The Himalayas. Nothing could have prepared me for the grandness of its scope. As I flew into Leh, mountains towered above ground, shockingly close to the airplane windows. Surely this couldn't be real? I was about to find out how real it was.
I checked into my hostel. A period of mild altitude sickness followed, as my body acclimatized to 3500 meters of elevation. For those unaware, the symptoms of acute mountain sickness (AMS) range from headaches, nausea, and insomnia, to difficulty breathing. Generally, the higher in altitude you are, the greater the risk of experiencing this illness. Most cases are treatable with hydration, rest, or a decrease in altitude. However, AMS can progress to more serious forms, which are life-threatening.
Thankfully, my symptoms in Leh were very mild. A day or two of relaxation and bed rest was all I needed to adapt to the high altitude. Some fellow hostellers were planning on doing the Markha Valley Trek, a five day expedition in the Ladakh region of India. I decided to join them; little did I know what was to come.
I was expecting a beautiful yet challenging hike through some gorgeous terrain. What ensued was bar none, the most physically taxing experience of my life, and one of the most emotionally draining, too.
We took a shared taxi to Chilling, the village where most trekkers begin the hike. So it began.
The first three days were challenging but fairly straightforward. Each morning, we would begin a 5-8 hour hike. The terrain encompassed staggering mountains, rivers, and miles upon miles of rocky ground. Starting at an altitude of roughly 3500 meters, we climbed no more than 400 each day. The trail passed through small villages, where we spent the nights.
The village home-stays all had the same general layout. For 1200 rupees (roughly $17) you were given a place to sleep, a hot home-cooked dinner, breakfast in the morning, and a packed lunch to bring with you for the afternoon. The meals were simple. Dinner usually consisted of dal (lentils) with rice and veggies, and the occasional steamed momos (Tibetan dumplings). Breakfast was bread with honey, jam, and peanut butter. The packed lunch was rather meager: a small potato, boiled egg, fried bread, and an (artificial tasting) juice box. However, the odd tea stall served omelets and snacks, allowing us to replenish certain missed nutrients.
On day four of the trek, things started getting intense.
Most trekking guidelines suggest increasing your sleeping altitude by no more than 300-500 meters per day. This allows one to slowly acclimatize, without putting undue strain upon the body.
Do you know how far we ascended on our fourth day? Nearly 1000 meters. That's right, our altitude increased by nearly a kilometer in several hours.
The altitude increase was our first mistake (though pretty much every other trekker we ran into was attempting the same feat). Our second mistake was: getting lost for a couple of hours. Although we were not far from our base camp destination, we accidentally wandered in the wrong direction. Darkness was just hours away, and I was starting to get a mild headache. I took the emergency Diamox on hand (note: please don't use this blog article as a how-to guide to taking Diamox: I most certainly used it incorrectly), and figured it wouldn't be long until we reached our camp. As soon as we ran into another group of trekkers, however, the headache got worse. We had found our way, but now I had full blown altitude sickness.
Although logic dictates lowering one's altitude in case of AMS, it was becoming too late to turn back. The closest village was two or three hours away, while our destination was less than one. Additionally, there was unlikely to be medical assistance down below, while the base camp was populated by more than 30 trekkers and locals.
The pain was starting to be unbearable. My head felt like it was going to explode. Breathing had become quite difficult, and a wave of nausea washed over me. My heart was pounding full force, and my energy levels were at zero. I sat on the ground, head in my hands, unable to push on. Fellow trekkers nervously stood by me, offering food, water, and moral support. I thought I was going to die.
"I need to turn back," I said. People anxiously reminded me how risky of a decision that would be. Why oh why had I gone on this trek? I had bitten off more than I could chew, and now I had to die because of it?
Suddenly, seemingly miraculously, the Diamox must have kicked in. It was like a switch had been flipped in my respiratory system. I felt a tingling sensation in my fingertips and feet, and I gasped. Air came rushing into my lungs. A headache still persisted, but my temples no longer felt like they were going to burst. "Let's do this," I said. No sooner did the words come out of my mouth, than a local guide offered to carry my backpack for me. We were on our way.
The experience of reaching base camp was overwhelming. A cabin full of dozens of trekkers greeted us with open arms, hot tea, and headache remedies. Everyone shared stories of their past week on the trail, including a few who had also dealt with mountain sickness. Seems I was not alone. After a delicious dinner, we stayed in tents, preparing for the upcoming (and most physically challenging) day. The altitude was 4800 meters, and it snowed that night. I slept very little.
