Eight years ago, because I’ve traveled internationally a bit, my friend Kenny asked me to talk his girlfriend into going to Israel with him. He had frequent flyer miles for the airline tickets and was eager to go. She thought Israel wasn’t safe. A lot of people say that. I told her I would go to Israel sooner than I’d go to many places in the United States. She wasn’t swayed.
When we met two or three times later, we had the same discussion. I’m sure she was tired of hearing my opinion and said, “if you think it’s so safe, you go with him”. I said I would.
Weeks or months later, Kenny reminded me of that conversation and asked if I was serious. I was serious. Because his girlfriend still wouldn’t go to Israel, Kenny booked a flight months down the road and asked me to make all the other arrangements. In 2008, we went to Israel.
We rented a car and an Israeli GPS and, except for one trip to Bethlehem, Palestine where we needed to join a tour, we saw Israel from one end to the other on our own in a rental car.
Friends in the US and a new friend in Israel said we were crazy to rent a car and GPS and be on our own. Maybe so but we had an unusual trip that took us all over Israel and made memories that will last a lifetime.
This time, rather than getting a hotel a 20-minute cab ride from the Old City of Jerusalem, I wanted a hotel within walking distance of the Old City and one with a free breakfast and free parking. I booked the National Hotel in East Jerusalem, a five-minute walk from Herod’s Gate, on the north side of the Old City, one entrance into the Muslim Quarter.
I rented a small car and bought an Israeli memory chip that displayed in miles rather than kilometers for my Garmin GPS. No more confusion when the GPS says you should turn in 50 meters and you have to do the math to convert 50 meters to feet.
We drove directly from Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv to the National Hotel in Jerusalem and got there after dark. My first thought was that I’d made a bad mistake. The area around the National Hotel looked like a war zone. Graffiti, mostly in Arabic, covered shuttered storefronts and walls.
The graffiti seemed to be some tagging, some decoration, an often thought of satanic pentagram, stencils, social protests, and some politics – pretty much the same as graffiti in the US. Graffiti in red, green, black, and sometimes white was written by Palestinian sympathizers. The color of the Palestinian flag is red, green, black, and white. One large graffiti in English said Lesbiam (their spelling), Gay, Bi.
Cars were parked on every inch of both sides of the narrow streets and people were walking everywhere. We could see the 5-story National Hotel but it was on a one-way street going the other way. Drivers were passing the street and then backing down the street to the hotel. That was the local method of getting to the front door of the National Hotel. Go past the hotel’s street and back down the short, one-way street to the entrance.
After several passes near the hotel, we saw the parking lot. It was a very small lot with a metal door that locked it up at night. It was covered with graffiti and nearly full. I tried to see where we would park if that lot was full but had no luck. I wondered how we would get in the lot after it was closed or out of the lot after it was locked up. Those concerns were never a problem. If you arrived late or left early, a desk clerk quickly opened and shut the gate.
We parked and walked to the hotel entrance and everything looked different. The sidewalks were Jerusalem stone. There is a law in Jerusalem that Jerusalem stone, pale limestone, dolomite, and dolomitic limestone, must cover buildings and, apparently, sidewalks. That gives the Old City and Jerusalem its distinctive look. Synagogues, churches, and other religious building all over the world use Jerusalem stone to emulate the Old City and the Wailing Wall. There are over 650 quarries around Jerusalem, some beneath the Old City itself.
If you see an aerial view of the old city of Jerusalem, you will see Jerusalem stone. If you see and aerial view of Tel Aviv, you will see mostly light colored, unadorned concrete.
In 1947, the United Nations agreed to create an Israeli state in land that used to be Palestine. Jewish and Arab leaders agreed but the tension between Jews and Arabs has never lessened through the years. The aggressive building since introduced unadorned, light colored concrete as the archeological thumbprint. Concrete was quick and easy to build, no adornments meant lower cost, and the light color kept buildings cooler in the hot Mediterranean climate. The population of Israel grew from 800,000 in 1948 to close to 9 million in current times.
