Day 1 By Ariel Liu, Stanford University, Israel Uncovered Bus 1
Stepping off the bus, the smell of cigarettes greeted us along with familiar billboards featuring Heineken and BMW. The highways also boasted equally recognizable sights, with the same Californian green signboards and palm-tree lined sidewalks. The difference, though, was the words of the street names in Hebrew, Arabic, and English—the three official languages of Israel.
On our first day in Israel, Bus One met our group of forty something at the airport where we witnessed several men in black facing the wall in prayer and then gawked as an acquaintance suddenly ran up to pinch our photographer in the armpit. Ben Gurion airport proved to be a bastion of cultural exchange, providing a window to the diversity of Tel Aviv, considered the technological capital of the Middle East.
As we got on the road, we saw skyscrapers juxtaposed with ramshackle buildings and modern Lego-style architecture surrounded by dozens of construction cranes. Those were busy turning out their next cosmopolitan projects. Everywhere, we witnessed signs of a city in progress, modernizing and growing.
Our feisty tour guide, Anat, led us to our first stop, the Azrieli Center, Perhaps a mall is not the typical first introduction to a new country, but our grumbling stomachs were more than ready to experiment with Israeli cuisine. The food court itself was a microcosm of the multicultural city as we passed by a dim sum store, a pasta court, a deli shop that looked suspiciously like Subway, and of course, the various falafel stations.
After making two rounds and taking in the aromatic and curious scents surrounding us, we finally decided on trying Israeli sandwiches. Between the cashier’s broken English and our empathetic gestures/pointing, food ordering went more or less smoothly. (Interestingly, lemonade was free while water cost 5 shekels.)
After lunch, we squeezed into several elevators to reach the 49th floor of the mall, which acted as an observatory. (The elevators here moved noticeably faster.) Like the Space Needle overlooking Puget Sound, the building offered a spectacular view of Tel Aviv. It’s a testament to the compactness of Israel that we could see coast to coast as we walked around the observatory.
Radiating from our vantage point, white buildings congested the landscape and clustered around prominent streets. The setting sun casted a pink shadow onto the roofs and painted the scene in a warm glow. If you tried hard enough, you could make out the Ben Gurion airport off to a side.
The view was breathtaking.
Leaving the shopping center, we realized one thing was universal anywhere in the world on a Monday evening: traffic. True to its name, Israel’s tech hub had traffic frustrating enough to match that of San Francisco.
We charged on to Old Jaffa, an ancient port city. We walked along the catacomb-like alleyways, stumbling over cobblestoned floors. The reflective puddles from an earlier rain shower added to the ancient charm of the Jaffa streets but made it a nightmare for walking in heeled shoes. As we stooped under the archways, we could almost imagine ourselves traversing the same buildings thousands of years ago.
We made a small hike up to the Gate of Faith, which depicted biblical stories and held special significance for Jews. From the front, the limestone sculpture framed a majestic view of Jaffa. While taking in the sculpture, a solemn song, a call to prayer, from a nearby mosque broke the evening silence and filled it with a beautiful awareness. The lingering and evocative music finally struck the point home. We were no longer in the States.
Standing on top of the highest point in Jaffa, the journey had only just begun, but already, we were experiencing the intersection and harmonization of two different religions.
Ariel Liu is a freshman at Stanford University. She doesn’t know what she wants to major in but knows she has too many interests in too many fields. She is a news writer for The Stanford Daily and a member of the Undergraduate Chinese American Association. In her free time, she can be found sipping green tea while curled up with a book or trying to find her way around campus for the umpteenth time.
Featured Photo: Netanel Tobias Photography