Jordan, Egypt : “Visa Run”

July 30, 2009

Time for another, dreaded visa run…

**pictures of the trip are on in an album on my facebook, you can look at it here: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2460361&id=10703406&l=0cd6dd1e19

It had been three months since I last renewed my Israeli tourist visa (Internationals working in the West Bank must get Israeli visas to enter the territory—most of the time we are not able to get work visas –only international NGOs can offer a work visa, so those of us working for Palestinian NGOs are always on ‘three months notice’ because each time we leave Israel and come back to get a new visa, the border guards can always tell us “You’ve been here too long” or “Israel is a small country, what do you need another 3 months to see?”. If we tell them we are working in the West Bank, we will be interrogated at gunpoint and most likely rejected and banned from Israel…)

So, it was time to make another visa run, and I decided to see Jordan and Sinai on my ‘vacation’. I decided to leave through the Aqaba border crossing in the southern tip of Israel because it was supposed to be easier than the Allenby/King Hussein bridge that is right by Jericho, and much closer to Ramallah. Since that crossing is from the West Bank to Jordan, instead of Israel to Jordan, there is much more security—and I was trying to avoid extra security.

So I leave Ramallah through Qalandia checkpoint, or try. I had recently lost my passport and gotten a new one from the US consulate in Jerusalem. On the replacement passport, there was no visa for being in Israel—but the woman working at the consulate assured me that the border guards could look up my old passport number and find my visas on their system.

So I enter Qalandia, the closest place on earth to hell—according to me. It is the main checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem. And while going through this checkpoint, you feel like an animal being led to the slaughterhouse. You must walk through narrow, barred passage-ways and countless turnstiles.

Finally, I got to the last step, where all of the bags are put through an x-ray machine and you walk through a metal detector, then show your ID/passport to the bored 18 year old soldier, hating life, behind the partition window.

I showed her my passport and hoped she wouldn’t ask to see my visa (sometimes they don’t). Today I was unlucky and she asked to see it. I told her I didn’t have the stamp because it was a new passport, but that I had the old passport number and she could look it up on the computer.

She said, “You cannot pass!”

“But I have a visa, and it expires in a couple of days, you have to let me out!” I said.

“You….cannot…pass!” She said slowly, to make me understand.

“I….have….to…pass!” I said back.

Obviously, the conversation went nowhere, and I had to do the ‘walk of shame’ back out through the checkpoint, past the entire crowd of people trying to get through. Everyone wanted to know why I didn’t pass, but I was in no mood for conversation.

So I went back to the apartment, with all of my bags, thinking that if I couldn’t get through a checkpoint there was no way I would be able to get through a border crossing without a lot of problems.

So I resigned myself to the fact that my stay in Palestine was about to end, and that they would find out everything about me and how long I’ve been in the West Bank and that I would get banned like my friend Dan and many others I’ve heard of.

I decided to call the US consulate to ask them why the woman had told me I would have no problems and that they could check my old passport number when the soldiers at Qalandia told me they couldn’t. She said that the soldiers can’t check old passports at the checkpoints but they can at the border crossings. So I just had to make it into Israel then it would be OK.

After calming down with a little help from my roommate, I decided to take a taxi later that night through a back-road and go through a smaller, less secure checkpoint into Jerusalem.

As we got closer to the checkpoint, there was a huge line backed up for half a mile—they were obviously checking every car. The driver and I just prayed that we would get lucky.

We got to the checkpoint and there were three lanes, we chose a lane with a Palestinian car in front of us (I was in an Israeli taxi, with a Palestinian driver…) Thank God for the Palestinian in front of me, the soldiers made him stop, checked his ID suspiciously and searched his car. After he pulled away, we looked pretty innocent, and the soldier didn’t even check my passport!

So I made it through the first stage.

I got on the bus ride from hell—Jerusalem to Eilat. Five hours surrounded by Israel soldiers and otherwise annoying people. But since it was the midnight bus I thought I would be able to sleep.

Five hours later I arrived in Eilat, barely alive and with a pain in my neck from trying to sleep in an uncomfortable position. It was around 4 am. I decided against getting a hostel and got a cab straight to the Aqaba border crossing.

It didn’t open until 7 am and was completely deserted. But I figured I have the most paranoid security forces right in front of me so it was safe to pass out on the benches in front of the border.

So I slept like a bum for a few hours in front of the border and was woken up around 6:30 by the first wave of Israeli security with a polite and confused “Good morning!”

Then I waited and people started coming through from the Jordanian side, and I met 2 other people waiting to go to Petra. One man that lived in a kibbutz in Israel and his friend who was visiting from South Africa. I decided to tag along with them through the border to look less suspicious.

