for a week
Visiting Israel is not an easy decision. Why would you visit a country that discriminates on the basis of religion — that is actively involved in uprooting the indigenous population and grabbing their land to settle people brought from elsewhere? But then what do you do if you are a writer? How can you write about the most incendiary issue of our times without seeing with your own eyes the ground realities?
My first attempt to enter Israel had failed when after a wait of one week the Israeli embassy in Amman, Jordan, told me a visa could not be issued. Flying from London to Tel Aviv with a different set of documents worked.
The flight out of London was early in the morning, so we changed hotels to be closer to the airport. We don’t travel with much luggage, but this one was a nested tour: we were going to San Francisco from Karachi, and in our way were taking the backpacking trip to Israel. The Premier Travel Inn on Bath Road had a festive environment. It was full of people who presumably stayed there to be close to the airport, just like we did.
I had done some research on the Internet when I was in Karachi and had found Tel Aviv’s left luggage service to be a lot less expensive than Heathrow’s — and hence the plan to take luggage to Tel Aviv and then leave it at the airport; flying it with us was free.
A day earlier I had made arrangements with the taxi service to come at 4:30am to drop us at the airport. The taxi driver came at the right time — he was a Desi man dressed in a three-piece suit. A short drive later we were at the airport. It was dark outside, but was quite lively inside the terminal. Our luggage got weighed at the Turkish Airlines terminal. We thought we had distributed the weight evenly, but we were wrong; we were asked to move things around from one piece to another for all pieces to be within the individual weight limit.
Passengers in the Turkish Airlines flight looked regular flyers on that route. It was a good flight to take if you wanted to get business done in Istanbul and get back to London in the evening. There was a round-faced woman in hijab; she looked at our children and said, “Ma Sha’Allah.” Later I found her talking to other people in a crisp British accent — she was married to a Turkish man who was not finding it easy to immigrate to the UK.
In Istanbul we had some time to kill. We watched people leaving for Haj. Tons of people had come to see them off. Security was extra tight for the Tel Aviv bound flight. Passengers went through additional scanning before entering the cordoned off area. We looked at the faces travelling that route — they were from all different places, but surprisingly there were no Chinese-descent passengers.
We flew over Mediterranean and reached Israel. Going through immigration at Ben Gurion Airport was a breeze, or so we thought. I asked the woman at the immigration counter to not stamp our passports — several Muslim-majority countries don’t accept visitors who have travelled to Israel. She flipped through our passports a couple of times and then handed them back to us with a card that read “Gate Pass.”
Well, their “Gate Pass” was not the kind of ticket that would whisk you out of the airport. That “Gate Pass” meant, “Thoroughly check these people and find out what they are really up to.” Out of the Immigration we found officers checking everyone’s passports for the stamps. The “Gate Passes” we had in our passports qualified us for a more thorough interrogation. The woman officer who had stopped us tried to get the attention of her supervisor; he was busy with an irate American-Palestinian girl deeply upset on being interrogated; the supervisor just looked at the officer holding our passports, looked at the children, and shrugged with the gesture, “Can’t you see they have kids with them?” our passports were given back to us and we were free to go.
I am often asked if I felt safe in Israel. My answer is a resounding “Yes.” After the brief hold-up at the airport we were completely free. Nobody followed us, our presence did not raise any eyebrows, and we were never stopped anywhere. Like any modern democratic country Israel is pretty open. I definitely felt safer in Israel than in Syria.
It took a while to find the left-luggage store just outside the terminal building; the signs were very clear in the airport and some distance towards it too, but then there was nothing to indicate to you where the left-luggage office was once you were really close to it. Inside the luggage centre we were able to negotiate the price. Leaving the suitcases there we just had our backpacks on and felt light and ready to explore Israel.
Ben Gurion is quite some distance away from Tel Aviv, off Highway1 going towards Jerusalem. We took a commuter train to the city-center. While waiting for the train we had to change a diaper on one of the kids. The light thud of the old diaper dropped in the trash bin startled people around us — a firsthand experience for us to witness how edgy the Israelis were.
The very modern train we rode stopped at a few stations. We saw young soldiers every hundred yards or so, on the platform, brandishing automatic rifles. The train passed through an industrial area and entered Tel Aviv. By the time we reached our hotel it was quite dark.
It is amazing what you can do in these modern times. Sitting in Pakistan I could buy tickets from London to Tel Aviv, and could make reservation at a budget hotel near Shlomo Lahat Promenade, for our first night in Tel Aviv.
