Holy Land, Batman!

Well, today was… interesting. It began with my early rise. A good job I wake up well as the promised wake-up call didn’t happen. I grabbed my bags, deposited my key at the front desk and tip-toed out so as not to wake the sleeping receptionist.

As I hiked up the hill looking for a taxi, a mad Arab ahead of me started yelling. He was holding a plastic cup in each hand and held his foot up, sole facing me while shouting “Stop! Stop!”

“Erm, no thanks. I’ll keep walking if that’s OK,” I replied as I squeezed past. Then he kicked me up the arse.

I turned and he’d stepped back a fair distance and started yelling stuff in Arabic. The only words I got were “hate” and “Bush”. Good grief. I’m wearing a flipping Newcastle shirt (incidentally everyone in Jordan thought it was Juventus) and this madman thinks I’m American because I’m white. All attempts at communication (which admittedly extended to shouting “English! Not American!”) were ignored as he just told me to “Go! Now! Go! Go!”.

As most people know, I’m not a violent person by nature. The fact that I was laden down with three rucksacks and in a hurry to catch a bus didn’t help. Also, the thought of getting arrested for smacking him wasn’t really appealing. So I did the right thing, shoved a finger up in the air at him and walked off. Quickly. Into the first taxi I saw.

I gave the taxi driver all the spare change I had – I couldn’t change it for another currency and it’d be useless in Israel. He seemed pretty happy – I’d probably doubled the 30p fare. I picked up my bus ticket to the King Hussein Bridge (or Allenby Bridge if you’re Israeli – same Bridge, different ends) and sat waiting for the bus. As time progressed it seemed more and more obvious that I would have a whole bus to myself.

As I stepped from the office, the driver took my ticket and I boarded the coach to the border. It was a short drive, thankfully. I’ve not mentioned before now, but in Jordan (actually everywhere in the Middle East) “no smoking” signs are put up purely for decoration. They’re everywhere and they’re roundly ignored. Immigration queues, buses, hotels, taxis… One thing I have noticed is that all the smokers (and there are a lot of them) are men, so maybe women are more intelligent after all. Or just not allowed to. Anyway, the short drive seemed longer as I had to try to breathe through the soles of my feet.

We arrived at the border checkpoint and I offloaded with my bags. After a few minutes as I conversed with two ladies who worked in Kuwait, someone finally pointed out where I needed to go and I had my bags x-rayed. Then we waited. And waited. There were no staff around at all.

After thirty minutes, the bus began to load up and people from several other coaches boarded it. The JETT is the only public bus allowed to drive over the crossing itself so I had to catch this. I found it strange that nobody had checked my passport yet and mentioned this to the driver. After some explanation, he went wild and got me to the front of the queue where my passport was stamped and I was asked for the 5JD departure tax.

“Departure tax?” Oh, hell. I raked through my pockets.

Four JD.

And two half-JD coins.

Phew.

Wiped out, no currency left but able to leave. I re-boarded. And then the conductor tried to charge me 3.5JD for the border crossing. I tried to explain that I had already paid for the journey right to Israel, but he wasn’t having it. I no longer had my ticket and the driver was currently AWOL. The two ladies I’d been speaking to volunteered to pay the money for me and just as I was accepting it to buy the additional ticket, the driver reappeared. He confirmed I’d paid the full amount and the conductor apologised and walked off.

You’d think that would be the end of it. But, no…

On the bus over the crossing, I got talking to a couple from the UK who were now living in Israel and seeking residency. They were basically on a visa run and gave me a lot of information about how to find my hostel and so on. We offloaded on the other side of the crossing and handed our luggage over for x-ray as we were herded into the immigration area where everyone was interrogated. I actually got off lightly despite getting every single question I’ve ever had thrown at me at an immigration point all in one go. I didn’t mind, though. The immigration official was a very attractive girl (and I mean girl – all the staff are young Israelis on compulsory military duty) who could have talked to me all day if she’d wanted. Or swapped with any of the other three on duty.

*ahem* Back on planet Earth.

Very Attractive Immigration Girl: What is your business in Israel?
Me: Tourism
VAIG: How long are you staying?
Me: Two weeks
VAIG: Do you have any flight tickets you can show me?
Me: No
VAIG: Why not?
Me: I’ve not booked one yet (I should have said they were e-tickets)
VAIG: Where are you going to visit as a tourist?
Me: Erm, Jerusalem to start. And then… erm… all the touristy places
VAIG: So you don’t know where?
Me: Not exactly. I haven’t been able to get a guidebook. I’ve just come through Dubai and Kuwait and for some reason their bookshops don’t stock the Israel Lonely Planet… A friend I met in India will show me around.

At this point, she smiled and I knew I wasn’t going to get knocked back.

VAIG: Is your friend Israeli?
Me: Yes
VAIG: What is her name?
Me: OK, I know this is going to sound like I made it up, but it’s Rachel Meshuggah [not her real name, though I did give that to the VAIG]. And I know that’s as steroetypically Jewish as you can get…

I got in. And I got my passport stamped, not a piece of paper just as I wanted. I’ll be getting a new passport when I get home and I’d rather have a permanent souvenir.

Then picking up luggage, getting through into Israel proper (after around 7 people had checked my passport, given me bits of paper, taken them back off me…) and finding that the money change office was being refurbed and there was no ATM anywhere. And I was broke.

Bugger.

To my rescue came Paul and Eleanor, the couple I’d been talking to. They insisted on paying my shared bus fare (33 Shekels) and when we got to Jerusalem they walked me to the hostel so I wouldn’t get lost. I have their phone number and will repay the cash if at all possible before I move on, despite their insistence that it was a gift. And if they won’t accept it, I’ll pass a similar sum on to a charity of their choice.

At the Citadel Hostel, I unpacked as little as I needed and checked out my “bedroom” which has an amazing view and the best air-con in the world. Mainly as it has no walls or ceiling. I’m sleeping on the roof. Hey, it’s only three quid a night and how many people do you know who get to sleep in the open air on a roof in Jerusalem?

I found out that the wireless inside the hostel is amazingly fast and free, so checked emails before going for a quick walk and having my first Israeli meal… a nice, healthy falafel. Basically, a flay bread bun sliced into a pocket and filled with chick peas, humus, veggies and so on. Rather nice and pretty cheap. After more walking I finally found an ATM as well. In this area they’re either standalone ones which charge like the ones in the service stations and convenience stores back home, or they’re inside banks.

Just after lunch, I met up with Noa who I first encountered on my last night in Palolem all those months ago. She very kindly took me to some areas a little further out where we had lunch, wandered around a market, drank passion fruit slushy and took in some more of the city’s history. I also indulged in some pick’n’mix – the best I think I’ve had since I left the UK. I blame Noa utterly for that.

We arranged to meet again the next evening and she dropped me back at the hostel where I sorted my stuff out, spent far too long on the internet and curled up in my sleeping bag with the chill wind ruffling what little hair I have left.

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