So it’s been a couple of weeks since I went to Israel and now I am finally finding some time to write about my experiences.
I was there for 5 days (11-16 December) and I was mainly in Tel Aviv with a day trip to Jerusalem. I considered this to be an “overview trip” which is what I call any trip where I am visiting a country for the first time and spend less than a week there. Even in the smallest of nations you need a week at a minimum to take in all of the sites.
If I had to summarise my experience of my trip, I would say that I loved it in Tel Aviv. Jerusalem was okay too, but I have to say that I liked Tel Aviv a lot more. Is Jerusalem is a very religious city, Tel Aviv is it’s secular opposite and as such, in my mind that made it a bit more fun.
For this trip I once again decided to book an apartment rental for the week through AirBnB instead of paying for a hotel room. To be honest, hotel room rates for the “international standard” hotels are as expensive as Stockholm, London, or Paris. Which given the price of things in Israel makes hotels like the Hilton, Sheraton, etc really really expensive. So basically for about €50/night I rented a 90 sqm apartment with bedroom, nice bathroom, nice living area, and a small balcony to myself and saved about 60% compared to a hotel. Raviv (whom I rented the apartment from) was a fantastic host and basically it is my second fantastic AirBnB experience. For personal travel, I might just decide to always use AirBnB. My apartment was located next to the Carmel market which is where can get a taste of bargaining and haggling (to a point) for everything from textiles to food. I was 5 minutes away from the beach and a short 15 minute walk away from everything I wanted. So I was at the perfect location. Central, but not in the middle of everything.
Being pleased with my accommodations, the first night I didn’t set out too far from the apartment. I took my map and took a walk around to get familiar with the area and get a general lay of the land. It was nice to trade in my winter jacket for a light parka. I found a cozy restaurant near my apartment and had a nice meal. Where I lived seemed to be a melting pot of cultures and it showed in the people who surrounded me. And it showed in the food I was eating too After the restaurant I took a bit of a further walk and found a bar where there were lots of smiling and laughing people. So after settling in for a drink, I got to talking with an Israeli couple (a guy and a girl) and we had a really nice conversation. A couple of rounds later they had to leave so I stayed a bit longer to finish my drink. I ended up chatting with a couple more people and basically ended the night at the bar in listening mode. I listened to their stories, their impressions, and opinions. But I didn’t have any opinions to offer of my own (perhaps that frustrated them at times, but their thoughts were more interesting than mine because they live the experience whereas I am just a visitor).
The next day I woke up rather late (thanks for those killer gin and tonics). Now to understand me in vacation mode is to understand that I operate without an agenda. Before I got to Tel Aviv I made a list with 9 things I wanted to see and do, but it is just a list. It can be changed whenever I want and there is no prescribed order or priority to anything. I actually spent an unusually long time on my balcony drinking coffee and eating some of the bread, fruits, and yoghurt I got at the market the night before. I spent the day essentially walking around and looking at monuments, visiting the Art Museum, and buying a local sim card (since it included internet access which meant I wouldn’t be disconnected from the digital world entirely). A stop for a drink, a bit to eat, or a coffee here and there and I have to say that I felt pretty good with my Wednesday. I made my own dinner (the perk of renting an apartment) where I tried (and failed) to make “Middle East-inspired Tapas”. They weren’t all bad. They just weren’t all good either *lol* After dinner, I decided to make my way out to some gay bars and cafes. A lot of hours later, I eventually made it home to the apartment. Not really intoxicated by any means, but more looking forward to seeing the nightlife on the weekend (which is Israel is on Friday and Saturday). The one thing I notice here clearly is that all active duty soldiers (mostly the guys though) carry their guns with them everywhere they go. I was curious and asked why and the one soldier who talked with me said it was because at any minute they might need to be deployed and that doesn’t always include time to run back to the barracks to get their weapons. Fair enough. I didn’t feel more or less safe because of it. I’ve seen this in other countries so I wasn’t fazed. The other thing you notice is that you are required to pass through a metal detector in major building (government buildings, malls, pretty much any building that would be well-visited). It felt a bit sad that this is required, but one can clearly understand the safety reasons for it.
On Thursday, I decided that this was the day to visit Jerusalem. So after another leisurely breakfast, I left around 09.00 for the 75 minute bus ride to Jerusalem. I started my day there as I start every holiday – getting lost in the city (the new part). In this case, I got really really lost and missed some things that I wanted to see in the newer part of Jerusalem. I ended up taking a taxi to the older part of Jerusalem where I saw the Western Wall, The Dome of the Rock, and was wandering through a maze of shops and stalls. Whilst I can say that Jerusalem was peaceful, you could sense a tension near the sites of religious significance. At no time did I feel unsafe, and basically there was a strong armed presence of Israeli soldiers, but in some areas of the city, you could feel that the peace is tenuous. In this trip I decided to skip over Bethlehem, but I will look forward to visiting them in the next trip that I made to Israel. After wandering around aimless for another 2 hours taking in more monuments and sights, I headed back for Tel Aviv. In the evening I met a colleague (Amit) who was kind enough to bring me out to dinner and then drive me around Tel Aviv giving me a tour of the different residential areas. It was great to catch up with Amit. In my next trip, I will for sure catch up with Schlomo who I haven’t seen in ages (promise promise promise!)
