In the weeks leading up to my arrival in Tel Aviv, I decided that my first order of business in Israel would be to find an AHAVA retailer. My plan was to buy at least one cream for every quadrant of my body because, as I told my friend, “There are few things more important in this world than smelling nice.”
But that was something I said when times were simpler. Before I got pink eye.
But let me back up because it’s actually a little worse than that. When I arrived in Tel Aviv, I not only had the beginning stages of an ugly double eye infection, but also a rapidly worsening case of strep throat. Complicating matters further, I had also picked up an army officer who was on a 96-hour leave from his base in western Africa on a layover in Ethiopia. And he, it turned out, needed a crash course in how to hail a taxi.
All this is to say that when I arrived in Tel Aviv at 4 a.m., I didn’t have any desire to find an AHAVA store. I wanted a shower, a nap and a heavy dose of antibiotics. I settled for a face wipe, a coffee and some throat lozenges. I had to.
I had a good eight hours to kill before my apartment was ready for check-in. But I had an Uber driver take me to it shortly after 9 anyway, hoping that I could find a cafe or restaurant where I could post up for a few hours and wait.
“This is the address,” the driver said. “But this is not a hotel.”
“No,” I answered. “It’s an apartment. It’s OK.”
“This is not a good place,” he said. “I don’t think I should leave you here.”
I looked down the alley that led to the front door of the apartment. Two stray cats sat at the security gate like miniature bouncers. Just behind them, in very poor graffiti, was scrawled, “Up the punks.” It looked exactly how I imagined Williamsburg to be 20 years ago.
“This is the right place,” I said, getting out. “Don’t worry.”
Truth is, I always regretted missing the boat on Williamsburg.
I took one look at my new block and knew that the chances of finding a cute cafe would be slim to none. So off I went traipsing down the street, my suitcase trailing behind me. I passed storefront after storefront filled with knock-off fashions, bootleg electronics, second-hand books and “art,” all of them closed for business. On a good day, the neighborhood might feel run down. But I happened to arrive on a national holiday, which made it felt outright abandoned.
“This isn’t Williamsburg,” I thought. “This is West Philadelphia.”
And then, after about 15 minutes, I hit a dead end. I took the alley on the right. When that came to an end, I went left. Since I didn’t know where I was going, it hardly mattered. I’d stop when I found something.
And that I did. On the very next turn.
We weren’t in West Philly anymore.
I’m hardly an expert traveler. I don’t have a good sense of direction, I can’t pick up languages quickly, and I find it impossible to sleep sitting up. But I have one secret weapon: my looks. That is, I blend in almost everywhere I go.
Tel Aviv is no exception. Even as I literally stumbled out of an alley, wearing a hiking backpack and rolling a suitcase behind me, a girl had the nerve to ask me for directions. In Hebrew.
“I just got here,” I said. “And I don’t speak Hebrew. Sorry.”
“I thought you were going home,” she said, switching to English. “Enjoy your trip.”
I would have thought it was a fluke, but earlier that morning a guard at the airport also questioned me in Hebrew. Then, at the door of the restaurant, the host did the same. When I told him I only spoke English, he demanded to see my passport. The waitress must have heard nothing of it because she gave me the menu in Hebrew.
“They think I’m local,” I said to myself. It was the greatest news I could have gotten – aside from finding a vial of antibiotic eye drops and a prescription for amoxicillin. After spending the last month in Madagascar, where I couldn’t go so much as a foot without someone trying to show me something, take me somewhere or sell me everything, blending in was was a welcome change. In Tel Aviv, I was perfectly anonymous.
When I finished my breakfast of eggplant shashuka, I rolled my luggage along the promenade by the beach until I came to a rockery. I climbed halfway down, spread out a towel and took a nap, knowing that no one was going to wake me up to and try to coax me into a boat or insist that I buy 16 bananas.
I liked the place already.
In truth, I spent the better part of my first three days in Tel Aviv sleeping – sometimes on the beach, sometimes in the apartment, and, at one point, in a cozy corner booth at an ice cream shop. That’s what happens when you have three infections in your face – you realize that given the right circumstances, you can, in fact, sleep sitting up.
It was after one of my many naps that I was walking through Old Jaffa and got stopped for directions by an American guy in a red fedora.
“I just got here yesterday,” I told him.
“Oh,” he said. “I thought you might be from here.”
“You and everyone else,” I said.
We chatted for a few minutes, comparing notes on our around the world trips, before he said, “Do you want to walk and talk?”
I lifted up my sunglasses. “I have pink eye,” I warned.
He looked unimpressed. “Well you can still walk and talk, can’t you?”
In fact, I did a lot of walking and talking over the next few days, especially after I visited a drug store and the pharmacist readily handed over a variety of antibiotics to treat all the illnesses I had and, quite possibly, a few that I didn’t.
And after wandering Tel Aviv from end to end, I decided to heed the advice of my Uber driver and find another apartment. Not just because the neighborhood left a little to be desired, but because the place itself just wasn’t very… comfortable. The studio was dark and small and the bed was lofted in a way that made me think I had a good chance of falling to my death.
Advice I should have taken yesterday: Don’t live in a place where plants can’t grow.
Bonus slide show: Pictures from Madagascar that didn’t make the cut on Instagram. Enjoy! (And email subscribers, click here to see the photos.)