Everyday life in an extraordinary place.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Escape to Eilat

Photo (c)Amy Samin
This Postcard from Israel was originally written on 30 June 2005.

Thousands of tourists, both Israeli and foreign, are familiar with Eilat as an idyllic vacation spot. The hot, dry climate, gorgeous beaches and fabulous hotels offer the perfect environment for relaxation and pampering. But on my second trip to Eilat, I started wondering what the city's year-round residents thought of the place. I spoke with a number of people I know who have lived, or are now living, in Eilat. Interestingly enough, though their ages, backgrounds, and experiences are widely varied, their perceptions of this city are almost identical.

Like most cities whose main source of income is tourism, Eilat has a split personality. The area around the hotels and tourist attractions is abuzz with noise and movement 24 hours a day. Residents of Eilat, particularly young adults, take advantage of that exciting world when the mood strikes. When holiday times hit, however, and most of the country is on vacation from work and school, Eilatis rarely venture past the immediate neighborhoods surrounding their homes in the hills above the tourist center. The influx of tourists has a dramatic effect on the nature of the city. As you might imagine, that impact is usually not a positive one.

During the quieter times of the year, Eilat has more of a small town or village feel to it. Everyone knows everyone else, and cars stopping in the middle of the road so the drivers can exchange pleasantries is not unusual. When that happens, other drivers usually don't honk, curse, or drive over the shoulder of the road in their impatience to be on their way. In fact, Eilatis have a wealth of patience and tolerance, notes Liraz, who was born and raised in Eilat. She attributes those characteristics in part to the fact that many Eilatis work in the service industry (hotels, restaurants, and shops), and know the value of maintaining a calm, respectful front. Residents of Eilat are more relaxed and easy-going than Israelis from other parts of the country. Eve, an American who moved to Eilat after living in Jerusalem for many years, appreciates the less stressful pace of everyday life. The word used the most to describe Eilat during low season is tranquil.

My neighbor Anne, a Canadian who lived in Eilat for many years, told me about all the special ways Eilatis are compensated for choosing to live in this remote town in the southernmost tip of Israel. Residents are issued special municipal identity cards, which entitle them to discounts at shops and tourist attractions. They also receive special deals on flights "up north" (i.e. to the northern part of the country). With the nearest city (the town of Mitzpe Ramon) more than an hour's drive away, and Tel Aviv about four hours away, it's no wonder the residents of Eilat have developed a unique way of looking at life and handling its problems. In addition, perhaps this isolation fosters a sense of community that draws people together in a way that isn't possible in other, more crowded, parts of the country. My friend Eve likens it to the atmosphere found in desert communities in America.

Naturally, Eilat is an extremely popular destination for Israelis and Europeans in need of sun, sea and sand. Indeed, the city's slogan is, "In Eilat, every day is a Sun Day." For many Israelis, a trip to Eilat is like going abroad. And for Europeans, travel insurance to Eilat remained available even during those turbulent times when it was unobtainable for other parts of Israel. With the option of direct charter flights from Europe, Eilat may be the only part of Israel some visitors ever see.

With tension escalating as the deadline for disengagement approaches, I find myself wishing for some of that Eilati tranquility. I think we could all benefit from some of that cohesiveness. Perhaps those of us "up north" should emulate the Eilatis, and think of people before ideology, serenity instead of friction, unity rather than divisiveness. Maybe what we all need right now is to escape, for a while, to Eilat.

(c)Amy Samin

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