Three Tours, One Hostel Chain – An Experience

During my time in Israel I stayed at Abraham Hostels, both in Jerusalem for the conference (see previous posts on my site) and in Tel Aviv for my volunteering (see next post on my site) and I found the hostel to be the best overall I have ever stayed in.

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Hammocks in the communal area and sage life advice – what’s not to like?

For a very reasonable price (at least in this country!) one can get all their travelling needs met during their stay – if those needs, if you’re anything like me, amount to a clean and quiet room, easy access to convenience stores, easy access to world heritage sites and thousands of years of history, a generous free (vegan-friendly) Israeli-style breakfast every morning, laundry facilities (I like to be clean), a lively bar and communal area which you can dip in and out of as you please… and a wide variety of tours in and around the Middle Eastern area. Abraham Hostels aims to cater to the “independent traveller in the Middle East” and as just such a person at the time – albeit certainly not the most confident in my ability to navigate the area entirely independently, as I hear some do – I was sure that at the very least, one tour would tick all the boxes for me. As I was on something of a budget, and having to try to keep a lid on the notorious single supplement as a result, I had to be selective as to which tours to participate in. Time was also a factor too, having to schedule in at least some recovery time after the conference… so I had to make a difficult choice.

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Part I – Masada Sunrise Tour

The first was a no-brainer, as it was included for free as part of participation in the conference: the sunrise tour of Masada, Ein Gedi and the Dead Sea. For me, floating in the Dead Sea was definitely something to “have done in my life” so I was happy to tag along for free, even if it meant a very early rise. By early, I mean 2am, leaving the hostel at 3am. Like, in the morning.

Somewhere about a quarter of the way up Masada mountain, let’s just say I began to question my wisdom in taking part in such an ambitious feat; this was proper hiking up an actual mountain while it was actually still too dark to see very far in front of you. But the promise of an unforgettable view (and not wanting to embarrass myself in front of the people coming up behind me) spurred me on, and eventually I reached the summit. The view was… well, I think the photos say it better than I can:

Absorbing the majesty of the panorama, and glad to have the hardest part out the way, after an hour or so it was time to go back down. After a few moments of mild panic as I wasn’t sure which bus to get on (having a not-insignificant fear of ending up getting the wrong transport and being stranded in the middle of nowhere, with no phone signal or wifi), we soon headed on to the Ein Gedi nature reserve. The scenery alone was a highlight of my entire trip, as was glimpsing wildlife I had never seen before which was native to the area, and I wish I could have spent more time there, perhaps even doing a longer hike. However time was limited so wandering around for a while and taking photos of the mini-paradise would have to do on this occasion:

The next and final stop was the Dead Sea, the lowest point on Earth and the setting for many amusing photos of people virtually lying on the sea due to the extra buoyancy lent by its famous extreme salinity. I am usually quite hesitant to take part in swimming when travelling alone, not only due to being something of a stranger to swimwear these days but also due to leaving valuables at the mercy of a locker which it is never 100% certain will open again. However on this occasion I felt the risk to be worthwhile, so after suiting up for the first time in a very long time I headed down to see if it all lived up to the hype. Easing myself in slowly, and slightly sinking into the sand for a few worrying seconds, time to simply float for a while…

Of course the type of “swimming” one can do here is limited, because of the sheer saltiness of the water; it’s really not called the Dead Sea for nothing, no life forms can survive in there. This means no full submergence in the water and absolutely NO drinking the water. Due to sheer curiosity however, I couldn’t resist a tiny touch of my tongue to my finger – it tasted like strong chemicals and I had a sore throat for a while afterwards so… yeah, definitely no drinking the water here. Then for the mud scrub which is meant to be amazing for your skin. This was in rather short supply when I was there but I managed to apply just enough to look ridiculous, so thankfully no-one was on hand to take a photo of me in that state. However it really does do wonders for the skin; I didn’t need moisturiser again for quite a while.

Thus concluded the earliest event I have ever taken part in, warranting a much-needed rest upon returning to the hostel, and being optimistic for the next, bigger, tour I was to join the following day: the three day tour of Jordan.

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Part II – Tour of Jordan

 The three-day tour of Jordan was one I signed up for in part due to the timing: it was right between the end of the TBEX conference and the beginning of my next project, and of course with Jordan being so close, it would have been a shame to pass up the opportunity. The tour would span almost the entire length of Western Jordan, thereby involving a LOT of driving, but there are certainly far worse ways to spend a few days in this part of the world… so another extremely early rise was then on the agenda for me.

