Thursday morning, the flight from Vancouver. We weren’t able to check in online as we usually do, because part of the journey takes place on the following day, Friday, but when I checked in personally, I was able to have my bag sent all the way to Tel Aviv. A golf cart was provided for me, which made getting to the flight gate so easy. It’s hard to believe that the enormous challenge I would normally have faced in just walking from security to the departure gate was eliminated by using my handicapped designation. As I was escorted so swiftly along, I spotted John and Susan drinking their morning coffee in a cafe close to the gate. The porter stopped for me, and I joined my friends, my travel companions for the next17 days. During our conversation, it became evident that John and Susan had not checked their luggage all the way to Tel Aviv. They had picked up automatic boarding passes in the airport, which serviced the flights only as far as Frankfurt. They were told they’d have to pick up their bags there, get a second boarding pass, and check in again in Frankfurt in order to send the bags on to Tel Aviv.
NB for future travel: Checking through to final destination is possible. Make sure to ask a human!
The first leg of our flight, to Montreal, was fairly bumpy, particularly during the first part, but we arrived safely and with time to spare at Pierre Elliot Trudeau airport. I bought a wheeled carry-on in the airport there, as my carry-on bag was just too heavy for me, and once settled on board the flight to Frankfurt, we were served dinner, heading out over the Atlantic. Thank you, Air Canada! This was a beautiful, overnight flight, smooth, some sleeping off and on, with breakfast served on board before our landing.
Friday, March 16, 2012
At Frankfurt, I was most fortunately met with a wheelchair and porter, but John and Susan were told they had to stand in line to pick up their luggage before getting boarding passes to Tel Aviv and then re-checking their bags. The porter who wheeled me passed by John and Susan as they were waiting, and said to them that they’d be lucky indeed if they would be in time to catch the Tel Aviv flight. Thoughts began to race through my head: What if I got separated from them? Was it possible for me to wait for them? Could I change my flight? But my bag would be on a different flight? How would we ever meet up if I had to go on ahead? Their own thoughts were causing anxiety in their wait line. Our adventures have already begun!
The porter, who had an air of abruptness that accompanied his efficiency, wheeled me a very long way to get my boarding pass. I was shocked that I was taken to a very small two-clerk office, not part of the regular airport hubbub, where, upon showing my baggage tag, I was issued a boarding pass for Tel Aviv – no problem, my suitcase being forwarded automatically. The porter was just about to wheel me off to security and the departure gate, when I immediately asked, “What about my friends?” He suddenly began talking in German to the clerk who had given me my pass. The conversation was quick and to the point; she clicked her computer keys, typing in various pieces of information. Within a few minutes she said, “Your friends’ luggage has been located. Now, it’s just to see if they can get it on the Tel Aviv flight.” We waited several more minutes. “Yes,” she said, raising her head from the computer screen. “No problem. Your friends’ bags will now go directly onto the Tel Aviv flight.” What a huge relief. My “wheeler” then told me to stay right where I was, and he ran back to find Susan and John, still in the original line-up.
When he returned them to this small office, they were issued their new boarding passes. This time, he had a golf cart at his disposal and loaded it up with John, Susan, myself, and all three pieces of carry-on luggage. He rushed us through the airport, turning and twisting between other travellers with skill, ending at the Security line for Tel Aviv. It was a separate line, all on its own, and it was long. He drove the cart right to the beginning of the line, where there was a small side entrance, reserved, it would seem, for people with disabilities. We waited not even one minute, but went through security immediately. The efficiency and care we received were absolutely incredible!
It seemed so strange to me, going from Germany directly to Israel. It was an irony really, considering the Second World War, the Holocaust and the Nazis, this juxtaposition of Jews and Germans. The Lufthansa flight was perfect, except for the announcements which jarred our rest, so noticeable were they to us by being made in Hebrew and German! Here were two countries that had learned to overcome and move past so much history. We sat on board a plane in 2012, listening to German-speaking people going on holidays, black-hatted Chasidic Jews speaking in their Yiddish sing-song, other passengers chatting animatedly in Hebrew, and the remaining folks, speaking a mixture of other languages. Was the plane a metaphor for peaceful co-existence? Not quite. We noticed that the class system was still intact and in wide usage! First Class, Business Class up front, swivel chairs, behind the curtains, private washrooms, better food service – and then the rest of us in Economy Aren’t we humans such a mess of contradictions?
