Exploring the Red Sea: Eilat to Aqaba

IMG_2938.jpgAfter a few very interesting and eye-opening days in Israel, we were ready to cross into neighboring Jordan.  Prior to our trip, we wondered if this was even possible, but after some research, we realized that it was a relatively simple process.  We flew down to Eilat -an Israeli resort town on the Red Sea- to spend the night before our border crossing into Aqaba.

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Eilat reminded me a lot of Antalya or Fethiye – a bustling tourist town full of restaurants, cafes, and shops.  Honestly, it was a little crowded for my taste, but since we were only there for one night, we did our best to take it easy and enjoy it.  The mood was simultaneously upbeat and laid back and we were pleased by the variety of food options (Japanese, Mexican, American, you name it) in such a small space.

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The next morning, we took a taxi to the border crossing, which involved a lot of stamping and signing, but only took about 20 minutes in total (we were the only ones there when we arrived).  I was amazed by how completely different Aqaba was than Eilat, even though they are right next to each other.  We hopped in a cab which drove us along the coast to our hotel near the beach.  Along the way, wild camels grazed on the side of the road and desert mountains rose above the horizon.  I already felt like I’d experienced so much adventure in Israel, but I realized in that moment that my adventure was just beginning.

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We got to our hotel, dropped off our stuff, and immediately hit the beach for a stroll.

Much unlike Eilat, the beach was relatively peaceful and uncrowded, save for a few families barbecuing.  It’s important to note that people dress much more conservatively in Jordan than in Israel as well, so plan accordingly.  I definitely saw foreign tourists in bikinis, but I felt it was more respectful to cover up.

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After our first night, I was ready to  spend some time in the water.  The Red Sea is known for its beautiful coral reefs, and after snorkeling in the Maldives last year, I was really excited to do it again.  Our hotel let me rent a wetsuit, mask, and flippers for just 5JD  per day (~$7) and even graciously drove us down to some of the best dive sites.

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I don’t have an underwater camera (although I’m starting to wish I did), but the image below can give you an example of some of the aquatic life I was able to see in Aqaba – and right off of the free, public beach!  Winter is not the most popular time to travel in Jordan and especially not in Aqaba.  The weather is good (roughly in the 70s), but a bit cold for swimming.  Still, it was warm enough for me and I happily spent several hours snorkeling both days we were there.  As a bonus, I had the water to myself, thanks to the lack of crowds, and the cloudy skies prevented me from getting sunburnt!

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Yes, it was really this magical.

Aqaba was a lovely and relaxing introduction to our Jordanian adventure!

 

The Holy City of Jerusalem

IMG_2865.jpgI felt like I was living in someone else’s dream as I boarded the dusty green bus headed for Jerusalem.  Jerusalem:  one of the world’s most ancient cities; the most sacred city for the world’s three most powerful religions; a city steeped in contention and controversy.  To be honest, I didn’t feel worthy of such an ancient and important place, especially because I know many people long to make that pilgrimage while my own visit was not religiously motivated.

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Still, what a place.  I couldn’t help but wonder what it was about this city that had kept its walls under constant turmoil for most of its existence.  I had hopped on that bus with little expectation, aside from a couple of starred locations on Google Maps.

The Jerusalem I first saw was a far cry from the picture I had in my mind.  Upon exiting the bus station, I walked into a rather modern, four-story mall.  Continuing along the road into the old city revealed residential streets reminiscent of downtown Kansas City.  None of it was adding up in my head, but I kept walking.

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Once I caught my first glimpse of the Old City, the Jerusalem of my imagination and the one in front of me bore more resemblance to one another.  I entered the maze-like alleys, winding unintuitively in every direction, avoiding eye contact with the pushy shopkeepers whose stalls line every inch of every street.  Turkey has jaded me in this way.

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I stepped out of the tunnels and finally reached  the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the alleged site of Christ’s crucifixion, burial, and resurrection.  Thousands upon thousands of pilgrims from every corner of the world filed in and out of the church with surprising consistency.  Just down the street, a group of well-dressed Jewish men, followed by a crowd of Jewish schoolboys struggling to maintain their best behavior, filed down the steps to pray at the Western Wall.  The Muslim call to prayer filled the cloudy sky.  My head was spinning.

