I have returned from the land of milk and honey and as I knew before I even left, I had an adventure. I don’t want to sound cliché, but it was one of, if not the most incredible places I’ve have ever been in my life. Throughout my time I kept a detailed journal, because I wanted to share with all of you my journey through a country that many of you haven’t been to. I also wanted to share my personal experience with those who have been to see help remind you how great Israel is.
Before I begin, I want to thank those who helped me along the journey through Israel. Sas (Rachel Saslove) and Sean (our American group leaders), Nadav (our incredible Israeli tour guide), David (our medic/security guy), the Israeli soldiers that joined up with the group, and last, but certainly not least, all of the participants on my trip. Throughout my story I will occasionally name these people where appropriate and other times I won’t. I hope to paint a picture for you of Israel that will make you want to jump onto a plane now and hit the road. Each entry in my blog will represent approximately one day. Traveling days on planes are kind of hard to quantify, so I just count them as one day.
Day 1: Airport to Airport to Airport
January 8th, 2012
I’m at the gate at Hartsfield, my first airport of the day. I’m fairly used to traveling alone, so sitting at the gate is a fairly normal experience. Today I’ve decided to really pay attention to what is around me so I can see and hear everything around me.
Airports in some ways are the most diverse places we ever see if you think about it. They are filled with business people, families, retirees, those who travel often, and those wish they did more, those traveling for pleasure and those returning home for a funeral. I considered myself at this point to be a 22-year old headed on a 10 day trip where’d I’ve have myself a little fun, ride a camel, and float in the Dead Sea, but then again, my expectations before this trip of things weren’t particularly lofty.
I look up from my seat at the fate and CNN is giving analysis of the GOP Primary (like we haven’t seen enough of this?). They showed all the candidates attacking each other at the debate from the previous day. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t slightly amused. For me, the GOP primaries are a lot like watching a political comedy version of Survivor. I’m hoping that a weak one wins, because I’d love another term from Obama….wait, isn’t this journal about Israel? Sorry about that…end political rant.
So my journey of that day will take me from that gate at Hartsfield to New York and then, from New York to Zurich, and finally from Zurich to Tel Aviv-Yaffo. To make sure that the flight goes by somewhat quickly, I’ve downloaded as many podcasts as I can from This American Life, to Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me to Planet Money, Car Talk, and etc. I also brought two books with me, both by Anthony Bourdain since I finally finished A Cook’s Tour. For my snacking pleasures, I brought Mike and Ikes and Starburst Flavored Jelly beans (the first time I haven’t bought them on clearance).
I finally get on the plane and it takes off at around 10 AM. Before getting on the plane, I notice a girl who I thought was Mallie. When I finally stood up, it became apparent that she wasn’t, since the girl was taller than me. I think it was just the hair and boots that were even kind of like Mallie, but I still found it entertaining. On the plane she sat down right in front of me and I wanted to tell her that she had the same hairstyle as my friend, but that would have just been bizarre.
On the plane from Atlanta to New York I listened to Wait Wait Don’t Tell me and learned that a mouse can be dissolved in Mountain Dew. Apparently Mountain Dew is more hardcore in that way than Coca Cola.
We finally land at JFK (not really finally, it was a fairly short flight). I get off the plane with my backpack, run to baggage claim and try to figure out my way around JFK. I’ve figured out at this point that I need to be at Terminal 4 and I am at Terminal 3. I run into a girl from some other trip that is looking for El Al, which is at the same Terminal, so we walk together to the AirTrain that connects Terminals, somehow navigate it after I ask a random guy how to get to 4.
After arriving at Terminal 4, we spend about fifteen minutes looking for our respective ticketing booths (Swiss Air for me and El Al for her) before we both realize that we are so early that neither of the ticketing booth is open yet. I post us up in front of the Swiss Air Ticket desk. It’s only about noon and neither of us were supposed to be there until 2 PM, but coming from Atlanta, this was the easiest flight to take without cutting it close.
After standing for a bit, we both notice a girl walking around in a shirt with Hebrew on it. I almost walk over to ask her if she is part of the trip, but don’t want to be that awkward guy (see acting like my dad).
After 15 or so minutes of wondering, she comes over and introduces herself. Jackie (not sure how she actually spells her first name, but I’m spelling it this way until I figure out otherwise) is only 19 and from Boise, Idaho. She’s spent the last month or two in tents as part of the Occupy Boise movement. This is finally an opportunity for me to complain about my general opinion that the Occupy Movement needs to hire a political communications firm (or several) and develop a unified voice.
She talks about being a vegetarian and her love for pizza when people donate it to the tent cities she’s been living in along with other occupiers. I honestly had no idea that Boise would have an Occupy movement.
After Jackie, I don’t remember the other people showed up, but slowly the group started to take up a good bit of space. Other travelers arrived together with siblings, with parents and not, but all waiting excitedly with tickets. Neither of our group leaders (Sas and Sean) were there quite yet when a guy from the New York Office instructed us to walk over to him so he could check us off and then go to the ticket booth with out passports so we could be ticketed and check our bags. There were forty of us, so I was a bit intimidated given that some people seemed to already know each other and I was that random guy that went to school in South Carolina while most people didn’t know my school even existed.
After everyone’s bags were checked, we all got nametags and headed over to a big open area where the representative from the Taglit Office could talk to us. Sas and Sean were there as the representative went over all of the rules. We all sat there wanting him to be done so that we could start our trip, despite the fact that it wasn’t quite 3 PM yet, and our flight wasn’t going to leave until 6 PM. After he was done talking, we all went down a floor to grab a bite to eat before getting on the plane, our first opportunity to bond together.
