When I travel to a new country, I always try to have an authentic experience, meet with local people and try to grasp the history and culture of the place I visit.
Last month I had the chance to go on an Israel Off the beaten path tour with Puzzle Israel, an innovative Israeli travel company that aims to give its travelers a different kind of 'Israeli experience'.
Israel's location in the Middle East places it in a culturally fascinating part of the world and our tour brought us off the beaten path in Israel, we ate amazing Israeli dishes and had experiences we could have never imagined.
Path to PEACE
Since its independence in 1948, Israel has fought six wars, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains unresolved, meaning that regional instability is a fact of life. And while it's easy to form an opinion sitting on your couch at home or via social media, it's the people living in these conflict zones that have to deal with this reality day to day.
That's why it was refreshing to visit this region myself and hear about the conflict first hand from the people who live there and meet people - mostly individuals - who in their small but significant way, are trying to make a difference.
One of these people is Tsamaret Zamir who lives in Moshav Netiv HaAsarah, a community on the border of the Gaza Strip. In her ceramics studio she tells visitors about her daily life and how she lives under the constant threat of missile attacks:
After telling her story she invited us to take part in her Path to Peace project (Nativ La'Shalom) and so we all got to write our own message of peace on a colorful piece of ceramic before glueing it on the actual Gaza wall.
Commemorating fallen friends
One of the more gripping moments of my visit to Israel was a visit to the community village of Karanit which is the hometown of Guy, one of the co-founders of Puzzle Israel.
Guy told us the story of his best friend Ben Sela who was killed while fighting in the Second Lebanon War.
It was a touching story about what it's like to serve in the army, to be caught in a desperate situation where you know that people are going to die and seeing your best friend afraid.
A year before the war started, during a trek in Mongolia, Ben promised himself to always follow his dreams and after his death, Guy honoured his friend by going on the same trek, and in a sense follow his dream of becoming a tour guide and started Puzzle Israel as a result.
We also got a chance to talk with Jacob, a Lone Soldier from Denver. Many foreign IDF soldiers like him, struggle with how to integrate into Israeli civilian life upon completion of their service and the Israel Forever Foundation and Puzzle Israel are teaming up to help them succeed after the army and beyond.
Israel off the beaten path: The Fence
One of the most exciting and at the same time surreal days was the day we visited the kibbutz of Merom Golan and went on an unforgettable 4X4 jeep tour with No Other Land along the northern borders of Israel with Syria, driving between farmlands and live minefields and having lunch in an abandoned barrack close to the destroyed and abandoned ghost town of Quneitra.
We started our 4x4 jeep tour with a drive to the fence that protects the ceasefire line between Israel and Syria. Standing in one of the Israeli bunkers overlooking the fence (we could actually hear shots being fired on the Syrian side) our guide Ilan provided us with a broad understanding of the borders of the region, the history and the different ways of life in the Golan Heights and a detailed explanation of the complex conflict tearing Syria apart:
After this honest talk about conflicts and war, we continued our exploration of the border region driving through the ruins of what was once the headquarters of the Syrian army to suddenly stop and be welcomed by the Puzzle Israel catering team like this:
It honestly felt a bit unreal to be eating lunch in a place like this, knowing that you are so close to the Syrian border and just talking about the conflicts there minutes before. However, who can think of conflict when you're in great company enjoying great food!
The Puzzle Israel experience
Visiting a country doesn't mean you should just visit the obvious tourist attractions, it's about connecting with the local people and understanding a different culture. That's why I felt fortunate to get to experience Israel through the eyes of Guy and Nir from Puzzle Israel.
They take travelers to the must-sees yet also to the less explored, off-the-beaten-track, wilder and more authentic parts of Israel and give a 'hands-on' experience. But most importantly – they show you the REAL ISRAEL.
Puzzle Israel offers unique and tailor-made journeys different from the standard tours to Israel – whether you are visiting Israel for the first or for the tenth time.
If you too want to discover the real Israel and have the same experiences, now is your chance!
Just contact Puzzle Israel and mention that Geert from Inspiring Travellers sent you, and they promised to give you a nice discount and the same VIP treatment that I received!
Disclosure: While I was invited by Puzzle Israel to join one of their group tours, all opinions are my own and I can't recommend them highly enough!