ISRAEL: my introduction to the Middle East

ISRAEL: my introduction to the Middle East

What motivates you to travel? For me it’s simple: CONNECTION. When I bought my ticket for ISRAEL, I felt pure joy and excitement that I’d get to see my traveling friend Odeya again and connect with her more than a year after our meet-up in Barcelona, España and 19 months after we initially became friends somewhere in the Yucatán in México though we had spent no more than 2 days together. We were however both traveling solo, both amazing females living out our dreams and luckily were staying in the same hostel room, which is how our paths crossed. Barcelona was a nice reunion for us and I made sure we wined and dined all over the city. Our friendship picked up where it had left off, but this time in one of the liveliest cities in Europe. Female travelers and lovers of the new and of exploring el mundo, in this case mainly for Odeya as it was her first time in Spain, we had a fabulous few days together.

Barcelona, Spain highlights
We met up in Barcelona, España last year!!!

Odeya’s from Israel, which is the main reason I would be traveling there, though not the only one. She had told me genuinely several times that I was welcome anytime to come visit her and see her beautiful country. Like I tell all people that invite me anywhere:

If you invite me, I WILL COME! You can’t take it back!

So even though a year had gone by since Barcelona (or any face to face or voice to voice communication), the internet kept us up to date over the past year. I followed her travels and swooned at pictures of her in Sinai, Egypt and we kept saying damn we have to meet again and travel together. . . we just have to. Finally, an upcoming extended holiday from teaching was on the horizon so I wrote her to remind her that she couldn’t take back her offer and that I WAS COMING TO ISRAEL! We talked out the dates and she’d be on holiday from her studies too, so a 2 week trip was hatched. Like all great travel plans begin, we eagerly talked about how we’d go on an adventure around Israel so that I could discover food, culture, iconic treasures like the Dead Sea and Jerusalem, and further we decided on a road trip throughout both the south and north to see other beloved parts of the country. I was so ready for this trip that I didn’t sleep for days before. I couldn’t get it out of my mind that I was finally going to the Middle East. . . I couldn’t believe I’d be traveling to a place whose history dates back thousands upon thousands of years. And I’m not referring to the Bible or Torah, but strictly to the history of all the people that laid claim to this physical place once. . . from Canaanites to Egyptians, Assyrians to Babylonians, Persians, Greeks. . . the list goes on and on.

I had this feeling that I would arrive and be overwhelmed with wonder and curiosity, and yet simultaneously feel the weight of the history of this place on my heart. However, my heart was open from the moment I decided to go forth and connect with both my friend and the physical place that we now call Israel and it is for this reason that I experienced such A MAGICAL TRIP OF MIND AND HEART. I’ll admit right now, hardly any of our travel plans came to be. My friend got really ill after I was with her 6 days and while I initially felt both the fear of being left to my own devices in a foreign country and the disappointment that I wouldn’t get to spend as much time with Odeya,

I surrendered to The Universe, which had something else in store for me. . . and so instead I was led exactly where I was meant to go.

First impressions of Israel only hours after I had landed: BEAUTIFUL, PICTURESQUE, INVITING. From the Mediterranean climate whose sun greeted me on arrival, to the absolutely stunning landscapes painted with olive, pine and cypress trees, the rolling hills and endless fields of wild flowers and wheat not yet ripe for the picking, to an enchanted forest that was just minutes from the city; I was hooked. Add a Falafel-filled pita pocket to the mix purchased from a stand with a self-serve falafel situation, which led to me stuffing 8 or 9 balls inside my pita bread leaving insufficient space for all the accompanying toppings… and I was in a state of perpetual bliss (and it was only Day 1).

First Falafel in a pita in Israel
The pictures don’t even do justice to how massive it was

The dominating thoughts and feelings on those first days were not ones of fear, uncertainty and certainly not of judgment on my part, because I had traveled all that way not to fear this region, not to doubt my motives for going, and certainly not to open my mouth on day 1 to give any opinion (yet). . . I was there to listen. I was there to learn. I was there to exchange, and I’ll say it again TO CONNECT. My host and friend introduced me to her family, who were maybe as curious about me as I was about them. They have customs and traditions that stem from their faith; they practice Judaism, which I knew so very little about. I admit that although I grew up in Los Angeles, coming from the Eastside of LA meant I didn’t know any Jews (who settled almost exclusively in the Westside of the city). Walk down the streets of West Hollywood and you’ll see faithful Jewish men and young boys walking to synagogue dressed in black hats, black shoes, black pants and black jackets with white shirts. Here in Israel, though I began to see many men dressed in the same garb, no part of the country I visited was exclusively faithful. That’s the first thing that really surprised me. I quickly came to the conclusion that there isn’t a mold for Israeli citizens, but instead a richness that makes up the population of Israel.

