It is a land of fragile beauty, with wildflowers in furious bloom along the road to the airport, planted to grace what must have been an otherwise barren land. The land itself surges with life, the arable fields wrested from the clutches of sun and sand. But there are cedars and oranges, and fields of vegetables, and though the borders and ports give the impression of an armed camp, the life within the country is just as bounteous a land as could be promised to Moses.
Driving westward from the airport, the brilliant sun of the Mediterranean bleaches the traffic lights of red and green to a ghostly white and grey. Then my eyes adjust, and I see again the rich full blue of the sky, unmarred by clouds, and the steel grey-blue of the sea.
Though the work I have come here to do is unexciting, I again feel the magic of this land, and relish the thoughts of my time to be spent here.
On Tuesday, I began my work at Elta, and gingerly, on half memories shrouded in the obscurity of two and a half years of absence, I found my way to Ashdod by my old route, some 45 Km south of Tel Aviv. With only a few errors, I found my way, occasionally backtracking when I felt I had made a navigational error, and the road did not "feel" right. It was with a sense of pride that Elta finally hove into sight, and I once again marvelled at the brain's ability to remember images. I had all through the drive pictured events that should next occur, and with expected omissions and errors, I was actually able to adequately remember my way.
Though I was prepared for it, I was still jarred by the driving etiquette that is found in the mid-east. Two weeks of driving here should be a mandatory experience for anyone who complains of the discourtesy of U.S. drivers. From the onset, it is like driving in the Israeli national grand prix. The traffic lights go from red to a brief red-yellow of warning, and then to green. And on this warning, one gets the impression of a drag-race christmas tree, counting down until clutches are popped, the accelerators are pressed to the floorboards, and almost as one, all the cars at the intersection lurch forward, engines revving simultaneously, jockeying for position, shifting lanes and roaring off to the next intersection, where the battle is repeated again.
Although the lanes are at times (though not very frequently) clearly marked, they appear to be so for convenience and not legal demarkation. Cars, busses, motorcycles, and the curious three wheeled hybrids saunter back and forth across boundaries, occasionally spending time straddling two lanes. Mercifully, horns are used sparingly, in a relatively silent contrast to Cairo, where the horns seem to be an integral part of the automobiles propulsion units. Here, the lights are used to flash the desire to pass - a frequent occurance.
To the uninitiated, the Israeli road situation resembles total mayhem. This is an unfair appraisal, though. It is merely organized mayhem, with police acting as an infrequent annoyance, disturbing the singleminded surging of traffic towards its diverse goals. In two weeks of driving, I saw only one police car, blue lights flashing on the side of the road. The speed limit here is 90 kph (roughly equivalent to our 55 mph), but as in the U.S., everyone ignores the posted limits, cruising at 100-140 kph.
If the drivers here are brusque and agressive, then the roads themselves seem to have an almost conscious contribution to the disorganization. While all are soundly paved, they too seem bent on hindering the novice. A good sense of direction is essential in the mid-east, as well as a well submerged fear of enclosure. Roads come in two flavors - major and microscopic, but rarely are either variety straight for more than two or three blocks. In all of Tel Aviv, I know of only a handful of roads that go in a steady N/S direction, and even these change from three lanes to one, and from two way to one way and back again with a near alarming frequency. On the minor roads, one often finds cars parked on both sides of a one way street, with enough room in the center for a small car - an Israeli small car. What the Americans call compact cars are here almost the size of land yachts, and a luxury car in the U.S. takes up as much room as 4 Autobianchi's, a standard sized Italian import that can seat four adults (albeit with some compression of the knees). Consequently, one sees precious few American cars here, and when they are in evidence, it is usually painfully so. They stand out like great steel behemoths in a sea of quick swimming metal sardines (or sardine cans, if you happen to be inside of one).
Yet in spite of this seeming insanity, I was still able to navigate quite - though keeping a firm grasp on the location of the sun helped immensely in finding a nearly consistent course. Were one to start travelling in an easterly direction in most American cities, one would expect to make one more right turn than left to wind up facing south. The convoluted roads in Pittsburgh and Boston seem almost rectilinear by comparison to Tel Aviv. On my usual trek southwards to Ashdod, I made one more left turn then which my mind tells me sends me north, rather than south. Yet after each left turn, the road conveniently bends to the right, so that the net effect is to go somewhat straight - but only somewhat. Perhaps my pride in finally finding my destination can be better appreciated in light of this fact.
-Tomorrow, Cairo, Giza, and Abu Simbel.