Going into Tel Aviv from Jerusalem is like going from Utah to Las Vegas. For such a small country, the two largest cities are night and day: you have the religious, conservative, shops-close-at-six Jerusalem to the East and - just an hour away - you have the liberal, sex-shops-galore Tel-Aviv on the Mediterranean coast.
Being in Israel during Jewish holiday season was not quite like how I pictured it. Rosh Hashana, or the Jewish New Year, basically meant everything in the country would be closed for almost 3 DAYS: busses, trains, restaurants, just about everything came to a halt.
Tel-Aviv was a diamond in the rough though as bars, clubs, and some stuff stayed open. For the most part, it was a good time to take a beach day or two. That is until I realized everybody in Israel decided to do the same thing.
Rules? What rules?
Walking along the coast, I felt like I was in some European city rather than the Middle East. Israel certainly has a European vibe to it, especially its prices. Did I mention I paid $11 for chicken nuggets and fries at McDonalds?
Stuck in the hostel on Jewish New Year, a few of us got together and decided to cook ourselves our own Rosh Hashana Dinner. Not being the greatest cook in the world, I happily contributed some steamed corn.
We also had a few rooftop parties throughout the new year.
Coincidentally, the next day I ran into Sasha (from the Jerusalem concert) again and his friend Vanya from Germany and we took a day trip to Akko, a fortified crusader-era city on the coast.
Never in my life have I laughed as much as I did hanging out with Sasha. On the train ride back, we grabbed a few beers and I laughed for over three hours - my face was numb.
The next day, we got lost somewhere in northern Israel and, for the first time ever, we tried hitchhiking.
Surprisingly, we were picked up by an awesome Israeli girl, Aizee, who took us to Caesarea - a Roman city named after Julius Caesar. There is no way in the US a young woman would pick up two male hitchhikers!
We climbed the ruins and even took a swim out in the sea. The Mediterranean was actually nice and cool for once.
I took a trip to the Israeli-Lebanon border which, until recently, was pretty dangerous with all the fighting. Today, they have a cable car that takes you to the top of the mountain that both countries claim and protect. It's so odd being in a historically war-plagued place during a time of peace.
The mountain diving the two countries is unique in the sense that it's made of limestone and, as a result of thousands of years of erosion, has grottos (water caves) underneath.
Back in Tel Aviv, it was almost impossible not to be social. The city, after all, is known for its parties and night after night, I ended up in yet another party on the rooftop with a new group of interesting people.
Between crazy nights here and there, I made time to visit the Holy Baha'i Gardens in Haifa - the headquarters of the Baha'i Faith - a religion I had never even heard of.
I also took Sasha's recommendation and took a trip to Masada - a 2000 year old Jewish city on a mountain top - the last one to fall to the Romans in 73 AD.
The story of the city is rather romantic. Masada was the last Jewish city to fall to the Romans after a seige that lasted months. When the Roman soldiers finally broke in, they discovered an empty city as everyone had killed themselves rather than to become Roman slaves. I'm pretty skeptical about the accuracy of the story, but it's certainly heroic to imagine.
The 45-minute climb to the top of Masada is pretty brutal, but after Petra, I felt like I could do anything. I woke up at 4 am and did it right before sunrise. Watching the sun peek through the mountains on the Jordan side of the Dead Sea was remarkably peaceful.
My last few nights were spent hanging out with Mikkel and Martin from Denmark, Damien from South Africa, and Eve from Germany. We drank and smoked shisha just about every night and on the last night, one thing led to another and before I knew it, we were shaving heads by the stairs.
Never did I think I would be partying - or even drinking - on my trip. But when you're in Tel Aviv, I guess you could say that's a part of the sightseeing!
I slowly hitchhiked my way back to the Israeli border via an American guy I met. I can't help but to feel a little sad every time I leave a country and close another chapter in my adventure book. At this point, I can't believe I've blazed through 5 countries already (I do count Palestine). I also can't believe I've met so many people!
I will certainly miss all the good times had in Israel!
Up next, Egypt! This is where the African chapter begins!!
Imagine a country where buses have bulletproof glass, teenagers casually walk around the streets with machine guns, and there are security checkpoints in shopping malls and movie theaters. This is Israel.
