Why We Travelled to Israel with Baby Despite All the Hassles…
I am drowning in work but I am up at 2am writing this blog – because I want to share both how amazing our trip to Israel with family was and the lessons we learned about traveling with a toddler (skip to the end if you have no time, and just want the lessons). We almost threw in the towel on the second day and were very close to deciding NEVER to travel with our toddler again. And then she got cute on us (suckers! Yes)
So here is how is happened – we planned this trip a couple of months in advance to celebrate Papa’s 60th birthday in Israel with family. This trip got challenging way before we even got there! So APPARENTLY, if you are taking a minor child to Israel and you apply for a Visa you need to submit their birth certificate and it needs to be apostilled by the Ministry of External Affairs. Plus both parents need to show up at the embassy in Delhi for an in-person interview. I wont bore you with the details of all the hassles and expenses we went through during the submission process but let me just say – having traveled to nearly 60 countries, this was my most grueling and expensive Visa application process yet.
Then, just a few days before our trip, Trump announced the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, spurring several threats of violence all over the middle-east. I am not even going to get into the politics of it here – but lets just say we seriously considered cancelling the trip. I decided to write to a few friends/acquaintances in Israel who all confirmed that it was life as usual in Israel a few days after the announcement. I even wrote to the Indian Embassy in Israel who confirmed that it was safe to travel to Israel with family, and made a note of Sushma Swaraj’s personal and professional twitter handle… just in case we need it.
The (Over the Top) Security
Next stop – Mumbai Airport, from where we were going to take the El Al direct flight to Ben Gurion Airport. This is the most amount of questioning I have gone through IN MY LIFE. They asked us totally random questions like why would you choose to travel to Israel with family for a holiday!? Saurabh, Arya and I cleared the questioning, my parents cleared it too, but my sister was stuck there for a good 15 minutes while all of us wondered what was going on. They passed her passport around from one security official to the other, making all of us nervous. Finally, when she was cleared she told us it was because they suspected she was an Israeli citizen with a fake Indian passport trying to smuggle a baby (Arya). Because clearly Saurabh and I look like the baby-selling type. Gah… I knew I should have dressed better! Lol
Finally… We were there!
We arrived in Ben Gurion at 3:20am on December 24 after an 8 hour flight which was thankfully uneventful. By 5am, we had cleared immigration and exited the airport with our rental car. We arrived in Jerusalem, our first destination, by 5:30am. I tried my luck calling the apartment owner to see if they would let us in but they confirmed that we not have the apartment before 1pm. Of course there was nothing else for us to do but to head to Old City and start the sightseeing. We parked in a lot outside Jaffa Gate and headed straight to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. It was a beautiful walk as the night sky went from black to dark purple to pasty orange at dawn. It was like we owned the place – other a few occasional runners – no people, no open shops or cafes – just a few friendly cats, early birds, and us. Finally a few cafes started to open – we sat at a Turkish café to have some coffee and juice before finally entering the church.
Jerusalem over Christmas
What we experienced next was surreal. It was a special Christmas prayer at the Church of Holy Sepulchre – which is where Jesus is said to have been crucified and resurrected. The priests conducted special prayers, chanted in unison, and performed holy rituals. It was a feeling both eerie and surreal at once as nuns moaned in statue like poses in all corners of the church as the rituals went on. Finally, (someone who seemed to be) the head-priest arrived in grand black and golden robes, followed by a procession of similarly dressed priests and then devout followers who chanted prayers as well. There was something about the whole experience that made even non-Christians like my family feel a sense of awe and spiritual connection with the Divine.
By the time we were done it was daylight, and more shops and cafes were starting to open. We walked through most of the Christian Quarter and Armenian Quarter, visiting various interesting sites like Tower of David, Western Wall, Mount of Olives, Damascus Gate, and many more. The most memorable one was the Temple Mount – which allows only a limited number of visitors. We stood in line for almost an hour and a half before being let in. Arya napped through the entire time we were in line, and the rest of us chatted away about everything under the sun. We were ushered in after a through security check – I had to leave the Holy candles I bought for my Christian nanny in the lockers before security check. It was a short walk through a wooden footbridge that led us to the main Temple grounds. At this point I was feeling like I should have spent that $10 on an audio guide – but then again, between an antsy, sick, and hungry Arya and all the walking I wasn’t sure I would actually have the time or focus to listen to it. There was a huge mosque right in front of the main Temple. We were offered entry into the mosque by (who seemed like) local guides – ONLY if we were Muslim. We said we weren’t and he promptly moved on to visually identifying other potential Muslims. It was a sunny but windy day and I was feeling bad for my little one who was running a fever and had a cold – so we didn’t spend as much time as the place warranted, and made our way through the winding exit roads back to the wailing wall. While the stroller was a lifesaver at this point, it did require a lot of carrying up and down stairs – we took turns but mostly it was my husband lugging it. A sling would have worked better here but my daughter does not like the sling anymore and likes the freedom of movement a stroller provides.
