While my arrival to Israel was remarkably pleasant, I remember hearing horror stories of travelers being detained and questioned for hours on end by the Israeli border officials. Given Israel’s location and checkered history, I understand the necessity for these this kind of security measures, but I was terrified being single man traveling alone with no solid plans would throw up a few red flags. I can’t stress this enough, not a single person I’ve encountered thus far on my trip has ever said anything good about their experience crossing the border into Israel. In fact, several people (and even web sites) said that if you don’t get detained at the border for at least 2 hours, you haven’t had the “true” Israeli experience.
And I thought we have it bad in the US.
Fearing the worst, I made up an imaginary itinerary back in Antalya and memorized it on the off chance I was questioned. While I'm just your run-of-the-mill tourist with nothing to hide, I was prepared to sit in a windowless room for a few hours as a bunch of border official interrogated me like the Joker in The Dark Night. I vividly recall getting off the plane thinking, “If I make it out of this airport in under three hours I’ll consider it a resounding success." I braced myself, and when the doors to the plane opened I sprinted through the maze of glass corridors to the passport control checkpoint. The enormous room was a madhouse packed with travelers; I’ve seen electronic music concerts with fewer people! With that said, thanks to my experience with music festivals like Ultra, I was the only one at the checkpoint not complaining about the heat, the rampant smell of BO, or crowds of people.
I was just happy everyone was wearing sleeves, not perspiring uncontrollably, and not jumping around.
I waited in the eclectic crowd of foreigners for the better part of an hour until I made it to the front - this was the moment of truth. Thanks to the enormous backlog of unhappy travelers, the guards were letting people through without much issue. I approached one of the booths and, in a surprising turn of events, the guard asked a few standard questions about my trip, printed my visa, and waved me through. After all the terrible stories, not a single one of them came true! The entire experience (sans the wait in line) was a grand total of 2 minutes!
Try as I might, I could not control the grin on my face as I left the security desk. I was prepared to spend three hours being questioned, but the whole thing was basically just a long wait in line! I hit the jackpot! I now have a bonus three hours of my life to do whatever I want!
O, dear sweet precious time. I have been given a gift, a gem, a second chance!
I nearly skipped through the baggage claim as I went down to the train station below the airport to catch my ride into Tel Aviv, but when I arrived the lights in the entrance were off and nobody was manning the ticket counter. In fact, there wasn’t a single living soul around, the turnstiles were disabled, and the escalators turned off. What on earth was going on? The train is the only cheap way to get into town… my only other option is to pay 150 shekels (~$38) for a taxi!
Just for the record, Israel has the best name for a currency ever… it just rolls off the tongue… shekel, shekel, shekel. Even the symbol (₪) is cool!
"Hey you there my good man, a 1,000 shekels for your horse!"
I walked around the terminal trying to figure out what was the delay with the train and I realized the error of my ways - I didn’t account for Shabbat. For those of you who are unfamiliar, Shabbat is the Jewish day of rest where observing Jews are required to abstain from a laundry list of things they consider “work.” My personal favorite is that on this day Jews following Shabbat are not allowed to operate electrical devices as it is considered “creating fire” which is strictly forbidden. Since Jews in Israel take their Shabbat seriously, from Friday night through to Saturday evening many businesses in town close… including the train from Ben Gurion airport to Tel Aviv. I inquired at the information desk and the first train wasn't scheduled to depart until 7:30 pm. I glanced down at my watch and the time read 4:30 pm.
%&@#! There go my three bonus hours! That was a short-lived victory.
...I guess it’s still better than being questioned by border officials - I’ll consider it a win.
Whatever the reason, I can already tell you this whole Shabbat thing is going to come back to bite me. It’s been months since I last dealt with an episode of “forced savings” like back in Valencia, but it looks like I am going to have some issues here in Israel. I'm hoping the reminder I set on my phone works so I don’t end up starving every Friday night, but since my other repeating reminders like “Take a bath” and “Do Laundry” haven’t seemed to influence my routines, I don't know how effective it will be.
I’m a child.
Even though things didn’t go quite as I expected (or rather exactly as I expected) my arrival to Israel couldn’t have been better. Eventually 7:30 pm came around, I boarded my train and made my way through the dark, damp, graffiti-laden streets of Tel Aviv to my hostel unscathed. The hostel, called Overstay, is the stereotypical backpacker hostel that can best be described as “indoor camping.” It has all the amenities a backpacker needs. Coupled with the laidback people, hippy atmosphere, and graffitied building all combine to make an authentic, low-budget hostel experience. I can’t wait to see how the rest of my trip to Israel pans out, but I have to say it definitely started on the right foot.
I can’t believe I’m officially in the Middle East!