Jaunting in the Middle East

by Mel

It was past midnight. I was alone, having wished Jackie a Happy New Year and goodnight. Set up in her downstairs living room with an air-mattress and blanket, and plagued as usual by insomnia, I started to rifle through her CD collection. I often teased Jackie about her music taste, and yet we shared a certain affinity for cheesy country music, perhaps because its alien nature to the lives we led in England. I popped a Dixie Chicks CD into the CD player.

I wanna touch the earth
I wanna break it in my hands
I wanna grow something wild and unruly
Oh, it sounds so good to me

I cringe admitting it, but those very lyrics spoke to me. Over and over, as I replayed the song again and again. My life in London had been desolate of late, I was lonely having moved out of the larger community I had been living in and into my own room in a shared house. My boss at work wasn’t subtle in her dislike for me, and the boy I liked wasn’t mature enough to ask me on a proper date. Or perhaps he just didn’t like me that much, who knows. Either way, I knew I needed to get out, and soon. As the lyrics rolled around in my head, I made a promise to myself that as soon as the travel agent opened on January 2nd, I would book a ticket to Tel Aviv, Israel.

I remember the cheery nature of the Flight Centre, and yet I cannot recall which one it was when I corrected the supervisor on the whereabouts of Tel Aviv – “Lebanon?”. It had appeared geographical knowledge was not a top priority when hiring for the role.

Israel was a rite of passage for the S siblings, my brothers having gone in previous years. Each had come back with a vastly unique experience. It was my eldest brother who sold it to me with the words, “It’s like Mos Eisley, anything can happen.”

I booked my ticket for 6 weeks out, although the ticket itself took the rest of my savings. I knew I had to buckle down and save everything I could until I left. It certainly lit a fire under my arse. I ended up getting fired a couple of days before I was due to leave. All I will say on that matter is that it was satisfying sharing uncouth words with my boss. It still brings a grin to my face over 10 years later.

Stepping off the train from Ben Gurion airport, the novelty of sitting next to a teenage soldier with a rifle slung casually over his lap still fresh, I climbed into a taxi to make the rest of the journey into Tel Aviv. The golden light radiated off the cobblestone streets, young people were walking and laughing leaving the military camp. Everywhere I looked was so exotic and peculiar to my English eyes. My senses finally felt alive! The people were different, direct, friendly. The scenery had arid majesty to it.

Hours later and I sat in the cavernous Hayarkon 48 hostel, rain slapping against my dorm room window, contemplating the months ahead. Earlier that day I had met up with a friend of my mother’s. Karen was eight years older than I, but my mother always enjoyed younger company. Karen had shown enormous hospitality in acquainting me with the city. We arranged to meet a few days later again before I headed on to Jerusalem.

How would I sustain myself over the three months until my return flight? I was already aware of the money leaving my hands over such trivialities as bottled water, snacks and so on. The tales I had heard from my brothers had been of picking up work so easily… and yet these were stories from a good 5-10 years prior. I was traveling with a guide book that is 14 years passed its date of publication, a gift (and the only available guidebook, due to an evident boycott of publishing any travel-related Israel books).

After a few days and strange misadventures in Tel Aviv, I took the sherut to Jerusalem. In a country where terrorist attacks are a daily occurrence, the sherut was the safest way to travel. A minibus that holds around 10 passengers, the driver takes note of each person boarding, and decides whether to take them or not.

On arrival in Jerusalem, I headed for the Citadel hostel in the Old City, wanting to really soak up the ancient atmosphere. Through Jaffa gate I advanced, past a man claiming to be Jesus, and into the maze of narrow stone streets. The Citadel hostel proved to be an interesting place to stay, as not only did it have a certain amount of history, the stone walls meant we were even colder inside than out. At night we’d run the little space heater in our dorm, only for one of the owners to creep in and turn it off. This back-and-forth would continue throughout the night, and was part-reason to me staying only the two nights. Getting weary of finding my way back through the dark labyrinth of streets at night, I moved to a hostel in the new city.

