Thursday, May 17, 2007

Israel: First impressions

Israel has always seemed a political war zone on a newspaper page, a location in the Bible. Like just about every place, it becomes real to me only when I have sniffed the air, battled the traffic for myself.

Now I'm here, just arrived after the flight from Madrid that was, of course, delayed (what flight isn't these days?)

"Your first visit to Israel?'' asks my seat mate, an Israeli in his 50s who lives in Chile much of the year.

The conversation turned to his Chilean base -- I've visited nearby; the peculiarities of Miami (a great city, I told him, except for the drivers, but not typically American) and his homeland. And of course, Iraq.

Will there ever be peace in Israel? I asked. His answer is no -- but perhaps separate states for Israel and Palestine can create a better situation.

He rode recently in a taxi with a Chilean who lives in Washington, D.C. His taxi mate asked him to describe Israel. "Efficient and arrogant,'' was his answer. Yet his eyes lit up when we landed. It's his home, after all.


Airport impressions: Oasis in the desert, with a waterfall cascading from ceiling to fountain in the retail court / departure lounge. Black-hatted, bearded Orthodox men in the passport line -- like mid Miami Beach on a Saturday morning. A young couple kissing on the sidewalk. Intricate Hebrew script running right to left ... just like the password I've typed into the hotel web login page. Familiar, exotic, unknown. Perhaps unknowable. Over the next days, I will at least know more.


I've made it a habit over the years to ask at the airport tourist info booth what a taxi should cost. About 100-120 shekels -- $25-$30 -- to Tel Aviv, I was told; I could take the train and then a taxi for less, but I couldn't see that it was worth the hassle to save $15. It's been a long day.

Hop into the taxi; the driver looks at his rate sheet, figures something in his meter, and tells me the price will be 317 shekels ... about $80 ... to drive 7 miles. I am appalled. "But the tourist desk said it would cost about 120 shekels,'' I tell him. He says no. We are already well on the way to Tel Aviv.

We get to my hotel, a cozy stylish boutique hotel built in an old cinema and called, naturally, the Cinema Hotel. The desk clerk is consulted. "100 shekels tops,'' he says. "That is the official rate. Maybe give him another 20 shekels for the luggage,'' he advises.

I return to the taxi. The taxi man complains this is not right. I suggest a call to the taxi authority. "My English, it is not good,'' he says. I drop the 120 shekels on the seat and go back into the hotel. A fair price is all I'm after.

Says the desk clerk, "The drivers, they don't want to use the meter. They are very smart, the drivers. They try to get more money.''

And why not? But next time, I'll ask for the meter.

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