Paperwork has never been my forte. So it proved on that particular Thursday.
At the start of the hitch the company flew me out by El Al; not and experience I particularly want to repeat. The airline itself is no better than average; it was the questioning that I can live without. The kind of questions that one gets with no other airline departing Heathrow. When leaving Israel I put up with the questioning with good humour. “Where have you been?” “Who have you been meeting?” “Do you have any friends in the Middle East?” “Have you been given anything to carry with you today?” “We are asking you these questions because we are afraid that you might have been given something which could be a bomb.” In Israel I don’t mind for it is their country, they make the rules and frankly that is the reality of it. But at Heathrow, I surprised myself at my own reaction. This is my own country and there I stood, the same questions from the same dark-eyed kids; the same scans, the same swabbing of my luggage. At least I was treated with smiles which I imagine is different to the treatment is given to Israel’s nearer neighbours. I better understand now the frustration of others.
My time in Israel itself was remarkable in being a matter of routine. Not so much happened and for once I did not go offshore for the four weeks I was there. Instead I was down the port most days, cleaning and preparing the equipment for the next job which came up in the week I was due to leave. Usually that would mean I would be staying on but not this time. This time I had it all arranged and for once people had listened: I had given them over two months’ notice that during the October half-term I was to be taking the family to Cuba. The holiday was booked and paid for. Passenger details had been supplied; names, address and passport details. Visas had been issued and I had to be home by Friday the 14th at the latest. No ifs or buts.
Since my equipment when offshore on Tuesday the 11th of October, my work here was done. So I contacted my office in Italy and asked them to rebook my ticket for the Tuesday or Wednesday. My colleague Richard was already in country so everything was covered. It was the Jewish New Year (I think, there are many bank holidays in Israel) but the point was that the flights were full. Damn. I asked the office to look out for cancellations and try to get me out on Thursday. My original ticket was for early Friday morning so at least that was the last resort. Except life is seldom that predictable.
There was no luck for me that Thursday. No flights and what was worse, I had run out of clean clothing. I just gathered it all together and threw it in one of the washing machines at the staff house. I came down at four o’clock and looked in the machine. Damn, I thought. I had left some tissue in one of my pockets. I looked closer. That was no tissue; that was a Saudi visa. Where was my passport?
It was with wide-eyed horror that I retrieved the tattered remains from my shorts pocket. The cover and details section had survived reasonably well but the pages had been turned to papier-mâché. I briefly toyed with the idea of turning up for the flight at the usual time and presenting this sorry ex-document. Common sense kicked in after five minutes. I started with a Google search for the British consulate and called the number. Naturally, being a holiday it was closed. The call was diverted to London.
“Hello, can you tell me please whether the consulate in Tel Aviv is open tomorrow?”
“Are you in Israel?”
“Yes, my passport has been accidently destroyed and I have to fly out tomorrow. I urgently need consulate help.”
“Well the consulate is in Jerusalem.”
This would have been an extremely major problem, especially when travelling from Haifa. One would have to travel past the airport by several hours.
“Er, are you sure? I am pretty certain it is in Tel Aviv.”
“Let me check.”
The Foreign Office lady came back several minutes later.
“You are right,” she said in a rather sheepish voice. I got the address and directions from her. If I appeared first thing in the morning I could have an emergency passport in only four hours. Great, but it meant that that after all the trying to get on those El Al flights earlier in week, I was to miss the one I was actually booked on. That meant that the next call was to my manager Nikos. I had some explaining to do.
“Nikos, I’m in trouble.” I explained the situation and realised that I was asking the company to bail me out. They would have been quite within there rights to book me on a later flight departing over or even after the weekend at no extra charge. “I guess I’ll have to pay for the ticket since I have to be home tomorrow. It was my own stupid fault.”
“You’ll pay for it yourself?”
“Okay, send through your card details and we’ll do our best.”
Next was setting up the taxi another round of explanation to the local engineer-in-charge. Then I realised I would have to contact the tour company: after all the vacation was booked with the now trashed passport. Oh if the Cuban authorities kicked up, it could be a very short vacation.
There were plenty of other calls I had to make but one of them was not to Mrs V. I could imagine how that conversation would go. Darling, I wrecked my passport so you just go to Cuba without me. No, that would be a call too far. Besides, I had an ace up my sleeve; a second passport at home. Once the tour company had its details I had a fighting chance. Better then to keep the stress levels to myself rather than share the misery.
Next morning I made it to the Tel Aviv consulate but not before the taxi had dropped me at the wrong location. Cursing, I walked the mile or so with luggage to the right office block but still made it in time before the consulate opened. It transpired afterwards the taxi driver wasn’t a sadistic idiot: the UK embassy was having a refit and the consulate department had taken up temporary accommodation. The staff though were very understanding, sympathetic and, more to the point efficient. I had an emergency passport in less than three hours.
Now an emergency passport is a strange beast. It looks just like a normal passport but the cover is white and not the usual burgundy colour. It is issued for a limited time and this piece of paperwork is good only until one reaches the UK, upon which it is to be surrendered to the immigration official. It proved to be a source of some puzzlement and entertainment to the kids questioning me at Ben Gurion Airport.
“Why is your passport white?”
“It is an emergency passport.”
“Why do you have an emergency passport?”
“Because this is my original passport.” I present the small plastic bag containing the earthly remains of what used to be my valid travel document.
Some of them were quicker on the uptake and said “Ah, laundry” but others were not so astute and demanded a full explanation of yesterday’s events. My voice began to get rather tired but finally I was allowed to board after more than the usual questions, scans and swabs. It was a blessed relief to board a British Airways flight.
Sure enough, at Heathrow the official at Immigration, with some ceremony, declared that the brief life of my white passport had come to its end. Like a mayfly it lived for just a day and was now spent. Which would have left me in another world of trouble if that was the only identification I had with me. The onward flight to Edinburgh awaited and I still had to prove myself there. Sure enough, ID was demanded so I am glad that for internal flights, a driver’s licence will still suffice.
It was Friday midnight before I got home but it was only on Sunday afternoon, after I successfully passed through Cuban immigration that I was able to breathe a sigh of relief.
I never did get around to telling Mrs V. Unless she reads this of course…..