This is a guest post from Louise in Liverpool
I first wanted to visit Israel when I was a mere spring chicken aged 21. My friend’s sister was working on a kibbutz. She had sent me a letter raving about the brilliant time she was having and urged me to join her. Sadly I declined this enthusiastic invitation due my lack of finance and my father’s protestations of how dangerous it was in Israel.
Being in the decade of age where life begins, I began to regret not having taken up that tempting invitation all those years ago. So when Penny who had once lived on a kibbutz for a year announced she was going back to Israel, I asked if I could go with her. She was delighted and I could afford it which meant I would finally see Israel for myself.
The 4 ½ hour flight was pleasant enough for someone who is just not keen on flying. On filling in the flight questionnaire I could confidently tick the box that expressed my choice to fly with El Al was to ensure my safety. I had been randomly selected to have my shoes and handbag brushed so I could see that a well seasoned terrorist or even 007 would have to be pretty ingenious to pass through the thorough but most necessary security procedures of El Al Airlines.
We picked up the car at Ben Gurion and we began our long night time journey to Ein Gev, a kibbutz on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. On our arrival we were greeted and checked in by two very friendly and I have to say, attractive young men, which to my delight was to be another feature of our visit repeated on several occasions. And thus the ‘Phwoar Factor’ scale was born, closely followed by the ‘Charm Factor’ scale. Almost every male we encountered in Israel could find a rank in one or both scales!!
After unpacking we sat outside our room by the shores of the Galilee sipping a well-earned coffee. Immediately I noticed the serenity of the lake and my surroundings. As I admired the beauty of the place, observed the twinkling of the lights on the far shore, listened to the birds singing (at 1am) and got drenched by the sprinklers, I felt my tired spirits lift. I felt so happy to be in Israel at last
The next couple of days were a mixture of ‘dossing’ by the shores of the lake, bathing and avid sightseeing, taking in the Mount of Beatitudes and Capernaum, flagging somewhat in the heat of the day but constantly inspired by the beauty of the Kinneret. Apart from eating St Peter’s fish drizzled with garlic butter, which is delicious and a ‘must do’ activity in this area, the highlight was meeting Israelinurse and her partner in their kibbutz home situated in the Golan Heights which have a barren beauty not unlike the highlands of Scotland. Israelinurse showed us around the kibbutz with pride. As she talked about their way of life I felt that a real sense of community existed there.
Standing in a once-occupied bunker where Syrian snipers had taken pot shots at Israelis below going about their daily lives brought home the harsh reality of Israel’s history and in areas close to Gaza its present reality. This reality was further emphasized when Israelinurse pointed to their bomb shelter and joked about her drinking vodka through the IV lines in there. The rest of the evening was spent very pleasantly sat on the terrace, drinking tea, engaged in intelligent conversation about real issues, far removed from the often superficial chat I listen to at home which is mainly concerned with what happened in X Factor last week or who’s got the longest false eyelashes in the office.
The next day we drove to Eilat through the stunning scenery of the Negev desert. We marveled at the breathtaking vista from the Ramon crater as I maneuvered the car round hairpin bends in my best grand prix style (sorry Penny!). A chorus of, “Oh wow!” in perfect sync accompanied every curve which came with signed warnings of ‘dangerous’ and/or ‘slippery’ to which no other driver bar me seemed to pay heed. Around every corner were mountain views to rival the Grand Canyon displaying amazing rock formations and colour.
Eilat in complete contrast to Ein Gev is a huge sprawl of hotel complex and shopping malls with a touch of chic. When we first arrived and checked into our hotel we were extremely tired from our eight-hour journey and it had taken ages to find our hotel. Music blasted out from surrounding establishments into the wee small hours and it wasn’t the kibbutz environment we had expected, a far cry from the beauty and tranquility of Ein Gev. But my stay in Eilat was to make a huge and very favourable impression on me, one that contributed greatly in ensuring that my love affair with Israel would be a lasting one
Although diving with dolphins was very enjoyable and our trip across the Jordanian border to Petra was amazing, what impressed me more was the friendliness and willingness of people to go out of their way to help us. One example is the waitress who phoned her friend, used her computer and finally phoned our hotel to ensure we found it. Another was the diver who changed the flat tyre on our hire car and wouldn’t accept any payment for doing so. I could list several more examples as this overwhelming kindness was not the exception in Israel but the norm.
