My visit to one of the most controversial, beautiful and remarkable countries in the world.
- Where I went, and for how long I spent two weeks travelling all around Israel. This may not sound like much but the country is small and a large proportion of the land is desert. A Jewish person visiting the holy land is almost a rite of passage. Growing up I heard many incredible stories from my family, friends and community about our homeland. At the same time I was seeing and hearing something completely different from the world and its media. It was particularly hard for my parents to explain to me why the country was being attacked during the second intifada and second Lebanon War. Last year I had the opportunity to visit for myself and get a true opinion of the only Jewish state in the world.
- What was great? My flight came in to Ben Gurion Airport overnight and when I arrived it was still dark. The journey itself was quite remarkable. The diversity of the passengers on the plane was astonishing. I was expecting the plane to be full of Hasidic men in black hats with long beards. This was far from what I saw. There were so many people of different levels of faith and it was clear that many of the people on the plane were also not Jewish. At one point over the journey many of the men and myself gathered at the front of the plane to pray together. Some of them were Hasidic and some of them were less religious like me but clearly wanted to join in. When we eventually touched down in Israel and I was getting off the plane, I felt the warm air blowing in my face and somewhere inside of me I felt that I was home.
I had many highlights of this trip but one of the main ones was my visit to the old city of Jerusalem. Many of you will have seen pictures of it's walls and the temple mount but there is no comparison to actually being there. You feel the history as you walk around the city and you can't help but wonder about what has happened in that exact position over the last couple of thousand years. The city is split in to 4 quarters (the muslim quarter, the jewish quarter, the armenian quarter and the christian quarter). Although most of my visit was to the Jewish quarter I managed to wonder in to the Muslim quarter and get a small look. I can't tell you much about the Muslim quarters but from what I saw it was absolutely stunning. Like the Muslim quarter, the Jewish quarter was also beautiful and after exploring the old cobbled streets I went to see the main attraction - The western wall. It was amazing how many people had gathered, it was like being at a festival. I approached the friendly chatty men at the stall to borrow some tefillin (they are small boxes containing scrolls we wear on our arms and head while we pray) and they helped me put the tefillin on. I found a spot against the wall between a soldier and an elderly gentleman in a wheelchair and began to pray. I was overwhelmed with a sense of emotion and closeness to god. It was unlike any feeling I've had before.
Another highlight of my trip was climbing Masada in South Israel. Massada is a fort at the top of a rock mountain created by Jews hiding from the Romans about 2000 years ago. Not such a plesent outcome, all the hiding jews ended up committing suicide but I won't go in to that. It was insanely hot which actually made the experience better. It was about 40 degrees centigrade at the top and the sun was burning down on us. It was an incredible climb though, all you can see for miles around is sea and sand. There is a cable car but it was completely worth the climb just to experience breathing in the clean sea air and incredible views.
- What was a letdown? For me the only let down was the heightened security. It was sad that the terrorism risk is so high that you need have your bags searched in every single tourist attraction you go to. There are armed soldiers pretty much everywhere you go which in some ways puts you at ease but also makes you worry about your safety. The heat was sometimes a bit hard to deal with too.
- What does it cost to do it bare bones/live comfortably/live like a king? It's certainly not cheap to live/holiday there, food prices are high as a lot of the food is kosher. Public transport is not expensive at all and it helps that everything is close together. Like in every country, taxi's will take you for whatever they can. Hostels are cheap and food portions are of a good size. Obviously coastal and luxury hotels will be much more expensive. Flights can be as low as about £300 return. Easyjet offer great priced fares although the national airline El Al is much nicer to travel on.
- Tips on being prepared Even if you're not Jewish I would suggest visiting Israel. It's such a pretty country and there really is so much to see and visit. It is only a small country so you don't need long to get an idea of what it's like. Make sure you stay hydrated whilst you there and just enjoy yourself.