Petra, Jordan

Middle East: The Countdown Begins

Thoughts and objectives heading into the Middle East

We’re headed to the Middle East in exactly three weeks and I find myself about 9 parts excited and one part nervous. Not too long ago, rockets were hitting Gaza daily, and flights to Tel Aviv were halted due to safety issues. ISIS has become a household acronym as news networks feed a constant stream of information about instability in the region. Certainly, the notion of the Middle East as a safe and secure travel destination isn’t the conception for most travelers. Issues have persisted in the area since the beginning of recorded history, but this is certainly an interesting time at which to be visiting.

To say that I’m entering this trip with no concerns would be disingenuous. Whether the daily dose of Foreign Policy blurbs sent daily to my inbox provide me with greater or fewer concerns is debatable. Still, I’m entering into this journey with an open mind, excited to explore a new region, experience a bucket list trip, and take the opportunity to share my experiences traveling in an area that many travelers see as somewhat unapproachable, especially at this moment in time.

For the past few weeks, I’ve received calls, texts and emails from a number of concerned friends and family members: are you still going to the Middle East with everything that’s happening? Do you think it’s safe to be over there right now? Can you reschedule your trip for another time? To be sure, I appreciate each and every one of those concerned voices, and I understand them because a small part of me shares that concern. Is this really the best time to be visiting this area? Probably not, no, but when will it ever be a good time? Also, lumping all of these countries into one homogenous group doesn’t provide an entirely accurate picture. To say that Jordan and Syria are essentially the same or suggest that happenings in Iraq are the same as happenings in the West Bank would provide a false sense of reality. Jordan is generally a very safe destination for tourists, and while the situation in Israel has been strained as of late, it remains a largely secure destination for visitors outside of the Gaza border (and perhaps the somewhat contentious area of the Golan Heights). I’ll be honest: I wouldn’t do this trip solo, not right now and probably not ever. We’ll be exploring Israel with a decent sized group, and our West Bank journey will take place with Abraham Tours, a small group with native guides. In an area where I lack knowledge of the language and am not entirely certain about the ever-changing political and social landscapes, I feel 1000% more confident visiting with individuals that know the region, know where to go, and understand the genuine importance of safety. I trust that if there were serious concerns about safety of travelers in the area (not just travel warnings from the US), that birthright groups would be halting their trips, church groups would be rescheduling, and tour groups would be sending out courtesy warnings and re-bookings for their guests.

This trip, perhaps more than any other, I see as being an incredibly eye-opening experience; a chance to encounter a distinctly different area of the world and genuinely reflect on my thoughts and emotions, providing some honest feelings and guidance for those considering visiting. I’m looking forward to evaluating where my expectations lie preceding this adventure, during this journey and after we return. How safe will we really feel while touring? Are there any areas that provide palpably different sensations? Are there any areas that I would distinctly return to or avoid if I were to do it again?  How do experiences in Israel, the West Bank and Jordan all differ?

While it can be difficult to carve out the time on a daily basis to recap and journal, that’s exactly what I hope to do. I intend to take the time each night, after a day of adventures and experiences, and share not only what we’ve done, but also provide an authentic summary of emotions, highlights, and concerns, where they exist. I’m thrilled to be sharing this journey with everyone, and very excited to be working with the Israeli Tourist Board, Abraham Tours and other groups to experience what the region has to offer. I hope to complete our time in the area with fresh eyes, an enhanced outlook and a more holistic perspective on the region after spending time with Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians.

The journey begins mid-October so be sure to check back for regular updates and photos. You can stay up to speed with updates by checking out my Facebook page, following me on Twitter or glimpsing photos from the trip on Instagram.

Have you visited the Middle East recently? Are you headed on a trip to the region? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below!

Love from the Caribbean,

Shannon Kircher, The Wanderlust Effect

More about Shannon Kircher

Shannon Kircher is the founder and editor of The Wanderlust Effect, formerly The Traveling Scholar. Founded in 2009, she has continued to document her international escapes as an expat in Europe and the Caribbean. She is a former resident of London and San Francisco and now calls the island of Anguilla home. In addition to The Wanderlust Effect, Shannon is the Director of Marketing for the Frangipani Beach Resort and is on the Board of Directors of the Omololu International School in Anguilla.

  • Costas Constantinou

    Hi Shannon, having travelled extensively all over Israel and Palestine, I really feel confident that you will be completely safe. In any case you can’t go to Gaza which is the only place there may have been some danger, but even there the Israeli army has stopped bombing now. So firstly I suggest that you do not approach this trip with trepidation but rather with an open heart, as you will meet many welcoming and loving people, particularly in West Bank. Incidentally I have always travelled independently without a tour group and have never had any problems. Most, if not all, people speak English throughout Israel and Palestine.

    I don’t know which places you will visit in Palestine but I would be certain that Bethlehem will be on the list and this is where you will see the place where Jesus was born. As such it is swarming with tourists from Christian countries around the world, Brazil, USA, Philippines and many others. Other cities are Jenin, Nablus, Ramallah, Hebron and Jericho. All nice to visit. Jericho is pretty and green. Ramallah is built up and busy. I would say that Hebron is the most interesting politically because it is the only place where Jewish settlements are built very close to Palestinian homes with consequent friction. Therefore there are a lot of Israeli checkpoints in Hebron which spark fear in Palestinians but you, with your USA passport have nothing whatsoever to worry about.

    Hebron is where I found the people most friendly. This is mainly because the activities of the settlers have caused a lot of disruption to Palestinian businesses and so there are a lot of unemployed people around with time on their hands who want nothing more than to talk to foreigners about their plight. They will invite you to their homes or take you to cafes for a coffee. Some really good falafel stalls in Hebron.

    Over on the Israeli side things are very different. It is modern and prosperous. Therefore people are busy going about their business and have less time to talk to tourists. Nazareth is really nice and worth a visit but the jewels are Tel Aviv’s magnificent beach (though not quite as good as Miami’s) and Haifa which is generally a lovely place.

    I hope you really enjoy your trip. I’m sure that you will.

    Costas

    • Hi Costas! Thanks so much for the input – it means a lot hearing from you about the safety and friendliness in the West Bank, and definitely puts my mind at ease! We’ll be heading to Bethlehem, Hebron, Ramallah, Mar Saba Monastery and exploring the Judean Desert. We have four total days exploring different parts of the West Bank, and I’m especially excited about that. Part of our time in Hebron is a dual narrative tour, where we’ll get to explore with a Palestinian guide + an Israeli guide and hear their personal narratives, which should be incredibly interesting. Looking forward to meeting Palestinians and hearing their points of view. I’ll have to exchange notes with you when we return!