First Impressions of Israel

So the time has finally come for my first trip to Israel, after many rescheduling I finally managed to set foot in the promised land.

It is a land that managed to surprise me. For example, many people told me that Tel Aviv is very European, and while I can see what they mean, I found it very Asian in the jumble of wires in the street, in the messy and lively open air markets, and I also found it looked like Brazil on the beachfront. I like Tel Aviv, I like the many bars that are open til late, I like the people sitting and chatting at midnight, I like the fact that you can find food at any time of day and night, and that you can walk by the beach towards the old port of Jaffa.

The other surprise came from Jerusalem. I am not a very religious person, but many people told me that they felt the shekhinah, the presence of God, in the city. I find the old city very fascinating, with all its history, with the narrow streets, the processions bearing the cross and singing hymns, the muezzins’ calls to prayer, the Jews in traditional coats, the Ethiopian community with their traditional dresses and white veils, the black robes and strange hats of the Armenian monks. But I do not feel the presence of God, I feel the atmosphere of a city whose atmosphere is and was shaped by the the many people who believe God is or was present.

Everything is more extreme in Jerusalem; the presence of some of the holiest places of the three main monotheistic religions has caused and still causes clashes, it looks like people tend to be more traditional here, rather than in other parts of the world. Many times I came across scenes that could be happening in any point in the time in the past 500 years and I guess that is part of the charm of the city.

It definitely is worth a visit. It slowly grows on you and now I would like to go back.

North of Tel Aviv you can visit Caesarea, easy to reach and impressive Roman ruins of the old port. The old theatre is still in use and it must be nice to see a show there. You can have a picnic or dip in the sea near the ancient aqueduct.

And further north you can visit Akko, a little jewel of a city that dates back to the Canaanite period and used to be the main port for pilgrims going to the Holy Land in the Middle Ages. The Knights Hospitaller (later Knights of Malta) had their headquarter in the city at the time and their grand buildings can still be seen partly buried under under today’s city. The city was then conquered by the Mamelukes and the Ottomans, until it was conquered by the newly found State of Israel in 1948.

The old city is part of UNESCO Heritage and is really amazing. I visited it in just one day, so I could not see everything, but it was really worth it. I went to Al-Jazzar mosque and was pleasantly surprised when they let me in even if my calves were showing, I was also surprised by the fact that the prayer at noon was called by both a man and a woman.

I also had one of the best meals ever in Akko, sublime fish and seafood at Uri Buri restaurant. The place itself is nice and unpretentious, the waiters very very kind, they try to accommodate your requests so that you can have the best experience, and the food is amazing.

It has been quite a ride, and I am sure that this was not a Goodbye, but a See you again soon

Travel Gear: update

I have just noticed that I wrote a post about my travel gear 5 years ago. I have changed some things in the way I travel, mostly slightly tweaked my stuff, so I guess it’s the right time for an update.

If you are looking for advice on how to travel for months with a 20 litre backpack, spare your time, I am not that kind of traveller. I try to travel light, but I like to have some comfort, so I am a hybrid traveller, I pare down everything to a minimum, but that includes a clean t-shirt for every day of travel, when it’s 10 days or less and I keep moving from one place to another.

I use clean/dirty packing cubes now, and I think it’s a great improvement because the volume of each cube stays more or less the same and makes packing easier, you just move the items from one side to the other when you use them. A large one for t-shirts and dresses, a medium one for leggings, skirts and trousers and one or two small ones for knickers, bras and socks. When I used a single bag for dirty clothes it gradually became bulkier and bulkier and packing was more awkward.

My daypack of choice is now the U1 by Urbanita, designed and made in Barcelona. It is not exactly a fold-away backpack, but it is very flat when empty, so I can stuff it in my main luggage, but its main advantage is that all pockets and zippers are against your back when you wear it, making it theft-proof, I feel much more relaxed when I roam around markets and other crowded places. It is also comfortable to wear, even if the straps are not padded. It has an internal pocket for a laptop or tablet, two external zip pockets for phone, wallet, keys, and two slip pockets on the sides for water or an umbrella. The U1 is 16 l and the mini U1 is 9.

