Tel Aviv (11 May 2013)
I left Jerusalem on a day when much of the new part of the city was practically devoid of people. It was Shabbat of course and at 3 pm in the afternoon I did wonder where everyone was. But thankfully sheruts to Tel Aviv were running and I got onto one very quickly. I happened to be the last customer they were waiting for.
The hotel in Jerusalem, La Perle, was very kind to me. They allowed me to check out at any time that day and so I was able to walk around Jerusalem one last time before I left. My plan was to reach Tel Aviv as late in the day as possible. Based on my research, I did not believe that I would have many things to do in Tel Aviv. One day in the city should be very sufficient for me to see it satisfactorily.
To make my life difficult, the flight to Ljubljana, my next stop, was delayed by almost 5 hours till around 5 am. The idea of wandering around Tel Aviv aimlessly at night did not excite me one bit. But that was what I had to do.
The sherut dropped me off outside the Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv. This part of the city looked pretty gritty and reminded me of some older parts of Bangkok. It was a crowded area and I did see a couple of Asians who looked either Thai or Filipino. The rest of the crowd however was African. Since Tel Aviv is essentially Jewish, where the hell are all the white people?
One thing I did notice during my time in Israel was how multiracial the country really was. The Jewish population is really very Caucasian, but it is not difficult to see Jews of other origins as well. My Jerusalem city tour guide for example had Yemeni origins. I also saw a number of Jews of African origin. This really reflects what the girl on the flight into Israel had told me: they came from all over the world. Despite their different skin colours however, they do claim a common ancestry in Isaac and Jacob and the same group of people that had wandered about in the wilderness for 40 years with Moses.
However, the multiracial character of the country did not explain the phenomenon I had witnessed at the bus station. I really hated myself for feeling so insecure because of the people there, but the area looked unsafe to me. Nevertheless, I was able to maintain a straight face, pretend to be very calm and walk away safely towards my hotel.
The hotel was some distance away from the bus station and quite hidden among the confusing series of small alleys. The map I had printed off Google Maps was not too helpful. It somehow did not seem to coincide with what was on the ground. Thankfully, just as I was feeling almost hopeless, a lady came over and offered her help. Upon finding out what I was looking for she whipped out her iPhone and consulted Google Maps. She was able to give me precise directions. I have to say that some of the most helpful people in the world are Israelis. A little old lady in Jerusalem had done the same thing for me when I was looking for the Israel Museum and had looked lost. A gentleman on the Mount of Olives pointed the way to the Church of the Pater Noster when, again, I looked lost and he even recommended me the viewpoint above the Jewish cemetery for a nice view of Jerusalem.
I stayed a night at the Eden Boutique Hotel and was really amazed by it. The design of the room was frou frou in a nice sort of way. I did like the luxurious feel to it. But I felt like an absolute country bumpkin with the door lock. It was so futuristic that I had to be taught how to handle it. To unlock, a code had to be keyed in. And the number pad was heat activated so I had to wipe the panel with my hand to make it appear. That lock was so absolutely cool!
I was so comfortable in the hotel that I wished I could have stayed one more night. In fact, I should have booked another night since my flight was at 5 am. However Tel Aviv did not have many things to keep me entertained for more than a day. I think the city is more a place for people to party or enjoy the beach than anything else. It is not historical or cultural like Jerusalem. But maybe I would have enjoyed the city more if I had gone there with friends.
The better part of the day was spent wandering around the city looking at buildings. There is a collection of over 4,000 buildings in Tel Aviv built in the Bauhaus or International style from the 1930s by German Jewish architects who fled to the British Mandate of Palestine from the Nazis. This collection of buildings is termed the White City because they are mostly white or light coloured to better reflect heat.
Everything looked so clean cut and simple, until I came across this one:
Just when I thought that I was going to be bored to death, someone asked me for the time at Dizengoff Square. But first, let me describe Dizengoff Square a little.
This square is a famous landmark in Tel Aviv mostly I think because of the fountain in the middle. This is a kinetic fountain built in the 80s called the Fire and Water Fountain. Why the name? This is because the fountain occasionally spouts fire too. I am still unsure one year later how to react to it. But many locals seem to enjoy sitting and relaxing at the square.
