Israel for a Beginner, or Trip to the Holy (Crap this is Amazing) Land – PART 2

Jerusalem

If you’ve just landed here but have not read Part 1 of my Israel trip, you can read it here.

Before leaving for our trip to Israel, I was stunned reviewing the places we’d be able to visit in Jerusalem. I don’t even know if I knew 10 years ago that Jerusalem was still an existing city (as in, that it was not just a place from the Bible.) I was surprised and in awe that a lot of places I had learned about growing up Catholic are actually real, i.e. Galilee, Jericho, Bethlehem, Nazareth, Mt. Sinai, the Garden of Gethsemane, etc. You can stop laughing. I really didn’t realize!

Anyway, for our Jerusalem tour, we used Bein Harim Tour Company. See my Trip Adviser review on my average experience with this tour company. It was convenient for us to use a tour company, considering the time or cost it would have been to get to Jerusalem ($120 cab each way, or quite a few bus/train transfers).

After an annoying amount of pick-ups and false starts, we arrived at the panoramic view of Jerusalem next to the University of Jerusalem. It was here I finally understood what the old city walls looked like within the landscape of the rest of Jerusalem. Everything about the old city was surreal. Unlike Tel Aviv, it looked exactly as I expected, but it was also like I was in some sort of dream state. I explored Jerusalem with my Jewish boyfriend, and was touched by the historic significance for all religions, despite my current agnosticism. Of course I was particularly moved by Christian sites, especially for the familiarity about things I had grown up learning. The Via Dolorosa (the Stations of the Cross walk) was particularly moving. That said, it was also quite disconcerting to be in such a place and then be yanked back to reality about tourism culture. For example, I was standing at the site where “as tradition says” (as the tour guides noted repeatedly), Jesus placed his hand on the wall to brace himself from the weight of the cross. As we were taking a moment to note this, there were souks shouting and hawking their religious good (“Get your rosaries! Need a kippah?”) immediately behind us. I felt this way again when we saw a large tour group dragging a life sized cross down the walk and laughing, as if they were giving a bumper car ride a try at a theme park. I’m not an overtly religious person, but it made me pretty queasy and agitated to see this.

Back to the sites. Again, as a non-practicing Catholic with a non(ish)-practicing Jewish boyfriend, I was also moved to experience seeing things like the Western (or Wailing) wall. Separated from Uri (and the rest of the men) for this Jewish prayer ritual, I approached the wall quite hesitantly, seeing how important this site and experience was to others around me. I didn’t want to offend, or appear to be part of the tourist culture of snapping photos of a solemn event for some, so I hung back. That is until the ladies starting sliding backwards in a bit of a moon walk towards me. With that and with confusion, I quietly left, to learn later that they don’t want to take their eyes off of the wall. I was a bit torn about how I felt about this since the men didn’t seem to be practicing the moonwalk like the women.

My favorite site was all at Mount of Olives, in the afternoon of our tour. The Basilica of the Agony, where we happened upon an Asian boys’ Christian choir group celebrating mass and singing. It was well timed and quite moving. The Garden of Gethsemane was my favorite place to see. “As tradition goes,” this is the place where Jesus was said to have prayed the evening before his crucifixion. I think it might have been my favorite place because it seemed the most authentic. The other places we were reminded, were simply churches and other worship or contemplation sites built upon the site where the history would have occurred. This is likely the same for the Garden, but something about seeing a Garden where a garden is made it seem more real. Plus, the garden was a beautiful lay out of Mediterranean plants and trees with just the right amount of sunlight pouring in to make even the most disbelieving pause for a moment to wonder if there was something (Someone?) orchestrating that stream of light into just the right spots.

Jerusalem is a place that I first did not realize was real, then could not believe I was seeing, and now cannot believe that I got to experience.

