Copenhagen, Denmark: The Christmas Spirit.

My trip to Denmark broke the trend of travel excursions as for the first time in 3 years I traveled during school term time. Given my current workload, a weekend away probably didn’t  seem like a wise move, but I came back feeling refreshed, motivated, and, most importantly, Christmassy.

I initially met Sam in Tel Aviv in the Summer and she since moved to Norway to continue her studies. We stayed in contact since the Summer and she expressed her desire to visit Copenhagen before Christmas. As it is somewhere that I wanted to visit too we decided to go together and found a weekend that suited us both.

My flight left Gatwick just before 5, meaning I had to leave work earlier than normal to make the plane. This was the first time that I have benefited from living on Gatwick’s doorstep as I have usually travelled from Luton or Stansted.

Upon arrival in Copenhagen I had the task of finding the Air BnB apartment Sam and I had booked out. Sam arrived in Denmark about 5 hours before me so I was very conscious that she had been waiting around for a while.

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Despite my eagerness to reach the centre, I ended up jumping on a train instead of the metro (oops). I actually believe I would have ended up in Malmo, Sweden had I not realised soon enough.  Eventually I did get on the metro and reached our station in very little time. Copenhagen is one of those handy cities where the airport is close to the city itself.

By the time I reached Sam it was already very cold and dark. She had waited patiently in the apartment but we soon headed out towards the centre to find a place for food and a drink. By the time we found somewhere it was nice to get inside as the temperature had dropped dramatically since I got on the plane in England. Once we were in one pub we didn’t move.

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The next morning we dragged ourselves out of bed and put on multiple layers in preparation for a cold day outdoors. We visited the nearby bakery for a Danish Pastry breakfast and strolled in to the main city. We were initially greeted with some carol singers in-front of the town hall before walking up the lively main shopping street and onwards towards the Nyhavn canal street. This was a nice area lined with multicoloured houses.  What’s more, as we continued along the canal we seemed to loose the crowds and ended up freely walking alone. This was probably because of the wind chill factor as we got closer to the river.

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Eventually we reached ‘The symbol of Denmark’ which lay on a stone just inside the river. ‘The Little Mermaid’ sat on top of the stone as a reference to the Danish author who wrote the story (I, quite ignorantly as a primary school teacher, didn’t know this). It was at this point that Sam and I took advantage of the hot chocolate van that stood beside the Mermaid. We had to drink it quickly as it became luke-warm almost immediately.

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Our next stop was the royal palace. Sam was particularly excited about this as the Danish prince had married a Tasmanian lady and Sam felt some affiliation to her for that. We had a brief conversation with one of the beef-eater guards, but remained wary that he was a young boy with a gun.

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Inside the museum of the palace we were told to wear plastic over our shoes as we wondered around trying to find out information about the Danish royal family. Neither of us had done the necessary research beforehand were a bit lost as a consequence.

We remained on foot as we headed towards the Botanical gardens (which we either didn’t find or missed them) and eventually got the metro from Norreport to Christiania. Sam had been informed by her mum to be weary of Christiania as she had seen some dodgy things happen there. Initially we saw nothing of the sort.

Indeed, we were pleasantly surprised by our first impressions of the area around Christiania. It started well when a man at The Church of Our Saviour informed me that Arsenal had beaten West Brom. We then climbed our way to the top of the church spire where we were able to watch the sun set over Copenhagen. We had been walking all day, but I was loving every bit of it – and the Church of Our Saviour was the pinnacle of the daylight time.

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It was to get even better from that moment on.

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We then entered the Freetown of Christiania, an autonomous neighbourhood in Copenhagen where photos are banned and all sorts of drugs were freely sold in the streets. Bins were lit with fire to keep the compound warm but the place had real character. It felt odd stepping from the squeaky clean and quaint Copenhagen streets to the hippy free-town. We could now see what Sam’s mum was talking about but really enjoyed seeing Copenhagen in a new light.

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Once we left Christiania we decided to walk back to the main square in preparation for an evening at the Christmas market (what we had both been really looking forward to). I wrongly sent us in the wrong direction for a few minutes, which only added to our hunger since we hadn’t eaten since our pastries in the morning.

We found a cosy restaurant where traditional Danish food was served (both Sam and I appear to share the same values for food when travelling). We both tried dishes that we deemed appropriate given the location….and also made sure we chose food that would be served warm. Very impressive food!

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It was now time for us to enter the Trivoli Market. Everyone that I had spoken to about Denmark expressed their envy about visiting a Danish Christmas Market.  I fact, it appears to be a new trend for people in England to visit Christmas markets in Northern Europe. From my experience in Denmark I can see why – Winter Wonderland in London has nothing on Trivoli.

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We entered the market through the archway illuminated with Chirstmas lights and wondered amongst the magical sights, sounds and smells of Christmas. It has been a while since I have experiences the ‘Christmas Spirit’ but I really began to feel it again. The market was, dare I say it, very romantic and we spent a lot of our time looking at the lights and sitting drinking mulled wine. In fact this was the ultimate Christmas experience. We sat beneath a heater, covered in blankets and drinking mulled wine.

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After a couple of hours in the market we called an end to our long day in Copenhagen with a list of sights remaining on our to-do list for tomorrow.

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We made an effort to get going early the next day and found ourselves at the Rosenborg Castle viewing the Crown Jewels before midday. Sam very rebelliously decided to go through a barrier to see what was being hidden only to be court by a guard who sent us on our way.

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We then walked towards the Danish history museum. I am teaching a unit on the Vikings to my children and wanted to gather some knowledge and resources for my lessons. When I asked the the lady at reception for information about Vikings I was met with a very stubborn response: ‘There is more to Danish history than Vikings’. I now realise that asking the Danish about Vikings is like associating English history entirely on the reign of Edward VIII.

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We stopped for yet another drink before making our trip to what we thought was the Carlsberg musuem but actually turned out to be a museum called Carlsberg. Very confusing.

Instead we visited the Hans Christian Anderson museum where we learnt more about  The Little Mermaid, Thumbelina and The Ugly Duckling before catching a bus to the actually Carlsberg Museum on the outskirts of town.

Having visited the Heineken and Guinness museums before I was expecting something similar from Carlsberg. However, this was almost deserted of people and much further out of the way than we expected, almost hidden. Still, we were given 2 beer vouchers as part of our entry and we enjoyed our experience there so much that we may have gained a couple of glasses out of it.

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It was then time to wonder back to our apartment one last time to pick up our bags and make a short trip back to the airport. My flight left about 2 hours before Sam’s but we went together anyway.

We went our separate ways after a brilliant weekend in Denmark aided by fantastic company. I now feel very ready for Christmass

Kayaking from Glasgow to Edinburgh: 3 Unwise Men.

Three weeks have passed since we started our 3 day trip from Glasgow to Edinburgh, but I have only just had the chance to sit down and reflect on the challenge.

During the Hungarian leg of our Summer trip, and 2 days after completing Trailwalker, I received a message from Adam asking if I would be interested in a new challenge. He had caught me at the right time. Adam convinced me that we would make light work of kayaking between Glasgow and Edinburgh during the last week of October. From that point I was looking forward to a relaxing paddle broken up with regular visits to riverside pubs for refreshments. Our expectations could not have been more wrong, but our accomplishment was far more rewarding than any of us expected.

