29 April 2007

Above and beyond all expectations....Israel.

In the past, traveling to Israel always seemed like a strange concept to me. Why would anyone want to go to a place that is in the news every other week for people being blown up by a suicide bomber as they sip on a double espresso at their neighborhood coffee shop with dogs running around, babies in strollers and people just trying to enjoy life? It seemed like this was a normal phenomenon for Israelis. What I found was something that I was not expecting. However my trip to Israel didn't start in Israel, it started in Moscow…..
Moscow's Domodedovo Airport. My flight to Tel Aviv was on El Al Airlines, Israel's flagship airlines that flies all over the world. Since Israel probably has the most enemies outside of the USA, if not more, they have very tight security. Prior to getting to the check-in counter, your checked luggage must be x-ray, tagged, and only then you can approach the counter and get your boarding pass. After answering a series of questions such as why I was going to Israel, if I had family there, if I was a Jew or practicing any religion, I was cleared to get my bag screened. Once my pack was launched out the side of the x-ray machine, security personnel asked me to open every pocket in order to swab the insides. This was the familiar explosives swab that is performed at random in airports around the world. However this time the machine kicked out a non-descript red screen that flashed 'Contaminant' and 'TNT' with a series of numbers listed next to each. Immediately I knew I was in for it. I looked at my watch and was thankful that I was over 2 hours early. Let me be the first to say that when traveling to Israel from Russia, this is the last thing that you want to see flash across the screen. What followed was their supervisor bringing me to the 'back room' for further inspection. After being told to empty every single item out of both of my bags into 3 large plastic bins, I was asked to leave the room and wait outside for their inspection of my gear to be completed. For the first time flying on a commercial airliner, I was glad I didn't have my parachute. Once the full inspection was complete, and after I plugged in every electronic component that I had, which included 2 cell phones, camera battery charger and laptop, I was cleared to head to the gate. During the time of the inquisition, another of the staff had checked me in.
To the gate… After having every item I've been carrying for the past 4 months inspected thoroughly, my next boondoggle was the standard airport security check. Sending all metal items through the x-ray, I stepped through the metal detector and into the full body scanner. Turning 90 degrees to my right in order to match the footprints on the floor of the scanner, a technician instructed me to raise my arms above my head in three languages. Upon doing so, a large arm about 8 feet tall whipped across in front of me and behind me simultaneously. I was cleared to step forward. When I looked back at the screen I could see what looked like one of the screens from Total Recall, there was my body, as viewed through the eyes that don't lie. A full body image highlighting every bump and contour, not hiding anything at all and for all the world to see. What better way to see if someone is carrying something under their clothes. Once clear of airport security I had to traverse gate security. After answering a few questions and handing over my ticket, I was asked to come to their special room where I had to empty all of my pockets, take off my shoes, unbutton / zip my pants for a full inspection. A full body pat down and handheld metal detector was under way by a Ruski that in my opinion now owes me dinner! After sending my things through the x-ray that's at the gate all over again, I was finally allowed to rejoin the masses and board the aircraft. When we finally started to taxi out, I noticed that we were being followed by an El Al security vehicle that acted as an escort and was with us until we made the final turn onto the runway from the taxi way. I can honestly say that I've never felt safer on a flight.
Tel Aviv. Once clearing passport control without any stamps added to my passport, I walked out to see Uri's smiling face waiting for me. He picked me up in his Rav 4, one that was identical to the one he had in Boston. Off we went back to his place in town where I met Tali, his Fiancé that will be his wife on June 1st, and his 3 year old Boston Terrier, Bluto. They lived on a street that reminded of the Boulevard in Providence. There were always people walking, riding bikes and taking their dogs for a stroll. A few blocks down they even had a coffee shop in the middle that seemed to be crowded no matter what the time of day. Having a lot of work keeping him busy, Uri dropped me off with Yonatan and Ella. Once again on this trip, I've had the complete luck with timing as they just happened to be here visiting for a few weeks so that Yono could sort out his new Visa. I had arrived on Memorial Day in Israel. Everything was pretty much closed as they remembered those that have been lost over the years in the wars and other terrorist attacks. One of the things that they do is sound the warning sirens for one minute twice that day and everyone stops and takes a minute to remember friends and families less fortunate. Yonatan, Ella and I walked to the sidewalk overpass on the highway where we stood as the horn sounded. Cars in both directions stopped as their occupants stepped out and stood in the road to remember. I was a bit surreal to see traffic on a major road come to a complete halt as people stopped, stood and thought about friends they used to know.
