Mosaics on the wall, heading into the customs/border control area.

Israel Trip: Traveling to Jerusalem

When I was offered the opportunity to go on this trip to Israel, I was really psyched about it. I mean, it’s not every day that you get the chance to travel to one of the most important places in the world. Israel, and Jerusalem specifically, has been the direction of prayer for Jews for thousands of years. For some Christians in some periods it has also served as a direction of prayer. The same can be said for Muslims. During the initial years of Islam, Jerusalem was the qibla, or direction of prayer, before it was switched to Mecca to create a distinction between Muslims and Jews. Jerusalem has been a place of pilgrimage for all three faiths. Millions and millions of people have turned their thoughts, hopes and dreams toward that city. And, I got the chance to go for free. I’m still not entirely sure why. The Jewish Studies program director said it’s just because of who I am. I suppose he means personality and academic achievement, but no matter the reason, I am exceedingly grateful because it was an amazing experience. Life changing in some ways. And, while we didn’t all become the best of friends, we all bonded with each other to varying degrees. How couldn’t we?

The van ride to JFK

The van ride to JFK

But, that came later. Before heading to the airport, we all met up at our professor’s apartment in Manhattan. She had arranged transportation from there to the airport so we could arrive organized, as a group. It was less stressful for her to do things that way and reduced the chances of someone missing the flight.

Security was less aggressive than I expected. I suppose I had built up the interrogation process in my mind and the actual process was sort of a let down. I suppose that sounds sort of odd, but being battered with questions is part of the Israel experience now, for good or bad. I was asked about my identity, who I was traveling with, how long I’d known them, if I’d packed my bags and had my bags in my possession the whole time, and whether or not anyone had tried to give me anything to take to Israel. I was also asked who was in charge of the group and how long I’d known her. I think the process of trying to explain to them that we were all traveling as a group from a school was more complicated and tiresome than answering the questions and Professor Kornfeld handled that part of it anyway.

Awesome memory foam neck pillow.

Awesome memory foam neck pillow.

We wandered around the airport for a while before we headed to the boarding area. I bought a neck pillow. I figured I would need it and got a firm memory foam pillow. It came in handy, especially on the flight back. I thought about how long the week was going to be. Besides Professor Kornfeld, I was the only married person on the trip. I was also the only guy on the trip. That made things interesting, but not in a bad way. But, what I mean is that I was wondering how well things were going to go with my wife being alone for a week with the dog and cats.

People praying in the boarding area by the windows.

People praying in the boarding area by the windows.

When we got to the gate, we went ahead and got in line to board. We stood near the velvet cords that are removed when the staff is going to allow passengers to board. There were people standing by the windows praying. I’m not sure if they were doing evening prayers, praying for a safe flight, or both.

Chassidic guys that cut us in line.

Chassidic guys that cut us in line.

As the time to board came closer, a lot of the Chassidic people decided we weren’t important enough to be at the front of the line, or perhaps that they were too holy to be second, and walked in front of us and squeezed us out of our spot in the line. We had to start telling people the line actually starts at the back, not the front, or I think we would have found everyone bunched in front of us in a huge cluster of stupid.

The El Al staff wasn’t much better. The woman that checked my ticket and passport before letting pass through onto the boarding walkway even made a “psst” noise through her teeth as she handed back my identification. I didn’t have time to stop and think about it then, or perhaps I was too excited to be getting on the plane, but I can’t understand how these people can be so rude to customers and still have their jobs. The flight crew made up for it. They were extremely pleasant.

The El Al plane we flew in.

The El Al plane we flew in.

Interior of the El Al plane.

Interior of the El Al plane.

The plane itself was not impressive. It looked old. The screens on the backs of the chairs were discolored, flickered, or were dim. There was no on-demand video. There was a screen at the front of our section of the cabin that was just set to show what was on one of the available channels. It was worse than most domestic Delta flights I’ve taken. It didn’t hold a candle to Singapore Airlines. Those guys even give out slippers, tooth brushes and tooth paste. Complimentary champagne too, in economy class. El Al wouldn’t even agree to provide vegetarian meals for people in our group who don’t eat meat. But, at least it was safe.

I had a surprise on the plane. When I looked to my left I saw a guy I recognized and after a while I realized he attends the same synagogue I do. When I caught his eye he smiled and waved and I found out he was heading to Israel for a wedding. I bumped into him again at the customs/border control area.

Mosaics on the wall, heading into the customs/border control area.

Mosaics on the wall, heading into the customs/border control area.

Arriving in Israel, we discovered that there is no immigration stamp anymore. Because the Arab countries behave like children and won’t allow anyone in that has an Israeli visa stamp in their passport, Israel has had to change the way they issue visas. Now, they provide you with a printed card that looks sort of like an ID, with a photo and an entry number. You get another one as you leave the country. I was disappointed. Even though not having that stamp is probably best if I want to do more traveling in the region, it would have been cool to have. And, do I really want to visit and spend money in countries that behave like that anyway?

