I was told to be at the airport in Toronto, three and a half hours before the El Al flight was scheduled to leave. Once there, I presented my papers at the boarding area, and that’s when it first hit me. Flying El Al is only the beginning of what I could expect once in Israel.
For lack of any better description, I was grilled by their security people; so much so, that I had the very uneasy feeling that they really didn’t want me on their flight. And even before the questioning, the entire area around the El Al boarding desk, including other airline counters adjacent to El Al were checked with an efficiency I had never before seen.
And to add to the drama, several visibly heavily armed security people and local police took up positions before any of the passengers were even allowed to approach.
The El Al security person asking me the questions was a stunning, petite young blond woman who spoke with heavily accented English. What she wanted to know, was why I was going to Israel? When I told her that I was going simply to show solidarity with Israel, and to do several radio shows back to Canada and the USA, she became extremely skeptical.
“Are you aware that Israel is at war? Do you know that where you are going has been attacked quite often? Why are you going? Have you ever been to Israel? Why now? Who do you know in Israel? Why are you traveling alone? Do you speak Hebrew? Where were your parents born? Where were your grandparents born? Why was your father named Israel? Where are you going to be staying? Why at that hotel . . . etc.”?
This form of questioning went on for almost 10 minutes with her repeating the questions quite a few times. Finally, she went to a supervisor with all my papers, her notes and opinions. And after a few minutes of deliberations, she came back to me with what a appeared to be a very reluctant approval to allow me on the flight.
Bear in mind, this was not immigration. This was just to get on the plane.
Had I flown Air Canada, I would have avoided all of this. But; the purpose of my trip was to show solidarity with Israel. Therefore; being put through the wringer by El Al was a part of the experience, and some of the price I was prepared to pay.
Not to dwell too much on the flight. I will only say that we flew on a new Boeing 777 which holds a great many people; and depending upon the configuration of the cabin; from 368 to 550 passengers. The passenger configuration on our flight had three rows of three seats per row across the plane.
On this flight, there was about one person per each row, which allowed just about every passenger to lift the armrests separating the seats on his/her row, stretch out, and sleep during the 10 hour flight. Talk about better than first class. But, just imagine the loss to El Al.
The flight left Canada at about 10:30 PM, and arrived in Israel at about 5:30 PM Israeli time. The difference in time is seven hours ahead in Israel.
Before landing at Tel Aviv, I expected to feel a wave of emotion I have heard so much about from friends and family who journeyed to the Promised Land for the first time. But, I felt nothing other than relief that this long flight was over, and a sense of nervous excitement. But no feeling of raw emotion that would have brought tears to my eyes. This made me sad. I wanted to experience this expression of elation and sense of personal arrival.
Other than some friends, whom I sort of know who live in Eilat, which is located some three or more hours from where I was, who are related to friends I have in Montreal, I knew no one in Israel. Absolutely no one. It is not normal for me to feel overwhelmed, but that is exactly how I felt when I found myself standing with my two bags in hand, in the somewhat empty arrival section of the terminal building at Tel Aviv Airport.
Remembering the grilling I received at the hands of El Al security back in Toronto at Pearson Airport, I took a deep breath and prepared myself for the worst as I approached Israeli immigration. And to my unbelievable surprise, here was a friendly woman with a pleasant smile who asked a few questions, thanked me for coming to Israel during these difficult times and wished me a happy trip. I started to all of a sudden feel better.
I considered renting a car at the airport, except, all the travel literature I read concerning car rentals in Israel suggested not to. So, I found a shuttle that would take me to my first hotel which overlooked the Old City of Jerusalem. The drive should have been about a half hour to three quarters of an hour. But, by shuttle, it was more than two hours. I arrived at the hotel just as the sun was beginning to set.
To describe the shuttle. Think of a Ford van without shocks or springs, and two rows of seats crammed behind the driver and front passenger seats. The luggage was squeezed to the back of the last row of seats. Now think of the rudest airport transportation people you’ve ever met. You can just sort of imagine the picture. But then again, I don’t remember all that many taxi charm school graduates anywhere else I have traveled either.