And it is one of these locals sitting and relaxing at the square that day who had asked me for the time. I cannot remember his name now but he looked like he was in his 40s or early 50s and feeling very bored and lonely at the time.
Our conversation started with him asking me if I was from Hong Kong. That was definitely a wonderful change. At least he did not think that I was a PRC. We chatted for a bit and he even bought a bottle of Sunkist orange juice from the supermarket nearby to share with me. I was of course very uncomfortable with the generosity since in most places generosity is expected to be returned. In other words, there is no such thing as a free lunch in this world.
He solved the mystery for me about the large population of Africans around the Central Bus Station. According to him, these were mainly refugees. I think he mentioned Eritrea in particular. He did not sound very positive at all about Israel taking in all these refugees. Crime rates in the city had apparently increased because of them.
Later, he invited me to his home. Now that might have been my way out of a terribly lonely and boring night in another life, but not this time. Firstly, he was a stranger in a foreign land. Secondly, he had told me that he was bisexual and his wife had divorced him because she had caught him with a boy in the shower. Something in me felt that his invitation was more than just a friendly gesture.
He was however quite difficult to say no to. And I had to come up with a cock and bull story about how I had to return to the hotel soon, get showered quickly and then go to the airport for my flight at 8 pm (I wish!). He looked so disappointed that I could not keep him company at home that I quite pitied him. But he was nice enough to walk me part of the way back to the hotel (I was merely pretending to go back there) and show me some of the more noteworthy buildings in the area. I had seen them all by then but I still appreciated his kind gesture very much. I did not have to give him anything in return for the orange juice except my company after all.
The more one wants time to pass quickly, the more slowly it seems to go by. By dusk, I was already regretting my decision to not accept Dizengoff Square Man’s invitation. Since I could not handle alcohol, I could not sit around at a bar and drink the night away. There was nothing to see or visit at night and so after dinner at about 8.30 pm I could only wander around the city aimlessly. Shops seemed to close at around 9 or 10 pm and there was nothing to look at after that. I walked till my feet ached and then I would find a place to sit down till I was bored and then I would walk again till my feet ached to repeat the cycle. I think I had sat around long enough at Dizengoff Square that night to see the fountain spout fire at least 10 times. As the night progressed there were also fewer and fewer people on the streets and so besides boredom I had to contend with loneliness too. It was such a torturous existence! Where on earth was Dizengoff Square Man when I needed him?
Finally at around 11 pm I returned to the hotel to collect my bags and use the free wifi. By then, I could feel hope starting to return into my life. At midnight I was ready to leave for the airport.
I walked to the train station to catch a train to the airport. It was a one and a half hours walk but one it was something to do, two I still had heaps of time and three I could save money. The walk was really quiet and that was disconcerting to me but I survived it. After the train ride, I was back at the airport after almost 2 weeks.
I had to be interrogated again at the airport. Have the answers I had given in Bangkok expired? And this time, since she was Israeli and so did not understand the situation in Southeast Asia, my interrogator was very concerned about my having been to Malaysia just a month before. So concerned that she had to get her supervisor to interrogate me. But in the end I was allowed through.
My time in Israel had been well spent although it could have been better planned. My beliefs regarding the Middle East conflict formed before this trip were shattered and I am certainly grateful that it had happened this way. I am also grateful for the new experiences that the country had allowed me to have.
If I should do another visit to Israel I will need to ask myself if I want to do it on my own again. Independent travel allows me the flexibility to do whatever I want whenever I want to. However, I learnt from this trip that using public transport in Israel could be very trying. Maybe I should join one of those pilgrimage tours next time, assuming I can stand having to be religious all the time and remain friendly with a lot of people who are probably more interested in shopping and eating than the history and culture of the country.
I have good memories of Israel. The country is so unbelievably rich in history and culture and the people are mostly friendly and hospitable. I am thankful for the people who had helped this dumb tourist find his way around and also those kids in Jerusalem who wished me “Shabat Shalom!” when I looked rather sad that Friday evening. There are also many things in the country that I want to see but did not get to during the 12 days I was there. I will go back.