Israel One

August 4, 2010 at 5:01 am | Posted in Daily blogs and thoughts | Leave a comment

DAY 1  –  August 2, 2010    New York – JFK International Airport

 This first day’s entry is pretty long – it covers a 36 hour day, and since I’m so excited at finally being in Israel, I’m motivated to write a lot.  I’ll bet as the week goes by, I’ll have less to say.

The night before we leave, I stay awake until 3:00AM.  Then I am awake and at work by 7:00AM.  I want to make sure I am good and tired on the plane so I sleep,  so I can wake up and be better acclimated to the change in time zone.

 We arrive at JFK at 4:30 PM for our 7:25 flight.  No line at baggage check in.  No line at security.  We are into the terminal, waiting for our flight by 4:45.

 At the gate area, the first thing that catches your attention is the number of Orthodox Jews in the gate area.  As we sit down and wait, we also become aware of many people speaking Hebrew to one another; many of them are Israeli’s awaiting their flight home.

 At one point, a small group of Orthodox Jews gather at the Eastern window of the gate area and begin their evening prayers. 

 Boarding for the flight begins at 6PM, almost an hour and a half early.  We are routed through a second security area where a private security company repeats the same security we went through at the TSA checkpoint.  Off with the shoes, belts, X-ray the carry-on luggage and through the metal detectors.

 We board the 747-400 jumbo jet.  This is the biggest plane I have ever been on.  Reading the description from the Delta Sky magazine, it is almost as long as a football field and the wingspread is a few feet short of the same length.  How that mammoth contraption can possibly get off the ground amazes me.

 We are in seats 51 A and B, which I specifically booked because they were emergency exit seats – extra leg room!  There is actually a 5 foot open area from our seats to the bulkhead wall.  An emergency window is on the fuselage, and the flight attendant’s jump seat is across from us.

 Next to us, a young man who is traveling with a dozen young friends sits down.  Jodi talks to him, and learns they are on a pilgrimage from a Church group.  When you watch the news, you get the impression that Israel is about “the Jews.”  Many Christians are just as interested in Israel as Jews are.

 The plane is closed up and at 7:20 the Captain announces there is a delay as they try to match the checked luggage to the passenger head count.  After almost half an hour, the huge jet backs away from the terminal and stops.  A Virgin Airways 747 is blocking the taxi way, and our Captain informs us that a sick passenger is being removed from that jet.  We wait another 45 minutes until we can taxi away from the terminal.

 We are finally airborne at 9PM.  Within an hour, dinner is served and we are treated to a glass of red wine, which I’m counting on to help me fall asleep.  Jodi has bought me a surprise – a pair of Sony noise cancelling headsets, which I connect to my iPod, close my eyes and am asleep in a few minutes.

 Since we are traveling east, sunrise occurs in about four hours, and I wake up to see several Orthodox Jews, wearing their tallis prayer shawls and tefillin, praying in the small open space between our seats and the bulkhead.  Between the iPod and the headsets, I don’t hear anything except the music, and quickly fall back asleep.

 Two hours before arrival, I wake up, pretty well rested.   I take my computer from the overhead compartment and begin to write as breakfast is served.  About an hour before arrival in Tel Aviv, the Captain announces that Israeli air traffic rules require all passengers on arriving flights be confined to their seats for thirty minutes before landing.   There is a mass rush to the bathrooms.  After fifteen minutes, the captain comes on the intercom and announces that everyone will be required to be seated in fifteen minutes.  He implores passengers that “we have 400 passengers on-board, so please be considerate to your fellow passengers and use the rest rooms as quickly as possible.”  I get a glass of water from the galley, wash my hands at my seat and put in my contact lenses.

 I watch from the window as we cross the Mediterranean coastline and pass over Tel Aviv.  I recognize the Tel Aviv beach area by the marinas from the maps we used to plan our trip, and we fly in pretty much over the old city of Jaffa.  My first impression as I look from the jet window is that Israel looks like San Diego from above.  We fly over the beach areas, than the downtown urban areas, and over some large farms and residential neighborhoods.  I am taken aback by the number of trees and wooded areas below us.  This is not a desert – it looks like any one of a thousand cities in the United States.

