I thought my first day in Jerusalem will be dry and boring. But my programmed assumptions failed me
If you’ve never been to Israel before, you won’t have an idea that Friday is one of those days you should be worried about. This wasn’t an issue in Tel Aviv as not 100% of the people do not follow shabbat. However, Jerusalem curates a different story.
In the Jewish religion law, Shabbat is observed from the sunset of Friday to sunset of Saturday. Shabbat observants are following a lot of complex rules and I don’t really want to discuss that here. Anyway, in easy saying, this day is shocking for people who don’t have prior knowledge.
I was one of them. Out of the many days that I chose to leave Tel Aviv and move on to my journey to Jerusalem, I chose to board the bus on a Friday. That Thursday was a crazy night and I often thought that partying in Tel Aviv was crazier than Jerusalem. I don’t want to get there and do nothing. My main goal in the Holy City was to do the religious touristy circuit. I don’t even claim I’m the only person who has this way of thinking. Once you are in Tel Aviv, you hear other people stories about Jeruz and you can’t help but wonder.
Yes, we’re calling it Jeruz.
After an hour bus ride from Tel Aviv, I reached Jerusalem’s Central bus station around 17:30, which is, by the way, the worst time to arrive. All modes of transpo are already on hold. There was no other way for me to go to my hostel but a $9 taxi ride.
“Taxi! Taxi!” a man chanted. I put down my backpack that’s heavier than me, sat down, lit a cigarette and observed. Have you ever had those moments when you think, “is this the right taxi man?” Whenever I am new to a city, I always feel the vibe of taxi drivers as a way to keep me safe. I don’t like this judgment but it is the only way that kept me alive through all these years I wandered in over 100+ cities.
Another taxi driver came to me and asked, “taxi?”
My cigarette was almost finished so I felt it was the right time to alight.
“Yes. Do you speak English?”
He put the ‘so-so’ hand signal and started taking my backpack. I didn’t say anything and followed him to his cab.
“Where you go?” I figured it is very unlikely he speaks perfect English but where you go works for me.
I grabbed my phone and Googled my hostel. I leaned forward and showed him, “here.”
He didn’t say anything so I assumed he understood. He looked forward and drove. This is the part where I tell myself I should just trust this man. There is nothing to be paranoid about.
The paranoia crawled as we went out of the station. The parking lot of the Central station in Jeruz is roofed so you won’t be able to see what’s really outside.
Streets were empty. All restaurants were closed. There were hardly people on the street. It looked like a scene from The Walking Dead. After a few minutes of turns, I saw a bunch of people in costumes. Well, they’re not really costumes but they are Jewish clothing that is strictly enforced by the Jewish religious laws. They looked very formal in black suits with top hats from the 1700s. Their hairs had sidelocks. The women’s hair was covered. Not like how the Muslims cover theirs but these women only had their hair shielded. They were wearing long sleeve blouses (God, it was really hot!) and long skirts. I have been in Israel for over 3 weeks before coming to Jeruz but I’ve never seen people dress this way. Even their children were dressed the same.
We stopped in front of a tall, red building when the driver said, “we are here.”
I gave him 32 shekels (about $9 USD), said “Shabbat shalom” and entered the building. There was a tiny elevator that didn’t look like an elevator but it seemed it was the right way to go. The elevator doors opened. I pressed 3 because the label says that’s the hostel floor. Apparently, it was a shared building.
Colours popped as soon as the door opened for floor 3. Amazing artistry paraded a wall. It was a very modern place with workstations and dining areas with rustic fixtures. There were a lot of people sitting down (mostly foreigners) but there weren’t any people at the reception table.
I was about to ring the bell when a curly-haired guy in glasses wearing the hostel’s branded t-shirt came to the counter.
“Do you have a reservation?”
“Wow, where did you come from? 2 seconds ago, I didn’t see anyone here.”
“Sorry! I was just having a break and having snacks with the guests. May I take your passport?”
It took me 2 minutes to find my passport in my very cluttered handbag. I hate it when that happens!
“Here you go.”
“Wow, Philippines! I’ve never met a Philippinians person.”
“I get that all the time. We are called Filipinos by the way.”
