At the start of any trip, there is always a sense of anticipation and in some cases hesitation. This particular trip was no different but there was a bit more hesitation because I was going to the Middle East. Like most overseas trips, this one started at the airport. After traveling for many years, one thing I've noticed is that once you've seen one airport, you've seen them all. A lot of airports try to garnish themselves with duty free shops and café style restaurants. To me, duty free means don't buy. Why add more stuff to your pack when there is zero room? You are not trying out for a fireman position in your city. I believe it's a plot for us to spend money when airlines request you to arrive two to three hours before your flight. Give yourself plenty of time but never buy anything.

My trip called for a simple eight hour layover in London. I prefer eight hours rather than say three or four. With such little time between flights, you are grounded and forced to submit yourself to wandering aimlessly about the airport. Eight hours allow for a short trip into London. Being as I have never been to London, the layover was welcome. What can you do with eight hours in London? The simplest plan is to experience the underground and walk part of the city. London most definitely has its charm. The women are glamorous and beautiful, while its other residents are friendly and willing to help. A much longer stay in London is in my future.

There is one word all travelers hate to hear, delay. Thanks to British Airways, I was forced to face this word. Spending 20 plus hours at Hewthrow airport is like spending 20 hours in the basement of your sleazy uncle Henry's house. Not fun.

After a long night and a day full of restless sleep and combating hunger pains, I arrived in Tel Aviv. Good old British Airways had another surprise for me. It seems they put me on a plane without my baggage. Being a photographer, my baggage doesn't consist of a lot of clothes since I have to make room for my cameras. Most of the time I carry my cameras with me in my carry-on, but this time I packed four cameras. There just wasn't enough room in my carry-on for all of them. I can give a shit about my clothes but my cameras would max out a credit card or two if I needed to replace them. Day one passes and no baggage. Right away I discovered having one set of clothes in a hot climate tends to stain your body with a wonderful scent. Don't get me wrong I don't have an odor problem, but it's close to 100 degrees, even Cinderella will stink. My need to shower four times a day from the heat also forced me to wash my clothes four times a day. There is a very third feeling you get when you shampoo your body and T-shirt at the same time. Let's just say the novelty got old really quick. I could bash British Airways with more words but moving on, after four days my baggage arrived without harm.

Tel Aviv stands for beautiful and lively. I have never been to a city with so many drop dead stunning women. They greet you with a smile and a wiggle of attitude. I don't know the statistics but to me the women outnumber the men 5 to 1. Let me remind you again that these women are stunning. Imagine yourself drinking an ice cold beer along an endless strip of beaches camped with clubs, bars, hotels and sun worshippers. With every blink of an eye, a beautiful woman appears with an incredible over all tan. But with every positive there is a negative.
The residents of Tel Aviv are rude. There is no concept of a line. When you are waiting to use an ATM, old ladies push you off to the side and think nothing of it. In this city you wait for everything. Before entering any store there is always a line because of metal detectors and police officers screening customers as they come in. Men, women and children do not hesitate to push you aside in order to enter before you do. You look at them with shock but they won't lose any sleep over their rudeness. It's a very pushy society.

Tel Aviv also has no culture. If you ask five people how to get to the Tel Aviv Museum, you will get six different answers, but ask five people how to get to the nearest Diesel Jeans store and you get the same answer from every one. They will also detail their new ad campaign for you. Fashion is what comes first here. It took awhile but I did finally understand Diesel's ad campaign.

During the day, there is so much to see in Tel Aviv but after seeing the entire city, you are left with two options. Go shopping with the girls or drink beer with guys and have shouting or hugging matches. They all love to shop and talk loud. I have a shopping shelf life of about two hours at a time and as far as talking loud, I think of myself as a lover not a fighter, hehehe.

Jaffa is about 10 to 15 minutes north of Tel Aviv and is a complete contradiction to Tel Aviv. An old medieval castle like fortress encloses old Jaffa. Inside this stone fortress are resident housing, shops and plenty of nice restaurants. I imagine walking into old Jaffa is very much like walking into King Arthur's castle. With all its charm, Jaffa is filled with religious tension. Israelis, Aerobics and Christians all live without much harmony. Everyone looks at one another with question marks, making Jaffa a paradise with much baggage.

No one likes to be intruded upon and in Old Jerusalem that is how I felt, like an intruder. Religious beliefs are very strong here. I could not help but feel as though I did not belong. I tried to take as few photos as possible. Their beliefs are much stronger than my will was willing to capture. Old Jerusalem is a lot like Jaffa, full of tension. With so many different people living together, something could snap at anytime. We all know about the terrors that have occurred in the past. The center of Jerusalem is like night and day from Old Jerusalem. Young students dressed in the latest fashion trends line the streets. There is a hill like street in the center of Jerusalem lined with trendy shops and tables full of young people chatting on their cell phones and drinking coffee and beer. It was a nice escape from the beliefs of old Jerusalem.

