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Israel Travelogue

  • Submitted by: Rick Bakker
  • Website: None Available
  • Submission Date: 04th Feb 2005

Ben Gurion Airport, December 24th, 11.45 pm: another planeload of refugees arrives. This year my Christmas exodus has brought me to Israel, police state with a human face. It was late, I was tired, I forgot to tell the passport guys not to put their Israeli stamp smack in the centre of the first page of my brand-new, 64-page, 10-year, 100-dollar passport. No need for me to learn any Arabic this decade. I didn't need a visa, but it was interesting to note that Germans born before 1927 do.

The $40 hotel in Tel Aviv was wretched, confirming warnings that Israel is not cheap. And indeed, I measure the can o'coke pricing index at (US)$1.10, about the same as Western Europe. The next morning, after much haggling we got ourselves a tiny rental car for a bargain basement $50 per day, but not before Barry, my travelling companion, got splashed, nay dumped, by a passing truck, causing him to have to spit out the excess brownish water. It put me in a good mood for the rest of the trip!

Later that (Christmas) day we were in Bethlehem. That there's injun country which is probably why the Nativity Church is so small and conspiratorial, the visitor even has to bow down just to get through the front door. Influenced by Israeli maps, I had long considered the West Bank to be an integral and inalienable part of the country, but even the short drive to Bethlehem painted a different picture. It really is an Occupied Territory, with different taxes, laws, prosperity and even licence plates. The Israeli presence seems to be restricted to heavily fortified military camps placed strategically on high pieces of ground, the David's star flying defiantly over the mounds of barbed wire. Every Israeli I met either warned me against going to the OTs or expressed great surprise when I told them I'd been there and had a nice time. Maybe it's those skull caps, I used them to identify Israeli's when evaluating hitchhikers and for the Palestinians they do make a convenient target when an act of violence is only a stone's throw away.

On the way back to the kibbutz we were staying at I noticed some shepherds tending their flocks, despite this being the most frequently quoted hole in the Christmas legend, or at least the December time frame. I admittedly never saw them by night, but then again I can't see much when it's dark and I don't know where they'd disappear to. Pedants in my surroundings who had criticised my plan to visit Bethlehem on Christmas Day fail to realise that the Christian religion was built up around a guy with some happening ideas who, after making a good career move of dying young, had to be supplied with an impressive, if not totally ludicrous birth if he was to live up to his claim of being the Son of God. There's no known way of pinpointing the exact day of an imaginary birth so who can blame the Christian Church for setting it on the same day as a Roman holiday? A recurring theme, not just in religion, is emphasis on the spirit or idea, and not the fact. That is why Thanksgiving is celebrated on the third Thursday in November, and also why there are two sites of the Baptism in Israel, three sites of the crucifixion in Jerusalem and four sacred foreskins in Western European churches.

I liked Jerusalem, it was smaller than I'd imagined and the walled old city makes all the difference between a nondescript town and the centre of Western history. The new city looks modern but is very traditional in that everything is closed on the Sabbath - we were even jeered at for driving a car. For me, the Holocaust museum was the main attraction outside the walls. It doesn't strive for completeness but especially its photos are remarkable - an aerial shot of Auschwitz at the height of its evil, a recently discovered film of a day in the life of a wartime Polish ghetto and extremely harrowing shots of outdoor executions. After visiting the museum one can more easily accept the sight of so many young people, in and out of uniform, carrying automatic rifles - on the street, in restaurants, hitchhiking, next to you in a bus (over those bumpy roads). After the initial look-out-he's-got-a-gun reaction I calmed down but couldn't help wondering why you never hear of someone going crazy with a machine gun in Israel, as they do in the U.S.

A visit to the old city can be restricted to the Big Three: the jewish Western Wall (only remnant of the Second Temple), the museum Dome of the Rock (where Muhammed ascended to heaven) and the Church of the Sepulchre (site of Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection). The African village built on top of the Sepulchre was for me the best part. Orthodox jews are forbidden (by their own religion) to enter the Dome where, as in Mecca, the muslims worship a rock. I can't help suspecting that Muhammed made his post-mortem detour for purely political reasons and I'm a little disappointed in the jews, the people who refused to revere statues and even say their God's name, for worshipping something as tangible as a stone wall.

The next few days were spent visiting some well known sites and sights around Israel. The Dead Sea turned out to really live up to its reputation - I floated easily even with my arms and legs sticking out of the water. Masada, a mountain fortress where a large group of jews held out against the Romans for three years before comitting joint suicide, is more of a physical challenge and a matter to ponder than an impressive site. They had plenty of food and water but there was no way out and with certain death ahead it must have been some party every night. It's said that they decided to end it all when the Roman ramp reached the fortress, but it could well have been when the booze ran out.

The location of the Sermon of the Mount was a surprise. Influenced by the Life of Brian I'd pictured it as a dusty, rocky hill but it turned out to be as green as Ireland. Acre, the former Crusader capital on the coast, was very picturesque with its fortress walls being pounded by the waves and the dark, wet subterranean city. This trip strengthened my conviction to never take a camera with me when I travel - because of the expense, the hassle, the fear of theft, the wasted time, the adverse reactions and the chance to get in all the other people's photos. I've had trouble with the police in the past when my companions chose the wrong objects to photograph and Barry's waving his camera around at the Western Wall worshippers was an invasion of privacy that was deeply resented. Nevertheless, maybe the photos would make it all worth it. They didn't. Barry lost the film.