“Oh. Sorry! See, I never really met one! I learned something new today!”
He opened my passport, scanned my Israel entry card, did a couple of clicks, printed something and handed me my keys and my passport. My mind always flies when hostel people say their piece about the hostel: your room is that way, the dining area is here, the kitchen is blah blah blah. Nothing registered.
“My name is Yehuda and I am here if you need anything. This is your welcome drink stub. You can take one bottle of beer from the bar for free.”
I smiled and walked away. I realised when everyone is Omri, Gal, Gil, Matan, this is the first Yehuda I know. It is very unlikely I’ll forget him.
I booked the slightly cheapest 8-bed mixed dorm so I was expecting total chaos upon entering the room. 2 Korean guys reading on their bunks to the left, 3 Chinese girls giggling in one bed to my right and at the center of the room screamed by bottom bunk number.
I worked in hostels in the past (in fact, this was one of my frequent jobs when I was backpacking South America) and I know how it works. Hostel staff have the freedom to choose the beds for the guests so I am pretty sure Yehuda (or somebody else) thought, “oh! She’s Asian. Let’s put all the Asians together in one room so it’s easier.” I’ve observed it even in airlines but I have yet to clarify. In my mind, maybe we all have the same behaviour as a friend confirmed Arabs and Indians are seated together in the plane because they tend to be chatty during long flights. Other people will complain.
I, on the other hand was given a favour. Asians are always my favourite dorm mates because they are very simple and doesn’t make a lot of noise. They don’t get drunk (well most of them) and they always choose not to be in the dorm rooms. They’re traveling on a schedule so they always make the most out of it. They were probably all there when I arrived because of Shabbat. Nothing was open. It was a free day for everyone.
I said hello and they said hello back. That’s also one of the reasons they won’t become overbearing room companions. The beds have bottom drawers where you can keep your stuff. First things first: secure the gadgets because this is my bread and butter. They are insured but you’ll never know. One day without my laptop and I am paralysed as fuck. I took out my toiletries only to realise one of the girls went in the shower. With that, I decided to lay down, put my earphones on and read a book.
The book I was reading at the time was the life of Leo Messi in Spanish. I read it thrice when I was in Argentina (the perfect setting) but I had to reread it again because I wanted to perfect my Spanish writing. It didn’t excite me anymore so I’d check the shower every 5 seconds to see if the girl finished. Hostel beds are one of my favourite places to read because of its setting. There’s a lamp, the sheets seemed fresh and there is always a curtain for privacy. I closed it a bit but only enough for me to see if the girl’s done. I got into the book again and drifted.
Fuck. I fell asleep. What time is it?!
The clock read 20:30. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. I really wanted to go out and do something. The room was empty. Everyone were gone. I rushed to the shower and dressed up. As soon as I finished, the Shabbat situation registered again so I asked myself, “why are you such in a hurry? There’s nothing out there anyway.”
But where did everyone go? Falling asleep in odd hours gives you real FOMO.
I didn’t know what to do or where to go but that wasn’t a problem for me. I’ve always been comfortable in just going. I remembered I have free welcome drinks. Of course, it took me ages to find the drink stub but I did find it. I walked out the room and went to reception.
“Where’s the bar?”
“Oh, it’s right there, by the porch.”
Oooohhhh, there’s a porch. I can smell fun. It was a bit quiet but the area was packed. The floors were fake grass and there were bean bags everywhere. I took a drink from the bar and saw there weren’t any tables available. I didn’t want to go inside because it was a no smoking zone. As soon as I lit my cigarette, I saw Yehuda from the far left waving at me.
“Hey, come over! Sit with us!”
He was with four other guys. Three of whom looked very Israeli to me.
“Come, come here! Join us. Have a seat.”
The guy on my right offered a small wooden chair. Deep inside, I wanted to ask if I can take his place on the beanie. It looked so comfortable, especially the porch was roofless.
“Guys, this is Terisha. She is from the Philippines. She is Filipino.” He looked at me waiting for a thumbs up just because he said my citizenship correctly. I smirked. I ignored the fact that he pronounced my name wrong.
