Thursday, October 31, 2013

Q: Do You Know Where You're Going To? A: Why Should I Have To?

Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans. So sang John Lennon on "Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)," from his 1980 album Double Fantasy. Now here's another idea riding the same route as that train of thought: The best things in life -- or on any travel adventure -- are not only free. They're also the ones that you aren't looking for.

Or in the words of another Jeremy, a half-Argentine, half-Jewish aliyah expat from Toronto who is currently based in Jerusalem, quoting another time-worn but still-useful saying: "The watched pot is slow to boil." In other words, throw away your road map. Live your life. Be free. (Thank you, Belinda Carlisle.)

Jeremy No. 2 imparted his words of wisdom last week toward the end of my final afternoon in Jerusalem, which we spent roaming the streets of the city, wandering aimlessly from spot to spot, where we'd sit and continue our conversation while watching the wheels go round and round (thanks, once again, to John Lennon and Double Fantasy).

We ended up in the coolest traditional neighborhood, one with vintage large-brick buildings and narrow streets that looked like something right out of the Bible. It was a great place to just sit and watch local life go by, removed from the tourism trappings of the new town, and one we might never have found had we had any idea where we were going to right before stumbling upon it.

That's my favorite way to travel, without expectations, without a final destination. Some of my most memorable visual experiences of the last few months -- Ai Tre Scalini on Via Panisperna in Rome, Via di San Niccolo in Florence, Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, and that charming little barrio in what is now my favorite Israeli city (yes, in hindsight, Jerusalem has overtaken Tel Aviv for, in the days since I left it, I find myself thinking about it more) -- have been ones that I happened upon when I was either completely lost or had no idea where I was going to.

For the locals in Aqaba (as it was with the ones in Jerusalem's old city), that appears to be a no-no. Everyone wants to help me find something. I realize most of them are doing it for something in return -- shekels in Jerusalem, dinars in Aqaba -- not out of the kindness of their hearts. (An exception: the young Muslim woman on the corner of Sultan Suleiman and Derech Yeriho in Jerusalem who spoke perfect English and correctly gathered from the map I was staring at and the two suitcases beside me that I was sort of lost, and not in a good way.)

I adore the people in Jordan so far. We barely understand each other (for a tourism-driven city, there is very little English spoken by locals here in Aqaba), but we have a pretty good rapport going. If only they'd let me be and let me let it be.

I'm not talking about the ones who stopped me yesterday while I was walking along the marina and struggled to ask me questions about myself in English. They were charming, and a large part of why I so quickly became a fan of this strange, fascinating Kingdom of Jordan, which is exactly what I always thought the Middle East would be, unlike Israel (too Western) and Dubai (too modern).

I'm talking about the ones at the corner of King Talal Street and Prince Mohammad Street, the ones who kept honking their horns to get my attention and stopping their cars to ask me the same old questions: "Do you need some help?" "What are you looking for?" Couldn't they see that I was having a magic moment?

I appreciated the gestures, mercenary as they may have been, and I know I'll miss them if I ever return to Berlin, the land of live and let be (even if you've fallen, and you can't get up). But I just wanted everyone to ignore me and allow me to admire the buildings of Aqaba, framed by the desert mountains in the background, uninterrupted.

Why does everyone always have to be going somewhere, or looking for something? Is it so strange that someone might want to just stop for a minute or 15 to take in the scenery that's spread out before him? I thought about asking them, but I knew they wouldn't understand me, or the point that I was making.

Anyway, I didn't want to talk. I knew exactly where I was, if not where I was going to. In that magic moment, though, all I wanted to do was enjoy the silence in my mind and the city in front of me.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

10 Random Early Observations in Jordan

1. I've made a few border crossings by land in my time -- U.S.A. to Canada, Vietnam to Cambodia, Thailand to Laos, and countless others traveling through Europe by train, most recently, from Germany to Poland and back again -- but none quite as pleasant as the one leading from Eilat, Israel (confusingly spelled "Elot," "Elat," or "Eliat," depending on what street sign, website or weather app you're looking at), into Aqaba, Jordan. It wasn't just that the process was frighteningly smooth -- no long lines, few questions asked, and the only fee I had to pay was the 100 NIS ($28) departure tax on the way out of Israel -- but rather that the guy at the end of it was, too.

Passport Control agents around the world, take note. This is how you treat a traveler going through Customs. When I handed my passport to the man at the Jordanian entry point, after having it stamped with a complimentary two-week visa by the one before him, he looked at the information page, then at me, incredulously.

"One nine six nine?"

"Um, what? Oh, yeah, right. The year I was born."

"I was thinking one thousand nine hundred ninety-two."

Say what? He thought I was born in 1992?! In the most unflattering natural sunlight, with sweat drizzling down my face, he thought I was barely out of my teens?!

Welcome to Jordan!

2. There was probably no place for my Jordanian experience to go but down after that. First, there was the crooked taxi driver (of course) who insisted that I pay him 4 Jordanian dinar (nearly $6) over the standard border-to-city center rate -- 11 dinar ($15.50) -- that's printed on a sign outside of Customs because he had to wait all of two minutes for me to get $141 worth of the local currency out of an ATM en route. He sapped away the faith in the goodness of workers behind the wheel that the taxi driver who took me from the center of Eilat to the border and charged only 30 NIS ($8.50) for it had threatened to restore.

3. And further down we go! Being in Jordan feels like being back in the '90s again, but not in a good way (no TLC on the soundtrack, though I have no complaints about the catchy Arabian beats that I keep hearing everywhere). Apparently, it's not against the law here to smoke in public buildings. Everyone's at it, and as a result, within an hour in the new country, my lungs felt like they were already turning a darker shade of tar. Cough cough.

4. At least the prices here are considerably cheaper than they were in Israel, where nothing ever seemed to be less than 35 NIS ($10). The quality of my first two meals -- a four-cheese pizza (possibly the best I've had, thanks to the smattering of tomato sauce on it, and only 5.50 dinar, or roughly $7.80) and a healthier and even yummier boiled fish and vegetables dinner entree that also set me back a mere 5.50 (in Israel, it would have been at least $20) -- nicely challenged the idea that you get what you pay for.