 We fly past the airport from a few miles south and the pilot turns the jet 180 degrees as he lines up with the runway.  Some dryer, desert-like areas are beneath us, but still nothing like flying over the deserts of New Mexico or Arizona.

 We quickly land and a quiet round of applause erupts in the jet – the applause of excited travelers happy to be in Eretz Israel (The land of Israel).  We taxi to the terminal and I am glued to the window, trying to absorb as much as possible.

 If I can diverge for a moment, as a child I attended Hebrew school and learned how to read Hebrew.  I don’t understand very much of it, but I know the pronunciation of the letters and I can read words, albeit slowly.  I also know some very basic Hebrew expressions, some of which I remember from my youth and some from a Hebrew language course on CD I purchased a few months before our trip.

 As the plane taxi’s to the jetway, I can see the words “Haupknot Bank” in English, and next to it the words “Haupknot Bank” phonetically spelled out in Hebrew.  I soon learn there are many words that don’t have a Hebrew translation from English, they are just spelled out phonetically in Hebrew letters.  This turns out to be useful in restaurants and road signs.

 We clear passport control , collect our baggage and sail through customs.  It takes us a few minutes to navigate through the terminal and find car rental shuttle bus to the Avis car rental lot.  The good news is that since the flight was half an hour late and it took us so long to get to the car rental center, we only have to rent the car for two days instead of two days and two hours – we save an entire’s day rental cost!  With insurance, the car is $75 per day, the insurance representing about 65% of the cost.  I am totally insured though, the rental agent tells me I have no responsibility.  I ask if I can bring the car back to him in a box.  He suggests calling a tow truck and he’ll come get it to save me the trouble.  We add a GPS for another $15 a day.  I have a quick chat with Gus, the car rental agent, and he shows me how to use my Israeli telephone.  Everytime I call customer service, I get an automated attendant speaking Hebrew, but we’ll figure that out in a day or two.

 It’s 4:00PM as we leave the airport, headed to Caesarea, a mere 45 kilometer ride north.  We find something that only an Israeli or an older New Jersey driver would be experienced in navigating:  traffic circles!  As the day continues, we navigate many traffic circles, although none of them have the insane traffic volume that New Jersey used to offer.

 It’s also Rush Hour.  To best describe driving from Tel Aviv to Caesarea at rush hour, just think of trying to drive from Newark Airport to Long Island at our Rush Hour.  The roadways are bumper to bumper all the way from the airport to Tel Aviv, some six miles away.  We pass through Tel Aviv and pick up Route 2 on the other side of the city, where our car eventually finds enough space to reach highway speed.  As we reach that 100 km/hr speed, we approach Netanya, where the traffic bogs down again as that city’s rush hour empties commuters onto the highway. 

 The best comparison to driving up the Western side of Israel is driving in New Jersey along Route 80 near Hackensack.  One moment, there are high rise buildings along the highway.  After a mile passes, there are residential neighborhoods.  The biggest difference is that there are far more cars than trucks than you would see on Route 80.  The amount of urban and residential development is far beyond what I expected.  I, quite incorrectly, had a vision of Israel as a combination agricultural/cultural country.  It is very technologically advanced and modern.  That is until you drive another mile and pass a 2000 year old archeological site.

 So it goes until we reach Caesarea. 

 We check into the Dan Caesarea hotel, while I practice my Hebrew, greeting the parking lot attendant with a “Shalom” (Hello).  I’m getting by until he tells me I have to park my car.  I ask him “Afo?” (where.)  Then he tells me. 

 I didn’t have the slightest idea what he answered, but there was a nearby parking lot so I figured I’d go there.

 We quickly freshen up and head to the “old city” section of Caesarea, which was a Roman Port built around 50 CE (CE is pretty much the same as “AD,” it means Common Era.  If it was meant as BC, they’d say BCE for “Before Common Era.”) Caesarea is now a National Park.

 We park the car and walk across the street to the Port City.  We decide to take a quick walk and end up walking about half a mile into the city.  Caesarea must be several miles long, and it consists of Roman ruins, a fortress, and renovated areas that have been modernized into restaurants and gift shops.  Think of Fisherman’s Wharf in San Fransciso, except of course Caesarea is 2000 years old.

