White Australian Woman Travels To The Middle East and Has Some Mildly Profound Thoughts About It, And - Shockingly - Decides To Blog About It.
I never really wanted this to be a blow by blow travel blog, but I feel bad about leaving out the section of our trip that was probably the most outside of our comfort zone, the Middle East.
When Neil and I announced to our families that we were off on a 12 month adventure around the world, my mother, while definitely feeling excited and happy for us, did seem stressed at the prospect of not seeing us for so long. So, I suggested to her that she choose somewhere in the world for us to meet, and I thought it would be nice if she picked somewhere none of us had been. Without skipping a beat, she chose Israel.
When I mentioned to people that we were going there, I often got quizzical looks and asked “Oh… are you Jewish?” No. “Oh, so you’re Christian!” Wrong again. There seemed to be a gap in reasoning - why would you go to Israel if you weren’t religious? Mum is a big history buff, it seems interesting, and all the Israeli people I know are like, really good looking. I don’t know about you, but that’s enough reason for me. I don’t think we quite understood the immensity of what we were getting our selves into.
First of all when Neil and I were supposed to arrive in Tel Aviv, five days prior to my mum and dad, we learned that it was going to be a high holiday, Yom Kippur, and were advised by a friend to get the hell out of dodge. Everything would be closed, you wouldn’t even be able to buy food or take the bus anywhere. Israel was shutting up shop. So we did what many other secular Israeli’s were doing and headed over the border to Egypt as soon as we landed, to the Sinai Peninsula. We spent 5 days lolling on the beach, staying at a Bedouin camp. Whatever romantic setting you are imagining, make it about half as luxurious in your mind, and then half that again, and you’re maybe getting close to how basic this place was. The fanciest meal we had was overcooked spaghetti with a tin of tomato soup on top. But there was beer readily available, it was cheap and I read 4 books in 5 days, so I was happy. One thing that did give me pause was that there were no Egyptian women around. None. And let me tell you, if there was a woman on staff, I think things would have possibly even ventured into 1 star hospitality. But what do I know? It was a fun, relaxing time.
When we headed back into Israel, I got a taste of the warm Israeli welcome I would experience several times over our stay. Israeli customs and immigration makes Australian immigration look like a trip to your nan’s house for scones. We had to remember that every single Israeli adult is a trained military professional. They are trying to intimidate you, to pressure you into spilling the beans, even when you have no beans to spill. It is unpleasant, exhausting and and makes them seem pretty hostile towards visitors - which I am sure is precisely the intention.
Tel Aviv is a very cool city. There is a lot going on, the beautiful beach, and there are excellent restaurants, which I must confess, I wasn’t necessarily expecting. It is cosmopolitan, the people are sexy and cool, and we had a great time. However - it did feel like almost any other big city, and by the time we packed our things to head to Jerusalem, I could tell that was playing on my mum’s mind. We were here to experience ancient history, and to see modern history unfolding before our eyes. Well… Jerusalem did not fail to deliver.
Jerusalem is one of the most hectic cities I have ever visited. Granted - we were there during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, so there were probably a lot more people visiting than usual. But it was hot, full of people, and to me it felt tense. Jerusalem has the border of the West Bank right on it’s door step, or running through the middle of it - depending on what you believe. It is also a vitally important city in three of the world’s most prominent religions - Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The people of these faiths are living and worshipping side by side, in what I guess is relative peace and harmony for the most part, but it just didn’t feel good to me. And then there is the not-so-small matter of the war being waged along the walls between Palestine and Israel, only a stones-throw (pun intended in bad taste, for effect) from the city.
I don’t want to go too much into the Israel/Palestine conflict here, because for all that I learnt while we were visiting, which was a lot, it only served to make me realise how little I knew. It is a drastically complex conflict, and after speaking at length with several Palestinians and Israelis, I don’t think there is hope for a peaceful solution in our life times. Never say never, and the city of Jerusalem is the perfect example of how throughout history the status quo rarely stays the same for very long in the grand scheme of things, but there did not seem like much hope of peace on the horizon. Suffice it to say that I am not being more specific about some of the details of our trip, as I wouldn’t want to upset some of the Israeli’s we met, and I don’t want to compromise the well being of some of the Palestinian’s we met. And I don’t think I’m exaggerating. What a mess.
