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Friday, 16 August 2013

To read up about my adventures in Iceland, go to: 

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

A tour with a twist

"Lebo wants to speak to you outside..." said Thuli, Lebo's (founder and owner of Lebo's Backpackers) receptionist in a serious tone.

My heart jumped up in my throat (or similarly fell out of my bum) at this confrontation. Had I done something wrong or unconventional to displease the first and only black owner of a backpackers in South Africa??

I felt my cheeks flush all the blood down to my toes and absorb into the tiles on the floor. My body ceased to function for approximately half minute, after I nodded my head in her direction and watched her walk out towards the courtyard.

With a deep breath I made my way outside with my tail lodged solidly between my legs. As my bare feet touched the sandy courtyard, I kept my eyes locked on the patterns which the footprints before me had created with the little particles, I couldn't bring myself to look up - I was racking my brain searching for a possible transgression with which I could have offended this man. 
Everything was still - silent around me. 
Crisis Ali, what now?

Out of nowhere, a crowd burst into song:

"...Haaaaaaappy Biiiiiirthday toooo yoooooou!..." 

2 loud pops from two bottles of champagne bursting open, and I was in tears again.
The entire staff body, Lebo, his lovely Swedish wife Maria - big grins and warm hugs as they passed me around from one person to the next. 
Lebo pressed a glass of bubbly into my hands and said "time for us to dance!".
Someone cranked up the music, and my new friends taught me how to dance, Soweto-style!

I owe these happy souls my deepest thanks for an unforgettable day. 
The following are the pictures of my 22nd Birthday and the bicycle tour of Soweto which I took part in (a must!).

Soweto - an acronym for South Western Townships is home to an estimated 3.5 million people. Much bigger than Langa Township which I visited in early February, Soweto definitely steps up to be one of the most important and interesting sights of this nation. Apartheid struggles scarred the streets of Soweto, housing some of the most important political philosophers of the time. Over 144 square kilometres in size, a day in this motherland of townships is simply not enough.

I was lucky enough to put my name down for a 4 hour bicycle tour with Tshepo, one of the local tour guides of Lebo's Backpackers.

The streets of Soweto bared the brunt of what may be considered war in the 1970s and 1980s. Now, it has shaped itself to provide a mixture of wealthy suburbs as well as poor shanty locations.

Something the locals take seriously is their football stadium. Something to look out for is the festive buzz that runs like electricity through the air on match days. 

Local men in the middle of the day in one of the many shebeens (informal pubs) that characterise Soweto.

Moments before this man's daughter was on his shoulders.

My favourite face of Soweto. This man sat on a trash can outside of a shebeen, watching us tourists learn how to dance traditional Zulu dances. I think his facial expression sums it all up.

The men giving it their best at traditional Zulu dancing. Tshepo our guide is second from the right.

Waiting for change, Soweto 2013.

These two little boys started dancing and singing for us as we passed them on our bicycles.

A sign I saw over a shack in the neighbourhood.

Every day may not be good, but be there something good in every day.

Our second stop on our bicycle journey was inside a small shack where we sat down around a small wooden bench/table to sip on zamalek (750ml beer in a bottle) and nibble on cow cheeks dipped in salt and spice. Needless to say, we ate it all.

Being taught to use our hands to dip the cow cheek first in salt and then in spice. They made us Millie Meal - a white sticky starch like food - to calm down our taste buds which were going berserk from the spice. 

In honour of my birthday, the bicycle tour stopped at the local shebeen to celebrate with zamalek, the local beer!

A friend for life.

Celebrating my birthday with the Soweto locals - local is lekker!

Lunch in the form of Bunny Chow was waiting for us on our return from the bicycle tour.  This includes curry wedged firmly between two thick pieces of bread. Lebo's child in the photograph, enjoying lunch with the tourists :)

My Bunny Chow.

Surprise birthday party! :)

Lebo, founding owner of Lebo's Backpackers in Soweto.

Even the gardener took part in the birthday festivities! :)

Lebo's staff took me out for a night on the town for a birthday treat!

The wonderful ladies at Lebo's Backpackers in Soweto.

The pool table in the entertainment courtyard.

Rustic spaces with hints of Africa.

The Rastafarian Bar with the same 'honesty tab' concept as Bulungula.

Fire pit.

There are many musical instruments hanging around which you are free to play if that is in your nature. I definitely got my hands on a few of the acoustic guitars and bongo drums.

Subtle Changes:

Dear Readers,

A rather important announcement for me to make, as I hope it is for you to read:

I will be posting from a new blog address from here on. You can find me on 

Changes have been made due to technicalities and simpler web interfaces.

See you all on the other side,


Monday, 17 June 2013

Time to say good bye

The time has come to say good bye. I'm writing this post from the airport in Tel Aviv where I accidentally showed up three hours early because I had become so used to following the plan the IYHA made for me that I didn't even question it or check for myself when it said on my schedule that my flight was leaving at 11:00. It's actually leaving at 14:00. Oh well, you live your learn.

