When we arrived in Dubai we were struck by how modern the transportation system was but after two months in Southeast Asia we could have used these tips for riding the Dubai Metro. Asia had been hot and sticky and we really wanted to go someplace dry. After learning that Emirates offers flights to Dubai on a daily basis we headed there on a direct flight from Bangkok.

As the plane approached Dubai we saw the skyline popping out of the desert like the Emerald City in the Wizard of Oz. Shiny modern ziggurats soar skyward, the largest of which, the 163-story Burj Khalifa, is the tallest building in the world.

Dubai looks like something out of Flash Gordon from the air and continues with this futuristic feel on the ground. When we boarded the Dubai Metro we were a bit taken aback that there was no driver in the front car. The entire system is fully automated and driverless. After we got used to that fact, we realized the Metro is a great way to get around Dubai and offer these tips for riding the Dubai Metro

tips for riding the dubai metro

The futuristic Dubai Metro stations are easy to spot.

Find and book the best experiences in Dubai!

Here are 10 tips for riding the Dubai Metro:

1) There are two lines: Green and Red, with more on the way. The two existing lines cross each other and then run parallel so be sure to check a Metro map before starting your journey to see which one you need.

dubai metro map

dubai metro ticket machine nol2) The system is cashless. Purchase a “nol” card at a vending machine or at the ticket booth and put a designated amount on it. Then you swipe it over a card reader before entering the boarding area. Note that only Visa and MasterCard are accepted for payment. One-way fares range from AED 1.8 to 5.8. (About 50 cents to 1.60 in U.S. dollars.)

3) Don’t be alarmed that there is no driver or any other human on board running the trains. The system is completely automated which is a bit startling at first but you get used to it.

4) Because there is no driver, the view from the front car is not obscured by a driver’s cabin. The train operates mostly above-ground, so the front window offers the best views of the ever-changing skyline whizzing by. Train geeks will want to ride in the front car. But be careful because . . .

Dubai metro riding in front (640x458)

5) Each train has a car reserved for women, which may be the front car for that train so check the signs. I learned this one the hard way one day when I wondered why my fellow passengers (all female I later realized) were all staring at me. Eventually one approached and pointed to the “Women and Children Only” sign. Oops. Women are not limited to this car though and may ride in any car.

6) Don’t get confused by the Metro station names. Most stations on the Metro are named after the nearest important building, which in Dubai tend to be malls and bank headquarters that often start sounding alike. Pay attention to your stop.

dubai metro signage

7) There are separate cars for First Class but the ride is so short they are not worth paying for. The regular cars are cleaner and more comfortable than any subway we’ve ridden on before.

8) If you plan on cycling around Dubai, be aware that bicycles are not permitted on the trains.

9) Because Friday is a Day of Prayer in the United Arab Emirates, the Metro does not start service until 2 PM.

Dubai metro fish sign (300x292)10) Last but not least, do not carry fish on the Dubai Metro. That seems like an odd one but there were signs at the Metro entrance warning against carrying fish on board. That’s not something we’ve seen before.

For more information visit: Dubai Metro.

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28581550060_131210d7e7_mLarissa and Michael are your typical middle-aged couple from Philadelphia who’ve been traveling the world full-time since 2011, seeking off-beat, historic and tasty sights. To receive our free quarterly newsletter with updates and valuable travel tips subscribe here.

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Jerusalem is the most difficult city to decipher on earth. That’s not just us saying it. Try finding it on Google Maps. For security reasons high-resolution satellite pictures are not available, reducing the city to a fuzzy haze. This complexity continues at ground level.

Considering its significant impact on religious and world history, the area within the walls of the Old City is Lilliputian; covering less than a square half mile, it’s smaller than the University of Pennsylvania campus in Philadelphia. Upon entering the Jaffa Gate a visitor is confronted with an Escher-esque maze of narrow passageways, warrens and arches, some of them over two millennia old. Maps are of no use so we wandered along until we found what we were looking for; or got distracted and sought something else.

Jerusalem Damascus Gate

Cobblestone paths, worn smooth from centuries of foot traffic, lead up, down and around corners, past a wide array of vendors selling the hijab, the head covering worn by Muslim women, alongside stands stacked with colorful yarmulkes. A few yards away Christian prayer shawls are displayed and, somewhat incongruously, a merchant offering Philadelphia Phillies and Dallas Cowboys t-shirts with the team names spelled out in Hebrew.

Spiritually, Jerusalem provides sharp contrasts in worship as it is among the holiest sites for three of the world’s major religions: Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Christian pilgrims clutching rosary beads traverse the Via Dolorosa, the route of Christ to his crucifixion, as it winds its way through the Arab Souk. The Dome of the Rock, where Mohammed ascended into heaven, overlooks the Western Wall, the most sacred site in Judaism where hundreds of Jews offer their own prayers to God.