Landing in Tel Aviv on Friday afternoon, we were at once struck with the huge, beautiful airport, and the exciting buzz of passengers arriving from many places. We had to go through Customs and Immigration here, waiting in the usual long line-ups, facing officers in individual cubicles, each cubicle looking very official and very secure, each officer with a set of questions. The officer quizzed me. “Where are you going?” His voice was gruff, his manner almost belligerent. “Well, we’re starting in Tel Aviv,” I said, trying to speak as nonchalantly as possible, “and then travelling from there.” “How long will you be here?” He frowned at me. “About two weeks,” I replied. “Have you ever held an Israeli passport?” Now he was staring at me with great suspicion. “No,” I answered. I couldn’t figure out why he would ask me that. “But I do think I have relatives who live in Israel,” I said, not knowing why I offered that bit of information. “What is their name?” he demanded. “The same as mine,” I said. “Glustein.” He pondered a moment, seemingly to decide if he had more reason to detain me at his wicket, then stamped and slammed my passport shut. “All right, you can go,” he declared. Although nothing untoward had occurred, I felt shaken up, quizzed, interrogated. Maybe it was just his tone of voice. Maybe it was because of the instructions we had been given ahead of time from our tour leader. “Don’t volunteer any unnecessary information. You can tell them you’re with a tour group. You can tell them you are undertaking training in conflict resolution. Do not mention that you will be listening to Palestinians. Do not mention that you will be going into the West Bank.” Yes, I think it was those words that made me feel on alert and conscious of my every response. Susan and John, right behind me, had the same officer. He drilled them in a harsh manner also. “Where are you going?” he asked. They gave more information. “To Tel Aviv and then Jerusalem. We’re meeting our group there.” "Show me your itinerary!" His voice was sharp, precise. "We don't have our itinerary with us; our group leader has it." “Which group is that?" he questioned, now making John and Susan feel quite uncomfortable. "It's called Compassionate Listening," "What kind of group is that?" he snapped, making it sound as if they were involved in a dangerous cult of some sort, but Susan snapped right back, with a little derision. “You haven't heard of it? They've been coming to Israel for years!” She thought that maybe she sounded like his mother, who wouldn’t have taken any lip from him at all! In any case, he stopped his harangue and let them through with no further ado.
We cashed some American dollars into NIS, New Israeli Shekels and John picked up a phone card for use in Israel. We freshened up, found our way out of the building, and, through the usual tourist process of looking wide-eyed and turning in all directions, we found where we could hail a cab that would take us to our hotel. Somehow we forgot about looking for Sheroots, apparently the more economic way to get to Jerusalem, but we were anxious to get directly to our hotel and really didn’t feel like searching when we needed door-to-door service, now.
The Dizengoff Beach Apartments were in an older area of Tel Aviv. The advertisements online had shown beautifully up-to-date rooms, featuring a five-minute walk to the beach. The hotel was a three-story walk-up, a one-room office open only certain hours, with one clerk, Zanda, the person who made the booking with John. We were on floor 1, one story up, and fortunately there was a working elevator! My room faced the street, and looked like a worn-out version of the online picture! However, we felt very able to accept it the way that it was. At least it was clean, there was a bedroom for Susan and John, and a couch that opened up for me to sleep on. Dishes, cutlery and bedding were provided. A shower was installed in the tub and looked as if it would be possible to figure out how to use it. What more could we ask? The toilet had what we came to learn is the usual dual flush system here. We rested a bit and then went out to find a place for dinner. John had already gone across the street, befriended a clerk in the local convenience store, and had returned with a few fixings for the next day’s breakfast as well as information on how to get to a little restaurant nearby.