It took me three days to fall in love with Jerusalem. On arrival, I was overwhelmed, it was chaotic, tourists were crazy. By day three, my stunned state became one of delight and curiosity. I made it my mission to sample every baklava in East Jerusalem and become a regular at Shawarma King in the new city. I talked to everyone who would start a conversation, and I took great pleasure in bargaining with the locals in the old city. A Jewish American gave me prime haggling advice and I was set.

The local Arabs invited me to sip tea whilst deciding on a price. I would originally ask for 25% of their asking price, and when they’d exclaim in disbelief, walk slowly away. Of course shouts of an apparent change of heart would often follow and then would lead to the tea and deep discussion of a “fair price”. Usually there was some talk of me being their first customer of the day, so I would get a “special price”. Even if I didn’t leave with any tangible goods, I had with me some striking memories.

Liftah was another highlight for me. My brother Mark gave me specific directions from the new city to the bombed-out settlement. It was exciting to be turning right here, left there, locating a gas station and finding some hidden steps down into a valley. At the time I was unaware of it being a haven for Hassidic Jews wanting to skinny dip and sunbathe. I found out the hard way, but at least managed to get a few photos of the ruins before then.

Though not as interesting as Jerusalem, Eilat had its own set of interests. I unintentionally stayed in a former hostel which was now being squatted by a drug dealer. In Haifa I got very lost, in Accra I witnessed a bomb being deactivated. In Tiberius I sampled Saint Peter’s Fish and was taken under the wing of some local Israeli men, who showed me the town. In Tzfat I ate delicious mini pastries, and finally up at Bar Am I found my home for six weeks, as I volunteered at the local kibbutz. On the border with Lebanon, one could stand on the top of the hill and look into the valley below where the Lebanese guards were patrolling.

For six weeks, I (poorly) packed apples, sang along to the Jungle Book soundtrack, attended a toga party, fired my first gun, and made life-long friends. Along with a pal, additionally managed to create quite the stir by leaving a cow skull in our Australian mate’s bed as a prank. It took two weeks for anyone to find out it was us (we had crawled through his window while he was at the weekly “pub night”). Fortunately he had had the foresight to uncover the large lump in his bed before leaping in at the end of a long night.

As the weather was improving, and factory work-life became a little monotonous, I started itching to be my own boss again. I headed back to Jerusalem. Just in time to experience Easter there, I ended up working at a hostel in East Jerusalem, alongside my American cow-skull partner Adele. We made friends with others working there, only to find out sometime later the man had been an Israeli spy. Oh, the intrigue! Overbooked because of the Easter weekend, most people had to sleep in mattresses on the roof, and it is there that we met Lachlan, a young Australian cycling around the world (I would bump into him years later quite randomly early in the morning on Nathan Road, Hong Kong).

We took a bus to Jericho one day only to be dropped off in the middle of nowhere, cursing each other for being so trusting. We finally flagged down a car to take us back into Jerusalem. We didn’t make it to Jericho, but we did make to the Bethlehem. Through the security and the famous wall we visited the church of the nativity and tried the local pita bread.

Back at the hostel, we listened to fellow travelers tell about their experiences in Israel, and a young Korean Christian made a vegetarian meal for all who were hungry, every night. Another Korean friend would busk on the steps of Damascus gate, not for money, but “to worship the Lord.”

Experiencing restlessness yet again, I would agree to go along with some of my fellow former kibbutzniks and travel down to Dahab in Egypt. Not four days before our bus down there, we heard news of a bomb attack. This was just a couple of weeks after a similar attack in Tel Aviv. Just hours before, we had, in good spirits, been toasting each other, laughing and talking about the adventures we were going to have. Frightened, some of my friends dropped out. Some returned to their home countries. Understandably, parents were worried.

I decided to continue with my plans.