We departed the hostel in Jerusalem at 6am, going to Tel Aviv to pick up those at the other Abraham Hostel, then doubling back and up to Northern Israel, skirting the infamous Israel/Palestine border wall, looking just as foreboding as one would expect it to. We entered the lush and fertile area near the Israel/Jordan border, going very close to Nazareth, and before long we were on the other side of the border and in Jordan.

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Making the most of the panorama feature in my camera…

Due to some confusion surrounding Daylight Savings’ Time we were left waiting for our tour guide on the Jordanian side for an hour, but it was during that time that I noticed the lovely floral scent in the air, which would characterise – for me – the natural beauty of this region, getting things off to a promising start in the country. Finally the tour guide arrived and we started our journey through the landscape of Northern Jordan. I was surprised at the greenery of the area, and then even more so when the guide informed us that Jordan is the poorest nation in the world for water, rendering it extremely scarce. This would be the first of many occasions on which I would be reminded just how precious a resource it would be, and to use it as wisely as possible while there. This to me seemed contradictory to what I had heard about the abundance of hospitality characteristic to the Jordanian people – it is said that they cannot refuse to cater for visitors to their home, and that they should provide as much as possible. When considered in the context of the apparent poverty of some rural parts of the country which we passed through, this hospitality is all the more remarkable. We would encounter a hallmark of this “extreme giving” by way of the (literally) free-flowing sweet tea we were given whenever and wherever we stopped for any length of time.

After a brief stop at a small campsite for some of the aforementioned tea (and as brief a discussion as was possible about the Israel/Palestine situation), we continued on to the ancient Roman city of Jerash. This place has the distinction of being one of the most well-preserved Roman cities still standing, with many of the ruins still identifiable as what they once were. We were able to wander through the old city while learning about the region and its contribution to the old empire, and proceeded to the main amphitheatre where, from a single spot, one’s voice can be projected clearly throughout the entire arena. Many people amused themselves with this feature for quite a while.

Afterwards we stopped for a buffet-style lunch (in the style that all the meals would end up being served here) at a local restaurant, which perfectly reflected that famous hospitality and abundance which is famous in Jordan. Admittedly, as a vegan, I was apprehensive about encountering a scenario in which this would not be understood, and as a result having to endure a very awkward situation and causing offence, which is the last thing I wanted to do while I was there. However the buffet-style manner of serving food ensured that everyone could help themselves to what they wanted, and as it turned out there was plenty I could eat that was already “accidentally vegan”: hummus, baba ganoush, salads, pitta, etc. I certainly didn’t go hungry while I was there, although I had to take the potential lack of water (and the high price of any beverage) into consideration. Then we headed on down to the nation’s capital, Amman, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. And far prettier than I was expecting.

In Amman we saw the standing stones which were clues to the lengthy history of the city; its name had changed quite a few times over the years, including a spell being called Philadelphia. The views from the hill were spectacular, and made me wish we could further explore the city of Amman. It was here that I saw that kite-flying appears to be the national past-time for Jordanian children, giving me the urge, for the first time in many years, to fly one. Then we continued onward on the long drive to the Bedouin campsite where we would be staying.

The darkness of the night sky meant that the stars came out in such a way that my camera couldn’t even nearly do justice to the sight, so I appreciated the starry sky with my own eyes on the way to, and when we arrived at, the campsite. Nestled amid tealight-strewn rocky hills, it was a cosy and welcoming place to spend the night. The tents were well kitted out for the drastic drop in temperature in the desert at night-time (most thankfully for me) and more of the national hospitality revealed itself in the serving of a generous dinner. Simple but filling, which is just what we needed at the end of the day. Tea was also, once again, freely flowing, and sitting by the campfire was a relaxing and novel way to end the first day. Conducive to yet another early rise in the morning.

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The first and only full day in Jordan was to be mainly about visiting Petra. Because of the sheer scale of the site it would require most of the day simply to navigate and absorb everything. We left the camp and headed out on a still-chilly early morning to Petra, getting a first glimpse of the unique sandstone landscape in the light of day.

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The entrance to the Bedouin campsite

When we arrived we started walking down the famous gorge – which had many more carvings and caves than one would previously think. Many forget that it was actually an entire city, carved from the existing rock in a strategic way in order to divert much-needed water into the right places, and also with many caves created to offer some respite from the glaring sun. Many also forget the size of the place.

This rather lengthy walk would lead to one of the most photographed sites in the world, arguably – the Treasury.

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Oh you know, just this obscure building here.