I got through alright, with only a little trouble. The soldier tried to look up my old passport but apparently the system they have is from the 80’s or something because it was searching for over 15 minutes when she finally gave up and let me through. She told me that I wouldn’t get another 3 month visa because I had been in Israel “too long”. I said OK…and decided to re-enter through the Taba/Eilat border instead of this one.

I shared a cab with the two older men to Petra, slept most of the way because I was exhausted.

When we arrived I went to my hotel and slept until the afternoon—then I ventured out to Petra. I bought my ticket and began the trek through the intense heat to the ancient city.

Luckily, they have horse rides available for free (with a tip of course…) part of the way so I asked for a very tame and old horse, since it had been years since I had rode a horse. When we got to the canyons, I left the horse and went on by foot.

Finally, a turned a corner and saw the Treasury building (the most famous carved façade in Petra) through the canyon walls. It was amazing to see it in real life. I walked in front of it and stared up at it for a while…then continued through the valley to see the other buildings.

I saw the theater and many other houses and things carved into the canyon walls. You could walk around Petra for days and always find something new. It is an amazing place…

After a while, I met a group of Jordanians and started talking to them. They were heading to Wadi Rum for a few days and I asked them if they knew of any good camps there.

They told me they were going to Oasis Desert Camp and that it was a big camp and had parties every night with dancing and music. So I decided to share a cab with them and leave that day instead of taking the bus—which I heard took over 6 hours.

So I checked out of my hotel and went to Wadi Rum. The camp was really nice, very big with lots of tents. It had a restaurant area and a dance flood/fire pit area surrounded by Bedouin style tent seating areas.

That night there were a couple buses full of people from Amman visiting and so there was a big party with lots of dancing and music. We had a lot of fun and while I was taking a break and looking around at the people I noticed some familiar faces—the Spanish people who live in the apartment across the hall from me in Ramallah were all sitting right next to me and I hadn’t noticed!

Ha. I couldn’t believe they were there—in this random camp in the middle of the desert. They were just about to head into the desert to spend the night out under the stars. So they headed off after a while.

We stayed up late with the music and dancing and hilarious musical-chairs games. Haha…then finally I went to sleep.

I was woken up very early by the intense heat. The tents do not have good ventilation. One small screen window and then the door/flap- but of course that was closed for the night.

So as much as I didn’t want to, I absolutely had to get up after the sun rose because it was so hot in the tent. I went out to the communal area and drank some coffee and read my book (Catch-22, if you haven’t read it yet its amazing and hilarious….read it!).

Around 9 I went on the bus with all of the people from Amman to Aqaba to check out the situation with my credit card—which wasn’t working in Petra because apparently the bank’s computer system was completely shut down for just the exact five minutes I tried two different ATMs in Wadi Musa (the village near Petra).

So, when I tried the card again in Aqaba it worked, so that was nice—I would have been stranded with no money! Haha.

I tried to walk around Aqaba a little but it was SOOOO intensely hot and humid I couldn’t walk more than 10 minutes without feeling like I was going to pass out and die. So I found an air conditioned restaurant and cooled down for a while. Later I walked around on the beach but it was still too ridiculously hot to do anything, so I went back to Wadi Rum.

When I got back, the camp owner took us out in the 4×4’s to a tour of the desert. He drove all over the place, up and down sand dunes; he even opened the door and was outside of the truck while ‘driving’ at the same time. Haha, it was crazy.

After a few hours, we went to a place on top of a sand dune to watch the sunset. It was so beautiful, the desert is so big that you could look around and just see desert for miles and miles. No people, no cities, no civilization. It was perfect.

Afterwards, we went back to the camp and somehow survived the crazy driving…haha.

That night was a smaller party, all of the Amman people had gone on to Aqaba. So we had music and dancing, and the only other guests were a group of Dutch people there for the big concert the next night—with DJ Armin Van Buuren (a Dutch DJ).

The next morning, at 7 am the tent became a sauna so I got up and groggily walked to the restaurant to get coffee. Another relaxing morning of coffee and reading went by, and then in the afternoon I went on another 4×4 tour in the desert.

We stopped in Deesa, the Bedouin village nearby, and got ice-cream on the way—it was the best thing ever because it was so hot outside. And most of it melted all over us by the time we finished but it was nice anyways.

We drove around in the desert, up and down sand dunes, and saw one of the big arch rock formations. I climbed up it with the French women who were also on the tour. Then we went to another place where there were pre-historic carvings on the rock. It was really cool to see. There were stick figure people and stick figure camels. There were strange, almost mathematical symbols and figures of their ancient gods. Right next to them were newer, Arabic carvings. And some people’s names who had been there—thousands of years of carvings in the same place—amazing.

