So after one week in the Holy Land I am back. Pleasantly tired and feeling a bit more confident, I’m getting used to +10 and wind instead of +25 and sun, and to the domination of one religious branch instead of many. In Israel I stayed in the families of my good friends that gave me an incredible experience of real life, and also managed to take some independent steps around the country. This all will result in a short list of tips. The rest – amazing food, incredible nature and overwhelming cultural life – is the subject to a separate blog post to be written asap.
- Check your bio
At the passport control while entering the country or even before the registration counter at the way out you will be asked a lot of different questions. Do you have siblings? Why do you speak several languages? Where did you study? How do you know people in Israel, their names and surnames? Who was packing your bag? Why do you have Turkish, Azeri and Qatar stamps in your passport? When did you talk with your friends from the Islamic countries for the last time? Do you remember the exact dates? How often do you contact people from Israel? How did you manage to travel the whole week with such a small backpack? Can we check it? Can we check your computer?
After this conversation I understood how the portrait of an average spy or terrorist looks like: a redhead European-looking lady with a passport of a developing country striving to Europe, who travels a lot, speaks at least two languages, doesn’t have siblings and knows suspiciously a lot of Azeris, Turks and Israelis, having met them all in Germany. And yeah, she has amazing packing skills. As I opened my bag and said to the officer that after the checking we will pack it back together, she refused to proceed and just scanned it.
Ok, back to tips: if you did some Erasmus, IPS or anything like this, you talk to your Turkish friends in facebook once a year, and the communication looks like “HB dear :*”, no need to explain to the border control guys that you have amazing friends in Turkey.
Bag scanning is waiting for you at the entrances to the supermarkets, railway and bus station. I understand why it is like this. Just be prepared and come to the airport 2 hours prior to the departure.
- Think twice while booking your flight
It’s not the best idea to plan your arrival and departure on Saturday. Sabbath is an important issue which is decreasing the level on people’s involvement in social (networking) life and increases the taxi tariffs. Especially in Tel Aviv. If you arrive to Ben Gurion Airport and want to travel to Jerusalem or Haifa directly from there, take a shuttle for around 65 shekel (in October 2016 1 USD = 3.7 NIS). They operate 24/7. Thanks to my friend Naomi for this tip!
From Tel Aviv airport to the city of Tel Aviv you will go by taxi only, as on Sabbath there are no buses and trains. Sabbath starts after the Friday sunset and goes on till Saturday sunset, btw.
- Calling a cab might be more expensive than catching it
In Georgia, I got used to calling a cab per phone and paying (Georgian) peanuts for that. Not in Israel! Here you will pay at least cashew 🙂 The start tariff becomes higher, and if you call a taxi in Sabbath, the price will be different again.
Another issue I had to face is that sometimes the guys from taxi call center don’t speak English and just switch off the phones, if they understand that this persistent Georgian-Ukrainian spy will call them again and again, because she has her early morning tour booked at 4 am, and there are no other cabs outside to get to the meeting point. Don’t be offended and ask your hotel or local friends to give you several taxi numbers.
- Tourists and Sabbath
Those who don’t have friends and relatives in Israel can still enjoy their time on Sabbath. Especially in Tel Aviv. This is a completely secular city, so you won’t find everything closed from Friday afternoon till Saturday evening, as in Jerusalem. Still, many Israeli shops, cafes, coffee shops and market lots will wait for Saturday after dark and Sunday morning to reopen again.
- “Swimming prohibited” at the beaches
At the beaches of Tel Aviv I was buffed by the signs “Swimming prohibited”. Well, the visitors are advised to swim just as the life guard is there dozing under the umbrella, but in general it’s just a recommendation. Swim on your own risk and watch the boarders, who also like to exercise there.
- Caution: sports freaks
I hope you recognized irony from the very beginning, as I am also the one who likes to jog. Israel is not like the US, but the amount of jogging and exercising people at the streets is quite big. While strolling in the evening along the sea promenade, mind the good looking shirtless runners and cyclists (to me, there is no exercising person that doesn’t look good, sorry).
You can’t drink from all taps and fountains, but the government insists that one should always have a bottle of water, as one has a towel on a tour around our galaxy. Israel is a hot country, that’s why it’s better to be safe than sorry after fainting or swooning. A lot of sun, hot guys and hummus do things with your mind… Drink water, my friends!
- Magic mud and hand luggage
After a trip to the Dead Sea I have to confess: that mud does excellent magic. I don’t remember me having such a soft skin even after sulfur baths of Tbilisi! But I don’t advise you to buy it at the resorts “for 5 dollar only”: in the specialized stores or markets of Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem it will cost 5-10 shekel a package.
If you travel with hand luggage only, you won’t be allowed to put a 300 g package there. Then you have two options: if you bought too much mud for hilarious 5 shekel, it might be worthy to buy the right to put your bag to the luggage (15-20 USD). But if you know you won’t need more that 2 packages, buy it in duty free shop for 10 USD a package. It will be the same…
- Affordable coffee and expensive food
You might be aware of the fact that eating in Israel is quite an expensive pleasure. From my vegetarian menu the cheapest item was his majesty falafel: 12-15 shekel for pita, 40+ for a plate). But there are so many other things! Shakshuka (a tomato-spices-and-eggs-mix), sabich (a delicious aubergine-and-hummus-based dish), seafood, tabbouleh… An average portion of food will cost you 45-70 shekel. For this very amount you can also buy quite a lot of fresh mango, guava, bananas and nuts.In Israel there is a couple of franchise coffee shops, where everything costs 5 shekel – any coffee, any cookie, and sometimes even a portion of an alcoholic drink. The most prominent of them are Cofix and Cofizz. Easy to remember and easy to find.
- Religious overdose
Many people head to Israel as pilgrims to feel enlightenment. This is a high purpose, but please consider, that there will be thousands of caravans of pilgrims yearning to feel Christ’s presence near his empty tomb or send a message to the God at the Western Wall. You will need to use your elbows to squeeze through the mobs of like-minded brothers and sisters.By the way, don’t forget to dress appropriately as you go to the major holy place of the Jewish nation, otherwise you’ll wail near the wall wearing multiple pelerines handed to you by the local nuns.
Also go to the Muslim part till 11 am. Reaching the Temple Mount on Friday or during prayer is impossible. Going to holy places is also not advised during big religious holidays (Yom Purim, Yom Kippur, Rosha Shana) as well in the end of holy Muslim month Ramadan. The probability to see or get in some trouble is getting slightly higher.I should admit that I felt the Jewish-Arab confrontation more than I wanted to. Compared to this, Catholics and Orthodox Christian shoving each other in the Holy Sepulchre church are kids in the kindergarten.
But I do hope that I am just being oversensitive because I know people from both sides and feel quite helpless and sorry, and if you will travel to Israel, you will simply enjoy its beauty and treasures.As I said, I will tell you and show you much more about its outstanding cuisine, delicious wines from the North, azure Mediterranean sea, bars of Tel Aviv and wonderful museums of Jerusalem, and I hope to give you enough inspiration to go there and experience this all yourself!