Costa Rica (2018)

The Maintex sales incentive trip for 2018 took place in May in the Guanacaste region of Costa Rica.  I was previously in this region with my family back in 2007. That previous trip involved long car rides across the countryside and lots of sightseeing – this one was based at an all-inclusive resort and was focused primarily on relaxation.  The area was beautiful, the resort sprawling, and the experience decidedly different.

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Triplog: Italy (Part 5: Lake Como)

In 2009 I posted part 1 and part 2 of my log of a family vacation in Italy.  While looking for something else (Ben Folds concert location — long story), I discovered that I had composed but never published some additional entries.  Part 3 (Florence) is barebones, part 4 (Cinque Terra) needs some revisions, but this final entry is basically complete.  So here it is, better late than never.  In keeping with my posting style of that time, it includes some Deep Thoughts at the end about Life, the Universe, and our place in it all.

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Alone, wandering Hong Kong

Upon exiting immigration control at Hong Kong airport I was briefly seized with the panicked realization that I was alone in a foreign country with no real plan. Oddly enough, Hong Kong’s subway system, the MTR, quickly put my mind at ease. The order, cleanliness, and copious English signage helped me to realize that I can do this. And I immediately started noticing the little Hong Kong-isms that would so delight me throughout my stay.

Hong Kong Airport
Hong Kong Airport

For example, everywhere you go there are a lot of people employed as human directional signals, ushering people one way or another, or blocking their path. It was amazing to me how many people seemed to hold this seemingly trivial job. And how about how they call moving walkways “travelators”? Or how everyone runs to form a long line anywhere a soft-serve truck appears?

In many respects Hong Kong seemed as dirty and smelly as any major city, but there were signs everywhere of a focus on sanitation, disease prevention, and public health.

The SARS epidemic and bird flu left their mark on this region. One of the most interesting and saddest things I stumbled upon was a memorial in a Zen garden honoring doctors and health workers who died combatting SARS in its early days.

The memorial was in Hong Kong park, which also sported a lovely (if slightly ironic) aviary.  It was hard to get birds to pose for me.

The weather was warm and the humidity intense, but all the locals were wearing pants and jackets. I wandered the Kowloon waterfront, but there was not much to see — a lot of it is closed for renovations. I had arrived just after the big Chinese New Year celebrations, so I missed the fireworks display but did get to see a lot of the decorations and art celebrating the Year of the Monkey.

Year of the Monkey decorations
Year of the Monkey decorations

Most of my time in Hong Kong, the city was blanketed in fog. I visited Victoria Peak, high above the city, on a cold and overcast day, to find that there was nothing to see but a shopping mall. So I took an impromptu hike that ended up being a long, haunting, tiring adventure — I made a video that attempts to capture the strangeness and surprising beauty of the whole ordeal.

A lot of Hong Kong felt just like New York City. Everyone had their nose in their phones, and the crush of people and buildings was intense. I wandered out to the Chi Lin Nunnery and Nan Lian Garden in Kowloon, which offered a nice change.

Nestled serenely between high-rises and highways, the sprawling gardens and temple complex are both quite new — built in just the last two decades — but are designed in the classical Tang Dynasty Chinese style. Some of the buildings were built using classic techniques (no nails!) and other highlights included a pagoda, a restaurant under a waterfall, and a “rockery” where the finest rocks from their collection are shown off.

I’ve never been to a rockery before. The descriptions of the rocks were quite something, on par with descriptions of fine wines or works of art, discussing the delicate grain and subtle textures of each stone. I tried to appreciate the beauty of each rock, but to me they mostly looked the same.

“Colourful, lustrous yet simple, Dahua rock has very visible and tasteful grains.  Stone connoisseurs believe that the discovery of Dahua rock has made a lasting impact to the traditional standards of rock appreciation.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum was the Wong Tai Sin Temple. This historic temple was completely overrun with Chinese tourists waving incense sticks in every direction. The smoke in the air was overpowering, the crush of people overwhelming, and the danger of being burned very real. Still, it was quite a thing to behold.

I found the food scene surprisingly cosmopolitan, and had a lot of trouble finding the East-meets-West dishes I was seeking. There were plenty of places to get a hamburger, a burrito, or most any other cuisine, though. On my last day in Hong Kong I took a food tour and got to sample some of the more local dishes and establishments. If I had had more time, I would have tried to get even further off the beaten path.

One dish I was delighted to rediscover was crispy french fries doused in salty curry powder in the British style. It was paired, oddly enough, with Pho in a trendy fast-casual restaurant hidden behind a clothing stall in a narrow alley.  Why oh why haven’t curry fries made it to America?

Pho and curry fries with three dipping sauces from a small establishment hidden behind a clothing stall in a narrow alley
Pho and curry fries with three dipping sauces from a small establishment hidden behind a clothing stall in a narrow alley

A few other tidbits:

  • Most interesting-looking historic buildings and complexes that I would detour to check out ended up being shopping malls. Or banks.
  • A surprisingly high proportion of the models in advertisement photos were white.
  • It’s interesting being taller than almost everyone.
  • In certain districts, I was constantly mobbed by guys trying to sell me suits and dress shirts. Sometimes they would follow me down the block. By the end I started getting good at avoiding those areas.
  • Having an Octopus card (a stored-value card issued by the MTR) makes a lot of things much easier. It can be used for various attractions as well as the Star Ferry and to pay at many shops. But for a lot of the stalls and smaller shops, cash is the only option.
  • Everyone, everywhere has their noses in their phones.  In that respect, its much like home.  Different is how adeptly they switch between Cantonese and English keyboards when composing their mixed-language text messages.
An urban columbarium, where ashes of deceased are stored -- the neighbors hate it
An urban columbarium, where ashes of deceased are stored — the neighbors hate it

European Conning

Meghan and I are currently attending a conference on a small island (!) in the Côte d’Azur — better known in English as the “French Riviera.” If this one is the norm, European-style tech conferences are quite a bit different from their American counterparts! Breakfast is early (7:30am), sessions run all day, and every evening includes dinner and drinks that start around 8:30pm and go past 11. The next morning, we wake up and start again.

