Monday, July 14, 2014

Rockets and Roaches and Beaches

It occurred to me (aka several people said I had to) that perhaps I should write about the experience I just had as an American resident traveling in Israel this past week.  As background, note that this 10 day trip outside of the US would be the longest solo trip this single mom has taken since...well....momhood, and with visits to three countries planned in 10 days the idea was to get away and have a little adventure.

I sure got it.

The trip started inauspiciously enough.  After a lovely day spent in Amsterdam (shout out to the fabulous Mieke, who gave an entire free day to show a total stranger around her city) but two nights of flying and no sleep, I was hoping for a relaxing first couple of days enjoying Shabbat meals with family and close family friends.  Instead I got my iphone stolen in shuk hacarmel, no new phone since everything was closing for Shabbat, spotty wi-fi that worked maybe 15% of the time at best, no air conditioning, single-ply toilet paper, and I had to kill a giant tropical flying cockroach all by myself in the "shower".  Yep, I was back in Israel!   

A few days later after overcoming the dreaded "stomach day" I experience once each visit, I was rewarded for the literal buckets of sweat with an upgrade at a lovely hotel where I had finagled three free nights.  I enjoyed the sea view immensely while eating my free chocolates.  The chocolates are the most important part of the story, people.   

A gorgeous view of my favorite beach
I had one tough but exciting day ahead, and the reward for this day was a relaxing day at the beach.  So I set my alarm for 4:45am and proceeded to get to the local airport by 5:30 to catch a short flight to Eilat.  Two hours later, I was crossing the border into Jordan, right about the same time that Israel and Hamas  went to war.  Of course, I didn't know this at the time.  What I did know was that the old Israeli man driving me to the border yelled at me in Hebrew (", listen to me young lady very carefully.  You don't speak a word of Hebrew, understand! Not a word!")  I nodded in stunned submission.  

Right after that, I was attempting to take a selfie at the border (I mean really, people, would you expect any less?) only to get yelled at by one of the men working on the Jordanian side of the border.  "Put that away! Do you want us to think it's a weapon!".  I complied, feeling a little nervous now.  Why was everyone so on edge?  Once we crossed the border and I realized our little group of five had an entourage of a driver, "tour guide" and an armed guard from the Jordanian police to accompany us on our three hour drive each way through the empty Arab desert, I started to get more than a little nervous.  I sucked it up, knowing that a great day was ahead.

And a great day it was.  I went to Petra, one of the wonders of the world, and thanks to my stupidity brilliant planning I practically had the place to myself.  You'd think after I'd heard the sentence "Normally we have 2-3 thousand visitors a day here, but today only about 100!" that would have finally tipped me off to what was going on, but nope, nothing but blissful ignorance here. 

Me and my ignorant Jew-girl ass, stupidly traipsing 'round
an Arab country as war breaks out in Israel.  Ah, good times. 
12 hours later, having had no access to wi-fi the whole time, I crossed the border back into Israel only to receive more than a few frantic emails, WhatsApp texts, and Facebook messages.   Whoopsie.

At that point, all I could think about was the nice long warm shower I was going to take back at the hotel to wash all the dirt, dust, and sweat off from my long hike in the desert heat. This was to be followed by a lovely night's sleep in air conditioning and clean, bug-free sheets.  Silly me.

Reality had me taking about a two minute shower because I was alone and terrified I wouldn't hear the air raid siren going off in there (sorry to disappoint you single peeps but apparently the threat of air raid sirens leads to unshaved heard it here first).  The lovely sleep I had imagined was ruined for the same reason (what if I don't wake up the first 90 seconds?!).  So I stayed up, cursing the irony of not enjoying the luxury hotel I had so brilliantly procured for myself.  Here I must pause to give a shoutout to a good friend back in New York who patiently played words with friends with me to distract me all night, and to another friend who stayed on WhatsApp, enduring the battery drain and my nerves and reassuring me I'd hear the siren.  Eventually, my all-too-human body gave out after days of no sleep, constant adrenaline, and a rather strenuous hike, and I passed out around 6am.

Two hours later I awoke to the unmistakable sound of an air raid siren. Fortunately, like many people in Tel Aviv that night, I was sleeping fully clothed and at the ready to walk to the door, grab my bag, and head to the shelter in the 90 seconds I supposedly had.  I was shocked by how calmly I was able to do this so must give a shoutout to the hotel staff who spent hours the day before making sure every guest knew where the shelters were and what to do.  After a while, they sounded the all clear at which point clearly the only option was to go to the rather empty beach, where I engaged in my usual ritual of choosing a chair/umbrella closest based on proximity to the sea a shelter.  Wait a minute, that doesn't sound usual at all.....

