Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Christmas cards and Seasons greetings

I love Christmas cards, picking them out, writing, sending and receiving them. I love the idea they represent and the small smile they produce. I even like sticking the stamps on and mailing them.
So when I heard an acquaintance exclaim:
“Christmas cards- what a waste of money. This year I am gonna just send around an email.”
I was aghast.

I am not anti-technology, but this really stopped me in my tracks. Enough is enough.
Not Christmas cards – no way.

I seamlessly transferred phone calls into texts, I write emails instead of letters, I gratefully moved to digital cameras, stopped flicking through catalogs and now shop on line, send tweets, 'like' everything without an explanation why and have a virtual movie collection.

But I will not give up on Christmas cards.

Seasons greetings from those far and near are special. When you receive a lovely red envelope, with a colourful card inside and a personal message inscribed, you smile. You smile because that person whether just two doors down or two thousand miles away took the time to wish you festive greetings. They picked the card, searched for your address and sat down with a pen to wish you Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays.
Distant relative, old work colleague, best friend or indeed someone who once shared a moment or two with – they remembered you. In this the happiest of seasons, they took the time out of their busy work schedule or personal crisis to send you a smile, a wink or a hug just in time for Christmas.
Maybe the message was short, a lengthy letter or indeed an invite to re-connect- but it was personal.

Christmas cards were made to remember those in some way have touched your life – by just being an annoying aunt, for someone who made room on their couch for you or for a friend or loved one.

Whether it crosses several oceans or just a doorstep, make someone smile – send a Christmas card.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Not welcome in Istanbul

Istanbul, previously known as Byzantium and or Constantinople is a cultural and historical hub.
It is the only metropolis in the world to sit on two continents - Asia and Europe and because of this has enjoyed and endured one of the most interesting history in the world. It is a maze of beautiful architecture and promotes itself as a “modern Muslim city.”
This place sounds right up my alley – history, culture, architecture, religion – it even has a reputation for a unique night life.

Taksim Square, Istanbul
(c) fifiheavey

But when I visited last month, it didn't live up. It didn't even stand up.
Because I didn't feel welcome.

The city is amazing, old and new buildings contrast, streets wind up and down, history pores from almost every street corner. And yet it did not come together for me.
The colours and smells from the late night shopping around Taksim Square were intoxicating, the puffs of coloured smoke and strange taste of the hookahs entertained and the music pumped all night long.
On the other side of the city, the Blue and the Suleymaniye Mosque dominated, they commanded respect. The Grand Bazzar, Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sophia - all were fascinating.

Taking a puff of a Hookah
(c) fifiheavey

But I didn't feel safe, I didn't feel welcome and above all I didn't feel respected.
I love finding myself in a new city, the strangeness, the unknown, the difference. You can't beat being somewhere for the very first time. Yes you must take photos, see the sights and dine in local cuisine. But you must also wander, drift away, tuck your camera away and observe, blend in and see the city as a passer by.

The shouting didn't bother me, the hassle didn't affect me, the comments didn't even take a flinch.
It was the looks.
As I walked alone down the streets (appropriately dressed), trying to get my bearings, politely smiling and shaking my head to various offers from street stalls, I felt weary and anxious.
The sellers were unlike the men in Marrakesh who forced you to buy something you merely glanced at, they were aggressive about it.
They did not appreciate my lone status, I felt like it insulted them. But even in a larger company with men at the table they showed no greater respect. They stared suspiciously – not grateful at all for our custom.

The best kebabs in town
(c) fifiheavey

My thoughts on Istanbul are surprising to me, I am usually so open to cultural differences, to a conflict in ideals, manners and beliefs. But what I experienced in Istanbul was stronger than a difference. It was stand off-ish.

I felt like they wanted me to know – you and your ideals are not welcome here.
My friends felt the same way, acquaintances back home also understood my explanations.

“You are not in Europe now” a friend was told during an exchange in a bar one night.
He was right, of course – but we were in the former European Capital of Culture, in a country that once campaigned to be part of the European Union.

Two trams pass by at the gates to Galatasary High Square on Istikal Street
(c) fifiheavey

Did I miss the point – have I got Istanbul all wrong?

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Having faith in Israel

Question of the week: “So aside from being arrested for trying to bring aid to Gaza what else would take you (forced or not) to Israel?”

Despite what you may read, see or believe Israel is much more than a conflict zone. It is one of the most historic, cultural and above all spiritual places I have ever visited.
Whether you go seeking answers to divine questions, want to discover ancient history and culture or need to see the fraught political and religious scene for yourself – the Israeli experience is one that will amaze, confuse and above all intrigue you.

