Saturday, January 22, 2011

Xmas in Bethlehem

For Christmas last year I decided to make the 15 km journey from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, across that line, to see what the thousands of pilgrims do there every year. To be clear, I am resolutely not religious. However, I have been known to shed tears in churches, temples and sometimes when I hear the Islamic call to prayer. I chalk this up to being an affected aesthete.

My accommodation for my two nights in Bethlehem was through an alternative travel agency who placed me with a Palestinian family. Not just any Palestinian family, but the family of one of the tour guides/ politically connected big deal in his community. My host was one of the most gracious gentlemen I have ever met and taught me a great deal about the conflict, from a very sympathetic and moderate perspective. His family were completely welcoming, his wife cooked me the most fantastic Palestinian food and his children entertained Pierre. Or the other way round. It was a truly lovely two days.

Side story: My host had not been to Jerusalem in 18 years - since 1992 - due to his being Palestinian and not having a Jerusalem ID card (these are very difficult to obtain, you need to live in Jerusalem). On the day I was returning to Jerusalem, him and his family were also making the very short journey across the checkpoint, as he and his wife had finally been granted permission slips to visit. To be able to go with them was a real honour.

I started my evening of the 24th at Shepherd's Field, which was - extremely surprisingly - full of busloads of Indonesian tourists all wearing Santa hats. The two lovely girls above let me photograph them.

Security: tight. As always. The main Church is closed to the general public while the VIPs attend midnight mass.

Martin and I sit down for a glass of "HOLY LAND" wine, which I'm now concerned may have been settler wine - but probably not, given we were in Palestine.
Check out that couple above.

In the church once the VIP mass is over. There is an incredibly eclectic mix of people, including a Priest from Argentina who gives me his prayer beads (which he bought in Rome and used to pray during the VIP Midnight Mass). Below, these young, clearly wealthy British kids arrive amongst much pomp and are treated as special. I would love to know why. Everywhere around this church there were secret doors and out-of-bounds areas with Euro money entering and leaving ... the Church really knows how to do elitism and hierarchy.

The next day (the 25th): I visit the Church built around the spot where Jesus was supposedly born. I am saying 'supposedly' not as a snide atheist, but because there is a lot of contention as to where precisely he was born - and many naysayers regarding this particular choice.

Going down into the little underground room with that star on the ground. The woman in front of me was writhing on the floor having a rather mystical time, when the Monk asked her brusquely to 'please, move along' and looked at me, asked me to remain standing, to which I replied "of course I will". He looked back at writhing lady and rolled his eyes with me.

Uncovering the original floor (above) and Bethlehem at night (below).

Monday, January 10, 2011

Silly Hat Party

Jerusalem is known as a quiet and religious city, and this is true, but because I am who I am I managed to have an exceptionally raucous weekend anyway. Can take the girl out of New Zealand, but ... (lalala).

I had been looking forward to this Silly Hat Party for some time, as it was at the flat of lovely Noa and Shlomi - my darling Israeli hosts who let me stay in their apartment for a rawther long time. However, instead of preparing for this fest in a sensible fashion, I spent all afternoon at my 'local' watching the FA cup (Arsenal VS Leeds) and being introduced to Hot Toddys, which will henceforth bear the name "my favourite drink ever." Well, first equal with Gin.

Unfortunately, as I am out of drinking practice (due to restrictive finances, not a change in ethics), this resulted in me being rather sozzled by quite early evening. Here is evidence, in the form of a PhotoBooth picture I took of myself before heading out the door:

In New Zealand, turning up at a party already drunk is, if not quite acceptable, not really a big deal. In Israel, where people are generally much more measured and demure, it is quite strange. I roll in to a room full of softly spoken sweethearts wearing actually rather nice hats and promptly start bouncing off the walls like a little tigger.

Luckily for me, my host Noa (pictured below) is a rather rambunctious character herself and she took control of the situation by putting on loud music and clearing a dance floor. Hence forth, I could jump around all I wanted. A few words about Noa: she is a badass waitress/ design student whose work I'd love to photograph but it's pretty protected and will be at a Toy Exhibition soon. Noa loves Hebrew, good food and comic books, so we understand each other very well. Note her amazing heart dress.

Pictured above is Shlomi the other host and also a design student. He comes from a town up north whose name I constantly forget and is very tolerant of me stealing his olives. When I was staying on their couch, Shlomi would wake me in the morning with a cup of tea. This is the kind of thing I like, very much.

It might seem cheesy to say, but my weekend in Jerusalem meant a lot more to me than simple hedonistic fun (although I'm not complaining about that part). On all three evenings (Thurs, Fri, Sat) I had things to do and people to see, and the people I got to see were so kind, hilarious and, well, 'my kind of people'. To have a weekend in a relatively new city where I feel so welcomed and such a part of a really exciting community is A Big Deal Indeed. I've never felt so at home so quickly.

'Til next time. Ex Oh Ex Oh.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Addis Ababa: My First Africa

Sitting on my newly 'built' bed, in my bedroom in Jerusalem on Prophet Street, it seems like a long way from the silly five days I had in Addis Ababa. Officially though, I'm actually on Ethiopian land right now - I live in the former Ethiopian embassy and pay my monthly rent to the Ethiopian government. My life always operates in a weird cyclical fashion.

A few weeks ago, I had a five day stopover in the capital of Ethiopia, the sprawling, dusty and surprisingly cold city of Addis Ababa. My photos from this mini-trip are sporadic, random and often taken from the window of a taxi (the lovely blue Ladas featured above). This is because walking around taking photos is always weird, but especially so in Addis; a near limbless beggar asking for a few Birr while I stroll past with my $900 camera is a bit much, even for me, with my iron-clad stomach for the awkwardness of my comparative wealth. I know there are ways around this awkwardness, but they tend to require knowing people and staying in a place more than five days.

