Kristina and I took the super short flight to Tel Aviv, Israel on November 7th. At the airport in Cyprus we started talking with two American guys who were just starting some long-term travel of their own. On the plane, we met a local who was originally from Baltimore but had moved to Israel 10 or so years ago.
After landing we took note of the very nice Ben Gurion Airport and exchanged contact info with our new friends. Yaakov, (the jewish local), invited everybody, (myself, Kristina, and our two new American friends) to Shabbat at his house on Friday. It’s basically a Jewish Thanksgiving every single Friday. More on this later.
So we met up with Kristina’s good friend Alex and drove to our next destination, ירושלים (Jerusalem). Alex had recently moved here with her Israeli boyfriend, Tommy, and we were going to stay at their place for a while.
We met Tommy upon arrival at the apartment and the four of us went out on the town to grab some food and soak in the culture shock, (this was both Kristina and I’s first time in the Middle East). So there were some very apparent things.
First off, everyone here is jewish. Eeeeevvveerrryyybodddyyyy. I noticed it was a really funny thing, because I always thought of jews themselves as a demographic. You have the skater crowd. You have the bros. You have the valley girls. You have the jews. But now everyone was jewish but there is still that same diversity. It was the jewish skater crowd, the jewish bros, and so on. Yamakas all about!
Everything is written in Hebrew, which looks to me like the Star Wars alphabet, (just google it), but there is not as often an english parallel as I was used to in the Balkans. I guess in the Balkans there was very little english but things were written in both cyrillic and latin. Here, if something is in latin it’s in english, but a lot of the times it’s just in Hebrew and you’re sorta shit out of luck. At this point I’ve gotten very used to asking strangers to read labels in grocery stores for me. Most everyone speaks english.
The architecture is very…consistent. There is some mandate that within most of Jerusalem construction is only allowed with a certain type of local stone. It’s not ugly but also not really aesthetically pleasing. Moreover, just boxy and white.
When you cross the street there is typically a stop midway between the two opposing directions of traffic and they always go at different times. You have no idea how difficult it is to stare at a green walk sign just meters away, but you can’t get there because the closer walk sign is red. You just don’t understand my struggles.
Let’s see…what else. Guns. Guns everywhere. It is so common to see primarily very young Israelis walking around with fully automatic guns. I have a very mixed feeling of safer and more in danger at the same time. They seem reasonably well composed, but at the same time so young that I struggle to believe these kids are mature enough for what they are walking around with. And I definitely have gotten some nasty looks from them. Some of these guys just eye me down as they are walking by.
Israel is crazy expensive…like San Francisco prices. Just a few days ago I was downing 2€ gyros, and then I go to grab a shawarma and I’m doing the conversion in my head: let’s see…so that’s…$1? Woah that’s cheap! Wait. Shit…$10?! For greasy street food?! I’ll give them this, that shawarma was so dope. They don’t do pig here, so you have to get either chicken or beef. I opted for beef and got this really good, juicy meat that had a slight taste of corned beef. By the way, they call beef “meat” here. “Do you want chicken or meat?” Pork is a non-option, and they don’t identify poultry as meat, so beef is just “meat”.
Another thing I noticed quickly was that there is a strange familiarity to Jerusalem. It feels like New York city honestly. The simple explanation to this is that a lot of the people here are from NYC. There is a lot of American english being spoken on the streets. There are even a lot of American flags. Many other things just feel more American though. The easy one for me was identifying outdoor gear. People here wear Chacos, which are non-existent in Europe. The climbing store stocks a lot of the same brands as the US. They had both Osprey (American) and Deuter (German) backpacks.
Last note for the first day, there’s a python guy in Jerusalem. He’s just walking around with a python on his neck. Cool, dude.
On Friday we made our way over to Yaakov’s for Shabbat dinner. We walked most of the way and as a result we made quick note of the quietness of the streets. There are plenty of pedestrians, but that’s about it. The store fronts are all closed up. Cars are a much less common site. All of this made it feel a lot like Christmas day. You’re actually not even supposed to use electronics, but hey, I needed my map.
There are dressed up jews all about. Many of the men are wearing this really ridiculous looking hairy hat, that John is convinced is filled with cake. They apparently cost upwards of $1000.
We arrived at Yaakov’s apartment and struggled to find his door for a bit, but the neighbors were friendly enough to help. Many of the apartments were filled with singing voices.
