Our arrival in Israel was far less dramatic than we expected. There were in lengthy interrogations or suspicious looks. Just simple “what is the purpose of your visit?” questions. Of course, one must be intrigued about 2 young non-Jewish Englishmen backpacking into a conflict zone.
Still, we were quickly through customs and on our way to our Tel Aviv hostel in Florentine District – a stones throw from Jaffa. We took a short train ride from the airport but walked the final 20 minutes to our hostel. In the dead of night the city looked nothing like the modern metropolis I had expected. In fact, we were pretty sure we saw a woman and a crack pipe.
We found our hostel easily enough. It’s easy to summarise the hostel as a microcosm for Tel Aviv in general: it’s a party town. Prior to checking in we were asked to join in on the latest party by several drunk roommates. We sat this first one out in favour of a good rest.
We were sharing our room with a man who left a polite message beside his bed indicating that we should expect snores. On top of his note he left a pair of ear plugs for every person in the room. He wasn’t wrong. All night he snored a snore that shook the room as well as all of his body. He was like a cross between a crying baby and a hungry lion. Everyone had to talk about it in the morning to make sure they hadn’t dreamt it.
Come the morning we were fresh and ready to find out what Tel Aviv had to offer. We strolled towards the clock tower in Jaffa before taking a stroll along the vast promenade joining the plethora of beautiful beaches. The beaches here are truly wonderful, hence why many tourists flock to Tel Aviv.
We continued our walk into the main city centre. There we were able to see the city in full flow and experience the famous Carmel Market. Whilst there we indulged in the most delicious of pitta sandwiches filled with Kosher meat. That alone made our walk into the city worthwhile.
As afternoon went on we headed back to Jaffa for a walking tour of the old city. I found this the most interesting part of the city. Jaffa is thousands of years old and sits fittingly on the outskirts of the new city of Tel Aviv. Our tour guide had so many stories relating to the history of Jaffa in both a biblical sense and the several empires that have ruled there. He was also a passionate speaker on the Israel-Gaza conflict.
In fact, everyone here is talking about it and everyone seems to have a different approach to the issues. It’s amazing to hear different sides of a very sensitive issue from the mouths of the people who are most informed. Both James and I are a little shocked by the ‘military culture’ of the Israeli people.
Once we returned back to the hostel people had already started to gather on the rooftops. We dined on bread and cheese from the supermarket until we were offered a hot pasta meal by the hostel as part of the celebration of Shabbat. It was a good way to unify people on the rooftop and from then on we had a good night with people from all over the world, some Jewish, some not. We walked the a bar full of young army recruits where we were given free whiskey.
Once home I, annoyingly for some, slept like a baby. So much so that I slept through an air raid siren. The fact that snoring had previously woke me up shows that the siren wasn’t loud enough. However, James heard it and followed procedure by sheltering on the staircase. I seem to be earning a reputation for being able to sleep anywhere and through anything. I’d love it if It were true. Tel Aviv had 3 rocket attacks from Hamas during the night and the sirens go off throughout the city to warn people to find shelter. Fortunately all of these rockets were intercepted by Israel’s drone system. As an embellished anecdote, we have now survived a rocket attack.
As most places are shut for Shabbat we spent the next day relaxing in the baking sun on a beach in Tel Aviv. It was a great opportunity to relax and have no worries or concerns. It’s been a while since I’ve been able to do that properly.
This lead nicely into an even more lively evening in Tel Aviv. There are many people here who are on a free 10 day trip to Israel as their Jewish ‘birthright’, some of whom wish to fight for the Israeli despite only setting foot in the country days ago. Another one of these asked if we had any Jew in us. When we told him we didn’t he replied ‘do you want some?’. We didn’t speak to him again.
The hub of activity at night, the vibrancy of the city, the history of religion and the political discussion combine to make Tel Aviv an incredibly interesting place to be, boosted further by the current conflict. It has been a very memorable experience for us both. And we are sure Jerusalem will have even more to offer.