We're hitting the ground running during our first full day in the Middle East. We're exploring the Judean Desert by Jeep, visiting Mount Azazel, Wadi Qelt, and...
An unexpected experience as we faced Hurricane Gonzalo in Anguilla.
Check out my carry-on essentials for long flights! From magazines to eye drops, I never leave home without my must-haves.
Check out these 5 unassuming destinations that exceeded expectations! From Gozo to Saba, places with a wow factor!
Wondering what to pack for your trip to the Middle East? Check out my list of 15 things to throw on your checklist!
I’m Shannon, a twenty-something island dweller with a passport at the ready and a never-ending bucket list. I didn’t start as an island dweller. I started as a California resident – a newly minted grad – and in 2009, I embarked on a journey. I left my home in California to begin graduate school in the UK and at that moment, life changed. Since that time, I have had an amazing opportunity to see parts of the world I never imagined, meet incredible and inspiring people, and enjoy…
We’ve arrived in the Middle East and today marked our first real day of exploring in the region. We decided to hit the ground running and embarked on a Judean Desert Tour with Nir Friedman of Hidden Valley Tours, a company that works with Abraham Tours to provide visitors a deeper look at the region. This hadn’t been on my radar initially but I was intrigued by seeing a different part of the country and the opportunity to visit some sights that are off-the-beaten-path. The tour took us from our home base in Jerusalem east into the Judean Desert (sometimes referred to as the Judean Wilderness), the land that stretches from Israel to the Dead Sea bordering the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.
Our first stop on our Judean Desert Tour journey was Mount Azazel, a location referenced by all Abrahamic religions. According to tradition, a goat was selected annually, taken up to this mountain and thrown over the edge on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). It’s through this act, that Mt. Azazel gained its fame. This was our first brush with the desert and the vistas were stunning; rolling sandy hills with a scent that reminded me in many ways of dry California days. Today marked a holiday in Israel and the area was a bit busier than it would be on any other week (though not congested by any means). Cyclists braved the rough terrain and families walked around the mountain top, catching views of Jerusalem and Herodian in the distance.
When it comes to best kept secrets in the Judean Desert, Mar Saba may top the list. The road to the monastery brings rather rough and difficult terrain that can be tough to negotiate which is a deterrent for visitors (how Nir’s SUV made it, I’m still amazed). Though the ride may be rough, it’s worth the work. Mar Saba is over 1500 years old and is the oldest inhabited monastery in the world, currently the home for a small collection of Greek Orthodox monks. Surrounding the monastery is a cliffside with what appeared to be caves or dwellings carved into the face. Nir explained that there are essentially three categories of monks that reside here: the most conservative who choose to live in the caves at all times, jettisoning any little luxuries and comforts; those who reside in the caves during the week and spend weekends in ‘town’ (the monastery); and the least conservative who reside fully within the monastery space.
The site is unbelievable to see first hand. Nir explained the history of the space, of the people and of the dynamic environment while we sipped on freshly brewed herbal tea, taking it all in. The monastery, and all of the sites we visited, are in the West Bank. While Israelis are allowed to visit, many haven’t for a variety of reasons, making us some of the few lucky enough to see the site first hand.
As of Monday afternoon, we were prepared, far more prepared than we typically are going into a trip. Our clothes were washed, steamed and packed, and by all accounts, we were ready for a Wednesday departure to Tel Aviv. I’d spent Sunday laying out on our balcony, soaking in as much sun as possible in the lead up to our departure, knowing that rain was on the horizon. Forecasts had warned of a tropical depression making its way through the area, and we were prepped for a gloomy, rainy, and maybe windy, night.
We ended up departing work early on Monday afternoon after all other staff members had gone home earlier in the day. Schools were closed due to weather (though it hadn’t set in yet), and parents were going home to be with their children. We departed the resort, running through standard post-work protocol, making a mental list of what we wanted to cook for dinner. Despite leaving a bit early, it was a normal afternoon. The stores were packed; lines were 6+ people deep, something we never see in our local store. It was if people were preparing for something that we weren’t aware of, stocking up on canned foods and bottles of water in the lead up to some drizzly weather. By all accounts, that’s what we were all expecting: some drizzly weather.
