Day 43 – March 6th
I scour the headlines. The JP’s leading stories include; a drop in the number of self-employed women; cleaning of Israel’s beaches following an oil spill, Jerusalem gives vaccines at Mahane Yehuda bar scene, vaccinated rabbis can officiate at weddings and a few others including the Queen’s Gambit, Israel’s chess championship but nothing about the Exceptions Committee or those of us who are stranded abroad.
YNet English website has 6 leading articles on the topic of the coronavirus and vaccinations but nothing about the Exceptions Committee or those of us who are stranded abroad.
I try N12. Their leading story is all about irregularities in the Exceptions Committee. Workers receive lists on WhatsApp, who shall be approved and who shall be rejected.
The Friday night news live-stream reports that there are similar lists determining who shall go to corona hotels and who shall not (both these items remind me of the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur prayer “Unetaneh Tokef” – ‘who shall live and who shall die’).
As thousands are stranded abroad, the husband of MK Gila Gamliel – Minister of the Environment – receives approval to travel to the USA for a short visit. A tragic story follows; a citizen applies to visit his dying mother, his application is rejected several times. Just after her death, he receives approval from the Exceptions Committee.
I wait for the Saturday night news report and the latest decisions of the corona cabinet.
Day 44 – March 7th
A long list of new directives are announced on last night’s news. These directives will be in effect for another 2 weeks, until 20th March (maybe even longer or perhaps not); relaxing the education system, public gatherings, restaurants, hotels, the Green Pass etc. The corona hotels and the Exceptions Committee have been dismantled. From Sunday 1,000 people can enter Israel and this will gradually increased to 3,000 (by when is not clear)
Special flights for new immigrants, professional sportsman and other select groups are allowed in. Flights from other locations are added to the existing list and now include New York, Frankfurt, Paris, London, Kiev, Toronto and Hong Kong.
If you are situated in one of these cities, you need to only purchase one airline ticket or use an existing one to get home. In my case I will have to buy 2 new tickets (around $1,000). I spend 1.5 hours on-hold while trying to establish whether there are flights on Ethiopian Airlines and whether I can use part of my existing ticket with them. According to them their next scheduled direct flight from Addis to Tel Aviv (not confirmed) is only on March 20th.
I have no idea what I should do. Should I wait it out or not? I have to fly from Cape Town to Addis, from Addis to Frankfurt/Paris and from Frankfurt/Paris to Tel Aviv. I need to make a decision soon.
I have a conversation with my daughter and she tells me that directives could easily change after the elections and before Pesach. If I miss this window waiting for a possible Ethiopian Airline flight, I could land up being in South Africa for a long time.
The route via Frankfurt involves extended waiting times between flights. The entire journey from door to door, could be as much as 40 hours. Waiting for an Arkia or Israir flight will include a layover in Frankfurt of about 20 hours. El Al flights are sold out.
I have asked a trusted travel agent to look into the options.
Day 45 – March 8th
It turns out that $1,000 is a small price to pay to get back to Israel. Someone on the Facebook group needs to get from Istanbul to Germany and from there to Israel – the cost is $3,200
The travel agent gets back to me and it is clear she hasn’t been listening to the news for the last few weeks and has no understanding of my request. She offers me a flight from Amsterdam to Israel!!! That’s helpful especially as no flights are authorized into Israel from there. What was she thinking?
More and more people have been writing to me and I cannot sit still any longer. I had been mulling the idea of a petition in my head for a few days. Perhaps this is what is needed to push things forward.
I put the idea forward to a few people and they agree to help me move it forward. A graphic artist volunteers to create an image and a Hebrew speaker is willing to translate the basic text. The petition comes together really quickly and we get it online within a couple of hours and I ask you to please sign it too
A reply from Gabi Ashkenazi comes in – “Thank you for your email. We have forwarded it to the appropriate department.” Weird. I thought he was the appropriate department!
Day 46 – March 9th
It’s now 1:00am and I am sharing the petition with whomever I can. I send out a newsletter, email and message all my contacts. As the day progresses, people sign the petition and send messages of support and thanks.
The pressure to get back home is mounting. My daughter is overwhelmed. She cries. “Mom, this is ridiculous, you have to come home. It’s not going to be easy” she says “but you have to get back, If there is no curfew, the family must be together for Pesach this year”. It is proving difficult for me to keep an Israel Aliyah and lifestyle website up-to-date without being in Israel. I must get back as soon as I can get on a flight – any flight.
There is talk of a rescue flight from Addis Ababa some time next week. Dates are not clear, nothing is clear. It could be Sunday or Tuesday, no one knows but it has to be coordinated with the Embassy. The Israeli Embassy in South Africa is still not answering their phones or responding to my emails (and I never, ever hear back from them).
