Sometimes, when I’m choosing where to travel, I research which country has the best prices, transport options and language barrier for me. Sometimes, I just think, which country is going to freak my mum out the most when I tell her? Anyway, long story short, here’s how I got on during my trip to the Israel/Palestine border…
Before I arrived in Israel, I had a shamefully low understanding of its history and its current political climate. I had a vague notion that there was some conflict there that I didn’t understand and it wasn't a place you holiday. Then one day, when I was reading the Metro over somebody’s shoulder on the tube, I saw an article claiming that the amount of people that shared my lack of understanding of the country had killed their tourism industry. After that, I couldn’t get the idea of visiting this place that I knew nothing about out of my head.
If the heavily historical and religious influence of Israeli culture gives the impression that it's the old fashioned grandfather of the world, then Tel Aviv presents itself as the country’s rebellious grandchild. The city was only officially founded 100 years ago and it shows. From reading online about the city’s peaceful protests, such as the annual ‘Slutwalk’, were women march in their underwear to protest sexual harassment and the 2000 person strong vegan march for animal rights, I already knew that the city was one of distinctly modern values. This youthful culture of change was definitely reflected in the feel of the city too. The nightlife consists of laid back, smokey bars that project the constant hum of people in bohemian fashion actually talking to one another.
The Dead Sea
One of the biggest draws of exploring further into the country is to tick ‘float in the Dead Sea’ off your bucket list. Obviously floating in water isn't alien to most of us, but to be scooped up by the water and float without any effort on your part is pretty surreal. It’s a unique way to feel light and graceful. Unless of course, like me, you decide to try floating on your front. In which case you will eat a faceful of burning saltwater and thrash around manically trying to fight physics and put your legs down in front of you. After the novelty of total buoyancy wears off, you get the fun of digging in the sea floor to find handfuls of the famously nutrient-rich mud and caking yourself in it for the Instagram likes- I mean... health benefits, definitely for the health benefits.
Palestine has a war-torn history, you can't ignore that, but don't let that deter you from crossing the border from Israel. Visiting the cities within the Palestine territories was single-handedly the most fascinating part of my trip. I was worried that our tour would be treating the locals, who experienced the conflicts firsthand, like just another tourist attraction. Thankfully, I had nothing to worry about because every local we met along the way; the market-stall owners, the family who cooked for us, the elderly men chilling in the street, were all extremely eager to talk to us and tell us their stories.
The most unusual part, though, is encountering the armed guards. There is a mandatory national service in the nation, so the people checking our passports at every site were younger than me. Seeing 18 year old girls linked arms and gossiping like normal but with rifles thrown casually over their shoulders really reminds you how far from home you are.
It doesn’t matter what religion you are, or even if you have one at all, you cannot help but be amazed at the intertwining backgrounds that make up the Old City in Jerusalem. The city is historically important to all three religions (Christian, Muslim, Jewish) that reside within the Old City. You can see the site where Jesus was crucified, the mosque where Muhammad ascended to heaven and the Western Wall of the original Jewish temple within a 10 minute walk of each other.
Whilst it may seem like an unknown world to us now, the religious beliefs and passions that modern society was built on were created in these ancient places. To stand on these sites and witness the original physical representations of the ideologies that shaped modern society is completely humbling. I try to avoid travel clichés, but I truly feel that I left Jerusalem with a better understanding of the world than when I arrived.
All of the wonder and life changing experiences that I’ve mentioned are all well and good, but the biggest reason to go to Israel? The choice of food on offer is insane. Admittedly, I was a little pre-disposed to Mediterranean food before I went (hello Tesco’s Meal Deal falafel), but this is a whole new level. I straight up watched a woman in a bar order a soup-bowl full of hummus and just dig in with a spoon. The food is fresh, the wine is local and the coffee is so rich you would be ashamed to add milk and sugar. I cannot recommend the street food enough, and with that you get the bonus of that bustling moroccan-style vibe of the marketplace.
The best way I can sum it up, is that when I returned home, I had to take 3 days off work to recover from everything that I had packed into my holiday. Although I often leave a country feeling that I have experienced something new, this is the first time I’ve felt like a city taught me something new too. I consider myself lucky to have left with a better understanding of the inspiring place.