Why Touring Israel Independently Was the Best Decision of My Life

06/08/2015 06:05 pm ET | Updated Jun 08, 2016

CREDIT: Joan Erakit

I made my way onto a bus early one morning at Jerusalem's Davidka Square to participate in a tour that would include the historic Masada, En Gedi and the Dead Sea.

Lets double back a few weeks and explain.

I had originally arrived in Israel by way of Jordan for an extended vacation/self-care trip of sorts after a bit of a tough end-of-year.

A friend in New York had actually called it my "eat, pray, write" trip since I had vehemently assured her that the journey was strictly for writing and nothing more.

Unfortunately, there's a worldly assumption that a woman traveling by herself, especially an American woman, is looking to take in a bit more than the regular sight seeing and museum visits.

I blame Hollywood for this.

Israel, given its geopolitical context and relationship to its neighbors is not the most comfortable place to travel to, albeit alone, but what is adventure if not marred with a little danger?

CREDIT: Joan Erakit

At the suggestion of a family friend, I decided to book an extended stay at Abraham Hostel, a new feat for me given my momentous fear of anything that resembled a college dormitory.

To my astonishment, Abraham was far from the image I had grown up with and instead, resembled a relaxed lake resort my family and I used to frequent on Lake Baringo in Kenya

With a beautiful open space, an exceptional staff and five incredibly passionate owners, Abraham Hostel could not have been more perfect for an independent traveler such as myself.

But lets get back to the morning of.

While settling myself on the small tour bus, I watched different people pile on. Some of them were hung-over from the previous nights shenanigans while others exhibited their excitement for the presumed hike by high-fiving passengers as they walked down the isle (of course he was a fellow American and naturally, I was embarrassed).

"Good morning everyone. Ready for Masada?" asked our guide and driver, Alon.

I couldn't decide if it was the heavy Israeli accent that melted my heart or the crown of gray and brown curls atop his head, but Alon was somehow the confirmation I needed to believe that I had made the best decision to in fact, journey to Israel.

CREDIT: Joan Erakit

Days later, I would sit down with one of owners from Abraham Hostel, Gal Mor, to discuss the philosophy behind independent travel.

One of the main take-aways from our conversation was that instead of standing on the sidelines, shyly taking pictures of monuments and historical sites, Abraham Hostel encouraged travelers to become a part of the community they were visiting.

By engaging rather than spectating, unique experiences were created which in turn increased the chances of repeat trips and ultimately fostered sustainable tourism for the industry.

CREDIT: Joan Erakit

Geared towards inclusion, a stay with the hostel invited travelers to fully immerse themselves in both Israeli and Palestinian culture with activities like cooking Shabbat dinner together on Friday nights, dual narrative tours to Hebron that included both a Palestinian and Israeli guide, hummus cooking workshops, live music jam sessions, local pub crawls, visits with orthodox Jews and trips to the Negev Desert just to name a few.

CREDIT: Joan Erakit

Being that an Abraham Tour fostered both exploration and independence on the part of the traveler, Alon dropped us off at the bottom of Masada giving detailed instructions on how to hike up the mountain, where to get refreshments and most importantly, when to be back down so that we could head to the next destination.

CREDIT: Joan Erakit

The views from the top of Masada were breathtaking and on this particular hot day, it felt good to be surrounded by a breeze coming from the sea.

One of the reasons my hike to Masada was so memorable was because of all the other young people I met who had also decided to make Jerusalem their home base.

CREDIT: Joan Erakit

We instantly formed a rat pack hiking in pairs, lunching together during breaks, trading immigration and custom war stories and of course, knocking back a few brews while floating about in the Dead Sea.

CREDIT: Joan Erakit

Coincidentally, what Abraham Tours did best was get once reclusive travelers together to literally start a movement - even if that movement was simply to experience a new culture.

The Man in The Desert

Later on that week and at the suggestion of other guests at the hostel, I once again joined Abraham Tours for a two day trip to Jordan by road to scope out the ancient city of Jerash, stay overnight at a Bedouin Camp and early the next morning, hike up Petra.

CREDIT: Joan Erakit

The story that would ultimately make my girlfriends blush over drinks back home was in fact my stay at the Bedouin Camp.