I couldn't believe it, but when I awoke, my headache was gone! Was I really going to attempt a 5150-meter mountain pass, shortly after getting ill? The answer was, yes.
The climb to Kongmaru La Pass was rough. It was the steepest incline yet of the trek; the cold and snow slowed everything to a crawl. All I could do was put one foot in front of the other. The closer we got to our destination, the farther away it seemed. Inches felt like miles. Eventually, I stopped looking up, for fear of the distance we had remaining. Right foot, left foot. My legs were screaming. My feet were screaming. There was no choice but to go on, lest we were done for.
The feeling when I reached that pass was multifaceted. A mixture of accomplishment, relief, exhaustion, and dread ht me like a ton of bricks. The day wasn't even half over. We still had to descend more than a thousand meters, a feat which would take more than four hours.
The rest of the trek went without a hitch. I returned to Leh, tired and sore, and crashed at my hostel.
It's still too early to tell, but I believe the trek changed me as a person. It made me realize both what I was and wasn't physically capable of. The moment I was rendered helpless by the altitude, my self-reliance hit zero. All I could do was trust the goodness of others, and their senses of judgment. I discovered how important it is to have capable and reliable allies near you, especially when attempting something extreme.
The experience also made me rethink physical fitness. Back in the USA, one of my jobs was being a personal trainer. Though I work hard to keep in shape and make exercise a regular part of my life, treks like the Markha Valley require a different kind of strength. Besides the fact that one needs to walk nearly eight hours per day (often steeply uphill) while carrying a heavy backpack, trekking take an inner kind of strength. At certain points, it really does become mind over matter. I felt like my ultimate completion of the hike came down more to a sense of mental fortitude than it did anything else.
I plan on spending the next several weeks in the Himalayas, possibly doing some more trekking. Markha took a lot out of me, but what it took, it replaced with something stronger. When all is said and done, traveling has the potential to challenge one in every way imaginable. 16,000 feet certainly did for me.
Photo Cred: Haythem Refaai
My time in Egypt is finished, and boy did I have a blast! In four weeks' time, I met many wonderful people, saw some spectacular desert and mountain landscapes, and explored the local cuisine. I went snorkeling in the bright blue Red Sea, bummed it in the coastal towns of Nuweiba and Dahab, and went camping in the desert near Faiyum. After spending way too long in Cairo, I had an extraordinarily memorable time in the oasis of Siwa. So all in all, time well spent.
Although I was unable to make time for the popular tourist destinations of Luxor and Aswan (hopefully I will return to Egypt!), I feel like I had an authentic, complete trip. Four weeks is quite a while to spend in one location, yet at the same time, not much time at all, No amount of time is enough to fully experience a culture, though a month tends to fall just shy of one getting bored of a country.
What did these four weeks in Egypt cost? Here is a breakdown by category:
*Note - This doesn't include expenses such as flights in and out of the country (which will be covered at the end of my trip, in a separate retrospective). It also doesn't include the costs of my film photography, which I paid quite a lot to ship and develop overseas. Fingers crossed that the photos turn out ok!
Food - $295.89
By far, the most money I spent in Egypt was on food. After all, how could I not try every single new dish I could get my hands on? Highlights were hamam mahshi (stuffed pigeon) and koshari (a common street food consisting of rice, macaroni, lentils, and numerous other ingredients). Meals tended to cost in the range of $3-6 dollars.
Transportation - $101.13
Thank heavens for Uber in Cairo and Alexandria. Sure, the drivers are crazy, but they're dependably cheap and require no haggling. Buses between cities in Egypt usually cost no more than $5-15, though I didn't take too many of them on this trip.
Accomodation - $74.16
Thanks to my very generous host in Cairo (where I was for nearly two weeks), I paid very little for accomodation. During the rest of my trip, I never paid more than $9 for a hotel room, and saved money by taking overnight buses.
Activities - $62.24
This includes things such as entry fees, snorkeling, and the like. There are so many activities to do in Egypt, and none of them cost too much. Just stay away from tourist traps like Sharm El Sheikh, and you should be fine!
