Monthly Archives: February 2011

Prague

The future was with Fate. The present was our own. The Poison Belt

Only two of us ended up going to Prague, as our other friend stayed in Budapest and we decided to meet up in Vienna. Our itinerary was to leave Wednesday afternoon at 3:30pm on a bus from Budapest to Prague, arriving around 11:30pm. The bus, one of those nice chartered buses, is actually a really good way to get around these three “Golden Triangle” cities (Budapest, Vienna, and Prague) because they’re so close to each other and the buses are so cheap!

Well, this bus had free hot drinks (hot chocolate, coffee, mochas, etc), movies, free headphones, all the works. And we were the hottest we have ever been. I don’t really know why we didn’t ask them to turn the heat down, probably because it’s the first time we’ve felt that kind of real heating since winter started here in Palestine, but really, it was almost disgusting how oppressively hot the bus was. And 7 hours of sweating later, we arrive in Prague. Actually, funny enough, my blackberry sends me text messages when I arrive in a new roaming zone, so I realized when we got off the bus that we had actually traveled to 4 countries on that one bus: Hungary, Austria, Slovakia (we stopped in Bratislava for some travelers to get on and off), and finally the Czech Republic!

Once in Prague, we went to the hostel that had been recommended to us by many friends (thanks guys!), the Czech Inn, grabbed a drink at the bar downstairs and then crashed for the night. We had planned to only be in Prague the entire next day (Thursday), planning to leave Thursday night at midnight to get to Vienna by 5am on Friday morning. So we knew we needed to get our sightseeing butts in gear early Thursday morning.

We started out with a 2 hour walking tour of the downtown, old city of Prague. Of course, we’re used to “Arab time,” so having to use public transportation and of course find our way around the city to the main square where the free walking tour was starting, we arrived about 15 minutes late. Thank goodness these guides wear bright yellow jackets and we were able to jump in without missing too much. We walked around, saw again some amazing architecture, walked through the Jewish Quarter, the old Jewish ghetto of Prague, which was an interesting contrast to think of the wall built to keep the Jews in this certain area of Prague, without allowing building or development or economic investment… and think of the wall between Israeli and Palestinian lands and the restrictions on building or development or economic investment for Palestinians.

 

Wall of the Jewish Ghetto in Prague

The walking tour was great, absolutely freezing. At this point, I had gotten used to wearing under armour under all of my clothes, layering a ton, wearing my friend’s wool coat, I stole my friend’s wool hat to wear, gloves, and two scarves, one of which I wrapped around my lower face/nose. It was a great look, but wow, it was cold. Some pictures from walking around in the morning:

 

Prague street

Famous clock tower

We took a coffee break, to warm up, after the first tour, and decided to go with the same company for an afternoon, 3-hour walking tour of the Castle District. What a great decision. Like I said yesterday, there is just something magical for me about castles! Plus, there were these amazing churches in addition to these beautiful castles, so the walking tour was definitely worth it. And, it’s up on the hill on the other side of the river from the rest of the city of Prague, so we got amazing views. Too bad it was so overcast and gloomy looking, because the pictures don’t capture it!

 

Prague Castle is that dark structure toward the back!

church within Prague Castle

Back of the church still in the compound of the Prague Castle

View of Prague from the Prague Castle

Then, after the tour ended, we had dinner, went back to our hostel to chill out until we would leave around 11pm to get to the bus station for the bus to Vienna. We get to the bus station and have to wait around for the bus to show up. This being not tourist-season, and us not having any problems before, we hadn’t actually booked anything for this trip before showing up – no hostels, no bus tickets, etc.

Of course, the bus is sold out. So we’re stranded, at 12:30 in the morning, in Prague at this deserted bus station. We’re supposed to be meeting our friend in Vienna in about 5 hours. So we get a taxi back to our hostel, get another two beds for the night, and quickly get on the internet to book tickets for the next bus or train to Vienna. All the buses for the next two days from Prague to Vienna are booked solid. The next train was going to be almost $200. We decided to cut our losses and stay an extra day in Prague and take the bus the next afternoon back to Budapest. We quickly book the last two seats on the bus back to Budapest, and go to bed. But this actually allowed us to enjoy another day exploring Prague, and we saw two phenomenally beautiful churches and had wonderful coffee and cake.

 

Church of Our Lady before Tyn - epitome of beauty!

Same church

Beautiful, same church

Again, same church

Then we walked across the Charles Bridge, which is known for its crazy beautiful statues!

 

Statue on the bridge

View off the bridge

Another statue

And another one

I’ll leave you with some more views of the streets of Prague, and another fantastic basilica we walked into. Our bus ride back to Budapest was relatively uneventful, though there were not hot drinks and it was almost just as hot on the bus as the first one.

 

Street!

So beautiful

Sigh. Basilica

So ornate

It was a wonderful, wonderful vacation, 5 days away from my usual routine, everything in the past 7 months. Neither of us had any trouble at all, so surprisingly, at Ben Gurion when we arrived at 4am in the morning, which was thankfully just a perfect ending. We came back to the most disgustingly cold, rainy, hail weather in Ramallah, but the past couple days it has been mid to high 60s and sunny. My roommate and I took a spontaneous trip to the beach in Tel Aviv on Wednesday afternoon and I actually was sweating in my bathing suit! So amazing.

