Every day this week I have highlighted a favorite travel experience from 2010 with something I call the Lopers Awards. Today I want to share with you my one, favorite travel destination of the year.
As I sat down to write this post, I had a hard time wrapping my head around the designation of favorite destination. Did it mean the trip on which I learned the most, relaxed the most or was the most exotic? Ultimately, I decided not to over think the issue and instead based my final decision on my pure, visceral reaction. It’s funny, I knew all along what my favorite trip was, but still felt the need to go through an intellectual exercise in order to prove it to myself.
I have had a fortunate travel year, but my favorite trip was perhaps one of the most random and unexpected, Israel.
The trip was entirely thanks to US Airways, which held a Twitter sale last summer with limited, unbelievable deals. I was able to snag one of those deals and my round trip airfare to Tel Aviv was only $99 each way. With that kind of bargain, it was impossible to stay home.
I had a lot of expectations for the trip. I have always had a great academic love of antiquity and religious history and archaeology. I can’t explain why exactly, since I’m not a religious person by nature or practice. For whatever reason, the study of religion, all religions, has always fascinated me. Perhaps it is a quest to understand why almost every human on earth believes in a higher power and accompanying doctrine.
Regardless of your belief system, there is no denying the impact of Israel and Jerusalem in particular on the history of civilization. There is a reason, after all, why three major world religions consider Jerusalem to be one of the most, if not the most, holy of places on the planet. This sense of spiritual entitlement runs like a vein through the city, always present but not always obvious.
What made the trip to Israel my favorite of the year though comes from much more than shear historical value. There is a certain “something” about the country that I can’t identify, but which makes it spectacular. There are frankly experiences in Israel that you can find no where else. Gazing across the Dead Sea and Judean Desert from atop Masada, strolling along the Via Dolorosa on the 2,000 year old path of pilgrims, standing in front of the Dome of the Rock and placing a prayer on a piece of paper in the Western Wall – these are all entirely unique to the great country of Israel.
I had lunch with an Israeli friend one day and we started discussing how Israelis view Jerusalem. He said that some love it but others can’t stand it. I asked why the sharp divide and he responded, because Jerusalem is just so…Jerusalem. I saw this division for myself in the great metropolitan city of Tel Aviv or, as locals call it, The Bubble.
It’s a bubble because Tel Aviv seems intent on separating itself from both the political strife and great burden of history that is so palpable throughout the rest of the small nation. To stroll down the grand boulevards of Tel Aviv is the same as walking along any great street in the major cities of the world. The city is liberal where Jerusalem is conservative and the spirit is modern where Jerusalem is decidedly not.
While the two cities could not be more different, they compliment each other perhaps inadvertently. They are truly the yin and yang of the country, creating a certain perpetual tension that is ultimately healthy and important for both cities.
I enjoyed Tel Aviv in a far different way than I did Jerusalem. Given its youth, just a hundred years old, there is no sense of history or antiquity in this city. Instead, the best moments in Tel Aviv are spent on the boardwalk gazing out as the sun sets in a blaze of glory across the Mediterranean and grabbing a falafel in the Carmel Market after a morning of haggling.
It is easy to only consider these two cities when discussing travel in Israel, but of course there are many areas within the country which all contribute to it being a superb trip destination. I spent one of my days exploring these other areas of the country, including the Palestinian Authority.
Growing up and living in the United States, the Middle East and its tumultuous politics has always been a constant news story, present on page one almost every day. I traveled there with a fair amount of trepidation, unsure of my safety in certain areas of the country. I knew though that I had to visit the Palestinian Authority during my visit.
My first exposure to the sharp division between Israel and Palestine came right away, seeing firsthand the dramatic differences between West and East Jerusalem, the Israeli and Palestinian sides of the city. West Jerusalem was as modern and well kept as one would expect from any Western country. There were plenty of shops, restaurants and bars all enjoying a constant influx of customers. Walking across the city into East Jerusalem, it is almost as if a great wall separates the two sections. East Jerusalem is as not unlike neighborhoods I have seen in the developing world: decrepit buildings, dirt and a general sense of chaos was the order of the day. It was unconceivable to me that this was the same city, a supposedly unified, Israeli controlled Jerusalem.
The sharp divide extends well into the Palestinian Authority, but it wasn’t always this way. In the past 10 years, following the Second Palestinian Intifada, Israel has cracked down and made it very difficult, if not impossible, for Israelis and Palestinians to intermix, to travel between the two areas. On the plus side, terrorist attacks and violence has fallen dramatically, enabling a tourism renaissance in both areas. On the down side, the separation has increased tension and there is now a new generation of youth who do not know the other side at all, making future reconciliation that much more difficult. In several conversations I had in Israel, it is clear that this situation cannot persist, but I have no idea what the final resolution will entail. Unfortunately, neither do they.
Maybe this is ultimately why I enjoyed Israel so much, for its ability to give me both what I expected and did not at all expect. I arrived in Ben Gurion Airport with years of Middle Eastern political study under my belt, and yet I felt like a first year student almost immediately. There is so much more to Israel and the Palestinian Authority than I had ever been led to believe and it has made me want to return again and again so that I continue opening this travel present.
Although I have had a privileged travel year, visiting lush tropical oases and some of the most exciting cities in the world, it was the trip I never planned, the one that found me that was my favorite. No matter how much I think I know or how much I plan, this really taught me that life’s best experiences are the ones I never expect.