Did I mention that every lunch and dinner is three courses and includes copious amounts of wine? And did I further mention that the wine is produced on this very island’s vineyards? Because yes, that’s a thing. And if you aren’t eating lots of paté and frequently emptying your glass, people start to wonder if you are ill.

We cut out early — it is only 10:30 — so Meghan can put the finishing touches on the talk she is giving tomorrow about user experience design. We also took a bit of time in the afternoon to wander around the island, which is quite a sight to behold — a few pictures above are a preview of the forthcoming album.

So far we have made friends with some Canadians, met some French and Italians, and had dinner with a contingent from Belarus. We learned that last year’s conference was held in a circus tent in Warsaw, so take that American conference centers!

It is fascinating to see people of all different languages and cultures come together to discuss their shared interest in technology. The opening speaker said that he hoped that everyone here would learn something new and then spread that knowledge by teaching it when they got home. I am reminded of how easy I have it as a native English speaker who never has to worry about a lack of documentation, examples, or online help. It is also interesting to hear from people in countries where there is much less appetite for working with modern, fast-moving languages and frameworks. Many of the people here really are ambassadors for and teachers of these technologies.

We are here for a couple more days, and then we will take a (ferry + bus + train) ride back up to Paris to spend some more time exploring that city’s wonders.


A brief California whirlwind

On Friday I headed out to the West coast for a brief visit in order to surprise Aunt Linda on the occasion of her 60th birthday party. Well, she was surprised, thanks to some excellent planning, scheming, and misdirection. It was a really nice party.

On Saturday the out-of-town partygoers gathered at Strand Terrace for brunch.  I always love it when we host meals while I am in town because it is fun to cook together as a family.  Shaina made quiche, I chopped things and cooked up bacon, Mom made an apple cake, and Dad and Jess cooked as well as taking care of all the grocery shopping. The parents have redone their patio to give it more of an “outdoor living room” feel, and I think it really works — definitely a good fit for the California climate.

On Monday Jessica, Mom and I went paddle boarding in Newport Beach, which is fun once you recognize how absurd and inefficient it is.  The high winds kept pushing us back and threatening to topple us over, but we made it to our arbitrary goal (a bridge) and back without major incident.  In the morning Mom and I had also hiked at Santiago Oaks, so it was an active sort of day.

Throw in some family time, pool time, meal time, and beach time, and cap it with lunch at In-N-Out — a pretty good few days in the sun!  I’m sad that the trip is already over, but I’m spending a few days in Portland with Jessica before heading back home.


Scandinavian Adventures: Copenhagen and Zealand

Copenhagen, the guidebooks say, is packed with museums and historic buildings. Brochures show pictures of charming storefronts and cafes fronting a canal. Tourism literature uses words like “eclectic” and “funky” to describe parts of the city. And in the middle sits an old-timey amusement park, something like Coney Island in its heyday.

All these things are true, after a fashion. But there is a lot left unsaid.

Copenhagen is a real, vibrant city, not a fairy-tale land of history, architecture, and clean streets. It is packed with cars, construction, dirty back alleys, and even (in spite of a massive social safety net) street beggars. Which is not to say I hated it — I loved it. But I had to wildly shift my expectations.

After the whirlwind museum tour of Frankfurt, we were content to just spend some time wandering in Copenhagen without a clear itinerary. Given the sheer density of old buildings, squares, fountains, churches, and other interesting architecture, not to mention canals, this worked out rather well. We also worried a bit less about “authentic” local cuisine — our first meal was shawarma, our last meal with steak, and in between we did try the local street hot dogs (not very good).

In terms of Copenhagen things done:

  • Canal tour – So-so, it mostly served as a chance to doze.
  • Tivoli Gardens – one of the oldest amusement parks in the world, Tivoli lived up to its billing and was actually quite an enjoyable time. Things to see, churros to eat, roller coasters, bumper cars, swing dance (we did not participate) and interesting typography abounded.
  • Christiana – This artist commune (or something?) had a strict “yes pot, no photos” policy, was full of a lot of scruffy-looking people, stray dogs, guitars, and beer. I expected something less grungy and more hippy; we didn’t stay long.
  • Sandcastles – Oh gosh yes. This summer’s theme for the exhibition was the history of man, and the sand artists of various nationalities were certainly creative in their interpretation.

All this in photo form using the link at the bottom.

One of the guides I read said that tipping of wait staff in Copenhagen is unnecessary, and once you experience the service you won’t want to anyway. That advice was spot-on. Never before have I had a quick stop in a cafe for some tea and pastry taken almost an hour and a half.

