Part One: Israeli Airport Security and The Magic Words
Beware - Israeli Commandos!! There’s no doubt that I worked myself into an anxiety attack about the airport security processes I was about to experience entering and existing Israel. I also felt that the matter wouldn't be any simpler as I chose to fly the Israeli airline, EL AL (“the flak jacket in the sky”) on the portion of my journey from Paris into Tel Aviv.
I expected to engage in a 30 minute ordeal with personnel who looked like Israeli special forces units – soldiers with green fatigue pants, short black hair, and 5 o’clock shadow. I imagined them going through every piece of luggage in excruciating detail, even poking around with a bayonet at the end of their rifle. And of course, I expected a barrage of questions in order to find a minute conflict or problem with my answers – only to allow them to dig deeper. I heard that the exit from Israel was worse than the entrance. I based this on comments from others who have visited Israel many times in the past. Some tell me stories of pulling out their computer and giving their Powerpoint presentation to security personnel. Another mentioned how he was challenged on some of his answers. Some jokingly (I hope) refer to what might happen as “the rubber glove treatment."
Given that Israel is a tiny piece of real estate with neighbors who are hell-bent on their total destruction, this type of security didn’t seem all that unreasonable to me. In fact, I was ready. Bring on the commandos!
When I entered the EL AL security line in Paris, I braced myself. In fact, I arrived more than 3 hours before my flight and before the EL AL check-in area opened. Just before the EL AL area opened, I saw a couple of soldiers who appeared to be 15 years old patrolling the area with machine guns. They certainly didn't look to me like commandos, but I did see the fatigues and black army boots. The EL AL area opened with amazing precision and I was about fifth person in one of two lines. As the line opened, a young, petite woman was gathering passports from the people in line for processing. She stayed in line grabbing passports until she had a batch of about five.
When she grabbed my passport she asked me a question or two, and started to head off toward the back - presumably to get the commandos. I then uttered three words that little did I know would make my journey through security “like buttah.” The words were also listed on a simple piece of paper I printed that was provided to me by one of the clients I was visiting in Israel. In fact, the piece of paper was so simple-looking I called it my “Get out of Jail Free” card, a reference to the Monopoly game card. No one that I knew who traveled to Israel ever had this Monopoly card.
The three words were: Security Center Personnel.
I was told by my client that they would be magic words. She was right! After uttering those words, the young woman who took my passport (and who I assumed to be an administrator gathering passports) headed off to a back room. She then came out and took me from the line. My guess was that it was time to visit those battle-hardened Israeli commandos who were probably sleep-deprived just to be a little meaner than usual. Instead she took me from the line and brought me to a little temporary check-stand and asked me about 10 questions. She identified herself as being a member of Israeli security. Now this was a pleasant surprise, but I suspected it was just a set-up before the real questioning was to begin.
After the initial questioning the young woman took me to another petite woman who was X-Raying the luggage. Presumably now was the time for the tough guys to emerge. Instead, the woman scanned my bag and gave it back to me. I then proceeded as the first person to check-in. No fuss, no muss, and no Israeli commandos. I also came to learn that anyone 18 years of age or older must serve time in the military, so these women were probably as equipped as anyone to take care of problems with an Uzi, should they occur. But, it was just so disarming. The young woman who first questioned me wished me luck and told me to enjoy the beautiful country that is Israel. I learned throughout my trip that security in Israel is mostly transparent. It’s there, but you just don't see it.
Leaving Tel Aviv from Ben Gurion airport was similar. I used the magic words in conjunction with a VIP Service that I was told got you through security in a quick fashion. Since I expected a bigger problem leaving Israel I went with this service. It was pricey and the guys seemed disorganized at times – like this was not a real service but just some money-making schemers. At one point I was nervous with this guy carrying my ticket and passport around the airport talking to people so I grabbed it back from him. But, this guy did seem to have some special powers. He took me to the front of a few lines and seemed to be able to get through security and customs lines without needing a plane ticket himself. I even avoided the line where they open your check-in luggage and go through it in detail. Upon escorting me almost to the gate, the guy shook my hand, then disappeared through a side door.
So how was I so lucky, where none of my other colleagues who visited Israel frequently had been? How did I get in possession of the magic words and the Get-out-of-Jail card? With Israeli security, I never really know quite what happens, and I try not to ask too many questions. But, the company who gave me the magic words is an Israel-based company that sells video security systems to municipalities and airports! When I mentioned the name of the company to the security woman in Paris who told me the magic words, she said, “Oh yes, we know them quite well”. Apparently, as part of the "security center personnel" process, my name and itinerary was registered in a database to make my passage a quick and pleasant one. It’s nice to have well placed friends when it counts.
Customs & Immigration in Tel Aviv were even simpler.
Finally, I was in Tel Aviv, Israel and the commandos were no where in sight!