Next I headed to the Dead Sea. My drive to the Dead Sea was a lot like a roller coaster ride. The drive is around four to five hours from Tel Aviv depending on the traffic. The drive itself isn't very interesting, much like driving across Nevada with a much prettier ending. The up part of my drive occurred at an exit when all of a sudden traffic came to a complete stop. Everyone stepped out of his or her cars to see what was happening while I stayed in my car to enjoy the air conditioning. Not five minutes had gone by when everyone made a mad dash for their cars. Then an Israeli police officer slams the hood of my car and stares at me a look that says "I am going to kill you". With police sirens blocking any other noises and drivers screaming at the top of their lungs, the officer demands that I leave. Later I discovered all the mayhem was caused by an Aerobics resident who threw a rock at an Israeli officer and cussed him out. I imagine he was shot to death a few yards from my car. All a part of life in the Middle East.

Right before you get to the Dead Sea, a wonderful picture perfect ocean view fills every inch of your windshield. The water is clear blue and is the perfect escape from city life. This is where King David came to get away from being a king. The salt water in the sea cleanses every inch of your body. I must have floated in the sea for an hour. I felt cleansed for the next three days. One thing to remember when visiting the Dead Sea is that this is one of the best places on earth for skin care. It all sounds nice until you meet some of the visitors here. A lot of people have funky skin problems here. As I was swimming in the hotel pool, I came across a beautiful woman. We talked for a few minutes and I noticed she would not expose the left side of her face. Well, she wasn't just there for the calm atmosphere. She had some funk on her skin. Today, not many people come to the Dead Sea anymore because of past terror actions and its closeness to Jordan. If you are in that neck of the woods, don't hesitate to go there, it's worth it. I also visited Masado, which is about 20 minutes from the Dead Sea. It's a mountain top city where the Israelis fled from the Romans way back when. There is a lot more history about Masado but I don't have much knowledge about it.

After the Dead Sea, I took a flight from Tel Aviv to Cairo, Egypt. I was pretty nervous going to Cairo by myself. At the airport in Tel Aviv, I was met with a lot of resistance. It took close to two hours before the Israelis would let me get on my plane. They had to hold the flight in order for me to catch it. I had to answer the same ten questions to ten different Israeli officers. It bordered on harassment; I must have flashed my passport more times than I did my fake ID in high school. Later I discovered the reason for my treatment. It seems that Asians are seen as a form of cheap labor in Israel. Ten to fifteen years ago cheap labor was welcomed with open arms and huge populations of Asians came seeking work in the land of the Hebrews. After a while, Asians were able to perform the same jobs as the Israelis. Today, Israel's economy has fallen on hard times much like most of the world. The Asians are now taking a lot of the valued jobs because they can do the same work for half the cost. The Israelis despise them for it and many Asians like myself, are seen as job takers, even if you are just visiting. If you're Asian, don't count on a warm welcome at any passport checkpoint.

I arrived in Cairo at about four in the morning and being as I was pretty nervous to begin with, arriving that early in the morning didn't help. The first person I made contact with at the airport greeted me the same way as Sala greeted Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark. "My friend, welcome to Cairo", he said. That warm welcoming smile eased my tension. The residents in Cairo are friendly and very curious. At any moment someone will strike a conversation with you which can last for hours. I felt safe walking the streets of Cairo but you want to keep your wits about you. There are three things you want to be weary of when in Cairo. The first thing is to be weary of cheap travelers. Everything is cheap in Cairo. Every US dollar is equal to about six or seven Egyptian pounds. For ten Egyptian pounds you can buy a pack of smokes, two bottles of water and a pack of chips. I came across a few travelers who wouldn't tip or would start a fuse over paying an extra two or three pounds. Three pounds comes out to about ten cents. I wanted to kick those people. The second thing is that shopkeepers and vendors are very aggressive. They can sell ice to the Eskimos. Bargain as much as you can and never hesitate to walk off. Finally, do not swim in the Nile River. I met a few people who went for a dip and ended up close to their death bed.

When in Cairo, you should see make time to see Giza and everything else. Also make time for a cab ride during rush hour. Rush hour lasts from about 9 to 11 p.m. and if you think the Romans are crazy drivers, the Egyptians make them look like go-cart drivers. At first you'll be scared shitless but after a while you'll notice the science of their driving. I didn't see a single accident or a fight while I was there. Throughout the day you will also hear periodic chanting ringing in the air. It sounds like it's from a loud speaker but it's actually thousands of Muslims praying at the same time. It's spooky but very griping to hear. By far, Egypt was the best place I visited.

From Cairo, I took a bus to Taba, which is a border town next to Israel. The drive gave me a clear understanding of what being in bum fucked Egypt means. I was in the middle of nowhere. The bus stopped just once during the entire five hour ride, stopping only at a rest stop with a single stall bathroom. I looked ten times worse than the train station bathroom in Trainspotting. I've been kicking myself for not spending anytime in Taba. Looking out the window from the bus, Taba looked like heaven on earth with sandy beaches as far as the eye can see and not a single person in sight. At the passport checkpoint, I was faced with another long wait. This time it took less than two hours, but I wasn't tired or anything. I'd love to spend five hours on a bus and then an extra two waiting.

After crossing the border, I was in Elat, Israel. The women were stunning and the water was blue and warm. There is nothing to do in Elat but swim with the fishes, eat great seafood and watch sunbathers. Elat is the perfect recipe for relaxing.

Like all trips, they must all come to an end. I hope you enjoy my observations. If you were hoping to get ideas on where to stay and a list of things to do, I'm sorry. I started my trip having little idea where I was to stay and had no idea what I was going to do. I turned out fine for me. Go have your own trip and don't settle for someone else's leftovers.
Howard Van Lam

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