1984 - TEL AVIV - ISRAEL  (Yes, 1984!)

The 64th Eurovision Song Contest takes place in Tel Aviv (Israel) and it will be (with some good luck) the 30th Eurovision Song Contest attended by the Webmaster of Sechuk.com - that's me, Gary Speirs. Tel Aviv could be where it all ends for me though ... unless the UK wins and decides to hold the Contest in Cardiff in 2020 (one of the few options I would not be able to ignore).

It will also be great to head back to Israel again after so many years, having had the pleasure of visiting Israel once before. That visit wasn't for Eurovision (too young in 1979 and could not afford it in 1999, having just moved house), but there is a Eurovision link to me visiting, which I will explain shortly. 

Suffice it to say, I am very excited to be heading there again, after such an amazing visit back in 1984. I found Israel to be a staggeringly beautiful country, with an incredible history and a unique place in the World. I found the people to be so welcoming and travelled as far as Judea in the north and the Dead Sea in the south. I did this because at the time Israel had twice won Eurovision in 1978 and 1979 and I was awash with penpals around the World, many of whom were deliberately in 'Eurovision' countries. For younger readers, these were the days when you wrote letters to people and sent hard copy photos - no email, no internet, no facebook, hence 'pen'pal. One of those treasured penpals was a guy around my age called Yuval Kashdan. Sadly we have since lost touch and I have not been able to find him on Facebook, despite trying several times. Anyway, Yuval lived in Petah Tiqva just outside Tel Aviv and invited me to visit for 2 weeks in July of 1984. How could I possibly refuse? You will meet young Yuval in the pictures of my visit below.

I was fascinated by Israel as a Eurovision winning country and as an historically important country and I was greatly impressed by the fact that Israel is almost the same size as my country, Wales, albeit a very different shape. I was sure that this would be a fascinating trip and a once in a lifetime opportunity.

I remember paying 149GBP for a return flight from London Gatwick to Tel Aviv with Dan Air, a long forgotten British airline. I remember thinking that the departure area was rather distant from most and that we needed to board a bus to the plane which was rare at Gatwick. I also noticed that the flight to Tel Aviv shared the departure gate with one to Belfast. This was 1984 and these were very different times. Being 21 and eager to explore the World, it was part of the excitement for me, but I remember being told many times to 'be careful' and 'keep your eyes peeled'. You're invincible at 21 though, eh?

The Dan Air aircraft was surrounded by what looked like army personnel as we boarded from the bus. I did wonder what I was doing at that point , but no going back now. Landing at Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv was like reaching the other side of the World for me back then. I was so excited, but would treat this country with the respect it deserved. People carrying out rituals on the plane and full applause when we landed, were also eye opening for me.

 

Dan Air Aircraft (real airline!)

 

 

Ben Gurion Airport 1980s

 

Gary in July 1984

The arrival was as unusual as the departure with a lot of gun-at-the-ready soldiers apparent and a security search that (for the one and only time in my life) explored down my socks. I was allowed through though and Yuval was there to meet me and take me to domestic family bliss in Petah Tiqva. I had arrived! My photo albums from that time do not do the country justice, but I'll include some of the best ones here and I hope to be able to compare some of them in 2019. This is page one of the album which captures a view of the Tel Aviv coast, a view of Jerusalem and one of Lake Galilee with a much skinner me in shot:

 

 

The first days out were to the impressive Soreq Caves and Holyland where I remember a model version of Jerusalem 'at the time of the second temple'. Do not fear, this is not going to be a full run through my holiday photos, just some of the key moments of this incredible visit. Here you will also meet Yuval.

 

 

 

The same day I was taken to one of the most haunting places I have ever visited, or ever will. I profess to having a fascination with WW2, but more about the battles than the inhumanity. I was humbled, stunned and angry about this visit to Yad Vashem, Israel's own memorial to the Holocaust of WW2. I won't post any photos of that visit out of respect (I only managed a few of the external exhibits) as my heart still fills with anger and my eyes with tears when I remember that day. 'Never again' has never rung more true than today and I hope that this barbary is confined to the past, but never forgotten.

