I spent New Year’s Eve at a Budapest house party with several multi-lingual people. We went to the Danube River to see fireworks, but they were unimpressive. The best fireworks I have seen have been in Las Vegas during New Year’s Eve and the Fourth of July. There were not as many people in Budapest as I had imagined. I thought it would be pure debauchery in the streets, packed to the gills, but it seemed not too different from any great nightlife day of the week.
Getting to Budapest Ferenc Liszt International Airport from the city is a breeze. I bought a transfer ticket for 530 HUF (US$2) and took the M3 subway to the end of the line, Kőbánya-Kispest. From there, the sign clearly indicates with an airport icon, and I saw the 200E bus, which makes a few stops before arriving at the main Terminal 2 of Budapest Airport. On my world tour, I have taken several airport buses. Some are crowded and smaller than desired, but this bus has plenty of space. The trip from downtown to the airport covers 22 kilometers and takes less than an hour. A taxicab would take less than 30 minutes but cost more than $30.
To fly to Tel Aviv, I used the 10-year-old, Hungarian-based Wizz Air. My total fare was an excellent $126, but $43 of it was the luggage fee! Of course, I view airline fares all-in, but this detail was still eye-watering. Of the low-cost airlines I have taken, Wizz Air was perhaps the most comfortable. I think a Vueling flight I took was the most cramped. The seat pitch in my row 19 was at most 32 inches, but it felt much more spacious because the flight was not full, and the middle seat was empty. There are no seating assignments on Wizz Air so I was expecting to be punished by being one of the last ones on the airplane, but I happily found space next to one of the most beautiful flight companions I have ever had. She looked like an Israeli model, so I often stole a look at her under the pretext of looking out the window. She had the usual good features of long eyelashes, lustrous hair, innocent skin, an alluring smile, and long legs. However, she had a questionable Canadian cowboy outfit thing going on with a denim jacket paired with jeans. She was a nervous flier because she made a praying gesture on take-off and clapped when we landed successfully.
I have both heard and read about the terribly long security clearances at Ben Gurion Airport. One can expect to be searched physically and asked myriad questions. The procedure can take more than an hour. Context and physical profiling are in heavy use. I was relieved when it took only 20 minutes from arriving at passport control to retrieving my bag and into the open air.
When arriving at an international destination, I wonder why people lollygag their way to passport control, which is the biggest factor in time gained or lost. It behooves everyone to run from the plane to the passport control queues since much waiting may occur there.
Tel Aviv’s airport is actually not located in the city proper. The train platform to get to the city is well marked. I bought a ticket for 16 shekels (US$4) from a kiosk. At night, the train runs only once per hour, down from twice per hour. I waited half an hour for the train, but once it arrived, it took only 14 minutes to get to the center. From the station where I alighted, I took the #239 bus for 17 minutes and walked 7 minutes to my hotel. Most of the buses cost 6.9 shekels. I gave the driver a 10-shekel coin, and he gave me change. Whenever I use a bus, I am thankful when it is fairly empty, especially since I have a cumbersome bag with me. I was expecting to wait another 20 minutes for the bus I took, but it either arrived late or early based on the schedule.
My short walk to the hotel gave me a glimpse of Tel Aviv’s reputation of being a nightlife scene. There were people everywhere. The city is modern and attractive. I wanted to wake up early so I avoided the temptation to go out. I slept 4.5 hours and awoke at sunrise at 6:41, which is 50 minutes earlier than in Europe. The sun in Israel also sets 40 minutes later than in Europe, so I have 90 minutes more of daylight here than I had the previous two months.
My hotel is rundown, but it offered a decent complimentary breakfast. Besides, I got the room using a $100 Expedia coupon for $22.50. The hotel was only 300 meters from the Mediterranean Sea, so I admired the scenery and lightly exercised on the pull-up bars on the sand. I was freezing yesterday with several layers and gloves. Today, I saw an old man in a skimpy bathing suit, although methinks it was too cold to be in the water. Tel Aviv has 9 miles of beaches, of which I saw only a kilometer’s worth at Frishman Beach.
Israel observes a Jewish day of rest called Shabbat, in commemoration of God building the world in six days and resting on the seventh. Shabbat is supposed to stretch from before sunset on Friday to sometime Saturday night. In practice, the duration is shorter, although it can still pose inconvenience, especially as it affects public buses and business opening hours. These religious rules against working on certain days or not exacting financial interest on loans are broken in so many ways. While there are extremely few hardline religious practitioners, people will claim to be religious and then live their lives as conveniently as possible, while claiming to observe these rules. It’s pretty laughable.
I have learned to use the buses already, having taken #4, #32, #239, and #405 (to Jerusalem). The standard fare amounts to $1.77, although the 50-minute ride to Jerusalem cost $4.88. The central bus stations in both Jerusalem and Tel Aviv are something else. They are surprisingly unfriendly to a general tourist, in that platforms and routes are not obviously marked. Easy enough for me but much harder than other terminals I have used in the world. They are filled with dirty shops so they seem more like shopping malls than a center for transportation. I left Tel Aviv early on Friday because I did not want to get bus-stranded due to Shabbat. Usefully, Google Maps accounts for Shabbat in its incorporation of bus schedules.
When I arrived in Jerusalem, it took nearly an hour to arrive at my Airbnb home, which is only 2 kilometers away from the Central Bus Station! The wait for the bus was only 10 minutes. Around the main Mahane Yehuda market, Jerusalem’s vehicle and pedestrian traffic patterns resemble those of a stereotypical third-world Middle Eastern city. Tel Aviv is much more orderly and to be fair, so is Jerusalem’s, outside the market area.
I paid $47 for two nights in a residential neighborhood. I had slight trouble finding the address because street names in English are not common. I settled on a place that I thought might have been the destination, but I was still not sure. I was snooping around the apartment building when a resident noticed my suspicious behavior. He came out and spoke English and confirmed that I was at the right place. I went up to the second floor, where I was given instructions to find a key on a window sill. I was relieved to find the key, but there were now three doors from which to choose. I actually tried them all quietly, so as not to draw alarm in case I was wrong. One young man opened his door when I tried his lock, and we figured out that my key was incorrect! Apparently, the neighbors have each other’s keys, and my temporary landlord left his. Thankfully, he was there to make a call to my Airbnb host in absentia and gave me the correct key.
Later, he would invite me to take the uphill walk back toward the market area. He gave me a useful guided tour on the way, describing the neighborhoods and the increasing religiousness of Jerusalem. I asked him, “How religious are you?” He replied, “Secular. Atheist.” He was a medical student, as is my Airbnb host. I am not religious myself, but I came to Jerusalem to tour its cultural and spiritual sights. He introduced me to sabich, an Israeli sandwich. It was a pita sandwich with eggplant, hummus, salad, and some oily sauce. It was delicious. It cost $4.37 at Aricha Sabich, across from Mahane Yehuda market.