Monthly Archives: July 2015

Israel 2015

After traveling around Israel for a while, I think it might be impossible to describe the place. It’s quirky place with incredible sights, super friendly people, a surprisingly large amount of things to do, and excruciatingly hot weather. Most/all of us know many people travel to Israel for religious reasons so it wasn’t surprising when we saw people carrying large crosses in the Old City of Jerusalem, watching groups of “Israel by Birthright” scurry from one religious sight to another, or made way for the flocks of American high schoolers in Jewish Camp learning about Judaism on top of Mt. Masada after a sunrise hike. We expected it. There were three things we did not expect and they have little to do with religion: natural sights, the intense security, and the people we met. I’m not going to spend much time with the religious side of Israel, information is readily found online and pretty much matches our experiences at the sights we visited. Instead, I’m going to write about the three things we found surprising because we didn’t have a clue and the information online doesn’t really doesn’t do it justice. I like to think of this as the side of Israel that is either ignored or not actively shared.

There’s a massive amount of things to visit in Israel. Israel has the honor, or maybe curse, of being very important to a handful of Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, & Islam) and has been very important for many empires (Egyptian, Persian, Greek, Roman, Ottoman, etc.) going back 6,000+yrs. There are so many different ruins, relics, and important historical spots that pretty much 2/3rds of the world’s population could find something in Israel to tie back to their own heritage; it’s mindboggling so many important places are in such a small area. It probably has a lot to do with the different groups of people trying to kill each other in the area for millennia.

We were surprised by Israel’s natural beauty. We were expecting to see dry/arid/desert countryside and were pleasantly surprised to find forests, fields, and intensive agriculture in many places. We enjoyed some of the local produce like grapes and peaches while being shocked that these items actually grew in Israel. The Dead Sea area was strangely pretty and floating in the Dead Sea was like swimming in a hug. There are many outdoor activities to do in Israel: there are a lot of big hills/small mountains, hiking trails, caves, a few waterfalls, gardens, and lookouts in Israel’s 500, yes 500, parks. It seems people are traveling to Israel to see the religious sights and skip the natural wonders because either there were few people around or we had the places to ourselves. Israel is beautiful and has a lot to offer for people who want to drive around in the countryside and skip big cities altogether, we really enjoyed the natural beauty of Israel!

We were very surprised by security in Israel and the general security environment we encountered. Yes, we knew Israel took security seriously but this was next level. Our first indication things were different came when we tried to get on our flight in Athens. Before we could even get to the check-in counter we were questioned at length by Israeli security staff about our visit to Israel. They asked questions in different ways to see if they’d get similar answers and the most surprising question “yes, you answered you’re going to Israel for tourism, but why?” How do we even answer that!? It’s like they were role-playing a five year old who kept asking “but why?”. All of our personal belongings were removed from our bags and thoroughly inspected. It took an hour before we even made it to the regular security everyone has to go through!

The relics of modern wars gone by are easily found in Israel. While stopping to look over the Sea of Galilee, I noticed signs indicating a nearby minefield. On our way towards the Golan Heights, we passed military installations and drove along even more minefields sectioned off by barbed wire. All of this pales in comparison to our night in Majdal Shams on the Syrian border where we could Syria from our bedroom window. Our awesome Airbnb host, Bahjat, mentioned he sometimes can hear sounds of fighting in Syria. That night, as Jacquelyn and I were trying to go to sleep we could hear pop-pop-pop-pop, boom… boom… boom… of gunfire and explosions. In the morning we said to Bahjat, “we heard some noises…” to which he quickly replied, “SEE!? I said you could hear!”. It was very odd to fall asleep to the sounds of war and Bahjat seemed eerily calm with a war raging nearby. Even touring around Jerusalem it was clear the area was prepared for the worst: the emergency siren sounded when we on a tour and we were herded out of the open towards the walls / cover. We found out a while later it was a test but it was still a surreal experience. We visited an observation deck to look over the Old City of Jerusalem and the man who sold us our tickets had a machine gun. I asked him if the reason why he needed a gun was because tourists get out of line and he just chuckled followed by a serious: “It’s for terrorists. Sounds like tourists but different.”. At least they have a sense of humor about their current environment?

