The Israeli Phenomenon in India
An Empty Homeland
I happen to come back to Israel for the Holidays.
Sometimes it is intentional. I came back from my North American trip to relax and wind down on Yom Kippur, our national de-stressing day. The Holidays go by the Hebrew calendar, so their Gregorian dates vary from year to year.
This time, though, it was accidental, due to flight availability and other planning factors. I flew from Mumbai Sunday, Sept. 23rd, arriving in Tel Aviv at 21:45. Monday happened to be the first day of Sukkot, our marvellous 8-day automn holiday. Very aptly, Sukkot commemorates the hardships and wonders of the ancient Hebrews wanders in the Sinai desert.
People always escape the cities on Sukkot. In the past, those who could afford to went abroad. The rest of us traveled inside the country, filling up campgrounds around the Kinneret and zimmers in the Golan Heights. We tented on beaches in Eilat or splurged in the 5-star hotels by the marina. But now the scenario has changed. Flights are much cheaper with the low-cost companies and the “open sky” policy. Accomodation costs abroad, even in Europe, are oftentimes lower than in Israel itself! That is, of course, even truer for India.
This year, the effect was extreme. The country seemingly emptied out for the duration of the High Holidays and, stunningly, for about a week afterwards. No cars. No people. No beepings. Happy driving on deserted streets.
So Where are They All?
So where were they all? At the time I was in northern India, a striking number of Israelis could be found in Dharamshalla, Manali, Leh, Pushkar, Udaipur, even in the remote village of Turtuk…
Of course many travel to Europe and The United States. Others can be found in Thailand, China, Vietnam, Ethiopia, Madagascar, Australia, and just about anywhere we can go with our passport. But India in particular features so high on the Israeli destination list, that we literally inundate the tourist scene in certain places. The “other” tourists become a minority in our crowd…
Claiming our Asian Heritage
The new “love affair” betweeen Israel and Saudi Arabia sure helps, because nowadays Air India has direct flights from israel over the Saudi mainland. That shortens the flight time to about 6 hours. This is a breeze in comparison with the classical detours over the Red Sea and around the Arabian Peninsula. In the best of cases, those flights took an extra 2 hours, but usually they involved stopovers in places like Ethiopia, Amman or even Russia…
The prices also became reasonable. I paid less than $600 round-trip, and now I see prices advertised around $350…
It was surprising to find out that the actual time difference to Delhi was only 2.5 hours . That was another revelation – we and India are closer than I imagined, located on a terrestrial continuum of our great continent. Seaparating us are regions so imbued in ancient and modern hatreds that nothing can freely flow in between. If human folly became obsolete today, we could fly or go by land, all the way through Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, all fascinating countries to visit – in principle.
For the moment, however, all those countries count as black holes, irrelevancies, blank spaces to be avoided, not enjoyed, not get acquianted to. Under the current political impasse, the “near” East from the Israeli point of view is just an obstacle on the way to get to the “far”east, and first and foremost – to India.
India is an indisputable magnet. And I will elaborate on the various reasons for that in later posts. For the moment I am just describing what I have seen.
If the image that comes to your mind of the Israeli traveler in India is of a young guy in his twenties post-army-trauma looking for drugs and parties in Kasol or Goa, you need to update. During my 74 days in India, I met three families with 5 children each, young couples with newborn babies in slings, older folk “searching for themselves”, parents joining their children for sections of their trips. I even met some Israeli business people and a guy employed by an Indian tech company.
One of these 5-kid families I happened to know previously from my years in the Arava. They had been traveling “The East” for a year now, she being on a Sabbatical from school.
India is probably the only place on Earth, where Europeans and Americans are a minority in a crowd of Israelis (apart, of course, from israel itself!). It does not show on the overall statistics of tourism to this vast country, but it sure is very noticeable in the hot spots of the Hummus Trail. More on the Hummus Trail, the Israeli route in the East, in an upcoming post. To keep updated, subscribe to my newletter.
To the Ends of the World
One Indian guy told me with a slight vicious intonation: “If you guys would not have India, you would die”. I am not totally sure what he meant. The absolute majority of the Indians I met were very friendly, if not outright in love with Israelis. I mentioned to him that Israelis also fill up the treks and guesthouses in Cambodia, Vietnam, the Philipines, Latin American and, lately, Africa. Many go to Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, you name it. I met an Israeli who had been to North Korea!
Moreover, beyond the traditional hummus trails, you can find Israelis in the remotest spots on Earth. It seems like the more remote a place is, the higher the chance of meeting Israelis there. Two years ago, I met the nicest Israeli folks at the Meat Cove Campground – a windswept camping at the end of a potholed dirt road at the northern tip of Cape Breton, Canada – facing a raging Atlantic.
But maybe the Indian guy had a point. First, for most Israelis, getting out of the country at least once in a while, and preferrably once a year, is a psychological necessity, not a luxury. More on this later. Secondly, India seems the answer for a lot of those psychological needs.