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The next day was Independence Day. Being a public holiday, everyone heads to the parks and cooks out while we went to Ram's house in Jaffa for a BBQ. Before getting to his house, Uri, Tali and I walked around the old port city of Jaffa. It was the first time I got to really see them as the couple that they are. After spending a week with them, I think it's safe to say that they've made a good match.
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Wanting to see some of the sights in Israel, off we went to the Dead Sea. Uri told me that we were driving a little bit out of the way in order to avoid Jericho. I guess there had been some sniper activity in the past near that town so it was best to drive a little further and go the long way around. On the drive down and back, we saw 5 F-15 jets, 2 Blackhawk's and a CH-53 chopper. Remembering that the other side of the Dead Sea is actually Jordan, Uri told me that there were a couple of air bases down there which is why we saw so much activity. 
The Dead Sea is actually the lowest point on earth not covered in ice. It's 1370 feet below sea level. While we were there, an F-15 went right over top at about 500 feet AGL. The thought of reading the altimeter in the cockpit and seeing negative 800 feet MSL in a fighter jet must be a unique experience. Having almost 9x the salinity than ocean water, the Dead Sea leaves your skin with an oily feel while you're in the water. It also makes you feel like you're floating on the water. It's something that's hard to believe for yourself until you experience it. You just lay back and you're floating. Nothing you can do will make you go under involuntarily. Just lay back and enjoy a book……..or lay on your stomach and you're still floating. I was doing barrel rolls on the surface and not sinking an inch! It's a very odd feeling to say the least. A bit of advice when you get out, make sure you thoroughly rinse off. If you miss a spot, you'll see it later as it will be all white with dried salt stuck to you.
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My last day in Israel we spent at the dropzone. Who was I to say no??? After all, I was visiting 2 skydivers! Uri spoke to the chief instructor and he let me borrow his Katana 97 for 3 jumps. The scenery there is amazing as the DZ is across the tracks from the beach and right on the Mediterranean Sea. If you have a chance…..make some jumps there. A friendly DZ with 2 Caravans it was a nice place to visit!
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I will come back to Israel one day as there is so much more to see. As I said to Uri, it far exceeded my expectations and seemed like it would be an amazing place to live. The way of life there in Tel Aviv was something that I hope to emulate else where once I find a place to land. In the mean time however I'm writing this as I sit on the rooftop of the Seven Hills Hotel in Istanbul, Turkey looking out over the city at the Blue Mosque only a few hundred feet to my right and the ocean a few hundred feet to my left. In a few hours I will be seeing a friend I haven't seen in about 10 years and we plan on traveling eastern Europe together. With no set itinerary and only a flight out of Prague…..who knows what path we'll choose…..

23 April 2007

Trans Siberian Railroad from Beijing to Moscow...

Boarding the train in Beijing, I was getting ready for an epic journey across Siberia as we exited China and entered Mongolia. Passing through the Great Wall near Badaling was a great way start this 6 to 7 day excursion on the tracks.

The traditional Trans Siberian Railroad extends from St. Petersburg across Siberia, never leaving Russia and ends at Vladivostok almost 7 days later having traveled a countless number of miles. While this is the tradition Tran Siberian experience, I chose another, almost more popular route which went from Beijing into Mongolia with a stop over in Ulaan Bataar, continuing on to Irkutsk, Russia where you stop and see Lake Baikal only an hour and a half away. From there onto Moscow which is a 77 hour journey in and of itself traversing 5 time zones. This route is known as the Trans Mongolian Railroad. While not actually having anything to compare it to, I can say already that I prefer this route as it extends to not just one culture and one landscape, but three cultures and landscapes, three currencies, three ways of life and three very unique lands. It also breaks up the monotony of a 6 ½ day venture, which is how long it would take if you didn't get off. 
