As an Operations Manager, one of the best parts of my job is training Tour Leaders. A couple of weeks ago, I packed my bag and headed out to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Territories to do just that. Luckily for me I had two spare days to do some exploring of my own. I chose to spend these golden days in Israel and the Palestinian Territories. On my whistle-stop tour, I barely scratched the surface of this amazing country but it whetted my appetite and left me wanting more.
Israel and the Palestinian Territories have arguably the richest history of any place on the planet. It is the stage on which three of the world’s major religions play out their stories and it is one of the most fought over and most heavily reported-on regions in the world today. This historical and cultural depth can almost be felt in the air: never have I been to a place where the past and present are so thoroughly connected. By the time I left, my brain was full to bursting with information, ideas and desire for a greater understanding of the place and the people who live there.
For a small country it has such diversity; within 100 kilometres you can find desert, highlands and the fertile coastal plain. From the Palestinian town of Bethlehem, to the modern mainly Jewish city of Tel Aviv to the relaxed and mixed port of Haifa, each place has a different feel and a different population.
After two days of being shown around the country by our guide Miki, I spent four days in Nazareth training Tour Leaders. I was lucky to spend time with them and learn more about the country through them. Whilst sitting outside a kebab shop in Nazareth, one of my trainees told me that she felt as if she was in a different country. It was not meant in a negative way, it was just that the sounds and smells and sights of this mainly Arab Israeli town were very different to the life she led in Tel Aviv. The thing that united them all in my eyes was their hospitality and their interest in sharing their country; in fact I was so well looked after it was a little hard to leave!
Jaffa was one of my favourite places. Perched on a hill overlooking the Mediterranean, the beautiful buildings of the old city have been restored and the winding lanes are packed with cafés, shops and galleries. It is a great place to potter around, take some photos and go shopping. From here you have great views over Tel Aviv - its clean and white sandy beaches, Bauhaus architecture and rocking nightlife.
I also loved walking through the old city of Jerusalem; moving between the Arabic, Jewish, Christian and Armenian quarters you can see the shops, architecture, people and atmosphere change. Walk around on different days and you will experience how the city is dominated by its various residents and visitors. By midday Friday, hundreds of Muslims make their way to the Dome of the Rock to pray and as the sun goes down the Jewish quarter closes down for Shabbat. Throughout the day the city is filled by large groups of pilgrims roaming the city, following in the footsteps of their prophets.
I must also mention the food. I have never eaten so much or as well as I did here. It is a melting pot of all the best Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine. If I had to eat one type of food for the rest of my life it would certainly be…hummus and falafel!
To put it plainly, I was overwhelmed by my time here. The region has so much to offer; amazing historical sites, beautiful scenery, vibrant culture, delicious food and great people. That is not to say it is without its challenges; the tensions between Israel and the Palestinian Territories are clear and at times I found the reality of the situation difficult. However, a lot of what I thought I knew about the political situation had obviously been shaped by the media and it turned out that many of my preconceptions were unfounded. So if I have one piece of advice when it comes to travelling here: leave your opinions at home, go with an open mind and see what you discover (and perhaps bring me back a falafel)!
Megan's top ten Israel and Palestine experiences
1. Floating in the Dead Sea – despite falling over in the mud three times on the way out, it was good fun to bob around in the warm water. As they say every swim in the sea makes you look five years younger, it was worth the embarrassment!
2. Wandering through the markets of the Arabic, Jewish, Christian and Armenian quarters of the old city in Jerusalem, seeing the shops, architecture, people and atmosphere change.
3. One of the trainees took me to visit the old flour mill in Nazareth. His grandfather had worked there when he was young and he eventually managed to buy it. Although it is now a spice shop, it is still a family-run business and the old mill is still intact.
4. Our guide Miki, who seemed to know everyone everywhere, managed to sneak us into the chamber where Christ is said to have been born in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, just before a very large group came along and filled the place.
5. Caesarea – watching the waves crash over the remains of the Roman port and harbour and testing out the acoustics of the amphitheatre.
6. Roaming the streets of Jaffa taking pictures, eating ice cream and looking for art.
7. People watching – there are such a mixture of people, different nationalities, religions and denominations - that every chance I got I would find somewhere to sit and watch people go by – even better with a glass of Israeli wine in my hand!
8. The food – nothing more to say - it is amazing. Bring on the falafel and hummus!
9. The higgledly piggledly Church of the Sepulchre – sacred to so many Christian denominations. It is a patchwork of a building – rebuilt at different times by different people.
10. I was shown such great hospitality by the people that I met, so much so that I really didn’t want to leave!