Around the World- Letter From Israel

  Ashkelon, March, 1997

When you are cruising round the world what do you do when not actually sailing? Walk on a palm-fringed beach, swim in a turquoise sea? Well – sometimes. In fact two activities take up a disproportionate amount of shore time; especially if the circumnavigation is a fairly fast one as in our case. These are; one, dealing with bureaucrats, who treat visiting yachts as though they are 20,000 ton freighters with paperwork to match and, two, tramping through the hot and dusty streets in some scruffy industrial area of a port looking for an alleged source for a spare part vital to your continued progress. In Israel these two activities coalesced when I ordered a new genoa jib while I was in Egypt from a sailmaker in New York, who had all the dimensions, and had him air freight it to Israel, where I could pick it up. Now a yacht in transit does not normally pay import duty on parts ordered for the boat, as these are re-exported when you leave. The procedures to actually accomplish this vary enormously from country to country. In Israel they achieve a level of complexity, compounded by sheer incompetence, that Kafka would have appreciated. The first step was a phone call from the shipping company to the marina to say the sail had arrived at Ben Gurian Airport, near Tel Aviv. I was to contact them in room 107 of the Maman Building. Next morning, bright and early, I was at the car rental agency in town accompanied by a young woman who had recently joined the crew – it has been my experience that things go a lot more smoothly when driving a strange car in a strange country to a poorly defined location if one person drives and one navigates. The first part of the 65 km drive went smoothly but as we got closer to Tel Aviv the rush hour traffic built up and it started to rain heavily. We jerked along and finally saw the airport turn-off through the steamy windshield. At the airport my navigator’s sharp eyes spotted the obscure sign for the cargo area and at a check point it was so wet they just waved us through. Cars and trucks were parked everywhere, finally we squeezed in, half on the curb, and rushed through the drenching rain into the Maman Building. The tiny, cluttered office of the shipping company was easy to find, a man there who spoke a little English explained the procedure after I had drawn a sail for him; I was to go to customs with the ship’s papers, pay a deposit of 25% of the value of the sail, get a gate pass and take the sail back to the boat. (Never mind the shipping memo showed the sailmaker, and indirectly me, had paid for door-to-door delivery.) The sail would then be examined by customs officials when it was on the boat and with their certificate I could return to Ben Gurian Airport and get my deposit back. Some time later we located the appropriate customs agent in the maze of offices who gave me a pile of papers to add to the growing file, after I had drawn a picture of a sail. These I took to the bank on the ground floor where they refused to accept a credit card and insisted on cash, 3000 shekels no less (about $900), for the deposit. Naturally I did not have 3000 shekels but the teller said I could get the money from the cash machines at the bank in the main passenger terminal. Dash back to the car in the rain, park at the main terminal, find the bank, next snag: the daily limit on the automatic cash machines is 1500 shekels. So I went to see the bank manager, cap and credit card in hand and after an hour and some prolonged explaining I emerged with the money. Back to the cargo area and the bank there. Clutching my receipt I first stopped by a computer operator, who keyed in a record of the transaction and then back to customs for the prized gate pass. At the shipping company, after xeroxing everything, we were assigned a guide to take us to the warehouse where I surrendered my passport for a visitor’s badge, my companion was sent to wait in the lobby. The man at the office wanted to see a receipt for storage charges. “What charge? It only came yesterday!” “You pay for every day”. Long phone call to the shipping company extension by my guide, consternation back at the office. More forms, then back to the bank to pay demurrage, back to the warehouse and I was able to totter out with 33 kilos of sail in a large box, trade my visitor’s badge for a cart and put the box in the car. It was still raining. By two o’clock we were back on the road heading to the marina, where the manager called the local customs to arrange the on-board inspection. About five-thirty the next day two pleasant young men showed up and asked in poor English what was in the box. I drew a picture of a sail, then we emptied the box, they signed the certificate and stamped it. The next day we were back in the Maman Building with all our papers but discovered deposits were returned by the fiscal branch of customs, located near the main passenger terminal. It transpired repayment of the deposit could not be made by the bank that took the money in the first place. Rather, as a non-resident, I was to be given a cheque cashable only at one branch office of the Bank of Israel in Tel Aviv. A young lady laboriously transcribed the name off my passport into Hebrew on a blank cheque and disappeared to get it signed by someone in authority. “You mean we have to go to Tel Aviv?”, I asked somewhat incredulously “Yes,”she replied, “take a bus”. “We have a car,” I said, “What time does the bank close?” She glanced at her watch, “In about an hour”. After getting vague directions we rushed back to the parking garage and zipped down the motorway to Tel Aviv. None of the exits corresponded to the vague directions we had and we found ourselves in a five lane conveyor belt of steel. In the downtown area the traffic was too dense to even stop and ask for directions, assuming we were lucky enough to find an English speaker. As the time crept inexorably towards bank closing time I gave up and decided to head back to the marina. We zigzagged along the crowded streets until we found an entrance ramp back onto the motorway. Driving back to Ashkelon I turned over the options: how about just sending the cheque to my bank at home – no good, it was written completely in Hebrew? How about simply coming back to Tel Aviv another day? The problem was that the next day was Friday, when many banks and institutions closed early and did not reopen until Sunday. But this week Sunday was a public holiday. We had planned to leave Israel on Sunday anyway and, of course, the daily rental of the car added to the cost of the whole transaction. At the marina I laid out my problem to the manager, Armen. He called his bank manager, who had an idea – I could open an account at his bank and deposit the cheque then withdraw all but the minimum to keep the account open. That seemed a bit bizarre, but Armen arranged for us to go to the bank later in the afternoon. When we got there Armen had a long conversation with the manager, who finally agreed to simply cash the cheque and he initialed it. I stood in line for a teller. When it was my turn I gave her the cheque and she asked for my passport. When she saw it her eyebrow elevated and she scuttled back to the manager for a long conversation. They waved me over. The problem, they explained, was that the cheque was made out in Hebrew to a certain “Eric Patrick” not Eric Forsyth. They would not cash it. We drove back to the marina in an air of despondency; I could visualize the problems of trying to get customs to issue a new cheque. I remembered that I had written down the name and telephone number of the official who had written the cheque so I went back to the boat to find this information. When I got back to the marina office a knight in shining armour had appeared. Armen had explained the ridiculous situation to a business associate who had dropped by. He was scandalized by the poor image I was forming of Israel. “Get in the car”, he said. “Drive to my bank, I’ve got a little influence”. So off we went, as we entered he hissed “You’ve lost your passport! Don’t show it. Sign the cheque Eric Patrick”. At an employee’s desk I signed the cheque as directed, Armen’s friend then cashed it and we left with 3000 shekels. The next step was to convert it to dollars, which I did next day in Jerusalem, where there are still many money-changers near the temple. So that’s how we spent a few days in Israel, and we even left on time with our new sail.