Leaving Beijing early in the afternoon, I boarded the train onto what appeared to be the tourist car, kupe` class. This was second class service with 4 berths in a cabin and a door that opened to the isle way with a toilet at either end of the carriage. Upon entering my cabin, I thought I must have been in the wrong place as there were already 6 people sitting in the 4 person cabin. When the Mongolian family saw me they jumped up and made room. Once the extended family cleared out I was still a bit confused as there were 5 of us still in there. I had an upper bunk and made my home, stowed my bag and got settled. I came to realize that the little girl, who had to be under the age of 5 was sleeping in the same bunk as mom. Of course they didn't speak a word of English. Having passed several other backpackers boarding the same car, I venture outward to see what new friends I could make. As luck would have it there was a tour group full of Aussies and a few from the UK. They were on the Vodka Train tour, drinking their way across Siberia…..or so the brochures would have you believe. Turns out it was just a random group of people from all over Australia, a few couples and a few friends. I hung out with Beth & Brian from Brisbane, Dan from Perth and Gary from the UK. They seemed like good people and when we swapped itineraries with each other we quickly realized that while we would miss each other from Mongolia to Irkutsk, we would be on the same 77 hour train onward to Moscow. That would start a common theme on and off the train of people seeing over and over again as we all traveled along the same tracks heading in one direction or another, swapping maps, currency and tips on where to go or how to get out of being stopped by the police in Moscow…..never give them your passport, seemed to be a common response, just a photo copy! We would swap #'s and attempt to track each other down further on down the tracks. The Aussies also offered me a sanctuary in their cabin away from the family that while very friendly, didn't speak a lick of English.
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Once out of China and cleared of the Mongolian passport control, there was a bogie change. This is where they separate all cars, and lift up each and every car to change the wheels, aka bogies. China runs on a 5' wide track while Mongolia and Russia run on a 4' 8" wide track. This takes only a few hours to our surprise. While some chose to stay on board and get jolted around like ants in a box as the cars were shifted and lifted, most of us went into the train station and raided the general store there. The three clerks at the front didn't really have a register, nor a system of how they charged people. Since the lines were huge and the store was packed, they opted to process customers quickly in order to clear the store. A mad rush ensued and as I approached the front of the line, the clerk looked at what I held in my hands…..rolled her eyes around in her head as if she were doing some form of complex math, adding and multiplying and coming up with some sort of number that was not even close to how much it should have been. Shrugging and not even thinking about correcting her, I handed her my left over Yuan and exited the station and back aboard the train. 
The next morning we woke to the Gobi desert outside our window. Other travelers had told me that the Gobi, while over 100 km away from Beijing was approaching at an alarming rate of 2 km per year. Good thing they are hosting the Olympics in 2008 and not any later…..Upon arriving in Ulaan Bataar, I was greeted by the driver for the UB Guest House holding a sign with my name on it. Quite a nice sight I must say after a long trip and while backpacking. I jumped aboard a van that was promptly filled with other travelers and off we went. The Guest House left a bit to be desired, but the people made up for it as did the other travelers there, most of whom were in the midst of the same journey that I also had begun. Only having two days in Ulaan Bataar, I headed out to get some Mongolian money from the nearby ATM. When I left the states I did so with not even $100 USD in my pocket and no travelers checks of any kind. As soon as I got to a new country with a new currency I would head to an ATM and withdraw an amount I thought I needed and went from there. It's been clockwork, up to now. The first ATM walked me all the way through the transaction then spit my card out. Having only had this happen in China, I found an ATM that was on my card's network and tried again. Same results. After the sixth, seventh and eighth ATM, I began to grow concerned. How was I going to pay for my accommodations, worse, the train ticket onward to Russia? Not wanting to pay the outrageous fares that the travel agents were attempting to charge me for the 3 train tickets, any where from $1200 - $1800 USD, I opted to buy my tickets when I got there. The first leg was $100, the second was $35 and the third was $330. Much better than the travel agents rates. So I went in search of the International Ticket Counter which was located near, but not at the train depot. I made my arrangements, got the price and went to pay….and of course, they didn't take any kind of plastic. A worker there realized I had tried ATMs all over town and walked me about 4 blocks to a money exchange place where they allow you to charge your credit card and receive cash. 100,000 please! It was a deal and allowed me to survive for a few days in Mongolia. The lesson learned here is that while I have 3 ATM cards with me and none of them worked, they are all Mastercards. Mongolia was Visa only land. Who knew…..
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Heading back to the hostel I met up with a few girls sharing the room and realized quickly that they were part of a larger group about 10 strong…..all Peace Corp volunteers based in and around Mongolia. On the whole there were just over 100 volunteers in the country I learned that night. I had no idea. I found it fitting that the very evening I was out with a group from the Peace Corp in Mongolia, my cousin who met her fiancé in the Peace Corp in Panama was getting married in Texas. How random. The group took me out to one of their favorite bars and drank happily until close…which was a staggering midnight. A large sign on the door at the hostel warned NOT to stay out past midnight as it was not safe. I figured if they took the trouble to post a sign then it was worthy of listening too. 