Balloons on the ceiling from families greeting returning loved ones.

Balloons on the ceiling from families greeting returning loved ones.

A large menorah outside Ben Gurion International Airport.

A large menorah outside Ben Gurion International Airport.

We left New York City at about midnight and arrived in Tel Aviv at Ben Gurion airport at about 4 PM. The drive to Jerusalem wasn’t that long at all. Before we knew it we were dropping our things off at the hotel. We were staying at the Eldan, across the street from the King David Hotel. I can’t remember if we showered. I’m sure I brushed my teeth at least, but before long we were back in the van and heading out for dinner.

To be continued…

Singapore Airlines vs Philippine Airlines

In 2008 I had the opportunity to fly on Singapore Airlines and earlier this week I flew on Philippine Airlines.  I spent two years living in Singapore and am moving on to the Philippines, so I figured it’d be in keeping with this blog to do a comparison of the services offered by both airlines.  I’ll also be reposting this on my Philippines blog, Everything But Balot.

Singapore Airlines:

When I first flew to Singapore in June of 2008, I had some choices to make.  One was which airline I was going to take.  I made that decision the simplest way.  I took the one that was cheapest.  When you’re flying from the US to Singapore, the cost of the ticket can be pretty steep, especially if you’re flying during the summer, so the price point was my major choosing point.

Somehow, Singapore Airlines wound up being the best priced fare at roughly 1400 USD for a one way ticket from New York City, with one layover in Frankfurt, Germany.  I have no idea how this happened, but I’m glad it did.

To put it simply, Singapore Airlines is the best flight experience I’ve EVER had.  I think it completely enhanced the experience that I got onboard with absolutely no expectations or any knowledge of the airline.  With it being the cheapest ticket, I’d assumed it was some sort of low class airline that would get me where I wanted to go, but not necessarily in style.

I was wrong.  Singapore Airlines is all about comfort and relaxation while in flight, even if you’re in the economy section.  I had a good seat too.  I’d booked early and chosen my seat, so I wound up on the aisle.  Someone begged me to switch with them, so they could sit next to their spouse, but I declined.  Their seat was dead center of the plain, with two seats on either side.  I have long legs, so I need the extra space, especially on a 22 hour flight.

Shortly after getting on the plane I was handed a package by a stewardess.  I don’t remember if it was prior to take-off or just after the plane leveled out, but it doesn’t really matter.  I got it right away and it was a fantastic goodie bag!  It had slippers, a toothbrush, toothpaste, and I think some soap in it.  Right about then I knew I’d lucked up and gotten a good deal, but it only got better.

A little while later, a stewardess came down the aisle and asked me if I’d like to have a glass of champagne.  Of course I accepted her offer and then got lost in the menus on the touch-screen TV on the back of the chair in front of me.  Oh, and I’d put on my comfy slippers by then too.  The TV on the back of the chair was loaded with on-demand movies, TV shows, music and even a few basic games.  It kept me thoroughly entertained for the duration of the flight.

The meals I was served were top notch.  It was better than some of the things I’d eaten in restaurants.  The one meal that still stands out in my mind is the steak dinner I was served.  The meat was tender and it was real, rather than being some chopped and reformed meat patty.  The vegetables were still crisp.

Between meals there was a steady flow of drinks and snacks, and most importantly, the stewardesses were very prompt and kept their eyes on the passengers to make sure everyone was as comfortable as possible.  I could really tell that I was a valued customer, even if I wasn’t in first class.

If I ever make a long-haul flight from Asia to Europe, or back to the US, it will definitely be with Singapore Airlines.

Philippine Airlines

My trip on Philippine Airlines left a lot to be desired.  I flew from Singapore to Manila, in the Philippines.  It’s a pretty short flight, but even so I expected there to be a level of service offered in exchange for the premium price we paid to fly with their airline over Jetstar, or an even lower priced budget airline.  That wasn’t the case, at all.  I won’t go into the disaster with my cats here, but do take the time to read it, as that may have affected my opinion.  I’ll try to stick to specific examples here.

When we first approached the boarding area, I was expecting to see a large, shiny plane waiting for us.  Instead, the plane looked a bit small and old.  I kept my hopes up for the interior, but was let down on boarding.  The seats were a bit cramped, there was no TV in the back of the chairs, and everything looked really old and worn down.  If it weren’t for the uniforms the stewardesses were wearing, it could’ve been a Tiger Airways plane.  Not that I have anything against Tiger Airways.  I’m just saying that you get what you pay for, and I paid for more than that.