We spent as much time outside of Copenhagen as in it, although we confined our adventures to the Zealand region (sort of the “greater Copenhagen area) to maximize our limited time. This included a train trip north to Kronborg Castle in Helsingør, the setting for Shakespeare’s Hamlet and for a time Denmark’s most important fortification. The castle is situated to control the Sound and allowed Denmark to tax all ships trading there, including those bound for Sweden. As you can guess, this didn’t go over well for the Swedes, but then the two countries were arch-enemies for centuries.

The castle was an impressive sight and a very interesting experience. Co-located there is a naval museum containing far more model ships than anyone really needs to see, as well as a tower with a great view of the surrounding city and Sweden across the water.

We also stopped in at the Louisiana, a well-regarded modern art museum located along the coast in an otherwise sleepy town. An interesting piece of architecture with low-slung buildings and beautiful gardens, the Louisiana also contains a museum shop filled with wonders and was featuring an exhibit on “new Nordic architecture and identity”.

We learned the difference between “Scandinavian” (incorporating Denmark, Sweden, and Norway), and “Nordic” (which also includes Greenland, Iceland, Finland, and various smaller islands and territories). All of these countries share deep cultural and social links, but also a long history of mutual aggression and occasional conquest. The exhibit explored how art and architecture both highlight cultural differences and serve to bring people together. It also asked difficult questions about how globalization and homogenization clashes with identity rooted in a sense of place.

On the whole I found the modern Nordic architecture quite compelling, and an excellent counterpoint to much of the design one sees in the US today. I wish we had more time to explore this museum, but despite the sun being out past 10pm, most things don’t stay open much later than 6.

Our second excursion was to the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde. Kevin and I both really wanted to try and swing this, and while it meant giving up more time in Copenhagen, it was well worth the travel. Sadly we did not arrive early enough to reserve a spot sailing (and rowing) on a reconstructed Viking ship, but we did have plenty of time to explore the museum and grounds. Half a dozen reconstructed ships in various styles sit in the bay, one of which we were allowed to climb on and explore (mind the pine tar, it stains clothing!). There were also stations with information and demonstrations on various aspects of Viking ship construction, including rope making, sail weaving, wood carving, and smithing.

The sheer quantity of human effort that went into building these imposing vessels is astounding. While the Vikings had iron, looms, and a heck of a lot of expertise, they lacked such implements as saws and drills. Which meant that each tree had to be felled by axe, laboriously chopped, carved, and chiseled. Every nail had to be hand-forged, one at a time, after mining and purifying the iron ore, of course. And every strand of rope had to be harvested, peeled, washed, dried, beaten, woven…

The museum proper was built to house the discovered remains of five ships scuttled in the Roskilde fjord in the 11th century to block a channel against approaching invaders. The ships were raised 50 years ago and the fragments reconstructed. It is amazing to view ships over a thousand years old and read about the (believed) customs and traditions of the Vikings of that era.

Following our Viking adventures we visited a nearby restaurant on a mission to get in one good meal of thoroughly Danish fare. In the spirit of Scandinavian adventure, I ordered the “Five Ships Platter,” which consisted of herring, chicken salad, smoked salmon, spelt salad, cheese, and a small glass of mead.

My lunch

Kevin will confirm that I tried every item. As to which I finished, well…

Our brief Denmark trip an overwhelming success, we are off to our next destination, across the water: Sweden!

View photo slideshow


Scandinavian Adventures: Frankfurt (Day 2)

All that was promised for day two was accomplished! The Communications Museum was great, and the architectural museum was awesome, especially since every descriptive tag had a German and English side. When we got to the top floor, the museum itself got a massive descriptive tag — all very meta. Sadly no photos of either, owing to silly museum policies.

Just try to imagine a herd of sheep created from old-fashioned rotary telephone handsets and coil wire. And, far to the side, a black sheep similarly composed. And a wall of mailboxes spanning the last 200 years. And an exhibit about the internet! (I hear it’s going to be big.) And a mail sorting train car you can go inside! And fax machines!

The architectural museum was all about architectural models, dioramas, and other design artifacts. There was an exhibit about utopian architecture that was sort of scary, and a nice history of human architecture tour, with a few digs at the end against American over-consumption. My favorite designs were amazing tensile structures by Frei Otto.

We also toured the entire Städel art museum in less than an hour; I most enjoyed their new underground contemporary wing, but by this point we were getting a bit museumed out.

We stumbled upon a delicious Turkish place for lunch and got our best service experience so far (the German restaurants we’ve tried have had terrible service), and then walked 2 km to the botanical gardens. We hung out there for a while, seeing some wonderful sights, and got to the tram stop just in time to beat the oncoming rain. I’ve updated the Facebook photo album, linked below, with pictures from day 2. Sorry non-Facebook friends, but 500px doesn’t support mobile uploads, and this trip is exclusively iPad.

Tomorrow we are off to Copenhagen!

View photo slideshow


Scandinavian Adventures: Frankfurt (Day 1)

We are calling this trip “Scandinavian adventures” although the actual itinerary consists of brief hops in Frankfurt (Germany) and Copenhagen (Denmark) followed by several days in Sweden, divided between Stockholm in the north and Gothenburg in the west.

This is my third European jaunt with Kevin, and this time we departed late Wednesday night from Boston on a direct overnight flight to Frankfurt. We both slept much of the journey and were able to hit the ground running (well, walking — shuffling really) when we arrived.