As one might expect, both the number of tourists and the temperature started to steadily climb but of course the Treasury was the star of the show for many (although we weren’t allowed inside), and warranted some time spent there. In addition to many people, there were also a fair number of camels and donkeys looking increasingly unimpressed as the sun and the throngs grew, who I really wanted to offer some shade. There were also a couple of cats I got to meet at the cafe who seemed much happier chilling out there.

It was definitely turning into layer-shedding time, as we started to hike up literally hundreds of sandstone stairs, vendors soliciting our custom every step of the way, until we reached another part of the old city where the colour of the stone started to show a far wider range. This is when it become apparent just how old, yet how fragile, the place was – the stone came away surprisingly easily upon rubbing – which makes it all the more remarkable how long it has managed to survive.

Quite suddenly, the tour guide suggested that we deviate from the itinerary in order to hike from the monastery overlooking Petra back to the camp. It was very ambitious, especially with an uncertain amount of water available at any given time, but the group as a whole opted to give it a go. I immediately began to have misgivings about not expressing reluctance to undertake this hike, but the tour guide promised we would get for free what others pay a large amount for and the views were indeed awesome. And free. It wasn’t easy to take photos and hike at the same time but the few times we stopped – including for some impromptu Bedouin tea – I managed to take these:

We were exhausted by the time we got back to the camp, to the point where I knew I’d barely be able to move the next day, but strangely enough I didn’t feel it necessarily to decline the offer of a drink at a local bar recommended by the guide. After two of the most expensive drinks I’ve ever had, and another ample Bedouin dinner, it was bedtime. Or rather, tent time.

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We packed up and departed the camp early again (while unbeknownst to me at the time I’d left my camera back in my tent, not to be reunited with it until the day before going home) and headed for Wadi Rum. Not before taking some last photos of the place:

On the way we stopped in at a local store – not unlike a service station by the motorway which can be found at home, except the salespeople are a lot more… enthusiastic, shall we say. Having lost one of my scarves in Jerusalem I was happy to buy one here, which was why I didn’t immediately make a polite exit when approached by a salesman and invited to try one on. It was a chance to be done up in the Bedouin style, complete with eyeliner, and have my photo taken – which I’m not entirely at ease with as can be seen here:

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The Reluctant Bedouin

It was then that the salesman informed me that the scarf contained silk and camel hair; being vegan, I don’t (knowingly) eat or wear animal products of any kind, but I’m also very unskilled at backing out of what can only be described as an intense haggling situation. I made a spur of the moment decision to just buy the scarf to avoid conflict, make use it while in the desert climate and then give it away to someone who would benefit from it upon my return. This is where I ran into my next problem, not having the right currency. I only had Israeli shekels left which the salesman was all too happy to accept but when it came to negotiating change from my bill of twenties… I very nearly lost the equivalent of £30-£40 on the spot for a single scarf which I didn’t even want now. It was then that I simply decided to retreat and apologise profusely, saying I’d made a mistake and no longer wished to buy the scarf (I didn’t now anyway), hoping equally profusely that this wouldn’t result in too much of a “scene”, and then a few members of the group swooped in to my aid, pointing out that I was getting an extremely poor exchange and hugely overpaying, and eventually the salesman gave me the scarf – for free. That was some seriously good haggling in the end, then…

Now feeling guilty, and buying a coffee as compensation, I slunk out of the store in shame and then we headed to our next stop – Wadi Rum. The landscape was becoming a proper desert by then, almost Martian in appearance, and indeed many films had been made in the area. Next up was a jeep tour which felt worryingly precarious on the sand at first but eventually simply added to the thrill. Wrapping my scarf around my head in what can only be described as a parody of the traditional Bedouin style (I couldn’t quite get the hang of it at first) we braved the blazing sun, me reapplying my sunscreen every five minutes, to get some envy-inspiring photos of the desert, of the local Bedouins making natural soap from a native shrub… and of a herd of semi-wild camels wandering across our path to the nearest watering hole. It was good to see animals unrestrained in their natural habitat for a change.

Stopping for Bedouin tea (again) and finally working up the the courage to say “shoo-kran” for said tea, we boarded the tour bus, ending the jeep tour, and proceeded to take our last meal of the tour at a tiny local village. The food was remarkable yet again in its simplicity yet abundance. It was all very healthy and nourishing, just what was needed in this climate. It was then time to brace ourselves for the five hour drive back to the border, where during on of the rest stops along the way I had the pleasure of meeting two very friendly stray dogs. I was careful not to let them get too friendly, of course, but they seemed happy for a bit of attention!