5. Why was there a box of tissues on each table of the restaurants in which I had those first two meals? Were they in lieu of napkins, or am I not the only one here whose sinuses are going out of control due to all of the secondhand smoke?

6. I've always thought of Days Inn as a low-budget U.S. hotel chain, but the one here in Aqaba is striving to be four-star and nearly hitting its mark. The lobby is spacious and elegant (though reeking of stale cigarette smoke), and my deluxe room is spacious and spotless, with a comfortable king-size bed, hardwood floors, a large balcony (alas, one without much of a view from the 2nd floor), a bidet in the bathroom, and a decent selection of English-language channels on the flat-screen wall-mounted TV. But what is it with Arab-run establishments (like the Commodore Hotel in east Jerusalem) and poor lighting? Doesn't one have to be able to see the Quran to read it?

7. Restaurant menus have a "non-alcoholic drinks" list and one with "cocktails" -- as in fruit cocktail, or shrimp cocktail, or smoothies. Clearly I won't be getting a buzz with dinner. Two years ago in Kuala Lumpur, I was told by a local that Muslims are strict teetotalers -- hence the relatively high price of booze in the bars and clubs of Kuala Lumpur and Dubai -- so I must assume that the liquor store down the road from my hotel is catering to Aqaba's considerable tourist clientele with its such surprisingly bargain booze: bottles of wine for only 10 dinar ($14) and 70cl bottles of premium vodka and Red Label Johnnie Walker whiskey for a mere 16 dinar (just under $23).

That's probably not even particularly cheap, but after paying 54 NIS ($15) per cocktail at the gay bars in Tel Aviv (in Israel, only the bartenders at straight bars were pouring them for free for me), it wouldn't take much to make me feel like I'm getting drunk at a discount.

8. As in Israel, local menus begin at the back and end at the front, and the waiters all seem to be male. In fact, the only female employee that I saw during my first day in Aqaba was the woman who was cleaning the lobby at the Days Inn. Clearly the division of labor isn't working in favor of females here.

In an interesting contrast, all of the state employees I encountered on the Israeli side of the border before entering Jordan were female. After crossing over into Jordan, I didn't see another woman until the Days Inn housekeeper entered my field of vision.

9. I suspected that English wouldn't be as widely spoken in Jordan as it was in Israel, but one might expect service personnel in the hotels and restaurants of a tourist-heavy city like Aqaba to at least be able to string a few English words together. On the plus side of the language barrier, during my first day in Jordan, not one person asked me where I'm from.

10. Jordanian time is one hour ahead of Israeli time, which means I lost those 60 minutes that I gained in Haifa on Sunday morning when the clocks moved back one hour. Judging from how dark it already was at 6pm and how dark it still was at 6am, there'll be even less time to enjoy the beautiful, bright, blinding sunlight here. I'd better work in some quality time by the Red Sea before it starts to look more like a black sea.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Horrors of Transit: Why I'd Rather Walk Than Go by Plane, Train, Bus or Taxi Driver

If there's such a thing as the worst section of the labor force to work in, I'd venture to guess that it might very well be transportation. That's not to say that this sector includes jobs with descriptions that I find distasteful in any way. Driving a vehicle, working as a flight attendant, and selling bus and train tickets are all nice work if you can get it, especially in this economy.

And I'm not saying it because I once went out on a terrible date with a guy in Rome who was a manager for one of Italy's national train lines and who hated his job because there wasn't even a sliver of creativity involved.

I draw this conclusion based on the general crankiness of workers whose job it is to facilitate the movement of people, en masse or one at a time, from point A to point B, while dealing with them directly. That would include taxi and bus drivers, bus terminal employees, train station staff, airport personnel and ferry crews, all of whom are paid to make customers feel like inconsequential cattle as they go from one place to another, and it would exclude airline pilots, who are separated from the public by the cockpit door and appear to be more cheerful because of it.

That's the reason why Morrissey doesn't like to fly ("I hate the dictatorial way that you're told to 'Pick this up, Get your bag, No, you can't, Yes, you can, Stand here, Join the queue, Leave the queue.' It seems as if as soon as you enter an airport, you're absolutely nothing. You're just this great big blob of flesh," he once said), and the reason I dread any kind of relocation movement that isn't walking or running. When they're not trying to rip you off (a favorite pastime of taxi drivers all over the non-English-speaking world), transportation workers are giving you attitude (we've all encountered those snooty flight attendants who act like coach is acceptable only if you're working in it), or barking at you, or ignoring you altogether.

In the rare instance that a transportation worker is kind to me -- like the lady in Haifa who patiently explained how to get from the bus terminal to my hotel without paying, and smiled while she was doing it! -- I'm completely floored. I feel grateful, as if he or she has done me the greatest favor, not just something that should be a part of their job description.

As I pointed out in a blog post a couple of years ago, taxi drivers are the worst offenders, rigging meters, inflating prices, and making life en route to anywhere fraught with anxiety and/or suspicion. Yesterday I watched as my taxi driver and the woman with whom I was sharing a ride from the HaShalom bus terminal in Tel Aviv to my friend's house outside of the city spent half of the trip yelling at each other in Hebrew because, she reasoned, if he was going to charge me 130 NIS ($37) when I was riding solo, why was he now charging her 70 ($20) and me 90 ($25.50) instead of charging both of us 65 ($18)?

"It's not right, but it's okay," she said, finally giving up, as I'd done before I even got into the taxi. I wondered if she realized that she'd just quoted the late Whitney Houston. I was impressed by both the entertaining pop-cultural reference -- whether intended or not -- and the zest with which she'd stuck up for me (so typical of Israelis, who, transportation workers aside, had been exceedingly gracious to me during my previous five weeks in the country). But I knew the driver, so typical of countless others I'd encountered throughout the world, from his mindless chatter to his oily outstretched palm, wouldn't budge.

Later that day, en route on a bus from Tel Aviv to Eilat, I watched another screaming match, this one between a male and female passenger at the back of the bus over what I presumed was his shouting into his mobile phone at whomever he was talking to while she was trying to nap. For once, I rooted on the driver as he stopped the bus and sent them to opposite sides of it like grade-school kids.

