Friday, December 03, 2010

Tel Aviv, Israel

Getting to Tel Aviv was frustrating. I had a great plan to take the train down the coast, skip the busiest road in the country, and maybe give myself an extra day to explore some stuff south of Tel Aviv. It didn't work out that way.

As always, I was up before sunrise and start riding for Narahiya, the northern terminus of the train line. When I got there, I found out the train was not running, but no explanation why. I headed for the bus station. There was no ticket office, just a bunch of separate lines where the buses stop. When the bus comes, you get on and pay the driver. They don't accept credit cards. I didn't want to spend the little money I had left so I decided to look around for another option.

I biked south to Akko, an Arab town. It reminded me more of the towns outside of Israel than the towns in Israel. The train was also not running from Akko, but they were busing people to the next town where the train was running. I sat down to wait until the bus came back. When it finally did and I tried to get on it, they stopped me and said that no bikes were allowed. Why they didn't tell me that when I rolled up on a bike to ask about the train? I have no idea. Well, I do. They probably didn't see the bike, but who can be sure. So much for the train idea.

At this point, my thinking was fixated on getting to Tel Aviv that day and I couldn't do it on the bike. I also wanted to get there by a certain time to get my Jordanian visa. I would need a new one in advance to reenter at the border crossing I wanted to use. I checked out the bus station, but it looked the same as the last one. I didn't see a central ticket window where I could use my credit card and I was worried about missing my deadline while I biked around the city trying to the find the embassy. Somewhere along these lines, I came to the terrible conclusion that a taxi was the way to go. Looking back, this was a poor choice. As I said, I was fixated. Unfortunately, no taxis would take credit card, but universally they offered to take me to an ATM to get money which I couldn't do. In order to get a taxi, I would need to exchange some money.

The one exchange I was told about was not open. An hour before they opened, there were people waiting in line. I got bored waiting so I went to explore town. I found an old citadel to explore and some hummus to eat. I was told that the hummus in Akko would be the best I would find in Israel. Either, I found a bad batch or I just don't like Arab hummus. The hummus I had in Akko tasted just like the hummus in Syria. When I finally got back to the first exchange, they were open and handing out numbers. There must have been 50 people inside. I don't understand why it was so busy or why what they were doing took so long. While walking around I had seen another exchange at a jewelry store and they opened before in less time than it took to wait at the other one.

I found a cab and jumped in. I didn't ask about the price. A hotel had told me what to expect to pay and I had that. It wasn't enough. The cab driver said he would take me most of the way there. At that point, I should have just gotten out. He dropped me off 10km from town and I biked the rest of the way in.

A weekday morning in Tel Aviv.

The embassy was not a single building. It was an office in a skyscraper and was definitely run in that casual Middle Eastern fashion. When I arrived, there was no security guard. The guys behind the door waved me in and I started to walk in. As I was walking in, the security guard showed up to screen me and threw a tizzy. I figured if it mattered, he would be at his post. As it was, on this occasion and future ones, he was socializing. I've mentioned a bunch of times that no one seems to work alone in that part of the world. Even if only one guy is getting paid, he has company.

When I finally got in to the visa office, I was prepared to pay in Jordanian dinars. I had saved the exact amount. They didn't accept it. They only deal with Israeli shekels. I didn't have enough. I had to go get some, but no one seemed to know where an exchange was. They all said just go to a bank. There were a lot of banks. None of them offered exchange services. I finally found one next to a diamond exchange.

Part of the Israeli diamond exchange.

