The opportunity to travel to Israel is a dream come true for me. Being raised in a devout Evangelical Christian household, Bible stories about Jesus, the Wall of Jericho and Jerusalem were a fixture in my upbringing. The stories and parables were ingrained into my brain from an early age.
My beloved mother, devout in her beliefs, never traveled much, yet she mentioned how much she’d love to visit the Holy Land. Other than visiting a sister-in-law in British Columbia, her purview was limited. Unfortunately, she never got to Israel before her death. My dad’s attitude was that America had everything, why would he want to leave it?
There was the one time my family visited me while I was living near San Diego and I took them across the border into Mexico just so they could say they had been there. But the experience left them less than impressed. Ramshackle buildings, beggars, vomit on the sidewalks, none of these things were memories they wanted to have. They couldn’t wait to get back into the States.
For me, though, travel gradually became enticing. After meeting my biological family in Canada and hearing about their international experiences, the idea of seeing new places began to germinate in my mind. Now, living in Italy as an expatriate and traveling around Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, I had a golden opportunity laid in my lap. I could finally visit Israel.
Our day started out early. My good friend, Barry, is visiting me from Oregon. A high school teacher, he is here for four weeks to travel with me through Israel, Turkey and the Balkans.
We woke up early on the day we left my little apartment along Italy’s Adriatic Coast. The weather had been very warm and languid. My apartment, lacking air conditioning, made it difficult for us to sleep. With doors open to the patios we tried in vain to grasp a vagrant breeze, succeeding only in hearing more clearly the constant barking of dogs and the screaming of babies.
Arising two hours before the alarm, we got cleaned up and went through our checklist—cell phones, cameras, iPad, laptop, passports, money, ID, credit cards. It was all there. All we had to do was wait for the bus that would take us to Leonardo da Vinci Airport in Rome. The station, two blocks from my flat, was easily accessible.
When the bus arrived, we boarded it and settled in for the four-hour ride to Rome. Catching up on sleep was impossible, with legroom similar to that available on most airlines. But we made it to Rome all right where we had a four-hour wait before boarding an EasyJet flight for Tel Aviv.
The flight was three hours and the weather was gorgeous. From the air I watched what seemed like minuscule boats (Ferries? Cruise ships?) plying through the blues waters of the Mediterranean. We flew over an island with discernible cliffs rising up from the sea.
Which one is that, Barry? Malta? Crete? It was small and sparsely populated. We postulated over what it could be and I was left frustrated that my minor degree in Geography accompanying my Sociology major had not included more knowledge about Europe.
Another island appeared in my window. Enormous in scope with an actual mountain range, I was convinced it was Cyprus. I marveled over how a landmass that looked so small on Google Maps was actually so enormous from the air. Sitting next to me, Barry rested his head in his hand while the Greek woman next to him watched Portlandia on her laptop. Ah, the ironies one experiences when traveling.
When we touched down in Tel Aviv, it was dark and we still had to get to our hotel in Jerusalem. This required a bus ride of about an hour. Tel Aviv is a modern, liberal city with a lively nightlife, high-rise hotels and popular beaches. Lacking the historic, cultural and religious significance of Jerusalem, it provided, for me, an odd juxtaposition in a nation so small yet so significant on the world stage. Shouldn’t every city in Israel be dripping with importance?
At the airport we got some money out of the ATM. What’s the exchange rate? I was sure it wasn’t 1:1 but I wasn’t sure the exact amount so we both took out one hundred shekels for the time being. Out of all my travels, this was definitely the most beautiful money I’d ever seen.
After getting our cash, I bought a sandwich. The snack kiosk had nothing with meat so I was reduced to a sandwich with only red onions, cheese, tomatoes and cucumbers. It tasted great. We wandered around until we found the shuttle to Jerusalem. For $16 apiece the driver took us and eight other riders to our respective hotels.
Our destination in Jerusalem, Hotel Victoria, was nothing to really shout about, but it is right outside the Old City within walking distance of most of the major points of interest. It is in an area I called “Hotel Row” with lodging virtually everywhere. Nightclubs and restaurants lined the street and the sidewalks were filled with people. We checked in; it was nearing 9:30 p.m. and we were hungry but when we got to our room, we collapsed on our respective beds with a grunt.
Lying there we heard the constant horns of the traffic on the street below. Rap music pounded the building. Men yelled at each other in Arabic and dogs barked. Was this to be our lot for the next four nights? How would we sleep?
Frustrated, I eventually got on the horn and called the desk clerk to request a more quiet room. He bade us come downstairs where we were offered keys to three rooms we could consider. We chose the second room. It was bigger, the bathroom was bigger and the room was completely quiet. We moved our stuff and I crawled into bed.
Barry went out to get a super-sized pizza and brought it back. After one piece, I was sated, ready to sleep so we could hit Jerusalem in the morning. Jerusalem, Jerusalem, where three major religions collide.