2013: Life-changing moments as an expat

“Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes/Five hundred twenty-five thousand moments so dear/
Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes/How do you measure, measure a year?”

— RENT, Jonathan Larson

How do you measure a year?

This year, it was all about defining moments as an expat in Thailand. Moments that changed my life, moments that forever altered my heart, moments that impacted me so greatly they caused me to ache in ways I never thought possible.

It goes beyond measuring things in cups of coffee, sunsets, stolen glances, secret kisses … it is so much more than that.

In five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes, anything is possible. Everything is possible.

These are the moments that will always be remembered for the impact they had on me in 2013. Some good, some bad, some heart-breaking, but always, always making me the person I am so proud to be today.

1. Everyday is New Year’s Eve. Especially New Year’s Eve.

Any good story starts with New Year’s Eve. As a friend constantly reminds me, in Chiang Mai, everyday is New Year’s Eve, so what better way to begin with saying New Year’s Eve — the real New Year’s Eve — changed everything.

It starts as most NYE’s start, over dinner and drinks. My friend, Megan, is in town to visit me, and we head off to Loi Kroh to grab dinner. As lights twinkle and reminders of New Year’s Eve surround us everywhere we turn on the crowded street, we enjoy dinner and then drinks. My friend, Aaron, joins us and then, after dinner, we head to a bar owned by two Americans.

I’m not a New Year’s fan, so the idea of going out on the night where everything is placed on how much fun you have/how much you drink/who you kiss, makes my stomach turn. But, I’ve got a friend in town, and Aaron wants us to check out the bar, so we go.

I walk in, and it is empty, save for two Americans — the owners. In the dimly lit scarlet bar, the three of us begin to down the white liquor when I meet Ron and Hollywood. They are both from America and have just opened The Playhouse. And, other than Aaron, they are the first American guys I have met in Chiang Mai. I instantly like them both, and while I am there, I spend most of my time with Ron, chatting away about life in Thailand and life in America, and how glad we are we both came here.

He’s pretty awesome.

And, even though we leave the bar, I don’t forget about The Playhouse. There’s something in the back of my head that tells me Ron and Hollywood will both become important people in my life. Even if they don’t know it yet.

2. Rescuing elephants in Cambodia

 Rescuing an elephant in Cambodia

I lay in bed the night before we are due to leave for Phnom Penh, feverish, shaky, praying to some higher power that I don’t have dengue. In the morning, I call my boss and tell her I’m not sure if I can make the trip. But, inside, I am devastated. It’s an elephant rescue. Two elephants being  rescued, and not going crushes me.

“I will come,” I explain, “but if I start to feel worse, I am going to fly back to Chiang Mai. I don’t want to get hospitalized in Cambodia.”

I make the trip, fortunately, and am treated to the most magical eight days of my life.

The journey starts out hard — we land in Phnom Penh and the next morning embark on a day-long drive, where, under the cloak of darkness, we meet up with another team of volunteers who have driven the two elephant trucks into a tiny town along the Mekong. The next morning, we awake early to go to a village in Ratanakiri to take the first elephant from her life of trekking.

A child in a village in Cambodia

We spend the day with the children of the village, playing with them, giving them clothing, watching in awe as they watch us in awe. With so little, these children’s live seem so filled with laughter.

When its time to load the first elephant into the truck, Lauren, a volunteer who I had met the night before, leans into me and whispers, “This is the worst part, they don’t always want to get in the truck.”

But, this elephant? She does. Tempted with bananas, she walks right onto the truck from the pile of dirt. Done.

That night, our team visits the other village with the second elephant we are rescuing. In front of a fire, and sitting on mats covering the earth, with chickens and pigs hovering besides knobby stilts supporting the huts, we dine on home-cooked food as the owners of the elephant swap tales of life. Even though I understand nothing of what they are saying, simply being there, in this little village where a radio provides entertainment and most huts don’t have electricity, I am moved.

In the morning, we are up before the roosters and begin our journey to the sanctuary outside of Siem Reap.

We drive down dirt highways through the interior of the country. Along the roadside, children run from their huts and wave at us and the elephants. We speed through areas of trouble. I ride atop the truck at times, sitting with one of the elephants and Lauren. As the sun begins to set and the fires from the jungle burning around us begin to fill my lungs, I opt to get back in the van.

When we arrive to the sanctuary around 9 p.m., seeing the elephants take their first steps to freedom touches me. Lauren and I hang back, arms wrapped around each others shoulders. Smiling. Yeah, it was entirely worth it.

3. Rescuing Lucky

An elephant rescue in Thailand

Less than a month later, we are back out on the road. This time, it is to rescue Lucky, a circus elephant in need of retirement. At nearly 30, she has been the star of a circus in Surin almost her entire life. She is blind from the spotlights shining in her eyes. We head out to rescue her from Chiang Mai, packing 10 volunteers into a van and driving through the night, stopping at the Cambodian border in the morning, and then arrive to Surin in the mid-afternoon.

We are there for less than two hours. Then, Lucky is loaded onto the truck — again, she goes in without a thought — and we head back to Chiang Mai. My co-worker, Mindy, and I hop onto the truck early in the morning to sit with her. Above us, the stars twinkle. Next to us, Lucky eats her corn stalks, softly emitting a “crunch crunch.”