Jerusalem, by no means, is anything like the rest of Israel. Stores close early, people dress very conservatively, and just about the entire city shuts down every Friday night through Saturday night for the Jewish Sabbath, or holy rest day.
If you're a Christian, Jerusalem might be one of the most meaningful places to go. Everywhere there's a place where Jesus slept, a place where he performed a miracle, a place where he lived, and a place where he died.
However, if you're not religious like myself, watching people line up for an hour to kiss a rock Jesus touched was a little unsettling to me and - dare I say it - even creeped me out a bit.
One thing I could appreciate about the city is its old sites and a sense of religious peace: there's a Muslim quarter, a Christian quarter, a Jewish quarter, and an Armenian orthodox quarter, all stacked together with little or no conflict.
I stayed at one of the biggest hostels I've ever seen (over 400 beds!). The Abraham Hostel, unlike the rest of Jerusalem, had an amazing bar, a smoking terrace, and loads of events every night from pub crawls to karaoke nights.
On trivia night, I teamed up with a few new friends and - 25 questions later - we were the winning team with 20 answers correct! We won a total of 258 Shekels, or approximately $60!
Of course, we all celebrated with a bottle of wine on the rooftop.
If you mention the Palestinian Territories, a lot of people picture suicide bombers, gunfire, and armed conflict. While this has been true for decades, there has been a moment of peace since 2005. Today, there's a HUGE wall dividing Israel and Palestine.
I decided to go to the West Bank (Palestinian territory) to see Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus Christ, and to get a feel of Palestine itself.
What I found was one of the friendliest places I've ever been in my life.
Everywhere I went, people on the streets smiled and waved hello to me, many coming up to me to personally welcome me to Palestine. In one instance, I had a street vendor hand me some free fruit and vegetables!
Walking around Bethlehem, I met two Palestinian guys, Mohammad and Medhat, who actually lived in a refugee camp outside of the city. That afternoon, they invited me to their camp and offered me food, tea and shisha before showing me the world they lived in.
To me, it was absolutely disheartening to see the different living conditions in the refugee camp. While in recent years, permanent structures have been built, there are still many remnants of the war around the camp. Words can't really describe the feeling.
They introduced me to their friends and families, who were so welcoming and very curious about where I was from.
Smoking shisha that night on the rooftop of a Palestinian refugee settlement was something I never thought I would experience in my life.
I was so touched by the experience that I went back to the West Bank two days later to actually stay in the camp with Mohammad and Medhat.
It wasn't until we reached a checkpoint in Hebron where I realized what it was truly like for the Palestinians.
The Israeli soldiers separated me from my friends and asked me if I was okay or hurt - all while treating them like criminals and demanding identification from them.
At one of the synagogue sights, the soldiers forced them to stay outside while they welcomed me in, asking me why I was hanging out with those Palestinians and blatantly warning me that my friends were going to "rob and steal" from me.
Mohammad and Medhat were terrified of the Israeli soldiers and I finally knew why. While we were separated they taunted them, interrogated them, and accused them of stealing from me. They were so upset by the whole ordeal we went straight back to the camp afterwards.
They said this happens a lot. I can't believe this is their everyday lives.
They took me to the bakery where Mohammad worked and we spent the afternoon making pastries and listening to Arabic music.
Medhat taught me a bit of Arabic and as the night went by, we walked the streets of the camps, Palestinian beer in hand.
Walking around the West Bank at night, I asked Medhat if it was dangerous and he said, "For you, no. But for us, very."
When I asked what he meant, he told me that "sometimes Israeli soldiers go to the camps for trouble." Every once in a while, they inspect and raid the camps with smoke bombs and rubber bullets.
Leaving the West Bank after four days was a bittersweet ordeal. I couldn't shake off the feeling of how unfair history has been to these people. Being forced out of their homes into settlements, being treated like criminals in their own land, and not having any rights at all. How could our government support this?
It would be an understatement to say that I'm definitely pro-Palestinian. I having nothing against the Israeli people - they have been kind and welcoming to me as well - but I harbor strong distaste for their government and the American government's continued support of this occupation.