Jerusalem Western Wall barbed wire

One evening we left the Western Wall as an energetic group of Orthodox Jewish men were dancing in a circle as they sang out in prayer. We ambled along Habad Street in the Jewish Quarter where our curiosity led us up a set of rickety metal steps attached to the side of a building, considering the setting they appeared to be a stairway to heaven.

After our climb we gingerly walked across the rooftops of adjoining buildings. Looking down into a courtyard we spotted a mosque, its confines protected by concertina barbed wire, while just 50 feet away Jewish children played in a similarly safeguarded schoolyard.

Jerusalem western wall soldiers praying

The dulcet tones of the adhan, the Muslim call to prayer, bounced off the limestone walls of the ancient buildings just as it has for generations.  As if in response, church bells started clanging their hourly chorus. The echoes of three religions rang in our ears as we made our way to the Muslim Quarter.

In the backs of their stalls, Muslim shopkeepers knelt on prayer rugs pointing to Mecca, suspending all commerce for a few moments of penitence. But nothing stops the constant aromas produced by grilled meats rotating on spits over charcoal flames. The cooked meat blended with amber pyramids of spices to create a heady mix of scents. Stray cats popped up at every corner, no doubt attracted by a whiff of all the cooking.

Arab market Jerusalem

On the Al-Wad Road (the term “road” is a loose one, it’s a pedestrian strip about 10 feet wide) we mingled with Christian worshippers walking the Via Dolorosa. Part of the route is still covered with paving stones from the Second Temple period, an era from the time of Christ. The narrow street is crowded with shoppers and young men pushing their way through with handtrucks laden down with boxes of fresh mint, dates and clothing.

Adding to the bedlam, toddlers swirled like beeping communications satellites around Orthodox Jewish mothers who tried to keep them in a steady orbit; Times Square on New Year’s Eve is less chaotic. Careful to avoid stepping on the women who set up shop on the sidewalk, laying root vegetables on plastic sheets, we exited the Old City via the Damascus Gate.

PI 1 Jerusalem Muslim Quarter produce vendors (575x493)

Leaving the pandemonium behind, we headed for the relative serenity of the Musrara neighborhood, a former No Man’s Land separating East and West Jerusalem. In a city over 3,000 years old, this 150-year-old area is practically a toddler, but one with a troubled past. It was one of the first neighborhoods built outside the city walls, making it a pioneer suburb. Originally it was a district for wealthy Christians occupying upscale housing.

After 1948, the advent of Israeli statehood turned it into a deadly No Man’s Land, a disputed border between Israel and Jordan. Its position made it vulnerable to Jordanian shelling while the Israelis mined it to prevent intrusion; snipers patrolled on both sides. Despite the dangers, refugees and immigrants moved into the abandoned houses; even as they lacked electricity, water and schools.

PI 4 Jerusalem blend of religions (575x482)

Now the neighborhood has been reclaimed by artists who create messages of peace for the present and future. A free tour of the neighborhood is given on Saturdays. Our guide, Matan, is part of an organization called Muslala, the name an alternate spelling for the neighborhood. They believe art is a powerful tool to bring together this once conflicted neighborhood. Through community outreach programs, including this free tour, and multi-cultural art displays they hope to start a dialogue between neighbors of differing backgrounds.

In some places the art forms bizarre juxtapositions. On one wall the word “Love” is painted alongside signs pointing to the local bomb shelter. They each use the same font and colors. According to Matan, the unasked questions are “Which one is more important? Which one leads to safety?” The bomb shelter itself serves a dual purpose as it is now a community arts center.

Musrara tour jerusalem

After walking the streets of Musrara viewing the latest open-air art pieces, we climbed down a set of simple wooden steps known as Chiara’s Staircase. Several years ago, Matan built these steps so his girlfriend Chiara, who lived in the lower Old City, could scale the wall into the elevated neighborhood when they wanted to see each other. That romance has ended, but this tenuous bridge across the former No Man’s Land lives on.

Below the steps we crossed into Arab East Musrara for our final stop on the tour: Ikermawi Restaurant, reputedly the home of the best hummus in Jerusalem. On the crowded sidewalk we sat side-by-side on benches, Muslim, Jew and Christian, literally breaking bread together so we could dip the pita into the shared bowls of creamy hummus. The pita and hummus blend easily.

Oh if Jerusalem were only that simple.

This article originally appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

As a building geek I had to stop in Dubai to see the Burj Khalifa, at 163 floors it is by far the tallest building in the world; about 1 1/2 times as tall as the Empire State Building in New York. It boasts many superlatives, including the world’s highest observation deck on the 125th floor. It is not cheap to take a ride to the top.

Tickets are around $35 USD for a dated and timed ticket, which are booked at least a week in advance, or $81 USD if you just show up and want to go right away. I went with the timed ticket but as we’ll see, there are disadvantages to that strategy. (If you wish to go even higher to level 148 the prices go up to $136, which even I could figure out was almost $1 per floor.)

Burj Khalifa the tallest building in the world Dubai

When the desert sun of Dubai hits the shiny surface of the Burj Khalifa it can be blinding.