It was a somewhat somber bus-ride down to Eilat, where our group broke up, as some decided to stay within Israel and say goodbye to those crossing over the border into Egypt. We walked through the border and borded a bus for Dahab. On arrival in the popular diving spot, we walked into an anti-terrorism rally, as it was just four days after the bombing. It had taken thirteen lives. A friend of ours had been there at the time, but was fortunately unscathed.

As time wore on, our moods became less solemn and we began to unwind. We would be there for a total of 10 days. The days often started with us drinking fresh strawberry juice, smoking copious amounts of Hookah and later ordering sneaky beers from the Muslim owners (who always managed to uncover some, even though not on the menu). On the days that my friends would go diving, I instead drank cinnamon tea on the roof of a local restaurant. There I would sit with my back against a palm tree and gaze across the water to Saudi Arabia. “One day, I will go there too.”

After some days, Janina, Elina and I booked a tour to Jordan. We departed from Nuweiba, Egypt by boat to Aqaba, Jordan. From there it was a furious drive to a Bedouin camp in Wadi Rum where we feasted on lamb and danced around a campfire. At night, we showered in caves and slept in a luxurious tent with beds. It was charming. Although in hindsight, clearly a touristy retreat, it was thrilling to experience nonetheless. The following day we headed to the dunes to properly explore Wadi Rum, clamber around the caves, and ride the sand dunes in a jeep. Later that day we soaked our skin in the Dead Sea.

The following day it was Petra. We were tired from a night of little sleep, but the majesty of the cave city left us breathless. We climbed to the top of a rock face and took in the view from the great height. On our return to the car, somehow our driver managed to get into an altercation with the locals which lead to them trying to claw out his eyes through the open window. We sat and watched with a small amount of sadistic glee as he had ripped us off earlier.  When we finally left our driver stopped at a convenience store, requested beer and then began to drink at the wheel – “Relax. We’re not in Israel,” he tried to reassure us.

Back in Dahab, after a sunset yacht ride from Aqaba, and after many days of relaxation, we would head down to Cairo. It was a grueling nine hour bus ride, and one with intermittent stops by Egyptian police, going through our luggage (as a precaution no doubt due to the bomb attack). We arrived in Egypt’s capital before dawn and made our way to a rickety taxi-cab. I remember being excited to “walk like an Egyptian” across the famous Cairo boulevards with it’s notorious traffic and erratic drivers. Aware than my flight home from Tel Aviv was soon, I, along with my pal Jordo, sadly only stayed one day. Long enough to soak up the mayhem, eat at Felfela’s, see Tutankhamun’s sarcophagus at the Museum of Cairo and visit the famed pyramids at Giza. There we lolloped along on camels, before heading inside the Grand Pyramid. No cameras allowed!

Jordo and I headed back to Jerusalem by bus. Like the cool kids, we bagged the back of the bus, and unlike the cool kids, sang songs from My Fair Lady. We had to change buses in Sinai, but the nine hours to Jerusalem went surprisingly fast.

On our arrival back in Jerusalem, we spent one last night soaking up the electric atmosphere of the city, smoking hookah in a local bar before I departed for the UK. At the airport I went through massive security checks, and I went through two hours of meticulous searching through my things. I was asked questions and then asked them again, with the intention of tripping me up and finding out whether I was lying. I enjoyed the experience and was in no hurry to leave.

Once back on English soil, I swore to myself I would return. “Just give me a few months to enjoy London in the summer,” I told myself. Somehow the months in London turned into London followed by a couple of months working in Italy, then home again, and it was over a year before I did any substantial traveling again. Somehow, in the years since, I have never made it back to Israel. Each year I promise myself that I will return and yet this year it has been twelve years since I was there. I often ask myself whether it can live up to the grand expectations. Although I have been fortunate to travel widely in the years since, nothing has yet matched up to that first solo trip. It changed me irreversibly, and that is why I often encourage budding travelers to visit the Holy Land. “It’s like Mos Eisley, anything can happen.”