Israel Travel Journal: 21 Things That Surprised Me About Israel
Israel 🇮🇱 travel journal
This travel journal is a raw, quick-and-dirty, and efficient account of the 9 days I spent in Israel with my wife, brother, and two friends. It was written purely in a note on my phone while on the go, so forgive any typos, poor pictures, and the back-and-forth between present and past tenses. Anyways, I hope you enjoy it.
We lost Megan. She was pulled aside when we boarded the plane in BWI. Wes and I continued, Steph waited. Plane fully boarded, no sign of Megan or Steph. I call Steph. She appears at the front of the plane. “Megan wasn’t allowed to board.” Upset, Steph said there was a discrepancy on Megan’s passport with her middle name. A few emotional texts were exchanged before airplane mode switches on and we were barreling down the runway. Without our trip planner and main contact person. Tours, Airbnb, rental car were all in her name.
Six hours of fitful sleep on a crowded plane. Arrived in Iceland. Thought we had an hour to rehydrate and stretch our legs but immediately got in line to board since our flight had been delayed. In Reykjavik, you’re bussed to a staircase outside your plane to board. It was cold.
We’re descending now to Tel Aviv. I have a detailed contingency plan for when we land regarding transportation and accommodations. Steph is infirm with a bad cough. We slept better in this roomier plane after getting two bottles of water and a spicy ginger ale.
Walked out of the Tel Aviv airport and got into a heated negotiation with the driver. We agreed to pay 250 shekels for taxi ride to our airbnb. The sketchy taxi driver gambled on his phone the entire drive. Looking back this was the shadiest experience of the whole trip.
Made it to our airbnb. No sheets. Limited hot water. Broken laundry machine. Crusty towels. Unadulterated luxury, this.
Walked along the boardwalk to Ace Hardware and spent 44 shekels for a phone charger adapter.
Then shelled out 176 shekels for dominoes pizza dinner and drinks.
Walked back, split a bottle of wine, did our pushups, and went to bed, thankful that we made it. And sad Megan did not.
Woke up at 5:30am, couldn’t fall back asleep. Did emails and social. Picked a place to get coffee. About to shower.
Showered. Thank God for Dr. Brommers soap.
7am Took a stroll with Wes to Butke Coffee stand and ordered an americano. Walked down the beach way and found Aroma, an Israeli Starbucks-like cafe and ordered a Turkish black coffee. Yuck.
Walked by the US Embassy.
Security guards with serious faces on every street corner stared us down.
Just got Steph and returned to Aroma for breakfast. Amazing place. Little did we know... we would be frequent patrons throughout the trip.
Back to the room, changed, went to a peer on the beach and Wes and I jumped in the Mediterranean, possibly illegally.
The water was cold and clear, but not arctic. Tossed a frisbee in knee deep water. Tried to play beach volleyball (courts were everywhere), but only found a group playing soccer volleyball. They were experts. If you saw their huge bare thighs you would probably agree. Did chin ups instead. Went back to the room, showered, and set out for dinner around 3pm. Walked down boardwalk, petting numerous cats, later to find out they all have rabies, according to one Facebook friend familiar with Israel. Exercised at plyometric parks. Outside an Italian restaurant names Porto, we ran into a traveling nanny from New Zealand who spoke English. It felt good to speak English with someone. Ate outside at sunset at a Fresh Kitchen local cuisine spot. Seems smiling isn’t common here. Had a cheeseburger and dark lager Torug. Felt really tired and went to sleep at 7pm (I know, lamesauce early).
Day 3 - Jerusalem and Bethlehem
After 11 hours of solid dreams, woke up at 6am. Our goal was to be outside the King David Citadel Hotel for our tour at 8:40am. Walked for 37 minutes to Arkololozov bus station before sunrise, hoping for coffee but found nothing open. Hopped on the 480 line which sends a bus back and forth between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem every 10 minutes. Steph saw the bus and we paid the driver 16 shekels each. One hour ride. Arrived at the Central bus station and purchased double espressos. Walked out into Times-Square-ish chaos. Wes figured out Tram system and we bought one way tickets. Thank heavens because I was thinking of walking the 2 mile Jaffa Road to the Old City. We get off at City Hall and proceed to get lost. It’s 8:30am and we run around David’s Citadel inside Jaffa Gate looking for our tour. Asked three people, and even found Ben Harim’s office where I’m handed a phone and someone on the other end tells me to go through the mall. We walk through Mamilla mall and find the hotel but we’re too late. No bus. I talk to the concierge who is familiar with the tour service and he hands me the phone. The voice on the other line says they waited for 5 minutes but left. He said if you take a taxi right now to Hebrew University on Mount Scopus, the bus will wait for us. I rush out the door and approach the first taxi I see outside. We meet Michael, a top notch taxi driver who calls Ben Harim himself and makes sure the bus won’t move without us. In his white Mercedes, he pitches us his personal tourism services. He spoke 5 languages, was born the year Israel became a country, and showed us where the Israeli army shot through holes in buildings at Palestinian forces. I asked if he was Christian and he showed me the cross on his necklace. I showed him the cross on my wallet. He said hallelujah. He pulled up behind a minibus and confirmed with the driver. We boarded and saw 4 passengers. We made our tour! My heart rate finally settled down.
