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Around the world travel, Backpacking, Bucket List, Israel, long term travel, Tel Aviv, Travel

Winding Down in Tel Aviv

We were up early Monday morning to return the rental car – so early we got there before the office opened, so we popped across the street for a coffee while we waited. The office opened at 8:00 and we quickly learned we had done double the allowed mileage on the rental car. Oops! So after some negotiations, we paid a much smaller fee than originally quoted and we also made friends with Roiy, who invited us out for drinks that evening.

Our only plans for the day were to chill out and cafe hop, and we did just that, while enjoying some of the amenities that come with being in a capital city. We strolled through Tel Aviv’s sprawling food market, window shopped on Shenkin Street and drank coffee at cafes that rivaled the hipster joints on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
We dodged late afternoon rain showers and made our way to met up with Roiy for some beers. I always appreciate time with locals, as it gives you better insight into what life is really like in a place. After a couple of beers at a typical Irish pub, we got to talking about life in Israel. Roiy spoke of the high cost of living in Tel Aviv which is crippling for so many people. He wants to be a hang-gliding pilot, but because of the cost of courses, his rent, and the low wage he makes at his current job, his certification is taking longer than he would like.
He talked to us about his time in the army, and his disposition changed entirely. He said that his time serving in the army, “put his light out,” and he quickly changed the subject although we were so interested to hear more. After a few more drinks, we headed for what would be my last late-night falafel and made our way back to the hostel. I said goodbye to Dave, as he was leaving for a very early morning flight. It stormed hard all night, and I was relieved to wake up to clear skies. There’s nothing like schlepping in the rain with a 25lb backpack on.
I arrived at the airport more than 3 hours prior to my flight, as recommended by other travelers and Israelis alike. The security checks were like nothing else I have ever experienced. Both my checked and unchecked bags were unpacked and repacked, down to every coin being taken out of my purse. Luckily, the questioning about my time in Israel and what I had done was not as grueling as I had heard it would be.
I headed to the gate with mixed feelings. My time in Israel had been an education from start to finish. But I felt like I had carried a weight with me the entire time, not one of worry, but one of trying to figure out the dichotomy of this young country. Each city felt like being in a new country, and there was no “getting used” to it. Many places I leave feeling like I know I will return to, but I didn’t feel that way about Israel. I feel like it was a place I needed to go out of a desire to learn and understand, but for me it didn’t offer that draw or magic that I’ve experienced elsewhere. I boarded my flight back to Istanbul, excited for one more day in what had turned out to be such a surprisingly likeable city before departing for a totally different experience altogether…Nepal!
Around the world travel, Backpacking, Bucket List, Dead Sea, Israel, long term travel, Masada, Travel

Masada and The Dead Sea… Against the Clock

On Sunday, we were up early to see the Church of the Sepulchre and Temple Mount before heading out of Jerusalem with Dave’s friends from Tel Aviv. We queued at the Church of the Sepulchre, where Jesus was believed to be laid to rest, and after 30 minutes, got a glimpse of the tomb. We them hoofed it over to Temple Mount, but the lines were so long, we had to miss it. We were disappointed but decided to walk down an alleyway to buy a coffee for our walk back to the hostel, and we noticed a door in the distance. We strolled down and talked to a couple of guards, and we found a different entrance to the temple. We weren’t allowed to enter, but we at least got an up close view and a photo opp of this special sight.

