Thursday, March 23, 2017

Feynan Ecolodge, Jordan: hiking with Bedouin goats, all-you-can-drink tea, candles and quiet

Thanks to the Jerusalem Marathon closing the main streets, the Consulate was closed on Friday and we had a nice 3-day weekend. Where to go? “Let’s go to Jordan!”

Feynan Ecolodge

Our friend, we’ll call her Sunny-D, suggested the Feynan Ecolodge in the Dana Biosphere Reserve for a long weekend of hiking in the Jordan desert. While a bit pricey (the room rates are about $140 per person per night), the lodge included everything from meals to hikes to stargazing to cooking classes, so we figured it would be worth it.

Feynan is 20km off the main road, located in a remote wadi. When the dirt road is in bad shape, they shuttle their guests in by 4x4 pickup truck. It is totally off the grid with solar panels for a little electricity, no outlets in the rooms, and solar water heaters for hot water in the afternoon (cold in the morning). At sunset the staff lights up the entire lodge with candles and stokes a nice fire in the main lounge burning compressed logs of olive pits made from the leftovers of the olive oil making process in other parts of Jordan. The lodge is this beautiful cream-colored adobe building that blends in with the surrounding desert.

Local touches like goat-skin lanterns, clay jars instead of plastic bottles for water in the rooms, and mosquito nets over the beds make the lodge more than just a nice hotel. Men from the local Bedouin tribe run the lodge including cooking the meals, cleaning the rooms and leading the hikes. The lodge was built with funding and ecotourism expertise from USAID and now all the money earned stays in the local community. There is an open rooftop for stargazing (also perfect for sunset Yoga), a lovely patio surrounded by native jojoba trees, and just a stone’s throw away are the goat hair Bedouin tents of tribes that have been living in this wadi for hundreds (thousands?) of years.

So, it didn’t take much convincing... on Friday morning our group of 7 friends drove across the border at the Allenby Bridge and continued on the 4-hour drive southeast along the shores of the Dead Sea to Jordan’s largest park.

Day 1: Crossing at Allenby/King Hussein Bridge

We were a little nervous crossing the border with our own car for the first time. While we had flown through Jordan and spent the night in Amman multiple times while stationed in Baghdad, this would be our first land crossing. Mixed reports of “the easiest thing ever, you don’t need a visa” to “it took us 3 hours and you can’t cross without insurance and a visa” left us uneasy, but we prefered to try the Allenby crossing which gave us a shorter drive than to go for the “way easier” crossing down at Eilat which would have meant a 6-hour drive. The border crossing was easier than we anticipated and we were through it in a little over an hour. We had to buy a month of expensive Jordanian car insurance through email ahead of time since they don’t offer insurance at this border crossing anymore, but we split the $120 cost between the 3 of us in our car which made it not so painful.

While we had to visit 4 windows to get through the process on the Israeli side, the crossing station was large, clean, organized and friendlier than some service in Jerusalem. The Jordanian side was faster (only 3 windows) and a bit more wild west but we made it through and no one ever asked to see our $120 proof of insurance...

The drive was easy. The road did have potholes, unmarked speed bumps and goats, but was not as bad as some had described. I suppose Jordan is still “Middle East Light.” We enjoyed expansive Dead Sea views and stopped for a grilled chicken lunch in a little town along the way. The last part of the drive was on a dirt road which our little red Renault handled like a champ. We arrived at Feynan just in time to check in, change, and join the sunset hike. Our guide Suleiman lit a campfire while we snapped some sunset photos and hiked around. Sipping extremely sweet black tea flavored with a native desert herb, he told us stories about this wadi where he was born, raised and is now able to work and guide visitors. Including stories of wolves eating 3 goats just the other day, white desert cats that were thought to be gone from the area but were captured with motion sensor cameras recently and scorpions that the Bedouin mothers roast over the fire, grind up, and put on their nipples to give their babies resistance to the venom.

Back at the lodge, dinner by candlelight was a buffet feast of vegetarian salads, roasted veggies, pickles, bread and cheese. We enjoyed after-dinner tea in front of the fire, a presentation on the history of the lodge and guided stargazing on the roof. Then it was off to our cozy, dark little rooms with the sounds of crickets and Bedouin voices in the distance drifting in through the windows for a very peaceful snooze.