CREDIT: Joan Erakit

After spending the day at Jerash, the bus pulled onto a road that lead to the bottom of the valley at Petra. Mahdi, our Jordanian guide had told us to prepare for quite the spectacle and so I put my headphones on and blasted "Maps" by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

The sun was setting, the air was crisp and I even noticed that the stars had started to make themselves visible ahead, and so naturally, it felt fitting to arrive at such a beautiful place with a soundtrack to match.

We slowly drove down the road, silent in an anticipation so palpable I thought my heart was going to leap out of my chest.

"Now I want you guys to look at the front of the bus, I have a surprise for you, " said Mahdi.

CREDIT: Joan Erakit

As the bus continued down a dirt path, we were met with what seemed like a million lights carefully placed in the curves of a mountainside. It was like ascending onto a secret castle that only we had discovered and only we could explore.

And this is why Abraham Tours beats the rest of the competition: small, detailed surprises that make a traveler lose their partial sanity.

We had arrived at the legendary Seven Wonders Bedouin Camp, a beautiful arrangement of tents at the bottom of the valley that allowed travelers to stay among a local Bedouin family.

I pulled my backpack together, tossed my jacket over my shoulder and made my way off the bus.

"Good evening, I trust you had a comfortably journey. Allow me to lead you to your tent," said the most beautiful man I had ever laid eyes on.

Lets just call him the sexier, more audible version of Jack Sparrow.

With eyes lined in black khol, carefully beaded dreads under his black and white Keffiyeh and a Scottish accent to match, my heart skipped several beats as he peered down at me.

Remember that thing about being on an "eat, pray, write" trip?

Well, at that very moment, I surely didn't.

That night, sitting crossed legged around a blazing fire, we listened to a young gentleman play music on the Oud while sipping tea and delving into Bedouin history.

CREDIT: Joan Erakit

The topic of local Bedouin weddings proved to be quite the crowd pleaser when our handsome host insisted that the groom had to pay for just about everything, a note that brokered some passionate responses from our fellow Argentinian travelers.

I guess they like to stay on the cheaper side of things when it comes to marriage ceremonies.

It was in this very moment, although a bit love-struck, that I realized that had I not been open to touring Israel alone, I may not have had such a unique experience in the middle of a desert. Where else in the world would I be seated next to a Korean, a Jordanian, an Argentinian and a Kiwi discussing marriage rituals and the bartering of goats?

On Building a Community

I think a lot about what it means to travel independently especially in a time of global unrest.

Despite what some may say, many women and men are drawn to independent travel almost always during times of unrest -- it's the seduction of adventure that does the trick.

CREDIT: Joan Erakit

It's being alone on the open road surrounded by 7 other strangers. It's not showering for three days after hiking in the blazing hot sun. It's jumping into a taxi and realizing your Arabic is a complete joke and those fancy translation apps you downloaded at the German airport are useless because you now have to somehow direct the taxi driver through the rolling back hills of Palestine.

It's running through the streets of Jerusalem in heels with two new girlfriends after many martinis at a speakeasy. It's having a moving conversation about Islam with an Imam who invites you to tea after a long walk through the city. It's dancing in the street with a bunch of strangers to a reggae band on a Monday night.

CREDIT: Joan Erakit

It's borrowing a pair of shorts from the Russian girl you met on the bus so you can take a dip in the Dead Sea. It's spending the night in Nazareth at the legendary Fauzi Inn, sipping wine on the patio and chatting with an Abraham employee who also happens to be from Brooklyn.

It's realizing that touring Israel independently was the best decision of your life because it gave you perspective on a larger matter.

CREDIT: Joan Erakit

I met a local guy while walking through the Old City of Jerusalem one day and he invited me to share a few beers at a small cafe. Commenting on what it meant to live in a country of great controversy, he assured me that not all was black and white.

"You realize how precious life is, but mostly you just live your life because anything can happen at anytime," he said.

A sentiment I would often refer back to, my few weeks exploring Israel would ultimately shape the way I approached travel moving forward. The individuals I met while staying with Abraham Hostel reinforced the notion that we were all just searching for the same thing: community.

CREDIT: Joan Erakit

As a German Theology professor I met at the bar at Abraham told me one night after I respectfully declined his generous offer for a movie night in his room: "The greatest experiences I've had have been when I traveled alone. One never knows what they'll find until they decide to jump on a bus."

In my case, adventure, independence and of course, a handsome Bedouin with a Scottish accent.