Originally published as ‘Seeking the Promised Land’ on Cosmopolitan Philippines August 2017
Israel: Birthplace of Jesus, Wonder Woman, and Natalie Portman. The author goes on an adventure that stands out as the most intensely unique of her life — transcending South America and Europe. As the epicenter of the world’s oldest monotheistic religions, we suppose Israel has had over ten thousand years to master the art of transcendence…
“What do you do?” Asked airline security as I presented my passport at Amsterdam’s Schipol airport, where I was transiting to Tel Aviv. “I’m a travel writer,” I said. The interrogater was a blonde, heavyset lady – pleasant but firm.
“Oh really,” she said. “Do you have a company ID? Or a business card to prove that you are?”
Security is tougher than normal on flights to Israel, but that comes as no surprise considering all its neighbours are in a constant state of war with it. I had to overshoot to Europe from Asia and backtrack to the Middle East, because most of the logical layovers in between are Muslim countries: not exactly the best of friends with the guys in Jerusalem.
Filipinos don’t need a visa to Israel, because we were the only Asian country that voted in favor of UN Resolution 181, creating the state of Israel. Although the country is less than a hundred years old, the Jewish people have a long memory, clearly.
“Shalom,” the taxi driver greeted me when I finally got out of Ben Gurion airport. “Shalom,” I tried to say back, the feeling of the word strange on my tongue. It was eleven in the evening on a chilly March evening. None of the trains or buses were open that day, not just because it was late, but because it was the public holiday celebrating the Purim festival.
Tel Aviv was at its merriest that evening, and it only got crazier the later it got. If I hadn’t been so tired from my 20-hour journey, I would have been tempted to join. I gawked at the merry-makers on the street dressed in the most outrageous of costumes.
“Purim is the only fun holiday on the Jewish calendar,” Sapphire told me the following Monday, looking slightly beat from a weekend of partying. She was in charge of Marketing at Abraham Hostel, where I was staying. “That’s why the whole country goes all-out this one time of the year.”
If you can still remember your Bible stories, Purim came about due to the courage of a beautiful Jewish girl named Esther. During the time of the Persian Empire, the king was set to annihilate the Jews on the day of Purim (because they refused to bow down to his scheming Prime Minister). Before it took place however, his new wife, with whom he was eneamored, revealed her true identity and changed his mind.
Everyone was dressed to the hilt in wigs, face paint, and all sorts of embellishments. This went on until Sunday, so I found a spot in a café where I had a good view of the revellers passing by. It was more than enough entertainment for the day as I adjusted to the grungy-trendy neighbourhood I found myself in: Florentin.
On my second day I decided to rent a bicycle and venture further. I found a great list of essential restaurants to try in the city, and chose a nearby Yemeni eatery called Saluf & Sons. I’m a big fan of Middle Eastern food, but since when does anybody ever get a chance to try food from Yemen?!
Everything on the menu looked totally foreign to me. Hebrew writing (from right to left) looked like a bunch of E’s and N’s moving in the wrong direction. I switched to the English part, but it was hardly an improvement: I couldn’t pronounce a single dish except hummus and shakshuka.
The internet told me to go for the vegetarian malawach, a baked wrap of crip pancake or puff pastry packed with vegetables and tomato sauce. My tastebuds exploded with the goodness of such a simple dish, flavour and texture all perfection. A couple of weeks later I brought my girlfriends back to Saluf just to try their food, it was that good. That day was just a prelude to all the delicious cooking I encountered over the next three weeks. The food in Israel across the board is consistently fantastic, from market shouk falafels to fine dining by the sea at Tel Aviv Port. The crazy thing is, their food is so healthy I actually lost weight during my time there.
“Where are you from?” Asked the blonde girl across me at the communal table, also eating alone. “Philippines,” I replied, “and you?” She was from Berlin, another one of my favourite cities in the world, and we hit it off immediately. “I’m working at a coworking space around the corner,” she said, and told me about the artificial intelligence startup she had founded with an Italian partner. They came to Tel Aviv because an Israeli company brought them in to test out their technology.
Another run-up to the kind of people you will meet in the city: as one of the world’s emerging startup capitals (did you know Waze was developed in Israel?), Tel Aviv is full of entrepreneurs, tech geniuses, software engineers, and venture capitalists. A far cry from the kind of people you will meet in other beach cities.
Those were my first two days. You can only imagine what happened next: discovering Israel’s salsa and reggaeton scene, a game of cat and mouse with a 24-year-old soldier boy who thought I was way younger than him, venturing into Palestine to see Banksy’s graffitti in Bethlehem, and much more.
A final lesson: Israel taught me – who once regarded herself as fearless – what it’s really like to live without fear. These people know how to live every day like its their last, an inspiring approach towards life that doesn’t fail to motivate me whenever I look back on that trip.
I ran out of space (2 print pages) to finish my story. Do you think this is worth doing a series of personal essays and stories on my Tel Aviv adventure? 😉