Tuesday, June 26, 2012

How I spent a lifetime at JFK’s Terminal 3

A trip is often about the journey and not the des- tination, and sometimes the journey is just plain awful. That certainly sums up at least part of my getting from here to there and back during my most recent journey to Israel.

Finding a pigeon resting inside an airport terminal isn't
all that usual; that is of course unless you're travelling
through JFK in New York.
As often as not, the entire traveling experience is an adventure for me. Truth to tell, there’s no question that air travel has become onerous in recent years. But with the proper attitude and the right drugs the lines and delays, security checkpoints and pat downs all become, ah, fun and funny, part of some sort of cosmic joke.

But the joke this time around was pretty much on me after I managed to pull together a travel itinerary that had me spending close to 16 hours – eight hours going and eight hours on my return – at New York’s JFK International, one of the worst airports in the country.

Not that long ago I could have flown directly from my little corner of the world to Israel. For some yet unexplainable reason Delta, my hometown airline that sloganizes it’ll always be ready when I am, canceled its one daily flight from the Land of Cotton to Tel Aviv. Go figure!
So to get from here to way over there I had to travel through at least one other airport. New York seemed the logical choice. Unfortunately, the two flights offered up on Delta’s website when I started finalizing my plans came with challenges.

One flight only allowed me 90 minutes to make my connection. The other fell at the opposite end of the waiting spectrum, offering up a whopping eight hour delay in the Big Apple. Making my way back home came with pretty much the same challenges – dash and pray or cool my heels at JFK; say that just right and it sort of rhymes. That said, there was nothing pretty or poetic about my decision!
I came down on the side of caution, worrying that if there was any kind of delay – bad weather, bald tires, drunken pilots or deranged flight attendants – I’d miss my connecting flight and then have to wait, ahhh, many extra hours in New York. Okay, I know I ended up waiting many extra hours. But at least that was part of my plan!

And it would have been okay if JFK wasn’t a seedy little rat hole, filled with the devil’s spawn who work as ticket agents, baggage handlers, security guards and fast food clerks and cashiers. Apparently I’m not the only passenger in the last year who has taken note of the disaster called Terminal 3.

A little background and context might be helpful. JFK began life in the early 1940s when the city of New York began filling in the marshy tidelands of Idlewild Golf Course. Initial plans were to create a modest airport of about 1,000 acres. But by the time construction was complete, Idlewild Airport had grown to five times the original size.
Commercial flights began in 1948. Today, John F. Kennedy International Airport – it was renamed in memory of the nation’s thirty-fifth president in 1963, a little over a year after JFK was assassinated – is the nation’s leading international gateway, with more than 80 airlines operating from its gates.  

Unfortunately, city and airport officials have paid little attention to the mega-airport in recent years and apparently haven’t noticed that the world is moving at warp speed now that we’ve entered the twenty-first Century. JFK is difficult to fly into; it’s a jarring blend of terminals, pieced together with dismal walkways and miles of sidewalks. Buses, mini-vans and light rail will move you about from place to place; but service is often slow and sporadic.
Most of the terminals are suffering from neglect, real fixer-uppers with holes in the roofs, water stains spilling across the walls, broken tiles, ratty carpeting and birds flying about. The folks at Frommers.com have taken note. They ranked JFK’s Terminal 3 as the worst in the world.

"Terminal 3 is known for endless immigration lines in a dank basement, an utter lack of food and shopping options and three crowded and confusing entry points,” Frommers.com said. "There's also a sense that the cleaning crew gave up in despair a while ago."
I’m thinking Frommers got it right. Oh, did I mention that it was Terminal 3 where I spent 15 of the 16 hours waiting at JFK? In short, a lifetime!

Monday, June 25, 2012

Mickey D’s gets fresh, modern McMakeover

Zipping about recently, doing a few errands and in search of a hot cup of Joe, I spotted what I thought was a new fast food restaurant taking shape in my little corner of the world. After a second glance at the construction site, I realized it was a very old burger joint simply getting a massive face lift!

Once upon a time the place with the golden arches in my neighborhood had sold a billion burgers – give or take a few million. McDonald’s was located on a happening spot, the perfect intersection to draw in families, teens and business types jonesing for two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun! In recent years the joint has started showing its age and its customers have started finding other fast food alternatives.

I’m thinking the burger bosses decided the best fix was simply to go back to square one and start over – again! So in late spring they leveled the existing arches and the building it soared above on Sandy Plains Road and started from scratch. And now, they’re back!