Yaakov and his wife, who was from New York, have four little kids. They’re only 30 so they’ve been quite productive. The whole table included his family, Kristina and myself, John and Andrew, and two young girls, one from South Africa and one from the states, who were attending school in Israel. Apparently the girl from South Africa came in second on the singing show The Voice but I’m yet to check. I have a selfy with her just in case she becomes super famous.
We had an absolute feast of a meal that Yaakov’s wife had prepared and then spent the rest of the night socializing. Yaakov had a bit of an ice breaker get-to-know-you that we all partook in, and he followed it up with questions that really got into personal things in a fun way, allowing us to really learn about each other. Things were very laid back. I was so hesitant at first, not to disrespect some tradition, but Yaakov was very chill with everything and anything that I would consider acceptable with my family during the holidays.
I want to make a quick note, at this point, about jews. I obviously came here being naive and also having prejudices as we all do. One of the important things I learned upon coming to Israel, is that Judaism is not so much a religion as it is a culture and an ethnic group. It was really funny to hear, out of a jewish guys mouth, that there are secular jews and that from there it goes all the way up to the crazies with the hats and the curls and the this and the that. Everyone takes it their own way.
The other thing, is that the jews have been a bit of a nomadic race, not really identifying with a specific country. I have been noticing a pattern recently, regarding this. For starters, in WWII the Roma (gypsies) were similarly oppressed the way that the jews were. Another one is the bedouin tribes of the arab states. These are all nomadic groups that have had the short end of the stick in recent history. I wonder if one of the big contributing factors to this is simply that a nomadic way of life is a bit of a failed model, at least so much as that a settled one will result in a competitively more prosperous society. The biggie is that once countries became established and boarders were guarded, the nomadic lifestyle simply became infeasible.
The cool thing about this jewish culture is that it’s very much a large community here. People are nice. They ask you about personal things, and they are very willing to help. Take Yaakov for example, the guy who invited to dinner after just sharing an aisle on a flight. A major factor in his moving here was this tight-knit culture. Also, the other day, almost like a litmus test laid out in front of me, an older man was biking down the street when his tire got caught in the tram-rail and hew flew forward off of his bike. Immediately all of the nearby pedestrians ran to his help. It must have been at least five people. Two of them stuck around after he got up and gained his composure and it almost looked as if he would have needed to tell them off before they would leave. Final example, Yaakov was actually telling me about this one. He was driving the other day when his kid’s pacifier fell out of it’s mouth. The baby was in the back seat and he couldn’t quite reach, so he pulled over and asked this random pedestrian if he would be so kind as to put the pacifier back in the kids mouth. Without hesitation the pedestrian jogged up to the car, did as he was asked, and then waved him off. Just imagine trying to pull something like that in the states.
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During the next few days I had quite a bit of work to catch up on, so I spent most of my time at the nearby Carousela cafe. One of those days I took a walk around Jerusalem. I checked out the Mahane Yehuda Market, which reminds me a bit of Pike’s Place Market in Seattle. I was too cheap to buy any of the expensive food, but some guy gave me a free clementine. I tried paying for it and he almost shooed me away. Upon a local’s recommendation, I also went to the best Sabih place in town, Arica Sabih. Sabih, similar to all this other falafel/shawarma stuff, is a pita loaded with good things. This time, it’s roasted eggplant, eggs and fresh veggies. Super good!
Spending all of this time in the cafe, we had made a friend, Hasaan, an Israeli arab who also happens to be Anthony Bourdain’s twin brother. He offered to take Kristina and I on a tour of Old City Jerusalem. Saturday, the 11th, wound up being that day.
Old city is definitely the classic place to visit in Jerusalem. It’s a religious Mecca. …that’s so meta. The buildings are holy. This wall is holy. That rock is holy. The dirt is holy.
The first attraction we hit up was the Western Wall. It’s a special wall for jewish people because it’s special. I’ll be honest, I can’t keep up with all these holy relics. Call up Indian Jones if you really care. No, but seriously, it’s such an intense experience for these people and it just doesn’t speak to me. So the Western Wall was originally part of a temple, and I think it was destroyed multiple times. You’re supposed to touch the wall and pray or make a wish. I think making wishes is okay too. It has become something symbolic to the jews of the struggles that have endured. The wall is separated into two sides, for men and women. Kristina first went down to the women’s side and touched the wall. She said that there were women getting really into it, even wailing and crying while touching and leaning against the wall. Afterwards I went to the mens side. They have a bin of handout yamakas at the entrance. I went up and made my wish and then shimmied backwards to the entrance. You’re supposed to walk to and from the wall facing it. Quick aside on the wall: I was commenting to Hasaan about how there is a smaller section for women than for men. It is apparently a current topic that the women want to have half, instead of only about a third of the wall. Apparently a while back women weren’t even allowed to go to the wall.
