So this last week I got the chance to do my first significant out-of-country travel, all the way to Tel-Aviv Israel (via Germany). I already had a passport from some previous trips to Canada, but this was a different league: Different language, different culture, and residents with a decidedly different impression of America.
All in all, it was a great trip. I didn’t get to explore much (busy with work), but it was so different from what I expected.
First off, the geography and terrain. Simply hit google images for “israel landscape” and you’ll get pages of this:
Beautiful, yes, but there’s a common theme: Desert, sand, brown.. While yes there are regions of Israel like this, Tel-aviv and neighboring areas (like Herzliya) in particular are far different. The closest thing I can relate it to is Miami, FL.
It’s surprisingly urban, and there is greenery and palm-trees everywhere.
We were unfortunate in our arrival, as we landed in the middle of a “storm”. Storm doesn’t really do it justice, honestly. Minimal visibility, wind strong enough to knock you over (literally, I have the bruises to prove it), and biting cold (55F before wind chill) all combined to make that first day and night rough. After that tho, it was a beautiful trip.
Exploring the area is not much different from an American city. Of course, most of the road-signs are dual-printed in both hebrew and english, but lots of store signs and billboards were in english only. I didn’t see a single hijab the whole trip. Quite the contrary, actually, I kept seeing ads for “skin tight jeans” from a company called “Castro”. Malls were full of Victoria Secret’s and Timberland stores. Aside from the sounds of hebrew everywhere, it wasn’t all that different.
That said, there were a few differences worth pointing out, and in that a few pieces of advice to share:
- Cabs/Taxis - During the entire trip, we couldn’t find a Taxi that would accept American dollars nor credit cards. When we did try to use local currency, we found we were getting ripped off with strange fee’s that couldn’t (or wouldn’t) be explained in English. The solution: Gett . It’s basically Uber for Taxi’s, but it works in Tel-aviv and will directly charge your selected credit card without issue. I used it numerous times. I never waited more than 10 minutes for a ride (usually less than 5), and once you are at your destination you simply say thanks and step out. Easy, simple, and they won’t (or can’t) rip you off.
- Food - Oh my god the food is amazing. During our stay we ate at several places and each one was more impressive than the last. However, it’s massive and it’s heavy. Apparently it’s an arabian tradition to serve appetizers (without ordering, I think, like chips & salsa at a mexican restaurant) consisting of vegetables. They’ll come in tiny dishes, only 0.5-1 cup each, but you’ll get a dozen or more of things like pickles, coleslaw, carrots, peas, and lots of other things I wasn’t able to identify but tasted great. And when you finish them, they’ll bring more. And they’ll keep bringing more until your real meal arrives. So prepare to be stuffed like a thanksgiving turkey after every meal.
- Electricity - Of course, Israel runs at a different voltage and uses a different plug adapter than the US. Most “smart” devices (cell phones, computers, game systems, etc) will automatically adapt with a plug adapter, but other dumb devices (like electric shavers, as my traveling companion discovered) will burn up. I recommend getting the Kensington All-in-one Adapter ($13 on Amazon) and a small power strip (I like the Monster Travel Strip for $20), which will then let you turn 1 Israeli outlet into 4 US outlets, suitable for charging all your stuff overnight. And if you plan to use or charge any of the “dumb” devices, buy a transformer (I don’t have one, so I can’t really recommend anything).
- Coffee - If you’re a big coffee drinker, you might have a rough time. I don’t think I saw a single cup of coffee the whole trip. The big thing there is espresso, available as an after-dinner beverage in every restaurant. In most businesses, the big thing seems to be Nespresso. It’s like the Israeli version of the Keurig: Little disposable capsules that make tiny little cups of espresso. So be wary: It’s only a quarter of the size of your typical american coffee, but it packs the same punch. Don’t overdo it.
- Driving - Driving in that corner of the globe is very unlike the US. It’s not “aggressive”, but traffic laws seems be much more.. umm.. “liberally interpreted” than in the US. I didn’t drive, but in all of the cabs we took you would see people cutting each other off, weaving in lanes, 3-cars wide in 2-lanes, etc. Nobody was upset, or even surprised by it, it’s just normal. And I never witnessed a single accident. However, as someone who has always suffered from motion sickness in cars, I would recommend you prepare for the worst if you’re the same: The sudden stops and stress from the unexpected behavior of it all was rough for me.
- Airport - Anyone who’s familiar with the history of the region shouldn’t be surprised to find that the security at the airport is tight. Flying into Israel was pretty uneventful: Talk to the passport officers, get a printed Visa, and all done. Returning home was different. Before even entering the airport we were approached by security and quizzed about our bags. Later, we had to repeat the process about twice more before we were even allowed near the x-ray machines. At the machines, they very carefully control the lines so that only 1 person is near it at a time and they require all electronics to be removed from the bags. I misunderstood at first and almost got in trouble, so let me repeat that for you: all electronics. That’s cables, chargers, batteries, plug adapters, electric razors, toothbrushes. All. And it’s slow, they check it all carefully. After talking to some locals and other travelers, I think some of this process may be randomized and customized, changing daily and based on your reaction. So prepare to spend some time when you get ready to return to the US.
And lastly, the safety. Family and friends were afraid I was walking into a war-zone, but not once did I ever feel at risk. The area was completely safe and normal, outside of a few entrepreneurial businessmen trying to take advantage of us with typical exchange rate fiasco’s (trying to convert shekels to USD 1:1 and such).
All said, it was a fantastic trip. Lufthansa Business Class was a great way to get there and back, and the region itself is full of things to explore and do. I hope to get back there again soon with some extra time to see more of the region, now that I have a better understanding of what to expect and how to get around.