The new site has an oh-so modern vibe about it. It’s a lovely blend of brick, glass and stone; an open and clean design that has the feel of something pulled from the archives of Frank Lloyd Wright. Even the iconic arches have been updated and pulled into the 21st Century, soaring mightily above the new structure.
Now all the corporate toads need to figure out is how best to update and modernize both its menu and its service. In a report released last week by the American Consumer Satisfaction Index (ACSI), McDonald’s found itself at the butt end of the pack, easily bested by Papa John’s, Subway and Taco Bell.

Unfortunately, the ranking isn’t new territory for McDonald’s.  Except for 2009, when the burger giant edged ahead of KFC and Burger King by a percentage point, McDonald’s has consistently placed last in the ranking since 1995.
Despite such dismal ratings, there’s still a bit of magic in the Golden Arches. I’m thinking with its spiffy new look and efforts to cut out much of the fat, oil and sugar from its products that Mickey D’s will yet again have patrons lovin’ its stuff!  

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Dawgs, Gators and quadruple bypass surgery

My brother Larry had quadruple bypass surgery earlier this week. I’m happy to report that he’s up and about; not yet dancing but well on the road to recovery.

Doctors discovered the problem late last week. The really good news is this is the sort of health issue that, despite its seriousness, is very fixable. Once upon a time blocked coronary arteries were difficult, if impossible, for surgeons to repair. In recent years bypass surgery has become a procedure best filed away under the heading of medical miracle.

The truth is that the procedure has been perfected over the last few decades thanks to the intellect, rigorous training and passion of curious medical researchers and skilled surgeons. And let us all say Amen!

The question, of course, remains why Larry’s arteries clogged up in the first place? Some will say it’s the weekly dose of Big Macs and fries, all washed down with chocolate milkshakes. I have another theory. My brother is a loyal and true Dawg fan, who bleeds red and black and worships each fall “between the hedges.” He made the mistake of leaving the Land of Cotton several decades ago, moving south into the land of Gators. Need I say more?
Now he’s really in a pickle! I’m thinking that many of the doctors, surgeons, physician assistants and nurses who have been tinkering around with his innards this week are loyal Gators who bleed blue and orange. Those of you living outside the U.S., and have no clue about the seriousness of college football, simply need to take my word that this is not a good thing!

So I guess on some sort of cosmic playing field he’ll now have mixed loyalties. Gators or not, his physicians did make him whole again. That said, there really isn’t much of a conflict. After all, Physicians and medicine are all about science. And everyone knows that college football is a religious experience.
Here’s hoping that this little episode will be a fading memory in a month or so and that Larry will be suited up and ready to play completely in the game of life very soon. And since I’m just about out of sports clichés, I’ll simply finish with that well known Georgia prayer, “Go you hairy Dawgs!”

Monday, June 11, 2012

Shabbat in Jerusalem with friends, strangers

Sometimes a little creativity works out much better than tossing loads of money at a problem. That’s exactly what the energetic staff at Jerusalem’s Abraham Hostel have done when figuring out how best to pull together Shabbat dinner for their guests each week.

To understand the problem, you probably need to know that Jerusalem, both the capital and spiritual center of Israel, is one of the few places in the world that takes Shabbat seriously. The city essentially shuts down for the Jewish Sabbath, a period that stretches from Friday afternoon until three stars appear in the sky on Saturday evening.

That means if you’re a tourist you’ll have plenty of time to rest and relax; it also means that you’d better plan ahead if you want to eat on Friday night and throughout the day on Saturday. Just about everything in the city closes – retail stores, public transport, museums and theaters; restaurants, cafes, fast-food joints, mega-supermarkets and mom-and-pop groceries.

If you’re staying at one of Jerusalem’s luxury hotels you don’t need to worry. Generally along with the high-cost of your room, you’ll be wined and dined in fine style over the Sabbath. Most 5-star hotels offer up a smorgasbord of delights – soups, salads and fishy appetizers; beef, chicken and fish; veggies and baked goods; vintage wines and dessert! Needless to say, you won’t go hungry.
That’s not the case if you’re staying in a 3-star hotel or hostel. Most of these places provide a hearty – if limited – breakfast. Otherwise, plan ahead or fast; unless you’re booked into the Abraham Hostel. I stumbled across it online when planning my most recent trip to Israel. It looked interesting and the reviews were mostly good.

The price was certainly right – $20 for a bed in a dorm and $60 for a private room and bath. Once I figured out the location was just about perfect – it’s on Jaffa Street in the heart of the city, a block or so from the Jewish Market and the pedestrian mall on Ben Yehudah Street and an easy 10 minute walk from the central bus station – I decided to try it out.
Turns out you get what you pay for! When traveling solo I don’t mind roughing it a bit. I’ve stayed in 3-star hotels and the occasional hostel. The hotels, without exception, have always been fine – clean and neat, safe and affordable. The hostels have also been safe and very affordable; unfortunately, they’re generally a little seedy around the edges.