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Myself and Adam caught a plane from Stansted to Glasgow and swiftly made our way to the local chippy for a deep fried Mars bar. Once we arrived at the hostel we were soon joined by Oli, who had caught a later flight.
We spent a couple of hours catching up in the bar downstairs before retiring to our bunk beds fully aware that an early start would give us a chance to make headway along the canal in the morning.

We woke up early enough but had a couple of hiccups buying a tent and refreshments before walking to the kayak hire store. Once we arrived it soon became apparent that our plan to get the kayaks back from Edinburgh by train was a tad ambitious. Adam suggested that we could make a real go of it and attempt to kayak to Edinburgh and back by the Friday. We were willing to give it a go, given our ignorance to the challenge ahead. We decided to take 2 heavy but streamlined kayaks and one lighter, more sturdy, kayak. We then had to carry the kayaks just under a mile to the start of the canal. This turned out to be a bruising and arduous task which got out arms warmed up and bonding as a team. I could already see that my arms were somewhat weaker than Oli or Adams, which was quite embarrassing.

By 11:30 we had our life jackets on and were safely positioned in our kayaks and ready to go. We had planned to be on the canal by 10 so we were already slightly behind schedule. The first mile or so was jovial. We were cutting each other up, collecting footballs that had landed in the canal from Partick Thistles ground and having races in the kayaks. It soon became apparent that we weren’t travelling as fast as we expected to be. I was quite happy that I needed very little time to manoeuvre the kayak properly and was moving forward in a straight line. I had actually been worried that I’d be in the water or going around in circles.

By about 2pm we stopped off for our first pub stop. We were still very positive about our start and all agreed that kayaking was enjoyable. When we checked our distance we realised that we had only travelled about 5 miles. This was a much slower pace than we needed. For some reason I was already very wet and used the pub to dry some of my clothes. I continued to be soaked throughout the whole week, where Adam and Oli stayed dry. My technique was clearly questionable.
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After lunch we got back into our kayaks and decided to try to pick up the pace, and get serious. It was at this point that it became apparent that I was either a slower kayaker or my kayak had a slower maximum speed. I didn’t want to find out as I was happy with Oli and Adam agreeing that they had the quicker kayaks.

We were unfortunate that the clocks had gone back the weekend before so darkness set in earlier. I presume Scotland gets darker anyway as we were well beyond suburbs and kayaking in darkness by 5.30. We agreed on ‘The Boathouse’ as a target stop. None of us knew how close we were to it when we stumbled across it, and it was a feeling of relief when we did. We had travelled for much longer than we anticipated and were 3 miles short of our original target, but we were glad to be our of the kayaks and into the warmth as the temperature had dipped drastically since the sun disappeared.

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‘The Boathouse’ turned out to be a swanky restaurant but we quickly made it far less classy. We took ourselves straight to the toilet were we stripped out of our cold, wet clothes and put dry clothes on. We then used 2 empty tables to dry off our clothes. Despite the way it looked, the workers weren’t too bothered.

We were very reluctant to leave our positions once we had eaten but knew we needed to rest if we were going to make up the ground we lost today on the next day. We stepped out of the restaurant to find the temperature had dipped even more and the grass had begun to freeze beneath us. Undeterred we quickly assembled our tent on top of the ice and jumped in to warm ourselves us. The fatal error of owning one sleeping bag between us soon became apparent. I opened the sleeping bag and used it as a quilt over the three of us. Still we shivered. We became so cold that we huddled together with a form of intimacy that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Brokeback Mountain. We even went as far as phoning the restaurant to ask for a sleeping spot…they didn’t have one.

Inevitably one of us was going to leave the tent at some point for a wee. I was the first to accept defeat against my bladder. I jumped out of the tent in my longjohns and ran into a man walking his dog. I thought it was quite odd as it was now about midnight. He asked in a think Scottish accent “you’re not camping here are you?”. I admitted that we were and he confirmed that we were mad given the freezing temperatures. He then asked if I would like to stay on his boat. An interesting proposition put forward by an old man walking his dog at midnight to a young man showing his bulge through tight long johns. Still, I accepted to check it out.

I followed the old man who revealed that we is staying on another boat and the boat he was offering me was the one he gave to disabled children during the summer. There were 12 bunk beds, a heater, and countless quilts. He set up a double bed for us and shoved loads of quilts on top. He offered a cup of tea as the heater warmed up….I couldn’t wait to show the other two.
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When I returned to the tent Adam and Oli were on deaths door and close to giving up on life. They were delighted with our luck when they found out where we had been offered to stay. I maintain that whenever I get into a position where things appear hopeless something fortunate happens. This was once again one of those situations. I don’t get why I get lucky like that.

We went from shivering to sleeping shirtless in the warmth of a barge. We slept amazingly well, perhaps too well given we woke up an hour after we had planned to get on the water. Yet, the old man had already bought us a croissant to get us going. He requested nothing from us and we were so grateful to him for his hospitality and grateful to humanity again.

Eventually we were back on the water and making our way towards the Falkirk Wheel, which we considered to be roughly half way. Having learnt that it wasn’t going to be a walk in the park we kept a good pace I. The morning and clocked another 10 miles by lunchtime, only stopping to have a cup of tea at a canal side restaurant (which was so cold and wet that I wanted to get straight back in the kayak where I could move and keep warm).

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The obstacles during the morning were locks. Unlike a barge, kayaks need to get out of the water and need to be walked around the lock to get through them. This was quite hard and became tedious after the the novelty wore off. Still, teamwork prevailed.

At the Falkirk Wheel it became apparent that no one who works on the canal was familiar with anyone kayaking from Glasgow to Edinborough. Instead they told us that we had to carry all of the kayaks 900 yards uphill to the canal which leads to our destination. We used this opportunity to stop in the warm cafe, eat, and discuss our next steps. This was probably the low point of the adventure as it appeared impossible to finish. It was 2pm on our 2nd day and the sun was due to set around 5:30. This meant we had about 30 miles to cover in a day and a bit. We were beginning to think of alternative end points. Adam was in no doubt that we could finish, but I, regrettably, was festering doubts.

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3 hours and 7 miles later we were in a small town called ‘Brightons’. We warmed up in a very local pub (where we got a few funny looks) before being picked up by Adam’s girlfriend’s dad, who lived nearby. He took us back to his house,despite it being his wedding anniversary, and gave us all a bed for the night. It was much needed.

Luckily he was getting up early in the morning and gave us a lift back to the canal so that we were paddling again before 8am. We then had 26 miles to achieve in a day. This meant that we only left our kayaks if it was 100% necessary, otherwise we just kept going.

In fact, there was not much else to report during the day except the idilic scenery and the constant paddling. It was relentless determination from all three of us, making up time every miles and pushing ourselves as hard as we could.

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It got to 4pm and we were still 8 miles from the finish. However, we thought back to the Falkirk Wheel and realised that the when pessimism set in we didn’t even think we would get this far. As a result we decided that the end was in sight and it didn’t matter how late we arrived, but we would definitely arrive.

Within an hour the sun began to set but we were entering the outskirts of the city and the street light were illuminating the canal. We kept up our pace and the adrenaline began to set in despite 12 hours of constant paddling.

At around, 6:30 we teamed up once more for the final mile of our adventure (as we were still moving at different paces). Together we made a burst for the end of the canal, although we we regularly separated by a rowing club traveling in the opposite direction.