Masada & the Dead Sea

Our second tour while in Israel was a full day tour out to the desert and close to the West Bank to the site of Masada and the Dead Sea. We used the same tour company (Bein Harim Tours). The first point of interest in our drive was passing the bedouin nomads that take up camp in the deserts. After a forced stop at the Dead Sea toiletry factory (sigh, organized tours), we arrived at Masada. I did not know anything about Masada before I arrived. At face value, it is a desert fortification, but I learned that day about King Herod’s initial building and use of the site (hello, desert hang-out and protection pad), and then the initial moving story of the 1000 Jews that lived and later committed suicide there, rather than being captured by the Romans.

 

Finally, after passing the site of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, we finally arrived at our tourist dumping point for our waddle into the Dead Sea. A float in the Dead Sea was on my unofficial bucket list, and again an experience I couldn’t believe. Quite different than my Icelandic Blue Lagoon dip, it was so hot and salty, I felt quite like our tour guide said I would–like chicken soup. I expected to float, but I didn’t expect the buoyancy of the salt content. I was amazed about the fact that the Dead Sea contains 29% salt while a regular ocean contains 4%. I was also amazed (but it makes sense) to learn that the Dead Sea is shrinking (evaporation) and is dropping at a rate of 1m (3ft) per year. I asked the tour guide if there were plans to replenish the sea, but I don’t think she knew the answer as it appeared to me she thought I was strange for asking.

In summary, my trip to Israel is one of my top lifetime experiences.  I consider it as perspective-widening as climbing the Great Wall of China, or seeing Machu Picchu after 3 days hiking the Inca Trail.  I’ve been keeping up with the news regarding the recently re-incensed tensions between Palestine and Israel. While I will never attempt to be an expert in current events, I am so grateful that I didn’t have to make the decision to go to Israel in these current circumstances. It was one of the most amazing travel experiences of my life.

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Israel for a Beginner, or Trip to the Holy (Crap this is Amazing) Land – PART 1

Uri was invited to a wedding in Caesarea, Israel, in June. When I first learned about the opportunity to go on a trip to Israel, I was pretty hesitant. I didn’t know much about Israel, except that it was filed away in my head in “places frequently on the news for reasons to do with war or infighting, or airstrikes, or whatever… I would never have a reason to go anyway.” I didn’t understand the difference between an Israeli and a Palestinian, and I honestly didn’t know what side America even supported.

I was raised Catholic, but more influentially, was just raised in a place where I just didn’t have the motivation to learn much about things outside of my little world (see my previous entry). I also wouldn’t describe myself as an adventure traveler, keen to tick off the most risky places in the world. I am more of an experience-traveler. With every place I visit, I learn more about the world, the people in it, and how I fit. But ever since my extraordinarily well-traveled and adventurous great friend, Erik, made a video for Discovery Channel Travel, my mind had changed and I very much wanted to see this place for myself. Plus, I was dating a Jewish guy who answered my questions patiently and allowed me to grill him on risk aversion and current states of affairs, and his own opinions and experiences.

With all of this, I was very nervous to talk to my parents about making my decision to go. My mom’s reaction was as expected–she didn’t know much about the place, but she heard on the news that there was fighting and it could be dangerous. She didn’t want me to go, but trusted my decision. My dad’s reaction was less predictable. A history buff and a bit of a war alarmist-I was very afraid he would have a lot to say about going to a country where bombs have exploded on public city buses twice in the last few years, and where the U.S. Department of State travel site warns against visiting. His reaction was that this was a place as much for Christians as it is for Jews, or even for us agnostics who want to experience the historic significance. He wished it was something he could experience, and encouraged me to “go find out where I came from.” And with that, I was off to Israel.

Middle Eastern Arrival

My first touchpoint with the Middle East wasn’t even the Middle East, it was Turkey, and it wasn’t even reality, it was the #7 best airport lounge in the world (#1 to me!), the Turkish Airlines Lounge in Istanbul airport. As a layover to our overnight flight, I wished the 2 hours was longer… we arrived at around 4am waiting for the stalls to open. It was 3000 sq. meters (32,000 sq. feet!) of endless space, cold food stations, stations with 15 different types of nuts (10 of which I’ve never seen), stations overflowing with fruit and a fresh honeycomb, fresh omelet stations, a bakers corner where fresh sesame seed bagels were being twisted and dipped, coming out of the oven served with Turkish country butter, and best of all, the gozleme station, which I waited (im)patiently to open. I watched a Turkish lady prepping what became my layover breakfast: spinach, cheese, or potatoes, grilled inside paper thin, crispy sheets of dough (like phyllo), and basted with fresh garlicky butter. Delicious!!! The whole experience can only be described as opulent as was the experience of the ladies of Sex and the City 2 when arriving in Abu Dhabi. Hah!

