Israel

Written by on November 19, 2012 in General, Middle East & Gulf States with 1 Comment

I’m glad I saved Israel for my last stop in the Middle East and was happy to be back in the first world for a couple weeks.  I suppose I timed my visit just right, and am thankful that I am not there now.  Air sirens and rocket attacks from Hamas were definitely not part of my round the world trip itinerary!  My thoughts and prayers go out to everyone in Israel as they continue to endure the attacks from Hamas and prepare for further military action.  Of course I hope that somehow they come to some sort of peaceful solution, however I doubt that’s possible and think things are going to get a whole lot worse before they get better.

Anyway, I almost didn’t make it out of Amman on the day I was Israel bound, as they had closed down all of the streets in the center of town for a marathon.  Luckily, my creative taxi driver went the wrong way down several streets to get the 4 people I was sharing the ride with me from the hostel to the King Hussein Bridge border crossing.   I had been stressed out about crossing into Israel for awhile, as anyone who met me in Jordan or Egpyt can attest to, as I needed to make sure that Israel stamped a separate piece of paper so there would be no evidence of my visit there.  Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran and all of the Arab countries on the gulf dot recognize Israel as a country, and don’t let visitors in who have an Israel stamp.  I had heard that Israel immigration was used to doing this for travelers, but that they might give you a hard time.  But, I was not only worried about an Israel stamp, but also needed to make sure that there were no exit/re-entry stamps from Jordan as the border crossing would be evidence of going to Israel.  As my round-the-world airline ticket went through Dubai, and if the UAE wasn’t going to let me in, then my entire ticket would become null and void as I would miss a leg and there are no itinerary changes.  In the end, I was worried for no reason.  Things took awhile at the border, but otherwise went fine.

After finally making it through, I jumped in a shared taxi to Jerusalem and dropped my bags at a hostel so I could go explore.  I immediately felt more comfortable that I had throughout the Middle East.  The air was cooler, the streets were cleaner, Arabic signs were replaced with Hebrew…and almost everyone here is Jewish, which is fantastic.  I am Jewish, and have wanted to visit “the Promised Land” since before my Bat Mitzvah.  That said, I wasn’t ready to tackle the religion, history and politics in Jerusalem just yet.  But since it was the last day of Sukkot, I wanted to have a quick  look around to see if I could see any sukkahs before heading to Tel Aviv for some much needed beach time and nightlife.  A sukkah is a temporary shelter constructed for the week of Sukkot, typically decorated with branches and autumn or harvest themes.  Wikipedia reminded me that Jews build and decorate sukkahs to commemorate the time God provided for the Israelites in the wilderness they inhabited after they were freed from slavery in Egypt.  I found a big one in Jerusalem…here’s what the inside looked like.

Anyway, I got lost in the Old City for a few hours, a bit surprised that it’s like one giant souk (shopping area) and how jam-packed with tourists the city was.  I was not prepared for the madness of a gazillion tourists crammed into the tiny streets.   No thanks…at least not right now.  I grabbed my bag and hopped on a one-hour bus ride to Tel Aviv.  I checked into Hayarcon 48, a hostel one block from a beautiful white sandy beach.  I took a quick look around and then parked myself at the front desk catching up on the blog and emails with a couple Goldstar beers, a dark lager very similar to Speights, my favorite New Zealand beer. Yummy!  Within an hour I met Erik, an American from New York but currently living in Madrid as he just finished his MBA there. We headed out for a burger and beers at a cute place a few blocks away called Little Prague, which was the first of many drink stops on a pub and club crawl that ended at 530a.  I don’t remember the names of the first few places, but we went to a great little funky spot called Radio before I talked him into joining me at a club called Cats and Dogs to check out Danny Howells, one of my favorite DJs from “the old days” in NYC at Vinyl/Arc down in Tribeca.  LOVE Danny!  It took about half an hour to negotiate our way past the door nazi, but it was well worth it and we had a blast.

I was staying in a 6-bed female dorm and everyone was up and out by 8am.  Wtf?!?  It was Saturday morning!  I really am not a fan of dorms, but it is a good way to meet people and the cheapest option.  Israel’s hostels were expensive.  $28-30/night for a dorm!  Ugh.  This is one of the things that sucks about traveling solo. If you’re two, the cost of a double is only a little more than a dorm, and soooo much nicer. Oh well.

