Day 1: And so it begins. My overnight flight to Tel Aviv arrived around 530 am local time and with directions in tow I began my quest for the hostel. This in theory should have been a very reasonable endeavor and my arrival time made it such that I was in no particular hurry - at least if I could ignore the backpack of crap I was lugging around for the trip - but I became immediately aware that this was not going to be as easy as I thought when I found that all the street signs around the train station were written in Hebrew. I don't read Hebrew. Also I'm becoming aware that this is possibly not the best area in Tel Aviv and my repeated consultation of the map is possibly not the best signal to be sending out to the world. I asked many people for directions, some of which were of some help, some of which were met with blank stares of incomprehension, and the last of which resulted in my scrapping the original hostel plan after the woman warned me quite strongly that I do not want to stay in that area of town.
Plan B. I will simply find another hostel. Easy. Maybe I'll even find an internet cafe so I can look one up and figure out where the hell I am. Or maybe I'll just head towards the beach because that's got to be where all the travelers stay. And maybe it won't start raining. And maybe I won't have to walk for five hours until I find anything. And maybe my backpack won't feel progressively heavier and heavier along the way. And maybe the giant neon sign claiming "INTERNET: OPEN 24 HOURS" won't be a lie. But it turns out this is not the case.
Things eventually do come together. Six hours later I find Momo's, my hostel home for the next five days. It's friendly. I pay for the girls dormitory and end up in a room with four bunk beds the narrowness of which I have never seen. There is a steak knife on the table in the middle of the room. I don't do much for the rest of that day. A nap after my overnight flight. A visit to the beach until it starts raining and I'm forced inside. I email the hostel I had initially booked after another traveler at Momo's tells me it's actually the best one in Tel Aviv, and Rafi writes me back "If you had spent a few minutes reading the directions or having a map you have easly find it [instead of] easly decide to cancel without caring how much effort we invest in each person and every reservation. I will have to charge you for tonight for no show! safe travel."
Thanks Rafi, you're a gem.
Day 2: I'm going to Jerusalem for the day and I get up early early early to catch my 7 am tour bus from another hotel. I arrive at the hotel at 645. It's 710. Now it's 720. The hotel concierge
calls them to see what's going on and they tell him they'll be there at 730. It's 745. It's 8 am. They arrive and we drive to a parking lot to wait a half hour before leaving.
Jerusalem was a surreal experience. My tour guide speaks in English but fellow tour member Fatima is from
Rio de Janeiro so I have to translate everything to Spanish for her and she responds in Portuguese. Somehow this works and forces me to pay extra attention to the tour guide's explanation. During one of these talks a woman holds out her camera to me and I reach for it to take her photo but instead she hands it off to her friend and grabs me to join in the picture with her. "I like you! I like you!" she tells me.
In Jerusalem we see the Dome of the Rock, the Wailing Wall and the Via Dolorosa, which is just bizarre. "This is where they put the crown of thorns on Jesus. This is where Jesus fell for the first time while carrying the cross. This is where Pontius Pilate pointed Jesus out to the crowd." Each section of the city is strictly divided - the Jewish quarter, Christian, quarter, Greek, Greek Orthodox, Armenian, etc. It seems very unreal to me that in this incredibly important holy site there exists such conflict and hate, but this is the reality of Israel as I'm coming to find throughout my stay. I can't actually say that I took Jerusalem in all that well. As a historical site it's difficult to wrap your head around given its current state, and it all feels a bit too nonchalant as we tour each area. "These represent the instruments of torture used on Jesus prior to the Crucifixion. Who's ready for lunch?"
Day 3: My day begins at the beach and I'm walking down the shoreline when a loud voice comes from the speakers at the life guard station. I look up and they're talking to me, but it's in Hebrew so I have no idea what's going on. Israel's a tricky country and I'm not terribly fond of the idea of getting in trouble here, so when they motion for me to come up the stairs and into the building I do so with some trepidation. But all is well. They saw me taking photos of the surfers and want to know if I'd like to learn. Hell yes I'd like to learn! But it's January so instead I leave the beach and make my way to Old Jaffa. It's a cool little wander and on the way home I catch an amazing view of the sunset, but it's pretty
quiet and not too much is going on except for the giant tour of Americans
I run into. I talk to a couple of the guys who turn out to be from New York City and are here on birthright. Every traveler that I've met here is Jewish and it seems quite atypical to come if you're not. Several people I met, both Israeli and foreign would ask me if I was Jewish and when I responded no, would ask "Then why did you come?" No one said it hostilely, they just seemed almost confused. It was weird to experience the country that way because everyone I met had a completely different and more personal connection to Israel than I did. Many of the foreigners I met told me they had thought about moving there and felt like it was a place they belonged, even if it was their first time to the country.
That night I go back to the hostel and one of the employees, Golan, begins to tell me his life-story. Golan was adopted when he was six years old by an American family living in Israel because his mom could not take care of him. Prior to the adoption he had been living in an orphanage but had been separated from his two sisters because of "behavioral issues," so now he doesn't know where they live, if they were adopted, nothing. When he was 13 he ran away from home and spent the next year living in bomb shelters - which every building in Israel apparently has - until he was put in a youth detention center. Two years until he ran away again, got into drugs and crime and bad things all around, and another several years until he met his "Mom" - a social worker - and turned his life around. Now he's 24, clean, working, and saving his money to leave Israel. And also to have an operation on his nose, he hates how big it is.
Day 4: Again I'm at the beach with my book. I'm finding that people in Tel Aviv are not shy when it comes to approaching strangers and I'm not getting much reading done. One tells me he's a photographer and wants to take my picture with his camera phone and make me famous. Another one sees me looking at my own camera and asks if I will take his picture. He's from Darfur and was previously living in Cairo before HE WALKED to Tel Aviv. His whole family, to his knowledge, is still in Darfur except his dad who was killed, and now he's trying to find work in Tel Aviv. We talk for awhile and when I leave I wish him luck and give him a partially-eaten box of biscuits to share with his friends. The world is crazy.
I stop back at the hostel and meet some guys traveling from Uruguay. We hang out for the next several hours: hookah, cards, wine, and then the three of us and a guy from Scotland all head to a club in Newport for my last evening in Tel Aviv. The club. Not really my style, but it was a fun night and fun to hear the Uruguayo Spanish accent.
Day 5: It's time to go home. Since it's Shabat the trains are shut down so I take a cab with a woman from Italy and grill the cab driver with questions. He thinks I might be a journalist at first so he's hesitant to answer but eventually I get out of him his thoughts on the Service, the country, the Arabs, etc. By the Service I mean the three years for men and two years for women that every citizen is obligated to spend in the army after graduating high school.
I've asked people about this a lot in the last couple days and I hear even more about it from my seatmate on the way to Madrid. He just finished his term recently, and like many others, is spending the months following release traveling the world, beginning with Argentina and Chile and stopping for a few days in Madrid on his way home so I can give him a tour of the city. He told me he worked on the Lebanon border and was lucky because no one in his troop died. His dad and his grandfather - who immigrated from Russia - all served and he thinks that it's something all Israelis need to do in order to protect their home and continue living there. It's only a matter of time, though, before something happens and complete warfare breaks out in the region. Right now they're living with so much built up tension and with such high defenses, that any kind of attack would mean the degeneration of the current state of sort-of-stability.
Israel: interesting, nuts. I think we'll probably see each other again but next time I'm going inland and staying away from Tel Aviv. Maybe I'll hike a mountain or something. Cool.