I’ve become sneakily suspicious that the real reason many dislike Israel has less to do with settlements, and more to do with jealousy. Have you ever seen a real Israeli? They’re heart-flutteringly gorgeous. Maybe Helen of Arabia ran off with one ages ago and there’s been acrimony ever since. I certainly wouldn’t blame her.
Two of the boys with whom we were traveling, who do not look kindly upon Israel for what I now see are purely physical reasons, immediately insinuated that the omnipresent men with machine guns were scary and about to “snap.” A girlfriend of mine and I made eye contact, raised our eyebrows, and made it clear that, on the contrary, we found them quite aesthetically pleasing.
The infamous border crossing between Egypt and Israel, for those of you who are curious about such affairs, was a piece of cake. We were literally the only ones there, though the time (4:30 am) may have had something to do with it. Besides how beautiful the actual location was, one of the biggest surprises was the difference that a little checkpoint can make on either side of the same piece of land.
I do not say this to be in any way mean or derogatory, but upon crossing into Israel, everything is instantly cleaner and better maintained. The people take much better care of themselves; the man who inspected my passport in Egypt had seven flies crawling on his pants at one time (I counted).
From Eilat, we easily boarded a bus to Jerusalem and slept the entire way, having grabbed some of the best pastries I have ever tasted. Everything is fresh and, I believe, primarily grown nearby. It’s literally worth making the trek just for the food.
We chose to experiment with the networking site CouchSurfers while in Israel to save money and to get a less “touristy” view of the country. To best describe it, CouchSurfers is like a small Facebook for travelers. Once you’ve made an account (Sally, my roommate, has one already), you simply enter the place you want to go, how many people are in your party, and any other specifications you might have (non-smoker, etc.). Up pops a list of CouchSurfers happy to host you, with references and reviews from people they have already hosted. It’s a two-way street; they also travel and stay with other CouchSurfers. Thus, if you find someone cool, which you almost inevitably do after reading all of the reviews, you have arranged for yourself free housing with locals eager to make your stay pleasant.
We stayed with a group of three, two girls and a boy, in the area of Jerusalem right by the houses of the president and the prime minister. Lucky, or what?
When we first arrived, Elia (the boy, who is a journalist/bartender) took us for a walking tour of the city. It’s unreal. Besides being clean (I apologize for the emphasis on cleanliness, but if you lived in Cairo it would shock you, too), the city is packed full of ancient history, modern amenities (like Ben and Jerry’s), and holy places of numerous world religions. During this particular tour, what struck me most were numerous plaques on the sides of restaurants or stores. They are a light sandy color with a stylized flame symbol, and Elia explained that they are in memory of those who died in suicide bombings in those locations.
The reality of strife and turmoil was incredibly difficult to picture in such a beautiful and “normal” location. I ate in two different restaurants with such plaques while in Israel, and I would have been equally surprised to see a suicide bomber in Minnesota’s Ridgedale Mall.
The next day, after going out with Elia’s friends the night before, we woke up bright and early and boarded the bus for Tiberias, a city on the Sea of Galilee in northern Israel. One of Sally’s friends from high school is currently doing her time in the army and invited us to visit her kibbutz, something most people never have the opportunity to see. We began by visiting the nearby Jordan River, where Jesus was baptized. It was strikingly take-you-back-in-time beautiful. However, strangely, we also noticed rats the size of chickens scurrying around the poor people who wanted to be baptized. It was quite a gripping scene. Will the person notice?
Upon entering Helal’s kibbutz, which is set up like a small, self-sustaining community, we stopped at a mini market where they sold fresh dates and date products. They were AMAZING, and I bought an entire box that I subsequently had to leave in Jerusalem, not remembering that I was operating under severely limited space constrictions. Continuing up the hill we passed the kibbutz’s café, mini grocery store, cafeteria, playground, and arrived at Helal’s dorm. Very cute and cozy, with signs everywhere instructing people on how to live in community (“how to do the dishes”), all ending in the admonishment “DON’T BE AN ASSHOLE.”
We changed into our swimsuits quickly and proceeded up the road to the Sea of Galilee. We were the only ones there. Looking across the water at the Golan Heights, we wondered from which overlooking hill Jesus gave his Sermon on the Mount, where he walked on water or calmed the storm, or where he said to his apostles “Come, and I will make you fishers of men.”
Upon our late return to Jerusalem, we decided to, what else? Go out. Apparently Jerusalem is having a problem keeping its youth from leaving and partying in Tel Aviv on the weekends, so a plethora of events were in action and everyone was out. Bars don’t close in Israel at 2 am, but rather stay open regardless of whether patrons are present until 4 am, and later if people remain. I don’t really know or care to explain the costs and benefits of such a decision, I just know that it makes for late nights and fun times. Never drink arak, often imbibed by poor Israeli soldiers, and then after because they’ve grown to love it. It tastes like black licorice and is disgusting.
The next morning, severely hungover, we all went on a 3-hour free walking tour of Jerusalem, which I highly recommend. Leaving from the Jaffa Gate, you walk through all four quarters of the city: Armenian, Jewish, Muslim, and Christian, and are able to see sites like the Western Wall, the Dome of the Rock and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher all in the same walk. I cannot emphasize enough how incredibly beautiful and profound the city of Jerusalem is. The light, clean color of the city against the blue sky, packed with religious significance and modern amenities, filled with beautiful, strong men is an experience not to be missed.
Around nine o’clock we said goodbye to our fabulous hosts, leaving them my box of fresh dates as an additional thank-you, and boarded the bus to Tel Aviv, planning to go out that night, see the city the next day, and return to Cairo the following night.
Unfortunately, the effects of the week started to catch up with us by the next day, and we all quietly and unanimously didn’t wake one another up, thus sleeping until about noon and failing to see the city. After showering, we had a small council of war. We had been planning on leaving that night, driving through the night and arriving back in Egypt on Saturday. We couldn’t leave the next day, because busses don’t run in Israel on Saturday because of shabbat. Without really knowing how we were getting home, we all adopted a “we’ll figure it out” attitude and decided to see the city and remain another day.
We went out with Roy, a friend of Sally’s, that afternoon and explored a bit of Tel Aviv. The most stunning part of the city was undeniably the beach and the pier. The sand was like powder, the sky and water were pristine blue (Cairo is all shades of gray and brown), and the waves were bigger than any I have ever seen. Repeat fun night scene, except this time we were at the beach.
Saying we took a “trip” to Israel somehow cheapens the experience. We took a journey, maybe made a pilgrimage. Your whole life somehow comes together in Israel, and you see its place in the history of the world. I can clearly see what enchanted Helen of Arabia, and what continues to incite jealousy world-over.
Author’s note: I wrote the post above in 2010, when I studied abroad at The American University in Cairo for a semester. Shortly after I went home for Christmas vacation, the Egyptians overthrew their longtime president, Hosni Mubarak. I spent the spring semester at Tel Aviv University, which you can read more about here.