I might have totally missed this Eilat city view sitting
in the back of a taxi.
Taxi and bus experiences like the two above are the reason why I prefer to walk everywhere, which, I suppose, has several advantages, though none quite beneficial enough to redeem transportation workers for their general unpleasantness. You get to know a city better and experience it more intimately when you're walking through it than when you're driving through. And if taxi drivers were better people and bus drivers less impatient, I probably still would have the scrawniest calf muscles on the planet.

Unfortunately, for a frequent traveler like me, some form of public or taxi transportation is unavoidable, unless you can afford a private plane and a chauffeur to greet you at any airport in the world. I'm so conditioned by travel guide books to expect the worst of taxi drivers at airports, in particular, that when I arrived at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, and a taxi driver approached me, offering to take me to my rental for what I presumed was an exorbitant fare (160 NIS, or $45), I accused him of trying to rip me off and flounced away.

The joke was on me: I marched over to an "official" taxi, which ended up costing me 30 NIS ($8.50) more. I never took another taxi in Tel Aviv until four weeks later, when I left Tel Aviv to go to Jerusalem, where I was charged 50 NIS ($14) for a ride from Jerusalem's central station to Hillel 11 that the hotel's receptionist who checked me in said should have cost me 30. I never took another taxi in Jerusalem.

In Bangkok, it was never about the money -- taxis there are dirt cheap, even when the drivers are trying to rip you off -- but rather a matter of principle. I once dated a guy who got into a fist fight with three taxi drivers in Bangkok after he scoffed at one of them who had attempted to overcharge him. I was hardly surprised when he told me about the altercation the next day, despite the generally meek and mild disposition of Thai people.

I knew how to handle crooked drivers in Bangkok, but the crabby workers at Warsaw's central train station were beyond my realm of expertise. I knew I'd never be back within minutes of my arrival. Ironically, the first person to be nice to me in Warsaw was also my first and only taxi driver during my three-day stay there. He was friendly, chatty, informative, and he rescued me from having to walk to dinner in the rain.

Naturally, he overcharged me.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Lou Reed: The Godfather of Alternative Rock (1942-2013)

I arrived at the temple of Lou Reed relatively late in life (when I was on the cusp of adulthood), and in the two and a half decades that followed, I never quite got around to paying him the respect that he deserves.

In my life and in my music collection, Reed was always overshadowed by peers like David Bowie and Iggy Pop. Everybody knows "Walk on the Wild Side," his 1972 Bowie-produced solo single and lone Top 20 hit, but as a kid, I noticed it more for the line "And the colored girls go 'Doo doo doo doo doo doo doo..." than for the guy who sang/wrote it, arguably the first, if not the biggest, influence, on future generations of alternative rockers.

(It could be worse: There's an entire pop fanbase out there who might know the former frontman and main songwriter for Rock and Roll Hall of Famers The Velvet Underground primarily through "Wildside," Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch's 1991 homage to his greatest hit, or as the guy who denied Susan Boyle clearance to sing his solo classic -- and "Wild Side" B-side -- "Perfect Day" on America's Got Talent in 2010.)

I didn't start to become aware of his work as his work until 1988, the year the Canadian band Cowboy Junkies became the next big thing (for a very short time frame) with its hushed, mournful cover of "Sweet Jane." It was one of the best-known Velvet Underground songs, though not by me until the first time I heard the Junkies version, and its origins were revealed to me by someone, probably my friend Jennifer, who had the Junkies' The Trinity Sessions on cassette, or Adam Curry on MTV.

Along with R.E.M.'s remakes of "There She Goes Again" and "Pale Blue Eyes" (featured on Dead Letter Office, a 1987 album of R.E.M. rarities and B-sides that I bought on vinyl in 1988 at Record Mart during my freshman year at the University of Florida in Gainesville) and an early '90s cover of "Venus in Furs" by a long-forgotten band called Eye & I, it was my musical primer on The Velvet Underground.

The following year, Reed released New York, his 16th solo album and one that was regarded at the time as something of a creative comeback, that the name Lou Reed began to mean more to me. It was thanks to the single and video "Dirty Blvd.," which, like 99.9 percent of his previous singles, solo and with The Velvet Underground, failed to become a mainstream hit -- though it did top Billboard's Modern Rock Tracks chart.

I remember keeping track of the progress (or rather, lack thereof) of both Reed's New York and Sheena Easton's The Lover in Me as they hovered around the fringes of the Top 40 on Billboard's Top 200 album chart for weeks (New York would peak at No. 40, while The Love in Me would only go as high as of No. 44, despite launching a No. 2 Hot 100 hit with the title track), wishing they'd both go much much higher.

It would be two and a half years before I'd move to New York City and experience the true grit that Reed was talk-singing about firsthand, but something about "Dirty Blvd." rang so true for this teenager who had still only dreamed about New York City. Like Bob Dylan, Reed wasn't so much a singer as a storyteller, a proto-rapper from back in his "Wild Side" days, spreading hard, harsh truths about the mean streets of the city he loved and called home, like a poet/journalist with a guitar.

Three years later, Reed released Magic and Loss, a requiem inspired by the deaths of two of his mentors, Doc Pomus and Andy Warhol, that featured "What's Good," a second Modern Rock Tracks No. 1 and the song I consider to be his crowning later achievement, which had previously appeared in medley form with Magic and Loss opener "Dorita" on the soundtrack to the 1991 Wim Wenders film Until the End of the World. Reed's contribution helped elevate it to the status of my favorite soundtrack of the '90s, until Trainspotting (which featured Reed's aforementioned "Perfect Day") came along five years later.

Now someone else will have to write a musical elegy fitting for Reed, who died on October 27 at age 71 in Southampton, New York, from complications related to the liver transplant he received in May. I remember spotting Reed once years ago on the streets of New York City with his then-girlfriend Laurie Anderson, whom he married in 2008. His disposition was as stoic as his songs. He didn't say a word, and he wasn't looking around, just straight ahead. But I was certain he was taking in everything, collecting inspiration for a future great song.

I was too shy to approach him to thank him for the music. I didn't want to get the same kind of brush off that I once saw Deborah Harry give a fan who asked her for an autograph while she was dining at my friend's restaurant in Chelsea. Now I wish I'd sucked it up and offered him the compliment. I'll never get another chance to do it now.

