Thursday, May 23, 2013

Eilat To Do


So much to do; so little time. Truth to tell, there wasn't that much to do the Fri. afternoon we were in Eilat. But the “little time?” We all know that, no matter how late Shabbat kicks in, it seems as if there's precious little time left. Of course, if you're at a hotel, and you're not doing the cooking, it doesn't seem quite as frenzied. Once we stocked up on sushi at the Ice Mall for our Shabbat lunch, we headed back “home” to the Astral Seaside. Tina and David got ready for some serious pool lounging. (I should correct an earlier impression that only David was willing to use the pool; Tina did also.) I, however, had another item on my agenda.

For reasons that I don't pretend to understand, the Israeli government does not impose the V.A.T., now at an almost confiscatory 17%, on anything you buy in Eilat. (Sort of like the 3% sales tax zone in NJ.) Needless to say, lots of folks come to this little seashore town waving their credit cards, with high hopes of saving money while they are spending it.

There were a few computer related items I needed, and, wouldn't you know it, there were two (not one, but two) KSP stores in Eilat. Long-suffering readers may remember my thoughts about KSP. They are the folks who import a lot of computer stuff into The Land, so they can charge less than the competition. Just don't buy anything from them that they would have to service if it stopped working (at which point, their command of the English language also stops working).

When we arrived at our hotel the day before, Barbara and I were standing on our little merpeset, admiring the scenic view of the hotel parking lot, when I suddenly realized something. On the gleaming white facade of the big hotel nearest to us was inscribed in two languages the legend, The Rimonim. Isn't that where the KSP store is? Sure enough, the store I needed was around the corner from the hotel about fifty yards from where we were staying. Good to know, in more ways than one – as you will soon see.

Needless to say, Friday afternoon found me heading over there as fast as my rapidly aging legs would carry me. I've been to the two Jerusalem locations numerous times, and there are usually two or three customers ahead of me in the store. So I was not prepared for the pre-Shabbat mob scene in Eilat. As I said, lots of people waving their credit cards, essentially overwhelming the sales staff. When it finally was my turn, I pointed to what I needed (if anybody cares, it was a 2TB WD external hard drive to use as a backup for BigMac – my 27” iMac, purchased second hand). Ze hu! That's all; take my credit card and I'm outa here, saving about 80 shekels on the deal. Plenty of time left in the afternoon to dip my timid body in the unheated hotel pool.

Earlier in the morning, Barbara, my ever-attentive wife, had gone down to the hotel lobby and picked us up a Shabbat key – an old-fashioned room key to use on Shabbat instead of the electronic device ordinarily used – and a sheet of paper announcing the times of services for Shabbat at the Astral Seaside. OK; let's see what happens. Somewhat skeptical, I headed down to where the “beit knesset” was on the lower level, timing my arrival at exactly one minute before the evening davening was supposed to start. Hmm. Nobody here. Let's wait and see.

The room certainly had all the accoutrements of a shul: an ark, presumably holding a torah scroll, a bima on which to place the torah scroll – assuming it ever emerged from the dark recesses of the aron kodesh, shelves of prayer books, rows of chairs for the people who weren't there, even a container for tzedekah, which I noted had one half shekel coin inside. There was also a musty smell. I had plenty of time to locate the source of the problem, a slight drip from a water pipe in front of the room. How long had this minute amount of water been plopping onto the rug, I would not want to speculate. Possibly quite a while, given the amount of foot traffic in and out of the beit knesset. Where was Alon-with-a-smile-and-a-song when we needed him? Probably back in Ma'ale Adumim, turning people's water valves on and off.

After about ten minutes of enforced solitude, my reveries were interrupted by the arrival of an Israeli woman, dressed for Shabbat. Was there an ezrat nashim, a women's section? she inquired. A women's section? There's not even a men's section; there's nobody here. Sit wherever you like; it's fine by me. I continued perusing my siddur; she did whatever she was going to do. This went on for a few minutes until a second guy showed up. As the de facto usher and gabbai, I indicated that he had his choice of about thirty seats, not counting the section in which our Israeli woman was sitting – in case he was fastidious about such matters. Finally, another Anglo arrived with glad tidings. There is a minyan at – you guessed it – The Rimonim. Clutching my handy-dandy Koren siddur, I accompanied the two guys across the parking lot to the bigger hotel. The doorman told us where to go, and we went down a long corridor, past the exercise room, down a flight of stairs to a beit knesset. You could hear the sounds of Mizrachi davening from a distance. Yes! There were about thirty or forty Sephardim (I'm guessing they came to Eilat with their families as part of a group). That's more like it. The little hotel shul was even more crowded than the KSP store! They had just gotten started; still we were done just in time to get back to our hotel for dinner.

