After a whirlwind tour through Europe with my family, I once again found myself alone. On a whim, I decided to go to Israel! I love that I could do that. I had been dreaming of Israel for as long as I could remember. I wanted to soak in all the history, relax on the beaches, and float on the Dead Sea.
I knew that security for flights going to Israel, especially El Al flights, could be intense, so I arrived at the Vienna airport at 6:00 p.m. in order to catch my 9:00 p.m flight. I never in a million years expected what happened to me. As soon as I arrived at the check-in counter and the security personnel had a look at the ridiculous number of recent stamps in my passport, I knew I was in for a lengthy interrogation. I had three different people interviewing me before I even checked in my bag! They asked me all about my trip, who I worked for, how I was paying for my journey (I hated that, MYOB!!!), whether I had any electronics (d’uh!!). Each person asked me more or less the same questions, I guess to see if I gave the same spontaneous answers. For reasons I still don’t understand, after interviewing me, they decided that I would not be able to bring any of my electronics on board, and that I had to check in my cellphone, camera, everything. I was not happy, but I didn’t want to argue and cause more difficulties. I just wanted to get through this rather miserable process, so I just smiled and agreed. They let me put a change of clothes and my money into my carry on, but that was it. Then they told me that I would be going through further interviews at the gate. Yippee!!
After checking in, I went through passport control and I came to the gate. The personnel were waiting for me. They led me into that special room where they conduct extra searches. They asked me a few more questions, and then I was searched by two girls. I had to pull down my pants and take off my bra, and I was patted all over. They scanned my pants zipper and underwear with the wand, they reached under my ponytail, and they felt under my breasts. They took swabs from my clothing. I have been patted down before, but this was horribly invasive. I just wanted to get through it! After they were done, one of the girls sat down with me and asked about my trip, either for security reasons or to fill the awkward silence. She was very sweet actually, and I think I had her convinced to go to New Zealand! Everyone was very polite and kind to me during the whole process. They even offered me coffee and crackers in that little room. I never once felt under attack. They told me that I hadn’t done anything wrong. But being nice to you while at the same time treating you like a criminal really messes with your mind!
For reasons I still can’t fathom, they decided after all that that I wouldn’t be allowed any carry on at all! They made me check in my small bag, and they handed me a tag which they said was “for the bag” (more on that later). I was escorted right onto the plane by the security personnel, and I had only my passport and money (When I asked, they got my sweater out of the bag for me and brought it onto the plane. Lucky me!) All the flight attendants seemed to know who I was. I looked around, and I seemed to be the only one without any carry on. The Israeli couple next to me was stunned by my predicament. I still don’t really know whether they thought I was a drug runner or somehow connected to terrorism. Either way, what???????
The flight went smoothly. After all that, you would think I would say “boycott El Al,” but it’s not that simple. Although the flight was only three hours, they served an absolutely delicious dinner, and they even had hummus! Amazing!
When I arrived in Israel, I went through passport control with no difficulties, and then I picked up both my bags. I checked quickly, and all my electronics had arrived safely. It seemed I was in the clear! I arrived at the hostel in Tel Aviv at 2:30 a.m., and passed out. I woke up early the next morning, and opened my big backpack. I was astonished! It had been absolutely ransacked! Every single tiny thing had been opened, and nothing was in its place. I quickly realized that three pairs of shoes were missing, and I lost it. I started crying, hyperventilating and panicking. Luckily, the staff at the Florentine Hostel were absolutely fantastic. One of the girls got right on the phone with El Al and started yelling at them in Hebrew. It took the better part of the day to get it sorted out, most of which I spent either in tears or on the verge of tears. I was so tired, so frustrated and so bothered by the whole experience. As it turns out, the tag they gave me “for my bag” was actually for a box of things that they couldn’t fit back in after searching my backpack, and I was supposed to pick it up at the luggage counter. I wish that they had told me that directly! I guess it was a situation where the flight attendants thought security had explained it and vice versa. El Al realized it screwed up and delivered the box right to my hostel. I could finally put the whole nightmare behind me and start focusing on having fun!
I had a great first few days in Tel Aviv. My hostel was right near Jaffa, an old part of town that used to be the main port. I took myself on a giant walking tour around the city. I went all the way up Rothschild Boulevard and down the beachfront promenade. Some of the main streets in Tel Aviv have a walking/cycling path running right through the middle of the road. Perfect design for a stroll through town!
I spent five amazing nights in Jerusalem. I stayed at the Abraham Hostel, a short walk from the old city. It was probably one of the top three hostels I have stayed at on this trip. They had a bar right in the hostel, an awesome rooftop terrace, and all the things that I have come to appreciate in dorms, like lockers and reading lights. To top if off, the breakfast was amazing! Toast! Nutella! Fruit! Cucumbers and tomatoes! Even feta cheese one epic morning! On the Friday night, they hosted a fantastic Shabbat buffet dinner for all the guests.
