This should have been written way back in 1997 when I made the first trip abroad & visited 5 countries – Israel,Egypt,Cyprus,Greece & England.. I chose to travel El Al not only because it offered good connecting flights but because my heart was filled with love for the Jewish homeland & my mind full of all kinds of tosh thanks to Leon Uris/ the 6 day war/ raid on Entebbe etc etc.I was head over heels in love with the Holy land. This when I am neither a Christian, a Muslim or a Jew. A young girl working with the airline in Delhi had warned me to be prepared for a grilling at the airport & had advised reporting several hours in advance & to answer all questions truthfully. I was game for everything but nothing quite prepared me for what eventually followed.
May 1,1997. New Delhi airport: Seeing a lone woman from a third world country backpacking, the questions were like:
Are you travelling alone ? How come you are alone ? Who dropped you to the airport? Why not your husband? Where is he ? Who packed your bag? When did you pack it ? Has it been in front of your eyes ever since ? Are you carrying anything for anyone ? The lady you walked in with. What is her name ? How long have you known each other. Did you come to the airport together? The lady in question, my friend Denise was taken aside and asked the same questions by another member of the staff. The answers we learnt were later tallied & corroborated. I quite enjoyed the soap. Maybe because I was forewarned & knew what to expect. Still I thought it a bit paranoid.
Onboard the flight to Tel Aviv I was seated between an aged Israeli woman who had her handbag chained to her seat & who dozed off the moment the flight took off – sans water,food or drink. It was past midnight in any case. The gentleman to my right was a mid level Israeli official who made pleasant talk & who wanted to know why I was’nt flying my national airline ? Travelling to Israel it had to be El Al. For me it was an intrinsic part of the whole experience. In any case the thought of flying my national carrier had not occurred to me. Whatever for – if only to have butter chicken ? I then noticed that we were the only 2 non Israelis on that flight. When the plane landed at Ben Gurion the next morning all the passengers clapped & broke out into a loud cheer. ” That’s us Israelis” said the man next to me.” Everyone is clapping because we have landed safely “
‘Welcome to Israel’, read a placard held up by 2 El Al hostesses. It also had our names written on it. “Here are your food coupons. I’ll escort you to the rest lounge. You can keep your luggage here. Ask if you need anything.Your flight to Cairo is at 8 pm …..” Such efficiency.
But wait. “we don’t want to rest & lounge or use food coupons. We are tourists & want to spend the day at Jaffa before boarding the night flight to Cairo.” That you cannot, she insisted. And why not we asked. No you cannot. I can & I will & showed her the multi entry visa. “ Have a good day “ she murmured “but leave your luggage in our care. Otherwise you have to go through a luggage check with the whole procedure once again. “ God forbid !
May2,1997 We exit the airport terminal, look right & spot the bus stop mentioned in the travel guide, hop on to a bus going to Jaffa ( bus no: 495/ 4 shekels )recognize the sights along the way & count the stops getting off at the one after the clock tower. How easy & wonderful. No first time bumbling. Wonderful beginning. The sea is calm & inviting. The weather beautiful. There are art students sitting & sketching along the steps leading to the water front. Quite like a picture postcard. Perfect. With a lighthouse in the distance. The Mediterranean is clear & bluer than I had ever imagined it to be. We visit St Peters’ monastery, the museum of Antiquities & Andromedas fort. Munching a fresh tuna sandwich we take a walk along the beach & cobbled streets of the picturesque little port of Jaffa or Yafo as the Israelis would have it.
The same shit – another day
Athens May 15,1997 Forget the housework and come to Greece. I spent 9 awesome days here soaking in the atmosphere in a lazy /hazy kind of way Be it weather, food,wine,culture. Or people most of all. It was delightful in a hedonistic kind of way. And the Mediterranean It was ………the bluest of things blue.
In the midst of it was one onerous task to perform, which was to reconfirm our onward tickets to Tel Aviv – with El Al of course . And going by past experience the sooner this was done the better. The tourist information booth gave us a listing of all the airline offices and all except El Al had addresses on a prominent street in the heart of town. Theirs was in some dark secluded corner in a remote part of town. We located the building & laughed our way up on the lift for there was neither a sign nor a clue and when the lift halted which was in the middle of a nowhere kind of landing the doors remained locked & barred for quite a while before opening mysteriously. Facing us was a door that was electronically secured. After pressing the buzzer & a little bit of an exchange with somebody on the other side of the wall we were allowed to enter. Our tickets reconfirmed. Check in instructions reiterated. Everything is cold, courteous & efficient. There are cctv cameras around. Gawd ! our every move was watched. Wonder what they made of the laughter. This is paranoia at its worst ( especially if you remember it is pre 9/11)
May 19,1997 Athens We had a morning flight at 09.35 but knowing how hardnosed our favorite airline was decided not to take a chance but to arrive early for the Gestapo style of questioning & be over & done with so as to relax & enjoy a steaming hot mug of coffee. But it was not to be. El Als’ brochure should read : “ How to make enemies & lose friends”. The persons tasked for the questioning are complete ignoramuses. Persistence and courtesy – yes, but they lack both education & skill & act as if the whole world is out to get them.