Yad Vashem and Tel Aviv
The next day (Christmas day) we planned to go to Tel Aviv and stop at Yad Vashem on the way. Since children are not allowed inside the Yad Vashem papa and Saurabh decided to sit it out in the café with Arya while mom, sister and I went in. The hour we spent inside was a truly reflective one. Mom kept telling me how little she actually knew about the struggles and perseverance of the Jewish people before that visit, and how the mass killings are just a reminder of how cruel humans can become as a race if we leave the powerful and the evil to their devices. We reunited with the rest of the party in the café and reflected on our experience over some coffee and snacks before heading to Tel Aviv.
Being now used to the (somewhat over the top) Christmas vibe in Europe and the US, where I have spent nearly half of the Christmases in my life, I was a little taken aback by the lack of anything Christmasy at all in Tel Aviv. We started at the Jaffa Old Port where Arya had fun with the feisty waves hitting the walls and the friendly cats and birds playing with her. We then headed for lunch at what was touted as the best falafel place in the world – HaKosem. And it delivered! The place hardly has seating for 30, and most people order for eating on the go. We were lucky enough to find a table for 6. After about 15 minutes in line, we ordered what at the time seemed like food for 20 but it took us only 10 minutes to wolf it all down. The food was absolutely fresh and delicious. Arya kept nibbling at a pita bread and picked on some salad from the salad plate.
Defining Pasta (Toddler Tantrums!)
We then walked over to Sarona market – which is essentially a high end food and gourmet market. The market is full of (slightly overpriced but) delicious open food kiosks and gourmet cooking shops. While the rest of them roamed around the market – I thought I would buy lunch for Arya who hadn’t eaten much at the falafel place. I ordered a pasta – which she was very excited about – but when it came she refused to believe that it was, in fact, pasta. You see – I had ordered spaghetti in pink sauce. Spaghetti, to Arya is not pasta, its noodles. She had her heart set on pasta now so there is no way we could re-package this as noodles and convince her to eat it now. So we had to order another $20 plate of pasta – penne this time, in white sauce. Raise your hand if you’ve been in a similar food situation with your toddler – I can see about 95% of you raising your hand!
Anyway, after a long day we headed to the beach – where we could not stand for more than 15 minutes because it was windy and cold. We hung out at a diner close to the beach where we got some coffee, beer and milk (for Arya). The waitress gave Arya some toys to stay entertained – truly a God sent because she was beginning to get very cranky and saying she wanted to “go home.”
We then headed to the Imperial Cocktail Bar which is supposed to have divine cocktails. They wouldn’t let Arya into the bar, so Saurabh and I took turns sitting in the hotel lobby with her while the others had cocktails. They were nice enough to serve us cocktails in the lobby though! We took a bunch of non-believers like my parents and converted them – papa, a straight up whiskey drinker was not much of a cocktails guy but absolutely loved the cocktails served at the bar and went for seconds! The drive back was a fun one as papa – now buzzed was telling us some funny stories from his youth. But Arya was tired and super cranky by the time we got home, and I somehow knew that the night was going to tough. She woke up crying at least 3 times in the night – I got kicked, punched and hit in the face several times as she was trying to move around and find comfort. One of the times she was crying I knew she was thirsty (her lips were extremely dry and she was coughing) but she refused to drink water. It took half an hour of trying to comfort her, distract her, and convince her but ultimately what worked was giving her a timeout until she calmed down and had some water. She slept within 5 mins after drinking water.
Needless to say – we both woke up extremely tired and cranky next morning! Saurabh and I knew we had to change something – we couldn’t have another jam-packed day of touristy stuff and ignore her needs. We had planned to go to Bethlehem in the morning, but decided that we would go to the “Biblical Zoo” in the evening instead of the regular stuff we had planned.
