With my nice, guided GAP adventure coming to an end, I found I was pretty much on my own to get to Israel. Now, in every other part of the world (even Africa for Pete's sake), it's not all that hard to find a bus that would carry you from one capital city to another, especially two that are as close geographically as Amman and Jerusalem. However, that would be way too easy, and make way too much sense for the chaos that is the Middle East.
I asked the front desk for some help, mentioning the advice I'd received from my tour leader in Jordan, to which the receptionist said: "He's an idiot." Through some quasi-understandable English from both the concierge and his manager, I sort of understood my next steps. First, take a taxi from the hotel to a central meeting point in Amman. Second, here I will find a "service" which for a cost of four dinars will run people to the bridge. Third, once at the bridge I will need to find and board "a bus" to take me across the river. Fourth, once across the river I will need to pass through Israeli immigration and find "another bus" to take me to Jerusalem. Right. Could it be any easier?
Armed with a piece of yellow notebook paper with "King Hussein Bridge" hand written in both English and Arabic, I hopped into a cab outside the hotel. My overweight, uni-lingual cab driver of course didn't have change for a 20 dinar (the Jordanian currency in case you were wondering if I miss-spelled something) note, so we had to pull into two different gas stations for him to break it.
After a couple minutes, we found our way into a large triangular parking lot in the heart of the city where a fleet of white sedans in various states of repair were waiting. They each had an unreadable logo written in Arabic on their doors. As I got out, a covey of men swooped in, all talking at once, asking in heavily accented English: "Where you go? Where you go?" I showed the most trustworthy looking guy my piece of paper (yes, I know. It's just a guessing game, but after a few months on the road, you start to develop a sense). "Ah, King Hoosheen Breedge. Theese way, theese way."
I grabbed my bag and followed him to a white Toyota Camry where two guys in business suits were already sitting in the back, and a young-ish guy was sitting in the front with a backpack and iPod earphones plugged into his head. The driver popped the trunk, and I jammed my backpack into the remaining space. He motioned towards my laptop backpack - yeah right. "I'll hold on to this, thanks" I said, wrapping my arms around it like a baby. He got the picture, smiled and headed to the driver's seat. I squished in to the back with the other two guys, who didn't seem overly happy with a 6-9 American folding in next to them. A few utterances of Arabic from inside and out, and we were on our way.
The drive took about 30 minutes, which actually went by pretty fast. Amman is a big, busy city with sprawling, low-built suburbs. We sped over a set of hills to the west, and then headed down into the Jordan River valley. The view was actually quite nice. Below us on the left is the Dead Sea, with the Jordan River feeding it from the north. In the distance, you could just see the city of Jericho. It was a bit hazy this morning, but I remember our Tour guide saying that on a clear day you could actually see Jerusalem to the southwest.
In a situation like this, when you haven't really talked to anyone you trust, and you're in a car with 5 people who don't really speak English, and you're hoping whatever was written on your piece of yellow notebook paper was right, you're looking for any/all signs that you're headed in the right direction. Thusly, every sign I saw that said "Hussein Bridge" or any variation of it lifted my spirits a good bit.
At some magical point in the road, everyone started reaching for their wallets at the same time, and paid the driver, who managed to make change and converse with the others while driving about 20 kilometers an hour faster than anyone else on the road.
About 30 seconds after paying, he asked if I was a "VIP".
Me (internally): "Well, it's funny you ask. Yes. Yes I am."
In reality, I must have given him a "what the hell do you mean?" look (which he saw through the rear-view mirror), as he then asked, "Passport. Tourist or VIP?"
Still not knowing exactly what he meant, I said "Tourist." He seemed a little disappointed, but we drove on. We pulled up to what appeared to be a checkpoint at which point he started talking to the guard in rapid-fire fashion. He mentioned the words "tourist" and "VIP" a few times. 30 seconds later, he pulled a u-turn, stopped the car and turned around to look at me. "You get out here - go through immigration." Ummm... Ok. Without much recourse, I got out, got my bag out of the trunk and stood there watching the cab leave in a cloud of dust.
