Israel 2015: March 7-8: The journey there

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On board a CRJ-700, the first leg of the trip

Now the Lord had said unto Abram, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father's house, unto a land that I will shew thee: And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing: And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed. So Abram departed, as the Lord had spoken unto him; and Lot went with him: and Abram was seventy and five years old when he departed out of Haran. And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother's son, and all their substance that they had gathered, and the souls that they had gotten in Haran; and they went forth to go into the land of Canaan; and into the land of Canaan they came.

Then spake Joshua to the LORD in the day when the LORD delivered up the Amorites before the children of Israel, and he said in the sight of Israel, Sun, stand thou still upon Gibeon; and thou, Moon, in the valley of Ajalon. And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the people had avenged themselves upon their enemies. Is not this written in the book of Jasher? So the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and hasted not to go down about a whole day. And there was no day like that before it or after it, that the LORD hearkened unto the voice of a man: for the LORD fought for Israel.

And it came to pass, as Peter passed throughout all quarters, he came down also to the saints which dwelt at Lydda. And there he found a certain man named Aeneas, which had kept his bed eight years, and was sick of the palsy. And Peter said unto him, Aeneas, Jesus Christ maketh thee whole: arise, and make thy bed. And he arose immediately.

Lod (לוד): Population: 71,060. Election results: Likud 32.77%, Joint Arab List 16.15%, Israel Our Home 10.30%. By group: Nationalist parties 62%, Arab parties 17%, Leftist parties 13%, religious parties 7%.
Beersheba (בְּאֵר שֶׁבַע): Population: 197,270. Election results: Likud 37.69%, Zionist Camp 12.24%, Israel Our Home 12.06%. By group: Nationalist parties 70%, Leftist parties 21%, religious parties 7%, Arab parties 1%.

It doesn't seem to matter how early we start to plan and pack, we can't seem to avoid the last-minute scramble before a trip. The morning of our March 7 departure included a 2 a.m. run to Walgreens for a few items, a visit to the ATM and the post office (to mail some get-well cards), and an unsuccessful attempt at getting the accumulated grit and grime of winter washed off of the car. (March 6 was the first really nice day in weeks, and it seemed like every car wash ran out of soap that day.) I got about a one-hour nap before I got up, got myself ready, then got everyone else up. My mom and dad came by, bringing Whataburger sausage biscuits and coffee and both of their vehicles (the Avalon and the Santamobile) to help get the five of us and all of our stuff to the airport. We weighed bags and rearranged and jettisoned. I shooed everyone out the door and ran through my checklist for closing up the house.

Because of my last-minute re-re-check, we were a few minutes late for our 8:30 am rendezvous with the rest of the tour group, but not the last ones there, and still with plenty of time to check in and get to the flight.

Twenty-two of us started the trip in Tulsa, six more joined us in Chicago, and two flew directly from Philadelphia to Tel Aviv, for a grand total of 30. The trip is officially for juniors and seniors, with the Israel trip alternating with a northeast U. S. history tour that covers Boston, Williamsburg, and everywhere in between. This trip had two current teachers, four seniors (including our oldest), two juniors and a freshman (our middle kid) from the school, two homeschool juniors / seniors (whose older siblings had taken the trip as ACA students in previous years), and a homeschool third-grader (our youngest). One of the teachers brought along her two adult children. Two sets of parents and a mom came along with their kids. Two recent alums, a brother and sister, came with their parents, an older brother and his wife, and a college friend. The retired school administrator and his wife, who organized the tour, and their close friends, a couple from Chicago, rounded out our group.

I don't know the ages of everyone, but I think it's fair to say that 13 of the 30 are eligible for AARP membership.

We all tied yellow ribbons to our suitcase handles, to make it easier for anyone in the group to spot a stray piece of luggage and make sure it didn't get left behind.

We said our goodbyes -- Mom waved until we were through security and out of sight down the hallway.

At 11 am, our United Express CRJ left for Chicago, arriving at 12:50. We had four hours until our next flight. We found our new gate (same concourse, thankfully) and then found some lunch at the airport branch of the legendary Billy Goat Tavern, where we enjoyed our last cheezborger-cheezborgers for the next two weeks.