Then we drove back to the camp. I climbed up on some mountains and watched the sunset through the valley.

That night there was a big concert in the camp next door—it was called Distant Heat, and people were showing up all day from all over the world to the camps. Our camp filled up and the dirt road passing by the camps was filled with parked cars by nighttime.

We had a party at our camp, and then walked over to the concert around midnight. On the way, I stopped to look at the stars. I have never seen such an amazing night sky before. The Milky Way was huge and cutting through the middle of the sky. There were so many starts—it felt like watching a movie in 3-D. The stars were literally popping out of the sky.

After a while, I continued down the road. None of us had tickets and didn’t want to buy them because they cost 130 dollars. The concert was outside so you could climb the rocks or the dunes and see the concert for free—not to mention stay clear of all the craziness of such a concert.

So we found a nice tall sand dune across from the concert and watched for a few hours then headed back to the camp.

The next morning I got my usual wake up and since I was taking the ferry to Sinai from Aqaba at 1 I had to be at the ferry terminal by 10:30. So I called a cab and left by 11, ha.

I got to the ferry terminal and was instantly lost and confused. I had no idea what I needed to do with my passport for customs, to exit Jordan, and enter Egypt. So I looked around and saw everyone just sitting in this big waiting area, outside in the heat. I sat down and waited for something to happen.

Then I saw a bus pull up (this was around 12:30) and waited for people to start moving towards it. No one moved. So I got up to check it out and it turned out that was the bus to the ferry that was leaving to Sinai.

We got to the ferry and the crew looked at my passport and said I was missing the exit stamp and I didn’t pay the exit fee. So they sent me back to the terminal in the bus and I ran around the building looking for where I was supposed to get the stamp and pay the taxes.

Finally someone saw me looking confused and showed me where to go—thank God. The entire ferry was waiting for ME. Ha. So after 15 minutes I finally made it onto the ferry. The crew members crowded around me, asking me about my hijab and why I was wearing it since I’m American. Then asking a million questions about how I converted to Islam and how amazing it was to see an American who converted to Islam.

So then I tried to find a place to sit down, and a crew guy came to me and said I still needed to get to the Egyptian stamp on my passport. So he took me to the little office on the ferry and told the guy to give me a visa even though I was supposed to apply for it earlier—another thing I had no idea about.

Then they took me to the first-class area for some reason. And I was sitting there wondering how I even made it onto the ferry knowing nothing about the process and how amazing it was that I was now sitting in first class. Then, another guy came and said he was taking me up to the bridge.

I pinched myself, but I was really awake. Ha. So he took me up and I met the captain and they showed me how to drive the ferry and how everything worked. Then they served me mansaf (an amazing Arabic meal with lamb, yogurt, and rice) and tried to marry me to their chief engineer, haha.

They were very worried about me traveling by myself, so they called Sababa camp and made sure that the owner knew I was coming and they all gave me their numbers to call them if I needed anything. Then they offered me a free ride back to Aqaba on the ferry (its 70 dollars!) if I wanted to go through the border that way.

So I get off the ferry in Nuweiba port and go through the health screening (for swine flu—Egypt is one of the most paranoid countries about swine flu, they even massacred all of the pigs in Egypt at the beginning of the ‘epidemic’ because they thought that would stop it…when actually they should have left the pigs alone and killed anyone who tried to enter the country from Mexico or the U.S. ahaha).

Afterwards I finally make my way out of the port—in the intense afternoon heat of course—and wander around looking for a taxi. I finally find one and it happens to be a guy I know from Sababa camp when I stayed before. So he takes me to the Sababa camp (it’s near Nuweiba town, but in a Bedouin village called Tarabeen) and I am immediately 100% relaxed.

I spend the next three days doing absolutely nothing enjoying the Egyptian food, Bedouin tea, the beach, and the red sea with views of Saudi Arabia across it. Went snorkeling and saw amazing fish and coral…and then began to obsess about the looming border crossing. So I spent a lot of time inventing a very dramatic and romantic story about me and “my Israeli boyfriend, Dan”. I thought of everything—absolutely everything a paranoid and suspicious Israeli border guard might ask me about my “boyfriend”.

One of the days, I went to Dahab—another small town on the coast of Sinai, about an hour and a half away. It would have taken an hour, but I was in an ancient jeep getting a ride from a Bedouin friend of mine. Half way to Dahab, we had to “water the camel, the camel was thirsty” so we stopped and poured water on the engine and gave it a little rest; then we were back on the road.

Dahab was even hotter than Nuweiba, so we went to pick up my bag of clothes and books I had left down there before I went to Ramallah last December. I was amazed that it was still there and was excited to see what I had left in it.

