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When the first rock hit the windshield I was surprised. When the second hit I was terrified. I’d experienced situations like this on television; anxious protagonists pursued by crowds through cramped, white-washed, laundry-draped streets. But that was Hollywood, the stuff of fiction; something you’d pay ten dollars for to entertain yourself on a Saturday afternoon; a thrill ride of virtual terror accompanied by a soda and a tub of popcorn. Not so much on that street in Nablus. There was I, having arrived in the country less than an hour previous, with nothing on my mind but sleep, embroiled in civil unrest.
The flight to Tel Aviv from Washington had been long, nearly eleven hours. I’d watched everything they’d provided, read my magazines and eaten the obligatory meals.
Fish or beef?” The litany of the stewards, as they struggled to push trolleys through an aircraft filled with restless people, anxious for their journey to end. The worst part of traveling, as every experienced back-packer will tell you, is traveling itself. The airports, the delays, the flights, the inconsideration all of those who don’t give a fig about your odyssey, amount to an extremely unpleasant experience. Gulled by glossy brochures, and photo shopped web-sites the average traveler has nothing on his mind but sun, sand, sea and a week away from the boss. The magazines never mentioned the overcrowding of cattle-class, or the flatulence of my new best friend who, slightly larger in the waist than most, was spilling into my seat.
A week in Israel, how bad could it be? A final jaunt on the boss’s dime before I handed in my notice and went off to college. Having been with the company for a little over seven years, I deserved it. Heck they owed me! Of course I’d been to Israel before and so knew what to expect. I’d been promised top-notch accommodation at the King David, a very select hotel in the center of the beach-side tourist district of Tel Aviv. I’d booked the room the previous week and even though I wasn’t paying, had nearly choked on the price of $375 dollars a night. I had of course informed the boss who’d simply waved a hand telling me not to worry about it, as he smudged his signature onto my travel permission request.
“Israel is expensive. You know that?” he’d asked. Of course I knew that, but the best part of $400 a night, in a hotel frequented by the likes of Madonna and the rest of the pop-erazzi seemed excessive, especially when the same man would usually quibble over per-diem expenses.
The purpose of the journey was to support colleagues struggling with a project; my allocation was for a seven days jaunt to Israel. As per usual everything was covered, accommodation, travel, food and this time, thanks to previous visits, I actually knew some people who lived in the country and so the acceptance of an invitation to somebodies back yard to eat grilled meat and choke down a few cold beers was inevitable. I wasn’t excited, more resigned. I had to go.
C’est la vie! I kicked the wife, stroked the dog, and bid my children farewell. “Off to the Holy Land — see you in a week.”
Arriving at Tel-Aviv airport I should have recognized the signs. Normally the place is bustling, with soldiers and uniformed officials, merchants and fellow tourists; a melting pot of travelers and returners, a hive of industry – but not today. Getting off the plane we were met by the usual brown-uniformed, machine gun toting conscript. On previous visits we’d been collected by bus, and ushered into a receiving area where passports were checked and questions asked. The Israelis, for obvious reasons, take their security seriously, and so it’s not unusual to face a barrage of questions that can go on for at least half an hour. I know, I‘ve had to endure the inundation of where-are-you-goings and who-are-you-staying withs. Questions repeated over and over again, until one becomes so exasperated, one is willing to divulge the inner most secrets of the heart to receive a release and one’s passport returned from some dead-pan official’s sweaty palm — but not today.
I walked through the corridors of an airport bereft of people. An old Arab, pushing broom, nodded to me which was more recognition than the half- asleep passport official gave, who just waved me through. “What no questions?” I carried on, I knew where I was going, off to the rental car agency on the other side of the reception hall. Stepping outside into sticky humidity I mounted the escalator and whisked myself above the road to the office where Hertz keeps their brightest. A dower faced man in a crumpled suit who looked over my paper work, threw me a set of keys and pointed to the vehicle.
“You fill up,” he said.
“What?” I asked.
“When you return, car is full. Gas!” Exasperated, he threw his hands into the air.
Nothing like customer service, and believe me fellow would-be travelers, outside of the good old U.S. of A there is nothing like customer service. Non-committal platitudes of, “Have a nice day,” and, “did you enjoy your stay?” Is anathema to all, but the 320 million who reside within America’s purple mountained majesty.
Bags in the car, engine started, and map open on the front seat, I’m good to go. Haifa is about thirty minutes up the coast road, an old crusader town that has been inundated by Palestinians, Arabs, British, French, and more recently with German tourists. I gunned the engine, turned the wheel and squealed the tires of the rent-a-wreck out of the garage, and into the Mediterranean sunshine. Following directions I’d printed out, I simply pointed my nose, headed north along the E1, the main drag that goes from North to South along the coast; a pleasant drive with the Mediterranean on one side of me and the olive groves, and brown hills on the other. Nice enough, but a typical sand blown, fly bitten, Mediterranean country. Honestly, when you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. Sure the cultures are different, but there is always a vista of unfinished grey concrete, lack of air conditioning and a pervasive smell of inner city garbage.
The soldier at the checkpoint insisted something unintelligible and pointed to a road that diverted from the main drag. Instead of heading north I was now heading away from the sea in an easterly direction. With a dust plume reflected in my rear-view I drove for the best part of twenty minutes until I came to the town the soldier had indicated, and turned left. A pretty little village, the type you’ve seen on picture postcards, and posters welcoming one to Israel. The sort of place you want to get out of your car, walk around, meet the locals, and enjoy a glass of the local brew and perhaps some of that lamb you’ve imagined being turned slowly on a spit. To be honest I really thought my vacation was just beginning, an experience I was looking forward to having.
I saw my first Hasidic Jew just ahead of me, a gentleman dressed in traditional garb; black flowing clothes and an oversized, wide-brimmed hat. He waived at me and I waved back. Friendlies obviously, and in complete ignorance drove on, rounded the corner, and came face to face with the parade.
The smack from the rock instantly evaporated my reverie; the crack, spider webbing across the glass, urging me to rethink my touristic plans. The second rock bounced off the hood, before ricocheting into the wind screen, leaving a large, dull, opaque smudge, right in front of my eyes. Understanding immediately the urgency of the situation, I slammed the vehicle into reverse and raced back from whence I’d come. The old Jewish man still stood on the corner, but now instead of waving, he was pointing. I guess some things just don’t translate well, and did my best to grimace through broken glass, before returning to the main road.
Unbeknownst to me I had landed in Israel on Haditha, a deeply religious festival that celebrates some pertinent event enjoyed by fundamentalist Jews. A national holiday also, which accounts for the ghost town of an airport I’d just walked through and the couldn’t-care-less attitude of the renter-car agent. The only idiot that didn’t know anything about it was me. Clearly I hadn’t done my research, and with a comfortable hotel room on my mind, had stumbled into the middle of one of the local festivals. Luckily for me, and with innate Indiana Jones dexterity, had extricated myself with consummate precision.
I recommend going to Israel if you’ve never been; the high country to the North is probably the most picturesque you will ever see, the people relaxed and friendly. Just don’t go there on Haditha. Like me, you may just get more than you budgeted for.