Just after 7pm we achieved what had appeared impossible 24 hours earlier. We paddled at great speed towards the end of the canal where we allowed the noses of our kayak’s to collid with the wall that marked the end of the canal. As mine did so the scale of the achievement hit me, and it felt quite emotional. Two of the hardest challenges I had faced, this and Trailwalker, completed within months of each other and I could get used to this feeling!

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Myself, Oli, and Adam spent a lot of time congratulating each other and sharing our delight in actually finishing before heading to the hostel, showing and then reflecting on the last 3 days. Despite being in celebratory mood we could only manage a Halal Curry (much to Oli’s delight) and a beer before our bodies told us to sleep….we had paddled a marathon after all.

The kayaking was over but the adventure was not. On the next morning we had to get the kayaks back to Glasgow and the van carrying them back to Edinburgh again and the driver back to Glasgow all before 1pm.

Adam woke up early and planned the morning the military precision. I was to walk to the canal to locate the kayaks and send a map of my position to the other two, who were at the hire van centre. They were then to pick me up, load the van and we were to all drive together to Glasgow where I would be unloaded with the kayaks and process the paper work whilst they drive back to Edinburugh. I was then to catch a bus to the airport, whilst Oli and Adam get the train.

Everything went exactly to plan!

Together we had achieved everything we set out to achieve at the start of the week. The fact that it was harder than anticipated made the accomplishment even sweeter.

A big thanks to Adam and Oli for making it possible, and not losing patience with a slower kayaker.

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Wadi Rum, Jordan – Living as a Bedouin

Our fantastic time in Petra quickly came to an end, and lead directly into the most fulfilling experience of our whole trip.

The Bedouin people are nomadic. Traditionally they live within the harshness of the desert and are regarded as a separate selection of people in this part of the world. It is becoming increasingly popular for tourists to spend time living within the desert, much like the Bedouin people still do. Our only previous exposure to this was hearing Karl Pilkington moan about his time with the Bedouins during his visit to Jordan. In truth we had nothing to complain about whatsoever and I will personally put our time with Salman and his friends as the best part of our travel.

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We left Petra with a taxi we had previously arranged and negotiated a good price for. To make it easier on the pocket we were joined by 2 French girls. The 4 of us made the individual taxi fare cheaper than the public bus. It took roughly 2 hours to reach Wadi Rum. When we did so we were dropped off at what resembled as an entrance to the desert, whereas the girls continued to their camp via the taxi. Unlike most visitors to Wadi Rum we had not booked ourselves on a prepaid tour. The tours were offered to us at around £40 but we were convinced we could stay and enjoy the experience cheaper, despite being advised against it.

At the point we were dropped off we were quickly quizzed by crooked men trying to deceive us into paying them money. Soon enough our man turned up: Salman. We had contacted him via the Internet and he very kindly picked us up from the road and drove us by jeep to his camp deep in the desert. He was accompanied by his sidekick who spoke good English and gave us a brief history lesson as we drove through the desert, including a little mention of Lawrence of Arabia.

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After a few nervy moments where the jeep got stuck in the thick sand we arrived at Salman’s camp. It is a small civilisation in the middle of nothing. A few tents in the vastness of the desert. The heat of the desert made it hardly believable that is at all habitable.

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At the camp we were joined by two teenage boys who immediately made us feel welcomed. They allowed us to sit in the shaded area which had been fashioned out of rock. They then provided us both with incredibly sweet tea from the fire on the sand. They told us that the tea is special tea from Yemen and they drink lots of it to stay hydrated. Up until this point we had been treated like kings, we were a little cynical that there must be a catch (especially as we had only agreed to pay £7 for a night with them).

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We were wrong to be suspicious as these people were genuinely, perhaps innately, hospitable. None of them made any push to make money from us by offering a tour of any kind and were just happy to have us with them. There were no other tourists there, and it didn’t seem as though many ever came to the camp.

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Some might say we were foolish not to take a jeep or camel tour through the desert, but this was not our ambition. We just wanted to live with and as a Bedouin.

As the afternoon went on several local people popped in for a chat and a cup of tea. All were keen to practise English and share a conversation with us. Oddly they also seemed to have nice cars. One of them explained that they pop over to Saudi Arabia for cheap fuel when they need it.

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We spent the majority of the afternoon in the shaded cove with our hosts. Briefly venturing out one and again to bask in the heat and enjoy the emptiness of the desert.

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The air began to cool as the sun dropped and we prepared ourselves for one of Wadi Rum’s most amazing spectacles: sunset. The sand was now cool enough to walk on so we made our way to the top of a dune and watched the sun descend beyond the rocks in the distance. Both myself and James sat in poetic silence as we observed the sun disappear, pausing from our reflection only to take a few photographs.

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Wadi Rum translates to ‘Moon Valley’ and for that reason we were not in darkness for very long. The moon shone on the desert floor like a path and the stars illuminated the sky. It made for a spectacular image for the eyes but a sight too detailed for our cameras. We sat with our hosts and enjoyed traditional food cooked by the eldest of the teenage boys. It was delicious. As perfect hosts they let us eat first before they had their fill. They were overjoyed that we went for seconds and were clearly happy that we had joined them.

At some point during the early evening Salman left us to go to his own home and he was replaced by another young Beduoin man, who was a little more confident in his English. All of the people in the camp were now wearing traditional dress clearly designed to make them cooler.

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When we had finished dinner we were offered some Shisha (it appears to be a regular pastime at the moment). I can honestly say I have never felt as relaxed and chilled out as I did for the next hour. Myself and James had full stomachs, clear minds and a sky full of stars. Once our shisha was finished we lay back beneath the stars, and neither said or heard anything.

Following our little trance we were joined once more by the teenage boys who had been left to look after us. The eldest of them introduced a game to us which we played in the sand. It was basically a primatial version of Connect4, using fag-ends instead of plastic coins. All the boys were terrible at it, almost convincing us that they were letting us win.

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Shortly after our fire died out the boys headed to their beds. Rather than sleep in the tent we decided to remain outside beneath the bright stars. The desert became chilly but we were armed with blankets and had a very peaceful nights sleep. It was probably the best sleep I’ve had this summer.

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We were woken by rays of the sun around 6am. In fact it seems that time is irrelevant here and days are dictated by the sun and the moon. We both found a nice perch on a rock to watch the sun come up. As it did a caravan of wild camels invaded the camp. James had to wake up the boys before the camels could delve too far into their stashes of food. Farag, the youngest boy, shooed the camels away with rocks.

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As if their hospitality hadn’t been good enough already Salman returned with his jeep in the morning and offered to drive us to Aqaba, the border town with Israel. It was a welcome offer as the daily bus left in the early hours and a taxi from the road would have been expensive. The Bedouin people have been the nicest that we have met.

Once we paid our small debt and said our goodbyes we had the tricky task of re-entering Israel. Aside from some very unhelpful customs staff on the Jordanian side, our exit from Jordan was simple and easy. Our entrance back into Israel was not…for James anyway.

We arrived at our security check point and a couple of customs ladies stood for a while giggling at our passports. They then called James over for interogation. I was a little disappointed that they did not pick me as I would have liked the anecdote. However, James was asked a series of odd and deliberately intrusive questions about his political intentions, his personal life, his family and quizzed about his decision to grow a beard. I have a feeling he loved it.