The tour took us to the place where Jesus was born (Church of the Nativity), Mary’s Milk grotto cave, and the Shepherd’s fields. We enjoyed getting to know our tour mates. Two were white haired widowers who were travel buddies. The woman was a competitive swimmer, world traveler and professional photographer who was married to a physician who graduated from Harvard at the top of his class. He died from Alzheimer’s. She said it’s a terrible epidemic disease and you grieve while they’re still living, not so much when they die. Despite being in her 70s, she seemed to be lively and adventurous.
I asked her what the key to not slowing down was and she said, “I’m insanely curious.” I asked her what faith she had and she said it’s something that most resembles Buddhism.
I knelt and touched the square footage on the cave where Jesus was born. For a blessing.
Mary’s Grotto was where a drop of her milk spilled out and turned the limestone white and it’s a place where women struggling to get pregnant come to receive fertility.
I was shocked at how Catholic everything was. It was also surprising how nearly every major nationality in the world appeared to have had some stamp of power from their country on the place where Jesus was born.
We bought anointing oil at the Christian store. After the tour, my blood sugar was at record lows, so we stopped in an Aroma in the Mamilla mall.
We entered Bethlehem and sat before the Western Wall. Steph had to go to the female side. Small bits of crumpled paper prayers filled every crack and crevasse. The Jews believe that the prayers travel horizontally to Solomon’s temple, where God physically resided. In fact, the signs say that the Western Wall is the only place where the “Divine Presence always rests.”
I’ve never seen so many beards, yamakas, curly sideburns, and religious gear before.
We exited through the Dung Gate and entered the City of David from which we had a full view of Mount of Olives and the Church of Gethsamane.
Mount of Olives is blanketed with thousands of graves of Jews.
The closer you are to the top, the sooner you will be resurrected in the Last Days, is how it goes, I think.
The most powerful moment of the day was in the Church of Gethsamane where at the most important spot of the church is the stone where Jesus fell prostrate and asked the Father to remove the cup from him, but said “thy will, not mine, be done.”
The historical reality of the Bible really started to hit me in that moment. The Bible isn’t just a storybook. It’s a historical record that archeologists consult to find ancient ruins and cultural Tels.
We walked through Stephen’s Gate and followed the stations of Christ’s passion - carrying the cross through Bethlehem up to Golgotha. Most of the sites were in the Muslim Quarter.
As we waited for the tram, we gave coke to a prostitute. Seriously. A woman came up to us and told us about her starving kids and asked for money. I handed her our half-full liter of Coca-Cola. Five minutes later, I see a well-dressed tall pimp man walking right by us, swinging our bottle of half-empty coke in his hand.
Tram, dinner, bus, walk, shop, sleep
Shower, Rigos’s pick us up at 7:30am.
Drive to Jerusalem and park outside the Bible Museum and the Israel Museum. Spend next 8 hours on our feet. First museum had a tour guide. Second had an audio tour. Main takeaway: the Old Testament (which is the entirety of “the Bible” to Jews”) is steeped deeply in historic and geographic corroboration. Judaism formed the core of other religions like Islam and Christianity. So Orthodox Jews view Christians the same as Muslims. We saw the original Dead Sea Scrolls and models of 1st temple and 2nd temple Jerusalem. Lots of archeological and cross examined accounts of Old Testament events.
We also saw some bizarre modern art completely unrelated to Israel in the Israel museum.
I’ve decided I’m not too big on museums. What I love to do best is what I call “local linking” where you ask a local what their favorite beer or restaurant is, check it out and ask the waitress her favorite hike, where you meet someone who recommends a ... whatever thing. I love chaining events from local insights. It’s more experiential.
Below are actual stones slung back in bible times. Scurrrrrrry.