Miscellaneous - $53.29
Random little costs crop up here and there, such as laundry service and bakeesh (little tips for bathroom attendants and the like).
Average cost of $20.23 per day. Because I was lucky enough to stay with a host in Cairo, this trip ended up costing much less than I expected. Egypt is the kind of country you can spend a bit amount more in, or a bit less in. I think a solid budget for one month in Egypt should work out fine at $25 per day.
There you have it. Time and money well spent!
"Have you been to Sinai?"
This question was asked to me by pretty much every Egyptian I met. A destination I had originally written off my itinerary due to safety concerns, it seemed that Southern Sinai was deemed the hippest, most relaxing region in all of Egypt. I could not turn down an opportunity for some peace and quiet, so after multiple reassurances that it was only Northern Sinai which was dangerous, and constant reminders that I would regret not visiting the Red Sea coast, I relented.
After my lovely excursion to Siwa, I arrived in Alexandria, tired and sweaty. I could have opted to stay the night in Alexandria; after all, it would have been cozy to get a nice hotel room and shower, but I decided instead to head back to Cairo. The trains were all sold out for the southern Egyptian cities of Luxor and Aswan, which had originally been on my itinerary. Time in Egypt was running short, and I thought: "I guess I'm spending the rest of my trip in Sinai." I booked a bus that day.
I arrived in the lazy coastal town of Nuweiba and rented a hut at Soft Beach Camp. It was an extremely basic accomodation set at the foot of a beautiful stretch of beach. The water was pure blue, and you could see Saudi Arabia in the distance. For several days, I was at peace. Every day I would swim once or twice, lay in the sand, listen to music, and eat delicious fish (cooked by the camp). On the third day, I took a side excursion to go snorkeling in a coral reef. It was a truly eye-opening experience.
The pickup truck took us at 10 in the morning, and we began our ride to Ras Abu Galum, a coral reserve. It was an extremely bumpy ride, through rough desert and mountain terrain. The sight was spectacular: miles upon miles of brownish-red mountains. When we finally reached the body of water, it seemed to burst forth, a sea of bright blue against the rock of the desert.
The snorkeling was something else. Hundreds of fish, in different sizes, shapes and colors darted around the mountains of white coral. The variety was astonishing, and the water was clear enough to see every little detail. It was like being dropped in the middle of Finding Nemo, only there were no animators needed. This was real life. This was a real place, an entire ecosystem hidden from us land dwellers. I felt like an unwelcome visitor on an alien planet, peering into a neighborhood in which I didn't belong. Throughout the day, I went back into the water a second, third, and fourth time, never being able to get enough of it.
As the sun set, we took the bouncy truck back to Soft Beach. This is what I came traveling for.
I hate Cairo. I hate this city.
Sure, I had a great time at the Giza pyramids (on my first day of the trip). Sure, Coptic Cairo has beautiful narrow alleys, a cool Hanging Church and ancient synagogue, and feels like you're walking through a piece of history. Sure, there's the Saladin Citadel, with its gorgeous mosques and sweet panorama view of the city. Sure, it's fun riding a boat down the Nile, while blasting music and having a drink with some friends. Sure, Khan el-Khalili souk is bustling with energy and soul, and huge crowds of people. Sure, there's a ton of incredible food everywhere you go.
"Yonah," you might be asking, "if there is all this cool stuff in Cairo, why do you hate it?"
I hate Cairo because it's loud, polluted and dirty, and has some of the worst traffic I've ever seen in my life. The noxious fumes on the roads are tearing my lungs apart. Having been to many developing countries in Asia, I'm used to chaotic roads. However, what really sets the driving in Cairo apart from these places is the aggression. It often feels like drivers are trying to prove something by how reckless they are, and they often let little things get to them. One Uber driver got so angry at another driver that he lost his cool, and kept swerving more and more erratically. Eventually, he got his left side mirror knocked off by another car (he finally calmed down after that).
I also hate (and this is more of a qualm with the country than the city) that I have to return to Cairo every time I want to switch destinations within Egypt, as most trains and buses depart from the capital city. To be fair though, this has been made much more pleasant by my generous host in Ma'adi, a quiet, cozy suburban district. I often forget I am in Cairo until I have to venture outside to do anything.
I hate Cairo, but it's ok! It's alright, because I've taken some incredible trips to other parts of the country, and have more on the horizon.
