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First Day in Israel: public transport, coffee, and flea markets

By Jacqueline Mai

I intentionally arrived in Israel a day and a half earlier than the start date of my program in order to get a little exploring done. My flight touched down around midnight, and after a sleep-deprived taxi ride from Ben Gurion airport to my airbnb in Tel Aviv’s Ramat Hatayasim neighborhood—during which I was too tired to argue my way out of an overpriced ride—I  managed to get my first real night of sleep in almost 36 hours. There was no AC, but half a year in Vietnam during my youth had taught me to put up with a tiny fan and open windows.

I hadn’t made any real plans for what I’d do with my spare day in Tel Aviv, but I knew immediately when I woke that I wanted to go to the beach. My hosts were gracious enough to let me keep my bags in their home even though I had only paid for the previous night—and even allowed me to stay until 9pm—so I grabbed my camera, a water bottle, and a hat, and made my way to the bus stop right outside their apartment, which was on a major boulevard.

I had heard Israel had a relatively reliable and well-subsidized public transportation system, but I was extremely unprepared for just how excellent it was. Perhaps it was my few years of commuting daily on DC’s broken metro and bus system that caused me to be unfazed by—and even OK with—the occasionally tardiness of an Israeli ‘Dan’ bus. From what I experienced and read on maps, a lot of stops had buses arriving at around 10 to 15 minute intervals, and there are very few parts of Tel Aviv that are without easy access to public transportation. Many people without cars are also fond of electric bicycles and scooters; I had only seen the former in the US a handful of times, and the latter had only made its way stateside as a legitimate (albeit, laughable) form of transportation this past spring. Bike sharing systems in Tel Aviv are wildly affordable as well.

Once I arrived at the beach, I biked a mere 10 minutes down the palm tree-lined promenade to Jaffa’s Old City. The sprawl of Tel Aviv over the last fifty years has made the once well-defined borders of Jaffa unrecognizable. Instead of a separate city, it is now part of the same municipality and stands out with it’s clock tower, rocky port, and red-tiled roofs. Jaffa is a mix of old and new. The small, winding, cobblestone roads connect flea markets—where old men in kippahs sell Oriental rugs and antique Judaica—and modern-midcentury design firms and art galleries crammed inside ancient stone buildings. I found a small cafe and restaurant called Puaa and had my first taste of Turkish coffee. To explain the concept in the most unattractive manner possible: it’s basically hot water with unfiltered coffee grounds.

After my afternoon in Jaffa, I hopped on and off the bus to explore Tel Aviv proper some more before departing for Jerusalem. Though much of the city—and the rest of Israel, for that matter—consists of off-white, concrete, apartment blocks reminiscent of Soviet-era mass housing complexes, I caught a glance of several buildings made in the Brauhaus/International Style, a sleeker-than-Brutalism architectural style that makes use of the white concrete but mixes right angles with drawn-out curves and endless windows.

In the late afternoon, I grabbed my bags, waved bye to my kind hosts, and took the bus to the central station. While I knew the intercity bus would take me to Jerusalem faster than the train would, I figured that the mere 30 minute difference—due to Israeli trains going around mountains—could be sacrificed for comfier seats and increased luggage space. However, I missed my train by 30 seconds, and it only came once an hour. When I finally got to Bet Shemesh—where I had to switch trains—the conductor of that train for the final leg of the journey decided that the trip was cancelled, so I had to wait nearly another hour for a different train. Overall, I spent 3.5 hours on a trip that was only supposed to take 45 minutes to an hour. Next time, it’s the bus or a sherut.

I ended my day by checking into my airbnb in Jerusalem, and wandering around for about 5 minutes before arriving at Ben Yehuda market at around 10:30PM. I found it peculiar and amusing that large groups of people—friends, schoolmates, and coworkers—would just...wander around the street while the stores were all closed and without sitting in the late-night restaurants, all for the purpose of being with those they cared about. It made the city, with all of its tension, feel more friendly and calm.