Saturday, December 4, 2010

Tel Aviv to Jerusalem to Tel Aviv to the Dead Sea, Israel to Jericho, Palestine to Ein Bokek to Tel Aviv to Haifa to Tel Aviv, Israel

Shabbat Shalom!

Very long time, no blog post… as my friend Marc says, I have been “immersing myself” in my new (temporary) Israeli life. I have quite a few stories from the past weeks that I will be telling my grandchildren, and quite a few that I will most definitely NOT be telling my grandchildren… here are some of the former. First, though, the basics:

Patty came and went in a brief but joyous five days, spent taxiing back and forth between the Herzliya Medical Center and Tel Aviv proper, where we consumed obscene amounts of hummus, swam in the Mediterranean, went to a Tel Aviv art museum and replaced some of my more destroyed clothing (Kazakh ambulances are a bit wearing). It was very surreal seeing her show up at the airport, suitcase laden with American junk food and Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory candied apples (note that I do not qualify these as junk food- apples are healthy). Though she refused to stay at a hostel, I managed to convince her that when our family meets up in Vietnam for Christmas, we will all spend at least one night in a hostel together. I think she’s already having nightmares about this.

I live on a roof. Not in a penthouse, not in a tent on a roof, not under a canopy… just- on a roof. I have several blankets and a borrowed sleeping bag that form my nest beneath the solar panels, an extension cord to charge my laptop, a melting candle-pile, a line of empty wine bottles, a makeshift cinderblock table and some hanging sheets for coziness. I am not, however, squatting: I ran into my old friend Sarah Robins, of the Charles E. Brown Middle School variety, one day on the street and she very generously rescued me from the hostel I had been staying at and allowed me access to her roof, her shower, her Thanksgiving dinner, her kitchen, and her roommate Shira’s season pass to Glee… I owe the girls of Nehalat Binyamin Apartment 13 a MASSIVE thank you. And a bit of an apology for continually allowing two drunk Europeans to sleep on the roof as well- though that is a different story.

I have been based in Florentine, a “poor musician” neighborhood in the south of Tel Aviv, for the past six weeks or so. Tel Aviv is awesome, and Florentine especially so. I literally cannot leave one building and walk to the next without running into somebody I know. Israel is debatably the least shy country in the world, and this was proven over and over as I met people pretty much everywhere I went. And you don’t just meet people and walk away- usually you get invited to go on a road trip somewhere, or go out in a different part of town, or come over for Shabbat dinner. Usually I like staying in hostels so that I can meet people easily, but here, it’s really not necessary, and maybe even better, because I’ve gotten to know a lot of local people. I got a month-long membership to a dance/yoga studio and met several cool people there, while trying to work off some of the hummus weight that inevitably piles on when chickpeas constitute about half of one’s diet. I have a favorite café and a favorite bar, and as it turns out, they are owned by the same person- I have been at the bar, decided I want the best sandwich in the world, and then wandered down the street, picked up a sandwich, and brought it back to the bar. I know all the waiters and bartenders by name, and they know that I like my coffee with ice, sugar, no milk, and chocolate powder.

There is a lot of street art in Tel Aviv, and especially Florentine. It’s easy to identify the artist from the style, and one street artist, Luca, has been staying at the hostel for months. You can see some of his work here: The hostel has an eclectic mix of vacationers, long-term backpackers, and people staying in Tel Aviv for an extended period. I originally intended to base myself out of Jerusalem, but Florentine is kind of magnetic, how Samarkand was, and how Santorini, Samode, and St. Leonard du Bois were for my family when we traveled around the world eleven years ago. However, I have managed to leave my ten block radius and explore some other parts of Israel.

My first departure from Tel Aviv was a day trip to Jerusalem back around the beginning of November with my friends Bjorn (from Saarland- which is definitely an independent nation, and by no means is it part of Germany), Martina (from Sweden, land of reindeer, Ikea, and smart, simple solutions), and Bjorn’s roommate Lee, an Israeli who, in typical Florentine style, Bjorn met randomly at an ice cream shop and moved in with in a matter of days. We walked around the old city, took a nap on the ground next to the Western Wall, and saw sunset over the Jerusalem rooftops.

The next excursion was a bit more of a production to organize. Or rather, we didn’t organize it, and this led to a lot of… problems. Bjorn, Martina and I wanted to go to the Dead Sea and sleep out on the beach. Because Martina had begun working at the hostel, we had to leave Friday afternoon, and in Israel, nearly everything closes down from Friday afternoon until Saturday evening, for Shabbat. The rental car place in downtown Tel Aviv was closed; only the airport rental car place was open. Okay; we could take the direct train to the airport. Not so fast. The last train stopping at the airport had already left (we learned this, of course, after we had already bought tickets). Fine then- there must be a sherut, a shared taxi, that goes there. Nope. A bus? The last one had already left. A taxi then… but because of Shabbat, the taxi cost significantly more. Whatever. We had to make this work. We arrive at the rental car center and walk from rental car shop to rental car shop, but most are either sold out or only have large, expensive cars to rent. Eventually we found a sales-guy sympathetic to our quest, and he found us a car within our budget (although as the day wore on, our budget had become more and more flexible- we were hungry, tired, and really just wanted to GET IN A CAR). However… in order to rent a car, you need a passport. Bjorn was the only one of us old enough to register as the driver, and in the rush to get out of Tel Aviv, he had forgotten his passport. After hours of waiting on a bench outside of the rental car place, where people returning their cars gave us a week’s supply of unopened water bottles and a lot of pitying looks. We tried to get a copy of Bjorn’s passport from the hostel, from his roommate, from his bank in Germany… from anybody we could think of. But eventually, our need for hummus and pita and falafel became too great, and we hitched a ride back to Tel Aviv. Except wait. The woman driving the car was, shall we say, a little bit crazy, and we ended up getting out of the car at Terminal 3, where we were resigned to take a taxi back to Florentine. Except- Terminal 3 is closed on Shabbat. We considered sleeping on the grass by the empty parking lot there, it already being nighttime, but we could not resist the draw of Israeli hummus. After creeping out a bunch of security guards, we ended up calling a cab that took us to the doorstep of a falafel/hummus place in Yaffo. Not wanting to return to the hostel defeated, we decided to pretend that the Mediterranean was the Dead Sea and sleep on the beach in downtown Tel Aviv. On the way there, we ran into the hostel owner, who was mad about us calling about the passport… it’s not fun having the person who controls your sleeping space be mad at you.

