TRAVELS IN THE TIME OF CORONA
FROM THE MALDIVES
TO THE PROMISED LAND
Travel industry super publicist Geoffrey Weill guides us through his trip from the Maldives to Tel Aviv during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Readers of this column will know that I have been reporting—sometimes in dismally agonizing detail—on the forms, apps, uploads, testing, nose-swabbing, result-seeking, mask-wearing, temperature-checking and hand-sanitizing involved in international travel in these times of Coronavirus. But trust me on this one, nothing, absolutely nothing. could have prepared me for the palaver of getting into Israel, the next stop on our six-week family vacation to Dubai, the Maldives, Israel and Ischia.
As the world surely knows, Israel has been the world’s game-changer in dealing with COVID-19. It was the first to vaccinate most of its population. It was the first to go into lock-down. It was the first to end the lock-down. It was the first to experience the “I’m-vaccinated-so-I-can-behave-like-a-ridiculous-idiot” syndrome. It was the first to encounter a third, and then a fourth wave of infection. And late last month, it was the first to administer the third “booster” shot of the Pfizer vaccine.
What many people don’t know is that for all intents and purposes foreign tourism to Israel closed down in March 2020, and has yet to reopen. Yes, in the spring of 2021, the country began to let in small groups of the vaccinated, but by now so many nations are on Israel’s “red list” that travel to the country has dwindled to less than a trickle. And that’s pretty major for a country that for close to 70 years has relied on tourism as a massive source of foreign currency and as the country’s number-one employer, not to mention the enormous emotional and political support achieved by having tourists see its beauties and pass judgment on how it deals with its challenges.
So who can freely enter Israel? Israelis who have gone to a “not-red” country and Israel citizens who live outside Israel (of which, conservatively, there may be as many as a million). Half of these live in the United States with green cards or dual U.S-Israel citizenship. I should know, because I’m married to one. And my two younger children also hold two passports because by Israeli law those citizens who have a child born overseas must register their children as Israelis.
My daughter Zoe and my son Liam were both born at Mount Sinai (the hospital on New York’s Fifth Avenue, not the mountain in Egypt) and are proud U.S. citizens who also hold Israeli citizenship. And if you happen to be married to one of these people, they have the right to bring you with them into the Promised Land.
Sounds simple, right? Well, it is not. The Israeli Consulate in New York spells it out in intricate details in about 15 pages of 10-point type. Oh yes, and you guessed it, that’s 15 pages of 10-point type in Hebrew.
So my wife, Noa, who is one of those people so efficient and detail-oriented that she makes the Swiss look slovenly, followed these 15-pages word for word. She completed a lengthy form. It had to be printed out, signed by her and me, and scanned. She had to upload a copy of the information page of her Israeli passport and of my American passport.
She had to upload a copy of our marriage certificate. She had to provide details of our flight arrangements and details of where we will be staying in Israel. And all this had to be submitted precisely three weeks before our attended arrival—or three weeks and a day, not three weeks minus a day. She set an alarm to get up in the middle of the night to race to the computer and click “submit.” Within an hour the Israeli consulate sent an email acknowledging receipt. Wow, that was easy!
No it wasn’t. Noa happened to click on a Facebook page of Israeli Americans describing tales of woe connected to the process we just completed. All the “complaints” and moans did not seem relevant to us—after all we had followed the instructions to the letter. And off the four of us went to fly to Dubai, and the Maldives, confident that all would work like clockwork.
Fast forward two-and-a-half weeks later and we were at Sonia Jani in the Maldives, scheduled to take a seaplane on July 11 to Malé, Emirates to Dubai and, after a five-hour layover, on to Tel Aviv on El Al. We were lazing on the beach, but were beginning to worry just a bit that we had not yet received confirmation that I would be allowed to enter the country—or even allowed to board the El Al flight.
On July 8, Noa started to panic, and I started to plan my vacation to Switzerland. I thought I could meet them in Italy after their three weeks in Israel. July 8 is a Thursday. Israeli government offices are closed on Fridays and Saturdays and we were supposed to fly in on Sunday evening. If we did not get confirmation that day, we were screwed.
Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the Israeli concept called “protexia.” “Protexia” means contacting someone you know whose housecleaner knows someone who is the cousin of someone who has connections to someone’s son-in-law’s dentist who might know the right person to help.
And there on a Maldive atoll, Noa kicks her protexia hormone into high gear. Having once herself worked at Israel’s New York consulate, she knows someone who has a list of WhatsApp numbers. She’s able to get the personal WhatsApp of the consul who deals with such matters in New York, and the personal WhatsApp of the Israeli consul in Abu Dhabi, and the boss of that consul in Mumbai.
She WhatsApps them all. The first doesn’t deign to respond. The second two do respond, but with withering unhelpfulness. Then I remember that I had worked for about a thousand years with Israel’s Ministry of Tourism in New York, whose office is one floor above the consulate. We did another WhatsApp, getting an immediate answer that because of the overwhelming demand for non-Israeli spouses to enter Israel, the consulate staff is so overwhelmed that there are instructions that nobody —and I mean nobody—may even speak to them. I emailed a travel advisor in Israel whom I know. He offered to help by putting me in touch with somebody at the Ministry of Tourism in Jerusalem whom I’ve actually known for 25 years. Another WhatsApp. He said he would do his best.
On Friday, July 9, I suddenly remembered that I am a friend of the woman who was the personal assistant to the late Shimon Peres, former prime minister and then president of Israel. I WhatsApped her. I emailed my trusty travel advisor, Meir in of Skokie, Ill., who happened to be in Israel. His response seemed oddly confident things would work out He happened to know someone who might happen to be able to help. Yeah, right!
We spent Saturday taking a COVID test that punctures the frontal lobes of our brain, convincing ourselves that surely one of these sources will come through. Or, magically, on Sunday, July 11, the permission will automatically zonk into Noa’s inbox.
Sunday dawns, and we embark on our journey. We seaplane to Malé, we Emirate to Dubai, and we check our luggage just to Dubai in the ever-growing likelihood that my family will be continuing to Tel Aviv and I won’t. We retrieved our luggage. We took a taxi from Dubai’s Terminal 3 to Dubai’s Terminal 1, wildly infuriating a driver who has waited for hours in the 100-degree heat for so puny a journey. I gave him triple the fare to salve my conscience.
The El Al flight was due to depart at 7:30 p.m. It was now 2 p.m. El Al was not supposed to begin check-in until four hours before departure. We sat at a coffee shop in the departure area and strummed our fingers. Noa WhatsApps everyone again who she’s already WhatsApped in New York, Abu Dhabi and Mumbai. I WhatsApped Peres’s assistant and she admits she can’t help.
I called Meir in Tel Aviv. He was a bit cryptic. His “friend” was still at lunch. I asked him to separate me from the family on our PNR (passenger name record), knowing full well this will wreck my airfare and cost thousands of dollars. Cool as a cucumber, Meir told me: “No, let’s wait a while.”
More coffee. More strumming. I take a Klonopin. It was now 4 p.m. in Dubai, 3 p.m. in Israel. How long can a “friend’s” lunch take? Noa’s eyes were now moist. She knew that this entire six-week adventure designed to celebrate her 50th birthday is about to be in ruins. Then Meir called me. “Are you vaccinated?” he asked. “Yes, of course—double Pfizer,” I responded. “Hmm. Good. Let’s wait a bit longer,” he said.
If I drank more coffee I’ll would need a Valium—and a catheter. It was 4:30 p.m. I ordered another latte. I sipped. I strummed. My phone vibrated. It was a WhatsApp from Meir with an attachment. An attachment? I clicked on it. And up bounced a letter from the Director-General of Israel’s Foreign Ministry (Israel’s State Department) confirming that Geoffrey Weill would be permitted to enter Israel within the next seven days.
I couldn’t quite believe what I was reading. Noa burst into tears. My kids cheered. What seems incredible is that with all the “protexia” we’ve muscled, all the favors we’ve pulled, it is our sweet little travel advisor from Chicago who has a “friend” who, when she’s chomping her lunch, works at Israel’s Foreign Ministry. If ever I’ve been grateful for using a travel advisor, this is the moment.