The next day morning we took a taxi to the entrance to Bethlehem and hired a shady local taxi to take us inside Bethlehem. He charged us roughly $115 for a return trip to the Church of Nativity, and a tourist guide who would take us inside the church. This seemed like a lot at first considering we were only 3Km from the church. But seemed sort of worth it when the tourist guide pulled some strings (and bribed some priests) to let us in to the front of the line. It felt wrong to cut the line, but given the paucity of time and patience we decided to roll with it. I bought a few candles, burned, and then extinguished them in the holy water to “bless” the candles and bring them back for my nanny who is a devout Christian.
It is a narrow path into the actual place where Christ was born, which is marked by a hole in the ground, surrounded by an ornate star. Again, the whole experience definitely felt unique and surreal as a crowd of quiet and reverent visitors made their way through the narrow tunnels and walkways. But as we left the church and came back to Manger Square where we started, it was definitely a glimpse into the reality of Palestine. A visibly poor cousin of Jerusalem, one could smell the poverty and desperation of the people of Palestine. The little kids trying to sell us trinkets and snacks at “tourist” rates seemed all too familiar (to us as Indians).
After a round of piping hot falafels we headed back to the security point to re-enter Israel. We passed several graffiti laden streets and alleys on the way there, and finally walked through a smelly walkway to the checkpoint.
A Close Call
What happened next was – well – funny and potentially scary at the same time. As we laid all our bags and jackets on the x-ray machine tried to pass through the security check, the machine started running backwards and throwing all our bags back to the ground. A man emerged saying one of those bags has a weapon. We all looked at others around us with contempt – like – what were you thinking bringing a weapon! And then he points to Saurabh’s backpack and said there is a knife in there. At this point I am in shock. My sister and Saurabh are both doing face palms as they realized the “surprise” gift they had bought me was still in his backpack. It was a gourmet sushi knife. Saurabh took out the knife, still in its packaging, and reasoned with the woman sitting behind the glass that this was a gift for his wife. She was convinced – and let us go. Phew! Now I know most of you are thinking this is not a big deal – but you had to be there. This is a shady place with several heavily armed people – who half the time one couldn’t tell if they were soldiers or fighters. You did NOT want to raise any suspicions here.
To the Zoo
After grabbing lunch on the go we headed to what was called the “biblical” zoo – although there were more than two of quite a few animals, there was also an arc with a museum and exhibit. The zoo is spread over a huge area, and we decided to cover most of the ground in the super slow zoo train, and walked on the wooden walkway overlooking animal habitats. Arya was super excited about all the animals and absolutely loved the place. We definitely would not have this on the itinerary if we weren’t traveling with a baby. But it was a fun day.
I took Mom and Papa to the Mahane Yehuda market to buy some nuts and dried fruits they wanted to take home, while Arya, Saurabh and Radhika chilled in the apartment. After putting Arya to sleep, Saurabh, Mom, Radhika, and I headed back to Mahane Yehuda at 9pm, when it had turned into a complete party street, with blaring music. Although Radhika would have loved to go out dancing after, we were pretty tired and decided to still head back a decent hour.
Masada and Dead Sea
We checked out from the hotel next morning and headed to Masada. The drive along the shore of the Dead Sea was a picturesque one. We arrived around 9:30 at the Tourist center where the cable car rides begin at about 10am. Saurabh, Radhika and I wanted to hike while mom and papa would take the cable car. Arya had fallen asleep in the car but woke up right as we were about to leave for the trek. At this point, I tried to explain to her that she would come in the cable car with her grandparents but she refused and wanted to come with us. Saurabh said if it is less than an hour he will carry Arya up. I asked him at least 7 times if he was sure!? Arya rode on his shoulders the entire way up – it wasn’t a very difficult hike but it wasn’t exactly a walk in the park either – especially with a baby on your shoulders. I don’t know how he did it!
The view from the top was phenomenal! There is barely much left in ways of ruins of the fort – also I think after my trip to Jordan I have been underwhelmed by most ruins (yes, Greece as well) – but the historical significance and the view make the trek totally worthwhile.
We took the cable car back and headed to Ein Gedi to access the Dead Sea. After briefly looking for the alleged free public beach for about 15 minutes, we gave up and decided to go into a very over-priced and badly-serviced Ein Gedi Spa. The changing rooms weren’t exactly very clean and food was pathetic and way too overpriced. But for the lack of options and paucity of time we decided to roll with it. Since I had already been into the Dead Sea in Jordan I decided to sit it out with Arya while the others enjoyed their dip in the Dead Sea. Arya was definitely intrigued and wanted to go into the water – sand and water are two of her favorite play things – so it took a lot of effort to keep her out of the stinging Dead Sea water. But there is no way anyone can stay for over 15 minutes in that water. Everybody showered and had lunch and we left for the village of Amirim in the north in the Sea of Galilee where we would be spending the next two days.
We spent the next two days at a much slower pace than the last four. There was only grocery store and two working restaurants in our small community of Amirim where we stayed at the most idyllic log cabin – Eretz Hagalil. A cozy and well equipped cottage was just what we needed to relax as a family after a hectic last 4 days. The little private play ground with swings, a see-saw, and a slide made this an instant hit with Arya. A huge Jacuzzi tub in one of the bathrooms was just the cherry on top. There was even an outdoor table tennis set up for the adults. The cottage managers had even left us some baked snacks, chocolates, and local wine to make it the warmest welcome one could expect.
We decided on spending time in Amrim there because Papa was excited about Israeli farming techniques and wanted to visit some farms. So, the next day I called the Harduf Organic Farm that came highly recommended by Timeout Tel-Aviv. It turns out, the farm was located inside a unique Kibbutz that habilitates hundreds of people with mental illnesses and disabilities. Moshe, one of the managers of the farm, was the sweetest (though busiest) man ever. He asked us to come at 1pm for a tour. We had a heavy breakfast that we cooked up at the cottage, and headed to the Jezreel Winery which was pretty close to the Harduf Community. It is a small winery that was closed for the winter but the staff organized a quick private tour and tasting for us. Arya was entertained at the farm by all the horses in the stable, the donkeys and the friendly cats. We bought a bottle of their Rose’ and picnicked at the benches in the garden outside. Arya was entertained by the two friendly cats with whom she shared her popcorn (I don’t even know if we should be giving popcorn to cats!?).
Off to Papa’s favorite part of the trip – the farm. We arrived at the farm at 1pm, and Moshe gave the warmest welcome with some delicious herb tea and dates (way to make his way to my Mom’s heart – anyone who offers her tea in the afternoon is an instant favorite). While we sat next to the barn and sipped on tea (and Arya indulged in a mooing competition with the cows), Moshe explained the history, purpose, and functioning of the Kibbutz to us – it was entirely centered around the idea of two thirds of the population taking care of the third that needed assistance and rehabilitation through meaningful work and integration. What a beautiful way of life. The farm was completely organic and still used the best of Israeli farming techniques. We walked through the farm and sampled the delicious vegetables and fruits along the way. We asked a lot of questions as a group, and were equally intriguing to Moshe who was surprised to see a random Indian family show up at his farm. At the end of the trip Moshe took us to the vegetarian organic restaurant at the kibbutz where a Hungarian lady cooked us the most delicious vegetarian meal I’ve ever had. Papa, who is an otherwise picky eater, also loved the meal, and observed that they would never have the opportunity to experience something like that through the organized tours they usually take to travel abroad.
We headed back to the cottage and picked the most delicious falafels for dinner. The next morning we woke up lazily, cooked and ate some breakfast, and checked out of our lovely cottage. Next stop – Nazareth. Took us about an hour to get there from Amirim. By now we were all churched out and didn’t want to spend too much time in the city. We headed straight to the main attraction – the Church of Annunciation, were lucky enough to find a parking spot in a narrow lane, not 200 meters from the church. We spent about an hour at the church – mostly admiring all the artwork on the outside of the church – the mosaics of Jesus and Mary from all the Christian countries around the world. On the way out I bought some rosary beads for my Christian nanny before making our way to the last leg of our trip.
We decided to spend time in relatively quieter Haifa instead of Tel-Aviv. Again, I decided on this mainly because I knew we have a baby who sleeps early and we wouldn’t be painting the town red partying anyway. Maybe Radhika, who was the one more excited about night life in our group would have preferred Tel Aviv. But my parents were happy with the choice of Haifa as well. We had the most spacious and well furnished apartment, with the best view we could imagine. Located on the nearly the highest point in the city on Mount Carmel, you could enjoy the lovely breeze and a view of the Mediterranean Sea. The host was the most fabulous one, he gave us a lot of helpful tips and recommendations for the next 2 days. The recommended that we spend that evening in the German Quarter of the city which would be rife with celebrations that evening. And so we did! We arrived just in time before the main street (Ben Gurion Avenue) was filled with people. We found a parking spot in one of the side lanes and walked up and down the street – sitting down for beer and vin chaud at a couple of bars. By the end of the night, we had eaten enough small snacks and weren’t really in the mood for a sit down dinner. We enjoyed some live street music and shawarmas and headed back to the apartment to rest.
We spent the next morning at Bahai Gardens – which, while it was beautiful, was not the most stroller friendly place. After coming down just a few stories to the middle of the garden, we decided to head to the beach for lunch. We drove about 15 minutes down to Dado beach that came highly recommended for sea side restaurants. Arya predictably loved this spot. We chased flocks of birds and played in the sand while waiting for the food to arrive. It was difficult to keep my water baby out of the chilly cold Mediterranean waters – so we let her play in the sand with the waves for a bit – her clothes and boots were wet but I let her be because I knew we would head back to the apartment after this and I could change her.
We headed back to rest at the apartment – Papa was coming down with a fever at this point. Mom cooked up something at home for him, while I put Arya to bed early (she was tired from all the activity that day) and headed out with Saurabh and Radhika to check out some bars in our neighbourhood. We enjoyed a huge cheese platter and some curated wines at a small wine bar – we were the first ones there at 7:30pm! And then headed to a bar that came highly recommended for dancing – although as I suspected, there was no dancing at 9pm! By 10:30pm Mom called saying Arya had woken up, and we had to hurry back home (such is life with a toddler!).
The next day was December 31st, and Papa’s birthday. Papa was still under the weather and decided to rest while the rest of us drove to Acre, where the fort we went to see was great, but the highlight was the best Falafel meal ever! With like twenty different plates of pickles at our table, it was a meal for every vegetarian foodie out there! Mom absolutely loved it! We shopped for vegetables and other ingredients for the dinner and cake we were going to cook that night to celebrate Papa’s birthday, at the old style local market. Vegetables were ridiculously cheap there as compared to the grocery stores so Mom went to town with the veggie shopping!
We were back to the apartment by 2pm where we found Papa still sleeping (probably enjoying the peace that comes with Arya being away!). After some R&R we began the dinner preparations. Saurabh was busy with the baking, I made my famous guacamole, and mom cooked up some Indian food (Papa’s favourite!). We decorated a cake table with some candles and celebrated with the most delicious Whiskey & Pecan cake that Saurabh had baked. Arya was asleep by 8pm as usual, and I had promised myself I would stay awake until midnight this New Years Eve! But, like every other New Years Eve, I was cosily sleeping in bed by 10pm.
The next day, we packed up from our apartment, and loaded the car. I had planned for a stopover at Caesarea on our way to Ben Gurion (for the flight back to Mumbai). But we got rained in and decided to spend time at a mall instead. The Children’s Place had a 70% off sale where I bought stuff for Arya and mom bought a nice jacket for Papa. We made it to the airport with four hours to spare because people had told us that the security procedures on the way out of Israel can be rather time consuming. We did not experience any delays at security and made it right through to the boarding area in less than twenty minutes.
Overall, it was a great trip with some amazing memories and stories. We got to spend some quality time with my parents who are often busy with work or household chores when we visit them at home, and experienced a truly unique country together.
As for my learnings about baby-travel:
- As babies turn into toddlers we need to plan activities and attractions that they can participate in and enjoy – especially outdoor activities.
- We cannot overwhelm them with a jam-packed itinerary and no down time on holidays. You could do it when they are little babies just hanging on to you in a sling, but as they grow up their needs evolve.
- Packing list reduces significantly when they are potty trained and not using bottles to feed! I use some of that space to pack some instant foods.
- Instant food options if you have a space where you can cook: instant Dosa mix, instant Upma, pasta, noodles
- Pick up fresh fruits and vegetables from local markets – Arya loved cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, bananas, grapes, and many other fruits and veggies
- Introduce local foods! Arya LOVED the warm and fresh pita breads in Israel. We would give her one to nibble at, and she would eat one whole pita during car rides. (Hummus was not such a big hit though!)
- For toddler parents: I always take a few minutes at the end of the day to recount the highlights of the day. This helps build memories that they can take home. Arya still recalls the amusing scene when the ostrich was biting the rhinoceros’s bum at the zoo!
Signing off now! Until the next adventure…