Monday, March 29, 2010

Looking Back: Jordan and Israel

Last year, I was fortunate enough to travel to the Middle East twice—once to Jordan and once to Israel. It was my first time traveling to both countries—and to the region—and I honestly didn’t know what to expect from either trip.

In preparing for both journeys, however, I inevitably encountered the same questions from concerned friends and family: Will you be safe there? Will you have to cover yourself up? Again, are you sure you’re going to be safe?

I’ll admit that those same questions crossed my mind, too. The Middle East is a region that, as Americans, we tend to not know very much about except for the fact that words “Middle East” are almost always followed by the word “conflict.”

Well, both of my trips to Jordan and to Israel proved to be utterly unforgettable and for all the right reasons. In Jordan, I saw Petra by day (and by night); I camped out in the desert with Bedouins and survived an overnight sandstorm; and I floated for the first time in the Dead Sea (which actually felt more like soaking in baby oil, surprisingly). In Israel, I fell into the Mediterranean during an “Amazing Race” competition; I explored centuries-old Crusader tunnels in Akko; I felt completely moved by my visit to the Wailing Wall and Yad Vashem in Jerusalem; and I discovered that Tel Aviv was kind of like L.A. with its beachy, laid-back vibe (well, almost).

That’s not to say that weren’t any mishaps, however (when is there ever a trip without at least one or two?). But those had to do with bad hotel management and some cranky individuals—both of which will remain unnamed. Oh, and a particularly ignorant tourist family who made me take a photo with them at holy Christian site because they’d never seen an Asian person before in their life. Ugh—I hated that.

But you know what? Not once did I feel unsafe—ever. Just be prepared for very thorough luggage screenings and super-tight airport security (especially if you’re flying with El Al). Oh, and yes, when visiting some holy sites, it’s best to cover up your arms and legs but otherwise, it’s not a problem at all. Just be sure to leave the ultra-mini and tube tops at home.

Nowadays, I don’t hesitate at all to encourage my friends to travel to Jordan or to Israel. And while I could go on and on with all of the reasons why, I think it might just be easier to show them to you like this:

Diners at Hashem Restaurant in Amman, Jordan //(c) Deanna Ting 2010

My first glimpse of the Treasury at Petra. //(c) Deanna Ting 2010

Bedouins in Wadi Rum, Jordan //(c) Deanna Ting 2010

The tracks we left in the Wadi Rum desert //(c) Deanna Ting 2010

Sunset on the Dead Sea in Jordan //(c) Deanna Ting 2010

Kids at a kibbutz in Israel //(c) Deanna Ting 2010

A Nazarene dancer //(c) Deanna Ting 2010

A snapshot from the underground Crusader tunnels in Akko, Israel //(c) Deanna Ting 2010

The Wailing Wall in Jerusalem //(c) Deanna Ting 2010

Beachgoers in Tel Aviv //(c) Deanna Ting 2010

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Local Perspectives

As much as I love being a travel writer, I must confess that there are, in fact, a few (mostly minor) downsides: (1) Not being able to travel with your loved ones. (2) Having to travel with people you don’t necessarily love (or even like). (3) Not getting to experience the destination as a local would.

Number three is a tricky one because, quite frankly, it can be difficult to get an authentic meal in some parts of the world, let alone a uniquely local perspective from start to finish. And, when you’re on a press trip, you have to pretty much stick to the plan. The plan, while usually jam packed with activities, doesn’t always leave enough time to let you wander and explore, meet the residents or even taste the regional specialties. (Also, I especially love encounters with friendly "wildlife"--like Jasmine from the North Shore Cattle Co. on Oahu--an absolute sweetheart of a dog. That's her drool on my leggings.)

My encounter with Jasmine from the North Shore Cattle Co., a family-owned cattle ranch on Oahu. //(c) Deanna Ting 2010

Fortunately, though, I’ve been lucky enough to benefit from the expertise of passionate and knowledgeable residents in a number of places that I’ve visited. I was reminded of that most recently on a trip to Hawaii just last week. Were it not for Candice and her team at Starwood Hawaii, I would never have known that Oahu’s North Shore grows some of the best coffee I’ve ever had, nor would I have ever tasted the meaty deliciousness of kimchee sausage on a stick.