At the border, we bid farewell to our tour guide, who we had gotten to know rather well within the space of just under three days, and passed through customs. It was here that the “unlikely event of being delayed for extra questioning” scenario indeed happened to me, for reasons still not entirely known, but thanks to the prior agreement of the group they were all waiting for me when they were finally done with ascertaining that I was in fact not a threat to national security. Indeed I think this should be the standard practice of every tour, especially for those in a foreign land with no easy way to get to their next destination.

Relieved to be back in Israel, but also glad to have had the experience of visiting Jordan (and having ample opportunity to practice far more diverse landscape photography) it was time for recuperate, and to prepare for the next phase on my trip, the blog of which will be coming soon.

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Part III – Vegan Tasting Tour of Tel-Aviv

As fate would have it, the volunteering placement I took on placed me at the Abraham Hostel in Tel Aviv so it was looking like Abraham Hostels would characterise my entire stay in Israel, which was certainly no bad thing…

I had more time during the week I spent in Tel Aviv, but rather less money (and I’m not quite at the “making millions from my blog” stage) but I was also typically indecisive, being unsure whether I wanted to spend the entire time in Tel Aviv (lively but expensive) or go on another tour of one of the regions of Israel (interesting but exhausting and also potentially expensive) but the one I had my eye on, which was an absolute must-do for me, was the vegan tour of Tel Aviv.

The vegan scene in Tel Aviv, and indeed in Israel, was one of the main draws for me to go there, and anywhere there is a good vegan scene is somewhere I feel considerable more at home. Also because I wanted to meet more like minded people (and enjoy some more great food) I signed up as soon as I knew there was one going on.

Actually I very nearly missed the tour, due to it being rescheduled and then departing early, so I quickly signed up, paid then made a beeline for the first restaurant where they were due to meet called Zakaim, a family run place. There I met three other very nice people, two of them tour guides and the other a visitor like me, and they proceeded to order us some fresh Levantine cuisine – a tomato and basil salad with soya cheese in place of feta – and a shot of Arak, the local liquor. Normally I can’t do shots but it would have been rude not to partake…

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Next we went to another family run place called Bustan 15, where we were treated to a pretty courtyard setting, some lentil burgers and mujadarrah, and some interesting facts about veganism. I was quite proud of my ability to contribute, due to my ongoing experience as a vegan advocate, but also just wanted to appreciate some world class cooking in places which I’d never otherwise have been able to locate, let alone enter, on my own.

We had a pleasant stroll to the next place, seeing some vegan graffiti along the way including the now-famous “269” image – a reference to a calf, with whom animal rights activists got to meet all too briefly, who was wearing an ear tag with the number 269. This came to symbolise the anonymous state which farmed animals are kept in, which has helped to fuel the vegan message here…

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… then we sampled more vegan cream cheeses and an aubergine and pesto dish which was so delicious that I had to try not to finish the entire thing.

Next was a local tiny cafe where half the seats were outside, which allegedly made the best hummus in Tel Aviv. This is where I learned that one could eat hummus, and other dips, with a piece of onion. Not the ideal dish for fresh breath but it was all about the experience and it certainly was an enjoyable one. If only I had nearly enough room for everything. Pictured in the photo here is the tour leader, just as enthusiastic about the quality of the food as I had come to be!

We finished at an all-vegan ice cream parlour, where we were treated to a sample to finish off the evening, along with a take away sample of chocolate tahini – which is incredible, if a bit weird sounding. The tour leaders concluded the tour by saying that they wanted to prove to everyone taking the tour how easy and tasty it is to be vegan, and certainly in Tel Aviv it could hardly be easier to be vegan.

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But perhaps not quite as easy to come up with such offbeat graffiti…

It is estimated that 5% of the Israeli population is now vegan, the highest proportion in the world, with there being the biggest increase in numbers over the past few years. It is believed that reasons for this include a speech by a well known vegan activist being translated into Hebrew, and growing awareness of the ethics (or lack thereof) of the agriculture industry. Indeed veganism is becoming vastly more common almost everywhere in the western world but in Israel the rapid rise of a diet which is both the most morally and environmentally responsible one possible today is encouraging, as it shows the capacity for positive widespread change.

In any case, it was a rather memorable way to spend a spare evening.

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The three tours I undertook with Abraham Hostels were great at demonstrating the potential of the solo traveller to participate in what the region has to offer, and I feel that I selected the best tours for me. However I would like to have taken part in far more tours than I had time for, but then again there’s always another time.

 

 

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