-Aviv was a diamond in the rough though as bars, clubs, and some stuff stayed open. For the most part, it was a good time to take a beach day or two. That is until I realized everybody in Israel decided to do the same thing.
Rules? What rules?
Walking along the coast, I felt like I was in some European city rather than the Middle East. Israel certainly has a European vibe to it, especially its prices. Did I mention I paid $11 for chicken nuggets and fries at McDonalds?
Stuck in the hostel on Jewish New Year, a few of us got together and decided to cook ourselves our own Rosh Hashana Dinner. Not being the greatest cook in the world, I happily contributed some steamed corn.
We also had a few rooftop parties throughout the new year.
Coincidentally, the next day I ran into Sasha (from the Jerusalem concert) again and his friend Vanya from Germany and we took a day trip to Akko, a fortified crusader-era city on the coast.
Never in my life have I laughed as much as I did hanging out with Sasha. On the train ride back, we grabbed a few beers and I laughed for over three hours - my face was numb.
The next day, we got lost somewhere in northern Israel and, for the first time ever, we tried hitchhiking.
Surprisingly, we were picked up by an awesome Israeli girl, Aizee, who took us to Caesarea - a Roman city named after Julius Caesar. There is no way in the US a young woman would pick up two male hitchhikers!
We climbed the ruins and even took a swim out in the sea. The Mediterranean was actually nice and cool for once.
I took a trip to the Israeli-Lebanon border which, until recently, was pretty dangerous with all the fighting. Today, they have a cable car that takes you to the top of the mountain that both countries claim and protect. It's so odd being in a historically war-plagued place during a time of peace.
The mountain diving the two countries is unique in the sense that it's made of limestone and, as a result of thousands of years of erosion, has grottos (water caves) underneath.
Back in Tel Aviv, it was almost impossible not to be social. The city, after all, is known for its parties and night after night, I ended up in yet another party on the rooftop with a new group of interesting people.
Between crazy nights here and there, I made time to visit the Holy Baha'i Gardens in Haifa - the headquarters of the Baha'i Faith - a religion I had never even heard of.
I also took Sasha's recommendation and took a trip to Masada - a 2000 year old Jewish city on a mountain top - the last one to fall to the Romans in 73 AD.
The story of the city is rather romantic. Masada was the last Jewish city to fall to the Romans after a seige that lasted months. When the Roman soldiers finally broke in, they discovered an empty city as everyone had killed themselves rather than to become Roman slaves. I'm pretty skeptical about the accuracy of the story, but it's certainly heroic to imagine.
The 45-minute climb to the top of Masada is pretty brutal, but after Petra, I felt like I could do anything. I woke up at 4 am and did it right before sunrise. Watching the sun peek through the mountains on the Jordan side of the Dead Sea was remarkably peaceful.
My last few nights were spent hanging out with Mikkel and Martin from Denmark, Damien from South Africa, and Eve from Germany. We drank and smoked shisha just about every night and on the last night, one thing led to another and before I knew it, we were shaving heads by the stairs.
Never did I think I would be partying - or even drinking - on my trip. But when you're in Tel Aviv, I guess you could say that's a part of the sightseeing!
I slowly hitchhiked my way back to the Israeli border via an American guy I met. I can't help but to feel a little sad every time I leave a country and close another chapter in my adventure book. At this point, I can't believe I've blazed through 5 countries already (I do count Palestine). I also can't believe I've met so many people!
I will certainly miss all the good times had in Israel!
Up next, Egypt! This is where the African chapter begins!!
Imagine a country where buses have bulletproof glass, teenagers casually walk around the streets with machine guns, and there are security checkpoints in shopping malls and movie theaters. This is Israel.
Jerusalem, by no means, is anything like the rest of Israel. Stores close early, people dress very conservatively, and just about the entire city shuts down every Friday night through Saturday night for the Jewish Sabbath, or holy rest day.
If you're a Christian, Jerusalem might be one of the most meaningful places to go. Everywhere there's a place where Jesus slept, a place where he performed a miracle, a place where he lived, and a place where he died.
However, if you're not religious like myself, watching people line up for an hour to kiss a rock Jesus touched was a little unsettling to me and - dare I say it - even creeped me out a bit.
One thing I could appreciate about the city is its old sites and a sense of religious peace: there's a Muslim quarter, a Christian quarter, a Jewish quarter, and an Armenian orthodox quarter, all stacked together with little or no conflict.