After this we walked through the arab market. It’s really classy. Right off the bat, we were walking by a shop and the bro-ey looking guy starts asking us about if we want to buy this or that. I reply with “That’s fine, we’re just looking.” to which he responds by licking his lips and simultaneously staring at Kristina’s ass and saying “I’m just looking too.” As I was saying, really classy.
In-your-face sexual harassment aside, the arab market is really cool. There is just such an awesome feel to being in a middle eastern market: narrow crowded streets with beautiful wares all about. It is custom for us customers to say “Not now, but maybe I’ll come back and get it.” and it is custom for the merchants to say “Usually it’s $X but for you it’s only $Y because…blah blah blah”. The merchants push HARD. They will drag you into a store with kindness and show you everything in the store until the sun sets and comes back up again. Haggling is crucial. Spitball: offer 20% of the price and settle for 30-40%. Having a local that speaks Arabic is a major helper as well.
Hasaan took us to “the best hummus in Jerusalem”. It was pretty epic. The hummus itself isn’t anything special but it’s loaded with chickpeas, pine nuts, fresh parsley and quality olive oil. Yum! We then grabbed Kanafeh, another local specialty. It’s a dessert that is essentially a sweet mozzarella stick. Definitely worth a try although my arteries would clog pretty quickly if I had this on the regs.
The last major thing that we saw that day was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This place was packed. Outside there were crowds of people. The tour guides each had a stick with a glove, or some other totem in order to consolidate their group. People were coming from all over but I think in particular there were many Russians.
Stepping inside, the first thing you see is a stone slab with people crowding around it. They bend down with their heads against the stone and pray. This stone is supposedly what Jesus was laid upon after he was crucified. In the background is a fresco depicting this. Note that, being in Israel, the three scenes read from right to left.
We saw a whole bunch more holy stuff. The grand finale was this grandiose room that was the “cave” that Jesus was buried in and rose from. There is a line like the worst line Disney Land could imagine of Jesus junkies waiting to walk into the tomb. We opted for the much faster peaking in from afar approach.
Hasaan made an interesting point somewhere along the way, that the truth about history is not remotely as important here as the symbolism is. If historians discovered that Jesus’s tomb was in fact some other cave a few miles away, no one would care about it, and people would visit this site just the same. The importance is the symbolism and it was for sure powerful to witness so many people going on a religious pilgrimage to the holy land that means so much to them.
I went to the climbing gym with Tommy and his friend one day. I was getting a real kick out of the whole scene. It felt as if someone had posed the hypothetical question: “what if everyone at the climbing gym was jewish?” and then, well, it would be like this.
The climbing community here is small. The grades were pretty soft. I onsighted a few V6’s. There’s also an endemic of beta spray the moment anyone gets on a climb. I got on one climb and without thinking, just started by stepping up and getting a heel-hook to hold me on the wall. The guy working the problem there after explained that he and his friend had been doing the start in three or more tedious moves. How are you supposed to get creative input if you just tell everyone how to do it?!
We took a quick stop in Tel Aviv one night, unfortunately not having enough time to really check out the city. The one neighborhood that we were in had a cool vibe. It’s certainly trendier than Jerusalem. The people are more attractive. The prices are just as bad, if not worse. We opted instead to have dinner at Tommy’s mom’s house, which happens to be gorgeous. High ceilings with beautiful wood supports. I mean…they have a black toilet. That’s how you know someone’s fancy: black toilet.
Random observation: the homeless people in Jerusalem are the best kept homeless people I have ever seen. I saw a guy lackadaisically laying on the side of the street with a cup of coins, wearing a pristine swanky suit jacket.
On the 16th Kristina and I went to the Holocaust Museum. I’ll simply say this. It’s powerful and very very intense. Certainly worth going to remember the past, but Kristina and I left saying that we needed to see a goofy comedy to lighten the mood.
Guns all around. I started taking some photos. These guys and girls are all over the city.
