Our bus ride to Eilat via Beersheba should have taken us around four hours, but approximately ten minutes after we set off from Rehovot we realised that we were on the wrong bus. And we had to get the driver to pull over. We should have taken this as an omen for what was to follow.
Eilat, it seemed, was the place that everybody went when they had finished their kibbutz. Here in Israel's premier beach resort the ex volunteers would either look for work, or indulge in a week of hard partying before heading off to Egypt. We'd heard many good things about Eilat and we were eager to start the next part of our adventure here.
Being young and more than a little naive, we assumed that we'd waltz into a job without any problems. To be honest we hadn't given much thought to the job seeking strategies that we'd employ. I think that we expected people to come up to us in the street begging us to come and work for them. Once we were actually there though, dragging ourselves and our backpacks around the red hot streets, the reality of our situation soon became apparent. We no longer had somewhere to lay our weary heads, three good meals per day and a never ending supply of free condoms. Our money would soon run and out, and employment was necessary if we wanted to prolong our trip.
We booked into a hostel on the first night and allowed ourselves a few beers with promises that we would begin our job search the next day. So that's what we did. On day two in Eilat, we all split up and went off in different directions to try and acquire work. Well at least that is what we were supposed to do. I sort of wandered off in a daze, wondering how to go about my task. If I was being honest with myself, what sort of work could I actually do? I'd spent my whole life trying to avoid it. I certainly had no skills to offer, and I failed to see why anybody would employ me. I mean, if I was boss I certainly wouldn't be employing me. I spent the next five hours ambling around whilst trying not to get spotted by the other two. In my head, I thought that maybe they would somehow manage to find me a job as well as themselves. All was going well with my non-job hunt, until Luke spotted me and came over to investigate my inactivity.
"Found a job yet have you, you wanker?" he politely asked me.
"Erm, no not yet, I'm tired of looking and getting rejected," I lied to him.
Luke had been equally unsuccessful, and I must admit that I was quite pleased. I wouldn't have known what to do with myself if he'd got a job and I hadn't. We decided to spend the rest of the day searching together.
Renata, it turned out, had been more successful than us. She'd managed to get a part time job at the youth hostel. She wasn't actually going to get paid, but she'd get free lodgings in return for a few hours work a day. She suggested that we try the youth hostle as well. But before we had a chance to do so we spotted the Red Sea Hotel and decided to try there instead. Had we known our fate at this point we could have just turned around and tried at the youth hostel, but unfortunately life didn't afford us the luxury of seeing into the future. Therefore we had to find out the hard way.
Luke strode through the door of the Red Sea Hotel and I meekly followed. Luke always strode around with such conviction. He was the most confident person I knew and it was easy to see why. With dashing Italian looks and muscles like Stallone people looked up to him. They had to, he demanded it.
In reception we were greeted by a middle aged Israeli guy. Well I say greeted, it was more like a grunt. He perked up a little when he realised the purpose of our visit, and once it had been established that we were not legal to work in Israel he began to hatch a plan. Yes, of course we could have a job. All we'd have to do is work for six hours a day each on separate shifts and we would be rewarded with free accommodation and three meals a day.
Before I knew it I had a vacuum cleaner shoved in my hands and was hoovering the stairs of the Red Sea Hotel. I guess that I should have checked out our new living quarters first, but in my innocence I just assumed that everybody in the world were full of good intentions. That's why, six hours later I was escorted to a disgustingly filthy little concrete hut which was located behind a fence at the bottom end of the garden next to the swimming pool.
"This is where you will be sleeping," Basil informed me. Within a few hours of arriving at the Red Sea Hotel, Luke and I had decided that it was a real life Fawlty Towers and we'd christened the manager Basil after Basil Fawlty. If you have no idea what I am talking about right now, you are either too young, or you have been living on a desert island for the past forty years.
I took one look at my new home and I instantly wanted to throw up. The place was full of rubbish and it absolutely stunk. Mounds of old newspapers littered the floor as well as a pair of suspiciously stained underpants, some used condoms and a plate of half eaten food. Somewhere under all this rubbish there was a filthy mattress which made me itch just looking at it. The only saving grace was a couple of discarded porn magazines, which I quickly commandeered.
"Oh ok thanks," I politely replied.
A little later on Luke turned up, and you can only imagine his reaction. He'd been doing some odd jobs for the past few hours and he was in no mood to be faced with our pitiful shack.