Even though I am decidedly un-religious, I do know a smattering of bible stuff, just through osmosis. I have to admit that when we did the Christian tour of the old city of Jerusalem, I was fan-girling out a bit. “OMG - this is where J.C got his crown of thorns? No way!” There were plenty of people taking the same route as us on this Christian tour who were making a pilgrimage, as opposed to my walk peppered with as many Life of Brian references I could wedge in. When we saw the platform where Jesus was supposedly anointed with the oils that confirmed him as the king he would be worshipped as, I was visited by a feeling I have had in the past when I see people overcome with worship and praise; Wow, that looks like it feels great. I wish I could have a feeling like that. But I can’t. I don’t have a religious bone in my body, so religion to me is just a spectator sport-meets-history lesson.
From Jerusalem, we made our way to Jordan. This was a bit of a spur of the moment decision for us, and I’m so glad we did. I knew almost nothing about Jordan, and hadn’t even really heard of the ancient city of Petra, or the dramatic desert of Wadi Rum. We spent 2 days there, which was enough, but it was truly amazing! Petra was incredible, the detail of the carvings blew my mind. We also found the Bedouin people of Jordan to be amazingly hospitable, and also in the words of my Scottish boyfriend; “total wind-up merchants”. They had excellent senses of humour, and were constantly poking fun and cracking jokes, which, if I’m being honest, was a welcome change from the frosty vibes we got from many Israelis we encountered.
After leaving my parents, Neil and I continued on our way to Turkey. We started out in Cappadocia. You’ve probably seen pictures of the dozens of hot air balloons in the dawn sky? That’s Cappadocia. The landscape is beautiful, the balloons were cool, but I think after Israel and Jordan, I was a little worn out. We had gone hell for leather with tours and exploring, museums and sites in Israel and Jordan, and when we got to Cappadocia, I was pretty done in. I don’t think it would have really been my vibe, but I was pretty underwhelmed, and I think a big part of that was I just needed to rest up. We then went to Pammukale, where we’d heard there was some hot springs (we love hot springs), but again, it was overwhelmingly touristy, and apart from the pools, which were AMAZING, I didn’t feel very welcome or engaged with the place. It felt like a production line of “get in to the tourist attraction, see it, go eat at a restaurant where someone is hassling you to come in, kind of crappy food, get out, onto the next thing”. No thank you. So I wasn’t feeling super impressed with Turkey up to that point.
Luckily, our last stop in Turkey was Istanbul. Be still my heart - what a great city. Now this was more my vibe. Cosmopolitan, full of history, plenty of ways to discover it for yourself. One of my best friends from high school happened to be visiting her sister there for the weekend, so we explored all together, seeing the sights but also revelling in each other’s company, wining and dining in the hot spots as directed by the sister who has lived there for a year, and is suitably young and hip. One of my highlights of Istanbul was going to a traditional Turkish Hammam - the bath experience. I went with Nina and her partner to a place that was all women in the morning and all men in the afternoon. The setting felt like the bath scene in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire - all towering marble ceilings, ornate taps and lashings of soapy suds spilling all over the place. With lady bodies of different shapes and sizes all around, and I got what felt like the top 12 layers of my skin scrubbed off by an aggressive Turkish woman named Ursula. I left feeling raw but wonderfully refreshed. 10/10, would recommend.
After Istanbul, we headed to Athens. I kind of got the impression that Athen’s sucked, but I think that is because I had heeded the advice of a grumpy Greek friend of mine from Melbourne, which was ‘get a Souvlaki from a shop called Kosta’s, then get the fuck out of Athens’. I’m glad I heeded the first part of this advice, the souvlaki from Kosta’s was well worth the wait, but I’m also so glad we spent 3 nights there. It is a big city, and very touristy, so I can understand why someone would advocate seeing other parts of Greece, but I really loved it. The Acropolis dominates the sky line, and then dotted throughout the city, you can just stumble on ruins here and there that are literally thousands of years old. I already knew I liked the Greek myths, but I’ve been doing more reading about them since I’ve been here, and it’s been so cool to feel surrounded by it all while I learn.
Another thing that struck me while we wandered through the ancient ruins yesterday, (not yet experiencing ‘Column Fatigue’, as a tour guide aptly put it), was how connected all of the history is that we have seen so far on this trip. Whether it was all happening simultaneously, or if the events in one region set a series of reactions in motion that affected something else at the edge of an empire - it has really made me feel a sense of connectedness throughout the world and throughout history. I don’t really feel like this trip has made me feel like the world is small. It feels big to me with so much to discover, and the more of it that I see, the more I realise that I haven’t seen, and may never get the chance to. But it has made me feel like the things that happen in our world, and the part that we collectively and individually play in our history - it matters. What happens, and by extension, what we do, makes a difference, both close by and at a distance. Yeah, that’s right, I’m having profound thoughts on this trip! It’s not all sleeping in and sinking beers… but it is mainly that.