Wiring, electricity, phone lines, the internet, and plumbing are a nightmare in much of Israel, especially in the Old City of Jerusalem. Many buildings were built before electricity, phone lines, the internet, and indoor plumbing existed. Conduits and bare wires run on the outside of many buildings, retrofitted when the need occurred. Bare wires routed on the outside of buildings are common but ugly. Air conditioners were mostly afterthoughts that were mounted outside of buildings.
The hotel was very nice, the staff was attentive and courteous, and our room was small, well decorated, stocked with every needed item, and quiet. Each day, we were given small bottles of Dead Sea products – shampoo, lotion, etc. When you entered your room, you had to insert your door key to turn on most of the electricity. Remove the door key and there is no, or little, power. If you left the room with one door key still powering the electricity, the male maid – all maids were male – would take your key to the front desk and leave batteries not being charged. You could pick up your key at the front desk if you listened to a lecture about your indiscretion. Power has been, and probably still is, very expensive in Israel.
The next morning – very early – the streets were almost empty. Tour buses lined up in front of the hotel, ready to take travelers on religious tours. Young schoolgirls passed by on their way to an all-girl Muslim school around the corner. One friend back home seriously asked the question. “Did you see any Arabs or Muslims?” Yes, there are Muslims and Arabs in Jerusalem.
Another friend worried about what he thought was a high Israeli murder rate. I found the murder rate per 100,000 in his home state was twice Israel’s murder rate, one of the lowest in the civilized world, and the murder rate per 100,000 in St. Louis was 30 times the murder rate per 100,000 in Israel.
I was surprised but what I found out backed up my statement that I’d go to Israel before I’d go some places in the US.
Number of murders per 100,000
Israel – 2.4
Kansas – 4.4
United States - 5
Chicago – 16.02
New Orleans – 45.17
Baltimore – 51.14
St. Louis – 60.37 (the US murder capital per 100,000)
If you don’t want to be murdered, go to Israel, not the US and especially not to St. Louis as I did a couple of months ago.
Parking in Jerusalem, and around the National Hotel, can be very difficult or impossible. Israeli curbs are painted alternate colors: red and white mean no parking, blue and white mean parking is OK. Sort of but don't count on it.
Parking by a blue and white curb is free after about 6 or 7 pm but some locations are for residents only; this is indicated on a yellow post at the beginning of the sidewalk and only in Hebrew. Ask a local and hope they speak English.
To park by a blue and white curb, you have to get a ticket from a vending machine which may be a block away but there are no more vending machines in Tel Aviv.
There is a small pink square with a number saying which zone it is allowed, probably in Hebrew, but the system is too complicated. Locals use a smartphone app called Pango or electronic cards called EasyPark, also complicated.
Paid parking is usually from 8 am to 6 or sometimes 7 pm. The signs will tell you unless they are in Hebrew only as many are. Paid parking ends at 1 pm on Shabbat. You mean I could have parked by a blue and white curb for free on Shabbat?
You are advised to park and pay in a lot but lot attendees are few and can be surly and unconcerned about your plight. I found one such person. The parking lot attendant shortage is said to be due to the situation in Gaza. I parked in a lot in Tel Aviv rather than taking a chance on guessing the legality or illegality of the painted curbs and Hebrew signs.
When I tried to leave, the parking attendant would only accept cash, no credit cards. I asked to be directed to a store where I could change American $20 bills to pay the $9 parking fee. Everything was closed. Shabbat. The surly, unconcerned attendant only wanted Israeli Shekels, Palestinian Pounds, or Jordanian Dinars. She didn’t know the exchange rate for American Dollars.
I scraped together various small currency denominations – Shekels, Dinars, and Dollars – and showed the parking attendant my smartphone app that displayed the current exchange rate for American Dollars to Israeli Shekels. Otherwise, we would have spent another day in the Tel Aviv parking lot.
Every breakfast at the National Hotel was a feast. There were 5 or more tables of food. An attendant could make any variety of omelet or egg dish you wanted. There was fresh fruit. There were fruit juices. There were many varieties of cheese and meat. There were olives. There were breads and cereals. There were many varieties of hummus (chickpeas aka garbanzo beans) and falafel. There was individually brewed regular coffee or very strong, very small cups of Arabic coffee.
