Van Wallach
A Jew from Texas, who knew?

Israel + 35 Years, part 4: Adventures in DIY travel

Tours are an easy way to see a country, especially if you don’t speak the local language. In 1982 the guide and driver on my first visit to Israel took care of disruptions due to the invasion of Lebanon. In 2017, Naomi and I took the do-it-yourself route. We arranged lodging on our own at the Abraham Hostels in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and then arrived with a general list of places we both wanted to see. We’re great traveling companions and like doing the same things, right down to our mid-afternoon ice cream breaks. We did grapple over the TV remote in the hostel room regarding the great CNN vs.Russian music videos debate, but that’s a minor issue.

Still, the DIY approach called for some flexibility in response to the disruptions caused by President Trump’s state visit. Tours were cancelled, streets were blocked, the Hall of Names at Yad Vashem was closed to prepare for the presidential visit the next day. Still, we took the safety measures in stride and juggled our plans. Fate put us in Jerusalem for this historic occasion, along with the enthralling Jerusalem Day observances, and that was worth the uncertainty. We also found ourselves dealing with the relaxed aspects of the Israeli customer-service culture. All I can say is, thank goodness for cell phones.

Jerusalem gets ready for the presidential visit. Quite a time to be in town.

Things got started with a tour from Tel Aviv to Caesarea, the colossal Roman ruins north of Tel Aviv. We were the only people who booked the tour and transportation was the hostel bus that makes a regular circuit among the hostel locations in Tel Aviv, Nazareth and Jerusalem. The tour was self-guided and we had clear instructions to wait at the entrance to the historical site for a ride that would take us to a nearby Arab village for lunch, prior to a bus trip back to Tel Aviv.

The trip had an unsettling start when a man sitting across the aisle on the van asked me about the time, then launched into a conversation. He said he was originally from Italy and now lived in Australia. Some kind of aura around me attracts off-beat conversationalists, typically on public transportation. I’ll treat the talkers with some patience, since I’m curious about what’s on their minds, even if the conversation is overwhelmingly one-sided. The man on the hostel bus, however, veered into religion and muttered something about the apocalypse in Jerusalem and then, “What’s your religion?” At that point, I ended the conversation. I don’t need to function as the punching bag for somebody’s expression of the “Jerusalem Syndrome.”

Our stroll around Caeserea was enjoyable. We kept our eye on the time because we wanted to be ready at the entrance for the ride to the Arab village. We were sitting on a bench outside at 1:20 pm. 10 minutes early, looking like what we were, easily identified American tourists.

By 1:45, we began to worry. Buses disgorged tourists from China and elsewhere. Since the bus was going to pick us up at 2:30 in the village to return us to Tel Aviv, we were getting anxious about the timeframe. So I used my cell and finally reached the tour desk in Tel Aviv.

“We’re waiting for the ride to the village for lunch, but nobody’s here,” I said. The sales rep said he’d make some calls to get the story. A few minutes later he called back. I handed my phone to Naomi, saying, “You’re better on these calls than me.”

It turns out there had been a funeral in the village and all the restaurants were closed. However, somebody would come get us. That was encouraging. We kept waiting, amping up our American touristy look as much as possible so we’d be screamingly obvious to whomever cruised by. My Hawaiian shirt, baseball hat and camera around my neck probably did the trick.

Cars rolled by on road, but nobody steered our way. Finally, at 2 p.m., a car stopped and a woman leaned out the window.

“Abraham tourists?” she called.

We scampered to climb into the car, destination unknown.

The driver and a front-seat passenger chatted in Arabic and also spoke in Hebrew on a cell phone. We passed through the vast Jewish developments of Ohr Akiba and Binyamina and finally entered the village of Jisr Al-Zarqa (Blue Bridge), passing through a one-lane tunnel to arrive.

The car stopped a time or two as people leaned in the window to make arrangements for the two late-middle-aged Jewish tourists in the back seat. We found ourselves in a small cafe, where we enjoyed a lunch of pickled vegetables and hummus and pita bread. A man with a Star of David around his neck, who had steered us from the car to the cafe, returned to alert us to the bus’s arrival, so we thanked our hosts and hustled to the bus for the trip back to Tel Aviv. We were none the worse for wear and appreciated that the cafe was open to serve us.

Going with the flow at the village lunch.
Going with the flow at the village lunch.

On our last day in Tel Aviv, before we went to Rosh Pina for Shabbat, we went on a Sandemans walking tour of Old Jaffa. During a break we signed up for a four-hour walk around the Old City, which sounded like a smart way to get our bearings on Monday, our first full day in Jerusalem. We arrived at the Abraham Hostel in Jerusalem on Sunday night, and were ready for the tour Monday morning.

Nothing happened. It had been postponed due to the confluence of the Trump visit and Jerusalem Day activities. We could reschedule for later in the week. We opted for Friday, risky given that we were leaving that night and another delay would mean we’d miss the walk, but we decided the timing otherwise was good.