We decided to make the most of what was going to be a long evening. We knew a storm was underway, and what once was classified as a tropical depression had been upgraded to tropical storm status, and it was heading our direction. Still, we weren’t overly concerned. In some ways, we were excited to welcome much-needed rain to fill out cisterns and water the gardens. The rain started, slowly at first, while we shut the doors, tightened the shutters, and dug up candles and headlamps in preparation for an almost-certain power outage. In some ways, it just felt like the turning of a season; the air was crisp – crisper than normal – and the breeze was blowing. We drank hot chocolate and coffee while we perused the internet and chatted about the week ahead.
Then the power went out. No more perusing the internet; no more real connection to the outside world beyond my somewhat useless iPhone 4 that has been cracked countless times. The wind was picking up and the rain began coming down harder. The wind howled louder than anything I’d heard before in any storm I’ve experienced. We sat at the kitchen table, headlamp on, all candles lit, with card games around us to occupy our time. To add to our already flustered state, I received a phone call, notification of a fraud alert on my credit card, the same credit card that we’d cleared in preparation for our upcoming trip to Israel. I kindly explained that no, we hadn’t charged $5150 for computer supplies in Germany, and yes, those were fraudlent charges. We agreed that sending the new cards to our hotel in Jerusalem made the most sense (I’m trusting that we’ll receive these when we arrive) and I had to use my one connection to the outside world – my cracked, dilapidated phone – to dig up the mailing address, part of which was written in Hebrew. I yelled the address into the phone while Scott systematically went from fallen screen to fallen screen, reattaching and securing our space. I got off the call and quickly realized that what we were experiencing wasn’t a tropical storm. What we were about to face had surely escalated from a storm to a full-blown hurricane. To say that we were unprepared would be putting it nicely. We had no shutters up to protect us from the rain that would pour through our windows, shielded only by a thin screen that seemed to help filter the large drops. The doors to our balcony rattled and we listened as furniture, pots and umbrellas clanked against the ground, piece by piece.
We were in a corner, rather protected, watching as droplets made their way across the house. When we went to tighten the screens, we walked into puddles pooling on the floor. Our top floor slowly began to flood, sprinkling our electronics and saturating our couches that sat tens of feet away. Beds in each bedroom sat in such a way that they were slowly becoming damp. My bedside table was covered in water; books, magazines and photos were saturated. Parts of our bed and pillows were wet, as if someone had taken a wet washcloth and squeezed it over the dry linens. We discovered that the guest bedroom met the same fate as we quickly ran from window to window attempting to tighten as much as possible. The sound of the wind and the clanking metal in the yard was unnerving. We had no idea what was happening in the world beyond us. We were trapped inside until we saw this thing through.
With Atlas in tow, we sat in the kitchen, the only place that felt really protected in the entire house. We’d moved electronics and books to the kitchen countertops where we felt confident they would be safe and out of the rain’s way. We laid on clean towels for comfort while we watched the lightning dance around our backyard. Then, all of a sudden, it became still and unsettlingly quiet. It was as if everything had just come to a miraculous end while an eerie stillness hung over us. We stepped outside onto our balcony to quickly assess the damage; our patio furniture had huddled up in a single corner and our table was nowhere to be seen. One of our lounge chairs had met its demise somewhere unbeknownst to us, and our potted plant – a solid 50+ pounds – had toppled over after the roots had become dislodged. Even at this, the damage was far worse than what we had anticipated as the day started. The storm wasn’t over, though. We were in the eye of it, marinating in this brief and disconcerting moment of utter silence. Minutes earlier, the trees around us were being stripped of their leaves and our gutters were flying off of our roof into the street. Now, in this moment, nothing stirred. We didn’t know what the end of the storm would bring, so we packed up essentials – our headlamp, candles, a lighter, computer, iPad, some snacks, water, and our pup – and made our way downstairs to spend the night. We huddled up in our protected space, watching a movie to pass the time while the wind swirled around us. We both fell asleep listening to the storm pass.