That planning started with getting a guidebook. The guidebook on Israel I ordered online got shipped to Karachi from Amazon’s Germany office. I tried to figure out the least expensive way to go to the Holy Land. It was not making sense to first go westward to London and then come back. We were going through Dubai. Was it possible to go from Dubai to Tel Aviv and then back to Dubai to continue on our original journey? We found out that was not a possibility. Not surprisingly Israel still has its best air connections from the west.
At Hotel Nes Ziona we quickly put luggage in the room and went out to eat and buy snacks. It was quite late but some shops were still open. The neighbourhood looked safe. We were able to buy shawarma, milk, water and fruits.
Being tired of travelling we wanted to sleep in next morning but could not. We had a child with an upset stomach. Early in the morning I went out to find a pharmacy. It was the second last day of Passover and most businesses were still closed. After locating a pharmacy and a self-service laundry I came back. Later, I went out again, this time with our clothes and a flat stroller tire. I had already spoken to a man in a cycle shop. He changed the tube with great speed; he showed me the nail he took out from the tire. The Tel Aviv air that got filled in remained in the front wheel of that stroller for a long time, until months later it effused into the San Francisco air. The pharmacy was in a big shopping mall. At each entrance of the mall there was heavy security and all bags were checked before people were let in the mall. Founded on injustice Israel keeps on paying a high price for the security of its people.
The rest of the day was passed in checking out the area. We had changed hotels, and were now even closer to the beach. We spent some time walking on the beach promenade. The area got lively in the evening. We ate at a popular bistro off Shlomo Lahat, serving mouth-watering shawarma and falafel.
Tel Aviv proper is a relatively new city; today’s Tel Aviv includes the historical city of Jaffa (not to be confused with Haifa, port city north of Tel Aviv). Tel Aviv was the highest Jewish-immigrant population area at the time of creation of Israel — and is still considered the heart of the state of Israel. Having secured the coastal areas Israel moved its capital to Jerusalem, but the international community does not recognize this move and even countries that have diplomatic relations with the state of Israel have kept their embassies in Tel Aviv. In 1948, Jaffa used to be a predominately Arab city; it still has an Arab population, but smaller than the Jewish population. After its creation Israel has progressively pushed the Arabs either out of the country or into areas of higher Arab concentration. Visiting the Ajami district of Jaffa would have been an educational experience but that was left for a future trip — we were off for Jerusalem.
It was quite late in the morning but the roads look pretty deserted, probably because of the Passover. Bus service was also sporadic. After a long wait, the bus did show up and took us to the central bus station. We did not have to go inside the terminal. There was a Sherout (shared taxi, a van) ready to go Jerusalem. We took seats in the bus. Passengers kept coming and soon all seats were taken; the van took off for Jerusalem.
Israel is a pretty small country and you don’t get to see long stretches of uninhabited areas in that Tel Aviv to Jerusalem route. The Sherout reached its terminus in West Jerusalem. With children in the stroller we started walking towards the Old City. Soon the high walls of the Old Jerusalem came in view. As we got closer to the Jaffa Gate of the Walled City we were joined by a lot of people walking in that direction; men with kippahs, people dressed in black suits (for religious reasons), with payos (long side locks), and all.
Once you enter the imposing Jaffa Gate the carnival atmosphere of the Old City becomes more evident. The experience is overwhelming. The thick walls of fortification, tall towers, cobblestone street, procession after procession of various denominations all add to convince you that you have reached some place historic, important, majestic, holy… contentious.
to be continued
For those of you who want to become instant millionaires, here’s a tip: travel to Indonesia.
For the one week that I was in Jakarta, I dealt in more zeroes than I ever will for the rest of my life.
For someone whose math skills are limited to counting in thousands, converting US dollars to Indonesian rupiah and then to Pakistani rupee taxed me so much that I gave up after two days and trained myself not to be shocked if I had a meal that cost 40,000 rupiahs or paid 200,000 Indonesian rupiahs as the taxi fare from the airport. Or, horror of horrors, bought toys for my son that cost me hundred thousand rupiahs.
You see, one US dollar is equal to around 9,000 Indonesian rupiahs, depending on the rate you get from the moneychanger — and you can do the rest of the math yourself.
I had been warned to expect this.