Being good with names is one of my inborn skills. I can remember people the first time I meet them but in this case, there were just too many duplicate names I couldn’t keep track. Why aren’t there Israelis named Tiffany? Or McKenzie? Julie? Francesca? Everyone chooses to be Gal, Dor, Omri, Guy, Yosi, etc. I feel like they are given a list of names to choose from the moment they are born.
When you are an outsider and you sit down with a bunch of Israelis, aside from the usual ‘where are you from,’ the common ground or the conversation starter is always their assignment in the army. Most of the guys on the table were born and raised in Jerusalem so they weren’t stationed away from home. Artillery, armor, tactical command – more often than not, we get to have assumptions of what kind of people they are because their assignments are based on their pre-army skills. I don’t know anything about the military but I can never imagine being in mandatory service at 18 when I can just do something else in my life.
18? What was I doing? I was already traveling Asia and preparing for my study abroad in Italy. I didn’t question these ‘choices’ but these guys seemed to have it all figured out. After their service, most of them went to India, South America and some parts of Asia. University was far more optional than the Army as studying in Israel tends to be very expensive. Not everyone can afford it.
They were being polite. They were talking in English among themselves so I won’t be out of the loop. I couldn’t help but listen to their conversations. I kept wondering, what if I lived the life they lived? What if I was Israeli and was mandated to military service against my will?
I find it really admirable they were still able to travel and do the things they wanted to do after service. To be honest, Israelis bring smarter conversations to the table. I literally want to pick their brains.
The guy to my left passed a spliff. I took a puff and passed it to the guy to my right.
“We are heading out for drinks. Do you want to join us?”
It’s not like I have something scheduled that day but drinks on a Friday? I mean, where? How? Aren’t everything closed tonight? I imagined how my Chinese roommates were spending their night. I always attracted the local pack so why not? I was down for anything random. I didn’t have plans.
I was about to question Yehuda’s reception shift but figured he won’t come with us if it wasn’t over. In the ‘advanced’ fears I might lose it, I left my key card at reception. I can feel these guys will bring me somewhere crazy so it’s better to know that my keys are waiting for me when I’m face-down drunk.
There was no way we were hailing a taxi but half the group had their bikes. In Israel, everyone has their own mode of transport (bikes, scooters, skateboards, etc) – I barely met people who take the public buses. I walked next to Yehuda as he unlocked his bike and started walking with it.
“Can you please remind me the names of your friends?” I whispered.
“Gilad, Idan and Guy.” He said as he pointed them one by one.
“I went to the army with Gilad and Guy. Idan is a guest at the hostel. He lives in the north of Israel. He’s just visiting.”
The streets were deserted. We walked, walked and walked. Compared to Tel Aviv, Jerusalem’s streets have a lot of uphills I can’t imagine how people can easily ride their bikes here. We turned left on a corner. It was too dark I couldn’t read the street name.
You might be wondering why I’d wander the night away with some guys I don’t know but just as I am good with remembering names (in this case, not really), I am also very good in feeling people’s vibes. I can read their aura easily (you know, that sort of glow they have around them) and that makes me decide if I should go with them or not. More often, our intuition always has our best interest at heart. Mine never failed me. I didn’t feel an inch of fear that night.
“Where are we?”
“This is Gilad’s house. His fridge is always stocked with beers so we’ll drink here because everything is closed.”
I find it very uncomfortable to go to someone’s house without anything at hand. I looked around hoping that maybe, just maybe, there’s a liquor store open. Just so I can bring something to be polite. So far, everything is closed. His apartment building is in front of a bunch of what it seems like some non-functioning establishments. They looked like they’ve been closed for life but really, it’s just Shabbat.
Like most apartments in Israel, Gilad’s was very small. There was an L-shaped sofa in the middle of the room. Next to it was a little porch with one colourful table with 2 wooden chairs. It was also filled with potted plans and a running vine on the railings. His TV was huge though (probably normal in Israeli homes) and his wall… Wow. They’re all filled with guitars. There was also a shelf full of vinyl records. I mean. WOW. Israelis keep saying life is hard but looking at the collection makes me compute the costs.
Yehuda went straight to the fridge and grabbed 5 beers like it’s his home. Idan sat on the sofa. He doesn’t talk much. I assume he’s not comfortable in speaking English. Guy went to one of the rooms like it’s also his.