Besides the daypack, I carry a small document pouch/bag, which can get through even when only one carry-on is allowed, avoids rummaging through pockets when you look for your passport or boarding pass, and can be stuffed into the main backpack without problems if needed. It is either a Crumpler Doona Sling XS, or a Kathmandu Transit Pocket.

Another travel-size thing I carry is a Cocoon Ultralight microfibre travel towel. I don’t like the texture too much, I prefer normal towels, but this is tiny, super absorbent, and dries very fast, I can compromise for some time.

I use a dry bag to store my bikini, and I carry a larger one if I know I am going near water, so I can protect my camera and passport etc. and I can take them with me into the sea, if I need to (I almost always travel alone). It can be used to wash clothes in, so it’s really handy.

The shoe bags I bought 5 years ago are still going strong despite the abuse I inflict on them, so I am even happier of my purchase.

My travel wardrobe is still mainly black and white, but now I add some colour, usually red, but it can also be green or orange, the important thing is that it is just one, so that I do not have problems when matching items and I have several different outfits.

And remember, the rule is: are you taking an item along only because you think “what if I feel like wearing it while I am away?”, too bad, because you should leave it home.

Away but connected

I have always travelled using maps, no connections, but nowadays I am so used to the convenience of just googling something and getting directions, contacting friends whenever I need it, or just looking for the best restaurant/snack bar in the area, that I find it hard to do without it. In some countries you can easily buy a tourist SIM card at the airport, but some others have more limitations and you are not allowed to get a SIM if you do not have a local social security number, so I decided to buy a portable wifi modem.

After having a look around I opted for the GlocalMe G3 Router Mobile 4G LTE, and after trying it, I have to say it is really easy to set up and use and definitely worth the investment. It looks a bit like a thick iPhone 4, has a touchscreen for the initial set-up and in case you need to check or change anything, but I rarely use it, just to check the battery and the leftover data in the package.

Once you have your modem, you have to download the GlocalMe app from either the Playstore or the Appstore, create an account and log into the app on your phone (or other device), then you turn on the G3 modem, click on Login from the main menu, a QR code will appear and you just have to scan that from the Activate Device option in the app on your phone. After you complete the activation you have to turn the G3 off and then on again, then click on Hotspot to see the SSID and password for your wifi network. This procedure does not take more than 5 minutes and only needs to be done the first time you connect a device.

How does it work? When you reach your destination and you turn it on its virtual SIM connects to the local network and you can use your data package. If you want, the device can also accommodate up to 2 SIM cards, so it is very versatile.

When you buy the G3 you get 1GB of worldwide data for free, so you can start surfing the net wherever you are. Once this package is over you have to buy data packages from the app or the website; you just look up the country (or countries) you need and check what is available. Generally there are 500MB or 1GB packages that are valid for 30 days and are reasonably priced (eg. 500MB in Israel cost 4€, 1GB costs 7€, 1GB mainland China is 2€, 1GB Australia is 10€), and for some countries there are also different sizes, or you can buy multicountry packages (eg. Southeast Asia – Singapore, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia and the Philippines – for 12€), or you can choose 1GB worldwide valid for 365 days for 29€. These are just some examples, the service is active in over 100 countries.

The G3 is quite hefty, but the weight is justified by the size of its battery which lasts really long (I was out for the whole day and the most I consumed was about one third) and can be used as a power bank to top up your phone, should you need that. However it is not so heavy that I noticed it while carrying it around in my daypack.

It comes with a micro USB cable that can be used with any USB charger and this is a bonus for me, as I usually only carry one four port travel charger with interchangeable plugs.

The connection was fast and seamless, web pages and maps loaded fast without issues and I could easily check my consumption by just looking at the main screen. I can recommend the purchase if you travel a lot in different parts of the globe.

Travel Gear: Hand Luggage

For my most recent 10-day trip I used only hand luggage. I don’t like trolleys, even if I admit that they are invaluable when you have a large load, but for hand luggage, I prefer a backpack; it’s more functional, weighs less, and has that small amount of extra space that is always useful. The other advantage is that you very rarely get chosen to hand over your luggage when the flight is full.