After wandering for a little, buying a deck of cards so a bunch of us would have something to do on the plane, I finally decided I had to just pick something for this kind of lunch meal. I settled on cafeteria Chinese Food. Probably not the nicest thing I could have done to my stomach, but I didn’t really care. Along with Mike and Will, two of the guys I was hanging out with, I ate my cafeteria General Tso’s chicken by the line for security.
Since we were at the international terminal, security was filled with people leaving groups and families to head off to wherever they were going. I could understand much of what people were saying, as they were speaking so many different languages, but they all seemed to be saying the same thing: Goodbye for now and I love you. I think Ira Glass should do a This American Life episode from just in front of security at major airports. I think it would show that not matter what culture we are, we seem to send each other off at the airport the same way. I don’t know anything of the stories of the people who were going through security while I ate my pseudo Chinese chicken, but they comforted me by reminding me how similar we all are.
After eating and some more wandering, it was finally time to go through security. There was a special line for families and handicap people. Right next to me when I was next was a family of around 8 that was also headed to Israel. They had about three children in strollers. All the kids were excited to go and the TSA Agent couldn’t help but smile at them. Right behind me was a woman who spoke broken English to me. She told me she was Palestinian, which I found fascinating. Had I not known, I would have thought she was any other Israeli person. Sadly, our conversation was fairly short since I had to get through security and join up with my newly made friends.
A bunch of us sat down by the gate with the deck of cards I had bought and played a couple games of BS. I won a couple games mostly thanks to Mike (thanks buddy!). We boarded the plane to Zurich and I was seated on an aisle (I would have been pissed had I had a middle seat). The plane was one of those really big Airbus Planes, I think it was an Airbus 320, but I don’t know much about planes. The coach section was made up of three columns, the first one with two seats, then an aisle, then the second column with 4 seats in the middle, then the other aisle and two seats again in the third column. The seats all had the little television screens. I think we all got about 15 minutes of amusement from just the remote alone, which had a keyboard on one side. I ended up watching about half of the movie Invictus until I just had to do something else. I need to finish that movie some day.
Now I remember in the past making obnoxious jokes about how bad the food was on planes, but the dinner they served us was just plain AWFUL. That is probably the only thing I didn’t like about the Swiss Air flights. This first dinner was chicken with couscous that had zero flavor. They thought it’d be funny to add some corn in to give it some crunch, but it even lacked that. There was a cold roll along with it, which I was more than happy to eat. The meal came with a kosher coffee creamer, which was parve. I’m not sure I want to know that is in Kosher coffee creamer.
With a long flight like this (it was 8 hours long), I had a lot of time to think. I really considered my internal dialogue and asked myself what road I was taking. That’s the question I’ve been asking myself constantly as graduation approaches us. To quote President Bartlett,”What’s next?”, is the major question in my head both on the flight and just constantly.
I started to think about the screenplay I am sort of writing for fun. On the plane, I was kicking myself for not having my computer, because I really wanted to work on it and I found some inspiration for the main female role in the play. I had already decided to name her Abilene, but various things at the airport helped me recognize ways to develop her better.
On the plane to Zurich, I didn’t sleep a wink. Everyone else was taking sleeping aids for the trip there and honestly, I now wish that I had thought to find one while in the states, because it would have made the flight go by far faster for me, but I had good company. Next to me on the flight to Zurich was a shy (at the time) girl named Sonya. Sonya got to be far less shy once we got to Israel. Next to Sonya was Iris, and next to Iris was Jackie.
We finally landed in Zurich and I had a headache. After getting off the plane and going through security again, I found a little bakery and bought a bottle of water. It ended up being $5! I would have gone to a water fountain, but I couldn’t find one. I took some Advil with a swig of water and so did Sonya.
After wandering around the airport for a little bit with Mike, we both decided to go find the bathroom. The bathroom in the Zurich airport smelled pretty awful and was a good joke of ours for a good little bit. From there, we both headed towards the gate, stopped in a Duty Free store, and then finally to the actual gate. There I finally opened my Mike and Ike’s, which led to the inevitable Mad TV jokes. We all laughed and ate some and talked and watched the sun rise.
We finally got onto the plane and the seat next to me was empty, then Sonya was next to that seat, and then some stranger was next to Sonya. We were both happy to put some of our stuff on the empty seat. I got an hour or two of sleep on the flight from Zurich to Tel Aviv thankfully, because some sleep was certainly better than none. We went to baggage claim with passports in hand, grabbed our bags, went through and said we were on birthright and waited for everyone else. Before we got on the bus, we put our bigger bags under the bus and grabbed cell phones for those of us who rented them. Mine was a mid-2000s slider phone made by Samsung, which made me realize there would be almost no Twitter for me on the trip, which turned out to be the best. Probably not kosher to Tweet from the Kotel, or at least so I thought, but I’ll get to that later.
On the bus, we met Nadav, our tour guide, David, our medic/security guard (we all seemed to forget that security would be open carrying a gun and some of us freaked out about this at first), and Yoav, our bus driver. From the airport, we headed straight towards the hotel so that we could have dinner and then after a few hours go to sleep. I was thankful on the bus when they announced roommates, because mine was one of the few people I got to talk to in the airport, Mark.
Dinner was kind of strange because we were all tired and all still kind of strangers. I had some strange kind of chicken breast thing, which at this point I assume must have been schnitzel. After dinner, Mark and me unpacked and I played around with my phone. We were both ready for bed pretty early since we both had really long days of traveling.