A colleague had suggested I take a big bag to put all the money in, and a fellow traveller narrated how on an earlier visit he spent his entire time in Indonesia trying to figure out whether he was spending less or more than he would have in Pakistan. The Indonesian currency notes start from Rs1,000 and go up to Rs100,000 (yes, that’s one lakh) and the coins start from Rs100 and go up to Rs1,000.
There was another zero on my mind though. Zero experience in video editing.
In Jakarta for a week-long photography and video editing workshop at the US Embassy, I had confessed earlier to the filmmaker and our workshop instructor Georg Steinboeck that I didn’t know anything about video production.
“We’re competing with Lady Gaga,” said photography instructor Brigitte Pressler on the first day, adding: “No one has time for long, boring videos.”
By the end of the workshop, we were supposed to learn how to make catchy one-minute videos. And true, by the end of the week, the 12 of us, from Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Cambodia and Pakistan, succeeded in making one-minute videos that might give tough competition to Lady Gaga or Justin Bieber, in terms of catchiness, of course!
Talk about the place, people, food — and shopping.
Jakarta is a beautiful city, lush green, sprawling. It’s a city that’s comfortable in its own skin. You get a sense that you’re welcome there, whether you’re modern or conservative, Muslim or non-Muslim, or how you dress or the meat you eat.
The image of the wayang, the traditional shadow puppet, is everywhere, from stamps to bookmarks and souvenirs. Friday is celebrated as wear-batik-day — men and women wear clothes made from this traditional, colourfully dyed fabric. Rice is the staple food, and meals are usually accompanied with iced tea.
The pasars (bazaars), Thamrin City, Jalan Jaksa, Tanah Abang, super fancy malls, museums, Café Batavia are a must-see when in Jakarta. Take an ojek (motorcycle taxi) was the advice on my to-do-list and try spicy rendang (similar to kunna gosht) to soothe your taste buds. I rattled off the list to my Indonesian colleague Dian, who was game for it.
“No, no, Jalan Jaksa not a nice place to go,” said another colleague. (Jalan means street in Bahasa and Jaksa is the street name). “It’s loaded with budget hotels and restaurants, and is frequented by backpackers. It’s also known for certain (ahem!) other activities at night,” he told me.
So it was decided that it was not a safe place to go after sundown. Instead we drove through it during daytime which turned out to be a narrow street teeming with foreigners.
If you love places that have an old-world charm, you’ll love Cafe Batavia in the old city. Located in Fatahillah square and surrounded by museums, it is a café from the Dutch colonial times. With walls lined with photographs and a chequered floor, you feel like you’ve travelled back in time the moment you step in. After dinner there, we stepped out and tried the street food: otak ota — fish patties steamed in banana leaves over coals and served with spicy peanut sauce.
But it was at Natrabu, a restaurant serving spicy Padang food from the West Sumatra island, that I was swept off my feet. Dressed in traditional clothes, the gentleman came to our table with 11 small dishes on his arm — ranging from fried fish to casava leaves, to chicken curry, to shrimp gravy, tofu and of course rice cooked in coconut milk. What you didn’t eat went back and wasn’t included in the bill.
On discovering I was from Pakistan, the staff placed flags of Pakistani and Indonesia on our table — and I’d thought nobody did hospitality like Lahoris!
Indonesia offers a wide array of coffee to choose from — including the famed and somewhat controversial kopi luwak.
Believe me, you’re spoilt for choice if you are a shopaholic.
From glitzy malls to bazaars that remind you of Anarkali or Zainab Market selling batik and ikat fabric to local snacks like jackfruit crisps or dried kiwi fruit, there’s something for every budget. If you are pressed for time and want a one-stop-shop for souvenirs, go to Sarinah gift emporium.
Can I talk about Indonesia without mentioning masuk angina? It’s a health condition that means “the wind has entered” and the symptoms range from aches and pains to feverishness. You can catch it if you are riding a motorbike, etc. The cure: rubbing a coin over your body, so the wind is released. How? I really don’t know.
Those who doubt there’s something similar in Pakistan are mistaken. Remember the age old, grandma fallacy “don’t go out after taking a bath, you’ll catch cold”?
I went to Jakarta for a workshop, but came back with a lot more. I made new friends and reunited with old ones, and carried home a bagful of gifts for my family and friends (millionaire for a week, remember!).
I can’t wait to welcome my Indonesian friends to Lahore so we can show off some typical desi hospitality.