Israel

I bought a ticket to Israel while I was in India and sick, lol. My original plan had been to travel to South India before going to Israel, but getting sick again in India really put a damper on things and the country was testing my patience. In fact while I was there I told myself I’m never coming here again. But of course once I came back to the states I’m like I have to go to India again and see the south! I really do want to live there! But at that point, in the midst of being sick, sicker than I was the last time I was in India, I was really hating everything. I was tired of the smell and the traffic and the lack of infrastructure and all the homeless dogs running around. I was always worried I was going to see them get hit by something.  It wasn’t exactly wise for me to travel when I was sick, but I’ve made no claims to ever being wise, and I have traveled sick before, like when I took a bus from Varanasi, India to Kathmandu, Nepal. (I was already suffering from a stomach infection, but on the way I got car sick, vomited up my dinner that I barely managed to get down, and developed a chest cold, all while being hit on by a drunk guy in the seat across from me- yes, I am quite the multi-tasker).

I purchased a ticket Tel Aviv that just happened to have a lay-over in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, which I wrote about here- . There was quite a lengthy and ridiculous security check that we had to go through before we got on the plane to Israel. (I went through an even more thorough and ridiculous security check upon leaving Israel- their airport security measures are no joke). 

Since I had a stamp from a Muslim country on my passport (Egypt), I heard that I was going to have to explain why I had gone there/what I had done, and sure enough I was grilled about it a bit. The security guy, whatever his title, asked me something like “why did you go there?” and “where did you live when you were there?” My trip to Egypt had happened quite a long time ago, so I thought that it wouldn’t have been a concern. I guess either way they assume that if you visited a Muslim country at one point (are all Muslim countries are enemies of Israel/have strained relations with them? I’m only know a little about the Arab/Israeli conflict), they assume that you could potentially be an enemy of Israel/a threat to security. I also got asked what my intentions were when I was getting my passport stamped, and I said it was for tourism and volunteer purposes. (I had planned on volunteering while I was there, although I didn’t end up doing so, and I’ll explain why later). The lady who stamped my passport seemed impressed that I mentioned volunteer work and I got through. I noticed lots of signs in Russian.

When I came out into the airport there were people with balloons that seemed to be waiting to welcome a bunch of people, like a returning sports team or something. I wasn’t quite sure how to get a cab and I remember asking an Israeli woman something and she seemed nice, which surprised me because my experience with other Israelis has been that they are rude and standoffish, and this is apparently true as other people have said this. (There is even a Youtube video about Israeli women and how direct they are). A guy came up to me and asked me if I needed a cab ride. I believe at that point I had managed to exchange currency, but I don’t quite remember. (This is why I need to write posts soon after I travel somewhere so I don’t keep forgetting details). Apparently it was a holiday – shabbat? (or so this cab driver said), so it was going to cost more. I think he ended up overcharging me, but like I mentioned in the post about Ethiopia this seems to be a common occurrence when tourists get to the airport.

Anyhow, I got in the cab and struck up a conversation with the guy and he was super nice and spoke English well. I old him I was from the US and he ended up telling me how much he loved country music, especially Garth Brooks. I thought this was rather hilarious and he even played a Garth Brooks song as we drove along.

I arrived at my hostel which was pretty dingy. I got into an argument with the guy there because he said he didn’t have my reservation. I started freaking out as I was worried that I wasn’t going to have a place to stay for the night AGAIN and would have to find another place to stay in the middle of the night. But it got solved and it turned out that it was his fault, so he apologized and offered me a free bottle of water.

My room was your standard hostel room with bunk beds, and the other residents were all Russian tourists I believe, with the exception of one, who was Israeli, and who came later, and I never quite understood why she was there. I thought maybe she was homeless. Since I was still sick in Israel I spent some days nearly the entire time sleeping and listening to my Russian roommates. I felt like I got a little bit sicker while I was there, in fact.