Lodging in Frankfurt is a cozy (read: tiny) apartment we booked via Airbnb. We are situated on a tram line near the center of Frankfurt and “steps away” from the Main river and museum row. After navigating trains and subways from the airport and getting situated, today consisted of some exploration on foot.

Lunch at a well-known local haunt consisted of Frankfurt delights, specifically a somewhat tasty beef brisket and potatoes with “green sauce” and some yucky apple wine. We followed this with a “romantic stroll” along the riverfront (although Kevin doesn’t make a very good Meghan-substitute, no offense) and some time exploring churches, sampling gelato, and being utterly confused by the museum of modern art.

After some downtime (read: napping) as we strive to adjust to the time change, we wandered off for a German-Italian dinner, where we were frequently visited at our table by unruly dogs while the staff and their dog-owning friends stood around drinking wine.

Tomorrow: more museums! Botanical gardens! Perhaps some German-Turkish fare (or at least a frankfurter)! Trying to figure out how to call family members who are 9 time zones away!

View photo slideshow


Cities I visited in 2009

Inspired by Jason Kottke’s yearly list. One or more days and nights were spent in each place. Those cities marked with an * were visited multiple times on non-consecutive days. Those marked with a † were visited for a full day but not a night.

This was quite a good year for travel! See also my 2008 list.

United States
Cambridge, MA*
Santa Ana, CA*
Mashpee, MA
Lake Havasu, AZ
North Egremont, MA*
Ringwood, NJ*
Baltimore, MD
Cleveland, OH
Niagara, NY
Scotch Plains, NJ
Hull, MA
Northfield, VT
Huntington Beach, CA*
San Diego, CA


Kibbutz Manara
Tel Aviv†

Cinque Terre
Lake Como


Triplog: Israel (Part 4)

In Haifa, we briefly stopped at the Bahá’í Gardens, a beautiful terraced garden in the heart of the city, overlooking the sea. The Bahá’í are a modern religion movement premised on the underlying unity of the world’s major religions. This movement was a spin-off of Islam founded in the late 1800s with the ambitious goal of uniting the world in peace and harmony. In Islamic countries, Bahá’í followers have been persecuted and killed. The international governing body of the Bahá’í was established in Israel in 1963 with the blessing of the Israeli government, and by all accounts they have been good citizens.

There aren’t many Africans to be seen in Israel, so a member of our party asked the African guard if he was Bahá’í. I can’t remember where he said he came from (possibly Uganda?), but he spoke Hebrew as well as English and said that he was volunteering at the temple for a year. I would have liked to have learned more about the Bahá’í. But of course, that is a common theme of these entries.

To compensate for some of the shortcomings of the trip, and to get a different perspective on things, I struck out with two other members of the group during Shabbat downtime in Jerusalem for an unauthorized walking tour. From our hotel it was a straight shot to the Old City, and we explored some of the Christian and Muslim quarters, including accidentally stumbling upon a claimed site of Christ’s burial, a beautiful monument known as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. In the church, we were berated for not removing our hats. How disrepectful, the man said. Which struck me as funny, since almost everywhere else in Israel, hats are pretty much required, in keeping with the Jewish practice of wearing a kippah, the traditional head covering worn to symbolize God’s constant presence.

The transition for Christian to Muslim quarters was obvious, with a massive increase in crowds, noise, and appearance of traditional Arab dress. Hundreds of stalls were packed together in small, untidy streets, with wares hung and displayed in every crevice. It was quite a sight to behold.

On our walk back to the hotel, we witnessed a large protest march by ultra-Orthodox Israelis angry about a proposed parking lot near the Old City. Riot police, ambulances, and officials were out in force. The parking lot would be open on the Sabbath so that non-Jewish tour groups would be able to easily access the Old City, only one quarter of which is Jewish and closed down on those days. Apparently this controvery has been ongoing, with protest marches like this common.

From the silly to the solemn: the next day was Holocaust day. Perhaps because I have gone through multiple other museums, seen movies, and learned about the Holocaust in so many ways over the years, or perhaps just because I am jaded, the Yad Vashem museum did not make much of an impact on me. It was painfully exhaustive in its cataloguing of atrocities, with personal testimonies on video screens, documentary evidence, and interactive exhibits. My feet hurt. The museum took forever to get through. Our tour guide was strangely cheery, saying things like “okay friends, let’s proceed to Auschwitz.”

After Yad Vashem and a pizza lunch, we visited the cemetary on Mt. Herzl to the east of the museum. Named for the founder of Zionism, Theodor Herzl, the “mount of memory” features the graves of Israeli notables including Yitzhak Rabin and Golda Meir. Along the northern slope of the mountain are graves for Israeli war dead, analogous to Arlington Cemetary in Washington, DC. The plots are uniform and sized as proscribed by Talmudic teaching. No distinction is made between any fallen soldier, regardless of notable achievements or acoldates. However, modern graves have gotten more elaborate, with pictures, inscriptions, keepsakes, and whole little gardens. Some of them are gaudy, or at least verge on it.

The cemetary itself was quite striking. Abundant trees and vegetation graced the hillside, and the effect was to make one feel connected to nature and the cycle of life, a nice change from the flat, sometimes barren, often spooky graveyards of America.

