Customs at the Ben Gurion airport is quite efficient. However, picking up the car I rented for my 7-day trip was quite a hazard. The lines were eternal at the counter of the car rental company and, the customer service, poor. But, hey! 3 hours were worth it to have autonomy to go wherever I wanted.
Because of the situation between Israel and Palestine, the Israelis block the roads of the Palestinian territory in the GPS and make sure to scare tourists not to drive in Palestinian territory. In addition, if the car is damaged or "lost" in the Palestinian territory, the insurance will not cover damages nor losses, and, thus, the tourist would have to pay for it. So, I understood. They did not want me to go to Palestine—in the rented car though. From the airport in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem there is a 50-minute ride. That is, the distance between the West and the East of Israel is 1 hour long by car. Once I arrived in Jerusalem, I took a bath and went for a walk and to find a place to have dinner as it was nighttime already.
I walked about fifteen blocks and arrived at a restaurant called Katy's; a small and very cozy place, with 5 tables for 5 people each, and a full bar. Appetizers on the house included a plate of hummus, black olives, feta cheese, freshly baked bread, and salad. I ordered liver in sweet sauce and a filet mignon in mushroom sauce for which the total cost of the meal was $ 25 dollars. I took a cab back to my hotel and an antihistamine to sleep—at least—for 7 hours.
Obviously traveling to Israel and not longing to see Palestine is unimaginable. So, I got up at 7am and booked an excursion for only 160 shekels (40 dollars approx.) to visit Bethlehem and Jericho; the tour included the round trip, two tour guides (one Israeli and one Palestinian), and lunch.
The first stop was Bethlehem; in Arabic Bait-Lahem (house of meat) and in Hebrew Bait-Láhem (house of bread). Unfortunately, Israel built a wall to avoid the Palestinians. The downside is that the commercial exchange became impractical. Also, since I got on the bus, the guide, who was a young Jew, said he was not going to talk about political issues. But then, when I arrived in Bethlehem, the tourists moved to a second bus with Palestinian auto plates and a Palestinian tour guide, leaving the Jewish guy in a coffee shop for the time of the tour in the Palestinian territory. Our new tour guide, a Palestinian young man, also said he was not going to talk about politics. Curiously, neither the Israeli nor the Palestinian stopped talking about their political consternations and stories.
In Bethlehem I went to the Church of the Nativity, to the San Sabbas Orthodox Monastery, and to the Chapel of the Milk. In this last place the religious tradition is that at some point Mary and Joseph were fleeing Herod’s army, but she had to feed Baby Jesus, for which she made a quick stop at a cave (today the Chapel). But a few drops of her milk were spilled on the ground, making the walls white. Therefore, the Chapel is superstitiously thought of as a place for women with fertility issues to increase their chances of pregnancy. If they dissolve the powder scraped off from the wall into their coffee, they will get pregnant. We also saw the Omar Mosque from afar. I was definitely impressed by how Muslims and Orthodox Christians coexist peacefully in the Palestinian territory.
It was already 11am and I was transported to Jericho, the oldest city in the world and where Jesus, among many other miracles, restored sight to a blind man. Jericho is located near the Jordan River and throughout the drive I could feel the pressure change in my ears. Jericho is part of the West Bank, which means that it belongs to Palestine, or as the Israelis (and only they) call it, the Palestinian Authority.
At the time I visited, excavations of a newly discovered city 3 meters underground were being carried out, and for this reason the tourists could not walk except for certain sectors. Here we were presented with a 20-minute film about the history of Jericho, reaffirming why Jericho is a Palestinian territory and not an Israeli one. Note, however, that the video was obviously created by Palestinians. Jericho is a quiet place where the vast majority of residents are Muslims.
It was already lunchtime and they offered us a buffet of Palestinian food: baked chicken, Arab-style meatloaf, rice, potatoes, and salad with cucumbers and tomatoes with good herbs (like fresh mint). Upon our return to Jerusalem they picked up the Jewish tourist guide and left the Palestinian one at the same coffee shop. The tourists are not delivered to their hotels, but instead they are droped off near the Jaffa Gate close to the Tower of David. Consequently, I walked to the Wailing Wall and entered the Al-Aqsa Mosque.
The entrance to the Al-Aqsa Mosque and to the Dome of the Rock was very upsetting for me as I was expecting to be allowed to visit these sights and it was in my religious-sites bucket list. However, the Jordanians control who enters and who doesn’t. According to the security guard, I was not eligible and thus I was not granted the honor to get inside. In Colombia (my home country) we have a saying: If the baby does not cry, the baby does not suck. Following the principles of my roots I found the main office of that quarter and I went to speak with the maximum Sheikh. He was as surprised as I was by my courage to talk to him, so he granted me permission to enter the Al-Aqsa Mosque and to the Dome of the Rock (and he even threw in a Jordanian tour guide).