Currently there are the 3 main groups: Jews, Christians and Muslims who live in Israel. . . which gives you then multiple subgroups in each. In the Jewish group there are Sephardic Jews, Ashkenazi Jews, Yemeni and Ethiopian Jews (all categorized by where these Jews came from, like northern Africa, Europe, or some part of the middle east). You could alternatively categorize these same Jews by religious subgroups, of Orthodox Jews and Secular Jews (to varying degrees, which is complex in and of itself ). In the Christian group you have Messianic Jews (aka Jews for Jesus, Jewish by ethnicity but of Christian faith), as well as other Christians like Orthodox, Anglican and Catholic Christians (any of which can be Arab by ethnicity). The Muslims are mostly separated by religious subgroups of Sunni and Shiite (although other smaller ones exist), though the confusing part sometimes occurs because other people use the term “muslim” or “arab” interchangeably. Arab is the ethnicity and Muslim the faith/religion. They are not interchangeable. There are also Druze in Israel, who are Arab by ethnicity but practice a completely different religion. So now we see that there are Israeli Arabs. Some Muslims also consider themselves Israeli, though other Muslims living in Israel in disputed areas call themselves Palestinians. And OF COURSE Atheists and Agnostics exist here too. Can you wrap your head around that? I could barely keep up when all this information was flooding my very curious brain. I still don’t completely understand the complexity of what it means to have Israeli Citizenship (or an Israeli Passport), or what it means to live in the boundaries of the country of Israel in disputed territories and NOT HOLD ISRAELI CITIZENSHIP (OR AN ISRAELI PASSPORT).

Muslim community as seen from highway 1 while on a bus to Jerusalem
Muslim Presence in both Israel and Palestine and part of the Wall the built by Israeli government

That means we have to discuss PALESTINE & Palestinians, a part of this complex narrative too. I still don’t fully understand it. I’d probably have to dedicate a few years of my life studying the history before I could say I do. What I will say is that there is a very real division here. There is a very literal division in the form of THE WALL that separates, which you can see throughout the country. Land is constantly being disputed. What was once considered Palestinian territory in the 1960s might now be a Jewish Settlement. . . Jewish Settlers are often controversial because they can be Zionist Jews who deliberately went into Palestinian territory to “settle” and subsequently have made more conflict in these already conflicted parts. Sometimes it has been bloody. Sometimes it has been devastating for both the jews and muslims. It’s complex like I said. Other Jews in disputed areas are called settlers but didn’t “settle” there newly. These Jews’ families have been in those territories for generations already. So you see, there is no black and white when speaking on this subject. There isn’t a side to choose either. I’m not here to do that, but I did travel to get a glimpse of this part of the world. Drive up highway 1 on the way to Jerusalem and you will see alternating communities (JEWISH, then MUSLIM, JEWISH then MUSLIM) on both sides of the road. If you keep an eye out for a giant wall, you will know when you are seeing a Muslim community, and if on the other side of that wall then you are in Israel. My friend Odeya pointed out that you can tell the difference by looking for the long and thin Muslim mosques jutting out higher than the rest of the surrounding buildings. I stared out the bus window nearly the entire 40 minute ride on the way to the holiest of cities, trying to see why such a holy place was so divided. But I’m not surprised. Religion often divides the very people who are preaching love and peace, rearing its ugliest head right here in the Holy Land.

Checkpoints are another reminder that you are in a part of the world with a very real conflict. It was only Day 2 for me and not even 11 in the morning and our bus had stopped at the mandatory checkpoint so that two Israeli soldiers in full uniform with visible guns slung across their bodies could do a quick check, surely relying on their training and intuition to alert them of anything suspicious. Although it might have only been a minute or two at most, it felt longer to me. It was the first time I had ever seen this. I wasn’t scared so much as blatantly aware that this is business as usual here. My friend Odeya commented that the soldiers were actually “really looking” this time, as opposed to the other dozens of times she rides the same bus on that same route and it stops at that same checkpoint on the way to Jerusalem (where she studies). And so I had to get used to the fact that every single day I’d see soldiers somewhere in the country while I was doing normal things like eating a meal, or visiting a beach, anything really. I had to get used to the fact that they carry big guns visibly and that most of these soldiers were no older than twenty. Such is life in Israel right now. The Military service is so ingrained in the fabric of modern Israel. There are citizens on both sides of the argument: those that say it’s terrible to send the youth of Israel to both the service and inevitably at times to war or war zones, and those that say it’s a necessary part of protecting their country. As can be expected, there are also people that fall somewhere in the middle. I won’t say more in this post about their military, but if interested to know more I wrote about it in this post: (click here).