"Let's just give it a few days," I told him, "and if it doesn't get any better we can just head off to Egypt earlier." Luckily Luke agreed.
A few hours later Renata arrived in quite spectacular style. We'd been down to the youth hostel to inform her of our new job and also to tell her that we were not allowed to have any guests in our shack. Talk about adding insult to injury. Somehow Renata managed to find a way over the top of the hotel by use of the fire escape. Luke and I were suitably impressed by this, I must admit. We decided to go for a walk around Eilat with her to get away from our flea pit as much as anything else.
Eilat, being only a few miles from Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, was an important port. Unfortunately for us, our arrival in Eilat coincided with the arrival of what seemed like the entire U.S navy. As we walked around the town we could feel the testosterone in the air. With this in mind we decided to keep a low profile, so we headed to a quiet shopping mall where we ordered slices of pizza from the window of a pizzeria. Or should I say we attempted to order pizza. As we were ordering it we spotted a guy who had left the kibbutz a week earlier than us so we went over for a chat. As if this was not exciting enough, Luke, who was fuelled by a few Gold Stars, had picked up on the fact, that the rather muscular guy of African descent who was serving us, was French, and he had decided to swear at him in the French tongue. What happened next was most unexpected. The pizza assistant, who was seething with anger, leapt over the counter with a incredibly large meat cleaver in his hand. We all had to run for our lives, including the guy from the kibbutz who we had just met up with. It would seem that our trip was destined to fail.
Day two of our Fawlty Towers hell picked up where day one left off. Luke and I, were worked like dogs, paid like voluntary workers and fed like Auschwitz P.O.W's. Something had to give, this was was not sustainable. As I have found out in life though, there is always something good to come out of every bad situation, and this experience was no exception. We got talking to the only other guy who was stupid enough to work in the Red Sea Hotel, an Arab guy by the name of Thomas. Thomas confided in us that working as a chef at the hotel was only his day job and by night he worked as a gigolo servicing the needy old ladies of Eilat. "Brilliant," I said to Luke, and he had to agree. "I've always wanted to meet a gigolo, I told him, which was a blatant lie because I had actually never had that thought before in my life. Thomas told us about his life, and Luke and I discussed making a living in the same way. Well, at least I did. In retrospect, with his good looks Luke would have made a fortune had he chosen this career path. I'm not too sure about myself though, I looked far too young back then and this was before Jimmy Saville made paedophilia popular.
After my working day finished I was fed a sausage for lunch. I shit you not, I was seriously given one sausage. I observed Basil's face for signs that this was a practical joke, but alas he was being serious. I took my sausage (probably thanked him) and headed to the swimming pool for some rest and relaxation. I'd been at the Red Sea Hotel for two days and I had not seen one guest during this time. I assumed that a dip in the pool would be fine, after all I wasn't getting paid for my endeavours around the hotel and nobody was staying there anyway. However, and you probably guessed it already, this was not OK. Basil came charging out from behind reception as though I'd just taken a shit in his slippers.
"Get out of my fucking pool," he shouted. "That's for the guest not the workers."
As I scrambled out of the pool he administered my punishment in the form of another chore to do. I spent the next hour walking around the pool with a long rake clearing all the leaves that had fallen in there. This did not bode well with my stomach, which was rumbling due to the fact that I'd only had one sausage to eat since breakfast. A red mist was beginning to rise.
There was a famous hangout in Eilat back in 1989, called the Peace Cafe. I wouldn't be surprised if it still existed today because it was that much of an institution. The Peace Cafe was so much more than a cafe. It was a place for people to gather in the search for work. The unemployed folks of Eilat would hang out in the Peace Cafe from morning till night, drinking beers, eating snacks, playing pool, and watching movies, while they all had one eye on the door to see who came in with job offers. I guess you could refer to the Peace Cafe as an informal job centre.
To escape the beady eye of Basil, I headed to the Peace Cafe to check it out and see if I could possibly find a better job. Although I must admit, this was only half an attempt to find work. Every time somebody came through the door I headed to the toilet, just in case by some miraculous turn of events I accidentally gained employment. I met up with Renata there and we spent the day drinking beers and watching the movie The Untouchables. Whilst talking to other similar souls, most of whom had also just finished on their kibbutz and were desperately searching for work. We found out that many people slept on the beach in Eilat to save money. Given mine and Luke's situation at that time I assumed that we would soon be joining them. With this thought circulating my mind, I headed back to the hotel.