We sipped coffee and stumbled upon a pastry cart on the walk back. The city was just waking up, and I realized that I love Old Jerusalem best in the wee hours of the morning or the very late hours of night, when tourists have gone back to their hotels, and it feels like it’s just you and the locals.
We grabbed our bags at the hostel and headed over to a bus station on the main road, the place where Dave had arranged to meet his friends from Tel Aviv. They had graciously agreed to pick us up on their way to Masada and take us back to Tel Aviv that same night. Unfortunately, 2 hours later we were still waiting, so we made our way to Budget Car Rental and hired a Suzuki Splash for the day and made our way out of Jerusalem.
This was quite hilarious as the GPS was stuck on Spanish and suffering from a serious delay. It would have probably worked better if I tossed it out the window. Still, as we approached Arad, we stopped for clearer directions and lucky we did, as we learned that we needed to enter Masada from a specific direction if we wanted to take the tram, and given our time crunch we figured this was the best idea.
We pulled into the gates of Masada at 2:58 and the last tram went up at 3:00. Dave dropped me at the entrance, and I ran in to buy tickets and hold the tram while he parked the car. We made the last tram and breathed a sigh of relief as it climbed to the top of Masada. It would have been such a shame to drive all that way and not have the opportunity to see this historic fort and city. It was a bit of a whirlwind tour, but definitely worth seeing, and in just under one hour, we were making our way back down. We had about 1 hour left of sunlight and it was my last chance for a dip in the Dead Sea.
I made for the public restrooms near the parking lot at Masada and quickly changed, and we got back on the road to drive down to one of the public beaches nearby. We parked at Le Meridien and I walked right onto the beach and into the sea. I didn’t have the chance to lather up in mud, but I was just thankful I hadn’t missed the opportunity altogether.
I got a real kick out of floating and Dave laughed at me from the water’s edge. I’ve heard plenty of stories about this and have seen pictures, but it is so cool to experience. This is something that everyone should do once! I floated for about 20 minutes and gave myself a good salt scrub, then took a quick freshwater shower, did a deck change by the car, and we were back on the road. It had been a whirlwind of a day.
We made our way back to Tel Aviv with a quick stop in Arad for shawarma and by 8:30 we were on the outskirts of Tel Aviv. I was at the wheel and Dave was navigating, which was working for us. We found the hostel with no problem and located a public parking lot nearby, as well as a great market. I felt like I was back at the Amish Market in New York City for a second.
We set our alarms so we could get the rental car back on time the following morning, and I started doing calculations in my head of how many extra kilometers we were going to be charged for… oh well, we had miraculously seen it all and ended up back in Tel Aviv in one piece – that was all that mattered.
Around the world travel, Backpacking, Bucket List, Israel, Jerusalem, long term travel, Travel

Religious-ed Out in Jerusalem

We checked in at the Citadel Hostel in Old Jerusalem and headed for a breakfast of shakshuka and hummus. Food was quickly becoming a highlight of my trip to Israel. Here, Anita and I met Dave, a Canadian traveler, who had just arrived from Jordan, so the three of us set out to Rampart’s Walk for a tour of the rooftops of Jerusalem. We then left the Old City at Lion’s Gate and hiked up to Mount of Olives, where we watched Orthodox Jews visit graves and say their prayers. This is a holy place for Jews because they believe when the Messiah returns, this is where he will come. The hike to the top afforded us panoramic views of Jerusalem.

We had a chilled out afternoon and spent the evening at a bar in the New City before heading to Damascus Gate (the Muslim area of Jerusalem) for 7 shekel falafel – the cheapest, and best yet. We walked through the empty Old City on the way back to the hostel, playing an aggressive game of football with a group of street kids. The city had gone to sleep for the night, and I would later come to appreciate this time, when I could roam the winding alleyways, sans tourists and crowds.
The following day, we set ourselves up for a big day of sights, starting at the Holocaust Museum. We spent 3 1/2 hours taking in exhibit after exhibit and story after story of this period of history. The amount of material was extensive and the trip was so educational, but also emotional draining. Since we’d spent so much time here, we scratched afternoon plans and just regrouped over coffee.
I reflected back on the morning and thought about the oppression the Jews experienced. It made me think about my time in Palestine, and despite being on a very different scale, the oppression the Palestinian people are experiencing. Although this stems from religion, it now has simply become a matter of humanity and respect for other human beings. I felt angry knowing that in a way, history has repeated itself in many different places the world over since the Holocaust.
The following morning, we headed to Mount Zion to see the church where apparently Mary is laid to rest. This was flooded with Indian Christians, which was oddly bizarre. Indians believe that part of the God or Deity they are worshipping is alive in the statue or monument, and swarms of these tourists were climbing over security lines and barricades to touch the tomb and the sculpture of Mary resting on top. It was the same with the other sculptures of Mary surrounding the tomb. From here, we did a quick walk through the Room of the Last Supper, which was highly disappointing. We then made a stop at Schindler’s grave, something that had been on my list of things I wanted to see in Israel.
From here, it was time to part ways with Annita. She was heading back to Tel Aviv. I was sad to see her go and feared being a little lost without her. We had spent over a week traveling together and experienced so much. We promised to reconnect in Switzerland in the near future and agreed to make a return trip to Palestine for Yousef’s son’s wedding.
Dave and I continued on the sightseeing circuit, touring the Citadel & Tower of David, Church of the Holy Sepulchre, back to Damascus Gate for falafel and then to the Wailing Wall for the beginning of Shabbat. My head was spinning and Dave suggested a bottle of wine and some backgammon… we needed a break from this religious education. This entailed one more trip back to Damascus Gate for more falafel… an addiction was forming.
On Saturday, I decided to honor Shabbat and do nothing. One of the workers at the hostel invited me to a meal at a local rabbi’s home, and I gladly accepted, excited to witness Jewish traditions and to have the chance to partake in them. I couldn’t help but compare it to the experiences I had already had and unfortunately the hospitality just didn’t compare. Don’t get me wrong, I was gracious and impressed by this family taking in so many people from the local community and all over the world, but I was sitting with a group of people who couldn’t seem to understand why I wanted to be there. It also felt a bit “extreme,” sort of like taking a European to a Baptist Church in the heart of the Bible Belt, so after the breaking of the bread and listening to a few people talk, I snuck out the back door and headed to Damascus Gate for some falafel- shock!
I returned to the hostel and shortly after, Dave returned from his day trip to the Palestinian Territories. We had a lot to talk about, which was done again over red wine and backgammon – which i was getting surprisingly good at. We made plans to get out of Jerusalem the following day and make our way back to Tel Aviv, via Masada and the Dead Sea.
Around the world travel, Backpacking, Bucket List, Israel, long term travel, Nazareth, Travel

