"John's travels since 2005." NYTim's Profile
My mother died in January of 2004. A year later my brother Brian called and told me that the estate had been settled and my share was four thousand dollars. My intent was to hand it over to my wife, Judy, the family bookkeeper. She is Jewish, tall, shapely and a wonderful partner. When I told her about my windfall, she said, “Treat yourself. Do something special with it. It’s found money.”
What did I do to deserve this woman? What should I buy? I thought: a new kitchen floor, oak cabinets, winterize the balcony, a giant-screen plasma television. Then slowly like mist clearing from a mountain, a joyous plan took shape my mind – why not fulfill my twenty-five year old dream to return to Kibbutz Ramat Yochanan, where I had spent the happiest time of my adulthood – maybe of my life.
But Judy wouldn’t go for it. She had given me carte-blanche with the cash but Israel, with its reputation for danger -- I didn’t think so. A friend told me, after she had met Judy for the first time, that she was an angel. Maybe more like a guardian angel – protective. And she is not one to hide her feelings.
On my way home from work on March 1st, I prepared my arguments in preparation for her objections: statistically, it is very unlikely that I will get injured by in a terrorist’s attack; I will not go anyplace dangerous like the West Bank; this means more to me than you can possibly realize.
Armed and ready, I presented my case, trying to sound casual, I said, “I think I know what I want do with my mother’s money.”
“Tell me,” she said.
“I wanna go to Israel.”
“So go then,” she said.
I thought I knew my wife. I do know her. But I didn’t realize there was part of her that lay hidden: her love for me and her desire to make me happy overrode her protective instincts.
“Judy,” I said. “Thanks. I was afraid that you would react to the tensions.”
What tensions? In this house?”
“No, silly,” I said, “the tensions in Israel.”
“Well, John, You have always wanted to return and I know it means so much to you. I trust that you will not do anything stupid. You would not intentionally put yourself in danger. You told me it was the happiest time of your life. There is no way I am going to stop you.”
“Will you come with me?”
“No. That is too far from home and I am sure you will have more fun on your own retracing your footsteps.”
Flabbergasted and happy and before she could change her mind, I made my travel plans. My flight, hotels and car rental are booked. I’m going for eight days. I contacted Ramat Yochanan by e-mail. Apparently, quite a few people remembered me. I can stay on the kibbutz for as long as I wish. I’m jumping out off my skin with excitement. I’m going home.
I arrived at Ben Gurion on the morning of May 18th 2005. Exactly 28 years to the day that I first arrived. I took a rented car and drove north toward Haifa. Wow, things had certainly changed in 28 years. Tel Aviv was no longer a dusty, sleepy city but a bustling, sleek metropolis. Shiny sky scrapers pierced the Middle – Eastern sky. I arrived on the outskirts of Kiryat Ata, stopped and checked the directions my kibbutz friend, Shimson, had sent me. In a few minutes I was at the gates of Ramat Yochanan. I had to stop the car as I was overcome with joyous emotions as tears of happiness rolled down my cheeks. Once recovered, I entered the kibbutz and waiting at the gate was Shimson. I stopped the car, he jumped in, we shook hands and I drove into the body of Ramat Yochanan. It looked very similar to 28 years earlier. The only noticeable change was the height of the trees – they were much taller. He led me down a small plat to my kibbutz mother’s house. Many volunteers were adopted by families. Dada and Tsvia Melamed adopted me. We had a grand re-union and talked for hours as we walked around the kibbutz. The houses and gardens were neat and it Ramat Yochanan seemed prosperous – it was, as I found out later. My only disappointment was the disappearance of the Volunteer camp – swallowed up by the plastics factory. I thoroughly enjoyed my trip so much so that I returned two more times in the next three years.
My mother’s money was enabling me to travel like never before. In 2006, I came back to Israel with my brother, Brian, who really was not a traveler. We had a great 9 days then he flew back to Scotland and I headed for Istanbul. What a wonderful trip it was again.
Still using my Mother's money and a combination of frequent flier miles I travelled to India. The Sub-Continent is different from any place I have been and I think that’s what attracts me to this country of one billion souls. The culture and history has always fascinated me, especially the subject of caste.
Caste, according to the government, was on the way out; however, there had been riots when lower caste Indians tried to convert to non-caste religions. Besides being a tourist, I set out to discover what remnants, if any, of the caste system remained.