 I see a woman with a large video camera pointing it through a 2000 year old doorway to the see.  The camera is a Sony EX-1, not what your typical traveller carries.  There is a small crowd around her, and after a few seconds a bride and groom walk through the doorway and the crowd begins to applause.  Some of the crowd were dressed like wedding guests.  Others looked like tourists.  Then six women in matching white gowns follow through the doorway and begin singing an American wedding song.

 Everywhere we go, we encounter Israelis who speak English.  We make an effort to speak Hebrew, but with my limited vocabulary, about all I can do is say hello, thank you and occasionally read a sign.  Jodi is better at Hebrew than I am, and more comfortable trying to speak it.  In a “Dreidel shop,” the owner recommends a seaside restaurant nearby, so we head towards it.  We see several empty tables overlooking the Mediterranean, and settle into the “Port Grill” for dinner.  We sip wine as we watch the sunset – it is very beautiful.  For appetizers, we order “Sovereign Fillets on garlic claws,” from their Tapas menu.  The waiter describes it in broken English as being little fishes breaded and fried. 

 The fish is a mild thin fillet, it might have been sole, cut into tiny bite sized pieces, drenched in oil and deep fat fried. Served with a mildly spicy Dijon mayonnaise sauce.  I think.  Anyway, it was delicious.

 For our dinner, we get an “Israeli salad” and a Margarita pizza with mushrooms.  The Israeli salad is fantastic: diced cucumbers, tomatoes and greens, mixed in an olive oil and lemon juice dressing.  There are three small dolops of whipped Feta cheese which is delicious.  The pizza is your basic tomato sauce and mozzarella pizza, about 10 inches in diameter, but the dough tastes like brick oven dough, and the fresh herbs are fragrant and flavorful.   However, the salad was the highlight of dinner.  It was superb.  You definitely need to order local food when you travel or you’re missing out on one of the best benefits of traveling.

 We walk along the waterfront for a few more minutes, look in a jewelry gift shop, and find a gelato shop.  I look through the freezer window at the trays of gelato, and see a tray of white ice with bits of yellow in it, with the words “Lemon Sorbet” written phonetically in Hebrew.  I order my first food completely in Hebrew:  Lemon Sorbet.  Hey, at least I asked for a “Gadol” (large) cup.  Jodi asked for Capuccino and the server went to his coffee machine.  She called out, “Lo (no) – Capuccino gelato,” to which he said “Oh, you want ice-cream.”   As I said, it appears everyone in Israel speaks English.

 One thing of note:  I am trying very hard to listen to other customer’s ordering food, talking in restaurants and stores, trying to pick up words of Hebrew.  You know the old saying:  you learn more by listening than talking.

 We finish our delicious desert and since it’s already 10:00PM, we head back to the hotel.   I bid the parking lot “Boker Tov,” and as we walk into the door, I realize I’ve just wished him Good Morning.  Oh well, hopefully he got the idea.

 In the hotel, I’m warm and thirsty.  There doesn’t appear to be any vending machines or ice machines, so I call Room Service.  It starts simple enough.  The gentleman who answers the phone says “Erev Tov.”  That means good evening, so I’m okay so far.  Then he begins talking in Hebrew.  Audio CD’s is one thing – they talk slow.  Real people on the phone?  That’s another story.  But I have my Hebrew secret weapon:  “Atta Midabear Anglit?”  (Do you speak English?”)

 “Yeah.  What do you want?”   Sounds more like Brooklynese, and I’m at home.

 Room service brings up a bucket of ice and a bottle of Pelligrino.  I can’t read the receipt that I’m signing, for all I know I just gave him nine thousand dollars and my first born.  I search in my pocket for money for a tip.  Ten sheckels – that’s about $2.50.  How much tip is appropriate for a bucket of ice?  He says thank you and smiles, so I guess I did the right thing.

 We attacked the Pelligrino like we had been in the dessert for a week, which exactly where we’re going to be in a few days.  Note to self:  find a store and get some bottled water.  I can’t keep paying room service for water.

 It’s been a long day.  As I type this, it’s 1:00AM in Israel, that means it’s 7:00PM back home.  Have a good dinner everyone.

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