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Israel Day 2: From Tel Aviv to Caesaria, A Shonky GPS & Haifa

The start of our first full day in Israel saw us feeling rested and alive, filled with a sense of adventure and endless possibilities.

Breakfast on our first morning was at a charming little cafe around the corner from the Shenkin Hotel, called Sus Etz. Moving outside of our comfort zone, Peter and I decided to try an Israeli breakfast, a series of salads, dips, yoghurt and cheeses, served with some warm crusty bread and scrambled eggs on the side - Light, delicious, and so much healthier and cleaner than our standard Western fare. Accompanied by a fresh mint/ ginger/ lime and cinnamon tea, I was ready to take on the world.

Checking out of The Shenkin, we took a short taxi ride to Thrifty car rental in Downtown Tel Aviv. After the obligatory paperwork, we loaded up a silver Ford Focus and programmed the GPS for Caesaria, our first stop. Pulling out of Thrifty’s driveway, we noticed that the GPS kept turning itself off. Uh oh, not a good omen. That’s OK, we said, we’ll just swap it for another one. While the replacement seemed to work just fine, I noted aloud almost prophetically, “What a shame that we didn’t download Israel into our GPS back home and bring ours instead.” Indeed, we were yet to find out how much of a crying shame it was that we hadn’t.

Getting used to a new GPS is annoying at the best of times, let alone when one is trying to navigate foreign soil. After more than a few wrong turns and stressful moments, we managed to make it to Caesaria, albeit a half hour longer than the anticipated 45 mts from Tel Aviv.

Caesaria is situated on the Mediterranean coast in northern Sharon, between the Crocodile and Hadera River mouths. It lies alongside bays and shallow inlets that were formed by wave erosion in the kurkar range. These bays were used throughout history for the anchorage of sea-going vessels, making Caesaria an important port, from the Roman and Byzantine periods through to the Arab conquests and Crusaders. Today, Caesaria National Park is home to extensive and well preserved archeological ruins, which includes a Roman theatre, a Crusader city, a Byzantine square, a Herodian amphitheater, promontory palace, bathhouse, and a network of streets. The two hours we gave ourselves didn’t cover all there was to see. However, we couldn’t imagine spending any more time than that under the scorching sun.

By 4 pm, we had explored the ruins, enjoyed a delicious and healthy lunch at the Port Cafe, and grabbed a freshly squeezed pomegranate juice from a vendor just outside the park’s entrance. Making a beeline for our car, we were ready to head to Haifa, our next destination on Israel’s North Coast and only 50 mts away by car. 

As Peter punched in the 4-digit security number before turning the ignition, I grabbed hold of the GPS from the glove box and pressed the “on” button to begin programming it. Nothing but a blank screen. I pressed again and again, using increasingly more pressure on the button. Nada, zilch.

“Uhmm, Peter, the GPS won’t turn on.”

“What is it, Vicky,” said Peter, only half listening to me as he turned the key on the ignition.

“I said, the GPS won’t turn on.”

“What do you mean it won’t turn on?” he said, really listening this time.

“I mean that the GPS is rooted, f***ed, kaput! They’ve given us another shonky one!” I said in exasperation.

Taking the GPS from me and giving it a shot, he too failed after several attempts. A string of expletives followed. We looked at each other, faces devoid of all expression, and knew that we were in trouble. Trying to keep our panic under control, we wondered how we were going to get ourselves to Haifa without as much as a map or a set of directions.

“OK, let’s just make our way to the freeway, skirt the coastline, and follow the signs to Haifa. They’re in English, as well as Hebrew and Arabic so it shouldn’t be that hard,” I said. Famous last words. We had no idea where north, south, east or west was, let alone how to get to the direction of Haifa. Nevertheless, we put on a brave front and drove with a confidence we didn’t possess. Passing interminable mountain ranges, a couple of cities on either side and one very long underpass, we finally admitted as we headed towards Nazareth that we were totally and desperately lost.  

“Here’s a manual toll with someone inside it. Let’s go and ask them for directions,” Peter said. While the lady inside the booth spoke very limited English, we understood enough to know that we were headed in the wrong direction. Indicating to us that we should make a U-turn on the freeway, she instructed another attendant to lift the barricades so that we could make our way to the other side. 

Somehow, we had failed to understand the attendant's instructions and we found ourselves taking the wrong exit again, approaching her toll booth two more times. Each time, she repeated the same instruction to us and gave direction for the barricade be lifted so that we could reach the opposite side of the freeway. Despite our apparent failure to understand her, not a harsh word was spoken to us or any toll was collected. She and her colleagues could clearly see that we were in trouble and communicated with us as best as they could, with the utmost patience. Peter and I commented that we would have experienced far less tolerance in Sydney. 