Drove north to Haifa (heavy traffic congestion) and had dinner at Katie and Riley Livermore’s million dollar condo on the 50th floor of a Crowne Royal hotel atop a mountain overlooking the Mediterranean. After dinner, had a long tea chat about living in Israel, Ultra Orthodox Jews, and worldviews. The Livermore’s are a cool couple with a 5 month old named Brady who doesn’t cry 👶.
Slept great at the Livermore’s. Driving now to Magdalena and the Sea of Galilee. Sad that the location of the road to Emmaus and the village itself isn’t known. Bible says it’s 7 miles outside Jerusalem but apparently the interpretation of the distance isn’t that clear cut.
Saw the 1st century synagogue (one of only 7) where Jesus actually taught.
Then boarded a small electric craft modeled after the boats in Jesus’ time.
The captain was a funny American Jew named David from Massachusetts. We took off our socks and shoes to put our feet in the water and he noticed my Hebrew tattoo.
He said it means forgiven, but different, stronger, and more action based, like the word redemption. I asked his favorite Israeli beer and he said Bazelet. We drove to Little Tiberius and I bought 3 large drafts of it to share among our group. The beer was nutty, raisiny, and bittersweet with an edge of smoke.
Buzzed, we picnicked by the Sea of Galilee outside Capernaum. Then we visited the Capernaum ruins and had a long real discussion about prayer.
It almost seemed like it was inspired by the place we sat, among the stone pillars of the Byzantine monastery above the site of the synagogue Jesus spoke at.
We speed-walked to the car and drove to a remote farm road. We pulled over and walked in our bathing suits, Megan and I in bare feet, to the bank of the Jordan River. A huge fallen tree in the Jordan became our diving board.
Megan Steph and Wes swam across the river and swung on the rope swing. The water was chilly, bright turquoise, and clear. We all jumped in and enjoyed the water.
Livermore’s prepared a delicious vegan meal for us of cabbage wrapped lentils, lentil soup, and mashed potatoes. The Tishbi wine was splendid.
Played judgment after dinner and tea and brownies. Riley won. Went to bed exhausted and happy.
Went to the Livermore’s evangelical Christian Hebrew church in Haifa. We wore headsets for English translation.
Church was powerful, authentic, and gospel-centered. There's no faking it in this land. Protestant evangelical Christian faith in Israel is rare. The sincerity and dependence on Scripture was beautiful.
Walked around Haifa. Saw the Ba’hai Gardens, ate local baklava, falafel and tahini.
We hiked up Mount Carmel, where Elijah dominated prophets of Baal. I found a number of seashells at the top, which was odd. I deviated from the group and found my own trail down, only to come to sheer cliffs. But I found a large bird of prey entangled in the briars. It was stuck. To free it, I threw a rock at it, hoping to give it the adrenaline boost it needed to free itself from the brush. I hit it on the head. So I built an altar on Mount Carmel and offered it as a sacrifice to God... okay... I'm joking...
But it did taste good...
The rock scared it and it flew away, majestically.
For dinner, we ordered lafa and shawarma, a meat stack of turkey and lamb that rotates on a spit. Think Chipotle but Israeli-style (hummus, tomatoes, purple cabbage). Was my favorite day of food in Israel.
Wrote a poem, exchanged money, and said our goodbyes to the Livermore’s.
Drove back to Tel Aviv, walked along the boardwalk, and drank local beers at Room Service. We stopped in at a pizza place and ordered to paper thin crust wood oven cheese pizzas. Brilliantly delicious. We had a deep theological conversation about atheism and then about hell. As we talked the owner brought out a silver tray of shot glasses, poured whiskey in them, and asked what to cheer to. He joined us as we clinked glasses and threw the brown liquor to the back of our throats. Returned home at 1am.
Slept in until 9:30. Rigos’s picked us up and we drove an hour and a half to Masada. We hiked up and walked through Herod’s palatial grounds and ruins. We ran all the way down.
Piled into the car and drove along the Dead Sea to En Gedi, where David hid from Saul in caves. The route was spotted with sink holes. Arrived and saw a furious tree marmot.
We arrived past 3pm and the park was closed.