As the sky begins to lighten, we can see a storm ahead. Mindy and I ignore it … until it starts to pour. Then, soaked to the bone, we get back in the van until lunch. On the last leg to Elephant Nature Park, Lek, Mindy and I climb back up the truck and are with Lucky as we drive into the park.

The rescue of Lucky to Elephant Nature Park

I watch with tears in my eyes from my perch a top the truck as she takes her first steps to freedom and meets the family herd for the first time.

4. Myanmar

It’s actually very difficult for me to write about my time in Myanmar. Not because the words fail me, but because there are stories I just can’t share. I can say this — I was in Myanmar for a week. I met amazing, beautiful locals. I visited the gorgeous Shwedagon Pagoda. I got to be so very close to the royal white elephants. I saw jungles. I explored the Yangon Zoo. And, I left Myanmar feeling absolutely drained, depressed and exhausted in every sense of the word. While I can’t say much, just know it is one of those trips that will stay with me forever.

5. Getting a home

My house in Thailand

“James’ dad,” Wendy heaves into the phone between cries, “he’s passed.”

The death of my friend’s father catapults my life from one of an open book at Smith Residence to one of far more privacy. In a rush to leave, there are no loose ends tied, and a few weeks later, I get a phone call from Mary, who, along with her husband, are the landlords of said house.

“Wendy said you were interested in renting the house,” she explains over the phone. “You want to come and look at it?”

I’m sitting at a local restaurant having a beer with Paula.

“What do I do?” I ask, torn between having the comfortable life at Smith versus being on my own.

She opens her blue eyes wide.

“I think you should do it!”

The next day, Paula and I walk the quick minute down the street from Smith and tour the house. It’s bigger than the condo I lived in when I lived in Vegas, but not nearly as modern. There are no glass windows. There are gaps between the “sky light” and the ceiling. The kitchen is a sink, a refrigerator and a microwave. The burners are out on the patio.

“Yes,” I say to Mary and John while standing in the teak upstairs. “I will take it.”

A few nights later, I stand on the wooden stairs of my new house and take it all in. The patio. The living room. The kitchen. The bedroom. The guest room. They’re mine. All mine.

It gets even better when I bring home a cute little black and white cat, Penelope, from the office, and a month later, get to take the cat I rescued my first few days here, Lucky, home.

I haven’t felt this grown-up in a long time. And, the icing on the cake? It’s my house in Thailand. For the first time in a long time, everything seems to have fallen into perfect place. Until the perfect burns up along with the mountains during burning season.

6. The death of a friend

Adam Bromley and an elephant

A week after I move into my house, I have a house-warming party. The first guests are Paula and my co-workers, Adam, Ter and Lily. We sit on the benches on my patio, sipping rice wine — Adam’s favorite. At some point in the night, we’ve all had a bit to drink, and Adam decides he needs to leave. I give him a hug goodbye and thank him for coming. He leaves his shoes behind.

And, I never see him alive again.

A few days later, I walk into the office when my boss, Lek, stands up and looks at me.

“Adam died.”

I freeze.

No. No. No way.

“What?”

“He died, Diana.”

I sit down in a tattered black chair in front of her desk and bury my head in my hands.

“How?”

“He had an infection and it killed him.”

I just saw him. He was just at my house. His shoes … his shoes are sitting in front of my door.

She comes up behind me and hugs me.

Adam’s death is the first death of a friend in my life. It is the first time I have known what it is like to grieve for someone who isn’t family, but might as well be. Adam is my first friend in Thailand. The first person I can talk to about living here. And now, he’s gone.

I walk through the day as a zombie. And, when I’m not a zombie, I am a wailing, sobbing mess.

This goes on for days. Tears. Smiles. Memories of Adam. I don’t live in a world of sad, but I don’t heal as well as I should either.

7. Songkran

Experience Songkran in Chiang Mai

There are a few things Chiang Mai is known for, one of which is Songkran, or the Thai New Year. For four days, the city is soaked. Literally. Everyone sheds their work faces and puts on huge, enormous smiles as they delight in soaking people with buckets of icy water. It’s a party, and everyone in the city is invited.

We end up camping out at The Playhouse (remember New Year’s Eve? Well, since then Ron, Hollywood and I have become good friends and spend a lot of time together). For days, we dump buckets on people, squirt them with PVC pipes-turned-water weapons. We even hop in a truck and drive around the moat, soaking other trucks and people on the sidelines.

It’s a blissful party and for a few days, all is right with the world as we live in a constant state of being drenched and reliving our youth.

8. The dating game

As a western girl, it is ridiculously hard to meet western guys that actually 1) want a western girl; and 2) are here more than a few nights. So, when I meet a traveler who is cute, funny, charming, of course, I live it up. And, then there is a guy in town whose company I enjoy … until he leaves a few months later.

It reinvigorates me. Gives me a little sparkle of hope that, yes, I can play in this dating game.

