Visiting the Promised Land: Israel

by ashley

Going to Israel was something that I never really planned. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to go, I love to travel and I’d be hard pressed to find a place I don’t want to visit, but I’d never really gave Israel much thought. I grew up heavily Catholic and fell away from the faith in my teens. I knew many stories from the Bible, but only because I had to for classes or hearing them in mass. Many have stuck with me, but not necessarily in a religious way. This is why it was hard to believe for many who know me that I would really appreciate a trip to Israel. However despite all of this, it quickly transformed into one of the best experiences of my life.

When I say I didn’t plan to go to Israel, I couldn’t be speaking more of the truth. I knew for a while that my grandmother was going there again, but it didn’t even cross my mind that I could be. Two days before she was to leave, I receive a phone call from my grandmother asking if I’d like to go with her. I said sure, in disbelief, but didn’t think it would really happen. First of all, I have a day job. How could I possibly leave for two weeks on two days notice? Secondly, it’s an expensive trip. Someone was cancelling due to health reasons (my grandmother runs tours through her travel agency), I couldn’t imagine that they would really cancel something that cost them well over $10K dollars. I wrote an e-mail to my boss, fully expecting him to say no, and explained the situation. Miraculously, he said no problem. He even seemed excited for me, which is surprising as he is normally extremely private with his feelings. The next miracle was that the couple actually cancelled their trip. My grandmother calls me with less than 24 hours before the flight left and told me to pack my bags.

My two weeks in Israel were filled with activities: so many churches, historical sites, meetings with religious leaders in the community. Our guide was Palestinian and we learned a great deal about their view on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I’m certainly not educated enough on the topic to formulate a definitive opinion, however I feel badly for those stuck in the middle on both sides. We met so many different kinds of people, saw the way they carry out their daily lives. Life seems hard for most people there, definitely not like the sheltered lives we relish here in the United States. My trip awakened a new thirst for travel, for knowledge, and yet it also helped me appreciate the fact that I live in the US that much more. The people in Israel were so friendly, inviting and accommodating. I found that literally everyone I came in contact spoke amazing English, as well as several other languages. They truly are sensational people, whether they are Palestinian, Israeli, Armenian; Muslim or Jewish or Christian. I loved my experiences with every single one of them.

It’s hard to choose my favorite sites, as everything was so beautiful. I love Haifa, on the Mediterranean Sea with gorgeous buildings and foliage. The Hanging Gardens of Haifa are unbelievable, even if you don’t have the opportunity to enter the site (it was closed, but we saw it from the outside). Tiberias on the shores of the Sea of Galilee is also a beautiful city, with a modern boardwalk that reminded me a bit of home (Miami). My most favorite city was Jerusalem, though. Walking the old city, inside the ancient walls, is surreal. I was blessed to have an entire week in Jerusalem, with the opportunity to walk the city alone in the early morning hours. The sleepiness of the city in the early dawn, just when the sun is peaking above the horizon, is the best time to walk and take pictures on your own. We stayed in the Notre Dame hotel, just outside the New Gate. It was easy to walk to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. In just seven short days, I began to feel like a local in the city. I could run around the tiny, winding streets, with ease. I must have visited the Church of the Holy Sepulcher eight times during that week. It was like a dream being in the church in the early morning hours. The sun rises well before 5 o’clock AM in the summer there, making it easy to rise early and take in the sights without hordes of people blocking your view.

The food…yes, unfortunately our tour guide did not do the best job in giving us a rounded view of Israel’s cuisine. As our tour included all meals except two for the entire trip, it wasn’t possible to go out much on our own to explore. I did find that it is extremely easy for a vegetarian, even vegan, to eat well anywhere in Israel. Every meal includes a salad course, which is a meal unto itself. Grilled eggplant, hummus, baba ganoush, cabbage slaws, roasted potatoes, fresh flat breads, stuffed artichokes and oh the olives – every kind imaginable was available. In Israel, the biggest meal of the day is lunch, followed by breakfast and little is eaten for dinner. Olives are served with every meal, including breakfast, as well as eggplant and several other things that seemed interesting for early in the day. But it made for a delicious and balanced meal at any time of the day. I fell in love with their lemons and lemon juice, which is also served at all hours of the day or night. I already was a lemon freak, I snack on them in the office (I can just hear the gasps from the dentists reading this) and I savored the selection of lemons at almost every meal in Israel.

I will always treasure this trip with my grandparents. I haven’t travelled with them in so long, and it was wonderful being able to spend two weeks with them uninterrupted. I highly recommend Israel – and for those of you who say it is dangerous, just look at our country. There are shootings, murders, car accidents and so many other tragedies right here on our own soil. Is there danger there? Of course, but the Israeli government works hard to make sure tourists are well taken care of. I cannot say that I never felt threatened, as there were times here or there, but I would return in a heartbeat. I love the history, the melding (and clash) of cultures. I love the hint of danger. I guess it’s just in my blood, I felt as though I had arrived home.

Feel free to contact me if you have any questions about travelling there, I’d be happy to tell you my experiences in more detail.

To see all of my photos, updated regularly as I upload more and more (I have literally thousands) you can visit my flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/amorgan_miami/sets/72157630561667444/

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