“Terisha, do you want to choose what to play?” Gilad asked.
“Betach! By the way, it’s Trisha.” T and R seems to be a bad combination of consonants in the Hebrew alphabet. Everyone keeps calling me Te-ri-sha. Betach is like ‘sure’ in Hebrew. I often hear my friends say it so I started using it.
“At medaberet Ivrit?” He replied. He literally means, “can you speak Hebrew” but in an exclamation point.
“No, I’m just trying to apply some expressions.”
“It’s good! You’re good! Kol hakavod.” Kol hakavod means “good job” in Hebrew.
I said thank you and he invited all of us to sit down. Yehuda was opening the beer bottles passing it one by one. Good thing he had Gold Star – I never really liked Macchabi. It didn’t taste like anything though some people I know prefer it.
Gilad took a box from the cabinet. He laid it on the table, opened it and started taking out stuff that he needed to roll. He first mixed it with tobacco, took a small carton for the filter, rolled it and put it in his mouth. He grabbed the long papers and put the mixed product in it.
“I’ve been to the Philippines, you know,” Gilad started.
“Oh, really? Where?”
“Bohol, Boracay, Siquijor, Cebu, and oh, Palawan!!! I love Palawan.” He said Se-bu and Pala-wan in a heavy accent. This is not how we usually pronounce these islands but most foreigners had the impression it is the correct way.
“I did that trip with my sister. We finished army at the same time.”
He had many stories about his trip in the Philippines and I listened carefully. Most of the people who visited my country are highly amazed and that energy is infectious. He even said a bunch of places I haven’t been able to visit but I am sure he hasn’t been around Israel as much as I did. For Israelis, a 3-hr drive to the south (Eilat) is a very long journey. For us, Filipinos, flights within the country are expensive. We’d rather spend it to go to the neighbouring countries because they are cheaper.
Idan finally spoke after he puffed the split. He passed it to me.
“I’m sorry but most Filipinos I know in Israel are working as domestic helpers. What are you doing here? I am just curious.”
Oh, he can speak English. Having been to many places being asked the same question, as usual, I have this script in my head explaining it in the most understandable way.
I told them about Vibe Israel inviting me to Israel for a blogger trip and I just decided to stay. The keyword that stings is always the blogger part. Israel is a non-blogging country. They might be the tech-savviest people in the world but the blogging culture didn’t arrive yet. For them, blogs are those kinds of things that your professors require you for a semestral project. Like a ‘dear diary’ thing.
“If only I can write good English, I will definitely put up a blog,” Yehuda said.
I didn’t know how to respond to that but I thought: why can’t they write in Hebrew? Israel is a traveling nation and I’m sure some people will bite that. I even remember getting invited to do a travel talk to young Israelis but the problem is I don’t speak Hebrew. Some of them might not grasp a 2-hr workshop in English. Someone out there should write in Hebrew and they will discover how focused-niched blogs are more successful than blogs like mine.
The beers started flowing until I don’t remember how much I drank and how much I smoked. These people made me feel safe to be around with. I didn’t expect I would meet a lot of cool people who are good at their craft in Jerusalem. I thought those people only existed in Tel Aviv. Images of Jerusalem on the Internet are more often about war and religion.
The night will not be complete without discussing that, though. There will always be one person in the group who will bring it up. In this case, that person was Guy. He asked me what I thought about the Israel-Palestine conflict and my first rule when coming across this topic: “do not say a word.” Even if I was in Israel long enough, I always programmed myself to believe I don’t know what I am talking about so better shut my mouth. I also practised the non-absorption of other people’s opinions. In my case, Israelis (and the Palestinians I met) have very strong feelings about the situation so much they always blurt their opinion about it. No one is right or wrong. I was always fed with different information so there’s not really a correct story here. You don’t know what to believe so playing Switzerland is the best possible way. I wasn’t there to discover politics anyway. I say it a lot to my friends: for the good of humanity, avoid listening to other people’s opinions and taking them as your own. This doesn’t just apply to the Israel-Palestine conflict but in all walks of life. We often believe the people we know and we take that side. It’s best to explore a topic on your own, then have an opinion about it.