The Best of Lou Reed

"Sweet Jane"

"Pale Blue Eyes"

"Walk on the Wild Side"

"Dirty Blvd."

"What's Good"

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Haifa, Israel: The Best Seat in the House of the Holy Land?

There's an episode of the TV sitcom How I Met Your Mother ("Hooked," the one with Carrie Underwood) in which Barney offers an interesting throwaway theory: Average girls turn gorgeous and beautiful ones are even hotter when they travel in packs.

He uses the examples of nurses, flight attendants and pharmaceutical reps, all former or current "hot chick" professions in Barney's lustful estimation. I haven't seen enough herds of pharmaceutical reps to draw any conclusions about them, but I've spent enough time in airport terminals and BNH Hospital in Bangkok to wholly agree with Barney about flight attendants and nurses.

Though it's not exactly a profession (unless we're talking surfers, who are even sexier by the dozen), I'd add shirtless guys on the beach to the hotter-in-groups list. During the hours I spent running along the Mediterranean in Tel Aviv, I lost my breath so many times over one torso-baring guy after another, many of whom I might not have noticed had I jogged by them individually in a part of town where they weren't surrounded by similarly built and under-attired men.

I should say here that I'm speaking from a purely aesthetic angle. In a bar or in a club, I'm generally more likely to be drawn to someone who's dancing on his own, and looking slightly out of place while he's at it, than I would be to the life of the party, the one who's encircled by other hotties. They may all look even better than they would solo, but I wouldn't necessarily want to meet any of them. The beautiful stranger or jukebox hero off to the side, away from the action, holding his own on his own, might not have the safety of numbers to prop up his strictly aesthetic appeal, but his positioning (alone, off to the side) would likely make him all the more desirable (to me).

It's the human angle to location, location, location, an everything-looks-better-in-the-right-setting sister theory to Barney's (which is all about location -- in a group) that has long been applied to hotels and homes and the cities they're in. Haifa, Israel's third-largest metropolitan area and its unofficial northern capital, might very well be the perfect application of the latter. When you fall smack dab between a mountain (in Haifa's case, Carmel) and the Mediterranean Sea, you really can't lose. It's like snagging the best seat in first class.

If Haifa were in a fully reclining position at the front of an aircraft, it would be dressed way down in a t-shirt and jeans and wearing no make-up. From an architectural/visual standpoint, compared to the far more polished Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, Israel's first and second cities, respectively, Haifa is a fixer upper that, at the very least, could use a fresh coat of paint.

Litter-strewn sidewalks give it the look of being in recovery from last night's party, which is ironic, given Haifa's reputation as the major Israeli city with the strong worth ethic. Jerusalem prays, Tel Aviv plays, Haifa works, they say.

No, Haifa isn't exactly a looker. But look away from the somewhat shabby buildings before you while walking east on, say, Haziyyonut Avenue toward the Hadar district, and turn to the right, toward the communities dotting Mount Carmel above, or turn to the left, toward the Mediterranean below, and you'll be looking at two of the country's most spectacular views.

Haifa is not without its remarkable architecture (any medium-sized city would kill to have structures as spectacular as the Shrine of the Bab in the Baha'i Gardens and the futuristic government office building in Qiryat HaMemshala Park as part of its skyline), but Haifa's most stunning aspect is the nature surrounding it, and the nature that it's built upon, not the city itself. It's a natural beauty who wears an off-the-rack dress, flats and a casual ponytail to the ball.

If Haifa were relocated to the flat interior of a country -- say, where St. Louis is now -- I wouldn't even be writing about it. It probably wouldn't turn anyone's head. But in its prime location location location, on the slopes of Mount Carmel, overlooking the Mediterranean, I can stop looking at it.

Five Great Views in Haifa's Baha'i Gardens (aka the Hanging Gardens of Haifa)

Friday, October 25, 2013

Dreaming of Paradise: 10 Songs That Take Us There

Spending the last few months in so many gorgeous settings, has gotten me thinking a lot about paradise: What is it? Where is it? How do we get there?

According to Charlene in her 1982 No. 3 hit "I've Never Been to Me" (co-written by Ron Miller and Kenneth Hirsch and first recorded by the great Randy Crawford in 1976), "it's a lie, a fantasy we create about people and places as we'd like them to be." The Oxford Dictionary's take: "an ideal or idyllic state or place." 

In the beginning, that would have been the Garden of Eden. But Adam and Eve were the only two people who ever got to enjoy the breathtaking splendor in the grass there. Since their banishment from the first paradise, it's been up to all of us to find our own -- here on earth or in the imagined afterlife. 

For Christians, it's heaven, a place I've always imagined to be another white city, where angels sing, the band plays harps, and the sweet nectar flows freely. That's not exactly my kind of social scene, but when I think of the scorching hot alternative way down below, I'd gladly spend eternity lounging on a little fluffy cloud in a tunic as the angel choir provides the soundtrack.

Frankly, though, I prefer the more secular version of paradise, which, for most, would probably involve a beach. It would be a land far, far away from home, where you can walk on the water, splash around in it, or just sit and admire it, while sipping a primary-colored cocktail. 

For me, paradise doesn't necessarily involve a beach, though an obstructed view of one never hurts. When my mind takes me to paradise, I'm usually on top of a mountain, looking out at miles of nature in the distance, at the trees, at the blue sky. My paradise is blue, green and brown, and I'm definitely admiring it solo.

Paradise inspires so many mental settings, so many moods, so many songs. When songwriters dream of paradise, it's usually an emotional rescue, a state of mind for two, a perfect place for all of the senses, especially sound. Have you ever noticed that there are no bad songs about paradise? Here are 10 that prove that point.

"Paradise" Sade

"Paradise" Coldplay

"Paradise" Freddie Jackson

"Paradise" Robbie Nevil

"Paradise (Not for Me)" Madonna

"Paradise Is Here" Cher

"Paradise by the Dashboard Light" Meat Loaf

"Two Tickets to Paradise" Eddie Money

Pastime Paradise" Stevie Wonder

"Gangsta's Paradise" Coolie featuring L.V.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Jerusalem Vs. Tel Aviv: And the Winner Is...

