“Operation Entebbe II” is how I was privately referring to my upcoming Uganda trip. Had it not been an extremely close friend requesting bridesmaid services, I wouldn’t have been going. As the nurse in the surgery said, as she was jabbing me with sixty pounds-worth of yellow fever, “I hope she’s a very good friend!”
Waiting for my connecting flight in Schiphol airport, Amsterdam, all I wanted to do was jump on the next flight to Tel Aviv. When the time came to board the Entebbe flight, I wandered reluctantly towards the queue, only to be met by the quizzical looks of Africans probably wondering if I’d picked the wrong line in my sleepy state. Not many “muzungus” (white people) travel to Uganda.
Operation Entebbe II started off well, just because the KLM flight crew were absolutely stunning. No request was too much trouble. We were treated like kings and queens. It was possibly the nicest flight I’ve ever had, all eight hours of it, and I’ve lost count of the number of flights I’ve been on.
Because the option was there, I had ordered kosher meals to and from Entebbe. Although I used to fly El Al all the time, at least until I was 25 when it was still cheap enough, I don’t think I ever ordered kosher meals back then. Perhaps a ‘Thomas’ wouldn’t have got away with it! In any case, KLM obliged, and I realized I’d scored as I was fed long before anybody else! My meal came complete with a kashrut certificate from the Badatz Amsterdam. “Is that for health reasons?” asked the curious and well-traveled Ugandan professional sitting beside me. “Sort of,” I replied. “It’s in the Bible, so it’s bound to be healthier, isn’t it?” He definitely seemed quite envious of my salmon dinner anyway. No one else was eating salmon.
“Have you seen the movie ‘Raid on Entebbe’?” I asked the groom-to-be, not long after my arrival in Kampala. “Oh yes,” he said. “Is the present airport the same one as where the hostages were held?” I asked. “No,” he said. “But it’s just next door.” One of my main goals of the trip – apart from being a bridesmaid – was to stand in the place where the Israelis were held captive in 1976, the year I was born. “Can we go there?” I asked, hopefully. “Sure,” he replied. “When we take you to the airport we can stop there; the old site is just next door.” I felt relieved that a stop at the place where so many were held in fear, and where four lost their lives, would bring purpose to my long journey.
As usually occurs with bridesmaids, the four of us were treated to a session at a local salon. Our nails were to be painted bright pink, with royal blue trimmings. During the whole nail process, a man walked into the salon brandishing a bucket of grasshoppers. It’s quite normal in Kampala for business people to wander into the various shops, selling their wares, be they handbags, jewellery or edible delicacies.
Grasshoppers are a delicacy in central Uganda. Thankfully the salon grasshopper meeting wasn’t my first encounter with the tasty insects. One day we were just at home in the bride’s house, when one of the nieces brought in some grasshoppers. For some reason I wasn’t offered any that day, possibly because I’d been sick the day after my arrival. I did find out that they were a delicacy, however, so I quickly looked up Leviticus 11 in my small, worn-out-from-traveling-Bible. I had suspected they were “okay”, but I just wanted to check! I knew that John the Baptist had eaten locusts, so I was pretty sure grasshoppers were also kosher.
Sure enough, alongside locusts, grasshoppers made the kosher list in the Torah passage. Phew! Although I wasn’t offered any during my trip in the end, I was at least open to eating even insects, as long as G-d said they were edible!
Day 11, departure day, came at last. It was a lovely day including a final trip to town with ‘Grandpa’, father of the groom, and a short visit to the national park in Entebbe. As we left a small restaurant near the park, I reminded the groom that we needed to stop at the old airport. He said that it should be possible to stop nearby and have a look. As it was, because it was already dark, with no obvious parking place, the taxi driver kept going. The groom pointed out the sprawling site of the old airport as we passed it, on our right. “It’s predominantly an air base now,” he explained. “You can see all the military planes lined up.” As we passed I offered a prayer of thanks for all the lives that were saved there, as I also remembered Yoni and how he gave his life. I could see that it wouldn’t have worked to stop on the side of the road in the dark and try to find an entry point into a military base anyway. I could easily have been suspected, with my muzungu face, of actually attempting Operation Entebbe II! “At least you’ve seen the place,” I told myself, too exhausted to protest.
Flying home I was delighted to find a small packet of halva in my kosher meal box. Halva is a traditional, delicious, (though fattening) sweet, sesame seed, Israeli desert. As my stomach wasn’t quite right after leaving Entebbe, I stashed my halva away in my handbag. On the last leg of my journey, Schiphol to Manchester, I took out my earplugs, eye patch and halva, ready for take-off. The relief of being back in the cool northern hemisphere was tremendous. A business-like Dutch man next to me had nicked my reserved window seat, but I didn’t care. I proudly unwrapped my little kosher halva and nibbled it happily. Operation Entebbe II was complete and I was going home.