I tried to sleep after everyone left, but then the cleaning crew came in, and so I managed to crawl out to grab some coffee and park myself on the beach.  I spent all afternoon lazing around on the super-soft sandy beach, taking frequent refreshing dips in the Mediterranean, which was the absolute perfect temperature. I definitely timed my visit to Israel right as every day was 80 degrees and sunny, and nights were balmy and pleasant…even a little chilly on a few, which was a really nice change.  Erik and I decided to take a walk about a mile south down the beach to Jaffa, an ancient port city that is the oldest part of Tel Aviv. We found a great market similar to the Mercado de San Miguel in Madrid, with what looked like several tapas bars and boutique food and drink ‘stalls’ selling only Israeli beers which all seemed to have very cool labels.

We grabbed dinner and headed back to the hostel, still hazy and tired from the previous nights festivities, and turned in early as we had big plans for the next day.  It was Erik’s last day in Israel and he’d been hoping to go kite-surfing all week but the wind wasn’t cooperating, as it wasn’t strong enough.  We rented a car to drive up to a beach up the coast and if the wind was good, I was going to drop him off for the day and then take the car to go explore on my own.   We stopped into the surf shop, but there was still no wind, so we hopped back in the car and headed North.

Our first stop was Caesarea, a port city built by Herod the Great in 25BC as an administrative center of the Judaea Province of the Roman Empire.  I have now officially had enough Roman ruins!  The site was quite big, but not so impressive. The setting was nice, though, as it was right on the water.

We paid a visit to the dive shop as part of the ruins were underwater, but they wouldn’t have let us dive without our log books, so we got back in the car and headed further to Haiko to check out the perfectly manicured Bahai Gardens, which were gorgeous by day…

and by night…

Erik didn’t fly out til after midnight, so we kept driving to try to make it to Akko before the mosque and souk closed.  The mosque wasn’t so impressive and the souks were closing, but it was cool to get lost in the maze of streets in the old city, trying to find the exit to the sea to watch the sunset.  The dusk setting was beautiful and we grabbed dinner and a beer on the waterfront.  It was a long drive back up Tel Aviv where Erik dropped me off for my first Couch Surfing (which I’ll abbreviate to CS going forward) adventure before he headed to the airport.

I had been hearing great things about CS from other travelers I’d met and decided Israel would be a perfect place to give it a shot as I was more interested in meeting and hanging out with Israelis than other travelers while I was here.  I met Ronen and Avital, who I’d reached out to after seeing their profile and recommendations and references online, who were both about 29 and PhD candidates.  They had a nice one-bedroom flat in a perfect location in Tel Aviv and Ronen had been hosting travellers for years.  They had a single mattress made up for me in the living room, and we stayed up getting to know each other for a couple hours.  They were both super-friendly, laid-back and well-travelled and were fun to get to know while I was there.

When I sent out a CS request to Ronen, it also went to other potential hosts in Tel Aviv and I received a flood of invitations from people who had a place to host me or just to meet up for coffee or to show me around Tel Aviv.  So, I decided I’d take a couple of those with more interesting profiles up on their offer.  The next day I met up with Shahar for coffee and we decided to go for a bike ride.  All over Tel Aviv they have bike stations where you can “borrow” a bike for 60 minute increments to get from one place to another.  Ronen let me borrow his pass, so Shahar and I would time our ride to shift bikes every hour on our ride up the coast and into a park.  Brilliant day!

I was finally ready to dig in for the heavier history, religion and politics in Jerusalem, and for another CS experience. David, a 29 year old Canadian, offered me his spare room.  I thought he’d be interesting to get to know as a few years back he’d done an “aliyah” and has now become an Israeli citizen.  We hung out at his 4th floor walk up for a few hours and then he had something to do, so I went to go watch the Giants on the big screen at Mike’s Place, a friendly sports bar nearby. Received strange text from David asking if I would mind if he stayed in the room with me. Wtf?!? I KNEW there had to be some kind of catch with CS. I honestly wasn’t sure how to respond as all of my stuff was at his place, but calmly texted him that I’d be happy to move to the hostel down the street. He immediately responded back that I shouldn’t move and he wanted me to feel comfortable. Whatever. Later I spoke with a couple of his friends that were women and they told me he uses CS to meet girls/hook up. Ugh. This is why I hadn’t wanted to try it to begin with. I think the concept is good, but that is not what I signed up for.