This is one destination which I would implore you to research before you visit. A basic idea of the history of the country is really not enough. If you don't put the effort in before you leave home, you will be left bewildered once within Israeli borders (defined or not).

Although religion and spirituality is interesting to everyone, those who believe, who have faith in a a greater being, part of a church or not should find their visit to Israel extra special.

Each region in Israel is different geographically, but one of the prettiest area is that of Galilee, here where Jesus was reared you will find Nazareth, Mount Beatitudes, Capernaum, the Sea of Galilee and Jordan River. A beautiful area, the Sea of Galilee (a lake) looks just how those who would imagine it from the bible – a working lake with fishermen still hauling in fish.
For me the place which stood out in this area was the River Jordan, where Jesus was baptised. It looked like paradise with flowers in bloom, otters and fish swimming merrily and people singing hymns as those dressed all in white descended down the steps into the important water.

The Jordan River, Israel
(c) fifiheavey

Close by to the Dead Sea (a must visit) in the south is the majestic Masada mountain. An important site for the Jews, Masada was a site of mass suicide by a group of rebel Jewish who would not allow themselves to be captured by the Romans. It is difficult not to feel proud of those rebels, to admire their will and to reflect on the Jewish people on top of that desert fortress.

At Masada
(c) fifiheavey

Jerusalem. The word evokes emotions, feelings and pictures that probably differ for everyone. Some people see Jesus dying on a cross, others see the Wailing Wall or the Dome of the Rock. Others again see violence and destruction. But no matter how you feel about this place, it is epic.
Religion is central here, but so is history.
The ancient city is surrounded by walls, inside it is a maze of tiny streets, of Jewish, Christan, Muslim and Armenian quarters, school children, trades people, pilgrims ans tourists. Despite the outward appearance this is a working live city.
Outside the great walls, the Garden of Gethsemane is an important site for Christians. Although the garden is disappointing, the church makes up for it. Inside the town, I was let down by the lack of a table in the Room of the Last Supper, but did not expect to see the tomb of King David underneath the building.

The Stone of Anointing, also known as The Stone of Unction, which claims to be the spot where Jesus' body was prepared for burial.
(c) fifiheavey
And then there is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. It is massive, it is dark and bright, you shuffle upstairs and down, you see blood stains on stones, wood from crucifixes, alters and shrines. And in the middle is the tomb, the tomb of the resurrection.
“Here Jesus was crucified in the middle of two others – and here is where he resurrected.”
Simple to say, not so easy to comprehend.
But there it is, in front you, you can touch the stone, you can see the sacred decorations, hear the wailing pilgrims, smell the incense.

Looking up at the Wailing Wall
(c) fifiheavey
Away from the intensity of the Holy Sepulchre is the Wailing wall. Mysterious and majestic, it beckons you, you move closer, you touch it – see the requests, hear the crying. And it is special.
The glare from the gold roof of the Dome of the Rock, commands your respect and your intrigue.

No all your questions will not be answered in Israel – but ask the right ones and you may be enlightened.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Trusting Tripadvisor

I have a love hate relationship with Tripadvisor.
I love the idea (a place where real people give their honest opinion of their accommodation provider) – I hate the result (Fake reviews and hotels sabotaging others credibility).

Saying that, I have never booked a hotel and not consulted Tripadvisor, before I send off my credit card details I always take time to scroll through the comments, skimming the positive ones and closely reading the complaints.
But all of what I read is taken with a large shaking of sea salt. Too many negative comments and I swiftly dismiss the hotel, but too many positive ones and I begin to get suspicious.

The ASA Advertising Standards Authority started to investigate the website in September for fake reviews and the investigation has led the website to change their global slogan from “Reviews you can Trust” to “Reviews from our Community.”
There are thousands of fake reviews on the site, whether or not they can be easily spotted by those administrating the site is not for me to know. But there are there and you need to be weary of them.
Hotels need good reviews, their business depends on them. But in my opinion they need bad reviews too – just so we know they are real.
There are thousands of tourists (note: tourists not travellers) who exaggerate everything, who expect five star standards in a minus two hostel, who don't enjoy their holiday so blame the hotel, who didn't like the food, the texture of the bed linen, the view from their window or the foreign language on the TV ... bad reviews like these help me choose my hotel.
Room with a view in Greece
Tripadvisor has over 45 million reviews with 23 new opinions every minute (I, myself am a senior contributor) and although there are some great tips for travllers hidden among the reviews, obviously with this level of traffic you will find many which are untrue.
Travel Guide giant Fodor are collaborating with Tripadvisor, from 2012 their guidebooks will include hotel reviews alongside professional accommodation recommendations – so their value is still seen as worthy.