The Abraham Hostel was light, bright and filled with second-hand everything – furniture and floor coverings; dishes, glasses and plates; beds and bedding; towels and bathroom fixtures. The building was ancient and needed work. My room was tiny and featured a jarring blend of school dorm simplicity and jail-house practicality – two single beds (really cots) pushed together, harsh neon lighting and cheap wooden cabinets nailed to the walls; a small and shaky desk, nightstand and chair. There were two additional smallish rooms, one for the toilet and another for a shower. Functional is about the best I can say about the place.
There was a bright spot. The main gathering area – sort of the hostel’s ballroom – was on the second floor. It was expansive and included colorful sofas, chairs, bean bags and hammocks; a fully stocked bar and huge entertainment system; a dining area and public kitchen. It was here that everyone willing to pay out 35 shekels (about $9) came together for Shabbat dinner.

Lacking the funds to wine and dine their guests, the hostel’s management came up with the novel idea of pulling everyone together like a family. The staff would go out and purchase the food for dinner, but it would be the guests who, with a little help from the staff, would do most of the prep work and cooking.
So it was that a trickle of tourists from around the world began gathering in the kitchen area as Jerusalem started shutting down for Shabbat. We stood around, gazing about, waiting for instructions. Fresh veggies were spread across several tables and a few staffers handed out knives, bowls and other such stuff.

Before you could shout shalom, we were all slicing and dicing, sharing a bit about our background and chatting with one another about our latest adventures. The ice had been broken. The people at my work station were typical of the guests at the hostel – a guy from Canada, traveling through Israel as part of his college course work; a couple from Japan on holiday and a middle-aged woman from California visiting relatives. Well, you get the idea.
The prep work took about 30 minutes; then we had another hour or so to talk and meet up with friends. Did I mention there was drinking? As the sky turned dark and the first stars of Shabbat winked and twinkled across Jerusalem, we settled down for the evening meal. There were about 50 of us spread about the room – friends and strangers, young and not-so-young; Jews and Christians.

A youngish woman took a few minutes to detail the importance of Shabbat, offered some religious background and historical context, then lit the Sabbath candles. Another staffer said Kiddush, a traditional blessing thanking God for the “fruit of the vine,” and finished with a blessing over a loaf of challah.
Our work and the work of the staff had pulled together a feast – fresh veggies and fruit; rice, pasta and potatoes; chips, dips, bread and chicken! I’ve already mentioned there was drinking, right?

It was Shabbat and we were family, at least for the moment, sharing a special meal in a very special city. As I said at the start, sometimes the best way to deal with a problem is to hold onto your money and use a little creativity. The evening worked for me, something I’ll be remembering in coming months. Now I’m thinking the hostel’s bosses might want to capture some of their staff’s creativity and figure out how to use it to freshen up their property.  

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Denise, Earl and living the good life in Zichron

After doing my volunteer thing with Sar-el recently, I wanted to spend a few days checking out another region of Israel where I could rest, relax and pull myself together for yet another 12-hour flight back home. That’s how I ended up in Zichron Yaakov, a small resort community just south of Haifa.

Denise and Earl, friends who once upon a time lived here in the Land of Cotton, moved to Zichron about a year ago. They were gracious enough to put me up for a few days and schlep me around a bit.  Zichron is a lovely community built across and atop a mountain range that gently slips into a valley along the Mediterranean.

It offers up world-class views in all directions – a patchwork of cultivated land in the valley, giving way to a maze of lush and lovely vineyards on nearby hillsides; twist about and the Mediterranean quietly roars to life in the far distance, the perfect spot for each day’s setting sun. This might be heaven!

That’s not to say there aren’t challenges in calling this place home. Denise and Earl – their children Reuben, Levi and Gabi – are mostly living the good life in the Jewish homeland. They’ve been warmly welcomed, are members of the local Masorti synagogue and community, and have friends who are warm, caring and helpful.

But like most olim, there’s a steep learning curve that involves mastering the language, the customs and dealing with the high-cost of just about everything. I’m delighted to report that Denise and Earl are still smiling, even as they go through the cosmic effort of finding and buying a home.
Spending time with them and visiting Zichron was a perfect way to end my trip, a chance to see up close and personal how Israelis go about their daily lives. We took a few small road trips to area sights – a nearby resort community and, later, the ancient ruins at Caesarea. But, frankly, I found it just as enjoyable and enlightening to visit a local mall and several markets with Denise and venture out with Earl to buy a bouquet of flowers for Shabbat.

