In my merchant navy days I was blissfully unaware of politics around the world. It put me in some dangerous situations, yet I remained ignorant of the danger and came through unscathed. Perhaps it was because my ease confused people, or maybe it was just dumb luck. I tend to go for the dumb luck hypothesis, it seems to be a trait with my life. For sometimes bizarre reasons I find myself in situations normal people just don't get into, then I come through the other side when most would have died. This reinforces my 'twisted guardian angel' hypothesis. If there are such things I must have got last pick.
Less than a decade after I lost my religion and put my Catholic primary school days behind me, I had the chance to tour the 'Holy Land'. It was after I had noticed my weird (premonitions, apparitions, etc.), and had begun my research into the origins of human existence, so I was quite excited about it. I felt sure that if there was anything going on I would sense it. A bit of a stretch really, I wasn't even aware of the politics of the country. In fairness most of the news I had heard was more about the conflict with Lebanon rather than Palestine. The ship was an RFA tanker and we docked in Haifa in the north west of Israel.
It had already been quite a weird kind of experience. We had a ship's football team and our first game was against a Chilean Navy ship. We won 6-3 and I scored a hat-trick, it was in my top 3 all time games. The Chilean guys nicknamed me Georgie Best who had retired and was a bit before my time, but possibly the only British football player they had heard of. The fortunes for our makeshift team continued in Belgium where we entered a multi-national ships' tournament. We took the piss..... quite literally. In between games we were supping beer from the many crates we had brought with us for 'refreshments'.
After a poor start and just a draw in a game against a Finnish ship, we followed up with two wins and began to draw attention. The attention was mostly due to the speed with which we necked the beer between matches and during half-time breaks. There were over 30 ships taking part and each would play five games against randomly drawn opposition. We won the next game and we were elevated to a kind of celebrity status. People were amazed at how we were seemingly pissed as parrots by the last game, yet tournament leaders.
The last game was against the only team who could beat us, a Romanian ship which had 3 wins and a loss. We were one point ahead of them and only needed a draw. By half-time we were 2-0 down and started arguing with each other as we had our half-time cans. A few punches were thrown but it was handbags at ten paces and we settled down for the second half. I think we must have unsettled them because we came back to draw 2-2 and I scored the equaliser (my only goal of the tournament).
So back to Israel. As we approached the port of Haifa the radio officer organised a match for the next day. Due to our unbeaten status and tournament winners, he said "Good standard of play". Big mistake.... huge! We tied up in the evening and the following morning a coach arrived to take us to the venue. Looking at the countryside from the coach I was a little worried about the state the pitch would be in. I'd played before in Peru on sandstone and it was in similar terrain.
When the coach stopped at the huge stadium we were a little puzzled. We had only played on Sunday League pictures and here we were in a huge stadium. It was kind of spooky because there were only about 30 police in the stadium, apparently there to practice crowd control drills. The opposition gave us a little heart when we saw them, they were just kids..... youths, Israeli national youth team youths. Needless to say, they annihilated us.
The police had stopped watching and left the stadium by half-time where we trailed 16-0. Their goalkeeper was so bored he played for us in the second half. We still lost 23-1 and you can guess who scored our goal. Me? Not exactly, although everybody thought so and I wasn't going to disagree. In effect I was waiting on the halfway line when our (their) keeper punted it up field and I dashed to where I thought it would land. Their (our) keeper came out and we both jumped for the ball....... and both missed it. It went over our heads and into the goal.
I always justified my failure to own up about not touching the ball, by speculating the keeper would have saved it comfortably had I not been a nuisance. Having said that, it was our keeper in goal for them so nothing could be taken for granted. The other oddity is the fact that technically it was their goalkeeper that scored so their team in effect scored all 24 goals........ nah, I'm claiming that one.
Things started to go downhill from there. We were off the next day (it was actually Easter weekend) and three of us decided to hire a car and take a look round. One of the guys produced a road map of Israel from only he knows where and off we went. That's not strictly true, there were complications. We rented a car from Herz at Haifa airport and naturally opted for the cheapest. Unfortunately the cheapest wasn't available and instead we hired one with air-conditioning at a much higher price.