I went camping in the desert, near the ancient city of Faiyum. We climbed up a small mountain to watch the most beautiful sunset I'd ever seen in my life. Then, we pitched tents and watched a meteor shower under clear starry skies.
A day later, I began what was easily the highlight of my trip thus far. I ventured ten hours away to a place called Siwa, a large desert oasis near the Libyan border. It was out-of-this-world beautiful. The desert landscape clashed with that of thousands of date palm trees (which you can simply pick and consume fresh dates from). It is one of Egypt's most isolated settlements, so it's also a very interesting place culturally. The people of Siwa are ethnically Berber, and even speak their own language (Siwi). Siwa contains many ancient structures, such as the Temple of the Oracle of Amun, famously visited by Alexander the Great, and the Mountain of the Dead, which contains several tombs.
On the outskirts of the city, is a large salt lake, which is probably the prettiest thing in all of Siwa. The water is a stunning shade of turquoise, and it looks extremely aesthetic next to the salt formations and desert sand. Some local Beduins have set up saltwater swimming in nearby areas of the desert, where you can float on your back, just like in the Dead Sea! The desert also contains several hot springs (most notably Cleopatra's Bath), some with nearby cafes if you want to spend the afternoon swimming. Finally, there are a couple of great spots for sunset watching; they serve fruit juices and hot drinks and are perfect for winding down after a long day of sightseeing.
At the moment, I am back in Cairo for a short period of time. However, I plan on soon departing for a different region of the country for some more backpacking. I'm extremely happy I decided to go to Siwa, and cannot wait to see what else Egypt has in store for me!
A few days ago, I left the job I'd been working at for the past four years...for the second time.
The first time was back in 2014, before I spent eight and a half months backpacking across Asia. Over the course of 11 different countries, I discovered deep truths about myself, and the world around me. I fell in love with some of the best cuisines in existence, and and met people from over 100 nations. I saw some of the most beautiful (and ugliest) destinations on Earth, and visited sites that most people only dream of. Some might call it a "trip of a lifetime." Only I knew I didn't want it to be a one-and-done.
So I saved up some money, renewed my passport, got a couple of visas, and put in my two weeks notice. My sights are set on New Zealand, where I intend to live for a year. Along the way, I have trips planned to a few exciting destinations, the first being Egypt.
People have asked me, "Why are you doing this?" The truth is, I’m not entirely sure. I simply have a passion for exploring and discovering different cultures and regions, and don’t want to be stuck at a desk job for decades at a time. Perhaps a better thing for people to ask themselves is “Why am I NOT doing this?” Which brings us to the second question:
“How are you doing this?” Well, as someone with no dependents or major financial burdens holding me back, very easily. I simply wait for my apartment lease to expire, save up some money, buy a plane ticket, and go. It’s that simple. Your family and friends will likely still be there when you return. Withstanding an economic collapse in your wake, there will probably be employment opportunities upon your return as well. You know what won’t be around when you return? Time. It will pass, whether you are sitting at a cubicle, or wandering around the Amazon rainforest.
That’s not to say one should be stupid about leaving one’s job. For instance, when I first traveled around the world, I spent around damn near every penny I had. I returned to New Jersey, broke, and had to crash on friends’ couches for several weeks before getting back on my feet. Since then, I have learned better financial habits, and have saved up a solid emergency fund, on top of what I’ve set aside for travel. Quitting your job to travel doesn’t need to be a risky, brash decision. Plan ahead (but not too much!)!
If you have no dependents, some extra savings, and want to see the world, traveling is a no-brainer. Regardless of what society might tell us, we are not beholden to our jobs. Chances are, your company has hired you to use you to make money, and you have taken the job for a similar reason. It's all business, not personal. Unfortunately, people often feel like they "owe" something to their employers, neglecting to realize that most businesses will kick you to the curb as soon as you are no longer profitable for them. Life is too short to not pursue your passions and dreams.
So to sum up, here is how to quit your job to travel (assuming you are in a position to be able to do so). Step 1: Take a deep breath. Step 2: Do it. Step 3: Profit. Step 4: Repeat.
Here's wishing all of my loyal readers the best on your future travels. It's a pleasure being back!
Hey everybody. Seeing as I am stuck working a day job for now, I've decided to start a weekend travel project. I am attempting to visit all 565 municipalities in the state of New Jersey. As of the time this blog post is published, I am 73 cities in.
