Tuesday, May 05, 2009

postcard from israel

We had been warned about two things before entering Israel. First, that the political situation can change very suddenly, so we should pay attention to current events as we enter and explore the country, and secondly, that crossing the border into Israel - especially for those with Syrian border stamps in their passport - can be a time consuming, and sometimes unsuccessful, ordeal.

We hear stories from fellow backpackers of people being questioned for an hour about their intentions, border guards hell-bent on picking holes in plans or making people crack and declare secret Arab loyalty.

A little of this turns out to be true. What we don't anticipate though, is that the border guards will in fact be a flotilla of 18 year old, attractive (and in Israel they are all attractive), uniformed girls. It appears as though this is Israel's national service in action: as the boys protect with guns elsewhere, the girls protect with pens here.

A 90 minute wait is followed by five minutes questioning by two such ladies, and some light critiquing of the Syrian Government later, we are through and on our way to Jerusalem.

After a month of being largely separate from any kind of backpacker scene, in Israel we are thrown right back into the center of one. The hostels are busy and vibrant, and it is good to be back in like-minded company.

Jerusalem itself is an expectantly serious affair, creaking as it is under the weight of 3000 years of religious and political history. It's a beautiful city - particularly the claustrophobic, bustling and ultra-holy old town, and I take my reverential moments with some of the very origins of today's religions by visiting various holy places of Muslim, Judaism, and in particular Christianity - by touching the stone Jesus was laid on after he died.

A day trip to Ein Gedi means traveling 410m below sea level to the lowest point on the earth's surface, the site of the Dead Sea.

Floating in the Dead Sea is perhaps how you imagine it - you're in water but it's impossible to sink, difficult to swim, and perfectly possible to just lay there, reading a newspaper. Care is required, however: a tiny drop of the ultra-salty water that enters your eyes, mouth or any open wound will be an intensely unpleasant experience.

In stark contrast to Jerusalem, Tel Aviv is a party town. Upon arrival we could easily be in an Australian city. The beach is long and inviting, the high-rise hotels sketch along it, and the hostels are packed with hedonistic, self-interested travelers.

It's not particularly a criticism, after five weeks of what I'll perhaps overstatingly call high-brow traveling it's welcome respite. Days therefore, are spent on the beach, and nights are spent with alcohol.

I'm standing at our hostel reception one afternoon, and the receptionist is having an argument with one of the hostel's long-term residents. She's having to remind him that it is against house rules to bring your gun (in this case, a two foot long Assault Rifle) onto hostel premises.

Also in Tel Aviv we get on a couple of computers and create fake-letters from our old universities confirming that we are currently studying there. We use them as 'proof' to get student ISIC cards that will save us plenty of money throughout the rest of our travels. We also spend half an hour in the 5-star surroundings of the Sheridan Hotel stealing a towel, after I lost mine in Jerusalem.

Our main night out in Tel Aviv sees us heading to a recommended dance bar called Lima Lima, before leaving again five minutes later, put off by the Garage music playing within, and the atypical garage crowd that comes with it.

Nearby though, we hear noise coming from the roof of a nearby apartment block - there's a party going on. Drawn by the appeal of raving on the cheap, we gatecrash. At 6:30am we leave - with the music still blaring out across Tel Aviv's skyline - and go for a walk along the beach with new friends.

Our further exploration of Israel is hampered by the country's Independence Day, a two day public holiday in celebration of the country's birth that will see systems like public transport grind to a halt. We hit on an idea of hiring a car instead to explore Israel's Northern regions.

Nervous about the manic local driving style, Simon is taking every precaution possible as we set out. We have been driving for two hours though, when he takes a roundabout exit too tightly, jolts the car up the kerb, and punctures both the (puny new style aluminium, apparently) wheels.

It is five hours later when a replacement car is brought out to us and we are back on our way again, and we would waste another two hours the following morning detouring to visit the rental company to fill out mindless paperwork. Meanwhile at the time of writing we are still awaiting confirmation that the incident was covered on our insurance. The excursion had not started well.

With our newly-thinned itinerary we go hiking down though a canyon in Yahudiya Nature Reserve, the highlight of a precarious hike being a unavoidable decent down a 9 metre ladder into a deep pool, followed by a 30 metre swim to the other side.

Elsewhere, we take a quick dip in the Sea of Galilee, and go exploring the especially politically tense area along the United Nations disengagement zone between Israel and Syria. We stop off at bomb shelters, abandoned buildings, disused tanks and an observation point overlooking the 1000 soldier UN base.

At one point Simon is at the roadside photographing a snake, when the air fills with a wailing sound. We look at each other as we realise: it is an air raid siren. Rushing back to the car we take off down the road with little idea of what to do, except drive. We shortly after pass through a village, and notice that everybody appears to be going about their lives as normal.

The next morning we are driving through more populated areas, and it happens again - sirens start blaring out across the landscape. This time though as we continue, we pass cars pulled up at the side of the road. Beside them people are standing, seemingly praying. As it is the public holiday of Independence, the air-raid siren signifies two minutes silence in memory of the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust.

Wish you were here,

Photos: (coming soon)
Israel rating
: 7.4/10
Friendliest person met: Chem the Depeche Mode fan in Tel Aviv, or Teresa and Eva, the German sisters in Jerusalem.
Scariest moment: Air-raid siren.
Most beautiful sight:The waterfall pools in Ein Gedi national park.
The Soundtrack: Bat for Lashes - Two Suns
Still to come: Jordan, Egypt, Japan, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Glastonbury festival.

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