Haven’t posted in a while because I’ve been busy. With what??? Showing off this new homeland that I love so much to my sister, who’s visiting from Canada.
If you had only fourteen days in Israel (twelve when you subtract Shabbat), what would you see and do??? That’s the question my sister had to answer when she arrived at Ben Gurion two weeks ago today.
It’s hard to believe that almost a year ago (well, ten months), we were strangers here on a pilot trip. My sister has been visiting for the last couple of weeks, which has given me a chance to do a bit of touristy stuff that I’ve really never had a chance to do – except this time, to do it as a real Israeli, kind of.
(Kind of because I gave my Canadian passport to the Arab-run hostel we stayed at in the Old City of Jerusalem… I think they’re Christian, but I was still nervous about what they’d do if an Israeli tried to check in. More about the hostel later.)
So where did we go?
First of all, I actually wasn’t quite finished Ulpan (Hebrew-language boot camp) yet… my sister arrived a week before my final exam, so not exactly ideal timing, as it was the most intensive week of the entire course. But I’m nothing if not resilient, and you can’t negotiate with holiday-season airfares.
Thursday: Tel Aviv / Yaffo
I suggested that for the same train fare, we could spend some time in Tel Aviv and Yaffo (Jaffa) instead. Well, she suggested Yaffo, which was a great call (apparently, she’d read up a little on the plane!).
In Yaffo’s Old Port, we walked in the footsteps of Napoleon (kind of) and viewed a fascinating historical presentation / tour of an underground marketplace called Jaffa Tales.
Then, we headed to the shuk (market), not far away in the new city of Tel Aviv. I don’t love the shuk in Tel Aviv; it’s bustling enough, but not much there is kosher. Having said that, however, there’s a lovely bakery inside that makes the most luscious cheddar-cheese buns. They’re not cheap, but I bought some to eat on the train back.
After that, plus a quick falafel break (my sister says this disproves my claim that there’s no kosher food around, but I really don’t count falafel stands), we hopped on a bus back to the train station.
This was the day of the big snow in Yerushalayim but Tel Aviv seemed completely unaffected and the day was lovely; brilliantly sunny and definitely warm enough for someone who’d just arrived from Toronto. It was also Elisheva’s 18th birthday, so – after waiting 5 hours for a bus out of Yerushalayim – she joined us up north for an impromptu (read: made by Ted/Akiva) birthday supper.
Okay, I admit – I didn’t want to travel anywhere on a winter Friday when Shabbos came in just past 4:00 pm. So I sent my sister and Elisheva out to Teveria, thinking they’d have a grand old time seeing the Kinneret and whatever historical stuff is out there. But no… it was a freezing, rainy, miserable day by any standard, even a Canadian one. Everything there was closed and, oh, did I mention it was a fast day? (the 10th of Tevet) They came back frigid and miserable, but we had a nice cozy Shabbos together later on.
My sister wasn’t really all that interested in seeing Haifa, but the weather – though chilly – had cleared up and I didn’t want to shlep around when there are some lovely things to see nearby. I’m really glad we did.
The day was full of firsts, even for a “veteran” (4 months) Haifan (well, Krayot person) like me. After a quick Metronit ride into town, we rode the funky-weird Carmelit subway line (world’s shortest subway, only 6 stops!) up the mountain to the Bahai Gardens.
From the bottom of the Bahai Gardens (the free tour walks you down the stairs and lets you out near the middle of the garden, so it’s an easy walk the rest of the way down), we found a very unhelpful Tourist Centre in the German Colony (no kosher food, as I predicted – even falafel) where I noticed in a brochure that there’s a cable car ride up the mountain.
The unhelpful, borderline-rude woman behind the counter directed us to take the Metronit to a certain stop for the cable car… at which point we found out that it was nowhere nearby. We were also aiming to visit the Cave of Eliyahu (Elijah), which was also nowhere nearby. So we walked… and walked… and walked…
Finally, we reached the cable car, which looks a bit like a baseball hanging from a string and is run by several incomprehensible but friendly Arabs who mainly sit around eating lunch and pressing the button to make the cable car run.
The ride was slightly scary, but we made it to the top, which opens onto a disappointingly dull monastery (Stella Maris). There was no information or description of the site whatsoever, although a priestly type in a long robe offered us a choice of ancient mimeographed brochures in our choice of German or Italian.
After that dullness, we rode back down and noticed we were spitting distance away from Eliyahu’s Cave, so we stomped off there, despite Elisheva’s warnings that it was weird and tacky and boring.
It was all that and MORE! The cave itself was decorated in the type of Rabbinic art-kitsch that one can find in many living rooms – pictures of rabbis and holy sites. There are some historical things up on the walls as well, which do provide a little interesting background, but it’s not exactly a tourist site.
Just as we were giving up and getting ready to leave, a bearded man in a long robe (his was white) came in carrying a shofar. He asked in Hebrew who we were and where we were from and if we had any special requests, and then offered a really lovely and long bracha, after which he blew the shofar (also long) rather dramatically.