We had expected to be interrogated on our re entry but at no point did we fear we would be declined. For this reason I feel that Israel do themselves no favours with such questioning. They play a power game with tourists and I am sure it rubs many people up the wrong way…and Israel could do without losing any more friends.

Once through we were back at the hostel in Eilat to pick up the things we had left in storage and head to the train station for our 5 hour trip to Tel Aviv.

During this bus trip I noticed how nice and polite the Jordanian people are in comparison, particularly as the whole bus was full of idiots. It appeared that they were mostly pre-national service boys, all of whom personified the reasoning behind national service. They smoked despite the no-smoking signs, were continuously play fighting in front of girls and shouted at each other all the way to Tel Aviv. James was surprised that it annoyed me so much, but I wouldn’t expect my Year 5 class to behave how they did on a coach.

We arrived back at the Florentine Hostel where we started our trip and were greeted with the same faces that we left behind a couple of weeks before.

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This was now R&R time and we used the next 3 days to relax on the beach, drink a few beers and have a day trip or two.

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One such day trip was to the city of Haifa, just north of Tel Aviv. We were joined by Yohan for the day who had arrived at the same hostel just as he had done in Eilat.

As we traveled to Haifa during Shabbat we had very little time there, but we did have the opportunity to see the famous Gardens of Haifa and chill out for a few minutes in the beach.

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Aside from relaxing we also took our last opportunities to each falafel and shawarma as well as take advantage of the sports bar to watch the start of the premier league season.

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Tuesday came around quickly and we were back on our way through customs to exit Israel. This time I was interrogated and I loved it. The man asked to see all pictures I had taken during my time in Israel but I managed to skim over the Palestinian pictures. Despite loving being questioned I couldn’t help but wonder why they felt the need to ask me about my objectives in Israel, why I went to Malaysia, what my salary is, why I am traveling with James and why I didn’t plan every day of my trip before I came. When he was checking my emails I asked him why he needed all this information. He replied ‘because we are worried you have been at risk of talking to people who might put a bomb or other dangerous things on you’. I didn’t believe him, instead I remain cynical and just believe its a power game that just adds to people’s fears about travelling to Israel.

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We were eventually granted permission to leave the country and spent a couple of hours in the departure lounge before our delayed flight to Budapest. This meant we didn’t arrive at our hostel until 2am but, as it’s positioned above a bar, we still managed to have a good time of it downstairs.

I am now sitting in the departure lounge of Budapest Airport ready for our final flight back to London. It has been a very quick 3 week visit to Israel, Palestine and Jordan but I feel as though I have learnt to much about a region I was not very clued up on previously.

James has once again been an uplifting and openminded companion who is willing to give everything a go, for which I would like to thank him. There are so many stories that I will take home with me, some of which I might not have written down.

Despite what people are told on the news, Israel is a safe place to travel and has a diversity of history, religion and culture. I would particularly recommend Jerusalem to anyone as it is a magical city. However, my own favourite experiences were certainly in Palestine and Jordan.

Thanks Hungary, thanks Israel, thanks Palestine, and thank you Jordan.

Petra, Jordan – The Red Rose City

At the end of the school year my class shared their short term goals with me, and they enquired about mine. I informed them that my goal for the summer was to reach the ancient city of Petra: a city carved into the mountains.

In arriving in Petra I have achieved this goal and the rewards were endless.

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It had turned out that a lad in our dorm was keen to join us on our trip to. Petra. This meant we had extra company and another wallet to divide our travel costs by. His name was Yix and he was Singaporean, although his 8 years in the US had clearly contributed to his personality. We left our hostel in Eilat and headed for the Israeli / Jordan border. Due to our early arrival (6:30) we avoided any of the lengthy queues we had been warned about previously. We were safely through countless security checkpoints within an hour.

On the other side we had to negotiate a price with the taxi driver to take us to Petra. The transport links in Jordan are very sparse and so taxis seem the most popular mode of transport, despite remaining relatively expensive. Yix took on a very aggressive approach with the haggling, a method that didn’t sit well with our own approaches. The taxi driver eventually started ignoring him and allowed us to negotiate a cheaper price, meaning we had to go via Aqaba rather than direct to Petra, but still resulted in a cheaper fare.

The smallest Jordanian man also joined us in the taxi but just slept the whole way. I ended up in the back middle seat crushing all sorts of essential body parts, despite his 5’3″ frame.

Leaving so early meant we were at our hostel in Wadi Musa (Petra) by 9:30. The kind gentlemen at reception made us a packed lunch and sent us on our way towards the ancient city.

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Walking boots were not back on our feet and the desert sun back on our faces as we strolled through the entrance to Petra. The first part of our walk was unshaded but flat. We entered several caves carved out of rock and marvelled at the excellence of the workmanship behind them. We felt rather foolish when we discovered the true master pieces within Petra.

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A 2km walk along the ‘Siq’, a ancient valley connected to the city, enabled us to picture the inhabitants of the city walking and gave us a greater appreciation for the engineering involved, particularly in carving a water system out of the rock.

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At the end of the Siq stood the feature most synonymous with Petra: The Treasury. It looked as though the great entranceway was the only thing of interest to the sun as it rose out of the shadows. The brilliance of the carving into the rock made the treasury remarkable. That, in addition to its age, justified the Treasury of Petra as a wonder of the world on its own. James and I couldn’t help but recall Karl Pilkington’s visit to Israel and Jordan at this point.

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We wondered beyond the Treasury and into the vastness of Petra. For another 15 minutes we remained on relatively flat ground, visiting several caved tombs and an ancient theatre on route.

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It was then our mission to climb the side of one of the hills to reach the Monastery at the top. At times the intense desert heat brought drips of sweat down our faces, and the hill was a slight challenge due to the heat of the day. However, it was always pleasant to pass fat westerners sitting on donkeys using more energy to keep balance than walking up a few steps. Still, we made it to the top and rewarded ourselves with some shade and water before climbing the 6ft wall to enter the monastery. In fact, the photos do not give any indication of the height and size of these masterpieces. The base, before the doorway, of the picture below is 6 foot tall and required lots of leverage to get in.

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Beyond the monastery was a sign boasting ‘the best view in the world’. We were drawn to it but ended up finding our own view. At the top of the highest point we had clearly come to the end of the ancient city and could just see a vastness of rock beyond and below us. James has coined the term ‘anti-mum’ for photos that look life threatening but actually aren’t, yet are enough to pull on maternal heart strings. We took a few up there.

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From the monastery we were walking in the hottest part of the day. We decided to wonder away from the tourist trail and embark on a trek of our own. This initially took us back up another steep climb to an old man’s cove. He claimed to offer anyone tea but had run out. Instead he pointed us in the direction of several other parts of Petra, via a back route. Yix used his compass to navigate. This was slightly unnecessary but I still felt as though I had a rival navigator.

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We walked for about another hour with the sun bearing down on our necks, taking regular water stops on the way. We passed several other fabulous caves very aware that we shouldn’t become too de sensitised to their magnificence. Yix found an old woman stumbling over the rocks near the temple of a roman soldier. He helped her find softer ground before she asked him for money.

