On A Sunday Driving
The initial omens appeared promising. Leaving my apartment at noon, I went to the local upscale mall and managed to load up my cell phone card in a completely Hebrew transaction, and also to get a screw in my glasses replaced without paying. Who needs Costco? Who needs fear? I took off East for the grand unknown:
With scenic hills and brown but not barren landscapes, my route from Tel Aviv to just past
The West Bank, territory reserved for the Palestinian people still living in the bounds of modern-day Israel, is a lima-bean shaped chunk of land, with the inversion centering on Jerusalem. The city is, as always, at the center of all things, with East Jerusalem in the West Bank and the rest of the city in
While the West Bank is reserved for Palestinians (and here is not the place to worry about the Israeli settlements, because I don’t know anything about them and really only want to provide a setting for my journey, as long-winded as both might be), the political control mostly resides in Israeli hands. That is, there is only Palestinian autonomy in a few cities and spots: Ramallah,
All this is to say, my driving to and through the
No, driving in the
Knowing visas to
“You need special permission to drive across the
I left my car to the side of the crossing area. After putting away the face plate to my radio, I took my backpack out, and armed with my two legs and a bottle of Fanta, I crossed the border by foot and descended into blistering bliss of Jordan, a short cab ride away from Amman and a longer one away from Petra. Nobody would ever steal my crappy little Fiat anyway, would they? Or abduct me on the side of the road?
Unflustered, I wheeled back out to the 90 and headed north. The windows were down, the sun high and bright, the music blaring, and I knew everything would be alright. The road was similarly spectacular here, deserted and winding through mountains that showed more and more plant life on their faces as I sped away from the Equator. I stopped for gas at a podunk Palestinian run station, and the young boy who filled my tank seemed excited to see me. I learned the Arabic word for thank you – “Shokron”, one of three words I learned in Arabic, along with “Salaam Aleikum” (hello) – and continued on with a smile and a full tank that I was sure would last me through
I approached the crossing and again forked over my passport to the guard on my passenger window side.
He asked me where I was going. I told him.
He asked me where I was coming from. I said Tel Aviv.
“Why did you go such a roundabout way?” I stuttered something about my border crossing travails.
The “This guy’s a crazy activist” lights went on in his eyes. “Why don’t you just pull your car up to that spot over there,” he said, pointing to my right. He held on to my passport. I complied, with a sigh.
15 minutes, a security screening, a bomb-sniffing dog test of my car (in which I learned from another guard how to pop my hood, since I couldn’t find the trigger and hadn’t popped it myself yet), a bathroom break, and a compliment from the bomb-sniffing dog guard on the Coltrane disc I had in my car (Giant Steps, itself recommended specifically by the clerk at Tower Records in that upscale mall, who insisted I buy that for my first Coltrane rather than A Love Supreme) later, and I was back on the road. Still not too flustered, but wearying.
Beit She’an arrived on my horizon in under a half hour. I stopped for a falafel sandwich. As a sign of how wearied I was, how about that I had to circle around the set of two roundabouts twice to find the entrance to the parking lot? Or that during my order of falafel, I mistakenly went for the falafel of the Ethiopian girl before me in line (this before I had even ordered anything), or that when asked to give 13 shekels for the falafel, I gave 30, drawing a puzzled look from the man behind the counter? That is all to say, the driving was beginning to get to me.
Beit She’an was a five-minute car ride away from the border, however, and a few mashed, fried chickpea balls later, I was ready enough to leave the country. I turned out on the 71 (West to Tel Aviv, East to
The first gate was a goodbye Israel one. The guard at the gate looked at me skeptically when I expressed my interest in bringing my car with me to Jordan, but he issued me a yellow paper, a pass for me to get stamped before I could take the Fiat across. Already, I had visions in my eyes of pictures I would take of my car with Jordanian license plates, and perhaps the guard noticed those visions and knew they were foolish, brass rings that I would never grasp. But would I destroy myself in the effort?
At first I was my own worst enemy. I drove my car around the border area, twice blundering into an area reserved for those entering the country from Jordan. Fortunately, the Israeli guards managed to direct me and yell at me without jumping to International Incident level. Then I thought all I was to do was drive to the exit gate from the crossing. Happily, I wheeled up to the gate which said, "Thank you for staying in Israel, go in Peace!" or something like it. A guard await me, and upon my approach he asked me for my pass. Unhappily, I handed over my unstamped gate pass and realized this was going nowhere. "You have to go to passport control. Windows 7 or 8," the guard told me. I reared out of the gate and parked my car in a parking lot of unclear distinction.