Anyway, the next morning I took a politically charged tour to Hebron in the West Bank, the site of the burial place of Abraham, Isaac, Sarah, Leah and Rebecca and one of the four holy cities in both Judaism and Islam.  The tour was split in half, with an Israeli guide for the morning, and a Palestinian guide for the afternoon, to try to give us both perspectives.  Hebron is an ancient and highly contested city where about 250,000 Palestinians live, but 500-800 Israeli “settlers” have moved back to, claiming that this was a Jewish land that they have every right to live in, and is now split into two sectors.  2,000 Israeli soliders look after the 500 Jewish settlers in the H2 sector, which is comprised of a synogogue, a yeshiva, and several homes.

The Palestinian population in H2 has dwindled to almost nothing due to the impact of Israeli security measures which include extended curfews, strict restrictions on movement, the closure of Palestinian commercial activities near settler areas and settler harassment.  Our guides argued that Hebron is epicenter of the problems between Israel and Palestine, which was highly evident.  I could write and write and write about this topic, but will spare you my political leanings.  It was definitely an eye-opening tour and one of the better ones I’ve been on…at least the half presented by the Israeli guy.

Since we were already in the West Bank, a few of us decided to break off from the tour and catch a shared taxi to Bethlehem, saving the having to come back across the “border” on another day.  Our first stop was the wall that separates Israel from the West Bank, which was covered in some amazing graffiti art.

I could have spent a lot more time there, but we wanted to get to town before the Nativity church closed for the evening.  Should have stayed at the wall, as the church wasn’t so impressive.   Interesting paradox to see this painted on the wall, a quote I would also see later at the Holocaust Museum.

That night I went back to David’s, and he played everything cool so I ended up staying one more night. His friends invited me out with them, but first I went to go meet another guy named Ben who I’d met online on CS at a little jazz bar down the street. He was a nice guy, but it started to feel la bit like we were on a date, which was not my intention at all.  Luckily the place closed early and we called it an early night.

The next day I became a tourist machine!  Started off with a walking tour of Jerusalem, where in the Old City we ran into several young boys about to have their Bar Mitzvah at the Western Wall.  Here’s one and his family making his way through the city en route to the Wall.  Check out the guy with the drum and shofar!

I split off fro the tour a little early to get in to see the Dome of the Rock as it had very limited hours it was open to non-Muslims. Amazing!

Crowds weren’t bad either, which was surprising to me given how many tourists were in town. I still had energy for more touristy stuff, so walked over to the Jaffa Gate to catch the 2p Mount of Olives tour.  I know I could’ve climbed up there, but felt like I’d be able to digest everything I was seeing better with a guide. He put us all into taxis, where i met Christian and Ansgar, 2 German guys. I quickly learned that the next day they were headed to the Golan Heights, which was exactly where I wanted to go.  With little public transport to get that part of the country, I had been looking for someone to share a car and costs with. Within 5 minutes of meeting the guys, I asked if I could join them and chip in for the car. This was such a common thing to do in Jordan, I didn’t give it much thought to ask, but later realized they were just on a 2 week holiday and that I took them by surprise by asking.  They had a little pow wow for a few minutes and them came over and said it would be ok for me to come along. Awesome!

Our tour made stops at the Garden of Gethsemane, Jewish Cemetery, Church of all Nations, Mary’s Tomb, Chapel of the Ascension and the Church of Pater Noster, most of which were sites associated with Jesus’ last week on Earth and where the End of Days was described to the disciples.

 

For Jews and Muslims alike, the Mount of Olives is where the gates of heaven will open up on Judgment Day.

That night I moved over to Merry’s place as she had offered her spare room and David had 2 more CS’ers coming to his place. Thanks Merry! I also checked out the tunnel tour, which takes you to the tunnels behind the Western Wall. With a 930p start time and after 2 other tours that day, I was definitely struggling, but it was still amazing.