Why am I doing this?
Well, I've lived in New Jersey nearly my entire life, and have barely seen any of it. Although I've traveled thousands of miles across the world, I have not really explored my own back yard. How can someone with a burning passion for travel, NOT take a look at his wonderful home state? The weekends are not long enough to travel long distances, so I will be traveling short distances. To be honest, I don't know what to expect, but that's okay. It's more fun that way.
Even though I don't own a car, I can get around most of New Jersey by public transit, walking, and the occasional Uber ride. This project is a chance to get outside more, stay in shape, and discover the hidden gems that the state has to offer.
If you'd like to check this project out, here is the link. Every time a county is completed, I will write a retrospective/analysis of it. Additionally, there is an ever-expanding photo gallery available to view. The link will be added to the "Resources" page of this site.
This will be a long haul, so hold tight.
I know I have written very few new blog posts in recent months. There will be more coming up, as soon as I can summon the willpower to write them. Also, I'll be going to Vermont in May, so stay tuned for that!
Here we go!
There's something unsurprisingly dissatisfying about completing an eight month trip overseas, and having to return to a day job. The road achingly calls out, reminding you of the good times you've had and the people you've met. You want more, but you can't have it. There is rent to pay, loans to pay, bills to pay: all of the fun stuff. The weeks fly by in a boring daze, over and over and over again. That's the funny thing about time, it passes by faster when you get into a groove, even a boring groove.
It had been nearly a year since I'd last traveled, and there seemed to be no escape from the daily drudge of routine. I needed out, even if only for a brief period of time. That's when I came up with a brilliant and rare idea: the American vacation.
With only five vacation days at my disposal, I wondered how the hell I was going to take a vacation of any significant length. The answer was simple: by padding it out with weekends, and choosing a relatively small country to visit.
I recently returned from an eight day vacation to Costa Rica, and let me tell you, it was the best decision I've made in a long while. While there was not enough time to extensively explore the country, I was able to get a nice flavor of the land, and had ample time to clear the senses.
The first word that comes to mind when talking about Costa Rica is "green." I mean, it is hands down the greenest country I have ever visited. Outside of the big cities, the country is just a giant mass of rippling rainforest, green mountains, and volcanoes. There are countless national parks and reserves to see, full of tropical birds, insects, animals, and gorgeous flora. Additionally, the country has miles upon miles of beautiful beach. It is one of the most eco-friendly places on Earth.
The trip started in Costa Rica's capital, San José, a fairly standard large city. While a long, sleepless flight had sapped much of my anticipation and energy away, one plate of casado (a traditional Costa Rican dish of rice, beans, plantains, meat, and salad) was enough to get me hooked. I immediately fell in love with the country, and delved into the eight day trip with a smile on my face.
Because of time restraints, I was only able to visit two other places in Costa Rica; however, they were both quite pleasant and relaxing areas.
Cahuita, a small city on the Caribbean coast of the country, was first. It is a calming swath of palm trees and clean beaches, free from the hustle and bustle of San José. The city contains a national park, full of photographically pleasing animals, insects, and trees. The park spans a huge length of beach, allowing people to dip their feet in the water whenever they feel like it. At night, Cahuita's small-town vibe shines through, as locals and tourists head out for delicious Caribbean dinner fare.
After a brief layover in San José, it was time to visit the second city, Santa Elena/Monteverde. Located on the opposite side of the country, it contains several so-called "cloud forest reserves," large stretches of preserved rainforest, full of the green life that inhabits much of Costa Rica. At first, there was some confusion whether we were in Santa Elena or Monteverde. I'm still not 100% certain the difference between the two, but something tells me they are the same place. Either way, hiking through the Santa Elena cloud reserve was a great wrap up activity. One more bus ride back to San José, and it was time to fly home.
There you have it, my brief excursion to Costa Rica. So long as I have to work a day job, I intend to take vacations whenever possible. Let's hope the next time comes sooner, rather than later!
Greetings from New Jersey.
After more than eight months of travel, I have finally returned to the United States. It’s been one hell of a ride. Instead of focusing on the actual events of my trip (though I will certainly write about it in the near future), I want to address the question: “How much did my trip cost?”
