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 stay in Jordan was short-lived, albeit wonderful. I spent the first two days in Amman, the capital city. The food and atmosphere were nice; Jordan definitely felt more traditionally “Middle Eastern” than other places I have been to. Although it is a modern country, lots of people wear traditional garb, and pretty much everybody speaks Arabic as a first language.
From Amman, I headed down to Wadi Musa, a tourist trap of a city. It is full of overpriced shops and touts, whose main focus is selling tours to Petra. For those who don’t know, Petra is the centerpiece of Jordanian tourism. It is a magnificent old city, carved out of mountain stone. The archaeological park it’s housed in is huge, and at least one full day is needed to do justice to this amazing site. At $70 for a one-day pass, it’s expensive to enter. However, I was given some partially unused tickets by a French couple I met in Amman, so I entered the park for free.
My feet were worn out and sore from several hours of hiking through Petra, so I made the decision to cross the border to Israel the next day. Since I have friends and family living in Israel, I figured it would be relaxing to hang out with them. Therefore, I headed to the Jordanian city of Aqaba, where I would cross over to the Israeli city of Eilat.
The first thing that went wrong was that the taxi driver who brought me to the border, tried to rip me off. Although we had agreed for him to turn the meter on, he still insisted I pay him 11 Jordanian Dinar ($15.50) upon arrival. Seeing as the meter came out to less than 3 Dinar ($4.25), I absolutely refused to meet his demand. After a minor verbal scuffle, I paid him 3 Dinar, stormed out of the cab, and walked toward the border.
It was surreal, being between two countries; I had very little idea of what to expect. Jordan quickly gave me an exit stamp, and pointed toward the Israeli side of the border. I held my breath, and slowly began the walk to Israel. I could see blue and white flags off in the distance, and wondered how long it would take to be admitted into the country. Since there was a Lebanese stamp in my passport (Lebanon and Israel don’t get along very well), I figured they might question me for a bit. I was prepared.
A guard was waiting for me in front of the Israeli crossing. She took my passport, asked me my purpose for traveling, and ushered me inside. They took my bag, ran it through a scanner, and then proceeded to question me. “Who are you visiting in Israel? Is this your first time here? What other countries have you been to?”
I calmly answered each of the interrogator’s questions, and when it came to the query about the other countries, I began listing: “Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Singapore, India, the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Lebanon, and Jordan.”
When I got to the word “Lebanon,” I noticed an immediate change in the interrogator’s attitude. She sharply asked me what I was doing in Lebanon, if I knew anybody in Lebanon, if anybody had given me anything to bring across the border. Once again, I calmly gave my responses, and seemed to appease her curiosity.
She then proceeded to do a detailed search of my backpack. She flipped through my clothes, journals, and everything else in sight. Of course, they found nothing incriminating, and gave me my passport and an exit card to bring to the stamping booth. “Cool,” I thought. “That wasn't so bad.”
When I handed my passport to the employee in the stamping booth, she immediately asked me why I had been to Lebanon. I answered her questions, and was then told “I need to check your passport in the back for a while.”
“Oh great,” I thought.
A second interrogator was brought in. He took me into a little room, and began asking me the same questions as I’d been asked before. Once again, I answered everything in an honest and calm fashion. He asked me to write down the name and phone number of my mom, and told me to wait outside.
It happens to be, my mom lives in Israel and is an Israeli citizen, so I was ecstatic. I figured he would just call her to confirm my identity, and then send me on my way. No such luck. I waited in the same chair for over two hours, during which nobody told me what was going on. The only thing that happened during those two hours, was that a K-9 drug sniffing dog was brought by to give me a friendly whiff. The dog found nothing, but that didn't stop them from making me wait another hour and a half.
Without any more updates or questions, they finally gave me my passport back. This time, it had an Israeli entry stamp on it. The whole process took around three-and-a-half hours.
I later messaged my mom to ask whether she had also been extensively questioned. They hadn't even called her.
I’m nearing the end of my wonderful stay in Lebanon. The country has been great. The food is nice, people are nice, and sights are nice. I’ve been asked multiple times about whether the country is safe or not, and I can guarantee that it is. I’ve felt safer in Beirut that almost any other big city I’ve been to. Everything has been fine and dandy here. That is, except for the time that I literally got electrocuted.
It was a night like all other nights. I was sitting in the hostel common area, reading some emails. A group of people asked me if I’d like to join them for dinner, and having been holed up inside all day, I happily said yes. We walked outside, laughing and talking as we went. I forget exactly what the topic of conversation was, but I remember passionately blabbing about something. Well, the streets of Beirut happened to be poorly lit, and suddenly, I bumped head first into something shocking. An exposed, hanging power line.
You know that feeling when you stub your toe, and time stops for several moments? That’s kind of what happened to me. My brain didn’t even register what was going on for a few seconds. I jumped away from the dangling cable, which had been touching my forehead for what seemed like an eternity. “Hey guys!” I said. “Help, I was just electrocuted.”
