I have never gone through so many airport security checkpoints in my life.
After my previous two international excursions for work— both to Ottawa, mind you— had not gone so well, I had done my homework for this trip. I had filled out every form in advance that I could; got every conceivable letter or notation indicating the exact nature and purpose of my visit to Israel. I arrived extra early at the airport and, after a five-hour layover in Philadelphia, went through another security checkpoint stationed strictly at the departure gate, which was something that I had not seen before.
The flight was mercifully uneventful and after we touched down in Ben Gurion airport at 10:30 in the morning, local time, I only had to navigate a third security enclave before I was released into the wild and navigating a foreign world in where I could find new and exciting ways to get chomped out of some extra change by airport taxi drivers.
My taxi ride in from the airport to downtown Tel Aviv reminded me, in some peculiar way, of the ride in from Chicago’s O’Hare Airport that I had taken just two weeks prior. Nearest to the airport, the roadside was dotted with new construction and old deconstruction with old, dense housing that was now perilously close to a major thoroughfare and, at the least, fenced off appropriately. In both cases, the driver seemed vaguely like a character out of a Grand Theft Auto game— in Chicago, more of the Russian tracksuit type; in Tel-Aviv, more of the button-up-collar, drive-real-fast type— but in both cases, older, hirsute, vaguely Eastern European men with an expensive-looking watch. The airpot recedes behind you and the foreign skyline, once distant, wrenches into view with, in this case, the slate grays of the Windy City replaced by a sandy hue. A quick right exit and a left turn, far earlier than you thought they would be, followed by endless hurtling through bizarre side streets until, voila! Your grand hotel.
Having arrived square in the middle of the sabbath, however— in Tel Aviv, not Chicago— not a damn thing is open except a lone ice cream shop and, ostensibly, the hotel bar. The hotel is nice and there are people who seem to be vacationing here from all over, although, aside from Hebrew, French is what I hear spoken the most. I swear that I heard some Russian as well but my ear for foreign languages was and remains pretty poor.
The driving in the city is a blend of harrowing experiences: the laissez-faire lane changing of Paris; the constant honking of the New England; the Dublin-eseque lines on the road that seem to carry little actual meaning; and mopeds and motorcycles everywhere. It could make you white-knuckled if it weren’t so overwhelming, but the drivers live in a state of constantly changing lanes and this feeling of never-quite forces a resignation when it’s not jerking you against your seatbelt.
Cabs quickly become my preferred method of travel, most of them Skodas or Mercedes. Other models dot the streets in civilian garb, most of them Kias, Mazdas, Toyotas, and Hyundais. Seeing the Hyundais, in particular, makes me a little happy, reminding me as it does of the car that I had finally paid off only the week before. The taxi drivers don’t seem to speak much in the way of English almost as a rule, so there is little for me to do but sit back, enjoy the ride, marvel at all of the strange storefronts, struggle in vain to understand the Hebrew billboards and graffiti, and wonder exactly what sort of music “Infected Mushroom” plays. (“Psytrance/electronica/psychedelic/indie”, according to Wikipedia; they are apparently one of the best-selling Israeli musical acts of all time, but electronic trance music is not really my scene.)
As I mentioned, I was here for work and this is where I spent so much time taxiing to and from. The office itself was on the third floor of a small-yet-stately office building thirty minutes from the hotel in the nearby town of Petah Tikva. It seemed to me to be well located for an office, it being within walking distance of a number of places to eat. One hummus restaurant, which is more of a food cart with indoor seating, is apparently well renowned for the area; I certainly found it some of the best food that I had eaten, which is not faint praise considering the richness and decadence of Mediterranean food. The building itself, though, can apparently be a bit hard to find.
One particular cab ride began with, as usual, me, in my mangled Hebrew, attempting to give the driver the address of the office building with the proper inflection so that he would have a clue what the hell I was talking about. He replied, “Have you been there?”
I had arrived on Saturday and the work week started on the following Sunday. This was Monday, so technically, yes, I had been there. Once. This was a dubious beginning.
As you might imagine, we got lost.
Eventually, with the aid of people shouting out of their windows amidst honking horns, we made it. I did get to see some new stuff along the way and, having left extra early, I didn’t miss any goings-on at the office, so it wasn’t a total loss. Still, I couldn’t help but feel a bit bad for the cab driver and still cannot fathom how every cab driver is not intimately familiar with a GPS.
On Monday night, the engineering director, Amir, a gracious host throughout, gave me a ride back to the hotel and a reprieve from the madness of the taxis. We went out to a seafood restaurant right on the beachfront, near my hotel and halfway down the beach towards the city of Jaffa, its buildings off the coast visible in the distance. After that very nice dinner in a very circular building, I found the weight of the vast time change come upon me and retired early.