We gathered our wits together and wheeled our six vast suitcases to the El Al check-in. We were through El Al security in a flash. I had splurged on Premium Economy for this three-and-a-half-hour flight and the check-in was effortless. Our COVID test results were scrutinized. A supervisor was called over and she read the letter on my iPhone and took a photo of it with hers. We were set. We had boarding passes, we cleared emigration, we took the airport train and walked a hundred miles to the gate. We stepped into the Dreamliner.
Quite apart from the anxiety of the recent days and the elation of the last hours, this was an exciting moment. Israel and the United Arab Emirates have only been friends for about a year. Here we were in the UAE aboard an Israeli 787 for heaven’s sake, about to fly through Bahreini and Saudi airspace to Tel Aviv. We were making our own little bit of history.
El Al’s Premium Economy turns out to be surprisingly good, just like Business Class used to be on every airline. Wide seats, lots of legroom, an amenity bag with nice unguents and stripey socks, and a charming flight attendant who could be a waiter at an aging Viennese café and quite possibly once was. He recommended the beef. I ordered the beef. I ate the smoked salmon appetizer and then tackled the beef. It was indeed delicious. He asked if I’d like another serving. Well, as a matter of fact, I would. It continued to be delicious. He asked if I’d like coffee. “Latte? Cappucino?” he inquired.
What? On a plane? Coffee that isn’t like yesterday’s dishwater? He returned in two minutes with a plate of chocolate cake and a frothy cappuccino sprinkled with cocoa powder. I could not believe this. I was more excited by the revelation that one can actually have drinkable coffee on a plane than Jennifer Anniston is excited that she can shower aboard Emirates.
The captain announced that instead of the scheduled three-and-a-half-hours, we would be in Tel Aviv in two hours and 40 minutes. I was glued to the flight monitor. We flew northwest along the Persian Gulf and over Bahrain. Then we flew all the way across Saudi Arabia. We crossed into Jordanian airspace. We began the descent. I looked out the big Dreamliner window and we were flying over the skyscrapers of Tel Aviv. We continued out over the Mediterranean, made a 180 degree turn and flew back over the city. We touched down at Ben Gurion International Airport. We made it.
Since no tourists are arriving in Israel, all of the Israelis on the flight swipe their passports over a beam of light and their entry ticket churned out of a machine. I, of course, had to stand in line at one of two desks for foreigners. At one desk, an interminable battle seems to be taking place with a visitor and his companion in a wheelchair.
My immigration clerk was disagreeable and startled to see an American passport. He asked for my phone so he could study my letter from the Foreign Ministry. He photographed it and returned my phone. He got up and took my passport and his phone through a distant door. I heard meowing, and turned to see a chubby ginger cat sitting in the immigration hall. I regretted having consumed and not pocketed El Al’s smoked salmon. The surly clerk returned, asked me to lower my mask to compare my face with my passport photo. He stamped my entry slip, and slid my passport beneath the glass. Our luggage was already on the carousel. Now we had really made it.
We wheeled our bags through the exit doors and no, we had not quite made it. Instead of the usual rushing into the arms of our family, we were directed left into a massive new air-conditioned tent where every single passenger arriving in Israel has to take a COVID-PCR test, then go home and stay home until the result is emailed.
We lined up. It was incredibly efficient. Of course, there are the moaners and the complainers and the “don’t-you-know-who-I-ams,” but we ignored them. Eventually, each of us sat for our test—which is done in a way I’ve only read about but never seen in action. There are two swabs —one in the back of the mouth and then in the nostril, and the second in the other side of mouth and the other nostril.
One swab was screwed into our personal test-tube. The second swab was added to a container with about 30 or 40 swabs. A pink hospital bracelet was wrapped around our wrist. (The collective container is tested first, and only if somewhere there’s a positive result do they have to check the individual test tubes. It saves hours of labor. Say what you will, these Israelis are clever.)
We blew our invaded noses and wheeled our bags to the exit door. A guard checked if we were wearing the pink bracelet proving we’ve been tested. We emerged into the warm night and the embrace of our family. It seemed like 14 days since we left the Maldives, but it’s only been 14 hours. We’re in the Promised Land.