When I was able to go out I found Israel to be surprisingly modern and westernized, which was a little disappointing. But perhaps it has to do with my ignorance. I had imagined Israel being filled with cobblestone streets and narrow alleyways, ancient temples all around. While that exists in the Jerusalem, Tel Aviv was not like this all. Correct me if I am wrong and there are more places in Israel that are like Jerusalem. I guess I had unrealistic expectations, but I wasn’t anticipating a westernized/European vibe from a country in the middle east. But this in some ways ended up being good as it was convenient to get around, and there were all kinds of restaurants and I didn’t feel uneasy as a solo female tourist. I was never ogled or harassed  and I didn’t really stand out like I did in India. I didn’t eat a whole lot the first few days I was there (I didn’t really eat lot in general because of my stomach), but I managed to get sushi and Mexican food while I was there.

There was a little convenience store right near my hostel that I thought was really cool. One of my favorite things about going to new countries is seeing all the unique snacks and beverages that they offer. I loved how in China and Japan they have vending machines on the street. I had lots of chocolate covered cereal snacks and drank some interesting beverages.

I thought their currency system (shekels) was unique as it is ancient, dating back to the Akkadian empire I believe, and has been used by several Semitic peoples and Phoenicians. Read more about it here.

My hostel was also right near the beach but I didn’t go swimming. I can’t even remember if I brought my suit or not, but I think I was feeling too crappy to do anything remotely athletic. The same day I got a smoothie at a cute little smoothie shop, I believe I threw it up, and then I decided to go to a hospital as it was obvious I wasn’t getting better and the medication I had gotten in India wasn’t helping.

Everyone at the hospital spoke English and it was just like an emergency room in the UK or the US. However, being that I was a tourist/ non- Israeli, I was charged more. I ended up paying around 300$, which almost made me even more physically ill to pay as I hadn’t anticipated spending that amount of money on anything except airfare. I mean, compared to the US 300$ for an ER visit isn’t bad, but it still was a lot to me.

The hospital had signs in Hebrew, Russian and English and it amazed me that so many people were bi and trilingual. The doctor wasn’t too articulate on what was wrong with me, but she gave me some new medication.

I ended up booking a tour of Bethlehem and Jerusalem at one of the many tour/travel agencies near my hostel. I must’ve been in a particularly touristy area, or perhaps the rest of Tel Aviv is like this with travel agencies everywhere. I don’t know, I didn’t explore very much of it sadly.

This agency had a whole bunch of tours with all kinds of different combinations of places, some that were a week and longer and that went to Jordan and what not. I I would’ve loved to go on some of these but I think they were too expensive, and at that point I don’t know if I had already bought my plane ticket back to the states or not, so I wouldn’t have had time.

I ended up booking a tour to Jerusalem and Bethlehem that was quite amazing, but the whole time I felt like absolute shit, so it was kind of miserable. At one point I thought I was going to faint. Part of the way through the tour I felt like I was developing a bad urinary tract infection, and saw blood in my urine. I also became incredibly thirsty. This had me in a panic. Coupled with my stomach infection and the fact that my stool was also black at one point (sorry if that is TMI), I would end up panicking and buying a ticket home. But that was after the tour, I digress.

Our guide was incredibly knowledgeable and spoke three different languages- Hebrew, English and German. He gave half the tour in English and half in German. The rest of the tour members were from everywhere and all really nice.

There were a couple fascinating things that struck me about Jerusalem/the old city: there were four quarters, an Armenian quarter, Christian quarter, Jewish quarter and Muslim quarter. I had no idea that they all coexisted peacefully in the same few blocks, and to this day I still wonder how? How when there is literally a huge wall with barbed wire separating Israel and Palestine (some people say there is no Palestine/it doesn’t exist, but that’s a whole other convo). It just seemed rather unbelievable to me. I was also a bit peeved that we could go into every quarter except the Muslim one. TBH I feel like Muslims seem to always want everyone to be tolerant and welcoming of them, yet their countries (and quarters, apparently) are the least welcoming and tolerant of other religions/cultures.

The other thing that fascinated me was how small it was. I wondered how someone got to live in the old city- did they have a lot of money? Did they have to have connections? Was it easy to rent in the old city? Our guide also pointed out Hebrew/Israeli flags in the Muslim quarter and said that there were Jews living in the Muslim quarter, which I thought was interesting. I’m not sure how that worked out though.