On to Jerusalem, with history at every turn. I'm not a particularly religious person, but even my naive 21 year old brain was in awe of this city. When the Mount of Olives, the Kind David Hotel, the Dome of the Rock, the Tower of David, Calvary, the garden tomb and the wailing wall are all presented in passing, you cannot help but be impressed, moved and humbled by what you are experiencing. We even walked the way of the cross (via Dolorosa) which is used for religious processions to this day.  We stayed with some of Yuval's family in the East Talpiot district which at the time was home to new apartment buildings and (I wrote at the time) the UN Headquarters in Israel. This was apparently in the Judean desert, which Yuval informed me was 'no man's land' in the 1967 war. 

Here are some of the images of my time exploring Jerusalem: 

 

 

We were now on the road and I was grateful for water every time it was offered. The heat was searing and although I love the heat, with hot air being the only air conditioning through open windows in Yuval's air-cooled, orange Ford Escort, it was not the most comfortable of atmospheres. Strangely its not what comes to mind first about the visit, though - this was more about where I was. Another quirk of being on the road, was that we were living off army rations the whole time. This may sound strange, but Yuval had recently completed his national army service and still had some of the supplies. The problem (for a fussy eater like me) was that this consisted of unmarked tins - we didn't know what we were getting until the can was opened. I didn't eat a lot on those days! Here we are on the road... heading to Bethlehem! 

 

Bethlehem, another of those towns that we know from songs in primary school and beyond and here I was actually heading there. The key destination was/is the Church of the Nativity and the grotto within which is the believed place of Jesus' birth, a place marked with a silver star on the floor. There is a very low entrance, which means everyone has to bow to enter and I remember many rules, but what a place to visit and yet another not to be forgotten. Also shown here is a stop at Herodion - King Herod's mountain top fortress. It was the same day, but to visit religious places, you have to cover shoulders and legs, hence the change of clothes:

 

 

After a day relaxing on Mandarin Beach and at Tel Aviv University swimming pool, we then headed out to a free concert in Yarkon Park to celebrate Tel Aviv's 75th anniversary. The live open air concert was by Matti Caspi, a famous Israeli performer who has his own Eurovision credentials, that of conducting for Israel in 1976 in the Hague for Chocolate Menta Mastik's 'Emor Shalom'. 

We then headed south, aiming for Masada and the Dead Sea. The temperature rose and rose to heights that were new to me. Yuval's orange Escort battled through and we carried on along the seemingly never-ending desert roads. As we drove into the mountains, Yuval had the idea of a place to cool off so we stopped there - at Foire Spring, a fresh-water surprise in the middle of mountainous desert! It was a shirt-off, jump-in moment before I'd even realised that there were fish in the 'pool'. I didn't stay in too long, but long enough to cool down. Bliss!

 

Masada was our next stop - an incredible hilltop fortress which was the final stronghold against the Romans by the Jewish population at that time - they held out for 3 years and then rather than surrender, 1,000 of them committed suicide. History can be harsh and cruel and I felt we were walking (actually we took a cable car!) in proud footsteps. This is truly a must-see location - an incredible man-made structure with nothing around for miles and miles - how was it ever built?! Jaw-dropping stuff and thank God for the cable car! 

Near the Masada Fortess was a traveller's Youth Hostel where we stayed the night. Here we shared a room with Peter and Jan, 2 Swedish guys who were also travelling through Israel, but in the backpacking way. Hearing their stories, the orange Escort was suddently a luxury to me! We spent the following day together on a trek to the 'hidden waterfall' at Ein Gedi. Wow that was some walk but well worth it, even though we were on the lookout for leopards, wolves, snakes and hyenas the whole way. Peter and Jan kept in touch after the trip and visited me in Wales a couple of times as they continued backpacking and inter-railing. Peter is now in touch via Facebook, as is his son; who says holiday friendships can't last?! (Peter also used to send me the Melodifestival on VHS tape for many years afterwards, even though he is not that keen). Some of the images of these days are some of the best memories I have of my time in Israel: Masada and the 7 hour Ein Gedi walk... and introducing Peter and Jan....

 

Peter and Jan then headed south towards Eilat, but Yuval and I had one more bit of excitement for today; that of an early evening dip - actually, make that 'float' - in/on the Dead Sea! This was something I had read about but until I actually tried it, I was sure that it would feel like swimming in treacle. I can honestly say it is the saltiest water ever (I didn't intend getting a mouthful of it!) but it will remain one of the most surreal and memorable experiences of my life. This has also resulted on one of my favourite pictures of all of my travels..... this one always makes me smile...

