A Travellerspoint blog

The Last Hurrah!

Celebrating two years of student life and entry back into productive life...

80 °F
View Laos/Vietnam, June 2011 on jkirsch's travel map.

Nicole and I are at it again...
Last week I graduated from business school and while Nicole still has a few years to go in her PhD, we have a bit of transition in our lives. At the end of the month, we'll be relocating to St. Louis, where I'll start work with Anheuser-Busch (now ABInbev) in marketing. She'll still be commuting to New York, but after two years, we'll actually live together again (thank goodness for a far simpler life). In fact, we just signed a lease on a great place in St. Louis' Central West End, and after spending a few days in the city, are looking forward to our move.
First though, we thought a bit of celebration was in order, so in customary style and to take advantage of the most downtime we'll have in some time, we're off on one last long trip - three weeks spent primarily in Laos and Vietnam. We'll be starting the main part of the trip in Luang Prabang, after which we'll spend time in the north of the country and on a lazy cruise back down the Mekong to the city. Then we'll head to Vietnam for two weeks, visiting Hanoi and the scenic hill station of Sapa in the north and Hue and Hoi An along the coast before ending with a couple of days in Ho Chi Minh (Saigon). While June may be pretty steamy in the Mekong region, we're sure it'll make good preparation for those muggy summers in STL, and there'll be plenty of spicy food (and of course beer) to cool us down.

In order to work the major flights using miles, we also fit in a stopover in Kuala Lumpur on the return, where we'll hopefully get a chance to meet up with some friends and enjoy authentic Malaysian food. Given how much sambal I've watched these guys use, I'm getting hungry just thinking about it.

Well, that's all for now. We'll be back when internet and time allow.

Thanks for reading!

Posted by jkirsch 18:11 Archived in USA Comments (0)

Birthright 2.0

Reassessing Israel-Palestine relations

sunny 70 °F
View Israel/West Bank, Mar 2011 on jkirsch's travel map.