Funny enough, my biggest challenge is always with toiletries. My skin and hair are quite sensitive, so I cannot use anything I pick up, and I have to take along at least shampoo, conditioner, lotion, and face cream enough for the trip. I use a Crumpler transparent bag to hold my collection of small travel containers from Muji, integrated by a 50 ml tub of shea-butter-based cream. I also found a convenient hydration stick at The Body Shop, which works really well and can get through security out of the liquids bag 🙂

I used my Crumpler Director’s Cut Board Backpack, which is presented as a business trip type of luggage, but it’s actually quite tough and very comfortable, despite its silky sleek look. I added the waist strap and could walk for miles with that thing on my shoulders without problems. I like it because it has a large inner space like a duffel bag, but it opens like a suitcase, so it’s easy to arrange stuff, and it also has compression straps inside, so that the load does not move about too much. The other thing I like is that it has quite a few pockets to organize your things, such as a back pocket for tablet and laptop, an inner pocket that takes up all of the cover (where I put a shawl and two pullovers), another pocket on the front where you can put all your electronics and which also contains the rain cover (the backpack is water resistant, but has a rain cover in case of storms/heavy rain), and a top pocket with a key fob and dividers, that I used for my liquids bag. All of the zippers are sealed and the one to the main compartment is lockable.

The straps can be hidden away under a cover and the bag can be carried with the provided shoulder strap, or by one of the handles. The bag has also an expansion zip, in case you need more room when coming back :).

I used packing cubes for t-shirts, skirts, underwear and socks and everything fit perfectly and was well organized, as the bag is shaped as a rectangle and has no funny spots that are not easy to use. It fit perfectly in the hand-luggage measure and it was easy to go through security. The material looks durable and shows no sign of wear, despite my banging it around in the desert and on public transport, so I am really happy with it.

Why not?

I found this while browsing the web and I couldn’t help thinking how accurate it is: most of the time I take decisions based on these two words I have amazing experiences. I usually use the “why-not method” in my personal life, not at work, but I find it very rewarding, it opens a world of possibilities and surprises.

In 2016 I was in Sukhothai, which was the capital of the Sukhothai reign between the beginning of 1200 and mid 1300. Now it’s a relatively small town, with an interesting heritage of temples and ruins and while I was there I saw there was the possibility to see the sunrise from one of them, so I said “why not?”, and booked a tuktuk for an ungodly hour of the morning. We reached the place and I started to walk up the hill, on a narrow path in the middle of the tropical forest lit only by the light of my cell phone, I heard rustling in the trees and I started wondering if that had been a good idea; then I reached the top of the hill and I was completely alone with the huge statue of the Buddha, chanting started from a monastery that was still in use but I could not locate; and then, after some time it was not so dark anymore, the statue took a blue hue and waited patiently for it to change to pink, orange and yellow.

It was a memorable experience.

In 2017 I visited the Chapada Diamantina national park in Brazil, and one of the suggestions was a two-day hike to a waterfall, and again I said “why not?”. It turned out the uphill hike it was a bit over my possibilities (especially in that kind of heat) and I will not do it again, but I made it. We slept under the stars, but unfortunately it started raining in the middle of the night, so we had to gather our stuff, cross the river on foot and sleep in a hole in the rock wall, and we did not even manage to reach the main waterfall we were supposed to go to, because it was too slippery and dangerous, but what an experience! I am glad I did it.

You need some “why not?” in your life to make it worth it, it’s like a little chilli pepper that makes your chicken breast interesting.

Hiroshima mon amour

I know it sounds quite predictable as a title for a post on Hiroshima, but I have just realised that it perfectly summarises my feelings for the place.
Some years ago I happened to visit Hiroshima just before the big celebrations on 6 August.
The city is not really nice, not in the common meaning of the word; it is not Kyoto, with its grand temples and quaint little alleys; nor is it Tokyo, with its many faces and bright lights. But it's intensely alive, with people strolling around, young couples and groups of friends laughing, old people walking in the parks, the atmosphere is lively and the restaurants are full, there are lots of bars on the riverbanks.

