Oct 10

Thoughts on Israel

by in Postcard Valet, Thoughts On..., Travel

Toward the end of our stay in Egypt, we began looking for a way to reach Eastern Europe.  Our plan had always been to start somewhere around Turkey and work our way north.  There were many routes we could take, some of which were easily discarded due to visa costs.  Even so, we looked forward to visiting Bulgaria, Moldova, Romania, Ukraine, Poland, and the Baltic States of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia before entering Russia.

But before all of that, we had to find our way to Turkey.  Overland from Jordan was simply not an option, not with the unrest in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.  We thought for sure we could find a cruise ship or ferry or something out of Israel, but that turned out to be next to impossible.  When all was said and done, we simply purchased a flight from Tel Aviv to Istanbul.  Simple, but spendy.

Because we lingered in Africa, we were in a rush by the time we got to Israel.  I would have enjoyed having a week or more to visit historical sites like Bethlehem, Jerusalem, and the Jordan River, but by the time we crossed the border, we had barely 24 hours before our flight out.

Fortunately, our friend, Michal, was living in Tel Aviv and offered to show us around.  We packed quite a bit into that day and a half and, with her there to answer my questions, we learned a lot about the country, too.

We spoke a lot about geopolitics – I was very curious about how Israelis see themselves, how they fit in in the Middle East, and how religion plays a role in their country’s politics.  I’m not going to get into that here.  I know I wouldn’t be able to do our conversations justice, but furthermore, I didn’t get a chance to talk with anyone else.  While very informative, hers was only one Israeli’s opinion.

Border Security

Israel doesn’t have a lot of friendly borders.  If you’ve ever read a newspaper, you probably know about the issues they have with neighboring countries.  Ever since the U.S.’s Transportation Security Agency has come into the news, I’ve heard a lot about how our tedious and ineffective airport security system should model the far more effect Israel method.  Going in, I prepared myself for a rigorous screening process.  I wasn’t disappointed.

We arrived in Israel via the Sheik Hussein Bridge border crossing from Jordan.  Every step of the way was a learning experience for us.  First, we took a taxi to the Jordanian Immigration office and got our exit stamps.  We were then told to wait at a small bus station for the next bus going across.  It arrived shortly and then sat for over an hour while the driver waited for any other travelers that might show.  Since the bus was air conditioned, we opted to climb aboard and wait inside.

We were sitting in the front row, just behind the driver’s seat, when we crossed over into Israel.  First stop, the bus-carriage bomb sweep.

Between borders, our driver stopped his bus.  Two men approached us, one carrying a mirror mounted on a pole, the other wearing Oakleys and an assault rifle.  While the first walked the bus’s perimeter, using the mirror to look under it, I inadvertently made eye contact with the second.  He walked around the bus once, came back to the front, and stared at me through the windshield again.  Our driver happened to be standing just inside the door, passing the time on his cell phone.  The military guy approached him, said something.  The driver turned back to Oksana and me and said, “He wants you off the bus.”

We took our day bags with us, not knowing if we were going to be allowed back on.  We had nothing to hide, however, so I wasn’t worried.

While flipping through our passports, he fired questions at us.  What’s your full name?  Why are you traveling?  Are you married?  What’s your father’s name?  We calmly answered everything he threw at us.

It was a behavior profiling test.  Basically, the answers we gave weren’t important.  They were studying how we answered them.  If, for instance, I had stumbled over my father’s name, that might have led to more detailed questions about our reason for visiting Israel.

After a couple minutes, we were dismissed by a wave us his hand.  We climbed back on the bus and the driver drove us a couple hundred yards further on, to immigration and customs.

At the border station, customs was first.  Just before we put our bags through the scanner, we were subjected to a second passport check and profiling.  This time, an attractive young woman asked more detailed questions about our stay in Israel.  Our short visit and “in transit” answer must have set off a red flag.  She confiscated my passport and told me I’d get it back later.  In the meantime, my day bag was scanned and thoroughly swabbed for explosive residue.  By the time that was done, everyone else on the bus had already been cleared.