Burj Khalifa tallest building in the world Dubai

The building is up but development never stops in Dubai. The area around the base is still an active construction site. 

KVLY TV mast North dakota tallest structure in the world

The Burj Khalifa is also the tallest structure in the world, breaking the record of the KVLY-TV mast in North Dakota, which I once drove 5 hours out of my way to see and snap the photo above. Note to self: There may be a reason Larissa encourages me to go solo on my road trips. 

Burj khalifa tallest building in the world Dubai view of lake

Of course there’s a man-made lake in the middle of a desert.

Burj Khalifa Dubai view interchange

Dubai boasts an extensive road network. Unfortunately it’s being built so quickly the signmakers can’t keep up and navigation can be a challenge. The normally unflappable Larissa dropped more f-bombs in 10 minutes than in her entire life as she tried to get us out of one particularly intricate clover leaf.

Burj Khalifa Dubai view desert

The city is creeping quickly onto the desert. Actually, the city is the desert.

Michael Rocky Dubai

Naturally Little Rocky wanted to run up the stairs, but I insisted we take the elevator. 

Dubai building with emir on side

It’s good to be king, or in this case emir.

Burj Khalifa Dubai western local tourist

Tourists from different societies reveal contrasting dress codes.

Burj Khalifa Dubai woman praying

A devotee makes sure she doesn’t miss the call to prayer.

Burj Khalifa souvenir buildings

Remember to pick up a souvenir building in the gift shop . . .

 gold vending machine

. . . or a gold bar from the vending machine in the lobby; only in Dubai.

 Dubai sandstorm

The downside of a timed ticket was that I had to select when I would go a week in advance. About 15 minutes after I got to the top a sandstorm blew in, pretty much obscuring my $34 view.

Burj Khalifa night in clouds

Back on the ground the view was pretty cool at night. The nightly water show is just visible at the base.

Visiting the Burj Khalifa the tallest building in the world

Official website: Visit the Burj Khalifa 

Time to allow: Since tickets are timed you don’t have to get there early but allow at least an hour. The downside of a timed ticket is that the weather may not be cooperating when you go, as I found out when a sandstorm kicked up during my visit.

Who should go? Fans of tall buildings.

Cost: Prices range from around $35 USD to $136 USD depending on time of day and how high in the building you go. (Level 125 or level 148.)

Is it worth it? Due to the high price of the ticket we debated this one and decided only one of us would go. The decision was made easier when only one ticket was available. It’s not fair that after buying a ticket if you want to use the built-in binocular viewing stands it costs an extra $3 USD for only 2 1/2 minutes of use.

28581550060_131210d7e7_mLarissa and Michael are your typical middle-aged couple from Philadelphia who’ve been traveling the world full-time since 2011, seeking off-beat, historic and tasty sights. To receive our free quarterly newsletter with updates and valuable travel tips subscribe here.

We knew the night would be a little different than expected when at check-in Mahmoud cheerfully informed us, “I’ve upgraded you to a cave.” That was our introduction to staying at a Bedouin camp on our visit to Jordan. We had visions of dusty tents covered with Persian rugs and the odd camel lumbering by. This was true enough, but we were directed to our cave, a hole in the wall (literally) that barely had room for a floor mat with enough striped pillows to fill a Martha Stewart home furnishings catalog. After Mahmoud told us he had been raised in this cave we gladly accepted his generous offer.

Petra Bedouin through hole in cave

Bedouin still roam at Petra.

We were staying near Little Petra, only a few miles away from the world-renowned site of Petra. But apparently that short distance is an impassable obstacle to thousands of tourists every year. While Petra is jammed with visitors, many of them day-trippers traveling in huge packs from southern Israel, its former suburb of Little Petra can usually be seen in total silence. Our goal was to see both and compare.

Petra Indiana Jones shadow Although it has been quietly lurking in a remote mountain pass for millennia, Petra’s most recent rediscovery occurred when Steven Spielberg selected it as the site for the climactic scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Picture Harrison Ford and Sean Connery riding their horses through a narrow passageway and encountering the ancient pink-sandstone Treasury Building, with its Corinthian columns and pediment, carved into the rock. Moviegoers around the world were astonished that it wasn’t a movie set but a real place they could visit. Tourism took off, making Petra one of the most popular attractions in the world.

Petra began in the Neolithic Period, but really came into its own as a rich trading post in the 1st century B.C.. By the 6th century, a massive earthquake destroyed much of the city and it was abandoned, though local Bedouin continued to live in the area as they still do today.

To break away from the crowds at Petra it is necessary to take a big step, or in this case about 800 of them, and climb to the Deir, or Monastery. We lost count along the way so we’ll take their word on the number of steps. Figure about a 30-60 minute climb, depending on your fitness level and how often you’ll stop to take pictures of the incredible desert vistas from the cliff-side trail.

Visit to Jordan Petra Monastery view over valley

The climb to the Monastery is over 800 steps but well worth it.