Doubled back to the popular commercial area with hotels, restaurants, boardwalks and showers, on the Dead Sea. We entered the water. The coastal seabed was crystal salt and painful to the bottoms of our feet. The water was so salty it had a gasoline-like texture and a chemical burn taste. And yes we floated, effortlessly. It made the Great Salt Lake look like freshwater. In the deeper areas, we could stand straight in the water without touching the ground. It felt like we were levitating like Magneto. Zero gravity. No arms or legs required, it almost seemed as if the water was pushing us up. It would have taken effort to put our heads under. But we didn’t want to. It would have been a creative substance based torture. Any half-droplets that touched our mouths immediately resulted in vehement spitting. Clear water, no creatures. The sun was down so when we got out we froze. The edge of the wetness on our bodies showed dried salt marks. Thankfully we found showers despite them being cold.
We changed and bought McDonald’s before the trip back. A large lightning and thunder storm enveloped is on the sleepy car ride home.
We parked on a busy street and walked to a craft cocktail bar that had a two for one happy hour. Delicious tasty drinks and discussions about parents and Calvinism (separate discussions). The manager split shots of some sort of lemon liquor with all of us. I had a drink called Bitter Fall followed by one called Single Mom.
We walked down the block and turned into the same pizza place from the night before. The name of the place is Campanello. The intoxicated server began with a round of golden whisky shots, but it looked like hers was clear so we guessed she had either water or vodka.
We ordered 4 pizzas and rounds of Goldstar Unfiltered beer. The deep discussions continued. The thin-crusted pizza melted in our mouths. The sweet and spicy tomato sauce topped with the perfect amount of mozzarella cheese folded into the exact proportion of white brick oven chewy crust. As we conversed, the electricity intermittently went out, the long-haired waiter who had a surfer rock climber pothead vibe said at one point when he was distributing beers at our table and the power went out and he didn’t even blink, “It’s just part of the place.” He brought another round of shots.
We left at 11:30pm and walked out into the rain to our car only to find it not there. We instantly concluded it was towed. We returned to the trattoria and the said something to the effect of “you’re now officially living in Tel-Aviv!” The owner said it costs 500 shekels and the lot was down the road. We said good luck to Stephen and Megan and walked to our Airbnb and crashed for the night.
Woke up at 7:30 and walked with Wes to the nearest Aroma on the beach boardwalk. Everything was wet. They put pickles on our egg and bagel breakfast sandwiches. What the heck.
Megan and Stephen picked us up at 8:30a and we drove an hour and a half to Nazareth. We discussed the Last Jedi for a solid hour. Found an illegal parking spot and made our way through thin cobblestone streets to the Basilica of the Annunciation, the place where Gabriel appeared to Mary and told her she was going to bear Christ Jesus.
Across the street from the main site, we walked into a small display of “Jesus’s neighbors” where a Frenchman showed and told us what Jesus’s house probably looked like. Apparently, the town of Nazareth consisted of only 50 families in Jesus time. Very small. I asked why people think this is the exact spot of Jesus’s home and the Christian man said it isn’t so much that it is in writing, but that the places of worship were built to commemorate the sacred sites based on word of mouth since the 3rd century AD.
The Church was universal - in its decor. Every country had a version of a Mary holding baby Jesus, including Japanese Mary and African Mary. I personally liked the metal clad Mary.
It seemed when anything in Israel is regarded as “Christian”, 90% of the time it means Roman Catholic.
Then we purchased scarves from a Christian vendor.
Piling into the car again, we took a few wrong turns trying to locate Tel Megiddo National Park but we eventually found it and paid the ticket price for entry. Tel Megiddo, we learned, was a major trade gateway city and whoever controlled it, owned the trade routes between the countries like Egypt, Israel, Babylon, Assyria, and Persia. Turns out it was razed and rebuilt 25 times, prospering most during the reign of the Israelite kings David, Solomon, and Ahab.
It’s also cited in Revelations as the site of Armageddon.
After descending and ambling through the water tunnel, we left for Caesarea. We bought entry passes to the Herodian coastal amphitheater along the Med.
On the coast was an intensely creative coral palace that protruded into the sea.
Somewhat rushing, we hurried to Tishbi state Winery before it closed but we arrived to late for a wine and chocolate-tasting tour.
We were too late for a tour. Great sadness. However, we did purchase chocolates. And bread. We found the Tishbi bakery and a baker with great English said, “Bakers love working with white flour most.” We bought two loaves. He said his favorite thing to pair with bread is wine and cheese.
We returned to the coast and walked out onto a peer and found Port Cafe to be a suitable dinner spot.
Steph and I split a massive double patty burger and we delved into the bread and wine. The bread had a tough chewy crust with fluffy moist collagenic insides. The crust functioned as a sealant, like the skin of a pear or an apple, protecting the fresh airy baked sourdough inside. In the mouth, the bread drew every last drop from the saliva reserves, wherever they are. It required serious spiritual meditation to not doubt the verse “Man does not live on bread alone...”
