Archive for January, 2011

23rd January
written by Bloom

South America isn’t the easiest place to be Jewish, but with some communities and fellow travelers spread across the continent, we didn’t wander alone. We started in Lima where the local community numbers, from memory, about 1500 – half of what it was ten years ago. Their main synagogue, which was distinguished only by the fact it has no distinguishing features on the outside of its fortress like perimeter, was sparsely attended even though there was a bar mitzvah.  Of those that did attend, most of the men barely utilized their siddurs, while most of the women did not even bother taking one. With perhaps three people in the shule under 35, the future does not seem bright for the Lima community. On Friday night we were hosted by the Rabbi, an Israeli who took on the post for five years despite not knowing any Spanish. On Saturday we were treated to a an extravagant gourmet Kiddush where guests were presented with champagne by white tuxedo wearing waiters, only further highlighting our our shabby backpacker attire.

Cuzco: Highest Israeli to oxygen ratio outside the Himalayas

Israelis tend to travel in packs so that you often encounter one or two in a given place… or enormous hordes. In Huacachina we met swarms of Israelis who would scream at the dune buggy drivers in Hebrew. In our next stop, Arequipa, there was not an Israeli in sight.

Next stop Cuzco, home to one of the most popular traveler Chabads in the world. What first shocked me about Cuzco Chabad was that it hidden away behind metal security doors.  What shocked me more was that it is a complete dump.  My previous experience with large traveler Chabads was in Bangkok, where I spent  Shavuot 2005 in a prominent, immaculate and highly air-conditioned complex with hundreds of Israeli backpackers. Chabad Cuzco however is a ramshackle courtyard style Peruvian apartment block where Shabbat meals are held in the central yard, which I imagine would be not much fun when it snows. There were around 150 guests for Shabbat, down from their high season peak of 400. Almost all of the attendees were Israelis who of course all knew each other from hanging out at other Chabads in South America. There are all types that gather at a South American Chabad: the religious, the secretly religious, the formerly religious, and the regular Israelis who simply want to be in a place where they won’t need to interact with anyone who isn’t Israeli. One of the more interesting Israelis was a quiet, unremarkable post army guy who proceeded to do an excellent job correcting kriat hatorah… without even opening a Chumash.

Now there are many people who are uncomfortable with kiruv. I am not such a person. In fact, I welcome attempts to bring fellow Jews closer to our tradition, provided it is done in an honest and straightforward manner where everyone is treated like adults. What makes Chabad Cuzco so awkward is that they so desperately want to mekarev these crowds of Israelis, it’s just that they are so damn bad at it.

Before beginning the kiruv, the rabbi stood up to welcome everybody to the Shabbat meal. He then delivered a long list of safety warnings such as, ‘people will deliberately rent you broken  and dangerous motorbikes and then charge you for the repairs’, and ‘the three day white water rafting is not safe all, people have died including Israelis.’ After the warnings one of the shlichim stood up to lead a song, which I personally think is a welcome feature at any Shabbat table.  What song did he choose? A little tzur mishelo maybe, a dror yikra perhaps? No, instead he insisted on leading, in English, a semi responsive reggae style chant about ‘waiting for the moshiach man.’ The second song was just as good, with a chorus of ‘I’m going Chassidish, I started speaking Yiddish.’ Unfortunately I can’t remember more of the lyrics of either song but I can assure you they left the listener in fluctuating states of cringing and laughter.

This La Paz optician really wants you to thank God

Now this is where I think they went wrong. Firstly, no one had ever heard of these songs, which makes it hard to get some group ruach happening.  Secondly, the songs weren’t actually about Shabbat or Judaism for that matter, they were only about Chabad. Thirdly, everyone there was Israeli ( I joked that Ilana and the shlichim were the only people in the room who didn’t serve in the army), so why would you try to sing song in English? Kiruv is like being a good DJ, you’ve got to know your audience.  In any case, most of said Israeli crowd left before the end of the meal and did not return for Saturday lunch.

Where we most would have needed a Chabad was in Rurrenebaque, Bolivia, where believe it or not you can get jungle and pampas tours in lashon hakodesh.  Unfortunately, the Chabad there had closed down just three weeks earlier as it had run out of money and the visas of the shlichim had expired. Funnily enough, we had met the shlichim, who were clearly meshichistim, at our guest house in Huacachina, where they had proceeded to strip down to their underwear and jump into, in order to use as a mikvah, the lake which exactly zero other people had thought fit for swimming.