Yesterday I was lazy and didn't leave the hostel until noon. I didn't have anything planned but decided to take advantage of the location of the Yitzhak Rabin hostel in Jerusalem and visit the Israel museum which is literally just next door. I thought it would be a quick 2 hour visit but in the end I spent the whole afternoon there, which wasn't enough time to see everything, and I would have stayed longer if it hadn't closed at 5. The Israel museum is unique in a way that it's a history museum, art museum and some sort of folk museum all in one. It gives you a good introduction to the country and houses everything from Israeli contemporary art, works by amazing artists like Picasso, prehistoric human remains and a comprehensive exhibition about the Jewish religion and everyday Jewish life around the world. I recommend that you visit the museum at the beginning of your trip to have a better understanding of the history in Israel.

At the moment they have an exhibition about Herod the Great who built the fortress of Masada that I visited a couple of days ago. It was amazing, after having visited the ruins, to learn about him and everything he left behind. At the siege of Masada, which was after Herod's time, around 1000 Jewish rebels committed suicide  faced with becoming Roman slaves as they rather wanted to die free than live as slaves. Masada is an amazing place and I'm so glad I got to see it.

As I made my way into the museum the first art piece I saw was accredited to a name very familiar to me: Ólafur Elíasson. Although Ólafur is raised in Denmark he is Danish-Icelandic (his name certainly is Icelandic) and he's the one responsible for the amazing glass facade in the newly built Harpa Music Hall in Reykjavík. It was like being greeted by a little piece of home. It's totally irrelevant whether or not he feels Icelandic because to us he is.

After the museum I made my way to the the Mahane Yehuda  Market where discount hour had already started due to the late hours and everyone was trying to get rid of their products. It  was an interesting place and trying to find it took me through some "real" narrow Jerusalem streets. I had something to eat and tried some local microbrewery wheat bear and then headed back to the hostel. Despite my best efforts to figure out how to take the bus back (I took the bus to the city center so you would think I should have known my way) I couldn't work it out and hopped into a taxi where the driver told me he lived on Iceland street in Jerusalem for 20 years before recently moving. I'm pretty sure he was confusing Iceland with some other country because I somehow doubt they have Iceland street in Jerusalem but if I'm wrong - please correct me.

Thus ended my last day in Jerusalem, and de facto my last day in Israel since I'm only hanging out at the airport today (for 6 HOURS!). This trip has been amazing, weird, wonderful and everything in between and I've enjoyed every minute of it. Thank you Big Blog Exchange, IYHA, Uri, Anat, Ofer, Kayed (sorry for misspelling your name before), Mahady, Miki, Moshe, Esti, Hava and everyone else who made this possible. I will never forget it!

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Exploring the West Bank

Last night I was right in the middle of writing an epic post to describe the two previous days of my travel when I must have fallen asleep. I woke up this morning hugging the laptop and no longer feeling my legs that had been hanging out of the bed all night. I know I'm tall and all but there must be Israelis that are taller than me, why are these beds so short? It made me really happy when Anat, my contact while I'm here, called me to let me know I could stay in this hostel another night instead of moving because I'm so sick of packing my bag. I know it's only been 9 days but before that I did exactly the same for 10 day while I traveled around Iceland with my sister. As much as I'm sad about this trip coming to an end I also kind of look forward to getting back home and settling into the Icelandic summer as the months preceding the trip were so hectic. I look forward to coffee with my friends that I've hardly seen since Christmas, BBQs and lazy summer nights with the boyfriend and the princess and whatever else it is that we do in Reykjavík during summer.

I spent yesterday exploring the West Bank which is a Palestinian territory mostly ruled by the Israelis. I'm not really going to get into the history or the politics of the place but I urge you to look it up and read about it. Because I only had one day to do it I decided to do a tour which ended up being a good thing as I spent the day with fellow travelers which frankly I haven't seen much of on this trip. Traveling with locals is great but exchanging ideas with outsiders like yourself can really enhance your experience and give you an even wider perspective on things.

There were mainly three things that struck me about the West Bank: how easy it was to visit it, how different it seemed from Israel and the litter everywhere. We had to go through some check points to get there but we were never stopped and not once did I have to show my passport. I also didn't see a single soldier, Israeli or Palestinian, until we got to Arafat's tomb in Ramallah that was guarded by a couple of soldiers. Actually that's not completely true as there were two Israeli soldiers at the Jordan river next to the Jordan border. Everything was quiet around the separation wall and the only hassle I experienced was some people trying to sell us things. Not what I had imagined. The atmosphere of the places we visited was quite different, except maybe in Jericho, and more chaotic somehow. While in Jerusalem for instance people avoid eye contact and don't smile back at you in the streets, in Betlehem the street vendors are desperate for your attention and make a point of you noticing them. I also saw a lot more donkeys in the West Bank than in Isarel. Finally the litter. I don't know if it's a cultural thing or whether they just have such poor infrastructure that they can't deal with all the trash but there was litter everywhere. Everywhere! I think I remember reading something about this being a problem in many Arab cities so maybe it is a cultural thing but whatever it is, it's not at all pleasant. My favorite moment of the day was the utter chaos of trying to get out of Ramallah back to Jerusalem, where ignored traffic rules, horns being honked and street vendors walking between cars selling ice cream and water made me smile.

