Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Passover over.

The feast of unleavened bread shalt thou keep;
seven days thou shalt eat unleavened bread, as I commanded thee, at the time appointed in the month Abib--for in it thou camest out from Egypt;
and none shall appear before Me empty;

Exodus 23:15

El Al has the reputation of being the safest airline in the world. It also holds the world record for the most passengers transported on an aircraft - a mind blowing 1122 - when during "Operation Solomon" Ethiopian Jews were airlifted to Israel in 1991. Imagine all of them cheering and clapping hands as the pilot landed the bird safely! Three hours before departure the El Al counter opened. I had checked in online, but before I could drop my luggage and get a real boarding pass with a real seat number a security check was carried out. Why am I going to Israel, what's my job, do I know anybody there, passport check, what was I doing in the other countries I had previously visited in the middle east? I tell them about my recent stopover in Abu Dhabi. They ask me what I did in Morocco (I always thought that Morocco was in north-west Africa and not in the middle east) and Malaysia (which I would place in south east Asia), do I know anybody there etc. etc. After 20 mins I am told that I may check in now, but am summoned to a second security check at a separate gate close to the departure gate. "Do your shopping, eating and toilet before you report there at 20.30. From there you will be escorted directly to the departure gate." Also, what's the code for my luggage padlock? They write it down on a tag in hebrew. I have a pint and go to the second security check. Me and four other dodgy suspects are waiting. My hand luggage is searched and X-rayed while I am sat behind a wall to wait. After a few more questions I'm escorted to the gate. I had expected worse, that went quite smooth actually... Seat 23H is right behind business class. The aircraft has been koshered for Passover. So is the food. My first of many hummus to come...

Ben Gurion airport comes with free wifi. Since recently Israeli immigration no longer stamps passports but issues a "Stay Permit" on a separate piece of paper which indicates the validity of your visa in order to avoid issues when entering a Muslim country later (some Muslim countries deny entrance when they spot an Israeli stamp in the passport, although in some cases they may still figure out whether you have been to Israel, e.g. if you have an entry stamp of a country that has a land crossing with Israel where else should you have come from?). After passport control I was briefly interrogated another time as to the purpose of my visit to the country. The rest went sababa: luggage off the carousel, x-rayed one more time and off to the train. I am beginning to understand what makes El Al the world's safest airline. Railway stations and most trains in Israel have free wifi as well. I take the train to Beer Sheva, have a great eggy breaky and head to the bus station where I feel like being the only person here who is not in an army uniform carrying a gun. The bus rides through the Negev past prisons and army outposts to Mitspe Ramon.

About 60% of Israel is the Negev desert. 80% of the Negev are fire zones of the army. 40% of the Negev are nature reserves. Wait, what? Right: Some nature reserves are in the middle of the fire zones and have become the most amazing ecosystems. When the Negev transformed from an ocean to the desert that it is today some "Makhtesh" were formed by the erosion. Since it is a very unique geological phenomenon only found in this region and nearby Sinai, Israeli scientists coined the term "Makhtesh" to describe it, which is today used by geologist in the whole world. Makhtesh Ramon is the biggest of them. In the middle of the Makhtesh Ramon I met Assaf who camped here and shot star trails. He insists I wear one of his T-shirts. He's got a point, starting out with a cotton long sleeve shirt was probably not so clever after all, but it was a bit chilly this morning. I join him and his short legged dog Booli through the desert. It gets hot. And steep uphill. We break on top of Ramon's tooth and have a spectacular view. Downhill is not so much fun, even less for Booli. For every step we take he has to take four or five. Assaf insists that I keep the T-shirt as a present as we part in opposite directions on the road as we both try to hitch a ride. The one big rule for successfully hitch hiking is: bring a girl. We are dirty, have loads of luggage and a dog. This won't help. After some unsuccessful attempts Assaf comes over and tells me: "You have to be rude like an Israeli sometimes". He starts to approach some of the visitors who parked their cars at the side of the road and in an instance I'm sorted. My driver is a lady with her kid who after five minutes on the road offers me her couch in the north of Israel when I come by. She drops me off in town and leaves me her digits. Back in the hostel I notice that I am still carrying the Booli's dog food. Another reason to go to Jerusalem and return it to Booli...