It wasn’t until the next morning that we could assess the damage. Luckily, we had seen the bulk of the damage on the front end so we weren’t surprised with what we encountered when we made our way upstairs. The top level was a bit flooded – 1 to 2” of water puddled up – and our patio furniture had seen better days. Some glasses were broken and some furniture was demolished. Beyond that, we were fine. It was shortly after 6AM and we knew we needed to head to Meads Bay to assess the damage at the resort.
We drove in, dodging fallen trees and power cords, and stopping to help folks chop trees that had blocked our way. We arrived at the resort to a sight we weren’t expecting. Neither of us had ever been through a hurricane previously so we didn’t really know what hurricane damage looked like. I’ll tell you this: it doesn’t look good. In fact, assessing the actual damage after we’d gained our composure, I can say that the damage looks far worse than it is. We’re fortunate that this was the case, but the initial shock was an absolutely horrifying moment. Seeing our property covered in sand (including pools filled with sand), trees fallen, Hobie Cats blown into the reception area, offices flooded with water, papers saturated and strewn about, office equipment covered with a sand/water blast, and sand blown hundreds of feet up from the beach to our office space… it was astounding to say the least. It was a moment of being utterly frightened about next steps and simultaneously grateful. This could have been a lot worse. What we experienced was a Category 1 hurricane. The results were far worse than what we had expected, but perhaps that was a part of the reason: no one expected it to be so bad; we simply didn’t prepare for such a hit. 75 – 90 MPH winds were horrible to listen to, but what if it were a Category 3? Or a Category 5 like Hurricane Luis? We could have seen something far more devastating than what occurred.
Despite the day of utter shock and disbelief, the day following Hurricane Gonzalo was rather remarkable in some ways. We watched neighborhoods come together and people mobilize. We all pulled our weight – no one had to ask – because we wanted to fix what had happened, for ourselves and for each other. We took brooms to push water out of offices and rooms, staff came in to evaluate and assist with shoveling, non-employees came by to help us clean furniture and sweep sandblast off of our walls. Even the insurance reps were out within just a few hours to help us move the process along. Seeing that outcome was inspiring and seeing what we were able to do in a single day gave us an incredible amount of hope and optimism. I started the morning absolutely devastated, looking around, crying into the sand, and went home feeling inspired and confident. What a change 10 hours can make, and what a change wonderful people can make. We knew there was a great amount of work to be done, and at first glance, we had accepted the fact that our trip to the Middle East would have to happen at another time. We weren’t going to be able to leave with the resort in this state. It wasn’t until later in the day, after we’d made such significant progress and mobilized forces that we felt more prepared to depart. Fellow employees encouraged us to go – they’d been through far worse and assured us that we’d taken the action that we needed and put the right steps in place to get the job done before opening day.
This wasn’t exactly how we expected to be sent off onto our trip to the Middle East, but after the progress we were able to make yesterday, we’re in a much better place emotionally and psychologically. Thank you to all who have cared and who have inquired about how we’re doing. We, like many others on the island, were hit unexpectedly hard, but seeing the resilient spirit of friends and of the hotel makes us all realize: we’ll be just fine.
xo from the Caribbean,
We’re now a week out from our trip to the Middle East and I’m finally in packing mode. I’ve begun to mentally note all of my last minute to-dos before we leave, which clothes get to make the journey with me, and which products get stuffed into my hanging toiletries bag (more on that in another post; it’s maybe my best purchase ever). With packing and planning on the brain, I thought I’d share some of my carry-on essentials; a variety of items that have become staples in my travel tote and that have made traveling a much more comfortable experience.
Unlike my packing list for the Middle East that I shared last week, this visual list isn’t numbered so you’ll have to bear with me as I give you the run down:
Beyond those items, I always try to carry a change of clothes with me in the case of missing luggage (ugh). While I’ve been very fortunate every time we’ve traveled, I’ve seen many people have to deal with lost luggage and contend with the fact that they have absolutely nothing to wear as backup. Travel with just enough to keep you successfully functioning for a couple of days. When I do remember, I also like to throw a pair of socks in my carry-on. I nearly always wear wedges or flip flops when we board the plane and my feet freeze. A simple pair of socks make it a much more comfortable experience!
