In the past, traveling to Israel always seemed like a strange concept to me. Why would anyone want to go to a place that is in the news every other week for people being blown up by a suicide bomber as they sip on a double espresso at their neighborhood coffee shop with dogs running around, babies in strollers and people just trying to enjoy life? It seemed like this was a normal phenomenon for Israelis. What I found was something that I was not expecting. However my trip to Israel didn't start in Israel, it started in Moscow…..
Moscow's Domodedovo Airport. My flight to Tel Aviv was on El Al Airlines, Israel's flagship airlines that flies all over the world. Since Israel probably has the most enemies outside of the USA, if not more, they have very tight security. Prior to getting to the check-in counter, your checked luggage must be x-ray, tagged, and only then you can approach the counter and get your boarding pass. After answering a series of questions such as why I was going to Israel, if I had family there, if I was a Jew or practicing any religion, I was cleared to get my bag screened. Once my pack was launched out the side of the x-ray machine, security personnel asked me to open every pocket in order to swab the insides. This was the familiar explosives swab that is performed at random in airports around the world. However this time the machine kicked out a non-descript red screen that flashed 'Contaminant' and 'TNT' with a series of numbers listed next to each. Immediately I knew I was in for it. I looked at my watch and was thankful that I was over 2 hours early. Let me be the first to say that when traveling to Israel from Russia, this is the last thing that you want to see flash across the screen. What followed was their supervisor bringing me to the 'back room' for further inspection. After being told to empty every single item out of both of my bags into 3 large plastic bins, I was asked to leave the room and wait outside for their inspection of my gear to be completed. For the first time flying on a commercial airliner, I was glad I didn't have my parachute. Once the full inspection was complete, and after I plugged in every electronic component that I had, which included 2 cell phones, camera battery charger and laptop, I was cleared to head to the gate. During the time of the inquisition, another of the staff had checked me in.
To the gate… After having every item I've been carrying for the past 4 months inspected thoroughly, my next boondoggle was the standard airport security check. Sending all metal items through the x-ray, I stepped through the metal detector and into the full body scanner. Turning 90 degrees to my right in order to match the footprints on the floor of the scanner, a technician instructed me to raise my arms above my head in three languages. Upon doing so, a large arm about 8 feet tall whipped across in front of me and behind me simultaneously. I was cleared to step forward. When I looked back at the screen I could see what looked like one of the screens from Total Recall, there was my body, as viewed through the eyes that don't lie. A full body image highlighting every bump and contour, not hiding anything at all and for all the world to see. What better way to see if someone is carrying something under their clothes. Once clear of airport security I had to traverse gate security. After answering a few questions and handing over my ticket, I was asked to come to their special room where I had to empty all of my pockets, take off my shoes, unbutton / zip my pants for a full inspection. A full body pat down and handheld metal detector was under way by a Ruski that in my opinion now owes me dinner! After sending my things through the x-ray that's at the gate all over again, I was finally allowed to rejoin the masses and board the aircraft. When we finally started to taxi out, I noticed that we were being followed by an El Al security vehicle that acted as an escort and was with us until we made the final turn onto the runway from the taxi way. I can honestly say that I've never felt safer on a flight.
Tel Aviv. Once clearing passport control without any stamps added to my passport, I walked out to see Uri's smiling face waiting for me. He picked me up in his Rav 4, one that was identical to the one he had in Boston. Off we went back to his place in town where I met Tali, his Fiancé that will be his wife on June 1st, and his 3 year old Boston Terrier, Bluto. They lived on a street that reminded of the Boulevard in Providence. There were always people walking, riding bikes and taking their dogs for a stroll. A few blocks down they even had a coffee shop in the middle that seemed to be crowded no matter what the time of day. Having a lot of work keeping him busy, Uri dropped me off with Yonatan and Ella. Once again on this trip, I've had the complete luck with timing as they just happened to be here visiting for a few weeks so that Yono could sort out his new Visa. I had arrived on Memorial Day in Israel. Everything was pretty much closed as they remembered those that have been lost over the years in the wars and other terrorist attacks. One of the things that they do is sound the warning sirens for one minute twice that day and everyone stops and takes a minute to remember friends and families less fortunate. Yonatan, Ella and I walked to the sidewalk overpass on the highway where we stood as the horn sounded. Cars in both directions stopped as their occupants stepped out and stood in the road to remember. I was a bit surreal to see traffic on a major road come to a complete halt as people stopped, stood and thought about friends they used to know.
The next day was Independence Day. Being a public holiday, everyone heads to the parks and cooks out while we went to Ram's house in Jaffa for a BBQ. Before getting to his house, Uri, Tali and I walked around the old port city of Jaffa. It was the first time I got to really see them as the couple that they are. After spending a week with them, I think it's safe to say that they've made a good match.
Wanting to see some of the sights in Israel, off we went to the Dead Sea. Uri told me that we were driving a little bit out of the way in order to avoid Jericho. I guess there had been some sniper activity in the past near that town so it was best to drive a little further and go the long way around. On the drive down and back, we saw 5 F-15 jets, 2 Blackhawk's and a CH-53 chopper. Remembering that the other side of the Dead Sea is actually Jordan, Uri told me that there were a couple of air bases down there which is why we saw so much activity.
The Dead Sea is actually the lowest point on earth not covered in ice. It's 1370 feet below sea level. While we were there, an F-15 went right over top at about 500 feet AGL. The thought of reading the altimeter in the cockpit and seeing negative 800 feet MSL in a fighter jet must be a unique experience. Having almost 9x the salinity than ocean water, the Dead Sea leaves your skin with an oily feel while you're in the water. It also makes you feel like you're floating on the water. It's something that's hard to believe for yourself until you experience it. You just lay back and you're floating. Nothing you can do will make you go under involuntarily. Just lay back and enjoy a book……..or lay on your stomach and you're still floating. I was doing barrel rolls on the surface and not sinking an inch! It's a very odd feeling to say the least. A bit of advice when you get out, make sure you thoroughly rinse off. If you miss a spot, you'll see it later as it will be all white with dried salt stuck to you.
My last day in Israel we spent at the dropzone. Who was I to say no??? After all, I was visiting 2 skydivers! Uri spoke to the chief instructor and he let me borrow his Katana 97 for 3 jumps. The scenery there is amazing as the DZ is across the tracks from the beach and right on the Mediterranean Sea. If you have a chance…..make some jumps there. A friendly DZ with 2 Caravans it was a nice place to visit!
I will come back to Israel one day as there is so much more to see. As I said to Uri, it far exceeded my expectations and seemed like it would be an amazing place to live. The way of life there in Tel Aviv was something that I hope to emulate else where once I find a place to land. In the mean time however I'm writing this as I sit on the rooftop of the Seven Hills Hotel in Istanbul, Turkey looking out over the city at the Blue Mosque only a few hundred feet to my right and the ocean a few hundred feet to my left. In a few hours I will be seeing a friend I haven't seen in about 10 years and we plan on traveling eastern Europe together. With no set itinerary and only a flight out of Prague…..who knows what path we'll choose…..