The monastery at Petra

Along with the Treasury, the Monastery is one of the must-see buildings at Petra. (Note: It’s pictured at the top of this story.) Built around the 1st century A.D., it’s believed to be a temple dedicated to King Obodas. Its facade is carved out of the rock in a similar style to the Treasury building, but we only realized its massive scale when someone walked in front of the 30 feet tall doorway. Visitors to the Monastery share a sense of easy camaraderie after making the strenuous climb. Those less inclined to walk can ride a donkey to the top but, quite frankly, watching them scramble over the slippery sandstone with their clunky hooves made us glad we trusted our rubber-soled hiking shoes instead.

At the summit we met a teenaged Bedouin girl named Amup who offered to show us around the Monastery. She helped Larissa scale  the high wall leading into that massive doorway (Michael was content to stay behind and take pictures) and then led her to some hidden caves that offered tremendous views and photo ops.

When we offered to pay Amup for guiding us, she refused, stating proudly that she did this for free. She said, “However, if you are interested perhaps you might like to buy a bracelet?” Such is the way of the Bedouin, theirs is a unique code of honor: they will offer services for free in the hopes that you will consider purchasing some of their goods. Unlike the relentless hounding we’ve seen in other countries, we found this approach refreshing, one that has worked well for them for thousands of years.

Larissa Michael Milne Petra Changes In Longitude

Although Petra is popular, its sheer size makes it easy to break away from the pack. The outline of some of the buildings is visible carved into the rock in the valley behind us.

A side trip to Little Petra

The next day we visited Little Petra, a suburb of its big brother. It’s nestled in a slot canyon with similar structures carved out of the cliff as we saw at Petra, but on a much smaller, and more approachable, scale. We clambered up a set of ancient weather-worn steps to view intricately painted ceilings in a 1st-century A.D. dining hall. The surprisingly intact paintings portray cherubs, vines and birds. While a tour of Petra may take a day, Little Petra can be visited in an hour. Its splendid isolation, sans crowds, enables the visitor to imagine they are two millennia back in time.

Little Petra

The only thing Little Petra lacks is crowds. 

Little Petra stairs

Little Petra sits in a narrow slot canyon leading to these weathered stairs.

Little Petra painted ceiling

The painted ceilings at Little Petra are true survivors. 

Amman, the original Philadelphia

We then drove north to Amman, Jordan’s capital city, to seek more wonders of the ancient world. Although we hail from the City of Brotherly Love, we weren’t aware that the original Philadelphia was located here. During Roman times the city was named Philadelphia after a ruler of Egypt, King Ptolemy II Philadelphus. It was an unexpected sight to be in the Middle East and see the name “Philadelphia” emblazoned on tour buses, signs and postcards.

Philadelphia Amman Jordan Temple of Hercules

Larissa walking down the original streets of Philadelphia.

The streets of Philadelphia are best explored in the Citadel, an area that has been occupied for over 7,000 years. Originally the city’s acropolis, it offers commanding views of modern Amman from its rocky perch. Surviving Corinthian columns from the temple of Hercules, built in the 2nd century A.D., pierce the blue sky. Remains of Roman fortifications and a 6th-century Byzantine Church also dot the hilltop. Next door is the Jordan Archaeological Museum and Gardens. The ancient artifacts on display include a plaster statue from around 6,500 B.C.

Below the Citadel an well-preserved Roman theater lies cradled in a valley. It is still used for open-air concerts. On the day we visited the entertainment was provided by ten-year old boys and girls using the stage as an impromptu soccer pitch. The Theater’s cute cousin next door is the petite Odeum, operated for smaller performances.

Visit to Jordan Roman Theater Philadelphia Amman

The ancient ruins in Jordan are some of the best to be found anywhere, yet crowds are practically nonexistent. Many people only make a day-trip to Petra from Israel, however Jordan has much more to offer. Little Petra and the Roman ruins in Amman make it worth a longer visit. The country’s compact size makes it an easy place to drive around for a week and see everything.

Meanwhile, back at the cave, we dug into a meal of zarb prepared by our Bedouin hosts. Lamb, rice, tomatoes, potatoes and herbs were placed in a pot buried in a hot pit under the sands and cooked for hours, a Middle Eastern version of a clambake. The lamb was so tender we pulled it apart with our fingers and scooped up the rice with pita bread.

Zarb Little Petra Bedouin camp Jordan

Zarb, the original Bedouin BBQ.

Sitting around a campfire, we looked up at the clear night sky and tried to count the constellations, but there were so many we eventually gave up. After a day spent touring one of the most incredible sites in the world we settled in for a chilly desert night. Considering all the roaming we’ve been doing for the past year, a cave in a Bedouin camp felt remarkably like home.

What do you recommend seeing in Jordan?
 

28581550060_131210d7e7_mLarissa and Michael are your typical middle-aged couple from Philadelphia who’ve been traveling the world full-time since 2011, seeking off-beat, historic and tasty sights. To receive our free quarterly newsletter with updates and valuable travel tips subscribe here.