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So Alex, Kristina and I took a trip to the Dead Sea today. On the drive there, I felt for the first time that I was in the Middle East. There was endless desolate desert. There were bedouin outposts on the sides of the road. I was in disbelief that anyone could live there. It was just an area of dry dirt, yet here they were with there shabby huts that look more like the kind of fort I would make in the woods as a kid using scrap metal and wood. The ground wasn’t even level. I saw a boy of about 10 tending to a donkey outside of one of the huts and I think he looked up at me.
We passed into the West Bank. I was waiting for a clear transition but there was no such transition. It still sort of confuses me as to how the two areas interact. The West Bank is illegally controlled by Israel, but it still has it’s own government?
A little ways into the West Bank we stopped at a rest station off the highway. I immediately noticed the colorfully dressed camels and with little realization of what was going on, a couple seconds later I was riding one!
I have to admit, I really did not expect my first camel ride to be in a parking lot. I got off and found out shortly after that the man who got me on the ride was asking for money, even for my 2 minute ride. It was a bit of a cheap move, but at the same time you have to understand the guys position. He was asking for ₪30, about $9, which is crazy. I didn’t have any cash and the ATM across the street wasn’t working so I explained myself and he just said it was okay and shook my hand. I definitely felt bad. ₪30 was too much but I certainly could have afforded to give the guy something.
We passed back into Israel. There was a checkpoint in the road following along the coast of the Dead Sea. The guards asked for ID and our visas, but even without passport we were let through without hassle after a quick explanation. Israelis and tourists are allowed to pass in and out of the West Bank without issue however the Palestinians living in the West Bank are not allowed into Israel. My impression is that it’s not a very strict boarder, but that a Palestinian could get in trouble for breaking this rule.
We arrived at the beach, on the south end of the Dead Sea. It was beautiful. The air is hazy from…sulfur, I think, and the mountains following the east side of the sea in Jordan can just barely be made out when looking closely.
When we first got to the shore, it almost looked like the snow slush that collects on the sand in winter, but instead it was actually salt. Aside from the sandy artificial beach, the natural bed to the sea was a hard crystallized layer of salt. It felt like walking on coarse concrete. There are random pockets in the hard flooring, and I was able, with a notable amount of effort, to break off a chunk of the salty rocky edge.
I don’t think I quite realized what the Dead Sea was when we got here. I knew that it was saltier than normal oceans, which kept anything from living in it, and I had heard that we had to try floating in the sea. This, I imagined, was because it was a little easier to float in the denser Dead Sea than in…say, Lake George. I was pretty off target there. It feels like being a duck. Or a seal. Or an otter. You effortlessly float, and it’s hard to go under if you try.
I was probably giggling for five minutes straight when we got in. It’s such a weird feeling. I have been so familiar with water and swimming for my whole life and this totally defied logic. You can spin around between being on your back and your stomach. I pushed Kristina and she effortlessly floated away with little resistance. There is not nearly as much of your body in the water as you’d be used to.
I eventually tried going under water…don’t do it. It was a terrible idea. It sorta just felt like trying to get to the bottom of the pool while wearing floaties, i.e. very unproductive, and then I couldn’t open my eyes afterwards until I had swam to shore and gotten my water bottle to rinse off my eyes. Kristina and Alex were shouting directions, “A little more left!”, “Yeah! Swim straight!”. Fortunately, by the time I got to shore my face had dried off enough that I could painfully open my eyes and run to my backpack.
Anyway…we rinsed off in the showers right by the beach and then headed back home. Alex claims that there are restorative and sedative powers to the air around the lake. She was feeling very relaxed afterwards. I definitely felt relaxed from having floated around all day, but I can’t say that there was any type of mind-altering sedative effect.
Here’s some other fun facts about the Dead Sea: It’s the lowest place on earth. The salinity is 33.7%, making it almost 9X saltier than the ocean.
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The next day we went climbing about a 1/2hr drive out of Jerusalem in a place called Zanoach. It’s definitely not anything memorable, but it was a nice day and it was fun to get my climbing-deprived body moving. Bonus: I had to try out the new GriGri+ that I just got. It’s so nice! The rope just feeds through it effortlessly. It’s like an auto-locking ATC in that regard. Mini-complaint: the anti-panic function on the lowering is a little weird and annoying, but not a deal breaker. Perhaps I’ll get more used to it.
Today is Monday, the 20th, and we were going to be on our way to Dahab today, however, when we arrived at the central bus station the bus tickets were sold out. Well, another day to relax in Jerusalem before heading to the beach. I’m sure the weather was going to be terrible there anyway. Right??