Entering Israel

Trip Start Sep 27, 2008
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Trip End Oct 18, 2008


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Monday, September 29, 2008

Travel days always bring some level of angst. This one was a big one. We were crossing from Jordan to Israel via the King Hussein/Allenby Bridge. Mark Hamilton had warned us that this was one of the few border crossings in the world that still made a big deal of crossing from one country to another. I'd read travelers tales of long waits, intense questioning, lost bags and unexpected closures.

Our taxi sped out of Amman on this bright morning and hurtled through the streets rimmed with eastward leaning trees, out into the empty land and down down down into the valley of the Dead Sea. Our ears popped. We marveled at the white and caramel colored land of Jordan (was this the Biblical "milk and honey" reference?).

Suddenly, our taxi pulled off the road. Two other taxis sat there--both with King Hussein Taxi stamped on the sides. Our driver got out to talk with them. And then we were asked to switch taxis. As our original driver explained while we moved the packs from one trunk to the next, the first driver paid the second driver to take us the final bit to the border. We hopped into the 2nd cab and we were off again....this time with a car full of persistent flies. The last few miles seemed to be in a different age--we passed a herd of sheep complete with a shepherd in the red/white checked head scarf and a herding dog. There was a smell of peat, green trees lined the street. A black goat with bells walked with a dog along the side of the road. The road went down, more ear popping.

The entire journey from hotel to the border took only about 45 minutes. The border compound was a little cluster of buildings, with a bustle of people and transportation options. We entered a small room, put our bags through an xray machine and followed the people into another room and a line for passport control. The line was long and slow--and most people had little regard for it. Tour guides with bags full of passports tried to break line. We were in line behind a couple from California also traveling independently and struck up a conversation while vigilantly holding our places. When it was your turn, you paid JD 5 each to leave Jordan and got all the stamps. Then you were told to go sit and wait for the bus.

It was already close to 10 a.m. and the border was reportedly closing at 11 for Rosh Hashanah. We sat fanning off the flies and watching the show, talking to the Californians and a woman from Jordan with an 8 year old daughter holding a U.S. passport. One of the border crossing security men smiled and assured us "You will be in Israel today".

Finally, the correct bus pulled up--there had been a few false alarms. We boarded and waited for another long while in the purple curtained bus. A young man got on and collected a fee to cross...per person and per bag. And then we were off.

The bus pulled out of the border compound and turned left past the soldiers and out into an empty street. We passed solitary platforms with soldiers watching carefully--machine guns at the ready. The bus had to make a few zig-zag turns to pass the barricades. After about 3 miles, we passed a checkpoint where we had to get out and show our passports while an Israeli soldier boarded the empty bus and checked it out. We reboarded, drove a bit again to another checkpoint with Israeli flags, and finally reached a large building for Passport Control. Our driver shook our hands as we left and picked up our luggage.

In this building, we went through airport-like security--bags on the belt and through a metal detector. We noticed that the Jordanian woman and her daughter were pulled aside in a separate place and were being questioned by a female soldier. Our passports were taken from us and collected by a young woman soldier dressed in a t-shirt. She passed a small cotton wipe over them and took it to be analyzed. We were then ok'd to move into the next line. Here we would wait for almost an hour.

We were behind the Californian couple, in front of an Asian couple who were together for missionary work, and the Jordanian woman with the girl were behind them. We thought we would be the last crossing of the day, but another bus pulled in and about 50 Asian folks filled the room behind us. As we neared the passport control stations, we could see that only 3 were open. They were staffed by young Israeli female soldiers. Shy young lady soldiers were asking questions of those of us in line--"do you mind passport stamp?", "are you together?" We were tired and getting hungry. Our line began joking about "you can stamp ME...just let me in!"

When we got to the window, we were asked several questions--"Where are you from? Where are you traveling from today? How are you related? Why are you here? Where will you go? Where will you stay? How long will you stay? Can you show me your flight return information?" and "will you be traveling in the West Bank?" Uh....Bethlehem is in the West Bank. So, I said--"Can we go to Bethlehem?" She said, "Yes--of course, this is fine...but anywhere else?" I answered an emphatic "No, thank you". She smiled at us, stamped the red Israel mark into our passports and nodded us through to the next line.

