Browsing Tag


Destinations, Middle East

Welcome to the Promised Land

March 3, 2009 • By

Anxious to leave Jordan, I awoke at 6 am and hired a driver to take me to the Israeli border. My perfectly laid out plan turned to crap when I found out only Arabs can cross into the West Bank. It seems the preferred route for the British and Americans is another 2 hour jaunt up river. After my detour to the Jordan River Crossing near Galilee, I exited Jordanian customs, took a bus to the Israeli border (another $10USD), waited for Israeli soldiers to sweep the bus, walked off the bus, grabbed my bags, dumped my bags on a security screening ramp, stood patiently while the Israeli soldier examined my passport and I answered 15 questions about why I had traveled to Arab countries. Finally, the soldier lady stamped my passport sent me to another soldier and after two grueling hours I was free.

With the hours of shabbat nearing(sundown Friday to sundown Saturday), I hired a cab to drive me to the bus station. The cabbie tried to convince me it would be more economical to drive directly to Tel Aviv. He was pushy and a bit arrogant so after I told him I was unemployed and would not be paying $100 USD he left me in the torrential downpour regretting my decision.

I was shocked to find nothing in English. I begged a local Israeli student to help and he informed me I needed to take a bus to the main station. Ugh! A bus pulled up and I struggled in the rain with all my belongings. The bus driver was none to happy to have my bags occupying a seat and I informed him after he made some fanatic sign language movements that he should be nice to tourists. That shut him up for a few minutes. At the next major hub, I hobbled off the bus having no idea where I was but I figured with 100 soldiers with guns awaiting buses for the weekend home I would be safe.

I became a little frustrated when I asked four different people where the bus to Tel Aviv departed and none of them spoke English. For some reason, I surmised since Israelis were such great buds with the English and the US, everyone would be fluent in my tongue. Unfortunately, I guessed wrong. My Chicago friend Tali who lived in Israeli and is Jewish, received my irate email berating the Israelis as I was exhausted and not up on my Hebrew. A female soldier finally took pity on me and escorted me to the Tel Aviv cue. She even prevented me from getting on the local bus when I became impatient and tried to jump ship.

The bus trip to Tel Aviv from Afula lasted two hours. I arrived to a metropolitan and secular city and a monsoon rainfall where the Mediterranean played havoc with the Israeli coastline. To my surprise and my utter delight, my friend Jill joined me in Tel Aviv. I last left Jill at the Jo-burg airport crying as I watched her leave for the US and I was stuck wondering which African country to conquer.

Before I tell you about our weekend, let me cover a bit of Israel’s history. There are 7.37 million people living in Israel and the Palestinian Territories. This includes Jews, Arabs and Christians. Israel is the approximate size of New Jersey and is completely surrounded by Arab countries many of which are hostile neighbors –Lebanon and Syria share the Northern Border. Israel is a deeply religious place and there is no separation of religion and state.

Accodrding to the Book of Genesis, the first book of the Bible and the Torah, God promised the Israelites (descendants of Israel, grandson of Abraham) that this land would be a great nation. There are stories-we all know-of Moses leading the descendants for 40 years through the Sinai Desert in Egypt. Many make fun of the history but it is believed that Moses wanted to make sure past generations who worshipped idol gods died off before crossing into the land of milk and honey. While Moses looked out on the Promised Land, he remained at Mt. Nebo in Jordan never stepping foot in Israel. Joshua actually lead the people across the River Jordan into Israel. This occurred around 13th Century BC. Later around 1200 BC, the Philistines occupied part of what is now Gaza.

Much has been written about the back and forth between the Israelites and Philistines. One of the biggest stories referenced involves Israel’s King David destroying the Philistine Goliath and resurrecting Jerusalem. Many Jews claim the right to live in these lands dating back to King Solomon and King David while the Palestinians argue they are descendants of the Philistines. Other Israelis believe God gave Israel to the Jews and that the land is theirs by divine right.

In the late 1800s, many Jews started returning to Israel desperate to establish a homeland. The British gained control of the lands during World War I and then in 1917 the British promised a homeland for the Jews in Palestine. It wasn’t until after World War II that the British withdrew from Palestine and the Jews declared an independent state of Israel. In 1967, the Six Days War broke out and Israel occupied the West Bank, Gaza and Sinai. Later in 1973 Egypt would regain control of the Sinai Peninsula.