On a lighter note, one thing that's surprised me is that Israeli soldiers, unlike in the US, really enjoy having their pictures taken. It was strange yet funny to me to see how casual they were with their guns and uniforms.
One night when I missed the last bus back from the West Bank, two Israeli soldiers took me in and offered me coffee, snacks, and friendly conversation until they could find me a ride back. In one day, I experienced kindness from both sides of the wall.
They flagged down every car that passed by the checkpoint until they found a tour bus that took me back to my hostel for free. Hitchhiking back to Jerusalem from the West Bank was a bit of an adventure on its own.
On my last night in Jerusalem, I planned on catching up on some sleep over the week. That is until I met Sasha from Russia, who invited me to an Israeli rock concert literally 20 minutes before it was starting! How could I pass up such an opportunity? Life is short and I went.
While I didn't understand any of the words, I happily cheered with the Israeli youth and had a pretty awesome last night in Jerusalem.
A few beers later, Sasha and I topped the night off with a late night ramen noodle run. After a month of shawarma and falafels, the noodles were a welcome change.
At the end of the day, there will always be a place in my heart for the wonderful people of Palestine. Hearing about it on the news does not quite justify the humanity of the conflict I've experienced. I hope that one day they will finally get the freedom they've been waiting so long for.
It's about time I update on the finishing touches to my Jordanian odyssey! An adventure into Jordan is never complete until you visit one place in particular: Petra - one of the seven modern world wonders.
If you're too lazy to Wikipedia, Petra is an ancient and gigantic Nabataen (NAH-buh-tay-yen) city carved into the desert mountains a few hundred years before the Roman Empire. Crazily enough, it was actually abandoned during the crusades and completely forgotten about for 600 years until a Dutch guy came across it in 200 years ago. What a discovery it must have been! And it. is. magnificent.
A few of the guys and I headed to southern Jordan to see this crazy place. Petra's not exactly a day trip destination. It's so big it takes DAYS to really see it all. We spent 3 days in Petra alone!
Most of the buildings have been washed away by time and erosion, so I can only imagine how intricate everything used to be. It reminds me of that show "Earth After Humans." This would all be about a thousand years after humans.
The trails were pretty killer, but there's one in particular - the monastery trail - with over 800 individual steps! It took us about an hour of climbing (with 2 breaks in between), but it was pretty worth it, I must say.
It's hard to know the scale of the buildings, but they are massive. Compare it to the people in the picture!
I'm not sure if this is what the Nabetaens intended...
Thanks to this awesome wifi connection in Jerusalem, I'll go crazy with the pictures!
Walking around Petra, we drank anywhere from 1-2 GALLONS of water per person every day! Hiking nonstop for 9-10 hours with almost no shade, you can imagine how thirsty you get. Not to mention, carrying around all that water probably made us sweat even more. A water paradox, I suppose.
Thank God Jordan is nice and cool (compared to Dubai, of course). If Petra were in Dubai, we would not have made it out alive.
I'm also starting to miss vegetables. Here in the Middle East, there are basically two non-meat choices: cucumbers or tomatoes. You might find an adventurous restaurant that serves zucchini every now and then - but that's it. After 3 weeks of kebabs, shwarma, and falafel, I am dying for some leafy greens! Or noodles!
After our Petra excursion, we went a Bedouin (native) village called Wadi Rum, where we camped with the native tribes for a night!
We ate, sang, and danced with the Bedouins 'till dark and slept in tents under the stars. Though they have cars, phones, and showers now, it was nice to see vestiges of how the natives used to live out here in the desert.
Sadly, the next day I finally parted ways with the awesome group of guys I had met in Jordan - us all having different travels plans, of course.
I headed to one of the most difficult border crossings in the region: going into Israel.
For those of you that aren't familiar with it, going into Israel can be a nightmare. I met people with stories of how authorities opened their laptops, went through all their files and cameras, if they even sensed that you may be pro-Palestinian.
My friend Andrew from Kentucky actually got denied at the crossing twice because he told the truth: that he got an internship in the West Bank (Palestine).
So, I didn't know what to expect.
Not surprisingly, they went through every single item I was carrying and questioned me suspiciously about my water filter. Really? It's a water filter.
They also bombarded me with some pretty intense questions.