We saw the Western wall, which I thought was interesting, but it didn’t hold much meaning for me as I am not Jewish. There were all kinds of Jews praying and sitting in front of the wall, Orthodox, Hassidic, some that were just dressed like me. (I assumed they were mostly Jews as like I said before the Western Wall doesn’t hold much significance to Christians/non-Jews. The wall had lots of little notes stuck in it. I placed my hand against the wall to see if I could feel anything. I think I felt a little something, something a tad spiritual, but not a lot. The wall was clearly old and I tend to find meaning in old things, but it was also just a wall. No offense if the Western Wall means a lot to you.

We walked the Via Dolorosa, which is something I have wanted to do for years and one of the main reasons I went to Israel. We stopped by all the major stations, although (and like with the rest of what I saw in Israel), it didn’t seem to have a holy presence or even feel all that authentic. The reason being is that I learned through our tour guide that for centuries the old city including the Via Dolorosa, has been torn down and re-built and torn down again. Basically Israel is built upon layers and layers, and nothing is as it was two thousand years ago, unlike say, the Coloseum in Rome. Every holy site I saw in Israel had a long, complicated history that always involved some kind of destruction from whoever was occupying the place at the time, then some kind of reconstruction from some other people, or sometimes something was just built on top of it by someone else. So everything, basically, is only an estimation of where it once was when it happened. For me this was a bit disappointing and felt a bit disingenuous. When you stopped at the various holy stations of the Via Dolorosa, like where Jesus dropped his cross, where his face was wiped by the saint (read more about it here), you couldn’t be sure if that was where it actually happened or not, and even our guide said it so. The old city was also filled with merchants that harassed you to buy things as you walked around. It was quite narrow and I was surprised it wasn’t filled with more tourists. But we got to see and go inside some pretty renown churches and monuments. Standing and seeing the panoramic view of Jerusalem before we went down was pretty amazing, as we were right near the Mount of Olives I believe. Then again though, all the churches and monuments that our guide had pointed out had also at one point been destroyed and built back up again. I forget which ones. But the view, as seen below, is stunning. In one church there was a sacred spot, (where now, funny enough I forget what it was sacred for, lol) where I bent down and prayed in front of people. I usually don’t do that and no one else in my tour group did, but it was a sacred spot and I felt I should’ve. As far as my religious/spiritual beliefs, I will elaborate on those in another blog post as it would be too lengthy to go into.

The second part of the tour was Bethlehem, which was in Palestine and required that we have a Palestinian guide. This seemed interesting and even a bit controversial- how did they coordinate these tours between Israel and Palestine, who have been in conflict since forever, daily for tourists without any sort of obvious conflict or confusion? When we switched to the Palestinian guide we all had to get out and get into a different bus at one point. The Palestinian guide was cool, but I was a bit shocked to see that all of Bethlehem was pretty much in Arabic and was mostly Muslim to my understanding. The place also seemed to be filled with shops selling Christian merchandise, which was rather funny to me and also mildly insulting as you basically have an area where mostly Muslims are taking advantage of the area’s Christian history to make money without practicing or even really knowing about the significance. I dunno, maybe I am being too harsh.

During the tour we saw the Church of the Holy Nativity, where it is said that Jesus was born. You go into a little cellar/cave like area that is narrow and always filled with people, and there is a little silver star that marks were Jesus was supposedly born. It almost felt like something that one shouldn’t be seeing- something so holy and profound that it shouldn’t be on display. It felt a little weird to be honest, but it was also incredible. I wondered though, if it was just another estimation of where his birth happened.

There was a part in the Church of the Nativity where you could see a mosaic floor underneath the “new” or current floor that was in the church, that was supposedly discovered fairly recently. While again nothing in the church was as it was during the time of Jesus, this mosaic floor was quite old and was unknown so it was barely tarnished. This was quite interesting to see.

All the churches in Jerusalem and the church of the Nativity were all very unique and ornate and didn’t feel like other churches. I can’t quite put my finger on why. But that whole area is unique in that it is rich in history and it is essentially the intersection of three different religions and countless denominations.

I ended up getting some ornament and little treasures from a shop in Palestine. I believe this shop made most of its money from these fold out necklaces that they were selling as they were rather aggressive about them and even our guide demonstrated the necklaces to us. I think the workers there made some sort of commission just on the necklaces so we were persuaded to buy them. Which was kind of annoying.