I stayed at one of the biggest hostels I've ever seen (over 400 beds!). The Abraham Hostel, unlike the rest of Jerusalem, had an amazing bar, a smoking terrace, and loads of events every night from pub crawls to karaoke nights.
On trivia night, I teamed up with a few new friends and - 25 questions later - we were the winning team with 20 answers correct! We won a total of 258 Shekels, or approximately $60!
Of course, we all celebrated with a bottle of wine on the rooftop.
If you mention the Palestinian Territories, a lot of people picture suicide bombers, gunfire, and armed conflict. While this has been true for decades, there has been a moment of peace since 2005. Today, there's a HUGE wall dividing Israel and Palestine.
I decided to go to the West Bank (Palestinian territory) to see Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus Christ, and to get a feel of Palestine itself.
What I found was one of the friendliest places I've ever been in my life.
Everywhere I went, people on the streets smiled and waved hello to me, many coming up to me to personally welcome me to Palestine. In one instance, I had a street vendor hand me some free fruit and vegetables!
Walking around Bethlehem, I met two Palestinian guys, Mohammad and Medhat, who actually lived in a refugee camp outside of the city. That afternoon, they invited me to their camp and offered me food, tea and shisha before showing me the world they lived in.
To me, it was absolutely disheartening to see the different living conditions in the refugee camp. While in recent years, permanent structures have been built, there are still many remnants of the war around the camp. Words can't really describe the feeling.
They introduced me to their friends and families, who were so welcoming and very curious about where I was from.
Smoking shisha that night on the rooftop of a Palestinian refugee settlement was something I never thought I would experience in my life.
I was so touched by the experience that I went back to the West Bank two days later to actually stay in the camp with Mohammad and Medhat.
It wasn't until we reached a checkpoint in Hebron where I realized what it was truly like for the Palestinians.
The Israeli soldiers separated me from my friends and asked me if I was okay or hurt - all while treating them like criminals and demanding identification from them.
At one of the synagogue sights, the soldiers forced them to stay outside while they welcomed me in, asking me why I was hanging out with those Palestinians and blatantly warning me that my friends were going to "rob and steal" from me.
Mohammad and Medhat were terrified of the Israeli soldiers and I finally knew why. While we were separated they taunted them, interrogated them, and accused them of stealing from me. They were so upset by the whole ordeal we went straight back to the camp afterwards.
They said this happens a lot. I can't believe this is their everyday lives.
They took me to the bakery where Mohammad worked and we spent the afternoon making pastries and listening to Arabic music.
Medhat taught me a bit of Arabic and as the night went by, we walked the streets of the camps, Palestinian beer in hand.
Walking around the West Bank at night, I asked Medhat if it was dangerous and he said, "For you, no. But for us, very."
When I asked what he meant, he told me that "sometimes Israeli soldiers go to the camps for trouble." Every once in a while, they inspect and raid the camps with smoke bombs and rubber bullets.
Leaving the West Bank after four days was a bittersweet ordeal. I couldn't shake off the feeling of how unfair history has been to these people. Being forced out of their homes into settlements, being treated like criminals in their own land, and not having any rights at all. How could our government support this?
It would be an understatement to say that I'm definitely pro-Palestinian. I having nothing against the Israeli people - they have been kind and welcoming to me as well - but I harbor strong distaste for their government and the American government's continued support of this occupation.
On a lighter note, one thing that's surprised me is that Israeli soldiers, unlike in the US, really enjoy having their pictures taken. It was strange yet funny to me to see how casual they were with their guns and uniforms.
One night when I missed the last bus back from the West Bank, two Israeli soldiers took me in and offered me coffee, snacks, and friendly conversation until they could find me a ride back. In one day, I experienced kindness from both sides of the wall.
They flagged down every car that passed by the checkpoint until they found a tour bus that took me back to my hostel for free. Hitchhiking back to Jerusalem from the West Bank was a bit of an adventure on its own.
On my last night in Jerusalem, I planned on catching up on some sleep over the week. That is until I met Sasha from Russia, who invited me to an Israeli rock concert literally 20 minutes before it was starting! How could I pass up such an opportunity? Life is short and I went.
While I didn't understand any of the words, I happily cheered with the Israeli youth and had a pretty awesome last night in Jerusalem.
A few beers later, Sasha and I topped the night off with a late night ramen noodle run. After a month of shawarma and falafels, the noodles were a welcome change.
At the end of the day, there will always be a place in my heart for the wonderful people of Palestine. Hearing about it on the news does not quite justify the humanity of the conflict I've experienced. I hope that one day they will finally get the freedom they've been waiting so long for.
