February 6th was the big departure day from Barcelona to Israel! After so much time spent filling out paperwork, writing emails, and making frantic phone calls to EuropeAssist, I couldn’t wait to finally get to Israel and make sure that my spot at Hebrew University was secure. This entire process happened so quickly that, although I’m ridiculously excited, I feel as though I can’t fully breathe until I’m completely settled with a class schedule and dorm room.
The morning started out interestingly enough: I slept through my 7 AM alarm, and didn’t wake up until the front desk called me at 7:40 to warn me that our taxi was there. Oops! I had luckily completely packed and laid out clothes already, so I hurriedly got dressed and threw my bags in the elevator. We argued with the front desk for awhile, because they had given each of us a phone bill that ended up being about 100 Euro each, even though EuropeAssist had given us a 1 hour international phone credit, and most of that time had been spent talking to the company, not our families, as it had been meant for. Eventually, we got the bills settled and hopped in the cab. The driver pointed out some beautiful landscapes and we drove past a cemetery situated on a terraced hill, with jewel-toned glass glittering over the tombstones. Once we arrived at the airport, the cab took off and we set off to face airport security.
The Israeli airline, El Al, is notoriously (and understandably) strict. Instead of standing in line and then checking in, you walk into an area where a security officer questions each passenger for as long as they feel is necessary, and only then are you even allowed to approach the check-in booths. Needless to say, our strange situation resulted in a ton of questions. Each one of us was separated and questioned separately- I had to explain why I was in Cairo, where I went to school, why I was going to Israel, why I was studying Arabic, why I had traveled to Dubai, who I had been with, who I knew there, and where my last name came from, along with about a billion more questions. I also had to show my security woman my UCSB, AUC, and California ID’s, my acceptance letter to Hebrew University, and even go through my camera and show her pictures to prove that I had actually been sightseeing in Barcelona with my fellow travelers. Thankfully, she allowed me to put my camera away before we got to my pictures of the Cairo protests.
Each of our separate security officers soon gathered together to make sure that our stories lined up, and finally decided that we were okay to continue to check-in. For awhile, I was a little nervous that we would miss our flight because of how long the questioning was taking. To make matters worse, Jeremy, the other UC Santa Barbara student, somehow managed to appear as suspicious as possible. In the middle of questioning, he disappeared to go buy a sandwich. He was also wearing a shirt with a picture of a gun on it that said “Ouzi Does it!”, was carrying a temporary passport, and had a huge rip in his pants. Jeremy, having been to Israel before and being Jewish, didn’t seem to be too concerned by the security proceedings. Anyways, we did manage to move onto the next obstacle: checking our bags. We happened to fall under the watchful eye of one very uncompromising female check-in agent, who informed us that all of our bags were severely overweight, and that we would be charged 15 Euro for each extra kilo- this was ridiculous! My bags alone weighed about 20 kilos over the allowed amount, and if we left things in Barcelona, we would have no way of getting them back. The woman would not give us any sympathy for our strange circumstances, and did not offer any ideas to resolve the issue. AnaLucia was eventually able to convince the woman’s boss to call EuropeAssist, who saved the day (for the millionth time) by covering the charge and ensuring us that our plane would not leave without us.
Relieved, we all quickly bought breakfast on the way to more security (which was problem-free) and hurried along to our gate. We made it just in time, and settled into our seats for the 4.5 hour flight. I fell asleep almost immediately- the night before, I had been up late Skyping, blogging, and packing one last time. From what I did see, though, we had amazing views of the sun illuminating pure white clouds over the blue Mediterranean Sea for most of the trip. It was interesting to be surrounded by Hebrew for the first time in my life, though. Some of the stewardesses addressed me in Hebrew, assuming that I was Israeli, which was actually nice- after standing out so much in Cairo, it’s great to be able to blend in for once. Basically everybody that we encountered spoke pretty good English, fluent Hebrew, and some Arabic. Once we landed at the Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv, we found that most of the signs are written in all three languages as well.