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On a lighter note…

When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you achieve it. The Glass Menagerie

Spontaneously, last week, the universe helped me decide to take a little vacation. Some time off from classes for a national holiday here, plus cheap plane tickets and willing friends led me to buy tickets to fly to Budapest and travel to Prague for 5 days. We had a basic, yet exhausting, itinerary planned – we originally intended to visit Budapest, Vienna, and Prague.

We started out with a 6am flight out of Ben Gurion. With their security policies, it’s recommended to get to the airport 3-4 hours early. So, a friend and I chilled out at a restaurant in Jerusalem until 1am (surprisingly difficult to find a restaurant/bar/cafe that stays open that late on a Monday night!), until we grabbed the shuttle to the airport. The airport… wow, is all I have to say. This is my first time leaving the country since I arrived back last July, so it’s the first time I’ve experienced it. It was exhausting – you’re questioned about your time in Israel as soon as you arrive at the airport, and are assigned a number based on the security threat they thinkĀ  you are, a number 1 through 6, a 6 being the highest security threat. My friend (who holds both an American and an Israeli passport, as her family is Palestinian from the 1948 land.. a discussion I’ll write about later) and I both received 6s. This meant almost 3 hours of questions and searching our bags thoroughly, item by item; somewhat problematic as we hadn’t even checked in at the airline desk for our flight. But, being such a security threat at least meant an escort straight through to the departure gates!

We landed at 8am Budapest time, checked into our hostel (which ended up being free for us since it’s owned by the other friend we were meeting there!), slept for about 2 hours, and then hit the city to sight see! What a beautiful city. It was freezing, though, literally the temperature stayed right around the freezing mark, but wow I had forgotten how much I miss central heating. It was so nice to leave the cold outside and walk inside a restaurant, or really any building, and feel warm again. But just walking on the streets of Budapest, the architecture is so old and breathtakingly pretty.

We saw some hauntingly beautiful castles (man, as an American, there is just something so exciting about castles, at least for me!) and some of the most amazing churches I’ve ever seen.

St. Stephen's Basilicia in Budapest

A different church I can't remember the name of off the top of my head..

Then we left for Prague (which will have to be the next blog post, since this one is already too long!) for a couple days, then returned to Budapest for Friday night out on the town (yay dancing to a crazy mix of music including Backstreet Boys!) and then we had all day on Saturday to explore again before our flight left at 11pm. We toured the Parliament building, which was phenomenal.

Parliament from the outside

They don't make government buildings like this in the States

Nor do they make the legislative chambers like this!

The food was also delicious, and deliciously hearty. Soups (mmm goulash) galore, and meat galore. I haven’t eaten that much meat in the entire 7 months I’ve been here!

In short, Budapest was an incredible opportunity to see. Tomorrow, I’ll post about Prague! (And yes, it will definitely be tomorrow that I post, as I’m currently hunkered down trying to finish my thesis and I will need a procrastination tool…)

So much to say!

If all the world hated you, and believed you wicked, while your conscience approved you, and absolved you from guilt, you would not be without friends.” Jane Eyre

Well, Qaddafi’s conscience seems to approve his actions, while the rest of us are left scratching our heads and wondering about his sanity. If you find a good English translation of the transcript of his speech tonight, Tuesday Feb 22, 2011, please let me know. I pity the translators the news agencies had attempt to translate his rambling tonight, but honestly, I’m still a little confused by most of his hour and a half long diatribe. And if you don’t know at all what I’m talking about, please look up here or here, (or really any news site) and put the Libyan people in your thoughts, as really I don’t think anyone can predict how far Qaddafi will go in his quest to stay in power. He is supposedly bombing his own capital city, Tripoli, and has ordered fighter jets and helicopters to shoot on peaceful demonstrators in the streets below. Fun facts about Muammar Qaddafi: he is the longest-serving of all current non-royal national leaders and one of the longest serving rulers in history. He is also the longest-serving ruler of Libya since Libya, then Tripoli, became an Ottoman province in 1551.

What else is there?! Check out protests in Bahrain and Yemen especially. Nicholas Kristof has good posts on happenings in Bahrain here.

In Palestinian news, the Obama administration on Friday exercised its first veto at the UN, vetoing a Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements in the West Bank. All other 14 members of the Security Council backed the resolution, which had been endorsed by the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization). Most likely, the Obama administration was under intense pressure from Israel and Congress, with its strong pro-Israel lobby (check out AIPAC), to use its veto. And yet, this veto risks a LOT of anger in a region and time of mass street protests. In fact, there were demonstrations on Friday, after the vote, in multiple West Bank cities against the US veto; there were demonstrations on Sunday in Ramallah (though semi in conjunction with solidarity with the Libyan people and Bahrain? I was confused, and wasn’t actually present, being in a deep coma after my exhausting but wonderful vacation). And there is a “Day of Rage” (named after the now-infamous Day of Rage in Egypt just a few weeks ago) planned in Ramallah for this Friday, endorsed by Fatah and the Palestinian Authority, against the US veto.