Surprisingly, I am not into diamonds. Who would have thought that? Because of that, I didn't really have an appreciation for where I was exchanging money. There were a bunch of people having their photo taken in front of the exchange. I didn't understand why until I got to a computer and looked it up. It is the world's largest exchange. The very little I learned made it sound like the exchange makes out like bandits because buyers/sightholders "can only accept or reject an offer as is, including the asking price. In addition to requiring sightholders to accept the bundles allocated to them (which often include smaller, less valuable stones), the Israeli diamond exchange sorters expect sightholders to undertake and be proficient in marketing and distribution so as to increase general consumer interest in purchasing diamonds. Failure to adequately sell and market diamonds can result in a sightholder being prohibited from engaging in future transactions with the Israeli diamond exchange." (Wikipedia). This doesn't sound like a great deal for the buyers, but I imagine they make out just fine anyway from what I hear about the diamond business.

Fun Fiat (edit, I thought this was a mini).

Tel Aviv is only 50 years old. It is a modern city. It has bike lanes! It has all of the Western influences that I talked about in other modern Middle Eastern cities. This isn't really a surprise since so many of the people living in Israel immigrated from Europe. The one Western influence that it had that other Middle Eastern cities did not have is fear of theft. When I left my backpack at my table at a restaurant to use the bathroom, the waitress sternly said it wasn't safe and to never do that again. Bikes were locked up with high end locks. While I am sure there is theft in every Middle Eastern city, the signs guarding against it just weren't as prevalent as they were in Tel Aviv. I'm not sure if it is due to the disparity between social classes, how theft is treated in the Muslim world, or something else entirely.

Morning beach.

Tel Aviv is right on the beach. They do a great job of keeping the beach usable. Every morning, there were runners, bikers, surfers, kite boarders, and dog walkers on the beach. It reminded me of Hawaii. Generally, I don't associate beaches with cities. I associate them with vacation which is the only time I see them so I love seeing my poor mold broken as the city folk use the beach the exact same way I use the mountains before work, during their lunch break, and after work.

Kite boarders at the beach.

Tel Aviv was the first city in the Middle East where I saw sex being advertised. Whether it was business cards for escort and massage services, night clubs, or sex toy shops, it was prevalent. It was not over the top, but it was definitely a change of pace from what I had been seeing. That kind of exposure should have prepared me for my evening surprise, being hit on by a rich gay Mexican Jew. I am sure there are plenty of rich gay Mexican Jews, but when I put them all together, it makes it seem a little more ridiculous.

Exercise at the beach.

I met the guy at the hostel and we had hit it off just like I hit it off with so many other Jews around Israel. It was like there was something inherit between us. It was unexpected. Maybe it is kinship, maybe it is crap. I don't know. In the States, I have hit it off with a lot of Jews too, whether or not I knew they were Jewish. I can't explain it. Anyway, I am an idiot for not realizing what was going on. The clues were there. He asked what I did about sex on the long road trip and harped on how hard it must be. I wanted a massage the next day. He talked about how he loves to give massages but hates getting them. are a couple other red flags, but since I don't exist in the hook up world normally, I didn't have a clue.

I have never seen a slide like this.

While I didn't get taken home by him, he did teach me factoids about Israel. According to him, they sell larger containers of beverages to promote sharing. Every store will have a coke for a $1, but if you get twice the amount it is only a $1.25 or so and they have plastic cups for free at the register so you can share.

On the food front, mint water is fantastic. I had an Israeli give it to me once in New Zealand and it was great. I have never seen it for sale until I was actually in Israeli. Though, you might as well make it yourself. It takes 2 seconds to drop the mint leaves into your water.

Date palm.

When I was in Tel Aviv, I came across something new in Israel. Fear and prejudice. When I was talking to people in the city, they were adamant against me visiting the West Bank and the other Arab countries I had visited. They thought it would be way too dangerous or not worth my time. When I talked about going south, they said that was Bedouin territory. Since it is Bedouin territory, by tradition, they will choose to greet you and protect you or not choose greet you and kill you. I know this is Bedouin tradition, but I can't believe (or find anything on the Internet) of that last time Bedouin people chose not to greet someone. Yet, this woman working the hostel harped on it. I didn't like this new attitude. I liked the open and welcoming attitude to all people that I had encountered in the north. I guess it just depends who you meet.