In terms of showmanship, I felt that the Jewish site had won hands-down. So there, monastery.
Another quick Metronit ride (one transfer) brought us home, and I was glad to be so close to home at the end of the day.
Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday: Eilat / Petra
In an effort to help me not fail the ulpan exam, my sister took off that night by herself via Egged overnight bus for Eilat and Petra, where she stayed until another overnight bus on Thursday night.
To celebrate my birthday, completing ulpan and sister’s visit, and to commemorate my father’s fifth yahrzeit, we had a small but nice kiddush here for some of the people we know who live within walking distance. It was lovely.
Sunday: Caesarea, Akko, Rosh HaNikra, Yerushalayim
I accidentally or on purpose told my sister I didn’t want to leave for Yerushalayim until Monday, so she booked herself a tour of the north on Sunday. I was just in Akko during Chanukah and wasn’t at all interested in going again, so she left by herself early Sunday morning on a train to meet her tour bus in Caesarea.
I stayed home and wrapped up some stuff here, then headed straight to Yerushalayim, where I met up with Elisheva and checked into the most bare-bones hostel you can imagine.
Let me first say: I am NOT a fussy traveller. I have stayed in hostels before in all sorts of places. Thus, I am no stranger to bare-bones accommodation. Yet I can easily, comfortably state that this hostel was the biggest dump I have ever stayed in. It was pretty terrible, but over the course of 3 nights (and the sleeping wasn’t too bad), we sort of got used to it. (Or is that what they call Stockholm Syndrome?)
The hostel is in a very Arab part of the old city, and its location (just inside the Jaffa Gate) is the only thing it really has going for it… well, that and the price, which was ₪70 per night (about $20) in an “8-bed” (ie 4 bunk beds) women-only dorm. As I said, I presented my Canadian ID because I wasn’t sure how much they’d love having an Israeli staying on the premises. Still, I felt secure and comfortable – especially the second night, when I had a second blanket and they brought another heater into the room in an effort to put down the chill.
After I checked into the hostel, I figured I had about 4 hours to kill (turned out to be more like 6), so I wandered the Old City, which was really kind of great. I let myself get lost, safe in the knowledge that my trusty GPS would get me out if I was stuck.
I headed back to the hostel to change into warm evening clothes, and met Elisheva when her classes ended at 7. Eventually, my sister arrived at the Jaffa Gate from her tour of the north. We took her straight to the Kosel / Kotel where everybody said a little something and marvelled at its antiquity and sanctity… or at least at the ability to sit down for a minute after a busy day of touring.
Afterwards, we got dinner with Elisheva at a lovely if rather pricey Asian place (formerly Japanika, now called Sushi Bar, on Shlomtzion Hamalka, off Yaffo).
Sleeeeeeeep… I was so tired from all that walking.
A full day to be a tourist in Yerushalayim; my dream come true! Woke to the sound of prayer calls, church bells and Arab schoolchildren, and stumbled out of bunk bed to find the CityTour / Egged “Route 99” tourist bus, which – for a very reasonable ₪60 – tootles around the city on a two-hour route that shows you the most important bits of everything, along with the names of 300 miscellaneous neighbourhoods that nobody in a million years is ever going to remember.
After the bus tour ended, we had three hours to kill before the FREE (!) walking tour we’d planned for the afternoon, so I took her to Machane Yehuda (the Shuk / Market) for lunch. My idea of lunch in Machane Yehuda is: buy cheese, buy pita, buy iced coffee, wash somewhere, find a sunny bench, eat.
Her idea of lunch was a little more complicated, and shifted halfway through the search to include a salad and pesto. But eventually, we both had accumulated a variety of delicious things and we made our way back (for various reasons) to a bench outside the Old City to eat them all.
The walking tour was also two hours and it was GREAT. It is literally FREE but they tell you up front that it’s nice to tip ₪10-15 at the end. I figured if the tour was any good at all, it would still be worth it ($3-5?!?). It was wonderful (and they only mention the tip thing twice – once at the beginning and once at the end, though they do plug some of the other tours they offer around the Old City; fair enough, I think).
We got to see all four “quarters” of the Old City and the guide was clearly very, very experienced, pointing out historic sites and sharing fascinating legends about every part of the city. Way better than just walking around and trying to notice things on your own.
We both tipped him happily at the end of the tour.
Not wanting to call it a day just yet (even though it was almost dark already), we headed back to the hostel to change (days were hot; nights were FREEZING) and then out again to buy tickets for the Sound & Light Show at the David Citadel Museum.
The show was a little hokey, and probably would have been more enjoyable at a warmer time of year, but still impressive. They project images on the stone walls of the Citadel (which has nothing to do with David HaMelech, our tour guide explained), showing the history of Yerushalayim from the earliest times… in a slightly whitewashed and somewhat more peaceful, calm manner than I suspect things happened in real life.