I want to talk specifically about the entertainment services offered.  The TVs weren’t in the backs of the chairs, with each person having their own individual screen to suit their taste, but there were drop-down TVs.  Each one was set to serve about 3 rows.  The screens were small, but they were ok.  The movie selection wasn’t bad either.  They picked The Tooth Fairy, which I really enjoyed watching the first time around.  I got excited and plugged in the complimentary headphones provided by a stewardess.  I then found out that I couldn’t change the channel or the value through my armrest.  Also, each headphone was playing something from a different channel.  I had crappy music in one ear and even crappier music in the other ear.  So, I took off the headphones and just looked at the screen for a while.

When the movie started, the stewardesses were distributing meals from their cart.  The food was actually pretty good.  I had a chicken dish that actually hit the spot, especially since it was accompanied by a Red Ribbon brownie.  Red Ribbon is a baking chain in the Philippines that really does it right.  I love getting cakes and other goodies from them.

Unfortunately, that’s as far as I can go with the compliments.

After the meal, I think we sat there for about 40 minutes with our empty trays, waiting for a stewardess to come by to collect them.  My wife had to use the restroom and couldn’t wait any longer, so we wound up stacking everything together into one tray that I could hold so she could climb out.  In the process, we spilled ice water in her lap and on her chair.  About 10 minutes later a stewardess finally came by to take the trays, and instead of offering me service, she told me I needed to put everything back on the individual trays before she would take it.  Then she moved on and I had to yell at her to get her to come back and take the damn trays I’d put back in order.  She should’ve taken the trays and done the work herself.  If she’d been more timely in her job it wouldn’t have been necessary to put them like that in the first place.

Also, during the entire flight the cabin felt stuffy and warm.  I’m not sure if the air conditioning wasn’t working right, or if they just weren’t running it as often to save on fuel, but it was disappointing.  You know how you always think you’ll need a blanket on an airplane because it’s nice and cold?  I was wearing flip-flops, shorts and a t-shirt and I was still warm.

I spent the rest of the flight furiously updating and arranging my e-book library on my laptop, looking forward to getting off the plane.  Instead of being a great experience like Singapore Airlines was, Philippine Airlines made the trip feel like a chore.  I don’t understand why I paid more for their tickets.  I get better service on Jetstar and the rates are a lot cheaper.

To top it off, when the plane landed it almost veered off the runway.  Not sure what that was about, but it seemed a fitting end to an uncomfortable flight.

Conclusion:

I suppose I already said it above, but from now on it’ll be Singapore Airlines only for long-haul flights, if my budget permits of course!  Other than that, I’d rather take Jetstar than Philippine Airlines again.

Moleskine Notebooks

The first time I’d ever heard of a moleskine notebook was when I was reading a blog about a woman’s trip to Vietnam. She had taken a lot of notes in a moleskine and had scanned and embedded them as a slideshow into a blog post. I thought it was a really interesting idea, and a great way to record thoughts about a trip you take when you might not have a laptop handy. For example, if you’re on a hike through the hills you might not have time to whip out your laptop and jot down a few things. Despite the proliferation of digital media, there are still a lot of times when old fashioned notebooks are just the most practical and sensible thing to use.

Moleskines are appealing because they have an interesting name and an interesting history. I know it’s silly to feel more prestigious just based on an item you might have, but moleskines are just that sort of thing. They even advertise it and market it that way. The cover wrapper (seen in green and orange on the ones in the photo) say: “The legendary notebook of Hemingway, Picasso, Chatwin.” I suppose it’s something like how Apple promotes their products.

When you break open the plastic and flip it open, the first thing you’ll probably notice is a leaflet inside that details the history of moleskine notebooks. Apparently they fell out of production for a while, but some authors ordered a bulk of them because they were sad to see them go. Later, another manufacturer, in Milan I believe, picked up the production and they’re marketed world-wide again.

Typically I wouldn’t fall for something like that, but I really enjoy writing, and writing is all about frame of mind. If you’re in the right frame of mind, you’ll write well. If not, what you produce is at best bland. So, having something that’s touted as a notebook used by famous figures is just the thing to set the mood, and it also pushes you to only write things in it that are meaningful.

So, yesterday, my wife and I bought each other one each, as gifts. The one I got for my wife is an “Info Book” style Moleskine, with tabbed, labeled sections. She’s a fanatic for organizers and loved it. I got the plain, ruled paper moleskine. That’s appropriate for what I want to do with it, which is record thoughts that I have that I can later use for blog articles. I’m sure everyone has had a great thought or idea, only to realize later when they sit down they can’t quite grasp it again. This is my solution.

We picked the pocket sized versions because that makes for easy portability. It’ll slip easily into a bag or pocket. The quality is really nice. Each one is hand made, and comes with a defect-free guarantee that’s easy to cash in on. If you find a defect, all you have to do is take a digital image and e-mail it to a provided address. They’ll ship you a new notebook right away. Quality and service are important to this company.

So, if you’re looking for a quality notebook that you can shelf and cherish later on, this might be something you’ll want to look into. Just keep in mind that they’re a bit pricey since they’re premium items.