But, once I take a look around at the environment I am in, I lose interest. Again. Maybe … it’s ok to just be single and not set deadlines? Slowly, I start to let go of the life I imagined I would have at this point. You know, being married with kids. ‘Cause, let’s be real. This is Thailand. And that just isn’t happening for me here. I embrace it and come to terms with the new life I am living, resetting all of those imaginary goals and deadlines.

9. Realizing I’m destructable

anxiety pills

Photo courtesy Deanslife via Flickr Creative Commons

So, events 6, 7 and 8 all take place over the span of two weeks. Hey, life moves fast here as an expat in Chiang Mai. It is the middle of April, just after Songkran, when I finally come to terms with Adam’s death. And, finally come to terms with my own mortality.

After the evening service for his funeral, I go to see Ron at Playhouse. Suddenly, I can’t see. I can’t breathe. I need to lay down. Then, I need to stand up. I need to puke. I need to cry. I need to freak out.

Hello, anxiety attack.

I have two anxiety attacks over the span of two hours. I’ve never had one in my life, so I think I am dying. Hysterical, I go to Smith and ask the doctor who owns the place, hand tightly gripping Paula’s hand, if I am having a heart attack. If I am going to die like Adam died. He assures me I am fine, tells me to take a Xanax. I do, and in 10 minutes, I have regained composure and am more drugged than anything else.

Paula sleeps on my couch that night because I no longer trust myself.

For months, I teeter on the edge, a little voice in the back of my mind always wondering if I am going to die, or have a panic attack and think I am dying. It is a totally shitty way to live, but I learn to make adjustments.

I (temporarily) cut out caffeine. I pop Xanax (without abusing it, promise). I try to get to the root of my problems, which are a lot deeper than just Adam’s death. I enlist my friend to start a round of acupuncture with me, and slowly, the heart racing subsides. Slowly, my stability returns.

10. A summer of friends

Sri Lanna National Park

It’s July 13, 2013. I’m standing outside of Owen’s Restaurant, looking up at the sky as a barbecue smokes next to me. Inside are Ron, Hollywood, Katie and Andrew. Four of my closest friends here. We’re celebrating my one-year anniversary of being an expat.

I stand there feeling ridiculously blessed. These people, the longest of whom I have only known since New Year’s Eve, have become such a permanent fixture in my life. We spend all of our time together. I’ve learned to lean on them when I have troubles, and cannot imagine my life in Chiang Mai without them in it. We, along with Ae, and Beam, adventure to Sri Lanna together. We share nights at Smith and my house laughing over Sangsom. We have breakfast, lunch and dinner together.

Only, a little more than two weeks later, like most friends in Chiang Mai, they are all leaving. Hollywood is going south for some time, Katie and Andrew are going to Australia to find work, and Ron is going to Israel.

Me? I’m staying here.

The day they leave, I lay in bed and cry. For weeks, my eyes linger on the road we all used to walk down together. I sit at Ae’s bar and remember all of the good times we had there. I’m caught in this fog of ghosts, reliving the moments of the year that made me the most happy.

I’m like an annoying lost puppy who can’t find her way home. I sink. Deep. Hard. Horribly.

11. Israel

A photo from Tel Aviv

I was meant to see Ron in Israel, but you know the saying “the best laid plans …” so, yeah. Instead, I spend most of my time alone, caught deep in that eternal mind fuck I loathe/love. It’s terrible/amazing. It’s the first time in years I’ve had my passport stamped for something other than work, and I don’t even appreciate it. I’m that big of an asshole.

I wander through the early morning in Tel Aviv, eyes open, trying desperately to grasp some new perspective on life. To regain that spark I had when I first arrived in Thailand. To remember to count my blessings. To love what I have. But, I’m so beaten. I’m so worn down by life the past five months. Alone, in Israel, I feel even more alone. I feel guilty for not living up my time there, but know I have to go through the funk to have the fun.

I cry when I get on the airplane and fly over the Mediterranean, over Europe. I cry for the life I had in America, the life I had in Europe, the life I had in Thailand before everyone left.

Yeah, I’m in full-scale self-pity disgustingness. I know it. I try to fight it. But, I’m headed to my Tara — my parent’s home — to get a grip.

12. Home

Delaware's Rehoboth Beach

No words are truer to me than “home is where the heart is.” Since I first left home, Mom always equated my love for home to Scarlett O’Hara and her Tara. Only, this time, home isn’t the home I grew up in. I said “goodbye” to that home after Thanksgiving 2012. Now, they’ve retired and moved to Lewes, Delaware, just outside my childhood vacation spot of Rehoboth Beach.

Over a week, I cry, I laugh, I try to make sense of my life and what I want. Because, to be quite honest, I have no fucking clue. Do I want to stay in Thailand? Do I want to go home? Do I want to travel? Do I want to try living in Europe? There is the pull of elephants and Lek in Thailand, but still …

No. Fucking. Clue.

But, there is something to be said for hugs from Mom and Dad. They reassure me, even when I’m at my worst. For most of my time at home, I cry, to be honest. Being in America is hard for me for so many reasons. It reminds me of the sacrifices I make being an expat. The things I leave behind. But, it also reminds me of the things I have in Chiang Mai, even though I am too depressed to see those things clearly at the time.

