2 Days In Israel – The Fascinating If Controversial Country
I like traveling to countries not quite on the tourist trail, but rather the ones on the ‘Hippie Trail’. Israel, however, was none of it. Back in 2015 when I traveled to Israel, I hadn’t heard of many people traveling to Israel, unless on work.
Having an Israeli VISA on your passport is bad! 🙁
And for a good reason too. Having an Israeli VISA on your passport will invalidate you from traveling to most of the Middle Eastern countries like Lebanon, Iraq, UAE, and Iran as they’re in conflict with Israel. Traveling to Israel would mean giving up on traveling to these countries after. The tradeoff may or may not be worth it. It’s especially worse for Indians as we get a pre-arranged VISA stamp stuck on our passports as opposed to first world citizens that get away with an on-arrival removable VISA note on theirs, thereby almost never having a proof of having visited Israel at all.
However for me, the deciding factor to go to Israel was a) India is full of Israeli travelers, and from my interactions, they all seem extremely fun living, chilled out and liberal folks. Just the kinds you like to hang out with. So there had to be some merit in checking out their country. b) I was traveling to Jordan on a 10 day trip which happens to be next door to Israel, and it’s easy to detour from Jordan to Israel by road.
So, after seeing Petra and most of the other things worth seeing in Jordan, I decided to siphon off 2 of my days on a quick visit to the neighbouring country. To do this, I had to arrange an Israeli VISA beforehand from back in Bangalore, India. The process was surprisingly easy and took all of 5 days from application to getting stamped passport delivered to me. (I had tweeted about being nervous that I won’t get my passport back in time and miss out on this whole trip altogether, and the Israeli ambassador in India had somehow traced my tweet and replied, assuring me that I’d get it!) Good omen to start the trip!
How to travel to Israel by road from Amman, Jordan
I was going to visit Israel in the middle of my Jordan trip, and then come back to Jordan and see the Dead Sea on the Jordanian side. So to travel from Jordan to Israel, I followed a couple of blogposts for the process. I checked out of my hotel in Amman at 6am, took a shared cab to the Israel border in Jordan early morning, paid an exit VISA fees and got into a bus that takes you to the town closest to Israel border. There’s an immigration checkpoint here, queues are huge, but if you have a VISA on your passport, the process is quick and easy. Overall from the Jordan border to exiting the immigration office in Israel including crossing the King Hussein bridge in between, the process takes around 4 hours. The earlier you start, the better!
I’d already paid $100 for my VISA in India, so all I had to was get the (removable) stamp, and proceed on. After exiting the immigration checkpost, you can take a cab (expensive) to Jerusalem, the nearest town and the Israeli capital or a shared cab – called Sheruts – for around $10. It’s almost an hour long journey to Jerusalem.
Jerusalem in a day
I reached Jerusalem old town area around 1 pm and a 15 minute walk later, I was at my hostel – New Swedish Hostel (The cheapest hostel in the area at around $10 for a night) – in the old town. This area was nothing like I had ever seen before! I am not sure if I can describe the landscape but Jerusalem is like no other place.
It’s a placed frozen in time for the millennia, and through the most significant events in ancient history that started the civilisation. Jerusalem is a significant place for all 3 religions – Muslims, Jews and Christians, but more on that later.
The old town is divided into 4 quarters – The Jewish, Christian, Muslim and a small Armenian quarter. Old Jerusalem and all 4 quarters are ensconced under the high walls, and all the 4 quarters co-exist peacefully within the walls. (except for the occasional strife with Palestine.)
My hostel was right in the centre of the Jewish centre in a lane full of shops, falafel centres and cafes. It was the most touristy lane in that area, catering mostly to the backpacker crowd. I knew all I had essentially was 1 day to explore Jerusalem, so I left the hostel immediately and started the Sandeman walking tour scheduled for 2pm. It’s something I do in every new city I visit, and I think it’s the most efficient way to get to explore a new place, in a short time. The tour started barely 5 minutes away from my hostel, the tour guide was a local, and there were around 12 of other travelers like me. Though I seemed to be the only solo traveler there.