Of course, I visited the Bomb Museum and it's something I will never forget. The experience is tough. Yes, you know that the Japanese had done horrible things while conquering Asia, you know that the high ranks of the army did not want to give up, that they wanted to fight until the last man alive, but the people of Hiroshima that were hit that day were just students, nurses, workers, normal people at the beginning of a normal day.
The bomb produced a heat wave so strong that the copper roof of what is now the atomic dome melted and fell on the people below. The wind it provoked was so strong that all the traditional houses which formed most of the city were blown away. The glass windows of the hospital exploded and killed or injured countless people inside. But that was not the worst yet.

In the museum you can read the stories of many people who survived the first strike, but died because of the radiations, and it was a horrible death. People who were unrecognisable even for their own families, because of the radiation-induced damages they suffered, people whose skin started falling off, people who just disappeared, evaporated.
As I said, it was tough, and it's meant to be like this, it's meant to hit you as its primary goal is to never let anything like this happen again.

When I came out, I strolled in the Peace Park and an old man stopped to talk to me. I think he was a survivor and he said many things, but I only understood part of them with my poor Japanese. Before we parted he gave me an origami crane. Sometimes I look at it to remember that life goes on, despite everything, like the flowers that started to bloom the year after the bomb exploded and changed everything. And that is the reason why I liked Hiroshima: it is a very lively city, but it doesn't hide its difficult past.
Banzai Hiroshima!

La Grande Bellezza?

You may have heard that an Italian movie finally made it to the Oscars again, La grande bellezza directed by Paolo Sorrentino.
I don’t know why, but this has caused all sorts of polemics and pointless discussions about how unworthy of the Oscar the film is, how boring it is, and how it all was a political move (?)

I have just finished watching it and I liked it, and I can see why it has won (even if I haven’t watched any of the other contenders). The protagonist, journalist Jep Gambardella, is a fascinating, complex character, he is both cynical and quite sarcastic and very human and sensitive with people and events that deserve it. He is never mean just for the sake of it.
There are other characters that are a lot more than they may appear at first, and there are others, on the contrary, that are every bit as shallow as they look.
Some of the scenes are caustic, like the one at the Vatican when Sister Mary receives the homage paid by all sorts of religious people. That is really bordering on grotesque and quite funny. Or the cardinal that can explain the details of all sorts of recipes as solemnly as if he were celebrating mass, but flees at the merest hint of spiritual questions.
Some are dreamy, like the disappearing giraffe, or the flamingoes stopping on Jep’s balcony for a rest while migrating.

And then there’s the overwhelming presence of Rome, in all its beauty and decadence. Nothing can compare to taking a walk in Rome at night, when no one’s around and all the palaces, monuments and fountains are lit up. It doesn’t even seem real.

It’s a strange movie. I think it doesn’t have to be understood, it doesn’t have to be read, you just have to try and let it take you along with the story and then you’ll see its beauty, you’ll see that Jep’s life has come full circle: he probably started writing after being left by his then-girlfriend without understanding the reason, now the woman’s died and left a diary where she says she’s always loved him, all the time, but doesn’t explain why she left him, and this sparks Jep’s will to write a new novel, as so many people ask him to do. It’s not for everyone’s taste, but if you let it guide you, you’ll be part of a brilliant dance.

A Lesson In The Nature Of Light

As soon as I saw a picture of Antelope Canyon I knew I had to see it.  

Antelope Canyon is actually Antelope Canyons, as it’s split into two parts that are only accessible with guided tours, as they belong to the Navajo nation, and are also subject to flash floods.

Tours to the Upper Antelope Canyon are organised by different companies, while Lower Antelope seems to be a family-run business with just one company having access to it and taking no reservations. 

I had booked a tour in Upper Antelope during the so-called “prime time” the central hours of the day, when the light coming in creates rays similar to spotlights inside the canyon. You are taken to the entrance by 4WD on a very bumpy road, that is actually the bed where rain water flows when there are heavy storms. 