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After two hours of bliss and a reminder from Uri of, “This is not what our trip will be like…,” we were off to Tel Aviv.

Tel Aviv

After arriving at the airport, we took the train to Tel Aviv and hailed a cab from the station. That’s a lie. We didn’t hail a cab–we were accosted by snarly, screaming Israeli men, who yelled at us as if we were doing something wrong requesting a cab in the cab line. Apparently that is how it goes there. We watched as a cabbie tried to coerce a solo female traveler to travel with us in our cab without a discount on price or a proper explanation. We all refused and we were all again shouted at by the impatient cabbie. Once in the cab, we fought about price throughout the ride as he continued to give us the run around, until I finally snapped with “50 shekels – no more discussion!!!”

My first impression of Tel Aviv was, “Soon we will drive out of this dirty, rundown area, and into the city, yes?” But then we pulled up to our hotel, right in the middle of said area. I can only describe the area as something of a bombed out desert town with dilapidated buildings, stray cats everywhere, crumbling sidewalks, and trash strewn in all the streets. Then, someone decided they wanted to build Miami over it. They didn’t bother to fix the building facades, or to clean the streets. They just gutted the insides of the buildings, and opened up a bunch of restaurants a la the trendiest styles of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and beach clothing shops.

The good news is, my impression of Tel Aviv only gets better from here. Yes, it is run down city that needs a lot of love and care, but we eventually found the strips of streets and neighborhoods that give it its charm. Would I feel comfortable walking these streets at night alone? Probably not. But as with any other place, you become desensitized to certain things that initially stand out (throngs of tourists in Midtown NYC on your way to work, or smelling pot on the tourist streets in Amsterdam). If I spent more time there and explored more neighborhoods, I would probably grow to feel even more comfortable with the difference in what was “normal”.

Tel Aviv is also a city to eat amazing food. Coming from New York City and moving to Amsterdam, I have been coping with the adjustment to the suburbanized lifestyle (in comparison), and struggling with the dearth of decent food options. Tel Aviv, like New York City, is a city to eat delicious food. I had many memorable meals: kebabs, hummus, pita, tapas, pork chops (yes, pork chops), shaksouka, sweet potato and yogurt chive dip, and on and on. My favorite restaurants were Orna and Ella, Vicky Christina, and Gedera 26. I cannot say enough about how amazing the food was!

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Tel Aviv is also the city of contrasts. A beach next to a previously hollowed out desert town (at least by appearances), Old Jaffa next to the new ports, hedonistic tendencies in a place where the entire city shuts down for Shabbat*… And then the Israeli women. They are pretty looking and pretty tough. I’d go so far to say they were some of the bitchiest women I ever met as a combined group, as far as the shop keeps, waitresses, and observances of vacationers and city dwellers we crossed paths with goes. The locals explained to me that this is how Israeli women are built to deal with Israeli men. If the men are anything like the cabbies, then I understand 😉 Over and over again I was astounded by how stick skinny and gorgeous (not related) they all were as well. It must be something in the hummus???

*Don’t let anyone tell you Tel Aviv doesn’t shut down on Shabbat! Sure, it wasn’t dead quiet like Jerusalem would be, but every restaurant we wanted to try was closed and every store was as well. We eventually parked ourselves on the beach for hours, and found a few open restaurants to eat, but our options that day were definitely more than limited. Not to mention that there is no public transportation running. And remember those snarly cab drivers? They know your lack of options and will gut you accordingly for those extra shekels.

Next up: Jerusalem, the Dead Sea & Masada, and a Jewish wedding…