During my last couple days in Israel I managed to get a private tour of the sea of Galilee and a couple other holy sites like Capharnum and where the miracle of the fish and loaves supposedly took place. These were all in the same area and I didn’t know this until I got there. I knew I had to see the sea of Galilee, but it seemed rather complicated to get there and I almost didn’t do it. I think I got the information from one of the guys who worked at the hostel. I was amazed at myself because the directions to get there were rather complicated, and was still sick, but I managed to do it. It involved taking this mini-bus to a larger bus station were you would get onto another bus. These mini buses seemed complicated as they all went different routes and had different numbers and I don’t think they stopped at all the stops unless requested. (This seems to be how other buses work sometimes, which doesn’t make sense tome). Anyhow,  I managed to get on the right one and pay the right price. The guy who drove the mini bus seemed rather cranky (as all bus drivers seem to be when dealing with tourists) and didn’t speak English, so I was proud of myself that I managed to handle this all. I got to the bus station and had to ask several different people where the bus was that I was supposed to take, and I almost gave up then too because it was rather confusing. But eventually I somehow found the right one, and it happened to be filled with young Israel soldiers, all carrying machine guns. I had forgotten that all Israelis are required to join the military. I didn’t realize, however, that they carried machine guns with them everywhere! This was rather unnerving.

I took a two hour bus ride to get to the sea of Galilee that was filled with young, loaded- machine-gun \-toting Israelis and me. I have never seen guns openly displayed like this, let alone automatic ones. But one of the guys (I forget if he was a soldier or not) helped me and told me I was on the right bus. When I arrived in Galilee I somehow managed to run into a cab driver who knew all about Galilee and who offered to take me on a private tour to see all the landmarks in the area like The Church of the Multiplication of Fish and Loaves and Capharnaum the town of Jesus. I also went to the Church of Beatitudes in the town called Tiberias. I recall also seeing signs for the town of Magdala where I believe Mary Magdalene was from! I only had a couple hours to see these sights as I had to catch the next bus back to Tel Aviv and I believe (haha that rhymed) it was the last one of the day so I only had a limited time to see everything. I was quite lucky this cab driver did this, but of course it didn’t come without a charge. Because I only had a limited time I had to stop at some of the destinations for only a few minutes. At one point we almost got into an argument over what I was going to pay him, but thankfully I was able to negotiate with him.

It was pretty amazing to see all the sights that I did in the time that I did, although now when I am typing this and researching all the places I went so I can be accurate about them, I wish I would’ve spent a lot more time in Galilee as it seems there was a lot more to see there. Just like Jerusalem, parts of Galilee felt very modern and as if you weren’t standing in a place that was thousands of years old. There was this one church I visited, perhaps it was Beatitudes? I can’t remember, but I felt total peace there, and like all the anxiety was drained from me. It was very holy and tranquil. And I can’t remember the name! I managed to catch the right bus back after my little sojourn and right before it left too. Everything just worked out perfect and I was quite lucky.

I wish I had stayed on my little trip but I decided to come back home. My mother convinced me (as usual) and I was also ill and scared. I just hope the next trip I go on I don’t freak out and come running back home like I did, because obviously I got better, and likely wasn’t as sick as I thought. I guess at that point in time I was worried in the back of my mind that it was possible I was going to die of this sickness or at least have to be hospitalized and I of course wanted to be in the hospital near my family in case I got sicker. But neither, thank God, ended up happening and I got home safe and sound.

On the way back the security measures were even stricter to get on the plane. I was lucky I got to the airport when I did as it took hours to get through! They literally took everything out of my bag and searched it, including my box of tampons! I think they even opened it up and did some kind of scan on them! I asked them why as I was annoyed at that point and I forget what they said. I also had some ointment in there and the girl doing the searching told me that I couldn’t have it! I told her that I needed that ointment and her supervisor told her it was okay. I have no idea what that was about.

Anyhow, I have probably written waaaay too much and bored you dear readers. But I do thank you ever so much for stopping by and reading about my trip to Israel. Someday I hope to go back (like most countries I have been to), so I can see all that I missed this time around.

Hope you enjoy the photos.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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