The last time I saw my grandpa

The last day — the day before I head to Vegas to reconnect with my former Vegas life — I go to Pennsylvania to see my grandfather. After being in and out of the hospital for months, he is now in a nursing home and aging quickly. We sit together in the little visiting area, as he complains about the food and recounts the same stories my parents have heard over and over again.

It’s the first time I look at him and see an old man, and it guts me. When it is time to say goodbye, I rest my hand on his bony shoulder and hold him. To this day, I remember what that felt like, and even writing this makes me tear up.

I turn back to see him one last time, covered in a blue blanket, and then leave the home and board my flight to Vegas.

13. Turning 34

I’m in Chiang Mai for about two weeks before my birthday. The night before I turn 34, I am with Beam at a bar, enjoying some gourmet beer (it does exist in Chiang Mai, it is just super pricey). We sit together and I open up to Beam about my fears of  being alone forever, my fear of death, my fear of not being able to find the happiness I had when I arrived to Thailand.

“D, you have to realize, you are absolutely perfect just the way you are,” he says to me, smiling. “You can be happy, you just have to let yourself.”

His words stick in my head. I remember being with the shaman in Utah almost two years ago, and how that changed me. And now, his words, they resonate. Perhaps it is because I am just so tired of living in a constant state of unhappy, but really, I think it is because his words finally give me permission to be happy again. To accept exactly who I am, quirks and all.

I. Am. Perfect. Just as I am.

The next day is my birthday, and I give myself the greatest present I could ever give myself — I am honest. I admit my weaknesses. I admit my feelings. I admit I can be happy, it is just a matter of changing my perspective.

Surrounded by new friends and old, we sit together at Smith as I wipe the tears from my eyes and decide it is time to get back to me, and to relish the moments I have in my life — the good and the bad. It’s the best night I’ve had in a long time. Sure, I remember the friends who aren’t there, but then I open my eyes and see all of the friends who are there. All of the people who care about me, and who I am so madly in love with. Justlikethat, my life seems to be back on course.

When my grandfather dies nine days later, it hurts. But, instead of letting it destroy me, I open myself up to the love around me — and there is so much love around me — and I celebrate his life and I celebrate my own.

So, yes, 2013 was one hell of a year. It was fulfilling, heartbreaking, eye-opening … but in the end, I learned the most valuable lesson of all: to love myself. To honor myself. And, if it took all of these moments to figure it out, that’s fine. I wouldn’t trade any of them for the world.

I measure this year through these moments. Moments, where regardless of pain, there was always love somewhere in the mix. So, yeah. I guess I am kind of like Larson and “Rent.” I measure in love.

How do you measure yours?

May 2014 be a blessed year for all of you. Love. With your eyes open. Wide.

This post is dedicated to all those I love, especially Andi and Arnie Edelman, my brother Mike, the memories of my grandfather Louis Lindenbaum and my friend Adam Bromley, Lek Chailert, Darrick Thomson, my Chiang Mai crew/family (you all know who you are), my friends in America,  and the countless animals who have invaded my heart.

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Escape of the Week: Tel Aviv’s street art in photos

Street art in Tel Aviv is alive and well — something I learned recently on my tour with Mekomy and the start-up’s founder, Gilad Uziley.

What I learned on the tour is that the street art scene in Tel Aviv, while it flourishes in the warehouse neighborhood of Florentin, extends well beyond this mostly rundown, hipster area and can actually be seen all over town. It is just a matter of where you look.

Florentin

A street in Florentin, Tel Aviv

Considered hipster/bohemian, Florentin is the place to immerse yourself in the street art culture in Tel Aviv.

A street in Florentin in Tel Aviv

Located in the southern part of the city, the area is a hodge-podge of industrial and residential with the in-the-know crowd frequenting the area for its nightlife scene. Regentrification in the 90s saw a flux of the younger crowd moving in, and today there’s a span of people who call this area home.

A Jewish star against street art

It’s a mix of rich and not-rich. A meshing of ideas … all under one neighborhood.

Street art by Dioz in Tel Aviv

For me, I’m completely taken by the art flanking the walls, the dumpsters, the doors and beyond.

Street art in Florentin

Florentin’s street art tells a story.

A rabbi as street art

Street art in Florentin

It explains the the issues with the city, personal problems, creative solutions, cries for love, and more.

Street art in Tel Aviv

It merges local artists with visiting artists to create collaborative works of art.

String street art in Tel Aviv

It uses mediums aside from just paint, like string.

Street art by Dede

There is Dede, whose work can be identified by Band-Aids.

Street art by Eggplant Kid

Eggplant Kid who paints (you guessed it) eggplants.

Adi Sened street art

Adi Sened who creates these little box people.

Street art in Florentin in Tel Aviv

Dioz, with his abstract take on life.

Street art in Florentin

A street in Florentin

And so, so many more.

Tel Aviv Bus Station

The Tel Aviv bus station

And then, there is Tel Aviv’s Bus Station.