So this time round my session lasts precisely 40 mins / no exaggeration .And it went like this:
What do you do ? I am a housewife
What does your husband do ? He is a colonel in the Indian army
What is the proof ? I show my defense I card – A lot of other cards spill out in the bargain.
He turned the ID card around. Misread it deliberately or perhaps by mistake and actually psyched me into believing it was long past the expiry date mentioned in the document. “ See See” he said showing the date of issue. (thank you Mr. Leon Uris ) This required some sorting out. And sorting out we did with frayed nerves & rising tempers. He couldn’t for the life of him figure out an Indian woman backpacking alone. He asked to see my other cards. This I pointed is my club card. ‘Club’, he repeated in consternation. Never mind I said. You won’t understand. Clubs are a hangover of our British past.
And whats that? This is my IYH card & this last is my Israeli embassy card I said hoping it would soften or impress him. I studied Hebrew for a year at the Israel embassy in New Delhi. It was to be part of the Israel experience. But the plot had gone so horribly wrong that it had completely the opposite effect. Mr. Smart looked foxed & got into a sudden panic. What other languages do you speak ? Hindi. English, Italian…I rattled off. He quickly broke into Italian leading to some banter Italian. He wanted to know why I was studying Hebrew. Why not Greek for instance. It’s just a language, for heaven’s sake. I will someday but for the present it is Hebrew. Totally exasperated by now I told him that I had had enough. The joke was over. It had carried on too long. Never again El Al
May 22,1997 Ex Tel Aviv. Flight to Heathrow London. Surprise Surprise. The airport encounter is friendly & nice. Must never be too judgmental The devil doth change. Or was it because this was a ‘departure’ ?
May 31,1997 Ex Heathrow to Tel Aviv for the final lap of the trip visiting Jerusalem once again. Also Ein Geidi & Massada. Reached the airport very early as usual around 1830 hrs. My bag got ripped open and by the time it was done with it was already 9pm & time to board the flight. My mistake was that I had allowed a young Israeli student who was the daughter of some high official to use half of my baggage trolley. I had a single rucksack & she several packages big & small. I did mention to her that I hoped there would not be a problem with the interrogators. She said not to worry. That she would manage. Which she did’nt. Landing me in a soup.
Is this entire luggage yours ? No (truthfully)
Whose is it then ? I tell them pointing at the girl
How long have you known each other ? We just met
Are you carrying any electronic items ? No ( with anger rising inside me )
Anything for anyone? No again ( more anger /some disgust)
Sorry but we have to check your bag. I am made to wait in a separate enclosure while they rip it apart inspecting each and every object. Mr efficient comes running back holding a tiny clock that I had bought in London. You lied he accuses. You said you had no electronic goods Which is the time I came to realize that there must be some difference between electronic & electrical that I was unaware of and told him so. He eyed me suspiciously asked where the battery was. What did I care. How was I to know. One uses stuff & changes battery when it is time to do so. I don’t know I said.. You don’t know. You don’t know he repeated in disbelief. How is it ? I don’t know. Now do what you can. And that was final. He came back holding a wrapping paper that had a design in the Hebrew script. Once again . You lied. You carried something for someone. What is this. I know nothing. And I don’t care. Now go to hell & do as you must. It’s sick. Sick Sick. And the dinner on the flight is lousy
June 3,1997 If I should forget thee O Jerusalem The stones of the buildings acquire a soft pinkish hue as the rays of the sun ascend & fall. And Ein Gedi. And Massada. Such beauty, grit & courage. But it’s time now to head home. Back to New Delhi India. It’s going to be hot this time of the year. But wait, wait, wait. I’m at the Ben Gurion airport & my rucksack is turned inside out and all my belongings put back together again. My crime ?
Which places did you visit ?
Jaffa.Jerusalem,Tiberias,Tel Aviv, Ein Gedi, Massada and…..Bethlehem
You visited Bethlehem also ?
Yes ( very very calmly)
On the flight back a pleasant Israeli official is seated next to me. He has visited my country several times and has kind words to say about it. He is eager to share my experience in his country. Well, the country is great I say, politely. And the people are lovely but I did not like travelling El Al. When I had finished narrating my experiences he had this to say :
“ As you know we are surrounded by enemies who will do anything to drive us into the sea. All this security is for your safety. You don’t know our enemies. Some years ago there was this incident of a British girl travelling to Israel on holiday. She was pregnant & like you she was travelling alone. She was questioned & cross examined just like you. She said her husband & she had panned this holiday together but she was travelling alone because of last minute changes. Her husband had business commitments and would be joining her later. Where did he work ? In Jordan. What nationality was he ? Jordanian. The officer requested the lady to wait while her luggage was checked. “ sorry but it will only take a while “ What did they discover in her bag ? A bomb – believe it or not – . The lady herself was not aware of it. She had been married 2 years & was pregnant. Her husband did this to her. So like I said the checking is for your own safety. Our enemies will stop at nothing “
sudha, absolutely absorbing.. i loved all your (asides)…. .. this is really fabulous. It’s a window into places I know I will never visit (maybe??) but so educational and such a human slant to it all. You see things with a very special lens… Keep these stories coming. Just loved them all. (Mela) Hope you put in more pictures in your future stories.