For the second, more relaxing part of the holiday we caught the bus to Eilat, at the southernmost tip of Israel. No effort has been spared to turn it into a tourist mecca, if I may use the term, ranging from situating the airstrip downtown to exempting the whole town from sales tax. The main target is sun-starved Europeans but I don't know if they'll be willing to visit more than once after they get a load of the prices. The taxis cruise the streets stalking tourists who are walking or waiting at bus stops to sound their horn at them in the hope of crumbling their walls of resolve. My visit to warm, sunny Eilat was cold, cloudy and even wet, although it supposedly only rains four days in the year. There's plenty to do, but without some mindless beach coma thrown in to kill the time I wouldn't want to stay more than a week.

First stop was an underwater observatory and a ride in the yellow submarine. I was thrilled at the thought of being 60m under water until I realised that I was still some 350 metres above Dead Sea level. Next came Dolphin Reef, where I swam with the mammals who no doubt owe their popularity and reputation for intelligence to their perpetual smiles. I was lucky to be scuba diving with a guide who the dolphins seem to like, so I got to scratch the odd cetacean belly while the other divers gave hopeless pursuit and the snorkelers floundered helplessly above us. Suddenly, the guide pointed at something behind me, and I looked around and - a shark! Just as I was reaching over to the guide to make sure I could outswim him I noticed it wasn't a shark after all but a shark-like fish they'd put amongst the dolphins to give the tourists a thrill.

Eilat's a big scuba town, situated on the world's northernmost coral reef and with its own decompression unit. The standards and courses seem to be admirably strict, but there were at least two accidents during my stay - a guy who started throwing up at 30 metres and a woman who panicked at 3 metres, held her breath during the ascent and, of course, died a horrible death.

I've always had a fascination for borders, imaginary lines guarded to the death. Standing in Eilat, one can see to the left Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and to the right Egypt. I rented a bicycle and pedalled from the Jordanian frontier to the Egyptian border in a leisurely half hour, and peered into Egypt. It was time to go.

The next morning I grabbed the bus to Cairo, two hours of customs formalities followed by six hours of Sinai - at first rocky and spectacular before settling down to become your standard desert. The tunnel under the Suez, built with Israeli cooperation, was named after an Egyptian wartime general! Maybe he was responsible for more casualties than any Israeli soldier. I'd heard stories about the Cairo traffic (my guide book advises drivers not to stop if they should hit a pedestrian) but I was still amazed at how my taxi driver drove all the way to the pyramids beeping his horn at least every ten seconds without any discernible reason. Before the cab even drew to a stop locals were beseeching me to ride their camel, get on their donkey, take their picture, buy their postcards, etc. Interesting to hear how the price drops by as much as 90% when you just walk away singing "la la la" (they don't believe you until you say no in their own language). The standard opener is a question regarding your origins; after about the thirtieth time I started experimenting with unlikely variations, such as Japan, but this didn't seem to faze anyone. Perhaps I should have tried Israel. I finally succumbed to a kid who promised me a mummy but this turned out to be the standard scam. I threatened him with muslim hell for lying when he claimed to be showing me Tutankhamon's tomb but I can appreciate his reason for doing so.

The next morning I paid a lightning trip to the Egyptian museum before heading back to Israel. I bolted straight for King Tut's treasures when the doors opened, weaving to avoid the corrupt guards with their clutching hands and greasy palms. I stared in amazement at the wealth and beauty that had been stored in the tomb of a nobody-pharaoh for thousands of years until all the tour groups reached that part of the museum. The mummies are locked away in Room 52 which rumour says shall be opening again soon, with a princely entrance fee of $17. Not meant for the man in the street in a country where petrol costs $0.10 per litre.

My post-vacation blues started on the bus back when I bitterly resented the smoking of my fellow tourists, especially the German women who would climb back into the bus at rest stops to puff away contentedly. I would wish a horrible disease and painful death on all smokers, had not someone obviously beaten me to it.

Back at Ben Gurion airport, The El Al staff gave me a hard time about all the irregularities in my life history and my, in their eyes, strange way of travelling. I don't know what did it, my parting of ways with Barry or my one-night stay at the Nile Hilton, but they decided to pull everything out of my luggage for close inspection and I was sent behind a curtain for a rendezvous with a tall guy who looked like he had cold hands. I was expecting at any moment to hear the snap of surgical gloves but fortunately all he wanted me to take off was my jacket and my shoes.

I was impressed by Israel, a modern, almost Western nation stamped on a land steeped in history. The people have a real purpose in their life, and that is to build up their country so jews all around the world have a place to live in safety. Against all odds they've fended off very hostile neighbours and now they're absorbing immigrants at an astonishing rate. There is an admirable feeling of solidarity amongst the (jewish) inhabitants, which amongst other things leads hitchhikers to look up in surprise when a selfish tourist like myself drives past without picking them up. I just hope the Israelis can resist the temptation to think they have a monopoly on truth and justice, and don't let it interfere with the finding of a proper solution for the Palestinians. I'm not jewish, but if I was I'd be proud of it.



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