Looking around for my next option, I walked through a gate, and asked a nearby guard where the immigration point was. He didn't have a clue what I was saying. I resorted to showing him my passport, at which point he smiled and pointed me toward a large building about 50 feet away. Yes. Making headway.
Once I turned the corner, I started to feel a little better. I saw a few tourists buzzing around, and a couple large tour buses. I went inside the door marked "passport", where I was confronted by a squatty dark-skinned guard with a razor-sharp uniform. I showed him my passport and told him I wanted to go to Jerusalem. He smiled and said, "You play basket?"
"Ummm... Yes - I used to."
His face lit up, and he beckoned me to follow. He led me to the x-ray machine where I put my bag through while he and his friends talked in Arabic while looking at me an then at each other with big smiles, all the while making basketball gestures - dribbling, shooting a ball, etc. I have realized that being tall has likely made many such crossings a little smoother. And, far be it from me not to use this to my advantage when crossing into Israel of all places. I played along as best I could, waiting patiently while they demonstrated their air-hoops skills.
Five minutes later I was sitting in a small lobby across from a short young girl dressed in black. She had dark skin and dark curly hair, and I had immediately pegged her as an Israeli until I saw her American Passport. She had a diamond stud in her right nostril, and was reading an English copy of Newsweek. I asked her if she knew what we were waiting for, which she didn't. As we talked, I found out she was from New Jersey, going to visit a friend who was studying to be a rabbi in Jerusalem. Her father was apparently Syrian, but ended up in New York about 25 years ago. About then, a stream of 10-15 other people came in, all speaking Americanized English, and dressed in the requisite tennis shoes and tube socks, Yankees hats and fanny packs. It was by far the most Americans I'd seen in one place since leaving in January.
After the room reached some unknown critical mass, we were all directed to a large tour bus. It pulled out from the immigration building onto a fairly narrow, unkempt road. Three minutes and two military check points later (complete with camouflaged Hummers with huge machine guns on top), we came up on the bridge. With all the to-do and pomp and circumstance around its crossing, I was expecting some great feat of engineering over a roaring river. Wrong on both counts. First, the Jordan River is pretty much a small creek - unimpressive to say the least and, I must say, pretty disappointing. Accordingly, the bridge is not much more than you'd find over any small county stream in the states. About 50 feet long and made out of industrial concrete.
Two more checkpoints later, we pulled up to what looked to be an airport terminal. We all had to get our bags off the bus and put them on individual luggage carts, and wheel them up to an attendant with our passports in hand. The American girl and I watched the workers like hawks, keeping an eye on our passports during the chaos. They checked in the bags, which disappeared into the bowels of the building on a conveyor belt. They then handed us back our documents and pointed us inside. Then the real fun began.
A long line had formed, consisting of the population of our entire bus along with another which had pulled up behind us. The bottleneck was a lone metal detector, run by an unfriendly blonde gal with mean eyes. To her defense, the detector went off with amazing frequency. It absolutely baffles me (and her to be sure) how this can happen. If you know you're approaching a metal detector, do a self check. Don't be "that guy" who walks through, sets it off, and then forgets he has a two pound watch on or $50 in coins in his front pocket. Anyway, even though there were three metal detectors, only one was working, and the hard-assed chick running it wasn't allowing anything through. As you can imagine, this took about 20-30 minutes.
Once through the first stage, we had to put our small stuff through another x-ray machine, where I ended up having to put my laptop through twice for some reason. I finally collected it, re-assembled my bag, and pressed on.
Oh, but we're not done. The next ride was a daunting metal machine taller than I, with just enough room for someone to stand in. Two little foot outlines marked our positions. One by one we were asked to step into the box. My turn finally came. The walls were made of metal and plastic with little holes everywhere. The lady running it said "hold still", at which point a loud beep echoed through, followed by a jet of air from each of the little holes. It was like being in a wind tunnel. The jets continued for about five seconds, when another beep signaled the end. "That was fun," I said as I stepped out. She didn't smile.
