As a Catholic, the Holy Land was a destination high up on my bucket list, I wanted to see it at least once in this lifetime. I knew the trip would not come cheap, and I needed time to save up, so I figured I'd be 50 by the time I could afford it. But in the summer of 2012, through the generosity of parents who have not tired of spoiling their overage daughter, I found myself on a plane to Tel Aviv. It was a gift for my 40th birthday.
Maybe I had a set of expectations, like spending a lot of time in silence and reflection which could prove to be boring. Or maybe a lot of crying, pretty much like what one goes through during recollections. But really, I just told myself to take things as they come and try to absorb and enjoy whatever happens, whatever is there. I found a lot of those—silence, reflection, camaraderie with the rest of the members from my tour group, fun and enjoyment in different levels.
Now, although a lot of information can be researched through Google, I still would like to share my AHA! moments to the would-be first-time pilgrim.
Filipinos do not need visas to go to Israel.
In 1948, the Philippines was the only Asian member-country of the United Nations to vote for the establishment of a Jewish community in Palestine. It was our vote that tipped the scales in favor of Israel. Also, Jews found refuge in our country during the Holocaust. Visa-free entry for Philippine tourists was a favor granted in gratitude for this.
Depending on the airline, though, a pilgrim/tourist might need to undergo a sometimes lengthy interview by airline immigration and customs personnel before boarding. I haven't learned of anyone being denied to board because of what he/she might have divulged but as we know, there's always a first time for everything.
To avoid such awkward situations, tour organizers or the travel agent in charge would normally hold an orientation session, so make sure you attend. Not to scare you or anything, but it is best to know how and what to answer. Understand that it's also for your own security.
A guided tour group is the easiest (and probably cheapest) way to go
Non-religious travelers may find it rather uncomfortable to sign up for pilgrimage tours because of the religious nature the tour is anchored on. Please don't. There is still a lot to learn about Israel other than the fact that it is Jesus' country of birth. Plus, think of the convenience of an organized tour.
The destinations are not anywhere near each other and hiring a taxi to go around with the aid of a guide book and GPS is extremely expensive. Besides, it is entertaining and very educational to listen to a guide. Our guide back then was Muslim but it was amazing how well he knew the Bible and how well he was able to supplement the Biblical passages with historical facts.
If one prefers, though, book a flight straight to Tel Aviv and then sign up for one of the bus tours offered by any one of the hundreds of tour organizers once there.
Immerse in the culture
Pilgrimages may last anywhere from about nine to 15 days covering tours from the Holy Land to Jordan and Egypt. The shortest pilgrimage length is long enough to feel the distinct strength and character of their culture.
The length of your stay will also require you to plan your wardrobe accordingly. In case of warm weather, remember to wear respectable outfits that cover your cleavage, upper arms and down to the mid-calves on your legs. There is also a lot of walking so pack good, comfy shoes. Shoes, not sandals or slippers. As part of their practices, some places may not welcome exposed ankles.
You can save up on some things
Bring a water bottle, one you can fill up from the hotel water dispenser at breakfast. Bottled water is sold for $1 a bottle by the bus driver but again, why buy what you get it for free? Since the tour takes the whole day, you can bring some munchies (fruits, bread and biscuits) from the hotel breakfast buffet. Lunch could still be a few hours away and it is possible that the morning's destination/s may not be anywhere near a store.
You will always be found...
The tour guide, more often than not, possesses ninja-like abilities for locating members of his flock. But keep in mind that anyone of you getting lost/wandering off will cost everyone a lot of precious time. To help avoid this, wear the uniformed caps provided by the travel guide. Life is easier when you are identifiable.
It's called the Holy Land for a reason (or many reasons)
Some holy places may affect you spiritually, emotionally, psychologically or morally more than others. Some places, no matter how holy, may have no impact at all. That's alright.
It would be nice to feel some sort of miraculous energy considering a powerful individual, God's Son, the messiah of mankind, walked those streets more than 2,000 years ago. But to each his own.
You won't be forced to experience anything you're not ready to experience. Believe me, it just happens. The feeling will overcome you when you least expect it. Two of the most memorable for me were Gethsemane, at the rock where Jesus prayed before he was arrested; and Calvary, as I kissed the mount where His cross stood.
The Jews observe the Sabbath and they take the day of rest seriously. Most shops and restaurants close. Hotels are run with skeleton staff. Even the elevators are programmed such that it will stop at all floors so no one needs to lift a finger to push buttons because that, too, is considered labor. So do not panic. Just enjoy the ride and greet those you meet with "Shalom Shabbat" or peaceful Sabbath.
The Tomb of David and the Wailing Wall
The experience of visiting the tomb of David (the burial place of the King of Israel), and the Wailing Wall (what's left of King Solomon's temple which also, for a time, housed the Ark of the Covenant) can take your breath away.
Keep in mind though that in these places, the men and women are given separate rooms/areas to practice their worship. Men also have bigger spaces than women. This is a Jewish practice and pilgrims are expected to adhere to that in respect to local tradition.
As a bonus, can I add that Israelis are very good looking? Jesus must have been such a heartthrob then! And lastly, Israelis are also kind and accommodating, they smile warmly when you greet them "Boker tov" (good morning), "toda raba" (thank you very much), and "shalom" (peace).
Have you been to Israel? Share your experiences in the Comments Section.