While Nicole and I usually avoid politics in our editorial writing, what follows is a bit of an exception. As I wrote previously, I spent the week of Spring Break on a Harvard Kennedy School-sponsored trip to Israel and the West Bank, which would naturally raise a host of politically fraught issues. Even the fact that the trip was labeled as the “HKS Palestine Trek” (given the focus on the West Bank and Arab citizens of Israel) makes a statement with ‘Palestine’ bound to raise opinions on both sides of the conflict.
I decided to join the trip to get a different, and often hidden, perspective on an issue that I feel personally connected to as a member of the Jewish community and interested in given its geopolitical significance. I hope most that the broader perspective I return with can generate dialogue and a greater awareness of the issues on the ground. To this end, if you have any reactions, questions, or challenges, feel free to reach out in comments or otherwise.
Overall, the week strongly reinforced my existing view that Israel’s settlement policy in the West Bank undermines the country’s democratic institutions, security, and long-term success and viability. Furthermore, I now believe that these policies and the security challenges they bring about serve to indirectly segregate and isolate minority Palestinian populations in Israel proper. In case you’re interested, this view is largely consistent with organizations like JStreet and Americans for Peace Now.
The Trip
We began the trip on a more touristic note in historical East Jerusalem with visits to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the Dome of the Rock, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and the Western Wall. Getting to visit the Muslim sites was an interesting experience as while I recall visiting them on my first trip to Israel in 1995, entry was tightened following Sharon’s 2000 visit and the Second Intifada, and we were unable to get in during a trip to Israel in 2007. Visits still remain tightly controlled by the Islamic foundation that oversees the site and we had to enter and exit at specific times.
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Our time in Jerusalm also included a visit to the religious settlement of Sheikh Jarrah in the company of Dr. Meir Margalit, a left-wing Israeli researcher and politician. Claiming ownership dating from the Ottoman Empire, Orthodox Jews (many from NYC) have forced Palestinian residents from their homes in the area. The obvious irony is that Palestinians often refer to the same Ottoman titles as a basis for the return of their property in Israel proper and inevitably meet with far less success.
After Jerusalem, we crossed through checkpoints into the West Bank, first spending a day in Bethlehem and Hebron. While we passed quickly through, many Palestinians commuting to work in Jerusalem can spend 45 minutes waiting to pass. As a result, short-distance commutes of only 5-10 miles can take up to two hours, especially when multiple checkpoints are involved.
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This was also our first experience with the Israeli separation wall. While I generally oppose such barriers (Berlin, US-Mexico, etc.) because they isolate and inhibit the free movement of goods and people, I understand Israel's security motivation (suicide attacks have dropped 90% since the wall's erection). However, two factors give me serious concern's about Israel's barrier. First, rather than running along the 1967 border, the wall cuts into the West Bank in many places, often cutting off Palestinian villages from their productive lands in the process. Second, though the wall has had a short-term impact on security, I worry about the long-term implications on peace, security, and stability. Israel's border games and the wall itself seem to deeply antagonize and humiliate the Palestinians and create greater animosity towards Israel among the broader population.
Wall.jpgLooking over the Separation Wall into Israel (Palestinian-owned olive grove in the mid-ground)
For me, our visit to Hebron was an especially emotional part of the trip as it was the most visible example of both intrusion and segregation. While 60-80% of the 300,000 West Bank Settlers (number excludes the 200,000 in East Jerusalem) are economic and attracted to housing developments through tax incentives and other programs, the other 20-40% are religious and believe in a divinely ordained mission to inhabit all of the West Bank. For them, Hebron holds special significance with the Cave of the Patriarchs (the burial site of Abraham/Sarah, Isaac/Rebecca, and Jacob/Leah and the believed entrance of the Garden of Eden) located in the city center. Naturally given Abraham's status as a prophet of Islam, the site also holds great significant for Muslims.
While the site was the location of historical skirmishes between Jews and Muslims, tensions became especially high following the 1994 massacre of 29 Muslims at prayer by Baruch Goldstein - an American-born religious settler. In order to ensure the safety of the settler community, the Israelis moved to heavily restrict Palestinian movement in the historical city center - the site of the traditional market. Only settlers can drive on the main thoroughfares and Palestinians cannot approach the area without special permits from the IDF. As a result, hundreds of Palestinian shops in the market area were forced to close (which in a tremendous irony, settlers have celebrated by painting Stars of David on closed shopfronts). This, combined with heavy fortifications and empty streets makes for a scene out of a post-apocalyptic war movie. The fact that I could share anything in common with the perpetrators of such an effort left me a bit shaken as we left the area.
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On the lighter side, we also had a chance to meet with the mayor of Hebron - who spoke with pride about the launch of their eGovernment portal - and visit a glassmaking shop outside the city before returning to Bethlehem for the night.
On Tuesday, we headed north back across Jerusalem to Ramallah (basically, Ramallah, Jerusalem, and Bethlehem run in a ~30km contiguous arc) where we toured Paltel - the dominant Palestinian telco - and had an incredible opportunity to meet with Dr. Hanan Ashrawi. Dr. Ashrawi is a prominent Palestinian christian politician, activist, and scholar and has served as a leading voice on Palestinian issues to the outside world. She was incredibly well-spoken and well-reasoned regarding the occupation and I'll refer back to some of her quotes later on.
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PLO.jpgDidn't expect these folks to be so "corporate"