Street art in Tel Aviv bus station

Filled with vendors and quite run-down on most floors, the top floor is literally a work of art now, thanks to Mati Ale and his vision for bringing street art to the forefront of the locals and visitors. This floor treats passengers to a who’s who of street artists from Tel Aviv and beyond.

Street art at the Tel Aviv bus station

Street art at Tel Aviv bus station

Mooz street art in Tel Aviv

Cultural commentary in street art at Tel Aviv bus station

An apple as street art

Mixed medium street art at Israel bus station

Blindfolded street art

Sumo street art in Tel Aviv

Colorful street art at Tel Aviv bus station

Street art with rainbow

Elephants as street art

Computer game street art in Tel Aviv

A girl as street art

Tel Aviv street art

After walking through Florentin and then hitting the bus station, I love being able to recognize some of the artists whose work I have already seen in the gritty real world.

Street art box people

Street art in prose

Street art with string

Street art by Dede

Art by Dioz at Tel Aviv bus station

Around town

And, then my eyes are open.

Tel Aviv

As I walk around town, I can’t help but notice the street art everywhere I turn. The Band-Aids, the Hebrew prose, the little box people.

IMG_0856

Am I in love with the street art scene in Tel Aviv? Yes, I think so.

IMG_0907

For more information on taking your own street art tour, be sure to check out Mekomy’s Facebook page.

Editor’s Note: My street art tour was courtesy of Mekomy, however all opinions are my own. If you have questions regarding this, please read my disclosure policy

Destinations Featured

Tel Aviv’s ultimate street art experience

Gilad Uziely, the founder of Mekomy, picks me up on his motorbike, producing a cushiony helmet for me to wear as we zip along the Mediterranean and head towards Old Jaffa.

It’s a hot day, and the wind hitting my face is welcome as we zoom down the smooth road and towards the ancient city.

The best hummus in Tel Aviv is at Ali Karavan

He’s got quite the afternoon lined up for me — first we’re exploring Old Jaffa, then going to grab hummus at Ali Karavan, which is apparently the best in the country (please order the triple, which treats tastebuds to hummus, flu and masabacha — trust me), then we’re off on a street art tour with one of the city’s most popular artists, Dioz, then to end the day, we’re visiting a new street art exhibition at the Tel Aviv bus station.

Mekomy is Gilad and his wife’s vision after serving as travel agents. When the two were always asked for their suggestions, Gilad saw an opportunity to bring together the curious travelers with the local experts and the start-up was born. Today, his company operates in a few cities and by the end of 2014, he hopes to have experts and tours offered in five cities in Europe and Israel. Guests can select from three tours given by locals: art, culinary and photography.

For me, I find the best way to get to know a city and its subcultures is to check out the street art. In Berlin, I fell in love with the art scene and since then, whenever I can get an opportunity to see the more gritty, creative side of a city, I jump for the chance.

The beginning: Jaffa

The old city of Jaffa in Tel Aviv, Israel

We start in Jaffa, where the summer heat leaves us beading with sweat and we dip into air conditioned buildings to cool off for brief moments before winding our way through the old, historic city.

Jaffa in Tel Aviv

The oldest part of Tel Aviv, Jaffa immediately summons recollections of Europe with its slippery, tiny pathways meandering up hills to secret nooks and crannies. We wander through the ancient port city, climbing the stairs to the top and breathing in the stunning view of the Mediterranean caressing the shore below before Gilad begins to point out street art as we descend towards our lunch break.

Street art in Jaffa, Tel Aviv

A look at an artist’s life

After dining at Ali Karavan, we hop back on Gilad’s bike and drive to the start of our tour — the famous street artist, Dioz’s, house. Located in a run down building with a tiny church below, I enter his home and am blown away.

Street artist Dioz's home in Tel Aviv

It’s the most eclectic, artsy place I have ever stepped foot in. There are works of art everywhere, from traditional paintings hung on walls to unique sculptures.

Street art in a house

To my delight, there is even a cat.

Dioz is tall and rather soft-spoken for one of the city’s most popular street artists. He offers me a water before he takes us on the tour of his flat, which includes an expansive patio/roof.

Standing on the roof of the building, Dioz extends a finger towards the city.

“There, that is one of my latest works,” he says. I follow the direction of his finger to a painting adorning a wall.

The latest work of Dioz in Tel Aviv

It’s really cool.

Then, the three of us are off.

Hitting the streets

Glass crunching underfoot, we explore the mostly warehouse area of Florentin that has emerged as the scene for street art. Tucked between posh and sky scrapers and more rundown areas, it’s easy to see why this neighborhood has emerged as the place for street art. It is where worlds collide and the artists can have the liberty to create on the blank walls of warehouses.

A street in Florentin, Tel Aviv

But, even the bars and shops here embrace the art. Metal shudders aren’t just metal here, they are art.

Street art in Florentin, Tel Aviv

He and Gilad stop me every few feet to explain the art I am looking at, to show me collaborations between other street artists in the area and work done by people from all over the world.

More street art in Tel Aviv

I’m a sucker for street art and here — in this little Tel Aviv neighborhood just off-the-beaten-path from the tourist trek — I have stepped into a treasure trove of glorious work that is nearly on part with street art in places like Berlin.