After trying what we thought was the right route, we saw the same toll booths approaching again. “Oh God, not again,” we said. But before I knew it, I saw Peter putting his left arm out, hailing a taxi behind us. I could see where he was going with this. Brilliant!

As our car and his pulled over to the side of the road, Peter got out and rushed over to explain our predicament to the cabbie. An Israeli Arab who spoke little English, he understood enough to understand that we wanted him to lead us to the nearest Thrifty car rental office. Indicating that the address was “very far, very far” he refused to budge on the 100 shekels that he was going to charge us. We reluctantly agreed. After all, we weren’t exactly negotiating from a position of strength.

Seemingly unsure of where he was going, we seemed to be going around in circles. We wondered if he wasn’t prolonging the journey deliberately. Finally, he pulled over outside a warehouse facility and pointed out to us the Thrifty car rental, on the opposite side of the road and still quite a distance away. Things were looking up. Peter asked the cabbie if he could lead us to the Thrifty office as a tall hedge in the middle of the road prevented us from reaching it directly from our side. He refused.

“Can we at least call them and ask them if they will be able to help us?” asked Peter. Again, our driver refused. His mobile phone was apparently broken. 

“I want my money now. I am a driver and I have to work!” he said, losing his patience. After Peter handed him his 100 shekels, his phone rang and he answered it without a hitch. So much for the broken mobile.

After the cabbie left us - he couldn't get away quickly enough - we made our way to the car rental office on the opposite side of the road, via a series of illegal turns, leaving a spate of honking horns in our wake. We made it to Thrifty with only 30 mts to spare before they closed for the day. Telling our story to the Thrifty attendant when we got there, he chuckled at the fact that the cabbie had charged us 100 shekels for what should have been a 5 minute drive. We realized that we had been had. Having said that, we would have been in a worse pickle had we not engaged the cabbie, we told ourselves. In an attempt to help us out, the Thrifty attendant not only swapped our shonky GPS for a perfectly good one and swapped our car for a better model at no extra cost, a blue Peugeot.
We thought our troubles were finally over, until the new GPS led us to the right street name but in the wrong town, a pretty shabby one by the looks of it. With not a German Colony or Baha'i Garden in sight, this couldn't be Haifa! We walked over to a hairdressers, whose owners were enjoying a cigarette and gossip out the front of the salon. Showing the lady the address of where we needed to be, she took stock of our beetroot-red faces and exasperated expressions, and patiently explained to us in her broken English that we were, indeed, in the wrong town. We must have looked like we were ready to cry as her partner rushed inside to get us some cold water. In the meantime, night time was falling. Busying themselves with giving us instructions, our small group was joined by even more locals wanting to help, from a leisurely stroller who stopped by to two women pulling over and getting out of their car to see what was happening. All of a sudden, everyone wanted to assist the weary travellers. The willingness to get involved and come to the aid of anyone in trouble was a trait that we loved about the Israelis.

What should have been a 50 minute car ride from Caesaria to Haifa had turned into a 3 hour ordeal. Finally arriving in Haifa by 7 pm, we checked into the Templers Boutique Hotel in Ben Gurion Boulevard, a stone’s throw from the Baha’i Gardens and the best place to stay in the German Colony of Haifa, I was told.

“We’ve upgraded you to a better room with a beautiful view of the Baha’i Gardens,” the lovely lady at reception said. Surprised that I declined the upgrade, I told her the story of our car ordeal and explained that we were happy to take the lesser room, so long as it was closer to reception and easier for us to get to with our luggage. At this stage, we were so exhausted we didn't want to move a single pinky if we didn't have to. Showing us the “lesser” room, it was equally as lovely. Dragging ourselves up the stairs with our luggage, which by this stage weighed a ton, we dropped the bags on the bed unceremoniously before heading out the door to stretch our legs up and down Ben Gurion Blvd. We soaked in the charm of the German Colony of Haifa and gazed across at the cascading beauty of the Baha’i Gardens. 

Ordering a delectable dinner of Chicken Fattoushi and an Israeli salad in the charming and atmospheric courtyard of Fattoush Restaurant, next door to Templers, we relished that first exquisite sip of an ice cold beer in silence. We then toasted to the fact that we’d survived another travel mishap with our safety and sanity intact, albeit by the skin of our teeth.

Posted by Victoria Ugarte on 9th September, 2014 | Trackbacks
Categories: Israel

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