"Civil Defense Headquarters"
The text in all illustrations is in Hebrew.
On a year’s leave from teaching, I planned a six-month footloose odyssey to Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. I had lived in Israel some years ago and had not seen my good friends in Jerusalem for some time. The highlight was going to be a safari to Kenya arranged from there, as it is only a three-hour flight from Tel-Aviv to Nairobi.
So, I set off on Oct. 1, 1990, with a one-way ticket from Toronto to Paris and no reservations anywhere. Kuwait had already been occupied by Iraq that past summer, and George Bush had set Jan. 15, 1991, as a deadline/ultimatum. While this was in the back of my mind, I was determined to stick to my plans of arriving in Israel by sea in early December.
I wandered in glorious fall weather through France (Paris, Savoie and Haute-Savoie), Italy (Liguria, Tuscany and Umbria) and then by boat from Ancona to Split, Yugoslavia. The Dalmatian Coast was beautiful and the city of Dubrovnik breath taking. I took the train up to Sarajevo in late October. The city was fascinating and a mixture of many cultures – but already tense. Sure enough, the war in Bosnia started some five months later.
From Sarajevo, I continued by overnight train to Subotica (near the Hungarian border) and then by bus to the scenic city of Szeged in southern Hungary. It was now early November, and the weather had turned cloudy and damp, but I spent a wonderful 10 days or so in Budapest and Eger, experiencing delicious Hungarian food, pastries and wine. I had not read a newspaper or seen an English newscast for a while.
I decided to take a short night flight to Athens with MALEV (the Hungarian airline), rather than a few days by land. I spent a couple of leisurely days exploring the city, minus the tourist crowds that time of year.
I did get caught in an angry public street demonstration – either student- or labour- based. I just ducked into a pharmacy until the mob passed. I was soon on an overnight boat to Crete from Piraeus and spent time in the towns of Chania, Rethymno, and the capital Heraklion. It was on Crete that the rumours of war intensified and were in the news often, though nothing seemed imminent. I decided to forge ahead, and sailed to Rhodes – the last major stop before Haifa, Israel.
Rhodes, though still mild, was emptying of all tourists in mid-November. I spotted warships from the US and France in port – they were not there for a cruise. Though apprehensive and with difficulty (the ticket agent did not want to sell me passage to Haifa), I bought a one-way on the only Greek ship continuing on to Cyprus and Haifa. The sailing in early December was smooth, but tension was definitely in the air. An incident happened on board which unsettled me a few hours before docking, but this is best left as story in itself! Needless to say, there were few passengers on board; I remember a Russian family with their dog immigrating to Israel, and an Irish guy with his motorcycle intending to cycle across Africa. On disembarking, I stayed overnight with old friends in Haifa and the next day bussed it up to Jerusalem. The headlines were of another bomb attack on a passenger bus near Tel-Aviv.
After celebrating my friend’s birthday in Jerusalem, I headed down to Eilat on the Red Sea, intending to stay for a month of sun, sea and scuba. Eilat borders both Jordan and Egypt within a few kilometres. Well, even the normally busy December holiday season was very quiet in this beautiful resort, as travel to this region was not on people’s minds. As a result though, I did get a fantastic monthly rate at a small hotel.
I crossed the Egyptian border to Taba several times in early January, to swim and have lunch at the deserted Hilton hotel. I ate out at different cafés and restaurants in the evening and got to know the staff and owners quite well.
"You’re prepared! You’re protected!"
(In Hebrew this rhymes.)
The war clouds were gathering, but feeling optimistic, I had booked a 10-day wonderful itinerary to Kenya, for late-January departure from Tel-Aviv.
By about Jan. 8, the last tourists had left Eilat, and I felt like the only tourist left. The news reports were low-key, but meanwhile foreign residents and tourists were being evacuated.
I spoke with locals. Some felt nothing would happen; others felt a war in the Gulf was unavoidable. Sadaam Hussein had already threatened to "rain down with fire" on Israel.
Jan. 15 at 0700 local time was zero hour: the expiry of George Bush’s deadline was rapidly approaching. I had made local friends while volunteering my time at the public library, re-arranging their French-language section. They begged me to stay in Eilat, as they thought it would be safe from scud attack. By Jan. 13, local Israeli television started broadcasting bulletins on chemical-warfare defense. Nostalgic, morale-building music was played on the radio. All buildings and homes, including my small hotel, prepared a "sealed room".
"Zero-hour" was approaching, and I realized I still hadn’t a gas-mask kit. In the meantime, the Canadian Embassy had called me in Eilat (I had left my friends’ telephone number in Jerusalem) to advise that if I decided to stay (well, I had no return ticket, plus all foreign airlines had stopped service) to get a gas mask!
Well, I quickly called my friends in Jerusalem and sheepishly asked if I could come up "for the war". I did get a yes answer. So, mid-evening on Jan. 14 saw me pack quickly and dash up to the civil-defense warehouse in Eilat moments before closing. I received my gas-mask kit (basic black, adult-size with shoulder-strap box, injection of atropine and powder for gas-burns), brochure in Hebrew (they had run out of English, but no problem) and a stamp in my passport.
There was an all-night "End of the World" party at a local fun café, but I passed. Next morning, zero hour came and went, so at 9 a.m. I was on a bus, racing from Eilat to Jerusalem via the Dead Sea in a record time of about three hours. Besides a young Arab boy returning to his home, I was the only passenger on-board.