And perhaps to emphasize that cycle, the following activities were very much about life: a visit to a bird watching station, where the small animals are captured in nets, identified, tagged, and weighed, followed by tree planting on a nearby hillside. The bird business was straightforward but really neat. Lightweight nets strung between trees and poles snare the animals, which are then put into breathable cotton bags and hung on pegs, where they flap about a bit while waiting their turn. Each one is expertly pulled from the bag, examined, catalogued, and then released. As a child I was always told not to touch birds, and I’ve never seen them so close up, held in human hands. The station shares its findings with other observatories in Israel and the surrounding countries so that bird migration patterns can be plotted and the health of flocks and species tallied.


Triplog: Israel (Part 3)

I wish we had more time to explore Jerusalem. What an amazing city. Starting at the Zion Gate, we walked through the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, exploring a place that felt more grown than built, fantastic in its layers of structure created over thousands of years. We wandered narrow alleys and countless shops, had some more falafel, and visited the crowded Western Wall, the last remains of the Old Temple of Jerusalem, where some members of the group were deeply moved. At the Davidson Center we explored the history of the Temple and the city, and wandered over and through amazing ancient ruins. The great temple measured 500 meters to a side, and was in its day an architectural marvel to match the great structures of Rome. But the Romans destroyed it, twice, and later the Dome of the Rock an Islamic mosque, rose in its former location. I could have used another couple days in the Old City alone, and would have relished the opportunity to see the various places of worship and the Christian, Arab, and Armenian quarters, but due to security and liability concerns those parts were officially off-limits to us.

We also walked through part of new Jerusalem during the quiet of Saturday Shabbat. From afar we glimpsed the Supreme Court, Knesset (parliament), and walked through a beautiful rose garden, but we did not get to enter any of the buildings. Sadly, the majority of our time in Jerusalem was spent inside underground windowless conference rooms in our hotel, due to a program called the Israel Shabbat Experience led by two well-meaning modern Orthodox men. This program, billed as potentially life-changing, could have gone better.

So far the religious component of the trip had been fairly minimal; nonetheless, many participants were on their guard, awaiting a religious indoctrination they felt was inevitable. Thus it was unfortunate that expectation setting for our Shabbat program was non-existent. In my mind, the ideal program would have started with at least a brief introduction to the fundamental principles of Jewish thought, in a purely education vein, followed by an exploration of the rich traditions that make up the Shabbat. Many participants on this trip have had little or even no experience with Jewish culture, much less with religious worship. Shabbat done well can be spiritually meaningful for people of varied backgrounds and traditions. Havdallah in particular has always struck me as a particularly beautiful ceremony.

We instead jumped straight into blessings, followed by a somewhat confusing ethical discussion based on Talmudic teachings. I felt the need to raise my hand and ask a very basic question, “what is the Talmud?” The facilitators were caught off guard by this query, and did not adequately answer it. Throughout the “discussion,” which concerned a hypothetical young German soldier on trial for Nazi war crimes, most participants were confused, uncomfortable, and guarded. Our huge 25 person discussion circles in a noisy and crowded room made meaningful debate difficult, and no one really wanted to give their opinion anyway when they felt that there was an official preordained answer to come at the end regardless of our personal thoughts. Particularly notable, in our group of young adults, was the refusal of anyone to take an absolute position about the scenario. Perhaps heated debates might take place in teenage Birthright groups, but we both refused to mete out a punishment to the German soldier without due consideration of all the facts and mitigating circumstances, and also refused to state with certainty that, in his position, we would have the moral turpitude to make the “right” choice.

What does the Talmud say? Something about moral absolutes, and the need to behave as individuals rather than to follow the crowd, and the need to understand absolute and inflexible notions of right and wrong. No one said it during the session, but afterwards several people fumed at a Talmud that would demand we follow moral absolutes rather than doctrine while at the same time allowing orthodox Jews to continue to subjugate women in accordance with religious law. Instead of explaining Talmud as I learned it, as the fundamental philosophical text of Judaism, a series of questions and answers and commentary to be studied and learned from, we inferred from our orthodox captors that Talmud is strict Jewish law, not open to discussion or debate. There were a lot of questions stewing in the group, on such potentially controversial issues as homosexuality, birth control, the role of ancient tradition in modern society, gender roles, and sexism in Judaism, but for the most part they went unasked, due to discomfort about the tone of the entire program.

Our Shabbat services were farcical. We had no challah bread for the blessing over the bread. We had no Kiddish cup for the blessing over the wine, not that either blessing was explained. The havdallah ceremony marking the end of the sabbath and the start of the new week, which is traditionally held under the stars, took place underground. The spiritual meanings of these ceremonies and the thousands of years of tradition that underly them were completely glossed over. For those like me in possession of a decent Jewish cultural background, the entire process was tedious. For others who lack that context, it were painful, upsetting, even scary.

While in Jerusalem there were two other official activities of note. We visited a traditional Israeli street market, the Makne Yehuda, in the hours leading up to the start of Shabbat. It was a sprawling and crowded mass of culinary commerce, magnificent to behold. We also spent one evening taking in the shopping and entertainment of Ben Yehuda street, including, in my case, some kosher sushi and dim sum. A great, if brief, “taste” of all the city has to offer. So much wasted opportunity in such a wondrous locale.


