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.

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

<3 the envelope

I have just been away for a week-end with cabin luggage and I have had the chance to try the Eagle Creek Pack-it Specter Folder I have just bought (and talked about here).
Well, it was fantastic! I left home with a dress neatly folded in it, but then I went shopping (it was planned) and I managed to fit 3 dresses and 2 skirts in it, with some leftover room for other things, if I needed it. I am really glad I bought it, even if, at first I disregarded it and focussed on the cubes, and didn’t think it would be so useful in compressing my clothes, while keeping them wrinkle-free.
When I took the dress out, at first it showed compression marks where the folds were, but it immediately became wearable.

The only thing I am not too happy about is the Velcro, as, when the folder is full, part of the stiff side remains exposed and catches into ‘Velcro-friendly’ things. But this is my only quibble.

I’m all packed up

When I first started packing I was 11 and my mother had sent me to her good friend in Germany for a couple of weeks, however I hadn’t chosen what to bring, I just had to put everything back into the bag when it was time to come home.

Fast forward to my first interrail trip with my friends: I had a huge backpack with all sorts of possible clothes, carrying it was not a problem, the problem was fitting it into lockers. At one point I remember carrying a portable drying rack that I could hang from the back of a chair.

Then sense came to me and I started cutting down on the things I brought, so my packs got smaller. I think flying was one of the reasons, but also the fact that I realised I didn’t need so much stuff.

I am not an impossibly light traveller, but I can manage with a far smaller pack than I used to. I have developed a travelling wardrobe made up mostly of black and white items, so that all match one another and I can pull out a decent outfit for almost anything I decide to do.

But I wanted to talk about my week-end backpack (that can actually fit enough for 5-7 days, if necessary). I bought a Tatonka Flightcase that is really comfortable to carry, both as a bag and as a backpack, even if I mostly use it as backpack, and complies with carry-on measurements. I use a Muji plastic bag with containers for my toiletries, which is also really comfortable, especially because you can get any size and shape you prefer, all in compliance with airport security rules. And my most recent purchase is a whole set of Eagle Creek Pack-it Specter Cubes and a Folder. And while I was at it, I also bought a couple of Pack-it Shoe Sacs, which will be more than enough, as my feet are so small that I can easily fit a pair of flip flops and a pair of sandals into one of the bags; the good thing is that they are waterproof, so even if you have muddy (or dusty) boots they won’t affect your clothes.

I like the Flightcase, but with it being soft and not having dividers inside, my clothes come out quite crumpled when it is not full. I think the Specter set is the perfect solution as it’s really versatile and so light that it’s almost like not having it, but I can keep my undies and bras separate from my T-shirts and my camera. I can keep dirty clothes separate from clean ones, I can keep all my socks together. It’s true that the bag is not huge, but this way, it feels more organised.
Of course I know that the pack-it cubes have been around for a while, but they were too stiff, which resulted in me being able to fit less in the bag.
The new Specter cubes are almost shapeless, as they are made of the very light and supple silnylon fabric used for ultralight tents. The material is ripstop, water-resistant and durable, but gives practically no support to your clothes. I chose them on purpose, as they can adapt to the shape of the bag I put them in, and that’s exactly what I need. The Flightcase is a rectangle, but my larger backpack is not, so I think these will be most comfortable.

I can fit about 6-8 rolled-up socks into a quarter cube. I pack my bras and panties into a half cube and t-shirts and leggings into the cube. I have a spare cube for dirty laundry, when it’s empty it takes up almost no space at all and weighs only 1 ounce. The first time I used it I was amazed at the amount of clothes it can hold!
I was so happy with the cubes that I have just bought a Folder: I went for the smallest size as I am only going to pack dresses in it, so it will probably be enough. I will try it very soon.

Many cheap airlines do not allow more than one piece of hand luggage, so I also got a Lifeventure Packable Daysack, in light stone grey. It folds away neatly in its own pocket and, when open, has a lot of space for everything in the main compartment, and handy external pockets for Kleenex, sunglasses, and so on. It also has two net pockets for water bottles.
I have sewn a strap inside the main compartment so that I can attach a Pack-it Sac to it with my wallet and passport, that hopefully won’t get stolen.
The straps are, of course, not padded, but they do not dig into your shoulders, unless you really overload the rucksack. I manage to carry around my iPad, my mirror-less camera with a spare lens, a water bottle, and other bits and bobs without problems.

I hope this was not too boring and maybe included some suggestions for travelling lighter in style.

Mono Lake

Last summer I set off for my very first trip to the USA. I have been around a fair bit, but somehow I had never set my foot in the land of the free, it was just about time to do it.

I had an idea of what I wanted to do and to see, but I don’t like planning too much, so I had quite a random time out there, especially because I rented a car, so I depended only on my stamina at driving and my slight tendency to get lost at times…

Well, to cut a long story short I ended up spending a couple of nights in a hotel on Mammoth Mountain near Mono Lake, which I hadn’t even known existed before seeing it on the map.

After a long day out trekking in the mountains, hearing the roar of bears in the distance and suddenly remembering I was carrying jerk beef in the backpack, I decided I wanted to see the lake.

I had read that it is the last vestige of volcanic activity in the area and, since it has no outlet, its water is very alkaline and saline – a bit like the Dead Sea. Worth seeing, isn’t it? On top of that, unique wildlife lives there, such as alkali flies, a special brine shrimp which is the food of the migrating birds nesting on the island in the lake, and even bacteria that can metabolise arsenic. I didn’t see any of that, but still the memories will stay with me forever.

I went there to have a look at the tufa towers, the limestone formations typical of the lake.

When I arrived the sun was setting in a perfectly clear dark blue sky, there were only a handful of people around, the plain was huge around us, surrounded by the Sierra. It was so magical, so beautiful, that it didn’t even seem real. While I was there I kept thinking that I wanted to stay a while, but it all was so short that it seems like a dream now. I think I will never go back, as it will never live up to that moment – a bit like a good love story, there’s no going back for seconds.