Those are my must-haves that are prepped and ready to go before we depart on a trip. What are your carry-on essentials? Any items that make your travel experience more comfortable?
Lest I talk solely about the destinations that left me a little underwhelmed (here), I also wanted to highlight a few unassuming destinations that left me wanting more; destinations that were simply a pleasant surprise. In no particular order, here are five spots that generally left me inspired for a variety of reasons. Add them to your list!
1From start to finish, Ireland surprised me. While I had heard great things from friends who had visited, Ireland was never at the top of my list. I was traveling with my cousin during a summer-long jaunt around Europe and Ireland was her must-see locale to add to our list. All things considered, I went in with the bar set fairly low (I’m still not sure why I had low expectations for Ireland). From the moment we set foot in Dublin, I was in love. The culture is unique, the towns are historic and the architecture makes you feel like you’ve been transported into a medieval movie. Our time on the West Coast – in Galway and then to the Cliffs of Moher – left us equally enthralled. The weather wasn’t great; most days were drizzly and overcast, yet it added something ethereal to the landscape. I was astounded by how green Ireland was as well. It’s called the Emerald Isle, yes, but the green is so vibrant, a shade that I haven’t really seen beyond the bounds of this country. I would definitely go back, but this time, I’d make it a road trip.
Today marks the official two week countdown before we’re on our way to Tel Aviv. In honor of our upcoming trip, I thought I’d share my preliminary packing list for the region with others that have the same wardrobe questions that I’ve had. Before I put together my own list, I scoured other websites, blogs and books to see what expats and frequent travelers to the area suggested. The results were mixed and generally very practical (e.g. many websites said wear tennis shoes or Tevas). Now, there’s nothing wrong with tennis shoes or Tevas, but I’m not really a tennis shoe or Teva kinda girl. I found myself having a hard time relating to some of the lists. Where are the twenty and thirty-something travelers wanting to find a blend of practical and – dare I say – fashionable? So, after scouring a variety of websites and trying to find a wardrobe that blends function with a bit of fashion, I’ve come up with the following list. Keep in mind, we’re going in late October when the weather will be in the mid-70s to low-80s depending on our location. It’s not humid (it’s the desert, after all) so what we’ll be able to wear during this time of year is entirely different than what I may be able to wear in July when the heat is at its peak.
I haven’t included the obvious – things like toiletries, socks, bras, etc. as I hope you’ll remember to pack those! Is there anything that I’m missing that others should include in their Middle East packing list?
Two weeks until liftoff!
There are some travel experiences that are utterly amazing, that exceed your expectations and stay with you forever when you look back on trips that had a serious impact. On the flip side, there are some trips that do a bit of the opposite. I’ve never left a trip wishing I hadn’t gone, but I have departed feeling like I missed something; like the experience wasn’t totally what I expected and left me underwhelmed.
Below are five places that left me feeling a bit of that sensation. I should also say that for some of these experiences the lackluster feel may have been the timing of my trip (going during peak season vs. low or shoulder season), being on a budget (grad school budgets don’t always lend themselves well to certain destinations), or not experiencing it with the right person/people (some romantic locales may evoke a different feeling when experienced with a friend or family member).
1Before moving to Europe, Greece was #1 on my European bucket list (with Turkey being a close second). Perhaps I’d envisioned something entirely unrealistic as I was in the planning process; perhaps my hopes were just too high. Don’t get me wrong, the history is incredible and the thought of Athens is magical, enveloped with an spirit of mythology and an amazingly rich history. Still, I was shocked by the grime. I’m not sure if was beyond the typical big city grit (graffiti, people peeing on the walls, trash all over the ground, and a palpable layer of filth) or if it was the fact that this amazing city, with all of its history and its draw, let itself deteriorate to this grimy level. Either way, beyond the historical components, I found myself rather unimpressed, and I was truly disappointed that I left feeling that way. The islands on the other hand make up for Athens’ shortcomings. Read More
The histories of Israel and Palestine are very complex, and represent two distinctly different narratives and perspectives. I have long been interested in the history of the region but our upcoming trip to the Middle East served as encouragement to boost our knowledge of the area’s history, religious foundations, and key sites. Since the beginning of the year, we’ve taken time regularly to watch documentaries and television series highlighting Israel and Palestine. Some focused on the conflict, some focused on the food. Some touched on politics, some on religion (though these things can be woven together quite a bit). The majority attempted to be unbiased, some were clearly biased. We devoured all of them, with the hope that going into our coming journey we’d have a better understanding of the area and a better understanding of the people.