It's about time I update on the finishing touches to my Jordanian odyssey! An adventure into Jordan is never complete until you visit one place in particular: Petra - one of the seven modern world wonders.
If you're too lazy to Wikipedia, Petra is an ancient and gigantic Nabataen (NAH-buh-tay-yen) city carved into the desert mountains a few hundred years before the Roman Empire. Crazily enough, it was actually abandoned during the crusades and completely forgotten about for 600 years until a Dutch guy came across it in 200 years ago. What a discovery it must have been! And it. is. magnificent.
A few of the guys and I headed to southern Jordan to see this crazy place. Petra's not exactly a day trip destination. It's so big it takes DAYS to really see it all. We spent 3 days in Petra alone!
Most of the buildings have been washed away by time and erosion, so I can only imagine how intricate everything used to be. It reminds me of that show "Earth After Humans." This would all be about a thousand years after humans.
The trails were pretty killer, but there's one in particular - the monastery trail - with over 800 individual steps! It took us about an hour of climbing (with 2 breaks in between), but it was pretty worth it, I must say.
It's hard to know the scale of the buildings, but they are massive. Compare it to the people in the picture!
I'm not sure if this is what the Nabetaens intended...
Thanks to this awesome wifi connection in Jerusalem, I'll go crazy with the pictures!
Walking around Petra, we drank anywhere from 1-2 GALLONS of water per person every day! Hiking nonstop for 9-10 hours with almost no shade, you can imagine how thirsty you get. Not to mention, carrying around all that water probably made us sweat even more. A water paradox, I suppose.
Thank God Jordan is nice and cool (compared to Dubai, of course). If Petra were in Dubai, we would not have made it out alive.
I'm also starting to miss vegetables. Here in the Middle East, there are basically two non-meat choices: cucumbers or tomatoes. You might find an adventurous restaurant that serves zucchini every now and then - but that's it. After 3 weeks of kebabs, shwarma, and falafel, I am dying for some leafy greens! Or noodles!
After our Petra excursion, we went a Bedouin (native) village called Wadi Rum, where we camped with the native tribes for a night!
We ate, sang, and danced with the Bedouins 'till dark and slept in tents under the stars. Though they have cars, phones, and showers now, it was nice to see vestiges of how the natives used to live out here in the desert.
Sadly, the next day I finally parted ways with the awesome group of guys I had met in Jordan - us all having different travels plans, of course.
I headed to one of the most difficult border crossings in the region: going into Israel.
For those of you that aren't familiar with it, going into Israel can be a nightmare. I met people with stories of how authorities opened their laptops, went through all their files and cameras, if they even sensed that you may be pro-Palestinian.
My friend Andrew from Kentucky actually got denied at the crossing twice because he told the truth: that he got an internship in the West Bank (Palestine).
So, I didn't know what to expect.
Not surprisingly, they went through every single item I was carrying and questioned me suspiciously about my water filter. Really? It's a water filter.
They also bombarded me with some pretty intense questions.
"Why are you traveling alone?"
"What were you doing in Jordan?"
"Are you planning on going to the Palestinian Territories?"
"When are you leaving Israel?"
Being a flexible backpacker, I didn't exactly know when I was leaving, which made things worse. I pretty much had to explain my entire trip (and my life story) to them to get that stamp. I feel like Israel is like a club and you have to go through some kind of initiation to get in.
After three weeks of hearing Arabic, Hebrew was a bit of an interesting change... and for the first time in a month, I actually felt nice, cold water during my beach day at the Red Sea.
Another thing about the Middle East that I love (and will surely miss) are the FRUIT JUICES! I pretty much do my splurging on juices as there are juice smoothie stands everywhere! If only these were popular back home...
There are a few things that have surprised me about Israel so far. I was always under the impression that Israel was a pretty western country where English would be enough to get by with.
Instead, most Israeli products don't even have a single word of English on them. I'm talking water bottles, chips, fruit juices, the basics. This makes buying beyond water a bit of a guessing game. I suppose it's good to be proud of your language, but I have a feeling a lot of it is political and - dare I say it - xenophobic.
As for the people, I can see why they call it Arab hospitality because it's way different here. Going from an Arab country to an Israeli one has been night and day in the sense that Israel is more like the US: everyone's just doing their own thing. It may be because Israel gets more tourists, yet somehow I felt a friendlier vibe in Italy, one of the most tourist-packed countries, so it can't be that. We shall see.
A few pics of hostel living (for Dad):