The next day I woke up and walked to a street in Jerusalem where you can find delicious Arabic treats and I was very familiar with each one of them. My target was a recently baked manaish, a baked bread with Arabic oregano and sesame seeds, cheese or meat—usually eaten for breakfast. I spent 3 dollars for two of them and practiced my Arabic for an hour with an old man who kindly served coffee from the Arabian Peninsula. I drove towards Masada; one of the places where Herod built a fortified palace on the top of a mountain in the Judean desert. I had the option to hike or to use the cable car—clearly, I chose the cable car (haha). But, to be honest, the temperature and the intensity of the sun were such that this latina thought it was hot.
I descended from Masada and looked for Ein Gedi, a natural reserve in the middle of the desert, with two roads to climb the mountain. I was shocked to see a female Israeli soldier, dressed in civilian clothes, but on duty, hiking the mountain with a Galil automatic rifle that weighs about 4 kilograms. On the way down, we washed our faces in the spring and took some pictures. Btw, Ein means eyein Arabic, and it is used to refer to the springs of water coming out of the mountains. That is why Eins have many names throughout the Middle East.
After that tiring trip up the mountain, I drove 25 minutes along the Dead Sea to reach my hotel, the Herods Dead Sea, and the only hotel located on the Dead Sea ridge on the Israeli side. I put on my swimming suit and went floating for hours on the Dead Sea, I ate unlimited numbers of almonds, olives, and apples. But the night was coming, and it was Passover (Jewish holiday).
During Passover, every food cooked or derived from yeast such as bread is withdrawn from the market and from hotels—even for tourists. However, the menu is replaced with another thousand appetizers, delicatessen, Matza bread, fruits and veggies. The buffet included 300 dishes of Israeli origin and international food, so I did not need any bread. Tired of my day schedule I went to bed by 8pm. As the trip was getting to an end, I decided to drive five hours to see Eilat, all the way in the south of Israel and right on the border with Jordan. I had very good food at Mmamam Beach and spent the day at the Red Sea. From my location on the Israeli side I could see the border and the giant Jordanian flag swaying in the wind.
As I was planning to head back to Tel Aviv the same night and save the night of hotel, I drove 4 hours to Tel-Aviv arriving at almost 7pm. The road is safe, and it passes very close to Gaza. The issue is that the road was too narrow and steep, so driving at night in an unknown road was not the smartest thing to do. I had no way to know that beforehand, but here I am letting you know—in case you want to wander the Israeli road at midnight. I stayed close to Jaffa; the ancient city located in the south of Tel Aviv. While being there, I booked a walking tour with a guide who charges $4 dollars per person. I had lunch on the balcony of one of the restaurants in the old city overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. My lunch was a bowl of hummus with stir fried onions and chicken livers with a side of pita bread. It was foodporn. I went back early to my hotel as I needed to pack because I was driving north towards Nazareth and Haifa.
Early in the morning I drove to Nazareth and one of the places I wanted to see was the Basilica of Annunciation as that particular place was rebuilt about 4 times in history, one of those due to the destruction by the crusades. But what perplexed me about the Basilica is that its last architect was part of an Italian artistic movement that supported the Fascismo of Mussolini. I will reserve my comments about that though. I also went to the Church of Saint Joseph and the old market, where I bought 1 kilo of olives that traveled with me back home.
My last day was in Haifa and I had lunch at the only restaurant that was open, Elkheir Druze Cuisine, since it was Passover. Due to the holiday, everything else was closed and there was not a soul in the streets. This restaurant is located on a hill and the view is considerably charming. I ordered 3 main courses. What I did not know is that the restaurant offers 7 appetizers on the house. The owner, who was there making sure to fatten the horse with his eye, treated me as if I was invited to dine in his house. In the end he even offered me a dessert, but I was very full.
I traveled back home to tell my friends and acquaintances how easy and convenient the drive throughout Israel was. I got to drive to all the cardinal directions within a week and the distances were on occasion very short. I booked the hotels many days before arriving in Israel—which made the prices better—and everything was pleasant.
The country is very safe, but people do not travel for fear of the news in the newspapers. Yet, I always think, what are the chances of dying in a terroristic attack? Well, if it’s in our destiny, it will happen, and our job is to accept that faith.
Israel was very safe in my experience and the Palestinian excursion was great too. The people are very kind. I believe those two countries have more in common than what they have apart. I hope to return at some point to visit with a bit more time n every corner of Jerusalem and Hebron. And I will hope for their conflict to cease before the end of my life. While I plan my next trip, I will be in the “moon” thinking way too much or at home (not thinking at all).
Enjoy my slideshow below: