Departures / Arrivals: After Building Hospitals Around the World, a Well-deserved Vacation in Israel

And a hop to Jordan brought to 53 the number of countries they've visited.

Folkert Wijmenga and Ina Wijmenga at Ben Gurion Airport.
Tomer Appelbaum

Folkert Wijmenga, 61, and Ina Wijmenga, 60; live in Toldijk, Holland; flying to Amsterdam

Hello, can I ask how you spent your time in Israel?

Folkert: Sure. We are volunteer tour guides. We were actually supposed to be in Nepal now, but because of the earthquake, no one wanted to go and the trip was canceled. We’d already scheduled the time and we needed a vacation.

Ina: We traveled with good friends, who have been here 11 times; we saw all the biblical sites. We are Christians and our friends are clergymen, so it was nice to travel with them – they told us stories along the way. After two weeks, we went to Jordan.

Folkert: That’s the 53rd country she’s visited. We were in Aqaba, Wadi Rum, Petra. We slept in an organized campsite in the desert, with food and a tent.

So you were backpacking?

Eitan Cohen and Betti Cohen Kowalski at Ben Gurion Airport.
Tomer Appelbaum

Folkert: We like to travel, to sleep in hostels, to meet other backpackers. We’re usually the oldest. But why not?

Ina: We had a harrowing experience in Jordan. We met a brother and sister from Germany, traveled with them to Wadi Rum and told them we’d wanted to go to Nepal. They said they lost their sister in the Nepal earthquake. It took them two months to find her body. We asked them if it wasn’t hard for them to go on trips now, and how their parents were taking it. They said that everyone understands rationally that it’s important not to stop living.

Did you start traveling at an early age?

Folkert: We didn’t have the money when we were young; at most we went on short camping vacations. Around 1989 we started to volunteer at construction projects, and guided groups of young people. We helped build schools and hospitals in Africa, India, Ecuador and Bolivia. We worked in Uganda for six years – all through an organization called World Servants. After many years, we said now it was time for sightseeing.

Ina: And then we started to work as tour guides. We don’t pay for the trip, but we also don’t get paid. It’s in addition to our regular jobs.

What do you do?

Ina: We work only three days a week. I am a quality manager in a hospital for the elderly, and Folkert works in computers, in IT.

Folkert: We like to work, but not too much.

Can you enjoy a trip when you’re guiding?

Folkert: We enjoy taking care of the group. When people are happy we are happy. You don’t have to worry, I’ll worry for you. Though there have been moments...

Such as?

Folkert: In 1979, we were in Ecuador with a group of 35 people. We went out for a one-hour hike in the jungle with a local guide, and two hours later I said to him, “What’s happening? When do we get to the bus?” He replied, “I have no idea. I’ve never been here before.” There were no mobile phones then, or GPS.

So what did you do?

Folkert: We just decided to go where we thought it was logical to go. We went on for seven hours, without food, and it started to get dark. Fortunately, the group was young and they saw it as an adventure.

Do you know already what your next vacation will be?

Folkert: We don’t usually plan, but we want to go on a family holiday in the Canary Islands with the children to mark our 40th wedding anniversary.

Ina: Israel was actually a trip to mark my 60th birthday. We celebrated opposite the illuminated fountains in Eilat.

Congratulations! Have you drawn any conclusions?

Ina: I looked back and thought about what I have done this year. I’ve already been to Argentina, Chile, Tunisia, China, Mongolia, Russia and Israel – just this year.

Is that enough?

Ina: Never.

Folkert: We paid a surprise visit to the hospital we built in Bolivia, and we were told that before, only 10 percent of the local children were vaccinated, but now it’s 75 percent. The villagers saw that we came all the way from Holland for them. For us to come to Bolivia is a long way, but for the people there, for someone to come from Holland is like coming from the moon. They told us, “If you came all that way, it must be important.” Our son is now building a school in Bolivia in exactly the same place.

Ina: If you want to improve the world, you will always be disappointed, but you can improve life.

Eitan Cohen, 60, and Betti Cohen Kowalski, 47; live on Kibbutz Harel; Eitan is arriving from New York

Hello, can I ask where you were?

Eitan: I was on a trip to America.

Betti: I let him go in honor of his 60th birthday.

Eitan: I went with my son and visited my daughter, who lives there, and my sister in New Jersey. I was in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and New Orleans. I went to all kinds of places and heard music all over.

Betti: I suggested the trip. I asked his daughter and it worked out, and then I went on a 10-day Vipassana retreat. In the meantime, they were so enthusiastic and arranged everything, and decided that it would be a three-week trip. When I got back I said, “This isn’t exactly what I had in mind, but I’ll get by.”

And how did you manage?

Eitan: She didn’t – she’ll give me a thrashing at home now. [They both laugh]

Didn’t you talk while he was there?

Eitan: Of course, on WhatsApp.

Betti: But only once every few days.
 
Eitan: I don’t like going on short trips. I like to stay, to get involved.

I see you have instruments here – did you play, too?

Eitan: This is a saxophone, and there’s also a trumpet that I bought – I found it in a furniture store – for $100. I tried to play, but it was a lost cause. Especially in New York, where there are a lot of excellent Israeli jazz musicians. In New Orleans, there was live music at the airport, so I joined them. That was funny.

Are you a musician?

Eitan: I am a gardener by profession and a musician by frustration. On the one hand, of course, you want to accomplish things, but on the other hand, a musician’s life isn’t easy.

So the choices about visits to the cities were made according to the music?

Betti: And the children. They needed to show him where they grew up.

Eitan: They were born on a kibbutz and grew up in Philadelphia. My son lived his adult life in Manhattan, and now he’s here. My daughter stayed there; she’s a banker.

You seem to miss it.

Eitan: Her being there is hard for me, but everyone has to do what’s appropriate for him.

What was the highlight of the trip?

Eitan: New Orleans. I could have stayed there. An absolutely crazy place. There’s live street music everywhere, especially rock, and guys playing wind instruments outside as part of an old-time tradition. Punks with trombones and trumpets. America’s stuck on the blues, and that’s nice, too. I also had to go into a church at least one time, to hear gospel. It was terrific. There was a real show there, musicians and saxophones, a chorus and soul singers, all professional and all in a church. I also got to hear the Philharmonic in New York. That was an unplanned experience and it was something special. It’s not something I do generally, classical music, but we were in a hall in Lincoln Center and the sound was absolutely amazing. They played Mozart, and Beethoven’s Fifth.

How would you sum up your 60th birthday?

Eitan: All in all, it’s a good life.

What did you do on the day itself?

Eitan: It was lovely. We celebrated at the Sacred Music Festival at the Tower of David in Jerusalem. Look, I generally don’t celebrate birthdays, she’s the only one who makes a big deal out of it. Maybe because I didn’t celebrate them so much as a kid, until I met Betti in 1998.

Betti: It was 1996, you left out two years.

Eitan: Sorry. Oy, that’s right! Aviv was already born in 1998! Anyway, I only learned how to celebrate after I met her.

How did you meet?

Betti: I came from Germany to volunteer on kibbutz. I met him and I stayed.

Was it hard for you to leave Germany?

Betti: Not exactly. The timing was good. I’d just finished my studies in the humanities and realized that it wasn’t what I wanted. Also, I wasn’t on good terms with my parents. It’s true that I didn’t exactly plan to switch countries, but it was easy for me to stay. There was some regret, of course, but I didn’t feel I’d left a lot of things behind. I also learned how to let go, from him. Everyone teaches the other person something.