The next day I ventured out and started noticing the cars. While they drove on the right side of the road, the cars had right side steering wheels. Upon further inspection I realized that I was wrong, they had right AND left side steering wheels. There was no rhyme or reason, but as I stood on the street corner I took notice and counted, it worked out to about 50 / 50. How random I thought, until I mentioned it to a girl at the hostel who told me that Mongolia was a hotspot for stolen cars. They get shipped there from all over Asia and even Europe. It all made sense. Wandering through the Main Square where Dave's British Pub was located…..owned by a British guy named Dave (who would have thought), I found myself walking into the Grand Khaan Irish Pub. What can I say, I had to check it out. To my surprise they had really good western food. I've been splitting my time from the local foods to western foods, avoiding fast food at all costs. So far it's been working pretty good and allowing me a good balance. 
The train from Mongolia into Russia was a comedy show. Apparently the thing to do was to smuggle in cheaply made goods into Russia and then sell them once you cross the boarder. So much so that about 6 women ran up and down the cars holding arms full of sneakers, button up shirts, bags taped shut full of clothes and whatever else they were trying to smuggle over the boarder. The way they did it was to walk up and down the cars finding the naïve travelers and put these packages and shoes and shirts in their cabins. That way when Russia Customs walks aboard they don't see a pile of shirts all the same, but one in each compartment and thought nothing of it. While they tried 3 different times to just walk into our compartment, in the end we dropped the stuff in the hallway and slammed the door shut. Watching them running and up and down the different cars was quite humorous I must say. I would also think that attempting to smuggle something into Russia and avoid paying customs is not something that I'd like to try. But nevertheless, it provided entertainment for the evening! 
In the cabin next to mine I befriended 3 Aussies from Perth, all 22 and traveling to Moscow. Turned out we were staying in the same hostel in Irkutsk. We bonded and ended up spending the next 5 or 6 days together. Peter, Chris and Sheryl were all traveling separately but met up in Beijing for this journey to Moscow and then would go their own ways again. What a fun group of Aussies! Of course every time they referenced backpacking right after college, I jumped in and said, "yeah….I did that back in '97……errrr…..10 years ago." Making me feel great about my age of course….. Once in Irkutsk we ran out and found the Liverpool Pub. This was a British Pub with a Beatles theme and to our pleasant surprise with live acoustic music, all Beatles songs of course. Walking there our group was 6 strong as we picked up 2 more from the UK staying at the same hostel just traveling in the opposite direction. Singing along and having a great time, we attempted to order food. While they had an English menu, the waitress didn't speak any. So pointing at the menu didn't help much. The singer ended up coming over and helping translate. Seeing that he was a pretty good guy after helping us order we started throwing requests out to him. 'Hey Jude' we shouted……nothing. Sorry…..don't know that one…….'OK….how about Imagine?' …..Sorry, don't know that one either. Did I mention that he was ONLY playing Beatles songs, and he didn't know these two songs? Oh well….it was still a fun night and that just added to the experience. The next day we picked up 2 more from the hostel and all 8 of us hopped on a bus and headed and hour and half away to Listvyanka.
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Listvyanka is the first main town that you come to when heading to Lake Baikal. Lake Baikal is a fresh water lake and is over 5000 feet deep in spots. If you took all of the 5 Great Lakes and combined the water, you would have less than the water that is in Baikal. Having poor timing with Spring around the corner, we couldn't drive on the lake any more, nor could we boat across as it was all still ice, just melting ice. We ended up renting an apartment for a night in Listvyanka and walking into town for supplies, dinner and of course, Vodka. We also ventured out onto the ice……we just couldn't resist. It was fun to run around out there, but it was melting and you could see and hear the cracking. Fun, but not for an extended period of time. Getting back to the apartment we found an old cassette player and tons of tapes with Russian music mixed with Western music. That and the Vodka made for a good, loud and fun filled evening. I'm glad that the apartment was made of solid concrete as if we were in the states, the cops would have shown up at 3 am for sure….but not in Russia!