Triplog: Israel (Part 2)

In Tzfat, the birthplace of Jewish mysticism, a nut named Avraham Levental told us that Kabbalah was aweeeee-some. He repeated this multiple times. He has spent the past ten years delving into the meaning of his name. The fundamental precept is that everything is God. You just can’t understand how aweeeee-some that is. Our journeys are beginning to follow a familiar pattern: a very long time driving on the bus, followed by slightly less time in an actual place, which we are never able to explore to our satisfaction, followed by piling back on the bus to get to the next destination, inevitably late. No one seems to think this is awesome.

Yesterday’s boat ride on the Sea of Galilee could have been relaxing, but the four crew of the large wooden vessel felt it was their mission in life to get us to dance, no matter how little we wished to do so. Their increasingly frenetic music reflected their desperation as we refused to move our bodies, and eventually they resorted to bringing out the bongo drums and getting a drum circle going. Prior to the cruise we had a very brief period to explore the waterfront of the town of Tiberias, which was pretty shabby. A fellow participant told me that it reminded her of boardwalks along the Jersey shore, except that the swimming section of the beach was a small cordoned rectangle signposted “Public Authorized Swimming Zone.”

Our time in Haifa was an exercise in frustration. Rather than a nature walk along the Little Switzerland trail as per the itinerary, we went to meet our “peers,” a group of Israeli soldiers and students, at a beach. Some sort of scheduling mix up meant we were an hour late getting to the peers, who will be accompanying us for the next five days, and then we had 90 minutes to change for the beach, enjoy said beach, find food (which consisted of a few slow sit-down restaurants and one sad falafel stand with two cashiers and a single plodding sandwich assembler), clean off, change into dry clothes, and get back onto the bus. Even the most easygoing members of the group were frazzled after being yelled at by the guide for our inability to meet this time line.

In spite of our failure to enjoy regimented beach time, we were a mere 10 minutes late to the Ein Hod Artists’ Colony, which was a very interesting and enjoyable destination. There were many types of art to explore and artists to meet, as well as a pottery demonstration. Again the pattern of the trip repeated – not enough time, rushed to the bus, and then a few more hours of driving, this time through rush hour Thursday traffic (the equivalent of Fridays in the United States) so that we could arrive on time in Jerusalem. Which we didn’t. And so the walking tour of Jerusalem was canceled. Brilliant.

In my last entry I think I misjudged the mood of the party after our group huddle. Not only was everyone annoyed at the additional “ice breakers,” many were upset by what the felt was the strong indoctrination component of the program. There are several couples on this trip, including one married and one engaged, and there are also many participants with significant others back home, who are more often than not non-Jews. Over falafel in Tzfat, a member of the group joked that we should raise our hands if we had a Catholic boyfriend back home. All four of us present raised our hands, although in my case the Catholic takes the form of a girlfriend.

A British-Israeli gent with the wonderful name Neil Lazarus made a joke that imparted the same idea in a much more comfortable way. “My friends,” he said, “remember one thing: Birthright is all about Jewish babies! The name is frequently misheard: it is actually birthrate.” He is a funny guy, we laughed, there was less awkwardness. We also learned about the Israeli-Palestinian quagmire and the situation with Sunni and Shi’a Muslim sects in the Middle East. Little of it was new to me, but the presentation was engaging and interesting, and no doubt helped others to understand the situation here. Again, I found the perspective to be Israeli, Jewish, and patriotic, but still relatively neutral.

I’ve been trying a new approach with these triplogs, attempting to discuss the ideas, concepts, and experiences of the trip, rather than the traditional chronological approach. I think it suits the format of this “experience,” as they refer to it, and I hope it is interesting. Tomorrow we begin our belated exploration of Jerusalem, which will no doubt be fascinating but rushed. Tonight I share a room with an Israeli as well as another American. Breakfast, as always, begins promptly at 7:00am.


Triplog: Israel (Part 1)

From my room at Kibbutz Manara in Israel’s extreme north, the view is of Lebanon, a border that has been closed for three years. While we were off rafting down the Jordan River, Hezbollah militants lit a fire on a nearby hill, something they do from time to time to annoy residents of the kibbutz with the smoke and soot. Proximately and possibly related, an old Syrian land mine exploded, further clouding the air. On our travels through the Golan Heights, we saw miles of fields cordoned off with razor wire bearing signs in Hebrew, Arabic, and English: “Danger: Mines.”

The minefields date to Syrian occupation of the region prior to the 1967 Six Day War. Golan was a valuable strategic objective, according to our guide Maxi, because of its high vantage point. A small strip of land, Golan made up half a percent of Syria’s area, but now composes about 5% of Israel’s. It serves as an important buffer between Damascus and Israel’s northeast, and in addition to military outposts, the Israeli government has built waterworks and reservoirs, allowing settlers to improve the land and plant orchards. From atop Mt. Bental, we gazed across the Valley of Tears, where so much blood was shed on both sides during the ’67 war and the 1973 Yom Kippur wars, and into Syrian land. To the south was a large UN compound, established after the ’73 ceasefire to keep the peace. Perched atop a mountain not far away stood a large Israeli listening post, antennas sprouting from every corner.

Maxi, in his 60s, was in the IDF’s special forces during the ’73 war, and worked behind enemy lines to cause chaos and confusion within the ranks. His father went to war, and told Maxi that it was so that he would not have to. Maxi went to war, and told his children it was so that they would not need to. But the cycle continues. Every Israeli citizen is required to serve a military term after graduating high school. Maxi says that many Arab Israelis refuse to do so, and he wishes they were forced to at least carry out public service, if not actually join the military. He doesn’t mention the ultra-Orthodox Jews who also refuse to serve, and I don’t bring it up.

