I started writing this post on March 2, 2015, but did not finish it until Jan 3, 2016! Yes, I procrastinate, but I do eventually complete.
Greetings from aboard British Airways flight 162 from Tel Aviv to London. I’ve just spent the past week in Israel, and that’s what I’m going to talk about today.
(See all of my photos from Israel here.)
I’m not entirely an idiot. I know that for a lot of people, Israel can be a problematic holiday destination. So let me say upfront that this trip, and this blog post, have nothing to do with the politics of the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Rather, it’s simply a part of the world I’m fascinated by. My bias is that I think that currently the Palestinians get a raw deal; but that doesn’t prevent me from acknowledging the Israelis’ legitimate existential concerns. That’s all I’m going to say about that issue. So please don’t derail the comment thread below (if one manifests) with the predictable extremist viewpoints that aren’t really relevant to a travel log.
I was with my regular traveling companion Adam. No, we’re not a gay couple. Stop it. We only had a week to spend, so were limited as to what we could see in a country chock full of interests, both modern and ancient. We spent two days in Jerusalem, one day touring Masada and the Dead Sea, one day in Haifa, and about a day and a half in Tel Aviv. Not a lot, I know.
So, in no particular order, here are my impressions of Israel…
First off, the one word that comes to mind is “impressive.” The infrastructure that has been built and maintained is impressive. The first-world quality services, accoutrements and feel are an impressive accomplishment in this part of the globe. The efficiency of its systems, from its bus routes and train system to its taxis and city layout are remarkably well run and easily understood, even for someone like me who cannot read a single character of Hebrew. The sense of calm that permeates all walks of life that I observed (relative to similar comparators in North America), given that this nation is in a constant state of national security tension, is impressive. And knowing that there is an overt shared hostility with the neighbouring Palestinian Authority, as well as the surrounding Arab nations, that sense of calm is nothing but impressive.
Of course the security is impressive. It does not feel like a militarized state in lockdown. Rather, it feels like a nation with an earned confidence in its security insfrastructure to defend itself. Now, I don’t hide the fact that when I travel, I usually have at least one knife hidden somewhere on my person. It’s ostensibly for self-defence, but historically I’ve used it most often for slicing cheese and bread.
On our first night in Jerusalem, a security guard at the local pub asked us to surrender our knives and guns. I handed mine over, and of course the gentleman did not bat an eye at the fact that I had one. Adam was abashed at being the only unarmed person present.
It’s a militarized society. There is mandatory military service for all young people, men and women. This is often the thing that puts off most fresh visitors from North America: the sight of baby-faced young people –especially the girls, whose American equivalents look like they’d be most comfortable shoe shopping– openly packing serious automatic weaponry with great comfort and ease.
Now, as I’m completing this travel log almost a year after I started it, I’ve forgotten a lot of what I was going to write. And that’s a shame. But in a sense it’s a useful gauge for what is truly memorable about a place.
Israel, for me, is memorable for a number of reasons. As I look back now, so many months after the completion of the trip, these are the points that stand out for me:
(1) I love Middle Eastern and Mediterranean food. Israel is, at its heart, a Middle Eastern nation, though it seems to be trying really hard to cling to its European (and American) connections. Thus, the food is really quite good, but a lot more Westernized than I’d expected.
(2) The Palestinians I encountered were quiet, subdued, and seemingly wary. I can’t say that I blame them. The ones that I spoke to were shopkeepers, taxi drivers, and guides. They were, to a man (and they were all men), deeply intelligent and equivocal, and careful not to show their political hand, but open to discussing anything and everything, so long as others introduced the topic.
(3) The Jewish people I encountered were marvelously open and helpful. In fact, it felt like there was a national meeting, and everyone agreed that they would go out of their way to be accommodating to travelers. From the moment we got off the plane, there was an older gentleman offering to translate the Hebrew signs for us. On our last night in Tel Aviv, we walked into a disco that was frantically setting up for that night’s theme party, yet the owner took the time to explain everything to us. Really helpful people.
(4) The vaunted Israeli airport security is just fascinating. It consists of people power, not technology. From the moment you walk into the airport, the profiling begins. It’s probably wrong for a brown guy to be saying this, but I found the whole ordeal exciting and intriguing. (Mind you, I’d be singing a different tune if I’d ended up in an interrogation room.)
(5) And the young people. So impressive. Yep, there’s that word again. At first, I thought this might be a function of having to undergo mandatory military service. Or maybe it’s the result of the perception of being under siege. However, when I returned to Canada, my Lebanese taxi driver had a different take. He felt that Middle Easterners in general simply mature earlier. I think this is a reasonable hypothesis. It makes me a tad upset that young people in the West can’t be as mature, responsible, or informed as Israeli youth. It’s a recurring theme in my life, as I evolve into an old curmudgeon: frustration with the lowered expectations that those around me seem to have of themselves.
If I have any regrets about our trip to Israel is that we did not find the time to travel to any of the Palestinian territories. I don’t know if I will find myself in this part of the world again, but that would be a priority if I did.
Here’s a brief audio podcast of my observations from Old Jerusalem. It sort of ends unceremoniously:
Here are some brief observations from Tel Aviv:
Here are some ambient noises from a bar in Tel Aviv that we quite liked, called Rothschild 12:
My entire Youtube playlist of videos recorded in Israel can be found here.