Observations and travel: life imitating art

And Israelis, God love ’em, go everywhere – or at last they went everywhere, until the coronavirus put a crimp in the country’s traveling habits

Life imitating art (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
Life imitating art
(photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
People love to travel, and Israelis seem to love to travel more than most.
Some 4.2 million Israelis traveled abroad at least once in 2019: an astounding statistic, since that is nearly half of the 9.1 million people in the country.
Many reasons have been proffered for the Israeli wanderlust: claustrophobia from living in such a small country; the need for a periodic reprieve from the pressure cooker of life here; the high cost of taking a local vacation.
And Israelis, God love ’em, go everywhere – or at last they went everywhere, until the coronavirus put a crimp in the country’s traveling habits. But once the virus is conquered, Israelis will certainly hit the road again. Travel to any far-flung corner of the world, and chances are good you will hear someone speaking Hebrew.
“Jambo, jambo,” the red-eyed man on the beach with a Muslim head covering greeted me in Swahili two weeks ago, as I stepped off the hotel grounds in northern Zanzibar and waded into the Indian Ocean.
“Where are you from?” he asked, extending his hand.
When I replied “Israel,” the beachcomber – trying to sell me a ride on a small sail boat – said in well-accented Hebrew without missing a beat, “Shalom, shalom. Ma Shlomcha? Eifo ata gar? [Hello, hello. How are you? Where do you live?].”
No, the man – who introduced himself as James Bond (I wasn’t quick enough to reply, “Yeah, right, and I’m Miss Moneypenny”) – did not spend time on a kibbutz, Bernie Sanders-style, some 60 years ago. Rather, he picked up random Hebrew phrases from the Israelis who have made Tanzania a favorite vacation destination over the last few years.
According to Tanzanian Ambassador Job Masima, some 42,000 Israelis visited the country in 2019, so James Bond had a lot of visitors with whom he could polish his Hebrew.
BUT MR. BOND was not the only one learning. If you want to gain knowledge, you should travel – something The Wife and I and two close friends did last month, spending five days on a safari in Tanzania’s northern game parks, and three days in Zanzibar. Nothing provides a crash course in everything better than travel.
One learns a lot bouncing around in a Toyota Land Cruiser on the unpaved roads of northern Tanzania for five days: about oneself, one’s spouse, one’s traveling partners, the tsetse fly, one’s tour guide, one’s destination and one’s world – especially the animal world.
For one, I learned to appreciate asphalt. We have a tendency to take paved roads for granted. We shouldn’t.
I also learned that it is creepy passing through airports in this Age of Coronavirus. There is something decidedly eerie and futuristic about landing in an airport where every fifth person is wearing a mask. It also generates fearful self-doubt: “How come they have a mask, and I don’t?”
Third, I discovered that there is a great place to daven in the Addis Ababa Airport. One dilemma religious Jewish males grapple with in transit is where to don tallit and tefillin and say the morning prayers in an airport while waiting for a connecting flight.
In the pre-cellphone days, a phone booth was always a great option. Duck into a phone booth, like Clark Kent, don the phylacteries, and be done before anyone comes to make a call. But cellphones have made phone booths obsolete, so now you just have to find a solitary place behind a pole somewhere and hope for the best.
Except in Addis Ababa. There, not far from the separate male and female Muslim prayer rooms, is a room with some prayer books, tables and a picture of the last Lubavitcher rebbe. It is called the Ateret Neorah Synagogue, and on the Sunday morning we were passing through, it was overflowing with worshipers. Who would have thought?
Fourth, “Israel” is a popular name in Tanzania. Both the chef at one of our hotels, whom we briefed on how to double-wrap kosher fish in aluminum foil before cooking, and our waiter wore name tags reading “Israel.”
What are the odds, I thought, imagining this was just a ruse so we would be calm about the kashrut. I pictured a closet in the back with name tags of different countries the hotel staff wears to get bigger tips. I thought I saw a waiter serving a table of people from South Korea with the name tag “Korea.”
Fifth lesson: There are deep truths in that classic 1930s American Western song “Home on the Range.” Yes, there really are idyllic places where “the deer and the antelope play.”
Not only the deer and the antelope, but also baboons, wildebeests, buffalo, giraffes, elephants and zebras. Thousands and thousands of zebras. To see them all grazing together harmoniously is truly a cheerful sight that gives one hope. Until the ears of a couple Zebras perk up, and all of a sudden a dozen of the striped beasts start galloping in the opposite direction, having – apparently – caught wind of a lion nearby.
I also learned that digital cameras detract mightily from the moment, because instead of just gazing at two cheetahs snuggling on the savanna, you just keep taking pictures.
And these are not the old days, where one was sparing in the number of pictures shot because each one cost money: you had to buy a roll of film, and then spend good money to get them developed. Today, when it doesn’t cost anything to take another picture – and another, and another – that’s all you do.
Shabbat was the most relaxing day of the trip, primarily because, halachicly prohibited from taking pictures, I didn’t feel the pressure of having to find that one special shot of the sun sparkling on a sailboat in the glimmering aqua blue ocean. I could actually just sit back and enjoy the view.
And finally, I learned to appreciate the good folks at Walt Disney – they really know what they are doing. Remember Lion King, the first one – the 1994 animated version? Well, whoever made that film had a tremendous eye for the east African landscape.
That’s the good news.
The bad news is that wherever I looked, or – more precisely – wherever my travel companions looked, they saw the movie: from stunning kopjes jutting out of the flat landscape, to the vastness of the savanna, to the stampeding wildebeests. Simba here, Pumbaa there.
The Tanzanians know that as well, and now say to tourists nonstop: “Hakuna matata [no worries].” Oscar Wilde was right, life really does imitate art. But in this case, while the scenery in the animated Lion King is stunning, the reality is even more so.