There would, of course, be a minyan in The Rimonim the following morning. I was also given to understand that I could even find an Ashkenazic minyan at another hotel a little farther away – exact location and commencement time uncertain. But even if I figured out the details, would there be enough time – at either minyan – to finish and get back in time for breakfast? Yes, breakfast on Shabbat does end later than the rest of the week, but when the food is gone, it's gone. Maybe I should just daven by myself in our room. It's crazy to have to adjust your davening time around the hotel meal schedule instead of the other way around; but we were by ourselves, so there was nothing much we could do – except not eat.

Shabbat was relaxing, although hardly newsworthy. There wasn't much to do besides eat, rest, do the requisite amount of praying, sit by the pool, and take several walks up and down the promenade, trying to vary our itinerary slightly each time. One thing I did notice: how many of the shops were closed over Shabbat. Unless you're serving food, you're not going to need or get a certificate of kashrut from the rabbinate that you're shomer Shabbat. There's no economic benefit to doing so in an area chocked full of tourists to whom Saturday is shopping day. If your store is closed on Shabbat, it's because it's important to you. Ze hu.

Shabbat was over, and now it was our last chance for a family shopping spree. But first, dinner. The dining room was closed at the Seaside, so the nice folks at Astral gave us a voucher for a cab to one of their sister hotels, which we could have walked to. We were quick to notice that this Astral was a tad classier than the one we were staying in. The food was about the same.

Then it was off in the opposite direction to another mall, our last opportunity to save 17% on all the money we could spend. Natania had not been able to come, so she sent her shopping list along instead. Sometimes you get lucky. The Gap store in the Mamilla mall in Jerusalem often has stuff on sale, but only in anorexic sizes. In Eilat, they actually had jeans for normal shaped people....on sale! So Barbara got a few pair for our daughter, while we all wandered around the store. There were lots more places to inspect, but it was a foregone conclusion that David and I would spend some quality time together at the iDigital store. That's where Apple products are sold in The Land. I was able to show him an exact replica of BigMac, ask a few questions of the store personnel, and pick up something I needed – saving the 17%. Looking at the prices here and elsewhere, it occurred to me that if you were planning to drop a bundle on a big ticket item or a lot of small ticket ones, you would actually save money by spending the day traveling back and forth to this resort town. I wonder how many Israelis actually do this?

There was one thing more we simply had to do. It would have been impolite, even downright rude, to leave Eilat without having a night out on the town. David went back to the hotel, and Barbara, Tina, and I headed off to The Three Monkeys, one of establishments along the promenade in which you can order a drink or two, enjoy the balmy breezes coming from the Gulf of Eilat, people-watch to your heart's content, and feel appropriately decadent. The next morning, the two “youngsters” would catch an early flight back to Tel Aviv and head back to the hum-drum world of business. Barbara and I would spend the morning examining another facet of the aquatic world that makes this little corner of the gulf so special.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Thanks, Eilat


I've always wondered what it would be like to stay at a “classy” hotel, which I define as a place where someone takes your luggage when you get there and brings it up to your room for you, and the accommodations are so tasteful that you never want to leave. To be fair, you have to be willing to dip into your cash reserve to afford such luxury. If you're not (and I'm not called Frugal Fred for nothing), you have to lower your standards a teensy-weensy bit. One thing about Eilat, they have a full range of hotels from one-step-up-from-Motel-6 to some p-r-e-t-t-y extravagant establishments.

The Astral Seaside is “my kind of place,” not the lap of luxury we could easily become accustomed to, but what we can reasonably expect on our budget. Our room was large enough to move around in, plus a little balcony – overlooking the parking lot. By walking to the end of the corridor from our room, you’d get to the swimming pool, which, it being off-season, was open until about 4PM. with a life-guard on duty. Not a stressful job this time of the year. The pool was not heated, and the next afternoon when we went to use it, only David was tough enough (or crazy enough) to go for a swim. Having brought my bathing suit, I was determined at least to get wet, and I achieved my goal – to wade from one end of the pool to the ladder on the other end, hastily emerging into the warm, mid-day sun.