Street art by Dioz in Tel Aviv

Where street art gets main streamed

After we explore in the afternoon heat, it’s back on Gilad’s bike and over to the Tel Aviv bus station where his friend, Mati Ale, has done something incredibly special — he has transformed a bland and sterile bus station into one of the largest collaborations of street art I have ever witnessed. (Hurry, it’s only on exhibition for a year!)

Street art takes over the Tel Aviv bus station

The entire departures floor is covered in works from some of the best in the country. Abstract, surreal, whimsical works flood my eyes as they dart everywhere, searching for something I may have missed on first glance.

The street art exhibit at Tel Aviv's bus station

More street art at the exhibition in Tel Aviv's bus station

It’s a long day, and by late afternoon the heat begins to take its toll. Gilad whips me back through the rush hour traffic and drops me back at Artplus. Tired. Happy. And a memory filled with amazing street art.

Street art by Dioz

Want more street art? Check out this week’s Escape  for a full photo essay of the awesome.

Editor’s Note: My street art tour was courtesy of Mekomy, however all opinions are my own. If you have questions regarding this, please read my disclosure policy

 

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A different perspective in Tel Aviv

Since I’ve lived in Thailand, I haven’t traveled much for pleasure. Yes, I’ve experienced Sri Lanka and safaris, Myanmar and the deep jungle and Cambodia and an elephant rescue for work, but the pleasure thing has been somewhat absent in my life (minus jaunts to Koh Samui and Bali).

I wake up early on my second day in Israel.

Too early.

Artplus hasn’t even started its breakfast buffet yet. So, I do something I haven’t done in years. I grab my headphones, pop them in my ears, put on music, arm myself with my camera and go on an exploration as the sun rises.

Morning-Tel-Aviv

There is something incredibly romantic about waking up when the city begins to turn off its lights and greet the sun.

Ben Yehuda in Tel Aviv

It’s me and Tel Aviv as I stroll down Ben Yehuda and head to the beach.

The beach in Tel Aviv

As I wander along the brick path with the Mediterranean at my side, my heart starts to thump again. The doubt I’ve had about the direction of my life rolls out with the tide.

The Mediterranean Sea in Tel Aviv

Being solo in Tel Aviv and having the morning to myself takes me back to my long-term travel, when I was anonymous.

A sidewalk in Tel Aviv

I could be anyone in the world, and damnit, I was ME, and so very content with that.

Morning sun in Tel Aviv

A sculpture on beach in Tel Aviv

As the sun creeps into the blue sky, I am re-energized, awoken.

A building in Tel Aviv

The little nuances of the city, the flyers littering a sidewalk, an old man sitting and staring out into the world from a bench, a dog running alongside his owner for a morning workout … it all opens my eyes to something I have missed for so long: traveling.

A store in Tel Aviv

I walk and snap photos of the little things that catch my eye.

The beach in Tel Aviv

A sign at the beach in Tel Aviv

Pause. Breathe deeply. Smile. Pause. Walk. Snap photos. Breathe deeply. Smile.

Door in Tel Aviv

Another shot from Tel Aviv

And so it goes until the hunger pangs and need for coffee (the best coffee I have had in ages) trumps.

A Hebrew sign in Tel Aviv

Street art on building in Tel Aviv

But, as I walk back to my hotel, one thing is for certain: that travel addict that had kept quiet for so long has emerged and is now banging down the doors.

Bus stop in Tel Aviv

Hello and thank you, Tel Aviv.

 

Blog Israel Middle East

Hayarkon 48: the beach hostel to chill at in Tel Aviv

Normally, beach lodging is made up of pricey, resort hotels. However, in Tel Aviv, if you’re looking for a place to rest your pretty little head and meet other backpacking travelers, you can find one a quick walk from the beach.

Tel Aviv's beach

A quick walk from the hostel and guests are treated to this!

Hello, Hayarkon 48.

 Exterior of Hayarkon 48 in Tel Aviv

This hostel, with a rather nondescript exterior, is anything but once you are buzzed in. After three nights in Tel Aviv already, I just want a place to chill out and get some beach time in. The days in Tel Aviv in August are blazing hot and a relaxed vibe, air-conditioning and wifi are all I want when I arrive.

When I enter through the doors, the staff immediately greets me and is super friendly.

“We have a Shabbat dinner tonight, just sign up and you can join our hostel and another for a big dinner,” the staff at the front desk informs me. I swing my head to the right, and there is a huge board showing all of the different activities going on each night for guests, including this dinner and a pub crawl the following night.

While I’m not in the mood to be social, if I was, this would be the perfect place to greet other travelers, swap stories and make friends for a night, a day or a lifetime.

I sidle up to the bar/front desk and give them my information. My room isn’t ready yet, so they take my belongings and tuck them safely into a locked storage area.

After an afternoon shopping, I return and am given instructions to my room. A cool three floors up. With no elevator.