Christianity 101

From Haifa, we head to Nazareth, but not before learning that it’s Eid, a Muslim festival, equivalent in importance to Christmas. So we’re leaving during Shabbat, arriving in a predominantly Muslim city during the middle of a huge holiday, and we’re being driven by a Christian bus driver. Dizzying. A fellow traveller said to me, “The more confused you are the more you are beginning to understand Israel.” Ain’t that the truth!

Due to the festivities, we’re dropped the other side of town in Nazareth and have about a 30-minute walk to the guesthouse, through parades, fireworks and screaming children. We’re glad to arrive, but it’s odd to be in a place with so much Christian significance during a Muslim holy day.
The following day we set out to see Nazareth’s sights, which doesn’t take long seeing as they all fall within steps of each other. I’ve never been a hugely religious person, but I’m interested to visit the biblical places I’ve heard stories about my entire life. The first stop is the unassuming Synagogue Church- apparently the place where Jesus attended church and later preached. We’re greeted by the church innkeeper who gives us a brief overview of the church, yelling over his shoulder to us, while ringing the morning bells. Interestingly enough, he tells us Nazareth is still 40% Christian.
From here, we head to the Church of the Annunciation, where according to The Bible, Mary announced she would give birth to Jesus. We listened in on a Sunday morning mass in Italian and toured the grounds. Many countries have donated mosaics of their interpretations of The Virgin Mary and Jesus – the artwork was beautiful.
We did a quick tour of St. Joseph’s, where Joseph’s carpentry shop was believed to be, and then went to Mensa Church. ‘Mensa’ means ‘table’ in Latin, and a huge rock sits in the middle of the Church. This is believed to be where Jesus ate with his disciples after rising from the dead.
The last stop was at a Greek Orthodox church, where we managed to sneak in during a christening. We had just a few minutes to take in the ornate paintings and decor.
It was time for lunch and my first opportunity to try falafel- and definitely not my last. This was followed by a trip to a sweet shop that came highly recommended. As we were surveying all the different varieties of baklava and deciding what to sample, I couldn’t help but notice a man in the back of the shop, washing his feet in the sink. I was a bit disturbed by this, and didn’t put two and two together, until he laid down his prayer mat and knelt to say his afternoon prayers. Then, it all made sense, but it was still slightly disturbing.
That afternoon, after sampling the baklava, we hiked up to the Salesian Church on top of the hill. The church was closed but we had some great views of sprawling Nazareth below. We picked up a bottle of Israeli red wine on the way back to the guesthouse, and after the first sip decided they should stick to making baklava!
That night we made plans to head South and West… into the Palestinian Territories
Around the world travel, Backpacking, Bucket List, Haifa, Israel, long term travel, Travel

Hummus, hummus and more hummus

A week has passed since I’ve been in Israel. I’ve covered a lot of territory but haven’t been moving at break-neck speeds, leaving enough time for soaking in the culture and that has been interesting enough to say the least. There are so many components to Israel, so many different people, that it’s difficult to sum up this country concisely.