I was rudely awoken at around 4 am by Basil flashing a torch in my eyes.
"We have a delivery, you must get up and help me," he spat at us.
Luke, who had the early shift the next day, point blank refused to get up. I, on the other hand, for fearing of losing the worst job in the world, dragged myself out of bed to help Basil unload the delivery truck. Or should I say, I unloaded the truck whilst Basil shouted orders at me from the sidelines, such as "get a move on boy!" and "don't drop it!" An hour or so later I returned to my dingy little pit to finish off my sleep.
When I awoke at 9 am, Luke had already been doing his shift in the kitchen for two hours and he was ready to explode. Basil had been rude to him since his shift began and had refused to give him breakfast until all the work was done. You could have cut the atmosphere with a knife, and it was obvious that something was going to go down. And then it happened. Just as I had donned a pair of rubber gloves and was about to immerse my hands in the washing up water, I heard a rumpus behind me. With excitement rushing through my every vein, I went to investigate.
The scene which confronted me was one of chaos. Luke had Basil pinned up against the kitchen wall and was threatening to punch him if he wasn't allowed to have some raw eggs for breakfast.
"All I want is five raw eggs," he was shouting in Basil's ear. Meanwhile Basil, whose feet were off the ground, was squirming and pleading to be put down. As Luke threw him to the floor we both spontaneously ran off hollering and whooping like a pair of red Indians. Anything that got in our way was knocked to the floor in a rebellious manner. Looking back, this seems a little silly and immature, but at the time, believe me, it was all very exciting.
One of the great things about backpacking, is that you have such few possessions that you can up and leave within minutes. Everything I owned (including my two new porn magazines) was hastily retrieved from my flea pit, and thrown into my rucksack. Within five minutes we were exiting the Red Sea Hotel for the last time ever. We'd only been there for the past few days but it felt like a life time. A visibly shaken Basil confronted us on our way out. He informed us that his best friend, who just happened to be the chief of the Eilat police, had been notified and we had 24 hours to get out of Eilat, or we would be arrested. Wow! Cool, I thought, we've just been extradited from the city, this will be a great story to tell my mates back home.
Unfortunately, this was the tipping point for Luke. It was apparent that our money was not going to last for long, and his head wound from the fight a few weeks earlier was not healing properly. He reasoned that going to Egypt with a head injury of such nature would be lunacy, so he decided to head off to Sicily to stay with his father's side of the family instead. This was our travel plan for after Egypt anyway, so it was no big change. Apart from the fact that I would now be going to Egypt alone, or as it turned out with Renata.
Renata needed little encouragement to quit her job, and so it was decided that she would become my new travel partner. This was for the few next weeks at least, until I was re-united with Luke in Sicily. There was a rather emotional goodbye at Eilat bus station as Luke boarded the bus to Ben Gurion airport, on the outskirts of Tel Aviv. Ever since I had decided to travel Luke had been involved in all my travel plans, it felt a little strange that this was no longer so. Travelling can be very lonely at times because by its very nature, it's a constant state of meeting people and then saying goodbye. I'd sort of got used to this on the kibbutz, with people coming and going on a regular basis, but you never totally get used to it.
That night Renata and I slept on a building site. Sleeping in random locations was increasingly becoming a hobby of mine. As I mentioned earlier I'd already slept on the banks of the Sea of Galilee during my time in Israel. What I failed to mention, is that I had also slept in a cave by the beach in Ashkelon, and the lowest amphitheatre on Earth, somewhere near the Dead Sea. There is something quite wonderful about getting a free nights accommodation in random, yet safe locations. Our bed at the Hotel de building site, came in the form of a big concrete block, which was wide enough for two people. With our small backpacks for pillows and our mummy style sleeping bags, we managed quite a good nights sleep. That is, until we were awoken by a strange wailing alarm the next morning. We never did find out what it was.
The next day we caught a local bus to the Israel/Egypt border (Taba), where we paid our fees and walked across the Israeli border. This was the first time that I ever been through a guarded border crossing on foot, and I must say it all felt rather exciting. There was a short no man's land between the two countries, which we walked across to the Egyptian border. Here we filled in some application forms, paid our fees, and were rewarded by a beautiful visa stamp, which included a fine array of colourful Egyptian postage stamps. As many people have found out over the years, collecting visa stamps can be very addictive. This was only my second one and god was I proud of it.