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An Elat Adventure

By: Wayne Haymer
2006 Travel and Transitions travel story contest participant

My most recent major trip was to Elat and the Arava Valley in the south of Israel during the Christmas holidays in 2002. This is a thin strip of land jutting into the Red Sea and one of the only places in the world that three neighboring countries, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, are clearly visible from the hill tops. It was the first time that I ever revisited the same country but I had never visited this part of Israel. My previous visite was in the summer of 1994 and back then was a time of optimism for peace in the Middle East. I was there when Israel made peace with King Hussein of Jordan resulting in peaceful borders on both the west with Egypt and now the east. Tourism was flourishing and it had a very easy-going fun flavour of a resort country. However, this visit was different. In 2000 there was a second intifada, or uprising, by the Palestinians and newspapers everywhere had front-page stories of suicide bombers blowing themselves up at random in crowded public places throughout Israel. Tourism was at an all time low and by 2002 it had not been any different. People thought I was crazy for visiting there however, I had spoken to many people who had returned from Israel and reported that things were not as terrible as the media had made it out to be.

December was a perfect time to visit since the climate in the dessert at that time of year is like a cool spring day. The temperature in the summer months would otherwise be 45 degrees Celsius. Elat is designated as the twin city of Toronto and since it is isolated from the rest of Israel, its citizens do not benefit from the same social programs available in the north. I was visiting with a fund-raising organization that financed various community programs.

The first thing that was apparent during that visit was the lack of tourists. The hotels were either closed down or struggled to serve a handful of guests each night, mainly business travelers. It seemed so strange to come down to the hotel dining room for an Israeli breakfast, which is normally like a bustling banquet, only to find just a few patrons quietly scattered about. At night when we went out for a coffee, the storekeepers thanked us, not for coming to their shop, but for visiting Israel. They often remarked that it had been so long since they had spoken English to anyone.

One of the social projects we visited was a foster home for abused and battered children. I had expected to see a house full of traumatized, tough kids but arrived to see a great bunch of young people. Some spoke English, others did not but they all communicated to us with their laughter, their music and dancing. They wanted us to feel at home with them and were told before our visit that North Americans enjoy pizza. So we had a  party where we broke out into little groups and made pizzas. Later, we all gathered around a large table to eat. It really was a big party and I had never been with a happier bunch of kids and they enjoyed being in our company. There was a young Israeli woman in a soldier uniform and I enquired as to her function there. Military service is compulsory in Israel after high school: three years for boys, two years for girls. However, after receiving basic training, they can elect to spend their term assisting community social programs.

After a worthwhile visit, the evening came to a close and it was time to say good-bye; however, all we received was silence and a sea of blank stares from the children. One of them asked, “ We will see you again won' t we?” My tour group all took a deep breath and looked at one another. One person replied that we hoped to see them again soon.

When the bus came to pick us up, they all stood at the front of the house, waived good-bye and watched us leave. At the hotel that night I could not stop thinking about those children, and had trouble falling asleep.

When traveling, one always visits the various tourist sites, but the memories that stay with us, is the interaction of the people that we meet.

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