For those interested in great reads and films, below are a few that we found beneficial as a little primer before our journey.
Son of Hamas
by Mosab Hassan Yousef
During a long flight, I decided to start Son of Hamas, hoping it would live up to the reviews I read online. I couldn’t put it down. The book is an account by the son of one of Hamas’ founding members, where he shares his insight on the organization, his rise to power within Hamas, as well as his impetus in working as a double-agent with Shin Bet. Pretty incredible information and a relatively quick read.
The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East
by Sandy Tolan (2006)
I’m about half way through this book and already I can’t recommend it highly enough. The book’s name is derived from a house (with a lemon tree in the backyard) that is originally occupied by a Palestinian family and later becomes home to Ashkanazi Jews that fled from Bulgaria during the Holocaust. The book is factual, based on two real families and a real home in al-Ramla, and weaves an incredible story that somehow integrates two distinct narratives. Aside from the great story of these two families, it’s an incredible primer on the history of Palestine and the creation of Israel.
Lonely Planet // Israel and the Palestinian Territories
Beyond reading other blogs and trying to hear personal recommendations before heading on a trip, I also look to Lonely Planet. Frommer’s, Rick Steves, and others are fine, but LP is without a doubt the most rich and relatable text I’ve found. They’re information on Israel and the Palestinian Territories touches on various regions of Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, plus stretches beyond that to touch on Petra and the Sinai Peninsula as both areas are often wrapped into a trip to Israel. Beyond the travel-focused elements (where to stay, where to eat), there’s such great historical documentation and information on the conflict, political parties, etc. I’ve read it cover-to-cover multiple times for inspiration, plus the visuals are stunning!
We’re headed to the Middle East in exactly three weeks and I find myself about 9 parts excited and one part nervous. Not too long ago, rockets were hitting Gaza daily, and flights to Tel Aviv were halted due to safety issues. ISIS has become a household acronym as news networks feed a constant stream of information about instability in the region. Certainly, the notion of the Middle East as a safe and secure travel destination isn’t the conception for most travelers. Issues have persisted in the area since the beginning of recorded history, but this is certainly an interesting time at which to be visiting.
To say that I’m entering this trip with no concerns would be disingenuous. Whether the daily dose of Foreign Policy blurbs sent daily to my inbox provide me with greater or fewer concerns is debatable. Still, I’m entering into this journey with an open mind, excited to explore a new region, experience a bucket list trip, and take the opportunity to share my experiences traveling in an area that many travelers see as somewhat unapproachable, especially at this moment in time.
For the past few weeks, I’ve received calls, texts and emails from a number of concerned friends and family members: are you still going to the Middle East with everything that’s happening? Do you think it’s safe to be over there right now? Can you reschedule your trip for another time? To be sure, I appreciate each and every one of those concerned voices, and I understand them because a small part of me shares that concern. Is this really the best time to be visiting this area? Probably not, no, but when will it ever be a good time? Also, lumping all of these countries into one homogenous group doesn’t provide an entirely accurate picture. To say that Jordan and Syria are essentially the same or suggest that happenings in Iraq are the same as happenings in the West Bank would provide a false sense of reality. Jordan is generally a very safe destination for tourists, and while the situation in Israel has been strained as of late, it remains a largely secure destination for visitors outside of the Gaza border (and perhaps the somewhat contentious area of the Golan Heights). I’ll be honest: I wouldn’t do this trip solo, not right now and probably not ever. We’ll be exploring Israel with a decent sized group, and our West Bank journey will take place with Abraham Tours, a small group with native guides. In an area where I lack knowledge of the language and am not entirely certain about the ever-changing political and social landscapes, I feel 1000% more confident visiting with individuals that know the region, know where to go, and understand the genuine importance of safety. I trust that if there were serious concerns about safety of travelers in the area (not just travel warnings from the US), that birthright groups would be halting their trips, church groups would be rescheduling, and tour groups would be sending out courtesy warnings and re-bookings for their guests.
