I want to first start this entry off by saying that Israel is by far one of the most fascinating countries I have ever visited. It also one of the youngest countries I’ve ever visited, as recent history as noted, but the history of this place is unlike anywhere else in the world. I don’t want to insult the readers here by listing off the reasons why Israel is such a significant location for so many religions, but I can’t not at the same time. Israel, or more notably – Jerusalem, is the main focal point for the world’s most dominate religions: Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Yes, it is the promised land and yes, it is where most of the stories in the Bible take place. It is also where the expected Islamic Messiah will ascend to during the Apocalypse and where Jesus will return to claim his followers. But, on a secular level, Israel is so much more on top of all this rich history.
What better way to experience this than to go to Tel Aviv (which is known as the New York City of the Middle East) on Israel’s Independence Day?
I wasn’t planning on this perfect timing. I just found the cheapest flight from Nice, France to Tel Aviv and booked it – which was $275 Canadian, taxes and fees included. Not Bad right? I think my flight from Toronto to Montreal a few years ago was more expensive than that.
And of course, price is a huge concern of mine. I am a full time student who worked part-time to save up for a five month trip across the world and whose bank account as been draining at an alarming rate. Nonetheless, Israel was on the top of my priority list and I wanted to witness as much of the country as I could in the small amount of time that I had – one week. Even if it meant eating nothing but cheese and bread the whole time. But, thank God Israel is so tiny, and the dollar goes so far, so I got to see almost every corner of this country and eat so much falafel.
After I spontaneously reserved my flight to Tel Aviv, I soon realized that I had no idea what to expect in Israel. I am not Jewish nor am I a devout Christian, and obviously I’m not a Muslim either, so in no way was this a religious pilgrimage for me. I was just curious. I have had many friends who have ventured to Israel on the birthright trip and said it was unreal, so I figured I should at least discover this on my own. I have itchy feet so, why not? I also have no further desire to visit the most popular destinations on this side of world: Paris, London, Barcelona, etc. Been there, done that. I’ve been sucked into all the little tourist traps, ordered all the Tourist Menus and taken all the pictures in front of the Eiffel Tower. I really wanted, needed something more real out of my traveling experience now. I need to see culture, experience variety, new languages, new alphabets, get off the beaten track. I don’t want to seem that naive here, as I am fully aware that Israel is a popular tourist destination. But, it’s not at the top of the list for young North American travelers studying in Europe, because it’s just not. Israel is not Ibiza and it’s not the cafes of Amsterdam. Not that there is anything wrong with visiting these places, because they’re all beautiful ,in their own way, I just wasn’t interested anymore. Actually, most of the North American travelers that I met in Israel were Jewish or retired and exhausted themselves of all the Western World travels anyways.
So, here I was, a twenty-something year old Canadian girl walking off of the plane and into the tightly secured Tel Aviv airport, not knowing what to expect. As soon as I stepped off the plane, before I even had a chance to walk through the tunnel from the plane itself and into the terminal, I was asked to “come with me” by a bulky Israeli airport security official with a rifle the size of my torso. I obliged and followed him into a little corridor and he proceeded with the questioning. I handed him my passport and he studied each page intensely. He asked me so many questions that seemed so ridiculously tedious that I couldn’t even offer up a response without a puzzled look my face. Why does it matter so much that my boyfriend and I travelled through Morocco last month without knowing any locals there? Why do you want to know his middle name? No, he’s not Jewish. No, I’m not either. I am here because I’m curious, I like to travel. Yes, I’m planning on going to Jerusalem. No, I never studied Science in high school. And the questioning went on for another ten minutes or so until he said it was okay for me to continue. Thank God. I didn’t know I would be such a target, but apparently lone travelers in Israel always get this sort of questioning. One man that I met later in my Israel travels told me his airport horror story which consisted of a strip search and the dissection of every song his iPod. And I thought the airport security in America was tight!?
So, once I was finally allowed to leave Ben Guiron Airport it was roughly 7:30pm and I figured it would be easy to buy a train ticket and take a quick commute to the city center. But, of course it wasn’t. It was Israel’s Independence Day (news to me!) and all of the public transportation was closed. So, I had to take one of the taxis, which was horribly expensive but I had no choice. The driver barely spoke English, which is sort of a rarity in Israel as almost everyone speaks both Hebrew and English, and he drove me straight to my hostel in the Florentine neighbourhood of Tel Aviv. I handed over the 150 shekels to the driver, which was about $35 Canadian, and he sped off.
I ascended the stairs with my carry-on luggage (thought I would pack lightly for this trip) and got acquainted with my home for the next three days.
I quickly fell in love with the hostel and all of the people there. That’s one thing I love about budget traveling, you get to know people around you very quickly And, even though you might be traveling alone (which I often do) you are never truly alone when you stay in places like these. It’s what I always refer to as the “Summer Camp effect” because your time together is always fast-tracked and short-lived. Many of these people would be your best friends if you lived in the same city, or if you came from the same continent for that matter. You travel around foreign cities together, navigating through different languages and currencies and experience some of the most memorable nights in your lifetime with people you hardly know, all to say goodbye within a few days again. But, you have to take these friendships for what they are and enjoy the company of like-minded travelers who are discovering the same corner of the world as you are.