Whenever there is a wall dividing one group from another it provides an irresistible canvas to artists, both political and otherwise. After seeing the murals on the “peace walls” in Belfast and the surviving sections of the Berlin Wall, we were curious to venture into the Palestinian territories to see the other side of the Israeli security wall.

To see the other side of the Separation Barrier we traveled to Bethlehem, which is governed by the Palestinian Authority, via Arab Bus #21 which leaves from the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem. The ride takes only a half hour but truly enters another world. There is no checkpoint when entering the Palestinian territory but this changed on our return. Then the bus stopped at a checkpoint to re-enter Jerusalem so Israeli soldiers could come onboard to check papers.

Security wall in Israel murals Banksy

The British graffitti artist and political activist Banksy has made his mark in the area, although not on the actual wall. He painted the masked man throwing flowers at the top of this post and the girl above who is frisking a soldier.

Security wall in Israel murals dove Banksy

Another Banksy mural. The dove of peace wearing a bulletproof vest while being targeted through a rifle scope.

Security wall in Israel murals man walking

In many ways the security wall looks like the Berlin wall with its guard towers and graffiti. The neighborhood along it has become desolate, similar to what happened along the wall in West Berlin.

Israel defense wall guard tower

Israel defense wall mural Marianne

This mural borrows the imagery of Marianne storming the barricades during the French Revolution.

Israel security wall mural Wheaton College

Visiting the wall seems to be a right of passage for some American college students.

Israel defense wall mural rhino

A hippo breaks through the wall.

Israel defense wall street view white van

belfast peace wall catholic side

Note the two photos above. The first is of the wall in Israel from the Palestinian side. The second is a photo we took last year of the “peace” wall that still separates the Catholic and Protestant areas in Belfast. The only difference is the graffiti.

murals on security wall in israel

murals security wall in Israel

Israel defense wall billboard

One entrepreneur has put the wall to good use with a billboard for his shop.

Israeli defense wall house surrounded

This house is surrounded on three sides by the wall. Someone told us it is available for rent as a vacation rental.

Israeli defense barrier olive trees

Ironically, the wall cuts through a grove of olive trees. Olive branches are a symbol of peace.

Israeli defense wall along road

In some sections the wall projects out over the road.

Hopefully the situation will be peaceful enough one day so the wall is no longer needed.

Click the link for photos of the murals of Belfast.

And here’s a look at the current peace wall in Belfast.

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From a kitschy throwback hotel in North Korea to a nudist B&B in Portugal, we found a few unique places to stay in the world. Here are some of our favorites:

1) Little Petra Bedouin Camp, Jordan

 

Little Petra Bedouin camp Jordan

The Little Petra Bedouin Camp is so named because of its proximity to Little Petra, a smaller cousin of the world-renowned site of Petra. Just like the name implies, it’s little, but worth visiting as it gets less than 1% of the visitors of Petra. When we visited there were only three other people there. The Bedouin camp offers accommodations in tents. However, we were a little concerned at check-in when the owner cheerfully told us, “I’ve upgraded you to a cave.” So we spent a rather cold night in the cave but it was filled with blankets and pillows and ended up being quite cozy.

Website: Little Petra Bedouin Camp

2) Shichachai Shadow Art Hotel, Beijing, China

 

Unique places to stay Shichachai Shadow Art Hotel

Keen observers will notice that while Larissa is waiting for the next performance she is engrossed in a game of Solitaire.

Hutongs are traditional neighborhoods of small alleys and courtyard homes in Beijing that are rapidly being bulldozed over for new developments. While the hutongs are becoming a shadow of their former selves, will an art based on shadows help revive them? The Shichachai Shadow Art Hotel is in an old hutong neighborhood and showcases the ancient art of shadow puppetry. Banned by Chairman Mao during the Cultural Revolution, shadow puppetry is being revived by another Mao, this one an artist.

Unique Places to stay Shichachai Hotel Beijing

The man behind the curtain is puppet artist Mao.

Mao makes his own hand painted shadow puppets as he revives the lost art. A theater was built into the hotel lobby to showcase regular performances for guests.. Staying here provides the visitor a unique opportunity to experience life in an old hutong while watching an ancient art.

Book a room at the: Shichachai Shadow Art Hotel

3) Belar Homestead, Dubbo, Australia

 

Unique places to stay Belars Australia

The Belar Homestead sits in Australia’s bush country on a 3,000 acre ranch owned by 4th-generation cattle farmer Rob Wright and his wife Deb. In fact, the house was built by Rob’s great-grandfather. The setting off a mile-long driveway is perfect for someone seeking solitude with the only neighbors being a few cows, some chickens and the occasional kangaroo. The remote location provides a spectacular night sky for stargazing. It’s so clear that the Parkes Radio Telescope, which received the video of the first Apollo moon landing, is nearby.

