Let's get one thing straight: Tel Aviv isn't a "nice" city in any way. It's aesthetic and attitude are gritty, aggressive, and in your face. The first thing I noticed walking out of the train station is the deafening sound of roaring engines and honking horns. There's graffiti everywhere, abandoned stone-walled fortresses, and mysterious liquid dripping from every balcony right onto your head. This whole scene didn't bode well for my hangover and post-Birthright delirium after 3 hours of sleep. I got off the train, strapped on the 40 pound backpack that holds my entire life for the next 3 months, and treaded into the city looking for a place to rest my head.
Easier said than done.
After asking 7 different Israelis and spending an hour going 20 different directions in the suffocating humidity, I finally found my hostel. Wanting nothing more than a shower and a bed, of course I had to wait 2 hours before I could check into my room. With sweat dripping from my forehead and no solice in sight, there was only one thing to do - hit the beach.
This is when everything changed. The aches and pains that had pierced my body washed off as the waves crashed into me. The clear blue sea and towering skyline reminded me why I was here and a smile stretched from ear to ear.
I wandered up the coast, met some locals, and found a private beach to decompress after the 12 hectic and jam-packed days of birthright. Somehow 5 hours flew by, and after filling my belly with my 100th schwarma of the trip, I found my way back to the hostel. Still super tired, and being the first day of "solo travel," I thought I'd kickback, check some emails, and have an early night.
I was dead wrong. In the past, when I'd travel with friends, we'd just stick together and ignore most of the people at the hostel. I had no idea how easy it was to meet people when there's no one from home to confide in - when you're by yourself, you're way more inclined to start conversations with strangers and make a new connection to fill that void. Within 5 minutes, I was trading traveling stories with 10 new people on the sunny rooftop terrace. A girl I'd met said her Uncle owned a restaurant out in a suburb of Tel Aviv and he was closing his restaurant for the night and setting up an authentic Israeli dinner for her and her friends. I couldn't refuse.
Not knowing where we were going or any of the other 12 people who were tagging along, we hopped on a train and headed 40 minutes south to Ashdod.
Needless to say, we were all having a blast. Her uncle insisted we take shots of vodka with him, and plate after plate of hummus and kebab was flying onto the table. I took a second and thought how insane it was that in LA I meet maybe 1 or 2 people a month, and here I'd just made 15 new friends in the matter of a couple hours.
We were laughing, and toasting, and high-fiving - it seemed like things couldn't get any better. Then everything changed.
All of a sudden, alarms rang though the city. We heard screaming from the chef inside the restaurant for us to run in from the patio - traffic in the street halted and as we slowly realized what was going on, we threw our chairs out of the way and sprinted inside. During one night of Birthright, we'd heard bombs in the distance but really didn't think much of them - this was the first time I'd heard a bomb siren go off and had to run for shelter.
We crammed into the tiny kitchen, surrounded by the burning stoves and butcher knives. I looked around and saw the shock in all of our faces. Two old women had also run in from the street - one was sobbing while the other was praying. The Americans couldn't stop asking questions while the Israelis acted as calm as they could. The moment was surreal.
After a minute of chaos, 3 loud bursts from the sky echoed through the kitchen. I felt the ground shake. Everyone's heart was racing and shrieks from the old women only added to the intensity of the situation. After a couple minutes, the locals said it was all over and we were safe. We hugged each other and cautiously went back to our table outside. Still shaken up, the Israeli's calmed us down and brought out more drinks, of course. Before we knew it, kids were playing in the street again, and the energy came back to the table. Life was back to normal. This is how Israeli's live - with the thought of terror always in the back of their minds but a stubborn will to enjoy every second of life.
Waking up in Tel Aviv the next day, I couldn't wait to explore the city and meet up with some friends from Birthright who were still around. We hit the street market, grabbed lunch, hung out at cafe's and had a great time reminiscing about the trip we just had.
That night, with the bombs from the night before still in the back of my mind, I met up with a friend from LA who was working in Tel Aviv. When I say friend from LA, I really had only talked to her once or twice and thought it would be great to see a familiar face while abroad. So did she. This is my favorite thing about traveling - when you're away from home and out of your comfort zone, it's so easy to put yourself out there and strike up new relationships. It's a total shift in mindset - when I'm back home there's always someone to see or something to do and the effort to meet new people dwindles. When you're by yourself in a completely foreign place, the new shared experiences are so much more memorable - any small connection from the past can easily grow into something more when you're in a change of scenery.
Again, just as we settled in to an amazing dinner, another bomb siren rings through the city and the whole restaurant is forced to run downstairs to the basement. I thought we were safe in Tel Aviv - after all, only one or two bomb sirens have ever gone off that far North in history. Turns out I decided to visit Israel just when Hamas obtained long-range missiles.
Although the bomb sirens can put a damper on your night, Israelis are so resilient and positive. They try to make a point of not letting terrorism get in the way of everyday life - if they stayed in every night and we're scared to go out, the terrorists would have already won.
The last couple days, you could feel a change in the energy of the city. Less people were out and everyone was a bit more on edge. We still had awesome jam sessions in the hostel (one dude shredded on guitar and played a bunch of classics), went to the beach everyday, had amazing dinners with friends, and got lost in the city, but there was always a level of anxiety and worry lingering in the back of our minds. The topic of conversation always came back to the bombs. We always had to be aware of our surroundings and on the lookout for shelters as we walked down streets. I couldn't help but think how unfair it is that a whole country - a whole region - has to live under constant fear of bombs and air-raids - it's exhausting. The silver lining is that these threats bring all of Israel together as a community - similar to how America united after 9/11. Being under constant attack, Israelis may seem brash to outsiders, but they really care about one another and the pride they have in their country is infectious.
Staying in Tel Aviv at this time was definitely one of the most unique and unforgettable experiences I've ever had. It's an incredible city full of contrasts with tons to do - not to mention I fell in love with every Israeli girl I saw - but I hope the next time I go back there's finally some peace and that the positive energy I experienced the first few days is flowing through the streets again.