Rosh Hannah in Tel Aviv
Thanks to CouchSurfing and our hosts in Israel, we had a bit of a heads up that we would be arriving in Israel the night of Rosh Hashanah (which is the Jewish New Year). If it weren’t for them, we would have been caught off guard by the fact that everything is closed and there is absolutely no public transpiration on this holiday. Fortunately we found this out about a week in advance, so we researched taxi prices, and on our flight made a friend or two. We managed to find a couple Germans to share a cab with to central Tel Aviv and offset some of the $50 cab ride. As we learned soon – this was a proper welcome to Israel – everything costs more. The cab dropped us at the main train station downtown, and we all went our separate ways. From there we walked a bit before a random sherut driver offered us a ride for a reasonable price to our CS host Talya’s place (sheruts are usually shared taxi-like vans, but this driver was not operating and instead just nice to offer us a ride at 2am). Talya had graciously waited for us to arrive and let us in at 2:30am. For us it had been a long almost 36 hours of travel and layover. It was only a matter of minutes before we were asleep.
The following morning after recovering from our long travel day, we chatted with Talya for a while and headed out for a walk to explore the city. Tel Aviv is right on the Mediterranean, and has a huge beach running the entire length of the city. We were staying in Jaffa, which is the old part of the city. Tel Aviv has grown dramatically since the 1960’s, at which point more Jews from all over the world began to migrate to Israel. Previously Jaffa had been a mostly Muslim community, so Jews expanded further and further north. Now Jaffa is still the predominately Arab Muslim portion of the city. As Jaffa is the older city though, and more ethnically diverse, it is arguably one of the more interesting parts of Tel Aviv. We explored this part of Old Jaffa and Jaffa Port, which is reminiscent of other old centers in European/Mediterranean regions with the warm climate, narrow and winding streets of stone where one can often touch the adjacent walls. We found a Wishing Bridge in Old Jaffa and got a great view of the new Tel Aviv mega city.
From that point we walked up along the beach promenade. Since everything was closed (the Rosh Hashanah holiday extended through Thursday and the Israeli weekend, which is Friday and Saturday) the beaches were packed with locals and visitors. People had set up large tents for shade and gathered to eat and drink on the grass sections above the beach as well. Eventually when we had walked a few kilometers north along the promenade we cut east into the actual city. This is when you really realized how dead things were. Other than some restaurants and cafes (which were bustling with people) pretty much nothing was open – not even grocery stores. The streets were quiet and anyone walking through them was usually headed in the direction of the beach or walking dogs. As we walked along, even with the majority of the city being closed down, we couldn’t help but feel like we were in some neighborhoods of Los Angeles – with the warm weather, the dogs, the cafes, the people and the prices.
After getting a lay of the land and we headed back in the direction of Jaffa, this time walking through the city. In the evening we strolled along the Old Port again which was busy with people all gathered to watch the sunset, eat, sing, and socialize. The entire day oozed a feeling of chill-axing and enjoying the warm weather with friends and family. Watching the sunset over the Mediterranean together was comforting as it reminded us of being home on the California coast.
On Friday Talya had thought that most businesses would be open. With her advice, we made our plan for the day: go to a camping outlet store (to get a tent and sleeping bag for our Africa travels), go to Abu Dhabi Hummus (rated one of the best hummus spots in Tel Aviv), checking out Carmel Market where we could buy some veggies, walking through the funky neighborhoods of Neve Tsedec and Florentin, and hitting up the flea market on our way home before a street art walking tour. Well, unfortunately as we found out (as did Talya on her own agenda), the holiday was still in full swing: virtually everything remained closed. No Carmel Market, no funky neighborhoods, no camping equipment, no flea market, and no one showed up for the art walk (even though we read and re-read online to be sure it wasn’t canceled for the holiday) — BUT we did have amazing hummus at Abu Dhabi Hummus spot. Additionally, Talya invited us to join her and her friends for a wonderful Shabbat dinner that evening, complete with wine. All in all it wasn’t a bad day.
Saturday (which in Israel is equivalent to our Sundays) we had made plans to meet our good friend Kris whom we had meet in Fes, Morocco during an interesting couchsurfing experience that ultimately brought all of the surfers closer together. Kris is originally from NYC and had been living in Israel/Palestine for the last couple years. We had kept in touch with her after our time in Morocco and were excited to see her again after a few months and catch-up. She had moved to Tel Aviv just a couple months before and arranged a Saturday morning brunch on the beach with us and some other friends. And when we say brunch on the beach we literally mean toes in the sand while eating.
For a few hours we spent the morning catching up with Kris, meeting her friends, and getting inside info on what to do and see in Israel and Jordan. We even had time for a quick mid-day swim before parting ways and heading to a local Hash with the Holyland Hash House Harriers. Since it was a holiday we were told the group was relatively small. It was also a quick hash for the same reason. Regardless, we meet some awesome people and were able to meet a few Americans working for the Embassy and USAID. It was inspiring for Ben, especially seeing that some of these people had started working internationally after a decade of work in a completely different careers stateside.
