Stephen and Aaron left their busy lives in Rocklin, including parenting their twin three-year-olds for a much-needed vacation to Israel with Zoom Vacations. These two were always open for anything, and truly immersed themselves in the local culture. Stephen made some time to talk with us a bit about their experience on Zoom Israel.
Zoom: Why did you decide to make this trip a Zoom Vacations?
Stephen: We came across Zoom Vacations many years ago at a Pride event, I think. Then I saw another advertisement in a gay magazine. By then I had already signed up for the monthly newsletter. I loved seeing people’s travel notes and seeing the amazing places that Zoom Vacations visited. All that was needed was for our schedules and one of our desired places to travel align and we would be off! Finally, it happened with the Jordan/Israel trip in June 2019. We wanted to explore and learn about this area of the world but wanted to travel comfortably as ourselves – a gay couple. We knew Zoom would create this for us.
Zoom: Did you make new friends on this trip?
Stephen: We made several close friends on this trip and have already made plans to see them soon. Honestly, sharing this sort of great travel experience with other gay men was really a lot of fun. Several of us went to dinner together in many of the cities we visited and really bonded about our daily adventures.
Zoom: How do you think this trip would've been different if you had done this on your own rather than with Zoom's gay group?
Stephen: While I’m sure we would have seen some of the same places, we never would have had such an in-depth education on it as we did from our amazing guide. Also, the ease of transitions between sites as well as navigating customs at the airport/border were all arranged by Zoom and this took so much pressure and anxiety off of me.
Zoom: What was your highlight of the trip?
Stephen: A single highlight of this trip is such a tough question for me because so much of our trip was breathtaking, highly educational, rejuvenating and delightfully fun! If I had to choose one highlight it would be our farewell dinner as a group. We were all invited to a private home where a family who usually hosts cooking lessons made an amazing dinner for us. We began our wonderfully slow paced multi-course meal with aperitifs and homemade bread topped with veggies or meat. Then we all relaxed on the roof deck as our hostess regaled us with the story of their home and family. We listened to her story as we soaked in the setting sun as the Mosque’s call to prayer floated in the background. After this magical interlude we descended to the dining room where volunteers to cook were asked for and I instantly raised my hand! After helping the chef in the kitchen and on the wood fire grill I brought the plate with the chef’s help to the table so we may all begin our fantastic feast. After much wine, food and laughs we concluded our evening with dessert, coffee, tea and sharing the hookah. Our hostess made this magical night where everyone really felt as if we were visiting our favorite family member.
Zoom: How are the accommodations throughout?
Stephen: The best part of our accommodations on this trip were the Four Seasons in Amman, Jordan and Mamilla Hotel, Jerusalem. The other great accommodation for this trip was our tour/limo van. I haven’t traveled in such a nice van with 14 other guys in my life. This vehicle had USB ports by each chair, water by our chairs and restocked after every stop, chewing gum, hard cadies as well as a Nespresso machine aboard – with sugar, etc. The driver took such pride in ensuring we had fresh cold water and were cared for that this seemingly simply portion of our trip was absolutely enhanced and loved by all.
Zoom: Did you have any epiphanies about Israel?
Stephen: Israel was honestly one of the best trips of my life. I say this as someone who’s lived abroad in four countries and traveled to many countries and places. One of the bonuses of me being a Veteran. What I learned from our trip wasn’t just about geographical places, it wasn’t just about religious places or ideas, it wasn’t just about world history, it wasn’t just about cultures, it was about the heart of a nation, a people and an idea. This made our trip so much deeper than I ever expected. We learned so much and only scratched the surface of what there is to understand about this land, people and culture. It was such a powerful trip to me that I’d really like to take our kids there when they’re old enough.
Zoom: Was Tel Aviv gay pride everything that you thought it might be?
Stephen: Tel Aviv Pride was great. I loved all the energy that Tel Aviv had surrounding their nightlife, parties and of course the parade. The food was amazing, and the people were friendly. Tons of international people attended this Pride, so it was quite the melting pot. We felt safe going out to the clubs at night and attending the parade. There was plenty to do for everyone – no matter how little or much. If you wanted a quiet night of dinner and going to bed early, no problem. If you wanted to dance all night and sleep the next day, no problem.
Zoom: I know that you have two small children at home. Do you have any advice for other parents who want to take a trip and may feel uncomfortable with leaving their kids at home?
Stephen: As a dad with toddler twins it can be daunting to leave them and take a longer trip. What made it easier for us to cope with time apart was we sent our kids videos from our adventures. Something short and simple of where we were with a camel in the background. We had to do this as the FaceTime opportunities either didn’t align schedule-wise or the Wi-Fi wasn’t strong enough to support FaceTime. Needless to say, we also asked for many pictures, videos and stories back about what adventures the kids were having without us. What also helped us be comfortable is that the kids had a plan to travel to another city with another family member and were not simply stuck in daycare for two weeks.
Zoom: If Zoom Vacations could organize a trip for you to anywhere, where would it be?
Stephen: Not sure at this time. I’m still dreaming of India, Nepal and Burma.
Zoom: Anything else you would like to add?
Stephen: This was our first Zoom Vacation. In many ways I felt like it was a leap of faith to go on this trip instead of making all the arrangements myself. I felt oddly uneasy about it as we were arriving in Amman, Jordan after a long flight. I don’t speak Arabic. I hadn’t done all my usual homework on transportation, locations of airport and the hotel as well as how to get through customs. That’s all because Zoom has promised that they would take care of it all for us. Honestly, it was tough for me to “let go” and not be in control of the logistics and the vacation as I’m prone to do so often (insert laugh here). As soon as we approached the customs area in Amman there was a gentleman with a Zoom Vacations sign and my name on it. He guided us through customs and was so welcoming that my concerns and worry melted away. From that point on I simply showed up to meet our group in the lobby of the hotel and we went on different adventures every day. For me letting go was the best decision I made. I couldn’t have done it without Zoom putting together such a great tour and I look forward to going on another Zoom Vacation when we can!