Those of you who follow my writing closely and keep an eye on my social media have probably noticed a theme lately. I’ve been restless.
Restless?! I hear some of you saying. But you travel all the time! Yes, that’s true. But I go to visit family, or hang out with friends, which is fantastic. I go on campaigns that make this blog and this life possible, and they are a blast. I go places that are kinda sorta near where I needed to be anyway, and that is always a bonus.
But it’s been a while since I’ve had a true adventure. As I started working on a real honest-to-goodness, pen-to-paper bucket list around this time last year, I started to panic. I have all these dreams… when the heck am I supposed to make them happen? At least for this year, I wasn’t willing to give up my US summer or my Thai winter. Which leaves a relatively small window for travel in the spring, a window which is a terrible time to travel to almost everywhere on my bucket list.
Until, I realized, it’s the perfect time to visit the Middle East.
I can’t explain the peace that came over my fidgety heart as I realized I’d stumbled upon the perfect dream to make come true next. It’s official — I’m going to Egypt, Jordan and Israel! (…and possibly to Dubai and Lebanon? LET’S NOT GO CRAZY HERE.)
While this is the first time I’ve so much as hinted oat this trip publicly, I’ve been chatting to family and friends about it for a while. I’ve been kind of surprised that as I share my plans, there are a lot of raised eyebrows and snide remarks about choosing to travel anywhere in the Middle East right now. I mean, it’s not like I’m planning a vacation to Allepo, guys. But for anyone who needs any further convincing as to why one would want to travel to the Middle east, I provide four fail-safe arguments:
2. Increased opportunity to bump into Queen Rania of Jordan, become best friends
3. Camel selfies
4. Mind blowing dive sites in the Red Sea, Dead Sea, and along the Mediterranean (yes, even the Dead Sea!)
I rest my case.
I’m going to be honest — I have nothing planned for this trip. No flights, no hotels, no tours, no nothin’. Hell, it isn’t even happening for six months! But as I wrestle with starting to research destinations I know nothing about and have no reference point for and are, as far as I understand, somewhat logistically challenging to travel around, I figured I’d turn to my greatest resource for advice: you! If you’ve been to these countries, I want to hear everything! I’m sharing what I have so far below (which is basically just what I’ve gathered from a guidebook and chats with fellow travelers and a few blogs), with a few specific questions sprinkled in, but feel free to tell me anything.
I’ve always dreamed of going to Egypt… “someday.” Well, why not now? Tourists have been slow to trickle back since the Arab Spring, and I hear reports that you can still pretty much have the pyramids to yourself.
I admit that I am somewhat intimidated to travel mainland Egypt solo — not so much due to safety but more due to harassment hassle and logistics. If I have a friend join, we may attempt to tackle it independently, but otherwise I’m looking into a couple tours I might join. One thing I like about the idea of a tour? It would force me to move way faster than I normally do, and knock out the big inland sights in a week or so, so I could then focus my time and attention where I most like to put it: beach bumming and diving on the coast.
• Cairo // The Pyramids of Giza, the Egyptian Antiquities Museum and the markets of Cairo all call to me — as do the cheapest flights from Bangkok into the Middle East. This is likely to be where my trip begins.
• Aswan // Blame Angie Away for this one. Ever since I read about her felucca ride down the Nile many moons ago, I put Egypt firmly on my bucket list, and I’m not leaving until I spent at least one night — ideally two or three — sleeping on the deck of one of these ancient wooden sailing vessels out of Aswan.
• Abu Simbel // Abu Simbel is close to NOTHING so as much as I wanted to keep it off any possible itineraries, the gorgeous photos and dreamy stories I keep reading tell my I’ll probably make it here — either as a day trip from Aswan, or possibly as an overnight.
• Luxor // The Valley of Kings is a must in Egypt! There are actually a few places in these three countries that are popular to take a hot air balloon ride over, but it’s hard to pass up the idea of a sunrise one here.
• South Red Sea // First of all, this is a totally made up term for a stretch of coastline that probably has a proper name I’m unaware of. Ha ha? All I know is I’m extremely keen to check out the dive sites in Hurghada and Marsa Alam. Whether that would be via a liveaboard or daily boat dives from one of the area’s popular dive camps, I’m not yet sure. Let me know what you all think!
• Sinai Red Sea // My final Egypt destination will be the diving hotspots on the Sinai Peninsula. I plan to fly to Sharm El Sheikh, if only to check out Ras Mohammed National Park — possibly camping overnight! — and then spend the majority of my time diving in Dahab, known as Egypt’s one true destination with a backpacker vibe. Depending on the security situation at the time, I’d love to climb Mount Sinai as well. From here, I’ll either cross into Jordan via sea or overland via Israel.
Jordan! I know embarrassingly little about this country for a place that approximately every other travel blogger on earth has visited. What I do know is it is an oasis of peace in an oft unstable region, and I look forward to some leisurely sightseeing while I’m here.
What I’ve gathered from friends who have traveled the region is that there isn’t much of a backpacker or independent traveler scene here. I plan to do the trip independently, without a tour and using public transportation, so it will be interesting to see how that shakes out. Ideally I’d love to have two full weeks here. Again, I’d absolutely looove to hear from any of you have been there and done that! Here’s what I’m thinking my route will be.