We returned to our Airbnb where the five of us spent our last night sharing wine, chocolate, and playing Dutch Blitz and Judgment while listening to Jack Johnson.
21 Surprises From Israel
Things I did not expect and didn't see coming.
- Free shots. The three times we went out for drinks, the owners of the place gave us free rounds.
- Disorderly inconsiderate driving, parking on sidewalks. Israel makes NYC look tame. Perpetual honking. Outlandish parking. Getting cut off incessantly.
- Catholicism. I was surprised by how much people loved St. Mary. It seemed like there were more places to honor her than Jesus. I always thought she was mercifully chosen by God, just like anyone could have been chosen, and not that she was divine. It was kind of sad really.
- Wine as juice. In Israel, wine doesn't count as alcohol. Also, our waiter at Port Cafe said his favorite wine was the white one you drink first thing in the morning... Right.
- Vegetarian eating. Most of our meals were small and de-emphasized meat. Not American.
- Dead Sea anti-gravity and chemical texture. The Dead Sea was a top 5 lifetime experience for me. I couldn't believe it. It's one of those things where you laugh the whole time because it doesn't feel real.
- Not as spiritual of a trip. I was expecting to have a lot of prayer and scripture reading time on this trip. But it was more touristy, adventurous, and historical than spiritual. I have a feeling the spiritual richness is going to come from anytime I open the Bible now and recognize places I've actually experienced.
- How ultra Orthodox Jews regard other religions, including Christianity. Kind of sad, but Riley said the black-and-white dressed jews are essentially unchanged from the time when Jesus lived. Jews think of "new" religions like Islam and Christianity with very little respect. Perversions and distractions. This attitude was somewhat tangible in the museums.
- How spectacular the bread was. Israelis know how to make delicious bread.
- Jerusalem is as much of a cultural melting pot as NYC, if not more. From road signs to historical sites, so many languages were present. At the Church of Gethsamane, I counted 12 translations on a noticeboard.
- Customer service is non-existent. Servers, cashiers, drivers, retailers... are curt, distant, slow, and generally unhelpful. It was odd.
- Cats, cats, everywhere! I liked having the friendly creatures around.
- Motorized bikes, too. Very popular.
- The incomparable nature of the trip - between mission and vacation. I have nothing to compare this trip to. I've been on a missions trip. And I've been on a cruise. Both foreign excursions, but on opposite ends of the work-and-play spectrum. This trip was more like a pilgrimage.
- The deep historicity of the Bible. It was cool to see how practical and helpful the Bible was to archeologists. It's not some fictional storybook. It's history and written by 40 authors.
- No suits or ties. Israel is a pretty casual place.
- The authenticity of the Haifa evangelical church. I loved how real the Christians were. Unlike America where it's safe and free, choosing to believe in something that more than 75% of the country hates takes guts.
- The religious menu -the similarities between Judaism and LDS, and Christianity and Islam. Growing up, I thought Christianity was the only serious religion. Everything else was... harder to believe in. The only other reasonable option was agnosticism. But in Israel, Christianity is a minority in a land full of faith and Christianity was just one of the options. And an unpopular one at that. I wasn't used to seeing my faith this way.
- What the Ba’hai religion is. Have you head your the Ba-hai religion? It's the newest kid on the block and it amalgamates all the other religions into one super-religion. It takes the good from Jesus, Muhammad, Joseph Smith, Buddha, et al. and leaves the bad. Super interesting, and universalistic, but illogical.
- The difference between Hebrew, Arabic, and Russian languages. I now can tell the difference between non-romantic language alphabets.
- The illumination of words in scripture that a cursory knowledge of Hebrew provides. For example, the word for the title of God, "Elohim" is plural because it has "im" at the end. "Har" is Hebrew for mountain. "Harim" is mountains. Elohim is plural but it's used in the singular in the Bible. Seems indicative of a triune God...
I hope you enjoyed reading this travel journal of our trip to Israel. Thanks for reading. I recommend a trip to Israel for everyone, religious and non. The history alone is worldview-expanding. The timing of this trip was perfect for me, seeing that I'm currently writing a non-fiction communication handbook about worldviews and judgmentalism. I learned a ton about humanity, diversity, and history. If anyone has any thoughts on religion, worldviews, and the big existential questions about life, I'd love to hear from you. Shalom.