If I had a backpack, it wouldn’t have been a problem. But, this Tel Aviv visit isn’t a part of a backpacking adventure, it is a stop-over en route to America, where I need a proper suitcase. So, hot already, I lug my suitcase and backpack up 60-plus stairs to my room. It isn’t anything I haven’t done before, after all, there are plenty of hostels in Europe where elevators don’t exist. But, at the end of a hot day, I want to magically be whisked to my room with my heavy suitcase, not drag it up flights of stairs. Again, a backpack would have been a lot easier in this situation.

Private digs

I’ve got a private room for three nights — my first truly private room ever — and when I open the door I love it. In the late afternoon, the sun casts a golden glow through the multi-colored curtains opening up to a private balcony. A. Private. Balcony. Granted, when I step outside, I don’t see the Mediterranean, but I still love the fact that I can step outside without having to haul it down to the main floor.

The private room at Hayarkon 48 in Tel Aviv

The room is huge. Bigger than what I expect in any hostel for a private room. And, there is a flat screen TV that rivals my TV in Thailand, hanging from the wall. I hop on the bed, and it is hard. Thailand hard. But, I don’t expect beds in hostels to be plush and perfect. Hostels are a budget option, and I cannot recall a bed in a hostel that hasn’t had coils, or a hardness to it. But, it isn’t bad. I pop on the air-conditioning and check out the bathroom.

It’s clean, with a shower curtain separating the little shower from the toilet and sink. The hostel provides soap and towels, which for me is a definite bonus since I’m traveling sans these things.

The view from the roof of Hayarkon 48

I head upstairs to the top floor, which is a gorgeous rooftop terrace with a spectacular view of the sea. I can imagine plunking down here and enjoying the breeze and sunset. Apparently, they used to have a bar upstairs, but it stopped because it was difficult to lug the stock up all of the flights of stairs (yeah, I can imagine). But, it is still a fabulous place to chill out and relax above Tel Aviv.

What’s included

With my stay at Hayarkon, I get complimentary breakfast each day. While the sign at reception tells guests it is toast, it is a far nicer breakfast than just that. The full kitchen offers up eggs you can cook, veggies and yes, toast. With Nutella. Of course, I’m happy. Israel is expensive, and not having to shell out the sheckels for breakfast is nice.

Wifi is also included in my stay. However, at three floors up with the router on the first, the wifi is anything but good. It doesn’t even get acknowledged on my iPhone, and the signal goes in and out on my laptop. While I can get the general stuff done while in my room, if you’re staying on the third floor, don’t expect the wifi to be up to par … unless a stronger signal or more routers get put in. Sometimes, late at night, I can go out on my balcony and pick up a signal for my phone, but it was only on occasion. If I want to send someone an iMessage, I have to go downstairs to the first floor to be able to do so.

The hostel is very secure. You cannot even get in the front door without getting buzzed, and no guests are allowed anywhere beyond the main area. There are also lockers which can be used, and locks to rent.

I love some of the little things that are included — like access to sun block as you walk out the door to the beach and free ear plugs in case you have noisy bunkmates. It’s stuff like that which can make a superfly hostel.

The bottom line

As far as hostels go, Hayarkon 48 is really good. I’ve stayed in nearly 100 hostels during my travels, and this one ranks as one of the better, if not one of the best. The staff is friendly, the rooms are clean and I always feel secure. The atmosphere can definitely be social without being too much of a party hostel, and I love that they organize outings with guests to encourage meeting new people. They can even arrange a taxi to the airport for you for less than you would get on the street. The only downside for me is the wifi. I love places with good wifi. It is important to have good wifi. Hell, I’d even pay to have some wifi that worked all of the time in my room. The location is stellar. There is a bus line that takes you down the main drag of the district tourists want to see, and staff is wonderful.

Editor’s Note: My time stay was organized by Hostelworld and courtesy of Hayarkon 48, however all opinions are my own. If you have questions regarding this, please read my disclosure policy

 

Hotel Reviews Travel

Capturing culture: Tel Aviv’s Artplus Hotel

It is late when I arrive to Artplus Hotel in Tel Aviv, a collaboration between Atlas Hotels and Doron Sabag. What I really want to do after nearly 20 hours of traveling from Thailand is to crawl into bed and fall fast asleep. But, when my cab driver drops me off at the boutique 62-room hotel located on Ben Yehuda and a quick walk to the glistening Mediterranean, my senses are awakened.

Even before I step foot through the glass doors, I realize this hotel is different.

Hotel + Art

The lobby at Artplus Hotel

Photo courtesy Artplus

The covered entryway from the street houses Zadok Ben-David’s sculpture, “Evolution,” which overtakes most of the long wall leading to the hotel.

Upon check-in, the friendly woman at reception with perfect English explains to me the concept of Artplus Hotel — which isn’t just a hotel, but also serves as a rotating art exhibit of some of the country’s most talented artists. In fact, the entire property is dedicated to incorporating art into its spaces and giving visitors a taste of the art and culture in this vibrant city. Created with this in mind, the hotel itself is minimal. The concrete floors and white walls are offset by sculptures, paintings, mirrors, and LCD screens with art on display.

Five artists were commissioned for Artplus to add ambiance and their own style to the separate floors in the building — Maya Attoun, Tali Ben-Bassat, Ayelet Carmi, Olaf Kiihnemann and Doron Rabina. In addition, the foyer and lobby house work from Ben-David and Sigalit Landau, thanks to Sabag’s private collection.