I didn’t want to start with Guy so “let me just stop you there” was the good approach. You see, Jerusalem is really a cool city if we just avoid talking about that one particular topic.
I realised I didn’t have dinner. My stomach was screaming. I was very very very very hungry. I didn’t want to feel at home and cook though. Everything outside was closed. What the hell am I supposed to eat?! These guys don’t look like they’re hungry. It looked like Yehuda read my mind.
“Did you have dinner? Are you hungry?”
They talked Hebrew among themselves. I could understand a few words. It looks like they were pointing/deciding which one of them will make the food.
“I can cook.” I blurted. I really can’t take my hunger any more.
“Oh yes. Perfect. Sure! Wow! Legit Asian cuisine! Please feel free to go to the kitchen and make whatever you want. Surprise us.” Gilad said.
Where I am from, when you are blinded by ingredients, the easiest dish to cook is adobo. Everyone (sort of) likes it but the problem is vinegar is not really a key household ingredient. I don’t think he even had soy sauce. Israeli dishes tend to shy away from very saucy stuff. They can’t really it something that is drowning in sauce.
I found the soy sauce in the cabin but there was no vinegar. I know it’s a sin to defrost the chicken in the oven but the situation left me with no choice. I was really hungry and in a rush. 1:00 in the morning isn’t exactly dinner time for me or for them. I wasn’t sure how to substitute vinegar so I just used lemons and soy sauce.
I am not exactly sure how I managed to cook. I was high, dry and bloated with beer. But as I said, adobo is an easy dish to ace. Wait, was I making adobo? I don’t remember anymore.
You can eat sinigang, afritada, monggo and other Filipino dishes without rice but adobo without rice is just downright wrong. Like most Israeli kitchens, Gilad’s fridge is loaded with vegetables so I mashed a potato to pair it with my dish.
It was a bit rushed and sloppy but as soon as I served it, everyone made the ooh and ahh sounds. Two things: they are just high and having a ‘legit’ Asian cook for them just made them excited. More often than not, legitimacy is the key element of the food. It’s who made it. Not what was made.
“Trisha, we should get married,” Gilad said.
The only way he’d learn to pronounce my name correctly is through his stomach. Everyone laughed and we continued smoking and drinking until…. I don’t know. I literally passed out on the couch.
I know it’s a bad habit but I don’t know why every time I am drunk, I wake up earlier than usual. The clock read 7:30. HOLY CRAP! I have a tour at 8:30! I was on the bigger part of the L couch while Yehuda was sleeping soundly below me. I don’t know what happened to the others but I am sure Gilad is sleeping in his room.
I left without saying goodbye. I don’t even have everyone’s numbers to say thank you but I am sure I will see Yehuda in the hostel. He works there after all. I gently tiptoed out of the door and walked to my hostel. It wasn’t a long walk, especially during the day.
I was safe. I had fun. I was not harmed by the people I barely knew. It felt good. I wished I can go to places without feeling harm. I can’t imagine an adventure where I have to watch my back all the time. The sun was shining down on me while I was trying to absorb what happened on my first day in Jerusalem. All the images I made in my head before coming here were deleted. My brain disk was reformatted. I tried to remember the moment I first came to Jerusalem yesterday with no expectations whatsoever – from that last minute bust ride to Tel Aviv, from sleeping in an odd hour to claiming my free welcome drink to meeting these guys at the porch.
I have a super planned itinerary in Jerusalem as I am sponsored by a tour agency but this is something I didn’t expect. I honestly hate organised tours. I am very bad at following call times and itineraries.
Whenever I feel good, I say things out loud. I say thank you to the Universe or to whoever’s out there. I say thank you for giving me a good life. I say thank you for having something I’d like to believe a life I deserve. I don’t know who’s listening but I really have to say it all the time.
“This city is cool. Thank you for bringing me to good people.”
Now back to being a tourist… Old City tour, here I come!
Have you been to Jerusalem? Aside from the mandatory touristy circuit, what else did you discover that will prove the imagery of the Internet wrong?
Did you get to meet people? What activities did you do? Share your story in the comment box below and let other travelers learn from your experience!