Today, the Palestinians control various territories in Israel. You are likely most familiar with the Gaza strip (a tiny area on the Egyptian border) and the West Bank, which borders Jordan. The historic cities of Jericho and Bethlehem are located in the West Bank. What I find most interesting is the number of Arab Palestinians living in these territories that are not represented by any government. Palestine is not a state and it’s “controlled” by Hamas, a terrorist organization. Israelis and Palestinians alike live with the realities of war everyday. It’s not unheard of for Lebanon to fire rockets over its border for no reason.

This leads me to my Friday night fun. Jill and I ventured to an Ex-Pat bar since it was the Sabbath and everything was closed until Saturday night. We started at Mike’s Pub. It’s a tourist favorite and located near many embassies including the US. Thankfully, Jill let me finish my dinner before telling me the pub had been bombed five years ago.

After a beer at Mike’s, we got to talking to two engineers who helped us secure our food order. One man hailed from the Netherlands and the other a native son of Dublin. Jill being Jill grilled them about fun places to go later in the evening.

Our fine Irish lad offered to take us out on the town. We considered him a local as he lived here since June. After testing out a few pubs, we settled on a shaddy dive bar with 80s American music, NY sports pennants and Route 69 license plates clustered on the walls. I knew it couldn’t be good when the Irishman ordered shots and the 19 year-old university students asked me if I was Christian. Again, the blond hair gives me away. One sweet girl even invited me to her parents house in Nazareth. Nevertheless, the night ended at 5 am with a good time had by all. Leave it to me to find the Irishman in Israel.

Destinations, Middle East

East meets West

February 26, 2009 • By

Alas, I arrived in Amman elated to see a bustling city.  It occurred to me early in this trip that I am a city girl through and through but spending a week in rural Jordan solidified my need for noise, people and action.

I started my day in Amman by heading to the Citadel and Roman Theater.  My feetsies were hurting from three days of climbing so I decided to take the on the bus off the bus tour.  After waiting for 25 minutes, I asked a local taxi driver when the heck this bus would be arriving.  He told me he would take me to all the same places for 10JD.  I said no I don’t want a taxi.  I want a bus with the nice audio tour etc.  He sauntered away likely laughing since I stood there for another 45 minutes.  Finally, I hop on the bus only to find a real guide who explained the bus doesn’t really stop except in three spots.  Oh well!  I figure I’ll learn something and get my bearings.  On board, there were 4 Lebanese women visiting who used to live in Amman.  Typical women, they pointed out every sweet shop and clothing center I needed to visit.

East Amman is compact yet over crowded with tons of housing and bazaars.  Buildings are constructed on top of each other.  In some ways, it reminds me of San Francisco because of the rolling hills and houses carved into the mountains.  There aren’t any parks or green spaces but there is a nice business district with coffee shops and more upscale shopping.  Housing units occupy most of East Amman and it’s where the middle class and poor people live.  Amman can probably be described as rich vs. poor or historic vs. modern and even liberal vs. conservative.

On the other side of the city in West Amman, it’s a brand new world.  Beautiful $1 million homes, trees, space and upscale designer shopping malls and cafes galore make up this side of the city.  The contrast is quite apparent.  Even the Prince lives in West Amman.  The developments are all new so if you are looking for a bit of history and the true treasures of Amman don’t look here.

The city itself is about an hour from the Dead Sea by car, an hour from the Israeli border and completely surrounded by desert and mountains.  A bulk of Jordan’s population reside in Amman and by the looks of it they mostly live in East Amman.  Truth be told I was pretty impressed with the architecture in the western part of the city but it had a Starbucks so I’m immediately partial.

After my city tour, I settled at one of the cafes and sampled the local sweets.  I eavesdropped on some of the 20-30 somethings having coffee and realized men and women can be seen together in Amman.  It wasn’t like there were hundreds of couples but it was definitely more prevalent.  I floated through some of the shops and found a jewelry and crafts store.  There I spoke to a local university student.  She started as a tourism major and figured out that wasn’t for her and changed to business.  She was working in this store to gain experience designing jewelry–something she enjoys.  Although she was covered, she did have a boyfriend.  She said they date and spend time together.  I got the impression it’s not something people celebrate in Amman but it is allowed.  We talked a bit about New York and her dreams.  I liked her very much.  It was great to hear a woman’s side of the story.  She was afraid to ask me questions at first and would giggle.  Once we decided we had the same taste in jewelry and I gave her my two cents on the industry, she spoke freely about life in Amman.  I bid her farewell after an hour and a half of chatting and yes I did buy a necklace.  It was the only proper thing to do.