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

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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.

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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Fascination for emptiness

Not so long ago I visited the Death Valley and, against my natural inclinations, I decided to get up well before the crack of dawn, to see the sun rise at Zabriskie Point. I did not know exactly what to expect from the experience, and at the time I was too sleepy to think about it.

I just got into the car and drove in the dark to reach the place. I walked to the top of the hill and joined the ten people that were already there, waiting and chatting softly.
It was dark and chilly, but comfortable.
The light yellow rocks reflected some light, so I could make out their shape, their rolling waves crossed by a dark ‘river’ of stones.

Then the light started changing and it got clearer, everyone went shutter happy and you could hear technical discussions about aperture, lenses and shutter speed, but I tried not to listen to the human voices and just take in the sound of the blowing breeze.

And then the sun finally came and it was a fast show of light and shadows on the rolling landscape below.
It was so beautiful and strange. I was struck, and I still am, I didn’t want to leave, I could have stayed there for the whole day, just looking down.
So I came back two more times during the day, and the view was always the same and always different.
I do not understand why I am so attracted by that place: there is nothing. No trees, no bushes, no animals that you can see. It’s barren, and it’s clear that it’s not suitable for life, but still I would like to go back, I would like to live nearer to be able to go there more often. I would like to be there now.

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Wandering makes me happy

I have been away for a while, partly due to work issues, partly to a long overdue holiday. Yay!

I am not sure why, but I felt I needed to go to the desert, I wanted to see the Joshua trees, so my trip developed around the fact that I wanted to visit the Joshua Tree Park in California.

I experienced several different landscapes while I drove from San Francisco down the coast and then towards the Death Valley and Las Vegas and back to Los Angeles across Joshua Tree Park. I thoroughly enjoyed being alone in the desert. Many people asked: “Were you not afraid? What if something happened?” I don’t know, I never thought of that, I just lived the moment, I didn’t care about the “what ifs”.

I stopped in some places along the road where there really was no one in sight for miles, I got out of the car and not even the wind was blowing, there was a perfect silence, something which I am not used to, something that I didn’t think of until I actually encountered it, and I looked around at the beautiful scenery and I felt in peace.

 

Fogging Fog Fogs Up My Week-End

Aside

Last week the weather was gorgeous, sunny, mild (for winter). My friends and I had plans for the week-end, we wanted to go to a venue about 45 km from here, it was all set and it sounded promising.

Then I woke up on Saturday ‘morning’ (well, let’s say it was morning) and, looking out of the window, I thought it was me, maybe I had forgotten my glasses? It was all white and I could barely see the tree out of my window… I knew we were not going to make it, the fog would stay… I know 45 km is not much, but with that kind of wall to see through, it would take forever. I cursed all the cursable.

But here’s what is left behind:

The white icy coat is quite impressive and one of the nicest features of a dull season like winter, I like the contrast with the black trunks, it looks as if it were staged, but these are not black-and-white pictures.