Middle East | Israel | Jerusalem – Back Home – Reflecting
November 11, 2001 – Jerusalem, Israel
Two months ago today, yes – September 11th 2001 – around 9pm a light rain was falling over central Bangkok when a mini-van pulled up in front of my guest house just off of Khao San Road. The mini-van was bound for Bangkoks international airport where my flight home, to Israel, was due to leave four hours later. I was the second passenger aboard which meant the van, stuffy and humid — since both the air-conditioning and the windows were not functioning the way they should — still had to crawl all over the Khao San ghetto, through the usual teaming crowds, vendors, traffic and sensory overkill to stop and pick up others. At the next stop, three more Israelis got aboard and as the van inched ahead, one of the new passengers wrenched his head around, his attention magnetized by something passing by his window. I tried to followed his gaze but the rain-splattered windows distorted the neon scree making it difficult to see detail. I asked him in hebrew what was going on. He said there was a big crowd standing around outside one of the bars we had just passed. That didnt strike me as particularly worthy of whiplash. Big crowds, bars and Khao San Rd have become a time-honoured tradition. But as we passed the next bar (theres always another bar to pass on Khao San Rd.) he pointed again. An unusually large crowd was gathered around the television at this bar. We could make out some kind of news cast going on; the tv drawing everyones attention seemed to be showing smoke rising up in the distance. We all thought the same thing simultaneously — the Israeli Pavlovian response to crowds standing around a tv watching smoke rising in the distance — another terrorist attack in Israel.
As we picked up another handful of passengers along the length of Khao San, each one added a little more information. A plane had crashed into a building. Two planes had crashed into buildings. Planes had crashed in New York and Washington. By the time we had survived the hairy speed-o-rama through Bangkoks wildly winding roads, and reached the airport we still didnt have an appreciation for what had come to pass. At our terminal, there were no televisions. The check-in and security staff for El Al airlines (Israeli national carrier) were efficient, poised and friendly.
At the gate, while waiting to board, another Israeli was sitting beside me talking on his cell phone to someone in Israel. I listened to his side of the conversation, but it didnt make much sense: They crashed into the World Trade Centre? The Pentagon? Who? How many? An accident? What do you mean? That was about as much as I knew that night as I boarded a fully loaded plane for a 10 hour flight – home. Ben Gurion airport, just outside Tel Aviv, was an echoing shell when we arrived. Ours was the only arrival in sight and our luggage conveyor was the only one working. I found out later that the airport had been closed to all except El Al flights that day.
In hindsight, Im glad I really didnt fully understand what had happened until I got home. Home
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How to reconcile my 10 weeks of legging it once more through the grandeur and poverty and of SE Asia – through the magnificence of Angkor Wat, the beaches and hills of southern Cambodia, the subtle and also palpable foreboding of Phnom Penh , the glory of travel on the Mekong, the relaxed pace of Laos, its gentle people many living in thatched huts, its delicious temples, beckoning caves and jungled mountains- how to reconcile all that with the shattering day that much more than just my travels ended? And then to make some sense of what it all means for the world, a Jerusalemite, an Israeli?
I havent come to any profound understandings. Like much of the world, Im still wrestling with it all.
One idea I have tossed around, and certainly one which is not particularly original, but which is germane: throughout Cambodia and Laos, in addition to the glory of which human-kind is capable, I was presented with the disturbing history, both recent and distant, of the war-like tendency of humans. The Khmer empire, the fantastical creators of the Angkor heritage, was wracked by war generation after generation. Some of the most beautiful bas relief carvings on the walls of the most grand of temples depicted scenes of utter depravity in battle; the ugliness of human endeavour. In more recent times, both Cambodia and Laos have been torn asunder by war. The empires change but the pattern remains. Juxtaposing my summer of discovery in SE Asia with the approaching winter of battle that looms, I am wondering what separates our generation from the two dimensional spear-wielding figurines of the Khmer age; is it nothing more than mega-tons?
Meanwhile, life back in J-town has managed to suck me up into its vortex once again. The Jewish High Holidays came charging up the calendar in the last half of September and the first week of October. Lots of synagogue, lots of great meals, lots of socializing; a chance to reconnect with my tradition, my friends and my city and my history. I managed to find two temporary sub-lets, back-to-back, which enabled me to move out of my friends apartment, where I had been staying since my return. The second of those two sub-lets terminates at the beginning of December and Im once more on the look for (hopefully more permanent) digs.
What am I up to day-to-day? Like every traveler, of course, I am continuing to do a fabulous job of avoiding conventional life, now enrolled at yeshiva, an institution for the study of traditional Jewish law texts, philosophy, prayer and a drop or two of mysticism. It is an intense program, one which is stretching my intellect and my spirit – pushing back their horizons — much as travel pushes back my geographical and social horizons. Of course at some point in the not too distant future, Im going to have to push back my steadily shrinking financial horizons and actually work for a living. But my next travel dreams are already coagulating into mindstuff. And thats the first step of any journey.
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A tremendous debt of gratitude to Ralph and Simon and the Worldsurface crew for having faith in a guy off the Runners Up bench in their first ever Travel Reporter Competition. Thanks to all who read and sent me feedback on my writing and photos.
I dont think life is a collection of Been there done that. I prefer to build on past experience and dreams of the future and look ahead: Go there, do that!