We rafted down a section of the upper Jordan River today, following a short hike in Nahal Gilabun, a canyon on the Golan. The Jordan, here, is more of a stream than a river. Being in the desert, Israel has constant water problems, and is currently in the fifth year of a drought.

Tonight after forced folk dancing, we circled up and each said why we came on Birthright. The statements were short and generally glib – most people came “because it was free” or due to the nagging of other Jews in their life. Some liked the opportunity to travel, a few others were looking to discover more about their Jewish identity and heritage. The last person to speak said she came to find a husband. Everyone laughed, but she seemed serious. I came for a variety of reasons. Because I did not want to pass up the opportunity to see and experience Israel at no cost, sure. But also because the nature of the exploration fascinates me. Rich Jewish donors, mostly anonymous, put up a ton of money to drag American Jews to the homeland. The tour is whirlwind and exhausting, but even in such a small country, cannot be exhaustive in a mere 10 days. The goals of the program are not hidden: they want young American Jews to be captured by the spirit of Israel, to support Israel’s existence, and to embrace their Jewish identity. The not-so-subtle push is for exactly what the girl in our circle expressed: interbreeding. I say this without judgment. They want to keep pure a bloodline that extends at least 250 generations.

The Taglit Birthright program presents the country from an unabashedly Jewish and pro-Israel point of view. They balance enough “good with the bad” to provide a notional neutrality, but they never claim to be objective. The program and its guides walk a delicate line, attempting to persuade jaded American teenagers and young adults of the importance of their Jewish identity without being so “preachy” as to be off-putting. This fascinates me. The experience is well run, and so far doesn’t seem like an indoctrination program. But I’ll take it one day at a time.


Back from Lake Havasu

Returned today from a few days at Lake Havasu, a destination my family started visiting in 2001, soon after we sold our cabin in Lake Arrowhead. Unlike Arrowhead, which sits atop a mountain in San Bernardino and is surrounded by lush pines, Havasu is a large dammed lake along the Colorado River, used as a primary water source for much of Southern California, as a hydroelectric power source, and as a recreational area. Straddling the deserts of California and Arizona, the environment of Havasu is one of intense heat and austere desert landscapes. It has a charm bordering on beauty, and my parents recently bought a house in Lake Havasu City, as well as a new boat.

Lake Havasu City, home to the London Bridge (no joke!) is a five hour drive from our Orange County abode, counting the occasional bathroom break. At the end of the ride, the dry desert air is intense, the sun brutal. But once you get on the expansive lake, the rest of the experience is worth it. I last posted pictures of a Havasu excursion in 2003 and you will see not much has changed. The lake remains as it was, but our boat is a bit bigger. We still ski and frolic, but now with the addition of a marvelously fun jet ski. And, of course, I have a better camera now.

Click the “Show Info” link in the slideshow to see captions.


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Triplog: Italy (Part 2: Perugia)

Map of Italy

I sit on a train, coasting past farmland and lake water and the occasional highway. Ruins of old brick buildings are just as common a sight as occupied ones. So far, there are no farm animals to be seen, and at this time of year most fields are barren. We left Perugia, a city on a hill, and are en route to Florence to the north, in the Tuscany region. Perugia (Pear – ooh – juh) is the capital city of the Umbria region, and home to the Umbra Institute (their photos of the city), where Shaina is studying for the semester. Whilst Rome was grand and bustling, frequently dirty, with hundreds of idling police and thousands of tourists, Perugia is smaller, quieter, higher, and perhaps a bit more “real.” It is the right combination of historic and modern, with stone archways dating back to the 1400s in sight of the slick new “MiniMetro” mass-transit system, containing pods that comfortably hold 16 and come every minute along their eco-friendly route.

We stayed at the Brufani Hotel, an elegant affair with great views and the dubious distinction of playing host to Moussolini when he planned his march on Rome. It rests at the edge of Piazza Italia, a modern-looking square that leads to the town center, Piazza Quattro Novembre, a broad and bustling walk featuring outdoor dining, small shops, gelaterias, and the duomo, in a large open square with a fountain in the center. The steps of the church are referred to as das spiaggia — the beach of Perugia, with young people come to see and be seen, relax in the sun, and hang out with friends. The young men all wear leather jackets, the women skinny jeans. They do this on hot days, they do this on cold days. We are told that, while the duomo steps may be the town’s beach, wearing shorts and a tank top would bring “undue attention.”

Perugia is host to a gaggle of “personalities,” including the poet who wears two ties (because everyone else wears one!) and orates a daily polemic in one of the town squares. There are also several wild — or at least communal — dogs that roam the city center and poke their heads into shops. Like every Italian city, wild rose sellers roam the streets as well, assaulting women for euros, even venturing into restaurants to annoy diners.

Perugia has a thousand years of strife on its mind, but briefly: opposed the rise of papal dominion, was sacked by Catholic forces on a few occasions, and for a time played host to an imposing fortress that the Pope fled to in times of turmoil. When the Church left the city, the fortress was razed by the citizenry, and little of it remains. There is also a tradition of bread made without salt (it tastes terrible) due to the Papal salt tax that provided the justification for the first religious invasion. Sort of a very early precursor to the Boston Tea Party, but with far less favorable results for all involved. Shaina says that salt-free bread is common throughout Italy, which seems to me to be a dubious culinary choice in an age where salt is once again cheap and plentiful.