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From this point it was all up hill as we were heading for the high place of holy sacrifice, where it is rumoured that animals and humans were sacrificed. It struck us all that much of Petra was about celebrating and housing the dead, it has very little evidence of the existence of life behind.

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When we made it to the very top we were beginning to feel weary. We had been walking more or less solidly in the sun for almost 8 hours. We were greeted by the music of a Beduoin nomad playing her pipe and singing beautifully. The romance of it abruptly ended when she started shouting down the hill.

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The view from the top was worth the climb and gave a spectacular panoramic view of the whole city. We later found out that the trek we had just completed is regarded as the hardest and most rewarding in Petra. We were pleased with that. It was then time to return back to the hostel for a rooftop dinner and a well earned sleep. The rooftop view of Petra was worth the bed fare on its own!

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The next day wasn’t as hard-fought as the first. But it was a welcome addition to our Petra experience.

We got up, ate and were out of the hostel by 9:30. A 2km walk brought us back to the entrance of Petra. Before reaching the entrance to the Siq we took a detour heading towards a part of Petra we had not seen the previous day. The hostel owners warned us that we would probably be stopped along this route and made to take a guide. With this in mind we decided to ignore the shouts and pleas to stop from the people on the route. This eventually lead us to be surrounded by Jordanian policemen insisting that we stop, hand over our entry tickets and wait for further instructions beside the police cabin back on the main route. It was left unclear why we weren’t allowed to follow our route, but we were eventually set on our way with our tickets back in hand. An exciting but confusing experience.

We headed back via the Siq and the Treasury before taking a different route via several more tombs. We had covered so much the previous day that it only took about 3 more hours of walking before we had seen everything our map and the Internet had informed us to do.

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By the early afternoon we had walked back to the hostel and eaten another pitta falafel. James decided to take advantage of the Turkish Hammam close to the hostel, whereas I took the opportunity to write this. It was a nice relaxing afternoon on the rooftop for me.

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We were joined later by other western tourists visiting the sight. Together we enjoyed food, drink and shisha on top of the rooftop. It was a very chilled night in with some great people.

Petra is somewhere that has to be seen to be believe. I’m still not sure I can quite believe it.

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Eilat, Israel – Med, Dead then Red.

Our very early bus journey brought us to the southern tip of Israel. Shaped like a spear between the borders of Jordan and Egypt and a hot bed for Israeli tourism due to the desert weather with a beach side setting.

For us this was a stop off on our continued journey towards Jordan, but offered 3 full days of relaxation in the sun and beside the sea as well as he pleasures of the evening atmosphere.

The heat and humidity hit us as soon as we left the bus. That, twinned with the sea air, made me think that Eilat would be the ideal place for a holiday for my mum (except everyone at home thinks we are dodging bombs because of what the media is telling us).

We checked in at the hostel where we were greeted by a very passive aggressive hostess and her husband whom appeared to be painting canvas paintings with colour clashes my class would be proud of.

Upon leaving the hostel to venture out we witnessed him having a very angry exchange with a young boy. I think a slipper was involved but I won’t be testament to that in court.

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We spent our first evening familiarising ourselves with the small city, so small that the airport almost joins the beach. We were shocked to find that Eilat, referred to by many Israelis as a party town, was quiet. We initially put this down to arriving on the eve of Shabbat. But through discussions with the locals the parties kick off around 11. Despite our best efforts we didn’t make it to the parties that night. Instead we found ourselves watching the sun go down from the lovely beach with a nice local beer in our hands – enclosed by the coast of Egypt to our west and Jordan to our east.

Our second early night in a row meant we were in top condition for our Saturday in Eilat. Much like the previous Saturday and Shabbat we took advantage of the beach as the majority of business are shut during the sabbath.
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As a result we were able to lounge in the 40 degree heat once more with the occasional dip in the Red Sea. This meant that within a week we had swam in the Med, Dead and Red seas. The unforgiving heat took its toll on my pastey white chest. Despite this constant exposure to sun I don’t seem to be tanning. I think my sister picked up then ‘I tan easily’ gene I always thought I had.

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Naturally, as we were still in Israel, our only two budget lunch options were Shawarma or falafel. We went meat this time. In fact, we had used the previous day to stock up on food and prepared tuna pasta and sandwiches for all of our other meals. One criticism of our trip so far would be that we have been priced out of being experimental with food. Israel is the most expensive place I think I’ve ever travelled.

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Having had enough of the sun a we visited a bar named ‘Mikes Place’ for the opening day of the football league season. Unfortunately for James, Birmingham didn’t start in the best of forms.

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Keen to take advantage of the cities famous nightlife, but reluctant to pay the £12 a pint prices in the bars, we took a step back in time and bought a cheap bottle of vodka to drink at the hostel (which later turned out to be sambuka).

At the hostel we had a new resident in our room, Yohan of Sweden. He had just arrived from Jordan and was keen to join us in our night antics. With his help we managed to drink the bottle and head towards the beach front for about 11pm. Our preparation in the room meant we had little desire to drink the £12 beers in the bar. Whilst looking for a table to sit at we spotted a group of Israeli ‘lads’ smoking shisha. We asked if we could sit in the spare chairs at the end of their table.

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They were initially quite cautious about 3 foreigners sitting on their table. Yet, after a few brief conversations with them they accepted us into their clique and we spent the remainder of the night with them. Each of them spoke English to varying abilities. They were all friends and Jewish but their families originated from all over Europe. Other than being Jewish and Israeli they were all united by one thing: the Israel Defence Forces. Each man had served his national service and spoke passionately about the army (just like everyone seems to here). Their nationalism was as endearing as it was frightening. The biggest guy in the group, referred to as ‘The Tank’ and ‘Sherman’ by the others was the best English speaker. He was able to share all of his experiences in Gaza as the others topped up his anecdotes with their own stories.

Aside from the military ‘banter’ the group were very much like any group you would find at home, right down to the ‘he’s gay’, ‘no you’re gay’ quirks. At several points before 4am we spoke to other IDF representatives in the bar, many of them girls. In fact, most of the Israeli army are nothing more than boys and girls with guns. Some don’t look any where near old enough to use them. One group of girls we spoke to told us that they were celebrating before they start their national service the following week. They were pretty, petite and very young, and in no way typical soldiers.

We got back to the hostel after saying goodbye to our new friends at about 4am. This meant the following day started later than usual and Yohan was gone by the time I arose.

Both of us limited ourselves to the sun throughout the day and instead enjoyed the cooler shade and another shawarma kebab. By 5pm we were back at Mike’s Place to enjoy Arsenal’s comprehensive victory over Manchester City.

We ended our stay in Eilat by finishing off our Tuna inside a fresh pita, ready for our adventure into Jordan the following morning.

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The Dead Sea, Israel – Yam HaMelah

This is another entry about one individual day. We finally got to visit and swim in the Dead Sea: the lowest point on Earth and where no one can sink.

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During the previous evening we encountered a British girl, Abbie, and her American friend, Seth. They were also intending to visit the Dead Sea in the morning so we arranged to do go together. Seth was particularly interesting as this was his first time beyond the US and he had already had his bags confiscated because they suspected something in his baggage.

We woke up on our rooftop at the normal time, with the Muslim call to prayer and the cool morning breeze. However, this night was the worst yet. It had not been as chilly as previous nights. This meant the Mosquitos were thriving on my face. For some reason James survived the night unharmed, whereas I woke up with a face full of bites, reminiscent of my acne days of yesteryear.

