Incidents and accidents: Holy land tourism, part 1

December 8, 2018

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 8, 2018

Lady X and I flew into Israel’s Ben Gurion International Airport on Dec. 4, 2009, and flew back to the States on Dec. 11. It was a wonderful trip, but there were a few moments that left me feeling anxious or frightened. This is an account of some of them.

I can’t remember whether I booked a rental car in advance; if not, I was certainly freaking out about transportation as we deplaned and went to pick up our luggage. Nor could I tell you if I got a good rental price. Regardless, we obtained a Fiat Punto without trouble and were soon on our way.

The car, which was white with a few sporty red and green stripes, served us well. We drove more than 300 miles in the course of a week: From the airport east to Jerusalem; after a few days in Jerusalem, east and south to Ein Gedi, a beach on the Dead Sea; then, on the same day, north through the West Bank to Tiberias, on the Sea of Galilee, which is also known as (among other things) the Kinneret or Lake Tiberias; after a few days there, west and southwest to Nazareth, then west and northwest to Haifa, and — still on the same day! — south along the Mediterranean to Tel Aviv; and after a few days there, southeast back to the airport.

These are fairly popular destinations and relatively easy to get to by car. Israeli highway signs are labeled in Hebrew, Arabic and English, and I think I brought a guidebook with a decent map, so driving around was simple enough.

However, there were a couple of dodgy moments. The West Bank is part of the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories. We left Jerusalem on Monday, Dec. 7, and at one point on the 80-minute drive to Ein Gedi, we passed through a checkpoint with armed Israeli soldiers. X and I, Caucasians that we are, were simply waved through, but I suspect the soldiers offer much more scrutiny to others.

This wasn’t scary, but I started getting nervous on the trek from Ein Gedi to Tiberias, which is about two and a half hours. Day faded into night during the drive, and I honestly wasn’t sure whether traveling in the dark was safe for foreigners. It poured for part of the trip, which didn’t make me feel any more comfortable. We passed a car that had run off the road at one point, which naturally stoked my anxiety.

We went through the drive without a hitch — or perhaps I should say with only one minor hitch. We spent nearly the entire journey on what Google Maps identifies as Route 90. It started off curling around the coast of the Dead Sea, became a relatively straight road cutting through an occasionally populated stretch of desert, and transitioned into a circuitous route through the hills and mountains.

When the rain seemed to be at its fiercest and the light at its weakest, the road was a full-scale highway. (Later, it would transition back to a mountain road and then a regular city road.) Seemingly in the middle of nowhere, we came upon something that in the United States I would have thought of as a toll plaza.

Here, however, it was a checkpoint — one crewed by soldiers carrying rifles. The road was mostly empty, and I expected we’d pass through easily, but… Well, you never know.

A soldier with a rifle slung over his shoulder approached the passenger side of the car. X or I rolled down her window. I told him we were traveling from the Dead Sea to Tiberias. “Americans, eh?” he asked. “That’s right,” I replied.

X brought quite a nice camera on the trip, and between the two of us, we took more 2,500 pictures over our eight-day visit. Now, during my brief exchange with the soldier, she picked up the camera and trained her lens on the soldiers arrayed around us. The soldier beside X told her to put it away, but she didn’t hear him and continued looking through her viewfinder.

I hesitated, unsure what to do or say. A beat later, the soldier told X to put down the camera, more urgently this time. Again, she didn’t seem to hear him, so I called out her name sharply. She looked at me. “Put the camera down,” I said, more gently. She did, I answered another question or two, and a few moments later we were on our way.

My recollection of this short tense episode involves a rainy checkpoint in the dark of night. But I also remember that later in the drive, the sky lightened, and as we came over a rise we saw a rainbow around the same moment that we got our first glimpse of the Sea of Galilee. Perhaps I misremember when the storm ended, or I’ve confused seeing the rainbow with our first sight of the lake.

After settling in the hotel, which like much of Tiberias is situated on one of the hills that tower over the lake’s west bank, we drove back down the slope and circuited what I believe to be the city’s main shopping and entertainment district. We parked, wandered around and got some food and a drink.

Later, at X’s insistence, we picked up a hitchhiker. He seemed to be an Orthodox Jew, presumably a yeshiva student. This man spoke little English, so I had a lot of trouble understanding where he wanted to go.

We kept on going south, out of town, but after a few minutes I deduced that he wanted a lift to some town or settlement, not merely a nearby neighborhood. (We may have figured this out by having him point at one of our maps.) I think we turned around and dropped him off at the southern edge of the entertainment district, where he stood a solid chance of catching another ride.

A few other incidents and accidents along the way, which I’ll reserve for a future posts. But don’t worry: It all worked out fine in the end!

To be continued

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