I particularly enjoyed the directions I received on how to crouch down on the floor and cover my head if I can't make it in time and found myself wondering how I made it twenty-nine years (stop snickering) without knowing this very useful tidbit.   At this point, I decided to pretend I hadn't spent the night before up like a pathetic little scaredy-cat, and assumed an air of bravada.  FUCK THE ROCKETS!  I was going to enjoy my day, dammit!  Beach it was, so what if it was empty?  I was even going to go swimming!! Take that, terrorists! 

After chatting with other Americans on the beach of all ages (Toronto! DC! Boston!) and engaging in the requisite "so where were you when you heard the sirens" traveler convo, I began to relax and worry about the greater and more real threat of jellyfish stinging others near me in the water and the Middle Eastern noon sun turning my back a shade of pink I've not yet seen.  Then after a swim I went out to a lovely breakfast, all the while making sure I knew where the shelter was, just in case.

I missed a visit to my first cousin, who was stuck home with her kids for days because their camp/day care was closed due to insufficient shelter in those places. Sadly it was also decided the train I'd need to take to get there wasn't the best idea.  At that point, I had to figure out what to do that afternoon.

After much debate with family, fellow travelers, and hotel staff about which city is safer ("Jerusalem! Tel Aviv! Jerusalem! Tel Aviv!"), I decided to check out of my lovely free hotel in lieu of not having to worry about not hearing the siren if showering or sleeping alone. The calculation process was very interesting as people weighed the risk of rocket attack (lower in Jerusalem) vs the risk of riots or suicide bombs (lower in Tel Aviv).  While this seems a dangerously inexact science to me, somehow Jerusalem came out on top.  So I checked out of the hotel and headed to my friends' place where, I was told, I should relax and enjoy Jerusalem.  

You long as I didn't go anywhere crowded like the old city where I wanted to go.  And as long as I didn't go to any holy sites where riots might break out.  And as long as I stayed off buses.  And as long as I stayed away from buses while walking.  And as long as I didn't walk around by myself too much.  And as long as I didn't take transportation except to Jerusalem and to the airport so that I could get to shelter in 90 seconds if I need to.   And as long as I made sure that I asked for a Jewish cab driver.  And as long as I cancelled the sunrise hike I had planned at Masada along with requisite visit to the Dead Sea.  

Now all this kind of threw a kink into things, but I decided to focus on the silver lining.  My Hebrew was getting much better!  I now knew the Hebrew words for "rocket", "siren", "iron dome", "bomb shelter" and "safe room"!

That night, after hearing the post-evening meal fireworks that accompany staying in Jerusalem during Ramadan, the streets were eerily quiet.  This allowed all three of us to jump at every motorcycle rev, every ambulance siren, and every icemaker gearing up, thinking it was a siren.  Fortunately the real siren didn't come until the next afternoon, but in the quiet dark, everything sounded like one.  Stop laughing.  I already told you I was a scaredy-cat in the dark.

Israelis running inside during the air raid siren, calling loved ones
Of course, in daytime, everything was much less scary, even as we ran for cover inside the Aroma, looking through the window to see Iron Dome intercept the rockets right over our heads and hearing the loud BOOM! right above us.  

Iron Dome intercepting a rocket.  Thank you, Iron Dome!
Photo taken by....someone across the street. 
That night I ate, drank, and made merry with new friends, and the next morning two of us went right back to that cafe to have a lovely breakfast as a giant fuck-you to the terrorists.  Also, we were hungry.

Reality later hit home as I enjoyed a Shabbat picnic dinner in a local playground with a few families but had to look for the bomb shelter first.  The kids were then all told "if you hear the siren, here's where you go quickly and quietly" and had to confirm understanding before they could play.  But then they played, seemingly without a care.

Of course, the terrorists had the last laugh as they chose the morning before my flight to threaten to hit the airport, and strongly advise foreign airlines to stop flying.  The 31 bomb shelter signs I counted in the very empty airport (many visitors had already left) between check in and gate suggested that people kinda took that seriously.  The fighter jets accompanying our plane out of the airspace as we took off kinda supported that theory too.

All of this brings me to one very important question.  Was I better off with the heat and cockroaches but without rockets? You tell me.  All I can say is that I only screamed out loud at one of those things, and it wasn't the rockets.  DON'T JUDGE ME!!!!

Meanwhile, I'd be remiss not to point out the real tragedy that occurred during this time.  That's right, my beloved Crumbs was going out of business, shutting down all stores effective immediately.  You didn't think I'd let that one just slip by, did you?  And if you don't understand the gravity of that situation, well....clearly you've never had a s'mores cupcake. 

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