Embracing wrong turns, contradictions, and touristy kitsch might just be the best way to see Israel—or to travel anywhere
The taxis drivers in Jerusalem are an interesting lot, and not merely because each and every one—whether Jewish, Christian, or Muslim—tried to rip me off. That I expected. What I didn't expect was how charmed I would be by all the scamming. It seemed like a big, cheerful game, in which happily dishonest hacks cross sectarian lines in their efforts to convince me that it will be cheaper not to use the meter—and it works out not to be true! Hilarious!
One particularly pleasant driver, when he learned I was American, smiled and said: "You are like a man standing on a fault line. Soon the earth will swallow you whole and you will die." Impressive. I actually tipped him.
I had asked him to take me to a restaurant called Ima, in the area around the Mahane Yehuda market. The sister of an Israeli friend in New York had told me that it was an excellent spot to try upscale Israeli food, and it was well known enough that all the taxi drivers would be able to find it. I ended up instead at a restaurant called Sima, which the cabbie insisted was Ima. ("I know it," he said. "Good soup.") Ima, Sima, what difference does it really make, so long as the food is good, which it was. I had the me'urav, a formidable combination of sautéed chicken hearts, lungs, and various other unmentionables served next to a heap of excellent French fries. Two nights later, I returned to Sima for dinner. What did I see down the block and across the street? Ima. I went in. It was fantastic.
I had asked him for directions to the Ma'alot Dafna neighborhood. He had no idea—apparently religious differences in Israel impact one's knowledge of the streets—but he did know Pittsburgh.
I have great admiration for the traveler who makes no plans. Whether it be in the expeditional mode of The New York Times's "Getting Lost" column, or the neo-Thoreauvian meditative style of Rebecca Solnit's A Field Guide to Getting Lost, I have respect for these wanderers—but I'm not one of them. I'm more of a researcher, the sort who enjoys maps, reads guidebooks, plots itineraries, and solicits opinions in advance from those who've gone before me.
Yet it was the blundering approach for me on this trip, with results both predictable and pleasant. I was lost most of my time in that ancient city, but indeed I heard, saw, and did things that otherwise wouldn't have occurred to me.
I was in Israel not as a tourist but to work, conducting research for a book I am writing about Jewish identity. I didn't expect to have much free time, so I invested little time researching what I might see. My hotel requirements were few: cheap, clean, in the center of the city, rooms with wireless. I ended up selecting, strictly from a two-sentence write-up in the Lonely Planet, the Hashimi Hotel, which was described as a "colorful mishmash of hotel rooms, family suites, and dorm rooms, all painted in bright colors." It was in Jerusalem's Old City, in the Muslim Quarter; it met my requirements for price—about $50 a day for a private room with a bath—and its two mitigating factors didn't really impact me: there are strict rules banning alcohol on the premises, and unmarried couples aren't allowed to share rooms.
The Hashimi Hotel wasn't without its complications, however. When I read that it was in the Muslim Quarter, for some reason I assumed that this was an historical reference; that is, I didn't understand that such neighborhood divisions in Jerusalem's Old City—Jewish, Muslim, Christian, and Armenian—held in the present day. Put aside the political implications of this geographical ignorance. There were real-time consequences as well.
I arrived in Jerusalem in the late afternoon, by train. I hadn't yet found time to buy a map, but I figured I could to find my way to the Damascus Gate—the entrance to the Muslim Quarter and a few steps from the hotel—by public bus. Most of the bus route signs were in Hebrew, but I decided to get on one whose riders looked like tourists. I know this seems a rather random method of navigation, but I was jet-lagged, and my attempts to communicate with people at the station proved unsuccessful.
On the bus, I got into a conversation with a young Israeli soldier who spoke some English. We chatted about where I was from and what kind of weapon he was carrying (he just laughed when I asked that). I decided to try to confirm with him if we were heading to the Damascus Gate. He seemed confused and asked me to repeat the word for him several times. He turned to several other people, asked them in Hebrew if they knew what I wanted. None did. In the end, I rode the bus to the last stop, which deposited me at the Western Wall and the Jewish Quarter, which, perhaps not surprisingly, is at the opposite end of the Old City from the Damascus Gate and the Muslim Quarter.