Our next Shabbat was in Salta, a city in northern Argentina with a local Jewish community where the Orthodox and Reform shule are neighbours. Upon entering shule on Friday night I was made to lead davening, which was awkward because a) they had their own nusach, b) there was no minyan and c) the guy who asked me to lead, after becoming unhappy with my leading, then stood beside me co-leading for the rest of the service. We then ate with a small group of Israelis, mostly couples, with the wife of the Chabad rabbi.

Salta: Great Chabad in an Argentinian desert of traif

After so many weeks on the road it was strange to see men in black hats and velvet kippahs wandering the streets of Buenos Aires. As already mentioned, the city has a tremendous array of Kosher dining options of which we sampled only a few. While there are many different synagogues in Buenos Aires, the one closest to our apartment was, you guessed it, Chabad.  The Rabbi was a cheerful fellow who was genuinely excited by chasidut. What set him apart from all of the other Rabbis we had encountered is that he believed in our trip. Many religious Jews, including, and sometimes especially, Chabadnikim, cannot understand why anyone would want to wander through strange lands and cultures across the globe. Chabadnikim may find their way to the Amazon’s edge, but they are not ideological travelers. Rather, travelers’ Chabads exist to ameliorate the effects of travel. To protect and shelter the travelling Jew from his hostile surrounds, to provide Jewish home in a place so far from your Jewish home.  And yashar ko’ach to them for it. I am certainly forever grateful for their hospitality. But the Rabbi of Palermo Chabad was different in that he understood the journey for its own sake. He said that one of the mistakes of prewar European Jewry is that they were too reluctant to leave their comfort zone, and  that Avraham’s spiritual journey also began with a physical journey abandoning his homeland. He was pleased to hear that we blessed  ‘ha’oseh ma’aseh bereshit’ at Iguazu Falls and wished us well in spreading light and blessings in all the far flung places we might visit. It was nice to finally be understood as a traveler and a Jew at the same time.

19th January
written by Bloom

The Inca Trail

The Inca trail is really that good! Lonely Planet has a penchant for helping to make a place popular and accessible only to later say how said attraction is now uncool and too touristy. Well some things are touristy because they are world class attractions, and the Inca trail to Macchu Piccu is just that. Over four days it was consistently excellent, with stunning  snow capped peaks and lush green valleys, cloud forests, Inca ruins, 4200m high passes and more. Book early, pay the exorbitant fees and accept no substitute.

Silence in the Pampas

While we encountered many problems with the homosapiens in the Bolivian pampas, the other animal species put on a marvelous show. Cruising down the river you see so many caimen, birds, turtles, and capybara that it starts to lose its thrill until you start seeing the food chain in action, such as caimen chomping on a large white feathered bird or birds eating baby caimen. A clear highlight was the night cruise where we motored up river and out of the darkness hundreds of pairs of crocodilian eyes reflected back at us. It was kind of spooky. And then we turned off the engine and just floated down river with the current. Absolute silence and absolute darkness, save for the dazzlingly starry sky and on occasions, starlight dimly reflected from the eyes of reptiles watching us from the banks. I don’t know when I have ever experienced silent, effortless and indeed carbon neutral transport before, and under that sparkling sky our quarrels gave way to awe.

The Antarctic

Due to the Earth being spherical, our flight from Buenos Aires to Melbourne took us over the Antarctic. Now as an Australian I still get excited by a pile of snow or a frozen puddle on the streets of New York. When the Antarctic ice shelf became visible outside our window it blew my mind. Ice, in sheets metres or kilometers long stretching out as far as the eye can see, and cruising at 35,000 feet in clear Antarctic air, you can see pretty damn far. The ice was, I think, seasonal frozen sea ice but occasionally you could see an iceberg which had broken off the permanent glacial shelf and now gotten stranded the winter pack ice. The view was just wondrous and unlike anything I have ever seen before. For the second time in the trip I blessed ‘ha’oseh ma’aseh bereshit’, ‘the One who makes the works of creation.’

See also: 3 Things to Hate About South America

19th January
written by Bloom

While Ilana is pondering, it’s time for some backposts. South America was great, next post will be three things to love. In the meantime, here are three things I’d like to rant about.

