Our recent trip to Istanbul and Israel was amazing and life-changing. This post will focus on just a few of the many highlights, but before diving in, we should first cover why we chose to visit these places.
Our trip to Israel was an official London Business School trek. LBS treks are organized by the school’s many student clubs and are an integral part of the LBS experience, as they bring together groups from different programs to experience a country or event from the locals’ or experts’ perspective. Right from the outset, Kiley and I earmarked the Israel Trek as our one of our top choices; Kiley wanted to experience the complex culture from a local’s perspective, I’ve always wanted to visit Israel because of its integral position in many of the geopolitical challenges that informed my studies and early professional life.
So it was settled, we were in for the Israel Trek. But as LBS treks go, it was on the more expensive side. Added to this, airfare from London the Israel was pretty pricey, so we looked for ways to augment the travel costs. In this, Kiley went to work; she dug deep and found that having a long layover in Turkey (Istanbul) would actually be cheaper than flying direct to Tel Aviv. Istanbul was another location that always intrigued us (I almost studied abroad there in college), so it was a perfect match—we would spend a few days in Istanbul en route to Israel!
When I asked Kiley to describe our trip to Istanbul in a few words, she said “couldn’t get enough.” I agree wholeheartedly. We spent our time on a whirlwind tour of just one small part of the city (Sultanahmet) and we were left wanting so much more. Here are some of the highlights:
- The World’s Crossroads. In many ways, Istanbul is the crossroads of the world. Linking Europe and Asia, East and West, Muslim and Christian, the city’s rich history and diversity shines. The Hagia Sophia (pronounced “hiya sofia”), for example, Istanbul’s most iconic landmark, was built as a Christian church in the 530s and converted into a Muslim mosque in the 1450s. Now a secular museum, it retains iconography from both eras on display. Similarly, you can walk around the beautiful gardens of an Ottoman palace before cooling off with a tour of a Byzantine cistern right around the corner. Istanbul’s Greek, Roman, Ottoman, and modern influences are always on display.
- The Ramadan Drummer. On our first night in Istanbul, we awoke to faint but distinct booms coming from outside out window. As we lie awake listening, the booms seemed to move, eventually closing in on our hotel. When the sounds became so loud as to shake our nightstands, we got up and peered into the street below, only to see a man carrying a marching band-style drum and playing it as loud as he could. We asked the locals the next day about this phenomena and they described it as an old tradition during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which was underway while we visited. In years past, teams of drummers would parade through the city a couple of hours before sunrise (in this case, around 3:00am) to awaken the pious residents so that they might have time for their early morning meal (the suhoor) before fasting during the daylight hours. The locals also described the drummers as a dying tradition, gradually being replaced by cell phone alarms and other modern technology. Needless to say, we made it a point to wake up to see the drummer the next night.
- The Call to Prayer. While my studies and early career focused on the Muslim world, I had never visited a Muslim country before Turkey. So, for me, one of the coolest parts of visiting Istanbul was the call to prayer emanating from the neighborhood minarets five times per day. Of particular importance during our visit was the evening call to prayer; the one that sounds at sunset and harkens the beginning of the daily iftar dinner, which breaks the day-long Ramadan fast. As we took our evening walks through Sultanahmet, we would see families preparing picnic sites in the public spaces, waiting with their dinner bags tied tight for the evening prayer call before feasting. I can only imagine how hard it is to fast through these long, hot summer days.
- Wheeling and Dealing. The marketplace culture of Turkey is one centered on haggling. Don’t be fooled by the deceptively low prices (the lira has had a rough year), you are expected to haggle on the price of many items bought from street vendors. This culture of salesmanship extends from the markets to Main Street, where restaurateurs persistently beckon you into their establishments. Common tactics include broad, open-ended questions (“Excuse me, sir, may I ask you a question?”) and way-too-tight handshakes that keep you from easily slipping by. And in a chivalrous twist, they only seem to target the men (unless it was a group of women), leaving wives and girlfriends free to actually look at the menus, rather than just trying to escape the situation. If you’re not expecting it, these practices can seem pushy; however, if you’re prepared, it can be fun to play the game.
- Nice and Clean. One of the initial observations upon arrival in Istanbul was how clean the city was. Granted, we spent almost all of our time in the touristy old city, but even on the drives in and out, the city was largely free of trash and very well landscaped. It almost appears that the Turkish culture includes cleaning up after yourself—a concept completely alien to Londoners. Equally important as the first impression is the final sentiment, and the most prevalent feeling on our way out was how friendly everyone was. Even during the haggling and selling mentioned above, everyone was friendly and respectful. We made friends with our hotel staff, several local restaurant owners, and our new tea guy (yea, we now have a tea guy). Overall, the friendly locals made an already great visit all the more enjoyable.
The Israel Trek was fundamentally different from how Kiley and I normally travel. Because we generally plan… lightly… up front (read: wait until the last minute and don’t plan at all), most of our trips are very open. While this style allows us to live in the moment, it does lead to stressful situations when you’re starving and have done zero research into local restaurants. In this respect, the Israel Trek was a lovely break, because the trek leaders had everything planned out. With the exception of a few blocks of free time, we could just sit back and enjoy the ride as we explored a very interesting country. Highlights:
- Religious Experience. During our travels over the years, Kiley and I have taken to attending local religious services, including masses at Notre-Dame Basilica in Montreal and the Duomo in Florence. Similar to visiting a landmark or researching the area’s history, attending a service can be an eye-opening way to experience local culture. From this perspective, the Israel Trek was second to none, and the Old City of Jerusalem was the highlight. In the Old City, our main stops were the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Jesus is said to have been crucified and buried, and the Wailing Wall, the holiest place where Jews can pray. Visiting these sites was absolutely a surreal experience. At one point, we even had a professional opera singer perform Ave Maria for our group as we waited to enter the church. We’ll remember that moment for the rest of our lives.
- Birthright Trip. Throughout our trip, from Old City Jerusalem to the Dead Sea to the desert Bedouin camp to Herod’s castle, we gradually began to notice that we were surrounded by large groups of young adults. When we asked about their groups, we’d always get the same answer: “birthright.” Birthright is a program supported by charities and the Israeli government that funds young adults to visit and tour Israel. We realized about halfway through the trip that our group—a cohort of almost exclusively non-Jewish graduate students and guests—was on a birthright trip, right down to the armed guard (for real)! It was a funny joke, but not actually true. In reality, the trek was organized with the help of an organization called Israel & Co., which specializes in attracting students from elite business programs around the world to visit Israel. Nonetheless, it’s fun to think that we’ve essentially been on an Israeli birthright trip—except we had more booze and had to pay for it.
- It’s Complicated. Looking back on the trip now, the only real criticism we had for the trek organizers was the seemingly one-sided nature of the information presented during the trip. It’s not surprising, considering that the aim of our tour company is to attract us to Israel, but the presentation from our tour guide was noticeably one-sided in favor of Israel, with very little discussion of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And there were opportunities, especially as we exited Jerusalem and again as we transited through the West Bank en route from the Bedouin camp to the Sea of Galilee. During these drives, we saw the West Bank separation barrier, Jewish settlements, road signs prohibiting entry to Jews, and plenty of military aircraft. While we were visiting the Dead Sea, we saw several Israeli fighter jets flying to the south overhead, only to find out later that the Israeli Air Force had bombed several Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip that day. The jets we saw flying overhead very likely could’ve dropped those bombs. Kiley and I had many discussions about the current geopolitical situation and how though-provoking it was to see Israelis living normal lives under the threat of rocket attacks, while at the same time hundreds or thousands of Palestinians were protesting against the practices of those same people and their government.
- Montezuma’s Revenge. Yep, that’s right, I have a confession to make. Throughout the entire Israel Trek and hiding behind all of those happy Instagram photos, I was battling one of the worst stomach bugs of my life. It hit in Jerusalem and lasted right through our last days in Tel Aviv. The origins of this plague are hereto unconfirmed, but it may have been our last dinner in Istanbul or irritation from the water in Jerusalem. Whatever the origin, it came really close to derailing a big part of our trip. Kiley actually had to call one of the trek leaders at 7:00am to gameplan our options in case we had to miss the bus to the desert a few hours later. Thankfully, I managed to get through without too many embarrassing moments, aside from the fact that by the end of the trip, everyone knew that I was pooping like crazy.
- The Return of the Beach Hair. Taking a hard right turn back to happy land, let’s talk about Tel Aviv. It was our final destination of the trek and exactly what we needed to close out a long trip. Although we are much more experienced-minded travelers—as opposed to relaxation-minded travelers—even Kiley, who can’t sit still for more than 5 minutes, was talking about needing an idle beach getaway in the weeks leading up to the trip. And relax we did! For the most part, we spent our time in Tel Aviv hanging out at the beach reading, swimming, and playing volleyball, paddle ball, or football (the American kind). When we weren’t on the beach, we were touring around the city, enjoying excellent food and drinks and beautiful weather. It was the perfect way to close out the trip of lifetime.