Makhtesh Ramon

Makhtesh Ramon
lonely tree in the middle of Makhtesh Ramon
Makhtesh Ramon seen from Ramon's tooth

Assaf & Booli

I knew that traveling in Israel needed some careful planning since all buses, trains and public transportation come to a grinding halt from Friday afternoon until Saturday night due to Shabbat. What I was not aware of is the fact that even stricter rules are applied during Passover. Passover is a festival that celebrates the absence of bread and buses. Also it commemorates that the people of Israel were freed from slavery in Egypt and led by Moses to the holy land some 3300 years ago. But mainly it's a no-bread-no-buses feast. Bread is replaced by "Matzah", an unleavened cracker made of just flour and water. When leaving Egypt in a rush there was no time to wait for the dough to rise properly according to history. Baking or selling real bread is forbidden during the eight days of Passover. The weeks before Passover are spent in Jewish homes with rigorous cleaning to remove all the chametz, traces of leavened bread, since not only the consumption but also the keeping and owning is forbidden by Jewish law which requires to remove traces bigger than the size of an olive, but most cleaning goes way beyond this. I suppose the same procedure was applied to the aircraft in which I arrived. In supermarkets all non-kosher food is hidden behind white plastic sheets and cannot be purchased. Now this is the real food porn. You know it's there, you want it, but you can't have it. It is the über-Shabbat. Having good food these days is a challenge of masterchef like dimensions. Imagine an offsite challenge where the masterchef contestants are driven to a small village on the Israeli country side. First they have to find out where they can get food at all. Once they found the only small kiosk in town they have 5 minutes in the "pantry" to shop with 50 shekels. After that it's back to the hostel kitchen to cook up a kosher masterchef worthy meal. Spaghetti with tomato sauce won't win...
hiding the non-kosher food


On the last day of Passover I leave the green backpackers at nine for the road and position myself at a bus stop next to a roundabout. I expect it to be a long day on the road hitchhiking to the next spot. Twenty minutes later I have a ride with a Russian man and his parents, playing some russian disco on the stereo who drive all the way and drop me right at the front door of the kibbutz. Spasiba!

Ein Avdat

Ein Avdat


Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Hoi An foods

Tra Que vegetable farm is just outside Hoi An and it was the first stop this morning on the shopping tour of the cooking class I had signed up for. Typical herbs of the Vietnamese cuisine like Asian basil (a.k.a. Vietnamese mint), Vietnamese coriander and sawtooth coriander are grown here using traditional methods, all organic and by hand. Wandering through the fields we smelled and tasted loads of different herbs, you'll be surprised how many different varieties of basil are grown here, one smells fishy actually. We stocked up on fresh herbs and were treated to a herbal refreshment before moving on.
Next stop was the local market where we bought veggies & spices including banana flowers and water spinach, typical for the Vietnamese cuisine and locally sourced.
fresh organic herbs

organic farming, outside Hoi An
if the grass is greener on the other side: water your own grass!


We unloaded the purchased produce after a short drive to the red bridge restaurant and cooking school, which is located on the Hoi An river and got started in the kitchen right away!

