One of my most dramatic travel experiences was the nearly failed departure from Tel Aviv airport on Easter Monday 2009.
I knew very well about the airport’s draconic security measures and had duly planned to arrive there at least two hours in advance. Three is typically recommended, but I was foolishly hoping for a bit of luck. Utterly undisturbed by any sort of rush, I packed slowly and headed to the bus, which was due to arrive soon. Or was it? The skies started clouding up above me, as, about half an hour later, there was still no sign of the bus. The inner voice was telling me to take the taxi to the train station instead and go from there. There were exactly 20 minutes left until the next twice-hourly train.
I had exchanged all of my remaining shekels by then, keeping only the two fares’ worth (bus and train) I needed to get to the airport. Taxi clearly wasn’t part of my plans, so, as I hailed one, my immediate question to the driver was whether he accepted cards. It was only later that I understood the kind of idiotic query that was, as, unlike, say, in Scandinavia, no taxi in Tel Aviv would think of taking cards as payment. Contrary to my expectations, the driver nodded. Really? I waved my card in the air. He nodded again. Feeling lucky, I hopped on the taxi, and off we drove.
The traffic in Tel Aviv was absolutely impenetrable. It looked like I was going to miss the train, and I started panicking. Would the security officers at Tel Aviv show some understanding if I stormed in a mere hour ahead of my flight? It would probably fly anywhere else in the world, but not in Israel. I was hoping my train would perhaps be running late for me to make it. Yes! In front of us finally stood the train station.
I handed my card to the driver. He looked at it rather blandly, and rubbed his thumb against two of the closest fingers. Only cash? Impossible. Occasionally bursting into Russian, I tried to explain our initial agreement to settle the payment with a card. He shook his head. Unlike many of his fellow countrymen, he did not understand a word of Russian. Or English, as it was obviously the case.
At that point, I exploded. Instead of gate-crashing the train station, I was still stuck in that taxi resolving a payment formality. There were no ATMs around, so I couldn’t withdraw any cash even if I wanted to. I got out of the car and, to great amusement for other taxi drivers around (and shock for mine), gave the driver one remarkable speech. A speech about how irresponsible it was of taxi drivers to promise their passengers one thing and renege on that promise. Then I turned around and rolled swiftly down to the platforms, leaving the furious driver arguing with his colleagues over something in Hebrew.
I was running like hell – but the train was gone. The next one was scheduled to arrive in 30 minutes. Every minute seemed at least an hour long. I was seriously late to the airport, but was hoping for the better. The clocks went over the scheduled time, but there was still no sign of the train though; it was eight minutes delayed. I was nearly crying, when, as if to add to my misery, my taxi driver suddenly emerged on the platform. Not exactly the person I most wanted to see at that particular moment. He showered me with selected Hebrew, which I found beautifully textural with all its sounding consonants – but failed to understand in the least. Thankfully, an Israeli lady on the platform kindly agreed to mediate, listened to my story, gently relayed it to the driver and absolutely saved the day. He had left my life forever – and my train was finally approaching.
We had reached the airport. It was on-the-dot one hour till take-off. It took me a while to find the departures hall, where a brief look at the electronic board confirmed that I was in the right terminal. I rushed to the security and begged to be let through immediately. My paranoia was met with utter coldness. Why am I so late? Didn’t I know one was to arrive at Tel Aviv airport no later than three hours before their flight? Carefully omitting the driver and the non-payment for the taxi, I outlined my little train incident. The verdict was clear – I was going to miss my flight. There was no way the security staff could perform all the checks in such a short time. But I begged again and again. I needed to go to work back in London, for Heaven’s sake. The officers looked at each other. We’ll try, they said.
And so they did.
What followed next has been my ultimate model of airport efficiency ever since. About five people attacked my luggage from different ends. They went through everything. My laptop was opened and repeatedly scanned. My various electric chargers were detangled, unrolled, scanned and rolled back into beautiful little bundles. My food was unpacked and let through a scanner piece by piece. My beautiful Nikon had its lens temporarily taken off for inspection. Everything was functioning like clockwork.
In the meantime, the check-in procedure for myself was launched at the nearby bmi desk, where my passport and confirmation email were delivered in person by a member of the mentioned high-efficiency team. I was taken through a body scanner device located in a special little room elsewhere. I did my best to co-operate, not to argue with what I was being asked to do and not to show signs of anxiety. God only knows how difficult that was.
Even under the circumstances, the Israelis were not at all deprived of humour. One of the officers asked if I had any seating preferences. Everyone around laughed. It turned out that the only un-occupied seats left on the entire plane were middle ones next to the emergency exit. Needless to say that, at that stage, I had no strong seating preferences whatsoever.
Finally it was all over. Good girl, one of the officers said. See that gentleman right behind you? He’s on the same flight, but he won’t make it.
Tel Aviv probably boasts the most beautiful airport building I have ever seen – and I have seen a few – but I had little time to enjoy it as I sprinted towards my gate. The boarding had already started. I collapsed into my middle seat in front of the “EXIT” sign. It was one hell of an afternoon, but – thanks to the efficiency of the Tel Aviv airport’s security staff – the finale was a happy one.