I got my passport back and we were sent to immigration.  Once again, we were asked a series of questions.

“What’s your full name?”

“Arlo Christian Midgett.”

“Oksana Kadachigova Midgett,” Oksana echoed.

What’s your dad’s name?

“Daryl.”

“Boris.”

“Grandfather’s name?”

“Paternal or maternal?” I asked.

“What?” English got in the way.

“Um, my father’s father or my mother’s father?” I asked.

“Your father’s father.”

“Ara, but he goes by ‘Ed.’”

She turned to Oksana. “And yours?”

“I don’t know.” The immigration officer’s eyes narrowed. “I don’t!”

“Reason for your stay in Israel?”

“We’re flying from Tel Aviv to Turkey,” Oksana said.

“Where else are you going in Israel?”

“Just Tel Aviv.”

She turned back to me.  “Have you traveled to any countries other than Jordan?”

“Yes.”

“Which ones?”

“You want me to list all of them?  We’ve been traveling for over a year.  We started in South America and then moved up through Africa—“

She interrupted me. “Have you been to Syria?”

“No.”

“Iran, Iraq, Pakistan?”

“No.”

“Lebanon, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, or Libya?”

“No.”

“What countries did you visit in Africa?”

“South Africa, Botswana, Zambia—“

“Namibia,” Oksana interjected.

“Namibia.  Zimbabwe, Tanzania, and Egypt,” I finished, ticking each one off on my fingers.

“What about Sudan or Somalia?”

I almost said, “Hell no!” but kept that to myself.  “No,” I said.

She abruptly stopped asking questions and, one at a time, looked us both in the eyes.  Then she stamped both of our passports and handed them back with a big smile.  “Welcome to Israel!”

We took a couple steps away, but then I turned back.  “Excuse me, but do you the best way to get to Tel Aviv?”

The immigration officer’s entire manner had changed.  Instead of an impassive face grilling us with questions, she was all smiles and offers of advice.

“Okay, well first you’re going to have to take a taxi to Beit She’an, because it’s almost the Shabbat and there are no buses here…”

Shabbat

Shabbat is the day of rest in Judaism.  If, like me, you’re an American, you probably know it as the Sabbath.  It runs, roughly-speaking, for 24 hours starting on Friday at sunset.  Guess when we arrived in Israel?

It was Friday, about 3:30pm, when we cleared immigration and everyone we talked to said we better hurry if we wanted make all our bus connections to Tel Aviv.  We tried everything we could think of to avoid the only cab driver hanging around – we stepped onto a tourist bus and asked where they were going; we even walked outside the gates to ask if there were any bus stops within walking distance – but in the end, we were forced to pay the driver’s over-a-barrel rates.

We caught the last bus out of Beit She’an and ended up waiting for a connecting bus at the Afula terminal.  We struck up a conversation with a teenager who was also going to Tel Aviv and then followed him when he decided to get on a private mini-bus instead.  We lucked out one last time, in Tel Aviv, when we caught the last #4 bus to Allenby St.

We were told that 70% of Israel is secular, but that doesn’t mean that three-quarters of their society ignores the Sabbath.  While it’s easy enough to find stores and restaurants that are open, generally speaking, public transportation and government offices will be shut down.  It’s a lot our day of rest in the United States: Sundays may have started out as a religious day, free from work, but just you try to take away our weekend now!

Western World

On our drive from the Jordanian border to Tel Aviv, it was obvious to both Oksana and me that we were back in the Western World.  This was no small thing, having been in African and the Middle East for the past three months.  To me, it was exactly like the reverse-culture shock I’m used to when returning home from a month or so in Latin America.

First thing that caught my eye?  A vending machine.  Made me realize how long it’d been since I’d seen one.  Later, there were all sorts of little clues on the road.  Cars on the streets were generally newer models with GPS units in the dash, intersections were respected with orderly lines and working stoplights, bus stops had printed schedules and routes and the buses themselves had RFID passes.  People even drove on the correct side of the road again!

Everything seemed magical and high-tech to us.

