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Sinai Visa Trip…

October 22, 2009

In order to work in Palestine as an international, I have to get an Israeli tourist visa because Israeli still controls all the borders of the West Bank and Gaza.  I can’t just get a visa from the Palestinian government, because they dont control that.

So, like all the other internationals working here (except the ones that got a student visa to a university in Israel or those who work for the Palestinian Authority (PA) and have the PA visa…) I have to leave every three months and hope that when I come back through the Israeli border they give me another visa.

Its VERY stressful because I cant just walk up to the border guards and tell them I am working in Palestine.  If I did that they would be like, “haha….nice try, we’re not letting you in”…well actually, I came back through Taba-Eilat border (the border between Sinai and southern Israel) with a friend and he told them that he was going to Ramallah (I forgot to remind him not to say that….ughhh) and right after he said “Ramallah” the Israeli border guard was on the radio and within 30 seconds there were big Israeli guys pointing M-16’s at us.  Thats the response you would get at the border saying ANYTHING about Palestine.

So anyways, I decided to go to Sinai for my visa run, because Sinai is amazing and beautiful and peaceful.  I got a week off of work and started my trip.

Just a side note, Jerusalem is 15 km from Ramallah, and yet it takes over an hour to get there because of the checkpoint.  So I met my friend at the Ramallah bus station and we got on the number 18 service to Jerusalem.  15 minutes later we arrived at Qalandia checkpoint– the main checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem (The checkpoints between West Bank and Israel are more elaborate than the ones inside the West Bank–which are basically road blocks with little “toll booth” looking stands with Israeli soldiers who sometimes check your ID and car and sometimes dont.  While Qalandia and the other WB-Israel checkpoints are full scale–walking through turnstyles, feeling like cattle being led to the slaughter, every ID/passport is checked, every bag is x-rayed…)

So we get to Qalandia and begin the annoying and stressful journey through.  After walking through a narrow, barred passageway and a turnstyle, the next part consists of about 6 lanes where you get your stuff x-rayed, walk through a metal detector, and present your documents to the 18 year old girl soldiers.  I have never seen all six lanes open before, at most, I have seen 2 open.  Its usually only one lane open though–just to make it that much more excruciating to leave the WB.

So we get in line at the one lane thats open.  The soldiers make us wait and do not unlock the turnstyle that leads to the x-ray/documents area.  Then they open another lane at the opposite side of the checkpoint, just for fun, and watch as all the Palestinians who are already late have to run to the other one.  Then they let a few people through, then close that one, and re-open the first one.  Then they have a laugh as we all have to run back to the first one.

As we’re waiting for our turn to go through the turnstyle, we get to listen to this 18 year old girl soldier screaming into the microphone at the Palestinians trying to get through “WAHID! WAHID!!!!” (one by one)  because people are in a hurry and try to get through this hell as fast as possible.  Then she will scream more, in her high shrill voice, for no reason.

Finally we get through after showing our passports and visas and x-raying our bags and metal-detecting ourselves.  Once on the other side, we go back to the service (minibus) that was being inspected in the car lanes of the checkpoint and continue the journey to the Old City Arab bus station.

Because of traffic and road work and the checkpoint, we arrive in Jerusalem an hour after we left.  We try to find a taxi, and when we finally do it takes us 40 minutes to get the two miles to the Central Bus Station because there is so much traffic….annnnnd we miss our bus.

So my friend tells me that there is a midnight bus from Tel Aviv to Eilat since we missed the last bus to Eilat from Jerusalem.  Outside every bus station (and a lot of cafes, restuarants, clubs…..) in Israel there is security to check your bags before you enter the building.  Outside the bus stations is the worse, because everyone is in a hurry and Israelis apparently dont understand the meaning of a “line”.  So we fight our way to the front after getting knocked over by crazy people, and they inspect our bags, we walk through a metal detector, and put our bags through another security inspection-x-ray machine….then we’re in.

We get our tickets to Tel Aviv and there are buses leaving almost every 15 minutes…..we get to Tel Aviv around 7pm and decide to go to “Mike’s Place” on the beach…hahaha…its a blues bar with live music and good food.  So we hang out there for a few hours then go to the Tel Aviv central bus station.  We get through the same security as in Jerusalem and get our tickets for Eilat and then wait.

After a while the bus arrives and a mob forms in front of the door….we fight our way on the bus after nearly getting trampled and start the LONG (5-6 hours) bumpy ride to Eilat.  Even though its the night bus, no one is able to sleep because the bus is full and there’s no comfortable position to sleep in.

Finally, around 5am we make it to Eilat.  Eilat is a strange and (to me) ugly city.  Its all neon lights and ziggurat-style hotels…very flashy and over the top.  Lots of bars, clubs, and shopping.  Not really what Im into, but a lot of people like it.  So we get a cab straight from the bus station to the Taba border crossing as the sun begins to come up.