Despite my broken sleep we were on our way to the bus station as soon as we finished our cereal. Once there we had to wait a short while before getting a bus directly to the Dead Sea.

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Once we arrived at our destination point on the Dead Sea coast we quickly realised the severity of the heat at the worlds lowest point. The screen beside the entrance to the water indicated that temperatures were approaching 40 degrees.

James and I were not going to hang about waiting to get sweaty and were stripped and ready to dip in no time.

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James was the first in and followed the written instructions (beside the ‘do not swim’ sign) to walk in, squat and then float. His first experience of buoyancy in the Dead Sea was greeted with an uncharacteristically feminine sound. I was quick to follow, keen not to miss out on the action.

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As I began to float on the Dead Sea there was something quite surreal about floating with no aid of my arms or legs. In fact we could put all four above the water and float using only our torso. It could, quite ironically as it’s the lowest point on earth, be described as the closest thing one will experience to the weightlessness of space travel.

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The incredibly high salt content of the water quickly reminded me of the mosquito bites I’d suffered the previous night and indicated that my bottom had not quite recovered from the chaffing it endured during Trailwalker. Still, salt is a healer.

Our compatriots, Abbie and Seth also dipped into the sea breifly. However both found the 40 degree heat slightly unbearable and seemed out shade quite quickly.

James was the first to discover that the Dead Sea is not kind on the eyes or the throat. He lost temporary vision as a result.

Both of us decided to copy a Japanese man that we spotted nearby and pose reading our books in the sea. It was just another way of showing off our ability to float without effort, like lifting both your hands in the air when on a bicycle (a skill I have yet to master).

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We then showered in salt free water before joining the other two for a spot of shading and conversation. It seemed to reach 3:30 in no time, at which we had to return to the bus stop in anticipation for the bus.

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I used the waiting time, and the intense heat to dry some of my wet clothes (a lack of swimming trunks has led to me bathing in see through football shorts. Since no one wishes to be exposed to my private area I have now resorted to pants and shorts when I bathe – cleaning both at the same time). It seemed the perfect opportunity. We were joined at the bus stop by a Jewish lady and her daughter (both from Manchester but living in Israel by birthright). None of us knew where they came from as we were in the middle of the dessert and they certainly hadn’t been to the beach.

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Upon arrival back at the hostel we had a light snack and a nap to accompany a lemon juice before retiring for the evening for our last night on the roof in preparation for our early morning bus to Eilat.

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Hebron & Bethlehem, Palestine – The West Bank

The West Bank was probably the place I have been most looking forward to on this trip, but also the one place where we could have been declined entry.

The current conflict meant we were advised against visiting the Palestinian terrortories. Yet, our interest in the area and our desire to talk to the people meant we weren’t deterred by the ‘threats’ there. Luckily for us we managed to reach Palestine with no problems, not even at the Israeli checkpoints.

We took a bus from Jaffa gate in Jerusalem to Bethlehem in the West Bank. It is only about 6km as the crow flies but we were required to take a Palestinian road route around the concrete wall built by these Israelis. This meant that it took just over an hour for us to reach Bethlehem.

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When we arrived it was immediately clear that Bethlehem is not to the ‘little town’ that Christmas carols convinced me it was. In fact it is a small city within the West Bank. Initially a man approached us and tried to initiate conversation. We smiled at him and continued walking until he shouted ‘hey! I am not a terrorist, I want you to hear our story.’ At this point James stopped and turned back to him. After a short exchange of small talk the man informed us of his charity work in aid of his ‘brothers’ in Gaza. He had been standing on the side of the road collecting water from drivers by to give aid to the victims. He offered to take us on a small tour of Bethlehem for a fee – of course. We obliged.

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The first place he took us was the refugee camps close to the concrete wall dividing the West Bank from Israel. He informed us of the regular protests that occur in this part of the city, where people live densely populated in an area designed only for temporary accommodation.

We then stopped off at the wall which towered above us. The messages on the wall told the story of the people in the West Bank. Our local continually expressed his anger towards the ‘Zionists’ and how his life is effected by Israel. He showed us various pictures on his mobile of children brutally injured in the attacks on Gaza. He clearly was very angry. He added a somewhat lighter note by adding that many Palestinians support Real Madrid because of Messi’s affiliation with Israel.

The wall itself was shocking. The graffiti and messages told us so much about the anger and struggle. I have added a few photos to highlight this.

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Following the wall we visited what everyone associates with Bethlehem: The Church of the Nativity. We left our local tour man at Manger Square outside the church and headed in towards it. We were asked our nationality before being allowed in a narrow gap in the church wall. Once inside the church had a few people in it, but not as many as either of us expected. Much like Jesus’ tomb, we were warned that it may take up to 4 hours to see the birth place of Jesus. However, since tourism is so limited here now we had to wait a matter of minutes before heading down into the spot where Jesus was supposedly born. Copying the other people, we lay on the floor and kissed the spot. Once again, Jesus birthplace wasn’t the wooden stable in the middle of a village I had always pictured. Yet, we had now visited the sights if Jesus’ birth, death and resurrection within 24 hours. I would suspect that not many Christians can say that.

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However, we may see it as a positive that we don’t have to queue but it has a much greater impact on Palestine. The lack of a queue means a lack of business in Palestine, and the lack of business has a detrimental impact on their already unstable lives. This has not been helped by the British Governments advice against visiting the West Bank or the attitudes of Israeli people towards it on the other side of the wall. Neither of us felt in danger at any point during our time in Palestine and I would advise anyone to visit this fabulous part of the world.

Anyway, we now hopped onto a 7 sweater taxi/bus (special name I can’t remember) destined for Hebron. We initially wanted to visit Ramallah but were told by locals that Hebron will give us a greater feel for Palestinian life.

In fact, Hebron offered the greatest insight into life in Palestine and contributed to the most eye opening part of our visit.

Once our bus dropped us off we were a bit stuck for what to do as we had no information about the city. As a result we began aimlessly wondering the busy market streets. It seemed that every stall we passed had someone very pleased to see us. ‘Where are you from?’ ‘welcome to Palestine!’ Were the greetings all the time. People were keen to shake our hands, especially as they were aware of the protests in London and associated us with them. There was a heartbreaking pleasure on their faces at the sight of tourists in Hebron.

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We had heard of one sight in Hebron, the Ibrahimi Mosque. We followed signs and directions to the mosques whilst passing intrigued children all keen to talk with us. As we became close to the mosque a young man offered to take us the rest of the way. As he did he introduced us to his friend who worked at a stall in the old town. This boy was 16 years old but spoke very good English. He was excited to see us and informed us that we were the first foreign people to visit the old town that day, whereas it had previously been a popular destination for tourists.

He took us to the Ibrahimi mosque where we were greeted by Israeli soldiers who checked our bags and interrogated us before entering. The boy left us outside whilst we went within. We were given a short history lesson by a Muslim in the mosque who pointed out the tomb of Abraham and Rebecca. He also made clear that there were CCTV cameras in the mosque so that the Israelis could keep and eye on them and the. Showed us bullet holes from where 29 Palestinian Muslims were shot dead in the mosque in 1994. It was a story that we heard many times throughout our few hours in Hebron.