Passport control led to customs, who were the ones to deal with cars and the like. And customs led to the exchange bureau, who would translate my registration from Hebrew into English. This all to make sure my car was not a stolen one that would never make it back to Israel.
At the exchange bureau, an obscenely well-endowed woman and a co-worker of hers (who was not slim-chested for her part), blond and brunette, explained to me that I didn't have the registration to my car that said the car was mine. Apparently, that's a problem. So, my head down and my dreams crushed, I returned to Customs, who drew big blue lines on my pass to indicate that it was a fail.
Now I was faced with a decision. Go on should I to Jordan, or stay here in the northern Israeli area, near the Kinneret, would be better, or just jumble syntax at home and try another day I could do? In this tumultuous debate that raged inside me, there was a trump card to ensure my going over, besides the fact that I'd be embarrassed with myself if I gave up: I had a friend in Amman, and she sounded reasonably excited to see me (Brief aside: she has a boyfriend and so there was nothing of that at all in the invitation. However, when I went to get my visa the week before, instead of saying I wanted it to go to Petra, I mentioned that I was going to visit her. She has a Russian-sounding name, and my passport has two Russian visas. So naturally, the sharp fellow behind the Jordanian visa counter said, "It looks like she's more than just a friend." The poor guy was a little mixed-up on the Russian women in my life.) It's not that I'd make a huge difference, but we had a steady stream of facebook messages that would go for naught if I didn't go through with the trip. As you well know, one does not let a steady stream of facebook messages go for naught. After all, as I saw my former classmate Chris Hughes quoted in some student newspaper or another, if you're not on Facebook, you might as well not exist. Online, anyway. And heavens knows I want to exist.
So I went through with the damn thing. Ahh, shit, I gotta get there one way or another, and I thought about taking a bus anyway, so why not? Maybe Petra by Sunday night, as was my goal, wouldn't work out, but I'd make it over the border by hook or by misguided guide book.
I returned to my bosom buddy at the exchange bureau, who turned my shekels into a paid border tax and a bunch of Jordanian Dinars (henceforth known as JD). Her behavior epitomized the popular stereotype/description Israelis give of themselves. The sabra is a fruit with prickles on the outside, but with a juicy sweet center beneath the thorns. So are Israelis a bit blunt and unkind at first, but then upon second glance happy to help and more jovial and familiar about it. Not that we did anything crazy, she and I, but she was a little more pleasant about everything.
After the JDs and the passport stamp, I was finally ready to cross. It was a little past 5:00 pm. Amman was about 100 KM away, and Petra another 200-300 KM beyond that. My goals adjusted on the fly.
To cross the border without your own car into Jordan, you must take a border crossing bus. For 4.5 shekels (roughly 150 cents) you drive 150 meters into Jordan. I fudged those figures a little to get to the cent/meter stat that rounds it all off. But still, it's another silly bureaucratic thing that is of no great consequence.
Except when the bus doesn't come for a half hour. And then when the bus does arrive, the driver gets out, tells you to wait via gesture, and then disappears for another half hour. Actually, it didn't bother me so much, but the older guy in a suit who showed up just after the driver vanished gradually became furious over the whole thing. He kept looking to me for support, but as I spoke minimal Hebrew and no Arabic, all I could do was mumble and nod. That's what I call good listening.
The bus did leave eventually, filled with about 8 Italian tourists in a group, that man, me, and an Irish woman who works in Nablus (in the West Bank). She seemed confused whether to speak to me in Hebrew or English when she asked about when we paid for the bus ride, but otherwise was a ruddy red-haired Irish lass who looked agreeable but strong-willed.
We arrived in Jordan and began the passport control process on their side. As I stood in line behind the group of Italians, I found myself remembering more Italian sentences from my year and a half of study than I thought I might. I asked one of the women, "Dove andate?"
"A Petra," she answered.
"A, certo, anch'io vado a Petra. Posso andare con voi?"
"Si, certo, certo!"