The best things in life aren't free. (Trust me, you get what you pay for, and in Israel, one of the most expensive countries I've ever visited, you pay a lot). The best things in life are totally unexpected.

Which brings me to Jerusalem. I'm so glad that four days ago, a bus brought me here from Tel Aviv, a city that had hovered near the top of my travel bucket list for years, ever since I dated Amir, a guy from there, in whose Brooklyn apartment I spent the Y2K New Year's Eve. I'd always made the same mistake that I suspect many others do, thinking of Tel Aviv as being synonymous with Israel, the way many foreigners associate New York City and the United States.

If you've seen Tel Aviv, you've seen Israel, right?


If my day trips to Galilee and Akko (with those gorgeous views of Haifa along the way toward the latter) inspired the realization that Tel Aviv is but one of Israel's multiple sides, Jerusalem has driven that point home. A recurring theme during my time here has been the friendly competition between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, Israel's two largest cities, only an hour or so apart by bus. The rivalry was pretty much unspoken during my four weeks in Tel Aviv, but then, as with Sydney vs. Melbourne, it's always the underdog that's most vocal about the dog race.

Whether visitors prefer Tel Aviv or Jerusalem is entirely a matter of taste. On a purely superficial level, if you love the beach, and partying is a priority, you'll probably appreciate Tel Aviv more. It's the Los Angeles of Israel: glamorous, easygoing and perhaps just a little bit shallow. The bartender at basher, a cool, cavernous restaurant in Jerusalem's hipster/boho Mahane Yehuda district compared Tel Aviv to a beautiful lady who doesn't have much to say. Bingo!

(The basher bartender also asked if Jerusalem was what I thought it would be. "Did you expect to see people riding around on camels?" The beasts of burden hadn't actually crossed my mind, but two days later, I did see several of them and a young boy riding a donkey on Mount of Olives.)

I'd take the human analogy a bit further (and gayer) by comparing "The White City" (as Tel Aviv is affectionately called, due to its dominant color scheme) to a buffed and bronzed Chelsea boy in New York City -- and not just because the men in Tel Aviv (especially the ones you see running along the beach) are so perfectly sculpted, if you are into that sort of plucked, bemuscled gay beauty. Tel Aviv, though one of the most gay friendly places I've ever been to, is totally mainstream, as so many cities that revolve around beach culture are, from the music you hear when you go out (Katy, Rihanna, Britney, Gaga -- again) to what people are wearing (or not wearing).

One of the most surprising things about Jerusalem (aside from how much I love it) is its countercultural presence, which extends beyond one corner (Dizengoff and Frishman in Tel Aviv, my favorite intersection there) and permeates pockets throughout the city. There are fewer perfect bodies (or perhaps they're hidden under the extra layers that Jerusalem's cooler climate requires), but I see guys wearing long dreadlocks, people with nose rings and so many tattoos. When I was walking through an Arab neighborhood in East Jerusalem, four young schoolgirls actually stopped me to tell me how much they loved the bull tattoo on my right arm.

That's the sort of thing that probably would never happen in Tel Aviv, from the compliment right down (and up and down and up) to the experience of ascending and descending steep inclines through Arab neighborhoods. I'd read that Jerusalem is the intersection of three monotheistic religions -- Judaism, Islam and Christianity -- so I came here expecting a confluence of religious cultures more than camels.

But aside from sections of the old city dedicated to each of those three religions, I hadn't seen much evidence of Jerusalem's diversity until I checked out of Hillel 11, my hotel in the city center, after three nights there and walked to Commodore Hotel, a "four-star" accommodation in the eastern part of the city. Over there, Jerusalem becomes almost an entirely different place, with Arab print on the storefronts and Muslim women walking up and down the hilly terrain to their destinations.

Standing on the top of the hill on the corner of Sultan Suleiman and Derech Yeriho at the northeastern edge of the old city for the first time, looking down at the various city pockets below and over at the other hills in the distance, it finally hit me: What a massive metropolis! In some ways, the hilly eastern part of Jerusalem reminds me of Istanbul, another Muslim-dominated metropolis, only with far more dramatic inclines.

The most dramatic one I encountered was the one leading up Mount of Olives to the top of the city, where there's a look-out point with the most stunning view of the Dome of the Rock in the old city. It's the shot I've seen on the cover of so many Jerusalem travel guides and in countless professional photos of the city.

Standing on the top, I thought about how odd it is that a city that's been the disputed capital of both Israel and the State of Palestine for years, with Israel claiming it within its boundaries, has as its most iconic structure, an Islamic building to which Jewish Israelis and other non-Muslims have severely restricted access. (I was tersely turned away by a guard when I attempted to walk up the steps of the old city leading to the grounds leading to the entrance on my first day in town.) It's an almost poetic sort of justice, considering the bureaucratic process that Palestinians must negotiate to enter Jerusalem at all.

The great irony is that the Holy Land-defining conflict between the two sides, Israel and Palestine, is tied to the Jewish and Islamic presence and influence in the city that both countries call their capital, which are precisely what make Jerusalem such a distinctive experience. I'm thankful for the annoyance of having had to change hotels (due to Hillel 11's lack of vacancy my two final nights in Jerusalem), for had I not had to go east to get to the Commodore, I might have missed a side of Jerusalem -- and perhaps its best view, too -- that contributes so greatly to its landscape, literally and more figuratively.

Who do I love now? Tel Aviv or Jerusalem? I love both, almost equally. Tel Aviv has less cultural, historical, political and religious significance and far fewer sights, but its easily negotiable grid set-up, Mediterranean running route, and flatter terrain, make it the more livable of the two, a quality it shares with Melbourne, one of my Top 3 favorite cities.

If I were to move to Israel (and believe me, I've considered it a few times in the last nearly five weeks), it would be to Tel Aviv, in large part for its livability but also because it's not as dominated by religion as Jerusalem, where I've been asked by strangers about my own beliefs several times. Considerably more secular, Tel Aviv doesn't shut down entirely on Shabbat, which I'm told is devoutly observed in Jerusalem, almost to a very inconvenient fault. Rani at 5th of May told me that if you don't close up shop by 4pm on Friday, you run the risk of being ostracized, vandalized or, worse, damned to hell for all eternity.