Part Two: Around Tel Aviv
A New Perspective on The Promised Land
There may be historical or religious reasons for calling Israel “The Promised Land," but we definitely found another reason. But first some context:
Most of the U.S. press fills us with stories of the West Bank, trouble in Gaza, and suicide bombers. We view it as a region on the brink of collapse and full of trouble. This may have some truth given the historical events of the region. The press and the Christian Church also cause us to view Israel as the home for the world’s religions and a very special holy place. But, there is something else that, especially if you are male, you should know. It’s not something you will hear about too many other places or read in the media amidst the other stories.
In fact, this is an observation that started as a scientific theory that has transcended into fact. It’s tested by scientific observation over two weeks of travel throughout Israel, except, of course, the West Bank, Gaza, and the Golan Heights. My guess is our conclusion is true about those areas as well. Some may say that our conclusions are subjective and not objective, but enough consensus from subjective observation gives it objective viability…….doesn’t it?
In fact, all three of us male colleagues arrived at similar conclusions – so this must be true. OK, here it is:
Israel has probably the most beautiful women that you will find anywhere. In fact, there are almost no ugly people there. It’s something we didn't expect, but couldn't deny. In fact, most of the women are not just beautiful, they are also, um, well….well endowed as well! It seemed like no matter where we went, the beautiful women were there – in fact they were everywhere.
Israel may be a holy place, but we definitely discovered the secret why the world’s armies want to conquer Israel.
Mountain Biking in Tel Aviv
Tel Aviv is a fairly large and flat city that is coping with an expanding population, traffic, and smog. But, the essence of Tel Aviv is about a two-mile long strip on the Mediterranean that is, for the most part, quite small and cozy. It’s pretty easy to walk the distance from the ancient but touristy Jaffa in the south to the power plant and harbor to the north. Tel Aviv is part Europe with its coffee shops and cafes, and part Greece with its Mediterranean laid-back style and weathering beach-front area, and well-worn hotels.
Along this two mile strip is a walkway next to the beach providing the opportunity for nice strolls along the Med for the entire length of Tel Aviv. Most tourist hotels, many restaurants and the newest night-clubs are located along this walkway. Some restaurants have beaches and chairs right on the beach. It was always fun to find a place for dinner by walking either north or south and stopping somewhere that looks fun. We also had a crucial scientific platform for performing the research mentioned above.
We felt safe along the trail because the beautiful women we did see jogging along the trail we figured belonged to Israeli security and would kick anyone’s you-know-what if one started causing trouble.
For the most part, people enjoyed the area just by walking, jogging or having little parties. It was a nice, relaxed area to enjoy the ocean. But among us on this walkway was a group of guys unclear on the concept of mountain biking. Tel Aviv is mostly flat with no real elevation until you head east 20 miles toward Jerusalem. If you want to mountain bike, the hills near Jerusalem are great and it’s full of trails. But, apparently the mountains weren't what a group of guys were looking for – they would have expensive (and clean) mountain bikes, get decked-out in full mountain bike apparel and race down the walkway near full speed and rarely stopping. Perhaps they were frustrated that their jobs as commandos in airport security were taken over by women.
Our first exposure to "Israeli food" were the breakfast buffets at the hotels - in fact over the course of the two weeks I stayed at three different hotels. While these buffets were very large, they didn't seem to have much of what we would deem breakfast. There was a lot of fish (raw and cooked), hummus, bread, and a lot of different vegetable salads but not much in the way of eggs, bacon, etc. But, we got used to it :)
For a few days, we were on search for authentic Israeli food along our favorite walkway while dodging the mountain bikers. All of us were curious about the local culinary treats to help us round out our travel experience. Of course, Tel Aviv is a cosmopolitan city with tastes from throughout the world, so you can find good French, Italian, and American restaurants. None of the locals seem particularly impressed with offering up "local food."
After a few days, we realized that Israeli dishes are really like most other Middle Eastern cuisines, with a bent toward fish. They love pita bread, kabobs, vegetables, fish, and hummus. The way most restaurants serve food is to provide about 12 – 15 little dishes of food and sauces, along with pita bread. After eating that, the main course of beef or fish would arrive. There would be a lot of food with a variety of spices. We ate this way for lunch and dinner, and the amount of food we ate at lunch made us too full to eat dinner.
There was a fish called (I believe) Breen which was pretty good – I think it’s a marketing name for a white fish from the Med. It could be deep fried or (my favorite) baked with spices. I also had some pretty good trout one night.
One night we had some pretty good wine (Yarden?) from the Golan Heights area of Israel. It was a rich and buttery Chardonnay. The Israelis are proud of the Golan wines.
What did strike our fancy was the hummus. It’s nothing like the thick paste we usually get in Middle Eastern restaurants around the Bay Area. The chick-pea based mash is extremely tasty and whipped into a light froth. And of course, the spices served at the beginning of the meal all go well with the hummus, especially the pine nuts and olive oil. We would usually finish the humus plates and have a second one delivered (along with more pita bread and spices).
Interestingly, even though one can find a Starbuck’s in China, they never made it in the sophisticated European café climate of Tel Aviv. However, one could find McDonald’s in Israel – even in Jerusalem.
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