We had a fabulous dinner experience for our first in Israel! The owner came out, with a spread of almost a dozen small plates, each with a different salad or side dish – eggplant, tahini, hummus, burekas, baba ghanoush – you name it! “Ah!” he beamed, as we expressed our admiration of the beautiful display. “This is just the decoration!” We ordered kebabs as our main dish, and asked for water at the table. “Sparkling?” he asked. “Or from the water tap?” We were sure that tap water was safe in Tel Aviv, so asked for that, along with some squeezed lemon juice. As I glanced across to another table, I saw a huge pitcher of lemonade, which, as we came to see, was a very common meal accompaniment in many places.
The owner was so friendly and gave us such welcoming service. We wondered whether he was Israeli or Palestinian, Jewish or Arab; we really couldn’t tell. We took our wondering as a very positive thing; not knowing was better; not being able to distinguish one from the other seemed much more accepting of all.
In our walk, we passed a synagogue, placed right alongside other shops and street signs in Hebrew, Arabic and English. It was Friday night and things were closing up early. We expected a peaceful and quiet night. But no, it wasn’t to be. We learned that Friday night, the end of the work week, just as we might find at home, brought people out on the town. After all, they could sleep in the next day, Shabbat, the day of rest. The traffic roared and raced all night. Horns honked in proliferation. We came to understand that the Friday night experience in Tel Aviv represents the overall driving mentality in Israel. Stuck in traffic? Honk. Car in your way? Honk. Too long a wait at a light? Honk. Bad mood? Honk. Our education was just beginning.
Saturday, March 17, 2012
An early morning rise. We were to be out front on Dizengoff by 7:15 a.m., when we expected the tour bus from Bein Harim Tours to pick us up. We ate a beautiful breakfast of local yogurt, cereal, fruit, and pastry, freshened ourselves up and were ready. We waited. 7:15 passed and no bus arrived. 7:20 – still no bus. 7:25 – nothing. I had the phone number and registration for the trip along with me, so John called the tour company to say that we were waiting. A couple of phone calls back and forth and finally we were told that they were on their way – we should just wait where we were. It was at least 8:00 a.m. when they finally arrived, telling us that they had gone to the address we said, but there was no such hotel there! Of course, we had told them exactly the right address, and it finally was straightened out. At last, we thought. Our day of being tourists begins; we’re on our way to Masada and the Dead Sea.
Off on the day trip, finally, we first drove to Jerusalem to pick up more passengers. It was now after 9:00 a.m. Our tour guide for the day was Jacob. Jacob wore a baseball cap, a black shirt, blue jeans and sunglasses. He enjoyed talking, especially about himself! He had been a guide for 41 years now, he said. He had also been an archeologist here in Israel and had participated in many digs. He then showed us, hanging around his neck, a coin that he dug up himself at Masada and was given special permission to keep. Did he expect us to believe that? As he pointed out the highlights of the trip, he spoke very disparagingly of the Palestinians. He showed, at the roadside, metal army relics on display so that none shall forget the harm done to Israel in past encounters with “the terrorists.” He demonstrated an over-the-top pride in Israel, its people and its accomplishments. Perhaps he offended my sense of modesty, but this was obviously a very important part of what Jacob had to show and tell. Many times his words towards Palestinians seemed very disrespectful and very blatant for a tour guide, particularly when passengers were from varieties of places, cultures and language groups.
Once we had picked up the remaining passengers in Jerusalem, we drove south. The changes in topography were amazing, and it seemed that climate changed to match. From Tel Aviv , there was freeway, like any other, signs for the airport, then green lush areas, well irrigated, and then suddenly desert, huge sand dunes and amazing rock formations, mountains looming, here and there camps of Bedouins close to the roadside in make-shift shacks, black tarps or cloth or netting serving as rooftops for their shelters. The sun glistened off the Jordanian mountains, appearing like snow from the bus. And then the Dead Sea, a piercing blue. Jacob pointed out how the Israeli mountains, the Dead Sea and the Jordanian mountains seem to form a natural barrier between one people and another. Do they feel protection from each other? Or is it separation? Parts of the drive give such a feeling of desolation and vastness, despite the knowledge that this is a tiny country.
