I found myself in a hammock, swinging back and forth between exhaustion and the inability to sleep. My eyes are heavy, testament to the jet lag that comes from 16 hours of flying. But even a day of restless travel and few hours of sleep is no contest for the hot Israeli sun that beats relentlessly on the outside of my cotton cocoon. The sun has just come up but it’s already hot. Even the flies look for relief in the beads of sweat forming across my body.
The city of Tel Aviv also stirs with the sun’s intensity. They are all the normal sounds of a city: a jack-hammer in the distance, the high pitched squeal of a crane moving cement blocks atop new construction, the mechanical purr of motorcycles and scooters. The hum is familiar, but I know I have a lot to learn about this place.
That was clear from the moment I stepped off the plane. Even before actually, when in our own Newark airport terminal special security measures were taken to hand check every bag and wand every body. Then there was the moment when in the middle of the night I woke to find a man standing just off my shoulder bobbing religiously. As usual, I flew standby, with no set schedule or plan save my first night in Tel Aviv. That’s normal for me, but in Israel it’s cause for suspicion.
“Why do you visit?” Asked the customs officer.
“Just tourism,” I answered.
“How long will you be here?”
“I think about 2 weeks.”
“Do you have a return ticket?”
“No, I’m flying standby.”
“Where are you staying?”
“All over.” He looked up at me from my passport. I picked up the hint and continued, “…with friends and the rest of the time in hostels.”
“Hold on.” He reached for his phone and made a call.
I was escorted to a back room then handed off to another person. Over the next 15 minutes I went through a similar line of questioning, but this time I was keen enough to explain my travel patterns and intentions with a bit more detail. Eventually, my passport was returned.
I know a couple Israelis in Tel Aviv who I met while traveling in Argentina. And thanks to the magical world of Facebook, an Argentine reunion was already in the works. However, my first nights accommodations would be with a person I’d only exchanged emails with over “Couch Surfing” (a web based social network where people offer their “couches” to like minded travelers.
I called my new friend who I’ve never met and we spoke for the first time. “I may not be home when you get here, so I’ll leave the door unlocked.” She gave me directions to her apartment. “You’ll know it’s my apartment from the picture of my brain on the door.” Nice.
I followed her directions until I stood in front the door of a 7th floor apartment…looking at a photocopied side-view of a brain. I knocked. Nothing. I knocked again. Nothing. I entered. Assuming this had to be the right place, I put down my bags and walked onto the balcony. A tie die hammock swayed in a minor Mediterranean breeze. 2 blocks away, a soft sandy beached was lined with people and palm trees.
Anna walked in. “Oh, you startled me!”
“Hi, I’m Derek,” I replied.
“You wanna go for a swim?”
She grabbed two bottles from the fridge. I changed into my swim trunks. Within 10 minutes I was bobbing in the warm Mediterranean water as the salmon sun sunk below the turquoise horizon. We drip dried and drank our beer.
Welcome to Israel.