Half the people on the bus were also going to Sinai so we had a line even though it was so early.  After paying the 90 shekels EXIT tax (who pays to leave a country???) we go to the next border guard who sometimes interrogates and sometimes doesnt before stamping the exit visa on your passport.  This time we got lucky and she didnt ask anything, and then we entered Egypt–alhamdulilah!

As soon as I left the Israeli border, I instantly felt relaxed.  I feel that way when I go back into the West Bank too, and a lot of people I know said they feel the same way.  Its so ironic that most of the world thinks that all the tension and danger is in Palestine, when I know its actually in Israel. 

Anyways….we get through the Egyptian border with no trouble–just some harmless flirtation from the Egyptian guards (which is the opposite of the Israeli border guards, who are mostly girls and extremely paranoid and not friendly….) and wait with the bedouin taxi drivers until the mini bus fills up.

By this point I have been awake for FAR too long, had some adreniline from the Israeli border security and now just want to SLEEP….its after 7am now and we have like 12 other people in the mini bus with us who are all going to different camps (and half of whom do not know the name or place of their camp…ughhhh) and it takes almost 2 hours to get to Sababa camp in Tarabeen (where I stay…) instead of the usual 40 minutes.  By the end of the ride I was passed out in the back seat…

Finally, around 9am we are in the camp….and the owner (half Italian and half Egyptian) Abdullah/Aldo and Ahmed, another guy who works there, come out and show us our huts and ask if we want tea and breakfast.  We were both starving so we ate breakfast, drank tea, then slept for until the afternoon.

Sababa camp is one of the first camps in Tarabeen.  Tarabeen is a bedouin village about 2 km from Nuweiba city, and in front of the village, on the beach is a 1 km sandy road with camps facing the red sea.  Across the red sea you can see the mountains of Saudi Arabia.

There are really nice coral reefs in the sea in front of Tarabeen so I went snorkelling and swimming every day…saw lots of different colorful fish and at least three colors of coral.  You have to be careful though because there are sea urchins as well, they are black and spikey and if you step on them it will be verrrry painful.  So its best to wear some kind of shoes.

The next night, my friend Jake arrived.  He had been studying at the University of Haifa in the summer quarter, then travelled to Turkey and Georgia.  After Sinai, he plans to go to Cairo, Luxor, and Alexandria–then fly to Thailand and India…..soooo jealous! haha

We pretty much spent every day the same relaxing way.  Wake up late, have amazing breakfast around 11 or 12.  For breakfast they usually make foul (Egyptian staple food made of beans, tomatoes, onions and garlic…) with wheat pita bread, eggs, grilled eggplant, and homemade falafel….so amazing.  

Then for the rest of the day: reading, playing tawila (backgammon) or chess, playing with bedouin children, drawing, swimming, snorkelling, drinking tea, walking along the beach…..beautiful

At night, the fishermen would come in from the sea with lots of good fish for dinner.  One night they caught a few small sharks.  That night there was another couple of guests at Sababa (most times Im the only one hahahah)–it was a Gambian musician named Jalli Yusupha Kuyateh and his wife who he met in Germany.  He played the kora (kind of like an oud except the base is made out of a gourd and the strings are really long and tuned very high) at nights and it was some of the most beautiful music I have heard.

He offered to cook us some traditional Gambian food so we all agreed and it ended up being AMAZING…he cooked the shark and some other types of fish with lots of onions and spices and oil.  Then we put that over rice, that was also spicey.  It was soooo good.  Afterwards, he told us a little about the history and culture of Gambia, and why Kora music is important–its the way that they transmit their history in Gambia–before writing.

In the past in Gambia, he told us that every boy would learn how to play the kora from his father, and he would learn the songs and the words to the songs that were stories and histories of the Gambian people.  Today, however, he says that most of the young boys dont care about the history or the kora anymore, and it is becoming a dying art and tradition. It was really interesting…

For the rest of the night we sat around with bedouins and drank tea….there are like 5 or 6 bedouin men who know the owner of the camp and come every night to hang out.  Sometimes we have campfires, sometimes they bring the oud or play the tabla….its very nice.

The next night we took a trip to Dahab, a bigger city about 45 minutes south of Nuweiba.  My friends were thinking about staying there for a night or two but I wasnt interested.  Dahab is nice, theres more to do there for sure, but its much more touristy and not very authentic.  The beach boardwalk is paved and lined with restaurants who have guys out front who come up to you as you pass to try to convince you to eat there…its pretty annoying…

Theres clubs, bars, and the main reason many people go to Dahab is for the diving.  Dahab has some of the best diving in the world.  The most famous spot is the Blue Hole.  But if you want to dive its going to cost hundreds of dollars and take a few days of training before you can go on your own.

Anyways, we had dinner at a thai restaurant because none of us had had thai food in almost a year and so we were really excited.  Last time I went there it was really good, its called the Blue House, but this time there was a new cook and it wasnt good at all.  But it was a nice outing anyways….

We had a few more days in paradise, doing basically nothing but chilling and relaxing on the beach before we had to go back through the hellish border into Israel. 