Wednesday morning, we took the trek out to Jerusalem, although the drive is almost certainly less arduous than the pilgrimages of old.
What to say about Jerusalem? I will say that I feel a bit of remorse, if that’s the right word, for visiting one of the most holy places in the world without the reverence in my heart that leads some to tears and others to madness (see: Jerusalem Syndrome http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jerusalem_syndrome). I will also say, with some candor, that I am glad to not be as possessed of religious obsession to be kissing stones or waiting for an hour or more to see other rock formations. There are, nonetheless, many things very awe-inspiring about the place, given its age and place in history, and in seeing the reactions and adulations that it drives us mortals towards. As Amir pointed out, even if the Via Dolorosa, for instance, was not the actual path that Jesus walked on the way to his crucifixion, the idea of it is the important thing.
So, to walk that path; to see the Wailing Wall that stands as a unifying symbol for Judaism; to visit the church that the Crusaders built on Golgotha, with all of its Greek Orthodox and Armenian and Christian reverence; it is an intense thing.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre alone is a singularly fascinating thing. You can read about it in much grander detail in Wikipedia or elsewhere I’m sure, but it’s the church that contains the site of the crucifixion and the resurrection and where the True Cross was discovered, so it is kind of a big deal. Ownership and upkeep of the church is shared by no fewer than six different Christian faiths but, apparently, there was a large dispute about who would take care of one of the most important pieces of the church: the doorway. Accordingly, the keys to the place are held by a Muslim family.
Waking the streets of one of the oldest cities in the world is certainly an unforgettable experience and one I could go on about at length but, instead, I will say that I recommend it to everyone, especially if you have an extremely knowledgeable local to accompany you, and I feel very lucky in this regard.
Wednesday night, I took to exploring along the beach in front of my hotel, wandering it aimlessly in the warm late spring air.
The advantage to starting on Sunday meant that Thursday marked the end of the work week. After work, two of the people that I had been working with (who I guessed to be closest to my own age) approached me and asked if I wanted to go out that night. I was, of course, amenable to the idea and so caught a ride back towards my hotel with them. From there, we walked around old Jaffa for a while in exploration and stopped for a drink along the beach.
We then set out towards the heart of Tel Aviv for a place to eat. After several false starts, the three of us ended up at an Irish pub, naturally.
I have long maintained that Irish pubs are some of the best places in the world. You can find them everywhere, the beer is generally good, the food is hard to screw up, and the people are always, always, friendly. So I wasn’t really surprised to find this to be the case here, as well, although it was a little on the larger side and could probably be more rightly considered a full blown restaurant than a pub, but the axioms above still held.
We had a bit of a tough time communicating. Alexey and Yunna were both Ukrainian and, whereas their Hebrew was good, and their English was, to my ear, just fine, they were not quite so confident in it and, as is the problem with not using any language much, remembering all of the vocabulary can be difficult. I, on the other hand, had a brief smattering of Russian that I had learned twenty years ago and my Hebrew was all but nonexistent. But we did what we could and had a good time nonetheless. Towards the end of the night, they mentioned that they were, both, taking their families up to a campground with river rafting up north, and did I want to come? I wasn’t leaving until Saturday morning and I agreed.
Alexey, with his wife and young boy, picked me up early in the morning and we began the drive which was much longer than I had anticipated. After a perhaps three-hour trek, we arrived at the grounds which, I wager, were getting close to the northern border of the country. Food was grilled, rivers were rafted, zip lines were slid down, and a good time was had by all.
I had asked several people and it was universally agreed that I should get to the airport with at least three hours to spare before my departure. Since my flight left at 5:30 am, this did not leave a lot of time for sleep. I snuck in a couple of hours before getting back up, getting packed, and taking my pre-arranged cab to the airport at two in the morning. The roads were devoid of traffic and we hurtled down the freeways at a great speed. We made it to the airport in something like eight minutes. I was the only one in line and, with my security papers, made it through the two security checkpoints in ample time. at roughly 2:30 in the morning, I was through security and standing around in an almost completely empty concourse, biding my time before departure.
My bout of security checkpoints was perhaps even more elaborate on my return: two in Tel Aviv; one inside the terminal in Frankfurt; customs in Philly; and finally the TSA re-entry checkpoint, also in Philly. And, of course, traveling westward is always disorienting. Having traveled some thirty- or forty-odd hours, when I finally arrived back home it was still Saturday, only ten o’clock at night.
Add comment September 11th, 2014