4) Ai Aiba, The Rock Painting Lodge, Namibia

 

Ai Aiba rock painting lodge Namibia

Namibia has become a popular destination in Africa for independent self-drive safaris. Aside from the big game viewing, there are many areas with prehistoric cave art paintings. Ai Aiba sits within a 12,000 acre reserve boasting over 150 of these paintings. On a pre-breakfast hike we spotted some ancient artwork of giraffes while looking over our shoulder at real giraffes munching on the acacia trees. It was a sublime experience.

Ai Aiba rock painting lodge Namibia

Website: Ai Aiba, The Rock Painting Lodge

5) Yanggakdo Hotel, Pyongyang, North Korea

 

Yanggakdo Hotel Pyongyang North Korea

Okay this may not be everyone’s cup of tea, it certainly wasn’t Larissa’s choice, but the Yanggakdo is the place to go when visiting the monolithic country of North Korea and experience some retro-70s style. There’s even a highlight of that era, a revolving restaurant on top. The rooms were nicer than we expected, although coated somewhat with several decades worth of tar and nicotine. The only way to visit North Korea is via an authorized tour operator. We recommend Koryo Tours. Extra bonus: There’s a two-lane bowling alley in the basement that comes with your own cheerleader.

Website: Koryo Tours

6) Casa Amarela, Algarve Coast, Portugal

 

Casa Amarela Naturist resort Portugal

If you’re seeking a vacation where you can pack light, really light, the Casa Amarela may be what you’re looking for. The guest house run by Brits Jane and Stewart is clothing optional. The feeling of diving into the pool and then drying off au natural in the warm Portuguese sun is so … well, you’ll just have to experience it for yourself. And while you’re relaxing just think of all the money you saved on baggage fees.

Web site: Casa Amarela

7) Munduk Moding Plantation, Bali

 

Unique places to stay Munduk Moding Bali

If you’ve dreamed of waking up to a view of a coffee plantation on the island of Bali then this is the place. True coffee addicts can hike the plantation then retire to the lodge for a fresh cup of Kopi Luwak. Made famous as the java of choice for Jack Nicholson in The Bucket List,  it’s brewed from beans that have first been eaten and shat out by the civet cat. Despite that history, Larissa tried it. Fortunately for Michael he’s not a coffee drinker. As an added bonus you can visit the civets in cages and watch them prepare the beans for roasting.

Munduk Moding Plantation Bali

Website: Munduk Moding Plantation

What unique places to stay can you recommend?

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When we arrived in Israel we expected to stuff ourselves with Middle Eastern treats such as falafel and hummus, what we didn’t expect was some of the tastiest fruit and sweetest pastries of our journey. Israel has managed to create vast produce farms out of desert land, making street corner fresh squeezed fruit juice stands as ever-present as, well, street corners. They don’t ignore the good stuff though, the Eastern European heritage of many immigrants is reflected in the sweet cakes and pastries sold at every bakery.

Food in Israel fruit at juice stand

Israel had the best-looking produce  we’ve seen. Basically if it’s something that grows out of the ground, you can make juice out of it. Our favorite was fresh squeezed oranges and pomegranates with a touch of ginger and mint. Unlike the fruit smoothies we’ve seen in America, the Israelis don’t add any sugar or sugar syrup. With fruit this ripe and sweet, who needs it?

Mahane Yehuda Market Jerusalem

We were lucky to be staying only a block from the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem. On Fridays, it was elbow-room only as the jostling crowds set a festive atmosphere as they prepared for the Sabbath. The picture of the challah vendor at the top of this post was taken at Mahane Yehuda.

Food of Israel Mahane Yehuda market

Part of the market is covered while the rest spills out onto the surrounding streets.

Food market Mahane Yehuda Jerusalem spice blends

Tempting bowls of dried fruits, nuts and spices.

Israel food artichokes

What’s a market in Jerusalem without some of the namesake artichokes?

Food in Israel Mahane Yehuda market cookies

There is no shortage of cookies and sweets at the market.

Israeli food crispy cheesy bread

Can you tell us what this is called? It’s a crispy phyllo-type dough wrapped around cheese, spinach and potatoes with sesame seeds sprinkled on top. It was served hot right out of the oven and was incredibly delicious.

Machane Yehuda market Jerusalem man dancing

We’re not sure why this man was dancing on the top of a van at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem, but we did feel like we had just walked onto the set of Fiddler on the Roof.

Carmel Market Tel Aviv

The most popular market in Tel Aviv is the Carmel Market where shoppers can buy anything from food to clothing to electronics.

Food in Israel Carmel Market candy

Despite all the healthy Mediterranean food in Israel, those with a sweet tooth can still be satisfied.

Israel food Carmel Market

A lot of kibbitzing goes on at the market.

And what’s a good meal without some dessert at the end?

Food in Israel kosher gelato

This kosher gelato is non-dairy so it would also be good for those who are lactose intolerant.

Israel food pastry

We couldn’t understand the Hebrew writing on these pastries but a slice of each worked out just fine.