The next morning I met the guys at their hotel and we hit the road.  Turns out that Ansgar is also a banker, working in syndications at a German bank, and Christian is a teacher. We were all about the same age. We headed north and made stops in Nazareth for lunch and drive past the Sea if Gallilee en route to our place in Tsfat. It was Shabbat, so everything was going to be closed soon, so we stocked up on snacks, wine and beer before checking in our cute hotel, which seemed like a funky little oasis in the middle of a forest.  What a switch from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv!  I was supposed to be staying in an expensive $29/night dorm room, but apparently it was all guys in the room, so the hotel owner put me in a twin room by myself. Score!  That night we managed to polish off 6 or 7 bottles of wine, and I eventually passed out.

All feeling quite rough, we managed to hit the road at a decent hour and headed to Banias park for a short “hike” to a waterfall.

All of us were very underwhelmed, and even more so after visiting Nimrod Castle, or what remains of it.  Still, we had a fun day!

We were hoping to find some wineries open, but they were closed for Shabbat, so we found the next best thing…the Katzrin Brewery.  On the map everything looked a lot closer, but in reality, it took all day to do not much. I was happy to not have to drive.  We stopped for more “supplies” on the way back to the hotel, but turned in early as I was still hurting from the night before.

The next morning the guys were nice enough to drop me off at the bus station in Tiberias that morning as they were headed to Masada and then down to Aqaba and I wanted to go back to Tel Aviv for more beach time and nightlife.  The next days went by in a blur, but were well spent relaxing and recharging the batteries at the beach. I met and hung out with an interesting American 60-something named Herb who was staying in my hostel who was in Tel Aviv for “medical tourism”, as he had a dental procedure done the week before and was recovering.  Also met and hung out with a couple more CS guys, who were both sweet to show me around Tel Aviv some more. I could live there, I think.  Well, I thought I could, until the news of the air sirens and rockets headed their way!

On day 13, I had an early morning pick-up for a Masada and Dead Sea Tour, which would conveniently drop me and all my stuff in Jerusalem, so I could avoid a few more buses and trams.  I wish I’d skipped it.  Way too touristy! Way too many people!  Masada and the story of Masada is worth hearing, but to have to be part of the herded tour groups was horrible. As I’d been told, but wanted to discover for myself, the Dead Sea on the Jordan side was SOOO much better than the Israeli side. It was way too crowded, and I should have skipped the entire experience. Oh well.  Lesson learned. Couldn’t leave without another photo op – this American is actually white, but obviously enjoying letting the mud soak in before his dip/float in the Dead Sea!

I was happy to be dropped at the Abraham Hostel, which was a well-located clean place to spend my last night in Israel.

I set out fast to get in the souvenir shopping I’d been planning since I’d gotten here. There were so many Judaica shops with a much better selection than back home. I’m overdue for a wedding gift for my Aunt and with Chanukah coming up, I figured this would be a good spot. I finished just in time to head over to Mike’s Place for the Giants game.  I ended up sitting next to a Bay Area guy named Darren and a few other Americans and we all stayed til closing celebrating their NLCS win, and went on to close down another bar down the street too. Omg.

Holy hangover!  When I decided to leave my visit to Yad Vashem to my last day in Israel, I had not anticipated or planned for one of the worst hangovers of the entire trip. It took everything in my power just to get out of bed and check out of the hostel, much less to pull it together to go to the Holocaust museum!  Needless to say, visiting the museum was a haunting and powerful experience and a perfect exclamation point on my visit to Israel.

I think that anytime anyone thinks that Israel’s military actions are in question, they should pay a visit to their local Holocaust museum.  Throughout history, Jews have been expelled from nearly every place they have ever lived.  Was it right that Britain handed over Israel in the 1947, displacing millions of Palestinians?  Of course not.  Will Israel do everything in its power to protect the land that was given (back) to them?  Absolutely!


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  1. Gav Carroll says:

    Deb,

    Give us an email if you still want to stay in Melbourne. We live about 25ks out of the centre of the city. I have some holidays in January so Mia and I can spend some time with you and offer you a bed for a couple of nights. Shell is busy working. Cost for the night is one bottle of Californian red. Australian steak, prawns and scallops, chardonnay etc included with accommodation 😉

    P.S. The Simpsons dolls you gave Mia still live here.

    Catcha dude.

    Gav (Gavshell@hotmail.com)

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