Travel Writing Awards Entry

By Darren Smit

“You shouldn’t go,” my mom said. She had been on my case since the beginning of the week. I had just finished my final semester of college, and I planned and actually booked a flight on El Al airlines. My destination was Tel Aviv in Israel. My mission was to work on a kibbutz. I would use it as a springboard into Europe during a gap year of travel.
It was July in the year 1990; I was 20 years old and ready to take on the world. Tensions in the Middle East were rising, and the papers were ringing out with talk of war between Iraq and the coalition forces.

“What happens if war breaks out while you are in Israel,” my mom reiterated.
“Then it breaks out mom!” I replied.
I had been planning the trip for months, and everything had been organised. I had been through a long process with the Zionist Association already, involving medicals, interviews, and evaluations. I had passed all of these with flying colours. I was young and determined. Nothing was going to stop me, especially not some guy called Saddam Hussein.

“I have made up my mind mom, I’m going.” I said, “Besides, all the work and saving will not be in vain. I have worked too hard to cancel now,” I added.

I walked through the arrival gates at Ben Gurion airport into total mayhem. There were people rushing everywhere, and I remember lots of noise. The heat was stifling; it felt as if I had walked into a brick wall. It was the first time I had left the comfort zone called home. It was my first time in an international airport. I was in Israel, and my senses were being overloaded by the unfamiliarity of what my eyes were taking in.

“Yella, Yella,” yelled someone gesturing to me and the crowd now massing behind me. He was pointing towards a revolving carousel. He had a very large automatic weapon slung over his shoulder, so I quickly moved in the direction he was pointing. I soon realised it was where my luggage would appear. A large suitcase flopped through the wall onto the snaking carousel.    

I stood in a far corner trying to avoiding eye contact with anyone. The guy with the weapon had moved off towards another gate, probably to scare someone else I thought to myself. I had picked up my backpack already and was now waiting for my surfboard to appear. Just as I was wondering to myself how it would fit through the hole in the wall, a door opened behind me. Another man with a gun over his one shoulder and my surfboard over the other walked through the door. I now regretted that I had been so stubborn in bringing it with me. Were there even waves to ride here?

I am not sure why, but the armed man came straight toward me and dropped the surfboard at my feet, ignoring the fragile stickers I had meticulously pasted all over it.
It may have been due to the fact that my hair was shoulder length, and I was wearing a very colourful surf shirt and board shorts. There were not too many of those types standing around waiting for luggage. I thanked the man with as many words and gestures I could think up. He turned away from me, muttering something in a series of mixed-up syllables throwing his hands in the air as he went. Obviously, the need to leave his post to deliver a strange looking bag had not been high on his things-to-do list.

I hoisted my backpack over my shoulders and picked up my board bag and headed toward the exit sign. All others were in Hebrew. As I walked away through the exit door I felt a thousand inquisitive eyes burning into my back.

The instructions I had been given from the Zionist Association was to get the number 121 bus to Haifa and then the 25 to the end of the line. Once there, I would find Kibbutz Neve Yam. This was the Kibbutz that I had been allocated to. A person by the name of Rifka would supposedly be my point of contact. Outside the airport, I heard a voice yelling, “Haifa, Haifa, Haifa” A small man in a brown uniform was pointing toward a bus. I ran over and produced a ticket I had carried all the way from home. My luggage and board were loaded into the container hatch, as I reluctantly stepped up into the bus. There were a couple of empty seats among a sea of brown-clad armed soldiers. I made my way to the first one available and sat down; my heart beating so fast and so loud, I was sure everyone could hear.

It was the fourth time the siren had gone off that week, a wailing sound so loud and terrifying my skin crawled each time I heard it. I jumped out of bed, reached for my gas mask on the shelf below the window, threw on some clothes and rushed out the door. In the moonlight, I could make out a line of people heading down into the bunker situated about a hundred yards from my room. It had been five months since I had arrived at Kibbutz Neve Yam and tension in the area had escalated ten-fold during this time. Saddam Hussein’s army had invaded Kuwait. The coalition forces, led by the United States of America, had made their intentions clear. They would go to war unless the Iraqi forces pulled out.

The relationship between Israel and its neighbours had been stretched to the limit. Iraq had scud missiles pointed towards the holy land; fear of chemical warfare was clear in everyone’s mind. I ran down the stairs into the bunker and began taping up the window frames. This task was mine.

A few tense hours passed before the sirens ceased their wailing. A false alarm. We all filed out from below ground and made our way back to our rooms in a group. Everyone had their own opinion about the war and when it would come. If it would come. My time in Israel had been the most humbling experience I have ever had, but I knew one thing, it was time to use the springboard and make my way to Europe as soon as possible.