Saturday, 25 September 2010

Chapter 4 The crossing

‘Just relax... don't worry’

This was the mantra I chanted silently as we sped through Jordan valley towards the border with Israel.

Amman was going through an intense heat wave but my breath was coming out in icy wisps as the taxi driver had cranked the AC dial all the way down.

‘breathe deeply... just like in that YouTube video. Feel your heart beat slow down to its normal speed.’

It worked.

Kind of.

Thump thump thump.

The closer we got to the border the lusher the Jordanian landscape became. Nourished by the Jordan River the farms on either side of the road stretched for miles. They were mostly vegetable farms with a good helping of banana plantations giving the area an almost tropical feel.

The area was incredibly rural and we passed goat herds from time to time. It was fairly desolate with the exception of the ministerial palaces that cropped up every so often.

My taxi driver was from Jerusalem with lots of advice on crossing the border. It was clear from the way he spoke he had an intense bond with his birthplace. Despite having made a life in Amman which he was very happy with, he missed the spiritual fulfillment he felt in Jerusalem.

It took us about 40 minutes to reach the border. Leaving at 7 am meant we missed the morning rush hour and we had an uneventful drive. He finally pulled up at a large blue gate.

‘Here we are’

On the left of the blue gate was a compound. The Jordanian customs.

We dragged my suitcase in to the foreigner's section (next door to the Arab's section which is generally much more crowded) and dumped it on a stalled X-Ray belt. I walked into the waiting room where about 7 other people who had also decided to make the morning trek sat patiently waiting for the customs officials to start work.

There was a mix of people. A young British couple; he ginger haired and earnestly reading his book while she sat calmly beside him wearing the long skirt and simple earrings of someone who had intense feelings about the world.

There was a group of Koreans who sat and joked together in the corner. Two men who appeared to be Arab sat chatting next to an older veiled woman. Sitting a bit apart was a young American in a floppy hat lost in thought.

I walked over to the customs window and spoke to the men who were in charge of collecting the 8 dinar exit tax.

‘What? you are Arab?’ exclaimed one and began chatting to me about Lebanon and his sister who lived in London while the other man, older, sat sullenly beside him chain smoking his pack of Gitanes.

‘Come come’ he exclaimed. ‘Why should you wait like everyone else? You are our sister. Give me your passport.’

His eyes were very blue and shone against his dark skin.

He marched me over to a private waiting room next to his office, relieved me of my passport and took it to the customs official to stamp.

‘We don't stamp your actual passport on the Jordanian side’ he confided. ‘But when you get to Israel, make sure you request the supplementary paper so you don't have trouble traveling later.’

The next half hour was really just waiting while the customs officials smoked and gossiped and my new friend made countless offers to take me out to dinner upon my return.

Eventually we made it on to the bus that would take us across the bridge. Our passports were given back to us and we were charged a fee for the bus ride and as well as a per-suitcase fee.

There were lighthearted moments as the customs official repeatedly mispronounced the Korean names and they good naturedly corrected him. As we began making our way however the bus became quiet.

I remained focused on my breathing.

The bridge itself was nondescript. Two lanes in each direction and surprisingly short. We passed by a Jordanian check point where 3 bored men guarding a tumble down shack and a solitary tank sporting a machine gun sat around aimlessly. They barely looked up from their phones and little cups of thick Turkish coffee as we drove by.

The few kilometres of no man's land between the King Hussein Bridge and the Israeli manned Allenby Crossing are desolate. Hilly and covered in that reddish sand that Jordan is famous for.

At the Israeli check point the bus was stopped and we went through a preliminary passport check as a young army man and his rifle boarded the bus looking for stowaways.

Despite having a Western passport, being born in what was technically an enemy country plus a shed load of Middle Eastern stamps dating back to 2002 was bound to be troublesome. I just wasn't sure when it would crop up.

The first check point was passed quickly and easily. No problems for anyone.

Eventually we arrive at the Allenby Crossing; the entrance to Israel.

At first glance it looks not unlike like a fish market. People mill around in a sort of queue outside. The 'queue' winds around posts leading to a check point right outside the main entrance. On the way there, people are herded through a luggage drop off area where their suitcases and passports are taken and given matching identification stickers before the suitcases are carted off for checking.

People are yelling at the luggage handlers who are yelling back names as they try to match passports to owners. As it's the entrance to the West Bank, all the workers are Arab so there's much back and forth in Arabic. One man stands at the front of the queue yelling at people who have brought milk in from Jordan. There is no reason given for this focus on milk nor why it is a problematic import.

When I receive my passport it has two stickers in the back with numbers and a bar code. I have no idea what the numbers mean but when I arrive at the check point the official circles the number 2 on my passport after asking me a round of security questions.

Where in Israel are you going? How long will you stay?

He grunts and lets me in.

Wow I think, could that be it?

It was not.

Another check point; our purses and hand luggage are scanned before entering the actual customs area.

I make my way into the line for foreigners and wait patiently as the people in front of me are questioned and ultimately allowed through.