Appetizer: Lemongrass Shrimp

Fresh shrimp marinated in a paste of lemongrass, shallots, garlic, chili, salt, pepper and sugar and then grilled on a BBQ. Properly done they are actually wrapped in banana leaves and then grilled. The dipping sauce is very simple yet delicious: 1 teaspoon each of salt, pepper and sugar mixed with the juice of a lime.
grilling lemongrass shrimps

Lemongrass shrimps with a lime, pepper, salt and sugar based dipping sauce

Starter: Grilled Chicken and Banana Flower Salad

Chicken breast is marinated in soy sauce, sugar, pepper and five spices mix and grilled until golden brown. The salad is based on banana flowers, grated green mango, green papaya and carrot, with a bit of chili, spring onions and water spinach stems and tossed in a dressing of lime juice, fish sauce, garlic and sugar, topped with some fresh Vietnamese herbs: Mint, Vietnamese mint, Asian Basil and some fried shallots and roasted sesame seeds.
Grilled chicken and banana flower salad


Probably the best known Vietnamese dish in the west, this rice noodle soup is originally from Hanoi. 
Phở Bo is topped with beef (Bo) and the proper broth should also be a beef broth. To make the broth get a kilo of beef bones and fry them for a few minutes to reduce the fat, add cinnamon, ginger, onion, star anise, cardamom and shallots to the fry then add water and a pinch of salt and sugar and let it simmer for an hour or more, skimming off the fat from the top.

preparing the broth for the Phở

Next we were taught how to make rice noodles: It's basically rice soaked over night mixed with water and a pinch of salt and put in a blender until it's a smooth white batter. A cotton cloth is tight over a pot of steaming water, a spoon of the batter goes on top and after a minute you can lift it off with a bamboo stick and cut into strips about a cm wide.
making rice noodles
Noodles go into the soup bowl, topped with thinly sliced beef filet, cover with the stock and serve with fresh herbs and pickle to taste. In the street food places of Hanoi the herbs are on the table for everyone to help themselves to pimp their Phở with Asian basil, sawtooth coriander, Vietnamese celery, chili, lime, bean sprouts etc. Delicious.
Phở. The best ever.

sizzling fish stew in a clay pot

Main: Clay pot fish with fresh dill

Fish filets marinated in turmeric, salt and pepper for an hour, briefly fried, then simmered in a clay pot with a sauce of garlic, shallots, chili, oil and water. Topped with fresh dill and peanuts and served with rice noodles.
Clay pot fish with fresh dill

P.S.: got the munchies? you can find the recipes here.
P.P.S.: it's a blog post that belongs to my trip from January 2012. I was lazy. I'm catching up.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Hoi An suits

"I'm gay, I know what looks good on you!" the boy said. "But I really don't want a suit" was my reply. In Hoi An every other shop is a tailor. And you can't escape the offers of the salesmen and women running the shops. I wanted to get a copy of a shirt and a pair of shorts I had with me, made of another fabric but in the same cut. The boy walked me to a backstreet close to the central market arguing "...we don't have a fancy shop on one of the main streets, so we can be cheaper". So I started browsing catalogues, touching fabrics, and getting quotes for prices. The clock read 3 pm. "I'm off tomorrow morning 8.30". "No problem, you'll have your suit this evening!". Before I knew it I was standing half naked in the shop getting measured from head to toe. I chose the best fabric they had before the boy gave me a ride on his moped back to my guesthouse: "don't worry, we'll deliver your suit by 7 pm this evening" were his last words. At 7 p.m. sharp the courier delivered the suit. It suited. A two piece suit, made to measure, slim cut, the best fabric I could find: that's US $ 120.


Balloons & Bicycles
Flying the Vietnamese flag

Prayer time
lil' Vietnamese

Night falls over Hoi An

Hoi An, dirty old town

Ho Chi Minh impersonator, Hoi An

Had a shave in this barbershop. I always enjoy the little surprise service at the end of the shave, like when they take out a lighter and burn the hair in your ears in India. This man took out a giant vibrator and started massaging my back with it when he was finished shaving. I was shaking in my seat.

Barberism begins at home.