Sitting out on their deck one evening, sharing a splendid bottle of Syrah from a local vineyard, we chatted about this and that and watched the sun slowly sink into the sea. For a month or so I had been dashing about, revisiting ancient and iconic spots across Israel, in search of that elusive something that would define and stamp this trip as special.
I’m thinking there was much that was special – the spiritual secrets hidden away in the Old City of Jerusalem; the upbeat and cosmopolitan vibe in Tel Aviv; the like-minded and friendly folks I worked with at Tel HaShomer. But the quiet and calm that settled across Zichron as the sky grew dark and my soul grew light is what I’ll be remembering.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Finding my way from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem

Getting around when visiting Israel can be a hassle. It can also be an adventure. The really good news is this tiny country that has all sorts of problems – political, religious, cultural – also has a really good public transport system. Truth to tell, it’s significantly cheaper and easier to get from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem than traveling from Marietta to Atlanta. Go figure!

On my most recent trip to the Jewish homeland, I ventured out and about in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem with little problem; mostly getting around on buses, sheruts – a sort of mini-van that follows a scheduled route – and the occasional cab.
It’s worth noting that much of what you’ll want to visit as a tourist is in the heart of both these cities and is well within walking distance if you’re reasonably healthy and fit. An added bonus of hoofing it when walking is an option is that you’ll get to see parts of the country up close and personal that would be nothing more than a passing blur from a bus or cab.
Most cities in Israel have a central bus station. In Tel Aviv and Jerusalem the stations are mini-cities; expansive developments that include retail shops and banks, cafes, restaurants and fast-food kiosks, ticket offices and information centers. The stations are almost always busy; crowded, noisy and filled with locals and tourists on their way from here to there. It’ll probably take a little effort to orient yourself on your first visit. But it’s an experience that’s worth the effort.

I was lucky earlier this month; I needed only to follow in the wake of Sar-El friends Irwin and Gigi when off to visit Jerusalem. They are experts on getting around the country and helped me find my way through the labyrinth of hallways and passages that fill the central bus station in Tel Aviv.
Buses run between the two cities about every 15 minutes. So the process was made even simpler when we dashed aboard a waiting bus and bought our tickets from the driver instead of stopping at a nearby ticket window.

The trip costs 18 shekels – a little shy of $5 – but I was advised to hand over 9 shekels and simply say “pensioner”! Retirees and seniors in Israel are offered half-price fares on all public transport. And that’s how I ended up making the trip for just a bit over $2. BTW, just for the sake of comparison, a can of cola will cost you 7 shekels in Israel and a really good cup of gelato will set you back 19 shekels.
Trains are another decent option, especially when traveling along the coast. They are quick, efficient and affordable. When heading back to the states after visiting friends in Zichron Yaakov, a small resort community just south of Haifa, I took a train. It whisked me through a half-dozen cities and villages that dot the Mediterranean, then on through Tel Aviv before I reached my final destination, Ben Gurion International Airport. The 50 minute trip was a bargain at 37 shekels. Remember that Israeli retirees would have paid half that price!

Cabs are all together another story. They are relatively expensive and the experience, at least for me, is almost always cosmically irritating. Cabbies fall into that group of Israelis who love tourists for only one reason – our money. They look on us all as suckers and know that, for the most part, we hate to haggle and argue and that we’ll pay whatever we’re told.
The very first cab ride I took in Israel several years ago was a horrible experience that featured a cabbie nagging me about payment from the moment we were off and going. I didn’t understand the system and hadn’t told the cabbie to turn on his meter. Instead, he continually asked me how much I was going to pay him.

Unfortunately, that nasty introduction to cabs and cabbies has proven to be the norm. On my most recent trip, this same scam played out twice. The first time I told the cabbie to turn on his meter; the second time I had a good idea of what the cost should be and handed the cabbie that amount when I reached my destination and made a hasty exit.
Of course there are exceptions. I had a mini-emergency a few trips back and needed to get to a pharmacy in Jerusalem. A helpful cabbie got me to a nearby mall, volunteered to wait, then returned me to my hotel. Another cabbie, dropping me off at the airport, zipped away, then quickly backed up and waved me down. It turns out I had left a small bag on the front seat and he had spotted it after dropping me off – a major crisis averted!

Travel, especially in strange and foreign places, is always an adventure; and getting around is a big part of the experience. If you’re on a group tour with a professional guide, the good news is most of the hassle of getting from place to place comes with your ticket.
Truth to tell, I like the ease and sense of calm that comes when traveling with family and friends. But I also like the adrenalin rush that’s part of the solo experience; the unexpected happening just around the corner and me, yet again, stumbling my way through another grand experience. And so it goes!