West is best; waking up in Jerusalem and falling in love
'West is best', the guy at the hostel desk told me. 'The sun rises in the East and if you sleep on the East side, you'll start sweating at 5am ... believe me, that sucks!'
I had landed in Jerusalem that morning, after a trip riddled with bomb scares and gun toting soldiers. Nearly getting blown up on your travels seemed to be the order of the day here and when a lone rucksack lying innocently in a corner had drawn attention to itself by simply existing, some worried soul had called the army.
Now, I don't know how much you know about the Israeli military. They are pretty terrifying (well, they were to me ... I'm a super scaredy cat so that doesn't really say much). Nearly every young person has to do National Service from the age of 18 - 21 and each one is issued with their very own assault rifle. They are not allowed to let their gun out of sight, even when they have a day off which makes for some pretty funny experiences when you go to a club or restaurant.
Usually they would leave one person in charge of all the guns while the rest went and had fun. Stacking their rifles into a massive pyramid in the middle of the dance floor and dancing around them. Going off for a drink or chatting with friends while the poor gun-watchman looked apprehensive, until he or she got relieved a bit later on. When they wanted to leave, each would grab his or her rifle and go home. It's somehow incredibly empowering to see a crowd of beautiful young women, dressed up in little black dresses, high heels and clubbing outfits, with AK47's slung casually over their shoulders.
It was 1998, I was 18 and the closest I had ever come to a rifle was when my Uncle had come over and shot a rabbit. The rabbit died, then he ate it ... it was my only experience with guns so you can imagine my consternation at being surrounded by gorgeous young people, packing their own armoury.
The bomb disposal soldiers had evacuated the bus station in the brusk, precise manner of military operations everywhere the local folks had simply rolled their eyes, got up and resignedly wandered away. I nearly shat myself ... but we won't go into that now!
Service had been resumed when the offending bag had been identified as containing some sweaty gym clothes (I guess the military guys had needed their bomb disposal suits after all) and we had climbed gratefully back on our buses and gone on our way.
So here you find me ... hot, bothered and tired, asking for the cheapest bed in a hostel in the centre of Jerusalem.
I was led up a number of stairs, past opulent rooms with en-suites and duvets on the first floor. Up again, past slightly less romantic rooms with simple furniture and shared bathrooms. Once more, up another flight, here passing dormitory style bunk beds with open sinks and squat toilets. Finally to a tiny door in a crumbling wall leading up a hair-raisingly steep and narrow set of steps onto the roof. Thin mattresses, one next to the other, lay all over the rooftop area. People were sitting, chatting and smoking with knees up by chins and belongings strewn around in the amicable way of budget travellers. I was shown to my bed area on the West side **this had cost me a few more shekels too ... I don't scrimp when it comes to sweating at 5am**. A filthy mattress next to a large stone chimney of some sort where I immediately threw myself down, lit a cigarette and started to get to know my fellow roof dwellers.
There was one middle aged lady called Jean who soon became my day-trip buddy. She was going through a messy divorce and had decided to screw it all and bugger off round the world using her cheating husbands money, while she still could. I loved her from the word go!
We chatted about life, traveling and existential matters before turning in and climbing into our sleeping bags. The sounds of the city drifting up from the streets below and the smell of weed, hot stone and cooling earth in my nostrils, served as a soothing serenade for my anxiety riddled day.
There is something infinitely beautiful about being woken up at daybreak by the call to prayer. The lilting, exotic sounds being piped from the Dome of the Rock roused me from sleep in the most wonderful way and I stepped over to the edge and snapped the three pictures you see above.
At that moment, watching the sun rise over Jerusalem, listening to the call to prayer, I realised that I needed to travel. It was in my blood. It was the only thing that meant anything to me. It gave me purpose and it gives my life meaning. It was my one true love.
For years I felt that If I was not traveling and I had no plans to travel, I would get seriously depressed. My life seemed to take on a grey shallowness that couldn't be dispelled by sunny weather or a jog, it simply pervaded into every area of my being.
Boredom is a big problem for me. If I'm bored, I feel that I'm wasting my life. If I'm bored, it means that I'm missing out on seeing something truly incredible.
Now the spiritual side of me want to resist that thought. The spiritual and moral side of me wants to argue and say ‘no, that's not true! You can be in awe of every moment, every breath can be a new experience, you can always see new things when you step out of your front door’ and it would be right. That can happen, and it does … sometimes.
The other times, I simply can't step out onto the old, cracked road outside my flat anymore. I can't walk on the same beaten paths or eat in the same restaurants. I can't see the same people, doing the same things again and again and again. It simply depresses me and makes me sad for humanity ... and at other times, I crave the solid foundations of 'home'.
I love the feeling of having a safe environment to come back to at the end of the day. I enjoy having a bed to sleep in and the feeling of closing the door and snuggling up on the sofa ... I think my age is definitely starting to creep up on me now ... but there will always be the wanderer within.
The one that wants to watch the sunrise over a new city. To see the forests of different lands and explore the deserts of others. To meet people who do different things to me everyday. Whose lives are so polar opposite that we could never be bosom buddies, but from whom I can learn something. To spend my life in a haze of twilight scented earth on different continents. To put my feet into freezing oceans on one side of the earth and swim in the bath water temperatures of another. To walk among trees that are so huge and ancient that I feel like a tiny baby among them. To put my hands on their ancient bark and feel the thousands of years that they have seen. To step into different cultures and different time zones and to feel simultaneously jet lagged and lost and scared and overjoyed and excited and amazed because that is truly living.
My biggest fear is the feeling of numbness that comes from doing the same thing day in, day out. The feeling of being bored and un-amazed. Life for me should be a journey, an adventure, simply living in the moment and bursting with joy.
It doesn't have to be like that everyday. Some days can be shit … I give them permission to be shit. But on the shit days I want to know that I'm doing my best to live an exciting life, to not be bored and even when I'm at home in between travel times, that I'm filling my life with what is important to me.
The day that followed is one that is etched, forever, onto my memory. It was filled with experiences ... some good, some not ... but filled to the brim nonetheless.
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Love as always,