"How many times have you been in Israel?"
"This is my fifth."
Suspicious glance from the Israeli border guard between Aqaba, Jordan and Eilat. "Fifth?"
"Yesh li mishpachah be'Rishon LeZion." ("I have family in Rishon LeZion.")
So, yes, this is now my fifth time coming to Israel. But in a certain way, it's the first.
I've been meaning to write this post for a long time, now, but it's been hard to really crystallize and put into words the difference between my previous visits and this one. "Visit" is a key word -- when it comes down to it, it's the difference between being a visitor and being a tourist. But how to define and illustrate that difference?
The difference itself struck me while David and I were wandering through a part of Jerusalem that I really hadn't seen before. Four previous visits to Israel and I felt like I was seeing the city for the first time.
"You know, in all the times I've been to the Old City, I really haven't been anywhere but the Jewish Quarter?" I told him, faintly wonderous at the revelation.
David was more than faintly wonderous; he was incredulous. "Really??"
It was true. I had been to all the important landmarks of the Old City -- at least, important in terms of Jewish national and historic identity. Other parts of the city were incidental to those visits: you might make a pass through the Arab part of the shouk on your way to the Kotel, for example, or glance at severely-clad Armenian priests walking along the Via Dolorosa as curiosities. Once, when it was still open to tourists, I walked barefoot into the Dome of the Rock and touched the cool, perfumed stone where the world is said to have begun.
But being a visitor meant that our itinerary and experiences were usually tied to whatever it was that brought us to Israel in the first place, usually a family event like a Bar Mitzvah or a wedding. Our "home base" would be my aunt and uncle's home in Rishon, and most sightseeing would be confined to day-trips when there was time in between celebrations, family get-togethers, hanging-out-with-cousins time.
Only one time before had I come to Israel without a celebration, a simchah, at the centre of our trip: when I graduated from university in 1995 and I travelled just with my Dad. The most memorable part of that trip was a two-day trip to Jordan to see Petra and Wadi Rum. In fact, I don't really remember much else from that trip at all, though we probably stayed here for at least 10 days, if not longer, so we must have done other things.
So in planning Israel as our last stop on this trip, I sort of had the idea that it would be a lot like every other time I had come here, but with a month to spend rather than just a couple of weeks. Two weeks always went by so quickly; when I was last here, for my cousin Nadav's wedding, I cursed myself for spending only two weeks, as my flight took me home just as the other cousins were gearing up for a weekend trip to the Sinai for some serious beach time.
But this visit has been almost entirely different in an almost undefinable way -- I can only again point to the difference between being a visitor and being a tourist.
A visitor comes to hang out with her hosts; a tourist comes to see something.
Throughout almost our whole trip, we have been tourists. The only time seeing something wasn't our priority was when we HelpX'ed in France.
I suspect that for David, the expectations about coming to Israel were not that different than those about going to any other country: there were things to see and do, cultures to experience, foods and drinks to taste. Technically, I had already ticked the major sights in Israel off my list: the beaches and markets of Tel Aviv, the Wailing Wall, Yad VaShem, Masada, the Dead Sea, even the Baha'i Gardens in Haifa.
So it was weird being here with a guidebook in hand. Suddenly, I felt bewildered, even unprepared. I wasn't relying on someone else to plan my route, and yet I didn't have a clue where I wanted to go, what I wanted to see. People had sent us literally dozens of suggestions in response to David's canvassing them for opinions of what to do while in Israel, and they all sounded good -- but shouldn't we start with the big, important ones, even if I'd seen them before? Could we even fit the off-the-beaten-path destinations in once we'd filled exhausting days with the usual sightseeing ones?
And how would we get to them? Suddenly I had to learn to negotiate the public transit system. I'd never done that before, and I didn't have a clue. Certainly it was no different than doing so in all the other countries we'd been in... but I'd never been a visitor in those countries, only a tourist, so I was used to looking up schedules and routes, asking drivers and other passengers. It felt weird to be doing so in Israel.
And I could speak the language... sort of. I mean, I was in Hebrew immersion school until I was 12. If someone speaks slowly, uses language no more sophisticated than a Grade 6 vocabulary, and gives me enough context, I can figure out what's being said. I can pick out a few words at a time on a sign. But deciphering more than that is as much an exercise in frustration for me as for anyone else trying to deal with Hebrew -- maybe more so, since it defies the expectation that I should be able to get by. (I'm being a bit dramatic here -- most of the time I can get by, because most Israelis both speak English and are very forgiving to people making an earnest attempt to speak Hebrew. But the reading is still a word-at-a-time pain in the @$$.)
OK, you must be thinking by now, what a rotten time she seems to be having in Israel. She's missing the comforts of being there with Mummy and Daddy, of being chauffeured everywhere, of having a personal translator, of sticking within familiar boundaries.
Of course not! I'm having a great time... it's just taken a little while to get adjusted to being a tourist here, and now that I feel as though I'm quite adjusted, it's almost time to go. Typical! No matter how much time I book myself in this country, it's never quite enough!
I loved, of course, hanging out with my aunt and uncle in their crazy, funky, art-gallery-cum-#1-guesthouse-in-Israel.
I loved walking aimlessly around the streets of Tel Aviv, even if half our time there seemed to be devoted to trying to find clothing to replace the stuff that was in my 2-weeks'-late backpack.
Jerusalem was fascinating, as ever, though even with 4 days there we felt we left it only half explored.
Tiberias was less than inspiring, and we left the north too early because my stomach once again rebelled, but the time we spent in the Galilee and the Golan revealed a startlingly green, mountainous expanse I didn't really fully appreciate before now.
Eilat was as tacky as I remembered -- tackier -- but offered one of the absolute best relaxation experiences ever and was our gateway to Petra.
I had never before climbed Masada at 5:30am to witness dawn breaking over the Jordanian mountains, and it was at once gruelling and exhilarating, and I'm glad we did it.
And, believe it or not, although I had visited the Dead Sea before, I had never floated on it or rubbed its black mineral mud all over myself. Now I have photos of both -- an absolutely essential Israeli tourist cliche.
We're now spending a few days on a moshav just south of the Dead Sea, on the border with Jordan, called Neot HaKikar. Although initially our intention was to work with/for the farmers here, it's been tough finding something to do, in part because the farmer our host intended to hook us up with is on vacation in Germany, in part because the farms are largely staffed already by a very industrious and amusingly incongruous workforce of Thais, and, not insignificantly, because the farmers don't understand why we want to be anything but tourists here.
I think normally I would object to their way of thinking, but, after all my time here, I just can't find it in me to do so.