I spent my first day and last days in Jerusalem getting lost in the old city. The place is crazy. It is divided into the Muslim, Jewish, Christian and Armenian quarters, and once you are in, finding a gate to get out can be a challenge. At one point, I thought I had found the Damascus Gate when I saw a light at the end of the street. Yes! I headed toward the light, and I was informed by a very unfriendly guard with a machine gun that the “gate” was “closed.” It turns out that what I had thought was the Damascus Gate was one of the Muslim-only entrances to the Dome of the Rock courtyard. Oops. (There is an entrance to the courtyard for non-Muslims, but you can only go at certain times of day, and not on Fridays, Saturdays or Muslim holidays.)
I saw the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Jesus is thought by Catholics and Orthodox to have been crucified. Everywhere I went, there was a crush of religious people and other tourists. The crush was even heavier when I went to see a light show one night. The entire old city was lit up, and you could follow these pathways of light through the town. It was incredibly cool!
I also visited the Israel Museum, which is one of the best museums I have been to all year (and that’s saying a lot!). There were hundreds of artefacts from all three major religions, some dating back thousands of years, and other sections devoted to Jewish cultural history and art. I could easily have spent an entire day there, but I had to move on to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial. That was a hard place to visit, but it’s not to be missed. The one part of the visitor’s centre that really struck a chord with me was the giant, circular room filled with binders recording the names and information of every known victim of the Holocaust. It really gives you a perspective on the magnitude of that horrific chapter in human history. So many beautiful lives lost, so much potential gone, for absolutely no reason. It’s staggering.
I took a tour organized by the hostel to Masada, Ein Gedi Nature Reserve, and the Dead Sea. I decided to go at sunrise, so that I could climb Masada rather than take the cable car. I have to say, I have never in my life gotten up at 2:30 in the morning. I have certainly gone to bed at that time though! It was tough, but worth it. Sunrise over the Judean desert was magical, and I had a good time exploring all the archaeological digs on the old fortress and learning about how people lived up there in such rugged conditions. It got very hot very early, so after climbing down the mountain, we headed to Ein Gedi, where you can frolic in a waterfall in a desert oasis. It was so beautiful, and so refreshing. Floating on the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth, was a fantastic experience. It was a dream come true for me. You feel like you are lying on an inflatable raft! It’s so strange how the water lifts you up! Also, the mud feels delightfully therapeutic.
I wanted to see Bethlehem, Jericho and the Jordan River, so I took another tour run by the hostel. All these sites are in the West Bank, where Israelis are not allowed to go. We had to pick up our tour guide near Bethlehem. I enjoyed seeing the Church of the Nativity and the Sheperds’ Fields. The tour guide also took us to see part of the wall put up by Israel that runs through the West Bank. It is covered in some interesting graffiti.
We headed to the Jordan River, where people were being baptized. The water looked absolutely horrible. I admired their dedication! I was a bit disappointed with Jericho, the world’s oldest city. I guess that I had hoped to see more ruins. The “old city” is basically an archaeological site with remnants of walls deep in the ground. You really have to use your imagination! We went to the Taybeh Brewing Company, a neat business run by Christians in the West Bank. They even have their own Oktoberfest! At the end of the long, hot day, we toured around Ramallah, the main city in the West Bank. We saw Arafat’s tomb, and the city centre. I was surprised to see how normal the city seemed. However, the traffic leaving the city was pretty terrible because of the checkpoints.
From Jerusalem, I went up North to Haifa to visit my friend Kfir, an Israeli backpacker whom I had met in New Zealand. It was wonderful to see him again and to meet his family. He took me to the beach near his house, to another beach in Nahariyya, and to the ancient crusader city of Akko where I had the best hummus I have ever eaten.
I also rented a car one day with another friend, and we drove out to the Golan Heights. We saw the Sea of Galilee in all its sparkly splendour, and visited the Yehudiya Nature Reserve. After trudging down a hot path (and seeing a giant black snake slithering across the path in front of us!!), we came to these amazing hexagonal pools where we could swim. We also got to swim right under this incredible waterfall a little further down the path. It was heavenly.
After a quick tour through the Baha’i Gardens in Haifa, I returned to Tel Aviv to chill out on the beach before flying back to Europe. I spent one interesting night on the rooftop of the Florentine Hostel sleeping under the stars! It was fun 🙂 Then my friend Odellia from Montreal, who moved to Tel Aviv a few years ago, offered me a room in her apartment. I had a nice time hanging out with her and her ridiculously adorable cat. I also met another friend from New Zealand, Asaf. He drove me to Caesarea, where we explored the ruins of the city (much more interesting than Jericho!), then took me to a nearby restaurant where they make amazing cheese. I am so grateful for the kindness of locals wherever I travel. They make the experience so much better.
My airport security experience on the flight back to Vienna was fairly uneventful. They asked why I went to Malaysia, and put my big backpack through an extra x-ray machine. They also made me open it so they could take swabs. But other than that, everything was normal. I was even allowed to bring my little bag on the plane with me! Crazy!
I saw a lot of things in Israel that raised many questions in my mind, namely, the tight security, the soldiers and guns EVERYWHERE, and the infamous wall. I can’t even begin to wrap my mind around the complexity of the whole situation. There are so many layers, and so many sides to the story. All I can say is that spending two weeks in Israel and one day in the West Bank hardly makes me qualified to comment!