Crosswalks

By and large, people respected the crosswalks, too, at least in Tel Aviv.  As we walked around town with Michal, we obediently stopped and waited at each cross street for the red hand to change into a green man.  Most everyone else did, too.

Compared to places like Buenos Aires, where everyone crosses the street at the first sign of a gap in the traffic, this made it seem like people were in less of a hurry.  I think we’d have to go all the way back to New York City before we found a population that respected the Don’t Cross signs so well.

Currency

The Israeli unit of currency is the Shekel.  I surprised myself by recognizing the name from historical currencies, but that’s neither here nor there.

I just think it’s way cool that they have ASCII art portraits on their money!

Diet Cokes

Oksana and I enjoyed a couple Diet Cokes while we were in Israel and, yes, they still tasted slightly different to us.  Not like the “fruity” taste we reported back in Africa, however.  It had more of a vanilla-tinge to it.  I rather liked it.

Burgers

We walked past a ton of restaurants on Friday night, since it turned out the one we were looking for was closed for Shabbat.  Maybe it was just the section of town we were in, but I noticed a huge number of burger joints in Tel Aviv.

Hamburgers are funny things; not every country has the same opinion about what ingredients should be used.  I’ve become leery of ordering them ever since being surprised by ground beef without buns and patties with fried eggs balanced on top.  It looks like Israel knows its burgers, though.

Didn’t get a chance to find out, however, because we ended up at a great Mediterranean place in Old Jaffa.  No complaints here.

McDonald’s

On one of our last nights in Buenos Aires, I discovered that there was one of the world’s few kosher McDonald’s restaurants in the Hasidic neighborhood of Abasto.  I would have loved to check out the menu there, but guess what prevented us from being able to do just that?  Shabbat!

Outside of Israel, Argentina is supposedly the only other country in the world to claim a kosher McDonald’s restaurant.  I was looking forward to making up for the missed opportunity and getting a chance to see the blue arches logo that designates the kosher differences, but here we were again, one day left in a country, looking for a restaurant that was closed on the Sabbath!

After doing some research online, Michal told us that there was a kosher McDonald’s in the Tel Aviv airport and it should be open after sunset.  We weren’t flying out until late, so we held out hope.  In the meantime, we found a more traditional restaurant and ate there, just in case.

Sure enough, when we got to the airport, the kosher version open for business.  Just because I could, I ordered a Charcoal McRoyal with the last of our shekels. It was the only thing on the menu that stood out as different (although, come to think of it, I don’t think you could order a Quarter Pounder with Cheese, nor anything else with dairy in it.)  Didn’t taste any different to me.

Protests

We arrived in Israel in the middle of a huge social protest.  The short version of the story goes like this:

A young woman, who had recently been evicted from her apartment when her lease was up, decided she’d had enough of rising property values, so she pitched a tent on one of the city’s major shopping boulevards in symbolic protest.  Within two weeks, the entire street was lined with tents and protestors of all sorts had joined her cause.  The first Saturday, 10,000 people marched on the government seat to be heard.  The following week, 100,000 people marched.  We were there on the third week, in the middle of a crowd of 300,000.

I can’t claim to understand everything that was going on, but I asked a lot of question while we were there.  The main argument is that property values are so high that the middle class, and especially young people, are being squeezed out of the cities in Israel.    Partly this is because property taxes are too high, and partly it’s because Jewish residents of wealthier European and American countries are buying up all the available apartments and condos for vacation homes.  On top of all that, there are building covenants in place to protect the historical properties in Israel (of which, you can imagine, there are quite a few), so it’s not like they can just tear down a few blocks of older buildings to make way for high-rise housing.  They’re really in a pickle.

Coming from Egypt, where the “peaceful” protests in Tahrir Square still had their share of riots and injuries, we weren’t sure what to expect when we were dragged into the thick of things.  Michal assured us, though, that Israel doesn’t do violent protests – they’re a part of the Middle East geographically, but culturally they’re a part of the West.  She promised us that this protest would be a family affair.

