My arrival in Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport did not play out quite as I had anticipated. My image of Israelis and airports, muddied somewhat by childhood memories of Entebbe and Munich, had me expecting fully armed, half-shaven commandos strewn across the tarmac. Not so Ben Gurion that steamy July night. There wasn’t an overabundance of security, at least compared to what I was used to in the U.S. Even my interaction with the grumpy immigration official was nothing out of the ordinary. His biggest concern seemed to be that I was spending all of my week-long stay in Jerusalem. Why would you want to do that, he asked, intoning that Tel Aviv is a lot more fun. Grudgingly he issued a blue entry permit (no stamp) and sent me on my way.
Next was the baggage carousel, which Turkish Air had forced me to after informing me at Dulles Airport in Washington, DC that my carry on was too heavy. Apparently if I had brought along a carry on bag and “personal item”, and had been able divvy up the load, there wouldn’t have been a problem. Go figure. I wasn’t sure about the reasoning but also wasn’t in any position to question their policy.
With possessions in hand I headed for the exits, stopping first at the airport’s customer information desk to ask about transport into city. The woman there recommended I use the Nesher cab service which, for 64 shekels (about $15) will transport you and handful of other arrivals to desired locations (hotels, private homes etc.) in Jerusalem. Following her guidance I found two such cabs just outside of the exit and let the drivers know where I was going. This led to a heated argument in Hebrew between the two men, presumably about what to do about me. After a few minutes of debate one of the drivers gestured me to put my bag into his van. Another heated argument then ensued. The same driver then told me to take out my bag and put it in the other van. Yet another argument ensued. The first driver then told me to put the bag back in his van. Still the arguments continued. He then gestured to me to remove my bag but then stopped me and told me to get in. “Are you sure?” I asked. “Yah, yah, yah,” he replied. I had my ride.
Part of the problem may have been that I was not staying at a traditional hotel. The Market Courtyard Suites, my base for six nights, is located off a small alley near the bustling Mahane Yehuda Market not far from the Old City. I wasn’t entirely sure where it was because it wasn’t on a road of any consequence. Rather, it was on a small lane that branched off another lane, both inaccessible by motorized vehicles. The drivers seemed to know, at least roughly where it was, which might have explained their apprehension. They couldn’t drive me directly to my hotel, only drop me off in the neighborhood and hope things work out.
The ride from Ben Gurion took about an hour, winding through the rolling, wooded hills leading to central Jerusalem. As we approached my lodging the driver asked me for the phone number for the place I was staying. I couldn’t be sure but I think he was trying to be helpful. I pulled out my reservation and told him I couldn’t read it in the dark. He asked again. I repeated that if he turned on the overhead light I might be about to read the five point font on the print out. Frustrated he replied, “Ok, you pay now.” Nothing ambiguous there. By the time I got my wallet out we had stopped. “You pay now,” he repeated. Hey, I get it. “64 shekels right,” I confirmed. “Yah, yah, yah.” I gave him 100 and he gave my back 35 in change. Close enough I figured. “Down the alley, your hotel,” he yelled opening the door. I was almost ready to feel his shoe on my rear end as I descended down the stairs of the van. “My bag?” I asked as he shut the door “Yah, yah, yah,” he replied. I think the only thing that stopped the guy from immediately driving away was the sound of the latch of the back door of his van opening. I grabbed my bag and headed into the night.
Ha-Khermon Street at night is about as dark and dingy as dark and dingy alleys get. Adding to my concern was I really had no clue where I was. Easing my concern was the first person I saw walking towards me was an orthodox Jewish man. I may have been lost but I probably was safe. A minute or so into the alley I thought it would be useful to ask for directions. I approached a young couple who said they’d love to help if I’d tell them the actual address of the Market Courtyard Suites. Point taken. I then found a lit section of the alley and pulled out my reservation. An orthodox family was walking by right at that moment so I asked a second time for directions, this time with the seemingly cryptic words and numbers that could locate this place. The father of the large young brood pulled out his iPhone and punched in the address in the Jewish script. “It works better in Hebrew,” he explained in what sounded like a Brooklyn accent. A few seconds later the address came up. “It’s just up the alley” he said.
We retraced our steps then turned down Hakarmel Street, an alley even darker and dingier than the first. About fifty feet down this lane and we arrived at my hotel. I thanked my impromptu guide and rang the doorbell. After a minute or so, a petite young Israeli woman greeted and welcomed me in. “We’ve been expecting you,” she said, explaining why the front desk of the small lodging was still operational this late at night. She then checked me in, making sure, in the process, that I had my blue entry permit, which for some reason I found in my shoe. I was to be on the third floor of an attractive 130 year-old building, meaning that getting to my room was going to be a bit of a workout. My young hotel attendant offered to carry my bag, to which I warned, “It’s heavy, even Turkish Airlines wouldn’t let me call it carry on.” She insisted, then proceeded to walk up the three and half floors without breaking a sweat or even panting a bit. After catching my breath I thanked her and settled in. I had arrived.