On every other day of the week, Jerusalem is more like Rome, also in my Top 3, brimming with religion, culture, history and unbelievable views. Walking through it, I keep having to stop and gasp, as breathless from what I'm seeing as I am from the steep climb to see it. I wouldn't necessarily want to live here (something else it has in common with Rome), but as a visitor, it's been a richer, more rewarding travel experience than Tel Aviv.

Thank God I didn't cram it into a two-day tour package including stopovers in Bethlehem and the Dead Sea. No visit to Israel would be complete without at least several days spent here. You haven't seen Israel until you've done more than just see Jerusalem. It's going to be so hard to leave tomorrow.

Five Stunning Jerusalem Views

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Mineral Beach: When the Desert Meets the Almighty Sea

After a few false alarms in Thailand (where the beaches are so lovely, anyone could fall in love -- on them or with them), it's confirmed: I'm not a beach person. I enjoy being near one, or above one, with a perfect view of waves rushing in down below, but I have no business being on one.

I spent an entire month living one block away from the Mediterranean Sea in Tel Aviv, running alongside it for one hour several times a week, but I only stepped foot on the sand once. I was told by the mother of a good friend who is from Tel Aviv that I at least had to allow my entire body to experience the water just once, but she was wrong. Stepping off the shore into water high enough to reach my ankles was good enough for me. I didn't miss a thing.

Don't get me wrong: I love beaches -- but more for the visuals they provide than for the full-on experience of being on one. I'm just not the guy who ever wants to spend all day lounging about in the sun by any body of water, getting blacker by the minute. But give me an 80-minute hot rock/Swedish massage, followed by 15 minutes floating in a hot spring adjacent to the Dead Sea, and how could I resist not going there -- for at least 15 minutes or so of idle shore time?

The weather couldn't have been more beautiful yesterday at Mineral Beach between the Dead Sea and the Judean Desert in east Israel, but rather than plopping down on a towel and letting the sunshine into my pores, I wanted to experience the scenery from as many points of view as possible. At the intersection of desert, mountains and sea, with Jordan visible just across the water (now I'm even more excited about my trip to Amman next week), the possibilities were nearly unlimited.

In the end, I skipped Mineral Beach's supposedly healing mud bath that's a huge draw for so many tourists and sought to maximize my visual experience by roaming the grounds of the resort, then walking a kilometer or two under the desert sun to the bus stop along the main road. That was where I waited for at least one hour for bus 421 to return me to Jerusalem, while taking photos and video (see below) and wondering how Moses did it. How on earth did he and his people wander in the desert for 40 years?

I don't know if this particular stretch of the Promised Land would be worth a four-decade delay, but the one-hour bus ride from Jerusalem (plus the one-hour wait and the one-hour return trip) was such a small price to pay to experience this side of paradise.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

O Little Town of Bethlehem: A Place That Revolves Around the Two Things You Should Never Discuss

I crossed the Israeli-Palestinian border into Bethlehem expecting a religious experience, and what I ended up having was a surprisingly political one. When my driver -- a 41-year-old Kuwait native who now considers the State of Palestine, what's left of it, to be his home and homeland -- asked me if I knew about the significance of Bethlehem, I couldn't believe the question. Who doesn't know about the significance of Bethlehem?!

"Of course, I do," I answered, as we arrived at Bethlehem's reason for being for most tourists: the Church of the Nativity. To be frank, the Church's entire set-up seemed so arbitrary. How would anyone know that is the exact spot where Mary gave birth to baby Jesus, or that was where Mary and Joseph placed the manger, a few meters away?

I'm assuming that birth certificates weren't filed at the dawn of the first millennium, so no details about the birth of Jesus (from the date to the baby's weight) are indisputable. Unless someone at the birth scene was aware of baby Jesus's future significance, no X would have marked the spot where this and that happened. But I got it: It's more about what it represents than what may or may not have transpired there, hence the woman bawling right outside the birth area and the tourists caressing the overlay on the ground where Jesus supposedly entered the world.

As the church employee who had helped me avoid the long line of tour groups led me from the birth area to the exit, he was unconcerned with my impression of what I'd just seen. He was in a U.S. state of mind, expressing his appreciation of the American way as it encompasses two things: President Barack Obama and black people.

"Can I tell you something?" he asked, moving closer, as if he was about to tell me a deep, dark secret or commit the ultimate act of blasphemy and was afraid that God might hear.

"Of course," I answered, bracing myself for anything.

"I love people with skin like yours, but I hate white people. F**k the white people!" He continued on his up-with-blacks/down-with-whites tangent, throwing in words of praise for Barack Obama, as if I should consider his accomplishments to be my own, until we were outside, surrounded by the very people he was disparaging. I was too stunned to say anything, but I was as horrified by his pronouncements as I was by the fact that he had made them while we were in the holiest of places.

Alas, Barack Obama and black people would end up being the recurring theme of the day. Apparently, black is the new black, as both the color and the most prominent political representation of it since Nelson Mandela are high on the Palestinian "In" list. One of the first things my driver said to me after I revealed my nationality was that I reminded him of someone he knew.

"You have the face of this guy from New York who is my friend on Facebook." I cringed in my shotgun seat, where I'd parked myself after he insisted that I sit in front of his taxi instead of in the back. I knew what he meant. His Facebook friend wasn't my doppelganger, just another black guy. My driver seemed disappointed when I told him that I am not an athlete nor do I have any interest in sports, but he was nonetheless pleased to be in the company of an African-American. Let the politics begin!

"I hate George Bush, but I love Barack Obama," he said, before launching into a tirade about the sins of the father (George Bush Sr.), which, in his eyes, went back to when what he perceives as the former U.S. President's oil interests led him to launch the 1990 Gulf War to save the driver's native country from the clutches of Iraq. So much for gratitude, I thought to myself, though I agreed with pretty much everything he said.

So, apparently, did the man who stopped me as I exited the Bethlehem University campus.

"Are you from the U.S.?"


"George Bush. [He made a thumbs-up gesture with one hand and a blow job one with the other.] Barack Obama [Two thumbs up]."

