A taxi takes us from the border post into the resort town of Eilat, where we’ll be getting our bus to Tel Aviv. The town seems to be an extension of the crossing: every roundabout is decorated with suspended dolphins and angelfish, sculptures coexisting over blue gravel. Brightly clothed Israelis jog or ride mountainbikes on designated paths, and the beaches are lined with nylon tents and scant-clad women. The driver drops us at the bus station, which won’t open for another 3 hours. We settle into bad coffees at a shop across the road, marvelling that everything is tinned and pricey.
“Music is your only friend”
… reads graffiti on a near wall,
“until the end”.
We’re trying to have Middle Eastern interactions here, smiling and nodding at everyone we pass or who passes us. It doesn’t work- we’re greeted by blank London stares, people’s mouths not used to smiling. Perhaps it’s a question of novelty: in Egypt we’re aliens, weird and white, whereas here we could well be local.
The bus comes. We pay the unsmiling driver and walk the aisle of soldiers and sunglassed dudes to our seats.
The landscape we pass through is Martian, strange: craggy red rock deserts with great drifts of black shingle, mountains with messages written on the sides in white stones:
J LOVES P
We level out onto a plain which is dotted with trees, swept sideways like kinky Grace Jones haircuts, and slowly the desert grows green. The soldier behind us has a flaming Torah on her sleeve, the insignia of the IDF. She smiles, once. It occurs to me that every young person in this country (with only a few exceptions) passes through the army at some stage; an entire nation trained for the military. It’s a difficult concept to get my head round.
We arrive in Tel Aviv into a giant bus terminal, and queue to get our bags rigorously checked by a security guard. Once inside, the terminal is steel-shuttered and empty, closed for Passover. A few Chinese men talk on payphones, squatting on a gum-pocked floor. We call our Israeli friend- she and Baba are on the beach, she’ll come and get us now.
One side of me feels at home, the other adrift on a broad, uneasy sea. Outside, a man on a bench pours vodka into a bottle of Coke, farts and walks away.