Monday, February 20, 2012

Up in the Air: Tel Aviv to Istanbul to Washington, D.C.

A Turkish Airlines plane at Istanbul Atatürk International Airport.
August 28-29, 2011 -- After traveling around Europe by train and Israel by bus for one-and-a-half months this past summer, including working on a kibbutz for two-and-a-half weeks, it was time to fly back home to the United States. I took Turkish Airlines from Tel Aviv Ben Gurion International Airport to Istanbul Atatürk International Airport and then an 11 hour flight from Istanbul to Washington Dulles International Airport.

An airport shuttle picked me up at my hostel in Jerusalem very late at night and made the rounds to pick up more people—all Orthodox Jews—in different neighborhoods in West Jerusalem. We then drove to Ben Gurion, the best-secured airport in the world. Being the only non-Orthodox passenger in the van, I was singled out with questions upon arriving to the security checkpoint just to drive into the airport. The security guy asked me to take off my hat and then asked me where I was going. I was tired and irritated, and answered loudly "Washington, D.C.!" Once you finally enter Ben Gurion, you must wait in a long security line where you will be asked pointed and personal questions to make sure you don't have any bad intentions once you board that plane. Your luggage will also be thoroughly examined and, as in my case, will sometimes be double checked by airport security. Sometimes passengers will be taken for another line of questioning and inspection if the authorities are not satisfied with the first round of questioning. While it can be a maddeningly frustrating and humiliating experience, Ben Gurion will not take any chances when it comes to security, which is why it is the safest airport in the world to fly into and out of. It is not a pleasant experience to be looked at with suspicion, especially at 4 a.m. before a long flight. But it is the reality of Israel and there is some comfort in knowing all the intense security precautions that took place once you finally board that flight. It was around a two hour flight from Tel Aviv to Istanbul.

Although half of Istanbul is on European soil (it is the only metropolis in the world situated on two continents, the other being Asia) and it is the third largest metropolitan area in Europe after London and Moscow, my initial impression upon arriving at Atatürk airport was more Eastern and Muslim than Western and secular. It was somewhat of a culture shock after having traveled around Europe and Israel to see passengers arriving on a flight from Barcelona who were almost entirely young bearded Muslim men in full Islamic garb. The international terminal was an interesting mix of religious Muslims and secular Turks and visitors from across the world. I was wearing a Jerusalem t-shirt from the Old City and I was definitely getting some not-so-nice stares from the Muslims making their way around the terminal.

The international terminal at Istanbul Atatürk International Airport.
The security precautions to board my flight to Dulles were like nothing I have ever experienced. There were at least three rounds of thorough baggage checks and questioning. Some passengers were taken aside and questioned even more. And there was a security check just to enter the boarding area. The authorities at Atatürk do a great job in making sure everyone has a safe flight to their destination.

Turkish Airlines is a world-class airline with fantastic service. We even had our own chef! It was a wonderful flight up until we hit some bad turbulence over the Atlantic Ocean, just east of Boston. The pilots had to change to a more southerly route at the last minute but couldn't avoid the incredibly choppy weather front. We were violently tossed and turned and everyone was praying in whatever their faith was (I became an Orthodox Jew for about 15 minutes). It was a harrowing experience. Moments like these, when you feel out of control at 35,000 feet, are the times when you really feel blessed to be alive.

There is no way around it, turbulence is no fun. But it is part of flying and I've started to learn to embrace the bumps as part of the total experience of flying. I now enjoy flying a lot more knowing to expect turbulence. So when it is a smooth flight it's even better, but when we hit a few bumps it's no big deal because I can just look back at that awful turbulence I experienced on the Turkish Airlines flight and be reassured it likely won't get that bad again, and if it does I'll know that I got through it before and I'll get through it again. It is also good to remember that the perception of turbulence in the passenger seat is almost always worse than the reality from the cockpit seat, where the experienced pilots are in control and know what they are doing. Educating myself about the mechanics of air travel and and the science behind turbulence has really relieved much of my anxiety and fears. I suggest Googling "airplane turbulence" to find websites that will help you understand turbulence and way to overcome fears and anxiety when it occurs. Education and awareness are really the keys to enjoying your flight and even learning to welcome turbulence as a normal, everyday in-flight experience.

The airplane finally reached smoother air after about 10 to 15 minutes of turbulence and the prayers changed to thanking God, the heart beats slowed down and the adrenaline stopped flowing. The descent into Dulles was relaxing and enjoyable. Turkish Airlines has cameras on the nose and underneath the plane and as we approached Dulles, passengers were treated to the view of the runway from the cockpit and the landscape passing by below the plane.

Having gone through major security checks at Tel Aviv and Istanbul, it would have been nice to know I was home and could leave Dulles right away. Not the case. A border patrol agent marked me down for a further inspection, so I had to wait in line at a Department of Homeland Security area for international arrivals for another 45 minutes to be questioned again about my travels through Europe and Israel and my flight from Istanbul. I finally was approved to enter back into the United States.

From when I left the hostel in Jerusalem to the moment I collapsed in my own bed in Arlington, Virginia, it was a total of around 18 hours of travel time. When you didn't get any sleep the night before, have to go through three rigorous security checkpoints, sit on an airplane for 11 hours and have to suffer through some bad turbulence, you will sleep like a baby. And that's exactly what I did.

Here are more pictures of the trip from Istanbul to Washington, D.C. Click here to see the photo set on Flickr.