Israel food waffle dessert

When we ordered our waffles à la mode (with chocolate hazelnut) at this restaurant in Jerusalem, we didn’t realize it already came with heaping mounds of ice cream and whipped cream on the side.

Overall we really enjoyed the food in Israel. At one point we were getting a little hummused out after being in the Middle East for a few months, but a stop at our neighborhood juicer would invigorate us just enough to start diving back into the delicious local treats.

Click the link to read other stories about food.

One of the more sobering aspects of our journey has been the environmental abuse we’ve seen, sometimes in the least likely places. Although we’ve traveled all over the world and written about some incredible sights, the story that resonated the most with readers is the one we wrote about the plastic trash on the beaches of Bali.

The tropical paradise of Bali was anything but. We visited during what some locals call the “trash season.” This coincides with the rainy season as garbage-filled storm drains flow rivers of plastic into the ocean, which then flings the trash back in waves onto the beach. It’s not exactly the recycling program that they need. Despite all the pretty pictures we have posted, the one below has garnered the most worldwide attention to our site.

Bali Kuta Beach trash

A lonely mermaid washed up from a sea of trash in Bali.

A week before our visit to Bali we saw the result of an aggressive trash awareness program. Perth, Australia boasts miles of spotless beaches that were cleaner than any we’ve seen. The local Waste Authority, with the catchy slogan “Too Good to Waste,” promotes an active recycling program. But recycling alone won’t solve the problem. The main issue is the abundance of plastic being produced.

In the US alone over 40 billion plastic water bottles are used each year. And that’s in a country with a potable water supply. Reusable containers are gaining in popularity but as yet are not as ubiquitious as disposable plastic bottles.

Plastic shopping bags are being eliminated in many communities but are given out with abandon in much of the world; as if the cashier made a commission on every bag used. Sometimes this has led to comical situations where each piece of fruit is nestled in its own plastic bag. Even when we showed the vendor our recyclable cloth bag at markets in the Middle East, they would wave it away and shove our purchase in a plastic bag. Meanwhile, just halfway across the Mediterranean, the island of Malta charges for plastic bags so shoppers are diligent about bringing their own reusable bags with them.

Israel plastic recycling cages

This container on a street in Tel Aviv promotes plastic recycling. Unfortunately, due to security concerns it has to be an open cage.

After we published our story about Bali we became aware of an Australian group called “The Two-Hands Project.” Founded by Paul Sharp and Silke Stuckenbrock in 2010, the volunteer organization focuses on cleaning up the world’s beaches and making people aware of the dangers of plastic. They’ve used social networking to encourage clean-up efforts in over 35 countries. Their Facebook page highlights photos of successful clean-ups from around the world.

We asked Paul what primary message he’d like to get out to readers about their mission:

 “Plastic pollution is a symptom of failed design. Cleaning up is important and helps protect wildlife, though it will not fix the problem. Manufacturers need to move away from disposable design and implement reusable packaging and refund systems to ensure near 100% recovery of packaging and end-of-life products.”

He’s got a point, all the recycling in the world won’t make a dent in the huge amounts of plastic trash being produced daily. Until the plastic trash generation is cut off at the source, groups like theirs will be fighting a losing battle with their clean-up actions.

Thailand temple plastic recycling

This Buddhist temple in Thailand promotes biodegradable alternatives to plastic.

Part of the mission of the temple in Chiang Mai that is pictured above is to increase awareness of alternatives to plastic. Food containers made of compressed banana leaves instead of styrofoam are becoming more popular. We’ve also seen biodegradable “plastic” utensils made out of corn and other plant sources. While not a perfect solution, at least they won’t be floating onto the world’s beaches for decades after their use. Perhaps by then Bali’s “trash season” will become an unwelcome vestige of the past.

Click the link for more information about the Two Hands Project and see how you can lend a hand.

The Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem is the traditional path that Jesus walked on the way to his crucifixion. Following the fourteen Stations of the Cross up the hill towards Mount Cavalry is a pilgrimage for Christians worldwide who descend in droves onto the narrow path. Some come alone while others are part of groups singing religious hymns in many languages along the way. In this multi-lingual city where signs are in Hebrew, Arabic and English the Via Dolorosa stands out for still retaining its Latin name.

Via Dolorosa

This is a wide part of the path near the starting point.

We walked the Via Dolorosa on an appropriately dreary, rainy day. Surprising for a site that attracts millions from all over the globe, the walkway and stations have not become touristy attractions. In fact, some of them are even hard to find. We were pleased to see that Christ’s path to crucifixion remains a humble route and has not become Disneyfied.

Via Dolorosa Roman stones 100 BC

Some of the paving stones are from the Roman era of 100 BC.

Via Dolorosa Christ fell (525x471)

This chapel marks the 3rd station where Christ fell.

Via Dolorosa 4th station

Underground chapel at the 4th station where Jesus met his Mother.

Via Dolorosa

A blend of cultures on the Via Dolorosa.

Via Dolorosa Arab market

The path winds through the Arab market.