Candice introduces Margery to some fried green tomatoes at the KCC Farmers' Market. Note the kimchee sausage on a stick in her hand. //(c) Deanna Ting 2010

Hawaii, in particular, is a place where there are locals and there are tourists—there’s a big distinction. Although I’ve been to Hawaii at least four times now, I am in no way a local and I would never dare aspire to be. Thanks to friends (and especially my boyfriend and his relatives), however, I’ve been privy to some of the best local spots on Oahu—places you won’t likely see in your Lonely Planet guidebook. And while I’m all for doing touristy things, traveling from a local’s perspective is always much more memorable and—let’s be honest—it comes with much better-tasting food, too.

Here are some of my favorite low-key (and mostly local) spots on Oahu:

Aki no-No: A little-known izakaya (Japanese-style pub) located in the Manoa neighborhood, near the University of Hawaii. Try the roasted gingko nuts--they're like macadamia nuts but chewier.

Diamond Head Market & Grill: Although I’m a sucker for any baked good, I’m not the biggest fan of scones because most of them tend to be hard as a rock. The blueberry and cream cheese scone here, however, was a revelation—soft, moist, creamy and tart. Another bonus? You can even buy beef bourguignon to take home—how ingenious!

Kailua Beach Park: My favorite beach on Oahu, hands down. I can never get over how beautifully blue its water is, or how fine the white-sand beach is. Even President Obama—an Oahu native—agrees. (Photo (c)

KCC Farmers’ Market: KCC, short for Kapiolani Community College, is home to my favorite Saturday farmers’ market. Where else but in Hawaii can you find kimchee sausage, kalua pork sliders (right), barbecued abalone, taro poke, shave ice and strawberry mochi all in one place? (Photo (c) Deanna Ting 2010)

Like Like Drive Inn Restaurant: A classic local-style diner that’s light on ambience but heavy on the helpings of pipikaula (Hawaiian-style dried beef) and loco moco (white rice topped with a burger patty and an over-easy egg smothered with butter brown gravy).

Liliha Bakery: Two words—coco puffs (left). I dream about this old-time bakery’s decadent chocolate cream puffs topped off with a buttery, salty, sweet Chantilly frosting—they’re just that good. (Photo (c) Liliha Bakery) 

Waiola Shave Ice: Shave ice is a must on any trip to Hawaii and Waiola’s is one of the best I’ve had (I’m hoping to try Shimazu on my next visit). Don’t skimp on the good stuff—go for the ice cream, azuki (sweet red beans), condensed milk and mochi balls. Remember, calories don’t really count when you’re on vacation.

Zippy’s: Okay, so they’re everywhere on Oahu but I have to admit that this Hawaiian version of Denny’s is good—always satisfying and, even better, open 24 hours a day. While they’ve got great oxtail soup and saimin, they also make a mean chili, believe it or not.

Here’s to new additions from future visits...

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Taking Off

First things first: I am a travel writer and editor. I get paid to travel the world and write about it. Not a bad gig—I know—and I’m grateful for the opportunities I’ve been able to have because of it.

My biggest confession? Usually, when I go on these trips, I’m not really incognito. I don’t own a corporate credit card under a fake name or run into bathrooms to furiously jot down my notes between courses. Sometimes, I’ll admit, this does make me feel guilty—as though I were abandoning my allegiance to the journalistic creed of ethics, as though I were a travel-writer version of Jayson Blair or Stephen Glass (though I never, ever fabricate any thing in my stories—trust me! I’m a stickler for fact checking!). Nevertheless, it’s a cold hard truth that the majority of travel writers—unless bankrolled by fatty publishing companies (if those exist anymore) or completely loaded on their own—are just like me. We travel for free (mostly) and we write about the places that host us.

Now, I know what you’re thinking…how can you possibly trust anything that we write about? Well, I’ll tell you this: At work, I’ll only write about the places and things that have proven to be positive experiences and I’m not afraid to point out some much needed criticisms when necessary. If something is really, really awful, I just won’t write about it at all.

In this blog, though, I’m going to open up. I’m not saying I’ll go on rambling rants and raves but, what I will do is share my travel experiences in a more personal way than I normally do for work.

What I love most about traveling is the experience of it—all of the interactions that you have with people from different cultures and backgrounds, all of the amazing (and sometimes questionable) foods, and even all of the unexpected roadblocks along the way. I’m sure you feel the same way, too.

So, let’s get started…I’ll try my best to keep you posted and I hope you’ll do the same.