Our favorite waiter seemed to be in the restaurant anytime night or day. He was a Muslim who went home every night to nearby Palestine. He worked long hours to support his wife and children.
When the area around the National Hotel started waking up, the metal doors that covered storefronts were opened to reveal many kinds of stores, privately owned, usually run by one person and, as in the Old City, stocked with more goods than you would think they could get in the store. They specialized in clothes, electronics, snacks, or just about anything you might want.
I needed a few adapters from 220 volts to 110 volts. I stopped at an obviously wrong store and asked the owner where I could find adapters. He went out on the street and gave me good directions to a store about two blocks away.
I found the electronics store. It was run by a man, probably 80, who was reading a newspaper, was nicely dressed in a suit, and apologized for his limited English. I assumed he was Arabic but he might have been a Jew. He quickly found exactly what I needed. And then, he gave us small cups of freshly brewed Arabic coffee to go.
As I was leaving, he put his hands on my shoulder and struggled with his English to say a heartfelt phrase, “I want peace” as if I had that power. I want peace for him, too. Days later, at the Garden of Gethsemane, one olive tree had rocks in front of it that spelled out Peace. I thought of the old man. At his age, he’s seen Israel from 1948 on. Yes, I wish him and everyone peace.
The streets around the National Hotel were full of people night and day, couples, individuals, old people, young people, schoolgirls, tourists, and every walk of life. We talked to locals and tourists from all over the world, Muslims, Arabs, Christians, etc. We met a lot of nice people who wanted to talk about all sorts of things.
After many days at the National Hotel, Kenny and I agreed it was a great place with a wonderful breakfast that we’d stay at again. International reviews rated the National Hotel as excellent. It was. The neighborhood, at first scary at night, was a neighborhood of schoolgirls and schools, churches, colleges, small shops of every variety, the Rockefeller Archeological Museum, the Garden Tomb, the French School of Biblical and Archeological Research, the WF Albright Institute of Archeological Research, Social Security, and the Department of Justice.
The National Hotel restaurant or meeting room on the first floor was always full of women in burkas. The 3rd-floor restaurant was full of international travelers from all over the world.
I had breakfast one morning with a very young girl named Sarah who found me and my camera fascinating. I took her photo and took another photo of Sarah when I met her in her stroller on the streets of Jerusalem. I had conversations with a lot of people – Arabs, Jews, Bedouins, Muslims, Christians, etc. – from all over the world and they were all very nice to talk to.
People often wanted to have their photo made with an American and wanted to see the photo. A group of young boys near the National Hotel looking like NYC rockers with their hair piled high, wearing distressed jeans and t-shirts with English slogans, asked me to take their picture. They were very polite and patiently let me move everyone into better light. They loved their photo but no one asked for it to be emailed, even though one of the boys had a smartphone.
I only met one man – a Jerusalem, Jewish Holy Man with a long beard and the typical black hat, black trenchcoat, and round glasses – who brazenly stole about $40 from me. The owner of a restaurant introduced this man as one of his best friends. When it came time to pay my bill and the owner was busy, the Holy Man motioned for me to give him my money. I thought I was paying my bill to the owner’s good friend but he pocketed my money and wouldn’t give it back.
After the Holy Man stole my money, I asked him if I could take his photo. He said no. I told him I was taking it anyway and I did. You won’t see him in my gallery because I don’t want his face on my website.
The restaurant owner, a Moroccan Muslim, was appalled at the theft and angrily confronted his Holy Man friend. My choices were to physically fight the old man who refused to give my money back, call the police, or let it go. I let it go, paid the restaurant owner, and assured him this was the right thing to do. So much for preconceived notions about who is good and who is evil.
I’m writing this blog, especially for Kenny and me to remember, but for anyone else who wants to read it. I’ll break my time in Israel, Palestine, and Jordan into smaller blogs and galleries instead of one very long blog and gallery. I’ll also include a few cellphone photos and favorite photos from 2008.