Our next obstacle was Passport Control. All four of us were planning on asking the officers to not stamp our passports so that we would be able to enter Lebanon, in case we wanted to make a trip there sometime during our time in Israel. I had heard mixed things about this- some officers have no problem with it, and others regard it as being very suspicious. We stood in line, surrounded by lines of people with Israeli passports to our left, and crowds of foreigners (many of whom were Orthodox Jews in traditional wear) to our right. Analucia and Shannon got to the front of their line first, and seemed to successfully get through without a stamp. And then it was my turn. I asked the officer if he could stamp a piece of paper instead of my passport, and he got out a small white slip of paper for me to write my information on. While I was filling out the paper, though, the questions started: why are you coming to Israel? why don’t you have a student visa? why didn’t you have time to get one before you came? why were you in egypt? who are you traveling with? To try to calm his worries about my lack of a student visa, I offered to show him my acceptance letter from Hebrew University, which I had luckily thought to print out the night before. This managed to resolve a few of his questions, but he still made a short phone call, asked me for my father’s name, and asked where my last name was from before finally stamping my paper.
We all eventually made it through Passport Control without stamps on our passports, although we definitely took much longer than most of the other travelers. By the time we got to the baggage claim, our suitcases were the only ones on the conveyor belt. We threw them on some carts, walked outside of the airport, and were greeted by a man holding a sign for a “Germie Hogney”. Our Jeremy, whose name is actually Jeremy Hodge, approached him and introduced himself. The driver asked for identification- apparently the two names were similar enough for him, because he promptly stood up and lead us to a couple of taxis. These guys were supposed to take us straight to our hotel, but ended up getting lost for about an hour- I wasn’t really complaining though, because it gave us a chance to get a good look at the area. For the first part of the drive, we ventured through what looked like a normal freeway surrounded by green hills and trees. All of the exit signs were written in Hebrew, English, and Arabic. Eventually, we could see hundreds of lights of a city in front of us, and eventually turned off into a more populated area. Narrow streets lined with falafel and shawerma shops lead us past people grocery shopping, chatting with friends, and grabbing food- they were young and old, traditional and fashionable. I couldn’t see everything in the dark of the night, but I got a good feeling about my first exposure to Israel. I loved the sporadic presence of graffiti, the stone brick walls of the buildings, and the lights of the city. We passed road signs pointing towards the Dead Sea, Jerusalem, and even Hebrew University, but that night, we would be staying at the Addar hotel in Jerusalem. The University would have to wait until tomorrow.
This hotel was a little bit different than the nice, business-class Ayre Hotel that we had just come from in Barcelona. The Addar was a little quirky- it was decorated with deep blue glass chandeliers, rich red velvet sofas and curtains, and plush rugs. The elevator was not very patient in keeping its doors open long enough to squeeze your suitcase inside along with you, and flowers (real and fake) wilted in their jars. But it was perfect for our first night in Jerusalem. The concierge, a man named Karmel, pointed us towards a couple of restaurant options and grocery stores. He proudly told us that he was Palestinian, and firmly stated that he did not speak Hebrew- only English, Arabic, and French. Karmel ended up being a huge help to us- he offered to show us around the different areas of the city, made sure that we weren’t getting ripped off for dinner prices, and even gave us his personal phone number to call once we left the hotel- and I don’t think he’s even asking for money out of it! It was a great connection to make on our first night there.
For dinner, we walked up the street for about 30 seconds before we ran into a side alley full of tables, chairs, and a soccer game projected onto a white wall. A small grocery store next door sold shawerma, Arabic salads, breads, drinks, and other tidbits, so we ordered shammy (pita) bread stuffed with steak, french fries, Arabic salad, hummus, and pickles. We eventually made our way back to the hotel (and it had started sprinkling rain outside- how weird!) and soon realized that it was Sunday in the States- the Superbowl would be on! I was the only one out of the four of us that knew who was playing, and I usually only watch the games for the funny commercials, but nonetheless we all headed up to Jeremy’s room to try to find the game on our TVs. About 10 seconds later, we had lost interest in finding the Superbowl and ended up going to bed instead. We would have to wake up early the next day to discuss our plans, and were picked up by a taxi. Hebrew University, here I come!