'If I Die, Let Me at Least Be Buried Here in Israel'

This week at the Tel Aviv airport: People trying to get home as the coronavirus pandemic rages

Noa Epstein
Noa Epstein
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Almog Sibony.
Almog Sibony.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Noa Epstein
Noa Epstein

Almog Sibony, 34; lives in Miami, arriving from New York

How was the flight?

Long, but at least there was lots of room.

What brings you to Israel?

The coronavirus.

You have that in Miami, too, don’t you?

Yes. And at the moment the situation there is actually good, but the virus is spreading rapidly in the United States. So we prefer to be here, all of us.

Who is all of us?

All the Israelis who are returning these days, including many friends of mine. Whoever can leave. Everything is closed anyway, so there’s no use sitting around and waiting. It’s better to be with the family and be healthier.

Why healthier?

From the point of view of the health system, there’s no comparison. The first time I entered a hospital there, for just a nosebleed, I was there four hours and left with a bill for $8,000. The situation in America is worse than people think, people are avoiding getting infected. If I die, let me at least be buried here.

What do you do there?

Real estate, mostly. Airbnb. We manage apartments for short-term rental. 

Are you concerned about yourself?

Only for my health. The real estate market is going to change for a time, but if I stay healthy all will be well. If we fall, we’ll know how to get up. We’re strong, no?

How long have you been there?

Eight years.

People say that after seven years you don’t come back.

True, but as an Israeli you are always telling yourself that you’ll go back. I have a big family here, and that’s the biggest hardship, missing them.

Are you a large group of Israelis there in Miami?

Yes, it’s mini-Israel. There are friends, people, leisure places, kosher restaurants. Not that I eat kosher, but whatever there is here, you also find in Miami. You work hard but also have a good time, you enjoy yourself. Boats, water bikes, pools, restaurants, bars. Fun and simple. But everything is money in America; in Israel there is more meaning.

What meaning?

Unlike many Israelis, I was in a relationship for seven years with a non-Jewish American woman, but in the end you look for what’s close to you. Someone who will raise your children to be Israeli and to speak Hebrew, and who will raise them on the Israeli holidays and the Israeli heritage. In the end it’s home, no matter where you are.

Home carries a great deal of meaning these days.

True. I grew up in Moshav Netua, and what will bring me back here is the family I will establish. Let them grow up here, let them be in the moshav, let them run and play, appreciate the country, serve in the army.

What are your quarantine plans?

Oof, I’ll go nuts. I’ll be in my brother’s apartment, and for at least two weeks I don’t plan to see my parents, not even from a distance. Things are going to change now economically, but not for long, I hope. What’s sure is that people who love Bibi will go on loving him, and those who don’t will find a reason to go on hating him. I think he’s coping amazingly with the situation, that he is one of the strongest public figures in the world.

But you don’t live here.

That’s true, and maybe there are things that slip by me, but I think he’s doing wonderful things for the country.

Did you vote for him?

No, I don't think I can vote any longer.

Did you vote in the United States?

In the last election I couldn’t vote yet, but I would have voted for Trump over Hillary, OK? I chose the lesser evil.

What will happen in the election this year?

He’ll win again. Listen, he’s not a politics person, he doesn’t know how to express himself. He’s dumb, yes? Excuse me. He’s more of a wild college boy type. But in the end, he doesn’t make the decisions himself, it’s the Republicans around him. The people who drive him are us, a lot of Jews. Look what he did for the state, look at the recognition of Jerusalem, look at the plan of the century. Makes no difference whether you’re right or left.

Kyle Lapointe and Kruno Knego.
Kyle Lapointe and Kruno Knego.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Kyle Lapointe, 26, left, lives in Montreal, and Kruno Knego, 26, lives in Hamburg; Lapointe is flying to New York and Knego is flying to Hamburg

Can I ask where you’re flying to?

Kyle: Where am I going. Just a minute… Ah, yes. To New York and then to Montreal.

Kruno: And I… to Hamburg, and from there to Berlin, or to Croatia and the family.

You’re still not sure?

Kyle: Our plan was to get to the airport and take any flight out.

Kruno: On the way, we said that if we found a way to go on traveling somewhere else, maybe Mexico or Brazil, we’d do it. 

Kyle: But there were no flights.

How long were you in Israel?

Kyle: Over a month. I’m an English teacher. I taught in South Korea for a year, then I traveled for a few months, and the plan was to go to England after Israel. The coronavirus disrupted the plans, and in the end we each had to contact our embassy in order to leave here. In my case, the Canadian embassy had to coordinate with the American embassy to let me through and not arrest me.

Kruno: I spoke to the Croatian embassy and they told me I’m the only Croat who is not now in Croatia. I’m trying to get to Germany, which is where I live. The Croatian embassy called the German embassy and they’re trying to make some sort of deal, to exchange citizens. It’s not clear where I’ll be.

How did you meet?

Kyle: We were in the same hostel in Tel Aviv, but we only hooked up later on.

Kruno: I wanted to go to Eilat, and so did Kyle, it turned out. We met at a bus rest stop and we talked and talked.

What did you do in Eilat?

Kruno: Well, everything was closed. But we met an American Jew who wanted to set up a commune and wanted people in his house. It was boring there, so we went to the beach. There was a wild storm and suddenly palm trees began to topple over in the wind. We started to run to get away from the trees, and on the boardwalk we suddenly saw a piano.