There are so many things I don't understand about this conflict: the way the land is divided, why the settlements are allowed to grow, how Arabs and Jews can live in harmony in once place and at the next place less than 100km away everything is messed up to name a few. At the same time I also understand the motives a bit better now, on both sides, although I don't always agree with the methods used. Most of all I think I've understood that unless you are born here and you live and breath this area, I don't think you'll ever fully comprehend this situation. Both sides really honestly and genuinely believe in their arguments and it's hard as an outsider not to respect that, whatever your own opinions are. Ultimately I think it's everyone's hope to find a solution and I hope for their sake that they do. I'm happy that I had the opportunity to explore the other side with a guide who in my opinion gave a pretty balanced view of the whole thing and I wouldn't have wanted to miss it.

I will have to tell you about Masada later, whether it will be here or on my own blog, because I don't want to spend my last day here in Jerusalem in front of the computer. I can't believe this adventure is almost over.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

An "eskimo" in the desert

I've been having some time management issues on this trip which has caused a lot of stressful mornings where someone is waiting for me, with people knocking on my door telling me to hurry. This morning I perfected a new way to pack when I just threw everything in a pile into my suitcase, closed it and just sat on it until it became possible to close the zipper.Who needs folding anyway? Instead of the neat two bags that I had on my way over here I all of a sudden have four bags but yet I haven't bought anything and I've lost some stuff along the way. This puzzles me. 

This morning a staff member at Karei Deshe took me to a town that I'm ashamed to say don't know the name of and then I took a bus from the town that will remain nameless to the Judean desert where the plan is that I visit the Dead Sea and the Masada fortress. I was feeling a bit under the weather though, I think it may have been something I ate last night, so I made the strategic decision to take it easy for the day. I did exactly what I talked about not doing yesterday and just hung out to the pool here at the hostel all day (or half a day - it took the other half to get here) and enjoyed the sun. Coming from the land of geothermal springs and heated pools you don't know the joy that is a cold pool until you find yourself in a desert. What was even better that for the biggest portion of the day I had it all to myself and I even managed to get a tan without burning. There's a first for everything!

The lifeguard at the pool took quite an interest in me and despite a bit of a language barrier he did his best to woe me with some English/Hebrew sign language and a confident grin. I think every hostel pool should come with a handsome flirty lifeguard to provide a much needed confidence boost after seeing all the pretty Israeli girls around with their crazy pretty hair and perfectly pedicured toes. He made me some coffee, offered massages and talked about my beautiful white skin (read: mosquito bitten slightly burned and not liking the water clammy pink skin). It was a good deal for everyone: he got to practice all his best lines and I got some free coffee. A win win situation, really. When I showed him a picture of the boyfriend and the princess he started telling me about his family of fishermen in Akko and how his mother (if I understood him correctly) sends him home with a month's supply of fish every time he visits which he then eats until he visits again. I hope for his sake he has a good freezer. When he found out the boyfriend and I are not married (note to self: learn to lie) I suddenly became fair game again. He was nice though so it was all good. 

My interaction with the life guard made me think about some of the things that have been said to me on this trip. He told me that I was the perfect size, not too small and not too big, but failed to mention what my size was perfect for. I'm guessing he was referring to my great child bearing hips. If a guy at home would have the audacity to discuss a woman's physical appearance, especially if the word "big" was involved, he would likely have earned himself a slap or at least a verbal beating. Here I just laughed and thanked him for the "complement". Yesterday I was told that I have very unremarkable features and that the person had seen my face "a thousand times before". My white skin was also discussed. I didn't realize what a lost cause the boyfriend has on his hand, the poor soul. 

I think when we travel we are much more tolerant because we expect people to be different from ourselves and don't take the time to be offended about the (sometimes) silly things that are said to us. Israelis strike me as very direct people that don't go around things that need to be said so it doesn't surprise me when discussions take strange turns to unfamiliar territories. If only we could apply the same tolerance to the people closer to home as just because someone lives in the same country, street or even house as us it doesn't necessarily mean that they see the world the same way. I'm making a point when I come home to get less offended by the things people say and put the questionable things down on cultural differences. 

Tomorrow I'm going to fit in a trip up to Masada and a dip in the dead sea before I take the bus back to Jerusalem. If I'm good for time I might also check out Wade David which is a easy hike to a pretty waterfall.  I was supposed to be going Eilat tomorrow but if I'm this miserable in 36°C I don't think 40+°C  that is expected in Eilat this weekend is for me. I'm sure I'm going to miss the heat though when I get back to the 12°C and rain in Reykjavík

Desert = Camels

Don't know what these are called in English but they were pretty chilled about me taking photos 
I had this pool all to myself for the greatest part of the day

The view from Masada hostel - that's Jordan in the distance