Even though the people of Israel appear to be prepared for war at a moments notice they are still very friendly and welcoming. We seemed meet curious individuals and get dinner invites wherever we went. The best experience was when we were in Majdal Shams and learned all about the Druze and living in the Golan Heights. As Bahjat was showing us around we came across his friend at a family BBQ in a park and we were invited to join. It was a remarkable experience simply because we had no idea who Druze were before we arrived and we had no idea Majdal Shams was so interesting. We thought Majdal Shams was simply a place to sleep during our journey through the north of Israel only to get quite the education and meet lots of friendly people. The rest of our Airbnb hosts would bring us local food to try and always made sure we were happy; it was awesome!

Speaking of local food, there are no Starbucks, no Dunkin Donuts, and McDonalds has outrageously expensive hamburgers because the burgers have to be char grilled and kosher in order to be competitive. Both Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts tried selling in Israel but gave up when they found out that Israeli’s don’t much care for the taste of Starbucks coffee and generally only eat a special type of donut around Hanukah. We heard from multiple people how food they eat overseas, like apples, gyros, etc., are all garbage compared to what they can eat in Israel. Who knew Israeli’s were so particular about food and drinks!? Seriously, the food is awesome.

Really the only downsides were the costs and the heat. Things are expensive in Israel and it felt like the sun was constantly trying to make-out with us. That said, we really enjoyed Israel, there’s a lot to love. We’d definitely come back!

Enjoy the photos!

Chris W.

Athens Final 2015

Our time in Greece was really relaxing. We had grand plans to visit a lot of the countryside and go out to some of the islands but instead we ended up hanging out in Athens, enjoying the food, going to the ancient sights, and watching the protests.

Going to the 4th of July event was probably the best experience we had. We’ve been gone for 11 months and it was fun to watch fireworks, eat hot dogs, and hang out with Americans. Generally it is not enjoyable to come across a lot of Americans in a group while traveling but the 4th of July event was very good and we were happy to go!

We were really surprised by the food. It was pretty much nothing like Greek food in the US. Even the things we thought would be the same, like gyros, had French fries inside the wrap! We really enjoyed the flavors and all the offerings. There was a little restaurant next to where we were staying and I would go there to get a gyro pretty much every day. Soon enough they recognized me and then I noticed my gyros were getting bigger and bigger! Another real treat was finding baklava. Normally baklava is pretty expensive in the US, like $4 for a very small slice. I found a bakery near us that sold pie sized baklava for about $11, that’s a steal, so I bought two!

The ancient sights were really neat. We weren’t staying too far from them so we’d visit in the afternoon when the sun started to go down and the crowds cleared out. It’s rather amazing what people thousands of years ago could build!

We watched a lot of protests while we were in Greece. I happened to walk through the main square where people protest and was there when the voting results were announced. Like all the other protests, everyone was really laid back, it was calm, and it felt more like the State Fair in Minnesota. It now appears as though things will get much worse for the Greeks before they get better. That said, as tourists we were nearly unaffected; had we not been scrambling to get euros like everyone else when the banks first closed we would not have even realized Greece had issues.

We had a really good time in Greece. We arrived on a Saturday and the banks were closed that Monday; left on a Thursday and the banks re-opened the next Monday. Seems like we brought the bad luck for the Greeks :).

Enjoy the photos!

Chris W.

Athens 4th of July! – 2015

We had a really fun 4th of July in Athens! Who would have guessed we would have found a party to go to!? It was a lot of fun to eat some true American food (hotdogs & hamburgers FTW!) with Americans.

We are pretty isolated from the current economic issues so things have been fine for us; we are really enjoying our time in Greece. The Greeks aren’t so lucky.

And, of course, no photo collection of Athens is complete without protest photos. I think the real winners of the protests are the flag and sign makers.

Happy 4th!

Enjoy the photos!

Chris W.

Athens, Greece – “Yes” Protest 2015

Yesterday was the “yes” (people who want to accept austerity and stay in the EU) protest so we went to check it out. The protest was totally different than the “no” (stop austerity and see what happens) protest – the “yes” protest was massive, there were so many people in the square it was nearly impossible to move. It took us a good 20min to walk a quarter of a block. It was incredibly hot in the crowd even though the temperature was in the low 60s (15.5C). Police shut down the arterial streets because so many people were flooding in they spilled over the sidewalks.

Just like yesterday, the crowd was very chipper considering the severity and seriousness of their situation.

Yesterday, the bailout ended and Greece did not pay its creditors. The politicians are trying to wrangle a deal before the July 5 referendum on whether the citizens want more austerity or not.
There is word the government and the banking system only has enough cash on hand for a handful of days of operation.

I think we are in for an interesting week. The supermarkets and ATMs around us have plenty of supply so we’ll see what happens.