The entrance to the canyon is level with the ground and looks like theatre curtains, it’s amazing how water and wind managed to create such “flowing” shapes from stone. You feel the urge to touch it to confirm it’s solid rock. 

Then you enter the canyon and the surprise continues: it is quite dark inside, in some points, where it’s narrower it is really dark, as the opening at the top is much narrower than the bottom of the canyon where you walk, so there isn’t much light coming in. The stone itself is a reddish-purple colour when you look at it, but when you take pictures the magic happens. The images gathered by our eyes are constantly adjusted by our brain, so the colour we see is more or less constant, but if you use a camera, it gathers the available light, and there is where all the colours come to life. 

According to where and how you point your camera you can obtain different effects, without tampering with settings and white balance, just playing with the light reflected by the walls of the canyon. 

I know the physics that is at the base of this effect, but I still find it amazing and almost magic! 

I managed to get pictures of the famous and much sought-after rays in Upper Antelope, and I have to say it was worth it, even if it was really crowded, and I found being told what to photograph, from where and when, quite annoying. I know that guide was well-meaning, but I hate being told what to do (and to tell the truth, some people really needed advice, as they were using flash, spoiling the whole effect).

Then I went to Lower Antelope Canyon, which is said to be the opposite of Upper Antelope: Lower is an underground canyon with a V shape, so there are no light rays and access is a bit more difficult, as it happens through a crack in the ground, even if it’s well equipped with metal ladders. Unfortunately there had been a flash flood two days before I went and the canyon was still being cleaned, so I could only visit part of it. 

But I was lucky to be able to. This canyon is a lot less crowded and the guide was less obtrusive, she would take pictures of you in the canyon, if you wanted, but wasn’t rushing you, or telling you what to do. She was actually helpful with people who asked for advice. 

The canyon really is the opposite of Upper Antelope, it has a lot more textures and more colours are developed by the shape of the canyon. I think I will have to try and go back to walk it all! 

I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, it was a real lesson in the use of light and reflections, and the way we see. And if you go there I suggest you visit both canyons as they are different and equally interesting.

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The perfect moment

Sometimes I think of it. About a month ago I was driving alone in New Mexico, crossing green plains, with light grey mountains in the background. One of them would draw closer at times bordering the road; the sky was perfectly blue and fluffy white clouds were playing tag.
I thought that maybe I could turn on the radio and “Take It Easy” filled my car.
It was such a perfect moment that I was almost moved to tears, one of those moments that seldom come in life and are always unexpected.

So I decided to start singing and it was soon chased away by my out-of-tune voice 🙂




The Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon

I was at the Grand Canyon the other day
I knew it would be overwhelming. I knew it would be impossible to describe to someone who hasn’t actually experienced the vastness of its gape. I knew it would be unforgettable.

And yet, I thought it was a bit of a let down when I first saw it, as there were too many tourists (like me), the children were either bored or hyper, most of the adults just hopped off the bus, took a picture, ticked that viewpoint off and went.

It was a bit depressing. But then I started walking on the Rim Path and, after the first few bus stops, people really did thin out. I had some spots all for myself, I had the time to observe my surroundings and to notice the contrast of a cactus growing next to a pine tree. I guess that’s the only place on Earth where it happens.

I reached a rock jutting out of the main path, everyone else had left, I was left alone with the huge gaping valley and the red river below. I wanted to take a picture so I walked right to the rim, I stared out into the distance and the air called me: I felt a sudden urge to jump off. I wished I had wings to soar on those jagged rocks, to reach the condor nests, to dive straight down and then come up again brushing the many-coloured canyon walls.
I wished I had a glider at least, to be able to mock the grace of birds.
It was so powerful that I had to step back.

Shortly after that a crow flew up from a bush near me and gave a call. Then I saw it again a bit further up the way, it flew above my head and called and then came back and waited for me on a tree along the path. It was really weird. Can you have Stendhal syndrome in front of a marvel of nature?
Grand Canyon sunset