Wouldn’t you know it? We stopped at Ahava, the factory where many “Dead Sea products” are sold to beautify the skin. Tourists from all sorts of buses arrived there, buying up products, watching the advertising movie in the far room, and choosing souvenirs for those back home. It is a huge commercial enterprise. Jacob bought himself a snack here, and we just took advantage of the bathroom break and a chance to stretch our legs.
Built atop massive rock and mountain, it is hard to imagine how the people of ancient times could have climbed so high to create a fortress of defence here. We heard the stories of the “martyrs,” the Sicariis, who made a life here, built a small village, complete with baths, synagogue, etc. and then had themselves killed so that the Romans would not overtake them. Herod the Great built here, too, a magnificent palace in several tiers. He had the best views and facilities of all – wonderful baths and lookouts from every vantage point into the plunging valleys below.
We took the cable car up, I shocking myself in not feeling fearful at all. I was embarrassed, really, as I had prefaced the ride with my confession to Susan and John of my lifelong fear of heights, but it was gone! Looking out over the edges of walkways or walls without railings was not quite so easy for me, but I managed even that. I was able to walk, climb, and take photos in spite of my fears and my difficulties with my hip. It was exhilarating, really, to feel such a sense of accomplishment.
I didn’t know I had it in me!!
As we returned to the bus after lunch in the huge cafeteria and gift shop, we realized that there must be thousands of people who pass through this place daily and participate in the business of Masada. It makes me wonder about tourism – the industry that it is and the values behind it. Yes, this is an ancient site, certainly of interest, with a fascinating story, certainly worthy of upkeep, worthy of seeing, but there is much more than “upkeep” here. It is an industry unto itself. Funny, I saw the very coins that Jacob was permitted to keep from the dig on sale in the gift shop! We boarded the bus, noticing at that moment, a couple of military jeeps. Israeli soldiers, in full dress, equipped with long rifles, sat at the exit, making their presence known and felt. It is the first time that I have seen them. They sit there behind the wheel, toting weaponry in full view, laughing together, their uniforms neat and their young faces shining.
The Dead Sea
Towards the end of the afternoon we retraced some of the roadway we had travelled and stopped at the Dead Sea. We changed into bathing suits and were lucky enough that a little sun shone for the short while we were there. Susan and I took turns going into the water – I had forgotten my flip-flops and just couldn’t walk on the rocky beach. I wore her waterproof shoes and she took my photo, floating in the thick salt water, and then we switched. Some people were covering themselves with thick, black, mud, considered to be very beneficial to the skin, and then washed it off after it caked and baked. We then walked to the mineral spa set up on the same premises, where we again floated in very hot salt water, returning to shower off and change before resuming the journey back. We are very aware of the tourist industry here, Jacob’s everyday comfort with the cashiers, the towel providers, and so on. Spring has barely arrived and already the swarms of visitors are here to float in the Dead Sea -- been here, done that.
It was a long day. Returning first to Jerusalem and dropping off many passengers at the fancy hotels there, we then arrived in Tel Aviv and were happily dropped off at our own hotel. This time we ate a dinner of vegetarian couscous at a restaurant up the street that looked busy and welcoming. A one-hundred-year-old man was being feted there, and as we ate we heard speeches and songs in his honour. The atmosphere was so casual and warm, a real feeling of all being welcome. The owner here was most attentive to us and to all, really showing that he was there to please us.
On the way back to the hotel we stopped at the local convenience store where John had already established an earlier connection. We picked up our breakfast of yogurt, cereal, fruit and mmmm, Danish! Or, I guess, more technically, Israeli!! What a long jam-packed day after a no-sleep night, no doubt so very different from what we will encounter as the trip continues and our delegation begins. See: http://www.amomentintheirshoes.blogspot.ca