Following our walk around the mosque we returned to the boys shop, as promised. There we were joined by a couple of his friends who offered to share their shisha with us. It was aptly put when someone said the shisha ‘wasn’t the tourist bollocks you normally get’

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All of our hosts were so warm and friendly and never once pressured us into buying anything. However, we both felt this was a good time and place to part with some money and give it to people who genuinely need it, and deserve a break.

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When enquiring about prices of products in the shop we were both surprised at how low their starting prices were. Some 10 times less than you’d expect in Jerusalem. Consequently, and a first as a tourist, we both were willing to pay more than the original asking price for a couple of bits. It was amazing to spend so much time with ‘real’ Palestinians who have experienced life in Hebron and seen it change even in their short lifetime.

As they are in Israel, the boys were willing to share their own stories. From them we learnt that Hebron itself had around 400 new Jewish settlers, whom brought 3000 Israeli soldiers to protect them. The result of this meant that some of the old town was divided between ‘Palestinian only’ and ‘Israeli only’ paths and the once bustling fruit market was now a derelict street of closed shops.

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It had been an incredible eye opening experience for us both. Made even more poignant by our last encounter with the boy who said ‘I must leave you here because I cannot walk further, I am Palestinian and that part is for Israelis’. We walked through the Israeli settlement of the city before catching the bus back to Jerusalem and reflecting on an unforgettable day.

Our arrival back in Jerusalem gave us a chance to spend another night eating cheap food on the rooftop and discussing the most unique and shocking of days in one of the worlds most misunderstood places. We both felt lucky to be part of it.

Jerusalem, Israel – The Really Holy Land of Everything

So it turns out Trailwalker is almost twice as far as Israel is wide. That meant any travel within Israel is short on time and relatively easy on the pocket.

Our 40km drive to Jerusalem was a quick, simple and air conditioned one. We shared a bus with several members of the Israeli Defence Forces, all of whom look about 18. That said, Israel must have the most attractive army in the world. However, that shouldn’t excuse their actions (without wanting to use this blog for politics).

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We grabbed another public bus to take us to the old city of Jerusalem where we had arranged accommodation for the night. Our hostel is situated in the Armenian quarter of the old city and we have our own body-sized space on the rooftop. We are basically sleeping on the top of Jerusalem with views spanning all the wonderful sights that the city has to offer. We are woken in the morning by a combination of the call to prayer from the mosques around us and the blistering heat as the sun rises on the horizon.

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Once we had taken our selfies on the rooftop we found a small Armenian cove to nap in before setting out in the old city. A recommendation led us beyond the city walls for dinner, to a place serving the finest hummus in Jerusalem.

Neither of us had really given hummus much of a chance at home, but we both now agree that we should. The hummus, falafel and pita combination in Houmus Ben Sira was to die for. It was a great authentic meal to introduce us to the city.

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At this point we had to keep reminding ourselves where we were….Jerusalem. Up until I arrived in Israel Jerusalem had been nothing but a mythical land mentioned only in Holy Books and RE lessons. Yet, here I am in the holiest of all places.

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After dinner we spent our first night on the rooftop. Contrary to our expectations and experiences in Tel Aviv, the nights get quite chilly here. This means we were forced to wrap ourselves in blankets that were probably never cleaned.

The experience of waking up on the rooftop of Jerusalem is something to remember. And as the sign rises early we were up and dressed in time to participate in another city walking tour. This time with a very enthusiastic American man. This particular tour was very interesting as it took us all around the old city of Jerusalem but without taking us inside the key sites. He shared a wealth of knowledge about the history and culture within the city which opened our eyes further to the significance of it as a city.

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The old city is divided up into 4 quarters: Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Armenian. For this reason if was perhaps too quick to refer to Tel Aviv as a melting pot, because Jerusalem is. If only they could all live in peace.

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With a brain full of new knowledge about the city we could now explore it in depth ourselves. We spent the afternoon walking around the city.

Sam, an Australian girl from the hostel in Tel Aviv, added great extra company and introduced me to different areas of the city. Most amazing was the rooftop of the Austrian Hospice which stood high above the rest of the city. To listen to the Muslim prayer calls there was fantastic.

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During the late afternoon a suicide attack occurred not far from where we were. A man drove a fork lift truck into a bus and killed one person. We heard 2 gunshots nearby which we guess was the army shooting the perpetrator. In fact, we heard a lot of conflict throughout the evening from our rooftops. No news reports told of any other casualties though.

Myself and James then spent the evening getting back on budget. We cooked our pasta on a gas stove and dropped in some pasta sauce. This created 4 meals (2 dinners and 2 lunches). We then sat back on the rooftops and enjoyed our meals with a beer, once again reminding ourselves exactly where we were.

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The following morning we decided to make our way beyond the old city walls and visit the holocaust museum, Yad Vashem. In order to reach it we had to take the light railway and then a ridiculously short shuttle bus (about 100m).

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Both of us have been to holocaust museums before so knew what to expect, but I don’t think you ever become desensitised to the atrocities of the people during the holocaust. We spent over 3 hours in the museum and tried to take in everything there. James naturally saw this as a good opportunity to gather additional teaching ideas, whereas I just enjoyed learning more about the history of the Jews.

We left the museum to a wall of heat and returned to the hostel in the old city for the lunch we prepared the previous evening. We then had the rest of the afternoon to explore the holy sights in more depth.

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We initially headed to the Western (Wailing) Wall – the holiest place on Earth for Jewish people. Here we entered the side of the wall designated to men only and we provided with a kippur to wear it was a surreal scene as Orthodox Jews chanted verses from the Torah towards the wall and people gathered around each other to chant prayers together, some lead by young children. The Jews rock towards the wall as they pray and some just stand by it,often kissing the wall. As with the custom of the wall we both had pre-written messages to enter between the cracks in the wall with a wish or desire written upon it. There was something amazing about actually being able to touch the wall. A wall that millions of people see as their holiest place. It is certainly something we were both honoured to experience.

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From one religion to another. We now headed to the Holy Sepulchre – the place where Christians believe Jesus died upon a crucifix and was then resurrected. The church itself is massive and also a place of conflict for the different Christian sub faiths.

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When we first went in the headed towards the tomb of Jesus Christ. We were previously told that some people queue for up to 6 hours for a couple of moments in his tomb. There are no bones in the tomb but it is apparently where Jesus’ spirit is felt strongest and the place where he rose up from the dead. We didn’t have to queue at all, which was put down to the limited tourism in Israel during the current conflict.

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We both entered the tomb and knelt in front if the shrine within. After about 30 seconds, both with our eyes shut and hands grasped in prayer a monk came in and told us our time was up. We had effectively been kicked out of Jesus’ tomb by a monk. I have visited temples, mosques and synagogues around the world, but never been given a time limit in any.

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We next headed to the point where Christians believe Jesus was crucified. It was quite an eerie thought that I was potentially standing at the point where Jesus died. It seemed as though all the Christianity learning I experienced at school was about that moment.

It was now becoming dark so we headed for a meat based meal just beyond the city before returning the the hostel for some well earned rest.

Jerusalem had been a city like no other I’d ever visited. It was holy, yet there was an air of conflict all around: one street selling ‘Free Palestine’ t-shirts and another celebrating the Bombing of Gaza. Ultimately this conflict meant we were not able to visit Temple Mount and the Dome of Rock as it had been shut in protest. However, our time was well spent and we ticked so many of those life boxes.