Some facts on settlements: There are nearly half a million Jews/Israelis who live in more than 100 settlements built since Israel’s 1967 occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. They are held to be illegal under international law, although Israel disputes this (I’m not exactly sure how you can dispute this). You can check out credible sources of information: B’Teselem or the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs to get both sides of the argument, both from Israeli organizations. Or the Palestine Monitor. Or just google it.

Plus Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian Prime Minister, resigned last week, along with his entire cabinet. Most here assume it was to appease any potential protests against Fatah and the Palestinian Authority, similar to those that rocked Egypt and Tunisia and are currently rocking many Arab countries. Though, Fayyad actually resigned once already from Abbas’s government, back in 2009, after elusive power-sharing talks for reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas.

So, like I said, a lot of news to catch up on. Considering I had such a wonderful 5-day break from reality, touring Prague and Budapest! Yes, we only made it to two cities, missing the bus to Vienna as we mistakenly assumed that, it not being tourist-season, we did not need to pre-book anything. But, the trip was amazing, and expect posts in the coming days about our adventures. For now, here are some pictures of the freezing, beautiful cities.

Castle in Budapest with an unpronounceable name!

Mass graveyard at the Great Synagogue in Budapest. And yes, it snowed our first night there.

Surreal, beautiful Budapest

More pictures tomorrow, as my internet is just too slow to upload anymore!

Change II

Death destroys a man: the idea of Death saves him. Howards End

Egypt has stunned the world really. Selfishly, I’m a little sad, as I was supposed to be traveling to Egypt in a few days with some family that was coming over to visit, but I will definitely visit the country sometime before I leave!

Just listen to the crowd as Mubarak’s resignation is announced: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z06GVWJgTWU&feature=player_embedded

The overriding feeling around town is that this is the triumph of nonviolent protest over the acts of terror so commonly (and misunderstood-ly) associated with this region. There is some cautious apprehension about the future, what will happen with the Egyptian Army, will they really undergo true democratic reforms, can the legislative chaos be fixed in time for true elections in a few months? These are real questions that everyone is thinking of, believe me, but for a little at least, we can celebrate the power of the Egyptians. Ramallah even had a nice little hafla or party (really just a gathering of people) in al-Manara, the main city square, on Friday night to commend the Egyptian people and their spirit.

Manara

Ramallah after Mubarak's resignation

Mubarak was the fourth-longest serving ‘ruler’ in the Arab world (in power for 30 years), and yet the top three are still in place. Qaddafi of Libya tops the list with a rule of 41 years, with Sultan Qaboos Bin Said of Oman in second place with a rule of 40 years, and Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh rounding out the list with a rule of 33 years.

I think a lot of leaders around the world are scared. Peaceful protests held in Algiers, Algeria yesterday were violently put down, and same in Sana’a, Yemen. Oh and the Palestinian Authority announced presidential elections will be held before September of this year. Hamas is of course refusing to acknowledge this.

So instead of going to Egypt as planned, I decided spontaneously with some friends to still travel this week, but to Budapest, Hungary; Prague, Czech Republic; and Vienna, Austria. I cannot, cannot wait! Because we’re flying out of Ben Gurion Airport at 5am on Tuesday morning, my friend and I will sit in some Jerusalem cafe or bar from Monday evening until 1am on Tuesday morning, hopefully we’ll find something that stays open that late (!), until we grab the shuttle to the airport.

bshoofkom (I’ll see you) for now!

Change!

I shall tell you a great secret, my friend. Do not wait for the last judgment. It takes place every day.” The Fall

All eyes are glued to alJazeera here! There is a sense of solidarity with the Egyptian and Tunisian people, a hope for similar occurrences in Syria, Yemen, Algeria, and a distinct confusion about what to do here in Palestine, it seems. The Palestinian Authority, scared like every single other regime in this region, has announced that they will hold municipal elections in both the West Bank and Gaza “soon” to stem unrest. Right.

There have been protests held here, most in solidarity with Egyptians as well as others pro-PA (mostly supporters bused in from the northern West Bank). Hamas and the PA have responded by forcefully dispersing demonstrators (HRW article here). But, for the most part, you don’t see the same action that is happening in other places. I think, for two reasons. One, the security forces here have a strangle on public space. Two, and this is more of an educated guess than any sort of fact, I think the ethos of Palestinians for so long has been – the occupation is the number one enemy and to protest against anything else is a waste of time. There appears to be a sense that a protest, whether against the Palestinian government, Israel, or for Egypt, will not bring about any positive change.

But, we will see what happens in the next couple days. Yesterday was the “Day of Departure” protests in Egypt, and Mubarak has yet to step down. Protesters are saying they won’t leave Tahrir Square until Mubarak leaves his seat as President, and Mubarak is saying he won’t. The army is a key player in this situation, as the police forces are done.

In other news, it’s been raining and cold here for the past week straight. In fact, it’s so cold in my apartment that you can actually see your breath. So I’m leaving you with some pictures of the area of Ramallah in which I live, taken last week before the rain came in. Sigh. The sun.