So, we waited out Shabbat and on Sunday headed to the rental car place just a few minutes walk from Florentine. After a few technical difficulties, Avis, whose tagline is, perfectly, “we try harder,” hooked us up with a bright green, brand new Ford, and we were on the road. We spent the first night on a cliff overlooking the Dead Sea, talking and eating dinner in the dark, and then taking advantage of the total silence and isolation by climbing on top of the car and screaming. Sometime in the middle of the night some guys walked up to us, and before Martina and I really knew what was going on, Bjorn was off searching for hot springs with them… this was a very Bjorn thing to do. We spent the rest of the night sleeping in the car- Bjorn has a lot of experience with making cars sleep-worthy after years of living out of a car himself.

The next day, after exploring the Dead Sea below the cliff, we decided we should go to Jericho for lunch. After nearly entering a military zone accidentally, then being stopped by a Palestinian soldier to whom we confusingly requested the best place to eat lunch in town, we eventually found our way to a second-story terrace in the town center and a massive meal of salads, pita, hummus, and kebab for Bjorn and Martina. We walked around the town a bit, picking up more water and groceries, then sat down a bench where I promptly took a nap. When I woke up, we were surrounded by about thirty young Palestinian guys, practicing their English and trying to take pictures with Martina and I as close as possible. It seems that Israeli friendliness extended to the Palestinian neighbors.

After failing at entering Jordan and making it a three country day (apparently Israeli rental cars are not allowed into Jordan- also, this time Martina did not have her passport), we picked up a hitchhiker and drove to Ein Bokek on the Dead Sea. The Dead Sea is… the Dead Sea. Fun and cool but exactly what you expect- you can’t really swim because you’re so buoyant, and every tiny cut you have from sleeping on beaches and cliffs becomes extremely painful. We made use of the outdoor showers to take our first and only showers of the road trip, then found a suitable spot to sleep at by the main road and watched shooting stars while trying to share our few blankets to stay warm enough throughout the night. We also saw some local wildlife- ROCK RABBITS!!!

Early the next morning we drove back to Tel Aviv to return the car, but as it turned out, it was cheaper to keep it for another night than pay the extra kilometer charges, so we road tripped it back up to Haifa, but had to stop before sunset. We camped out on a beach full of kitesurfers coming in for the night, and had a little picnic on a sand dune. Despite the cold we swam in the sea then ran around on the beach until we were too exhausted to move… and fell asleep by 8pm. We slept on the sand dune, in the car, and out on the sand next to the car, and early the next morning we drove into and around Haifa, without really stopping. The main goal of the day: Swedish meatballs at Ikea!

We actually arrived at Ikea before it opened, but they give out free café au lait a half hour before opening, so it was all good. We spent hours in Ikea, trying out blankets and pillows and being those annoying people that pick everything up and put it down in the wrong place. At this point I knew I would be living on the roof, or at least in Sarah’s apartment, so I was very tempted to buy a lot of semi-useless stuff, but I abstained, and as it turned out this was a very good decision- Sarah’s entire apartment is furnished with Ikea stuff, from the couches to the paintings to the knives to the blankets. So beautiful!

In order to do justice to the rest of my Israel/Palestine experience, I’m going to leave off here. More to come in the next few days, since on Thursday morning I leave for Thailand and Vietnam and I’m sure I will have plenty of southeast Asian tales to tell.

Much love from my roof ☺



  1. So glad to hear life has been crazy for you. I think we all need more crazy in our life.
    Also, if you decide not to go to college (which I fully support), I can be your US-based advocate, working to charm your parents into believing it's a good idea :)

    Have fun in SE Asia!

  2. Katie! This sounds so cool... so cool in fact that I might even be willing to sleep on a roof and/or beach and/or in a car just to do it! That neighborhood sounds great! Hope everything continues to be amazing!

  3. Ben: I am supposed to view college as "an experience," or something... talk to alejandro about this.

    Willie: have you ever been to Israel? you would LOVE the food- shakshuka, hummus, mezze, falafel, zaatar, jelly donuts, the carmel market... just the freshness of the ingredients- it's like Sofra on steroids. And I would totally buy you a meal here if you promised to sleep in a weird place.