Day 2: #ILoveTheForeignService

We awoke around 7am for an amazing breakfast buffet of hard boiled eggs, dates, cheese, labneh, bread, cream and honey. With coffee of course, that the chef was very excited to say was “American Coffee” which it was, kind of, in that it had a little less mud than usual. They gave us sack lunches and our shepherd for the day met us at the front door. Ahmed was 20 years old and had a job at a nearby airport during the week, but what he really loved was making a little extra money on his days off shepherding his neighbor's herd of 100 goats on their daily foraging excursion.

These goats hiked our butts off! We hiked straight uphill at first, always about 100 meters behind the herd, feeling like we were almost caught up, but then as we crested one hill we’d see their shaggy shapes in the distance passing over the next hill. This was our day: Shadowing a Bedouin Goat Herder.

Once we got up high into the mountains where there was an abundance of the goats’ favorite flowers, their pace slowed a little. We stopped frequently for tea heated over a fire, sometimes with fresh goat milk sometimes with just sugar. Ahmed used his limited English and we used our even more limited Arabic to ask him questions about the goats, his life, his family and this desert.
“How do you say goat in Arabic?”
“Do you ever sing out here?”
    “Yes, when I am alone.”

We loved every second of it and agreed that we were awed by Ahmed’s athletic ability to run over the loose, rocky terrain that we had to pick our way through, and his unique ability to communicate with his goats using an individual call (which sounded like a bark) to tell his goats where he wanted them to go... or at least he pretended like they were listening and they were going where he wanted them to go... or were the goats herding us?

We had 2 donkey friends that came with us. While we were never able to get close enough to the goats to play with them, the donkeys stayed with us and made great trail blazers.

“Go behind the donkey, he finds the easy way.”
    “This is the easy way?!”

Sweet donkeys, carrying our water and snacks, with no names other than Young Donkey and Old Donkey, slaves to their Bedouin masters, but they still seemed to enjoy the petting and scratching we gave them during tea breaks.

Near the end of the day we met up with another large herd of goats and their goatherd who was carrying a baby goat that had just been born that day, so young it still had the wet umbilical cord hanging off its belly. It could already stand but wasn’t strong enough to walk yet so the shepherd carried it with Mama Goat trailing behind following the bleats of its baby. The shepherd would stop every 10 minutes to let her eat while the baby tried its best to figure out how to nurse, her little tail a happy wagging blur.

We were dusty, dehydrated, and tired when the goats finally returned us to the lodge in late afternoon, but nothing sounded better than a mellow sunset Yoga session to stretch our stiffening legs. The breeze was warm blowing off the sun-heated rocks in the distance and the last light of the day bathed us in the most perfect glow as we breathed in the dry, clean air and stretched to the sounds of the Bedouins nearby peacefully preparing for night to fall and putting their goats to bed in the corals to keep them safe from the wolves.

Day 3: Wormwood and Falafels in the Desert

After a chilly shower and a simple yet amazing breakfast we suited up for a morning hike. Suleiman was our guide again for the 3-hour Plant Hike. He pointed out the thorny jojoba trees growing nearby with their edible little dry fruits and also the rare desert moringa trees that are good for nutrition. We stopped to brew tea with artemisia in it and learned that is is also known as wormwood and related to mugwort. He showed us a plant that when pounded on a rock and mixed with water forms a sudsy paste for cleaning. Many of the plants growing around here are useful to the Bedouins as healing herbs, building materials and food for their goats. The preparation for almost all of the plants was the same: you boil it and drink it or shower the baby in it.

Suleiman shared with us his hopes to be able to get a visa someday to visit all the friends from different countries he has met who come Feynan. He said he is happiest here in the desert with his tribe and couldn’t imagine living anywhere else, especially in a big noisy city, but that meeting so many people from other places makes him curious to explore. Sitting on a rock drinking tea with him in that quiet, clean, beautiful setting, we believed him, but what consular officer in Amman ever would? Maybe he’ll get a visa to travel someday, but in the meantime we told him that while the rest of the world is interesting, he is very lucky to live where he does. He believed us, I think.

