Not with a bang…

… but a whimper”, with apologies to T.S. Eliot. We staggered home Friday the 15th of January after an unbelievable month of learning, doing, living, family and fellowship. But Terri and I also contracted a cold during the final stretch which is the “whimper” part of things. The return flights couldn’t have been better. Our taxi arrived on time at our Tel Aviv apartment to whisk us away to Ben Gurion Airport where we arrived about 2:30am for our 5:30am flight. Israeli security was efficient. I was one of the randomly selected folks for inspection of checked baggage. The checker pulled out a bag which contained some items I had purchased and chuckled when I identified the items as “kippot” (skull caps). There was obviously a much heavier item in the bag which turned out to be the paper weight that Shoshana had purchased for me at the Dead Sea gift shop. I had some difficulty explaining “paper weight” but after a chuckle we were on our way.

I’ve never done the “duty free” thing, so I wandered into the extraordinary duty free shop at Ben Gurion and selected a bottle of Lagavulin at a lovely price. Fortunately I checked with one of the sales folk strolling the area who let me know that I would probably not be able to get the bottle through the Frankfurt airport as liquids are generally confiscated there. So I saved the money and bid a sad farewell to the shop.

Shoshana and Karl’s flight was scheduled for an hour after ours, so we were able to spend our last few minutes in Israel together. Then it was off to our plane. We had a timely arrival in Frankfurt with a 4 hour layover. We spent most of that time in the gate for our next flight because Frankfort has security at every gate, meaning that if we left the area we’d have to check ourselves in for security all over again. The coffee and sandwiches were pricey but good.

The flight from Frankfort to Detroit was long and uneventful. When we landed in Detroit there was (as we later discovered) a high level alert which slowed our trip through Customs/Passport Control. There were 4 lines and you had to choose one, so of course Terri and I chose what would turn out to be the slowest. There was an older man with his wife dressed in coonskin caps who (for some reason) were investigated for about 20 minutes while everyone in our line fumed. When they were released, a number of others ahead of us were deemed worthy of long checks, fingerprint scans, etc. Several were led off to interview rooms. I had no idea what to expect when they finally motioned to Terri and me and come up, but nothing happened. They looked at our passports, asked us why we had gone to Israel and sent us on after 45 seconds. I had listed some clothing and gifts as the things we had purchased and the Customs agent asked me what the clothing items were. He accepted my answer without asking to look into our luggage at all, so the whole Passport/Customs process for us lasted about 2 minutes.

As we expected, our dog Nina danced a jig and bordered on a stroke for a few minutes when we arrived home. Its been two days back now and I’m just beginning to feel like I’m ready to rejoin This American Life.

Before I sign off on this wonderful and long vacation, I should mention that we chose to spend our last day in Tel Aviv at a place very suitable for our family’s inclintations–the Safari Zoo in Ramat Gan, a lovely suburb of Tel Aviv. The Safari (as its name suggests) is something of an attempt to mimic the success of the San Diego Wild Animal Park. When you arrive at the location, if you have your own vehicle you can make your way through an area where the animals are free to roam. If you do not have a vehicle, then you can hop into a van operated by the Zoo and get at least some of the feel for that part of the park. Unfortunately, the van (at least the one we were on) was shabby and of greater importance, the windows were dirty which limited our ability to enjoy the views of the animals as we passed. Our driver spoke no English, so the commentary he provided was entirely in heavily Russian-accented Hebrew. Fortunately, Karl had a copy of the Zoo map/catalog in English and was happy to keep us fully informed, so it would have been great except for the obscured windows. Terri pronounced her disappointment in the quality of the exhibits we passed. She’s had extensive tours of the San Diego facility and if Ramat Gan wants to compete, they have a fair ways to go.

But all that disappointment gradually transitioned to delight as we reached the zoo itself, a large facility located in the center of the park. Never had any of us seen so many animals so active in a zoo. There were animals courting, procreating (yes), feeding and even engaged in a little fighting. Everywhere we went the animals were doing things rather than just lying around which is what we are accustomed to at most zoos. We enjoyed a snack near the penguinarium where we saw the zookeepers feed the adults and then lead the younger birds off to a private area where they could make sure they received enough food. Each exhibit was reasonably spacious for the species contained and the staff are clearly attuned to the needs of the animals who are obviously well-cared-for.

It was a lovely way to end our stay in Israel and I think we are all looking forward to a return trip!

Back in Tel Aviv 1/12-13/10

The trip back from Eilat was interesting. Our bus was inhabited by a few colorful characters. The first thing that alerted us to the unusual nature of our passengers was the trip out of the bus station. We had just gotten about a block when a taxi blocked the bus’s route and a heavy-set woman with flaming red hair came dashing out of the vehicle and commenced pounding on the door of our bus to be admitted. The bus driver shouted at her in a frenzy “Ani lo poteah lakh!” (“I am not opening the door for you!” While the woman pounded on the door, the taxi driver (with his cab still blocking us)  sauntered over to the driver’s side of the bus. The bus driver told him, “Take her to the next junction”. It turned out that there was an official bus stop about a mile up the road. So the woman hurled herself back into the cab and we were treated to the spectacle of the cab trying to outrun the bus to the bus stop.