Billy Goat Tavern, O'Hare Airport, Chicago

As we still had some time before we were due to regroup, I insisted we make a little pilgrimage to a site of some significance in the early days of our family. For 12 years, my wife worked for American Airlines Sabre reservations system, providing technical support over the phone to travel agencies. We did a fair amount of space-available travel, and our firstborn got his wings very early in life. We often flew through ORD, because the flights tended to have more space than flights to DFW. It was at ORD, on the back of a parked electric cart, that my eight-month-old son first pulled himself up to a standing position. When he was older, he would work the lounge while we waited, saying hello to the other passengers and sharing a joke or an interesting fact about animals. My Travelpro roll-aboard was the perfect height for a ticket counter, and the raised handle made a perfect ticket window.

For the really long layovers, there was a respite in terminal 2, at the entrance to the E and F concourses: Kids on the Fly, an aviation-themed playground created by the Chicago Children's Museum. It's aimed at the 8 and unders, with things to turn, climb, and crawl through. There's a plane with a cockpit, cabin, baggage hold, and slide, a control tower, and a helicopter with a rotor that spins when you pedal. There are benches for parents, a nearby family restroom, and a nice view of the aircraft parked at their gates. When our oldest was small, they had a Lego model of what used to be called the Sears Tower, and Duplos for building, but that's been gone for a while.

So we made our pilgrimage, a long walk that required going through the underground passage between concourses C and B (the one with the groovy neon and wind-chime rendition of "Rhapsody in Blue"), and across half of concourse B and the Terminal 2 building. Our oldest humored us but wanted to get back with his friends ASAP. The middle kid posted a picture of the toy plane, prompting a friend to reply, "If that's your plane, your parents paid too much for their tickets." The youngest climbed around for a while. They apparently got rid of the big vinyl-covered foam blocks that kids could pretend was luggage -- load in the baggage hold and send down the slide. The helicopter was missing a pedal, so it couldn't be turned, and the scale didn't seem to work. But we got the all-important family photo!

Kids on the Fly, O'Hare Airport, Chicago

Back at the gate, with about two hours to go, we met up with the tour leaders, their friends, and the teacher's two adult kids. Although Chicago was chilly, it was sunny, and the gate was way too warm and crowded, but there was nowhere else to go. One passenger had parked herself in front of the outlets and was blissed out to the tunes on her headphones.

I realized I couldn't find the microSD card I'd bought at 3 a.m. for my tablet, so I went hunting for one, and they were surprisingly hard to find, requiring me to go back through the tunnel to Concourse B to a mobile electronics shop. We made our last potty stops, bought some sodas for the flight, and refilled our water bottles from a water fountain designed for that purpose.

As we boarded the 767-300 for the flight from Chicago to Brussels (1650 departure) and walked through newly renovated first-class and business-class sections, we were hopeful that we were on an airplane with power outlets and wifi. No such luck. Coach was cramped and ancient with tiny overhead compartments and bulky entertainment units that ate up a big chunk of underseat storage. Video was a choice of movies, all of them starting at the same time. My audio jack didn't work at all. There was a moving map to help us track our progress and the likely time of arrival.

I sat with my wife and daughter on the right side of the plane; my two boys were on the other side. Dinner was decent. As we flew over Newfoundland, we could see the moon reflecting over lakes and rivers. I put my earbuds in to listen to "Hancock's Half Hour" and got some decent sleep*. (About three hours worth: I fell asleep to "The Bolshoi Ballet" and woke up to "Cyrano de Hancock".) A repeating chime woke everyone up as we crossed Ireland. A very continental breakfast was served -- croissant, jam, butter, and a bit of fruit. Caught sight of Wales, England was fogged over all the way to the channel, but the continent was clear, and we enjoyed the charming sight of the Belgian countryside as we came in for a landing. Wheels down at 0800 Sunday morning, twenty minutes early, but we had to wait for a gate.

Some of our group took the wrong turn on the jetway and wound up outside the secured area, requiring them to dump water bottles and go through screening again. Our ongoing gate hadn't been set yet, so we waited. It was a very short layover, boarding at 0900 for an 0930 departure on Brussels Airlines (formerly known as Sabena).

Our Airbus A319 seemed new, but once again it had no power outlets and no wifi. There were video screens under the overhead compartments, but no way to get audio. I had the left aisle seat next to my younger son and daughter; my wife was across the aisle. Lunch was chicken with a nut crust, carrots, mashed potatoes, a roll, and a brownie. There was free wine, too, but I opted for coffee as I wanted to stay awake. We had a nice view of the Alps and then flew down the Adriatic Sea and across the Mediterranean.

