Monday, November 14, 2005

Bridging the Gap

I think that I’ve mentioned once or twice before that traveling in Palestine-Israel is always a bit of an adventure, but entering and leaving this place is even more of a hassle. Myself and a couple of other students decided to go to Lebanon and Syria over the Eid al-Fitr break and we had numerous discussions and debates regarding the best ways to handle issues like visa problems, which of the three bridges between Israel and Jordan to use, etc . . . Part of the problem is that it is very difficult to get reliable information about bridge closing times, visa requirements and other important details because these things change constantly.

We decided to leave Israel via the Allenby / King Hussein Bridge (the closest bridge to Amman). This is the obvious choice except for two small details: 1. We had been told that the bridge closed on Saturday at noon AND at 3pm, so we weren’t sure which was correct; 2. We didn’t have entry visas for Jordan. It is possible to get Jordanian visas at the Sheik Hussein bridge, which is more than an hour north of the Allenby Bridge (which means traveling an hour north in Israel to cross the bridge, to turn around and travel an hour and half south to get to Amman), but it is not possible to get entry visas to Jordan at the Allenby Bridge. However, one of the guys who was traveling with us swore that he had entered Jordan at the Allenby Bridge and had been able to purchase a visa there in the past (turns out he had Allenby and Sheik Hussein confused, but I’m getting ahead of myself). After much discussion and debate we decided to take our chances at the Allenby Bridge, but to leave very early in the morning, so that if we ran into trouble we would have time to travel north. This was very important because we had a 6 am flight to catch from Amman to Beirut Sunday morning.

Friday night, one of the guys who was traveling with us called and asked us to postpone leaving until mid-morning because he was still waiting for his second passport to arrive in the mail. You see, you can’t enter Lebanon or Syria if you have an Israeli stamp in your passport. This means you have to have two passports so that you can travel between the neighboring countries. Of course, if you travel overland from Jordan to Syria and you switch passports at the border, they will demand to know how you were traveling in Jordan without a Jordanian visa (which will of course be in the other passport). Thinking about this is like contemplating the paradoxes of time travel, if you dwell on it too long you end up with more questions than answers and a headache to boot. But I digress.

We decided to delay our departure in hopes that A’s second passport (without an Israeli stamp) would arrive. He called us around 10:30 to say that it had not arrived with the mail and that he had rescheduled his flight from Amman to Beirut so that he could wait for the passport. At this point the three of us who are still traveling are scrambling around looking for a taxi because we’ve realized that the bridge actually does close at noon and we might not have enough time to make it . . .

After an incredibly speedy taxi ride we arrived at the bridge at 10 minutes to noon. Surprisingly we cleared the Israeli side with very little difficulty. Unfortunately, the Jordanians turned us away because the other two people I was traveling with did not have the appropriate visa documentation. Apparently, because I had entered Israel through Jordan (and not the airport in Tel Aviv) when I arrived in September, I could have continued on to Jordan. Instead, like an idiot, I decided to stay with my friends.

Foolishly, I thought we would just reenter Israel, then catch a taxi to the northern bridge. I was not expecting to have to go through the entire border crossing process again. We had to reapply for visas, go through the interrogation process etc . . . It also didn’t help that when the soldier processing our information asked me what I had been doing in Israel for the previous two months, one of the guys I was traveling with chimed in and said that I was studying at Birzeit University. Mind you, this is the same guy who swore that we could get visas to Jordan at the Allenby Bridge . . .

We were the only people at the bridge at this point (because it supposedly closed at noon), and I guess the employees were pissed off that they had to stay because we got very thorough treatment. When the female soldier told me to follow her and entered a little curtained booth while pulling on plastic gloves I got a little nervous. Thankfully, it wasn’t a full strip search, just my shoes, jacket and shirt. This is especially lucky since I had my Kuwaiti passport in my money pouch beneath my jeans – I’m not sure what would have happened if I’d been caught with that . . .they probably would have decided that I was a spy and sent me away to molder in an Israeli prison. Next, they brought us to a big room where our bags were waiting for us and they proceeded to dump out everything in our backpacks and take it all into a separate room to be examined. Not only did they examine every article of clothing (my underwear got a lot of attention that week – first from the Birzeit police and then from the Israeli soldiers) in my bag, they also took swabs of all of my toiletries. I guess they were looking for chemical weapons?

All in all, we spent 2.5 hours trying to reenter Israel, just so that we could travel north and exit the country again. The best part is that we had never really left Israel since the Jordanians turned us away . . .

At this point we are all tired and hungry and it is probably around 3:30 in the afternoon. We grabbed the last taxi in the parking lot on the Israeli side of the bridge and headed to the Sheik Hussein Bridge (for $100). Once we arrived there, we had to go through the same process all over again. We sat at that bridge waiting for permission to leave for about 1.5 hours. We didn’t actually make it into Jordan until 7pm and didn’t get to Amman until 8:30. I would like to take this opportunity to point out that the trip that took me 10 hours would only take between two and three hours driving straight from Ramallah to Amman.

Thankfully, when I got to Amman MA met us at a restaurant and put us up for the night. After a shower and about 4 hours of sleep I was heading to the Queen Alia airport for my 6 am flight to Beirut (we decided to fly so that we could switch passports more subtly). I tottered off the plan at 7am and was greeted by my good friend John who was kind enough to drag himself out of bed to meet me at that ungodly hour.

Stay tuned for stories from Beirut . . .


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