The afternoon was marked by a second emotional visit - this time to the village of Bil'in near the border of the West Bank and Israel. Since 2005, the village has been the site of non-violent protests against the construction of the wall. Originally planned to cut through a significant portion of the village's lands, the permanent wall was rerouted following a Israeli supreme court ruling (though still not along the actual border). However, the "temporary" security fence and road still remain and villagers and activist Israelis still gather to protest the wall every Friday. They are often shot at with tear gas or raw sewage before reaching the actual fence and several have been killed or seriously injured by canisters fired at too-close range. Tuesdays are a bit more low-key in town and we had a chance to actually walk up to the fence, where there's a ditch filled with barbed wire and littered with spent tear gas. Villagers are allowed to access their groves on the other side of the fence once a week, but must cross this no-man's-land first.
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Returning to Ramallah, we spent the night out at a bar that could have fit in well in Boston or New York and that provided quite a contrast to our afternoon.
Wednesday took us north to Nablus where we visited a refugee camp, toured the Palestine stock exchange, and (in a second stark contrast) had lunch hosted by Munib Masri, a Palestinian billionaire and legislative council member. His "house" atop a hill outside of Nablus was inspired by Italian Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio and is like nothing I have ever seen.
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sniper_tower.jpgCheckpoint and Sniper Tower on the road to Nablus
Masri.jpgMunib Masri's "House" - there were actually Roman ruins in his "basement"
Thursday brought a bit of R&R and we spent a welcome day off at the dead sea and hiking in Ein Gedi national park in Israel.
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During the last two days of the trip, our focus shifted to the situation of Palestinians and Arabs within Israel. We met with several NGOs in Haifa, Nazareth (the largest Palestinian community within Israel), and Majdal Shams (location of shouting hill) on the Syrian border in the Golan Heights. This also brought us through some of the most scenic areas of the country.
Haifa.jpgLooking over the Baha'i Temple in Haifa
0sunset.jpgSunset over the Western Galilee
Shouting_Hill.jpgView into Syria from "Shouting Hill"
Closing Thoughts
For me, the issues we covered on the trip can be organized into two overarching themes - those concerning the status and condition of the West Bank (and Gaza), and those concerning the status and condition of minority groups within Israel proper.
As you can probably tell from my writings, I found the state of the first to be especially startling and that's where I'll focus these thoughts. I've heard some critics refer to the structure of the West Bank as "apartheid" and tragically, that's not far from the truth. The Wall, Settler-only bypass roads, gated residential settlements, and full Israeli control of the Jordan Valley have divided the West Bank into isolated Palestinian areas (see map below). Meanwhile, checkpoints within and into the West Bank, and "sniper" towers outside many Palestinian towns and villages have served to restrict freedom of movement, curb liberties, and create a militarized environment that ordinary Palestinians must deal with every day. Economic growth is stifled and normal life for 3.4M Palestinians is rendered impossible.
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Yet, it is not just the Palestinians that bear the cost. According to the Adva Center, an Israeli think tank, the occupation of the West Bank has cost Israel at least $10B over the past two decades and has undermined the country's growth. Furthermore, the significant expansion of the settlements (400% since Oslo) raise the question as to whether a true two-state is still a viable option. If it's not, demographics alone paint a scary picture for the viability of a "Jewish and Democratic" Israel. According to recent surveys, the Jewish population in Israel numbers 5.4M while the Palestinian population in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza numbers 4.7M. Given recent trends, non-Jews may outnumber Jews across the combined territories within a generation. Without a Palestinian state, Israel could be forced to fully integrate this population. With a non-Jewish majority, could the state hold true to its founding ideals?
Having seen the situation on the ground in the West Bank, I believe Dr. Ashrawi was right in arguing that the negotiations have become an end unto themselves and have given Israel the space to do what they've wanted. As a result, the Palestinian leadership that pushed a peace agenda has been completely undermined (as have US presidents), creating space for Hamas and other groups advocating more forceful approaches. While spoiler terrorist attacks have inflicted a real toll on Israel over the years since Oslo, I believe they by no means provide justification for the full extent of Israeli actions. They've also allowed for a double-standard, where as Dr. Ashrawi put it, Palestinians must be "morally unblemished" while Israel can be "totally unaccountable."
Maintaining a seemingly unending occupation has also played directly into the Palestinian (and broader Arab) narrative of struggle and it's as if no one is able to move beyond the conflict. Refugees still remain in camps rather than fully integrating into society, clinging to the idea that they'll be able to return to their ancestral homes. Palestinian citizens of Israel still harbor deep feelings of injustice from 1948 and appear to remain segregated within the country. These gaps only grow wider through the years, and each side becomes less human to the other. It seems unlikely that Jews growing up in Israel today would know many Arabs, or vice-versa. As a result of this gap, I have minimal hope for an internally driven resolution to the conflict.
Instead, I believe that it is critical for the outside world, and especially the American Jewish community to act. I'm convinced that blind support of Israel is detrimental to the long-term viability of the state as a Jewish democracy and counter to many of Judaism's progressive ideals. Instead, I believe that ending the settlements and the occupation is the best way to ensure Israel's long-term viability, stability, and vibrancy and to finally push people beyond the conflict. Groups like JStreet represent this view, but face an uphill battle against the status quo, AIPAC, and the Israeli right. In my opinion, it's time for a new approach - I hope you'll join me.
Thanks for reading!
NB: More photos are available on MobileMe