The cab succeeded and the woman clambered up into the bus, shrilly complaining of the driver’s ill behavior (her comments, not mine). He gave as good as he got and we were treated to an old-fashioned shouting match for about five minutes up the road until everyone calmed down.

After a couple of hours the bus made a convenience stop and we used the chance to pick up a bite to eat. As it turned out, someone slipped on through the back door to try to get a free ride to Tel Aviv. But to his chagrin, we also picked up some sort of bus company conductor who proceeded through the bus checking everyone’s tickets. When he got to the extra passenger a debate broke out as the gentleman insisted that he had 1) lost his ticket and 2) had no money. The conductor laughed at these excuses and quizzed him on how much the ticket had cost (he got that wrong) and what seat number had been written on the ticket (buses between Eilat and Tel Aviv actually have assigned seats). He got that wrong too. As it turned out, he also had no identification. So it was pretty obvious what he was dealing with.

The conductor labeled him “shaqran” (liar) and laughed about this all the way to Tel Aviv. But the amazing thing (to me) is that they didn’t throw him off the bus or even do something to record some information or have the bus met by police. He was allowed to continue to Tel Aviv and there he slinked off into the evening.

Anyway, while all this was going on the flaming red-haired woman sat with the conductor and it turned out that she was friends not only with the conductor, but also with the driver. So all that shouting about getting on the bus was actually among friends! We gleaned that she was heading for a wedding in Ashdod.

Several of the other passengers seemed interesting to me. There was a group of young female soldiers chatting like schoolgirls in front of us. To the back there was a woman traveling with a male companion but dressed like a street walker. Normally I wouldn’t comment on this, but at our second convenience stop I was behind her on line to pay for food and when she arrived at the register she gave the cashier a verbal whipping for taking too long to take her money ostensibly because he needed the time to inspect her bodice.

Well, we somehow pulled into Tel Aviv on time and in one piece. Despite luggage encumbrance we elected the regular number 4 city bus since we were already in the central bus station and that got us back home without much ado. After freshening up (and checking email) in our home-away-from-home we ventured out to our own personal hang-out, the Cafe Hurkanos, where our favorite waitress (Maayan) provided us with a delicious dinner. Terri had the Israeli salad with avocado, I the Hungarian goulash.

Tel Aviv University

At last we came to the day that was assigned to Terri’s one official duty here in Tel Aviv, a talk on circadian rhythms at Tel Aviv’s department of Zoology. After a breakfast of coffee (hot cocoa for Terri) and pastries we headed off on the number 25 bus. We thought about taking the bus all the way to the back of the campus where the Zoology department is located (in the middle of a zoo!), but I urged Terri to get off earlier since were were early to stroll through campus. As a result, we received a notice when we entered the security gate that a general strike had been called for noon and a demonstration with some pretty famous people. The list included Professor Yosef Kalter, president of the university (imagine the presidents of American universities participating in student demonstrations!), Dalia Rabin, daughter of Prime Minister Yitzhaq Rabin, and the sister of Nir Katz who was a counselor at a gay youth center and was murdered in an infamous anti-gay shooting rampage. The demonstration was to urge governmental changes with respect to welfare and education.

After receiving this information, we walked across campus. I thought it would be easy to get to the Zoology building, but security changes everything. The Zoology building is actually across a street which means that one has to find an exit from campus to the street and then another entrance to the Zoology area. We wound our way through a number of buildings before finding the exit. After crossing the street, we quickly came to a door to the Zoology area, but it was shut. We looked up and down the street and I finally walked over to the security guard at the parking lot and asked an attendant. He said that I would just have to wait until someone either entered or exited the area.

Meanwhile, Terri had gone back to the door and after trying the telephone intercom and telephoning our hosts (no answer), commenced banging on the door. We were saved by a student exiting who held the door open for us. A worker we encountered had no idea who our hosts were, but shooed us in the right direction and we found both Noga and Rotem engaged in conversation with students on the second floor of the Zoology building. It turned out that Noga had just returned from a sabbatical in Australia and had not yet fully restored her phone service and Rotem had left her phone with her belongings. The departmental secretary had wandered off and wasn’t answering the phone either. But all’s well that end’s well and from there the day proceeded perfectly.

The TA University’s Zoology department has a full-fledged zoo which combines animals that are there for research purposes with sick and injured animals that are turned in by anyone who knows they exist. They don’t accept house pets, but any wildlife they can help they do. We saw a wide variety of birds, cats, wolves, snakes, and amphibians. We’ll have to hear from Terri about all these wonderful beasts.

Terri continued on with her group and I slipped away. I took the bus back to central Tel Aviv, found a good showarma stand, then walked up Diezengoff. I was soon inspecting used books and found a couple of interesting volumes that I hope will provide me with some entertaining time in Hebrew. After that, it was a short trip home. Time for this Israeli journey is winding down.