P.S.: it's a blog post that belongs to my trip from January 2012. I was lazy. I'm catching up.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

hamster roulette

Governments are evil. As soon as people start enjoying something the government passes a law that makes it illegal. They take all the fun stuff away from their people. Alcohol, drugs, gambling, sex, you name it. Alcohol for example is illegal in countries like Sweden or Saudi Arabia. That's right: Sweden. Ever tried to buy a bottle of wine in Sweden on a Sunday? You can't, since the government controlled system bolaget stores are not allowed to open on a Sunday to sell you a bottle of Bordeaux. In Saudi Arabia it will be impossible on the other six days of the week as well. Minor details. Some countries even go so far that they won't allow you to drive your car as fast as it possibly can on its motorways.
Now, the Vietnamese love gambling. Guess what? It's illegal in Vietnam! Now lucky enough there are usually loopholes to find your way around the law to get what you want. In Sweden you can go to a pub or a restaurant on a Sunday and order a bottle of red (let me know if you find out how to order a pint in Saudi Arabia...). And if you want to test the speed limits of your car all you have to do is to drive it across the border to Germany and off you go. The same goes for gambling in Vietnam. Cross the border into Cambodia and the first thing you encounter on the other side is a casino. But there are also other ways of bending the law and bet your money within the country. On a bus ride from the Cambodian border to Saigon, our bus stopped in the middle of nowhere. There was a passenger terminal of the bus company with a food court and outside the terminal was a small fairground with a stage and some booths selling food and drinks.
And then there was hamster roulette. A big round table that had a lower section with a smaller diameter and doors around it with numbers on them. In the middle of the table there was a bucket upside down that had a rope attached to it. The rope went straight up, around a roll and down to a bloke standing besides the table. People started to place their bets on the numbers around the table. We are talking dong, millions of them. Once the bets were placed the bloke next to the table would pull the string and the bucket would lift up. Under the bucket was a hamster. The hamster started running to the edge of the circle. It picked a door and took the exit. The lucky person who bet his money on that particular door won. The next morning in Saigon I bought ten buckets. I'm going to open a casino.

What gambling is to Vietnam, are late nights of drinking in bars to landlocked Laos. There's a curfew. All pubs and bars have to close at 11.30 pm so that the customers can be at their registered home or hotel by midnight. There's one exception though: bowling alleys. The party goes on in bowling alleys until the early morning. Also, there is a law in Laos that forbids foreigners to have sexual intercourse with locals, unless they are married. I am not sure if there is an exception if you do it in a bowling alley, though...
I left the Kingdom of Cambodia a day later than originally planned. It was Tet, as Chinese New Year is called in Vietnam, and according to my "travel agent" who had his "office" set up on a street corner in Kep there was no transport on New Years Day. So I had to spend another day eating crab with Kampot pepper before crossing the border to Vietnam...
the "office" of my travel agent, Mr. Pharis in Kep

Hatien Vegas, first stop in Cambodia for the Vietnamese

good bye, Cambodia, last casino before the border

good morning, Vietnam

gambling room in the independence palace in Saigon, 70s style,
the president was a gambler, too.

I left Kep in the morning and four buses, several Mekong delta crossings and a hamster roulette break later got into Ho Chi Minh City a.k.a. Saigon when it was almost midnight. I had my first pho straight away from a street food stall. I thought I had seen mad traffic in many places I've been to before, but Saigon is just mental. You can't see the street for the mopeds. The Tet celebrations were to continue for days to come. Since 2012 is the year of the Dragon, the city had dragons installed in many locations and every moped in HCMC was on its way to one or another dragon. Chúc mừng năm mới - Happy new year!

Moped madness, Saigon
Happy Year of the Dragon!

Vietnam telecom. surprisingly it works.
Before leaving Saigon I went to see the Cao Dai temple at Thay Ninh. Cao Dai is a religion that mixes concepts of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism, blends it with a dash of Hinduism (Brahma, Shiva and Krishna are sitting on the temple's roof) and honours a wild bunch of saints and holy spirits including Victor Hugo, Jesus, Shakespeare, Buddha, Jeanne d'Arc, Mohammed, Napoleon, Descartes, Churchill, Lenin and Tolstoi. If religion is a buffet, this is it. That's me in the corner, choosing my religion...

prayer time, Cao Dai temple
Prayer time is four times a day: 6 a.m., noon, 6 p.m. and midnight and this is what it sounds like.