Posted by jkirsch 21:37 Archived in Israel Tagged west bank palestine israel-palestine_relations Comments (0)

Flying Solo

Spring Break 2011

While Nicole and I usually refrain from blogging when we’re not together, we’re making an exception for this spring break.
This wasn’t initially the case – we had planned for a week down Mexico way, but then duty called in the form of Nicole’s research assistantship. Thus, what was meant as low-key and relaxing Spring Break became two weeks for her on a research project in Ghana.
Left without plans, I jumped at the opportunity to participate in a Kennedy School-sponsored trek to Israel and the West Bank. I’d avoided similar trips in the past, mainly because of cost and focus, but this one seemed particularly interesting. The focus is on Israeli-Palestinian relations and reflecting Harvard’s incredible reach will include meetings with the Palestinian President, Prime Minister, and prominent business leaders.
Given that I consider myself a supporter of Israel, I’m not sure what my reactions will be, but I expect the trip will be incredibly interesting and eye opening at the least. I’ll certainly try to capture some of my thoughts here as the week progresses.

Until then, stay tuned…

Posted by jkirsch 23:32 Archived in United Kingdom Comments (0)

A tale of two cities (Old Delhi and New Delhi)

…plus a wedding and the Taj

sunny 65 °F
View India, Jan 2011 on jkirsch's travel map.

Our final days in India were spent in Delhi, which was aptly described to us as India’s Washington D.C. (as compared to Mumbai, which is its New York). I had fairly low expectations of Delhi – primarily because I’d heard that there was a lot of poverty and begging – but I really enjoyed our time there. It was particularly interesting the see the vast contrast between the Old Delhi part of the city and the New Delhi part of the city. Old Delhi is a congested maze of bumpy dirt roads and colorful shops, CRAMMED with cycle rickshaws, motorcycles, pedestrians, and shopkeepers. In comparison, New Delhi seemed almost like a European capital! The streets are wide and well-paved, with fairly minimal traffic; there are lots of green spaces; and there is a general sense of order and planning to the layout of the area. I think the best way to express the contrast between Old Delhi and New Delhi is to share the highlights of our time in both areas.

Old Delhi

One of the highlights of our day in Old Delhi was going for a cycle rickshaw ride through the markets; it was exhilarating and little terrifying (I can’t believe we didn’t collide with anything!). We got stuck in traffic at an intersection with a broken water main, but our industrious driver managed to negotiate a path through oncoming traffic (physically picking up and moving empty rickshaws and getting motorcycles to pull to the side of the path) to get us on our way. Talk about service!