Fifteen minutes on the road and the car stopped, died, downed tools. After much ado, we sussed out that the car worked fine if we didn't use the air-conditioning. I should point out at this juncture that the following tale is from events around 30 years ago, so whilst I remember the incidents quite clearly, I'm not 100% sure of the order. We headed south from Haifa and came to a divergence in the road, giving us a choice of Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. No competition, Jerusalem was our Mecca in a bizarrely twisted metaphor.
I remember seeing a sign indicating sea-level and then the seemingly constant downhill gradient that followed. The landscape was unlike anywhere else I'd seen. It was in the most part barren but every so often there were oases of lush tomato and orange groves. Kids stood at the side of the road holding out fruit for sale. We thought they were holding huge apples but they were in fact the biggest tomatoes I'd ever seen before or since.
Jerusalem was a bit of a let down in truth. It was chock full of bloody tourists, we had landed on the most holy day in the Christian calendar. We never saw the usual places of interest, just spent a bit of time in a market place. Bethlehem wasn't much better but I insisted we see the spot where JC landed and we queued to get into this church. We were led to believe it was the oldest Christian church in existence (built in 287AD if memory serves) and purportedly built over where Jesus was born.
To get into the church you had to practically crawl through a low 'doorway'. Inside some sort of service or ceremony was going on, the burning incense hung heavy in the air, almost choking. Fat sweaty tourists stood shoulder to shoulder waiting for a turn to see the most holy spot on Earth (for Christians). I just wasn't feeling it. I was getting claustrophobic when one of my shipmates asked what the 'smell' was. I was tetchy and a little incredulous of his ignorance.
"It's fucking incense you idiot" I told him.
It was one of those awkward moments you get in pubs, when loud music stops suddenly as you're halfway through shouting a sentence. The sharp intake of breath from all those close enough to hear went some way to alleviating the incense problem and cured my claustrophobia. Although people were crammed in like sardines, there was a healthy 3 foot space all around me. As you may have guessed, I wasn't struck down, although I was almost arrested right outside just seconds later.
We vacated the church and still overheating from the church I took my T-shirt off. Anybody would have thought I'd taken a dump in the middle of the street. I was soon surrounded by angry people - two of whom were in uniform - shouting what I assume was abuse at me. A fair assumption I think, considering the tone and gesticulation. I didn't know what the hell was going on at first but it soon became apparent the sight of nipples deeply offends some cultures and I put my T-shirt back on.
We stopped on the shore of the Dead Sea by what appeared to be a deserted visitor centre. There didn't seem to be anyone around so we decided to have a dip. It was strange because we had to wade out about 50 meters and still the water only came up to our thighs. The buoyancy was incredible. I lay back in the water and floated with my legs and chest above the surface. As we left the salt dried on us in thin 'slates' which I found strange. It was like having a very thin tile stuck to my forehead.
Driving up the Jordan Valley we passed what looked to be a city of one story dwellings, so vast were they. I wondered if it was the old Jericho but never found out. It was deserted except for a few goats and their herders. I imagined the river Jordan to be mightier than it looked from the road. It seemed to be little more than a stream. We followed it north all the way to the Sea of Galilee. The water was much colder and clearer than that of the Dead Sea.
Our final stop was in Nazareth and it was there we experienced the problem number plates could cause. We left the car to get a drink and something to eat, it was night time by then. When we went back to the car there were about a dozen local people gathered nearby. When they saw us get into the car they started shouting and gathered round, rocking the car. We sped away putting one of them over the bonnet as the rocks started flying. It was a long time later I finally realised why we were targets of hostility.
So there you have it, my tour of the Holy Land, though fascinating in some respects, was disappointing in that I felt nothing. Certain places give me that 'tingle' - St. Michael's cave Gibraltar for one - a sense that I'm in a very special place, Israel didn't really do it for me.