In November of 2018, I visited Israel for the first time. I was so excited to go yet I left feeling disappointed and convinced I would never return.
So, what happened?
Well, in this case, I feel like it was more of what didn’t happen.
My first visit to Israel was with another blogger. I told her I was going, she asked if she could tag along and I said yes. It’s always nice to have a travel buddy.
As I did more research into the country I found a local tour company/ hostel that occasionally worked with bloggers and content creators. I reached out to enquire about a partnership and they said yes and put together an incredible 2-week itinerary that would show us some of the highlights of the country, including a side trip to Jordan (which was incredible).
Going in, it seemed perfect. I had someone to travel with and I had a local company on the ground to show me around. As far as I was concerned, things were set and looking good.
Unfortunately, they started to go downhill before I even arrived.
The other blogger I was travelling with went a few days early and didn’t like it at all. Each day I would get messages from her indicating she was having a bad time. While I always prefer to make my own decisions, this put me on edge and made me a bit hesitant.
When I did arrive (jetlagged and tired) I had one evening to chill before the experience started. As per my itinerary, I had a tour every single day. This is typical in press trips, so I should have expected it, but I got tired really quickly.
While the tours themselves were fantastic, the tours I took seemed to follow a very strong political theme which, day after day, got really heavy. Granted, I still say that the Hebron Dual Narrative Tour was the best tour I have ever done. But, pair that with tours around the West Bank where we learned about, and saw, the Palestinian refugee camps and then a foodie tour through what is essentially Tel Aviv’s slums with refugees and illegal immigrants (one of which yelled at us to go back where we came from) well, it wasn’t exactly a light-hearted trip.
On top of the politics, my free time wasn’t so great either. The blogger I travelled with continued to really dislike the country and the experience (which is fair, you can’t like everywhere) and preferred to stay in our room during our free time. I was torn between being exhausted and feeling the need to stay with her since she was so unhappy, but also wanting to go out and do my own thing. A couple of times I did go out (she came) but it was for a short period of time. I never really did any actual exploring which is how I like to travel.
I didn’t get to the beaches. I didn’t get to experience Tel Aviv’s nightlife. I didn’t get to try a bunch of cool restaurants and I didn’t really get to meet many locals. In fact, during my first experience, I found Israelis, in general, to be incredibly unfriendly. Which, for this Canadian girl who will talk to anyone, was really hard for me.
Looking back, after this most recent trip, I think part of that had to do with the types of places I went and tours I went on. After all, overlooking a refugee camp or standing at the site where a baby was shot by a sniper in her carriage are not exactly the types of places to start chatting up strangers. Additionally, I think I was personally more withdrawn than I normally am when I was out and about. The heavy subject matter, the jetlag, and the fact that I was with someone who was so unhappy at the time meant I wasn’t my normal smiley self. Thinking of how I felt at the time, I probably didn’t look very approachable.
As I said, I left Israel in 2018 with a lot of knowledge but convinced I wouldn’t be back.
And then, 15 months later, there I was at the airport.
Well, I decided to take a chance.
Part of working as a blogger/influencer is that you meet a lot of other likeminded people online through social media. It’s easy to bond over similarities in interests and work and a lot of the time this turns into an actual friendship. Which is what happened with me and Brittany of the Sweet Wanderlust.
With a brightly coloured Instagram feed full of ice cream, freakshakes, and all other kinds of delicious treats, Brittany was an easy pick to follow. Like me, she had been all over the world and worked as a blogger. She loved scuba diving and neon and, obviously, food. She just seemed like a lot of fun. Clearly, she thought the same of me because as time went on we continued to talk even more, making jokes about our mutual clumsiness and awkwardness.
I followed in March of 2019 as she toured through Israel for the 6th(?) time. I watched as she ate delicious food, laughed with local friends, and created this incredible costume for Purim which looked to me like 3 epic days of street parties. Israel looked so different in her stories than it had been for me.
Brittany wasn’t the only one who loved Israel. I have so many friends who had nothing but amazing things to say about Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Sharing their fun stories about crazy nights out, cool historical finds, and friendly locals.
Of course, the more stories like this that I heard the more I started feeling the FOMO creep in. How was their experience so different than mine? What had I missed?
As the months rolled on Brittany and I continued to chat regularly. We were both planning out first group tours around the same time; mine in Greece and hers in Israel for March 2020. She planned it to end right before Purim; the celebration with all the fun street parties. I told her how fun it sounded and she suggested that I should come to meet her.
So, I did.
On March 8th, 2020 I landed in Israel for the second time. I had a mermaid costume packed away ready for Purim but I was still a little anxious. Was this a good idea? Would it be the same? Or would I actually get to experience the parts of Israel that everyone had fallen in love with?
Well, one day with Brittany and her friend Josi (who’s an incredible blogger/ pastry chef!) and I was already in love.
Even though the official Purim parties were cancelled thanks to COVID-19, we still dressed up to wander the streets of Tel Aviv that Monday. Where before I was convinced that the locals hated me, this time I basked in their attention as the girl in the mermaid outfit. The three of us posed for photos and smiled as people complimented our costumes in the streets.
True to her word, Brittany also took me to some of the best foodie spots in the city. From hummus to bagels, floral drinks to frozen yogurt, we ate non-stop. I think it’s safe to say Israeli food just might be my new favourite.
The fun continued as we took to train the next day to Jerusalem. A young soldier, clearly eager to see three girls (even though we were a decade older than him) sat with us on the train and told us about his life in the army. In the shuk, we made friends with bartenders who asked us to come back and keep them company. During the day, we roamed the streets. We spent hours hiding from the rain in a beautiful shop in the Old Town talking to a man named Ayman (who Brittany knew) and his brothers. We joined a local woman and her friends in her home for some food and drinks (I actually did her dishes as a thank you which is apparently really weird but, hey, I’m Canadian). At night we danced with strangers all dressed up as we were and, aside from one particularly determined hot dog and an odd lonely stranger, it was so much fun.
This time around, my visit to Israel was everything I had wanted.
So, why was my second time so incredibly different?
I can think of several things.
Obviously, the experience itself in terms of what we did was completely different. That’s not to say don’t do tours in Israel. I think tours are so important and, quite frankly, being with Brittany who has spent so much time in Israel felt a bit like having a private guide. However, we did a mix up of things. It wasn’t all political which my first tour mainly was.
That being said, I do think if you are a first time visitor to Israel it is important to take some political tours. Abraham Tours (who I partnered with the first time and stayed with in Jerusalem the second time) have amazing tours. Just spread them out a bit.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, were the people I was with. Being with someone who genuinely loves a place versus someone who isn’t happy makes a huge difference. Brittany was excited, so I was excited. We had fun, we laughed, we joked, we smiled. Which in turn then made us look fun and approachable to the locals. So this time, I got the fun local interactions that I wanted. The Israeli people, which I found so cold and distant my first visit, are actually really warm and kind when given the chance to open up.
Unfortunately, due to COVID-19 my second visit to Israel wasn’t perfect. It got cut short and there was some definite drama as I basically evacuated the country before borders shut down (read that story here). But despite that last bit of uncertainty and panic, I’m still glad I went. I’m still glad I gave Israel a second chance.
Which leads to the question: would I go back?
While I have no immediate plans to do so, I would definitely be open to it. I was supposed to go to Eilat for free diving and I still didn’t make it to Tel Aviv’s beaches. So, who knows. One day I may return.
In the meantime, I’m just thrilled that I gave Israel a second chance. After this time around, I can see what all the hype is about.