The Harris Post from Israel
It’s all very well knowing intellectually that Israel is a long way away from Perth, but it takes the physical experience of the journey to help comprehend just how far away it is. I’d learnt in the past week that Israel fits into Tasmania three times, so it had to be a really tiny country, considering the size of Tassie – a little dot on the bottom right-hand side of the map of Australia. But then I also read that my own homeland of Wales has almost the same area as Israel, which confused me no end. When you’re there, Wales feels like quite a large country – would Israel feel the same, albeit longer and thinner?
With that in mind, I arrived very early at Perth airport, for my first flight to Kuala Lumpur. It had been suggested on the radio in the week preceding my journey that arriving really early would help prevent queues and allow a delicious and relaxing lunch before boarding the plane. I liked that idea. It turned out to be a good idea in theory, but the execution failed. Despite arriving three and a half hours before my flight, I still had to queue for an hour to check in my suitcase and when I’d navigated my way through the various checkpoints and X-ray machines, it turned out that all the places I’d imagined I’d sit down for that lunch were closed. Seriously. The airport was dead – three flights to Bali and three others were all that featured on the departures board for the rest of the day. People were wandering around looking confused (it wasn’t just me) and obviously in a similar position of hunger. Eventually, I found one bar serving food but by then I’d lost the urge to join another queue and I settled for an extortionately priced $9 egg and lettuce sandwich from the fridge in the book shop.
The lengthy wait to board the plane was made much more pleasant by the unexpected meeting up with a colleague from a previous school, setting off with his family home to Wales for the three-week winter break. For me, a large part of the pleasure of travelling is hearing different people’s stories, so it was good to catch up on mutual friends and what they had been up to. Other stories I enjoyed whilst chatting to fellow travellers during the day included a man taking a trip home to Prague to visit his ill mother and a woman taking her little girl to spend time with her grandparents in Malaysia, which COVID had prevented for a while. Another woman from New Zealand was taking her mother to Copenhagen for the first time and another man was travelling to Eastern Europe to finally be reunited with his family, now that work permitted it.
The flight to Malaysia was uneventful; the airport itself was a little chaotic, as a small group of us from Perth had boarding passes or luggage tickets that somehow didn’t compute with their system and it took a while to sort this out. The staff struggled with the fact that I was travelling alone, and several times asked me “How many in your party?”, shaking their heads and repeating the question more loudly for the foreigner when I replied “One – just me!”.
Watching films you’ve missed or have never heard of is a great advantage of air travel, and if you’re rubbish at sleeping, the movies available on the flights can help while away the hours. I enjoyed ‘Upside’ (a rich quadriplegic hires Kevin Hart to look after him), ‘King Richard’ (about the upbringing of Venus and Serena Williams) and ‘Heart of Champions’, the story of the transformation of a college rowing team. I decided that a rowing team is not a realistic prospect for Carmel, given our lack of a conveniently placed river on the campus. I even managed to squeeze in a viewing of ‘West Side Story’, which I made much quicker by fast-forwarding through the dancing scenes.
I’m generally cold. I find aeroplanes particularly chilly and I had dressed accordingly, with numerous layers of clothing to prevent hypothermia. Istanbul airport was the first time that some of the many layers had to come off. I’m not sure whether the temperature was that much higher or whether it was just more humid or perhaps it was merely due to the lengthy walk from disembarking the plane to finding the international transfer desk to get the last boarding pass of the day to walking at least 3km to the distant departure lounge, but it was definitely hot and sweaty.
Istanbul airport itself was impressive – huge and brightly lit and full of all the posh shops you’d expect. The shops were also open – take note, Perth. There were nap zones where you could lie down for a quick snooze, a huge variety of tasty looking foods and very clean, shiny floors. Some of the large plants turned out to be disappointingly plastic once I’d put my glasses back on, but the recycling bins pleasingly classified our waste into numerous categories and I decided that this was my favourite airport of the trip so far. I was particularly impressed by the ingenious method adopted by one man who was cleaning the glass side panels of the travelators by kneeling down holding a wet sponge in one hand and a squeegee in the other, letting the moving staircase do the work. Judging by his grin, he had impressed himself, too.
The final leg of the journey was from Istanbul to Tel Aviv and a good time to catch up on the last few weeks’ issues of the Maccabean that I had guiltily not had time to read. I was lucky enough to have three seats in a row all to myself (a shame this hadn’t happened on the ten-hour flight) and I spread out and took advantage of it. I enjoyed another breakfast of cheeses and olives and salty little bits of cucumber and tomato. I’m not sure whether this constitutes a Turkish or Israeli breakfast, but I could very easily get used to it.
Once the luggage arrived on the carousel, Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv was quick, efficient and involved no queuing whatsoever. I had been prepared to provide lengthy justifications of my visit to Israel, but surprisingly nothing was required, and we walked through customs in minutes. Shabbat in Israel meant that no public transport was available, but I found a friendly taxi driver who dropped me at my hotel to drop off my suitcase before starting to explore.
It felt strange putting sunscreen on again, but brilliant to get out into Tel Aviv and so good to be warm. I headed straight to the beach where I walked for ages, people watching and enjoying the summer temperature. There were so many people squished onto the sand – I don’t think I’d ever imagined that you could fit that many beach umbrellas and deck chairs into an area that size. Lots of activities going on, too – swingball, beach volleyball, soccer and a preponderance of men exercising very publicly and competitively and sweatily. Tel Aviv is the cosmopolitan and secular heart of Israel, so I appreciate that this, my first Shabbat experience will be less observant and traditional than I am likely to experience elsewhere in Israel, having said that it was a memorable Shabbat indeed. All along the beach were large groups of people swimming directly next to the ‘Swimming prohibited’ signs, which was interesting. Lots of people of all shapes and sizes and ages as well as many, many dogs walking along the pavement – all looking well cared for and generally of the small, fluffy type.
I could hear mynah birds in the palm trees and see house sparrows hopping around picking up crumbs; after a paddle in the remarkably tepid sea, I lay down on the sand in the shade and made the most of a good, warm snooze. It felt as though my trip to Israel really had begun.
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