This whole weekend we didn’t see any Bedouin women, we assumed they were here, just hidden away from the eyes of strangers in their dark, smokey little tents. Ali, the manager of the lodge told us that if it was just women going on the goat hike then our shepherd would have been a female shepherdess. Suleiman shared that some believe if a Bedouin woman is not bearing children, you need to make her jealous, then she will get pregnant. We also learned a favorite Bedouin saying, “A woman is like a teabag, you don’t know how strong she is until you put her in boiling water.” I looked at the women around me sipping tea with their faces, arms, ankles and hair exposed to the sun. How lucky we were to be born into the life that we were, in this place and time.

The Feynan chef makes amazing food, but he doesn’t speak English well, so Suleiman translated while he instructed. We made fresh baked flatbread with za’atar and cheese, salad with tahina and fresh falafel balls. We stuffed ourselves on the sunny patio, enjoying this last moment and commenting how the weekend felt longer than just 2 nights, it was so packed with fun.

We said farewell to our hosts and made the journey home to Jerusalem. Home to the big city, looking forward to returning to our apartments but wishing just a little that our home was a tent in the desert with no electricity, wifi or traffic, and our job was to wake up the next day and follow our goats out into the desert to forage. I can’t say the same for our travel companions, but Hubby and I can’t wait to get our camping mojo back soon.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Weekend in Nazareth: Convents, Kanafeh, Mosaics and Toe-Nibbling Fishes

Enjoying his goaty coffee and a sunny plaza with the Basilica behind him

Jerusalem is a good weather post. Hubby and I have decided that Good Weather and Good Coffee are 2 requirements we have for choosing our next posting. We are now adding Affordable Travel Options to the list.

Israel is EXPENSIVE! It might feel and look like the Middle East, but it’s priced like Western Europe. Which is why we were all set to go camping last weekend in the desert. It’s free! But when we woke up to snow on the balcony Saturday morning and snain (a freezing mix of rain and snow) falling from the sky we decided to change our plans.

So, where to go? Well it’s Saturday so we can’t just show up at a hotel because it will be closed on shabbat. And we can’t call anyone to see if they have an open room because they won’t answer their phone on shabbat. Oh wait, the Christians are open on shabbat! Ok, let’s go to Nazareth! God Bless the Sisters at the Sisters of Nazareth Guest House for answering their phone and selling us a room!

Nazareth is a 2 hour drive north of Jerusalem through the hills outside Tel Aviv. We cruised through green, agricultural areas and past a few mixed Muslim/Jewish/Christian towns. Upon arriving in Nazareth John and I both said, “ha! This looks like the outskirts of Xela!” Thanks to its traffic circles and ramshackle mix of concrete houses and colorful, dusty store fronts, it reminded us of our favorite cities in Guatemala...

Nazareth graffiti 

Google Maps did not seem to understand that the best way to approach a convent built in the middle of a 2,000+ year old city is not directly through the Old City. But after holding our breaths while squeezing through narrow streets built for donkeys and pedestrians, we made it to the convent. It was gorgeous and right across the street from the Basilica of the Annunciation, the spot where the Catholics believe Gabriel told Mary she was prego with God’s kid. The Greek Orthodox Church believes she got the word at the village well a little farther up the hill in Nazareth. Either way, it’s an important pilgrimage site and marks the start of the 40-mile Jesus Trail up to the Sea of Galilee.

A lovely colonnade at the Sisters of Nazareth Guest House

Central courtyard at the Sisters of Nazareth Guest House

We checked into the Guest House using a mixture of Hebrew, French and English and dropped our tiny overnight packs off in our sterile yet very cozy (as in 90F, those sisters aren’t cheap!) room. Off to get some lunch at Tishreen, a restaurant built around a wood oven where we shared baked eggplant with pesto and cheese, spinach salad and baked local cheese with roasted tomatoes. The walls were decorated with wine bottles and antiques, the waitresses were bickering in Arabic, and the food was super delicious.

