Never in my life did I think I would be here in the Middle East, much less walking through the Old City in Jerusalem or swimming in the Dead Sea. The perception of this area is violence and danger, but that’s not the reality.
I started my visit to Israel in Tel Aviv, the western coastal city known more for partying and beaches (beware the jellyfish) than anything else. It just so happened that the first night I was staying in the city there was a festival going on. Now, if you choose to learn more about Tel Aviv you will come across the sentiment that Israelis love to party. I can tell you from my personal experience that this is absolutely true! I was out for what they call ‘White Night’ where seemingly the entire city is out on the streets way past their normal bedtime. Israelis know how to do it right.
The Dead Sea
Being in this water is an incredible experience, but a tip before you go… DO NOT forget your sandals. I made this mistake and the hot sand made me pay for it dearly. Running to the water doesn’t help either because the water is actually warm, sort of like a jacuzzi that’s cooling down. Also, if you didn’t know you should keep your head above the water, because the salt burns a lot.
You can think about what it might feel like all you want, but to actually float effortlessly is something you only understand once you do it for yourself. To me, it felt like I was flying or even walking through the water which was as surreal of an experience as I’ve ever had. I would guess that this is similar to being in zero gravity. It is absolutely incredible.
And of course, you have to put mud all over your body when you come here. It’s the touristy thing to do.
The Journey to Jerusalem
Any place I wanted to visit or anything I wanted to do was an adventure in Israel, but getting to Jerusalem was a bit more challenging. I had been staying with my friend Nati (more on him in a bit) who graciously dropped me off at a bus station. Here I was…. a foreigner in Israel who does not speak Hebrew, in the middle of nowhere. Imagine looking to your left and then right and seeing nothing but desert and highway and across the street are buildings that don’t look like the place you want to go for information. Yeah. After trying and failing to read the Hebrew bus stop sign, I finally asked a woman sitting near me if and when the bus was coming for Jerusalem.
Bus 277, 20 minutes. Awesome, until it wasn’t. The bus did come… and then it went right by without stopping. I just waited 40 minutes for this and now the next one won’t be here for another hour. I’m still in the middle of nowhere. But this was not my fate on that day. The woman I had spoken to earlier offered to take me on another route to get to Jerusalem and so I went with a complete stranger. The story ends with me getting safely to the city, but the point is I got there by the good will of others. Me… a foreigner in a foreign country. I chose to have faith in people, and as they say, a little goes a long way.
Okay, let’s talk Jerusalem. The Old City is incredibly difficult to navigate if you don’t know where you’re going. Fortunately, people again were helpful and directed me to where I was staying. The Old City is divided into four quarters: Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Armenian. It’s crazy to see where one ends and one begins, it’s almost like crossing borders because you can see the distinct difference between each one.
Going to these historical religious sites is impactful no matter what you believe. Touching the stone where Jesus’ cross stood when he was crucified and then being mere feet from his tomb in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was an unthinkable feeling. Seeing the Western Wall and all the people praying was similarly fascinating. When I stood in front of these places I felt small, amazed and drawn to them all at the same time. It was something I’ll never forget.
Now, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention what was perhaps the most impactful part of my stay in Israel. First we have to go back to Romania, when I was staying at a hostel in Bucharest about a week before I was to arrive in Tel Aviv. There, I met two guys named Nati and Yanay who were from Israel. As travelers in hostels you meet a lot of people all the time and when you part ways you wish each other the best and good luck among other things. Before Nati and Yanay left they offered me to stay with them when I visited Israel. To be honest I thought they were just being polite. But when I arrived in Israel, I thought ‘What the hell, I’ll at least grab a beer with them’.
They were absolutely serious. I met both of these guys for less than 48 hours, but here I was a week later, invited into their home, having drinks and breaking bread. Their hospitality was incredible and definitely much more than I deserved, but to them this was how they operate. To take in a guest and make them feel at home is their mission and I am very grateful that I happened to meet them.
I stayed with them for four of my nights in Israel so we had a lot of time to talk. If you ever travel to other countries, I encourage you to try and speak with the locals about anything. What you learn about each other and their culture is always enlightening. We spoke about religion, politics and the perception of the Middle East among other things. Nati, a 26 year-old Jewish Israeli, and me, a 23 year-old American of Mexican descent, are much more alike than you might think.
We talked at length about how Israel is viewed by the rest of the world and generally the idea is that it is chaotic and/or dangerous. A lot of that perception is due to movies portraying the Middle East as violent and unfortunately the media picking up stories that are violent in nature as well. But it’s not their fault… be honest, are you going to read a story about the light festival I went to in Jerusalem walking through the Old City? Maybe, but probably not. ‘If it bleeds it leads’ is the saying, you gotta give the people what they want.
I asked Nati what he would like people to think about Israel instead of what the common perception is:
“All the time I invite people to my house, come see how we are living. What we are thinking. There is good and not good people everywhere in the world. It’s not like (what) the media says. It is really different and you saw that. I would say come to me, come to my house and live, meet people. A lot of people like me and you (millennials) think different things, they’re not like the older Jewish (people)” – Nati Skital
The people here don’t want others to be afraid. They want the rest of the world to know that Israel is a safe place and not a war zone. Many people I know including family and friends were hesitant when I said I would be coming here because of the ‘perception’, but that’s what happens with the unknown.
I came here to challenge that idea and found incredible hospitality, friendly people and an amazing country. Remember this: people are PEOPLE, everywhere. Israel has so much to offer to those willing to visit. Don’t limit your experiences because of a stereotype, there’s too much to see.
From Ben Gurion International Airport