I’d just graduated high school and decided to pay for my first independent trip abroad by raiding the carefully scraped together savings from my part-time job; a telesales role persuading people to attend time-share presentations for holiday homes in Florida. I call it an early version of collaborative consumption ;-) The summer had arrived, my exams were over and I couldn’t wait to get away for a few months before starting my full time gap year job in finance. This was the first of what would turn into two years before embarking on my degree at the University of Warwick.
I remember trawling the internet for the cheapest flight to the most exotic place I could find. I opted for an El Al return flight non-stop to Tel Aviv for a bargain at £139 and well within budget. I had a week or so in between booking and leaving so visited my doctor, packed light and comfortable clothing, bought a Lonely Planet, scoured online for places to stay and things to do and asked friends who gave me tips from the one person they knew that had been. It seems surreal but there was no Skyscanner, TripAdvisor or Facebook. I was also safe in the knowledge that I could always make it up the coast to Haifa to a family friend’s home.
Sitting on the plane I distinctly remember my apprehension. It was nine months or so after the September 11th atrocities in New York. This was the first time I had flown since the attacks and the images remained etched in my mind. As the plane took off I kept telling myself that El Al was at that moment probably the safest airline in the world. Landing in Tel Aviv the security was tight. The first thing I noticed was armed officers with machine guns dotted around the airport. The second, I was there alone.
I found my way to a place to stay in the city and was eager to savour the sights, sounds and tastes as soon as I could. It was early evening and the first place I hit was the beach. I was struck by its vibrancy. Despite, the media frenzy about the political unrest occurring on the West Bank and the Middle East generally life appeared on the surface very normal. I saw Orthodox Jewish families in traditional attire strolling on the promenade next to modern dressed ones. They were enjoying the weather, laughing and chattering to each other in Hebrew.
I found restaurants serving iced coffee. I drank copious amounts. To this day I still haven’t managed to find iced coffee that good but maybe it was just the sun, the care-free time that make it so memorable. I discovered that the city had strong American influences. There were McDonalds dotted everywhere. They remained kosher with a no cheeseburger policy. I looked but generally avoided food chains preferring instead to stick to the local fast food: Falafel the national dish. I liked it served with huge dollops of chilli sauce. The best place to find it is the Arab quarters nestled in many of the Jewish towns. To this day it is still one of my favourite things to eat. The rest of the city was very much a metropolis and I quickly moved on to discover other hidden gems the country had to offer.
At the time I wasn’t old enough to rent a car so on leaving Tel Aviv to Haifa my only option was to take public transport. I was scheduled to be leaving on an evening bus and was probably no more than five hundred metres from the bus station and about twenty minutes from my departure time when I heard what sounded like a car backfiring, saw smoke coming out of one of the buses and saw people screaming and running towards me. It had been a local attack by a suicide bomber and there were casualties. I felt dazed and later learnt to my horror that was the full incoming bus parked next to the bus I was meant to be taking. Looking back that experience seemed so unreal and it seems so far-fetched to recall it.
I later discovered that the best, cheapest and surprisingly safest way around Israel was to hitchhike with the country’s young soldiers who would meet at popular pick up points all over Israel. Nearly all of the youth in Israel complete the national service and during this time they try and preserve as much money as possible using an informal hitchhiking network to make it home to their families when they have leave. It takes approximately five to six hours dependent on traffic to drive lengthways across Israel.
I enjoyed these car journeys with friends being dropped in Jerusalem, Masada, the Dead Sea and other detours people would take on my behalf to show me their country with pride. There were few Indians who visited Israel and people were intrigued. Many Israelis plan to take a year out after their national service to visit India and it has remained a popular destination. The drivers often asked me questions and I would give my tips on Indian food, culture and places to see. The six week trip ended with a celebration of my eighteenth birthday in Eilat, a resort in the southern-most tip of Israel. I was whizzing around on a banana boat and parasailing for the first time in my life.
Returning to the UK I reflected on how much older I felt, the people I had met and how such a small country could offer so many experiences. Despite the politics involved the people I met on my journey both Palestinian and Israeli and the natural beauty I had seen would stick with me for an age.
Almost a decade later my love affair with travel continues and my appreciation for the tech businesses that make those experiences possible is growing.