I got to the FedEx office where my friend said he had been keeping it. I see it and it looks empty—compared to when I left it and I couldn’t even zip it up all the way. So I opened it with apprehension. There were 3 shirts, one pair of high heels (sooo useful, ha) and one book. Eghhh!?

Someone (with very good taste…ha) had pillaged my bag in the six months since I left it, not surprising, but still annoying, since that was one of the main reasons I came over to Sinai on my way back to Ramallah.

Anyways, after that we got some koshery (Egyptian food of macaroni/spaghetti, garbanzos, lentils, friend onions, tomato sauce, rice and spicy sauce…mmm mmm). After that it started getting insanely hot, so we headed back to Nuweiba.

On the way back, we stopped at a Bedouin style coffee shop in the middle of nowhere in the mountains. The ‘coffee shop’ was a small tent-like structure where two women were making tea for anyone who might want to stop and were selling beaded bracelets and necklaces.

We had a couple cups of tea with them, bought some bracelets, and headed back to Nuweiba.

I had to leave soon after that so that I wouldn’t miss the last bus from Eilat to Jerusalem, but of course, nothing moves very quickly there so I was too late to make the bus but went to the border anyway.

Luckily for me, there was a huge group of Arab/Muslims ahead of me, so unfortunately for them, they got most of the attention from the security. And after them, I looked very unsuspicious.

They didn’t even look through my bags which was a first. Then I got to the customs area and got a soldier that actually looked somewhat nice, which was amazing. She asked me a couple of questions about my “boyfriend” but didn’t notice that I had a new passport so she didn’t look up my old record. Thank God! She let me through and gave me three months!

Then I took the bus ride from hell again, but this time, since I had missed the last bus to Jerusalem, I had to go to Tel Aviv (which is further) and then back to Jerusalem on a bus that doesn’t start until 6:30 am the next morning.

I missed the 6:30 bus to Tel Aviv, so I had to wait there until the 8:00 bus. I got on the bus, sat down on a window seat so I could lean against the wall and sleep. I put in my headphones, put my purse on the seat next to me, and pretended to sleep so no one would sit next to me unless the bus filled up.

About 10 minutes later I feel a little tapping on my arm. I looked up groggily and see two 18 year old, scantily clad girls, waving their tickets in my face. I move my bag on to my lap and go back to sleep.

Tap. Tap. On my shoulder…So I take out one speaker from my ear and look at them.

“What?” I say, annoyed.

“These are OUR seats!” They say.

“What?” I repeat.

“These are our seat numbers!” They say rudely, waving their tickets in my face.

At this point, I’m tired, have just had the biggest adrenaline rush ever from going through the stupid Israeli border, and now its all gone, leaving me exhausted and just wanting to sleep.

So I slowly get out my ticket from my purse, and see there is a seat number. But I have NEVER sat in the right seat before and it’s never been an issue. So obviously, no one pays attention to the seat number unless they just woke up that morning and decided they were going to be annoying for no reason.

“Why don’t you go sit in another empty seat? There’s lots of them…” I reasoned.

“No! These are OUR seats!” She petulantly responded.


So instead of launching into a long lecture comparing their claim to my seat to Israel’s “claim” to Palestine, I decided to get up and head to the back of the bus and end up sitting right in front of the last row where there is a group of obnoxious and loud Israeli teenage boys—constantly knocking into the back of my chair and resting their feet by my head. AHHH!

So I put in my headphones and try to drift into my own, peaceful world where I am not surrounded by the most annoying people on earth.

Finally, five hours and 3 million rest stops later we make it to Tel Aviv. I thought I would have to spend the night in the bus station because there wasn’t a bus to Jerusalem until 6:30 am. Luckily I overheard something useful, for the first time, on the bus. A girl was talking about a sherut (mini bus) to Jerusalem that night.

So, I followed her out to the sheruts and was back in Jerusalem by around 1:30 am. Then I found a taxi that would take me to Qalandia (most are too scared to even get near the West Bank, and none will take us all the way to our appt in Ramallah). Turns out the driver was half Palestinian and half Israeli—so he had some pretty interesting views on the situation.

He still wouldn’t take me into Ramallah though—not because he was afraid, but because if he goes in he would have trouble on the way out because they would find him even more suspicious than just being half Palestinian because he actually went into Palestinian territory.

So I got out and walked through the deserted checkpoint terminal and when I got through the last turnstile on the way into the West Bank I suddenly felt a wave of relief and instantly felt relaxed. I was home! And I had at least another 3 months there before I had to deal with Israeli border guards again!


One comment

  1. the bus rides are unforgettable….Probably the one of if not the most vivid memory of my trip

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