Tel Aviv and About
EXPLORING ISRAEL’S MEDITERRANEAN COAST
The grilling that my Greek friend George and I get at Athens airport is like a scene straight out of Homeland. We’re split up and interviewed separately about how we met, how long we’ve known each other, what the other does for a living, if we have work samples to prove what we do, if there are people we know in Tel Aviv, how we’ve met them, and whether we have their contact details among other probing inquiries. The interviewers then meet to corroborate our stories and come back to each of us with additional questions. It’s an early sign that Tel Aviv is not your typical tourist destination. Even with an awareness of the ongoing Israeli/Palestinian conflict and the associated dangers involved with the destination doesn’t quite prepare me for this pre-flight interrogation. It’s unlike any other I’ve experienced at airports post 9/11. The screening at LAX two years prior was a breeze by comparison. On arrival in Tel Aviv, the sight of pimple-faced teenagers decked in military khaki and brandishing guns (as part of their national defence force duties) is no less disconcerting but there’s a flip side to Israel’s second largest city, home to 400,000+ people. While many travellers, including a number of Fijians, will head straight for the holy sites in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv offers the intrepid explorer a contemporary urban experience complete with interesting architecture and street art, colourful markets, an eclectic food, nightlife and arts scene plus sites of historical significance. We base ourselves in an AirBnB apartment in Tel Aviv’s UNESCO-ranked White City, so named for the abundance of beautiful 1930s era Bauhaus buildings and set off to explore on foot. Bustling Carmel Market is only a short walk away and houses an array of food and souvenir stalls. I try delicious, crumbly pistachio halva made with sesame paste and find it to be quite different from our semolina-based halwa in Fiji. George goes for a shwarma, a street food staple that’s essentially spit cooked meat and salad in a wrap. Tummies filled, we spend the late afternoon walking along Tel Aviv’s sprawling coastline taking in the sights of Israeli surfers catching waves in the winter sun. Next day we grab a rental and drive to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, home to many a masterpiece including works by Picasso, Van Gogh, Gauguin and Klimt among others. Even though contemporary art is more my thing, there’s no denying the beauty and power in seeing these masterpieces up close. Next we head to the ancient port city of Jaffa or Yafo on
the southern end of Tel Aviv and wander its labyrinthine passageways exploring old churches, monasteries and mosques. After living for three months in Athens (which is predominantly Greek) I find the multicultural mix of Israelis, Arabs and Africans and their different languages, smells and sounds makes me think of Fiji. We’ve barely sat down at the Old Man and the Sea for lunch when a waiter appears with a smorgasbord of at least 18 side dishes including falafels, hummus, tabbouleh and the like along with warm oven baked pita bread and a pitcher of lemonade. He makes a great show of banging the dishes on the table, which adds an element of theatre to the meal. There’s so much food that we forego ordering mains and the side dishes keep getting topped up so quickly as they run out that we can barely keep up. Just before sunset, the city goes into Shabbat (Judaism’s day of rest) and an eerie silence descends upon most areas. Not so in Jaffa, where the streets are lined with the lively bars, eateries and nightclubs that go all night. Tel Aviv is not called the ‘party capital’ for nothing. We get up early the next morning and drive a few hours through desert landscape to the Dead Sea, stopping along the way to pick up some dates to snack on. Turns out the Dead Sea is actually a 605 km2 lake shared between Israel and Jordan. I guess somehow ‘Dead Lake’ doesn’t quite have the same ring. As is custom, we walk backwards into the highly saline water then slowly lower ourselves until we’re floating on our backs. It is winter and the water isn’t the warmest for a Fijian but the sun sort of makes it bearable for a little while. Afterwards, George and I cover ourselves with mud from the lake banks then wash it off under outdoor showers. From here, we drive to Ein Gedi, an oasis and nature reserve with several walking trails. The drive offers aweinspiring desert and Dead Sea views, imposing mountains and Jordan in the distance. From Ein Gedi we head for Jerusalem, arriving in the late afternoon and go straight to the Western Wall, the ancient limestone wall in the Old City of Jerusalem. Built some 2000 years ago, today it is an important religious shrine. We arrive to find ultra-Orthodox Jewish men dressed in head to toe black with tall hats rocking backwards and forwards on their heels, moving their heads in prayer and occasionally pressing themselves against the Wall and kissing the stones. There’s a separate section for women further down, the two sexes separated by a partition. Afterwards we wander the Old City’s labyrinthine tunnels, bypassing the touristy stalls hawking the usual Chinese, Indian and Balinese tchotchkes (baubles) now found in tourist traps
the world over. We try but are refused entry into the Temple Mount and the Dome of the Rock as access is limited to specific times of day. The division of and control over this holy site for Jewish, Christian and Muslim people has been one of the primary reasons behind the ongoing conflict in the Middle East. News of a rogue terrorist attack the very next day in Jerusalem that kills four Israeli soldiers and injures a dozen others reaches us on our last day in Tel Aviv, bringing the reality of life here close to home. Leaving for Cyprus to get a flight back to Singapore via Doha in Qatar (due to the lack of direct flights between Israel and many Arab States), I go through yet another rigorous security check and a fair bit of questioning. My visits to Muslim countries are questioned: “Why did you go to Indonesia and Malaysia?” I keep my cool, breathe and am patient with the countless queries. But when a mud mask I bought at the Dead Sea is taken away for weighing despite fitting the 100ml criteria, I’m a little irked. It later occurs to me that they were likely checking to see that its contents hadn’t been changed. Tel Aviv, Israel and its rigorous entry and exit screening requirements may mean it’s not the holiday destination of choice for everyone, but it’s certainly a travel experience that takes you well out of your comfort zone.
Fiji passport holders get a three-month visa on arrival in Israel.
The view of Tel Aviv from Jaffa
Tel Aviv offers a mix of architectural styles ranging from 1930s Bauhaus buildings to ultra modern skyscrapers and everything in between.
A casual eatery at bustling Carmel Market
The spread at Old Man and the Sea
Ben Gurion Airport
Orthodox men at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City
A hot dessert/drink hybrid with cinnamon and nuts
The Dead Sea
Trendy hipster art at Jaffa