But first things first. Didn't I say it was just about time for dinner when we arrived? Let's get cracking! If you had any question at all, this is not the kind of establishment in which you need to “dress” for the evening meal. Just show up at the dining room in anything more formal than a bathing suit, and you're in. And so we showed up, along with everybody else who was staying at the hotel. I guess everybody got the same deal, half-board, meaning you get breakfast and dinner included in the tab. So everybody picked out a table and then sort of weaved his way through the several food tables, creating an individual, eclectic mix of dishes, hot and cold. It wasn't the insane over-abundance we experienced a year and a half before on our cruise to Greece and the chef probably will not be lured away to join the staff of the David Citadel in Jerusalem, but, all-in-all, the food was OK. No complaints.

I had wondered: who hangs out at a hotel like this, as opposed to some of the fancier places? Tourists? Locals? The kitchen is, of course, kosher. Would they be getting a religious crowd? So I made it a point to eyeball the crowd as they came and went and listen to the languages that were being spoken. Not much English. No Russian, no French. Lots of Ivrit. Looking around, I had the sense that I was looking at what has been called “Middle Israel,” the people who don't live in either Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, who are not really religious but would not consider themselves hilloni (secular) either; who are neither part of the Tel Aviv left nor the Gush Etzion right. In America they might be described as “the silent majority,” but I have rarely met an Israeli whom I would consider quiet, let alone “silent.” I was also curious how many of these guys might show up for a minyan Fri. evening, but that I would find out the next evening.

Tina and David had already taken a walk in the afternoon and were more than content to hang out in their room after dinner. So Barbara and I ventured forth to take an evening stroll along the promenade, along with a sizable crowd of like-minded people. There's something about being in a place where essentially everyone is on vacation. There is, of course, another Eilat, the place where the “locals” live and work, but the area by the beach is definitely for the folks in the hotels. At some point along the way, my “I'm on vacation, might as well start enjoying myself,” mode must have kicked in. Maybe it's a subliminal feeling that becomes contagious in a large crowd. We walked along the promenade with the gulf on one side and a mix of shops, restaurants, and hotels that, once you cross the overpass over the lagoon, become increasingly “tony.” One of the restaurants had a solo saxophone player sitting on an outdoor podium, playing surprisingly good jazz, the sound of which contributed to a feeling of total and absolute relaxation. It was a pleasant evening after a warm day. No stress, no worries – except for the off chance that we might oversleep and miss breakfast the next morning.

In case you had the slightest doubt, none of us did that. The four of us had, in essence, one day to spend sightseeing – or whatever you want to call it – together, and we were going to make the most of it. By unanimous vote, we agreed to head off to the Coral World Underwater Observatory and Aquarium, a ten minute cab ride from our hotel. The main attraction there is the observatory, about three hundred feet off-shore, which gives you a wonderful panoramic view of what's swimming fifteen feet down in the Gulf of Eilat. It's kind of like being inside an aquarium looking out, except that the fish and whatever else hangs out down there are not looking in. They're just doing their thing, swimming back and forth in the little area they've staked out for themselves. If you've ever spent considerable time in front of someone's tropical fish tank, just watching some guppies go from one end of the tank to the other over and over again, you know the hypnotic effect it can have on you. We must have spent an hour down there, and by the time we finished looking at the other exhibits, shark feeding and the like, the morning was over, and it was on to our next scheduled stop.

If you have been playing close attention and thinking ahead, you might have anticipated our dilemma. I mentioned that we had half board at the hotel, breakfast and dinner included. So what about lunch? Not a problem on Friday; plenty of places to go and get a bite. But what about lunch on Shabbat? (Yeah, what about lunch on Shabbat???) Like most hotels in the area, The Astral Seaside has a solution. They provide for those who are interested an elaborate Shabbat meal – at 200 shekels per. That seemed a bit steep. The lady from Zion Tours, sizing up our level of frugality, had a more economical solution. Do what any self-respecting Israeli would do. Bring a bag with you to breakfast Shabbat morning and haul away enough vittles for a decent lunch. (There is a sign saying something to the effect that guests may may not remove food from the dining area; but of course that only applies to the other guests....) There were lots of reasons why that scheme wasn't going to work, not least of which was that the idea of having rolls and hard-boiled eggs for my Shabbat lunch seemed excessively Spartan. Vat to doooooo?