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My husband and I stopped for a quick snack of hummus and pita bread at a nearby cafe, and as luck would have it, a woman with a camera crew showed up to film an interview with one of the restaurant owners.  He was Palestinian and was sharing his thoughts on Trump and the current state of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  We chewed our bread a little harder, trying not to be too obvious about our eavesdropping while trying to grasp every word of the man’s valuable perspective.  In a nutshell:  the conflict rages on and little ever changes.  No one will go anywhere without a fight.

My head spins even faster at that point.  My husband suggests that we grab a coffee at another cafe with a great rooftop overlooking the city.  For the first time, the city feels quiet and calm.  We are the only ones up there, looking around at the beautiful, ancient rooftops – a skyline unlike any I’ve ever witnessed.

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On the bus back to Tel Aviv, only two seats remain and they are not together.  I sit next to a sleeping woman with earbuds in and my husband sits next to a man who turned out to be a Zionist and a former American.  His take on the conflict?  Anyone who isn’t Jewish should have left a long time ago.

I step off of the dusty green bus and walk back to our hotel, feeling like I understand more and less than ever.

Tel Aviv and Old Jaffa

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My husband and I second-guessed this trip approximately one million times.  We had actually planned our visit before the lovely Trump debacle, which left us in a bit of a predicament afterward.  Was it safe?  Was it ethical?  The answers to  those questions are pretty complicated and still not entirely certain.

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In the end, it was curiosity that won.  One of the reasons we choose to live abroad and travel is because we have always believed that the world is so much more than what is portrayed in the media – an instinct that has so far been proven to us countless times.  When class was dismissed for the last time for the semester, we eagerly grabbed our bags and headed to the airport with open minds, plans unchanged.

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We woke up bright and early in Tel Aviv to find a place that felt both strange and familiar.  In a lot of ways, it reminded me of Florida with its skyscraper skyline and long stretches of beach.  Perhaps less like Florida were the hordes of people working out literally everywhere – on the stairs, jogging down the sidewalks, doing push-ups on the beach; I made a mental note to do a better job of sticking to my workout regimen after our trip.

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The waves were insane!

Tel Aviv proper is a lovely, modern city filled to the brim with great restaurants and cafes.  Brunch seems to be a popular concept there and I did not mind one bit.  My immediate impression was that the city was very laid back and liberal and I learned before arriving that it is one of most gay-friendly cities in the world, which is not what generally comes to mind when people talk about the Middle East.  It also didn’t hurt that the long stretch of Mediterranean coast that outlines the city was one of the most spectacular walks I have ever experienced.

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Following that coastline leads to the nearby Old Jaffa, which is suspected to be the oldest port city in the world.  We had scheduled a free walking tour with SANDEMAN’S because we had had such a good experience with it in Prague.  In the end, I was so glad I did because I gained a lot more understanding of Tel Aviv, Jaffa, and Israel in general.

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I had not realized how much of Israel was once part of Ancient Greece, which is very apparent in the architecture of old Jaffa.  I also had a miniature nerd meltdown when the tour guide told the story of Perseus and Andromeda (which  happened to be my favorite Greek myth as a child) because it supposedly took place in Old Jaffa, lending its name to Andromeda Rock (pictured above).

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Another fascinating tidbit from the tour was the story of Simon the Tanner, who, according to the bible, played host to Saint Peter.  While on the rooftop, Saint Peter had a dream which would change the course of Christianity (and, unquestionably, the course of humanity).  In the dream, two angels approached Saint Peter with tons of animals to eat, including pigs and shrimp.  He turned down the gift because, at this time, Christians still followed a kosher diet; however, the angels insisted, telling him that nothing they could sea with their eyes was unclean.  This dream was important for two reasons:  1) Christians could now eat bacon and 2) Non-Jewish people could thenceforth be converted to Christianity, which was not the practice prior to this dream.

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To be honest, I’ve never been very religious, but I found this story to be very interesting because I recognize how much it has shaped the world we live in today.  Also, bacon.  After our awesome tour of Jaffa, we walked back along the coast and stopped for a lovely dinner, where we enjoyed some local brew.

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The art scene was LIT.

Even as I write this, I feel like I can’t find the right words to describe Tel Aviv.  It felt so much like an American city at times, yet it is ancient.  It was like many other places I’ve visited, yet unlike anywhere else.  What I can say is that I enjoyed my time there not only because it changed my perspective on that part of the world, but also because it is genuinely a safe and pleasant place to visit.

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