And sure enough, she was right.  While there was plenty of flag waving, fist pumping, and slogan chanting, there were also balloons, baby strollers, and pets.  Who’s going to bring their pets with them to a violent protest?

While we didn’t understand everything that was going on around us that night, we did join 299,998 Israelis as they protested against their government, and had a great time walking among them and taking pictures.  We may only have had one full day in Israel, but I can’t say we missed out on current events!

Border Security II

Because run-ins with Israeli security bracketed both ends of our trip, I figured I’d have the subject bracket both ends of this blog post.  (Actually, to be completely honest… there were a couple more things I wanted to say, but I couldn’t figure out how to shoehorn them in without breaking up that perfect Shabbat segue!)

During our walk around Tel Aviv, we went to see a movie (Captain America) and strolled through a mall.  Both times, we were stopped at the entrance for a bag check.  While the girls opened up their purses for a quick visual inspection, I did the same with my day pack.  There was also a guy there with a wand, to do a quick check of our person, if he deemed it necessary.

This wasn’t the first time we’d seen a bag check in a public place – I think that distinction is owned by Istanbul.  It surprised me, but Michal acted as though it was completely normal (and for her, I’m sure it was quite routine.)  In the United States, we have metal detectors in federal office buildings now, not to mention in many schools, but I can’t recall ever having to submit to a bag check upon entering a public place.  Might be the way we’re headed, though.  It’s a sobering reminder of the steps we’re taking to prevent acts of terror in this day and age.

That wasn’t quite the last we’d see of exceedingly-cautious security measures, however. On the way out of the country, we prepared ourselves for more behavior profiling.  We arrived to the airport early enough that a potentially long line wouldn’t make us late.  We were pretty much the first ones there from our flight – the line was empty – but that didn’t stop them from putting us through the full routine again.

Three separate people interviewed us while looking over our passports.  I got the impression that we were being handed off to more experienced agents when they kept apologizing and saying things like, “I’m sorry, but I’m going to ask you some more questions. These may be similar to, or the same as, the questions you were previously asked.  Please bear with us.”  We weren’t in a hurry and had nothing to hide, so we just calmly cooperated while they tried to trip us up with their rapid-fire interrogation.

After passing the third interview, we were passed on to the scanners.  We had to remove our laptops, of course, and then we passed all four of our bags through the x-ray machines.  Oksana made the mistake of leaving her iPad in her day pack, so she was passed on to a visual inspection station.  I was free to get in line at the ticket counter, but I opted to step aside and wait for my wife.

While they emptied Oksana’s bag and swabbed everything for an explosive residue test, they asked her questions.  One of which was, “Are you traveling alone?”  When she motioned to me, one of the women behind the counter waved me over.  I hauled the rest of our bags along with me.

“Are you traveling with her?” she asked me.

“I am.” I said.

“Can I look through your bag?”

“Sure. Which one?”  She selected the day pack.  The one with all my electronics and camera equipment.  The one with all the little pockets.  She proceeded to empty each and every one of them, as well as open every little bag and container inside.  It took her at least 15 minutes.

At one point, she was swabbing each of my portable hard drives.  “What do you do,” she asked in broken English, “that you need all these… things?”

“I make videos.” Keeping it simple.

“Oh.  Okay.”  She must have known her stuff, because her eyes lit up when she saw our Canon 5D mark II.  “That is a very good camera!”

Once our bags and possessions passed the explosives test, we were free to go.  Three interviews, one x-ray scan, and two, full hand-checks of our luggage later… we were only up to the check-in counter.

Fortunately, the rest of the security process was quickerr.  One more trip through an x-ray machine, sans behavioral profiling this time, and we were on our way to Turkey.

 

 

Oh, and in case you were wondering: Oksana really does know her grandfather’s name.  She was just momentarily brain-locked when the Jeopardy music started to play in her head.

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Welcome to Postcard Valet

Postcard Valet is a travel blog and video podcast by Arlo and Oksana Midgett. They just returned to Juneau, Alaska, after almost three full years of travel and living abroad. Many of their stories, photos, and videos have yet to be shared...

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