Eilat is a young people’s holiday resort and although the music, as mentioned earlier, was at times very loud, the young people were not. Their behaviour was respectful. They didn’t shout, sing or swear at the tops of their voices. They weren’t brawling, staggering about or throwing-up in the street – because they weren’t rotten drunk. When they came back to the hotel after a night out they sat around the pool quietly enjoying each other’s company instead of throwing each other in it. This started Penny and I to question and wonder why they were so different to the youth of Britain, a discussion which continued throughout our holiday and beyond
We took Route 90 up to Ein Gedi. As we drove around the Dead Sea I was once more inspired by the scenery. The large hillocks of salt fascinated me as did the vivid turquoise colour of the sea, but it was the stillness of the water and the perfect mirror image of the mountains reflected onto its surface that simply filled me with awe. Ein Gedi kibbutz was a paradise, a lush green oasis set against a backdrop of dramatic desert mountains. Floating on the Dead Sea and washing in its mud was extremely enjoyable and the best beauty treatment I’ve ever had
And last but by no means least, on to Jerusalem. To encapsulate this wonderful city and its inhabitants in a few words and phrases probably doesn’t it justice but here goes: Jersusalem is sophisticated, colourful, bustling, safe, clean, steeped in history, hilly, gentle, tolerant, respectful, and full of life and energy.
Whilst we were in Jerusalem we visited Yad Vashem, the Garden of Gethsemane and Mount of Olives, the Shrine of the Book within the Israeli Museum and of course the Old City and Western Wall.
Yad Vashem was an extremely emotional experience. Looking at the everyday artifacts recovered from bodies burnt on a log pile brought home the reality of this horror far more than all the films and documentaries I’ve ever watched. Viewing the footage of starving children in the ghettos, reading and listening to countless stories of death and survival made me realize how important it was that Israel must remain the Jewish homeland in order to stop this from happening again.
The Garden of Gethsemane was very pretty with its bright pink Bougainvilleas. As we trudged up the Mount of Olives from here in the heat and strolled through the Olive groves, the call to prayer from various mosques in the city and the almost simultaneous chime of church bells reminded us that Jerusalem was a uniquely tolerant city which embraced a number of religions and diverse cultures. Just walking about Jerusalem amongst people of different races, speaking different languages, and people of all ages happily going about their business or pleasure seemed to emphasise that fact.
Jerusalem has a culture of its own, a sophisticated one that enjoys all forms of art. There were open air concerts at night and modern art films projected on to the walls of the Old City. The shopping mall outside Jaffa Gate housed a variety of sculptures and paintings hung on the walls outside every shop. What amazed me was that although the mall didn’t seem to be locked or shuttered at night the paintings and sculptures remained in tact. Unfortunately this would not be the case back home.
Jerusalem is also immaculately clean. It seemed free of the litter and graffiti that characterizes some cities in the UK. Despite the fact that there is so much open air evening entertainment for crowds of people, we’d been hard pressed to find so much as a cigarette stub on the pavement.
The city has a café culture too. There didn’t seem to be any bars except for one I spotted in the Old City. Even though the café’s sold alcohol, most people seemed quite happy to eat, drink coffee and chat. One of my favourite pastimes in Jerusalem was to sit in a café, drink iced coffee and simply watch the world go by. And again as in Eilat there wasn’t any drunken or rowdy behaviour even though Jerusalem was still very busy late at night. Penny and I felt perfectly safe wandering about on our own. The presence of some police and soldiers on the city streets only added to our feeling of safety but they certainly weren’t there to police the general public. There was no need to.
If there was one downside to Jerusalem it would have to be the noise from the car horns. Penny and I affectionately nicknamed this noise, the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra!
When I first saw the Western Wall I did wonder what all the fuss was about. It was just a wall with huge sand coloured stones and a few shrubs growing out of it. But then I touched it and my fingers tingled and I was filled with emotion. Another time I visited I was filled with an immense sense of calm and peace.
Shabbat by the Wall was amazing. It filled me with warmth to see so many people freely expressing their religious beliefs and having so much fun doing it. Men singing their hearts out and circle dancing, some with their small sons perched on their shoulders, were a joy to watch. One little rabbi danced his socks off. He was brilliant. The women were more sedate but everyone wore large smiles and people were so happy just to be there. They were greeting each other with huge hugs and the dances were so spontaneous too. One group of men walking towards the Wall suddenly started dancing in front of us, and then two young soldiers rushed over to join in.
Now I understood what all the fuss was about!
When the time came to return home, I just didn’t want to leave. I was in love with a country called Israel, a land full of contrasts, but a gentle, peaceful and welcoming place even though it is at war and constantly facing the threat of terrorism.
I was so sad to be coming back home even though I was looking forward to seeing my two young sons and telling them all about Israel. Next time I visit I would love to take them with me. So Israel, “I’ll be back!” This love affair has only just begun.