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

Advertisements

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!

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.

Continue reading

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 🙂

20131003-215300.jpg

20131003-215328.jpg

20131003-215344.jpg

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

Lisboa

Last week-end I went to Lisbon.
I hadn’t been back for a while and it was really nice to see the city again. I hadn’t realised I had missed it so much.

I have visited many cities by the sea, but none of them has such an intense relation with water, the sea, the river. So much of its folklore, traditions, art is intimately related to water. It is a town that is open and welcoming towards its river, the Tejo: if you go to the grand Praça do Comercio, the entrance to Lisbon from the river, you see a huge square, one side of which is the river itself, and even if it’s huge you do not feel intimidated or dwarfed, you see an embrace.

20130701-221908.jpg

I like the light in Lisbon’s old town: the streets are cobbled with white stones that reflect the clear light and the atmosphere is really special. Sometimes they are paired with black stones to form patterns and designs, and the result is always very pleasing. (Black and white are Lisbon’s colours)

20130701-222035.jpg

Lisbon is also the city of hills, steep hills. It’s a bit like San Francisco, even if the impression is completely different, as the streets are very narrow, sometimes to the point that there is no car transit, the houses are made of stone, and usually there are drying clothes hanging from the balconies.

20130701-222139.jpg

20130701-222224.jpg

20130701-222426.jpg