Hostel crises

After travelling in South East Asia I had certain expectations about accommodation. In Vietnam, for a few dollars each, I could share a clean room with a TV, fridge, Air con and a private bathroom. Here we have been staying in what is at the cheaper end of rooms with a private bathroom. These rooms are often dark, poorly ventilated and always without heating, despite the subzero night time temperatures in the Andes. I wouldn’t be so concerned if they didn’t cost so much. Why is hostel after hostel just so much worse than Asia? $US33 a night is too much to pay for a crappy hostel in a place where you can’t drink the water and you have to put your toilet paper in a bin.


Having the right means of payment is a challenge for any traveler. How much cash to carry? What type of cash? Which cards and which banks? This presented a particular challenge in South America.

Now there are some things in South America that are damn expensive. It costs around $1500 for three people to do the Inca trail. Not the kind of cash that I’d feel comfortable carrying around the streets of Cusco, or any city really. Try to pay with credit card and you can get hit with perhaps an 8% fee. I think that’s insulting. If you say you accept credit cards then damn well accept them, and if you have to be difficult then tack on 3%. So now we have to wander the streets looking for Peruvian ATMs that accept foreign cards and dispense US dollars. However such machines don’t just let you withdraw $1000 at a time, you have to do many small withdrawals, each time for a fee of course.

I don’t object to charging prices in US dollars as is common practice for expensive items in countries with volatile currencies. It can save you trying to do arithmetic with large numbers or carrying around huge wads of notes. Never before, however, have I been charged in $US and then had the vendor refuse to accept my American legal tender. $1, $5 and $100 notes may be refused as payment, as are any worn, torn or marked bills. We were told that it was common to be issued a $US note at an ATM and then for that bank to refuse that same note as payment. It was hardly reassuring to know that large banks can be just as dickish. Do they not understand the idea behind paper currency? It’s symbolic value, not literal value! If the US government prints $5 in green ink on a small slip of paper then everyone in the world, except some frustrating Andean folk, understands what that piece of paper is worth. Whether it’s stained or wet or torn, it’s still $US5! Not here Gringo!

Bolivia – It’s not me, it’s you

Now I have been to many poor countries in a number of continents and I think I am reasonably sympathetic to the plight of the world’s downtrodden. Never before, however, have I thought that a country’s people played as significant a part in the shambolic nature of their country. Quite simply, many Bolivians we encountered are just bad at what they do. Order something in a restaurant and you can expect to wait an hour for your food to come, and this not for a soufflé but for a simple vegetarian pizza. On one occasion the waiter never told the kitchen our order. On another occasion our food was missing the ingredients listed on the menu. Time after time they were incapable of even vaguely holding to schedules that they had themselves set. They’ll tell you to meet at 9am for a tour and they won’t be ready till an hour later. They’ll tell you to meet us in the kitchen at 6am for the early breakfast, and then sleep in. Now as someone who is both tardy and a late riser I can totally understand someone not wanting to meet us at 6am. So why didn’t they just say so? In a league of its own, the Pampas tour was punishment for all my years as an under communicator. Not since the army have I been on an ‘organized’ tour and had less idea as to what was going on. And it wasn’t just an issue of language, a Peruvian guest was also at his wits end. Now if you can’t get the little things right, like having a bed for all your guests or making a pizza, it is little wonder there are perhaps only two paved roads in the entire country.

Next up: 3 things to love.

10th January
written by Ilana

I know that a few months ago I wrote this whole thing about feeling bad about not writing, and how we were about to change that, etc.  Obviously, we did not hold to our end of the bargain, since you can see that we have not written in quite some time.

The thing is, I think I’m a decent storyteller.  I’m good when it comes to an entertaining/ridiculous tale of the madness that is the life of the backpacker.  What I’m not as good at is describing how I feel about the state of the world as I see it, or discussing all the questions that I am constantly asking on this trip.

At some point in Asia I reached a turning point when travel became less about the crazy stories and more about the difficult questions, and honestly, I found those issues difficult to write about.  Even more than the difficulty of the subject matter, I find that I am scared to write something stupid, since I do not have a degree in public policy and as a matter of fact I know little about global politics in general, so I feel like I am an inappropriate speaker on such issues.

Bloom looks over my shoulder.  “Why are you writing about excuses?” He asks me.  “Just write!”