 

We headed back to Tel Aviv and spent the next day much more quietly - city-walking, taking in the views from the Shalom Tower and promenading along the impressive seafront, with a few hours on the beach. What an amazing location this was. It was hard to believe that so much was packed into such a small country, but there was still more....  This is Tel Aviv on that day.... including proof that I did go in the sea!

 

Indeed there was one more direction to travel and that was north. We headed towards Galilee and Nazareth, yet more iconic place names that conjure up all sorts of images in your head. Nazareth itself felt less developed as a town yet was as busy as a small town could be. We then moved on to the Sea of Galilee at Tabgha, where we found the Church of the Multiplication (think loaves and fishes) and the calm Sea of Galilee (actually Lake Kinneret). The photos reminded me that I swam in the Sea of Galilee too... I was unable to walk on it.. I'll leave that to the big man above... Here are some snaps of Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee - spot the little Welsh head just above water! 

 

 

 

We actually stayed on a Kibbutz (Kibbutz Hulata) near Kiryat Shmona while in the north of the country. I was concerned I'd have to earn my dinner in the fields or something but they were very welcoming, even if I didn't quite understand why anyone would want to live like this (city boy talking)... Yet more surprises awaited as we headed out the next day to visit the Tel Dan Nature Reserve, the River Jordan (no swimming there, it was flowing far too fast!), Banias (source of the River Jordan and a site of Greek worship to the god Pan, Nimrod's Fortress (12th Century Crusader fort) and an incredible moment in view of tanks and gun turrets at the Israeli-Lebanese border at Metulla. It was known as 'the good fence' then, but has since been closed down. 

 

 

Another day, another mind-blowing destination and a big surprise in what felt like dangerous border country - that of an Alligator Park in Hammat Gader. This was also site of a Roman Spa and in 1984 was described as the "newest 2000 year old attraction" in Israel! What I did not expect was the overwhelming smell of sulphur from the open air springs - I declined a bathing experience there... however good it may have been for me. 

 

 

We headed back towards Tel Aviv and followed the border fence road along the Jordanian frontier. I was in awe the whole time I was in Israel, as at every turn there seemed to be a wow moment of some sort or another. 

 

 

On the drive back to Tel Aviv I also had a bit of a scare. There's no photographic evidence of this but having nodded off on the back seat of the car, I woke up on my side and all I could see between the 2 front seats was a rifle aiming in my direction! I sat up gingerly and saw someone in army uniform in the passenger seat... I must have looked shocked, as Yuval said 'don't worry, its fine!'. He then explained that it was (I think he said the law) to pick up a hitchhiking soldier, especially if he was heading home to his family, which this unknown soldier was... I was reassured but moved out of the way of the gun barrel! 

On my last day before heading to the airport for the return journey, Yuval suggested that I try on his army uniform now that I was so familiar with the country. His mother asked if I knew what that uniform meant and I remember saying that I held great respect for the people of Israel and especially her son who had so generously shown me so much of the country. I could see (and have watched over the years) how complicated this little nation is and how its different peoples try to get on with their lives while politicians rule in their name. This is true for all of us and while I consider myself apolitical, sometimes I wish politicians felt more like young people do, mostly with optimism and open minds. Apolitical, but I'm nobody's toy! 

 

 

Suffice it to say though, I was totally in awe of the experiences of the last two weeks and forever indebted to young Mr Kashdan for his time and generosity. I know I said at the time that  would be back. I did not expect it to take 35 years until I did! What an incredible experience and to think that all of that history is packed into a country the size of Wales. Awesome!

I just know that a busy Eurovision visit will not allow the kind of wide-ranging and far-reaching exploits of 1984, but I hope to retrace some of my steps and am so looking forward to seeing how the little country of Israel has changed in 35 years. 

Bring it on! I will certainly be bringing the same respect and level of excitement as I did back in 1984. Thank you Israel, I look forward to saying SHALOM again! The one thing I must find and bring along is a gold pendant on a gold chain which I had made in a jewellers in Tel Aviv with my name in Hebrew. I am actually wearing it in the army uniform pictures above and  I wore it for several years confusing people everywhere. I know I still have it, I just have to find it... 35 years older, both the pendant and me! 

One final photo. taken on the hottest day I can remember... I'm coming back for more, Israel! 

Emor Shalom! ;-)