After the hash we got a ride back to Tel Aviv, and planned to meet up with the crew from our carpool for a drink after they went home and changed. So what did that leave us to do? How about a sunset swim in the warmest part of the Mediterranean Sea? Not half bad. After our 30 minute salt bath, we showered off and met the hashers at a local bar Mike’s Place (which ironically is an American themed restaurant/bar chain in Israel). After a few drinks we then went back to one of the people’s house where he served us Jack Daniels he had to get rid of before moving back to the US, and smoked hookah on his luxurious balcony, 15 stories above the beach coastline. Around 2am we started making our way back the 3-4 kilometers to Talya’s place, who was out of town at this point.
As you can probably predict, Sunday (and by Sunday we mean Monday) was a slow start for us. The day was a rather lazy one. Now that it was the beginning of the week and the holiday was over we thought we would re-try our ‘game plan’ from Friday. This time we were much more successful. With a new tent and sleeping bag in hand we wandered through neighborhoods and the flea market on the way home.
Even with the holiday our first few days in the tropical lands of Tel Aviv were welcoming and relaxing.
Yom Kippur in Eilat
After a few days exploring the incredible city of Jerusalem and it’s surroundings we boarded a bus headed to the southernmost point of Israel. We arrived in Eilat in the evening approximately 24 hours before Yom Kippur would begin (another important Jewish holiday). Again, we had been warned by our CS hosts that this would be another holiday where everything was closed AND vehicles were not allowed (it isn’t illegal but very strongly looked down upon – to the point where you may risk having stones thrown at you if you do drive) during this holiday. The original plan was to join our awesome CS host in Eilat and camp on the beach for the holiday (giving us a chance to test out the new tent). However when we arrived he told us the predicted temperature for the day of Yom Kippur would be over 40 degrees C, so we all agreed to change our plans and instead relax at home in the shade for the holiday.
Shortly after we arrived, our CouchSufing host Maor’s friend Toya also arrived from Tel Aviv to spend the holiday in Eilat as well. Together we walked Kika (Maor’s dog) to a nearby hill. We noticed a couple long tunnels that led into the hills. You would see something similar to an open doorway appear on the side of the hill that slowly led downward at a diagonal into the middle of the hill. Maor told us that it was used as a bunker a couple years ago during one of the war ramp-ups. Many of the hills in the area were used as bunkers and you could also see military camps set-up and military zones all around. When you would turn around now with your back to the hills and camps you had an amazing view over the Red Sea. Ironically, the view was calming with the many lights across the water. Maor pointed out the lights across the Red Sea that were from Jordan, those that were from Saudi Arabia, and the direction that Egypt was located (about 15km away, but no lights visible from our angle). We really felt like we were in the center of the middle east, and realized the importance of those bunkers since the point was pivotal from a strategic perspective.
Once back we enjoyed hookah, coffee, and wine while sharing stories into the wee hours of the morning. It was 4am before we knew it and decided to try to get some sleep.
The following day we all slept in a fair amount. The holiday of Yom Kippur would begin on this day at sundown. So this meant we had to be home (since we couldn’t drive) by about 6pm. After a quick morning walk we realized how incredibly hot it was outside and were glad we had made the choice not to camp through the night and the following day. We then headed with Maor and Toya to stock up on groceries and wine for the holiday (since all the stores would be closed come 5pm) and afterwards headed straight for the beach. Maor took us to a beach adjacent to the XXX. He had brought snorkels and masks for everyone so we could swim over to the reef from our free beach lounging location. Snorkeling was an amazing experience. Both of us were surprised at how much life there was just off the shore. The variety of fish was unexpected and enjoyed. We swam along the reef for about an hour enjoying the peaceful underwater scene before arriving back to our beach location to lounge a bit more. As it neared sunset you could see the beach crowds dwindling.
Once at home we cooked a large dinner – everyone making something to contribute. Other families fully observing the holiday would be feasting in preparation to begin fasting as of sundown. Maor and Toya weren’t quite as strict and had told us they would be eating and using electronics – so no need for us to worry. Just after sundown we began our little family dinner. Since most stations were no broadcasting Maor had stocked up on downloaded movies for our viewing pleasure. Over the next 24 hours we enjoyed watching The Great Gatsby, We’re the Millers, World War Z, and the Hang Over 3. This was between cooking/eating many meals, dog walks and play time, hookah breaks, and doing some Jewish New Years cleaning in Maor’s apartment. It was pretty strange to see the streets completely void of cars all day. But as soon as the sun went down around 8pm the streets started to fill quickly with people and cars slowing trickled into the streets as well. We got to hang out with Maor’s neighbors as they began to build a XXX. It is tradition after Yom Kippur to start building the XXX in preparation for the next holiday, XXX (XX weeks after Yom Kippur).
Once the XXX structure was complete there was talk of going to a local pub. Knowing we had a long day of travel across the border to Jordan and then up to Petra the next day we opted to stay in. Being the old farts we are, we passed out after a couple glasses of wine. Maor and Nory stayed up a few hours later celebrating the end of the holiday with the neighbors. Despite the late night Maor was up and out of the apartment on his way to work at 5:30am. A few hours later we were in a cab headed in the direction of the border.
We couldn’t have asked for a more awesome way to end our time in Israel. Eilat and our time with Maor, his dog, and his friends was the perfect chill experience for our last couple days.
Israel had greeted us on the holiday of the new year (Rosh Hashanah) and now, after the day of atonement (Yom Kippur) she sent us on our way to continue our adventure.
** Also stay tuned for time in Israel between the holidays in the Holy Lands of Bethlehem and Jerusalem**