Ugh, fine.  So here it goes, a disorganized, stream of consciousness post:

I will start by saying that we are currently in Luang Prabang, Laos in a “fancy” guesthouse.  We decided to splurge ($23/night) for Bloom’s birthday, and it’s totally worth it.  Clean sheets, a balcony overlooking the Mekong river, a clean bathroom.  Luxury for us.

We discovered yesterday that this place also came with a middle aged, large-ish American man and his much younger, svelte, Asian female companion.  We have seen many of these mis-matched couples here in Laos and also in Bangkok.  Are they just an inter-racial couple, or is she a prostitute?  Is it rude of me to think that she probably is his prostitute?  Possibly.  The couple spends their time sitting on the balcony while the man drinks beer after beer and blasts loud American classic rock from speakers.  He is basically declaring to the world that he owns this place.  He will play music that blasts throughout the guesthouse and the streets, and he doesn’t give a shit about people who might not want to listen to it.  Something about this man, his “his relationship,” and his music is driving me nuts.  This is what people think of America.  An occupying force.  A few minutes ago, to prove some sort of ridiculous point, I went out to our balcony and started blasting “Jump Around,” which seemed to be an appropriate fight song to his classic rock.  I only have a computer, so my music was not nearly as loud.  I looked down to the street and saw a bunch of locals staring up at the balcony toward the American man and his loud music, and I realized that it was not worth a music war, I was not stooping to his level, so I came back inside, turned off Jump Around, gave in to listening to “Free Ride” from the other room, and started to write.

In terms of Laos in general—it’s a great place to be.  I would advise everyone I know to come on a vacation to Luang Prabang.  It has everything.  It’s beautiful, and it’s cheap, and people are friendly.  On the other hand, it has fancy places for the more upscale, and it’s not completely “rustic” like the places in Sumatra.  So what are you waiting for?  Get over here!

For weeks, and much to the chagrin of anyone we hung out with in Burma and was forced to listen, Bloom and I debated back and forth about if we should even come to Laos at all, since we don’t have so much time in southeast Asia.  Finally, the day we arrived in Bangkok, last Friday, we decided, screw it, let’s just go to Laos, and we’ll work it out from there.   On Sunday night we got on a train to the Thai-Lao border, and Monday morning we were in Vientiane.  My brother and Bloom both said that Vientiane was lame and we should not spend much time there, but in the end we spent 2 and a half days there, and loved it.  We had just been in Burma days before, and then had a rushed weekend in Bangkok, and we needed time to just breathe for a bit.  Vientiane was perfect for breathing.  We spent our time drinking lattes (or tea for Bloom), eating baguettes, and talking to people at the local French cafes, and in the evening we would watch the sunset over the Mekong and wander the night market.

Over the past month or so we have been much more social with other travelers.  It seems that in Southeast Asia the travelers are just really friendly, which is nice for us.  In South America, we rarely met friendly people (we were instead snubbed by hordes of Israelis), and in Indonesia and China we rarely ever saw other backpackers.

In Burma we did a three day trek  from Kalaw (a small town in the hills of the Northern Shan State that looks shockingly similar to Alon Shvut…) to Inle Lake, another small town in the same state 60 km away, which, as its name suggests, is on a lake.  Our trekking group had a total of 8 people, and it was a fascinating group of characters.  There were two guys who were actually from the Chicago area!  That was very exciting for me, and led to great nostalgic talks of skiing in Wisconsin and summer weekends in Lake Geneva.  One of them currently lives in Hong Kong, and the other in NY.  There was a Canadian woman who had spent the past decade living in Europe, a New Yorker living in Singapore, a woman from Reunion Island (which I shamefully did not know of before this encounter.  It’s near Madagascar, but part of France), and an older Israeli man who spoke to us about the superiority of Israeli produce.  “The strawberries are the best in the world!  And the cucumbers!”

I really liked this group, and it was nice to spend three days with such interesting people, and when we got to Inle we continued to eat dinner with the other trekkers almost every night until they slowly left for other destinations, while we stayed in Inle, reading, biking, taking a boat trip and generally lazing around in our deluxe balcony room.