"Why are you traveling alone?"
"What were you doing in Jordan?"
"Are you planning on going to the Palestinian Territories?"
"When are you leaving Israel?"
Being a flexible backpacker, I didn't exactly know when I was leaving, which made things worse. I pretty much had to explain my entire trip (and my life story) to them to get that stamp. I feel like Israel is like a club and you have to go through some kind of initiation to get in.
After three weeks of hearing Arabic, Hebrew was a bit of an interesting change... and for the first time in a month, I actually felt nice, cold water during my beach day at the Red Sea.
Another thing about the Middle East that I love (and will surely miss) are the FRUIT JUICES! I pretty much do my splurging on juices as there are juice smoothie stands everywhere! If only these were popular back home...
There are a few things that have surprised me about Israel so far. I was always under the impression that Israel was a pretty western country where English would be enough to get by with.
Instead, most Israeli products don't even have a single word of English on them. I'm talking water bottles, chips, fruit juices, the basics. This makes buying beyond water a bit of a guessing game. I suppose it's good to be proud of your language, but I have a feeling a lot of it is political and - dare I say it - xenophobic.
As for the people, I can see why they call it Arab hospitality because it's way different here. Going from an Arab country to an Israeli one has been night and day in the sense that Israel is more like the US: everyone's just doing their own thing. It may be because Israel gets more tourists, yet somehow I felt a friendlier vibe in Italy, one of the most tourist-packed countries, so it can't be that. We shall see.
A few pics of hostel living (for Dad):
Six days into my adventure in Jordan and I have already coughed, climbed, smoked, trekked, and swam my way around this beautiful country with some wonderful new friends along the way.
I will also never complain about traffic in LA anymore.
I have to start off by saying that Jordanians - to my disbelief - have been more honest than people in most countries I've traveled to. Twice I made the silly mistake of giving a 50 Dinar bill ($75 dollar bill!) instead of a 5 Dinar bill ($7 dollars) since they look similar, and both times they corrected me. I feel like in a lot of countries like China, people would capitalize on my mistake and cheat me but not in Jordan, so far it seems.
Amman (the capital) is such an old city that you literally have 2,000 year-old Roman ruins casually sandwiched between apartment buildings and shops. The amount of history in this country is simply overwhelming and I love it! It may not be the cleanest of cities, but it certainly has many amazing stories to tell.
I've been in great company at my hostel and have made a bunch of new friends from Kentucky, Canada, Spain, Australia, and even a guy from Libya who fought in the revolution against Ghaddafi. I also found out that Jordan actually has liquor stores!
Around the city, I couldn't believe that after so much time, these old buildings, streets, theaters, were all still around.
Between taking a sick day here and there, I took day trips with friends to Jerash - Emperor Hadrian's favorite Roman city - and old crusader castles along the Syrian and Iraqi border. I'd have to say though, I'm getting a little Roman ruin-ed out.
Jordan is basically the gateway between the Mediterranean and the Middle East and has a feel similar to Turkey. The people have certainly been just as welcoming!
One of my new friends from Kentucky (Andrew) and I also took a trip to the Dead Sea. I found out that floating in the water isn't just something you can do, you actually can't NOT FLOAT. It's impossible to sink below chest level and even standing in the water is difficult.
While there, I watched a lady almost drown because she swam on her stomach and couldn't flip over; they say over 3 people drown every year in the Dead Sea for that very reason.
The floating feeling is nothing like I've ever experienced as well as the saltiness which - in the eye - as you can imagine, hurts so much it's blinding. I also found out the hard way that I had a cut on my foot...
Funnily enough, we went swimming afterwards in a regular pool and I had problems staying afloat after being so used to the weightlessness.
I also took a ride out to the desert castles in East Jordan with a few new friends. These aren't your typical King Arthur knight-and-horse castles per se, but were actually rest stops for people crossing the desert.
Jordan has been a pleasant surprise so far and I'll definitely be staying longer than planned, thanks to my spontaneously flexible travel plans.
I also realized that this is the first September I have not been in school since 1996. Instead, here I am across the world, exploring this wonderful country with awesome people I've met along the way! I feel pretty lucky every day I wake up and realize I'm on this journey.