Monday, June 19, 2006

If you are traveling to Israel

Israel is relatively small country of about 6.5 million people and compact in terms of land mass as well. But it is country that is steeped in history and is a stark reminder of what humans are capable off. As group / religion, Jews are one of the most persecuted people. Many countries (including Hamas) would like see Israel blown away from the face of the earth and because of that Israel is a country that is constantly in conflict with its neighbor's. But, what makes them tick is the sheer determination to live against all odds.

I recently visited Israel for a few days and here are some pointers that might be helpful to you if you plan to visit Israel.

Visa - Not required for US citizens. Indian citizens must get a Visa before leaving the country. Allocate at least 2 weeks for that process.
Entry & Exit: Having an invitation letter and an exit letter from your host will help to expedite the process. In any case, be patient and answer all queries clearly and truthfully.

Stamping your passport: Decide if you want your passport stamped or not at the time of entry and exit. This decision will impact you if you visiting some Arab countries like Syria, UAE & Saudi Arabia etc.,

Currency: Israel's official currency is ILS (Israeli Shekel), but US dollar is accepted everywhere. ( USD 1 = ILS 4.5) I found the place little expensive as compared to some of the Asian countries like Malaysia, Philippines, China, India etc.,
Getting there: There are no direct flights from India. I found it easier to travel via Frankfurt. If you are traveling from US, you could use Frankfurt / London / Paris as your transit point.

Security: Even though there is lot of press about ongoing violence in Middle East, they seem to be confined to the areas controlled by Palestinians. I didn't see any cause for concern during my stay in Israel. Having said that, Security is of paramount concern to Israelis and they take it very seriously. So, be prepared for thorough checking while getting in and out of Israel and at other places as well.
Where to Stay - I stayed in Tel Aviv which is centrally located and provides easy access to many other places. Some people choose to stay in Jerusalem for its historical value. I found Tel Aviv more cosmopolitan and less crowded than Jerusalem.
Food - If you are a Vegetarian, then you might have to look harder to find a place. Do some home work on Google before you head out. I don't particularly crave for Indian food, so food wasn't a problem for me as long as I could get some Vegetarian fare. I particularly liked the orange juice in Israel, like the Tropicana promotions 'nothing taken out, nothing added.. Just 100% pure Orange Juice' squeezed right in front you.

Places to See: I suggest the following:
1) Tel Aviv Beaches - Weekends are the best. Just relax and walk around the beach and soak in the sun Mediterranean sun.
2) Jerusalem - Holy place for Muslims, Jews & Christians. Could easily take a day or two to see this place.. Some must see places are: Jesus Christ last supper Hall, 14 stations, Wailing wall, Al Aqsa mosque & Mount of Olives.
3) Holocaust Museum: This is in Jerusalem and can easily take a day or two depending on your interest.
4) Jaffa - This is very close to Tel Aviv and an evening would do.
5) Kibbutz - This is the Jewish communal living and I understand there are conducted tours available from various Hotels.
6) Dead Sea - A must see place.. You can get to it from Jordan as well.

Some people do venture out in to Palestine areas like West Bank or Gaza, but I would not recommend due to the security situation in the Palestinian territories.