The next line was a haphazard glance at our passports and a wave into the waiting area--a cafe, empty cash exchange booths and a waiting area filled with tourist groups gathering again. We were in Israel...with no sheikels and no ATMs around. A helpful soldier let me know that I could get cash just around the corner outside. We saddled up the packs and stepped outside, making our way around the building in the incredible mid-day heat.

"Just around the corner" was like another country. This was where hundreds of others cleared passport control. These people dressed in traditional Arab dress and carried huge piles of stuff--sometimes on their heads or in carts, sometimes stacked high on luggage racks-massive bags that looked like 100 lbs of meat wrapped in burlap or 50 lbs of rice in pillow cases or cases of water in milk jugs. People were busy on this side--hustling here and there with their baggage, yelling, sweating, and getting rides arranged. It was 2 days before the end of Ramadan, so I figured that many were coming/going to be with family at the Eid holiday.

We exchanged money and soon realized that our best ride to Jerusalem was to be a shared taxi for the price of 37 NIS each. Bryan paid and we piled into a van as passengers numbers 5 and 6. We needed 10 to leave.

Passenger #1 was an Israeli business man who spoke some English--he looked like anyone you'd see going to work on the el in Chicago, complete with laptop bag and newspaper. Passenger #2 was also in business--let's just say import/export or theft. Every few minutes he would whistle, or yell out something and other men would approach the van handing in bags of cigarette boxes or a handful of cell phones. He crammed the packages into the back and the area around his seat. Passengers #3 and 4 were older Palestinian ladies dressed in the long dresses, robes and head scarves. While they piously did not drink water during this Ramadan day--they did SPLASH it! A few times they would flamboyantly throw water on themselves (and coincidentally on me as I sat behind them), patting their faces and lips dry. We waited and waited. It was hot in there. I sweated in my long sleeve shirt--worn to be considerate of the culture--and eventually pushed the sleeves up over my elbows so that I could enjoy more of the little breeze we caught here and there. Bryan climbed out and walked impatiently around the van--keeping an eye on our packs that were now beneath a stash of cigarettes and what looked like a sheep carcass wrapped in burlap and paper. Whatever that was in that bundle, the flies loved it...and flocked to it.

Suddenly, but after about 45 minutes of waiting, we collected passengers #7-8-9-10 AND 11 & 12: a married woman traveling solo (who was arranged so that she had a single seat and did not have to sit next to a man), two young men and an older Arab man with the traditional keffilah head scarf, and two young girls without scarves who shared a seat vacated by the busy businessman (he sat on the steps next to the driver). I was fascinated by them all--and by the simple understanding and rearranging so that the single women were not profaned by sitting next to men they didn't know.

We were finally off. I've never appreciated the breeze from an open car window more in my life! We had a checkpoint before pulling out of the compound. Half of the passengers got out at the road to Ramallah. Then after about 30 minutes, as we approached the outskirts of Jerusalem, we pulled over for a soldier to get in and see us/our passports. Traffic got thicker and suddenly as we sped around a bend in the road--I saw Jerusalem!

It was just a glimpse, but unmistakable--in the distance, the Dome of the Rock--golden in the sun, the walls. A smile, a chill and a wave of wonder passed over me as the view of the ancient city was lost behind a hill. This was the city so many people through the ages had fought for, the city that is Holy to Christians, Jews and Muslims, the city we all hear about--but few get a chance to visit. Here it was in front of me. We were here!

We were dropped at Herod's gate (not Damascus as we first thought). We loaded up the packs, crossed the insanely busy road that circles the old city and entered through the towering old walls. Inside, the road became a walking street--caramel colored stonework on the ground and in the buildings, narrow alleys and quiet. We walked and walked--looking for the hotel and taking in our first views of Old Jerusalem. We asked--and got directions in English, or gestures point this way and that. We passed a bird store in the open at the top of a flight of narrow stairs. Chilly in the shade with the breeze up there--and all these brightly colored song-birds chirping and singing happily. We entered a more narrow and closed in area of shops--a stunning variety of goods for sale. This was the Muslim Quarter. Finally we found the Hotel Hashimi. We were buzzed in, welcomed by a very nice English speaking man dressed in bright white robes and invited to go wait on the rooftop while our room (#305) was made ready.
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