Tel Aviv, Israel
Now Jerusalem was a fascinating place full of incredible ages, beliefs, peoples and histories just melting together inside the Old Town walls..but..what it was also, due to its slight altitude was f*@#‘n cold. And, being that we had spent the last 4 weeks traveling in the Middle East were temperatures ranged between 30 to 40, this was something we were not prepared for. So heading off the holy mountain range, through the farmland, small villages and wineries to the city by the Mediterranean sea, also brought with it glorious sunshine and the revival of shorts and t-shirts.
“The Bubble” to internationals or “TLV” to the locals are the two names used to described Israel’s commercial capital of TelAviv. “The Bubble” because the city seems to sit back with a latte while the state of Israel hits the international headlines. Now I have to admit that after realising just how bloody close it was to the Gaza strip and the onslaught of daily fire, I did have a few minor concerns about heading in that direction and I guess to some measure, to the country at large. And that wasn’t helped by external forces not particularly promoting Israel or Israelis for that matter as the next hot travel destination where you would be welcomed with open arms.
But in my book, I wanted to find out for myself what this place and its citizens were really like and if the genralisations of the nation and its people had any truth. God help us if those same gernalisations placed on Australia and Australians were 100% accurate! And after doing my home work like all good travelers should, it sounded like “The Bubble” was my kinda place, a place of outdoor cafes, boutiques, bistros, leafy boulevards and long sandy beaches. Anyway, lets face it, this conflict over territory has been going on for the last 50 years so, chances were we were going to come out unscathed within our 5 day period.
So after disembarking from the bus terminal we haggled with the taxi drivers over the fare to take us 10 minutes to our hostel. I had to keep on reminding myself that here in Israel, its just as expensive as home, if not even more, so you can do away with your budget backpacker mentality. Finally agreeing, we traveled down the main road to Gordon’s beach where we were staying at the appropriately named Gordon Inn. Immediately “The Bubble” appeared before my eyes and we drove straight into it.
We passed trendy outdoor cafe after international restaurant, boutique shop after modern department store, beautifully leafy streets and the people? Well they all seemed to be in their 20s to late 30s dressed and manicured to the ninth degree and looking immaculate. I tell ya, if you were single in this place you would have the time of your life hoping from one trendy bar, cafe, club or restaurant with model material of the opposite sex on your shoulder. Needless to say, we felt a little un-kept. Immediately it was evident that we were a planet away from the strict orthodox stance less then 80kms experienced in Jerusalem. However one thing was consistent, the bizarre appearance of military cadets patrolling the streets in their army attire carrying rifles. They were mostly young people that were probably given the task of aiding the impression that this country was in-control.
Our hostel was two blocks back from the beautiful beach and the sparkling Mediterranean waters. To think that Greece was out there not too far away was surreal. “Do you wanna go back to Lesbos?” I asked Murray. But Crete was probably a little closer. We decided to walk the full 6kms of the esplanade down to Jaffa city, the oldest part of “The Bubble”. The walkway was situated up a flight of stairs from the beach front. The shore line of golden sand was fairly wide before entering the blue waters. Along the foreshore were groups of red umbrellas and plastic tables and chairs to which Tel Avivian’s rented for the day, like what they do in South America or Europe for that matter.
There were volleyball courts lined up where teens played each other in small competitions and the constant “tock, tock, tock, tock”. This was the sound of a kinda Tel Avivian mix of squash and table tennis. You could play against another on the beach by hitting a plastic little ball between two small plastic rackets or alternatively, play the aggressive version where two of you ganged up on one with his back against a wall..yes a real wall. The two smashed this tiny little plastic ball at your face while you had to somehow defend yourself from getting your mug cracked open or jump out of the way in attempt for the little rocket to hit the back wall and slam back just as hard at your opponents.
There was also a lively dance club filled with a few hundred participants that danced round in a big circle doing some kind of rhythmic step. It must have been a traditional dance but of course there were those non-conformists that had to putting their own touch to it with a karate kick at the end of a set or spinning uncontrollably into the centre of the group while everyone else had stopped. In any case, all involved looked thoroughly satisfied. Walking up the concrete esplanade further, we passed high rise after high rise of apartments or businesses which didn’t look too far off The Gold Coast. There were park-lands where kids events had been set up and families were having picnics next to jumping castles and clown performers.
