Israel was not on our itinerary. OK, not like we have a real itinerary, but we usually at least know what country we're heading to next, and after Jordan, the plan was to go to Syria, spending about a week there en route to Turkey.
But Syria didn't like that plan, and wouldn't grant us a visa when we showed up at its border. Technically, Americans can only get a Syria visa in their home country, but we'd heard about other lucky travelers who'd recently managed to buy one at the border (though none were American), so we came to try our luck, too.
But no amount of discussing, explaining, begging, or offering to pay "extra fees" was budging these border guards. Americans, take note: Syria is strict on its buy-your-visa-in-the-USA-or-else policy.
So, it was back in the taxi and back to Jordan, which, I must say, has the kindest border guards on earth. They canceled our exit stamp no problem, offered us coffee and handfuls of nuts, and told us that we were most welcome back into their country. Which we then only stayed in for a few more hours, en route to another border post...the bridge over the Jordan River to Israel.
Knowing that there was a chance we wouldn't get into Syria, Andy and I had formulated a very hypothetical backup plan a few days earlier: If we got rejected, we'd go to Israel instead, travel south back to Egypt, and fly from Cairo to Istanbul (the cheapest Istanbul-bound flight in the region). But we'd really hoped Syria was going to let us in, and had not planned one bit for an Israel trip. When we got across the border, night was falling...we had no guidebook, no idea what city we wanted to head to first, and no idea how much things cost in Israel.
Well, we got schooled fast in that last one. Israel is EXPENSIVE! I actually spent two weeks there in 1999, but that was on an all-expenses-paid tour for college students (thanks, Birthright Israel!) and I'd barely had to shell out for more than the occasional ice cream. So, I had no memory of whether the country was pricey or not.
Turns out that just about everything here costs way more than in the neighboring countries--hotels, transport, and especially, food. A falafel sandwich in Egypt or Jordan costs around 30 cents US. In Israel, you can't find one for less than $4. Eep!
But I'll try to keep my complaining to a minimum (or at least save it for the next finances post). I'll just say that for us, Israel has been the French Guyana of the Middle East, meaning that we shell out over $50 a night for cheapest hotel room in town, live on grocery store white bread and hummus (which still costs us $10 a meal), and grumble a lot.
All that said, a lot of the religious sites and tourist attractions in Israel are free to visit, so that helps ease the pain a bit. Here's a taste of what we did during our six days in the country.
At the end of a day that saw us take 12 different buses or taxis in three countries, we arrived in Tiberias, Israel, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. This is where Jesus supposedly walked on water. The next day, we attempted to duplicate his feat, but we fell in. Luckily, we had thought ahead and were wearing our bathing suits.
Two of those claw machines at the local mall, where you put in money and can pluck out a toy, also had cigarettes as a possible prize. What the ?@#$%! Words fail me.
Next it was on to Tel Aviv, Israel's glitzy, modern, second-biggest city. It has some impressive skyscrapers.
Less than a week left until Harry Potter 7!!! The caption says "Harry Potter" in Hebrew, by the way.
Tel Aviv's beachfront boulevard looks like a cross between Rio de Janeiro and Miami. There are no pink buildings in this shot, but trust me, they exist.
As you may have gathered from the pictures, we didn't really do much in Tel Aviv other than wander around. It's a very pleasant city with lots of plants, bike lanes, and stylish cafes that would probably be to eat and drink at if they weren't twice as expensive as such places in New York. At the big Carmel Market, we finally found a few good food deals and stocked up on cheap candy bars and cereal, which kept us nourished for a couple of days. If I had to live in a city in Israel, I would definitely pick Tel Aviv. Part of its appeal to me is also that it's very secular--if it weren't for all the signs in Hebrew, you'd probably hardly know you were in Israel at all.
Quite a different vibe is found in Jerusalem. It's only an hour from Tel Aviv, but has a totally different fashion sense.
Jerusalem also has many more important religious and historical sites. Many are found in the "Old City" part of town, which is surrounded by stone walls like this one and entered only by various gates.
Inside the old city, here's a night shot of the Western Wall, also known as the Wailing Wall. It's the only remaining structure from the great (but long-destroyed) second temple on this site, and pretty much the holiest spot in the world for Jews.
The first time I visited, it really annoyed me that about 4/5ths of the wall is reserved for men, and women have to crowd three people deep into the tiny section off to the side that's set aside for them. Ten years on, the situation is the same, and it still annoys me.
Many people who come to pray at the wall write a note to God that they then stick in a crack in the wall. The wall is now jammed with these notes in every crevasse, and the ones that have fallen out are all over the ground near the wall, too.
In the "New City," Andy and I visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum. I went to a Holocaust Museum when I first visited Israel, but apparently this one is new since 2005. Here's a shot of the main hall--very modern architecture on the outside, to match the very multimedia experience on the inside, I guess. It's still a moving and educational experience, but I found all the video and different-colored and -fonted posters and such a bit overwhelming at times.
Overlooking the old city is the Mount of Olives, a significant area for both Christians and Jews. There are several churches, but the Basilica of the Agony pictured here probably has the best name.
The inside of this church does have cool windows made out of purple-stained alabaster stone, which filters the light a lot and keeps things appropriately gloomy.
I really like the golden domes on top of the Russian Orthodox church in this area.
And speaking of golden domes, let's not forget the Dome of the Rock, the huge mosque built in the 600s on the Temple Mount (site of the destroyed Jewish temple, and a bone of contention between the two religions ever since).
The Mount of Olives has a huge Jewish Cemetary. My great-grandfather is buried somewhere in here, but I had no idea where to even begin to look...and it was Shabbat when we visited, so the info center was closed. Maybe next time...
Nearby is a church built on the site of the assumption of the Virgin Mary. Andy was really impressed not only with the number of chandeliers hanging in this church, but with the fact that their candleholders have all been replaced with CFL bulbs! Who knew Mary was so green?
Back in the Old City, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is built on the site where many branches of Christianity believe Jesus was crucified and raised from the dead. The centerpiece of the church is this shrine...which to me, looks like a cardboard cutout wrapped in tin foil, but it seemed to impress a lot of other visitors.
I liked the painted dome with the skylight within the church much better.
And that pretty much wraps it up for Israel. We haven't had a bad time, but it probably would have helped if we'd done a bit more advance planning. Budget travelers will definitely want to try to couch-surf in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, where cheap lodging is pretty much impossible to find. There are plenty of free sites, museums, and beaches to visit, though!
In closing, I realize that there is not a single picture including Andy in this post! I promise, he really did get into the country, even though he is not a Jew. Though the border guards did pull him into a little room and practically strip-search him when we came across the border from Jordan, while I sailed through security with no problems... Hm. Maybe he just looked a little crazier than I did.