The reason I took the shuttle rather than a taxi, was because a taxi ride cost about 150 Shekels, and the shuttle was just 40 Shekels (Shekels are denoted by NIS, New Israeli Shekels). The difference between a taxi ride and the shuttle was 110 NIS, which at the time sounded like a lot of money. But, it didn’t take long for me to understand that there are roughly three Shekels per each Canadian dollar. I did know this in advance, but still, 150 of anything sounds like a lot when you compare it to what you are used to. But I got the hang of it.
Therefore; 150 NIS is only about $50 Cdn, which is a fair price for such a long taxi ride. And a bargain compared to what we have to pay for a comparable taxi ride to or from Pearson Airport in Toronto. But; nonetheless, 150 NIS sounded like a lot of money to me. Therefore; I opted for the shuttle and a very uncomfortable ride.
All was not lost. The driver of the shuttle dropped everyone off at their front door. I was let off last. And because of this, I got a chance to see where different types of people lived, and a tour of Jerusalem like none other. I also learned first hand why renting a car in Israel would be more dangerous than walking into an Islamic fundamentalist West Bank town screaming ARAFAT SUCKS. With the Arabs I might have had a chance. With Israeli drivers, it would have been certain doom.
The first hotel where I stayed, was at one time, an attractive boutique hotel, that had become quite run down as a result of the 18 months of Palestinian terrorism and murder. And not to my surprise, I think I was the only tourist checked in. You can imagine that the price was right at only $59 US per night including breakfast and taxes.
Once in my room, I didn’t bother to unpack, since I decided to look for better accommodations for the balance of my stay. So, I took a quick shower, went down to the front desk to see where I could walk for a bite to eat, and headed out to who knows where.
I learned several things from my brief experience in Israel from the airport to the hotel to a walk looking for a meal. Everyone I had come in contact with spoke English, from quite passable, to very well. I also learned about long distance telephone cards which work from payphones as well as hotel phones. Otherwise, calling home would have cost as much as the flight. And I discovered that no one in Israel, except the drivers, seemed be in any great big hurry.
I found a bistro not that far from my hotel, and ordered a tuna sandwich and a Mediterranean salad. And with this order, I learned yet something else. Israeli meal portions are huge. Either of the two meal items I ordered would have been more than enough on their own. And I discovered how great vegetables can really taste.
When I returned back to the hotel at about 11:00 o’clock, there were several tour busses parked in the driveway. At last, tourists I thought. But no such thing. The people getting off the busses were bone weary, tired Israeli soldiers just coming off their shift of fighting terrorists in Bethlehem at the Church of the Nativity.
It suddenly struck me, these guys had just come from a shooting war to “enjoy” about eight hours of rest before they had to return to the action, to where they might get killed, or kill terrorists. Right there and then, the reality of Israel hit me like a ton of bricks.
The soldiers quietly got off the bus with their kit bags, M16 rifles, or Oozy machine guns slung around their necks as if they were carrying guitars. And once into the hotel, these exhausted young men, all of whom looked to be in their mid twenties, sat in the lobby just contemplating whatever; in silence.
I called Anne, told her that I arrived, illustrated a little bit of my first day, and collapsed into bed. And before falling asleep, I called the Dan Pearl Suite Hotel, recommended as one of Jerusalem’s great luxury properties, priced in the travel book at more than $200 US per night. But, maybe I thought, their prices have come down somewhat because of the war. And they had. I was quoted $80 US per night including taxes and breakfast. I made a reservation for the balance of my stay.
I had seen so much from the time I arrived at Pearson Airport, to the moment I fell into bed, that my mind just swirled. And as much as I was looking forward to sunrise, I was also void of any itinerary and plan of action. I would worry about it in the morning. At this point of my trip, all I wanted was to close my eyes and go to sleep.
April 24th, day two, became a day of discovery, and the beginning of an extraordinary journey.
This is part two in a multi-part series of articles about my Israeli recollections during a time of war. To review previous articles just refer back to the archives.