Ringed on the old towns outskirts were more yuppy bars and restaurants where people sipped their Sauvignon Blanc and picked at a tasting plate while chilling by the waters edge on a glorious sun filled Sunday afternoon. The old city itself was some well preserved city ruins from the Roman and Greek days while the center piece was Kedumium Square which was ringed with more restaurants and coffee outlets. We rested our tired feet by taking up a latte in the centre of the square, sitting back under an umbrella to just watch the afternoon roll-on by. There was a small market leading down the steps selling arts and crafts before reaching back to the esplanade and back through to our end of town. It was all very civilized.
Now walking through the city was a brilliant way to sense “the vibe” of the place and we both agreed that it really wouldn’t be a bad place to live. It was teeming with younger people all into their arts and music sub cultures hanging at the local dive, worlds away from anything we had expected and they all looked overly happy, care-free. We took up some breakfast at a local bread house cafe and god, did they know how to make bread….both breaking it and baking it I guess. A funky young thang came over to us with her bright red lipstick and immediately spoke to us in that Americanised English to take our order. A second later we were presented with a perfect herb infused organic omelet, a mix of all sorts of brown and sourdough (oh YES sourdough!!) fresh bread, a fruit salad and a strong espresso. It was like being back in Melbourne’s cafe culture, pure bliss! So we sat back admiring the photography elements of the city on the white walls before checking out the local markets.
A bustling long street off the main road with street performers out front and a huge assortment of goodies within. There were heaps of the usual tourist junk like t-shirts with “I love TLV” printed on the front but as you got passed the fake watches and socks you moved to the food section which was filled with olives, dips, sweets, coffee, meat shops and fruit stands. It was the typical infusion of Arab, Mediterranean, European deliciousness! There was even a lane selling independent beers and playing the latest hottest one-hundred on the radio. It felt like we were at South Melbourne market or the like, where the foodies gathered.
The final two days in “The Bubble” landed on Independence Day, and yes, this was a contentious issue. Now we had no idea we would be in the country over this
period and lets face it, if there was going to be any bombings by Hamas, the Palestinians, surrounding Arab neighbors or extremists…it was probably going to be when Israel declared its state. The proceedings where to firstly celebrate the military and police force on the Sunday with the night being a full on city party with fireworks, square concerts and the following Monday, a jet fly over and public holiday. This was when we were due to fly out of the country.
During these day at 11:00am, an air-siren sounded across the city (a kinda scary sound to be honest) and after not having any idea what it was all about, we peered our our hostel windows to see the entire city grind to a halt in a second. Shoppers stopped dead in their tracks. Cars and motorbikes pulled up even if they were in the middle of an intersection where drivers got out and stood beside their vehicles, owners came running out of their shop fronts and they all turned to statues with their eyes shut remembering those lost. It was a really erie sight.
There was a lot of free stuff on offer that night and the city scape was covered with blue and white flags with the Star of David fluttering across every apartment block, passing car and shop front. DJs were hitting the city’s gardens for free shows and most people were on the top of balconies partying till the wee hours. Now Murray and I chose not to participate and locked ourselves in our apartment with a few beers just peeping out the window like two crazies. Our reasons was firstly safety, I’m sure DFAT advised against participating in any kind of rallying and secondly, after checking out the West Bank and seeing how those Palestinian neighbors were living, their was kinda nothing to celebrate in our books.. so we kept it too ourselves.
Our flight to Abu Dhabi was leaving at 5:00pm to which we would arrive at 1ish the following morning. But to get there we had to fly from Israel back into Amman, Jordon and take a connecting flight as the Emirates did not allow any direct flights from the country. So we took a taxi to the Airport and were greeted by a million or so security checks. We would walk no more then 5 meters before the next military official (all of them looked in their early 20s probably completing their 2 years compulsory service) stopped us again and asked for our passports and a mind blowing amount of questions about where we were going now and where in their country we had been. Considering we had been assumed to be Israeli by so many people in the country, it was surprising the amount of questioning. But as our taxi driver mentioned, “today they are going to be overly sensitive” as most people in the extending region were probably not overjoyed.
In any case, we were on our Royal Jordanian flight some three hours later and as we flew over the little white city perched on the rich blue waters of the Mediterranean sea surrounded by fields and wineries, it was incomprehensible to think of the atrocities taking place just outside this little bubble. Those images you see on the news from the comforts of your home – grenades thrown, military targets blown up, a few kids killed in the line of fire, all while you can be sipping a cappuccino or shopping at Zara in TLV.
“The Bubble” is yet to burst.