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Once back in Irkutsk I ran around with Sheryl and saw some churches and statues of Lenin. It was a town of a little more then half a million. Later on, as someone else noted in the group, it was also very odd for most of us as the locals were all Caucasians. I thought about it and realized that I had been traveling in China, India, Nepal, Thailand, Bali…..all places where being white was the minority. It's not something I thought about much, but did realize that I had been the minority for over a month, and as I realized this I remembered thinking back to Agra in India when I ventured out to one of the markets that was out of the way and while walking around for almost and hour I didn't see another westerner. I remembered how good that felt and thought about that then. As far as this trip goes…..being the minority is gone for the time being, but it was an interesting experience to say the least…..
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Now I find myself on the 77 hour, number 9 train to Moscow, the Baikal Express, writing this from the dining car as we scream across Siberia. Of course the Vodka Train crew from Australia are here to keep me company. I'm also coming to the end of a month without seeing anyone I know. It's been nice but it will be good to see Sergey in Moscow, Uri and Yonatan in Israel, and Lauren in Istanbul. Traveling and seeing old friends as you go is a nice thing indeed. Of course so is traveling solo and being forced to meet new people. After all, I didn't quit my job, sell my house and put all of my belongings in storage so that I could sit around and do nothing. This trip is about change and experiencing new people and new places. It's about seeing what this world has to offer, finding out how other people from around the world make a living and see how they live. It's about exploring and going to places that I've always wanted to go to but never had the time or the resources. Now I have both. Of course getting back to the states in June, I've committed myself to skydiving for most of the summer hopping back and forth between Boston, Chicago, Atlanta and I'm sure other places along the way. I'm already looking forward to September after our National competition when I am free again and ready to roam. I have a feeling that I might go back and spend some time in South East Asia then New Zealand for a few months. Who knows where I'll end up or what I'll end up doing. After all, the fact of the matter is that the pockets are not that deep and traveling for all this time, while being a life changing experience isn't sustainable and I hate to say it, but I will have to work a bit at some point. The good thing right now is that, that is something I only have to worry about in the future, because right now I'm too busy enjoying how small this planet is and thankful for the fact that I can do what I'm doing. I'm thankful that I have a life and live in a country where I can roam free and explore all the little corners of this planet. And that's exactly what I intend to do…...
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Having gotten to Moscow I found my way to the Napoleon Hostel with a friend Emiko from the train. Once I checked in and got settled, in walked Mike from Boston. He is a Merchant Marine that I met in Shanghai…..more proof that it's a small world. The next day I ran around Red Square, Lenin's tomb and the Kremlin. Had good timing and caught the changing of the guards with their high kicks and rifle slapping march. Ran down along the river and saw the monstrous Peter the Great statue and cathedrals all over town. That second night I met up with an old friend Sergey who grew up in Moscow. He picked me up and brought me to one of his favorite bars. We parked the car and started down a small ally to find a green, metal, beat up door with no markings or signs other than graffiti. He punched in a combo and opened the door which lead to a small chamber about 12' x 12'. The inside was covered in paint and designs on the walls, a door at the far wall and again…..no signs other than a biometric scanner to read thumb prints. Sergey placed his thumb on the keypad and after a second or two there was a buzzing sound and the door opened. Down a flight of stairs we went to meet a girl he knew at the bottom. Ducking my head and lifting my feet as if it was a door on a submarine I stepped in and entered the bar. A very eclectic place, the Corkscrew as it was called had to be one of the coolest bars I had ever been in. The theme was base jumping, skydiving and aviation. Tables were made from spent jet turbine covered in glass and seats were out of old airlines and a few ejection seats as well. The walls were covered in pictures from jumps all over Russia. Everything was controlled by a thumb print as it was a members only bar and was actually located in the basement of an old KGB building……I guess in Russia, knowing the right people and making the right payments, you can put a bar just about anywhere! Going to bed early…..around 4:30 am I would highly recommend anyone traveling to Moscow to track down Sergey and experience this for yourself. Oh, and the live band was great there as well!
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The last two nights in Moscow were spent couch surfing at Natasha's place, only 4 metro stops out of town. The last night there she threw a party for couch surfers and friends where I randomly bumped into one of the Aussies from the Vodka Train who is also a couch surfer. I tell ya…..the world keeps getting smaller and smaller every corner I turn. Now I find myself on a flight to Tel Aviv to see more friends. Wait until you hear about the Moscow airport and the security checks….….but I'll save that for another time….
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