The thing I realized when hanging out with the trekkers was how JEWISH we are.  What I mean is, we don’t notice this so much on a daily basis, but our Jewishness has taken over our lives.  We decided to explain about our eating habits, and because I didn’t want the trekkers to think we’re fanatics, I felt the need to thoroughly explain our practice and our choices in great detail, and then after I would finish speaking, I would feel horribly neurotic about seeming like a religious fanatic to these people who I really liked.  When I listened to what Bloom and I were telling these people, I tried to imagine what they must think, and then I realized that we sound completely crazy, and all my religious questions, that I thought I had filed away when I was 22, came flooding back into my mind gnawing at my so-called frum self.  I explained to the trekkers—‘Judaism is a value system that helps me be mindful of everything in my life, that’s why there are all of these seemingly small details,’  but after I spoke, I silently questioned what I had said.  Does all this ritual actually do anything?  Who am I doing this for?  Other people help change the world through belief in social justice and good deeds, why isn’t that as meaningful as a religion?

On our last night in Inle, after our trekker friends had all left town, we found ourselves in an Indian restaurant in a conversation with other backpackers.  There were two Americas, a Malaysian guy and a Slovakian woman, and somehow the conversation turned to Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.  The American man was talking about atheism, and how it made sense, and about a quote someone said about how it really makes no sense to say that children have a religion, and that religion is generally dangerous and causes wars, etc.  For some reason this made me feel anxious and defensive.  I started wondering if he knew Bloom and I were religious Jews,  wondering if we could make it through an entire conversation without me blowing our cover and mentioning something about being Jews.  I’m probably more agnostic than anything else, but still, for some reason I felt the need to defend believers.  I went on a rant about how religion doesn’t make someone evil, an evil person if he wants to do evil, will use anything as his excuse for committing evil acts.  People can use religion for good, or they can use it for evil, people can use science for good, or they can use it for evil.  That’s how the world works.  I then referenced a South Park episode about Richard Dawkins and a future world war not about religion, but about details of evolution, to prove my point.  I didn’t stop there, and I went on to talk about how it would be wrong to say that Islam is the cause of terrorism, it’s not Islam, it’s certain people using Islam.  I’m not a muslim, but I would be pretty pissed off right now that the whole world thinks I’m a terrorist, when really it’s just some assholes using Islam as an excuse.  You can find an excuse to kill people in anything!

The Malaysian guy beamed.  I am a Muslim, and I am angry about this!  I’m Jewish and I’m angry for you, I said.  And there it went.  I was back to putting myself in the Jewish box.  The conversation went on for a while and in the end the Malaysian guy gave his phone number so we can meet up in Kuala Lumpur when we’re there later this month.  The whole thing was interesting, and it made me re-remember that I am Jewish, because I can’t not be.  I feel it in my bones.  I feel the need to defend religion, I feel the need to defend Jews, I feel that I cannot eat that delicious looking grilled chicken on a stick, and I feel committed.  This is not compelling, but it is true.  The thing is that traveling has made me question everything.  Maybe it’s because I have the luxury of time, maybe it’s because I am seeing new things and meeting new people, but either way, I feel like everything needs to be reevaluated—be it my religious identity or my politics or how I spend my money.

When we went to China I became obsessed with learning more about global politics, about world history, about policy, about development, about everything, and I was overwhelmed by how little I knew about anything.  I read a handful of books about China and watched tons of Chinese government propaganda TV to try to bring me up to speed, obviously I am not even close to up to speed, but I am trying.  The thing about China that is so unfathomable to me is that in many ways it is a totally developed country.  The Beijing and Shanghai subway lines put the NYC subway to shame.  Both those cities seem more modern than any American city, and there are fancy expensive shops everywhere you turn.  But, at the same time, the fact that a Chinese citizen cannot openly say anything critical of the government, that websites are blocked, that news is censored, that the cultural revolution took place (!!) is totally shocking to me.  The shocking part lies in the modernity of its big cities, I think.  At least for me, I didn’t expect such a “modern” place to have such closed policies, and I felt guilty about loving China so much, although a big part of that love was out of sheer fascination for the place, and because I want to know more about the country, it’s citizens, and it’s policies.  If we could have overstayed our Chinese visas, I would have.  I would still be in China now if I knew we had more time.  I want to learn Chinese.  I want to befriend Chinese people and live in this crazy place that feels so alive and also so stifling all at once.  But, alas, we moved on to our next country, since this year is not meant for serious iyyun (in depth) on any particular place, but a b’kiyut (overview) study of the world.  For now.