Not quite full after lunch, we set off in search of kanafeh and baklava. Success! Al Mukhtar Sweets on Paulus VI Street was a carb-coma emporium with hot melty kanafeh delicately sweetened with syrup and dusted with pistachios. 10 shekels (about $4) got us a plate of cheese-filled shredded wheat dessert, with a gallon of complimentary chilled water to wash it down. Hubster even ordered it all in Arabic! I was so impressed... We took a kilo of baklawa to go. (in Arabic it’s baklawa, I thinks it’s just the Greeks that call it baklava)

Best kanafeh so far in Israel, light, cheesy and not too sweet or fluorescent orange

Al Mukhtar Sweets

Nazareth is about 30% Christian and the rest a mix of Muslim and Jewish which gives it an interesting character. This mix means that many Jewish and Muslim businesses are closed on Saturday, while all the Christian businesses are closed on Sunday, and all the other businesses that fall somewhere in between are closed because it’s low season for pilgrims following the Jesus Trail. So, town was pretty quiet and the Old City was complete crickets. Regardless there was still lots of local stuff to see and we had a great time exploring until after dark. We found a 125 year old spice emporium called El Babour (the local pronunciation of al-vapeur in French for the steam-powered mill they used in the 1800s). It smelled amazing and high-ceilinged arched space was  filled with sacks, bins and baskets of spices, teas, coffees and other dried goods like beans, rice and grains.

El Babour spice emporium

Our European style breakfast at the convent was exactly what we were hoping it would be complete with fresh baguettes, cheese, cold cuts, hard boiled eggs, fruit and coffee. Then we set out to explore town a little more. The Basilica was crowded with worshipers, a beautiful mix of people who looked Christian but worshiped in Arabic (which of course makes sense but completely captivated me at first). The church was built in the 40’s so it looks newer. It’s constructed on top of the holy shrine/grotto/cave where Mary got her big news with a tall dome shaped like an inverted lily for Mary that allows natural light to reach all the way through the main floor down to the sunken grotto. The stained glass and giant pipe organ are lovely and we spent some time looking at their collection of mosaics donated by Mary-loving churches from around the world, each piece of art depicting Mary and Baby Jesus in their own local style.

Mary and Jesus in the eyes of the Koreans

Mary and Jesus in Scotland

Walking the mosaic wall

Basilica of the Annunciation

Mary with her loving hands in front of the Basilica

Outside the Basilica, Sunday in Nazareth was very quiet. We enjoyed wandering through the sunny plazas and we sipped paper cups of some curiously goaty-smelling coffee from a guy brewing it on a street corner, but we could see it was time to move on.

On to the National Parks! The first stop was Beit Alpha Synagogue where we saw the ruins of a 500 BCE synagogue and its beautiful mosaic floor. The highlight of this park was finally purchasing our Annual Parks Pass and the extremely well-produced and entertaining audio-visual movie the park staff queued up for us in English to explain the history of the site.

Beit Alpha Synagogue mosaic floor

As the sun was approaching high-noon we arrived at Gan Hashlosha National Park where we had to pay an extra 20 sheks (about $5) each to get in. We weren’t too thrilled considering we had just shelled out 275 sheks (about $75) for the annual pass. This one was extra because of the swimming. “Swimming?” we asked, “yes, water 28 degrees.” Well ok, that’s 82 F, we thought we could handle that just fine! Hubby swam in his knickers, luckily I had packed my swimsuit as a last minute what-the-heck. The natural rock-lined pool was at the source of a hot spring and its crystal-clear turquoise water was filled with happy little tropical fish ready to nibble and clean our toes as soon as we got in. It was obviously the low season there so it was just us and 5 gray-haired, swim-cap-clad breast strokers quietly swimming laps. It was one of the most beautiful pools I’ve ever been lucky enough to jump in, truly magical!

Swimming hole at Gan Hashlosha

Fish are tickling our toes!

After a good recommendation for lunch from the lifeguard, we drove over to Beit She’an to the most popular place for miles around, Shipudei Hakikar. Grilled meats on skewers, about 25 toppings, all wrapped up in a fresh-baked flatbread totally hit the spot after our swim. While waiting for our food we diplomatically disagreed with the grill master’s enthusiasm for Trump. I’m more than a little tired of Israel’s love for this jerk of a man and I can feel my blood boil whenever they say, “You from USA? You like Trump?! Trump is very good for Israel!” Time will tell my friends...