One day, with a list of heinous bureaucratic chores, Björn, Maryanne and I headed to the Hilton to achieve them and for some colonial times. These two delightful and warm people held my hand while I adjusted to the beat of the city. Björn is a Swiss gentleman who has had such experiences as peace keeping post-conflict in Kosovo and obtaining South African citizenship. Maryanne is living in Montpellier, studying to be a speech therapist and having what sounds like a very fabulous existence. Both were in Ethiopia for a few months to travel, and I was fiercely envious of their travel plans and later, of the photos they posted of their hijinks.

I contacted a young German guy studying sociology in Addis Ababa, and ended up having the most wonderful evening in his apartment (below). Till travelled through the African continent a few years ago, fell headlong in love with Ethiopia and was offered a scholarship to scope out Addis as a possible exchange option for people doing African studies. He is only 23, and makes me wince at how little I've done comparatively. He described his flatmate Kume as being 'like a brother' to him and when I met him I could see why. Kume is a multilingual genius, warm and full of interesting stories, which I got to hear over an evening of Khat chewing, sheesha and Lauryn Hill in their apartment and with their friends.

Most of my time in Addis I simply walked the streets, got lost and talked to people, but I decided that since I was there, it was also important to do a few of the more 'cultural' things. For example, I went to the Museum to see 'Lucy' - unfortunately she was away in the States: "on vacation, 'cos you know all Ethiopians want to go to the U.S.A." my tour guide quipped.

After my tour guide refused payment, on the grounds that I'm a student, and then took me out for coffee, I went for a stroll around the University grounds:

Above: the Law library. Below: a student cafe surrounded by purple flowers.

While I was out having my adventures, Pierre stayed right here; in my room, eating oranges (see pictures below). While I love Pierre very much and would never speak badly of him, he can be a tad conservative, or maybe a little scaredy-cat, so he was not so keen on the idea of 'traipsing around the rues of Africa' ...

... However, every night, when I was trying to sleep, he would keep me awake for hours asking me to tell him again about the fruit stands, the amharic dancing, the Italian architecture, the historic struggle (and success) against colonialism, why Haile Selassie is a messianic figure in the Rastafari faith, what the children said to me today on the street, what the biggest open-air market in Africa is like, the lurching busses, the mountains in the distance, sometimes obscured by the dusty smog, and, mostly, about the most stunning people on Earth.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

I Do Something Practical: the Inaugural Edition


Two days ago I moved into my new place, in the former Ethiopian embassy, and promptly got a ghastly cold, was bed-ridden, didn't unpack and slept for more hours than is decent - on my mattress on the floor. Terrible first impression sealed, I got well and decided that I really don't want to be living on a mattress on the floor. I've done it before, and it was fine, but also kind of cold, dusty and disgusting.

I was walking home from the Mahane Yehuda Market, also known as: the best place on earth, when I noticed those wooden crate things outside a hardware store. I went in and conversed with two girls who could barely speak English, and described the crates in the question, and they, realising what I wanted, laughed and said "just take them!" Beaming, I strode outside.

Not so beaming, I walked them, first one, then two at once (this was almost impossible), then one again, the ten minute walk to my house. Ten minutes isn't long, but it is much longer with a giant wooden thing, excruciatingly pained hands and weird looks from every passer-by. On my final mission, a cute Jewish boy, who was unfortunately also sleazy, offered me a ride in his van. Usually, I would say no to such an 'offer', but I wasn't in the mood to care and said yes, and regaled him with tales of my non-existant live-in boyfriend, while he literally made kissy faces at me. The fact he actually believed my boyfriend story is quite remarkable - what kind of a shit boyfriend would send his girlfriend out to get some wooden crates and not help? Certainly not anyone I'd date.

Make-shift bed base, make-shift wardrobe.

Ok, now I'm home <3 xox

Overcoming Neurosis: Final Taipei Retrospective

In Taipei there is a famous, concept Restaurant which is toilet themed; the food is served in toilet-shaped receptacles, you sit on toilet seats (with lids thankfully!) and you eat off a glass surface on a bathtub, full of comments from previous patrons. One of the comments said: "just a gimmick!". I certainly see where the writer was coming from, and agree, but in my particular case there was a bit more weight behind it, or potential to be life changing in some (extremely inane) way.

Those who know me (all my readers) will know I absolutely loathe toilet humour. Worse, I loathe mentions of bodily fluids, unless (very rare event) the mention is either extremely medically serious, in which case I put aside my revulsion, or extremely funny. Only my dearest friends, and those who are usually very proper, know how to make anything toilet related funny. Anything along the Austin Powers vein: certainly not. It's become so bad that one of my darling friends has taken to introducing me as "this is Lei. She was with a guy for over two years and she wouldn't even pee in the same room as him! Crazy, right?!" Frankly, I don't know why anyone would want to.

Long story short, it was with considerable trepidation I went up the stairs of this toilet themed establishment, and I muttered to Samuel: "you know, this is like, kind of a big deal for me" and he rolled his eyes, and said, as he says to everything, "IIII knooooww".

As you can see, any awkwardness quickly degenerated into a "matzav kapit"; a Hebrew expression which literally translated means 'teaspoon situation' and means those times when you're in such hysterics even a teaspoon seems unbearably funny. Or in this case, a prawn. First it was talking French, a la Pierre, but then it's nationality and gender changed and we named her Margaret Thatcher.

Next: dessert!

And Samuel realises what he's done...

Finally, as this is my last rant about how weird and wonderful Taipei is, I thought I'd include this photo of this old lady, in the middle of a shopping square, with a pram (but no baby), singing really badly and loudly, with a giant shoe in the background. Not a particularly unusual sight in Taiwan.