Next up was a tour to Masada, which we bravely had booked online for Tuesday. The registration form had us specify a hotel pickup point, and the Abraham Hostel was one of them. So this sounded like a lock for efficiency.

Tuesday morning we were standing outside the hostel, looking touristy, ready for a bus to come by. Nothing happened. I called Egged and was told because of street closings the bus wasn’t going to hotels, but if we could reach the Dan Hotel in 10 minutes (where’s the Dan Hotel? we asked each other) we could get the bus at that point. We had no contact with the company, no indication of plans dissolving. Once again, we had to call and sort things out ourselves; thank goodness for cell phones and English-speaking representatives. We rebooked the tour, and had to call again when we didn’t get a confirmation email.

A word to the wise about a non-routine visit to Jerusalem.
A word to the wise about a non-routine visitor to Jerusalem.

When the morning came for the tour, we trouped again to the front of the hostel. We were ready for the bus, yes indeed. Instead of a bus, however, a cab pulled up, the driver exited and asked, “Are you Van Wallach?”

“Yes,” I said, looking at my name on a list on his cell phone. He explained he was taking us to the pickup point for the tour, at the Mt. Scopus campus of Hebrew University. This was unexpected, but we had come to expect surprises in DIY tourism. The driver picked up two women going on a trip to the West Bank, and we unloaded in front of a cafeteria at Hebrew University.

Others also waited for tour buses, none going to Masada, one a college student going to Hebron for a summer gig with a nonprofit group. Once or twice somebody asked me what sounded like “Ben Hamin?” as if that were my name; to my South Texas ears, that sounded like the Spanish pronunciation of “Benjamin.”

“No, that’s not my name,” I said.

Finally a man with a clipboard appeared bearing what looked like the names and tours of dozens of people. He sorted us into bus 11 to Masada, with another company’s name on the side. Other buses had the name “Bein Harim” and I realized people hadn’t been asking my name, but whether I worked or knew about that tour company. Live and learn.

Once on the bus, Masada went smoothly. Indeed, the encounter with the scribe was a highlight of the trip. That was the pattern; whatever the complications of actually getting to the tour, once it started, the highly trained tour guides and savvy bus drivers did a fine job getting us to and around the sites. Kol b’seder—everything’s OK.

Israel had one more travel curve to throw at us. Following the requirements of the hostel, we booked our ride on the sherut, or shared cab, 24 hours before our flight from Ben Gurion Airport, at 12:15 a.m. on Saturday morning. This seemed cut and dried. We were packed, checked out and waiting patiently in the hostel library an hour before the 7:30 pickup time. Just to be sure, I checked at the desk to confirm the reservation. Naomi was enjoying an extended knitting session on a couch in the lobby.

The woman at the desk checked her computer and frowned. No, we weren’t booked on the 7:30 sherut. We had been booked the day before and never showed up since, of course, we weren’t leaving that day. Somehow, despite booking the trip more than 24 hours early, something went haywire. Was it confusion about the 12:15 a.m. Shabbat departure time?

I walked over to Naomi.

“We may have a problem,” I told her as nonchalantly as possible. Her jaw and knitting needles hit the floor.

I returned to the desk. Rather than spending any time pointlessly pointing fingers, I tried to fix the situation. Fortunately, the desk clerk found us the last two places on a sherut leaving at 8:30—plenty of time to reach the airport.

Israel didn’t want to let us get away that easily.

The sherut arrived and we squeezed into the back row. I sat next to a tall man in a business suit. Before we got out of Jerusalem he locked on to me with laser-like precision as a conversational partner. As is normal in these conversations, he talked and I listened. He was a entrepreneur who came to Israel from Scandinavia to talk to potential users of a logistics product he had developed. His soft voice made him hard to understand over the noise, but we kept up the conversation on business topics.

At least six and a half feet tall with longish blond hair, my interlocutor resembled a Viking warrior more than a yeshiva student. He had been to Israel before and he explained, “I’m often mistaken for an Israeli. People can see the love of Israel in my eyes.” Naomi and I still debate his statement, and whether Erik the Blond meant this seriously or was engaging in a dry form of Scandinavian humor, otherwise known as “pulling my leg.”

He certainly caught somebody’s attention. As we approached the entrance to the airport, the sherut stopped and a security guard boarded. He pointed to the man: “You, your passport.” He dutifully passed it forward; the guard glanced at it and returned it and the trip continued.

We were homeward bound.

About the Author
Van "Ze'ev" Wallach is a writer in Westchester County, NY. A native of Mission, Texas, he holds an economics degree from Princeton University. His work as a journalist appeared in Advertising Age, the New York Post, Venture, The Journal of Commerce, Newsday, Video Store, the Hollywood Reporter, and the Jewish Daily Forward. A language buff, Van has studied Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Yiddish and Hebrew, although he can’t speak any of them. He is the author of "A Kosher Dating Odyssey." He is a budding performer at open-mic events.