It was on this flight that we had our first real sense that we were headed somewhere exotic:

Man wearing tallit and tefillin onboard Brussels Airlines flight to Tel Aviv

There were a number of conspicuously observant Jewish men in the rows in front of us, some with large tefillin (phylacteries) strapped to their foreheads with long leather straps, many with tallitot (prayer shawls) over their head, and wearing sidelocks. Young boys sitting with them were similarly attired. A few men in the same section were wearing kippot, but otherwise not out of the ordinary. (Someone else noticed that there were no women up front but many were sitting in the back of the plane.) One of the older men was going from row to row talking to any man wearing a kippa or tefillin, and later the men went to the back of the plane together, so I assume that he had been collecting a minyan for prayers. When they came back to their seats, the tefillin and tallitot were packed away and replaced by hats.

Before landing we were served a snack: Happy Mix!

Happy Mix

Wheels down at Tel Aviv Ben Gurion airport at 1510, just a little later than scheduled. We were through immigration and customs by 1600. Only one of our group had an issue: The alumnus on the trip had grown a luxurious beard and looked nothing like his passport photo. The tour leader was able to vouch for his identity, and he was allowed through.

Israel does not stamp your passport but instead issues an entrance card, which you have to have when you leave. Scanning it lets you through a turnstile and on to baggage claim. Customs is like the British system; if you have nothing to declare you walk through the green aisle. You might be stopped but probably won't be.

At this point, we connected with the final two members of our group, who had flown straight from Philadelphia, and we were met by our tour guide, Yoni Gerrish, who led us to the sparkling orange, teal, and silver Tannous Tours bus parked just outside the terminal. (More about our guide and our driver later.) We settled in -- the high schoolers gravitated to the back, the older folks sat near the front -- and we pretty much stayed in those seats for the whole two weeks. By 1630 we were on the road.

As we zipped south on Highway 40, the motorway linking Tel Aviv with the Negev, Yoni pointed out the large culvert alongside the road. It was the Ajalon (pronounced "Eye, alone"), and it was in the Ajalon Valley that Joshua and the Israelites defeated the five Amorite kings that had attacked Israel's allies in Gibeon, and where, at Joshua's command, the sun and moon stood still for a day.

Lod, the city nearest the airport and for which the airport used to be named, is mentioned a few times in the Old Testament and goes by the name Lydda in the New.

We drove through green farmlands and arrived in Beersheba a little over an hour later. The city had a mixture of older mid-century Soviet-style apartment blocks and newer high-rises, with construction cranes everywhere. We passed a very new performing arts complex and the sparkling campus of Ben Gurion University. There were little shops, including this little produce stand that seemed rather evocative:

Produce stand, Beersheba

At the Leonardo Hotel (the only hotel in Beersheba), we were greeted in the lobby with tea and little pastries. We were given envelopes with room keys and stickers for our luggage. We put the sticker on our bags, and the bellhops delivered them to the room, and then in the morning, we'd leave the bags outside our rooms and they'd be collected and brought to the bus, where each traveler would watch as his or her bags were loaded. That was they way it was supposed to work at every hotel, but this was one of the few locations where it happened as intended.

The room was very modern, with two skinny twin beds, a sofa, and a desk. Every room we were in had a refrigerator, an electric teakettle, and (with one exception) a hairdryer; none of them had a microwave or an iron. The room was on the sixth floor with a nice view of the city. Free wifi was only available in the lobby and dining room.

Room at the Leonardo Hotel, Be'ersheva

We flipped through the channels and found the Israeli edition of Sesame Street. Others in our group said they found the Backyardigans in Hebrew. Several channels had talking heads saying important things about the election -- in Hebrew, of course.

Throughout the trip, dinner and breakfast were buffets at the hotel. At dinner, there would be a variety of meat dishes, but no dairy. A breakfast, they'd have a variety of cheeses, fish, cereal, and eggs, including an Israeli favorite, shakshuka (poached eggs over spicy tomato sauce). At both dinner and breakfast, there would be a huge selection of salads and vegetables, both fresh and cooked. I ate more eggplant on this trip than I had in my entire 51 years up to that point. They always had a variety of breads, but I noticed that the hotels rarely offered pita. (Too blue collar?)

Most of us called it a night soon after, but the high-schoolers still had energy to burn, so they went swimming in the hotel pool and went for a walk.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on March 28, 2015 2:10 PM.

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