Shabbath in Israel
Being in Israel on a Friday gave me the opportunity to witness the Jewish ritual performed every Friday at the ‘Wailing Wall’, the internal facade of the Jerusalem wall, where the religious jews gather, and rest their heads against the wall in an act of mourning. I couldn’t quite understand the significance behind the ritual, but seeing it in person was a most unique thing. Hundreds of Israeli men and women, dressed in the finest suits and dresses gathered at the wall, almost silent, performed the ritual, and sat on the ground for a long time. Hundreds of travelers watched from various view points from a distance. Cameras are strictly forbidden here and even if you try to sneak in a quick photo, someone will reprimand you and almost everyone will give you the dirty eye. So, don’t do it. The experience is for your eyes only.
The partying after the Shabbath
If the sight of the Shabbath ceremony fascinated me, what happens after it topped it. Once the people finish the rituals, it’s party time in Jerusalem! Families, groups and couples start to make their way towards the city’s restaurants, dinner parties at homes, and even clubs, dressed to the nines and looking absolutely stunning. The shops and restaurants open up at night just for this. And the quiet, creepy streets from the noon before turn into a cornucopia of the finest fashion, smells, happy laughs and chit chat come evening. The transformation this small area goes through in a matter of a few hours is a heady sight that needs to be experienced first hand.
I almost felt jealous being an outsider at that moment, watching it all as a bystander, instead of being in the middle of it. Oh how I wish some family would just reach out me and make me a part of their celebrations, even if for an evening. But lived vicariously I did, and having not much else to do in the town anymore, I headed back to my hostel, for I was intending to wake up at crack of dawn next morning, and see what else Jerusalem had to offer me.
A mosque, a synagogue and the Church where Christ was crucified
Like I said earlier, Jerusalem is religiously significant for Muslims, Jews and Christians alike. I wanted to visit one place of worship from each of the religions. Walking through the neat haze that is Jerusalem old town makes it possible to that. If you give yourself 2 hours, you’ve pretty much walked back and forth through the narrow lanes in every quarter.
The quaint pretty lanes of the Jewish quarter, turn into Christian ones with one turn, couple of lanes after, you’re at the Muslim quarters with its mosques, Rabbi caps turn into skull caps, middie dresses become burqas and before you know it, you’re standing at the gates of a Church where Jesus is said to have been crucified more than 2 millennia ago. (that’s 2000 years to be precise.) The Church of the Holy Sepulture apart from being an absolutely ethereal place is steeped in religion and history. Jesus Christ is said to have been crucified here, in fact the rock that was used to mount him is an object of attraction at the Church, and the most curious thing about the Church is that it’s managed by a Muslim family. (a factoid that my Sandeman guide helped with the previous day.)
Next up was the Dome of the Rock which is a mosque on a hill that is sacred to Christians and Jews alike. It was a Saturday and non-Muslims are not allowed in the mosque of Saturdays. (Talk about secularism!) so sadly I couldn’t visit, but a paid viewpoint from the 3rd floor terrace of an art gallery had to suffice. I had to pay $2 to access this viewpoint and there was not a soul around other than me, so no photos or proof of me having been there, but I managed a few photos. The dome of the structure is completely gold plated, and the facades are fine blue ceramic and filigree work. I’ve heard it’s a stunner up close.
A church and a mosque out of the way (almost), I now barged into a Synagogue – the Jewish place of worship. It was the first time I’d ever stepped inside a synagogue, and had no idea what one was supposed to be like. Let me tell you, a synagogue is nothing like temples or churches. For one, there’s no statue and no elaborate prayer ceremonies. (apart from the ones at the wailing wall that is.) It was a circular room with benches with some religious scriptures placed in the centre along with candles and it felt more like a library than a religious hub. Sure enough, a few rabbis were sitting on the benches and reading, and having a tourist intrude on the peace didn’t seem to go well with them, so I made a quick exit.
My time in Jerusalem was teetering towards its deadline as I had to make my way to Tel Aviv, the happening Israeli capital. So I walked back to my hostel, through the now familiar lanes, past the souvenir shops, thanked my lovely hostel manager and got out to the same area I had first reached, where a number of transport options to go from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv are available.
On to Tel Aviv
I couldn’t curse my luck more, as again the timing of the trip messed with my plan. There were no public buses available to Tel Aviv being Shabbath Day and I had to grudgingly take an expensive ($12) private Sherut to Tel Aviv which was an hour long journey.