On Friday I had a rather light day. More exploring areas of Tel Aviv, and making some final purchases before the Sabbath (which is from Friday late afternoon until Saturday early evening). Basically most things close because of the Sabbath. There are some small exceptions, but all public services and most shops observe the Sabbath even in Tel Aviv. So it was interesting to have most of the city shut down on a day I would expect it to mostly stay open. That being said, I have the feeling that Tel Aviv was more open than Jerusalem would be because Tel Aviv is more secular in nature and has more tourists. I ended up starting my evening at a bar where I met up with some British travellers who were trekking through. Several beers later we made an agreement to meet at the bar again for some goodbye drinks since they were really good guys. They tried to give me tips on picking up the ladies for which I laughed and then offered to give them tips for picking up guys (more laughter ensued). I went back to my apartment after stopping at the market to shop for the items to make dinner. After making dinner (not as adventurous this time, tabbouleh and grilled chicken with some spices from the market), I took a nap and then headed out to the bars and clubs. For some reason I was more tired than excited to go out and then went home pretty early, but not before meeting a cool guy and we hung out for a bit.
Saturday was also pretty cool. Got a late start to the day so I decided to walk to Yafo (Jaffa) and explore the port areas and the side streets. I have to say that I liked this part of town too. It felt very lively. Waked along the beach for a bit and took a lot of pictures and then eventually after several hours made it back home just in time for the Sabbath to end and the city to come alive again. I decided to take some dinner at the restaurant from the first night. Then I took an evening walk around the city and decided to hit the gay bars and clubs again. They were crowded but not overloaded which I enjoyed and ending up having a great night, even though it was a Saturday (which is their version of Sunday).
Sunday arrives and it is time to go home. I clean up the apartment, take a relaxed and leisurely breakfast, and then go to meet the British boys for a couple more rounds. I think were all were surprised that we showed up So we talked about the weekend and what we did since we last met. We inevitably made the comparisons between Israel and our respective home countries. Some hand shakes and best wishes on future travels and then it was time for me to return back to my apartment to check out. I met Raviv (owner of the apartment), thanked him for letting me rent his apartment and then was on my way to the airport.
Now…the airport experience requires its very own section. Coming into the airport (which is billed as the World’s Most Secure Airport) I was stopped by security who asked me some basic questions (first time here? who am I visiting? etc, etc?). This lasted for about 75 seconds. I then went onwards to Customs/Immigration Border agents who basically asked me the same set of questions. This time the questioning took about 3 minutes and I had to show the address of where I was staying. And basically I was done. I have heard many stories of it taking hours from when you land to when you get our baggage and leave the airport, but I experienced none of that. I don’t have any reasons as to why my experience was the way it was, but I don’t ask questions. I’m a rather vanilla kinda of guy I guess. The “fun” came in leaving Israel…
When you get to the airport, there is someone in uniform who is clearly profiling people, and he ended up profiling me. Again, asking about 30 seconds worth of questions. Then you get into the queue to get to the check-in for your flight. From there you are subjected to more behavioral interviewing, your bags go through an initial scan, they can potentially go through a more detailed examination, and then you get to check in. I missed the initial detailed examination probably because I only have a carry on). I check in and then go to the security gates. At the security gate, then my bag get the full work over. Everything is tested for explosives and scanned and I answer questions about any items they wonder about. It is clear that speed is not the concern – it is safety. But again, you understand the reasons behind it, so it is nothing to get frustrated about. And they seem to treat most people equally. Like with any multi-faceted security approach, they have visible and non-visible methods. Whatever helps them to achieve security given the environment I am okay with it. I was only surprised that it took 2 hours to complete the experience (note: I wasn’t examined for 2 hours…the waiting and the speed of the line is the time waster). So after that it was soon time to board (and get in some duty shopping) and then a short time later back in the coldness of Scandinavia and Sweden.
Overall, I would gladly repeat what I said at the beginning – Israel was a great experience and I look forward to visiting again. The people I met were genuine, nice, and sincere. Right now I am planning to celebrate Tel Aviv Pride in June as the next time I return. Anyone want to join me?
Finally, here are some pictures for those who would like to see what random things I took pictures of. There link goes to all of the pictures, but here are some of my favourites…