Kyle: We have a clip of me playing the piano and singing about the end of the world as the waves break over us. We thought we would cross into Jordan, but they had just closed the border. So we went back to the hostel.

Kruno: But it turned out that the owner wasn’t completely normal. He had been in all kinds of kibbutzim and didn’t get along; he lived in a settler outpost and protected the settlers from the Palestinians, who threw stones at them; and then at some point he switched to the Palestinians’ side.

Kyle: One night his Xbox disappeared. Someone had broken in at night and stolen my phone charger and his Xbox. He went crazy. Everyone who had left the hostel was a suspect. We met Shai, a girl who worked on the alpaca farm [outside Mitzpeh Ramon], and she said we could stay there. So we escaped to there.

Kruno: But the next day they said they couldn’t accommodate foreigners anymore. We decided to go to Mitzpeh Ramon and got lost in the desert. Finally we figured out the way and found a really nice hostel, but they had just closed down and fired everyone. They let us stay for one night. In the evening, Shai came to take us dumpster diving.

To search for food in garbage bins?

Kyle: Yes, but when we got to the dumpsters, there were 10 people there already. Their leader, Michael, was a tough hippie who issued orders: “Take those peppers,” “Collect those mushrooms.” He said we could come to his place, but to bring toilet paper with us. Then all 10 people piled into a car and drove off. At his place there were a lot of guys who had no place to stay. We all cooked an enormous meal together, really tasty. 

Kruno: There we met a German woman, Cornelia. The next day we went with her and an American guy to see the crater. We found amazing places to swim. We hitched back to Mitzpeh Ramon. The American guy was just leaving, but he gave us his sleeping bag, so we were three people and one sleeping bag.

We decided to camp out. Shai said she would bring stuff but only the next night. We went to the camping site and took turns with the sleeping bag, because it started to get cold. Then we saw a small bonfire in the distance. It was a young woman who was burning bank documents. She said we could stay by the fire. 

Kyle: She was running out of documents, so we started to look for branches, and suddenly we saw a lot of pairs of eyes. At first they looked human, but suddenly we were surrounded by a huge number of bright, shining eyes. We ran back, and the girl told us, “Oh, those are hungry jackals.”

Kruno: She left, and to keep the fire going, we ate as many dates as we could and used the cartons they were packed in to keep the fire going.

When did Shai come back?

Kruno: Later, but instead of bringing equipment she brought a whole group. That Michael guy drove up wildly with psychedelic rock music blaring and said, “Get in, we’ll find stuff to burn!” I went with him and we found garbage we could burn, and we got back and spent the night with a few drinks. It was nice, all in all.

But then you had no place to go in the morning.

Kyle: Exactly. We went back to Mitzpeh Ramon and in the supermarket we met Lilith, whom we’d met in the Tel Aviv hostel. She’s a tattoo artist. So went to her place and had a tattooing party.

And from there?

Kyle: By then we were in a panic. Everyone told us we should leave the country, that the epidemic was getting worse, that the authorities were keeping track of people through their phones and that they might lock people into their homes. But we wanted to see the Dead Sea.

Kruno: It wasn’t so easy to get there, but in the end we caught a bus and found a nice, small hostel.

And it was open?

Kruno: Yes, it was weird. We were the only tourists in the whole region. It was nice, we made pancakes. The proprietor was a really angry guy, he thought that the suicide at Masada was an event that needs to happen again.

Kyle: Then we wanted to leave the Dead Sea, but there was no way to do it.

Hitchhiking?

Kyle: Yes. We started walking. The trouble is that walking from the Dead Sea is actually climbing, for obvious reasons. We lugged the bag in the desert heat, and I also had the guitar. No one wanted to stop for us, because everyone was afraid of the coronavirus.

Who finally stopped for you?

Kyle: A nice Russian couple. They took us to a supermarket in Arad. We went in to buy supplies and then a woman came up to us.

Kruno: She thought we were Israelis and spoke to us in Hebrew, but when she realized we were tourists, she invited us to her place to rest. She was religious and showed us a photo of her family, six children. We were afraid – what if we infect this huge family? We decided to go anyway, both because we had no other option and also for the adventure. We stayed for Shabbat. Of course we weren’t allowed to use any technology or electricity, so we played board games with them – the mother cheated a lot – and we learned the prayers. The only problem – and I am of course grateful that they took us in – was that they were incredibly noisy, the kids and the parents both. At any given moment someone was singing or shouting. My head exploded.

Kyle: But they took us to the wadi, where everything was blossoming, and the father took us to a camel caravan, and we hiked on all kinds of trails. The landscape there is gorgeous.

Kruno: Anyway, from Arad we got back to the hostel in Tel Aviv.

Kyle: Yes, because they knew us. The hostel was supposedly closed, but actually not. You were barely allowed to go out. Most of the time we cooked and played chess. We spent 10 days there.

So when did you give up and come to the airport?

Kruno: Until a few minutes ago, we hadn’t really given up, but after 10 days in a closed and barricaded hostel we realized there was nothing more for us to do in Israel, so we came to the airport. Kyle has been traveling for months, but I’d just started. I had planned to stay in Tel Aviv for two days and then go on to Egypt, then Jordan, India, Malaysia, Philippines, and from there to Japan, to South Korea and then to Mexico. I got to the first stop, but I hung around here because I liked the place.

Kyle: Someone here has a serious trip to finish.

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