• Aqaba // I’ll enter the country from Aqaba, the main city along Jordan’s small slice of the Red Sea. Here I plan to do even more diving, wander through some of the city’s small mosques, ruins, forts, and museums, and start a routine of regular hammam-ing.
• Wadi Rum // Where Laurence of Arabia was born! I can’t wait to sleep under the stars at a Bedouin camp — any recommendations? — and do desert stuff like ride a camel, take a jeep tour, and perhaps even hop in another hot air balloon.
• Petra // I’m pretty sure it’s like, fully illegal to go to Jordan and not stop at the ancient city of Petra. I can’t wait to get my hiking and photography on at Jordan’s number one attraction.
• Dead Sea // The Dead Sea can be visited from both Israel and Jordan, and ideally I’d like to try both. From my understanding, the Jordanian experience is far more exclusive and high end, and this spa lover is hoping to splurge on one of the fancy hotels in the area for a properly lush first Dead Sea experience. I may also hop over to the Ma’in Hotsprings.
• Amman // Jordan’s capital is likely to be my last stop as I head into Israel. I don’t know much about the city — yet! — but I’m sure it will be nice to be back in an urban environment for a few days. Yoga classes, here I come!
I’d also like to add in one of Jordan’s nature reserves to this itinerary, though I’m not sure which. Aljoun Forest Reserve and the Dana Biosphere reserve seem like they’d be difficult to tackle solo, while Mujib Biosphere Reserve seems more accessible.
I may have a friend join me for the Jordan portion of my trip, but regardless, I’d love to hear your recommendation for hostels or other hotspots to meet up with other travelers!
Israel and the Palestine Territories
I love Israelis. I find that, like Americans and some other nationalities, they have a reputation that precedes them in the traveler community and it’s not always positive. But what can I say, I like the intensity with which they approach life.
I was chatting to some Israeli travelers the other day here in Thailand at my gym and they seemed surprised when I told them I was planning to visit Israel soon. “You have family there?” they asked. “Nope,” I replied “….but I did grow up in New York.” Ah, they said, a look of understanding coming over their faces. “An honorary Jew.”
That little exchange cracked me up, but it actually did speak to part of what draws me to Israel. I went to college on the edge of a Hasidic community in Brooklyn. I grew up surrounded by friends keeping kosher, occasionally going to shabbat dinners, and attending a whirlwind of bar and bat mitzvahs. It’s a religion that I’ve always admired for seeming to bring a lot of joy to a lot of people I care about.
So yes, the Jewish culture feels familiar to me in a way that I think will make a visit to Israel oddly comforting in the midst of a region that feels almost dizzyingly exotic. I’m also pretty ashamed of how little I understand about the Israel Palentine conflict, and hope to do some serious learning and listening while I’m here.
• Jerusalem // I’m going to be brutally honest here — I don’t really have any burning desire to go to Jerusalem. But I kind of figure when I get there it was just stun me with its overwhelming charm? I don’t know, I think I’m more of a Tel-Aviv girl. But don’t worry, I’m going anyway (if only to see Temple Mount, which looks like a stunner.)
• Tel-Aviv // Tel-Aviv is the reason I wanted to come to Israel. Everything I’ve ever heard, read or seen about this beach-obsessed city along the Mediterranean says, “Alex, you will love it here!” I can’t wait to soak up the sun, art, and nightlife that make this city hum — and I might even sneak in some diving in the Mediterranean Sea.
• Nazareth // Originally, I didn’t really have any plans to head to Nazareth. Then I cracked open a guidebook. Turns out this Bible superstar city is also a great place to take daytrips to kayak in the Sea of Galilee, tour the gardens of Haifa, and explore the wineries of Golan Heights.
• Dead Sea // Here I plan to take a full-day course in full-face-mask diving, climb Mount Masada, and check out the Israeli side of the furthest-below-sea-level destination on earth.
• Eilat // Time to unwind in Israel’s answer to Aqaba! You know the drill: more beaching and more diving, this time with some legendary nightlife thrown in for good measure.
I would absolutely love to check out Beirut. However, considering the stringency with which Lebanon rejects travelers who show any hint of having traveled to Israel and the fact that there are no land border crossings and that I may run out of time mean I may delay it for another trip and/or passport.
Why visit the glitteriest city in the Middle East? A long layover! I might fly to Cairo via Dubai and stop there for a few days to visit a friend, if time and our schedules allow.
Clearly, I have a few big decisions that need to be sussed out ahead of time, primarily if I am taking a tour in Egypt and if so which one, if I am doing a liveaboard in Egypt and if so which one, and what flights I plan to take into Egypt and out of Israel. Otherwise, I would like to try to avoid my usual tendency to overplan and try to leave some time and flexibility to linger in places I might fall in love with (cough cough Dahab) and move on more quickly from place I’m just not quite feeling. I think my trip will start off fairly organized and efficient and become more and more spontaneous as I move gradually into areas that are easier and easier to travel independently.
Well, I hope you guys are as excited about this trip as I am! Please, leave your advice, your ideas, your blog posts, your whatever in the comments and I’ll be eternally grateful. And if you’ve also never been, tell me what you want to read about. Okay, let’s do this!
Can’t wait to share this adventure with you!