I cannot get hold of Ethiopian Airlines – there is no reply from their Cape Town office and I keep getting disconnected from their online call option. I get in the car and travel 45 minutes to the address listed online. Waze does not work for me and Google’s navigation instructions are confusing. I get hopelessly lost but eventually reach my destination. I need to sign in at the lobby. “Ethiopian Airlines vacated this building seven years ago”, the security person tells me. She has no idea where they have moved to. Why would the biggest carrier in Africa neglect to update their contact information? If/when I get back, I must write a letter of complaint.
I am in a foul mood, my head is pounding and when I get back, S and I have a couple of G&Ts. We laugh and make dinner together – he cooks and I watch. We talk about what will happen when I leave. I have been completely insulated staying here in this beautiful home with a swimming pool, stunning views of the rugged Cape coastline, a car at my disposal – all of it is a far cry from my life back in Israel.
As the day comes to an end I make a decision; I cannot wait for the rescue flight. I book myself on a flight from Cape Town to Addis Ababa, from Addis Ababa to Paris and from Paris to Tel Aviv (with Arkia).on March 11th.
Day 47 – March 10th
My covid test is done, I visit my mom’s cottage for the very last time. I say my goodbyes to my loved ones and do some last minute shopping. There is a lot of paperwork to finalize; I need the results of the covid test, declarations of good health for South Africa, Ethiopia, France and Israel and multiple copies thereof. I need to check in online but the system won’t let me. I will be in the air tomorrow this time and won’t be able to check in online either.
I can’t get any travel insurance for a one-way trip and I will have to take a chance with that.
People continue to contact me via social media asking for help and sharing their personal tales of distress; a lady stranded in Israel for months unable to return to her family, a young religious boy who’d like to get back to school after a short family holiday went awry, a disabled lady in the USA has not been able to secure permission for her service-dog to travel with her. Each one has his or her own story and you can only feel great sadness when you hear what some people are dealing with.
Day 48 – March 11th
My last attempts at checking in online are fruitless. My daughter patches me into a conversation with Ethiopian Airlines – apparently online check cannot be done for flights to France as there is no option to upload a digital version of the French health declaration.
S and I are quiet. We are locked into our own private thoughts. Instead of spending the last precious moments together we are avoiding the pain that is coming up and we busy ourselves with nonsense. A huge distraction – Ben, the dog has managed to get off the property. He needs to be found immediately. I’ll get an Uber to the airport if necessary. Fortunately Ben did not stray too far but it is clear that he is distressed. Since I arrived in South Africa, Ben’s routine has been disrupted; meal times, exercise times, quiet times all upside down and Ben was just letting us know that his show must go on.
On a very tearful note, I say my goodbyes to S.
The check-in takes more than half-an-hour. Transpires I did not have the right form for France. The clerk tells me that my luggage will no travel with me as Ethiopian does not have a luggage arrangement with Arkia. If I had more time between the flights, I could have probably collected my luggage on my own but there is only 3.5 hours and that will not suffice. He tells me to hang on to my boarding passes and the luggage tickets and when I check in at Arkia in Paris, I must let them have details of my luggage. Sounds simple.
Ethiopian Airlines is pleasant enough, the plane is not very full, I have a window seat and share another seat with a gentlemen on the aisle. I don’t look out the window. I don’t want to see South Africa fade into the distance. For most of the journey I just sit quietly with closed eyes. At 10pm, eleven hours after I left S’s house, the plane lands in Ethiopia. I have transited so many times at Bole Airport, I think nothing of it. I have a 2.5 hour wait until my flight to Paris. The shops and restaurants are mostly closed. I feel like some comfort food but aside from a kiosk selling banana and strawberry flavored milk, there is nothing to buy. I wonder around the concourse. The airport is full of travelers – corona has not stopped them but I cannot identify any other Israelis. I video chat with my family and we share memories of times we all spent in transit at Bole.
The flight to Paris is similarly pleasant. I have an entire row of seats to myself but only manage to sleep for one hour. When we land in Paris it is still dark and I am disappointed that I could not see the Eiffel Tower from above.
My arrival and departure are in the same terminal building and so I reckon that I can probably manage to get my luggage in time. As I approach the baggage claim area, I see a queue of about 300 people ahead of me all waiting to present their documentation and then collect their baggage. I realize that my luggage and I have officially been separated and I pray that the items taken from my mother’s house, will make it to Israel. Luggage thieves take whatever you want but please don’t steal the watercolor proteas my mother painted 45 years ago or the 80 year old apothecary jar from my father’s pharmacy.
