A very different trip to Israel

My previous (as well as first) journey to Israel was in 2014 being invited on a press trip by an organization there to tour the wines of Israel. Having not a single Jewish bone in my body that I’m aware of, yet growing up in the US, fully saturated on news of the never-ending Israel-Palestine conflict, I didn’t know what to expect but in the end had an incredibly good time. This was of course under optimal conditions being carted around the country with not only all the costs taken care of, but also all the arranging and other various headaches that go into traveling in these, our modern times.

As Editor in Chief didn’t get to go on that trip, we decided to give head there this past May. Like all my trips these days, I seem to always squeeze in a little to a lot of researching for potential articles but at the same time, managed to be something of a tourist and we went with the idea to visit Jerusalem, Eilat at the very tip, Mitzpe Ramon in the Negev Desert, and then Tel Aviv. This was definitely going to be a different adventure as we needed to arrange everything ourselves as well as pay for it.

The other big item was that I’d be entering the country without a “control” this time. In 2014 there was a fellow who met me at the exit of the plane and escorted me through the whole entry process. Likewise, there was one going out as well. This time, I had none of that and it was interesting to see the process as most everyone else does, especially as I’ve read various accounts that people have written where they’ve not been allowed into the country and sent right back home.

Entry was actually rather painless as the Israelis realize there are going to be problematic people and if they start being an issue, they send them off to another place to allow the line to move forward as was the case with this Spanish woman in front of us who spoke no English and somehow thought that wasn’t going to be a problem. But once there I learned that if you have two passports, always fly into Israel on the same one and if one of them is an American passport, always use that one.

This fellow at the desk asked a few questions and then he would ask them again with a slight variation. This is pretty typical everywhere as they want to see if you’re faking your story and change your answers. All told, it took maybe five minutes and most of that was due to my having two passports that made things a bit confusing. Lesson learned for the next time.

Despite what Israelis might tell you, the bus from the airport to Jerusalem works well and the train from Tel Aviv does as well. There is such a massive aversion to public transportation due to years not that long ago when suicide bombings were commonplace, people have taken to just driving everywhere or using taxis. This in turn has created massive traffic issues which, when I was last in Israel they waited out for the tour schedule so we didn’t get stuck in them. We didn’t have as much luck when coming back from Mitzpe Ramon to Tel Aviv near the end and got caught in godawful, everyday traffic that the Israelis know well.

With my previous trip, Jerusalem was just a morning visit so actually spending three days there was something of a mind fuck. There are so many religious groups who visit it and it’s a massive destination for Christians so it’s always crowded. That and there is always, always some call to prayer or a bell or something going off all the time. A quiet city, it is not, at least in the Old Town. And because we arrived just as everyone was running home for Shabbat on a Friday, everything was closed and thus buying water (thanks for no water on the four hour flight, Norwegian) was impossible leaving us to drink the tap water.

Every Israeli I’ve met will defend their tap water to the death it seems and I’d say that definitely in Tel Aviv and most likely in the other cities as well, the tap water is fine to drink as you can smell the chlorine treatment. In Jerusalem, don’t drink it. Myself and the Editor did and our systems were not the same after, mine especially. Once we switched to bottled water only, things started to clear up. But even if the tap water is fine in Jerusalem, if you’re just there a few days, as much as I hate recommending it, drink the bottled water as any change for a person’s system can put you a bit off, even if the water is fine.

As a side note, don’t visit Bethlehem. When we mentioned we were going there to Israelis they suddenly got very polite and said, “Ah, I see. Haven’t been there for years myself.” That didn’t seem all that odd as it’s more of a Christian destination to see the Church of the Nativity. But as it turns out, I will highly de-recommend it as while getting there and back on the bus is absolutely no problem (just bring your passport and entry card) it’s a zoo around the church. There are massive crowds and countless “official” guides who harass the hell out of you to take you to parts of it and currently a great amount of it is under construction. Glad to say I’ve been but I’d never recommend it to anyone else and thus, the Israeli reaction is quite on the money.

We drove from Jerusalem, through the West Bank, along the Dead Sea and then down to Eilat. This was another head scratching moment as I sorta viewed entering the West Bank with a car as a no-no. It appears in Zone C, in the south, this isn’t the case, so what do you know, you learn something by traveling somewhere, who’d have thought it possible.

Eilat is hot, but the Red Sea is incredibly cool. The problem is that it’s blocked off to swim in through much of it and you’re basically forced to swim on private, pay beaches. Eilat is also weird as the amount of people who speak English well isn’t that great, although the nice part is that to attract people to live in the furthest reach of Israel, there’s no sales tax so everything is actually much more affordable than up north.

I would tell more about Mitzpe Ramon, which is a strange little outpost of a town on a high plateau in the desert but that’s going to be for a future article. Suffice to say, like much of Israel, you eat well, but it’s not cheap.

And then of course there’s Tel Aviv. As I’d stayed there for most of the last trip, I already knew it rather well. What I was surprised at was how walkable it actually is. It gives you an impression of everything being far away but at most it seems like everything in the center is a half hour stroll. Given the heat and perma-humidity, it’s maybe not the most friendly climate to walk it, but you can, or take one of these little electric bikes that everyone tools around on with great abandon as the traffic is simply too thick to get anymore during most parts of the day.

I think the most shocking aspect of Israel was having open conversations with Israelis about the politics as in the previous trip, everyone kept it pretty tight-lipped. There was an exceptional article I read shortly after coming which basically said that in Israel, there is no longer a left, there is just right and far right. People who would identify themselves as liberals would tell me things that at most someone center right in the US might say but in reality it was all right. And there was one meal my last night there which was the most sobering wherein my dinner companions who are very well-informed, educated people that again identify as liberal said that the Israel-Palestine situation would never be resolved. That was a bit staggering to hear and it really means that the US should just butt out and stop trying to “solve” the problem as decade upon decade it just seems to be getting worse.

Politics aside, there was then catching the flight out and like the last time, this interview was actually much more detailed. The agent looked through both my passports and asked why I’d been to Turkey and why I’d been to Morocco. Again, Israelis swear that Muslim countries like these are not an issue to have stamps from. My experience begs to differ. Turkey I was just passing through coming back from Israel the last time and Morocco was to visit a winery. He then asked me the name of the winery and a couple of other details.

Then he asked how my last name is pronounced. This can vary a great deal, but I’ve generally defaulted to how it is said in most languages which is hoo-DEEN. This unfortunately can sound as if it might be an Arabic name and to an Israeli border agent, it doesn’t matter that it’s a fair-skinned, blue-eyed guy in question as you still will be asked, “And what is the origin of this name?” which is simple for me as I point at the Croatian passport and explain that it’s a Slavic name that essentially means, “angry man”. Yeah.

I’ve always wondered why the exit interview is more detailed than the entrance one as it seems they’d want to stop you from coming in, in the first place but I guess there’s the possibility that maybe you slipped across some border or something, although I can’t see how since the Israelis run a damned tight ship it seems. But after 15 minutes of questioning, I then went through security (which took nearly an hour) and off to my flight. Of course upon arrival back in Spain, I found that the security agents went through my carefully-packed bottles again in the checked suitcase and left them a mess. That was exactly the same as before.

It was very different to experience a trip to Israel in this fashion as while the country was much the same as I’d previously experienced, it was definitely more raw and showed what rough edges still exist in the country. It’s one of those places that can be an interesting trip, but if you go, be prepared that even on a budget it can be a touch pricey.