The only sour note is at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which straddles the site of Christ’s crucifixion, burial and resurrection. There have been violent disputes over the centuries between various Christian sects that are engaged in a turf war over which one controls this most holy sight of the Christian faith. In 2008 a brawl between Armenian and Greek Orthodox clerics had to be broken up by the Israeli police. To help keep the peace a Muslim family has been entrusted with the only key to the church for over 1,400 years.

An agreement that was signed by all parties in 1853 called the “Status Quo” was supposed to solidify which of seven different Christian sects controlled which part of the Church. However the window ledges remain disputed territory. In the picture below there is a ladder leaning against a window over the entrance. Supposedly it has been there since at least 1852. There is no consensus about which group can move it. It makes one wonder that if different groups of the same religion can’t get along, what does that bode for a city that is a cradle of Judaism, Islam and Christianity?

Walking the Via Dolorosa is a moving experience on two levels. For Christians, following the path of Christ is literally a religious experience. For others it is a unique opportunity to walk in the footsteps of a major historical figure.

Church of Holy Sepulchre

The last five stations are in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Church of Holy Sepulchre crucifixion site

Golgotha, believed to be the actual crucifixion site.

Church of Holy Sepulchre tomb of Christ (525x465)

The stone that according to tradition covered the tomb.

From Michael in Doha, Qatar ~ Regular readers of this blog know about my carb fetish. It probably stems from when I was a little boy and my Sicilian immigrant grandfather owned a bread bakery on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village. Since then the smell of baking bread will send me on a Pavlovian hunt seeking its source.

Middle East flatbread

Is there a better sight when traveling than a bakery?

Today we were walking down a street in Doha, Qatar. I stuck my nose into the wind whipping off the Persian Gulf and detected the familiar aroma of pita bread baking. Added to it was the pungent smell of a wood being burned in a brick oven. We followed the scent wafting over us to the Al Raas Bakery. A scrum of men standing eagerly outside an open window told us there were delights waiting for us inside.

Arab flatbread pita

This stack of flatbreads right from the oven costs less than a dollar.

Every few minutes a stack of fresh flatbreads would appear on the window ledge. A man would hand over some riyals, shove the bread into the plastic bag he had brought along and walk away. In typical bread-lover fashion they would tear off a piece to sample it as they ambled down the street.

Pita bread

Michael in his “happy place.”

I eased my way into the crowd but for some reason my attempts to look like a local failed. However, the other men, knowing we had something in common more important than appearance or nationality, welcomed me into their inner circle.

My grandfather taught me that bread making is all about rhythm: the way you slap the dough, knead it and shape it for baking is an art as much as any painter or musician. I watched the men inside the stifling bakery work through their routine with the skills of a rock band on tour.

Arab flatbread

The artists at work in front of the orange glow from the woodburning brick oven.

One man poked the wood to stoke the embers and generate more heat. The bread maker flipped the dough back and forth in his hands before smacking it onto a round mold to create its distinctive shape. The baker slid the mold into the oven and deftly tipped it so the dough hit the sizzling hot brick.

Flatbread like this is ready in about a minute. Each eager customer already had the money in his hand. One riyal for five loaves, about a nickel apiece.

Arab flatbread

In a generous gesture, this man insisted I go first.

Typical of the Muslim hospitality we have experienced throughout our stay in the Middle East, the man wearing the red-and-white ghitra headcovering in the photos could sense my eagerness. I didn’t realize it but he asked the others to let me go next. When the next batch appeared they stepped aside and handed it to me.

Larissa and I thanked them profusely and eagerly walked away with our treat; juggling our hot flatbread right from the oven. Where’s a stick of butter when you need it?

We’ve come across some unusual signs in our journey. Some funny signs caution people about not doing things that would seem to be self-evident. Like the sign posted above. It’s in the bathrooms at the Adelaide Airport in Australia. Not that we’ve ever been tempted to drink from the toilet, public or otherwise, it’s nice to know they care enough to give us another reason not to. Here are a few more funny warning signs:

Sign Bangkok taxi no humping (515x402)

These no-nos were posted on a taxi in Bangkok. We understand no animals, we didn’t realize the other one was such a major problem.

Dubai metro fish warning sign

Apparently people carrying fish is a real issue on the Dubai metro.

funny signs

I guess in the land of the hopping kangaroo, Aussie drivers need to be reminded that not everything bounces.

Spit Junction Sydney

An actual Metro stop in Sydney, it can’t be good for property values.

Sarah Palin passport

There was something about the face in this photo shop in Australia that looked familiar but we just couldn’t place it.

A clean toilet seat costs about 60 cents at this Kuala Lumpur Mall. If you’re not so particular you can go down the hall for free.

Squat toilet sign

Okay, in Asia there are Western style toilets and there are squatters. This sign in Cambodia warns against combining the two concepts.

durian warning sign

Durians, also known as stinky fruit, are banned from most hotels in Asia. Their stench is noted for its quite remarkable lingering effect.

What unusual signs have you seen in your travels?