So I guess you are wondering, what was SO WONDERFUL about my trip? The short answer is. . . EVERYTHING! Absolutely every fucking moment was a moment that I will cherish for years to come. I was humbled in Israel. I created magic and attracted magic to me. I met incredible spirits who were there to teach me things and also to inspire something deep within me to come out. I will tell you much more in detail in future posts. For now I’ll leave you with some of my favorite moments from two weeks of traveling throughout ISRAEL, mind and heart open to receive from Universe.

Go Forth. . .

“For you will go out with joy And be led forth with peace; The mountains and the hills will break forth into shouts of joy before you, And all the trees of the field will clap their hands”

All photos taken APRIL 2017- ARIANA DEL RÍO

Would love to know where you have been in the Middle East, if you’ve been to Israel, and what your favorite things were from your travels. I think I’ll definitely have to go back to Israel and the Middle East in the coming years.

Next up:

Come to the healing waters of Yam ha melah!!

15 Responses

  1. Wow, you captured the essence of the place well – the political and religious turmoil, the old and new cities, the food and the amazing scenery. Wonderful article!


      Thanks Jamie. I wan’t to do it justice. It’s an amazing place to see though I couldn’t deny that there was so much more than just tourists destinations and posing at the Dead Sea. There is a back story which reached my soul, if only I could heal the wounds of this place I would.

  2. So many good words about Israel. I haven’t been and I really wanted to go! It was good to know how you see the country with so much love and inspiration, considering how Middle is always put in the bad light by media. I’m really curious to experience for myself.


      Thanks Melai. Yes I went without expectations because that’s when you attract the magic to your travels I say, and my heart was filled with great experiences and memories that I’ll have forever. Don’t always believe what you see on the Media. Do you know what’s going on in Russia? It’s not painted as a war torn place but its people are suffering. You don’t see that on the Media and people don’t even think twice about visiting Moscow.

  3. Ariana,

    This post is such a great way of showing that Israel should be on everyone’s travel list. It looks like you had such a lovely time. I guess visiting during the summer is a no-go because of the heat. But when do you think is the best time?

    Telma @ Blank Canvas Voyage


      I’d say April when I visited was ideal, but May and even early June are probably okay too (summer months like July and August you might want to avoid). Also, winter can’t be too bad but you won’t get to enjoy the warm sea for instance, and places like Jerusalem (with high altitude) or the mountains and desert will be colder, much actually.

  4. Your photos are great – makes me want to book a trip! I love how you say you were there to listen too, such an inspiring travel attitude to have!

  5. It looks like you had a great trip! You are so right though, the history and conflict in that area is so complex. I can’t even begin to claim that I understand it!

  6. It is so refreshing to find a travel buddy that vibes with you. As a woman who loves travel, I wish I had met such a badass single female traveler as well. Israel, despite its politics, appears to be a beautiful country

  7. I love too making friends on the road and then meeting up somewhere else in the world. Shared trips, stories and wines make us better people are what is really important about traveling. Thanks for sharing! <3

  8. I love the way you have written this post – like the amazing fiction novel you cannot put down as the scenes play in front of your eyes simultaneously when you read. Absolutely fabulous to have a woman travel buddy.

  9. I’ve never been to Israel and I don’t fully understand all the conflict! But your pictures are beautiful! I would love the food there!

  10. Wow! Great read! Thank you for giving me sloop inside! I have never been to the Middle East but hope to visit someday. I love travel that opens your eyes to the world like this!

  11. Israel is truly a magical and inspirational place! Loved your post!

  12. What a great post! Having been to Israel several times in my life, I can say that you have captured the essence of the country when you say, ” I created magic and attracted magic to me.” There is something about Israel that calls to the heart, and I know that for myself, once I step out of Ben Gurion airport, I feel a sense of being home. I think you’ve got it!?

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