I began my journey in Haifa, where I was fortunate enough to cross paths with Anita from Switzerland, who is on a 3 week trip to Israel and Jordan. She took the train 2 stops too far, and I got off 2 stops too early and we ended up at the check-in desk at the Port Inn at the same exact time- gotta love coincidences!
We began our afternoon dodging rainstorms in a cafe near the Port Inn over the biggest bowl of hummus and made a plan for the next few days. The following morning we headed to Ben Gurion Avenue for breakfast and to tour the local shrine and gardens.
Ironically enough, I wasn’t beginning my time in Israel learning about Judaism, Islam or Christianity, but a more newly formed religion, called Baha’i. We took a guided tour to learn a bit more. I liked what I heard- a religion founded upon the goal of uniting all of humankind, one that believes in gender equality, education for all and non-violence. Funnily enough, there are no Bahai’s living in Israel as that is against the religion, and the country with the most followers – India.
From here, Anita and I were on a wild goose chase to find the Hertz car rental office. Shabbat was beginning at sundown, so we knew if we wanted to see anything the following day, we would need a car. After 30 minutes of literally running in circles, a kind gentlemen told us that the office had moved… so we weren’t unable to read the map, but we were without wheels!
We still managed to get to Acre the following day by sherut, or shared taxi, but other than being an old port town with some of the best hummus I’ve ever had, Acre wasn’t much to write home about. After stuffing ourselves on hummus, pita, tabouleh and french fries, we roamed the port town in a semi-conscious state, plopping down for double espressos by the waterfront.
With nothing left to do in Acre and Haifa but eat, we decided to move on to Nazareth, public transportation allowing.
Around the world travel, Backpacking, Bucket List, Haifa, Israel, long term travel, Travel

Israel – The Beginning of An Education

I spent my last evening in Istanbul over a couple of glasses of wine with Shelley and Rodrigo at the upstairs bar at Cheers. It was busy, there was a light energy in the air, and I was tempted to stay awake all night and not sleep pre-flight, but common sense got the better of me, and I managed a few hours sleep before the 4am shuttle to Attaturk airport.

I was there too early to check in, but I recognized a guy from my airport shuttle, and he suggested a coffee while we waited. I had no lira left, so I gave him pounds in exchange for a coffee and muffin. We sat for the next hour sharing our Istanbul stories. Less than three hours later, I was on the ground in Tel Aviv.
I had a hard time stifling a smile at immigration. There’s an energy that comes with arriving in a new country, especially one that is so foreign to me, promising and slightly intimidating all at the same time.
I decided logistically to begin my journey in Haifa, just north of Tel Aviv and then head East, working in a clockwise direction, ending back up in Tel Aviv in a couple weeks’ time. I bought a train ticket from Tel Aviv to Haifa and waited the 40 minutes at the train station. As Israeli man returning from Moldova sat down next to me and we struck up a conversation. He wanted to hear all about my plans to see his country and offered to be a tour guide for me when I returned to Tel Aviv. He dug through his duty free shopping and gave me a Toblerone, saying it was good travel fuel.
On the train ride, I sat next to an older woman from Jerusalem who explained to me the dichotemy of the old and the new world here, how Tel Aviv is the land where anything goes, where people are liberal and open-minded, while in Jerusalem, she is put off by the “ultra-religious-ness.”
We exit the train together. She wishes me a good journey and I realize I’ve got off the train two stops too early. Seeing a concerned look on my face, three separate people approach me and ask me if I need help. They get me to the right platform to continue the journey to Haifa.
I strike up a conversation with a young girl in her army fatigues. She is 10-months into her 2 year mandatory military service. She wants to go to university in California when she’s finished. I ask her if she likes what she’s doing, and she just kind of gives me a look like, “well, i have no choice.” She replies, “we have to.” We board the train and two stops later, I thank her and say goodbye.
At the station in Haifa, I open my map to get my bearings and a group of taxi drivers standing nearby ask me where I’m going. “Port Inn?” I say and instead of trying to talk me into taking a taxi, they give me walking directions and tell me it’s not far.
My first impressions are that the Israeli’s are kind and helpful. I have no preconceived notions about Israel. I know little about this country other than its religious importance through history and its political struggle with Palestine. Until this morning, I was unaware that the country is no bigger than the state of New Jersey and was formally founded in 1948.
Very rarely do you travel somewhere where you have no expectations and know so few stereotypes prior. I will let my time in Israel form my opinions as I go. I have a lot to learn and feel dizzy already by what I’m hoping to accomplish in two weeks. Let the journey begin!