That reminds me: when it comes to the Church, modern Italy is 90% Catholic, at least nominally. Of course there are elegant historic churches situated every block in the big cities, not to mention lots of noisy early-morning church bells in the smaller ones. But religion here is no longer central to most people’s lives. Abortion is legal, for one thing, and nudity on TV is complemented by a cad prime minister married to a former model. One piece of advice for Italian travel: don’t take a train on Easter. Talk about bad travel planning.

While in Perugia, we experienced the best food of our entire Italian visit. I won’t name the restaurants, for fear that my tiny blog might somehow have a Rick Steves-like effect and ruin them (his recomendations have been universally terrible), but the trick is meeting up with someone who knows and has lived in the area. Since Shaina has gone to all of the trouble of sampling the cuisine and interacting with the locals, we were given the spoils of war — amazingly good pizza for lunch, a great traditional Italian dinner with her school friends one night, tasty sandwiches at a local deli, and an enchanting family dinner at a dark trattoria with all sorts of interesting specialities. At the final restaurant, we were given a single clay cup each and had to switch off between our house red vino and spring water. Every restaurant here has a house wine, almost always local to the region. Were I more of a wine conisseur, I would enjoy this more. For now I can appreciate the idea of it, if not the actual results.

We did not worry much about sightseeing in Perugia, except to drink in the magnificent views, do a bit of shopping, and wander the hills and steps a bit. This short slideshow hopefully captures a bit of the simplicity and natural beauty of the area.

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Weekend excursion: Hull & Sandwich, MA

As summer brings good weather, I hope to take advantage of as many weekends as possible to explore the Northeast and find what wonders are to be found. This weekend began with a trip to Hull, a small town on a long peninsula that culminates in a historic military fort. On the way, Meghan and I stopped at a Farmer’s Market by the side of a road, where we enjoyed taste tests of various jams, salsas, and sweets, but decided it would be a bad idea to purchase fresh lobster. Oh Farmers Markets, you are so wonderful. In Hull, we explored the fort and then lunched at Barefoot Bob’s while watching the surf and beach frolickers and cars. Verdict: onion rings were middling, as was the rest of the food. Then on to Mashpee, for some relaxation.

After about 30 minutes of said relaxation, we noticed that time was abundant and the weather was right for plunder, and so set off in search of adventure. We found it in the form of Pirate’s Cove, a themed mini-golf destination. Competition was fierce but, alas, all members of our pirate party came in over par. Amy scored best at +3, Mat and I fought viciously but tied at +4, and Meghan, well, she was a bit beyond that. Swashbuckling finished and dinner time approaching, we sailed back to our home island for some creative quesadilla cooking with ingredients on hand.

Sunday looked to bring rain, but the sky cleared despite all expectations and weather reports to the contrary. After examining various possibilities, we decided to venture forth to Sandwich, MA and visit the Heritage Museum & Gardens. The entrance fee was stiff, but the grounds quite beautiful. There was a slightly anemic European auto show, as well as a small American history museum, a vintage carousel, and an art museum. Some local bands were performing in the meadow near a wonderful little labyrinth.

After exploring every nook of the museum, we stopped at some local shops (and a local mall), contemplated seeing Up! (again), but ultimately returned to our home base. In the meantime, the parents went ahead and sold their house without telling me, after only 3 days on the market. Sitting in the mall, looking at Ireland tourism books, the news was a rude shock (although, congrats, that’s quite an achievement in this market!). Meghan gave me some strawberry smoothie to cool the sorrow, and later we kayaked a bit in Mashpee and enjoyed the quiet and stillness, and I let me troubles dissipate, perhaps to be eaten by the heron, or something.

Anyway, photos.

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Triplog: Italy (Part 1: Paris & Rome)

This holiday is a family affair, a two week journey beginning in Paris, continuing in Rome, and then meandering up through a few highlights in the Italian north. I don’t have much to say about Paris, which I explored with my sisters Jessica and Shaina. We saw some of the major tourist sights, and documented them in this slideshow.

Map of Italy

Specifically, we toured Notre Dame, the Arc de Triomphe, the Tour Eiffel, and the Catacombs. We also walked a good bit, wandering through side streets and the Latin Quarter, seeing the Seine, traveling down the Champs Elise from our starting point at the Arc de Triomphe to the Louvre, and then across the river to the Musee d’Orsay, where we spent a couple of hours before closing time. We never quite made it to the Pompadou Center, an inside-out museum. In the end, thanks to a few morning mix-ups, we got to the airport a mere six minutes after the check-in window closed for our Vueling “discount” flight to Rome, and, even though the airplane was delayed for over an hour, we were not allowed to get our tickets and enter the terminal. We were forced to rebook for the later flight, which itself was delayed by almost two hours since, after all, it was the same plane that had to go to Rome and back. Ninety euros poorer for no apparent reason, we arrived in Rome.

Roman Forum

Rome! The capital of unified Italy, Rome is a large metropolitan located in the center-west of the country, in the province of Lazio. Rome’s rich history goes back a good 2,500 years or so, with the highlights being the rise and fall of the Roman empire and the ascendence of the Catholic Church. It all started, as these things do, with a creation myth involving two brothers, Romulus and Remus, who had a bit of a fight. Romulus was victorious and so the hillside became known as Rome, and over some time it got bigger, peaking around a million inhabitants.

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