You know already that I would come up with an idea, dazzling in its simplicity and practicality, to save the day. If one is standing in the middle of an ocean-full of finny denizens, what's the obvious thing to think of? That's right: SUSHI!!!!!!!!!! There are several establishments in Eilat that prepare kosher sushi. Why don't we splurge and spend a hundred or a hundred and fifty shekels in total and get enough for a decent lunch for the four of us? We have a refrigerator in each room, so there'd be no problem in storing it overnight; we can get some drinks; I brought some grape juice from home; OK, we'll “borrow” a few rolls from the hotel, and we'll be set. Great idea! So off we went to Sushi Mushi (or was it Mushi Sushi?), a cab ride away in the opposite direction.

We were correct in our assumption that any self-respecting cabbie in town would be able to get us to any place in the tourist area. Atta machir et haMushi Sushi (or Sushi Mushi)? Of course he knew where it was. And so we were off without knowing it to that wonder-of-wonders, Eilat's own Ice Mall.

Israel has achieved a sufficient level of affluence that it can start creating things that are completely zany. For quite a while, there has been an ice skating rink in Metula, all the way up north. Now all the way down south in Eilat there is a large rink smack dab in the middle of a mall – with the stores on several oval shaped levels around it. (Admittedly, it's not as way out as, say, the Museum of Clean in Pocatello, Idaho; still, it's high up on my personal outré scale.) Midday Friday, there were a few people strutting their stuff on the ice when we came in. Shortly thereafter, the music started and the folks were treated to a skating exhibition. Most everybody stopped to watch. I, on the other hand, had my priorities straight. Sushi! And while our order was being constructed, off to one of the several other eateries for a bite of lunch. Why watch, when you can eat!

Shabbat was still hours and hours away, but I could relax and take a deep breath. If nothing else, we would have what to eat. Now about that minyan Friday night........

Thursday, May 2, 2013

On The Road To Eilat


(Before I forget, I've been asked to announce that the long-awaited episodes of Natania's tales of humor and woe can be found at

At the end of the last episode, we had averted a domestic catastrophe. Our apartment here in Ma'ale Adumim would not be turned into a swimming pool, a car wash, a mikvah, or a lake. The outfit that our insurance company engaged to deal with our broken water pipe was set to come back to replace the floor and wall tiles they had destroyed and fix the gaping hole in the wall they had dug through. On a good day, they might even do some painting.

To give them credit, they were all set to do the fixing they had promised. Except for one except. Barbara, in putting up a plastic sheet in the bathtub so we could use the shower, noticed that there was a small drip coming right before the bathtub faucets. Nothing to be alarmed about; but there was no point to re-tiling the wall and sealing in this dripping pipe. Let Alon-with-a-smile-and-a-song take a few minutes (that's all it would take) to fix the problem first and then get on with it. Our difficulty was explaining this to the contractor. They kept calling us up to make an appointment to fix the tiles. And Barbara kept telling them, No you have to fix the leak first. This went on for several days, all the while we walked over the trench in the floor on the way to the bathroom. I looked at it this way: if we were on an archaeological dig or a safari, we would have been more than content with our lodgings. At least we didn't have to go out in the hall or to a neighbor's to go to the loo. And.......Barbara and I would be going to Eilat in a few days.

The jaunt down to Eilat was Tina's idea. Why don't we all do something together as a family? The original idea was for the five of us, me, Barbara, Tina, David, and Natania, to take a few days and head off to Eilat. Because Tina and David are working (someone has to!), they opted for a long weekend, from Thursday to Sunday morning. OK, but what about Natania? The weekend we decided on was supposed to coincide with a break in her classes. Sad to say, she mis-read her schedule and then one of her teachers rescheduled a final exam; so in the end, she wound up staying home, along with Cookie and Moby, our two Tonkinese cats.

The only real obstacle to this plan was me. There is often someone in a family who has to be overly concerned with the family's finances. My self-assigned task is to assume that any planned trip or excursion is too expensive and that we can't afford it; or that we should spend the money on something more mundane, like a coffee table. It is Barbara's responsibility to convince me otherwise. She is well schooled in the art of persuasion. Her gambit this time was to consider this vacation a combination Chanukah, wedding anniversary, her birthday, and my birthday present. Well, if you put it that way......

Who would have known that this would be a perfect time to get away and leave our worries – our broken wall and torn up floor – behind? The plan was as follows: Tina and David would take an El Al flight from the old terminal one at Ben Gurion Airport, arriving in Eilat in the early afternoon. (Travel time about one hour.) Barbara and I would take the 10 o'clock bus from the Central Bus Station in Jerusalem, which would get down there around 3PM.