After that, we got dinner – tasty, tasty Big Apple Pizza on Ben Yehuda Street, and marched back home to sleep, exhausted.
Tuesday: Dead Sea & Masada
This was a packaged tour that I bought online, and it was good. Just good, not great, but good is sometimes good enough. Ditto with the guide: not tons of fun, but he did a good job, and he was guiding and explaining as he drove our little van, which he did expertly and well. My sister told me afterwards that he was holding a microphone; I didn’t see that at the time or I might have been more alarmed. I assumed it was mounted on the dashboard.
This was really my first time seeing and appreciating the quite-deserty desert that covers most of this country. We passed the mountains where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered and they seemed – well, more mountainy than others I have seen before because they’re so bare – in the Rockies, mostly what you notice are the trees and forests. None of that to distract you here.
We stopped at the Ahava Factory Outlet, which I assumed would be our only chance to buy Ahava products. We both resisted, but it turned out there would be plenty more opportunities… the Ahava Company maintains quite a presence down there around the Yam HaMelach (Salt Sea, its Hebrew name).
Masada has never been high on my list of places to go. I’m not sure how I feel about Jewish zealot groups hiding out from the Romans and their group suicide makes it a bit controversial that we continue to memorialize them. Still – the views were breathtaking and I’m glad I went. Happy we didn’t have to walk up like the many teenagers who were there with Birthright groups. They have a lovely cable car, nothing scary like the one in Haifa.
The tour also stopped at the Dead Sea (Yam HaMelach), another one of my don’t-mind-if-I-miss-it sites, but it was interesting to feel the water – at first. My sister brought a bathing suit, but I just took off my shoes and waded in a bit, swishing my hands around as I went.
So this is interesting: it turns out my entire skin is made up of a network of fine cracks that exist only for the purpose of letting in the sea’s deadly mixture of salt, sulphur and bromides to inside my skin, where they can inflict the most pain.
They did. It was painful, almost right away. I washed it off and it was STILL painful. Later on that evening, my legs started to burn, and as I write this, two days and two showers later, they are still itchy from the “healing mud.” Feh.
Another one to chalk off the bucket list, anyway, and never worry about not having carped the diem.
Wednesday: Yad VaShem, Home Again
I’ve been thinking of Yad VaShem (Holocaust History Museum) as sort of a flu shot. It’s not that I WANT a flu shot, but it’s good for me and at some point every fall, I work up the nerve to get one. Except that every time I’m in Yerushalayim, I have young kids in tow, and even Naomi is too young (kids under 10 are not allowed).
No pictures are allowed inside Yad VaShem, which is a very good thing. The museum is free, and we declined to rent the ₪20 audio guide – figuring that a decent museum should explain itself to you. (We may have been influenced in this snobbery by our mother’s background in Museum Studies.)
Despite this, there were about fifteen big groups making their way through the museum while we were there, blocking the exhibits with guides shouting out explanations of all the exhibits. In the groups that included teenagers, many of the teenagers were wearing the audio guide headsets, listening to those along with their guide (simultaneously?).
My sister thought this was ridiculously excessive and I agree – if so much work and thought has been put into the exhibits themselves, what good does it do to stand a bored guide in front of them to shout about it to the viewers?
Because of the clumping of the groups at the entrance to every room and in front of every key exhibit, it was hard to pass through without getting a little annoyed. And then, at the very moving exhibit of shoes taken from concentration-camp victims, an Israeli girl was giggling and pointing at them. Sheesh.
Still, annoyance fades somewhat as you pass through room after room of exhibits that are so overwhelming and painful and brilliantly-thought-out. I was very much Holocausted to death (um, to coin an awful phrase) in Hebrew school as a kid, so I feel like I’m sadly inured to a lot of it… but at a few points it got through to me in a very moving way.
My phone started beeping loudly in the Hall of Names, which was embarrassing, as it’s meant to be a quiet place where you hear names intoned of victims of the Shoah (Holocaust). Whoops – it was Elisheva, texting to arrange lunch.
After Yad VaShem, we made our way via Light Rail Train to the Merkazit (central station) to meet Elisheva. Everybody got a salad except me – McDonald’s! Elisheva said a big, passionate goodbye to her aunt, and then in a flurry of confusion, we boarded the 960 bus back to Haifa.
It’s been an eye-opening couple of weeks, being a tourist here in my own country. The Hebrew I’ve learned has been very helpful, and although not a “vatik” (old hand) here, things don’t feel as fresh and new and scary as they did when we were here ten months ago on that pilot trip.
Yet I think I’ve enjoyed showing my sister around so much because it’s all new to me as well. My sister’s really the first relative who’s visited – hopefully, there will be more opportunities to guide future relatives’ “tours,” and perhaps those, too, will be full of firsts (still lots of places I haven’t been!)… but at some point, it may start to feel like a “been there, done that,” kind of thing.
For now, though, it’s all just a heck of a lot of fun.
What did my sister miss??? If you had only twelve days in Israel, what would be on your “can’t miss” list?