The situation in Tel Aviv was not much better as the city looked deserted without public transport and to get to my Couchsurfing host Payal’s house was no less of a challenge. I took a shared private cab which dropped me in the wrong location, and I walked for some 3 kms under the hot summer sun finally to reach her place. Payal is an Indian girl who was doing an internship in Tel Aviv and shared her flat with 2 of her colleagues. When I’d given up all hope of finding a host in Tel Aviv, Payal stepped in and saved the day. However she was busy and I had very little time, so I set out to explore the city on my own. There isn’t a lot to explore to be honest. Tel Aviv is a great city for the locals, but from a traveler’s perspective, it has little ‘sightseeing’ to do compared to Jerusalem. The beaches and the vibe in Tel Aviv is where it’s at, so I walked to the main Jaffa and the beach area.
I witnessed one of the prettiest sunsets here, and if the city was earlier shut due to Shabbath, the beach showed no sign of rest. There were Arabic families picnicking with their grills and sheeshas, fit men and women running, jogging, bronzed men playing the game of ‘Matkot’ (What they call the ‘Israeli national beach game”) and the air was just full of life and festivities!
The <Israel India> love affair
Heck, I ran into a Hare Ram Hare Krishna group which consisted of a group of white women in Saris and men in Kurta Pyjamas dancing to Hindi Bhajans, and the Indian in me almost cried! I was home! They had no agenda, asked for no donations, and all they seemed to be doing was doing their thing, dancing, chanting, and spreading positivity around. Much like Hinduism really. (I’m such a Hindu zealot I tell you!)
So anyway I continued walking along the beach, witnessing more of the electrifying beach vibe of Tel Aviv, and not without my share of adventure. A local man welcomed himself to walk along side me and chit chat. In normal circumstances, I would’ve shooed him away as a creep, but having been solo traveling for the past 3 days, I was dying to have a conversation with someone, and didn’t mind this unknown stranger along for company. He was working in Tel Aviv and was from Haifa, a northern city in Israel, he told me. He hadn’t been to India, but “loved them”. This was a common theme in Israel. Most Israelis love India, and love Indians, and it’s to do with a significant number of them traveling to India every year. A little tidbit: Serving in the military for 3 years is compulsory for all adult Israelis – men or women – and you’d see young, (hot) Israeli men AND women manning the check posts everywhere! (Heck Gal Gadot has served the military). Once they finish the military, they usually take off backpacking for a few months abroad, and India is one of the favourites thanks to its Israeli friendly policy and cheap prices. If you’ve been to Goa, you know the Israeli influence in the region. Not only is it full of Israeli travelers, but old time Israelis have taken up houses, started homestays and shacks there, so much so that it’s not surprising to see Israeli cuisine in almost every shack, and menus even written in Hebrew!
Free dance and fitness lessons on the beach
I thought I was witnessing a special occasion or a party on the beach, but turns out it’s an everyday occurrence in Tel Aviv. A group of men and women, across ages, sizes were dancing in perfectly synchronous sequences. There was a trainer at the centre too for those who had just joined and needed to match their steps. I couldn’t resist joining and doing a little shake myself.
With the dance, the matkot, the running, and picnics and the barbecues, the whole Tel Aviv coastline just seemed like a big party, except it’s just the way of life in the city. It’s easy to see why Tel Aviv is one of the most expensive cities in the world and is touted to have a great quality of life. I know I’d be forced to get into fitness for one, if I lived here. The other thing about Tel Aviv is its thriving LGBT culture here. You’d find gay couples walking arm in arm or even getting cosy in public like no big deal. Tel Aviv also hosts the annual Pride parades, one of the biggest in the world.
My host Payal joined me at the beach after some time, and we walked all the way back to her home, stopping by for some vegan yoghurt icecream (it’s huge in TLV) and a quick trip to the supermarket, where, I spotted a whole range of Indian products. Imagine going to to buy mineral water in a foreign country and have Amitabh Bachchan peek at you from a Basmati rice packet! The Indian connect just doesn’t end in Israel.
However, my trip had pretty much ended. I called it a day soon after an Indian dinner with Payal and her housemates which I concocted out of from ready-to-eat MTR packets. It was time for my return, tt was a Sunday, which is like a Monday in Israel and the country was back to business. Buses were running, so I took one back to Jerusalem, and retraced my journey back to Jordan. The exit fees of $30 hurt at the immigration check post, but oh well, more power to Israel and its inclusive culture, and the Hare Raam Hare Krishna movement!
These 2 days in Israel felt like cheating, but man they did feel like I’d had 2 years full of experiences and sights to take in.