After contemplating never going back to Palestine in order to avoid the stressful border crossing, I decided to be brave and go….haha

So we got a taxi to the border, said goodbye to all my friends at Sababa–made plans to be there for christmas ; )–and my friend and I went over some last minute details about “our story” for the Israeli border guards.  We decided to say that we had met on the bus down here to Eilat and she was going back to Jerusalem and I was going to Tel Aviv to see my Israeli friend (it always helps if you have an Israeli friend, and his phone number and address….).

We get to the border, get through the Egyptian side with no problems and then enter the Israeli side of the border and my stress levels instantly go sky high.

I see that there is a group of over 100 korean (?) tourists all travelling together across the border and I think to myself, thank God for these people….the border guards are going to be tired and wont ask me too many questions, maybe we can just blend (my friend and I are not Asian, and my friend is a good foot and a half taller than all the group….hahaha).  But the hope is still there….

So we get corralled into this fenced off area with the huge group and think this is going to take hours to even get into the building to start the security process.  Then these two Israeli guys come along and are like, “Hey we are Israeli.  We dont have to wait in a line.  You should let us go right to the front!” and the guard lets them out of the corrall….we try to follow them but the guy shuts the fence in our faces–Damnit, its always good to befriend an Israeli in line at the border because then you have a “friend” to mention to the guard.

So anyways, right after he shuts the fence in our faces, he walks over to another part of the corrall and starts letting the huge group go out in front of us.  We are not about to let that happen so we act like Israelis and fight our way to the front and get ahead of them. Whew…..

Then we get to the line that leads to the first phase of border security: a little table with two female Israeli soldiers who take a preliminary look at the passports and see if anything looks strange (aka if the name sounds AT ALL arabic).  My friend and I go up to the table and this 18 year old girls looks at us with one of those “girl” looks that says I am in charge and Im going to fuck with you. 

So she looks at our passports and asks us where we are going, and what is the purpose of our visit.  We answer, she looks at my friends passport and asks her to pronounce her name.  She says “Rafke” (Rahf-keh).

“Where are you from?” The soldier asks.

“Holland, I am dutch” Rafke answers.

“Hmmm…really?” the soldier responds, and whips out her radio to call some other security.  Within 30 seconds a males security guard with an M-16 is taking us to an unused security lane–not the same lane all the Korean group is going through. 

At first I am scared, thinking, Oh my god! Dont let them take me into the little room! (I have a paranoia of being taken into the little room, being interrogated for hours, strip searched, and the worst- cavity searched…yes they do it in Israel–probably more than any other country.  And they especially like doing it to Arabs, Palestinians, or activists who live in Palestine…so anyways, Im paranoid of that room)

We put our bags through the millionth x-ray machine of the trip, walk through the metal detector, some security guy takes our passports and walks away.  And we wait. 

Then he comes back and says, “Come with me, we want to ask you some questions…”

Inside my mind, as I see we are headed for the little room, I am screaming “NOOOOOOOOO!” and feel like Im going to faint. hahaha.

They take us right outside the little room and tell us to wait for our interrogator (whos having lunch in one of the other little rooms at the moment).  We wait, and I start getting more and more paranoid, thinking we should change our story because its not interrogation-proof by any means.  Rafke is a calming presence and tells me that we should keep it the same and relax and play it by ear.  Hmmm…..

About 10 minutes later, a short chubby Israeli security guard comes over and says “I overheard what you saaaaid.”

????

(Inside my mind, “how could he hear, he was across the room. Oh my gosh, they bugged the room, they heard me say we have to change our story, they heard me say the West Bank…..ahhhh”)

Then he turns to Rafke and says, “I heard you say that you got stopped before like this….tell me about it….”

Rafke: “Ummm…actually I didnt say that.  This is my first time coming back in to Israel.”

Chubby guy: “Ehhhh…..hmmm.”

Rafke: “????”

Chubby guy: “Well ok….step over here with me for a minute…..”

“What is your name?”

“Rafke”

What is your father’s name?”

“Hans”

What is your mothers name? What is your grandfathers name? What is your great grandfathers name?

Since none of the names sounded “Arab” except Rafke’s (anything that sounds unfamiliar to Israeli security guards is automatically Arab until proved otherwise….) they decided that she really was just Dutch and probably wasnt hiding a “secret Arab relative” in her family history.

So they let us go to the final phase…..passport control.

This part is usually the worst because these guards ask us where we are going, why are we going, with whom….etc…so you have to really work on your story before hand because you never know how deeply they are going to interrogate you on your plans….sometimes you need to know hostels, street names of the hostels, an Israeli friend, their phone number and address and how did you meet them? why arent they with you? why did you go to sinai? why are you coming back to Israel? youve been here before, Israel is a small country, why do you need to come back?  ??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????’s

This time, luckily, the girl was exhausted from the 200 koreans in the group ahead of us and barely asked me anything, and didnt pay attention to the fact that I had 6 mos worth of visa stamps in my passport.  So she gave me 3 months!!!

Rafke and I both got three months, thank god.  Then on the other side of the border we began the looooooong, painful journey back to Ramallah….but with a new visa!

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