This trip, perhaps more than any other, I see as being an incredibly eye-opening experience; a chance to encounter a distinctly different area of the world and genuinely reflect on my thoughts and emotions, providing some honest feelings and guidance for those considering visiting. I’m looking forward to evaluating where my expectations lie preceding this adventure, during this journey and after we return. How safe will we really feel while touring? Are there any areas that provide palpably different sensations? Are there any areas that I would distinctly return to or avoid if I were to do it again? How do experiences in Israel, the West Bank and Jordan all differ?
While it can be difficult to carve out the time on a daily basis to recap and journal, that’s exactly what I hope to do. I intend to take the time each night, after a day of adventures and experiences, and share not only what we’ve done, but also provide an authentic summary of emotions, highlights, and concerns, where they exist. I’m thrilled to be sharing this journey with everyone, and very excited to be working with the Israeli Tourist Board, Abraham Tours and other groups to experience what the region has to offer. I hope to complete our time in the area with fresh eyes, an enhanced outlook and a more holistic perspective on the region after spending time with Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians.
The journey begins mid-October so be sure to check back for regular updates and photos. You can stay up to speed with updates by checking out my Facebook page, following me on Twitter or glimpsing photos from the trip on Instagram.
Have you visited the Middle East recently? Are you headed on a trip to the region? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below!
Love from the Caribbean,
This isn’t a secret: Las Vegas is the land of excess. Pure and utter excess. You want fancy Cirque Shows? There are handfuls to choose from. Looking for daytime pool scenes? Yes, plenty of those. Nightclubs? Endless, plus the promoters keep sending me tweets about bottle service. Casual dining? You can find a fast food meal for $5, or an upscale casual burger joint doling out $17 burgers (still affordable and casual by these standards). Looking to wine and dine a girlfriend? There are countless fine dining options from French and Mediterranean to Japanese and Southwest, begging you to spend $100+ a person. Above that, there are a number of places offering tasting menus that soar over $200 per person for dinner, not inclusive of drinks.
This is a place where anything is possible and any budget and desires can be accommodated. In some ways, it’s the most incredible thing ever; in other ways, it’s the most overwhelming thing ever. How ever do you choose when you have three nights in Vegas and have to select three dinner spots out of about a million? The key is to make a selection, enter into the experience with full commitment and not think about the path not taken (I’m being dramatic, but I sometimes have some buyer’s remorse with choosing experiences, dining and otherwise). Also, when you find a place you love, there’s no harm in going back despite the fact that there are other restaurants begging to be experienced. There’s something to be said about knowing what you’re in for in terms of quality and service. Below are some of the spots we tried, plus some thoughts on our scouting mission for my grandmother’s 90th birthday bash in Vegas.
Located in the Palazzo, Sushisamba was our first dinner of this trip to Las Vegas. Having been there before, we knew we loved the food (Brazilian + Peruvian meet Japanese), and the service. The service this time was admittedly a bit rushed but the food was better than we remembered. They serve up sushi rolls for the Japanese lovers, plus seafood off the robata grill (the sea bass is to die for). Here’s the hot tip: they’re not great about coursing things out for you, so order gradually to enjoy the evening and not feel too rushed. We had food out within 5 minutes of ordering. Yes, I was hungry, but I would have liked to have not been done eating within 45 minutes of sitting down. Still, I was enamored with the private dining space and have been especially impressed with the responsive service in my communications with their team. Sushisamba is one of our finalists for my grandmother’s 90th birthday; our biggest task is creating a menu that finickier palates (read: non-sushi lovers) can enjoy. Read More