I am instructed to check into the Arkia flight at the gate. I walk about 10 minutes before I get to the gate and am determined not to be distracted by the magnificent duty-free shops selling the best French perfumes and designer ware. Airport food is generally sad and pitiful but my butter croissant is the best I’ve ever eaten. I reach the gate and identify a group of 3 Israeli girls who are waiting too. They are returning from Morocco and their luggage is not with them either. Departure is schedule for 9:30am and at 8:55 the gate is still unmanned.
Eventually, it’s my turn to check in and I tell my ‘luggage’ story. I am removed from the line and taken to a separate section. They want to see all my documents; covid test results, health declarations and both my passports. I empty my backpack and give them what they ask for. They give me approval to board the flight and have noted my luggage details. Whew! That wasn’t too complicated. It’s going okay. I am the last one to board and as I make my way, I am stopped on the skywalk and asked to present my Israeli passport again. I don’t have the required security sticker. They radio the Arkia personnel who are officially no longer on duty and of course, there is no reply. Blimey! What now? The officials want to see all my papers again. I empty my backpack again and give them what they ask for. They let me through. There are clearly less than 100 people on this plane, maybe even as little as 50. If this is a rescue flight, then where are all those who need to be rescued?
Halfway through the flight, I take out a magazine from my backpack – my laptop is gone! Damn! I have a short conversation with the Creator and tell him that the can keep the laptop in exchange for the protea watercolors and apothecary jar. I hope He keeps his side of the bargain.
Day 49 – March 12th
Our flight arrives at Ben Gurion just one hour before Shabbat. The airport is like a ghost town. I make my way to the baggage claim – perhaps my suitcases were loaded into the hold after all? No luck! The 3 girls from Morocco are ahead of me in the queue at the lost-baggage counter. It takes about 40 minutes for them to file their complaint and the clock ticks towards Shabbat.
For some reason I cannot connect to my local cellphone carrier and cannot make calls or receive texts. I am hoping that my son will fetch me, our arrangement wasn’t finalized and now I can’t make calls. I wonder what other hurdles could be facing me as I attempt to exit the airport and get home. It really is enough.
I hand a copy of my lost luggage claim to the customs officers in the Green Channel. Sorry gentlemen, I didn’t mean to disturb your Friday afternoon snooze. I think I am home and dry. No, not really. As you exit the airside of the airport into the public landside of the airport, you are immediately directed to the covid testing station. At least 500 sq meters of Terminal 3 has been transformed into a testing station.
Around 20 young adults (under 25) are sitting around the testing station and behind the counters, playing with their phones. Only a handful have their masks covering both their noses and their mouths. There is no queue and it’s my turn. I am told that I cannot do the test without an appointment and in order to create an appointment, I have to download some app. I have to figure out really soon why my phone is not connecting to my local network otherwise I will have to sleep at the airport. Why can I not just make an appointment with the person on the opposite side of the counter? Go figure! But, the good news is that there is a special covid testing offer – as a member of an Israel HMO, you are entitled to one free covid test. If you need more than one however, you will have to pay but joy of joys, the price has been discounted.
I have another short conversation with the Creator: “Be kind to me dear Lord, this is your Sabbath day. Please don’t test me anymore for I am getting cranky”. My phone and internet works. Yes! I can download the app, make an appointment and then…delete the app.
Since the onset of covid, I have been tested 5 times. I had to spit 2ml of saliva into a vial in South Africa. It’s like beer, they want the yellowish liquid at the bottom and not the bubbly white head. It took about 20 minutes to give that sample up. The rest of the tests have been variations of a similar theme – nose and throat swabbing. I don’t care anymore “take my saliva any which way you want it”.
As the test is completed, the medic wraps a paper bracelets tightly around my wrist (like the kind you get at an amusement park). What’s this for! I read that they had run out of electronic tracking bracelets – are they trying to pull the wool over our eyes? The medic tells me its for the airport ground staff – so that they’ll know I have been tested. What airport ground staff? It’s Friday afternoon, there are 27 people in the entire airport complex. Who cares.
I am reunited with my family at 6pm.
Day 52 – March 15th
I receive an early morning call from the cargo company. My luggage is en-route from France and will be delivered to me today.
I though this would be ‘The End’, but it’s not.
2:30pm call from the cargo company – “Sorry geveret, your luggage did not arrive We cannot give you an exact date. We’ll be in touch.”
It’s official (prior to the elections and prior to Pesach); all airlines can now fly into Israel, however the daily quota of incoming citizens has not increased and remains at 3,000 people. Foreigners who wish to travel to Israel, will require special permission.