Yet, with Bethlehem and Petra within days we certainly have even more opportunities to see some of the world’s most famous sights.

Tel Aviv & Jaffa, Israel – A Real Melting Pot.

Our arrival in Israel was far less dramatic than we expected. There were in lengthy interrogations or suspicious looks. Just simple “what is the purpose of your visit?” questions. Of course, one must be intrigued about 2 young non-Jewish Englishmen backpacking into a conflict zone.

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Still, we were quickly through customs and on our way to our Tel Aviv hostel in Florentine District – a stones throw from Jaffa. We took a short train ride from the airport but walked the final 20 minutes to our hostel. In the dead of night the city looked nothing like the modern metropolis I had expected. In fact, we were pretty sure we saw a woman and a crack pipe.

We found our hostel easily enough. It’s easy to summarise the hostel as a microcosm for Tel Aviv in general: it’s a party town. Prior to checking in we were asked to join in on the latest party by several drunk roommates. We sat this first one out in favour of a good rest.
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We were sharing our room with a man who left a polite message beside his bed indicating that we should expect snores. On top of his note he left a pair of ear plugs for every person in the room. He wasn’t wrong. All night he snored a snore that shook the room as well as all of his body. He was like a cross between a crying baby and a hungry lion. Everyone had to talk about it in the morning to make sure they hadn’t dreamt it.

Come the morning we were fresh and ready to find out what Tel Aviv had to offer. We strolled towards the clock tower in Jaffa before taking a stroll along the vast promenade joining the plethora of beautiful beaches. The beaches here are truly wonderful, hence why many tourists flock to Tel Aviv.
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We continued our walk into the main city centre. There we were able to see the city in full flow and experience the famous Carmel Market. Whilst there we indulged in the most delicious of pitta sandwiches filled with Kosher meat. That alone made our walk into the city worthwhile.
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As afternoon went on we headed back to Jaffa for a walking tour of the old city. I found this the most interesting part of the city. Jaffa is thousands of years old and sits fittingly on the outskirts of the new city of Tel Aviv. Our tour guide had so many stories relating to the history of Jaffa in both a biblical sense and the several empires that have ruled there. He was also a passionate speaker on the Israel-Gaza conflict.

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In fact, everyone here is talking about it and everyone seems to have a different approach to the issues. It’s amazing to hear different sides of a very sensitive issue from the mouths of the people who are most informed. Both James and I are a little shocked by the ‘military culture’ of the Israeli people.
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Once we returned back to the hostel people had already started to gather on the rooftops. We dined on bread and cheese from the supermarket until we were offered a hot pasta meal by the hostel as part of the celebration of Shabbat. It was a good way to unify people on the rooftop and from then on we had a good night with people from all over the world, some Jewish, some not. We walked the a bar full of young army recruits where we were given free whiskey.

Once home I, annoyingly for some, slept like a baby. So much so that I slept through an air raid siren. The fact that snoring had previously woke me up shows that the siren wasn’t loud enough. However, James heard it and followed procedure by sheltering on the staircase. I seem to be earning a reputation for being able to sleep anywhere and through anything. I’d love it if It were true. Tel Aviv had 3 rocket attacks from Hamas during the night and the sirens go off throughout the city to warn people to find shelter. Fortunately all of these rockets were intercepted by Israel’s drone system. As an embellished anecdote, we have now survived a rocket attack.

As most places are shut for Shabbat we spent the next day relaxing in the baking sun on a beach in Tel Aviv. It was a great opportunity to relax and have no worries or concerns. It’s been a while since I’ve been able to do that properly.
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This lead nicely into an even more lively evening in Tel Aviv. There are many people here who are on a free 10 day trip to Israel as their Jewish ‘birthright’, some of whom wish to fight for the Israeli despite only setting foot in the country days ago. Another one of these asked if we had any Jew in us. When we told him we didn’t he replied ‘do you want some?’. We didn’t speak to him again.

The hub of activity at night, the vibrancy of the city, the history of religion and the political discussion combine to make Tel Aviv an incredibly interesting place to be, boosted further by the current conflict. It has been a very memorable experience for us both. And we are sure Jerusalem will have even more to offer.

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Budapest, Hungary – Returned for a bath.

It’s the summer again which means only one thing: a new part of the world to learn about and experience. However, our first location was not a new one.

Trailwalker, a monster 100km walk across the South Downs, had left our limbs tight and our minds fragile. We had no rest-bite between our hike and our latest adventure, but in stopping off in Budapest we had accounted for a little R&R.

Both James and I are familiar with the delights of Budapest (this was my third visit in a year) so this was to be a far less strenuous exploration of the city. In fact, we only had one thing in mind: spas. As a consequence, this post is likely to be a short one.

We arrived at our hostel with the best part of the day left and we used that opportunity to join one of the cities free walking tours. I had been on the Jewish tour on a previous visit and will be experiences a lot of Jewishness in Israel, so we decided on the communism tour of the city (where James hoped to gain a quote or two for his history teaching next year).

It was a really interesting tour which put into perspective the drastic changes to people’s lives in Hungary over the last 60 years. The tour guide was clearly quite passionate about the political changes in her country which made for an anecdotal and informative tour. Still, we couldn’t help ourselves to a bit of walking, albeit with a slight blister-rub hobble.

We headed into the Jewish Quarter of the city for some Hungarian food at a restaurant recommended by James. We were unable to resist the wonders of goulash and langos.

Following a swift freshen up we headed back to the Jewish Quarter for a few beers in the ruin bars. Despite our best efforts to make this the birthday night out that James hadn’t had neither of us we able to keep our eyes open after our third pint. Being joined by an overly talkative Hungarian girl with a passion for underwater hockey didn’t really help matters. We strolled back to our hostel and slept for a very long time.

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By the time we were up and ready it was already the afternoon. We bought a few rolls, ham and cheese and walked to the great spa by Heroes Square. After eating breakfast / lunch we bathed in the thermal baths for 4 hours. Our skin became saturated but our minds we relaxed and our muscles smiled at us with thanks. It was definitely a peaceful afternoon in warm pools and an apt reward for walking 100km. In fact, the spa was often referred to on our walk for a little bit of motivation to get to the end.

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With beaming faces and a new bounce in our step we made our way back to the hostel via a cheap kebab stall. There we made the mistake/ had the pleasure, of having a conversation with a slightly unhinged Frenchman who insisted on calling us ‘Roast Beef’ and that we called him ‘Froggy’. As we were kind enough to talk to him he took it upon himself to share out his bottle of Absolut Vodka. From that point onwards the night picked up.
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Our hostel is situated on the first floor. On the ground floor is one of Budapests liveliest bars. For this reason we didn’t have very far to go to continue our party.

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It was here that the other reason, and deciding factor for our visit, appeared: Luke Bailey. He had travelled to Budapest in the evening with a couple of his friends and they came to meet us for a few drinks. It was great to see another member of The Melting Pot’s Trailwalker team. With myself and James, Bailer and his friends, and a stray Finnish girl we found, we were able to really enjoy the night safe in the knowledge that our beds were waiting for us just above if, and when, we needed them.

And with a couple of chilled out days in Budapest behind us, the true intention of our travel was about to begin. We boarded our plane for Tel Aviv, Israel. >