Got it. Clearly today was going to be all about politics. I knew it from the moment my driver and I arrived at the tourist information center across from the Church of Nativity, and he launched into a monologue about Israel vs. Palestine while using a map that showed how much the State of Palestine dwindled between 1948 and 1967 as exhibits A through D (for the four periods represented on it).

He left me alone for a couple of hours to ponder everything he'd said so far while I walked around Bethlehem's city center. By the time we got to the wall separating Bethlehem from Jerusalem, I knew exactly what he'd meant when he had asked if I knew the significance of Bethlehem. Because of the Israeli-constructed barrier separating Jerusalem and Bethlehem, which keeps Palestinians out of the capital city unless they procure special permission from the Israeli government to enter it, the birthplace of Jesus Christ is also a symbol of the ongoing political tension between Israel and Palestine.

I listened intently as he spent nearly one hour explaining to me why he is a man without a country (referring to his adopted homeland), how he can't freely enter his own capital city (Jerusalem, considered to be the capital of Israel or the State of Palestine, depending on which country you're from) and other key Palestinian cities like Hebron and Jericho, and how he hopes to live to see the dawning of a separate-but-equal peace, one in which the two countries can co-exist harmoniously. He's waiting for the day when Palestinians can travel freely between the State of Palestine's cities without having to deal with checkpoints going in and out of the Israeli territory that separates the plots of remaining Palestinian land. He name-dropped Nelson Mandela, comparing the plight of Palestinians to that of African blacks during South Africa's Apartheid era, and called the Israeli-built barrier their own Berlin Wall.

It was a lot to process, and I wanted to be sympathetic without completely letting Palestine off the hook because I'd been conditioned by the media and by Palestine's own actions over the years to think of the country as one that approved of terrorism. The truth, though, is that, like most Americans, I don't know enough about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

I was happy to be learning more about it, but before drawing any conclusions, I wanted to hear the Israeli point of view, which, I imagined, likely would have described the wall as security insurance against Palestinian attacks. (Naturally, I kept this idea to myself, not wanting to offend my driver.) Not one person I'd met in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem had ever spoken of it, but for obvious reasons (I watched a man I presumed to be Palestinian being escorted off the bus on the way back into Jerusalem when the woman checking passports took issue with his), it seemed to be the hottest topic in Palestine.

Thankfully, my day in Bethlehem wasn't all about politics. Walking through the old city solo was a highlight of the time I've spent in the Holy Land, if only for the fact that it all seemed so real. Outsiders generally visit Bethlehem in tour groups to cross the Church of the Nativity off of their to-see list. So once you move away from the birthplace of Christ and enter the actual city, what you get is the flip-side of a place like Venice, 95 percent real life.

I felt like the only foreigner in a sea of local authenticity, walking through the marketplace, watching middle-aged Muslim women checking out hoodies with pictures of cats on them as well as the FOX logo (as in the American TV network). In an environment completely dominated by Arab life -- from the music coming out of speakers everywhere, to the CDs and DVDs on sale, to the language used in the menus in the eateries, to the holy prayers I heard coming from some unseen place -- it was the sole evidence of any awareness of U.S. pop culture beyond Obama.

I felt guilty taking photos, like an auspicious interloper, a tourism paparazzo. After snapping a few shots, I put the camera away. I wanted to enjoy the magic moment, experience it, appreciate it, and, most of all, live it.

Monday, October 21, 2013

My First Six Impressions of Jerusalem

1. Just as Sydney vs. Melbourne in Australia, North of the Yarra vs. South of the Yarra in Melbourne, East Coast vs. West Coast in the U.S.A., and Red States vs. Blue States on Election Day there, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are embroiled in their own brand of one-on-one unarmed combat, a geographically and culturally defined competition.

I started to suspect this much the afternoon before my departure from Tel Aviv when I was at the home of the woman from whom I was renting my apartment there, and her husband emphatically announced his hatred of Jerusalem without offering a single coherent reason why. I knew it for sure shortly after I checked into Hillel 11 in Jerusalem the following morning.

Even if the guy at reception hadn't mentioned the rivalry himself, I would have gotten it from the way he dismissed TLV's Ben Yehuda Street ("Everybody stays there," he sniffed, after guessing that I did, too) while raving about Jerusalem's, touting its bustling shopping/nightlife scene. He then proceeded to spend the next 30 minutes selling his city, pointing out all of the exciting things I can do in Jerusalem, handing me various maps and explaining how I can get to know the city and see all of the attractions around it (Bethlehem, the Dead Sea) without being at the mercy of any tour guides.

His sales pitch didn't include a word about the hotel he was checking me into, not even when he showed me to my room, a four-star "economy studio" which, frankly, could have used the build-up more than the city it's in.

2. Tel Aviv plays, Jerusalem prays, the old saying goes (or maybe it's the other way around). But even if you didn't see the cities in action, doing what they do best, you'd have no trouble telling them apart. On a visual level, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem couldn't be more dissimilar. Jerusalem is the massive inland metropolis in Israel's tale of two cities (think Madrid and Sao Paolo in Spain's and Brazil's, respectively, only in the mountains, therefore considerably curvier), a proper urban experience. Tel Aviv, meanwhile, is far less congested (from a traffic, if not pedestrian, standpoint), quainter, with the waterfront picture-postcard feel of Barcelona and Rio.

If I prefer Tel Aviv ever so slightly, despite my obsession with cities that offer mountain views, it's only because it's warmer there. Still, even after less than 24 hours in Jerusalem, I think I'd be more than happy lingering indefinitely in either one.

Guys to the left, ladies to the right.
3. Apparently, women in Jerusalem are more comfortable with public displays of holiness than men are. The latter get more than twice as much prayer space along the Western Wall, but considering the number of praying people on the men's side vs. the number on the women's side, a switch might be in order. At first, I tried to enter the women's domain, because I wasn't paying attention, and I just assumed that the side with the line was where I needed to be. I've done that before when going to the restroom, and I don't need to tell you where I almost ended up!

4. Maybe the ladies in Jerusalem are making up for childhoods spent largely out of sight. During my first afternoon walking through the old city, I saw multiple groups of boys under the age of 10 who were playing and hanging out with their friends as well as solo ones who were helping adults mind the stores. But I saw very few girls under military age who weren't tourists anywhere in the old city, which made me wonder where they were all hidden away.

