I have already gone to great lengths to explain how and why we did not enjoy ourselves during our recent trip to Israel, at least not as much as we would like to have, and how we didn't get to hardly do a thing with the family. As I am still traumatized by these troubles I would like to use the opportunity to further discuss two specific problems, problems which sound like nothing on paper but actually amount to quite a pain.
The first one is to do with the state of internet facilities in Israel.
For the first time ever on an international trip we took a laptop with us (the almighty Eee PC), and to our surprise we ended up using it quite extensively in England. Not only did we use it to manage all the photos I took, we also used it for security guaranteed internet access (thank god for Linux) to check our bank and credit accounts, and more importantly while on a trip - to plan our excursion to Bath, survey car rental companies, rent a car, and book a hotel room. And it all worked, dare I say worked perfectly.
Then we came back to Israel to stay at the only place I am now familiar with that does not feature internet connectivity - my parents' place. Doesn't sound like much of a problem but it is; try taking away something you're used to, something really beneficial that you use on a daily basis, and see how it feels. I felt the same.
Eventually I did find this place at the corner of my parents' living room where I could tap into an unsuspecting neighbor's internet connection, and our friends also offered us to use their internet. In fact, they went out of their way, offering me passwords and such, and even saying a good word or two about the Eee PC when I wasn't listening. But then again I didn't particularly want to abuse my parents' neighbors, nor did I come to visit my best friends whom I haven't seen for three years in order to use their internet connection.
Planning our activities while in Israel was therefore a major problem.
It grew worse, however, once we went to visit my sister to spend an evening using her internet connection: we have discovered that once you acquire access to the internet there is not much to access; at least not something to rival the standards we are used to.
Take, for example, hotel bookings websites. We've tried several, and they all gave us this warm fuzzy feeling of being just on the verge of making a booking. They even ask to collect - as mandatory information - information I would never dream of giving away of my free will, such as my ID number (yes, there is such a thing in Israel). We thought we've secured our bookings through those websites only to discover a day later that we haven't; we were contacted by two different travel agents who told us the info on their websites is indicative only and that the places we thought we had booked and even gave our great grandfathers' maiden names for are actually fully booked. Would you like to hear of the great alternatives we have on offer?
Compare that to the experience of booking a room at Bath's Holiday Inn Express through a five minute transaction.
Similar things happened when we tried to rent a car.
First thing I noticed was that all Israeli rental car companies force you to pay for reduced excess in case of an accident, something like $30-$40 per day, even though my credit card and many others cover you for such things. The only exception was Budget, so I went ahead with renting a car through them.
I thought I had a quote and a reservation all done over the internet, but it said at the bottom to give them a call so I did; then I realized that what I got over the internet was, again, "indicative" only. The quote I got over the phone was different: it was more expensive (naturally). And then I was told that only at the branch itself will I be able to acquire the true quote. When I go to pick the car up...
Guess what? At the branch itself we got ourselves yet another quote. An even more expensive quote. Naturally. By now we were not too far from the other rental companies that charge you for the extras you don't need to pay in the first place.
The car we had rented was by far the worst car I have ever rented. An Hyundai Getz, it wasn't the world's best car to begin with (yet its rental cost us much more than the Ford Focus we rented a week before in England). The worst thing was the state of it: it was obviously unsafe with a shaky steering wheel on highway speeds, it stunk of cleaning material, it had bits coming off... It was a piece of shit, in short. You won't catch me renting a car from Budget in Israel again.
Great internet facilities.
The next problem that bothered me in Israel was driving on the right.
Since leaving Israel for good in favor of Australia I never drove on the right side of the road. Getting used to driving on the left to a level in which it felt completely natural and instinctive was hard and took me more than a year, so I didn't want to confuse myself again. It's not that I was so worried about not being able to cope driving on the right; having lived in Israel for more than 30 years, I know most of the roads so well that I don't really need an orientation course. My main worry was to do with going back to Australia and driving on the left, feeling completely secure at that, and then doing something that should not have been done on the right hand side of the road.
In short, it was that false sense of security I was worried about, because it was exactly that sense that overcame me whenever I made a serious mistake while trying to orient myself to Australia's left side driving.
Worries aside, we were so miserable during our stay in Israel we just had to go out and do something with ourselves. We just had to rent a car, phobias or not.
So we did.
And I drove on the right side again. In broad daylight. In Israeli traffic.
And... And it felt completely natural. It felt like I was stepping into the same driver seat I stepped out of last night upon returning back from work.
Sure, I took my time orienting myself to driving on the right by letting others drive me before taking the steering wheel. And let me tell you something, those friends of mine that took us on drives are lunatics - the way they turn into the wrong lanes, the way they do it every time they turn. God knows how they're still alive.
But things felt different once I was sitting in the driver's seat. Things felt natural. By now I can also report that going back to Australia did not seem to be an issue, therefore allowing me to declare myself a fully universal driver. Just give me a road, any road.
I said a lot of bad things about Israel and I stand behind them. As a friend reminded me while we were visiting, I once said in this very blog that Israel is a place I have no attachments to whatsoever other than it being a place that hosts a lot of my family and friends; I still stand behind this statement, and I would happily add further condemnation to the state of Israel on top if this was the right place and time to do so.
As a traveler, though, the bottom line is simple: Israel is not good enough, especially when coming from Australia. England, for comparison, is also quite inferior when compared to Australia; to be fair, I suspect most countries are. But England is still a place you can enjoy while visiting, Pay & Display and all. Israel, on the other hand, is much too significantly inferior. Sure, I would still go there, but by now I have lost any expectations of having fun there; I will go for the sole purpose of visiting family and friends.
And for the record, I think Israel is also a place where it is damn hard to raise a child. I moan about Australia, but Israel is in a league of its own. There's no Target or Big W to buy cheap clothing for your child from, given that he/she will outgrow the cloth after wearing it twice anyway, and the choice of baby foods available at the supermarket is very limited. Not to mention having to send them to the army once they hit 18.
To finish on a brighter note, there is a hope coming out of our visit to Israel: We got a promise that at least one of my best friends will come and visit us (yes, in Melbourne no less) during August/September 2010.
We need to thank an international science fiction convention taking place in Melbourne for that honor, but who cares? Hell, I have loved science fiction even before it brought friends over.
Naturally, being the way I am, I am sure that in the long march till August 2010 I will be crippled or have a heart attack. Still, I will have a reason to want to recover.
See you on August 2010. Call me from the airport so I'll come and pick you up.