And so I hopped on their tour bus and rode all the way to Petra, amusing with bad Italian and a few English practice sessions. Then they invited me to a wine-drinking session and a Roman orgy.
Once through passport control, I came to a parking lot. There were no buses there except for those taking tour groups, and only a bevy of vultures hovering around the parking lot kept me from being alone. Err, that is, the cab drivers approached me and demanded I ride with them. I said I was going to either Amman or Petra. Set prices had them at 35 or 100 JD a ride, respectively. (1 JD=about 1.5 $). I was loath to pay that much, certainly to go to Petra, and possibly for Amman too. Using the "walkaway" technique, I set off towards the road.
"Hey, Daniel, where are you going!! Stop! It's Ramadan, haram, nobody's out there!" they yelled at me, knowing my name because I gave it to them. Apparently, bargaining was not part of the process here. And considering their better knowledge of the situation, and their leverage, I conceded and took a cab to Amman.
My cab driver was a nice guy. He offered me water from the restaurant he pulled over too, and then would brook no refusal when he stuck a sort of strawberry swiss cake roll in my hand. He also apparently wasn't worried about keeping the fast, as the sun still hung above the horizon.
My cab driver was also a pretty determined driver, without being reckless. Good, because the drive from the border to Amman was a treacherous one. For one, the crossing was in the Jordan Valley, Amman was well above it, and a mountain range separated the two. Not the Himalayas exactly, but the Jordan mountains immediately added a degree of difficulty. So did the oncoming darkness. But more especially, it was the combination of the two factors along with the shaky road quality on the way. Hairpin turns is one thing; gravel or dirt roads on a steep mountain climb is a second thing; those things along with big piles of sand or dirt that had to be avoided and that often turned "roadways" into one-way passes is quite another.
But my cab driver handled it well and with decent speed, considering. At no point did I feel like my life was in danger, anyway. Or at no point did I feel like my life was any more in danger from his driving than I did from the possibly poisoned roll he offered me, or from the prevalence of military-manned checkpoints along the road. We made it to Amman unharmed by any of these negligent threats.
He blanched when I asked him to drop me off at the bus station, saying that no buses would run at night, but I insisted and he relented. He smiled when he dropped me off in nightlighted Amman, and that was that.
His reports of no buses at night was confirmed by another cab driver at the bus station, who said that I was at the wrong bus station (since the public "Jett Station" is another entity, I guess) and that the bus to Petra leaves at 630 am to Petra. The first bus, I assumed. Instead of taking the new cabbie up on his offer to drive me to a hotel in the center, I set off by foot for the one and a half kilometer trek, eyes peeled for either a place to rest my head or a earpiece to rest my ear upon, and by that I mean a phone from which I could call my friend and see if the offer to mooch...stay with them might start a day early.
There were no phones to be found as I descended into the center of the city. With some wavering, I made my way to a market scene in what I think counted as downtown. For being past 8 pm, the scene was quite lively, with a few streets lined with stands and tables and offers of jewelry or clothing or wallets.
It was quite an aural setting above all else, as the clamor of the market, in the strange to mine ears tongue of Arabic, mixed with the bustle and honking of cars on the street. And over that rose the call to prayer from the downtown mosque, leading the faithful in the 9:00 pm worship. Amman is not the most religious place in the Middle East, as many went on there business, not heeding the call.
I too ignored the call as I turned back towards the bus stations. On my walk back I found no phones but a place (named Habibah, Arabic for "loved one) that served kinaffeh, a middle Eastern pastry stuffed with cheese that I hadn't seen before, and which was much sweeter than I expected. I also found a hotel to lay my head in, and after some confusing negotiations (for some reason I was concerned that leaving early in the morning would be a problem), I took a room for 10 JD. A little reading, an alarm clock setting, and I nodded off, eager to make it to Petra in the morning.
Also, I thought about the many turns of the day. In Hebrew, there's a word imported from either Russian or Polish: balagan. In Russian, the word either describes a farcical puppet theater, akin to the Italian pulcinello, or means something is a mess. The latter meaning is what it has taken on in Israel. And, I thought in that spare Jordanian hotel room as the drone of the prayer calls led me to sleep, nothing summed up the first day of my trip better than balagan. Oy!
Pts. 2 and 3 to follow shortly. If I keep up this pace, 6,000 words to go!