It must have been the direct current, because I didn’t feel any pain. Nor was I knocked unconscious. Nor was there any spark or any traditional “shock.” It was more of a super-alert kind of feeling, where I lost some control over my muscles and (it seems) my nerves. It became difficult for me to speak and think, things that I usually do too much of. I could literally feel the electricity pulsing through my body, and it did not make me happy.
Unfortunately, I am predisposed to having panic attacks. So the fact that I had just been zapped by a power cable, registered in the most horrendous way possible. I could rapidly feel my body and mind racing, and ended up having a full-blown panic attack. The first thing that jumped to mind was “out of all the ways I could have chosen to die, this is by far the lamest.” My friends tried to calm me down, but to no avail. After roughly fifteen minutes of being asked how I was feeling and cajoling me to sit down, I told them I was going to the hospital. “Go eat dinner without me; I’ll call a cab,” I insisted. I apologized profusely, and hurried to find a taxi.
Shaking, hyperventilating, and convinced that I was going to die, I hopped into the taxi and was on my way. I think the driver could tell something was wrong; he ended up not charging me for bringing me to the emergency room.
When I entered the emergency waiting room, the best possible thing happened. The man working the desk refused to let me in unless I paid first. At that time, I didn't even have money on my debit card. Thank goodness. You know why? It made me sit down and think about why I was there.
I realized that I had completely jumped the gun, and had assumed the worst about my situation. I sat in the waiting room, took a number of deep breaths, and decided to walk home. I collapsed into bed, exhausted from the mental exercise I had just gone through.
None of this stopped me from anxiously researching the effects of electrocution over the next couple of days. I had a number of small panic attacks, where I contemplated what sorts of horrible muscle and nerve damage I could have been exposed to. You know what, though? It’s several days later, and I feel totally fine. My panicking mind absolutely warped my sense of reason, and brought me to the most horrendous conclusions.
That’s my story of getting electrocuted in Lebanon. Tomorrow, I fly to Jordan. You can bet my eyes will be peeled for those loose street cables!
Lebanon (duh) has been added to the "Nationalities I've Met" page, bringing the total to 63!
It was December 31st, and I took an early-morning tuk-tuk ride to the Delhi airport. I was flying to Lebanon, and had resigned my fate to a full day of travel, one which involved a six-hour layover in Dubai.
Thankfully, the flight from Delhi to Dubai was delayed by nearly two hours. On the surface, this may sound like a bad thing. However, it was a blessing in disguise. Instead of six hours, my waiting time was reduced to a measly four. So when I boarded the layover to Beirut, I wasn’t nearly as frustrated from waiting as I would have been. For those of you who have had to wait for a layover, you’ll know that it’s usually duller than a roll of aluminum foil.
I arrived in Beirut a few hours before midnight. Since I had been in transit mode for about 12 hours, I was hoping to catch a quick rest, and then see what the people in my hostel had planned for the New Year’s. Perhaps they would go out on the town. Nope. There was already a dance party going on in the hostel. People were rapidly arriving to celebrate, causing to crowd to get bigger and bigger. Half the room was dancing, and somebody was serving drinks from behind a counter. Within an hour, I was tipsy and mingling with fellow travelers. That’s it; there was no forewarning, just a full-blast New Year’s party. I had expected a few festivities, but nothing on this scale.
The room was soon full, and when it was five minutes to twelve, everyone hurried up to the rooftop to bring in the New Year. While we counted, dozens of fireworks went off all around town. Through the BANG!s and POP!s and SNAP!s I could hear people murmuring that they heard gunshots going off. It was a crazy cacophony of sound. Some people on our rooftop lit up their own fireworks, causing a deafening and colorful scene before me. For about ten minutes straight, all you could hear were explosions.
Once New Year’s was beckoned in, everyone headed downstairs to continue dancing. I swear I’ve never seen such synchronized, sensual, passionate dancing outside of a music video. I’m not much of a party animal myself, but I was entertained by just watching the action take place. It was at the same time one of the most jaw-dropping and enthralling things I have experienced. The unbridled joy and intensity was mind-blowing, and it caused the room to take on a life of its own. The Lebanese have amazing style, and pretty much anybody could have passed for a professional dancer.
Unexpectedly, I went from the chaotic (and often exhausting) country of India to a fun-loving, zealous environment. Obviously, I cannot judge an entire country based on a New Year’s party; the next week and a half will truly shape my opinion of the Lebanon. However, I could not have come in at a better time. For a country that has the Syrian Civil War knocking at its doorstep, I was shocked by how ready and willing people were to have such a good time. Whether it is resilience or a simple “I don’t really care” mentality, it is unmatched by anything I have ever seen before. I will be glad to continue exploring Beirut during the upcoming days.
Photo Credit: rabiem22, https://www.flickr.com/photos/rabiem/9229231222/. All rights reserved.
My name is Yonah Paley. I quit my job in the United States to travel. I also write movies and do photography. As I backpack across the world, I share stories, philosophy, and travel tips.