As a result of complaints Tripadvisor have set up new customer phone liens to help eliminate “untrue” reviews – but who are they to trust – the hotel owners?
Www.ihatetripadvisor.co.uk is a website set up by accommodation providers who are boycotting the site. Of course I understand that any bad review can damage their business but the site was not set up to just publish “good” reviews – that defeats the purpose.
Are you looking for a plush hotel or a traditional cottage?
Melbravo Resort Fiji (c) fifiheavey

Here are my tips for using Tripadvisor:
  • Decide what you want the hotel to excel in. If you want to party, night time noise won't be a problem, if you want to relax a lack of entertainment will suit you fine, if you have no kids you don't need a clean kiddies pool etc.
  • Skim the positive reviews, yes friendly, clean, helpful, blah blah - if there are no negative reviews in the top 20, book with extreme caution.
  • What was the negative comment about? (my pillow was soft ... the lighting was dim) Do you care? Would that thing bother you?
  • Where is the reviewer from? Have you read any previous reviews from this person?
  • The main words to seek out are: food poisoning, bed bugs, double booking, no locks on door, money/ jewellery stolen, prisoner of war camp – if you see these it would be wise to reconsider your option!

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Too much trust in tour guides

Depending on location, situation and age we all have different expectations from tours and tour guides, but there should be one quality that we all agree on: Tour guides should be unbiased.

Stopping for a picture below a watch tower in Bethlehem October 2011
(c) fifiheavey

Everywhere in the world, at some time has experienced conflict, political, religious, cultural or racial disturbances. And one thing that we are sure of: there is always two sides (maybe even three, four, five – but definitely two) sides to the story.
When I visit a place which has or currently is experiencing some sort of conflict I like to walk away from there with a rounded understanding to all the facts, opinions and ideas that surround the situation – not the propaganda I can get from staying at home.

Recently I stopped off in Israel and Palestine for three days, with a severe shortage on time, the best and only way to see, hear and touch the places I wanted, was to go on a tour.
Israel has intrigued me for a long time, as a Roman Catholic I have grown up hearing stories from the Bible, tracking the life of Jesus Christ, the places he visited and the miracles and lessons he conducted. Place names in Israel have been embedded into my mind from the repetition of these tales.
Israel and Palestine have been glaring at me from my TV set for years and although very removed from the situation, the topic is a lively one in Ireland.
Days before we set off on our cruise to the Holy Land the question of UN statehood for Palestine had dominated pages of Irish newspapers, as our Tanaiste openly stated he would back Palestine in the vote.

A common sign outside Holy places in Israel
(c) fifiheavey

But I had a limited knowledge on the background, history, divides, opinions etc. I had done some research but the more I read the more confused I got. So I left the research and instead placed all my trust in the tour I had booked.
We had booked the Christian tour, I wanted to know about all the religious places in Israel, but again time was limited, so we had decided it was best to start where we at least had some previous knowledge.

On our first day in Israel we visited Nazareth and Galilee, our tour guide was a born Israeli Jew. Although he left hardly no time for photos at destinations and moved super quickly through the landmarks, his information was second to none. He really knew his stuff, he had charts, photos and so much background information that a migraine was inevitable at the end of the day. He was a liberal man who had traveled throughout Europe, experienced other cultures and came back to his home nation with an open mind.

He was exactly the tour guide we needed for day two: Jerusalem and Palestine. But on that day we got a different tour guide, an American who had met the love of his life un Israel and converted to Judaism. His speech was clear, he was easy to listen to, did not rush through important places and did not produce any migraines.
But he was biased, he really was an American Israeli and as we set off towards Palestine (or the West Bank as he called it) we were left in no doubt who was right and wrong in the current conflict, who he was backing and how the one sided situation came about.
My friend and I were the only Europeans on the bus full of Middle Americans, so political questions seeking a little more info were sort of taboo.

Posters about the UN vote and deceased Palestine Leader Yasser Arafat on the streets of Bethlehem
(c) fifiheavey

Although annoyed, we accepted this as we knew we were getting a Palestine tour guide as we crossed the (undefined) border – but he was even worse. He stuck rigidly to the Christian religious side of the tour, there was no mention of any border, conflict or even slight disagreement. With a limited English vocabulary, questions once again were off limit.

On the third day we were once again returned to our original tour guide, but we had moved on from Palestine. We did get to ask him some questions and did come home with a much better understanding of the situation, but our disappointment with the transparency of the guides is hard to forget.

Slap on the wrists for leaving the responsibility of my education to the tour guides. 
My bad experience has given me the resolve to read up on the conflict and return to the Holy and contentious land.
Do we place too much trust in tour guides?