So, after I checked in and settled into Florentine Hostel, I quickly grabbed a local beer “Taybeh Beer” and started getting to know everyone and partaking in the celebrations of Independence Day. The party at the hostel was a great introduction into the history of Independence Day and why each and every Israel citizen celebrates the occasion so wholeheartedly. I’ve never known a population of people to go through as many hardships throughout ancient and modern history in the way that the Jewish people have. So, I understand their devoted partying on the streets to mark this special day. I decided to also celebrate wholeheartedly, which was hard not to do actually. I’ve heard that Tel Aviv’s nightlife is incredible and especially on this day. Let’s just say I was not disappointed. I went out with about six or seven people from our hostel and went out in the Florentine neighbourhood, which is known for it’s more low-key bars and friendly pubs. And given the fact that I just gotten off an international flight, I wasn’t looking to wear heels and club clothes, so Florentine nightlife was perfect for me. We started off by heading to a bar, which I can’t remember the name of for the life of me, but it was very chill and we all just drank cheap beer, getting to know everyone and their individual travel stories. After a few pints, we headed out into the street, which was filled with happy and drunk Israelis parading the Star of David and drinking all the booze. The street parties were massive and ridiculous. To me, it compared to my experience being in the streets Madrid when Spain won the World Cup in 2010. I was not a huge soccer at that time, or “football” fan I should say, but I could appreciate the enthusiasm and it’s a great excuse to party. So, I noticed that all these Israelis displayed a sort of hooliganism, and I was fully okay with partaking. And because the streets were so obnoxious, they were also riddled with police and army personnel, which is a common sight to see in Israel on a normal day, let alone on their national day. Maybe I wouldn’t have been so shocked if this wasn’t my first few hours in the Middle East, but because it was, and because I was slightly buzzing from the beer, all of the guns scared me quite frankly. My new friends assured me that it was fine, and not to worry about the human sized rifles that everyone carries across their shoulders, and it took me a while to adjust to this. But, eventually I did and throughout the rest of my trip I actually started to realize that I never felt more safe in my entire life. All the pimply-faced teenagers with assault rifles became a normal sight for me and I stopped reaching for my camera every time I saw another one. I was just exhibiting the nature of a naive and gun-fearing Canadian, that’s all.
So we stayed out until the early hours of the morning and it was the best introduction to Israel that anyone could ask for. We went to probably two or three clubs after the street party and, to my liking, the beer in Israel is cheap, even at the clubs.
The next morning, or afternoon I should say, I was a little disappointed in myself for waking up so late in the day when I should be out exploring all the sights of Tel Aviv. I quickly ventured out into the hot April heat of Tel Aviv and headed towards Old Jaffa or Old Yaffa. This is the oldest part of the city and acts as a central port as well. The one thing I didn’t realize, however, is that everything was shut down that day because of the Independence Day celebrations and every Tel Aviv’er was out at the beach having a barbecue with family and friends. This was an amazing site to see. Tel Aviv is a metropolis stretched out along the Middle East’s Mediterranean coastline and all of the Israelis in the area flock here on days off, especially on holidays like today. So I walked this stretch of coastline for about an hour until I reached Old Jaffa, making pit stops along the way for coffee or shawerma or falafel (which is the best I’ve ever had, by the way.) Once I got to Old Jaffa and after I took all the tourist pictures of the beautiful view, I started to see all of the graffiti. I want to make this clear, I have never been a fan of street art or graffiti. To me, and many others I’m sure, it tarnishes an otherwise beautiful building or landscape. It can make cities look dreary and worn down and it’s a pain to have to fix it up again. But, the street art that I saw on the streets of Tel Aviv around Old Jaffa were truly beautiful. All of a sudden, I had this appreciation and interest in this seemingly secular form of art, and I kept wanting to explore it more. Everything else was closed, so what else was I going to do anyways? So I spent an hour or so peeking around corners of buildings to see the next fascinating piece. All of the ones I deemed to be beautiful were usually larger than life depictions of people living in modern day Israel and had feelings of love or war entangled into it somehow. Obviously, it’s needless to say that some of the most modern day controversies come from the political tensions in this area, and I never really understood it all until I visited Israel and walked around Old Jaffa. Sure, I read articles in the newspaper and I even took a course in university about the environment in the Middle East, spending a whole three weeks on the Israel-Palestine conflict! But, none of that was more informative than the street art that I saw here. I feel like I can’t and shouldn’t even bother explaining it with words anymore, so I’ll just attach some pictures of what I saw exactly and you can make your own judgement.
The rest of my time in Tel Aviv was spent visiting with people I met along the way, or drinking at a pub with new friends. That is what Tel Aviv is best known for: beach and nightlife. I feel like I got a good sense of both, and I was lucky enough to arrive on such an important holiday. But, beach and nightlife, as alluring as that is to me, is not the reason I traveled to Israel. I have been living in the South of France for the past four and a half months and the beach is two blocks away and Cannes is twenty minutes away by train, so I have the nightlife. What I really came to Israel for, I don’t think I could find in Tel Aviv, so I decided to go to Jerusalem. I wanted to see culture, experience biblical history and eat all the Middle Eastern food my Canadian belly could handle.
I wrote this entry on a ten hour, hot and stuffy train ride from Belgrade, Serbia to Sarajevo, Bosnia. So excuse my rough writing and my sudden cut-off as soon as I get to the “good stuff” in Jerusalem. I will continue writing the next time I have a few hours of uninterrupted writing solace!