Amazing lunch in Beit She'an

Hubster chowing down

After our weekend adventure we felt like we had finally gotten out of the city to explore this amazing land. If this is just a taste of what is yet to come, we are going to love our time here.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Hiking Nahal Katlav in the Judean Hills

Cool and shady in the creek bed

Hubby and I had a free day on Saturday last weekend and we needed some fresh air, some dirt and some hills to climb. It was time to drive our little car out of town for a hike (queue the angels singing)!

Nahal Katlav is listed as a Top 10 Hike near Jerusalem and it sounded perfect. I found a brief description of the Nahal Katlav hike online and was able to decode the Hebrew on Google Maps to feel relatively confident that I could locate the trailhead. Described as a 3.5 hour hike that would go down to a creek bed, then up past an abandoned Arab village, and loop us back around to the parking area, it looked like a good 1/2 day out. Cut to the happy ending, we were right!

Hiker tip: take a photo of the map at the trail head

Nahal Katlav is a beautiful dry stream bed in the hills just outside of Jerusalem. In Hebrew, Nahal means creek (in Arabic they would say wadi). Katlav is the name of a small Mediterranean species of tree called the Strawberry Tree, known for it's striking red bark and little red berries that ripen in November. It belongs to the Arbutus genus which includes Madrone trees and it looks exactly like one, with the tough green leaves and red bark that peels off. Strawberry Tree Creek, has a nice western ring to it...

Hubster on the trail, Jerusalem off in the distance

Following Google map directions to the restaurant named Bar Behar at the trailhead we turned off the main road and into what looked like a crowded festival parking lot with bandanna-wearing motorcyclists, spandex-sporting road cyclists, big families pushing strollers, young bearded hipsters and Columbia-clad hikers. Luckily most people were there for the brunch and the booze at Bar Behar. The internet said it was closed on Saturday for Shabbat, as are most businesses in the Holy Land, but the internet can’t always be right. The view from their patio was amazing so we vowed to return with a plan to brunch there in the future. We found a cute little parking spot in the weeds between some other cars and were glad we decided on buying a cute little French car instead of holding out for a bigger more traditional American style SUV.

Little car! We haven't decided on a name yet...

Google Map showing where Bar Behar is

On to the hike: it was gorgeous! It was very perfectly a 3.5 hour walk including our hour-long lunch break along the trail. The trail consisted of a steep descent on an open hillside, into a dry creek bed, past the railroad tracks and an abandoned train station, back up the hill past an abandoned Mosque and along a dirt road back to the trail head. It was well-marked with painted rocks the whole way. The views over the canyon were really nice, the dry creek bed was cool and shady and had some fun rock scrambles, and the ruins of the Arab village were fun to explore but also a sad reminder of the history of this region. Katlav Creek leads to Sorek Creek, a full-on rushing stream with green bushy vegetation along the shores. Unfortunately the water smells like sewage and has signs posted along it warning people not to swim in it, no problem, I wasn’t really tempted. But the ducks didn’t seem to mind. Poor desert ducks! I guess they don’t have many options for swimming spots.

Exploring inside the old mosque

Along this hike I learned two new and interesting things. The first is that, according to the sign at the trail head, hyenas live in Israel! Holy crap! I’m not scared of wolves or coyotes, but aren’t hyenas huge and vicious? I think they fight with lions, and everything in Africa has evolved to eat people. I hope I get to see one! The second thing is there seems to be a different hiking etiquette here than we have back in The States as demonstrated by the hikers that pee and leave toilet paper right in the middle of the trail, awesome. Also, if you come up behind a group hiking slower than you they will ignore your footsteps and heavy breathing and look shocked when you ask nicely if you can pass. They also don’t initiate a greeting. If I said, “shalom”, they would usually respond but that wasn’t as surprising because people don’t like to say “shalom” in Jerusalem either. Of course as an overly friendly American that picks up trash along the trail, I bet I was really annoying.

The review? I highly recommend Nahal Katlav and I would hike it again in a second. If you aren’t a hiker, just go for the views at Bar Behar.

Hand holds on the rock scrambles

Walking on the roof of the abandoned mosque