It is my turn and all my breathing exercises go out the window. I approach the pretty young Israeli girl behind the glass with my heart thumping in my throat. I mentally will myself to relax as she brushes aside her fringe and gives me a pleasant smile.

Her brow furrows as soon as she opens my passport and she consults her colleague in rapid Hebrew. Her colleague, a plump unkempt looking girl, answers without even looking at me.

‘What is your name’ she asks.

‘What is your father's name?' She nods as I answer.

She asks me the normal security questions.

Where are you going? How long are you staying? Can I see your return ticket? Where will you be staying? Who do you know in Israel? Where are they from?

She keeps going through my passport and with every page she turns I see her shapely dark eyebrows furrowing even more deeply.

Somewhat unhelpfully, I choose this exact moment to ask for her to not stamp my passport.

‘Why?’ she counters ‘Do you live in Dubai?’

‘No,’ I reply calmly. ‘But I used to and I still travel there sometimes.’

She nods curtly, asks me to fill out a paper and then sends me to the “waiting area”.

I put that in quotation marks because the “waiting area” would more accurately be termed the “persona non grata” area. As I make my way, I see my waiting area colleagues are two veiled women and three men with long straggly beards and skull caps.

I look around. This is not looking good for me. Keep breathing.

I take out my book on Cocaine smuggling and settle in for a long wait. I was expecting to get questioned - it would have been foolish to assume otherwise and I also knew that there would be more than one set of questioning.

Indeed after about an hour a sweet looking girl with pale skin and dark curly hair came and asked me to fill out a form and to follow her to another seating area where she asked me the same security questions while making notes in hebrew.

She asked me slightly more probing questions about my life, work and political interests but all in all it was actually quite a pleasant chat.

She escorted me back to my seat and apologised for the wait.

Another hour or so passes.

Another young lady calls me over for more questioning.

The same questions - more notes in hebrew.

Who are these people that you know here? Where are they from? Do you have their phone numbers? Would they mind if we contacted them?

Not at all I say.

We talk some more and she asks me about what places I plan to visit during my stay. She is, like her colleagues, very polite and gives me advice on other places to check out. She is quite bubbly and giggles while speaking.

Back to my seat. Another half an hour passes before my name is called by yet another women who hands me my passport and gives me a small smile.

Could it be? Could I have made it? I don't even check my passport and go bounding over to the next check point like an over eager puppy.

The woman smiles at me as I approach then barks something in Arabic at a veiled Arab lady asking about her passport. She is also young and dark with curly hair.

She scans my passport and the machine immediately makes a buzzing noise. She looks at me quickly, keeps my passport and waves me over to another, similar, waiting area.

My face must have fallen to the floor. Had I actually been denied entry? As I walked dejectedly into the waiting area I pictured myself waiting for the bus to take me back to the inappropriate customs official in Jordan. How could I possibly get out of dinner now?

I wait for a while before a tall, slim young lady with a long pony tail calls me over.

She takes me into the luggage area and asks where my bag is. I point to it.

‘Bring it here.’

I lug it on to a table for her struggling under its weight

‘Open it’ she commands.

I comply.

‘ok go wait.’

Pffff I think to myself.

I go back and wait as she tests my bag for explosives then calls me back.

‘Ok’ she says ‘bring your bag here’ and points to a conveyor belt.

This time she helps me carry it, smiles and escorts me to through the area and towards the final check point.

The bleached blonde at the final check point takes a cursory look at my passport and nods me through.

At this point it has been 5 hours since I left the house. It has taken three and a half hours to cross the 500 metres from the entrance of the building to the luggage area in the back.

I grab my suitcase, exchange some money and make my way outside to a scene of pure chaos.

I am now back in Arab land and the area is heaving with travelers eating and chatting as taxi drivers aggressively sell their services.

I weave my way through to the only taxi stand and, in English, ask for the bus to Ramallah.

‘Ramallah?’ the man says ‘there's no bus to Ramallah, only taxi.’

‘Ok, how much is a taxi?’

‘450 shekels.’

I didn't even bother doing the conversion in my head. I wasn't paying 450 anything at this stage of my trip.

‘Are you joking?’ I exclaimed. ‘No, there must be a cheaper way.’

‘No,’ he grinned ‘450 is standard price.’

‘It's too much! What other options do I have?’

‘Ok, you find someone going Ramallah and go together.’

‘Fine,’ I say ‘How do we find someone?’

He looks at me in amusement ‘You go, ask, find someone.’

‘Me?’ I gasp incredulously. ‘You want ME to find someone?’

With the patience of a saint mixed in with that look Arab men get when they know they can be helpful to a woman in a way they may be able to exploit he says: ‘ok, I go.’

As he walks off someone who looks like a businessman asks me if I'm going to Ramallah.

‘Me too’ he says. ‘I'll negotiate a price’.

10 minutes later we were on our way to Ramallah and half an hour after that he had given me the low down on where to go in Ramallah. The driver of the taxi also joined in talking about Jerusalem, his home town and various other cities in the West Bank.

I'd only just arrived and didn't know much yet, but from all the people I'd spoken to that day one thing was very clear. Everyone here loves this land.

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