Written May 28, 2011:
Well, I’m at Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv! …And I have been for the past 5 hours. I have a flight from Tel Aviv to London, and London to San Francisco, but my flight out of Tel Aviv leaves at 8 AM on a Saturday. Friday and Saturday are Shabbat, meaning that almost everything shuts down in Israel, especially in Jerusalem. So, in order to get to Tel Aviv, I had to take a sherut (a 10-person taxi) at 8 PM Friday night and just wait it out at the airport. It’s now 2:30 AM- only two and a half hours until I can check in! Luckily, the airport has free wireless internet, so I’ve been spending my time catching up on work and Facebooking. In case anyone was wondering, Ben Gurion airport is really boring from 9 PM – 2:30 AM.
A couple of my friends have flown home already, and they each had to go through a few hours of questioning before being allowed to board their flight. I’m hoping that I won’t have to go through much more than the average traveler- my friends had Lebanon and Iraq stamps in their passports, which surely made them a little more susceptible than usual. I guess I’ll find out soon enough!
The check-out process at the dorms was an entirely different story. You would think that Hebrew University would opt for the quickest, easiest option, but I’m pretty sure they chose the exact opposite. Again, we were all victims of Shabbat. The housing office closed at 5 PM on Thursday, and didn’t open on Friday or Saturday at all, meaning that I had to be completely packed by the time the office closed. So, my weekend looked a little like this: Sunday through Thursday, take a million tests and turn in a couple of term papers. Finish with finals on Thursday at 3 PM. Find out that the housing office closes at 5 PM. Frantically pack all of my belongings over the course of an hour and a half, get my room cleared for check out, then hop in the shower before realizing that all of my things were already packed away. Most residents ended up packing up at least a day or two before they were set to depart, which just ended up causing a lot of stress immediately after (and during) finals week. For each room to get cleared, the entire apartment also had to be clean- instead of having some kind of cleaning/maintenance staff do one final cleaning, the University had students do it, and then charged them when it wasn’t done correctly. No wonder my place was a mess when I moved in!
All complaints aside, I got to hang out with the rest of the Cairo Kids for our last few days and nights in Jerusalem, and had a great end of the semester. I really can’t believe that it’s over. Wish me luck with check-in!
Written during my flight from London to San Francisco:
You know how airlines always tell you to arrive at the airport three hours early for international flights? They do that for a reason. I got in line at British Airways in Tel Aviv at 5 AM on the dot, a good three hours before my flight to London. Before you even get to the check-in desk, they put you through a long line where attendants check your passport and x-ray all of your bags (checked and carry-on). As soon as my attendant saw the multiple Egypt visas in my passport, along with the U.A.E. and others, she took my passport to a supervisor, who then approached me with a number of back-up questions. All of this resulted in a series of stickers and bar codes being put on my luggage and passport. By the time I got through the x-ray machine, I had an idea of where this would be going.
The next set of security checks consisted of a large square table where British Airways employees checked every passenger’s luggage- this is all still before you even get to the check-in desk. Once I approached the desk, the woman took a look at the stickers on my baggage and immediately sighed, “…Come with me.” I was led to a separate side table, where each one of my bags was systematically unpacked. Every single thing inside- and I literally mean everything, including each page of my books and every coin in my wallet, was inspected. Every surface was tested for drug contamination. The airline employees were really nice the entire time, and the woman offered me a chair to sit in when I didn’t initially realize how long this would take. Makeup was put through another x-ray machine, along with my shoes and other solids. The fun part came when it was time to repack all of my things. I had packed everything pretty hastily to begin with because of the Hebrew University check-out procedure, but had put in a good amount of time making everything as compact as possible. Everything just barely fit into my two suitcases, and now that it was all deconstructed, it was almost impossible to get it back into place. The employees gave it a good effort, confident in their suitcase re-packing experience that had come with the job. But they tried and definitely failed. It took me a good couple of tries to put the puzzle pieces together, but I eventually was able to cram everything into two bags.
About halfway through the inspection (after a good couple of hours or so), the woman inspecting my bags turned to one of the other employees and mentioned that he would need to check in for me. That was a little surprising- it meant that she planned on taking the entire three hours just to finish my security check, not including the check-in process or time needed to drop off my luggage. The man immediately asked for my passport and itinerary and set off for the main desk. I, on the other hand, was told to leave my newly re-packed luggage behind and follow the woman to a back room. I followed her past the main desk, past the x-ray machine, and through two sets of doors with fingerprint-scan locks. After leading me behind a large curtain, I was asked to remove my jacket, shoes, scarf, and jewelry- everything except my most basic layer of clothing, my dress. All of these belongings were taken outside of the curtain and (I assume) put through another x-ray machine while I waited alone. After a very thorough pat-down, the woman handed me back my things and led me through the double doors. My luggage had been checked for me, and my boarding pass was printed and ready. The woman informed me that because I had gone through such an extensive security check, I would not be required to pass through more x-ray machines or identity checks. Instead, she personally escorted me past the main entrance to the flight gates, and nicely bid me adieu.
I made it to the gate just as the flight started boarding. It wasn’t until that point that I realized that I had somehow gotten a business-class seat, and once I got on the plane, also saw that the seat next to me was empty! I have no idea how this happened- the evacuation insurance company had purchased this ticket for me, so either they opted for the nicer seat, or I had somehow been upgraded during check-in. I didn’t question it- I’ll take what I can get! For the five hours to London, I immediately fell asleep and slept soundly for the duration of the flight. Those nice seats really are comfortable.
After arriving at Heathrow, I had an hour or two to kill before the next leg of my journey. I ended up grabbing some snacks and using my computer, and chatted with a nice Australian woman who gave me a detailed description of every major city in Australia. The flight from London to San Francisco was a breeze- the food was surprisingly good, I got to watch a couple of movies, sleep, and hang out with the passengers around me. Right next to my seat, one mother was traveling with FOUR young boys: a toddler, a three year old, a ten year old, and a boy who was both physically and mentally handicapped. It sounds like any traveler’s worst nightmare, but somehow, she kept all of her kids under control for the entire ride. It was amazing. I ended up playing with toy race cars with the three year old for most of the trip, along with a few rounds of “Tig,” which was his version of “Tag”.
It’s always funny to see how obvious it is that certain travelers are study abroad students. Once I disembarked the plane, I made my way towards passport control to enter back into the United States. The entrance form has you list what countries you have visited since last leaving the US, and the officer looked down at my form, looked up at me, and immediately asked, “Study abroad?” I could also pick out a couple of other 20-somethings at the baggage claim who must have just returned from a semester or year somewhere- they all had two huge suitcases and were traveling alone. I couldn’t believe that the journey had finally come to an end (for now). At that point, I was just amazed that I had made it!
Over the course of my time at the airport, I stumbled across the Douglas Adams quote, “I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.” I don’t think anything could be more true of my study abroad adventure. From Egypt and Team T.I.N.A., to the evacuation in Barcelona, to a 5 A.M. decision to move to Jerusalem, and all of the travels in between, it’s been an amazing year. I wouldn’t have had it any other way! Now, I’m off to California to reunite with friends and family, and eat some real Mexican food.