By Phoebe Blyth
It’s a cliché to say that travel opens our eyes to the realities of the world… but I have invariably found this cliché to be accurate. You will never know a place like you do when you have travelled there, met the people, experienced the landscape, tasted the food, danced to the music…the cliché goes on. Whilst traveling in my mind is associated with a kind of charming naiveté, and a progressive broadening of one’s mind, there are times when it pays to do your homework, and have a little insight before you embark on a new adventure. At worst, this preparation will help you avoid insensitivity, and at best, it could keep you from harm.
I travelled to Israel for two weeks in 2012, one month before Israel fired a ‘warning’ missile into Syrian territory. I knew nothing of this. My reasons for going there were random, and can best be summed up by the phrase “a vague curiosity”. I knew very little of the country’s history, none of the languages (although thankfully everyone I met spoke English), and I added it to my itinerary without hesitation or thought for the consequences. On an interesting side note, I decided to avoid Turkey, because I didn’t feel comfortable traveling there alone.
I had arranged to stay with various couch surfing hosts during my stay, and when I arrived at the first house in Tel Aviv, late at night, I received a warm and accommodating welcome (although a somewhat less pleasant introduction to their cat, referred to simply as "cat", or sometimes "OW, you little ****!" given his propensity for unprovoked, ankle-height stealth attacks).
My first (unpleasant) wake-up call came the next day, when I tried to sort out my itinerary for the next two weeks, and my subsequent flights to India and Nepal. I quickly discovered that I had arrived in Israel at the best time for cultural enlightenment (September being the month of festivals and holidays) but the absolute worst time to get anything organized. Everything was closed, or closing up, for the holiday period. No bus services were running on those days, no dive shops were operating (one of the reasons I had come to Israel was to dive the Red Sea at Eilat) and no travel agencies were open. I managed to reschedule my two weeks and fit everything in around the days when no one would travel or be open. I was then faced with another problem.
Travelling Europe on a British passport over the past five months had softened me to the harsh reality that it is not always so easy to pass from one country to another. I discovered to my dismay that because my flight to India was with an Arabian airline, I had no way of contacting them from Israel to change my flight. There was no phone number on the website with which to contact the airline from the country of Israel. Here is where a little knowledge of international affairs and a little research would have gone a long way. As it was, my relatives in England came to my rescue, and rescheduled my flights for me.
I spent the first couple of days sight seeing in the desert and Jerusalem (including an epic early morning climb to the top of the Masada fortress overlooking the Dead Sea), and then met up with my couch surfing hosts once again, this time to take part in their own special Yom Kippur eve tradition: cycling from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv (an optimistic, and remarkably hilly 70kms). This is possible because, from five pm, nobody drove expect policemen, ambulances, Arabs and people whose wives were actually giving birth that instant in the back seat, for fear of being stoned by Orthodox Jews. I'm not exaggerating, that was how the situation was explained to me. It's not illegal to drive, but it isn't advised. Instead, everyone rides, rollerblades or walks. Had I done the necessary research before arriving in Israel, I’m still not sure I would have fully appreciated the extent of this tradition: some things you have to experience yourself.
I traveled to Eilat and got my underwater fix (suffering through the multiple people who told me with a sigh that the diving was far superior in neighboring Sinai or Jordan). I made a day trip into Egypt and a three-day foray into Jordan to see the magnificent Petra. At the airport, at the land borders, at every public building, there are scans and interrogations and suspicious checking of passports. I stood there, feeling guilty and nervous, even though, to my knowledge, my answers were legitimate. Holding my precious passport in one hand and scrutinising my face for traces of wayward political leanings, the border control officer would fire off seemingly random questions, hoping to catch me out.
"What is your name?"
"What is your quest?"
"What is the average flying velocity of an un-laden swallow?"
It was a nerve-wracking experience for the uninitiated, but despite this, I decided to stay an extra five days in Israel before moving on to Asia. I was captivated by the people I met there, every one of whom was opinionated and intelligent: unafraid to discuss their version of the “Israel question”, about which I had previously been oblivious. I can confidently say that it was the most eye-opening of the ten countries I passed through in that year.
Israel is not pretty. Israel is not cheap. Israel is not convenient. Israel is conflicted, confronting, ancient, new, harsh, beautiful, welcoming, dangerous, both challenged and challenging in its very existence as a nation. Would I still have visited if I had known all this beforehand? Perhaps not. But I certainly wouldn’t have known all of this had I not visited.