So, with my carry on bag with me, and my backpack somewhere in the ether of the Israeli security forces, I headed toward the immigration desks. There were eight counters in total, but of course, only 4 were in operation for around 100 people. The lines behind each were ridiculously long. And, as I found out after ten minutes, they weren't moving. Surprisingly, each of the immigration officers were 20-something girls, who were all relatively attractive. Maybe it was just the military uniforms, but it made my wait a little less painful.
I was standing behind the American girl from New Jersey, a girl from the UK, and a gal from Cypress. All four of us were behind three other people. 30 minutes later, the American girl got up to the counter.
To pass the time, I started talking to the other girls about the problems of having an Israeli stamp in your passport. It turns out pretty much every Islamic country isn't so keen on seeing an Israeli stamp in passports. So much so that if you try to get into Syria, Morocco, Libya, Tunisia and a few other countries, you'll be turned away at the border if they see the stamp. My trusty guidebook said immigration officials will give you a stamp on separate piece of paper if you ask for it. Which I was prepared to do. Hey, you never know when you might want to go to Libya?
Anyway, we had been talking about this for about 15 minutes or so, and realized the American girl was still up there. We listened in on the conversation, which was surprising. I heard the official say: "Can you spell your grandfather's first name for me please?"
What? Why the hell would they need that? They asked her about her mother, father, siblings, friends, purpose of visit... Apparently she'd already been to Israel before, but it didn't matter. They were giving her the business. She then told them she was visiting a friend in Israel. Big mistake. A new flurry of questions followed, including the friend's name, address, profession, his friends, his family, spellings, etc.
She was up there for at least 30 minutes. It was amazing and frustrating at the same time. Finally, they told her to wait in the lobby behind us, and they'll call her back up when they were through "processing her passport". Yikes.
The UK girl was next. I started talking to the girl from Cypress, who was actually fairly cute. Two minutes later, the immigration officer said "next". What? No third degree? How did the UK girl get through so fast? Then I saw her face. After all our talking about it, she forgot to ask them to not stamp her passport. And, as it turns out, she wanted to head to Syria after this trip. So much for that.
The girl from Cypress also went through quickly, and remembered to ask for the separate stamp. They asked her a couple questions, but it was the express line compared to the poor American girl who was still waiting in her seat in the lobby.
I was next and first asked for the separate stamp. Then the questions started:
Official: "Why I don't you want our stamp in your passport?"
Me (internal): "Well that's a pretty stupid-ass question. Basically, I like to travel, and your country's stamp is like a black mark to a whole host of countries."
Me (reality): "Well, I'm planning on heading to Morocco and Tunisia later in my trip, and I understand they might have a problem with me having an Israeli stamp."
This seemed to work. A couple of questions later she stamped a small official-looking piece of paper, handed it over and I was on my way. On the other side of the immigration desks I found my bag, seemingly still in pretty good shape. The weird and disturbing thing was that upon leaving, I passed through a little metal corral where another hot girl behind a desk asked for my piece of paper with the stamp on it. She took it, tore it in half, threw it into a basket on her left, and waved me on. Ok. So that was the only piece of paper that says I legally entered Israel. Won't I need that? Turns out I won't, as any immigration counter will "find me in the computer". Right.
I ended up walking out of the building with the girls, including the American, who apparently finally passed the blood, urine and DNA test. We each bought a ticket for a shared mini-van taking people to Jerusalem.
Amazing. I left the hotel in Amman, a mere 50 KM away, at 9:00 am. By the time I set foot in the Holy City, it was 2:30. Five and a half hours of BS to get across a border. It makes crossings in Central and South America look like a joke. I understand they have their reasons, but it makes you think twice about visiting again.