5. Want to get your money for nothing in Jerusalem's old city? Don't approach tourists at the various gates or at key spots asking, "What are you looking for?" (I got that one so many times during my first afternoon in the old city, I thought I was on Grindr!), and put away the red string.

Pick a spot slightly removed from one of the major attractions, and greet a random passerby with an even more random question ("Did you enjoy the Jewish Quarter?", for instance, right outside the Moslem Quarter). Don't ask if they need any help because that will give away your agenda as quickly as pouncing on them at one of the entrances to the Western Wall. Once you've gotten their attention, offer a little information about yourself, then ask something about them. Keep the small talk going, and once they've let down their guard, apologetically make a small request: "Do you have any shekel that you can spare?"

Only the coldest-hearted tourist will be able to turn down the friendly local they've just spent several minutes talking to. I certainly wasn't going to deny the older gentleman who tried this ploy on me. He was rewarded with 10 shekel (roughly $2.80) for his efforts. But as Roger Daltrey once sang on the 1971 classic by The Who, I won't get fooled again.

6. If you can judge a city by the coincidences it offers, then I was completely sold on Jerusalem by the end of my first night here. While exploring the areas that the Hillel 11 receptionist recommended, I came across a walkway off Agrippas in the Mahane Yehuda district that reminded me of those covered outdoor food courts in Bangkok and took a stool at the bar with a kitchen set up along the walkway, Bangkok-style.

That's when I noticed the joint's business card. Where had I seen that card before? Oh my God! It was the 6th of May -- only the 5th of May, the sister bar and, as everyone there was quick to tell me, the original version of my favorite place in Tel Aviv. The 6th of May bartender had told me all about it, but I had forgotten that I wanted to try to find it. Now, in one of those magic-moment twists, here I was.

Rani, the cute 20-year-old waiter with near-flawless English and perfect teeth who spent his night off drinking with me, raving about Jerusalem (repeating the Hillel 11 receptionist's point about all of its distinctive barrios), and introducing me to his friends (most of whom were also there on their night off) was even more impressed by my twist of fate than I was was. (Incidentally, Rani scored major cool cred by incorrectly guessing my age as 32. His response when I told him that I'm as old as Jennifer Aniston: "What? You're not 50!" Sorry, Jen!)

Despite another adorable bartender peddling free booze, 5th of May was as different from 6th of May as the cities they're in are from each other. If I liked 5th of May even better than my first love, it was because of the alternative crowd (ridiculously friendly and huge for a Sunday night) and the music, an engaging mix of '90s house, '80s new wave, Pixies, Janis Joplin, Jamiroquai, The Rolling Stones, Beyoncé, and assorted weird shit (like the coolest remix of Barbara Mason's 1965 classic "Yes, I'm Ready") from the personal playlists of 5th of May's various employees, none of whom had a clue what the names of any of the songs were. I haven't procured a single souvenir since I stepped foot into Israel, but I'm not leaving Jerusalem without that soundtrack.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

28 Things I'll Miss About Tel Aviv When I'm Gone

I'm off to Jerusalem tomorrow, but first, one last tribute to the place I'll be leaving. Here are 28 reasons why I loved Tel Aviv -- one for each day I spent here -- and why I might very well be back before I leave Israel for good.

1. The southwest corner of Dizengoff and Frishman. The architecture there isn't much to look at, but the granola-hot passersby are. It's my favorite people-watching spot in the entire city.

2. Waking up one block away from the Mediterranean Sea and being able to see all of its different shades of blue on a clear day (i.e., every day).

3. Running along the beach first thing in the morning.

4. The friendly bartender at 6th of May on Dizengoff Square.

5. The hilly city: The inclines are so subtle that you don't even notice you've been walking/running up and down and up and down until your butt muscles are still sore several days later.

6. So many hot, shirtless guys running on the beach.

7. So many hot, shirtless guys using the free workout equipment on Gordon Beach. The emphasis on abdominals-enhancing equipment explains why six-packs abound here.

8. Working out on Gordon Beach with a perfect view of those hot, shirtless guys and the Mediterranean Sea.

9. Vodka with a beer back at Evita.

10. The Tel Aviv movida on Allenby and Rothschild.

11. Isrotel Tower (left), my favorite skyscraper in Tel Aviv. If I ever return to here when someone else is footing the accommodation bill, I know exactly where I'll be staying.

12. The view of Tel Aviv and the Mediterranean from the highest point in the old city of Jaffa (see main photo).

13. Low flying planes landing at Sde Dov Airport as I jog toward the lighthouse in the opposite direction of Jaffa.

14. Granola in the morning for the first time in decades.

15. Frozen supermarket pizza that tastes better than any store-bought pie I've ever had anywhere else.

16. The option of taking one of those shared taxi vans that I never got around to taking.

17. The architectural emphasis on white and off-white that gives "The White City" its nickname.

18. A microwave oven, an elevator in my building, AC everywhere and free shopping bags in supermarkets for the first time since before I arrived in Berlin.

19. Warm, welcoming people, most of whom speak English.

20. Knowing that if I ever ruin my Havaianas here, there are plenty of stores where I can replace them, which was so not the case in Bangkok a few months ago.

21. Pomegranate and mango juice.

22. Three weeks and five days without rain.

23. Highs in the upper 20s, lows in the upper teens to the lower 20s.

24. Free Wi-Fi at Sevidor central train station and on the commuter trains that go up and down the north coast.

25. The friendly blonde waitress at Fresh Kitchen Mapu, the one who made the just slightly above average comfort health food taste a little better and almost justified the "Service not included" on the bill.

26. Watching episodes of the '70s sitcom Maude on YouTube on my nights in during the second half of my stint in Tel Aviv. Though Jewish, Bea Arthur had no link to Tel Aviv that I'm aware of, yet along with Rihanna (whose October 22 concert here is being advertised on posters all over town), she will forever be the diva I most associate with my first trip to the city.

27. Guys who blow you off with or without some lame excuse, saving you the trouble of being the bad guy and leaving you free to be happily home alone, where you secretly wanted to be anyway, to do No. 26. God'll get them for that.

28. The utter gayness of it all.