People ask me that question very often, so I figured I’d get out the calculator, and add together all my costs for my trip. This doesn’t just include the standard food, transport, accommodation, etc. categories that I’ve focused on in my previous retrospective posts. No, this includes everything: flights, visas, travel insurance, and a whole other slew of categories.
During my 254 days on the road, I visited 83 cities in 11 countries, took 10 international flights, rode dozens of buses and trains and stayed at dozens of guesthouses, and ate at hundreds of restaurants and street stalls. For all the fun that I had, I feel like I kept costs quite low. On my tight budget, I was able to go to many fine locations, and even managed to squeeze in a couple of moderately expensive countries (hello, the Maldives and Lebanon).
The countries I visited were: Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Singapore, India, the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel. You can check out my monthly spending breakdowns here, where I delve specifically into each country.
Without further ado, I introduce the breakdown of my total costs for 254 days of travel:
Accommodation - $1,568.88. Average of $6.18 per night. I think I did very well, though I was helped out a bit near the end of my trip. You see, I was able to stay with family and friends for free in Israel. Sticking mostly to dormitory rooms and cheap guesthouses, I was able to keep the prices at a minimum.
Food and Drink - $1,631.37. Average of $6.42 per day, and $2.14 per meal. Once more, it didn’t hurt that I was able to mostly eat for free in Israel. However, I’m still in shock that my food costs were actually higher than my accommodation costs. Street/restaurant food tended to be very cheap in the countries I visited.
Transport (within countries) - $777.76. This includes every bus, train, boat, and taxi ride I took during my travels. It does not include international flights, but I will get to that soon.
International Flights - $1,776.48. Airfare is a necessary evil of travel. Of course, if I had visited Central America instead, the cost for flights would have been much lower. However, I ended up flying very far away from my home country, thus driving up the cost of transport. I took ten flights during my trip. They include:
1. New York (USA) → Bangkok (Thailand)
2. Bangkok → Siem Reap (Cambodia)
3. Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam) → Singapore
4. Singapore → Chennai (India)
5. Thiruvananthapuram (India) → Male (Maldives)
6. Male → Colombo (Sri Lanka)
7. Colombo → Madurai (India)
8. Delhi (India) → Beirut (Lebanon)
9. Beirut → Amman (Jordan)
10. Tel Aviv (Israel) → New York
Visas - $397.02. I attained paid visas for Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, India, Sri Lanka, and Jordan. Unfortunately, a couple of mishaps contributed to me paying higher prices. First, I did my 60-day Thai visa through a travel agency, which ended up costing me $100 more than I should have paid. Also, I was ripped off at the Cambodia/Laos border, which you can read about here.
Travel Insurance - $286.70. This includes a standard emergency policy for nine months. Sure, I never had to use it, but it’s always better to be safe than sorry.
Alcohol - $271.57. I must admit, I barely drank any alcohol during the second half of my trip. Perhaps I was all partied out from Southeast Asia, but I managed to keep my beer costs to the minimum.
Instruments - $308.56. This was by far the biggest waste of money I encountered during my trip. When my original guitar broke on the flight to Bangkok, I ended up purchasing a new one. I shipped it home soon after, because it was too much of a hassle to carry through India. In Chiang Mai, I also bought something called a “Seung,” which is a traditional Thai instrument. Of course, it was too difficult to bring with me on flights, so I actually abandoned it at a guesthouse. Sigh…I could have really used that extra 300 bucks.
Shipping - $72.43. This includes the costs of shipping my guitar to my family, as well as shipping various souvenirs back home to my friends.
Unused Currency - $6.49. I could not exchange back the small coins and notes from each country, so I kept them as souvenirs.
Miscellaneous - $783.87. I know I should have done a better job at breaking up this category into smaller categories. This includes every other cost, such as admission fees, ATM fees, laundry, film, toiletries, etc. Oh, and let's not forget that ring I bought in Thailand...
Total Costs - $7,881.13.
If I average it out by total days traveled, this comes out to $31.02 per day, including all costs. Sure, I could have spent more and I could have spent less. However, I am very pleased with how my budget turned out. I got nearly eight and a half months of travel in Asia for under $8000. It was worth every dollar, baht, riel, kip, rupee, rufiyaa, lira, dinar, and shekel.