On the plane ride to India, I was chatting to a young software engineer from South Delhi. I asked him what he thought of the caste system. He replied, “It is the glue that holds the fabric of society together.” “Oh,” I said, “I am sure the Dalits – the untouchables – have different opinions. There have been riots all over India by Dalits protesting their lack of opportunities in the Indian economy.” “Lack of opportunity be damned. They get half the university placements and a certain quota get government jobs that were once given only to deserving upper castes. They have deprived us of income. They should know their place but these government programs make them think they are like us or better than us.” I said, “I have read about the university placements and many fail in the first year.” “See!” he said, “They are not ready yet to join the new prosperous India.” I told him, “When Dalits go to University they are often abused by Brahmin and other upper caste professors. They are given tougher assignments and often are graded unfairly. It is form of racism cloaked in the garb of tradition. If India wants to join the rest of the world as an equal partner, this will have to change.” He sighed and said, “Typical Westerner, telling Indians how to run their country.” “I am only trying to have discussion with you on this long flight.” I said. “I want to understand India not just see it through the eyes of a tourist.” “Then accept what I say and you will understand India.” I said. “I do not understand a culture that burns people alive, who convert to Christianity, to get out of the caste system.” “Converts are a threat to everything Indian. They deserve everything they get.” “Goodnight,” I said. Then I popped a sleeping pill into my mouth, pulled my eyeshades on and slowly dropped off to sleep.
Arriving at Indira Gandhi International Airport at 8:30 at night, the first thing that struck me, while waiting in the immigration lines, were flashing red neon signs asking passengers not to bribe the customs and immigration officials. After I cleared immigration, the outside air was with thick with diesel and petrol fumes. A second not so familiar odor, adding to the already smoky atmosphere, was the smell of burning of cow dung patties. Dung is mixed with straw, made into Frisbee sized discs and dried. For most of India’s poor this is their only cooking option. The smog is so thick and smoky that headlights from cars pierced through it like searchlights during London’s blitz.
I had arranged for a cab to me pick up. Thank goodness! As I left the terminal and walked to the taxi pick-up point, a pushing, jostling group of Indian men reached their brown arms out behind a railing, and shouted at me and the other passengers, “Official taxi! Low price!” “Your hotel sent me! Please come.” “Sir! Sir! Special deal just for you.” I was prepared for this as I had researched what to expect on my arrival in Delhi but it was still somewhat disconcerting. In the host of flailing limbs a young man was holding a piece of cardboard with my name scrawled on it, saving me from the hordes of con men.
As my ramshackle taxi drove me to my hotel, I saw whole families living in makeshift shelters on the dividers between the lanes on the highway from the airport. At every traffic light, my cab was besieged with women, their mouths filled with broken green teeth, holding hydrocephalic babies and knocking on my window asking for money. What a welcome. I’d expected it but nothing could have prepared me for the level of poverty I saw on the road from the airport.
My driver seemed not to care how close he tailgated trucks, busses , cars and tuk – tuks – the ubiquitous little green and yellow, three-wheeled, motorized rickshaws that buzzed in and out of traffic sounding like swarms of angry hornets. Because of congestion on the roads we never managed to gather up much speed. Fortunately for me or I would have been terrified. Our two lanes of the highway had at least five rows of traffic squeezed together waiting for the signal to go green. When the light changed, the traffic shot forward, horns beeping, until the next light stopped the never ending flow. The sound that represents India to me is constant honking of horns.
Most vehicles do not have wing mirrors. At one time they did but all that remains are the brackets that held them on. Most have been broken off by passing vehicles. Every automobile is dented and scratched no matter its age. Some are missing windshields and others wobble from side to side because of different sized wheels purloined from scrap cars. Windshield wipers flop like limp wrists. God knows how some drivers manage during the monsoon season.
The Mumbai terrorist attack scared my wife and she asked that I do not return to India for a third visit. So i decided to visit Vietnam. After a two night stopover in hong Kong -- which I found quite boring -- I landed at Ho Chi Minh airport at 10pm at night. I expected the craziness of India when I arrived but it was very oderly and smooth. The airport was clean and outside people patiently waited to greet families and friends. The cabs were lined up much the same as one would find in a Western airport. I had order a cab in advance and I approached a man holding a board with my name on it. In an nice car he whisked me to my hotel and within ten minutes of checking I was in the bar next door drinking Saigon Beer
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