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Old Delhi Street Scene
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Public Works in Chandni Chowk Market
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Taking our Rickshaw for a Testdrive

One of our top meals of the trip was also in Old Delhi, at Karim’s, a restaurant that has been around since 1913. We feasted on a lamb leg, a whole fish, mutton (goat) curry, and tandoori chicken, all of which were cooked in a clay oven. It was a meat lover’s dream!!! The fact that the bill was only about $8 per person was also greatly appreciated.

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Quite possibly the world's best lamb

New Delhi

We didn’t have much time to explore New Delhi, but Jake and I managed to fit in a quick trip to the Modern Art Museum, which was having an exhibition of work by Anish Kapoor. It was a great exhibit, and a nice break from visiting temples and forts. On our last day, we also drove over to the Lodi Colony area for a delicious lunch at Ploof (thanks for the tip, Jevon!) and some shopping. All in all, very civilized and not-at-all like our time in the rest of India.

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New Delhi's Green Streets (courtesy of http://indianghar.com/)

Wedding!

As we’ve mentioned before, the impetus for our trip to India was our friend Nupur’s wedding. The wedding festivities were fantastic, and we felt very lucky to have been invited. The absolute highlight of the wedding was the groom’s (Rizi’s) processional. It was out-of-this-world! I kid you not: there were about twenty live musicians (mostly drummers and trumpeters), people carrying lamps on their shoulders, 80 or so people decked out and dancing down the streets of Delhi….and oh yeah, the groom riding behind it all on a HORSE! Although the processional only covered a distance of about one-quarter of a mile, it took about an hour, so I was happy to arrive at the wedding venue, where we enjoyed a delicious Indian buffet and tried to figure out what was going on. Unfortunately, we had an early train to Agra the next morning, so we had to leave before the actual ceremony began (at about 1AM apparently!).

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Taj

Finally, I have to mention the Taj Mahal, and just how amazing it really is. We visited in the late morning and returned later that day to watch the sunset. The second visit was in some ways even better than the first: I think we all felt a little like, “Wow! It really IS as amazing as I first thought it was!” It’s not my favorite site ever (the temples at Angkor Wat in Cambodia still take the cake), but it really was awesomely huge and beautiful. And it’s amazing that it took only 22 years to build, given the detail of the marble inlay work and the fact that it's solid white marble.

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To sum up, our time in India was really special and so much fun! We’ve already started talking about where we’d like to go when we come back, which I think says a lot about how much we enjoyed our time here.

Thanks for joining us and please do come again!

Posted by jkirsch 05:17 Archived in India Tagged sunsets_and_sunrises food markets india monuments delhi agra Comments (1)

Riding the Indian Rails

The lite version...

sunny 60 °F
View India, Jan 2011 on jkirsch's travel map.

Nicole will be following soon with a final update on our time in India, but as I've got some time to kill in the airport, I wanted to make a brief aside on our experience with trains in India yesterday. I caveated this post with "lite" as trains can vary quite a bit and we were riding on the most modern Shatabdi express from Delhi to Agra for the day to see the Taj Mahal.
We went into the experience with pretty low expectations. But hey, $15 for a first-class ticket ain't bad and 2 hours on any train certainly beats 4+ hours in a car. However, the trip was actually great. The seats were big and comfortable and the food was pretty good (in fact, I think some of the better Dal we've had) and was even served alongside butterscotch ice cream and a rose.

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The most interesting part of the experience was definitely off the train. On the return, the train was delayed for about 40 minutes and we were stuck waiting on the Agra platform as the night fog rolled in. I tried to capture the mood in the pictures below, but I'm not sure they quite do it justice. Needless to say, we met some interesting locals, I'm sure in large part because it's such a tourist destination. Also interesting was watching passengers (even one on crutches) clamber off the platform and across four pairs of tracks rather than walk the short distance to the overpass. Nothing too surprising by this point, but seemed like it was worth mentioning.

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Thanks for reading and stay tuned for our last and final India update!

Posted by jkirsch 09:39 Archived in India Tagged trains india Comments (0)

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