I stand in the lobby taking in at creativity around me.

“Every night we have a happy hour from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. with free wine and snacks,” she says. “And tomorrow night is your lucky night. We are having an opening for the new artists’ work on display in the hotel.”

The new exhibition (there are three to four every year), entitled “Playground,” which involves original pieces from local artists is on display in the lobby, plus there is access to the five rooms with art from the hotel’s artists.

The room

Art Plus art by Rabina

Photo courtesy Artplus

I head up to the fifth floor, where Rabina has painted a thick band of green with whimsical black down its walls, and enter my room. It isn’t big, but it doesn’t need to be. On the wall hang more! art. I fling my bag on the chair, change into comfortable clothing and do what I always do first — I check out the bed.

My room at Art Plus Hotel in Tel Aviv

Covered with two fluffy duvets, it is soft and inviting.

Then, I do the second thing I always do — check the wifi connection. And, it is quick. Quicker than Thailand.

After a brief chat with my parents in America, I head out of my room to check the rooftop patio and take in my first real moments in Tel Aviv.

I can smell the saltiness of the sea from there, although in the darkness, I cannot see it. Around me, large buildings with illuminated signs in Hebrew nail it home for me — for the first time in nearly a year, I am out of Southeast Asia.

There are no sputtering tuk tuks to clog my hearing, no toilet paper to throw in trash cans.

I smile to myself as I stand on the terrace, then head back to my room and back to bed.

I wake up early my first day in Tel Aviv, but feel refreshed thanks to my first sleep in a comfortable bed since Koh Samui. Fortunately, breakfast starts early and features the best coffee I’ve had in ages, plus delicious Israeli food (hello, olives!) along with a variety of pastries, yogurt and fresh fruit juices.

After a day at the beach, which is about a 10-minute walk down the bustling Ben Yehuda, its time to get some culture.

Perks

In the evening, I return to Artplus for its happy hour and am treated to wine while I watch the events (or lack thereof, fortunately) unfold on television. Then, it is time for the opening.

I head back to the lobby where locals, guests and artists mingle together, sipping wine and snacking on pretzels while a local photographer snaps photos. With others, I wander through the floors, visiting the five rooms where local artists have taken over the decorum. My favorite room is done by Yochai Matos, which is two hearts made up of a string of warm white lightbulbs twinkling above a bed.

The amenities

Artplus is a boutique hotel with fantastic basic amenities. It’s got complimentary breakfast, complimentary wifi — which is actually a huge bonus since most hotels in the area don’t offer the service for free (sigh), a hair dryer in the room, a nice flat screen with a hand-full of channels, and free parking (something not really heard of with boutique hotels in the city) — the things I’ve come to expect from a hotel. But, it is the atmosphere here that serves as the most valuable amenity. I love the little touches, too, like colored pencils and sketch paper instead of the tried-and-true notebook with hotel pen.

 

Pencils at Artplus

The staff go out of their way to be friendly, to tell you where to go, what to do. And then, there is the art, which stands on its own and treats guests to a small sampling of Israel’s art scene. There is no spa, there is no restaurant, but there doesn’t need to be. There is plenty of that out the door and in the city.

The bottom line

Three nights in a prime location were not enough for me. I could have stayed there the entire trip and simply gone off on adventures since the bus stop was just outside the door. The rooms are small, but comfortable. I love hotels that encourage guests to interact, and had it been a busy time at the property, I could see the happy hour being bustling and perfect to get to know others. That being said, I loved the happy hour. Tel Aviv is very expensive, especially coming from Thailand, so being treated to complimentary wine each evening is a nice “thank you” to the guests for staying there. But, the art is really what stole my heart. It isn’t often I find hotels without the standard paintings or photos you expect. Having unique works of art from locals helped me to feel like I was a part of something, that I was being treated to something other people visiting Tel Aviv don’t get to see. And, that is the most important part of traveling to me.

Editor’s Note: My time stay was courtesy of Artplus Hotel, however all opinions are my own. If you have questions regarding this, please read my disclosure policy

 

Hotel Reviews

Escape of the Week: The Dead Sea

I love Israel. I have loved Israel since the moment I visited, on a Birthright program in spring 2001.

I remember my time there very clearly. Clashes had just started breaking out between Israelis and Palestinians, and I was really scared to go visit the country.

But, I did.

For 10 days, my group of about 25 people visited many places in the country, including the Dead Sea. In a bullet-proof bus (due the recent violence), and with two body guards at our sides, we drove from Jerusalem to the Sea.

I remember taking it in — the magnificent swirls of the water in bright blues and greens. I remember dipping my toes in. And, I remember floating in mere inches of the warm water.

Now, the Dead Sea is up for one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.

I didn’t take this photo, but I wanted to share the beauty of the Dead Sea with you. If you’ve ever been there, please share you experiences below!

AND, please take a moment and vote for The Dead Sea to be included as one of the new seven wonders of the world.

Don’t forget to head over to the Facebook page to show your support, too!

Photo Courtesy Israel Ministry of Tourism

Destinations Travel