While I’ve been blessed to have traveled many places, some trips seem to stand out in my memory a bit more than others. One such trip was a flight from Mumbai in India to Tel Aviv in Israel. I was on a fact finding trip on behalf of the government of Alberta. There were rumours of a potential diamond mine in Alberta (they hadn’t found the NWT mines yet) and the Government of Alberta needed to know more about them. I was contracted to do a full diamond market study. My travelling companion for this trip was a very intelligent and gentle man named Klaus. Together we were hitting some of the major diamond centres and collecting information. Remember, this was before the internet became what it is today and all this information wasn’t readily available. I can still remember the excitement and the squeal of the modem on my state of the art 1 megabyte RAM computer as we shared whole pages of text that we were writing for the report. It was a lightning fast 30k baud modem. Ah, we couldn’t believe the wonders of modern technology. Of course today a good connection is literally a million times faster, but at the time we thought we had ‘arrived’. But I digress, back to the trip.
Now, this was in the 1990’s and tensions were high in Israel. Security was always tight but this time it was exceptionally tight. It was a time of the Temple mount riots, suicide bombings, and rumours of war. Every other day we were hearing of something new. In the midst of this was a large and growing diamond contingent in Tel Aviv and we really couldn’t afford to bypass it.
We got to the airport in Mumbai in plenty of time as we had been warned of the delays in boarding on El Al, Israel’s state airline. We went through the normal security protocols of the day, which for the most part were a lot less intrusive than today. Still a bit tiresome but we were used to it. But then things got a bit strange. When we got to the gate, we had to go through a whole other level of security. The line was long and moved very slowly. When we got to the front, we were separated and taken to different sides of the room, where we were each assigned an interrogator. I’m pretty sure they were Israeli intelligence. This was an interrogation the likes of which I had never experienced before or since. They asked all about our trip, about where we were, who we saw, why we needed to go to Israel, so many questions. Often, the same question was worded differently so as to try and catch us in a lie, I guess. Being a Canadian man of Dutch descent, mine was not too bad, but Klaus was of German descent. He endured far worse! Fifteen minutes and I was okay to go. Klaus was there for over 45 minutes and had to go through two agents! Still, eventually, we made it through and got on the plane.
El Al was an experience in itself. We were in business class and I remember I had to wait to take my seat until the plane taxied away from the gate. There was a flight attendant standing at my window looking out on the tarmac around the plane. In fact there were at least 6 or 7 of them looking out the windows on all sides of the plane. When our plane left the terminal and got out to the taxiway, I was very surprised to see a small hatch in the floor of the first class cabin open and a young man climbed in from below. As soon as he was in and the hatch secured, the plane then proceeded down the taxiway. The flight attendants went about their business, allowing us to take our seats. The plane continued on its way and off we went. Of course, I asked about it once we were up in the air and they quite nonchalantly told me it was done to ensure no explosives were attached to the plane while they were on the ground! My first taste of life in Israel.
It was an uneventful flight and we made jokes about how bad it was going to be to clear customs when we got there. We joked about his interrogation and that maybe they’d be waiting for us when we landed so we’d better get our stories straight.
Landing was similar to taking off as the plane was not allowed to get close to the gate and stopped far from the terminal. We figured that must have been in case they missed a bomb and it went off, at least there wouldn’t be any damage to the terminal! Second taste.
We gathered our things and moved towards the door, prepared to walk across the hot tarmac to the terminal and the waiting customs agents. As we emerged into the bright Mediterranean sun, we felt the warmth and dryness that the area is famous for. I remember feeling that it felt strangely good to be there. Ask anyone who’s been there, there is just something about the region that feels different. I can’t put it into words, but I remember it well. Third taste!!
However, there was something else there as well. At the bottom of the long stairs was a sleek black stretch Mercedes with two rather official looking security men, all dressed in black suits, white shirts, and dark sunglasses. I am certain I saw some characteristic bulges under their jackets, but who knows. ‘Must be someone important on the plane,’ I thought. I turned to Klaus and said, ‘they’ve come for you’. He was not amused.
As we got to the bottom of the stairs, one of the men looked at me and said ‘Mr. Vandenberg? Please come with us’. My heart stopped. I didn’t know what to think. I knew I couldn’t out run them! It was all Klaus’s fault!! We cautiously climbed in and they whisked us off to customs where our luggage was already waiting, they cleared us in the shortest time, and then drove us to our hotel. I didn’t find out until later that my Israeli partner had arranged for the VIP treatment! Surprise! Fourth taste!!
I was quite relieved that I wasn’t going to spend the night in an Israeli jail!
There’s one thing about the diamond industry as a whole that most people don’t realize. It truly is an intricate, international cosmopolitan family. Working within and with this family has been one of the biggest and most unexpected blessings of my career.
Remember, life is lived in moments… and that’s a moment I’ll never forget!