21 Mar 2014

5 interesting things you should know about Israel

City of Jaffa. Picture courtesy of Sheepdog85

WRONG WAY GO BACK said the sign by the side of the Pacific Highway. I could see it to my far right, a warning to drivers that could be going the same direction I was driving but on the opposite carriage.  I’ve only noticed these signs in Australia…perhaps there’s been a considerable number of confused drivers who’ve managed to avoid getting into an accident thanks to the advice…
Trips tend to provide opportunities to spot new things. It was on my way back from visiting family in beautiful Coffs Harbour, that I saw these signs and also, for the first time, koala bridges above my head.

They were cute but don’t worry, I’m not going to write a blog post about koalas. This week I’m turning things around and asking Ozie friend, Kristy Platt, to tell me about her time living in Israel and what things make it a destination different to anywhere else.

‘If you haven’t been, I suggest a visit,’ says Kristy. ‘When I lived in Israel in my early twenties, I was a traveller more than I was a tourist. The difference is that a traveller will stumble along the bumpier road-less-travelled - which sometimes leaves them having to sleep rough and fast-talk their way out of a tricky situation; whereas the tourist will sit back and hit cruise control as they coast the smooth-yet-much-traipsed tourist trail. 

Although it’s not a destination that many of my friends have visited, Israel has so much to offer tourists and travellers alike. From Tel Aviv’s nightlife and beaches, to the history and cultural melting pot in Jerusalem, and the Red Sea’s stunning reefs that rival the Great Barrier Reef. It has beautiful getaways and kibbutzim up north (a utopian commune based on agriculture), breath-taking scenery at the Sea of Galilee, the historic old Port of Jaffa, and of course the astonishing Dead Sea that’s so salty you can’t sink and which believers claim can heal many a skin ailment.’ Here’s a few other aspects I found particularly memorable.

Sun-tanned bodies, toned muscles, bleached blonde hair… the similarities to back home in Oz surprised me! Take a trip to Tel Aviv’s beaches and you’ll be amazed at the outlook. Stunning sunsets, lots of nearby malls and cafes, friendly people, and the food – oh the food!

If you already enjoy Middle Eastern cuisine, you’ll love the food in Israel. Delicacies such as shakshuka (eggs poached in spicy tomato sauce), falafels, stuffed wine leaves, the aptly named chipsalat (salad, hummus and French fries in a pita), baba ganoush (eggplant dip), tabbouleh, Shawarma (similar to a Turkish doner kebab), chicken soup, grilled meats, and labneh (yoghurt-based cheese). Then for dessert - and any time in between – try some baklava, halva (a Turkish sweet), and the many different kinds of pastries and breads on offer at every corner store. Plus, if you think you’ve tried hummus, I’m sorry to tell you that you haven’t - until you’ve visited Israel. It’s so good that I was literally eating it with every meal, and even had the best takeaway places on speed dial and every server knew me by name.

I was often half-jokingly referred to as a ‘shiksa’ while I was in Israel. The Wikipedia definition is ‘any non-Jewish woman or girl who might be a temptation to Jewish men or boys’, but this harmless nickname never bothered me. In fact, being a blonde Aussie in her early 20s, I wore it with pride – and lapped up the attention AND free drinks it brought with it.

One of the most obvious differences between Australia and Israel is the security measures taken by the owners of any business where people congregate. Picture this – huge airport security-style scanners and manual checks under your car at every mall and shopping complex, young men in army uniforms walking around with machine guns, and a total sense of control throughout. I must admit, it freaked the crap out of me at first, but slowly - and surprisingly only after a few days - it became completely normal to me and I felt safer knowing the checks were there.

The youth drinking culture is also an area that I thought differed to Australia. As an 18 to 21-year-old growing up in Sydney, getting wasted every weekend can often be the norm (or, at least, it was in some of the circles I hung out with). However in Israel, many of the youngsters seem more focused on either work or study – rather than who to neknominate next. I believe that one of the reasons for this is that the boys spend three years away in the army from the age of 18, and the girls are conscripted for two. By the time they leave, having spent countless hours following orders, they’re very focused on trying to get ahead in their careers – especially when their parents are pushing them to be the best they can be. That said, Tel Aviv’s dance club scene lives up to its reputation as one of the world’s best – and I spent many an unforgettable night dancing away my worries. But for some reason, everyone seemed less inebriated when they leave in comparison to the partygoers I’ve seen at Kings Cross clubs – on the few occasions I went there, many many years ago.

While I was in Israel, I am happy to say that I truly immersed myself in the culture. I spoke to everyone I could, hitchhiked a little, camped by the side of the road on occasion and, heck, I even managed to fit in a month Hebrew lessons at Ulpan Gordon in Tel Aviv, carefully practicing the guttural sounds and unfamiliar alphabet each day with the family I was staying with. However, if I was to return one day, which I hope I do, I think I’ll go back as a tourist rather than a traveller. I can still fast-talk my way out of any dodgy situation, but I’ve since learnt to appreciate the comforts of a proper bed.