This story actually happened a year ago, the first time I visited Israel. I happened to be on a Taglit/Birthright trip. For those of you who do not know, Taglit sponsors a free trip to Israel for anyone Jewish or of direct Jewish lineage, between the ages of 18-26. For all you travelers who may qualify for this trip, I’ll include a link at the bottom of this post.
Anyhow, back to my story.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a religious person. Although I grew up as a practicing Orthodox Jew, I ultimately ditched my beliefs, for personal reasons. So when I arrived to Israel, I felt none of the “spirituality” that my friends and teachers had told me I would feel. In fact, Israel felt quite similar to the United States: while it did have an undoubtedly Middle Eastern vibe, I found it to be extremely westernized and modern. Outside of a few religious areas, it was also a surprisingly godless place. For example, Tel Aviv is a well-known party city, loaded with nightclubs and alcohol fuelled debauchery.
One of Israel’s historical highlights is the Western Wall (also called the “Wailing Wall”), located in the Old City of Jerusalem. The Western Wall is one of the only remnants from the sacred Temple Mount, and is therefore the holiest of all Judaic sites. Jews from all over the world come to this wall to pray together; it is a sight to behold.
The wall itself wasn’t what made me cry. No, to me it was just another ancient wall. What set me off was the group of people praying to the wall. Let me explain.
It was quite a powerful experience, seeing so many people united under the same premise. Here I was, a tourist, watching hundreds of people bawling their eyes out in unanimous prayer. The sheer level of emotion being expelled was enough to get me emotional. In a world that is often divided and warring, it was powerful to see so much “togetherness.” It made me think about what we can accomplish as a species: how, if we only stop for a minute we can realize that we all want similar things out of life. Here were Jews of all different shapes and sizes, all different religious backgrounds, and different countries. Yet, for this short moment, they were all able to look past their differences and group together.
Another thing that really struck me is how the Wailing Wall manages to remain relatively untouched by tourist traps. Even though many tourists come to the wall, I still got a genuine sense that the people were there for honest, personal reasons. Unlike Cambodia’s Angkor Wat or India’s Taj Mahal, there are no children running around trying to sell you Wailing Wall key chains and jewelry. It is very easy to immerse yourself in the spirit of the site, without too many distractions.
The Wailing Wall is a site to behold, and I strongly recommend that anyone going to Israel takes a trip there. This godless writer saw the communal power of unanimity, hope, and prayer.
Click on the link to check out Taglit Birthright.
I recently left India, and headed to the Middle East, where I have spent most of the past month. The countries include: Lebanon, Jordan, and (for a couple of days) Israel. The currencies are: Lebanese Lira (also called Lebanese Pound), Jordanian Dinar, and Israeli New Shekel.
The Middle East is definitely the most expensive region I have traveled in so far. However, with some careful budgeting, I was able to have an enjoyable experience for very little. Israel is by far the most expensive of the three; however, I will be staying with friends and family, thus negating most of the accommodation and food costs. Lebanon comes next, because of its pricey accommodation. Jordan is definitely the least costly of the three; however, it has especially expensive entry fees. More on that later.
Without further ado, here is a breakdown of my spending habits, for the eighth month of my travels.
Accommodation - $242.22. Average of $8.07 per day. Lebanon really drove the costs up for this category, because the cheapest dorm I could find was around $16 per night. Jordan's hostels are significantly cheaper.
Food and Drink - $190.12. Average of $6.34 per day, or $2.11 per meal. With the exception of Israel, food was pretty inexpensive, especially in Jordan.
Alcohol - $32.87. Most of this came from Lebanon, especially the New Year's Party I attended.
Transport - $110.07. Lebanon actually had the cheapest public transport out of the three countries. A five hour bus ride in Israel, however, cost around $20.
Miscellaneous - $70.32. Includes things such as toiletries, laundry, ATM fees, souvenirs, etc. By rights, I should have paid another $70 for entry to Petra in Jordan. However, I was given a partially unused ticket by a French traveler, and ended up getting in for free. Sometimes you get lucky.
Total amount spent - $645.60. Average of $21.52 per day. I surprised myself by how little I spent, especially because the Middle East feels more expensive than other regions I have been to. However, my free Petra ticket certainly played a part in this, as well as my careful budgeting and spending.
My name is Yonah Paley. I quit my job in the United States to travel. I also write music and do photography. As I backpack across the world, I share stories, philosophy, and travel tips.