There is some information that many people know, but no one thinks to share with you. For example: we got to the bus station about half an hour early. Normally for an inter-city Egged bus, you can buy your tickets when you get on. But we figured we have plenty of time, we might as well go to the ticket booths and buy them in advance. So we waited our turn, and Barbara asked the clerk for two tickets to Eilat on the 10AM bus. “Ein makom,” was his reply. No more room on the bus. When, pray tell, would there be makom? The 5PM bus. Being the helpful sort, he suggested we travel first to another city, say Tel Aviv or Beersheba, where there would be makom on a bus to Eilat. To give you a sense of what was happening, you need to understand that at this time of the morning there was only one ticket booth open. You can probably figure out on your own that there was a long and growing line behind us. And you can assume, if you know anything about the temperament of the average Israeli, that some or most of them were quite impatient. Someone – that's us – was holding up the works. We probably would have been better off going down to Beersheba, which is on the way. But the helpful clerk reserved us two seats on a bus leaving Tel Aviv at about 1PM. He also took the trouble to book us two seats going back to Jerusalem from Eilat on Sunday in the early afternoon. We had made no friends by taking so long, but we did have our seats. We scampered off the line, heading for the bus to Tel Aviv. The thing is that when we related this incident later on, a number of people seemed to know that you have to reserve your seats in advance if you're going to Eilat. Well, next time we'll know too.

Now it could have been a lot worse. We could have wound up getting to Eilat the next day, Friday – just in time for Shabbat – in which case there wouldn't have been much point in going. We could have wound up not getting there at all. As it turned out, we would arrive Thursday in time for dinner. It just meant a long day traveling for us and, horror of horrors, having to spend an hour and a half in the “new” bus station in Tel Aviv – the one we never, ever want go to, if we have a choice.

Natania read somewhere recently that the “architect” (I use the term loosely) who designed this nightmare, this stain on the city's reputation, had just died, and there's this thing about not speaking badly about the deceased. I just hope for his sake that his coffin is more accommodating than the bus station he designed for the rest of us. At least it must be harder to get lost in. We were able to find some kosher food there (in the depot, not the coffin), and we whiled away the hour and a half until departure time. We did find out when we finally boarded the bus that the seats actually are reserved, as they are on an airplane. A nice young chayelet told us we were sitting in hers; ours, we discovered, were farther back. Everyone scrambled on board, and finally we were off to Eilat.

If you're going to go by bus, even though it's longer, the route from Tel Aviv is a lot more scenic. The bus heads south and then zig-zags its way through the hills down to Beersheba before the road merges with route 90, the coastal road which goes from Mount Hermon down to Eilat. (It's sort of like The Garden State Parkway, which goes from the New York border all the way down to Cape May.) Because of all the late rain, the ground was a sea of green even south of Beersheba, the traditional entrance into the Negev, where grass is traditionally scarcer than a viable peace plan. The other thing I noticed was how much of this turf the Bedouins were squatting on. Let's just say that right now that this land-grab is a small elephant in a room. But the elephant is getting bigger and bigger, and, goodness knows, the room isn't.

Many hours, a few stops along the way to pick up more passengers, and one pit stop later, our bus pulled into the small, unprepossessing depot in the downtown center of Eilat. I had never been down to this port, which Ben Gurion had the good sense to capture prior to the ceasefire in 1948. Barbara had been there with her mother in the early 1970's, when nothing much was happening there. Things were a lot different last year when she stayed overnight with a tour group going to Petra (Jordan is one of the many countries that I don't “do.”) Tina gets to do a lot of traveling for her job, all over Europe and such, but there are no medical conferences schedules for Eilat (only auto races and chamber music festivals), so neither she nor David had been there either. When they got off their plane, they simply walked to our hotel, about five or ten minutes away. The bus depot is a little bit farther away, so we needed a taxi (and there are lots of them in Eilat!) to get us there.

Why did we stay at the Astral Seaside, one of a small chain of hotels in Eilat (they didn't build them; they took over a number of hotels from different chains, so each one was different). Barbara had stayed at another Astral on the way to Petra and was duly impressed with the food. So she was amenable to the suggestion by someone at Zion Tours (a highly recommended outfit, by the way) that the Seaside would be a good option, not too pricey and, as its name suggests, right by the beach. Like most or all of the hotels down in this resort town, the kitchen was suitably kosher. Tina and David, as I said, had arrived hours before and were just “chilling,” having taking a stroll along the beachfront. We, to our great relief, were just in time for dinner. Our vacation had officially begun, and none too soon.