Cao Dai temple, Tay Ninh
On the way back to Ho Chi Minh City we stopped at the tunnels of Cu Chi. During the Vietnam war the Viet Cong guerrillas built a network of more than a hundred kilometres of tunnels that served as routes for supplies, homes and even hospitals underground. It was probably due to these tunnels and the booby traps built around the area that Vietnam became a war the U.S. troops could not win. Some of the tunnels have been restored and can be visited. We were told that they have been somewhat enhanced in size (so that over-sized tourists fit) but they are still very claustrophobic and get narrower and narrower as you crawl through the tunnels for the final exit (there are several exits before that just in case you panic...).   

wrong door. booby trap, bamboo spike version.

Cu Chi tunnels: I am disappeared

Claustrophobic Cu Chi tunnels

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Killing fields, supporting lifes

On April 17 1975 the Khmer rouge took Phnom Penh and proclaimed it year zero. Led by Saloth Sar, better known as Pol Pot a.k.a. Brother number one, the Khmer rouge renamed Cambodia to “Democratic Kampuchea” and transformed the country into a land of farmers. Within a few days the inhabitants of Phnom Penh and other cities were deported to the countryside and forced to work on the fields for more than 12 hours per day. Intellectuals were the enemy of the state. Wearing glasses, being able to speak a foreign language or having soft hands was reason enough to be arrested and detained, no need to mention being a doctor, an engineer, a buddhist monk or a teacher...
Detention centres were set up throughout the country. One of the biggest, the former Tuol Svay Prey high school, was transformed into S-21 (Security Office 21), which today hosts the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. The former classrooms of the four buildings A, B, C and D were transformed into torture chambers and holding cells , building A being reserved for those cadres of the Khmer rouge who were suspected to plan an uprising against Pol Pot.


S-21 Prison cells

holding cell in S-21

The sign says that you're not supposed to laugh in S-21. There's nothing to laugh about here, really...

S-21 buildings

Victims of S-21

In early 1979 the Vietnamese army liberated Phnom Penh and found only seven prisoners still alive at S-21. Two of them are still living today. They returned to S-21 to tell their stories.

One of the two survivors of S-21 who is still alive today
Those who confessed under torture to crimes they did not commit in S-21 were taken to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, outside of Phnom Penh, which were just that: Killing fields. Taken off the trucks that brought the victims there they were clubbed to death to the soundtrack of a diesel generator and a P.A. playing propaganda songs of the Khmer rouge. Bullets were too expensive and not available.

the killing tree

Killing fields

The killing fields of Choeung Ek

The shocking thing is that even after the Vietnamese conquered Cambodia, the UN still accepted the Khmer Rouge as the official government of Cambodia for a few years to come. And even though there is now a UN trial things are moving slowly, very slowly. The UN trial has been going on for years now and only one sentence has been passed. The current Cambodian government is still blocking further trials against former Khmer rouge members. Some may still be part of the current regime...

Want to make a change and help someone to live a better life? Love good food? Like shopping? It's as easy as that:

Friends International is running two restaurants in Phnom Penh where street kids are taught how to become a chef, a waiter or work in the service industry.

Daughters of Cambodia is an organization that helps girls that have been trafficked to exit the sex industry and supports them in finding alternative ways to live a self-sustained life by teaching them sewing, clothes design, photography, jewellery crafting etc. They are also running a cafe called “sugar and spice” where the girls are learning cooking, baking and working in the restaurant industry. Additionally daughters of Cambodia provides them with medical and counseling services to give them the pride and confidence back that they lost and helps them to lead a healthy and safe life. They run a shop in Phnom Penh where their clothes, arts and crafts are sold, really cool designs and very different from all the fake copies found anywhere else in the capital. Worth having a look and making a change in somebody’s life.

Watch this video to learn more about the amazing job that they are doing.