Visiting the Old City without getting lost? Good Luck

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November 9th 2005
Published: January 21st 2006
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Looking at the Dome through a crucifix Looking at the Dome through a crucifix Looking at the Dome through a crucifix

From the Mt. of Olives, this Catholic Church looks accross at the old city
After arriving in Amman, Jordon on the 2am Lufthansa hop from Frankfurt, I got a few hours sleep before taking an early morning bus to Tel Aviv. Once we got to the border, it was a complicated mess of getting off the bus, taking care of exit visa matters, finding out I didn’t need an exit visa because I had flown in that day, getting back on the bus, going through the Jordanian security checkpoint, getting back on the bus, arriving at the Israeli side, going through Israeli security control, passport control (45 minutes here, more later) and then waiting in the rain under a moderately rain resistant cover for about 10 minutes before finding out that our new buses were waiting for us after some other checkpoint.

The fact that I had stamps from Egypt, Syria & Lebanon in my passport did not serve to make me the most loved individual to stand before Israeli immigration that day. They wanted an explanation for each and every suspicious stamp in my passport, which would not necessarily be given in a 100% forthright manner. Telling them that I had been studying Islam and Arabic in Cairo would not have accelerated the whole process. I kept my answers generic, my mood amiable, and eventually they got tired of harassing me and gave me the entry stamp. The fact that Rebekah (traveling companion for this portion of the trip and semester mate from Egypt) was with me and had already been to Israel several times was probably a major factor in speeding up the whole process. I could have used my Hungarian passport, but it is still a virgin document and I wouldn’t want to ruin it by having my Israeli stamp put into it before it turned a year old.

Due to schedule limitations, it was necessary for us to arrive in Tel Aviv on the afternoon of the Sabbath. Yay! The fun of a dead city! Finding an ATM that was not located in the lobby of a closed bank was a bit a challenge. We found one shortly after finding a café and getting some much needed coffee in our system. As typical in the country, even a café with 3 employees and a handful of customers has a security guard to check you for bombs before letting you in. After walking around for a bit and realizing that my week long trip did not allow for us to wait for things to liven up, we took the bus back toward Jordan in hopes of getting into Jerusalem before it got too late. Scary how fast one can cross this country. Among other Sabbath difficulties, finding a cab driver that will charge anywhere close to normal rates is also a problem. The guesthouse we were staying at was off the beaten path on the Mount of Olives, and we were on the other side of the old city from it. We finally found a guy who would drive us for 25 (circa $6), and the travel of the first day came to an end.

We spent a few days looking through the Old City, and had a few side trip to the west bank as well (see next entry). I am convinced that within the city walls one is just hopelessly doomed to get lost. The signing is poor, and the closed market feel defeats any sense of direction. Asking for help is complicated. All gates to the city have different names in Arabic, Hebrew and English. A phrasebook won’t help you if you don’t know the Arabic/Hebrew to English translation of the respective name for the gate. So, I think that Rebekah and I probably saw the entire Old City about 10-15 times. We made it to the Wailing Wall twice, once by accident. The guys part of the site has a little cave off to the side that was full of Orthodox Jews doing whatever prayers they do there. It was so full that the path was blocked. I was not sure if non-Jews were supposed to be in there, but I figured somebody would let me know if that was the case and kept on exploring. I discovered that if somebody is in your way, all that is necessary is to gently move them to the side and they keep rocking and praying the whole time and don’t even take notice of you.

We also made it to the Garden tomb area, which is run by a society of ever cheerful Brits who give the impression that they just love having people come visit the tomb. Free admission and restrooms. The bus stop across the street from the Garden tomb is where we found the bus that took us to the West Bank. Our first attempt to gain access to the Dome of the Rock Mosque was unsuccessful because it was a day of the week set aside for Muslims. Our second time got us in to a sparsely populated magnificently beautiful site with nice views all around. I guess most people were viewing the packed Christian sights. On the streets of the Old City, every now and then, one would run into a mass of people doing a pilgrimage commemorating the Stations of the Cross and carrying a large wooden cross with them. It was really random at first, but I saw it so many times that it just blended into the scenery after a while. After a few days we were both ready to head back to Jordan, and off we went to the Tel Aviv bus terminal that was located in a major shopping mall.

After clearing security (of course) we got our tickets and waited for our buses boarding call. At the departure time, we saw a bus pull out and realized that we had just missed it. We now had an hour to kill at the Bus Station. We had never seen so many soldiers walking around with assault rifles. At this point we had the mental realization that while the soldiers went through the security checkpoint, they just placed their guns on the belt and picked them up after they had gone through the machine. I guess they were looking for bombs. But then, if you can trust a soldier with the capacity to kill 100 people in short order with an M16, why not just trust them not to set off a bomb? I guess I had not spent enough time in the country to fully understand it. Speaking of understanding, one female soldier asked us directions to somewhere in Hebrew. When we were like “English?,” she looked at us as if we had just asked her to carry our bags for the rest of the day and hulled off. Maybe they don’t make references to the billions the United States gives to Israel during Basic Training.

When we did finally catch a bus, it was about 75% full of soldiers going back to various military postings. So, the next two hours were spent dropping of troops at military bases along the way to the border. Aside from us, the only other people going to the border turned out to be two Canadian Coast Guard rescue divers stationed at Vancouver International Airport. We decided to travel together through to Amman. First, we had to get to the border though. Our bus had dropped us off about 10 miles from it. A good Samaritan who seemed to be moderately crazy was more than happy to help us get to the border, and flagged down several cars before landing us a ride. As soon as he found us a vehicle, we could have sworn that he was acting is if it was an emergency evacuation. Yelling screaming and running around us, he had us loaded into a pickup in under 10 seconds. The driver was a farmer who was nice enough to drop us off at the crossing. After paying our 70 shekel exit fee (I guess the people at passport control haven’t heard about the billions either?) we were back in Jordan.

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