The adventure begins… An incredible week’s trip to India that will culminate with me escorting fifty Bnai Menashe on their long-awaited, one-way trip to Israel. I had no idea what to expect, but I knew that it would be the experience of a lifetime.

(Full disclosure: I actually do marketing for Shavei Israel, the organization that coordinates bringing Bnai Menashe to Israel and, naturally, coordinated my trip as well. However this trip was not made under my marketing role, and my blog posts on the subject are 100% my own).

I was not heading to any of the typical tourist destinations you hear about in India. In fact, the northeastern state of Manipur is closer to Burma then to any Indian city you’re likely familiar with. You know a place is remote when it takes four(!) flights to get there. Uzbekistan Airways brought me to Delhi via Tashkent with some scary flight attendants that may have actually been KGB agents. (‘Tea or coffee?‘  ‘Can I possibly have some water?’  ‘TEA or COFFEE???’  ‘Er, I’ll have whatever you want me to have…’)

Of course traveling to India is very interesting if you are a blonde woman. I don’t know if it was the airline, the destination, travel from Uzbekistan or chance. But there was only one woman for every ten or so men. And I couldn’t find another blonde to save my life. Most of the people were quite dark and looked like the Indians you’d expect to see in Bollywood films. Nothing like the markedly Asian-looking Bnai Menashe. You know how you can’t help but notice someone who is simply different? Yeah, well it wasn’t the guy in the turban. There were tons of them. It was me. And I would remain noticeably different throughout my stay.

Upon arrival in India (mind you this was only Delhi, halfway through my four-flight journey) I was greeted at the airport by our Israeli travel agent who, while not blonde, was certainly not Indian. She held up a sign that said ‘Lora Ben-David’ so that I could pick her out of the lineup of Indian men holding signs for ‘Mr. Singh’ or ‘Mr. Punjab’. It was very helpful. I thought nothing of my misspelled name until she pointed out that she had done that purposely since apparently ‘laura’ is, well, let’s just say it’s not a very nice word in Hindi… Excellent.

Welcome to New Delhi! The ubiquitous auto rickshaw. Photo: Laura Ben-David

Welcome to New Delhi! Behold, the ubiquitous auto rickshaw. Photo: Laura Ben-David

Happily the next leg of my journey was after a night in a nice hotel in New Delhi. I was warned not to go anywhere by myself in the city (that whole, blonde, different, woman thing wasn’t working to my advantage) and obediently (and quite unusually I might add) put myself under house arrest until my wake up call at the bright and early hour of 3AM. Mind you, my body’s clock was actually 3 1/2 hours behind local time… I somehow dragged myself out of bed and made it to the taxi and back to the airport in record time.

Funny thing about flying domestic in India. The airports – even large ones like in Delhi – feel more like huge (or not so huge) bus terminals. Crowds of people, with all sorts of interesting shaped luggage (not that I should talk; I had a massive hot plate in an oversized duffel with all my clothing, and I’d wrapped tape around it to try and keep it condensed. It looked ridiculous) were all standing in some semblance of a line, waiting to be taken by bus to the middle of a tarmac somewhere.

The plane itself was perfectly professional and normal and it did not occur to me for even a moment that the Indian pilots of the plane probably drive like the rest of the Indians on the ground…

Arriving at Imphal Airport I was struck by the lack of anything that looked like a city. Or civilization for that matter. From the tarmac, if you looked around, you would think they’d cleared away a huge swath of jungle and planted a runway there. I’m not convinced that’s not what they did…

Inside the terminal, though it had been a domestic flight, foreigners were expected to register. At first I didn’t realize this was the case but one of the clerks there picked me out as a foreigner. I don’t know what tipped her off…

She brought me to the counter. Alright, it was a folding table. The ‘foreign arrivals committee’ were in folding chairs, filling out forms by hand, and having you sign a second blank one since they needed each form in duplicate(!) From this incident I deduced that things were a bit primitive where we were heading. I had no idea…

(To be continued…)

[Addendum: Since posting people have asked how they can help. Shavei Israel is a private organization that works tirelessly to help the Bnai Menashe and other lost Jews to return. Donations are graciously accepted.] 

Click here to read more of my posts chronicling the homecoming of Bnei Menashe.