I flew overseas to Israel for the first time since the pandemic: Here’s how it went

[Photo: Shaked Karabelnicoff]

Of all the places I dreamed of visiting at the height of pandemic lockdowns, Israel was number one on my list. 

Before the coronavirus outbreak, I was a regular ‘every-six-months’ type of traveler to Israel. 

Although I was born in Jerusalem, my family left when I was a toddler, and my first time back was through a high school exchange. That was the trip that started it all. 

From then on, I found any excuse or opportunity to plant my feet on holy ground… Taglit, a summer internship at the Jerusalem Post, you name it, I’d be there.

So I knew I’d be making the journey back home the first chance I got.

Checking in at Toronto’s Pearson Airport [Photo: Shaked Karabelnicoff]

Right now, Israel still has some travel restrictions. The day I flew, the country was only open to citizens, visa holders, and a few other exceptions. Now, small groups of tourists are allowed to visit. But it’s not as simple as it once was.

Today, international travel is cloaked in paperwork, quarantine guidelines and particularities — and for good reason, don’t get me wrong.

Nevertheless, the days of hoping on an overnight flight, touching down at the Ben Gurion Airport and touring the old city of Jerusalem the same exact day feels like a distant reality, almost a figment of my imagination. Someday soon, I pray, it will be the norm again.

[Photo: Shaked Karabelnicoff]

For the time being, I was thankful to be inching closer.

So here’s how it all went:

I flew out of Toronto, Canada’s Pearson Airport. 

In the airport, I almost forgot the pandemic existed. I traveled from Toronto to Israel in February of 2020, and the airport felt almost as busy as it was then.

Checking in was simple. I had all my documents ready to go, printed and organized in a travel pouch. I recommend keeping documents sorted in one easily accessible place, but that’s just my organization enthusiast brain speaking.

[Photo: Shaked Karabelnicoff]

The airport procedure was fairly routine. The main difference was prior to traveling. A bunch of additional research and preparation was required to get all the paperwork and testing in order. It was, without question, all worth it.

The international terminal at Pearson had a roster of flights leaving plus-minus a few hours around mine.

Most people were wearing their masks properly, others had on masks and face shields, I even spotted a couple wearing full-on hazmat suit style PPE.

Boarding the plane gave me butterflies. It was a ‘someone pinch me’ moment. Was this really happening?!

Sometimes it takes losing something to remember how lucky you were to have it.

I buckled my seatbelt and fastened my mask for the 11-hour journey ahead.

Although all the passengers were accustomed to the seatbelt guidelines, the new mask-mandates didn’t sit well with some people.

Once on board, Air Canada provided these handy sanitary pouches I used to wipe down my area. [Photo: Shaked Karabelnicoff]

Flight attendants regularly walked around kindly reminding passengers: “Masks over the face and nose please.”

I couldn’t help but wonder if this new element of their job made the work more exhausting… It had to. But I didn’t have it in me to ask.

At one point, two flight attendants clashed with a passenger because he refused to wear his mask.

“It’s the rule, sir,” they patiently reminded him. When he wouldn’t budge, they took on a more unforgiving tone.

“On my last flight, police were called to wait for noncompliant passengers upon arrival at the gate,” one of the flight attendants told him sternly. Finally, he put the mask back on.

Aside from that, it was 11 hours of smooth sailing. 

[Photo: Shaked Karabelnicoff]

The plane wasn’t full, so I had an empty seat next to me. That made falling asleep a breeze. 

The key to wearing a mask for that many consecutive hours is to get one that is super comfy. I wore a paper one in the airport and changed into my polyester/nylon blend mask for the flight. I barely noticed it and slept like a baby.

[Photo: Shaked Karabelnicoff]

Once in Israel, the airport was bustling with people. Remember I said Pearson was busy? Ben Gurion was very busy, with flights arriving from what sounded like all over the world.

Lines for everything from entry slips to testing were long, crowded and hot.

[Photo: Shaked Karabelnicoff]

My flight landed right before the holiday of Sukkot, so I suspect that exacerbated things.

[Photo: Shaked Karabelnicoff]

Eventually, I checked all the boxes and could leave the airport. I hopped in a taxi and headed to my quarantine destination.

The rest is, as they say: history.

Despite the challenges and inconveniences of pandemic travels, I barely felt a shadow of annoyance or anger. Rather, I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude.

Grateful I could travel — something that felt unreachable a year ago. Grateful for the uncomplaining staff throughout each step of the process. Grateful the world is slowly opening up. 

More than ever before, I was simply grateful for it all.

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